Across the plains of empty sand and desolation, where the air choked out all but the smallest of vegetation, the group traveled. At night they covered the most ground, and during the day, when the sun was at its hottest amplified by the argon-enriched skies, they slept. They had traveled three days of their week-long trek so far and were making good time. Ideo had warned them that they would be traveling through the worst of the wastelands, that was already known. What she didn’t tell them, and what she herself couldn’t have known, was that a new garden had been planted between them and their destination. An enormous garden that stretched for miles in both directions, most likely two gardens that had connected with one another, that was suffocating the surrounding environment. They would be forced to either go around it, or through it. With no way of knowing how many days would be added to their trip if they went around, they chose to make their way through it if they could. 

The alien plant life fed on the nitrogen in the atmosphere. It was one of the reasons why the Earth was chosen in the first place, its nitrogen-rich ecosystem. While the plants take in nitrogen, through their own alien form of photosynthesis, they release argon, one of the six Noble gases. In small amounts argon isn’t poisonous to humans, in the amounts found in and around a garden as immense as the one they would be forced to enter, it was deadly. They couldn’t see to the other side so there was no way to tell just how dangerous it was going to be. And, if the air didn’t kill them, the plants themselves just might. Tangling blue and orange vines whipped furiously searching out something to feed on, while crimson roots released nitric acid corroding everything with which they came into contact. Many humans working the gardens didn’t make it back from the field because they got a little too close to the weeping rootstock.

“Well, we can’t go around, that’s too far, we’ll have to go through.” John said standing with his arms akimbo staring into the massive alien forest.

“Each of us will need to cover our faces, taking in small breaths.” Ideo suggested. “We can use these as face masks, to shield ourselves from the air.” She pulled out several cotton shirts that she had packed and began ripping them up. “It’ll help, but by no means will it protect us from high concentrations of poisonous gas.”

“I just want to say this is a bad idea.” Dade complained loudly, taking one of the cloths and tying it securely behind his head.

“Once we’re inside we’ll have a better idea of how big this thing is. ” Ideo said encouragingly. “From out here it’s impossible to tell.”

“This foliage is too dense for the trailer to make it through.” ROGER pointed out.

“He’s right.” John agreed. “We’ll have to carry everything.”

“Ok, so, how are we gonna do this? Obviously Sarah can’t carry much, certainly not any of the tech. Which means somebody’s gonna have to double up.” Dade surmised.

“There’s ten full robots. We brought extra duffel bags to carry the weapons back with, so we could break down the bots and store them in the duffels. That would make them easier to carry. I could carry two, so could ROGER and Po. That’s six, leaving one each for you, Jayk, Ideo and Rensa.” John decided.

“Sounds good to me.” Rensa said. “Let’s get to it.”

They began breaking down the robots immediately. It took all night and most of the next day, but once they were completed it looked as though they’d be able to carry everything, including the food and supplies, without the need of the trailer. They began to get some rest before taking off through the garden that night.

“So, how’re you dealing with your cloniness?” Sarah mused to John who was crouched down readjusting the packing of his duffel bags.

“I’d say … fairly well. You?” He responded.

“I still … entertain my memories, but I’ve nearly given over completely to my experiencing self.”

“Your “experiencing” self?”

“I figure I’ve got two selves, my remembering self: the me from the past, and my experiencing self: the me from the present.” Sarah explained to him. “And, I’ve almost completely given over to my experiencing self, meaning I’m accepting more each day the person I am now, as opposed to the person I used to be two hundred twenty years ago.”

“Ahhh, that’s a good way to look at it.” He finished rearranging his duffels and sat down, patting the ground beside him offering her a seat.

Sarah sat next to John and began talking about her past. “When I was ten my dad bought me my first guitar. I’d been asking for one for over a year. I took it home, and like a new friend, I wanted to learn everything about it. I wanted to be alone with it, to get to know it, to have it release its secrets to me. It was better than anything I had ever felt. I would sit in class and daydream about what I was going to play when I got home, what kind of new feelings I would experience. I couldn’t wait to see it again. Then, I would get home, and see it sitting there and I couldn’t breathe sometimes. I would close the door and shut out the rest of the world. Just me, alone with my guitar. I would pluck the bass open without pressing down on the fret and listen carefully to the sound. I would pluck the open string again and carefully bring my finger down lightly over the octave fret to create a high harmonic. Suddenly, I would create a new sound somehow, and of course an octave higher. I fell in love with creating music right then and there. There was nothing purer to me in life than music. It never left me. It still lives in me.” She said with that faraway look she would get whenever she thought about the past. “But, who am I? Are these feelings, these memories … mine or hers? Just because she felt that way, why do I?”

“I don’t have an answer for that.” He thought for a moment then began telling her a story, “There’s a Native American folktale about a man who loved his wife very much, and when she died he didn’t want to let her go. So, he went to the village shaman, known as an angakok, and …” He began and suddenly stopped.

“Why did you stop?” She asked.

“It’s just … my mother told me that story after my father died. I just realized that. And, realized he wasn’t my father. It’s so complicated. I guess the answer to your first question is … I’m not handling it very well. Not yet.” John said looking down with a crooked smile. “We’d better try to get some sleep.”

“Ok. But, I’m gonna take a rain check on that story.” She said blithely. 

“Yes ma’am.” He said smiling at her as he rested his head on one of his duffel bags and drifted off to sleep.

Sarah walked off and passed Dade who was seated in the sand teaching Rensa a card trick. She stopped to watch them.

“So, the story is just as important as the sleight of hand, probably even more important because the story helps to generate the misdirection.” Dade said as he was shuffling the cards.

“Ok.” Rensa replied.

“This trick is called “The Four Jacks.” Now, Jacks are knaves, they’re scoundrels and swindlers. Good people.” He flashed her a sideways grin and a wink, to which Rensa returned a smile. “The Jacks are out pulling off a heist when they get separated.” He held the four cards up facing away from her. Little did she know they weren’t the four Jacks. He had already swapped the Jacks for four random cards and placed the Jacks on top of the deck. “Now, the Jacks, they’re smart. They have a signal for when the coast is clear. They knock three times when it’s safe for them to all go up to the penthouse hideaway.” He placed the four cards back in the deck in different locations. “One of them is hiding on the fourth floor, the next one on the eighth floor, another is on the twelfth floor and the last one is on the sixteenth floor” He held out the deck for Rensa to knock on it. “Now, you knock three times and they’ll all come up to the penthouse suite on the top floor.”

Rensa knocked on the deck and Dade revealed the four Jacks from the top, one by one, to her astonishment. “How’d you do that?” She asked.

“Here, you try it.” He said, handing her the deck.

“I’m no good at card tricks, but I bet I could beat you at pushups.” Rensa said confidently.

Dade laughed out loud. “There’s no way. You’re so scrawny!”

Rensa stared at him with her mouth agape for a second, narrowed her eyes and said, “Alright, let’s bet on it for real.”

Sarah continued on walking after deciding she needed to get some sleep.

After a few hours the sun began to set in the west, and Po went around waking everyone from their rest. “We’d better get moving. The plants look like they’re dormant for the moment; they seem to be most active during the day. We should go ahead and get a move on it now.”

With the sun at their backs the group cast sinister shadows toward the garden as they approached. John took the lead trepidatiously, and they each entered one by one following the path he carved. 

“Tread lightly, and hopefully we won’t be noticed.” John whispered to Po behind him. Po nodded.

It would be slow going, but they knew that everything was riding on this mission. Finally, they were all within the boundary of the garden. Now, all they had to do was maintain a steady flow making their way between the plants and onward through to the other side. It was a perilous journey. Languidly, the vines twisted and curled in a wavy, sinuous manner to and fro. The group maneuvered around, stepped over and dodged the groping arms of the errant branches as best they could. None of them wanted to find out what would happen if they were grabbed by a passing tentacular limb, but it was almost sure to happen at some point.

They’d been traveling along for roughly three hours avoiding the foliage fairly well, when suddenly John paused and held up his right hand signaling for all of them to stop. He surveyed the ground, and noticed a root system that had breached the surface and was poking out threateningly along the forest floor. He whispered to Po, “We’re going to have to backtrack and go around this area. I see a way on the right. If we move backward in unison we shouldn’t attract any attention to ourselves.” The message was passed on to everyone behind them, and ROGER who was taking up the rear guard slowly began to step backward away from the rest of the group. One by one they all retreated and then slowly John began leading them around the corrosive roots. If the argon gas didn’t get them, the vines and roots still might. A world filled with these types of plants would make it impossible for humans to exist.

Just then Ideo began coughing violently. The sound and vibrations her body made awakened the plants and they began swinging furiously. One grabbed her lower leg lifting her body easily from the ground forcing her to drop her pack. Jayk pulled his sword and sliced through the vine sending Ideo tumbling upside down onto the ground. The other plants sensing the danger began whipping around searchingly. There was no time to react. John shouted, “RUN!” and they all took off at a sprint, weapons drawn, carving and slashing their way through the jungle. Now, being forced to take giant breaths as they ran, the dense miasma of argon gas was beginning to take its toll. They kept running for as long and as far as they could. 

Fear consumed them. 

ROGER alone was the only one who was immune to the suffocating fog of noxious air. He shouted to the group, “Drop everything you’re carrying and run as fast as you can!” They did as they were told. He stayed behind while the group disappeared through the vegetation. He gathered up all their packs and piled them together, and waited until everything calmed. He had no way of knowing where they were, if they were out, or if they had survived. His plan was to wait a bit longer and then carry as many duffels as he could out of the garden, and come back for the remaining ones individually.

The group continued running as the plants continued their attack. Rensa tripped and fell face first busting her lip. She got back up and hacked at the branches of evil until she was able to break free. They ran and ran. Sarah hadn’t used her weapon, but wasn’t sure she was going to be able to get through without doing so. Jayk’s sword did the most damage. While John, through brute strength alone, tore the limbs ripping them out of the trunks, clearing as much path as he could. They were all coughing, and their lungs burned. Wheezing and hacking from the gas released by the plants, the group started to slow and panic set in. First Ideo, who dropped to her knees and, on all fours, started heaving loudly unable to breath. Then, one by one, they began dropping in hopeless desperation; their bodies littering the forest floor. John crawled, staying as low as he could for as long as he could, but eventually his body began to give out. Finally, he stopped moving, laying face down in the soil.

The sun was rising in the east, blanketing the sky in pink and purple light, and the lifeless body of John began to shuffle. He blinked groggily, and found himself on his back. Turning his head, he saw the others laying next to him. Their bodies limp, but they were breathing. ROGER could be seen giving mouth-to-mouth to Ideo who was the most affected. Although ROGER didn’t need to breathe, he was capable of capturing and storing oxygen from the surrounding environment and using it to revitalize patients in the field. Had they known how close they were to being out of the garden, they may have been able to muster the last bit of energy they would need to escape. Instead, ROGER found them all lying there in heaps, and carried them the remaining distance out, one by one, administering to them the life-saving CPR they needed to survive. Once he was sure they were all safe he would go back for the supplies.

John was held captive navigating the rapidly shifting landscapes of volatile dreams. He was back in the schoolyard listening to the other kids taunt him, “Chichu! Chichu! Monster’s gonna eatchu!!” Fear rose from deep in his spine and crept up the back of his head; a dull throbbing sensation. He heard his mother calling him, her voice like the distant wavering sounds of one coming from the spirit world, “John, it’s time to get up. John, you need to wake up. WAKE UP, JOHN!” His eyes slowly pierced the veil of the dreamscape and he was back in his own body. He sat up and turned to get a bearing on where he was.

“John. Good, you’re awake.” ROGER called out to him.

“What happened?” John asked, cradling his head in his hand.

“Argon gas poisoning. You and everyone else were inhaling huge amounts of it while running to escape the carnivorous alien plants. Eventually, your bodies succumbed to toxicosis and you lost consciousness.” He said checking Ideo’s pulse, it was thready, but it would strengthen. He gave her a few more deep breaths of oxygen and continued, “Luckily, you were all close to the outer boundary of the opposite side. Another three hundred meters and you would have made it out on your own.” He said with a smile as he stood up and looked over the bodies of everyone else. They were still unconscious, but they were alive. “Keep an eye on Ideo, she took it the hardest. I’ll be back shortly.” ROGER turned toward the garden and went back in to get the remaining gear.

Sarah aroused violently taking huge gulps of air and looked around startled to find herself alive. “We made it? How?” She sat up on her elbow and questioned John.

“ROGER.” He got up, came over and crouched down beside her. “He saved everyone’s life.” He looked to the garden with sheer awe. “If he hadn’t come along, we’d be dead. There’s no way we could’ve made it through that garden on our own.”

They all began coming around in their own way, coughing and disoriented. Ideo had suffered the most; her small body took a massive beating at the hands of the alien woods.

Soon, ROGER had brought the last of the duffel bags from the interior of the garden.

“We should set that thing on fire!” Dade shouted angrily.

“I wish we could, but a fire would bring attention to our party, and that’s an unnecessary risk.” Po instructed.

“This whole trip is an unnecessary risk! I thought we were taking the fight to them! What are we doing?” Dade complained disapprovingly.

Normally Rensa and Dade agreed about matters like these, but on this one they differed. “Po’s right, Dee, we don’t need to be drawing attention to ourselves. If the Sky Reapers sent foot soldiers after us it would defeat the purpose of getting weapons and medical supplies. Even you aren’t so stupid that you don’t understand that.” She admonished him.

“No, I get it. I just don’t like it.” Dade grumbled.

It turned out that going through the garden was better than going around, though on the return trip they would need a better plan, one that consisted of more than just ‘Run.’ With the sun rising into the sky they decide to find some cover and get some rest before it got too hot. They came upon the remnants of the prison camp that had been used to house the slaves. However, the Sky Reapers, who had forced the humans to build the garden, had long since abandoned it .

“They must have moved on. Picked up camp and taken the slaves to another area.” Jayk mentioned, “Off to build more gardens, I’m sure.” 

“Well, we can get some rest here if you think it’s safe.” Sarah said.

“If ROGER would keep guard I see no reason why we couldn’t rest here until nightfall.” Po agreed.

“I’d be delighted to.” ROGER said, in his usual congenial manner. 

“Good then.” Po said, heading into the alien prison camp. “We’ll rest here for the day, then tonight we’ll continue on our way.”

ROGER was concerned about Ideo. The argon gas had taken its toll on her body, and her pulse was still very weak. He kept watch over her the entire day and as night fell he explained the situation to Po and the others.

“She will need medicine that we do not have.” ROGER explained. “Her blood oxygen levels are very low, if she stays like this much longer she could suffer brain damage.”

“What kind of medicine does she need?” Jayk asked.

“Normally, I would administer an epinephrine shot of adrenaline to stimulate her heart. But, I don’t have either of those right now, and no way to make them.” ROGER explained. “We’ll need to get to Solos as quickly as possible.”

“We’ve already lost nearly three days crossing through the garden. If we want to make up time we’ll have to travel night and day with no breaks.” Po suggested.

“Then there’s no point talking about it, let’s get moving.” Dade said, picking up a duffel bag and slinging it over his shoulder.

“ROGER will have to carry Ideo. We don’t have enough people to carry all the duffels. We’re going to have to leave two behind.” John said.

“I can double up.” Jayk said.

“I can carry one. It won’t be easy, but I’ll manage.” Sarah offered.

“Ok, so we only leave one.” John said. “Let’s get going. Ideo was going to be our guide. I hope somebody else knows how to get there.” 

“I had her draw me a map before we left, in case anything happened to her.” Po informed the group. “When we get to Solos we ask for Sun Yi at a place called the Red Fin.”

With the map consulted and the course set, the group made out for Solos. It would take as much grit as they could muster to cross the deadliest part of the wastes, and without any rest. But, Ideo’s life depended on it. Their speed and fortitude were the only things they had going for them as her life hung in the balance. Silence filled the space between them as they walked through the wastes. Occasionally, they would see a snake or other reptile, which made up practically all the remaining animals in existence, along with the rodents. But, other than that it was a vast expanse of nothingness punctuated by brief instances of brown grass and small shrubs. They traveled like that for a couple of days, the heat and weight of the bags beginning to take its toll, but they were quickly reaching their destination, it was only a short way now.

Sarah caught up with John and asked him, “So, you want to finish that story you were telling me about the man who loved his wife?” Trying desperately to look as if she was unaffected by the strain of carrying the duffel bag full of parts.

“Not really.” He replied. Noticing the disappointment in her eyes he added, “How about a different story?”

“Alright. Tell me a story.” Tilting her head with a smile.

“Ok. Once, when we were on this mission crossing through the desert, I jumped out of a moving troop transport vehicle.” He started.

“You jumped out of a moving troop transport?”

“Yes, during a caravan across the desert. I saw the enemy running up to the road to plant an IED. He was going to take out the first vehicle in our convoy. I grabbed my rifle, jumped out of the driver’s seat, and as my transport kept rolling forward, I took aim and shot the guy. But, he dropped the bomb and it went off just beside the road and bounced the transport vehicle in front of me on its side injuring the men aboard. Without missing a beat I jumped back in the transport I was driving and slammed on the brakes. The men in the first transport were hurt, but they survived.”

“So, you saved all those men’s lives?” Sarah asked. 

“Well, yes, but I got relieved of duty.” 

After a pensive moment she asked, “So, did you get a medal?” 

“No. I put the lives of all the men in my transport truck in danger. They don’t give you medals for disobeying orders.” He said despondently.

“But, you were a hero!” 

“I learned a very important lesson that day. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. And, even when you achieve the same goal, if you do it the wrong way you don’t deserve to be rewarded for it.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes, and finally Sarah said, “I think the story about the man who loved his wife would have been better.”

“Sorry, I guess I’m not much one for telling stories. Especially when I’m still trying to make sense of whose stories they are.” John said grimly.

They continued on in silence for a few more steps, and then Sarah said, “Hey, watch this.” She called to Dade who was behind them, “Hey Dade, who ended up winning that bet?”

Dade just scowled, so Rensa answered for him, “I did!” She said proudly. And they all shared a laugh at Dade’s expense. Dade just brooded, his reputation tarnished slightly.

At that moment the unmistakable sound of a bolt from a crossbow sliced through the air and thwacked into the ground at their feet, arresting their movement. They stopped suddenly and looked in the direction of where the arrow had come, but heard a voice behind them instead. “Everybody stay where you are, that was just to get your attention. Now, place the duffel bags slowly onto the ground without turning around.” The voice called out. “You’re completely surrounded, so I wouldn’t make any sudden moves.”