From Mutants of the Fringe, Chapter 1, by Sora T. Blake, pub. 52 AF. (Reprinted with permission from Hooded Cobra Empire Archives, # 91-593y778.)
We lost only one soldier. Not during the river crossing, but shortly after. Private Dooadah Ryerson of the Black Brigade, defied the War Leader’s order to remove all clothing before taking hold of the safety rope and entering the water. His Company Commander sentenced him to twenty lashes, imposition deferred. By the time the fires had dried his waterlogged uniform, the cold had claimed his naked body.
The rest of the infantry dried off quickly, then donned dry clothing, including boots, that had never gotten wet in the first place. Many of them had stone bruises on their feet, having crossed barefoot, but they weren’t complaining. The dense vegetation, even without the summer leaves of deciduous species, stopped the wind entirely. Much of the snow was caught and held in the canopy, forming an insulating roof that darkened our camp even before night fell.
In the stygian darkness, our fires must have been bright beacons to the denizens of the Fringe. Reflective light shone from curious eyes as creatures came to investigate. We shot between those eyes and gorged on deer, jungle cat, and one great boar hog so rank only those in the early throes of starvation could have considered eating it. Those beasts who had not felt hot lead tearing through their bodies fled back into hidden depths. They might have been ignorant in the beginning but they learned quickly.
For several hours, cozy in our woody, protective cocoon and unafraid for the moment of MAP attacks or traps, we slept in peace for hours. Even the sentries dozed off now and again, which they should not have done, yet I understood it.
The attack came just before dawn in the finest tradition of men warring upon men, yet those who set upon us were no homo sapiens.
“Kaii! Kaii! Kaii!” War cries from all around, from every direction.
I dove out of the tent, beating the War Leader by a fraction of a second. Campfires burned low, yet enough for us to see, a little. The creatures had surrounded us before falling upon those sleeping at the outer edges. Rifle in hand, Venom Chang sprinted toward the nearest enemy. I followed, watching his back. He was fast despite having slept in his armor. Screams of wounded and dying men mingled with the strange “Kaii!” calls in an unholy cacophony, yet within seconds neither of us heard anything. We were entirely focused on battle.
The mutant creatures were intelligent. Several of them rushed to meet us, ignoring the lesser soldiers. I got an impression of things humanoid, some no larger than a child, some half again as tall as a man. Three eyes, horned skull, serpentine nose above gaping maw filled with jagged rows of fangs glowing green, luminescent and hungering. Most were bearded. Their massive heads–one notices the weirdest details during combat–looked offset on their bodies, not centered. Scaled arms, one huge-shouldered, long, powerful, with two thumbs and too many clawed fingers. The other arm much smaller, seeming to have no shoulder at all.
I have always been a curious sort. I notice details.
Chang’s rifle set to work. My sword moved of its own accord. The rest of the army was wide awake and fighting back, slaughtering the Fringe natives who would have slaughtered us. Shockingly, they were too fast for my sword. But not faster than a bullet. The survivors fled. In order, taking their dead and wounded with them. They left no abomination behind. Within moments, the only remaining sign of their presence was blood, dark on the jungle floor, mingled with the blood of men. Their retreat, I realized in shock, was handled in a military manner. One beast turned back at the last second, extending her strong-side arm (the mutant was definitely female), fist toward us in an unmistakable gesture.
We were never to see the slightest sign of this species again. They were obviously capable of learning from experience. Yet we did hear their distinctive calls from time to time, not the “Kaii!” battle cry but others. “Haruk!” “Ba-ba-oo!” and a dozen more. We were clearly under surveillance.
The grotesque features of the female who’d flipped us off were seared into memory. I would later sketch that hideous face (likely one of her tribe’s raving beauties) in some detail.
“She flipped us off. She really did. Definitely female, never mind the beard, the glowing fangs, the three eyes set at random in her skull. What do you mean, she reminded you of your ex-wife?”
This conversation, and others like it, rumbled throughout the camp. I chose not to order it stopped. The men needed these outlets to make sense of their lives right now. Monsters from nightmare had done their worst. Three of our men were dead, a dozen seriously wounded, great gaping chunks of muscle torn from their bodies, but none were unaccounted for. The Greenfangs had thought of us as fresh meat and found out we had fangs of our own. If this was the worst the jungle had to throw at us, we would survive. And it might be, at least at this time of year. Snakes large and small were hidden underground during the cold months. Beasts of the bear persuasion were hibernating.
Sora and I walked among the men, spreading reassurance by our very presence. We spoke in low tones as we walked, our discussion unheard by others.
“She really did flip us off.”
Sora chuckled. “She did. No question, they’re descended from human stock, no doubt about it. Long live the flip-off bird.” The sun had risen. The heavy snow canopy above us broke through in numerous locations, dumping piles on the ground and opening skylight shafts that turned the place magical. There was a winter beauty here like no other.
“We may be the first to explore the Fringe in depth.” The possibilities excited me. I had always been one to explore, to discover. This facet of my personality had much to do with why the Emperor selected me for this mission. “Though I am troubled. The Fangers looked to be cobbled together from snake skin, horror novels, conspiracy theories, and ancient morning cartoons for children. With maybe a little alien tampering thrown in for good measure.”
“And they may well be just that,” the swordsman nodded agreeably. “The histories tell us there was much experimentation with genetic manipulation in those days, both government sanctioned and otherwise. In the mainland China of your ancestors, the Chinese were caught putting human genes into monkeys way back in the twenty-first century. What we saw could not have been produced by radiation damage alone, could it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. They itched inside the armor. “Who am I to say? It’s above my pay grade. They are certainly well adapted to this place. Never before have I seen your blade miss. They may walk upright–or mostly upright–like men, but their spines are as supple as that of the Chinese cobra itself. And they are fast.”
He was right. I did not like to admit it, but he was right. My katana had murdered mostly air. “At least we know why so few trees grew in this clearing, even before our axes came. They used this place to bed down.”
“Which explains the smell.”
It surprised me when I realized I’d decided to stay here for a while. A little while at least. Still, when I thought it through, I realized my subconscious had done a pretty fair analysis of our conditions and circumstances. With fresh meat fueling their bodies, the troops could expand the clearing size, pushing the jungle back in three directions, providing room for a soldier to sleep without his neighbor’s elbow gouging his ribs. That would open up the canopy, letting more snow find its way down to us, but the wind would still be held at bay. If we made a practice of placing our fires right, perhaps in mini-groves sculpted for the purpose, smoke would be thoroughly dissipated. Our position would not be revealed to the enemy. Any trails we cut through the mess would remain open until spring, when plants from grasses and ferns to vines and trees began to grow again. It should be possible to carve a road northward, with branching trails every so often to allow scouts–and me personally, for that matter–to peer out through a screen of trees, seeing without being seen. I would select a place beyond the menacing rock cliffs somewhere, a place where the Roil River could be crossed as safely as before.
Such places were not exactly plentiful, yet nor were they an endangered species. I did not think the cursed hillbillies could watch them all, all the time. We would locate just one, the right one. We would hunt and explore and kill those Fringe mutants who attempted to kill us. This jungle could not have existed in Before times. Not anywhere on Earth, or at lest the histories spoke of nothing like it. Ancient jungles required tropical climates. Perhaps this vegetation, too, was comprised of herbaceous mutations, able to survive in a different way from Before.
My theory was validated three hours after full dark. The man’s screams lasted long enough to bring us all to our feet, adrenaline flaring, searching but seeing nothing. Until another soldier tripped over the victim. When he tried to roll the body over, the Vampire Vine resisted. It had slithered across thirty feet of open, frozen ground, just beneath thick layers of forest floor litter, before slipping its stinger-tongue beneath the sleeping target and spearing his heart precisely in the center. As nearly as we could analyze, the Vampire had somehow kept the heart beating while it slurped up returning veinous blood, pushing its own throwaway fluid–excretion if you will–through the body’s arteries. This was a place where the impossible was merely normal, but a warm blooded plant? Paradigm shift.
We’d all heard of men being burned alive, skinned alive, or boiled alive. Private Wong held the unenviable distinction of being the first man to be embalmed alive.
From Mutants of the Fringe, Chapter 2:
When the Vampire Vine’s stinger tip was severed–by an officer’s broadsword, it turned out, not a woodcutter’s axe as first thought–the massive tentacle withdrew rapidly, rustling beneath detritus as it recoiled. We never did determine just how long a complete Vampire plant might be. Certainly sixty feet or more, possibly more than one hundred. The stinger tip it left behind was turned over to me for study, not so much because of my scientific curiosity (considerable) but mostly because no one else wanted to touch it. The severed section measured three feet, two inches in length from chop to tips. At it’s thickest point, eleven point nine inches in diameter. The push-and-pull tubes were easily identified by their coloration: Dried rust-colored blood incoming, green embalming fluid outgoing. The tentacle’s exterior was camouflaged in brown and gray, suitable for hiding among fallen leaves, fronds, and other detritus.
Every man jack in camp was terrified in a way we’d not thought possible. No man dared sleep on the ground ever again, not as long as we inhabited this sneaky jungle. That the forest had its own rules, the War Leader and I agreed. The many blood-pumping life forms thriving here proved that.
The problem was that we had to learn the rules faster than the local mutants could kill us.
I had no doubt there would be more mutants with which to contend. After all, think about the number of life forms that could kill you out in the regular world if you didn’t know enough to avoid them. Depending on the area, the sheer number of venomous reptiles alone was staggering. Copperhead, cobra, krait, black mamba, cottonmouth, rattler, coral, brown two-step, a hundred more that had supposedly been imported from around the globe over the centuries. Then there’s the gila monster. This jungle was no different.
If we could complete the learning curve before we were all dead.
It seemed probable that nothing else would terrify the men (yes, I’m a man and I’m terrified, too, but dare not show it) like an invisible snake-vine that sucked your blood and embalmed you dead at the same time. The pain of such a process–I would not think about it. We had to solve this one fast, before mass panic drove my remnant of an army to flee back across the Roil. For many reasons, the men could not survive another dunking in near-freezing water and near-zero air. It was also amazing to me that our horses had not yet lost their lives. We kept them surrounded by soldiers, knowing the beautiful animals would not be able to defend themselves here. The horse’s best survival skill is his speed. Not much speed available in tangled jungle. If some of the big cats ever tasted horseflesh, it would be all over but the shouting. If the cavalry panicked and tried riding them back across the Roil in midwinter, the results would not be much better. There would be ice forming along the edges of the river by now.
In the end, I had the Skilled Man to thank. “My gut tells me,” he said, “the Vines may recoil from open air. The killer stayed completely out of sight, its stinger tips exposed only when the soldier’s body was forcibly turned over. If we build sleeping platforms, say two feet off the ground, we may be safe.”
“It could climb,” I mused, doubtful.
“There is only one way to find out.”
“Yes.” I saw his point. Giving the men something to do, something productive that taxed their muscles and their building skills equally, would also give them hope. We called Assembly. I explained Sora’s thinking, added my endorsement, appealed to their common sense, and set them to it. Throughout the rest of the night and into the following day, the jungle resounded with the sounds of saw and axe. Hundreds of soldiers took their revenge on the jungle, chopping down slender trees into pole lengths, competing with each other as they raced to finish better platforms than the next guy’s. At my urging, their commanders gave them creative free rein: At least two feet off the ground, large enough for at least one man per platform, strongly enough lashed together with innocent (non-vampiric) vines and/or some of the rope we’d used to form a safety line during the river crossing, and other than that, go for it.
As a result, we ended up with a surprising, comprehensive, eclectic mixture of platform designs. A few natural loners built single cot-sized berths that barely met the two-foot ground clearance minimum. One entire squad, three of whose members had been builders back home, constructed an impressive mini-fort on stilts which I promptly had copied on a smaller scale for my own quarters: Twelve feet wide by twenty long, the floor was situated three feet above the round. Eighteen-inch sidewalls rimmed the perimeter. There was a slanted roof four feet overhead.
As an added bonus, the scavenging of materials by the army widened the clearing by an average of another four feet. Awesome.
There were no more Viper Vine attacks. Two feet of clearance was proved sufficient. The men began to relax, not to the point of carelessness–never that, in this environment–but well down from panic level. Soldiers were beginning to crack dumb jokes again. We got this, their body language was saying. I smiled over my breakfast, tender backstrap from a small jungle bison taken the previous day, with salt and a cup of tea.
That afternoon, the birds found us.