SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 58:
The problem was that they just couldn't keep going in the same direction. There was water everywhere. A few hundred yards on from where Howard had proved that, if this was Eden, it still had its serpent, they came to a lake—again. This was quite a narrow one, barely thirty yards wide. "We can't just keep going back. We've got to cross it," said Howard. "I'll go first. I can swim."
He stepped into the water. A black drifting log in the middle… submerged suddenly. Amber grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back. "Don't." She said. "I looked up dangerous South American animals…" Part of the black log came up, much closer to them. It had eyes. Curiously flecked eyes—about six inches apart. Evil eyes. Hungry.
"I think we need to back away from the water," Howard said in a steady voice. "Don't run." Running was the worst thing you could do with Jersey bulls… and this creature looked even nastier.
They retreated. Gradually the whole “log” surfaced too. It must have been four or more yards long, ridged and spiked. Amber pointed to her portable. "I think it is a black cayman. See."
The onscreen picture included teeth.
"I think we have to avoid the water," said Kretz, thoughtfully.
"That's not all." She flicked to a picture of a fish. A fish? It looked like a fish…
"Those are its teeth below," she said, pointing. They were triangular, interlocking. "They're not very big fish, but they move in large schools. It says here they can skeletonize large mammals very quickly, although they do not often attack man."
"Do they have those here too?" asked John fearfully, dancing his feet out of the water.
"Who knows, perp?" said Lani. "Shall we send you ahead to find out?"
"What other animals are listed as dangerous?" asked Howard, to keep the peace.
So Amber showed them. They made mere Jersey bulls seem attractive, good tempered and friendly. "Of course they won't all be here," she said.
Lani put an arm around Howard. "We've already met two of them. I don't think we need to take any chances."
That seemed like common sense… The only trouble was that they were thoroughly lost as a result. Howard was still sure of up and down—but which direction to go on, though, was another matter. And they seemed hemmed in by interconnected waterways. There was no help for it but to wade in the very shallow ones.
The Diana people were finding it very hard going. Walking was an unfamiliar exercise, the creatures they encountered in the water and the vegetation were quite terrifying to people who had never seen any animal except a live human before. Not only did the color of their clothing make them very visible but the progression of screams and shrieks made it seem certain that the entire habitat must know of their passing. Yet they had seen no signs of people, and no certain signs that humans had ever lived here at all. The cuts on the trees could be the teeth of some big animal. They were rather straight for tooth marks, but until today Howard hadn't known half these things existed.
"Whaa whhaa whaa woooo-huh."
"What's that noise?" asked Howard.
It came again. "Whaa whhaa whaa woooo-huh."
"Fortunately, it sounds far off." Amber was too tired to be frightened by anything that wasn't within biting range.
"Good. I don't think I can run," said the younger policewoman, sitting down on a low bank and rubbing her feet.
Amber sat down too. "I'm glad I'm not the only one. I don't know how much further I can walk, to be honest." She sighed. "You know, I calculated the distance to your life-craft, Kretz. At top speed I could have driven there in two hours. I thought of walking. I thought I was so good with my calculations. I worked on the speed one can walk in Diana. On the flat, on a nice open walkway. I'm beginning to realize that the only sure way past the water is to head for the core. That's uphill. About a mile straight up."
"And it's not straight or flat underfoot either. Our sandals are not really made for this sort of thing," said Lani, looking at hers.
"Not to mention all of these dangerous creatures," said little John. He was staying right in the middle of the group, now.
"I’m tired, I'm hungry and I'm thirsty. And I can't believe there are no bathrooms," said Lani. "If this is paradise, there ought to be bathrooms."
"Well, we're not in jail," said Howard, trying to look on the bright side. "And we are closer to Brother Kretz's lifecraft. There is plenty of clean water in the streams…"
"Please!" Lani cocked her nose up. "We've been walking in that. Not to mention those goat-drippings that have probably ended up in the water too."
"Droppings, not drippings," corrected Howard.
"Droppings and drippings, probably," said Lani, looking at the water in distaste. "It's bad enough that we have to walk in it. And it's full of slimy swimming things."
The more everyone talked about it, the more Amber wished that she was home. It was one thing to dream of the wonders of space-travel. Another entirely to find that space was big and empty and that your decision had brought you to sore legs and feet and a shortage of water and food. She'd brought plenty of food. For Kretz. The idea of needing water hadn't crossed her mind. Like it or not, goat drippings and feet, and slimy things too, she was going to have to drink some, soon.
Then Kretz pointed out something even more unwelcome. "Is it just me, or does the light intensity seem to be dimming?"
It wasn't just him, and the idea was terrifying. "We can't be out here in the dark," said Amber, hastily. "Let's get back to the airlock! At least it is clean and dry."
Howard shook his head. "To be honest I don't know if I could find my way there. At least, not in a hurry. I'm sorry. I think it is back that way, but we have changed direction so often…"
That was accurate enough, thought Amber, and not based on imagined problems—unlike Lani's attempt to always put herself between Amber and Howard. That came from living in a society where wealth and position had major pulling power, Amber supposed. She must find a way to reassure her soon, although Howard seemed oblivious to the matter.
"We'd better find a place we can wait out the darkness then," said Kretz. "Or do you think we should travel on in the dark? Perhaps these creatures sleep then."
Amber shrugged tiredly. "Not according to the encyclopedia," she said. "We need to beware of vampire bats and jaguars and…"
"And find a spot, soon, where we can fort up for the night," interrupted Howard. "I do not wish to have one of those drop on me during the night. Nor do I think that a black cayman is a pleasant thing to meet in the dark, let alone all these other horrors. We need a place that is high enough for us to fend them off and which has no trees overhead. We need to find it before the lights go off."