Sheela and I walked into the cave weary but victorious. After I set down the pots of clay and water, I gave the string of fish to Galmine. I let Sheela sit down first to be polite, but then I collapsed in a heap next to her.
Galmine was cooking our fish before I could breathe and speak normally. The carnivorous predator Sheela and I evaded was still out there, and I was convinced it was coming for us. I only allowed myself to relax when I figured out the trikes were our early warning system. I’d just have to check that they were still grazing peacefully outside our cave every few minutes.
Sheela told the others about our journey, including our stop near the volcano, our time in the lake, and the frantic run home. Galmine and Trel needed to know where we were in case we didn’t come back the next time.
Trel remained behind her curtain, but Galmine tended to the fish while we filled her in. When Sheela mentioned the volcano, I hoped our gray-skinned friend would volunteer her experience there, but she never took her eyes off the sizzling meat.
“These fish look delicious,” Galmine remarked as she poked them with the wooden spoon. “You two did great.”
“Sheela’s the fisherwoman, and I’m just the delivery boy,” I said as I bumped elbows with my feline warrior friend. The smoky smell of the filets stirred up good memories of fishing with my dad and then cooking our catch with my mom. Though, to be fair, I never had to work as hard as I did for these fish.
“Victor did an excellent job leading and carrying our supplies back home. If he hadn’t been there, I might have left our supplies when the big dinosaur attacked. Then I would have been forced to go back later and collect them.” Sheela poked a piece of firewood at the edge of the fire pit.
“Ha! I doubt that. I never had time to drop it off because I was trying to keep up with you.” It’s hard to say exactly what I thought when we were on the run from the mystery dinosaur, but a good part of my motivation was that Sheela said she liked strong men. My bravery was real, though, it couldn’t be faked in the unforgiving wilderness. It felt good to know she was impressed.
“You have both earned a tasty meal,” Galmine added. “That’s all I know.”
It did smell incredible. Even Jinx nosed around the edge of the fire, searching for ways to snatch a fish while we talked.
“Go hang out over there,” I ordered the little bird while pointing to the pile of wood near Trel’s curtain. After my verbal command, I tested a mental idea that he shouldn’t bother Trel this time. I hadn’t seen her since Sheela and I left earlier, and I wasn’t sure if her mood was better or worse. Better to play it safe.
I was convinced Jinx pouted at me before he turned and scrambled over to the small woodpile. He did not go under Trel’s curtain, which seemed to confirm that my mental instruction had worked. It was an interesting new aspect of my taming skill, and I needed time to explore how I could make it work for me. Researching Jinx was item 400 on my to-do list for the day.
“We have so much to get done,” I said. “We still need to get firewood. We need an axe so we can start cutting trees. We need a turnstile. We need cord--”
“Victor,” Galmine interrupted. “Don’t worry about that. My cord is already as tall as me.” She pointed to the woodpile. “Trel told me to put it back there, so it didn’t catch fire over here.”
I looked to Trel’s nook. She usually replied when her name was mentioned in passing, but this time she didn’t get involved. Even Jinx warily eyed her curtain as if he knew who was back there.
Sure enough, I saw a neat coil of the cord by the woodpile. I expected her to spend the whole time ripping the leaves because she was so slow twisting the strands into the cord. But somehow she’d ripped apart most of the leaves and made an impressive length of rope.
“How the heck did you get it all done?” I asked the green-eyed beauty. “I, uh, thought we were kind of unfair giving you that task.”
“You thought I was too slow,” she answered without any hostility. “I know. But Trel gave me some tips, so I went much faster.”
“I’m glad she was so helpful,” I said with all honesty. “I was sweating bullets while we were outside because of all the things we have to do today. This is a real relief.”
“Well, if Victor hadn’t allowed you to do it the wrong way, I wouldn’t need to correct it,” Trel commented as she slid the curtain aside.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I shot back in anger, totally ready to engage her in a verbal dogfight. “I didn’t show her how to do it; Sheela showed us both.” I’d been sick of her shit since before I left the cave the last time. I tried to be decent to her by using her full name, but apparently that didn’t count for squat.
“You failed to maximize her efficiency,” Trel added a dramatic sigh as she made her way to the fire. She walked on her alien spider legs, which made her sexy human body do its floaty trick a few inches off the ground. “After all your fancy talk about wanting to help us and make things better, you blame someone else when I call out your failure.”
I hated that she made me consider her nonsense, but something in her words made me unable to reply right then. I wasn’t blaming anyone for my mistakes. Sheela did teach us; that wasn’t a cop out. What was I missing? Was it the way she said it? Her tone?
“You think you’re so smart dreaming up new ways to do your silly little jobs and you want to get them done as fast as possible, right?” Trel continued before anyone could interrupt her. “Well, I like to see things done the right way even when I don’t actually care about them. I think of it as male quality control.” She laughed.
My silly jobs? What the fuck? That wasn’t right. But I remained bothered by something else she said, and it had nothing to do with my methods or her unreasonable accusations. It took a few more seconds before the answer caught up with me and it finally released my tongue.
“You called me Victor,” I blurted out with incredulity instead of anger.
“Of course I did, fool,” the spider-woman said as if it was super obvious. “You used my proper name before you departed earlier, and even though you are a worthless male, my refined sense of honor demands I also use your name.” Trel never looked at me as she spoke. It was probably a good thing because I’m sure my mouth hung open in disbelief.
“You are totally wrong about me, but thanks, Trel, for at least talking--” I started to say.
“Victor must call me Trel-Idil-Iria--”
I groaned because it was clear I’d gotten nowhere with her, but Sheela interrupted us both.
“Please, Trel, allow Victor to call you by your first name so we may address each other as efficiently as possible,” Sheela said as if in difficult negotiations. “You do not make me or Galmine address you by your full name.”
“But you are not males,” Trel replied with apparent frustration.
Sheela held Trel’s gaze and made no effort to say anything else or further justify herself. It was hard to say for sure given Trel’s all-black eyes, but I’m pretty certain I saw her roll them a couple of times before she exhaled heavily.
“Fine,” Trel declared, creating extra syllables of disappointment in the word. “Victor may call me Trel. At least until the rescue ship arrives. Then all of you must use my full name in front of my sisters.”
“Deal,” Sheela agreed.
“Okay, this is great,” I said, “but I want to be very clear, I don’t just want things done my way. We’re all on the same team, you know? I look for ideas from everyone, and we’ll do the ones that make the most sense. It’s not like I’m going to order Galmine to make cord the slow way,” I added with a laugh. “I want us to work together in the next few weeks, or we’re all going to die when those birds come and toss us out of our cave.”
“Dear Victor,” Trel said while sounding very bored, “using my name doesn’t make us friends. Call your methods whatever you’d like. You will most likely have poor judgment while doing everything with minimal efficiency. I happen to enjoy pointing out your shortcomings so that will be my new hobby.”
“I’ll show you how Trel helped me,” Galmine started to reach for some leaves. “It was really quite clever.”
“No,” Trel interjected. “For this, I would enjoy showing Victor where he failed.” She flashed her fangs like she’d caught me in her web and was about to take a bite. But instead of sinking those teeth into me, she dropped to her human feet and retracted her spider legs. I avoided looking at her spider parts until she was seated next to the fire over by Galmine.
“It is childishly simple,” Trel said while picking up some of the strands still lying in our original pile. Her voice was soothing and measured like she was a pre-school teacher. “All you need to do is this.”
She stretched her right leg flat on the ground, so it pointed directly at me from the far side of the fire. Her flowing silk dress hiked up above her knee, and she made no effort to block my view beneath it. She used both of her hands to smooth the dress over her flexed upper thigh, so she had a flat workspace. I was convinced she’d positioned herself to give my insides a sexual tug, but then she lifted a couple of strands and laid them flat on her thigh.
“Galmine’s fingers aren’t meant for this kind of detail work. Any good leader can see that. But she is able to roll these together, like this.” Trel took two of the strands, put them side-by-side on her thigh, and began to roll them under her palms using her dress to keep them from sliding around. I was amazed to see her twist the two strands side-by-side and then form a spiral with both to make one stronger piece of cord. It was much faster than doing everything with fingers alone.
“That’s amazing” I admitted after watching her for a minute. “Thank you, Trel.”
The dark-haired woman looked up from her handiwork and searched my eyes for a moment before brushing the leaves off her dress. Her movement was rushed, as if the leaves on her lap had suddenly caught fire.
“This is all stupid, anyway,” Trel pouted as she pointed to the fish. “Let’s get this meal over and done with so I can go back to waiting for rescue.”
Galmine adjusted the flat cooking rock by pulling it toward her with her gray fingers.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked as she touched the hot rock without flinching.
“Not at all,” the gray-skinned cheerleader said with a cute little laugh. “It takes something really hot to bother me. Though sometimes, my insides also get very hot and bothered.” She batted her eyelashes at me.
I felt my cheeks warm up with all the sexual energy swirling inside me. I was in danger of having my whole day derailed if I started thinking of what Galmine said to me last night, what Sheela said about sex while we were at the lake, or how Trel flaunted her body when she walked out of her nook. The spider-woman’s lean leg was still outstretched in a suggestive manner, so I got to my feet to combat my urges.
“Victor, you haven’t eaten,” Sheela said as if worried I was going to walk off without taking a bite. I was practically starving, so she had nothing to worry about on that point. However, I was an expert at eating fast food in my truck, and a working lunch was exactly what I needed.
“I’ll eat,” I replied. “Don’t worry about it. I just have to think about what we need to do afterward.” Having some of the cordage done took off a little of the pressure. It also felt good to know Galmine was more than capable of the task I’d given her. However, the anxiety of building a new camp would never go away; after lunch, I had many more choices to make.
I honestly didn’t care who came up with the ideas to help us survive the next few weeks, but someone needed to do it. Each of the women brought their own strengths and talents, but a lifetime of playing real-time strategy games gave me organizational knowledge they didn't seem to have. We were going to need to plan and execute if we wanted to live. It sucked that I was here in this shitty situation, but a spark of excitement burned deep inside me when I thought about what I had to do on this world. It was like empire-building, real-time strategy, and first-person survival all wrapped into one deadly package, and it all fell on my shoulders. I needed to use my expertise and figure out how to beat this.
One big problem, besides getting eaten by dinos, was time management. I didn’t know exactly how much time we had, nor did I know precisely how long it would take to build a shelter to complete our fort. There were a million other variables I couldn’t control and who knows how many waypoints we’d have to cross on our way to the goal. Sitting around staring at my sexy roommates would do nothing to help that long-term objective, so I needed to keep us moving forward. Even during meals.
After Galmine gave some fish to Trel, who had to be first, and then Sheela, she handed the rock with the rest to me.
“Don’t you want any?” I asked as I held the stone out to her.
“I don’t eat meat,” Galmine answered with a smile. “I will if there is nothing else to eat, but I still have plenty of berries. You can finish the rest of this, and I’ll cook more of the fish for dinner tonight.”
I looked to Sheela and Trel, wondering if either would need more to eat. Sheela shook her head and smiled. Trel kept silent and didn’t demand my portion like she did with the turtle soup.
“Thank you,” I said as I picked up the hot filet. It flaked in my hand and melted in my mouth as I shoveled it all in.
“Oh, my god,” I mumbled with a mouthful of fish as I stood in front of the three seated women.
“Galmine, that was seriously awesome. Thank you! Also, can you look at the clay we brought in? Think you can work on making another water pot this afternoon?” I considered keeping her on the cordage production, but clay would have to heat and dry for a long time. Better to get it started as soon as possible.
“You’re welcome, and yes,” Galmine replied with a glowing smile as she looked at the clay. “This is exactly what I need. I’m sure I have enough for one pot, but I might be able to get two.”
“Will it be ready for tomorrow’s water duties?” Sheela asked as she rose.
“Yes. I’ll fashion it this afternoon and sit here at our hearth, so I can watch as it bakes. It will be hardened and ready by tomorrow,” Galmine said.
“Doesn’t it take like a week to work with clay?” I inquired. I don’t know why I remembered it, but we fired clay flower pots in grade school. I also recall thinking it took a lot longer to dry than I thought.
“It helps to know about rocks,” Galmine said with a wink. She set the cooking stone by the fire and swished her silver hair away from her face as she continued to speak. “I guess it would take a lot longer if one of you made them, but I’m able to speed things up. Aren’t you glad you know me?”
“Oh, yeah. I am,” I laughed, and mentally shook my head at the awkward attempt to flirt back. I looked at Sheela to try and hide my embarrassment. “Sheela, are you ready to go cut down some trees while she does that? If we can get a few chopped and into position, we can get a sense for how long it will take to create the new camp.” In my head, I visualized any number of harvester or explorer units starting a new structure in the middle of nowhere. But in those games, the interface always told you how long it would be until it was ready. That helped plan defense or delay the bad guys until it was built. Erecting a small section of the fort would go a long way toward helping me figure out our timeline.
“We can use my cutting rock, but it will be difficult,” Sheela admitted.
“I’d like to see what we can do,” I said. “Eventually, we can use the axe blade Trel, uh, discarded, but it will take time to put together a handle. Maybe we can cut a few logs with your rock, just to get us started this afternoon?” I didn’t know how long it would take to craft a new axe, but we already had a basic one, so I wanted to see that in action first.
“And what about me?” Trel asked seriously. “What would you have me do?”
I looked at her, wondering if she’d come around to my way of thinking, but I picked up the subtle sarcasm in her words. Her crooked smirk also suggested she wasn’t asking out of any renewed sense of community service.
“Would you like to wait back there for rescue?” I said while pointing over her shoulder to her nook.
“Ah, we finally understand each other. Your decision-making skills are excellent, for once.” Trel got up and started back to her private space.
“But if you wanted to help Galmine make more cordage, we could really use you,” I added as I watched her and her alien “wings” stride away.
“Annnnnnnd you had to ruin it,” she said with a sigh. “Typical male behavior, after all.” She never turned around, but stopped just short of her curtain and shook her head in disappointment. After a short pause, she shut herself behind the partition.
Sheela picked up her cutting stone and directed me toward the entrance. We both grabbed spears, and I trailed her outside and onto the ramp.
“Do you see a suitable place to construct your fort?” Sheela asked when we reached the bottom of the ramp.
“Our fort,” I corrected her. There were several patches of open ground in the grove of redwoods though picking one near the cave was going to be key. We wanted it far enough away from the birds, but close enough we could reach the cave if we had to retreat there during construction.
“Right below her,” I suggested as I pointed to the nearest sequoia thirty yards away. The pterodactyl sat on a branch a hundred feet up the trunk, but she wasn’t going to stop us. The open ground at the base of the redwood giant was perfect for laying out a square-ish fort.
“Can we use the big tree as one corner of our enclosure?” she suggested as she pointed to the redwood.
“Great idea,” I replied. “That will save us construction time, and we can climb the tree if we need another means of escape.” I stood there for a moment and relaxed my shoulders. I’d been tense; not only because we had so much to do, but also because of my run-in with Trel. However, I’d just proven the spider-woman wrong: I’d accepted Sheela’s suggestion in a heartbeat. What mattered were good ideas, not that those ideas were mine.
“So, all that’s left is to cut a few hundred trees down,” I joked as I tried to forget about Trel.
“This hand axe only works on very small trees,” Sheela continued while we stood in the hot afternoon sunshine. “You would be lucky to cut through a tree bigger than what you can grasp with both hands.” She made a circle with her cute furry fingers to show me a ring of maybe six inches in width.
“We only need to start with a few,” I said. “Just enough to see how this process is going to work. Like those trees over there.” I pointed along the hillside near the grazing triceratops.
“I see the one we need.” Sheela walked me to a dead tree with light-colored bark that had been scraped all the way around by an animal. Without the ring of bark, the oak-like tree had died. “This caught my eye because it is already dead. Without the leaves, you can see how straight it is.”
She tossed her spear to the ground a few feet from the base of the dead tree. While in a crouch, she gripped the cutting stone in her right hand and slammed it hard against the wood. She repeated the motion about twenty times before stopping to look at what she’d done. The cut was maybe an inch deep and three inches long on that side of the trunk.
“Hold up,” I said during her pause. “Let me take a crack.”
“Of course.” She gave me the rock, and I handed her my spear. I took the stone and gripped it just as she had done. It was less of an axe and more of a palm-sized rock that happened to have a thin, sharp edge to it.
“Here goes,” I said. I swung my hand in the same downward motion Sheela used, so my blow landed right in the wedge of exposed wood.
“Fuck me!” I shouted.
“It is painful,” Sheela agreed without any of my emotion.
“And you cut all those saplings in the cave using this thing?”
“The trees I felled for spears were much smaller and the axe does take some getting used to,” she replied.
I experimented with holding the rock in different ways as well as hitting the tree at different angles. Every hit remained just as painful as the first. The only thing that helped was using less force, but those blows hardly left impressions in the wood. After striking a few more times as hard as I could, the gash in the tree was only another half inch deep, so I switched the rock to my left hand and fanned my throbbing right hand to cool it off.
“I don’t know about this,” I said while looking at our handiwork. “It doesn’t seem very efficient.”
“It is not. But it is all we have, currently.” Sheela held out her hand, so she could take the next turn and I was happy to trade the rock for my spear.
While she cracked the stone against the tree, I wondered if I’d made a mistake by putting off the axe-building task. It would take all afternoon to cut down the tree if we did it a half inch at a time, and our hands would be ruined from all the pain. Sooner than I wanted, Sheela held the rock out for me to take another turn.
“Thanks,” I said with friendly sarcasm as I took it. “I’m going to lay this spear against the tree. We can’t hold them every moment we’re out here.” I immediately thought about putting emergency spears every ten feet along our walking paths.
I waited for a minute to rest and then hit the tree as hard as I could for those twenty chops. My hands screamed in agony, but I did manage to make a noticeable cut that time, almost like the tree was softer toward the middle. I stood back to look at our handiwork and was pleased to see we were about halfway through the six-inch base.
“A little more and we can tip over the tree,” Sheela announced as she looked at the depth of the cut. “It will break off and save us the effort.”
“Does this hurt your hands as much as it does for mine?” It sounded stupid once I’d said it, but she wasn’t human, and maybe she didn’t feel pain the same way.
“Very much, yes. I could hardly move my fingers the day after I cut wood for those spears. However, the spears had to be made.” Her declaration made me appreciate her simple work ethic. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel pain; she just didn’t let it get in her way.
“Let’s see if we can get this down,” I said while doing my best to ignore the extreme pain as I mashed the rock into the notch. A minute later I sensed the tree was about to tip, so I pushed on the bark with my shoulder until the whole tree shifted.
“Timber!” I shouted as I jumped back. The tree crumpled right at our cut and toppled into its neighbors with rips and cracks. The branches on the downed side of the tree shattered when it finally struck the ground, and I felt a smile spread across my mouth.
The noise spooked the nearby trikes, and they galloped away for a short distance before resuming their feeding. The largest of the black-striped beasts kept its eyes on me, and I found it interesting they were heading back in the direction of the lake as if they’d already forgotten the danger there.
“I should have tried to tame one of those trikes,” I remarked. “They could push over trees without us having to cut them at all.”
“Perhaps that would work,” Sheela replied. “But we would still have to cut them so they line up when we place them for walls.”
“Okay, Miss Negative,” I shot back in a playful voice. “Then we can use them to drag the trees to the work site. We’re going to need a lot of wood. More than what is right here in this clump of little ones.”
“Shall I wait for you to tame one?” Sheela answered. It was difficult to tell by her demeanor if she was serious or having fun with me, but I took it as a joke and chuckled.
“I don’t know if my ability will work on them, and they look a bit angry to me. If we could get one alone, I’d try, but remember the run from the lake? They could kill both of us easily if we pissed them off.” I watched the trikes a little while longer, but then turned back to the job in front of me. The fallen tree had splintered where we’d chopped it, but it didn’t separate from the stump completely, so we still had some cutting to do.
“We could use a saw,” I added with dismay. I suspected there were dozens of tools we could build to expedite the construction process, but I had no idea what they were, and no access to an internet search.
“Allow me,” Sheela said while extending her hand to take the rock. I admired her athletic forearm and shoulder muscles as she pounded the axe. The tree finally snapped off the stub of the trunk, and I helped her push it over.
“Let’s use the branches to drag it to where we want to build, and then we can chop all this extra stuff off later,” I suggested.
“I like that idea,” Sheela replied. “We will cut off the top part when we have the better axe. While we drag it, let us lay our spears in the tree canopy so we have them close.” She threaded her spear into the tangle of branches, so it would ride along with us and I did the same with mine.
We each took a side of the thirty-foot tree and lifted the heavier bottom end using the lowest branches. That made it easy to drag the lighter end across fifty or sixty feet of open terrain. We let it drop when we reached the somewhat cleared area where we planned to build.
“Should we have a ceremony?” I suggested in a half-serious way. If our new camp was going to be built from a forest of little trees, the log we dragged was the very first piece of it, so maybe it deserved a bit of recognition? Even though we were in a hurry, and my hands were on fire from cutting our first tree, I was willing to spare sixty seconds on ceremony.
As long as there weren’t velociraptors nipping at me.
“Do your people recognize such things?” Sheela asked. “We have no such tradition.”
“Well, maybe.” In one of the few times I’d gone downtown in Los Angeles, I recalled seeing cornerstones with dates and stuff, so that’s where I probably got the idea.
“How about this?” I yanked off my hat and held it tight against my chest. I briefly entertained the idea of singing the national anthem, but I wasn’t a very good singer. It was also a bad idea to make unnecessary noise with predators nearby. I settled for a quick dedication, glad for the chance to rest my aching hands.
“Here begins the site for our first structure in Dinosaurland. May it last for a generation and keep our tribe safe.” I put the leather hat back on my sweaty head and glanced at Sheela. “Good?”
“Very good, although I hope Trel’s sisters do rescue us,” she said with a feline smile.
“Amen,” I said with total agreement.
Moving the tree was the least painful part of the long process. I estimated it took us an hour to cut it down and another ten minutes to get it where we wanted it. Even some simple back of the napkin math told me it would take days to cut down all the trees we needed for the walls, even if we greatly improved our efficiency. I looked into the tangle of branches while I did my calculations and noticed something interesting.
“Shit. Sheela, check this out.” I waved her over, and she stood next to me and looked into the tree just as I was doing. If it had been upright in the ground, we’d be looking straight down into the branches.
“I am afraid I do not see it. What are you looking at?” she replied while studiously examining the tree.
“If we dragged this up to the cave entrance and stuck the long end inside, these pointed branches would face outward. Do you see it now?” It was obvious to me because this tree was already dead and most of the leaves had fallen off.
“If you did that, it would prevent anyone from gaining entrance to the cave,” she said. “This serves the same function as the turnstile.”
“The tree for our door doesn’t have to be as tall as this one,” I suggested. “In fact, we need it to be smaller, so we can easily move it around. We can leave it open during the day but pull the tree further into the cave at night, or when there are threats around. The branches would clog up the entrance and most of them would point outward toward the threat.” I didn’t think the tangle of branches would keep out any of the largest wildlife, but maybe a huge T-rex wouldn’t even fit through the cave opening at all. I would have preferred to build an elaborate gate with spear points and axe blades to hold off any and all dinosaurs, but if the tree did most of that without the build time, it was the way to go.
Despite the pain, we cut down the next tree a lot faster. It was about three inches in diameter, maybe twenty feet tall, and had a bushy canopy of leaves which was perfect for our doorway. I held it as best I could when Sheela made the final cut, so it would not smash over and break all its branches.
“I can’t wait to hear Trel complain about this,” I confided as we began dragging the tree toward the ramp.
“She is difficult, but do not sell yourself short,” the sexy feline woman said as if we were taking a pleasant walk. “You won a major concession from her.”
“You mean that she said my name?” I guessed.
“Yes. I had to repeat her full name for several days before I realized she would accept the shorter version. Her unreasonable behavior extends to all of us, but your unconventional methods seemed to draw her out much faster than mine did.”
“What methods did you use?” I asked with a bit of surprise since I couldn’t really believe Sheela’s words.
“I treated her as an equal,” she said.
“But I’ve tried to treat her that way, too,” I stated as we walked.
“Yes, but you have not been afraid to stand up to her when she is in the wrong. Also, you have come up with good reasons why she should help us, and you have somehow gotten her to make contributions to our team. I think she is responding to your leadership.”
“That’s crazy,” I said as we dragged the leafy tree up the ramp by its lowest branches. “She hates me.”
“Based on the little she has told me, her society is very regimented. She respects powerful leaders, even those she dislikes, though she only has female rulers on her planet.”
“But she didn’t follow you,” I said in a quiet voice as we neared the cave. “You seem like a good leader.”
“My society has its own rules, Victor. I have no interest in leading her, and I do not think she would let me even if I desired it. She tolerated our arrangement while it was just the three of us women because she could pretend to be in charge. However, it is tough to lead if you never depart the cave. By going outside with me, and coming up with the idea for our new camp, you have made it clear who is our leader.”
I stopped us a few yards from the dark maw of the cave and considered her words. Sheela had been grooming me to take over from Trel. I was flattered but a little scared by how I missed the whole thing as it happened.
“I know what you are thinking, Victor,” she whispered. “You believe that Trel will never accept you as the leader of our little tribe. Perhaps she will never openly admit it, the way Galmine and I do. However, reality will pursue and capture her as surely as those birds. When you lead by example, she will have no choice but to follow your directions.”
“Sheela, thanks for your vote of confidence, but I haven't really done anything yet,” I said.
“I can see why you would say that,” Sheela said in a supportive voice. “You are looking ahead to your list of unfinished challenges, and you seldom reflect on what has changed. This turnstile is but the latest and look how fast you came up with the idea. You retrieved water with me, carried the fish, and watched over us as we slept. But that is not why you are a leader, Victor. Those are just actions. You are a leader because you bring us a plan full of hope. Without that, we would still be living day-to-day and hiding inside the cave.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want--” I started to say before she held up her hand to halt me.
“Stop. I know you wonder why I do not lead. As I said, my society has its customs. I treated Trel as my equal because that is what she would be on my world. The women of our tribe follow male leaders exclusively; never another female. It is just how things are.” Sheela said it in a way which suggested she wasn’t going to argue about it.
Her words encouraged me, and I gave her a quick smile. I felt like I was good at this kind of stuff because I was great at playing real-time strategy games. But now I was in charge of a trio of beautiful women, and one mess up could cost us our lives. I’d been trying to stay a step ahead in my planning, but her words made me realize I needed to stay five ahead.
“I’m really honored you’d think that about me. Thank you for your help. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without you.” I wasn’t sure if I should salute her as some kind of military honor for her service or kiss her because she had figured out all the political stuff without me knowing about it. Since we both held the branches of the tree on the narrow path to the cave, I couldn’t do either.
“You are welcome. Now let us get this where it belongs and cross off one of the numerous tasks from your list.” She leaned forward, and together we dragged the tree about ten feet inside the cave, just shy of Galmine and the fire. The large canopy of branches and leaves remained outside the cave with enough room for us to walk by in single file. If a threat showed up, we could pull the trunk deeper into the cave which would snug up the branches, so they blocked the exit completely. It was a ten-cent solution to a million dollar problem, but it would work.
“You and Trel can pull this tree-barrier closed when we’re gone,” I said to Galmine while she watched us.
“You are assigning work for me?” Trel called out from behind her silk curtain. “I’ll put that in my daily affirmations journal along with all the other manual labor I’m absolutely not doing for you.”
I looked at the two other women and wondered if I should respond. After all Sheela just told me, I didn’t think a leader would respond to such insults, so I decided to ignore the spider-princess.
“You two are my heroes,” Galmine said. She faced the tree barricade and spoke to us as if Trel hadn’t said anything.
“When you get that pot finished, you’ll be mine,” I said. We’d been out in the heat of the day cutting down trees and dragging them around. Back home I might have downed several large sports drinks after the same amount of effort, but here my sporty drink was a few nasty swigs of tepid lake water. We’d soon have more water on the job site thanks to her.
“I would like to be yours,” the green-eyed woman said in a sultry voice without taking her eyes from her clay.
“Gag,” Trel spat with disgust from her spot behind the curtain.
“Okay,” I said to Galmine while I ignored Trel. “I’m glad this is going to work, but we have to get back to chopping. We’ll be right outside.”
Sheela and I pushed the turnstile tree back out of the way and yanked our spears from inside the branches. When we stepped outside, the pterodactyl shrieked in the trees above us as if to register a complaint.
“Well, she’s one threat we can push to the back burner,” I said as Sheela and I stood there on the ramp. “She definitely won’t get through the barricade.”
“Agreed,” the blonde woman said. “The felled tree was the perfect substitute for the turnstile. What is the next task you wish to eliminate?” The feline warrior almost seemed like she was hoping for more work.
“I don’t think I’m going to be much use with that cutting stone. We need to make a proper axe with a handle, so we don’t have to kill ourselves getting a thousand trees, or however many we need for the fort.” I thought again of taming the trikes to help us, but they were almost out of sight.
“Would you like me to continue to cut trees, or do something else?” she asked, bringing my attention back to what was in front of us. “Perhaps I could gather firewood since we had to delay that job while we got water at the lake.”
“We have a few hours to do whatever you can get done,” I said while giving her a wide grin. “I don’t think I need to micromanage you, do I? But if you like to be told what to do, I’m sure I could think of something.”
“We just recently talked about how I wish you to lead me, so I would like for you to tell me what to do.” Her expression was very difficult to read, but I saw a strange glow in her feline eyes, so it took me a few moments to think how to respond.
“All right,” I replied. “Why don’t you get firewood for Galmine? We need to keep the fire lit all night. I’m going to find our axe handle.” I wasn’t sure she was serious about wanting me to assign a job to her, and I kept waiting for her to say she was joking.
However, instead of laughing it off, she gave me a little Sheela nod and then went down the ramp. She said it was her people’s custom to be led by males, but her funny expression made me wonder if she was flirting with me. But why would a married alien warrior woman flirt like that?
I carried my spear down the ramp and started talking myself out of the flirting idea. It was much more likely she was a product of her culture and simply felt more comfortable being led by a man. I was just a guy in the right place at the right time, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with any attraction.
Thoughts of Sheela flirting with me lingered while I looked for an axe handle. I needed something about three feet long that I could easily grip with my hand. It had to be from a live branch or sapling because the dried firewood was way too brittle. Finally, it also had to be thick, so I could cut a narrow slot near one end to insert the rock Trel gave us.
Sheela was picking up firewood close by, but before I realized it, she had set a bundle of sticks near the base of the ramp, and was leaning on her spear next to me.
“I need to forage further out in the grove. I have gathered most firewood from near the cave,” Sheela said while seeming to wait for something.
“Can you use the branches from the trees we’ll cut down?” I asked.
“From the dead tree, yes, when we have the better axe,” she answered. “But not the others. The wood is too green, and it will make too much smoke in the cave.”
“Ahh, that makes sense,” I replied. “Be careful.”
“Thank you,” she replied, and I watched her tight fuzzy ass cheeks bounce as she walked away.
Damn, she was really hot.
But I was also hot. I’d been sweating my ass off in my heat-trapping uniform, so I took off the long-sleeved shirt in an effort to keep cool. Underneath, I wore a white undershirt with short sleeves, but it didn’t help in the humid air of the redwood forest, so I used my hat to fan myself while I continued my search.
Since the hand axe was so painful to use, I had to be sure whatever I cut down was going to be what I needed. I wandered by many saplings and under a lot of almost-right branches. Eventually, I found an ideal branch low enough to the ground I could cut it down. I got busy with the small stone axe and soon had even bigger rivers of sweat pouring from my forehead. It took another half hour of agonized chopping before I cut it off the tree. When it was down and in my hands, I felt satisfied it would be the perfect axe handle.
“Looking good, Victor. I like you without your clothes on.” Galmine walked down the ramp at her usual slow pace and beckoned me over to her.
“Um, I’m still wearing clothes,” I replied as I neared her and set down my axe handle. I wondered if her people ever wore clothes or if they all walked around looking like gray versions of Mystique.
“You still owe me something soft,” she paused speaking as she stepped a little closer to me, “and something hard.” I finally noticed the water pot she’d put down on one of the rocks. Apparently, she’d come down to give me a drink, though I’d suddenly lost interest in quenching my thirst.
I double blinked in disbelief. It was my first private moment Galmine and I had since last night, but I wasn’t used to a beautiful woman being so bold with me. Her green eyes were full of mischief, and her round breasts carried no evidence of the simulated bikini top she usually wore. Her mysterious gray skin still seemed rock-like, but in the sunshine, I was able to see it bend and flex like human skin. Her delightful perfume caught my nose, and it was insane how much I wanted to feel her skin.
“And I want to show you--” she began to say. I re-focused on her eyes, aware that she had come out at this exact moment for more than water. She telegraphed her desire for a first kiss, and I leaned toward her to deliver it. But a screeching sound behind her made us both jump before our lips met.
“What the fuck?” I gasped as I moved to stand in front of the beautiful woman.
I recognized Jinx’s high-pitched shrieking, so I started up the ramp to see what he’d found. I grabbed Galmine’s hand and began to pull her along toward the safety of the cave, but she wouldn’t move with any haste.
“I can’t run, Victor,” she said with unusual insistence in her voice. “You’ve got to help Jinx! Go!” There was no time to argue, so I let go of her hand and raced up the ramp.
“Sheela, help!” I shouted into the forest with the hope that Sheela was close enough to sprint back in the next few seconds.
As I reached the entrance to the cave, I saw two birds tumbling around inside the leafy branches of the small tree Sheela and I had placed by the door. One of them was orange colored, and the other was the familiar blue of my buddy.
“Jinx!” I screamed his name because I feared he’d already been hurt in the melee.
Jinx was at a huge size disadvantage against the larger, turkey-sized bird. He was able to peck at the plump orange and black bird to annoy it, but then he jumped around the inside branches to avoid the razor-sharp counter attacks.
I remembered the rock Sheela gave me last night, and I pulled it from my pocket. I couldn’t climb inside the branches to help Jinx, but I could try to even the odds. I wound up, aimed, and waited a couple of seconds until I had a clear shot.
I threw it and somehow hit the orange bird square on the head, which sent it tumbling to the ground. I was on the verge of ordering Jinx to get the hell out of there, but my blue buddy hopped excitedly in the branches above the larger bird, and I could sense what he wanted.
“Kill it!” I shouted.
I hated using Jinx for the task, but I didn’t have a weapon handy to take care of the orange bird, and I was worried it might recover and then go after my little friend again.
Jinx dropped through the inside branches and landed upon the stunned orange bird. He tore at him with his small but deadly claws and repeatedly pecked at its head with his own sharp beak. The orange bird made a brief effort to fight back, but Jinx had made a mess of its neck and continued to poke at it until it was clear it would never get up again.
A few seconds later, Jinx hopped out of the tree and immediately started to peck the ground for food, as if oblivious he’d survived a fight to the death. He had some rumpled feathers from his ordeal but didn’t seem to be injured.
“Good work, Buddy,” I said as he walked around near my feet. “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt.” My heart still beat with nervousness at how close I’d come to losing the little guy. Like the many times before, Jinx had been right there when new danger found me. I had a pretty good idea what the orange bird was doing here and why Jinx saw it as a threat.
“Victor?” Sheela called from somewhere near the bottom of the ramp. I couldn’t see her through all the bushes lining our path, but I knew she was close.
“We’re good. Come up here, Sheela,” I called down to her.
I dragged the bird free of branches and studied it. The creature had remarkably orange feathers over most of its body, but had black ones covering its wings. The long yellow beak reminded me of a stork’s, but it was crammed with seemingly endless rows of teeth. It was safe to say my blue pal was lucky to be alive.
I ran it through the Eye-Q hoping we could glean a little information about the species threatening us, but no data came out. I wondered how the aliens could not know about a species on a planet they created, but after a few more seconds of concerned thought, I wondered if it failed to return data because the damned thing was dead.
Conceptually, I always knew the deadly birds were coming. Sheela was there when they took over her first cave, and she even mentioned seeing one of the orange scouts a few days ago. But having this one on the literal doorstep to our cave made it inevitable.
They were just as serious a threat as whatever super predator ran down the triceratops. If there were ten or twenty of them flapping those vicious beaks at us, we’d be in a crapload of trouble.
Sheela said she was overwhelmed by hundreds. Whether it was tomorrow or next month, we had no time to dick around. This new camp needed to be built quickly.
“Is everyone alright?” Sheela asked as she trotted up the ramp with a spear in her hand. There was recognition in her eyes when she saw the orange and black body lying on the ground, and she let out a long exhale.
“This is the type of bird that’s coming, isn’t it?” I asked the blonde woman.
“Yes,” Sheela answered with disappointment. “They have found us. Were there others?”
“Just the one Jinx fought,” I said. The blue bird continued to nose the ground as if nothing important was taking place around him.
Galmine finally reached the top of our ramp. As the three of us stared at the dead bird, I thought of what came next. All the talk of leadership and planning made me realize how important each decision was going to be for our survival. These women were my responsibility. Get one thing wrong, and one of them could die. Suddenly, there weren’t enough hours left in the day for all the shit I had to get done.