— by Ted R. Blasingame
When Carl awoke the next morning, the grey wolf could hear the wind howling outside the cave before he opened his eyes. His day pack lay beside the door ready to go, but he knew already that he would not be departing at first light as he had intended. It wouldn't matter if he was given clearance to leave; he knew how dangerous flying a lightweight aircraft in such conditions could be. He sighed audibly, lightly stirring the fur at his wife's neck with his breath, and snuggled up closer to her. He was warm enough, but his nose had already told him there was also a slight chill in the air.
He mentally kicked himself for not checking with Kevin to see if the young fennec fox had made any weather forecasts for today, but it was too late now. However, if he couldn't fly, he could start planning the pig hunt. If he entreated Avon well enough, perhaps the colony captain would put him in charge of the hunting party so there would be a plan instead of the free-for-all mess they had on the previous hunt.
“You're back early,” Jon observed. Kristen walked into the small geodesic dome they shared and plopped down upon the mattress of the bed. He was sitting at a small folding table under the overhead LED lamp, looking over the aerial photographs that Carl had forwarded to his PBJ.
“I took Kim and Yuki out into the woods again to look for more local herbs they could use in their meals,” she told him. “It was pretty windy, but we found several that seem safe enough they want to try and we also discovered a new fruit tree in the center of a clearing.”
“Be careful,” Jon warned without looking up from the pictures, “you might have found the Tree of Knowledge and could curse us all.”
“Cute. Unfortunately, the fruit is all past its prime for the season, so we'll have to wait until next spring to see what they're like. I grabbed up a few samples to examine in the lab.”
Jon adjusted his tail through the slot in the back of the chair and then leaned back to look at her. He hadn't noticed it from hearing her voice, but there was a pungent fear smell in the room; when he studied her, she looked shaken. “What happened out there?” he asked quietly.
She looked up at him and wrapped her arms around herself. “We saw one of the nightshades while we were out in the forest,” she said.
“You saw one?”
“Not exactly, but there was a dark shape up in the trees. We could feel it watching us, but it made no sound and we couldn't smell anything from it. I tried to get closer to see what it was, while Kim and Yuki both kept their distance, but when I did, whatever-it-was rushed away through the treetops; even then it was totally silent, almost as if it had been a ghost!” She tilted her head and touched one ear with a claw tip. “My hearing is loads more sensitive than it used to be, but I didn't even hear it stir a branch or a single leaf. I'm almost starting to believe the shadows are alive here.”
“I don't think anyone's been able to actually see one,” Jon said, “but just about everyone here has experienced them while out in the woods. Even the sheep got spooked by them, so I don't think it's just our imaginations running away with us.”
“Have you ever not-seen one?”
“I think one was spying on me after I went to the latrine last night,” he admitted. “It made the fur stand up along the ridge of my back when I realized it was there. I quick-stepped back to the clearing, only to have an arrowhead's wing smack against the back of my head when it darted out beside me and took off with one of our Golden Comet chickens – it was a good thing I'd already been to the latrine!”
They both fell silent for a moment, but after Jon's gaze roved back over his Personal Business Juxtapositioner, he looked at her with a smile.
“How would you like to get out of town for a little while?” he asked.
“Huh?” She looked at him, puzzled.
“After all the explorers gave their stories last night over supper, Avon and I were discussing the salt flats that Carl saw from the air. He may seem like a stickler for the rules, but Avon has the colony's best interests in mind. Winter's coming in a few months and we don't know how soon bad weather might make an appearance, so he wants us all to be preparing for it now. We've already started gathering firewood, but we will still need much more than what we've gotten so far. Storing up meat is also a good idea and the more we can preserve, the easier it will be for us during lean times. If that really is sodium that Carl saw, it would be beneficial to everyone.”
“That all sounds good,” Kristen remarked, “but what does that have to do with getting away from camp?”
Jon smiled. “I talked Avon into letting us take a trip out to see this salt plain,” he said. “I explained that this would be a good occasion to bring back samples to be tested to see if this really is what we can use.”
“You all make it seem very important that we get it, but I don't understand what the salt does besides make food taste salty.”
“It is important,” Jon told her, getting comfortable in his chair. “I've told you before that I came from a family of hunters - me, my mom and pop, plus a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins - I learned years ago that salt can be used to preserve meat to last longer.”
“After you've sectioned up your kill, you wash the cuts of meat with lukewarm water and then trim off the sections you don't want. Pat the meat dry with a towel, work in seasoning and herbs for a richer flavor, and then rub the coarse salt thoroughly into the meat, covering it completely.”
“Why, what does that do?”
“The salt eliminates bacteria that's in the meat and prevents it from spreading. Once that's done, you hang the meat in a cool place like the constant fifty-seven degree temperature of our cave and let it air-dry for about three weeks. Check it every other day to make sure it doesn't start to smell bad. If it doesn't, then the salt has preserved it well enough for storage without having to freeze any of it. As long as we keep it cool, it could help us make it through the winter when hunting for fresh meat may not be possible.”
Kristen nodded, following his explanation, but he continued. “When you're ready to prepare some of the meat for a meal, you just wash off all the excess salt with running water and then pat it dry with a towel. Then it's ready to cook as needed.”
“That almost sounds too simple.”
“Sometimes simplicity is best. If you don't have a refrigerator or one that's big enough, you do what you can and this cavern is a good environment for it. Meat has been preserved with salt this way on Earth for centuries, maybe longer.”
“Now I see why you all are so interested in finding out if that's really sodium chloride we can use,” Kristen remarked. The lioness looked aside at him. “So, who all would be going on this excursion?”
“Just you and me, Kris. I also told Avon that you and I needed some private time alone.”
She raised both eyebrows. “Does this mean what I think it does?” she asked quietly, the salt suddenly forgotten. He looked embarrassed and gave her a shrug, so she grinned and then got up from the bed. She walked to him and then wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders. He buried his nose in the fur at her collar bone and returned the embrace.
“When do we leave?” she whispered. “If we have to be back in eighteen hours and left now, it will put us back here in the middle of the night.”
“Carl said the salt flats are about twenty miles to the west. If that's as far as we go, we can take a casual pace on foot and still get there in about six hours, leaving us with plenty of time there before we have to head back. We'd even have time to swing a little to the southwest and check out the freshwater lake he saw.” He looked up at her and smiled. “Once we get there, it won't take six hours to find out if those are salt deposits, so we'll have to find something to do with our time.”
The lioness giggled and then pulled herself out of an embrace that had started to get a little frisky. She danced out of his reach and then dropped back down upon the bed. “Do you think we can find our way back to camp in the dark?”
“That doesn't really matter,” Jon replied, tapping the screen of his PBJ to close out the picture files he had open. The device flickered several times and then shut off altogether, causing the cougar to frown. It had been acting up lately and it concerned him. Kristen's question distracted him, however.
“I talked Avon into letting us stay out overnight if needed.”
She looked surprised. “How on Earth… er, Bonestell did you manage to do that? He's been notorious for limiting time away from camp.”
Jon gifted her with a smile. “It helps that he wants me as his second in command,” he said. “I told him that if he couldn't trust me being away over one night, he could ask Masanori to second for him instead.”
“Ooh, I bet he didn't like that.”
“Not at all. I haven't always agreed with his decisions when he's asked my opinion, so he's probably regretting having me as his first officer by now. In my favor, however, he doesn't like the alternatives and he already knows I'm not out to get his job.”
“I told him that he would be sorry he wanted you,” Kristen laughed. “Now he's stuck with you!”
“You got it, and in this case it works to our favor, especially as he thinks you and I should have gotten together months ago.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Jon gave her a smirk. “I fully admit that it was mine, but it's nothing we can't fix together now.” He tapped the dark screen of his PBJ and frowned again. “He wanted us to take a couple of horses, but I told him that we'd prefer to go on foot.”
“Why? We'd make better time on horseback and could spend more time there.”
“The horses may have been raised and trained by Furs and don't mind the other predators of our group, but they don't seem to like me. I don't know if it's my scent or me in particular, but they all get skittish whenever I'm around them. I don’t want to have to depend upon a mount that doesn't really want me up on its back.”
“It must be you,” Kristen teased. “I've never had any issues with our animals and I'm the same type of predator that you are.”
“If you want to follow on horseback, I'll leave that up to you, but I'll be going on foot.”
“Traveling on four feet is fine. I have more stamina now than I used to.”
“I promised we would stay in touch with regular reports so he would know we were safe little kitties and he agreed that we would have a greater chance of getting back okay if we didn't have to navigate in the dark. You and I both have great night-vision now, but we're not familiar with the terrain. That's how I convinced him into letting us stay out overnight. We'll head back first thing in the morning once we have daylight.”
The errant PBJ turned back on by itself and Jon picked it up. He didn't know whether or not he should take the faulty unit with him and he debated leaving it behind, but then he slid it into the wide side pocket of his shorts and stood up from his chair.
“Let's go grab a couple of packs from storage, stock them with what we'll need for the journey and get going. I don't see a need to sit around until tomorrow.”
Arne leaned against the fabricated fence that kept their sheep penned and let his arms dangle from the top rung as the winds blew through his prodigious mane. Two of the sheep stared back at the large African lion as if trying to decide whether or not he was supposed to be feeding them an extra portion. Despite his bulk as a large predator, none of the sheep had ever shown the slightest fear of him and the feline actually seemed to enjoy tending them.
Despite that he faced the pen, the great cat didn't even see his sheep. He had just learned that Carl was putting together an all-canine hunting pack authorized by the colony captain. It annoyed him to be left out of a hunt, one of his favorite things to do as a Fur.
At such times, he enjoyed letting his animal half to take over and he usually acted on pure instinct in the heat of the chase. While in nature it was the lionesses that did the hunting for their prides, Arne's human psyche was more than willing to take up the cause and it rankled that he was not allowed to be a part of it.
He looked up at a sound coming from the cave and he saw the canine party preparing to leave. Naturally, Carl and his wife Ellie were there, as was Cheryl. The Border collie was again wearing her western cowgirl hat and the red wolf Ken was teasing her about keeping it on her head on such a windy day. Following behind as they made their way down the trail from the cavern was Aldo, quiet as always. The bloodhound was good at his job as a tracker and would be invaluable for a hunt, but he was a loner by nature and mostly kept to himself when not needed.
Arne didn't see the other two canines of the colony, Wendy and Yuki. Neither of those two dogs seemed to have the heart for hunting, so they had both likely declined to offer to join the pack. Arne watched the group head off across the valley clearing to the southwest, the direction the grey wolf had seen the thunderpig herd.
Technically, a group of pigs was called a sounder, but since they were all roughly the size of buffalo or larger, everyone simply referred to them as a herd. Arne didn't care what they were called. He just wanted to go and join the hunt. For a moment, he was tempted to sneak off and follow them, and while he could probably do that without being detected, he didn't know what he would do if they actually got involved in a rousing hunt. He couldn't very well join them at that point and just sitting on the sidelines would be too difficult.
The African lion heaved a heavy sigh and then looked back at his sheep. More of them had quietly gathered near the fence in front him, looking up at him expectantly. He studied them idly for a few moments before he decided he needed to get out the shears and collect their wool. Both Jasmine and Dahlia enjoyed knitting and they had both expressed an interest in spinning the sheep wool into thread to make them all extra winter blankets. The vixens had taught themselves how to spin thread while at the Institute and had even brought along a simple device for the process.
When the canine pack passed by the large domed barn and the livestock pens, none of them paid any attention to the sullen lion and his flock. They were all gathered around Carl as he gave them instructions for the plan of attack he had in mind. Several were armed with compound bows and each of those had a quiver of arrows slung over his or her back.
It was anybody's guess if there were many, if any, who could hit a moving target with an arrow on such a windy day, but most were at least marginally experienced using the weapon; in spite of this potential handicap, the wolf was determined to bring in one of the young pigs. The plan was to cut up the body of the kill into sections that each of them could carry a portion back to camp, but in the event they did not have the opportunity to do so, they’d also brought along a collapsible travois to drag the body back with them.
When Carl had seen the herd from the air, it was located a few hours' walk to the southwest of Second Chance, so they were leaving early enough to have plenty of time to get there, find and stalk the thunderous pigs and then be on their way back with their prize.
Others had wished them well and good luck, and while the hunting pack was in good spirits, after their last hunting attempt they were sure they would need it. Carl, however, was confident of success with a little direction and planning this time.
Kristen looked up at the clouds overhead and idly wondered if the winds up there were just as strong as they were down at ground level. She and Jon had made their way through the woods surrounding the horseshoe valley on a heading slightly southwest and were now traveling over a relatively flat plain of short buffalo grass, wildflowers and scrub brush. Walking right into the wind, leaves and grass blew into their faces and they were forced to squint to keep it out of their eyes. Blowing grit, however, got past this defense and more than once each of them silently wondered if this had really been a good day to take a trip.
Although they had been traveling for several hours, they still had a little time to go to reach their first destination. So far, they had seen nothing of special interest other than finding new alien plant life for Kristen to examine and gather samples. There were some she suspected were potentially poisonous merely from instinct and those she handled with shears and metal tongs to get them into sample containers.
Despite the high winds, there were birds in the air, and although there were more shapes and designs of the avian flyers than they were familiar with back at the colony, the pair of feline wanderers had fallen to ignoring any that did not look especially outstanding.
To pass the time as they walked, conversations had gone far and wide, covering everything from daily activities, prospective couples among the colonists, discoveries that had been made and events that had happened back home on Earth.
Although Jon had to guard his words around others in Second Chance, Kristen knew his real background and he could be open with his memories when with her. He could likewise be honest with Jenni, since she also knew his real personal history, but she’d grown more distant once they’d arrived on Bonestell. Perhaps it was due to her newfound responsibilities as nurse to make sure everyone remained healthy in the alien environment or the fact that she no longer had to try to push the two mountain lions together. She was still friendly enough and had shown no cause for issues, but she no longer spent much time with either of them.
“Did you have any siblings?” Kristen asked as they wound their way on all fours through the short buffalo grasses of the prairie they crossed. “For real, I mean.”
“What do you mean, for real?”
“Real, as in someone who wasn’t made up for the history of your new identity,” she explained. “When your name was still Brian, did he… did you have any brothers or sisters?”
Jon shook his head. “No, I was an only child,” he answered. My mom and pop both had several siblings, so I had plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins, but no brothers or sisters of my own. Growing up, I’d always wondered what it would have been like to have a little brother or sister, but friends of mine who did told me I was lucky in that I didn’t have to share anything that way.” He smiled and looked aside at her. “What about you?”
“Older sister,” Kristen replied. “She was married and had two kids before I got out of high school. Due to her husband’s job, they moved around a lot, sometimes to other countries, and it was while they were living abroad that a train they were on derailed due to a stalled vehicle on the tracks.” She looked over at him with a frown. “Although over a century old, the train was still in use and the crash was terrific. Out of one hundred twenty three passengers and crew, only six people survived, none of them from my family.”
“Wow, I’m sorry to hear that,” Jon said quietly.
Kristen shook her head. “Thanks, I'm sure my folks still miss her, but she and I were never close and she's been gone a number of years now.”
“Do you miss your mom and dad?”
“Yeah, sometimes. I just hope they're okay, that my debt collectors didn't go after them when I disappeared off the map.”
“You probably should have taken a new identity too,” he told her.
“It doesn't really matter,” the lioness countered with a smile. “We're several light-years away from all that now.” She turned her head to avoid a large clump of blowing leaves from somewhere and had another thought.
“With our longer days, longer months and longer seasons, I wonder how we'll be able to keep a calendar.”
“Does that really matter anymore?” Jon asked. “It's not like we have to set schedules for business meetings or classes.”
“Perhaps not, but it would be nice to keep track of all our birthdays still.”
Jon shook his head. “I've never really cared for birthdays,” he said. “They just remind me that I'm getting older and that I only have a finite number of years to live.”
“Well, I think of birthdays as a celebration of life,” Kristen said with an upturned nose, “not reminders of mortality. Mine is October twelve. When's yours?”
“Brian Barrett's birthdate was December sixteen. My new birthday – Jon Sunset's birthday, is May fifth, but don't bother trying to remember either of them. We don't have Mays, Octobers or Decembers on Bonestell.”
“How do you know? We can still use the month names, even if the lengths of the months are not the same anymore.”
“You can bring it up at the next colony-wide meeting,” Jon said dryly.
“Maybe I will.”
The couple fell silent for a while, their list of topical discussions running low. After some time, however, Jon looked up in interest.
“We're getting close,” he said. “I see trees up ahead.”
“There are trees around the salt flats?” Kristen asked, looking ahead.
“No, that would be barren flat land, but Carl said there were plenty of woods near the freshwater lake. We must have strayed off course.”
They continued walking without further conversation, but after a quarter hour Kristen suddenly remarked, “Avon may be performing a wedding soon.” Jon looked aside at her suspiciously, but when he didn't otherwise respond, she chuckled and added, “Not that you would know about it, but Aaron and Alicia have become a couple and from what I hear are getting rather serious about the relationship.”
Jon frowned. “That doesn't bode well,” he muttered.
“Huh? Why the sour note? I think they make a good couple.”
“Avon's been concerned over the disproportionate ratio of Ursis males to females,” he explained. “Exclusive relationships among breedable pairs may not be very wise in this kind of setting.”
“Well, you might be right if we planned to be the only ones here beyond the five years of our contract, but after that time, either more Furs will be joining us or we'll be shipped off to another colony of Furs when the human immigrants start coming in. With only five years, I don't see why Avon's so concerned by those who want to get married.”
“Probably because it means that five years is a long time to be lonely for those who don't have anyone,” Jon replied.
“There are other girls in camp the guys can form relationships with,” the lioness said. “They just won't be making any babies together.”
Unwilling to prolong this particular conversation, Jon simply replied, “I suppose you're right.”
Kristen only waited a moment before she looked over at him with half-lidded eyes and said, “So, when will it be our turn, hmm?”
Jon sighed, but gave her a little smile. “All things in good time.”
“There are other couples forming too,” Kristen continued without missing a beat. “Erin and Kevin seem to be doing well together, and they can have kits if they want to. They don't seem to be in hurry for their relationship to go any farther than it is for now, however.”
“Good for them,” Jon muttered. “Let them take their own time.”
The first trees near the lake they came across were tall, willowy and laden with a fruit that neither of them could reach. Beneath them, however, were plants on thin, double stalks topped by fuzzy heads that resembled rather large cotton swabs. The swab heads were all various colors in almost the whole visible rainbow spectrum, as if each had been dipped in a different Easter egg dye. These plants completely surrounded the tree several yards on all sides as if the trunk had grown up right through the middle of them.
Kristen reached out cautiously and ran the fingers of one hand over a purple swab and smiled back at Jon. Just as they looked, they felt like cotton swabs, only each head was fully the size of her hand. Where she touched them, however, tiny seeds came loose in the wind and were carried away to alight elsewhere to spread more. An unfamiliar scent came away with the seeds; it was not unpleasant, but unlike anything else that either of them could compare to aromas they were familiar with on Earth.
“Look at your fingers,” Jon suggested.
When she glanced down at the fingers she had touched the swab with, Kristen saw that the skin and fur were stained the same color as the plant. She smiled and then touched one that was orange with her other hand. Likewise, her fingers retained the color and they were both amazed that a different scent emanated from that one. The swab plants all seemed identical except for their individual hues, and now they both wondered if each color had its own unique aroma as well.
Jon reached out for a blue swab to test this theory, but before his fingertips made contact with the cottony head, the lioness gasped and curled up both hands into tightened fists.
“Kris, what's wrong?” the cougar queried, suddenly concerned she might have inadvertently poisoned herself.
“My… my hands are numb… I can't feel my fingers!”
Jon grasped her wrists, but avoided the powdery residue staining each set of digits. He leaned in close without touching the affected areas, though he could see nothing but the color itself. The skin and fur of her fingers and palms didn't look burned, dry or out of the ordinary.
“Are you in pain?” he asked, releasing her hands and pulling off his pack to get at his canteen.
“No, no pain – just no feeling at all.”
“Cup your hands together,” Jon instructed, uncapping the canteen. He poured some of the fresh water over the stained areas of her hands and she rubbed them together to wash them off. He used more water than he probably should have, but he was certain they could find another spring to refill it. For now, he wanted to get her hands clear of the numbing powders.
With clean hands, Kristen turned to the side and shook off the remaining droplets. Jon studied her face, posture, eyes and even her scent to make sure she wasn't getting sick, but she looked back at him passively.
“How do you feel?” he asked in concern.
“The feeling's starting to come back into my hands,” she said with a relieved expression. “Otherwise, I'm okay.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don't want you to put on a brave face just for me, Kris. How do you feel?”
The lioness looked annoyed at his words, but then shook her head. “The tips of my fingers are tingling as if they were asleep, but that's fading. I'm fine.”
Jon looked at her skeptically, so she gave him a smile and then lightly licked the end of his broad nose. “I'm okay – really! I think the stuff is just topical.”
He leaned in close, really close, and sniffed her breath, the fur behind her ears, the ruff of her neck and down her arms to her hands. He had learned over months just how much information his new senses could tell him about the health of a person and she seemed to be telling the truth. There was no sickness about her, and she had washed her hands well enough that he didn't even smell the odd aromas from the swabs on them anymore.
He finally pulled back and stood up with a crooked smile. “Maybe we shouldn't handle the plants until we know what they might do to us,” he suggested calmly.
“It might be difficult to keep from brushing up against some,” she reminded him, “but yeah, it's probably better if I don't pet the plants arbitrarily.”
“Do we need to head back to Second Chance?” he asked.
Shaking her head, she snorted. “No, I'm fine!”
“Okay,” Jon replied quietly, “but promise me you'll have Jenni check you over fully when we get back – just to be sure there's no lingering side effects.”
“I promise,” Kristen told him, crossing her heart in an old childish gesture. “Now, do you believe me?”
The cougar finally nodded. “Yeah, I just wanted to make sure you're okay.”
Satisfied he wasn't going to badger her about it further, she looked aside at the swab plants and then reached for her own pack, the feeling having resumed to her hands. “I definitely need to get samples to take back to be studied. She pulled out plastic sealable baggies, garden snips and a large pair of needle-nose pliers. Jon watched her closely as she collected the heads of each color and bagged them all without touching them with her fingers, using only the pliers to handle them.
When she'd finished that task and had her samples safely tucked away into her pack, she looked up at the tree that overshadowed the swabs. “Have you noticed,” she asked, “that there are swab plants like these all beneath each of these fruit trees?”
Jon looked around the small grove and saw that he had been oblivious to this fact. “No, I hadn't noticed. Does this mean something?”
The feline botanist studied their surroundings more closely, but shook her head. “Maybe, maybe not,” she remarked. “It could be a symbiotic relationship where the swab plants protect the tree's fruit from creatures that might try to climb up to get them, or the swabs might be part of the tree's root system itself for that protection.”
Jon peered up into the tree at the pale yellow, softball-sized globes that grew in clumps where large limbs branched off. “Do you think the fruit might be poisonous?”
Kristen shook her head and pulled out the camera to take a few pictures. “My first guess is that they probably aren't, otherwise the tree wouldn't need the swabs to protect them.”
“So how do we collect the swab-fruit for analysis without wading through the colorful swabbies to get at them? I don't see any on the ground that have fallen from the tree.”
“Why don't we leave that for another time,” the lioness suggested. Jon raised an eyebrow, but she wasn't looking at him. It was unlike her to give up the study of a new plant, something she'd enjoyed doing with everything they found since their arrival. Perhaps the numbing experience had frightened her enough that she wanted to leave them alone for now.
Convinced this was probably the case, Jon put an arm around her shoulders after she put away the camera and said, “How about we find a nice place to picnic? It feels close enough to first-lunch and the stomach is rumbling.”
“Good idea,” she agreed, looking around. She saw several large deciduous trees nearby that had already turned golden in the cooler autumn nights they'd had of late. “There are other shade trees over there that don't have swabs under them. That would be a good spot to relax for a bit and then we can check out the lake.”
The small freshwater lake looked like any other. The strong winds that had prevailed for days finally subsided to mere breezes that caused the water to lap gently at the various plants growing at its shores. Small birds with long legs and bills almost as long stepped slowly through the water weeds, darting occasionally to snatch up some aquatic morsel; other birds with long wings and short bodies glided over the top of the lake in an interwoven dance whose meaning was known only to them, but none of any species were as colorful as their Terran counterparts; it seemed as if the entirety of birdlife on Bonestell had been bleached of all vibrant hues. Some had only spots of color, like the thin blue rings around the eyes of the arrowheads, but no widespread coloration that any of them had seen.
The alien Furs presented no threat to the avian wildlife as they stood at the water's edge simply looking about. The larger, broad-shouldered cougar was on all fours with his head down, peering at the marine life swimming about in the lake, and the smaller female stood up on her hind legs with one hand shielding her eyes against the long afternoon sun as she watched a bleached white flat disc skip across the top of the water after flittering insects.
Upon closer inspection, the disc resembled the abdomen of a flattened crab, but instead of little legs and pincers, something like frog legs or grasshopper legs propelled it after bugs and the front of the armored shell hinged open to swallow its prey.
Kristen watched several more of the hopping discs go across the top of the water like skipped stones, and although the critters were alien, the task of food finding was familiar. There seemed to be abundant life all around.
Jon idly watched small, translucent fish swim swimming around small sausage-like plants buoyant on thin, burgundy stringers. They had discovered the same plants growing in the colony lake that had proven to be safely edible and quite tasty when eaten raw. When cooked, however, they produced wild lucid nightmares that no one wanted to repeat, so that had been one lesson learned about the local cuisine. The stringers they grew on, however, were tough and difficult to cut even with a knife, but when dried out in the sun, they could be spun together into a soft cloth using Jasmine and Dahlia’s loom. Jon cut out several of the water sausages from their pods to keep in his pack as traveling snacks.
The cougars spent an hour casually walking the shore of the lake before they decided to continue on toward their destination, but before they departed, they had come across a dog-sized creature with no hair, leathery dry skin, small ridges over dark eyes and another set of ridges over gaping holes that served as ears in a bulbous head. It had no tail to speak of, and although it dashed about on four stubby legs, it was quick and instantly afraid of the two mountain lions.
They had been downwind of the thing, and before it noticed them, they had watched it dig at the roots of water weeds in shallow water and then come up with some kind of crustacean with multiple limbs. The unsightly critter ate the crunchy morsel shell and all with open smacking lips, but when it saw the cougars, it let out a grunting squeal, dropped the remains of its meal and then ran as fast as its stubby legs could carry it for the cover of trees.
Jon and Kristen watched it disappear into the shadows before either one of them thought to get the camera. Unless they came across another one, this is one creature they would have to simply describe to those back at camp.
With the freshwater lake an hour's casual walk behind them, the feline pair approached an area where the ground was flat and devoid of either trees, hills or even the occasional large rock; grass growth was stunted or absent altogether over much of the region. The area also seemed brighter the closer they drew near and they both quietly wished for furman sun goggles.
The air felt dry and there was the hint of a briny scent on the breeze for some time before either saw the salt flats that Carl had seen from the air. It looked as if a river from the distant ocean had on occasion spilled into a shallow lake here that couldn't have been any more than two or three feet at its deepest, but at this time, however, the lake bed was completely dry. The sun had evaporated all moisture in the area, leaving behind stark white salt crystals that reflected the sunlight brilliantly.
The lake bed covered approximately a hundred acres and it was only after looking across its uniform flatness for moments before a couple of details focused in their eyes. The ground was not as smooth as they first imagined. There were small piles of salt here and there scattered all over the area, each approximately six inches high. There were hundreds of them, and both mountain lions wondered how they could have missed seeing them from the start.
The other detail they realized is that across the dry salty lake bed there were several shaggy thunderpigs. Most were calmly licking at the ground salt, though one the size of a small elephant stood still with its eyes trained right on the pair of felines. There was a good amount of distance between them, but neither party made any moves of aggression toward the other.
Jon cautioned his companion that they should keep their eyes upon them, but to maintain the distance and make no move to approach the massive warthog-like animals.
Remembering the purpose for their visit to the region, Jon removed his pack and dug out several plastic containers and a small metal spade. He walked out onto the flats a short distance, avoiding the curious little mounds, wondering what could have made them. He sat down on his haunches and then used the spade to dig down through the crisp layer of salt.
The tip of his spade came up damp, so there was still moisture lying in the soil beneath the surface. He scooped up several inches of salt into one container and then remembering something from his childhood, Jon dug down a little deeper and hit something solid. He smiled at his memory and then worked a few moments digging up selenite crystals that had formed in the hydrous calcium sulfate beneath the surface.
One such crystal was six inches in length that featured an internal chocolate brown hourglass inclusion no doubt caused by iron oxide contamination. He had dug up similar crystals in a public salt lake while on vacation with his parents and the feeling of nostalgia was strong.
He dug up several to take back to Dara, the colony geologist, and smiled at the thought of handing them to her. She had been taking solo excursions back into the depths of the cavern, much to Avon's displeasure, and she said she was merely looking at the rock strata exposed by the cave's air currents; some suspected she might even be doing a little prospecting for minerals of value. Still, crystals of this sort had not been found in the vicinity of their little valley, so Jon was sure the polar bear would like having them.
When he looked over at his companion, Kristen was crouched beside several of the salt piles. Unwilling to risk her fingers again, she gently pushed the tip of her own spade into the mound and tapped something solid right away. She brushed the white crust away from the internal object and both cougars raised their eyebrows at what she uncovered. It resembled nothing more than a small blob of obsidian-black crystal about the size of her hand. She tapped the spade against it and there was a ping against the metal blade. From all appearances, it was a dark growth of crystal, nothing more.
“That's odd,” Jon muttered. “The selenite crystals I dug up form from gypsum and saline solutions in a damp environment just a few inches beneath the ground. I've never heard of them growing above the ground encased in sodium chloride.”
“Maybe things are different here,” Kristen suggested. She scooped the blade into the soil beneath the black crystal and then picked it up. It was a little heavier than she expected, so she set it down on the salty ground a couple inches away and then tipped it over. The object rolled over and then they got another surprise.
Tucked away neatly on a relatively flat bottom surface were four triple-jointed legs that resembled bamboo. They were folded beneath it uniformly in addition to a pair of small arms tipped with pinchers on one end of the crystal and another pair of tiny arms with rudimentary fingers on the other end, making eight limbs altogether.
“Is it alive?” Kristen asked in a whisper. She touched one of the tiny hands gently with the tip of the spade but the trio of diminutive digits remained immobile.
Jon went back to his pack and dug down deep to the bottom. He pulled out a pair of stubby-fingered, furman-designed gloves that he'd forgotten he had brought along and slipped his hands into them. Crouching down beside the lioness, he picked up the new life form and turned it over in his hands, lightly brushing salt from it.
He held it up by its black crystal shell, but the arms and legs remained folded neatly in place. He sniffed it, getting only a salty aroma in return and then turned it this way and that as he examined it from all sides. Kristen had nosed up close to see as well, but whatever it was, it seemed to be quite dormant, or dead.
“I don't see any eyes, ears or a mouth,” she whispered, almost as if afraid of waking it. “It reminds me of the torts that Sissy found back in our valley by the lake.” She looked around at the other salt piles and imagined them all covering over these things. “Maybe this is a burial ground?”
“Salt-torts that bury their dead?” Jon mused.
“Well, they do have little hands as well as a pair of pinchers. I suppose the live ones can use them to bury the others. Perhaps they put them in the salt to preserve them, like embalming.”
“Perhaps,” Jon murmured. “Get the camera, take a few pictures of this, the salt flats and the little burial mounds. Then we'll box up this guy and take him back with us.”
“Grave robber!” Kristen teased with a smirk, idly smoothing out the salt that once covered the tort-like critter.
Jon merely snorted in response, but there was amusement in his eyes when she pulled out the camera and aimed it at him. She snapped several shots of the creature as he turned it over and then stood up to record the area too.
Jon placed the salt-tort in a plastic specimen box, and after the sample container was put away with the spade and gloves, he donned the pack and then got up on all fours.
“Well, we traveled all this way to scoop up some salt to take back,” he said with a yawn. “We've done that, so now we need to find someplace we can relax and camp for the night.”
He looked up at the partly-cloudy sky and swished his long rope of a tail behind him. He spotted a black dot way up high and he quietly wondered what it might be. It traveled in a straight line across the sky for some distance and he suddenly got the impression it was an aircraft – something that should not be in the sky over Bonestell. As he watched, however, it began making lazy circles in the air riding the thermals as it descended and even at this distance he could see the occasional flap of wings as it dropped lower.
He chuckled to himself for letting his imagination run away with him like that. There were things that people took for granted on Earth, but he was sure his heart might have skipped a beat if a contrail had issued behind the high-flying bird. When he looked back at his companion, she was looking out away from the salt plain toward a copse of trees a short distance away.
“Let's see if we can find a good place to camp over there,” Kristen said with a smile when she noticed him looking at her.
“What's that?” the lioness asked, looking over Jon's shoulder at the things he removed from his day pack. The item in question was a grey plastic container an inch in diameter and almost twice that in length with a thin black cap on one end. There was no identifying label, but it was strapped to two other long and thin objects with a rubber band.
“This is an instant campfire maker,” Jon explained, picking them up. He pulled off the band and then peeled off the canister's plastic cap. Inside was a cotton ball that was covered in petroleum jelly. “You dig a fire pit, put the appropriate dry wood, kindling, leaves or grass in it, and then put one of these cotton balls beneath it.” He held up the other objects and said, “This is a magnesium striker. You only need create a spark with it and the coated cotton ball will catch fire to get things started.”
“Wouldn't a cigarette lighter be easier?” Kristen asked.
“Probably in most cases, but lighters can fail and the magnesium will always produce a spark that will catch the coated cotton ball. Magnesium also isn't affected by water if the striker gets wet with rain or you drop it in a stream. I do have a lighter in my pack, but I always carry this on trips too, just in case.”
“Ah, that sounds handy,” she remarked. He capped the container and put it back on the blanket they had spread out beneath a large conical tree. Dusk was approaching, although there was still plenty of light available for eyes sensitive to nocturnal activities. When he set the lighter aside and reached for something else instead, she was puzzled.
“Aren't we going to make a campfire?” she asked.
“We don't really want to make a fire unless we need it,” he said. “While most of the animals we know are frightened by fire, that's because they know what it can do. If a new animal here has never seen fire, it could attract them out of curiosity instead – and we're not sure what we want to attract just yet.
“What about the big campfire back at the colony?” she asked. “It hasn't attracted anything but bugs as far as I can tell.”
“It's probably because our little valley is secluded. It's surrounded on three sides by the foothills of the mountain and on the fourth by the woods. Anything out on the prairie probably wouldn't even see a glow from our fire unless it was a big fire or the clouds were low some night for the light to reflect from.”
“What about Michael's little campfire at the edge of the woods by the landing site where he cooked his arrowheads in private?”
Jon shook his head. “You got me there. Maybe he was just lucky and nothing was in that vicinity to see his fire light on those nights. For now, we'll just eat the sandwiches we brought along so we won't have to bother cooking anything.”
“What then?” she asked quietly, idly looking around the partially wooded vicinity a short distance from the salt plain, almost wishing for something to jump out of the shadows that they could chase down for a tastier supper.
Jon leaned in close and placed his lips right into one of her ears. He whispered something that made her eyes widen, and if she'd still had the ability to blush, she would have turned a deep red. She pulled back away from him just far enough to look into his golden eyes.
“Are you sure?” she asked. She'd known that this trip had the potential of bringing them closer together, but she hadn't wanted to hope against hope. The waning sunlight reflected in his eyes, but there was no mistaking the simple smiling nod he gave her.
“I've finally accepted who and what I am,” he assured her. “I can never go back. I'll never be fully human again and neither will you. All we can do is move forward, if you're willing.”
Kristen abruptly wrapped her arms around his neck and broad shoulders, embracing him tightly. Although kissing as a Fur was a different matter than it had been as a human, it was no less pleasurable. She kissed him deeply, pushing against him so that he almost fell over on top of the items he had removed from his pack to take inventory.
When she finally allowed him to have some air, there was moisture in her eyes when she pulled back to look at him again. “I have waited so long for you to fall for my charms,” she whispered impishly. “Yes, I am willing to go forward with you.”
Jon smiled at her, keeping his arms around her middle. “I fell for your charms some time ago,” he replied, “but I was too bull-headed to accept what that would mean for me. Forgive me?”
“Totally and completely!”
He leaned back toward her and she responded in kind, but instead of kissing her, Jon gave the side of her broad nose a long wet lick.
“Gah! Did you have to do that?” Kristen asked with a mock laugh, wiping the fur of her face with the back of her hand.
“Yes – yes I did,” the lion answered matter-of-factly. Before she could retaliate, he sat back quickly and turned toward his pack. “Now, about those sandwiches…”
“The sandwiches can wait,” Kristen informed him with a purr, sliding her hands around his shoulders.
Jon's eyes opened to slits and he looked out into the chilly darkness. He and Kristen were curled up around one another in concentric feline balls and his nose rested upon the fur of her bare shoulder. Her deep breathing told him she still slept, so he wasn't sure what it was that had woken him. He lay still, stretching out his senses for whatever might be in the area. Small nocturnal furballs or other critters might be in the tree above them or it could be something out in the grass; perhaps it was even one of the mysterious nightshades.
He quickly willed himself awake when he heard a scratching noise from behind him that sounded very near. Unwilling to awaken his lover but mindful of possible danger, he gently pulled away from her and then got up onto four feet beside their pallet. Again, he became still, even to the point where his breathing was shallow and his ears swiveled back and forth trying to pinpoint what he'd heard.
The scratching sounded again, but this time he zeroed in on its location. It was subtle at first, but the noise from his pack increased in rate and volume. He crouched beside the pack, opened it and then peered inside. The cloudless sky provided plenty of illumination from one of the two dim moons and the accompanying starlight for him to pull out one of the larger specimen containers.
It was the one with the black crystal thing he had taken. Although it had been immobile at the time they'd found it, the tiny legs and little arms were all now scratching at the plastic container to get out.
“What's that?” Kristen asked sleepily, raising her head to look at him.
“It's the salt-tort we took,” Jon replied. “It's awake and wants freedom.”
The lioness crept closer to see and the thing inside grew more frantic to get out. “It must be nocturnal. Maybe it was just sleeping and the salt pile was its day-blanket against the sunlight,” she murmured.
“Perhaps. If this thing is going to keep us awake all night, I don't really feel like taking one back to Dr. Mochizuki.” Jon got up on two feet and took the container out a couple yards away from their blanket. He knelt down, twisted off the top the container, and then dumped the black crystal critter out gently onto the grass.
“There you go,” he said. “Sorry about taking you from your bed.”
In response, the thing rose up onto its bamboo legs and then rushed at him. Jon jumped back, but not before the tiny pinchers nipped at his toes. He yelped and retreated, but the creature came after him again.
This time, Jon growled and reached out over it before it could get him again, and he grabbed it by the top of its crystal shell. The thing's arms had no difficulty reaching him there and it pinched the fur and skin of his thumb to another feline yelp.
The cougar dropped it, though snatched it up again quickly, but this time he didn't care how much he'd wronged the thing and he lobbed it out into the darkness in the general direction of the salt plain. He heard it soft land somewhere out in the grass, so he used the relative moment of quiet to examine his thumb.
“Are you hurt?” Kristen asked, getting to her feet.
“Not really. It pinched, but didn't break the skin,” Jon answered, rubbing the offended digit with the palm of his other hand. “Sure hurt like the dickens, though.”
The lioness was about to say something more, but then both of them suddenly stopped still at the sound of the salt-tort rushing back toward them through the grass.
“Mind your toes,” Jon said. “That thing's back for vengeance!”
In the moonlight, they could see the crystal salt creature's movement through the grass. It was fast and was making a straight line back toward them. Not waiting for a repeat attack, Jon grabbed up the now-empty specimen container and rushed toward it headlong. When he reached it, the cougar plunged the plastic box over the top of it, and then slid the lid beneath it. Before it could get away, he twisted the lid in place, effectively trapping it. Jon then threw container and all back out into the shadows as hard as he could.
“We'll put it back where we found it in the morning,” Jon said to Kristen, “but hopefully that will keep it away from our toes tonight.”
“Maybe…” the botanist replied distractedly. Jon noticed this and frowned.
“What is it?”
Off in the distance toward the salt plain, Jon could now hear scraping, clicking and shuffling noises. It was almost indistinct among the other night sounds, but the more he focused upon it, he didn't know how he could have missed hearing it.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Maybe the others are awake too,” Kristen suggested.
“Let's pick up camp in case we have to run,” Jon said. “We don't have enough containers for all of them.” The lioness looked at him with a deep frown for only a moment before she nodded. They picked up the few items they'd taken out of their packs, slipped back into their clothing and then hastily folded up the thin blanket. Once their packs were in place upon their backs, Jon led the way stealthily toward the new sounds on all fours.
They came upon the one trapped inside the container and Jon picked it up out of spite to hurl it back out toward the trees, farther from its home. He put a spin on it, hoping to make the thing inside dizzy. Kristen looked at him in disapproval, but he only rubbed his pinched thumb and shook his head.
As they got nearer to the salt flats, they both realized that none of the sounds they heard were coming toward them. Curious, they both crouched low to the ground as they crept closer, and within a few minutes, they were looking through the short buffalo grass at an odd sight.
All the little mounds they had seen earlier were broken and scattered. Hundreds of the little obsidian-black critters were dancing around one another, the dim moonlight glinting off their crystalline shells. Their tiny hands and miniscule pinchers were waving all around, tapping others and twirling here and there across the salt plain.
“What are they doing?” Kristen whispered quietly.
“A mating ritual, perhaps,” Jon replied. “They could be preparing to fight a war with one another or maybe they're just dancing to welcome autumn. Who knows?”
“Should we chance a better look?”
“You want to get closer to them?”
“No, but maybe we can see them better with a flashlight.”
Jon nodded and reached for the pack on her back. A wind-up torchlight was in a side pocket, so he plucked it out and quietly gave the handle a few turns to generate enough juice to light it. Crouching upon his haunches, he aimed it toward the nearest salt-torts and thumbed on the power. The array of tiny lamps in the lens put out a brilliant beam, and the result was instantaneous.
All of the creatures within the beam of the light froze instantly. Some still dancing that wandered into the light became suddenly still also. Curious, Jon waved the light to the side, and those who were frozen but now again in darkness resumed their motion.
Although long an adult and the first officer of an organized colony, there were times when Jon could be mischievous and even immature. Seeing the effect the light had on the dancing torts, the cougar waved the lamp back and forth across the whole of the salt flats as far as the beam could go. Obsidian-black globs on bamboo legs danced, stopped and started all over the place and Jon snickered to himself at the power he had over the creatures. That is, until they all stopped at once, whether the light was on them or not.
The plain became quiet and still; not even a light breeze was blowing across the flat lands.
Then, without warning, the salt-torts began scrambling toward the cougars en masse. Remembering how swift and tenacious just one of them was like, the mountain lions turned and ran for the woods just as fast as they could lope across the plain.
Kristen didn't have time to be irritated by Jon's juvenile display. Without knowing whether or not the pursuing horde was poisonous or even carnivorous, she tried to put as much distance between them and herself. Jon stayed with her, even though he could have easily outrun her, and although the felines were fast, they didn't seem to be putting as much space behind them as they thought they should.
They reached the tree they had camped beneath, but the obsidian-shelled torts, crabs or whatever they might be called continued after them. Not waiting around, both cats quickly climbed up into the wide boughs of the tree, hoping the creatures they'd stirred up could not follow.
This soon became evident quickly enough. Although a few of them actually tried, none of them could find enough purchase on the twisted bark of the tree to climb more than a few inches before falling back to the ground.
As they watched, Jon and Kristen saw several hundred glittering crystalline shells liberally cover the ground around the tree trunk, all moving around one another as if jockeying for a better position to grab one of the Furs if he or she lost their footing. Even if they thought they might be fast enough to get away, the felines would have had to jump out of the tree a great distance to be able to get to the ground without landing on any of those beneath them.
Without bothering to speak, Kristen tapped Jon on the shoulder and pointed skyward. Nodding, the cougar followed his mate higher into the tree, and then when the limbs became almost too small for their weight, they leapt from that tree into another and then another, leaving the vicinity in that manner. Some of the salt-torts followed along below, but after some time, Jon and Kristen could no longer hear them in pursuit.
Jon opened one eye and looked down at the ground beneath the tree that he and Kristen had slept in for the long chilly night. Both had stretched out along thick branches and despite the potential for rolling off during the night, their feline instincts had apparently kept them safely treed.
Although they'd left the mass of crystal-shelled creatures behind beneath a tree now distant, he could see where several had managed to track them down and scratch at the bark of this tree too. Fortunately, there were none now in sight and Jon assumed they had all retreated back to the flat plain to cover up again with salt.
The sun was not yet up, but there was a glow on the horizon and the overhead stars were becoming muted. Kristen stirred and then raised her head. Her ears flattened against her head as she yawned, curling her tongue in over itself, and she flexed her claws against the bark of the branch she lay upon. She looked around until she saw her mate looking back at her and then gave him a friendly smile.
“Good morning,” she told him. “Some night, huh?”
Jon nodded. “Good morning. Yeah, we got more action than we'd anticipated.”
The lioness smiled contentedly, remembering how pleasant the evening action had begun, but then she shook her head with a frown. “Maybe you shouldn't stir up the wildlife until we know what they might do to us,” she suggested calmly, mimicking what he had told her when she'd gotten into the swab plants.
“Yeah, that wasn't such a good idea,” Jon admitted. “I already knew how fast the one could run through the grass at me – I should have known the others might do the same, but I thought that first one was just mad because I stuck it in a box.”
Kristen arched her back, stretched languidly and then began cutting furrows in the limb with her claws. It took her only a moment to realize she was doing it and then she stopped, feeling embarrassed exhibiting such base feline characteristics.
“Do you think they're still about?” she asked, noticing the missing bark from the bottom inches of their tree.
“I don't think so – they're probably all under their salty blankets again.”
“What about the one in the box? Should we go back and get it to take back with us?”
Jon shook his head. “No, Dr. Mochizuki will have to be satisfied with pictures. As far as I'm concerned, the thing can rot inside the box or it can depend upon its friends and relatives to break it out.”
“If they haven't already,” Kristen mused. “So, what's the plan now?”
“We've done all we planned to do on this trip,” Jon said with a sly smile at his mate, “so we may as well start back.”
“Are we in a hurry?”
“No, we have all day and that means eighteen hours of daylight. Is there someplace you want to revisit?”
“Not specifically,” Kristen replied, “but I'm hungry and I want something fresh. Let's hunt something and use your magnesium kit to build a fire to cook it.”
“I hope you brought plenty of loperamide hydrochloride tablets in case the only thing we can find are the lil-deer,” Jon said in distaste.
“We've seen other things we can try,” the lioness countered. “Besides, I've not noticed any of the little darlings since we left the valley. Everything needs water and I would guess there's more wildlife near the lake. We'll just have to sniff them out.”
“Are you setting your sights on that little naked dog-thing we saw yesterday?”
“You never know,” Kristen said with a smile. “There have been ugly wildlife back on Earth that turned out tasty – it's the same with fruits and vegetables. From the looks of some of them, it makes you wonder who the first brave soul to try eating one was. I mean, have you ever seen a kiwi fruit? It looks like a large bloated tick on the outside, but cut it open and it's a sweet treasure inside.”
Jon made a face. “Thanks, if I ever get to see a kiwi fruit again, I probably won't be able to get that visual image out of my head.”
The botanist stood up and retrieved her pack from an upper branch where she'd hung it for the night. She slipped its straps over her shoulders and then fastened a belt around her middle, making it secure so she could travel on all fours without having to hold it upright on her back. Jon followed her example and soon they were both ready to go.
“Okay, let's go find an ugly dog and see if it's edible,” Jon said with a lopsided smile. Before they climbed down out of their tree, however, Kristen rubbed up next to the main trunk and looked at him with dreamy eyes.
“Thanks for last night, lover,” she said quietly.
“The first of many,” he promised with a smile.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.