LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Nearly all of the Furs had disembarked from the Meriwether Lewis by the time Jon and Kristen stepped out into the sunlight together. What they saw made them both laugh aloud. A good many of the Furs were down on all fours, either ecstatically running back and forth and in circles out in the prairie wheat-grass, or had their noses to the ground investigating interesting scents. It seemed that the warm sun and fresh air after time spent on the space station and the colony ship had made them all playful.
“That actually looks like fun,” Kristen remarked with a grin. As a botanist, her first intention had been to examine the waist-high wheat-grass, but the antics of their friends had momentarily distracted her from such serious endeavors; there would be plenty of time for botany later.
“Doesn’t it?” Jon replied. Out farther across the field, they could see something running hard and fast through the grass, and although they could not see which Fur was doing the running, it wasn't difficult to guess that it was Raine, the cheetah.
“Wow, look at him go!” someone else called out.
Still standing on the ramp, Jon looked out elsewhere over the field and he suddenly chuckled. He leveled an arm off to the side and leaned in close to Kristen’s ear. “Take a look over there.”
The lioness followed his direction and saw the tops of the grass gently waving back and forth for a moment, but then her keen eyes suddenly spotted two tan heads with large, wing-like ears more-or-less facing each other. “Is that Kevin and Erin?” she asked. “What are they doing?”
“I think they’re having a little face-time,” Jon answered. “They probably think they’re hidden from everyone else.”
“Why that sly little couple,” Kristen laughed.
“I have an idea,” Jon said. “Are you up for a little stalking?”
“Who are we stalking?”
“A couple of unsuspecting desert foxes, of course.”
Kristen looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. “They’ve only just become a couple! You wouldn’t spoil their private moment, would you?”
Jon grinned. “I most certainly would. You don’t have to join me if you don’t want, but I’m going stalking.” The large mountain lion stepped off of the ramp and let his bare toes sink into the warm soil and grass for a moment before he dropped to all fours. His back was just a little lower than the tops of the prairie stalks and he dropped his head to further conceal himself. His buff-colored fur blended in well with the grass and Kristen had to keep her eyes on him or she would lose him – and then she realized that his tail was standing up like a flagpole. It blended in well enough with the color of the field, but the darker tip was a moving marker.
She muttered something to herself about Jon’s sudden sense of mischief, but then she dropped to all fours and followed him out into the grass. She caught up to him and then matched his pace.
“What are you going to do?” Kristen asked quietly. “Pounce on them?”
“No, nothing so drastic. I just want to startle them.”
“What if they’re doing more than just kissing?”
Jon stopped and looked at her. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied in a soft whisper. “If they are, we’ll just leave them be.”
“We’re only kissing,” Erin’s pixie-like voice said with a giggle.
Jon and Kristen looked at one another and then both of them laughed aloud. In a whisper just as soft as he’d used before, Jon said, “I should have known those big ears were good for catching more than just wind.”
“We heard you several yards away,” Kevin piped up, “and we could also see your tail up in the air.”
“You really need to learn to keep it down if you're going to stalk something,” Erin added. “You’ll also want to remember that if you decide to get down on all fours without your shorts!”
The cougars took a few more paces and then saw the vulpine couple looking back at them. Erin seemed genuinely amused, but Kevin looked embarrassed at having been caught.
“This spot is taken,” Erin said with another giggle. “You two can go find your own place in the grass for face-time.”
Jon cleared his throat, purposely not looking at Kristen beside him. Even without looking, he knew that she was grinning, either from the notion of them kissing or she was amused at his expression.
“Don’t you feel it?” Erin whispered conspiratorially.
“Feel what?” Kristen ventured to ask.
“We’re here light years from the Earth, alive and on another similar planet, and this weather is great! That's why everyone's running around acting goofy! Doesn’t that make you want to celebrate too?”
Kristen looked at Jon and agreed. “Yes, it does. C’mon, you, let’s go find a place to celebrate, just the two of us…. And then these two can get back to their own celebration.”
Jon and Kevin exchanged embarrassed looks of panic. The mountain lion cleared his throat and was about to turn away when there was sharp whistle in the air. Kevin popped up to his feet immediately, but the others remained crouching in the grass, their instincts to stay hidden.
Back by the large colony ship stood Avon and Captain Adrienne. The human woman put her fingers to her lips again and blew another shrill whistle.
“Okay, people!” Avon called out loudly, “you’ve had a few minutes to romp and run in the grass, but we still have a lot of work to do! Come on back and get your assignments!”
“Saved by the whistle…” Kevin murmured, still looking at Jon. Erin acted as if she was offended and draped her arms across his shoulders.
“What? You don’t like kissing me?” she asked with a playful pout. There were several years in age between them and she enjoyed watching the inexperienced younger male squirm.
He looked at her and swallowed. “Yeah, I like it a lot – just not when others know we’re doing it.”
Kristen chuckled and then shook a finger at him. “If you keep kissing her, you’ll eventually want to kiss her every time you have the opportunity, whether anyone’s around or not!”
“Come on,” Jon growled, getting up on two legs. “Let’s get back to the ship.”
“Not so fast, Jon-boy.”
Kristen stood up in front of him and tried to kiss him full on the lips. He turned his head before the moment of contact and she wound up kissing his cheek instead. She pulled back with a laugh, undaunted by his measure of self-preservation. Now that there was a better understanding between them and they were more relaxed together, she enjoyed teasing him whenever she had the chance. He didn’t look upset by it as he might have months ago, but he did appear uncomfortable.
“Looks like you two still need more practice,” Erin said with a laugh. She pulled Kevin to stand up beside her and then hooked arms with him. “Time to get back to work. We can practice more later.”
The four of them made their way back to the gathering Furs without further conversation. Kristen looked up at her counterpart with amusement, but Jon surprised her when he glanced down at her and then winked. She didn’t know how she was supposed to interpret the gesture; did he mean to let her know that he wasn’t upset with her, or that they might practice later. It would definitely give her something to think about the rest of the day.
Avon patiently awaited everyone to gather back at the ship, and once he'd counted the various furman noses and was satisfied everyone was present, he gave the group a smile. “It feels good being here, doesn't it?” he said. “It feels like a dream – after all we've been through together in preparation for this moment, we're finally here – truly here on Bonestell. However, we have a lot to do right now. The next optimum launch window for the Meriwether Lewis is in three Bonestellan days, so we have that long to unload our cargo and get our base camp established before she leaves.”
He looked at the captain beside him and continued. “Now, while the lot of us has been in cryogenic sleep for the past eight weeks, Captain Adrienne's crew has not. This means they have been cooped up inside the ship for the past two months and are in need of fresh air and shore leave more than we are, so they are to be our guests until they depart. You are likely to see them out and about, but they are not required to help us in our work. Feel free to visit with them when the opportunity presents itself, but remember that we have a lot to do. Once the captain and her crew have gone, we'll truly be on our own. Our cargo contains everything the AHCP believes we'll need to get Second Chance up and running. We have enough food and basic supplies to last us a Bonestellan year, but remember that we'll be here for at least five times that long. It isn't necessary that we find local food sources right away, but that's something we'll look at before long.”
Avon swept a hand toward the forest beyond the field. “Until we know more about the local wildlife, don't bother any of them. Something that looks cute or harmless may very well be a ferocious killer. Something that looks or smells tasty could be poisonous. For now, just leave them alone.”
“What if something thinks we look tasty and they attack first?” Gerard asked.
“Then by all means necessary, defend yourself! There's a reason the AHCP made us predator types. Don't let yourselves be low on the Bonestellan food chain, but don't go looking for trouble right off either. Our primary goal is to establish a toe-hold on this world first. We have plenty of food for now without trying to make a meal of anything that moves. We'll determine what's edible and what's not in time.”
Avon held up his PBJ and glanced at its double screens for a moment. “Although the Bonestellan day is a third longer than what we're used to, we still need to make the best use of our time before nightfall. Because of the terrain between here and our actual colony site, this open field is the closest the ship could land. We're still approximately three quarters of a mile from where we'll establish our camp, so all of our cargo and livestock will need to be transported from here to there.”
“How are we supposed to move it?” Manny wanted to know.
Captain Adrienne looked at the arctic fox and nodded. “Everything was loaded into eight tractor trailers for convenience. We have only one truck on board, but plenty of power cells to get everything hauled to your colony site. The truck and trailers will be returning with us, so they will all need to be unloaded once they are on site.”
“The first trailer there will contain all the modular pieces of the domes we'll be living in,” Avon said. “The ones designated for refrigerated supply storage will be the first ones we'll need to put up, along with the Great Dome and the kitchen. The individual sleeping domes will have to wait until we've unloaded all the supplies into storage so the trailers can be stowed back on the ship.”
The grizzly looked over his people and held up his PBJ. “I've put together a roster of assignments so we can get started. I need Ken, Jenni, Cheryl and Raine to begin reviving the livestock we've brought with us. That process is likely to take longer that it did with us due to the various sizes and conditions of the cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, chickens and so on, but while they are doing that, we will also need to begin setting up their paddocks and pens to put them in as they are revived. This means that about half of the rest of you will be building domes while the others are putting up the pens for the animals.”
Avon swept his hand out over the ground toward the trees. “As you can see, there are no roads here, and since we don’t have trucks and trailers equipped with antigravity repulsors, we’re not even sure the truck will be able to pull the trailers over this ground without getting stuck. If that's the case, we do have regular colony wagons that the horses or cattle can pull, but that will mean the trailers will have to be unloaded into the smaller wagons.” He looked over at Ken. “I would suggest reviving the horses first,” he said, “just in case it comes to that.”
“That was already our plan,” the red wolf replied, “for that very reason.'
“Good forward thinking,” Avon complimented him. “Once I give you your assignments, you'll need to get started right away. Jon and I are going to walk out to the site to scope out the route and then determine where we'll need to set up shop. Once the first trailer gets there, Jon will coordinate where everything goes based upon what he and I decide after looking the place over. While he and I are away, I am placing Arne in charge of coordinating efforts on this end.”
The African lion stood near the back of the group. He had been unaware of Avon's decision beforehand and the announcement took him off guard for a moment. He felt proud to have been called upon for this duty and was instantly determined to do a good job. Ever since his hunting fiasco during the survival march, he had been made aware of his inability to relate to most people on a personal level and had been trying to change his manners. If the colony captain felt his leadership was useful to him for something like this, he might get more opportunities in the future. He gave Avon a casual salute in thanks.
The grizzly bear nodded back to him and then looked over the crowd. He stepped to the side and revealed a small plastic crate on the ramp behind him. “Okay, once I give each of you your assignment, come up and get your new watch. Each one has been specifically designed for the thirty-six hour Bonestellan day and they have already been calibrated and synchronized with the orbital satellite overhead for this region. The straps are adjustable for our different body sizes, so they all look alike. I'm afraid they aren't in designer styles, but they are intended to be worn over fur-covered wrists without binding.”
He plucked one from the box and took a look at it. “I know it will feel strange referring to hours we aren't used to, but in time we'll become accustomed to it. It is currently five minutes until eight o'clock in the morning. We're used to taking a meal break every four hours, so for now we will continue this habit. The equivalent of Noon on this world is going to be at eighteen o'clock, which is what we would normally think of as six in the evening on the clocks back on Earth. It make take a while to get used to days that are much longer than we've known all our lives, so we will likely need to take two eight-hour sleep periods per day instead of one. The daylight hours will seem screwed up and our nights will seem just as long, so until we get used to all this, our shifts are going to be erratic. We may later create off-set shifts so that we'll have someone awake and active around the place at all times, but for now if you feel the need to stop and sleep to keep exhaustion from setting in, feel free to curl up somewhere to get your rest.”
He smiled and added, “What I just said does not give you permission to slack off and be lazy, folks, so I'm asking that everyone be reasonable. Although we have a lot to do, we'll have daylight much longer than what we had on Earth. Once the kitchen and generators are up and in operation, Yuki and Kim will find the food stores and begin preparing something for us to eat.” He looked around and ended with, “Now, are there any questions?”
“We have to have the kitchen set up before we can prepare a full meal,” Kim announced from the other side of the crowd. “However, we'll try to have sandwiches or something else available to eat in the meantime to temper the hunger. Any volunteers to help with this would be appreciated.”
Avon nodded his approval, but said nothing as he looked over the assembled Furs.
Sissy held up a hand when he looked her way. “If we don't get all the domes built before nightfall, where are we going to sleep?”
“The Great Dome was designed to be large enough for all of us to sleep in together if the need arises. We'll just push the tables and chairs aside and sleep on the floor together until we have enough domes put together for everyone. You're free to double up if you want in the meantime, but that's all up to you. Anything else?”
No one seemed to have any more questions, and Avon could see that many of them were fidgeting listening to his speeches.
“Okay, let's get started then. I've already told some of you what you'll be doing, but here are the rest of your assignments…”
Jon looked up at the sky while he walked, the first time he'd really taken the time to look up since they'd arrived. The blueness of that sky was tinged with a shade of green. He was no scientist to figure out on his own why it had such a tint, but the wispy clouds that floated up high looked just like those he'd seen on Earth. Maybe Kevin would know more about the weather patterns and he could ask him later.
He and Avon were walking side by side on all fours toward the trees, leaving the ship and the prairie field behind. There had been no signs of wildlife of any kind on the ground or in the air since landing, but that was likely because of all the noise the giant ship from the sky made coming down. Now that it had been over an hour and a half since that event, he began seeing something like birds flying amongst the nearby trees, starting to become active again. Unfortunately, he'd not been able to see any of them directly, just fleeting movement as he and the grizzly got closer to the trees.
Insects buzzed and popped up as they walked, and although he knew they were of an origin alien to anything he knew, they tended to act as all insects did, going about their business in the background. None seemed interested in the two intruders and they were bothered by none of them. It was probably more than he could hope for, but Jon was hoping there was nothing like fleas and ticks on this world.
There was a light breeze that brought in a multitude of scents, but there was nothing that alerted them to danger. Perhaps they would come to recognize what they were in time, but now they were just smells on the wind.
“I wonder what time of year this is,” Avon mused aloud. “Is this the spring or the summer?
“I thought they were always supposed to set down on new worlds in the springtime to let the colonists have time to grow gardens before harsher weather came in, but this feels more like late summer,” Jon replied. “It's not that hot, but it's still morning and could get warmer later on.”
“The difference might be that we had an accelerated launch window due to the ship's need to stop off on Bastien on the way back,” Avon remarked. “The whole timing of this voyage has been different than typical missions, so this might actually be late summer. We were fortunate to have landed on a good weather day. I read that the Vulps who went to Javan landed in the middle of a thunderstorm that lasted for days. Their colony ship missed two launch windows waiting on the weather to clear just to offload the Furs and their supplies, and then the foxes were miserable for weeks trying to establish a place to live in flooded and soggy conditions.”
Jon looked up at the sky again and listened to the breeze blowing through the leaves on the trees. “It's nice here,” he said. “I hope that's not deceptive.”
“Agreed. Dr. Bohnestiel did say the tilt of this planet would make the weather more temperate. I hope he’s right.”
They drew closer to the edge of the woods and stopped before going into the shade. Avon frowned, looking at his companion. “What do you think we should do? Should we just go directly to the site, or try to find a route that the truck and trailers can go?” The underbrush beneath the trees wasn't dense, but there didn't seem to be a clear path that a big rig could drive through.
“Are you sure there is a way the trucks could get through?”
Avon nodded. “The captain said they spotted what looked like a decent avenue through the trees to get there from aerial images they took as they were circling to land. We may have to get to the site first and then backtrack to find that way.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Jon agreed. “Let's go find the place first, if you think you can get us there without a map.”
The bear lifted a paw and pointed over the tops of the trees at the mountains beyond. “It's in a small horseshoe shaped valley at the end of that mountain range,” he said. “It shouldn't be too hard to find.”
“It's too bad we don't have a bunch of satellites overhead for GPS signals,” Jon remarked. “What about a compass?”
Avon sat back on his haunches and dug into a vest pocket that held the radio to contact the landing site, but then switched to a different pocket. He held out a small hiking compass flat across his palm and watched the needle. It fluctuated somewhat, as if it couldn't get a good fix, but still indicated the same general direction. “I don't know if magnetic north is close to true north or not,” he muttered, “but it will be better than nothing, I suppose. According to this, we need to go to the northwest.”
“After you, then,” Jon told him.
The grizzly took the lead with the cougar following behind. They moved out of the sun into a perpetual shade. While Avon was preoccupied with finding a route through the woods to the colony site, Jon looked at their surroundings, feeling as if they were once again on a survival march trying to find their way back to the Institute. The bark of the trees they passed seemed familiar, but instead of vertical patterns, the bark on the nearest trees seemed to have grown around the trunk in an upward spiral and the leaves were long, thin and diamond shaped. Ages of dried leaves covered the forest floor and the underbrush seemed twisted and thin with rounded leaves of their own.
Jon stopped a moment to look at one of the round-leaf bushes and saw numerous teal-colored berries in bunches near the main stalk of the plant. He sniffed them cautiously and detected a specific aroma, but he couldn't tell if it was poisonous or not. Applying Avon's advice about the animals to the woods, Jon decided to just leave the bushes alone for now. He resumed walking, a little further behind the bear who had not noticed his stop.
Avon's ears twisted from side to side as the sounds of life could be heard from all around. Birds chirped or cried out to one another, either going about their daily endeavors or warning others of the two intruders. Something small and light scampered across dry leaves, but neither Jon nor Avon saw what it was. It was too quick for inexperienced eyes to follow.
Jon was fully aware that anything they encountered could be dangerous, so he stayed on the alert as they wound their way through the woods in the general direction of the compass that Avon periodically checked. There were times when he could feel something’s eyes upon him, but he assumed that every critter in the woods was probably watching the strange new animals pass by.
They found a shallow river running through the woods that wasn’t much bigger than a creek, but it was relatively easy to traverse. Avon looked close and found a few squirmy things he didn’t recognize swimming around, but they could be investigated later.
Three quarters of a mile was not a far distance and it didn't take them long before they stepped out of the trees into a large clearing in a small valley surrounded on three sides by the mountains. The two of them stopped and stared in unison. A short, pale green grass covered the level floor of the horseshoe shaped valley, almost looking as if it had been tended by groundskeepers. Tiny blue flowers dotted the land amidst the grass and insects buzzed from one to another in an ancient dance of pollination that took place even here on a world light years from Earth. They’d brought their own bees and monarch butterflies along to release for that purpose and it was hoped they could coexist with the native insects.
There was a narrow river of water from the mountains that pooled in the apex of the horseshoe, making a smallish lake before the river continued on through the trees. Above the lake in the mountainside was the mouth of a rather large cave whose depths disappeared into the rock in shadow. The valley floor between the woods and the water looked to be about five acres, leaving the relatively small amount of Furs plenty of room to spread out and grow.
There was an opening in the woods near the foot of the mountain that looked wide enough for two semi-tractor trucks to drive side by side, heading off in the general direction of the prairie field. The branches of trees joined together above it, creating the illusion of a shaded, growing tunnel through the small forest.
“There's our road,” Avon remarked. As soon as he spoke, there was sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He and Jon looked toward the edge of the woods they had traveled through and saw what resembled three very small deer in the nearby shade, the first real wildlife they had seen since landing. None were larger than a family dog and all possessed tan hair with darker tan vertical stripes. They had overlarge ears that flipped and flapped and a short white tail. Their legs were thin but their bodies appeared well fed on the grass and little blue flowers they were eating. One of them raised its head and looked back at them with dark eyes over prominent cheek ridges. Its tail vibrated briefly and then it resumed its meal, unconcerned by the newcomers as if there was no danger. None possessed anything like antlers but their skulls were somewhat triangular in shape with angular edges. They were alien life forms, but there was just enough familiarity to be comforting.
Jon and Avon watched them in wonder for a few moments, but when they did nothing out of the ordinary, the grizzly began walking across the clearing toward the lake. Jon followed beside him, his eyes moving to the higher elevations of the small mountain above them. He knew from the presentations they'd watched that the mountain range stretched northward for several hundred miles and that they were at its southernmost end. There were taller peaks beyond, but for now he was interested only in the one that would stand sentinel over their homes; it was not tall enough for snow to cap its top, but vegetation seemed to thrive all the way to its apex.
His golden eyes searched the rocks and brush for movement, not really sure what he was looking for. Perhaps he was concerned that local predators might be watching them from above, wondering if the two strange creatures below were edible, but if they were there, their camouflage was well matched to the topography. Jon saw nothing of concern.
As they approached the clear lake, Avon peered beyond reed-like plants growing at the water's edge. The ground was rocky near the lake and soon they were stepping across grey stone with sparkling crystal flecks. The grizzly stopped at the water's edge and smiled when he saw silvery fish swimming in abundance among the reeds. From this distance, they resembled fish they knew from Earth, but they were sure to find major differences up close. Avon suddenly found himself salivating at the thought of fresh fish for supper, knowing it was likely his ursine instincts kicking in. He wanted nothing more right now than to get in the water and go after them, but he had to force himself to follow his own advice. Leave the fish alone for now and find out later whether or not they were actually edible by the creatures from Earth.
“Avon, look at this!”
The bear glanced around for Jon, who had wandered off across the clearing. The cougar was still on all fours, but he was leaning forward in close examination of what looked to be a rust colored rock. When Avon got closer, he gasped with sudden recognition of what Jon had found.
It was a weathered metal pyramid about two feet tall, pitted and rusted over with age, but he recognized its shape immediately. The device had been dropped there from orbit over a decade earlier to lead the original colonists to their new home. Jon rubbed at a corroded metal plate below several clouded glass lenses and tried to read the imprinted words written in English that were barely legible.
“Site Marker Beacon XK101. Made in Bristol, United Kingdom for the Terran Colonization Coalition.”
“Well, at least we know we're in the right place,” Avon muttered. “It looks like it's been under water and might have washed up in a storm or flood. That would explain why it's no longer working and why the Meriwether Lewis didn't pick it up from orbit.”
“This place doesn't look like the original colony was ever here,” Jon muttered, looking around. “It doesn't look as if anyone has ever been here before.”
“This only deepens the mystery surrounding the Ferdinand Magellan,” Avon replied.
Jon looked back up to the large cave overlooking the valley. “I'd like to take a look in there,” he said. “Just to make sure there's nothing living in there to give us concern.”
Avon followed his gaze. “Wait until some of the others get here. I don't think it's a good idea to explore something like that alone.”
“Too bad Dante isn't here,” Jon mused. “He told us he was an experienced caver. He would have been the perfect choice to explore that place.”
“True enough, but even he would need others with him.”
“With your permission, I'd like to take Dara, Aldo and Carl in with me. We won't go far, just enough to make sure we're safe.”
“Why those three?” the bear asked curiously.
Jon smiled. “Dara's a geologist, Carl's an experienced explorer and has been in some caverns around the world – of Earth, I mean – and Aldo for that super nose of his.”
The grizzly nodded. “Good choices.” He looked around and gestured back to the valley floor with the PBJ he removed from a pocket. “Well, let's do what we came here for and make a diagram of where we want to put what for our colony.”
“It would be best of we put the latrines back in the woods, preferably downwind of everything and on the side of the field away from the water.”
Avon wrinkled his nose. “It's also too bad we don't have Travis here with us,” he said.
The cougar looked at him. “Why would you want him here?”
“Somebody will have to dig those latrines,” he replied with a wicked smile.
Jon grinned. “Okay, I give in to your wisdom on that. In all fairness, he did do a good job on the ones you made him dig back home as punishment. Listen, I'll dig them myself so you won't make anyone else feel like they're being punished.”
“You? You'd volunteer for that?”
“I just did. As for why, my muscles have been aching and sore ever since they woke me out of cryo. I need some good exercise to get back into shape and work out the soreness so maybe digging in the dirt will help.”
“I heard Alicia complain about the same thing,” Avon told him. “Maybe I'll put her to work on them with you so you two can work out your kinks together.”
“Sounds kinky.” Jon paused and then a look of amusement crossed his face. He scratched at the fur behind one ear and chuckled.
“What is it?
“When I first got to the Institute, I didn't know if I'd had any skills necessary for a colony and I'd told Marcelo that I would probably wind up digging latrines. I just didn't know that I would be the one giving the assignment to myself.”
Avon matched his grin, but then frowned and shook his head. “What about your bullet wound? How's that feeling?”
The lion thought about it for a moment and then he shrugged his shoulders. “Funny you should mention that,” he said. “I've not even noticed it since we woke up. I suppose the other sore muscles took my mind off of it. It's not real noticeable now, but it might talk to me later after digging holes.”
“Well then, let's get busy. The others may be here soon with the first truck and we'll need to know where to tell them to get started.”
“This is a dry cave,” Carl remarked.
“Yeah, it's dusty in here, but you make dry sound like a specific type of cave,” Aldo replied.
Jon's small exploration party had just traversed an easy hike up the side of the mountain to the large opening of the cave that looked out over the small lake.
“In a way, I am,” the wolf replied. “A wet cave has loads of different formations created by dripping or streaming water that leave mineral deposits behind. A dry cave is just that. Dry. There are no formations caused by running water, no stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, calcite rafts, dolomite flowstone or other features. There's been no geological activity here in a long, long time. Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico is a classic example of a wet cave, while Mammoth Cave in south Kentucky is a dry cave like this one. Mammoth has huge passages, yet none of the colorful formations you'd find in Carlsbad. There's not much in the way of breakdown blocks either, meaning that the ceiling in here is fairly stable.”
“What's the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?” Jon asked idly.
“An old guide at Carlsbad used to say it like this,” Carl replied with a smile. “A stalactite holds tight to the ceiling, whereas a stalagmite might one day reach that ceiling.”
“Clever,” Jon replied with a smirk. “How high would you say the ceiling is in here?” The cougar looked up into the darkness; the sunshine from outside didn't penetrate far inside and made judging distances difficult.
“Thirty-five to forty feet, I'd guess,” Carl replied after giving it a critical eye.
“There's a lot of room in here,” Dara added, tapping one foot on the ground. “Rocky floor with only a shallow layer of sand, it's fairly level. You could fit a full baseball diamond in here. Without doing a chemical analysis, I'd guess this is similar to limestone.”
Jon turned to the bloodhound, who was wandering farther into the cave with his nose to the ground. “Do you smell something?” he asked, pulling a flashlight from the back pocket of his jeans. With the exception of Aldo, they were all upright on two legs so they could hold the flashlights.
The canine stopped and sniffed at an indistinct set of prints in the dust, his new dog tags dangling at his chin. “There's been some kind of critter here,” Aldo reported, “but nothing smells recent; maybe weeks or even months.”
“What about the previous colonists?” Carl asked.
Aldo looked up over his shoulder. “People are notorious for leaving litter behind, but there's nothing here, not even a cigarette butt. I don't smell anything that I would associate with humans, aside of Dara's lavender perfume.”
“You can smell that?” the polar bear asked in surprise. “The last time I used any of it was right before we left Earth!”
Aldo gave her a pleasant smile. “I think it suits you,” he remarked.
“If you can smell a lingering scent over two months old from a planet far away, I have no doubts about your nose, my friend,” Carl quipped.
“Thanks, but all the same, I don't think anyone from Earth's ever been in here before now, and I don't even smell anything recent that might have a den in here.”
“Should we go back in there farther just to make sure?” Dara asked in distraction, scratching lightly at the stone wall with the edge of one of her dog tags.
“This breeze blowing out of the cave would bring any other scents to me,” Aldo replied, glancing back into the darkness. “What I smell definitely belongs to some creature, maybe a bunch of them, but the scents are all old, nothing fresh. I don't think there's anything back there.”
“We're in far enough right here that we'd be out of any weather that might come down out there,” Jon said. “I doubt if any other critter would need to go farther in either, but it wouldn't hurt to check a little more just to be sure.”
The cougar's group walked in silence deeper into the large cavern, but the scenery in their small flashlights was unchanging. From what they could see, this wide passage went in a straight line right into the heart of the mountain. The walls were natural and uneven, but the steady movement of air told them that there must be another opening somewhere at the other end. Perhaps sometime in the future they might send a party to explore its depths, but for now there was no reason to go on. The cavern was empty.
By the time they returned to the cave entrance and put away their flashlights, one of the tractor trailers was sitting on the valley floor near the lake, its bubble-nosed truck nowhere to be seen. The explorers dropped to all fours and made their way down the mountainside to the water's edge. They had to hop from rock to rock across the river at the lake's downriver end and then made their way toward the grizzly overseeing the efforts.
As they got closer to the trailer, they could see furrows dug into the soil where the tires had bogged down in soft earth. The doors were open and nearly all of the foxes were pulling out dome kits in preparation to setting them up.
“Avon,” Jon said as he and his followers approached the grizzly. The bear turned toward them and looked at him with a frown. “What happened here?”
“The truck and trailer did okay driving across the prairie and on the path through the forest, but once they got out here, they hit softer ground. The driver from the ship managed to get the trailer out here to drop it off and then get back out with the truck, but I don't think it will be wise to pull the others out this far.” Avon waved a hand toward the surrounding forest. “I told him to park the other trailers along the outside of the clearing where the ground is harder. We'll just have to use the horses and wagons to bring the supplies from the trailers out here once we have the storage domes set up.”
Jon watched the proceedings and looked around the valley with a critical eye, suddenly seeing things he'd missed earlier. A suggestion was forming in his mind, but Carl spoke up before he could.
“Take a look,” the wolf said. Avon, Jon and the others followed Carl's gaze as he pointed around them. “I think this area has been flooded,” he told them. “You can see traces of higher water levels on all the trees that surround this little valley clearing.” Indeed, the trunks of the trees were darker and looked softer a couple of feet from the ground up. “Look there, at the rocks on the other side of the lake. You can see discoloration where water levels have been much higher. There's a reason why the ground is so soft and the truck and trailer bogged down.”
“That's not good,” the grizzly muttered.
“This area is beautiful,” Dara added, “but it may not be the best place to set up camp. The higher water may have only been from a recent rain or it might be a frequent occurrence. Do we really want to take that chance?”
Those ideas paralleled how Jon was thinking, and he'd already had an alternative in mind. He turned to Avon and saw the bear's crestfallen expression.
“What should we do?” the grizzly asked, suddenly feeling lost. Up until now, he had followed the AHCP's plan to the letter, but they had never considered this particular scenario. “Maybe we should chop down some of the trees and build platforms to put the domes up on, just in case there's another flood.”
“I have a better idea,” Jon said. When all eyes were upon him, he gestured back toward the mountain. “The four of us looked over the cave. It's dry, geologically stable and is large enough we could set up our entire camp in there.”
“Put the camp in there?” Avon repeated. It was a concept he'd not considered.
“I sniffed out the area,” Aldo added, “and there's nothing using it as a den.”
“The floor is solid rock with only a thin layer of sand, it's relatively level and the ceiling is secure,” Dara reported. “As Jon said, there's more than enough room for all our domes. I believe we have plenty of cable so we could rig up lamps inside the camp with the solar collectors sitting outside the cave to generate our power needs.”
“It would keep us out of the worst weather,” Carl remarked, “yet we'd still have the valley for activities when things are good.” The wolf knelt down and dug his fingers into the ground, lifting a handful of rich soil and grass. “Besides, this might be the ideal place to plant the gardens with room enough for the animal pens too. If a heavy rain starts to fill up the lake beyond its banks, we could get down here and move the animals to higher ground, but it would be far more work to unload the domes and move them if floods hit this area again. I heard Kristen commenting that perhaps the gardens should go out there in a section of the prairie field since there wouldn't be room for them here after the colony's set up. That's quite a way to go to tend to gardens, especially if we have to keep the local wildlife out of them.”
The colony captain considered all they were telling him and then he looked back up at the cave. “How difficult is it to get up there?” he asked Jon. “Walking or climbing is one thing, but if we have to haul everything we brought with us up there, how hard is that going to be?”
“There's a natural trail from the cave down beside the lake,” the mountain lion answered, tracing the path with a pointing finger. “We might have to build a small stone bridge over the river so we don't have to keep jumping rocks every day, but I think with the help of the horses we could get everything up in the cave without too much trouble; the trail up there is wide enough, even for them. It means we'll have to walk a little farther to the trees to get to the latrines, but overall it will be safer from inclement weather.”
“It also might make the camp more defendable in case any of the local wildlife takes exception to our presence,” Aldo added.
Avon peered up at the cave a moment more, and then seemed to study the small horseshoe valley below it. The thought of being flooded out was daunting, but at least there was an alternative available to them before they'd even begun setting up the domes.
“Has anyone tested the water yet?” Aldo asked. “We're going to need a water source and it might be good to know if the mountain spring that feeds the lake is good or not, whether our camp is down here or up in the cave.”
“That's a good point,” Dara said. “Let me retrieve the chem kit from my things on the ship and I can test the water right away.”
“Go ahead,” Avon muttered. After she left, he snorted and made his decision. “Okay, we'll put the camp up in the cave, if you think it is safe enough.”
“Remember the condition of the site marker beacon we found?” Jon asked, gesturing across the grass toward the inactive metal pyramid. “In light of the signs of flooding down here in the valley, I think the cave is our best bet aside of scouting the area to find somewhere else to set up shop.”
“That would take an extraordinary amount of time,” Carl stated. “We'll only have the use of the trucks and trailers until the ship takes off. If we have to haul everything we brought with us to another location altogether, we'll have nothing but the horses, cattle and wagons then.”
Avon nodded. “Good points from all of you,” he said at last. He turned toward the Vulps group unloading the trailer and waved to get their attention. He spoke with them for several moments, gesturing toward the flood signs on the trees and rocks, and then pointing up to the cave. There were a few grumbles at having to move everything they'd already unloaded again, but Jon and his group pitched in to begin taking the items they could carry toward the path up to the cave.
Within a few minutes, they could all hear the bubble-nosed truck coming from the trees. Avon trotted to the edge of the clearing so he could catch it before the driver pulled the trailer out into the valley. They would line up the trailers closer to the river by the path up to the cave to cut down how far they would have to take their contents.
Several hours later, the kitchen dome and the Great Dome were set up inside the cave on the far left and the kitchen equipment had already been hauled up by simple horse and cart. There had been some trouble with the laden cart on the rocky path, but once two of the large bears got behind and pushed, they managed to get it all up into the cave.
An array of efficient solar panels had been set up among the rocks to one side of the cave opening with cables running back to the two domes. It had taken a little while to develop a system with everyone working together, but spirits were high and the work progressed without too many dilemmas. Two other domes for the storage refrigeration units were already under construction.
Jon had secured Alicia's help to dig the latrines just inside the woods away from the cave trail, and although it wasn't a glamorous job, they spent their time making jokes about it between the two of them. Despite all the advances in technology and genetics, mankind – and furmankind – still needed a place to rid their bodies of waste, so age-old latrines would be needed no matter what planet they might be on.
Gerard and Norman took some of the fasteners and crating materials left over from the cargo to build a makeshift bridge over the river between the foot of the mountain and the valley floor. Despite that it had been done without plans or that it had been a spur of the moment project, it turned out well enough that the two bears were lauded as being good carpenters.
While some of the Furs were busy putting up the domes inside the cave, others were down in the valley erecting pens for the animals. Due to the sheer amount of livestock they'd brought with them, Ken, Jenni, Cheryl and Raine had been reviving them all day and hadn't even had a chance to see the new colony site going up.
Later in the long day, the aroma of cooked food wafted on the breezes coming out of the cave and permeated the valley. When Kim and Yuki announced that the meal was ready, Avon called a stop to all activities so everyone could eat and relax from their endeavors for a while. Jon loped back through the woods to the Meriwether Lewis and invited Captain Adrienne and her crew to join them.
Ken and his group were more than ready to take a break from their duties and Jon walked back with them to the colony. He explained the changes they had implemented concerning the location of the camp and once he'd given their reasons why, they all thought it had been a good idea to make use of the cave as their shelter. The name Second Chance may have been more prophetic than they'd realized, Jenni had remarked.
Before the Furs and the crew of the ship had crossed the wooden bridge, they saw Sissy near the lake looking interested at something among the plentiful reed-like plants along the water's edge.
“Hey, cat-girl, what've you found?” Ken called out to her in a relaxed mood.
“Come see!” the orange feline called back. Captain Adrienne followed the Furs out across the pale green grass, but the rest of her crew continued on up the newly-worn pathway up to the cave for the meal.
Jon and Jenni stopped at both sides of the small feline and the others looked over their shoulders. Resting just in the water was a creature that looked like it could have been a relative to the common tortoise of Earth, with a couple of surprising differences. It had top and bottom shells made of puzzle-like interlocking plates and there were four clawed feet, but there seemed to be neither head nor tail protruding from the shell anywhere they could see. Sissy reached out to the creature despite cautionary warning from her companions. She picked up the pie-plate sized animal from the water and then peered beneath it. Other than the openings for the legs, she could see nothing on the bottom, the top or along the sides for a head or tail.
“How does it see?” she asked, setting it back down on the grass at her feet. “How does it eat?” The animal turned itself on its claws and then slowly ambled back to the water's edge, almost to the exact spot she had taken it from. That in itself, at the least, gave them an indication which end was its front.
“Maybe its eyes are flush with its shell,” Cheryl offered, her fingers toying absently with her dog tags. “I have no idea how it might eat, unless it's by osmosis. We'll have to look closer at one later.”
Sissy peered up with a smile at those gathered around her. “One of my jobs in the colony is to keep a record of all we do and preserve a list of the different creatures we discover. This will be the first thing I put on it.”
“What are you going to call it?” Jenni asked with a smile.
“It looks like an abbreviated tortoise,” Sissy remarked.
“Abbreviated?” Jon repeated in amusement.
“It's almost a tortoise, but not quite. I think I'll call it a Tort.”
“A tort!” Raine said with a grin. He snickered and said, “You could make it short for a turtle and call it a turt!”
Sissy looked at him crossly and put both hands on her hips. “It's a tort,” she said flatly, “and you can keep your dirty jokes about what I call it to yourself!”
The cheetah held up both hands with a grin and said, “Okay, okay! You're the discoverer, so you get to name it!”
“That's right, I claim that right!”
At that moment, something let out a shriek from the woods that set everyone's hackles up. It didn't sound like it came from anything big, but whether or not it was a cry of pain was still up for concern.
“What the heck was that?” Captain Adrienne asked, looking back into the shadows of the woods.
There was a flurry of movement that none of them could see clearly, and then the shriek sounded again much closer. The human captain pulled a compact pistol from a holster at her waist and rested her thumb on its safety release. She and her furry companions gathered together and prepared to fight off some horrible alien creature, but after several long moments the only thing that came running out of the woods was Kristen.
Jon rushed forward immediately and caught her shoulders. “Was it you that screamed?” he asked in concern.
Kristen shook her head and gasped for air, panting quickly. “No, but it was close, up in the trees,” she said. “I never saw what it was, but I think it followed me!”
Several Furs emerged from the cave and stood at the cliff edge looking down at the small group near the water.
“What was that?” Ivan called out.
“Dunno yet,” Raine called back.
“What were you doing out in the woods by yourself?” Jenni asked her former housemate. “We don't know what dangers are around us yet.”
The lioness looked at her with a frown, feeling as if she was being scolded. “I was doing my job,” she replied defensively. “I wasn't that far away, really just inside the edge of the wood examining the vegetation.” She looked up at Jon and suddenly looked excited. “Did you know that all of the trees here have double branches? Every branch, every limb, every twig all grow in pairs of two, no matter which species of tree that I looked at. This idiosyncrasy continues in the smaller plants as well!”
She suddenly dropped to the ground at their feet and took a close look at the grass and small blue flowers at their feet. “Ah-ha!” she exclaimed. “Even the blades of grass grow in pairs!”
The crying shriek sounded out again and Kristen was suddenly up onto her feet again.
“Should we run?” Raine asked, ready to put his particular talent to the test.
“Let's slowly make our way across the bridge,” Ken suggested. “Don't turn your back on it – whatever it is might consider that a weakness.”
Suddenly, a large shadow emerged from the tree limbs ahead and a great bird swooped down to land on the grass a short distance from the woods. It stood half as tall as Sissy on definite avian-like legs and claws. Its long plumage was slate grey and tail feathers with a multitude of white splotches that stuck out behind it a good two feet. Its arrowhead-shaped skull bore two extremely large eyes that were coal black surrounded by a vibrant blue ring pattern in its face feathers over bulging cheeks. Its sharply pointed beak was almost bleached white in stark contrast to its dark body, but it was hinged wrong. Instead of an upper and lower beak, this one was split vertically so that the beaks opened to the sides. To the Terran Furs, nature had not been kind to the ugly bird.
It took two hop-steps closer out into the clearing and then opened that strange beak to belt out a powerful, hackle-raising shriek. Everybody cringed at the sound that cleared up one mystery, though it was still unclear what the creature's intentions might be. The small group continued to back step a little at a time toward the wooden bridge, but the great bird only peered back at them, tilting its head as if wondering what they might be. Then something caught its attention and it suddenly took several hop-steps toward the lake.
It spread out wide wings, shrieked again, and then took flight toward the reeds, where it swooped down at the water's edge with its claws extended. There was a mighty struggle in the water and then the bird beat its wings to gain altitude. Trapped in its sharp talons was something that looked remarkably like a thick, muddy-brown snake-lizard with six legs spaced out in equal distances along its seven foot length. The reptile's head was long and slender, but numerous spikes stuck out at all angles from its cranium and it tried to use them on the bird that carried it aloft up toward higher reaches of the mountain. The bird shrieked again and then flew out of sight.
“Okay, I'm officially frightened,” Sissy whispered as soon as it was gone, “but I don’t know which I'm more afraid of…. A bird large enough to carry me off, or the fact that the monster it did get was near the water where I was just nosing around!”
“I think it's best if none of us goes poking around the lake or the woods alone by ourselves,” Jon muttered. “Like Kris' trees and grass, we'd all be better off being together in pairs.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Jenni remarked.
“C'mon, let's get up to the cave,” Ken suggested. “I'm hungry and ready to be around a big crowd of people after that.”
“It's been a long day and I'm tired and hungry too,” Raine said. “According to my new watch, it's eighteen-thirty, and that means it's only a little after noon here – that's six-thirty in the evening back home, but we still have another half of the day left!”
“Avon's planning on a sleep session after we've eaten,” Jon told them as they made their way up the path to the cave.
“I hope he plans to set someone up to watch over us,” Kristen murmured. “I wouldn't want one of those birds trying to fly away with the small ones like Erin or Kevin.”
“Or me!” added Sissy.
“You all have weapons, right?” Captain Adrienne asked, sliding her gun back into its holster.
“We do,” Jon replied, “but since we have a limited amount of ammunition, Avon's plans are to use them only in emergencies.”
The human gestured toward the trees. “I can only hope your emergencies are few,” she remarked.
When they got up to the camp, the place almost seemed like home, even though there were only four domes that had been fully erected so far. Thirty-one Furs and fifteen humans were all seated in groups either on the floor of the Great Dome or out on the floor of the cave since the tables and chairs had not yet been unpacked. Most had either eaten already or were still in the process of consuming their meals, but everyone seemed animated in discussion about the events of the day.
As Jon led his entourage toward the large dome, they could hear snippets of conversations. Kevin was excited about his observations on the weather. Although he had been busy most of the day moving supplies and building materials from the trailers up to the cave, he had also been paying attention to the weather climate of their new home site. It was his inexperienced opinion that they were in the beginnings of autumn and was trying to get up the nerve to approach Avon to suggest they start preparing for winter even now. Jon filed that information away in his mind and would later seek out the small fox to help him go talk to their captain.
Another topic of conversation that caught his interest in passing was of a large creature that had been spotted out in the prairie field not far from the ship. The animal seemed similar to an African warthog boar, though much, much larger and covered with dense hair. They had double tusks on each jaw, a longer snout though not as blunt, and looking at one through binoculars, it seemed to have a thick cartilage at the end of the snout that looked very tough and very hard.
Although the bison-sized animals appeared to be rooting around in the prairie wheat-grass and under the soil for things to eat, one of the human crew members had seen one go after a smaller dog-sized animal without hair with a speed and ferocity that had alarmed him. It appeared that they were omnivores of some sort, eating anything from roots and grass to other creatures if they can catch them. The boar-creatures seemed to have no fear of the big ship from the sky, but they didn't threaten those who continued to off-load the trailers and supplies. They did, however, seem to take interest in some of the animals that Cheryl and Raine had in a temporary corral, so hopefully the electric wire that had been strung up around the fence would keep them out, at least until something more substantial could be built.
What other creatures would they discover here? Jon mused to himself as they stepped up to the meal line. They had an entire world full of such denizens that would be new to them, and providing they lived long enough, they might be able to spread out and discover some of them during their time on Bonestell.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.