The landscape that appeared around them seemed so alien it made Bathsheba’s strange garden sanctuary look like a backyard vegetable garden.
It was night–or at least it was as dark as night on Earth. Slick, red, coral-like trees surrounded them, reaching far up to block most of the sky in a dense layer. More plants, all of them in glassy shades of red-purple, covered the ground; some of them were little tufts growing from the surface of rocks, others had massive, broad fronds taller than she was. She thought she saw something faintly glowing slither under one of the leaves and disappear. Through the thick canopy, a faint ball of light glimmered in the sky far above them, either a moon or a small distant sun, blurry and wavering as though she was looking at it from underwater. The air was heavy in a way that reminded her of summer, but it was cold enough that she was shivering.
This place felt wrong in a way that made her ears crackle when she turned her head. It was obviously hospitable for humans in that there was enough oxygen for everyone to breathe and the pressure wasn’t crushing them to death, but it didn’t feel like it was meant for them.
“Is everyone alive and uninjured?” said Mrs. Sharma.
“Falcon’s missing.” Naomi’s voice was tight with panic.
“Belfry’s gone too,” said Chelsea. “He was right next to me.”
“I don’t see Mahender, Nancy, or the dog either,” said Lachlan.
“I told Dominic I was going to keep him safe.” Naomi’s voice cracked. “What am I going to do?”
“Calm down,” said Mrs. Sharma.
“How am I supposed to calm down?” said Naomi. “He’s gone! What am I going to tell Dominic?”
She rubbed at her eyes, brushing away tears.
“If he is in danger, crying like a baby isn’t going to help him,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We’ll do everything we can to find the others, but it’ll be much easier if everyone is calm and rational.”
“You’re right.” Naomi sniffled. “Sorry.”
“Now,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Is anyone missing other than Falcon, Nancy, her dog, Belfry, or my idiot nephew?”
She called out each remaining person’s name, and everyone responded.
“Okay, now that we know everyone else is accounted for, we can focus on finding the others. Since Stellar-whatever said she was going to let us all live, they’re likely to be nearby.”
“Hey, guys!” Angelina called into the trees. “Are you nearby?!”
“Stop that!” said Mrs. Sharma. “We don’t know anything about this place. If there’s anything dangerous out there, we don’t want to attract its attention.”
“No, we should make a lot of noise,” said Sam. “Loud noises scare away predators.”
“They do. Earth predators,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Who knows about the animals we might find here? Not to mention any sapient beings we might run into.”
Ha. Guess someone isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.
“So how are we supposed to find them if we can’t call out to them?” said Angelina.
“We can start by listening,” said Mrs. Sharma. “If they’re nearby, maybe we’ll hear them talking. Everyone, be quiet.”
Everyone fell silent. It was eerie how quiet everything was. Jen would have expected a dense forest like this to have birds or insects chirping, but there was no sound except the soft rustle of slick leaves.
Then, somewhere under the rustling, she heard voices almost too faint to make out.
“I think I hear them,” she said. “It’s coming from that way.”