— by Ted R. Blasingame
The dawn broke with a whimper, the day grey, overcast and threatening to rain. The temperature had dropped and everyone in Second Chance was appreciative of their natural fur coats. Those who had abandoned the practice of wearing anything on their top halves were now fully clothed again in furman garments for a thin extra layer. The interior of the cavern itself would maintain a relative temperature of fifty-seven degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so even if the mercury dropped outside, it would feel warmer in the cave. Unfortunately, the constant inward breeze throughout the passageways often pulled the colder air in around the domes closest to the large mouth of the cave and some were contemplating relocating their personal quarters further inside.
For the moment there was plenty of food in the pantries, and although some of the freezers continued intermittent operation days after issues had begun, there was no real reason to send out any hunting parties that day. The only ones who ventured out into the building cold wind were those who tended the animals, making sure all were safe and warm inside the barn. Kristen, Kim and Yuki went out to the gardens to pick anything that could be harvested, but most had already been collected over the past few days due to Kevin's prior weather forecast. Despite his earlier misses, the young fennec fox's prediction of an incoming cold front had been right on the mark and preparations had been made in the event he was right.
Avon had not assigned any requirements, so most everyone was left to their own whims to pass the long day. Some gathered together in the Great Dome to sit and visit over cups of warm coffee and snacks, and the trays of sandwiches between them prompted a discussion on the topic of bread. A great amount of grain and flour had been brought along, but as with all their foodstuffs it would eventually run out and a local replacement would have to be discovered, if possible. If not, they had plenty of seed to try growing their own, but the plan was to try to adapt to local foods.
Kristen had examined the tall, double-stalk grasses out in the prairie of the landing field early on and surmised that the chaff and seeds she'd seen in the soil beneath them suggested that instead of grass, it might actually be a form of wheat, oats or some other grain that could be harvested in the late spring or early summer. Her botanical equipment was not terribly advanced, so once they'd made it through the coming winter and she could actually see the stalks growing in the spring, she could make a better determination.
Sitting quietly off to the side, Wendy used her time to create a few more fishing lures that she had designed to resemble the look and movement of some of the bugs the fish seem to prefer. She had an open tackle box that contained her supplies and a few specimen containers with the bugs she was mimicking. She worked methodically at her skill, but she also kept an ear tuned to the conversations around her. Ever since they had determined the local fish were not only edible but nutritious, she was pleased she could contribute to the colony in this manner.
One of the conversations she overheard was between the brown bear cousins Aaron and Gerard. They were sitting apart from the main gathering as she was and were talking in low voices they probably thought no one else could hear. With the enhanced hearing the hybrid Furs all possessed, it was likely that everyone in the room could have heard them despite their covert attempts at a private discussion, but the main group was talking over them and didn't seem to notice.
“You can't claim Alicia as your own,” Gerard grumbled.
“Who says?” Aaron retorted. “She and I want to be married and start our own family!”
“There aren't enough bears, and in spite of Dara's willingness to mate with the whole lot of us, Alicia needs to be part of our collective group to keep the gene pool diverse!”
“It's not our fault that the AHCP didn't send more female Ursis!” Aaron hissed back hotly. “They decided at the last moment to make Second Chance a mixed group with barely enough couple-material for any of the other species. There was already an all-Ursis group being prepared for another world. They could have either saved the seven of us back for that group, sending only cats, dogs and foxes to this one, or they could have sent along some of the other Ursis females already gathering for that other group to boost our numbers!”
Gerard made fists of both his massive hand-paws and leaned over the table toward his cousin. “I agree with you, but that doesn't give you the right to keep one of our females all to yourself! There aren't enough of us to form family units, so monogamous relationships aren't going to work! You've got to share her!”
“What's the matter?” Aaron growled. “Are you tired of Dara already? You fought with me over her back at the Institute and now that you've had her, you want Alicia too?”
“Not just me, but all the bears,” Gerard answered. “We need her for diversity; I just told you that!”
“Alicia has chosen me,” Aaron said haughtily. “I'm her mate and I'll defend her from anyone else, including you, cousin.”
“That will be up to our colony captain, and in case you've forgotten, he's also a bear,” Gerard reminded him. “Do you really think that decision is going to go in your favor?”
It was taking all of Aaron's resolve to keep from jumping over the table and pounding some sense into his cousin's head. “If Alicia chooses me and me alone,” he growled, “there's nothing you or Avon can do about it. If you force her, you'll be guilty of rape – and I'm sure you remember how well that went for Travis!”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Are you threatening Alicia? If you are, I will defend her tooth and claw, and she's not helpless herself!”
Wendy began packing away her supplies. If there was going to be a brawl, she didn't want to be in the room. Perhaps it might be time to retreat to her dome and read for a while; the conversation made her sigh inwardly.
There was a similar situation with the Canis group as well. There were only two available male canines for three females, which meant that one of them was going to be left out of a relationship. She liked the red wolf, Ken, but had never really been attracted to him. The same could be said for Aldo, their keen-nosed bloodhound, and although Ken was outgoing and friendly, Aldo was quiet and tended to keep to himself. She supposed she would have to form something of a friendship with one or the other, but she'd have to compete with Cheryl and Yuki for them.
The bear cousins' argument was starting to attract the attention of others in the dome, so she decided it was time to make her exit. When she got up to her feet, however, she realized she was still at the beck and call of gravity and she had a sudden need to visit the latrines.
She returned her project supplies to her dome and then headed toward the entrance of the cavern. Just outside in the open air, Jon, Ivan, Erin and Dimitri were standing around the fire pit, feeding the flames a few bits of dry wood while they chatted idly on unimportant things.
Wendy walked up to fire and warmed her hands a moment before they realized she had joined them. Like Aldo, the golden retriever was not known for taking an active part in social discussions and she tended to keep to herself despite her earlier pleas to Avon in private.
“Hi Wendy,” Erin said with a friendly smile. “How are you today?”
The canine looked out across the valley and nodded toward the far side. “Is that warthog still out there?” she asked instead of answering the question.
Dimitri moved to her side, put a hand on her shoulder and then pointed out into the shadows. “Look where the wagons are parked beneath the trees. You can see her eyes shining behind them.”
“Whenever the sun’s up, they're always watching us now,” Ivan remarked. “It's spooky.”
Wendy wrapped her arms around her middle as if cold, but it was more than the weather that shivered through her thick canine fur. She looked across the fire to Erin and the diminutive vixen tilted her head at her expression.
“Would you accompany me to the latrine?” she asked in a quiet voice. She disliked the request, and she especially hated to ask while there were males present. “I don't really want to run out there alone while that thing is near.”
The desert fox nodded and gestured toward the path down to the valley floor. “Sure, I wouldn't mind a visit myself,” she said.
“Would you like someone else to go along too?” Jon asked.
“Why, do you think the pig will attack?” Wendy asked, her eyes widening.
Jon shook his head. “They've made no move to go after anyone,” he assured her. “I just offered as a courtesy.”
“Ah, okay. No, Erin and I should be fine.”
The guys around the fire watched the females walk down the rocky path to the bridge and kept an eye on them as they walked on all fours around the perimeter of the woods to the latrines. The thunderpig also watched them, but stayed at her sentry position just as she and others had done lately.
Wendy and Erin each took a booth and the desert fox soon engaged her canine companion in idle conversation through the walls while they took care of their business. When they finished and came out together, however, something was different.
The golden retriever grasped her companion's arm with fear upon her face. “It's gone!” she whispered. Both she and Erin began looking around suspiciously. The massive hog might have circled around behind them and neither of them was certain they'd be able to outrun her if she came out after them.
Despite enhanced senses due to their transformations, neither of them could see, smell or hear the large animal nearby. How could something of that size move so stealthily?
Taking Wendy's hand in her own, Erin began walking upright on two feet back toward the cavern. She led her out across the valley clearing instead of along the woods and once they could keep a good eye behind them, both dropped to all fours and picked up speed. Nothing followed them out of the trees, but when the sky suddenly rumbled, they raced across the bridge and back up to the cavern.
Jon, Ivan and Dimitri were still chatting when the two females arrived amidst a scatter of stones. The mountain lion looked over at them with an amused expression.
“Afraid of a little thunder?” he asked.
“It… wasn't… that…” Wendy said between panting gasps.
“The pig… is gone,” Erin explained after catching her breath. All three males looked out across the valley.
“About time… So what's the problem?” Dimitri asked.
“We didn't know if it might have tried to sneak up behind us in the woods,” answered the desert vixen, her natural pixie voice strained with tension. “Neither of us saw it leave. It was there when we went into the latrines, but gone when we got out.”
Jon peered into the ambiguous shadows of the grey day, trying to sense any kind of movement that might belong to the colossal hog, but the only things he saw were birds and a few of the ever-present lil-deer. Of the thunderpig, there was no sign.
There was more thunder over the mountains and rain began to fall, the first they'd seen in the valley since their arrival on this world. It was not a hard downpour, but a gentle soaker matching the mood of the grey clouds overhead that sent the deer bounding for the cover of the forest. At least it would be good for the gardens.
“I'm glad it's gone,” the cougar muttered, “but I'm sure Avon will want to know about it.” He excused himself to seek out the leader of their camp. He wasn't in the Great Dome, where there seemed to be some sort of altercation between the bear cousins that everyone else was trying to break up. He didn't see a need to step in with so many others already involved, so he padded away on four feet to the grizzly bear's personal quarters.
He wasn't there either, so Jon employed his feline instincts and began sniffing the air to see if he could detect where the large Ursis might be. The scent trail seemed to be fairly stronger than he anticipated. It was laced with the smell of anger, one of the stronger emotions that issued a scent from its originator, and he was able to follow it to another dome. Due to such scents, he realized whose home it was before he even recognized where he was.
“I don't care how experienced he is,” Avon's voice growled from the interior of the geodesic hut, “but he hasn't called in since yesterday afternoon and you already know how long our days and nights are!”
“He hasn't contacted me either!” Ellie's voice argued back. “I'm worried something has happened to him, Avon; he wouldn't go so long without checking in with anyone if he was just investigating something!”
Jon stepped up to the open door and peered in at the grey female wolf that refused to back down from the larger grizzly. She had her arms crossed defiantly and was looking up into his face, her ears and tail up with feet planted wide apart.
“Maybe you're right,” Avon growled, “but this only reinforces what I warned about in the first place! I didn't want to let him fly off alone and I've made no secret of the fact that I thought it was too dangerous.”
“We need to go look for him!”
“Where, Ellie? Where would you have us look? If he's crashed somewhere and unable to call in, we have no idea which direction he might be! He wouldn't give me a flight plan, only saying that he would be going wherever on the compass the winds took him, but he promised to be back before nightfall.”
“If he didn't come back when he promised,” Ellie retorted, “you can bet your favorite fishing rod that something's happened to him! It might have even been one of the vengeful pigs!”
“I've not seen any of the thunderpigs with wings! Did they fly up to harass him?”
“Pigs may not fly,” Jon interrupted, “but they can do a great disappearing act.”
Ellie jumped at his unexpected voice, but Avon turned and glared at him for a comment that seemed to have no place in this argument. “What?” he asked gruffly.
“The pig watching us from across the valley has disappeared,” Jon reported. “No one saw it leave, but it's gone. I thought you might want to know.”
Instead of looking relieved at the news, Avon appeared alarmed. “Put together two or three recon pairs and make sure they're all armed. Send them out to the surrounding areas on all sides of the valley to make sure they aren't just waiting for us to let down our guard by staying just out of sight.”
“You want to send them out into the rain?” Ellie asked as another rumble of thunder permeated into the cavern. “The pig probably just left in search of a good tree to stand under.”
The irritated grizzly looked at her and let out a loud snort, but directed his words to the mountain lion in the doorway. “That may be and I hope it’s the case, but I want to be sure they aren't using the rain as a distraction. Everyone will get wet, but your fur will dry off well enough when you get back.”
“Right away,” Jon acknowledged his orders. The bear didn’t look as if he intended to give out any further instruction, so the cougar slipped away to find Manny to open up the armory. The argument inside the dome behind him resumed before he'd even gone several steps.
Jon included himself in one of the recon groups, but after an hour of searching in the rain in every direction, none of the soaked Furs reported back with any sign of the pigs. There were deep tracks in the wet soil where the pigs had been watching from, but the detritus covering the forest floor hid any signs of where they might have gone. Apparently the animals were satisfied with whatever reason they'd had for watching the colony, perhaps confirming that the alien Furs had not killed and eaten more pigs. When the weather started looking grey, Wendy had even moved her tanning rack inside the cavern, pulling the thunderpig hide she'd been curing out of sight, likely another reason for the hogs to depart.
Once everyone had returned to camp to dry off in front of the fire, Jon set three sentries on two-hour watch rotations to keep an eye out for a return of the pigs, but by morning the only activity they'd seen during the wet night was the antics of several squarie dabbits, the same strange little mixed up creatures Aaron and Gerard had seen on their outing that couldn't decide whether they wanted to be rabbits, squirrels or prairie dogs. They seemed to be just as at home in the trees, the rocks of the mountain or in underground burrows and they seemed to be especially lively in the cold, rainy weather.
Chieko was standing just under the lip of the cave mouth, quietly contemplating a fine mist that rose from the floor of the valley. It had stopped raining an hour earlier and despite the cool season, a warm breeze eased in from the south. There was water standing in the small valley and the little red panda wondered how much flooding might have filled up the area if more rain had fallen. Fortunately for the massive geodesic barn, its deck was two feet higher than the valley floor and everything inside had remained dry.
Despite the warm breeze, a sudden chill ran up and down her spine when four of the massive warthogs emerged from the woods. They all peered up at her for a long moment, standing hoof deep in pools of rainwater. There was an odd intent in the body language she tried to read and the red panda suddenly felt the urge to report this to someone.
She had no more than turned her back to go when she heard a heavy crash below. Chieko looked over her shoulder and saw two of the thunderpigs had broken through the modular fencing that surrounded the cattle pen, the thin electric wire having done nothing to prevent it. The Black Angus cows crowded the back side of the corral while the bull protectively stood its ground in front of them, bellowing its rage at the intruders.
The pigs didn't attack the cattle, however, but dashed against the pens to gain further entrance into the large domed barn. The remaining two pigs moved quickly across the swollen river, heading directly toward the path that led up to the cave.
“Avon!” Chieko shrieked as loudly as she could. “Avon!”
Manny, Ivan and Arne had been nearby drawing diagrams in the cavern dust of a flood plain drainage plan they'd come up with and all three rushed forward at her shout. The charging pigs reached the rocky pathway up from the valley and were moving fast. This was no casual investigation of the cavern – they were rushing headlong in a bearing for attack!
The African lion kicked off his furman sandals and jumped forward on all fours with a roar that reverberated across the dry cavern walls. There was no time to run back to the armory and he knew time was critical to keep the pigs from getting into camp. Since the advancing hogs were rushing up the path one right after the other, Arne targeted the first beast with claws and fangs bared. At best by himself, he could only hope to slow them enough so that others could get out the weapons to defend the colony.
He leapt with powerful legs, intending to vault over the large male pig's lethal tusks to get to the neck, but the hog dipped his head down and then brought it up hard against the lion's hip as he jumped.
Arne's luck served him well in that although he was struck solidly against his hip joint, none of the tusks found its mark. He was thrown up into the air, but the claws of an outstretched hand paw caught in the hog's long stringy hair, which altered his trajectory. He landed feet first on the animal's side with extended claws that embedded deep into porcine muscle. Moving on instinct alone, the African lion began doing as much damage to the pig as he could, biting, digging in and slashing frantically to either stop it or slow it down.
The thunderpig beneath him bellowed in rage and pain while the second beast bugled its frustration that it could not get past the first to join the fray. Despite the blood coating Arne's teeth and claws, he was simply not doing enough to deter the massive animal. The hog's spine was exceedingly limber and it was rearing its head toward him farther back than he'd thought possible. The deadly tusks gouged at him and pain shot through the lion's injured limbs.
Although his fight with the pig had only lasted a moment, Arne succeeded in slowing the beast from its flight up toward the caverns while also blocking its companion. Other Furs were advancing quickly from the interior of the cavern and the lead thunderpig bugled a loud warning at them. Before they got too close, however, the first animal shook the injured lion loose onto the rocky ground, almost knocking him off into the lake below, and then retreated back down the narrow path with the other pig back to the valley floor.
The bleating of sheep, the neighing of horses and the squawking of chickens continued to issue from the barn, accompanied by added sounds of destruction as it appeared the other thunderpigs were trashing things inside. The one with superficial damage from Arne's teeth and claws bugled out another call and then the two inside the barn came rushing out.
Before anyone from inside the cavern could brandish firearms, the four giant hogs had run off into the surrounding woods, having split up and each gone in all different directions.
Avon left Arne in the care of Ken and Jenni and then led an angry armed mob down to the soggy valley floor. Cheryl, Jon and Norman splashed through the demolished fencing into the barn while Kristen and Jasmine rushed to the gardens. Others followed the hogs as far as the edge of the wood, but none dared to enter the shadows.
Jon stood in center of the barn and looked around with his hands upon his hips. Just about every stall and pen was smashed open and most of the livestock was gathered close to the outer walls. Norman went through the entire structure, surveying the damage while Cheryl checked on the animals, but before they'd seen much, all four of the spooked colony horses balked at Jon’s presence and ran out through the barn door. They rushed off toward the forest with as much speed as they could muster and bridle-less, no one was able to catch them before they disappeared from sight.
After several tense moments, the Border collie approached Jon, who was picking through the remnants of a wrecked supply closet. He looked up at the young lamb draped across her shoulders that was voicing its opinion of recent events.
“How many did we lose?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“That's the strange part, Jon. They didn't kill any of them that I could see,” Cheryl replied just as Norman approached them. “Some of the cattle and a few of our own Terran pigs have run off through a break in the back wall, the horses just took off for parts unknown and the guineas and chickens have scattered all over the place, but as far as I can tell, we've still got all the sheep huddled up in what's left of their pen. I’ve seen no evidence that any of them were killed.”
“It looks like they weren't interesting in killing our livestock,” Norman confirmed, “but they sure did a number on the barn and the corrals. There's major damage to every stall and pen in here where we had the animals in out of the rain, and even the spare panels for the modular fencing have been torn up.”
“I wonder why they didn't harm the animals,” Jon mused, dropping a bent garden trowel. “They would have been easy meals.” No one had an answer, but the lamb on Cheryl's shoulders was visibly shaking.
Norman was down on all fours, examining the tracks of the thunderpigs' three-toed hooves. “Maybe they don't see them as a threat,” he suggested, “only us and the things we've built.”
“That actually makes sense,” Cheryl agreed. She set the lamb down on the ground at her feet, but it refused to leave the protection of her legs. “We killed one of them and they have been watching us.”
“That sounds premeditated,” Jon remarked, standing up on two feet beside her.
“Doesn't that mean they're sentient?”
The cougar looked aside at her and shrugged. “I don't know about that, but they are intelligent and shouldn't be underestimated. I've thought that ever since my first face-to-snout encounter with one.”
Avon came up the ramp into the barn with Manny and Jasmine behind him. “What's the score?” he asked glumly, looking over the wreckage of the interior.
“That depends,” Norman grumbled. “How's Arne?”
“He's bruised, winded and is getting a handful of new stitches, but Ken says he'll live.”
“Then the score is Second Chance 1 – Thunderpigs 0,” the black bear replied. “One of them dead and eaten, one of us only injured.”
“What about our animals?” the captain asked, looking down at the frightened lamb.
“A few have escaped and scattered,” Jon answered, “but it doesn't look like the thunderpigs harmed any of them. We can only guess they're taking vengeance against us furmen directly.”
“The gardens are a total loss,” Kristen reported from the doorway. She and Jasmine held a few unripe vegetables in their hands and both had muddy fur. “There's standing water all across the valley and the ground is spongy beneath our feet, but the pigs stormed all across the garden areas in the soft soil, trampling the plants and roots on every row.”
Jasmine held up several carrots, beets and broccoli while Kristen handled lettuce and spinach leaves. None were ripe enough to eat, but would have been in another handful of long days. “We had a good harvest a few days ago,” the red and black vixen muttered, “but everything else that would have matured by next week is gone.”
“What do we do now?” Norman asked.
Avon looked around at the destruction of the barn and began to notice something he'd missed before. The barn, the stalls and the fencing were all modular and most of what had been broken apart had come apart at the weaker joints. This meant that they should be able to piece them back together again, much like a five-hundred piece puzzle that had been inadvertently knocked off a table and bits of the overall picture scattered.
“The damage looks bad,” he told them, “but we can put most of it back together. It's best we get started now. I'll assign half of the group to reassemble the barn and pens and the other half will try to gather up the livestock that have escaped. With luck, most of them won't have gone too far, knowing this is where their food is, and with the potential for more rain in Kevin's forecast, they're going to want their dry beds.”
“I hope you're right,” Cheryl said, squatting down to run a gentle hand across the frightened lamb at her feet. “I'll get a party together to look for our wayward critters. It's a good thing we still have the full flock of sheep, though. They mostly trust Arne as their shepherd, but with him out of commission, we'd have had a difficult time gathering them up.”
It was late in the long evening before the barn and pens resembled normalcy again. Most of the animals had been retrieved from their hiding places in the woods that surrounded the small valley, but of the horses there was no sign. No one had found any evidence that they'd been injured or killed by the thunderpigs, but they apparently hadn't remained in the vicinity. They hadn't been given up, however, and Avon had instructed everyone to make any attempt possible to recapture them if they were found.
Three cows were unaccounted for, as well as one Terran pig, but no one had bothered to count the numerous Golden Comet chickens since they'd arrived so it was unknown how many of them that might have fallen prey to other hunters. The Furs may not have encountered many predators on the ground or in the air, but that didn't mean they weren't out there to snag a stray hen when available. The arrowheads had taken some before, so any that were still loose would be vulnerable to them.
There were some stalls where the modular connections between panels were too damaged to fit together properly, but rope, straps, tape and the ingenuity of those working on them helped make them usable again. Although scattered about, they'd lost little of the livestock feed in storage, but a number of hand tools were too damaged to be of use without major repair. It was a mystery why such items had been targeted for destruction.
All the while that the Furs were rebuilding the damaged sections of the barn, others stayed alert for the return of the giant hogs. The compound bows and arrows were distributed in case of another attack, but fortunately for them all, there were no more sightings.
An hour before sundown, Avon called an end to the activities and was coaxing everyone back up into the cave.
“Kim and Yuki have prepared a meal for everyone,” he called out as he watched over the groups milling around and surveying the results of their work. “Go eat and then rest up from the day's efforts. You've all done a good job, so treat yourselves to a good night's sleep.”
“Thanks, boss,” Alicia said to the grizzly, then she leaned in close to whisper in his ear. “I don't know how you got everyone to chip in with the work – including Dr. Mochizuki and his wife.”
Avon frowned. “Chieko volunteered on her own readily enough,” he whispered back, “but I had to talk Masanori into lifting a paw to help.”
“Does he believe he's too educated to help with manual labor?” the black-furred sow retorted. “I know he does a lot of the scientific research that needs to be done, but sometimes he acts like he's above everyone else.”
“He's used to being an administrator in charge who delegates work to others,” Avon agreed quietly, “but don't be too harsh on them – especially his wife. Neither of them have had the survival training or the colony classes everyone else went through, but Chieko is more than willing to help out around camp. However, I know that Masanori keeps her on a short leash and prevents her from taking part in menial labor, so that's why you may not see her much outside of a lab setting. I know she wants to help, but she won't cross her husband and I'm not going to force her to do so.”
He shuffled his feet and put his hands into the pockets of his shorts. “Even though neither of them actually saw the pigs today, both were shook up afterward seeing the results of what was done and more than alarmed at the potential danger they could have been in if even one of the hogs got into the cave. I convinced Masanori that we needed everyone's help, that science could take a break for a day.”
There was a sudden shriek that got their attention and everyone looked aghast at the red-furred vixen down on all fours and running just as fast as she could toward the bridge over the river. Before anyone could wonder what had frightened Dahlia into flight, Sissy let out a cry of her own and did her best to copy the fox's mad dash for the cavern.
“It's the pigs!” she screamed as she splashed through rainwater puddles.
Without bothering to confirm whether or not the thunderpigs had returned, many of the Furs dropped down and began rushing for the safety of the cave. From the top of the path, Jon looked out and was alarmed to see six of the giant hogs splashing across the wet valley floor toward the Furs still near the barn.
“Run!” Avon bellowed. Although there had been armed sentries watching over the work that evening, everyone had become complacent after he'd announced dinner and rest. Manny emerged from the interior of the barn with his bow as the rest of the Furs broke and ran. He had an arrow nocked and ready for just the right shot, but then the pigs surprised him.
Just as he was ready to let an arrow fly, the lead pig altered course and led his stampeding hoard in a wide U-turn that took them right back into the woods. The arctic fox watched their retreating backsides in astonishment and lowered his bow. He was now alone on the valley floor, but those who were rushing along the path up to the cavern were oblivious to the disappearance of their attackers.
Avon was the last to gain the top, having made sure there were no stragglers behind him, but when he joined the crowd, he saw everyone staring back toward the woods and gawking.
“What's going on?” he asked, approaching Jon.
“The pigs turned around and ran back into the woods,” the cougar answered with a furrowed brow.
“But… why?” Erin asked, stepping between them. The bear and the mountain lion both dwarfed the diminutive counselor, but neither looked down at her, their attention on the lone arctic fox standing on the ramp to the barn.
“Surely it wasn't because Manny pointed an arrow at them,” Jon muttered. “Unless he could put one into the eyes of each pig at the same time, he wouldn't be much of a threat to that many of them. They could have easily just trampled him.”
Avon looked up over the trees and pursed his lips. “The sun's going down,” he observed. “We've never seen them out past dark, possibly to poor nocturnal eyesight, so maybe they started an attack and then realized what time it was.”
Jon looked at him with a smirk. “Was the lead pig wearing a watch?”
“I think it had an hourglass mounted to its tusk,” the bear replied without missing a beat.
Erin was amused at their exchange, but then looked back when Manny waved. When he had their attention, he made an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders as if to convey that he was just as puzzled as they were. Avon beckoned him toward the cave and the arctic fox nodded.
“I don't think it was the darkness that turned them away,” Dimitri interjected from behind them. “I think they're playing with us.”
“For what purpose?” Avon asked, looking down at him.
“They're trying to keep us on edge, a psychological ploy at intimidation.”
Erin looked thoughtful. “He may have a point,” she said.
“If they keep it up,” Jon muttered, “no one is going to want to leave the cave at all.”
“Maybe that's what they want,” Dimitri suggested. “They may think they'll starve us, but they don't know how much food we have stored up in our cavern.”
“I'm just glad they didn't rush up the path again,” Erin said, wrapping her arms around herself with a shudder. “There were more of them this time and probably could have done it.”
“They would still have to go up mostly single file,” Jon remarked, “but they would have no problem pushing through any barricade of tables and chairs we might set up.”
“In addition to our nightly watch,” Avon instructed, “I want two archers positioned at the top of the path in case the thunderpigs try again.”
Thunder rumbled from somewhere over the mountain, making most that were still lingering just outside the cave mouth retreat back inside before any more rain might fall.
The rest of the night passed without incident, and although it had been relatively quiet, few Furs got much rest during the long hours of darkness. When the sun finally began to rise, it was primarily hidden behind overcast skies that made a grey dawn. Cheryl was one of the first out of the cave at early light, routine setting in for her to check in on the livestock and gather any eggs the Golden Comets might have laid. The hens weren't laying as much since it had turned cooler, but there were a few of their golden red and white hens that seemed determined to continue producing eggs.
She whistled the melody of a tune popular at the time they'd left the Earth, her cowgirl hat perched atop her head between large floppy ears. She wore nothing more than a set of furman overalls and had abandoned her sandals, walking on her natural footpads across the soggy valley floor.
The Border collie looked out across the small valley when she got to the reassembled corral, but the only things she saw were a handful of the ever-present lil-deer and a number of birds chasing down insects that were flitting around in their typical morning dance, not yet encumbered by the seasonal chill. Several squarie dabbits were digging through the damp grass and leaves on the ground beneath the trees of the forests, gathering seeds and nuts, presumably for winter storage. Things seemed to be at peace, so the canine let herself in through the corral gate and headed for the ramp up into the barn.
When she came out a half hour later bearing a wicker basket full of fresh brown eggs, she could hear typical colony sounds from the cave, but there was an otherwise unnatural surrounding silence in the valley around her.
The deer, the birds and the squarie dabbits were all gone. Positioned just inside the shadows of the forest were six thunderpigs, all standing side by side. Several were looking up at the cave, but the rest were staring directly at her, causing a shiver to race up her spine. Her first inclination was to give a shrill whistle to warn those up in the cave, but that was a skill she'd lost when her Canis transformation gave her a bifurcated upper lip.
“Look out!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Pigs!”
Her shouted warning seemed to spur the massive warthogs into motion. All six began running and their speed, assisted by hypermobile knee joints, increased as they all thundered toward the path up to the cavern. The Furs were ready this time, however, and no less than eight Furs lined up across the top of the path with arrows nocked in the cables of compound bows.
Manny let the first shaft fly when the lead pig, a massive boar, crossed the river and bounded up the path. The arrow struck in a glancing blow across the pig's snout, creasing the tough hide just below his right eye with an angry red line. The pig jerked with the sudden sting, but his gait never faltered.
Other pigs crossed the river, one of them stopping to do major damage to the wooden bridge that had originally been constructed from the remnants of packing crates, but only a couple actually followed the boar up the path. The others halted at the base of the rocky avenue, awaiting the first to clear the way for the rest of them.
Furs released their arrows and several struck the lead pig about his neck and shoulders causing it to flinch, though none seeming to do any serious damage. Due to the angle of the path and the closeness of the mountain wall framing it, none were able to get their arrows past that front pig to the other two behind him.
Blood trickled from numerous wounds but the giant hog almost made it up to the cavern entrance before he stumbled on loose rocks on the path. He stopped only a dozen feet from the archers and the other two pigs came to a halt behind him, bumping into each another in the process.
Jon drew back another arrow and took aim at the great beast's eye, holding his breath before the release, but then the hog turned back to those behind him to bellow out a rasping call. Although jumbled together and too close to move quickly now, the thunderpigs retreated.
Before it moved away, however, the giant boar looked back at the archers and then past them into the cavern for a moment. It bugled out a different call and then turned back again to leave.
“Kill it!” Ivan shouted, loading another arrow into his bow. He let the shaft fly and it struck the pig in its left rear flank, causing the beast to jerk from its impact and bellow out its rage; Raine followed it with another targeted in the same vicinity. Jon kept his weapon aimed at the animal in case it decided to come back enraged, but the pigs hastened their retreat.
When the marauders all thundered back across the river, Avon could see the numerous wounds they'd caused the lead pig, but he doubted any of them had critically injured it due to the tough and thick shaggy hide and hard, bony extrusions along the male's large head. Unlike the adolescent that the hunters had taken down before, this one was tougher and more resilient, taking a number of their arrows with them.
Avon had the strong feeling that the final look the pig had given was specifically directed at him. Did he know the grizzly was the leader of the Furs, or was it just because he was the largest one among them?
The massive hogs grunted and squealed amongst themselves, but instead of causing repeat damage to the barn and corral, they crossed the valley and then lost themselves among the shadows beneath the trees.
“I'm getting tired of this harassment!” Michael grumbled, kneeling down and taking inventory of how many arrows he had left in the quiver at his feet. “We aren't doing enough damage with bows and arrows.”
“We need to break out the guns and put a stop to this,” Hank suggested. “We should show them that we aren't defenseless and can cause them serious harm if they continue to get into our fur! Kill a few more of them and they'll stop coming by, and then we'll have extra meat to store up for the winter!”
“A stick or two of dynamite would stop them for sure,” added Ivan.
Avon kept quiet, letting the others vent their anger and frustration, especially since he agreed with many of the remarks, but for several long moments he studied the path from the valley to the cave. It was the only way into camp and he was quite sure that if the pigs ever got in, there would be more things broken than modular domes and fencing.
When Jon walked over to the bear, Avon gestured toward the rocky avenue. “We need a gate or barrier of some kind on that path,” he muttered, “something they can't break through. We can't let them get this close again and I can't risk sending anyone out into the woods to find out where they're waiting.”
“I'll get on the barrier right away,” the cougar replied. “I'm so full of adrenaline right now that I doubt I could get anything else accomplished today. Building up a line of defense will keep me busy and I have an idea how to do it.”
“Are you planning to build it by yourself?”
“Of course not,” Jon replied with a snort. “I'm in good shape, but I'm not crazy. I want all your bears to help me for what I have in mind. I'll need their strength and stamina.”
Several hours later, Jon crawled into his bed to rest up for a while. His muscles were tired from an incredible workout, having toiled with the Ursis Furs hauling a number of good-sized granite rocks from the side of the mountain to build up four partial walls that alternated halfway across the path from each side like a wide set of zipper teeth.
At roughly five feet high and three feet thick, anyone walking to and from the cave would have to go around each wall. There was plenty of room in between that any of the larger bears could walk around them with a small cart or wheelbarrow, though the wagons would never fit again. These walls would not prevent the thunderpigs from getting up the pathway one at a time either, but they would not be able to charge up the slope with any kind of speed, giving the Furs time to block the upper section with additional barriers before any could get all the way to the top.
Jon had also wanted to rig up a cluster of large rocks and boulders that could be broken free in a small avalanche to block the path completely if the need ever arose, but hauling bowling ball sized rocks for the wall partitions had tasked even his stamina for one day.
Although it wasn't aesthetically pleasing to look at, Avon approved of the zigzag pathway they'd built, agreeing that it would slow down the hogs or any other predator that might come through the valley. The colony had only been there a few months and may not have encountered other dangers that could show up later, so it was likely a good idea to have the extra protection anyway.
The large boar made another appearance an hour after the barrier walls were completed, but this time he was alone without the rest of his porcine backup. There were numerous patches of dried blood around the wounds caused by furman arrows, most of which were still embedded in his hide, and he limped a little on his back left leg where a broken graphite shaft protruded, but he appeared to be otherwise unhindered from his battle injuries as he calmly proceeded from the woods to the remnants of the damaged bridge that spanned the river.
The great animal gazed at the wooden construct as several Furs appeared in the mouth of the cave, each armed this time with a high-powered rifle. They watched quietly when the pig stepped up onto the bridge and then crossed over the river in an unhurried pace, but then when he peered up at the new barricades, he seemed to study them as if working out their purpose.
The boar grunted after a moment and then heaved a heavy snort, but he simply stood there with his massive head slightly tilted as if listening. Another pig appeared from the shadows of the forest and followed its leader's trail across the valley and the bridge, calmly taking up a position beside him.
Ellie thumbed the safety off of her rifle and took aim, weighing her chances of killing one of them before they could navigate the new path up to the cavern. She was under no orders to wait for a command to fire, but the grey wolf awaited the best opportunity.
Having the high ground over the hogs, she felt confident she could take one down before it could get up to them. It might take several shots to get through that tough flesh and bone, but she knew it was far from invulnerable. The thunderpig steaks in the freezer were proof of that. The younger pig had been killed with several arrows into its side, but the hogs below had been coming at them directly, presenting their toughest angle with their hard bony heads. The eyes were their only real susceptible weak point, but their eyeballs were so small that hitting one while the animal was moving would be difficult.
Without warning, the large boar rushed for the narrow path between the stone barriers and began the zigzag up the hill, the pig behind it following suit after just a brief hesitation. The walls slowed its progress and when Ellie fired the first round, both pigs halted at the loud report. It was a sound unlike any the great animals had ever heard before.
The only thing that first bullet struck, however, was one of the rock walls. Although the purpose of the barrier was to slow down the attackers, it also inadvertently created something for them to hide behind. The grey wolf was above them, however, and had a better line of sight, but the chance shot had done nothing more than startle the big animals.
The lead pig warbled something and then continued up the path. Ellie took careful aim as other Furs did likewise. She squeezed off another shot and this time the slug just missed the pig's skull and struck it high in its back ridge. The animal jerked in sudden inexperienced pain and stumbled against the second rock wall, making the one behind it cry out in surprise.
Encouraged, Manny, Raine and Michael fired their rifles, careful to make every shot count, and each found their mark; even if they couldn't kill them, they'd cause them enough pain to drive them away.
The lead pig stumbled when one round penetrated its bony skull and it dropped to its knees, gasping in great heaves. The secondary animal was struck twice, but it was smaller and better protected behind the rock walls. It tried to turn around to retreat, but got hung up in the rocks facing the mountain wall. Another high-velocity bullet pierced its heart and the great pig dropped in its tracks.
The thunderpigs waiting below began to bellow in rage at the death of their advance animals, but they all held their ground. Michael took aim at them and sent a bullet their way, striking one of them in the shoulder to great effect. The pigs scattered for a moment and it looked as if they were going to retreat, but then they regrouped and faced the cave again, bugling their rage at the Furs. The wounded pig tried licking at its injury, but couldn't reach it, so another took up the task for it.
Ken watched from inside the camp; he and Jenni were ready for any medical emergencies that might come up from this latest siege on the colony. He had seen the amount of damage the huge animals had done to the barn and was afraid of that kind of anger directed at the Furs themselves.
Although injured, Arne refused to lie quietly in his bed and limped slowly out of his dome to witness how the pigs reacted to gunfire. He saw other Furs creeping toward the cave opening as well, but when he looked back at a sudden crash behind him, he could feel the blood drain from his face.
The African lion had a moment of stupefaction, as if his brain didn't want to acknowledge that the thunderpigs had somehow gotten past their defenses – but suddenly there were five of them charging out from within the cavern darkness!
There was a spark of cognizance as Arne realized there had to be another entrance into the vast cavern system the Furs didn't know about.
Furs shouted, screamed and ran for cover as the warthogs charged freely into the midst of the domed homes. They purposely smashed into the structures and knocked over the stand lights when hooves dragged across the electrical lines to them from the solar collectors outside.
Those with rifles at the top of the path were momentarily confused at the noises coming in from behind them, and during their hesitation, two more pigs took advantage of their distraction to rush up into the pathway maze from below.
Avon shouted orders to those with rifles to shoot the pigs inside the cavern, hoping the bodies of the two dead pigs on the path might block the others below as natural barricades. He now surmised that the frontal assault had been a decoy action, allowing other pigs time to approach the colony from within the cavern system while everyone else was distracted by those trying to reach them from the valley floor.
The grizzly realized the thunderpigs had to be intelligent enough to recall old memories of the cavern to know that the passages went through the heart of the mountain and of a back door. Perhaps they recognized the constant breeze blowing the Furs' scents out into the valley were due to winds that must come from elsewhere. Mounting a sneak attack like that had to be pre-meditated!
Thinking along the same lines, Aaron found Jon in the confusion and said, “They must have come through the pig-cave Gerard and I found on the other side of the mountain! It must go all the way through and the pigs knew it!”
When the shooting outside on the path began, Wendy had hidden herself away inside her personal dome. She disliked the noise and the constant harassment by the giant pigs had unnerved her, especially since she had eaten some of the delicious local pork meat herself. She'd had nightmares about the pigs overrunning the camp and she was afraid that it had been more of a premonition than a dream.
Hidden away, she was unaware that the warthogs had actually penetrated the colony defenses, but then her whole world was almost literally turned upside down when one of them slammed head-on into the side of her geodesic home and the entire structure tilted up crazily for an instant. The fasteners holding the insulated panels in place gave away and the wall burst inward. The weathered head of a huge warthog broke through the dome and Wendy screamed.
In the midst of the debris now littering the interior of the room, the great animal locked eyes with the frightened golden retriever for just a heartbeat and then reared up to bring its front hooves down hard, instantly silencing her shriek.
Parts of the shattered dome's frame clung to the thunderpig's head as it rushed back out into the camp, trailing fresh blood across the cavern floor as it charged after another panicked Fur.
Sissy gasped and panted, trying to pour on as much speed as she could down on all fours. One of the massive warthogs had just destroyed a nearby modular dome and although she didn't know whose screams had come from inside, the orange cat knew someone was either dead or badly injured and now that beast was coming after her!
There were rifle shots echoing across the cavern, people screamed in terror while others shouted out instructions in the chaos. However, it was the sound of thundering hooves that filled her ears and she knew without looking that Death himself was closing the distance behind her. She could also hear its huffing breath and she couldn't help but turn to look behind her as she ran.
A massive misshapen and scarred head was gaining on her and she could smell the unmistakable scent of blood preceding it. A frightened cry escaped her lips with the knowledge she was to be the next to die, but suddenly a large shape occluded her vision with a loud and familiar roar. She wasn't looking were she was going and tripped over an electrical cable. In the action, she stumbled sideways and it was a good thing she did. The charging thunderpig rushed past her and would have stampeded right across her orange-furred body.
She looked up and saw Arne clinging to the hog's back, his claws firmly embedded through the stringy hair into the pig's flesh and his jaws clamped hard upon its neck trying to rip out as much meat as possible. As she watched, he used one large hand to scratch at the animal's small eyes and the thundering animal was thrashing around trying to throw off the African lion.
Sissy didn't know how Arne had the strength to fight with the warthog, as injured as he was from his first encounter with one of them, but the large feline had managed to leap up onto it and was attacking with such ferocity that she honestly didn't know which of the enraged animals would come out victorious.
Other thunderpigs were taking out their vengeance in similar engagements across the camp and counterattacks were in full throes of violence, but Sissy's attention was riveted solely upon Arne and the pig that had tried to kill her. There was no doubt that the injured African lion had saved her from certain death and now she feared for his life.
Across the cavern, Gerard raked his claws across the face of a large boar as it tried to ram him. For all his ursine bulk, the brown bear moved quickly, dodging the tusks and putting muscle behind the action, digging several furrows deep into the great animal's flesh. One claw tip struck an eyeball and the giant hog bellowed out in pain and rage as the bear ripped it from its socket.
The pig thrashed around, and in the process struck Gerard's head with the side of its snout. The bear saw stars as bone collided with bone and he was momentarily stunned. He fell to the ground but got no respite; in its thrashing around in personal agony, the thunderpig trampled over him and lost its balance when their feet got tangled together.
When a full ton of weight of the hog came down upon him, Gerard felt things break inside just before he blacked out from the sudden intense pain. He was mercifully unconscious when the pig got back up to its feet and tossed the bear’s limp body up against a cavern wall as if he had been a large rag doll.
Hidden away in an alcove higher on the rock wall, a twin pair of large wing-like ears stuck up from behind a natural weathered outcropping. Frightened eyes watched in horror as their home on this world was systematically attacked by vengeful natives that only resembled larger versions of animals they'd known back on Earth.
Kevin stood up and shouted through cupped hands down at the spotted cheetah below them. “Raine! Run!”
The feline turned at the shout and saw one of the porcine intruders barreling down at him. He was boxed in between two of the kitchen freezer units, but if he was quick, he might be able to escape the pig. He hesitated just a moment in indecision on which direction to go and lost the chance he’d had. Cornered, Raine hissed and bared his fangs, and the muscles in his back legs bunched up in preparation to leap at the hog's face, but a maddened roar from his left rooted him to his spot.
Jon leapt onto the thunderpig and dug his claws deep into its neck, but he was not alone. Kristen raced in and the lioness attacked from the other side, slashing at its ears in an attempt to get up onto its head. The pig stumbled under their combined weight and went down upon its front knees. It slid to a stop right in front of Raine and looked up at him in fury, but he didn't hesitate this time, slashing his claws across both its eyes. It jerked its head back from him, but he pressed his advantage and cut bloody furrows across its broad snout.
Realizing its disadvantage from injuries on three sides, the huge pig struggled back up to its feet to retreat. It brushed Kristen off against the side of a freezer unit but the lioness only dropped to the ground on all four pads and then leaped right back after it.
The mountain lion on its right side refused to let go, so the pig made a daring move and rushed toward the center of the cavern where another of its kind harassed one of the small Furs. The pig bugled out a staccato set of vocalizations and the other pig suddenly abandoned its prey to rush headlong to its aid.
Jon saw the oncoming porcine locomotive from one eye and sprang away from his attack just in time to miss getting a set of tusks through his ribcage. Kristen lost her grip momentarily and rolled away, which allowed both pigs to thunder away across the cavern.
Raine rushed to the lioness’ side and helped her up as Jon took off after the pigs. Kristen looked thankfully at him and then shook her head as if to dislodge a few marbles.
“This is nuts!” the cheetah chirped as he and Kristen caught their breath. Both looked out at the pandemonium and each silently wondered how this would end.
Several of the massive pigs were running here and there through the cavern, harassing the Furs and tearing up the camp, but there were two nearly the size of small elephants that seemed to have something specific in mind. They attacked no one, allowing the others to wreak their havoc as they trotted through the pandemonium. There were some of the small Furs bearing sticks that spat fire and caused pain, but so far none had come after the pair that had done nothing more than pace through the cavern looking around.
Their demeanor changed, though, when they found one Fur fighting to drive away another of the marauding pigs that came up from the valley floor and was crawling over the bodies of the dead hogs blocking the path.
The two previously docile-appearing pigs suddenly surged forward together, racing madly at the grizzly from behind. One hit him hard, goring the bear across his hip, but although suddenly injured and in pain, Avon swiftly turned with a roar and buried his fangs with powerful jaws into the neck of the huge pig that had attacked him. He fought with the razor-sharp claws of all four extremities that he'd previously filed into hard points and used them to rip chunks of flesh and hair from his assailant's side and legs.
Just as large as the first one, the second hog rushed in and knocked him hard away. The heavy bulk of the grizzly dropped to the floor beside the cavern wall, but the bear had no time to catch his breath to get back up. The pig surged forward again, slammed Avon in the chest with its bony head and pinned him hard to the stone wall behind him, forcing the air from the bear’s lungs as something audibly cracked.
The bear looked up through excruciating pain and the hog locked eyes with him in grim determination; then it pulled back just enough to pound him again hard against the rock. Avon felt his sternum and several upper ribs snap and his eyes bulged just before he collapsed across the hog's snout, blood quickly frothing from his mouth and nose from punctured lungs.
The first thunderpig he'd hurt bellowed long and loud, and suddenly all the hogs stopped what they were doing and withdrew quickly back into the unfathomable recesses of the deep cavern darkness. Some had been injured in the siege and the two on the path had been killed by gunfire, but all the remaining hogs thundered off into the darkness leaving the colonists in sudden confusion at the retreat. The other pigs still on the pathway turned and fled back into the forest.
The attack was over just as quickly as it had begun.
Jon didn't see Avon right away, but he found Kristen thankfully unharmed and asked her to help him check on everyone. Miraculously enough, the Great Dome was untouched by the attack, so they had each person they talked to gather there for now.
Manny, Ivan and Raine still had their rifles and Jon asked them to stand guard in case the thunderpigs returned. He could determine no reason why they'd broken off their attack, but even those in the valley had gone. Only the bodies of the two dead pigs on the path remained and they’d already been checked to make sure they were well and truly dead.
When the mountain lion looked through the debris of several personal domes that had been damaged, he found the crushed remains of Wendy Miller, the timid golden retriever who had created all of the artificial fishing lures they'd been using in the lake. She'd died beneath the hooves of one of the giant hogs, and her last terror-filled moment was frozen upon her features.
Jon had never been squeamish, but the sight of the canine's trodden body turned his stomach and he had to force himself to turn away. Someone would have to take care of her at some point, but he wasn't sure if he'd be the one up for it.
There was one duty he had to perform, however, and responsibility made him move. He knelt beside her and weakly picked up her identification dog tags. He removed them from the body and gently wiped the blood from them on a handkerchief on the floor and then retreated as quickly as he could.
The mountain lion found Ken and Aaron tending to Gerard, and the brown bear drifted in and out of consciousness. There was blood trickling from his nose, mouth and ears and more had soaked his fur in innumerable places. His breathing was raspy and shallow, and it seemed that any movement caused him a great amount of pain; his cousin was trying to make him as comfortable as possible.
Jon drew the red wolf aside a short distance and looked at him in concern. “How is he?” he whispered.
The doctor heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head. “Without having him under the x-ray, I can only surmise that he's all broken up inside,” he answered quietly. “I thought I could hear the fragments of bones all through his body moving against one another when we tried to stabilize him, and I'm afraid it almost sounds like a bag of gravel. I think at least one of his lungs has collapsed but there hasn't been enough time for me to determine how many other internal injuries he may have.”
He pulled the cougar further away from the cousins and then said, “If we can find Jenni quickly, we can get him prepped for surgery, but I'm not really hopeful there's much that I can do for him. I don't want to sound like a pessimist, Jon, but from my initial examination, I don't think there's really much of anything I can do for him other than make him comfortable while he's still with us. However, if you give the word, I'll try to do anything I can for him.”
“Do it,” Jon said with a nod. “I've heard of others with injuries just as bad as what you've described that have pulled through, so maybe he's got a chance to live.”
“Yes, but remember that those others have had the resources of a full hospital to help reconstruct such damage,” the wolf reminded him. “I may not even have enough jesadine to get him through the surgery. He may not even survive that.”
The cougar sighed, but shook his head. “Do what you can, Ken. Please.”
The red wolf frowned, but nodded. “Yes sir,” he said at last. “We'll have to operate right where he's resting since it may be too dangerous to move him.”
“I'll see if I can find Jenni and send her to you,” Jon said. “Give Aaron something to do – have him put up some kind of curtain or barrier to block you from view of the others.”
“I'll start gathering what I'll need,” the doctor remarked. “This is going to use up a lot of our anthroursine blood reserves too.”
When the mountain lion found the nurse, Jenni was replacing several stitches that Arne had ripped out fighting with the pigs. Sissy sat beside him and held one of his massive hands, simultaneously thanking him for saving her from certain death and apologizing for the fresh damage to his legs, arms and one side he'd sustained in doing so.
Jon squatted down beside them and whispered in one of Jenni's ears, quickly explaining how she was needed. Moisture filled her eyes and she wiped the back of an arm across them, but she shook her head.
“I'll be there as soon as I've finished here,” she said in a strained voice.
“If you need to go,” Arne told her wearily, “I'm sure my injuries can wait for now. The shot you gave me has dulled the pain, so I'm good for a while.”
“I'll stay with him and get him anything he needs,” Sissy said in a quiet voice. She looked over at Jon with deeply sad eyes and then looked again at Jenni. “I was about to die horribly, but he saved my life. I won't leave him.”
The leopard nodded and then leaned in close to Arne's side. Using her teeth, she bit the thread she was using and then deftly tied up the stitch with nimble claw tips. “I will be back to tend to you as soon as I can,” she promised the African lion. Arne nodded and some of his bangs fell into his eyes. Sissy reached out and tenderly brushed them from his forehead.
Jenni followed Jon across the cavern, and as they walked, the cougar asked her, “Have you seen Avon? We're probably both bypassing one another checking on everyone.”
“No, I've not seen him,” she answered.
Aaron had already started putting up a makeshift surgery curtain using a blanket strung up between the tripods of two of the broken cavern lamps and Jenni quickly disappeared behind it to check on Gerard.
Jon continued his rounds, but found no one else apart from the rest. He frowned at the amount of damage the pigs had done to their homes and equipment, quietly reluctant to know the final tally when it had all been accessed.
By the time he returned to the Great Dome, he could see the majority of the colony sitting inside, some talking together in a great animation of arms and head gestures while others were frightened and still shaking from the events.
He stood just inside the door and counted noses, but there was something wrong with the numbers. Wendy was dead, Gerard was in the care of Ken, Jenni and Aaron, Sissy was looking after Arne, and then Manny, Ivan and Raine were standing armed guard out in the cavern. Not counting himself or Carl, who was still out on his excursion, there should have been eighteen Furs sitting in the Great Dome. He counted again, but still came up with only seventeen.
Mentally ticking off all their names as he looked over the group, it finally dawned on Jon that their captain was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had gone to look in on the others he'd already visited.
The cougar moved to the closest table and stopped beside Doctor Mochizuki and his wife. Both flinched when he knelt down between them, Chieko putting a sudden hand over her heart.
“I'm sorry to startle you,” Jon said apologetically, “but have you seen Avon?”
“Not since before the attack,” the larger red panda answered.
“Okay, thanks. How about yourselves? Are you two okay?”
The doctor nodded. “We are shaken, but unharmed.”
Jon moved next to Alicia and Dara, who sat across the table from Hank and Norman, the bears all clustered together. He repeated his query and Hank looked up sharply.
“You're not going to find him,” the black bear growled.
“What do you mean?” Jon asked, puzzled by Hank's reaction. “Where did he go?”
“The pigs took him!”
“Wait, they took him?”
“I saw it all, but I couldn't get to him in time,” Hank admitted with a dark look. “I saw two of the cursed hogs moving through the cavern as if they were looking for something while the others caused all the trouble. I was trying to keep one of the smaller pigs away from the vixens, but when those two saw Avon, it looked to me like they'd singled him out. They went after him together and crushed him up hard against a wall; once they had him, the big one signaled the others with a call and then they all left. You know how big Avon is — he was still draped across one's nose when they carried him away. It was only after the one I was fighting ran off before I could get over to where he'd been.”
“There was a lot of blood – too much blood!” Alicia said in a raspy voice. She wiped her eyes hard and then slammed a large fist down on the table, making everyone around them jump.
Jon rushed back to the doorway and then peered hard back in to the darkness of the cavern. There was a lot of damaged equipment and debris scattered across the camp, but he could see nothing back in the gloom. Grinding his teeth together, he forced himself back into the Great Dome and returned to the bears.
“You said Avon was singled out,” he said with a tight throat. “How do you know that?”
“Didn't you hear what Hank said?” Norman retorted in a loud voice. The former NFL linebacker planted his palms flat on the table and stood up to face the cougar. “They were looking for something, and when they saw Avon, they killed him and called a retreat as they carried him off!”
“All the times they were harassing us outside,” Hank interjected, “they must have been buying time for those inside the cavern to get through the mountain at us. It was all a plan to kill our leader!”
Everyone else inside the Great Dome was now listening to the conversation, and from the sudden sounds that a few of them cried out, it was apparent some had been unaware of their captain's demise.
“How could it have been a plan?” Michael demanded. “They're stupid animals!”
“Does what they did sound stupid to you?” Alicia retorted hotly. “They're intelligent! They've been bent upon revenge ever since we killed and ate one of them!”
“They didn't take off with anyone else,” Cheryl reminded them. “How could they know that Avon was our leader?”
“They've been watching us!” Dahlia exclaimed. “They figured it out when everyone kept going to him for things – either that or they figured that since he was the largest among us, he must have been in charge!”
“How do you know they haven't dragged off anyone else?” Dara spat toward Cheryl. “We're still missing a few!”
Jon cleared his throat loudly and all eyes went to him. “Avon's the only one we're missing,” he told them. “I've visually accounted for everyone but him and Carl.”
“So where's the rest?” Dara challenged.
“Ivan, Raine and Manny are outside standing guard with the rifles. Sissy is tending to Arne, who reopened his wounds. Ken and Jenni are doing emergency surgery on Gerard, and his cousin is with them. Carl is still away in his copter.”
“What happened to Gerard?” Michael asked.
“I think the pigs may have run over him,” Jon answered. “He's pretty broken up inside, but Ken and Jenni are trying now to save him.”
Alicia jumped up from her seat with a small cry and rushed out of the dome, presumably to find Gerard.
“What about Wendy?” Erin asked timidly, looking around. “I haven't seen her either.”
Jon heaved a heavy sigh, remembering the carnage in the golden retriever's home. “Wendy is dead,” he said quietly. “I found her in her dome where one of the pigs smashed through it.”
“Where… is she now?” Erin asked sorrowfully.
“I couldn't do anything for her,” Jon replied. “She's still in her dome.”
“M-maybe she's still alive!” Jasmine suggested. She started to get up from her seat, but Jon held out a hand and shook his head.
“Don't,” he told her, pulling the golden retriever’s dog tags from a pocket. “It wasn't a clean kill. The pigs evidently enjoy literally crushing their smaller enemies.” Jasmine sat back down abruptly, the look of horror upon her face mirroring those of others as he set the tags on the table.
It was a long moment before someone spoke again.
“Do you think…?” Kevin asked before swallowing hard. “Do you think Avon could still be alive?”
“Why would you think he would be?” Hank asked gruffly.
“Maybe… perhaps he was just taken prisoner,” the diminutive desert fox muttered. “If they're as intelligent as you say, isn't it possible that—”
Hank snorted loudly. “I saw where he was attacked. There was too much blood!”
“Maybe… some of it was pig blood,” Kevin added hopefully.
Hank slammed his hand hard down on the table, again making everyone jump. “He's dead, I tell you!” the black bear exclaimed hotly, making the younger fox cower at the intensity of his words. “The pigs killed him — purposely killed him!”
“Are they going to eat him?” Yuki wailed in sudden fear, “Like we ate one of them?”
“Who knows?” Hank growled. “Probably.”
Norman and Dara looked at one another and there seemed to be a wordless communication between them. Both of them had hard-set eyes and when Norman nodded, both of them stood up and quietly walked out of the dome without looking back at all the gazes that followed them.
“Jon,” Aldo asked in the momentarily quiet, “if the pigs are intelligent enough to plan such a sneak attack, do you think they might be… sentient?” Everyone looked at the bloodhound that was still bandaged from the earlier entanglement with the pigs. He seemed a little embarrassed by the public scrutiny, but he refocused his attention on the cougar and added, “They told us back at the Institute that sentient life on other worlds may not be in the same manner as we've had on Earth. Is it possible these pigs are sentient – you know, self-aware?”
Doctor Mochizuki slowly got to his feet and gestured across the room at the canine. “That is very possible,” he said with a look of interest in the concept. “Sentience does not necessarily mean they have the ability to create the tools of an advanced civilization. Their minds could have developed such intelligence to work out the things of the world around them, but without fingers, opposable thumbs or some other prehensile appendages, they would be unable to accomplish what we have been able to do ourselves.”
“A pack of wolves can organize and plan an attack on their prey,” Ellie said in response to his statement, “but they aren't considered sentient. How do you test for sentience, doctor?”
Jon cleared his throat again. “Doctor, you can ponder on that question all you want later, but for now we all need to take a look at our colony and determine what our losses are beyond two of our friends. We'll have to hold a proper burial ceremony for Wendy, of course, but we also need to see if anything was damaged that we can't do without. This includes equipment, medicines, food, etc. We'll also need to see if we can create some kind of defense against the pigs coming back from inside the cavern. Now that we know they can attack us from that direction, we're not safe.”
He looked around at the faces staring back at him for guidance. “We've only been here a few months and we've gotten complacent about our place in this world. Things are so Earth-like that we've all fallen into routine, and since things have been relatively docile, we've not really given further thought to our safety. True, the thunderpigs can be said to resemble the warthogs back home, but these seem to possess a calculating mind intelligent enough to plan out what they did today.”
He gestured toward the cavern outside the dome. “We killed and ate one of them as food, and they've taken their revenge, 'an eye for an eye' as it goes. However, in the attack, we killed two more of them. Will they consider that as acceptable losses since those in the valley were obviously harassing us to keep our attention on them instead of our own cavern – or will they come back for revenge upon those as well?” There were sudden looks of fear at such a concept that it seemed had not occurred to anyone else.
“We need to be prepared,” Jon told them. “We have firearms, but as Avon kept reminding us, the ammo is limited. We don't want to use it all up in our first few months, so we'll need better defenses, and in turn, other weapons.”
“Like what?” Michael asked.
“I don't know,” Jon answered honestly, “but we have nearly thirty minds between us; I'm sure we can think of something. I don't care how primitive or stupid-sounding you may think an idea might be, let someone know if you have some inspiration. It's possible the thought by itself may not work, but someone else could take your idea and add to it to make a viable weapon. That's how invention is born.”
He walked toward the door and peered out. The three guards were alert, watching both the pathway as well as the internal darkness of the cavern, but no one seemed freshly alarmed. He looked back at those inside with resolution.
“For now, I need everyone up and working. Assess everything, but clean as you go. If you find any major damage to something, let me know immediately. Once we have a list to go by, then we can make a concerted effort to fix and repair what we can.”
Intense pain accompanied dim consciousness, but vision seemed to be absent altogether. It hurt to breathe and what little he had rattled and bubbled deep in his chest. Labored footsteps of the tremendously huge animal beneath him rocked broken bones within his chest and every second of continued existence was agony.
He had no strength left and he could do little more than lay limply across the giant warthog's bony snout as it carried him deep into the darkness of the cavern. He would probably die from the injuries of his broken chest and ribcage before his captors could do much to him and the huffing of the pig's nostrils beside his head made him wonder why'd they'd even bothered to take him away.
He had never really believed that the thunderpigs were sentient, but he couldn't deny their intelligence. There had been a purpose to their plan of attack. Had it simply been a ploy to get him? Maybe they planned to eat him alive in retaliation for the adolescent pig the Furs had killed. Death of his injuries before that could happen would be preferable; he had no optimism that he could somehow survive.
One of the other warthogs grunted and he could feel a change in direction within the darkness. From the echoes that shifted off a closer wall, he understood they were turning into another passage, possibly back to their den.
Avon had no aspirations for being eaten while still alive, so he gathered up what strength might still be in reserve. He still couldn't see anything, whether his eyesight had failed altogether or it was just the Stygian blackness of the cavern, but if the pig's nostrils were on his left, its eyes must be on his right.
With effort, he somehow managed to raise himself upon the great animal's broad nose. The lightweight chain around his neck caught on a bony tusk beside him and snapped, flipping his dog tags out into the darkness. The pig's footsteps hesitated at his movement, but the bear had no intention of prolonging things. Holding himself up with one hand, he swiped out toward the animal's eyes with the claws of the other.
The thunderpig jerked its head and squealed out in sudden pain; Avon knew he'd scored a hit, but the movement put him off balance and he slid off his precarious perch. He fell to the dusty ground hard and he blacked out from the pain. When consciousness returned, it was only for a moment before tons of porcine hooves reared up above his head.
Norman had never been in complete and total darkness before, but Dara had made herself familiar with the primary passageways of the cavern system in the months since their arrival and was confident she could follow them in the dark by smell alone. If the pigs could do it, so could she. They had taken torch flashlights along with pistols in their packs, but didn't want to use the lamps more than necessary in case the pigs ahead of them might see them following. In the entirety of all she had discovered, the floor had remained relatively flat, without ravines, wash outs or pitfalls they might encounter otherwise, so Dara felt confident the only danger might be from the pigs themselves.
The two bears had taken off on their own in an attempt to track the trail of blood, whether it was Avon's or from one of the pigs. They knew that some of them had indeed been injured, so that was a possibility they could base some hope upon, however slim it might be.
Although they had been traveling for close to an hour, they had neither seen nor heard any sign of the thunderpigs aside from the trail of trickled blood that remained fresh enough for them to follow in the dark. Neither had spoken, and both had tried to keep their footsteps as quiet as possible in the light dust upon the cavern floor.
Norman stopped after a time, however, and hissed at Dara. She shuffled close to him and put her ear up next to his nose. “Light ahead,” he reported so softly that even she had trouble hearing him.
Up ahead, however, was the soft radiance of sunlight filtered down from overhead through some weathered crack in the mountain. It was not much more than a diffused glow, but their pupils were so dilated from an hour in total darkness that neither had difficulty seeing it.
They approached cautiously, continuing to extend all their senses to detect the pigs, but from all they could tell, they were utterly alone.
The passageway continued on through the mountain, but the light was at the junction of another corridor through the rock wall off to the right. Testing the air currents for recent scents, Norman studied the narrow walls and lower ceiling with an idea forming in his mind. He didn't detect anything waiting for them in the darkness, so he stood watch with a drawn pistol while Dara moved forward on all fours and peered at marks in the dust.
Three-toed hoof prints of the thunderpigs led right into the side passage, but there was something else that caught her eye in the dim light. There was a glint of metal in the dust. She swallowed hard when she picked up each of Avon’s dog tags and then clutched them both in her fist, realizing the smell of the blood trail in the dust was fresher and much stronger. She handed the identification tags to her companion and moved on. Keeping her nose down almost to the ground, the polar bear followed the scent several yards into the passage and then she stopped abruptly.
A large splatter of blood was on the floor and both walls of the rocky path. She swallowed with difficulty, but pressed on for another yard. Norman heard a small cry escape her throat, but he still couldn't detect any pigs in the general vicinity other than their stale scent from an earlier passing.
Dara pulled out her flashlight and chanced turning it on, first covered over by the palm of her large hand so she didn't blind the both of them with a sudden blue-white LED beam. She slowly uncovered the lens and then shined it toward a spot before her that she'd barely seen in the diffused sunlight.
There was something on the floor in the middle of a blood pool. There were several broken bits of bone scattered through the pool, but some type of matter clung to both sides of a larger object. She reached out a trembling hand paw and picked it up gingerly by several long strands of material.
When she pulled it directly into the light, both of them gasped. The object was a broken bit of curved bone several inches long and wide. Clinging to one side was a bloody bit of grey flesh, and from its other side was a mixture of cinnamon colored animal fur and black hair that could only be human.
Norman and Dara both knew that the top of Avon's head had contained the yellowish-brown fur of a Kodiak grizzly bear, as well as the jet black hair of his Cheyenne ancestry. Dara choked back a sob and dropped the grisly object, but Norman caught it before it hit the ground and then cradled it respectfully in his hands.
He pulled out a baggie from his pack and quietly placed the bloody bit of skull bone into it with the dog tags to take back to camp. There was no doubt left in either of their minds that Hiamovi Avonaco was dead, but there was nothing more for them to find after a short search. The blood scent was strong over the pool, but it also continued into the darkness. Even crushed, they'd taken what was left away with them. Neither of the bears felt there was any reason to continue to track the pigs further. Norman was convinced the exit from the cavern system was probably through the pig den that Aaron and Gerard had found on the other side of the mountain during their exploratory trek.
The polar bear clung to him in a sudden fierce hug, but after several long moments, they both turned wordlessly back the way they'd come. It was time to return to camp.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.