Castaway Planet – Chapter 16

Chapter 16

“Barkcloth,” Laura repeated wonderingly, looking at the green sheet which was slowly coming apart under repeated handling.

“A beginning to it, I think, yes,” Caroline said. “The Polynesians made something like this, called tapa. We’ll have to do some experiments, but… I think Hitomi might have found us something really important.”

Hitomi looked very proud.

Laura bent down. “But you also could have gotten yourself hurt.”

The youngest Kimei looked down. And she looks so tragic it makes me want to hug her and tell her it’s all right. But I can’t. Not here.

“Your sister told you to stay near her, she explained why, and you still didn’t listen.”

“I’m sorry!”

Sorry is good, honey, but it’s not good enough. We can’t trust you to listen yet, I guess. You’re still young. But that means you have to stay with someone all the time from now on. That could slow down everything we’re trying to do, because whoever that is won’t be able to concentrate on something else. They’ll have to be watching you.”

Hitomi looked up, tears running down her face. “I’m sorry, Mommy!”

“So are we, Hitomi. We’re very glad you’re safe, and this cloth-stuff you’ve accidentally invented might really be important, but you could have been killed. If you behave very well the next week or three, maybe we’ll change the rules.”

Hitomi sniffled, but nodded. “Okay.”

Now I can give her that hug. With Hitomi still clinging to her neck, she glanced at Sakura. “You aren’t –”

“– I know, Mom, don’t you think I know it was my fault? You left her with me and I lost her.”

The tears and shakiness in her second-oldest child’s voice told her the lesson had been taken to heart. “All right. Don’t forget this. You know what could have happened.”

“Yes.” The reply was almost a whisper. “I didn’t think of anything else all the time I was looking for her.”

“Then I’ll let it go.” She turned to Akira, putting down Hitomi. “Now what is that thing you’ve brought with you?”

“Not thing, things,” her husband corrected. “What we carried with us is a sort of crustacean — a general observation, not a biological classification, let me note — and two of those hole dwelling ambush predators. ‘Minimaws,’ Whips wants to call them.”

Now Laura could see that what she’d taken for a creature with two long tentacles around a huge blocky body was a blocky, cuboid creature bracketed by two things like the one Whips had killed. “Why minimaw?”

“They look and act something like miremaws,” Whips answered, “but they’re so much smaller.”

“Good enough. Minimaw it is, then.”

“I’m going to have to come up with proper Lincolnian taxonomy and nomenclature,” Akira said.

“I suppose we’re going to try that crustacean thing?”

“Tests show it should be edible — well, the main meat. I think the internal organs are questionable. Whips and I dragged it down to the water’s edge and gutted it first. I should note that was not easy; the shell is extremely tough.”

“Awfully large to drag. I’m surprised you got it all the way here, Whips.”

She could tell by the way the colors rippled and his arms curled that he was a bit embarrassed by the praise. “Well, we didn’t want to waste it, and it had sort of forced us to shoot it.”

“Came after Melody when she was between a couple of rocks and couldn’t get away easily,” explained Akira. “Took three or four shots — I’m not sure if it was dead when I fired the fourth time or not, but I wasn’t taking chances. That armor is tough.”

Laura looked at the shell; like many creatures, it shaded to light beneath, but the top of the shell, both on the body and on the legs, was a beautiful mottled green. “That could be useful. Plates, big bowls, and such. Did you test the shell itself?”

“You wouldn’t want to cook with it. It’s got enough metallic content that would probably leach out if you put the wrong kinds of things in it and applied heat. But we could use it for just putting things on, and certainly for wearing, carrying, making things out of, it should be fine.” Akira poked at two ridges on the upper portion of the shell; things that looked like jointed spines projected from the ridges. “I think this does share some lineage, somewhere, with the minimaws and other creatures. You’ll notice these spinelike things are actually degenerate legs — I think for defense, possibly venomous — which means that it had that effectively fourfold symmetry of the minimaw and those flying things we’ve seen.”

He looked up and grinned apologetically. “Sorry, getting into my professional habits. How were your days, barring the last-minute panic?”

“Tiring,” Caroline said honestly, “but we got the disposal pit dug. It goes down a couple of meters and about that long. Until we figure out a better method we can just dump stuff in, bury it, and extend the pit a little each week or so.”

Sakura held up a somewhat mangled piece of metal. “I thought I could make a spearhead at first…”

Whips gave a whooping snort accompanied by diamondlike color patterns they all recognized as laughter. “You thought you could just… what, pound it into being a blade?” He laughed again.

“Oh, shut up, Whips!” Sakura’s face went red with embarrassment. “Yes, I know, it was stupid. I guess we’ll have to figure out some way to make them, though.”

Whips settled down. “Grinding works on just about anything. With the right metal, forging can work well, but we’d need to be able to maintain high heat for quite a while.” The adolescent Bemmie’s engineering training was showing clearly. “Right now we’re able to keep the superconductor loop batteries charged with the sun, but if we try rigging up a forge I’ll bet we’ll be using it way faster than we can recharge.”

“Still might be worth a try if we can figure out how to make the furnace — a few hours forging, a couple days off, try again?”

“Mmmmph. Maybe. I’ll have to do some calculations. It’d be better if we could actually build a fire, but I’m not sure anything here is going to be burnable — or safe to burn, even if it will.”

Laura stood up. “Let’s start getting dinner together, everyone. There’s going to be plenty to talk about, but we can’t leave these things sitting here.”

Dressing the minimaws wasn’t terribly difficult. The way they were built it was something like gutting and cleaning a long, skinny fish, though you’d get narrower steaks or fillets out of it because of the four-sided design. The blockcrab — as Melody named the large, squarish creature — was more of a challenge. Laura eventually figured out a workable method to get the legs open and get at the meat: score it deeply along the sides with her Shapetool, then lay it across a rock and let Whips pound on it with another rock until it split along the carved seams.

“What do you mean about it being safe to burn, Whips?” asked Caroline.

“Well,” Melody answered almost instantly, making Whips twitch slightly, “We know that the plant-like things are –”

Melody,” Laura said sternly.

Melody blinked. “What… oh.”

“‘Oh’ indeed. The question was asked of Whips. I know you like to show off what you know, but let the people asked answer. Don’t be rude.”

Melody bit her lip. “Yes, Mom.”

“See that you remember it.”

Whips himself had an apologetic pattern rippling on his skin. “Dr. Kimei –”

“Whips — Harratrer — I know what you’re going to say, but it’s necessary. We may be the only people around for ten light years, but we still need to be reasonably polite to each other.”

“Sorry, Whips,” Melody said. There was in fact a note of genuine regret, even if part of her posture still said But I knew the answer!!

“It’s okay, Mel,” Whips said. “To answer the question, Caroline, it’s because we don’t know what this stuff is made of. In Europa, of course, we didn’t have fires — we used vents for cooking — but even there, some vents were safe to cook with, some weren’t. Here, well, we don’t know yet if there’s anything like wood. Wood’s just cellulose, mostly, and burns pretty well, but if I remember right there were still some plants you didn’t want to burn even on Earth.”

“Quite a few, actually,” Laura said. “I remember a neighbor of ours who got exposed to oleander smoke and got pretty sick. There’s quite a few others in different parts of the world.”

“So,” Whips went on,” we don’t even know if any of the stuff that looks like trees and plants will burn — well, I mean, will burn well enough to make fires with — and if it will, we haven’t got any idea if any of it will be safe.”

“We’d better see if we can find out,” Akira said slowly, even as he started up the stove. “If anything happens to our stove, we’ll need some way to cook our food — maybe even to heat wherever we end up living, if our continent drifts into a less comfortable region. And fire has, historically, been one of the best defenses against any dangerous animal.”

“Might be less effective on things which have never encountered fire — if things don’t naturally burn here,” Sakura pointed out.

“Ha! A definite point, Sakura. They’d have to learn what it feels like to get burned, rather than just avoid fire in general.”

“I was wondering about fire anyway,” Sakura said. “After my complete failure at making a spearhead, I thought we might be able to make a bow with that flexible support rod, but needing arrows with points put me back to the problem of spearheads, but then I remembered reading something about — ”

“– fire-hardened arrows!” Melody burst out, then immediately looked contrite.

“‘Sokay, Mel,” Sakura said with a grin. “I was going to say I don’t know much about it, so if you do…?”

“I was reading… well, some survival stories and things, so I looked up a lot of stuff on that,” Melody said, “and it’s still in my omni. Basically you put the tip into a bed of coals and rotate it, pull it out and rub it with a coarse stone to get char off, and repeat until you’ve got the point you want. According to my references doing the repeated rubbing with a good stone often helps by embedding bits of stone in the wood, but the real effect is caused by driving out the moisture in the wood and polymerizing other parts of the plant into a harder form.” She got a thoughtful expression. “But we don’t know if there’s real wood here so that technique might not work.”

“Couldn’t we cut out arrowheads from the block-crab’s shell?” Hitomi asked. Akira put some fried minimaw in front of her. “Yum!”

Conversation was temporarily interrupted as the food was served. Laura thought the block-crab meat was very tasty, though a bit chewy, but both Hitomi and Sakura spat it out. “Ugh!” Sakura said, with Hitomi concurring. “Bitter, nasty bitter.”

“That’s strange,” Caroline said. “I don’t taste hardly any bitterness. It tastes sort of … like lemony duck with a lobster texture.”

“Well, I taste bitter. It’s almost like wine — that alcohol taste.”

“Ah,” Akira said with a nod. “Specific sensitivities to tastes, like cilantro. Many people think cilantro tastes like soap, while most other people don’t taste a hint of that flavor. Well, then, everyone else can have some more block-crab, and I’ll serve you and Hitomi more minimaw. Hopefully we can find some vegetables or fruits that are edible, and perhaps there are ways of eliminating the taste you don’t like.” He continued, muttering about different ways of marinating or preparing meat.

Whips wasn’t saying anything; based on the way he was shoveling the block-crab into his mouth, Laura figured he liked it far too much to waste time talking.

After dinner, Hitomi wanted to go back up and look for more of the possible barkcloth plants with someone, but Laura shook her head. “Hitomi, it’s time for bed.”

“But Mommy, the sun is still up!”

“I know, honey, but that’s because the day’s much longer on this planet. Little girls still need their sleep on time.”

Hitomi kept protesting as she was dragged inside, but by the time Laura had made sure her littlest girl was all clean and given her bedtime story, Hitomi’s eyes were sagging shut all on her own, inside the cool dimness of the shelter. That wasn’t surprising, Laura thought. By her omni, it was actually the equivalent of nine in the evening — well past Hitomi’s usual bedtime. Sakura was already getting herself ready for bed, with Melody having just got out of the minimum-water bath.

They’d have to find more water soon. Put the main shell of the block-crab out to catch water in case it rains? That might work.

She went out to join Akira; he gave a gesture, closing a file he must be viewing in his omni, as she approached. “Sun’s finally starting to go down.”

“Yes; I’m afraid it’ll be full nighttime by the time we hit our next day cycle.”

She shook her head and smiled. “It’ll take some getting used to.” Laura looked back at the shelter, and then over to Whips digging in for his vigil and torpor. “Whips can extract water from the ocean, right?”

“Yes, he’s not in any danger of dehydration now.” He slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “You’re worried about our supply.”

“Well, of course.”

“I think we’ll be all right. It looked to me like there might be a stream a couple of kilometers up from where we stopped our exploration. We’ll check that out soon enough.”

“And if there isn’t?”

Caroline answered from behind them. “Then we can probably dig a well.”

“A well?” Laura was puzzled. “Caroline, we’re surrounded by the sea here, and most of the rock looks … awfully porous. Won’t we just end up with salt water?”

Caroline looked up — at only 165 centimeters she hadn’t much choice when talking to her mother who topped her by nearly twenty centimeters — and shook her head. “I don’t think so. You see, salt water is denser than fresh, and in many island settings that means that if you get a reasonable frequency of rainfall, a ‘lens’ of freshwater forms on top of the saltwater trapped underground. Since the pores in the ground don’t let the water move fast, waves and such aren’t going to mix it up. So you get a pretty thick layer of fresh water if you’re fairly far inland.”

“Planetography studies are coming in handy,” Akira said.

“Well, the geology parts,” Caroline said modestly.

“And your knowledge of suns and planets,” he reminded her.

“We are very lucky,” Laura said bluntly. “Just seven of us and we have an expert biologist, a doctor, someone who’s almost a planetographer, and people who know something about other fields.” She looked across the water. “Imagine getting wrecked here without any of that.”

The three were silent for a few moments. “Well, we aren’t without that,” Caroline finally said, “and we’ll be all right, I hope.” She glanced back at the shelter and up at her omni, perched above as high as Akira had been able to mount it. “I’m exhausted, Mom. I’m going to bed now.”

“Go ahead, hon. We’ll go to bed after you,” Laura said. Honestly, she was tired — and she could see Akira was, too — and it was just about time to turn in, no matter what the confusing sun said. But while waiting, she could just lean against her husband, and he against her, and relax, looking at their new home, which — just maybe — wasn’t going to succeed in killing them.