I spent most of the day yesterday out and about with Sinopa, collecting samples of the various parts of all the plants we could get our (gloved) hands on. While we really had no reason to suspect that any particular plant was dangerous, we certainly didn’t have any reason to suspect that they were all harmless either. So, better safe than sorry, right?
We canvassed all the non-forest, non-water area (on the west side of the river, of course) from grid S to Y and 0 to 8. I’m not going to go into all the details now, especially considering that we haven’t analyzed any of the samples yet, but suffice it to say that Alchibah has no lack of intriguing plant species. We tried to collect everything we could find, but I’m sure we missed a few species. Honestly, while Sinopa and I are certainly more than qualified to look at all these plants from the point of view of traditional medicine and traditional ecological knowledge (Blackfoot and Lipan Apache knowledge, to be precise), that is only going to allow us to progress so fast. Without a botanist of some sort we weren’t going to know everything these plants had to tell us for quite a while. That was no reason to stop collecting them though. At the very least we could have Mariana check for poisons.
After my morning cup of coffee and conversation with Andy and the other last shift guards (Jack B left quickly, and haughtily, as usual) I got Aya and Arra and swung by the makeshift daycare the Parkers had set up in one of the two large tents to drop the girls off and went to find Jaisa. She had mentioned wanting to go into the forest to collect more samples today. It was great that the all kids were getting a chance to make friends. This had to be weird enough for them as it was. At least this would give them some semblance of normalcy. And hell, kids should be allowed to be kids.
After I caught up with Jaisa and Sin I ran back to the tent to grab my YCS (that’s a type of khukuri, for you non-collector folk – i.e. everyone but Jai) and the 870. On this trip I was around mostly as a grunt, so they could do their job without having to worry so much about looking over their shoulders.
As we made our way into the forest a sort of calm came over me. While there was no doubt that there were dangers to be found in there, at the same time for years the vast forests of the Canadian north had been our home. It felt good to be among trees again.
On the other hand, plants were more Jaisa’s realm. My area was animals, and my job as lookout coincided nicely with getting a good look at, and hopefully a few pictures of, some of the more mammalian creatures out there. At the end of the day there was one that really stuck out, and it was a cute little bugger too, which is nice considering that between the slizzard and those freaky spider things I was beginning to worry that Alchibah was inhabited solely by creepy-crawlies and other (by Earth standards) nasty creatures. The first glimpse I caught of it was little more than a blur flying between trees. After a bit longer I managed to spot one on running up the trunk of one of the pole pines. At that distance the best I could tell was that it was about half a foot long and was covered in what appeared to be fur of various shades of gray. My first thought was that it looked something like a squirrel or a ferret.
I finally got a good look at one as we were sitting down for a quick lunch. We were now at grid L3, having moved essentially due west from the tents. It really was slow going; you don’t really appreciate the diversity of plant life in an area until you stop for several minutes every time you see something new. In any case, the animal perched on a branch nearby while we ate. Maybe it could smell the food, I don’t know. It had six short legs (arranged in the traditional way, not offset like the slizzards’) and as I thought, it was about five inches long, give or take, and had a sort of rippled gray coloring to its fur. Its nose was somewhat rounded and it appeared to have a stubby tail and two long, thin ears which it kept flush with its back.
About five minutes into the meal, however, we all of a sudden learned a whole lot more about the little fellow. He perked up on his branch and started sniffing the air a bit. Then, without any warning whatsoever, his ears bloomed. I don’t know a better word to describe it. Expanded, perhaps? The two long, thin ears stuck straight up in the air and then spread out to the sides, so that each turned into a quarter circle significantly larger than the animal itself. The effect was comical, though somehow impressive as well. It almost looked like it had half a radar dish attached to its little head. It glanced around and just as quickly the ears were back down again.
The critter’s final trick, though, was really something else. It dashed to the end of its branch and dove headfirst towards the nearest tree (a good 10 feet away). Now, I had to assume it wasn’t some sort of lemming, but no rodent (or, in this case, rodent-like-animal) I had ever seen could have cleared the gap. As it left the branch though, its fur started to unravel. At least, that’s what it seemed like to us. In reality it turns out that what I had thought was a little stub of a tail was in fact the base of a tail that was, I would guess, over three feet long. As it neared the tree the tail whipped over its back to grab onto the closest branch. It swung off of that one and, I kid you not, did a back flip to whip its tail around onto the next branch. And away it went, somersaulting into the distance.
All three of us left that encounter with grins on our faces, that’s for sure. The other thing I have to mention is the quite odd (and potentially useful) tree we found. We were on our way back, around O4, and I was doing my usual lookout thing while Jaisa and Sin were collecting samples. I noticed Jaisa looking a little confused and intrigued examining this one tree. I hadn’t seen more than a few all day, and those from a distance. It was maybe three feet wide at the base and sixty or so high with a light silvery gray bark, and I mean that in the literal sense: the bark actually had a slight metallic tint to it.
“Dad, Sin, come here, you’ve got to check this out!” my daughter exclaimed after not too long. “The bark is soft. Well, not soft, exactly, but it gives.”
I went over to the tree and reached out to see for myself. Sure enough, when you pushed on the tree it gave a couple inches. The outer bark was rough, but not in the tree bark sense. It was more like a very coarse, fibrous leather.
Jai had taken out her knife and was trying to cut a piece of the bark off. She was having a tough time of it, so I handed the 870 to Sin and took out the YCS to see if I could have any more luck. I managed to dig the tip about a half inch into the bark, but the outer layer was tough as nails. It felt like I was trying cut kevlar. After quite a bit of finagling and pushing I managed to cut out a six by six inch square of the stuff. What we found was almost surreal. The outer eighth of an inch or so was the tough material and the rest of the half inch sheet I had cut off was pillowy soft and incredibly smooth. It was something like a cross between silk and cotton. I couldn’t believe it. If we could find a stand of these somewhere Rajnar might very well have his dream fabric, and the outer layer would find any number of uses, I had no doubt.
I looked back at the gap in the bark. Underneath the layer I cut off was another layer of the same material. I got Sinopa’s Ka-bar and stabbed it into the tree, hammering it in until I felt the thunk that meant I must have hit wood. Two and a half inches. Nice! Assuming the layers continued, and at a similar thickness, that means it must have been about five or six deep, meaning we could probably harvest the outer three or four without harming the tree.
As we were walking the last bit back to the tents I noticed Jack B a ways away talking with his four cronies. I can’t imagine they were up to any good, especially considering they were letting all that good muscle go to waste when almost everyone else was over helping put up the common hall.
“I wonder what his game is,” I said, motioning towards the little group. “He’s going to have to be dealt with sooner or later.” The other two nodded.
“Oh the hell with Jack. He’s an egotistical asshole who’s going to get his ass kicked by somebody one of these days, it’s just really a matter of who and when.” Jaisa exclaimed. Ah, my beautiful, ladylike daughter, so delicate. “Moving on, I know you both saw the tracks.” We nodded. “I know we all saw what was there, but let’s just be sure we’re all on the same page. They’re predatory, about the size of a catamount, and there’s a pack of about a dozen individuals, right?”
“I also noticed one spot where they all seemed to stop suddenly. That could be when we hear that roar up in the hills. I think it’s safe to assume that these belonged to the raspers.” I commented.
“Agreed. And they were very fast, and very agile. The shifts in the tracks were at least as quick as a wolf’s.” Sinopa said.
“Alright, I’d say we should let the others, or at least the competent ones we know well enough to trust, know about all this.” I said. “I’ll talk to the Stuarts, Sally, Travis, Monroe and Histy. Sin, you talk to Bart, Joe and Marty and Jai, tell the Parkers. No need for people to get too worried, but I think if we get that group talking about how we shouldn’t go into the woods without at least a couple armed people it’ll happen. Make sure they don’t go into specifics with people we’re not sure about. The last friggin thing we need is for some wet behind the ears yuppie starting a panic.”
“Sounds good,” Jai said. “Ah, it feels just like the good old days, tracking dangerous predators, counting our friends and looking over our shoulders for conniving SOBs getting ready to stab us in the back. I was getting worried there for a minute that living on another planet was actually going to be less interesting than living in Canada. Guess not.”