Rat Hunt

Day 4  0:04:04:30

     The rains of the night before had ended and the dark sky was lightening rapidly in the east as Janie Cantarubias, with Kara along to help, went out to examine nearby sites for a spot to situate the windmills. The Jeep, Kara’s bot R.LeGuin, and R. EmyCee were acting as guards and lookouts. Now that the Community Center was being built the colonies lack of electrical generation loomed as a huge bottleneck, that’s a nonsequitur if I ever heard one, to rapid completion. With so little generating capacity it was important to determine the best location.

     Every day since their arrival the winds had blown generally from the north west and today was no different. With wind power one thing over all else was important, average wind speed. And without natural geographic features to tunnel the wind for you that meant getting the turbine as high as possible and keeping away from obstructions such as trees.

     The raised mound south of the tents at [T3], near the base of which Bio-Lab was nearing completion, was the highest nearby location. The trees to the west of it were being cleared and it became the obvious location. There were two portable anemometers. One was set up on the hill and Kara stayed to monitor it.  The second Janie took with her to the three other sites that had been determined as possibles. The wind speed comparisons almost always favored Kara’s location, usually by a considerable margin, and so by noon, (10:00 Alchibah time), the decision was made.

     “That’s it Kara”, Janie sent, “I’m gonna take the bots and see about getting a little more help to drag the Windmills up there. Could you figure the locations so we can get them raised as soon as we get back?”

     “Sure Janie, about a hundred feet apart and in a line facing northwest so they don’t interfere with each other. Sound right?”

     “Perfect, but stay as far up wind from the Bio-Lab as you can make it. Just in case. I should be up there in less than an hour.”

     The 20 KW generators with their associated control circuitry each weighed in at about 300 lbs. The three composite blades were 30 feet long and very light. They also came with enough scaffolding sections to raise the generator/blade combination 60 foot above the ground. Their natural output was 4000 volts so we needed a transformer to reduce that to something the robot chargers could use. Another transformer would be placed at the Community Building and the third held in reserve till we see where it will be needed most. Anyway it took one of our wheeled carts three trips to get everything to the hill.

     The total weight involved was no problem for the bots and the structures were designed for easy assembly. Our only initial trouble was making a foundation that would be strong enough to keep them from toppling. As a temporary measure we only raised them 40 feet and used the rest of the scaffolding to make outriggers for guide wires. We locked the generator hubs to keep them from rotating automatically to face the wind. If we had let them rotate the blades would have spun into the wires.

     By the time the last cart load arrived the first windmill was almost ready for operation. R. EmyCee got the honor of first charge. All three were spinning a couple of hours before nightfall. And we had started to do some digging for a proper foundation. Our intention was to dig down about 10 feet and put in a section resting on a base plate and fill it the hole. Concrete would have been nice, maybe in the future, Kara said she had watched the corner posts for the Community Building being set and wondered if we could do something similar here, but taller, so that we could get the windmills even higher than their scaffolding would allow. That looked promising. Too much to do too little time.

Day 4 An hour before sunset     

     We were done for now a few of robots with someone to supervise would continue to dig, set base plates then refill for the rest of the night. We would relocate the generators in the morning, that should take an hour or so apiece and we will keep two running at all times. Still… we were getting 70% or 80% of what we could have gotten from this wind speed if everything had been perfect and bots were charging. I was listening to the rhythmic whupp, whupp of the blades when the Jeep approached.     “Miss Janie, the Boss would like to know if you can spare some time to go rat hunting?” was how the Jeep phrased it.

     “Jeep, I told you before, drop the Miss Janie stuff and just call me Janie, everyone else does.”

     “The Boss said I was always to call you Miss Janie because it’s a term of endearment, and no matter what you said about it I am not allowed to change.”

     “Ok then J.P. But I will have a word with Bart about that later. Why didn’t he just message me instead of having you ask? And what’s with a rat hunt anyway?”

     “The Boss said his comm unit isn’t functioning properly so he had R. Daily at the lumber mill pass the message to me.” and after a brief pause, “I think a rat hunt is where one would hunt rats.”

     “Puhleezz!… I’m done here for now so call back and ask RoDan to find out from Bart where we should meet.“

     Almost immediately the Jeep responded, “The Boss says to meet him at the mess tent for dinner first. Rat hunting is always best when done after dark.”

     “I was sitting near the mess tent entrance waiting, so when Janie came in I immediately said, “Congratulations on getting the windmills going.”

     “We have a lot of really smart people anxious to help.” And looking over to where Les Reye was again sitting with the usual suspects, “And a few of another sort entirely. They do anything today?”

     “Can’t say for sure about all of em but I did see that one at the end, the one that calls himself Snitch, (what kind of a name is that anyway?), surveying the land east of where we were sawing. He stopped and said hello and mentioned what he was up to, seems friendly enough. Said his real name was Eugene Washburn but Jack the Blade stuck him with the name Snitch. He said Jack wanted to call him Stench but relented under pressure. There are some things I‘ll never get.”

     Between spoonfuls of … Yep stew again… Janie told me about her day and what she had planned for tomorrow. Then she got to the question I knew she was dying to ask but hoping I would mention first. “Ok Bart, what’s with a rat hunt?”

     “Janie when I was a kid my greatest source of pleasure, or time waster, depending how you look at it, was going to the dump to see if any bears were around. Bears weren’t uncommon but there were always rats. My buddies and I would take slingshots and pot as many of them as we could. We did it mostly in the daytime, but once in a while we would go out at night and shine a light around and see the glint of their eyes. We saw a lot of other things too, mice, raccoons, possums, deer. But it was certain if a rat was around you could find him eventually at the dump.

     Hanna has been saving me table scraps for the last couple of days in an empty fuel drum. This afternoon on the way back to camp I emptied it in a little depression between here and where Joe and I are sawing. No one has mentioned seeing any rats since the day after we arrived. A small animal like that has to eat all the time and or starve to death. Everyone has been very careful, even those guys.” I said looking at Reye, “Either the rats have found something to eat that agrees with them or they are all dead, and I would like to find out which. And besides that who knows what else we might see?”

     “Ok, when does this rat hunt start? I see the showers are up and saw wood smoke which means hot water. Do I have time? Cause if I don‘t, I aint a comin’”

     “Sure, I wouldn’t think of leaving without you.”

     An hour later we were huntin’. From the small rise above where I had dumped the bait. [R1], the sound of the lumber mill 150 yards away was easy to hear in the silence. We could even make out the sound of an occasional voice in the direction of the tents. There was more insect activity at night time and we could hear a constant light buzzing and a not uncricket like chirp. That and the noise of the wind in the trees to our west.

     I had brought along a blanket, camera and tripod, a couple of strong lights and some night vision goggles. And for safety‘s sake, especially after hearing first from Sinopa and then seeing what Connor and Andy had dragged in last night, one of the rifles I inherited from the UNWG stripped of the hi-tech gadgetry. Enough Sunday practice on the Mayflower had made its use second nature to me by now. Janie wasn’t at all adverse to going armed herself; she had been carrying discretely since our first day down.

     Each of the robots was carrying a spot and had been instructed and trained to light up and track anything they detected that was larger than a rat, and immediately broadcast an alert if they detected anything. A rat, being warm blooded, should show up like a landing beacon to the bots sensors. This was open and cleared terrain with only a few clumps of scrap timber left to burn. I also warned them to be very careful if they did light up anything to make sure not to shine in our eyes. Anything large enough to be lethal by force, even if cold blooded ought to be detectable. But then, some people die from bee stings and snake bites.

     The Jeep and EmyCee were posted 50 yards north of us and separated from each other by about the same distance. The bait pile was about 90 feet away and 15 feet below us to the south. It’s a shame that the bots programming make them useless in terms of defending themselves or others from attack but that’s how it is. I was hoping, and actually felt confident, they would be more than adequate as an alarm system.

     I had picked up my comm unit from Sabbu who told me there was nothing wrong with it. He said I must have been in a black out zone when I tried it before. Our coverage was still spotty and the bots with more power and on a different band seemed to be having no problems.

     Carter, the brighter of Alchibah’s two moons was high in the sky giving us plenty of light to see by. As I spread the blanket on the ground Janie said, “Now I see why you got me out here.”

     Pulling her down besides me I said. “Not now maybe later.” as I passed over the night-vision goggles. I keyed my now working comm and said “Anything Jeep, anything EmyCee?”

     “Nothing here Boss.” said the Jeep.

     “Nothing here Boss.” said EmyCee.

     “Geez Bart, now you’ve got Emy doing it too.

     “Hush lets see what makes a visit.”

     Janie snuggled up against me and began scanning slowly back and forth while I let my own night vision adjust. It wasn’t long, less than five minutes when Janie whispered. “I see something. Just to the right.”

     “Close your Eyes, I’ll take a shot.” I had the camera mounted on the tripod and pointed, the shutter set to go when the lights came on “Here it comes.” I closed my eyes also to protect my night vision and triggered the lights. They were on for only an instant and then darkness again. “Take a look and see if it’s still there then let’s see what we got.”

     “Gone Bart, the flash must have scared whatever it was away.”

     Janie took off the goggles and we both looked at the display on the back of the camera. It sure wasn’t a rat. What it looked like was a small slizard or his second cousin. A foot long and about 4 inches off the ground. The eyes were noticeably larger in proportion to the body and seemed to be convincing evidence for a night dwelling nature. The color was hard to judge but it was uniform and likely a black or very dark blue-black. The picture wasn’t as sharp as I’d hopped for. Next time we tried this we would need to set the lights and camera closer to the bait pile and trigger everything remotely. But at least it worked so we continued our vigil for another two hours. We delayed taking pictures on some of the sightings and caught a couple right on the pile with human type food in their mouths. They seemed to enjoy it. But not a sign of a rat.

     Off and on Janie was switching her goggles between starlight and infrared view. She said that when using infrared the creatures just blended in with the background. A sure sign of a cold blooded animal and it explained why the robots were reporting nothing.

     We saw three more of the same slizard like things, what to name it? A Ratoid?, Ratile? It looked to fill the same ecological niche. Twice we saw what I’d have had to call an Armadillo if I’d seen them on Earth. I guess I’ll call that an Aladillo for now. A body about as long as the Ratoid lizard 12 inches but much fuller and lower to the ground with a tapering tail half again as long. The tail ended in a two inch ball covered with pointy spikes. It looked for all the world like a mace and I bet it was used in the same manner.

     The Aladillo wasn’t scared off by the light. It turned it’s head to face it and slowly flexed it’s tail back and forth. “I sure would like to trap one of those things alive.” I said. “I could try to get it into the empty drum we brought the food scraps in but by the look of that tail even if it let me get close enough until we know more about it’s behavior the risk isn’t worth it. Hmm…. I wonder if the Jeep could do it?”

     It turned out to be easier than I had imagined. I called the Jeep over and explained what I wanted him to do. As he moved towards the bait pile the Aladillo we were watching went scurrying into the darkness. The Jeep reached the pile and picked up the empty drum and stood motionless. I turned off the lights and we waited again. In 15 minutes Janie let us know another Aladillo was at the Jeep’s feet. “Do it Jeep.” I said, and at the same time turned on the lights. That froze the thing for an instant as the Jeep scooped with the drum. A capture. R. J.P. had the cover on and drain unscrewed to let in air by the time Janie and I got there.

     A lot of noise was coming from inside the drum as the Aladillo must have been lashing its tail in a furious fashion. “Any damage to you Jeep?”, was the first thing Janie said.

     The Jeep replied, “I, am in fine condition Miss Janie, nothing but some scratched paint.” And sure enough there were a number of scratches on the jeeps arms readily visible and a little scoring of his composite exterior. We could touch both things up in the morning.

     “Lets call it a night Bart, I’m done in and morning comes awfully early round here.”

     Oliver, the more distant and larger of the two moons, was rising above the treeline as we gathered our things. I called in EmyCee, and we went back to camp with the Jeep carrying the drum. Thankfully the Aladillo had calmed down, at least for the time being. We announced our presence to the guard of the middle watch as we approached. While Janie went on to the tent I explained to the guard what was in the drum and admonished him not to let anyone fool with it unless it was Connor and until a suitable cage was made first.

     I sent the Jeep and EmyCee back to the sawmill, went into the mess tent, grabbed a coffee, and dumped the photos into the Encyclopedia under the heading “New and Interesting“. I also wrote up a short explanation to post with them. Next I glanced at the reporters entry to check on how the Community Building was coming along. There was a nice picture showing wall construction and another good one showing a robot, EmyCee, being recharged at the Windmill. That image was captioned “Robot Charging on Windmill Hill”, another geographic feature named. And finally I hit the showers and off to bed myself, careful as I crawled into my sleeping bag not to disturb Janie.

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Colony: Alchibah is a science fiction blog novel.
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