©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twenty-Two - Wolf & Husky
Dean and Ginger watched Flitter-2 lift off and fly away to the east. The Siberian husky looked over at his lupine partner with a look of uncertainty before he turned and faced the mountain rock beside them.
“What’s the matter?” Ginger asked him.
“You and I are now separated from the rest of humanity. We’re nearly fifteen miles from camp, and our ride just took off into the sunrise. It’s just the two of us now.”
“True, but you have me to protect you while we explore,” the she-wolf said with a wide canine grin. Dean grinned back and hefted his backpack up to a more comfortable position on his shoulders. Traveling with such packs would prevent them from hiking on all fours, but they needed everything they carried.
Victoria and Henry were unable to join them on the planned excursion through the rift in the mountains this time. The cheetah was needed to take a team back out to the dome to collect some of the alien tech for further examination, and Chef Rocky was unwilling to allow the vixen to duck out of kitchen duties again to go hiking; there was simply too much to do for the opossum to handle without her. Dr. Kate had commandeered a few others to help out as well, but Victoria was the cook’s right arm and he said he could not do without her again.
This left only the pair of construction workers to investigate the possible passage through the mountains from the horizontal forest to the crater within. Dean and Ginger were often partnered together in their work, but they had never been a couple in the romantic sense. They were simply good friends who worked well together, and this assignment was no different, or at least Dean initially thought that way. Still, sniffing the unfiltered air brought him a scent that made his blood tingle in an unusual way.
The time they were allotted was four days total, so they had two days to go in and the same coming back out, barring any unforeseen incidents. With luck, they could make good time and find their way through the mountain rift before they had to be back.
The wolf lifted her techwatch to her lips. “Arion, Dean and I are heading into the passage. Will you be able to track us in there?”
“Only somewhat,” came the reply. “I am receiving the signal for the marker beacon, but it is reflected from rock up through the mountain rift; I am unable to get a specific fix on its location. The same may be true for your techwatches once you get inside, so please report in periodically so I can attempt to triangulate your movements.”
“Acknowledged,” she said. The wolf nodded to her companion and took the lead. Small pebbles across the path crunched beneath their feet, but once they were beneath the edge of stone above, the ground smoothed out to a thin layer of fine sand. The upper elevations of the rift varied and opened up randomly, and ambient light became the norm. Although some places were darker, they did not experience full darkness, no doubt in part due to more sensitive furman optical nerves. Should more light be necessary, they had their spring-generator flashlight torches to show the way.
The path remained relatively level and meandered a little, but for the most part it continued straight through the mountain rim. For the first half hour of their walk, neither spoke while they listened for minute sounds around them. The floor cushioned their steps, and they left behind footprints alongside the toed, duck-like prints with dragging tail marks they had seen on their first visit. They had no idea what might have made such marks, but it was evidently a larger creature than any they had previously seen inside the crater. Sniffing the prints and drag marks with their sensitive canid noses, they detected a faint scent different from anything they had experienced before. Something alien. They hoped it was not a local predator, so they wanted to be alert in case they wandered too close to its den.
After close to an hour, however, quiet conversations started up between them to alleviate potential boredom. Although they both enjoy exploring and discovering new things, the vista that greeted them was mostly unchanging, and there was little to keep their interest. At first, their topics focused around the construction of the Tellus water tower, an engineering project they were both involved in when they were not off with Flitter-2 outside the crater, but after time, they began to discuss various relationships of their friends and coworkers.
“So, has anything improved between you and Victoria?” Ginger asked him.
The husky shook his head. “No, still just friends. She’s happy with that, but doesn’t really have an interest beyond that. As much as I would like more, I’m okay with it. I’ll find someone eventually. What about you?”
The wolf softly sighed. “I still miss Barry,” she said wistfully, “but I know he isn’t coming back. Dr. Fernando says I need to move on, and I’m sure that would be best, but the truth is that I just haven’t been looking.” She looked at him with a suddenly impish smile and repeated his remark. “I’ll find someone eventually.”
Before Dean could respond to her change in mood, she sneezed twice in a row. “Goodness!” she said, digging into her vest pockets for a napkin. She didn’t find one handy, so she gave her companion a hesitant look and then wiped her nose on the fur of her arm.
“Ack!” he exclaimed. They had been walking side by side and the arm she used was the closest to him. She made a movement as if she was going to wipe her arm up against him, but the canine danced a few paces away and shook a finger at her.
“Keep your mucus to yourself!”
“I hope my allergies aren’t kicking up again,” Ginger responded with a sniffle. “I didn’t bring the meds that Dr. Kazama gave me for it.”
“What are you allergic to?”
“Dunno, something local. It first hit me the night before Barry… yeah. I was never allergic to anything back home, but something here on Belle doesn’t like my sinuses.”
The husky pulled off his backpack, set it on the ground, and then opened up a side pocket. He pulled out a white handkerchief and passed it over to her. “My grandfather taught me to never go anywhere without at least one. I brought along two, so you can have that one.”
Ginger took it and blew her pointed nose into it. After wiping her nostrils, she folded it and held it back out to him. “Thank you.”
“No, no, no,” he said adamantly. “That one’s yours now!”
She gave him a smile. “Okay, I’ll wash it first before I give it back.”
“You’ll probably need it again before you can clean it. Just burn the thing when you’re done. I don’t want your cooties!”
Ginger laughed aloud, and after wiping her mucus-smeared arm, pocketed the handkerchief as the canine pulled his backpack into place again. “I can think of more pleasant ways of sharing my cooties with Rusty.”
Dean blinked at her remark and then closed his mouth, that strange tingle coursing through his blood again. This was an unexpected development.
Henry Clifton stood just outside the open door of his Flitter and frowned at the interior. Much of the available space inside was occupied with collapsible boxes now filled with various and sundry foreign items they had collected from the Outpost, as the alien dome had become known. He, David Gordon and Rod Vincent had arrived an hour earlier, after having dropped off the hiking team at the mountain pass.
The feline pilot would come back in four days to retrieve Dean and Ginger from their excursion, the amount of time they had been allotted. If the pair of explorers could not fully penetrate the passage through to the other side of the mountains within two days, they would need to turn around and return to their starting point in order to catch their flight back to Tellus.
The cheetah walked around the Flitter and glanced under the spaces beneath the fallen trees where other alien domes had been demolished. They had been investigated earlier for tech or a sign of bodies, none of either had been found, but he wanted to have another look before they departed. He dropped to all fours and padded quietly into the shadows.
Just as he disappeared, another figure stepped out into the tiny clearing that was practically filled with the bulk of the tiltrotor aircraft. It stopped and studied the lightweight composite craft in open curiosity. The creature walked upright on two legs, going slowly around the Flitter and made a full circuit, where it came to a stop at the open door. Its head peered inside on a serpentine neck, with multiple arms resting on the open frame, grasping it lightly with hands that were surprisingly dexterous. A thick tail trailed out behind it, and the blunt tip wavered from side to side.
From inside the domed Outpost, a jaguar and a spotted snow leopard stepped out into the sunlight, each carrying a box of pilfered items. Both halted abruptly when they saw the four-armed, reptilian creature. Rod set his box down on the ground quietly and then reached for a holstered revolver. The .44 Magnum would stop a grizzly bear, but he was unsure if it would do the same on the large alien creature. It was not until he cocked the hammer that the animal, if that was what it was, noticed the two furmen, first swiveling its ears toward them before it moved its head.
Although somewhat lizard-like, it appeared to be a hairy, warm-blooded mammal. More than anything else, it resembled a biped dinosaur only vaguely akin to a Stenonychosaurus, although with a three-foot long neck, making its height around nine feet. Its head was topped with two fuzzy, cup-like ears that did not look as if they belonged on a dinosaur-kin creature.
It was covered in longish hair of iridescent colors and random patterns instead of leathery skin, and rather than hunched way over like many bipedal dinosaur types, it stood mostly upright on two hefty back legs ending in triangular feet with three large, claw-tipped toes. Behind it was a thick tail providing counterbalance. Unlike any video dinosaur the furmen had ever seen in a nature show, it had four muscular arms that were fully human-sized with multi-jointed hands possessing three fingers and a thumb, all with retractable claws; from the way it handled one of the alien devices it had lifted from a box, these appeared to be finely articulate. Each pair of arms shared the musculature of its broad shoulders.
Within its serpentine head were a pair of predator-like, forward-facing eyes, and it studied the two males with intense interest. There was a slight bony ridge between its eyes with a single vertical slit along it apparently serving as a nostril. Its mouth was partially open and a pink tongue nervously swept thin wet lips. Its teeth, what could be seen of them, appeared to belong to an omnivore, but none of the newcomers to this world had any interest learning whether or not its tastes might include the flavor of furman flesh.
Bracing it steadily in both hands, Rod pointed his revolver at the forehead above the creature’s emerald-green eyes, but did not fire. He merely held it in his sights as Dave also set his box down slowly.
This was the largest indigenous creature anyone had seen near the colony since their interstellar ship had arrived, and although many had conjectured that there had to be other strange things unseen beneath the rainforest canopy, no one had considered a kind of dinosauria.
It watched them watching it for a couple of minutes, but then it turned back to the Flitter to set the item in its hand back into a box. It then turned back to the furmen and took a couple of tentative steps toward them.
While it did not appear to be threatening, with a species alien to anything on the Earth, the two furmen could not know how it might react. The spotted snow leopard kept his revolver ready, but was not in a hurry to shoot this thing.
A lock of hair fell from the creature’s forehead down into its eyes, and in a movement that appeared surprisingly feminine, it brushed it aside with one of its hands. Dave tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. It almost looked like the thing smiled slightly at having to adjust its hair in front of guests.
Noticing a marsupial-like pouch within the hair at its abdomen, Dave murmured, “I think this whatsit is a girl.”
“Are you sure? I can’t tell,” Rod deadpanned. “Go lift its tail, see if there’s anything dangling.”
Dave snorted softly. “I’m not going near that thing. It might take exception to having its tail touched and its privates looked at, but it has a pouch like an opossum. You go check it out.”
“I’m not touching it either. Let’s just agree that we think it’s female and let someone else come back out for a closer look.”
The jaguar held up his arm in slow movements as so not to alarm this thing, and used the secondary screen of his techwatch to take several pictures of the new arrival. The whatsit, as Dave had called it, stretched out its head on that long neck, interested in the shiny metal that gleamed at his wrist, but when the creature took another step toward him, the furman backed away. It stopped and withdrew slightly, all four sets of hands opening and closing uncertainly.
“Well, the biologists will have a field day with these pictures,” said another voice. Dave and Rod looked over at Henry, who now stood on the opposite end of the aircraft with his own techwatch up.
The whatsit looked back and forth from the furmen it had been interacting with to the cheetah that now flanked its other side. An all-too obvious look of sudden distress crossed its features, then the alien ducked beneath the closest downed tree and scrambled out of sight through the narrow opening. The Furs could hear the creature’s heavy footsteps retreat away, but none of them gave pursuit.
It was quiet in the clearing for a moment, and then all three of them burst into laughter at once. It wasn’t done out of amusement, but more out of relief that the encounter had not gone badly. Henry rejoined his companions after the jaguar gently lowered the hammer of his revolver with a thumb before holstering it. The pilot then helped them bring out a few more boxes to the Flitter.
“What was that thing?” Dave finally asked, crawling into the aircraft. His eye was on the overhead clouds, expecting the daily rains to begin at any time.
“I don’t know, but it sure seemed curious,” Rod replied, climbing in behind him. “I don’t think it was ever a threat. It didn’t seem dangerous.”
“Maybe not,” said Henry, the last to get inside, “but you never want to take anything for granted in this place. For all we know, what looks impassive to us might have been aggressive posturing for it. It didn’t seem upset with you two, even with you pointing that hand cannon at it, but only ran off when it realized there was another one of us. There’s no way of knowing if it recognized us as predators, and although it was larger than any of us, I’m sure it realized that together we might have been able to bring it down.”
He closed the door, engaged the lock, then moved around the boxes of alien tech to the cockpit. “Everyone strapped in?”
“We’re all in our harnesses,” Rod reported, “ready to head back to base.”
“Look over here,” Ginger whispered to her hiking partner.
In the shadows of an alcove just off the primary path was a flattened pile of dried leaves. Some of them were from the populous crater weed, but there were others that looked as if they might have been collected from the rainforest. They were spread out over an area that would equal a standard horse stall in a ranch barn.
“It’s something’s nest,” Dean whispered back. “You check it out. I’ll keep watch in case its owner comes back.”
The wolf gave him an uncertain look, but nodded. She set her pack on the ground and then crept forward on all fours. Her nostrils quivered as she took in the scents at the edge of the pallet. She sifted the olfactory aromas through her memory and her eyes lit up.
“I know this scent,” she murmured. “Whatever this thing was, it was inside Victoria’s alien outpost.”
“Its prints are everywhere,” Dean remarked quietly. He crouched in the dust and placed his hand beside a large, triangular foot print with toe claw marks. “I saw these outside the dome also.”
Ginger looked out through the nest, specifically looking for the feathers of a very large bird or avian creature, but only saw bits of dirt, sticks and a kind of fuzzy material that might be fur. She sat back on her haunches and shined her flashlight around the alcove. There seemed to be natural outcroppings of rock on the walls, and there were several items resting upon them as if they were storage shelves.
She stepped around the edge of the nest without actually walking upon it, and took a look at the items. With a small gasp of surprise, she recognized several metal hand tools that were likely taken from the dome. She had no idea what they might be used for, but if this creature had been inside that place, it may have taken things that simply appealed to its fancy, like a packrat of sorts.
Included upon one of the shelves was a small, hand-sized device with markings in English. “Here’s the marker beacon,” she announced, taking it down from its shelf. A small red diode blinked every few seconds. She held it up and Dean nodded.
“Put it in your pocket,” the husky said. “We can reuse it elsewhere.” Ginger pocketed it and then continued looking over the other items along the rock walls. She decided that she need not take anything else, so she made her way back over to her partner.
“I can smell water,” she said quietly. “There must be an underground spring nearby.”
“That’s probably why this thing is camped here, to be near a water source. That’s where it might be now, off getting a drink.”
“I think we should go,” Ginger whispered. “I wouldn’t want to be here whenever it comes back.”
“Nor I. We still have a long way to go, so we may as well get back on the trail. Who knows? We may see the thing on the hike back.”
“I’m not sure I want to,” said the wolf. “Let’s go. We can tell Arion what we found along the way.”
Ginger stumbled over her own feet and fell up against her partner. Dean grabbed her shoulders and held her upright. When he looked over at her travel-weary face in the glow of a flashlight, her reflected golden eyes were open only as slits.
“I think it’s time to stop for the night,” he muttered. Ginger only nodded and moved to one side of the passage to sit down on her haunches and rest her head up against the rock wall.
Dean pulled off his pack and set it on the ground. He untethered his bedroll from the bottom and then spread it out. Ginger did the same, her movements slow. Once she had her sleeping bag next to his, she lay down and closed her eyes.
Other than the unoccupied nest, the wolf and husky had walked all day without finding anything of real interest. It was nothing more than a dirt passage through a rift in the mountain, and they had even lost the dim sunlight coming through. They had discussed turning back more than once but neither of them had wanted to call it quits just yet.
“Don’t go to sleep just yet,” Dean told her, pulling out a canteen. “I will make dinner.”
“Mm hungry,” she murmured. The wolf forced herself back into a sitting position while her partner rummaged through his pack for two MREs and a flameless heater. Fifteen minutes later, he handed her a pouch of shredded beef in barbecue sauce with black beans and tortillas and another packet of utensils, condiments and several cookies. He had selected a different packet for himself, and the companions ate in relative silence.
Dean finished his meal and cleaned up the area when Ginger curled up on her bedroll with her tail draped across her nose. There was only a mild breeze flowing through the rift and some of the scents on the wind changed with the arrival of nighttime. The husky sniffed at the air and found some of the nocturnal scents interesting, but without a reference to what they were associated with, he could identify nothing specific. There was nothing that raised an alarm or his hackles, so he felt fairly relaxed.
Dean reported in with Arion, giving him a brief rundown since his last call, and then felt a wave of exhaustion come over him. “I am as bushed as Ginger, so I probably wouldn’t last long keeping watch. I am going to put out a motion detector with a bubble of twenty-five yards in case anything comes our way. Can you monitor?”
“Yes, Mr. Ruston. I will alert you if anything outside your perimeter is detected. Sleep well.”
“Thank you, Arion.”
The canine yawned widely and then stretched out on his belly on the bedroll, but he did not need a pillow. He was so tired that he was asleep almost immediately.
Dean awoke the next morning with a small bit of sunlight streaming into his eyes from an overhead crack in the rift. He was curled up on top of his sleeping bag, but there was another body spooned behind him with one arm around his middle and fingers spayed out within his belly fur. Listening to her breathing, he determined that his partner was awake, but he felt so comfortable that he was reluctant to move. Unfortunately, his bladder convinced him otherwise.
The she-wolf’s arm tightened around his middle when he tried to pull away, but nature’s call was becoming insistent. “Let me up,” he whispered, instantly wondering why he whispered as if he would awaken anyone else. “I need to take a leak.”
Ginger sighed, but let him go. She didn’t open her eyes, but remained in place when he got up onto all fours. He padded over to the security sensor and switched it off so he could go downwind a short distance to do his business.
When he returned, Ginger was sitting up on her haunches, grooming her pelt with a brush. She gave him a warm smile, but continued with her task. Dean watched her for a moment and then he crouched at his pack.
“Breakfast?” he asked, but she surprised him with a shake of her head.
“I have jerky in my pack,” she told him. “I’ll gnaw on some while we walk. If we don’t find the other end of this passage by the end of the day, we’ll need to turn around and go back so we can catch our flight back with Henry. Making breakfast would take too long. We should get started as soon as we can be ready.”
“That’s a good point.” Dean put a portable camping coffee pot back in his pack and rummaged around until he found the jerky he had also packed. This and his canteen of water would provide a walking breakfast, although he hoped they would find a natural spring or snow runoff soon to refill their containers.
Ginger took a turn to go relieve herself, and by the time she returned, Dean had both of their bedrolls tied up and their packs ready to don. He finished up a brief report with Arion, and within moments, they were on their way again.
The pair of travelers stepped out into full sunlight when the sun was directly overhead. The rift in the mountains did indeed go all the way through as they had hoped, and when they emerged the impact valley was spread out below them, covered in a lush carpet of crater weed that grew all the way up the steep slopes of basin. Tellus and the center lake were about ten miles away and were lost in a distant haze. However, it was the steep slope below the ledge where they had come out that caught their attention. They had seen the spoor of other creatures that had used the rift as a passage along their journey, and there seemed to be a well-worn animal trail that continued in a traverse back and forth down into the crater.
Only a few yards away from the rift was a series of cascading waterfalls fed by the snow-capped peaks high above them, feeding one of the rivers that flowed down into the crater valley. After a day and a half inside the mountain, it was a beautiful vista all around and the moisture-filled air smelled fresh.
Dean pulled off his pack and got down on all fours to inspect the tracks on the animal trail while Ginger reported in to Arion. The scents associated with the different prints told him that several types of creatures had used this trail; there were more varieties of tracks than actual creatures they had seen since their arrival, so he knew there could be more discoveries ahead.
“…are going to follow an animal trail down in to the crater,” he heard Ginger telling the SI in a raised voice to be heard over the falling water. “You can track our progress and feed our coordinates to Flitter-2 so Henry can pick us up where the ground is more level and better suited to landing. It will still take us a while to get down to that level, so he won’t need to leave just yet.”
“Understood, Ms. Martin.”
“Thank you, Arion.”
Dean looked over at her. “That’s the new plan?”
“I didn’t feel like walking a day and a half back to our starting point,” she said. “We made it through the mountains, so I told Arion that we were taking the animal trail down into the crater and Henry could pick us up once we’ve gotten further in.”
“Good thinking.” He looked over at the waterfall and gestured toward it. “We can fill up our canteens before we go.”
“We can do more than that. The trail was dry and dusty, and I want a shower.”
The husky raised an eyebrow with a smirk. “You want a shower.”
“I didn’t bring any shampoo with me, but all I need to do is rinse the dirt from my fur. Once I’ve had a chance to do that, we can head down.” Without even looking at him, she set her pack aside, unfastened her techwatch, and then peeled off her furman garments. Dean’s interest was fixated on her furry backside as she picked her way through the mountain rubble between the path and the water, idly noting how she used her tail to counter her movements to maintain balance.
She held out a hand into the falling water and then jerked it back quickly. She looked back at him and called over the din, “It’s freezing cold!” She then stepped under the falls with gritted teeth, and began rubbing her hands through her fur quickly to help rinse the dust out. With her fur slicked down by the water, Dean could see more of her feminine figure that was generally hidden beneath her fluff.
The husky admired her for a moment more before he made a quick decision to join her. He left his things next to hers and then made his way over to the waterfall. She grinned and reached out a hand to pull him under, and the frigid temperature was such a shock to his system that any heated stirrings he might have felt by seeing her bare furred form was instantly extinguished.
He began rubbing his arms and chest in quick moments to get the job over as soon as possible, but then Ginger helped him, rubbing out the dirt and dust from the guard hairs of his pelt. With delightful laughter, her hands strayed more than a few times and he wound up doing the same with her.
Unfortunately, the snow runoff was too cold to linger, so they finally had to dart back out into the sunshine to warm up. After shaking like dogs, they took turns squeezing the remaining water from one another’s fur, but the play became too much for either one of them.
Without any verbal communication between them, Ginger backed him up to the mountain rock beside the torrent and kissed him deeply. Their physical natures might have changed with the transformation, but after a few awkward moments, kissing with canine mouths was just as enjoyable.
Dean had always liked Ginger, even back during their work together in orbit over the Earth, and her sudden amorous actions resulted in a passion that he had been unaware of before. In a mutual meshing of bodies, they made love up against the rocks, and took their time to enjoy the pleasure.
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