He Who Writes (otherwise known as Ryk Spoor) has decreed that this will be the last snippet.
Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 23
Tavana lunged out reflexively, catching Maddox as he was almost dragged headlong into the water. The carbonan fishing pole was bent in a sharp curve, vibrating furiously even while Tavana managed to get the smaller Bird brother back on his feet.
“Got something, Tav, we got something!”
“Vraiment, that we do! Can you hold it?”
Maddox’ face was set in lines of determination. “Ifâ€¦ you canâ€¦ keep me from falling on my faceâ€¦”
Tavana grinned, slid both arms around the younger boy just under Maddox’ arms, and braced himself. “That I can do!” He raised his voice a bit to activate his omni. “Xander! We have a bite, a big one!”
“You do? We’ll be right there!”
“Gimme a video feed, Tavana!” came the Sergeant’s voice. “If I can’t be there, I darn well want to watch!”
Whatever was on the other end of the carbonan-reinforced line was strong, Tavana had to give it that. Maddox’ muscles stood out on his arms like slender bundles of cord as he pulled back, trying to force his prize to turn towards him. No way he can keep doing this himself; the drag on that is set to a third of his own weight!
“Let me take it, Maddox,” he said.
“You can’t hold it in one hand if it yanks like that again, and how are you going to reel it in without letting go at least for an instant?”
Maddox grunted as another powerful yank pulled him forward. “Okay, okayâ€¦ you turn the reel? Hold me with one arm?”
“Works.” He didn’t want to deprive Maddox of this â€“ the first catch on a new planet. Sure, he really would have liked to be the one to do it, but it hadn’t been his turn, it had been Maddox’s, and the smaller boy was hanging on grimly.
And none of us expected our first real hit on the line to be something this big!
He got hold of the reel, which had been made from the takeup reel of the coil-winder they’d cobbled together months ago, and started cranking back hard. The fish, or whatever it was, had suddenly turned towards them and the line was threatening to go slack.
Maddox immediately pulled up and tried to backpedal; Tavana did his best to go along with him. Gain as much on this thing as we can â€“
The rod whipped down again and the line screamed out at astonishing speed. Mon Dieu, it is strong!
Xander and Francisco appeared around the side of LS-88, the oldest boy wiping grease from his hands. “Holy crap, that thing must be a monster!”
“Be damned careful, boys,” the Sergeant admonished them from inside the lander. “Something that fights like that is almost guaranteed to be a predator of some kind â€“ especially since we’re using meat scraps for bait. If that’s the local equivalent of a shark, it’ll be hell on wheels even when you beach it. Stay sharp, stay clear, and don’t get stupid; Xander, when and if you get a clear shot, take it. We’re not sport-fishing here, we’re doing survival. Got it?”
“Yes, sir, Sergeant,” Xander said. Out of the corner of his eye, Tavana saw him give a sideways smile. “Do you always order the Captain around?”
The Sergeant’s laugh was loud and cheerful. “Only when they’re young punks! But you’re right, Captain, I should be advising you.”
“And it’s good advice. Franky, get back. I want you up against the landing strut there. WOW!”
The creature had finally reached the surface, and breached spectacularly like an Earthly marlin, except no marlin ever had spiky, segmented armor or four rows of paired fins â€“ or that edged, flowering nightmare of a mouth. “No joke, Sergeant, that’s a top predator for sure!”
Maddox actually swore. “That thing’s huge!”
“Big enough â€“ I guess it at four, five meters, boys,” the Sergeant said, and his voice was now serious. “Might not be a top predator, but I’ll tell you, seeing that makes me damn nervous. Xander, you’ve done this before?”
“Yes, sir. That’s going to be a long fight, if this thing’s anything like Earth fish. Maddox, I’m sorry, but we’ll need to take turns.”
Sweat was trickling down Maddox; his hair was matted and he was breathing heavily. Tavana could feel his arms shaking. Reluctantly, Maddox nodded. “Oâ€¦ okay. Tav, you take it for a bit?”
“Right.” He reached out, clamped his left hand firmly on the rod just above Maddox’, then grabbed the bottom of the rod. “Got it.”
Maddox let go and ducked out, just as the monstrous fish-thing gave another mighty yank.
But Tavana had been braced, and he had no trouble keeping a grip on it. It felt like twenty kilos or so â€“ quite a tug, but nothing outrageous, as the line streamed off the reel again. “I can do this for a while.”
“You’ll have to.” Xander sat down next to him; Maddox had flopped down onto the dirt, exhausted. “Unless these things tire a lot faster, we might be fighting that thing for hours.”
“Oui, I am aware. I only did a little fishing, but I remember some of the people saying how long it took to land the big ones. You know that Maddox and I, we will be landing it, yes?”
“I know â€“ I’m the one who’s going to do the shooting.” Xander looked out at the water, where the thing was visible by the bulge it was making on the surface as it streaked away again. “Honestly? I’m really seriously thinking of cutting the line.”
Maddox sat bolt upright. “What? No! Why?”
Tavana had the same impulse as Maddox, but his brain caught up to Xander’s. “Maddox, your brother, he has a point. It will not be safe, landing this monster. We do not even know if it will be something edible.”
Xander nodded slowly. “Basically, yes. That’s what’s got you nervous, right, Sergeant?”
There was a moment of silence, then a grunt from Campbell. “Partly. More than that, though, but nothing to concern you right now.”
“So you think I should do it? Cut the line?” Xander was carefully looking away from his brother’s outraged face.
“Son, right now, you’re the Captain. You’re going to have to make that call.”
“I am asking the old laid-up soldier for advice, Sergeant.”
That got a chuckle, one that even Maddox joined in on. “Well, now, that’s fine. Advice? Well, honestly, I think we can argue it either way, assuming it doesn’t somehow get off the hook and make the argument moot. You’ve made the argument for cutting the line; I’ll make the other one. This is the first bite we’ve gotten. It’s going to be our first look at what lives in these waters, and something that big will have a lot to tell us â€“ not just from itself, but from what it’s eaten lately, too. Edible or not, we might find it’s got other useful aspects â€“ those armor plates might come in handy, for instance.
“And of course there’s no guarantee the next thing you hook will be any safer.” He paused. “Now, if you do bring it in, I want you all to remember what we’ve learned so far. That thing might be venomous, and that could be everything from its teeth to its fins to even its skin. So you boys get gloved up when it’s getting close, got me?”
“Got it, sir,” Tavana said, and the others echoed it. “Sergeant?”
“Go ahead, Tavana.”
“This cable, it is very thin, but it is carbonan, yes? So it should be extremely strong, strong enough to hold that thing’s complete weight.”
“I’d think so. Xander?”
“That’s TaylerCord 5K. The 5k is its rated strength, so it’s rated to five tons â€“ five thousand kilograms. I don’t think that thing’s going to be even close to that, soâ€¦ yes, easily.”
“Soâ€¦ we could just tie it to the landing strut and let it pull as hard as it wants, right?”
After a moment, the Sergeant chuckled. “Might could at that.”
“Won’t work, if it’s like most fish,” Xander said. “Give it enough slack, it’ll either find a way to pull the hook out, or it’ll get up a running pull that will either rip the hook straight out through its body, or peak at a high enough tension to snap even this line. I’ll bet on the ‘rip the hook out’, myself. But that’s why we have to keep fighting it this way; if it gets slack, it has a good chance of getting away.”
“Then the choice is up to you, Captain Xander.”
“I will do a properly Captain thing, then, and put off the decision until I see what shape we’re in when it’s getting close to time to land it.”
Tavana turned his attention to the rod. The creature had once more paused in its struggles, so Tavana lifted the rod, then lowered it as he wound the line in, lifted again, lowered while winding, dragging the creature towards them slowly but surely.
And then without warning it leapt away again through the water, dragging the line whining with it.
All of them became familiar with that dragging, tiring, yet still fascinating routine, pitting their timing and smaller muscles braced on the ground against the determination and vast power of the creature from the depths of the lake. After the first hour, Tavana started to wonder if the thing was going to beat them, if it was simply able to endure beyond anything they could manage. He muttered something about that as he took the rod for the third time.
“Don’t you worry about that,” the Sergeant’s voice said. “Tavana, human beings ain’t the strongest animals on our planet, and we ain’t the fastest, and we ain’t the toughest in a fight, either, but there is one thing we’re just crazy-good at, and that’s keepin’ on keepin’ on. Persistence hunting, that’s our game. Sure, we can’t outpower that monster out there, but you can bet your last dollar that we can outlast him, if we don’t just plain give up.”
Tavana tried to keep those serenely certain words in mind as the battle went to two hours, then three, then four, and even Emerald’s sluggish sun was clearly crawling across the sky.
But then he suddenly realized that the creature’s runs were getting shorter and shorter, and it was clearly getting closer and closer to shore. “Xander, I think we are winning.”
Xander, who was eating some jerky that Francisco had brought from the lander, sat up straighter. “I think you’re right.”
The thing chose that moment to surge to the surface again, but even that powerful movement reinforced Tavana’s impression. Unlike that first mighty breach, this was a lunge that broke the surface but did not come close to clearing the water; barely a quarter of the armored fish-thing’s length emerged before it sank back beneath the surface. “He’s almost done, Sergeant!”
“Sure looks that way. Time for that decision, Captain.”
Xander stood still for long minutes, watching as Tavana dragged the thing closer to shore, now no more than ten meters away. Finally he nodded. “Let’s do this. Francisco, go get us the gloves. Boots back on, everyone. No chances, right?”
“Yes, Xander!” agreed Maddox.
“Understood,” Tavana said. Having seen that nightmarish mouth now several times, he had no desire at all to take any risks.
Tavana nodded to Maddox. “You’re going to take the pole at the end. You hooked it, you get to bring it in.”
The brilliant smile from the lighter-haired brother told Tavana he’d said the right thing. “Thank you, Tavana!”
“No problem. And I’ll stand right behind you just in case it pulls hard at the end.”
Xander stood to the side now, sidearm drawn. As Maddox and Tavana slowly dragged the monster closer, Tavana saw Xander release the safety. His finger was still well clear of the trigger, laid along the axis of the gun across, but not through, the trigger guard, and he held the muzzle of the gun pointed low and away from all of them. Francisco was hanging back as he had been instructed, and as the thing made one more lunge, showing two jaws filled with uncountable teeth, paired with ripping mandibles, the smallest of their crew shrank behind the landing strut. Good. Don’t want him even possibly in the way on this.
“Keep bringing him in. Closerâ€¦ closerâ€¦ Tav, can you and Maddox drag him a little this way? Yeah, it looks flatter there, I think we can get him beached easierâ€¦ yeah, that’s itâ€¦ Whoa, I think he knows something’s up, that was a hard runâ€¦”
Maddox pulled up, reeled in, pulled up, trusting to Tavana to keep him from falling. “Comeâ€¦ inâ€¦ here, you stubborn littleâ€¦”
“I would call it many things, but not little!”
Maddox growled a little, but focused his energy on pulling again. “Almostâ€¦ thereâ€¦”
At the last moment, the creature seemed to finally realize that it was the small animals up there, on the land, that were responsible for its torment. It swung about and charged towards the bank, throwing up twin bow waves in a startling rush of speed.
And then it came right up on the bank and started thrashing across the ground, straight for Tavana and Maddox.
Tavana didn’t think, he just acted, literally throwing Maddox over his head and behind him, and then running to the side, waving his arms and shouting, keeping the attention of the hissing monstrosity.
Gunshots cracked out, one after another in rapid succession. The creature spasmed, jackknifed around towards Xander, but then caught three shots in the face for its trouble. The controlled charge turned into a writhing dance of agony that made everyone scramble back, waiting until the convulsions died down and the gigantic body was still.
Finally there were only a few dying tremors rippling down the creature’s flanks. Tavana let himself sink down to the rough ground, shaking. “Merde, that was much more exciting than I was hoping for!”
“What did I tell you boys? Planets hold surprises. Back on earth there’s more than a few fish that could do that, though ain’t none of them nearly that big. On the other hand, orcas do that kind of thing sometimes, and they are that big, and bigger.” The Sergeant’s voice was also a little shaky. “Good shooting, good discipline there, Xander. And good reflexes, Tav. Everyone did good there. Just be careful approaching it.”
“I remember why you are lying inside, Sergeant,” Tavana said emphatically. “Believe me, a second lesson I do not need.”
“Heh. I suppose not. So keep an eye on the others for me.”
“That I can do.”
They warily approached it. Now that it was still and fully out of the water, Tavana’s omni could compute the exact dimensions: five point two meters long, and if the density was roughly that of water, massing something over a ton. “That is a monster.”
Xander nodded. “Sure is. Stand back, everyone.”
He put two more shots into the thing, but it only twitched sluggishly; there was no sign of the sudden, savage reanimation that had nearly cost the Sergeant his life. Xander let out a long sigh. “Looks like he’s dead dead.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Campbell reminded them. “Approach with caution, and remember to be very careful touching anything.”
“Sergeant?” Tavana said, as they carefully closed in on the body. “Can you tell us now what the other thing was that was bothering you?”
“Sure,” he said, and his tone was grim enough to get Xander to pause. “Take a look out there. What do you see?”
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to see, but he knew better than to question Sergeant Campbell. “Ummâ€¦ well, I see the lake. Ripples on the lake. Then the other side of the lake, some of those tree things â€“”
“Right. How far do you think it is to the other side of the lake?”
“That’s easy.” His retinals sent the image to his omni along with the query. “Six hundred and fifteen meters.”
“Little more than half a click. And it’s not much longer than that, if any. So tell me, how many fish or whatever do you think are in a lake that size, and how many does a monster like that need to eat every day?”
Light dawned. “You mean it shouldn’t be in here.”
“Damn straight. That means that it either somehow swam up that not-too-big stream running out of this lake, or there’s some other way in that we can’t see, because unless that lake’s about three kilometers deep there’s no way it’s big enough to support things that size. It’s like finding a great white shark in your local fishing pond.” He paused. “Honestly, Xander, I’m glad you made the call you did. That beast’s got a lot to tell us, and we need all the info we can get.
“Because I don’t think we’ve even started to find out the surprises Emerald’s hiding.”