Phenix Part 1: Predator
The first draft of chapter one is finished. It runs to 19 pages. Tell me what you think please.
Joshua crouched on the massive deadfall and scanned the open forest floor. After seven months, the familiar scent of decay no longer seemed so alien to him. The long dappled trunk extended away from him until it thrust out into bright light over the narrow gorge. The rapids ahead masked the sounds of the tall forest around him. A StarBurst frozen by his worn shoe scuttled on twelve legs toward the safety of a cavity in the deadfall. Some creature scuttled up the emerald green trunk of a souring Queen Tree.
The eighteen year old scanned the game trail ten paces to the left of the fallen trunk. The well used trail led to a steep washout descending down to the swiftly flowing river. The understory was knee high with fractal ferns, fragile yellow blooms, and broad leaf shrubs, giving the young man an unobstructed view in all directions. Even so, he kept a watchful eye out for smaller predators. In the early afternoon heat, the most dangerous of those were dozing the day away. This was the territory of a pack of Frightfuls. Joshua could expect to encounter their competition most hunts.
Joshua rotated on his haunches very slowly until he had Ashabi in his sights. She was down the trail behind him in the tree stand they had built. The first branches of the Bowl Tree she perched on were far above her. Like Joshua, she was scanning the forest floor for both danger and opportunity. Her first crossbow was poised in her hand and a second weapon lay cocked beside her. She slowly raised a fist and signalled the approach of their prey.
The hunter on the ground slipped silently off the rotting log and like a ghost floated lightly to a second tree. He picked a heavy branch above his head, put a hand on the heavy homemade grapple gun slung beside his light pack, checking to see if it was ready for a quick escape into the tree. The barrier of the log, rich with the odour of decay masked his alien scent from the approaching line of Red Roasters. Ashabi would take the shot today and Joshua would recover the carcass before they had to wrestle it away from the ravenous Frightfuls.
The white noise of the rapids made it difficult to hear the patter of feet or the hum of the slim crossbow bolt when Ashabi fired. He waited for her shrill whistle before moving back to the trail. His hunting partner’s bolt had brought down a young beast. The brightly coloured female and rest of of her dull male entourage had scattered when their companion fell. There were no targets for Joshua. He glanced at Ashabi, still in the tree stand. She was searching the surrounding area for incoming predators.
Mottled camouflage flecked with the ocor hues of of the earth beneath his feet would make a useful hide. Joshua fell on the carcass with his long knife. Once the dead Red Roaster was dressed, he trussed it by its back running legs and threw the heavy load over his shoulder. Ashabi called a sharp warning, “Josh!” Her voice carried over the cacophony of running water. Fliers of every hue lifted in the trees filling the forest with their piercing trills. The Frightfuls had probably heard her first whistle and caught the scent of humans or the fresh kill. Joshua did not wait for her. He broke into a jog, the dead weight of the gutted animal hitting his back with each step. Ashabi would be following now.
The forest was more familiar to him now than the corridors and plazas of the Báihè, the White Crane, that had stranded them to this world. He knew the shortest route to the safety of their damaged lifeboat. The wiry young man jogged on. Occasionally, Joshua took a turn, anticipating obstacles in their path. He glanced once over his shoulder to check on Ashabi. “Just keep moving Josh!” He grinned. She was two years younger, tall as he was and whip thin. She was built for this. The race was an old game and the pack closing in on them was not the most frightening thing in the endless forest.
The pack of Frightfuls was closer than the two teenagers had hoped. Joshua pulled up short as five greyhound shadows slipped around from the right, blocking their way to the still distant safety of the lifeboat. Ashabi stepped in front of him and took down the first predator with a well placed bolt. The remaining four animals screeched amongst themselves in a pitch so high the two humans barely registered it. There was a pause as the humans caught their breath and the animals paced cautiously watching the pair. Josh had his own crossbow ready as Ashabi quickly rearmed.
“Five here, the rest must be fighting over the guts.” Joshua observed calmly. He considered a shot. His target skittered away as his crossbow tracked it. Frightfuls knew the two humans well. They were disturbingly intelligent. “We should grapple into this tree.”
“They are pretty close.”
“You go first while I cover you.” Joshua advised. Ashabi took a look up into the tree for a likely branch. She could snag the nearest branch, but it was badly placed to help her partner.
“Not a chance Josh. You would be overwhelmed by them before I could get into position. We go up together, or I stay here with you.” Joshua could hear the anger in Ashabi’s voice. “We take turns. You first. It’s the long knives when they get in close.” Joshua agreed. His first bolt missed. While he reloaded, Ashabi held the pack at bay. They took three down before the remaining one was joined by its missing companions. “Love you Josh.” Ashabi snarled as she dropped the next attacker. Joshua let his empty crossbow fall and pulled the 50 centimeters of steel free.
“Keep the tree behind us.” They stepped back from their kill, hoping the prize might distract the pack. Joshua stopped when his pack bumped into the trunk. Ashabi brushed his shoulder. Four keening predators inched closer.
The rifle shots were unexpected. Ashabi and Joshua were so intent on their pursuers it took a moment for the first animal’s sudden collapse to register. The second one was down before the remaining pair shot off into the forest. Ashabi and Joshua were stunned. It had been a long time since either of them had heard the loud report of a rifle. The surviving Frightfuls had long memories though. They knew the lethal sound well. The pack of males had been decimated by the humans before.
Ashabi threw herself in Joshua’s arms and buried her face in his chest. He patted her gently, and looked around for the person who had saved them. “Thanks!” But the word could not convey the relief and hope he felt. It seemed their long isolation and hopeless struggle for survival was finally at an end. The pair of young people sheathed their long knives and retrieved the crossbows. Out of habit, they rearmed, keeping watchful eyes on the shadows cast by the thick towers around them. Ashabi touched Joshua’s arm and pointed.
He came out of the forest from the direction of the river. It was a youngster with a pack and an assault rifle resting on his shoulder. His tattered clothing was sizes too large for his emaciated frame. He limped toward them slowly. One leg was wrapped in a blood stained bandage high on his left thigh. He looked as overwhelmed to see them as they were to encounter him out there in the unforgiving alien landscape. The boy stopped well short of them. Tears trickled down his dirty cheeks. There was a sharp sob of relief. The boy opened mouth a few times as if speech came hard. Finally he croaked, “Hello, I’m Mateo.” After that, he stood crying until first Ashabi and then Joshua came forward and wrapped him in their arms.
The pair took Mateo and their kill back toward the lifeboat in the middle of the clearing. There was no time to talk as they threaded their way through the great trees. Joshua helped support their new companion when his leg gave out. Everyone was alert for the next danger. As they stopped to jump the last small stream, Joshua made them pause while he skinned, rinsed the carcass and washed himself off as best he could. Ashabi pulled a large water bag from her pack and began to fill it.
While his new companions were busy, Mateo looked at the lifeboat. It was not so much in the middle of the clearing as halfway toward the stream. Like all the other lifeboats, it reminded Mateo of a squashed cone. It was very like the historic capsules designed to fall like uncontrolled rocks through the atmosphere. Joshua and Ashabi had been busy. A rough ramp lay in front of the emergency door in the side. A wood structure with an awning of some sort had been added to the top. There would be a good view of the surrounding field from there, Mateo concluded. Despite his exhaustion and faltering leg, he grabbed one handle while she took the other, and they took the water bag on toward their shelter.
Mateo paused when he reached the emergency door to the lifeboat. He ran a hand over one of the deep scratches along the hull. Grooves showed where some powerful claws had tried to pry the door open. Joshua saw his gesture. “That’s the Horror.” He explained bleakly when Mateo met his eyes.
Joshua and Ashabi had cleared out most of the crash couches inside the lifeboat. Mateo made no comment on the absent occupants of the abandoned couches beside the lifeboat. He watched as Ashabi poured the water he had helped carry into the lifeboat’s purification system. She saw him watching her. “The system’s good, but we still have to top it up from time to time. There’s always some loss.” He nodded understanding, glad to know the lifeboat was not completely dead. She packed the empty bag back into her pack. “Josh should look at your leg while I get you some food.”
Joshua gave Mateo a critical look. “How old are you?” He had walked over to the sketch of a kitchen provided by the lifeboat. Ashabi was already efficiently carving the Red Roaster carcass into manageable pieces and pushing them into the food processor.
“Fourteen now, I guess.” Time, in the endless forest on an unfamiliar planet, was hard to gage.
“You’re starving. Your body has started to eat itself.” Ashabi paused long enough to pull a Jùmò bar out of the dispenser. She tossed it over to Mateo and resumed cutting the meat.
“Let’s see your leg Mateo.” Joshua brought a first aid kit over to where the boy was standing. Mateo paused, reluctant to drop his pack, or let go of the rifle. The smudged yellow padding of the walls and familiar synthetic fittings were vastly reassuring. It hit the young teenager that he was finally safe. A shudder wracked his frail body and he sighed. He offered the rifle to the eighteen year old, studying Joshua’s face carefully as he did so. Joshua dismissed it with a glance, and then began checking the medical kit. “Just put it down by the door. You seem to know how to use it better than we would.” More tension drained away. Mateo left his pack beside the rifle and limped back to Joshua.
Mateo tore into the tasteless Jùmò bar knowing his body desperately needed something essential missing in the native diet. He let Joshua examine the ugly gash along his flank. One sharp claw had sliced deep into his muscle. He had tried to close it with a binding. He had started running towards Ashabi’s voice when he heard her warning Joshua. It had begun bleeding again.
“When did this happen?” Joshua asked probing the ugly wound gently.
“Good, I think we can do something about it. “Take a shower first. We still have enough power for that.” Joshua pointed unnecessarily toward the claustrophobic tube beside the toilet.
The water was hot. Mateo’s tears of relief mingled with the water streaming over his face. After so many days by himself, watching All his companions die, the simple ritual tore him apart. He irrigated his wound carefully, watching fresh blood fall in runnels down his leg. He used the soap sparingly, uncertain of the lifeboat’s resources. Ashabi smiled at him when he finally stepped out. “I hope I didn't stay in too long.” She shook her head.
They climbed the central ladder through the airlock and up onto Ashabi and Joshua’s deck. They were shaded from the afternoon sun by a light cover of Fan Leaves. Ashabi had added some peppery native spice to the meat she reserved to cook in the microwave. It masked the slightly unpalatable flavour of the alien flesh. After seven months, eating off the planet was still an acquired taste, but it was a welcome change from the nutritionally complete, but uninspired ration bars.
“What happened to everyone else here?” Mateo asked hesitantly. Joshua looked at Ashabi. He was unsure what to say.
“Go ahead Josh, just tell him.” Ashabi replied. She stood up and grabbed their plates. Joshua sighed and began as she dropped down into the lifeboat. Mateo listened, as questions swirled around in his head.
When the colony ship Báihè was evacuated, Joshua and Ashabi found themselves crowded with thirty five others onto the lifeboat. Some of the families had been prodded into the small emergency craft by armed crew members. “We floated dark for weeks.” Mateo nodded, there had been fear and confusion when everyone realized the Báihè had been attacked. Lifeboats scattered randomly, drifting in space, before turning automatically toward the unexpected refuge of a habitable planet. Joshua past over that quickly. The fall into the planet’s gravity well had been controlled by automated systems. Nobody on their lifeboat could modify their descent, so their lifeboat had landed alone.
“We are only ten days walk from you.” Mateo offered. “You didn’t meet anyone else from our boat?” Joshua shook his head.
The first weeks in the forest were a disaster. Exploration parties disappeared, children died from unknown predators and toxic fruit. There was at least one suicide. Joshua shared it all with a dull voice. The stress in the lifeboat was so bad, he had taken to wandering the forest by himself.
“The Báihè’s recall beacon popped up about the fourth week.” There was immense relief amongst most of the survivors. A party was quickly organized to find the remains of the colony ship. The surviving children were left with parents and a group of hunters. Radio contact with the expedition was quickly lost. Hope died amongst the remaining castaways. “Ashabi’s mother was leading them. Her mother was the only member of the crew with us”
Things got worse after that. A survivalist faction formed among the men. People that might have kept things civil started disappearing during the hunts. After another month, they were down to eighteen and six of those were children. “They tried to get rid of me too.” Joshua added. The four remaining men began to terrorize the women using their children as leverage. Joshua knew the forest better than anyone by that point. His solitary wandering had left him with few friends amongst the adults. “It wasn't safe around the lifeboat. I grabbed Ashabi and what I could take while the men were hunting and we hid in the forest nearby. None of the others would come with us. They wouldn’t let me take any of the kids either.” Joshua stopped, his face haunted by some memory.
“Those rapists thought they were good hunters after just a few months. Josh was better. He found a tree we could climb. He had been hiding there for about five days. Those animals had tried to kill him on a hunt.” Ashabi was in the hatch looking up at Joshua softly as she spoke. “Josh didn’t know the gang planned to drag everyone off to the Báihè.”
“Do you think they made it to where it went down?” Mateo was concerned. The Báihè was where he was supposed to go. People were counting on him back at his own lifeboat.
“I don’t know Mateo. My mom left with the only receiver we had. She told those of us who stayed behind that the ship came down about one hundred kilometres to the south west of here. She told us if we didn’t hear from the search party we might have to follow them using a compass.” Nobody had left an emergency raiding for them either.
“So they left and you two stayed here.” Mateo hesitated before asking, “Why did you stay all these months?” He wondered if they had been frightened to leave the safety of the lifeboat. That was why he was out on his own. The two teenager’s account of the first weeks was much like his own experience. His lifeboat had been spared the savagery Joshua and Ashabi described. Perhaps Mateo should feel grateful for that. It had all been as civilized as possible amongst the families in his lifeboat. They all voted democratically to cast the expendable out on the pretext they were a rescue party. Mateo and two companions had left the survivors at his lifeboat. The fourteen year old and his companions were inconvenient. Mateo thought of the boy and girl he had left dead on the long hike.
“We don’t know where to go.” Joshua said simply. “I suppose at first, we did not want to run into the bastards as we groped around. They left three of the little boys behind with their throats cut.” Joshua’s voice was cold with anger.
“But they took all of the girls.” Ashabi added acidly. The partners looked at each other silently. Ashabi continued after a moment. “They tried to strip the lifeboat. Luckily, most of the systems were locked down. The lifeboat seemed dead at that point. Systems started to come on line about three months ago. Everything except the boat’s drive and communication. Even so, we needed those systems.” She came back to her seat. Ashabi explained that whatever was left of the Báihè might have reactivated the lifeboat systems. Her mother had explained that all the lifeboats and the colony ship itself had likely gone dark to minimize detection from whatever had fired on it. Ashabi thought the danger must be past now. “If we had even a compass we could try and find the Báihè.”
“What if they are there Ash?” Joshua asked.
“What if my mom, the command crew, or other survivors are there?” She replied. It sounded like a tired argument to Mateo because after that, neither continued.
“I have our lifeboat’s receiver.” Mateo commented softly. Joshua and Ashabi looked at him. They understood the offer the teenager was making.
They retreated down into the lifeboat when night fell and Mateo was reassured when the heavy airlock door was sealed. He was a sewer rat from the lowest levels of Bengaluru, the largest city on Olorun. The boy had thought the forgotten roads of Bengaluru were frightening until he had walked the game trails of this unnamed planet. The curved walls and winking lights were comforting.
“It could be quiet tonight.” Ashabi had retreated to the large bed cobbled together in the corner. She sat with her arms wrapped around her legs. Mateo stared at her, conscious that she was an attractive person. “It’s been twenty days. Maybe a few days yet before she comes back to hunt here.” Mateo gazed on until Joshua nudged his arm. He glanced at the older teenager.
“Hey, show me your gun why don’t you? There may still be some ammunition kicking around.” Joshua sat very close to Mateo with the rifle between them. Mateo offered Joshua the gun, he simply rested it on the floor between his knees. Joshua was preoccupied. “There’s no ammunition Mateo. Ash says the lifeboat can’t make any. Take it easy on Ashabi, Mateo. Those guys were pretty hard on her. They were all fighting to have her to themselves like it was still the twentieth century.” Joshua’s voice was a whisper in the confined space.
Mateo blushed. He was not naive. He had been a sexual target himself often enough. Most young people were in his old street world on Olorun. He was the stranger here still, and the youngest. He did not think Ashabi was the one who needed to feel vulnerable. “No worries.” Mateo said softly. He took his gun back and put it back by the closed emergency door.
Mateo ate another two Jùmò bars as he sat in a crash couch. The flavour was uninspired, but his body was craving something. Ashabi was lying on the bed across the room, curled toward him. Joshua stood between them protectively. He was pulling off his clothes in the reassuring glow of some system lights scattered around the cabin. There were three parallel scars on the young man’s back. Mateo examined them. They began slightly below the left shoulder blade and ran diagonally down to his belt. When Joshua pulled off his pants, Mateo followed the cords of scar tissue down to Joshua’s right calf. It was a horrible wound. Ashabi’s eyes glittered back at Mateo when his darted her way. They shared a moment while Joshua dropped beside her.
Ashabi rolled over when her partner touched her shoulder. Mateo looked away feeling alone as the two teenagers began a murmured conversation. He shifted on the couch, feeling awkward, but still grateful for the comforting sense of humanity surrounding him. The machined edges, soft gel of the cushions whispered safety and hope. Somewhere out there, at the end of his journey was the remains of the colony ship. The recall beacon broadcast hope that he could escape the nightmare of this deadly planet and the savage human survivors killing each other as they slowly starved to death.
Ashabi touched the boy’s shoulder softly to wake him. He turned toward her with a start and looked at her with startled eyes. His serious face mirrored her own. Ashabi dropped down to her knees beside the fourteen year old. She put a hand on his calf as if her unconsciously naked body was not enough to hold his attention. “Josh worries about me.” Ashabi began in a whisper.
“I grew up on the long hauls between the stars. I know starships. Báihè was my home for ten years, the crew was my family. Josh grew up on a planet like this. He knows how to survive here. If he had gone with my mom,” It must have been an old thought and she stopped herself. “Well, mom wanted him to stay here and help everyone.” Ashabi frowned, and then she went back to whispering. “Garver took a shot at Joshua while he was searching for tracks. Josh got hit in the shoulder but the slug went right through. When those assholes came back without him, I was sure he was dead. All he had was a pocket knife. He came back for me five days later. Five days in the forest with only that little knife.” Ashabi looked at Mateo in disbelief.
“Josh is shy about those scars, so don't ask him. The Horror caught up with him before he could climb high enough. It can climb like a cat, but it's heavy, and if you have a long spear you can keep it away.” She gave Mateo’s leg a little shake. “Mateo, Josh is a good person, maybe the best person I've ever met. He cried like a baby when he saw those three little boys, of course those kids always followed him around like puppies.”
“He told you what happened to me?” Ashabi was calm.
“Enough.” Mateo muttered back. Even so much brought a blush.
“They were raping me.” She said it simply. “So he worries about it all the time. Mateo, this is not a place to be alone. You saved our lives today. We won't ever forget that.” Ashabi stood up and held her hand out to him. Mateo looked up at her and then took her hand. His leg was throbbing and it was hard to put weight on it. Ashabi helped him up.
Mateo was mute as the girl encouraged him to undress. Just as Ashabi and Joshua had disrobed in a simple thoughtless routine, Mateo stripped his worn clothing off and tossed it onto the chair. Ashabi smiled at him, telegraphing her approval of his young body without offering any intimate invitation. He was still shy, so she took his hand without comment and led him over to the bed where Joshua lay. He stood looking down uncertainly. “You in the middle tonight.” She laughed and pushed him toward the bed.
The fourteen year old lay between the older teenagers. Joshua shifted slightly over to give him more room. Ashabi ran a hand down his chest, as if to settle him, before turning her back. The three lay together as the humid forest air whispered from the ventilators. A steady rain washed over the thick windows beside the door. Mateo’s wound throbbed painfully. When he shifted around, he cursed under his breath. He had found the safety of the lifeboat just in time. Joshua heard Mateo and turned over. “It hurts?” Mateo brushed it off, but Joshua got up. He came back to the bed with a small leaf. “Chew this, it will probably cause cancer, or dementia. I have no clue what it does to humans, but I know it will help the pain.” Mateo tried the dry leaf. Before long the pain faded away. He lay stoned between his new companions. He traced a finger along Joshua’s back following a scar’s path over the young man’s contours.
She loped along the game trail on her running legs. She was young and she feared nothing in the forest. Hatchlings of her kind had to avoid the packs of predators, but once she had lived through her first seasons of rains, only a female of her own kind could challenge her. Her mother had chased her away and a few of the youngest males had chosen to follow her at a respectful distance. She jealously guarded her vast territory, patrolling its borders in a pattern that followed the patterns of her prey. The females instinctively avoid each other. Small packs of the smaller males roamed their territories looking for potential mates. She culled the weakest when they swarmed her In season. Small as they were, the males were competition for her prey and only a few were really needed to guard her eggs.
A slow procession of ponderous herbivores pushed their way between trees close at hand. She paused in her endless quest to consider the herd. She would only attempt to take a new hatchling of these behemoths. The adult females stood six metres at the shoulder on six solid feet. Long articulated tongues reached up to delicately strip low slung branches bare. Beneath the shifting feet, small tasty runners darted about nosing out wildlife disturbed by their heavy companions. Three saucy runners paused to eye the deadly Horror. She eyed them back. Before she might dash in and snag one, the slippery creatures would slip back among the shifting legs. It was a game of tag she couldn't win. The herd leader eyed a young tree along the margin of a meadow. Satisfied, she reared her forelegs off the ground and walked them up the trunk. Her middle legs followed next and then the trunk gave way. The matron rode the tree down to the ground. She, her sisters, and their harem crowded around. The Horror moved on through the forest.
The heavy rain that dropped off of her feathers could not mask the scent of death or the acrid odor of a death stick. She froze instantly, heightened senses absorbing the surrounding forest. She was alone, though the scent of strange crippled little Climbers violated her territory. The female moved forward cautiously. The weak sticks were only an annoyance, but the death sticks left poison so deep her claws could not gouge it out.
The forest floor was littered with dead Grey Ones. Small scavengers scattered at her approach. She ripped a haunch off a Grey with a gripping leg and ate it as she drank in the story. The Climbers had killed meat nearby. One Climber was wounded. The burnt tree smell of the Climber’s death stick was strong. The trail of the Climbers went off toward the white rock in the clearing.
The female followed the scent to the white rock and sat watching it from across the stream. The clever Climbers were in their den. She watched for a time and then darted off back along the way she had come. The wounded one had left a clear trail. It might lead her to others of its kind. The new Climbers made poor eating, but they were unwelcome competitors that needed culling.
Joshua woke to find Mateo’s arm draped over his waist. He could feel the boy’s warm breath on his back. He lay still, letting the exhausted boy rest. Joshua knew what it was like to walk the baffling alien forest alone. Nothing could be taken for granted. Life everywhere, but no idea what was safe to eat. Growing weaker every day as Frightful’s shadow your steps. Joshua shifted slowly onto his back, trying not to disturb Mateo. He did anyway. The young teenager opened droopy eyes and gave an adolescent frown. After shifting back against Joshua, he seemed to fall back into a deep sleep.
Joshua lay looking at the ceiling thinking about Mateo’s serendipitous receiver. The teenager and his receiver changed everything for Joshua and Ashabi. The lifeboat was never seriously intended to support survival at the bottom of a gravity well. Lifeboats were intended for rapid movement of people off a failing ship to other ships nearby. As a forlorn hope, lifeboats might link up in orbit or on a rocky body to fabricate life support systems until delayed rescue arrived. Ashabi had told Joshua that lifeboats were a joke among the crew. Most ships ended their life in catastrophic failure and there was no time to even think about escape.
Mateo straightened beside, him bringing his body closer. Ashabi had rolled over to sandwich the teenager between them. Joshua lifted his head off the pillow and smiled at her fondly. Her hand dropped on Mateo’s hip. Joshua went back to contemplating the ceiling as his thoughts wandered back to survival.
Ashabi informed him that the lifeboat’s reserves were running low. The food supply was secure, until the yeast for the Jùmò bars became contaminated by something in the alien meat she kept adding. Two adolescent bodies did not put much pressure on any of the lifeboat’s limited systems. The lifeboat’s little factory would keep cannibalizing the structure of the boat for a time before it too wore out. Power was a greater problem. Most of it had been suppressed by the Báihè as soon as the lifeboat touched down. Ashabi spent most of her free time trying to convince the lifeboat to release control to her. Joshua spent his time learning to fabricate tools like an axe, saw, or the grapples they now used to escape into the trees.
They had to go somewhere eventually. Until Mateo hobbled into their lives, leaving the lifeboat had seemed about as sensible as abandoning a raft in the middle of the ocean and swimming desperately toward an empty horizon as the sharks circled you. Joshua understood why someone might do that, but the outcome was pretty much a forgone conclusion. The sharks might still be there there, only now Mateo had given Joshua an island to swim toward.
Ashabi reached over Mateo’s sleeping body and brushed her fingers through Joshua’s ragged hair. She propped herself up on one elbow. She could imagine what Joshua was thinking. He glanced at her and then resumed looking up at the ceiling. Mateo stirred between them so she soothed him with a few gentle strokes until he dropped back into a healing sleep. “Ashabi,” Joshua whispered. “What do you think we will find when we get to the Báihè?” It was the familiar question once again.
“She was never designed to enter the atmosphere. Báihè’s a big object though, and the command crew would have gathered on the bridge to try to bring her down. The bridge is in the engineering sphere at the back of the ring. The ring would shield the sphere from the worst of the heat. Something happened to them and the engineering crew as well, or we would have heard from them by now. It did not disintegrate and leave nothing but a big crater Or we would not have received the signal.” Ashabi paused. Everything to this point had been spoken in the tone of a frequent recitation. Joshua took up the list in the same tone.
“She is massive. Parts of her should be fine. There may be power. Báihè,” And here, Joshua was referring to the artificial intelligence, not the superstructure. “Báihè probably survived.”
“But Báihè is still afraid to broadcast more than the low level recall signal. She can’t come get us because...”
“... The two shuttles located on the south side of the ring would be trapped or damaged by the landing, and the two shuttles on the north side of the ring were probably lost in the attack when we dropped back into the material world. Otherwise, they would come for us.” Ashabi finished for him. She peered at Mateo’s face with a motherly concern, and then back at Joshua’s eyes, blinking up at the ceiling. “When do we go?” She asked. Joshua rolled toward her from his side of Mateo. They both glanced at the fourteen year old before smiling at each other.
“He is hurt pretty badly. He is not up to a hike yet, let alone climbing to safety in the trees. We need to manufacture a few things now that there are three of us before we can go anyway.”
“And the Bitch is back.” Ashabi added.
“We don’t know that it is female.” Joshua countered mildly.
“Oh yes I do. She’s a bitch alright, trust me.” Ashabi whispered bitterly. “So we wait till she pokes around again, eats everything in sight, and then moves off.”
“That will give us about three weeks to try and reach what’s left of the Báihè.” Joshua reached a hand over Mateo and Ashabi grasped it tightly. He pulled her hand over to kiss the fingers lightly. They reluctantly let the twined fingers slip free. “What do you think of him?” Joshua asked her.
“It’s hard to say. He has come through a rough time and I think he is a little in shock.” She looked up and down their new companion as if she could read his nature in the adolescent curves. “He saved us and he didn’t shoot you.” She smiled at Joshua.
“I don’t recognize him Ash. I talked to a few of the people in his group though. There were about thirty of them. Almost all of them had gang tattoos on their necks.” He paused as Ashabi traced a finger along Mateo’s unblemished collar bone. She raised an eyebrow at Joshua. “Let him sleep.” Joshua scolded her. Ashabi pouted back.
“Their city swept them off the street, or pulled them from jails, and volunteered them for resettlement on Lánbǎoshí. Very polite people, Ash. Still, they had hard eyes that made me nervous. I did not get that vibe from Mateo last night. I guess he is one of the younger ones though.” Joshua looked at the teenager’s peaceful face.
“Think about it Ash, sure we had those Neanderthal rapists to deal with, think about him and his companions on that lifeboat. Those people with their righteous excuse that they had families to protect. They probably just saw three problems to get rid of. Send the young street punks off into danger, their lives are less valuable.”
“He’s here with us now.” Ashabi pointed out.
“Yes” Joshua agreed. “I think he will be fine.”
Mateo chafed at being kept near the lifeboat. Ashabi scolded him every time he exerted himself too much. He tried to be resigned to the situation. Joshua and Ashabi were joining him when he left. That was all that really mattered. Nobody was moving far from the lifeboat. The hunt had been successful and his new companions shared their different skills with him.
Ashabi taught Mateo how the lifeboat systems worked. Despite their intention to leave, she never stopped trying to hack the lifeboat’s controls. She confessed her ambition was to lift it over to the Báihè. To Ashabi, a hundred kilometres was a frustratingly short distance. Mateo fiddled with the kitchen controls and found a way to concoct a more appetizing Jùmò bar.
Joshua gave Mateo his own grapple gun and when the fourteen year old was stronger, helped him practice snagging tree branches and reeling himself up into the safety of a tree branch. They brainstormed new tools to manufacture for the trip and repaired their tattered clothing. Joshua shared what he could about woodcraft and they began assembling the three light packs they would carry to the Báihè.
Mateo knew knives better than either Joshua or Ashabi. He suggested modifying the long blades into Iklwa, short handled spears with deadly long blades. He experimented with them and then the three companions began to spar. They often fell to wrestling together in the warm sunshine. Inevitably, it would be Mateo and Ashabi turning on the older, larger Joshua. Mateo came out of his shell and the easygoing nature that had kept him out of the gangs lightened all of their lives.
The Horror missed its visit. Ashabi and Joshua fretted about that. Impatient though they were, they would not leave until she had passed through. Mateo complained. Joshua distracted him with hunting and simple botany. Joshua was always seeking edible plants on the forest floor. They raced along the branches from Bowl Tree to Bowl Tree until a stand of Queen Trees ended their fun. Eating a sweet fruit high in the tree, they debated the relative dangers of forest floor versus canopy. The predators were smaller, but with four gripping hands and two for fighting, they had the advantage.
Elephantine herbivores moved into their clearing and stayed for six days devastating the saplings and turning their clear running stream into a long quagmire. The three teenagers watched in awe from the safety of lifeboat. When the herd moved on toward the next forest clearing, their sunlit clearing was half again larger. “Well, at least they cleared the floor and understory. We can see the Horror coming better now.” Ashabi nodded. Mateo wistfully added that riding one would have been fun. “Imagine if we could ride them all the way to the Báihè.”
Mateo made drums and Joshua crafted a small mandolin of sorts out a gourd-like plant he found for Ashabi. The younger teenagers tried to get him to join them, but Joshua was shy. Instead he worked on a wooden screen on unseasoned wood. As Ashabi and Mateo jammed together, Joshua carved. As the weeks past the music got better and the animals and plants revealed themselves in the long planks. Mateo teased Joshua into singing with them. When exhaustion finally overcame the three, they retreated to the bed together.
Mateo set his drum aside and watched Joshua bent over a carving of a small boy smiling from behind a twist of vines. He marvelled at the young man’s skill. The screen might never be finished, and all their domestic touches to the lifeboat would stay behind when they left. It all served to pass the time. He came over and sat close beside Joshua. “Maybe we could kill it when it comes back. You said it seemed to be alone.”
Joshua finished a fine cut with his chisel and blew a shaving off the young face before replying. “Your rifle is not good enough. The men tried shooting it before. It would be like trying to kill an Earth elephant with a small caliber rifle. She’s not that big, just unbelievably tough. It would take a lucky shot and she would have you in her fighting arms before you took your third breath. We just wait her out.”
“Too bad they didn’t pack something bigger in these lifeboats.” Mateo watched Joshua’s strong fingers select a larger chisel. Without consideration, the artist started gouging away at a fresh spot. Joshua could see something there in the rough surface Mateo could not.
“Civics and Spacers, they couldn’t imagine encountering anything bigger than a lap dog I guess.” Even on Joshua’s pastoral home planet the predators were small. Compared to this forest, Joshua’s hikes on Panjandrum were a walk in the park. There was an irony there the country boy trying to escape to the city could not appreciate.
“When we wanted to send a message to the cops in Bengaluru on Olorun, we threw firebombs at them.” Joshua paused to look at Mateo’s tattoo free torso. “Okay, I never tossed any firebombs, but you get the idea.” Joshua. Smiled a little. Mateo no longer blushed when Joshua looked at him.
“Too bad we don’t live in the twentieth century still. I’m sorry Matt, we don’t use explosives anymore to fuel our machines.”
“Sometimes alcohol, when nothing better was handy.” Mateo replied. “I suppose there is no time to distil anything like that.” Ashabi was stepping out of the shower. “What burns on this lifeboat Ash?”
“Yesu Matt, nothing if we can help it. Fire is the great enemy on a ship. Every Spacer learns that when they are old enough to get into mischief. What are you two talking about?” Ashabi wrapped a kilt around her waist and started over to the kitchen to make tea with a pinch of dried native leaves. Joshua recapped the conversation for her. The tea she was making was mildly psychotropic so she set it aside for later. They needed clear heads for a while longer. “Tell me what you would like to see happen with this bitch-killing firebomb boys.”
The three shifted to their talking circle, cross legged on the floor, knees touching. Excitement burned in their keen eyes. Gaunt, undernourished bodies, haggard by months of hard living, twisted back and forth, arms waving for emphasis. Joshua made them talk it out three times, arguing strategies and possibilities before he let Ashabi bring the tea. They sat in companionable silence, knees still touching, until Joshua reached out a hand to each.
The next morning, Ashabi dismantled a wall panel and part of the floor to reach the coolant reservoir. Lifeboat maintenance was all internal because the craft carried no EVA suits. It took her most of the day. While she did that, Mateo and Joshua hiked to a stand of trees two kilometres away. Mateo stood guard while Joshua slashed through the bark of a thin tree with an axe. He caught the stream of sap in the first bottle.
“What do you think Josh?” Mateo watched the thin fluid dribble to a halt. Joshua squatted at the base of the tree without answering. He poured a centilitre into a foil cup and put a lighter to it. When the sap ignited, he grinned up at Mateo.
“How did you know?” Mateo was impressed.
“I didn’t. I was just hoping the sap would burn because they reminded me of pine trees. I thought it would be worth a shot.” Joshua went back to tapping trees while Mateo scanned the world around. Ashabi knew her way around technology and Joshua had an instinct for this strange wild world. Joshua would pause as they walked together to loosen the soil around some plant before pulling up its tuberous roots. He would shrug and mention seeing animals digging them up. Mateo asked if Joshua liked the challenge of pioneering on a new world. “No Matt, I was trying to get away from this sort of thing. I liked being on the Báihè. I envied people like Ashabi, cruising to all the different worlds people have started, getting to know people with unique backgrounds like you.”
They brought their harvest back to the lifeboat. Ashabi had finished collecting the coolant. Mateo and Joshua hovered a safe distance away as Ashabi considered how to best mix the two fluids. “Ash, be careful, you’re the only girl we have.” Mateo called out.
Ashabi snorted, “Please, like you two don’t already have a solution to that problem.” She settled on her first try. “Yay! We didn't blow up the girl.” The liquids turned into a thick gel when she stirred them. “Not quite right I think.” The resulting flame was exciting. It melted the container. The boys were delighted. She took her time experimenting with her formula while Joshua and Mateo turned their attention to the fabricating missile shells to attach to crossbow bolts.
They tried the first bolt on a tree stump left by the passing herd. It burned, but the bulb seemed too thick. Most of the flammable jelly bounced away in the bulb to burn on the ground. They thinned the shell and made it more brittle before they tried again. Satisfied, they went hunting. Mateo put a precious bullet through the screeching Red Roaster as quickly as he could. They returned to the lifeboat feeling strangely unclean. The three did not talk about it. Joshua held Mateo close that night, one hand on Ashabi’s knee as she sat beside them in the dark.
She paused at the edge of the clearing, cautious as always of the strange rock with its glowing holes. Her hunt along the trail of the third strange Climber had only been a partial success. The trail took her back to a den wedged between two trees.
Climbers came out during the day and this went against her instincts. Night was her ally. After the first kill, the Climbers remained in their white rock. After a few nights it became clear that the frightened Climbers would not come out when she hunted. She switched to dozing through the day along a beaten trail the Climbers followed to reach their watering hole. The clumsy animals’ noisy trampling through the forest always woke her. Hunting was better.
She killed many. Every animal needs water and thirst kept driving them out of their rock. Tree Climbers were clever pack hunters. She had only been challenged by females and their male entourages a few times in her brief life. Tree Climbers avoided her for good reason. They did not favour her territory now. The many Climbers of the second rock with their two gripping hands did not use the trees as well as the two Climbers in the first rock. They failed to use their advantage to escape up into the high branches, dying under her claws on the ground beneath the trees. The larger females died hard and they had death sticks. She moved now with many painful wounds. She carried too much of their poison in her body. It slowed her and tormented her mind.
After many nights, fear of her rivals forced her to give up on the remaining Climbers. She returned to her endless cycle, hunting her territory. Besides, to reach her latest prey, she had intruded on a rival’s territory. Weakened as she was by her battle with the strange Climbers, it would not have been wise to challenge another female. The battle with the Climbers faded in her mind as she roamed familiar ways. Her patrol finally brought her back to the first white rock in the clearing. A more intelligent hunter might have settled for the night and waited by the stream till daylight brought her prey out. Her instincts led her out into the clearing for another futile assault on the white rock.
Mateo was startled out of a deep sleep by the sound of scraping. Ashabi’s arm fell away as he sat up. A heavy thump against the thinner fabric of the lifeboat’s emergency door made him jump. Something aweful shrieked in frustration.
“The bitch is back.” Ashabi’s voice was a low growl laced with her own fear. She rolled over and and as she looked, the door rattled. In the dim light of the lifeboat’s panels the three teenagers could see the door shift against its locks. “That thing is going to break the pins eventually.”
Mateo shuddered visibly and Joshua ran a hand along the boy’s back to reassure him. “Not tonight,” he replied quietly. “The door will hold.” Joshua sat up beside Mateo.
Mateo rose and approached the door slowly. Ashabi called out a warning, but he needed to see the animal for himself. The moon was half again the size it would be on far away Earth and tonight it bathed the meadow in silver. The beast prowled restlessly away from the door, paused to maul a crash couch, and then return to the door of their lifeboat. Mateo stared at it through the small window.
The Horror reminded him of the wild cats that roamed the streets and empty spaces of his childhood. Olorun’s indigenous animal life had been bird sized insectoid creatures when the first explorers came five hundred years before. Terrestrial life had overwhelmed Olorun and most of the insectoid animals were becoming a memory. The Bengaluru street kid saw little of either in his slum. The predator had a cat’s poise, but the similarity ended there. Mateo trembled as it thrust its fox like snout at the small window. One long claw lashed out against the diamond hard surface of the window. He flinched instinctively. The creature keened angrily from beyond the door. The sound ascended up to a register above the teen’s senses. Finally, it shifted till one fist sized eye blinked hypnotically through the glass. Mateo stepped back and defiantly flipped their nemesis the bird. He laughed weakly at his own gesture and turned back to Joshua and Ashabi. “Okay, that is pretty scary.”
The Horror continued to prowl and keen through the rest of the night. The teenagers huddled together on the bed, never quite sleeping. Their plans seemed futile now that they were confronted with the huge beast. Ashabi held Joshua’s hand tightly and leaned her head into his shoulder. He stroked her hair, “It’s dawn. It will go sleep in the forest till dusk. Get some sleep Ashabi. You’re the best shot. We need you tomorrow night.”
It was near noon when the Joshua and Ashabi roused themselves. Mateo was fussing with the weights on Gary’s cart. They had spent a day putting the decoy together and propping it up on a base that would roll down the ramp. Gary had a tendency to fall over on the rough ramp. The Horror was too fast for them to confront in the open. They needed to draw it toward the shelter of the lifeboat door.
The fourteen year old had regained most of his confidence in the light of day. He smiled at his friends as they stirred. Mateo patted the top of the dummy’s round head. “I hope that beast is stupid, because Gary isn’t going to fool it very long.”
“We’ll be ready for the shot.” Ashabi assured him. If the beast made it to the door, they had all their improvised weapons ready about the room. Joshua pulled on his pants and reached for a morning tea while Ashabi washed her face. With the Horror back, they were back to conserving water.
Mateo grinned. “I’m going up to scout around. Does that monster stick around?”
Ashabi shook her head. “No, she seems to sleep in the shade just across the stream. Josh figures she is waiting for us to come out for water.” There was never a problem slipping back through the hatch before the hunter had covered much of the ground between stream and lifeboat. The Horror had given up on trying to catch them. When they were reckless, Ashabi and Joshua liked taking shots at her from high on the deck as she charged them. The light bolts infuriated the huge predator, but they never slowed her, much less l kill her.
Mateo nodded, reassured. He started up the central ladder to the large iris of the tiny airlock. Ashabi had locked the inner iris open. Mateo paused on the narrow ring inside the lock and called back down. “It rained after you guys fell back to sleep. Maybe it will be dry today. I’d rather fight this frigging thing in daylight.” He punched the outer hatch release and looked up.
He could not explain it to the other two later. Perhaps as he was climbing the short ladder to Joshua’s cozy rooftop deck, the streetwise boy caught a flash of movement or the stench of flesh. Without a thought, Mateo let his feet slipped off the rungs and he began a controlled plunge back to the safety of the cabin below. One mottled killing arm followed him down. As he fell, face still turned up to the pair of wicked blades, the animal’s claws seemed to keep coming down toward him.
Ashabi and Joshua turned when Mateo landed between them. The fourteen year old was whispering a steady stream of unfamiliar Olorun curses. He glanced up once more to assure himself the Horror could not follow him down the narrow tube, and then turned to his companions. “The mother fucker is on the roof.”
“How are we going to get it to go away?” Ashabi asked in consternation.
“We don't need it to go away. All we need to do is get it to the front door.” Mateo snapped back. He looked up through the tube. “It's still blocking the hatch. Can we close it from down here Ashabi?” When she said they could, he turned to reach for the rifle. Joshua stopped him on the way back to the ladder.
“Save that for later. She’s not as smart as the Frightfuls, but she’ll be too careful if she knows we have that.” Joshua stepped past Mateo with a crossbow armed with a simple bolt. “As soon as I yell, close the hatch.” He started up the ladder and paused looking at them. “Are you ready to do this? We should do it now before we talk ourselves out of it. It’s angry, maybe that can help us. Be ready at the door.” He gave the frightened girl a long long look. “This is probably on you Ash. Are you up for this?”
Ashabi bit her lip and nodded. Joshua took a few more steps up the ladder and aimed his crossbow. Ashabi started screaming. Mateo watched her a moment and when she nodded, his panicked voice joined in his lower register. Mateo paced back and forth next to the the decoy Gary. He clenched his fists, screaming till he was hoarse. Ashabi’s face was contorted with the effort while one trembling hand hovered over the control board.
“Now Ash!” And Joshua shot his bolt at almost point blank range into the heaving chest of the Horror. The shaft’s razor sharp head sank in thirty centimetres.
She felt the blow to her chest and pulled her arm out of the hole, shrieking her rage. The mouth in the rock snapped shut like a living thing, cutting off the frightened calls of the creatures within. Her twin claws raked across the dead wood beneath her, scattering splinters. Fighting paws were not designed for gripping, but she was practiced. She sat on her haunches and worked at the huge quill thrown into her chest. By trapping it between both pads, she was able to wiggle it free. The pain in her chest clouded her mind, and the smell of her own blood fueled the killing rage.
It did not take her keen sense of sound or smell to tell her the cave was open below her. The unnaturally low pitched yells of the hated Climbers had become louder again and she could smell their unfamiliar stench. With a final tug, the blood soaked quill came free. It clattered at her running feet as she bound to the edge of the platform. One of the Climbers stumbled into view and fell down. She was on the animal like the short winged flyer on a cowering seed eater.
She tore the animal in half, then paused in confusion. Something punched her in the rump, so she turned toward opening in the rock, springing across the distance in one great leap. There was more pain, but she did not understand it. One of the Climbers was within reach. It turned to run, but she reached out a claw just before her wounded shoulder slammed into the side of the rock. The Climber’s leg was trapped beneath her paw. She lay blinking her eyes while the shock of the painful impact faded. The burning odor drew her attention briefly to some growing pain in her flesh.
Joshua saw Mateo’s leg trapped beneath the Horror’s curved talons. Mateo was screaming again, this time in panic. Joshua stared at him as Mateo tried to claw his way clear along the deck. Joshua bellowed his own panic. He stepped through the confined space of the doorway and slammed his axe down on the creature’s paw. The hide and bone were unbelievably tough and when the Horror snatched its wounded limb away, the axe was jerked out of his hands. Joshua found himself standing between Mateo and the hot breath of the monster just a metre away.
Ashabi held her second crossbow steady. She could not believe the Horror was simply shrugging off the fire burning on its back. The bitch seemed indestructible. “Those are my men you cunt.” She screamed to keep her courage up. The creature seemed to focus on her as she let loose her second bolt. Joshua and Mateo were too close, but she knew she had to take the shot or lose them both. With supernatural reflexes, the Horror moved its head out of the way. The bulb of napalm shattered onto the creature’s neck and spread across its chest and the damaged grasping limb. As Joshua and Mateo scrambled back into the lifeboat, Ashabi was reaching for the last loaded weapon.
The fire was burning into her and she did not understand it. Pain was consuming her. Her rage held for a few moments longer. The two Climbers within reach were fading back into their den. Another effort to bound forward and she could wreak havoc on all her tormentors. She swiped futilely at the burning stickiness covering her maimed paw, simply transferring some of it to her sound arm, then focused on her prey.
The last bolt smashed into her eye and began burning through the side of her head and the flattened crest. It was too much. She abandoned her prey and bound away toward the shelter of the trees. She did not understand fire. Rolling might have helped, or seeking the stream. Instead she ran toward the cool forest floor.
The flames burned hot across the Horror’s body. It was a half lit torch streaking across the meadow. Ashabi stood shaking, amazed that the creature could still run, hardly believing it was still alive. Joshua and Mateo stood outside the door whooping. Mateo strutted a little, crowing, “Who's the man?” As she watched, the fourteen year old turned toward her and collapsed on the ground sobbing hysterically. Joshua knelt down beside him and wrapped Mateo in his arms. Ashabi mechanically began rearming her weapons, wide eyes staring into the shadows under the tall trees.
Chapter Two is "Kali and Vishnu", it recounts the three travelers journey to the wreck of the colony spaceship. I've just started that.
Last edited by Alan Stange; 12-10-2016 at 07:35 PM..