— by Ted R. Blasingame
Despite the failure of the hunt, the golden mountain lion walked behind his companions with his head high through the spearmint-scented wheat-grass, though he kept his senses alert toward the rear in case they were followed. The hunting party was a mixed group of species like none other on the entire planet. Few in number, each half human and half animal, they were all visitors from a far-away world trying to make a new life on this one.
Originally from Earth, the men and women now attempting to colonize the planet they called Bonestell had once been fully human, but genetic manipulation had given them all an edge up on survival by merging the macromolecular code of their bodies' deoxyribonucleic acid with that of various native lifeforms from their home world.
Jonathan Sunset had once been against such DNA recombination, but the anthropuma concolor was now just as comfortable in his current form as he had been when purely human. Each Fur had his or her own reasons for joining up as a volunteer with the Anthro Human Colonization Program to shed half their humanity and devote their lives completely to the settlement of far-off worlds, but Jon had gone through the painful and lengthy process against his will and only as a means to escape a violent death that would have come to him through capital punishment.
Ages ago, it now seemed, his fiancé had left him for a furman lover just weeks before their wedding and the incidents surrounding that action had driven him to such a hatred of furmankind that he had stalked and killed the Fur in a public setting just a few minutes past midnight on New Year's Day. He had made no attempt to escape after the deed was done and he had publically boasted the self-proclaimed justice of his actions during a highly publicized trial. His sentence for the death of a Fur was execution by a Fur, but just prior to his demise, he was given an alternative to the violent demise.
In acceptance of this escape, he would undergo the furmankind process to combine his DNA with that of a mountain lion to transform him into the same species as the one he had murdered, forced to wear the face and body as ongoing punishment for his crime of passion for the rest of his existence. Contracted for life, furmankind's sole purpose was to go in to Earth-like worlds newly opened up for settlement as starter colonies, there to pave the way for later human immigration.
Most earlier human settlers were unable to survive new biospheres well enough to establish initial footholds on the worlds they tried to tame, so it was hoped that survival instincts and abilities from a few of Earth's predators recombined with mankind could provide the necessary edge to endure long enough to learn as much as possible about a new world prior to later mass settlement.
Jon Sunset had struggled with more than just the agonizing physical changes he'd had to suffer through the transformation. Personal psychological demons frequently fought him every step of the way, and despite the fact that he'd been surrounded by more of the Furs that he'd despised, he had eventually learned to accept what he was becoming and later even enjoyed his new senses and abilities.
The biggest revelation he'd experienced was that even though he was now half feline, he had retained his human mind, will and emotions, and he even suspected that his soul was still intact. He had friends now, someone who loved him, and even a respected place in the colony.
They had arrived just weeks earlier and although this world was Earth-like in many ways, there were still many differences to remind them they were in an ecosystem alien to everything they knew. Even the tall, spearmint-scented plant life that dominated the fields was unlike the prairie grasses back home. The botanist amongst them suspected the double-stalks were actually a kind of wheat due to chaff and husks that permeated the soil beneath them, but she might not know for sure until the following spring when life renewed itself following the winter dormancy.
They had brought a year's amount of food, supplies and livestock, and had only recently begun to test the flora and fauna in an effort to discover what may be available to help sustain them when the groceries ran out.
The massive pigs were the largest native lifeforms they had seen since their arrival, and although they had been of little concern up until now, winter was just a few months away and it was unknown how harsh the conditions might become. The hunt had been authorized by the colony captain, although the hybrid grizzly bear had not taken part in the exercise.
That the hunt had failed to bring in the prey was of little concern. The hunters would compare notes and could utilize the experience to develop proper strategies to use for the next time they might attempt to bring down one of the hogs.
“Did you see the way the big one stood its ground against Jon?” Manny asked the Border collie behind him with a chuckle. Although the hunt had been unsuccessful securing food, the hunting party was in good spirits on the way back to the colony.
“Why wouldn't it?” Cheryl replied to the arctic fox. “You saw how big it was. Jon wouldn't stand a chance against it alone.”
The cougar in discussion cleared his throat behind them. “I was alone, you mugs! You all scattered to the winds and left me there by myself!”
“We thought you might open negotiations with the natives,” Dahlia quipped with a smirk.
Jon snorted at the red vixen. “Since there was a whole wall of hairy hogs protecting its sibling, I'd say their stance on negotiating was solid. I'm just glad they didn't try to retaliate against us for trying to eat one of them.”
“What we did was a mess out there,” Carl complained. “We had no organization and kept getting into one another's way!”
“We don't all hunt the same way you do, wolfman,” Arne retorted. “Maybe you should stay home next time so we don't run over you!”
The grey wolf whirled back at the African lion behind him. “Can it, cat!” he growled. “We would have been more successful if we'd had some kind of plan first instead of a free-for-all!”
“We did all right,” Gerard countered. “We'd have had it if the other thunderpigs hadn't been nearby. It was almost tuckered out.”
“You know, for the thunderous sound of a giant piggy on the run!” the brown bear called back over his shoulder. “That's what we should call them on the books.”
They were emerging from the wheat-grass in the field to the southeast of the horseshoe valley where they'd set up their colony. Ahead were the woods they would have to pass through to get home.
“Wouldn't it be easier if we just called them pigs or hogs?” Raine asked.
“It's my choice since no one else has bothered to give them an official name,” Gerard said defensively.
“Although not exactly the same, they look more like African warthogs than anything else, so maybe we should just call them Bonestellan warthogs,” the cheetah suggested.
“What about a buffalo pig?” Dahlia suggested.
“Some are larger than buffalo,” Raine reminded her. “The bigger ones are nearly as large a small elephant! A pachyderm-pig is a little harder to roll the tongue over, though.”
“What does it really matter?” Cheryl asked. “Dr. Mochizuki's been classifying everything with typical Latin names anyway.”
“Sissy's the one in charge of recording the names we give to everything and she wants to keep the naming conventions simple,” Raine reminded them. “Our scientist may put fancy binomial names to everything, but mere peasants like us need common names to keep our tongues untangled. Latin's a dead language on Earth anyway. Why use it here?”
“He's a scientist, and that's the language scientists all still use,” Cheryl explained. “I wouldn't exactly call the language dead.”
“Okay, okay,” Gerard conceded in annoyance, “we can just call them pigs or hogs, although I like thunderpigs better.”
“Pigs, hogs, buffalo pigs or thunderpigs, what's the difference?” Hank asked. “Some animals back on Earth have more than one name for the same thing.”
“Yeah, take Jon, for instance,” Manny added. “Do we call him a cougar, a mountain lion, catamount, panther or a puma? It's all the same critter, depending upon what part of the country you were from.”
“Hey, keep me out of this pork debate!” Jon complained.
“I like pork,” Arne muttered. “Although they look kinda like the wild pigs back home, I wonder if they taste like 'em too. I had my heart set on barbeque pork ribs today. It would have been easier if Avon had just let us take the rifles. Isn't that why we brought them?”
“The guns are for protection, not hunting,” Manny reminded him. “Although we brought a lot of ammunition, it's still only a limited amount. Once it's used up, we won't have supplies for reloading and we'll be here five years, so it is best if we only use them for emergencies. We'll start exploring our new world soon and we'll need them for the protection.”
“We also have compound bows and arrows – why didn't we use them?”
“If I remember right,” Gerard recalled, “it was you who suggested we try using the weapons that furmankind gave us, y'know – teeth and claws.”
“Uh, yeah, I did say that, didn't I?”
“I wish we could start exploring already,” Jasmine said wearily. The red vixen had been quiet on the walk back, silently nursing the headache that began when the hog had knocked her aside with the flat of its tusks and the weight of its head behind them. She'd been fortunate that was the only injury she'd gotten from the experience. “I'm bored staying around camp.”
“Establishing our camp is necessary before we can start going off across the countryside,” Carl reminded her. He stepped around a fern-like growth with central nodules that resembled robin eggs. They'd already been tested and discovered to be nothing more than large seed pods that were quite inedible.
Jasmine gifted the wolf with a tired look. “We've been here a month and we already have a routine – eat, sleep, water and weed the gardens, and feed the animals – rinse and repeat – everything done almost twice a day due to our thirty-six hour clock. I'm surprised Avon even authorized our little outing today.”
“He said we should probably start finding out what local wildlife we can eat if things get lean this winter,” Dara said, bringing up the rear.
“Why didn't he have us go after those critters that look like little bitty deer?” Hank wanted to know. “They're all over the place, as plentiful as pigeons. Surely it wouldn't hurt to thin out that herd; they don't have claws or even horns to fight back!”
“They could probably kick you in the head like the one on Earth did to me,” said Cheryl, stopping to adjust the straw cowgirl hat between her floppy canine ears, “but otherwise I think those things are as docile as our sheep. It doesn't matter that we're all predator types; none of the little deer have shown the slightest fear of any of us since we got here. They'll walk right through a crowd if we're standing in the valley, as if they belonged in our camp.”
“They were here before us, so they do belong there,” Carl reminded her. “Has anyone else wondered why there are so many of them?” he asked, leading the mismatched group of hunters into the woods on an animal trail that was becoming familiar to them all. “The small deer are barely larger than family dogs, have no antlers and they don't run from anything that's threatening them. I've seen them run when they play, and they're fast, but don’t they have any natural enemies?”
“Maybe they don't taste good,” Jasmine offered.
“I'd like the chance to find out,” said Hank. “I like deer meat.”
“Just remember that like the pigs, they may only resemble deer,” Jon remarked. “It's like they taught us back home, 'Grass is grass, trees are trees and flowers are flowers, no matter their origin.' They may look familiar, but be fundamentally different inside – taste included.”
“We'll never know unless we catch one and eat one,” Hank replied.
“At least Kristen has already found a few native vegetables and herbs we can safely eat,” Dahlia reminded them. “Those star-shaped tubers don't taste like any potato, carrot or anything else I've ever had before, but they have a flavor of their own that tastes good.”
“Is that what was in our stew last night?” Manny asked. “I thought something tasted different, but I couldn't put a finger on what it was.”
“Did you like it?” Dahlia asked.
“Yeah, not bad – just different.”
“Kristen said it's a good source of nutrients we need. We may not be from this place, but we're finding some things we can eat without them killing us.”
“Unlike the hogs that might try to kill one of us before we can eat one of them!” Hank said.
“We've all see the hogs around the area, but they have never bothered us or our livestock,” Gerard reminded him. “They probably would have left us alone if we'd done the same for them.”
The black bear looked at him and squinted in the morning sunlight at him. “Are you suggesting we leave them alone — without even seeing if they can be a food source?”
“Not at all,” Gerard answered. “They're probably just stupid animals that have already forgotten about us.”
“I'm not so sure about that,” Jon spoke up. “It was only for a few seconds, but when that big one was staring down at me, there was meaning and intent in its eyes that I could read perfectly. It also got a sample of my scent and will probably never forget me.”
“Jon’s afraid of the big piggy!” Arne said in delight.
The mountain lion was undaunted, however. “I wouldn't say I am afraid,” he said in a somber voice, “but I now have a healthy respect for an alien animal that may or may not act like the pigs we know from back home. It could have easily gored me with those tusks or stomped me into the grass. Instead, it gave me the opportunity to back down before it made any retaliation. That doesn't sound like a stupid animal to me.”
“Maybe they're just meek like the little deer,” Dara suggested, glancing up into the tree branches. She thought she'd seen some dark movement overhead, but she didn’t get a good look at anything.
“Maybe,” Jon admitted, “but my gut tells me they aren't.” He stopped beside the bank of the small river that flowed out from the valley lake and bisected the woods meandering toward the south. The animal trail crossed over a shallow section of the water where tiny shimmering fish among the river pebbles caught his attention. Cheryl leaned over his shoulder and peered into the water with him, quietly reminiscing about an aquarium she'd had as a little girl.
“What was that?” Carl exclaimed from the front of the group. Everyone looked up at once; when on an alien world where anything could be a danger, these words prompted instant caution. The grey wolf was standing on all fours like the rest of them, but he was staring intently up into the overhead shadows, his amber eyes the only things moving. There wasn't much morning sunlight that filtered in beneath the trees at the moment, but there was little that the night-sighted Carl missed. Despite vision and other senses that were more sensitive than they had been when he was fully human, the lupine Fur was unable to identify what it was that he might have seen. Birds and insects were already active, but none of them accounted for the large but almost soundless shape he had almost seen.
“Was it one of the nightshades?” Raine whispered near the wolf's ear.
“I don't know,” Carl replied in an equally quiet voice. “Up until now, I wasn't sure I believed her, but it fits what Erin told us.”
The cheetah swallowed and nodded, following the other male's steady gaze up into the trees. Although destined to be an explorer of this new world, Raine disliked the unknown. The nightshades, as the diminutive fennec fox called them, seemed to be nothing more than silhouettes moving through the darkness of the night or in deep shadows. They were too quick to be seen and extremely quiet, but there were several in Second Chance who had also experienced them while moving through the woods. They always seemed to be just on the periphery of a Fur's sight and hearing, mere glimpses that left the person wondering if they'd seen anything at all. So far, these nightshades hadn't caused any trouble, but just knowing there was something unseen out there made some of them nervous.
Having once been stalked and attacked by coyotes in the forest on Earth, Erin felt especially vulnerable knowing they might be watching and she had announced that she planned to never be caught outside alone by herself; she would always ask someone to accompany her if she needed to be out away from the colony, even if she had to sacrifice privacy for security when going to the latrine. No one could blame her, however; she still had the scars beneath her fur to serve as a reminder.
“Do you think it might be some intelligent sentient being watching us?” Cheryl asked nervously. “Maybe they want to be sure about us before coming out to make contact.”
“Either that, or they could be looking for our weaknesses before attacking,” Jasmine added.
Gerard snorted loudly, making several of them jump. “They could also be more stupid animals just curious about their new neighbors in the area,” he scoffed. “They haven't done anything more than stick to the shadows, so they're probably mostly nocturnal.”
Raine looked back at the bear. “Maybe, maybe not — we should still be cautious, just in case.”
Carl rubbed a hand paw across his face and sighed. “I'd feel more comfortable knowing what it is, dangerous or not, sentient or not,” he said.
A sudden shriek pierced the quiet of the conversation and everybody jumped. The flap of great wings overhead belonged to a large bird with a sideways-hinged beak they had all seen and heard on occasion. Instinctively, the smaller foxes grouped together and kept their eyes upon the tree branches, lest the great hunter bird come for one of them.
“I hate those arrowheads,” Manny grumbled. The arctic fox sat back on his haunches and then put an arm around the waists of both Jasmine and Dahlia flanking his sides. The females clung to him tightly, looking up for the deceptively sick-looking bird with slate grey feathers, unsightly white splotches, large black eyes and an arrowhead-shaped skull with a beak that opened to the sides instead of up and down. Its piercing shriek had a similar effect on their nerves that fingernails on a chalkboard often did to others, and although they knew it to feed primarily upon the fish and snizard reptiles that lived in the lake below their camp, none of the smaller Furs had any doubts that it might try to grab one of them given the chance.
Fortunately for the foxes this time, however, the arrowhead passed them by and flew farther into the woods, giving another shrill cry with some other destination in mind. Almost as soon as it had gone, there was a sudden flurry of movement among the sticks and leaves of the forest floor.
Cheryl chuckled nervously, letting the small, tail-less mice they called furballs lighten the moment. If the tiny round rodents were on the move instead of silent and in hiding, local dangers once present must have gone. This also seemed to indicate that they did not consider the Furs a threat, despite that some of the mice had already been enjoyed as snacks by the Terran predators.
Jon cleared his throat and began walking again, letting the others in the hunting party follow him back to camp. He was not the leader of their hunt, but as he was the first one to shake off the eerie shudders of their conversation and head toward Second Chance, no one else wanted to stay behind.
On the move again, the hunters laughed and became the butt of their own jokes concerning their fears. They were predators and had just tried to chase down an animal larger than any of them, yet they had all trembled at unseen shadows and the cry of an ugly bird.
The hunting party emerged from the shadows of the woods and stepped out onto the lush green grass of the horseshoe shaped valley that had become home to the small colony. Now back in established territory, the group drifted apart and scattered to their whims.
Jon stopped for a moment and sat back on his haunches, looking out across the small valley sandwiched between the end of a long range of mountains and a forest. Second Chance is what they had named their new home. The place was originally to be the site of a human settlement a decade earlier, but they had never arrived at their destination, the interstellar colony ship having mysteriously disappeared without a trace sometime just after its descent from orbit. The planet had been quarantined for years afterward, but Bonestell was later given another opportunity for settlement, this time with a mixed group of genetically changed humans merged with predatory animals to grant them extra advantages for survival. So far, this second chance at colonization appeared to be successful at the start and the altered sons and daughters of Earth had managed to stake a claim to one small area of the new world.
Grey limestone and granite ringed the little valley on three sides, giving it a horseshoe shape with a small lake occupying the inner area of the toe of the horseshoe that was fed by a mountain spring. Above the lake was the opening to an unadorned, dry cavern system large enough to contain all of the modular geodesic domes of the entire colony. An array of solar collectors had been erected out on the western mountainside to power their limited amount of technology, primarily for the food refrigeration system, a few public lights within the cave and a communications unit for weekly reports back to Earth. There were other small devices they used, but power consumption for them was so meager as to be negligible.
A natural pathway from the cave to the floor of the valley was quickly becoming free of debris from the daily traffic of thirty-one sets of feet, and a wooden bridge built from packing crate material spanned the narrow river - though river might be too broad a term for the ribbon of water that exited the lake and meandered away through the forest. It was larger than a creek, though not as wide or deep as a running waterway that could be traveled by a canoe.
The valley floor was naturally covered in short, pale green grass that was dotted here and there by tiny blue flowers. Although summer seemed to be waning with autumn just ahead, the flowers seemed to be continually tended by tiny flying insects. This in itself would not seem odd except that few of the alien flowers possessed either stamen or pistil for the production and reception of pollen as they did on Earth. In spite of this, the Terran bees that had been brought along to pollinate Terran vegetables seemed to do well for their tasks in conjunction with the native variety of bugs.
Fortunately for the Furs, however, none of the indigenous insects seemed interested in biting or stinging the alien settlers, possibly put off by strange blood or scents; there were some who wondered about this, but there were no complainers, especially since they had discovered nothing resembling fleas or ticks on this new world.
At a little over five acres, the level valley had plenty of room on the west side for livestock pens for the various animals that had been brought along, as well as space plowed for the gardens on the east side, with large amounts of real estate left over still covered in the native carpet. The livestock seemed to really like the flavor of the grass, which made a good nutritious supplement to the Terran feed brought along for them.
Standing bipedal in the rich soil of the garden was a golden retriever, swift fox and grey wolf methodically watering infant Terran plants that had been responding well to their botanical efforts in the fertile soil. Wendy, Michael and Ellie all chatted quietly as they worked with plastic buckets they filled from the lake. A mountain lioness at the northern end of the garden was humming quietly to herself as she worked on her knees in the dirt, her expert eyes studying the young growth for any signs of abnormality.
So intent on her work, the feline botanist didn’t see Jon cross the fence wire and pad up behind her on all fours. When he drew up beside her, he purposely bumped shoulders with her, but before she could react, he leaned close and affectionately rubbed his cheek against hers.
Kristen looked over at him with a delighted smile and then rubbed noses with him. Actions like this still surprised her, as she was so used to him being staunchly against a relationship for the greater part of two years she had known him. He usually didn’t display much affection publicly since they'd become a couple, but whenever they were together in private, he always gave her his full attention. She sometimes wondered if he'd been this way with the woman he had once been engaged for marriage before that relationship tanked, or if this was an attribute of his new feline nature. Whatever the source, she enjoyed it.
“How did the hunt go?” she asked, giving his disheveled fur a quick glance. He was dusty and bits of pampas-colored grass still clung to his tawny fur, but she could neither smell nor see signs of prey blood from the hunt.
Jon settled down in the dirt row beside her, careful not to lie upon any of the plants. “We all did a lot of running after the beast,” he told her with a wry smile, “but we never could take it down. Just when we thought we'd had a chance to wear it out, its herd showed up and spoiled the party.”
“What happened, did anyone get hurt?”
The male cougar shook his head and described what had taken place. He ended by brushing the debris from his fur and shrugging his shoulders. “We didn’t get fresh meat for today, but there were lessons learned for the next time. Anyway, how are things going here?”
“Did you ever play with worms when you were growing up?” Kristen asked, digging her fingers into the dark soil between the rows.
Jon smiled. “Of course I did — almost all boys love getting dirty and playing with things like that. Didn't we bring some along for the gardens?”
“Take a look at this.” The lioness pulled up a double handful of dirt and then broke it apart lightly with her fingers. Revealed in the palms of her hands were three very large earthworms, each nearly as thick as her fingers and proportionately long.
“Wow, aside of their size, these look just like the worms I played with and used as fishing bait as a boy in Colorado,” Jon said in amazement.
Kristen chuckled. “Believe it or not, these are the ones we brought with us from Earth. They really like this Bonestellan soil!”
“Are you sure those are ours? They're huge!”
The lioness wriggled her fingers a little more and rolled one of the large worms aside. Nestled in the soil beneath it was another worm-like creature that had very little resemblance to its Terran cousins. It was as long and slender as those Jon was used to, but there were alternating black and red bands along its length and miniscule nodules protruding from its slick skin near what would have been its head.
“That is a Bonestellan earthworm, Jon. They're all over the place in the soil — I’ve found them out here in the garden, in the dirt of the forest, and even out under the field where the Meriwether Lewis landed. As far as I can tell, they perform the same basic functions as ours do, aerating the soil and fertilizing it with their droppings. The ones we brought have gotten larger just in the weeks since we established our garden!”
Jon picked up one of the fat Terran worms and held it up for closer inspection. “Have you told Dr. Mochizuki about this?” he asked.
“Yes, and he was excited about it until I showed him the native earthworm too, and that interested him even more. He took several of each to examine and was going to catalog the new one.” Kristen grinned, putting the dirt and worms back into the ground.
“That red panda's a scientist through and through,” Jon remarked, “but if you show these to Avon, he'll probably just grab his fishing pole and run for the lake instead of studying it.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.