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Recovery Mission 875-496

Some elevation, down a few miles from the glacier. He could see the village several miles away, the landmark Natasha spoke of, in repair but uninhabited right now. Beautiful meadow, melt stream running by, good place to just sit. He picked a spot, did a single loop around to check it clear, flared, and settled the ship slightly. Firm footing, he landed and zeroed vector.

Trees looming overhead, lots of foliage, but the meadow was still fully lit, the local star rotating low. He saw a pair of beady eyes at ground level looking at him from the trees, then they withdrew into the forest. Good a time as any to get to know the flora and fauna a bit better, good spot for a fire at a fallen log ....

He set the intercom. "On the deck, looks good, let's do a sleep shutdown."

Laseiag acknowledged. Helga didn't answer but eased onto the bridge.

"How's she doing?"

"She sleeps. I believe an hour more is appropriate. The rabbit is awake and watches us."

"It's not going to panic and run circles around the inside of the hull is it?"

"I believe not. It seems to watch me as I watch it."

"Waiting for the right moment to strike and hijack the ship no doubt." Helga looked at him funny. "Just joking. At some point you and Chief Laseiag please look at the bikes and put Gretel back together, if you can."

"Yes." She faced him formally. "It is frustrating to contact two societies in one day and pursue neither."

"Yeah." He leaned back. "When you hook up with the Lu Hao, which one will you study first?"

She ran her hand across her belly, an unconscious action. He'd never seen her do anything like that before. "I cannot say."

"I'm sure you'll know when the time comes," he smiled. He keyed the comm system. "ISS Purdue ISS Dainty Flower on search and rescue mission, please respond." Nothing came back. He tried again. Nothing. "When Natasha is up, if she's able please remind her to try contact again if I don't myself."


"In the meantime let's see if I can get a campfire going," he said happily looking out the window. She smiled and eased off the bridge and headed aft.

"Flower, outhull safety protocols, announcements to ship comms."


He switched off his panel but left Natasha's lit off, and eased off the bridge. Passing by he noticed Natasha's cabin door was slightly open. He violated protocol and glanced in. Natasha was asleep, the rabbit was awake its eyes and ears straight at him.

He pointed at it. "We will defend this ship to the death!"

It wrinkled its nose at him.

He shut Natasha's cabin door and moved to his cabin to grab a day-bag from out of the bottom of his locker. Knife, hatchet, flint ... He headed for the airlock. He checked the lock deck, making sure the scout cadet who had tried to hitch a ride with them hadn't dropped anything, then popped the hatch and moved out.

Cooler air. Probably be chilly tonight, he'd see if he could sleep outside tonight just to see how it would go. He looked up the mountain towards the glacier, and estimated that there was some cold air sliding down to this location. Colder than it would be otherwise, yeah, a great chance to see how cold it could get. He looked over the meadow, grasses, some flowers, no rabbits - probably a good sign. One bush had a large collection of flying bugs or something orbiting around it, guess they had particular tastes. He eased to the ladder and started down.

Someone grabbed his leg.

He yelled involuntarily and kicked off, losing his grip. It was one of the village men, who also lost his grip. They both stickey-flailed down the ladder, alternately grabbing rungs and each other and open air.

They hit the ground, hard. Adam had the breath knocked out of him, he tried to ignore it and function anyway, he lurched to his feet away from the man and pulling his sidearm drew down on him, his heart thudding irregularly.

Big guy, some kind of leather shirt and shorts. Belt, stuff on it, a blade of some sort. Sandals, the tribal had footwear. Hair pushed way back, eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed, skin pink and half-frozen. Oh good grief, he'd been hanging onto the ladder the whole flight from the village. He sat holding his head in his hands, and looked up at Adam.

Adam's loss of breath caught up with him and he suddenly gasped in, a huge shaking gulping draw of air.

The man, obviously in pain and keeping one hand on his head, slowly grinned and pointed at Adam and started laughing, a huge open-mouthed good-natured laugh.

After sucking in enough air to stabilize his heart again Adam safed and holstered his weapon. He raised a hand. "Greetings from the Emperor." He wobbled on his feet and sat down, deciding it was better than falling down.

The man said something through his pain and smile, a heavy deliberate language, clearly a question, and pointed to the sky.

Adam called, "Helga? Chief Laseiag? You out yet?" Getting no response he pointed to the declining sun, made a sunset motion, then pointed to himself and hit the ground.

The man nodded, pointed to himself and Adam and hit the ground grinning. He groaned as the shock transmitted to his head, but didn't stop smiling.

Adam heard Laseiag saying something. He looked up and saw Helga riding Hansel and Laseiag leading Gretel towards the ladder foot. They stopped on seeing the man, but then continued on. The villager gaped in awe upon realizing the machinery was riding above the ground without touching it. But his attention was drawn starkly to Helga. She seemed to respond to him, instinctually posing like a Valkyrie.

"Uh, Helga," ... Adam started.

"JA!" She snapped to and resumed a professional attitude. The man's expression did not change, it was as if he were gazing upon a heavenly vision.

Laseiag strode up. "Sample?"

"Star cadet."

Laseiag looked at the ship ladder, then the man, and bowed. "Ziru Sirka asmeshka ungashgar. Aarla." The man didn't seem to hear him. Laseiag seemed to take this in stride.

Adam shook his finger at Laseiag. "Has any Vilani ever said that twice in one day?"

Laseiag settled Gretel and set down a tool box, moving more and more slowly as he considered this, an expression of great concentration growing on his face. Eventually he answered quietly without moving, "I do not know."

Adam laughed. "Maybe you'll have your own opera." Laseiag gazed into the distance, considering, but then brought himself back.

Helga had dismounted and settled Hansel and was looking over the man's minor injuries. He clearly was smitten, and took her hand, saying something. She gently detached him and placed her hand on her belly, then pointed to the sky. If anything he was awestruck even more.

"Should you be telling him that?" Adam asked doubtfully.

"Correct procedure is to allow contacts to amend their own beliefs rather than see them deprecated," she answered professionally.

"Uh ... OK. Hey," he motioned to the man catching his attention, and pointed at himself and the others. "Adam. Chief Laseiag. Helga."

"Helga," he said, dreamily, looking at her again.

"Yeah, Helga. You?" Adam asked, pointing at him.

He looked around and realized the question. "Jurl."

"Hey, great, Jurl. Say," Adam said, getting to his feet and helping Jurl up, "guess we're going to be friends for a bit." Adam suddenly brightened - what an opportunity. "So, let's get a fire going." He motioned Jurl over to the log and started looking for sticks - he double-checked them, definitely wood - and putting them in a pile. Jurl immediately realized what Adam was doing and pitched in, gathering up quite a bit of his own.
Adam looked around, estimating the fire location. Wood available, clear spot, sit here, sleep there, sunset and sunrise, wind ... he moved the pile a bit, looked around again, and nodded to himself. Jurl nodded approvingly and threw most of his wood onto the same location, but reserved a bit for himself at a little distance. Adam watched curiously. Jurl pulled out some obvious tinder and started setting up a fire start, glancing up at Helga happily and pointing to his work. Helga sat back and smiled.

"Uh huh." Adam crouched down and started setting up his own start, pulling some prepared paper out, moving a little faster.

Jurl noticed and stared at the paper, but worked a faster himself, glancing up between Adam and Helga.

Adam narrowed his eyes in concentration and worked even faster. Small, large, teepee, openings, tray, tinder ....

Jurl finished quickly and pulled some more tools out of his belt pouch - some thin and stout sticks and a thong. He glanced at Adam and tossed them to one side and pulled out different tools - a flattened lump of metal and a whitish rock. He waved them and grinned at Adam and Helga triumphantly.

Adam and Helga both stared. The metal seemed to be hammered iron. Meteoric iron, it had to be. Jurl held it up, grinning and pointing into the sky and laughing triumphantly.

Adam grinned competitively at Jurl and held up his field knife and flint rod. Jurl stared at the worked materials as if they were tools of the gods, then suddenly leaned down and began frantically scraping sparks onto his tinder. Adam lurched forward to catch up. Two showers of light scattered everywhere.

Helga beamed. With a perfectly controlled and straight face Laseiag turned away with his took kits and stepped back to the grav bikes to begin working on them.

The two men were blowing on their sparks trying to work up a flame. Adam actually got a flame going first, but suddenly it failed and he had to start over. Jurl managed to keep his flame going and slid it into his starter. The sticks began popping, then caught. When his fire was secured he carefully pushed it over to the main wood pile and helped it catch. Adam caught up a minute later and pushed his start onto his side of the main pile. Jurl laughed triumphantly, then gazed happily at Helga. "Sehr gut," she offered warmly. Her professional look mingled with something, perhaps a memory ....

"Yeah, you got it," Adam waved and congratulated Jurl. He pointed to Jurl's knife and held out his hand. Jurl understood and offered it to Adam, and reciprocated towards Adam's field knife. Adam gave it to him.

The primitive knife was amazing. He had seen glass blades before but this was different. Some kind of hard wood, inset along the rim with obsidian to form a continuous edge. In fact it was a continous edge. He became amazed at what he was looking at. The wood was grown onto a single spear-point obsidian piece, carefully trimmed back to expose just the edge, then shaped to fit the human hand - probably Jurl's specifically, looking at it. Quite sharp yet strong, able to tolerate hard use, a beautiful piece of work. The leather cord wrapping on the handle felt good in his hand and the slight pommel locked down his grip.

He looked up to comment at Jurl, but the man was gazing in rapt fascination at the single continuous edge of the steel field knife. He seemed to grasp the purpose of the drop point immediately and nodded as if comprehending something new. He cut a fuzzy stick to test it, smiling slightly at how easy it was. The single piece design didn't seem to catch his attention, but the checkered taper grip and loop lanyard did. He played with the grip for a bit, quickly coming to realize why it was that way, and what the lanyard was for. He looked at Adam, puzzled and almost sympathetic.

"Just what they issue," Adam said. He handed the wood and obsidian blade to Helga, saying, "Accretion assembly." Her eyes widened at that and she examined the piece very carefully, at one point pulling out a magnifier from her vest to better see the construction. "Chief Laseiag, you might want to see this too." Laseiag set down his tools and walked over, clearly becoming just as intrigued as Helga. Jurl seemed amazed that they would be interested in his knife.

Laseiag handed it back to him. "That is beautiful," he said sincerely. Adam and Helga looked at him. Jurl smiled and handed Adam's knife back to him.

Adam glanced at the dimming sky, then around at the wood available for the fire, then at the fire itself which was building up well. "Looks like enough for tonight." He tossed another piece on the fire to build it. "Jurl." The man looked at him. Adam guessed and took a stick, held over the fire as if roasting something, took an imaginary bite, then pointed around at the surrounding forest as if asking a question. Jurl jumped up immediately, grinned at Helga again, and headed out across the field. As he ran he drew his knife again, flipping it up in mid-air and catching it by the flat of the blade, as if ready to throw it. He swept his eyes across the treeline, searching for targets.

"Everyone see that?" asked Adam. Helga and Laseiag affirmed.

As Jurl ran he suddenly stopped looking up at the Flower's bridge. Adam could barely see Natasha was there with her binocculars again, looking around. Jurl gaped, then bowed down, one knee and one fist on the ground, looking at her. He then leaped up happily and continued on his way, apparently singing some low gutteral song.

Helga was saying something. Adam looked at her. She had a light in her eye and she was signing the same song. She stopped after a line as Jurl passed out of hearing.

"You know that?" asked Adam, surprised.

"There was a beast, down in the wood ...." she said quietly, looking into the forest. She looked back. "It is ancestral song. He may not know meaning."

Laseiag looked at Helga, then at the fire. "You enjoy this?" he said to Adam.

"Yes." Adam watched the growing fire, feeling the dancing lights interact with his mind. "A force in the universe, controlled by your own hands instead of theory and math." He looked up at Laseiag. "What do you see?"

Laseiag looked at the flames. "Chemistry."

Adam watched him. Laseiag continued to watch the fire.

After a moment Adam stood up and looked at both of them. "How are the bikes? Any serious damage?"

Helga looke back at the bikes, Laseiag shook his head and looked up. "No serious damage. A part is missing, I have the data so the cutter can manufacture a new one. We still are reassembling."

"Great, OK, I'm going to check why Natasha is out of bed, please keep an eye on the fire so we don't burn the place down," Adam said. He gave it another look, decided it didn't need another log, and headed back to the Flower. He trotted up the ladder, down into the ship, then onto the bridge. Natasha was at her panel checking readings.

"You should be laying down."

"I ping for robot and check frequencies. Nothing." She looked up. "Why do they bow down for me?"

"Probably because"

Don't say that.

"they always see you with binocculars and this makes you resemble one of their goddesses," he grinned. He waved down to the fire. "You should stay in bed, but if you care to join us we can set ship G to .1 and set Gretel on the roof for you, so you don't have to climb around."

"And eat dead animal?"

"Helga and I will, I don't think Chief Laseiag will so you can eat packet food with him. You don't have to come down, in fact you shouldn't, but if you decide you're going to move around then I'd like to talk to this guy. I'm thinking Helga can learn a bit more and also if this robot is comms-dead then he might be able to help us find it."

"He is the only one here?"

"Yeah, this seems to be their summer harvest home nobody here now, he hung onto the ladder while we flew here."

She boggled and shook her head. "I saw no indication of this in the field breach."

"Yeah, I think when they installed the ladder they left it outside of the maneuver envelope. Good thing we're only at 1G. By the way how's the rabbit?"

"It is ... calm," she answered oddly.


"I believe so. It observes."

"OK, tell him he'd better watch his step and we won't go down without a fight. And seriously keep the bridge and engineering hatches shut and if you leave the ship make sure he's in your cabin with the door shut and latched, we don't need a wounded animal dancing on the control panels while we're off the ship."

She nodded.

"And wear your comm link. It's a damaged rabbit but we've seen they'll fight to the death, so if there's a problem I want to hear from you immediately."

She hesitated, but nodded again and pulled her link out of a pocket and put it on.

He eased back out of the bridge, got his own comm link on, checked engineering secured, and went back out.
Squirrel. Terran squirrel. Had to be. Jurl already had skinned them before bringing them back, but Adam was sure he recognized them. He felt sorry for the animals, he liked them, but food was food.

Yeah. Food was food.

Apparently Jurl had taken them by throwing his knife, hitting them in the head or neck or ribcage. Amazing skill. They were roasting over the fire on wooden sticks. Jurl also had brought back several vines with large quantities of some kind of small fruit, probably more than they could eat. Helga had run it all through the compatibility tests, putting bits into the test tubes and shaking them to see what the chem markers picked up. Nothing, probably all good. Adam and he took turns rotating the squirrels. Helga had her data pad on record. Laseiag was sitting on the log with everyone as if being polite.

The star was rotating below the horizon, darkness settling in, shadows from the fire playing along the nearby trees. The comet was in aspect and coming into view, long and bright. Jurl was singing quietly to himself, sometimes curious lilting tunes not at all like his native language, and others that fit right in with it, slow, happy, primitive.

Adam glanced up at the comet. He suddenly remembered. "Don't let it ...." He looked into the darkening woods.

Helga joined Jurl in one of the songs, the same one Jurl had sang as he ran off to hunt. He stopped, shocked, as she sang a few words, and then joined her, following her lead as if realizing she knew what it was meant to be. It ended with a small chant, "ah HO ah, ah HO ah, AH ha ha!" Jurl finished with his eyes half-open, gazing at the fire, Helga finished by looking up at the appearing stars.

"What's it mean?" Adam asked.

"Ancient song of defiance," Helga said. "There is galanglic version." She looked at him, Adam nodded. She sang quietly, slightly different cadence. Jurl listened intently.

"There was a beast down in the wood
That craves to drink a thousand vikings' blood
I'm fat with men how still your oars
And screams that he could eat ten thousand more
But I was one that could not yield
And so I took my trusty axe and shield
And found the beast down in the wood
And now ...."

They heard the hum and looked up, Helga finishing. Natasha drifted down on Gretel, carefully settling it down. Laseiag stood and helped her dismount, then move to the log where everyone was sitting. Jurl was down on one knee and one hand again, alternating gazing happily at Natasha and in amazement at Gretel. She spoke a few words to him, and he seemed to answer an eager positive. Natasha sat, looking dubiously at the roasting squirrels, then up at the comet.

Adam waited a moment. "How well can you talk to him?"

"Some words," she answered. "Nothing complex." Helga handed her a branch of berries, and she looked at them suspiciously, trying to examine them in the firelight. Laseiag reached over and pulled off several, eating them and looking at her. She tried a few, her eyes narrowed in concentration - Adam tried not to laugh as he rotated the squirrels - and then ate some more.

"They taste ...." she said, but stopped as if she could not find the word.

"As if they are made for oneself," Laseiag finished for her. She considered, then nodded at him.

"How often do Vilani eat natural foods, Chief Laseiag?" Adam asked.

"Frequently," said Laseiag. "The traditional foods take days to prepare by an entire family. Grinding and fermentation and reduction and splitting and roasting are clan events. History is related in oral traditions, culture is explained and demonstrated, marriages are proposed and discussed. We value these times."

Natasha looked at him. "And does this effort take long enough to result in dissolutions as well?"

"Never directly," Laseiag answered. "But we have an ancient opera that celebrates a clan feud that began badly and ended happily before the week's dinner preparation could be finished." He ate a few more berries. "We are not so uncivilized now. But sometimes it is better to eat off of a stick and alone like a terran."

"Any songs during these get-togethers?" Adam inquired, as if inviting Laseiag to sing.

"A short childrens' song is almost half an hour."

"OK, that, uh, probably wouldn't fit in here."

Jurl had been listening intently, apparently trying to understand. Natasha addressed him, haltingly, and he replied and checked the squirrels. Not quite done apparently. He asked Natasha a question, pointing up at the comet.

"I believe he wishes to know if the comet brought us here," she queried Helga.

"Answer directly."

Natasha said something, then looking around at the now starry sky and then to a certain region she pointed to a particular star, saying something else including the word "Aki".

Jurl moved up to Natasha and sat at her feet to look exactly where she was pointing, at a dim red star. He seemed somewhat puzzled by this and looked around at her, and then the others.

"Trin's Veil", said Adam, as if remembering. Natasha pointed unerringly to a bright white star very near Aki.

"Lunion", said Helga almost proudly. Natasha pointed directly at a yellow star just above the treetop horizon, not too far from the other two.

"Karin", said Laseiag, as if citing only part of a long list. Natasha brought her arm down in a sweep, pointing to a section of the sky below the horizon and saying a few words.

Jurl seemed very taken back. He moved back to his place, looking at all of them. Eventually he said something.

"He asks, all colors?"

"Oh yes, all colors," said Adam. Natasha translated back to Jurl, who seemed to think.

A wisp of smoke rose from one of the squirrels and Adam leaned forward suddenly to rotate them. "Whoa hey, let's not burn dinner." Jurl leaned forward too, and looking at Adam he laughed. Adam laughed back, "Absolutely right, food first and mysteries of the universe second."

Eventually the animals were roasted and everyone ate. Adam said his private grace and so did Helga, then they and Jurl dug in, taking bites as the squirrels cooled. Natasha tried but couldn't quite bring herself to do it. Laseiag simply broke open a food packet into bowl format and ate it cold from there, after producing one for Natasha as well. Looked like she was trying to avoid looking at the others taking bites out of their squirrels ....

"OK, Natasha, since we're having such trouble finding this robot but it's somewhere around here, we hope, maybe Jurl can use his hunting skills to help us. I'm assuming that no-one here knows about the Purdue or its crew and we probably should keep it that way, so let's just talk about only the robot. We've lost it, or something. Can you get the concepts across?"

"I do not know. I will try."

"Is it gravitic robot?" asked Helga.

"Almost certainly."

"Then you can use Gretel as model."

"Ah. That will work." She began. After about twenty minutes, some demonstrations of Gretel, and some drawings in the dirt, Natasha finally reported, "Yes he will help us."

"Hey, great," Adam yawned. Jurl looked at him as if surprised to see someone from the stars yawn. Adam stood up. "Is there anything else we need to do?" No-one said anything. "OK, I'm going to stay out here, you," he pointed to Natasha, "sleep, and Helga please help her out if she needs it. Chief Laseiag just button up the boat I'll be OK and comm link me when it's done so I know the rabbit hasn't hijacked all of you."

Natasha stood up slowly but grimaced and almost fell down anyway. Helga caught her then Adam and Laseiag helped her get on Gretel, then Adam watched them move back to the Flower.

Getting colder. He looked up, gazing at the depth of the galaxy, perfectly clear down to the dusty haze of a hundred billion stars. Deneb would be up soon spoiling the view. Near the treetop horizon he saw the local moon visibly easing along. He turned his eyes to Trin, looking at it for a long time. The light from it that he was seeing now had left the star before his parents had been born. He looked at the comet, racing in towards the star, maybe to die there. He looked down.

Don't let it ....

Jurl had thrown another log on the fire. Adam waved his hand around the dark woods and made an animal-biting motion with his hand and growled and looked at Jurl questioningly. Jurl made some kind of motion with his hands, probably meaning no. Adam pulled his comm link out of his bag and put it on, then a synth blanket. He checked the base of the log for openings and snake holes and other access for who knows what, and finding none he threw down the blanket at a good spot between the fire and the log. Jurl watched him, then glancing at the Flower he lay down on the other side of the fire.

He unzipped his boots and laid them aside along with his belt, set his bag for a pillow, and laid down, pulling half the synth over himself. Not too bad. Side arm, in reach, view, good ...."

"Lead, Chief Laseiag, ship secured, Natasha performed a ping and comm check, no response."

"Thanks, link's next to me, just yell and I'll hear it."


"What a day ...."
The sun shone hard. He was getting smaller.

He opened his eyes. Cold breeze falling off the glacier, dark blue sky, local star easing up. Something fluttered in the trees, a dark blue-green well suited to the folliage. Fire was long out but some coals remained. Stiff, really stiff, he tried to move. One of the bikes was humming as if under load ....

He lurched up. Jurl was on the bike, sitting on a seat and holding the bar controls, it was charged and hovering, he looked completely stunned and frozen with shock.

"Hey!" Loud command voice. Jurl didn't really respond except to turn his eyes towards Adam. Adam uncurled and hobbled over to the bike, switching it off. Hansel settled back down to ground and Jurl leaped off like a cat escaping a fire.

"Yeah, stay off the star chariots, will ya?" Adam called, half angry and half laughing. Humans, always pushing where they shouldn't, so many dead explorers, ooo, gotta pee. He brushed off his socks and stepped into his boots and snatched up his belt and walked stiffly off, trying to eye Jurl as if he meant business about staying off the bikes while simultaneously scanning the treeline and heading in, where where where ....

Yeah, open spot, this will do, look around make sure no lions or tigers are watching, OK. Oh yeah, that's better ...

... the tree next to him was covered in blue feathers.

He looked up. The tree was covered in blue feathers, blue and white feathers, from about head height all the way up. He suddenly realized it was monkey birds, maybe a hundred of them, all clinging to the trunk and branches, all of them watching him. He'd just peed on their tree.

"Sorry, but you know, when you gotta go ...."

One of them screeched at him. Just the one, clicking and clacking its beak. All the others shifted. Uh oh.

He guessed, zipped up, drew his revolver and posed. "Six of you won't. So how 'bout it? Who dies first?" Loud new-sheriff-in-town showdown voice.

They peed. All of them. Straight out. All at once. He danced back trying to avoid the rainstorm, and was successful. Mostly.

They were all still staring at him. Looking up defiantly he holstered his weapon. "OK, we'll call it a draw." He turned around and walked away. Listening very intently for anything following, but he heard nothing.


Coming back he found Jurl building the fire back up. He had a dozen or so leaf-wrapped bundles to one side, some more were roasing in a part of the fire that still had active coals. He watched Jurl as he set up the remainder on raised sticks as close to the upcoming fire as he could. Adam took up one of the bundles and opened it. Dull red tuber of some sort. He looked closely at it and at the leaf. Yeah, seen the leaves, some right over there, OK. He held up the red tuber and motioned to Jurl, Where? Jurl pointed back down the hill towards the summer village. "Oh, you got stores there. OK, but where does this grow?" Jurl looked at him puzzled. Adam placed the tuber close to the ground and made what he hoped were growing motions. Jurl pointed to both the leaves and the tuber and then pointed over to the leaves Adam had seen earlier. OK, same plant, good to know. He wrapped up the one and gave it to Jurl then walked over to the growing leaves. Bright green, a little short, and he could see a red tuber just poking up above the ground. OK, perfect. He glanced around at the soil, getting a feel for the conditions where the plant grew naturally. Oh yeah, this will work.

He shook out his synth blanket and set it aside, then linked his comm. "Flower, Lead, report."

"No changes," the machine came back. "Day nine, jump fuel zero, operations fuel nineteen days remaining, three hundred fifty-five days until overhaul. One message update: reminder to fix 1A external panel. No other incoming or recurring issues."

"Yeah, that's just what that rabbit would want me to think."

"Please restate."

"Never mind, report received. Crew, Lead, anyone up yet or did the rabbit get all of you."

A slight pause. "Chief Laseiag up, Helga also."

"OK, Jurl has breakfast on, if anyone wants some it'll be done in a while, and I think the sooner we get started the better, if the robot's damaged then there's no telling how it's acting."


Jurl was staring at him in complete bewilderment. "Yeah, looks funny doesn't it," Adam said. He sat down and pointed to Jurl's clothing and tried to figure out how to ask him what it was made of, but the question was too complex. Noticing that Jurl's belt was some kind of woven fiber Adam tried to ask about that. Jurl understood that, and looking around he spotted a non-terran tree and walked up to it and indicated under the bark. Adam took out his ax - Jurl was dumbfounded to see such a tool - and carefully chopped off a sheet of bark. Under it the tree was lined with some kind of fiber. Adam handed his ax to Jurl and pulled out a handful and looked it over. Perfect. Have to see how well it endures wear ....

Eventually Helga and Laseiag came down, just as the leaf-wrapped tubers were beginning to steam. Helga and Adam ate while Laseiag installed the last part on Gretel and Adam explained to Helga about the plants and fiber Jurl had showed him.

"So, how's Natasha?"

"No fever but she moves slowly. She cannot assist in search," said Helga.

"She probably can assist best from the bridge anyway if there's any signal from the bot at all, so that's OK."

"Also the rabbit follows her like a pet. It limps as bad as she and she has taken to carrying it."

"That's ... OK."

"It studies everything," added Laseiag.

"Well, so long as it behaves," finished Adam. "Any laser goggles?" Helga held out three pairs, good ones with multi-spectral response. "Excellent. So, I'm thinking Helga and I take the bikes while Jurl here assists on foot, each of us with goggles, and we simply beat the bush on a close line and see if we see the bot. Chief Laseiag you would stay with Natasha and be ready for any required maneuver, while she continues comms search for the bot or the Purdue or any Purdue crew signal. How's that sound?"

"Since it is survey robot it will go to certain places of interest which we can anticipate," said Helga. "As I become familiar with the terrain I can develop a pattern for our search. If it has moved on however then we must start over."

"Perhaps not," Laseiag spoke up. "If it is up and running then it needs a power source," Adam pointed at Laseiag and nodded, "and that source has to be the Purdue."

"Yep," Adam added, "and I'm thinking that since it's comms down and that strong-looking boy down in the village said he hit it, I'm guessing it's damaged and can't go very far anyway. So, we find it, then leave it alone but follow it, and eventually it leads us to the Purdue."

"Which we probably cannot move," Laseiag pointed out. "Is it wise for these people," he pointed to Jurl, "to have access to it?" he asked Helga rhetorically.

"No," she answered. "They pursue off-world contact recklessly. It is better that they are not aware of it."

"OK, so ... we find the bot, bring Jurl back, and then you and I track the bot to the Purdue, then take Jurl all the way back to the village before accessing the ship so he has no idea where we went," finished Adam. "Sounds good to me."

"Given the terrain," added Laseiag looking around at the forest, "you are more likely to hear it before seeing it, but the hum of these grav bikes will cover that noise. Should you go on foot?"

Adam thought a while. "No. The area seems fairly safe but I still don't want to be on foot in unknown terrain. And I want to be able to bring back Jurl immediately." He suddenly brightened with an idea. "Can you make them run quieter?"

"I am not qualified in gravitics but I believe that would reduce their performance to unacceptable levels," Laseiag answered. "There is a reason that they emit a hum."

"Well then we'll just go visual. Anything else? Well that's it, we have a plan. I have to change clothes I'll be out in a bit." Adam grabbed his daybag and synth blanket and headed for the Flower, bounding up the ladder and down the airlock.

He eased onto the bridge and saw Natasha. She had her panel lined up with several comms operations. The rabbit was on a towel on the deck at her feet, laying on its side and looking at him.

"Conspiring with the enemy I see," Adam grinned.

She looked down at it. "When I woke up and sat up it pushed my shoes closer to me."

He looked at the rabbit suspiciously. "Bribery will get you nowhere." It wrinkled it's nose at him. It lay easily as if expressing some kind of dignity.

"How are you feeling?" he asked her.

"I will live." Quietly.

He looked at her, then her panel. "I take it you were listening in on comms?"


"OK, I'll be out in a bit and we'll start right off. By the way, don't use your binoculars while the robot is about, if it shines that laser ...."

"Yes, I know," she interrupted.

"OK." He started out.

"Have care," she offered.

He stopped, looked back at her. She was looking away. After a moment she looked back. He grinned and nodded once, then eased out.

Cabin, change clothes, hit toilet, brush mouth ... he paused, thinking about that ... grab tools and food packets and reloads and a field hat, check weapon, and head out.
He passed Laseiag on the way out.

"Not going to stay outside and enjoy the scenery?"

"Helga says this is a possible survey area for the robot. I wlll light off the maneuver drives and set to neutral. If the robot comes within several hundred yards I will see the resulting gravitic imbalance."

Adam stopped. "You can do that? Can we do that with the grav bikes?"

"Only if they are stationary, and only if you can properly access their internal data, and only to about ten yards. It is unlikely to be worth the effort." He pointed to Adam's revolver. "Is that adequate? Recall the terran prehistoric animal from yesterday."

Adam paused. "Yeah," reluctantly. He returned and charged a speed loader with some laser pops, then headed out.

Helga, wearing laser goggles, was on Gretel, probably on expert setting or something, putting the machine through its paces. She banked in what must have been a 4G turn, then performed a rolling loop keeping her seat easily. She settled out and looked at Adam, happy as could be. "Ha!" But she was looking at Jurl out of the corner of her goggle.

Jurl had the goggles on too. He was less awestruck now but still agog at Helga's grav maneuvers and at the helmet on her head. He looked at Adam while pointing to Helga and said something. He looked ridiculous in the goggles, like a bush pilot from early Regina.

"Yeah, she's pretty good isn't she," Adam grinned. "Too much for me Helga but I don't want novice setting again, will," he looked over Hansel's control panel, "beginner give me some speed if I need it?"

"Yes. And you will be able to change settings while running."

"Outstanding. Got a new comm link?"

"Yes, Natasha has set it."

"OK then, where away?"

She pulled out her data pad and cycled through some displays. "Here, here, here."

Adam looked them over. "I know the first two expeditions were thorough, but is there enough data to choose these points?"

"These are calculated from general scanning at altitude. Most animals require vegetation and water. Geographic conditions and hydrographic distributions and meteorology patterns and floral spectrum emmissions are summed and algorithmically parsed for likely faunal congregations of significance. After several months and if the robot range is limited by damage then it will have completed general survey and will concentrate on faunal population counts and behaviors. These sites meet expected requirements and are within range."

"OK," Adam responded simply. He studied the depictions, yeah, they look pretty good actually. Jurl looked too, hesitantly, but it was clear he had no idea what the depiction was or how to interpret the high-altitude top-down abstract view.

Adam traced some paths between the three locations. "And if it transits between these places then these routes are the most likely it will take," he said thoughtfully. "We're more likely to see it moving than see it stationary."


"OK, uh ... let's go," Adam said. He dumped a canteen of water on the fire and kicked it out, dropped his goggles - the world turned gray - and mounted Hansel, switching it to "beginner" and then on. The machine rose up slightly. He waved to Jurl, "Get on," and pointed to the rear seat. Jurl hesitated, then climbed on, leaning back in the rest and realizing he was to grap the hand grips on either side. Adam put on his helmet and Jurl tried to copy him, almost succeeded without help.

"Helga, data?"

"Up." Adam saw it on his HUD. "Second one?"


"Hither and yon in the great beyond, and never a soul I'll tell," said Adam quietly, and drove the machine forward. It leaped forward, "Whoa!" and they were off.

Through the woods, over an escarpment, across a bushy region, past some red fungal-looking growths - they seemed to make Jurl nervous - and along a large rock slide on a steep slope. It looked like the whole region had been thrust up all at once at some time, most of the rock was still gray and clean. The view through the clean are across the lower terrain was crystal clear all the way to the horizon, Adam could see several old volcanos in the distance. Helga zipped one way and then another, examining whatever caught her interest in the time it took Adam to putter along. Jurl was developing an odd attitude of becoming used to being awe struck.

Adam kept cycling his eyes across the terrain, looking for movement. He saw a small herd of something climbing on the mountainside, and a few more animals seeming to dig a burrow under rocks, but nothing artificial.

After about half an hour the zone came in view. A heavy creek had cut down along the edge of the rise, forming a deep split-valley canyon in the broken rock before emptying out onto the plain below. Thick foliage throughout and on the edges, growing taller around the small lake at the base of the canyon. A very large number of surface aquatic animals on the lake, various creatures flying in and through the canyon. As Adam watched a large white avian stooped at the top of the canyon and dove through it at an amazing speed, dodging through the twists and turns with great precision as it accelerated to burst out at the bottom just above the surface of the lake, startling everything on it and racing out of sight down the creek.

"Wow. Helga you get that?"

"Ach yes!"

"Let's make sure we stay out of its way. Natasha, copy?"

"Copy, I have your location," she anticipated.

"OK, Helga, how about you station at the canyon top and I'll take Jurl down to the lake, I'll stay there and we'll survey as we can while he physically scouts the canyon itself."

"You send him alone?" queried Natasha.

"We want to keep an eye on any arrival or departure of the robot, and he'll scout better than us, and the canyon is crowded and he'll do better in the close quarters than we will on our bikes, and we can pull him out if he gets in trouble," said Adam. "And I'll give him my comm link, I'll use the bike helmet comms, let us know what he's saying."

"Agree," said Helga. Natasha simply said, "Acknowledged."

"OK, heading down."

"Check terrain following set to zero", Helga called.

"Oof. Hansel, set terrain following to zero," Adam called hopefully.

"Terrain Following set to zero," the machine responded.

"Well that would have been interesting for about ten seconds," Adam breathed. He fiddled with the vertical vector to get a feel for it, then eased gently out into the open air. Jurl was unhappy, grunting something and gripping his handholds very tightly. Adam eased the vertvec down and drifted down towards the lake. He played with the steering trying to get to an area which would not disturb too many animals while still giving a view into the canyon, and mostly succeeded. Approaching the lake shore the surface animals simply paddled away, cautious but unimpressed.

He settled Hansel onto the sandy shore and dismounted. Jurl, seeing him get off, leaped off, saying something that seemed unpleasant. Adam laughed and popped open his HUD and helped Jurl remove his helmet. The native still had his goggles on, good man. Adam fished out his comm link, locked the settings, and carefully set it on Jurl's head. Jurl held very still.

"Jurl, comm check." Jurl jumped, holding the comm link on his head and staring into some kind of new experience. "OK, Jurl's on-line, Natasha please tell him hello." Natasha sang out, and Jurl froze up. After a few seconds Adam started to worry, but then Jurl looked at him with the most wonderous expression Adam had ever seen and said something.


"Something about everywhere and nowhere."

"The man's going to have tales for the village campfire. Tell him we can come and get him if necessary. OK, Jurl, have a look." Adam pointed to himself and pantomimed looking over the entire canyon and its approaches, then the same for Helga high above. He then pointed to Jurl and pantomimed him going up into the canyon. Jurl looked up at the canyon, nodded, and ran up the lake shoreline towards it. He hesitated, but then held up his fist and tried to pantomime the robot looking at the animals and the water and the trees, then Jurl looking at the robot. Jurl seemed to grasp the intent immediately and clearly and grinned broadly, then ran for the canyon base. He looked back once, a big smile under his goggles, yelling, "Ucla!" then took off at a quick but easy run.

Adam sat on the bike and pulled some binocculars out of his belt. Starting at the top and working his way down he scanned the canyon, looking for anything regular and mechanical. The bot probably was a standard soda-can shape, but he tried to keep his mind open to other possibilities. Still fairly dark in the canyon, gonna be a long morning.

After a moment he set down the binocculars and looked over the lake, and almost jumped back. All the surface animals had gathered quite near, all looking at him. Brown, oval bodies, small wings that must have been barely able to carry them, stubby heads, big black eyes, all of them staring at him. The water was crystal clear and he could see their feet frantically paddling underneath, but topside they kept a perfectly still formation. There must have been at least two hundred.

"I'm not supposed to feed the wildlife," he offered hopefully.

They all squawked once. Loudly, simultaneously.

He laughed, he couldn't help it. He looked them over. They were just the right size for a dinner ... He looked down at the sand, then looked to the canyon again, it was brightening, he found Jurl and checked his progress then scanned it again from top to bottom looking at every detail ....

When he looked at them again they had scattered about over the lake, dipping into the water and squawking quietly at each other.
He tried to watch Jurl in the canyon but soon lost sight of him. The local star was rotating up overhead but the canyon was a mix of bright light and dark shadows, greens and grays and water falls, naturally-waving foliage and unnaturally-waving shadows, making it hard to track anything. The wilderness school had taught him how to live in the open field but skimped on teaching how to see it. No better time to learn. He focused on various features, trying to get a feel for the details and also for the general overall appearance. He tried to focus on movements but it was impossible using the binocculars, everything moved the same.

"Helga, you good?"

"Yes. Cool. Descending air is ducted from glacier through this point." Adam glanced through the terrain above her, there seemed to be a cut in the rock overhead that might do that. He checked all around her too, making sure the robot wasn't sneaking up on her, then around himself for the same. The shoreside thicket was too dense, everything else was open and permitted ready visibility, nothing. He looked at the floating avians, they seemed content, some other - things - in the trees seemed undisturbed, must be a good sign.

The morning wore on. Natasha and Jurl exchanged a few words occasionally, he didn't inquire about what. Periods of near silence alternated with breathing and grunting as Jurl eased through the heavy vegetation and climbed up into the rocky cut and splashed through various rivuletes and ponds.

The local moon came into view, racing around the curve of the mountain range. Not overly large but quite close, looming overhead like a reminder, right with the rising star, high tide, no wonder the village had been so far off the beach. He watched it. Yeah, tidal locked, would make a great place for an upper-class world-view hotel or restaurant someday, but in the meantime the scout service very likely would park an observation station there. No need for anything more, 875-496 was the only world in the entire Spinward Marches that had no other system within three parsecs of it, no accessible economic value, no through traffic, no military value, no strip mining operations, no zoos, no tourists, no rich noble travellers stopping by, an entire wilderness available, the river alone would take a lifetime to explore, build a canoe and just travel, fish along the way ... he scanned the canyon again for any sign of the robot, then looked for Jurl and actually saw him for a moment before the man moved further in. The colors and shadows were astounding, nothing too bright and nothing too dark, a perfect response range for the human eye, it must be beautiful in there.

He glanced down at the lake, a sudden thought. "Helga, are these survey bots capable of underwater operations?"

"Some are. But subsurface survey is subsequent to primary, so it is very unlikely Purdue robot has that capability."

"Uh huh." He started up Hansel again, lifted, and eased out over the lake. The water avians seemed startled at this and splashed out of his way, disturbing the water and preventing him from seeing into it. In fact they wouldn't settle down and he couldn't get any kind of view. He drifted back to shore and set down, and the avians settled down back to their water routines. Whatever, probably not in there anyway ....

He could hear Jurl hissing something. A hunter's hiss, all the "sh"'s were replaced with "th"'s. He grabbed his binocculars and scanned where he had last seen Jurl, nothing, Natasha was saying something. Suddenly he saw a small but bright green dot shine and scatter in the terrain, maybe a hundred milliseconds. He dropped the binnoculars and revved up Hansel immediately, he could hear Helga moving to do the same.



He waited, hands light on the bike controls. She spoke a few more words to Jurl, who answered back a single syllable in a low quiet gutteral voice.

"He is withdrawing," Natasha reported.

"Is he injured?"

"I believe not."

Adam put Hansel in neutral and snatched up his binocculars again. He saw Jurl, moving very slowly and crawling very low to the terrain, obviously trying to avoid being seen by something. Adam watched very closely, and it became clear that Jurl was looking for and finding handholds with no difficulty. He tried to determine from where Jurl was trying not to be seen.

There. Right there, how did he miss it?

"Helga, white, cylindrical, size of a large equipment case, can't see any other details."

"Yes. I have it in sight."

He checked Jurl again. The man was proceeding down easily, clearly pleased with himself, in no distress.

Close call.

Adam sighed and nodded. Yeah, one for one ....

"Natasha, how's your status, you able to fly?"

"I am functional."

"OK, Helga, I'll bike Jurl back to the ship while you keep an eye on the bot, then I'll come back to you. Natasha you take Jurl back to the village, or maybe just close to it and drop him off and tell him thanks, then come back. We'll wait until the bot returns to its power source and follow it."

"Jurl may not wish to debark," Laseiag spoke up. "You should come with us to assist in his departure."

"I don't want to leave Helga alone," said Adam, scoping the bot again and continuing to watch Jurl approach.

"Chief Laseiag is correct in his assessment," said Helga. "I have water and food and weapon and transportation. My situation is satisfactory." He could hear the professionalism, but there was something else in her voice.

He hesitated. "OK, but let's make it a sub-orbital to minimize the transit time. Inbound in five."

"Acknowledged. Aerial dock?"

Unusual for her. He decided. "OK, only if there's no wind, low alt, if conditions met Chief Laseiag undog the garage and resume station prior to stationary lift on approach. Any problems just settle and we'll walk on."

Two for two?


He checked the bot again - stationary - then surveyed the canyon again. So many things he could never see.

Jurl trotted up, grinning and saying something and holding out some singed hair. Adam looked him over especially his face. No injuries, great. He smiled and congratulated Jurl, hoping he would get the gist, and helped Jurl get his helmet on, pointed to the back seat. Jurl climbed on, and Adam helmeted up and lifted Hansel and vectored quickly up. He could hear Jurl stress, but it seemed he was getting used to the flying thing. Adam angled towards the Flower and started racing in well above the tree line, intently watching for any avians. "Flower, inbound." "Acknowledged."

Suddenly Helga was there. She pulled a full barrel roll around them and came down alongside, no helmet, hair in the wind, loud martial music with horns and flutes and a robust woman opera-singing in the background. She looked at Jurl and held out her hand to him. He took it for a moment, and then she let go and pulled away in a tremendous burst of speed, arcing back to return. Jurl watched her go, then set his eyes straight ahead.

Minimize contact with the natives, they'd said.

He saw the Flower and cut speed.

"Flower, inbound, in sight."


The ship lifted readily and swung its tail to them, maybe a few degrees off, good enough, door open, oh that's small, maybe a mistake. Adam had a sudden thought. "Hansel, do you have automatic dock?"

"Automatic dynamic dock available."

"OK, uh ... do it."

"Performing automatic dynamic dock into ISS Dainty Flower garage," the machine responded. It paused, then Adam felt the machine take control and ease the bike around - Jurl was looking everywhere - and backed itself into the garage and locked itself onto the deck mounts. Perfect, two for two.

"OK we're docked, hit it."

"Acknowledged." The ship accelerated forward and up, Jurl gasping as the world suddenly raced away. Adam rapidly dismounted and stepped right up to the receeding view, scanning the gasket and dropping the garage hatch and dogging it down. "Garage hatch dogged and secured, coming down."

"Chief Laseiag acknowledges."

Adam hung up his helmet and left his gear on the bike, ushered Jurl through the garage internal hatch and then down the deck hatch to engineering. Jurl was still unsettled by his view of the rapid acceleration, and mystified by everything around him, but he followed well enough. Laseiag was standing by the local control panel. Casually, but Adam could see the tip of the man's shotgun standing to one side nearby. Adam led Jurl through the engineering hatch into the lounge, and forward to the bridge.

He eased in. The rabbit was still laying on a towel on the deck, looking perfectly satisfied. Natasha glanced up from her panel and view.


"All nominal, course set. You intend to bring this Jurl in here?" Disapproving.

"Yes, I don't want to just throw him off."

"Will this Jurl tolerate the rabbit?"

Adam hesitated, suddenly considering. "I don't know."

She handed him an electric stun tool. He looked at it - yeah, hold it this way, that's the button ZAAAP whoa, OK, simple enough. Join the scouts, use interesting people, tase them ....

He slid into his seat, then motioned Jurl in. The man entered, slowly and carefully and wide-eyed, as if entering a monster nursery. The view outside staggered him.

Natasha spoke to him. He looked at her startled, then crouched down and put one hand on the deck towards her and seemed to agree to what she had said. He saw the rabbit and it was clear he had never encountered one before. He noticed its injury and how it had been treated, then noticed Natasha's injury too. He seemed very taken back.
The trajectory was arcing down, the village was in view. Natasha said a few words to Jurl, who answered back quietly as if disappointed. Adam watched him carefully out of the corner of his eye, barely seeing his own panel. Jurl was gazing out the window, watching his world pass underneath him, looking across the vast bay to the mountain range rising above the horizon. He suddenly focused back, reached out and touched the glass.

"Natasha put us down a few miles away from the village, we don't need another circus again."

"Acknowledged." She cycled her view between her panel and outside the window, picking a spot and starting the approach. Jurl watched his village drawing closer, and saw where Natasha was going to set down.

Adam retrieved the laser goggles from Jurl then got up and motioned to Jurl to head back. Jurl hesitated, then reluctantly slid off the bridge, Adam following.

"Chief Laseiag, lining up for debarking."

"Acknowledged, coming forward."

Well. A single pilot landing at 1G in unknown territory with engineer off-deck. What a field crew.

Adam halted Jurl at the airlock, popping the inner hatch as Laseiag approached up the corridor. Jurl seemed sad, he didn't even start at the hatch moving.

"Here." Adam drew his field knife and offered the grip to Jurl. The man looked at it, then around at the rest of the ship, then at Adam. Adam waited. Jurl took the blade, tapped it against the side of the airlock then put it in his belt. He drew is composite blade and offered it to Adam. Adam was surprised, but took it carefully. He couldn't help but smile, it was a fine piece. He put it in a pocket of his flight suit.

He felt the internal grav field shift as Natasha settled the boat. He punched the outer airlock control and the hatch slid open. Jurl was taking it all in stride now, he said something to Adam and Laseiag then moved rapidly up the ladder and onto the hull and down the outside ladder. Adam glanced at the gaskets then punched the hatches shut.

"You must be almost out of knives," Laseiag offered as he turned back to engineering. "You should use glass beads."

"What did the Vilani use for gifts? Anything?"

"It would depend on the civilization of course, but usually a large saphire glass sculpture model of the jump 2 4D helix, set up in a civilization's central assembly."

"Totally impractical, but impressive," Adam nodded. He had seen those from time to time, and there had been one at the imperial scout service flight academy. Unreal, somehow eerie, set his teeth on edge just looking at it.

"More practical in the long run," answered Laseiag as he re-manned engineering.

Adam nodded and eased back onto the bridge.

Jurl was looking up at Natasha on the bridge, she gazing steadily back at him. He kneeled again, hand on the ground, slowly, a questioning look on his face. He seemed to decide something, rose up and took off at a good long-term pace run towards his village. Over a rise, into a wood, and was gone. He didn't look back.

"You OK?" he asked.


"I'll take it up," he said. He buckled in, checked the course she had passed him, suborbital again, checked sensors and overhead and lifted rapidly, hauling the Flower around to aspect and lurching up through the atmosphere.

"Helga, Adam, how you doing?" he commed.

"I am at original location. No changes."

"Great, on the way."

The rabbit stood up, stretched, and put its head against Natasha's leg. She scanned her panel then reached down to lift it, being careful of its damaged leg, and set it in her lap. She scratched its head, hesitantly, as if not used to such a motion, and it held still for it. She pulled from a small cannister next to her a leaf or something and offered it, and the rabbit started to chew on it. It's teeth were awesome, made him cringe to hear it chew.

"Give him a name?"

"Serzhant." She looked at Adam. "Why ...." She stopped and looked away.

"Because I didn't want your first wilderness encounter to be all bad." He scanned his panel and looked out the window at the dimming atmosphere, away from her. "Sometimes there are some bad days."

She scratched the rabbit between the eyes. "In the night I dream that we were running and dodging them, and I was beating them off, and," she hesitated, "I looked down at my grav bike and saw that I was riding him."

He smiled slightly. Three for three.

The Flower descended. Hey, a level spot just around the ridge near Helga, yeah, big enough, looks stable and supported, he angled down to it, circled, set, settled.

"Chief Laseiag, down, let's do a partial shutdown, Helga, you see us come in, and did the robot?"

"Yes, and robot has not moved. Shall Natasha ping it?"

"Nope," Adam called, "now that we've found it all we need to do is see where it goes to get power, and it's obviously malfunctioning so let's not disturb it more than it already is. Helga can you link an image of it to Chief Laseiag so he can tell us how to put it down without destroying its data."

"Image has been sent," she replied after a moment.

Eventually Laseiag reported, "It is a standard model P4, gravitic motivator, power plant in midsection, standard sensor head."

"Will it have any other surprises?" Adam asked.

"That will depend on the robotics skill of its users," Laseiag came back. "The laser is a standard model but not always included. It may have other accessories of concern."

"OK, we'll just ambush it then," Adam announced. "Natasha aboard, the rest of us outboard with goggles to confront it, I'll shoot first trying to preserve it but if we lose control then Helga and Chief Laseiag chop it down. When the time comes after we've seen where it goes. Sound good?" They agreed.

"Since they know where we are then how long will it take the village men to come looking?" Natasha asked.

"Oh at least ...." Adam started to answer, then fell silent. Those boys had been fast and fit and very very curious. "Helga?"

"What is terrain between there and here?" she asked.

Natasha called up survey data and passed it over to Helga's data pad.

"Tomorrow noon is earliest possible time," she came back confidently.

"Plenty of time," Adam said happily, "if we're not slow. And ..." he added a little more carefully, "we can't leave tracks, so everyone stay on grav bikes. Is there anything else we're missing?"

"If you shoot the robot this may disperse significant debris," Laseiag pointed out. Adam shut his eyes and rubbed his nose. "OK ... we'll just have to do the best we can. So far they don't know there's any other ship, all they know is there's a robot running loose that we're here to collect, so hopefully that'll be enough. And they'll be tired when they get here ...."

"The P4 is moving," Helga interjected.

Adam checked his excursion gear. "How much?"

"It appears to be quitting its location for another."

"Chief Laseiag set pause shutdown in case Natasha has to fly, gear up and to the bike, Helga we're on the way." Adam moved quickly down the corridor and into engineering and up to the garage. Laseiag was already there, equipment vest full, shotgun slung, hunting cap close over his eyes, undogging the garage door. "You did all that already?" "I did anticipate certain actions, yes." Adam tossed him a pair of laser goggles, checked his own set, and mounted Hansel, Laseiag plunking down behind him, and they headed out.

"Robot is motivating unevenly and has numerous dents. It is moderately damaged."

"Got it, Natasha we left the door open, you can maneuver just be careful of high G and exiting atmo."


Adam swung the bike over a ridge and past some trees and had Helga in view. She was crouching behind a boulder trying to keep out of the robot's view while observing it herself. He could see the bot, flying at an awkward tilt, an obvious dent in its "head", that boy must have banged it pretty hard. He eased behind some foliage, but it was looking elsewhere.

"The robot's port lift is out," Laseiag said. "The starboard lift can carry the load but will suffer damage each time it lights off and must correct for the deficiency."

"Great. It's not going to drop and die on us now, is it?"

"I do not think so. But it is close."

Laseiag had his shotgun up and on his hip, pointed casually in the air. He looked like a mail packet guard from early Regina, except for the hunting cap.

"OK, Helga, it's probably going to go right past you towards the level areas to sunwards, or past us out towards the plains ...."

The robot slowly gained altitude, staggering in the air as it followed the terrain up towards the nearby glacier.

"... or, not," Adam finished lamely. The bot slowly elevated, rising over Helga as she carefully avoided any direct line of sight with it. He watched it "limp" all the way up the cold air chute Helga had pointed out earlier, and eased into it.

Adam fiddled with the controls a bit and lifted Hansel up after it, Helga following on the other side of the chute.
The air grew colder. The robot staggered up the chute, past a small rivulet, and up over the saddle onto what must be the glacier proper. Adam and Helga followed carefully, easing up on either side of the gray stone and gaining a little altitude on it.

A small glacier, reaching a little towards the north and emptying out towards the south, maybe half a mile wide. It looked to be deep, make a picturesque valley if it ever melted. Distant rumbling noises, the sound of rushing water somewhere. Passing over a crevase Adam looked down and glimpsed something bright green, bright red eyes slowly turning his way to look back at him, very wide mouth opening before passing out of sight.

There's the bot, easing across the ice field cracked and split as it pushed past the tall gray stone spires. He staired at one pair, they looked uncannily like the Great Cathedral of Trin, before turning his eyes ahead of where the robot was going. Several breaks in the ice. He almost missed it, the bot suddenly dropped down into one gap very close to the boundary between the rock and the ice.

"Move in," he called and accelerated.

"Yes," as she followed him.

They hauled up at the edge, Adam overshooting a little. He pulled back before looking down, the rising star illuminating the underworld well. Very deep and narrow and crooked, a small rivulet draining into it, rushing water below, the robot easing into an opening. And there it was.

"ISS Purdue, I presume."

Or the fantail, anyway. Some of the fantail at any rate. About 200 yards down, the majority of the S-class was 45 degrees nose-down and almost lost in ice and looked to be crushed. The aft centerline iris valve hatch was mangled and ice-covered, the rivulet was splashing over the port quarter near the wide-open comms hatch, into which the P4 had hovered and disappeared. The iris shut behind it, slow and grinding.

Helga pointed an insturment at the hull. "1 Celsius."

"A power plant is on-line," said Laseiag.

Adam looked at the gray stone peak next to them. "So, it's been sinking into the ice and grinding against this rock the whole time?"

"Very likely," said Helga. She looked around. "Perhaps they set down in spring, thinking the ice was still solid from winter."

Adam, watching the ice and water all around him, eased Hansel down into the crevase. Helga followed.

The orange light from the local star faded. Cold, ice dark blue, water running everywhere, distant rushing water far below.

Adam eased Hansel up to the S fantail carefully, and kicked it.

"That will tell you nothing, the ship has many tons of mass," Laseiag said.

"OK," Robert replied. He set Hansel to hover, then carefully, like a paranoid cat, stood onto the steeply angled fantail. Nothing happened, and he let go of Hansel. Laseiag slid onto the rider's seat. Adam looked over the keypad for the hatch. Did they set a code? He tapped the control.

The iris valve ground slowly open. Oh good, they didn't. "Goggles everyone."

No lights in the interior, some starlight shown down into it. Some various bays, a pile of stuff at the bottom. Ah, and one blinking red light. A robot charge bay, no doubt.

"Chief Laseiag?"

The man glanced in. "Behind the power assembly inside a lift panel there should be a switch. Just actuate it."

"OK." Adam checked his revolver and slowly clambered down into the dark space, the gray world the laser goggles depicted making any visualization difficult. No internal grav, everything was off-kilter, his breath clouded up voluminously and made sight even more difficult.
There it was, the bot settled into its bay, recharging. He drew his revolver and put it against the robot's midsection, then carefully reached around behind it. There, panel, lift, obvious switch, throw ... nothing. He banged its sensor section with the barrel of his sidearm. "Hey, you awake?" No response. "Robot is off-line," he announced, holstering his piece and doffing his laser goggles. Laseiag secured his shotgun in a bike mount Adam hadn't noticed before.

Starting to shiver he pulled out a flashlight and looked around. A mixed bot station and gear locker and lounge, almost everything had pulled away in one piece from the starboard bulkhead and slid forward blocking the entry. He could see where the ship's hull had been twisted, locking it all in place, no way through. Water pooled against the forward bulkhead, deeper towards the blockage, the passageway was flooded. The space stank of rust and dirt.

He looked around and found a solid mounting bracket and leaning into it banged three times on the starboard bulkhead where engineering was, then put his ear against the thick metal.


"Chief Laseiag?"

"If the power plant is on-line then there should have been someone there recently," he answered. Adam tried again, then a third time.


"OK, well, Chief Laseiag can you cut into this space?"

"Yes I can, but can you not get through the corridor?"

"No, it's both blocked and flooded, so let's bring ...."

He heard a tapping.

He banged on the bulkhead again.

Another tapping responded.

"Hey, we got someone!" Adam called. "Chief Laseiag bring up your welding equipment, and Helga bring Natasha with her medical bag just in case."

Helga and Laseiag carefully looked all around and eased their bikes up through the crevasse. Adam turned back to the bulkhead and banged on it four times. Irregular tapping came back. Morse code?

"Natasha do you copy?"

"Yes Natasha copies, Helga and Chief Laseiag inbound for equipment and medical outfit." Maybe. Distorted and poor.

"Do you know morse code?" Took a few tries but she got it.

"Yes. Put the comm link against the source."

He did. After a while she reported, "They ask, are you real?"

"Uh, how do I say 'yes'?"

"Just tap once." He did, as hard as he could.

More code.

"They also say, watch out for snakes."

"For what?" He whipped around, revolver up, surveying the dark space, his teeth beginning to chatter.

"And crabs. Crew has arrived, inbound." She then went black.

"Oh great," he muttered, swinging his sidearm around in the dark. He stood silent, listened.

Dripping. The glacier groaning. A waterfall somewhere far away. He heard the S hull crack.

He waited. It was a long wait.

Eventually they returned. Natasha sat with Helga on Gretel while Adam stood by as Laseiag set up his equipment. Laseiag had a hammer and banged around on the bulkhead until he found a spot he liked, then dropped his face plate and lit off and started cutting, first a hole to which he attached a draw, then the border of the main cut. Adam knew little about welding but couldn't help but notice how straight Laseiag kept the cut, the man must be unusually skilled. As the cut finished Adam pulled back on the draw to make the piece fall out into the lounge.

A horrible stench wafted into the lounge space. Someone grabbed the sides of the cooling cut with thick gloves and immediately pushed out. A female. She crouched and winced at the light while throwing off her gloves then threw herself onto Laseiag, knocking him down and wrapping herself around him as she kissed him. Adam had to duck to dodge the cutter tool and he scrabbled on the tilted deck to shut the tank valve.

"Thank you thank you thank you thank you ...."

"I introduce myself as Scout Kishsuumdadkiimku ...." Laseiag tried to speak between the kisses from flat on his back on the deck.

Natasha had limped into the kiltered space, watching the female.

Adam stood up. "Scout!" Loud command voice. Natasha winced.

The female leaped up. "Field Scout Angela Honaker repor-", she shielded her eyes and stumbled over Laseiag and lost her balance and fell, Laseiag catching her.

"Scout Honaker, please sit here." Adam pointed to a piece of equipment.

"Yes," she answered, a little slowly. She staggered up and crawled to the seat, taking Adam's hand to lift herself up and gaining the seat. She felt his hand, then looked into his face - skinny, reeked, probably pretty under all that filth, red hair maybe - then she sat straight.

Natasha took Adam's hand to crouch clumsily by Angela and flashed a light over her. "I am Scout Natasha Sversk, acting as medic. Are you injured?"

Angela looked at her, wincing at the light. "No. Yes. I have an infection, it burns, I'm scared, do you have any food?"

"Yes we have food. Show me the infection. And please restate my name."

Angela looked at her. "Natasha Sversk." She rolled up a sleeve. Adam couldn't see anything through the filth, but Natasha cleaned a spot on Angla's shoulder and after searching for a decent amount of remaining muscle gave her an injection. She then helped her wash her hands so she could feed herself.

"Scout Honaker, are there any other surviving crewmen?" asked Adam.

Angela looked down. "The pilots are dead. Bellet put herself in a lowberth. I don't know when."

Laseiag had recovered and pointed to the forward bulkhead. "Here?"

Angela squinted. "Yes. Starboard side." Laseiag set up his gear and began cutting again.
Adam started to ask Angela another question but Natasha waved him down. She pulled a food packet out from a bag. Angela almost grabbed it out of her hands but controlled herself and managed to accept it being handed to her. She sat straight and tried to open it, but her hands shook and she wound up dropping the halves onto the deck where they rolled into the dirty water. She moved with astonishing speed trying to catch both halves simultaneously as they bounced off of her hands and then started to leap after them as they rolled away, but Natasha held her back and set her medbag on Angela's lap as a table and presented Angla with another food packet. Angela moved more deliberately on her second attempt and managed to get it open without dropping it. She stared at the food for just a moment then held a spoon and took one bite, chewing deliberately as if at a regular meal. But she couldn't help but close her eyes.

"Just one bite for a minute," said Natasha. Angela nodded slowly.

Adam glanced at Laseiag making progress on the forward bulkhead then turned back to Angela. "The pilots are dead?"

"Yes," Angela slowly answered, obviously concentrating on her food. "Toulouse said he wanted to see a fossil field, and Bobby landed on the ice, and we fell through. Something hit the hull and power failed, I tumbled around engineering and then woke up in ice water. The hatch was bent and jammed, both were, I couldn't get out. Bellet said the bridge was smashed and flooded and was freezing solid." She took another bite. "The corridor was flooding and Bellet stuffed in all the food she could to me through the bent hatch before the corridor was filled. She said a lowberth was still working. I haven't heard from her since. I hope she made it." She took another bite. "I managed to get a flask working and keep a toilet module functional so I had air, and I had all the water I needed, and I've been waiting. I tried to light off maneuver and lift by panel, but nothing happened. How long has it been?"

"Several months," Adam answered.

"I couldn't tell," she said. She set her spoon down ahd held her stomach as it spasmed. "The ship fell several more times, and was pushed against the mountain, for so long it was grinding metal against stone." She looked out the fantail hatch at all the ice overhead. "How did you find us?"

Adam pointed at the bot. "Your bot was conducting survey, and lasing every human it detected. We just followed it in."

"Oh." She looked at it. "Bellet must have activated him. Good Sovoy." She touched it.

"On the line," Laseiag called.

"Helga how's our external support looking?" Adam called. He eased down the deck and took the draw line, pulling as Laseiag finished the cut.

"Flowing water is degrading the ship's present physical stability," she said.

He pulled the cut hull piece to fall into the lounge, dropping into the water and hissing. No light on the other side. "OK Helga get Angela topside, Natasha help her up, then Helga come back in case we need a quick evac, Chief Laseiag just leave the gear for now and man a bike in case we have to come running out. Natasha follow me," and he eased his way around the hot metal and into the space.

Even darker, and colder. Dripping water, the stench of oil and hydraulic fluid. Debris everywhere, he tripped on it with every step he took. Clothing wrapped around his legs, tools trapped his feet, he stepped on a coffee pot and felt it collapse beneath his boots, he slipped on a pile of ... something, it oozed up around his boots. A few lights to starboard. He shined his light on them, lowberths out in the open and detached from the bulkhead, hanging loose by power cables. One was in use, the occupant out of their seat and laying against the outer door. Not good.


She staggered through the hole and down the slope, her teeth chattering. He held her hand to help her keep her balance.

"Can you get them up and running?"

Natasha looked doubtful. "Maybe. Clear a space, feet down."

Adam kicked around at all the obstructions. "Can we take them topside first?"

"No." She looked around, saw a fairly even area. "Here." They leaned down and leveled it as best they could. Adam stuffed his light into a space between two cabinets where it lit as much of the space as possible.

Natasha broke out a thermal blanket and laid it on the area, half down and half rolled up. She tossed a bag of thermal packs to Adam, and he opened it and started lighting them off while she laid out her equipment and assessed the lowberth readouts and occupant, noting various points of contact on the glass.

"She will fall," she said. "You catch her body, I catch her head, lay her onto the blanket."

"OK. She have a neck injury?"

"We shall see. On three, one, two, three ...." Adam eased open the berth with one hand and arm while controlling the woman's fall with the other, Natasha pushing in to control the woman's head. They eased her out, Natasha keeping the woman's head straight while Adam clumsily tried to maneuver her limp form. Turning slowly as a team to get her over the blanket Adam tripped over some cabling and tried to break his fall with his knee and then his side, partially dropping the woman face-up right onto the thermal blanket, Natasha managing to hold the woman's head steady all the way down.

"Good job," Adam hissed in pain, smiling and massaging his knee while Natasha felt the back of the woman's neck. "No injury." She started to attached monitoring equipment to the woman while Adam placed the heating pads on the woman's chest.

"No. Groin, armpits, and neck."


Natasha folded the rest of the thermal blanket over the woman, lit off its chem warmers, an dlooked at her readouts. "Normal," she said, sounding surprised. "Though she will have serious pressure injuries."

"Great, let's get her up and out of here."

Natasha pulled out a prepared syringe and injected it directly into the woman's carotid artery then smeared the puncture with sealant. "Five minutes."

"What's the rule, one projectile vomit per minute under ten?" Adam queried.

"Scout Honaker is topside with my comm link," Helga reported, apparently using her bike helmet. "I object to both our pilots being at hazard simultaneously."

Natasha nodded, Adam frowned. "OK, I'm coming up, Chief Laseiag assess the bridge access, Helga please help out." Adam reluctantly shuffled up the incline and out of the space and onto the fantail, blinking his eyes at the light, Helga and Laseiag pushing past him. He stepped onto Hansel as it hovered and looked over the ship. Yeah, the running water was eating away at the ice holding up the ship, it would fall again eventually. He looked down into the cavern, rushing water far below, it darkened in the deep but he could see something moving.

"Scout Honaker, you on the link, how ya doing, you feel safe up there?"

"Oh, you ... I ... feel like I'm dreaming. I can't open my eyes, it's so bright and warm."

"Hey, no you're not dreaming, sorry to leave you alone we're just down here for a while working on your crewmate. Are you OK? Do I need to come up there?"

"No, I'm fine, just ... sitting and eating. Is Bellet OK?"

"So far, Natasha our medic says she looks normal, we'll know in a few minutes. Hey you have any problem at all you just sing out and we'll be up there."

"I will. Oh I am so dirty. What is your name?" Talking through her food.

"Adam Warran, pilot and team lead. By the way, what was that about snakes and crabs?"

"Oh ... oh yes." Remembering, slightly alarmed. "Yes, there is a huge colony of crab-like animals down below at the bottom of the glacier, thousands of them. I hammered open a leaf of the fantail iris valve and they heard me and just swarmed, all trying to get in, I had to fight them with a wrench for so long before I could hammer the valve shut again, hundreds of them, they cut me very badly, that's where I got my infection. They're good to eat but they're dangerous."

"OK ...." Adam looked down, he could see movement but he couldn't tell what it was. "Natasha, what's our patient's status?"

He could hear someone groaning and crying and kicking and cursing and retching violently in the background. "Her response is normal."

"OK, we have a potential animal situation, so bundle her up and get her moving, Helga help her out."

"She needs a few minutes more."

Adam peered down the cavern and looked at the ice around the ship. "OK, but expedite. Chief Laseiag status."

"The space before the bridge is crowded with debris and very cold. I believe the bridge is indeed frozen. The bridge hatch is inoperable. I will need assistance to cut."

"OK, when Natasha is up on a bike I'll come down. The situation is possibly unstable so try to set up as best you can then come back a ways until I can get down there."


The local star was directly overhead and shone down all the way to the bottom of the cavern. He looked through some binocculars. Yep, lots of slowly swirling motion down there, it looked like a fish tornado seen from above.

After a few minutes Natasha and Helga appeared, carrying Bellet between them. She had vomit all over herself and looked terrible and was in obvious pain but held her head up and responded to questions.

Adam sat casually on the bike, smiling. "Good morning." Bright and happy.

"I ... must ... thank ... you ...." She looked like she'd just as soon barf on him.

"Later. Get her out of here, Anglela is still loopy so one of you stay there with them and one of you come back down with both bikes. Keep an eye on the ice and the animal colony down there." He slung his binocculars onto the handlebars and stepped off the bike and worked down into the ship again, and he and Laseiag slid down towards the bridge.
He grabbed his light on the way down.

Long-crystaled frost covered the entire overhead, their breath clouded around them, the freezing water deepened almost to their chests and debris swirled around them as they passed the cabins and approached the bridge iris. The light reflected back from the haze and frost, shinining in their eyes almost as much as it illumined the space.

"How. Long." Adam grunted.

"Maybe. Fif. Teen. Minutes."

"Can you. Last that. Long."

"I am. Capable." His gear was slung onto the overhead and he pulled down his cutter, a shower of frost following it. He tried to light it off but the spark tool came up entangled in a brassiere and he had to spend a minute getting it straightened out. He finally got it lit and started cutting straight through around the outside of the iris valve. Looked like more than fifteen minutes.

Adam backed up and looked into the forward cabins. Dark, partly flooded, couldn't see anything worthwhile. He backed up further to the aft cabins, equally dark but less flooded. Personal gear, he couldn't see anything valuable. Probably looking right at something but can't see it. Teeth chattering very hard.

"Light," Laseiag called. Adam waded back in - even colder now - and pointed it where Laseiag indicated. Water dripping from the overhead everywhere. Laseiag cut a pair of bolts off and pulled one of the iris valve leaves right off of its mount and into the water.

Mostly ice slurry on the other side, it filled the bridge space.

"No. Chance." huffed Laseiag.

"Verrrrrifyyy," stuttered Adam. "Trrrry."

Laseiag looked around, then up, and started digging at the slurry in the overhead. It didn't take long. He soon found a hand, hard and white and shrivelled, well up into the corner, the arm buried deeper in stiffer slurry.

"Decccceased," stuttered Laseiag.

No chance for the other one. "Caaaall." Laseiag shut down his rig and they both began dragging it back up the incline, stumbling over debris.

"Natasha at the fantail," she commed. "Significant movement below, I believe it is approaching."

"Exiting. Found one body. Other presumed dead. Did anyone. Mention wanting anything. From their cabin," Adam hissed.

"No, and water is continuing to erode ship support, it appears yet stable but I recommend exit now. Are you OK?"

"Yes. Cold."

"Standing by. I see lights below."

"Lights?" The welding rig had become entangled in something, maybe a ghillie suit, that was anchored to something else underwater. Laseiag tried to rip it free but couldn't. Adam reached for his issue knife, but remembered the composite knife Jurl had given him. He sawed at the fabric and cut it loose. Shame to get oil on it, oh well a tool's a tool.

Coming out of the water Adam felt warmer. They dragged the equipment out the aft hatch, he took a look below. Yep, lights, some kind of natural florescence, standard blue/yellow, except it was moving in some kind of swirling motion - swirling upwards.

Natasha had dismounted onto the fantail, leaving Hansel hovering, and helped them load and secure the gear to Gretel. Laseiag mounted the bike and started up, but stopped. "Robot data."

"Oh. Yeah, I'll get it, uh ... how?"

"Next to the off-switch, just pull it out."

"OK." Laseiag move up while Adam dropped back down. He reached behind the bot, found the grip and yanked out the core. Easy enough. He scurried back out, still shivering. Natasha was standing by Hansel, Adam set the core in an equipment slot and climbed on and set the belt, Natasha climbed

A chunk of snowy ice fell between her and the bike knocking her back she twisted and scrabbled at the edge swearing with a rising voice and went over "expert!" he angled down point and slapped the vertical down "negative 3G!" it dropped precipitously time no yes sides where are the sides follow faster hit ice damage there she is ease left distance can I 2 1 yes swirling lights she's right there she grabbed his hair "hover!" and then his flight suit as it eased down and hauled herself onto her belly on the passenger seat "full hover now!" Hansel jerked to a complete halt.

Maybe thirty feet or so above the subglacial creek. Plenty of room, no stress. But he couldn't believe she and he had negotiated the narrow shaft without piling up on the sides.

Dim blue-yellow light everywhere. He looked around. The entire shaft, below and above, was lined with some kind of crab-like animals. They all had some kind of florescent growth on one claw that they held out towards him while vaguely waving their other claw. None of them moved otherwise.

Natasha was huffing, repeating over and over again some word in her home language.

"Sit up," he said with a low voice. "Belt on, stay quiet."

She looked around, and fell silent. She was shaking but sat up readily enough, put her seat belt on, then wrapped her arms around Adam with a death grip.

"Are you injured?"

She shook her head against his back.

He glanced down. The shaft spread out broadly along a creek, the entire bank was lined with burrows, most with dim lights moving inside. He saw long chains of crabs, lots of little ones led by single large ones. Many at the creek head emerging from under the ice, forming a line across it. All of them and all of the ones on the shaft walls were just staring at him.

"Look at them. Before we go."

He could feel Natasha pull her head back and look around. Good girl.

"Sorry!" he announced, waving a hand at them. "Sorry, just passing through, didn't mean to drop in unannounced." He eased Hansel up, hoping it wasn't damaged by the hit and would respond. It did. He carefully stayed as far away as he could from the crabs on the shaft walls.

One of them hurled itself off the wall and at the bike. It missed and splashed down in the creek. Another one higher up tried, Adam batted it away, it was fairly lightweight.

"OK, time's up, 2G!"

The crabs all began hurling themselves at the bike, a sudden hailstorm of crustaceans. The rising bike barely beat the topmost flyers. He couldn't watch them, he had to watch the sides of the shaft, didn't want to hit the wall again and fall down into their home and wind up as dinner, but the dim lights falling past him in the darkness made it look like the whole universe was racing by. He could hear them thrashing in the creek below.

He adjusted the controls on Hansel for half-speed, but the right-hand grip was torn away and there was no response. The handle bar seemed bent too. "Half-speed." That did it. He eased the bike up the shaft towards the surface, watching for any more falling ice. "So busy watching the ship, didn't look up," he muttered to himself.

"Thank you," she said to his back.

He looked back at her and smiled hugely, then turned his eyes back up and to the walls. They rose up out of the crevasse and back onto the glacier.
Adam shaded his eyes from the bright light. Natasha simply held onto him.

Everyone else was slightly off the glacier at a small meadow clearing. Bellet was half-sitting half-lying in obvious pain, Angela was holding her hand with one while continuing to eat with the other. Laseiag and Helga both studied Adam and Natasha carefully, then did a double take. Helga moved forward with the med bag to help Natasha as Adam settled Hansel down and Natasha tried to dismount.

"I need no help," she started to say, but suddenly grunted in shocked pain as she stepped off and looked down. Her flight suit was stained with blood where her injuries were. She eased to the ground keeping her left leg straight, muttering something unpleasant. Once again Helga unzipped the pants leg. The injuries were torn and bleeding anew, and again Natasha guided Helga in dressing them.

"Accident?" Laseiag inquired.

"Incident," Adam answered, looking down at Natasha. In the local star's light he could see a scrape on her face now. "Some ice knocked her off and she fell."

Laseiag looked at Hansel's bent handlebar and missing grip, deep scrape marks on the bar. "What, into the crevasse?"

"Yeah, had to chase her down." He settled Hansel and tried to dismount, but found he had to concentrate on making his hands let go.

Helga glanced up, looked at the damage on the bike, and realized what had happened. She smiled at Adam. "Hah! Luftpanzerexperten!" Then she considered and added eagerly, "And the animals at the bottom?"

"Crabs, a community. I'll tell you about them later."

"They invited us for dinner but we declined," Natasha said. Everyone looked at her, she looked at them. "What?"

"Perhaps given her injuries we can keep Natasha on the bridge so we have at least one pilot safe?" Laseiag suggested. Helga nodded, serious.

Adam put his hand on Natasha's shoulder. She looked at him, then touched his hand as if unfamiliar with such an action. He turned and stepped over to the Purdue crew, kneeling down by them. Bellet was in pain but controlled, Angela was dark gray with grime and looked like a zombie, her half-open eyes somewhat yellow and bloodshot. Both of them had breath strong enough to breach realspace for a jump. "Scout Adam Warren, lead pilot and mission lead. We observed one body on the bridge but it was largely frozen and we were unable to identify it or to procede further to locate the second. Are you sure both crewmen were on the bridge and one did not evacuate at any point?"

"Yes," Bellet said slowly. Angela reached out and carefully touched Bellet, who slowly took Angela's hand. Adam could see a huge welt developing on Bellet's face where it had compressed against the lowberth glass, and she seemed to be defensive of her right hand. "Toulouse said that Bobby was pinned and the hatch would not function, and then I heard nothing from either."

"What's your name?"

"Bellet Ferrier DuPois d'Seine. Can you recover their bodies?"

"No. We have our own injuries, the Purdue's locale is unstable, and there is an animal situation to consider, and by the way I'm afraid that precludes searching your cabins for belongings as well. We were sent here to find any survivors and if possible recover the Purdue. I'm declaring all survivors located and the Purdue lost and the primary mission concluded."

Bellet had tears running down her face. After a moment she said, "How did you find us?"

"They followed Sovoy," Angela said. "You sent him out, didn't you?"

"Yes," Bellet said.

"Yep, the robot was malfunctioning and lasing the natives, they told us where to look," Adam said. "It was collecting faunal data for months, we recovered the data block so you'll have something to do during jump."

"Oh no. Did he hurt anyone?"

"One girl was blinded, but that seems like the only serious injury. Natasha thinks the girl's sight might be recoverable when the ISS Lu Hao comes through later, but in any case the girl seems to be held in high esteem in her village because of her encounter so she's OK either way. Tell you what, right now our ship has no-one aboard so we're going to head back as soon as our medic says you can tolerate the trip, and she's a tough girl so that probably will be in a minute or two. Hope you're ready."

Adam stood up and looked back at Natasha. Helga was helping her up.

Angla stood up alongside Adam, squinting at him. "Thank you for finding us. Toulouse was Bellet's fiancee. And I ... really liked Bobby."

Adam looked down and away for a moment. He relaxed and cleared his face and turned to Angla, putting his hand on her shoulder and looking her in the eye. He then crouched down by Bellet, who was gazing off into the distance. He put his face alongside hers, speaking quietly into her ear. "I know what it is to lose a friend. He is very glad you survived. You will see him again, and more besides."

And you?

Bellet smiled sadly into the distance. "You are Trin."


She closed her eyes. The smile was very faint.

He stood back up. Helga and Laseiag were helping Natasha mount Gretel, she looked angry with pain. He considered the bikes. Balance injuries, weights, returns .... "Ok, Natasha can you take Angela, and Chief Laseiag please take Bellet then bring back the bikes for me and Helga. Sound good? And Chief Laseiag be ready and be careful going aboard, the rabbit may have called a battalion of friends and be trying to figure out how to hijack the boat."

"It will be asleep," Natasha asserted.

"Rabbit?" asked Angela, helping Bellet up as Laseiag brought Gretel along trying to figure out how best to control it with the right grip gone.

"You'll see." He moved to assist Bellet, who was limping and moving very slowly. He took his time as she grimmaced and groaned getting onto the bike, then buckled her in. She winced in pain. "Sorry."

Angela climbed carefully behind Natasha, who wrinkled her nose and shuddered.

"Sorry," said Angela.

"Several times I climb through general purpose drain to infiltrate Aki hazardous waste industrial spaceport," said Natasha. "It was almost as bad." She glanced at Adam then gently eased Gretel out over the slope and started down towards the Flower.

You'd better

On it. "Uh, Helga ..."

"Yes. Natasha!" Helga called on the link. "Put Angela in my cabin." Natasha nodded from a distance. Laseiag, glancing between Helga and Natasha, eased Hansel after Natasha, carefully experimenting with the bike controls to get a proper orientation and vector. And they set off down the slope. Adam and Helga stood watching them.

"She likes you," Helga said happily.

"Yeah," Adam responded hesitantly.

"And you like her!" she piped up.

"Yeah ...." Almost inaudible.

"But ... first she must convert?"

"Yeah" he answered readily. "Yeah, that's how we do it."

Helga laughed easily. "But that is not you." She looked more serious. "Should I ask if you hide something?"

He glanced at her. "How did you meet your husband?"

"Lunion Church Directorate assigns us." Beaming smile. "There is trepidation yes, but within half an hour we are talking and laughing and making plans to marry in local church. Directorate has 90% success rate. So much easier than random chance while drunk or business arrangements or maneuvering between families for political advantage, yes? Like watching porcupines dance." She looked at him. "She becomes aware that there is a dance. You dance. But not like porcupine. You dance as if out of habit, but ...."

"She's crew. Relationships in-hull can be too intense."

Helga considered. "She is here. But you," she realized what she was trying to say, "are not." She looked at him.

He was looking around at the world.

"A helper suitable for him," she said.

He looked down.

She brightened. "We have wait. Tell me about crabs." She held up her data pad.

"Well ...." He looked up more relaxed. "We saw several hundred, maybe a thousand. Each one had a phosphorescent bit of light on one claw."


"Yeah, they had burrows too and you could see the lights in the burrows ...." He was smiling. But not as much.
It was a long wait. Helga was studying a patch of non-terran flowers. Adam sat on a rock, his flight suit drying, looking over the vast plains to the northeast, the gorge creek trailing off into the distance and a storm gathering over a distant rise.

Eventually Laseiag returned, riding Gretel and Hansel trailing along behind.

"Well you took a long time," Adam called. "How are they?"

"Bellet required much assistance and is in Natasha's cabin," Laseiag answered, setting down the bikes. "Natasha should be resting but insisted on helping Angela clean up outside the hull before allowing her into Helga's cabin. I concur to reduce strain on the life support unit recycler system."

He could just see it. "A good engineering decision, let's go before ... let's go," Adam said. Helga nodded vigorously. "Helga, can you handle Hansel with the damage?"

She mounted the bike and cycled the remaining controls. "Yes." Adam jumped on Gretel behind Laseiag. They all turned downslope and raced away.

"I will pull up first," Helga commed. "OK," Adam responded. She raced ahead.

"So you'll have someone to help out in engineering now," Adam called to Laseiag over the rushing wind.

"There is little to do at this time," Laseiag called back. "And ... red hair is so shocking."

"It would be good for her. And it's that or they all sit in the lounge gabbing for a week," Adam called.

Laseiag grunted loudly. "There will be work."

"And she said she had a relationship with one of the pilots."

After a moment Laseiag nodded. "And the other?"

"Fiancee of the other pilot."

Laseiag nodded again.

So many.

And you won't be helping matters.

He stared out at the horizon.

As the Flower came in sight Helga commed, "Wait before approaching." Laseiag drew down Gretel and hovered. Adam could see, barely, Natasha and Angela outhull, Angela apparently stripped, Natasha apparently helping her clean up. Helga had dismounted and was trying to get Natasha on the bike and up to the airlock. It took a while but eventually Natasha mounted the bike, obviously in pain, and eased up to the airlock hatch and dismounted and dropped down. Helga finished helping Angela and then got her inhull, whistling Hansel into the garage.

"Clear, gentlemen."

"Inbound." Laseiag revved up Gretel and moved in.

"On the hull," Adam called.

They pulled up and Adam dropped onto the Flower. Laseiag moved Gretel to the garage while Adam laddered into the airlock.

In both of the womens' cabins' he could hear the toilet modules cycling in shower mode. Helga seemed to be in Natasha's cabin assisting Bellet. Helga's door was open and though he could hear the water running he couldn't hear anyone moving. Without looking in he knocked at the cabin entry. "Hey Angela! You alright?"

"Yes, yes I'm just ... the water is warm."

"Take your time." He shut the door and moved to the lounge. Natasha was there, gazing blankly, petting the rabbit on her lap.

"Yeah, we got back before your legions could arrive, better luck next time" he said to the rabbit. It wrinkled its nose at him. He looked over Natasha. The scrape on her face was getting redder, her eye a little bloodshot, her flight suit stained with blood, her boots greasy. "You alright?"

"I will live." She looked him up and down, sodden and oil-stained. "You appear ready for disposal."

He laughed out loud, looking her in the eye. "Yeah, hard day."

"You were not overcome with adrenaline?"

He grinned. "Didn't have time."

"It was ... how did you catch me?"

He shrugged. "Just pressed in. Didn't want to lose ..." he looked to one side, then back, "anyone else."

"You risk marooning everyone for second pilot."

He pretended to consider. "Yeah. Yeah I did."

"Thank you."

He nodded.

"Can I use your shower?" Looking at him.


"Yes." He stepped back a bit to clear the corridor. "Long as you need." He looked her in the eye.

She sat there for half a minute, then slowly slid out, in pain from her injuries but distracted. She carefully set the rabbit down on a towel on the deck and tried to limp to Adam's cabin. He stooped a bit, pulling her arm over his shoulder, and helped her hobble into his cabin and up to the life support unit.

"Where are your flight suits?"

She held onto the edges of the unit. "Middle locker," she answered slowly.

"I'll get them."

"Please watch Serzhant for me."

"OK." He stepped back into the corridor and shut his door.

He stepped forward to her cabin and knocked. "Hey Helga, can you get some clothes for Natasha? Middle locker."

"Yes." After a minute the door popped open, and she looked at him eyebrows raised as she handed over the bundle.

"How is Bellet?"

"She is in pain. I will put her in the lower bunk when she finishes."


He returned to his cabin - the life support unit door was shut, the water running - put her clothes on a counter, and left.

He stood there with his eyes shut. He tried several deep breaths. Didn't help. He looked up sideways, angry.

No answer.

He looked down. Serzhant the rabbit was watching him carefully, seemingly undisturbed.

"Lucky you. How many ladies you got at home? A dozen? Those rabbit armies don't make themselves, do they?"

He bent down to pick it up. It bunched up, he sat down to put it in his lap trying to mind its injured leg. It seemed to relax, unfrightened. He pet it a few times, he wasn't sure it noticed. It just breathed fast and looked down the corridor. Probably trying to pretend he wasn't filthy. Maybe an injury response.

Laseiag came out of engineering, carrying a bag of a dozen food packs and setting them on the lounge table. "For Angela." He looked at the rabbit. "Baby sitting?"

"Patient care. Hey great, let's hope Angela doesn't eat too much and throw up. You should get cleaned up now, when I can clean up myself we'll have a meeting about what to do next. Nothing special. I'm pretty hungry though myself."

Laseiag looked towards Adam's cabin, hearing the water running. He looked at Adam for a moment, then nodded deliberately and went into his cabin.

Adam waited.

Eventually Helga came back. "Bellet sleeps." She pointed to the rabbit and looked at Adam. "Step-father?"

"Guardian. When ...."

Natasha groaned loudly, clearly out of the life support unit.

"... or now I suppose," he finished, as he pointed Helga to his cabin and she rapidly moved in. He listened to them getting Natasha dressed, one painful step at a time, then Helga helped her stagger out. Natasha wanted to turn into the lounge.

Adam pointed forward. "No. Bed. Now."

"I am ..." she started to protest.

"You need to be flight capable. To bed now."

She frowned, but nodded. Helga led her forward, then hesitated. "Bellet is in lower bunk of your cabin. You will take mine."

"But you ...." Natasha began.

"We will correct situation later." Natasha reluctantly submitted, but looked back. "Serzhant."

"In a minute," Adam said. He watched her disappear into Helga's cabin.

A moment later Angela came out. It was all Adam could do not to laugh, she was "wearing" one of Helga's mission specialist jump suits and it was impossibly big on her. She held it up like a bad costume and shuffled back to the lounge, sitting uncertainly. Oh yeah, bright red hair, freckled open face, green eyes. She noticed the food packets instantly, but restrained herself.

"Welcome aboard," Adam offered. "Sorry we don't have any clothing immediately available for you, perhaps Chief Laseiag will have some suits that fit you. I presume Natasha oriented you to our ship the Dainty Flower." He pointed at her hair. "You are from New Rome?"

"Yes. And yes she did. She likes you."

"Uh ... yeah."

Angela cocked her head in curiosity. Adam looked to one side and waved her down, and Angela nodded. "Is Bellet OK?" she asked.

"Yes, she's asleep. When I get cleaned up we'll have a meeting about what we're going to do. In the meantime make yourself at home."

"Thank you so much again. I feel like I'm dreaming."

"Nope, not a dream." Adam saw Helga stand out of her cabin and he stood up with the rabbit. Angela boggled. "How did you get that? They surrounded us and wouldn't let us touch them."

"Yeah, this one was injured, we picked it up to study it and Natasha took a fancy to it." Angela reached out and touched it. The rabbit reacted to her, turning and sniffing her hand, but then went back to its repose. Adam stepped back to Helga's cabin.

"May I enter?" he asked Helga.

"Yes." He stood in.

Natasha was on her side on the lower bunk. She pushed back to make room for the rabbit, and Adam knelt down and put it next to her. It settled in seeming unperturbed by the new cabin.

"Here you go, one Serzhant. Sorry to push you, but I need you up and running as soon as possible." She nodded, a neutral expression on her face, but she put her hand on the rabbit. "We'll have a conference in a while, you can use the internal comm to join in if you're still awake."

She nodded again, and closed her eyes.

He stood up and stood out. "We'll have a meeting pretty soon." She nodded, and he headed for his cabin and a shower. He carefully dumped his filthy clothes in the bucket, checked the water level and recycler good, set shower mode, and stood in.

He could smell her.

He stood there for a minute, then turned on the system. When the hot water hit the back of his neck he almost fell over, but managed to drop to one knee instead.
Adam stood out of his cabin and checked the laundry machine. Cycling madly, contamination meter barely in the green. Had to be Laseiag, had beaten him to it. Adam left his laundry bucket in his cabin and moved to the lounge.

Laseiag was sitting across from Angela, watching her. Angela, now in one of Laseiag's engineering coveralls, had an open food pack in front of her but was sitting still, looking down and holding her belly and concentrating.

"We have a good quantity of food, you may vomit if you wish," Laseiag offered. Angela shook her head vigorously, red hair swaying. "No." Very emphatic, but the battle was in doubt. Laseiag pulled the food away from her and she did not object.

Helga stood out of her cabin and moved to the lounge. Adam pointed to the womens' cabins and looked questioning. "They both sleep," Helga answered.

"Going to sleep hard tonight myself. OK, I think we have a quorum," Adams said as he sat next to Angela. Helga joined them on the other side of the table. Angela stared wide-eyed at how much space Helga took up.

"How are you feeling?" Adam asked Angela.

"I am ... emotionally unstable and physically weakened. But I can work." New Roman objectivity.

"Good, and work will help you get back up to speed. We have a brand new fuel purifier and with two engineers now aboard I'm thinking our next step is refuel and verify our expectations that there are no issues."

She looked up. "You have a new plant?"

"The entire space," answered Laseiag. Angela smiled slightly.

"And Helga how are the other ladies?"

"Bellet's right hand shows damage and will require hospital reconstruction at some point. I lack expertise to say how much or when. Natasha seems to require only rest to achieve recovery."

"How about cabin berthing?"

"Angela and Bellet will occupy Natasha's cabin. Natasha and I will share."

"Can you fit into that overhead bunk?"

"No, I will sleep on deck."

"OK, it all looks straightforward. We need to return soon for Bellet's sake, but I want to make sure Natasha's not sick before we're locked in-hull for a week on the return trip. There are several large inland lakes we can land at for initial refueling, do it from the beach so we can monitor what the intakes suck up. I'm thinking we'll be there for a day or two while we break in the plant and observe Natasha's status, and during that time we can add to our secondary mission of survey. Sound good?"

Helga nodded happily. "The forest cover here is intensive. You are expecting beach at the lakes?" asked Laseiag.

"More than we would find along the river. I'm guessing. We'll check an inlet first and see, should at least find a sandbar." Laseiag nodded.

Helga was checking her datapad. "Storms may be issue onshore. A predicted front is moving in."

"OK, we'll ... let's just see. Angela?"

"I feel like an apprentice. I have done some survey work before so I can help with data acquisition and processing. Bellet is our expert though."

"Ach good! I look forward to working and sharing discovery with apprentice!" said Helga happily.

"And in addition to lighting off the fuel purifier there is repair work to be done on our bikes," added Laseiag.

"So you're not baggage here, you're crew," said Adam.

Angela looked sad. She started to say something but almost upchucked on the table instead. With a tremendous effort she held it down.

"Shall I obtain a bucket?" Laseiag asked.

"No, I ... learned how to eat almost anything and keep it down," she answered. "I believe some work will help though. May I begin now?"

"Yes," Laseiag answered, "though perhaps not all at once. In addition to the bikes the robot data core jack was damaged and will need to be repaired. Are you able?"

"Yes. Do you have visual aids?"

"We have a baseline setup."

"OK, things are looking good," Adam interjected, "but we'll lift soon and transit to the lakes so be ready for deck ops. Helga is there anything you want to look at here before we leave?"

"Many floral items, yes. And the creek gorge."

"Yeah, that's a great spot, but that would take days, and the robot data block likely has more information than you could collect in a week. OK, there's some things I want to do at our campsite last night, so I'll take Gretel out and come right back, Helga you do what you can and then we'll leave and try to be on the lake and fully set up before darkside. Comm links everyone and regular verifications. Anything else? OK, let's go."

Adam stood clear for Angela then Helga, and started to enter his cabin. As Laseiag led Angela into the Flower's small plant he saw her stop and just gaze round it. "Good heavens," was all she could say. Adam laughed as he stepped in.

He geared up including his hatchet, put a plastic tub in a pillowcase, then headed aft through engineering and up to the garage deck, popped the hatch, unlatched Gretel, and eased out. The local star was heading down, he gaged the time to darkside and looked towards the campsite. Plenty. Helga was already out and dirtside, heading for some growth. He did a slow turn around the landing zone, checking for anything he could recognize as a hazard - nothing.

"Helga, Adam, zone clear, comm check."

"Helga check."

"Laseiag check."

"Three by three, transiting, back in a bit."


He pulled well above the treeline, checked for avians, and accelerated.

A short time later he pulled over the campsite, the Flower's footprint still visible in the terrain folliage. He orbited the site for a moment, looking for any problems, then set down near the cold campfire spot. He walked over to where the red tubers grew, and pulled out the plastic tub and hatchet. He picked a spot and chopped the ground around some the plants and pried it up. It was full of tubers. Oh yeah, perfect. He knocked the dirt out of them and pulled them off, gathering up about forty, putting them in the tub and then the tub in the pillowcase. He studied the dirt and the root patterns, and then stood back and examined the lay of the ground and the local starlight on it. Yeah, can do this, no problem. He lit off Gretel again, checked overhead, and lifted.

"Chief Laseiag, Adam, comm check."

"Laseiag check."

"Helga check."

"Three by three, inbound."


"I desire more time," Helga said.

He checked the local star and horizon. Actually the lakes were trailing starrise. "OK yeah, we have some." He whipped over the treeline heading back.

Passing over Helga he waved to her and pulled into the garage. He locked down Gretel, dropped and secure the hatch, and laddered down to engineering.

He heard Angela crying.

Moving as silently as he could he glanced around the forward power plant flasks back towards the work table. Angela was sitting in the seat, her face in her hands, like a New Roman trying not to cry but not succeeding. Laseiag was standing next to her, hands at his side typical of vilani, hesitating. He finally put his hand on her shoulder and she took it, leaning towards him. She grew still.

He quietly left engineering and shut the hatch behind him. He set down the tubers in his own cabin, then stood leaning his face against the bulkhead for a moment.

Don't let it ....

He stepped out and moved to the airlock. He hesitated, listening at the women's cabins - nothing. He laddered up to the top of the hull, then back down the outside and walked over to Helga, checking the local star and horizon.

"Anything interesting?"

She was laying on the ground poking around in some weeds, her data pad set up nearby. She didn't look up. "Yes. These growths exhibit behavior similar to that of worship trees. You see stages of behavior throughout this colony. A branch peels away from main stalk, bows down to plant itself head-first into ground, then the opposite end rises up to form new top. They only ambulate one step, then fixate. But they also form seeds, here." She pointed to a patch of fuzzy tops, some of them drifting away in the light breeze. "See how they refract light to form rainbow."

Glancing around, he sat down next to her. Yep, a dim rainbow could be seen in the field.

"You know, if you could plant these in a garden, maybe surrounded by shadows and dark green plants, only with a shaft of light over just these, the rainbow would be readily visible."

"Yes." She sounded happy.

"Are they in your data base?"

"No. New item."

Adam laughed. "So what will you name them?"

"Color weed."

He laughed again. "Hear that boys? You're weeds." He tapped one, sending it's fuzz rising into the air. The local starlight shown through it with a tiny rainbow.

He looked around, then up at the local star again. "Can you wrap it up?"

"Yes." She sat up and looked around, rarely unhappy. "So much." She looked at him, grinning. "Perhaps there will be sea monsters in the lakes?"

"There might. Natasha and I saw somewhat large creatures in the streams by the barren region, maybe they'll be larger in the lakes."

"Ach, I look forward to that."

They stood up and moved back to the Flower.
"On-line," Laseiag called.

Adam checked overhead. "Roger that, lifting." He pulled the boat up and vectored northwest, up to about two thousand feet and generating some lift. Broken lands easing out into one vast forest. "Sea monsters ...." He pulled up the terrain maps. Oh yeah, nice big inland lake, river emptying into it, upstream some tributaries, probably there. He vectored towards the inland lake, eased his seat back, and watched out the window. Storm front moving in, can handle it, this far inland probably won't be too severe but really should build strong just in case ....

The local star rotated down, the forest rolled by, past some hills, past a number of creeks, past a smaller rabbit-devastated area. The storm front approached.

Helga eased onto the bridge, looking at the storm and checking some settings on Natasha's panel. She noticed where the Flower was headed and smiled.

"Be careful what you wish for," Adam grinned.

"I wish for big monster!" Helga beamed as she eased off the bridge.

The lake came into view. Oh yeah, hide a whole lotta big monsters in there. The incoming storm was beginning to drive white-caps on the water, but was mild enough that he had no real trouble controlling the Flower's vector. He angled to the north east towards the main river inflow region.

And radically altered the Flower's vector east to avoid a huge, a truly vast, flock of avians. White with flashing wings, they filled the sky from waterline to at least a thousand feet, like their own storm front close to ground. They rolled through the air, pulling this way and that, their seemingly random decisions rippling through their formation like some slow signal, the storm backdropping them, the local star shining on them brightly against the gray.

"Helga, Chief Laseiag, Angela, to the bridge for sight-seeing." He set the bridge sensors to record.

Helga popped back in, saying "So what have you?" She saw, and stopped. "Gott im Himmel." She slid into Natasha's seat and just watched.

Laseiag and Angela crowded in. Angela just stood with her hands over her mouth, Laseiag gazed quietly. "Why do they move like that?" he asked Helga.

"They dance," she answered. "As magnetic field shifts they sense and chase as if playing follow leader."

A portion of the flock was close. "Can you ..." Helga started to ask. "Yes," Adam pre-empted her. He scanned his panel then angled the Flower's path slower and closer in, adjacent to a group. Terran, large fat things, strong stout wings, long necks that they seemed to use for vector control. Adam eased the Flower right up behind one. Its feathers fluttered up and it seemed to lean forward on the bow wave. It looked back and saw the ship and the bridge with everyone looking at it, and seemed to panic. It sounded off silently on the other side of the glass - it had a beak with small teeth - lost control of its flight regime and fell back, bouncing its butt lightly on the bridge window, looking in and indignantly sounding off again as it slid down past the window and out of sight, pulling in its wings to try and regain control of its regime.

Adam waved goodbye to it as it slid past. "Doesn't this planet have any traffic control? OK Chief Laseiag I have a site picked out but I'm pushing the drive a bit so ...."

"Acknowledged," Laseiag responded and eased back off the bridge, Angela following him, as Adam pulled away and added approach and more speed to pick up more lift.

He eased in on the banks of the river inlet. He did one orbit on a likely spot, but it turned out to be mosly mud. He eased forward towards an alternative, a grassy flat, and started to descend.

Helga was looking down. "Gully".

He halted the descent and moved forward, reading at 95%, ignoring his panel and looking out the glass. Dainty Flower sounded off, "Land now. Land now." No terrain, out of regime, gully or not .... Helga pointed to a gravel flat. "There!"

"Chief! Time!" Adam called.

"Nine," Laseiag sounded off, calmly.

"Got it." Adam sloped the boat in smoothly on planetry G and leveled almost on a slide. He could feel the ground gravel crunch as he zeroed vector, the ship slipped slightly and settled. Nine bingo.

"Engineering status."

After about ten seconds Laseiag reported, "No damage. You do however owe five gallons of flushed coolant."

"Put it on my tab," Adam smiled. "Or you can pull in some game and I'll barbecue it."

"Noted. If anything comes in range I will consider that," Laseiag responded.

"Well at least we're close to the water. Full standdown, we're not going anywere. Shall we?" he asked Helga, who was already easing off the bridge. "I guess we shall." He shut down both panels. "Flower, set outhull safety protocol." "Outhull safety protcol set." He eased off the bridge and stepped back to his cabin, passing Laseiag and Angela coming forward. "Good job Chief Laseiag and Angela, coming out?"

"I will sit with Bellet for a while," Angela said.

"Whatever you need, feel free." Laseiag simply pointed to the airlock. Adam nodded and retrived his field gear belt and moved forward. He saw Helga in full vest stepping out of her cabin.

"How are they?"

"Bellet sleeps, Angela sits. Natasha asks about landing, and I say we are in good hands. She suspects otherwise."

"Good girl. Ladies first?" he motioned to the airlock, and Helga headed out again, Adam next, Laseiag bringing up the rear.

The local star was lowering. The weather front was passing to the north, leaving only slight winds and scattered drops at their landing. The lake stretched away into darkness under the clouds on the far distant horizon. Quite a few of the birds they had seen earlier were floating on the lake apparently getting one last feeding in before nightfall. The river, very broad, emptied into the lake about here, a vast downwelling of water.

Helga immediately fixated on a large rock. Both men clambered down the slight embankement and down some stones and walked the short distance to the water. Yep, the hoses would reach, the water seemed clean and largely free of obstruction. Good test case.

Laseiag had his shotgun and was watching the birds out on the water.

"A little unsporting, don't you think?" asked Adam. "And you'd have to wade out there to get it."

Laseiag was trying to check the water depth in the growing darkness and gage the distance to a pair of birds. "I could use a grav bike," he said slowly, "and I think ...." He chambered a cartridge, lowered the shotgun, took aim ....

... the water under the birds swirled. They screed and raised their wings, but the water suddenly fell away beneath them and they thrashed down into some rising maw. There was a muffled watery scuffle, then nothing but a swirl on the surface.

They stood wide-eyed staring at the empty water, Laseiag down the barrel of his shotgun.

Adam turned to Laseiag matter of factly. "Beef stroganoff?"

"Arrugula," answered Laseiag reasonably, facing Adam and porting his weapon and selecting safe.

"That too."

"Off the beach."

"OK." They moved back up, glancing slightly over their shoulders.
Adam had once read the initial report of the first offical scout service mission when the imperium, the third grand empire of the stars, was not yet formalized. The report had mentioned having beef stroganoff in the ship's stores. He wondered what "stroganoff" meant. Didn't matter, starving, he shovelled it up.

The wind had died down, at least here. He could see the passing storm in the distance still moving, and a lone bird on the lake squalled in the darkness once in a while, but beside that it was quiet. Helga had brought down Natasha and Bellet on Gretel, and they all sat around the fire. It burned well, lighting up everyone's faces with the dark stretching away behind them. Helga was singing quietly to herself, some ancient song of death and slaughter and glorious victory no doubt. Laseiag stared into the fire, a bottle of Bantral in his hand, Angela next to him.

"You alright to be here?" he had asked Bellet.

"I do not wish to hide," she grimaced. The welt on her face was impressive, and she had her right arm in a sling with the hand in an aircast and carefully guarded. Angela helped her eat.

Natasha had slid off of the bike directly onto a rock near Adam. He watched her for a moment. Not sick, knew how to manage an injury, excellent.

Watched her a bit longer ....

Helga had finished her song, her eyes lit up. She gazed out into the sky at the comet just coming into view, probably looking for the rainbow bridge, then at Bellet.

"Who was Toulouse?"

Bellet looked at the ground, then looked up and set her eyes to remember well. "Philosoph. He became a scout pilot so he could see the universe before returning to university and lecturing on the union of Aristotle and Karaka."

Laseiag looked up from the fire. "There is no union between Aristotle and Karaka."

"Oh we spent many hours long into the night, at university and academy and in many taverns with all manner of men and women, discussing just that. I could not agree but I ... loved the vision in his eyes and in his heart."

"Vision? This terran notion of discovering an order in a chaotic universe is an empty chase, our successful and demonstrated experience is that order must be presumed and imposed ..."

"One cannot presume that which does not exist except by its previous existence."

"Presumption creates existence!"

Adam was completely lost. Natasha looked as if she was hearing something new and interesting. Helga gazed with fascination, apparently following the concepts. Angela had a far-away "here we go again" look on her face, with tears.

Bellet smiled. "We were sent to rescue two prospectors in a canyon. The winds were high and it was impossible, Toulouse could not swing the ship close enough without killing us or them. He ordered Angela and the prospectors, '120 and Aguu Kipki!'"

Laseiag started to reply but broke down laughing instead. A good long laugh, as if admitting Bellet's point which was not her own.

"What is ...." Adam quietly asked Helga.

"Leap of faith is short translation", she said.

"And did your crew succeed?" Laseiag finally managed to ask.

"Yes. Angela reset the drive in time," Laseiag glanced at Angela, "and the prospectors jumped into the wind and Toulouse had anticipated their trajectory, they both made it aboard. One hit me at the airlock and made me lose some teeth and I had to grab him, but they made it aboard."

"What was his name?" asked Natasha.

"Toulouse Mouchoure d'bles Fouchant," Bellet answered sadly, but almost smiling.

"Then an honor to Toulouse Mouchoure d'bles Fouchant and his real-world lecture," said Laseiag, raising the bottle of Bantral. "And to you," he added to Angela, who was looking to the horizon and smiling. "Good engineering."

"And who was Bobby?" Helga asked Angela.

After a moment Angela answered, "We were at the Iderati West Falls, and the amphibians were singing. Some children were there, and he taught them to sing a simple chorus to match the amphibians. And he got me to set a background, somehow he got my voice to set a background. And when it was all set up, he rang out the most beautiful vocal. He didn't overwhelm any of us, it all fit right in and filled the entire grotto. It was so sad and so human and ... Everyone was listening, hundreds of people, and I was so embarassed but it was so perfect. And he ended it, it ended so perfectly, I stopped and the children stopped and even the amphibians stopped all at once at just the right time, and there was nothing but the water, for a minute nothing but the water and no-one could say anything."

After a moment Natasha asked, "What was his name?"

"Robert Kinkaid O'Toule." Angela was smiling.

Everyone sat thinking.

"And you?" Bellet asked Helga. "Is there anyone you should remember here?"

"Ach yes," said Helga amiably. "Cousin Frei Hechtor. Scout Search and Rescue in Sword Worlds deployment. He responds to ship in distress, and finds crew killed by enemy insurgents. They kidnap him and demand he restores engineering, but instead he sabotages systems and forces ship to descend into gas giant killing all. Good man. His picture hangs in Lunion Scout Academy, I pass by it as I graduate and I ... He wins Beer and Dance Endurance contest twice. I remember him." She fell silent.

Bellet looked at Laseiag.

"I recall Chief Instructor Barruch Baccardi. On our first day of hazard suit training a non-related fuel system distributor grav plate failed, flooding the space with gas and fluid. I was ignorant of proper suit usage and was trapped behind a stream, but he came for me and pulled me out and rescued me. He then went back for another trainee but the plate failed entirely and I had to shut the space hatch against him. He said my action was correct but I watched and listened to him freeze in his suit. He was a superb instructor including on how to die."

He was gazing into the fire. Helga was looking at him smiling. Angela took his hand, and he accepted it.

Bellet looked at Natasha.

"Fast Boy. We are to escape yasuka together. We beat our team leader flat onto the ground and make it into the boneyard just outside of the docks, but yasuka comes for us. A drone sees him and he leads it away from me. The dogs come and I hide in oil in a tank to avoid their IR systems. Yasuka catches Fast Boy and I listen to them cut him to death, but he will not say where I have gone. The port authority comes and I appeal to them, and they do not shoot me, but they refuse to recover his body and leave it there while they take me in." After a moment she added, "He had mice as pets. They would run to him and sit in his hand."

After a minute Helga glanced at Adam. "And Trellain?"

Adam was staring out over the lake. He turned back. "They sent me and him to make contact with some primitives out on Penelope. When we found them they got the jump on us and crippled us with rocks, then started beating him to death. He lasted forever, fought so hard he actually bit off one of their fingers before they killed him, and then they got around to working on me. But he had delayed them long enough that the backup team finally realized there was a problem and moved in before the natives killed me. My fault, if I had kept control of comms properly the backup team might have arrived in time to save him too."

"You were hit first in the face and could not call for anyone, yes?" Helga asked pointedly.

"Maybe. Never got to find out, lost control of comms, shouldn't have," he said deliberately.

He thought a minute. "I went to pick him up from Pagaton's Geisha Houri Row in Open. He'd been there for a week, I think he spent half a year's pay. As we rode the carriage away all the girls were on the roof and their balconies, just cheering him. He stopped the carriage in the middle of that dirt street and got on top of it and was dancing a jig and raising his hands and the geisha all went into some kind of zulu-foot-stomping celebrating chant, I thought they were going to break their wooden balconies, the houri's were ululating, you could hear it all the way down the street, all these proper citizens were just standing there watching them, the women watching him especially."

Angela was hiding her face in her hand but was laughing silently. Helga was grinning. Bellet had a small wry smile. Natasha seemed like she was trying to figure out how to smile.

After a moment Laseiag raised his Bantral. "To everything under the stars."

"To everything God has made," Adam responded.

Everyone affirmed, some one, some the other.

The comet was in view. He looked at it, wondering if it would survive its trip past the star.
"... data block A holds non-volatile baseline control algorithms, data block B holds volatile instructional data, and data block C holds non-volatile terrain-traversed records and sensor data. B and C may be replaced at any time with pre-programmed flight and sequence procedures ...."

Someone tapped his cabin door. Adam tossed the grav bike user manual onto his desk, checked his sidearm and eased quietly into the corridor where Laseiag and Angela were waiting. "All set?" They nodded, and they all moved quietly out the airlock.

The local star was just moving over the horizon. Laddering down to the ground Laseiag and Angela moved aft to engineering and began unloading the hosework, while Adam moved up to the lake, sidearm out. He looked over the water and tried to see into the depths, but couldn't. Some of the lake birds were coasting about and seemed unconcerned though, so whatever lurked beneath the surface probably wasn't active right now.

Laseiag and Angela carried up the pump assembly dragging the hose behind it. "I don't see anything and they don't care," Adam reported pointing to the birds, "so looks OK to me." Together they stepped down the embankment and up to the shoreline, Adam displaced about ten feet while Laseiag and Angela dragged the pump into deeper water and lit it off. A quiet hum, intakes, pressures, filters, it all looked good, and they backed out of the lake. Laseiag trotted back up the embankment to check the readings at the processor intake panel.

"How's Bellet?" Adam asked Angela.

"Her hand definitely is damaged and she will need surgery."

"Well after we refuel she'll be on her way. The naval hospital on Karin is very good, I recommend it," he said quietly, looking out over the horizon. "Except the jello, the hospital food service puts onions in the jello. Don't know why they do that."

"Will Natasha be there?"

Adam blinked and looked back at the ship. "Probably not. If she has no fever this morning and is moving around then she might want just cosmetic repair." He looked into the Flower's bridge. "But she's so tough she may just ignore any scars and move on."

"She ... moves on a lot."

He looked away from the ship and back over the lake. "Yeah, she does."

"But she's not ignoring you."

Adam was about to answer then Laseiag back at the ship whistled and gave a thumbs up. Angela checked the pump in the lake and returned his signal. Adam waved his head at her to move on, and she trotted up the embankment to join Laseiag in engineering. Adam stood looking over the lake, then up the nearby river. No sense trying to be tricky about it. He looked around again, decided nothing was going to happen to the pump, and walked up the embankment and back into the Flower.

Helga was just moving groggily to the lounge. He pointed back towards her cabin. "She sleeps. No fever, she is good. She stayed up very late last night."


"No, she reads about Trin."

It took him a moment. "That's good. She'll learn a lot."

Helga looked at him crosseyed and annoyed, and moved to get coffee.

"Busy day?"

"Yes. Bellet needs attention and mission is complete. I hope to study more before we leave so I must move fast."

He moved into his cabin. Equipment bag loaded, hatchet, remaining service knife, other field gear, clothes, ammo, scout ID cards, Jurl's knife in a zippered sleeve pocket, tubers stuffed into a carry bag. All ready.

Next to last point. He stepped back out and back to engineering, the purifier systems emmitting their typical high-pitched whine and rush as they pulled out the fuel component of the water and discharged the non-fuel component. Laseiag and Angela were peering over the readouts and gages.

"Everything OK?"

"Yes," Laseiag answered distractedly. "All systems are good and there are no problems."

That's it.

"OK, sounds great. I'm going to take Gretel out and have a look around in the meantime."

Laseiag nodded and leaned over Angela, pointing out a gage and valve to her and saying something.

Adam walked forward to the bridge and stood at the hatch, looking over the seats and panels. Then he went back to his cabin and hoisted the pack and bag. He looked around his cabin, then stepped out.

"I'm taking Gretel out, have a look around," he said to Helga. She nodded over her data pad, a little distracted.

He stepped back to engineering and climbed the ladder up to the garage. Angela glanced at him, looking at his bag quizzically. He laddered up and shut the hatch.

He unbolted the garage hatch and slid it up into the overhead. Tying his pack and bag to Gretel's back seat he mounted the bike and lifted the control panel cover, found data block C, and pulled it out. He dropping it into an equipment slot, then put on a helmet and unlatched the grav bike from its mounts.

"Gretel, light off at expert level."

"Lit off, on line, caution, sensor and data tracking systems unavailable."

"OK, light off pathback systems."

"Pathback systems unavailable."

He eased the bike out of the garage and settled to the gravel near the Flower. "Light off single point system."

"Single point system on-line."

"Mark this location for inertial."

"This location marked."

He looked around. "Flower, Adam, outbound."

Helga answered, paying a little more attention. "Where go you?"

"Shoreline, river, just want to have a look at everything."


"At everything," he said quietly. He looked over the Dainty Flower, its nose lowered on the gravel, as if daring him. He nodded. On the bridge someone opened the hatch. He revved the bike and moved out, heading out over the lake toward the shoreline across the river inlet and away from any birds. The bike moved up to 100km/hr immediately, he gained some altitude just to be sure, than looked straight ahead.

After a while he heeled left, up-river, eased up with the swell, and seeing no birds at all here he accelerated.

Local star behind him. Mountains far to his left, low on the horizon, covered in storm clouds. To his left and right open unending forest, punctuated by frequent meadows. Below him the broad river.

He accelerated even more. The horizon slowly rolled up to meet him.

He dodged a flock of avians. A pack of small 4-legged animals drinking and howling. Aquatics leaping out of the water. Something that flew out of the water, skittered along the surface, then dived back in. Something red that shuddered at the shoreline. The local star growing warmer on his back.

On and on.

He passed several tributaries. Wait, there, that looks good, he slowed and turned north. More, there, east easing north, slow, this looks ....


Right there.

Rock outcrop, sunlit, elevated soil, adjacent to windward an acre of older forest being replaced by younger trees.

He circled carefully, listening and watching. A herd of stripped low-standing obvious herbivores watched him, they seemed calm. The large creek bent and slowed, an open body of fairly still water adjacent to the rushing stream. He settled on the bank and checked the soil. Clay. Perfect. He regained altitude and flew over to the rock outcropping. There, windbreak, slightly elevated, single approach. He carefully flew around it, checking all the nooks and crannies for any prior occupants, nests, droppings. Nothing.

He landed and dismounted, drew his weapon. Several overhangs on the rock. He walked around, looking for any finer signs of previous claim. Nothing.

He looked up, imagined the weather turning bad and cold. The site was secureable. He looked up the creek, imagining a flash flood coming down - no problem.

He turned to the wood acre, and stopped staring. Between it and the rocks was an area of good soil, and it already had the red tuber plants growing on it. He took his hatchet and dug the ground, yep, no mistake, it's them. And lots of them.

He continued on to the wood. Lots of deadfall, lots of new young saplings.

He remounted the bike and hovered over the creek. Clear water, all the way to a sandy bottom. Schools of aquatic animals here and there, most like terran fish, very typical as there are only so many phenotypes that succeed in water, but some definitely not terran. He hovered over the still area. Yep, some of the spiked-footed amphibians, but all of them small. He carefully looked over the banks for tracks. Lots and lots of tracks in one area, some kind of hoofprint.

He eased up to the herbivores, they kept a wary distance staring at him but didn't seem to be terrified . Brown and white stripes, stubby legs low to the ground, stout little tails, pert swivel ears, puffy noses they raised at him trying to get his scent. Adam had no clue what they were but was certain they were terran.

"Oh yeah."

He took another look around.

He set down Gretel near the rock outcropping and dismounted, untying and putting aside his equipment. He pulled out his scout service ID card and lanyard and tied them short and tight to Gretel's handlebars. He secured his helmet to the slot and dropped his comm link into an equipment slot.

He looked around.

"Gretel, activate pathback systems."

"Pathback systems unavailable."

"Display data track."

"Data track systems unavailable."

He looked around.

"Gretel, half speed, auto return to single point inertial location, land, ping ISS Dainty Flower, then power down."

"Acknowledged, auto-return engaged, thirty second confirmation delay in progress." The machine paused thirty seconds, then lifted and vectored a bee-line to its point of origin. After a moment it was beyond sight.

There was nothing but the sound of the wind and the creek.

Adam nodded.
"The world is wide, and there I will hide ...."

You should finish that.

Well, first things first. Air, water, food, shelter .... He examined the rock overhangs carefully. Too wet, too open, ah, here. Faces the creek, two sides closed, small opening at the lower side leading higher, bed spot here, and ... oh yeah, a dirt patch under the overhang. Home sweet home. He laid on his back looking up, noting the angle at which IR would emit out into the atmosphere. Yeah, at least three miles to sensor, plenty of distance for IR extinction especially in this heavy and rainy atmosphere. He took his hatchet and chopped a hole, using the ax blade to lift the dirt rather than his hands as much as possible.

He walked down to the small wood, looking over the dead stuff. Lots and lots of it. He gathered up the driest dead grass he could find, hacked up a few branches, and brought it all up to the hole, setting up a fire start. He tried using flint and knife to spark up a fire. Nope, grass isn't ready. He set it aside and lit off the fire with a lighter and sat watching it for a while, building it up, then lined the hole with sticks and pushed the fire into it. Dying down. He cut a narrow air trench to it, and it started back up again. He watched it to make sure it would take, then looked up, watching the smoke. It built up slightly on the ceiling, very little over the bed spot. Knock off that slight overhang ridge and it would ease out just fine, have to wait until he had a winter fire going before changing anything though. Put some simple wattle screens there and that might be enough all by itself.

He strolled on down to the creek. Or rather to the mud. Covered with grass, not obvious from a brief overhead survey. He tried to flank it, but it continued quite a way. He finally got around it when he noticed the tracks from the herbivores making their way to the creek. Of course, the natives know the locality, have to remember that. He walked along the bank for some distance both ways. Good water flow, rocky maze with several handy fishing spots, good biosystem, lots of aquatics swimming between the rocks. Up aways he found a place to ford. Not yet, don't want to get boots wet or walk barefoot this soon.

He found the clay again, fine red. He rubbed it between his fingers, rolled into a line. Oh yeah, this would do. He raised his hatchet - no, spare it, time to go native. He put it back on his belt and looked around, twalked back up the bank. There, some good-sized round rocks. He rolled some over, checking them, then picked one. Finding a stout high-pointed boulder he carefully smashed the rock one onto the point until the rock broke into several shards. One was ok, fairly heavy with a fine sharp inward edge. He chipped down the sharp side on the lighter end and hefted it. Not well balanced, but good enough. He pushed the other broken pieces into a lower spot, found a large round flat rock, and carried that and his new hatchet up to the overhang. The fire was going well. He left the large flat rock partially over the fire pit to let it heat up, then went back to the wood. Using his new chopper to hack a section of a tree and then peel back the bark for a tray, he returned to the clay and gathered some up onto the bark and returned to the fire pit. Clearing a section he began rolling the clay into a long line, laying it down into a coil and forming a bowl. Smoothing the sides he then used a stick to clear a space in the middle of the pit and using a second stick eased the bowl down into the pit. The large round flat rock had grown quite warm, so he put the grass on it to dry it, anchoring it in the slight breeze with several small rocks.

Next up, lunch.

He took the rock hatchet back down to the wood and cut down a tall thin tree, trimming it and sharpening one end. On the way back he also dug up some of the tubers and took their leaves. Wrapping them like Jurl had done he then started another small fire and dry-harded the spear point over it. When the fire had drawn down to coals he left the tubers almost directly in it and walked back to the rock maze at the creek.

"Sorry boys, but, you know ...."

It was harder than he thought. Took several dozen attempts, but he finally got one, ugly. It flapped and struggled and almost got away, but he managed to get it over to a branch without grabbing it and cut off its head to put it out of its misery. "Sorry." He looked it over carefully, no spines or spikes, no teeth, no smell, no hostile colors or markings, looked entirely terran. He cleaned it, buried the remainder, cleaned the spear, washed up and carried everything back to the fire. He wove a set of green sticks to hold the fish over the coals and roast it.

He stepped out from under the overhang and checked for smoke. Very little, and dispersed.

Where should the latrine and dump be? Downstream, downhill, back from the creek. Yep, right there.

He went to the creek and washed his hands. No soap yet, have to rely on his immunizations and hope for the best for a while.

Lunch was good.

He spent the rest of the day doing set-up. Built up a store of fire wood, planted the tubers he had brought with him, counted the ones already available, built a wattle for one side of the overhang. He looked over the trees, yeah, probably can get a bow out of that eventually, and the tree bark might support building a canoe. He broke a few more rocks and managed to obtain a fairly decent point for a spear, scraped out some nocks to tie it on later.

Two of the larger herbivores wandered close to his camp. He waved his stick at them. "You're next!" One of them horfled out a big glob of snot from his bulbous nose and blew it towards Adam. He just stood there watching it drip from a bush. "But not today!" he finally answered back loudly. The herbivores trotted off.

He watched them for a while, and noticed they visited one area directly. He scouted it and found it was a berry bush field. He cut a pin-point sample out of one and ate it, if it didn't make him sick he'd be back tomorrow and try an entire berry to see if he could eat that without getting sick.

He charged up the fire pit baking the clay bowl, then tried to start a flame using flint and steel sparks on the now dried grass. Success. He added more grass and put the dried stuff under another stone on the heating rock.

A small rainstorm passed by, kicking up some wind. He sat under the overhang, checking drainage and imagining winter. A few daub walls, a good fire heating up the overhead, no problem. He looked at the bed spot. That'll be tough for a while, just have to use the gear until it's worked out. He rolled up another section of bark, cutting notches in one end to bristle it up, and swept the spot of stray rocks and debris. He cut a strip of bark and checked its tensile and tear strength. Not the best, not bad, it would do to tie things up. Need soap, blankets, sandals - he looked towards the herbivores. Humans had to kill so many things just to get by.

In the evening he climbed the rocks and sat watching the sunset. The herd of herbivores, about 60, came by for their evening drink. He pointed at them. "Snorts." Some flying bugs were among the creek bank growths and the aquatics were jumping for them. "Zips. Bass." No idea what a bass was, but he'd heard the name and knew it was a fish of some sort. On the far side of the creek where he's seen the amphibians he noticed a tremendous scuffle in the water, followed by stillness. "Spikes." Looking up he sawgroups of avians, indistinguishable in form but all in sets of three, spiraling high into the sky as if trying to stay in the local star's light. "Horizon birds. Or Horizon somethings, whatever you turn out to be."

The local moon rolled into view. "Bullet."

As the darkness settled in he noticed something in the creek had lights, maybe about twenty of them, moving around in the depths of the rock maze. The zips moved in, and the splashing increased. "Zappers."

He looked up. "Thank you."

This is not Eden.

He saw the stone coming down, hitting Trellain. Or himself. Or the fish on the end of his spear. He couldn't tell. He gripped the rock beneath him.

The comet rotated up. A piece had broken off and was trailing its own sweep. He looked to Trin, bright white, near Aki, dim red.
She was grabbing his hair, the sides were too close.

He lurched up, and immediately regretted it. Despite all the gear padding under him the ground was still quite hard, and he ached all over. Cold air rolled by, drifting through the wattle. The fire was almost out, but still there. He tossed a few more branches on, blew on it, coughed at the smoke, then sat quietly warming up. Not sick, good sign. The tubers he had left by the fire overnight were way too done but tasted great, he got a few bites out of it before getting his boots on and heading out for the morning routine. Beautiful blue sky, not going anywhere.

Got another another bark tray of clay, then lanced another fish. Getting better at it but the fish were starting to realize something was up. The animal thrashed at the end of his spear then grew still. He looked at it. Rainbow scales, red bottom, it was pretty. It suddenly spasmed one last time and hit him in the face. He didn't react, didn't even jerk back, just stood looking at it for a while then cleaned it and carried it up to the fire.

He looked up, around at the sky. They should be gone by now. Just me. He watched for a bit before ducking under the rock.

While the fish roasted he pulled the clay bowl out of the small firepit. Oh yeah. Crude, looked like something out of a 2nd grade ceramics class. He tapped it, nice crisp come-back, no holes anywhere, it would do. He rolled a new shape, a lid for the bowl, forming it to fit the top then carefully setting it into the fire pit.

He took up another sapling pole and peeled the bark off of it in strips, then using the chopper he carefully sawed open the end of the pole. He'd come up with a piece of broken rock that could serve as a point, and using the bark strips he carefully bound the rock point into the end of the pole. Took a few tries but eventually it looked fairly serviceable. Find out later if he needed to dry or soak the strips, before or after binding, for a better head, but it would do for now.

He relaxed, looking out from under the overhang into the forest beyond the meadow. Hills rising up, rocky cap, good view from up there. Maybe tomorrow.

Bed. Now.

He took the chopper and strode down to the wood. Spending some time to carefully evaluate the saplings he chose about a dozen with just the right thickness and height and not all from one spot, and leisurely hacked them down and cut them to roughly equal lengths. Such a pretty green foliage, looked like mid-summer of their season, so many leaves ... he chopped off the branches and carried them up to the rock overhang. He carefully leveled a spot, laying some rocks to build up and beating down one rock bulge down, then laid the sapling poles to form a platform to test it. Yeah. He pulled the poles up and then laid them back down in order, cut some more bark strips, then tied all the poles together and put it back on the platform and laid on it. Level enough, springy enough. A branch poked him, he trimmed it back. He then gathered up armfuls of dried grass and spread it on the poles, and tried it again. Not nearly enough grass, going to need quite a bit until some other kind of padding could be found. Maybe some skin blankets, a few stuffed pillows .... He sniffed the tree bark. Yeah, might even tan the skins ....

He took up his new spear and headed to the meadow where the snorts lived.

Hey, about eighty of them, maybe ten juveniles and ten youngsters. The little ones ran behind what must have been their mothers and peeked at him from around one side. All the adults stopped and stared at him. He marched down to the berry bushes and selected one berry, and ate it - at this point he expected they would prove non-toxic but continued the test procedure anyway just to be sure. He then turned to the snorts and waved his spear at them. "Sorry boys but I need a mattress." Let's see, no way to get this rock through that hide, so jugular would be about there, yeah, could do it ....

The biggest snort snorted very loudly and took a few steps towards him. Adam noticed the animal had more than one toe on each leg and was walking on the fattened middle toe.

"OK, you're big enough. Let's see if ...."
He noticed several other snorts had moved in alongside the leader, forming a line. They were starting to wave their heads back and forth, their bulbous noses swinging in time, and to stamp their feet.

"OK, a team effort, that's good, but you don't know what you're up against."

A few more snorts had extended the line, joining the snorfle dance, all facing him. It suddenly occurred to Adam that they were a bit larger than he'd thought.

"OK, or maybe I don't." He hesitated. They all suddenly took a few jumping steps towards him, stamping their feet on the soft ground.

"Yeah, I don't." He looked behind himself. Open ground, berry bushes, some trees. He started backing up as he faced foreward again.

He gaped open-mouthed. About thirty snorts were all in a line, simultanously nodding their heads and stamping their feet in unison, like some kind of synchronized tribal dance.

"OK fish sound good right now." He took off running. They charged.

Don't panic don't trip step high watch the ground ... he ran around the berry bushes trying to break up the incoming charge. It sort of worked, most of them got hung up in the bushes or lost sight of him, but a few followed him around the bend. He couldn't look behind himself he had to focus on the unknown ground, but he could hear them. He ran between some trees trying to break them up some more, maybe it worked, he could hear one moving right up behind him snorfling through its snot ....

He picked a sapling on his right and swung his hand out to grab it, swinging and altering his vector 90 degrees at full speed. He almost stumbled, flailing along to keep his feet as he heard the heavy animal thunder past him losing its footing and crash to the ground. But another was on his right. He picked another sapling and repeated the maneuver to his left, 45 degrees to displace perpendicular from the animal's vector, and it worked, he heard the animal crash into and break the sapling he'd just used. Deeper woods heavier trees some branches yes he slowed down slightly to plan his action then leaped up onto one branch then another then grabbed a third and hauled himself up oh that was beautiful breathe breathe breathe ...

A snort ran into the tree. The whole thing shook and Adam almost fell out before managing to grab onto it. He looked down. Oh great, several snorts had gathered around the suddenly smaller-seeming tree and were starting to push on it, it was leaning down. Adam looked around, oh yeah another tree right here, and he gently transferred to it while the first one drooped below him.

The snorts rummaged through the foliage of the first tree, apparently looking for him. They seemed puzzled as they snorfled and stomped their way through the leaves. Adam carefully eased behind the thin trunk of his stand tree and tried to breathe quietly. After a while the snorts started walking in circles around the tree, horfling and snorfling, then one broke off and they all headed off in a line back to their meadow.

Adam just hung onto the tree, his eyes shut, recovering.

OK, Snorts 1, Wilderness Boy 0, but Wilderness Boy still playing. He gradually realized he still had his spear. Not sure how that happened.

He looked up - right into a point.

He eased his head back. A thorn, a big one maybe a foot long, growing out of the tree, pointing down from the crook. A second matching thorn was on the other side. He looked around. All these trees had a pair of thorns at every crook. He looked back at the tree he had first climbed. Yep, thorns all the way. But he had missed them. He looked them over carefully. No way he could have missed them. But he had.

He looked around to make sure no more snorts were around, then climbed down, the down-angled thorns not hindering him. He looked around at them. Going up seemed very difficult.

He looked up. "Uh, thank you."

He felt like he should be shaking. Bad place to be contemplating anything. Where am I? He looked around. Uh, there... yeah, that way, around the meadow and back to the creek. Maybe. He took off at a lope as quietly as he could.

Up a rise. Wrong. He listened. There we go, water, that way. He took off again. Eventually he found the creek. Yeah, upstream, just head down. Eyes up. There's the rocks, back home.

He sat down next to his fire pit. He looked over his clothes and boots, no rips or tears, still in good shape, checked his hands, no cuts. OK, no disasters but lots of calories burned for nothing, not a problem now but couldn't do that too many times. OK, how to get a snort, can't face them directly, have to ambush one. Maybe one of the young ones ....

He closed his eyes and shook his head at the ground.

After a moment he checked the fire pit and added some more sticks.


What? Where did that come from ... he heard the grav bike.

He hunkered down next to his fire pit. No smoke, the other fire was out, nothing in the air. He crouched down behind a rock and looked down the creek.

It was speeding up the creek, humming away, the music playing loudly. Helga. She was taking the curves at max speed, obviously trying to cover distance, the water flashing up into the bike's grav wake in a high rooster tail. She had some equipment strapped to the back seat.

He watched her. No way she could see anything at that speed. She took the curve in the creek in front of his rock at a breakneck pace, arcing past, the fish in the creek flashing up into the air behind her and flopping back down into the water. He laughed out loud to see them flopping in the air. Then she was upstream and out of sight.

He stood up and looked after her.

"You're supposed to be gone by now."

He sat on a rock looking upstream.

"Take Bellet and go. You're supposed to be gone by now."

He sat on the rock, looking upstream.
(hope you get to see this Whipsnade.)

The sun was just past overhead. He roasted and ate some more of the tubers. He had gone down to the creek to get another fish, but he hadn't taken one. He had just stood there, stick spear lifted high, watching them dart between the rocks and along the bottom, speckled backs twisting, red bellies flashing. After a while he had put his spear down and returned.

Well at least the tubers still tasted good. If anything he was growing to like them more.

Still needed a snort. He strapped on his sidearm, reluctantly. Maybe ambush a small one when it came to the creek to drink. Let's see, hide behind that bush there by their path, escape path to ... there on that rock, if I ....

His eyes drifted past the hill across the creek and up the great valley. Green and blue. He gazed at it.

Something caught his attention, and he glanced down the creek. Coming up. Natasha on one of the bikes.

Hide? No. He waited.

She was moving at a good clip, something over her shoulder. As she drew closer she noticed the rock outcropping and slowed. Adam realized that she had set up a sling to allow the rabbit to ride on her back. It was looking over her shoulder, face thrust forward, ears laid back and flickering in the slipstream, enormous buck teeth gleeming. He laughed quietly.

She saw him. Studied him for a minute, then looked around and picked a path up the embankment and towards the rock outcrop. The rabbit started looking around, and she stopped at the edge of some vegetation, removed her helmet and threw her hair around, and unslung him and put him down. He still limped but was starting to use his damaged leg again, and he found some leaves to eat.

She gravved forward a little more then set down. The right handlebar had new parts, Hansel. She dismounted very slowly and started to hobble to where Adam sat. He stood up and moved to help her towards a rock near his, then sat down across from her.

She looked around, noting the fire pit under the rock, the spears set to one side, the reach of the valley across the creek. Her eyes drifted shut, then she turned and looked at him.

"You manipulated me."

He looked up, as if thinking, and nodded. "Yeah."

"Us. The board."


"For this?"


She looked around again, stopping at the rabbit.

"How did you find me?"

"We retrieve the survey robot and Chief Laseiag and Angela repair it and Bellet reprograms it to use its laser to detect reflections from eye pupils. Then Helga puts it on a bike and flies up rivers and creeks, hoping that you watch her passing and are detected by survey scan. You look."

Adam grinned in rueful appreciation. "Are they sneaking up on me now? Capture me and bring me back?"

"No. We discussed such action, but no. We hope you return. If not then we respect you and leave tonight."

He watched her.

She looked at the ground. "I ... when I fall and you catch me, was this too so you could come here?"

"No, no no no, I did that because I don't want to lose anyone else, I don't want to ...." He looked up angrily and back down at the ground.

Then at her. "I didn't want to lose you."

She paused. "I had thought to rise to Senior Port Director of Glisten. Stand above and see the world come and go." He looked wide-eyed at her and blinked. What a filly. "But now I have ... thought of Trin."

He sat upright, looked her full on. "That is not to be a passing thought of the moment." He looked at the scar on her ring finger. "How old are they?"

She looked completely away. "She is ten, and he turned nine two days ago." Quietly.

"Then you must retrieve them." Straight at her.

After a while she nodded, looking a little like when he first met her. She eased up and staggered to the rabbit - he did not help her. She wrapped it in the sling and put it over her shoulder, then mounted the bike and started it up, looked down the creek ...

He never remembered. To the end of his days he never remembered how he got there. But he was standing at the bike, gripping her hand against the throttle to prevent her from actuating the control and moving out.

She looked away. "They are not yours." He waited.

She slid back into the passenger seat. With her free hand she pulled her hair across her face.

Trin's Veil.

He reached up with his free hand and pulled it aside. She was looking at him like she didn't know him. He leaned forward to kiss her.

He let go of her other hand on the throttle. The bike suddenly engaged and leaped forward, pushing him aside. He saw her lurching forward and scrabbling at the handlebars, actuating various controls. The bike whined at a surprisingly high pitch, then went silent and thudded back to the ground, bouncing Natasha on the hardware. Adam scrambled up and ran to her. She was collapsed across the handlebars, shaking, her hair across her face again. He sat her up looking her over and pulled her hair aside again.

She was laughing.

He kissed her. She kissed him back like she knew him.

The rabbit, recovering, tried to push his way between them. "Oh, good Serzhant," she said. Adam just blew on its face until it backed off. He kissed her again, and the rabbit gave up and settled back.

She slid back into the passenger seat, gripping the handholds, as he mounted in front of her. He lit off the bike and swung it up and about, doing a turn around the rock outcropping, looking it over and checking his belt. Sidearm here, no site hazards, no important gear, he'd leave it.

Some snorts were coming down to the creek to drink. They jerked to a halt at seeing the bike in the air.

"You lucked out!" he yelled.

One of them horfled up a huge glob of snot and launched it in Adam's general direction.

Natasha stared at them, repelled, then looked sideways at Adam. "They know you."

"Yeah." He drifted the bike over the river, then looked around. "No helmet for me?"

"I ... did not think."

"Thought you were gonna leave me behind after all? Helmet on for you."

Instead she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her face into his back. It was a moment before he could continue, then he accelerated down the creek.

He looked back one last time. There was someone sitting on the rock outcropping, one leg up and across the top, nonchalant.

He looked up. Then he looked ahead and kicked up the acceleration again leaning into a turn. It occured to him, for the first time in his life, he felt like he was in the middle.

You are.