In which our heroine visits new lands . . .
Chapter Six: Into the Wilds
“Shall I ask Lexi to lower the window for you so you can hang your head outside to see better, Miss Rigi?” Uncle Eb was teasing, she thought. Maybe.
“Ebenezer,” Aunt Kay sighed. She spent a lot of time keeping Uncle Eb out of trouble, or so the adults all said. Tomás caught Rigi’s eye and winked. They’d learned before they left Sogdia that Aunt Kay was as good of a shot as Rigi’s mother and better than Mrs. Prananda. But then Mrs. Prananda had Major Prananda to protect her, and Tomás, so she didn’t have to be as good. Rigi had spent many afternoons learning how to be mostly good. The hand-shooter still didn’t like her.
“No, thank you. I just want to see what it looks like outside.” She’d never been this far away from Sogdia and Keralita. Everything looked different. Instead of deep jewel greens and bright oranges with flashes of red from the fire-leaf trees, the forest below and to the north of them wore greyer green. The trees seemed shorter and less closely spaced, although she couldn’t tell, as fast and as high as they flew. A group of bright pink birds zoomed by under them. She watched them as long as she could, then looked forward, twisting to see around the seat in front of hers. The green changed again, more browny-green. “Oh. Is that the Kenusha Plain?”
“Almost. The forest is thinning out and there is a distance with more bushes, then the true plains begin. We’ll camp in a hilly area south of the Kenusha River. The camping lodge is there.” Uncle Eb sounded as excited as Rigi felt. Tomás almost bounced against the restraining straps. Only Martinus seemed quiet, but she’d powered him down and he was in the baggage hold. Even a distance flitter was too small for him to ride with her, and Tomás, Uncle Eb, Aunt Kay, Lexi, and Kor. Rigi wasn’t certain why she and Tomás had to ride in the back seats, but the side windows were large, and seats comfortable. They’d landed once already, to get some permits approved and to use the WC. Kor and Lexi had stayed with the flitter.
Rigi had met Lexi before. The dark-grey Staré belonged to third Stamm, but he knew a lot for a third, especially words. He’d worked with Uncle Eb for as long as Rigi could remember, and usually smelled patient with a little bit of amusement. Kor . . . she didn’t know what to make of Kor, but since Tomás trusted him she would to. He was supposed to be seventh Stamm, but he had dark-brown fur mottled with black, and he acted smarter than any seventh Stamm she’d met thus far.
“Is that the river ahead?” Tomás pointed ahead and to the right, north.
“Yes. It’s low because of the time of year.”
Rigi decided that she didn’t want to see it high. It stretched at least a kilometer across, or so it seemed, and led far into the plains. The grass of the plains reminded her of fur, maybe moldy fur, green on brown? The trees faded away and green-brown extended until it touched the dark blue sky far to the west. A chime sounded and Rigi tightened her safety straps. Lexi turned the flitter to the south. All at once the flitter tipped onto one wing and Rigi looked down at Tomás! As fast as the tipping, the flitter returned to level flight. “That was interesting,” Aunt Kay said.
“Your pardon, Mistress Kay. Broad-wing, our high.” Lexi sounded calm and Rigi did not smell any distress puffs, so she relaxed again.
“That must be why we had to tie everything down so well,” Tomás muttered. “Imagine the howls if Martinus slid back and forth across the baggage bay. He’d crush our supper!”
Rigi ignored the joke and stared out the window again, the grass and trees came closer and closer, and the flitter turned a little this way, then a little back, and bounced. She didn’t mind the bouncing, not today. The trees and grass slowed down, and almost stopped, then thum-bump they touched down. Rigi sat still until the chime sounded twice before undoing her harness. The one time her father had swatted her for undoing safety straps early, she’d stood for several days afterwards. She’d never done it again.
The door lifted open and Kor got out, assisted Aunt Kay, and looked around as Uncle Eb followed. Rigi came next, then Tomás. Lexi shut everything down. Rigi sniffed the air and squinted from under the brim of her sun-cover. She didn’t like to wear it, but her mother had insisted. The air smelled dusty but rich, spicy and warm like the baked gold-fruit that Shona only made in the cool season. Nothing stopped the wind and it played with her hair and tried to take her sun-cover away. Rigi pulled the bead on the chin-strap tight. She didn’t hear any birds or animals.
“First the luggage, then we go to the lodge.” Four Staré, tall fifth Stamm all of them, hand bowed and walked closer, pulling luggage floats. Uncle Eb opened the luggage compartment and handed Rigi her shooter cases. He handed a smaller case to Tomás, and a very heavy one to Aunt Kay. “You women always over pack,” he grumbled.
“And just who is paying for this little adventure, hmm, Ebenezer? No drawing and art supplies, no crowns and no trips.” She stuck her tongue out at her husband when he turned back to the luggage bay. Rigi tried not to giggle.
“Miss Rigi, I am not carrying your pet.” Uncle Eb stepped out of the way and Rigi took his place.
“Martinus, wake up.” She switched to sung words, “For lo, the cool season is past and the rains are over and done.” Two brown optical orbs appeared, and she stepped to the side as he crawled toward her, then wiggled out of the hatch to the ground. The waiting Staré made odd sounds and backed away quickly. Kor went to them and made some fast forefoot gestures, spoke something Rigi couldn’t catch, and probably puffed, too. As he did, she led Martinus out of the way of the others. He moved slowly, scanning the area around them, recording the new environment for processing. His eyes blinked, going dark then brown again, and his tail wagged. She set a case down long enough to pet his head.
“Miss Rigi, Tomás, this way,” Uncle Eb called. He carried two bags and had a hard case strapped to his back. Rigi and Martinus followed the adults. They walked around the flitter, past some small trees or very large bushes, over a low hill, and saw the lodge. The three semi-permanent tents, plus what Rigi guessed was a sanitation tent and a cooking enclosure, took up the slope of the hill opposite them. Green grass surrounded the camp, and brown worn-dirt trails led between the tents. Rigi could see a row of bright yellow and red pegs just downslope of the tents. It extended ten meters or so past the ends of the enclosure, then ran up-slope and disappeared into the grass. She guessed that it was a dissuader field. It wouldn’t keep seriously intent things out, but discouraged the mildly curious.
Uncle Eb led them down the slope, across the small stream-let, and into the main tent. It had a raised, hard floor. Rigi set her cases out of the way, checked Martinus’s paws for dirt, then let him in to look around. Aunt Kay wasted no time and claimed the brightest corner for her work. “This area is mine. If you would like to sketch here, Rigi, that’s fine, but please do not touch my supplies without asking. Acrylics and some of my other media need special tools and palates that are hard to find on Shikhari.”
“Yes, ma’am.” A Staré carrying two of Uncle Eb’s bags came in and set them just inside a doorway off to the left. The tent had three rooms in addition to the main room, or so Rigi guessed. She wondered which was hers.
“The room behind me is the food room.”
“Dining room, Ebenezer,” Aunt Kay sighed, shaking her head a little and looking up at her eyebrows. “The food room is the cooking and storage tent.”
“Dining room, dear. I stand corrected. Miss Rigi, you have the tent closest to this one, Tomás you have the other. They both have storage cabinets for your bolt-shooters. Rigi, your tent has a small charging generator, so you can plug Martinus in without overloading the main generator. Tomás, I hope you don’t mind. Yours has a basic solar trickle-charger, and a set of books, reproductions of Corbett’s stories about hunting in India, some books of animal tracks and behaviors, and two sets of distance viewers. The animals tend to wander closer to your tent than to the others. Apparently there was a track through here before the lodge was installed.” Uncle Eb added, “Oh, and Kor is staying closer to your tent, and has the access codes for the dissuader field pass-through.”
Tomás smiled and bounced a little on his toes. “I don’t mind at all, sir. That sounds perfect, and I didn’t bring much that needs charging.”
“I deep-cycled Martinus and topped his charge, plus I have an emergency power pod, so he shouldn’t need too much, Uncle Eb. Thank you.”
“You are welcome. Go get settled in and be back here in,” he looked to Aunt Kay. She held up two fingers. “Two hours local. We’ll go over the rules and maps before supper.”
Rigi and Tomás wasted no time trotting out to their tents, Martinus close behind. Rigi noticed the Staré still gave her m-dog plenty of room, and she wondered why. Maybe they’d only seen the military version? That would explain it. That or perhaps they’d just never seen anything quite like him, and since he had no scent, he bothered them. She wasn’t going to worry about it. Instead she inhaled as deeply as she could, taking in the spicy-sweet grass smell with hints of wet soil, probably from the little trickle of a stream, and a bit of cooking-foot scent. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her how long ago breakfast had been.
Two steps led into the tent. It had a proper door, made of heavy canvas. Rigi stopped and looked at it, as did Tomás. “It’s military grade. That little shine is metal thread. Anything mean enough to chew through the tent is going to have a serious stomach ache before it finishes,” Tomas said. “Father checked before he let me come. There are striped lions here, and carnifex leapers. There are not supposed to be any of those land-walking crocodile-like things.”
Rigi shivered. “I hope not. But what was it Mr. Grey said about terror-birds? Oh, that the guide-files said he shouldn’t have seen any, but terror-birds can’t read.”
Tomás laughed. “No, I wager they can’t. If we see one, you can cover me while I go ask it.”
Rigi thought Uncle Eb was more likely to go talk to the terror birds than Tomás was. “Better idea. I go into my tent and put these away.” She lifted the cases.
“Yeah. Weapons first, Father says, or there won’t be a second step.” He sauntered off to his tent, leaving Rigi and Martinus to take care of themselves. Rigi shrugged and set the smaller case on the first step, opened the door, set the rifle case inside, then brought the hand-shooter and Martinus in. He stopped in the doorway, blocking it.
“Martinus, shift.” He took two steps to the right, just enough for her to squeeze by. Rigi’s mouth made an “O” of surprise and she stared at the tent. She’d never had this much space to herself! The front room, with a writing or drawing table, a plug-in for Martinus, the cabinet for the shooter cases, and a little sitting area, had as much space as her bedroom. A shoe and boot-rack sat beside the door. Rigi decided that was a hint and removed her walking boots. She put her shooters up, then went into the second section of the tent. It seemed cooler and darker, and she found a nice bed, a canvas “closet” for her clothes and a small table with drinking water and a glass on it. The room smelled of comfort/welcome/rest. Rigi unpacked the bags she found waiting for her and unrolled Martinus’s charging mat but didn’t plug it in. She put her sketching pads and pencils on the table, then decided that a trip to the necessary tent was in order.
She returned from the trip refreshed and yawning. After changing out of her travel clothes, Rigi decided to try the bed. She set her portable alarm for ninety minutes and lay down, just to close her eyes for a little . . .
Beep beep beep. She woke, yawned, rubbed sleep out of her eyes, and tried to sit. Martinus’s head and neck kept her pinned to the bed. She rubbed his head and neck. “I’m awake,” she assured him. “I’m” yawn “awake.” He backed up, letting her sit. She got up, dressed in what her mother had called “a practical but nice supper dress”, brushed and tidied her hair, drank the cool water, and put her camp shoes on. She stretched again, then went to the main tent, Martinus close behind. Cloud shadows skimmed over the ground, and she could see that puffy white billows had built while she slept, dollops of cream or the yam-fluff Shona made to go with hot-roasted wombow. Why did yam, which tasted very good, sound like tam, which tasted horrible? Rigi pondered the problem as she walked.
Rigi went into the main tent and found Aunt Kay working. Rigi sat at the other end of the room, picked up a reader and activated it. The first screen offered her all kinds of files about animals, the Kenusha Plains, and a few novels, none of which looked interesting. The second screen included a book about the exploration of Shikhari that she’d never seen before, so she opened it. To her delight it had lots of pictures and maps, and Rigi began reading. She was well into the discovery of the Bataria Archipelago and the cataloguing of the bird life when a plate full of little bites of something roasted that smelled and looked very good passed between her eyes and the reader screen. “Care to join us for a bite?”
She blushed, closed the file, and looked up. “Ebenezer, don’t tease the poor girl. She’ll probably eat your hand along with the savouries if she’s as hungry as I am,” Aunt Kay tuttted.
Rigi followed the plate to a new, small table set up in the sitting area. At the adults’ nods she helped herself to the savouries. She did not see anything that looked like tam. Tomás had already eaten half of a plate worth and pointed with his fork to a bowl with something roasted, nodding energetically as he chewed. She took that as a recommendation and dipped out two. They proved to be some kind of tuber or root with a crunchy outside and fluffy white steaming hot inside that tasted very good. The bits of roast fowl had a lemony sauce that reminded her of the end of the cool season. The crisp, green leafy thing had a spicy bite that made her want to sneeze and she only ate what was on her plate and no more. Uncle Eb seemed to enjoy it, though. The nibbles were enough to whet her appetite but not to fill her up, and Rigi decided that her mother’s fears that there wouldn’t be any good food might have been a little excessive.
“So, now that you’ve taken the edge off your hunger, come look at this map Rigi, Tomás,” Uncle Eb said. She took her fruit juice and followed him to a table with a large map projected on it. A red dot appeared among some hills at the edge of the woodland.
“We are here?” Tomás asked. “And the preserve is this area?” He pointed to a grey-shaded area inside of dashed lines, just to the east.
“Yes, it is. Inside that line, you can only kill animals if they are attacking you and your life is in danger. And that does not mean ‘It scared me and I felt threatened.’ It means ‘It bit my leg and wanted more.’ That’s why Kor is with us.” Uncle Eb looked Tomás and Rigi both in the eye. “He has first shot unless you are in life-or-death danger. That includes your m-dog, Rigi. He’s not to attack anything that does not attack first.”
“So, we are going to spend most of our time here,” he zoomed in a corner of the reserve not far from them. “Based on what Tomás found and you verified, Rigi, Micah and I went back over some of the older passive scans of different parts of this continent, with some help from Lexi. I’m not going to say what we think we saw, because I want you to see for yourselves and tell me what you think. It’s probably something natural. But there, and here, out in the grassland a little way, and here, near the spring that feeds our creek, I want to look at more closely.”
“And I will be doing botanical illustrations and landscape work for an illustration commission, so if you decide that you prefer to take a day of rest, read, sleep, and not have to listen to your Uncle Eb going on about lumps in the landscape and new words for them, you are free to stay in camp with me.” Aunt Kay smiled at Eb as she spoke, taking any scolding out of her words.
“Which reminds me,” he said. “The dissuader field. Don’t trust it.”
Rigi and Tomás looked at each other. Don’t trust the dissuader field? What did he mean? Rigi thought and thought hard. Tomás frowned and rubbed behind one ear. “Um, sir, you mean like that guy on the Indria Plateau did, the one who was on the news feeds last cool season because he got flattened by the long-nosed wombeasts?”
“Flattened? Really?” She stared at Tomás.
“Really,” Aunt Kay said. She looked very stern. “It is a dissuader, not a starship-grade repulsor field. A wombeast stampede, or striped leaper herd moving through, or even a hungry or injured striped-lion or carnifex leaper can easily come through. At night, you will carry your hand-shooters when you go to the necessary. You do have belts, both of you?”
Tomás nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Get used to wearing them, and Rigi, I have a sling for your rifle.” Uncle Eb sat back and looked at her. “You need it on the grasslands. In the preserve, we have Kor, Martinus, and we’re not hunting. We may need to hunt later in the trip. I have a permit, and because you are related minors, you are covered.”
“And I have one as well.” Aunt Kay shook her head a little. “Do not try to explain to someone new to Shikhari why a woman needs a hunting permit. I spent two hours in the office. So frustrating.”
Rigi wondered if the person was related to Mrs. Debenadetto. Before she could ask, a broad, pale forefoot pushed aside the curtains filling the entrance to the dining room. “The meal is prepared,” a Staré announced. Food smell wafted into the main room and all but pulled Rigi out of her chair. Uncle Eb bowed to his wife and she led the way into the dining room. It was as nice as the dining room in Rigi’s house, just in a different way, with windows in the tent walls that allowed them to see outside. A large, dark, wood-like table had been set for four, although it could fit a dozen easily, or so Rigi guessed. Aunt Kay sat on the long side beside where the head of the table would have been, Uncle Eb faced her, Tomás sat at her right hand and Rigi faced Tomás. A cool, fruity soup waited for them and Uncle Eb gave thanks. Rigi liked the soup, was not so certain about the brittle leafy thing that followed it, and wanted to lick her plate after the main course of pickled wombow, slow simmered with all kinds of vegetables. Crisp rounds of bread finished the course, and she and Tomás had spicy milk-tea while the adults drank coffee.
Fifth-Stamm Staré served the meal. They removed the dishes and replaced them without clinking the plates, a skill Rigi still had not quite mastered. Tomás had trouble getting used to them, or so she guessed. He kept his arms close to his sides and put his hands in his lap the moment a Staré appeared with a towel draped over a forearm, the signal that he’d come to removed the empty plates. Rigi wondered if all the camp workers were male. She seemed to vaguely recall something about rural Staré females staying in the villages during the early warm-season for some religious or other cultural reason. Oh well, if there were dangerous animals around, it made sense for the females to be away and for males to work here.
“Oh, wow!” Rigi looked up from her tea as Tomás pointed at the window. Rigi’s mouth fell open as a scarlet-crested bird with brilliant green neck feathers peered in, then flew out of sight.
“Hmm.” Uncle Eb frowned a little as he rubbed his nose. “I wonder if that means the striped leapers are moving tonight. Blood-crests usually move along with the herds, picking off the bugs the leapers flush from the grass.”
“All the more reason to go to bed early,” Aunt Kay stated, setting her empty white and blue coffee cup with a deliberate, soft clink. Two Staré appeared, hand-bowed, and walked to stand behind Aunt Kay and Rigi’s chairs. The darker of the two twitched his oval ears and they pulled the ladies’ chairs away from the table in unison.
Rigi bit her tongue to keep from giggling. Instead she kept a serious expression, stood, and hand-bowed. “Thanks to the cook and those who serve.”
“It is an honor to serve the wise.” The cream and tan Staré spoke slowly, very formal and careful. Rigi decided that he was the head of the main-house workers. If he was fifth, then the cook was probably fourth. That would explain why Kor was staying near Tomás, since he was out-Stamm. And Lexi being a third outranked all the servers she’d seen thus far. Rigi nodded to herself as she arranged everyone.
“So.” Aunt Kay patted her hands together and caught Rigi’s wandering attention. “Breakfast is in the main room at 0530. Yes, it is early, but I need the dawn light, and that gives us the best opportunity to see wildlife, as well as letting you start while the day is still cool.” Uncle Eb did not look as enthusiastic as Aunt Kay sounded, but nodded his agreement even so.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Tomás bounced a little with excitement.
Rigi tried to act excited. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Aunt Kay saw through her act. “You don’t have to get up so early if you don’t want to.” She stopped, put her fingers to her mouth, and blinked. “Oh, dear, I didn’t think. I’m sorry. Is tomorrow a Day of Rest for you?”
Rigi felt her face warming as she turned a little pink. “No, Ma’am. And the Matron gave me an exemption because of being out in the Creation rather than working at my daily tasks.” She didn’t want to try to explain everything to Tomás, who was giving her increasingly odd looks.
“Ah. Even so, if you feel called to take a day, please do. Now, if I’m going to get my husband settled down enough to get some sleep before tomorrow . . .” Aunt Kay sounded exactly like Rigi’s mother and Rigi bit her tongue again.
“I, my dear, am not the one who insisted on staying up three nights running to watch the meteor swarm that coincided with the aurora when were on LimWorld. As you might recall, I had dawn inspection one of those mornings, and I was the one who had to explain to the commanding officer’s wife why you were asleep and not at the wives’ meeting, which is how you ended up on the hospitality committee.” He folded his arms and looked smug. Tomás’s expression changed from puzzled to dumbfounded.
Aunt Kay stuck her tongue out at her husband. “Good night Rigi, Tomás.”
“Good night, Ma’am, Sir,” they chorused. They bowed and hurried out. Martinus had waited by the door and followed them down the steps and along the path. “I had no idea Uncle Eb was an officer. And on LimWorld!” Tomás blinked. “Wow. Father never told me.”
Rigi shrugged. “Didn’t his funny m-mule give him away?” Civilian m-mules did not have half the odd things their uncle’s m-beast did, as Rigi now knew.
Tomás ducked his head and stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. “No. I just thought, well, he’s Uncle Eb, right? He’s strange and so is his m-mule. I should have used more of my brain.”
She shrugged again. “He is a little different. So is Aunt Kay. Mother says that they are related to your family and to mine, so if anyone talks, you can set them straight.”
As they walked to their tents, Tomás sighed. “Mother tried to explain it once, but it seemed very complicated. Once she got past second cousins on her father’s side I fell asleep.”
“It does sound like something from a test, doesn’t it? Like memorizing the members of the royal family to the third degree and second rank of inheritance?”
He groaned. “Father quizzes me on that.”
Rigi froze, then pivoted to where Martinus was looking. She saw a cloud of dust to the west of the camp. “I think we need to get in shelter.”
“Yeah. I want to see the animals, but not too close up.” They hurried to their tents.
Rigi backtracked to the necessary, then ran to her tent and shut the door. She got out her rifle and set it near the bed, just in case. The hand-shooter and belt stayed by the door, so she could put them on if she had to get up. She changed into bed clothes, prayed, and lay down. Would she be able to sleep? She heard a thumping, rumbling kind of sound, and saw a little light trickling in the window, moonlight. What would they do the next day? Were they going to go look at animals? She wanted to see animals. Would there be baby wombeasts? They were so cute, at least in the holos. Oh, she’d never get to sleep.
Beep, beep, beep! She pawed at the alarm, eyes sleep-shut.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved