Emmett struggled to live on Autumn, a vibrant planet done in oranges, golds, yellows, and browns.
Unfortunately humans faced severe challenges with surviving, having not adapted to the environment. The other humans survived in the artificial environment of the TerraSphere.
Engineers modified the native Skreeches, changing their eggs to produce enzymes that allowed humanity to digest local vegetation.
Without those eggs Emmett wouldn’t last. The eggs represented his best hope for survival.
Second Sun hung low above the golden hills to the South when Emmett pulled open the cabin door and walked out onto the dried sponge wood porch rubbing his eyes. It’d be another hour before First Sun rose but he couldn’t wait that long. The weasels hunted this hour. Wait any longer and there’d be no eggs at all and he fancied an omelet. Scrambled eggs. Hard-boiled. It didn’t matter. He’d eat them any way he could get them. Assuming he beat the weasels to the eggs. He didn’t even like the eggs, but without the eggs, he couldn’t digest most of what his crops produced. Without the eggs, he’d starve. And he’d be damned if he let the weasels get them first.
Of course, the weasels weren’t really weasels, not Terran weasels at least, but convergent evolution made them close enough to be called weasels. If weasels grew to twenty pounds and hunted in packs. Emmett lifted the rifle he held and checked it one more time. Loaded. Spare ammunition clip in his belt. Egg case strapped to his back. Water bladder beneath that. Good enough.
Emmett closed the cabin door and pulled the handle to slide the bar into place just in case any weasels came across the cabin. Curious creatures but not the brightest. He’d never seen a weasel that could push the handle up and slide it back to open the door. All the windows were already shuttered. The cabin should be secure while he was out. He walked on out down the steps. Dirt puffed up around his feet and he smelled that ginger scent that came from the microorganisms in the soil. He pulled up his mask and looked out as his land. Right around the cabin was his farmstead. Raised garden beds growing food crops. All oranges, yellows, and reds. Fall colors. Native Autumn plants. Nothing Terran grew on Autumn despite the best genetech attempts. Best they’d been able to do was modify the skreeches to produce eggs full of enzymes that helped humans digest Autumn foods.
He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and turned around to look down the lane that led up towards town. A person ran towards him. Small stature, baseball cap, and an orange hunting vest. Jolene. She’d actually made it. She waved at him. He waited, gun cradled over the crook of his arm.
Jolene came to a stop and bent over, breathing hard through her face mask. “Whew. You haven’t left yet!”
“Heading out now.”
She nodded and straightened up. Her mask covered her mouth and nose but did nothing to hide her smooth tanned skin or gray eyes. “Did you forget that you said I could come along?”
Emmett shook his head. “Nope, but it’s time. I couldn’t wait. If you’re coming, come on.”
He turned and headed out between his garden beds, heading towards the braided fence and the golden fields past his yard. It’d have been better to go without Jolene. But she was right. He did say that she could come along. As Terran biologists went she was better than some. Didn’t try to tell him what to do. He got to the braided fence and climbed over into the field. Snap beetles went off like firecrackers. Each crack of their shells sending them tumbling in small ballistic arcs through the spine grass. Pogo mice, alerted by the snap beetles, twittered as they dived for their burrows.
Jolene climbed over the fence behind him. The first time they’d gone out he’d expected her to say something about the noise and activity that their presence caused, but she hadn’t. She stuck close and didn’t say anything. He appreciated her silence. It helped him hear. Not that he heard anything over the noise but he listened to the pattern of the noise. One large animal moving through the spine grass caused a certain sort of ruckus. Two nearby animals moving caused a different pattern of sound. That’s what he wanted to hear. Anything like a weasel moving off through the spine grass or a skreech. He didn’t expect to find any so close but there were other things to be alert to.
His course took them through the spine grass fields towards the sponge wood groves to the west. He followed the same path he’d taken before to avoid breaking off more of the spines. Spine grass wasn’t really a grass. More of a mossy sort of ground cover that sent up spines that released spores. It took time for the spines to grow back. He kept to the same path to minimize the damage. Jolene stuck right behind him. Not too close, but she didn’t stray.
They kept going, out past the creek where he’d hung a braided bridge across the gully, all the way up to the sponge wood grove. According to biologists, the trees weren’t trees in the Terran sense, more of a mushroom, but not that either. The whole plant soaked up rainfall and stored it for the dry months when both suns were high in the sky. Dried out and sealed they made a light-weight strong lumber. Living, they looked like giant coral taken from the bottom of a Terran seabed. A two-dimension red-skinned fan that reached up towards the sky, flat edges facing skyward to maximize the area for rain collection.
The grove also happened to be a favored spot for the skreeches to build their communal nest. They’d pick a defensible spot. Something along the ridge with stone to help ward the nest against the weasels. Much of the ground cover in the grove consisted of puff gourds anchored in the trunks of the sponge wood and spreading out like a sickly yellow wedding gown around each tree. Each step sent clouds of spores into the air. Emmett checked his mask. The spores could cause all sorts of respiratory problems if inhaled. Just another one of the hazards in egg collecting. He reached a granite outcrop and stopped for a rest, pulling down his mask so that he could drink. Jolene dropped on a boulder next to him. When she pulled down her mask he saw she was as fine featured as he remembered. Somehow he’d been sure that it’d only been his imagination, but the evidence was clear. She was a beautiful woman. No question about that.
“Do you mind if I ask a question?”
Emmett shook his head. He pulled the hose around from his water bladder and took a long drink. The water was still cool in the bladder. It chilled his parched throat. He drank deeply.
“How come you live off-grid? Why not move into town?”
“And depend on hydroponics? Canned or frozen imports? We do that and we’ll never be part of this world. Our society is always going to be restricted, limited.”
“But the only way you have to live off-grid now are the eggs and the enzymes they contain. Doesn’t that limit growth?”
“I see it as a temporary adaptation.” Emmett looked out at the valley below. From this point, he could see the red slopes of the sponge wood grave, the golden spine grass fields beyond. The spark of reflected light in the distance came from his solar array. “Someday we’ll figure out how to adapt ourselves to this world. It’s only a matter of will. If there was enough interest it would have already happened.”
“But doesn’t that say it, there isn’t enough will? People still aren’t comfortable changing the human genome.”
“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to live on this world, or probably any others. Like any organism, we have to adapt. The early work done with the skreeches answered some of the questions. We just have to follow it up.”
A sound like an over-stressed hull screamed through the morning air. Emmett snapped his water hose back into place. “Skreeches. Come on, the nest is going to be higher up.”
He pulled his mask up into place and climbed up past the boulders back onto the soft covering of the puff gourds. A swarm of sponge hoppers flung themselves from a nearby sponge wood trunk and floated downhill towards another target. Their brilliant blue wings caught the Second Sun’s light as they glided in formation. Jolene caught up with him and followed in his footsteps. He tried not to think about her without her mask. And her talk of going back to town. That wasn’t the way, he knew that. It didn’t mean that he couldn’t be tempted. Except there was a whole world waiting for them and they couldn’t ever claim that by living under domes in artificial Terran environments.
Another skreech call split the air. More answered it and together they sounded like a hull undergoing catastrophic failure. Depressurization. Metal tearing. Air hissing out in a whistling cry.
Emmett pushed back memories and kept climbing. He reached a sponge wood tree leaning out of the slope. He stopped and turned around to Jolene. “Wait here. I’m going up to see if I can spot the nest.”
He pulled off his pack, setting the egg case and water bladder down at the base of the trunk. He turned and ran at the sponge wood trunk. It gave a little beneath his feet when he hit. He grabbed the sides of the wide surface and climbed up it. He had to hang beneath the first branch and swing his legs up around the branch, then climb up onto the surface. Bit by bit he made his way up as high as he dared. Limbs too small would tear beneath his weight. One of the hazards at the bottom of a gravity well but better than falling free up above. In the dark. Watching as your partner floated just out of reach. Falling in slow motion. Such a small gap. Sometimes the math didn’t work. A fingers-breath could be as fatal as a fall from this height. Just that much.
Better here. He didn’t have to worry about the air running out at least. The skreeches kept producing eggs. Enough to keep him going out here. Free to walk on his own two feet the same way humans had walked for millions of years. Long before they’d ever figured out how to fly.
From his pocket, he took out his binoculars. Flipped them open and slipped them on. Squinting or opening his eyes wider controlled the zoom. It didn’t take him long to find the skreeches. They’d gone back to the split. Higher up on the ridge, just down from the peak. The whole area’d been cleared after a lightning storm fire had burned off the ground cover and boiled the sponge wood, leaving the entire slope covered in hard chunks of blackened sponge wood. Smatterings of red showed where new sponge wood trees were growing up through the debris. There was still so much that he didn’t know about the lifecycle of the trees.
The skreeches had constructed the communal nest in the cleft of two big boulders on the ridge. Right there in the split. He saw their big yellow bodies moving across the debris field. One would run out from the nest, grab a chunk of hard sponge wood in its tiny front arms and then it’d run full tilt back up to the nest. It was like a relay team. While one set its contribution into place in the wall another was running out to grab a new piece. Still others carried back chunks of fresh sponge wood and handed it over to the stompers. It was the job of the stompers to stomp the water out of the sponge wood and mix it with dirt. Daubers gathered the mud and mortared the dried sponge wood into the wall. Squeezed sponge wood got kicked out onto the slope to dry in the light of the suns.
Looked like they’d made a lot of progress on the wall already. Behind the barrier a skreech rose up, yellow-throated neck turned towards the heavens. The scream that split the air signaled another egg laid. Did it hurt? Was that why they screamed? He had no idea.
He noticed movement below him to his left. He looked down, binoculars automatically refocusing on the nearby foreground objects. Jolene climbing up onto the sponge wood. But she’d gone out on an over-extended limb. Wide enough to look safe, but too long. Limbs like that broke off in storms. Or under the weight of biologists that didn’t know better.
Emmett tore off his binoculars. “Stop!”
“They are building a structure,” Jolene said. He saw she was wearing her own binoculars. “It’s amazing –”
“Jolene! Stop! Go back. That branch can’t support you!”
He looked back along its length. He found the pale pink line indicating a tear forming right where he expected. “Hurry up! It’s tearing!”
Emmett started back down the trunk. No way he could get there in time. He saw Jolene moving at least. She’d listened. The branch she’d climbed shook. She wobbled and nearly fell but then caught her balance and sat down on the limb. She scooted down the length. He dropped down onto a solid limb and swung around. Going faster than he’d ordinarily go.
The limb she’d climbed dipped and shook. Outer limbs started to tear from the stresses. He didn’t know if she’d make it. Then she slid past the rapidly growing tear and reached the main trunk. The limb tore with a wet gushing and arterial water sprayed up into the air. The branch fell, tearing itself apart as it crumbled to the ground. Water splashed out from the pieces and ran through the puff gourds. Jolene made it to the ground and Emmett climbed down moments later. Puff gourd dust kicked up by the pieces falling.
“Are you okay?”
Jolene nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d overloaded the branch. I hate that I broke it like that.”
“Don’t worry about it. The limbs grow too long and break off sooner or later from their weight. It’s just the way the sponge wood develops. I think it’s also a factor in the reproduction cycle. We should move up the slope, out of the spores and dust.”
Emmett picked up his gear. Shouldered the egg case and moved out. Jolene kept up with him. It’d take another half-hour at least to get close enough to the skreeches to set the egg raid in motion. So far they’d been lucky with the timing. The nest wasn’t finished and the weasels hadn’t come yet. Once the skreeches finished fortifying the nest neither he or the weasels would be able to get at the eggs. They’d be secure. And he’d starve. Or have to give up his land. That wasn’t really an option.
The place he planned to strike from was downwind of the skreeches, partially sheltered by a couple smaller boulders. Skreeches used it in the past as an egg site but the more exposed position made it more difficult to defend. A knee-high broken wall of dried sponge wood and mud still stood between the boulders in a wide ring on the hillside. Skreeches dug out the floor into a bowl-shape, making it even deeper. A puddle of water filled most of the bowl but he still had enough dry land behind the wall to set up.
Jolene ran her fingers across the old wall. “Look at the craftsmanship, the way the pieces interlock. It’s fascinating.”
“Nothing that birds on Earth haven’t done.”
“But these aren’t birds, despite the feathers and eggs.”
“No, they’re more like feathered dinosaurs,” Emmett said.
Jolene shook her head. “We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are Terran organisms. We have to go all the way back to the beginning and really look at what we’re seeing here. Are these walls instinctual or learned? I understand that there have been markings cut into sponge wood pieces at some sites?”
Emmett stared at her. He’d been a fool. Let a pair of pretty eyes cloud his judgment. She was one of those. “The survey team ruled out intelligence in their study of the skreeches. That’s why they were given the go-ahead to work on the eggs.”
“That decision is being reevaluated.”
“Which is why you wanted to come out here with me? To gather information for this reevaluation?”
“Yes.” She said it quickly and looked away.
Emmett crawled up to the wall. He brought up his rifle and looked through the sights at the skreeches’ new dwelling. They’d gotten the wall up to waist height already. A head rose up above the wall from the center and another awful sound split the air. It couldn’t be long now. The weasels would be coming soon. He needed to get his eggs and get out of the area. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught in the middle of it all.
“Just don’t get in my way,” he said. He brought the rifle up and prepared to shoot.
Jolene’s hand fell on his arm. “Don’t.”
He looked at her hand. “What choice do I have?”
“Is it worth the chance? What if they are intelligent?”
Emmett shook his head.
“I’ve seen dried sponge wood boards with what looks like cuneiform writing. There is an organization to it.”
“They don’t keep anything. They don’t carry anything. The marks they make are nothing but nest decoration.”
“So you’ve seen it?”
Of course he had. He lived out here. He hunted their eggs. He probably knew more about the skreeches than anyone. Enough to know that no matter how clever they seemed they were nothing but big birds with toothy snouts instead of beaks. Weren’t they?
“If I don’t get those eggs I won’t be able to eat my crops. I’d have to go back to the Terrasphere or starve.”
She still had her hand on his arm. She squeezed gently. “Would it be so bad back in the Terrasphere? With your experience, you could greatly increase our understanding of life on this planet.”
Movement caught his eye. Shit. Too late. And they were too early. “Weasels.”
Emmett scrambled around Jolene and braced the rifle on the remains of the skreeches’ old wall. The weasels came running up the ridge. They were long and covered in slick brown feathers that changed to orange at the ends rather than fur. Four times the size of a Terran weasel. The pack charging up the hill had to number forty to fifty animals.
“Land piranhas.” He clicked off the safety. “When hunting they’ll fall on anything they come across, including us.”
Jolene crouched beside him. “If we got in the water, would it stop them?”
He shook his head. “They’re excellent swimmers.”
Every few seconds one of the charging weasels would stop, stand up and look ahead. Long faces filled with sharp razor-edged teeth. Emmett carried scars from a weasel attack on his leg and that had been a solitary animal. One weasel stood, looked right at him and a clear warbling whistle rang out. The entire pack changed direction like a school of fish and headed towards the old skreech nest.
“What do we do?”
“Fight.” Emmett brought up the rifle to his shoulder. Auto-tracking locked onto the closest weasel. He fired.
The bullet caught the weasel between the eyes. Flipped it back into the back. Shrill whistles like dozens of police whistles rang out from the pack. He’d gotten them angry now. No time to worry about that.
Fired. Another down. Again and again. The shots rang through the air and in answer the weasels whistled back angrily and kept coming on. Every shot hit. Every shot took out another weasel but they had the numbers.
“We have to retreat.” Emmett stood. Sighted on the next weasel and fired.
Jolene got up and moved back. Emmett worked his way backward, still shooting. Seeing them move the weasels sent out several more warbling whistles. The pack split like a river around a boulder and became two arms reaching around the ridge to sweep up everything in its path. He kept shooting but they had to stay out of those arms or the pack would fall on them in a second.
“We have to move up the ridge.”
“But that will take us up to the skreech nest.”
Emmett fired, brought down another weasel. “I know. Maybe the weasels will be more interested in them. If we can get past the skreeches we might get away.”
Jolene turned and ran up the slope towards the nest. Emmett lowered the rifle and followed. He stopped after a bit, turned and brought another weasel down. Two more. Ran. Stopped to bring more down. Turned to run again.
Up ahead the skreeches gathered about the nest and in the nest. They’d seen what was coming. Emmett turned. Fired. Another weasel tumbled through the puff gourd dust. A piece of dried sponge wood sailed past his ear. Jolene cried out.
He turned, ducked as another piece flew at his head. The skreeches were throwing the dried sponge wood. Another missile hit the ground near his feet. That was a rock! Much more effective than dried sponge wood. It’d hurt. Indeed Jolene rubbed her shoulder.
Emmett dropped to his knees facing downslope and fired. One. Two. Three little dead weasels. He rose and ran at the skreeches. He expected a rain of wood and rocks, but that was better than letting the weasels get closer. Instead, the skreeches held their fire. Jolene slowed. He caught up to her and they ran up to the nest together. He was sure that Jolene had never been so close to living adult skreeches. Up close they stood as tall as he did. Those nearest shuffled their clawed feet nervously but their attention was on the approaching weasels.
“They aren’t attacking us anymore,” Jolene whispered.
“Good for us.” Emmett grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the nest. “Get in.”
Skreeches made gulping noises deep in their throats when they got close to the nest but did nothing to stop them. Jolene walked through the one gap the skreeches had left in the wall. Emmett followed. Dark green eggs, each as large as his fist filled the bowl-shaped floor. A half-dozen fat, egg-laden skreeches crouched around the eggs and hissed at him.
“I’m not going for them right now,” he muttered. He turned back to the wall, braced the rifle.
Auto-lock. Fired. Weasel whistles grew more shrill. The pincers of the pack began closing in on the nest. Skreeches pelted the oncoming weasels with wood and stone. Their aim wasn’t great but given the pack’s close quarters many were hit and injured. He kept firing until his clip ran out. He ejected and reloaded.
Sheer numbers carried the pack right up to the nest even though they’d left a trail of dead and injured weasels behind. Probably twenty healthy weasels reached the nest. In close quarters the skreeches put their powerful legs to work. He watched one catch weasel leaping at the nest wall with one clawed foot. A quick clench of those powerful toes crushed the life from the weasel. Others simply kicked them, shattering their bones. Emmett had a harder time getting a lock in the crowded conditions but he fired when he got the chance.
A weasel made it over the wall until Jolene clubbed it with a piece of sponge wood.
Then a loud shrill whistle cut through the racket and the remaining weasels, no more than a dozen, turned and fled the nest area. Emmett lowered his gun. No need to kill more if they were leaving. He slowly stood and looked at the skreeches. They watched him warily. Did they remember his past raids? No way he could get to the eggs under these conditions. He didn’t even know if he wanted to any more.
“We’re going,” he said softly. He eased towards the gap in the nest wall. Jolene followed. The skreeches parted to let them leave.
He didn’t feel safer until they’d gotten some distance from the nest. Then he broke the silence. “I’m not going to be able to stay out here without those eggs.”
“We could use your help in the Terrasphere,” Jolene said. “After my report the skreeches’ status will be reevaluated. You could help us.”
Emmett nodded. “I’d like that. I don’t know if they’re intelligent or not, but I want to stick around until we can figure out a way for us to adapt to this planet.”
Jolene took his arm. “I’d like that too.”
He hoped that they’d make it work. There were so many unknowns. Could they adapt or not? Either way, he couldn’t wait to find out.
This story is the 100th short story release, written in April 2010.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.