In or Out

Alchibah Day 68

The width and general form of the outlet from the Gitche Gumee into the western ocean made one think of the Mediterranean and Gibraltar but was really quite different. Between the two headlands there wasn’t a single imposing rock island but five islands large enough to be called by the name and innumerable boulders poking above the surface. The seas basin rose to a kind of shoal area seldom more than four foot deep all across the area and we had to beach the raft a couple of miles from the tip of the southern headland as the water depth and rocks had made passage any closer impossible. Our position was now about 1100 miles northwest of Liberty City and we needed to decide whether to follow the coastline south or take the slightly more direct inland route.

Mike and the Jeep went to find a path to the top of the cliff that rose sixty feet above our landing spot while Janie, Laura, and I did the unloading and disassembling of the raft so that we could salvage all of the rope used in her construction. Due to the easy passage we had arrived with more food than we had aboard when we started. There would be no need to stop and provision before continuing. We had humped most everything to the top of the cliff and stretched out the rope for drying. by the time Mike returned and made his report.

“Just the one mile hike to a spot where the Jeep and I could overlook the ocean took us over an hour,” he began. “And once we got there, as far as we could see, and I’d guess that was well over thirty miles, the coastal bluffs are completely covered with loose rocks, ankle twisting size and up. Cuts and ridges and no sightlines at all to show the best pass forwards. It’ natural ambush country for any native predators.”

We were playing the Jeep’s visual recordings through Laura’s comp unit as Mike continued and that imagery, along with the stored satellite views, indicated the same conditions for at least another several hundred miles going southwards.

“The wind were pretty stiff with lots of surf and breakers coming in and crashing the shoreline. Even if there was a good supply of timber on the spot, which there isn’t, I don’t think we could build any kind of sailing craft that wouldn’t be thrown right up onto the rocks and destroyed on the lee shore. And I didn’t see a single good spot where we could beach for the night either.”

That pretty much covered everything and my trust in Mike’s judgment had by now grown to such an extent that the decision immediately made to continue on the inland route. We stayed here just one night then packed up everything and left the next morning, heading away from the Gitche Gumee and into the heavily forested lands of our next stage.

On this side of the Gumee the forest was densely packed with trees whose trunk diameters were mostly three inches and under. Saplings filled any area they could get a hold on. The thin layer of soil covered the base rock that was at most six feet below the surface. This led to poor drainage and I was thankful for the mostly dry weather recently. Even so the ground was always damp and there were many small patches of free standing water several inches in depth. This wasn’t a swamp but very muddy and slippery none the less. The shallow soil meant that the a trees roots could not support anything much larger than we were seeing and there were many bare trunks that had fallen or been blown down making walking extremely tiring what with stepping over the fallen stuff, avoiding the surface water and trying to keep from slipping. The thickness of the cover meant we could not see much beyond fifty or sixty feet in any direction.

We stated south following a small stream actually not much more than a creek but it soon petered out to just some water burbling out of the ground. I had tightened up our spacing so that we all remained visible at least to the one in front and behind us. That cut the length of our line down to under one hundred fifty feet. Our pet Ugli waddled along some times behind but usually out just in front of Janie as if leading her way. His head in constant motion as if looking for danger. Occasionally when he tired she would have EmyCee gather him up and carry him for a while. He was too big now for any of us to carry, burdened as we were by everything else.

Progress was very slow. We were seeing quite a few small slizards and even stumbled across an aladillo and more than a few of Alchibah’s analogue for earthworms though they were a pasty white in color and about two feet long. With this much to eat I felt certain there would be larger more dangerous animals around to do the eating.

I hadn’t heard a thing till EmyCee’s voice rang out, “Motion Left! I spun in that direction preparing to fire but say nothing. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mike with his Ruger shouldered, then two rapid shots rang out.

Mike kept his rifle pointed but said, “Think I’ve got him. He’s down and stationary, it’s a catamount.”

“Hold in place everyone,” I said loudly, “Look around for any others. Jeep, Emy, keep scanning.” I still couldn’t see it, too much vegetation in the way. After a minute with nothing else detected I said to Mike. “Switch places with me and I’ll take a look.”

Mike’s first shot had struck the 110 lb. cat while it was about thirty yards out, the bullet entered right below the neck high on the chest between the front legs. It passed entirely though the body exiting out one of the haunches. I could tell by the skid marks that it had dropped at once. Mike’s second shot caught it in the hind quarters just as it slid to a halt. Some fine shooting but now I was wondering if the thing had any friends around.

I took some photos then called for Mike. “You killed it. You clean it.”

“Sure,” he said, reaching towards his belt for the knife that had been in his pack.

“No Just kidding,” I told him. “We have all the food we can carry right now and don’t need the extra weight. We do have two things to consider though. If we leave the body it might attract other predators or scavengers and keep them here till we are out of the area. It might even instill in some of them a fear of humans, and that would be all to the good. But on the other hand it could cause some to view humans as a possible source or provider of food. I not sure which case is most likely so the best thing, I think, would be to bury the body and get out of the area as soon as we can.”

While Mike dug the hole I stood nearby watching for signs of any others. Within twenty minutes we were on our way again. Later that afternoon Janie,. without an alerte from EmyCee, took out another larger catamount with her plasma rifle and this time there wasn’t enough left to bury. That one had come out of it’s lair in the rocks and was even closer than the last before Janie saw it. We were going to need a strategy to deal with them and real soon.

It was only an hour before dark now and we had not come across anything that remotely looked like a good defensible campsite. I tried to convince myself the area around us was at least marginally less dense, and the ground was a bit drier, than what we were used to and called a halt for the day. I had the bots taking down trees an clearing underbrush to form a rough circle about fifty yards in diameter and dragging some of the larger, up to 4 inch diameter, tree trunks to the center. There, while Janie and Laura kept a lookout, Mike and I notched and stacked them in a rough arrow head shape sixteen feet long and eight at the base the walls were just under three feet high. Using more of the lumber we roofed over all of it but the portion right at the point.

We had cut it fine but the bots had finished clearing and dragging the excess timber to three spots where we intended to keep fires burning all night and we were as ready as circumstances permitted by nightfall. We ate a cold meal of smoked meat and some of the collected berries because they were not going to last very long anyway, before retiring into our shelter.

With the fires burning the bots took up position at the point and base of the triangle but about ten feet into the woods though still with a view of the clearing. Janie would take the first watch, I would take the second and Mike the third. Each would last around three hours. Laura, not being a shooter, would get a pass.

The hole through our roof was the only entrance into the shelter and only large enough for one person to stand up in comfortably which Janie did while Mike and Laura fell off to sleep. Ugli was snuggled up next to Laura either for protection or the extra warmth. It had been an exhausting first days march in comparison to the ease of out rafting cross the Gumee, I scrunched up in front by Janie and began massaged her anklesand calf muscles while trying to carry on a conversation.

“Geez Bart,” She almost sighed, “You better cut that out, it feels so good its distracting.”

“Yeah I guess so,” I said giving one last squeeze. “I gotta say Babe I got the shakes myself when I saw how close the catamount got to you before you burned it. How in the world did you ever see it in time to shoot?”

“It was Ugli Bart, I thought he was acting strange just before the first one, the one Mike shot, but I knew something was up the second time. He had been moving his head back and forth but just before the thing charged out Ugli straightened out and went rigid pointing in the direction the catamount came from. I had my rifle up almost before the cat came into view.”

“Well the little bugger does have some finer points after all.” He had finally gotten used to me and had stopped nipping but Janie was still his favorite. “Tell you what, tomorrow why don’t you switch places with Mike and let him be tail end Charlie. Ugli in the center will be better overall than at the end.”

“Why don’t I switch with you Bart?” she asked, “Wouldn’t he be even better in front?”

“Not sure Janie but I am going to have the Jeep moving back and forth across our front again tomorrow making more noise and giving him a wider area where his sensors can pick something out. The cats are warm blooded but both attacks came from a covered position where passive infra-red didn’t help. Letting the Jeep see more has to be for the best.

“We haven’t seen any pack behavior yet, the are behaving as if they each have a personal territory to defend but we can’t count on that without one heck of a lot more experience. Anyway I’ll knock off for a bit. If you start to get to tired wake me early Babe.”

“Sure thing Bart, talk to you then.”

She woke me at the proper time and I stood my watch uneventfully and turned it over to Mike three hour later. Just before dawn I awoke to the sound of another shot. Mike had nailed another cat just inside of the clearing.

The next day we covered more distance and as we got further away from the Gumee the land was drying out and opening up. The Jeep saw two of the cats chasing them off. Somehow they could tell he wasn’t something they could eat. We saw no cats from our positions in the line, just the same run of the mill smaller stuff. On at least four separate occasions Ugli started acting up but no catamount appeared.

We set up a camp similar to the one of the previous night and the cat problem got dramatically worse. We shot four of them, three on my watch, two of them came in simultaneously and the second had launched itself and was airborne by the time I hit it. I used the barrel of the Ruger to swat it down and it thudded into the log wall of our shelter. The Jeep or EmyCee had spotted all of them in advance so no real surprises, still I was beginning to think staying inland and away from the shore for all it’s seeming advantages might not have been such a good idea.

When we broke camp the next morning I changed our order of march again. This time the Jeep was still out front but I had Emy following him dragging two of the cats tied to her by ropes behind. Mike was next and I took up the rear. I was hoping the smell of dead cat would act as a warning to others that it might not be save to get too near and it seemed to be working. But by the time we put up for the night all that was left trailing behind EmyCee were some very small scraps of dead catamount which we left piled in the clearing. Wonder of wonders, no attacks at all that night. Things might be looking up.

Our problems with the cats weren’t eliminated but were now down to something we could deal with. We averaged shooting one every other day with Ugli detecting about half of them first. Ugli was still putting on weight and now must have been nearing forty-five pounds and including tail almost five feet long. When detecting one of the cats he no longer froze but crouched and began creeping in the cats direction. He did at least still stay on good terms with all of us.

Three weeks travel and what I would estimate as almost 250 miles and we were coming out of the forest and into grass again. This time unlike the high country we had passed through when just leaving the mountains the land was much more like the areas of meadow we had seen around Liberty City. The grass was much taller having had time to grow to well over a eighteen inches high and it was strewn throughout with multicolored wild flowers. There were still clumps of trees but I would be willing to bet that before long we would find nothing but the pale blue/green grassland. The maps on Laura’s comp showed this terrain continuing on for another three hundred miles before hitting the forested areas again.

For as lush and green as the grassland was the map showed only one river flowing through. That river came from an area 600 miles to the west larger than even the Inland Sea that was covered with lakes of all sizes. It tended towards the ocean in a manner such that our path would not cross it until we had traveled another 180 miles. At that point it’s course took it in front of a group of three permanently snowcapped mountains that stood out from their surroundings like Kilimanjaro. We had all toughened up to the march to such an extent that I set an internal goal which I mentioned to no one else of reaching it in under the days.

Meat, with all of the catamounts we had shot wasn’t a problem bur we had used up the last of our vegetables several days prior to getting out of the woods. Ugli solved that problem for us almost at once by turning up some of the quasi-potato like things the Devils liked so well. And speak of Devils we still hadn’t seen any of them and other birds were only rarely visible. The avian species were much rarer on Alchibah than on Earth; less time to evolve I guess.

Back to dealing with water… There was a small, almost large enough to call a crick, leading from the forest into the grassland, but I felt certain it would not last long. What we did was take my solar-cloth tarp and line the skin bag that Laura had been carrying and then filling it up and tying it off. That held close to 10 gallons and weighed more than 80 lbs, something for EmyCee to carry. Canteens and the water bag that had been in Mike’s pack gave storage for another three and a half gallons. A gallon a day each was what I thought we would need so we would absolutely need to find more long before we reached those far off mountains. Ugli seemed to get most of the liquids he needed from the food he ate. I couldn’t think of one time even back in the forest where I had seen him even lap at all the free standing water there, We started out following the crick hoping it would last.

It lasted all of the first day and half way into the next. Our order of march was the same we used when leaving the mountains with the Jeep making wide sweeps in front of us. Even though we were moving at a rapid clip Ugli had no trouble keeping up and that was very good because he was getting to a size, around 60 pounds where I would not have wanted to burden either of the bots by having him carried. Once more we were seeing some smaller animal life but that first day nothing dangerous and nothing that attracted Ugli’s attention except in what appeared to be general curiosity.

Randomly cast across the gently rolling grassland were scattered the clumps of trees I mentioned. The groupings were small, sometimes only a solitary tree and then nothing for a mile or more. Usually though there were in stands of a couple dozen. Their shape was more like a willow than a pine. They weren’t particularly tall averaging 40 to 50 feet but the trunks were of a much greater size than the pines had been often 14 inches and up. The branching and fern like leaves on the larger samples started about ten feet off of the ground. There was usually enough fallen wood, dead and dried, on the ground to make a fire for cooking but we would cut one down in order to have enough to keep a fire going through the night.

That first night we stopped I was very concerned that we had no readily defensible campsite and no way to make one. Laura came up with an idea that seemed odd at first but worked out well. She suggested we sling hammocks and sleep in the trees. With the bots to boost us up to the first branches we could get them in place quite rapidly. It took longer to search the trees above for any dangerous tree dwelling animals, which we never did find but nevertheless kept looking for, than finish the rest of the camp. There were mice size brown furred mammalians filling the same niche squirrels did on Earth, but like squirrels the were also vegetarian. One running across your face in the night could snap you right out of a sound sleep though which I found out in a manner that almost dumped me to the ground.

I stood the middle watch again that night and after the three weeks we had spent under forest cover was enthralled with the skies over head, there was a dramatic aurora that wasn’t even washed out when both moons shone full. Twice as bright as any moonlit night on Earth I had to tear my eyes away to search the ground. Good thing Emy and the Jeep were not so ascetically inclined. At shift change scrambling back into the hammock woke everyone up but if that remained the worst of our worries things weren’t so bad after all.

Midway through our second day when the crick did give out by running into a small pool with no outlet we topped off all of our water containers and continued following the depressed course it had made when swollen by the earlier spring rains. That afternoon before setting up camp digging down three feet into the depression we got enough seepage to drink our fill and top off once more. Two days into the grasslands and using the Jeep’s eyes as my sextant I could calculate we were forty-seven miles closer to home. The night stayed warm, in the low 80‘s, and tomorrow would be hotter.

“Alert! Large animal, your position 1600 yards due east in motion.”

I looked to my right and knowing what to look for by the view the Jeep was sending to
Laura’s comp I could just make out dark spots poking out of the grass in the distance. At this kind of range and with us being at a slightly lower elevation the tall grass stood high enough that magnification revealed nothing but a few brownish colored humps that must have been the backs of whatever was moving slowly towards us.

There were some trees a quarter mile to the southwest and I told the Jeep to keep on our right hand as we angled over to take cover. By the time we reached the minimal shelter of the trees the humps had turned into the largest animals we had seen yet and there were hundreds of them. At a distance they seemed to move slowly but their rate of travel must have been better than our walk as the had gained considerably on us. Six legged, like the norm for Alchibah, they were near ten feet long and five foot high at the shoulder. I couldn’t see how low to the ground the main part of their body extended because the grass was too tall. Their heads, very flat and wide were low on the body on a short, perhaps foot long, neck They must have weighed in at well over a ton.

We wasted no time in climbing up two of the larger trees and it would have been comical watching the bots do the same if it wasn’t so important they get out of harms way because unlike us with our simian ancestry they did not climb well. By the time we were all at least 15 feet off the ground the ‘Alchelos’ were streaming past on either side of the copse and more were still appearing over the rise where the Jeep had first seen them.

“I looked down at the Jeep who was dangling. Arms wrapped around the branch I was perched upon and said, “Well J.P., I guess we are well and truly up a tree without a paddle now!”

The Jeep seemed to consider and try to parse that statement and giving it up simply said, “Yes Boss.”

Laura had her com unit set to video and was gathering in more images for the travelogue, nee horror movie she had been recording and working on since the day of the crash. This scene would have worked well on the big screen as they used to say. All’s well that ends well and after two days spent living like birds the Alchelos had passed us by and we were on our way again. Though Mike did shoot one of the trailers and we had meat again.

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Colony: Alchibah is a science fiction blog novel.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Probably.

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Copyright (C) 2006 - 2011 by Jeff Soyer. All rights reserved.