— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jon looked up at the buzz that passed overhead, shielding his eyes against the afternoon sun. Carl had been successful repairing the gyrocopter with the tools and parts he'd salvaged from the Magellan and had spent the past three weeks making numerous flights in an aerial survey of the Ivanrose Forest to the east. The wolf drove himself relentlessly in work, presumably to get his mind off the death of his infant son, but when he was home, he spent every waking moment with his wife and daughter.
At merely a month old, Jodie had more in common with a wolf pup than a human baby. She could not yet walk upright on two feet, but she had already started maneuvering around on all fours, investigating the scents of the immediate region of the den. She had not yet gathered up the courage to venture out of the dome on her own, but her mother had started taking her out to the valley clearing to experience the sights, sounds and scents of the great outdoors on days of good weather. Jodie had also started eating meat in small bits pre-chewed by her mother, supplementing the milk she still nursed.
Ellie was not alone, however, even when Carl was away on self-appointed duties. She’d had plenty of volunteers to help as needed, not only from the females of the colony, but some of the males too. She got the most attention from the other mothers-to-be spending more time that usual with the female wolf, all of them now having a common bond; Alicia, Dara, Jasmine and Dahlia all wanted to help and discuss issues on first-time motherhood, and they all shared their fears of losing a child of their own just as she had. They helped care for Jodie if Ellie needed to visit the latrine or just get away for a little alone time with her husband and they were all learning things with each experience that would be helpful when their time came.
Dara and Jasmine weren’t due for another few weeks and the vulpine sisters only a short time after that, so all four of them had been excused from most colonial duties. Jon had forbidden Dara from making unescorted excursions back into the recesses of the cavern during her pregnancy, but the polar bear had already lost all interest in such explorations. She’d spent most of the winter months trying to learn as much about the internal ecosystem of the mountain as she could and had gotten it all out of her system by the time she’d started feeling the life growing within her.
Neither Jasmine nor her sister was as far along, but both of them seemed to be enjoying motherhood even if they hadn’t actually given birth just yet. The maternal congregation kept Ellie from getting too lonely while Carl was away on days like this one.
Using maps on a PBJ made from aerial photographs and leaving at first light, Jon had led a group of ten from Second Chance across the prairie. Like others in the colony, he had yearned for a change of scenery and he was itching to get out away from the horseshoe valley for a while, so he had decided to make a day trip of it with all-comers welcome to go along. They had all packed food and general supplies, as well as several weapons, but so far they'd encountered nothing out amongst the tall double-stalks of wheat to cause alarm.
They'd seen the ever-present lil-deer in places, as well as a few of the other herbivores they were already familiar with; they'd even spotted a couple of thunderpigs with a young shoat that watched them in idle curiosity, but none showed any hostility toward the Furs. Just before they’d reached the start of the hills that overlooked the plains, they’d also come across a small flock of large, flightless birds that could be compared to either ostriches or emus from Earth in appearance. The hard, bony ridge crowning their heads matched up with what Carl had described before and had casually named hornbirds. They were docile and relatively harmless, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they could use the horns if provoked. They didn’t seem to be alarmed by the presence of the mismatched group of predators, but other sources of food were abundant and no one had any additional reasons to stir them up.
Carl’s gyrocopter circled overhead again and then buzzed off in a specific direction to indicate where he wanted them to go. Jon acknowledged the aerial instruction by radio and then led his group where directed. The grey wolf had a spot picked out in a broad forested dale between two ridges as a possible homestead site for the colony that matched the criteria he and Jon had worked out together. There was a nearby river that fed into a lake at the southern end of the wide valley, with tall trees all around with straight trunks that should provide good logs for homes.
The undulating hills that went on for miles weren't as high as the rocky peaks of the Hiamovi Mountain Range, but were more reminiscent of the Smokey Mountains of the eastern United States in the Tennessee vicinity, though with differences of its own.
There was nothing wrong with the cavern where they'd lived for the greater part of a year, but many were tired of living in a cave and preferred to have real homes around them; recent memories of the horrific lil-deer slaughter was also still fresh on their minds and the need to get away before the next harvest was shared.
The cavern had been a good site to start out, but if they were going to put down roots, establish themselves and grow for years to come, there was no harm in beginning now. Scouting out possible sites for a real town was the primary purpose for this trip.
Although Jon was the de facto leader of the group, he had set up Carl and Ivan as their guides. The red fox tod was the only one among them who had previously been to the Ivanrose region that was almost due east from Avonaco Mountain.
In the months since Rose died, Ken had become obsessed with finding an antidote to the denim spider venom, but he'd only had a tiny amount from the original spider from which to work. At Ken's behest, Carl had taken precautions during his explorations so that he could hunt down and capture more of the little devils for the red wolf's research. The hunt had almost been fruitless, as the tiny spiders seemed to be especially good at hiding, but once Carl located some of the Mandelbrot flowers growing near the apex of a hill, he'd been successful bringing back several in specimen tubes without getting bitten.
Using furball mice he'd kept as lab animals, Ken felt he had successfully developed a counter-agent to the tiny spider's fast-acting venom, but it would have to be administered immediately after getting bit in order to have a chance to work. Several people in the colony had objected to him using the furballs for experimentation, but he had to remind them that he didn't have a modern lab in which to work. If he had to sacrifice several mice to save another Fur's life, he was willing to make that call, but he would do so as humanely as possible.
Although successful on the mice, no one would volunteer for testing of the final formula, not even the doctor himself, so it was still only theoretical that it might actually work on the physiology of a Fur. Each member of the scouting party had been equipped with a personal needle syringe to carry on his or her person should anyone get bitten by this particular creature. They were all to take extra care when handling anything and everyone had brought along the species-specific leather gloves they’d all been issued.
So far, the denim spiders had been found inhabiting only Mandelbrot flowers. Although the plants themselves were harmless, they were easily identifiable and branded as poisonous due to their little hosts. Despite this, however, everyone kept a close eye out for the spiders elsewhere, remembering how poor Rose had suffered.
After spending several hours walking on all fours across the wheat prairie, the shade of the trees felt good upon the pelts of the ten Furs that entered the forest and started up the first rise. They would have to cross two of them to reach the dale that Carl had found to match their specifications.
Of everyone on this day trip, Kristen seemed to be the most excited, running here and there examining new plants that didn't grow near their current colony site. Jon tried to rein in her enthusiasm with the logic that she would have plenty of time to study and catalog the new flora, but it didn't seem to matter to the mountain lioness. This was her playground and the botanist wasn't wasting any time.
Ivan reached the top of the rise first and stood up, spreading his arms out wide. “Welcome to the Ivanrose Forest!” he said with a smile. Sissy stopped to take his picture and then gave him a little applause.
Hank got up on two feet, put his hands on his chest and then inhaled deeply. “Mmm,” the black bear murmured with a smile, “I do like the aromas of this place!”
“It smells homey,” Erin agreed.
“It smells homely?” Michael asked with a frown. Erin and several others laughed at him.
“Clean the fuzz out of your ears – I said it was homey,” the tan-furred pixie corrected him with a grin. “It smells like home.”
The swift fox felt his ears heat up. “Yes,” he said, feeling embarrassed, “the scents are very comforting.”
“Imagine what it would smell like after a rain,” Kristen mused. “I could get used to this.”
“If the place Carl's picked out for us is this nice,” Jon said, “we could be getting used to it soon and you won't have to use your imagination.” He stretched, but he wasn't quite ready to relax just yet. He put his handheld radio into the pocket of the furman vest he wore and then dropped to all fours. “C'mon, let's keep going. Carl said it's only another mile and a half from here, down the vale and then over the next rise.” There were no stragglers, as everyone was eager to see what could potentially be their new home, so they followed the mountain lion in the direction that the gyrocopter had indicated.
The underbrush of the forest was light and most of the lower branches of the trees were high enough that all but the taller bears would have little difficulty walking beneath them when up on two feet. Birdsong filled the trees, chattering and singing, and smaller critters scurried away from the new and unusual predators that had entered their wood. Insects chirred, clicked and buzzed, and they could even hear the warbling call of a mooshelk somewhere off in the distance. The Furs had fallen silent as they walked, their footsteps just as quiet, but the denizens of the forest knew they were there and alerted others to their presence.
They crossed a series of weathered washout gullies at the bottom of the shallow vale, but then started up the final hill. At the top, they had to skirt around a thicket of thorny bushes, but then they found a wide animal trail that lead right to their destination.
The dale between the low mountains was approximately two miles wide and was several miles in length, but within the northern half was a large glade they could look down into. Sitting near the center of the clearing was Carl's gyrocopter.
A river meandered along the eastern side of the shallow valley and fed into a moderately sized lake at the southern end where it butted up against another low mountain. There was more than enough area in the dale for a small town with room to grow and the serene vista put smiles upon the faces of all the Furs.
“Now this is where we should have put down in the first place!” Raine said in a low voice.
“Amen to that,” Sissy replied absently. She took a few pictures of the region and then turned back to Jon, lightly bouncing on the toes of her feet. “Are we heading back this evening?” she asked, putting the camera into her day pack. There was a wistful look in her eyes.
Jon shook his head. “No, I thought we could camp out overnight – do a little hunting, test the waters and get a feel for the place before we go home.”
“Where are we going to sleep?” Kevin asked. “We brought a few supplies, but I don't think anyone brought bed rolls or tents.”
“What's the weather supposed to be like tonight?” Jon asked him.
The young desert fox twitched one of his large ears. “It should be relatively mild and pleasant,” he answered.
The cougar looked back at him with a smile and then glanced around at the others. “We slept on the ground during our survival march back in the Adirondacks and we did okay. We can do the same here.”
A shudder ran up Erin's spine. “I just hope there are no coyotes out to eat me this time.”
Kevin sniffed the air and then looked at her with a smirk. “You aren't bleeding this time,” he reminded her quietly. Then with a serious expression, he looked up ahead at Jon. “We are going to rotate watches during the night, right?”
“That's right,” the mountain lion confirmed. “Someone will be watching over the rest of us in two hour shifts when we settle in for the night.” Jon still felt guilty at having fallen asleep the night that Erin had been attacked, and he'd privately sworn that he would never do that again anytime he was on watch.
Later that evening, nine Furs casually relaxed around the crackling flames of a campfire pit they'd dug in the soil of the valley floor. Hunting had brought in one of the kirin deer and they'd served it up on a spit over the fire made from branches of the nearby forest. Kristen had successfully located a few indigenous vegetables she already knew to be safe eaten raw and the clear running water from the river had tested clean.
After supper and just before the sun set beyond the mountains, Carl had bid them all goodbye and returned to the colony in his gyrocopter, anxious to get back to his family now that his primary duty for the day had been accomplished.
The area was all they could hope for. There was plenty of game for food, more than enough room to build their town and all the lumber they would need in the surrounding forest. There was a clean running river, a lake to the south and fertile soil for the gardens. There was grass for the livestock and they were still within a couple of miles from the wheat prairie. Remembering the signs when they'd first taken up residence in the little horseshoe valley below the cavern, they'd searched the region for evidence of past flooding, but all they found was near the river where the water might have overflowed its banks by only a few yards. They had a wide margin to build their town with plenty of room to spare.
Jon knew that Carl would gather everyone together back at the cavern to show them pictures and tell them all of what they'd found. There were sure to be a few who would be nostalgic for the place they'd lived for almost a Bonestellan year, but he was sure in the end that they would all agree to move to the new location so they could have real homes out in the fresh open air. The cavern had been a great asset when they'd needed it, but now they wanted to do more than simply survive. It was time to live.
The conversations around the fire had grown quiet. It had been a good day, they all had full bellies, and the growing darkness of the night was peaceful.
“So, what do we call our new town?” Raine quietly asked after a long lull.
Hank spoke up almost lazily. “We could give it a name from the Cheyenne language, since that's what Avon was.”
“Why should we name something else after Avon?” Ivan grumbled. “He was a great guy and all, but we've already named a mountain after him, as well as the whole mountain range it belongs to!”
“Okay, okay – it was just a thought.”
“What about Jon?” Sissy suggested. “Since he's our leader now, and we never really call him by his last name anyway, why don't we call it Sunset or Sunset Town?”
“That's just dumb,” Hank retorted. Sissy looked offended, but playfully stuck her tongue out at the black bear. Hank stuck his out at her in return, but there was amusement in his expression.
Jon shook his head immediately. “Hey, if you want to name something after me, you can wait until after I'm dead – but I don't plan on going anytime soon!”
“What about this Ivanrose Forest?” Sissy countered. “It was named for Ivan and Rose before Rose died.”
“Yes, but we named it for ourselves under first discovery rights,” Ivan replied defensively.
“A town is something we'll build, not something we've discovered,” Jon added.
“Okay, so what do we call the place?” Michael asked. “The Town sounds too generic.”
“Sometime generations from now, they'll make this a landmark since it'll be the first town built on Bonestell. We can call it First Town,” Kevin suggested.
“That, too, sounds generic,” the swift fox muttered.
Kristen took a drink from her canteen and then looked around. “What's wrong with continuing to use Second Chance?” she asked. “It's the name of our colony, not necessarily the name of the site where we first lived.”
“Better. I'd prefer that to something generic,” Michael replied with interest.
Ivan agreed. “Second Chance Cavern and Second Chance Town. There's nothing wrong with both sites using Second Chance in the title,” he said.
Michael took up the mantle, sweeping an outstretched arm out over the area around them. “I think Second Chance for the name of the town is a good idea. The old site could be Colony Cave, or the Colony Valley.”
Erin yawned, stretched, and then leaned up against her younger mate. “How about Horseshoe Valley as the name of the first site?” she asked, staring into the flames of the campfire. “It's descriptive and more fitting.”
“Actually, I like that,” Kristen said with a nod.
“I do too,” Jon said at last. A few others mumbled agreement; it was the best suggestion they'd had so far.
“Why don't we just simplify things and call the town Second Chance since that’s where the colony will be living?” Jon asked. “Instead of just being a nickname for the group, we could make the name official for the town we build.”
“That’s better,” Ivan remarked.
“This is probably the best idea yet unless we come up with something better,” Sissy remarked. “After we get back and tell everyone what we've found, we can put it to a vote. If it passes, that's what we'll go with.”
“And if it doesn't pass?” Hank asked.
Sissy smiled. “Then we'll get to argue some more.”
The conversation grew quiet and Jon looked sadly into the empty depths of his Magellan coffee cup. After several long moments with the crackling campfire making the only sound, Jon pulled out his PBJ and glanced at a message before clearing his throat for attention.
“I've not had a chance to tell anyone yet,” the mountain lion said to all the faces looking back him, “but there is secondary reason why we're out here looking at town sites today, and it's every bit as important as our primary purpose.”
All eyes were upon him, some trying to anticipate his next words.
“What's going on?” Kristen asked quietly. Her mate frequently kept her informed of things that affected the colony as a whole, but he'd said nothing about another reason for their outing. She studied his face, but he didn't seem upset or looked as if he had any bad news.
Keeping his face neutral as so not to give anything away, he looked back down at the dual screens of his PBJ. “We'd already been planning to look out this way as a possible new site for the colony ever since Ivan and Rose told us about it,” he explained calmly, “but I received a message yesterday morning from Ásmundr Gustavsson.”
“Gustavsson!” Ivan exclaimed. “Isn’t he the president of the whole Anthro Human Colonization Program?”
Jon nodded toward the fox. “That’s him. As you all know, Second Chance was an experiment. Typically, Fur starter colonies are all of one species, but due to the disaster on Bastien, this one went out with a mixed group. Perhaps as an oversight, Second Chance has the usual population that is sent to a new world, but with us split up between four different Fur types, each group has only a quarter of the numbers usually needed for diversity.”
“We know all this, Jon,” Hank grumbled. “Can you get to the point?”
The cougar raised an eyebrow at him. “The point is that our numbers have been too low from the start, but Headquarters is about to correct this a little.”
Sissy pulled out a paper pad to take notes. “Does this mean what I think it does?” she asked, swishing her tail behind her.
Jon nodded. “Second Chance is about to double its population of mixed Furs. Numbers of each type will still be low compared to typical starter colony populations, but we'll have an increase of thirty-two Furs — eight more of each species.”
“They're sending out more people?” Raine asked.
“That’s great news!” Erin said with a smile.
Jon continued, some of his audience looking interested while others appeared to be in mild shock. “Preparations are already being made now, so in about four Earth-standard months, a brand new AHCP colony ship called the Christa McAuliffe will be departing Earth with two mixed classes of all four Fur species, arriving here approximately eight weeks later. Converting to Sissy's Bonestellan calendar, they will arrive sometime in late summer, approximately around the same time we got here last year.”
Ivan leaned forward, resting his elbows across his knees. “Did you say they were sending two classes?”
“That's right,” Jon replied. “According to my information, they're coming from the Buenos Aires and Toyohashi Institutes. We almost didn't get any Vulps, though. They're gathering up just about all of them they can process to re-colonize Bastien with a fox-only group, but they managed to reassign enough to come here.”
“That was thoughtful of them!” Michael said with a grin.
“Well, we may have to soothe their feelings when they get here,” Jon cautioned the swift fox. “They were expecting to be included with the others going to Bastien, so some of them may have separation anxiety. In spite of a few bumps when we first got to this world, however, we have it pretty good here and I think they'll like it once they settle in. As with what happened with us, they were accelerated through their studies during and after the volunteer transformations, though none of them will have had the opportunity for a colony practice simulation. These new folk will be totally green to colony life having only textbook knowledge, so we're all going to need to be patient and understanding when they arrive. Not only is the Christa McAuliffe bringing out new colonists, she's also bringing associated supplies to support them.”
He gestured to the large clearing around them that they had chosen as their new town site with a smile. “If we're going to move here, I'd like to get started on the site right away so that when the ship lands, we won't have to haul all the new supplies from Horseshoe Valley to this location. We can direct the ship to land on this side of the prairie where we can haul everything straight from there to our new town. We still have planning to do, but we'll need to load up one of the carts with spare parts from supply to start building domes here for temporary purposes.
“We already have plans to cut down trees to build log homes, but this is going to take time. The domes can be used as temporary shelter and supplies to support those who will be here as we move back and forth between sites. With luck and a good tail wind, we can have a few permanent buildings set up for the new mothers and their children first, with the rest of us in the domes until others can be constructed. If we aren't finished by the time the new arrivals get here, they can help us build more.”
Sissy sat back on her haunches beside the fire, the flames reflected in her eyes. “We will have sixty-six Furs when the others get here,” she said with a smile. “By the time we have enough log homes to house everyone, Second Chance will be a town!”
Michael cleared his throat. “There are twenty-eight of us now, and we'll have thirty-two more joining us. That's only sixty, Sissy.”
The orange striped feline laughed. “You're forgetting the children! Dara and Alicia are having two cubs each, and then Jasmine and Dahlia are having one kit each, all due soon. That makes sixty-six!”
Jon smiled and sat down next to Kristen. “Now you know why I wanted an area larger than what we would have needed just for those of us here now. We'll need space enough for everyone, and despite that our cavern is huge, it would have started feeling cramped with sixty-six Furs occupying it.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.