Cal in the Wild

My name is Caleb Augustus Montgomery. Caleb the faithful. Cal for short. Augustus, because of my Uncle Augustus, or Uncle Augey as we called him. He was killed in an unusual bulldozer accident, crushed to oblivion as it fell from a transport vehicle. And Montgomery, because parts of the family own a castle in a far away place called Scotland. I have little association with the rest of the Montgomery family after we left Earth. We only speak via the occasional quantum-wave message. Christian Montgomery, Dad for short, had little love for them and followed the path to space. The exploration gene deeply embedded in his code. The pioneer spirit of our ancestors written in his heart. So we immigrated to the off-world colonies. Our paperwork was approved, stamped, and sorted.

Thus we were condemned to a life of meager existence on the Tee Ring. Tee, the single barely habitable world circling Teegarden’s Star. One superheated face of the planet permanently facing its sun, the other side frozen in ice. The Ring, a band of real estate fifty kilometers wide that sits right on the terminator between the light and dark. Outside of the Ring, humans can’t survive without life support. It’s a peach of a place with the wind whipping across the top of the valley at two hundred kilometers an hour, grinding the surface and sprinkling it down on you as a never ending rain of dust.

Our farm lies in one of these protected valleys where the water flows open to the sky and burrows down into the porous crust of the planet. The ground changes from day to day and hour to hour, much like the effect where snow falls in the northern reaches of Earth. We raise the cattle and tend the crops to feed ourselves. The sun never rises and never sets, and the sky is an eternal twilight, so we power up the lights to feed the plants. The wolves, our pets, keep most of the natural predators away from the livestock, but sometimes a new one shows up and we have to hunt it down. Some really strange creatures live in the dead zones where we can’t go. They wander in. Some are almost tame, some are nightmarish. We keep the guns loaded, and listen for the wolves to call the alarm.

I have a room in the attic of the farm house. I listen to the howl of the winds. Marney the wolf slumbers on the floor beside my bed. I dream of adventures in far away places. I think of girls and schools and parties. I wonder what it might be like in the cities back on Earth. I drift off to sleep. The wind is my messenger, the dust is my life. I am Cal. I live in the wild.

I woke in the morning and took out the ear plugs. The wind had screamed all night long. It was still screaming against the hyper-pressed soil blocks of the farmhouse. The storm that Tee’s emergency radio band had been squawking about had hit. We wouldn’t be going out in this weather. When the storms hit, you can’t see two feet in front of you. You could get lost in your own backyard and wander off until you froze to death or something ate you. Better to huddle up until it was over.

The day before the storm we had enough warning to barricade the cattle into the storm shelter. We had cameras and auto feeders in there so they’d be okay for a day or two. But they get plenty agitated if they are cooped up much longer than that. Or they get depressed and sick. Cows are creatures of habit, highly social, herd animals. You can’t mess with their routines or they get upset and stuff starts going wrong. They start knocking each other around, and not eating. That’s not good for anybody—them or us.

I came down the stairs and Ma was making breakfast over the wood stove. This wasn’t the Old West, as Dad was fond of saying, but we knew that he secretly wished that it was. The stove was a backup in case the power went out. That told me something had happened to the wind generators during the night. That and the look on Dad’s irritated leathern face.

“Yep, power’s out. Something blew out the turbines in the night,” he said. Pans clanked on the stove as Ma shuffled them around.

“Both of them?” I asked.

“Camera’s are still working up there. Can’t be a cable problem, but can’t see shit though with all the dust and wind.” He gestured to a brownish swirling picture on the wall screen.

“Sucks,” I said.

“Blows, and too damn much.” He broke his scowl and grinned at me.  

I laughed, relieved that this hadn’t yet turned Dad into a storm himself. The kind where everyone had to tip toe around not to set him off, and where you could feel the gloom and darkness so thick you could cut it. When that happened, you were better off just going off somewhere and hiding out until it blew over, much like we were doing now. No, that would probably come later, when he found out what happened to the generators firsthand. When some complication would come up and repairs didn’t go right. On a farm nothing goes right all of the time. There’s always something going awry, and that meant that Dad was in a cycling hurricane that oscillated from anger to peace. I never felt safe. Except when I was alone, which was a lot.

“Gett’em while they’re hot.” Ma clunked a heavy plate stacked high with flapjacks onto the table.

I sat down and piled three of them onto an empty plate. Ma had long greying hair that fell down past her shoulders, more patience than God have given to anyone, and a sunny smile permanently fixed on her face. Well almost permanently. There were definitely exceptions. Especially that time that she’d caught me using one of her table knives for a screwdriver. That hadn’t gone over well.

My older brother Brad came down then and joined us for breakfast. He winked at me and grabbed four of the cakes onto his plate. He could have been one of those body builders with the bulging muscles that spent six hours a day pumping iron in some gym, but he didn’t do any of that. It just came naturally to him. That and the hard work around the farm. We were complete opposites. I was the brainy type and he was the brawn. We didn’t always get along, but we were brothers, and we didn’t have anyone else, so we made it work.

“Power’s out.” I piped up helpfully.

“No shit.” Brad said. “What was your first clue?”

“Wood smoke.” I said.

”Do these taste better cooked on the wood stove or what?” Brad grinned over at Ma.

“It’s the extra work I had to go through to make them. That always makes anything better.” Ma laughed. It was a light lilting sound, that brought in the sun on that gloomy day with the dust blotting out what little light Teegarden’s star grudgingly gave us.

Dad pushed his empty plate away from the edge of the table. His set his gnarled hands into his lap folded up. That was his thinking pose. “I want you boys suited up by noon. The winds are forecasted to die out then. We’ll go on up and take a look see at those turbines.”

“Yes, sir.” Brad said.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to go up there to the Edge. That’s what I called it. My little word for it. The edge of life and death is what it was. We were down in the valley. The turbines were near the cold edge up on the plateau. That’s where the wind ripped across a frozen wasteland of ice in a never ending black darkness where the sun never shone. We’d been up there before, and that’s when Dad got his leg cut by a Bandsaw Bitch. Half the critters on Tee have never been cataloged. So we just name them as we see them.

Bandsaw Bitches are flat little devils with a long barbed tail. They fly through the wind and wrap themselves onto prey with that wicked tail. We cut that damn tail off Dad, and wrapped up his bleeding leg. Then we had to slide him down the cliff three miles and load him onto the rover. He was lucky he didn’t bleed out before we got him home.

After breakfast I brooded about going up to the Edge. The cold edge was the worst. If I had my choice I’d go to the other edge on the sun-side of the terminator. It was hotter than hell, but as a rule the critters were fewer and less dangerous there.  And if you had to go into an extreme environment, at least you would get to see the sun fully above the horizon. You know, like real people get to see it back on earth and the planets that don’t suck. But this is where the Immigration department sent us, where there was a critical need, as they said. I was still trying to figure out how we were helping conquer this planet, when every day it seemed like it was wiping us out just a piece at a time.

I couldn’t procrastinate any more, and started to put my gear together. The wind suit, a one piece, practically bullet proof smart fiber that sucked tight onto you at a press of a button. Once activated it was like a second skin, powered by a battery and thermally regulated. A system of tiny microscopic tubes webbed through the suit, just like blood vessels. You could stay warm or cool, withstand incredible amounts of wind force, and it was tough as iron. You could slide down razor sharp shale rocks and never feel it. That being said, a Bandsaw Bitch had once sliced right through Dad’s suit like it was butter.

I had the suit on, and made my way to the door. It was actually an air lock. Here in the Ring the dust was everywhere. The door on the farmhouse was actually two doors with a negatively charged mudroom between them. When you came in, dust detached from you and was sucked into the vacum vents. I placed the goggles over my eyes and set the breathing filter over my mouth and nose. If you didn’t wear a filter in the Ring, you’d be coughing up bits of your lungs in less than a day when the incredibly sharp particles of dust slowly embedded themselves like tiny fishhooks.

Ready or not I punched the hand-sized button at the side of the outer door and it slid open. The hurricane of dust hit me. The winds had died down, which only meant you could now stand up in them, and maybe you could see a little better. I could see about fifty feet in any direction. That was it. The screech of the wind had died to a howl, but it was ever-present, making me long for silence. Dad and Brad piled some ropes and climbing gear onto the six wheeled rover. I pulled the door open on the passenger side of the cab and climbed in. The howl reduced to a moan. I took off the goggles, but left the filter in place. You didn’t screw around with the dust.

Soon we were bouncing along the ground. In the rear facing cameras the dust flew everywhere, blotting out where we’d been as if the world was being destroyed right behind us. We rode not saying a word to each other. My mind replayed the last time we made this trip. The Bandsaw Bitch, the fear of Dad dying, the heavy responsibility of his life dependent on what we did or didn’t do. My eyes stayed glued to the infrared and radar camera feeds on the dash which pierced the dust, showing the way ahead past what we could see through the windshield. I wasn’t looking for obstacles, I was looking for anything that might swoop down out of that maelstrom to try and eat us. But for all of my anxiety, nothing came at us.

As the sky became ever darker, we eventually reached the base of the cliffs at the cold edge of the valley. The only light came from the intense lamps of the rover, and the flashlights mounted on our headgear. Like ancient coalminers we were about to go into the permanent gloom of the cold edge where the sun had never been seen.

It’s impossible to talk through over the wind on Tee through a filter mask. So our headgear contains a radio adapted from space suits with noise-cancelling microphone and earplugs. They can’t block out all of the noise of the winds, but they do lessen it some. Also, there’s a tiny computer in there that tries to detect sounds that aren’t wind and amplify them up. That way you can actually hear events over the wind. That can be important when hunting, or being hunted.

I had my discretionary hearing turned way up. I couldn’t even remember if there was a sound associated with a Bandsaw Bitch flying through the wind. It had happened so fast before. One second we were just standing there on the ridge, looking over the turbines, and then wham. Dad was down. We weren’t going to be caught so naively this time.

There was a lockbox on the back of the rover right behind the cab. Brad unlocked it and handed out the weapons, along with a belt full of ammo. The projectiles were the same as they had been for hundreds of years. A slug of metal with a very hard tip surrounding a softer body of metal. It would pierce a target and then mushroom out to do as much damage as possible. The explosive in the cartridge was more advanced than gun powder. The rounds were faster and did more damage. So why not ray-guns, or rail-guns, or plasma? Those things existed, but when your life is on the line thousands of kilometers from nowhere, you didn’t trust it to an electronic gadget. There’s no time to reboot. You want something that goes click and boom, and follows the laws of chemical reactions that don’t fail.

We each shouldered a pack of supplies. I ended up with the pack of tools, and they weren’t light. Our headlamps cut stark white beams through the dark, everywhere a blizzard of dust. Brad located the trail going up the cliff. It was marked by radio beacon and topped with about two feet of silty dust. I hoped we wouldn’t have to use the climbing gear, but we had to bring it because the terrain changes so much. It’d been almost a year since we’d been up here last.

“Here we go.” Dad trekked off up the slope.

“Oh joy,” I said without keying my microphone. I’d gotten into trouble before by leaving my microphone in VOX mode and bitching about having to do some chore. I don’t use the VOX anymore. I have to have the option to bitch. Vocalizing my discontent to myself keeps me from strangling others.

Brad and I followed Dad up the trail, which turned ugly right away. It inclined steeply right after the first switchback, and I slipped back one step for every two forward in that damned dust. The wind-suit insulated and heated me, but I could feel that numbing cold seeping into my boots, climbing inside my gloves, freezing my nose through the mask. It was nasty out there, and you’d die in minutes without protection. I tried not to think about it and just keep one foot going in front of the other.

This went on for an hour, and in true Montgomery fashion, we only spoke once or twice over the radio the whole time. What was there to say? This was a shitty, uncomfortable, miserable job. And I couldn’t say that we shouldn’t do it, because we had to. We had to have our power back. It still didn’t make it better though. There was a very real possibility that one or all of us wouldn’t come back. It had almost happened the last time. So I said a few more choice words, leaving the microphone switch alone. That seemed to help my mood some, but it didn’t lessen the tired burning ache that was beginning to develop in my legs.

The wind screamed louder as we approached the top of the plate. I could feel it whipping over our heads and it got harder and harder to stay upright. Dad signaled a halt, and we stopped to rope up. I snapped my belt hook to a D ring fastened on the rope, and we proceeded to make the final ascent linked together. In hurricane force winds you have to walk in a half crouch and take short steps bracing against the gale. I felt the very last ounce of energy that I had being sucked away.

Tee’s wind cycle is almost directionally static. The tidally locked sunny-side caused heated atmosphere to rise making a perpetual rain fall. Those winds then swept toward the dark side in a high altitude jet-stream which cooled and fell toward the surface. Then it was pushed back across the ice to the sunward. That cold blizzard swept right into us now.

All I could think about was getting those turbines back online, hoping that it would be a quick fix. Then heading down the slope back to crawl back inside the rover. That’s what kept me going, thinking of just being able to sit and rest somewhere out of the wind and freezing cold.

We made it over the lip of the plate and stood on the edge—the edge of life and death. Just a few kilometers into that cold icy plain and you’d soon die without a fully life supporting space suit. Brad removed the sun-gun from his pack and switched it on. I became blind for about thirty-seconds. After my eyes recovered, I could see the turbines revealed in the intense light beam brad was shining on them. And I suddenly knew that we had made this dangerous climb for nothing. There was nothing left to fix.

Dad stood there ahead of us, still as a statue for a moment. Then he walked up to the remains of one the turbine frames and gave it swift kick. I was sure he was doing my don’t-press-the-mic trick and cursing up a storm inside that mask. I was glad I couldn’t hear it. When he went off, it tensed me up so tight inside I felt sick. 

Brad and I got up close to the wreckage to take a look. The entire center section of turbines were a twisted mess. The housing was torn to shreds where fan blades had shot through as they’d torn loose. 

“Help me lift this shit up.” Dad had stopped kicking things for now and was back to his take-charge self. 

I took the sun-gun from Brad and held it on the section Dad was indicating. A shredded mess of twisted blades and wire coils. 

Brad rolled his shoulders a couple times and then grabbed hold of the mess along with Dad. Together they heaved hard on it. It slowly lifted to shoulder height on one side and then they tumbled it over and out the way. My discriminator circuits sent a loud bang into my ears. 

Under where that junk had sat was a giant bloody mess of meat. Like about three cows worth had been sent through the turbine like through a wood chipper. 

“Damn, what the hell was that thing?” Brad poked at it with a boot. 

I looked at the goopy pile. “Something really tough. Look at those black shards mixed in there. Probably some kind of armor.” 

Dad reached down with a gloved hand and picked up part of what looked like a scale. He held it up to the light and we all took a close look. It looked like a broken black seashell about the sized of a shovel blade. 

“What do we know that looks like that?” Dad asked. 

I racked my brain. Thinking of every critter that we’d come across in memory. I shook my head, looking down into the frozen mass of ground-meat, bone, and scales. 

“Never seen anything that big with armor before.  Rat-lizards have scales kind of like that.” But, I thought, rat-lizards were the size rats. Not three cows. 

Something whispered through the discriminator circuits into my ears.  It was a change in the wind noise, and a strange warbling that made my hair stand on end under the wind suit.  A prickly feeling crawled up my spine.

“Did you hear that?” I asked the others.

“Just the wind changing.” Brad said.

But that feeling just got worse all of a sudden, because Brad saying that nothing was wrong was an alarm bell of its own.  Like that time he’d told me to hold up a beam in the barn, and it started slipping, and he kept telling me that I could do it, but I hadn’t.  It’d come right down on my leg. Brad’s confidence, his invincible strength, made him overconfident in himself, others, and everything else. The times he’d done that made me wary when he said things like, “Don’t worry about it, or it will be fine, stop being a wimp. I was getting a creeping five-alarm for a fire going off right then.

I handed Brad the sun-gun and took up the Crawly forty-five from the sling around my neck. I gripped the stock tight near the trigger guard. Then I cranked the discriminator to max, and listened. Just the wind howled for about a minute, then a slight low frequency warble again.

“Dad…”

Before I could finish the thought, a terrifying shriek pierced my ears and a shadow entered the wide circle of light pouring out of the sun-gun.  I got a glimpse of gigantic talons reaching down and then suddenly something crushed my leg in a vise-grip.  It swept me up into the air. I looked upside-down at a sliver of light and the two tiny dark figures of my father and brother standing on the ice. I was swung around in a dizzy circle, and then the dark enclosed me, and the wind battered my body and ears.  

My head was freezing, my eyes stinging as the cold air tried to freeze them over. There was absolutely no light to see anything by, so I shut them tight. Blood pooled into my skull as I hung upside-down, dangled like a piece of frozen meat as a sacrifice to the arctic gods. My leg was a firebrand of pain, gripped mercilessly by something unseen. My left shoulder hurt like hell. 

Fear gripped me, and jolted me into action.  I had to do something.  Thie monster that had snatched me from the cliff was heading back into the dark side of the terminator, and I couldn’t survive there long.  If I lived long enough to make it to our destination, I would then become a meal, or maybe just a snack.  Neither option seemed pleasant. 

I could feel the strap of the auto-rifle pulling at my armpit. I  tried to grab the strap, but the other arm refused to move.  Sharp pain in the shoulder told me that it had been dislocated. It was weak and helpless.  I had to get loose.

The only other weapon I had was a combat knife and fortunately that was in a belt sheath on my right side.  With my good arm I reached and grabbed it.  I bent myself forward, my stomach muscles straining. The weight of the tool pack prevented me from reaching what I envisioned as that giant claw that I’d seen before I’d been swept away. 

I felt for the pack buckle and released it.  Instantly the pull on my leg lessened. I crouched and slashed until I hit something.  I hit it fast, hard, and repeatedly. Suddenly, the vise on my leg let loose.  I fell. How far I fell I don’t know.  It seemed like a long time, and my last thought before the blackness took me was that this was it.  That my short life, with all of its hopes and dreams of escaping this hellhole of a planet, was over.  And then there was nothing.

I awoke in stages.  First, feeling the familiar pain of frostbite in my extremities.  Nothing quite has that flavor of agony.  Next, the shivering cold all over my body.  A cold that I had experienced before.  This time though, I could tell that it was advanced. A slinking suspicion that this was actual hypothermia, of the lethal variety.  The kind where, if it went on long enough, that you started to feel warm again, and then sleepy, and then you would lay down for the last nap of your life. 

These gloomy thoughts activated some vestiges of adrenaline in me.  That ancient human trigger that made you run like hell from the dinosaur trying to eat you.  My dinosaur, or whatever it had been, had dropped his pain-in-the-claws burden and left him to die on the frozen side of Tee.

I was laying on my back, my senses told me, my eyes frozen shut. This was a dark that your eyes would never adjust to anyway, because there was an absolute absence of light. The starlight far above the roiling dust clouds of moonless Tee would never pierce down to the surface. 

I rolled to my left, away from the useless arm that dangled from its disjointed shoulder.  My cheek squished against something freezing and soft. my body cushioned. I lay on powdered snow.

I took inventory.  My hand still clutched the knife.  The auto-rifle was gone.  It must have slipped off during my tumbling fall to the snow. I was lucky in that fact. That I had fallen onto a powdered snow bank.  Anything else would have been lethal. 

I didn’t have much time.  I needed to get shelter or I would freeze solid in minutes.  My knowledge of the dark side was minimal, but I knew from what I’d been told and what I’d read that the average temperature past the dark edge was a lethal minus sixty two degrees centigrade. Comparable to Earth’s antarctic.  My windsuit was only rated to handle minus forty. I had no idea how long I had been out here.  But I could tell from my shivering that the suit battery was starting to lose its charge.

I crawled through the powder in what felt like a downward direction. I could not see, I could only feel. I kept crawling and despairing.  Every inch that I moved that there was no change brought me further to the brink of giving up. But I was young, and I was scared, and I would not stop.  I kept crawling.

The snow changed.  Eventually it got harder and harder. This is what I needed for a shelter.  Snow that was packed enough that would hold together.  I stopped and took the knife and started to carve. Brad and I had done this before on the edges of the cliff.  Survival training, and heck just for fun to build forts when we were younger. But this time, I was on the clock.  A death clock that ticked down with every beat of my heart.  

My hands shook with the cold. My muscles started to cramp up on me and refuse to work.  I kept going, digging my way down into the packed snow.  Feeling my way around.  Placing the blocks of snow above, building roof over my head.  

I finally had to just quit, and hope that I had done enough.  That the space that I’d made for myself would hold the meager heat coming off of my body and keep me warm inside of it.  The falling snow would eventually plug any cracks between the blocks.  And that was good and bad.  I had to maintain an air hole or I would suffocate.  I kept the knife poked out a hole now and then, as I let the heat of my exertion leak out into my small me-sized hole in the snow. 

Slowly I started to feel warmth return to my limbs.  I was still cold, mind numbingly cold, but it was like the kind I’d felt before.  The kind that I’d survived from.  The uncomfortable kind, not the weird, I’ve never felt this before kind.  

My mind cleared. Some of the fog of hypothermia cleared. The wind-suit had an emergency beacon transmitter.  My headgear was gone.  I couldn’t transmit voice.  But there was the beacon, and I found and activated the button that would send out my distress signal.  If it was working, if it was able to reach the satellites far above the turbulent dark sky above me, I didn’t know.  Even if it did, who would be able to come for me?  

The population of Tee is about five thousand persons.  These are spread thinly around the perimeter of the Ring.  As an example, our farm is roughly four-hundred eighty kilometers from the nearest neighbor. It can take almost five hours to cover that.  If Dad and my brother did see my signal.  If they were still alive.  If the thing that had grabbed me didn’t have friends like him.  If they hadn’t grabbed them as well. 

I pushed that out of my mind.  It wasn’t useful.  It wouldn’t help me, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it if it were true. There were only a few vehicles on the planet that could traverse the dark edge, and we didn’t own one. There were rock hoppers.  Small rocket propelled landers with specialized aerodynamic fins for dealing with the high winds.  They required highly trained pilots to fly them.  The Tee emergency services might be able to reach me.  If they knew where I was, if they heard my beacon, if it was even working.  

Enough! I told myself. I had to stop expecting a rescue.  I had to rely on myself. I had to work the situation.  Because if I sat here and did nothing, waiting for someone to fix this for me, I was going to die. 

I had shelter. The next thing to deal with was water.  There was water in the suit. In the circulation tubing that heated and cooled it.  I uncapped the neck-tube and sucked from it. Now I had two problems taken care of.  This was progress. 

The next thing I needed to deal with was my shoulder.  It hurt like hell, and now that the adrenaline had worn off, I could barely move without it hurting.  I found that I just couldn’t do it anymore.  My pack was gone, the auto-rifle missing, probably lost somewhere back in the powder. A needle in a pitch black haystack.   

Now that I was out of the wind, my eyes had thawed. I could see the lights from my suit display.  I had ten percent power left.  That meant that soon I would be getting super cold, even inside the shelter.  It also meant that if my beacon was actually getting out, it would stop doing that.  I wasn’t sure how much obstruction the shelter would be to that signal.  But now that I was warmer, now that my body would move again, I needed to get outside and let that signal broadcast as loud as it could.  I also needed to move toward safety. That would mean moving with the wind.  That would ensure I was moving toward the Ring, but I didn’t know how far from it I was.

To be continued….
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