Saturday Story: RajWorld Part 8

Of Hunters and Hunted . . .

Chapter 8: Patterns and Finds

Rigi watched the striped leapers browsing on some brushy kalo plants in the grass below her. The cluster of a dozen or so heavy-bodied, long-headed marsupials hopped slowly as they nibbled their way down the small valley. Several of the females still had young in the pouch, and the matriarch and patriarch kept close watch on the sky for broadwings. Rigi ignored the older animals, far more interested in a yearling that seemed to be lagging behind, healthy but distracted by something upwind. It stopped and rose fully onto its back feet, looking left and right, back to her. Rigi sighted to the left of the spine, just below the shoulder, and fired.

The tan and black striped animal fell forward without a sound. Did the others notice? Rigi kept still, watching. Another yearling paused, turning its head as if to look for the dead leaper. Kor fired and the second yearling dropped. The leaper clan moved on, not noticing the two missing, or not caring. Since the two yearlings had been lagging behind for several days, Rigi suspected that the others did not miss them yet. The wind blew across the clan toward Rigi and Kor, hiding the tell-tale burnt smell of a beam-shot animal. Even so, Rigi waited for Kor’s signal to safety the rifle and follow him down the slope.

They needed meat, and the two leapers would feed the camp’s omnivores for several days. Rigi offered a little prayer to the Creator and Creatrix for their gift and for a clean shot. Kor had been forced to finish off a pain-maddened long-nosed wombeast that had survived an attack by striped lions, and the sounds and smell drove home the order that if they couldn’t kill, they shouldn’t shoot. And that wounded animals had to be finished.

Rigi inspected her kill. She pulled back the lips to look at the yearling’s teeth and to smell its mouth. She didn’t detect any of the sour, musty scent of worm-gut, and the gums seemed healthy and pink. The ears also appeared clean, and the yearling’s shiny, smooth pelt confirmed the animal’s general health. Too bad for him that he wasn’t as wary as he was sound, Rigi thought. Good for her and for the others who needed food. She managed to flip the striped leaper onto his back and spread the limbs. Kor and his helper would gut and prepare the carcass for travel back to the camp. Getting all the organs out without spilling the contents and without accidentally spoiling the meat with gall or gut-musk required skill Rigi didn’t quite have yet, and strength she certainly didn’t have. Task completed, Rigi picked up her rifle again, checked the charge, and took up a watch position. As the males worked, she kept an eye out for predators. Uncle Eb and Kor had been surprised the previous week by a pair of terror birds and had almost lost an already cleaned and field-dressed wombeast yearling. Rigi didn’t smell anything, but she kept a careful watch, slowly scanning the grass and the horizon, far and close, looking for motion.

Happily for her supper, Kor and his assistant finished their task without interruption. They signaled and Rigi came down the slope to help. She helped balance the carry poles as the males hoisted the carcasses for a short walk to the transport. After the first week, Mr. De Groet had arrived and brought a small run-about with him. It certainly made hunting easier, and shortened the time to get the Site Four, or what Rigi thought of as Cloudspot Settlement. She’d been watching cloud shadows drifting across the grass of the plain when something caught her eye, something round that had proved to be the foundation of a round structure within another round walled site. Unlike the forest settlements, the walls in the grassland settlements only stood knee high, and that if they were lucky. Rigi followed the two Staré to the vehicle, still alert. After the lizard attack, Kor had pronounced her a near-adult with adult responsibilities, and she took them seriously.

That status did not permit her to drive the run-about, alas, and so after the males loaded the meat, she settled into the passenger seat as the fifth-Stamm servant confirmed the program and guided the run-about back to the camp. Kor sat in the rear, looking behind them. While hunting, the others granted him a sort of temporary fourth Stamm rank—otherwise he remained outStamm. Rigi looked around and considered her latest sketch, this one of the almost-site near the river.

She still did not understand why Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet wanted her to draw everything they found. Well, almost everything, or at least the big things that did not try to get away, like the “rubble pile” that proved to be a very dirty and grumpy lump-nose. The big marsupial browser had grunted, grumbled, flicked its skinny little excuse for a tail, and thudded off to a quieter place to nap, its enormous, lumpy, bumpy, bony head rocking side-to-side as it lumbered away. Everyone thought twice about scrambling over piles and lumps after that little excitement. Rigi, who had been drawing when the thing started to protest being holo-imaged, still giggled a little when she remembered Lexi and Uncle Eb’s expressions as they backed away from the monster. Uncle Eb had thought to bring two more of the sketch pads that Rigi preferred, and Aunt Kay had given her some pencils and other things that she didn’t use. As a result, Rigi didn’t mind using her pad for the project, sketching walls, the fountain, and anything else they found.

And Mr. De Groet had given her a special present. Around her neck, on a bit of string, she wore a disk of the rainbow opal stuff in a small metal ring. It wasn’t old, not like the things Tomás had found. But whoever had made the settlements and walls had also used the runner vine sap to make the coatings that looked so pretty, and Mr. De Groet had paid to have a lab analyze the bits, plus the sap, and found a way to make sheets of the stuff. He’d also found a third-Stamm artisan to make lumps, and jewelry. A set of the jewelry would be presented to the governor’s wife at some point, or so Rigi overheard him telling Uncle Eb. “We need to sweeten things. Someone is trying to block our papers by going through the governor. I have no idea who.”

Rigi shrugged and smiled as another scarlet-crested bird darted across the grass ahead of the run-about. Aunt Kay’s painting of the birds left Rigi torn between raw envy and pure awe. The birds looked as if they would fly off the canvas or screen. “I trained as both an artist and as a xenobiologist, Rigi. Holos are wonderful, but even the best doesn’t capture everything that the human eye can, and vice versa. So we still need people to look and imagine the birds and beasts and plants, then depict them accurately.” Rigi decided that she’d stick to walls and buildings and plants, at least for now. She had plenty to do without having to chase her subject every time it moved, like Aunt Kay sometimes did.

In addition to confirming the fountain site, they’d found three more sites in the grasslands to the west of the forest, all in similar locations. Rigi still did not think the stuff by the river really counted as a settlement or ritual center or town or whatever Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet were calling it today, but she’d drawn the shapes, including the bits sticking part-way into the river. She preferred the grasslands sites. The one in the forest had her fountain, and shade, and the pools or water-catchers that extended in three directions from the fountain, and the lake and channel (she’d labeled it Tomás’s Canal) that led to another building of some kind, but shade made things hard to draw correctly, and Uncle Eb wanted the shade-dapple in the picture. She’d ripped up two drawings of the not-a-lair building before she was happy. Even lighting and no shade made the grassland things far easier, especially when she could climb a hill, plop into the grass, and look down on the places. All three of the grassland sites sat in little bowls within clusters of hills, and all three had walls in a ring on the tops of the hills as well as the wall inside the bowl.

Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet and Lexi had gotten into a heated discussion one evening about if all the places would be round, if only the round ones had survived, or if they would find square settlements in other places. Aunt Kay eventually had enough and she and Tomás and Rigi had eaten without the men.  When Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet finally appeared, they found the tenderest pieces of grass-fowl already eaten and that their individual servings of fluffed yams had collapsed, earning them the cook’s ire. Aunt Kay and the others said nothing, but the men seemed to have gotten the hint and did not argue before meals again. Rigi and Tomás had understood about half the argument, and had shrugged. They did a lot of that around Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet.

“Maybe they used round because the world is round,” Tomás had suggested as they walked back to their tents that night. “Or because their walls didn’t have corners, so it was easier to defend them.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they worshipped the sun, and it is round, and all we are finding are worship places, not living places.”

“Nah, that doesn’t make sense.”

“Then where are the houses?”

“They were all made of wood and rotted away, except the long ones in Stela Settlement?”

“Wouldn’t the dirt be different there? And why is the dirt so thin in the forest sites?” Rigi stopped and faced him. “And what did they eat?”

“Food, of course.” He started to roll his eyes and she planted her fists on her hips, glaring at him. “What? They ate food. So—” It really did look as if someone had flipped a light on in his head, Rigi thought. “So where did whatever they ate come from, and where did it go?”

“Pre-cisely.”

He stared past her shoulder, which she’d learned meant that he was thinking especially hard. “Um, we need to look for fields, or animal pens, or food fabricators and tools and the little things.” Tomás stopped. “Where are the little things?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember reading about Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet finding little things at Stela Settlement. But no one has really dug or gone over the place the way my mother cleans house.”

“How does your mother clean house?”

“Everything gets cleaned unless it can run away,” she’d sighed. “Everything. Father hides his document files so she can’t organize and tidy them. We have to take the furniture apart, the things that can be taken apart, and clean all the notches and holes and joints. She hires extra help, and Shona hides in the kitchen and grumbles and we eat cold food for a few days. It’s not fun,” she concluded.

Tomás’s eyes had opened wider and wider and he stared at her. “Oh, poor Rigi. And Lyria. How often does she clean house?”

“Only once a year, thanks be to the Creatrix,” Rigi said with fervor she usually reserved for the sweet course or when Martinus did an especially neat new trick. “Father says that Grandmother deStella is the same.” She stopped and turned as Kor walked up, silent, a dark shape in the night. He hand bowed and she returned the courtesy, as did Tomás.

“A herd is moving, hunters follow.” He had puffed caution/danger. “Do not come out unless great danger threatens. If you must come out, come armed with rifle and ready to protect selves.”

“Yes, Kor.” Rigi put her hand on Martinus. Should she bring him with her if she needed to go out? Probably yes.

For once Tomás did not argue or ask for more information. “Yes, Kor.” They’d gone their ways. Rigi thought she head something in the night, and had woken to find the grass flattened by long-nosed wombeast tracks.

Now, riding back to camp in the run-about, she wondered what the herd had looked like. She should have stayed up to watch. Or should she? Sleep came easily after working all day. Only Tomás and Uncle Eb had much energy in the evenings, and Tomás was a boy and Uncle Eb? He was Uncle Eb. Rigi wondered if that’s what her father meant when he’d said he wanted to find a way to bottle Uncle Eb. The run-about glided down the long, shallow valley leading from the plains proper to the lodge. Rigi didn’t see any signs of the men. Good. She could get cleaned up and work on the latest drawing without worrying about someone pestering her.

Rigi helped unload the meat and assisted with skinning the two leapers. They weighed in at just under a hundred kilos total, so sixty-five kilos of meat, more or less. The tails stayed intact and would go into soup, the haunches roasted, ribs grilled or slow-simmered, and the cook had a way to pickle the shoulders that left Rigi wanting to eat her weight in the meat. As Kor cut and trimmed, Rigi slowly pulled the hide away from the meat, keeping even tension in the skin. The hole in the shoulder of “her” leaper ruined the hide for making a floor rug or bedcover from. The soft white belly-fur remained intact though, and Rigi hoped she’d be allowed to have the hair-on leather after it was tanned. Kor’s shot, in the head, left the entire hide intact. Rigi didn’t trust herself to aim at the head unless the leaper stood broadside to her.

“Good.” Kor grunted, puffing satisfaction/pleased. “The task is done. Thank you for assistance, Miss Rigi.” He bowed to her.

She hand bowed in return. “You are welcome, Kor.”

She started walking toward the necessary tent to go get cleaned up when he spoke again. “The spirit villages you and Master Tomás found. Do the First Ones speak to you?”

Rigi blinked. First Ones? Spirit villages? No one had ever called the ruins that. What did he mean? Should she ask? Or just answer his question? Rigi decided to answer. “No, Kor. I hear no voices, see no spirits. Tomás and I see patterns, shapes where shapes should not be, stones hidden under racer vines, shiny black where things should be rough and gray.”

He puffed a complicated scent she couldn’t identify and didn’t understand.  “The hunter’s eye, and the wise eye. It is explained. Thank you, Miss Rigi.”

“You are welcome.” He returned to butchering the leapers and she watched him for a moment, then went to wash. Aunt Kay disapproved of dusty, hunt-scented people at the table if they’d had time to get tidied up. And Rigi did not want her telling Rigi’s mother just what she’d been doing in the field.

Rigi finished her drawing and brought it with her to supper. As she waited for the others, she read more of the file about the exploration of Shikhari. She’d gotten to the part about the Indria Plateau, and about the enormous herds of wombeast and leapers and the enormous trap-lizards that lurked near water, hiding in their lairs until something walked too close. The explorers ignored the pits, thinking they belonged to the great plains moles and more worried about snap-backs until a trap-lizard had attacked the cartographer and almost killed him before the others killed the lizard. Even so he’d lost his leg. Rigi shivered, glad trap-lizards didn’t exist where she lived. Then she read a little farther and stopped. She wrinkled her forehead, squinted, backed up the page and re-read.

“What’s wrong?” She looked up to find Aunt Kay looming over her, a puzzled and slightly concerned expression on her soft face.

“This says that the explorers on the Indria Plateau found what they thought might be ruins but didn’t go exploring because the natives chased them away. It is the only known deliberate aggression shown by the Staré. Here.” Rigi handed her the file-reader.

Her aunt took the e-reader. Her thin, flat eyebrows drew together and her forehead wrinkled. She glanced to the left, eyes narrowed. “Which book is this?” She tapped the screen with a paint-dappled finger. “Oh. Interesting.” She returned the reader. “That is, I think, the oldest account of the exploration of Shikhari. It’s not official, if I remember correctly. Ask Ebenezer. He obtained the file from the family of one of the scouts, the man who wrote it. And mark the reference.”

“Ah, how do I do that?” She’d never used that feature on this kind of file-reader.

“Like so.” Aunt Kay reached down, ran her finger along a line of words, and then tapped the screen beside the line. It flashed once and a little star appeared in the corner of the page. “When you go back to the contents’ list, the stars will appear beside the chapter. Tap the star and it will take you to the area you selected.” Aunt Kay smiled. “This is a very simple, old-fashioned reader, but it will stand up to being dropped, stepped on, and spilled on. The gentleman who owns the lodge has six children, two of them still in the ‘chew everything’ stage. He recommended the reader.”

Rigi tried to imagine six children, plus her parents, in her house. They wouldn’t fit. And how did they all use the necessary tent here? Or did the youngest stay at home with minders like Mar? No, probably the middle ones, the ones that might wander off, she decided. “Thank you. I’ll ask him.”

“They should be back now, unless he or Micah found something and are arguing about who lived there and what the name is and if the flat bit goes on top or on the bottom.” She shook her head. “And to think that he’s the normal, calm and practical one in the family.”

Rigi wondered what the rest of the family must be like. Maybe she’d ask her father. It seemed rude to ask Aunt Kay. Her aunt went over to the paint table and Rigi kept reading. She didn’t find anything as odd as the story about the ruins and the Staré, although the bit about someone accidentally burning down the necessary building while trying to kill a stink-lizard made her giggle more than she should have.

Uncle Eb, Mr. De Groet, and Tomás came in just as she started the next chapter. “ . . . could be wrong I have no idea. He’s being tight-lipped about it.” Mr. De Groet sounded frustrated.

“We’ve gotten all the data, everything’s documented, we checked for permissions and found none, it’s a preliminary report without hypotheses, and he doesn’t have to sign off on live-subject requirements or anything.”

Rigi wondered who the men meant. De Groet held his hands up. “Another two weeks won’t really matter, since we’re not competing for a grant or publication prestige.”

Uncle Eb frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. “No, but . . . something bothers me. Call it a hunch, a gut feeling, I don’t like it. He said it was something with the corporation?”

“Didn’t say, but implied. And I could be reading too much into his message.”

Rigi opened her mouth to tell Uncle Eb about Benin Petrason’s threat, then caught herself. Could it be related? Was it Mr. Petrason they were talking about?

“And it could be something as simple as the royal birthday and not wanting to upstage His Majesty’s anniversary celebration – forty years and twenty-fifty regal year combined, plus the colonial founding anniversary. That’s more than enough, and the Company’s been treading carefully with His Majesty after the little problem on Eta Toliman with the smuggling and tariff evasion.” Uncle Eb rolled his eyes. “Amateurs.”

Tomás looked as if he were about to explode with curiosity, eyes wide, mouth open, staring at Uncle Eb. His face turned a little pink, and he vibrated a little.

“Anything new today, dear?” Aunt Kay inquired, preempting Tomás.

Uncle Eb turned around, bent down and kissed her. Rigi looked away. “Nothing to speak of. We mapped everything by the river and at the third grassland site.” He turned back to Rigi. “I understand that we are eating your kill tonight?”

“Mine or Kor’s, yes, Sir. We got two leaper yearlings.”

The adults all smiled. Rigi felt warm inside and very grown-up. “Excellent, Miss Rigi,” Mr. De Groet said. “Very well done.”

“You do have your father’s eye,” Uncle Eb added.

On impulse, Rigi replied, “Kor says I have the wise eye and that Tomás has the hunter’s eye.”

Uncle Eb’s eyebrows rose up until they threatened to lift off of his face. “Did he? Interesting.” Tomás smiled and nodded, pleased with Kor’s statement.

“He also, ah, that is, he asked if the First Ones spoke to us, the people who made the spirit villages.”

Mr. De Groet and Uncle Eb froze. “He asked what?” De Groet raised  one finger. “Specifically called them the First Ones and spirit villages?”

“Yes, sir. He asked if Tomás and I found the spirit villages because the First Ones spoke to us.”

Tomás seemed fascinated. Mr. De Groet vibrated as if he were about to explode. Uncle put his hand on the man’s arm. “Easy, Micah. Kor’s different. Please don’t rush out to ask him, because he may never talk again.”

“And Sir, could you look at this?” Rigi turned back to the section in the file about the ruin and handed it to him. He read it, read it again, and handed the reader to Mr. De Groet, then sat down in the chair on her right. De Groet blinked hard and passed the reader to Tomás.

“That’s . . . That may be worth tracking down. I suspect they were not attacked, though. I’ve read other reports that the Staré swarmed humans, trying to get a scent lock and because they were curious about what the humans were doing. It can seem like an attack.”

“Father says there was, no, were two cases of Staré attacking humans. He told me he’d read them in the military files. One involved a Staré with scent-sickness, and I don’t know the other one. Father mentioned them when we studied scent-sickness in xenobiology class.” Tomás sounded uncertain as he returned the reader to Mr. De Groet, who passed it to Uncle Eb.

“Well, it could have happened, certainly, I just have not heard anything about it. Which means nothing, yes, I know dear,” he leaned forward and wagged one finger at Aunt Kay, who wagged one right back. “And we only have two more days here, so I think we need to concentrate on having Miss Rigi so a few more sketches, sample to soil at the fountain site and I really do want to look inside the building that is a lair.”

“And I want to see this fountain for myself,” Aunt Kay announced.

Rigi tossed and turned that night, unable to sleep. She’d lost track of the days. Only two more days before she went home! That meant four days before school started again, and she had to deal with Benin Petrason and his crew. Rigi liked being at the lodge, liked being with Aunt Kay and Uncle Eb, and Tomás was pretty much not bad for a boy. Getting to draw, and to explore, and even to hunt? Lyria would never believe it. Neither would most of Rigi’s year-mates at school. Or would they? Rigi turned over, curling up. Since half of them didn’t believe she had an m-dog, they wouldn’t believe that she’d learned how to shoot and hunt. She liked adults better, she decided, and Staré. The Staré treated her like a grown-up, or at least Kor and Lexi did. But did she want to be a grown-up yet? The way her big sister was acting, maybe younger was better.

Except it was being younger that let Benin get away with picking on people. Rigi rolled to her other side. She’d wear out the bed at this rate, and she sat up, then got up. She wouldn’t wander, just sit on the steps of the tent. She pulled on her wrap and camp shoes, and sat on the false-wood step, looking up at the sky. The stars came a lot closer at the lodge than they did near the city. The thick wash of stars called the Milky Way on Home and that Rigi knew as the Great River swept over the sky, hiding other star patterns. Rigi thought she could see the rocket and the Great Book, and the two crosses, north and south. One red star didn’t twinkle. That would be the hot planet, Agni. The stars came all the way down to the ground, and she imagined that she could touch them, reach up and scoop a handful and put them in her memento box. A little finger of night breeze touched the back of her neck and she pulled her wrap tighter. It carried the sweet smell of the grass, and a sound. She listened hard, holding her breath to try to hear better. Music?

A soft, almost sad song tugged at her ears and heart. It reminded her of the wind, and of the stars, soaring and far, so far away, out in the deep dark. A fluty sound, the notes sang, then fluttered like a bird’s wings, then faded into the night silence again. Was she dreaming? Rigi pinched the back of her hand. No, not dreaming, and her toes were getting cold. She watched the stars a little longer, then went back inside and climbed into bed once more. This time she slept.

The next day they had pan-fried leaper steaks for breakfast. Rigi tried the red jelly, decided she’d been right to avoid it, and spread extra sour peach pickle on her rusk and on the meat. She also added a dribble more cowlee cream to her coffee when Aunt Kay wasn’t looking. Tomás could drink it black, but Rigi needed something to soothe the bitterness and she wasn’t an adult, anyway. Kor had declared her a grown-up, but after much thought Rigi decided that she’d stay young for a while yet. And extra cream was close to milk-coffee, which was what her mother and Mar said young ladies should drink, and she could tell them that she’d stayed with milk-coffee. She still had not decided about mentioning the funny-tasting eggs or not. Probably not, because they might not be fowl eggs, and some people fussed about eating mammal eggs. There wasn’t a food rule against it, not like there was against carrion-eaters and scavengers, but still, Rigi didn’t want to cause a fuss when she got home.

“So, do you want the good news or the not-so-good news?” Uncle Eb inquired after he’d had a third cup of coffee.

“Not-so-good, please, sir,” Tomás replied.

“We have to leave tomorrow night, because of weather. There is a risk of strong storms the next morning, and our flitter’s not made for that sort of thing.”

Rigi wondered what the good news was. She’d have to pack, and go through the list her mother had included in the bag with her clothes to make certain she brought everything back with her.

“The good news is that all the hides taken so far are good, and we will be allowed to keep them once they are tanned. That includes your leaper, Rigi, in case you wanted the chest, belly, and pouch for a vest or something else.”

“Oh, thank you!”

Aunt Kay smiled. “If you would like it made into a garment, I’ll give your mother the name of a tailor who does my fur-on work. He’s fifth Stamm and quite good.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Rigi finished her breakfast, excused herself and went back to the tent to get cleaned up. They were taking the run-about and she wondered about Martinus coming along. Yes, he’d better, she decided. There’d be room. No, maybe not. She wavered back and forth then decided that he’d better stay behind this once. Except her stomach didn’t like that idea and something else inside her protested that he needed to come along. He’d come.

Lexi opted to stay in camp so he could start packing and preparing all of their research material and Uncle Eb’s things. That left just enough space for Rigi and Martinus to squeeze into the back of the run-about, with Tomás and Aunt Kay in the middle seats and Uncle Eb and Mr. De Groet in the front. “Is Kor coming?” Tomás kept looking around, drumming his fingers on the rifle scabbard built into the run-about’s door.

“He is going on his own. He saw tracks that concern him,” Uncle Eb replied as he engaged the drive and turned the vehicle east, into the rising sun. Rigi imagined the heat already starting to build, triggering the ferocious storms that turned the area around the Indria Plateau into an enormous wetland every warm season. The Bataria Archipelago got brushed by some of the storms, or so Rigi thought one of her teachers had said. The entire area remained off-limits to people who were not scientists, so she didn’t worry about it.

Uncle Eb drove until they reached the wide trail, then parked. They’d entered the reserve, but he didn’t seem concerned about getting in trouble for having the vehicle inside the borders. Rigi crawled out of the back, followed by Martinus, checked her rifle, and slung it over her shoulder. That gave them two rifles for six people, plus Martinus, and Uncle Eb had decided that would be sufficient. He wanted to go into the lair building. “Kor and I cleared it out,” he’d announced a week before, over supper. “There are carvings that don’t look quite like those at Stela Settlement, and I want to get better recordings. You need to see them too, Micah.”

So Tomás and Aunt Kay went to the fountain and Rigi followed the men to the lair-building. “Great Magellanic Clouds, Eb, did all this come out of there?” Mr. De Groet stared at the mound of dried plants, tufts of fur, and leaves and vines jumbled into a heap as tall as Rigi.

“That and more. I told you that Kor and I had to clean it out, and I mean clean. Lexi helped some, but he spent more time keeping watch for whatever had denned in here. I think it was one of those nocturnal prickle-back wombeasts, just based on the fur bits.” Rigi studied the pile, walking around it and sniffing. Martinus sniffed as well, or acted like he was sniffing. The pile’s under-scent bothered her and she backed away from the mound and went to stand by the door opening, looking out. The mound smelled musky-bitter and left a strange taste in her throat. She shivered a little and shifted the rifle so she could get it into position faster. “Good thought, Rigi. Micah and I won’t be too long.”

Mr. De Groet, busy with the holo-recorder and big portable light, didn’t see Rigi as she rolled her eyes. “Need to start with actual light, then hmm, half to get the contrast? Yes, that should work, fifty percent for initial contrast and then full if there’s enough battery. Did I charge this one, um, where’s that blasted . . .” He murmured as he walked into the doorway, almost tripping over the stone threshold. Rigi swallowed a giggle. Young ladies did not giggle when people tripped.

She could hear the men moving around inside, stepping on something that crunched and skittered like dry leaves. “I thought you said you’d cleaned this out?”

“I did. Storms must have blown this back in.”

Rigi and Martinus waited in the shade, watching the birds and the leaves moving in the breeze. After a few minutes she walked around the building, studying the exterior. Racer vines still covered most of it, but under the vines she saw more of that black, and places where the stone looked soft, as if it were melting. Had plant acid done that? Rigi squeezed between a small tree and the vines, stretching up on her tip-toes to touch the bottom of the stone. No, it felt solid, and smooth as glass instead of crumbly rotten. She backed away and kept walking. The building reminded her a little of the temple in Stela Settlement, but smaller. Were the carvings inside as pretty as those in the temple? Maybe Uncle Eb would let her come in and look after he and Mr. De Groet finished.

A pattern on the ground caught her eye and she crouched down, then moved so her shadow wasn’t on the dirt. Tracks? She checked Martinus, then bent closer, keeping the rifle clear of the dirt and grass. The depressions did look a little like tracks, but the rain had muddled them. What did the feet of a prickle-back wombeast look like? Because this had a stuck-out thumb. Or did it? Rigi just couldn’t tell. Oh well. She stood up and continued circling the building.

As she rounded the corner, the musky smell hit her full in the face far stronger than before. “Martinus, guard.” She unslung the rifle and took a long path around the mound of debris, moving slowly, taking a step and listening, then another step and listening again. The feeling of danger drew stronger and she whispered, “Luther, guard.” The soft dirt underfoot let her move silently, and she rolled her weight onto her feet the way Kor and Tomás had taught her. She didn’t see anything, and no new tracks marked the soil. Was she imagining things? More musk, and a sound, a scratch, then another. Where? Above the door!

“Graawrrr!”

Rigi swung the rifle up to her shoulder and aimed as a brown and red shape with white teeth leapt. The carnifex-leaper hung in the air, claws out, jaw unhinged and gaping, eyes focused on Rigi. She fired, started to fire again, and the beast’s front half disappeared in a wash of red and white and burnt fur and cooked meat and fire. She flinched away, keeping her rifle up and pointed at the thing even as she ducked her head, eyes closed against the stuff spattering her. The spattering stopped and she looked again. The rear legs of the beast lay on the ground. “L— Luther, stand down.” She didn’t want him shooting Uncle Eb! “Martinus stand down, good dog.”

She stared at the remains of the predator. The head lay a few centimeters from the toes of her boots, the back quarter of the body by the wall of the building. “G,g,g,g, good dog,” she repeated. Rigi put the rifle’s safety on, then looked down at herself. “Uncle Eb?”

A muffled, “What?”

“Uncle Eb, I’m sorry, but could you come and take the rifle for a moment, please, sir? I need to be sick.” She sounded very calm, very adult. She stared at the head, seeing every hair, every pore on the hairless nose, and the chip in one enormous front tooth. “Please?”

He stomped out, blinking in the bright light. “What’s wrong, Rigi are you oh shit child damn it to the black hells.” He ran to her, grabbed her up and hauled her away from the remains of the beast.

“I’m going to be sick. I put the safety on.” He set her down and took the rifle, then crouched beside her as she threw up. “Martinus and I, was on the roof,” she threw up again. Then she began shaking all over. Uncle Eb rested the rifle against Martinus and held her. “Don’t, please, you’ll get bloody.” He held her tighter as she shook and sobbed.

“Eb, what, dear God.” Mr. De Groet ran toward them. Uncle Eb held up one hand and he slowed down. “Is she alright?”

“Yes, sir,” Rigi managed, snuffling. Uncle Eb handed her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes. “Thank you, sir.”

He let go and stood, picking up the rifle and looking at the charge. “Auriga, this isn’t that strong, even at close range.”

“No, sir. Um, Martinus has a surprise inside him. The range master said I need to have him reset when I get back from this trip.”

Her uncle looked from her to the m-dog and back, then twisted to look at the remains of the carnifex-leaper. “Stay here, with Martinus.” He and Mr. De Groet walked around the charred hindquarter and head. “You where here?”

“No, sir. This side of the head. It almost landed on my toes.” She started giggling, tried to stop, and giggled more, then began sobbing again. She hugged Martinus, “Good dog,” she repeated over and over, “Good dog, good dog, good dog.”

Uncle Eb ducked into the building as Mr. De Groet took a holo of the scene. He emerged with a small black bag. “Miss Auriga, I need to download some data from your m-dog. May I do so?”

“Yes, sir.” She snuffled some more, calmed down, and petted Martinus’s head as Uncle Eb plugged something into the m-dog’s neck, then looked at the read out. His eyes flashed open and the color drained from his face. He looked up at her, staring, a scary, hard expression that she’d never seen before. He looked down again, unplugged the device, and patted the m-dog, then stood.

“How many shots did you fire, Miss Auriga?”

“T—two I think, sir. It growled and then everything stopped and the carnifex-leaper hung in the air. I smelled something, then heard scratching and couldn’t see it and then heard more sound and looked up just as it jumped toward me.”

He walked around Martinus, crouched beside her again, and put his arms around her. “The recording shows that you did fire twice. The first shot hit, the second might have but your m-dog’s stinger struck first. And in truth, Miss Auriga, I don’t think you need to have Martinus re-set. The fewer people who know that he has that capability, the better.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Micah, we’ll get a few more images, let Miss Rigi look inside, and then you need to go tell Kay and Tomás what happened.”

“Why me?” Then he really looked at Rigi, and Uncle Eb. She wanted to giggle again as his face turned colors, ending with pinkish green. “Ah, I see your point, Eb. We don’t want to surprise your wife.”

“No. Her shrieks would deafen every creature within a hundred kilometer radius. And that’s before she saw Rigi. She hates it when I ruin clothes. And I do not think this will rinse out.”

“Oh dear.” Her mother would be furious. “I didn’t think about that.”

He laughed and rested a hand on her shoulder. “No, believe me, tidiness and spot removal are the next-to-last things one contemplates in a life-or-death situation. There is an ancient saying, Miss Rigi, that it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. In this case, it is much better to shoot first and scrub later. That said, you probably do need to rinse your face before the spatter dries and starts to itch. Trust me, it will itch.”

That sounded like a wonderful idea. But first she took several swishes of water from her water skin, rinsed and spat the nasty taste out of her mouth, then drained the skin. She also stopped behind some bushes before going to the fountain and using his handkerchief to wipe her face. The cold water felt very good, but she was careful not to get any in her eyes or mouth.

The rest of the day seemed absolutely dull after that. Aunt Kay took one look at Rigi, planted her fists on her hips and stated, “You are going back to camp and changing. Period end.” She stalked to Rigi, circled around her inspecting her, and folded her arms. “Now. Before something decides to lick you clean.”

“Eww,” that sounded terrible. “Um, are we going to tell my parents?”

“Are we?”

“No, please?”

Uncle Eb let out a long breath. “We’ll see. I think you’d best do as Aunt Kay says. You don’t want to give Tomás nightmares, after all. He has a delicate stomach.”

“Thppppth” Tomás made a rude noise.

“For that, young man, you can carry the light this time.” The men and Tomás started walking toward the other building.

Aunt Kay crooked one finger and beckoned Rigi. Rigi and Martinus followed her to the run-about. “I fear you’d best ride in the back again, dear. Micah didn’t bring seat covers.”

Once in the camp, Aunt Kay drove straight to the necessary tent. “Wash and leave your clothes. I’ll bring you fresh. And wipe Martinus off as well, please. Blood and tissue can be corrosive to some alloys.”

Yes, ma’am.” How did Aunt Kay know that? And what had she and Uncle Eb done to know so much about blood and clothes and such? Was it when he was in the military? She seemed very calm. Rigi dutifully took off her dress and leggings, leaving them with her boots and sunshade. Her underthings seemed clean, but after she washed herself and wiped Martinus, who did not like being rinsed, she found a complete change of clothes. Someone had also cleaned off her boots and left a different sun-shade. She dried Martinus, then herself, and dressed. The wash felt good. She took Martinus back to the tent and ordered him to charge. He’d dropped to a quarter power, and she couldn’t carry him if his batteries ran flat and he locked. The shot really had taken a lot of energy. Rigi petted him some more and went to find Aunt Kay. And to refill her water bags. Her mouth didn’t want to stay moist.

To her surprise she slept well that night, and didn’t dream. She mentioned it at breakfast, and the adults seemed pleased and relieved. “That’s very good. I was worried that you might have nightmares. Stress can do that, Rigi, and do not feel ashamed or afraid if you do start dreaming about what happened, or you relive it at odd moments.” Uncle Eb’s face shifted, for lack of a better word, turning older and a touch scary and intense. “That kind of shock imprints on your mind and feelings. You did everything right, Rigi, believe me. Don’t ever doubt yourself. You did the right thing, reacted the right way. I should have looked more closely and have thought about the roof. But you did the best thing possible. I am very proud of you, we all are.”

He shook a little and the usual Uncle Eb came back. “However, I am going to see about getting you a new dress and leggings. Because your mother and father are too smart to believe that you fell into a berry bush, or were ambushed by a side of grilled wombeast ribs.”

“Do people really try to grill those?” Tomás looked intrigued and worried both.

“Once.” Aunt Kay stated. “You try it once, eat them once, and never again if you are not starving or intoxicated to the point that your tastebuds are numb. Or so I have been told.”

#

A week after school began, a large box arrived for Rigi. Lyria, still grouchy about not going with her sister, scowled and glared as Rigi opened it under her mother and Mar’s careful eyes. Inside she found a new dress, slightly larger than the one she’d ruined and with embroidered trim on the cuffs and hem that looked like dark blue birds, new leggings, and—

“Ugh, what’s that?” Lyria backed away as Rigi lifted out the carnifex-leaper’s large red-brown and black striped tail, followed by the tanned leaper hide.

“Aunt Kay sent a card with the name of the tailor who makes her vests. And oh, this is tanned and trimmed so it fits on Martinus’s tail. Now he can have a real furry tail like a bio-dog.”

Her mother picked up the tail and inspected it. “So it does.” She sighed. “That Ebenezer. Kay is such a wonderful soul to have married him. And this is your leaper?”

“Yes, ma’am. It was on Uncle Eb’s permit, so he had to check it in first and he had it tanned. May I have a vest made from it, please? I’ve been saving my credits.”

Her mother pursed her lips, then studied her and the pelt. “I think so, but not this instant. I believe you have started growing again, and it will be better to wait so you do not outgrow it.”

Lyria protested, arms at her sides, fists clenched. “Mother, no! Civilized people don’t wear animal hides. Hunting for food is bad enough, but to wear the skin, that’s terrible.”

“But to not use it is wasteful, and the scorch in the shoulder means it won’t make a good bedcover.” Rigi tried to be reasonable.

“No! You don’t understand.”

Mar folded her forelegs, ears twitching as Rigi’s mother shook her finger at Lyria. “Young lady, you are the one who fails to understand. Not using all that you can of the beast that you kill is wasteful and an insult to the Creator and Creatrix. And it would be rude in the extreme to refuse the gift after your aunt and uncle went to the effort of having it tanned so nicely. And to replace the dress.”

“I’ll write a thank you letter this afternoon, Ma’am.”

“Good. And you’ll be pleased to know that—”

The rumble of a transport and the sound of poly-wood and metal breaking as the vehicle snagged the gate and ripped loose a section of fence half the length of the garden drowned out her words.

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

 

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