©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Thirteen - Beyond the Rift
When the passenger hatch of Omaha opened on the newly-constructed runway, a fluffy arctic fox stuck her nose out of the doorway and began sniffing at the aromas of a new world. She looked up at a partly cloudy sky just as a beam of sunlight broke through and illuminated her white fur as if it was a brilliant halo surrounding her.
“Quit gawking and clear the doorway,” grumbled the brown bear behind her. Piale looked back at her mother and snickered, personally amused at the kind of creature the woman had become; the daughter felt that it fit her mother’s personality perfectly. The ursine biologist narrowed her eyes at her and then put a large hand in the middle of her back. She pushed the fox toward the ramp, and although it was not a hard shove, there was enough strength behind it to get the girl moving.
The lynx who walked out of the hatch behind his wife frowned at the distant activity toward the camp. The two of them were still disgruntled by their transformations, somehow feeling as if it was someone’s fault. Their daughter did not share their misgivings, however, and that irked them further; Piale loved her new look and was sure she could somehow use it to her advantage.
The ground cover that had been cleared from the runway area was resistant to burning, so for now it had simply been pushed up in a pile paralleling the cleared ground. Behind it, the twelve-foot perimeter fence that would surround the compound was still being assembled.
Following the short feline was a larger Bengal tiger. The woman stepped out into the sun, but paused to stretch down on all fours, her spine crackling. Bringing up the rear was the horseman, who towered over them all by a head, and he had to duck to get through the opening. He looked down at the tiger’s backside before she finished her stretches; she looked over her shoulder at him and caught his gaze with a grin. She straightened up and then hooked arms with him.
“C’mon, handsome stranger, let’s see what this town has to offer!” Ansara chuckled, quietly enjoying the attention, and followed her down to the ground. A cloud of dust approached at a high rate of speed, and when the moving object finally slowed to a stop beside the shuttle plane, two canine types smiled out from the windows of a work truck. The hydrogen-powered vehicle looked as if it might have been new when they left Earth, but it was now covered in dirt and grime from recent use.
“Welcome to the New World!” called a tan Labrador retriever behind the wheel. “I’m Rex Bletchingdon and this coyote beside me is Takuma Kirato. We’re here to take you to the main camp.”
“Where are we supposed to ride?” Angelo Bonavita asked, peering into the small cab.
Rex pointed to the back of the truck with a clawed thumb. “Sorry, this taxi has no seats. You’ll all have to pile into the back, but we don’t have that far to go.”
Piale smiled in at the cute coyote in the passenger seat. “May I sit on your lap?” she asked sweetly.
Takuma swallowed and glanced over at his friend, but Rex did nothing but smile back at him. He looked back at the white fox, acutely aware that the straps of her bib overalls were loose and the front of the garment was folded over. “Uh, sure,” he said hoarsely. “Come on in!”
Piale laughed and crawled in through the window without opening the door. She slid in across the coyote’s lap and put her arms around his neck to stay in place.
Emma Bonavita scowled at her daughter and climbed up into the back of the truck without further discussion. The others clambered in and sat on the floorboards. Rex was about to put the vehicle into motion, but Henry Clifton approached his window.
“I was about to launch back up to the ship, but I just got a call from Dr. Kate that she needs to see me,” the cheetah told the canine.
Once the pilot was situated in the back with the others, Rex took a more leisurely pace back to camp than he had driven on the way out, mindful of the uneven ground beneath the ivy covering, but the plant life cushioned a lot of the vibrations. Eventually, they would have actual roads, but they had not yet cleared lanes for them.
When they neared the center of camp, it was a bustling hive of activity. Earthmovers were removing the ground cover, which had been nicknamed “crater weed” since they had yet to discover an actual use for the stuff, but over to the side near a river feeding into the lake was a tent-city that was still being erected to house the total population of the planet – all ninety-eight of them. Once the town site was ready for proper construction, actual buildings would be assembled. The farmers and biologists were already making surveys to plot out gardens to grow the food they would all need to survive.
The truck pulled up to a stop in front of one of the larger tents and two figures stepped out to greet them. Although everyone on the crew had previously met the project director and the ship’s captain, this was the first time any of them had seen their anthropomorphic forms.
“Welcome, it’s good to see you!” said the African lioness with a smile after they had all gotten out of the vehicle. She already had advance knowledge of these five from the counselor, so she was not thrown off by the dour expressions that two of them wore. “I am Dr. Kate and this is Captain Robeson. We have not yet named the city we will be building, so for now, welcome to Bellerophon.”
“Just when are we going to get this animal issue resolved?” Emma Bonavita grumbled right off.
“Just as soon as you can resolve it for us,” Captain Robeson responded without hesitation.
“What? How should I know what to do?”
“Exactly, just like the rest of us.”
Emma sputtered and grumbled, and the captain raised a hand. “Listen, I’m sure you have already heard this from Dr. Fernando or Dr. Kazama, but our situation has never happened before, so we have no one who knows how to reverse it – not even Arion. It’s being researched, but there’s little hope that we’ll have any quick method to change what occurred to us over a span of decades. Accept it for now, be thankful you’re alive and healthy, and do the jobs you are needed to do.”
“So what are we supposed to do?”
Dr. Kate looked up at the bear without smiling. “Emma, you and your husband will join the team constructing the fence on the northeast perimeter. They are close to merging their section with the next, but with your help they can finish soon.”
“Building a fence! We’re embryonic specialists!” Angelo sputtered.
“Yes, and before we left Earth, you were already aware that you would be putting up fences, roads and buildings when we got here and over the course of the next five years. Until your specialty skills are needed, which may not be for several days or a week, you will help anywhere you’re needed, as assigned. Understood?”
Neither of the Bonavitas looked happy, but each held their tongue. Their daughter stepped forward and held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Piale,” she said cheerily. “Put me wherever you need me.”
Kate shook the young fox’s soft hand. “Thank you,” she replied in appreciation. “I don’t want any of you to consider this as punishment, because putting up the fence is an important task to keep out potential dangers lurking outside our crater that may wish to investigate our activity. We have all been working on this; Captain Robeson and I just got back from the southwest corner of the perimeter, where we have spent the past four hours installing security sensors on the panels with the team building that section of the fence. We’re all taking a meal break, and then we’ll be back out there to fit in a gate.” She looked from the fox to the tall horseman. “Mr. Ansara, I need you and Ms. Bonavita to work with the team on the southeast. Rex can get the four of you outfitted with tools, fasteners, work aprons and water, and then drive you out to your assigned areas with more fence posts and panels.”
The horse simply nodded, but Piale politely said “Yes, ma’am.”
Kate looked over at the tigress, with a quick glance at the shuttle pilot waiting patiently at the back of the group. “Ms. Celeste, we’ll need you back up on Arion-1 and you can return with Henry Clifton. Rod Vincent, Ethan Edwards and Dave Gordon are up there moving equipment and supplies into the shuttle trucks that their pilots deliver down here. Everything we brought from Earth to build a town needs to be offloaded. I’m afraid that it’s a big task and will take a while, but they could use another body.”
The tigress flexed an arm and smiled. “I haven’t had a good exercise since I woke up and this is a good opportunity to give my new muscles a workout.”
“Most of it will be in zero-gee conditions in a pressure suit. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Nope, I have certifications in both.”
Kate nodded. “Very good, thank you. Takuma, can you grab the other truck and take these two back out to Omaha, please?”
“Right away, ma’am.” The coyote led his riders to where another set of vehicles sat parked nearby.
“We still have about five hours of daylight to do as much work as we can, then we’ll send out the trucks to recall everyone back here to headquarters. With your help, we hope to have the fence completed before we turn in for the night.”
“We’ll have a good meal at the end of the day and a debriefing for everyone here on the surface,” Robeson added. “They’re still decanting personnel up in orbit, but we hope to have everyone else up and occupied with our next tasks by tomorrow evening.”
“Any questions before you get to work?”
“Just one,” said the horseman. “Where’s the nearest toilet?”
“It’s up in orbit!” Rex called out from inside the truck cab.
The cougar smiled and pointed to a row of tents just a short distance away. “You’ll find latrines in the first of the small tents. Mr. Bletchingdon dug them for us himself, but it’s the best we could do in short notice until we get the proper equipment and plumbing down from the ship.”
“Leave your dignity at the door,” Rex added.
Robeson smiled, but continued. “Give yourselves fifteen minutes if you need the facilities, then report to Rex for the things you’ll need out at the fences.”
Ansara looked confused, but when no one elaborated, he walked away to do his business. Piale fell in step beside him. “I think your mane is lovely,” she told the horseman.
“Thank you,” he replied with a smile. “You may find this amusing, but my favorite shampoo is Mane & Tail.”
“Why is that amusing? I’ve used it myself.”
“Because Mane & Tail was originally created for horses, although it gained popularity when humans successfully began using it too. How fortunate for me that I’m both!” He brushed a hand through his mane and then swished his tail at her. The white fox suddenly understood and laughed aloud.
“You’re in a cheery mood,” she said. “You looked almost as miserable as my parents and didn’t say much of anything on the ride down from the ship.”
“I apologize. I’ve only been awake for just a few hours and I’m still getting used to my new body, pondering that how some of this is ironic.”
He tapped his chest with both hands. “After all this, I’m still a meat-eater!”
“I’m a meat-eater too. What’s the big deal?”
“How many carnivorous horses have you seen?”
“Carnivor….? Oh, I see what you mean. Horses don’t eat meat.”
“I have teeth designed by nature to eat oats and grains, but my human half still enjoys the flavor of cooked meat and my hybrid digestive system can handle it. We tested that theory with a steak dinner when I was still on the ship, although I had to cut my meat into smaller bits for these teeth to chew them. So, yes, I am a carnivorous horse!”
They reached the first tent past the larger ones and it was marked only with a hand-drawn note bearing a crescent moon. Ansara raised his equine eyebrows and stepped inside. He stopped and Piale bumped into him from behind.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
The horse stepped aside to let her see. Inside the tent were four wooden seat frames built over deep holes dug into the ground. There was only a single wide towel hung between each of them to create the illusion of a stall, and a roll of biodegradable toilet paper imported from Earth was sitting on the ground beside each seat. The odor in the tent made Piale’s nose wrinkle.
“Well, this could get awkward,” Ansara said. “If you would wait outside, I’ll only be a moment.”
“Nonsense. You take the one on that end,” the fox said, “and I’ll take the one on this end.” Without waiting for a reply, the girl moved to her seat, turned around and dropped her overalls. Ansara hastily moved to the other end and tried to hide behind the towel.
“At least he left room at the back of the seat to raise a tail,” the fox’s voice remarked.
A white Samoyed walked in through the entrance of the galley tent and looked around until he spied the captain and the director sitting together just separated from the rest of their fence team. Dr. Bali Manhigh walked across the room, took a seat across from the felines, and placed a handful of the crater weeds on the table.
“Hello, doctor,” Kate said politely. “You look like somedog with a discovery.”
The botanist gave her a canine grin at her word choice. “Indeed I am, Miss Kitty.”
“What have you found?” Robeson asked after lapping coffee from a wide brimmed cup.
“I’ve been examining this ground cover, trying to determine if there’s anything in its makeup that we should be concerned about. After all, we now have piles of the stuff dozed up all over the place.”
“It’s fibrous, and as we’ve already found out, it’s highly resistant to heat and fire. The same goes with cold. It can withstand temperatures at least down to minus one hundred twenty degrees Fahrenheit without losing its integrity; that’s the lowest temperature I can achieve with the equipment I have, but I would like to send a sample up to Arion and have him expose it to the absolute cold of space.”
The cougar shook his head. “We’re exposing ourselves to whatever’s here on the surface, but I’m not sure I like the idea of taking an alien weed up to our ship.”
Kate looked over at him. “You’ve seen too many science fiction movies. Are you afraid it might infect our SI?”
Robeson laid his ears back. “Maybe I have, but why take the risk of any kind of contamination?”
“I can send some up in a sealed container,” Manhigh tried again, “and then Arion’s waldo can take it outside the ship to open it there without even bringing it onboard. I’ll have sensors inside the container to record its reaction to the extreme temperature, and then he can reseal it to send back down to me on the next available shuttle. It never need go inside Arion-1.”
“That still makes me nervous.” Robeson spoke into his techwatch. “What do you think, Arion? Can you do this without bringing it inside the ship?”
“Affirmative, Captain. Since the shuttle docs with a belly hatch, the container can be placed inside a shuttle’s unused port-side airlock, where my waldo can retrieve it directly into space without exposing it or the container to the ship’s interior. Once exposed to the absolute zero conditions of space, it can be resealed and placed back inside the airlock, where it will stay until Dr. Manhigh can recover it on the surface.”
Robeson looked at the director and then gave the botanist a nod. “Okay, I’ll allow it under these conditions.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Aside of its thermal properties, what else have you discovered about this weed?” Kate asked.
“It is completely benign to any of our amalgamated physiologies, and I have been using data Arion has compiled from each of our hybrid species. I think the most this plant could harm one of us is by brushing its coarse leaves against bare skin to give us a scrape. It’s high in fiber, but almost null in nutritional value if ingested. I doubt even our cows and sheep would care for it.”
“No nutritional value,” Kate repeated. “If someone did swallow a piece of it, would it make them sick?”
“I doubt they would even get a stomach ache. It would just pass through the digestive system inert, although its fiber might clean your pipes on the way out. It’s unlikely to appeal to anyone, as it has almost no flavor either, so I can’t see anyone eating it by mistake.”
The captain tilted his head. “How do you know it has no flavor?”
“I tried some and it’s really chewy, almost a bit rubbery. It does have a flavor, but it’s so subtle to my sensitive taste buds as to have none at all. I suppose if someone wanted to experiment and try adding flavoring, it might suffice as a local replacement for chewing gum.”
The African lioness fingered the leafy material and then turned it over. The root system beneath it had stiffened since it had been pulled from the soil, but to her it looked little different than any other root strands she had ever seen.
“Does this stuff have any redeeming properties?”
Manhigh shrugged. “I suppose its fibers could be spun into thread to make warm winter blankets. The leaves themselves would probably make a good insulator in between the walls of the buildings we construct.”
Captain Robeson looked interested at that. “I would call that a benefit,” he said. “We’ll be clearing out so much of this stuff as we make room for our town, that we can repurpose it in our buildings. We were planning to run it all through shredders and then scatter it across the rest of the ground cover out in the crater for lack of anything else to do with it. We already have piles of it just from clearing space for the fence and the runway.”
“That seems reasonable.”
“Doctor, why don’t you and I go have a talk with Mr. Andresen. As an engineer, perhaps he can find a way to put your idea into fruition.”
Kate looked at her techwatch. “I’ll return to the fence work with our team,” she said to the cougar. “You can catch up to us after you’ve discussed Dr. Manhigh’s crater weed insulation.”
“After I get this one figured out, I want to take a look at a bosom plant I keep hearing about,” the Samoyed remarked.
Secretariat landed four hours later. When Rex transported Joe Kittinger and a number of crates to the tent-city, the pilot walked into the galley and saw a pair of adults, a squirrel and a mouse, feeding a three-year old a mouse at a nearby table. Across the tent were two other adults, an opossum and a Siberian husky. None of these had been passengers on any of his personnel drops, so they must have come down on Henry’s Omaha; he did not recognize any of them.
He moved around the folding tables and chairs to the far pair. “Hello,” he said when they looked up at him. The standing opossum was wearing a cooking apron and put his hands together with a smile.
“Yes, can I get you something to eat?” he said. “I have only a limited menu right now, but I hope to have more once further food stock is brought down.”
“You must be Rocky,” the orange feline remarked. “I’m Secretariat’s pilot, Joe Kittinger. I didn’t bring personnel this time, but I did fill up my plane with a number of self-refrigerated crates labeled for you. They’re in the back of the truck outside.”
The opossum’s smile widened. “Yes, I am Piers Roche. That would be my food stocks! Merci.”
The husky stood up and held out a hand after wiping it on a napkin. “I’m Dean Ruston. I just finished eating and was about to try Rocky’s new dessert, but that can wait. I’ll help you bring in his boxes.”
Kittinger shook the proffered hand warmly. “Thanks, I would appreciate the help.”
“Mr. Kittinger, I was asked to give you a message when you arrived.”
The pilot looked at the marsupial chef. “Go ahead.”
“Captain Robeson would like you to select a couple of others who might be in the camp at the time you got here so you can take a Flitter and do some reconnaissance outside of the crater rim.”
“What are we looking for?”
“The surrounding forest timber was laid over by the blast of the meteorite impact. He would like to know if any of that lumber can be used for firewood since there are no actual trees growing inside the crater and the weeds don’t burn.”
“I like that idea,” the husky remarked. “You can take me with you. I’ve been running an earthmover all day and could use a change of scenery.”
“You can count me in,” said another voice. The trio looked over at a human-sized mouse that had joined them. “My name is Haru Kirato and I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.” He smiled and thumped one of his large round ears with a finger. “Like Mr. Ruston, my wife and I have been out all day surveying the crater floor for suitable placement of crop farmland and I would also like a change of scenery. Taking a trip outside to the forest beyond sounds good to me.”
Kittinger smiled and nodded first to the mouse and then to the husky. “Good, you made conscription easy for me!” He looked over at the mouse’s family. “Will you be okay leaving them?”
“My wife Emiko is the one who suggested that I should volunteer. She will tend to little Daisuke.”
“Since we don’t know what we might face outside the crater, we’ll need something from the armory for our defense.”
“I have access to that,” Ruston supplied. “Pistols, rifles or compound bows? My personal favorite is a revolver.”
“Bows?” Kirato repeated. “Why do we have bows and arrows?”
Kittinger smiled. “I know it sounds archaic, but if we can’t find local elements on Belle to make gunpowder when we run out of the limited supply of ammunition we brought with us, bows and arrows still leave us with some level of protection.”
The mouse looked at Ruston. “I’ll take a rifle with a scope, please.”
“Let’s bring in Rocky’s crates and then we can load what we need in small backpacks for our aerial reconnaissance.”
“Water, snacks and First Aid kits,” Kirato suggested. “Work gloves, chainsaw and a couple of axes to bring back samples.”
Parked nearby with the camp vehicles was a V-780 Bell Flitter, one of the latest eVTOL aircraft off the line at the time they had departed Earth. It was painted glossy black with white highlights and its enclosed cabin could hold four passengers with a small amount of cargo or luggage. Mounted above the cabin within large round shrouds were two large tiltrotor air fans for lift and speed. Both fans had been folded and stowed for transport in the ship’s cargo area, but were now deployed for flight. Four of the craft were included in the manifest, but only this one had been delivered to the surface earlier that morning. It had not yet been taken up, so the pilot had to spend some time to follow a checklist on his tablet to make sure everything was filled, primed, pinned and in place before it could even be switched on. Its fully electric system could be recharged with solar tiles mounted all across its upper surface or with an external hydrogen-powered generator system that was stationed nearby.
While the pilot was preoccupied with his important task, Kirato and Ruston talked casually about their transformations. Each had greatly differing reactions when they were decanted and discovered the situation that had changed them all. It was a common topic across the camp. They had also become aware that each person’s hearing was quite a bit more sensitive than it had ever been as a human, and they were already learning that grumbles or whispers beneath the breath might be easily heard by someone else, possibly even the person or persons grumbled about.
“I still haven’t gotten used to this tail,” Kirato complained. “Before I left the ship, I nearly got it caught in every automatic door I went through, and it’s so long that I have to keep others from stepping on it at times.”
“I know what you mean,” Ruston added. “They’ve altered some of the chairs down here on the surface, but I always seem to find the ones that don’t have a modification for tails and I keep sitting back on it. I’ve already lost count of how many times mine has gotten stepped on, too.”
“My wife Emiko has accepted the changes well enough, but her biggest complaints were that the holes for her piercings all closed up, and also that she can no longer wear her favorite outfits.” Haru Kirato smiled and fingered a strap of his overall shorts. “She always followed the fashions, but she doesn’t think much of this latest trend.”
They talked on in quiet voices, and after nearly forty-five minutes, Kittinger announced that they were ready to go. Their gear had already been stowed on board, so all they had to do was clamber inside and get into their flight harnesses. Once the pilot had checked to make sure his passengers were belted in, he contacted Arion to report the mission orders of this flight.
The tiltrotor fans above them spun up quickly, and although they made quite a roar of sound outside and kicked up a fair amount of dust, the small cabin they rode in was well insulated against most of the noise.
The Flitter left the ground vertically, having no need of a runway and Kittinger took it straight up to get a good view of the crater from overhead. The skies in the vicinity were mostly clear with only high cirrus clouds above them, and although they could not see it from inside the crater, he knew a haze of moisture would be hanging over the distant rainforest surrounding them in all directions.
His companions had their noses pressed to the windows to look at the vista below. A moderate-sized lake located just off center in the crater, with several feeding rivers converging from the high ridge rock springs and snow runoff. Near one of the rivers was the tent-city under construction, and a short distance from that was a large swath of area cleared of ground cover down to the dirt with the displaced crater weed dozed up in large piles. Located a short distance from all was the runway that had been cleared of weeds and soil down to the bedrock beneath, and then surrounding everything but the lake within one square mile was a twelve-foot perimeter fence with sensors atop each anchor pole. This was a relatively small area of the overall crater floor that was roughly twenty-five miles across, covering approximately a little more than three hundred fourteen thousand acres. As the town would later grow into a city, there was still plenty of room to expand for additional housing and farmland.
Having no specific destination, Kittinger randomly chose a direction and then flew off toward the northwest, following one of the rivers all the way to the ridge rock, which was still higher than their current elevation. His passengers fell quiet, so the only conversation within the cabin was of the pilot in contact with the SI that followed their progress from orbit.
As the Flitter put miles behind them, the furmen began to see signs of life. They flew above flocks of creatures that were analogous to birds, but most were either too low or too small to make out details. Closer to the higher elevations of the rising crater floor, they could also see smaller creatures moving about in small clusters. Using a pair of binoculars that he found in a seat pocket, Kirato focused in on one such group and described aloud what looked like some kind of large, land-walking starfish grazing on the crater weed. Arion reported that these were now called Belle Stars and were only previously seen within a different crater that had once been considered as a landing site.
Other small creatures they saw from a distance were four-footed animals covered in gray shaggy fur or hair. These had a large hump between their rear hip bones and a broad, oversized snout that weaved back and forth as they walked. They did no grazing, just seemed to be wandering along the crater floor just beyond where the ridge rock jutted up toward the sky. Another group of creatures appeared to be no more than individuals of flat, undulating mass that floated across the upper elevations of the crater as winds were merely sliding them around at random.
Kittinger decelerated as they approached the craggy edge of the crater and lifted in altitude slowly so they could spot any movement among the rocky extrusions. There were many shadows as the sun crept toward the western rim, so spotting anything smaller than a family dog might be difficult.
The pilot watched his readings for outside conditions and watched the temperature drop as they drifted ever higher. Some of the peaks above them were coated in white powdery snow. Twenty minutes later, the Flitter finally rose above the tallest crests at just over fifteen thousand feet elevation above sea level and the feline was silently amazed that crater ridge rock reached such heights. Just how big was the chunk of rock that had survived through super-heated entry through the atmosphere and was still large enough to create a crater twenty-five miles across with an upheaval of rock surrounding it nearly three miles high?
It took them another few miles crossing the ridge rock before they finally approached an exit to the crater itself. What they had traversed consisted of outward-leaning peaks that had been thrust up and outward, but many had also collapsed upon themselves. There were regions that looked as if the rocks and boulders were nothing more than eroded stones in some gigantic, dried-up river bed, but they never saw any mountain passes where a terrestrial vehicle might get from inside the crater to the outside. If not for their flying crafts, the colony might very well be cut off from the rest of the continent – and the world – where they had put down to make their home.
“Whoa, look at that,” Kirato breathed quietly. They passed the final ridge of the ridge rock and then laid out for miles before them was the horizontal forest they had come to see. With the peaks safely behind them, the Flitter dropped in altitude. Bleached by the intense heat of the impact and years of lying in the sun, the wood stood out in shades of white, yellows and tans. What used to be rainforest was now dead for many miles, but the dark, living forest in the distance made a stark contrast to the vista.
Kittinger did not feel the need to keep going further out, so he slowed their speed and began looking for some place where he might be able to land. There was no sign of the actual ground, however, as the fallen lumber was stacked over on itself to an unknown depth.
“Look for any place suitable where we can set down,” the cat told his companions. “It doesn’t look like there will be many choices.”
The Flitter drifted cautiously for many minutes, the sound of its fans softer at an unhurried speed, but then the Siberian husky tapped a claw on his window. “There,” he said in the quiet of the cabin.
There appeared to be a rocky knoll where the fallen trees had been deflected away, leaving a small clearing of open ground where green growth was peeking through. Kittinger drifted over to hover near the spot and determined it was just large enough for the Flitter to land.
“Does it look safe?” he asked.
“I’m seeing no movement other than what our fans are blowing in the wind,” Ruston replied after a moment.
“Same on this side,” reported the mouse.
“Arion, we’re setting down now.”
“Be careful, gentlemen.”
As softly as he could make it, Kittinger set the tiltrotor aircraft down on its landing gear. The green growth flattened beneath the solid rubber tires, but the ground beneath held solid. The pilot cut the power and allowed the vehicle to settle before he even unbuckled his harness.
The system whine died away and Kittinger monitored the outside conditions on their sensors while his companions watched through the windows. All was quiet.
There were five full minutes of patient waiting and then the orange cat finally left his seat. “Okay,” he said quietly, as if something outside might hear something inside the insulated cabin, “everyone grab a backpack and a firearm. Be cautious and on the alert for anything that might have been drawn to our landing.”
Kittinger held up a semi-automatic pistol, mindful of the trigger guard that made it a little snug getting his padded finger into. He left the safety on for now, not wishing to fire by accident. Taking a deep breath in anticipation, he thumbed the control to the side door and it slid aside on well-lubricated tracks. The cabin was filled with the scents of a semi-dead forest and it made all three suddenly uneasy.
Ruston took point and stepped out first, holding a rifle with its strap over a shoulder and a double-bladed wood axe in his hands. Kittinger moved out next and then the mouse armed with a rifle. Kirato was no less adventurous than his companions; he was last to get out only due to his position by the door.
They saw no movement, no life; nothing like rodents, birds or even insects. No doubt the noise and wind that accompanied the large, dark flying thing from the sky had frightened or silenced anything in the area.
With his companions watchful, the Siberian husky walked to the nearest fallen stack of tree trunks and looked up at them. Each shaft was over two feet in diameter, and they were piled up high, but any leaves and branches they might have possessed had been totally burned or blown away. They were nothing but large poles now and each of them were thirty or more yards long; this had once been a forest of very tall trees.
The growth covering the ground was a mixture of plant life, some with different shapes of stalks and leaves, some with different color blooms and pods. They would have to harvest a few for the botanists or they would never hear the end of it.
Ruston set his rifle on the ground leaning against a horizontal trunk and then removed his backpack. Thus unencumbered, he hefted his axe and made a tentative chop without putting much force behind it. He did not know how hard the wood might be and did not want to send shock waves up his arms unintentionally.
The axe blade bit into the wood and made a satisfying cut; not too hard, but not too soft, it was a medium-grade wood. Getting a feel for it, the canine chopped several more times while his companions looked on. He removed a hand-sized chunk of wood, along with a number of splinters before he stopped. He picked up the chunk and examined it closely. He was a construction worker, not necessarily a botanist, so he could not tell much about what he saw. It looked like any type of wood he might find in some forest on Earth, and there were many, many variations there.
He placed the chunk into his pack and then reached into the pocket of his overall shorts. He pulled out a butane lighter and then crouched down near some of the splinters he had made; he had never been a smoker, but had always carried a lighter everywhere he went for occasions that might need some light. Kittinger returned his attention to the surrounding area, his feline senses keen on any movement or sound that might present itself, but Kirato’s gaze was riveted to the husky’s actions.
Ruston held up a piece of splintered wood and then coaxed a finger of flame from the lighter. He touched the two together and was rewarded when the wood caught easily. Despite that the splinter was dry, however, it was a slow burn and did not consume very quickly. He pocketed the lighter and then with that hand picked up another splinter, thicker and longer. He touched it to the one that was burning and the flames traveled across to it as well. The wood smoke aroma was not entirely the same as what they were used to, but it was nothing unpleasant.
He could feel the heat of the fire on his fingertips and eventually he had to drop them both to the forest floor. A bit of dried detritus at his feet began to burn, but then he scooped up a handful of rich soil and smothered it out before it could spread. Something wriggled in the dirt, but was gone before he could see what it might have been.
“We had to come a long way to find it, but I think we hit pay dirt on our firewood,” he said quietly. “The only problem is that we may never find this exact landing spot again.”
“What do you mean?” asked the mouse. “Can’t we use the GPS coordinates where we are now to come back later?”
Kittinger chuckled, but kept watching the surrounding shadows. It was getting closer to sundown and he could tell the sunlight was getting weaker. “To get GPS coordinates, we would need a ring of global positioning satellites orbiting Belle. Right now, the only electronic satellite in orbit is Arion-1. It’s hard to get a triangulation on a position with only two points.”
“I have a rough set of latitude and longitude coordinates that I overlaid onto the planet when we made our first orbits,” Arion’s voice came from each of their techwatches. “It will not be as specifically accurate as GPS, but I am sure they could get you near to this location on a return flight.”
“Do you plan to launch any GPS satellites in the future?” Kirato asked.
“Yes, but they have not yet been unpacked from cargo. They were among the first items loaded at El-Five, and will be among the last to come out. The Global Positioning Satellites will also relay communications around the globe to the techwatches when deployed.”
“Okay,” Kittinger said, “you two grab chainsaws from the cabin and cut wood for ten minutes while I stay on watch. Then I will switch out with one of you and put in another ten minutes. We will try to carve out enough wood to take back for one night’s bonfire, but we’re losing daylight and need to be quick about this.” He looked up at the sky and spotted the planet’s two small moons, captured asteroids that always traveled together, if he remembered correctly. “The flight back will be more dangerous, as I’ll be on mostly instrumentation. We’ll have no beacons or towers to lead us back, so I will be dependent upon Arion’s assistance to get us back to camp in the dark.”
Forty minutes later, the Flitter took off into the darkening sky. They had seen no indigenous lifeforms in the vicinity of their landing spot, but as the night crept upon them, they could hear unfamiliar nocturnal sounds, some in the distance, some not too far away. They stayed vigil, but nothing approached that they were able to see or hear, whether prey or predator.
With the aft part of the cabin filled with chopped wood, the weary trio rode back in silence, but Kittinger had to fully concentrate on the Flitter’s controls, especially as they neared the higher elevations of the ridge rock. Wind gusts were now coming through the rocky crags that they had not experienced before and the cat was focused so they might not be blown up against them.
The feline was an experienced and accomplished pilot, but even he had to admit that he had never flown in such conditions as this before. The sun had completely set without even a glow by the time they left the peaks behind, and the only lights they could see miles in the distance were from the artificial lamps of their encampment. A solitary beacon showed up on the Flitter’s systems and Kittinger followed it in.
The only thing on his mind as the miles flowed in the darkness behind them was what Rocky might have prepared for their supper and that he was looking forward to whatever it might be.
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