Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Survival Training.

One of the most important courses at the Officer's Academy--and certainly the most uncomfortable, especially when you're dropped in some inhospitable place with nothing but a liter of water and a belt buckle. Very educational, I suppose, and useful too, especially for those unfortunates who get assigned to the Navy. But the plain fact is, no training can prepare you for every eventuality. What applies to Death Valley would be entirely useless in a jungle. The best those courses can do is to establish guidelines and patterns of thought--and whether they'd done so in my case I wasn't certain. Always before I'd depended on the Sah'aaran definition of survival: "given our claws…"

I didn't lie there with my face in the dirt very long; to give in to despair was a luxury I couldn't afford. Sitting on the ground, unable to stand, I made several more attempts to contact Raven, without success. She was gone, to a place from which she would not return. Given her age and condition, it was a miracle it hadn't happened sooner. I was truly alone.

For a time then I sat dazed, the suns beating down on me. But finally it occurred to me that to remain there was to die; and so I struggled to my feet. There was only one place I could go that offered any hope of survival, and toward it I made my way, praying the Goddess to help me reach it before I collapsed.

###

Along the banks of the little sluggish stream, beside which I'd worked most of the day, grew a solitary tree, removed from its fellows by several dozen meters. One of its huge roots extended out into the water, creating a deep, clear pool, over which dense shade hung like a shroud. My legs were wobbly, my strength almost gone, by the time I reached the water, half an hour after I left the clearing. Heat-struck and desperately dehydrated, both of my bottles bone-dry, nonetheless I'd forced myself to turn my cooling unit off, to preserve its battery as long as possible. I don't doubt that I was partially irrational by then. I barely had enough sense left to scan the water for pathogens before I fell to my stomach and drank greedily, lapping up the precious fluid like a housecat with a bowl of milk. Good thing Osgood couldn't see me.

Some minutes later, my thirst eased and my mind clearer, I climbed up onto the root, my feet and tail dangling in the pool. The water was cool, at least compared to the air, and felt wonderful between my toes. I knew then what I had to do; but could I force myself? Even dying of heatstroke, I still had my ancestry to contend with…

Finally, hurriedly, before I could change my mind, I stripped off my clothing and equipment and laid it carefully aside. Naked, I eased myself into the pool. I felt perfectly safe doing so: the water was only neck-deep, and crystal-clear. I allowed myself to sink until nothing but the tip of my nose was exposed; and thus submerged, I felt my muscles finally begin to relax.

It felt good, though it astounds me to admit it. Sah'aarans have a deep hereditary aversion to water; I didn't even like baths. When I arrived at the Officer's Academy I didn't know how to swim--and you may imagine my terror when I learned that swimming was part of the mandatory physical fitness course. It was Joel who…

Joel. There in the pool I cried out in anguish, and I angrily snapped that line of thought in two. Not yet, I told myself. You can't afford the distraction. Later. If you survive, there will be plenty of time to grieve.

Finally, my muscles threatening to cramp, I hauled myself out of the pool and sat dripping on the giant root. I did not shake the water out of my fur; it would evaporate soon enough, and in so doing would create a cool microclimate. That stream would be my lifeline, I knew. Without it, I would be dead within a day; with it, I might have a chance.

As I sat, another sensation began to clamor for my attention: hunger. I hadn't eaten since my small and hurried breakfast. I pulled my sample bag from the bundle of clothing and rummaged inside, knowing very well what I'd find. I had exactly three foil-wrapped meat bars, the lunch I hadn't taken time for. I might have rationed myself, making them last; but in that climate the bars would quickly lose their nutritional value once the seal was broken. Practically speaking then, I had enough provender for one big meal--or three meager ones. Three was sensible; and one of them might as well be right now. I bit through the foil and peeled it away.

###

After I ate I made camp--such as it was.

I saw no reason why I should move away from my water-supply--very much the opposite. And so I settled in for the night on a sandy flat on the opposite side of the big tree. It was hard to believe, but I knew that the temperature would drop rapidly after sunset. Once I'd dried and dressed--discarding the life-sign monitor and the wide elastic strap that had bound it around my ribs--I set to work with hands and rock hammer to dig a deep pit and ring it with stones. In the hole I piled a quantity of dry brush; it was not difficult to find, though I had to watch out for the thorns. I stacked a larger quantity of bigger sticks near the base of the tree. I'm glad, now, that I didn't decide to do without a fire: without it I would not have made it through the night. And I don't mean that I would have frozen--not exactly.

As the red sun had risen first, so it set last. In the bloody twilight the temperature did indeed drop. A welcome relief, at first--but as the green-tinged shadows lengthened, the cold came on at a breathtaking rate, as much a fast-moving wall as the heat that first day. I shivered, huddled within my field gear; but I reluctantly decided against turning on the heater. What power remained would best be conserved for the long blazing days ahead. In near-darkness I plunged my stinger into the pile of brush and fired a quick burst. The spark ignited the bone-dry twigs, and soon afterward I had a blazing fire. Crazy, I thought as the flames licked higher. To be shivering beside a fire four hours after fainting from heatstroke! This planet truly is insane…

I curled up a little tighter, laying my head on the tip of my tail, and closed my eyes. I was exhausted, utterly worn out; but would I be able to sleep? Or would my dreams be filled with the blinding flash of a fusion explosion? Maybe my brain would take pity on me…

I ought to have known that nothing on Hellhole was that easy. More to the point, I ought to have known that the pool I'd camped beside was the local watering hole--in retrospect, of course it was. I ought to have--but I didn't. Under the circumstances, perhaps I can't be blamed.

I dozed for perhaps an hour; maybe less. Exactly what woke me I don't know. Possibly some faint sound which a human wouldn't even have heard. But awaken me it did--just in time to save my life. Suddenly I found myself sitting bolt upright, my eyes wide and searching. My fire had died down to little more than a bed of glowing coals and a few jets of wavering blue flame. Neither of the moons was in the sky, and the night was pitch-black. And in the darkness…

Eyes. I was surrounded by eyes. Hundreds of them, large and small, glowing red and yellow in the firelight. They blinked, they shifted…and they slowly drifted closer. No hint of bodies, not in that light. Just eyes.

I gasped in terror, groping one-handed for my woodpile and throwing sticks onto the fire. With the other I drew my stinger.

As the flames leaped up the circle of eyes suddenly grew smaller and dimmer. The creatures stayed carefully outside the circle of light, though, so that I still had no idea exactly what I was facing. I heard the sound of breathing from all around me; and from somewhere straight ahead, a low deep growl. The acrid smell of wood-smoke mixed with a musty, animal scent, making my hackles rise. The stubs of my claws tried to express, useless and tingling.

For a few endless minutes the standoff continued…then one pair of eyes began to move slowly closer. They were large, yellow, wide-spaced, and more than a meter off the ground. I heard raspy breathing, and the growling I'd heard before grew suddenly louder and nearer. Wildly I raised my stinger and fired. I don't know what, if anything, I hit--but as the pale-blue discharge lanced out there came a harsh bellow, and then the splintering crash of something large and heavy throwing itself through the underbrush. The remaining eyes were suddenly extinguished. My sigh of relief sounded suspiciously like a sob.

I did not sleep much more that night. I sat with my legs beneath me and my back to the tree, and my stinger never left my hand. I stared into the embers of my fire, and occasionally I tossed on a few twigs. My breath made a cloud of vapor before me; the temperature was surely below freezing by then. Several times I dozed briefly, but then some noise would jerk me awake. For a time, the eyes did not return.

Near midnight, wide awake, I decided to face facts. All this time I had been merely reacting, taking events as they came; it was past time for some definite plans.

Fact: Raven was gone, destroyed. Exactly how I couldn't guess, though it seemed unlikely that she'd been under attack. Presumably then some kind of mechanical failure, her age catching up with her at last. The pod must have taken off while I lay unconscious on the trail, responding to a distress call which I never even heard. Fact: I was utterly alone on a planet that was at best marginally habitable. And fact: for the first time in my life, I literally held my life in my own hands. There was no one to help me, no succor if things went wrong. If I managed to incapacitate myself…I was dead. As simple as that--and as terrifying.

I had one slender hope to cling to, one reason to believe that I might not grow old and die here. Certainly I was a long way from home, deep in an all-but-uninhabited sector. But Raven had hyperzapped to Outpost Four every time she entered a new system--and if that contact was broken, the Admiralty would eventually dispatch a vessel to look for her. The search would begin at Raven's last reported position, the one I'd reported myself, two weeks ago. In other words, here. I might eventually be found--but it could be weeks before the search even began. How to stay alive until then?

Three items form the most basic ingredients of survival anywhere. The first--water--was apparently not a problem, though I'd do well to contrive a container bigger than my two hip flasks. They tied me to the stream more tightly than I liked.

The second--shelter--was a biggie. Not for protection from the weather (rain was about as common here as maxigrazer droppings) but rather a place I could defend, where I could sleep through the nights in peace. Obviously, the ground wasn't it. I'd discovered that the hard way. So where, then?

Up, I decided. Into the trees. We'd seen no evidence of arboreal creatures, and I doubted that anything could climb those trunks. I know I couldn't have, not even with a full set of claws; the bark was too smooth and hard. But I had one advantage over the natives: sapience. Already a plan was beginning to form…

The third necessity, of course, was food--and that could be the biggest problem of all. A human, equipped with a scanpak or trusting to luck, could probably have located edible roots, herbs, fruits, seeds, nuts. But that wouldn't do for me. At least ninety-five percent of my nutrition had to come from one source: meat. Red or white, raw or cooked; it made little difference. But it absolutely had to be meat. Evolution had shaped me thus.

Which meant hunting. And that was the true difficulty--because despite my ancestry, despite having been born with claws and sharp teeth, that was something I'd never done. Well, almost never. The only time I'd ever come close was during a Death Valley survival test, and it required neither skill nor cunning--in fact it was an accident. The rattlesnake struck at my leg from under a boulder; fortunately it missed. In other circumstances I would have left it alone; but when you haven't eaten for two days, anything looks tasty. I bashed its skull in with a rock, and after it stopped thrashing…well, let's just say that contrary to Terran mythology, it really didn't taste like chicken. In our modern world not one in a thousand Sah'aarans will ever hunt for food: the price of civilization. Would I even know how? Would long-buried instincts emerge when I needed them?

If I could scare up any game, the actual killing would be easy--as long as my stinger held out. But its charge would not last forever. Would my claws regrow to useful length before the weapon died? And if not, what were my alternatives?

Damn Antilles anyway, I thought savagely. Without his handiwork, I would have felt infinitely less helpless…

About three hundred hours, I found myself cursing the darkness as well as my late captain. My firewood was running low, and the eyes had begun to drift back. Just a few; but they were venturing closer than before. I had to fire my stinger twice more, wasting power, to get them to retreat again. Dawn would rescue me, but not soon: like the days, Hellhole's nights were exactly thirteen hours long.

About six hundred hours, I found myself doing what I hadn't done in years: praying. I muttered every prayer for deliverance I could think of, beseeching the merciful Goddess to get me through the night. I'd always thought myself a non-believer; but as the Terrans have it, there are no atheists in foxholes. The eyes were drifting close again; I was terribly tired and out of firewood; and stinger bolts weren't driving them away any more…

And the Goddess heard me. I don't know what might have happened; certainly I would have had a hell of a fight on my hands, against very long odds. But suddenly, just when I'd grown certain that the creatures would rush me at any second, the horizon flushed red. Seconds later the red sun rose, flooding my little corner of Hellhole with sanguine light. I had a glimpse--nothing more--of many dark shapes, large and small, fleeing the growing brightness. Soon afterward the other two suns rose, in a rush of heat and blinding light--and by then I was once again alone. I laid my head against the tree and closed my eyes, quietly uttering a prayer of thanks. I'd been warned, though: no matter what, I would not spend another night on the ground.

###

Exhausted as I was, I went to work immediately. I had precious little choice.

My first move--after waking myself up with a dip in the pool--was to inventory my equipment. The results were not encouraging--but then I'd packed for a five-hour landing party, not an indefinite stay.

I had my uniform, that close-fitting one-piece suit of field gear which would be unendurable once its cooling unit ran out of power. Emptying the two big cargo pockets I came up with a pitiful collection of odds and ends; useful enough, yes--but woefully inadequate for the long haul. A tiny first aid kit: a spray can of disinfectant, a few strips of dermapatch, and a roll of gauze bandage. A packet of potassium tablets, and an all-but-untouched tube of sunscreen. I could keep my nose from getting sunburned; but if I needed major surgery, I was out of luck.

More useful were the two spare power cells for my temperature-control unit, both fully-charged. How long they'd last was entirely up to me. If I ran the unit for comfort they'd be dead within two days. But if I used it sparingly, taking the edge off the heat during the day, and preventing myself from freezing at night…they might last a couple weeks. Which of course was scarcely long enough.

And then there was my sample bag. Other than my rock hammer and my fossil-extraction kit, it contained nothing more than two ration bars. The hammer had its uses--digging, for example--but it was not an effective weapon. The other tools, the little picks and brushes, were useless to me now.

The final few items were the most important. A pair of unbreakable one-liter bottles: without them I wouldn't dare venture more than a hundred meters from the stream. My commpak and scanpak; and last--but certainly not least--my stinger. The commpak I had no immediate use for; not until rescue was at hand. The scanpak would come in handier, to tell me whether something I was planning to eat was likely to poison me. My stinger had already proved its usefulness. All three had been fully charged when I landed the previous morning, and none had yet been depleted significantly. But even so, I'd have to use them sparingly. Most especially the stinger--which meant no more nights like the last.

That was the sum total of my equipment, except for my wits and my training. Those, I suspected, would see the most use--and I was right.

The first order of business was shelter, and as soon as I'd finished sorting my equipment that was the work I undertook, ignoring my growing hunger as best I could. Food could wait: I had to have some safer place to sleep before suns-set.

Four years of survival training must have taught me something, I suppose. Even those seventy-two horrible hours in Death Valley, and that week in the snow-cave in the high Sierra. But it may well be that I learned more about survival by studying archaeology.

As I set to work that blazing morning, I found my mind drifting back more than thirteen years, to a college course on ancient Terran civilizations--and an instructor who believed in learning by doing. She was especially fascinated by South America, and her enthusiasm was infectious. One day the class took a field-trip to the Sah'salaan plain, to try our hand at a craft widely practiced by the Inca. But not their celebrated stonework; rather, their knack of plaiting the tall native grass into ropes of remarkable strength. With bridges made of that rope the Inca spanned hair-raising chasms, greatly shortening their post-roads. I can't say that my classmates and I quite achieved their level of skill--but our rope did survive a spirited tug-of-war. The materials were available; hopefully my fingers still remembered the knack.

Like the Sah'aaran veldt, millions of square kilometers of Hellhole were covered with tall grass. There was none in the forest, but just outside, across the stream, lay two or three square kilometers of a shorter grey variety, every bit as tough and fibrous as I'd hoped. Unfortunately I had no knife (my favorite folding claw-file, with a built-in blade, had been atomized along with Raven) and my rock hammer was of no use either. But there was any amount of obsidian lying around, and I quickly found a fist-sized chunk with a razor-sharp edge. It was the work of perhaps half an hour to gather several large sheaves, which I stacked beside the stream. The job ahead didn't require water--but I did.

The process was fairly simple; much easier, in fact, to do than to describe. It consisted of little more than taking two handfuls of grass and half braiding, half twisting them together. The grass had what I can only describe as a "tooth": if I ran my fingers up the stems they slid smoothly; but down they encountered resistance, no doubt from tiny upward-pointing barbs. By alternating the direction of the bundles as I braided them in, I could make the strands interlock. The grass seemed even tougher than what we'd used in college: my full strength was not sufficient to pull the braids apart. As my ropes grew, so did my confidence.

It took most of the day to finish. Had I worked straight through it might have gone faster--but of course I couldn't. I stopped several times to rest my cramped fingers; once to change the battery in my cooling unit; once to gulp down one of my remaining ration bars; and once to strip off my field gear and dive into the pool. One anticipated difficulty failed to materialize: I'd expected the barbed stems to do terrible things to my hands--which could have been inconvenient or even crippling. But they did not--and the reason why was worth remembering. As I worked, a milky juice oozed from the stems and coated my hands; and it proved to be a kind of natural lotion, soothing and healing.

Finally I had three coils of rope, one about fifteen meters long, the others about ten. To one end of the longest I tied a rock the size of a potato. Along the other two lines I tied sticks, twice as thick as my thumb and half a meter long, placing them about three-quarters of a meter apart, eventually fashioning a crude but serviceable ladder. This I rolled and slung across my back; the longer coil I draped over my shoulder. Then I went house-hunting.

I had to travel some distance from the stream, into the fringe of the forest, to find a suitable tree. Before I made my choice I circled many, craning my neck to peer critically up into their branches. The one on which I finally settled met most of my criteria: it was somewhat removed from the others, so that none of its branches touched those of another; and it had a single huge limb no more than four and a half meters up. Maybe I could have done better; but the approaching evening was a wonderful spur to my decision-making process. I stood gazing up at that branch for a long time; then I uncoiled the long rope and let it drop loosely to the ground. I weighed the rock in my right hand, tossing it up and down several times. I used to have a pretty good arm; my tennis serves had sometimes been described as "unstoppable." But I hadn't held a racket for more than two months--nor even exercised much lately. Did I still have the strength? Only one way to find out…

I drew back my arm and launched the rock at a steep angle, putting everything I had into it. It cleared the branch, just barely, carrying the rope with it; and a second later it thudded to earth on the other side. Grinning in relief, I quickly pried the rock loose and tossed it aside, then fed the other end through the empty loop. As if raising a flag, I drew the loop up until it snugged tight against the branch. Then I took a deep breath, spat into my palms, grasped the rope, and began to climb, hand-over hand with the line braced between my crossed ankles.

It would have been infinitely easier with my claws--or a set of mountaineering ascenders. Fortunately I only had to do it once. My improvised rope held my weight easily; it was probably strong enough for a herd of Quadrians, let alone a single underweight Sah'aaran. A minute later--and with some difficulty--I hauled myself up onto the branch. The upper surface was smooth, nearly flat, and more than two meters wide. There was no sign that any other creature had ever stood there. Looking down from that perch, I smiled. If I can't be safe up here…

From my back I unslung my coiled ladder. At its top I had left long rungless stretches; these I passed around the branch and tied tightly. I gave the ladder a kick, and it uncoiled noisily down to the ground. And that was my refuge.

###

Actually, it was several more days before my shelter was complete. I spent the second night of my exile on the branch, with the ladder beside me; and though the creatures circled and growled below me all night, I was entirely undisturbed. Despite my exhaustion I slept poorly: I was extremely uncomfortable. In the open, with air circulating freely and no possibility of a fire, the cold bit hard, and I had to turn my heating unit higher than I liked, using power I couldn't spare. And worse: every time I turned over I woke in terror, afraid of rolling off. That was the major difference between this tree and the tatak of my youth: there, I'd been able to securely wedge myself into the crotch of three large branches. Here, there was nothing between me and a five-meter drop except my sense of balance. I woke at dawn with tense muscles and a pounding headache. Something would have to be done--and over the next few days I did it.

Deep in the forest I found a second type of tree: a slender, light-barked species something like a Terran poplar. Finding them was easy--cutting them was not. In the end I had to use my stinger--much as I grudged the waste of power--to burn through the trunks. It was the work of a day to cut and carry to my refuge several dozen stripped trunks. It was no easy job to haul them up to my branch, even after I rigged a crude block-and-tackle; but I managed, and gradually I built a platform and a rough lean-to shed. One wall was the tree-trunk itself; the other three were made of lashed-together poles. The roof pitched slightly away from the tree; it was solid, but I'd seen no reason to make it waterproof. The door was a small hatch, just big enough for me to worm through; and over it I hung a curtain of grass, the leftovers from my rope-braiding. In one corner I made my bed, a hollow nest of grass and leaves. The leaves had a pleasant, spicy smell, not unlike cinnamon. At night I burrowed deep and curled tight around myself; even with my heating unit turned off I could sleep in reasonable comfort. The shelter was also shady, and sufficiently ventilated to be refuge from the heat of the day. As the weeks passed I added refinements: with my rock hammer and a sharp chunk of obsidian I hacked small shelves into the bark of the tree. And one day I came across a thicket of huge, weird, gourd-like vegetables. I dragged the largest two back to my shelter; dried and hollowed, they each held a full ten liters of water. In time the place began to feel positively homey.

Which is not to say that I did nothing those first few days but build. I also achieved one more milestone in my conversion from officer to savage. I put it off as long as I could; but on the fourth day, with my ration bars just a memory, my gnawing hunger forced me to go hunting.

Fortunately for me, the forest wasn't quite as devoid of diurnal animals as Delaney had believed. In fact several species were active in the daytime, hiding from the heat deep in the underbrush. All that was required to find them was patience--and stealth. Especially stealth. Little wonder that my human colleagues hadn't seen them. To get close enough for the kill required me to dig deep and find hunting skills I didn't even know I had.

Most of the animals were mammals, or something like it; furry, anyway. There were small things like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel, and there were large rooting creatures like wild pigs, but quite placid. There was also one species of flightless bird, like an iridescent turkey. All of them were edible, non-poisonous--and even tasty, after a fashion.

Frankly, I'd rather forget my first day's attempts. They were a fiasco: I was nervous, clumsy, too aware of the price of failure. If I didn't spook the animals by stepping on a twig, then my shots went wild. By late afternoon I began to wonder if I would starve to death in the midst of plenty. Desperate to fill my stomach, I was almost ready to make myself sick by becoming herbivorous.

Finally, near suns-set, weak from hunger, I somehow managed to force a measure of calm upon myself. Maybe it was the peace that often accompanies a loss of hope. In a small clearing deep in the forest I came across a dozen of those rabbit/squirrel things, hopping placidly back and forth as they nibbled the grass. Hidden behind a bush, I took a deep breath, stilled my hunger-induced shakes, and aimed my stinger--more carefully than I had since the day of my Academy marksmanship test. The discharge caught the nearest creature; it screeched and flopped. The rest of the group (Herd? Gaggle? Flock?) scattered, but that was all right. I pushed my way through the underbrush and picked up the small corpse. And then…

Since accepting the fact that I would eventually have to hunt, I'd been plagued by the terrible fear that I wouldn't know what to do, even if I managed to kill something. I needn't have worried. My stomach churning with hunger, saliva dripping from my mouth, I looked down at the unfortunate little creature…and the stinger dropped from my hand as my mind went away.

When reason finally returned I found myself crouched on my haunches. There was nothing left of my victim but fur and clean-picked bones; my face, my hands, and the breast of my field gear were soaked with blood. I stood and backed away in horror. Goddess! I thought. I did that? Was the cloak of civilization I wore really that terribly thin? Was I always that close to savagery? Or was it just my terrible hunger?

…But my stomach was full, for the first time in several days: actually, comfortably full. And at that moment nothing else really mattered.

That was the beginning. As the days passed my hunting skills improved, until finally I could be assured of bagging something any time I wished. One thing didn't change: every time I knelt beside a fresh kill, my conscious mind went away. I couldn't prevent it, and eventually I gave up trying. I'd never learned how to hunt; had never been taught--in the time-honored fashion--by my mother. Nothing from my education could help me there. But I did have the instincts--and if I gave myself over to their mastery, I wouldn't starve.

I returned to my ancestors in other ways as well. The Sah'aaran digestive system evolved to cope with an undependable food supply. When my ancestors made a kill they would gorge themselves to repletion, and not eat again for days. Only in the comparatively recent past did we adopt the human idea of three square meals a day. (And the attendant digestive problems.) Had anyone asked, I would have said I didn't have the knack for binge-and-fast eating. But I did, after all: if I could hunt big, I needn't eat again for two or three days. A workable system, but with one serious drawback: I spent those two or three days doing nothing but sleeping. There had to be a way around that, and eventually I found it.

My other problem with the primitive life involved my claws--or my lack thereof. Left alone now, with Enyeart and his clippers both vaporized, they had begun to grow back, much to my relief. But the process was agonizingly slow, and it would be weeks before they were long enough to shape and sharpen. And I missed them. As evolution intended, they were the perfect tool for tearing through skin to get at the meat below. In the primitive state of mind that followed my kills, I often found myself dragging my fingers across my victims, and snarling in rage when nothing happened. I had to make do with my teeth--which was both inconvenient and dangerous. All too often the skin concealed bone instead of meat…and in my situation, broken teeth could be lethal.

For the solution to that problem, I once again must thank my college education--and that professor with the hands-on approach. One day she invited a visiting Terran archaeologist to demonstrate the ancient technique of chipping crude tools from chert, flint or obsidian. Some of us got the chance to try--and I picked up the knack fairly quickly, if I do say so myself.

Fortunately the raw materials were plentiful: all the obsidian I could possibly want. I didn't have a deer antler, so my rock hammer would have to do. Several days and a few dozen ruined pieces later, I finally regained the knack of gently pressing away the flakes of stone. As my discard pile grew higher my temper grew shorter, and several times I almost abandoned the project; but I persevered, and finally managed to contrive a decently sharp knife with a long serrated blade. The rounded handle I wrapped with woven grass, for a better grip when my hand was covered with blood.

After that I was able to hunt bigger game, going after those big flightless birds or those pig-like mammals; and after I'd eaten my fill on the spot, I could butcher and carry away what was left. Near my tree I dug a deep pit, in which I kept a fire burning constantly, carefully banking the coals every night. Over the smoldering flames I smoked thin strips of meat on wooden skewers. The crude jerky thus created wasn't quite as appetizing as fresh, raw meat; but it kept much longer, and freed me from both the tyranny of frequent hunting and the enforced inactivity that followed an eating binge. Wrapped in leaves, the smoked meat stayed good almost a week.

There was one other odd spin-off from my life as a hunter. I invariably returned from my expeditions covered head to toe with blood--an uncomfortable and revolting state of affairs which obliged me to bathe frequently. The pool where I'd spent my first night was far from my shelter, and after it became obvious that the place was a watering hole for the local fauna I no longer cared to frequent the area. And so, on a bend of the creek much closer to my shelter, I laboriously created a rough dam of boulders, backing up an even larger pool than the one I'd camped beside. It served several purposes. First and foremost, of course, drinking water: it was easier to fill my bottles there. Second, a place to wash my clothing and myself. And third--most surprisingly--a swimming pool. Strange: up until then I'd despised swimming, doing so only when absolutely necessary. But now, in that terrible heat, I found myself beginning to enjoy the feel of cool water around me. When I returned to civilization…well, many Survey vessels, Zelazny for one, have small pools aboard. In the future I might be seen taking a dip once in a while. Always assuming, of course, that Hellhole didn't kill me first.


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