Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 21

Chapter 21.

The pistol bucked three times in Xander’s hand, almost without him willing it. A screech and convulsive writhing showed that he’d hit the sinuous creature just as the targeting app had said he would; the centisnake, as Maddox had named the thing, shuddered to a slow halt; once it was still, Tavana stepped forward and brought the machete down hard, taking the head from the body and causing another powerful but this time harmless sequence of thrashings.

The younger but broader boy wiped his forehead and face with a cloth he carried at his belt. “That, it is the last of them, I think.”

“Hope so. We’ll have to do another full walkaround of the entire area, though.”

There had been a total of four of the ambush predators lurking under the cleared area around LS-88. It had been Xander’s priority to finish the job the Sergeant had started; there was no way he was taking a chance of something like that hiding in a hole where it could jump out and grab Franky or Maddox. Must’ve been a nest or colony of the things here. Predators can’t be concentrated too close together usually; you need enough non-predators around to support them, after all.

“You did good, Tav. I know you were scared –”

“I was not…” Tavana trailed off, then rolled his eyes and grinned sheepishly. “Oui, I was scared half to death going back out here.”

“I know you were,” Xander repeated. “And I saw your hands shaking at first. But you did everything just the right way, and now we’ve got probably a safe perimeter and definitely more to eat, now that we know the centisnake’s meat is good.”

He made sure the hole was at the center of his field of view, and then said “Mark hole finished.” Immediately a red blotch, looking for all the world as though someone had spray-painted the hole, appeared in his retinals – and, he knew, on Tavana’s since the two were linked. “And this was a great idea.”

“That I am proud of,” agreed Tavana. “I was thinking how hard it was to be sure which holes we had checked, and realized it would be simple to tell the omnis to remember and mark them. Took only a few minutes to instruct.”

“Well, it’ll make re-checking the grounds a lot easier; if there are any holes we’ve missed, they won’t be marked.”

They started the second patrol, beginning right at the edge of the berm or wall of scraped earth that surrounded the camp. “What’s after this?”

“Hold on. Maddox!”

His brother’s voice responded almost instantly through his omni. “Yeah, bro, what’s up?”

“We’ve got three more centisnakes. Sorry to put this on you two, but come pick them up, then clean and fillet them. We need to get the meat into storage.”

“Oh, ugh.” Maddox sighed. “All right. Francisco!”

Fortunately Francisco didn’t argue, and so the two younger members of their little crew were soon on their way to pick up the catch of the day. Xander turned back to Tavana. “After this? We start getting that perimeter monitor set up that we were working on during the, what, dark-day?”

“”Dark-day? Heh. I like it. We will have to deal with dark-days a lot. We are near the equator, yes? So daylight and night-time are about eighteen hours.” Tavana nodded. “Hm. So we have to start taking apart one of the excavators for sensor systems.”

“I think so. There’s only five omnis between us – six, if we count Lieutenant Haley’s, I guess – and we’ll want those for ground comm, tool support, all sorts of stuff. I really don’t want to sacrifice an omni if we don’t have to. Unless we’ve got a case of them in storage somewhere?”

Tavana shook his head. “That would have been nice, but no, I did not see any such things. So then yes, we will have to strip the situational awareness sensors from one of the excavators.”

“Will one excavator give us enough? I know we have four of them.”

“I think yes. They need full panoramic awareness, and the design uses dedicated sensors for all sides, not a single sensor on a mast like some cheaper designs. Though it does have a mast-mounted scanning LIDAR; I will probably leave that installed.”

Xander looked around. “That perimeter’s going to be huge, though. Compared to the machine, anyway; will they still have the range? And for that matter, can they operate by themselves?”

Tavana pointed to a suspicious circle of dirt that they had, somehow, missed; the two began the “poke it with a stick” protocol. “If we put a solar pack on them, I think they will operate fine alone; even very stupid sensors these days are more than able to function independent of central systems. Range, that will not be a problem; sometimes they use their sensors to coordinate operations with other devices a long way off. I can tie the sensor data to our omnis – or better, I will tie them to LS-88’s main computers and they will be able to do a target evaluation.”

“Sounds good.” There simply weren’t enough of them – even if the Sergeant were up and about, which he wasn’t – to maintain a good watch using people, but if the sounds they’d heard out there in the dark were any indication, there were definitely things on Emerald bigger and more dangerous than the centisnakes – which were plenty dangerous on their own.

There was no reaction from this hole, so they marked it clear and continued. “We… or maybe just I… will have another little task that has to be done soon,” he said after a few moments.

“I think there are many tasks we will have to do soon. What is this one?”

“Lieutenant Haley. The Sergeant won’t be able to tend to her for a while, and we know what happens if she’s just left in the suit for too long. She needs to be… um, cleaned off, and the suit needs to be washed out.”

Tavana nodded, then looked up at him. “If it’s embarrassing for you, maybe it would help to wait for the Sergeant to wake up. He’s in his suit now, yes?”

“Yes. Didn’t wake up yet, but I sure hope soon.” That worried Xander, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. The medical database was helpful, but it wasn’t a full-blown AI, and couldn’t fully understand or model the devil’s brew of toxins the centisnake had injected. The necrosis appeared to have been halted, but some of the other effects were apparently harder to reverse.

“So wait for him to wake up. If he directs you, much less for you to worry about.” Tavana’s smile seemed patronizing.

“What are you grinning about?”

“You North Americans, you are so shy about things. Worry about having chaperones even for the doctors and nurses, I think.”

Xander couldn’t think of an appropriate retort; Tavana was probably right. This was a nursing situation; you had to take care of the patient, and there wasn’t anything inappropriate in that. And he was probably also right that waiting a day or two for the Sergeant to be awake enough to direct it wouldn’t hurt. “Guess you’re right. About both things.”

Tavana’s grin was much less annoying, suddenly. “I am?” He looked down suddenly. “Sorry for being –”

“No, no, like I said, you’re right. Body-shyness and stupid societal stuff keeping me from taking care of someone like the Lieutenant when she needs it? THAT would be something to be sorry for.”

By the time they finished the second sweep of the camp grounds – a few hours later – Maddox and Francisco had completed the cleaning of the centisnakes. “What do we do with the, um, remains?”

“Good question.” They did not want to start getting a garbage dump to attract whatever the equivalent of flies and rats might be. Plus… “Let’s pick out some organs that might be useful for fishing. The rest… I think we should probably burn it for now. When the Sergeant’s up, we’ll all talk about how we want to handle that for the long run. How much meat have we got?”

“A lot!” Francisco answered. “We’ve almost filled the shelter freezer!”

That was a fair amount. “I was hoping for something more like an actual number, though.”

“Well,” Maddox said, “Umm… here, we’ve got the pressure sensors at the doors to open and close them, right? If we tie our omnis into that –”

“We could just put the meat on a plastic sheet on the doorstep and find out. Good thinking, Maddox!”

After a few minutes work, Xander nodded. “Not bad. A little more than twenty kilos.”

Tavana frowned. “That seems awfully small. Just one of those things must have been over thirty kilos!”

“Closer to forty,” Xander said. “But they’re long and skinny. You’re not going to get a huge yield out of them. Even fish like sea bass don’t generally give you more than about a third of their mass in really usable food, so I think this is actually really good. Great job, Maddox, Francisco!”

Francisco made a face. “It is messy. And smelly.”

Maddox and Xander laughed. “Oh, it sure is. Cleaning what you kill is always the part everyone likes least. The stalking and the hunting, that’s fun. Cooking, that can be fun too. Eating, that’s fun. Gutting and cleaning it? Not so fun.”

“And I guess all of us will have to be doing this not-fun,” Tavana said in a resigned tone.

“Better than trying to make one person do it. Right?”

Tavana’s smile was obviously forced, but Xander appreciated that he was making the effort. “Oui, yes, of course. All of us have to do the work. Even the work we do not like.”

“So we’re going to eat some of this tonight, right, Xander?” asked Francisco excitedly. “I cut this one!” He held up a fillet that was rather obviously more ragged than others. “Can we eat it?”

This time none of the smiles were forced. “Of course we can. I’ll fry it up for everyone.”

As he got out the cooking utensils and the limited seasonings that were part of the shelter’s equipment, he wondered what he could do for the future. I don’t think we can live just on meat. Maybe we can, but it’s not good. We’ll need to find other things to eat. And stuff like seasonings, salt, to make it fun to cook. We’re incredibly lucky that we landed with all these resources, but they’ll run out – and some will run out fast. I don’t think we’ve got dietary supplements anywhere on board, either.

It was starting to dawn on him just how complicated this was going to be. Going to Tantalus Colony was a completely different situation; there, they would be the second wave, with the first part of the colony set up. Things like “what can we eat”, and “what will kill us” would be questions answered long before, and the issues of nutrition would not only have been figured out, but also the ship they arrived on would have everything they needed to stay alive.

He cut the meat into pan-sized sections, dusted it with a bit of salt and pepper, and started frying, still thinking. Not having analytical equipment is really going to make this dangerous. Francisco made sense as a taste-tester, but as he remembered from his camping days, usually animal-borne toxins weren’t nearly as bad as those that plants might be carrying. We’ll have to be incredibly careful; I think there are plants on Earth that can kill people with as little as one seed. Heck, there are some things on Earth that you don’t want to touch. Maybe we’ll have to find some kind of animal we can keep or observe as a test subject.

Xander really didn’t like that last thought. Not only would it be hard to keep any animal you didn’t understand to begin with, but also it was just not a nice thing to do – imprison some animal so it could eat things and maybe die for your protection. But something like that might be necessary if he was going to keep everyone alive.

The sizzling meat smelled appetizing; Francisco had seemed to like the little bit he ate a couple days ago. Well, let’s see what it’s like!

“C’mon, everyone, dinner’s ready!” he called.

He served everyone straight from the pan onto their plates, then sat down.

His omni gave a loud ping that he’d been praying for, and he stood up so suddenly he almost tipped over the little table.

“What is it, Xander?” asked Maddox, concern on his face.

“It’s the Sergeant,” Xander answered, heading to the side room where the older man was lying. “He’s waking up!”