— by Ted R. Blasingame
Sissy stood in the middle of the small valley field and looked around in wonder. The lil-deer had returned with the coming of spring, but there had been a population explosion. There were just as many dog-sized adults as before, but hordes of tiny fawns were now everywhere. They were all grazing on the lush, pale green grass with a few of the smaller ones running and kicking up their hooves in play; they were all through the local woods too.
The little deer were not the only critters in the valley either. A few mooshelk were at the edge of the lake eating reeds and kirin deer were in the lake feeding off the plants beneath the water. There were numerous kinds of birds in the trees of the forest too, some of which none of the colonists had ever seen before, even with the earlier winter migrations. Dr. Mochizuki had his wife out collecting photos of everything new she saw; even if he couldn't have a physical sample, the scientist wanted a record of what came into the valley for future reference.
The arrowheads were back in abundance as well, and although they were once considered an annoyance due to their eerie cries, they were now looked upon as a tasty addition to the menu.
The red pandas were not the only ones busy with all the new changes that a spring after a long and cold winter brought to the land. Kristen was having a delightful time cataloging all the new plant-life that had emerged too. Strange new fruit, vegetables, herbs, shrubs and flowers were being discovered in the valley, the woods and even out on the plains, and a great number of them were safely edible and nutritious – though others were discovered to be poisonous to the furman physiologies, whether ingested or merely touched. Even the oak sapling from the acorn that Avon had planted upon their arrival had grown taller, adding more limbs to its spindly profile.
Probably the lioness' greatest discovery was that what they had supposed to be a kind of tall wheat-like grass that covered the plains was not merely a grass at all, but was a form of oat or wheat that ripened quickly in the spring. Upon confirmation of this, Kim and Yuki immediately harvested some and went right to work hand-milling it into a kind of flour. For simplicity’s sake, what had been called wheat-grass was now just wheat and the entire eastern prairie was covered by it. The resulting smell of baking bread was only a little different from what they were used to and meals were soon accompanied by their creations. The sisters had already been successful making cooking oil from local seeds the previous fall and they were anxious to try a batter made from the new flour for frying.
Cheryl and Arne had their hands full as well. There were new calves, sheep, piglets and chicks to care for and the longer days worked to their advantage, giving them more time to handle all the associated responsibilities. It seemed everyone was involved in some way or another with the livestock and gardens, and after months of winter inactivity, they all seemed to enjoy having things to do out in the sun again.
The flora and fauna were not the only things refreshed with the new life of springtime. Several couples had formed during the winter months and as a result, numbers in the colony were about to increase as well.
Alicia and Dara were heavy in pregnancy, and if the medical exams were correct, they were both carrying two babies each; Aaron was the confirmed father of Alicia's cubs, but it was unknown who Dara's was since she'd not accepted monogamy in the face of uneven numbers of females to males. She was unconcerned, however, since all of the males who'd been with her were more than willing to claim fatherhood as if it was a badge of pride, with promised help by all in raising them.
Sisters Jasmine and Dahlia were also each expecting a fox kit of their own, and the respective fathers Michael and Ivan were just as proud of their accomplishments. These would be born later in the long spring, but another mother was just about ready to give birth.
Ellie had endured all the trials and tribulations associated with a first-time pregnancy through the long winter, and although Carl had been properly attentive, she was more than ready to get this over with. She and her husband were the eldest members of the colony and as humans they'd not been able to have children, but now as Furs they were excited at the prospect of parenthood. Of course for all, there was the uncertainty of having offspring now that their bodies were a hybrid blend of human and animal, but the children would be the first natural furman births among this group.
Springtime for Second Chance was a time of great rejoicing. They'd made it through the winter with relatively few issues thanks to months of prior preparation, and although boredom had set in and more than a few personality conflicts flared up, they were all comparatively minor to the problems that could have arisen. Those who'd been lost in the opening months of occupation were still missed, but time was beginning to ease the feeling of loss.
The Bonestellan calendar that Sissy had worked up was still difficult to relate with the passage of time back on Earth. A day was longer here and so were the months, so it seemed as if time on their birth world moved faster. For those who celebrated Christmas, that date had come and gone long before anyone in the colony had realized it. New Year's Day no longer had meaning here, since First Day took its place to commemorate the date of their arrival on this world. Old holidays no longer had significance, and although they could try and count seven days to a week, the time didn't correspond with a week on Earth. In truth, they'd already been there long over a year by the reckoning of those at headquarters in Stockholm, but there were still another three longer months of local time before they could count the first revolution around their new sun.
For some, however, the passage of time seemed to slow exponentially in anticipation of more localized and personal events.
The anthrocanis lupus figure was pacing ceaselessly in a steady rhythm around the dusty floor of the cavern, down on all fours with his head dipped low and his eyes barely focused on anything around him. His tongue was hanging loose, but his ears were fully erect to catch any sound to indicate the arrival of his long-awaited children. Others that watched him pace couldn't help but to make the comparison of a real wolf pacing the confines of a cell in a zoo, though there were no bars to keep him contained here.
Once it had been announced that Ellie had gone into labor within the dome she and her husband called a den, a small crowd had gathered outside the structure while Jenni and Chieko attended the she-wolf inside. As with many births, however, the waiting became long and the crowd thinned out to only a few bodies while everyone else went off to busy themselves with other activities and responsibilities.
Then a sound issued from the den unlike anything they'd heard before. It wasn't quite the cry of a baby and it wasn't the whimpering yips of a canine, but it was somewhere in between and issued in chorus. Carl's ears swiveled toward the dome and the rest of his body followed swiftly.
“Wow,” Kevin remarked with excitement when the wolf disappeared into the den. “I never knew anything could make a dual pitch like that!”
“That was two little voices, luv,” Erin explained with a grin. “One must have come out right on the tail of the other one, only seconds apart.”
Jon sat forward on his chair, a cup of coffee in his hands as he looked toward the dome in anticipation. Kristen leaned up against him and spoke quietly. “Do you think we should round up the others? Carl's going to want to show off his new cubs soon.”
“Good idea,” he answered. He didn't really want to leave, but responsibility called. The mountain lion set his Magellan cup on the ground beneath his chair and then padded off on all fours to spread the word.
Inside the wolves' dome, Carl approached the bed cautiously. Chieko gave him a warm smile and reached out to touch his shoulder when he drew near. Jenni was on the far side of the bed with a pan of warm water, patiently cleaning tiny bodies squirming on a blanket in a plastic tub upon a table. Ellie looked up at her husband from the bed, a tired but loving expression radiating from her lupine face.
The new father swallowed and stood up on two feet beside the bed. He leaned over and took Ellie's hand gently. “Are… are you okay?” he asked in a quiet voice. The concern in his eyes made his wife chuckle.
“I'm fine,” she answered. “We're all fine.” Carl leaned forward to kiss her and she stroked the side of his muzzle with a finger.
She looked over at the leopard and said in a weary voice. “Jenni, dear, would you introduce the children to their father, please?”
The nurse and midwife looked up with a grin. “Of course.” She crooked a finger at the male wolf and he stepped around the bed to join her. Carl and Ellie were now long-accustomed to the lupine forms of their transformation, but the father's mind and thought processes were still primarily human. When he saw the first of his children, he was startled at the form of the tiny body, but Jenni's wide smile eased that sudden hesitation right away.
When Carl emerged from the birthing den, he was met with applause from the entire gathered colony. He ducked his head from the noise and waved his hands frantically for quiet. When the din had fallen enough to speak, he grinned out at the crowd and said in a low voice, “Thanks, but let's keep the noise down. The little ones are sleeping.”
Dr. Mochizuki chuckled. “I should imagine their ears have not yet opened,” the red panda said with amusement. The wolf looked at him for a brief moment before he nodded.
“Yes, of course,” he murmured with a smirk. “I forgot.”
“When do we get to see them?” Dahlia asked from the front of the gathered Furs.
Without answering, Carl turned toward the dome behind him and made a brief gesture. A moment later, Jenni appeared from the depths of the dome with a pale blue blanket in her arms; within its folds was a tiny figure. The new father gently picked up the naked infant and then held him up for all to see. At this stage, the male child resembled little more than a regular puppy, though with an oversized head to house his human brain. More humanoid characteristics would continue to grow into well-defined limbs and features in the coming weeks.
The small male made no sound as Carl showed him off to Second Chance to the oohs and aahs of all the women. He was predominantly lupine in appearance with brown, grey and white fur, and the small triangular ears were flopped over next to his large head. The tiny eyes would also remain closed for about a week, so it would be a few days before the color of his eyes could be determined. Carl held the small bundle close to his chest fur and the tiny nose began to sniff, taking in his scent.
“This is my son, Jude,” Carl told them, “the firstborn by less than a minute. Jude Amaranth.”
“What? No middle name?” Norman asked with a smile.
“Not needed,” Carl replied without taking his eyes from the newborn.
Before the new father could say more, Chieko came out with another bundle wrapped in a light pink blanket. The boy's twin sister was noticeably larger than he was, but although fraternal, her fur patterns were similar to his, right down to the dark mask around her eyes.
Carl reluctantly handed the boy back to Jenni, who wrapped little Jude up in the folds of his blanket. The wolf turned toward the red panda and gently picked up the naked little female. As he'd done before, he let her take in his scent as he held her close, and then he held her up for all to see.
“This is my daughter, Jodie,” Carl announced quietly. “Jodie Amaranth.” The little girl didn't like being held up away from the warmth of her father's chest and began to whimper. Several of the ladies in the crowd aww'd at the tiny cries, but her tiny protests stopped when daddy held her close again.
Carl looked out at the faces smiling back at him and his expression was beaming. “Our population has increased by two precious little lives,” he said with emotion in his voice. “Ellie came through the ordeal just fine and is now resting, but we'll both have our hands full for a while. We would appreciate all the help any of you can provide. Not only are they the children of their parents, they are also the children of our colony.
“Since they can't hear us yet,” Sissy asked with a hopeful expression, “can we celebrate now?”
The wolf grinned back at her. “Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.” Thunderous applause, whistles and shouts of well-wishes echoed across the cavern. Although tiny ears might not be open yet, the puppies could feel the vibrations of the commotion and both started whimpering in unison.
Chieko raised her hands, smiling from ear to ear, but soon had the crowd quiet again. “Ellie has instructed me to let everyone know that all of you will be welcome to come in to see them after they have had some time to themselves,” she told them patiently. “However, the mother and her children need to rest now. Please and thank you.”
“What in the world are you doing?” Jon asked in amusement. Norman and Hank had dug a shallow pit in the ground not far from the bridge across the river and one of the bears was now stacking grapefruit-sized rocks in a pyramid beside it while the other brought in an armload of huge leaves from the forest. The boughs were nearly three feet long and a third of that wide. Jon recognized them from the woods, but didn't know if anyone besides Dr. Mochizuki might have given them a name.
Hank looked up from his rocks with a smile. “It's a celebration for Jude and Jodie,” the black bear answered. “We're going to have a Pachamanca feast!”
“A… what kind of feast?”
“It's a Peruvian pit barbecue,” Norman said, putting down his armload a short distance away. “I went to one of these on vacation in Hawaii once and it was really good.”
“I never made it to Hawaii,” Hank added, “but I attended one in San Antonio a few years back.”
Jon sat on his haunches beside the pit. “Okay, I understood the barbecue and feast bits of your explanation, but I don't know the reference for the rest.”
“First we'll build a fire over these rocks and get them real hot,” Hank explained. “Once the fire has burned down to coals, we'll use tongs and place the rocks inside the pit.”
Norman held up one of the large leaves he'd collected. “Then we'll wet these down and lay them over the rocks. On top of those, we'll lay out cuts of meat and vegetables, and then put down more of the leaves.”
“Cover those with damp cloth and then pile some dirt on top of those. Let it all sit for about an hour and a half, and then we'll dig it all up again. The meat and veggies will have cooked nicely and will provide enough food for everybody!”
Jon looked from one to another and nodded approvingly. “Do Kim and Yuki know what you're planning, in case they might be setting up a celebratory meal of their own?”
“Yes, we do!” said a voice from behind him. Yuki gave him a pleasant smile and dropped a number of burlap sacks beside him with a gently wagging tail. “We're getting the meat and vegetables ready, but they won't have the rocks fired for a while yet, so we're helping with the rest of the preparations too.”
“Yeah,” said Hank with appreciation, “I was gonna dig the pit myself, but Kim grabbed another shovel and helped me.”
“Where'd these come from?” the mountain lion asked, patting the burlap bags.
“That's what some of our vegetables were packed in for the trip from Earth,” said Yuki. “Potatoes, onions, carrots and the like. We'll wet these down in the river and lay them on top of everything else before we cover them with a layer of dirt.”
“Ah… It sounds like you all have everything under control,” he said, getting back up on two feet. “I will leave you all to it.”
“If all goes according to plan,” Norman informed him, “we'll be ready to eat this by second supper tonight.”
Jon licked his lips. “I'm looking forward to it already.”
A week later, the mountain lion enjoyed the sunlight streaming in just under the lip of the cavern ceiling. He was sitting in a chair at a small folding table, poring over hand-drawn maps on notebook paper and matching them up with the aerial photographs that Carl had transferred to his PBJ months ago.
Throughout the long winter, the colony captain had been preparing a plan to investigate the outlying areas using survey kits included in the manifest. Now that the colony site was established and they seemed to be relatively safe from thunderpig attacks, he wanted to begin expanding their knowledge of the surrounding territories.
Carl's aerial photos would help, giving them a baseline to begin with, but without a working gyrocopter, they would have to do everything from ground level. The wolf had tried his best to get his flyer working again, but without the proper tools and parts, he'd only been partially successful. When pressed about its safety, Carl would only shake his head and admit that he wasn't willing to take it up into the air without further repairs that he was currently unable to make.
They were also handicapped with the loss of the horses. They'd been seen out across the grand prairie with two new foals in their herd, proving that they'd found someplace to winter and that they'd survived any other predators that might be out there. One of the original reasons for bringing the horses was for travel, but without them all the surveying would have to be done on foot. Fortunately for them all, they could travel on all fours with a backpack designed for this form of travel, and they all had more endurance than they'd had as humans as well.
Using a claw tip in place of a stylus, Jon drew a few boundaries on the PBJ screen overlaying an aerial shot that he had marked for the first area to survey. He saved the file and was about to gather up the sketch papers when he noticed a group approach from inside the cavern.
Ken, Aaron, Raine, Aldo and Kevin stopped beside his table, each wearing a hopeful expression. “Hey guys,” the cougar said with a raised eyebrow. “What can I do for you?”
Ken took a step forward as their spokesman. “Hi Jon,” the red wolf said. “We've been talking and we want to know if we can have your permission to strike out for the Magellan to see if there's anything we can salvage from the ship that might be useful here.”
Jon looked up at the physician in wonder. The wolf had barely left camp in the months they'd been there, choosing instead to stay close to home to treat anyone from the dangers of the new world, but now it looked as if the wanderlust had finally claimed him too.
“You told us headquarters wanted the black box if we could find it,” Raine reminded him with an optimistic tone. “This would be a good time to look for it.”
“I don't think we have any bad weather coming soon,” Kevin interjected. “As far as I can tell, the winds should be light all this week and the temperatures even at night should be comfortable.
“We also need to stretch our legs,” Aaron added with a smile, “and a hike out to the ship would be good for us.”
Jon looked from one to another in amusement, but kept his expression neutral. The only one who hadn't spoken was the bloodhound, but he also bore a look of interest in the request.
“What about you, Aldo?” he asked.
“Ditto to all of that,” the canine answered. “I could use a change of scenery too.”
The cougar was hesitant. He'd been about to start asking for volunteers to begin the survey, but Stockholm had recently restated their desire to have more information from the wrecked colony ship. They’d sent him the schematics for the ship back in the fall, so he really had no excuse.
Sighing inwardly that the surveys would be delayed just a little longer, he acquiesced. “Okay,” he said at last, picking up one of the wolf's hand-drawn maps that included the location of the vessel. “It will take you two days of travel on foot to reach the crash site, so I'll give you guys a week to get out there, salvage what you can, and then return. I want to start surveying the surrounding areas soon, so I can't spare you any longer than that.”
“A week?” Raine complained. “If it takes us two to get there and two more to get back, we'll only be at the ship for a day!”
Jon chuckled and the others around them snickered in amusement. “We don't have five-day work weeks anymore, Raine. You'll have seven of our long days.”
“With seven days total,” Ken explained to him, “we can take up to three days looking over the ship. If it's as bad as Carl described, however, there may not be much of anything to see, but at least we'll have enough time to know for sure.”
“Oh, okay,” the cheetah muttered in understanding.
“It might take us that long to get to the black box, though,” Aaron reminded them. “If it was smashed up with the bridge, we may not have any kind of tools to get at it.”
“That's true,” Kevin agreed.
“Well, I have some good news for you guys,” Jon said with a smile. He tapped through several screens on his PBJ, thankful that it was currently working properly, and pulled up the file that Stockholm had provided to him. He opened the schematics to a specific plan and then raised the small screen up to show the others.
“The black box recorder was not located in the bridge area or anywhere near the nose of the ship,” he informed them. “It was in a package array sandwiched between two reinforced bulkheads near the life support generators in the center of the ship. It's possible that it could have been protected from damage and you might be able to retrieve it.”
“Great!” Kevin exclaimed. “What's it look like?”
“Obviously - a black box,” Aldo replied.
Jon smiled again. “Actually, it's not a black box, despite that's what the flight recorders have been nicknamed since they were first included on aircraft during World War II. The type used on all interstellar slip-ships are enclosed inside a bright orange sphere that's made to withstand temperatures of up to two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and an impact of about four hundred miles per hour. It is because of these specifications that Stockholm is optimistic that it can be retrieved. If you do find it, bring it back whether or not you think it's any good. Even if I can't retrieve any data from it using the equipment sent along with us for that purpose, we'll keep it until such time as they might send out a ship to retrieve it.”
“That might not be until we've reached our five year expiration date,” Aaron remarked with a smirk.
“Possibly,” Ken agreed, “but if that's the case, we can just tuck it back inside the cavern out of the way along with that old rusted site marker beacon pyramid.”
“Go ahead and pack up enough food and water for seven days, and make a list of the tools you think you'll take along,” Jon said. “Have Carl look it over and he can determine if there's anything the six of you might have missed.”
“There are only five of us, Jon,” Aldo pointed out.
“You'll need Carl to lead you back to the right spot or you might waste valuable time hunting around to find it,” Jon replied. “He did say that the fuselage was weathered and blended in with the surrounding terrain. He might have missed seeing it himself if he hadn't landed nearly on top of the thing.”
“Do you think Carl's going to want to leave his babies?” Ken asked, swishing his tail behind him. “I think the only time he's even seen the sun since they were born has been to run for the latrine.”
“I'll make sure he goes with you,” Jon said with a smirk. “Ellie’s complaining that he's too attentive and won't let them rest. He keeps disturbing the twins to check to make sure they're developing right. There's nothing he can do for any of them for the first few weeks anyway.”
He looked around at the smiling males. “Don't be gone longer than seven days,” he reminded. “That should be plenty of time for all of you, but I'll need you back after that. We need to begin sending out survey groups, and the hunting parties will also need to start building up our food stock again. As you can guess, there will be no thunderpigs on the menu. We've all learned that lesson and we've lots of other, more passive food sources anyway.”
Carl muttered beneath his breath as he fastened the strap on the last of the packs he'd put together for everyone. He didn't know how they were going to carry everything they needed, which included several heavy tool kits. Without the horses, they would become their own pack animals and the weight of these packs would slow them down.
He still wasn't happy about Jon pulling rank on him to make him leave his newborns behind to go with the Magellan party, but the cougar had convinced him that he was badly needed on the trip. There were plenty of willing helpers if Ellie felt she needed anything she couldn't do herself.
He was still muttering about it all when Cheryl stopped beside him on her way out to the barn. “What's the matter, Papa Wolf?” she asked.
He looked up at her with a frown and sighed audibly. “We have too much stuff to carry comfortably, but we're going to need everything I've packed. We need the tools to extract the flight recorder and disassemble anything else we find that might be useful, plus we have to have enough food and water for six people for seven days.”
“Is that all?” the Border collie laughed. “Why don't you take one or two of the wagons? You can use them to take your supplies out with you, plus you'll need something to bring back anything you find.”
“I know the horses are gone for good,” the wolf grumbled, “but I don't think any of us really want to be harnessed to a wagon.”
Cheryl peered at him from beneath the brim of her cowgirl hat. She reached out and gave his forehead a light tap. “Now you're just being silly,” she told him. “We still have cattle and they can pull a wagon just as easily as a horse.
Carl looked up at her and blinked. “Yes, of course,” he admitted. “Now I do feel silly.”
The canine laughed and stood up. She wore a set of overalls with her hat, but nothing underneath, so her profile caught the wolf's attention for a moment. He shook his head and then rubbed his eyes. He needed to get away from the colony for a while, having put himself under a lot of stress since the birth of the twins.
“I'd go with you to tend the cattle,” Cheryl added, “but I'm needed here for the rest of our critters.”
Carl smiled. “I think we can handle a couple of cows,” he said.
“Just like a horse you would have taken, make sure they get the rest, food and water they need,” she told him. “They're strong, but they have the same basic needs that we do and they also have limitations. We've already used them to plow the gardens. All you have to do is make sure they're cared for and they'll do the job you need them to do.”
“Thanks, Cheryl. I was getting too worried about how we were going to get everything out there and back and didn't even consider the obvious.”
“You're welcome, Papa Wolf. Do you think you'll need one or two carts?”
He looked at all the packs on the ground and made a brief mental calculation on what they might bring back. If he was lucky, he might also be able to salvage parts he could use for the gyrocopter. He also remembered the unseen predators out on the plains that had taken down and stripped the large flightless bird. If they were to run into them, he didn't want a whole wagon train to slow them down if they needed to run.
“I think one is all we need,” he answered. “Do we have a bull that could defend itself if needed? We'll be up on the side of the mountain at the crash site, but we'll have to leave him and the wagon down on the prairie.”
The cowgirl smiled at him. “You don't usually help out with the livestock, but have you ever even looked at the cattle we have?”
The wolf frowned. “Of course I have, but what does that have—?”
“Tsk. All our cattle are Texas Longhorns, Carl. They might be gentle in nature, but the males and females alike are all armed with an impressive set of horns.”
“We have Longhorn cattle?” he asked with a deflated expression. “I guess I've never really noticed in the nine and a half months we've been here.”
“Well, for what you have in mind, I've got just the big guy for you,” she told him with a grin. “He's a strong, hearty bull and he's shown that he can use those things if needed, but if you'll pardon the pun, he's a little bull-headed and you might have to prod him along in places. Just remember that he could use his horns on you too, so don't get him too riled up.”
“He sounds perfect for our needs. Thank you.”
Cheryl smiled and tipped her hat. “You're welcome. I'll get him harnessed to the wagon for you and then you can leave at any time. Just make sure you get him back to me safely. We still need him to make more cattle!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.