The spot was not ideal, Howard admitted to himself. Still, as the light had faded far more quickly than at home, they were lucky to have found something this good. They had a patch of interstitial wall which had no trees against it, and where the ground was a little higher. The little mound was covered in grass.

            "Something's been cutting this vegetation," said Lani, suspiciously.

            Howard looked. "I think it is some kind of grazing animal. Like those ones that fled from us two levels down, perhaps."

            She sighed, tiredly. "Well, we'd better look for something else then."

            "Grazers would be food for caymans and jaguars. If they come here it’s probably fairly safe," said Amber. "Besides, I don't think I can go on."

            "At least there are no trees for that serpent thing," said little John, sitting down on the grass. "Do we have any food?"

            Amber scowled at him. "Freeze-dried protein for Kretz. Analysis says it wouldn't be good for us to eat."

            "You brought me here to starve," whined the little man.

            "Oh, for Holy Susan's sake!" snapped Lani. "We didn't bring you here at all. You brought yourself and you're welcome to leave as soon as possible. In fact I think you should go now."

            John looked into the gathering gloom "With those serpent things? No way."

            "Then stop complaining. I'm hungry and thirsty too. I might even have to drink some dripping-water at this rate."

            Howard sought to pour some oil on the water. He was, to some extent, responsible for keeping Kretz alive—which had dragged all of them into this. "I believe that is a pumpkin climbing up the edge of that bit of underbrush," he said, pointing. “The fruit is not quite the same as the ones at home, but the leaves are right, and so are the flowers." You can eat the young leaves and the flowers too. And I am sure there is other food here."

            "Is that what a pumpkin looks like in the raw? It had to be my least favorite vegetable, didn't it?" said Lani, eyeing it. "Well, it's better than nothing, I guess. So how do we nuke it?"

            Howard picked the large knobbled fruit, thinking about this and the other problems of provisioning the party. The water system in New Eden had been a bucket that you let down into an arterial canal. The faucets of Diana seemed like a recipe for things to wear out and get broken, to Howard. They were convenient, true. Right now he'd be glad of a bucket to haul clean New Eden water for Lani. She still hadn't brought herself to drink. Mind you, then he might as well wish for a sparker, and a nice flow of methane from the slurry-digesters to cook the pumpkin on. What was it going to be like raw? He'd heard you could grate it, raw, to make a salad out of it…. Well, they didn't have a grater. They'd have to find out what it was like just chewed. He picked flowers, some leaf-tips and two immature fruit for good measure.

            "We need to cut this thing." The skin was thick and hard.

            "I could shoot it, I suppose," volunteered Lani. "We should have brought that snake. Snake steak."

            The idea made Howard shudder. Raw snake! How could she be so casual about a creature like that and yet worry about chicken or drinking the water? The thing was, he supposed, that the snake was just so alien to her that it had no meaning. He tried dropping the pumpkin, hard. It cracked.

            There are better things than raw pumpkin. Raw pumpkin seeds for instance—they ate those when they'd finished with the pumpkin. But at least it was food. It was sweetish, and provided a good, long chew. The cracked seeds were delicious, but took a lot of cracking for very little meat. Lani eventually braved drinking the water, too.

            She sat down next to him, and started laughing.

            "What is so funny?" asked Amber. Howard hadn't dared ask.

            "I was just thinking," said Lani. "We went through all of this to escape from the Diana police force. And right now a nice clean cell sounds pretty safe and pretty good."

            "And they feed prisoners," said Amber

            "Yeah," agreed Lani. "I was just thinking if the force turned up here, now, I'd be pretty hard-pressed not to kiss them."

            Howard didn't think this place was that bad. But he kept his opinion to himself. "I wonder how they would do with the cayman and the serpent?"

            "Oh, hell, they'd all be back in the airlock, any that were still alive," said Lani. "This place is not what we trained for, but it was a fun thought. And I guess I don't really want to be in a cell. I wouldn't say ‘no’ to a hot bath and a cup of coffee, though."

            "I'd like a strong drink," said Amber. “Strong enough to knock me out."

            Then there was just the darkness to wait out. They sat together, listening to the noises that came out of the dark. Howard had to admit that "Silent Night" was not something you would ever sing here. There were croaks and whistles and odd hollow calls, and strange deep grunts out in the darkness. Instinctively, they huddled closer together. No one slept. They just sat there, waiting for the light. Gradually, things got quieter. Little snores came from at least two members of the group. Howard was tired himself, but he felt that sleep might be the last thing that they did. He'd sleep when they could see. Lani nodded against his shoulder. Snuggled into him. He sighed. It was all a heavy cross to bear.


            Sitting in the darkness John Bhangella pondered his next move. This place frightened him. It was too strange and too alien. He wasn't planning to go off on his own either, especially not unarmed. The scientist woman was a better target than the cop. He could snatch that semi-automatic shotgun out of her hands before she knew what he was doing…

            And then? He wasn't going to run off into this darkness. He might have been tempted, before the snake incident. But he also wanted to keep at least one woman. He wasn't too sure, yet, where this place actually was. The whole experience hadn't made a lot of sense to him. His mind still struggled with what he'd seen out there in that funny suit. It didn't make a clear, understandable picture. What was clear was that the others regarded this place as beyond the reach of the cops. If he could bring the other Mens Liberation Army members here, they could raid, loot and capture women—and never be followed. That had appeal.



About Eric Flint

Author and Editor
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