The three men walked some distance in single file, with Captain Carter taking the lead, Rico in the rear and Lamont between them. They had lapsed into silence as they took in the sights around them, and Lamont became aware of a clattering sound. It was quiet, but growing more noticeable, sounding as if a multitude of hollow wooden tubes were being knocked against each other. Beneath that was a subtle, discordant drone, high-pitched and eerie.
About ten paces ahead of Lamont, Carter had stopped. Lamont realized as he approached the captain that the sound had quite suddenly stopped as well. They were standing about two yards away from a patch of growth that, from a distance, had looked something like a field of purplish cattails. The plants—at least, Lamont assumed they were plants—grew in clusters that stood taller than a man, thickening into a veritable forest not far ahead. He was going to examine the nearest patch more closely, but Francis made a gesture with his hand that told him to stop. He did, and the captain made the same gesture to Rico as the large man approached with an expression of suspicious curiosity.
“What is—” Rico began to ask, but Francis silenced him by raising a finger to his lips. They stood together, looking at the patches of reedlike growth, for what seemed to Lamont like 10-15 seconds. Then, softly at first and growing steadily in volume, the clattering sound resumed, until it was easily the volume of normal conversation. Now Lamont could see the source of the sound: As the stiff plants swayed in the gentle breeze, clusters of something hard and hollow that grew from their tops knocked against each other, like wooden windchimes. Some of the tips had small holes in the sides, which Lamont realized must be responsible for the whistling sound that only now was beginning to return.
Carter took a single long, slow stride toward the nearest cluster of reeds, paused, and took another until he was within reach of them. Cautiously, he reached out and grasped a long stem between two fingers. Suddenly, the sounds stopped again; not only in the patch that he had touched, but throughout the entire nearby forest, leaving them in what now felt like an oppressive silence. The men exchanged wide-eyed glances. “Fantastic,” The captain whispered.
Lamont walked to where Francis was standing and brushed his fingers over one of the plants. It was very stiff, almost like a metal rod, and he suspected that it would take considerable force to bend it. That made sense to Lamont as he reflected on the planet’s oppressive gravity.
“This patch doesn’t seem to be connected to the others, and yet they all respond to our presence in unison,” The newspaperman remarked.
Francis nodded. “I would very much like to know the mechanism.”
Rico approached, having produced from one of his pockets a knife. He crouched down and began to saw at the base of one of the reeds. A moment later, there was a chattering sound, coming at first from the patch that they were examining, and then from the other patches nearby.
“Estevez, stop,” The captain ordered.
Rico followed the order, standing up again and folding his knife closed. In the time that he had spent attempting to cut the reed, he had apparently made little progress. After a few heartbeats, the new sound stopped, replaced at first by silence, and then by the more pleasant hollow clattering of before.
“What happened?” Lamont asked.
“It started to—vibrate,” Rico said, regarding the organism with suspicion. “It is a strange sort of plant.”
“We assume it’s a plant,” Carter said. “It could be something entirely different.”
“I reckon we’ll want to go around that,” Lamont suggested, gesturing toward the thicker forest of reeds ahead of them.
Captain Carter shook his head. “I think we can go through them. Presumably, if there were any large creatures hiding among them, their silence would have warned of it.”
Next: The Hollow