Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 17
Tavana sagged back into the shelter’s narrow bed and let out an explosive sigh. He hurt in places he didn’t remember he had.
The temporary shelter was made of the lightest, strongest materials available. But it was also designed to house up to ten people, which meant that even with the lightest, strongest materials it was very heavy, very bulky, and unfortunately required some manual work to unpack and set up. The automated anchors had failed; they were meant for use on soil surfaces, and after the whole perimeter had been scraped down, there was nothing but stone, or something like it, so Tavana, Maddox, and Xander had been forced to use a hammer â€“ a real, actual hammer, a piece of reinforced composite with a big chunk of heavy metal at the end â€“ to pound the sharp carbonan and steel spikes into the ground.
Fortunately the rock in question was pretty soft, but still, it had taken hours to get everything fastened down to the Sergeant’s satisfaction. “You can’t cut corners with this stuff, kids,” he’d said after forcing them to pull out three spikes, pull the shelter tighter, and start hammering again. “This shelter’s gonna be our home for a while anyway, until we can figure out something better and more permanent, and that means she’s gotta be locked down damn near perfect.”
But it wasn’t all bad. After all that work, letting himself slowly sink into the softness of the bed felt that much wonderfully better.
“Tavana!” came the Sergeant’s voice. “Bringing your stuff inside doesn’t mean stop for a nap! Come on, sunshine, we got work to do!”
“Merde.” He said the French curse quietly, then levered himself upright; his muscles protested this unwise course of action, but he knew he had no choice. “I thought we were done for the day, Sergeant,” he said as he came out.
“Not yet.” Campbell was looking around the wide, clean perimeter. “I’ve got one more job of cleanup I need to do, and you’re going to come with me.”
Tavana opened his mouth to ask “Why me?“, but caught himself at the last moment. Arguing with the Sergeant, that is stupid. After a pause, he figured he could ask the question, just without the whining overtone he knew would have been in it a minute ago. “All right, Sergeant, but why me instead of Xander?”
“I want at least one armed person with any group, which means in practice that at most we’ve got two groups. Xander, Maddox, and Francisco are down at the lake trying their hand at fishing, since there turned out to be line and rods we could combine with the TechTools to make a decent fishing rod. Got them some gloves and gave Xander serious instructions on how I want him to do this, and made damn sure the other kids know that Xander’s in charge. So that leaves me and you to do this little chore.”
He followed the Sergeant across the scraped rock. “What exactly are we looking for?”
Campbell’s sharp dark gaze flicked around the landscape, then he reached out an arm and pointed. “Over there.”
Tavana looked, but he just saw more scraped earth and stone. Even as they got closer, he really didn’t see anything notable. “Sorry, sir, I don’t get it.”
“Hm. Well, maybe you need a little observational training. Don’t you notice anything different a little ways ahead of us?”
Tavana frowned. Campbell wouldn’t be joking about stuff like this, so there had to be something special about the area ahead. But all he saw was the streaky white of the scraped bedrock, interspersed with some dark brown (occasionally with white streaks) that was dirt stuck in a ripple of the landscape, but â€“
“Wait. That patch looks pretty circular.”
“Now you’re catching on, son. So tell me why.”
He thought a moment. “Hole. There has to be a hole there, a round hole.”
“And a hole, Tavana, could be a burrow. I saw some nasty-looking things wiggling away from the excavator, but there’s no guarantee all of them got away.” He looked back at the shelter. “I made sure there were none of them under the place we set up the shelter, but there’s going to be quite a few out here, I’m afraid. If I had my way and unlimited resources, I’d rather glass this whole area over, but there’s no way for us to do that. Suppose I could try to hover across the whole place with the jets on, but that wouldn’t get far down. Which means we have a less safe job to do.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Operation ‘Poke It With a Stick’,” Campbell said with a wry grin. “I’ve got a nice long piece of thick carbonan rod here from one of the storage areas. You will poke that rod into these round areas when I tell you to, and try to annoy anything that might be under there into coming out. I wish I had a better way, but not with what we have available now.”
Tavana looked doubtfully at the long, white, slender pole. “And if something does come out?”
“I will â€“ in all likelihood â€“ gun it down,” Campbell replied, hefting a pistol with a muzzle that looked like a cannon to Tavana. “Depends on my instinct when I see it. Can’t always say â€“ those decisions are split-second and not always conscious. But I’d bet on shooting first and second-guessing myself later; we can’t take chances.” His gaze dropped to Tavana’s legs, and nodded. “Those coveralls are tough enough to protect you some, and you are wearing the boots we got out of storage, right?”
“Yes, sir. Come almost up to my knees.”
“Good man. Those are Pathfinders, not top of the line, but good solid boots for colonials or military alike.” He looked wistful for a moment. “Wish I had mine; best damn boots in the universe, practically a toolkit in themselves. Unfortunately they’re still sitting in my cabin on Outward Initiative, unless they’ve already cleaned it out. If they did, hope someone saved the damn things; cost me a months’ salary.”
Tavana blinked. A pair of boots cost someone like the Sergeant a months’ salary? “At that price, sir, they should be doing the walking for you.”
“Damn near could, too.” He sighed. “Anyway, these are solid boots for us both. Wearing ship’s shoes would be an invitation to getting bit, or worse. Here, take these.”
Tavana accepted the pair of padded gray gloves and pulled them on; he was glad to take any protection offered. The work gloves fit well enough, and had gripping surfaces that made the smooth carbonan pole easy to hold. “Guess I’m ready.”
“All right.” Tavana saw Sergeant Campbell get the distant look of someone activating their omni, looking at things others couldn’t see. “Xander, you hear me?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Xander’s voice answered; apparently either Campbell had cut Tavana into the conversation, or Xander had. “What’s up?”
“I’m going to be checking out potential burrows here with Tavana. If you hear gunshots, don’t panic; I’ll check in within a few minutes. If you don’t hear me check in within, say, five minutes of a shot, give me a holler. Otherwise, just keep fishing. Any luck?”
“We just got our first lines out after finishing making the hooks out of the steel wire Maddox dug out of the one crate. That stuff’s tough â€“ took two of us to bend it into shape. But that means it’s going to be a good hook, I think. Anyway, we’ve baited one with a couple of those shield-like bug things, and I put some of the jerky out of one of the rations on another.”
“Sounds good. You boys enjoy a day fishing, just keep your eyes out for anything dangerous. And if you see anything that makes you nervous, son, you just get out of there and make for the shelter â€“ or LS-88, if you feel you need to. Don’t worry about being too cautious. Got it?”
“All right. Have fun. Campbell out.” His eyes refocused and he nodded. “Okay, Tavana, it’s our turn to have fun.”
Tavana felt his heart starting to beat faster. “Oui, fun. I am hoping, Sergeant, that this will be a very boring job.”
“Me too, son. You’re half-joking, but believe me, that’s no joke. Nothing I’d like more than to have a real boring time out here, finding empty holes.”
Tavana approached the circular region of dirt cautiously â€“ with the pole in front of him. “Where should I stand?”
“Wherever you like. I’ll stand just a little ahead of you and to the side, so there’s no chance I shoot you instead of whatever’s in the hole. I’ve got my omni tied in to my retinals; military targeting link. Later, we’ll have to figure out a way to program something like that for you people. Faster shooting and a lot safer, done right.”
“I might be able to do that. I do games programming and interfaces, some a lot more complicated than Jewelbug.”
“Well, we’ll look into it. You ready?”
Tavana swallowed, gripped the pole tighter. “Iâ€¦ think so.”
Campbell grinned. “No, you ain’t. Here. Relax that grip a hair. Hold it like this.” He repositioned Tavana’s hands. “See? You can push or pull better that way, and you can let go easier, if things go bad. Don’t hold onto it with a deathgrip; not only does that give you a lot of control problems, it’ll wear out your muscles fast, then you’ll have to stop sooner and rest.”
“Okay.” He forced his hands to relax the tiniest bit. “Ready now, sir?”
“Guess we are.” The Sergeant raised his pistol. “Go to it.”
Tavana put the tip of the pole in the middle of the circular patch of dirt and pushed. The pole sank slowly into the dirt, which stubbornly contested the way but yielded nonetheless. He was five centimeters in, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five â€“
The pole abruptly slid downward half a meter.
“Whoa, there. You’ve gone through. Definitely a hole.”
“Definitely. I don’t feel anything under the pole; empty air.”
“Push it down until you hit something, or until you’ve gone a full meter and a half.”
At just over a meter he hit something hard. “Rock, I think.”
“Hole probably curves away in some direction. Well, wiggle and scrape it on the bottom a bit. If there’s something in there, it’ll either try to run away if there’s another exit, or might try to drive this invader out.”
Tavana followed the instructions, not exactly happy at the idea of the pole he was using being attacked by some unknown creature that might decide to dig up after whoever was holding the intruding pole, but comforted by Campbell’s confident posture.
But after several minutes, nothing seemed to be happening. “Enough, sir?”
Campbell pursed his lips, then nodded. “Yeah, that’s all we can do for now. Onward.”
They walked a careful spiral, following the same general path as the excavator. The holes weren’t spaced terribly closely, but the size of the clearing they’d made still meant there’d be quite a few. He spotted the next one when he was about ten meters away, which made the Sergeant nod in appreciation. “Good eyes, son. You’ll get the hang of this soon.”
Tavana used the same procedure, and this hole seemed pretty much like the last; twenty, twenty-five centimeters of pretty hard-packed dirt as a cap on top of a hole that was a meter or so deep. Once more he banged and rattled the pole, and nothing happened. “That dirt sticks together pretty well.”
“Noticed that, eh? Yes sir, it’s not just sandy junk. Got some substance to it. Not surprising, of course, all this water, all these things growing in it, but still, that’s got me thinking there might be clay around.”
“Is that important?”
The Sergeant chuckled, shaking his head. “Right now, no. But if we’re really stuck here for the long haulâ€¦”
A chill went down his back and crept down his arms, despite the warmth of Emerald’s sun. “Doâ€¦ do you think we are here forâ€¦ well, for a long time?” He pulled up the pole, moved on.
The Sergeant was silent for a few minutes, long enough for them to approach the next hole. “Honestly, Tavana? Probably.”
“Won’t they send a rescue party?” Tavana heard his voice rising unsteadily. Iâ€¦ I thought we would be rescued once we got here. Stupid, butâ€¦
“I wouldn’t bet on one, son.” The craggy face looked grim. “See, there’s no way that Outward Initiative would just go on about its business. If the ship survived â€“ and I hope it did â€“ it was pretty bad damaged. Maybe took some of that radiation pulse we got. So they’d have to get her back in flying shape.”
Tavana nodded. “I know that, yes. The Trapdoor coils, they would have to be re-tuned for the changed shape of the ship.”
“Right. So that’s a week, two weeks, at least. Then they have to get somewhere they can get fixed. That pretty much has to be Orado, closest colony. About ten light-years from where we dropped off, so figure it took them a couple months to get there.”
“So they have been there a while now, yes?”
“Problem is â€¦ at best, they’re gonna have a guess as to where we are in space, because out between the stars there ain’t no road markers. That means that any searchers would be searching a volume probably larger than our solar system back on Earth. That’s â€¦ a long, long time searching, looking for something the size of our lifeboat. Years, maybe, less if they have a lot of searching vessels â€“ but they won’t have a lot, because Orado’s not gonna have a bunch of starships on hand for the job. And honestly? They’ll know that anyone in an intact lifeboat will be heading for Orado on their own, taking of course a lot longer to get there, but if they’re well supplied, they’ll make it. If they don’t detect a distress beacon in the right general area, they’ll assume we’ve either headed for Oradoâ€¦ or our ship didn’t survive. They might set up some automated search drones, sort of like unmanned lifeboatsâ€¦ but they’d be looking just for closure, not rescue.”
“But the star! Emerald’s sun, they will see it, yes?” Tavana poked a bit more forcefully at the next dirt-covered hole.
Campbell shrugged. “If someone does a starfield comparison, yes. They’ll notice it. And if someone does that, they might possibly think that survivors could look to that system as a refuge â€“ but only if they think of the possibility that we couldn’t head for Orado.”
The pole sank again, and once more Tavana shook and scraped the end around.
Campbell continued, “But Tavâ€¦ that’s a really long shot. You’d have to be either crazy or desperate â€“ like we were â€“ to head for an unknown system, even one close by, rather than tighten your belt and make the trip to the inhabited system you know about. Maybe someone will come here. I sure hope so. Just the fact it’s a star not on the charts will make people puzzled. But indulging curiosity with a starship, that’s an expensive whim. More likely they’ll just get someone to take a good look at the system with a telescopic array. They’ll be able to see the planet all rightâ€¦ even make out the continents and larger islandsâ€¦ but not us.”
Tavana pulled the pole out, started walking again, feeling his steps dragging leadenly â€“ a sensation that was not just from gravity, annoying though that was. “So we are stuck here forever.”
Campbell spread his hands. “Maybe not. But we can’t plan for the best; we can hope for the best, but we damned well better plan for the worst.”
Tavana squinted ahead, slowed down. Something’s differentâ€¦
The Sergeant followed his gaze. “What is it, son?”
“I don’t know. Justâ€¦ this one isn’t like the others.”
A brilliant smile. “You have got some of the instincts. Wish you’d spent more time working them, but this is good. Look again. Tell me what’s different about this one than the others.”
Tavana stood still, looking, thinking. Finally he nodded. “The others, they were all flat, really smooth. Hard-looking. This oneâ€¦ it has sunk a little in the center, and part of it looks softer.”
The Sergeant nodded; Tavana saw him draw his weapon and check it carefully, and the gun did not return to its holster. “You got it. Looks to me like something might have been digging underneath. Maybe was doing it when we were walking up, and stopped because it sensed our vibrations.”
“Vibration sense? Is that common?”
“Very, especially in subsurface creatures.” Campbell studied the terrain carefully. “All right, let’s do this. Be ready, though; I would not be surprised if things don’t go nearly as smoothly as the others.”
Tavana nodded, and his heart was back to hammering against his ribs. Something is there, I can feel it.
The pole sank into the top layer much more easily than it had in the prior holes, then slowed down, encountering earth of a heavier sort. Tavana pushed â€“
And something suddenly seized the pole, yanking on it so hard that it was almost ripped out of Tavana’s hands.
But Tavana Arronax was not letting go. As it gave another yank, Tavana braced himself and started pulling.
“You got something, son?”
“Oui. And it wants a tug-of-war? It will have one!”
Tavana found himself grinning, despite the fact that the sudden grab-and-pull had scared him so much he felt his pulse racing and a giddiness in his head. Tug of war was the one thing he’d ever been good at when his school had phys-ed classes. He couldn’t run fast, he couldn’t duck and weave, and he didn’t like punching and wrestling, but with his low, squat build, he could brace and pull better than anyone.
He gripped the pole, tucked it under his arm like a rope, and dug in his heels. The pole stopped, then slid backwards. Tavana braced again, pulled once more. Another step back, and now he could feel a vibration, something scrabbling for a hold, fighting the pull and losing. Then it was harder, but something was still holding on, wriggling as Tavana dragged it through the dirt capping the hole.
With an abrupt rush, most of the pole slid free of the dirt, bringing with it a sinuous, segmented, multi-legged shape. It released the pole, making Tav stagger back, started a lunge â€“
Three flat, sharp reports shattered the stillness of the day, and the creature was shoved sideways, red-purple blood splashing in the air as it rolled over and then contorted in writhing agony, needle-tipped mandibles slashing empty air.
Campbell studied the thing as its convulsions juddered to a halt, then nodded, sheathing his weapon. “That’s definitely not something we wanted inside the perimeter.”
The two moved a little closer. The creature was serpentine, a long body probably well over two meters long and almost twenty centimeters thick equipped with multiple pairs of legs, two on each body section; Tavana noticed that the frontmost legs shifted from being narrow to broader and contoured. Digging tools, almost certainly. The mouth was mostly closed now, but he could make out what looked like blue-black fangs in the four-sectioned mouth.
“Good shooting, Sergeant,” he said. “That was not a happy animal when he came out.”
“Very unhappy, I think. Thanks. Lemme contact Xander, let him know what’s up.”
As the Sergeant gazed into the invisible distance, Tavana stepped a little closer; this was the first alien lifeform he’d really gotten a good look at, aside from the preserved specimens back home. It looks like a cross between a centipede, a worm, and a lamprey. Terrifiant, creepy, as Maddox would probably say.
The way it was lying, he couldn’t get a good look, but it seemed to have eyes spaced such that there were four of them. And there were four ridges on the thing’s body. Four-sided symmetry? He stretched out his boot and tried to roll the creature over, so he could get a look â€“
The limp body suddenly convulsed at the touch of Tavana’s boot, and the head whipped around, hissing, fangs extended. In the same instant, Sergeant Campbell slammed into him, sending Tavana sprawling, out of the path of the thing’s reflexive strike.
But that left Sergeant Campbell directly in its path.
Wide-stretched mandibles found Campbell’s boot, clamped down. Three of the savage hooked teeth skidded on the Pathfinder boot, getting no purchase, but the fourth slid upward â€“
And over the top of the boot, plunging directly into Campbell’s leg, just below the knee.