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The Colony - Taurger's Bad Day
By Wayne Cook © 2004
Based on The Colony by V. Ducain
Ever had one of those days when the world just drops out from under you? I had one a week ago. The day I did the most important thing I've ever done. It was the worst day of my life.
Sounds like something that needs explaining, right? Maybe I'd better start at the beginning...
I woke up that morning well after sunrise with Pat half on top of me, as usual. Not a bad way to wake up, except it's a reminder of why shi's there. For the past month shi's been after me, everything from just being around to some flirting that was so deliberately outrageous shi got everybody laughing. Now I'm not trying to encourage hir because even now sex isn't too important to me, but I'm grateful for the friendship. And despite all the annoying and double-entendres Pat has been a friend. It's just sometimes I wish shi'd leave me alone.
So the day was beginning pretty normal. Looking back like this I guess it was breakfast when it started. It was little stuff at first, like bits of overcooked egg, Pat bumping my arm as shi snuggled against me, spilling breakfast on my fur...
Yes, fur. No, that's not an accent, those are the words -- "shay" and "herr".
Okay, so maybe I'll start explaining a little farther back...
You know the old adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch"? Well, I tried to have one. Or more accurately a free all-inclusive vacation from some contest I didn't even remember entering. (Which was no surprise considering how long those people take to pass things out.) Everything seemed to check out okay, and the only thing I had to do was get my passport. So the destination wasn't one of the big name places -- the people giving out the prizes had to lower expenses somehow, right? And I managed to avoid most of the canned activities. The important thing was it got me away from the office for a week. They couldn't even call me in, which was a real novelty! By the time it came to leave I was feeling pretty relaxed and not much looking forward to returning.
I'd probably be back at the office right now if it hadn't been for the boat tour. Another freebie I got, stupidly scheduled shortly before my flight out. I say stupidly because the boat got snagged on a fishing net. You'd think they'd have allowed time for problems. Still, I was in better shape that some of the others that missed the plane -- the checked luggage hadn't. Me, I always take no more than my carry-on can hold. As it turned out that wasn't a problem.
This is where things started getting weird. First some U.S. Consul showed up, all eager to help and offering a place to stay the two days until the next flight. No problem for me, I'd scheduled a few extra days of leave and had all my stuff. So we get hauled over to the local Embassy, then get hauled right back to the airport. Seems some U.S. airline is making a charter run and there might be room for us aboard on the way out. It was a 747, so no kidding there was room! I still can't believe they fit it in that tiny airport. It not only dwarfed the terminal, but they had to rig the boarding ramp on the roof!
Getting everybody on and off a big plane sometimes seems like the longest part of the trip. And after we strandees got aboard another group arrived. I just settled in and tried to ignore it all. Nobody bothered me, so I bothered nobody. Then more people started boarding. They really packed the plane, and according to the brochure it can seat over 500. Nothing much else happened until we were in the air.
This is the thing I still can't figure out. You see, I can't sleep in a moving vehicle. No matter how tired I get, or how relaxed, I just don't sleep. But somewhere along the way I was out. Completely out. And when I woke up, I was like this, and so was everybody else. Chakats.
Now you're going to ask what that is. Okay, here goes...
A chakat is a sentient centaur-like feline (four legs, two arms), thought up by some guy on the Internet named Doove. There's a lot of stuff about them on his website like stories, pictures, etc. Any good search engine can get you there from the work "chakat". The important stuff is we look like somebody took a big cat and stuck the upper half of a cat mascot costume over it's head. We also got a lot of other cat-like things, like claws. And we're hermaphrodites.
Oh, yeah, that'll make things more interesting from here on out.
I knew what chakats were from the Internet. Kind of hard to miss when you go looking for furries or centaurs on a search engine. (Stop sniggering, some of the best-known characters in the world are "furry".) And after a minute I realized that's what I was. A white-furred, black-striped chakat. And probably the biggest one there.
Almost everybody else was already up and about. A whole planeload of people turned into chakats and dumped in a big cave of some sort. I was surprised nobody had screaming fits about being turned into a "monster". The first thing through my mind on seeing all this was the old saw about "herding cats". And there was every kind of cat. That's how you tell who's who with chakats -- colors and patterns. Calico, tabby, -- big cats, too. Spots and stripes, long and short. I didn't see a Persian or Siamese, but I bet they were there. And then me. Somebody said I looked like a white tiger, and they were right. Not just the stripes, but the long fur on the cheeks and everything. I was pretty easy to spot, and being taller than anybody near me didn't hurt.
That was when an all-black with white tips on ears and tail climbed up on a boulder and started calling for chakats and survival skills. By the time I made my way over to hir, shi (that's what you're supposed to call a chakat) was already getting the whole spiel from someone who remembered a lot more of the descriptions than I did. Then White Tip said we were evacuating the cave and people started heading out. With not much else I could do I joined them.
Outside it was the details that made it obvious this wasn't Earth. I'm no outdoorsman (outdoorcat?), but some of the plants I saw were definitely new. Fortunately the important stuff was the same and I was told everybody was heading for some dry caves a little ways away. I'd have stayed to haul people out of the cave, but a couple of others were already stringing vines to be climbing ropes.
I still did my bit to help, though. We had to cross a couple of ravines and one of them had rainwater already running in the bottom. So I planted myself in the middle of the stream and hustled people across. I figured as big as I was I'd be able to last longest if the water got too high or too strong, so I was playing lifeguard. Even asked for someone to watch upstream for a flash flood, but I don't know if anybody did. As nobody got swept away I probably did okay. Of course I didn't hear we lost anybody anywhere else, either. I finished the trip carrying firewood that others picked up.
It was at the new cave that I met Pat. Shi called herself "Pitty-Pat" (like it was some sort of wordplay on "kitty-cat") because it was the name of an ex-roommate's cat and shi had the same markings. I think shi must have been some sort of "size queen" before, because right from the start shi was coming on to me. Guess shi figured I was big all over or something.
First thing Pat did was snuggle up against me as soon as I dumped the firewood. Second thing shi did was ask me my name. I'd been hearing everybody else using what could be called "chakat names", so I came up with my own. Tiger-centaur became tiger-taur became taur-tiger became... Taurger. I could have used "White Tiger" I suppose, but I really didn't want the obvious nicknames. And from then on no matter what was going on as soon as Pat didn't have anything else to do (and sometimes when shi did) shi'd track me down. And shi always slept next to me. Well, on me by the time I woke up.
Pat even tagged along when I joined some of the others in looking around the new caves, and shi'd been claustrophobic. (Or so shi says. Sounds more like another excuse to get close to me.) We (the whole bunch of us -- herd? pride?) had running water below and there were a few places we might make into workshops or storage or just private quarters with a little work so I guess we were pretty well set. (So what do you call a big group of chakats?)
Anyway I didn't like the idea of getting lost while wandering around (I've read a little about caves), particularly with my bad sense of direction so I took up a loose rock and marked the wall with three lines pointing the way out. It's called a "king's broad arrow" or something in England and I guess somebody else had the same idea because I've seen them in other caves and on trees outside. (With chalk and paint, of course. But our claws are pretty good on tree bark.) A pretty nice way to not only find the way home but mark our territory and know somebody else has been there before.
There've been a lot of things like that. I mean good ideas that just take a little effort, but that I haven't been able to follow up on because somebody else beat me to it. Like peeling smooth tree bark for paper. Or drying animal guts to make sinew for lacing leather and the like. They were things the plains indians (okay, Native Americans) did to buffalo. Nothing got wasted from their kills. Meat, hide, bone, all got used somehow. If I'd been able to do any of those crafts I might have been able to start one instead of just talk about what someone else was doing. Heck, I couldn't even find charcoal or chalk to make drawing sticks from before somebody else had one finished. And if I did make something, like when I used a plant stem and thorn like a blowgun, somebody else made it work right. (There's not much you can do with a blowgun dart without some sort of drug or toxin.) My rope-making efforts were just as bad. Guess this place just isn't very good for a city-bred computer tech no matter what kinds of stuff shi read before getting here.
The only thing I've actually been good at around here is being big. So when there was some lifting or shoving or carrying to do, I got called. I won't complain about it. It let me meet up with some of the people who'd been in the military before they got on that arfing jet and we started talking about fighting. I was pretty sure that with our new bodies most of the old unarmed training would have to be re-learned, and I was right. Too bad I wasn't better at it. Oh, they let me practice with them. It just became obvious that even with my size and strength I was never going to be as good as they were. I even tried to come up with a few moves of my own, like slapping as practice for clawing and a spinning back-kick meant to put my full weight behind my hind legs, but they were tricks the others already knew because they did the same thing -- only better.
So now you're caught up enough that I can tell you about my bad day a week ago. I won't repeat the part about waking up with Pat, or my problems at breakfast. It went downhill from there, anyway.
First thing I did was chase off Pat. Shi'd (and a lot of others) had had an infection in her privates had to be told how to keep herself clean now. (We're using the "cat" method. Hey, we aren't human anymore.) Pat hadn't wanted to clean up that way and I'd had to tell hir I'd agree to sex after shi'd cleared up in order to make her do it. Not something I'd have said otherwise but shi was getting pretty stinky so I really wanted hir to clean up, and anyway I made it plain that it wasn't an ongoing thing. I'd also insisted that our doctor (who'd been a vet before) be the one to say shi was better. I trusted the doc, and kind of hoped shi'd keep Pat off me for a while. (I hadn't bothered her since the first day when I'd asked about how to take care of this new body. I wasn't one of those who'd gotten infected.) But that morning Pat was more hyper than usual because the infection seemed to be gone. I told hir to go see the doc and not come near me until shi did.
That gave me a chance to work on my little project. Yep, I'd finally found something useful that nobody else was doing. I'd been talking with somebody the previous day about making sure nobody got lost and maps and such and I'd had an idea. Sure we didn't have any way to measure distance, but angles were simple and always the same. (I'd heard some people talking about declaring a "meter" or some such nonsense, but I thought we should just set a length and make up our own name for it. If we eventually made some of those fancy electronics we could use stuff like hydrogen emissions or something to figure out real measurements, but they weren't important until we could make contact with Earth again.) I'd talked my idea over with somebody who must have been a surveyor, because shi started in about sextants and theodolites and other fancy tools we couldn't make. I finally gave up and got together what I'd need to make what I was thinking. Pat tagged along, of course.
My idea was something you'd look through and move a marker to measure the angle between it an a fixed marker at another spot. Then you could look at the thing and read the visual angle. Get that kind of measurement at two spots that can see each other between them and a common third point and you've got basic triangulation. Do that along a series of "overlapping" spotting points and you can figure out the proportions of the terrain. Measure even one straight line in all that and you'll know all the other distances. But with what I was going to make we could start measuring the angles right away, no electronics, no fancy optics. And we could make it out of wood, no waiting for metal.
So that's what I did after sending Pat to the doc. I picked up all the stuff I'd collected to make my angle-sight and found myself a place to work. Ever tried to make something out of wood using stone tools? It's really frustrating. But I skipped lunch and got most of it done before some of the cubs (they used to be kids but are really rowdy now) came around. First time they got too close I told them to play someplace else. Second time I starting picking up to move. Third time they crashed into me and broke everything.
I must have roared like a real tiger. Had one of those little... brats... by the throat and pinned to a rock before shi knew what happened. Yelled in hir face with both sets of lungs (chakats have that -- lots of volume if they want it) and gave hir a smack and what-for when shi tried to claw me. All but threw hir down when I stalked off to go scrounge up replacements for everything and start over. And nobody tried to stop me.
Except Pat. That wasn't what shi was doing, of course, but that's when shi came bounding from the doc with the "good news". Right then I didn't want anybody to talk to me, let alone get touched. And there was Pat, going to pounce on me in one of her happy moods.
Shi didn't deserve what I did to her. Mind you she wasn't injured, but now that I'm not so angry I can remember the look on hir face as she lay there on the ground. I yelled at her to leave me alone and wasn't too careful with my wording. Might have been kinder if I'd opened her guts with my claws. Instead I declared I was going out and took off. No more explanation than that.
By the time I'd calmed down I was already well away from the cave. I couldn't see anybody else around. Don't much blame them, don't think I'd want to have been around me then, either. I knew I had to go back an apologize to everybody, but decided that I'd better be sure I wasn't going to blow up again because I was going to get an earful when I did. So I started looking for what I needed to make another angle-sight.
Ever thought about what a hero is? Strong? Brave? We talked about that one time, so I'll tell you what I said then. A hero is the person in the right place at the right time who does the right thing. It might be easier to be a hero if you go looking for trouble, but it's pretty common for heroes to be named posthumously. It's not exactly a career choice. Sure, I've wished I was a hero sometimes, but I'd want to be the kind that survived to be recognized. Mostly it sounds like a lot of trouble I can do without. So it figures that on that bad day I'd find some trouble.
One of the early recon teams had gone east and found plains. While there they saw a big animal they describe as kind of a cross between a rhino and a triceratops, but it ate meat. Chewed on some corpses it'd killed at least. I hadn't been very interested in the description because I figured they were out there and we were here. Now I was looking at something that fit that description pretty well. And it not only seemed to be in a bad mood but was heading in the direction of our cave.
Remember, this thing was a lot bigger than me and I was the biggest chakat I knew. I didn't think even a bunch of us could take this thing down and here I was alone. So I was going to parallel it at a distance until I could figure out what to do. Didn't want to run back for help and give it something to chase like a rhino. Didn't have anything I thought I could feed it or tempt it away with. Didn't... damn.
Talk about bad to worse. There I was trying to think my way out of things and a couple of chakats appear right in front of that big stamper. It'd seen them too, and if I was right it was working itself up to charge. That made it decision time.
I didn't call out until I was almost on top of it, then I roared nice and loud and took a swipe at it's nose as I passed. The other two chakats weren't doing anything, so I yelled for them to get going, get help. When the arfing thing turned to look at them again I tried my double-kick on it's side. That got it's attention. The two of use took off, pursuer and pursued. Being the latter I picked the direction -- as far from everybody else as possible.
I never was an athlete before becoming a chakat. Waking up big didn't much change that, but I kept surprising myself. When the chase started I figured I'd give it a good run until I could find something to shake it from my trail, but the longer we ran the longer I though I could run. And in a straight line I seemed to be just a little faster than this thing so I could pace myself. Maybe it'd get tired first and just give up.
Not a chance. It seemed to be as stubborn as they come. Like Monty Python might put it, "Once they get an idea in their head there ain't no persuading 'em otherwise." And this "Richard" (a name I gave it because it's such a big dick) had it's heart set on mine. I have no idea how fast we were going or how far we'd gone, but the sun was setting when I finally saw something useful.
Up ahead of me was a depression that looked like a sinkhole. With a little speed I could get it between us and use it as a barrier, or with a little luck get this arfing thing too close to the edge and trap it. Risky, but so was falling down from exhaustion or stumbling. I put on the speed I'd been holding back, increasing my lead and hoping it would be enough to get around the sinkhole. When I topped the lip of the depression I saw I was right -- and wrong.
It was a sinkhole all right, complete with classic funnel shape, but the actual hole was small. My pursuer might not fit through. Being low on options I forged ahead with "plan B". With the "Richard" following I headed straight for the hole and leaped.
Clearing the hole wasn't a problem, I had a full body length to spare. Getting up the other side, however, I scrambled against loose stone and dry soil. Going nowhere I stole a glance behind me. The big lummox wasn't as stupid as he seemed -- he was heading around the hole.
Fat lot of good it did him. I'd hoped the edge of the sinkhole would be too weak to support him and I was right. As he came alongside the hole the ground beneath him collapsed and down he went. A cascade of dirt and rock went after him, dislodging a landslide that chewed it's way up the funnel -- and reached around right to me.
I went to all six limbs, claws out, trying to get some traction against the ground moving beneath me. I swear I'd have dug right through the slide down to bedrock if I could have. Instead my size betrayed me as the fragile lip of the hole I'd been dragged down to collapsed under me as well and I went backwards into the pit.
The first thing that happened when I woke up was I sneezed. Maybe the sneeze even woke me up. For sure the spray of sand and water I'd blasted from the ground got my attention. Spitting sand from my mouth I tried to stand only to discover I ached in places I didn't realize had any feeling. But I was soaked and getting cold so somehow I made it out of the river. River...
I looked around to figure out where I was and maybe how I'd got there. It was full night, but between starlight and my chakat eyes I could see pretty well. The water I'd dragged myself out of was a small river, and the spot I'd been laying was some sort of sand bar in front of a well-worn boulder sticking out from the bank. Others were farther out in the water. The current seemed fast enough to have swept a floating chakat along until a break in the flow like this pushed me to the edge.
But where was I? These definitely weren't the "badlands" and Karst landscape (that means it shows signs of caves) we'd taken shelter in. And I had no idea how I'd fallen into a cave and ended up in a river. But upstream seemed the best place to look for an answer. As sore as I was I was pretty sure I'd be okay. I just took it slow.
My first discovery as I made my way among the trees along the riverbank was a fork in the river. The main branch came from one direction and a smaller, but maybe just as passable, branch from another. I had no idea which one I'd come down. Good thing I got a sensitive nose when I was changed into a chakat. Something stank.
The smell was the corpse of the "Richard", and it was coming from farther up the main branch. When I found it I discovered it had lodged itself across the entrance to a deep, still pool that looked like it trapped a lot of junk floating along. If we went in the river in the same order we went in the hole this thing may have saved my life. Twice. And right then I didn't much care. I continued on.
The answer wasn't long in coming. I just dropped to the ground when I saw it. A cave. The river was coming out of a cave in the side of a slope.
I guess the sinkhole I fell in was over an underground river. I must have been swept right through it and out here. And if the river was strong enough to carry me downstream I probably couldn't go upstream through the cave. Even if I did, how would I get back up the sinkhole? Still, I might be lucky and spot where the sinkhole was from on top of the hill or whatever it was. So I made myself climb.
It was just reaching sunrise when I got to the top, which really drove home just how long it'd been since I'd fallen in the sinkhole. But the light gave me a chance to really see what I was looking for. If it was there. Which it wasn't. I even climbed a big tree up there to get a better view, but I saw nothing I recognized. Nothing that gave me a clue which way to go. I was well and truly lost. I consoled myself by laying across the biggest limb I could find and going to sleep. Which I suppose was the end of that bad day.
So here I am a week later. I followed the tried-and-true advice for lost people. "Stay put and let them find you." Hasn't happened. I've watched the horizon, watched the river, kept myself fed, somehow got the corpse of the "Richard" that put me here out of the river, and collected what I think I'll need if I'm on my own. Which would be a surprise to one of the few friends I had on Earth. She always said if I was lost in the wilderness I wouldn't last a week. Heck, I've even finished my angle-sight. Works nice. I'm writing my measurements on some "paper bark" so I can put them together into a map someday.
Tomorrow morning I'm calling it quits. Maybe they couldn't track me after falling in the sinkhole. Maybe they aren't even looking. But in either case no rescue means I take care of myself. No directions or landmarks means I keep track of where I am so I don't get lost. I figure my best bet is to backtrack the river and go up the small branch. With as much water as it carries the underground branch probably drains most of the badlands, so the small branch watershed must be right next to it. If I keep to the underground branch side of the small branch I might cross the trail of one of the recon teams, or meet up with one of the teams themselves. And I won't have to worry about water.
Still, somebody might come across where I've been eventually, so I've piled up stones into a cache and marked it with a "broad arrow". Even scraped up some clay and made a big sun-dried tile to explain what they're finding. Kinda doubt it'll survive a good rain, though, even with where I put it inside the cache and "roofed" it with moss. If going upstream doesn't work, I'll come back and update it. Then I'll go downstream. Try to find the ocean. Or maybe north and look for a temperate woodlands or something. Maybe I'll just keep exploring. It's not like I've got anybody else to look after.
I really don't know if I'll ever see Pat or anybody else again. But them's the breaks. Life don't have to be fair, and it don't matter. Because even if the game's rigged, you can't win if you don't play. And me, I don't plan on sitting on my tail. If I can't find the others I'll find something else.
This being a story I suppose there's got to be a moral somewhere, some new lesson for a new world. But I keep coming back to an old one.
Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.