“So, this is the plant?” Ophelia asked.
“That’s it,” Leon confirmed.
“just looks like a regular, gnarled tree,” Ophelia said. “But it deliberately went after both Kat and Lucy when they were by themselves and vulnerable.”
“That’s the curious part,” Paul said. “How did it know they were alone and vulnerable? I don’t see anything that could give it a sense of sight or any other perception that would allow it to know. Of course, that’s just with a cursory glance. I’ll conduct a detailed scan.”
“And we’ll cover you,” Ophelia said.
“Anything, tree or otherwise, tries to touch you and I’ll fecking kill it,” Leon confirmed.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Paul said, beginning his scan. “But I’d prefer you use fatal violence only as a last resort.”
“No promises,” Leon stated.
“I know the feeling,” Ophelia said. “If Lucy’s safety was at stake, I’d gravitate towards the surest method of protecting her too.” She looked over at Paul. “How long?”
“The scan results should be coming in within the next eight minutes,” Paul answered.
“That should do it,” Grace said. “The shields will be able to go back up. Now, we just have to get the communications array back up.”
“Just watch for those spores,” Farah cautioned. “I wouldn’t want to see you hit.”
“We’ll be fine, we’ve got filters,” Grace said. “In all honesty, I’m a little relieved that spores are the culprit. We won’t have to watch out for hostile forces or anything.”
“You think Kat’s okay?” Farah wondered.
“They said that the effect was like being drunk,” Grace said. “And temporary. So, I’m sure she’s fine. The real questions are what the spores did to the colonists and where they went.”
“The structure seems to be that of an ordinary plant,” Paul muttered. “Nothing to indicate a higher intelligence or… wait. That’s… Is that possible?”
“What is it, Paul?” Ophelia asked.
“No, it definitely is,” Paul said. “Curious. Very curious.”
“Paul?” Ophelia asked.
Paul seemingly didn’t hear her, continuing to mutter to himself.
“He gets like this sometimes,” Leon stated. “Just way too invested in his work.”
“Paul!” Ophelia shook his shoulders. He didn’t respond. “How do you get his attention when he’s like this?”
“Stand back and let the pro work,” Leon said. He moved between Paul and the tree. Then he crept closer to Paul, closer. He knelt down and brought his head up between Paul’s head and the scanner. “Pay attention to me, dammit!” he shouted.
“Oh, Leon, I’m sorry about that,” Paul said.
“What did you find that was so engrossing?” Ophelia asked.
“The structure is very similar to a normal plant,” Paul answered. “Where it differs is at the roots. It’s a very subtle, very fascinating difference. One I’ve never even encountered in scientific journals.”
“Paul, I appreciate your scientific interest in it,” Ophelia said. “But give us the short, layman’s version, please.”
“The roots are part of a connected system with other plants in the area,” Paul said. “Very akin to a nervous system but made up of very loosely connected flora. We may well be looking at a colony life form with a centralised intelligence controlling a large number of the plants in the area.”
“And this communal intelligence has the akumillians under its control?” Ophelia asked.
“Presumably,” Paul answered.
“Was it a deliberate attack on them?” Leon asked.
“Probably not initially,” Paul answered. “It was likely a coincidence that akumillians happen to be uniquely vulnerable to the spores. After that, the intelligence was able to recognise the benefits of having humanoids under its sway and it tried to bring Kat and Lucy under its control.”
“Can we meet with this intelligence?” Ophelia asked.
“I should be able to trace the system to the main hub of activity,” Paul said. “Given some time.”
“Good,” Ophelia said. “We’ll get Allison and Yuri and…”
“Mind-controlled akumillians incoming!” Leon shouted.
Ophelia looked up. They were approaching with slow, measured steps. Their eyes and expressions were blank.
Leon aimed his pistol but Paul stuck his hand in front of it. “Fuzzy, they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “And there are too many.”
Ophelia stepped forward. “I’m Captain Ophelia Wester,” she greeted. “I desire an audience with the intelligence governing this area.”
The akumillians ignored her. Several moved over to Paul, grabbing his arms and leading him off. Leon and Ophelia tried to follow, but a large group of akumillians moved to block them until Paul was out of sight. Then they hurriedly dispersed in different directions.
“Damn,” Ophelia muttered.
“That thing took my Paul,” Leon muttered, biting his thumb. “That thing took my Paul. That thing took my Paul.” He repeated the phrase, his voice raising every time.
“Leon, calm down,” Ophelia said. “We’ll get him back.”
“Damn right we will!” Leon was shouting at that point. “I’ll get him back if I have to burn every plant on this bloody planet to the ground and salt the earth so they never grow back.”