— by Ted R. Blasingame
The mountain lion stared out across the small horseshoe valley, his thoughts as dark as the thundering clouds overhead. Cold rain fell in hard sheets and the small lake below the mouth of the cavern seemed to be churning beneath the onslaught. In his hands was a small metal equipment case, and although he stood under the protection of the cave roof, both he and the waterproof container were damp from wind shifts around the end of the mountain range.
The feline had used the communication unit to submit a priority report up to the orbital geosynchronous satellite to be redirected to their headquarters in Stockholm on Earth, and had just received a ping of confirmation that the message had been received and relayed. After Norman and Dara had brought him positive proof of Avon's death and it had been confirmed by Ken's DNA profile analysis, he had separated himself away from the cleanup and repair efforts to work up a report on his PBJ. It would take the tachyon-burst communiqué a little over forty hours to cross the distance of nearly four parsecs, so he would be unlikely to get a response for a day or two, depending upon how quickly someone read his report and responded.
Although Jon had been Avon's second in command, his responsibilities in that area had been relatively light since the grizzly usually took care of everything himself. The cougar had never held aspirations of being in charge of the colony, content merely to help the captain as needed, and he had fully expected the bear still to be in place at the end of their five-year contract on Bonestell.
Now within the span of only a few months, Avon was dead, as was Wendy, Rose and probably Gerard too. The brown bear's internal injuries had been too extensive for Ken to repair, but the red wolf had done what he could for him and closed him up. Gerard had not regained consciousness, which was probably for the best, and his cousin Aaron had hardly left his side. The last conversation they'd had together was an argument that had come to blows right before the fatal thunderpig sneak attack and the memory of it left Aaron despondent.
Jon had tried to include as much detail as possible in his report, unsure of what information might be needed. He'd described the events leading up to the final attack and even noted that Carl was still missing from his aerial exploration. There had been no report from the grey wolf on the radio and no one had seen any signal flares. It was unknown what might have happened to the seasoned explorer, and with two days of rain, he would be exposed to the elements in addition to whatever situation he might have encountered. Did he still live or would he soon be counted among the dead? Jon was reluctant to mark him off just yet, but he also knew that there were likely dangers on this world they had yet to discover and Carl may have found one too deadly to fight off. If the wolf didn't turn up soon, they might never know what happened to him.
In spite of the cold rain and mountain runoff that was raising the level of the lake, the thunderpig scouts had returned. At least one was visible at all times just under the cover of trees, silently watching the cavern as they had done before. Were the pigs planning another attack or were they making sure that the alien Furs weren't going to come after them? The bodies of the two animals that had died on the pathway had already been cut up and stored in the colony freezers that were still working. The deed had been done beneath the cover of a tarp over the path barriers, partially to protect Kim and Yuki from the rain and also to keep their activities out of direct sight of the watching warthogs.
No move had been made against them, but the Furs had no intention of letting ready meat, hide and other parts to go to waste with a cooler than expected autumn and the later winter months approaching. Armed guards had stood over them in case the porcine scouts took exception to this, but Jon had forbidden them from shooting the watchers as long as they did nothing to provoke a new attack. Likewise, rotating guards were placed back in the darkness of the cavern in case the pigs returned from that route as well. Several fires had been started farther back in the cave for the light, but the resulting smoke had only so many places to go along the air currents within.
Because of the hard rains and the thunderpigs, they were unable to give Wendy a proper burial, so her remains had been carefully wrapped up tight in plastic tarps and stored deep in the cool darkness of the cavern in hopes that her body would keep until she could be buried in the woods next to Rose.
Staring out into the rain served to relax the cougar now in command of the starter colony. It wasn't a job he really wanted, but without Avon the others would be coming to him for decisions and assignments.
He suppressed a heavy sigh and closed his eyes for a moment, scratching idly at the healing stripes on his arms gained when he and Kristen had taken to the trees to escape the pigs on their way back from the salt flats. A pair of slender arms slid around his middle, embracing him from behind. Despite his inner turmoil, he smiled and then looked over his shoulder at the lioness snuggled up against his back.
Without a word, she walked backward, pulling him with her out of the wind and rain, and he allowed himself to be towed. When they were in a relatively dry area, she released him and then took one of his hands. She led him to the campfire pit that was just under the lip of the cavern entrance so he could warm up and dry off, and he set the com unit on the ground at his feet. Despite that the fire was going, the two of them were momentarily alone.
He stretched out his hands toward the heat and stared into the flames, letting his eyes go unfocused. Although the pair was covered in fur, the autumn weather had turned cooler as arctic air moved south along the range of mountains. Kevin had assured them all that warmer weather would return with the sun, possibly as early as the next day. The cougar was dressed in his specially-made jeans and his favored flannel shirt of red and black squares, but the lioness wore only a pair of furman overalls with nothing underneath and welcomed the warmth of the fire behind her as she faced back out toward the rain.
“Are you okay?” Kristen whispered without taking her eyes off the soaked valley.
“Yeah, I'm fine,” Jon muttered. “It's just the weight of sudden responsibility upon my shoulders.”
The lioness turned and reached up to run her shortened fingertips along his broad shoulders. She gave him a little smile. “I'm sure there's plenty of room up there for all that needs to rest upon them,” she said.
The taller mountain lion raised an eyebrow and then gave her a tired smile. “Thanks,” he returned quietly. “I only wish things hadn't escalated to such a conflict. We killed the pig and ate it like any other food animal we might raise, never considering how intelligent it might have been or how vengeful its siblings might be. I'm sure we'd have done the same if something here tried to kill and eat one of us – it's what we still do back home.”
“Humans have always considered themselves to be at the top of the food chain on Earth,” Kristen replied, “with everything else thought of as food, pets, zoo exhibits or beasts of burden. Although we're no longer fully human, we're still predators and we've brought that same mentality here with us; none of us thought differently when the decision was made to try out the pigs for food.”
“We've found other animals we can safely hunt and eat,” Jon said. “At least, none of those have tried to eat us in return.” He pointed out toward the forest where one of the giant shaggy hogs stood under the needled equivalent of a pine tree. “They're still watching us, but what happened was our fault, so it's against my better judgment to retaliate on them after what they've done in response to what we've done,” he added with a glance behind him into the cavern. “I've got to make them understand that the pigs should be left alone as long as they leave us alone in return. There's not many who agree with me, though.”
“You're in charge now,” Kristen reminded him softly. “You don't have to be a dictator, but you're still the one who has final say on decisions made that affects the whole colony.”
“Maybe,” Jon muttered. His mate looked back at him with a frown, but he didn't elaborate.
Doctor Masanori Mochizuki stepped into the Great Dome and looked around. There were only a few Furs seated inside, a skulk of Vulps chatting over cups of coffee. The large dome had captured a good amount of heat and it was warmer than the chilly cavern, but covered in a dense coat of black and ginger fur, a lab coat and furman garments, the red panda barely noticed; before his transformation, however, the Japanese scientist had been susceptible to slight climate changes.
Enjoying the scent of rich Columbian coffee in the air, Dr. Mochizuki walked quietly to a table near one of the outer curved walls and picked up a cup adorned with cherry blossom trees in full bloom. He filled it up from the pot of black liquid and then spooned in two heaps of sugar, silently reminding himself that they would eventually run out of both coffee and sugar in time. There would be no corner market to replenish their supply when it ran out and there seemed to be many coffee drinkers among the Furs.
On any other given day, the red panda would have filled his cup and then retreated back to the solitude of his lab or personal quarters, but after recent events, he had other things on his mind. Putting on a friendly air, he approached those at the table and listened in quietly to their conversation.
“…carried him away into the darkness,” Dahlia said. “I heard that Norman and Dara found his dog tags when they followed a trail of his blood into a side passage.”
“Do you suppose they were really going to eat him?” Michael asked quietly. “I mean, I've heard they found some of his bones.”
“What if those weren't his?” Ivan suggested. “The bones could have been left over from a previous meal. He might still be alive — injured but alive and needing our help.”
“Are you suggesting a rescue party?” Manny asked after taking a sip from his cup. The arctic fox picked up a ginger snap from a small plate on the table and nibbled on it.
“Why not?” Ivan asked. “If they just wanted to kill him, they could have done it here like they did poor Wendy and tried to do with Gerard. Instead, they carried him away like a prisoner, so he might still be alive.”
“Do you think they're going to interrogate him with grunts and pig squeals?” Manny scoffed.
The red fox scowled back at him. “How am I supposed to know what they planned to do with him? I'm just grasping at straws like everyone else.”
“Ken said the DNA of the blood and skull bone was Avon's,” Dahlia reminded them all with a hushed voice.
Manny snorted. “Dead or alive, why did they take him? If he was dead, what purpose would it serve?”
“We ate one of them, maybe they were going to eat him in return,” Michael suggested again.
“Why him, specifically?” Jasmine asked. “Why Avon?”
Kevin raised a hand and everyone looked at him. “You're not in school,” Michael said with a tired smile. “Just butt right in like everyone else; there's no need to raise a hand for attention.”
The diminutive desert fox shrugged his shoulders feeling embarrassed, but dropped his hand back to the table. “Maybe they chose him because he was our leader,” he suggested. When no one replied to his statement, he folded his hands together on the table and his ears drooped.
“It's possible,” Erin replied. “They did watch us for several days. Using Canis terminology, they probably recognized he was our Alpha.”
Manny nodded. “In times of warfare, sometimes the quickest way to end a conflict is to take out the enemy's leader. Maybe that rule applies on this world too.”
“Wouldn't that mean the pigs can think and reason beyond animal instinct?” Dahlia asked. “They did plan this attack, using the ones out front to keep us busy while the main force came in from behind.”
“I really don't care if the pigs are sentient or not,” Ivan grumbled. “We should wipe them all out – make them extinct!”
“How?” Jasmine wanted to know. “We can barely take down one of them, so how do you expect to kill a whole herd?”
“We're part animal,” Ivan explained, “but we're also still human and our species has the experience of thousands of years of warfare behind us. If we don't have enough ammunition to kill them all, we can probably develop a poison or something that will drop them in their tracks.”
“Poison would ruin the meat,” Michael countered. “We'd never be able to eat any we kill.”
Ivan put his hands over his head in the air in exasperation. “I don’t know!” he growled. “It was just a suggestion, but my point is that our human brains should be able to come up with something!”
“You're talking all-out war,” Erin said quietly. “Is that what we came here for? I was under the impression it was to learn the dangers and benefits of a new ecosystem and find a way to coexist with it before future colonists came out to face what's here.”
“Whose side are you on?” Ivan exclaimed. “They've killed some of us, one of which was our leader, and you want to find a way to get along with them?”
“You want vengeance because we killed a pig first and then they acted out of revenge!” Erin answered, standing up from her seat. “That's childish, like running to your momma to complain that your brother had the audacity to hit you back after smacking him first!” She had a glaring match across the table with the reynard for a moment, but then she slowly released her breath and sat back down.
“Honestly, I don't think Jon would approve of your desire to use up all our ammunition and resources to kill a herd of pigs that did nothing against us in the first place. They left us alone because we'd left them alone, but since we struck first, it's understandable that they would want to hurt us in return — that's what we would have done if our situations were reversed!”
“What does Jon's opinion have to do with this?” Ivan huffed. “He's not even here as part of our discussion.”
Jasmine cleared her throat and spoke in a calm voice. “Have you forgotten? With Avon gone, Jon is now in charge.”
“Yeah, well Jon's never backed down from a fight either. What makes you think he'll bow out now?”
“Because he now has the responsibility to keep the colony safe!” the red vixen answered. “I doubt that starting a war is what the AHCP had in mind when they sent us out here.”
“That's just a matter of opinion,” Ivan groused.
“If Mr. Sunset will not approve of the actions you desire,” Doctor Mochizuki said quietly, choosing that moment to join the conversation, “perhaps someone else should be in charge.”
“We could put it to a vote!” Ivan said brightly. He looked appreciatively at the red panda. “You used to be in charge of Furs, Doctor. If I voted for you, would you approve it?”
The former Institute director nodded. “I would,” he answered without hesitation.
Jasmine knocked several times on the table. “Hello! Avon was appointed by committee and Jon was chosen and trained by Avon,” she reminded them with a side glare at the doctor. “There's no voting on a leader unless something happened to both of them. You want to displace Jon just because he might veto your desire to kill all pigs! That smacks of entitlement issues about getting your own way without any rational thought on how this will affect us all!”
Ivan leaned across the table. “How this will affect us all,” he retorted, “is that it will save lives in the future. Not only will it keep the pigs from coming back at us again, we'll be safeguarding future immigrants to this world. If we remove the threat now, it won't be a problem later on!”
Dahlia sat forward in her seat. “Are you planning on a planet-wide extermination of all thunderpigs on Bonestell?” she asked, taking up her sister's argument, “or are you only thinking of those in our small corner of the globe? There are only twenty-eight of us now, and I'm sure you realize that not everyone would help out in your worldwide pig hunt! I think your odds are rather underwhelming.”
Ivan crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. The scowl on his face was dark, but he had no rebuttal. He knew she was right – all of them who argued against him were – but he had no way of backing out well enough to save face.
When nothing more was said for several tense moments, Erin picked up her cup and headed for the coffee pot. “First, I think we need to see how Jon feels about all this,” her pixie voice said from across the room, “Right now, we have only two simple options – kill all the pigs or leave them alone. Maybe Jon has something else to suggest, but that's his right as our leader.”
Several of the foxes at the table grumbled unhappily, but no one else had anything to add. His brief moment in the spotlight gone, Doctor Mochizuki frowned at the mood at the end of the conversation and quietly retreated from the discussion to his lab.
Ken retraced his steps down on all fours across the muddy floor of the valley through the rain, trying to avoid all the flippered fish using their rudimentary limbs to hunt along the grasses for morsels to eat stirred up by the rains; fortunately for him, the fish weren't interested in furry toes.
It was times like this when the wolf missed the indoor plumbing of his home back on Earth. Running through inclement weather to the equivalent of an outhouse was likely to prove to be even more of a challenge when winter finally arrived.
Perhaps sometime in the future they could relocate so they wouldn't have to stay inside the cavern, possibly to the Ivanrose Forest to the east, and then they could build real homes from local wood. If they could find some kind of reed or other natural tubing to fashion into pipe, indoor plumbing could be included. It was a personal dream of his, but he doubted it would come true anytime soon, though it would also be nice if that forest was devoid of the dangerous pigs.
The red wolf jumped across the damaged wooden bridge over the swollen river and wove his way through the zigzag pathway up to the cavern. When he got inside, he moved near the cave wall and shook off the excess water from his fur without even thinking about how much he now resembled the Alaskan Malamutes his family had raised when he was growing up. Red wolves were smaller than their grey wolf cousins, but Ken's human attributes gave him a size never seen in the wild.
He sneezed from a bit of water in his nostrils and then padded over to the medical dome so he could check in on Gerard's condition. The bear still had not achieved consciousness after the surprise attack and the physician didn't harbor any personal hope that he would recover, but he would do what he could to make sure he was as comfortable as he could be.
When he stood up on two legs and entered the Infirmary, however, his heart sank. Jenni was pulling a sheet up over Gerard's still form, covering his head and face. The leopard looked over at him when he approached the bed, the sadness reflecting in her green feline eyes.
“Did he ever awaken?” he asked quietly. Jenni shook her head and picked up her PBJ to record the official time of the brown bear's death. She tapped in the report using only the tip of a claw, having lost the stylus weeks earlier.
Ken peeked at Gerard's face beneath the sheet and then replaced it with a frown. He reverently stepped back and wrung his hands together. “I'll go find Jon and give him the news,” he said in a solemn voice. “Do you want me to inform Aaron or would you like to tell him?”
The leopard sighed and looked down at her feet. “I know that's one of my duties,” she murmured, “but it's not one I'm looking forward to.”
The wolf put a hand on her shoulder and rubbed her fur through the fabric of her furman robe top with a finger. “I'll take care of it,” he told her kindly. She looked up at him with gratitude and then suddenly jumped forward into his arms. He wrapped them around her as she buried her face in his chest, her quiet tears mingling with the rain water still in his fur that was exposed through the opening of his lab coat.
Ken held her close for a long moment before she finally pulled back a little, wiped her eyes and then nuzzled her cheek against the side of his snout. “You have always been good to me,” she whispered before giving him a light kiss on the lips. It was chaste due to their proximity to their silent friend on the medical bed, but when the wolf looked back at her, she could see more than just compassion in his expression.
When Aaron found Jon a little while later, the cougar was elbows-deep inside the panel of a refrigerator unit. It was one of the devices that had been afflicted by what was assumed to have been light EMP pulses from the nearby star. The solar flares had affected some but not all of the electronics, and although this particular refrigerator continued to work in spite of its faulty circuitry, it had suffered a direct head-on collision with the dense skull of a giant warthog twice the size of an adult buffalo. Jon was hoping that he might be able to make enough repairs to keep it going, but he was just about to give it up as a lost cause when the brown bear tapped on the sole of one of his feet.
The mountain lion looked back at Aaron. “Hey, what's up?” he asked casually, reaching for a rag to wipe off his stubby fingers.
“Ken just told me that Gerard didn't make it,” he said with an angry snort. “Those blasted pigs killed him after all!”
Jon sat up and shook his head. “I am sorry to hear that,” he said, “but we all knew he probably wouldn't survive those kinds of injuries. As soon as the pig scouts leave the area, we'll hold a burial and memorial service for Avon, Wendy and Gerard.”
“Why wait?” Aaron grumbled. “We should kill the scouts now and anymore of them that get too close to Second Chance!”
“Why?” Jon repeated with a frown. “You've already seen how they react when the pigs are vengeful – I don't want a repeat of the attack and neither does anyone else, especially since we don't have a real defense against them. They left when they did because they'd gotten what they wanted – Avon – not because we drove them away.”
“You're not going to do anything?” the bear asked incredulously. “Three of us are dead!”
“…and three of them are dead,” Jon reminded him. “I think we're safe in assuming these intelligent pigs know how to count, and as long as they have no reason to retaliate again, we don't need to antagonize them further.”
Aaron waved an arm furiously in the general direction of the Great Dome. “Jon, I'm not the only one who feels this way! Others want to exterminate all the pigs for what they've done to us and I'm in favor of it!”
Jon got up to his feet. Although the bear was a large animal, they both had some of their original human attributes and the new leader of the colony was still a taller individual. He stood up to his full height, grease rag still in his hands and looked down at the other furman.
“Aaron, if you are looking for my permission to go after the pigs,” he said darkly, “your request is denied. I will hold an assembly later this afternoon and explain this to everyone, and if anyone goes against my decision and goes after them on their own, the result could be more deaths among our people. Who do you want to die next, Aaron? It would probably be me and I really don't want to die for your mistake!”
“Gerard was my cousin and Avon was my friend,” the bear said, refusing to back down from the taller feline. “This isn't over.”
“The purpose of our presence on Bonestell is survival, Aaron. Mounting a war with the natives is not going to bring back those of us who've died.”
“It might not bring them back, but it will teach those wretched hogs they shouldn't be messing with us!”
Jon shook his head, clearing his throat. “I think they've already shown that we shouldn't be trifling with them, and as for who's at the top of the Bonestellan food chain, right now I would say it's the thunderpigs. We should be thankful if they leave us alone now.”
Avon had often displayed indecision when issues were brought to him and he could sometimes be swayed, but Jon was different. Aaron snorted his disgust and stormed away, knowing that that arguing with the stubborn cougar further would be a futile gesture.
In the darkness of the huge cavern passageway, Norman and Dara crept silently, using their noses and only an occasional light to retrace their previous steps. The polar bear had food, water and other supplies in her backpack, but the black bear carried a far more important cargo in his.
Before they'd left the colony behind, Norman had secretly talked Manny into giving him several sticks of plastic dynamite from the armory, as well as a few military grenades. The plastic explosives were safer to handle than the touchy clay and nitroglycerin sticks of old, but just as deadly.
It was their goal to sneak back into the interior of the mountain in hopes they could make it back to the narrow side passage they'd discovered earlier without meeting up with the hogs. It was risky, for if the pigs were still watching them from outside the cave, they could also be doing the same on the inside. Unlike a number of angry Furs they'd left behind, these two hoped they would not find any of the oversized warthogs.
At every branching corridor, Dara carefully checked tracks in the dusty floor with her flashlight to make sure none of the pigs had gone off into other areas, but all signs showed the giant hogs' distinctive hoof prints had all returned the way they came.
In time, they finally approached the narrow passageway where they'd found Avon's dog tags and grisly remains. There hadn't been much to find, but it was conclusive enough for them to know there was no hope of rescuing their captain. The previous pool of blood had since soaked into the sand covering the floor, leaving only a shadow of its existence. Both bears took care not to step into the place where their friend and leader had ultimately died.
“There's no way they could have gone anywhere else without leaving tracks,” Dara whispered into her companion's ear and gestured toward the small corridor with the beam of her lamp. “They all went through there, but haven't come out.”
“I'd bet my entire five-year prize purse this goes to the pig den Aaron and Gerard found on the other side of the mountain,” Norman replied just as quietly, feeling a constant pull of air into the passage. “Gerard said he could smell your lavender perfume when he stuck his nose inside.”
“If that’s true, they can probably already smell us just standing here,” Dara said with a frown.
“Let's go in as far as we can and lob our grenades at them,” Norman suggested.
“Too risky. Let's stick to the original plan.”
“You're no fun,” the black bear said with a smirk. His fur blended in well with the darkness, but the shampoo he'd been using made it shine in his companion's flashlight.
Dara gave him a smirk. “I'm lots of fun, or have you forgotten me already?”
Norman opened his mouth and then shut it again without a follow-up retort, making her chuckle. She lightly kissed the side of his nose. “Come on, let's get this over with and then we can celebrate in some dark alcove on the way back.”
Norman gave her an appreciative growl and then loosened the straps of his pack to remove it from his broad back. They took their time and placed the plastic dynamite sticks about twenty yards inside the side passage at strategic load-bearing places on the walls. Two of them were placed high by Norman standing on Dara's shoulders since she was the larger of the two, and then by wedging them into fractured cracks in the stone.
Instead of wicks to light, these were all connected to an electric igniter with a wire nearly as thin as human hair. Once they were all in place, the bears moved around a corner out of what was soon to be the blast zone.
Neither had earplugs that would fill their ursine ear canals, so both shoved their fingers in their ears and closed their eyes as Norman used a toe claw to press the activation toggle.
“What was that?”
Ellie looked over at Chieko and the two of them felt a chill ripple through their fur that had nothing to do with the temperature at the mouth of the cave. The two females were tending to the fire in the ringed place just under the edge of the overhanging rock where rain wouldn't drown it but the smoke could escape to the outside. Although it was never the plan to keep the fire going at all hours every day, many felt more comforted with it during the recent cold snap.
“Maybe the rain is strengthening into a thunderstorm,” Chieko ventured to guess, “At first I thought it might be an earthquake, but it didn't feel the same as quakes I've experienced.”
“Maybe part of the cavern collapsed,” said the wolf. “This is probably the most stable cave I've ever been in, but I suppose even those can break down in time.”
The red panda looked overhead at the stone ceiling with a frown. “I hope it doesn't come down out here,” she replied with a shudder.
All through the colony, others were making similar remarks and there were more than a few concerned looks up toward the stone roof over their heads.
Late in the long day found Jon standing at the bottom of the slope leading between the cave and the valley, one hand resting upon a corner post of the broken wooden bridge now only partially spanning the river, the black tip of his tail twitching in response to his thoughts. The rains had stopped and the clouds moving overhead were breaking up to reveal a red evening sky that had not yet given way to night stars. Standing water was everywhere and ripples reflected in glistening sparkles. There was a gentle cool breeze coming around the end of the mountain range that made Dahlia's wind chimes out in the valley jingle lightly.
The large thunderpig that had been watching the cavern in the rain today was staring back at him as the two watched one another for several long moments. Through her shaggy fur, scars from the recent battle across the animal's massive head were already scabbing over her thick hide and there were more healing claw marks on her neck and legs. He wasn’t sure, but Jon suspected this elephant-sized animal was the same one that he’d once come face-to-snout with, now ages ago it seemed.
They simply watched one another in silence for a while, but then in a surprise to the mountain lion, the giant hog finally turned and walked away into the shadows of the forest.
Without a second thought, Jon slipped off his sandals, dropped to all fours and then followed the large creature at a discrete distance. He knew he could be placing himself in unnecessary danger, but the feline wanted to make sure the porcine native went farther than just a few steps away.
It was obvious to Jon that the pig knew she was being followed from the orientation of her ears as she walked and the occasional side glance she made in his direction, but she seemed unconcerned and unhurried; although obviously a predator, this single alien Fur presented no danger to her.
Walking through the damp forest, she crossed a shallow part of the river toward Meriwether Lane, the large avenue the supply trucks had originally taken and that they all used as a primary boulevard out to the plains. Jon remained beneath the cover of trees, for if the pig decided to double back at him, he wanted some protection. The large sow, however, continued on her way.
When they came to the edge of the wood three quarters of a mile from the little horseshoe valley, the pig stopped and turned around to look back. The cougar gazed back at her through a stand of closely growing trees, but he had no doubt that she was staring right at him. He held his ground, making no move to either approach or retreat.
The hog made a noise not unlike that of a low bassoon and followed it with a short series of snorts. When Jon did nothing but stare back at her, she repeated the sounds, adding a staccato set of harrumphs. This time, Jon stepped around the trees and then sat down on his haunches. He wrapped his tail around his feet in hopes that he was indicating that he did not intend to come after her. In response, she dipped her head with a snuffle and then turned her unprotected backside toward him.
Without another glance or sound, the great pig walked away from the forest out into the damp field of wheat-grasses and was soon lost to sight. The mountain lion mused upon her obvious attempt at communication. He had been no linguist back on Earth and couldn't even begin to decipher the specifics of what she might have said to him here, but he had a distinct feeling that she knew he understood the intent. Indeed, he felt confident she would present no further danger on his return to the valley; there was no logical reason to think so after what had happened, being nothing more than gut instinct.
Feeling better than he had in hours, Jon turned back to the wood and casually made his way back. He didn't take a traveled trail this time, but simply meandered through the damp underbrush. Before he'd traversed a half mile, he suddenly stopped and stared intently up into the shadows over the overhead branches of an evergreen.
Something was up there, staring down at him, but even with his enhanced sight, he was unable to determine what it was; he couldn't even see reflections from its eyes, if it had eyes. The constant little movements of birds and insects all around hadn't abated, so apparently none of them felt that whatever it was staring back at him was a threat. Still, the cougar could feel the ridge of fur along his back rising in response to his agitation. What was that thing?
Perhaps it was an instinct of his feline makeup, but Jon felt the overwhelming urge to find out exactly what it was that had instilled an edge of fear in his people whenever one of the nightshades almost appeared. Crouched with his head down, his eyes never leaving the spot where a deeper shadow hugged a part of the limbs overhead, he slowly began to approach the tree trunk. If he put on a sudden burst of speed, he might be able to reach the thing's branch in time to see what it was. He didn't expect he would be able to catch it, but a visual identification would be acceptable.
At the base of the tree, he could still feel the thing's gaze upon him and that occlusion in the shadows lingered. When he reached up slowly and quietly embedded the claws of one hand paw into its black bark, he saw something shift a little. He couldn’t tell if it was black fur, feathers, scales or skin, but something up there had definitely moved.
Knowing he might never get another opportunity such as this, Jon launched himself up the tree, scaling the trunk faster than he'd ever done before. Within seconds, he reached the limb where he knew the nightshade had just been, but there was nothing there. It was gone.
The feline searched the surrounding tree limbs all around and above, but of the unseen creature, there was nothing.
Panting lightly in disappointment, he was otherwise motionless on the thin branch, all his senses alert to detect anything around him, but his climbing rush had stirred up all the birds and other critters too; their sounds and calls now in alarm of the predator in their midst. It would be near improbable to track the nightshade when it was calm and quiet, but in this din, he knew it was hopeless altogether.
He put his nose to the tree and the branch where the dark thing had been. There was a faint scent there, but even though it was recent, it was almost too subtle, barely even discernable.
What kind of creature was hard to see, completely silent and had almost no scent for the enhanced nose of a Fur to detect? Jon still wasn't assured that it presented no danger, but in the months since their arrival, it had never once shown itself or bothered anyone. He was almost ready to simply declare nightshades to be nothing more than phantom fears on behalf of the colonists, himself included.
When he was back down on the forest floor, he looked back up to the branch he'd vacated, but this time the darker shadow against the tree trunk was absent. Had there really been anything there?
Jon chuckled aloud, amused at his own reaction jumping at shadows, and then headed back toward the valley. He neither saw nor felt the presence again, and by the time he got back to the soggy clearing, he had almost forgotten the incident altogether.
At the top of the path to the cave, however, Norman was waiting for him. Jon raised an eyebrow at the black bear's smug expression.
“Okay, you've been up to something,” he said with a crooked smile. “What've you done?”
Norman grinned and put a huge paw on Jon's shoulder. “The thunderpigs will never be able to attack us from the rear the same way again. Dara and I have made sure of that.”
A sudden chill went up Jon's spine. If they'd killed more pigs, it would undermine the unspoken agreement he'd just had with the one he'd followed out to the field.
“What have you done?” he growled in sudden annoyance.
Norman was taken aback at the cougar's reaction and retrieved his hand. “Uhm, Dara and I went back to the side tunnel where we uhm… found Avon…” he explained in hesitation. “Using explosives we got from Manny, we filled in that side passage with tons of rock and rubble.”
Jon could feel the skin of his neck and face getting hot beneath his fur, but then he had to force himself to calm down. He wasn't upset so much at what they'd done, as it was that they'd done something so dangerous without telling him first.
Swallowing back the tirade that had tried to force itself past his lips, Jon heaved a long sigh and then shook his head. “Are you okay, you and Dara?”
“Yeah, we're fine. We stayed far enough away from the blast, but then double-checked afterward to make sure it was completely blocked off. After we were certain that not even one of the little furballs could get through, we trucked it back home.”
Jon nodded, feeling better knowing that the bears had suffered no injuries. He'd never handled explosives himself, but knowing they'd taken some without permission still concerned him.
Imitating Norman's initial gesture, he put a hand up on the bear's shoulder and nodded. “I wish you would have informed me beforehand, but this time I'll just say 'Thanks and Well Done' for what you've done to insure our safety.”
“Sorry we didn't tell you first,” the bear said, “but we didn't think you'd let us if you knew.”
Jon stared at him for a moment and then crossed his arms. “I think you should let me be the judge of anything like that from now on. You never know what I might allow if you don't ask, but if you keep circumventing my authority, I might take exception to anything else you might want my approval for.”
“Yeah, you're right,” Norman agreed with a penitent nod. “Sorry, boss.”
Jon gave him a leisurely smile. “Good, now you can tell me about it. Gimmee all the details.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.