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PacificEdge | May 27, 2017

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The scouting unit

Russ Grayson

IT WAS A BIG ANIMAL, ALRIGHT, though some distance off and, fortunately those new to the forward scouting unit thought, headed in a different direction. It was a quadruped covered in grey fur, in a mottled sort of pattern. It was not a creature new to the colony, however, and a few had encountered it at close hand though that was always a fleeting encounter as if it hadn’t noticed them or, if it had, the creature had not bothered them or seen them as a tasty source of nutrition.

There were tales, however — perhaps they were more like folk tales — of a type of creature that had once — and it seemed it that had been a long time ago — attacked wandering parties and sometimes the colonies themselves, devouring those left out in the open without protection. This was said to be a large creature covered in spikes, but perhaps it was nothing more than an artefact of overactive imaginations, cautionary parents telling cautionary fables to their offspring and a leadership that always seemed to emphasise daring mixed with caution when parties ventured away from the safety of the colony.

The colony was an old one and the story was that their predecessors had set it up many generations ago. Just when that was, none really knew because those first generations had been too busy building the colony and scouting out the resources it needed to bother much with history. Now, conditions were becoming a little crowded, but this was not new. Their story, that of their highly ordered culture, was one of population movement, of populations building up then breaking up with some migrating in search of a new place to live, of new opportunities, of sustenance. It as a culture of seeming contradiction — settlement leading to movement and then to renewed settlement as if that was their ordained destiny through time.

There had been speculation among those of the speculative class in the colony that there might one day come a limit to this population growth and migration. Other colonies were known to exist at some distance. Scouting parties had seen them and reconnoitred closely, reporting back on their extent and population size. Occasionally, when scouting parties took a look-see to check on these other colonies, sometimes making journeys of considerable duration to do so, they reported a colony’s destruction and structures reduced to mounds of grey earth. Where the survivors went was unknown, presumably they put some distance between themselves and the threat that had destroyed their colonies before they built again. Life, it seemed, was about eternal vigilance.

In all of this it was the high state or social organisation that sustained the colony’s existence. Their’s was a hierarchical society in which individuals were allocated roles at birth, some of which involved protection of royalty, some focused on construction and others on exploration and food gathering. All of them, however, had the security and continuity of the culture as their ultimate purpose. It was something of a well-focused culture that all appeared to accept, and it had been this way for a long time. It was also a constant hunt for the resources necessary for life and stability, and it was this need that sent scouting parties far off in search of new sources of sustenance and materials.

For some time the scouting party had been crossing the flat, grey plain and, traveling on foot as they were, they found it quite warm out there where they were fully exposed to the sun. The compacted, hard surface of the plain could get quite hot and those who had ventured out nearly this far before… out towards but never reaching the cliffs that formed a seemingly solid barrier on the far horizon… reported that it could become too hot to walk across. Fortunately, today the sun shone through a high, wispy cloud layer and this dissipated its heat and kept the compacted surface of the plain to a more moderate temperature.

The flatness of the plain itself was remarkable. It was so hard that it was impossible to dig into. Here and there, at what some speculated were regular intervals, they would encounter long, straight canyons. A curious geology, according to those of the speculative class. Elsewhere, the surface would be pitted with numerous shallow holes and, every so often, erratic boulders would be encountered resting on the surface as if they had been left there by some giant creature that was into some completely pointless type of heavy lifting.

Encountering the unusual was all a part of being a member of a scouting party. Parties went off in different directions from the colony, assessing the surrounding terrain and always exploring for the resources the colony needed for its continued survival… and always being watchful and wary as they went, for threats came in many different forms away from the colony. And, out there, no help could be expected from a colony that became increasingly distant as time went on. Joining a scouting party was always an act of daring.

Water was a prime concern and locating new sources was high on the agenda of the scouting parties. Food sources were a more opportunistic find and, when luck was with them and a new food source was discovered, it would soon be mined and carried back to feed the colony.

The scouting party moved in formation, its members vigilant for signs of danger. Were this to be encountered, the party had established patterns of defensive movement and, when necessary, could move quite rapidly. But it wasn’t danger that confronted them here at the edge of the plain which they had now reached — or none that they could detect, anyway — it was a sheer cliff of smooth, vertical rock that rose abruptly from the plain’s bright greyness. At first, from the distance, it looked formidable as well as high, but as they neared they could see gaps like vertical fractures in the face of the cliff. Into one of these they entered and, scurrying upwards over a steeply sloping spill of eroded soil, they eventually came to the top.

From their vantage point the pink cliff top was as smooth as the surface of the grey plain. It was flat, though broken at regular intervals by fissures such as the one up which they had climbed to the top. Were these caused by the heat of the sun expanding the rock and causing it to fracture along vertical planes? That was a question for the speculative class back at the colony, not for a scouting party whose mission was reconnaissance. It was as if a platform of land had suddenly been uplifted above the plain by some ancient geological event and had exposed a different type of geology previously hidden below ground.

But it was not so much the strange geology that grabbed the attention of the scouting party as it stood atop the cliffline, surveying the terrain as if to make sense of the land. It was the forest on the other side.

Forest was not new to a colony that had been established on the edge of a vary large one. That, though, was a forest of green vegetation, of thick trunks that projected skyward, high overhead — an ecosystem of mainly triangular species punctuated here and there by other types such as those with large, round leaves arranged in threes and with peculiar thin trunks that held aloft a large, white, oval flowerheads. Once explored and mapped by the scouting parties, that forest had become foraging ground for the colony, a rich resource that had sustained them over the generations. Now, however, a growing population was demanding new resources and it was to explore for these that the scouting party had been sent out. But this forest… it was a type they had never encountered before. What dangers — and what opportunities — did it hold?

The party regrouped and pressed on into this seeming tangle of wiry, dried vegetation that formed a thick mat upon the surface of the soil. Caution was a key to their movement, the expectation of the unexpected, each member efficiently and effectively carrying out their role as they were driven forward by their quest for resources. It soon became obvious that this dry, tangled forest they had entered was an ecosystem, more a monoculture of plants that lacked any kind of root system — just an immense, twisted tangle — so from where did they draw their sustenance?

The veterans of the scouting party — it should be recognised that scouting brought its own dangers and not all who set always returned — had been made aware that something altogether different was out here and that it was of recent origin. Reports from scouting parties that had ventured onto the plain within sighting distance of the pink cliffs had reported what looked like a thick, yellow-coloured mat of tangled vegetation that appeared from time to time as if growing then shrinking back, as if it was somehow replenished at times. They had only seen it from a great distance, though, and it must have been thick for it to be seen by the scouting parties, protruding above the pink cliffline. Determining what it actually was, and what hidden treasures it held of potential benefit to the colony, had been left to this scouting party.

On they pressed and soon they came to a long, straight ridge. This they ascended — who knows what lay on the far side? Just what lay on the far side they soon discovered — a thick layer of a different type of soil, one dark in colour and warm from absorbing the sun’s radiant, infrared heat — and one rich in smaller lifeforms that would be manageable as food. Cautiously, one or two caught a few of these creatures and tasted them. Edible. And tasty.

On the party pressed, emboldened and propelled forward by the surprise discovery of a new food resource. Into a depression, then a climb to a ridge much higher than that they had earlier crossed.

Here, the scouting party stopped. And looked. In front of them for as far as they could see was undulating terrain the surface of which consisted of that rich, dark soil teeming with life, with food… food to sustain a hungry colony. Taking it all in, it appeared as if, here before them, was sufficient resource to sustain the colony for a long time. It would be necessary to mobilise transportation of this windfall back to the colony, perhaps using as a transportation corridor the route they had opened up on their exploration. This, surely, must be one of the most successful of scouting parties in the history of the colony. But the colony was a long way back… so, given that it was trying to deal with a growing population… why not split the colony as had been their tradition and start a new settlement here amid this plenty?

There, on that high ridge, the scouting party stood. The impulse to explore, to venture, to expand the realm of their kind, to colonise and make a world theirs was about to be rewarded. All that remained was to take back news of their find to the colony, to gather together a band of settlers, of colonisers including those of the speculative class who could ponder this new terrain and perhaps one day make sense of it, and to bring them here to establish a new colony. Their kind’s outward-moving impulse was about to be rewarded. It seemed a new day was about to dawn for the colony, for their culture… for their civilisation.

“Hey, Minako… come over here will you. Look at this!

“Look… on the ridge of that furrow I made the other day where I planted the bean seeds… there’s a mob of those pesky black ants… looks like we’re about to get an infestation. They’ve been living these last few months over on the edge of the lawn, near the garage where the dog plays. Now that we’ve laid the dry straw mulch it looks like they plan to move here into the vegetable garden. Looks like we’ll have to deal with them… I’ll email Fiona for ideas… she knows the ways of ants”.

I sat down and this story sort of just came out after Murray mailed me asking how to deal with an ant infestation in their vegetable garden. The ants, he said, used to live over by the garage, on the edge of the lawn, but since spreading sugar came mulch on the vegetable garden they had moved in.

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