— by Ted R. Blasingame
A brief streak of light arced across the midnight sky, leaving a momentary echo of the image impressed upon a pair of large amber eyes. Several more followed immediately behind it, cutting furrows across the stars, but then the short-lived meteor shower was over, ending just as quickly and unannounced as it had begun.
Jon blinked the streaks away and looked away to the side at the thin sliver of the alpha moon. It was only a third the size of Luna, but the familiar crescent shape of the satellite was comforting. He had watched it during its last full phase, marveling each night at features that were different from the previous evening due to its rotation. Unlike the moon of Earth, the two smaller satellites of Bonestell did not keep the same face toward the parent planet at all times.
Norman had brought along a small telescope and was actively involved in studying the moons each night he didn't have sentry duty, drawing rough sketches of what he saw. Jon had looked through it a few times, but he had neither the patience nor the artistic ability of the black bear.
Lying on his back upon the flat slab of rock that he had claimed as his own on the side of the mountain, Jon stared up at the night sky and marveled at its brilliance. The LED lamps from the camp below weren't enough to blanket out the stars with light pollution and it had been years since he had seen the Milky Way so clearly. He had never been much of a stargazer on Earth, but he was familiar with some of the more easily recognizable constellations. He looked for some and saw one or two that looked a little distorted, but he was otherwise lost in the sky. The slight distortion was due to their distance from Earth, looking at the sky from several parsecs away in a different part of the galaxy.
The cougar wasn't sure where the smaller, more distant beta moon was tonight so he figured it must be out of sight around the other side of the world. He gave it only a momentary thought, wondering if anyone had ever set foot upon either moon, human or otherwise.
After a while, he lost interest in the overhead stars and looked up at the mountain that watched over their new home. It was odd that although the Furs lived in a large cavern at the base of it, he had never really considered the mountain itself. It was simply part of the terrain, and although he climbed the side of it just about every night to get to his favorite ledge, he had never given it much thought. Looking up at it now, he could see the rocks and vegetation in the dim starlight, but its peak was hidden away from his current location.
Apparently no one else had devoted much thought about the giant wall that obscured part of the sky, for none had bothered to name the mountain they lived beneath since they had arrived on First Day. Come to think of it, he hadn't even heard anyone apply a name to the range of mountains either.
Had the mountains ever had a name? he wondered silently. Had there ever been a race on this world that named things as men from Earth did? What was the name of this world anyway? Bonestell? No, that was the moniker applied by the astronomer from Earth who had first discovered it from there. What was its real name?
His thoughts were interrupted when the arm across his chest shifted; Kristen snuggled up closer to his side, having drifted off to sleep beside him after a full day of work in the garden. The Terran plants were sprouting well in the alien soil – as were the local weeds that threatened to take them over. Keeping the garden free of native plants had been a full day's work.
Jon looked down at her face and saw her slumbering smile of contentment. One of his arms was behind his head, but with his free hand, he gently brushed errant bangs across her forehead affectionately. They had come a long way together in more than just the distance from Earth.
The relationship had begun with a rocky start within mere days of their first meeting as green volunteers of the Anthro Human Colonization Program at the North American branch of the Furmankind Institute. He had saved her from the unwanted advances of another volunteer who had tried to force her to take personal time with him, and as a result Jon had become the subject of Kristen's gratitude.
Knowing their future together would be tied through the terrors of a painful full-body transformation, she had chosen to become the same species of feline that Jon had been required to take on under the conditions of his sentencing, unaware that her decision would cause great psychological trauma to the man forced to live out the life meant for the one he had cold-bloodedly murdered in revenge.
Their fledgling friendship had turned sour over the months, genuine animosity creating great stress between them, but time itself finally healed their heartache and brought them back together. It had been a great struggle for Jon to get past his prejudices and acknowledge her for the friend she was, but once he had accepted her completely, he now realized it was likely they had always been meant for one another, despite that he'd never really believed in destiny or fate.
No one else had ever doubted the two of them would wind up together, but the pair of mountain lions had finally become a couple in almost every sense of the word and were nearly inseparable whenever together. They each had things to teach the other with life experiences to share, and both of them were better for it.
There was one step in the relationship they had not yet taken, but each had learned to be patient for the right time when their union would be a natural progression. In a colony full of Furs that all possessed an enhanced sense of hearing, total privacy was difficult to attain. All the feline couple needed was the right opportunity under the right conditions.
Old fashioned in a sense, Jon often toyed with the notion of finding some local stone to use in the setting of a very special gift to his lady. Rings were a thing of the past due to their differently formed fingers, but there were other ways to present his message to the one he loved.
Kristen smiled in her sleep and Jon eased his arms around her protectively. There was a slight chill in the air, but their natural fur kept them warm enough through the night.
Before long, however, Kristen's nose began to quiver and she opened her eyes a little. “Do you smell that?” she asked quietly.
Jon raised his nose to the sky and inhaled, testing the scents on the wind. “I smell the campfire,” he replied with a shrug. “Kim or Yuki must be cooking something.” With the longer Bonestellan days, it was not uncommon that there were more than three meals per day. Even after nearly two months, shifts and schedules were still erratic, although Avon and Jon had often discussed sitting down with everyone to set up a standard that everyone could live by; this had not yet taken place, however, so the cougar was not really surprised that a cooking fire was active.
Kristen sat up and then turned her nose toward the woods that bordered the colony on the side not protected by the mountain. She sniffed the air again and then glanced down at the open lip of the cavern where the campfire pit lay darkened.
“There's no fire tonight,” she said. “What I smell is farther away, although I smell more than just wood smoke.”
“Could be a forest fire or a grass fire,” Jon muttered, getting to his feet. He peered off into the distance searching for the familiar signs of a large scale event; there had been no lightning that he could recall, but it wouldn't be the first time a forest fire started from some other means. He turned slowly, looking around in all directions, but all was dark that he could see.
He sniffed the air again and although the scents shifted on the breezes that wafted against the mountain, he thought he had pinpointed the direction the smoke originated. It was not strong, but now that he was focused upon it, there was no ignoring the aroma.
“Look, there,” he said after a moment. He took Kristen's hand, and then wrapping his around it, pointed into the darkness.
She followed this direction and then she saw it, a flicker of yellow-orange light on the other side of the woods. Someone had built a campfire out away from the colony valley. It was unlikely to be seen through the trees from the cave, but Jon and Kristen were higher than the treetops on the side of the mountain.
“Should we sound an alarm?” Kristen asked quietly. “In case it spreads toward the valley?”
Jon shook his head, his eyes still locked upon the flicker of fire. “No, but we should probably investigate anyway.”
Without further discussion, the pair of cougars traversed down the side of the mountain on all fours, quiet as the breeze that tinkled through delicate wind chimes in the valley. Over the months since their transformation, they had both learned the feline trait of traveling silently, their foot pads barely stirring leaves as they passed even when they walked quickly through the woods in the direction the flicker had been.
Three-quarters of a mile was not a far distance to walk to reach the wheat-grass field and they reached the vicinity of the fire in just over ten minutes. Standing still in the shadows of the woods, they silently watched Michael Lynch as he tended a small campfire that had been built in a claw-dug pit in the ground; he was several paces away from the nearest tree where there would be no danger of the flames spreading beyond the dead wood in the depression.
The swift fox had erected a makeshift spit over the fire using upright Y-shaped branches on each side and a fairly straight crosspiece which was skewered through a charred hunk of meat. Jon swallowed, hoping the predominantly grey fox wasn't going to try eating one of the lil-deer, but the aroma was different. Kristen couldn't help but lick her lips; whatever it was sure smelled good to her.
She forced her eyes away from the meat and looked around at Michael's feet. There was a mound of plucked feathers, and although she couldn't identify what bird they had come from in the darkness, she knew those were not from one of the lil-deer.
As they watched, Michael used the blade of a hunting knife to saw into the meat and managed to cut off a strip without burning his fingers or singeing the fur of his arm. The fox blew on it a little, hesitating only briefly before putting it into his mouth. He chewed on it for a moment and from their position, Jon and Kristen could see the roll of his eyes as if he was really enjoying the flavor.
After swallowing the morsel, he cut off another piece and ate it with enthusiasm. Kristen couldn't help herself; she started to rush forward to join him, but Jon held her back.
He put his lips into her nearest ear and spoke very, very quietly. “Wait and watch,” he said.
“Don't wanna wait,” she hissed. “Smells too good.”
“So did my deer steak.”
Kristen sighed and nodded quietly, remembering that the effects of the natural laxative did not hit right away. If it turned out that the bird had the same substance in its body, it may be possible that all Bonestellan creatures had it. This would mean that the colonists would have to rely completely upon raising their own Terran animals for food without being able to use the local wildlife, and this meant making sure they kept living livestock for the full five years surviving alongside the colonists.
The implications of this were important. Despite how Earthlike this world was, future human settlers would likely never come here if they had to import all their food. It would defeat the purpose of leaving the overcrowding and food shortages of Earth; Bonestell would be considered a failure for colonization.
So, even though the aroma was enticing the cougars' senses, they both simply waited in the shadows and watched to see if Michael suffered any ill effects from eating the alien bird meat.
After long minutes of silence, the swift fox chuckled and said in a conversational tone, “Would you two like to join me?” He turned and looked into the shadows right at them with a smile.
Kristen grinned and gave her partner an elbow to the ribs before she got up and approached the fire. “How long have you known we were there?” she asked, taking a seat down in the grass opposite the fire from the fox.
“My hearing is very good,” he answered, tapping an ear with a finger. “I could hear your whispers clearly and your eye-shine gave you away too.”
“And you let us just sit out there watching you eat, you stinker!” Kristen retorted with a smirk.
“Are you okay?” Jon asked, taking a seat beside the lioness, gesturing toward the roasted bird.
“Never better,” Michael replied, cutting off another piece. He handed this to Kristen and then smiled as she put it up to her mouth. She paused, however, still unsure of the alien meat. “Go ahead,” he told her. “It's perfectly safe to eat.”
“How do you know?” Jon asked, clearly unconvinced. “It might take a while before anything happens to you. It was nearly two hours before the deer meat got to me.”
“Relax, Jon. I've been eating this every other night for the past week. I'm fine.”
“You have?” Kristen eyed the meat in her hands and held it up to her nose. She was practically salivating and decided she couldn't wait any longer. She put it in her mouth and rolled her tongue over it before finally chewing on it. Her eyes widened and she looked over at Jon. “It's smoky and sweet,” she said after swallowing it.”
“Let me guess… it tastes like chicken.”
She snickered. “Actually, no. The flavor is a little different, but the closest I could compare it to is wild pheasant.”
Smiling triumphantly, Michael cut off a small piece, popped it in his mouth, and then cut off a larger piece for Jon. He handed it to the feline, who took it with continued hesitation.
Jon held it up to his mouth and gave it a tentative feline lick. The flavor seemed good and he licked it again, enjoying the taste. Finally taking the fox at his word, Jon ate the roasted bird meat slowly, and then with building enthusiasm, he smiled and shook his head.
“It's good,” he admitted. “Very good! What is it?”
Michael laughed and cut off more pieces for all three of them. “It's one of those loud, ugly and annoying arrowheads!” he answered. After eating his morsel, he reached beside him and picked up a compound bow that was in the grass beside him. “I was out here one day last week, doing nothing more than shooting at tree trunks to practice my aim, when one of the arrowhead birds shrieked at me from the limbs of the tree I was shooting at. The thing just sat there screaming and I decided I'd had enough of it, so I decided to frighten it away. I was correct in that I needed practice — instead of hitting the tree trunk I’d aimed at, I hit the bird; skewered it right through the chest.”
He put the bow down and returned to the roasting meat, both of his companions giving him hungry looks. Despite that they'd eaten earlier, this was too good to pass up and Michael didn't mind sharing when he'd had plenty for himself.
“At first, I was shocked at what I'd done on accident and was going to bury the bird, but at the time I was hungry and the thought crossed my mind to try eating it. I knew it might make me sick, but eventually we've got to try to find alternatives to our own pigs, chickens, guineas, sheep and cows, so I decided to go for it. I dug this pit so I wouldn't catch the field on fire and made a campfire with dead wood I found. After cooking it sufficiently, I tried a piece and then sat back to see what kind of effect it would have on me.”
He grinned. “I sat here for over an hour, having tasted that wonderful flavor and smelling it cook, and it took all I could to keep from gorging myself on more before I found out what it might do to me.” He patted his stomach. “The only thing that happened to me was a well-fed tummy!”
“Why didn't you tell anyone?” Jon asked, taking another piece offered to him.
Michael shrugged. “I guess I was afraid Avon would yell at me for being careless,” he confessed. “Maybe I was, but somebody had to try it.”
“That was either very brave or very foolish, Mike,” Kristen said quietly. “You could have died.”
The fox looked at her somberly. “Yes, I could have.” He looked across the fire at Jon, the second in command of the colony. “Are you going to yell at me now?”
Jon shook his head and smiled. “Not if you keep feeding me.”
Dawn colored the morning sky with the earliest touches of light as Ellie wrapped her arms around her mate's neck and licked his cheek affectionately. She also gave him a human-style peck on his lupine lips for luck and then stepped back. Carl gave her a loving smile and then turned toward the gyrocopter they had assembled the afternoon before. Despite the urge to launch it right away after completion, they'd had to let it sit out in the sun in the valley field throughout the rest of the long day to let its solar cells fully charge, but now at first light of the next morning, the wolf was about to take it up for its first reconnaissance flight.
The ultralight aircraft was a straightforward design, consisting of a simple aluminum tube frame with a red padded pilot seat mounted just forward of a vertical central mast. Behind the seat was the electric motor that drove a four-blade prop facing toward the back and at the top of the mast was a two-blade rotor. Behind the rear-facing motor was a large black rudder fin with solar charging cells across the flat surface of both sides. A triangular set of small, solid rubber wheels was mounted below on an impact-resistant suspension, but the whole craft weighed less than two hundred fifty pounds so landings should be light. It was designed so that it could take off with only a twenty-foot run and it could land almost vertically.
Below the seat and between the bars of the frame was a small storage locker; it wasn't large, but would be handy to hold more items than the pilot could keep in his pockets. Built inside the seat was an armored solar battery cell and a single control stick was located between the pilot's legs. There were two pedals to control the brake and the rudder, and a simple set of mechanical gauges above the feet to indicate battery charge, altitude and air speed.
The craft was an archaic design from an age before anti-gravity repulsors, but such technology required a lot of power and was expensive to operate, the principle reason why air-cars and other floating vehicles of the proverbial future had never really caught on. Despite the advances in technology, it was simply too cost prohibitive. Although exponentially more efficient than their early predecessors, mechanical devices such as cars, trucks and airplanes were still in use on Earth and a simple gyrocopter could prove itself highly useful in the primitive setting of an interstellar colony. A fancraft would have been more ideal, but the wolf was just as happy to have any kind of aerial vehicle to aid in the discovery of their new world.
Although Avon had limited his initial flight to just two hours for safety concerns, Carl had loaded up its storage box with food, water, pistol, ammunition and a standard survival pack that included a small Very pistol flare gun. He had a digital camera tucked into one of the pockets of his overalls in addition to a PBJ for notes, and a hand radio to file reports. Since standard human sunglasses would no longer fit his lupine face, he wore a pair of tinted goggles strapped around his head with an elastic band.
“All you need is a leather flight cap and a scarf and you could be either Snoopy the dog or Charles Lindbergh,” Ken teased him from the crowd that had gathered in the field to witness his take-off in the archaic contrivance.
“Snoopy, I know, but who's Lindbergh?” the grey wolf asked curiously.
“Charles Lindbergh was an early aviator who explored the skies before they became common travel routes,” Ken explained. “I've read about him in the history books. As one aerial explorer to another, I think you would have liked him.”
“Sounds interesting,” Carl replied.
“Well then, wish me luck.”
Carl smiled and gave the red wolf a snappy salute in response.
The gyrocopter's overhead rotor was twenty-five feet in diameter, so the lupine pilot shooed the crowd backward before he stepped up to the seat. “Everybody back,” he commanded. “I don't want to take off any heads when I leave and you bears are taller than the rest!”
There were good-natured responses, but everyone moved away from the craft when he sat down and fastened a simple safety belt around his waist. He picked up an oversized transparent helmet from the ground beside him and gingerly fitted it over his head before cinching up the chin strap. It wasn't the most comfortable fit with his lupine ears flattened against his head, but it would serve its purpose to protect his skull should anything happen to him.
Making a final check of the system with an eye on the crowd to make sure he wouldn't run over anyone upon takeoff, Carl thumbed the starter button and the prop behind him came to life. After the propeller had reached the desired speed, a small spinning wheel above moved into place to give the unpowered rotor a healthy nudge to set it rotating; Furs backed away even further when the rotor blade swished over their ears, spinning faster and faster. The wolf disengaged the brake, rolled forward no more than a couple dozen feet and then the skeletal craft took to the air.
The high-pitched whine of the electric motor resembled the buzz of a large mosquito as he lifted up over the top of the horseshoe valley. He quickly encountered breeze winds coming around the mountain, but they were not too strong for him to compensate for. He circled lazily around the valley to gain further altitude and several of the Furs below waved at him.
Kevin had given him a forecast of a good weather day. There would be some breezes close to the mountains, but wispy clouds were high overhead and shouldn't cause a problem. Likewise, the various exploring parties from the day before had all given him a brief rundown on what they'd seen so he wouldn't have to waste his precious two hours covering the same areas. His plans were to see what there might be to see toward the west and northwest for now. He'd given Avon his general flight plan, so once he was sufficiently above the treetops and away from the mountain, he turned and headed in that direction.
On the ground in the middle of the valley field stood his wife. Ellie watched him go until he moved out of visual range over the trees and then heaved a small sigh at his departure. She was just as qualified as he and would later get her own chance to fly, but this was the first flight and her mate would be out of touch with everyone but the colony captain. Although she had joined in the argument to talk Avon into letting them make this endeavor, she was now privately thankful that the first jaunt had been limited to only two hours.
The mountain lioness was on her belly in the dirt, peering intently at a row of autumn vegetable plants, her fingers itching to pull up one of the radishes to check its progress. The above ground vegetables had been growing well in the local soil and even after only a few weeks their development was encouraging. Some took longer to grow this late in the season, but the lettuce was practically ready to use now and the colony cooks had been eyeing them enviously. They had plenty of canned and freeze dried vegetables they had brought along with the supplies, but fresh veggies were more nutritious and it would be best if they could save the canned goods for hard times.
A shadow fell across the feline and she looked up to see Kim and Yuki standing between rows of carrots and sweet potatoes.
“I told you before,” Kristen said with a sigh, “they aren't ready yet.”
Yuki sat on her haunches between the rows and the Akita smiled at her. “We aren't here to bug you about your veggies,” she said to assure her. “We have a different request.”
“Yes, we need your help,” said the lynx that settled down in the row on her other side.
Kristen looked from one to another and narrowed her eyes. “What is it?” she asked suspiciously.
“We want to spruce up the meals with some local herbs,” Kim replied, “but we don't know what to pick from the woods.”
“We were hoping you could go with us and help find something edible we can use like those star-shaped tubers you found a couple weeks ago,” Yuki explained. “Remember how you helped me pick out the hackberries on our survival hike back home? I found something we could eat, but you kept that other guy from getting into poison hemlock. We don't want to get into the local version of hemlock by mistake and could really use your expertise.”
Kristen looked at her with interest. “I suppose I could help you with that,” she told them with a nod and laid a finger against her whiskers. “I won't recognize anything here simply by looking at them as I did back then, but I’ve discovered that a Fur's nose is a good tool for detecting things like that, even here.”
“So you'll help us?” Kim asked.
The cougar got up onto her knees and then brushed the dirt off her fingers. “Sure, let me grab the botanical kit from my dome and then I'll meet you over by the barn. Pick up a couple of plastic buckets and some work gloves, and then we'll be ready to go.”
Thanks, Kristen!” the sisters said in unison.
Thock! Thock! Thock! Thock!
Two axes swung at the trunk of a fallen tree in alternating rhythm, carving out chunks of dead wood and sending splinters out into the surrounding underbrush. The grizzly bear and the African lion were chopping up the thick trunk into firewood and its upper branches as kindling. Although their young weather fox was a self-professed 'low Fur on the colony totem pole', Kevin had made a recommendation to the captain that they should begin gathering available firewood even through winter was still a few months away. There was plenty of room in the back regions of the cavern where they could store it out of the elements.
Second Chance had seen an inordinate amount of good weather since they had arrived. Their landing on First Day set them down in late summer or early autumn when the temperatures had started cooling down, and now their nights and early mornings had grown chilly. Clouds around the taller peak tops of the mountain range had added additional snow to their crowns, and although the weather was still temperate around the colony, there was no guarantee the warmer climate would last.
Kevin might be the youngest Fur among them, but he was currently more knowledgeable on weather forecasting than anyone else in the colony, and he had been diligent studying all he could with the subject matter loaded on his PBJ.
Avon was wise enough to listen to his counsel and had begun implementing firewood gathering sessions throughout the population of his group. So far, the efforts had been casual – everyone was to gather up any dead wood they might find and bring it with them back to the cavern – but when a fallen tree in the woods around the horseshoe valley was found during a recent search for lost lambs that had been scattered during an outing, Avon recognized the opportunity to harvest it for their stash.
He and Arne were chopping it into smaller, more manageable sections, while Raine, Hank and Alicia were loading them up into a horse-drawn cart and cutting up the thinner branches. After a couple of hours in a stop and go process, they were just finishing up with the last of the tree trunk while the others were still gathering limbs.
Thock! Thock! Thock! Thock!
“There, that's got it,” Arne grunted in satisfaction when the last two segments parted in a spray of splintered wood. He was panting from the exertion and leaning on his axe handle, but he had enjoyed the physical activity.
Avon rolled one of the last pieces to the side and then upended it to use as a rough seat for a moment. He had to shave off a few pointed ends before they skewered his butt, but the wood of this particular tree was soft and easy to shape with the axe. Dressed only in his shorts, the grizzly bear picked up a water jug and fairly emptied it in one sitting. He set it on the ground beside him after a moment and then closed his eyes as he caught up to his breath.
He sat there for a good long time, simply listening to the conversations of the others as they worked, but after several moments, he could feel himself start to drift off into an upright nap. He shook himself awake, but when he opened his eyes, there was a worried-looking golden retriever staring back at him.
“Are you okay?” Wendy asked.
The captain gave her a weary smile. “I'm fine. A good physical workout combined with a warm sunny day makes for a drowsy bear.” The canine wrung her hands together, looking nervous. “Is there something you needed?” he asked politely.
“I know you're busy,” she answered quietly, “but when you have a moment, may I speak to you privately?”
“There's no better time like the present,” he answered, getting to his feet. “Shall we take a walk in the woods?” Wendy nodded, but otherwise didn't reply. Avon waved to get the attention of the others. “There's something I need to attend to. I'll be back shortly,” he told them.
“We'll finish up here,” Hank replied, “if Raine will quit slacking off and keep up his end of the work!”
“I heard that!” the cheetah complained from his task.
“Well, quit listening in on other people’s conversations and get with it!”
Avon sighed at the irritating banter and then turned back to the canine. She looked up at him gratefully, but remained silent as he led her off into the woods further away from camp. After they had walked for a few minutes and were alone beneath the trees, the grizzly stopped at another fallen tree to sit down. He made a mental note for them to harvest this one for the firewood stash too, but for now he gave his attention to the young female.
“What can I do for you?” he asked quietly.
Wendy sat down a short distance from him on the horizontal tree trunk and wrung her hands together again. She looked at him, then to her feet, back to him, and then to her hands. Now that she had his attention, she wasn't sure how to begin.
“Are you having issues with someone?” Avon ventured to guess.
The golden retriever shook her head and heaved a sigh. “No,” she replied quietly. “I'm okay with everyone, though there aren't many who really talk to me outside of colony duties.”
“I'm sorry to hear that.”
“That's not what's bothering me, though.” She looked back at the ground, but continued talking. “Every…. Everyone seems to be well-adjusted to being here,” she said in a voice so low that even Avon's enhanced auditory senses had difficulty hearing her. “It's nice and all, but I can't shake the feeling that we shouldn't be here.”
“What do you mean – here on Bonestell or here at this location?”
“On Bonestell,” she murmured. She looked at her hand paws and frowned. “We're humans that have been changed into partial animals to help us survive, but that doesn't make this place any more idyllic.”
Avon tilted his head. “I don't understand,” he replied. “We've had no real issues since we got here. The weather's been decent, the insects and animals have practically left us alone, there are no alien monsters and our livestock and gardens have been doing well. If that's not a definition of idyllic, I don't know what is.”
“It's too quiet.”
“It's too quiet. I've never been any place that's this quiet before. Even the Institute, located miles from the nearest towns in the Adirondack Mountains always had some noise on the grounds and even sounds from distant cars or planes. This place is silent.”
A bird cried out at some disturbance not far away and Avon raised an eyebrow at the canine. Wendy shrugged and said, “Even the bird calls sound muted, as if they're afraid of getting too loud – except for the arrowheads, but even they don't screech out that often.”
“Has something happened?” Avon asked quietly, leaning forward. “What prompted this line of thought?”
Wendy's shoulders slumped. “I was on watch a few nights ago before all the wind started up. It was quiet, still and unnerving. My hearing is a lot more sensitive than it was before my transformation, and even then I was hard-pressed to hear anything. There was none of the usual night noises and not even Dahlia's wind chimes were tinkling. It's like all the nocturnal sounds had hushed that night.”
The bear looked alarmed. “That's usually a sign that there's a predator in the area,” he said. “We're all predators here, but the local wildlife hasn't seemed bothered by us since we've refrained from doing any hunting, so some other indigenous predator might have been in the area.”
“I don't know,” Wendy murmured. “All I know is that Bonestell is beautiful and looks like a great vacation spot, but…”
The canine looked up at him with moist eyes and swallowed. ”I want to go home!” she cried out. “I don't want to be here anymore!”
“I miss the Earth!” she exclaimed, absently tugging on the dog tags around her neck. “I miss all the hustle and bustle, the shopping malls, restaurants, television, music, the crowds and the constant noise! It was a mistake to come here – the silence is a warning that we aren't supposed to be here! The disappearance of the Magellan is a sure sign of that too!”
“Wendy,” Avon tried again, “you're being silly. Long before modern civilization on Earth grew to be so noisy, it was quiet there too. Consider the explorers from Europe discovering the Americas for the first time. They survived the silences then and so will we. It's nothing to be concerned about.” Wendy looked miserable and felt stung by his belittling words. “Do you really miss the Earth,” he asked, “or do you miss being human?”
“I don't mind being part canine,” she muttered, “but I do miss humanity – for all its problems and troubles, I miss it all!”
“I'm sorry you feel this way,” the grizzly said in a calm tone, “but remember that you are contracted to the AHCP for the rest of your life. You willingly signed a legal document in agreement that your body and purpose in life now belonged to the company and that you knew you would likely never see Earth again. It was explained to you before you signed, before you were transformed, at a time when you had every opportunity to back out – after being informed exactly what was going to happen. You were not pressured to sign and you did so of your own free will. You're here because you wanted to be here.”
“It was a mistake!” she said, choked up. “I never imagined it would be this bad!”
“What's so bad about it? Didn't you attend the historical lectures that described just what the other starter colonies had to go through to establish themselves? Second Chance has had it far easier than most of the colonies to date, human or furman!”
“We aren't supposed to be here and I don't want to be here either,” Wendy whispered with her head down.
Avon sat back with a deep frown. He rubbed his massive hand paws together and then rubbed them on the fur of his legs. He studied her for a moment, but she wouldn't look at him now.
“Wendy,” he said in what he hoped was a soothing voice, “perhaps it's time you took a session to talk with Erin.”
“Erin? Why would I want to talk to that big-eared pixie? We don't have anything in common.”
“Erin is our counselor. She's better trained to listen to those who need someone to talk to than I am.”
“You just don't want to order a ship to come back to get us,” Wendy grumbled. “That's why you don't want to talk to me anymore and are pushing me off onto someone else.”
Avon couldn't help himself. He growled at the golden canine and she looked up at him with suddenly wide eyes. The grizzly had to force himself to calm down, but when he spoke again, there was an edge to his voice.
“The AHCP will not send a ship to come get us,” he said sternly, “no matter what our reasons are. Other colonies have had real reasons for a recall and their requests were ignored due to legal five year contracts to stick it out! No one else wants to go home and even if we had a valid reason for a recall, they won't go the expense to send a ship for one Fur.”
“They wouldn’t be coming for just one Fur,” Wendy countered, “but they could take us all back to Earth!”
“Why would they do that?” Avon growled. “Nobody but you wants to leave this place, and even if they did, you have a contract that will keep you from returning to Earth – they’d just send you to another — probably more inhospitable place — than here! As I said, they won’t send a ship for one Fur.”
He put his hands in his lap and clasped his fingers together, clacking his long claws in the process. “I’m sorry you don’t like it here, Wendy,” he said in a calmer tone, “but there’s no going back. You and I will be here for at least five years and even then it’s unlikely we’ll get to go back to Earth afterward. They will either keep us here to help future human colonies get set up or ship us off to another colony to help build up numbers elsewhere. We all need to make the best of our place in life here. Please… schedule some time to talk with Erin. She may help you find a solution to accept what you volunteered for.”
The golden retriever stood up on two feet and looked at the colony captain; her expression was anything but kind. Without wasting further breath, she turned on her toes and purposely stormed away from him.
Avon sighed and shook his head. He may have had leadership skills to make sure the colony operated properly, but he knew he was sadly lacking when it came to interpersonal discussions. Instead of resolving the situation with Wendy, he was convinced he had probably done nothing more than alienate her at a time when she needed comfort and compassion. What was worse is that she had not been the first to come to him with similar feelings of unease, though she was the only one who’d voiced a desire to leave. Despite their peaceful existence here, there were some who felt they were sitting on a ticking time bomb, but there were none who could tell him precisely why they felt that way.
It was a mystery to the cinnamon-furred grizzly bear. For the first time in many years, he was genuinely happy with his life and he had no reason whatsoever to want to return to Earth.
Ken looked up from the lighted microscope on the small folding desk in the dome he and Jenni had set up as an infirmary. There was a gurney, a cabinet of medical supplies and various instruments and fairly decent room to move around in if needed. It had been quiet in that department, so the red wolf had been examining sample tissues taken from their livestock to make sure their development eating the native grasses and plants wasn’t harmful.
He rubbed his eyes and relaxed for a moment. He’d been hunched over the table for several hours and he could feel a headache coming on to accompany tight shoulder muscles. He longed for a hot tub, but there were no natural hot springs anywhere in the area. He would have to settle for a cold soak in the shallow pool near the south end of the lake where he wouldn’t have to worry about the fish nibbling on his fur. The sun-heated shower bags would probably feel better, but he was limited on how long he could stay under the water due to the smallish capacity of the bladder. The water that cascaded down the side of the mountain from the natural spring that fed the lake didn't produce a waterfall large enough for anyone to get under either.
There was a quiet knock on the door frame of the geodesic dome and he looked up at the silhouette filling the space.
The wolf smiled and waggled a finger toward the red vixen. “How many times do I have to tell you that you don’t have to call me that,” he admonished with a smile. “You knew me simply as Ken back at the Institute. Why do you insist on being so formal with me since we got here?”
Rose shrugged her shoulders with a sheepish expression on her face. “Back then, you were just another volunteer like me,” she replied, “but now you’re the colony doctor. It just seems proper to give you the respect of your official title.”
Ken gave her a smirk and shook his head, beckoning her forward. “Okay, I concede. You may respect me as you wish. Now, what may I do for you?”
Rose held out her right hand toward him, palm upward, but only the forefinger extended. “A spider bit me when we were digging up a flower to bring back from our trip out to Ivanrose Forest. It doesn’t hurt, but it looks worse than it did.”
Ken frowned as he looked at the swollen bump between the first and second knuckle. The skin was deep purple, almost black, and it so dry it was almost flaky. “Why didn’t you come to me as soon as you got back?” he asked, looking up into her orange eyes. She looked tired, but otherwise just gazed back at him.
“Honestly, I didn’t think about it,” she answered. “We put some first aid cream on it and wrapped it in a bandage, and then I forgot about it by the time we got back. I was tired from riding all day and wanted only to go to my bed. Since it doesn’t hurt, I didn’t really think about it when I got up this morning, but it’s a little stiff and numb now.”
Ken led her toward the desk and had her sit on his roller stool while he picked out a few things from an old fashioned black medical bag on another table. He slid a pair of stubby-fingered, latex gloves over his lupine hands and then reached for her.
He held up her hand and then peered at the finger beneath a large circular magnifying glass attached to a swing-arm frame mounted to the table. He examined the swollen wound closely under the lens and then picked up a small bladed knife.
“You said it doesn’t hurt?” he asked.
“Not at all, but it looks pretty ugly.”
“There’s no telling what was in that spider venom,” the wolf muttered, putting the sharp tip of the blade up against her finger. “This might sting a bit.”
Rose turned her head when he lanced the wound, but she didn’t feel a thing. The skin was completely numb to pain, but blue-black pus oozed from the incision and both of them winced from the sudden rank smell.
Ken grabbed a small vial and captured a good amount of it for later examination. He rolled her finger between his, squeezing out as much of it as he could get, though with an eye on her face in case he caused her pain. She kept her gaze averted to the side, but didn’t seem distressed by what he was doing.
He cleaned out the wound with hydrogen peroxide and then daubed it dry with gauze. When it didn’t leak any further, he shined a pen light into it and examined it closely beneath the large lens. The skin tissue around the area looked dead as if it had rotted, and he used the knife to cut away a small section. Rose never flinched and he knew that either the sensitivity of the area had been numbed by the venom or the nerves were damaged altogether.
The doctor bathed the region inside and out with an antiseptic and then wrapped it up with a clean bandage. He set his specimens beside the microscope, stripped off the gloves, dropped them into a biohazard bin, and then moved to the cabinet to retrieve a plastic amber bottle. He tapped out two antibiotic tablets and then handed them to her. He didn’t have any bottled water with him at the moment, so he handed her his coffee cup.
“Take these now,” he said, “and I’ll give you more this evening with one of your later meals. Hopefully it will help drive off the infection until we can find out what the venom’s done to your finger.”
“Thank you,” the vixen said quietly. “None of the other bugs here like our blood, so this will be okay too, right?”
The doctor considered lying to her in order to set her at ease, but instead he shrugged his shoulders. “I hope so,” he said. “I just wish I had the spider itself to examine. A living creature might provide a clue to a treatment and—”
“I kept it!” Rose told him with a smile. “I put it in a specimen bottle and gave it to Doctor Mochizuki with the other samples we collected for him.”
Ken looked pleased. “What did it look like?” he asked. “I’ll go see him about it as soon as I’ve examined the residue I got out of the wound.”
“Ivan and I were calling it a denim spider due to the tiny blue and white stripes across its abdomen. It looked like it was covered in blue jeans.”
Ken put a comforting hand upon her shoulder. “You can go now, but if your finger starts hurting or you feel any other ill effects, come back to me or Jenni at once.”
“Okay, thanks,” the vixen told him. She gave him a look of gratitude and then headed off to the galley to see if she could find something to eat. She didn’t have much of an appetite, but her stomach was growling and she knew she had to eat something.
After she’d gone, Ken turned toward the specimens with a frown. He’d been afraid of something like this since the day they’d landed. Although they’d found local vegetables and herbs they could all safely ingest in their food, he had never been as confident how their Terran biologies might react to bites, stings and potential poisons from this place.
He was sworn to treat and protect the thirty-one lives of Second Chance and he honestly wondered if his limited knowledge and experience would be up to the task.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.