It was a world that shouldn’t exist, but the problems it posed were all too real to those trapped there.
Jacques Song opened his eyes and saw a huge fish floating above the canopy of his cold sleep unit and staring at him. He shut them immediately; it must be a bad dream. People often had dreams as cold sleep evolved into normal sleep and wakefulness.
Last night, 21 June 2345, he and the rest of the corps had listened to some inspirational nonsense from Earth Empress Marie, lifted a glass of rum spiked with cold sleep preparation drugs, and dutifully lain down on their hotel beds at Sheffield Station in Earth orbit.
In deep sleep, they’d been transferred to Cold Sleep Units and loaded onto starships bound for 36 Ophiuchi. The process would be reversed twenty-three years later when the invasion force had established itself, hopefully undetected, at a base in the Kuiper belt around 36 Ophiuchi A and B. Their mission was to liberate a colony gone horrifically wrong.
But that colony was not under a sea filled with staring fish.
The colony leaders didn’t believe in using robots—labor cleansed the soul. Slavery in all but name had evolved in a decade. Polygamy, child marriage, gladiatorial executions, and inherited subordinate status became the rule. They’d bungled relations with primitive aliens on another of 36 Ophiuchi A’s planets, raising concerns about humanity’s status in the galaxy.
But those aliens did not, as he remembered, look like fish.
Dissenters had fled to the hills and risked everything to call for help—which would take half a century at best to get there. Before 36 Ophiuchi, the consensus had been that the distance between stars made interstellar warfare impossible. The colony leaders had counted on it.
But faced with a cry for help, Earth considered the impossible. There’d been a mammoth debate informed by massive simulations showing that, absent outside influence, the theocracy might persist indefinitely. The decision had been made, volunteers recruited, and robots instructed to prepare a fleet. Jacques, divorced and looking for distance, had signed up.
Jacques opened his eyes again, and the fish was still there, all too real. Maybe two meters long, it boasted a huge parrotlike beak, but otherwise looked something like a shark. He was wide awake now. He was obviously not on the conveyor ship, Resolution, so something else had gone horrifically wrong.
He tried to touch the net, but the lack of response didn’t surprise him. The CSU seemed inert, but he was breathing, so it must be functioning to some extent. The things were designed to keep you viable in a suspended state for a couple of centuries without external power—they warmed you up to a coma every few months for DNA repair.
“CSU, what’s your energy level?” he asked. As soon as he moved, the parrot-beaked shark tried to bite through the canopy, but didn’t have much success against the flexidiamond.
A heads-up display flashed in front of him, superposing itself over the curious—or hungry—fish. It showed he had about two hours left at present consumption levels, which were at emergency minimum. The display flashed off again. The CSU might as well have said, “I’ve done what I can. It’s your problem now.”
Jacques raised himself on his elbows. The water—assuming it was water—around him was not all that clear and the light level must be very low. From what he could see, his CSU seemed to be resting on nearly level sand, with a few huge, dark, boulderlike objects here and there. The surface seemed far above him.
He would probably have to try to reach it.
But when? Conventional wisdom would have him wait as long as he could for rescue. The CSU, he realized, had maximized that time. Rescue wasn’t coming.
First things first. He needed to inventory his assets. He reached into a cubbyhole to his left for his personal effects; his wrist comp and a couple of backup data disks—what he’d left on his hotel night table for the Resolution’s robots to take with him. The objects seemed very light—low gravity?
The wrist comp was dead, powerless. He shivered. Just how long had it been? He suppressed the urge to ask immediately—if he were going to get out of this situation alive, he would need to use what was left of the CSU’s power very efficiently.
Another cubbyhole held an emergency kit in a sealable bag, which he emptied and inventoried. It struck him as an eclectic jumble of stuff someone assembled to fill a regulatory square, never expected to be used. There was another wrist comp, its memory filled, no doubt, with all sorts of survival information. It was powerless. There was a survival tent, nicely folded down to the size of an envelope. There were a few pieces of primitive, non-electronic gear including a dozen nutrition bars, a compass, a magnifying lens, needle and thread, a ten-centimeter-long multitool, a pair of fabric canteens, a photovoltaic power supply, binoculars, space blankets, etcetera. Finally, occupying most of the volume of the kit, there was a shipsuit.
Even in the low gravity, struggling into the last was not easy in the coffinlike space in the CSU, but once he got his legs in, his body heat began to power the smart fabric up, and it relaxed to make the rest of the job easier. It molded itself around his body like a second skin, except for the hood. The latter had a transparent section that could seal up for vacuum use. Hopefully, it would work as well underwater.
It also had an emergency life-support pack. For a moment, Jacques smiled. It could make oxygen; he could wait several hours more to try his escape, using that to breathe. Then he found it was powerless as well. He sighed; many of the suit’s functions could be powered by his own body heat and movements, but not that.
That was all he had. He imagined that, should he survive and return to Earth some centuries hence, some of these objects might be displayed in a museum as quaint relics of bygone pioneers.
Okay, it was time to find out where he was, what it was like outside, and what had happened. He told the CSU to power up. The first thing he got was text telling him that video was down for power conservation.
To the first question, the CSU told him they were at an unsurveyed red dwarf, IRO 031010.36485, on a planet with a breathable atmosphere that the Resolution had found 628 light-years from Earth! On the Earth calendar, it was Tuesday, the twenty-third of March in the year 3521.
That was almost a thousand years from when they had departed. He made himself cope with that as an objective fact; he would deal with the emotional reality later. Humanity was still in the very early stages of biological immortality. Had been, he corrected himself. They’d probably worked things out by now. Some friends might still be alive, active, even looking for him. But the gap in time would be as large as the gap between Marie’s ceremonial monarchy and Charlemagne. He could deal with it later, he repeated to himself. For now, he had to survive.
So the Resolution had not decelerated at 36 Ophiuchi—the beamrider’s nightmare. Starships were pushed to relativistic velocities riding on a beam of microscopic pellets from their departure system, which they ionized and reflected with magnetic fields. To decelerate, they normally relied on a prepositioned pellet stream. Somehow, this hadn’t happened.
For the invasion, the first units into the system had carried enough mass to decelerate on their own. These passed by the system and decelerated on the far side, their bulk shielding their exhaust from observation. Once in 36 Ophiuchi’s Kuiper belt, they’d made deceleration trails for the rest of the fleet. The whole process had taken an agonizing half century.
The CSU told him the lasers used to guide the nanopellets to the starship had been replaced with a dummy load. Almost all of the pellets passed by the starship without slowing it down. Who or what had done that, and when, was unknown.
There were contingency plans for failure to decelerate. The starship had coasted until it found a habitable planet it could reach and then implemented an emergency deceleration protocol, deploying a superconducting loop several kilometers across to drag against the interstellar medium until it had reached a hundredth of lightspeed or so, and then going into rocket mode, using its auxiliary nuclear power units while sacrificing its water, redundant structure, invasion stores, and lithium hydride shielding, for fuel. It almost made it, but ended up 103 kilometers per second short, and had to try aerocapture.
Starships were tough, but not designed to function in a planetary atmosphere. Its breakup would have absorbed the worst of the reentry forces, perhaps controlled well enough to spill its cargo of CSUs into a shallow body of water. There were three atmospheric shuttles. They weren’t designed for that much aerobraking. But if one or two survived on autopilot, Jacques thought, that could make all the difference in survival. The odds weren’t good for the CSU occupants either, but with a layer of ice, maybe. That was the best the ship could do.
The CSU went silent and Jacques reflected. Interstellar warfare was “impossible” until the horror of what was happening in the 36 Ophiuchi system made Earth try it anyway. Perhaps they’d been right in the first place.
The parrot-beaked shark, making no concession to human biological immortality, had not gone away. It was, he decided, definitely hungry. So was he—his cells needed to repair the radiation damage since his last CSU cycle, and that took energy. Cosmic rays could be dealt with by shielding, but carbon-14 was part of you. He ate four of the dozen nutrition bars, knowing that he might regret the binge later, but thinking it was a good thing to do while he was momentarily safe and secure. As he ate he eyed the parrot-beaked shark, thinking filet. This eating thing works both ways, fella, he thought with a grin.
He would have to flood the CSU, he realized, to equalize pressure and get the canopy off. That would likely render his last link with technological civilization inoperable. There was irony in that; his expertise was in dealing with artificial intelligences and subsentient systems.
“Can you still record?” he asked it.
[Yes] appeared in the heads-up display.
In a few short sentences, he explained who he was and how he’d gotten there and left notes for any of his fellow passengers in the unlikely event they might find his CSU.
“Make as many copies of that as you have room for.”
Jacques stuck the emergency kit bag on a geckro patch on his suit. He was ready as he could get; there was no reason to delay longer. His heart pounding, he chanted to make himself relax and use less oxygen. After a couple of minutes, he felt at peace and ready. If his life were to end now, so be it.
“Release the fasteners on both sides of the canopy. Give me pure oxygen—exhaust what you’ve stored. Then flood the unit.” He took more deep breaths as cold water rose rapidly on either side of him. The pressure equalized with his face not ten centimeters between him and the fish’s beak. It lunged repeatedly, its blows booming on the canopy.
He sealed his hood without trapping a lot of water in with him, then pushed the canopy off and, grasping it by both edges, stood up. If the fish had sense enough to swim around it, he was done for, but it just kept trying to push through what it couldn’t see—a stalemate that would end as soon as he ran out of breath, because the canopy was too heavy to carry to the surface.
He looked down at the empty CSU and smiled to himself. It was easy enough to flip the canopy around between fish attacks and then stand on the edge of the CSU and lean so that the fish was below him. With a now-or-never shove, he pushed the canopy down onto the CSU with parrot-beak still trying to swim through it. With it trapped inside, he swam for the surface.
Judging crudely from the change in volume of air in the CSU, the pressure was something like eight atmospheres at the bottom, the equivalent of eighty meters deep on Earth. But the surface proved much farther away than that. Despite starting with several liters of oxygen in his hood, he was groggy by the time he broke the surface of the water. He pulled off the hood and took a gasping first breath.
He felt almost instantly restored as he bobbed up and down in steep waves; it took remarkably little effort to keep his body high out of the water. At the crest of a wave, he got a view of his surroundings. He’d emerged from a freshwater lake, not a sea, but it was a large one, with distant hills just barely sticking up over the horizon. Hills surrounded the lake without a discernible gap—a caldera, from the steepness of the walls next to him. He saw no vegetation.
Remembering that the parrot-beaked shark might have relatives, he swam for the nearest shore at about a stroke per second. Strangely, he didn’t tire and even increased his pace a bit.
The shore proved rocky, and the rocks looked volcanic and sharp, ‘a’a lava, he thought. The waves were impressively high. Still, he felt very strong, much stronger than he should after coming out of cold sleep.
Bobbing along in the waves, parallel to the shore, he eventually found a beach that was more gravel than rock and approached it slowly, feet dangling beneath him. His feet touched briefly, then he was swept back again. He rode the next wave in and got enough purchase with hands and feet to hold on through the backwash. Then he scrambled forward ahead of the next wave.
He stood on the shore breathing easily—not panting despite what should have been heavy exercise. He was fit; all expedition personnel had gotten many hours of hypergravity training, but his lack of distress still surprised him. Gravity here was clearly much lower than on Earth, even less than on Mars, he guessed. The sky was high and gray, there had to be a sun somewhere, but it wasn’t immediately apparent where it was. It was decidedly warm and humid.
Okay, the first thing to do was to plug one of his wrist comps into the photovoltaic power supply and see if anyone else was around. He spread out the flexible array, almost a meter square, and plugged the adapter into his wrist comp, or tried to. It didn’t fit! Damning his luck and wondering why, after three centuries or so of electronics manufacture, such things weren’t standardized, he reached for the wrist comp from the emergency kit. That would have to fit.
It did, but nothing happened. A broken wire? Or had something in the electronics of either device not survived a millennium of neglect? The batteries in the wrist comps were likely suspects. Or, he thought, layers of atoms in contact in various transistors and diodes may have interpenetrated each other through some kind of Brownian motion so they no longer functioned. He’d never had occasion to inquire about the lifetime of such devices and, of course, there was now nothing to ask. If he were going to survive, it would have to be on his wits alone
He took stock; however great he felt right now, he had only eight nutrition bars left to eat. He had no clothing except for the emergency suit that he wore. There were clearly fishlike things in the caldera, and if they were edible, he might be able to catch enough to survive—though he wasn’t sure how, having never fished in his life. For shelter, since the area was obviously volcanic in origin, there should be lava tubes.
Was his the only CSU to make it? He should look for other survivors. Names of classmates slotted for the Resolution ran through his mind. They weren’t soldiers; their job was to reconstruct and reeducate the colony after the theocrats had been displaced. Most, he had known only since Annapolis, but he’d grown up with Edith Lu, Huong Devieux, and Ted Blackwell in metropolitan Port Moresby sixty years ago—make that something like 1,060 years ago.
He scanned the lake with its strange high waves and impassable lava block shoreline.
Face reality, Jacques, he told himself. He was in no position to find and rescue anyone. He had to find food, and that meant getting out of the caldera. He would come back. There was likely a large variance in CSU survival time; no one else was likely to need help right now.
Everything caught up with him then: his impossible situation, the unfairness of it all, the totalitarian monsters that had been the cause of the expedition and its likely sabotage, the great decision makers of the Interplanetary Association Senate who sent others to take their risks and clean up for their failures of imagination, and the minimum effort logic of those who put only a dozen nutrition bars in a CSU emergency kit. . . . He screamed. The screams echoed from the barren lava cliffs.
When he recovered himself, he decided to do something to defy the fate that sent him here, to make some mark on the universe that was trying to kill him. He could make a pile of rocks, a cairn. Practically, it would help him find the spot again. It was no work at all in the low gravity to build a stack as tall as he was.
The lava wasn’t all ‘a’a. Here and there were rivers of smooth pahoehoe, some of which had fragmented into relatively flat shards. He brushed one off and using another, smaller fragment, sketched the shoreline, and scratched where he thought the sunken CSU lay. Under that he scratched his name and the date. Then, after a moment of thought, he added “= day 0.”
At the Rim of the World
The cliffs turned out to be not as barren as he thought. Here and there, small trees had begun to colonize the caldera wall. He hadn’t recognized them because their leaves were a very dark blue green—almost black—and indistinguishable from the lava. The higher he got, the bigger the trees, and the bare rock between them became covered with dark soil.
In a rare level clearing, he tripped and righted himself easily in the low gravity. The culprit was a ground vine with dark, grasslike leaves. I’ll call it “tanglegrass,” he thought with a frown. At the clearing edge was a thirty-meter tree. He tested its bark with a blade from his multitool; it was very soft and wet, maybe waterlogged—not like a tree at all, but rather more like ice plant.
Was the pulp of the tree edible? It should, of course, be thoroughly tested and analyzed. He laughed at that notion and cut out a finger-sized piece, bit off a little, and spat it out. Acidic, bitter, and with an odor of rotten flesh—he would have to be very, very hungry to try to eat that. He washed the taste out with water from the fabric canteen. That was Earth water, he thought, from a thousand years ago. He ought to treat it with reverence.
No, get hold of yourself, he told himself. Water was water.
It was getting noticeably dark, though not noticeably cooler. Here and there around the roots of the bitterwood tree were pockets of sand and gravel that were reasonably soft and level. He made camp.
The next day he reached the rim of the caldera in early morning. It was anomalously clear when he worked his way around a last boulder to the relatively flat top. The red dwarf sun appeared noticeably larger than Sol in a sky that seemed a somewhat lighter shade of blue. A few more steps took him clear of the brush and rocks.
What he saw made no sense to him—a vast triangular plain stretched out before him, its sides converging to an impossibly distant vertex ahead of him. The plain was divided into great fuzzy arcs of color—gray, white, red, black, green, blue, and green again—apparently centered on himself, with the outermost almost tangent to the triangle’s sides.
To his left, haze and clouds obscured the distant view, but to his right, through breaks in high creamy clouds, he thought he could glimpse a repetition of the pattern in front of him. Apparently, the planet had at least two huge conical volcanoes, as perfect in form as Mount Fuji, and so high that they extended beyond the limits of what must be a very extended atmosphere. Could they be in isostatic equilibrium? He shook his head; such calculations would need to be put off for now.
Immediately below him was the rocky mountainside, mostly bare but dotted with trees. Below that was a dark green forest. That yielded to a sea or a very wide river. Beyond its misty, distant shore was another very dark band: probably more forest. That thinned out to a band of lighter green, which merged into a ruddy brown. The last complete arc was white. Beyond that, banding the base of the remaining tip of the triangle were bands of distant clouds. The peak itself was almost geometrically sharp, a dark lunar gray, and apparently cratered.
Scanning the edge of the forest, he spotted a trail, a narrow and very Earth-like path leading down into the forest. What had made it? Other survivors? Natives or local animals? Something edible? Something dangerous?
Well, he had best get going. On the way, something crunched under his foot. It looked for all the world like a piece of curved green and black mottled plastic. If it had been part of a sphere, the whole thing might be half a meter in diameter. Was it part of a broken lava bubble? An eggshell? Of what monster, if so? But there was no time to spend on these questions. Survival called and he would have to concentrate on the trail.
The scale of the trees became evident as he descended. The largest were easily a hundred meters tall and five across, like California redwoods. These trees were not at all like the bitterwood tree he had cut into earlier; their wood was dark and suitably woody. They had a bark of sorts, black, smooth and chitinous in the mature trees, with longitudinal ridges that seemed to run the length of the tree. He decided to call it blackwood, and cut a sapling for a hiking pole and a potential defensive staff.
As he looked carefully, he saw evidence of frequent fire. The darkness of the soil, the great space between the trees—there was a very open feeling to this forest. There was no brush taller than he was, and much of that was composed of immature bitterwood and blackwood. Everything seemed soft—no thorns or scratchy plants.
He came across a running brook and filled his canteen, fine bubbles foaming out of its neck filter. It was only half Earth water now. If he never emptied it, there would always still be some molecules from the home planet in that canteen, in ever decreasing proportion, of course. He considered boiling it, but time was pressing. The filter would catch the microbes and his enhanced immunological system would be pretty tough on viruses that hadn’t coevolved with terrestrial life.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught something scurrying away from the trail, a kind of furry ball with red and black markings that seemed to have too many legs. Why would it be afraid of him? There must be something about his size and shape that was dangerous. He thought about lashing his multitool to a blackwood sapling spear, with its blade deployed. But if he lost that tool!
Given the volcanic nature of the hillside, there should be some obsidian around, but he didn’t know what to look for, nor did he have any confidence in his ability to whack raw obsidian into a spear point. Then his eyes fell on a dead blackwood branch. He scrambled off the path to pick it up. The bark had dried into plasticlike hardness. When he scraped out the rest of the rotten pulpwood, he was left with a hard, hollow cylinder. He cut one end of this at a steep angle and jammed the other over the end of his walking stick. Then, with the ludicrous image of himself as a Pleistocene hunter in his head, he threw the improvised spear into a bitterwood tree.
It sank in with a satisfying thwump. He made three more slanted cylindrical spear points, put them in his emergency kit bag, and continued his descent.
In his second day down the mountainside, ravenously hungry, with only five nutrition bars left, he decided whatever he was doing was not working. He was seriously thinking of the fish trapped in the CSU—could he find it again, dive down, and kill the fish? It had been big—maybe a hundred kilos of meat on it. He should have taken that opportunity when he was there.
Okay, he wasn’t going to just run into something to eat walking down the trail. Why not try setting up a blind and watching for what might come by? He could give that a day.
It was a long boring day, but that evening something did come by. It seemed vaguely like a cross between a kangaroo and a dinosaur, so he mentally dubbed it a kangasaur. It was at least twice his height, and its head bobbed from side to side. Jacques readied his spear, then got a look at the fierce claws on the kangasaur’s feet and thought better of it. It stared in his direction, but he stayed perfectly still. It ambled over to a bitterwood tree, reached up about as far as its neck would extend, and worried away at something under a bitterwood leaf. Then it left. What had it found? Could he climb a bitterwood tree? Their lowest branches were about three meters up, and the bark, though not as slick as the shiny blackwood bark, was still very smooth. But gravity was low. An experimental leap up brought his eye level perhaps six meters above the forest floor. He jumped for a branch, clumsily slung himself under it, sloth-like, and shinnied out to look under its leaves. It was barren; he would have to climb higher than he could leap.
Jacques remembered going to an art museum with his class and seeing a picture of a man climbing a tree with rope around the trunk, holding himself to the bark that way. There was a coil of carbon-nanofiber twine in the emergency kit, 100 meters according to the label.
It took some experimentation and a couple of falls, but the next morning Jacques made it up a bitterwood tree and looked under its leaves. He had to go higher than the first level of branches, but finally discovered a cluster of teardrop-shaped fruits. The rind was tough, but no match for the steel of his multitool blade, and he got at the pulp beneath.
He knew the risks, but he had to find something edible. He nibbled at it. It was mostly soft fibers, almost like pasta, and relatively flavorless; nothing sharp, bitter, or otherwise deadly seeming. Ten minutes after the first taste, he took a mouthful. It seemed to go down okay.
He put a couple of fruits in his kit bag, which was beginning to become stuffed, and dropped down to the ground. He would wait a day to see how his body reacted before eating more. He camped by a brook, sealed in his tent despite the warm humidity of the place, and slept fitfully.
The next day, not having gotten sick, he ate the whole thing, minus the hard seeds toward the center of the fruit. So far so good, he thought, and headed downhill.
Part of the apparent flatness of the landscape from the caldera rim, he realized, was because the trees got taller as he descended. As a guess, the tallest blackwoods were almost three hundred meters high and five meters across. He felt like a squirrel in a forest of giant sequoia. Their oval leaves were longer than he was tall, with stiff hollow veins and webbing like sheets of felted canvas. Picking one up, he felt like an ant, able to lift several times his own body mass.
By the end of the day, he was still healthy. With food, he could survive. Under a leaf lean-to, cushioned by soft loam, he lay down. The next thing he knew, morning had arrived.
The Killer Ape
Deeper into the forest, rocks had become fewer and fewer; the floor was a rich, soft loam. His cairns were now teepees of fallen blackwood branches. Over the next week, he taught himself to weave a passable basket out of blackwood saplings, discovered a thin fibrous green vine that was surprisingly strong, found a mildly sweet edible berry to break the monotony of bitterwood fruit, found a hollow “flute plant” that grew perfectly straight but no higher than about a meter, and identified six native animals, including the furry spider-like thing he’d seen on his first day. But he was getting increasingly tired—bitterwood fruit and berries alone might not be an adequate diet.
The furry spiderlike things—he decided to call them hirachnoids—foraged on a mushroomlike plant that grew beneath fallen blackwood tree leaves. He didn’t try eating those—not a rational decision considering all the other chances he was taking, but eating things that looked like mushrooms made him nervous. He gathered up some of these and put them under his basket, weighted it down with a hunk of lava, then propped it up with a twig to which he attached a string, the idea being to pull the twig out when the furry spiderlike thing was underneath the basket.
This didn’t work well—the little animals were able to skitter out before the rim fell. That, he realized, was a consequence of the low gravity—no matter how much weight you put on something it would only fall so fast. If he could only push it down. . . . The answer was a long fallen blackwood branch resting on the top of the trap. The trick was to pull the string attached to the stick first and step on the branch immediately afterward: one, two. If his timing was ever so slightly off and the pressure from the lever came first, the stick wouldn’t come out at all, but if he left too much time between string and foot, the critter would escape.
After a couple of tries, he caught one. Up close, it actually looked very spiderlike, with compound eyes, but six instead of eight legs and seemingly no segments—a big hairy ball maybe half a meter across. Its mouth irised open like an anus to allow a forked appendage to shoot out and grab pieces of the mushroomlike plant. Despite being trapped, it ignored him and worked away at eating the bait.
Jacques hesitated. He had never killed anything before. But he had only two nutrition bars left. He needed to survive, and to survive he would probably need protein. Protein meant meat because he had no way of determining if the vegetation had any. Still it was all guesswork; he didn’t know that killing this thing would solve his problem. He didn’t know how smart it was, whether it would suffer, or even retaliate in some very effective way. He pondered this for several minutes, then put one of his spear tips on his walking stick and struck the thing hard right between the eyes. It collapsed immediately.
Dissection proved a problem; the hirachnoid’s hair was as stiff and bristly as it looked and longer than the blade of his multitool knife. He ended up lashing the multitool to a flute plant shaft with green twine and going at it whaler style. The first cut produced not meat, but a fountain of mucous yellow ichor that stank like rotten eggs. He almost gagged, then recovering himself, made another cut.
Suddenly, the creature’s corpse began to pulsate and flop around. Jacques recoiled in disgust. Then out of the cut, a procession of miniature hirachnoids emerged—miniatures of the first except for a lack of hair. Jacques’ stomach began to get queasy, especially when the little ones dragged pieces of their mother’s—or their host’s—innards out of the incision and ate them.
Sickened, Jacques backed away from the trap and sat down to collect himself. Periodically, thereafter, he checked the trap.
By evening, nothing was left of the hirachnoid but the skin and legs. He held a leg up—it was tough and horny, like a crab leg, and felt massive enough to contain some meat. He gathered the other legs and took them back to his camp by the brook. Using some stones, he cracked one open and found some white fibrous meat inside; obviously the leg muscle.
He pulled it out, cut a small piece off with his blade, washed it in the creek and tasted it. It was extraordinarily rich and tasted somewhat like buttered lobster, but was much softer than he remembered lobster being—indeed, it seemed to melt in his mouth.
Jackpot, he thought. Maybe. Would the rest keep until morning? He should wait to make sure nothing untoward happened to him as a result of his bite, but it was too good. He took another bite, then, in an act of incredible self-control, he wrapped the remainder in leaves and sealed it in his emergency kit bag. There was no room for the other legs, so he put them in the basket and hung that by a rope from a branch.
Then he improvised a hammock with green twine and bitterwood leaves and went to sleep.
He woke up with the first light, feeling better than he had in days. The remaining part of the first leg didn’t smell right after sitting overnight, so he threw it away and cracked open another. It tasted about as good as the first leg had the previous day, so he ate the whole thing and waited. He didn’t get sick and considered himself incredibly lucky.
On the morning of the tenth day since Jacques woke up in the CSU, he had starch, protein, and fruit, and his emergency kit was intact. There were a dozen hirachnoid legs and four bitterwood tree fruits in his basket. He had painstakingly depilated a hirachnoid pelt and sewn it into another bag. He’d constructed a back frame from flute plant stalks and green twine to carry things in. He laughed at himself; he was becoming a stone age man of substance.
He had now stayed at the same campsite for three days. It had a running brook, in which he’d bathed without incident—if there were local parasites, they didn’t recognize him as food. He had been through a local rain shower, kind of a warm, gently descending mist with the lightest of breezes that nevertheless had managed to soak everything. He had taken to going around naked—less itching, less sweating, and less wear and tear on an emergency suit he might need later.
He had fire, though it had taken hours of experiment with a green twine bow and stick to get something going. Then he had a hell of a time containing it—the Resolution had found a planet with perhaps an Earthlike percentage of oxygen in its atmosphere, but the pressure here must be something like three or four atmospheres—so the partial pressure of the combustion-supporting gas was that much higher as well. He glanced around him at widely spaced trees, the largest ones being succulent bitterwood, or chitin-barked blackwood. No mystery there. It turned out that tanglegrass ignited easily and dried bitterwood charcoal would glow for days. He was beginning to feel like an old hand.
He estimated that he now only needed to spend only about a quarter of his waking time hunting and gathering and could spend the rest doing something else. What should that be? Did he have enough to do the trek back into the crater? It might mean someone else’s life, though he considered that possibility faint. Another thought was of salvaging his CSU. If he could rig up some kind of power source, he might get it partially functioning again. From the rim, he could study more of the puzzling geography of this world and maybe see some stars long enough to orient it in space. He could do such projects later; for now, he had to focus on a rescue effort.
Okay, he thought, back to the rim. He left a scratched rock plaque by his fire pit:
Deliverance Creek Camp
First Human Settlement
He frowned; he was into double digits now.
There was another trail across the creek; he had seen kangasaurs of various types going by on it. Why did they go up to the rim? he wondered. Well, he would have plenty of time later to study such matters. He spent the rest of the day trapping and gathering, then set off the next morning.
Upward with a full kit was still no stress whatsoever in the low gravity and hyperbaric oxygen. Eventually, he thought, he might be able to build an aircraft. Even a small wing area would support a lot of mass here.
He was lost deep in thought when a three-meter kangasaur attacked. He heard it coming and managed to turn and ward off the kick with his staff more by instinct than reason. “Where in the blue sky did you come from!” he yelled in surprise as he swatted another kick with his staff and backed away. His Earth-gravity-bred strength, the quickness of his reactions, and the extension of his reach with the staff seemed to confuse the would-be predator, and for a moment, the two bipeds froze, eying each other warily, the beaked head of the kangasaur bobbing back and forth.
Sensing hesitation, Jacques Song, Killer Ape, roared as loudly and fiercely as he could manage and advanced on the confused beast, whipping his staff back and forth. Being hollow, it made a frightening moan in the dense air. The kangasaur jumped back, turned, and began running away up the path.
Jacques stood there laughing, naked, sweaty and exhilarated. But as he turned to march back up the trail, he heard a much larger crunch. The kangasaur had returned with a pair of much larger ones, probably six meters tall, behind him. Unable to think of anything else to do immediately, Jacques swung his staff again. The smaller one immediately jumped back behind the large ones. After a heart-stopping five or six seconds the larger one jumped, its clawed foot—almost a meter across—looking to come right down on Jacques.
On Earth, he would have been dead meat, but it took much longer for things to happen here. Jacques stepped aside, then jumped himself as high as he could. The huge kangasaur’s head followed the leaping human with an open beak. In midair, Jacques whipped his staff across the skull of the monster. There was a cracking splintering sound, and it wasn’t from Jacques’ staff. The monster squealed in an incongruously high-pitched voice and put its head between its front forelimbs.
“Sorry, I may have overreacted,” Jacques said to it, in the humor of relief, as he sprinted up the trail away from the trio. It was the first time he had tried to run quickly since he’d arrived, and he found he had to carefully control his stride to keep from bouncing too high and losing speed to air resistance. The kangasaurs didn’t pursue him, though, and he stopped after a few hundred meters.
“I may regret this,” he told himself, but unable to control his curiosity, he retraced his steps. The small kangasaur family was clustered around the wounded animal, the other two nudging it with their beaks as it continued to hold its head in its forelimbs. A very bright red fluid, apparently blood, had wetted its foreclaws and limbs. Eventually, it stood up and tried to walk, but blundered into a nearby tree. In an entirely human gesture, the smaller one reached for the forelimb of its wounded mother or father—Jacques thought of them as a family—and led it away from the forest and back down the path the way it had come. The other large one stayed behind, looking back up the trail. Its eyes met Jacques’. Jacques whipped his staff around in a circle and it made the odd moaning sound. The kangasaur’s head bobbed, looking up at Jacques and then back toward the rest of its family. Finally it turned and followed them down the trail.
Jacques exhaled and continued upward on the trail, much more alert now, walking softly and looking up and down the trail at every turn. The era of carefree strolls in the park was over.
Requiem for a Martian
The trees began to shrink and the forest to thin as he approached the rim. The sky became soft and hazy with mist. The sun overhead was red and faint to the point where Jacques could look right at it; indeed, through the haze it began to look like what some pre-astronautical artists had thought a red dwarf would look like from a planet. Upward. While his eyes were on the increasingly jagged path through the lava ahead of him, the light suddenly dimmed. Jacques looked up in time to see the last of some great, indistinct silhouette pass across the large red disk. He shivered despite the warmth of air, thinking about wing loading in a dense atmosphere under low gravity with plenty of oxygen. Something was up there. Something big.
He looked at the trees—cover was beginning to get scarce. He built a stone cairn and scratched a crude picture of a batlike thing on a piece of smooth pahoehoe lava. This he put on the cairn just under the top stone. As he brushed his hands off, he noticed a piece of paper caught between two stones on the ground. It was such an ordinary piece of litter that he almost turned away without recognizing its implication.
He was not alone.
Excited, he lunged for the paper before it blew away. It turned out to be a page from an old-fashioned diary—something one might indeed take into one’s CSU. The ink had smeared and faded, but he could read some of the entries:
. . . daddy spanked me—not ready for church on time . . .
. . . went to Blu River concert with Fredrika, Gus, and Tsen . . .
. . . algebra is too hard!!!! maybe Gus will help me but I won’t let daddy know . . .
. . . went to Solis Lacus Temple Sunday, really, really beautiful. I feel inspired . . .
. . . Fredrika’s 14th birthday party really fun but sad. Her folks sold her to Will Tharsis so goodbye. I wonder who daddy will sell me to? Just one more year—I want to go. I’m afraid.
Feeling like a voyeur, Jacques didn’t read any more. These were scenes from a New Reformationist childhood on Mars—and an understandable excuse to volunteer for a century-long expedition to liberate a people suffering from theocratic tyranny. Was this just a page come loose or had something bad happened? Jacques looked around for clues—but the page might have blown from anywhere by now.
The writer was probably female, he thought. Who? There was someone called Ascendant Chryse, a biotechnician in the third squad; she wasn’t necessarily the only Martian farm girl on the expedition, though—just one whose name was memorable. She was tall and reserved, with long straight hair, and had been a bit of a loner. But something had burned in her eyes, and she’d worn her jumper open low enough to show cleavage.
He put the diary page in his breast pocket. In the best of all possible worlds, he would have a chance to return it. Adam and Eve scenarios sprang unbidden in his mind.
He reached the rim before sunset. It was too hazy to watch the sun go down; things simply got dark with their usual suddenness. In the fading light, he managed to find a lava tube with a view to the East across the caldera and set up his bivouac on a hollow filled with soft volcanic sand.
He woke when it was still dark. Had he heard a noise? He listened carefully, but everything was silent now. He pulled the boots from his shipsuit on and felt his way out to relieve himself. Outside, he was greeted by one of the clearest and steadiest skies he had ever seen. The air was dead still and only the faintest stars shimmered ever so slightly.
To the north, rising plumes of steam lit by a faint red glow reminded him that he was on the rim of an active volcano.
The star patterns were unfamiliar and were dominated by a brilliant red star so bright that it cast a shadow and degraded his night vision. He had to block it with his hand to see the Milky Way. But a group of second magnitude stars caught his attention; it looked like Orion’s belt. With a start, he realized that it could indeed be Orion’s belt, but viewed from hundreds of light-years farther away, and, if the still brilliant red and blue stars above and below it were Betelgeuse and Rigel, somewhat off to the side. 36 Ophiuchi lay near Scorpius; Orion hunted on the opposite side of Earth’s sky. So the brilliant red star to its right could be Antares. If so, they had passed a few light-years beyond the heart of the Scorpion. With a bit of searching, he found what he thought were the Pleiades. Somewhere in the direction he was looking would be Sol, maybe a hundred times dimmer than the dimmest star he could see. The compact binoculars in his emergency kit required power, of course.
He would build a telescope to see Sol, some day. He could grind and polish an obsidian mirror, silver it somehow, and use the lenses from the binoculars as an eyepiece. If he couldn’t get home again, he vowed he would at least see home again.
A brisk wind hit him from behind and a great dark void filled the sky where brilliant stars had been moments ago. Some primordial instinct seized him and he threw himself down to the lava as something he couldn’t see went whoosh-clunk above him. The stars reappeared as the black shadow flew off to the east. It was some kind of bird or bat, but the size of a large aircraft—a megabat. With the Milky Way behind it, he could see it bank and begin to return. Terrified, he scrambled on all fours back to his lava tube. There was an audible, hollow thump-crunch outside as if a giant had jumped down on the lava field.
Jacques fumbled for his staff and basket and moved farther into the lava tube, glad that he had chosen a small one. Loud scraping sounds commenced at the tube entrance, followed by the thumps of falling rock. Eventually they stopped, but Jacques stayed awake sitting on his haunches and gripping his staff the rest of the night.
When it got light enough to see, he tended the variety of scrapes and scratches he’d gotten from blundering around blind and naked in the sharp lava field. Then noting the monster’s excavation efforts hadn’t shortened the tube significantly, he lay down on his space blanket and slept.
When he woke, he gathered his things and cautiously poked his head out of the lava tube. The sun was high, peeking through occasional gaps between impossibly tall, dark-bottomed clouds that were rapidly filling the sky.
He emerged and looked around—not a hundred meters to his left, sitting in a depression of lava sand, were three huge eggs; he recognized the mottled shells.
Did he risk the climb down to the lake? He hadn’t seen anything on the way up; maybe the megabat only hunted at night. Was there any point? The megabat was another reason not to expect to find any other survivors. Or maybe it wasn’t a threat at all and was only protecting its clutch. Supposing that he risked a search, what would be the best way of doing it? Going along the rough lava ashore would be time-consuming and increase exposure to the megabats. But if he were on or in the water, he could dive to escape it—trusting that said dive didn’t take him into the jaws of a parrot-beaked shark.
He could make a boat of some kind. A hollow blackwood log should float nicely enough if one could stop up the ends. Bitterwood pulp dried out to something like cork, so that might work. He could braid ropes of green twine. He headed back down the hill and established a working camp at a level where there were logs of about the right size, a running brook, and a lava tube cave just the right size for him and nothing bigger. He called it Forest Camp.
Two weeks later, on Day 25, on the first landing beach, he had assembled four blackwood logs, stopped and sealed, about thirty centimeters across and four meters long—as large as he could carry—along with a coil of three-centimeter-thick green twine rope, numerous flute plant shafts, and a pile of mature blackwood leaves. The next morning, he pondered whether to follow his plan and go for one more log or just go with what he had. One more log would make the raft about 1.5 meters across instead of 1.2. He looked at the high waves and decided to do it.
By this time, the path was well traveled. Carrying a log on the way back, with an overnight stop at Rim Cave, would take a day and a half. But unburdened, he could do it in half a day, so he took off immediately, intending on arriving at Forest Camp by early evening. As he approached the rim, he witnessed an astounding sight. A group of kangasaurs had gathered at the megabat nest and were apparently trying to break open one of the eggs.
Almost by instinct Jacques rushed toward them, waving his arms, hoping to scare them away and save the eggs from the kangasaurs and the kangasaurs from momma megabat. But the kangasaurs didn’t scare and one of them started toward him. Jacques slowed and prepared to do battle with his staff. Then he saw a long scar on the head of one of the kangasaurs that stayed by the eggs. Could it be the same one he hit before? Jacques began to whip his staff around, creating the low moaning sound and approached slowly. The scarred kangasaur left the egg clutch and started heading downhill; the rest followed. The one that had come to challenge him looked back at the retreating group, looked a Jacques, then back at the retreating group and abruptly turned and bounded after them. Jacques was curious about how much damage the kangasaurs had done to the eggs, but decided discretion dictated that he not approach the nest.
Instead, he continued quickly along his trail to Forest Camp. A distant movement caught his eye. A huge megabat was coming in for a landing. Though it must have been moving rather quickly, it was so large that even rapid movements took time. In this slow motion, it settled to the ground among the trees as if using some antigravity mechanism.
Jacques scolded himself about curiosity and went to take a look anyway, careful to stay in the cover of the trees. The megabat itself was an ugly chimera of familiar-seeming things: a bear’s head with a parrot’s beak on the body of a bat. On the ground it squatted on its hindquarters, balancing with a pair of clawed fingers that projected from halfway out on its wings. Its neck didn’t seem long in proportion, but still could extend some distance from its body.
What it held nearly made him retch. It had pulled something out of the wreckage of a CSU, a bloated, white thing that nonetheless had recognizable arms and legs. The corpse fell in half as the megabat’s beak lifted it, and the monster gulped the half it retained with a quick motion of its head. Then it went back down for the rest. Shuddering, Jacques hid behind a blackwood tree until the megabat lifted off with a single mighty beat of its huge wings and vanished into the gloomy, clouded sky.
He went forward to see what had happened. It turned out that the CSU was not badly damaged—the megabat only dented it in the process of biting off the flexidiamond canopy. The fall, he realized, would not have been so bad. Terminal velocity for something the size of a CSU in this dense atmosphere and low gravity would be a fraction of what it was on Earth—maybe less than ten meters per second, and even that may have been broken by the tree canopy.
The occupant had made a camp around the CSU, apparently hoping to be rescued. A crude table and chair sat beside the CSU, made of flute plant shafts lashed together with green twine.
There was a basket, not unlike his, with personal effects in it. The remains of a handwritten book remained open, several pages having come off. Fearing the worst, he compared the page he had been carrying with the book. It matched; the CSU had been that of Ascendant Chryse.
His nose told him that she had been dead for a while when the megabat found her. He nerved himself to look into the CSU. Her decayed head was mercifully turned away from him amidst the scattered, putrid gore left by the unfastidious megabat. He hoped the bacteria in her body would kill the thing. But probably not—parasites coevolve with their hosts.
The shadow of the caldera had moved over him by this time. He would have to get back to Forest Camp quickly—the megabats, apparently, were already about their appointed rounds. He looked around for her emergency kit items, finding the bag, space blankets, canteen—everything but the solar array and wrist comp. Was the array working? It had to be around somewhere. He couldn’t find it, however.
He was about to leave when he remembered the CSU memory; it might have a more complete record than his own. He found the access panel and the right side and, hopefully, turned the power on. The tiny engineering status screen display lit up immediately—her CSU had probably used much less power than his after landing. For one thing, it wouldn’t have needed to make air.
But the external intake status was “off.” That didn’t make sense to him. With the power off and the canopy shut and the vents closed, she would have suffocated. Had she simply given up hope and killed herself? That didn’t make sense, but the evidence seemed to point that way.
Shadows were deepening. He pulled the systems control module out of the CSU and took it and the diary back with him to Forest Camp.
That night, in his lava tube by the light of glowing charcoal, he got to know Ascendant Chryse and her history. She would not, he thought, have killed herself expecting to go to heaven—as an adult, she had utterly rejected the New Reformist mythology she’d been taught by the people who had abused her childhood. She had become a conforming Anglican, though with private doubts. She hated the New Reformation. The last pages of her diary flamed with her determination.
He wouldn’t be able to play back her CSU’s record of the Resolution’s journey until he found another undamaged CSU, but in the last pages of her diary, she vowed to “. . . get revenge for the sabotage that diverted Resolution from 36 Ophiuchi.” There was no despair in this writing, or anything like it.
Needing some closure, he tore out an empty page of Ascendant’s diary after her last entry. Some of the cells of her body would be on that, along with her fingerprints. Also, it represented her future, the unwritten pages of a life that might have extended to the end of time itself. Gone now. He took the page and lit it afire from his charcoal lamp. Its brilliance filled his small cave for a few seconds, then flickered out.
He sang Heinlein’s Green Hills of Earth softly and went to sleep with tears in his eyes and an unanswered question in his mind.
Sabotage required a saboteur. Who? It would have been a suicide mission . . . or maybe not. He was alive, after all.
He arrived at Rim Camp in early evening. Days had become noticeably warmer and longer since he’d emerged, but the sun still rose at nearly the same place on the horizon each day. At least it did as far as he could tell without stopping to build some kind of a Stonehenge to measure it. The change must be due to orbital eccentricity, he thought. He stuck his thumb out at arm’s length to cover less of the sun.
Two days later, after some thought and exploration, Jacques assembled the log raft Resolution II on a black sand beach three hundred meters clockwise from where he originally came ashore. The area had a small protected cove, an unusual two-story lava tube cave, and a shoreline of about thirty meters or so of deep black sand. There, he had room to lay the five corked blackwood logs parallel and rope them together with green twine. On top of the logs, he laid out a dozen smaller blackwood branches at right angles and tied them down with a lot of green twine. On top of the middle three of those, he lashed a platform of some thirty flute plant shafts, about three meters long and 1.5 meters wide, each jammed into its own hole in a blackwood log, fore and aft. On top of this, he secured a block of dried bitterwood to serve as a seat. Three long, reasonably straight blackwood branches served as oars—one was a spare.
He launched Resolution II on Day 30. It worked reasonably well in the relatively calm waters of the cove, but tipped so much in the higher waves of the lake that he had great difficulty staying on his seat. He rowed back to the beach and made another trip to the forest for more green twine and provisions.
Finally, on Day 33, having made a green twine seat belt with a whittled buckle, he felt ready for open water. While the waves were high and steep, they moved slowly, and he was able to get into a rhythm of waves and oars that let him progress at maybe two meters a second without too much effort.
He wore his emergency suit—mainly for the clear visor that let him see well underwater. Every hundred yards or so, he would unstrap, dive, and look for a CSU. About a quarter of the way around the lake, he found one.
The CSU was perhaps at half the depth of his and still functional. Its occupant was a man of medium height, a deep tan, and straight black hair. Jacques didn’t recognize him. He tied a line to the CSU and opened its panel to start the revival process. Then he went back to the raft to catch a breath and wait. After what he judged to be about twenty minutes, he dove again. The man seemed about as startled to see him as Jacques had been to see the parrot-beaked shark—a thought that made Jacques glance around nervously.
By placing his inflated hood right against the CSU, Jacques was able to tell the man what to do, and soon the two of them were together on the raft.
“What happened!?” was the first thing the man said after pulling his hood off. “My CSU couldn’t tell me anything. It was barely functional.” He was a wiry, dark man and spoke with what Jacques thought was a slight British or Australian accent.
Jacques shook his head. “The same thing for me. I’m not at all certain, but apparently the Resolution could not, or was not allowed to, decelerate at 36 Ophiuchi, and its AI or its crew or both did the best they could to find this place and dump the CSUs here. So far, I’ve found one who didn’t make it, and you.”
“Submahn Roy,” he said and offered a hand. “From Bengal. Just call me Soob. I was a park ranger and safari leader. I was going to have a hand at occupation logistics.”
Jacques gave Soob the basics of his lonely odyssey. “I have Chryse’s CSU control module. It may have more data, but I need another CSU to play it. We might try to raise yours.”
“I’m not good for much physically, right now. But as soon as I am, we should look for others.”
Jacques nodded. Time was running out on the underwater CSUs, and more people would make the job easier. He dove to recover his line and mark Soob’s CSU with a green twine-tethered blackwood buoy, then they rowed back to the beach.
Soob recovered as rapidly as Jacques in hyperbaric oxygen, and they were able to set out again the next day to look for others. The first CSU they found was occupied by Lieutenant Collette Obota, an African woman from the Congo. She was a member of the expedition’s twenty-person police force—tiny, but any actual fighting would have been done by robots under human direction. A tall, personable, lady with a big grin, Jacques had not met her before, but liked her instantly.
The occupant of the next CSU they found had clearly expired some time ago. The same for the next two. But the fourth was different. Its occupant looked to be of Asian ancestry and was still in hibernation. Jacques started the revival process from the access panel, and soon the occupant was aboard the raft. He introduced himself as Yu Song-Il, a psychiatrist who had been born on Hanguk’i Habitat in the Proxima belt. Almost two hundred years old biologically, he greeted his new circumstances with the joy of discovery.
Not long after they pulled him aboard, it began to rain in huge cold drops that reminded Jacques of water balloons. They had to struggle to row against a gentle but surprisingly insistent wind and monster waves to get back to their beach. Green twine lashings began to fray and snap as the Resolution II flexed alarmingly.
A huge wave broke Jacques’ basket open and its precious cargo of emergency kits and food spilled aft. Unhesitatingly, Collette dove after them.
For a second, Jacques froze, then shouted. “Soob, Doc Yu, take the oars and try to keep us steady.” Then he scrambled after the remaining supplies on all fours as the raft pitched up and down. His hand clamped on a coil of nanotube line before it had a chance to slither overboard. He wrapped this around the broken basket several times in a crude repair. Reluctantly, he cut that part off with the multi-tool, tied the end around several deck boards and tied the other end to a loop on his emergency suit. Then he dove into the water to look for Collette. It had all taken several minutes and she was nowhere to be seen.
“Collette!” he screamed at the top of a wave. Three times he screamed.
“Over here!” he heard at last. He swam toward the sound.
It became difficult to breathe as the drops became more and more dense. It was impossible to avoid inhaling water, and he coughed as he struggled. He lost his direction. There was nothing to do but tread water and call again.
Something brushed against his foot. Instinctively, he kicked. Suddenly he felt a strong tug on his boot and a sharp pain. Ducking underwater, he saw that a three-meter parrot-beaked fish had clamped its jaws around his foot. Unable to pierce the emergency suit, it was still exerting crushing force. In desperation, he bent double and punched it in the eye with all the strength his full-gravity muscles could manage.
Trying to calm himself, he got his multitool out, opened the blade, and sank it deep into the fish’s skull. Nothing. Lungs burning, he slashed behind its head, once twice.
On the third cut, it released him and swam erratically away. Jacques pushed himself to the surface.
“Over here!” he heard. Not twenty meters to his right, Collette was treading water with two emergency kits in her arms. With arms that felt like lead, he stroked over to her. With Collette gripping him with her legs, she pulled them both back to the raft.
It held together, barely, for the immeasurable time it took to get back to the cove. When they arrived, Jacques could see that the wave line of the lakeshore had already advanced almost a meter. Together, they dragged the raft as far up onto the shore as they could, tied it to a stick they wedged into a small lava tube and carried what was left of their supplies into the lava cave. They had lost all the indigenous food, but only one bag of emergency gear.
Exhausted, they spent the entire next day in the cave, consuming nutrition bars and creating small private areas with shards of fallen pahoehoe lava cleared from the floor. The raindrops hitting the top of their cave sounded like distant, muffled drums. At one place, water dripped down from the roof of the lava tube. They “corked” a segment of hollow blackwood log left over from the Resolution II’s construction, a volume of about half a cubic meter, to place beneath it.
Jacques nursed his swollen foot and recounted his adventures as the storm subsided. He also made another plaque:
New Landing, Day 35
Great storm. Rescued—
Below he laboriously scratched in the full names of his party.
Rainwater, seeping in, filled a large sandy-bottomed depression in the lower part of the cave, and they bathed in shifts. Then they washed their shipsuits and hung them to dry.
Jacques arose before the others to watch the sun rise the next day. While he was happy to have achieved his goal in rescuing other survivors, he had grown used to being alone and not entirely unhappy with it. In the morning light, he found the shore almost lapping at their cave entrance and the remains of the Resolution II bobbing in the still-disturbed lake at the end of its tether. He found a secure place above the cave entrance to place his plaque and went back in to wake the others.
There was, he realized a decision to make. Most of the camp outside the lava tube had been washed away. The raft was in no shape to set out again, but every day, every hour, of delay meant that someone might die who might otherwise be saved. Alone, Jacques would have gone back to forest camp for more supplies. Now, with others present who might question his judgment, he hesitated.
Collette stepped smoothly into the silence with a clear, bell-like voice. “Here we are, four naked savages at the mercy of storms and hungry monsters with dreams of climbing back to starflight. Well, what should we do, Jacques?” Collette asked. “You know this place better than we do.”
Jacques looked around at them, uncertain.
“What would you do if we weren’t here?” Doc Yu asked.
Jacques told him.
“Ah.” Yu smiled. “And how does our being here change that?”
Jacques shrugged. His situation had suddenly moved from straightforward survival to something involving leadership and perhaps even politics. He was not comfortable with that.
“With all of us working together, we should be able to do it faster,” Soob interjected. “We can hunt more and carry more. I think we should add another log to the raft, and some more cross bracing.”
Jacques looked around him. Heads nodded. A consensus seemed to be forming. “Very well. Let us pack our things and go. We should be able to make Rim Cave by sunset if we leave now.” The sun, he reflected, seemed to be larger, warmer, and up longer than when he first revived. But he had no way of measuring it.
About halfway up the caldera wall, Jacques saw a dark shape against a towering white cloud.
“Everyone, look up, about thirty degrees left of the trail. That’s a megabat.”
“It looks as big as an airliner,” Collette said. “Do you think it’s the one that ate Ascendant?”
“I’ve only seen one at a time, but I can’t imagine there’s only one in the whole ecosystem. I think they prefer feeding at night—probably see well into the infrared.”
“The one that ate Ascendant,” she replied calmly, “was one that found something to eat in the daytime.”
Jacques nodded nervously and increased his pace as they all took turns watching the sky.
They reached Rim Cave at sunset and nervously worked to expand its sleeping area well into twilight. The soft whummm, whummm of huge wings was heard in the night, but no long beak attempted the entrance this time.
As dawn broke, Collette and Jacques found themselves together outside the cave mouth.
“An early riser, too, I see,” she said.
“And one with a French given name, too. This seems auspicious.” Jacques smiled.
“It’s my mother’s name. My parents met in Kindu, centuries ago now,” Collette said. “It dates from the Belgian colonial period.”
“My great-grandmother was a French diplomat in Papua New Guinea,” Jacques replied. “My great grandfather was a Hong Kong businessman. They settled there, in the high mountains. Someone in each of the last four generations has had a French given name.”
At Forest Camp, hunting and gathering was problematic. There were few bitterwood tree fruits to be found, and those seemed well past their prime. Hirachnoids had grown scarce as well and for the first time, Jacques failed to see a kangasaur.
That night in the lava tube, Soob was worried. “It is very difficult to be sure, but we have found in one day somewhat less than is needed to sustain us for three—even supposing that we are not missing crucial trace nutrients. We need another food source. What else have you tried?”
Jacques shook his head. “My priority has been the rescue of other crew members. After finding enough to keep me going, I focused on that and did not take additional chances.”
“Did the bitterwood pulp wood actually make you sick?” Doc Yu asked.
Jacques laughed. “I didn’t try very much.”
“The molecules that cause the bitterness may be more fragile than the molecules of nourishment. I suggest we try cooking it. What about tanglegrass?”
“I haven’t tried that at all,” Jacques answered. Then he remembered what he’d seen when he’d caught his foot in some and pulled it out of loose earth. “It has a thick white root, however.”
And so the conversation went. By mid-morning the next day, they had determined that bitterwood pulp was indigestible, regardless of what one did to it. Tanglegrass root was too hard to eat raw, but could be pounded into a paste that didn’t make anyone sick; whether it was nourishing would have to be determined later.
But the big surprise, in Jacques mind, was flute plant fronds. Boiled, they proved almost indistinguishable from spinach. Young flute plant shoots also proved edible when boiled soft enough to chew.
They set out for Rim Cave by noon with a corked blackwood log and forty person-days worth of provisions. Soob and Doc Yu carried the log, packed with the supplies, while Collette and Jacques headed over to Ascendant’s CSU to see if there was anything else to salvage.
Jacques attacked the area behind the access panel with his multitool. Wires, connectors, optical fibers, braces, components—anything he could pull out quickly went into their emergency kit bags. In the main compartment, the smell had gone and Ascendant’s skull lay, face still away, completely clean.
“She had beautiful bones,” Collette said. “I wonder what cleaned them?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why?”
She smiled at him. “Protein.” Then she laughed at his reaction. “There are only a few ways to do carbon-based life, and what we find here, like about 45 percent of what we find anywhere, must do it our way. If they can eat us, we might be able to eat them.”
“We need to be on our way,” Jacques said, recovering his equilibrium. “The sun is about halfway down.”
As they strode up the fairly well-worn path toward Rim Cave and the tree-bearers, Jacques contemplated the path of their sun. It seemed to be setting in the same place, yet days seemed to be getting longer and hotter. The planet’s orbit must be eccentric, he thought. How close to its sun would it get?
Lost in thought, he was utterly and totally surprised when one of the most bizarre apparitions he had ever seen in his life loomed in front of him, held up a hand, and said, “Well, praise the lord! Jack’s Song, I presume?”
Copyright © 2009 G. David Nordley