Lets call her an Uglasaur,” I said while holding the twenty inch long, tail inclusive, iguana like lizard thing and scratching it lightly on the wrinkled skin under it‘s neck.
“Bart! You can’t call him that. It’ll hurt his itty bitty feelings!” Janie exclaimed. “Gup… gup, gup, gup,” she said cooing at it. The words were no sooner out of her mouth when it nipped at my finger and a drop of blood began to form.
“Why the fat friggin little monster!” I yelled.
“Don’t say that Bart. See how quickly he stopped and drew back after tasting you. . . and how sorry he looks now? Gup, gup.”
“He’s sorry lookin’ alright. And what makes you so sure it’s a he and not a she?” I said, with one hand now clamped firmly on it’s neck and turning it over for a better examination. “I don’t see any outward sign of whatever sex it might be.”
“A He! Bart… women know these things… just ask Laura.”
“I’ll take your word for it Babe. Umm… Janie, can you sew stuff?”
She looked at me incredulously and said, “Bart… Anyone with the IQ of a warm beer can sew stuff.”
“Good cause it looks like my fingers gonna need three or four stitches.”
The way we came across the Uglasaur was like this… Halfway through lunch on the second day’s march, the Jeep sent a message. “Alert! Large animal detected, your position 350 yards south 20 stable.”
The twenty part told me that what the Jeep had located was 20 degrees clockwise or west of due south, the stable addition meant no, or very little, relative motion from the initial position where it was detected. I looked at the comp screen and could see the visual cross hairs in the center of the view but other than that only an infrared bloom and an interposing pattern of straw brown marsh grass.
“Weapons check,” I said in a soft calm tone. “EmyCee, close to me and watch the sides and rear threat zone.” That made sure with the Jeep locked on target we would still have coverage in case anything else showed up. I continued to monitor the comp screen for the 20 seconds it took Emy to reach us. No changes there but for small movements of a few feet or less in the infrared halo. “Janie, Laura, I’m gonna take Mike with me and move up to the Jeep’s position and try to get a better look. Mike keep a low profile and follow me.”
I kept the Jeep aware of our progress as it took us almost three minutes to cover the 200 yards to where we could see him standing behind a shoulder height boulder still fixed on the target. “Jeep keep the target in sight but work your way closer until you can get a visual lock. Take it slow and easy and try not to draw it’s attention.” I was sure Janie and Laura were listening to everything said.
As the Jeep moved off I turned to Mike and asked him, “How ya feeling, nervous?”
“Just a bit he replied,” eyes bright but no shake in body or voice.”
“Good thing, you should be feeling nervous its natures way of helping to stay alert and alive.” He nodded and I continued. “Soon as the Jeep has a visual we’re gonna follow to his position. It is very important that you do exactly as I say from this point on. No matter what happens, unless we are charged, do not fire, get your visor in place though and make sure it is set to darken automatically. Got it?” He nodded once more in affirmation.
I could see everything that the Jeep was seeing on the comp screen as he reached a position at the end of a small rise that slanted to within 80 yards of the target. The Jeep texted me a message reading “Visual lock,” and I touched the screens acknowledge icon. I motioned for Mike to follow and in a semi crouch reached the end of the rise and then both of us went prone.
It was one of the wolf like catamount things we had seen back at Liberty City, bothering something about half of it’s size. I think it was just toying with the adult uglasaur, but maybe not, later examination showed razor claws and needle sharp teeth.
As good a time as any for a test I thought as I spoke very softly into the comps input. “Emy, scan rear,” then to Mike, “Hold fire.” I could hear faint grunting sound coming from the fights direction, not at all like the yapping of dogs but more like a cross between a growl and low pitched screeching, Grrrrch… Grrrrch… The wind must have changed direction because the nearwolf’s spine seemed to arch and it turned pointing in our direction. “Jeep! Press the button! Now!”
There really was no button anymore, Sabbu has fixed that, just an internal switch activated when the Jeep heard the ’button’ command with his targeting cross hairs activated.
A blinding flash of light and target destroyed. I watched the Jeep lower his plasma rifle and then abruptly lock up. I said to Mike. “Fire one high. Now!” He aimed at a 45 degree angle up and let loose the trigger. Another flash and I just had time to tell him I would explain it all later before the Jeep was back on line. Then the Jeep was up again.
“Sync loss and reset Boss.”
I told him, “Not to worry things are under control.” Then I let Janie and Laura know everything was fine and we would join them soon. We walked forwards over the charred, and smoldering grasses and the burnt moss caused by the plasma bolt. A quick examination of the crisped remains of both animals and Mike, scanning the area’s periphery, pointed out the juvenile uglasaur crouched in a nest like depression that had shielded it from the blast. Must have been the reason behind the entire confrontation. The thing looked so small and defenseless that he scooped it up and carried it with us as we returned to the others. But first I had pointed out to the Jeep our future path and told him to remain stationary and on watch until he got the start signal.
For the several weeks it took us to clear the tundra and reach the more densely forested southern lowlands we continued to follow the river, keeping it close on our left hand side as an obvious source of water and a less obvious barrier to attack from that direction. I mentioned to Mike when we were four days south of the mountains that except for the river, and keeping it out of view, the generally ochre moss like vegetation of the surrounding plain put me in mind of the ancient dead sea bottoms of ancient Barsoom. When he looked puzzled I told him about John Carter and advised him that his literary education would need some improvement when we got back to Liberty City.
Rarely did a day go by without the sight of several of the nearwolves. We always saw them singly and I suspected the pack behavior we had experienced at Liberty City was something that only happened when under extreme conditions in winter when the lack of smaller game forced them to hunt larger prey. They, like so many Alchibean species, were evolutionarily somewhere between cold blooded and mammalian with a body temperature that adjusted to the animals needs. When they were hunting and active the Jeep never had a problem picking them up but when they were still and in wait they blended in with the background temperature in an infrared scan. Even so, at least in daylight, now knowing what to look for, they were only a minor threat.
The Second Month:
We had reached the southern boarder of the tundra and what had at first been occasional clumps of mixed pole pine and another tree, similar but with only a two inch diameter trunk reaching upwards about 15 feet to the start of the foliage, had become the edge of the forest proper. We were calling that second tree a stick pine though a lollypop tree might have been a more accurate description.
“Why not build a canoe Bart?” Janie said. “Coming from the land of Hiawatha, Gitche Gumee and all that canoes must be second nature right?”
Grinning I said, “That’s exactly what I ‘m sure I would do, despite the fact I’ve never even seen a canoe that wasn’t aluminum or plastic, if the local trees were suitable. A wooden canoe needs trees with bark that can be peeled off in sheets like a birch tree, and nothing here fits the bill. Or I suppose we could make something like a kayak or an old Irish curragh given the time and tanned ox hides or sealskin, but in a primitive, and more back to nature spirit I think what we’ll do instead is build a raft and call her the ‘Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe’.”
“ The what?” Janie replied after chocking out the pronunciation.
“Well the modern spelling is O-bah-bahm-wawa-ge-zhe-go-qua.” I said spelling it out for her. “It’s Ojibwe for, ‘The Woman of the Sound [Which the Stars Make] Rushing Through the Sky’.”
“You’re making that up aren’t you Bart?” Laura asked in a tone showing considerable disbelief.
“No, no, no! My integrity is impugned, I never make up Indian names, especially when they’re Ojibwe! You could look it up.”
“I think I’ll just call it the raft,” Janie deadpanned.
Laura asked, “Just how much Ojibwa do you know Bart?”
“I like to think enough to get by with.“ I replied.
“He means enough to get away with.” Jeanie said as the last word.
According to our maps we had made 400 miles from the crash site or one quarter of the distance we would need to travel in order to reach Liberty City.
The river we’d been following continued southwards through the ever thickening forest for another hundred seventy-five miles or so, until it joined into a vast inland sea which was connected at it’s westernmost extremity by a narrow passage, like that of an encircled bay, leading to the ocean. The freshwater sea that we were all calling the Gitche Gumee, was roughly 150 miles north to south and 275 miles east to west and according to the sat photos dotted with literally thousands of rocks and islands. The river joined it at the northeastern shore. As far as we could determine the river was navigable all the way to the sea.
We were well into summer now and at this elevation the temps, both day and night were quite comfortable. While EmyCee helped me with the rafts construction, the Jeep, Mike, Janie and even sometimes Laura hunted to collect and prepare additional food for the trip, not just meat to be smoked, but those few varieties of vegetation we had recognized as edible. I was fairly certain there would be plenty of fish but a diet of nothing but would do nothing to stretch our mineral supplements.
How did we determine if something was edible? That’s where our pet, the Uglasaur, came in. Of 15 things we had seen it eat, and then sampled ourselves in very small quantities after having cooked first, only 2 had given rise to an allergic reaction. But most things Ugly would eat with relish. we found tasted so badly to our Earth based preferences that even if the thing might not kill us directly we couldn’t stomach the eating. We found three ‘veggies’ that we did collect though.
One was a variant of the potato like thing that the devils liked so much but it was much smaller, about the size of a walnut. Both of the others were berries of a type. As all three of these were small it took quite a while to collect enough for a meal and the berries didn‘t keep well at all, turning to mush in a couple of days. One thing about trees or plants with berries or fruits; we had the bots check them out thoroughly before we would touch them. No more Thompson Tree incidents.
The natural glue of the tree sap made construction of the raft much easier than otherwise would have been the case. We still used lashings but more to tie down than to tie together. When Mike suggested a sail I explain briefly about keels and rudders and such then told him he should look the rest up and we would talk some more. I did set four posts, two on the front corners and two about in the middle so that we could support an awning for protection from the sun. The raft was overall twenty feet long and eight feet wide and two layers of log thick. I had even thought about providing outriggers but stopped myself with the realization that if the water was rough enough to need them we would be better off just getting back onto dry land and walking.
We had determined to give our pet Ugly every opportunity to make the break for freedom, but no such luck. He could usually be found staring at me with his beady little eyes from a low rock positioned near the raft site, but whenever Janie returned to camp he would swarm all over her looking for a hand out. He’d done quite well for himself so far during his time in our care putting on about 5 more lbs and growing to 27 inches in length. I was starting to wonder how large he might ultimately grow.
Four days after we had begun construction and with the raft nearly complete, it was obvious Ugly would be coming along for the ride so I had EmyCee put together a cage of sorts propped up on legs that would keep it high enough above the deck to insure it stayed dry. Ugly wasn’t fond of water in quantities larger than he could drink
With everything ready we all took it easy, within the constraints of keeping up a guard, for the rest of the afternoon and evening and left at first light on the next day. It was day sixty six from our first landing on the planet.
On the Inland Sea:
The next two weeks plus, twenty four Alchibah days, were like a vacation. With the bots doing all the work involved with propelling the raft the rest of us just needed to take turns keeping a lookout and resetting the steering oar once in a while. It was a darn good thing the Jeep was powered by the nuclear batteries and could keep EmyCee charged because as heavy and ungainly as the raft was we would have made little progress if the human members of the expedition were responsible for rowing.
A couple of times we had tried to set a scrap of sail but found it a waste of time. In fact we often needed to take down the awning when the wind was strong enough that it was keeping the bots from making way or contrived to push us off course. We weren’t traveling fast, somewhere between two and three miles per hour, but very moving very steadily.
Each day provided fishing a plenty, I even got Laura interested in fly tying and developed some more new variants of my favorites. Every night brought with it a new small island to set our camp upon. The Gitche Gumee was obviously carved out by glacial action but the underlying rock was a hard granite and hence the average depth was no more than fifty feet. I had Mike doing hourly depth tests with a knotted rope and he located a few channels a hundred feet deep, some more, and one twice that depth.
The nature of the glacial erosion left thousands of small rocky islands dotting the surface. We could always find islands small enough, usually only a couple of acres in size, and often smaller, so that our initial security sweep was kept simple, but we made sure each one we spent the night on had a steep rocky cliff that needed climbing in order to reach our camp on top. We didn’t expect anything to come out of the sea looking for us but were taking no chances. Janie and I set up our small tent a short distance from the main campfire and lookout spot and with Laura and Mike doing much of the night guard managed more privacy than I would have thought possible.
The weather stayed warm and except for one day with a classic high wind thunderstorm. We spent that day ashore but other than that one time the rains were only short and mild sprinkles which in no way interfered with the enjoyment of the journey.
To help pass the time besides the fishing and my log entries I used Laura’s comp for several hours a day, adding to my general education in biology and geology. Mike and Laura each spent about four hours each on educational issues also. It surprised them both that the Jeep and EmyCee often knew more about a particular subject than Laura’s comp did but I was well used to that. By now though we were no longer talking about how surprised everyone back in Liberty City would be when we returned and instead had many a conversation speculating on how things were going there and planning and talking about what we would do when we got back.
Early on Laura had mentioned often about how rough this coming right after her fathers death must be on her mother, by now though she had come to some kind of internal acceptance that what couldn’t be changed must be endured and rarely mentioned it anymore.
The water level in the sea was high from all the spring snow melt and very fresh. It wasn’t until the last couple of days as we neared the outlet to the ocean that we could detect even a hint of mineral laden ocean water.
We did run ran across a new and particularly delicious food source, the Alchibaen equivalent of a cross between a crab and a sea turtle. More crablike than a turtlish, with eight legs and 4 eyes on short extensible stalks, but definitely filling the same ecological niche. The shell was made of bony overlapping plates rather than in a continuous piece and that would mean that they never had to shed them. The scaled shell was a lumpy mottled grey and tan color that blended in with natural terrain and made them very difficult to see unless they were moving. Luckily they didn’t seem able to couldn’t climb steep cliffs and were confined, when out of water, to the sand and rocky shore beach areas because even the smaller ones, those a foot in diameter or less, had pincers both large and strong enough to make short work of fingers, or in the case of the larger versions, and we saw several with a body nearly four feet in diameter, could obviously sever an arm or a leg in nothing flat. We decided that wading off shore probably wouldn’t be such a good idea.
Those that had reached an age where they were a bit over two feet in diameter reproduced by laying leathery eggs about the size of a hens and nested on shore guarding them till the hatched. We tried the eggs once but once only as they had a very strong and objectionable oily fish taste. Occasionally a devil, or a gull like sea bird we were calling a kite, would scoop one of the very small newly hatched ones up for a meal. When that happened the others in the area would set up a snapping and clacking that could be heard for a hundred yards. The first time we heard the sound Laura came up with the name snap dragons which we immediately started calling them. I had to wonder what kind of predator that shell and the pincers evolved to protect against. Luckily we never did find out.
Their top rate of speed was about like a slow walk for us and unless they were excited moved only about half that fast. They were sometimes active at night if the weather was warm enough or if disturbed from sleep and like most of the Alchebean species were cold blooded so not all that easy for the bots to detect. And they were attracted by fire rather than repelled. Yes a very good thing they couldn’t climb. But throw a smaller one in a pot of boiling water for about 20 minutes and then crack the meat out of the shell and all we lacked for was melted butter.
As pleasant as the last two weeks had been it was with more than a little misgiving that we reached the Gumee’s outlet to the western ocean.