— by Ted R. Blasingame
Dara Turner walked quietly through the huge, main passage of the cavern, just as she had many times in recent months. The light from her helmet lamp illuminated her way, but her movements down on all fours cast shifting shadows all around her. At times she thought she saw something menacing in a side alcove only for it to be the silhouette of stone outcrops, but this was becoming so common during her solo sojourns into the mountain that she rarely jumped at them anymore.
The main passage had not yet taken her all the way through the mountain, though its huge dimensions as it meandered always seemed to remain about the same. She'd fully expected to find another large cave opening on the other side of the mountain range, but as yet the passage seemed to be endless for her slow gait. It could take years to fully explore all the corridors of the cavern system.
There were numerous side passages that she had explored one by one, marking the entrance to each with a bit of bright yellow surveyor's ribbon. Sometimes she went as far as she could along one of them only to find a sudden dead end; there were others that went just so far before taking an abrupt upturn where it became too narrow for her ursine bulk to go, or at a pit that dropped to depths unfathomable. Although she was courageous enough to probe the darkness of the mountain on her own, she was not so foolhardy as to attempt exploration of such risky places by herself.
In the wavering shadows of her lamp, she spotted another side tunnel that wasn't marked. She'd been by this way a number of times before, but didn't recall having seen that one before. That was the trouble with shifting shadows – an actual opening in the wall could easily be mistaken for just another shadow.
Turning with curiosity, she headed for the passage to see if there was anything worth seeing. More often than not, the stone avenues held no interest for anyone but a geologist such as herself since a dry cavern such as this rarely had any distinctive formations. Despite this, she was always hopeful something else might turn up in addition to rock strata that relayed the histories of the mountain itself.
Kevin settled down on a large boulder high up on the side of the mountain. He sniffed the air with his eyes closed, sifted the scents and matched them up with his memories. After six months on Bonestell, the fennec fox could identify only half of what he smelled on the wind, but most were so familiar to him as to be comforting, even if he didn't necessarily know what some of them were associated with.
The breezes were picking up as the sun begun to sink below the western horizon, but the large ears of the fennec fox caught more than just sounds and the wind. A butterfly-like insect of black and white patterns slapped into his left ear and Kevin opened one eye to look up at it in amusement. He plucked it out and then let it go to continue on its way over the mountain with the winds. The errant bug fluttered up and around in the air currents for a moment, but then it was eaten right out of the air by a bird at point on another flock of migratory avians heading south.
Kevin watched as the previously unknown flock of bird species swooped over his head around the last peak of the mountain range and dipped down toward small lake of the Second Chance valley to settle in for the night. The water seemed to be a regular stop for migrating creatures and the myriad of birds that had flown in over the past few days had become a nuisance to the Furs that lived there – to all but Dr. Mochizuki, that is. The biologist was taking photos and all the feather samples he could get his hand paws onto; some of the avian visitors took exception to his proximity, flogging his ears if he got too close, but the red panda was persistent.
The late-season flowers that had bloomed in the forest had also become a source of territorial squabbling amongst the birds as they all fought over the nectar. The din was often deafening and it was an irritation so loud that several of the Furs threatened to set off firecrackers or other homemade noisemakers to frighten them away. Kevin was amazed that none of them had followed through with such threats, but as yet no one had done so.
Still, the overall noise pollution made it difficult to hear anything in the vicinity of the cavern, and it didn't seem to make a difference if the sun was up or not. Some species of the migrating birds were diurnal while others were nocturnal. The Furs could only hope that the recent cooler temperatures would shrivel up the flower blooms soon so the birds would leave them in peace.
The kirin deer had departed the small valley a month and a half earlier after staying only days, apparently rested from their travels and ready to continue on to whatever lands to the south where they might spend their winter.
The missing horses had been seen far out on the prairie by hunting parties, but there had been no chance of catching them. They appeared to be healthy and enjoying their freedom, likely becoming this world's new beginning herd of Arabian Mustangs, but first they would have to survive their first winter just as the Furs would.
The tan fennec fox heaved a sigh and looked down upon the dusk-lit valley. He had climbed up to check on his weather instruments, though after he had recorded their readings into a pocket paper notebook, he had decided to climb higher just to see what he could see.
The peak of Avonaco Mountain was the shortest at the end of the mountain range and although it was not tall enough for a perpetual, year-round snow cap like the others to the north, the recent cold front had left its crown dusted with a fine powder. Watching the weather was not Kevin's only responsibility, but it was certainly his most important one and his skills at forecasting were slowly improving with experience. If he read the conditions right this time, they could have their first frost down on the valley floor within a week.
Kevin tucked his notebook into a pocket and hopped down off the boulder, startling a squarie dabbit out from beneath its edge. The small creature had a few native shell nuts tucked into its cheeks as it scurried away. There were many animals in the areas that were storing up food for the coming season and the Furs were no exception.
In the two months since Jon Sunset had assumed command of the colony, preparations for the unknown conditions of the winter season had continued daily and it seemed they might actually be prepared to face whatever nature threw at them.
Every dome they had originally built had been emptied, moved further back into the cavern and then reoccupied. Modular pens for the animals had then been constructed inside the cave where the domes had once stood. The animals did not yet occupy the new paddocks, but in the event of inclement weather, they could be moved inside the protection of the cave where the temperature remained constant year-round and they would be out of the elements. They would still get the benefit of fresh air by the entrance, but this also meant that the smell of the animals would be drawn into the cavern system for all to enjoy.
Cleaning up after the livestock would be a chore for everyone that would have to be maintained throughout the winter, but it would be a necessity to the survival of the animals as well as themselves. The problem still to be worked out is where the waste would be stored through the winter months. No one wanted it inside the cavern, so it would likely have to be taken out by wheelbarrow and deposited near the garden plots for use the following spring.
One key project had taken the majority of the colonists over a month to perform. The small river that flowed from the lake had been dug out deeper and the dirt and rock taken from it had been used to build up the southern perimeter of the lake by nearly six feet. They'd had relatively dry weather in which to work, but Carl had assured them all that their work would save the gardens and the rest of the valley from flooding as it had in the past. Excess water would be held back by the new, higher shoreline and channeled down the deeper riverbed through woods and out across the plains along its original natural course.
A new bridge of stone and clay had also been built across the river from the valley to the cavern pathway, and the rock walls erected as protection against the thunderpigs had been strengthened as well. The alpha moon had moved through all its phases twice since the Battle of Second Chance and there had been no further incidents with the giant porcine natives. Some of the Furs had grumbled against their new captain on his stance forbidding retaliation against the pigs, but the various projects around the colony had kept everyone too busy to do much more than grouse at first. In time, even those individuals forgot to complain.
As a result of all the hard work, just about all of the Terran Furs were in much better physical shape now than most of them had ever been before in their lives. They were stronger, had more stamina and were in better health than they'd enjoyed even since their transformation into furmankind; good, hard work often benefited new colonies to other worlds, whether human or furman. There would be a lot of inactivity once winter set in earnest, so it would be better to start out in good physical condition.
An alcove back in the coolness of the cavern serving as the pantry of preserved food was packed with meat they had taken from herds in the vicinity that were safe to hunt and eat. The Terran vegetables they'd been able to grow in the gardens, plus all the local edible veggies they'd found had also added to the packaged food they'd brought from Earth. As many containers as they could spare were filled with water from the local mountain spring and stored in the event the source became frozen over during colder months since an underground stream within the cavern had never been discovered.
Numerous ricks of wood had been stacked in out of the weather. Most of the firewood and kindling had been taken from all the dead wood they could find within the small forest that surrounded the valley, though some trees out closer to the prairie had also been felled and chopped up in order to bolster their stash.
The fiberluminum panels of the Furs' domes were insulated, but would never hold off the cold of snow for months at a time. The supply manifest did include efficient space heaters, but in the constant temperature of the cavern, they should be warm enough with their fur and the bedding they'd brought along without having to resort to them very often.
As he meandered along an animal trail in the waning light, Kevin looked down the side of the mountain toward the lake that was barely visible through the trees. He couldn't see the opening from where he was, but in his introspective musing, the small fox knew that finding the cavern had been a Godsend for their survival. He'd never known whether the original colony site had been chosen because of the cavern or due to other factors, but he'd personally been thankful for its existence.
In previous months, Ivan had petitioned heavily that they should move the colony to the eastern hills that he and Rose had discovered, believing all their survival needs could be provided by the forest. Not only could the woods provide enough lumber to be used in the actual construction of houses, but permanent structures could be laid out in a real town. Why should they simply just survive for the required five years or longer? Starter colonies of Furs often continued to exist on those same worlds even after human settlements later migrated to them, so why shouldn't they have real homes on this one?
Some of the colonists were nostalgic and believed they should stay put right where they had set up especially since they had already put so much recent work into it, but many more were intrigued by the idea of solid homes and their captain was one of them. The topic had come up one night during second supper with the pros and cons bandied back and forth across the meal.
There were many good ideas and it was even brought up that if the winter turned out to be especially harsh, the cavern site could still be retained as a wintering location where they could migrate to for the cold months instead of abandoning it altogether. Before signing up for the program, Carl and Ellie's home had been in Jackson, Wyoming, but they'd also had another house in St. Augustine, Florida where they usually stayed through the winter. Knowing they'd never occupy them again, the couple had sold both homes, but it was the memory of the practice they'd brought up in example.
There were no rules that stated that a starter colony had to stay in the same place it had begun and some had already begun to visualize new homes, but in the end, Jon had tabled the discussion until such time as they'd weathered the coming winter. Once they knew how good or bad conditions might be, the knowledge could help determine their future.
Kevin descended down the side of the mountain and found himself standing beside the octagonal solar array panels that generated power for the lights, stoves and other devices they used within the cavern. Solar energy collection technology had improved by leaps and bounds over the past century and even the diffused light of an overcast sky could generate the power they stored into efficient cells. Although none had been set up, the supplies also included a set of four towers with turbines for wind-generated power. The solar collector up on the side of the mountain seemed to provide all the energy they'd needed so far, but if the colony ever moved to another location, the wind-system might be required.
The fennec fox reached the cavern entrance just as a hunting party was heading down the zigzag path. Carl was leading several Furs out into the woods to see if they could bring down some of the arrowheads. A final reaping from the gardens had brought in a last big bounty and someone had suggested a large meal to celebrate the fall harvest. There were no turkeys on Bonestell, but no one seemed to have any objections at the use of the tasty arrowhead in its place as the main course. There were some who compared it to a Thanksgiving meal, even if the meaning of the event was not exactly the same.
Although the arrowheads were active around the clock, they seemed to be mostly crepuscular in the early evening hours. Kevin wished the hunters well and then went in search of Erin to discuss something that had been on his mind.
“I've gotten better using a bow than I was when we first got here,” Arne admitted to the others around him, “but I wish I could have stretched my muscles and hunted down on all fours with nothing but my teeth and claws!”
The African lion walked upright with his bow and quiver of arrows over one shoulder while holding the avian legs of an arrowhead over the other. Both small moons of the planet were full and their combined reflected light permeated through the canopy of trees and provided the night-sighted predators a modicum of illumination on their journey back to home. Even together, the full light of both satellites reflected only a fraction of what old Luna used to provide to the Earth, but it was still a welcome assistance on the hunts.
The large bird hung to the back of Arne's knees and was one of four the hunters had killed that evening. Its extremely large, coal black eyes were open but lifeless. Even the blue ring pattern in its face feathers around each eye seemed muted in death. Despite how ugly its appearance might be, they'd all grown fond of the flavor of the great birds.
“Unless you had wings, I don't think hunting the arrowheads would work too well for you down on all fours,” Cheryl responded with a grin.
“Ah, but if they'd added eagle DNA to your lion mix,” Dahlia added with a snicker, “you'd be a gryphon and then you could get them on the ground or in the air!”
Arne frowned at the bantering remarks, but knew there was no malice in them. “True,” he said over his shoulder, “but you know what I mean. We're predatory animals in humanoid form. The human side of me likes the convenience of the bow, but the animal part of me wants to hunt, stalk and chase!”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Jon replied, hefting another of the birds over his shoulder. “During my transformation, I had nightmares worrying about my animal instincts taking over completely, but now there are times I'd like to let them do just that.”
“Please don't,” Dahlia said with a frown. “A mountain lion like you would try to kill and eat a red fox like me and my sister. I'd prefer you didn't use your hunting skills on me!”
Jon narrowed his eyes and peered at her with a calculating look, his mouth open to show his teeth in a feral grin. The vixen's expression reflected distress for a brief moment, but when he stuck just the tip of his tongue out between his teeth at her, she giggled.
“It's a good thing we still have our human intellect,” Carl remarked. “We'd have scattered to the four winds as soon as they'd opened the door of the ship when we got here.”
“Although you and I are both canine types,” Cheryl said to the wolf, “you and your mate would have probably considered me a competitor for food and killed me by now.”
“No doubt,” Carl replied to the Border collie with a nod. “It's better that we can work together than against one another.” He hefted up the bulk of the arrowhead he carried and added, “Even if we have to use the tools of mankind, we won't be going hungry anytime soon.”
Dahlia looked up at Arne. “Don't be sore,” she said. “We only—”
“No,” the African lion said in clipped tone. “Stop. Everyone stop and be quiet for a minute!”
Although Arne was not the leader of the small hunting party, everyone obeyed instantly, all of their senses straining to hear and smell the scents of the woods around them.
“What is it?” Jon whispered. He studied the lion and followed his gaze where he'd been staring up into the trees.
“We're being watched,” Arne barely breathed aloud. “Nightshade.”
A low growl issued from Carl's throat as he eased his avian burden to the ground. Without speaking aloud, he dropped silently to all fours and moved forward, his eyes never leaving the darker shadow amongst the trees he'd just spotted. The others followed his example, all of them suddenly determined to find out what had been stalking them for months, once and for all.
Although part wolf, Carl could climb trees just about as well as any of them, but the felines of the hunting party were better equipped for such an endeavor. Without preamble, Arne leaped up into the twist-oak in front of him, gaining the lower limbs with one bound, only seconds ahead of Jon.
To the others on the ground, the shapeless dark shadow moved fast over to the next tree, but they were all good trackers and didn't intend to let this one get away. They all shouted direction and suggestions to the two large cats scrambling through the branches of the trees above them.
Although some of them had tried to trap and capture the nightshades in the past, the whatsit always seemed to elude them, but this one seemed to be a little more sluggish, possibly due to the recent colder weather.
The nightshade made no sound, but its pursuers were gaining on it. It tried to go to a higher elevation, but the felines matched it move for move, limb for limb. The chase went on for some moments, but when the arboreal path came to an end at the edge of the woods overlooking the prairie beyond, the creature stopped and turned to face the predators. Even in the pale moonlight coming in from overhead, it was still difficult to get a good look at the animal, but Arne chose not to give it time to regroup.
Landing on a limb only a few yards from the nightshade, he stripped off his winter robe top in one movement as he used his momentum and propelled himself forward. With a roar of triumph, the African lion wrapped the robe tightly around the dark creature and then allowed his weight and momentum to carry him over. Flipping onto his back, he landed on a thick clump of the tall prairie grass, stirring up its spearmint aroma in a cloud of dust.
Jon landed next to him a heartbeat later and reached out to help Arne hold down the squirming, thrashing form within the hunter green garment. The rest of the hunting party arrived shortly and everyone circled around the felines to keep whatever it was they had at bay.
After several long moments, the commotion within the robe settled down. They could hear faint heaving breaths, and even then it was so quiet it was not easy to hear. Arne had his hands upon its abdomen and Jon clutched two lower limbs that were no longer struggling, both cats amazed that the thing had not yet tried to bite them.
“Careful,” Dahlia breathed when Cheryl reached forward to pull back part of the robe covering the creature's head. Very gingerly and mindful of the teeth of a cornered animal, she peeled back the garment, revealing a small pointed face that was vaguely foxlike. The fur on its head and face was very fine, matte-black and didn't reflect anything from the torch flashlight that Carl shined upon it, but the rest of it seemed to be covered in furry feathers or what more realistically resembled leaves. It wasn't avian by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it part plant, but the resemblance was uncanny. It was simply fur with its own unique physical properties.
The creature had two wide set eyes that also seemed to defy reflections, displaying no whites around its pupils. At first glance, Jon thought he saw a kind of membrane covering its eyes and as he stared at it, he noticed that it didn't even blink.
Its nose consisted of nothing more than a pair of slits over a tiny mouth, and when it opened that small maw to suck in air, he also saw that the skin of its gums and its flat teeth were also completely black. It had no ears to speak of, appearing as nothing more than a pair of ridges on each side of its narrow skull.
It stared back and forth at each of the Furs that surrounded it, but made no more struggling movements and no other sound than its breathing. Its eyes moved back to Arne; both of his large hands together held it about its middle, but it seemed to relax as it gazed at him impassively.
“Wow…” Dahlia whispered. The nightshade's eyes tracked to her voice, but then it looked back up at Arne. It opened its mouth as if to call out, but nothing came from its throat. None of its black teeth possessed any kind of points, looking flat and rather harmless. It was likely a strict vegetarian, eating leaves, bark, berries and nuts.
“I don't think it has a voice,” Cheryl said quietly. “Let's see what the rest of you looks like.” Keeping her movements slow and easy, she pulled the robe down a little more and several spider-like limbs emerged from the folds of the cloth, all covered in the leaf-like fur. The sight made the Border collie gulp, but the two closest limbs to its shoulders reached out with tiny hands and grasped her fingers gently. Two other limbs possessed three fingers and an opposable thumb, but the rest were obviously legs and feet.
Arne moved his hands one at a time so that Cheryl could remove the robe but he continued to hold the creature firmly, through without too much pressure. Its leaf-fur against his fingers was satin-smooth and cool to the touch.
Cheryl removed the robe altogether, but the little creature made no move to escape. His genitals were recognizable amongst his totally black fur, but he had no tail at all and his fur-covered buttocks were round and smooth. He was no larger than a Capuchin monkey, though he looked more like a cuddly spider with a mammalian head. He wasn't necessarily cute, but his small size and gentle manner made Cheryl smile.
“Someone take some pictures before we let him go,” she said.
“We aren't taking it back after all the trouble we went through to get it?” Arne asked incredulously.
“No,” Jon said with a chuckle. “Now that we know what it is, I don't think this thing is anything to worry about. We've solved the mystery of the nightshades that have been watching us.”
“Are there more or is this the only one living in our woods?” Dahlia wondered aloud, moving closer to take pictures of the spider-fox critter. She snapped a few images, but he didn't even jump when the flash went off. He simply looked back at her and licked his lips with a black tongue.
“This thing moves so quickly and silently, there's no way to know,” Carl said.
Arne held it up gently so the vixen could get photos from all sides, but then held the passive creature out at arm's length. It simply looked back at him, displaying no sense of curiosity of its own.
“Okay, are we done here?” the lion asked, looking over at Jon.
“Go ahead and let it go.”
Arne walked to the nearest tree and held the nightshade up toward a lower limb. It reached for it with four arms and he released his hold on the thing. Without even looking back at its captors, the creature silently climbed up into the shadows of the woods and had disappeared before anyone could really tell which direction it had gone.
Carl waved for the others to follow him. “C'mon, let's get back to where we dropped the birds or something else will have a good dinner tonight instead of us.”
As the small group set off once again through the woods, Jon looked back up into the overhead limbs. For once, he was glad a discovery they'd made was neither harmful nor anything to cause fear on this new world.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.