Cato was asleep with his legs flopped off the edge of the seat and his head crammed in the corner against the passenger-side door at an odd angle. His tongue lolled out like he was dead but he snored loudly, reassuring Siris that he still lived. The poor dog had obviously been through a lot and was trying to recover from exhaustion. The cramped bed and the jouncing hab did little to hinder Cato’s slumber.
Despite the rugged, tree-riddled, terrain, the hab made relatively good time as Siris cleared a road back to Iris and Peter. The roadmaker drone was invaluable and had made almost constant trips back and forth to the hab, reloading its explosive charges to assault obstruction after stubborn obstruction.
Siris brought up the drone’s status screen to check its battery life. It was at thirty-two percent and according to the imagery from the Samsara’s database, he was still five miles from home.
After leaving the Russian village, he had turned right and hugged the ridge rather than attempt the steep climb out of the valley. He had judged his new path a less direct, yet far easier route for the hab. The river swept past him on the right but the ridge on his left had been transformed into a series of tree-covered hills and pinnacles that were so steep that only bare rock would be seen. It was through that maze of mounds and spires that the Samsara rested.
He angled the hab in that direction and blazed a trail past the first few hills. The roadmaker had just set some det-cord around a gnarled trunk when massive jaws came out of the shadows and clamped around the drone. If it hadn’t been for the black and yellow striped titanium cage that protected the drone from the hazards of its work the machine would have been obliterated in that first bite. As it was, the drone’s status screen flashed red and an alarm sounded inside the cab, waking Cato.
The creature, who’s territory the roadmaker had entered uninvited, stepped out from behind the twisted tree. It was…a dinosaur.
Well, not a dinosaur that Siris recognized from earth, but it looked like it could have easily been at home in his old picture book he’d had as a kid. The one with the dino’s name and a little blurb about each underneath. Names like Tyrannosaurus and pterodactyl.
This creature was just as big as he imagined a triceratops but had no horns. Instead, the thing had massive tusks that jutted from under its jaw and a snout resembling the much smaller Komodo dragon look-a-likes of this world. Its tail was long and had scary spines. Cato growled, but thankfully didn’t bark.
The thing thrashed its head back and forth angrily, then threw the now unresponsive drone twenty feet away. Siris decided that he’d name this thing Jerkasaurus Rex.
He shifted the hab into reverse and slowly backed the thing back down the primitive road a ways until he felt confident that Jerkasaurus Rex wouldn’t charge. He’d transitioned the hab’s propulsion to electric after it was clear that the giant batteries under the vehicle were taking a charge from both the hydrogen fuel cells and the solar panels atop the unit and the massive vehicle was blissfully quiet as he retreated.
Siris cautiously got out and Cato followed. He looked around at the small valley that the hab now commanded. It was well hidden between two steep-sided hills, but it wasn’t the best location for the long term. He imagined putting the thing atop one of the hills to allow them the advantage of defensibility, especially with the presence of the Rossian threat. Without the roadmaker this was about as good as he could get though.
He went around to the rear and detached the large trailer with the buggy and used the trolley motor to move it out of the way of the hab.
He stepped well clear, making sure that no tusked dinosaurs stared at him from the shadows, and pulled his tablet from his backpack. He accessed the hab’s systems and pressed the ‘deploy’ button. For a few seconds nothing happened and he almost pressed it again, being used to instant tactile gratification when it came to electronics, but the hiss and whine of old hydraulics started up and long metal arms unfolded from under the vehicle. They extended out and down, lifting the hab off the ground as the arms automatically leveled the entire machine.
It took close to an hour, but Siris watched the entire process, captivated by the ancient mechanics of the thing. Gray walls unfolded, and the roof extended. A communications tower sprouted from the top and solar panels trapped what little light the hills and trees let through.
At the end of the process, Siris was grinning from ear to ear. He had anticipated having to work on the thing to get a full deployment, but was ecstatic that he didn’t have to. When the green light flashed on his tablet marking the hab’s completed deployment Siris jogged to the main door and entered.
The engineers hadn’t put any more thought to aesthetics on the inside than the outside and he was meeted with a gray and white interior, but it looked clean and new, and entirely too beautiful to be believed. He danced and laughed around the inside of the hab which excited Cato and the dog barked and did his best to participate in Siris’ pleasure.
Siris sat in one of the utilitarian cushioned seats against one of the walls and crooned. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed this basic luxury and he slid down like he did on the couch of his long-ago home on earth. Cato climbed up on a chair next to him and rested his big head on the rest between them. Siris’ hand went to his head and scratched instinctively.
Cato fell asleep again almost instantly, but Siris was too energized to sleep and after lounging for only fifteen minutes his stomach grumbled. He went to the small kitchen area of the hab and prayed that it had better food stuff options than had been available on the Samsara.
It did, and in another fifteen minutes Cato awoke to the smell of rehydrated powdered eggs and milk. The fact that this food retained any smell at all was a good sign, but when he heated the eggs over the induction stovetop and the actual smell of fried eggs wafted to his nostrils, he crooned. Cato looked equally excited and shifted his weight from foot to foot as he stared expectantly at Siris.
They ate like two wild animals and when they were done, Siris sat on the cushioned chair again and sighed contentedly. He wanted to sleep like Cato, who had drifted off yet again, but despite his relative comfort, he was worried. Thoughts of Iris and Peter crowded any notion of sleep to the back of his head. He wondered why he was so attached to them already.
It wasn’t like he was really friends with them. How could he be after only a few days? Then he imagined Iris’ beautiful face and he remembered why he was so attached. He blushed at his own ridiculousness and went in search of a weapon.
After searching the hab he finally consulted his tablet. The arms locker was next to the heavy exterior door he’d come in, and he had to admit it was probably the smartest location for it.
Two UTS 15 shotguns, three hand-guns and one giant sniper rifle filled the inside. Ammunition for the small arsenal was stacked in shelves below the weapons. Siris cleaned and readied a UTS 15 and packed extra ammo for it in his pack, then, on a whim, decided to strap a hand-gun to his thigh, having learned his lesson when the Rossian had disarmed him before.
The meat in his pack had begun to stink so he pulled it out and threw it in the recycler under the kitchen sink. He didn’t know exactly what the recycler would do with biological waste, but he hoped it was going to good use and not just dumping it outside the hab where it would attract every dragon lizard in the area.
The stink from the meat persisted on the inside of his pack. He swore and emptied it out on the floor in front of the arms locker. Siris stood for a minute looking down at his supplies with hands on his hips, thinking. He decided that there had to be replacement equipment in here somewhere, so he set out looking for it.
He found a closet that was generously named the ‘equipment room’ filled with tactical style clothing and gear all of which had been vacuum sealed in clear plastic bags with labels on the fronts. He disrobed right there in the tiny room and began to try on the clothes, most of which were too big for him, but being naked made him realize how dirty and…well, stinky, he was. He walked naked down the hall to where he remembered the bathroom was located from the plans on his tablet. A compact poly-resin shower base was in the corner and when Siris stepped in a display brightened in front of him. He was reminded of the car wash that his dad would visit from time to time with their old Buick.
The display asked for his preferred temperature settings. He didn’t know since he didn’t have one of these fancy showers at home. He wasn’t a shareholder after all. He just hit a number in the mid-range and gasped when the water shot out of the spout above his head. He’d expected it to have to take time to warm up, but his body relaxed as the perfect shower experience enveloped him.
He wanted to stay in the water forever, and forget about the outside troubles, but he knew that he should restrict his water consumption, as did the computer. The display flashed a timer on the screen that counted down, presumably, until it cut him off. He didn’t let it have the satisfaction, but turned it off with a minute thirty-three left on the timer. He opened a cupboard door and pulled out a vacuum-sealed towel.
Feeling better, he walked back down the hall to the equipment room where he dressed in full tactical gear. He even snapped a light helmet to his head. This planet was every bit as dangerous as the planners had anticipated. He re-strapped the pistol to his thigh and filled a new black back-pack with his supplies.
Finally, after feeling a lot like the mouse and the glass of milk, he was ready to go.
Cato stirred from his restful slumber when he came back into the living room/dining room area. He stretched then sat on his haunches and looked up at Siris with as much expectation in his eyes as Siris had ever seen. His little tale wagged.
“I guess if you’re ready we should get going.”
The dog jumped to his feet and danced to the door as if they were just going for a walk. Siris wished he could feel as excited about facing Ross 128 b in all its glory once again, instead he stilled his trembling hand before forcing it to open the door.
Siris stalked out of the hab, gun at the ready. Cato must have sensed his seriousness because he calmed enough to creep silently forward, hunting rather than playing.
Siris went to the detached trailer and climbed up to the buggy. He unhooked the chains that secured the vehicle to the trailer and then climbed inside. He lifted the dog whistle to his lips and called Cato to him. The dog must have ridden in vehicles before, because he didn’t need any coaxing to jump into the passenger’s seat. He looked comically large and yet child-like as he surveyed his surroundings from his new perch. Siris started the electric motor and put the buggy in gear.
He reversed down the back of the trailer which rocked back as he did, forming its own steep ramp. This was a whole new experience for Siris. He’d never driven something so fast and responsive and when they bounced off the ramp, his heart jumped, but then he smiled over at Cato.
“I think I’m going to like this.” Cato seemed to agree.
He turned the wheel and slowly pressed on the gas pedal. The almost silent engine rocketed them forward, the knobby tires chewing up the soft ground. He decided to go well around where he’d seen the Jerk dinosaur and turned left at the next intersection of steep hills. Despite the dense foliage he was able to navigate along bare paths made by Ross’s diverse animal life until he judged he was well past the Jerkasaurus’ territory.
He corrected his course and came up on the rear of the hill where he calculated the front half of the Samsara rested. He braked to a stop. The ever-present twilight seemed more oppressive than normal, and Siris hesitated before navigating a passage through the thick foliage off to his right.
He didn’t want to go to his left because that was the direction the cave with the whiny shareholders was in. Something told him not to go around to the front of the hill. He rationalized that it was that he had never seen the exterior of this side of the Samsara. Another explanation was that if Geoffrey had decided to cause problems he’d be watching that side of the hill closely. For a full minute he sat, weighing the pull of his instincts with the desire to retrieve Iris and Peter quickly.
Instincts won, as they usually did with him. His dad called it ‘the strength of educated guesses’, but it amounted to the same. Sometimes a person had to go with his gut, and he was smart enough to be cautious, so he shut off the engine.
Cato perked up and wiggled his bum in the seat.
“Yep, we’re going for a walk.” Cato’s head tilted to the side and he stood at the mention of his name in conjunction with ‘walk’.
Siris stepped out of the buggy and shouldered his UTS. He scanned his surroundings, worried about seeing beady red eyes shining from the shadows, or maybe tusks…fangs? There were too many worries, but none of them included a tall shareholder boy with a shotgun just like his.
The shot blasted, a half a second after Siris spotted the boy, and fire ripped through him. Pain unlike anything he had ever felt.