The rest of the night flew by while we took turns keeping watch. On my shift, I could occasionally see the flashes of the giant fireflies in the grove, but that was outdone by an early morning lightning display from a powerful thunderstorm. It was the first rain I’d seen on the planet and made me realize we’d need some kind of shelter inside our fort to keep out the weather.
During the storm I couldn’t stop thinking of all we could do with rainwater. We could use some of those elephant ear-sized plant leaves to capture a downpour and guide the water into our pots. We’d need Galmine to make lots more pots, or just a giant one to store a larger quantity. Or, better yet, we could dig a hole and line it with clay so we’d have a full-on collection pond. Hell, if we did it right we’d probably never need to go to the stream again.
My to-do list and stress levels exploded while I planned each detail of our forthcoming rainwater project. There was too much to do, and not enough time to do it.
Water, and how to capture it, was still on my mind when Galmine nudged me.
“My turn, Victor,” she said in a delightful whisper.
“Oh, thank god,” I replied. I’d reached my limit guarding the door and was ready to fall over. I did get a couple of hours of rest before Sheela tapped me awake for this middle shift, but I figured out right away my body was desperate to get back to sleep. The thunder of the storm and planning for our water helped keep me awake, but that excitement had vaporized by the time Galmine nudged me.
“Get to sleep, Victor,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I can tell you are not in the mood for more.”
“I, uh, don’t know what I want. I can barely think,” I said with dreary eyes and slurred words. I’m sure my face must have been a confused mix of exhaustion and desire.
Her touch was magnetic on my arm as she led me to the fire and then guided me onto my back. Even though she crouched there with the appearance of being naked, I couldn’t keep my hundred-pound eyelids open.
“Maybe tomorrow night you’ll be on the last shift, and you can come and get me,” Galmine said in a lullaby-sweet voice.
“Maybe tomorrow night,” I repeated as if I was already dreaming.
“I will think about it all day while you are out there protecting us,” the sexy stone woman breathed into my ear. After a brief pause, she kissed my cheek.
I opened my eyes for a moment, hoping I could answer her, but she was already up and headed back toward the entrance. Her hourglass shape and soft curves glimmered in the firelight as she sauntered away. The way she walked revealed a cute little thigh gap between her legs, and I immediately fought against sleep like a drowning man in the water. I wanted to admire it for just a few more seconds, but it was no use. My eyes surrendered to sleep before she reached the gate.
“Victor, wake up,” Sheela said in a low voice.
“Well, shit,” I answered when I saw the daylight through the doorway. My bones, muscles, and joints were all in pain from spending so much time on the ground. It reminded me why I wanted to build a bed. I put that back into my job jar.
“I’m sorry, Sheela. It isn’t you,” I chuckled. “I swear the nights are shorter than home. It feels like I just laid down.” The pain was bad enough, but I also felt drained from a night of bad dreams. Rather than pleasant visions of Galmine’s body, I had terrible nightmares of being twisted and then rolled up and down one of Trel’s spider legs like I was a piece of cord.
I tried not to disturb Galmine as I sat up and put on my hat. The beautiful granite woman was curled up asleep right next to me, and I didn’t want to wake her. Jinx was also sleeping in her arms. It looked like she was snuggling with a blue-feathered teddy bear.
“I am waking you up, as you instructed me, but I am fine to go get water by myself.” She had the new jugs hooked onto opposite ends of a spear and balanced on her shoulders, just as I planned to do. I looked them over and then focused back on her. It was tempting to order her to do something safe, so I could take the greater risk and get the water, but that would start me down a dangerous path. I couldn’t afford to play favorites, and I had to put everyone where they could do the most good no matter how dangerous it was for them.
I wiped my eyes to clear them of the horrible night of sleep and hopped up onto my feet.
“You’ve got a spear, so that’s good,” I said. “It’s a shame we can’t throw the original water pot on your back.” The jug-carrying spear would also serve as her weapon if she got into trouble, but I would hate to have her go out and leave the old pot behind.
“You will just have to think of a more efficient system than this,” the feline woman said as she gestured the contraption over her shoulders.
“Okay, we’ll use the little pot for something else,” I replied. “You be safe and get the water, then come back and collect firewood. I’ll work with the new axe until you return.”
“I will be safe,” she answered.
We walked to the tree-barrier we used as a door, and together we pushed it out of the entrance so we could step through. Though the axe was a kind of weapon, I figured a spear would be more useful defending against dinos, so I picked one up as soon as we exited.
“Your tree idea for this door really worked well, Victor,” Sheela said while she adjusted the spear on her back. “I slept better knowing it was there.”
I inhaled a deep breath of the cool morning air while we stood at the top of the ramp. The rocks and bushes near the entrance to the cave were damp from the overnight rain. It was a sign of how humid the day was going to be, and I guessed we were going to have to make an extra trip or two to get more water. The redwood grove looked fresh and new, but a lone roar from far away served as notice that the old threats were still out there.
I looked up to greet our pterodactyl friend but didn’t see her on her regular branch. She wasn’t perched on any of the other trees near us either, so I hoped the thunderstorm finally chased the dino-bird away.
“I know I keep saying this, but be extra careful. Our big bird is missing. She might be at the stream getting a fish,” I said to Sheela while pointing to the empty branch above us.
“I will be careful and quick,” Sheela said as she started down the ramp. Before she went more than a few paces, she stopped and turned back to me.
“Thank you for your concern about my husband last night, Victor.” She smiled a bit before she spun around and went into the redwood grove. The way she carried the jugs on the spear looked just like a barbell, and I could imagine her working out on Muscle Beach back home. I let myself get distracted watching her go, and she was well out of voice range before I thought to say, “You’re welcome.”
I felt uneasy when she became obscured by the bushes and ferns out in the grove. I watched as long as possible, but after a few minutes passed, I knew she was already well beyond the range of my help.
When she was gone, I added the bow and arrow to my to-do list. That would give me the ability to reach out and strike at things far away. Actually, what I needed was a 50 caliber BMG sniper rifle because every shooter game had something like it. With a huge telescopic scope and a perch up in a tree, I could probably protect Sheela all the way to the stream and back.
Before I let myself get needlessly worried, I took some more deep breaths. Every new item I added to my to-do list was another allocation of resources I needed to figure out. I also had to consider what order everything should be completed. We had spears, for now, so would bows and arrows get us that much more in the short term? Could we afford to delay other tasks to spend time on new weapons? At the moment, the most important task for me was proving the axe was going to do its job.
After walking down the ramp, I went to where Sheela and I had cut our first tree. Lots of the young growth pines and oaks were the correct size: about six inches across and maybe twenty to thirty feet tall. I walked up to one that looked relatively straight as I stretched the morning stiffness out of my shoulders.
There was a rustle of movement in the bushes beside the tree, and my heart leapt into my throat. I dropped my axe and then pointed my spear as my body flooded with adrenaline. Almost as soon as I prepared to defend myself, a small brown bird hopped out, squawked at me, and then took to the air. I let out a long sigh of relief and then bent down to pick up my axe.
I chuckled at being scared of what was basically a happy little robin while I gave the axe one last check. The wooden handle was three feet long with the flat rock wedged through the slot near the tip. The stone blade stuck out a little on the one side and had about five inches of cutting surface on the business side. I made a few practice swings in the air, and the axe's weight felt really good in my hand.
I lined up the first chop and mentally prepared myself for the same kind of pain I felt when I used the hand-axe rock. I also scanned the surrounding forest just to ensure nothing was going to jump out when I made some noise. After taking one last look at the trunk of my target, I made my first side-arm swing.
“Holy shit!” I yelled as quietly as I could. The pain wasn't nearly as severe as with the hand axe-rock, but my hands weren't recovered, so I set the axe down after a few swings to massage my aching fingers. After a few dozen seconds, I thought of Sheela's ability to ignore pain, and I picked the tool back up to continue my work.
I swung the axe again and blocked out any pain from my already-bruised hands. There was no question it was a ton better than holding a cutting stone like yesterday. It took about ten minutes, but the familiar cracks of the falling tree soon made me forget the pain.
“Hell yeah,” I said to myself as the tree fell over. An hour-long torture session was now a ten-minute walk in the woods.
There was no way to drag the tree to the construction site on my own, so I got to work on cutting the second one. Each chop came with a little pain, but it made all the difference to see those trees fall over after only eight or ten minutes of effort. The new tool was way more efficient.
I was dismayed that I owed a lot of our progress to Trel. Even though she claimed not to care, she somehow found the perfect rock to make this all possible. I would love to have her on our team, but her cooperation seemed less likely every time I spoke with her. The aliens must have brought me here to get challenged at every turn, even by my supposed allies.
I’d gotten through my fifth tree when I heard a distinctive dinosaur roar rip through the morning silence of the redwood grove.
“Time to go home,” I declared in a whisper. The roar was the same as the guttural trumpet we heard at the lake. I cocked my head to get a bearing on the source and then let out a gasp when another raging growl filled the forest.
The noise came from the direction Sheela went to get water.
I kept my axe and picked up my spear before running the twenty or thirty yards back to the ramp. I had an irrational fear something was coming up behind me, so I checked over my shoulder the whole way. I also mouthed the word “fuck” about a hundred times while I ran. Another roar lasted a full ten seconds, and it seemed a lot louder than before. That made me sprint even faster, and I nearly fell over when I tripped on the first part of the ramp’s slope. When I regained my wits and was sure nothing was going to grab me, I forced myself to stand there so I could keep an eye out for Sheela.
“Come on, Sheela, where the hell are you?” I said in a low voice as I waited for the redwood forest to cough up my friend. Sixty seconds later, she was still nowhere in sight, and I was losing my sanity.
Fuck. Why wasn’t she coming? If that roar didn’t get her to drop the water and sprint home, I didn’t think anything would. I had half a mind to run out into the grove after her, but the idea sped right past brave and into suicidal territory. Each passing second I didn’t see her, though, the idea seemed better and better.
Another primal bellow tore through the air from out where Sheela was supposed to be. Despite the risks, I was coming to terms with the crazy idea of going after her. My vision narrowed as I contemplated which way I was going to run.
While I stood there death-gripping both my weapons, Jinx hopped down the ramp behind me. He made an odd clicking sound with his beak, and I guessed he was trying to warn me of the giant fucking dinosaurs.
“Go back inside!” I commanded him, and the bird skidded to a halt so that he could obey me. He ran back up the ramp toward the cave, and I turned back to wait impatiently for the warrior woman.
“Sheela!” I cried out, though not loud enough to be heard very far. I wanted to scream for her, but that was just as dumb as running toward the sounds of the terrible lizards.
“Fuck this. I’m going,” I said out loud. But I only took a couple steps when I caught sight of the feline woman fast approaching from my right. I could tell by the way she ran that the water containers were filled. She wasn’t sprinting, but her power walk was almost as fast as my run.
I ran a few more steps in her direction but stopped to let her come to me. She constantly looked over her shoulder, just as I had done a minute before, so I waved my axe to keep her focused on me.
Another roar shook the ground with a deep, gnarly rumble, and Sheela somehow sped up to a full run to cover the last fifty feet between us. A few heartbeats later a second howl replied from elsewhere in the forest.
“Hurry!” I said when Sheela was only ten feet away.
She remained grim-faced as she crossed the last few yards, but she smiled when she got next to me. Sweat soaked her body as if she’d finally found an activity that forced her to exert herself.
“Thank god you made it, let’s get inside,” I ordered when she was jogging by. I reversed my way to the ramp without turning my back toward the redwood grove. I was convinced the dinosaurs were closer than they sounded, but I still didn’t see anything.
Finally, I ran up the ramp after her. Galmine had been waiting at the gate, and the pair of women pulled it closed after I ran into the cave. Trel was also nearby and stood in “spider mode” using all of her legs, almost like she’d been in a defensive stance.
Without thinking about it, I wrapped my arms around Sheela in a tight bear hug. She was still breathing hard, so I quickly let her go. When we separated, I briefly saw that strange glow in her eyes once again.
“I’m happy to see you safe, Sheela,” I said while she stood in front of me.
“I am happy to see you, too. Thank you for watching out for me.” The glow in her eyes was gone, but her feline smile reinforced her words.
More roars echoed from outside, and we all froze to listen. Sheela moved the instant it stopped and went right to the tree barrier with her spear in hand.
“They seem to be calling to each other,” Sheela volunteered after a few moments of peering through the branches of the tree protecting our entrance.
“Or they’re looking for something,” I replied. I took off my hat and wiped my brow while also forcing my heart rate back down to normal. The pause helped me think.
“So, what the hell are they? Did they follow you? Are you hurt?” I tried to think of all the questions a good leader would ask. The beasts sounded a lot like the apex predator that chased us from the lake.
“It was a giant dinosaur, with an ugly head, short arms, and a long lizard tail,” Sheela said while getting close to catching her breath. “I would guess it to be fifteen feet tall with teeth more vicious than anything we have seen.”
She'd killed the massive crocodile who tried to eat me, so the thought of Sheela being scared of another dinosaur gave me a tremor of fear. Had she seen a T-Rex? I didn't know a ton about dinosaurs, but I recalled them being a lot taller than twelve feet. Then again, the T-Rex wasn't the only predator in dinosaur times. There might be thousands of smaller or even larger predator species.
“Were they after you?” I asked in an anxious voice. I hated the thought of something hunting my friend.
“No,” Sheela replied. “I hid inside the giant fallen tree while it walked down the stream. It did double back like it found a scent, but it eventually went away. I took a long way back to the cave, intending to lessen the chance it would pick up my trail. However, I passed near a second beast that was very similar to the first. It seemed to pursue its friend.” She was already calmer than I was despite having seen two of the bastards.
“Were they working together?” I asked. “Maybe they were mates?”
“Perhaps,” Sheela replied as she momentarily turned away from the turnstile. “Both were gray, but the second one had a bright red streak along its back and head.”
“Were they looking for the trikes?” I searched for any answer that would explain why they were there, besides hunting for us.
“We have no way of knowing,” Sheela responded in her usual calm voice. “The search for food seems most likely, though. In my experience, predators remain at rest until they are on the hunt.” Though we’d only talked for a handful of minutes, her breathing was back to normal. That was the level of fitness I needed to develop.
Trel clacked her chitinous claws to get our attention.
“See? When there are real emergencies you always return to the cave,” Trel stated matter-of-factly. “Do I need to rehash it all again why we should stay here?”
I was almost never in the mood to tangle with her, and this was no exception. Sheela was nearly hunted down, monsters were roaming the grove, and the bird countdown never stopped ticking.
I was happy no one else rose to meet her challenge, either. That probably pissed her off more than if I’d said something snarky. She sighed heavily when she realized I wasn’t going to reply, and then she strolled back to her nook.
“You know I’m right,” Trel said as a final poke in my eye before sliding her partition closed.
Trel’s rants always had grains of truth to them. We did use the cave as a fallback place of safety, but that’s why we needed the fort as another refuge. Where would we go if the cave was overrun with those orange birds and the predators were waiting out front?
Those raptors had nearly found us, and their presence beside our home changed my whole planning matrix. Making a comfy bed fell completely off the list. Bows and arrows moved right up to the top. As far as weapons go, they were the easiest to envision, though if battling large carnivores was in our future, we’d need to master the ballista, catapult, or something with more of a punch.
The three of us froze again at the sound of another roar. I held my breath for those few seconds, but let it out when it was obvious the dinosaurs were not getting any closer.
“I think they are going back to the lake. That is the direction they were headed when I last saw them,” Sheela added as she looked beyond the turnstile jammed in the door.
Hiding in the cave wasn’t a long-term option because of all the shit which needed to get done outside. But if I took comfort in anything, it was that those giant predators couldn’t hope to sneak up on us. The second the roars were far enough away we had to get back out there, and my heart rate quickened at what I was about to suggest.
“Sheela, let me know when things calm down outside. We both have to go out and get a few things,” I said while standing at the gate with her. Nothing was visible in the grove below us, and the roars were much reduced in volume, but we had to be certain. I shared my thoughts to help calm my nerves.
“I have a job for you,” I said as I pointed to the axe blade. “I want you to find more rocks like this, so we can make more axes. I got five trees down while you were at the stream, but my blade is now very dull. If you have a second one, I bet we can have one wall built by the end of tomorrow. If we have ten of them, we won’t have to worry about sharpening axes during the work day.”
“I can do that,” Sheela said simply.
“Unless you think Trel is hoarding more, you’ll have to search among the rocks outside our cave,” I advised her. To my surprise, Trel didn’t use the opportunity to snipe back at me, which suggested she was still pissed or had no more rocks. Hell, I’d kiss the mean spider-woman if she revealed a stash of axe blades that would eliminate the need to go outside to look for one.
Sheela shook her head no, but also smiled a tiny bit.
“Then I’ll go out with you,” I continued. “The second it’s clear we’ll scrounge around for what we need. You get at least one rock, and I’ll get another axe handle. We can come back in here and make the axe until we are absolutely sure we can return to chopping wood out in the grove.”
We waited for ten minutes as the roars faded into the distance. Sheela’s hearing seemed superior to mine, and she claimed she could still hear them even after I could not. She gave me a nod half a minute later, and I cleared my throat.
“They are far enough away to make a fast sweep outside,” I said as I pointed out the door. “We should hear them coming if they decide to return.”
Galmine helped us push the tree-barrier from the door, and Sheela and I ran down the ramp. She carried her spear, and I carried my axe in my left hand and my own spear in my right.
“I’ll be right over here in these trees,” I called to Sheela as she started searching some of the rock piles near the base of the ramp.
“I will listen for danger,” Sheela replied in her neutral voice. I was scared shitless something was going to swoop in and grab me, but she seemed immune to fear. That was another skill I needed to acquire.
I went right to where I’d already been cutting, and found the proper-sized branch on the same tree where I’d gotten the first axe handle. It only took a few minutes to cut the three-foot length with the new axe, but I didn’t see another that would make for a proper handle.
I jogged right back to where Sheela was still searching for rocks. It didn’t look like she’d found the right stone, yet, so I waited nearby to guard her. I needed to say something to stay occupied.
“I’m so glad you’re okay, Sheela. I don’t know what I’d do--” I said before she interrupted me.
“Thank you, Victor,” she replied. “I was never in real danger.” She picked up a rock that was the shape we needed, but it must have had something wrong with it because she dropped it back to the ground.
“Yeah, well,” I began. “I’ll always worry about you, out there. I worry about all of us, but you do a lot of the dangerous work. I have to keep giving you the hard jobs, until we have more help.”
“Until we find more abductees on this world?” Sheela answered.
“I was thinking of Trel,” I nudged my head toward the cave. However, Sheela presented a new possibility. My friends from the beach died before we could all escape, but were there others out in the woods waiting to be found? If so, finding help out there might be easier than coaxing Trel into becoming a team player.
“Have you seen others?” I added as an afterthought. I stood with my axe and spear like the castle guard on duty, but I also searched the nearby rocks to see if I could find what we needed and get us out of there.
“No, but they come from fingers of light from the sky. Galmine and Trel both appeared after I saw their beams. I found you because I was heading toward lights I saw in your direction. But they have not reappeared since then.”
I picked up a rock that had the proportions we needed and showed Sheela.
“A little too big Victor, but set it aside,” she advised. “We can use it if we are desperate.”
“You think the lights mean more people are being dropped to the surface?” I asked while chucking the rock just to the side of the path. I then peered out into the grove, worried that I’d taken my eyes off the forest for too many seconds.
“Yes,” Sheela said simply.
“I, uh, don’t remember how I arrived,” I said. “I can’t recall anything of the trip down or any lights.” I tried to help her find the perfect rock, but I was constantly distracted by shrieks and calls that I figured were just birds. We were there for another five minutes before Sheela stepped out from the bushes.
“This is the one.” She held up a rock almost identical to the gray stone Trel had given us. It was wedge-shaped and tapered to one side as if it was intended to be an axe blade. “Would you like me to gather others?”
There were no threats anywhere that I could see, but I wanted to get back to the safety of the cave. Having more rocks would be great but finding them would require additional time outdoors. I anxiously shifted on my feet for a few moments before deciding.
“Yeah, but I don’t like the feel out here. We’ll come outside again when things are back to their normal level of scariness.” I acted like an usher and motioned her up the ramp.
She wasted no time arguing, but she did grab the larger rock that I’d tossed down. I followed her up the ramp and into the cave with only a single look back over my shoulder.
Once we got settled in and working on our projects, my heart rate and imagination came down from the upper atmosphere. We hadn’t encountered any apex predators so far. It was just bad timing the carnivores appeared when Sheela was at the stream getting water.
Minutes later, with the coals burning on my new wooden handle, I let out a long, satisfying sigh. Sheela was already chipping her new axe blade, but she stopped as if knowing I was going to say something. I read her steady golden eyes and knew what a leader would say.
“As long as we don’t hear the big ones again, Sheela and I will return to the grove in the afternoon and cut more wood. The birds are coming, so we can’t stop a project unless the big dinosaurs are right at our door.” I laughed to let them know I wasn’t afraid. I was so thankful we had enough left over fish and water at that moment so we could focus on the big project. “So as soon as we get this extra axe done, we’ll head out.”
Both women smiled to acknowledge my statement and then got back to work. Even though I got up about a hundred times to check the ramp leading up to our cave over the next two hours, I also found the time to burn a hole clear through the handle.
Sheela shaped, sharpened, and polished the stone in the same time I used for the wood burning project. I gave her my contribution and then stood by the turnstile while she hardened the wood, slid in the blade, and tapped it home.
It took about two hours of labor, but the end result was well worth it. We stood next to each other holding our matching axes, and I felt ready to take on the world.
Galmine cooked more bird and a bit of fish as we finished up the second axe. I was happy to have some more calories for the afternoon of cutting ahead of us, but it was another ticking clock in my life. At some point, we needed to put the fort project on hold and restock our food. It would be ten million times easier if Galmine or Trel could go out and take care of that for us, but I could only do the best with the assets I had.
I thought once more about Heracula, Kelg, and the other dead man and how great it would be if they were here. But then I imagined what I’d do if my feline friend wasn’t around and realized it could always be worse.
“This is going to be awesome, Sheela. We’re going to clear this whole forest.” I laughed as we stood together and picked our spears. I was inwardly nervous to go outside and leave the safety of the ramp, but I was happy she and I were going to be working right next to each other.
“I am ready,” she said as if I was about to open the door to battle.
We pushed out the turnstile and once again emerged from our safe little cave. The heat hit me like I’d walked into a sauna and I thought back to the humidity of the morning from the overnight rain. I had more sweating to do, but that hardly bothered me because I didn’t hear those carnivorous dinosaurs.
“Anything out there?” I said to Sheela knowing she was listening for predators.
“No. We are safe, for now,” she counselled.
I almost joked that there were a million other threats on a planet loaded with prehistoric monsters, but stopped myself because that wouldn’t be helpful. Instead, I took the first steps down the ramp.
We walked warily to the clump of trees I’d cut, which gave Sheela a chance to see how much progress I’d made.
“You cut all these down?” Sheela asked. “This is going to go much faster with two axes.”
“Let’s drag these over to the construction site so we can use them to create an outline of the fort,” I suggested while I pointed to where we already stashed that first tree. Before we cut a bunch more trees, I wanted to see how things were going to lay out. It was how my mind operated when in empire-building mode.
Over the next hour, we dragged each of the downed trees to the job site. We stuffed our spears into the branches as we moved them, but this time we also hooked our axes on the same trees as extra insurance. Gradually our heightened vigilance fell back to normal alertness so we could focus on our jobs.
It took time to cut off the branches and tops of each twenty-footer to make the poles somewhat long and straight. We dumped the odd-shaped extra wood in a pile on the back side of the giant sequoia. If we left it there long enough, it would dry out and be useful for firewood.
I used a stick to hack down ferns and other plants next to the trunk of our home redwood. I chose an area just to the left of the tree, as seen from the cave, so that the two sites were about forty yards from each other and in direct line of sight. When I was done getting it ready, we had the perfect flat space to build.
“Our best bet is to have three walls of logs,” I said while surveying the tree trunks lying next to our chosen redwood. “I think we talked about using the giant trunk as a corner, but look how big it is. We can use it as the whole wall.”
We re-arranged three logs into the shape I needed. When we were done, we had created a twenty by twenty enclosure with three logs joined by the fourth wall of the tree itself. We’d have to work out a door, but it became apparent how we would build our new camp.
“We’ll be able to lean logs right up against the tree to make our living space,” I said as if I managed a construction site. “We’ll be shielded completely from wind and rain coming from that side.” I pointed to the right of the tree.
“It is a very good design, Victor,” Sheela replied.
I would have felt better if I could get Trel out to look it over before we started. She was the real architect, and her approval could potentially save a lot of wasted effort, but without her, we had to do the best we could.
I moved the logs on the ground a few more times to account for how we would join the corners. We were going to try to link them like a log cabin, but it was hard to plan that out without a sketch pad or even some dust to draw crude lines. We talked about making the square into a hexagon so the walls would be shorter and easier to cut but neither of us could say for sure which was more efficient.
“My people always build rectangles,” Sheela said after we’d moved one of the logs for the fifth time. “It seems the easiest shape for our limited cutting options.”
That’s what it all came down to. There were probably smarter ways of doing it, but there were plenty of trees of the correct height for making twenty-foot logs. If we made the walls shorter, we’d waste more of the trees and would have to cut down even greater numbers of them. We’d struck the perfect balance.
“That works for me,” I said. “A rectangle it is.” I was happy to have the plan written in stone, and we moved the example walls one last time so that we had our final square.
“Come and get some water,” Galmine cheerfully chirped from midway down the ramp.
I glanced quickly at my silver-haired friend and then turned to check the grove to ensure nothing was going to come out and grab her. When I saw it was still safe, I pulled off my hat to air my head.
The blazing sun beat down on my exposed head, and I swallowed once in response to seeing the small water pot she held in her hands.
“I admit she has come at just the right time,” Sheela said. She wasn’t dripping sweat as much as me, but that wasn’t saying much. Yesterday I’d ripped off my long-sleeved shirt to keep cool but there was no beating the saturating humidity.
“I didn’t think you ever complained,” I said with a smile.
“It is not a complaint. It is a statement of fact,” Sheela said while trying to stay serious.
I patted my hat onto my head before we grabbed spears and axes and walked toward Galmine. I watched all around for animals but couldn’t help noticing Sheela was hiding a prim smile.
“So, you do have a sense of humor. Your secret is safe with me,” I told her with exaggerated stealth. She was usually so serious I began to wonder if she had a sense of humor at all. When we reached Galmine, the rock woman seemed to know Sheela and I were playing around.
“You two are glowing,” Galmine said with both happiness and accusation. “Just like two lovers keeping secrets.” She winked at me but also smiled broadly at Sheela.
“Please stop. You know I am married. Victor and I were speaking of our desire for what is inside that clay container.” Sheela pointed at the old clay water pot.
“Married, yes,” the rock woman answered. “But there is something in your eyes.”
“You are acting very silly. May I have the water?” Sheela sounded overly serious, as if she really wanted to change the subject.
While Sheela took a swig, I tried to think of something to distract my green-eyed friend.
“Galmine, what are you working on inside?”
“I ripped up all the leaves I could find. We’ll need more so we can keep creating cord. Can you get some more? And, dearest Victor, while you are out, perhaps you could get me some more fish and a bucket of clay. I want to stay busy, like you two lovebirds.” Galmine giggled and flashed her bright white teeth.
I tried to ignore her playfulness because she’d hit on something deadly serious. Part of managing this project was keeping the workers occupied in every waking moment. She was going to be out of chores and thus doing nothing to help our momentum. There were actually going to be two people sitting idly inside the cave if I didn't get Galmine more leaves to work on. Or axes to sharpen, or clay to make pots, or food to cook. I had to keep her busy, or I'd be wasting a resource.
I considered a reply as I took a drink from the clay container. I’d worked on our primary project for a very short time today, but we still had the entire afternoon and evening of hard, outdoor labor. We did so much sweating I was pretty sure we’d need a second water run to go with all our other problems. My heart skipped a few beats just thinking about it.
The cave opening was right there, which gave me an idea.
“I want you two safe, but will you wait outside the cave for a few minutes? I want to talk alone to Trel to see if she’ll work with us.” I didn’t want my friends outside where danger was lurking, but I wanted to see if I could appeal to Trel with a private conversation.
“I fear she will not, Victor, as long as she believes help is on the way,” Sheela replied.
“I do love her hopeful spirit,” Galmine added as I handed the water back to her. “And I thought as she did for some time, but each day I think that less and less.”
“Yeah, I probably lost that hope about ten minutes after I saw the two moons,” I admitted. I could be brutally honest with myself and admit humanity would never find a way to reach me. Even if someone back home knew I was gone, they’d have no way to cross the stars to retrieve me. Nevermind that a glorified dog catcher wasn’t worth the resources necessary for an interstellar rescue.
“The beings who took us seem very powerful,” the green-eyed woman said as a final thought to our exchange.
I smiled a last time at my friends and then spun to head up the ramp. I paused just before I entered the cave to consider my options with Trel. The other two women both seemed to accept the overwhelming hopelessness of our abduction and deposit on this world, but Trel did not, so I needed a way to convince her. That gave me a nugget of an idea, but I would have to work it all out once I spoke to her.
I went into the cave intending to call Trel out of her nook but halted when I realized she was already standing at the fire on just her human legs. I also caught a flash of motion behind her as Jinx bounced onto his woodpile, and went into what was fast becoming his home. I re-oriented my eyes onto the “winged” woman to find her wearing a disapproving scowl.
“You came in by yourself to win me over with your sappy male begging, is that it?” Trel asked sarcastically.
“Something like that,” I admitted. “Though I do not beg.”
She glared at me with her dark sinkhole eyes.
“Well then, dear Victor, give it your best shot,” she said while waving her hand as if to allow me to approach her. I did step closer to the fire but stopped before getting right where she pointed.
“It’s true. I need your help. We have less than a month to build a huge structure, and the only person here who is an expert at construction is you. Every time you open your mouth to belittle or mock me, you somehow make my life easier. I’m tempted to go on letting you yell at me just so I can keep taking notes on your great ideas, but that takes time and energy. I’d rather have you at my side so we can work together.” I spoke in an even and respectful voice.
Trel looked behind me toward the cave door and whatever she saw there seemed to satisfy her.
“Did they tell you to talk to me?” she asked.
“No, they basically told me not to,” I replied.
“Then why are you here, male? When two women give you sage advice, I think you should take it,” she said in a scolding tone.
“Can I sit here?” I asked in an effort to make our meeting a little less formal.
“I cannot stop you,” she replied.
Anger at her attitude overwhelmed me as I took a seat by the fire. I inhaled a calming breath and forced myself to say, “Thank you.”
I organized my thoughts and cobbled together a plan. I didn’t think I could outsmart her, so I had to out-truth her, and the only way to do that was with logic. She wasn’t going to be affected by emotional pleas like Galmine, nor would she be swayed with what was right in front of her like Sheela. I had to make it both personal and logical.
“Do you mind if I ask what you were doing when you were abducted, Trel-Idil-Iria?”
“My private life is none of your business, but how about this? What were you doing when you were taken, male? Were you creating a multi-step master plan to use the toilet?” She let out a sarcastic laugh.
Shit. So much for personal.
“No. I was taken while I was doing my job.” I continued to breathe deep to keep myself from reacting to her insult. “I had just collected a runaway snake from a pool party filled with gorgeous women. The aliens must have had a ship or something in the sky above me because they ripped me right out of the truck and off my world. For all I know, they took the truck, too. If that’s true, no one on Earth knows I was taken.”
It saddened me to hear myself say it out loud. Sure, Beatrice might wonder where I was, but she’d probably be equally concerned with her missing truck. My parents were gone, and I had no family to speak of. Even Lacey would have no idea that I’d left her life forever; she’d probably just think I flaked out on coming back to her party. I must have gotten lost in thought because Trel coughed to get my attention.
“Yeah, so, uh, you should know that my planet is always on the lookout for aliens. It’s like our world’s hobby. We have satellites, and radio telescopes pointed at the stars to try to find evidence that aliens are out there. We have huge militaries with warships and tanks and shit all over the planet. We--” She interrupted me.
“I’m anxious to find the end to your rambling,” she said with an exasperated sigh.
“Right. The point is even with all that technology, my planet could do nothing to stop the aliens, or even see them. They flew right through all those defenses and plucked me and my truck from one of the biggest cities on Earth, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t fight back. We have rockets and shuttles but nothing that could ever reach this place.”
“I understand. But your primitive world sounds as backward as you are. My people are far more advanced. We have space yachts and trading partners across our star system. They will undoubtedly have tracked us to this world and are even now planning a rescue.” Trel spoke with her usual self-assurance. I almost envied that level of blind devotion to an idea as comforting as rescue.
“Maybe. You could be right. And despite everything I say, I really do hope you get rescued. It would mean your people are in a different league than the aliens who are running this shitty experiment.”
She looked around the cave as if seeing something deeper than the rock walls surrounding us.
“When you first appeared, and recognized the monsters outside were from your world, I figured you were responsible for all this. Lone male. Cocky and wanting to take charge. Yet, my superior intellect quickly figured out that was impossible if you are representative of your species.” Trel let out a light laugh, but then stopped when I only shrugged.
“But,” she continued, “I admit that if this world were constructed by aliens and populated with these huge monsters culled from your backward planet, those builders would pose a formidable military challenge for my sisters. However, we have our secrets, too, though I don’t trust you, or them, enough to share any.” She pointed to the cave wall to indicate she was talking about the aliens.
“So, your people can build entire worlds like this one?” I asked in a hopeful tone.
“I did not say that,” she replied with annoyance.
“Can your people fly into the airspace of enemy worlds without being seen?”
“Victor, I did not say that,” she stated dryly.
“I’m trying to figure out the difference between your technology and theirs. I admit my world has a basic tech level far below yours. We can’t cross the stars, for example. If you are way more advanced than us, I just have to wonder how the aliens got through your defenses undetected so they could take you. That’s why I asked where you were when they got you. Maybe you were in a remote area like Sheela when she was snatched? It might explain how they got around your super-secret technology.”
I took a guess that Trel wasn’t the kind of woman to go out on her own and be lost in nature, like Sheela. If she was as powerful and important as she said she was, I expected her to live inside a bunker with multiple layers of guards and protection, especially if she had ten thousand males after her.
“Is that your point? To insult my world and those who would rescue me? If so, you’ve found something else at which you excel.” She sounded disgusted.
“No. Not at all,” I said with a sigh. “Why do you always read me wrong? I’m saying your world sounds way smarter than mine. Like a thousand years smarter, at least. The human race can barely agree on the color of the sky.” I laughed when I thought about how little my race knew about aliens or the galaxy. “So traveling to the stars is pretty much impossible for us right now. It’s painful to admit, but my people are never coming for me.”
I sighed at the truth of that statement but pushed on to drive home my point.
“Sheela and Galmine both said their peoples lack space flight, so all our hopes are on you. I’m hopeful your sisters will blast in and save us. But I needed to know how sure you were that your people could overcome the aliens who swooped in, grabbed you, and ran without firing a shot. If I were ever going to risk my life by waiting in the cave with you, I would want to be absolutely certain your people would be here.”
Trel’s dark eyes peered into mine. She was so beautiful it was tempting to look away, but I held her gaze to try to prove I wasn’t there to grovel or beg. I think Trel was counting on me begging at some point and maybe she was surprised I didn’t.
“You would consider my recommendation?” she asked with clear disbelief. “I’ve been saying my sisters would rescue me since the beginning.”
“That’s what Sheela said.” I felt like I had her right where I wanted her. “And I figure you wouldn’t risk your life unless you’ve looked logically at your chance of being rescued. I guess I really wanted to know what you thought.”
“And you still don’t believe me?” she said defensively.
“Look. You have no reason to accept I am telling the truth when I say I believe you. I would love to be in your shoes. As I said, my people are absolutely not coming. I know it deep in my heart, yet I still leave some hope for a miracle. You, however, have a legitimate reason to think you will be rescued. I don’t blame you for holding onto that until, well, forever.”
She did a double take.
“Oh. Okay then. So you think as I do?” Trel began. “That is a surprise, but a welcome one. Now, you see why you must stop your wasteful pursuits with Sheela and Galmine?”
It was the easy way out. I could sit in the relative safety of the cave until whatever was going to happen, happened. We might die from nesting birds, giant crocs, or something as simple as starvation. Right up until the end we could all sit around hoping for rescue.
“I wish I could, but ultimately it all comes down to living long enough to see those rescue ships. I don’t know when your sisters will come, and we only have a few weeks until the orange birds try and take this cave.”
“You sound like Sheela. She has spent too much time in the company of males.” Her reply didn’t have much of her normal snark. I felt like she had at least considered my words. It was pretty obvious by her own logic that her people weren’t as advanced as the aliens and that rescue was far from a sure thing.
I stood up, signaling my desire to get back to work.
“Trel, I would love to work with you. Everything you touch gets improved. Please consider becoming more involved with our project until your rescue arrives. You can even stay inside the cave if you want. We just need--” I said before she held up her hand to cut me off.
“So it finally comes out. You were here to beg and flatter after all. Here’s a better idea: why don’t you get involved in my award-winning project called ‘waiting for rescue’? Or just run off into the woods and die. I don’t care. You’ve been nothing but an annoyance since you’ve interrupted my life.” She waved her hand dismissively.
I was tempted to lob something verbally in return, but I’d made a huge amount of progress talking back and forth. It was by far our longest conversation and the one with the fewest insults. Not zero insults, but fewer than normal. I couldn’t throw all that away to make myself feel better.
“I’m done with this,” she said with nearly a growl after I didn’t leave immediately.
“I hear you, but there is one more thing I have to say before I get the other women,” I said in a sympathetic voice. It was clear I’d won our battle, but I also had to win the war. “I’m not the selfish person you think I am, Trel. I listen to all advice and use what works best, no matter who had the idea. That’s why we’re using your axe blade, twisting your cords, and building with logs lying on their sides as you suggested. But I’ll go the extra mile for you and promise that once we have the fort built, I’ll personally help you stockpile food and water in the cave. Maybe you can outlast the birds. I don’t know. But I won’t leave anyone to die. Not ever.”
I turned around and walked out before she could reply. It was probably going to be another insult, anyway.
When I emerged in the light of the afternoon, it felt like I’d returned to the real world. Numerous clocks continued to count down and more tasks piled up. My blood pressure spiked as all my problems flooded back in: Galmine needed something to do, Sheela and I needed to get back to cutting, and distant roars reminded me of the stakes.
The two women looked at me with anticipation after my big talk with Trel. Was it best to tell them I’d gotten nowhere?
That wasn’t exactly true. No matter how much Trel pretended to believe rescue was imminent, she was too smart to ignore logic forever. I’d planted the seed of doubt in her web while also purging the last inkling of the doubt from inside me. Nobody was coming. Long-term survival was our responsibility, and it was out of the hands of our home worlds. Taking the next step on that journey was up to me.
I took a deep breath of fresh air and felt the sun on my cheeks. I was alive and still playing whatever “game” this was called. As long as I could say that, I had the ability to help my new friends.
“It’s still just the three of us, and we have a mountain of work to do,” I said to both of the beautiful women. “Let's get going.”