— by Ted R. Blasingame
“I miss root beer,” Kevin remarked after lapping up water he'd poured from his canteen into the padded palm of his hand; with a bifurcated upper lip, he could no longer drink it straight from the container without getting it all over himself. “I miss the flavor – especially a birch root beer with a touch of butterscotch I used to drink.”
“We've only been here a month,” Erin reminded him. “Haven't you ever gone more than a month without root beer before?”
“Yes, but it's knowing I'll never have it again that makes me miss it.”
“Poor lil' fox,” she teased in her pixie-like voice. “No more root beer means the end of the world – even if it's another world!”
Kevin Rockwell turned his black vulpine nose toward his companion and stuck out his tongue at her. He tried to give her a Bronx cheer, but the tongue on his lower lip was unable form enough of a seal to issue the intended raspberries at her.
Erin Sealock took the canteen and snickered at his failed attempt, so Kevin turned away smiling, back to the tiny wooden shack they had erected out of supply crate materials to house his meteorological equipment. They had put it up on the side of the mountain above the cave entrance where it would be out of the way of the colony.
Strangely enough, the simple shack seemed to attract a small swarm of tiny four-winged birds that were oddly similar to hummingbirds, though the local variety did not possess the bright plumage of their Terran cousins. Their black and silver feathers buzzed and shimmered in the sunlight, making them resemble minnows in a stream as they hovered around the shack. Perhaps it was the aroma of the treated wood of the original supply crates that interested the little buzzers, but they were almost an annoyance to Kevin whenever he needed to check the instruments inside.
There was a breeze blowing and it tousled his sandy blonde scalp hair into his eyes, so Erin reached up and brushed it out of the way for him. They were an interesting pair, these two Vulps. They were nearly a decade apart in age, but both were naturally short in stature and they had each chosen to become fennec foxes through the furmankind process. Although they had not known one another at the time of their transformations, it seemed no stretch of the imagination that these two would get together on their own simply due to their physical similarities.
Since Erin was the elder of the two, she often teased him about his inexperiences in life, but she was also the colony's psychologist and knew just how much to clown around without causing him to take offense. They both had a natural positive outlook on life and they got along well.
Kevin was not yet twenty years of age, having joined up with the Anthro Human Colonization Program at eighteen at the behest of his parents. Although transformation into a Fur was a lifelong contract with the AHCP, they would all be awarded a prize of one million dollars into an interstellar bank account as Credits once they had served a five year stay as part of a starter colony on a new world. It was the prize money that Kevin's parents anticipated getting after that five-year wait, assuming he’d never need the funds himself out on another planet. They didn't seem to realize, however, that although some alien worlds had been discovered to be Earth-like, they were often dangerous in their unfamiliarity; Kevin would have to survive five years in order to claim the prize for his parents.
Fortunately, Bonestell appeared idyllic and although they would be learning only a few of her secrets in the years ahead, life there seemed promising. He was young, but Kevin had someone who cared for him and a job in the colony as its meteorologist. The weather had been mild since they had arrived, but if the patterns were anything like they were on Earth, things could change in an instant and he wanted to be able to study and read the signs before any surprises caught them unaware.
“So,” Erin said quietly after he had recorded the readings of his instruments into a note file on his Personal Business Juxtapositioner, a two-screen, multi-purpose tablet each of the Furs possessed, “what's the forecast?”
Kevin studied the figures a moment more and then closed the clamshell case of the PBJ. He looked up at the sky and sniffed the easterly breeze. There were cirrus clouds high in the blue-green sky like long streamers; if the weather conditions were similar here as they were on Earth, he remembered what they portended.
“I think rain is coming.”
Erin looked down at the colony below them. “I wonder what he wants.”
Kevin snickered and shook his head. “Not Raine, our cheetah, but rain from the sky.”
Erin looked up toward the clouds. “Cheetahs can fly?” she asked quizzically.
Kevin blinked and opened his mouth to try again, but then he saw the twinkle in her eye as she looked askance at him. She couldn't hold her composure for more than a moment and then laughed at him. He grinned in response and shook his head; she was still teasing him.
He reached up and clamped her nose and bottom lip shut with his fingers and then gave her a smirk, but that did nothing to stifle her giggles when he tried to give her a stern, scolding look. He finally just shook his head again and turned his back on her so she wouldn't see his grin.
The fennec vixen slipped her arms around his chest from behind and planted a delicate lick across the back of one of his large ears. “It's going to rain,” she remarked at last in a calm voice. “How soon?”
Kevin enjoyed their antics, but he was glad to return to the subject of his observations. “Not today, I think,” he said after giving her question a moment's thought. “Tomorrow, maybe thunderstorms.”
“You should inform Avon so he can let everyone know. The large dome Hank and Norman have been assembling in the field for the barn should be done soon, but because we've had no rain since we got here, I don't think they've been in much of a hurry.”
“Jon said he thought the valley must flood periodically,” Kevin remembered. “What do we do with the animals if that happens? That dome's not going to float like an ark.”
“We'll probably pull them all into the cave with us,” his companion replied. “There's room enough for them all back inside our huge cavern, but I'm sure some of the livestock won't like being underground, even to stay dry.”
“Won't we need to build pens in there for them in case that happens?”
“I don't know that we have the materials to do that, but it wouldn't hurt to suggest it to Avon when you give him your weather report.”
“That's a good idea,” Kevin said.
“Of course it is,” Erin replied with a smile. “All my ideas are good!”
Sissy sat in the soft grass near the middle of the field in the horseshoe valley beneath the nameless mountain. It was nearly five acres overall, but one acre of the valley out by the trees was now occupied by various animal pens set up to corral their livestock. The horses, cattle, sheep and goats loved the taste of the alien grass and seemed content to graze on it without having to use up any of the feed that had been brought for them. This was a good thing, as the supplies could be held back for lean times during the coming winter. Just in the short time they had been there, it was apparent that some of the animals were already getting a little fatter from this grazing.
Even the chickens and guineas were enjoying the local bugs as a supplement to their feed. None of them had gotten sick on the local insects, which was encouraging, but no one wanted to be too optimistic that their new home was just as serene as it seemed. Complacency had a bad habit of playing havoc with the starter colonies that had gone to other worlds. This was the twenty-ninth settlement since the AHCP had begun sending Furs out among the stars, and although some of them had been unable to survive even with genetic enhancements, Second Chance was showing signs of promise.
The orange domestic feline closed her eyes and let the easterly breeze blow through her fur, listening to the delicate tinkling of small wind chimes that someone had brought along and hung in a tree on the far edge of the clearing. She was wearing a simple set of overalls today; they were loose on her, but she liked the way they allowed air to circulate between the fabric and her fur, keeping her cool in the late summer sun. She had been tempted to shed them altogether and stretch out in the warm grass; her fur was thick enough that she was sufficiently covered for privacy, but she had things to do despite the relaxed setting.
Much had gone on during the weeks since they had arrived, but setting up the camp, animal pens and gardens had left her with little time to do more than jot down a few notes on their daily activities. As the colony historian, it was up to her to keep a complete record of everything that went on, as well as everyone's observations and discoveries on everything new around them.
A soft sound roused her attention and she opened her eyes. Not far away was a herd of the small deer that seemed to be so plentiful in the area. They had wandered in from the woods to eat at the small blue flowers that grew sporadically throughout the field. They enjoyed the pale green grass too, but they seemed especially fond of the flowers.
Despite the penned animals and the activity surrounding their care, the deer-like creatures were unafraid and unconcerned with the Terran colony. They were little larger than medium-sized family dogs, had tan hair adorned with tan vertical stripes that were only slightly darker, and would probably blend in so well as to disappear out in the tall prairie wheat-grass field beyond the woods. Their oversized ears flapped about to drive away tiny flying insects, and the stubby bit of tail they had vibrated almost comically whenever two got close to one another. One of the little deer looked back at her with dark eyes above prominent cheek bones in a triangular-shaped skull, but there was nothing more than lazy curiosity in its gaze.
She watched them in idle fascination for some minutes before she remembered why she was there. Away from the hustle and bustle of the colony proper, she had separated herself from the others so she could sit and recall the details that went with her simple notes without interruption. Dismissing the deer at last, she opened her PBJ and began typing away on its tiny screen keyboard with just her claw tips.
Sissy looked up when a shadow fell across her and saw the colony's male red panda standing beside her. He was not looking down at her, however, but at the small herd of tiny deer around her in the meadow.
“Hello, Dr. Mochizuki,” she said in friendly greeting.
“Good afternoon, Miss Quinn,” the older furman replied formally, giving her a small bow. Once a respectable Japanese man, he was now a slender Fur that the Furmankind Institute had never planned to create. He and his wife were the only ones of their kind due to an unfortunate series of incidents, but despite this, they both seemed happy enough in their new work. “My Chieko tells me that your little friends are here every day to eat the grass and the blue flowers.”
The orange feline looked around her at the little deer with a smile. “They don't seem to mind sharing the field with us,” she said with a sweep of her arm, “and the little flowers seem to grow back quickly.”
“Have they shown any fear or uneasiness around our people?”
“None at all. Either they don't see us as predators, or they simply don't care.”
The red panda put a hand up to his chin in thought. “Has anyone tried to chase them?”
“A few have tried just to see what they would do, but the deer don't run from anyone. If you rushed toward them, they would merely step to the side to let you pass by and then just stand there looking at you.”
One of the smaller fawns darted by just then, kicking up its hooves in play with another, completely ignoring the two Furs from Earth. It was a tiny thing and it made the feline smile.
“What have you decided to call them? I have heard that you are trying to put names to everything, so you and I will have to compare notes.”
Sissy shrugged. “Due to their size, I was going to call them 'dog deer', but everyone else just simply calls them 'deer', so I didn't figure they really need a special name. If anything, I'll just call them 'lil-deer' if we need something official on the books.”
“Little deer, as in lil' bitty deer,” she explained with an exaggerated southern accent.
“Ah, I see,” the doctor remarked with a smile. “How close will they let you get to them?”
Sissy laughed. “You can walk right up to them, and if you offer them flowers, they'll let you pet them. They have the cutest tail wag when you touch them.”
“Interesting. Have you tried to pick up one off the ground?”
“Yes, they're completely docile. I've never seen such a passive animal before. Aaron said he saw one of the large pigs kill and eat one out in the wheat-grass field. The unfortunate little deer didn't even try to get away, but it did cry out as it died, so I know it felt pain.”
“Were there any others around at that time?”
“Aaron said there were, but they didn't seem frightened or alarmed, even though one of them had just been killed in their midst.”
“The thunderpigs, as your friend Mr. Nicholas has been campaigning to have them called, are omnivores,” the doctor mused. “They primarily eat plants and roots, but they will also take fresh meat on occasion. I suppose the, uh, lil-deer is an available food source to them where it doesn't take any expenditure of energy to take.” He knelt down beside the orange cat and looked out at the herd. “It's curious, though. Usually it's the animals, fish, birds, reptiles and insects with a perfect defense that are mostly unafraid. Of defenses, I see none with these deer. The rules of Bonestellan life must be different for some.”
“I've seen none with anything resembling horns or antlers on either male or female. Do the deer interest you?” Sissy asked.
“Of course they do,” he answered with a nod. “I am a geneticist and a biologist. I have been examining and documenting all I can since we arrived, and there's been so much that I've not had to go far from the colony to find interesting specimens.”
“Now you want to examine the deer?”
“I do. Have you seen any larger than these?”
“The biggest one I've seen is a male about the size of a German shepherd, but most aren't that big. I don't see him today, though. The fawns, like that ones that just ran by, are even tinier.”
Sissy picked several of the blue flowers near her and then held them out at arm's length toward the closest deer about ten yards away, a small female. The animal's black eyes saw her offering and walked calmly to her. Without hesitation, the doe pulled the plants from her fingers with soft lips and ate them contentedly.
The doctor smiled. “Yes, I do.” He had noticed the deer's small blunt teeth and watched it eat for a moment. He glanced over at Sissy, suddenly hesitant as he stood up again and put his hands into the pockets of his furman robe. “Miss Quinn…”
“Please call me Sissy,” she replied with a friendly smile.
The doctor gave her a brief bow of his head. “Sissy,” he began again, “would you mind if I took one of your little friends to examine in my research?”
“Not at all. Why would I mind?”
“Because I want to study its internal organs and Captain Avon has also asked me to determine if the deer can be considered a possible food source for our colony,” he said.
Sissy frowned. He intended to kill one of them in the name of science, and although that was one of the reasons they were there, she wasn't sure she liked the idea. She looked back across the field toward the animal pens and knew that this would be no different than some of the animals they'd brought with them intended as a food source to feed them all. Thoughts of fried chicken or roasted lamb often made her drool, and she'd been craving a hamburger for days. For all she knew, the lil-deer might one day make her drool at the thought of eating one of their steaks. They were certainly plentiful enough and in no danger of extinction.
She sighed, but then gestured out toward the herd of twenty or so deer. Sometimes more would come into the field to graze, but there were others scattered throughout the neighboring forest too.
“Go ahead,” she said at last. “We've got to eat and these might get us through the lean times if we can't grow our own. It just seems a shame to kill them when they are so friendly.” The doe she had fed had come closer and was now eating the grass beside the seated feline's feet. She reached out and scratched the little deer gently on the back of her neck and the short tail began vibrating in response.
“Thank you,” the doctor said graciously. “I will be humane and treat her with dignity.” He pulled a length of cord from his pocket and fashioned a loop at one end. He approached the deer beside Sissy and calmly drew the loop over her head. When he pulled gently on it, the deer followed him away as if she had always known what a leash was for.
Sissy watched Dr. Mochizuki lead the lil-deer back toward the cave and silently bid the animal goodbye. She picked up the PBJ at her side and then proceeded to document the incident in her daily log so they would have a record of what had transpired that day in the colony.
Inside the cavern within a dome that had been erected for biological research, Dr. Mochizuki was methodically removing each of the lil-deer's organs and setting them out on a folding table set up with an array of shallow pans beneath a bright LED lamp.
Upon another table was the body of one of the long, muddy brown amphibious creatures that had until recently lived in the lake and along its shallow river. Called a 'snizard' by the colonists, it was a snake-like lizard, but instead of having ventral scales for motion, it possessed six webbed feet – two near the head, two near the back end and two in the middle. Its head was long and slender with numerous bony spikes stuck out at all angles from its cranium and they had been witnessed using them as defensive weapons against the arrowhead birds that often preyed upon them. Sometimes the defense was successful, but usually ineffective against their large aerial enemies. The snizards had largely ignored the Furs thus far, treating them as neither friend nor foe nor food.
Masanori Mochizuki's wife Chieko was recording everything he dictated, noting them into her PBJ as he examined the lil-deer's inner secrets. Without realizing that he was doing so, the doctor was speaking in his native Japanese for each new discovery or hypothesis.
Although not arranged in the abdomen entirely in a manner familiar to him, he was able to identify, or at least make an educated guess on the function of each organ. There was one major curiosity, however, that had him stumped.
All throughout the animal's muscle tissue was a black, oily residue that defied his interpretation on function and substance. The stuff was unknown to his knowledge and would require further chemical analysis; although similar in texture to crude petroleum oil, a small amount exposed over the flame of a candle proved it was not flammable. He suspected it might be a disease of some kind, but the deer had appeared otherwise healthy.
The only way he might know for certain about diseased tissue would be to look at another specimen. He had no reservations against killing another deer for comparison, but he felt a little pang of guilt taking another without Sissy's knowledge. They did not belong to her, and neither had she forbidden him from taking more, but he knew that in the short time they had been on Bonestell that she'd taken a liking to the small animals.
He and his wife continued the analysis while he awaited an opportune time to get another, and in the meantime he determined that there was nothing in the deer's anatomy that should be harmful for the furmen to ingest. Even the black, oily substance did not appear harmful, but he did not want to take a chance until he knew what it was. The thunderpigs had eaten one without apparent harm, but all that might mean is that its digestive system was naturally designed to process it.
Later in the evening, he wandered out into the field again, feigning interest in the sheep that Arne tended behind a woven wire fence, amazed that they were so calm around the African lion. The large Fur might seem ferocious, but the animals he tended seemed to trust him implicitly to protect them. The notion brought to mind an old adage of a lion and a lamb lying down together in harmony.
When the doctor didn't see Sissy anywhere in the vicinity, he walked purposely out to the few lil-deer still around and selected one of each gender to take back with him using a length of cord with loops on both ends. He slipped one of these over each of the deer and then held the line in the middle. Neither of the deer resisted when he walked calmly back toward the cave, following quietly in his footsteps. If either knew it was walking towards death, there seemed to be no concern.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.