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Awake (Chapter 32)

Chapter 32

Si had been busy a full week. He’d found the roadmaker and despite his own misgivings about working on something that could blow him to smithereens in an instant, he was able to restore its functionality though it made a high-pitched whine as it flew and wobbled dangerously. He used the drone to clear a path up the steep slope of the nearest hill where, after some tense minutes, he was able to negotiate the hab into position atop the promontory.

The days since they’d moved to the top of the hill seemed magical by comparison with the entire group’s experience of the planet so far. Si had project after project to complete, and after the children had had some time to recover a little from their trauma, Iris put them to work doing various other projects from clearing the surrounding vegetation to preparing the day's meals, to scavenging for possible edible fruits and vegetables.

They couldn’t be sure, of course, if the food that they did find growing among the thick greenery was safe to eat or not, but the pile of possibilities grew as the area around the hab expanded. Si had set up a kind of outdoor shop that reminded him of a medieval blacksmith that butted up against the leeward side of the hab’s metal wall. He had a bank of batteries for his various tools that were hooked into the Hab’s outdoor electrical outlet. He’d located a compartment built into the outer side of the hab that had a few spare parts, probably those that were most commonly broken in the engineer’s simulations. He’d pulled all the parts, identified them, then tore them apart. His current need for pipe, gaskets, screws, and just metal in general outweighed any future possible need for the specific parts.

The hill had proved an oasis so far from the turmoil that Ross 128 b had put them through to this point. The smaller birds and animals, that were almost nonexistent down below were plentiful on top of the hill, and their chirping, squawking, whistling songs seemed the most cheerful thing Si had ever heard. He didn’t know how it was possible, but the sun even seemed brighter up here, but that was probably due to the small clearing that they had created that let the rays through.

He knew that their solitude and peace wouldn’t last, but he resolved to enjoy it while it did.

For the past few days he’d been working on a possible prosthesis for Peter. He kept it a secret, more because he didn’t want to get the boy’s hopes up if it didn’t work, which it probably wouldn’t. He had had the idea mere hours after finding out that he had lost his leg and had tossed the thought through his mind during ‘down times’ when the here-and-now didn’t demand his immediate attention, which hadn’t been very often, until they’d moved to atop the hill. After fixing the door and attending to what he called his ‘chores’ Si was free to advance the thought into action.

He accessed the Samsara’s backup database housed in the hab’s internal computer for articles and videos on prosthetics and was quickly discouraged. The human body was exceptionally complex and the integration of the mechanics that he had imagined with a living person was daunting. He had almost given up after the first few hours of research, but watching Peter gave him a second wind. The poor boy had been sullen…depressed. Si knew that it wasn’t his natural state of being. When he could be distracted from his own disability Peter was full of smiles and laughs, but on this planet especially, he faced a moment by moment reminder of his weakness.

Si picked a design from the files he’d reviewed. It was said to be less comfortable than other more complicated designs, but this one seemed doable and it was more agile, though harder for the user to put on. He had done the mechanics of the thing the old fashioned way since he didn’t have a full-scale printer like what was in the maintenance and motorpool sections of the Samsara. Things like drill presses, band saws, and grinding wheels were all affixed to a single convertible table, and really most of the tools were just aggregations to his hand tools. He was constantly having to unclamp and reclamp his handheld drill into the drill press to use it and take it out again when he needed to refold the table to use the bandsaw, until he fixed it.

He pulled the table apart and mounted each device to a more stable, permanent table which at least made part of his problems go away. He yearned for a workshop like what was buried in under a thousand years of dirt and plants and surrounded by a thousand fanatic primitives who probably saw his presence as a desecration of some kind.

As was the case whenever he thought of the Rossians he turned from the workbench and scanned the deep shadows among the trees that ringed the clearing for the tale-tale sign of red eyes. No Rossians stared at him, but Iris was, at least she had been until they made eye contact. She lowered her eyes so quickly that he wondered if he’d seen her looking at all. Iris seemed overly involved with whatever task she had been working on for the next ten seconds. When she looked again and saw that Si was still looking at her, she blushed. Her blush deepened when he did not look away first, which was the most difficult five seconds Si had ever experienced.

He threw a cloth over his mostly completed prosthesis and walked to her.

“Are you going to finally tell me what you’ve been working on?”

“Just tinkering.”

“As has been your response every time I ask, but I can’t imagine any form of the word taking up as much thought as this project has. I can see you thinking from clear over here.” She smiled.

“I need to go outside the wall,” he said. They were being generous calling the rough boundary of felled trees and piled brambles a ‘wall’ but Peter had taken to imagining himself in a castle and had given names to every part of the hilltop, names that the rest of the children took up immediately. He supposed it served to ease the burden of building the thing when they could pretend it was something bigger, stronger, and…cooler than it was.

“Why?” She asked. Worry in her voice. “I mean, why are you asking me?” she amended. This time hiding the worry that had been there seconds before.

“Because Peter says you’re Arthur Wellesley, whoever that is, and everyone should ask you for permission.”

She seemed flustered for a moment, unsure what to say first. Finally she settled with, “you mean you don’t know who Arthur Wellesley was?”

He just smiled at her disbelief and shook his head.

“The Duke of Wellington?”

“Oh. That guy. I’ve heard of him. Wasn’t he like a general or something?”

“Or something?” her voice had risen and her arms went up as if he had committed blaspheme. “He was only the greatest general who ever lived. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by a poor education, but this is a travesty.”

Her words stung, and Si turned from her to keep her from seeing just how bad. Her tirade cut off behind him.

“Oh, I didn’t mean. Si…”

He started walking away.

“Si. I meant because you’re American.” He felt her hand grip his shoulder and he allowed her to turn him around. “I’m sorry, Si. I didn’t mean to insult you. I guess every child in England knows about the battle of Waterloo and the Duke because it’s kind of one of the most important things in our long history. Anyway, I don’t care if you go outside the wall, just don’t get in any fights with the locals alright?” Her hand lingered on his shoulder. His emotions were in turmoil. A part of him wanted to hang on to the hurt, to the anger that had blossomed at the imagined slight, but another part of him wanted to pull her to him and kiss her.

He nodded and turned back toward his shop.

He always kept a bag packed and the UTS 15 ready so he was out the rickety ‘portcullis’ within seconds. He whistled and Cato came bounding through just before the two boys in charge of guarding the gate could close it.

“Good boy. You ready to go find us the Jerkasaurus?” he asked the dog. Cato just wagged his tail at the tone of his voice and loped along beside him.

They found the rotting corpse within two hours of setting out. Si walked the last mile as stealthily as he could, searching the brush around him continuously for the animals that were sure to come in search of an easy meal, but none appeared, and as they tread carefully into the shadows where he had first seen the corpse, he was surprised to see the body still intact.

He had been more than a little worried that there wouldn’t be enough of the body left for his purposes, but it appeared as if nothing had touched it. Frowning, he scanned what he could see of the gloom for predators then, seeing none, propped the gun against the huge, bloated, abdomen and got out his knife.

As he suspected, the hide of the thing was extremely tough, yet pliable. It was so tough, in fact, that Si was forced to switch to his power shears. The tool was normally used for cutting through thin sheets of metal or wire, but they did remarkably with the hide.

The strange smell that was in the air when he’d first come upon the corpse was stronger than ever now as he cut into the beast. It underlined the rotting smell, and, to him, wasn’t entirely unpleasant. He wouldn’t have admitted as much to Iris, of course.

He had had the idea that the hide would probably work well as a long corset for Peter’s leg that the prosthesis would attach to and he got enough to make several attempts. He pulled the heavy roll of hide out from under the shadows, into the clearing that they had passed through over a week ago. Not a single mark of their passage could still be seen, but if Geoffrey had waited until now to go searching for them, he was dumber than Si thought he was.

He unrolled the hide and flipped it over where meat and connective tissue still clung in places. Si found a flat rock and began scraping the hide, but the thing kept moving with the stone, so he found more rocks and weighed down the corners, then went back to scraping. The stone wasn’t sharp enough to do more than turn the hide into a slippery, greasy mess. He decided it would be easier to work on at the shop so he rolled it back up and threw it over his shoulder with a grunt.

He had thought about bringing the buggy, but he decided that it would be better if Iris kept it in case something big happened while he was gone. He didn’t know what his own mind defined as ‘something big’, but as his father used to like to say, “you’ll know it when you see it.” Now he would be walking, climbing, up a steep hill for miles. He swore to himself and adjusted the bundle so it was easier to carry. He’d come almost all the way back to the castle, as Peter liked to call it, when he came across fresh tracks in the soft dirt. He lowered the hide to the ground and bent to identify the tracks.

Dragon lizards from the looks of it, and a lot of them. He didn’t remember seeing them on his way down. He reached for his UTS 15 and froze. It was gone. He swore when he realized he’d left it propped against the carcass.

The angular head of one giant lizard poked out from a group of ferns in front of him. Cato gave a growl, but the beast stepped into the open, brazzen and uncaring of the dog’s threats. Then another of the lizards appeared, and another. Si searched for a weapon on the ground, seeing only stones, he bent and picked one up. He stood and threw the rock at the lead beast, but it was as equally unimpressed by his aim as he had been by Cato’s barks.

It stopped all of a sudden, lifted its head, then stuck out a long forked tongue, tasting the air. Then it turned and sprinted back into the thick foliage with more speed than Si would have imagined the animals capable of. The other’s soon followed suit with equal haste.

Si stood there breathing hard, and sweating. Cato followed the creatures, taunting them for a time as they fled, but then came back to him on his own, perhaps he’d become wise enough to know the dangers of being alone in this place. Siris patted the dog’s head with trembling hands.

“I don’t think they like the way ol’ Jerkasaurus smells.” Si laughed and sat on the ground, suddenly completely at ease for perhaps the first time in two-millennia.

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