— by Ted R. Blasingame
Kristen climbed the side of the hill slowly, pacing herself and making sure her footsteps were sure. The trail from the valley below was becoming worn from constant traffic, so she really wasn't concerned that she would have a misstep, but she carried delicate cargo and didn't want to take any chances.
Her objective looked down at her, and when the mountain lion realized what she was doing, he was up onto his feet like a flash and was then at her side. She gave him a smile and realized the endeavor had winded her more than it should have. She'd enjoyed the robust physical endurance she'd acquired with the hybrid transformation her body had gone through, but it seemed that even a pregnancy could slow down a Fur.
Jon helped her to a spot beneath a small shade tree where he'd been working with the com unit in coordination with the overhead geosynchronous satellite. She sat down gratefully and then he relaxed beside her.
“Why didn't you stay down there?” he asked with a frown. “You should be resting.”
The botanist reached up and lightly batted his whiskers, making his eyes blink. “I didn't stay down there because you were up here,” she answered as if that was all she needed to say. Jon raised an eyebrow at her as she leaned back against the slender tree trunk. “What'cha doing?” she asked.
The male lion tapped the metallic case of the com unit, but didn't pick it back up. “I just sent off a progress report back to Earth,” he replied. “Most of it was trivial, but with the festivities, I didn't think I'd have time to do it later. First Day may not mean anything to the yahoos back home, but having survived our first full year on Bonestell is cause for celebration.”
“Our first year wasn't as bumpy as what some of the other colonies experienced, but we still had our share of ups and downs,” Kristen agreed. She leaned against her mate and he automatically put an arm around her. She rested a hand on her middle. “It's hard to believe it's already been a year, although it also seems like it's been longer since we got here.”
“Mmm hmm,” he agreed. “In spite of all that's happened, I like it here. It's odd how the twists and turns of my life have led me to this place, but although I sometimes wish I could change what I did, I don't think Brian Barrett would have ever come here.” He reached over and lightly stroked Kristen's belly. “As for Jon Sunset, he’s right where he wants to be.”
The lioness smiled and let out a contented sigh. The couple fell silent and simply relaxed, enjoying the day and one another.
The afternoon sky above was populated by lazy white clouds floating across a blue-green background with gentle breezes moving over the forest. The dale below them presented a different vista than what he'd become accustomed to from his perch up on the side of the mountain back in Horseshoe Valley, but Jon felt he could get used to it. The growing town of Second Chance was spread out below and they could hear the sounds of activity.
Nearly fifteen log structures sealed with clay from the river had been built in recent months through the spring and summer, and every time one was completed, several of the surrounding geodesic domes were dismantled and placed into storage. Despite the number of one and two-room structures that just about everyone had had a hand in building, there were not yet enough for everyone to have their own place, so several of the Furs had doubled up to room together.
The Great Lodge was the first log building the colonists had erected once they'd voted to move in and put down roots in the Ivanrose Forest. It had been a surprise to the colony captain, but the decision to leave the cavern in the Horseshoe Valley was unanimous and a new purpose had been driving everyone since. Having gotten used to the Great Dome as a shelter and public gathering place for the better part of a long year, the corresponding Great Lodge, which some were also calling Town Hall, would serve the same purpose. Instead of a separate structure for a kitchen, however, one had been built inside with connecting pantries to the supplies.
The Furs had discovered that the tall and straight trees of the forest possessed a medium-grade wood that could be cut and split lengthwise into boards as needed with the tools that had been provided to them. Hand tools, saws, augers and hammers were in abundance, but they had also been supplied with electric powered tools that had seen little use while they occupied Horseshoe Valley. With the solar energy station in operation and the earlier problems with their electronics subsided, things were going well.
Chopping down trees, stripping them of limbs and then cutting them to needed lengths took time, as did preparing the ground with a foundation for the structure and then the assembly itself. Those not otherwise occupied with responsibilities in the new gardens or animal pens were all engaged with the town raising. These were not the skills they had been taught at the Institute, but there were a few with experience in construction that it was all straight forward enough. Those without prior knowledge were learning by necessity, and even those who never would have taken part in such activities in the past were becoming old hands with it all.
It had taken over a week of long Bonestellan days to move everything from the cavern to the new valley with only three wagons drawn by teams of cattle, but they took only what they needed. A well-traveled road across the Grand Prairie over the hills and through the dales to the new site had been established with their move.
Spare dome sections and fasteners would be stored back in the cavern, as well as what little firewood left that had not been used up during the winter. Although it was the equivalent of an Earth-day's travel on foot between Horseshoe Valley and the Second Chance town, the coolness of the cavern could still be used to store some preserved meat for leaner times, and for this purpose an alcove in the rock had been walled off to keep other critters from partaking of what they left behind. Until they could find another method of food preservation at the new town, they would hunt only when needed. Ivanrose was plentiful in game and the soil was fertile for growing both Terran and indigenous vegetables in abundance.
No one wanted to abandon the cavern altogether. There was always the offhand possibility that they might need to winter there in the cavern again if the next winter proved to be too harsh in the forest, so some supplies that could be spared were also left behind as a contingency. For the most part, however, everyone seemed to have a resolve to make the new town work.
Even the pandas had suspended their scientific research and cataloging to help build the town. There would be plenty of time for research later with a whole new forest to examine, but for now they assisted the others as needed and Chieko discovered that she’d been given more freedom to mix with the populace than she’d had since their arrival.
In time, Second Chance would be a real town spread out across the dale, and in anticipation of expansion they had already built upon a small grid pattern that would become streets. In reality, the place harkened back to an old western town, but it was functional and it was all theirs. They didn’t have the proper material to fully wire up more than a couple of the buildings with electricity from the solar generators, but with the light-emitting clay from the cavern that Dara had discovered and some of the glow-in-the-dark plants that grew naturally in the forest, they didn't have to spend their nights inside the buildings in total darkness.
One of the smaller buildings had been erected at Raine's insistence and he had performed much of the work on it himself. He had lobbied throughout the colony population and gained more support than he had thought he might get, so the cheetah had been ultimately successful having a dream fulfilled. The town now had a public bath house that contained the large claw-foot tub salvaged from the wreckage of the Magellan. He and several others had taken a cart and time out from colony activities to retrieve the luxury item from the ship. They may not have indoor plumbing in any of the log buildings, but heated water in buckets could be used to fill the tub whenever anyone might have a desire for a hot bath. It was an indulgence in the midst of relatively backwoods conditions, but anyone was welcome to use it.
Despite the new structures, however, the large barn dome was still in use for the animals and would likely continue to serve its purpose for some time. The valley dale had plenty of room for the livestock to roam inside a widely fenced area and they'd taken to the local grass just as readily as they had back at Horseshoe. Likewise, a large garden area was being tilled and planted with seasonal foods, some of which they couldn't grow the previous fall, and as such they would have a greater variety to keep them all well-fed throughout the year.
The nearby river was just far enough away from the town proper to keep the danger of flooding in rainy weather at a minimum, but still close enough to provide all the fresh water and fish the townsfolk needed. The unnamed lake to the south was several times larger than the tiny one they had lived over in the cavern, and there would be days when all work was set aside so that everyone could spend a day at its sandy beach just relaxing.
Although their typical days were filled with work on the town, Norman spent much of his personal time off carving out a large hardwood log he'd found in the forest into a dugout canoe. It had to be wide enough to carry his bulk and it had taken him and several of the other bears to wrestle the former tree trunk to a spot where he could work on it close to the water. It looked pretty rough and he had a long way to go with it before it could be usable, but he'd already formed other ideas for a raft if this one didn't work out.
It had once been said that necessity was the mother of invention, and it turned out that many in this group had enough experience and ingenuity to make the things they needed if they were able to find the proper materials. They had survived their first year on Bonestell primarily using the items they'd brought from Earth, but now that they were true residents of this planet, very few of them were content to remain idle. They had an entire world in which to use to their whims and the intelligence to make it work.
Settling Bonestell had been an easier experience than some colonies had endured on other worlds and the lower planetary tilt had made their seasons less severe so far. They had no illusions of a Garden of Eden, however. It had been an educational experience and they'd lost several of their friends and family due to misfortune, but they'd learned from their mistakes and were stronger from it all. In this new region, there were likely dangers to discover that were not in evidence where they'd lived before. Predators, poisonous bugs, toxic plants and natural disaster were all possibilities, but they had the capacity to deal with each as they came up.
They had survived their first local year, and although there would likely be new discoveries made through their entire existence on the planet they now knew how to survive and live with the new lands. Lifelong friendships had formed among the group and others had paired off, whether exclusively or to satisfy the needs of the moment, but this group was becoming tighter with everything they went through. There were also children now with associated responsibilities, but that was all part of life.
If that life continued to flourish, they will have paved the way for eventual human colonization to help ease the burdens of the Earth, and the colonists had made good use of their furman instincts and capabilities doing it. There had been numerous occasions, especially in the early days, where some of them might not have initially survived had they still been fully human. The hybrid physiologies with strength and endurance had served them well and proved that the Anthro Human Colonization Program was right on track with their purposes and plans.
Jon and Kristen sat quiet musing on such things for a good long while, but eventually the sounds of activity from the town drew them back to the present. Jon yawned and stretched, and then wrapped both arms around his mate. Kristen smiled and closed her eyes within his embrace, but their moment was short lived. The com unit beside the cougar pinged to life with an incoming dispatch.
“You got a response already?” Kristen asked.
“They can't have replied,” Jon grumbled. “It takes forty hours for a tachyon burst message to go one way and I had just relayed mine to Earth when you got up here. This is something new.”
He tapped through the commands on the unit expecting a text-only message from headquarters, but he was surprised to discover it was a real-time video transmission. Kristen looked over his shoulder at the small screen and smiled at the form that appeared there.
“This is Captain Katherine Adrienne of the colony ship Christa McAuliffe, contacting the captain of the Second Chance colony on Bonestell. Are you there?”
Jon tapped a control to respond. “This is Jonathan Sunset, captain of Second Chance,” he answered. “You caught me at a good time; I was standing here by the com just now. I'm surprised to see you, Captain Adrienne. I thought you were commander of the Meriwether Lewis.”
The red-haired woman smiled and unconsciously straightened the straps of her royal blue coverall uniform. “The Lewis was decommissioned due to its age and the McAuliffe took its place in the fleet. They didn't want me to retire at such a young age, so they put me and my crew on board the new vessel.”
“Congratulations are in order, then,” Jon said to the thirty-something woman with a smile. “I knew a ship was on its way, but I wasn't aware you were so near to arrival. This is a surprise.”
“Well, the McAuliffe's slip-engines are more efficient and we can get more speed out of them, so it only took seven weeks to make the journey out this way.”
“It's good to hear you got a good ship, Captain. We've been looking forward to your arrival, but didn't expect you so soon. When will you be landing?”
“We're currently in orbit over Bonestell, but we won't be landing just yet. They've barely started processing your people out of cryo and my chief surgeon wants to get them all revived and examined before he releases them into the wild.” She said the last with a cheesy smile and Kristen laughed aloud over Jon's shoulder.
“I don't know if you got the message,” the cougar said, “but we've moved our colony into the mountains to the east of where you originally dropped us off. We found a better place and are in the process of building a real town here.”
Adrienne nodded. “Yes, I was informed of the move and the site marker beacon has given us your new coordinates.”
“The replacement marker beacon pyramid you left with us last time has been set up out in the grand prairie about a mile and a half from our town location. Let me know when you intend to come down and we can meet you out there with wagons and cattle to assist in transferring personnel and supplies out to the town site. We only have three cattle-drawn wagons and we've lost the horses we brought, so it will take a while to get everything moved.”
“What happened to your horses? Did something eat them?”
“It’s a long story how they got away, Captain, but they're all currently running free as a mustang herd. We see them from a distance on occasion, but we've never been able to catch them again.”
“You'll be glad to know that we have ten more for you to be revived upon landing. You're also getting five more wagons, so that should help get things moved to your new site.”
“That's great! We also have the flight recorder from the Ferdinand Magellan for you to take back. With luck, the AHCP can discover what happened.”
“You didn't hear? The coded data you transmitted back to Earth was analyzed and the cause of the crash was determined.”
“What happened?” Kristen asked.
“An EMP burst from the local star reached Bonestell just as they were in descent, damaging their navigation circuits and they overshot the landing coordinates. As they were making maneuvers to throw off orbital speed near a mountain range to bank around and return, they flew into what they could only determine to be a flock of huge winged creatures. The event was documented on the flight recorder and the resulting avian collision smashed through the command center, probably killing the bridge crew before the ship went down into the mountain where you found it.”
“Wow…” Jon mused. “We never found any sign of the crew of passengers, only some of the livestock still in cryo tubes, but a terrific fire blazed through the ship, probably incinerating everyone.”
“No doubt,” agreed the captain. “It's made all the news frequencies on Earth and that's the general conjecture. Thankfully, all the McAuliffe's systems are protected with military-grade shielding, so we should be relatively safe from such EMP bursts coming in this time.”
“That's good. How soon can we expect you?”
“Doctor Dee says that it will take another four hours to revive everyone; I'm sure you remember the process.”
Jon grimaced. “That I do.”
“In four hours, it should be getting near dark by the time everyone's ready, but we may wait until local morning to land.”
Kristen laughed aloud. “Nightfall's not for another twelve hours, Captain Adrienne. Our days are longer here,” she said.
The woman blinked with a frown. “I've made numerous colony flights over the years, ma'am, but I seem to forget the time differential every occasion we get to another world. You would think I'd be used to it by now.”
Jon chuckled. “There's something else you may not be aware of, Captain, but you picked the perfect date to show up with our new personnel. This is First Day, the one-year anniversary of our original landing here on Bonestell.”
“One year?” the captain repeated in puzzlement. “It’s been a little over two and a half years since we were here last to drop you off.”
“Two and a half Terran years, you mean,” Kristen corrected. “Each day here is thirty-six hours long and a year for us is six hundred thirty of those longer days.”
“Oh really? That's amazing!”
“Yes, it is. We are currently preparing a feast to celebrate and you're all invited – you, your crew and our new people.”
Adrienne laughed. “I don't think this could have worked out any better than if we'd planned it to happen this way. Congratulations, Captain Sunset. You've survived your first local year and from what I've heard, good things are in store for you all. Once your folks have been revived, we'll contact you again prior to landing. Deorbit will then take approximately fifty-three minutes, so we should be on the ground in about five hours.”
Jon nodded. “What is your departure window?”
“Depending upon atmospheric conditions, the standard window is three days to give the colony enough time to offload and transport everyone and everything we aren't taking back with us.”
“That should be plenty of time. Our weather guy says we should have several more weeks of mild weather before the seasonal rains begin. I'll be waiting for your call.”
“That sounds good. I will talk to you then, sir. Captain Adrienne, out.”
Jon switched off the unit and then looked at Kristen. “We'd better get back down to let everyone know we're having company for supper tonight. We'll need to prepare more food than we'd intended.”
Kristen started to stand, but gulped when she had trouble getting to her feet. Jon helped her up with a smile. “Careful now,” he said quietly. “We don't want to disturb the kids.”
The lioness gave him a smirk, but then looked at him for a moment. “I know that we've all pretty much abandoned the traditions of marriage due to a previous mismatch of numbers,” she said, “but perhaps Captain Adrienne can perform a brief wedding while she's here.”
“Ours, silly. The captain's bringing us eight more of each of our species, so there will be more choices around for everyone else to pair up with as they please. You've already said that you don't want multiple mates, so that makes you exclusive to me.”
Jon smiled down at her, amused at her train of thought. “You're claiming me as your own?”
“Yes, you're mine!” she exclaimed with a giggle.
The mountain lion considered her words for a moment and then set the com unit on the ground at his feet. “In that case,” he said in a low voice, “I still have something I need to do.”
Jon Sunset leaned forward, gave her a brief lick on the cheek, and then got down on one knee in front of her. “Kristen Eisenberg,” he said, “will you marry me?”
With a rumbling purr and moisture in her eyes, the lioness slid into his arms and snuggled up close.
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.