The campfire cast a yellow bubble of light in the deepening dusk, the exotic wood burning with a sharp spicy smell. The cozy circle of warmth and safety around the open fire was one of the pleasures of being far from civilization. Wild fires on this world burned until they ran out of fuel or were drenched by the rains, so the animals showed a deep fear of fire, fleeing from even the smell of the smoke. Men on the other hand worried them not at all. In time, experience would teach the local fauna to fear man, but for now the top predators showed no respect, and rivaled Old Earth for variety and ferocity.
Relaxed beside their fire, Jack and Myrtle Anderson were unafraid and content. The fire, an electric camp fence, and a carbine laid beside each of them provided plenty of safety against the tiger-like carnivores they’d seen from the air. They were content because this world was remarkable, rich to the point they were sure they had made their last voyage of exploration. Claims on this planet would leave them wealthier than a person could spend in a lifetime of shameless self indulgence.
Their discovery was what every independent explorer hoped for and so few achieved. Men had found only seventeen worlds with their own complex life. A number of water worlds had bacteria and algae analogs, but only seventeen planets had plants and land animals in complex variety with air that men could breathe bare faced. And of the seventeen three were so deadly they were closed to colonization.
The first couple weeks were especially tiresome. It took that long to go through all the protocols just to know they could walk around without a pressure suit. The pygmy pigs knew them from being processed before they were frozen, and being cared for the week after being thawed to normalize them. But they looked strangely at these puffy scentless strangers with mirrored glass faces who staked them outside.
The mice and sparrows were indifferent to their pressure suits, never being handled except in cages. In a week, against high odds, they were all still healthy. It was hard working sealed away from the impressive beauty, wondering if the flowers smelled sweet, wanting to feel the breezes bending the grasses, until they knew it wasn’t a deadly illusion that would entice them to make a fatal blunder.
Then it took further studies before they went out without a respirator or decontamination showers. It was their sixth week before they went out without gloves and over boots. When they moved camp from one ecology to another they reverted somewhat and ran abbreviated tests with mask and gloves again.
Not just bacteria and viruses, but allergies and molds and aggressive parasites had to be eliminated as dangers. Some settler might still find a fatal disease lurking in a pocket ecology a hundred years from now, some bacterium lurking in a swamp, or fungus in a rain forest, but they could establish there were some relatively safe areas.
The plant life tended to the same chemical isomers as Earth life and was lacking the nasty alkaloids and other defense chemicals so common to life on other worlds. One new world had such aggressive plant life it had been named Thorn. By contrast they agreed to name this world Providence. None of them were strongly religious; it was simply a shameless marketing ploy.
Who would want to colonize a world named Purgatory or Sahara? Paradise and Bountiful were taken, and New Earth showed a serious lack of imagination. Even the worlds tagged At Last and Lucky Strike if positive in tone, had not been named with a thought to writing promotional brochures for colonists and investors. Hanging an odd label on a new world was as bad an idea as saddling your child with a strange name.
Beside the huge granite-ware coffee pot on the edge of the fire there were some tubers about the size of two fists held together. They were wrapped in foil after being rubbed in cooking oil and salted and peppered. Every once in a while Jack would roll them a bit with a stick so they cooked evenly. They should be ready by the time their partner joined them for supper.
The crows they brought along ingested them with nary a hiccup, then the mice and finally the monkeys. After all the lab work was fine Myrtle had worn a dab of the cooked root taped against her skin for twenty-four hours with no reaction. Jack first ate a sample about the size of a grain of rice. They slowly increased the serving size taking turns between them and their partner Gordon until they were sure two hundred grams produced no unpleasant reaction. Several other promising plants would wait to be tested back in civilization. It was a time consuming process they didn’t desire to repeat that often.
The temptation to hurry the process and just dig in had been strong, because the odor of the cooked vegetable was maddening. It combined the fine starchy smell of a potato with oily rich tang of sesame. When the baked root was struck firmly before cutting it open the interior burst apart into pearly beads like tapioca in a starchy matrix. The texture was as appealing as the taste. They named them Pearl Potatoes.
A pair of eyes appeared in the dark, reflecting the fire like a cat’s eyes, but far higher above the ground than any cat would stand. Unafraid of the fire they approached until a few reflections caught off claws and sleek fur, then off an equipment harness and polished leather holster for a side arm neither of the humans could comfortably lift, much less shoot.
When he eased down by the fire their partner Gordon was about the same mass as a mature grizzly bear. True hands on upper arms with opposed thumbs, and claws on heavier lower arms angled down from his shoulders. He could run, with frightening speed, on four or six limbs if he rolled his fingers in and ran on his knuckles. To do that now his kind wore special running gloves to protect their hands. His eyes when he was sitting were about where Jack’s would be standing. He had the same broad flat head of a bruin, indeed wider, but instead of a narrow muzzle his mouth was a wide arc, resembling nothing so much as a frog. That is until he opened it and showed the impressive dentition.
Despite it being a natural gesture, most of his kind had learned not to discomfort humans by smiling. It didn’t seem fair given humans owned the same smile reflex themselves. His race were called Derf. That word was from their own language, and so far humans had not coined a nick-name or even created a slur for their race. The reason for that was expressed in a common joke after the races meeting – “What do you call a Derf when you meet him?” The only sensible answer was – “Anything he pleases.”
The case Gordon tossed down held over a hundred new samples of every grass, bush and tree he could recognize as distinct, as well as photos of the site at which they were collected, and an audio recording of his observations and impressions. Although he was a botanist he also grabbed samples of insects or even small animals if he saw something interesting. That was Jack’s area of study, but he could follow up on anything Gordon brought back worth pursuing. He even on occasion brought back an interesting rock for Myrtle, their geologist, to examine.
Myrtle handed Gordon a large sauce pot for a mug and he poured himself a couple liters of dark rich coffee. Now that the three adults were together they popped the tabs on some self-heating dinners, the Derf requiring a few extra of course.
“Lee sleeping?” Gordon asked.
“Yes, she wore herself out this afternoon cutting fire wood,” he pointed at a pile of kindling. “She wouldn’t use a power tool saying she needed to know how to do it the old way with a saw and ax in case it was ever a necessity. But her dad did take the ax away when she got so tired she was getting punchy. She stayed awake long enough to eat most of a ration pack and crawled in the sack.”
“That kid is into the self sufficiency stuff so much she’ll want to spin the thread and weave her own cloth next time she needs a pair of jeans.” Gordon joked. “You’d think she wanted to stay and be a pioneer.”
“God, don’t give her the idea. It’s bad enough what she comes up with all on her own. She wanted to know last week how hard it would be to smelt some copper from that ore body we found,” her mother said.
“Would it be all that difficult if we had coal or made some charcoal?”
“No, but she didn’t really have anything she wanted to make with it. She just thought it would be cool to do,” Jack explained. “Then we’d have a heavy hunk of copper we’d have to lug around as a keepsake until she got tired of it. At least when she was on the bread baking kick we ate it up. I deflected her by telling her about native copper, so now she’s carrying a sensor pad with mineral software around everywhere and looking for native metals. Who knows? She may find some.”
“If she does I’ll list it as a separate land patent in her name,” her mother said. “We’ve hit the legal limits to our claims as individuals, but nothing I’ve ever read in the codes says a minor member of an exploration party can’t make claims,” her mom said. They grinned all around happy to be reminded of their good fortune to have a find worth even their junior member writing claims. They never had before.
“Likely nobody ever envisioned explorers having children along,” Gordon mused, careful not to sound critical. They certainly hadn’t, it was most irregular. “What you got heating there?” he asked, pointing at the self heating meals. He pulled his great ax from his belt and held it, edge away, for a serving platter with his heavy clawed lower arms. He shattered one of the roots on the flat of the ax before peeling the foil open exposing the creamy beads. The rich odor was mouth watering.
“Two braised liver,” Myrtle made a face to show what she thought of that. “And two fish,” she said, pushing them across to Gordon.
“Umm-um,” he made a fuss over them, ignoring Myrtle’s tongue tip thrust out in disgust. They’d done this a hundred times and it was just expected now. After fourteen years together they had a lot of little rituals and jokes they went through. Although the humans were the married couple all three of them could finish each other’s sentences, and knew at a glance in the morning when to tread lightly and not hassle one of them who was having a bad day.
Lee had been born onboard three years into their first trip, so Gordon had known her from the start, eleven Earth years, pushing twelve now. She was a big girl for eleven but not heavy at all, just long limbed and promising to be a big woman when grown.
Gordon ripped the cover back from the two liver meals and dumped the contents on top of the pearl potatoes. The sautéed onions and bacon really made it for him. He produced a huge antique serving fork in sterling silver and mixed the ingredients on his ax face. Myrtle ignored him and dug into her own Pot Roast and vegetables.
Eight bites later he was ready to do the same with the remaining potatoes and fish. The fish had macaroni and cheese with it. Gordon wasn’t supposed to eat much cheese, but they wouldn’t be closed in with him tonight so it wouldn’t matter.
Gordon finished first and curled back to the fire on a ground cover in a furry mound with his weapons beside him. When the humans went to bed they piled enough fresh wood on the fire to qualify it as a bonfire, and checked the perimeter sensors before joining their daughter in the tent. Gordon didn’t stir at their activity.
* * *
The insistent buzz of the perimeter alarm jolted Gordon out of his sleep. He slapped the shut off on his pad and reached down tugging up the seals on his boots. By the time he stood, slid his pistol in its holster and tucked his ax in his belt Jack was standing at the entry of their tent with a long gun. Everybody was awake by then, so Gordon went ahead and flipped the perimeter lights on.
There was a bobbing, rippling front of gray-green movement approaching, so solid he thought at first glance it was a flash flood. Then the movement and color resolved in the harsh light into a detail of bobbing heads with big eyes, above bodies shoving forward shoulder to shoulder. The hot wire on the perimeter that would stop a single large predator hadn’t stood against a pack that crushed the front runners over it from behind. They were eerily silent except for the drumming of taloned feet on the soft ground. Jack let off a long burst of automatic fire that cut the entire front row down. The living flood just rolled over the hump of bodies without pause.
Gordon picked up his long weapon and flicked the selector to flechettes. The darts from the 30mm shotgun tore through three or four ranks of the reptilian creatures before they lost momentum. That cut a real notch in their ranks, but the pack was so big they were being flanked. He couldn’t spare the time to look, but Jack’s weapon sounded its higher pitched stutter again and was joined by a second long chatter that would be Myrtle firing beside Jack.
He saw a movement in the corner of his eye and turned. The approaching creature leaped as it attacked to bring its hind legs up to claw. Gordon sidestepped and swung the butt of his weapon catching it under the chin and folding its head back at an angle nothing with a spine could survive. He dropped the muzzle again and swept all behind them cutting down the ones who had flanked them and were trying to circle back. The lights seemed to blind them because they stumbled into each other.
By the time he’d turned full circle spraying a line of death all the creatures were down except where his friends were under a roiling sea green clump. The tent behind them was collapsed. Out of flechettes, he switched to solid rounds and aimed head high afraid of hitting his partners on the bottom of the pile. Most of them went down with one long stuttering burst, but a couple who’d been leaning below his line of fire turned and rushed him. He dropped the rifle and pulled his ax from his belt swinging it double handed. The first jumped from so far out it was easy to sidestep for someone with his reflexes, and once in the air the creature couldn’t change its trajectory.
His ax bit almost to the center of the lead creature’s body as it flew past. Stinging hot blood sprayed down his arm clear to his shoulder steaming in the cold night air. Even mortally wounded it was voiceless. The second animal seeing its partner killed changed tactics and ran in at him head low and jaws open. He swung the ax backhand catching it on the side of its round head with the flat of the blade. The muted clang left one side of its head as flat as the ax, and it rolled away legs still running though it was dead. At last it was still and quiet, nothing in sight standing. He turned slowly looking for signs of any stirring. The still air was heavy with the sharp smell of propellant and the rich butchery smell of hot smashed bodies.
Gordon grabbed the long lizard tail of one of the dead, dragging it off the pile at the tent entry. It looked pretty much like pictures he’d seen of a Velociraptor. Shorten the neck a bit and make the head egg shaped and it was close enough. He kept digging until he pulled the last one off his friend Jack. Myrtle was tucked halfway under him. Then he sat down and cried.
After awhile he continued. They’d got past his partners inside the tent and he slit it open with his ax pulling the dead creatures away. The sleeping bag he uncovered was ripped and chewed but looking closer he was surprised to see it was whole and peppered with small holes. Lee had shot from inside her bag defending herself with her pistol. When he didn’t move or make noise for a moment there was a hesitant – “Dad?”
“No, Lee – your uncle Gordon. Don’t shoot.”
“They’re dead aren’t they? I heard you crying.”
“Yes, honey. I’m sorry. I did all I could. There were just too many of them.”
“Uncle Gordon I need to go to the bathroom really bad. Can I go to the latrine?”
That was a problem. Their camp latrine was under a heap of dead monsters. “Lee, there’s some things there I don’t want you to see. Will you promise me to keep your eyes closed and I’ll carry you?”
He let the child unzip the bag, her small fingers better for the task, and scooped her up one armed, pistol in his other true arm and ax in his powerful lower arms, claws set in the wooden shaft. She pushed her face against his chest and grasped his combat harness, his chest fur too short to hang onto.
Opposite the tent from the bodies he stopped after about twenty meters and made sure she couldn’t see her parents from there.
“Okay, down and do your business while I guard.” He leaned over and scooped a hole with a single swipe of a lower arm, claws turning back a big divot of sod. He stood back up stretched tall, slowly scanning for danger. As always with humans the stink was terrible. Not that any of them could help it, but his nose was always offended.
“I don’t have any paper here,” Lee complained.
“I’m not stepping away from you for anything,” Gordon informed her. “There may be some straggler come waltzing in after the pack or a wounded one could get sorted out and rush us.”
“Never mind,” Lee said and shrugged out of her undershirt and cleaned herself thoroughly with that, throwing it in the hole too. Then she kicked the divot in to spare him bending back down. She knew how badly the smell bothered him.
“Up, on my neck Lee. I’m going to put you in the air-car, and then I’ll get just a few things we need to take back. We’ll stay in there until morning. I don’t want to fly back to the shuttle in the dark. I’ve never been a great air-car pilot. The seat moves back far enough for me but the controls are still human sized. I really have to have a delicate hand to use them.”
Lee settled on his shoulders legs around his great neck and grabbed the mat of fur under his ears on each side. He rose to look around and then settled back to six limbs to lope up the hill to where their air-car was parked still within the lighted perimeter.
“Uncle Gordon, I’m afraid. If more of those animals come and get you I’ll be stranded all alone. I can’t run the shuttle or the ship. Can’t you stay inside with me where it’s safe until morning and then get the things you need in daylight?
He was afraid that by morning there would be scavengers. He wanted to recover the Andersons as whole as possible, also a single copy of the creatures that attacked them. But what the girl said was true. If he did something stupid and got himself killed she would die too. Maybe the lights would keep the bigger ones away. It would be unkind to scare her all over again by leaving her alone.
“Okay Lee. We’ll do it your way and in the morning I’ll lift the air car and look all around before grabbing the stuff from our camp. I don’t know why we didn’t see any of these critters on scan when we surveyed the area. They’re hot blooded. The one sprayed blood on me when I axed him and it almost scalded me. They should have stood out like a beacon on infrared. Even if they were solitary and only form up a pack when they run prey there weren’t enough single animals on scan to make this group up. Not within fifty kilometers. Even if we had raised full chain link hot fences and razor wire rolls in between I’m not sure that pack wouldn’t have pushed it down,” he said, frustrated.
“Maybe they weren’t hot when you looked.”
“Maybe when they are full they are cold blooded and sit around digesting for a long time to make it last, but when they get hungry they switch on and get hot blooded to make running and hunting easier.”
“That’s really good thinking Lee. You might just have something there.” He lifted her off double handed, and through the hatch into the car. He pulled out a couple blankets they used as lap robes and laid them on the seat for her. He’d just curl in a ball on the flat cargo area behind the seats.
“I know it may be hard, but we’re safe in here, just lay still and rest if you can’t sleep. He laid his ax under his elbow and hitched his pistol around where it wasn’t in the way and tucked himself in a ball. Sleep for him came surprisingly easy.