Part 2 – Land
One tribal human approached as the others raised their weapons. He approached Hodges, stopping out of arms reach. He spoke, but it was gibberish, and meant nothing to Yutiko, and apparently meant nothing to Hodges or Lumstrum either.
Hodges turned to Yutiko and said, “You’re good with languages, how long would it take you to learn this one?”
It required two months on Ganspag studying radio transmissions prior to the arrival of the humans to gain a rudimentary knowledge of English, and another three weeks working directly with humans to communicate effectively. None of those advantages were at work here. What did Hodges expect? “Quite a while, I suspect,” he said.
The rain didn’t stop the tribal leader from prodding Hodges with the rusty sword. He walked to Lumstrum and prodded her with the rusty sword, too. They left Yutiko alone. It stood to reason these tribal humans had never seen a Vopret, and the unknown was often greeted with fear. That might be an advantage at some point.
Yutiko looked to Hodges for leadership, now. A human would know better how to handle this situation than would a Vopret. Hodges looked over his shoulder toward the launch. The hatch was wide open. This tribe of humans could do a lot of damage with those swords if they were so inclined, especially when wet.
Lumstrum must have been thinking the same thing, because she bolted toward the open hatch. It was a foolish move. She was followed by a sword hurled by one of the humans.
The sword imbedded itself in Lumstrum’s back, and she howled in pain as she slipped in the mud and fell to the ground. Her hands reached around to her back, clawing for the sword, but she couldn’t reach it. Crimson blood seeped from the wound, causing a dark stain to expand around the sword.
Yutiko stepped toward Lumstrum, but found a rusty sword blocking his path. He glanced toward Hodges and saw him in a similar situation. As much as Yutiko wanted to help, Lumstrum was on her own. That meant she would probably die.
It was another example of human brutality, and the rage from which not even Hodges was immune. These humans were well behaved on Ganspag, but once they broke orbit and headed for home, the aggression ensued. Were these humans nothing more than savages that understood transistors and space travel? On what kind of planet did Yutiko agree to spend the rest of his life? What a repulsive slaughter of an innocent life.
Lumstrum continued writhing in the mud, her screams now muted to gurgling and gasps. Hodges was in tears, and cursed the strangers for their callousness. “Is this what the human race has become?” he cried.
The tribal leader must have heard enough. Yutiko and Hodges were prodded with rusty swords from behind, and forced to fall into a single-file line with the tribe. They crossed the path made from decaying stone and passed into the pine forest.
Ferns covered the forest floor, keeping footfalls silent, but the branches provided little shelter from the rain. Hodges was ahead of Yutiko in line, and spent much of the walk looking at the scenery with mouth agape. He told Yutiko that the climate must have changed radically to allow a forest like this to grow, but the look on Hodges’s face said the human didn’t quite believe the changes.
Tromping through the forest in the rain was pleasant enough for Yutiko. It rather reminded him of his youth, playing in the woods of his grandfather’s farm. The trees were quite different, of course, but the feel was the same. Hushed and gentle, with the occasional sound of small animals, this forest seemed incompatible with the actions of the tribal humans.
The tribe marched along a path covered in dead pine needles–that’s what Hodges called these pine tree leaves. The name was appropriate in every way. The needles looked as if they could be used to sew the garments the humans wore. They couldn’t, of course. Even the dried needles bent and broke underfoot. Yutiko wanted to stop and look at the needles up close, but his only chance was to observe low-hanging branches. The rusty sword at his back prevented any further curiosity.
The rain let up by the time they arrived at another path of broken and decaying stone. This path was wide enough to land the launch upon were it not overgrown with grasses and thickets. The path extended as far as the eye could see in both directions, but the tribe did not turn. Instead, they stopped at the edge and searched along the length for quite some time before sprinting across, with Yutiko and Hodges struggling to keep up. At the other side, they all darted back into the pine forest.
Drops of water cascaded from the tree branches as the forced march continued for another human hour at least, repeatedly crossing broken paths in the same manner as before. Finally, they arrived at what must have been the destination.
They emerged into a clearing with piles of rusted scrap metal, all formed into various shapes that might have once been capsules of some sort.
Hodges seemed surprised at that development. He said, “A junkyard? You’re taking us to a junkyard?”
Junkyard? Perhaps humans wasted their scrap metal, and simply piled it into clearings in the forest. Humans did have a tendency to collect their garbage into one place. Even their computers had space reserved for files they no longer needed, so why should vehicles be any different. Still, such a waste of metal, letting it sit around and rust. How many such junkyards were on this planet?
The color of the soil was rust, and so were the puddles of water left from the rain. That led Yutiko to guess that this junkyard had been here for a long time, and was once much larger. He was no expert, but there seemed to be very little in the way of salvageable metal in the area he could see.
In the middle of the junkyard was a small building made from timbers–pine, Yutiko supposed. The building was rough-hewn and the construction appeared shoddy. He did not want to go inside.
Hodges turned his head from side-to-side as the tribe led him to the ramshackle house. Perhaps Hodges knew what these shells once were, and that might help him to forge a plan to get back to the launch. Hodges faced front as the tribe forced him into the building. Yutiko was not many steps behind. He almost hit his wing on a strange hook at the edge of the doorway, a hook made from a slab of metal as wide as his hand, and bent to allow something to sit inside. What could be the purpose of that?
Inside the building, it was dark, and saturated with a sour odor. One of the tribesmen struck a match to light a lantern. The room filled with light, revealing a building as rough-hewn on the inside as it was outside. The room was barren of furnishings, and featured a rust-colored dirt floor.
The tribesman with the lantern used it to search the walls until he found a lever that opened slats between the timbers. Once they were open, he extinguished the lantern. As he returned to the group, two swordsmen led Hodges and Yutiko to the back wall and forced them to sit. Yutiko had to fold his wings tightly against his back to avoid injuring them.
Once they were seated with backs against the wall, the tribesmen backed out of the building and slammed the door shut. As soon as it closed, Hodges sprang to his feet and charged the door. While he was running, a heavy thunk came from outside.
Yutiko didn’t like the sound of it, and tried to warn Hodges, but all he could get out was, “Wait–“
Hodges hurled himself into the door, but it didn’t budge. Instead, Hodges bounced off, then crumpled to the ground. Once on the ground, he winced in pain and held his right shoulder.
“That wasn’t very smart, Barney,” Yutiko said.
“How did they lock it?”
“You were too busy looking at the rust piles to notice the large hooks on the door. They must hold a timber to block the door.” Yutiko rose to his feet and walked toward Hodges.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I tried,” Yutiko said as he knelt next to Hodges. “Is the injury serious?”
Hodges pushed himself to a sitting position with the good arm, then tried to move the injured right arm, but winced in pain when he tried. “I think something’s broken, Yutiko.”
“For somebody trained in sciences, you certainly don’t base your actions on data,” Yutiko said. “What can I do to help? I don’t know much about even Vopret medicine, to say nothing of human medicine.”
Hodges contorted his face as he adjusted his position. “We don’t have much to work with, anyway.” He used his good arm to untuck his shirt, but gave up when he winced again. “Remove my shirt so you can tie my arm to my body.”
Yutiko unbuttoned the shirt and started to pull it over Hodges’s arms. “Your shoulder looks deformed, Barney. It doesn’t look normal.”
“Wait,” Hodges said. “I’m going to roll the dice that the joint is dislocated. Pull my arm straight out.”
Yutiko didn’t want to do that. He might injure Hodges even further. He hesitated.
Hodges raised his voice like Yutiko had never heard before “Do it!”
Afraid not to do what Hodges demanded, he took the arm and pulled it straight out. Hodges screamed in what must have been agonizing pain, but the shoulder popped back into place.
Hodges sighed, then he sank to the ground and cradled his shoulder.
Yutiko didn’t understand. “Did we make it worse or better?”
After several heavy breaths, Hodges said, “Better. You put it back in joint, but it still hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.”
“What do we do now?” Yutiko asked.
Hodges looked at him, then closed his eyes. “I’ll put my shirt back on, then we wait.”
The room gradually darkened. Yutiko looked out one of the slats and confirmed that night was falling. “It’s getting late,” he said. “Let’s get some sleep.”
Hodges had been pacing the room, afraid to put any weight on the shoulder. “I’m not sure I can with this shoulder.”
Yutiko leaned against the wall with wings folded against his back. “Lean on my torso with your good shoulder. That should help keep the weight off of the bad one.”
“Will you be able to sleep?”
Yutiko smiled. How little these humans truly knew about Voprets. Then, how much did he really know about humans? “It will be like raising a litter again,” he said. “It has been a long time, but I still remember.”
Hodges did not reply. He just leaned against Yutiko and settled into what looked like a comfortable position. Yutiko had been right, it did feel just like raising a litter again. He shut his eyes and tried to sleep, too.
Yutiko awoke as light from the new dawn filtered in through the slits. Hodges was already awake, and pacing near the door. He moved his right arm while holding his bad shoulder with his good hand. Yutiko got to his feet and walked toward him. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“Not well at all.” Hodges continued to stretch the shoulder with occasional grimaces crossing his face when he moved too far or too fast. “I wonder when we get breakfast.”
“Soon, I hope,” Yutiko said. “Shoulder any better?”
Hodges stopped his stretching exercises and shook his head. “No. I could use some morphine, or at least some ibuprofen.”
Yutiko opened his mouth to answer, but stopped himself when he heard something from the other side of the door.
“What?” Hodges asked.
Yutiko held up his hand. “Shh!”
Hodges fell silent, allowing Yutiko to hear muddy footfalls, then the rattle of the timber that barred the door. “Somebody is coming in,” Hodges said.
They backed away from the door as it opened. The point of a rusted sword entered the room before the tribesman holding it. Three other tribesmen entered, and the first prodded Hodges out the door. The other three got behind Yutiko, prodding him out the door, as well.
It was a beautiful morning, making Yutiko think of home, even if the blue of the sky was a bit faded from what he was used to. The ground was mottled with dry patches among the wet soil, and the air was cool from the breeze coming from the direction of the ocean.
They marched along a path running between piles of metal until they reached a clearing set with a long table full of plates, dishes, and serving utensils. There was no tablecloth, and the table seemed made from old doors or odd-lot shapes of plywood. Food in the dishes and on the plates was spare and meager.
The tribesmen directed them to sit on short stacks of round, black toroids.
Hodges was not at all pleased. “Nice set of wheels,” was all he said before sitting.
This was the first occasion that Yutiko had seen a tribal woman. They wore skin clothing similar to those the men wore, yet revealing in such a way that seemed might be attractive to a human male. Human males seemed to like legs, as well as the bumps at the front of their women. These women wore the legs bare, but the bumps were hidden.
Odd creatures, these humans. Yutiko decided he didn’t want to know anything more about their mating habits. He was more concerned with the food they were setting on the table.
A scientific surprise at Ganspag was that human food turned out to be completely compatible with Vopret metabolism. Hodges had spoken many times of the uncanny similarities between Earth and Ganspag. Ganspag DNA spiraled in the opposite direction from Earth DNA, but according to the human scientists, that was due to the random chance of which amino acids built life first. Left-handed and right-handed proteins digested the same inside of a Vopret.
Human food was different from what Yutiko grew up with. It took several months to take a liking to anything the humans ate, but now, he could eat anything served on Explorer. The problem was, this food was not from Explorer.
The tribal female placed on the table in front of Hodges a bowl of brown liquid and two round objects that appeared to be light-colored stones. Once those items were out of her hands, she grunted, or spoke in a strange language. She pointed at Yutiko. When Hodges gave her a quizzical look, she pretended to carry the bowl to Yutiko, then said, “Ahh-keee?”
A look of epiphany came over Hodges’s face, and he said, “Okay.” Perhaps some of the language from Los Angeles survived all these centuries.
The woman ran off, returning with a bowl of brown liquid and two light-colored stones for Yutiko.
“Eat up,” Hodges said before he popped a light-colored stone into his mouth. His face contorted as he bit into the stone, accompanied by a loud crunch. “That is one hard biscuit.”
“Perhaps they should be dipped in the brown liquid,” Yutiko said. He tried that himself, and found the biscuits to be quite absorbent. The liquid softened the biscuits so they were easily chewed. The taste was bland, with a hint of meat in the broth. When the two biscuits were gone, Yutiko started to drink the rest of the broth.
A glance at Hodges satisfied Yutiko that he was eating, too.
None of the tribe ate with the prisoners, but many walked past, stopping to stare at the strange creature in their midst. Yutiko couldn’t blame them. He was, after all, an alien on this world. Explorer itself seemed to have been forgotten, so why would anyone accept a Vopret? With the propensity toward violence this tribe already demonstrated, Yutiko was surprised that he wasn’t killed on the beach.
Hodges slurped when he sipped from his bowl. When it was finished, he set it down and asked, “Are you full?”
Yutiko waggled his wings. “Not at all. I was about to ask if you had any leftover biscuit-stones.”
“No, I ate them both,” Hodges said. He opened his mouth to say something, but the words didn’t come out. Instead, he wrinkled his brow and held his hand up in a gesture Yutiko recognized meant to wait. Maybe Hodges was trying to listen to something.
“What is it?” Yutiko asked.
“Do you hear that? Like voices, except not in the language of this tribe.”
Yutiko was about to say he didn’t hear anything, but then a voice carried the air, loud and clear. The words were gibberish, but the source was definitely nearby.
The tribal men emerged into the clearing from the direction of the small cabin where the prisoners had spent the night. They rushed past the table with rusty swords in hand. They ran into the pine forest on the other side of the clearing, disappearing to the far side of a small ridge.
Sounds of battle came from the direction the tribesmen went, accompanied by the cries of wounded men. Yutiko wondered who or what fought the tribe. The battle was may have been fought by sword, but it was being won with gunpowder.
Hodges, on the other hand, did not seem interested in the conflict in the least. He stood from his stack of wheels, grabbed Yutiko’s right wing, and pulled gently. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
The idea required little reflection. Yutiko got to his feet and ran after Hodges, who was already a stone’s throw down the path they followed from the beach. Hodges disappeared around a bend, but when Yutiko reached that bend, Hodges stood with his hands in the air.
Past Hodges was a woman in fatigues. She wore a silver helmet that revealed nothing of her head, but he could tell the human was female by the bumps on her front side. What mattered most was the deadly-looking carbine cradled in the crook of her right arm, and aimed with the left, directly at Hodges.
She said something in a gibberish, but a different gibberish than that used by the tribe. When the woman saw Yutiko, she gasped, then aimed the carbine at him. Yutiko stopped and put his hands and wings in the air. Hodges tried to look over his shoulder, but the woman scolded him in gibberish.
As she scolded Hodges, Yutiko heard rustling in the trees. He chanced a quick look over his own shoulder and saw several more humans with silver helmets and carbines lining up to his rear. The carbines were not rusted.
The helmeted humans forced Hodges and Yutiko back to the clearing where they had breakfast. In the clearing, they were presented to what must have been an officer. The officer casually inspected Hodges, but spent a long time looking Yutiko over.
Yutiko wiggled his wings. What’s the matter? Never seen a Vopret before? The officer spoke in gibberish to the some of the helmets. They nodded, and the officer walked away.
The helmets marched Hodges and Yutiko down the path leading to where the earlier commotion took place. They marched past the broken and bleeding bodies of many tribesmen, including the one who held the sword to Yutiko’s back on the march from the beach.
The wounds were not caused by swords, these injuries were too precise and explosive to have been caused by a cut or a thrust. These injuries were caused by projectile weapons. The wounds were brutally forced openings in the flesh. The tribe was clearly outmatched in this conflict. What could these helmets want that could justify this kind of slaughter?
Yutiko glanced back at Hodges, and his eyes were wide with horror and disbelief. Instead of continuing the trend of outgrowing their barbaric ways, as Hodges once claimed, the human race apparently regressed into pure brutality. What could the motive be? Resources seemed abundant on this planet, even with the loss of northern territory to the ice sheet.
Nothing could be worth this kind of slaughter. Yutiko had never felt such complete revulsion in his life. He had come from another star, sacrificing a normal life and Vopret companionship, only to arrive on this backward, philistine excuse for a planet, awash with heathen brutality and reckless slaughter. What had he gotten himself into?
The march continued past the killing field to another clearing in the wood. Dominating the clearing was a vehicle with a flat area at the back meant for hauling cargo. Helmeted humans loaded the largest chunks of metal from the junkyard, and they selected only the chunks with the least corrosion. This was an expedition for scrap metal. Had the earth lost the ability to mine? Were resources so precious that humans must kill over them? Could they not find anything the tribe might want to trade? Instead, they simply take what they want. Yutiko found himself in what the humans called Hell.
Hodges and Yutiko were forced to stand in the clearing while the metal was loaded. One helmet kept watch over them as the others went about their business. This soldier walked up to Hodges and looked at his Explorer uniform. Yutiko could not see the soldier’s face due to the helmet, but certainly the man was curious about the uniform. Did humanity remember its history? Finally, the soldier got tired of the uniform and found a convenient pine tree to lean against.
Hodges turned to Yutiko and said, “What do you think our chances of escape look like?”
Yutiko fluttered his wings in agitation. It wasn’t as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him. The outcome was obvious. “That depends upon how much you like holes blasted into your back,” Yutiko said.
Hodges shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I don’t like the odds either.”
“How’s the shoulder?”
Hodges tentatively moved his arm and stretched the shoulder. “It hurts. Don’t expect me to take one of these guys down.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The discussion ended when the soldier approached. He pushed Hodges, then Yutiko, toward the vehicle carrying scrap metal. The prisoners were marched to the back end, and the carbine continued to prod.
Hodges tried to climb up, but was trying to do it without the use of his right arm. The soldier prodded him several times while shouting in gibberish, apparently trying to hurry the progress. Hodges couldn’t do it without help. His shoulder was in great pain. Yutiko decided to do something about it.
He stepped forward and climbed aboard the vehicle, then reached down for Hodges, who grabbed Yutiko’s hand. With the help, Hodges was on the vehicle in short order. The soldier bounded up, and forced the prisoners to the front of the cargo area, near the cab where the driver sat.
Yutiko no longer knew what to expect. He hoped that his name was revered on Ganspag, because here, it was meaningless. He turned to Hodges, who was resting against a shell of an old vehicle. “Are they going to kill us?”
Hodges looked up at Yutiko. “This truck is for the things they want. They know we aren’t from the tribe. My clothes give me away, and you, well, you’re obviously not from the tribe.”
“I’m a curiosity, yes, I know.” The truck started, and the shift in momentum jarred Yutiko.
Hodges laughed. “We’re not exactly traveling in luxury.”
Yutiko didn’t think it was funny in the least. “We’re headed back toward the ocean.” He looked at the soldier riding in back with them. He seemed content to aim his carbine at his prisoners from time to time, and showed no indication of understanding the conversation. Yutiko brought his eyes back to Hodges. “Let’s just hope they don’t find the launch.”
Hodges nodded in agreement. “I was thinking the same thing. There’s an awful lot of scrap metal in that hull.”
“Won’t they send another launch after us eventually?” Yutiko was starting to wonder about the protocol.
The look on Hodges’s face was unmistakable as concern. “I thought they would have sent one already.” He looked toward the sky and said, “I hope nothing happened.”
Yutiko followed his gaze, but couldn’t see much of the sky through the treetops. “I’m sure they’re okay.”
The truck did make its way back to the ocean, but not to the beach with the launch. Here, some kind of watercraft floated parallel to the shore. The entire rear of the watercraft opened like a giant maw, but Yutiko could only see the doors.
The watercraft itself was enormous, larger than the launch, even. It rested about fifty meters from the beach. The helmets backed the truck right into the water and began unloading the scrap. Hodges and Yutiko were prodded off the truck and forced to wade toward that open maw.
The water was colder than Yutiko remembered from the previous day. Then again, he didn’t wade into the water up to his shoulders while filling the holding tanks on the launch. He wondered how the cold water would affect his friend’s shoulder. Human and Vopret muscles both stiffened in the cold, that he knew from experiences on Ganspag.
A splash of spray found its way into Yutiko’s mouth. This ocean had a higher salt content than those on his home. The waves made wading difficult, but they soon reached the maw of the watercraft.
Walking up the ramp was easy after wading through breaking waves. Immediately, Yutiko noticed the interior volume was far smaller than the outside suggested. What could that mean?
They were forced along the length of the craft, and through a door that reminded Yutiko of an airlock. Once through the door, they were directed into a small room with a door that could be locked from the outside. It was.