Since the eARC of this book is now available, Ryk wants this to be the last snippet. For the eARC see: http://www.baenebooks.com/p-2598-castaway-planet-earc.aspx
Castaway Planet – Chapter 18
Sakura cut, perhaps with unnecessary viciousness, at a bamboolike stalk that blocked her passage. The machete — cut and ground down under Whips’ direction from one of the pieces of steel that had formed a major wing support — sliced cleanly through the stalk, which fell, spattering her with drops of blood and an explosion of crimson tendrils from the flowerlike ends; these were, fortunately, not venomous. “Oh, ick.”
“Sakura, slow down,” her father admonished. “You don’t need to break all the trail yourself. And if you insist on chopping your way along like some old-fashioned axe murderer, you can’t expect to stay nice and clean.”
For some reason, the forest on the farther side of the floating continent — at least in their area — was thicker than on their side. This expedition, with her, Dad, and Caroline, was an attempt to cut straight across from the column where she’d been stung to the other side, which should come out somewhere near where Dad thought there might be a stream.
Water was dripping on her from above, too. There’d been a heavy rainstorm last night, which had at least reduced the worry about water, but they still didn’t know anything about Lincoln’s seasons. This might be the “rainy season” and the dry season could leave them without water for weeks.
At least the dripping water helped her wash the icky stuff off, but the combination of heat and water wasn’t very pleasant.
Sakura slowed down, waiting for the other two to catch up. Whips would have come along but he wasn’t quite recovered from his fight against what Melody had named a dire-worm, causing her father to lecture everyone on the differences between worms, cnidarians, echinoderms, and how none of that applied here — and then agree that dire-worm was a very good name for the thing.
“Hey, Dad,” she said once they were caught up and had started pushing their way forward again, “you’d said you thought you’d figured out some things about our native life here?”
“Hmm?” Her father had been studying a small creature like a green box with bright lavender eyes, apparently spinning a web of some sort. “Oh, yes. Well, it’s nothing staggeringly surprising, but it is very indicative. From what I’ve seen, most things here — with the possible exception of our four-winged quadbirds, as Laura’s called them — have evolved to be able to survive both on land and underwater, at least for a time. This is rather what I expected to find, of course, but it’s exciting to have it confirmed.”
“And a little worrisome,” Caroline said.
She looked at Caroline. “Why?”
“I think Caroline means because of what it implies,” her father answered. Caroline nodded, and he continued, “If these islands stayed stable for, oh, millions upon millions of years, you’d expect obligate air-breathers to become fairly common. There’s a biological cost for keeping both options open, so to speak, and something that can just focus on one should gain a considerable advantage. The ocean-dwelling ones certainly are nicely focused.”
Sakura thought, then understanding dawned. “Oh. You mean that if they’re all ready for either one, then these islands break up, roll over, whatever, fairly often on an evolutionary scale.”
“So I would guess, yes.” They rounded another of the great columns, this one slightly shorter than some others, and pushed on into another cluster of heavy jungle. Sakura watched every unfamiliar object narrowly; the last thing she wanted was to end up stung again.
The path ahead lightened, and suddenly she could see into a moderate sized clearing. “Oh, wow,” she whispered.
In the clearing, apparently grazing on the blue-crystalline semi-grass that carpeted the little meadow, was a herd of creatures. They had blunt heads with big, rounded eyes, bodies supported by several squat legs, and a pair of ridges extending on either side of the body. But what was surprising was that they were covered with a lovely blue-green material that looked — at least from this distance — like fur. The animals measured about two meters long on average, but Sakura could see several much smaller, but generally similar creatures, trotting around and between the others, nuzzling their flanks, and generally being treated the way that young animals are everywhere: as a beloved but sometimes having to be tolerated nuisance.
“My goodness,” Akira said bemusedly. “Their top jaws seem to have fused, though the bottom still splits. Other than that odd tripartite jaw, they have an almost Earthly look about them. Like… like a capybara, in a way.”
“They’re adorable,” Sakura said. “I wonder if they’re dangerous.”
“We have to assume so,” Caroline said.
Two of the creatures nearest them straightened and looked at the humans at the edge of the clearing. The two gave warbling chirps, and the rest of the herd moved restlessly. Other cries were heard, and Sakura could see the youngsters moving closer in.
“Defensive reaction to the unknown. They’re tightening into a better defended group,” her father said, in a fascinated tone. “The scouts or guards have moved closer too, but they’re staying on the outside and watching us, obviously ready to defend the others.”
He frowned. “This isn’t a new reaction. They obviously do this often.”
“Which means there must be some pretty big and mobile predators around,” Caroline said slowly.
“I’m afraid so. But this may be a very big find. Those animals might be tamable, if we can figure out how to make use of their herd instincts.”
“You mean domesticate them? What for?”
“I’m not sure — yet. But anything from meat to draft animals. We have soil, we have water, there are undoubtedly plants we can eat here — agriculture seems like a good idea. But trying to plow a field by hand… let’s say I’d rather find an alternative.”
Caroline nodded. “The larger ones are about the size of … oh, what was that breed… Shetland ponies. Not exactly massive draft animals, but still pretty big, and strong enough for a lot of things. If they can be domesticated. I have no idea if that’s possible, though.”
“It’s worth thinking about.”
Sakura grinned. “I could ride one!”
“If it didn’t decide to bite you,” Caroline pointed out.
Her father finished getting imagery of the creatures and gestured. “Let’s move on. No need to keep these things on edge.”
As the three of them moved around the edge of the clearing, the small herd of animals edged cautiously around, trying to keep the same position with respect to them, moving under some of the large tree-like growths fringing the clearing in that direction.
Without warning, something lashed down from above, grasped one of the blue-green capybara-like creatures, and yanked it screaming out of sight into the forest canopy above. Sakura gave her own yelp of startled shock, and heard similar sounds of consternation from her father and Caroline.
For the herd it was not consternation; it was panic. The entire mass of creatures stampeded away, even as a second pair of tendrils streaked out and slashed at one of the rearguard, sending the animal tumbling. One of the littler animals gave a trilling shriek and ran towards the one that had been struck. The bigger animal let out an emphatic bellow and got up, running with a pronounced limp; the little one turned and fled just ahead of the limping one. A mother and its baby?
Something leapt from the trees just behind the fleeing herd and thudded to the ground. It scuttled on multiple jointed legs and held two tentacles coiled back, waiting to strike. It looked ungainly, like a cross between a lobster and a squid, but it moved shockingly fast. It was closing the distance between it and the limping creature.
Sakura didn’t know what caused it. Maybe it was the pitiful trill of the baby as it saw the thing coming, or the sight of the parent creature obviously trying to keep itself between the baby and the oncoming predator. But something drove a knife of empathy and rage straight into her heart and she was suddenly charging out, her father and sister screaming at her.
Part of her — most of her — realized how stupid this was — and how it was even more stupid than she’d originally thought. They might think she was another predator trying to attack!
But instead, the running herd merely split around her as she ran. The limping creature and its cub were streaking closer, but the tentacular predator was faster still. Got to …
Instinct and reflexes of a born pilot were the only thing that saved her. She saw a ripple on one side of the predator and dove forward, the striking tentacle passing just over her head. She rolled to her feet, feeling the ice-cold of adrenaline washing through her. The predator was now less than a meters away, but she swung hard —
The concussion of impact tore the machete from her hand and sent her tumbling away, bruised and dizzy. Sakura heaved herself back up, trying to focus as the predator shrieked in rage, but she knew she didn’t have any more weapons.
Abruptly her father was there, plunging an alloy-tipped spear straight into the thing’s shrieking mouth, rolling aside as the tendrils ripped through the air he’d occupied. Then Caroline, pale as paper, brought down her own machete with a two-handed blow that split the thing’s carapace. It spasmed and went limp.
Sakura shook her head, clearing it, even as her father — with one more glance at the creature to make sure it wasn’t moving again — ran to her. “Sakura! Sakura, are you all right?”
“I… I think so, dad. Just a little shaken up…”
Her father’s face suddenly transformed from concern to fury, more angry than she had ever seen him. “Bakame! What the hell were you doing? A little shaken up? I… you… I should give you a shaking you’ll never forget!”
“And I’ll be there to help!” Caroline stomped her foot as though that might be the only thing keeping her from slapping her sister. “Of all the utterly idiotic things…”
“I’m sorry!” she said, and she was. That was so stupid.
The shock and fear and guilt overcame her and she started crying. “I know, I was so stupid, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Dad, I don’t know why…”
Akira sagged to his knees, then touched her shoulder. “I know perfectly well why. But we can’t do that, honey. We can’t afford to lose anyone. And even if we could, your mother and I would be devastated if –”
“I know. I know…”
She looked up and then saw movement beyond her father.
The wounded animal and its baby were standing maybe fifteen or twenty meters away, looking at them. Farther behind, the herd waited, shifting restlessly.
Her father and Caroline turned slowly, and for a moment all was still; the blue-green animals with deep green eyes staring at the humans, the humans looking back and wondering.
Then the parent-animal snorted quietly, and turned and walked, still limping slightly, away. The baby looked back and followed. There was no sign of hurry or concern in the herd now.
Her father took a shaky breath, let it out. “That… could be very promising.” He looked down and the anger was back, though more muted. “But that does not excuse your behavior, Sakura. If you cannot control yourself, you’re little better than Hitomi, and I may have to ground you — even though we really cannot afford that.”
She looked down. No way I can argue. He’s right. I saw the little animal running and the mother — I assumed it was a mother — hurt, and I just acted, no thinking. No better than Hitomi. Maybe worse, because I know better than that.
She forced herself to look up and meet her father’s gaze — and with him looking so angry, that wasn’t easy. Akira Kimei was almost never the angry one, that was her mother who brought down the wrath of God usually. “I know, Dad. I won’t do anything like that ever again. I promise. I knew it was stupid as soon as I found myself out there, and I know I was luckier than I deserve.”
He closed his eyes, then opened them and nodded. The anger had faded to a warning behind his gaze. “All right. Then let’s keep going; if you’re not hurt, we’ve still got work to do.” He looked to the body, lying not far away. “And the first work is to take a look at this beast.”
Sakura nodded and moved towards the body. She glanced towards the trees from which the thing had come. And another way I was lucky; what if these predators had decided to protect each other? We’d all be dead.
She gripped the handle of her machete and ripped it out of the body. I won’t endanger my family again. I won’t!
As she bent over the animal and listened to her father’s discussion of the thing they’d killed, those words echoed deep inside her, not merely a decision, but an oath. I won’t endanger them. I won’t.