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SECOND CHANCE

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 16
First Chance

 

The entire colony crowded around the prodigal wolf. There was no way that Ellie could have her husband to herself right now, despite the news she so desperately wanted to break to him in private. Resigned to sitting beside him with her head upon his shoulder in a chair beside the fire pit, she watched quietly while Jenni wrapped up Carl’s left ankle and everyone else waited impatiently to hear his story.

Normal procedure when someone returned from an exploratory trip was for the captain to speak with them in private in case there might be something they may want to hold back from public ears. After recent events, however, Jon didn’t care. He was just as eager as everyone else to hear the wolf’s story and if he told it just once now, he wouldn't have to repeat it multiple times.

Before he began, however, the grey wolf looked around and realized there were missing faces.  “Where is everybody?” Carl asked with a hoarse voice after lapping from a welcomed coffee cup.  “Where’s Avon? Shouldn’t I report to him first?”

“Carl, Avon's gone,” Jon told him somberly. He knelt beside him and gestured out toward the forest.  “We just had a memorial service for him. Wendy and Gerard, too.  The thunderpigs attacked us inside our own cavern.”  The wolf looked stricken and glanced over at his wife. Ellie nodded quietly and he could see the moisture in the fur beneath her eyes.  He swallowed hard and then lapped up a little more coffee.

“What…. what happened?” he asked quietly.  Several Furs began talking at once, but Ellie stood up suddenly and angrily waved her arms in the air with a pointed look at each one of them until they all fell silent again.  She’d not said a word, but she’d gotten her meaning across.

Jon sighed inwardly and looked back at the wolf.  “The short version,” he said, “is that because we killed and ate one of the thunderpigs, they took offense and retaliated against us with an unexpectedly intelligent plan of attack. We killed two more of them in the conflict and they did the same to us.”  Jon looked around at the mixture of expressions looking back at him. “We can fill you in on the details later.”

“Jon is now in charge,” Ellie said quietly. “He’s our captain.”

Carl nodded solemnly.  “Should I give you my report in private?” he asked, mindful of the crowd around him.

The cougar shook his head. “No, go ahead and tell us what happened. With everything that’s happened, we could all use a good story right now.”

The wolf looked up and around at the crowd. “All right,” he agreed to expressions of relief, “I'll give you the short version for now.”  Everyone settled down around him, most comfortable on their haunches or relaxing in chairs that were still out in the open. Jenni finished wrapping up the ankle Carl had been limping on and then sat down a few steps away.

“Thank you,” Carl said to the leopard.  He marveled that she was wearing only a pair of furman shorts and nothing else, totally unaware she’d been dressing like that ever since an earlier argument with the red panda simply to needle him. Very few males in the colony seemed to mind her state of undress, but even he could see she was sufficiently covered by fur so that she wasn’t too much of a distraction.  Mindful of his wife beside him, Carl cleared his throat and moved his eyes back over the crowd.

“When I left three days ago to go exploring,” the grey wolf began, “I had fully intended to return before dark that same day. Eighteen hours should have been plenty of time to make an aerial circuit of the surrounding area.  I saw lots to report and took a bunch of notes and pictures, but I realized I had gone a little farther north than I had intended so I started on my way back.”

He glanced over at Jon with a small look of embarrassment, remembering Avon’s safety lectures.  “During the return flight, I... well, I crashed against the rocky side of a mountain. The rough landing damaged the rudder and upper rotor of the gyrocopter, I banged up my ankle and I lost the radio; as such, I was out of commission and unable to contact anyone.  Due to the damage to the copter, I couldn’t fly - and with a sprained ankle, I couldn’t walk very well either - so I wrapped up my foot as best I could and hobbled down on my remaining threes to a nearby large tree growing up on the side of the mountain.”

No one said a word. Everyone’s attention was on him and he squirmed a bit under the intense scrutiny. “I spent the next couple of days beneath the tree trying to stay dry in the rains that followed. As I was able to, I tried to cannibalize some parts of the gyrocopter’s structure to get it back in operation and effect makeshift repairs to the rudder, but the upper rotor was damaged beyond my meager attempts to fix it.  In spite of my bum ankle, I managed to roll the gyrocopter down to the plains.  Miraculously, the landing gear had survived the rough landing, and since the motor and rear fan were both undamaged, I was able to use it to drive the craft along the ground on its wheels like an airboat across the grass plains.  I was unable to fly over anything in my path, so I had to take extra time to go around whatever might be in my way.”  He smiled and added, “For all intents, I left in an aircraft and returned almost all the way in a car.”  There were a few chuckles.

“What do you mean you returned almost all the way?” Arne asked.  Sissy stood behind the injured feline with both of her arms around his neck and shoulders.  Kristen smiled, privately remembering the orange cat's earlier laments of how she didn't like the male she was now clinging to; a life-debt could often change a person’s perspectives.

Carl nodded at the African lion’s question. “It took me a long time to get back here from where I’d gone down and I was losing daylight, so I was going a little faster than I probably should have. You know how tall the wheat-grass is out there on the plains,” he said. “I plowed right into a flock of flightless horned birds about the size of ostriches that were probably bedding down for the night. Before I could either slow down or go around 'em, I crashed hard into one.”

“What happened?” Kevin asked, prompting the wolf to continue.

“For a bird, it was solid, like hitting a tree with a car.  I think I broke both its legs, and it bleated and thrashed around all over the gyro while the others scattered. I managed to get out without getting brained and limped away into the growing darkness.  Since night was coming, I couldn’t travel much farther even with the copter on wheels, so I headed for a solitary tree I could see a short distance away. I suppose I could have run into that just as easily as the hornbird.”

He looked around and then shivered.  “I thought I might go back to the bird and kill it for fresh meat if it hadn't already died on its own, but then I heard something making a call I’ve not heard before.”  He stopped, massaged his throat for a moment and then mimicked what he’d heard.

“Hoon, hoon, hoon!”

“Hey, we heard that same call out on the prairie too,” Michael said.

“Gerard and I heard it too,” Aaron added.

Carl nodded. “I never saw what it was, but it turned out that there was another predator out there on the plains besides myself and as its call got closer, I knew it was going after the injured hornbird. I could hear the bird's bleats of terror and then this hoon-thing began sounding like a cross between a wildcat and a feral dog as it attacked, so I scrambled up the tree as quick as I could before it might come after me, another injured animal.”

He looked around with a bemused expression. “Despite a sprained ankle, fear helps a lot when you need to get up into a tree fast – even for a wolf!  I was still wearing my pack and used the short rope I’d had in it to tie myself into the crook of the tree as high as I could go so I wouldn’t fall out during the night. I'd also taken a pistol with me and held it ready, but thankfully I didn't have to use it.”

He coughed and rubbed a shoulder. “I don’t know how long it took me to fall asleep, but the smell of fresh blood in the air kept me awake for quite a while. I finally woke up later still in the tree, but our nights are so long that I decided I didn’t want to chance making my way back in the dark and just stayed up there.  I found my forgotten PBJ in the pack, but couldn’t get it to come on to send a message to anyone. I guess I’d either damaged it when I crashed into the mountain or when I smashed into the hornbird, but it was useless. I’d had plenty of sleep already, so I just sat up in the tree and listened to the night sounds.”

He looked around at the faces listening to his tale. “I’ve spent many nights since we got here, simply sitting up and listening to the night around our little valley, but out there on the plains, I heard things I’ve never heard before, and not all of them inviting. I never saw what made any of those noises, not even the hoon, but with an injured foot in unfamiliar territory I had no desire to investigate on my own.”  He looked around until he found Dr. Mochizuki.  “If my PBJ had been working, I could have recorded the sounds for you. I’m sorry.”

The red panda nodded. “That’s quite understandable,” he said in an uncharacteristic gentle tone. Chieko looked up at him in wonder.

“I didn’t leave the tree until the sun came up and then I went back to the copter to see if I could get it started; unfortunately, the bird strike had damaged the motor and it wouldn't start. I salvaged what I thought might be useful and then left the rest behind; maybe it could have been repaired, but not with anything I had with me.

“I found evidence of the kill nearby, but there was precious little left to identify. The killer either ate just about everything or carried off the remains. The bird must have weighed a few hundred pounds, so the predator must have been rather strong or there was more than one of them. There was a lot of blood all over the grass, so I left the area as quickly as I could before the scent attracted something else I didn’t want to face while injured.  Tiny little twin-tail lizards had already started converging to eat up the remaining morsels. I didn’t know we had such little scavengers, but it made sense they were around.

“Since I know that wolf calls can travel for miles, I thought about howling to let Ellie know I was close and on my way home, but since I was injured and wolf howls are unknown here, I really didn't want to lead one of the night predators to my location.”

“What about your flare gun?”

Carl's ears went back on his head. “That fell out of my pocket when I was banking around over a lake,” he confessed.

Manny looked over at Jon. “That leaves us with just one flare gun in the armory,” he muttered.  Carl frowned at that, but at a quiet gesture from the cougar, he continued. 

“Walking with three good feet and one bad one is easier than walking upright on one good foot and limping on the other. Although I had a sprained ankle, I was really glad that I could get down on all fours and travel that way. As a human, I would have been stuck.  It took me two hours to make it the rest of the way home, though I almost didn’t recognize the place when I got here.  The bridge across the river looks busted up and there are now… walls… across the path up here to the cave. What’s up with those?”

“We built them to slow down the pigs,” Hank offered in answer. “They kept rushing up at us and then would run away, doing that several times to keep our attention while the rest of them came at us from inside the cave!”

Carl blinked and looked back at Jon.  “Huh?” he asked in puzzlement.

“You want the details now or later?” the cougar replied.

Carl thought about it for a moment and then put his head down in his hands. “Later, I suppose,” he said in a weary tone. “Right now I would really like to rest up a bit in my own bed if you don’t mind.”

Jon stood up and put a hand on the wolf's shoulder. “Yeah, you look like you could use the rest.  Ellie, put him to bed and then I’ll come by to see him later. We can have an exchange of information when he’s ready.”

“Exchange?” Dara repeated.

“We can tell each other the long versions of our stories — I’ll tell him what happened since he’s been away,” Jon answered, “and he can tell me about the things he saw during his excursion.”

“I’d like to hear about what he found too,” Raine said hopefully.

Carl shook his weary head. “Sorry, I’m too tired right now. Later, please.”

The cheetah didn’t want to wait, but he could see the fatigue in the wolf’s golden eyes.  “Sure,” he said after a moment.

“Thank you.” 

*** 

The dome that Ellie shared with her husband was a little larger that most due to their dual occupancy, but she had made it into a cozy home that was personalized and comfortable.  Once she got Carl undressed and on his stomach upon their bed, she sat beside him and lovingly groomed his fur with her favorite brush.

He smiled back up at her, but she could see the ordeal he'd gone through had sapped his strength.  Aside of a few bumps and bruises from the crash and the sprained ankle, he was in relatively good health, but he was as tired as anyone would be and the grooming was relaxing.

Despite that she needed to let him rest a while, there was an internal struggle warring within her.  She was emotional and Carl had known her long enough to know that there was something on her mind.

“Okay,” he said in a gentle voice, rolling over to pull both of her hands to him. He set her brush aside and then covered her hands with his own. “Spill it,” he said.

Ellie raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” she asked unconvincingly.

Carl chuckled and gave her a lupine grin with narrowed eyes.  “You’re putting out a scent of anxiety, and you can never keep your tail still when you're agitated,” he said. “It's thumping up a storm behind you. You either have something you want to tell me, or there's something you want to keep from me.”

The female wolf laughed aloud and then leaned forward to give the side of his muzzle yet another affectionate lick.  “You know me so well,” she whispered.  “Yes, I have something I want to tell you, but was debating whether or not to let you rest first.”

“Tell me now,” Carl replied with a canine grin. “I suspect you'll explode if I make you wait any longer and I really don't want to clean up that mess.”

She smiled, and in response, took one of his hands to move it so that it rested upon her middle.  Her smile widened into a grin, but she didn't say a word. He was puzzled by the gesture for a moment, but then a look of understanding slowly spread across his face as if his wife had just sent him a telepathic message.

“Oh!” he responded with a silly grin.  “Really?”

“Really, silly, and there are two!”

Carl swallowed with difficulty.  When he could finally speak, it was just one word with emotion.

“Finally!”

“Yes!” Ellie exclaimed in glee. “Finally!”

The deeply delighted sentiment in her husband's eyes said it all and Ellie freely let the tears fall. She clung to him with her head upon his chest and cried her happiness.  Both in their mid-fifties, she and her mate were the eldest members of the colony, and although they'd been married for over two decades, they'd never been able to have any children as humans even with modern fertility treatments. It seemed that their furman transformations had given them more than just fur, fangs and a tail. 

*** 

Jon knocked on the fiberluminum frame of the wolf's den.  He looked back at Kristen with a smile and heard permission to enter the dwelling.  Both cougars pushed through the split blue and white noren curtain that covered the doorway.  Ellie stood up from the chair where she'd been resting and Carl was sitting up on the edge of the bed, his bandaged ankle hanging off the mattress.

“Jon, Kristen, please come in and have a seat,” the female wolf invited. She positioned two chairs facing the bed and then crawled up on the other side of her husband to make her herself comfortable.

“Thank you,” Jon said.

“How are you feeling?” Kristen asked Carl politely.

The wolf smiled and twitched his whiskers. “Much better now that I've had a few hours of rest,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Has… Ellie said anything of interest to you?” Jon asked in hesitation.

Carl laughed aloud and nodded. “She spilled the beans as soon as we got in here. I don't know if you knew, but we'd been unable to have children back home, but now look at us – we'll be the first ones with offspring on Bonestell!”

“Congratulations,” the cougars said in unison.

“Thank you,” returned the wolves, also in unison.

Jon smiled. “So, are you ready for us to play catch-up?”

“I am,” said the wolf. “If you don't mind, I'd like you to go first. Before I get into what I found on my journey, I'd like to know what happened here.”

The mountain lion nodded and began by asking, “Remember the difficulty you had transporting the thunderpig your group killed in the hunt back here?” Carl nodded. “Apparently the pigs are more than just mindless beasts and they took great exception to the murder of one of their siblings – at least that's the way they've acted.”  Jon then went on to describe in length everything that happened, with Kristen and Ellie filling in details here and there.

By the time they brought him up to the present, the greater part of an hour had passed and the wolf sat back against his wife shaking his head.  “Wow,” he said in a quiet tone.  “We had no idea what we were doing.”

Jon's tail was twitching behind him, evident of the feelings that had surfaced in the retelling of events.  “I have since directed that the thunderpigs are off-limits, in an understanding to prevent another such conflict.  This is a mistake we paid for with our own blood.”

The wolf nodded. “I can see how others want revenge, but I agree with your reasoning.  I think I would have interpreted the actions of the pig you followed out to the prairie in the same way you did, Jon.  As long as we leave them alone, I think they'll leave us alone in return.”

“Anytime we see them out on the plains,” Ellie added, “we should remain cautious and give them a wide berth.”

“This is an unpopular decision right now,” Kristen said, adjusting one of the straps of her overalls. “Some of them want to make the pigs extinct from this world for killing Avon, Wendy and Gerard.”

“I wouldn’t want to be a part of something that needless,” Carl muttered with a dark expression.

The four of them fell silent for several minutes as they all mused upon the events, but then Carl clapped his hands together once and looked up with a smile.

“My turn,” he said cheerily, trying to break the mood.  “I've told Ellie some of what I'm about to tell you, but not all of it.”

His wife thumped him on the side of the head with a finger. “You've been holding out on me?”

“I have indeed, Honeywoof, but if you'll behave and stop thumping my head, I may let you stay to hear what I tell our guests!”

“Honeywoof?” Kristen repeated with a grin.  She turned to Jon and asked in a deceptively sweet voice, “Now that we’re mated, why don't you call me pet names like that?”

Instead of answering the question, Jon gave Carl a look of long suffering. “See what you did?”

“Wait…” the wolf muttered. “You’re mated? Are you two… have you… uh, y’know?”

Kristen grinned and leaned forward.  “Yes, we are and yes, we have,” she said with a giggle.

“Well then,” Carl said with a sly look at the male lion, “maybe we’ll have kittens to befriend our puppies soon…”

“Don’t be too hasty,” Jon said with a difficult swallow. “We’re in no hurry.”

“Sez you!” Kristen teased.

Ellie had already known about the cougars, of course, so she wrapped her arms around her mate's shoulders and nuzzled his cheek, her eyes on Jon.  “I like the little pet names we use for one another,” she said in a sing-song voice, “but you should hear what we use when we disagree…”

“Okay, I'm getting mixed signals here,” Carl said impishly.  “You nuzzle me affectionately, but then you tell outsiders that it’s not all bliss and we don't always agree.  I don’t think you want to hear my tales.”  He pushed her away from him in mock indifference.  “Go outside and chase some lil-deer or something.”

The female wolf wrapped her arms around him again and held him tighter.  “Nope,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I'm a-stayin' now!” 

Kristen laughed at the wolves' playful banter, but Jon just sighed inwardly.  “May I hear your story?” he said in exaggerated seriousness.

Carl winked at Kristen and then composed himself as if he were about to speak in front of a large audience.

“Once upon a time…” he began.  Jon finally laughed and shook his head.  After the events of the past few days, he knew he should simply enjoy the friendly banter with the wolves.  They weren't normally this playful, but he suspected it had something to do with Ellie's pregnancy.

“Okay,” Carl said at last in more conversational tones, “most of what I found are just curiosities and remember that what I saw was from the air.  I did land a time or two for a closer look at some things and to get samples, but most of the time it was just from a distance.  I took a lot of notes and a bunch of pictures of what I saw.”

“So what did you see?” Kristen asked in barely suppressed curiosity.

“Do you know what a fairy ring is?” the wolf asked.

“Isn't that a cluster of mushrooms or something that grow in a circle?” Kristen asked.

Ellie nodded. “Legend has it that if you come across a clump of mushrooms growing in a large ring to beware because it's where fairies dance and do magic rituals.  I think that's a European medieval legend, but 'shrooms growing in a circle is actually rather common.”

“All correct,” Carl said. “From the air, I could see a number of circular rings that reminded me of fairy rings, so I landed to get a few of the local mushrooms as a sample to bring back.  What I found, however, wasn't a plant of any kind.”

He picked up a camera from the nightstand beside him and queued up a picture on its large preview screen. He handed this to Kristen, who held it in her lap so Jon could see.  There was a large circle of bleached pale objects, each looking very much like a white blob of crystal with four three-jointed legs resembling bamboo protruding from its underside.

Jon looked startled and exchanged looks with the lioness beside him.  “You were already gone on your flight by the time we got back from our overnight trip to the salt flats,” he said to Carl, “but these look very similar to what we found out there.”

“We called them salt-torts,” Kristen explained, “since they reminded us of the torts that Sissy named when we first got here, but ours were obsidian-black and they were unmoving during the daylight.  They covered themselves in a layer of salt and wouldn't even twitch until night had fallen.”

“Yours are white and look like they were crawling when you took this picture,” Jon added.

“There were about thirty of them spaced around a circle about ten feet across, all walking together in that ring formation through the grass,” Carl remarked. “Every time I saw them, they were heading due south by my cheap plastic compass, so I'm guessing it was a winter migration, though I don't understand why they were moving as a ring.”

“What did you call them?” Kristen asked.

The wolf shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing fancy,” he said.  “I think in my notes I simply called them walking fairy rings, but that was only because of what they looked like. I'm not too particular on what they finally get named on the official books.”

“What else did you see?” Jon prompted.

“Let's see… I saw rolling beetles—”

“What, like a dung beetle?”

“No, they were literally rolling, head over tail, end over end like a wheel. I don't know how they kept from getting dizzy, but those I saw up on the side of the mountain among the rocks.  I also saw a meteor crater far to the west half filled with water; I'd say it was recent, probably made within the past few decades.”

“I hope that's not a common lake-making occurrence,” Ellie stated with a frown.

“Speaking of lakes, did Avon tell you about anything I'd reported to him over the radio?”

Jon shook his head. “No, not really. He told me you'd seen a bunch of other animals that we don't have here in our little valley that we might check out as possible food sources, but that was about it.”

“I found another lake to the north that was nestled up against the mountains, a big one many miles long and across. That's where I lost my flare gun. Flying over the water just to see what I could see, I noticed a huge shape swimming beneath the lake that reminded me of the old fuzzy pictures and drawings of the Loch Ness Monster, only this plesiosaur had two long limbs stretched out in front of it that could have been arms or two heads on thick necks.”

“Bonestell has a lake monster!” Kristen quipped with a smile.

Carl laughed.  “That's almost the same thing that Avon said and he cautioned me to stay away from it or it might jump out at me like a bass going after a mosquito. I never did see the thing surface, but its size and shape were enough to keep me from taking a closer look.”

“That was probably wise,” Jon replied.

“As Avon told you,” the wolf continued, “I saw other animals. Most were ruminant mammals, all somewhat deer, caribou or moose-like, and then there was that flock of horned birds I ran into.”

“Were they horned like the kirin deer that's here in the valley?” Kristen asked.

“I haven't seen the kirin deer to know your reference,” Carl replied, “but these birds were about the size of an ostrich, had back-folding knees and a head on a long flexible neck like an ostrich, but each of these birds had a sharp boney ridge that started from the base of its skull and came up over the top of its head, kinda like a dorsal fin.  I assume it's for defense or mating challenges.  I only got to see the one I plowed into briefly, but I'd already seen others out on the plains earlier from the air. Besides those, there was something else I found out on the prairie that I could have easily run into besides the birds, thunderpigs or anything else out there.”

“What was that?” Kristen prompted.

“Transparent trees.  They grew together in clumps, and from a distance they were hard to see.”

Transparent trees…” Kristen repeated with great interest. “Did they glow in the dark like Rose’s phosphorescent shrubs?”

“Not that I know of. They were just… transparent.”

“I hope you brought back a sample or something for me to look at.”

Carl smiled, picking up his pack from the floor beside the bed.  “As a matter of fact, I did. I knew our resident botanist would want to see something like this.”  He pulled out a long container and untwisted its cap. He reached into the canister and then pulled his hand out, but Kristen couldn’t see anything in his grasp.  He held out his hand to her and she looked at it curiously.

“There’s nothing there,” she said with a frown. “Are you making it up?”

“It’s transparent, remember?  Here, take it.”

The lioness reached out to his hand, but his palm was the only thing she felt. Her brow furrowed when she looked back at him.

The wolf laughed and peered back at her with a toothy lupine grin.  “Gotcha!” he said merrily, grasping her hand with his fingers.

Instead of smiling back, Kristen stuck out her bottom lip. “You had me going,” she said with a pout, retrieving her hand. “I really thought you had found a transparent tree…”

Ellie thumped her mate again.  “Carl, don't tease her like that!”

“Okay, okay,” said the wolf, smarting from the latest thump in the same place.  “Kristen, turn around.”

The lioness crossed her arms, refusing to turn only to be at the butt of another joke, so Jon looked for her.  Standing in a short pot near the door, was something like clear plastic.  The look of surprise on his face out of the corner of her eye made Kristen begin to wonder.  Since she still didn't turn around, Jon got up out of his seat, retrieved the pot from the other side of the room and then set it on top of the round table behind the botanist's chair. If she wanted to see it, she would have to turn around.

“Take a look at this,” Jon said.

Kristen turned only halfway, still sure she was being a fool, but then the overhead lamp reflected off something in a pot on the table.  She turned finally and stared dumbfounded at a small clear sapling only a foot tall.  It looked like a glass or plastic recreation of a tiny tree with long, slender leaves, all of which was transparent.

She stuck her nose up next to it, and by examining it closely, she could actually see some internal details within the trunk and limbs through its bark.  “This is amazing!” she gasped.  “I'm sorry I doubted you.”

Carl laughed again. “I only brought a small one since it could fit in my pack and it's extremely lightweight, but the mature trees like this grew only about six or seven feet tall.”

Kristen looked back at her mate and grinned foolishly. “I have to go back out there to see them!” she said.

“All in good time,” Jon replied with a nod.

Carl lapped up some water from a nearby cup and then appeared lost in thought for a moment as if trying to think of other curiosities he'd seen.  “There is one thing I found that's a bit of a mystery,” he said after a moment.  “After I'd crashed on the side of the mountain, but before the rains began, I saw a curious glow on the eastern horizon after the sun went down.  It wasn't bright and didn't reflect much on the overhead clouds, but it was noticeable enough that at first I thought it was the glow of city lights.”

“City lights!” Jon gasped.  “Are you sure?  This place is supposed to be uninhabited according to two years of orbital satellite observations.”

“No, I'm not sure, Jon.  I'm just telling you that was the first thing I thought of when I saw it.  Later when I was down on the prairie on my way back, I couldn't see it, so it was either something I could only see from a higher elevation or it wasn't glowing anymore.  I don't know what it was, but it got my attention.”

“Hmm, we may have to send someone to check it out at some time in the future,” the mountain lion mused aloud.  “Headquarters would want to know and I know that I'm certainly curious.”

“Unfortunately, we won't be able to fly out there to investigate unless we can go back for the gyro where I left it and find a way to repair the damage.” Carl looked at Ellie and said, “I'm all for going back for it.  Just having it for a few days helped make a major discovery and I'd like to have it back to make more.”

“Those are some good discoveries,” Kristen said, still examining her little tree, “I don't mean to offend, but I wouldn't call any of them major, and that's including this wonderful thing.”

The wolf smiled.  “No, I wouldn't call any of those major either, but I haven't told you everything yet.”

“I think this is where I was left out,” Ellie said with another thump to the side of her mate's head.  Carl poked her in the ribs and she danced out away from his fingers.  He gave her a look of irritation with narrowed eyes and then took another sip of water.

“Now,” Carl said in lowered tones as if he was afraid someone might overhear, “remember when I told everyone that I had crashed on the side of a mountain?  I don't think anyone noticed that I didn't say why I crashed.  If someone had asked, the conversation would have taken a dramatic turn.”

“Okay, now we're getting somewhere interesting,” Jon said.  “Spill it, wolfman!”

“While I was flying up the slope of one of the largest mountains I've seen in this range, I ran into wind shears that forced me to a lower elevation. On my way down I spotted a deep, deep canyon as if the mountain itself had been cleaved nearly in two at that place.  The canyon was so abysmal and its sides were so sheer that it was in perpetual gloom, but right at the edge of it were deep grooves gouged into the rock – grooves that looked as if they might also have been tremendously scorched at some time in the past.  I'm no geologist, but I've done enough mountain climbing, cave exploring and hiking across places like the Grand Canyon that they looked immediately out of place.  The gouges were weather-worn, but the scorch marks were still there.”

“What caused them?” Kristen asked, her attention back upon the storytelling wolf.

“I landed to investigate that very thing,” Carl explained, “and you'll be surprised at what I found.”  Looking at both cougars, he asked cryptically, “Do you remember why our colony is called Second Chance?”

Jon frowned at the apparent non-sequitur. “Avon suggested it because this is the second attempt at colonization on Bonestell.”

“That's right,” Carl said with a nod. He went back to his pack and Ellie watched curiously over his shoulder.  He pulled out something thin and flat with a bit of a curve. It was about ten inches long and six inches wide.  The wolf passed it to Jon, who took it with a strange feeling of excitement.

“Here's a look at what was to be the First Chance,” the wolf said.  Across one side of the weathered piece of metal in the mountain lion's hand paws were written words engraved into its surface.

“Oh my goodness!” Kristen gasped.

“You found it!” Jon whispered, unable to take his eyes off the words, ‘SS Ferdinand Magellan’.

Carl nodded. “I pried that hatch nameplate off the side of the missing colony ship. The wreckage is wedged tight into that canyon spanning its width.  Each end of the ship is resting upon the mountain, but there's a bottomless crevasse directly beneath its middle and a large overhang of rock above it.”

“But… what happened to it?” Kristen asked. “Why is it there?”

“I found no clues why it was miles off course to the north of this place,” Carl said, “but something drove it down into the mountain. Both of its wings were sheared off, it’s lying over mostly on its starboard side and the front quarter of the vessel was smashed in. I'm sure the bridge crew was probably pulverized upon impact. The large cargo hatches of the ship were suspended above the open maw below it, but I managed to find an open service airlock aft near the engines.  I crawled inside and looked around with my flashlight torch, but it looks as if a fire had spread all through the insides, probably due to the pressurized, oxygen-rich shipboard atmosphere igniting. I found very little of anything remotely salvageable, so I pried off the nameplate to bring back as proof.”

“What about… the passengers?” Ellie asked in hushed voice.

Carl shook his head.  “I found no bodies,” he said, “not even burned bones. It's been ten years since the crash, so I'm sure local scavengers like the little twin-tail lizards must have disposed of any remains.”

“What about the cargo,” Jon asked, “or the cryogenic capsules for the stockyard animals they were bringing with them?  We didn't revive ours until we'd landed.”

Carl frowned.  “The cargo bay doors were all split open above the crevasse, so I'm sure anything not tied down fell into its depths, and the crash impact probably broke any tie-down straps in the cargo bay.  I didn't find the cryo-chamber, but from how intense the fire was that spread through the ship, anything in them probably cooked in their sleep.”  He frowned at Jon.  “Some of the internal bulkheads looked warped, though not from the crash. I suspect a fire ignited upon impact burned hot enough to soften the metal, but something must have extinguished it or the whole ship would have burned up and fallen apart into the canyon.”

“Fire suppression system must have kicked in,” Jon supposed aloud, “but not before it could do much good. I'm sure the ship's systems were all out of whack from the crash.”

“That's possible.” Carl was thoughtful for a moment, but then looked back down into his pack.  “Here, Jon.  I brought something back for Avon, but you can have it now.”

It was a badly scorched coffee cup, but the cougar could still see the Magellan's name and ship's logo engraved into its sides.  He turned it over, looking it over inside and out, and despite what it had probably gone through, it was in better condition than he would have thought.

“Thanks, with some spit and polish, I can probably use this for my drink cup,” Jon said with some amusement. “After the crash and fire, how did this survive?”

“I actually found it outside on the ground near the wreckage.  I guess it tumbled out from one of the many splits in the sides of the ship. There was little else inside that I could find in the time I was there.  I spent two hours going through what I could of the ship, but I knew something of this importance was too big to keep to myself, so I decided to head back with the news and forget further exploring for the day.”

“Wait,” Jon said with a raised eyebrow, “you said you landed when you found the Magellan. I thought you crashed there.”

The wolf shook his head. “No, you're getting ahead of my story.”

“Then why didn't you call back with the news?  I know you were making periodic reports back to Avon on your radio.”

“I lost it,” Carl confessed, “but it wasn't my fault like the flare gun. Before I found the aft airlock, I was on top of the ship trying to get to another open hatch I'd seen, but the surface was slick with the growth of some kind of lichen and I slipped. I caught myself by clinging to a pitot tube sticking out from the hull, but the radio I was carrying fell out of my belt holster into the depths of the canyon.  I crawled my way back aft and that's when I discovered the open airlock I'd missed seeing before.”

“You're going to have to put everything you carry on lanyards so you won't lose anything else on your next outing,” Jon said with a smirk.

“That's not a bad idea,” Ellie remarked, but Carl just grunted.

“Okay, go on,” Jon prompted.

“When I'd decided it was time to leave,” Carl continued, “I tried to take off, but when I was only a few yards up, an immense bird swooped up out of the depths of the canyon and broadsided my gyrocopter.”

“A bird?” Kristen said with a tilt to her head.

“The rotor blades injured it somewhat,” the wolf said with a nod, “but it flew off and didn't return right away.  My copter was damaged from the collision and I lost altitude quickly, crashing onto the mountainside farther below.”

“Did you see what this bird looked like?” Jon asked, leaning forward with the nameplate still in his hands.

Carl gestured toward the camera that Kristen had set on the table behind her when she examined her little transparent tree. “There's a picture of it on the memory card,” he said.  “The best I can describe is that it looked like a black flying wing.”

Jon blinked, remembering the large bird that had been seen flying high up in the atmosphere only a few days ago.  Kristen picked up the camera and thumbed on its preview screen again while Jon looked on.  Ellie left the bed to get close enough to see the photos too.  The lioness flipped past a number of aerial pictures of landscapes and animals, interior and exterior shots of the Magellan, and then she came to a couple shots of the giant bird.  From the photos, it looked as if the avian had no tail feathers and virtually no neck so that its head blended in with its body. It almost looked headless, being all wing, and that wingspan looked like it could have been over thirty-feet. Adding to its strange appearance were stereoscopic eyes that were huge compared to the size of its head, almost looking like large round windows.

“It first flew by and hit me so fast that I didn't get a good look at it; I had to fight the controls to keep from going down into the canyon, but I later saw the bird back swooping in and out of the crevasse. I'm guessing its nest might be down in there.”

Jon studied the weathered nameplate. “You've discovered the missing colony ship, clearing up at least one mystery.”  He sat back in his chair.  “This will make for an interesting report back to Earth.  Is there anything more you saw to add to the account?”

Carl shook his head. “No, that's pretty much all of it. Limping back home the rest of the way was uneventful.  You're welcome to my notebook and the camera's memory if you want to include any of it in your report.  You may find a few notes for things like insects and plants I saw, but I'm sure it will all be forgotten once they read about the Magellan.”

Jon stood up and stretched.  “Well, Carl, I think you deserve to take all the rest you need for your ankle to heal.  I'm sure you'll be a popular wolfman with the rest of the colony once news gets around on your major find.  Be prepared to tell your story over and over,” he added with a smile.

“Oh, I've been expecting it ever since I started on my way back,” Carl told him.  “You'd better go make your report while everything I've told you is fresh in your mind.”

“Good idea. Kris and I will leave you two alone now.  Good job with all this, Carl.  Welcome back.” 

*** 

The communications unit that Jon and Avon used to upload messages to the overhead satellite for tachyon-burst relay to Earth had the ability to send all types of messages.  Avon had usually typed up his reports and sent simple text messages, but for this special report, Jon wanted to send a video dispatch.  For this, however, he would need a relatively quiet and private spot in which to record it before attaching copies of Carl's notes and digital photographs and he knew the perfect place.

He reached his favorite perch up on the side of Avonaco Mountain after a good walk up the trail. Since he carried the com unit, he wasn't able to go up on four feet, but the well-worn path from the mouth of the cavern up to the horizontal flat slab of rock was still easily hiked.  He could hear muted conversations below, but they were faint enough that he doubted the simple recorder microphone would pick up on them.

He set up the unit with its three-dimensional lenses facing him and then thought about what he was going to say.  He had the nameplate with him and he intended to start the report holding it up in front of him.

Jon tapped the remote control and began recording.  Before he'd even provided the typical identification and call sign for their Bonestellan location, he smiled and said, “Guess what we found?” 

*** 

Two minutes after hitting the Submit control to send his video message to Earth, the unit emitted a ping to indicate confirmation that the overhead geosynchronous satellite had relayed the signal, which was immediately followed by a different chirp.

Jon raised an eyebrow. He'd not even had time to shut off the com unit before an incoming message was relayed down to him.  He sat down on the perch, letting his feet dangle toward the valley below and opened the new missive.

It was a response to his first message, acknowledging his report with condolences to the loss of life in the conflict with promises to contact the families of those who'd died on Bonestell. Also included was an official promotion to captain of the colony that included several “Eyes Only” files meant only for said captain.

He decided he would look over the secure files at another time. He could have read them here on his perch in privacy, but he wasn't in the mood.  Later, he thought to himself. 

*** 

A response to his report on the Magellan came two days later.  With the weather warming back up a little and the skies only partly cloudy, he took the com unit back up to his perch to view it.

The news had generated a great deal of excitement on Earth, and some of the photos and videos that Carl had provided were being circulated in news reports all across the world. The mystery had deepened, since the cause of the crash could only be speculated upon, but the big wheels within the Anthro Human Colonization Program and the Terran Colonization Coalition were eager to have more information, video and photographs.

Stockholm's first knee-jerk reaction was to send a ship out for a full investigation and salvage of the wreckage, but the cost would be too high for such a major endeavor. Funds were already tied up preparing another colony ship to go out in a different direction, so the message Jon read contained a heartfelt request for the Second Chance colonists to conduct a full-scale investigation of their own. They were to do everything possible to retrieve the Ferdinand Magellan's nigh-indestructible black box so its contents could be transmitted back to Earth. A full set of schematics of the vessel were attached to the dispatch to use as a map so they'd know where to look for it.

Jon closed out the message that ended with congratulations and other pleasantries.  He set the unit aside and then rolled over onto his back on the slab of sun-warmed rock.  He stared up into the floating clouds without actually seeing anything specific, visualizing the enormous undertaking they had been requested to perform.

As he mused over these thoughts, the dried leaf of a deciduous tree floated on the gentle wind in front of him. He reached out, snared it with a hand paw and then held it up in front of his eyes.  It was a subtle reminder that winter was still coming, and although yet a couple months away, he felt they still had a lot of preparations to make before they might be socked in their cavern for weeks or even months at a time by the weather. They still had no real idea how subtle or harsh Bonestell's species of Old Man Winter might be in this place and they needed to be prepared for anything the local Mother Nature might throw at them.

He glanced back at the com unit and made a quick decision.  He set up its touch keyboard to tap out a brief text message in reply and then quickly composed his response. He was sure they wouldn't like what he had to say back home, but some things were more important. 

Congratulations and adulations at our discovery appreciated, but the request for a more thorough investigation of the “First Chance” site will have to wait until spring. Preparations for the unknown conditions of our upcoming winter must take priority, but you can be assured the Ferdinand Magellan will not be forgotten.  — Jonathan Sunset, Captain of the Second Chance colony on Bonestell. 

*** 

One of the duties of the colony captain was to box up the personal belongings of any Fur who might have lost his or her life in the service of their new home.  Jon had already done the distasteful task in Gerard and Wendy's domes, the latter of which still contained the mixed scents of fear, blood and death.  Anything of sentimental value that could be stored for some possible day in the future when they might be returned to their families on Earth were sealed in containers sent along specifically for that purpose. Anything that could be reused within the colony would be returned to supply and rest was to be burned. Sadly, there had been little to save from Wendy's demolished home.

He had purposely left Avon's quarters for the last, and for this he had humbly asked Kristen to help him.  He had never wanted the grizzly bear's position and had never wished him ill. On the contrary, Jon had liked Avon and had considered him a friend, so it didn't feel right to be going through his belongings.

It had taken two hours to sort everything and get things ready for their eventual storage in either the sealed containers or the supply dome and now they were simply cleaning out the constructed building.  They were in no short supply of the geodesic dome segments, and there was no one else who might need to move into the bear's former home, so Jon supposed they would probably just dismantle it at some point and save back the parts for another dome sometime in the future when it might be needed for someone.  The domes that had been damaged in the attack had all been repaired, excepting for Wendy's place. That too would be disassembled, but some of the panels would have to be set aside as too damaged to be usable.

Jon looked across the empty space inside the dome and began sweeping out the dust and fur that had accumulated on the floor near the curved walls of the structure.  He was silent as he worked, but after several moments, Kristen spoke to him from the doorway.

“What now?” she asked quietly.

He looked up. “I guess we put away our cleaning supplies, take the containers to storage, and then go find something to eat.  I'm hungry.”

“I'm hungry too,” said the lioness, “but I was talking about your role as captain.  Have you chosen your Second yet?  You'll need to appoint someone and inform headquarters.”

The male lion looked back at her and shrugged. “I haven't really given it any thought,” he confessed.  “Do you want the position?”

Kristen chuckled, knowing full well from the twinkle in his eyes that he'd only said it in jest, but she shook her head.  “Nope, that's not a responsibility I've ever desired. You'll have to pick someone else, Honeycat.”

Jon smiled.  “Honeycat, is it?”

“Honeywoof was already taken.”

“Hmm, well, choose something else, please. I wouldn't want you to get me and Carl mixed up, y'know?”

Kristen walked up to him and wrapped her arms around his middle, laying her head up against his chest. She listened to his heartbeat with her eyes closed for a moment while he gently stroked her head hair with his claw tips.

“What about Norman or Hank?” she murmured.

“No, I don't want you to call me Norman or Hank as pet names either.”

Kristen looked up at him with a lopsided smirk. “Stinker,” she said. “I meant them for your Second!”

Jon smiled at her for a moment, but then he shrugged. “Honestly, I don't think either of them are leadership material. As morbid as it sounds, if something happened to me, whomever is my second would have to step in and lead everyone – someone who would have the best interests of the colony in mind, not their own.”

“I suppose that lets out Dr. Mochizuki?”

“I'm afraid so. I have nothing against him, but I've heard some of the things he's said when he didn't know I was within earshot. I do think he's good at what he does so I would like to keep his focus on that alone.”

“Who would you suggest?”

Jon thought about it for a moment.  “Ken, Carl or Arne,” he replied at last. “Possibly Jasmine.”

“Jasmine?  Isn't she awfully young to be a leader?”

“I don't think age has anything to do with it.  After what she's gone through in recent years, she's had to do a lot of growing up.”

“Perhaps, but I don't know if she'd be right for the job.  Why'd you pick Arne?”

“Have you seen how good he is with the animals?” Jon asked. “They trust him – far more than they trust me, and he and I get along okay now.”

“It was the horses that didn't like you and they're all gone.  I don't think the other animals care one way or another about you, except at feeding time.”

“Yeah, thanks… I think.”

“You and Arne may get along better now than you did back on Earth, but there are some that I don't think would follow him even if he was appointed by committee.”

Jon frowned. His short list was getting shorter by the second.  “Do you have a problem with Ken or Carl?” he asked.

“None at all.  They're both well liked and both are responsible.”

“And they're both wolves.  Is there anyone else you would recommend?  Equal time for the ladies?  Ellie, perhaps?”

Kristen thought about it for a moment but shook her head. “No, not really.  Ellie might if you asked her, and she is self-sufficient, but sometimes I think she looks to Carl for direction too much.”

“Okay,” Jon said at last.  “I think I'll offer the position to Ken.  As a doctor, he's used to responsibilities.”

“I think he's a good choice.”

“First, however, I need lunch.  Want to join me?” 

*** 

Ken shook his head. “Sorry, Jon, but I must decline,” the red wolf said. “It's true that I'm used to having responsibilities, but I already have my paws full trying to keep everyone healthy in an alien environment.  Everything from overgrown hogs down to tiny spiders is trying to kill us and my days are already full examining and testing everything around us to make sure what we eat, smell and touch is safe enough.” 

He shrugged and sat down on a roller stool with his hands in the pockets of his medical smock. “Did you know that we were all heading toward getting scurvy?”

Jon's eyebrows went up. “Scurvy?”

“I didn't realize that none of us were getting enough vitamin C until I did a blood test on Ellie after Jenni informed me she was pregnant. Do you remember when you started getting a small tablet with every meal?”

“Yeah, I figured it was just a vitamin supplement. Neither Kim nor Yuki ever explained what it was, only that Avon said that everyone needed it.”

Ken nodded. “We have plenty of vitamin C tablets, but we'll eventually need to find a natural source if we can. We've discovered foods that are nutritious for us, but most of them have been low on ascorbic acid. There's almost none in the fish and birds we've eaten, but I hesitate to tell you where the greatest source I've found is.”

“The pigs?”

“The pigs. However, some of the other deer-like animals we've tried have a decent amount in their metabolisms too, so as long as we can keep a steady diet, we should be okay.  I may need you to exercise your authority and inform everyone that I need to give them all a physical to make sure no one else is lacking in anything. Eating local meat and vegetables, I should have been checking everyone periodically anyway.”

Jon nodded. “Good idea. Speaking of colony authority…”

The red wolf looked apologetic. “I appreciate that you consider me to be leadership material, but as you can see, I think I'm needed more right where I am.”

The cougar nodded. “Yes, of course, you're right, Ken.  Thanks anyway.”

“You're welcome, Jon.” 

*** 

“Hi, Jon, what can I do for you?”

The mountain lion sat down next to the grey wolf at a table in the Great Dome.  Carl had just finished a meal of fish and local vegetables and was now just relaxing with a cup of coffee.  Ellie was nowhere to be seen and there was no one else in the dome at the moment.

“Hi, Carl.  I was hoping you could help me out with something; it would help the whole colony, actually.”

The wolf stared back at him, his amber eyes steady on the cougar.  “Sure, what do we need?”

“It's been several days since we lost Avon and I've already been officially appointed by Stockholm as the new captain.  What I need now is a first officer, a Second in Command.”

“Yes, I'm sure that's necessary.  You want me to help you pick someone?”

“No, I already have someone picked,” Jon said with a smile. “I just need you to accept the position.”

Carl blinked.  “You want me?  Out of everyone here, why me?  Is it because I made the discovery of the year?”

Jon shook his head.  “It has nothing to do with finding the Magellan,” he said.  “I need someone who's responsible and is experienced enough to handle things if I'm not around.  You're the most qualified of everyone here.”

“More than Dr. Mochizuki or Dr. Wilder?”

“More so than either them. They both have their paws full with other important responsibilities.”

Carl looked interested. “Anyone else?”

Jon smiled, remembering something Avon used on him months ago.  “You really don't want the job, do you?”

Carl looked amused.  “It's not that – I was just surprised.  Sure, if I'm the wolfman you want, you've got me for as long as you need me.”

The feline looked relieved.  “Thanks, Carl. I'll announce it tonight when we're all gathered for second supper.  I'll get with you later and go over your duties, but you don't need to be concerned. I'll be taking care of things most of the time, only occasionally delegating things for you to do for me.”

“Do you have something you need to do right now?”

“No, not really,” Jon confessed.

“How about now?  With my sprained ankle, I have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so you'd have a captive audience.”

Jon grinned. “Okay, we can do it now, but let's go back to my quarters. I have some contingency plans you'll need to know about if anything should happen to me, but I don't want to discuss those out in the open.”

Carl started to gather up his tray and dishes, but Jon grabbed them. “You go on ahead, Carl. I'll put these away and then will right behind you.”

“As you wish, boss.  See you there.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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