Castaway Resolution – Chapter 16
“I don’t see anything,” Xander whispered.
“To the right of that big white rock,” Caroline said quietly.
Xander concentrated on the indicated area and his omni activated his retinal displays, causing the metamaterial lenses to realign and provide an effective ten times zoom. At the same time, it shifted the viewing spectrum slightly to take advantage of the dim light of Lincoln’s night — mostly provided by one of the huge comets that currently stretched across a quarter of the sky.
Shadows lightened and Xander suddenly saw motion. “I think I see! One. . . two. . . um, about five?”
“I see six,” Caroline said. “But the sixth is off to the side.”
“Got him.” The lone capy, a bit larger than the others, stood on a small rock, his forequarters raised up rather like those of a rat, sniffing the air. “Sentry, I bet.”
Caroline nodded, then looked at him expectantly.
Xander called up the map overlay. “Yeah. . . they’re almost to the edge of that rocky area that borders the swamp. If they keep going they’ll have to trek right through the bogs, and from what you told me that’s not safe.”
“Not if the hillmouths are still there. And I think they are.”
Xander remembered the briefing on the various dangers of the Kimei’s continent; the hillmouths were semi-crocodilian ambush predators, massive things that could disguise themselves as small hillocks of marsh vegetation. A capy would barely make a decent meal for a small one.
On the other hand, the tree krakens apparently stayed in forested areas when they could, so it might be a case of trading one predatory threat for another. “But this is part of the same group?”
“Sure. Here, call up the reference patterns. See?”
“Hard to make out in this light. Um. . . oh, okay, yeah. Pattern matches on these three, that’s for sure. So they’re part of the herd you usually saw near your column area?”
“Yes. And now they’re almost out of our walking range, and moving at night as well as day.”
Xander grimaced. “Slow, but even if they only do a short distance every day they’ll still be moving a long way in a few months. Guess your dad was right, they’re migrating.”
“Looks like it.”
“Are we taking any more of them before they leave?”
Caroline pursed her lips and pushed her brown hair back as she studied the group. “We could use more supplies, but it’s a long way back home from here. We’d have to clean the carcass quick then make the hike back, and there’s nocturnal predators around we don’t want to meet up with if we can avoid it.”
And if we’re carrying a lot of meat, a predator’s going to smell it. “So no?”
“So I think we need to think hard about it. Dad hasn’t seen any replacement species show up yet, but that’s probably more a matter of months. There’s still plenty of fish and other sea creatures around, but capy meat’s one of the most nutritious things we’ve found on Lincoln, and it’s pretty tasty too.”
“No argument there!” Xander actually thought capy steak might be one of his favorite foods.
But his stomach wasn’t the most rational decision maker; the real question was whether it made more sense to kill one and take the time and effort to dress the carcass and haul it home than to forego the opportunity but be able to return more quickly and safely.
“I’ll leave it to you,” Xander said finally. “You guys have lived here the longest.”
“Thanks, drop it all on me,” Caroline said, but the visible flash of white teeth showed she was smiling as she did so. After a few moments of silence, she sighed. “There’s only six of them in that group, and I have no way of knowing how many of their herd’s around. I think we’ll have to let these guys go.”
“Okay.” He stared after the little herd, which was moving off into the shadows. “Just as well. I dunno about you, but I’m not sure I’d be able to make the shot from here, at night, even with my omni helping.”
“Oh, I’m sure we could. I could do it with a bow if I had to.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. They must be close to sixty, seventy meters off.”
“I didn’t say I’d want to do it,” Caroline admitted, “but with a good bow like we have now, I’d try anything up to a hundred meters if I had to. Rather be a lot closer, though. If we were going to do it, we’d stalk the herd until we got closer — ideally about thirty meters or less.”
“You think we could do that?”
She scanned the terrain and seemed to sniff the air. “Probably. I’d head down the hill, that way,” she indicated where the ridge they were on curled slightly south-east, “which would keep us out of sight, and once we were at the bottom we’d be downwind, so we could work our way up to the next ridge and a better vantage. Maybe get into one of the trees.”
She definitely knew what she was doing. No surprise — they’d told him that Caroline was one of their best hunters. Xander could tell he had a lot to learn. “You’ll have to show me someday. But since we’re not doing it tonight, maybe we should head back?”
A few quick flashes of light — meteors — illuminated her as she nodded. “Sure. We’ve found out what we wanted to know.”
They made their way back through the darkened jungle carefully; Xander remembered Sakura recounting her terrifying run through this forest after her mother was hurt, and her heart-stopping encounter with a creature like a cross between a hunting cat and some kind of predatory beetle. It wasn’t likely such a thing would come after them, though; there were two of them, adults, and armed.
That did trigger a thought. “Caroline, there’s something that’s been bothering me about this island.”
“Well. . . it definitely has a lot of life on it, of all different types, but somehow it seems to me — especially after all the scary stories you guys have told us — that there’s, well, too many predators around. Are there really enough prey animals around to sustain all the things you’ve talked about — these tree krakens, hillmouths, that panther-insect thing that Sakura ran into, the,” he gave a shudder, “raylamps?”
Caroline laughed softly. “You’d think not, wouldn’t you?” she said. “Dad thought the same way, but it’s not that simple, it turns out. The raylamps were actually the clue. There weren’t that many of them, and then they just kept coming. They’re opportunistic predators, but they’re also scavengers, something like pretty dumb sharks. They were coming in to attack us from a long way around, probably out into the ocean nearby. We started keeping track of individual predators when we could, and you’d see a pattern of them coming in, and then leaving.”
Light dawned. “Oh. You mean, their hunting grounds aren’t all that limited. Because they’re aquatic — well, amphibious.”
“Right. They get to use the ocean to move around the continent better than they could on land, they can hunt (at least some of them can) in the water as well as on land, and they can even go to other nearby islands or other faraway parts of this floating continent, way far away from us.”
“So you’re saying that some weeks or months there’s probably hardly any big predators around, and others there are way too many.”
“Something like that. At least, it makes sense of what is, as you say, hard to explain.”
They walked a bit farther in silence. “So. . .” he finally said, “how do you feel about staying here? I mean, if we’re really marooned here for good?”
An indrawn breath and a pause answered him. He could see her profile, silvered by comet-light in the night, turn to him and then away. “Well, if we’re really marooned for good, what does it matter what I feel about it?”
He grinned. “I suppose it doesn’t make a difference to the world, but it still matters to how we think about it. Right?”
“Hmm. Yes.” She was quiet a few moments. “I don’t think I’d mind it too much, as long as things keep going pretty much as they are.”
“How do you mean that?”
“I mean. . . well, recovering as much civilization as we can, building more of a sort of community than just surviving.” Another flash of her smile in the dark. “I mean, we were proud as hell of discovering iron ore and making our own metal on this floating coral-continent, but having you guys come in with all your equipment and extra know-how? Boy, does that make a difference.”
Xander hadn’t gone through all that with them, but he could remember everyone’s relief at knowing there was a real doctor available. “Yeah. Like. . . your family proved you could survive without anyone’s help, if you had to. But you don’t want to go back to having to.”
“Right! That wouldn’t be fun.” Her voice was serious now. “It. . . almost broke us, once. I remember that. We hit a low point that really did feel like we were shattering into pieces. As Sakura said to me later, from outside it might have been almost silly; after all, human beings on Earth lived for generations without even as much as we were shipwrecked with.”
Xander nodded. “But they hadn’t lived their lives the way we do, so it’s a lot harder on us to go back; we expect so much more as, um, just normal life.”
“Something like that.” She paused, glancing around.
“What is it?”
“Something was following us. But when I stopped and looked at it, it gave ground.”
“Should we run it off, or what?” Xander squinted in the indicated direction; the omni’s enhanced vision showed a faint infrared glow, but he couldn’t really tell much about how big or what shape the creature was.
“Let’s see if it follows us any farther,” Caroline said. “It did back off when I looked at it; maybe letting it know we’re aware will be enough to make it go elsewhere.”
Continuing to walk with the knowledge that something might be following them gave Xander an itchy creepy feeling between his shoulder blades, but if Caroline could walk on as though nothing bothered her, so could he. “Is it still following?”
“A little longer.” They went on for a few more seconds, then she nodded. “It’s gone.”
“You’ve got really good ears or something. My omni wasn’t showing me much of anything.”
“Good hearing and more practice. I’m still the best hunter here, and if you don’t get good at listening and hearing in this jungle you’ll end up dead.”
“I’ll have to practice more, then. We can’t afford to lose any of us, that’s for sure.”
She was quiet for a while. He noticed her looking up often.
“What are you looking at?”
“The place where the Sun should be,” she said.
For an instant he wondered what she was talking about — it was the beginning of Lincoln’s extra-long night, so the sun wouldn’t be up for a long time. “Oh. That’s right, Sergeant Campbell said that Lincoln’s star wasn’t visible from Earth.”
“Which seems really odd to me. Maybe a small nebula, at just the right distance, could be blocking the light without heating up and giving away the fact that there was a star behind it. . . but that seems really unlikely to me.”
Xander thought about that. “Maybe unlikely, but what other explanation is there? Aliens like the Bemmies hid it somehow? Why? And if you were going to do that, wouldn’t you try to hide it from all directions?”
“I . . . don’t know. It just seems awfully unlikely to have happened by accident.”
“True,” Xander conceded, “and we do have proof there were ancient alien civilizations, but even so. . . everything in life’s pretty unlikely, right? You and me having this conversation, for instance; means that all the factors in the universe came together to have me — and not all my parents’ other possible kids — be born, the same thing happen for you, both of us to end up on the same colony ship on the same trip, both of us to be on separate shuttles that somehow survived and made it here. . . right?”
Her laugh had a faint embarrassed air to it. “Yes. And the fact that our Earth has a moon that’s just the right size and distance from it to provide a perfect eclipse is pretty unlikely too. Your point; the fact that something’s unlikely isn’t a great argument. But I would like to know what it is that’s blocking that light. I’d really like to know.”
“If we’re ever rescued, I’ll bet we’ll have a chance to find out,” he said. “But we didn’t bring any astronomy gear with us, so I guess we’re stuck not knowing as long as we’re here.”
“Unless,” she said slowly, “it does have something to do with Lincoln itself.”
He looked at her; in the dimness he almost missed the slight turning-up of her lips. “Stop that! You’re trying to creep me out.”
“Maybe just a little,” she said, and laughed.
A distant spark of light caught his eye, a momentary flicker as it became visible then hidden behind the trees. “There’s Sherwood Column,” he said.
“Oh, good, we’re almost home!” He saw her touch her omni. “Hi, Mom? Yes, we’re not too far out now. What? Oh, goody. See you!”
He found himself walking faster, trying to keep up with her. “Hey, what’s the rush?”
“Mom says there’s dinner waiting for us — plus some hedral-and-vineberry pie!”
That sounded delicious. He started jogging. “First one there gets the bigger slice!”
“What are you, six?” she demanded, but she was laughing. And then she was sprinting ahead of him, her omni’s vision letting her avoid obstacles as though it were daylight.
“Hey!” Xander took off after her, laughing himself.