Before she went back inside the cave, Sheela gave me a few pointers for staying awake at night. Standing was the most useful advice, but she also had me shift on my feet and look at things near and far to keep the eyes busy. It reminded me of a million roleplaying encounters with inept castle guards. There was always that one guy who fell asleep or was away from his post playing dice or taking a dump. The last thing I wanted to do was doze off and never wake up because of a sneaky dinosaur, so I shifted on my feet while I leaned on a spear.
Twilight became night, but the forest never turned to complete darkness. I’d seen a red and a white moon when I landed, but the white one rose first tonight. The dull white light sliced through the high canopy, draping the forest floor with a glow very similar to the moon on earth.
What if it was my moon? The aliens seemed capable of anything. They brought me and a bunch of dinosaurs across the stars. Why not bring the moon, too? Maybe the red moon was imported as well?
I tried to get a better look at the large disc and maybe see the familiar craters of Earth’s satellite, but I could only glimpse slivers of white through the crowded pines, and it wasn’t enough of a view to tell for certain.
I tried to put myself in the aliens’ shoes and figure out why I would want an extra moon. What was the physics involved? That got me nowhere because my science background started and stopped with animals. In the end, I decided it really didn’t matter. I was here on this alien world. There were dinosaurs. And I had beautiful women to protect.
As the mystery orb traveled through the sky, numerous flying bugs began glowing and dancing in the grove below me. Some were pinpoints of white light, like tiny candles drifting on the wind. Many yellows twinkled on and off, reminding me of fireflies from back home. But I was truly surprised when a nearby bush started glowing with bright neon green.
A crow-sized firefly crawled up through the branches, and the baseball-sized green bulb on its underside illuminated my guard area like a street lamp. I worried that the glowing insect might be hostile, so I stopped my shifting feet and froze in place.
The bug seemed to consider me for a moment before taking flight and buzzing out into the forest of sequoias. More of its kind showed up, and little green suns quickly created a multicolored light show. When two of the insects came together, their lights flashed as if saying hello to each other. As their numbers grew, the flares became even more dazzling. Over the next hour or so I saw several “parties” of green revelers strobing their lights on and off in complex patterns. A group of forty or fifty bugs hung out nearby, and I imagined I was at a prehistoric rave.
The pterodactyl flapped its wings from time to time as if annoyed by the light show. I pictured her as an angry old woman complaining about “those damned kids” and their bothersome nighttime activities. I, however, was glad the lights kept me awake and helped me keep an eye on that mean old lady in the tree.
Jinx saw her, too. The little blue dinosaur slept curled up just behind my feet. I looked down to make sure he was okay every so often, to distract my tired brain and heavy eyes.
When the giant lightning bugs finally ended their light show, I figured it was close to midnight. The white moon had moved higher in the sky, which was my only clue to the passage of time. The second moon also began its ascent, and it added a red tint to everything. The already strange world became even more alien as the red glow overpowered the softer white of the first moon. For a short time, I was distracted as I watched the colors change.
To help stay awake, I repeatedly checked my dead wristwatch out of habit. How was I going to know when it was time to wake up Galmine? I dwelled on that problem mostly to keep my mind busy, but my droopy eyes soon became a critical issue. Even shifting my feet and admiring nature didn’t help.
I flicked on my Eye-Q to combat the drowsiness. Maybe I could stay awake by exploring the machine jammed inside my head. I turned again to those roleplaying games. If the aliens gave me a user interface, there was probably a scenario explanation, or quest, or something to explain what I was supposed to be doing. I just had to find it.
The interface was a model of efficiency. My name was on the top, and there were a few tabs in a row underneath. One advantage to the simplicity, however, was that it was easy to see when something new appeared. There was one extra tab since the last time I’d checked. The name on it said “Assets.”
What the hell?
Structures was kind of obvious, but I hadn’t seen anything close to a structure since I’d arrived on this planet. I figured that would change once we got down to construction, but why would it even matter? Did I win a prize for building the most structures? Who was I playing against? How big did I have to make one before it would count? I could think of a dozen questions, but no answers.
The word “creatures” was a bit more interesting. The number one was highlighted so I could click it. The next screen appeared as a simple spreadsheet list, but only the first row was filled in. The computer displayed Jinx’s species identification, his sex, as well as a field for his nickname. When I hovered over his name, it gave an option to change it. I was surprised the aliens would bother with such customization.
But the strangest term was “Women.” My man brain made me click on every letter of the word, hoping there was more explanation behind it. Would I be getting women for being on the planet? Did I have to find them? Were they handed out like spoils for killing dinosaurs? Were they the prizes for building structures or upping my creature count?
I mentally rubbed my hands together as I dreamed of the possibilities but soon realized it was my imagination getting away from me. Sure, it would be cool to have that ticker say “Women: 10,” or whatever, but I had never managed to maintain a consistent rating of “Women: 1,” back on earth, and I was pretty stoked when Suzanne was my “1” for those few months, too.
But I lived in a cave with three women already, and they didn’t show up in my stats. Shouldn’t I have a 3 next to “Women,” if that’s how it worked?
I tapped around the Eye-Q using my eye movements. The long night gave me time to practice, so I didn’t have to use my hands. To my relief, even that basic level of mental occupation seemed to keep me from falling asleep. When Galmine came out and tapped me in the middle of the night, I realized it was much like computer games back on earth. I’d completely lost track of time while dicking around with it.
“Hey. My turn,” Galmine whispered as she nudged me.
“Alright,” I whispered as I reviewed my night. I made it through my shift without falling asleep, and other than the occasional cricket, the forest had fallen silent while I passed the time inside the Eye-Q. Even old lady pterodactyl seemed to be zonked. She hadn’t made a peep since the bugs stopped blinking. For my first night, I was satisfied I’d kept a good watch.
I tried to hand her my spear, but she didn’t take it. Instead, she held my arm with both of hers, got on her tiptoes, and stretched toward my face.
“I couldn’t throw it anyway,” she whispered in my ear. “I can shout, though.”
Galmine’s breath was hot against my ear, and I experienced a shiver of pleasure cascade down my spine. She pulled away, but our faces were now inches apart. Even though she was backlit from the fire inside the cave, her emerald eyes seemed to glow green in the darkness. She looked down at my lips, and I felt myself begin to lean toward her.
My heart was hammering in my chest like a marching band’s bass drum.
“Ohhh,” she moaned softly as her hands came up to touch my mouth gently. “You are so handsome, and warm, and hard, and soft. If we kiss, we will continue onto other things. You won’t get much sleeping done, and I won’t get much guarding done.”
“Uhhh, yeah,” I said. It was like Galmine had cast a spell on me, and I shook my head to clear the lust out of my brain. What was I thinking? There was a lot of work to do tomorrow, and the other two women were sleeping only a dozen feet away. I couldn’t have a make-out session with Galmine right now.
Even though I really wanted to.
“But later? I would like that.” She smiled.
“You would?” I whispered with a bit of surprise. The gray-skinned woman looked like a busty supermodel, and I couldn’t quite believe her words.
“Of course,” she whispered. “I like you and want to feel you inside of me.”
“Uhhh. Wait, like sex?” As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to pull them back and beat myself over the head with them. It was quite possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever said, and I already knew what her answer would be. I was being such a creeper, and I hadn’t meant it.
“No,” she said with a slight smile, and I felt my stomach drop. “Love making. Much better than sex.”
“Ummm. Yeah. I guess it--” My tongue tried to knot itself up in my mouth. This couldn’t possibly be happening, and I almost expected Beatrice to call me on my radio or for my alarm clock to wake me up from this dream.
“But we have so much work to do now!” she whispered urgently. “You need your rest. Please go to sleep. I’ll watch over the camp.” Galmine let go of my arms and stood normally. Then she gestured toward the inside of the cave. “Go. I’ll be fine. I’ve done this a bunch.”
“Thanks, Galmine,” I said as I fought against the flurry of different emotions. Part of me wondered if I’d imagined our conversation, but I kept repeating her words over in my head as I stumbled my way to the fire.
Galmine had just thrown a couple big sticks into the dying flames, and they came crackling alive as I sprawled out on the floor. The smoke billowed over me like a familiar blanket, and I coughed in the acrid haze as quietly as I could.
The extra flames cast their light on the sleeping shape across the fire from me. Sheela breathed evenly in what I hoped was a very deep sleep. She was curled up next to the fire in a cat-like pose. Or maybe she was chilly, though it was still a million degrees outside. A part of me wanted to wrap my arms around her to see if she was cold, but that was my exhaustion talking, or possibly it was the arousal from the conversation I’d had with Galmine.
My final thoughts were about crafting a simple bed to avoid being on the ground, but the hard ground didn’t really bother me. I fell asleep about two seconds after my head touched the cave floor, and it felt like only four seconds had passed before I heard someone calling my name.
“Victor. Wake up. It is morning.” Sheela’s Aussie accent was still sexy as hell, but the early hour muted some of the charm.
I was on my stomach with my arms folded under my head. I had used my leather hat as a pillow, and I turned over to see Jinx pecking at the ground near my elbow.
“I’m up,” I replied with a tired voice. “I just had the shortest night of sleep in my life. But I’m ready to go.”
I rolled over to grab my hat, and my position on the ground gave me the perfect view of the undersides of Sheela’s bikini-covered breasts. It was entirely accidental that my eyes went right to them, and since I didn’t want to stare at her, I distracted myself by being deeply interested in sweeping the dirt off each of my pant legs. My tan uniform pants also had a second problem: seeing a sexy woman next to my bed first thing in the morning meant that it was two-by-four hammering time again.
“I have already gotten our water for the morning,” Sheela began. “I also have some leaves for making our cordage--”
“Wait, you went without me?” I was really awake now. I then noticed my socks and boots were drying next to the fire, but I couldn’t recall taking them off. I used it as another distraction while I laced them up.
“Do not worry, Victor. I am rarely bothered in the morning. I think the forest is asleep when the sun first rises.”
The thought of danger worked wonders to wake me up, and I looked around the cave. Galmine slept peacefully a few feet to my right. Trel wasn’t visible, but I had to assume she was in her nook and not outside the cave being helpful. In other words, everything looked as normal as it could be in this abnormal situation.
“Asleep, you say?” I asked as I wondered why we’d go out at any other time. I got to my feet and brushed the sleeves of my shirt. “Can we go out again to get more water, now? Shouldn’t we make our runs only in the morning?”
“I have thought about it many times, but there are not enough safe hours in the day to get anything done,” Sheela replied. “I could not do multiple morning water runs until you joined us. When we have more clay pots, we can each carry one and get water for the whole day. But you are correct, it would be better that way.”
“Thanks,” I said, finally looking at her. I tried to fix my untucked shirt but chuckled at the futility of it. After two days in dino hell, my uniform looked like I’d gotten it wet, rolled it into a ball, then put it back on without ironing it. Wearing this mess to the animal shelter would have been an automatic write-up.
“The plan was for both of us to get water and find materials to make rope,” I said as I kneaded some of the worst creases in my shirt. “Thanks for grabbing that stuff already. Let's take a drink while you show us how to make the cordage, then we can go out and get clay, collect firewood, and catch some fish for breakfast.”
“How will we bring the fish, clay, and firewood back at the same time?” Sheela asked.
She had a point. I knew firsthand how hard it was to carry something over a long distance. Having a pot full of clay would be even heavier. So how the hell would we carry fish? Back home we’d carry them in a cooler, or a net if we didn’t have to go far. I’d also seen people at the beach with multiple fish hooked on stringers.
“You’re going to show us how to make cord, right?” I asked. “That would be perfect to carry the fish.”
“Yes, between the two of us and a loop of cord we can get it all back,” Sheela agreed, and her yellow cat eyes studied me with a strange intensity.
Out of habit, I checked my watch again. Then, seeing it was dead for the hundredth time, I yanked it off and put it in my pocket. I was tempted to throw it in the fire, but I wasn’t ready to let it go forever.
“Shit. We should just go now if the morning is safer. We have so much to do.” If there was a safer time to be outside, I didn’t want to waste a drop of it.
“Victor,” Sheela replied with a sympathetic glance. “We have time. You have to eat before going back out, we both do.”
“We have a lot to do,” I said as I mentally went down the list of all that had to happen today: Make cordage. Get clay. Fish for breakfast. Find firewood. Make an axe. Cut down trees. Make the turnstile. Start the fort. Study Jinx. Guard the cave. Then get more water and food. The list for survival here was endless.
“Will it help if we eat some berries while I demonstrate how to make cordage?” Sheela asked.
She was being practical, and the mere mention of berries was a reminder that I was starving. As long as we ate while doing something useful, it wouldn’t delay us too bad.
“Yeah, we could do that,” I allowed. “But you also have to promise me from now on you’ll wake me when you get up. I want to be ready anytime you go out of the cave. You know, in case you need help to get back in.”
“I will, Victor,” Sheela replied. “But do not worry. Trel was watching the cave today while I was gone.”
“No, Sheela, you offered me an extra drink of water,” Trel groaned from behind her curtain. “Since I was already awake, I decided I wanted to sun myself on the ramp. Now that the male is done sleeping in, I'll stay back here in my room. Thank you very much.”
I had hoped Trel would wake up on the right side of the bed and be in a better mood around me, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen today.
“I’m sure Galmine’s tired, but we need her for the cordage lesson,” I said to Sheela. I wasn't going to bother replying to Trel anymore. It was obvious she wasn't going to like me so she could go fuck herself. Sheela and Galmine were plenty nice and seemed to appreciate me helping them.
“I will wake her,” Sheela volunteered. “She scares easily while asleep.”
She walked to Galmine, bent to one knee next to her, and rubbed the sleeping woman along the top half of her arm.
“Galmine, we need you,” Sheela whispered with surprising tenderness.
The gray-skinned woman smiled at Sheela’s voice without opening her eyes. Galmine stretched her arms and legs as fully as she could, looking like a ballerina on her side. Despite her stony gray skin, Galmine’s body seemed soft and pliable. The gorgeous woman continued her stretch for half a minute and gradually added some innocent moaning with her movements. As soon as she was done, the green-eyed woman sat up and looked at us.
“Good morning,” I said to Galmine.
“Oh, sorry, I lost myself a little,” she replied as she smiled broadly. “Stretching my body in the morning makes me feel amazing. Do you like to feel amazing in the morning, Victor?”
“Uhhh, yeah,” I gulped as my eyes roamed across her breasts, stomach, hips, and thighs. She was drop dead gorgeous.
“And good morning to you. This fireside bed feels so good and is so warm, I hate leaving it. Did you sleep well?” Galmine batted her silver eyelashes at me.
“Yeah,” I lied. It made sense that a woman with stone skin would enjoy bedding on rock, but I sure as hell didn’t. Though I went out like a light, my sleep was about as comfortable as rolling around on broken glass all night. I had sore muscles and joint aches in places that never bothered me in my life. Still, watching her stretch did wonders for my mood. It was pretty much impossible not to smile at anything she did.
“I’m really looking forward to today,” Galmine said with cheer. “We have so many exciting things to do.” The stone woman seemed to go from a dead sleep right to her normal bubbly mode. Even though it was our first night together, I was confident she didn’t have a bad side of the bed.
Once she was satisfied Galmine was awake, Sheela went over to Trel’s curtain and reached behind it. At first, I thought she was going to yank out Trel by one of her hoop earrings, but, instead, she pulled out a giant leaf that was folded to look like a green plastic bag. Sheela set it next to the fire ring and spread it out, revealing a big pile of round berries and yellowish fruits sort of like little wrinkly pears. Galmine had mentioned the fruit and berries were stored in Trel’s area.
Jinx appeared as if he was ready to eat breakfast with us, but Sheela brushed him away with a little smile. He chirped a few times in what had to be a complaint about his horrible treatment.
“Eat as much as you need, Victor,” Sheela offered as she pointed at the berries. “I will try to eat them as well. This will give us energy until we can catch some more nutritious food.”
“Great, thanks for the berries. I’ll snack on them while you show us the cordage, but then we have to be going. We have a ton of stuff to do.” I didn't want to sound frantic, but we really did have a shitload of tasks ahead of us today, tomorrow, and for the next thirtyish days. If we wanted to live past the angry orange-bird invasion, we needed to get a move on.
“I will get the leaves we need,” Sheela replied as she stepped over to the woodpile where she kept them.
I sat down next to Galmine and laughed inwardly at the contrast between us. Her gray skin seemed to glow in the morning like it was fresh and new. My outward appearance was a case study in uniform infractions.
The silver-haired woman cozied up next to me while we both leaned over the mixture of berries and fruits, and I remembered the words she whispered to me last night. She wanted to “make love with me, not just have sex.” That sentence was a one-song playlist on endless repeat deep inside my man brain. I shuddered as her arm rubbed against mine, but she made no further advances.
“Which of these are good?” I asked Galmine partially to be polite, and partially so that I could distract myself with small talk. Her perfume was stronger than I remembered and strangely calming.
“The dark blue ones are fabulous,” she said as she popped one of the acorn-sized blue berries in her mouth.
“Yeah. They’re damned good,” I agreed after biting into one. The berries looked like blueberries but tasted more like strawberries.
While I crammed in more berries, Sheela brought over a bunch of leaves that looked like long, skinny, palm fronds. Then she sat down in front of us.
“So,” Sheela began, “we make cordage by stripping long leaves down to raw strips of tough, stringy material. Then we wrap two of those strands in a spiral, so they become very durable. On my world, we use a tough grass that grows taller than I can reach. Here, I have not found such grass, but these smaller plants are very strong. They should work perfectly.”
Sheela gave one of the leaves to me and another to Galmine. They were about three feet long and three inches wide when laid flat. They reminded me of yucca plant leaves, only not as pointy.
“That’s it?” I asked. “Rip and twist?” I thought it would be a lot more complicated.
“It is very simple,” Sheela countered.
I chewed some more berries while studying the leaf. It had definite stripes along the length. It was almost as if the leaf was made of dozens of hidden segments lined up next to each other. I made a clumsy effort to pull at the outermost one but it took me awhile because I didn’t have sharp fingernails like Sheela.
The blonde woman made short work of her demo leaf, popped some berries into her mouth, and then focused on Galmine and my progress. Her grimace made me think that she didn't really like the berries. In fact, her mechanical chewing reminded me of how I must have looked when Mom forced me to eat peas at dinnertime when I was a kid.
Sheela caught me watching her and smiled. Her teeth were blue, and I let out a light chuckle.
“You have blue teeth,” I said as I opened up my mouth to show her mine.
“Oh!” Sheela gasped as she shut her mouth. I was surprised she was so bashful, but Trel interrupted before I could make another comment.
“The male’s eating habits are as appalling as his unsatisfactory uniform appearance,” Trel said while standing next to her half-opened curtain. “But I guess now that we’ve made him a part of our group he can reveal who he really is: a slob. His supposed expertise leaves much to be desired.”
I was stunned at her blunt words, but I held my tongue rather than snap back at her. She had some issue I needed to figure out, but in the meantime, I definitely remembered this part of the animal control department training videos on how to deal with difficult residents. Sometimes it’s best just to let them be mad for a while.
I picked up a second leaf and got busy tearing off the strips. Sheela also began her next one. Galmine was still working on her first but was nearly done.
When I didn’t reply to Trel, she groaned with annoyance and stepped out of her alcove. She’d kicked off her fancy sandals, and my eyes went right to her two bare human feet as she walked to the water pot. The responsible part of my brain advised me to look away from her antics, but my eyes had a mind of their own.
“I must quench my desire,” Trel declared while giving me a sideways glance. “For water,” she added as an afterthought.
My man brain went into record mode as she casually bent over to grab the water jug. Her thin dress hadn’t gotten soaked with the sweat of the day, so the material hung loosely from her curves, rather than sticking to them. Even so, the garment strained under the weight of her breasts. I fully expected her to say “oopsie,” and spill the water over her front just to further taunt me.
“You do realize you have yet to close your blue mouth, male?” Trel said with smug satisfaction after she had taken a drink. “So rude. You’re easy to read and even easier to manipulate.”
Damn, she was right.
I closed my stupid mouth when the spell of her beauty was short-circuited by the power of her insult. I thought about a million curses to throw back at her, but I also knew I didn’t have time for it right now. We were at the early build parts of our plan, and if there was anything I knew from real-time strategy games, it was that the first few minutes of a match were the most important. I could waste time telling Trel off, or I could finish making rope and accomplish something useful, then go get clay, food, and firewood. One activity was going to help us survive for the next month. The other wouldn’t.
Trel took her drink and set the pot back down without drama. I didn’t watch her though. Instead, I picked around in the fruit and tried one of the pears. It was bitter, which was so fitting.
“Will you be joining us?” Sheela asked of Trel.
“What do you think?” Trel replied. “I’ll be in my quarters, listening for the sounds of rescue ships.” She sauntered to her nook with her flowing dress hanging from her hips. Her legs were folded into their “wings” configuration, which counteracted some of my attraction to that perfect ass. I didn’t find the spider legs completely repulsive this time, so I guess I was starting to get used to them.
Sheela sighed as the spider-woman pulled the curtain shut once more, but brightened again when she saw me finish tearing apart my second leaf frond.
“Excellent job, you two. Galmine, you have a gift for this. Your cuts are perfect.” Sheela held up one of Galmine’s pieces. It was a thin, yellowish strand about the width of a shoestring.
“My fingers are not as flexible as yours,” Galmine said with a pleasant laugh. “But I can do this all day long. It’s kind of fun.”
It wasn’t anything close to my idea of fun. I could do it all day long if I had to, but by dinnertime, my fingers would probably be covered in blisters. I pulled off a few more strands and laid them next to each other so I could get a much better look at the makeup of the plant. The green “meat” of the leaf is what seemed to hold the strands together. If I had a sturdy comb, I could have brushed the cords right out of the leaf.
That gave me an idea. I held my half-torn leaf with both hands about six inches from each other and then ran it along one of the edges of a rock in the fire ring. The rough surface immediately stripped away the green crap and left me with a wear spot in the middle of my leaf. Only the stronger strands were left holding the two halves together.
I quickly yanked the exposed strands, starting in the middle. I was done with my leaf in about half the time it took Sheela to do hers. Galmine was much slower doing it Sheela’s way because she didn’t seem to have quite the same dexterity.
“Hey, check this out,” I said with excitement. “If I rub the leaf just right, I can expose the strands better than using my fingers. This might help Galmine go faster.”
I illustrated the method by repeating my experiment. It really did make things quicker.
“I’d love to try it,” Galmine said as she scooted toward the fire ring.
A few minutes later she was ripping leaves on the rock and setting the strips in a pile next to her. With the new technique, she was able to go about as fast as Sheela and me. It was a definite improvement.
“This is great, Victor,” she said to me with mischievous eyes. “Thank you. My fingers can be soooo clumsy.” She paused and looked up at me and bit her lip. “With some things.” I remembered her sexy whispers, but I forced my mind back to the tasks at hand, and tried to ignore the sexual tension between us.
We really had to get moving.
“Let me show you how to twist a few.” Sheela picked up one of the strands and began to roll it between her fingers. “Then you will be able to work on these while Victor and I are gone.” Sheela probably sensed my impatience because my knee bounced with nervous energy throughout her whole presentation.
“The strength of the rope comes from twisting these flat strands so they become rounded,” Sheela said. “First, by starting in the middle we can rotate the strand so tight that it creates a natural loop, like this.” She rolled it in such a way a loop appeared at the halfway point. It reminded me of a lone shoelace, if you tied a knot in the middle and then lined up the two halves of the lace so they were side by side.
“From here, just twist the two dangling ends together like a braid. It is simple to add in additional strands when you near the end of any length.” Sheela spun the two ends together and added in new pieces with remarkable speed as the twist neared the ends. In five minutes, she’d spun a couple feet of cord. She then looked to us to do it on our own.
I rolled my strand as she had done. It took a few tries to get the loop right, but once I did, the twisting went fast. The concept seemed simple enough, but I added a couple additional sections as practice. When I was done with the first foot-long cord, I watched Galmine’s methodical movements. I wanted to claw my face at how slow she went, but I couldn’t immediately see a way to improve her technique, and Sheela seemed satisfied Galmine had the method down.
“Hey Sheela, if we join our two pieces together, it will be long enough for us to use for carrying fish back.” I picked from my pile of strands and began to twist new ones onto my foot-long sample of cord.
Sheela and I worked a few more minutes to lengthen our sample ropes. When it looked like we had enough, Sheela tied mine with hers, so it was about four feet long. During that same time, Galmine was only able to finish her first six inches.
“This should be plenty, would you agree?” Sheela asked me.
“For a few fish? Sure,” I replied as I took the cord from her and stuffed it in my large front pocket.
“Thanks for helping ladies,” I said as I jumped to my feet. “Are we good to go? I want to get to the lake as soon as possible.” I was so happy to have one of our team members doing something useful like making cords, but it was going to be awhile before she finished her one-foot demo piece. That left Sheela and me standing around. As Beatrice always said, “You got time to lean, you got time to clean.” I wasn’t anxious to clean, but her words did have some wisdom for getting shit done.
“Yes, thank you, Sheela. Go, you two. I can do this. Don’t forget clay when you’re out. If you can keep it wet that will save me from using all of our water to mix it.” Galmine pointed to our half-gallon supply of water.
We’d need more water if we were going to be making pottery, so it made sense to drink the rest of our supply and then refill it while we were at the lake. But we couldn’t carry water, clay, fish, and firewood at the same time. Something would have to be pushed back. Since the first three were all found at the lake, the firewood had to get the metaphorical axe. We’d find that later in the day.
“We should all drink the pot empty,” I suggested while pointing to the water container. “We can bring back more water while we get the clay to save time.” Part of it was maximizing efficiency, but I was also so thirsty I could easily down the whole thing myself.
“It will be a little farther to carry it from the lake, but we will already be moving slow with the clay, fish, and firewood,” Sheela said in agreement.
“Let’s save the firewood for later, Sheela,” I said as I shared my thought process. “We have enough stored here in the cave to get us by. I’d rather get the supplies we need at the lake in one shot. Next time we’ll make a handcart.” The wheel was the simplest machine there was. I was sure I could make one at some point.
“I agree,” Sheela replied with a tiny smile.
“All right. Everyone needs to hurry and drink some more water.” I shot looks to each of the three women.
“Pass,” Trel immediately responded.
“I’ll take a little,” Galmine said.
I picked it up and carried it to her, but she only took a small sip before returning to her task. The pot had about an inch of water left, and I brought it over to the beautiful cat-woman.
“Thank you,” Sheela said after she took a small drink.
“That’s all you want?” I asked, amazed she hadn’t taken at least half of what was left.
“I require no more,” she replied.
“Okay, let me finish this, and we can go,” I said. “Down the hatch.” I slammed every last drop of what was left.
I felt pretty good with a little food and water in my stomach, but I was left with a disturbing aftertaste because Trel hadn’t voluntarily taken some. Why did she spend so much time being angry with me? Yes, she drank water a little while ago, but that didn’t feel like the real reason she refused more. Her issues with me were affecting her judgment.
“Can you remind me of Trel’s full name?” I said quietly to Sheela.
“Trel-Idil-Iria, Duchess of family Iria.” She seemed unsurprised that I would ask such a question.
Though it would cost me a few extra minutes, I hoped I’d found the source of her anger. I didn’t think I was the least bit rude to her, but there was one thing I should have done better. If she wanted me to call her by her full name, I’d do it. The show of respect seemed a minor investment with a potentially huge reward.
I repeated it over and over in my head and noted that it kind of rhymed. When I knew I had her name memorized, I returned just inside the entrance.
“Thanks, Galmine, for helping out. And thank you Trel-Idil-Iria, Duchess of family Iria for watching over her while we’re out.” I happened to see Jinx near the fire. He’d gotten himself a big blue berry and pecked into it like a little jackhammer. “And watch out for Jinx, if you can.”
“Bye-bye,” Galmine replied with a friendly wave. “We will.”
Trel said nothing from behind her screen, which was much better than her normal insults, so I took it as a marginal victory.
Sheela and I walked down the ramp, through the bushes and rocks, until we stood at the edge of the grove of redwoods. She pointed almost straight up to the pterodactyl on its familiar perch, and I glanced up to see the winged dinosaur watching us in return.
“We need a disguise,” I said as a joke. “So we can slip out without her knowing we’re gone.”
“She did not bother me when I got water this morning. Maybe she hunts later in the day?” Sheela suggested.
“Or, maybe she learned her lesson when we threw spears at her,” I said with a bit of satisfaction. Although the fact she was there at all made me think the pterodactyl believed there was a chance at getting into the cave.
“I wish I could snap my fingers and have our turnstile built for the entrance,” I said while looking up one last time. “It would make it so we didn’t have to worry about her.”
“Perhaps when we return?” Sheela replied.
“Yeah, we have to risk her flying down while we’re gone. It would take too long to make the cord and put all those poles together. We’ll stick with food and water this morning, then everything else.” I felt a bit discouraged when I thought about how much there was to do, but I was happy to get a move on.
“Our journey will take us up there,” Sheela said while pointing up the hill. “We will follow the ridgeline above this little valley until we reach the lake where I found you. It will be much safer than walking down the creek. The dinosaurs favor the water, even in the morning.”
“So, we can expect trouble at the lake?” I said with a little sarcasm.
“Yes,” Sheela replied. “The lake always has predators lurking, but we have no real alternative.”
“Couldn’t we walk that way? Along the foot of the hill?” I pointed to our left, which was the same way the creek flowed.
“You think of every possibility,” Sheela said. “This is good. I prefer to stay on the ridgelines because the dinosaurs seem to prefer the lowlands. Not all of them. But many. This ridge has few trees and less distraction. Most animals will stay in the safety of ground cover.”
“Won’t we be seen up there?” I replied. I thought again of Bambi and what happened to his mother in the open field.
“Yes,” she nodded. “But observing them from far away helps us avoid true surprise and gives us options. It is a trade-off.”
My brain processed everything she said and could find no fault in her logic. Last night, those green raptor dinos had been snooping around not far from where we were now standing. The pterodactyl also refused to leave the grove. Going up onto the hill to get away from those beasts didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
“You want me to lead?” I asked with surprise when Sheela motioned for me to go in front of her. This was one of those times my first impulse was to let her take the lead and study what she did. Assign the task to the best player in the group and all that. But deep down I thought it would be cool to be in charge.
“To survive, we must both lead,” Sheela replied. “I watched when you were alone in the jungle yesterday, and you did make mistakes, but I suspect much of that was due to dehydration. If I see you about to make similar errors, I will caution you.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said after a deep, calming breath and an internal. “I’m willing to try,”’ Learn by doing was how I lived my life before I came here. I endured high school and a little college, but most of what I learned about animals came from working with my parents in their animal hospital and not through textbooks. This was no different.
I walked with Sheela following me around the rocks near the cave entrance so we could begin our ascent up the slope. A few of the big redwoods dotted the hillside in each direction, but most of the trees ahead of us were smaller and more like the elms, oaks, and regular-sized evergreens from back home.
We’d run next to the same hill last night, but it had been hard to get perspective in the evening shadows. The crest of the hill was a couple hundred yards above us and went left and right as far as I could see through the trees. The slope was somewhat steep, but we didn’t have to crawl or hold onto trees to pull ourselves along.
The rocky hillside became exposed, and the trees thinned out as we neared the bare, windswept summit. A few lichens and mosses dotted the rocks, but not much else. The ridgeline stretched to our left and right like a dark spine, and I stopped us just before I reached the very top.
“See something?” Sheela whispered.
“No. I didn’t want to stand on the top and be seen by everyone on both sides.” I didn’t explain the lesson came from video games. A million newbie players started their first-person shooter careers by standing out in the open so they could get cut down a second later.
“Yes. Well done, Victor. Hunters in my tribe travel along the backside of hills for that same reason. We should look over the top to ensure there are no creatures along the frontside of the ridge where we intend to walk.”
“So, you were just testing me?” I smirked at her.
“Perhaps.” She returned my smile and gestured for me to keep going.
We crept along the rocks until we had a view over the top of the hill.
“Wow,” I breathed out with awe.
The far side of the hill was essentially a cliff above the ocean. We were about a hundred feet above the stark blue water and we looked out on a V-shaped bay. A dark, volcanic mountain was on the left side; a jungle was on the right. Several islands hunkered on the distant horizon, including the one I briefly thought was Catalina from back home. Little clouds dotted the sky above them, and the scene was all sorts of peaceful.
Except for the hordes of dinosaurs lurking in the jungle.
“Why didn’t you tell me the ocean would be here?” I asked with a good-natured laugh.
“Some surprises are useful,” she replied with a feline twinkle in her eye.
“Damn, I don’t care if this is a dinosaur hellscape, this world sure is beautiful.” I could see for miles in every direction except where the redwoods stood behind me.
“That fucking figures,” I said. “We live next to a damned volcano.”
A lone, shattered mountain hugged the coastline on the left side of the bay. The greens and browns of redwoods lapped at the base, but nothing grew on the mountain itself. It would probably fit right into the Sierra Nevada’s back home, but it seemed all the more impressive because it stood alone next to the water. The entire top half appeared to have been blown outward like a giant volcano had exploded. White and gray smoke belched out of the top like an industrial-era factory, making me wonder if the inside was filled with lava. Gigantic, black spires of shiny rock projected high above the lip of the volcano, almost looking like a clawed hand reaching out from the smog.
“It is impressive,” Sheela agreed. “Galmine said she arrived on the planet down there, on that tiny beach.” She pointed near the ocean waves below the volcano, but it was difficult to look down because the water reflected the rays of the morning sun directly into my eyes.
“Amazing,” I said looking away from the glare. “How did she get up those cliffs?” The mountain was bad enough, but the thin beach on that side of the bay was guarded by high cliffs as far as I could see.
“I do not ask her a lot of questions about her time alone. As I said about Trel, each of us carries the weight of that period of fear and handles it differently. I would be wary to climb those cliffs myself. I have been to the edge, and it is too high for my…” she paused for a long moment. “Climbing abilities.”
I thought of my own journey and instinctively looked to the crowded jungle on the right side of the bay. The sandy beach and rainforest where I struggled to stay alive was somewhere in front of me. As the pterosaur flies, I couldn’t be too far from where I lost my shark-man acquaintance.
“Sorry. I can’t help my curiosity,” I replied. “I guess I wouldn’t want to talk about my trip through the jungle, either, except that you already saw how mine ended.”
“The past is done. We must go this way.” She pointed to our right, along the spine of rock, but waited for me to go first.
“Now that we’re on somewhat level ground, are you okay if I run?” I asked.
“I would do the same,” she agreed.
We jogged along the ocean side of the ridgeline so we could see the forest below. We traveled for probably half an hour at that speed, only stopping to ensure nothing was sneaking up on us from the forest side of the hill. I also had to stop a few extra times in between to catch my breath. Thankfully, the only hints of trouble we encountered were distant howls, though that sound never really went away.
The smell of the ocean drifted on the air when the wind blew in the proper direction. The breeze took the edge off the increasing heat of the morning and my exertion from running. It reminded me of being near the beach back home, which made it easier to block out all the things that could kill me here, just for a little while.
From time to time we’d see giant pterodactyls gliding on the wind far out over the ocean. They really were magnificent creatures, especially when they weren’t trying to eat us. As we departed from the view of the bay, we saw more trees and fewer of those soaring birds.
Finally, we entered what I assumed was the same jungle I’d escaped yesterday. The spine of the ridgeline went downward into the familiar choke of vines and trees, and we stuck with it until I had to stop at a jumble of white flowering vines blocking our path. It was the perfect place to catch my breath while looking for a way through.
“It is not much farther,” Sheela advised, hardly breathing any faster than normal. She leaned on her spear as she often did while talking to me.
“How did you even find this place?” I asked.
“I had to know what was around us. I have travelled from far up the beach,” Sheela said while pointing her thumb back over her shoulder. “So getting a feel for the area near the cave has been an interest of mine.”
“How much have you explored?”
“From the cave, I know the grove of tall redwood trees sits in a broad valley with a stream down the middle. I consider that the north side of our territory. The volcano of cracked rock by the ocean is to the east. Beyond that is the coastline I walked to get here.” She then pointed to the rainforest to her left. “And this jungle runs to the west. I do not know how far it goes.”
“And to the south?” I asked.
“Ocean and islands. I have not explored, of course, but perhaps one day we will have time to build a boat,” Sheela said matter-of-factly.
“Maybe there are people out there. Or resources we can harvest. Who knows?” I said while thinking about that future voyage. I could barely see beyond my empty stomach and parched lips to consider building a boat, but I fantasize a bit about sailing on the water. I stood there in thought for a minute while my heart rate decreased.
“Let’s keep going,” I said to end the brief delay. I picked my way through the white flowering vines until it was clear enough to resume our jog. My sore muscles complained about every step for most of our trip, but the morning’s sharp pain was now more of a dull annoyance as my muscles got used to the activity. My uniform didn’t help, either, as the sweat-drenched long pants stuck to my legs or became caught in vines and brambles. When I got back to the cave, I was seriously going to look at cutting shorts out of them to make running a whole lot cooler and easier.
In ten minutes we were deep in the thick of the jungle, and I recalled those first few hours of meeting blood-thirsty raptors and running for my life. I almost hoped to see Kelg or Heracula emerge from the vines and clogged undergrowth. Each would claim I’d fallen into some hilarious practical joke and I’d soon be on my way home.
However, the useless fantasizing didn’t last long. I now accepted my current situation, and this world, for what it was. In fact, getting my head straight was one of my biggest victories so far. Reliving the landing reminded me how lucky I was to fall into the laps of three beautiful women. And I couldn’t overlook I was already back in the same jungle, armed and a little less afraid. The shark man might even say I was “dangerous” now.
That made me smile for a moment. I was glad to have known him, even for those few minutes.
“The lake is just up ahead,” Sheela said after running for a little while longer. “I will lead for a couple of minutes, so I can show you where we need to go. Okay?”
“I’ll be right behind you,” I said. I was proud that I’d gotten us there, but this was one of those times when experience trumped everything else, including my ego. She was a regular at the lake and made killing a giant croc look easy.
“Those are places we must avoid,” she cautioned when we tore through vines and walked around flat areas which reeked of urine. “I suspect they are mating areas. We do not want to smell of animal pheromones.”
I thought of Galmine’s dizzying scent and could imagine the consequences of being that enticing to a dinosaur.
She eventually brought us to a familiar-looking ten-foot cliff. We walked along the edge for about seventy-five feet before reaching a little waterfall spilling over into the jungle below us.
That’s when I recognized it was the same creek I’d used to guide me up and out of the lower part of the jungle. Just before I dunked my head in the lake and almost had it taken off by the giant croc.
“There is the body of the crocodile,” Sheela said as if reading my thoughts.
We were now on the opposite shore of the little lake, but the corpse of the huge monster was impossible to miss. It remained where she’d struck it dead at the edge of the water. However, it did look as if it had been visited by the steak knife salesman.
Something big had come along and turned it over, so its belly faced the sky. Then the scavenger must have sliced the dead croc’s stomach wide open and made it into a serving dish. Blood and bones were splashed randomly all over the muddy bank. In spite of having been gutted, some meat must have been left on the bones, because small dog-sized dinosaurs nosed through the carcass. They were miniature versions of the green-feathered raptors I knew so well, but their feathers were almost all black.
Sheela guided us through some tall marsh grasses on our side of the lake so the little black dinos couldn’t see us. I was sort of sad to see the body being picked apart, but obviously, I was stoked it wasn’t me lying over there. I glanced ahead to Sheela’s athletic frame, thankful she saved me from that horrible fate. She’d given me a second chance at this world.
We walked for a few minutes before I realized the lake was much larger than I remembered. The small pond where the crocodile and I met was one cove of a much larger body of water. Now that I was safely on the shore and not dying of dehydration, I saw the lake beyond. Sheela guided us along the confusing bends of the jungle shoreline until we arrived at a thin slice of water about twenty feet wide.
“We can be somewhat safe here,” she said as she crouched near the water.
About fifty feet away there was a narrow passage leading to the main lake. That constriction made our little cove very private from the open water side, and I glanced around us to ensure there were no animals.
The dense jungle pressed in from all sides, giving us a bit of privacy on the shore, and I figured that a dino would have to stumble through the trees before it would see us. The undergrowth stopped a few feet before it met the water, giving us a way to walk around the cove.
I stood next to Sheela on the red clay shore and poked my spear in the water several times. When I was satisfied no crocs were hiding, I got down on my knees and dipped my hat. It had too many seams to hold water for very long, but it was still better than using my hands. And I sure as hell wasn’t ready to stick my face in. I yanked it out, took a quick drink, and poured the rest on my head.
“I’m in heaven,” I said while trying to forget that I was in a sick amusement park world called Dinosaurland.
However, I couldn’t forget for long because I had endless worries. Galmine was probably only on her second leaf, which wasn’t her fault, but it put pressure on me to think of ways to speed her up. Getting to the lake took longer than I expected. I was already starting to worry about how we were going to get firewood and then dinner tonight.
“It was a good idea bringing the pot for more water,” Sheela said, now kneeling at the water’s edge next to me.
“I appreciate that you went out and got it the first time today,” I said. “If I knew the lake was this far, I might have drunk Trel’s portion before she could come out and insult me.” I turned to gauge the cat-woman’s response, but she seemed distracted for a moment.
“May I borrow that?” she finally said while looking at my sopping wet outback hat. I passed it over, and she did the same thing I’d done: she dipped it in the water, took a drink, then poured the remainder over her head.
“Refreshing,” she declared, before passing the drippy hat back to me. While on her knees, she used both of her hands to brush back her wet and wild hair, looking every bit like she belonged at Lacey’s pool party. I couldn’t help but marvel at how attractive she was.
“Trel was correct about something, you know,” she said dryly.
“This should be hilarious,” I said with a touch of anxiety.
“She described you as easy to read, which you are. To her, that is a flaw. I, however, prefer strong males who see what they want and do what they must do to take it, and I see you looking at me, Victor.”
“Looking at you?” I asked with concern as I got my hat back on. I never expected an alien like Sheela to notice me, but all of a sudden I knew I was going to get the very Earth-like “You aren’t my type,” speech.
“You look at Galmine and Trel just the way you look at me. I know why you do it,” she said in an even tone.
“I, uh.” My heartbeat was an untamed mustang while I waited for her to keep talking.
“You desire sexual fulfillment,” she said in a sympathetic tone. “It is in your eyes when you look at each of us. Trel, for instance, confuses and excites you. I do not know why she behaves that way around you.”
“Galmine, however, hides nothing,” she continued. “While we have known you only a short time, you have shown yourself to be honorable and kind. That is enough for her to want to know you better. I believe you would find her most receptive to your desires.”
I considered what Galmine said in my ear last night and wondered if the two women talked about it before I woke up.
I rubbed my head and peered into the water, hoping the next words out of her mouth would be what I wanted to hear. Sure, Galmine’s curves were hot beyond words, and Trel was, well, gorgeous and deadly in one convenient package. But Sheela was a health-magazine-cover “physical trainer” kind of sexy that was well beyond my wildest fantasies back home. Just listening to the all-business warrior woman talk about sex while we were in a danger-filled jungle was making my heart race.
“As for me, while I appreciate your interest in my body, I cannot act on such attraction because I am married.”
“Oh, ahh. Okay,” I quickly said, even though my chest was saying: “Well, fuck.”
“I am glad you understand.” Sheela didn’t look at me. Instead, she got busy filling the pot with water, then she stood up and carried it away like nothing had just happened.
I was left with my thoughts as the water rippled across the surface of the pond. By the time the ripples were gone, I’d taken comfort that her being married was a pretty good reason to reject me. I would respect her values and keep my head up high. And she did mention Galmine had an interest in me. That was a walk-off homerun in itself, but I couldn’t even think about it until I was safe back in the cave.
“Alright, let’s get some breakfast,” I said as I got to my feet.
It bugged me that we had to get into the water to jab a spear at the fish. Fishing with hand grenades would be more appropriate for this world. Perhaps with a little time, we could make a fishing pole, string together a net, or figure out how to create one of those fish basket things I’d seen on those survival shows. Could a bow and arrow be used for fishing? Anything but stepping into the same water with prehistoric crocodiles.
Thankfully the water was shallow enough we could see the shapes of fish pretty easily and confirm there were no big predators in our cozy cove.
“I’ll stand over there, and we’ll work toward each other,” Sheela said as she walked down the shore a little way. She went waist-deep into the water with a small splashing sound that didn't seem to startle any of the fish. I did my best to be equally stealthy and got to about the same depth in the warm water, but had to move a few steps in her direction to get out of the shallows. When we were both in position, I gave her a thumbs-up, and she pointed down to let me know she was ready.
She held her spear in a cocked throwing position and then froze like a statue. I mirrored her and watched the bottom for movement.
Our statuesque fishing stance dragged onto minutes as we were waiting for one of the fishes to swim near us. Across the lake, a mixed herd of duck-billed human-sized dinosaurs tugged at leaves, rolled in the mud, and warily poked their heads in the water. Another group of elephant-sized dinos with funny-shaped tubular crests splashed at the water’s edge like kids at the beach. They were at least two hundred yards away, so I didn’t think they could see us, but I stayed alert just in case.
I finally saw movement below me. A big fat fish flashed its reflective scales under the sunlight, and I got a good look at it. Then I jabbed my spear into the three-foot-deep water and aimed for that shimmer.
“Holy shit. I hit something,” I said, almost at a shout.
I pulled up a dinner plate sized light-colored fish that had huge teeth. My first impression was that I’d caught a piranha, and I almost dashed out of the water. Didn’t they travel in schools? Was I being surrounded by others? Would they be drawn by the blood of their own kind?
“Are these what’s in the lake?” I asked while pushing back the irrational fear. We’d been fine the whole time, and Sheela said nothing about flesh-eating fish.
“Yes. They are common. There are some reddish striped fish that I have caught also, but those are more common in our little stream,” she replied.
“Do they all have teeth like this?” The fish I held had a mouth full of razors a lot like Heracula’s knife-like set. As daunting as the teeth were, the rest of the fish was pretty ordinary. It reminded me of those decorative fish tank species that were as tall as they were long. This one was about a foot long and had some meat to it. Definitely not a catch and release.
I had to get out of the water to set it down. I tore a big leaf off one of the nearby plants and used it as a drop cloth. The spear had gone in almost right smack in the middle, and the wound was now a bloody mess. Since I didn’t have a knife or sharp rock handy to kill the fish, I used the spear again to end its suffering.
“First blood,” I said to Sheela, repeating a phrase I’d heard many times in video games.
As I walked back into the water, Sheela speared her own fish. It was one of the red kind and was about twice as long as mine, but a lot thinner. She came out of the water and put hers next to mine. I ignored her wet body while I set up for my next attempt. Fishing was serious business, and I wanted to prove my first catch wasn’t a fluke.
“Second blood,” she replied as she humanely dispatched it, perhaps not understanding my words.
My beginner’s luck ended after the first fish. I made several thrusts to hit the movements below me, but I missed each time. Sheela, on the other hand, landed four more of the white fish in the next half hour.
“I think we have enough to head back, we still have a lot of shit to work on. What do you think?” I reassured myself I wasn’t a sore loser. Sheela didn’t even know I was trying to beat her. We had plenty of fish for this outing, and we had to get back. On our next trip, I would let her do the fishing while I did one of my other tasks.
“I am ready, yes,” she said in a hushed voice. I could tell she was stalking another fish, so I didn’t push her.
“I’ll get the clay,” I replied. That would be the easiest assignment of the morning. The whole cove was nothing but red clay dirt and mud.
I crouched by the pile of fish and tipped over the empty food pot. It was easy to see the pot came from this spot, since the red dirt of the shore matched it exactly. I used my hands to scoop in some clay-mud and pack it to the brim so it looked a lot like a flower pot filled with soil. Eventually, we could make a shitload of these pots to grow our own food, and another big problem would be solved. I was excited at having thought of one more tech advancement, but we were a long way from those technological developments. Deep down I guess I hoped Trel was right, and help would soon be here. But I believed Sheela even more; we had to plan as if rescue was never coming.
Sheela made a grunting sound as she speared another fish. I watched her lift the white shark-mouthed catch out of the water and marveled again at her beautiful fuzzy body.
“Gee. You caught another,” I said with playful sarcasm as she approached. “I think it’s safe to say you’re the master fisherwoman in our tribe. Give me that fish, and I’ll string all of them to this cord so we can carry them.” I pulled the rope from my pocket and once again avoided looking at her soaking bikini bottom.
She held her catch so I could pull it off her spear, and then I got busy winding the rope through the gills of all six of the dead fish. It wasn’t very pretty, and might attract bloodthirsty predators, but there was no other way.
“Can you grab some water?” I said while concentrating on my project. All I had to do was tie it off, and we were ready. “I want to--”
A powerful dinosaur roar shook my bones and almost made me drop the fish rope.
“I vote we leave right this second,” I urged as I fumbled with the finished cord. All the fish slid down the line, so they sat at the bottom, and the looped rope was perfect to put my arm through so I could sling the fish over my shoulder.
I felt as much as heard the next few roars. They weren’t the friendly honks and horseplay of the dinosaurs across the lake. The bellows were throaty and commanding like from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, at least as I knew it from television. There was more than one, but less than a hundred.
“Agreed,” Sheela said in a hushed voice.
We were faced with a new problem. We now had two pots to carry along with our spears and the fish. It was a classic loadout problem for me to solve, but it wasn’t really that difficult, even under pressure.
“I’ll carry both pots,” I said to Sheela as she lifted the full water pot up from the bank. “So you can carry both spears.”
“Where is your spear?” she asked as she set the water pot on top of the one I’d filled with clay.
“What the?” I scanned the shore and didn’t see my weapon. I knew it was close because I’d just had it, but so were giant dinos.
“Leave it. We have to go. Now!” I tried to sound confident, rather than panicky, but I was scared shitless.
In five seconds I had the water pot balanced on top of the other one and then lifted them both from the ground. The stack seemed stable, and I nodded to Sheela. Then we jogged as fast as I could manage without spilling the water. We headed into the trees back toward our cave and away from the sound of the roaring dinosaurs.
I tried my hardest to keep up, but the best I could manage for a long period was a fast walk. Sheela stayed within eyesight but went ahead a bit to ensure there weren’t predators lying in wait. I caught up with her while she looked at the jungle behind us with her spear raised in throwing position.
“Oh, shit. What do you see?” I whispered as I waited next to her. The jungle was so thick we couldn’t see much farther than the distance of a good spear throw, so I expected a toss at any second.
The roaring and commotion of giant footsteps kept getting louder. It was obvious that the massive creatures were getting closer, and my brain started pumping even more adrenaline through my muscles.
“I thought I saw movement. We must run.” Despite everything, she kept her cool and spoke in her usual dry, Aussie voice.
“Just go,” I said with a massive effort to be level-headed as well. “I won’t lose you.”
She led us forward, and I almost managed to run. I was already in need of a short rest to catch my breath, but I ignored the pain. It pissed me off my physical conditioning was so lame.
I really hoped my lack of fitness wasn’t about to get me killed.
The cracks and chaos of falling trees and breaking branches rumbled from the surrounding jungle.
“Fuck! That was close,” I shouted, but then I realized we were trying to be stealthy, and I shut my mouth with a snap.
Sheela was only a little ways ahead, and I did my best to keep up. While I fast-walked, a flock of tiny red birds got spooked out of the dense cover to my right. One of them turned and pecked at my fish for a few seconds but then flew on.
They were fleeing from something that had scared them.
A moment later I was passed by a large four-legged animal barking and yipping kind of like a dog. It sported wooly gray fur with big black dots all over. Its whip-like tail clipped my right knee as it shot by, though it didn’t even give me a sideways glance before it hopped over a downed tree and disappeared.
“We must hurry,” Sheela said with more desperation in her voice than in her previous instructions. “There is an apex predator coming. Be prepared to drop the pots and run if you need to.”
Fuck. She didn’t have to tell me to run, but I didn’t want to drop anything we’d worked for. We’d just have to come back for it or make replacements, which would put us even further behind schedule.
“Say no more,” I replied in a determined voice.
She nodded grimly and led us into the vines and undergrowth of the jungle. I fast-walked a short ways and ran into her at the edge of a large creek.
“This is the stream that goes through our redwood forest, Victor. This way.” She pointed upstream and led the way ahead of me again.
A long, primal rumble from close behind almost made me jump out of my boots.
I thought about dumping all my shit, but I resolved to hold on to it until the last second. I pushed myself and walk-jogged behind Sheela on what looked like a game trail next to the stream. We hadn’t gone far on the path when a small tree fell over a few yards to my right. An honest-to-god triceratops plowed it over and ran almost right into me.
“Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Run, Sheela!” I yelled as I skidded to a halt before it hit me.
It was as big as a Mack truck and sported two long horns above its eyes and a shorter one on its nose. The giant crest behind its head was colored red and orange, like plumage behind a peacock. I wasn’t sure it even saw me, but it did see the stream. A moment before he squashed me, the trike turned on the game trail and lumbered on all fours behind Sheela.
I got moving again just as another dino bolted out of the undergrowth. It looked like a small ostrich, with black feathers and a long black neck. The head was distinctly lizard-like and hung low to the ground as its gangly pair of legs pumped hard to vacate the jungle. It missed me by a few feet and shot out into the stream without the slightest effort to slow down. I didn’t watch it long, but it crossed the water and disappeared into the leaves on the far bank.
Sheela and I followed the game trail for a few more minutes. Spooked wildlife ran, flew, and hopped in the dense jungle all around us. Most were smaller lizards, birds, and rodents instead of proper dinosaurs. The exceptions were the growing number of trikes running by. The sounds of pursuit chased all of us along the stream and toward the redwood forest.
“These animals know what’s coming,” she said when I caught up to her next to a small sequoia.
A gut-shattering roar followed her words and several similar yells answered from the edge of the jungle. I associated the sounds with dinosaurs fighting each other, and the screams and counter-screams were deafening. More of the trikes came running out of the thicker jungle like they’d been kicked into overdrive.
“Shit. Watch out!” I shouted.
We both scrambled to the backside of our tree as several trikes ran by. Some of them turned their horns in our direction as if to dare us to try to stop them. The grim sounds of battle probably meant some of their number were getting left behind.
“We should follow them,” I suggested when my breathing allowed. “Safety in numbers,” I added as I fumbled with the pots to get them to line up.
“I will go first,” Sheela replied. She pushed off from the tree after she looked toward the thunderous commotion behind us. I looked back there, too, but only saw green foliage. The fight seemed to be just beyond what we could see through the leaves, but that was very close, and the vibration of the bellows rattled my ribs.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” I repeated as I got moving again. I had the distinct impression I was the last zebra in the herd, and the “lion” was hiding behind the thin curtain of green leaves.
My legs were going numb with terror, but I still pushed them to run faster.
Another series of howls ripped through the forest behind me, but they soon became a painful-sounding screech and wail. The noise somehow caused my heart to beat in triple-time, and every agonizing breath I sucked into my lungs seemed to echo in my ears.
I made it to a full run for a minute or so before I figured I wasn’t going to be grabbed from behind and dragged to my death. My heart reached a limit, too, so I had to slow back down. The water sloshed in the pot, but even at breakneck speeds, I was getting good at keeping it just below the rim.
“They are heading toward the cave,” Sheela said with a little breathlessness. “We will follow them.” She gripped her spear and waved me where the trikes were going.
“I’ll stay right behind you,” I gasped, sounding like I’d crushed the world record for the 100-yard dash. My heart and lungs felt like they were trying to kill me.
As we cleared the last bits of the jungle and entered the redwoods, I caught sight of about eight or nine of the trikes, including two that were about half the size of the others. Their lizard-like skin was gray with vertical black stripes, and they all had vibrant colors along the edge of their crests. Colors blurred in the sunlight as they swiveled their heads to watch us run behind them.
“They look very ferocious,” Sheela said at one point. “Those horns would make formidable weapons.”
I used the calm to pop one of them in my Eye-Q.
“Identification: Dinosaur, Triceratops prorsus, male.”
“I think these are vegetarian,” I managed to say. The battle cries were not far enough behind us for my liking, but my heart was about to shoot its way out of my rib cage if I didn’t rest for sixty seconds.
After a short break, Sheela trotted ahead, and I followed close behind. In the open redwood forest, we could both see a good distance, so we didn’t have to worry about what was ahead. Behind us, the commotion of the dinosaur brawl faded, which had me thanking the stars, gods, aliens, or whatever would listen. If these truck-sized dinosaurs were on the run from a predator, what hope did Sheela and I have with our little spears?
We’d run and stopped several times as we crossed through the grove, and now I saw something I recognized. “Are we back at the cave?” I finally asked, barely able to talk.
Sheela replied by nodding. Then she motioned ahead, and we crossed the last hundred yards through the redwoods. When she reached the pterodactyl’s tree, she looked up as we had done before leaving. Dino-bird looked down at her with curiosity and gave a don’t-bother-me squawk.
We’d followed the herd of triceratops through the forest and by a lucky coincidence they now gathered on the hillside below our cave. They must have thought the danger had passed because they were taking the time to chomp the bushes and small trees with the berries. I couldn’t hear the predator anymore, so I figured that we were safe.
I walked the final few yards up the ramp to the cave and looked down at what I’d brought. The pot of water survived pretty well, but I lost about a third of what I’d pulled from the lake. I did better with the clay soil because that couldn’t slosh out. The fish had slammed against my uniform shirt the whole time, soaking my back with fish juices. I was going to smell awful for my efforts, but it was a great haul. There was enough fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Even though my sore arms felt like I was carrying cinder blocks, I was proud I didn’t have to drop it all and run. We escaped whatever had chased the trikes away from the lake, and I’d gained valuable knowledge of the world around us while bringing home the bacon.
“Didn’t you say morning was the safe time of day?” I asked Sheela just before we entered the cave.
“Yes,” she replied with a deadpan expression. “It is.”