A lone figure in a tan leather sheepskin coat cut a path through the snow in metal-framed snowshoes. The day was gray and featureless--stray flakes of ice flew aloft on the biting wind. Ossian Sato pumped his legs in a steady rhythm and progressed towards the single tree on the horizon--a dwarf black pine manipulated into a cavernous bush with wire and sticks, and which was now dead. Ossian slowed a few hundred yards from the tree and visually scanned it for movement. The tree was still.
He stopped, breathing hard. He removed his oxygen mask and let it fall to his chest, revealing his chapped and reddened face. He coughed and hacked up mucous, spitting it out in the snow, tinged with red.
"Shit man," he mumbled, wiping his mouth.
"Are you there yet?" crackled his radio.
Ossian sucked in several large gulps of tainted air, clutching his chest with thick-gloved hands, before coughing again.
"Sato--respond," said the radio. "Did you find it?"
He stood up, gasping, and pushed his wide goggles up over his white leather hat.
"Yeah--yes, ma'am," he said, pressing the button on the radio.
"Good. What is the condition of the artefact? You haven't touched it have you?"
"No, not yet ma'am." Ossian steadied his breath and looked intently at the tree. "It looks to be unoccupied. Dormant."
"Proceed with caution. No incoming. We're tracking you, but you're still an hour outside of pickup."
"Noted ma'am. Sato out."
Ossian slid the pack from his shoulders and carefully deposited it on the crust of the snow. He reached down and unhooked his boots from the snowshoes, sticking the ends of the snowshoes into the crust so they stood upright. He unzipped the pack and withdrew his knife and the large sample jar, along with the scanner-recorder and its tripod. He opened the tripod and shoved its feet into and through the crust, then carefully screwed the scanner-recorder on top and pointed it towards the tree. He turned it on and let it boot up. It beeped and he pressed the button to start a multi-scan. He pulled out its transparent screen and tilted it upward. He watched it run through the spectrum and gravity scales. It beeped again upon completion. Clean. Ossian sighed. He switched the device to record mode.
He pressed the button on his radio.
"This is Sato. Multi-scan complete. The artefact is confirmed dormant."
There was a brief pause.
"Thank you Sato. Proceed."
Ossian reattached his oxygen mask and started towards the tree, making sure he was within the frame of the scanner-recorder. His feet plunged through half a meter of powdery ice crystals, with the inch thick crust abrading his trousers and cutting into his legs. He struggled to maintain his balance. As he neared the tree he could smell the faint scent of pine.
The tree was about twenty feet high, its trunk split into seven thick branches that skimmed the ground for several meters before curving upward and over like a dead spider, the thinnest ends of the branches intertwining at the top. Ossian stared up at the center, trying to discern whether the branches ended or simply fed back into one another in complicated loops. He stared blankly, trying to unravel the nest of lines, with an overwhelming calmness...then he blinked tightly.
"Don't let it trick you," he whispered to himself. He looked down at the ground and suppressed the urge to cough.
He made his way between the thick trunk branches. He selected the thickest one and carefully stepped up onto it. It creaked slightly but held his weight. He walked on it, towards its curve, then started to climb up where it started branching out to dead, nude limbs. Several feet above the ground he wedged himself in the V of two steady branches. He took out the knife and dug it into the flesh of the tree, scoring the bark several times and unleashing a strong waft of pine scent. He opened the sample jar and scraped bits of the bark into it. He leaned closer to the indentation and watched for signs of wetness. Shortly sap started to ooze up and he used the knife to scoop up the stickiness and deposit it in the jar. He replaced the lid.
"This is Sato. I've collected a sample. Sap and flesh," said Ossian, touching his radio.
"Good. We need its seed, if there is any left," said the radio. Ossian sighed deeply.
"I'll see what I can do, ma'am," he said.
"Be careful, Sato."
Ossian looked upwards, trying to avoid gazing at the nest in the center. A few feet above him hung a single spindly pinecone, dangling idly in the wind. He scanned the rest of the tree to see if there were any others, but there were none.
"You didn't just appear, just for me, did you?" he said under his breath. His fingers twitched with anxiety.
He shoved the knife into his belt and the jar into his pocket and climbed further up. The branch started to creak and sway and so he stopped. He reached up and touched the pinecone but couldn't grasp it. The wind picked up and stung his eyes with ice crystals. He inched up further but the pinecone slipped from his fingers again.
"This is a bad idea," he said, undoing his oxygen mask. He brought his glove to his mouth and pulled it off with his teeth. The wind bit at his bare fingers, sapping them of their heat. He reached up; the pinecone blew out of reach, then wobbled down into the palm of his hand. The scanner-recorder started to beep an alarm. The pinecone was surprisingly warm and soft. He pulled on it, arcing the branch towards him, but the pinecone wouldn't come free. He held it while his took out his knife with his other hand. He slashed quickly at the branch.
Warm air rushed around him. There was a swirl of green. There were voices. A shrill scream.
The tree was fully alive, bursting with dark green needles that waved in fragrant, clean, summer air. Two children in shorts and t-shirts were clambering along the branches, paused in their adventures, staring at the heavily clothed figure of Ossian Sato who suddenly appeared in their midst.
"Who are you?" asked one the children, a boy with moppish blond hair, familiar eyes and a dirty face. The other, a younger girl with freckles and thick glasses held her hands to her mouth, suppressing the rest of her scream.
You...you have to forget me," said Ossian shakily. He looked down at the pinecone in his hand, the stem glowing white. "Forget me...I was never here..." He felt tears roll down his face. "It's all a...trick. That's what they say."
"Did you fall from the sky?" asked the girl.
"No," said Ossian. His fingers wrapped tightly around the pinecone and he felt something beating inside it.
"He didn't fall from the sky," said the boy scoffing. "He'd be all mush and bones sticking up. Splat!" The boy clapped his hands together and pulled them apart slowly as if he had glue between them. "That kind of fall will kill you."
"Maybe he had a parachute."
"He doesn't have a parachute," said the boy with marked exasperation.
"I didn't fall from the sky," said Ossian. "I...fell from my...mind."
The two children stared at him in brief silence.
"Do you need help mister?" asked the girl. "You look a little sick."
"No ma'am," said Ossian. "You have to forget I was here." He forced his fingers to open, grunting, and picked up the pinecone with his gloved hand. "I'm going to disappear now. Don't be alarmed." He lifted up the pinecone, removing it from his bare skin. The green faded and the cold air returned, stinging. The children were gone. The beeping of the scanner-recorder continued and increased in frequency. Ossian scrambled down to the ground. He quickly placed the pinecone in the jar and resealed it, then ran towards the tripod.
"This is Sato. I've got the seed," he said into the radio.
There was a staticky silence. The sky above started to darken.
"Do you read?" he said. He shoved the sample jar into the pack, then glanced at the status bar of the scanner-recorder--it was full red.
"We read," said the radio. "You have incoming."
"I know ma'am." Ossian turned off the scanner-recorder and unscrewed it from the tripod.
"What did you do?"
"What I wasn't supposed to do."
"Oh, Ossian. No."
"You have to get out of there. Do you understand? You have to run for the pickup point."
Ossian zipped up the pack then looked at his bare hand.
"Sato," the radio crackled, "do you read?"
He looked up at the sky. A borealis was forming above the tree, a swirling rainbow of light against the darkening sky.
"It's coming," he whispered.
"Abandon your equipment! Sato! Run! You have to run!"
Ossian stood up, stretching tall. He pulled off his goggles and his other glove. He removed the oxygen mask completely and let it fall to the snow.
"No," he said quietly. "I'm done."
"No, Ossian, no, you can't. What...what did you see?"
"I saw myself. I remember seeing me, that day, that summer. The man who fell from the sky without a parachute."
"It wasn't you. The artefact is fooling you."
"It's a clear memory."
"It's not real Ossian."
The borealis above roiled in waves and there was clap of thunder.
"You were there too."
"No, no I wasn't, no--I-I...I do remember."
"It was our hideout."
"It was a pirate ship and a castle in the sky, and other things. I remember. But it can't be, Ossian. It...it never existed. It can't have. It just got into your head."
"And yours too?" asked Ossian. The sky rumbled overhead as he stared at the tree.
"These artefacts can penetrate great times and distances...we've sent you to a powerful one...and I'm sorry."
"Part of the job ma'am," said Ossian chuckling weakly.
The sky cracked and a massive bolt of lightning struck the snow several yards from Ossian. A column of steam rose up in it's wake.
"You don't have any more time," said the radio through a haze of thick static.
"I wish you could come with me," said Ossian.
"It was a pleasure serving with you, ma'am."
Ossian pulled off the radio and dropped it next to the pack. Another bolt of lightning cracked down even nearer. He ran back towards the tree, and climbed back up to where he scored the bark. He pressed his face to the scar and licked at the sap. Warmth returned.
"Look, he's back!" exclaimed the girl.
"How'd you do that?" asked the boy.
"Are you a magician?" asked the girl.
"I'm a scout," said Ossian/ He unzipped his coat and shrugged it off. He leaned back against the branch and closed his eyes, soaking up the dappled sunlight that filtered through the branches.
"What does a scout do?" asked the girl.
"Scouts find things," said the boy. "Every idiot knows that."
"They do," said Ossian, smiling. "I've found this place...finally. I can begin again." He wrapped his arms around the branch and pressed his face to the bark. "Thank you."
"Did you just hug the tree?" asked the girl.