After the fight between Jinx and the orange stork-bird, I gathered firewood, scrounged to collect more leaves for cord making, ate fish for dinner, and went to get more water with Sheela.
It was almost pitch black before I was back at the fireside and I began to make progress on carving the handle. It needed to be completed tonight so we could cut trees a lot faster tomorrow. The fort was the only thing that would keep us safe outside the cave, and the axe was the key to my time crunch problem.
“I hope you realize how futile this is,” Trel said in her lecturer’s voice as the rest of us sat around the fireplace working on our projects. “Victor has got you two running around doing all this nonsense and what has it gotten you? Nothing but a couple of logs toppled, these ugly ropes you’re making, and a bush in our front door.”
Sheela and Galmine sat on either side of me, and I saw the grey-skinned woman force a smile to her full lips. They both ripped leaves and twisted cord while I worked on carving a four-inch slit in the upper portion of my new axe handle with a flint knife. Trel spent the last few minutes going over all the things I’d done wrong today, but she hit one nugget of truth: even though we hardly stopped for rest, we really hadn’t gotten very much done.
“And these mysterious birds,” Trel continued, “aren’t going to get in and eat us. Did you see how small it was? There was hardly any meat.”
I wasn’t even sure Trel saw the bird when it was alive because Jinx killed it just outside the cave. When Sheela got a hold of it, she stripped all the feathers and cut it to shreds with the stone axe. At first, I thought she was doing it because she was mad the birds had found us, but I should have known better: she prepped it so we could have fish and fowl for dinner.
I searched the shadows for my little blue friend. Though I couldn’t read his mind, I figured he was pretty tired after going toe-to-toe with that larger bird. He was probably back at his woodpile or maybe just lying low while Trel was griping.
“So, you have a dubious reason to exert yourselves, an incompetent male giving you orders, and a silly plan based on giving up a perfectly good cave so we can live like hobos in the forest. I understand his problem,” Trel pointed to me, “he’s an idiot. But why are you two women going along with it?”
It was the moment of truth for me and my grandiose plans for building my little empire. Though any reasonable person could argue the danger of building and living in the fort versus staying in the cave, finding an orange bird right at our door was a game changer. I didn’t think Sheela and Galmine could possibly agree with Trel that we were wasting our time, but maybe our lack of progress today gave them second thoughts. They shared looks with each other before the rock woman replied to Trel.
“I’m sure Sheela feels the same as me. Victor has done nothing but help us since he arrived, and even though I don’t understand everything he says, I’m willing to give his plans a chance. Before he showed up, you often talked about how rescue was coming to help us. Trel, you are a wonderful friend and have been right about so many things, but maybe Victor is our rescue?”
Trel stifled a laugh while Galmine kept talking.
“Over the past couple of days, we’ve started building and creating. I’m working on more pots. We’re eating better than we ever did before. As Victor explained, having a fort out there will keep us safe and protected. We’ll be able to focus on other, more pleasant pursuits.” Galmine lived up to her cheerleader personality as she set down her cord, leaned over, and hugged me from the side. I inhaled the intoxicating perfume that never seemed to abandon her.
“No one is perfect,” Sheela added, “but Victor asks for our help, admits when he is wrong and looks to the future as a leader should. He has brought us hope in a difficult time. And the threat from the birds is real, unless you also mistrust your own eyes? It is folly to ignore all the signs, Trel.”
“It cannot be folly to live inside a rock fortress,” Trel said in a respectful tone. Though she was willing to bite my head off just for existing, she seemed unwilling to raise her voice to Sheela or Galmine.
“Building the fort will not be a waste of time,” the beautiful cat-woman replied in a calm voice. “If the birds never come, we can live in the cave as well as the fort. If they do come, we will have the safety of the fort until the cave is ours again.”
“Rescue is coming,” Trel replied. “I promise you that. My sisters would never forsake me. The cave is plenty safe for the short time we’ll need it. Why am I the only one who sees it? He has you running outside the cave to find extra food and water, so you can expend those calories on his dumb project.” She hissed the word “his.”
“You hate the plan because I’m a man, I get it,” I said sarcastically.
“Yes, Victor. Your honesty is appreciated,” Trel replied instantly. “Males can’t be trusted. On my planet, you would never get away with speaking to me as you do. You couldn’t speak to any of us women as equals. I guess I’m just too nice.”
I sighed at what was becoming a tiring argument with Trel. Her animosity toward me was never-ending, even when I used her proper name and brought her food. I doubted I could convince her to work with us, but I hoped I could get her to stop working against us. That she was failing to win over Sheela or Galmine was enough of a victory for me.
I should just tell her to fuck off. I wanted to tell her to fuck off, but I thought about the end game. It didn’t matter that Trel was being difficult. Yeah, it made me mad, and it did hurt my ego, but the goal was building our camp. I really did need the spider-woman’s help. There was a chance I’d never get it, but she definitely wouldn’t help me after I cussed her out.
My dad often handled the customer service part of my parent’s vet business. We had plenty of pets die for reasons that were out of our control, and the customers often blamed us for the death of their loved one. My dad always took their insults, and their rage, smiled, and then apologized. Nine times out of ten the people ended up calling him back to say they were sorry for the outburst.
I was betting Trel would come around.
“The math is easy,” Sheela replied, and I turned my thoughts away from my parents and back to the conversation. “Victor has worked tirelessly to provide food, water, and wood since he arrived. You, by contrast, have eaten food, drank water, and benefitted from the fire all without--”
“You can’t shame me,” Trel interrupted Sheela with a chuckle, “Even without wanting to, I have contributed my share by providing free advice when I deemed it necessary. Galmine is probably five times more efficient at making cordage thanks to me. Over the course of his silly little project that could be days of time saved. Victor can’t claim the same efficiencies.”
“Guys,” I said with a sigh. “We can’t argue with each other. It will get us nowhere. Trel, your idea did save us a ton of time, and I’m really thankful you got involved even though you didn’t want to. It proves you are smarter than me in all sorts of ways. You are adding to our efficiency without even trying, but imagine how great we could be if you did try?”
Trel smiled wickedly and clapped her hands a couple of times. The bone-clacking sound from her chitinous claws was eerie.
“Oh, Victor. Simple, sweet, soft-skulled Victor. You use the derogatory male slang ‘guy’ on me and then launch a clumsy attempt to butter me up. Do you really expect your gratuitous flattery to change my mind? Is that how little you think of me?” The dark spider-woman seemed really happy with herself.
I tried to analyze what part of my statement was empty flattery, but she kept speaking before I could figure it out.
“I have ten thousand suitors seeking my hand back on my homeworld. Let me assure you, I’ve heard every lame suck up you can imagine. You haven’t even scratched the surface of high-quality ass kissing.” Trel laughed like she saw something funny in her mind’s eye.
“Did it ever work?” I asked. I didn’t mean it to be snarky, but with ten thousand men chasing her I was interested to know what the winner said to gain her favor. She seemed to stare at me with that glowing red fire in her black eyes before softening a tiny bit.
“No. It never worked. I am Trel-Idil-Iria, after all. I do not fall for unintentionally humorous begging by juvenile-minded males. My last two mates I picked with the kind of care that someone of my standing should exhibit.”
“Humorous begging works on a lot of people,” I said while trying to ignore the image of those two mates getting consumed by her brood. “I had a friend back on earth. Man, he could pick up women like no one I ever saw. He wasn’t even what I would call a great looking guy. Not bad, just not a model, if you know what I mean.”
“Uhh, Victor. I don’t really know what you mean,” Galmine said with a shrug and caring smile.
“Oh, well this guy could walk into a bar, look at all the women, and then pick the one he was going to take home that night before he even said his first word. He could make up any story he needed to get the girls to sleep with him. I guess you’d call it fake flattery. But that isn’t how I operate. When I tell a girl--uh, I mean a woman, that she’s been great, it doesn’t mean I’m kissing ass.”
Trel didn’t bite my head off with a reply. I couldn’t predict if she’d use the time to consider what I’d said, or if she was preparing a suitable insult.
“You told us how your friend picks up women, Victor. Do you also lift them as he does?” Galmine asked with no trace of sarcasm.
“Uh, we don’t lift girls. ‘Pick up’ is a way of saying how men try to get girls to go home with them and then have sex,” I replied like it was a textbook answer.
“Ooh, even better. I’d love to know how you picked up women and bedded them,” Galmine asked while she playfully squeezed my knee. I sat between her and Sheela, but Galmine remained much closer after she hugged me. She loved to talk with her hands and sometimes, like now, she spoke with a hand glued to my body.
“I don’t think you’d be very interested in my sex life,” I finally replied. Talking to three attractive women about how I failed at picking up attractive women seemed like a no-win scenario.
“You’re right. We aren’t.” Trel shook her head, but she didn’t move back into her alcove.
“I should get back to work.” I stopped carving to consider how much I had left. After a couple of hours of whittling with sharp rocks, I’d only carved the hole about halfway through the wooden handle.
“No, please.” Galmine said in her cheery voice. “I want to know all about you. You don’t have to be ashamed. On my world sex can be initiated by either gender but usually there are so many of us together you never really have to worry about finding body warmth.”
I cocked my head with an admittedly confused look on my face.
“You mean you have sex with multiple people?” I asked. I tried not to sound overly interested in the topic, even though I was.
“Oh, yes. Of course. I’m surprised someone like you doesn’t find it easy to engage multiple partners,” Galmine said as if the idea was incredible. “You are so handsome.”
I sat there not sure what to say. On the one hand, I was never great with women, and when I was finally getting a grasp on them, my parents died in the car accident. I had been forced to drop out of school and get a job. The confidence to talk to pretty girls wasn’t really on the table when one was eating ramen every day to barely scrape by. On the other hand, after spending a few days on this planet, I wouldn’t be afraid to go back and hit on every sexy woman at Lacey’s pool party. The threat of death put everything in perspective.
“Uhh, thanks Galmine,” I said.
“I should probably explain that my world is very dull,” the silver-haired swimsuit model went on. “It can be cold and lonely at times, but we manage to grow more than enough food to keep us healthy and alive. There is little to do in the chill of nighttime, except gather in large groups for warmth, talk, and to find comfort in the bodies of others. It would be rare to engage in such flirtations with just one partner.”
“Eww,” Trel chimed in. “The thought of suffering the presence of multiple men makes my stomach churn. I enjoy sex with the one I deem worthy, but finding a second male for the same breeding period would be tedious beyond words. Can you even fathom the sight of two Victors?”
“Mmm,” Galmine hummed. Her broad smile and hungry eyes suggested she totally disagreed with Trel. I smiled back but had no interest in arguing the point with the spider-woman.
The charcoal and embers of the hot fire snapped and crackled as the discussion momentarily died down. The smells of our dinner hung in the air of our smoky chamber, though most of it wafted out the front door.
“So, um, Sheela, does your kind have multiple partners like Galmine’s world?” I asked as I turned her way. She continued to crank out cord at an impressive rate while we all chatted, but she stopped at my question.
“Only the males. The strongest men may take as many wives as they can support. Many have three or four, but a few have much more, especially the nobility. My husband is a lord of a very powerful province on my world. He has the wealth and power to support a great harem of women. I became his property a week before I was brought to this planet.” Sheela spoke calmly, but I interpreted sadness in her words.
“You were a newlywed? I’m sorry. That really blows,” I said sympathetically.
“Do not feel sorry about my marriage,” the feline woman replied. “I was his seventeenth wife, and we only met once to consummate the arrangement. If I had not been taken and brought here, our next night together might still have been many months from now. All husbands of power have their favorite wives.”
“I don’t think I would like your world, Sheela,” Galmine admitted. “Can women have multiple husbands? That might make it a little better,” she said, sounding uncertain.
“No. Women are property, and we seldom cooperate among our gender because the competition for marriage is so intense,” Sheela explained.
“And what of the extra males?” Trel asked from back in her chambers. “If there are so many women to each man, what happens to the males who have no women?”
“Wars claim some,” Sheela explained. “A few die fighting each other for the right to establish a pride. Sometimes they just disappear. I really do not know what happens to them all, and I never questioned any of this until I arrived here and had to consider my new situation.”
“Won’t your husband come looking for you?” I offered the question as a way to cheer her up. I figured being married meant the spouse would move worlds to find her. That’s what I would do if Sheela was my wife.
“Women on my planet do the bulk of the hunting when we are not engaged in mating rituals or rearing cubs,” Sheela said dryly. “I was abducted while I was tracking game in a remote forest of our lands. It could be months before my husband knows I am not in his home and further months before they figure out where I was last seen. I will be declared missing and assumed dead when they find no trace of me. His eighteenth wife will then become the seventeenth and life will go on.”
“Da-amn,” I uttered under my breath.
“Also, my people have no means to travel to this planet even if Lord Errnazz was aware I’d been brought here,” Sheela said with finality.
“Is that the name of your husband?” I asked.
Sheela acknowledged my question with a curt nod.
“That’s horrible, Sheela,” Galmine said with a frown. “I think you should divorce ‘Lord Snazzy’ and find a new, better man. If you come to my world, I can introduce you to many who will treat you better than that, but I warn you we do not have such concepts of ownership or exclusivity and one sex does not rule over the other.”
“Thank you for your generous spirit, but marriage is something my people take very seriously,” Sheela replied while looking to the gray-skinned woman. “Divorce is rare, even when the husband is negligent. Most women with bad husbands learn to endure the suffering rather than seeking a way out.”
“But it can be done?” Galmine replied. Her world sounded like a party while Sheela’s sounded a little like slavery.
“Women are traded all the time as property, but I could leave on my own if I found a stronger male,” Sheela replied before continuing to work with her cord.
Sheela’s body language suggested she didn’t want to talk about it any further, so I tried to think of a question that would change the topic again.
“So, are you married, Trel?” I asked. I didn’t want Sheela to feel uncomfortable, and I also wanted to keep the discussion far away from my uninspired background with the fairer sex.
“Such a primitive concept. Did you not hear I have thousands of suitors? Why would I ever pick just one?” Trel gave her answer as if it were so obvious.
“Because you love him?” I said with amazement that we were actually talking back and forth.
“Ha! Idiot!” Trel laughed from her belly. “You would say that. I bet you think of love as a means of entrapping a woman, which is a common fantasy among males on my world. However, there is no higher love than dying for me during the mating process. Once the male has served his critical biological function, he is to be discarded, and his body preserved until his children mature enough to consume him for nourishment. That is when I love him the most.” The spider-woman smiled, and I could see her fangs glimmer in the firelight.
“Oh, shit. That was you?” I said as I remembered when Sheela had first brought me to the cave. “I thought I hallucinated when I first got here because someone said they wanted to fu--, um, have sex with me, and then eat my body.”
Trel laughed in a way I’d not heard before. It wasn’t her usual malicious cackle but something which sounded a lot more like a normal human laugh.
“Oh, Victor. If you have one positive trait, it is that you make me laugh.” She chuckled a bit more before speaking again. “I made the statement before I knew you. Now that I’ve had time to judge where you would fall in my suitor list, you can rest assured you are almost in the back. Perhaps in the final dozen out of all ten thousand males. Do you see why your words are so humorous to me?”
“Wait a sec. So, I’m not dead last on your list?” I grinned at her.
“Ugh. You don’t know how to take an insult, do you?” Trel replied while doing her best to sound disgusted with me.
“Like you said, I’m just a simple ass kisser,” I added with more good-natured laughing.
Trel didn’t reply. Instead she turned away, stomped back into her alcove, and slung her curtain shut to end our discussion. I quietly laughed for a few more moments until I remembered Sheela probably wasn’t in the same good mood as me. I turned to the blonde woman and caught her smiling.
“I am sorry about your husband. Are you going to be all right?” I asked her.
“Do not worry about me,” Sheela replied. “I was sad for a time, yes. My husband seemed like a decent man. Life is often cruel, and there is nothing I can do about it except survive. The challenges of this planet are much more severe than on my homeworld, so in a sense, I am thankful for this burden as it will force me to become a better warrior to endure.”
“Wow, and I thought I was the glass-half-full person,” I replied. “You were yanked from your life and dumped in Dinosaurland, and you see it as a learning opportunity? I stand in awe of your positivity.”
Sheela nodded, and her smile grew a bit larger.
“What’s Dinosaurland?” Galmine interjected. “Is that what this world is called?”
“I highly doubt it. I call it Dinosaurland because it sounds like Disneyland. That is a place on my world where children go to be entertained with rides, food, and brightly painted replicas of animals like dinosaurs. I went there many times growing up. It’s the kind of place a child never forgets.” My words reminded me of the many trips I’d taken with my parents, and I felt my mood sour a bit.
“Your home must be fabulous, Victor,” Galmine suggested in a cheery voice that perked me right back up.
“It has its ups and downs. I think I’d rather live on your world where everyone is, um, friendly with each other.” Of the three women, Galmine’s “free love” planet was the sweet spot. Sheela’s society, with forced marriages and unhappy women, sounded like no fun at all. And who the fuck would volunteer to have sex with, and then get killed by a woman like Trel? No night of sex was worth that penalty, was it?
“So, you didn’t answer me, earlier. We’ve all shared a bit. How do you pick up women on your planet, Victor?” Galmine blinked her big green eyes suggestively and moved her hand further up my leg. I got the sense she was asking me because she wanted me to try to pick her up. It was also becoming difficult to carve the axe handle because she sat right up against me. If she got any closer, she’d be in my lap.
“You really want to know?” I asked though I sincerely hoped she’d say no.
“Hmmm, yes. I really do,” Galmine said while leaning even closer.
I regretted mentioning my lady-killer buddy Dale and his exploits at the bars. There was no way I could embellish my skills at finding women to be anywhere near as successful as him. I toyed with the idea of making something up, but telling lies to my new friends would backfire. I had a face that made it easy for anyone back on Earth to know when I was fibbing.
“Okay. Well. There isn’t really a lot to talk about.” I scraped the axe handle with my small flint knife a few extra times before continuing. I’d never been great with women. I was a bit shy growing up, and when I did go out to party, I normally ended up being the designated driver. Also, I was really broke, and I never felt confident asking a girl out. I realized explaining all this to three alien women would take all night, and it wasn’t going to help them think I was any cooler.
“I’ll listen,” Galmine said patiently. Her hand seemed to be getting closer to my crotch, but I couldn’t see her moving it.
“That’s okay,” I sighed. “Let’s just get back to work. My love life has been all sorts of boring.” I set the axe handle down to give myself a break. I leaned back on my hands to stretch, which only made it more obvious where Galmine’s hand was on my leg. I took a moment to study my pants to ensure my growing boner wasn’t too obvious, then I stayed in that position waiting to see if she’d drop her question.
“I doubt that,” Galmine said emphatically. “You are just the right amount of nice. Hard and soft, like I said,” she added with a giggle. “But you care for others as much as yourself. Animals return affection without question. But women require real emotions, not those created by artificial means. You and your golden heart would fit right in with my people because you broadcast your desires without any hidden agenda. You are being modest. I bet you’ve had hundreds of lovers.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Galmine, but it really isn’t like that.”
“Then the women on your planet are fools,” the gray-skinned woman said as she shook her head. “You are honorable, and gentle, and I am very happy you are here with us, as is Sheela.”
I turned to look at the blonde woman, but she was focusing on her rope. Her eyes didn’t meet mine, but she did give her usual nod.
“And you are happy to be here with us!” Galmine cheered. “I can tell from your body.”
“Uhh, I think you might be mistaken aga--” I started to say.
“Am I?” Galmine said in a teasing way. “Then how do you explain this?” She grabbed my flagpole of a dick, but let me go right away. I jumped at her forwardness but relaxed when she pulled back. I glanced to Sheela to see if she saw my reaction, but she remained focused on her cord twists.
“I, uh, can’t control that,” I said with mild embarrassment in my voice.
“Victor, I live on a world where men and women are honest with each other. When a male looks at a female as you do, there is no question what he is thinking,” Galmine said while her eyes were on my crotch in case there was any doubt what she was talking about.
“But it doesn’t mean anything,” I said while wondering if my words were helpful. “I’m like that a lot.” I felt a little like I was being put under the microscope by the way she talked about my, uh, physical stimulation.
“And yet you did not act on it,” Sheela said as she re-joined the conversation. “A male on my world would enter this cave and demand sexual dominance over the females before agreeing to protect us.”
“Sexual dominance?” I asked since I was unsure of her exact meaning.
“He would demand intercourse to assert himself and then cover us with his seed to mark us as his,” Sheela replied dryly.
“Damn!” I hissed.
“I spoke of this earlier, Victor. I have seen you look at our bodies. There is no shame in your reaction. Galmine touched the problem you have carried around since you have arrived here, yet you’ve controlled your obvious urges. Women notice these things. You are not admitting your talents, but it is easy for us to see how strong, brave, and caring you are.” Sheela smiled a little, then turned back to the fire. She continued speaking a bit softer, and to no one in particular: “I find that attractive.”
“Me too. The restraint makes you super sexy,” Galmine purred as she rubbed against my rock-hard dick once more. I felt a little guilty because Sheela definitely saw her do it that time. I wasn’t sure how to handle the attention, I just knew I didn’t really want her to stop.
“I, uh, appreciate it. But I didn’t come here to have sex with anyone. We have a shit-ton of stuff to take care of. This axe,” I picked it off the ground and made as if to continue cutting, “is one thing of a million that we have to do before those birds arrive. I can’t be thinking about enjoying myself.”
I admit I shifted through all six gears to speed away from my throbbing lie about not wanting to have sex. Galmine could have had me undressed in about three seconds if she wanted. Sheela could rip through my clothes in two. And Trel was a dark horse; except for the part about death, having sex with her would probably be mind-blowing. All the discussion about sex was cramping my ability to think about our survival. I needed it to stop.
At least until our new camp was built.
“We’ll stop, for now,” Galmine said quietly. She gently slid her hand back down my leg and off my knee with a coy smile. She turned so she faced the fire more directly, then picked up her cord to resume her work. Part of me was very angry for steering the conversation away from sex, but it had to be done.
“So, can you tell me how you made the pots, Galmine?” I asked. She’d made the new water jugs earlier this afternoon and then set them inside our fire ring to bake them. I couldn’t think of a question that was any less sexy than clay pots.
“Sure,” she said happily, “but don’t think this changes anything, Victor. I like you, and I’m not going to hide it.”
“I understand,” I replied with a gulp. My heart also skipped a few beats at even the slightest hint that Galmine and I would be together.
“So, the pots are easy to make,” she said as she gestured to her work space. “I rolled the wet clay and mixed it with some rock chips I broke off from the stone here in the cave. It helped to keep them firm. Once I shaped them like you asked, I let them dry for a bit before I dropped them into the fire to bake.” She pointed at the two jugs sitting inside the fire ring.
“Sheela has been real good about keeping it hot enough,” Galmine added. “They should both be done in the morning.”
We all had to sit back a little further due to the extra heat, but it was worth it to speed up the production of the two crucial additions to our inventory. I looked at their narrow tops and continued cutting the axe handle while I thought about how I’d arrived at their shape.
A key piece of my time-management strategy was eliminating the midday and late-day water runs. Sheela had explained how it was safer to go out in the morning for water, but for that to happen, we needed to get all the water for the day on the first run.
My first grand idea was to make an aqueduct. We learned about those in school, and all it would take was some kind of hollow plant like bamboo to build one. Just lay them end to end with one dripping into the next, and you could get water from the stream to our new fort. Sure, it would be a quarter-mile long and probably be leaky as hell, but it would eliminate the dangerous journey completely. I imagined how cool it would be to have something like that, but in the end, I knew it was too ambitious. Even if we found the hollow bamboo we needed, it would take a week to cut them and lay them out across the forest.
My next idea was to create a bigger container, so we could hold more water for each trip. But when I started to think about how much water I could realistically carry, I knew bigger wasn’t necessarily better. I’d lifted enough half-empty fish tanks to remember how heavy water could get.
The idea I went with was much more realistic. I remembered seeing something on TV about moonshine jugs, which were basically fancier versions of the typical one-gallon milk jug. Looking at them inside the fire, I admired the small holes at the tops, so the water couldn’t slosh out. Galmine also added small handles which would allow us to hang them on opposite ends of my spear. That way I could carry both jugs over my shoulders like a barbell. If my estimates were correct, I could carry a total of two gallons on a single trip, instead of the half-gallon pot we’d been using. So, instead of getting a gallon and a half over the course of one day, we’d get two full gallons on just one run. It would for sure be a leap up on our tech tree.
Galmine continued to talk about the red clay and some technical details about how she managed to use her skills to harden and dry it, but I was sort of distracted by a piece of partially burned firewood that I’d noticed earlier. With all the stoking Sheela had been doing to the fire, her fanning blew some coals onto a flattened piece of unburned wood. Over the course of the evening, I’d noticed how the hot coals sort of sunk into the wood as they burned.
“Shaping the earth and manipulating rocks is part of how we get so much food to grow back on Telurite. As you can see, it also comes in handy for things like this.” Galmine pointed proudly to her clay creations in the fire.
“Awesome. I can’t wait to use them tomorrow,” I said with sincerity.
We dropped into another period of silence as the three of us got back to our respective tasks next to the fire. Even as I carved the axe, I had to continue to plan.
All through the day, when I wasn’t thinking about water, food, or sex, I thought about our shelter. My whole plan depended on getting the fort built before the birds arrived, but if today was any indication, it felt like the video game clock skipped ahead. I needed to be more like the Koreans, who were well-known for being masters of planning and execution in the gaming arena.
“I’ve been thinking about something all day,” I began. “We have to figure out how to stand up the logs of our fort so they won’t fall over if something pushes against them. In my head, I know how I want it to look, but I need ideas on how the hell we make it work.”
“I assume you have thought about digging under them?” Sheela asked while twisting one of the cords on her thigh. “I am sure we could use a large stone or branch to clear dirt and cut through soil.”
“I can work with the soil if you’ll let me. I helped on the farms back home,” Galmine said as she twisted cord on her thigh.
“You want to come out of the cave?” I asked.
“Of course. I came out of the cave today, or have you already forgotten our meeting?” Galmine taunted playfully.
“I do remember it. Nothing about you is forgettable, Galmine,” I replied. I really wanted a do-over for that encounter. I was about to learn if her lips were hard or soft, but we were interrupted by Jinx and his fight with the orange bird.
“Aww. You are so nice, Victor,” Galmine said before I could continue. Quietly, she added. “Some women love flattery.”
Galmine had a lot of things going for her, but speed wasn’t one of them. She had trouble with manual dexterity and typically did everything with great deliberation and care. I couldn’t even pull her up the ramp to get her to run when Jinx had his fight. That’s what made it so terrifying to imagine her outside for more than a few minutes.
“Uh, thanks. But as much as I want to see your smiling face in the sunshine, it is dangerous for you to be out of the cave. I would be worried sick about you.” I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but she was the one that seemed to need most of our protection. I tried to get my mind back into the tasks ahead.
There had to be a method we were overlooking. Ancient civilizations on earth made their forts and walls well before the industrial age. How the hell did they do it?
“Can we hammer the logs from above using a big rock?” I wondered aloud to end any thought of Galmine going outside.
“Maybe if we used our rope and hung a rock from a tree?” Sheela offered. “I admit I do not know if it would work, but we could try.”
I looked to Trel’s curtain, wondering if she’d grace us with any ideas. She loved to poke holes in my plans, so maybe she would point out the flaws in this one. She hadn’t come out for these ideas, so maybe we were on to something.
“Can you climb?” I replied to Sheela.
“My people often make camp in high trees for mutual protection,” the feline hunter said. “Climbing will not be a problem, though we will need thicker cord to hold our rock hammers.”
I thought about the branches of the redwoods and was fairly confident someone could hang above the fort walls while holding ropes. However, they would have to be really high up because the lowest branches of that type of tree were fifty feet off the ground.
“I don’t know,” I said, scratching my head. “It seems kind of dangerous. Back on Earth, we studied an ancient empire called Egypt. They made huge pyramids hundreds of feet tall without the help of any machinery at all. Our little fort empire is much smaller, so building the walls should be a lot easier. Climbing trees doesn’t sound easy or safe.”
“Perhaps we could link ropes from different trees and create a low bridge above the fort? My people used to make such bridges when staying in one place for a long period of time.” Sheela really had experience in similar forest environments, but it wasn’t quite what we needed. Just like my aqueduct idea, it would take months to make enough rope for a suspended bridge up in those giant trees.
“Maybe. How long did it take--” I started to say before Trel interrupted. She laughed as she came out of her private space.
“You seriously expect these women to hang from trees and throw around mud? It is completely below their station to conduct themselves in these ways.” Trel spoke as she walked up to the fire pit on her human feet. Her silk dress shimmered in all the right places as I watched.
“I’m going to be doing those things with them,” I replied with as little sarcasm as possible. “And on my planet, men and women are completely equal, so I don’t see it as work above or below any of us.”
“You think males and females are equal? Equal?” Trel replied in a deadly serious voice. “That is the most insulting thing you’ve said since you got here, especially since you also pretend we’re building your ‘empire.’ I bet you think of yourself as an emperor and us women as your hapless pyramid builders.”
I tried to interrupt, but she held up her claw-hand to indicate she wasn’t going to let me break her train of thought. My idea of empire had nothing to do with conquering lands in the real world. I’d done it hundreds of times in my video games, though, and I only called my fort an ‘empire’ because it helped me organize my plans the same way I did in my games. A strong foundation was a requirement for a simple fort or a galactic alliance. None of this would make sense to the spider woman.
“That’s wrong on every level possible,” Trel went on. “We aren’t your slaves, and you aren’t an emperor. You’re building a wooden stockade. Nothing more than a four-sided fence. Calling it an empire makes you look like a power-mad fool.” She looked at me sternly. “So please never use the words equality and empire again since you clearly have no idea what they mean.”
Trel seemed to take a deep breath so she could continue berating me.
“Your male ideas of equality will have to be addressed in depth another time, I’m afraid. As I’ve been saying all along, I want to keep Sheela and Galmine from wasting their time on unworthy pursuits, and that’s what you excel at planning. If you left them alone, I’d let you spend your time however you wanted.” Trel let out a malicious laugh.
“I’m not try--“ I began, but she interrupted me.
“Ladies, if you insist on this course, at least do it right,” Trel offered with fake sympathy. “Why let this male fool sock you with the labor of standing up each and every log when you could easily lay them down one on top of the other?”
“But we have to put them in the ground. That’s how the fort is built.” I held up both of my hands with all ten fingers lined up next to each other like vertical fence slats.
“Ugg. Male, you cannot be this stupid. I assure you, it would take something much bigger than rocks to hammer in those logs. But you can solve all your problems by doing this.” She flattened both of her hands then placed one above the other, so her digits formed a ten-rung ladder. “Then you only need two poles in the ground to support the walls, like this.” She rested one hand of horizontal fingers into the V-shape of two claw-fingers on her other hand to demonstrate her point.
She once again had a great idea. If we laid the logs one on top of the other, we didn’t have to worry about a bunch of digging, and there would be almost no hammering required. It was the perfect solution I really should have thought of on my own.
There was no denying she was super smart when it came to planning and construction. Her special skill was “Structure Building” not because it was arbitrarily assigned by aliens, but because she really was a genius at it. The problem with Trel was that she hated me, well, all men really. But her loathing gave me an idea: I could just play the dumb male forever and collect her good ideas when she belittled me. It would be a blow to my ego, but my ego wasn't going to matter if I was dead. I didn’t care if she hated me as long as I got her help.
Results were the only thing that mattered at this point. We’d die if these walls weren’t built.
I exchanged glances with Sheela and Galmine: both had put down their cords while Trel stood in front of us. It was up to me to convince her.
“Trel-Idil-Iria, I can honestly say with no bullshit or flattery that you have thought of an incredible idea for our fort. Driving in a few smaller stakes will be much easier than hammering in each of the larger logs. I wish I’d thought of it,” I said.
“I bet you do,” Trel replied as if unsure she liked how the conversation ended. She studied me for a long time before walking away from the light of the fire. I watched her go feeling a little like I’d taken advantage of her, but her sour attitude made me quickly ignore that.
“Thank you, Trel,” Galmine added as the spider woman left.
“Yes, you have helped immensely,” Sheela continued.
Sheela and Galmine got back to twisting cord while I resumed scraping out the hole in my axe handle. After a few minutes, I thought over the whole exchange with Trel and couldn’t shake the feeling she always knew exactly what she was doing. I gave her credit for being a genius about building, but maybe she was a genius in everything she did. I just couldn’t stop thinking about spider webs, and bugs getting ensnared in that web.
Perhaps I was the one being manipulated?
I shook my head while observing the crackling fire. The flat piece of wood I’d been watching all night now had a hole burned all the way through. The runaway charcoal took a while, but it sizzled through the wood like it was butter. I compared that to the half-carved hole in the axe handle and had my own flash of inspiration.
“That’s funny,” I said. “I’ve just realized how I can speed up making the notch for the axe blade. It’s been staring me in the face all night.”
I explained our second big technological leap of the evening: the easiest way to make a neat hole in my axe handle wasn’t with a blade. It was with fire.
A short time later I had everything I needed to test my theory. I used a couple of smaller pieces of wood like chopsticks to grab hot coals from deep inside the fire and transfer them into the hole I’d started on the axe handle. Once I packed them in and blew on the coals, it only took a handful of minutes to see the red-hot embers burrow down into the handle.
“Yes! This is going to work,” I said after seeing the proof of concept with the first coal. Over the next several minutes, I refined my process: I got better about dropping additional coals into the hole, and I figured out I needed something to keep the edges from burning. Galmine saw my problem and had a solution in moments. She gave me some bits of leftover clay to scrape around the rim of the hole to fireproof it.
“We use mud a lot in my world to keep fires from getting out of hand,” the rock woman explained. “Every home has a hearth for cooking and warmth. Mud and rock do the best job of keeping the fire from hopping into our living rooms.”
“Well, it was perfect for this,” I said after seeing it do its job. With the clay as protection, the coals only burned downward, not to the sides.
One problem was solved, so I moved to the next on my list: Maintaining the axe.
“Sheela, while these burn in the handle, do you mind showing me how you sharpen the stone blade?”
“I would love to,” the cat-woman said in a pleasant voice. She set down her cord project and pulled the flat cooking stone closer to her. “We’ll use the back side of this as our grinder,” she added. She also grabbed a couple smaller stones and pulled them next to her.
“Want to learn her technique?” I turned towards Galmine and gestured towards Sheela.
“Sure, I do know a thing or two about stonework, but I would love to study Sheela’s methods,” Galmine said with a bounce in her voice.
“First, we use a smaller rock to break off the waste. Thanks to Trel, we have very little of that.” Sheela pointed to the thinner side of the wedge-shaped rock and then used even taps of her smaller stone to strike chips from the axe edge. Each time she stopped to look at her work, it seemed to look more and more like a blade.
“Next, we must sharpen this edge by scraping it over this wet cooking rock.” She splashed some water on the cooking stone, then pushed and pulled the flat axe blade with both her hands. The constant grinding between the two rocks seemed like an incredible amount of labor, but she only stopped to inspect her progress every few minutes.
I had to check my axe handle and add coals a few times in the fifteen or twenty minutes she spent grinding the blade on the rock. She finally halted, checked her work one last time, then put the cooking stone back on the fire ring.
“The last step is to polish it, to lessen the chance of cracking. We need a little more water for this.” Sheela tipped over a small amount of liquid from our pot. She found a small rounded rock and rubbed it steadily against the larger blade giving the sharp edge a fine polishing. Finally, she put down her stone, rubbed the edge, and then set it next to me.
“Here you go, Victor. May it serve us well.” Sheela picked up her cord as if I had never interrupted her.
“Thank you, Sheela,” I said happily. The long process suggested we needed eight or ten axes so we would always have sharp ones on the job site. During the night, we could spend our time on blade upkeep.
“I bet your husband would never guess you’d be sharpening axe blades, huh?” I wanted to keep the talk light, but I was also very curious if I had to worry about a jealous husband tracking me down sometime in the future.
“No one on my planet could even imagine such a place as this,” Sheela replied. “We have dangerous forests and bleak lands, but most times we are never far from the safety of a village or royal keep. Only when we intentionally head off into the deep wilds can we encounter true danger, but even then, it’s nothing close to what is found here.”
“So, I guess you’d never seen a dinosaur until you arrived here?” I asked. I’d stumbled into an important question about Dinosaurland. Aside from ripping our eyes out and giving us a game-oriented computer screen, the most curious mystery was why the aliens chose dinosaurs from Earth for this place?
“No. We have legends about large beasts in the deep woods on my world, but I admit they mainly serve to keep the cubs from wandering out on their own before they are ready to hunt.” Sheela laughed a little.
“Do you have pictures of these beasts?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sheela replied. “They are two-legged monsters much larger than our people. They are often drawn with long, disgusting black fur, horrible claws, and red, glowing eyes. Sometimes they creep through villages on all fours, like animals.”
“So, kind of like bigger, uglier, versions of yourself,” I ventured. I couldn’t imagine an ugly version of the cat-like woman, but the comparison seemed appropriate.
“Yes,” Sheela admitted. “The stories are told so that cubs understand the threat. If I tried to describe the monsters I have seen on this planet, the children would have no frame of reference, and therefore would not be properly deterred.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Dinosaurs are alien to you,” I said after putting it all together.
“Very alien, yes,” Sheela answered as she twisted more cord.
“And Galmine, I’m betting you have nothing like dinosaurs on your world, either?” I turned in her direction. She took a moment longer than I expected to reply. Kind of like she had to think about it.
“Dinosaurs would rip my people apart,” the tough-skinned woman said. “We have no predators of any kind, at least none that I’m aware. I have not traveled outside the Valley of the Break, so I can’t say what’s beyond. However, travelers do pass through our lands, and they’ve never spoken of any such horrible beasts on their journeys.”
“So, the dinosaurs are also alien to you?” I asked in my friendliest voice.
“Everything is so alien here,” Galmine started to say. “The trees that pierce the sky. The mountains and endless ocean. Even you, Victor. But, yes, the most alien things are those creatures who seek to devour us.”
“Thanks,” I said with my biggest smile. “I’m just trying to figure out why they chose monsters from my world.” It wasn’t an occasion for a smile, but I had to pretend otherwise.
“Anything for you,” Galmine said with a brightening face.
I didn’t have to ask Trel. If she had dinosaurs on her world, I was sure she would come out and brag about it, so her silence was her answer.
I’d learned something important: we were on a world designed like prehistoric earth. If this really was some kind of game, I figured the aliens in charge wanted the deadliest predators they could find. While part of me scoffed at the notion dinosaurs were the worst killers in the universe, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. Why else would the aliens travel back 100 million years to get them?
We dropped back to our tasks as the conversation waned. With all my tweaks, I finished my axe about an hour later. When I was done, I held up the handle and looked at the lively fire through the long, thin hole. All I needed was a piece of wood to tap it in.
“Is it really this easy?” I said to both women.
“Yes, although you will want to fire the wood,” the feline warrior replied. “It will remove moisture and prevent breakage.”
It only took a couple of minutes over the hot flames before it was done. Sheela, as our resident weapons expert, let me know when it was perfect. After it cooled, I set the rock blade into the now-hardened slot and used a small piece of firewood to hammer it home.
“Right on!” I declared. “This thing is awesome.” The axe looked like something out of an exhibit for prehistoric man or mythical Dwarves. The blade was held in place by the pressure of being forced into the narrow crack. Every time the axe struck something, it would force it in a little tighter. I sat there beaming with pride and swung it a few times like I was chopping a tree.
“We need to make another one of these tomorrow,” I said to Sheela. “I bet we can make the second axe in less than an hour.” Finding another cutting rock would be the only challenge, but Trel found one without even looking. The whole hillside was strewn with similar stones.
“Agreed,” Sheela replied.
“But, I think we need to get some rest,” I said as if testing the idea. I wasn’t sure how long we’d been at it, but it felt like midnight at least. We needed to be up at dawn.
“I’m almost done, Victor,” Galmine answered, finally sounding like she’d lost some of her cheerleader spunk.
Both women worked through their last bits of leaves in the next few minutes. First Sheela and then Galmine put down their coils of cords after tying off the ends, so they didn’t come unraveled.
“We have a nice door now, but I think we need someone at the entrance while we are sleeping,” I said.
“Which shift do you want me to take?” Sheela asked, once again proving she was anxious to be told what to do. I was wrong about our whole back and forth earlier; there was nothing sexual about her request to get orders from me.
“Sheela, why don’t you take the first shift. I’ll take the middle. Galmine, will you take the last shift?” I suggested.
“You like it when we meet in the darkest of nighttime, don’t you?” Galmine tried to be sexy, but she also sounded exhausted. That’s why I gave her the last shift. It definitely wasn’t because I wanted to hear her whisper sweet things in my ear or finally give me a kiss.
“I look forward to it,” I said.
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