The Colony
V. Ducain

Chapter Eleven
Mercy Mission, Part II

We figured skinning the ten wolves, and doing a quick preliminary scraping, would take the rest of the day and a good part of the night, but we decided it would be time well spent if we could at least recover the skins to take back to the caverns.  As we began the task of carefully skinning the carcasses using our flint and obsidian blades, DiVargin asked, “How far do you think we have to go before we catch up with the survey team?”

I replied as I carefully slit the belly skin of a broken-necked wolf, “I'd say at least another day, more likely two days, unless they found something really interesting and stopped to investigate more thoroughly.”

“Then they could be only few miles away?” DiVargin asked thoughtfully.

“Yes,” I said, “they could, but it's very unlikely.  Why?  You have something in mind?”

“Yes, I do.” shi replied, “I was thinking of how far smoke is visible in foothills like these, especially if the fire is located at the top of a high hill, like this one.”

“Hummm. . . You think we should build a signal fire?” I asked.

“Yes.” DiVargin said, “The smoke during the day and the fire light tonight would be visible for miles, and there is a good chance the survey team will see the smoke or fire.”

I nodded and said as I began peeling the skin off the carcass I was skinning, “Yes, they might. . . but even if they are close enough, there is a good chance they will be down between the hills.”

“I still think it's worth the effort.”

“If it was a matter of life or death to reach them as soon as possible, I'd agree,” I said, “If it was that serious we wouldn't be taking the time to skin these carcasses, but as things stand now, I don't think we should be making any such signal fires.”

“Why not?”

I finished peeling the skin off my first carcass before replying, “Because, there is a chance, a small chance in my opinion, but still a chance there are other intelligent tool-using people who may also see the signal fire or smoke signals.  If there are any such people, I think we would be a lot better off if we had a chance to study them for a while, before they learn about us.  If we do share this world with another intelligent species, there is no guarantee they will be willing to share it with us.”

DiVargin snorted and said, “Just because they may be different doesn't mean we can't get along with them.”

I chuckled and said, “Oh, really?  Why do you assume they will be willing to 'get along' with us as anything other than prey?”

“And why do you insist on assuming another species will automatically be hostile”

I laughed outright and replied by asking, “You tell me, how would we be treated back on earth as we are now, by the Romans, or the ancient Chinese, or by any other ancient human civilization?  Then, there's the passion the ruling and upper classes have always had for exotic furs.  Can you imagine what some rich fashion-conscious women would have paid for a form fitting fur jacket, like the one we're wearing?  Of course, they'd have to remove it first?”

When DiVargin did not reply I added, “I'm not very worried about meeting any stone-age civilizations, even human ones.  As far as I know, they usually have a world view that allows for co-existing with other intelligent species.  If they do prove hostile, I'm pretty sure we could do better than just hold our own against any Stone Age tribal cultures, unless they overwhelm us with sheer numbers.”

DiVargin muttered, “Okay, I get the point.”

I grunted and said, as I started skinning a second carcass, “Yeah, I thought you would. . . if I explained it to you in just the right way.” I chuckled and added, “Isn't communications a useful skill?”  I was mildly surprised when DiVargin replied by 'playfully' swatting me across the face with hir tail.

* * * * *         * * * * *         * * * * *

It took us about as long as we expected to skin all ten carcasses and scrape off most of the fat and meat clinging to the hide.  Weaver suggested we tie the skins to stretching frames and hang them up in the tree tops to dry while we continued our pursuit of the survey team.  It made a lot more sense than lugging them around with us, so we took a little more time to make the frames, and locate suitable trees to hang the frames in.

The rest of the night went pretty smoothly, although it took a while to pick up the survey team's trail.  When morning arrived, we finally stopped for a meal and near gorged ourselves on a couple of good sized hunks of roasted 'venison' with a few handfuls of the few vegetables we already knew were safe to eat that we found along the way.  For a nice 'safe' after meal nap, we climbed up into the thick spreading branches of another of those huge oak-like trees, where DiVargin showed us how to make rough nest/beds in branch forks.  Shi explained how gorillas and chimpanzees made these kind of temporary beds, and with a little care, the nests proved surprisingly solid.  We probably would have been quite safe sleeping on the ground, but it never hurts to be careful, and with the wind gently rocking the branches and our makeshift nest/beds, napping in the tree proved to be very comfortable.

About noon, a light rain, and the rumble of distant thunder woke us and we decided it was time to resume the pursuit, as well as getting out of the possibly lightning attracting tree.  After taking time for a quick snack, we headed off in the direction the last blaze mark indicated the recon team went.  Small and some not so small game seemed very plentiful, and we spotted several species of medium sized predators that preyed on them.  We also spotted a puma-sized SIX legged long bodied feline like arboreal predator, that seemed as fascinated by us as we were by it, although it was careful to keep its distance from us.

DiVargin pointed out it was too much like us to be coincidental, and I had to agree.  As far as we could see, it's front legs and paws, as well as the middle pair, were more like our forelegs and paws than they were like our arms and hands.  Also, the way its middle legs attached to the body seemed noticeably different from the kind of hip/shoulder joint arrangement we had.  But, it was still the first six limbed feline looking animal we have seen, and its general resemblance to us, like chimpanzees to humans, was startling, although I personally thought this tree 'cat' was much more 'attractive' than a chimp.

As we continued along, catching occasional glimpse of the elusive Treecat, DiVargin said, “Well, I guess we can dispense with that ridiculous idea that whoever transformed us from human used some obscure fantasy creature as a 'template' for our transformation.”

I knew shi always hated that idea, and the fact everything we learned about ourselves fitted what was known about those 'fantasy creatures' did nothing to change DiVargin's point of view, so of course I had to needle hir with, “Oh?  Now why do you say that?  After all, we match what is 'known' of Chakats in every way we can check, and there are no glaring, or even minor, discrepancies.”

Three hours later, as we took a break next to a picturesque 'babbling brook', DiVargin was still going on about the 'un-scientific' and pure silliness of the idea the obviously super-race would use 'Chakats' as a template for our transformation.  Needling DiVargin was fun at first, but I was thoroughly tired of listening to the same arguments over, and over, and over. . . so I tried tripping hir into the three or four foot deep brook pool to shut hir up.  Chakats do not trip at all easily, so we both ended up in the brook.

After sputtering to the surface and shaking hir water soaked hair out of hir face, DiVargin stared at me in surprise and asked in an injured tone of voice, “Why did you do that?”

I splashed hir and said, “To shut you up!  It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it did work,” I splashed hir again, “Didn't it?”

Shi splashed me back and said, “Well you could've just asked!”

I replied, “Yes, but this way was more fun!” just before I jumped on hir and began wrestling in the water.

Weaver, watching from the bank, made sure our packs were out of splash range, then joined in the fun.  After a very loud and totally enjoyable three-way water fight and free-for-all wrestling match in the brook pool, we finally dragged ourselves out of the water to lay sprawled out on the grass in the warm sunshine.

As we lay sprawled out on the thick grass growing along side the brook, all relaxed and close to purring, DiVargin smiled over at me and said, “That was fun,” then switched to the Spanish-Portuguese creole shi knew Weaver and I both spoke, “I've not done anything like that for, for. . . way, far too long.”

I sighed and said, “Yeah, it's been a long time for me too.  I wasn't really all that old, but it sure feels good to be young enough to just do something just because it's fun, and not worry about getting hurt or how someone will think.”

DiVargin snorted, then said, “I never got the impression you much cared what anyone thought as long as they did as you wanted them to do.”

“That's not quite true.” I said, “I take my job very seriously, so I have to care what everyone thinks, but I do not lead, or make my decisions by committee or popular vote.  I take responsibility for my personal actions and leadership, and I am the one who will make any final decisions in any dispute.  If the people think I'm wrong, or not doing a good job, then they can choose another leader.”

Weaver chuckled and said, “Yes, yes, yes. . . you have made that very clear, only the brainless ones choose to not understand.  It is, proper, the way a Chief is expected to lead.  Listen to everyone, shame only those who shame themselves, and tell others what you think is the right thing to do.  If they don't like it, they can always choose another Chief.”

Weaver stretched mightily and added, “And I agree. . . It is good to be young again, to be able to truly enjoy life as only a young one can. . . but, it is even better to have the wisdom of age, of a long life. . . and to be young enough for such wisdom to actually be of real personal use.  Yessss, youth and wisdom, together is ssooo intoxicating.”  Then finished with, “Is it not?” in perfectly understandable English.

I chuckled at Weaver's revelation, which only mildly surprised me.  DiVargin just stared at me at first, obviously wondering what I thought was humorous, until shi suddenly realized the last words Weaver spoke were English.  Shi snapped her head around to stare at Weaver in total surprise as shi said, “I thought you didn't speak English!”

Weaver laughed like a cub pulling off a successful joke and said, “If you will recall, it was one of my great granddaughter's American friends who said I was an 'old Indian squaw' who spoke a 'weird Indian language' and some Spanish.  I never said I did not speak English.”

Weaver smiled at me and said in the Mayan dialect she and DiVargin used for their 'private' discussions, “I am not sure, but I believe I speak English rather better than our 'Chief' speaks Xoltec.”

DiVargin looked over at me with an accusing expression, “You speak Xoltec?  You've been eavesdropping on our private conversations!”

Feeling mildly annoyed, I said, “No, not really, I mean I don't speak 'Xoltec' worth shit, but I do understand a few words of several Mayan based dialects.  I happen to understand a few keys words and phrases for a lot of different languages.  It's a handy skill to have when you're fixing other people's problems in foreign countries.  You pick up all kinds of interesting information when people think you don't understand them.  Isn't that so Weaver?”

Weaver just smiled in reply, while DiVargin looked like shi did not know if shi should be angry or not, or who to be angry with.  I guess DiVargin finally decided to just let it go and lay back in the nice warm sunshine.  After a while, after the sun dried most of the water from my fur, I got out my comb and brush, and began giving my mane and coat a good brushing and combing for the first time since we left the caverns.  Soon after I started, Weaver and DiVargin commented on Katherine's brush and comb, and we ended up spending a very pleasant hour or so grooming each other.

* * * * *         * * * * *         * * * * *

A couple hours before sunset, we found an number of spots where someone, the recon/survey team we assume, had dug into the hillside.  It did not take long to determine the team had found a three to four foot thick seam of medium grade coal.  They seemed to have dug into the hill to determine the general lay of the seam.  This was not the first 'test holes' we had found, but there were over a dozen of these and they were a lot deeper, so the team probably spent a lot of time in the area, which meant they could still be fairly close by.

By sunset we found other test holes in the next valley over from where the coal seam was, which seemed noticeably fresher.  The Chakat scent was also very strong, much stronger than it had been since we started out after Deering's recon/survey team.  Shortly after we started following the scent trail, we ran into the scent of a wolf pack, a different and much bigger pack than the one we fought yesterday, which overlaid and nearly obscured the Chakat scent.  It was quickly obvious the wolf pack had changed direction and was following the Chakat scent trail.

Since our first encounter with the other pack, we carefully collected the heaviest water smoothed stones we could find to use as sling stones.  The ones we had now were twice as heavy or dense as the ones we had at first, and they were all as close to being the same size as we could find.  I was not sure what kind of mineral the smooth oblong black stones were, except I was pretty sure they were a metal ore of some kind, but this time, any wolf smacked in the skull with one of these would not be getting up afterward.

We had just finished caching our packs and saddlebags, and readied our weapons when we heard the first siren-like howl, which was quickly followed by at least a dozen others.  They sounded like they were maybe a mile on up the hollow between the two hills.  Instead of following the hollow, we headed up over the curve of one of the hills; a little more direct a route, and it avoided the possibility of being attacked from the hill sides at the same time.

As we reached the highest point on the hillside and started back downhill, we heard the first Chakat roar, which actually sounded more like a greatly amplified puma scream than a lion's roar.  This was quickly followed by two more Chakat screams, and a whole chorus of wolf howls.  A few hundred yards downhill, the first glimmers of a campfire showed through the trees, and little farther downhill I began seeing shadows, a whole lot of shadows dancing in the firelight.

Just as we got close enough to actually see what was happening, we almost ran over a dozen wolves lying and sitting on the hillside well clear of the fighting in the clearing twenty to thirty yards downhill from them.  They were almost as surprised as we were, and way too close to use the slings, but much to our surprise the wolves, the ones between us and the fight, quickly moved out of our way.  The way they acted as they moved, and the way the others dropped their heads low and backed away, without snarling or showing their teeth, was what I recognized first.  Then I spotted the clipped right ear of one of the larger, slightly less submissive wolves, and realized these were members of the same pack that we fought yesterday.

I called to DiVargin and Weaver, who had both drawn detachable Javelin points to attack the wolves at close range, “They're Lopped Ear's pack, I don't think they'll bother us.”

Weaver and DiVargin paused and took a good look at the wolves who were still backing away with their heads lowered, then Weaver nodded and said, “White Tip's right, these are no threat to us.  That is why they're watching the fight and not attacking with the other wolves.”

Hoping I was right, I turned my attention to the struggle around the campfire, and let fly a sling stone in the general direction of a group of wolves that looked like they were working up nerve to attack the surrounded Chakats.  Given the range, and my mediocre skill with the sling, I was not too surprised to see my missile miss all of my intended targets, but it smashed to bits against a small boulder in front of them in a rather spectacular manner, sending fragments and bright sparks flying.  It startled the hell out of my intended targets, and the fragments sprayed several other wolves several yards beyond them.  I'm sure the fragments did no real damage, but the loud crack of the sling stone shattering against the small boulder, and the yelps of pain and startlment, caused many of the wolves to pause and back away from the fight as they looked around for the source of the unexpected attack.

DiVargin and Weaver let go their sling stones a few seconds after I did, but with much deadlier effect.  DiVargin was not any better than I was with hir sling, but shi actually buried hir sling stone in the side of one wolf, knocking it a winding, and Weaver crushed the skull of another wolf with pin point accuracy.  Then as before, we let go a couple more volleys of sling stone as we closed with wolves, before giving another throat tearing scream, and charging all out at what we hoped was the pack's alpha leader.

This time, DiVargin was the one who spotted the alpha and charged through and over several of the smaller wolves to reach him, while Weaver and I did our best to ensure shi would not be attacked while shi dealt with the alpha.  Being half the size of DiVargin, this alpha tried retreating only to find its way momentarily blocked by a pair of wolves as big as he was.  The delay, and distraction allowed DiVargin to easily pounce on the alpha and pin him on the ground, although shi had to swat the two wolves who were almost nose to nose with hir.

After DiVargin gripped the alpha's throat in hir jaws, and the alpha submitted, many, but not all, of the wolves nearby reacted as the wolves of the first pack we fought reacted when I defeated their alpha.  While about half of the wolves backed away in postures of submission, the others did not look any less ready to attack.  With half their number quitting the fight with their defeated alpha, the snarling un-submitted wolves reluctantly turned and trotted off into the forest in different direction than the other wolves took.  Then I realized there were at least two packs cooperating in the attack, and would have been three if Lop Ear's pack had not decided to not join the attack.  As far as I knew, this cooperation of several packs to attack dangerous prey was not something real wolf packs did.

The four Chakats the packs had been attacking were all injured to one degree or another, but they had accounted for twelve of the seventeen dead wolves laying around the fire.  Black Stripe was the leader of this small group, and shi had suffered the most severe injuries when the wolves first attacked.  While Weaver used a razor sharp flake of obsidian to carefully shave the fur from around the worst of hir wounds, Black Stripe explained, “We chased off some of those things a couple days ago without much trouble, and I didn't think they'd attack like they did. . . in such numbers.  They suckered me real good, we saw only a dozen at first and I did a very foolish thing and tried chasing them off almost by myself.  They seemed to be backing away, and like a stupid newbie let myself get separated from the others.  I was only a few yards out in front of the others, a dozen at most, when I was suddenly swarmed by a dozen of those things from both sides.  If Wane hadn't had a torch from the fire shi could throw at the ones swarming over me, they'd really have made a bloody mess of me.”

Black Stripe grunted as Weaver licked hir wound clean then asked Weaver, “What are you doing?”

I explained, “Katherine and the other doctors believes our saliva is a very effective antibiotic.  It'll be the only one we'll have for a while anyway.”

About then Wane said in alarm, “They're back!”

I looked around to where and the others were looking, and saw Lop Ear and his pack watching from edge of the clearing.  “Oh, they're not going to attack,” I said, “They're just curious.”

Black Stripe asked, “And just how sure are you, they're not going to attack?”

“Well, I'm not saying they won't attack,” I admitted, “but from the way they're acting I'm pretty sure they not going to attack unless someone does something to provoke them.  They were sitting up on the hillside watching, we actually ran right through them on the way here.”

Weaver explained, “We fought them yesterday, and White Tip defeated the pack leader in single combat.”

Black Stripe said, “You drove them off?  So did we, but they came back with reinforcements.”

“No,” I explained, “we didn't just drive a few stray wolves away.  We ran into a whole pack, and when we managed to spot the pack leader, I got close enough to defeat him, like DiVargin did with one of the pack leaders of the packs attacking you.  You saw how some of the wolves acted after DiVargin pinned the alpha leader and he submitted to hir, didn't you?”

“Yeah, the ones we ran off didn't act that way,” Black Stripe replied.

I nodded and said, “I don't think just killing a few will do anything beside pissing them off.  They're not really wolves, but they act a lot like wolves, with a few noticeable differences I think.  I also think they're more intelligent than real wolves.  I guess I was actually lucky in my assumption on how the pack leader would react to being defeated by a non-'wolf', as I did.”

I studied Lop Ear as he relaxed and studied us to turn, then asked, “Oh, by the way, where are Deering and the others?”

As shi was watching Weaver preparing one of the curved thorn needle and gut thread sutures Doc Lu Ming came up with, Black Stripe was a little slow in replying, “Uhh. . . He decided we could cover a lot more area if we broke up into three teams.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, since we hadn't seen any sign of any dangerous predators. . . at least we hadn't up until then.”

“Yeah, that's what I thought,” I nodded and said, “Except for the wolf packs, I don't think there's anything around here that would bother even a lone Chakat.  You find anything, beside that vein of coal?”

“Uhh. . . no.” Black Stripe replied, “Not yet, but Blue Eyes thinks there may be some iron ore in this area.”

My ears perked up as I exclaimed, “That would be great, especially with coal so close!  Even if one or both are only small deposits, if there's enough to make a few tons of iron, or even steel. . . then we can really start to get some things done.”

About then, as Weaver set the first suture, one of six shi decided Black Stripe's wound needed, Blue Eyes handed me a fragment of my shattered sling stone and asked, as shi examined a whole stone, “Where did you find these mineral nodules?”

“We found a whole creek bed full of them yesterday, just after we had a run in with Lop Ear's pack.” I answered, “I'm surprised the survey team missed them since you passed right through that area.  They seemed pretty obvious.  Given their mass, they make excellent sling stones.  We assumed they were some kind of metal ore.  They're not some kind of iron ore, are they?”

“No, not iron, although it does look like magnesite, and has about the right mass, but it's not magnetic,” Blue Eyes replied thoughtfully.  “I wish I had a Geiger counter, or some other way of detecting radiation.”

“Radiation!?” DiVargin exclaimed, “You think it's radioactive?”

“I don't know,” shi replied, “That's why I wish I had some kind of radiation detector.  What did the place look like, where you found these?  Did the plants in the area look healthy?”

Weaver spoke up, after tying off the first suture, “The ones growing along the creek banks seemed healthy, but they were also not the same type of plants we've seen growing along other creek banks, and as far as I can remember, I've not seen those kind of plants growing anywhere else.”

“Hummm. . . that's interesting,” Blue Eyes said as shi examined the fragment, “these may be radioactive, or toxic, and those particular plants happen to be resistant to the effects.”

“Oh, these might be dangerous?” I asked.

Blue Eyes shrugged and said, “Long term exposure to the nodules might be 'relatively' unhealthy, but depending on their composition, they could also be a very valuable resource.”

“Do you think they're safe to use as sling stones?” I asked.

“Oh. . . yes, sure.” shi said, “Even if they were lead and arsenic, or uranium ore, which I'm sure they're not, they'd be safe to use as sling stones.”

Black Stripe grunted as Weaver pushed a third thorn needle through the edges of hir wounded flank, and asked in a strained voice, “Uhhhh. . . do you really have to put three more of those sutures in?”

Weaver replied in a sympathetic tone of voice, “Yes, at least six, and I should put in eight, but we have only so many, and some of the others might need a stitch or two.”

Black Stripe grunted again and asked, “Weaver. . . aren't you Talaina's grandmother?”

“Hir great, great grandmother, actually. . . Why?”

“I got the impression you didn't speak English, but you have less of an accent than Talaina has.”

After Tying off the suture Weaver asked in a dry tone of voice, “Humm, and your point being?”

Black Stripe chuckled then said, “No point, I guess, except I think I see where Tal gets her sneakiness.  You know, only newbies play poker with her, much to her annoyance.”

As shi pushed another thorn needle through Black Stripes tough hide, Weaver said, “Humm, is that so?  Talaina, sneaky?  No, I don't recall her being sneaky.  I always thought she was rather open and direct.”

By the time Weaver finished stitching Black Stripe's wound as well as putting a stitch or two in a few other more minor wounds shi and the others had, Lop Ear and his pack had quietly moved on.  As shi finished attending the last minor wound, Black Stripe finally asked, “By the way, why are you three here?  Is something wrong back at the base camp?”

“Everything's okay back in the caverns, but we discovered a potentially serious health problem affecting nine out of ten to one degree or another.  Luckily, it's something we can fairly easily cure, and keep from reoccurring.  It was pointed out the recon/survey teams would most likely be suffering from the same, ah, 'health' problem, so three-person teams were sent out after each recon team.”

“What is this 'health' problem?” Black Stripe asked, and looked puzzled at Weaver as shi chuckled.  Weaver was one of the few who had been keeping themselves properly clean from the beginning.

I sighed and replied, “Ahhh. . . well it's a little embarrassing. . . ”

“Yeah, just a little embarrassing.” DiVargin commented dryly.

I glared at hir and asked, “Maybe you want to handle this?”

“No, I. . .” DiVargin started to say, but was interrupted by a loud snicker from Weaver.

As DiVargin glared at Weaver, who was obviously having trouble stifling hir mirth, Black Stripe demanded, “Well. . . will someone explain what this so-called 'health' problem is that you felt was so serious you come chasing after us?”

I started again, “It has to do with our different, uhh. . . requirements as far as personal hygiene is concerned.” I sniffed the air, although I did not have to since I already picked up the distinctive rotten scent of one or more infected penises or sheaths, and added, “And, from the scent, I'd say at least a couple of you are in need of basic lessons in 'Chakat Hygiene 101'.”

“What the hell does that mean!?” Blue Eyes demanded.

“I mean you're not keeping your cock 'n sheath clean.” I replied, “Are you kinda sore or swollen, or maybe a nice bright red, down there?  Well, if you are then we got the cure, but I doubt you'll like it. . . at least at first anyway.”

Black Stripe said, “Yeah, we already noticed the problem, and even though we've been washing everyday most of the men are having problems.  You say you have a cure?”

“Yeah, it's actually rather obvious, and for now it's the only way that works for sure.” I said, then began demonstrating 'The Technique'.

Black Stripe and the others just stared for several long seconds as I began licking myself like any other cat or dog would do, before Blue Eyes demanded, “You've got to be kidding!  You can't really expect us to do that!”

With obvious sympathy DiVargin said, “Unfortunately, we're not kidding, that is exactly what we expect you to do.  It really does work, and without soap, it's the only thing we know that is effective.”

I looked up and said, “I don't think anyone was really happy about having to lick themselves to keep clean, as some said 'like dumb animals', but after you get used to it, it's really not that bad.”

DiVargin added, “Of course, if your sheath and penis is badly infected, it's gonna really taste bad the first time you do it.”

I explained, “If you have an 'inflammation film' covering your penis and the inside of your sheath. . . that scummy sticky stuff. . . wash as much of that off as you can, 'cause that stuff tastes as bad as it smells.”

Black Stripe and the other three did not like the idea of licking themselves, and since the four of them had been male SF troopers, Weaver's suggestion of licking each other did not go over too well either.  An obviously annoyed Blue Eyes asked Weaver, “Are you sure you're Tal's great grandma?  You sure as hell don't act or talk like I remember.”

Weaver laughed and did a 'hand stand' on hir front paws, before doing a back flip to stand on hir rear legs as neat as any circus acrobat.  Then after doing a few more such acrobatic moves shi said, “I've not been able to do anything like this for over sixty years, so do you really expect me to act like an old woman?  I'm young again, and I'm not going to let anyone tell me how I should act.  I never did before, so I sure am not going to start now.”

After Weaver had hir fun. . . shi was full of surprises. . . I said, “Well, let's go and pick up our gear, then we can go looking for the others.”

“You mean now?” Black Stripe asked obviously surprised.

“Ahh, yeah.” I said, “Is there a problem?  I mean, if you and your people are tired, you don't have to go with us.  Just point out the general direction Deering and the others are and we can take it from there.”

Black Stripe gave us an odd look then asked, “Why don't you wait here with the fire until daylight.  There might be another of those 'wolf' packs out there.”

“Ohh. . .” I said, “I was wondering why you had such a big fire.  We didn't make any fires nearly as big as the one you have.  And, as far as the wolf packs are concerned, they hunt during the day too, we ran into Lop Ear's pack around noon.”

DiVargin asked, “You've been making camp every night all night?”

Black Stripe nodded and said, “Yes, since we entered the forest we have been.”

“But, why make camp for the whole night?” DiVargin asked, “You surely don't sleep the whole night through, do you?  Are Deering and the rest of the team making camp for the whole night too?”

“Yes, I believe they are.  Why, what's the problem?”

“Ohh, no problem, I guess.” I replied, “It's just, back in the caverns I've gotten used to working around the clock, and napping an hour or two whenever I feel the need.  Most people are starting to do the same since we can see at night almost as good as we can during the day.  More than a few prefer working at night and taking it easy during the day, when it's hotter.  I kinda expected Deering would be taking full advantage of our new senses and unique abilities, instead of trying to do things as if we were still human.”

“What else do you expect of the great military mind?” DiVargin asked rhetorically in a hir most patronizing tone of voice, then added, “You have to hit them over the head with a club just to get their attention, and common sense is something that is most uncommon for such thick-headed mush brains, of which Colonel Deering is a prime example.”

DiVargin had actually been rather pleasant company over the last couple of days, but I knew how shi felt about Deering so I was a bit surprised it took hir so long to toss a nasty comment into the conversation.  Even though I was expecting hir to say something nasty, it still irritated me, but I knew it would not do any good to show it, so instead I laughed and said, “Ahhh, DiVargin. . . is that the best you can come up with?  If you're gonna needle someone, someone who isn't even present to appreciate it, about being stuck in a rut, you could at least think of something a little more original yourself, don't you think?”

“Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted,” I said, “Black Stripe, you've surely noticed by now our sleeping requirements are different from what they were?  Back in the caverns, we've noticed napping one or two hours several times throughout the day and night is much more restful and efficient than trying to sleep a solid eight to ten hours at time each day.  We had no trouble traveling day and night, with frequent stops for snacks and naps, and even taking the time to follow your trail we still easily covered forty to fifty miles a day.”

Black Stripe nodded and said, “Yeah, we've noticed we have a very hard time sleeping more than a few hours, and we have been taking a couple hours to nap around noon each day.  I assume the rest of the team is doing that too.”

DiVargin muttered something too low to understand, but something probably along the lines of hir earlier comment.  Weaver whispered something in hir ear, then licked DiVargin's cheek and ear in a rather familiar way, which caused Black Stripe to chuckle and say, “Looks like DiAssPain got a love interest, and one Tal is really gona love.”

While DiVargin sputtered, Weaver stuck hir tongue out at Black Stripe and said, “What I do, and who I do it with, is not, and never has been, any of my granddaughter's concern.” Then shi kiss-licked DiVargin again, which ended hir sputtering, if not hir embarrassment.

I noticed with amusement DiVargin did not do anything to discourage Weaver's attention.  As we set off to retrieve our gear, I wondered just how serious Weaver was.  Then I snorted at the picture of DiVargin pregnant and swollen or nursing a kit.  Maybe that, if it ever happens, would sweeten hir normally sour disposition.

Thinking about pregnancies and nursing kits caused me to wonder if I was really pregnant.  I think I am, but I'm just not sure.  I have 'felt' a little 'odd' since the day after Katherine and I made love, mated with the intention of me getting pregnant.  If I am pregnant, then the oddness I felt would be the heightened conscious self-awareness of the state of physical health Chakats are supposed to have.  I guess I will know for sure this time next month, if not sooner.

We discovered something had 'investigated' our stuff.  The thief had managed to open our saddlebags to nose through the contents, and dumped some of the contents out on the ground below the tree, but nothing was missing except the two packs containing most of our remaining meat.  Although we did not see who or what the thief was, the scent that lingered in the area and all over our saddlebags was clearly that of a treecat.  I'm also pretty sure it was the same treecat that followed us for so long yesterday.

DiVargin was more than a little pissed off because hir saddlebags had been nearly emptied and its contents the most scattered, while Weaver's and my saddlebags was much less 'disturbed'.  While DiVargin cursed under hir breath and collected hir scattered gear, I told Black Stripe and the others about the Treecat we spotted, and pointed out its scent.

It was clear Black Stripe was doubtful as shi said, “Are you sure it had six legs?  Not counting such things as insects, or what passes for insects here, and those armadillo things, we've not seen anything with six limbs.” Noticing my annoyance at hir doubt, shi quickly said, “Uhh, sorry, I guess our attention was mostly on the mineral survey, and I guess we've not paid much attention to the wildlife as long as it didn't seem dangerous.”

DiVargin paused in gathering hir scattered gear to point out, “I thought you were supposed to be keeping an eye out for possible aborigines?  If you're too busy to notice them, how do you expect to avoid contact if any possible aborigines could spy on you so easily?”

“That's an excellent question,” I said.  “I'd be interested in hearing an explanation about that too.  I'm not saying a good thorough resource survey isn't important, resources will be vital for the growth of our community, but I'm sure you realize a surprise attack from hostile forces we know nothing about could be devastating.”

Black Stripe said in a defensive tone, “We've not seen a single sign of any 'aborigines'.  These hills are a totally untouched wilderness.”

Weaver asked after shi climbed down out of the tree with hir and DiVargin's saddlebags, “How would you know the difference between a natural untouched wilderness, and a well kept game preserve, if the keepers do not actually live on their game preserve?  Also, if there are people living in these rich forested hills, they may live in such harmony with the land that there would be very few obvious 'signs' of their existence.  Even though you and your comrades are well trained and highly skilled warriors, well able to survive and fight in the wild areas of Earth, you have not grown up and lived day after day in such places.

“Yes, Weaver is right.” I added, “You must also always remember, no matter how Earth-like parts of this world may seem, it is not Earth.”

Black Stripe did not like being lectured, something I know always irritated the hell out of me, so I changed the subject by showing hir one of the packages of paper.  I said as I handed hir a sheet of the rather heavy paper, “I bet you can put this to good use.”

“Paper!” Black Stripe exclaimed, “Already!?  I thought it would take months to come up with usable writing paper.”

I explained, “We lucked out and found several plants suitable to make paper out of, only thing better would be something like hemp or cotton.  Weaver showed Night Runner how to make a smooth tightly woven pulp screen out of the long fibers from bamboo leaves.  The leaf fibers are too stiff to make cloth out of, but they can be woven to make a good pulp screen for paper making.”

Black Stripe said, “Now we can begin making decent maps and notes without having to rely on memory.  All we need now is something to write with.”

Smiling, DiVargin tossed a finger thick stick to Black Stripe saying, “Something like this?”

Shi stared at the piece of bamboo, before shi pulled a 'cap' off one end of the 'stick', sniffed the end, wrinkled hir nose, then looked up at DiVargin in surprise.  “A felt tip pen!” shi said, then asked, “What are you using for the tip?  Whatever you're using for ink really reeks!”

DiVargin said, “Yes, I know the ink stinks.  I'm still working on it, but the ink should work without clogging the tip.  The smell does fade after a while and if you leave the paper out in the sun for a hour or two after writing on it, most of the stink should dissipate.”

The pen was a surprise to me as well as Black Stripe, and I commented, “Oh, so that's what one of your secret projects was.”

DiVargin nodded and said, “Yes.  I used to be a pretty good organic chemist, before I got interested in environmental ecology.  If we can get some decent laboratory glassware, I can turn out a rainbow of inks and dyes, and several very useful polymers from coal tar, and do it without poisoning the environment.”

As I checked out one of the 'pens'. . . it really did stink.  I nodded and said, “Good!  With our small population, and an awareness of what kind of damage various technologies can do to the environment, I hope we can avoid some of the worse side effects of developing a technological society.”

I gave DiVargin a big smile and added, “That is something I hope you can oversee, without banning technological developments out of hand.”

DiVargin seemed surprised as shi asked, “You do?  I thought you didn't trust socialists.”

I shrugged and replied, “I don't and never will, but I think you are the best choice to keep an eye on the environmental effects as our technology develops.  Throughout human history, too many things were done without any thought of harmful side effects, but we are going to do things a little different right from the beginning.  I want you to understand, you won't have the final say on what technologies are developed, although I do expect you'll find ways of making your views known.”

To Be Continued.

Another Colony story - Lessons

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