Planet of Wishes
Chapter Eleven - Gamma Secrets
When Don awoke, he was amused to find himself alone in the little tent. For someone who always moaned that she liked to sleep in, Judy had managed to slip out early this morning, start a fire and begin breakfast. Shivering slightly in the cold morning air, he dressed quickly and pulling on the parka, crawled out of the tent. The smell of the wood fire greeted him as he got to his feet. A pan of fried bacon, (not real, unfortunately, but a good enough substitute) sat in the tiny fry pan next to the fire. A bowl of reconstituted eggs was nearby; ready to be put on the fire, but Judy wasnít in the camp.
With a quick jolt of fear, Don pivoted around and looked in all directions. Near the middle of the meadow, he finally saw her with several creatures that at first glance looked like crosses between horses and the snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, with a little deer thrown in for good measure.
Walking sedately, when he really wanted to run, it took a good five minutes before he reached the unusual group. "A few early morning friends?" he asked softly. One of the creatures raised its head, and Don could see there was no mane, just hair that hung everywhere. The eyes were its most striking feature, though: big, deep brown, with long lashes, almost like some dogs he had known in his youth. The big, wet nose snuffled his chest and face and when it whuffed and turned away, the young pilot wiped his chin with his sleeve.
"They were standing around the trees on the far side of the meadow when I got up, and then they came this far and just stood and watched as I prepared breakfast. So I decided to come out and see if they were friendly," Judy elaborated.
"Good thing they are," he responded. "Those horns, small as they are, certainly appear to be able to do a great deal of damage." He sighed; there was no need now to berate her for her chance taking. "Just be more careful in the future," he admonished. "The next creatures may look like teddy bears but have teeth like piranhas."
"Don, you are such a pessimist," she said.
"No, my darling, a realist. And I want you around for many years," he told her lovingly. She gazed at him, smiled and then nodded.
"Their front hooves are more like paws and they use them to pull leaves and fruit off the trees. Itís quite amazing to watch," Judy explained. Don couldnít see anything for all the hair, but he didnít say anything.
Right now the animals were munching on the luxuriant grasses that lined each side of the stream, biting off the tops of the stems with their horse-like teeth and chewing, all the while gazing at them with a stare that Don could swear was curiosity. He wondered just how intelligent they might be. Pulling Judy close to him, he kissed her and murmured, "Let us return to breakfast before our yowler friend of last night or some other creature decides we donít want it. If they are interested enough in us, our hairy companions will either stick around or follow us to the camp.
By the time they had finished their breakfast and cleaned up the camp, the sun had risen above the far ridge. The opposite hillside was bathed in a golden glow that enticed them as they made plans for the day. "I really would like to see whatís beyond the other ridge," Don explained to his wife, who had been all for spending the entire honeymoon in the little valley. As he rolled up the tent and slid it inside its cover, the major noticed the largest of the hairy creatures slowly approach the camp, stopping three meters from him.
Turning away to help Judy finish packing the cooking utensils in one of the packs, he heard a slight whuffling noise. She gasped and he swung around to see the tent dangling by a strap from the horn of the animal that had approached him. Standing up slowly and deliberately, Don just as leisurely approached the snuffle-horse. It stood still as he carefully lifted the tent from the horn. While he was holding the bundle, the animal sidled up to him until the pack in Donís hands was even with the snuffle-horseís back, almost resting against it.
Don stood in shock for a few minutes, not really knowing what to do. The creature was equally as still, only moving its head to look at him out of one big dark eye. A wild thought crossed his mind, and the pilot slowly rested the bundled tent on the animalís back. It continued to stand still while he put more weight on its back. Gently lifting the bundle, he laid it on the ground and then turned and leaned across the snuffle-horse. When it didnít move or protest, Don bent his knees and jumped on the hairy animalís back. He heard Judyís gasp of protest, but the creature continued to stand still until he had tightly grasped a handful of hair.
And that was when it decided to move. Gathering its legs beneath it, the snuffle-horse sprang into a lumbering gallop that was at the same time, surprisingly smooth. Unfortunately, Don was not an equestrian and couldnít keep his seat. About the middle of his second whoa, he slid off, hitting the grass-covered ground hard enough to rattle his teeth. The snuffle-horse lumbered over and nuzzled him, whuffling softly. Judy ran over, concerned, but was still trying hard not to laugh.
"Never ridden anything less complicated then a car or an airplane, huh?" she asked, as he got up from the ground, brushing the vegetation off his clothes.
Laughing, he nodded and then was surprised to see Judy swing on the animal with ease, grab a handful of hair and gently tap its side with her heels. It broke into a slow trot and headed for the camp. Don followed on foot even though another one of the snuffle-horses had walked up to him. "And I suppose that you have ridden horses before," he called after her.
"Took lessons." Her voice floated back to him.
When he reached the camp, he pondered what had taken place. "You know, if I didnít know better, I would think that these snuffle-horses had previous contact with humanoids. Iím not that familiar with horses, but these creatures act like domestic animals. Theyíre docile and not skittish like a totally wild creature would be."
"Youíre right, Don, but the probe found no evidence of any form of civilization," Judy said and then gave him a funny look. "Snuffle-horses? Where did you get a name like that?"
He explained his reasoning, feeling a bit silly while doing so. Laughing, Judy looked back at the animals and then at her husband. "Not bad, you and Penny need to go into the alien naming business."
"Well, whatever the reason, they will let us ride and put our supplies on their backs. I say we accept the help. We will certainly be able to cover more territory and not be quite so worn out in the evening."
Soon, the pair was traveling toward the far hill, each on a snuffle-horse, with the third following, carrying all of their supplies tied on its back. Don was soon able to get comfortable enough to keep from falling off, and they made it to the top of the ridge just before mid-day. The next valley didnít look very inviting, so they kept traveling along the top of the ridge for several kilometers until they reached another valley. What they saw made them gasp. In that valley appeared what looked suspiciously like ruins of some kind.
Don led the way down the slope in silence. The snuffle-horse was sure footed and despite his ineptitude on horseback, he had no trouble staying on the animalís back. On the upper slopes of the valley, they rode through what appeared to them to be a neglected orchard. Although there was a great deal of growth between the old trees, the rows were still discernible. The fruit appeared ripe and Don picked one, placing it in his parka pocket to test later for edibility.
The buildings near the abandoned orchard were simply piles of decayed wood and rubble. Don slid off his snuffle-horse and poked around a few of the ruins. A tiny furry creature dashed out from underneath one pile of debris to the comparative safety of another. It was long and thin with six jointed legs, and ran with the weaving motion of a lizard or salamander. Pulling himself back on the snuffle-horse, Don continued down the slope with Judy at his side.
"I wonder what kind of people lived here?" Judy mused. "It looks to have been abandoned for at least a century."
"I donít know, but I suppose that answers our questions about the docile nature of these creatures," Don answered. "Must be an inherited memory of some kind to still be that gentle after such a long time. Unless, of course, there are inhabitants somewhere on this planet, and the snuffle-horses have simply run or wandered away."
They continued down the slope until they reached the valley, only glancing at other piles of rubble they passed. Pausing briefly at the large stream that flowed through the middle of the valley, they soon started up the far slope. Shielding his eyes from the afternoon glare, Don scanned the hillside. "I think that outcropping of rock would be a good place to make camp tonight," he said pointing to an easily defended part of the hillside.
Judy perused his choice. "A bit more protected? Are you expecting an attack?" she asked, concern coloring her voice.
"Not really, but finding evidence of intelligent life on a planet that was believed to be devoid of any makes me a bit more wary," he said grimly.
They set up their little camp quickly. The snuffle-horses grazed near camp, whuffling softly amongst themselves as the sun slid behind the hillside. Like the previous night, a fire was built, but unlike the night before, the mood was more somber. "We will just have to trust our new friends to raise an alarm if something approaches," Don said. "Itís just too cold to sit out on watch. I really didnít expect this kind of contingency, and just wasnít as prepared as I should have been."
"Why donít we just go back, Don? We have the cube," Judy suggested. She shivered from the cold as well as apprehension.
Inwardly, Don pondered the question and found himself hesitant to go running back to the Jupiter II just because they had found a few ruins. "In the morning, I want to go to the top of this slope and use the binoculars to see if there is any sign of habitation," he explained. "I think weíll be fine. And as soon as Iíve checked, weíll go back, I promise."
A distant, undulating scream caused Judy to grab onto Don a little tighter. "Well, whatever that was, I will have to thank it if we meet," he said with a short laugh. Kissing his wife to reassure her, they both retired into the little tent.
Two hours later, a chuffing noise and screaming challenge brought Don out of the tent in approximately ten seconds, one hand finishing the job of pulling up his pants and the other grabbing the stoutest limb he could find in the dark. By the light of a tiny moon, he saw several lithe cat-like forms attacking one of the snuffle-horses. Judy peered out of the entrance of the tent. "Get back in there," Don yelled.
His cry startled one of the attackers, which slowly started slinking toward him. Judy desperately dug into her backpack and finally felt the round barrel of a small laser pistol. Pulling it out, she opened the tent flap and gasped in alarm as she saw the predator launch itself at her husband. Quickly she raised the pistol, and fired a quick burst, catching the creature in the flank.
Yowling, the cat-like creature dropped to the ground, spun around trying to find what was tormenting its leg and then continued its attack. With a mighty swing, Don caught the animal across the side of its head, dropping it immediately. "Get the flashlight, Judy. Maybe the light will scare off the rest." Judy went back into the tent. The snuffle-horses were still battling their attackers.
When she crawled back out with the flashlight, Judy was horrified to see Don sprawled under one of the cat creatures. He was able to hold it off momentarily, but she could see that the impasse was only temporary. Dashing up to the animal, she bashed it over the head with the flashlight. Backing off of Don, the predator screamed a challenge and then leaped at her. All Judy could see was gleaming teeth and glowing eyes.
With a surge of strength that he didnít know he possessed, Don scrambled to his feet, grabbed the unburned end of a branch out of the fire and snatched the creature off of Judy by the longer fur around its neck. He swung the glowing branch and knocked it further away from his wife. As it kept leaping at him, he continued plying the smoldering limb against it. Finally the animal snarled and dashed away into the night. Only then did Don notice that the other attackers had also broken off their attack and fled.
Panting heavily, not only from the exertion, but also because of fear, Don dropped the now broken branch and turned to Judy, who was just behind him. Seizing her in a desperately tight embrace, he could only murmur, "Oh, Judy, are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, are you?" she sobbed quietly against his bare chest.
"If anything had happened.... we should have gone back.... Iím sorry, Judy.... so sorry," he shuddered more for the images of what might have been than he did because of the cold. Always he had been a risk taker, not worrying about himself, but tonight the thought of losing his wife because of an unnecessary risk, was almost more then he could bear. He kissed her fiercely, passionately, wiping her tears away and rejoicing in his second chance.
Finally Judy was able to gain a measure of control, and she looked into the pale face of her husband. "Oh, Don, you arenít hurt are you?" she asked softly.
"A few scratches." Holding his wife by the hand, he reached over and pulled his backpack over to him. Digging furiously, he finally located the little cube and transferred it over to his other hand, where their intertwined fingers closed around it. He looked at their hands linked around the device, thinking of how stupid he had been not to use it while they were traveling on this planet. He could have saved Judy from all of that exertion, from the danger, from almost getting killed.
He looked at his wife with deep love in his heart and gratitude for her safety. "There will be other times to come and explore Gamma, but I want you safe. I couldnít bear to lose you, and I feel I almost did tonight. I love you, Judy."
She reached out and touched his cheek, wiping away the tear that he had not even felt. Her own tears still coursed down her cheeks. "I love you so much, and I thought I had lost you, too. Letís go home." Holding the cube tightly, the newlyweds were unaware of the transition because the fervid kiss begun on Gamma was finished on the Jupiter II.
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