Castaway Planet – Chapter 09

Chapter 9

“Okay, Sakura, now cycle the lock again, exhausting to the outside.”

Whips wasn’t taking any chances. Before letting anyone step out of the shuttle, he wanted Dr. Kimei and her husband to check the air readings. So they’d put Laura Kimei’s omni, which had a lot of built-in sensors for medical purposes, into the starboard airlock, let it open to the outer air, and left it there for an hour to gather data. The omni hadn’t been able to communicate well through the lock, so they had to bring it back in to check the results. Everyone was accordingly in environment suits.

It had better be okay, Whips thought. Because they couldn’t stay in environment suits the whole time.

Laura reached into the lock as it opened and brought out her omni — a Scanwise Gold Five that looked like an Egyptian bracelet. “Well, it looks all right.” She tapped into the local net and checked the data.

A few minutes later he saw her pull off her helmet and knew the answer. “All clear, everyone. Oh, there’s some pollen and other such things in the air, but nothing immediately toxic.”

“Did it see anything through the open lock?”

“Not terribly much. Mostly a lovely blue sky and a few distant flying somethings.”

Dr. Kimei tied back her hair tightly. “All right, I’m going to take a look.”

No one argued. Whips knew that Laura Kimei was not only the tallest and strongest of the humans, but much more agile than he was out of the water. If he remembered right, she was also the daughter of a policeman and trained in some hand-to-hand weapons, overall making her the best choice for first person outside. In her hand she held the only ranged weapon that had been available outside the cargo storage: a SurvivalShot 12mm, designed for use on worlds with no ammunition manufacturing in place.

Not that she was going far. They saw her go to the lock, look out cautiously, then lean out farther, looking down, around, and up, then back down and out for several minutes.

She turned back to them, smiling broadly and holstering the pistol. “Well, Sakura, we can see exactly where we came down; there’s a big trench cut through the landscape pointing right back to the heart of this continent.

“Better news is that I can see a shallow ridge below us. I think the water there is no more than a meter deep, so we can wade to shore, though someone has to carry Hitomi.”

“Very good!” Akira said. “What’s our plan, then?”

“First we need to scout out some temporary headquarters. It has to be near to the water, for Whips’ comfort, but high enough that we’re not going to get caught by waves and tides. It also needs to be sheltered, so that wind and such won’t get in too much. Everyone take some of the rations with you. We’ll probably be camping outside the LS-5 until we get her out of this lagoon and lying flat instead of mostly on her tail.”

Akira nodded. “Whips, since you’re the strongest, if you don’t mind I’d like you to carry the winch?”

“And the carbon-composite cable and block-and-tackle, yes, sir.” The compact high-powered winch was a standard piece of equipment in the shuttles, available to install on the nose or the rear loading ramp or into the standardized sockets on the colony work vehicles. And, with enough mechanical advantage — like the block and tackle — it might just be strong enough to pull LS-5 out of its current inconvenient position and up onto the land. The carbon-composite cable, of course, was more than strong enough for the job. From his engineering work he knew that he could probably suspend three or four shuttles from that single cable.

“Good.” He smiled down at Whips. “I’m very glad you’re with us, Harratrer.”

“So am I,” he said quietly. Inside, he wondered if any of the rest of his family, his pod, had escaped. The thought that all of his family — little brother Pageturner with his eyes always in a book, so much like Melody that at times he’d wondered if they could somehow be related despite all the obvious biological impossibilities; his father Kryndomerr, called Numbers by everyone for his mathematical genius; Windharvest, his mother, whose real name was Rillitrill but who was proud of the nickname that told of her success in making more efficient and easily manufactured wind turbines; and his big brother Dragline, hunter and athlete — the thought that they all might be gone was enough to dim his light even inside, make an ache spread from within to the very tips of his hands.

Am I unstable? Is that my stress limit?

He forced himself not to think of it. That would just make it worse. And perhaps they weren’t gone. The rest of Outward Initiative might have survived. And here he also had a pod, with the twin sister of his heart Sakura (who he liked to think of as “Jumpsfirst” in the way of his people), and her family who had welcomed him without hesitation. He forced the light back into his skin, mind, and heart. Yes, it would get worse later. He could feel it. But he knew they would be very, very happy to know he was alive and with the Kimei family.

He waited for the others to go out; make sure everyone else was clear before trying to get down himself. Crawling to the lock, he stuck his forearms out and grabbed the climbing rungs, pulling himself forward enough to get a good look out.

For a moment he just stopped there, admiring the view.

Below, shadowed slightly by the sharply-inclined LS-5, the waters of the lagoon sparkled and shimmered in blue-green, a lighter line of pale green showing the shallower ridge that began right at the hull of the shuttle and ran to the shore. From this height he could see that the seafloor dropped sharply to either side of the ridge, down to at least five meters depth; there were hints of movement in those depths which told him there would be prey aplenty — if he could eat it.

The shore, which the Kimeis had just reached, was a three meter high cliff which had a big bite taken out of it, right where LS-5 had finished its crash. Along that line he could see the trench the armored shuttle had dug from its impact almost a kilometer distant. The brilliant blue sky contrasted with the fluffy white of clouds, and with the deep, pure green of the forested hills or even low mountains in the distance; he guessed that some of those rolling ridges reached several hundred meters in height. Trees — or something very like them — grew at no great distance from the shore, broad and feathery-looking crowns casting deep shadows beneath.

He looked down again. This might be a little tricky. The climbing rungs were of course there for climbing down the shuttle when it was set down properly, which was to say sitting on its belly, rather than standing almost vertically on its tail. The rungs now provided only a stabilizing handhold, with the winged shuttle’s side dropping away below. The humans had gone down a rope, but that was something he really didn’t want to try.

On the positive side, though, the tremendous damage on the outside of LS-5 had taken great scrapes, dings, and divots out of the hardened exterior. He was pretty sure he could use those — especially since, unlike the humans, he had three arms with a very wide reach. If he stretched them out, he could reach almost four meters from tip to tip, and that meant he could hook fingers into a couple dozen places at once.

Stretching that far stung, as well as ached. Despite everything Dr. Kimei had been able to do, his skin was drier by far than it should be, little sore cracks opening as he pulled on normally flexible hide. But they were down, and near an ocean. He could take this, and the aches from the de-orbit and crash. They were down and they were safe.

Feeling more confident with that thought, Whips carefully slid his lower first arm out as far as he could, locking fingers and extending his graspclaws to catch anything they could. His lower second arm followed. His top arm anchored itself to the doorframe and twined around the rope. Not without some trepidation, he slowly spun his body and let it slide over the edge.

“Whips,” Laura called to him, “Make sure you close the inner hatch, okay? I don’t expect any problems, but no reason to let the local wildlife have easy access.”

“Right, Dr. Kimei.” He stretched out part of one arm and touched the control, closing and sealing the inner door. Since he was using the doorframe as an armhold, he couldn’t close the outer door, but that shouldn’t be an issue anyway.

As he let the whole weight of his body finish the slide to the vertical, a couple of fingers lost their grip, but more than enough stayed firm. With exquisite caution he carefully released the grip of his top arm and moved it lower, gripping at other scars on the shuttle and the rope. Then, one by one, the fingers of his first arm let go, dropped, and found others.

He could, of course, have just dropped into the deeper water… but a quick splashdown like that would surround him with bubbles and be momentarily disorienting. That was a perfectly good entrance to use — if you were confident nothing was waiting to eat you. It wasn’t likely there was something waiting in those depths to ambush him, but it wasn’t at all impossible, and why take chances?

A few minutes later and he was down on the shallow ridge. He inhaled the water. So fresh! He’d forgotten what real, honest seawater of any world tasted and smelled like. Lincoln’s seas smelled exciting, a tingle of salts just slightly more concentrated than Europa’s, not quite as concentrated as Earth’s seas, but different, with other smells and vibrations and tastes that promised something dangerous yet thrilling. Sharp pain sparked momentarily at the places where his hide had started to crack, but the overall sensation on his skin was wonderful. He paused for a moment, just letting his skin soak in the water of a natural ocean.

There was definitely movement in the water not far away. He wanted to see what it was, but restrained his curiosity; he did, however, take advantage of the fact that a meter of water was more than enough for him to jet his way to the shore in one quick spurt of motion, running right up onto white-green sparkling sands next to Sakura.

The whole family clapped. “That was great, Whips!” Laura said appreciatively. “You’re quite an acrobat for someone who’s normally slow on land.”

“I’d be a lot slower climbing up, Dr. Kimei,” he said modestly, though he was very proud of how well he’d managed the descent.

“Most people are.”

They gazed up into the interior, shouldering their packs — even little Hitomi making sure the backpack her mother had given her was settled properly. “You know, Laura,” Akira said after a moment, “I think our best bet might be to just go up this trail to near its beginning. Everything’s been cleared out of this region, so there isn’t much chance for surprises, and even larger things were probably scared off by that crash, and it makes a perfect path to the ocean. We’ll haul LS-5 up the trench as soon as we get a few things settled, or at least see if we can get started.”

“Makes sense to me. Let’s take a look.”

So, my crash gives us a good shelter! Clever of me to arrange that! Sakura sent.

But if you hadn’t crashed, we could still be using LS-5 as our main shelter, he pointed out.

She sent an image of her sticking her tongue out at him. He smiled (though the smile was mostly a matter of particular light and color patterns rather than the human equivalent, which wasn’t something he could actually do) and was pleased by the fact that Sakura was cheering up and able to take a joke or two.

Glassy-winged somethings zipped quickly by the newcomers, but dodged aside before approaching too closely. They probably smelled very strange to anything native. That’d keep most things away, at least for a while.

He crawled along higher on the edge of the trench than the humans, to give himself the same vantage point. Once he thought he heard something larger approaching from the high side, and extended his top hand. Let’s try my favorite trick.

Bemmie articulation was very different than human. The linkages of the arms, in particular, could both stiffen selectively in various ways, or be relaxed to the point that the appendage was as flexible as a hose… or, in this case, as a whip. There was, of course, always some risk in this trick; even though the arms and fingers were quite tough, it was possible to dislocate, break, or — in rare instances — rip off the tips of fingers with the particular trick he was going to try.

But it was what he was famous for. With practiced, focused ease, he bobbed and pulled the arm, causing a ripple to travel all along the extended arm and finger tendrils. At the far end, this hastened as he yanked the arm back, and the fingers at the very tip suddenly snapped around, multiple whipcracks of sound echoing loudly across the trench. His fingertips tingled, but didn’t hurt. Ha! Got away with it again!

Whatever it was, the thing didn’t like that sound at all; he heard a sudden and speedy movement away.

“What was that?” The Kimeis had all spun to face him, and Laura had the pistol out.

“I don’t know, Dr. Kimei, but it sounded bigger than most of us, so I scared it off.”

“Darn near scared me off,” she said, with a half-smile. “I still can’t imagine how you do that without breaking your fingers.”

“I know other Bemmies who can do it. Not as good as me, though,” he admitted, proudly. “After all, that’s where I got my name.”

“Seems to already be coming in useful. The more we can chase things off and the less we have to confront them, the better we’ll be.” Laura looked up. “Oh, that’s promising.”

LS-5 had struck hard on first impact, gouging out a considerable trench with one of the tailfins in the underlying coral-like rock, a trench that actually had considerable overhang on one side. Caroline, not only the closest they had to a geologist but one who had previously gone caving, mountaineering, and freeclimbing, moved cautiously under the overhang and started checking it. After a few minutes, she nodded. “At least this section along here looks stable — no deep cracks or flaws I can see. We could use this as a windbreak and partial weather shield and let the shelter set itself up right here.”

“Looks good,” Laura said, and Whips, after examining it himself, agreed. “All right, everyone, dump the first load here. Whips, that means the winch and such too, even though I’m pretty sure we’ll be bringing it down near the water’s edge again.”

He complied gratefully; the little winch was still pretty heavy, and all the cable — neatly tied or not — was clumsy. He noticed small shapes scuttling away from their feet and gear, lashed out and caught one.

The thing had a shell shaped like the shields of knights that Sakura had showed him in one of her books, and pulled its limbs and head under the shell when he grabbed it. What he could see indicated eight limbs and the head showed glints of sharp-edged mandibles or something like it. Some of the ventswimmers were similar. “I think we need to make sure our stuff is protected soon. These things might be able to dig through the packaging.”

“Spread out the shelter,” Melody suggested, plopping down with exaggerated exhaustion on the ground. “We have to do that anyway to let it set itself up properly. We can put all our other stuff on top of it until we trigger the setup.”

“An excellent idea, Melody,” said Akira. “Hitomi, can you and Melody start doing that?”

“Why me?” asked Melody plaintively.

“Because the rest of us have other work to do, like running all the way back to the shuttle for more supplies, and figuring out how we’re going to move it,” her father said.

Whips felt a grin ripple across his back as he watched Melody glance down the long stretch of somewhat broken terrain back to the shuttle and then up the several meter high climb to the airlock. “Okay,” she sighed. “Come on, Hitomi.”

“Akira, hon, I want you and Caroline to stay with them. Sakura, Whips, and I will go get the rest of the stuff. I don’t want Hitomi left with just Mel, and with Caroline the two of you will be able to get some of the preparation work done.”

“All right.”

The three of them started back. “Sakura, have you any idea what happened to your guidance app?”

His friend shook her head. “Not really, mom. What I got after we landed and I queried the data made no sense. It claimed that the points I designated weren’t the same points, that they had different geometry than the original points, and the same thing happened when I told it to reacquire. It tried to follow them but couldn’t hold a lock. Something had to be wrong in its calibration or something.”

“Whips? Any thoughts?”

He dug through his knowledge of the assisting app they’d devised for the landing. “I don’t know, Dr. Kimei. We designed that app to be close to foolproof, but I suppose it’s possible we missed something about how perspective affected the apparent distances. I thought we had that all nailed down, but…”

Laura nodded. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters right now.” She stopped by the water’s edge and looked up, studying the shuttle as it stood, tipped to one side, in the water; it looked somehow slightly more tipped than it had been, but he couldn’t be sure . “Whips, I think we need to know what’s holding her up — and especially if there’s anything under her that might catch on her when we try to pull her off.”

That did make a lot of sense. He could see her looking at him uncertainly, and understood. “No problem, Dr. Kimei.”

“Oh, please, Whips, I know I’m your best friend’s mother, but please stop calling me ‘Doctor Kimei’. Call me Laura. We’re going to be stuck here for a long time no matter what, we don’t need that much formality.”

“Okay, Laura.” It sounded a little strange, but he could understand getting tired of formality. “It’s okay, Laura. None of you could do that a tenth as well as I can, and if there is anything dangerous down there, well, I’m still the one you want.” He flickered a smile. “Besides, I really want to go in and swim. I haven’t done that for like a year.”

“All right, then. Get in, do a quick check around the base of the shuttle, then come back and report.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

He slid easily into the water, retracting his arms for minimum friction. The exciting, tingling smell refreshed him and the cool water buoyed him up. All his senses were now on full alert, especially the skinsight that was by far the most powerful sense his people had in the water. Oh, you could get a lot from acoustics — soundsight — and from eyesight, from smell, and so on, but the electromagnetic skinsight — related to the lateral — line and ampullae of Lorenzini found on Earthly sea life — was the most useful of all underwater. In the air it was barely active, with a range usually of only a meter for minor things, but in water…

Now he could sense movement, living things moving throughout the lagoon. There seemed to be nothing very large, at least not moving, and no strong signals of something bigger than he was. But there was a dead zone — near the ship, not surprisingly.

Whips jetted slowly off the ridge and down to the deeper areas. As he got lower, he could see what appeared to be a very steep dropoff below the mangled jets; it seemed to be a trench, broadest just under the shuttle and narrowing to either side. He hesitated, eyeing the shuttle. There was the faintest grinding resonance, as though the shuttle were shifting against the rock, but it seemed stable enough.

In and out quick, then. If it started to fall, he was plenty fast enough to get out from under it as long as he paid attention. Just duck into that gap and get a look, then get out.

He pulled in plenty of water, then jetted forward and down, flipping his body so he streaked vertically into the crevice beneath the shuttle.

For a moment, he was simply too stunned, too disoriented, to make sense of everything. There were no returns from his quick soundpings, no safe aligning of walls and surface with depth once he passed a scant few meters, barely more than a few body lengths. Sounds and skinsense and sight scanned down and down and sideways and sideways and on and on and on, and found nothing except above…

And then there was something below, something rising, rising fast, and the soundpings returned slowly, yet faster, and he could not grasp, not even with all arms, what it was he was feeling because it made no sense…

Then it did make sense and horror struck him, overwhelmed him with utter, unreasoning panic. He spun about, jetting frantically, streaking upward, past the tail of LS-5, up, up, so fast that he flew across the dry sands, almost bowling over Laura and Sakura.

As he left the water, he shouted, trying to tell them, and scrambling with tail-anchors and arms to push himself farther up, farther. “No bottom, a void, so huge, nothing, something coming!

Sakura stared, confused, but Laura seemed to understand his panic, if nothing else, and snatched up her daughter, ran, up the slope, passing him even as he grasped in desperation and pulled himself another meter forward.

The ground quivered.

At the same time, three somethings erupted from the water, gray-blue-green, stretching up, pointing to the heavens like curved daggers as they rose, trailing foaming water into the air with them, towering up, far, far above LS-5. Even as they reached their apex, casting sharp-edged terrifying shadows across the three refugees, LS-5 tilted sideways, falling…

And the far side of the lagoon, too, slid sideways.

Whips froze alongside his friends, unable for a moment to grasp what he was seeing. The towering… claws? Tentacles? Fingers?… were subsiding into the water, but LS-5 was bobbing in the disturbed water, its airlock now flooding (but the inner door’s closed, that should be fine…), but what held their gaze in disbelief was the far side of the lagoon, the shore that had been just a hundred meters or so distant, rising now into the air, higher, revealing a craggy, dark, weed and growth-encrusted underside, rising higher as the farther end, the very tip of the land on which they stood sank, and as it dropped the portion near them continued to rise, fifty, sixty, a hundred, three hundred, almost five hundred meters towering into the sky, pouring a cascade of dirty water and squirming, chittering, shocked creatures down into the sea below. Then a part of it broke, and began to fall with exaggerated apparent slowness.

“RUN!” Laura screamed, and Whips was galvanized back into desperate motion, climbing up, up, have to get higher —

A two hundred meter mass of stone, shedding greenery as it plummeted, landed squarely on LS-5, piledriving it into the impossible depths below, sending a huge wave thundering outward and up, inundating the shore. Whips gripped a rock with his tail anchors and reached out, catching hold of Laura and Sakura with one arm even as the other two realized there was nowhere to run, then latched onto everything around him with the other two arms and held on.

The water rumbled up and over him, clawing at him madly, but somehow he kept his grip against that titanic force — barely — and then it began to recede, slowly running back. Blinking his eyes clear, he saw to his relief that the wave had not managed to reach the rest of the family, nearly a kilometer distant.

But the LS-5 was gone, gone as though she had never existed at all… and everything she had held was gone with her.