— by Ted R. Blasingame
The light orange and tan fur of the Swift Fox's tail ruffled against the sides of the electrical panel opening of the colony's large freezer unit and some of the hairs caught in the hinge of the door. There was a yip from inside the unit and a hand reached out to pull at the caught fur from the hinge a moment before disappearing again.
Michael Lynch had once been an electrical technician, so the fox had volunteered to look into the unit's intermittent operation as soon as he'd heard about it. The first thing he'd checked was its storage battery and connections to the solar charging array located on an outside slope of the mountain, but there didn't seem to be conductive issues with any of them.
To give herself something to do besides mope and mourn the loss of her sister, Dahlia assisted him, handing him tools and testers as needed from the tool kit. She sat back with her legs stretched out in front of her and peered into the interior of the open access, though she could see little more than his feet and tail.
There was a hard thump from inside and the male fox muttered beneath his breath before he began to shimmy backwards out of the opening. He handed her an electrical meter before his head appeared and she quietly placed it back inside its padded case.
Michael scooted backward and sat down abruptly once his noggin and the small headlamp strapped to it was clear of the opening. His aim unclear, he wound up sitting back onto Dahlia's lap with a surprised yip out of both of them. The pair of foxes became a tangle of arms, legs and tails for a moment before they managed to sit apart, both looking embarrassed.
“Sorry 'bout that,” the swift fox murmured. “I didn't intend to crawl into your lap!”
Her cares momentarily forgotten, the vixen narrowed her orange eyes in a look of amusement and shook her head. “Are you sure about that?” she quipped. “Your butt had good aim and landed right on target!”
Michael laughed. “Well, you didn't have to grope my tail pushing me off of you,” he countered.
“I didn't grope your tail…”
“Hey, I felt your fingers linger between my back pockets.”
“I was just trying to get you out of my lap.”
“Yes, but you lingered…”
This banter went on for a couple more minutes before they heard someone clear his throat to get their attention. They both looked up into the entertained face of their colony captain.
“Hey boss,” Michael said with a snicker.
“Hello,” Dahlia said with muted amusement.
“Hi yourself, both of you,” the bear replied with a smirk. “Were you able to determine the problem or where you two too busy fooling around to find out?”
Dahlia sat back against her tail, wrapping her hands around each of her ankles. “I promise I didn't try to distract him too much,” she said. Avon was glad to see some levity, considering she'd just lost her sister, but distractions were probably what she needed.
Michael could feel his cheeks growing warm beneath his face fur, but he held up something for the grizzly to see. It was a block of clear plastic with a virtual road map of circuitry embedded within multiple layers. He held up a small lamp with an infrared array and instantly several dark spots peppered the circuit block.
“Here's our problem,” the fox remarked.
“What happened to it?” Avon asked, squatting down to look closer at it. He took both the block and the lamp and peered at the dark spots.
“Some of the circuit relays have burst, but I can't say why without further testing. Unfortunately, we don't have any spare circuit blocks for the freezers, unless they were omitted from the manifest list.” Michael scratched an ear and sat back against Dahlia without looking at her. She snaked a slender, black-furred arm around his middle and rested her chin on his shoulder.
“You and Manny were the ones who assembled the refrigeration units,” Avon remembered. “I guess you would know if we had any spare parts. Do you have the necessary tools to repair it?”
The fox shook his head. “Not for a multilayered helix circuit,” he said. “The thing is, this kind of damage still allows the impulses to process, but only intermittently. It could keep working like that for days or give out as soon as I plug it back into the system, but either way it's not going to last long.”
“Do we have any alternatives?” Avon asked, frowning deeply. “We have too much food to let it all go bad. We're going to need it all through the winter.”
Michael looked up at him and shrugged. “We have two industrial sized refrigerators and four freezers, but this is the only one that Kim said was on the blink. Let me check all the others to make sure the helix circuits are okay in those. If they are, we may have to rearrange a few items to put the more important frozen foods into the ones that work, but we'd have to move quickly so nothing thaws in the effort.”
“We may have to sacrifice some of the vegetables to keep the meat frozen,” Dahlia suggested. “We're all omnivores, but carnivores primarily, so I would concentrate on making the meat our priority.”
Avon handed the circuit block back to Michael. “How long will the contents of this freezer be okay while you do further testing on this thing?”
“As long as no one opens the door, it can sit here for hours before it starts warming up. The walls are well insulated and with it inside the cavern, it's not going to heat up sitting under the sun.”
“How long will it take you to run your tests on the circuit block?”
“Twenty minutes, tops.”
“Okay, see what you can figure out and then go ahead and plug it back in before you look at the other units. Even intermittent, it may do more good with than without it. See if you can figure out why it went bad, and then I have another job for you.”
Michael tilted his head, wiping his hands on the front of his vest. “Oh? What else is up?”
“Since we're on the subject, maybe you can take a look at the helix circuits of my PBJ. It's been acting up lately and I've heard others are having similar problems. If there's something going on that's affecting all our electronics, we need to know about it before everything breaks down completely. If we discover what's causing it, perhaps we can do something to prevent it.”
“Sure, I'll get on it right away after I've taken a look at the other freezers and fridges.”
“Thanks, Michael. Do you need me to assign you some help?”
“He has me,” Dahlia spoke up. “I may not be a certified electrician, but I did tinker around with electronics in a couple college courses I took. If nothing else, I can just hand him the tools he needs and read numbers on the display panels.”
Avon gave them a nod and then stood up. “Sounds like you've both got it covered,” he said. “Please let me know what you find out as soon as possible.”
“Yes sir,” Michael replied as Dahlia gave the bear a mock salute.
“Oh, and incidentally, try not to fool around too much,” he said with a smirk. “This is important.”
“Of course!” the male fox said with a deceptively innocent expression. The vixen raised an eyebrow at him and then nodded back to the grizzly without a word.
Cheryl kept an eye toward the edge of the clearing as she, Ivan and Arne approached the cattle pens. She was sure it was a different thunderpig staring back at them than had been there all day, but no one had seen the other leave if another had taken its place. She knew that everyone thought of the giant hogs as nothing more than stupid animals, but she had the vague sensation that the thunderpigs were now watching them, studying them, and her imagination played with her mind.
The pig, or pigs if there really were more than the one, appeared interested in anything the colonists did out in the open, but if Avon came in to view, they always seemed specifically focused upon the grizzly. Perhaps it was because he was the largest of them all, but whatever the reason, the animals appeared to be patient.
The Border collie was the one in charge of all their livestock, assigning duties to others as they were needed, and she had decided that the cattle needed fresh vegetation; she and the two foxes were going to herd them out away to the vast landing field and let them graze there for several hours. Although she had not been given any duties due to the events of the morning, Jasmine had volunteered to bring them food and drink later while they were out through the long afternoon. Ivan offered to go along to give himself something other than Rose to think about for a while.
Cheryl straightened the cowgirl hat atop her head, and with one eye still upon the porcine sentry, reached out for the corral gate. Not watching what she was doing, her hand came in contact with the electric wire that stood out several inches from the modular fencing. She flinched when she realized that she'd forgotten to shut off the power, but was suddenly puzzled when there was no sharp bite from the current. She looked at the wire and touched it again without the expected electric jolt.
“Ivan,” she called out, “check the wire on your side.”
The red fox tentatively reached out to tap the strand on the opposite side of the corral, but it was inert with no active defense.
“Nothing,” he said with a frown. “Did someone turn it off?”
Arne walked to the switch box mounted just inside the barn door. He lifted the protective cover and peered inside. “It's in the ON position,” he reported. “Stand back, I'll cycle it again.” He thumbed the control to the OFF setting, then again to turn it on before reaching out for the wire surrounding the fence. As before, there was no current.
“Still nothing,” the African lion muttered. He walked to the solar charging panel mounted to the outside of the dome, but everything looked intact, if not a little dusty. “The electronics must be faulty, but nothing looks out of place.”
Cheryl scratched the fur beneath her hat and frowned. “We'll have to look at it when we get back,” she told her companions, looking into the corral at the animals milling around. “Let's get our cattle out to the field and worry about it later.”
Ken sat back from the microscope and rubbed his eyes. The red wolf had been studying the salt that the cougars had brought back from their outing and as far as he could tell, it was nothing more than sodium chloride. He'd tested it with the gas chromatograph, and in its raw form, it was more concentrated than normal table salt; with some refining it could be rendered safe for casual consumption. As for use in the preservation of meat, he didn't see any reason why it couldn't be used for that purpose straight away.
He wanted to be sure, however, since the chromatograph seemed to be giving errant information every third or fourth time it processed data. Either the electronics in the unit were faulty or the salt crystals had a peculiar property that he had yet discovered. He didn't want to suggest using the sodium chloride until he was certain the error was nothing more than equipment failure. Even if that's what it was, he'd hate to lose the unit this early in the game.
The lupine physician got up from his stool and decided to go to the Great Dome for a cup of coffee and let his eyes refocus before getting back to his task.
Norman cast a line out across the water of the lake and watched it settle beneath a simple red and white bobber. Avon sat beside him, relaxed and content to take part in his favorite activity. The leader of the colony had discovered that his people knew their jobs well enough that he had no reason to give them direction or hover behind them at all hours.
He and the black bear beside him planned to sit on the grassy bank and bring in a few fish to include in the day's meals before going to help in the gardens later. The autumn vegetables were growing well in the native soil and they all had high hopes that the spring crops would later do as well.
The nights were getting a little cooler and some of the deciduous trees were already turning colors as fall settled in. The familiar brown, red and yellow hues were sneaking into the trees and Kristen was glad to see them as much as anyone. There were so many similarities between Bonestell and Earth that it was comforting. Terran-like worlds were not that common out among the thousands of planets discovered orbiting far stars, and not all of them were so familiar, so it was such a delight to find a terrestrial sphere that might one day be home to thousands of humans that would move here.
Of course, it had to be remembered that their little valley only represented a tiny spot on a world just a little larger than the Earth. Conditions might not be as pleasant or familiar in other areas and careful study had been done of the planet before the landing spot had been selected. Perhaps the environment here was selected for the very familiarity of it all. Could long range scans, orbital study and unmanned landing probes have discovered the garden spot of Bonestell?
Whatever the purpose made by a committee of scientists on another world far away, Avon was enjoying his time here. Although there were small personality conflicts here just as there would be back home, things were relatively peaceful now that they'd all developed routines within the longer days and nights, and their familial knowledge expanded with each new discovery.
Despite the death of Rose, Avon's only concern at the moment was the issue with colony electronics. Nothing had failed outright, but just about everything they used had helix circuits and most seemed to be suffering the same intermittent affliction of burst relays. Everyone had their own theory of what was happening, but Norman's conjecture might be the more likely.
“I think I've got it narrowed down to two real possibilities,” the black bear said quietly as he settled back, his eyes casually upon the bobber attached to his fishing line. “Either there's something in these mountains producing a strong electromagnetic field that's affecting the circuits, or it might be solar flares from the local star.”
“You mean something like an EMP?” asked Avon.
“Yeah, an electromagnetic pulse can fry most electronics, but helix circuits are more shielded simply by the way they're constructed. That might be why some relays have burst and others haven't, causing only sporadic activity.”
“Do we have any way of detecting EMPs to find out?”
Norman nodded. “Our PBJs can do that. It's a simple application they're all equipped with, though most of us never use half the capabilities they're designed to do. I'll check it with mine after we're through here.”
“What about the solar flares you mentioned?”
“That may be a little more difficult to detect,” Normal remarked, watching the plastic sphere on his line bob up and down in the water. He could already feel little bumps on the line through the light rod in his hands, but he wanted to wait for the opportune time to set the hook. “Satellites over the Earth often kept tabs on the sun,” he continued, “but we don't have that luxury here. The magnetic energy within the sun builds up to great amounts which are sometimes released in a fantastic explosion of radiation in a wave of high-energy subatomic particles. The Earth is mostly protected by its magnetosphere, but we don't know what kind of a magnetosphere or ozone layer we have here surrounding Bonestell. If our local sun spits flares out in our direction, can this planet protect us in the same way, or does more of the radiation and electromagnetic waves come through in higher doses?”
Just then, an explosion in the lake sent out flares of water as Norman reared back on the fishing rod to set the hook. There was an instant struggle as the fish on the end of his line flexed its aquatic muscles. The black bear had a little fight on his hands, but then he put his weight behind it and pulled his catch up out of the water. The strength in the effort launched the wet creature out onto the bank and both bears suddenly recoiled when they saw what it was.
It looked like a cross between a clump of slimy blue-green seaweed, a tentacled ctenophore whose bubble was stained by dirty water and a grotesque marbled eyeball in the middle of it that couldn't seem to stay still. This was something neither of them had ever seen in this landlocked lake before, or perhaps they just simply hadn't noticed. The panicked thing writhed and undulated, trying to get back to the water, but it was tangled up in the bear's fishing line and seemed to be quickly suffocating out in the open air.
“Do we throw it back or keep it for the doctor?” Norman whispered to the grizzly at his side. Both were up on two feet, as if standing up would put them farther away from this critter. They had found many things with some similarity to what they knew on Earth, but this was as alien in appearance as anything they'd seen.
“Better let Masanori have it or we'll never heard the end of it for letting something go that he hadn't studied first.” Avon crept closer to the thing, though keeping his distance in case it had a sudden burst of energy to spring at him. “He's already out of sorts for missing out on some of the things Jon and Kristen failed to bring back to him. Digital photos don't give him enough information, he says.”
“Okay, I'll let you pick it up,” Norman said.
Avon glanced back at him and gave him a smirk. “You caught it, you should take it to him,” he said.
A brief look of horror crossed Norman's face, but then he snorted and picked up a small plastic bucket he'd intended to put any fish they caught into. He approached the thing he'd pulled in and set the bucket on its side with the opening next to it. Using the butt end of his fishing rod, the black bear slid the surprisingly-light creature into the container. He half expected a struggle, but it appeared the thing was too weak out of the water and was dying.
Feeling pity for the thing, he took the bucket to the bank and lightly dipped the open end so that it filled up with lake water; he didn't want it to revive and get away, so he made it quick. The fishing line was still wrapped around its body, so he carried both rod and bucket back toward the cavern, calling ahead for the red panda to come out to him.
Avon stared back out across the water of the lake and a shudder rippled through him. After seeing the whatsit creature, he was no longer in the mood to fish, so he gathered up his rod and their tackle to put it all away. When he was on his way back toward the cavern, he spied Sissy and Erin relaxing on the wooden bridge, both of them dangling their bare feet in the cold river water that moved beneath them.
Both looked up as he approached the bridge. “What was Norman hollering about?” Erin asked in her pixie-like voice, her large ears quivering as she spoke.
“I thought he said something about a sea monster,” Sissy asked.
Avon chuckled at the analogy. “He caught something in the lake that almost defies description,” he told them. “It was an ugly thing that looked part jellyfish, part seaweed and one bloodshot eyeball.”
“Ew, that just gave me the shivers,” Sissy remarked.
“Is it dangerous?” Erin asked.
“We don't know yet,” Avon told the diminutive fennec fox. “Norman's giving it to Dr. Mochizuki to study.”
“Are there many in the lake?” Sissy asked, pulling her feet from the water that she just realized flowed from the lake.
“No idea. In the weeks we've been here, that's first we've seen. Perhaps it lives deeper in the lake and Norman's fishing hook just happened to snag it up from the bottom, or maybe it was flushed out of the spring that feeds the lake.” The grizzly shrugged. “We may never see another one, but it's best to know what it is and whether or not it's poisonous just in case more show up.”
Sissy shook off her feet and rubbed at the fur to push water from them. Avon remembered something and set his fishing equipment on the ground at his feet.
“Are you still transcribing all the notes from your PBJ into paper notebooks?” he asked her casually.
“No, I had several volunteers helping and we got them all done,” the orange cat answered. “I'm trying not to use my PBJ more than necessary now. I can type faster than I can hand print, but I'm making my daily notes in a paper notebook now.”
“I have a task I'd like you to do for me right away.”
“What's up?” Sissy asked. Erin looked up in curiosity.
“Yours isn't the only PBJ that has become unreliable lately,” he explained. “Electronics in the PBJs, the freezers, the security fence around the animals and other units are showing issues, so before we lose them altogether, I'd like you to gather up everybody else's PBJs and then consolidate all data recorded since we've been here onto a data crystal.”
“Uh, sure – but why?”
“Once you have everything gathered together, I want to transmit everything back to Earth in multiple message bursts. This way, we won't lose all the information and photos we've recorded and it can be copied in redundancy in a library in Stockholm for safekeeping for everything we discover about Bonestell.”
Erin stood up and shook off her feet, but her attention was on the grizzly. “It's possible the memory crystals in the PBJs are okay, with certain circuits within the units going bad, but I don't want to take that chance,” Avon added. “Normally, we would have sent message bursts back to Earth with all our discoveries once we'd been here six local months anyway, but we may not have any working electronics in six months with the way things have been going.”
“I can help you collect all the PBJs,” the desert fox told the orange cat.
“Thanks!” Sissy looked up at the bear and nodded. “We'll take care of it, though I'm sure Dr. Mochizuki's going to have more than anyone else.”
“No doubt. Listen, I appreciate all the work you do,” Avon told her. “You too, Erin – especially after this morning.”
The fox lost her smile. “I have a feeling there will be more who need me to lend an oversized ear,” she said quietly. “Rose was well-liked and her death has made a lot of us feel our mortality. Our hybrid attributes will undoubtedly help us survive in the long run, but there are some things like a little spider bite that can get around them all too easily.”
“Yeah, Kristen roped me into weed-pulling detail,” Jon murmured as he dug his claws into the rich soil of the garden to extract an errant local weed, roots and all. He pulled up the twisted, double-stalked plant and tossed dirt and all into a plastic bucket beside him.
Kevin sat back on his haunches between rows and glanced back along the long aisle the cougar was working on. “Want me to take your place for you?” the young fox asked. “Avon wants to see you and I don't have anything else to do at the moment.”
Jon looked aside at him. “You want to dig in the dirt?” he asked in amusement.
Kevin gave him a smile and held up a claw-tipped hand. “Desert foxes are diggers,” he replied. “I think I can handle it.”
“Okay, then,” the cougar said, brushing off his hands together, “I'll leave you to it, but don't dig up any of Kristen's vegetables by mistake or she'll have your hide on Wendy's tanning rack beside the thunderpig's.”
The fox looked back out toward a different part of the valley floor and frowned. “Who knew that Wendy could prepare and tan a hide?” he remarked in awe of the golden retriever's talents. “I don't know how wise it is to work on it in full view of its cousin, though.”
Jon pursed his feline lips, twitching his whiskers. He'd already forgotten the pig watching them all from the shade of the forest. It had done nothing but stand there all the long day and he'd grown so used to its presence that he'd completely forgotten about it when he'd come out to the garden.
“Are you okay being out here alone?” he asked his young companion.
“I should be fine,” Kevin replied. “After all, we have an electric wire surrounding the gardens to keep things from eating what we're growing.”
“An electric wire that only works part of the time,” Jon reminded him. “Even working, it wouldn't stop a giant warthog on the run. It would only sting it for a second before getting trampled under hoof.”
“I'll try not to make any sudden moves to alarm it,” Kevin answered. He seemed so unconcerned that Jon shrugged.
“Okay, have fun digging up weeds. Where am I supposed to meet Avon?”
“He was in the Great Dome with a glass of sun tea, complaining that we'd brought no lemons for it.”
“Aww, poor lil' grizzly has no lemon for his tea,” Jon mock pouted. “If we don't find a local equivalent, he won't even have tea to drink after we use up our supply.” Jon got up onto all fours and hopped across several vegetable rows on his way out. “See you later, Kev,” he called back over his shoulder.
The cougar padded quietly across the pale green grass, dodging a few lil-deer and enjoying the scents blowing across the valley on a light breeze. With autumn in swing, the scents of the forest had changed subtly and it was something he'd have never noticed as a human. It may have been for dire reasons that he'd become half-feline, but he had come to enjoy the new senses and abilities once he'd fully accepted who and what he had become.
If he thought about it hard enough, this banishment from Earth could still be considered part of a prison sentence, but he had to admit that life was good and actual problems were few and far between. Even as second-in-command of the colony, he was rarely called upon to assert that authority and often forgot it was part of his duties. Avon took care of running the camp, making the real decisions that Jon didn't have to think about. Weeding gardens, tending cattle, sheep and chickens and doing kitchen cleanup were daily routines and little by little everyone was even getting used to the longer hours of the day. Even though it was getting cooler thanks to the fall weather, the seasons were longer here and winter was still months away.
He made his way casually across the bridge and up the path to the cavern, saying hello or nodding to others along his way. Alicia was inside the Great Dome gathering up a few scattered dishes from the tables and he had to suppress a snicker when he noticed she was wearing a rather large kitchen apron with the words “Dinner is ready when the smoke alarm sounds!” in print across the front.
She said something to the grizzly seated near the center of the room and both laughed before she moved toward the kitchen with her dish tub.
Jon approached him and sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the table, automatically sliding his tail through the slotted seat back. “You wanted to see me?” he asked.
Avon nodded and pushed his PBJ away onto the table. “I do,” he answered. “Do you think you can find the salt flats again?”
Jon raised an eyebrow. “We were there just yesterday,” he replied. “I don't think Kris or I will have forgotten the way so soon.”
“Yes, of course. Listen, we're having a rash of electronics failures all over camp and I'm concerned about the refrigeration units. If we lose those, we're going to have a lot of food going bad - food that's meant to get us through the winter.”
“Yeah, I heard Michael mention something about that, but what's that got to do with the salt flats?”
Avon looked at him solemnly. “I want to start making a concerted push to begin hunting and storing meat and we'll need salt to preserve what we kill. Ken has examined the salt samples you brought back and has confirmed it to be sodium chloride that we can use for this. I need you and three others to go back to the flats on the horses as quickly as you can and fill up all the saddlebags and other containers you can carry. The meat will have to be dried and preserved and we'll also need to start canning all the vegetables that ripen in the gardens so we can store them up too.”
Jon nodded. “Okay, I'll assign some volunteers and we'll get started right away. With luck, we can get there and back by nightfall with the horses.”
“Thanks, Jon. Try to avoid the thunderpigs if you can. From what you said about the one that chased you and Kristen, they're still sore about us killing one of them. Now that we know there are numerous other animals out there we can hunt, we'll try avoiding the pigs for a while.”
“We'll do our best to keep our distance from any we see.”
“Great. If you see Manny on the way out, would you have him come see me, please?”
Michael and Raine followed Kristen into the barn and Cheryl looked up when they approached where she was bent over one of four western saddles resting on wooden stands. She had only recently returned from the cattle drive out at the wheat-grass field, having been relieved by Jasmine who didn't want to go back to the camp only to sit around and think about her youngest sister's absence.
“Have you seen Jon?” the lioness asked.
Cheryl pushed the brim of her cowgirl hat up out of her brown eyes and then gestured behind the trio. “He's in that stall getting a few things. I can have all four horses ready to ride in about ten minutes; five if someone will help me.”
Jon walked out at the mention of his name, carrying an armload of canvas bags. “There you are,” he said to the small group. “It won't take as long to ride out to the salt flats as it did to go on foot, but we'll still need to keep any stops to a minimum if we're to get back by nightfall.”
“Anything we can help with?” Raine asked.
“You can help me,” Cheryl answered, taking the cheetah by the elbow. “We'll need to bridle each horse before bringing them out to saddle up.”
Jon looked at Michael as he draped his bags across a stall partition. “Grab some shovels and spades we'll use to scoop up the salt. Kris and I can get the saddlebags.”
“Aye-aye, boss,” the fox replied with a nod.
By the time the cougars brought out the last of the saddlebags, the colony's arctic fox was standing beside the saddle stands, arranging a set of compound bows and arrow quivers against the side of the stall.
“Avon said to make sure you were armed for your trip,” he said with a nod toward the felines. “Guns would be better, but he wants to conserve the ammo, so I brought the bows.”
“Thanks, Manny,” Jon said. “They'll come in handy if the pigs are still out there waiting for us. We didn't see them on the way out, but we got our exercise outrunning them when we came back.” He looked at Kristen and said, “I've got to run back up to the cave to get a radio to keep in contact; Avon wasn't happy that we didn't take one on our earlier trip.”
“Oops,” the lioness said unconvincingly with a smile. Jon dropped to all fours and then loped back toward the cave. Kristen turned to Manny and looked down at the bows. “I'm not very good with these,” she said.
“Better take one anyway, just in case,” the fox told her. “Even holding an arrow in your hand and jabbing a pig in the eye would be better than nothing.”
“If I can reach its eye by hand, it'll be too close and too late for me to do anything. I just hope it doesn't come to that.”
Manny turned and watched as Cheryl and Raine each led an Arabian horse out of other stalls toward them. “Avon wants to step up hunting to stock up a supply of meat for the winter, so I'm going to be holding hunting lessons starting tomorrow to those who need them. Join us when you get back and I'll make an expert archer out of you!”
By the time Jon returned with the radio in the pocket of his shirt, all four horses were saddled up with everyone's gear loaded. The arctic fox had gone, leaving Kristen, Cheryl, Michael and Raine standing in a little group chattering away.
When the cougar entered the barn, all four horses suddenly became skittish, each pulling on the reins that were still tied off on the hitching post.
“Whoa!” Michael said soothingly to one horse. He took its bridle in one hand and softly patted her neck with the other. The other horses were also trying to pull back as far from the male cougar as possible.
Jon stopped and frowned. “The horses have never liked me,” he muttered.
“Maybe it's because you're a larger predator than the rest of us,” Raine suggested. “They don't seem to have any problems with me or Kristen.”
“The horses don't mind the bears, though, although all of them are too large to ride them,” Cheryl said. “Jon's the only one they do this with.”
“Maybe they don't like your aftershave,” Michael said with a grin. Jon chuckled at the fox and shook his head. He hadn't had to shave since all his human hair had fallen out at the beginning of his transformation. Aftershave was a thing of the past for them all.
Still down on all fours, Jon slowly stood up on two feet in an attempt to look more human instead of a stalking lion, but despite his modified jeans and tee shirt it made no difference. The animals were still spooked by the big cat, and this was one of the reasons he had never helped care for the Arabians. Whatever it was, their issue was with him alone.
Jon looked at Kristen, who was soothing one of the other mares. The horse didn't seem to have a problem with her being a large predator the same type as him, but she was a good head shorter and a number of pounds lighter than he was.
“It looks like you may need to take charge of the party and lead them back to the salt flats without me,” he remarked. “I don't think any of the horses are going to let me ride them.”
The lioness nodded. “I remember the way,” she replied, “but we'll still need to take the fourth horse with us to help bring back the salt.”
“Let me go in his place,” Cheryl suggested, looking back at Jon out of pity. “I can help them load up the salt.”
Jon nodded. “Be my guest. Just remember to try to be back before nightfall. None of us have done much traveling away from camp after dark, so we really don't know what other dangers might be out there lurking where you can't see them.”
“Like the salt-torts,” Kristen reminded.
“Or something larger we haven't seen yet,” Jon added.
“Salt-tort?” Raine repeated. “What's that?”
Kristen smiled with a look back at Jon. “I'll tell you about them on the way.” He walked back to her mate and put her arms around his middle to give him a warm hug. “I'll miss having you along,” she whispered, “but we'll be back this evening.”
Jon returned the hug and then gave her a brief lick on the cheek. “Be safe, all of you,” he said. The horses were still struggling to get away from him, so he made a quick departure so the salt party could get mounted and be on their way.
Jenni had just finished sterilizing the last of the medical instruments that she and Ken had used that morning and was putting them away. She was still feeling solemn from the experience of losing the young vixen and had stayed away from social gatherings through the long day. Others had responsibilities that helped turn their minds away from her death, but Jenni was too emotional to let duties distract her too much, or at least that's what she thought.
There was a light tapping on the open door frame of the Infirmary dome, but it took several repeats before the leopard heard it and looked back over her shoulder. Standing just inside was the female grey wolf that was holding one arm across her middle.
“Ellie,” the feline acknowledged. “What's wrong?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” the wolf said quietly. “I've been feeling strange all morning and I'm hoping some Bonestellan bug hasn't bitten me like the one that got poor Rose.”
Jenni pulled out the roller stool and gestured for the wolf to take a seat. “Symptoms?”
“I've been tired a lot lately, almost fatigued,” Ellie said, “and I've had stomach cramps today. I got nauseated when I smelled the kitchen and threw up outside this morning. I've had a constant headache for two days and I've been a little irritable. I've tried to wait it out, but after this morning, I decided it was time to see you or Ken.”
Jenni pulled out a penlight and shined it briefly in the wolf's eyes. The pupils dilated quickly, but Ellie jerked as if she'd been poked. Jenni grabbed a tongue depressor and looked down her throat.
“How's your urination?” she asked.
“Frequent, as if I've been taking a diuretic, but all I've had to drink is water.”
“Could be a urinary tract infection,” Jenni remarked. She moved to a cabinet and pulled out a capped plastic cup. “I'll need a sample, please.” She turned her back on the wolf and picked up a small scanner. She turned it on and waited for its self-calibration, hoping it wasn't going to give her trouble like her PBJ had been doing lately, but the unit seemed to be working just fine.
Ellie set the moderately filled cup of urine on the counter, and then reached for a dispenser of hand cleaner and a towelette. By the time she'd cleaned up and disposed of the towel, the leopard at the counter had already added a dropper of urine into the machine.
Jenni thumbed a button and then turned back to the she-wolf. “The analyzer will take a few moments to process. While it's doing that, I'll give you something for the nausea and cramps. Due to your anthrocanis lupus physiology, this won't make them go away, but the effects should be lessened anyway.”
Ellie panted lightly and she put her forehead down on the counter beside her roller stool.
“Here,” Jenni said lightly. The wolf looked up wearily and nodded, taking a couple of caplets and small cup of water from her. She downed them, but gagged on the last one and almost threw them all back up again; she only just managed to keep them down.
The nurse took a cold compress from a drawer, popped the barrier between chemical compartments and the small bag frosted over almost right away. Due to the wolf's thick double-coat of fur, she didn't bother wrapping the compress in a towel and set it directly upon the back of her neck. Ellie let out a small whimper that was more from relief than from cramps or nausea.
The scanning analyzer gave out a small chirp and then went silent. Jenni walked over to it to check the readout and when she did, the tip of her tail twitched for just a moment. Keeping her face neutral, she turned back to her patient.
“Well, you don't have a urinary tract infection,” she said, “but there is something I want to double check.”
“Uh, no,” Jenni assured her. “I don't think you'll have to worry about that.”
“Then what have you found?”
“Just a moment. Will you lie down on the bed, please?” Ellie nodded, thinking that lying down was an excellent idea. She wasn't sure she felt strong enough to stay upright without throwing up anyway.
The leopard went to a container the size of a small, overnight case and set it upon the counter. She pulled out something that looked like a computer tablet and thumbed it on. She took it to the wolf that had her eyes closed, and then gently pulled open her robe top. She set the tablet low upon Ellie's middle and then bent down to look close at its monitor screen.
She made a sound deep in her throat and the wolf opened her eyes to look at her. “What is it?” she asked. “Please tell me.”
The nurse turned off the tablet and set it aside. Turning back to Ellie, she took one of her hands in her own and gave her a solemn look. “I'll give it to you straight because this is very important,” she said slowly. “You have a parasite growing within you — two actually.”
“Pa-parasites!” the wolf exclaimed, her eyes widening in fear. “H-how?”
“Relax, honey,” the leopard said calmly, letting amusement spread across her face. “That's just my way of saying you're pregnant.”
Ellie froze, her eyes wide, and then she swallowed deeply. “Please,” she whispered. “Say that again.”
Jenni squeezed her hand and gave her a radiant smile. “You are pregnant, Ellie – with twins! As for the how, I think you can probably blame your husband for that.”
“I'm gonna be a mother?”
“That's right – you and Carl will be the first couple in Second Chance to become parents, and I dare say that your pups will be spoiled rotten by the rest of us!”
Tears welled up in the wolf's amber eyes. “Carl and I were told that we'd never have children,” she confessed. “We wondered… hoped… that the transformation might change that, but we were never sure, especially due to our ages.”
Jenni nodded. “Although you are now part animal, most of which have a short gestation time, the human genetics for a Fur pregnancy is still around nine months – nine Earth months, that is. As long as there are no real complications, your children should be born in the springtime.”
Ellie wiped her eyes and chuckled. “That's appropriate, I suppose,” she said. “Wolves usually have their pups in the spring, so I would say our timing is good.”
“You’ll also find that your chest size will increase,” said the nurse with a smile. “Fur females don’t have large breasts by design, but when the birth of your children draws near, yours will start expanding and filling up with milk for them. It’ll make walking on all fours a bit of a bother, but your children will benefit.”
“I’m sure Carl will too,” the wolf said with a giggle.
Despite the joy of the moment, however, Ellie suddenly put a hand up to her mouth, feeling another wave of nausea trying to surface. Before she could become a proud mother, she still had months of pregnancy to endure.
It was an hour after sunset when Kristen led her tired party back into the horseshoe valley. They'd seen neither hide nor hair of the thunderpigs, and even the one standing sentry all day had slipped away unnoticed. The journey there and back had been relatively uneventful in that they'd run into no dangers; Michael had even brought back a salt-tort for Dr. Mochizuki to study. The thing was scrambling like mad to get out of its container now that the sun had gone down, but that was something the red panda would have to deal with on his own.
They'd returned with a great amount of salt they'd scooped up from the dried lake bed, but they simply deposited the bags in a vacant stall in the barn where it could all be retrieved later. Just about all of them were ready to grab some food and then sleep for a few hours, but Cheryl made them all help her unsaddle, clean and feed the horses first.
Jon and Avon met them when they came into the Great Dome for supper so they could get a report of their evening. Others gathered around to listen in. There really wasn't much to tell, but the four riders took turns giving details of where they went and what they saw. It was fairly close to what Jon and Kristen had told when they'd gotten back, but since they'd gone straight to the salt flats and straight back, there wasn't much for them to add.
“There is one thing,” Raine said after lapping up a good deal of water from his wide-mouth cup. “While we were riding, I saw an immense bird flying high in the air over the prairie. I wanted to take a picture of it, but it never descended close enough to get any real details. Even electronic binoculars didn't show me much of it. From what I could see, however, it almost looked like a flying wing with no head and no tail feathers.”
“Flying wing!” Avon exclaimed.
“It was big – bigger than a thunderpig – and I watched it glide in a straight line for a long, long while before it finally banked back the other way. I tell you, it was eerie watching it go so long without flapping its wings.”
“Maybe it wasn't a bird,” Gerard conjectured.
“What do you mean by that?” Alicia asked. “What else flies?”
The brown bear looked around at all the eyes now staring at him. “Maybe it was a plane…” he said. “Maybe even belonging to indigenous inhabitants of this planet we've not yet discovered.”
“Okay, now your imagination is running away with you,” Kristen said with a smile. “It was a really large bird – but just bird. I saw it too.”
“What about Carl's copter?” Jon asked. “Could it have been him way up high?”
“At that altitude, probably not,” Raine answered, “and Carl's copter doesn't have wings.”
With the mention of the wolf's flying machine, Avon looked back out through the door toward the cavern entrance. The valley out beyond the electric lamps was in darkness and he suddenly realized that Carl was supposed to have returned before sundown.
With a growl beneath his breath, Avon pushed himself up from the table and stalked off without telling anyone what was on his mind.
“Did I say something wrong?” Raine asked. He turned toward the bear at the table behind him and shook his head. “Maybe you scared him with talk of others on this world!”
“Hey!” Gerard complained, “Just because we haven't found any sentient life in our tiny corner of this world doesn't mean it's not out there. They may not live out in the open like we do on Earth - could be why we've not found any cities or buildings!”
“I think someone needs to erase the science fiction books from Gerard's PBJ,” Michael suggested with a laugh.
“Speaking of others,” the bear remarked at a sudden thought, “what if it's the survivors of the Magellan? Has anyone thought of that?”
“I've seen the old Magellan manifest,” Alicia said with a shake of her head. “They didn't have any planes – not even an old autogyro like Carl's.”
“Maybe they built one!”
“Gerard, you're reaching,” Kristen said with a laugh. “It was just a large bird!”
Feeling there was nothing left to glean from riders and the current line of conjecture, Jon excused himself and went to find their captain. When he found him, the grizzly was standing outside the cavern on the lip that overlooked the small lake with the radio small in his large hand paw.
“Carl – answer me!” he said gruffly into the mouthpiece. “You were supposed to be back an hour or two ago!” There was only silence from the receiver.
“What's up, boss?” Jon asked quietly. The bear turned to him and heaved a sigh of irritation.
“Carl hasn’t reported in several hours, but on top of that, he'd agreed to return before it got dark. He's disobeyed orders – he's probably camped out somewhere and I can't raise him on the radio!”
“Do you think he might be injured?” Jon asked.
“Maybe,” Avon grumbled, “but more likely he probably let time get away from himself and flew too far away to make it back before dark. He should have kept a closer eye on his watch!” He tried again on the radio, but after several minutes his throat rumbled with a growl of frustration.
Looking first at Jon, he turned his gaze up to the overcast sky looking for any sign of the autogyro. “When he gets back, I'm grounding him from further flights until he can learn to follow orders! Will you back me up on this decision?”
The cougar nodded. “If he has gone off against orders, yes – you have my backing.”
“Thank you, Jon.” The bear's expression softened and so did his voice. “For his sake, I hope that's all it is and he's somewhere safe. I think it would crush Ellie if we lost him before he even knew he was going to be a father.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.