Saturday Story: RajWorld Part 7

. . . and discovers a little more than she’d anticipated.

Chapter 7: Hidden Shapes and the Beasts of the Field

Rigi didn’t feel grown-up as she drank her coffee and milk. She felt fuzzy on the edges, like her favorite pair of cool-season leggings, or her old stuffed wombow. She sipped more coffee, blinked, and studied the hot breakfast. There seemed to be a great deal of food for four people.

“Ah, good morning, Miss Rigi, Master Tomás, Mistress Kay.” Rigi turned and bowed to Lexi as he came in, followed by Uncle Eb.

“Good morning, Lexi. There’s a plate ready for you,” Aunt Kay said. Rigi liked her outfit of loose trousers and a belted tunic with snug lower sleeve cuffs. Since she worked with paints and e-drawing, she didn’t have to worry about messing her cuffs the way Rigi did with her pastels and soft pencils.

“Thank you, Mistress.” Lexi served himself from several of the warming dishes, then sat off to the side, away from the humans, his back to them. Rigi admired his manners—most Staré didn’t bother turning away. That also explained the amount of food, if Lexi ate with them in the mornings. Which reminded Rigi. She set her cup down and got food, including mushy grey that she hoped was not tam. A cautious taste revealed land-rice and milk pudding with warm spices. That she liked, and Rigi put away her serving, ate some odd tasting eggs and breakfast meat, dutifully nibbled at the heavy rusk until it disappeared, and drank more milk coffee.

“Rigi, don’t you put fruit on your rusks in the morning?” Tomás pushed a small bowl of red quivering stuff to her. She leaned away from the bowl. The contents kept wiggling after the dish stopped. And it was blood colored. She didn’t like blood-colored meat or soup. “That’s cheery fruit. It won’t eat you.”

“No, thank you.” She got up and helped herself to more pudding and breakfast meat. Uncle Eb took a large serving of eggs and she passed him the red stuff. He put a large dollop on his rusk and spread it, then ate. Maybe tomorrow, Rigi decided. Maybe. She liked the pudding better, anyway, and her mother always said that she needed to eat plenty of milk things in order to grow properly.

No one spoke much. Only Aunt Kay appeared to be fully awake. Even Tomás hid a few yawns, making Rigi feel better. Uncle Eb wiped his mouth and nodded once. “So, coffee drunk and breakfast eaten, it’s time to get started. Tomás, how far did Kor say it was to the site?”

Rigi noticed that the serving dishes were now mostly empty. Lexi had gotten seconds as well, and seemed to like the rusks as much as Rigi disliked them. “I didn’t ask him, Sir. He was busy with the herd moving through.”

“Five kilometers, easy ground,” Lexi said. He’d turned to face them. “Is that a problem, Miss, Master?”

Tomás shook his head and played with his napkin. “No problem.”

“I don’t think so, unless I’m carrying a lot, Lexi,” Rigi decided.

“No, we need your eyes, not your back, Miss Rigi,” Uncle Eb said with a wink and a smile.

They tidied up after breakfast then set out. Kor went first, followed by Uncle Eb, Lexi, Rigi, and Tomás. They left the staff at the camp, for reasons neither Lexi nor Kor would explain. Rigi could guess, though. She carried her walking pack with several water sacks in it, and her hand-shooter. Martinus paced along beside her, head moving back and forth as he looked for possible trouble. She’d dialed down the volume on his voice-synth at Kor’s request. “I do not care to have your hunting partner startle and anger something when he only intends to alert us, Miss Rigi.” He spoke remarkably well and formally for an out-Stamm, Rigi thought, and decided to treat him as equal to Lexi.

“Yes, Kor. I will do that now.”

“Thank you.”

They walked steadily into the rising sun. The knee-high grass swished a little and got the hem of Rigi’s dress wet with dew. A few lingering stars faded away as the sky turned pale pink, then darker blue. Shadows appeared, ten times as long as the walkers and far skinnier. Wisps of high cloud appeared like threads of smoke high in the sky. Rigi heard bird calls starting, first quiet chirps and mutters, then a loud scream that repeated twice. A fainter scream answered it from the distance to the south. Kor had warned her about the indigo shrieks and she didn’t jump, but Lexi did, his tail shooting straight out behind him and his ears snapping flat as he leaped over a meter straight up. Rigi’d never seen a Staré startle like that and she covered her mouth with one hand to hide her giggles. It wasn’t nice to laugh at people.

Once the sun fully crossed the horizon, the birds appeared, some broad-wings very high up, others closer. Rigi felt better with the birds around. That meant that nothing that ate birds lurked in the area. Then she heard Tomás call quietly. “Grazer birds behind us, three of them, following.” Kor stuck his arms out to the sides. That was the signal for everyone to bunch up until he’d sorted out if there might be a problem.

Uncle Eb had his rifle unslung and ready, pointed down, finger well clear of the trigger. Rigi undid the security strap on her hand-shooter. Tomás did the same. Kor came around to where Tomás stood. He looked through a set of distance viewers, ears twitching. “Only those three. Good spot, Master Tomás.” Rigi peered that direction. She saw two tall, long-necked birds working through the grass, a smaller bird ahead of them. Only one adult had its head down at a time, she noticed. The other stayed up, looking left and right, and up. Up? What could attack a ground bird that big? Rigi decided that she’d just as soon not meet whatever it was. She was smaller than the grazer birds.

The explorers resumed their walk. A breeze cooled the morning and Rigi enjoyed stretching her legs and smelling new scents. The grass added a lush perfume to the day. She’d gotten used to the pace and was cruising along, not thinking much, when a new animal made itself known. “Eew.” She wrinkled her nose as an acrid, angry, stink blew past.

“Something startled a stink pig,” Tomás grumbled.

“Oh yes indeed.” She breathed through her mouth for a few minutes. The air cleared, and they could see the edge of the forest ahead. Martinus beeped, alerting her that they’d crossed into the reserve. “Thank you.” She patted his head.

“Wooeef.”

“Almost there,” Uncle Eb called back to them. “How are you doing?”

“Fine, Uncle Eb,” Rigi called.

“No worries.”

The shade improved the world. Rigi’s skirt hem had dried already and she decided that wearing a sun cover wasn’t as silly as she’d thought it was. She did take it off in the shade, though, and let it hang behind her, resting on her pack. She pushed her thumbs under the straps and lifted them, easing the weight on her shoulders. It felt good, and let air flow between the pack and her back. She envied Tomás’s military pack with the cooling pad. Well, he was a boy, almost a man, and his father had probably given him one of the used packs with a flaw of some kind, like the one Rigi’s father had. More birds called and Rigi thought she saw a bit of furry tail disappearing around the back of the closest tree.

“Ten minutes rest, then we go on,” Uncle Eb announced. “The rocks there seem safe.” Rigi still waited until Kor and Tomás walked around them, searching for hidden dens or other problems, before taking her pack off and sitting on one of the rocks. The grey stone looked smooth. She ran her hand over the surface beside her as she drank from one of her water sacks. The surface had a tight grain, didn’t feel polished but it wasn’t too gritty or weathered, either. Rigi let her fingers wander. She found a low spot in the stone and her fingers followed it as she looked around.

“What are you tracing, Miss Rigi?” Lexi stepped closer and the dark brown Staré peered down at her moving hand. Tomás appeared and frowned, hunted around in the pockets on his pack, and pulled out a tiny pocket light. He held it low, close to the top of the rock, and turned it on. Rigi began tracing the low spot again. Straight bit, curve, straight, circle, wiggly line, curve.

“That’s odd.”

Uncle Eb appeared. He had a small holorecorder. “What’s odd?”

“Again, please, Miss Rigi.”

Rigi did as Lexi asked and the Staré and human watched closely. Uncle Eb took several holos. “Please move your hand out of the way.” He got two more. “Thank you. You too, Tomás. Good thinking, to use sidelight like that.”  He and Lexi seemed to communicate somehow, and Lexi nodded once, the tips of his ears flicking a little back and forth. “You marked the map?”

“Yes, Sir. Marked and I’ll code it.”

Rigi and Tomás both shrugged. Once Uncle Eb got wrapped up in something, he’d forget to tell anyone just what it was that had captured his attention. They’d learn later. Rigi put her pack back on as Kor returned. The adults talked for a moment, and when they started walking again, Kor remained in the lead, but Tomás came second, Rigi third, then Lexi, and Uncle Eb had tail.

They passed through the brushy edge of the forest and walked along a wide, bare trail. Two humans or Staré could walk side-by-side, or so Rigi guessed. When she stuck her arms out to the sides, the trail extended well past her finger tips. That wasn’t normal, was it? Or was it a game trail for something like wombeasts? That was probably it, she decided. After several minutes, Kor stopped, then stepped out of the way into a clearing beside the trail. Tomás went forward and froze, one foot in the air. “Rigi, come here,” he called. She trotted up to where he stood and skidded to a stop on some damp leaves.

“Its another walled city. Or walled thing,” she corrected. She walked forward, mindful of the ground and of surprises that might be lurking. The soil felt firm under her boots, and fewer trees appeared ahead of them. One had blown down, and Tomás went over to inspect it.

“Shallow roots,” he called. “As if there’s something hard under thin soil.” Rigi jumped up and down a little. The dirt didn’t give like she expected it to. Then she went to the wall-like lump. She pulled gloves out of her skirt pocket and pushed the creeper vines out of the way. “Let me.” He had a big knife and cut the bottoms of the vines as she pulled, clearing a space. White juice dribbled out of some of the stems. “Wow.”

“Wall with shiny black splashed on it,” she said. “Smooth, just like the other wall.” She turned to Tomás, smiling so hard her face hurt. “Do you think, if this wall is just like that one, that we might find buildings and a name stone in the same place?”

He blinked and straightened up from his crouch. He tipped his head a little to the side and looked past her, as if thinking hard. “What makes you think that?”

“Patterns. The history teacher, the new one for twelve-years? He talked about people looking for a pattern of wormholes and planets and how there are probably not enough wormholes for us to see if a pattern exists or not. And I started thinking about how we lay out cities and space ports and how there’s a standard version of spaceports no matter where you go, and it we humans do that then why not whoever built the settlement we found? Have the temple in the same place, and the government building, and other things? That also kinda fits the story about the end of the last world that we listened to, with cities that all had broad streets and were really nice, doesn’t it?” Rigi wanted him to believe and she wanted to be right, oh how she wanted to be right.

Tomás blinked again and looked over his shoulder. “Um, OK, let’s try it. First we need to find a gate, no, no, we find the name stone. Because this wall looks in worse shape than my wall did. Does. So we go that way,” he pointed. “Center of the ring.”

“Martinus, guide,” Rigi ordered.

“Wooeef.” He set out in a straight line. She followed, watching the m-dog as much as the ground and what was around them. After half a kilometer or so he stopped. His head turned left and right, and he sat. Rigi stopped beside him. “Weef?”

“Um, weef, yes.” She drooped. He’d found a lake. An oval-shaped lake that stretched out in front of them, disappearing into some trees and bushes. “Good dog.”

“How deep is that?”

I’m not going in there. Black water?” She wrinkled her nose. It must smell terrible. She sniffed. Nothing. She sniffed again. “Shouldn’t it stink, like that nasty pond in Keralita behind the military housing?”

“No, because there’s none of that red slimy goo that makes you break out and itch if you get it on you.” He gave her a mean grin. “My big brother swam in it on a dare. Mother almost tanned his hide, but only after Father and our house-watcher scrubbed him clean.” He pointed again, “I’m going this way,” and set off, following the edge of the lake.

Rigi didn’t want to go that way. She looked around for adults or animals, saw and heard none, and began walking at right-angles to the pond, Martinus at her side. They detoured around some low places. She didn’t want to find a buried city by falling into it, or a hidden sewer or something really nasty. They found bushes, and a few flowers, but nothing really interesting. The water she’d drunk earlier made itself known and she stopped to water the bushes, after telling Martinus not to look. That helped. But no buildings. Rigi started getting frustrated. After a while they stopped by the enormous, tall stump of a tree all covered in vines and brush. Her boot touched a round thing and she looked down. A fist sized rock lay in the dirt. She kicked it, hard, right at the trunk. It bounced back. She kicked again, and again, and again. She wanted to find something! She wanted to be special. She wanted to, “Ow.” The rock hit her in the shin this time. She bent over, picked the rock up and started to throw it.

Instead she looked at it, then stared at it. She rubbed it on her skirt, spat on it and rubbed more. “Yes!” The rock shimmered with the same creamy, multi-colored pretty stuff that she and Tomás had found in the Residence in Stela Settlement. “Yes, yes, yes.” She bounced around, getting closer to the tree trunk, Martinus bouncing with her. She danced around to the sunny side of the stump and stopped, staring. “Ooh. Is it?” Rigi put the rock in the outside pocket of her pack and put her gloves back on. She pulled one of the vines away, almost landing on her rump when it tore out of the soil. “Yes,” she panted. “Oh yes.” Rigi attacked the vines, tearing at them with all her strength, ripping and tossing in wild abandon until she got a patch as big as she was clear. She staggered back and sat on the ground, wet and triumphant.

She’d found something. Something that glittered with gold in black. She heard a faint sound, like a trickle of water. That reminded her. She took off her gloves took off her pack, and drank the rest of that bag of water and half a second bag. Martinus sat down beside her and she leaned on his foreleg and shoulder.

“Auriga?” That sounded like Uncle Eb. She stayed on the ground, still breathing a little hard. “Auriga, where are you?” The voice came closer. “Auriga?”

“Over here, Uncle Eb. Behind the, um fountain?” She got her legs under her, stood and staggered a little. She walked over to the thing. Yes, water trickled out of it. She hesitated, then touched the surface. Smooth, silky smooth, like the thin bit of water flowing over it. She leaned her head to the left and to the right before backing a meter or so away. “Fountain, Uncle Eb.”

He came around the thing, not looking at it. Instead he stopped in front of her, put his hands on her shoulders, and shook her. “Do not ever, ever disappear like that again, young lady. Tomás almost fell into a hidden trench. I don’t care that you have Martinus, Auriga Maris Regina, you do not—” shake “run—” shake “off. Is that clear?”

“Yes, yes sir.” Her vision shimmered and tears began falling. She sniffed hard. “Yes sir. I’m sorry sir. Is Tomás OK?”

He let her go. “Yes. Badly bruised and scared but otherwise fine.” He took a deep breath, then called, “She’s over here, intact, with Martinus.”

Rigi huddled beside her m-dog, head down, tears flowing. She didn’t mean to scare anyone. It wasn’t her fault that Tomás had fallen into something. “Wroo?” She just wanted to find something of her own, to prove that she was as good as all the others.

She wiped her eyes on her skirt and patted Martinus on the head and back. “Good boy,” she whispered. “Not your fault.” It wasn’t fair.

After forever Kor, Tomás, and Lexi joined them. She didn’t look up. She heard the adults talking very quietly, and quickly. Then Kor spoke. “Miss Rigi, what found you?”

“That.” She pointed. “It has water on it.”

Kor was the first to approach the fountain and touch the water. He stroked it with one claw. His claws were pale, she realized, not dark like normal Staré. “You cleared this area alone?”

“Um, yes, Kor. I didn’t want Martinus to get into the sap. I also found this.” She took the rock out of her pocket. “It was on the other side of the fountain.”

The males looked from her to the fountain and back. “Free it,” Uncle Eb ordered. The four males attacked the vines with their big knives, tossing them aside just like Rigi had done. She stayed out of the way, watching as an oblong shape a little like the name stone emerged from the green and brown. Water flowed over two sides of it. The other two had the same rainbow white as her rock, and as the vines disappeared, Rigi noticed more pieces of rainbow in the dirt on that side of the fountain. At last her uncle and the others had all the vines and brush cleared away, and they stared at what she’d found.

“No wonder the lake’s black,” Tomás managed, still short of breath. “The water is black.”

“It is. And the sap coating protected the other side, diverted the flow.” Uncle Eb nodded. “Lexi, did you get a position?”

“Yes, sir, and it lines up with the lake. And those low places.”

Kor crossed his forearms, then uncrossed them. His tail moved a little left and right, up and down. “Water will find its way. Of all that is, only water always finds its way.”

Uncle Eb rinsed his hands, pulled a bit of heavy fabric out of a pocket and got it wet as well, then wiped his knife clean before putting it away. “Huh. Water’s clear up at the top.” He sniffed it. “Smells clear too.” He began taking holos of the thing as Lexi held a measuring strip beside it. Kor and Tomás disappeared. Rigi sat down beside Martinus again, hunted around in her pack and found a bag with meat-in-bread that the camp staff had packed for her. She sulked and chewed. The meat tasted like the previous night’s supper, with a thick sauce that softened the bread just enough in the middle. She finished two of the three, put the bag away, and watched the men. They ignored her. Martinus lay down and she lay on top of him, resting her head on his back as she watched. It wasn’t fair.

After a while Uncle Eb seemed to finish taking images. Lexi folded the measuring strip and looked over at Rigi and Martinus. He said something to her uncle. “What?” Lexi pointed at Rigi and said something more, his ears beginning to twitch along with his nose. “Oh.” Uncle Eb handed Lexi the holo recorder and came over to where Rigi lay. He squatted down and rested one hand on her shoulder, gently this time. “I’m sorry I shook you and yelled at you, Rigi. I was scared. I’d called for several minutes before you answered, and if anything happens to you, it would hurt me very much.” He touched his heart. “I apologize for hurting your feelings and for scaring you. Please do not go off on your own again without telling Lexi, Kor, or I, please?” He was begging, and it scared her more than him shaking her had. “We found hunter-lizard tracks not far from the lake.”

“H—hunter-lizard?”

He held up one hand, fingers spread. “This big.”

Rigi started to shake. Even Martinus couldn’t save her if a hunter-lizard bit or scratched her. They carried poison in their mouths and claws and hunted from holes, rushing out to grab animals that passed by, then eating them in chunks. A hunter-lizard could have grabbed her before she or Martinus had time to shoot or bite. She gulped and whispered, “I— I’m sorry. I won’t go off on my own again, I promise.”

“Thank you. And I won’t yell unless it’s an emergency.” He looked over his shoulder at the fountain. “Or you find something very very nice. Promise.” They shook hands on the agreement, and he helped her sit up, then stand.

Tomás and Kor returned a few minutes later, as Rigi gave the clean stone a close inspection. “More pits that way,” Tomás pointed. “And something building sized under vines and a tree, but we didn’t get close. Too many tracks. May be a nesting den for something.” He shook his head. “I took a few holos and mapped the location, but I wasn’t going to go in without armor and a lot more people.”

“Are the pits in a line?” Rigi hunted around until she found a stick that she could be pretty certain was not a snake. “Martinus, paw.” He patted it. The stick didn’t move. “Good boy.” She picked it up and drew a square in the dirt. “If we’re here, and the lake is here, with pits in between,” she drew a line of circles leading to the lake. “And there are more pits leading to the building?” She drew another straight line of pits and a larger rectangle for the building. “What about . . .” More pits, these at right angles to the other ones. She looked at the others, eyebrows up.

Lexi had taken off his pack and removed a rolled-up something from it. “Like these?” He unrolled a visible-light image print-out. “If this fountain?” Kor reached over and held one side of the image so Lexi could point with a sap-splashed claw at a bulky shape. “Building?”

“Yes,” Kor grunted.

“Lake’s here, and the trench is here,” Tomás said, pointing as well.

Rigi peered at the image. “Yes, but I don’t see the wall, not like on the image of Stela Settlement.”

“The wall is lower here, at least what we’ve found today. And I think we’ve found all we need to for today,” Uncle Eb announced. “It’s two hours past local noon.”

She blinked. No wonder she’d been hungry. She wasn’t the only one, judging by the looks on the others’ faces. Lexi’s ears flopped in and crossed, giving him a quizzical expression. Kor just pulled something out of a pouch on his belt and began eating a stick of food. Rigi glanced away. She didn’t want to watch him chew. When she glanced back, the stick had disappeared. He was still chewing, but with his back teeth, so she couldn’t see the food anymore.

The others had similar ideas, and soon all had food in their hands. Rigi thought about things and decided to eat her third meat-in-bread. They did still have to walk back to the camp, and who knew when dinner would be? She frowned as Tomás wiped his hands on his trouser leg. If her mother caught her doing that, she’d make Rigi write out another chapter from the book of manners. And grease was hard to get out of fabric, even the so-called stain-free synthetics, as her father seemed determined to prove, according to Mar. Kor also frowned at Tomás, making Rigi feel even better. She drank more water. At least her pack would be lighter going back. Could she refill one of the bags from the fountain? “Kor, is the water from the fountain drinkable? For city humans, I mean.”

He studied her, then the water stone. “I do not know, Miss Rigi. The scent is clean, but scents can deceive.”

“Thank you.” Oh well, that’s why she’d brought so much water. The well at the camp provided plenty of good water, according to a little note in the necessary tent.

“I think it is time to go back to camp. Between what Rigi and Tomás have found, we have a good idea of where to start looking tomorrow, and to make decisions about digging and testing,” Uncle Eb announced after he finished his third bread thing. He wiped his hands on the damp cloth, Rigi noticed. Kor and Lexi licked themselves clean. She envied them a little, but trying to imagine some of her teachers washing that way made her want to giggle. And how did you reach that spot in the middle of your back?

“Uncle Eb, I’m going a few meters that way,” she pointed at bushes. “Just for a minute.”

“What? Why?” He caught himself and turned pink. “Oh, right, yes. No, that’s fine, don’t answer.” He pointedly turned away from the bushes she’d pointed to, as did Tomás. Rigi rolled her eyes, took care of things, and returned quickly. She pulled her pack on, triple-checked that her hand-shooter remained in place and clean, and unfastened the tie-down strap. She’d secure it again when they got out of the forest and could see farther.

As before, Kor led and Tomás took the last slot. Everyone walked more slowly, and Rigi decided that maybe she wasn’t as fit as she’d thought she was. Maybe. The lighter pack still weighed a great deal, and the heat of the day pushed down on her head despite the tree shade and the sun-shade on her head. The trail seemed narrower, too. Not just seemed, she realized. They had taken a different trail. The bushes came closer to the path. “This is more direct,” Uncle Eb said over his shoulder.

“OK,” Rigi replied. She walked along, looking around, letting her brain rest. Martinus beeped as they left the reserve. Kor passed a fallen tree, keeping to the far side of the trail as he went by the mess. The tree must have been huge, and the grey-brown, upturned root-end of the trunk looked at least as big as Rigi was tall. Had its shade caused the plants to die, creating the trail? No, that wasn’t possible—shade moved with the sun. The breeze gusted, making the bushes move a little. It felt good and she stopped, lifting the brim of her sun shade. The tickle of wind disappeared. The bushes kept moving.

“Look out,” Tomas yelled the same instant Rigi screamed, “Le—Lexi run!” Rigi didn’t think. She drew her hand-shooter and aimed, firing at the big scaly thing surging out of the pile of tree and bushes. She heard a bellow and fired at the motion again, then backed up as fast as she could. More shooter bolts zapped past her and she heard sounds like yelling. Where was Lexi? She couldn’t see Lexi! She tried to order Martinus forward but she couldn’t speak, her mouth wouldn’t work right. She tried again. “Mar—”

A rifle-bolt hit the moving shape, then a second. “SssrrROOOOaaarrr!” Terrible rotting-meat stench filled the air and she gagged, coughing, eyes watering, but held the hand-shooter steady. Tomás stood in front of her, just out of her line of fire. How had he gotten there? He also had his hand-shooter out, aimed at the motion.

“Do not move,” Uncle Eb ordered. Rigi stayed perfectly still as Kor did something, then called in Staré. Lexi appeared as if from nowhere. She glanced up. Oh, he’d jumped straight up, two meters or so, to a stout branch that overhung the trail.

“Is dead.” Kor called. “We hurry. Dead-eaters come soon. Do not touch.” Rigi holstered her shooter and followed Tomás at a run. She caught a glimpse of something with char marks on it and very large teeth in a grey-green snout the same color as the bushes. They didn’t stop to inspect the remains, just kept running until the adults slowed down and came to a halt in a grassy clearing. Rigi bent over, hands on knees, and breathed. Her side hurt. “Wroo?”

“I’m” gasp “fine, Martinus. Good” gasp “dog.”

“I think that was more than enough excitement for the day,” Uncle Eb wheezed. “Good call, Rigi.” He breathed some more. “You too, Tomás.”

Rigi inhaled a strong wave of fear/relief/danger/anger and noticed Lexi and Kor gesturing at each other with their forefeet and ears. Was Lexi angry because Kor had not warned him? No, because Kor couldn’t have seen the hunter-lizard, Rigi thought. Had Lexi wanted to take the broad trail? Tomás winced at something and eased away from the Staré, closer to Rigi. “What’s wrong?”

He whispered back, “Lexi didn’t want Kor or Uncle Eb to bring rifles. Then he fussed at Kor for not shooting sooner even though we were in the Reserve. Kor’s right piss—, sorry, that is, he’s pretty annoyed with Lexi for not paying attention to the spoor on the trail.”

“We weren’t in the Reserve. Martinus beeped a few meters before I stopped for the breeze.”

“Ah.” Tomás said. He raised his voice, saying, “That’s good to know. Since we were outside the Reserve, we won’t have to prove immediate danger.” The two Staré looked at him and stopped gesturing. Lexi’s fur remained ruffled, but then he’d been closest to the thing when it charged.

“Keep moving, please,” Uncle Eb called. “There are scavenger birds in the forest, along with striped lions.”

Rigi moved. So did the others. They reached the camp at four after noon. The men let her rinse off first, then she retreated to her tent, lay down on the bed, and shook, but only after triple checking the charge on her hand-shooter and adding a second shot-pack to her belt for the next day, and plugging in the charging mat for Martinus. She’d never shot at a living thing before. It wasn’t like shooting at a target. The papers didn’t move, or stink. And they didn’t eat people.

(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights reserved

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