Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 20
“You have to eat something, Tav.”
Tavana jumped slightly at the unexpected voice. He was sitting on the steps of the lander’s ladder, looking up at a comet whose slowly-fading tail covered thirty degrees of the now-dark sky. “Not hungry.”
“Bullcrap,” Xander said, and held out a plate.
He was about to refuse again when his nose caught the scent. “A Buckley? Merde, Xander, we were supposed to be saving those for special occasions!” Even though his anger and depression were trying to keep his stomach in a knot, his mouth was arguing strenuously that he really should take the plate.
“This is a special occasion. Sergeant’s hurt but going to be okay, we’ve survived our first attack by local wildlife, and it’s my first day as Captain. Maybe not a happy special day, but really, we needed something good to make up for all of that.”
“To make up for my screw-up, you mean.” Tavana dropped down from the ladder heavily, falling to hands and knees, then stood and tried to stalk away. “For me almost getting the Sergeant killed.”
He heard a quiet, sharp tap as the plate was put down on the ladder, and then one of Xander’s hands came down on his shoulder. “How much time did you spend outdoors back home, Tav?”
He was a little puzzled by the question, and it almost annoyed him; he was ready for someone to argue that it wasn’t his fault, and this wasn’t something he’d prepared for. “Umâ€¦ not much. I mean, I wandered outside and looked at the stars, things like that, but I didn’t do much fishing, or boating, or anything of that sort. Reading, studying, simgames like Canister Seven or Jewelbug, that was my thing.”
Xander’s head was a shadow limned with faint silver from the stars and comet-light above, but Tavana could make out the nod. “Right. And you’re a propulsion and power engineer type, not a bio major. Never did much hiking, and even if you had, you were on one of the Polynesian islands, right?”
“Right.” He couldn’t figure out what the point of this was, but he knew Xander; the older Bird brother would have a point.
“So you’ve never seen a dangerous land animal before in your life,” Xander said. “Except maybe human beings. No snakes or crocodiles or even, if I remember right, poisonous spiders.”
There was a part of Tavana that thought it knew what Xander was getting at, but he pulled away. “So what?”
“You know that the Sergeant gave me full authorization just before he blacked out?”
“No â€“ really?” He’d known the Sergeant was trying to tell Xander something, but thisâ€¦
“Yep. So I reviewed the playback for the whole thing, straight from the Sergeant’s omni. And the only thing you did wrong was something you couldn’t have known was wrong. Sure, I would have known it was a bad idea to poke something like that even when you think it’s dead; I’ve seen a rattler take a bite at someone’s boot in pure dead reflex, just like that thing. But you hadn’t. The Sergeant shot it three times, and killed it sure â€“ it was dead. You didn’t know, and the Sergeant should have told you to stay clear. It’s as much his fault as yours â€“”
“No it’s â€“”
“Yes it IS!” Xander snapped. “And when he wakes up, I’ll bet you anything you like that he will say so himself. Maybe you should’ve guessed that you should be more careful, but that’s not worth beating yourself up this much. Learn from it. And don’t starve yourself, that’s a Buckley dinner that’s going cold over there.”
Tavana stared up at the comet again, then bit his lip and looked over at the shadow of Xander near him. Without saying anything, he turned and walked back to the lander and picked up the plate. Southwestern Taco Supreme Meal. “How’d you know this was my favorite?”
“Remember when we first broke out the Buckley’s, way out in the middle of interstellar space? We all talked about our favorite meals.” Xander’s brilliant smile flashed visibly in the dark. “I knew it’d get your attention.”
“You are sneaky.”
“I had to raise Maddox for four years. You learn a lot of tricks that way.”
Tavana wasn’t sure he liked being compared to a thirteen year oldâ€¦ but then, Maddox was awfully bright. He guessed he could live with it. And the first bite of the taco, powerful with cumin, chipotle and ancho peppers, and other spices, helped push away the feelings that had been darker than the night around him. “So I’m not all to blame.”
“No. Maybe you’d have made a different decision on a different day. Who knows? But the Sergeant should have known â€“ did know, or he wouldn’t have reacted that fast. And he achieved what he was after, protecting you. He’s going to be okay, I think. So no long-term harm done, as long as nothing really bad happens in the next few weeks. We’ll just have to be about a dozen times more careful until then.”
He heard Xander take a bite of something, realized the older boy had probably been carrying part of his own meal all along. “Soâ€¦ how did the fishing go?”
“Got a couple of bites, I think, before the disaster, but didn’t pull in anything. But I’m sure we will soon.”
The silence wasn’t complete. There were vague buzzing, whispering noises from whatever the equivalent of insects were, and some distant shufflings or other noises from the forest outside the perimeter. A plop signaled something that had jumped from the water and fallen back. “How’s Francisco?”
“Fine. Nanos didn’t pick up any toxins immediately, he liked the taste of the thing. If the nanos still say all clear tomorrow, I think we’ve found our first edible native food on Emerald. Keep your fingers crossed.”
He knew that expression, anyway. “Everything I’ve got two of, as my grandfather used to say.” He looked up at the stars again. “This place has long days.”
“And nights. I think the Sergeant said about a thirty-six hour rotation. That’ll take a little getting used to.”
A shuffling sound. “Xander, back home, there were animals â€“ like sharks â€“ that did a lot more hunting at night than in the day.”
He could see the older boy stiffen. “I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe we’d better stay inside at nights.”
“Right now? Oui, that is probably a good idea. But I think we should be able to use a few omnis or other sensors to give us a perimeter monitor. Maybe we can work on that for a while.”
Xander nodded. “Probably for the best. We don’t know whether that â€¦ worm-snake is the worst that Emerald has for us.”
From far off came an eerie, booming noise, a cry of something huge that feared nothing in the dark.
After a moment, Tavana stood back up, holding his plate. “No, and we had best act as though there’s a lot worse waiting out there for us.”
Xander followed him inside. All the way in, Tavana felt the prickle of tension, wondering what alien eyes might be watching them.
But once in the shelter, with the bright light and the tough, layered-carbonan weave walls, he felt his spirits finally lifting. Maybe it wasn’t all my fault. “All right,” he said, “we will plan out a perimeter monitor, and maybe a defensive perimeter too, if the Sergeant approves when he gets up. They can make all the noise they want out there. We,” he finished, seeing Xander smiling and Maddox looking up hopefully, “will be getting ready for them in here.”