Life has once more been throwing monkey-wrenches into my best-laid plans– in the last two days I have had to work an accumulated total of about 24 hours at my job. While training my replacement. Yes, my replacement– the IT project I have been on for ten years is ending in thirty days. It wasn’t really a project, but an ongoing requirement for certain support services that never went away. Thus, the unusually long duration of the gig– but decisions made several layers above me in the food-chain have changed the conditions of the support operation, so with us vendors it’s adios, and don’t let the door hit you in the fanny.
So I am exhausted, and not in a good frame of mind to edit Princess of Shadows. Instead tonight I played a little Halo and decided to just finish this episode of Dinosaur Planet, since it was mostly in the can already.
The management is not responsible for any negative outcomes that may result from reading the following episode, including bad breath, nearsightedness and sleep apnea, but, nevertheless, the following is copyrighted by me, 2013.
A Whole New World
For the first few minutes, Paul ran blindly. He ran between the trees, vaulted over fallen logs, crashed through brush. Some yards further on the riverbank curved across his path; he splashed through shallows and scrambled up the other side, unwilling to deviate from a straight line.
After some distance, though, he had to slow down. A stitch grew in his side and became demanding. The air was hot and heavy with moisture. It was like running through thick soup. A month in a scout ship, Paul realized, was not conducive to making a serious athletic effort on a moment’s notice.
Finally, gasping, he took cover behind some moss-covered boulders and sank down to catch his breath. “Any…anybody following us?” he asked Jasper.
“Nothing in range of my sensors,” Jasper replied. “If those were Weasels, they’re not on our trail. Not yet, anyway.”
“Thank God,” Matt panted. He rested his arms on his knees, with his head down, until his breathing was more-or-less back to normal. He was sweating like a tax-cheater at a convention of government auditors.
“Your heart-rate is coming down,” Jasper said. “It was pushing the upper-limit of what I would have recommended for you in your current condition. You know, the Fleet Medical Service has a number of aerobic and conditioning programs that you can use even on a deep-scout vessel….”
“Shut up,” Paul said. “I don’t….”
A crash and a thud interrupted him. The impact, what it was, shook the ground. Paul opened the survival kit and grabbed the pulse pistol. Very, very carefully, he raised himself up to peer over the boulders.
About fifty meters away, three huge beasts ambled through the trees. They reminded Paul of Earth iguanodons of the Jurassic, except that these creatures appeared to be at least fifty percent bigger. One of the creatures had pushed over a medium-sized tree, and all three closed in on the leafy treasure of the tree’s upper branches and began to eat. One of them let go a hooting bellow that resonated in its throat, either voicing triumph over the tree or summoning others of its kind to the feast.
“Oh, my God,” Paul said, overcome with wonder.
“What? Pick me up and give me a line of sight, you moron,” Jasper said. In his bag over Paul’s shoulder, all Jasper could see was the boulders.
Paul did so, placing Jasper on top of the rock. “Oh, indigenous life,” the AI said. He sounded disappointed.
“But look at them,” Paul said. “Aren’t they magnificent?”
“Yeah, really special,” Jasper said impatiently. “Look, we knew this planet had biological forms compatible with Earth species. Essentially this is nothing you haven’t seen before. We can’t waste any time sightseeing.”
“You have no sense of wonder, Jasper,” Paul said.
“That’s right– Mr. Realism, that’s me. And the reality is that we need to start putting more distance between us and the crash-site. So stop gawking, before the Weasels show up or one of those things gets irritated with your voyeurism.”
“They’re vegetarians, they’re harmless,” Paul said.
“How do you know?” Jasper snapped. “Alien life-form, remember? We don’t know anything about their actual tastes or predilections. Even if they don’t want to eat us, they could still step on us. So let’s go.”
“All right,” Paul said.
They gave the iguanodons a wide berth, and set out through the woods away from the river, which was more or less eastward. Jasper put himself in early warning sensor mode, and Paul added his own eyes, surveying the ground before him and the branches overhead as he walked. He carried the pulse pistol ready in his hand, but he knew that it wouldn’t last long if something serious attacked them. Have to come with another weapon, he told himself. There was the knife from the survival kit, but he really didn’t favor hand-to-hand combat with the Weasels, and certainly not with any critters native to this world.
After a while, though, in spite of his attempt to focus on any dangers in their path, Paul began to notice the woods. They were quite open, with a good deal of sunlight penetrating to the forest floor. As a consequence there were, in places, extensive patches of brush and brambles. Here and there in those sunlit patches, bright flowers waved on tall stalks. The trees themselves were tall, and many were magnificently so, hundreds of feet high, and massive at their base. Their bark was white or cream, and in the filtered sunlight they shone like the pillars of some vast, unending cathedral.
Occasionally Paul caught glimpses of wildlife, but it was mostly just glimpses of small, furtive animals that scampered hurriedly out of his way. Once he caught sight of a distant group of more iguanodons, but they were well out of his line of march, moving through the woods more-or-less westward. Another time a trio of flying creatures passed overhead, calling out sharply to one another, but they were gone through the trees before Paul could see if they were birds, mammals or some reptile.
Jasper was silent during this time, apparently devoting his energies to scanning their surroundings, but after about an hour he spoke up. “If I may respectfully and humbly make a suggestion,” he said, sounding neither, “we need to get some bearings and make some plans.”
“Yes,” Paul said, ignoring the AI’s sarcasm. He had been thinking much the same thing. “Did you get a ground scan as we came in?”
“Do I look like a single-threaded human?” Jasper snarked. “Of course I got a scan, despite the erratic gyrations you put us through on the way down. Both local and regional, mind you.”
Paul sighed to himself, exercising patience. “Well, is there any high ground nearby?”
“Thought you’d never ask,” Jasper said. “One thousand fifty-four meters to our left, slightly east of north, there is a two hundred meter hill that should poke up above all this greenery. Then we can compare the lay of the land with my most excellent scan and figure out our next step.”
“All right,” Paul said. He angled northward.
The sun was near the local noon when they reached the foot of the hill. The hillside was not too steep; Paul picked his way upward, in places finding a comparatively easy path, in others, practically climbing along the exposed roots of the trees that grew out of the hillside. Three-quarters of the way up the slope moderated to a gentler angle and Paul swiftly reached the top after that.
There he received a surprise– the crown of the hill, by some fluke, was bald. More than that, the northern face of the hill was bare, grass and mossy rocks, stretching away down to a wide prairie, miles across, that rolled away to the horizon. Across that prairie, Paul could see herds of animals moving, grazing or migrating; a multitude of forms and species, thousands of animals within his field of vision. Most seemed large and rather dinosaurian, like the iguanodons, but there were other types he could not easily make out.
The forest, he could now see, was riverine, closely bound to the curving stream. The river itself seemed to have its source in the distant, sharp-peaked mountains over which they had passed on their re-entry. The mountains were bluish silhouettes peeking out from behind clouds.
Altogether, standing there, Paul felt a liberating relief at the openness of the sky and land. It felt good to be out from under the forest canopy, as beautiful as it had been, and to feel a breeze and see the sky. The only thing that marred that sense of liberation was when he looked westward, and saw the smudge of black smoke against the sky that marked the corpse of the scout ship.
“All right, that’s better,” Jasper said. He sounded as if the forest had been criminally interfering with his right to see. “Set me up on that rock over there and let me orient.”
Paul did so, placing Jasper a top a waist-high boulder near the very top-most point of the hill. The AI hummed for a few moments. Then, without a word of warning, one of Jasper’s holo-projector points activated, and the air in front of them shimmered with an isometric representation of this part of the planet, from the crash-site to the mountains, and down to the coast beyond, a strip a meter wide in the projection, but encompassing thousands of square kilometers in reality.
“All right– this is where we are,” Jasper said. A red dot flashed at the near-end of the projection. “That energy source we detected is here.” A blue dot flashed on the other side of the mountains, on the land that sloped down to the sea, somewhat south of due east. “Obvious advantages for the Weasels to plant their bases there, with coastal access and everything.”
Paul was silently dismayed; the blue dot had to be hundreds of kilometers away. “What are they doing here?” he asked.
“You’re asking your innocent, wide-eyed AI?” Jasper said. “Beats the hell out of me. Obviously something important, or else why waste energy, personnel and resources on a planet far from the main theaters of action?” Paul imagined he heard a shrug in the AI’s tone. “In any case, Mackemann was right– that base is the only hope we have of getting the information I’m carrying back to the Alliance.”
“So,” Paul said, “what you’re proposing is that we march hundreds of kilometers across an alien world, through forest and across a very high mountain range, to reach an enemy base on the off-chance that we can somehow snag a transmitting capability of some sort to forward your information to the Alliance?”
“That’s basically the long and the short of it,” Jasper said.
Paul sighed. “It’s probably suicide, one way or the other.”
“More than likely.”
“And the truly frightening thing is, I can’t see any alternative.”
“And thus you finally show a glimmer of intelligence,” Jasper said. “A faint, flickering glimmer, but it’s there, nevertheless.”
Paul just didn’t have the energy to snark back at Jasper. Instead, he picked up the AI. The holo-map disappeared as he put Jasper back into his carrying sling. “We’ll have to forage, somehow.”
“I can help you with determining what’s edible,” Jasper said.
“All right,” Paul said. There really wasn’t any choice. “Map our best course. We’ve got hours left of daylight.”
“Certainly. I….” Jasper stopped.
“What is it?” Paul said, concerned. “Weasels?”
“No. Look down the northern slope.”
Paul did so. It took him a moment, but he finally spotted the trio of tiny dots running across the prairie. They ran on two legs, and they moved fast.
“What are those?” Paul asked.
“Some sort of bipedal predator, at a guess,” Jasper said. “Oh, and by-the-by– they’re coming this way.”
“Ohh,” Paul said.
Next episode: Up A Tree Without A….
I must to bed. Later.