Castaway Planet – Chapter 12

Chapter 12.

“No, Akira, you keep it,” Laura said, pressing the pistol into her husband’s hand.

Whips could see he was still reluctant. “But you’re the one going –”

“I’m the only one here who actually knows how to fight. Police background, remember? And Whips is coming with me and Sakura on the scouting expedition, so that means that you’ll need something to protect yourselves with while you get things set up here and start scavenging the crash scar nearby. Tomorrow you and Whips will do your fishing expedition, and then I’ll take the gun.”

Akira nodded, and looked over to Whips. “Keep an eye on them for me, all right?”

“Of course, Mr.… Akira.”

“Come on, Mom!” Sakura was already at the top of the ridge of earth carved out by LS-5.

“If you keep trying to get ahead of us, Sakura, you will stay behind with your father,” Laura said bluntly. Sakura immediately froze. “Honey, I’m glad you’re enthusiastic — God knows we need all the positive attitude we can get — but you can’t go running ahead much. We have no idea what we’re getting into out there, and staying together is vital. You understand?”

Sakura nodded — but with a bit of a stubborn tension, Whips thought. We are a lone pod now, Sakura, he said over their private link. Don’t be angry that your mother wants us all safe.

The young girl’s shoulders relaxed slightly, as both Whips and Laura came up next to her. She turned to her mother. “Sorry, Mom.”

“It’s all right.” She lifted her head and looked up and out. “Now that’s quite a view.”

For the first time, the three beheld the floating continent they stood on clearly. Sparse shrubs or something like it were scattered here and there nearby, with serrated, split leaves of the same brilliant Lincoln green that Hitomi had noticed and named the world after. There was also short-cropped ground cover of multiple sorts, most of it the same shade of green but occasional spots of blue, red, and purple. Shimmering and brightly colored somethings moved through the air, glittering with the iridescence of dragonfly wings. None of these things came near them yet.

Perhaps half a kilometer off, larger, treelike growths began, drooping what seemed spiral leaves nearly to the ground and standing closer together in what swiftly became a forest of deep emerald and aqua, with splotches of brighter color. Something much larger than the little things near them darted up and in and out from the trees, soaring and diving like ventsprites on Europa.

Farther out the terrain spread out and rose higher, stretching towards the sky. Now that he realized that the entire thing was a floating mass and not a continent, he was astounded by the size. Hundreds of meters above meant at least that much below. “These things are bigger than anything like them on Earth, aren’t they?”

Caroline answered over the omni’s link. “Masswise? This one probably outmasses every coral reef on Earth put together. I’m betting that when I go through the actual structure it’ll turn out to have a lot of carbon in it, used as natural reinforcement fibers or something.”

“All right, we’re off,” Laura said briskly. A brief wave of static drowned out her next words, so she paused and then repeated, “As I said, we’re off. Akira, I don’t intend to go very far outside of that two-kilometer maximum range, but with interference we might well be out of communication for a while.”

“I promise not to panic,” Akira said. “Just be careful, all of you.”

“We will.”

The three began walking — well, in his case sort of dragginginland, keeping along the edge of the scar left by LS-5.

At first, Whips tried to keep as much of himself off the ground as he could, and he noticed that the others were stepping as carefully and gingerly as they could. Finally, though, he sighed. “I can’t keep this up all the way while we’re exploring. I guess I have to assume that the ground’s not much more dangerous than it is on Earth or our planned colony, right?”

Laura laughed, as did Sakura. “You’re right. If it’s really that much worse, we’re in real trouble. Just keep an eye out for, oh, the equivalent of snakes or something.”

He rippled assent, and focused his two lower eyes on the ground. The upper eye, though, could keep watch ahead, and he noticed something that seemed to stick out. He stretched out his topside arm and pointed ahead of them and slightly to the side. “What’s that, do you think?”

Lying on the ground a hundred meters or so away was what appeared to be a very large broken column, slightly tapered, wound about with vines.

“What is that?” murmured Sakura. “A building?”

“What?” Akira’s voice and the others echoed the startlement.

“Calm down, everyone,” Laura said, not without a smile. “Sakura, it does look interesting, but I would bet that it’s natural.”

It took a little longer to reach it than Whips had expected, because it was much bigger than he’d thought. The wider portions were over four and a half meters across, and the whole thing was well over thirty meters long. It was clearly recently broken, with sharp edges around the visible white-pink exterior. The twining vinelike stuff seemed oddly… plated, Whips thought, but it didn’t react to prodding or, after a moment’s hesitation, cutting, when Sakura tried a Shapetool blade on it. “It’s broken off here at the base,” Laura said musingly. “Except I don’t see the actual base it broke off from.”

Sakura pointed off to their right. “In the trench, Mom!”

Sure enough, there was a squat circular something in the trench which seemed the right size and showed the same bright white-pink material. “Oh,” said Whips, understanding, “we must have hit it during landing and made it fall.” From this angle he could look back and see down the center of some of the pieces; the column was hollow. “It seems to be a floatcoral structure of some sort, not engineered. Sorry, Sakura.”

“Darn. Still, it is pretty impressive.” From her greater height the young Kimei squinted ahead. “You know, Mom, I think that some of those trees in the forest are actually some of these columns.”

Whips raised himself on his two lower arms and focused all three eyes in that direction. “I think you’re right. There seem to be some scattered trees that actually don’t have those top fronds.”

“Well, let’s go take a look at the forest. We haven’t seen anything that I’d want to test as edible yet — experience shows that it’s the plants that tend to be more toxic, and I’m not quite ready to try catching the equivalent of ants for dinner,” Laura said. “How’re you doing, Whips?”

“Not bad, Laura,” he answered. He realized he meant it. Despite the panic and confusion earlier today, he felt better now than he had in a couple of weeks. It was amazing what a couple dips in a real ocean had done for him. “Really. I know I look clumsy on land, but I can keep up with you guys for quite a while. Don’t worry about that.”

“It does look harder than walking, but I guess you should know. Just make sure you tell us if you’re getting tired enough to turn back; remember that we’ll have to walk all the way back, too.”

“I know. I will.”

As they approached the forest, the undergrowth became higher; Whips found himself plowing through it, and then paused in startlement. What was that?

“What is it, Whips?” Attuned to his movements and moods, Sakura had noticed his reaction first.

“Wait.” He concentrated and relaxed, reaching out with that sense which was usually so useless above water…

And there it was. A faint chime, a tiny vibration in the world. He pushed experimentally at one of the thicker “plants” he’d been shoving through, and the chiming increased slightly, shifted in tone. “Wow. Sakura, Laura, some of these probably are plants, but some aren’t. These things,” he nudged the shiny-stemmed, multi-branched object with what seemed greenish threads trailing along the branches, “they’re alive more like we are. They react fast, they’re like some of the animals in the ocean. They look like plants, but they’re not.”

“You mean like hydroids or barnacles or something of that nature?” came Akira’s voice faintly over the comm. “That’s a surprise. There are definite limitations to such creatures out of water, and I would think that would prevent colonization. Or at least that the land-dwelling forms would lose the harder shells which must be very energy-intensive to form.”

“I don’t know, sir, but I know what I sense. Skinsense is pretty good about that, and if I can feel it at all here out of water, it’s actually an active sender, not just passive.”

Laura bent over, studying it. “Here’s some images, hon. You can look them over while we keep going.”

“Thanks so much, Laura. Oh, my, this is fascinating. Melody, take a look at this…”

The three explorers moved on; Whips felt a little sorry about mashing things under his admittedly broad belly pad, but there weren’t any paths. None of the squashing seemed, so far, to be dumping anything irritating onto him, but he still was nervous about running over unknown creatures.

A tap… taptaptap… sound ahead under the trees caused all three of them to halt. “Sounded like something walking,” Laura whispered. Whips bobbed his agreement as Sakura nodded. The three of them waited to see if the unknown creature would approach or flee. After a moment, Whips made a single heaving step forward; there was an explosion of tapping steps that dwindled into the distance, and Whips relaxed slightly.

“If it runs,” he said, “it’s less likely to try to attack us.”

“On the downside,” Sakura pointed out, “if it knows enough to run, it means there’s things it expect to run from. Wow!

He turned his gaze up just in time to see something disappear into the foliage far above, the spiraling leaves rippling for a moment. “What was it?”

“I… don’t know.” She played her omni’s recording back, showing them something zipping from one tree to another. It seemed to have a long, pointed head, two pairs of wings or something like them, and two or maybe even four tails. Unfortunately, the images were blurred. The omnis were in lower-power mode and so high-speed image capture was disabled by default. Even with high-efficiency solar cells the omnis would take a bit to charge and no one wanted them to run out while they were separated. “Looks like it was about a meter long. Probably won’t bother anything as big as us, but we’d better keep an eye on the trees, too.”

It was really becoming clear to Whips that he had to treat this like an expedition into an unknown vent region on Europa. Even now, a hundred years after contact, most Bemmies still explored their world with spears and courage and not much else, and you never knew what was hiding in the next crevice. And up here, he had no skinsense, and the soundsense was pretty limited too. He could do a sort of acoustic ranging at ten meters or so, but nothing like the sonar his people were accustomed to. On the other hand, he could still use a loud enough soundpulse that it could hurt at close range, and he was much better at tracking sounds and getting direction out of them than his human friends.

“Well, now, this looks more promising.” On a tall bush, or low tree, were growing several teardrop-shaped blue-purple things. “Whips, is this a plant or an animal?”

He reached out and touched it gingerly. Nothing. “I’m pretty sure that’s a plant. Do you think those are berries?”

“They might be. Worth a sample, anyway.” Laura reached out with gloved hands (her medikit had several reusable pairs, Whips knew) and plucked one cautiously. There was no reaction, so she dropped it into a sample bag which had been one of the ration packages.

As they turned to move on, something lunged partway from a hole in front of them and hissed.

Whips didn’t think about it. He just saw jaws with black-blue teeth extending towards Laura and reacted. One arm shoved both Laura and Sakura back, and the other two lashed out, griptalons extending, whipping around and pulling.

The thing was braced in its burrow, but Whips’ talons struck deep. His over two hundred twenty kilograms of mass far outweighed the target. It flew from its hole, trailing soil, and Whips spun, smashing it into the scale-shining bole of a nearby tree. It shrieked and fell limp, twitching slightly. Above, the foliage rustled as other creatures fled in startlement.

Laura was just recovering, eyes wide; Sakura was helping her to her feet. “Are you all right?” Whips asked.

“Fine,” she answered, a bit shakily. “I… you know, I don’t think it was actually attacking.”

“Probably not,” Whips admitted, feeling a little embarrassed now. “It was a threat display, as Akira would say. I just…”

“… reacted to protect us. Thank you, Whips.” Laura looked down at the creature he’d just killed. “And honestly, I don’t think I would have wanted you to wait.”

The thing was over two meters long and thicker around than Laura’s thigh, with multiple legs spaced in four rows down its sides. It had four eyes, one pair top and bottom, and a mouth like a spiky four-section door. In general nastiness it reminded Whips of a smaller version of the huge miremaws, ambush predators native to Europa.

But the thought of miremaws, which were as delicious as they were savage, did bring to mind the other question. “I wonder if it’s edible?”

Laura smiled. “Worth a sample or three.” With the Shapetools providing maximal blades, it didn’t take very long to cut sections from the creature in several locations. The blood, Whips noted, was red-purple in color. As they cut it apart, Laura reached out and carefully pulled out one of the dark fangs. “Hmm… yes, Whips, take a look at that.”

The very tip of the fang had a small hole in it. “Venomous.”

“Yes. And a quick analysis indicates a nasty neurotoxin. A good thing you killed it before it could fight back. That means we need to be very careful. These creatures could easily kill any of us — including you.”

“Can’t you make an antivenom?” Sakura asked.

“I might, and certainly our medical nanos will do their best to prevent untoward effects, but everything has its limits.” He could read the concern on Laura’s face. “Remember, honey, all I’ve got is my kit. I did — at your father’s advice — have a lot of extra nanodust made up, and I have some of it here, but we have to remember there aren’t any hospitals, no medbays, nothing but what I carry with me.”

Sakura looked more sober as they moved on, and Whips felt a quivery tension in his guts. It’s funny, a century or two ago I wouldn’t have even known what a ‘nano’ was, now I’m afraid of not being able to rely on them.

“Here it is!” Sakura sang out suddenly. “Wow, it’s big.”

In front of them, looming over everything else in sight, was the undamaged twin of the column they’d seen. Whips was impressed. Standing, the thing was huge, farther across than Whips could stretch his bottom arms and extending beyond sight through the canopy above. Scaly vinelike things twined around it and other plants, or plantlike things, grew on its sides, mostly the same shades of green but with occasional splashes of color; most evident were round green cylindrical bulges about the size of Laura’s fist with a puff of brilliant scarlet feathery fronds extending something like fifteen centimeters out in all directions. There were other objects affixed to the trunk that were less spectacular; ovoid, dark-colored, ranging in size from smaller than his last finger’s claw to as big as Laura’s head.

“Mom? I’m going to go up, see what I can see from a higher vantage point.”

Laura hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. “I know how good you are at climbing. Just be careful; if you don’t see a good handhold, you stop right away. And try not to touch anything other than these vines, which we’ve already looked over, okay?”

“Okay. Well, there’s those leaves up there, but I’ll check them before I try going through.” She tested the stability of the vine, seemed satisfied, and began climbing.

Whips admitted he envied Sakura her climbing skill. He was very strong for his size and he could, in fact, climb using his three arms to get him up into things that even human climbers had a hard time with, but he was generally pretty slow. Sakura was like a monkey, making her way up now with an assured speed that ignored the possibility that she even could fall, let alone ever actually would.

Sakura reached the point at which the column penetrated the canopy, then took out her Shapetool and turned it into a long, slender rod. She smacked all the leaves nearby and poked through the area she intended to climb. Small creatures fled at her actions. A few moments later she disappeared from sight through the foliage.

“Wow. Mom, I can see a long way now,” came Sakura’s voice from above. “Those hills keep going quite a distance — I can’t see the end. We’ve got a couple more lagoons off to, um, I guess it’s south? They’ve got lighter water color, too, so I think they’re shallow water we might be able to fish in or something.” A pause. “Holy wow, you should see the scar LS-5 left. It goes on and on, even farther than I thought. I can’t believe we survived that! It’s totally awesome, though.”

“Anything else?”

“There’s… like paths or something through the trees — I can see places where they’re not as tall or they’re separated by a little bit. And there’s some kind of big clearing off to the west, almost straight west from where we are, before the hills. Might be the edge of the forest, actually. Maybe if I got a little higher, but I’m almost out of handholds I trust. Oh, neat.

“What?” Whips demanded. It was really quite annoying to hear someone else talking about things you couldn’t see.

“There’s a hole in the side of this thing, and it’s hollow, just like the fallen one. I can feel a cool breeze coming out of it, too.”

“Don’t go in!”

Mom, I’m not stupid, that other one was hollow, it’d be like a what, twenty meter fall?” A pause. “Okay, I got the best imagery my omni could get, I’m coming down.”

Sakura descended almost as quickly as she had gone up. The path was slightly different as handholds that were easy to reach from below might be harder than other hand and foot-holds for the way down. As she passed close to one of the scarlet puffs, the fronds suddenly flicked out and Sakura gave a combined scream and curse, nearly falling, catching herself. “OW! Ow ow OW!

“Hold on, honey! Just keep coming down as fast as you can!” The worry in Laura’s voice was the same as in Whips’ heart; if one of the native creatures was dangerous, what about these?

“Coming, Mom… oh, that hurts…” Sakura nearly missed a grab. “Oh, crap. Mom, I feel… funny. Shaky. And things look a little blurry.”

Whips slid up to the base of the column, then opened his arms high and wide, keeping the griptalons sheathed — except for a few on his lowest arm-branches, which were gripping the base of the column. “Drop down.”

She gave a quick glance down and, blurry vision or not, understood what he was doing, and let go.

Sakura plummeted the final eight meters like a dead weight.