Episode Eight of Dinosaur Planet

Between doing our taxes, editing my unpublished novelette, and various and sundry crises of everyday life, Princess of Fire is effectively on hold at the moment. I hope to get back to it as soon as Amazon mails me my 1099-MISC form and I can complete my taxes.

Meanwhile, sometime back I promised a new episode of Dinosaur Planet, and it’s past time to fulfill that promise. I don’t know if anyone is reading these episodes, but I am having fun just writing them and posting them, without major revisions, more or less on the fly. This episode turned out a little long, but hopefully it’s enjoyable.

Copyright by Douglas Daniel, 2014.

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DINOSAUR PLANET

Episode 8

Weasels, Weasels Everywhere….

For the next three days Paul walked eastward, roughly paralleling the river. He stayed in the riverine forest, not wanting to dare the plains. He slept in the same faux-olive trees every night, which were scattered about the woods everywhere the sunlight could reach the ground for more than half the day. He saw no more of the raptors, although he frequently saw the remains of their kills. Of other species, he saw plenty of examples– several different species and variety of iguanodons, two or three smaller herbivores, a small, fast and furtive scavenger type that Paul glimpsed around the carnivore kills, but didn’t really get a good look at, a tiny tree-dweller about the size of a terrier, and any number of birds or pseudo-birds. He may have also gotten glimpses of ground-dwelling mammaloids, but they were even more furtive than the scavenger.

Jasper was helpful. He identified a half-dozen plants and fruits that were safe for Paul to eat, all abundant in the woods; more than that, he was quick to identify items that were toxic. He was able to locate potable water-sources away from the river, which turned out to be both turbulent and filled with very large pseudo-crocodilians. He continued to keep a wide sensor watch, which Paul found reassuring. They didn’t get any readings of weasels or raptors. Unfortunately, neither did they get any readings of Alliance flotillas or well-armed rescue teams. It was obvious that the Alliance had no idea the S-54 had crashed on Dinosauria.

The fact that Jasper was helpful did not necessarily mean that Jasper was tolerable. Most of the time he varied between surly silence and surly sarcasm. Paul put up with it, only occasionally threatening to shove Jasper into one of the mudbanks that overlooked the river and leave him there. He didn’t follow through with the threat because it would be the end of their mission, and because, as irritating as Jasper could be, the AI was the only company Paul had.

Despite Jasper’s help, Paul realized that he himself was not an outdoorsman. Three months in the scout ship had left him ill-conditioned for a long march, despite the daily isometric and enhancement regimens. At the end of each day’s walk he was exhausted. His sleep in the trees was fitful; he was constantly afraid of falling out.

He grew grubby, sweaty and grizzled. He reckoned that by about the end of the second day his stink alone would scare off any hostile wildlife. At times he wished he could flee from it himself.

By the third day he was dull and his pace dragged. His muscles ached and his feet were blistered. He slugged along, head down, not really noticing anything, while Jasper gave his snappish course corrections.

Just before noon, though, Jasper went silent. It took Paul a moment to realize the AI wasn’t talking. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Shh,” Jasper said. “Something…something isn’t right.”

Paul stopped. Nothing moved in the forest around them. “What is it?”

Jasper didn’t answer at once; then he said, “Get down!”

There was no cover in that spot– it was open forest floor under tall trees. Paul went to one knee. There was still nothing moving among the trees. Even the flyers had disappeared. Paul got a shivery feeling down his neck.

The ground jerked sideways. Paul fell. He managed to roll so as to protect Jasper, but the earth itself undulated beneath him. His hands instinctively clawed at the soil beneath him. The giant trees around him swayed. Paul felt more than heard a deep, deep rumble that came out of the ground itself.

“Hang on!” Jasper shouted, with fine illogic.

Somewhere not far away a tree crashed to the ground. Paul barely heard it over the tumult. He tried to calculate if he were in the line of fire of any other toppling trees, but he could not think straight.

The shaking died. Paul lay panting, stunned, unwilling to move for fear it was going to start again. Then a bird called, and then another.

“That,” Jasper said, “was quite a ride.”

Moving on shaky legs, Paul tried to resume the march. Within minutes of the end of the quake, though, Jasper started getting unusual aerosol trace readings. He sputtered about the necessity of getting a clear view of the surrounding terrain. They found a bare knoll half a mile away and climbed cautiously to the top, with Jasper scanning as they went.

The first thing Paul noticed, when they reached the summit of the knoll, was that the topography of the mountains to the east was more complicated that he had thought. Now that they were kilometers closer, he could see that an outlying range of hills separated them from the high peaks further east. The river appeared to pass through a narrow pass in these outer hills.

Among the hills, still miles distant but high and formidable, stood a volcano. Not a picturesque, dormant volcano, the type one sent e-cards about saying “wish you were here”. This volcano was very much alive; a tall column of smoke rose, boiling, from the summit.

“Ah, hell,” Paul moaned. “What else could go wrong?”

“Well, the universe could collapse to a lower quantum state and our very existences could be wiped out,” Jasper offered.

“It was a rhetorical question!” Paul snapped.

“Geez, don’t get your corset in a knot,” Jasper said. “At least we have a good idea what caused the quake.”

“Can we avoid that smoker?” Paul asked.

Jasper projected another holo-map. “Perhaps, if the river-gorge is passable. It’s at least another day’s march– probably two, the way you’re dragging.”

“Well, I don’t have a one hundred year battery pack,” Paul said.

“And it shows,” Jasper said.

They came down the knoll and re-entered the forest. Jasper gave Paul a new course and they set out. It was getting late– Paul started looking for a place to roost for the night, while wondering how safe a tree branch would be if there were aftershocks.

They had gone perhaps two kilometers when Jasper yelled, “Alert!” just as a silver, winged form shrieked overhead, headed eastward.

“Dammit!” Paul said. “Are those Weasels?”

“It ain’t the local Chamber of Commerce,” Jasper said. “You remember when you asked how things could get worse? Well, you just got your answer.”

Paul sprinted ahead and took cover among the roots of one the largest trees in sight. “Are you tracking them?”

“Do sheep bleat? Of course I’m tracking them, although this forest cover is really giving me some serious interference….uh, oh.”

“What, ‘uh-oh’?” Paul said. “Uh-oh, what? That’s a very ugly phrase, uh-oh.”

“Looked at first as if they were headed toward the volcano, but they’re circling back.” For once, Jasper sounded abashed. “They probably got an indication on my power-pack.”

Shit,” Paul said, with more sincerity than he had ever used before. “Where do we go?”

“For starters, to your right, down to the river.”

Paul ran. He tried to move from the cover of one tree trunk to another. If he ran into anything at the moment, he knew he would either run it over or be eaten.

“To your left,” Jasper said. Paul angled left around a tree.

“Stop, stop!” Jasper said. Paul skidded on the leaf-litter underfoot, so suddenly that he fell and landed on his butt.

“What?”

“Weasels in front of us,” Jasper said. He was actually whispering. “Coming up from the river. Go back.”

Paul scrambled back the way he had come. Panic, more than exertion, made his heart pound in his chest. “How close?” he panted.

“Don’t ask– just run,” Jasper said. “More to our right.”

They crossed a shallow ravine– Paul had to pull himself up the other side by roots that trailed down the bank– and dashed through a clearing with another of the ubiquitous pseudo-olive trees and gold-leaved bushes. The sun beat hot on them until they reached the shade of the trees on the other side of the clearing.

Paul barely had the opportunity to register relief when Jasper cried, “Stop!”

“What, more Weasels?” Paul said.

“A line, coming toward us,” Jasper said. “They’re sweeping us into a trap.”

Without thinking, Paul went back into the clearing. There was no place to go, except…. He dashed for the brush around the pseudo-olive.

“What are you doing?” Jasper said.

“Hiding,” Paul replied. “The only option we have.”

They dived into the brush. Paul crawled through golden leaves until he more-or-less in the middle of the bushes. He reckoned he was deep enough in to be out of sight from anyone outside the stand of brush.

“This isn’t going to work,” Jasper said.

“It’s our only chance,” Paul said. “Go to minimum power/sleep mode.”

“They’ll still pick that up if they’re close enough with the right gear,” Jasper said.

“Do it,” Paul said.

Jasper said nothing else. Paul was a little surprised he didn’t argue further; perhaps he understood the necessity. The AI’s sensor eye faded down to the faintest pinprick of reddish light.

Quickly, Paul slipped the carrying-sling off his shoulder and put Jasper on the ground. He drew the pulse pistol. He didn’t arm it yet; sensors would pick that up, too. But he could do it in a moment.

Obviously, with one charge it wouldn’t stand off a company of Weasels. Paul had understood the math of the situation from the moment he’d thought of crawling into the bushes. One charge equaled either death for himself or destruction for Jasper. Paul did not want to fall alive into the hands, or the claws, of the Weasels. They enjoyed torturing human prisoners, and had ways of prolonging their agony. Some people said they had ideas about appropriating the power of their victims through inflicted pain. Paul had no idea whether that was true, and it didn’t really matter.

But he absolutely could not allow Jasper to fall into enemy hands, and preventing Jasper’s capture was orders of magnitude more important than anything that might happen to Paul. Jasper had all manner of classified information in his memory, included up-to-date starcharts of Alliance space. Pre-emptive destruction of the AI was standard procedure in the event of a scout ship’s imminent capture. Paul reasoned this was really just an extension of the same standing order; there was no question, in the end, what the correct answer to the math was.

To his ears came the sound of crackling undergrowth, from the forest they had just quit. He got down low, hugging the ground under the bushes. In this position, he could see little glimpses, flashes of sight, of what was happening out there.

Ten or more Weasels came striding into the sunshine. Paul’s face tightened with an instinctive grimace. There was just something atavistic about the sight of a Weasel.

Take an ordinary Earth mustelid, Mustela nivalis or, perhaps, Mustela sibirica. Give it upright, bipedal posture and fully opposable thumbs and fingers. Increase its size to about two meters tall and a mass of about one hundred kilograms. Endow it with intelligence at least equal to that of any human who ever breathed. Equip it with an advanced technology centered chiefly about the tools needed conquer and enslave other sentient species. Finally, infect it with a pack-hunter psychology far more avaricious than any wolf-pack that ever loped, and you would have a faint approximation of the vicious predators that now stalked out into the clearing.

Paul didn’t have to tell himself consciously to lie quiet. Something about these beings sparked a response deep, deep down in his primate brain. These were beings who came into the nest to kill and eat. They should be driven away with sticks and rocks and screams. Paul rather wished at the moment he had a sharpened stick; he could do more with that than he could with a single pulse charge. The ending, of course, would be the same either way.

The Weasels came into the clearing, peering about. Most of them carried their version of a pulse-rifle; a couple carried portable sensor rigs. All wore body armor and communication headsets. Otherwise they were naked, except for their fur. They even went barefoot, or bare-pawed. One difference between themselves and Earth weasels was that the aliens’ tails were vestigial.

Paul tightened his grip on the pulse-pistol. He would wait until the last moment, until it was certain that they had discovered him. Then he would arm the pistol, fry Jasper, then fight to the death, if possible, with his bare hands. He took in a breath, trying to steady himself. He had so many things he regretted never doing, he had no time to catalog them.

The Weasels stopped halfway to the brush. They hissed and skreeked. A set of answering skreeks came from behind Paul. He pressed himself even closer to the ground and froze as heavy bodies pushed through the brush around him. It was another line of Weasels, doubtless the group coming up from the river. Some of these Weasels passed within yards of Paul, but none of them raised an alarm. They passed by him so quickly that he had no time to arm the pistol. Paul would have thought the Weasels would have smelled him; then he remembered the aliens’ senses of smell and hearing were less acute than humans. Their eyesight, though, was just as good or better, and Paul held absolutely still.

The second group of Weasels met up with the first. There was a great deal of hissing, whistling and screeching. From his vantage point Paul, without moving, glimpsed Weasels moving about. The aliens appeared to be upset and arguing with one another. Paul glimpsed one of the Weasels, one of those carrying a sensor unit, shake the device, then give it a slap on the side, a gesture of frustration very nearly human.

Their sensors are not working. Paul clenched his teeth against a dawning hope. Lying here and continuing to pretend to be part of the brush’s root system was still a necessity.

The arguments in Weaselese went on for a few minutes, until a large Weasel with a graying muzzle and four concentric rings emblazoned on his body-armor– an Overmaster of the pack– cut through the discussion with a piercing whistle and a couple of roundhouse blows that knocked the recipients flat. The other Weasels fell into two orderly lines. The overmaster harangued them for a minute or so. Heads drooped. Paul almost felt sorry for them.

The harangue over, the overmaster led the Weasels, in a column of twos, out of the clearing. Paul lay there listening to them march away, and then lay there some more, not wanting to trust his reprieve. He lay there, un-moving, until he heard the Weasel ship take off, from somewhere nearby, and doppler away into the distance.

“Jasper,” he whispered. “Wake up.”

A second passed. Jasper’s sensor eye flickered, then brightened. “What…we’re still here?” the AI said.

“Apparently,” Paul said. “Although I’m not sure why.

Next episode: Down By The Riverside

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One thing about this story– as an exercise in turning off the censor and just writing, it’s been great. I am not sure, though, that I am exactly capturing the B-movie quality I was looking for in the beginning. It seems as if the action should be a little more breathless and unrelenting; I’ve instead slipped into a more leisurely pace. I will have to see what I can do about that; but then, we haven’t gotten to the cave-women yet….

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