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SECOND CHANCE

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 6
Explorers

 

The large brown bear looked up at the overcast sky and sniffed at the mild breezes flowing along the eastern edge of the mountains. There were some stronger gusts at times, but for the most part it was a steady light wind that brought a mixed bag of scents to Aaron and his cousin.

He and Gerard had been traveling northeast along the foothills of the mountain range for the past few hours; on their left were rocky peaks that stretched on before them as far north as their genetically-enhanced ursine eyes could see and on the right was a wide open prairie. Dark hills could be seen far in the distance that way, but their destination was not across the plain.

Without mounts, the Ursis explorers traveled on all fours under their own power, but they were well-equipped for endurance. Both were barefoot, relying solely upon their well-padded hands and feet, and the coastal brown bears were similarly dressed in simple shorts that matched their fur colors. From a distance, either might look like nothing more than another wild animal wandering the countryside except for the hunter-green backpacks they wore.

There had been nothing much of interest to report when they'd made their first two-hour radio check in with the colony captain, and there was little difference in the second report they had just made. Had they not known they were on another planet several parsecs from Earth, the cousins might have thought they were in the vicinity of the North American Rockies. Some of the high peaks were dusted with snow and scrubby trees grew sporadically up their sides. The southernmost mountain in the range housed their colony cavern, and while it was probably the smallest peak of them all, it wasn't tall enough for a frosty crown of its own.

Along their journey they had seen numerous types of birds and they had dutifully taken photos of those they could get close to. They had also come across small mixed-heritage creatures that looked as if they could have been related to rabbits, squirrels and prairie dogs within the same family reunion. These inhabited the nooks and crannies among the rocks, and although they couldn't catch any of them to take back as samples, they did manage to catch a few photos. Out of idle flippancy, Gerard named them squarie dabbits to the amusement of his cousin. Of no interest to the bears except as potential snacks, there had also been numerous furball mice scurrying practically beneath their footsteps; the tiny, tailless rodents seemed to be everywhere.

There had been thunderpigs out on the prairie and even some of the lil-deer romping through the wheat-grasses, but otherwise they had not seen much of anything new that hadn't previously been sighted near their home camp. Something off in the distance across the prairie made a hoon, hoon, hoon call, but whatever it was that made it never put in an appearance.

They had mostly picked their way through strewn boulders at the base of the mountains where they met the plains, but occasionally one of them would wander up the incline to pursue a random scent or flurry of movement.

One of the perks that came with the hybrid transformation they had all undergone for this mission was hearing that was more acute than it had even been when they were human. Due to this, even when separated by a little distance, the cousins did not have to shout or raise their voices much to be heard.

It was while Gerard was picking his way around the boulders at ground level that he looked up and twitched one of his small round ears.  “You're mumbling again, Aaron,” he said.

The other bear was a short distance up the side of the mountain, his nose to the ground as he sifted through the scents in front of him. They were nearing a pass between their colony mountain and the next in the range.

“I said I'm getting bored,” Aaron muttered only slightly louder than conversational tone. “Other than finding a few small critters and taking samples of flowers and weeds that look little different than what we might step on back home, I've seen nothing since we left to make me feel like an explorer on another world.”

“These weeds and flowers have never been seen on Earth,” his cousin reminded him.

“So?  There are weeds and flowers on Earth that I've never seen before.”  Aaron snorted and brushed the seeds of a willowy plant from his nose. “Are you sure we're on another planet? I thought this place would be alien, but in reality it's boringly mundane!”

“I've never seen thunderpigs, furballs or even those wretched arrowhead birds with sideways beaks in a documentary on the Science Discoveries Channel,” Gerard said dryly.

“We're probably somewhere in South America,” Aaron complained as he resumed meandering across the side of the mountain. “I think the ship left the space station when they stuck us in cryo and then just landed back on Earth to kick us out with some story of having traveled light-years to get here. It's probably just another survival test.”

Gerard chuckled at the other bear and shook his head. “There are two moons in the sky, each day is thirty six long hours, and I highly doubt these are the Andes we're walking beside, cousin.”

Without even looking up, Aaron replied, “Why do you have to be so practical and want to burst my fantasy bubble while I’m wishing I was back on Earth?”

“Better now than wait until you've already started looking for La Casera.”

“Thanks, now I'm thirsty for a soda pop.  Maybe we should just go back.”

“Go back?  We've only been out here a little over four hours. We don't have to turn around for another five.”

“I don't want to keep going for another five hours. I thought I wanted to get away from camp for a while and we have, but if we don't fi—”  

Gerard looked up when his companion's voice trailed off. “Aaron?”

His cousin didn't respond, but Gerard could see the other bear down on all fours sniffing around back and forth.  “What did you find?”

“Animal trail,” Aaron finally answered.  “It goes up diagonally across the mountain in almost a straight line, as much as the rocks and brush allow anyway.”

“That sounds like whatever's using it has a specific destination with regular traffic.” 

“I smell the hogs, as usual… and other things I can't identify.”

The brown bear made his way up the uneven terrain until he finally reached his cousin's side.  At his feet was a well-worn trail across rocks, sand and gravel. It was wide enough to be unmistakable and hard to miss.

“Let's see where it goes,” Aaron said with bright eyes, pleased to have something to do besides wander aimlessly over the hillside.

Both bears proceeded cautiously along the trail, but they had a good sight distance ahead of them except when forced to circumnavigate around a boulder too large to go over. The two of them fell quiet as they walked, slowly gaining altitude, and each of them listened intently for anything that might be in front of or behind them on the trail.

They slowed when they approached one such immense boulder that was up next to the side of the mountain, leaving only a narrow channel between them – a perfect place for an ambush.

Aaron was still on all fours in front, but Gerard stood up behind him and quickly fished a pistol from his travel pack. He chambered a round and then thumbed off the safety, holding its barrel up in preparation for trouble.

Aaron eased his nose around the boulder, but the only thing he saw was a dark opening into the mountain; it was just large enough that that two of them could have walked in together side by side and both up on two feet.  Aaron sniffed the aroma coming from inside, a moist, musty smell permeated with other scents. He moved forward slowly while Gerard hung back in case of trouble.

His eyes still used to the sunlight outside, the interior was very dark and Aaron had to stop once he was inside to let them adjust. When he didn’t move any further or cry out in alarm, Gerard crept in behind him, the handgun small in his paws with one claw on the trigger but held ready.

“The thunderpigs definitely know about this cave,” Gerard whispered as quietly as he could.

“No doubt about it from these scents. Maybe they use it to get out of bad weather; it smells like they've been using it for a long time.”

“Maybe they den here to have their piglets,” Gerard suggested. “My eyes are getting used to the dark and I can see hoof prints in the dirt.”

There was a slight shuffling sound from somewhere back in the Stygian darkness and the Ursis cousins froze. The sound wasn't repeated, but after several long moments, the bears backed out of the cave slowly in unspoken agreement.

They had reached the entrance and Gerard slid out into the sunlight gratefully, but just before Aaron left the interior completely, he stopped.  His nostrils quivered as a subtle but unexpected scent touched his sensitive olfactory senses.  He reached out behind him without looking and latched onto his cousin's arm.  Gently, but insistently, he pulled Gerard back to his side.

“Do you smell that?” he whispered.

Gerard inhaled deeply and grimaced.  “Dirty, smelly pigs,” he grunted.

“No, try again, softly, gently. It's faint, barely there – something else.”

Once more, Gerard inhaled, but this time he took in the scents coming out of the cave and sifted the aromas in his mind.  He was about to repeat his earlier assessment, but then he got it.  His eyes widened and he looked aside at Aaron, who nodded.

Barely on the edge of the scents from the cave was a subtle floral scent, and if he wasn't imaging things, it almost smelled like lavender.  He took in another sample but the scent was still there.

Finally convinced, Gerard backed out and this time Aaron joined him.  They retreated a few steps away from the entrance out into the sun and faced one another.

Still in a quiet voice as if he was afraid something might hear them, Aaron said, “I can't imagine flowers growing inside a cave in the dark, especially with all the pig stink in there.”

“This is a new world with its own rules,” Gerard reminded him.  “Maybe it's some flowery-smelling mushrooms or lichen.”

“Perhaps,” Aaron muttered. “If I didn't know better, I would have thought Dara was in there. You know how she likes her lavender perfume; we could make more for her if we can get the cave plant that smells like that. Now I wish I could get a sample of it to take back to Doctor Mochizuki.”

Gerard gestured back toward the cave entrance.  “Be my guest,” he said with a smirk. “We brought flashlights.”

Aaron pursed his lips, which his cousin thought looked odd on a bear, but he shook his head.  “Not when the place is still occupied.  Maybe later.”

“In that case, you take some pictures, I'll take some notes and then we'll move on before more of the porkers come home and discover we’ve disturbed their nest.  You still want to go back to camp?”

Aaron shook his head. “No, let's go on. We're almost to the pass between mountains, so let's take a look to see if there's anything of interest there.” 

*** 

The comforting gait of the horse beneath him, Ivan felt a calm sense of peace as Halley the dark grey stallion picked his way across a seemingly unending sea of tall grass; Kristen had conjectured that it might actually be a form of wheat, but to Ivan it was just grass. The rocky mountain range was behind them and a low range of hills was ahead in the distance.

The winds had picked up under an overcast sky and the double stalks of grass waved in the breezes, but the temperature was comfortable and the clouds helped to keep the hot sun off their backs. Rose’s arms around the red reynard's middle were warm and reassuring, but despite the unchanging terrain, she continued to study their surroundings looking for anything new.

The tall, tan colored wheat-grass was the predominant plant occupying the plains that stretched on for miles, but was by no means the only thing growing. On the whole, the place seemed uniform, but there were many spots of oasis containing short flower stalks, broad-leafed trees only a foot tall, other kinds of green grasses that grew in thick clumps and myriads of wildflowers in all colors, shapes and sizes.  Slow moving insects flittered around these oases and tiny birds with large bills and odd muted patterns in their feathers flew around to pick them out of the air.

A half dozen of the lil-deer occupied one of these islands, quietly resting upon the ground and only one got up to its feet when the horse drew near. None of them seemed afraid, but the one was curious about the large horse and came over to sniff at his feet.  The stallion gave it no more thought than it might of one of the colony sheep and continued his journey without coaxing by his riders.

The red fox vixen turned to look behind them as they left the deer behind, but Ivan yipped in frustration.  She turned back to see him rubbing the base of his tail.  The western saddle had never been designed with a rider possessing a tail and Ivan had to constantly pull it out from beneath him. Rose sat behind him, her rump upon the horse's back, but had been fortunate that her tail remained un-pinched during the ride.

Saddlebags had been included in the colony supplies for the horses, but since this outing was only a day trip, they had chosen instead to take small backpacks. The saddlebags would also have limited Rose's riding space behind the saddle.

“Would you like to change places?” she asked quietly. “I could sit up front so your poor tail can get a rest.”

“If you wish,” he replied, “but this means you will also have your tail pinched by the saddle.”

“Then we'll have a matched set and can spend time rubbing them for one another later,” she said with a smile, resting her chin upon his shoulder over the small pack upon his back. “Really, I don't mind trading off.”

“Okay, but let's wait until the next oasis where we can stop to eat and rest, and then we can continue on with you up front.”

“That sounds like a good plan.”  She tickled his ear with the tip of her nose and added, “Maybe we can make this an extended stop and get out of our clothes for a while.”

Ivan turned to look at her and raised a brow at the mischievous glint in her eyes. “You are too frisky for my own good,” he murmured with a smirk, “but I like the idea. In the meantime, leave those thoughts alone.”

Rose chuckled. “Spoilsport. Okay, what should we talk about?”

The fox tod shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno… tell me about your family.”

“My family?  Yeah, that should kill the mood.”

“Rose…”

“Okay, okay,” she muttered, resting her cheek upon the fabric of his backpack.  “My folks died in a boating accident just a few years ago, so Jasmine, Dahlia and I decided to join the AHCP and leave behind the family memories you want me to remember.”

“Oh, sorry,” Ivan replied, chagrined.

“It's all right,” Rose said quietly. “My sisters and I are all in our twenties, each of us two years apart and I'm the youngest. Our folks wanted a boy, but after three girls they quit trying and had themselves sterilized. The three of us have always been close and we've often gone into things together like martial arts or playing instruments, but sometimes we can get on one another's nerves.”

“That is true with all siblings,” the male fox remarked. “Like you, there were three of us. I have two brothers, one older and one younger.”

“The proverbial middle child,” Rose said in amusement. “Were you the one always getting into trouble?”

“No, that is my brother Anton. He is the youngest and always thinks he can get away with anything because of it. Unfortunately, it is mostly true with momma and poppa. Mikhail and I are the respectable ones.”

“Have you lost any of them?”

Ivan shook his head. “No, they are all still with us. Everybody has decent jobs and good homes.  Anton has a little girl and I try to spoil her rotten whenever I see her.” He stopped and corrected himself, “…saw her.” He fell silent, remembering that he would likely never see them or Earth again.

“Mom and Dad were the only relatives we had,” Rose said quietly. “In a set of similar circumstances, both were born late in life to their parents and both were an only child, so by the time the three of us were born, just about all of the elder families had passed away.”

“I am sorry to hear this.”

Rose wrapped her arms around Ivan's middle and gave him a thankful hug.  “I appreciate that,” she said. “It's just the three of us now and since the family line has essentially ended and none of us were married, we didn't have a reason to remain on the Earth.”

“A family line is not necessarily dependent upon a male survivor,” Ivan told her. “In some cultures, perhaps the family name is lost, but you can still pass on your genes to your children.”

“I accept your offer to help pass on my genes,” Rose said impishly, brushing her short dark scalp hair out of her eyes.  “I wonder what our children will look like.”

Ivan snorted in amusement. “Little red and black furballs we will have to clean their tails and house break, I would imagine.” Then, a moment later, “How is Jasmine's tail?”

Rose frowned, remembering the reason why her eldest sister's luxurious fox tail had been shaved to the skin from her rear to the tip. It was unfortunate that Jasmine had inadvertently caused the death of Travis Tyndall when the German shepherd had tried to rape her, but since a considerable amount of time and money had been invested in the male Fur's development, her punishment for the crime was permanent banishment from the Earth and a shaved tail for all to see.

“The fur's coming back in uniformly,” she answered, “but it will still take months before it looks normal again. The fur on it is only about a half inch thick now.”

“Yeah, I thought I saw her trailing a rope behind her a couple nights ago,” Ivan remarked. “It must have been her tail.”

“Hopefully it will be thick again by the time the cold of winter gets here.”

The horse stopped suddenly, his muscles tense beneath the foxes. His ears were up and he was staring intently ahead. Ivan leaned forward slowly and gently rubbed the side of Halley's neck, his eyes peering out across the grass trying to see what the stallion had spotted.

He didn't have to look for long. Trotting purposely through the tall grass toward them was one of the shaggy, long-haired warthog-like animals they called thunderpigs. This one didn't look passive at all, and as it got closer, it snorted loudly and began to pick up speed.

The grey horse's fight or flight instincts kicked in and he bolted away, taking the surprised foxes with him. Rose almost slid off his back, but she managed to keep her arms around Ivan's middle as she held on tight.

The massive thunderpig charged after them and closed the distance more rapidly than they'd thought possible. If these large native hogs were anything like their Terran porcine cousins, they could chase down and kill just about any creature unfortunate enough to get too close to one when it was mad or hungry. Although primarily root-eaters, they also had no qualms against hunting down live meat when they could get it and it looked as if this one had set its sights on sampling the Arabian horse.

 Ivan held tight to the reins, but didn’t have to coax Halley forward as the horse was running as fast as it could through the wheat-grass with the two Vulps upon his back.  Its speed assisted by hypermobile knee joints, the pig was gaining on them; its large three-toed hooves thundered against the ground, so Ivan pulled on the left rein to veer away from the straight-line path the prey and predator had taken.  The horse shot off at a different angle and the hog had to compensate for the unexpected maneuver, but it gave them a few extra seconds.

Rose glanced behind them and saw that the gigantic pig was closing the distance again and she reflexively tightened her grip around Ivan's ribcage. The fox tod gulped for breath with difficulty.

“Rose!” he gasped. The vixen loosened her hold on him only slightly, but it was enough to allow him to breathe.

The thunderpig was tight on the horse's right flank and it was so close that Rose was sure she could feel its hot breath upon her leg. It tossed its head to the side, trying to wound its prey with a sharp tusk, and narrowly missed both the horse and the vixen. 

Rose kicked out, but without a hardened heel of a shoe or boot, her bare footpads made no impact to counter the pig's attack. She raked her foot claws across its face, but she did little more than give it superficial scratches across the tough hide of its nose. She wished she'd had a stick or something to poke into its eye and then she remembered the pistol in Ivan's backpack.

Still trying to hold on as the male fox attempted another turn to gain time, the vixen had a hard time opening the pack with one hand, and then when she did get the zipper wide enough, she had to dig for the gun, grimacing at the stinging wheat-grass whipping across her bare legs.

She pulled it out and chambered a round, remembering to thumb the safety off, but when the horse beneath her suddenly veered to the right, she almost dropped the pistol.  She had not attended Manny's gun handling training back at the Furmankind Institute, but a past boyfriend had taken her to a firing range enough times that she had some familiarity.  Shooting down a range was one thing, however, but trying to aim behind her while on the back of a frantically running horse was another.

She squeezed off a shot that completely missed her target, but the sudden report startled the thunderpig and it slowed momentarily.  The horse, however, was spurred on by the shot and the gap between he and his pursuer widened.  The giant hog regained its focus quickly and charged forward again.

Rose tried to aim again, and this time the shot struck the base of one of the thunderpig's upper tusks. The hard bone splintered and the hog bugled in sudden pain, shock and surprise. Although only superficially injured, the huge creature stumbled in its confusion and its momentum rolled it over several times through the wheat-grass, knocking a large plume of dust and plants into the air.

Rose shouted out triumphantly, but Ivan coaxed the horse to keep running as fast as it could to put as much distance between them and the pig as possible.

Several moments passed before Halley slowed from a race pace to a canter and then to an exhausted walk as he realized the danger was now far behind them.  The horse snorted and panted from the most exertion it had had in quite some time, and the foxes upon its back were gasping for breath as well, though more from the adrenaline rush than from running.

“Did you kill it?” Ivan asked, looking around uncertainly.  He'd not seen the action behind him and could only guess from the way Rose had cheered in victory, but he could hear no further sounds of pursuit.

“I don't think so,” the vixen replied, “but I did hit it.  I just hope that made it decide to go away and leave us alone!”

“Well, Halley is tired and doesn't seem spooked anymore, so maybe you're right.”  The male fox helped Rose down onto the ground and then he stepped out of the saddle too, giving the horse a break from having them upon his back.  Before he dropped to the ground, however, Ivan peered around and spotted the hills they had been traveling toward, albeit they were much closer now. 

His bearings corrected, Ivan began walking toward their original destination with Rose beside him and Halley following his lead by the reins.  Rose kept a wary eye behind them in case the pig came back and she held the pistol ready with her thumb upon the safety. 

*** 

They heard the sound before they even topped the rise — a mushy cross between a low throated bugle and a warble was the closest way it could be described. Both bears eased up together and peered over the rocky ridge of the ground in front of them, their noses quivering as they took in the new scent.

Twenty yards beyond a clump of blue-green bushes was a trio of dark brown creatures, two of which were drinking from the shallow pool of a mountain stream. The third was standing watch over them and was staring directly at the two bears. It was apparent that the creature had detected their scents as the breezes blew up and around through the mountain pass, but even through it knew they were there, neither of the cousins felt like exposing himself fully.

The biggest of the trio had a thick, hairy torso on top of long spindly legs, a broad but thick neck framed by enormous elephant-like ears, and a wide head topped with a large hammerhead-like antler ringed all around in over a dozen sharp tips. Oversized nostrils at the end of an expansive nose fairly vibrated when it opened a thin mouth and made its mushy vocalization at them again. Its large black eyes were locked upon the coastal brown bears and it took a step to the side to put itself between them and the smaller females behind it. Despite the long shaggy hair that naturally glistened in the afternoon sun, its underlying musculature gave it the appearance that this creature had stamina and strength to spare. It was also quite obviously male.

“I don't even think I want to go up against that,” Aaron whispered.  “Let's just shoot it and leave.”

“Shoot it?” Gerard repeated in surprise without taking his eyes from the large bull whatever-it-was.

“With the camera, you dolt. You're the one taking pictures of everything.”

“Right.”  Gerard pulled off his pack and fished out the compact camera. It was small in his large hand paws, but he'd been using it all day and was familiar handling it with his claws. The bull took a step closer to the bears and made its mushy, warbling bugle which they interpreted as a warning.  Gerard took several pictures, both full frame and close up to get in all of its features, and had managed to snap several of the females before the bull stamped a massive three-toed hoof in irritation at their continued presence.

“Time to retreat, cousin,” Aaron said quietly. “Let's back away slowly and give this moosh no more reason to feel threatened.”  Without further conversation or argument, Gerard put away the camera and then the bears withdrew to a good distance out into the mountain pass. They could still see the bull watching them, but the animal appeared a little more relaxed as his females nuzzled him from both sides.

Once they had topped another small rise and could look down into the valley formed between the mountains, Gerard stopped to sit upon the ground to pull an errant twig from between his toes.  He tilted his head at his cousin. “Moosh?” he asked with a grin.  “You called that thing a moosh?”

“Well, it's vaguely moose-like,” Aaron said, defending his impromptu naming of this new creature, “and its call was a bit mushy, like it had a mouth full of marbles.”

“I don't think it looks like a moose at all - more like a mountain elk crossed with an elephant. We could call it a melk – a moose-slash-elk.”

“A moose-elephant-elk with a huge hammerhead antler…  A hammer-moosh, a hamoosh, a hammer-melk or a melkaphant…”

“Now you're just being sarcastic.”

“I want to call it a moosh.”

“And I like melk.”

“How about a mooshelk?”

“Mooshelk…”

“Yup.”

Gerard grunted, pulled a PBJ from his pack and tapped in a few commands with one of his claw tips. He'd never mastered using the stylus since his hands had transformed into stubby fingers with permanently extended claws, so he'd gotten used to using his own built-in stylus with the clamshell unit.  He opened the file that he'd been using for taking notes of their outing and put in a line describing the “mooshelk” they'd just discovered and noted why.  As an added comment, he put in that it might be a potential food source, but that a rifle or a well-aimed arrow might be necessary to take it down.  Despite the power Gerard possessed in his genetically enhanced, hybrid ursine body, he doubted he could have taken down that bull on his own or even with his cousin's help. 

*** 

Ivan looked up at the hills that overlooked the plain with a wary eye, but there was nothing in the air that alerted him to any potential danger. The hills weren't tall enough to be mountains, but it would take time and effort to cross them nonetheless.  He and Rose had no time to explore them fully in the limit that Avon had given them, but as a prominent landmark near to their home, they had wanted to check them out anyway.

The wind coming in from the plain rustled the blocky leaves of the nearest trees, but there were so many different kinds of trees that these were just one type out of many.  Rose coaxed their mount to follow a dried gully that past rains had furrowed into the ground, weaving their way around the trees across clearings and obvious animal trails through the region without having to duck under many overhead limbs.

“There are so many new shrubs, flowers, grasses and other plants here that it would take Kristen months to investigate them all!” Rose said, delightfully sniffing the air as she pulled lightly on the reins to bring Halley to a stop in the middle of a clearing ringed by the various trees.

Ivan yawned and stretched after he hopped off the back of the horse and walked around a little in a bowlegged manner after having straddled it for some time. He pulled out the radio from the pocket of his shorts to check in with Avon while Rose began taking pictures and samples to take back with them.

“Avon, this is Ivan.  Are you there?” the male fox said into the radio.  The device was a century more advanced than the radios of old and the batteries more efficient, but the principle of its operation was the same.  There was no response for a moment and the fox was about to try again when the colony captain's familiar voice issued from its small speaker.

 “I'm here, Ivan,” the grizzly bear responded, sounding out of breath. “Your report is early, has something happened?”

“We got chased out on the plains by one of the thunderpigs that wanted to eat our horse a little while ago, but we're safe now, no one hurt.  We've just reached the edge of the hills you can see toward the east of our mountain. We're in a clearing in the woods that cover these hills and Rose is gathering samples for Kristen and Masanori.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“We're going to lunch here for a little bit to rest up from the ride and then I want to go to the top of one of these hills to see what's beyond.”

“Don't get too lost up in those woods,” the bear cautioned. “Without knowing where you are, we'd never be able to mount a rescue. Remember, you only have a few hours left before you have to return to camp and you'll need time to get back.”

“It seems nice and quiet here, but we'll be on the watch for trouble.”

“Just don't go looking for it.”

“Right, boss.”

“Okay, you two enjoy your outing. I'll be waiting for your check in at the usual time.”

“Is everything okay back there?” Ivan asked. “You sound winded.”

“Arne took the sheep out grazing in the landing field, but they got spooked on the trail from the valley through the woods and scattered. Everyone's been rounding them back up, but fortunately a bunch of the sheep regrouped for safety in numbers which made them easier to gather up.”

“Any idea what spooked 'em?”

No, but Arne suspects it might be one of those unseen things that Erin calls nightshades.  So far, whatever it is hasn't actually attacked anyone, but everyone's on edge when passing through these woods, including the animals. It didn't help matters that Raine got tangled in a large web between two trees and a horrible looking creature tried to go for his eyes.”

“I know the one you're talking about. Ugly spider-thing. We saw it earlier and gave it a wide margin.  Is Raine okay?”

“The edge of one of his ears is a little ragged where it tried gnawing on him, but Manny beat it off with a stick and then nailed the thing to a tree with that long narrow blade of his he likes to carry. Took it ten minutes to die.”

“Nasty,” Ivan remarked with a shudder.  “Okay, I'll let you get back to sheep herding.  Good thing you have Cheryl with you – Border collies are good at this sort of thing!”

Avon chuckled. “You should see her in action – down on all fours and yelling at the sheep in a voice that almost sounds like a bark! I think she's enjoying this way too much, but her methods are effective! Talk to you later, Ivan.”

“Later, boss.”

The fox stretched again and looked around.  There was unfamiliar birdsong throughout the trees, but it made the place seem peaceful. He'd be worried if it went quiet all of a sudden, heralding the arrival of some predator, but for now this seemed like the perfect place for some alone-time with his vixen.

Rose was kneeling in the dark green grasses that covered the clearing, focusing the camera in close on a circular dark flower with fuzzy edges.  When he stopped beside her, she motioned for him to kneel beside her.

“Are you familiar with a Mandelbrot set?” she asked.

Ivan looked at her sideways at the non-sequitur. “It's a mathematical set of points whose boundary is a distinctive fractal shape, isn't it?” he replied.

“Take a look at this.”

The male leaned in close and peered at the fuzzy flower only to discover that it was fuzzy due to a myriad of circular petals edged with smaller circular petals that were edged with even smaller circular petals in a continuity that got too small even for his enhanced eyes to distinguish.

“Our botanist is going to have fun with this one,” he said with a smile.  “A photo isn't going to be enough, you'll have to take her a sample to examine.”

Ivan pulled a small set of plant snips from his pack and was about to cut off the head of the flower, but Rose stopped him with a touch. 

“Get the larger container,” she suggested. “I'll dig it out by the roots so she can have the whole plant.”  Using her claws, the vixen dug down into the soil and felt along the buried roots until she had a ball of plant and dirt in her hands. She pulled it up from the ground with a little effort and Ivan placed a large plastic container under it. Once it was inside, Rose uncapped her canteen and poured a little water into the bottom around the roots.  Ivan put the cover on the container and then placed the whole thing back into his pouch.

“Ow!” Rose yipped.

“What is it?”

“Something just bit me.”

Rose held up her dirty hands and gently brushed away some of the dirt.  There was a tiny red welt on the skin of her right forefinger.  Caught up in the dirt near it was some movement, so Ivan used the blade of a pocket knife to brush away soil to expose the possible culprit.  They saw a small six-legged spider crawl over the dirt, its mandibles working back and forth.  Due to tiny blue and white diagonal stripes across its body, its abdomen looked as if it might be covered in denim.

Ivan positioned the knife blade beneath it and was about to flick it off into grass, but Rose stopped him. “Get a specimen bottle,” she said quietly. “We'll take it back to Dr. Mochizuki.”

“Forget the denim spider – it bit you, Rose – you need to take care of that finger!”

The vixen rolled her hand over so that the spider stayed on top. Since her companion wasn't doing as she'd asked, she grabbed the pack from him with her free hand and dug around inside until she felt a small plastic bottle with a snap-on cap.  She popped the top open and upended it over the spider, capturing it with a bit of the dirt still on her fingers.  She recapped it and then dropped it into the pack.

She brushed her hands together, knocking dirt from them and then gave Ivan a patient smile as she cupped her hands. “A little water here, please?”

The fox tod grabbed his canteen and wet down her hands sufficiently that she could wash off the dirt. He grabbed their small First Aid kit with a frown when she wiped off her hands on her overall shorts.

“You don't know how fast that spider venom might get into your system,” he muttered, taking out an antiseptic wipe. “You need to take such things as serious.”

“Why?” she asked flippantly. “None of the Bonestell bugs like our furry blood and no one who's been bitten by one has had any ill effects other than a little bite mark.” She held up her hand as he daubed a bit of medicinal cream on it for her. “I felt this one bite me, but it doesn't even hurt anymore. I feel fine, so there's no need for you to fuss over me.”

Ivan looked up at her, moving only his eyes. “There are too few of us, Rose. I wouldn't want to lose any of us, and that includes your life or even just the loss of a finger due to infection or alien venom.”

“Worry wart,” she teased, giving the end of his nose an affectionate lick.

He looked at her a moment more, wrapped a bandage around her abused digit and then put away the First Aid kit.

“C'mon,” he said with an audible sigh. “Let's have lunch, and then we'll see if we can get pictures and samples without sacrificing any more body parts in the process.” 

*** 

“How much time do we have left?”

Gerard checked his colony watch and did some mental calculations. “We've been gone almost seven hours and we turn back at nine.”

“Let's call it a day and go on back,” Aaron muttered. He was currently sitting upon a tilted slab of rock on the side of another unnamed mountain in the rocky range. He stared off into the distance but was not really seeing anything. He was tired, he was bored and it was only barely into the afternoon of a standard Bonestellan day.  If they returned to the grass plain that bordered the mountains, they could probably make it back to Second Chance within six hours, providing they had no further distractions and maintained a good pace.

Gerard looked over at his cousin and nodded. He felt the same way, but was reluctant to go back over that much ground again. “Let's find some shade and take a nap before we go,” he suggested. “I'm bushed and my foot pads are sore.”

“I could use a nap too. Call Avon and let him know what we're going to do. He'll be upset if we didn't give him every little morsel of information about our journey, y'know.”

Gerard wearily pulled off his pack and dug out the hand radio.  He didn't like calling in since the colony captain seemed to feel it was necessary to interrogate him every time he did. It almost seemed as if Avon was trying to make them feel guilty for going in the first place, and both bears were starting to believe it themselves. 

*** 

Ivan pushed aside the fronds of a large feathered fern and then stopped. Rose put her chin on his shoulder and followed his gaze out across miles and miles of continuous forested hills. They had spent the past two hours traversing back and forth up the side of another such hill through cool woods and because the overhead branches were just barely over the height of their horse's ears, they had led him up the hill instead of riding him. Halley was now tethered to a short tree and he seemed to be content munching on the pale green grass growing at his feet.

“It reminds me of the Appalachians,” Rose said quietly, her eyes still upon the distant hills, many of them taller than the one they had climbed. It could probably be argued that they were mountains, but since Second Chance resided beneath taller rocky peaks, these seemed like nothing more than foothills.  Still, the region had a beauty of its own and it looked inviting.

“I wouldn't mind moving the colony out here,” Ivan remarked.  “There's plenty of lumber to be felled for homes, and then we could live in actual buildings in the sun instead of hiding in virtual igloos in a cave.”

“That does sound nice, doesn't it?” Rose slipped her arm across the small of his back and leaned into him. “Take plenty of pictures to show everyone back at camp. Maybe we can convince them all to relocate here to… I know, we can claim discoverer's rights and call this the Ivanrose Forest!”

The reynard fox chuckled in amusement. “I don't think there's anything in the rule books that says we have to stay put for the full five years of our stay here. Avon could let HQ back on Earth know where we've moved to. We have an entire world in which to make our home and your Ivanrose Forest looks like a good place.”

Caught up in the what-if discussion, the vixen pointed down the opposite side of the hill to a large clearing in the trees bisected by a running stream they could see from their vantage point.  “That area looks large enough for the whole colony,” she said, “only we'd have to call it a town once we started building log cabins.”

“Second Chance, population thirty-one, established in—”

“Better add several numbers to that population,” Rose said slyly, tickling his ear. “I think there are a few couples who are already planning to increase our numbers.”

“Yeah and you seem to be one of them.”

The overcast sky had grown darker with the windblown clouds, and although it didn't feel like it might rain anytime soon, the gloom beneath the woods deepened as well.  Ivan was about to remark further, but something in the shadows caught his eye.

“What's that?” he asked quietly.  He turned away from the scenic vista and walked back under the trees.  He wasn't sure if it was a trick of the light or his tired eyes, but he wanted a better look.

Rose put a hand on his elbow as if to stop him, but then followed quietly along behind him.  She pulled the pistol out of the pack upon his back and put her thumb on the safety, just in case.

Before he’d taken three steps, however, the male fox fell flat on his face, driving his sharply pointed nose into the dirt, grass and leaves. Rose pocketed the pistol, knelt down to help him up and brushed detritus from his face as he sputtered indignantly. He scowled back at his foot that had caught under a square-shaped tree root protruding above the ground and had some difficulty extracting it.

“I really hate these triproots!” he barked angrily. Rose helped him up and he heaved a heavy sigh. "We’ve got them back in our little forest by the valley too and I’m always tripping over them.”

The vixen beside him chuckled, seeing that he had suffered injury to nothing more than his dignity. “You’re not too sure-footed, are you?”

“It’s not that,” he complained.  “Look at the root.”

Rose looked at the one that had detained her lover and watched in open mouth surprise as it slowly slid into the soil under its own power as if a rope drawn in by a subterranean mischief maker.

“What makes it do that?” she asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” huffed the male fox, glancing at the branches above him, “but those roots will be in the ground until I’m around, and then they’ll lift up and trip me every time! I don’t know if the trees themselves are carnivorous and are used to snaring smaller prey, but they sure seem interested in my feet!”

“Has any other part of the trees tried to get you?” Rose asked, feeling uneasy.

“No, but if I sat here long enough with my foot trapped, it would probably squeeze my foot right off and then drink the blood that seeped into the ground around the root!”

“That’s a cheerful thought,” Rose muttered, making sure none of the roots were hungry for her feet.

The fox got to his feet and pulled his vixen up beside him. He scowled at the root that was almost completely out of sight now, but then remembered why he’d passed this way.

“C’mon,” he said in a hushed voice, ready to move on, “I saw something in the shadows that looked out of place.”

“Be careful,” Rose cautioned. “The next tree might have a nasty bark.”  Ivan looked back at her and saw the twinkle in her eyes. He shook his head with a chuckle at her banter, grabbed her hand and continued into the shadows.

As they progressed, she could now see what had garnered his notice.  In the darkness of the shadows there seemed to be a soft light emanating from behind a bed of flowers, only when they drew nearer it became apparent that the light was coming from the flowers.

Rose knelt down amongst leaves and pine-like needles and reached out for one of them. 

“Careful, there may be another denim spider,” Ivan cautioned.

The vixen leaned forward and examined the plant, but saw no insects upon it.  The flower, its leaves and the primary double stalk was of special interest, however.  The entire plant looked translucent, as if it was made of glass or plastic, and there seemed to be a clear liquid inside it all that glowed with a greenish blue haze.

“Natural phosphorescence,” Ivan whispered.  “This could come in handy if we could get it to grow inside the cavern.”

“What about lichen? Doesn't that glow in the dark?”

“Some kinds do, but I've not seen any in our colony cave.  Although no one's really explored far back inside of it, I don't think there's anything growing in there. Too dry – probably too dry for these flowers too.”

“We're running low on empty specimen containers,” Rose remarked, “but we've got to take one of these back with us.”

“No doubt about that. Listen, I want to try something.”  The fox tod plucked a flower from one of the stalks and the internal liquid oozed out onto his hand, leaving a glowing trail across his fingers.  He stood up and then retraced his steps back out into the sunlight. He held up the picked flower for a moment and then returned to the shadows of the forest.  As expected, the flower and the trail across his fingers now glowed with a discernable brightness.

“Glow in the dark flowers!” Rose said with a grin.

Ivan smiled back at her, but then his eyes grew wide.  “Yeow!” he yipped suddenly. He dropped the flower and then began wiping his fingers frantically on the grass at his feet to get the glowing liquid off of him.

“What is it?” Rose asked frantically. “Does it burn?”

“It's a cold burn!” Ivan gasped, now holding one hand in the other. “It's freezing!”

Rose pulled him back out into the sun and looked closely at his fingers. Where the liquid had been was an angry red line across his skin.  “Is it still burning?”

“Not as much. I think I got it all off before it got me too bad.  I had a chemical burn once back in college. I think it was like this.”

“Let's clean it up and get that hand bandaged before we do anything else.” 

As she worked on him, she looked up at him with a smirk.  “The bugs are after me and the plants are mad at you. What a pair we make.”

“Trio,” Ivan corrected. “The bugs attack you, the plants burn me, and the local warthogs try to eat our horse!”

“We all need to be more careful.”

An alarm on Rose's PBJ chose that moment to go off, making both of them jump. The vixen scrambled to get to the middle pocket of her overalls and then pulled it out. She opened its clamshell case and tapped the screen with a claw tip. The alarm hushed and she read its flagged message.

“Time to head home,” she said to Ivan with a frown. “It's been nine hours.”

“Hmm, okay.  Hopefully it won't take that long to get back,” he replied.  “Let's find a way to get one of these glowing freezy-flowers in a container so we can get started.”

“We've been using our hands, but I think there's a spade in the bottom of the pack. Perhaps we can use that.”

“That's better than freeze-burning any more fingers. Perhaps we should have brought along some of the work gloves.”  He looked back out across the scenery of the distant hills and sighed. “I would have liked to explore a little more, but now that we know this is here, perhaps Avon will let us come back another time.”

“Speaking of Avon, you'd better check in and let him know that we'll be on our way back soon.  We still need to get pictures of this place before we can leave too.”

Ivan nodded and dug in the pack again for the radio. He would only give a brief report for now, but he and Rose would have quite a lot to detail when they returned to home camp.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.