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SECOND CHANCE

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 10
Tasteful Endeavors

 

Carl darted to his right, narrowly escaping the sharp tusks of the massive animal that harried him away from its young. The grey wolf growled more to himself than at the thundering hooves that kicked up dust beside him, and while his health could be in serious danger from the beast, he was counting on keeping its attention on him instead of the rest of his pack.

The giant shaggy-haired warthog began slowing to turn back, so Carl suddenly wheeled and faced the animal with his hackles raised, his teeth bared and a change of course directly across its path. Enraged that this strange canine would dare to confront it so openly, the thunderpig charged after him with a renewed burst of energy.

Behind them, Ken performed a similar tactic to draw another adult warthog away from the smaller pig the pack had chosen as its target, but this one was not as easily diverted away after the red wolf. Ken had to double back and bite at the thunderpig's hamstrings to get its attention, all while trying to keep his nose from getting pounded by its hooves.  The ploy worked and although the lupine physician did no serious damage to the pig, he'd managed to get the animal's full attention. Taunting it while weaving a zigzag pattern across the prairie of short buffalo grass, he was successful in leading the smaller pig's guardian away, though just barely able to stay out of harm's way in the process.

Cheryl and Aldo's task was to drive the adolescent thunderpig away from the herd toward a predetermined place near a small copse of trees where Ellie waited with her bow.  Proven to be the best archer among them, the grey wolf had been tracking the progress of the porcine herd and the ability of the canines to draw the younger warthog out away from the adults.

Although not as large as the mature pigs, the canine pack had determined they might have better luck with an adolescent merely the size of a buffalo instead of a younger shoat that had better protection from the larger, elephant-sized hogs of the herd. The boldness of the youth to travel just beyond the margin of safety of its kind was a hallmark of adolescent rebellion that seemed to transcend species as well as worlds.

Separated from the rest of the herd, however, this one was beginning to panic and it had been easier to drive him farther away. The Border collie at his flank was experienced with this kind of thing, even before she'd been transformed into the furman hybrid. Cheryl had grown up on a ranch and had spent much of her youth on horseback corralling cattle, goats and sheep, and although she had no horse beneath her now, the canine used that experience to cull out and redirect this new critter. Old methods from another world seemed to work in this setting, and with Aldo's assistance they were able to drive the boar right where they needed him.

Ellie took careful aim at the thundering moving target; it would not do to miss the pig and shoot down one of her own pack members. The adolescent warthog charged past her unseen position and she let the compound bow's powerful release do its work.

A sturdy, red-feathered graphite shaft appeared to magically materialize deep in the thunderpig's right eye and the animal dropped in a cloud of dust and grass, its hooves and tail flipping over its head just once before it landed hard.

Neither Carl nor Ken witnessed the success of the hunt, but Ellie's howls of triumph were all they needed to get the news.  Now each of the wolves had to find a way to ditch the other thundering pigs intent on stomping them into the prairie and ripping them open with their tusks. 

*** 

Hank Danagar held up a fish and examined the strange thing with a frown, wondering if it was actually edible. It about as similar to a fish from Earth as the local dirt worms were to their Terran counterparts.  The form and function were similar, but Bonestell's Mother Nature had given them a different design.  The eyes were small and located far forward on their heads, they possessed no scales over a thick, greenish-grey rubbery skin and no matter which species were caught and examined, they all seemed to have six rudimentary flippers that possibly could have been used as feet. No one had seen any of them actually walking out on land, but several surmised these fish had the capability to do so if needed. The gills located up on top of their backs just forward of three dorsal fins undulated for long moments after caught, strengthening the hypothesis that they could get their oxygen equally from the water or the air itself.

He and several others were gathered around the small colony lake with fishing rods and tackle that Alicia had discovered among the supplies. For bait, they used some of the local worms and insects they could catch, and although the fish did not go after all of them, the Furs were relatively successful in bringing in a variety for the red pandas to examine.  More than a few were hoping desperately that the Japanese geneticists would find the fish safe to eat as a supplement to all their diets, but none more than the bears.

The seven-foot long snizards that also inhabited the lake were seen swimming beneath the water near the hooked bait meant to entice the fish, but none seemed interested in more than simple curiosity.  This was all and well since the colonists didn't want the snake-lizards anyway, though seeing the long amphibious reptiles caused more than a few primal shivers among them.

The black bear dropped the odd-looking fish into his catch basket and then turned back toward the cup of worms.  He didn't much care for the look of the Bonestellan earthworms, but the fish sure seemed to go for them.  He picked up one of the fat little things, threaded it on his hook with a greasy green oozing of its insides, and then cast his line back into the lake.  Before he'd started reeling it back in, he could already feel hits from hungry fish.

Hank knew that the fishing conditions on Earth often depended upon the right temperature, barometric pressure and other weather-related factors, so perhaps these lake fish were really enjoying the kind of cool and windy autumn days they were experiencing of late.  

*** 

Carl collapsed beneath a thick fir tree with black twisted bark, his lupine lungs heaving from the strenuous efforts it had taken to ditch the maddened adult thunderpigs. Once the massive warthogs had discovered the death of one of their own, they had all became so enraged that they charged any Furs they saw with murderous intent. This made it difficult for the hunters to get the body of their kill away from the area to field dress it, and although they had caught up to the herd only two miles from Second Chance, that short distance seemed to take ages to traverse.

Only by taking a route through a thicket of trees too dense for the giant pigs were they able to escape, but not before Aldo was injured by one jagged tusk into his side. He'd suffered a cracked rib or two, as well as a nasty ragged gash from his hip to his armpit, but Cheryl had managed to stop the bleeding by ripping her robe top into strips with her teeth and binding up the injury; then with her on all fours and Aldo riding upright on her back, the Border collie helped the wounded bloodhound head for home while the other three dragged and pushed the dead hog toward camp on the travois beneath the dense trees and underbrush.

Considering how strong, fast and ferocious the thunderpigs could be, the hunters all felt fortunate that Aldo's injuries were the only injuries beyond a few scrapes and bruises. He might be laid up for a while, but he had survived to live on to join in on future hunts.

The alpha wolf looked out from beneath his tree at the other two wolves and saw that they were just as winded as he was.  This pig might have been an adolescent, but it was over a thousand pounds of dead weight on the flexible travois for the three of them to maneuver; without the enhanced strength of their transformed bodies, they would not have been able to perform such a feat. It would have been easier to section up the kill so that each person could carry his or her own share, but the other pigs had harried them at every turn and there had been no time.

They could still hear the sounds of enraged adult pigs bellowing and thrashing at the trees trying to get in at them. They were safe for the moment, but knowing that the dense foliage would not protect them all the way home gave them pause to think up another plan.

“Cheryl,” he called lightly.  The Border collie sought out his voice among the trees and padded to his side with her passenger, stopping beside the carcass of their kill.

“I'm here,” she said quietly, as if talking louder might give away their position to the enemy. “Aldo's in a lot of pain, but you'd never know it to hear him talk.”

The bloodhound of topic groaned from atop her back, but didn’t otherwise speak or open his eyes. Carl nodded and panted for a moment before he caught enough breath to speak.  “I need you to go on ahead. Take Aldo back to Jenni to attend him. Even injured, you'll both make it back quicker than we will with our load.  I'm going to contact Avon by radio and have him send the bears out to meet us so they can help haul our friend here back to camp, but they'll need to come armed.” To accent his point, one of the thunderpigs behind them bellowed out in mad frustration and he could almost feel the trees above him quiver at the sound.

“We may have to fight them every step of the way back home,” he continued with a frown. “Most animals would get frustrated and give up after a while, but not these things. They've taken the death of this one pretty seriously.”

“Will you be okay until the others get here?” Cheryl asked.

“We'll have to move deeper in these trees if we can. It'll make it harder to get back out, but perhaps it will keep the pigs out too.”  Carl looked around at the brush surrounding them. “The travois is made of modern materials and makes hauling this guy back somewhat easier than simply dragging it on the ground, but maneuvering it through the woods is slowing us down.” 

*** 

Chieko looked up from the microscope on the short table in front of her and rubbed her eyes.  She and her husband had been examining samples of each variety of fish the anglers had brought in to make sure they were safe before someone tried to eat one.  As far as the female geneticist could tell, there was nothing harmful in their composition, but without trying one herself, she couldn't give any recommendations on how they might taste

She looked over at Masanori, who was bent over the readout of a portable gas chromatograph. While his eyes were on the display, he was scribbling notes in Japanese upon the screen of his PBJ with a claw tip. He'd had difficulty wielding a stylus with his altered fingers, but had discovered better manual dexterity using a natural claw on the scratch resistant screen.

Chieko loved her husband dearly, but it seemed that the older furman had immersed himself completely into his labors since they had arrived upon this foreign world. When he wasn't trying to determine if the native flora and fauna were edible, he was busy cataloging everything that had been brought to them. There were things they found eerily familiar to life on Earth, but just as many elements that were totally alien to them. It was fascinating discovery.

The young woman often wished the attention Masanori gave his work was focused as much upon herself. When he did seem to notice her, his temper was short or he was simply disinterested.  Now that her transformations were completed and she no longer wept during the night from agonizing pain, he didn't see the need for them to be segregated away from everyone else anymore, so they had moved from further back in the cavern into one of the domes that had been constructed for them.

The new accommodations were more spacious but it seemed empty without the warmth of a home, so during the times when she wasn't needed in his work she had wandered around the edge of the forest with Sissy or Jasmine collecting an assortment of flowers to arrange in small containers for their dome.

Masanori grunted and sat back on his stool. “There are no traces of magnesium citrate in any of these fish,” he muttered, “so there should be no laxative issues this time. I've found no other elements of harmful composition either.”  He turned to look at her and idly rubbed the back of his neck.  “What of your findings?”

Chieko got up from her seat and moved behind him. She dug down into the thick fur at the back of his neck and began kneading tense muscles.  “Just from visual analysis, I see no reason why these fish cannot be eaten. We have found no poisons or toxins that should be harmful to any of our furman physiologies.”

Masanori leaned back into her ministrations and heaved an audible sigh.  “You have been working hard since we arrived,” she remarked quietly into one of his white-rimmed furry ears, “and have barely seen the outdoors. Take a walk with me through the nature around us and see its beauty.”

The doctor considered it for a moment, but shook his head gently. “No, I have too much to do,” he replied.

Chieko leaned forward and nuzzled his cheek with her own. “We will be here for years,” she told him quietly. “There will be plenty of time for our work.  Come walk with me as we used to do through the botanical garden in Non Hoi Park. I wish you to see what it is you study without having to analyze it all.”

Irritated, the red panda drew himself up to scold her for attempting to divert him from what was important, but the feel of her hands upon the back of his neck, her warm breath upon the side of his face and her pleasing scent soothed him.  Finally, he looked around the interior of the dome lab and nodded.

“Yes, I need a break,” he agreed. Then he looked back at the smile upon his wife's face and sighed again.  “Let us inform the captain of our findings and then we will walk.”

“Thank you,” Chieko said gratefully, sliding her hand paw into one of his and guiding him up to his feet. “I think you will like what we see.”

When they found the large grizzly bear, Avon was standing on the makeshift wooden bridge that spanned the small river flowing from the lake. It was a simple thing; the bridge had been hastily constructed using discarded material from packing crates left over from their arrival in the small valley. Despite this, it had held up well under the constant traffic of thirty-one Furs and even now fully supported the weight of the largest one of them all.  Avon's body did not have the magnitude of most North American grizzlies, but his size was still impressive for a Fur.

The colony leader's attention was upon something on the far side of the clearing, but neither red panda could see what it was he was focused on. Dr. Mochizuki cleared his throat when they neared the bridge and it was a moment before the bear looked aside at them. Avon immediately assumed they simply wished to cross the bridge, so he moved out of the way, stepping onto the farther bank.

“Excuse me,” he said courteously. “I was just watching them leave.”

“Them?” Masanori asked with raised eyebrows.

“The hunting party that went out was successful taking down one of the great warthogs, but it's too large to bring back on their own so they've requested help.” Avon scratched his chin, glancing back toward the trees again. “The rest of the herd took a deeply personal offense at killing one of them and they've been trying to get at our Furs through a dense part of the forest.  I just sent a group armed with rifles to help protect our hunting party and help bring back the kill.”

“Ah, I see,” said the geneticist.  “My wife and I have finished our analysis of the lake fish.”

Avon looked back at them with interest. “Any good news?”

“Actually, yes,” Masanori replied. “We can't vouch for the taste, but we have found nothing that should be harmful in any of the fish species. I believe they should all be safe to eat.”

“What about the stuff that was in the deer?”

“There are no traces of magnesium citrate as was in the defense system of the lil-deer,” Chieko told him.

“Jon will be happy to hear that,” the grizzly muttered.  “When can we try eating them?”

Dr. Mochizuki gave the bear a slight smile. “Despite that we found nothing in our analysis, you may still wish to have the doctor close by as a precaution.”

Avon frowned. “Dr. Wilder is out with the hunting party,” he said. “However, I'm sure Jenni can stand beside me when I try it.”

The geneticist looked alarmed. “You are not planning to be the first to eat one,” he stated cautiously.

“I am planning just that. No need to put anyone else in potential harm like before.”

The red panda's expression grew dark.  “You are the leader of our colony,” he reminded him. “You should not be placing your own health at risk when others can do it.”

“You just told me the fish should be safe to eat. Are you now telling me there is a risk?”

“There are no dangers that we can find in our analysis,” Dr. Mochizuki replied quickly, “but there's always a risk your human physiology might not react well to such food as it's never had before.”

“So what difference does it make whether it's me or someone else who eats it first?”

“You are the most important member of this colony. If anyone has to risk it first, let it be someone else who isn't in a key position.  If you are incapacitated—”

“—then Jon will take over my duties until I'm better,” Avon finished for him.  “That's what a first officer is for.”

“He was foolish enough to try that himself,” Masanori reminded him.  “You two are the leaders of our group and should be above all others, yet both of you senselessly insist upon placing yourselves at risk. As director of my Institute, I would have never allowed either of you to take such tasks upon yourselves.”

“So what you're saying is that everyone else is inferior and is expendable?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Avon was annoyed at the doctor's attitude and the discussion was making him irritable when he had been in a good mood before.  He stared down at the short red panda and then drew himself up to his full height.

“All right, then,” he said in a low voice, “I will allow you be the first to try our fish.”

Masanori looked shocked and Chieko let out a small squeak in surprise. “I, uh, don't think that's a good idea either,” he mumbled.

“Why not?” Avon growled. “You aren't in a key position and you just placed me and Jon above all others; that includes you.”

“My wife and I are doing the most important work of anyone in this colony! Putting either of us in jeopardy could hurt the work we were sent here to do!”

Avon couldn't believe what he was hearing. “What are you talking about?  Everybody here is doing the work we were sent to do.”

Masanori stuck out his chin. “Others will someday follow behind us to colonize this world and everything we find out about it ahead of time will pave the way for them.  Tending livestock, growing vegetables and gathering up firewood can be done by anybody, but we're the only ones specialized in our fields. Our analysis and cataloging of everything we encounter are for reports to go back to Earth and should have top priority over every other activity.”

“Doctor Mochizuki,” Avon said slowly, “I wouldn't set you above anyone else in this camp, no matter how self-important you think you are to this operation.” The doctor looked offended, but the grizzly continued. “We need your skills here, to be sure, but that goes for everyone else in Second Chance. I am thankful you think my administrative talents are so needed, but the fact is I'm no higher in status than anyone else on this planet.”

The older geneticist cleared his throat. “You should let me be your Second, Captain Avonaco. That way, I can take care of the important duties for you so you won't have to be burdened with them. That is where I have good experience.”

An angry grizzly bear, even a grizzly Fur, is not something most people would like to face, but the heat in the withering look in Avon's eyes could have melted iron at that point. He had merely been irritated before, but the panda's suggestion brought on sudden strong emotions. It took all of his leadership training at that moment to keep from raising his voice in an explosion.  Instead of a detonation, however, he managed to keep it to a low growl deep within his throat as he shoved his snout into Masanori's face.

“Keep your nose in your own work, doctor, and leave the duties of others to the others!”

Dr. Mochizuki's eyes widened, but instead of responding with further objections, he turned on his heel and stormed back across the bridge, leaving his wife standing beside the angry bear.

Chieko looked up at Avon, but the captain's gaze was only on the retreating panda's backside.  Without a word, she heaved a silent sigh and quietly followed after her husband.  There would be no peaceful walks together for now. 

*** 

Cheryl pushed aside the final tree branches that allowed Michael and Aldo to step out of the forest into the little horseshoe valley. The swift fox had departed with the hunting party's reinforcements, but when they'd come across the Border collie and the injured bloodhound, he had volunteered to help her get Aldo back for medical attention by trading out with her periodically.

There were three of the lil-deer in the field near them, quietly munching on the pale green grass, and they calmly stepped aside when Cheryl and Michael walked through the middle of them.  Again astride the collie’s back, Aldo was in a fair amount of pain from his injuries that he was close to passing out.  The two-mile journey had been arduous and he had required frequent rest stops along the way.

Kevin saw them and rushed to give them assistance while Erin ran to get their nurse. By the time the small group crossed the meadow and neared the wooden bridge, Jenni had prepared a pallet on the floor of the medical dome and had Ken's black bag ready and waiting. Avon helped get the bloodhound up into the cavern and then Cheryl retreated to her own bed to collapse for some rest. 

*** 

The hunting party had not yet returned, but Avon received regular reports by radio on their progress. The thunderpig herd continued to harass and attack at them, and although the armed reinforcements had not killed any more of them, they'd had to wound some to drive them away from those hauling the dead body of the adolescent by travois.

Jon and Kristen were still away from camp and were not expected to return until the next day, but Avon already regretted allowing them to go.  He wasn't sure what the cougars could have contributed to the current crisis, but he was uneasy knowing they were out there alone without armed protection if the thunderpigs were on the offensive.  The radio reports he'd received from Jon were encouraging, but there was the strong possibility that the feline couple could run into porcine trouble on their journey back.

With Aldo now sleeping quietly under medicated assistance and nearly half of his colony out away from camp, there was little to do until they arrived. He was still miffed at the conversation with Masanori, but mulling it over in his mind took him back to thoughts of the fish.  More fish had been caught than had been turned over to the red pandas for examination, and since the geneticist had assured him they were safe to eat, he nodded quietly to himself and then headed to the Great Dome to see if either Kim or Yuki were around.

Since the sisters were the primary cooks for the rest of the colony, kitchen duties were their sole responsibilities, which suited the two of them just fine. With so many mouths and various tastes, they were often preparing some kind of food around the clocks. When they weren't, Avon afforded them the luxury of relaxing whenever they could.

He could find neither in the Great Dome or kitchen areas, so he decided to not to bother them and pan fry some fish on his own.  The fish that had been caught were in the storage cooler, so he pulled out one type that he had caught personally and took it back to the kitchen. Thankful it hadn't been placed in the freezer, he wouldn't have to thaw it out first.

Before he'd pulled out a sharp knife to slice it open, Yuki stepped into the kitchen in the process of tying an apron around her middle.  She stopped when she saw him at the counter and gave him a friendly canine smile, her curled tail gently wagging behind her.

“Is there something I can help you with?” the Akita asked, moving forward to stand beside him. She had to tilt her neck at an odd angle to peer up at him, but she didn't seem bothered by it.

“Dr. Mochizuki said all the fish we caught should be safe to eat, so I thought I would give this one a try,” Avon replied with a smirk.  “You know how bears like fish – well, I'm no different in that respect.”

Yuki grinned at his smile and took the knife from his large hand.  “Here, let me prepare that for you,” she said.  “If you will grab a medium skillet from the wall hook, you can light a burner for me.”

By the time that the grizzly was later seated at a table in the Great Dome, word had spread through those still in camp and they'd all gathered to see the new spectacle.  Would there be a repeat of the lil-deer episode or would they have discovered some success in finding native food to eat? 

When Yuki set a large plate in front of the colony captain, a pan fried fish fillet surrounded by other Bonestellan vegetables, there were some who realized that this was the first meal any of them had had that consisted totally of food native to the planet.  The local veggies had already made their way into other daily meals, including the raw sausage-like, tasty plants harvested from under the lake waters, and lately the Bonestellan vegetables always seemed to accompany other foods they'd brought with them.

Avon looked around at the small crowd made up mostly of feline and vulpine spectators and gave them a confident smile.  Neither of the red pandas was present, but he hadn't really wanted to see the male half of that couple anyway.  Jenni looked on with a worried expression, so he nodded as if to acknowledge her attentiveness to what he was about to do.

He looked down at his plate and took in the aroma, liking what he smelled.  It didn't smell anything like Terran fish, having a unique aroma all of its own, but his mouth watered just the same, so he picked up a fork and dug into the first bit.  The tender yellow fillet cut easily with the edge of the fork so a knife wasn't necessary.  The initial bite would be of the fish itself; if the flavor was decent enough, he would eat the rest of it with the vegetables.

He put the fish up to his lips and hesitated. Masanori's warning came back to him, but Avon was resolved to do this himself rather than expect someone else to taste-test it for him like some royal dignitary.

There was a collective hush over the crowd as he placed it upon his tongue. He closed his eyes for a moment to savor the alien food, and although it had a taste like nothing else he'd ever had before, he found that he actually enjoyed the flavor.

He chewed on it briefly and swallowed, sitting still for a moment to analyze his feelings over what he had just done. He didn't take long, however, and picked up another piece of fish on the fork.  He ate it quietly and then looked around.

“I like it,” he said with a contented expression.  “It has a good flavor.”

There were several who exhaled, not even realizing that they had been holding their breaths, and a couple even gave a few claps.  Encouraged, Avon skewered a few pieces of native tubers, some greenish-blue leaves and another piece of fish on his fork.  He ate them all together and was surprised just how good all of it tasted together.

The grizzly smiled at Yuki and raised his fork in a mock salute to the canine woman.

“Can we try some?” Kevin asked from the sidelines.  “It smells wonderful!”

“I don't see why not,” the bear replied, picking up another bit of food on his fork.

There was suddenly a flood of requests aimed at Yuki to make more for the rest of them, but Jenni stepped up to the table and knocked on it for everyone to quiet down.

“Let's not be too hasty,” the blonde-haired leopard told the crowd. “Although the lil-deer meat didn't really taste good to those who tried it, it wasn't until later when the real effects became known.  Let Avon eat his meal and I will monitor him afterward to make sure there are no later issues.  If he suffers no ill effects, then we'll know for sure that we've discovered something we can eat here that we didn't bring with us.”

There were groans of disappointment, but there was no denying her words.  The four who had ingested the deer meat had not had anything good to say about the experience since that day, and there were few who were ready to repeat such an ordeal.  The nurse was right – they should wait and see how Avon fared before everyone jumped at another such meal.

Two hours later, Jenni gave the large grizzly bear a thorough physical accompanied by numerous questions on how he felt.  Despite all caution and potential dangers, it seemed the only byproduct of eating the alien fish and vegetables was that the captain had satisfied his hunger.

Encouraged by her findings, Jenni announced that she would be next in line for a Bonestellan fish and veggie dinner. That's all it took for the rest of them. If a medical officer was convinced it was safe, then it was good enough for them. Kim joined her sister in the kitchen and they were soon fulfilling orders for all.

Even if the thunderpig that the hunters were still bringing in proved to be inedible, there would be new food on the menu with this aquatic discovery.  While eating her portion of the new meal, the colony's golden retriever had a sudden inspiration of creativity and she began forming plans to make fishing lures that resembled the insects that these fish frequently fed upon.  Wendy’s father was a farmer, but he was also an avid fisherman who had often taken his daughter fishing with him.  She'd developed her own fishing and lure-making skills under his tutelage and was looking forward to being a provider for Second Chance. If she was going to be stuck here with no hope of going back to Earth, at least she could be a benefit to the colony. 

*** 

The hunting party made it back to the colony with their kill later that afternoon. They'd had to fight off the thunderpig herd every time they'd emerged from the cover of dense forest and the vengeful hogs had finally given up less than a quarter mile from the small horseshoe valley. No one knew why they'd stopped and gone away, but it was a great relief of which they were thankful.

There had been no further injuries to the hunting party, but they were all near exhaustion from either fighting or hauling the heavy carcass, all having switched out with one another several times on the journey.

There was great excitement at news of the lake fish. Not only was one kind edible, the others that had been caught had also proven to be great tasting sources of food and nutrition.  It would take several hours to properly dress and roast the young thunderpig on a spit over the campfire, so the Tanaka sisters prepared a full fish dinner for the hungry hunters.

Later that evening, appetites were peckish again at the smell of roasting pig meat.  It had a different aroma from Terran cooked pigs, but still enticed the senses. However, although fishing in the lake had been a success adding local food to the Furs' menu, the failure of the lil-deer steaks was still fresh in memory – an event that seemed to be the benchmark for every new food that was tried. Everyone seemed to want to dine on thunderpig pork chops, but no one was eager to be the first.

Dr. Mochizuki had harvested the great pig's organs and samples of meat from various parts of the animal, but he had found nothing to suggest a repeat of the deer-tasting fiasco.  As with the fish, he had proclaimed it safe to eat, but advised caution before the colony devoured it all without proper field testing.

Arne volunteered to be the first.  The African lion had suffered from the humiliation of the deer steaks, but he was practically salivating at the smell of roasted pig.  All he asked was for a bucket at his side and a clear path to the latrines if the results of eating it were less than pleasant. Avon had argued with him for several moments in private, but in the end Arne had convinced the captain to let him try it first.

Dr. Ken stationed himself nearby with his black bag and a ready assortment of medicines and medical implements. It was not an encouraging prospect, but a necessary precaution that was becoming common every time a new potential food source was tried.

The large feline rubbed his hands together in anticipation when Kim set the plate in front of him. As had been done with the earlier fish meal, the cooks had prepared several Bonestellan vegetables to go with the entrée.  Arne picked up a fork and knife and then cut into the meat with only a bare hesitation.  There were good amounts of juices, but nothing like the black ooze from the deer steaks. That in itself was reassuring.

He picked it up on his fork and was about to put it in his mouth, but he stopped and looked around at the crowd with a smile.  “I almost wish Jon could be here to see this,” he remarked. It was well-known that the two Felis had often been competitive, but since they'd arrived on the planet, it had softened to a friendly rivalry.  There were good-natured comments around the group, but then everyone waited expectantly.

Arne swallowed nervously and then put the meat in his mouth.  He rolled it around on his tongue for a moment before chewing, his eyes closed until he'd finally swallowed it.  He looked down at the meat and seemed lost in thought.

“Well?” Norman asked impatiently.  “How's it taste?”

The lion looked over at the black bear, moving only his eyes.  He considered the question and then cut off another piece of the meat.  He held it up on the end of his fork and stared at it with a neutral expression.

“I do believe,” he said slowly, drawing out his response, “that I now have a new favorite food.”

“Yes!” Michael exclaimed aloud, startling poor Rose, who stood just in front of him. She wasn't feeling well and her balance was a little off, and she had to put a hand on his arm to steady herself; he only glanced at her at the touch, but he was too distracted at the excitement of the moment.

Arne popped the roasted meat in his mouth and then added a few bites of vegetables.  He ate them all with such obvious relish that Ken had to suddenly shout to be heard above a chorus of voices demanding that Kim and Yuki start dishing out plates to everyone.

“Our feline friend here apparently likes what he's eating,” the red wolf said in a loud voice, “but we still have to determine whether or not he's safe eating it!”  He turned to Avon and nodded.

“We'll let Arne finish his meal,” the captain said, “and then check in on him in two hours.”

“Two hours?” Gerard protested. 

Avon gestured toward the lion that continued with his meal and smiled. “If he's still alive and kicking – and hasn't made a mad dash to the latrines by then – he should be fine and we can have a feast.”

“And if he gets sick?” Erin asked.

“Then we treat him as well as we can and hope it's something we can treat,” Ken answered.  “Jenni and I will be monitoring him closely.”

“While the rest of us go crazy smelling roasted pig!” Aaron complained.

“What about the deer meat?” Jasmine wanted to know.  “We know the pigs have killed and eaten the deer without any ill effects that we know of – they probably have the digestive system to handle the black ooze anyway – but shouldn't some of that still be in the pig's system?  What if Arne has ingested some of it unknowingly and gets sick from that?”

“I tried to eat that foul deer meat,” Arne reminded her after swallowing more of his meal, “and I'll probably never forget the smell and taste of it.  Believe me when I say that there was nothing of that wretched flavor in this meat.”

“Maybe the pigs can eat the deer and simply pass the nasty oily stuff without absorbing any of it into their system,” Alicia offered.  “If that's the case, we won't have to worry about secondhand poisoning.”

“That may be,” Avon declared, “but even though the smell of Arne's meal makes me hungry, we will wait and be sure.”  There were grumbles all through the crowd, even as others agreed with the caution. “However, there is one thing we have learned from this.  The thunderpigs don't take lightly our killing one of their kin.  If we can safely eat them and plan to use them as a food source, we will have to be extremely careful when we hunt.  Aldo was injured, and although Ken says he will recover, next time someone else may not be so lucky.  These giant pigs can be very violent when vengeful and they are very strong and tenacious. We were forced to pull out the firearms today to defend our hunters, but we can't do this on a regular basis.  The ammunition is limited, so we must conserve it for real emergencies. This means we'll have to take extra planning on how to kill the pigs for food with only bows and arrows, teeth and claws without putting ourselves at extreme risk from the other pigs coming out after us.  Maybe we can even devise a trap that will snare one without putting ourselves in jeopardy.”

Avon put a hand on Arne's shoulder when the African lion picked up his empty plate and began licking up the remaining flavors. “Before we can begin such planning sessions,” he said, “we first have to know whether or not fighting the pigs will even be worth it. This guy has convinced me that they taste good, but we still have to determine if it's safe.  I know you're tired of hearing me say that, but put your growling bellies on hold for now and let's wait and see.” 

*** 

Gasping and panting for breath in the middle of a sleeping dome so hot that it seemed that the great furnaces of summer had been stoked, Rose Fleur woke up from a fitful sleep and reached for the water bottle she kept near her pillow.

The red fox vixen gulped down only the last drops left over from a night of tremendous thirst and tossed the empty container aside in an idle gesture, wishing she'd had more.  Of course, the only thing for this would be to get up and refill the bottle herself in the natural spring outside the cavern.

The chilly autumn night and the natural constant coolness of the cavern should have eased the vixen's discomfort as she retrieved her bottle and stumbled outside of her sleeping dome, but there seemed to be no relief even in the temperature. She'd slept unclothed on top of a single sheet on her bed, but had tossed and turned most of that sleeping period.

Even though the fish and the thunderpig meat had all ultimately proven delicious and safe to eat, she'd had no hunger at the time of the following colonial banquet and had eaten none of it; the sickness that gripped her was not due to any of the new food sources.

The fox wavered on her feet and almost fell flat on her face in the dust of the cavern floor, but somehow she managed to remain upright on her knees.  She clutched the empty water bottle in her left hand and rubbed her face with her right. Something didn't feel right and she looked down at her hand in curiosity.

It didn't hurt, but when she raised it up to her face, she saw that the fur all along her arm was dry and brittle, and the skin beneath was turning an angry purple that was almost black. The sight almost made her faint, not that she was far from such a reaction merely from the fever that burned within her. She knew she was having a reaction to the tiny spider bite, but up until now it had not been of much concern. Sometime during the night, though, things had escalated and it was time to get to the doctor fast.

She dropped the bottle beside her and got up onto all fours, but immediately discovered that her weakened right hand paw would not hold even her slight weight. She was also having difficulty keeping her puffy eyelids open, but knew it wasn't far to the Infirmary dome, so she closed her eyes and limp-walked on three legs from memory.

The journey to the doctor seemed to take longer than she remembered, but she swallowed against a thick tongue and persevered. Only when the vixen’s long nose bumped into the solid wall of the cavern did she realize she was off course. Neither her dome nor the one for medical were near any of the rock perimeters of the cavern.

She cracked open an eye, but saw no lights to tell her where she was. That in itself was odd, as there was always someone up and about around the clock – even if the clock now had more hours on it. Panting from the excessive heat, the vixen leaned up close to the cool rock wall and stayed there for several long minutes, idly handling the dog tags that hung from her neck.

She was so hot that she didn’t want to leave her moment of respite, but her throat was dry and her tongue was so swollen she had to have water.  Unwilling to reopen her eyes, she had no choice but to try to get back to her dome and hope someone would stop by to check in on her soon. Getting there, however, would take more work than she had the strength to muster.

It was getting harder to think clearly, but something in Rose's mind thought that staying put against the cool rock was a better course of action. She swallowed against a thick, dry tongue and then settled down on the floor with only a modicum of relief. The vixen put her chin down upon her hand paws, heaved a deep sigh, and then became still.

NEXT CHAPTER

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