Siris led his band of shareholders through the compact valleys along the faint two-track road that the buggy had left in the thick foliage from his journey to the Samsara. Peter and Becky, as well as two other children who were too small and weak to walk, rode in the buggy while Iris drove. They crept along at the rear of the group. Peter had insisted that he could man the gun that was mounted on the back of the vehicle, so he stood on one leg, hands on the twin handles, searching intently for threats.
They had reached the small valley just west of the hab when Siris froze. His hand went up over his head in a fist like he’d seen in the movies, and the column behind him stopped. At his feet was a thick path of dark blood. He bent and looked at it.
He placed the shotgun in the crook of his left arm and touched the blood with his right-hand index finger. He smoothed it between the pad of his pointer and his thumb. It was sticky. He held it to his nose then jerked it back. It smelled bad, but he couldn’t really explain how.
Siris stood up and looked in both directions that the blood transversed. He shouldered his rifle and set off to his left. He used the barrel of his gun to push some leaves out of his way and walked into the gloom of the shadowed jungle. Just ahead a broken tree limb testified to some kind of struggle. He walked into the shadows thirty feet and saw a massive tusk sticking up from behind a cluster of ferns and stiffened.
He counted to twenty and the tusk didn’t move so he stepped quietly forward until he could see over the tops of the plants that hid the Jerkasaurus’s corpse from him. The undefinable stink was there aplenty as was a pool of the darker-than-usual blood. Siris scanned the area for any of the dragon lizards or snakes coming to feast, but nothing moved in the surrounding shadows.
He examined the corpse, trying to see exactly what had killed the thing. The giant’s head was surrounded by the pool of blood, but he couldn’t see the source. It’s wound must be underneath, probably the chest or throat. He shivered, thinking of the thing that could something like this to the massive Jerkasaurus.
Something gripped his shoulder and he jerked then spun. Iris was lucky that he didn’t pull the trigger.
“Whoa. Are you okay?” She asked.
“Uh. Yeah,” he swallowed. “It’s this Jerkasaurus that is having a bad day.”
Looked pale as she surveyed the giant corpse.
“Jerkasaurus?” She asked.
“We’ve had run-ins with him before. Trust me. He’s a jerk.” She smiled despite her obvious misgivings about being this close to a corpse on this planet. “We better get going before something comes calling.”
They backed-tracked out to the vague road they were following and Iris jumped into the buggy’s driver’s seat. Siris took up his vanguard position and set off toward the hab.
It wasn’t long before he realized that the trail of blood from the Jerkasaurus followed the same path that they did. He quickened his pace even though the kids behind him struggled to keep up.
Ten more minutes saw him standing in front of the hab, suddenly cold in the sweltering humid heat of Ross 128 b. The door to the hab had been forced open and the train log blood led directly to it. Siris ran.
“Cato!” He yelled. As he got closer he saw that the piece of ground that was essentially the hab’s front porch was thrashed. He saw huge divots in the ground where the Jerkasaurus’ claws dug in. “Cato!”
The dog came to the wide-open doorway squinty-eyed and smiling, a state of being that Siris recognized as his friend’s post nap daze. His nubby tail wiggled so hard that his haunches joined in. The Cane-Corso’s jowls, throat and chest were covered in the dark sticky Jerkasaurus blood.
Siris laugh was inspired by pure relief and not humor. He ran to the dog and knelt. He massaged the dog's ears and scratched his neck.
“I’m so glad you’re meaner than you’re on my side,” Siris whispered into his ear as he gave Cato a final hug before standing once more.
Siris set about getting the children settled in the hab. The shelter was set up for about ten people, not twenty-nine, so the kids were crammed in with little regard for comfort. For their part the kids didn’t complain. They had already been so far removed from their posh shareholder upbringing that they understood that they were just lucky to be alive. Their little bodies lay side-by-side and in some cases on top of one another.
Once all the kids were inside and food packets had been distributed, Siris finally got the story for how they came into Iris’ care. He was impressed. She had not only been able to take care of herself and Peter, but half the shareholder kids as well. He kicked himself again for not foreseeing Geoffrey’s siege on the Samsara.
“So what happened to you?” She asked.
They were sitting just outside the broken door with their shotguns ready. Cato patrolled the perimeter of what he deemed his responsibility. Siris did a visual check on him before starting his own story. When he got to the part about the Russians, Iris gasped and put her hand to her throat like a woman in one of those Victorian era movies. He told her about everything, it made no sense to hold anything back, besides it felt good to share it, but he had been smart enough to make sure that all of the kids within hearing distance were asleep before he’d started.
“What are they?” She asked when he finally finished.
“What do you mean? What are any of the things on this planet?”
“Yes, but before we left there was a seminar on how unlikely it would be to find intelligent life out here. They said it would be fairly rare.”
“Lucky us? I don’t usually put much stock in such things anyway. I mean, they still don’t really know how humans came about, not really. It’s all a bunch of guesses. How could it be anything else, really. It was so long ago I don’t see how they could know.” He paused and searched the surrounding shadows for the red eyes that he’d looked for ever since his first glimpse of them. They haunted him day and night, and he prayed he never saw them again.
“All I know is that these Russians, for lack of a better name, are beyond scary. We need to make this place as secure as we can.”
“Are they scarier than Geoffrey?” Iris asked. He thought about it.
“No. I guess not. But there are more of them.” She nodded.
“What do we need to do then?”
The way she asked it, it was clear that she saw him as the boss. Siris was stunned.
“Uh. I don’t know. I guess fix the door.”
“Then what?” She pressed.
“Well the Jerkasaurus broke the road maker, so we can’t really relocate the hab on top of one of these like I imagined.” He pointed to the top of the steep hill next to them.
“Can’t you fix it?” She asked. Her tone indicated that she assumed he could. He was a little defensive at first and almost snapped at her, but then he thought about it. He didn’t know if he could or not. He hadn’t even had time to find it, and until an hour ago, he wouldn’t have dared.
“Maybe. After I get some sleep, I’ll go with Cato and find it.”
She seemed pleased with this plan. “Okay. If you give me access, I’ll start checking the Samsara’s scans for suitable locations.”
She looked extra cute when she pondered, and he couldn’t help but smile.
“What?” She asked.
“Nothing.” But he kept smiling at her until she couldn’t help but smile as well.
Siris winced when he shifted to stand. His hand went to his side involuntarily.
“Oh. Uh.” Siris hadn’t told her about the boy that had shot him and had gotten his throat torn out as a result. He thought that the violence in that five minutes of his life had been too terrible to relive. “A shareholder boy shot me.”
“What?” Her voice was high and strained with surprise.
He winced again as he undid the clasps on either side of the vest and shouldered out of the thing.
“I thought that you’d strained some muscles or something when I’d seen you in pain earlier, Heaven knows you’d have reason to complain, but not that you had been shot.” She came to his side and gently lifted his shirt then the bandage underneath that had soaked through. It stuck a little and she winced more than he did at the pain she imagined he felt.
“He hit me with a Dragon’s Breath, so it’s really not that bad,” he explained.
“Not that bad?” She nearly yelled. “It looks horrible.” Her gentle fingers probed the burned and mangled tissue. “Did you even clean this?”
“Yeah,” he said a little defensively. “I mean I did the best I could.” He had been proud of how well he’d doctored himself and her question stung his ego a little.
She sighed and stood. “Stay here,” she said. She tip-toed into the hab, careful not to step on any of the strewn children asleep on the floor. She came back moments later with a first aid kit and sat down next to him. She opened it and riffled through its contents. She got that cute look on her face again as she thought about the best way to doctor his wound.
“Take off your shirt.” She said as pulled objects from the box.
His shirt was the same one that he’d been shot in since the thought of taking it all the way off seemed too much. It had large holes melted into it. He had cursed vilely while cleaning it the first time because he’d found pieces of it fused into the burned flesh. He clenched his teeth and lifted it over his head.
Despite his resolve to remain tough in front of Iris, he cursed and his breath came in quick gasps as he felt the too-tight skin stretch and pull on the multiple open spots.
Iris did this interesting clicking thing with her tongue which reminded him of a grandmother admonishing him for his language while simultaneously conveying compassion somehow. She was intriguing and he couldn’t help but be distracted from his pain for a moment.
She cleaned his side again, pulling pieces of the melted shirt out that he’d missed and scrubbing at the entire thing with sterilizing wipes. He wanted to cry but his pride held the tears in check…barely. She then applied burn ointment and antibiotic ointment then she reapplied a fresh bandage.
“I think we need to wrap it.” She paused, that same thoughtful cuteness her only defense from his pain-induced anger. She put her finger to her chin and then nodded, coming to a decision.
“Up,” she said, motioning his arms up. He lifted them and she pressed the end against his unwounded side with one hand and awkwardly unrolled the bandage around his abdomen with her other, reaching around him in a hug. Feeling her against him in such an intimate way was exhilarating. Okay Si, calm down. She stinks. He told himself. He realized that he’d just thought of himself as Si, not Siris or Osiris, but Si. This girl had essentially changed his name, even in his own mind. He sighed, surprisingly okay with the thought.
Her face was pressed against his belly as she reached around him.
She stinks, she stinks, she stinks. He told himself over and over. The problem was, he wasn’t sure he believed it.