Once Siris reached semi-level ground he started jogging with both hands on the gun to keep it from bouncing too much, but quickly had to slow to a fast walk when the jungle-like vegetation became too thick for him to navigate quickly. The pace made him feel vulnerable, but he decided to focus his extra nervous energy on his surroundings instead. He watched the ground in front of him when he could see it, and the ferns when he couldn’t.
His imagination ran wild with him a time or two, making him think that the plants swayed and parted as they had when the giant snake came for its meal in the clearing. He’d stopped each time and stumbled back in fear until Cato came into view, practically smiling at Siris’ fear.
“I’ve got to put a bell on you or something,” Cato just licked himself. “How far do you think we’ve come?” Siris pulled out the tablet and looked at the map. There were no satellites around this planet so their blinking location dot had ‘approximate’ in red under it, effectively transferring any liability to Siris if he got lost. He frowned and mopped his brow. 2.4 miles.
It seemed extremely low and he cursed, remembering that Ross 128-b had 1.35g of earth. Meaning that it was about 1.35 times the size of earth, so its gravitational pull would be greater. Somehow, when the instructors had talked about how this would affect the colonists, they hadn’t adequately portrayed the true impact to his mind's eye. He’d imagined that maybe he’d feel a little more tired, or a little less strong, but since he’d woken, he had felt weak. Pathetic almost.
Their bodies had been here for such a long time, shouldn’t they have been accustomed to it already? He sighed and put the tablet away.
He supposed that he should be grateful that after such a long sleep he still had any muscle tone at all. The electro-therapy had apparently functioned the entire time, or he would have been a shriveled shadow of himself. A picture, not long banished, flashed in his mind, and he pushed it away forcefully. His father would have laughed at how he complained to himself.
“Given all that you have been blessed with, you still find reason to be sad?” Richard Tarek had been a glass-half-full kind of guy. Sometimes it annoyed Siris how he could be so up-beat and happy when the only thing that separated him from the shareholders was missing the investment deadline by three hours. Richard had been a poor college student when the CSM was formed and requested open-sourced resources for its venture and it had taken him weeks of cajoling and compromise to convince his new wife to spare some of their meager funds for a wild new investment. He hadn’t known that there would be a cut-off to the opportunity, and so he was shocked when his tiny investment had been rejected.
Between a different couple, the investment would have been a sticking point, but not for Molly and Richard Tarek. They made light of their bad luck and no grudges were held for any failures on either of their parts. The story had been told and joked over for so many years that it had become an odd sense of pride for Siris. His parents were fine without the money. He was fine without it. And when things were hard, he just had to laugh and move on, but his personality sometimes chafed at the optimism he had been raised to exhibit. Sometimes he just wanted to scream obscenities at the clouds and bask in self pity, but his father’s voice would not allow it.
The shadows were as long as they ever were on Ross 128-b but they looked more insistent, more reflective of his own fatigue. If he didn’t know better he would have assumed that it was time to bed down for the night, not a mere hour and a half from when he’d set out.
He sighed again and took a drink from his water bag.
“If this planet doesn’t kill us off, I’ll be surprised. We weren’t meant for this world,” the dark thoughts had finally surfaced and hearing his own negativity out loud sounded harsh and his father’s voice chastised him again. He decided to refocus his thoughts and as they seemed to more and more of late, they drifted to Iris. She seemed like a different person than she was when he’d first met her. Maybe the harshness of this place had sanded down some of the roughness in her.
She seemed more accepting of him as…an equal. Well, not an equal maybe, but he didn’t blame her for holding herself above others because…she was. He smiled at himself.
“Maybe this place isn’t so bad,” he said, and knelt down to scratch Cato’s head.
A breeze kicked up and the vegetation around him conversed in a chorus of whispered rustles. Something white among the swirling forest detritus that carpeted the ground caught his eye. It was partially hidden under a low branch and he had to reach for it. The half-buried rock was smooth under his fingers and it took a few tries to get a good enough grip to pry the thing loose of the soil, but when he did he saw that it wasn’t a stone. It was a skull…and it looked very human.
He dropped it, stood, and wiped his hand on his shirt, disgusted. Cato sniffed at it but lost interest and began making a circuit of the area instead. Siris’ mind ran wild with questions, but none of them had an answer. He squatted next to the skull and picked it up again, his disgust overcome by curiosity. He saw now that it wasn’t human, but humanoid.
Its jaw was bigger, bulky and the teeth were longer, sharper and scarier. If the teeth were on some animal skull they wouldn’t have been out of place or nearly as frightening, however, seeing them on the human-like skull sent a shiver down Siris’ spine.
Cato barked and Siris nearly screamed. He dropped the skull and stood. He put his hands on the comforting UTS 15 but didn’t lift it. He searched for Cato among the brush, east, according to the tablet, and only saw leaves and branches snapping back into place where something had been moments before.
“Cato,” he called, though his voice didn’t rise above a harsh whisper. The long shadows and half-gloom that perpetually plagued this planet now felt more ominous than ever. But why should the discovery of a humanoid’s presence on Ross 128-b make it seem more dangerous to him all of a sudden. Maybe because a giant snake didn’t use logic like he feared this human-like creature could. The tale of human existence on earth was proof that superior cognition was more valuable than brute strength, and if this new species deemed them a threat, he and the rest of the humans would be helpless to stop it. Nearly helpless.
He lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and scanned along its top rail for the threats that his sixth sense told him were there.
Siris set off in the direction that he thought Cato had gone in. He pushed through a tangle of creepers and ferns and saw the dog thirty feet beyond.
“Cato,” his whisper made the dog’s haunches jump, but Cato’s massive head was fixed on something in the distance. Siris went to him while continually scanning along the readied barrel of the shotgun at anything that threatened. Something had Cato’s attention and it would be stupid of him to ignore that. He knelt next to the big Cane Corso. Cato flinched and glanced at Siris as if his sudden appearance had startled him, but he quickly returned his gaze on the distant foliage. He flipped up an optic. When he’d found it, the thing had said that it was a digital scope and rangefinder, and even though he was sure it was meant for a much more accurate long-range weapon, he’d affixed it to the rail of his shotgun anyway. He was glad he did now. He searched the shadows below the swaying branches but didn’t see anything.
Finally, after searching for five, anxiety-filled minutes, Siris lowered the gun.
“Let’s get out of here.” The dog hesitated, but then followed after him when he stood and began jogging away along their original course.
Siris didn’t know if it was the adrenaline that the discovery of the skull pumped into him or the feeling of eyes watching him as he scrambled through the jungle, but something had lent their journey renewed vigor, and he and Cato made faster progress. Their next break saw them 7.5 miles closer to the proposed search area which put them at about the halfway mark, but Siris was exhausted and judging from how Cato laid down instead of making his usual investigation of every new spot, he was too.
There had been puddles and rivulets along the way that Cato drank from so Siris didn’t bother pouring some of his water out for the dog. The breeze had steadily increased and would now be classified in Siris’ brain as wind. The wind didn’t concern him as much as the scudding clouds that had gone from few and spread apart to one massive wall that billowed from the north-east. They were far from any known shelter and he didn’t want to get stranded in a storm, especially if the lizard dragons liked to hunt during them tempests as all evidence seemed to suggest. He hadn’t seen any of those creatures since that night, and he wasn’t excited to see one again, especially after what happened to Peter’s leg.
He thought of Peter and Iris and all the things that had happened since they’d woken. It had been a nightmare in general, and yet he felt almost comforted at times, like it would all be okay, like it was meant to be. He leaned his head back against the tree trunk that he sat next to and cradled the shotgun in his lap.
In the slight shelter of the plants around him and as close to the ground as he was, the wind seemed a distant thing and was almost relaxing. He jerked awake, suddenly aware that he’d been asleep, but for how long, there was no way to tell, other than the fact that the wind had now become a storm by his reckoning. The wind bellowed and branches creaked dangerously. Cato was awake and sat tired, yet nervous, next to him. Siris could feel the dogs muscles tense and relax at the fury of the nature around them.
“Come on. We’d better try and find a place to hide out,” Siris said, and stood.
He continued in the direction of their goal, just because there was no point not making progress while they looked for shelter. It was harder going, just because the wind blew dust into his eyes and pressed sudden gusts against them that nearly tossed him to the ground. Lightning struck, maybe a mile away and sent brilliance through the sky behind the trees ahead of him. Until then he hadn’t realized just how dark it had gotten.
He and Cato trotted along a depression in the ground that seemed mostly clear of the thick vegetation that hampered normal travel on this planet. All of a sudden a creature flitted past Siris on his left and he jerked his gun up at the movement, but lowered it again. It was a kind of bird like an emu maybe, tall and gangly but obviously flightless. It ran past with incredible speed, but with that exception, the bird looked somewhat helpless, and Siris was a little heartened to finally see something less fearsome than himself. Cato gave an obligatory bark, but there was no hope for him to catch the bird so he kept close to Siris. The flightless bird had black, brown, and green feathers that would help it camouflage, but Siris could still see it sprint ahead down the dark almost-path in the forest.
If this creature could survive in this world, then maybe there was hope for humans after all. Siris came to a skidding halt when a tree cracked in the wind ahead of him and half of it split off and landed heavily on the bird. It disappeared under the heavy branches and leaves, but Siris was sure it was dead.
He almost laughed. Or cried. He wasn’t sure, and a part of him said that his vacillating emotions were caused by his fatigue, but he didn’t have time to self-diagnose. He approached the broken tree and almost scrambled over it, but spotted a deep hole where the broken half of the tree had been. He went to it and saw that it was surprisingly deep, delving into the earth, creating an alcove where the torn up roots had been. He climbed into it and decided that this would have to be it.
He put the dog whistle that hung around his neck to his lips and blew until Cato’s dark form appeared at the opening. The dog whined a little, but climbed into the scary dark hole with him.
Siris was aware of the situation.
If the Tree above them decided to go the way of its broken half its roots would fling them into the air upon its submission to the wind. Or there was the water that he was sure would come. It hadn’t started yet, but it would come, wouldn’t it? There was so much he didn’t know about this planet. He wished for a book to read about it that would help him make sense of all of this, but he knew that the desire was ridiculous. He propped the shotgun in front of him, pointing it at the opening to their small cavern in case something came searching for an easy meal, and despite his fear, his eyes closed.