— by Ted R. Blasingame
Despite her night-sighted feline eyes, Sissy felt lost in the gloom of a supply dome that contained non-perishable supplies. An electric line from the solar generator system had been considered unnecessary to illuminate the equivalent of a supply closet, so a hand-generated LED torch flashlight had been left by the door for any who needed to be inside. The orange domestic cat turned the hand crank of the torch several times before she had sufficient illumination to see the labels on countless cardboard and plastic boxes.
The first container she looked in held several hundred small plastic compasses, the type usually found as prizes in breakfast cereals and toy vending machines. They were a little over an inch in diameter and were all in a bright variety of colors, but although not as specifically accurate as an expensive compass, they still worked surprisingly well for direction based upon magnetic north. Sissy wondered if they were a valid supply for the colony, or someone's sense of humor back at AHCP headquarters. Still, she pocketed one, just in case it might come in handy later.
Going through the containers, she remembered their first few days when no one could find a can opener to get into any of the hundreds of food canisters that had been shipped with them. Whether it was meant as a practical joke or just an administrative error, the can openers had been found packed away with general supplies instead of with the kitchen utensils and equipment. It had become a running gag amongst them all that if you couldn't find something where it was supposed to be, it was suggested to look for it with the can openers.
Several minutes later, the orange feline still hadn't found what she was looking for within the contents of other containers, but a voice from the doorway startled her.
“What’cha looking for?”
Sissy jumped and whirled around so swiftly that she stumbled into a stack of boxes beside her. Her eyes were dilated from the dim light and the look of surprise on her face made the golden retriever laugh aloud.
“Wow, I knew the house cats back home were high-strung, but I think that's the first time I've seen it so well-defined in a Fur!”
Sissy put a hand up to her chest and flashed a feline-fanged grin in embarrassment. Normally her hearing was quite sensitive, but she had been so fixated upon her search that she hadn't heard the canine's steps.
“Hi, Wendy,” she said after a moment. “Yes, I guess I was so focused that you surprised me!”
“May I help you find something?” the Canis asked, her tail wagging gently. “I helped stock this dome from the truck, so maybe I can give you some assistance.”
“Thank you. I've been having some trouble with my PBJ over the past couple days and I'm afraid it's developed hardware problems.”
Wendy shook her head. “I don't think we have any spares of those,” she said. “You've had problems with yours before, haven't you?”
Sissy nodded. “Yeah, during our training survival march, but that was because I'd knocked a potted plant on it in my room just before the hike; the tech who looked at it said it was a cracked circuit board. I've been more careful with its replacement and haven't hit it against anything.” She pulled it from the chest pocket of her overalls and looked it over. “There are no dents and the only scratches on the cover are from handling it with my claws.”
“What's the matter with it?”
“Even with it fully charged, the power is intermittent and there are times when I've recorded notes and the file won't save.” She frowned, slid it back into her pocket and shrugged at the Retriever. “There has even been a file or two that saved okay, but I can only open them at odd times and not at all at others. I'm afraid I'm going to lose all I've recorded since we got here, so I was looking for a paper notebook that I could transcribe everything into while I still have access to it.”
“Wow, that's tough,” Wendy murmured. “I've had a couple issues like that with mine, but I can never seem to remember to take it to the solar charging station when the power gets low and thought it was because of that. I hope they all don't go out on us – it's long distance to call tech support on Earth and I don't think they make house calls.”
The canine turned to a stack of boxes on her left and reached for the one on top. She set it aside and did the same with two more before she got to one she wanted. Sissy waited patiently and then Wendy pulled out a thick book with green hardback covers. She flipped it open to pages that were blank except for ruled lines on both sides of each legal-size sheet.
“Will this work?” she asked. “It’s just stock Government Issue, nothing with picture covers.”
“That's perfect,” Sissy told her with a smile. “Now I just need something to write with.”
“Gotcha covered on that too,” Wendy replied, turning to another box. “If you need help transcribing your notes, just send me some of your files and I'll grab another notebook to write them out in too.”
Sissy gave her a grateful smile. “I don't know how long my PBJ may hold out, so if you could help me with this, I would appreciate it.”
“Consider it done.”
Avon stood at the bottom lip of the cave that overlooked the small lake and watched another trio of explorers heading out away from the camp as he toyed absently with his identification dog tags. With the colony site established and daily routines becoming mundane, he had been approached by several who wanted to begin exploring the countryside near the horseshoe shaped valley. The grizzly bear had resisted the requests at first, but finally relented and gave his approval that some of his people could strike out on short day trips.
He had decided to allow parties of two or more supplied with water, food, hand radios and weapons from the armory to leave in the morning with instructions to return before nightfall and to check in every two hours by radio. That would give them all approximately eighteen hours to go where they might, but he would authorize no one to stay out overnight. Not yet, anyway.
The guns would be used only for defense in the event they came upon something that took exception to their presence, but they were to kill nothing with them unless there was no other recourse. All day packs contained food and water, digital cameras, a compass or two, paper notebooks and writing utensils to record their findings. Specimen containers also went along at Dr. Mochizuki's request for flowers, weeds, grasses, leaves and other plant life for him to study and catalog.
The first two who left went out on all fours with packs upon their backs were the ursine cousins, Aaron and Gerard. They only took a couple of small pistols for the packs, but said they would otherwise try to rely upon their own natural furman weapons and abilities for defense if they ran into trouble. Avon reminded them not to go looking for trouble, but both acted offended that he would think they would.
Although they had no map or satellite photographs of the vicinity, they could return by homing in a PBJ on the replacement pyramid site marker beacon that had been set up near the acorn Avon had planted in the wheat-grass field when the Meriwether Lewis had landed. They planned to strike out to the northeast, following along the foothills of the mountain range.
Ivan and Rose left shortly after the bears, both small vulpines together on a single horseback. The foxes followed the trail through the woods, across the little river, out to the prairie grass field and then turned their horse to the east into the morning sun. They had no idea what they might find, but the couple was ready to explore.
Manny, Michael and Aldo took the remaining three horses and headed south. The two foxes and the canine were bored staying around camp and their primary goal was simply to get away for a while. Exploring would be secondary to them, although they were likely to see things that were not resident in their little valley.
The day was overcast and the temperature was a little cooler than it had been with southeasterly winds. The breezes were mostly mild but strong gusts around the end of the mountain range were becoming common. Kevin had been keeping a closer eye on his instruments; his earlier forecast of thunderstorms had been somewhat correct, though the storms missed the little valley altogether, so he was often occupied studying the weather prediction texts he had loaded onto his PBJ before they'd departed Earth.
Although Erin had talked him through some of his self-esteem issues, the diminutive desert fox was clearly worried about his place in the colony. He knew that winter would be coming in a few months and the youngest of the volunteers felt a heavy responsibility of weather forecasting without the aid of satellite images and national sensing stations in this primitive setting.
“It can't be easy,” Erin had teased, “trying to predict the weather using stone knives and dried beetles.”
Fortunately, the region was just entering the early stages of autumn, and since the seasons lasted longer on Bonestell than on Earth, Kevin hoped he would have more time to learn to read the local patterns in forecasting before harsh weather descended upon them.
After the foxes and the canine disappeared on their horses beneath the shadows of the woods, Avon's gaze shifted to other activities in the valley. Kristen and Jasmine were working in the garden; Arne, Cheryl, Dahlia, Jon and Hank were all setting up animal pens inside the newly constructed barn and there were three sitting out in the grass among several lil-deer near the lake. Sissy had told the colony leader of her PBJ troubles and Wendy and Chieko had volunteered to help her transcribe her records into handwritten notebooks.
The red panda was in the final stage of her transformation, the result of a mistake that had affected both her and her husband, making them the only two Ailuris in the galaxy living among the Canis, Felis, Ursis and Vulps of furmankind. The aches and pains of Chieko's changes were almost over and the cute woman's personal outlook had improved daily. Her disobedience may have been the cause of her and her husband, once the director of the Japanese branch of the Furmankind Institute, to be banished from the Earth for the rest of their lives, but she seemed to have accepted her fate and even enjoyed her new 'look'.
On the far side of the valley, Jenni had taken time out from the cavern to position herself high in a tree with a pair of binoculars. Although there were some birds that stood out in their memories like the noisy arrowheads, there were myriads more that inhabited the trees of their little forest and she enjoyed the bird watching. She was a fair artist and scribbled pencil sketches of those she could catch standing still long enough to draw. Dr. Mochizuki was none too fond of the leopard's habit of walking around topless, despite that she was well-covered by her fur, but he knew her drawings would be invaluable to his research and cataloging of the life forms they encountered. He encouraged her artistic ability even as he kept his silence regarding her raiment.
Avon turned at a crash and a muttered curse behind him. Raine had tripped over an exposed tree root near the natural spring that flowed from the mountainside a short distance from the cavern entrance and had spilled both of the water buckets he had just filled. With breakfast over, it was the cheetah's turn to wash the kitchen dishes. His assigned KP partner was their resident polar bear and Dara rushed to give him some assistance.
Disposable plates and utensils might have been easier to simply use and throw away, but they didn't have the seemingly unlimited supplies they had on Earth and would have to reuse everything they could at all times. Washing plates, utensils, cups, pots and pans might seem to be a thankless chore, but everyone in the colony was on wash rotation to keep them clean and supplied with what they needed.
Likewise, they were to keep the trash at a minimum as much as possible. Things like aluminum foil could be cleaned, folded and used again several times before another sheet might be needed from the package. Even paper wrappers could be recycled for other things, provided they weren't ripped and torn when initially opened. The burning of trash was kept to bare minimum also, even if a large campfire area had been ringed with stones just at the cave entrance. Food scraps were never kept around and were buried in the garden as soon as possible.
The PBJ in the pocket of his vest emitted a solitary chirp, signaling a received message. He pulled it out, opened its clamshell case and briefly examined the missive. It was one of three he’d received that day that amounted to nothing more than routine mail from one of his colonists for him to relay to someone back on Earth. This one was from Doctor Mochizuki that was to be directed to Stockholm, presumably another report on his biological findings.
Assured that he wasn't needed for anything pressing at the moment, Avon moved into the cavern toward the geodesic dome where he slept to retrieve the colony's communication set. This was as good a time as any to transmit his weekly report. He would have to take the unit outside of the cave in order to transmit the messages up to the geosynchronous satellite parked overhead; it would then be relayed on to Earth via a series of booster satellites the Meriwether Lewis had deployed en route to Bonestell since there would be no line-of-sight transmissions with their homeworld. Tachyon-burst communication would allow messages to cross the distance of nearly four parsecs in a little over forty hours, giving the AHCP headquarters in Stockholm his progress reports on Second Chance.
The grizzly bear surmised that there was someone in Sweden who monitored the communication traffic of all twenty-nine colonies that had been started since the Furmankind program began, redirecting personal mail into the worldwide message traffic and routinely submitting colony messages to some administrator in an office whose sole job was to read the mundane reports. There were only occasional messages of real importance like the one transmitted from Bastien on the decimation of its primarily feline population, leaving only its two Vulps doctors surviving the swift epidemic.
Avon figured that the report he made today would wind up as a printout in a desk tray that might be read in a week or two, but it was not like he had anything exciting to report anyway. However, one of the duties of the colony captain was to submit reports on their progress, especially on a group such as theirs that had only just begun exploring their new world; this was a chore he could not delegate to anyone else. If anything should ever happen to him, that duty would fall to Jon Sunset, his second-in-command, but for now it was his alone.
A mundane report primarily meant that everything was going according to plan, and although a dull chore, it also meant that everyone was safe and sound under his command. This was a good thing.
To the three who traveled it, the terrain to the south was uninspiring. As they moved away from the mountain range, the ground had become open and relatively flat, although there was a slight rise in elevation the farther they went. They rode their horses through an endless waving prairie of the same kind of thick, spearmint-scented wheat-grasses where they'd hunted the thunderpigs, but after two hours they had seen no other living things aside of birds and insects, not even the plentiful lil-deer. Something off in the distance made a hoon, hoon, hoon kind of call, but they never saw what it might have been and it never seemed to get any closer.
The horses had carried them along with no specific destination and none of the equine mounts had shown the slightest unease during the journey. Manny and Michael had talked almost non-stop since they'd left the colony, with Aldo joining in only occasionally with a comment or response to something asked him.
The bloodhound's nose was by far the most sensitive of all the furmen on Bonestell, and although the scenery had grown uninteresting, there were abundant scents and aromas on the wind for his olfactory senses to sort and sift through. Unnoticed by his companions, he had slipped down to the ground and was walking beside his horse on all fours, his nose to the ground in the tall wheat-grass. His horse kept the easy pace with the others and Aldo maintained his position beside the mare, keeping her on his left.
He stopped when he came upon the droppings of some large animal and compared its scent with his memory. It was old and dried, riddled with insect holes, but there were none present now. The weathered patty barely had a scent left to it, but the bloodhound's memory association clicked and he realized that it had come from one of the thunderpigs. He wanted to break it apart and inspect it further to get a sample for the red panda, but there were no sticks out on this prairie and he was disinclined to do it with just his claws.
He looked up but couldn't see much through the wheat-grass and he suddenly realized that the others had gone on without noticing he was no longer with them. He lifted his head and then stood up on two feet so he could see above the thin double stalks that grew up to his shoulders. He spotted the horses standing together only a short distance ahead, but of his companions he saw nothing.
Aldo frowned deeply and moved quietly toward the horses. Had something happened to his friends or had they merely stopped to pee? He sniffed the steady breeze, but he was upwind and was unable to locate them by scent alone.
His mare looked back at him and snorted softly when he brushed a hand along the flat of her neck, gently running his fingers through her mane. Aldo grew still and listened. The winds rustled the grasses, but he could hear nothing more for several long minutes. Then something reached his ears and a thin smile crept across his face.
He grabbed the horn of the western saddle, put a foot into the stirrup and then swung himself easily up onto the back of the horse. Now with a higher vantage point, he could look out across the prairie and it only took a moment for him to recognize the white pelt of the arctic fox as Manny jumped and bounded through the grasses with the mix of grey and sand-colored fur of the swift fox close behind.
The Vulps were out stretching their legs and it almost looked as if they were playing tag in the grass very much as their vulpine cousins would do. He grinned and panted lightly, though not from exertion but from the lighthearted amusement he felt watching them.
The bloodhound reached into his pack for a bottle of water and poured a little into his palm to lap it up when the foxes finally got up onto two feet and walked casually back to the horses with satisfied grins. The sky was still predominantly overcast, but there was no scent of rain in the air, though the winds had picked up in a straight southeasterly direction. Looking out over the tops of the wheat-grass, Aldo could practically see the wind currents moving in waves with occasional abrupt directional shifts to whip the stalks around.
One such sudden change in wind direction washed over them in an instant, and with it was an intense scent that none of them had ever smelled before. Both foxes and the canine stopped suddenly as if frozen in time, but the three horses snorted and whinnied nervously, their ears back and eyes roving all around them as if searching for an unseen predator.
Manny swung himself up into saddle after a moment and Michael did the same, but only after grabbing a pistol from his pack first. The winds shifted again and then the scent was gone, but the memory of it was still strong in the nostrils of all six Terran creatures.
The grey wolf Fur had finished his assigned chores, had eaten and had cleaned up in the river in a shallow pool downstream of the camp that had been designated as a communal bath. With everyone covered in fur, there was less reason for modesty, so long as everyone remembered to keep their tails down while others were present. Outside the bath, the wearing of clothing on top was optional for males and females alike, but it was still prudent for all to wear the furman shorts provided for them for hygienic reasons. Many still wore the furman vests or overalls that had been provided for them, primarily for the practicality of pockets.
Carl Amaranth shook out his fur while standing on all fours, stood up to slip into his shorts and then walked quietly across the valley back toward the cavern. With a ceiling height of approximately thirty-five feet and a passage width of close to one hundred twenty feet, there was more than enough room for all the geodesic domes that made up the buildings of the colony. The largest dome was big enough to hold all thirty-one members of Second Chance at once if needed, and although they were originally designed to be constructed outside, the cavern had been an ideal location once they had discovered signs of flooding in the valley.
There were varying sizes of the domes, from several larger ones for a Bonestellan year of supplies to smaller ones equal in size to a good family camping tent intended to provide at least one to four full-sized Furs a place to sleep and call home. All were made of sealed, insulated panels designed to withstand arctic conditions on Earth, so they were more than equipped to handle the slight chill of the cavern and hopefully the coming winter.
It was one of the larger domes that the grey wolf made his way toward after he'd gotten back up to the cavern. Electric LED lamps were placed strategically throughout the camp, powered by a sturdy set of solar collectors stationed outside the cavern entrance on the side of the mountain. Some of the domes were wired for overhead lamps if power was provided to them and fortunately for Carl, the one he entered was so equipped, unlike the smaller dome Sissy had visited earlier. The efficient light-emitting diodes used very little power and provided ample illumination wherever they were used. They were hardy and lasted longer than conventional bulbs, were easy to replace and the colony had been provided with large cases containing thousands of the tiny inexpensive lamps.
Before their departure from Earth, Carl had put in a request for a specific item without knowing whether or not the budget would allow for it or if it would fit within the weight restrictions of the freight. He had received neither confirmation nor denial of his request before they'd boarded the colony ship, so he didn't know if it would be amongst their supplies. He'd actually forgotten about it until he'd heard that Avon was authorizing exploration parties, so now he wanted to see if it had been included with their cargo.
Quietly and patiently, he searched through stacked crates of non-perishable supplies, reading the manifest labels affixed to the ends of each, but nothing seemed to be the right size or shape to contain what he'd requested. It would have to be rather large to house, unless it would have to be assembled from several crates.
He was sure he had been denied after an hour of frustrated searching, wryly wondering if he should check to see if it had been packed away with the can openers, but just as he reached for the switch to turn out the overhead lamps, he spied the end of a long, narrow crate right by the door. He might have missed it if his eyes hadn't fallen upon his own name. There were several other boxes stacked upon it, so he took care to remove them to get to it. If he had not been searching for something specific, it was unlikely anyone else would have noticed what was in the crate for some time. Another large box beside it was similarly labeled, so he had to excavate it as well.
When he had the top cleared off, he grasped a rope handle affixed to one end and dragged the heavy crates out into the doorway. Excitement ruled his actions, but he possessed too much of a sense of responsibility than to get into them right away; he first needed to put the other boxes back in place so no one would inadvertently fall over them.
Once that task was done, he turned back to his presents with a gently wagging tail. It was Christmas time for Carl.
The seals across both boxes were unbroken, but since his name was on the shipping labels, the wolf had no reservations against slicing through them with a claw tip. He flipped the latches, set the lid aside on the longer of the two crates that was marked “1 of 2” and then examined the contents with a puzzled expression. If it was what he was expecting, some of the parts looked wrong. As he had surmised, the unit would have to be assembled, but he and Ellie had the necessary experience with this sort of thing, providing all the parts were there.
Lying on top of the packing material was a plain white envelope with his name scrawled across the front. It was not sealed, so the wolf pulled out the single sheet of paper to see a letter written to him.
Carl, the approval of your request for a hover fancraft came in too late to tell you about it personally, so this will likely be a surprise. In the history of the Anthro Human Colonization Program, no one has ever requested a fancraft as part of the equipment and supplies for a new colony, but since exploring your new world will be one of your duties, Stockholm agreed that it could be a beneficial asset to your endeavors. Unfortunately, cargo limitations on the colony ship restricted the size and weight of what we could send with you, so we've had to dust off an older technology and send an ultralight gyrocopter instead. I know this may come as a disappointment, but at this late hour, it was the best we could do for you.
Since fuel will be hard to come by on Bonestell, this version of the craft is equipped with a solar charge battery and a purely electrical system, so all you need is a good day of sunlight to power it. However, again due to cargo limitations, we could only send a one-person, open-air edition of this craft.
Considering that you and your wife Ellie are the only ones within Second Chance certified with a pilot's license and past experience flying ultralight aircraft, the two of you will likely be the only ones performing aerial exploration for your camp. I would urge you to train one or two others in its use as backups, but this may be rather difficult since the machine can only support one person at a time. There is a small storage area beneath the seat, but there is only the one seat available, making training difficult. I know you will figure out something. Be careful in its use, but I hope it benefits your efforts.
Good luck and Godspeed.
— Marcelo C. Delgado, Director of the North American Furmankind Institute.
Jon knelt beside the open crates and examined their contents while Carl and Ellie talked with Avon behind him. The grizzly bear seemed out of sorts finding that the gyrocopter had been included in their manifest without his knowledge and he was reluctant to listen to the wolves who entreated him to let them use it for exploration.
“Avon, Stockholm agreed with my request, thinking it was a good idea,” Carl said to his ursine leader. “I may not have gotten exactly what I requested, but it should still be of good service. One of the reasons we're here is to explore. You've already agreed we should do this and you've allowed others to go out from the camp on exploratory excursions, so why not us?”
The grizzly held up Marcelo's letter and shook it. “Because this thing will only hold one person, Carl,” he said in frustration. “Due to the unknown dangers of an unknown planet, you already know that I don’t want anyone to go out away from camp alone. Two or more together is the rule – you agreed it was a good idea when we all discussed it right after our arrival. We're all relatively safe in the cave or out in our little valley, but once you cross over the mountain or go beyond the woods, it's in pairs or nothing! Out exploring alone is not a good idea and is forbidden.”
“You're the only one forbidding it,” Ellie grumbled, meeting his dark gaze with one of her own. “We can't modify it to carry another person, and even if we could simply strap a dinner chair to it with duct tape and a seatbelt, the motor and rotors weren't designed with the power to carry two.”
“I doubt it would carry your weight by itself,” Carl added. “The point is that headquarters approved it for us. If you remember, we were all told that our assignment was to go in where the original human colony was supposed to set up on Bonestell and try to determine what happened to them. If we cannot find any survivors of the original landing, we are to proceed as if we are the only colony to have come to this planet. Since we've found no signs of that original group in our immediate vicinity, using this gyrocopter would assist us in a wider aerial search for them!”
“Carl,” Avon said in frustration, “I'm not against your reasons for having this thing — what I'm against is you going out with it alone! If you had the ability to take Ellie with you, I would okay it right now, but that's not an option! We've not seen anything larger than the noisy arrowheads flying around here, but what happens if you tangle with something bigger than yourself in the air and get into trouble?”
“If that happened, we'd both be in trouble,” Ellie countered. “Being together or alone wouldn't even matter in that situation.”
“Perhaps not that, but if it caused you to crash, perhaps one of you would survive well enough to assist the other or go for help. If you or Carl got into trouble, we'd never know what happened to you and couldn't help. That's the case with anyone who leaves camp to go explore.”
“Just let me take it up for a couple hours at time then,” the male wolf offered. “If I do develop trouble, I won't be that far away and I'll have a flare gun to signal my location. I'll stay in radio range and make periodic reports on my position in case anything does happen, but it will give us a greater range to see what's around us that's quicker than going out on foot or on horseback. I have experience in cartography so I can even take aerial photographs to use in drawing a map of the vicinity.”
The mountain lion had remained quiet during the exchange, silently looking over the parts in the boxes. One crate held the motor in pre-formed padding while the longer box contained the disassembled frame, controls and other parts. He picked up what looked like the suspension of a wheel assembly and idly hefted it in his hands. He had been listening to the argument, but said nothing until Avon turned to him.
“Jon, help me out here, please,” Avon said.
The cougar looked up at the bear towering over them all. “You want my opinion?” he asked.
“I do – yours can be the voice of reason here.”
“What reason?” Ellie grumbled. “He's your second in command and will just back up whatever you say!”
Jon swished his tail back and forth as he placed the mechanism back in its padding and then he stood up to face the three of them. He gestured toward the wolves while looking at the grizzly.
“I think an aerial reconnaissance of the surrounding area is a good idea,” he said to Avon's surprise. “Not only will it be helpful looking for signs of the original landing party, Carl and Ellie might locate some natural resources we could use for food, medicine or other useful purposes. There may be other animals nearby that we might consider as a food source that doesn't happen to wander into our little valley – hopefully something tastier than my deer steak.”
He shrugged his shoulders and added, “Personally, I don't see a problem letting either one of them go out on short flights. It may be no more dangerous than going out on the prairie with thunderpigs around that could stampede at any moment.”
Avon stared at him in disbelief. Even though he had asked the cougar's opinion, like the Amaranths, he had fully expected Jon to side with him in this argument. Feeling frustrated and outnumbered, the colony captain finally nodded.
“Okay,” he said at last, “I'm still reluctant to let you go out alone, but you two have my approval to assemble and fly your little gyrocopter to make short flights, no more than two hours at a time.” He looked at Carl and Ellie both and made a pointed nod with his chin. “Stick to the plan, take no unnecessary risks and report in as often as you can. When either of you are up in the air, I will carry one of the hand radios with me at all times for your reports.”
The wolves grinned in unison. “Thank you!” Carl said with renewed excitement.
“Thank you too, Jon!” Ellie added.
The bear sighed audibly and shook his head in resignation. “Sending you out alone still makes me nervous, but I sincerely hope you find something to make the flights worth the risks. Things may seem quiet these days, but there's always the chance that danger of some sort is out there just waiting to show its ugly mug.”
“What was that?” Michael whispered to his companions, gripping his pistol in readiness. Their horses snorted and whinnied nervously, their eyes roving all across the endless field of wheat-grass as if searching for some unseen danger.
“I don't know, but that scent ripped a shiver all the way up and down my spine,” Manny replied, his voice also hushed.
Aldo continued to sniff the air, but the wind was now blowing the ill scent away from him and it had nothing to do with the natural fragrance of spearmint the grasses gave off. The shifting gusts had brought it to them for only a moment, but it was enough to put them all on their guard. “It's like nothing else I've ever smelled since my nose became more sensitive, either here or on Earth,” he whispered. “It doesn't stink and it's not foul; I don't know why it makes me feel this way, but it sure gave me a reaction!”
“What do we do?” Michael asked. “I can't tell where it came from – it could be anywhere!”
“It's downwind, that's why we can't smell it now,” the bloodhound replied. All three of them looked toward the southeast with trepidation.
“Are we being stalked?” the swift fox asked hoarsely, his throat tight.
“Calm down, guys,” Manny said slowly. “Whatever it is, I'm sure it can probably smell us and it likely smells our fear. Just remember, we are predator types ourselves, high up on the food chain.”
“The food chain of Earth, you mean,” Michael remarked. “Who knows where on the chain we're dangling from here?”
“Nevertheless, stay calm. We already figured we'd run into something scary sooner or later, but that may not even be the case here. Stay on the alert, but it's likely we'll find a dreadful little toad or something that emits that scent to warn off critters looking for a potential meal.”
Aldo looked at the arctic fox and frowned, not at all convinced with his conjecture. Something about that scent spooked them and their horses quite strongly. Holding the reins of his horse tight to keep her from running, he cleared his throat and gestured toward the small party's accepted leader.
“Do you want me to track down that scent so we can see for sure?”
“Are you crazy?” Michael squeaked.
Manny thought about it for a moment and hefted his pistol, barrel to the air. “We may not have to go far to find it,” he said to the canine, “but I would rather be hunting it than have it hunting us. If we turned around and headed back to camp now, there's the possibility we might lead whatever it is back to a buffet at Second Chance. Let's find it and maybe we can put the Fear of Furs into it first so it will leave us alone.”
It took some coaxing to get their horses to move forward, but after fifteen minutes of southeasterly travel, they had experienced nothing further to threaten them. The tops of the wheat-grass continued to bow to the southeast in straight-line winds and the scent never came back to them. Despite this, they all kept their guard up with pistols ready, eyes and ears straining for any sign of danger.
The terrain was just as flat and open as it had been since they had departed the mountains, though constantly on a gentle rise in elevation. The winds never abated and the sound in their ears played tricks on their active imaginations. Although no threat had come for them, they all harbored private thoughts that the choice to go looking for the source of the frightful scent might be foolhardy.
Aldo had slipped down off his horse, although he was still up on two feet in order to lead his mare by the reins. Down closer to the ground where the four-foot high, double-stalked wheat-grasses blocked the winds somewhat, he hoped to get a better line on what he sought. As such, however, it also limited his sight distance to watch out for something that might be camouflaged with the terrain.
The bloodhound's nose started to quiver. There was a hint of the original scent, though it was not as strong with the winds still taking it away from him. He moved forward cautiously, gripping his pistol in one hand at the ready, silently lamenting his wish to get down on all fours to seek out the source of the scent. He was glad to be armed, but if danger reared up and he had to run for it, he'd need all of his paws to beat a hasty retreat. Wasn't that one of the reasons they'd all become Furs in the first place?
“Whoa!” Manny's voice exclaimed. The canine crouched down immediately, making himself a smaller target, but the arctic fox suddenly called out to him. “Aldo? Are you seeing this?”
Manny didn't sound frightened, so Aldo stood up beside his horse and looked out over the grasses at him. “No,” he replied quietly, “what is it?”
“Get up on your horse and look,” suggested Michael.
The bloodhound grabbed the horn of his saddle, put a foot into the stirrup and then swung himself up onto the back of the mare. As soon as he did, he was looking out over a craggy expanse of weathered gullies, deep ravines and wind eroded rock formations that were colored in striations of browns, tans and reds denoting eons and layers upon layers of geological activity.
There were dark shadows upon jutting walls here and there that looked like the mouths of caves and none of them looked inviting. The three Terran Furs upon their horses were all standing on a ridge overlooking a desolate region several miles across where nothing grew, not even scrubby weeds. The winds continued to whip around them, but updrafts from the gorge suddenly shifted their direction and the scent they had been seeking hit them just as strong and fully as it had before.
The horses all bucked in fear and tried to bolt away, and the Furs had to hold on frantically to stay in their saddles. It was all that the three travelers could do to rein them in, but each of them was more than willing to let their mounts take them away from there as quickly as they could.
Manny turned his horse to face the threat, the safety off of his semi-automatic firearm that was aimed and ready to fire. Encouraged by the arctic fox's bravery, Michael and Aldo rode up beside him and quickly readied their own pistols.
They waited for several minutes, but nothing came over the ridge at them. Then, making the decision of his own volition, the bloodhound coaxed his horse back to the overlook. The others pulled up alongside a moment later and Aldo handed his reins over to Michael. The swift fox wrapped the end of the reins around his saddle horn in case the canine's mount bolted again.
Aldo got down on all fours and eased up to the ridge. The shifting wind gusts at the edge of the desolate valley brought the strong scent back to his nose, but this time he held his ground. Nothing came after him and he had an unobstructed view of the whole region the scent came from. The only movement he saw was from the wind on the ridge and swirls of dust from the dry region below.
He stared and studied the vicinity closely for several long moments, but whatever issued that smell did not appear to be stalking them; it was definitely down in there somewhere, giving off a scent that frightened all the Terran explorers, be they canine, vulpine or equine. No matter if it lived there or was just passing through, Aldo wasn't sure he really wanted to know what it was. He had an active imagination and his mind formed numerous hulking monsters, but it was unlikely he could have conjured up its true reality.
Unable to stand the smell any longer and unwilling to extend the hunt further, he backed away from the ridge and returned to his nervous companions. Perhaps this might be an area to avoid, marking it on future maps with the age-old words, “Here be dragons.”
As the riders departed the canyon there was movement near the ridge where they had been. A pair of fathomless black eyes eased up from the shadows of a dry gully and watched the retreating figures shrink to dots through the grass in the distance. Had the travelers remained nearby, the denizen emitting the unsettling, overpowering smell would have guaranteed their hasty departure — or perhaps frozen them with fear.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.