Chapter 15

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Yan Liu opened her eyes.

The sky was drab and grey. The air smelled of ozone and dampness, as if it had rained recently. The sharp pricks of dry leaves poked Liu's back.

With a groan, she raised herself onto her elbows. Fog rippled around her, obscuring the black trunks of the trees. The ground was littered with moss and discarded needles. There was no sound, no wind, no motion.

Liu was staggering with confusion. She could not imagine any series of events that could have led to her lying in this forest. There was the vague memory of a great interstellar voyage, the establishment of Eridu, even the Iapetus expedition. Now she was in a temperate woodland. Gravity seemed to have returned to what it was on Earth, and was now much softer. She rose to her feet with incredible, beautiful ease.

Perhaps Gaea had been nothing more than a vivid dream? The prospect frightened Liu; the grand foreignness of the planet may have been nothing but a figment of her imagination. All of it. For the moment, it was the most viable explanation, though not a happy one.

But there were more pressing matters to attend to. There were no obvious signs of civilization in sight, and wild forests were not generally the most hospitable of areas. She attempted to connect to the global emergency network, but found nothing. She couldn't even connect to a positioning satellite. The trees might still tell her something.

Liu approached a nearby tree and tentatively identified its needles and cones as those of a Scots pine. The tree was one of the more common ones in the world, and its presence only confirmed that she was somewhere in northern Eurasia. Or she might have it all wrong. She could just as easily be in the Americas. She decided it didn't really matter. No matter where she was, there would be a town or a railroad or something soon enough. Liu picked a direction and began walking.

The light level climbed, and a phantom spot of milky light appeared above the invisible horizon. The fog never seemed to lift, even as the sun rose. Hours of continual travel offered no deviation in either terrain or weather conditions. She eventually found a large stone, shrouded in moss and lichen, that sat between two tree trunks.

Liu began to worry; why was the global comm network unavailable? It was supposed to extend to every corner of the planet. She sat at the base of the rock and stared at the pale green crowns of the twin pines above. Liu realized that she had yet to find an edible plant.

It was then that she noticed a bird perching in the branches. It was almost perfectly camouflaged, colored grey with spots of black. The bird was nearly half a meter tall. It sat motionless in the tree, mirroring the perfect quiet of the forest.

The bird, apparently realizing that it was being watched, fluidly rotated its head to face downward. Liu was met with two circular yellow orbs nestled in twin rings of black feathers. The owl then spread its wings, all two meters of them, and silently took to the air.

The owl was a Great gray, and an exceedingly large one at that. It was found only in the Siberian taiga, one of the few places that still supported the expanses of frigid woodland that it needed to feed itself. The forests were several thousand kilometers across, but at least Liu now had her position narrowed to a continent.

Seeing another living animal heartened Liu slightly. She got up and began heading west, judging by the position of the sun. If she really was in Siberia, west would eventually lead her to Europe. Whether she would survive that long was questionable.

The sun arced across the sky. At no point did the fog burn off, despite the mounting heat. The combination of hot, humid air took its toll on Liu, and she made pitifully little headway as the day progressed. Annoyingly, there had been absolutely nothing of interest since the owl and the stone, nothing but more identical trees. The sun began to set, and Liu decided to settle for the night.

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