Five days of hiking.
Rigel looked over the rag-tag group as they rested in the shade of a small clump of oak. The day was working up to be a hot one. That was bad news because it had rained about dawn just enough to get everything damp, and the evaporating water was making it muggy. Except for Austin and Anaph, all the guys were already shirtless. Rita said they’d lose more water that way, but Rigel had let it go; there’d been a tiny trickle of a spring in the previous night’s grove, enough that each had gotten two good swallows before the water was gone. When they left, it was refilling about as fast as a kitchen sink with a faucet that dripped every few seconds.
Melanie came to sit by him. “He’s weird”, he announced. Rigel didn’t have to ask; she meant Anaph, and he couldn’t dispute the point.
“How are the shoes working out?” he inquired. The day before, Melanie had stumbled on a rodent’s hole; she hadn’t been hurt, but the cheap, flashy shoes she’d worn didn’t have the same luck; the right one had been torn, upper from sole, and the upper cracked. Anaph had given her his own shoes, and was going barefoot.
“Good now. That moss in the toes idea worked – they don’t slip now.” That had been Oran’s suggestion, a trick from survival training, he’d said.
“Kool. Um, I need to ask a question.”
“Sure.” She grinned at him. “Big man.” Rigel groaned; Antonio’s nickname for him was catching on.
“You and Dmitri and Casey. How serious a thing is that?”
Melanie reached over and stroked the top of his thigh, upward from the knee, and stopped with her finger poking him about three centimeters from his crotch. “We like to fuck. You made that silly rule, or you could join us.”
“So it’s just sex?” he pressed.
“It’s not like just finding a ho and fucking. A ho’s just a warm slot or stick, not people. We’re friends. We’re there for each other. We fuck when we’re scared, we fuck when we’re lonely, we fuck when we’re horny." She turned and looked him in the eye. “People are talking, huh?”
Rigel stifled a laugh. “Well, you were kinda loud last night.”
“I know. Austin told us to keep it quiet, you know? But they were both in me, together, going opposite ways, and it never felt like that before.” She shrugged. “We ain’t nothing but mammals, and my mammal got out.”
That was an understated way to describe a sound that had been part shriek, part “Ah!” of surprise, and part panting, and had gone on at least ten seconds, Rigel thought. He struggled for the right words.
“Um, would you say you guys are a triple? Like a couple, but three?”
She gave it a moment’s thought. “Kinda a open triple. We’re not, like married or anything.” Rigel’s suddenly pained expression spoke volumes. “Oh! You think we should be married, to have sex!”
“Melanie, it can’t be just like trading back rubs. Sex is serious stuff. Everyone needs to know who’s with who. It makes a difference if everyone thinks you’re just easy for sex, or if they think you’re, well, with each other.”
“With”, Melanie interrupted. “But not married.”
“Okay. But I want you guys to do something that will help. It’s a bonding ceremony, to say to everyone you three belong to each other–“
“We’re not property–“
“I didn’t say that. It just means you’ve got a bond that’s just yours, with responsibilities and boundaries, not... not just sluts.”
Melanie considered that for a while. “I get it – kinda like a formal announcement that we’re, like, going together.”
“Something like that.” Rigel felt relief that she’d gotten the idea, at least sort of. “I’d like to have a ceremony soon.”
Melanie was interrupted by a gun shot. It was just one, which meant Austin was getting better: this would make three cats they’d killed. Primitive they might be, but the spears made a big difference; the shooter could be guarded by a wall of sharp points while he aimed. He feared the day when those spears might be all the protection one of his people had against one of those beasts.
When cheers came from the grove, he jumped up with everyone else and they all went to see what had happened.
“Deer!” Chen called out when he saw Rigel coming. “Or something like one. The cat just killed it, and we killed the cat. Now it’s ours!”
Antonio was already at work skinning the cat. They’d found that if they rubbed the back of the hide with the lemony herb and urine, and let them dry in the sun, the smell wasn’t so bad, the bugs left – and the fur as a “mattress cover” made sleeping a lot easier. Lumina had the first; she was getting weaker, tiring faster than anyone. She slept better now, and wasn’t such a drag on their speed. Rigel worried about her for another reason: more and more she seemed unaware of where she really was. Devon was spending a lot of time with her just to get her to do the simple things required by their simple life; without him, she might just have sat down, not eating, not moving even to pee, and just died.
Oran was whistling as he skinned the deer. Rigel understood the sudden good cheer: they’d had nothing to eat last night, and only a few “Anaph nuts” each this morning. It wasn’t a big buck – it wasn’t a big cat – but to Rigel’s untrained eye, it looked like enough to keep their stomachs from complaining for three or four days.
“We have to cook all that before we carry it”, he thought out loud.
“Nope.” Chen grinned at him; he’d just returned from disposing of the guts by the expedient of dumping them by a rotten log and rolling it on them. “We cut branches, strip them, make poles. We cut the meat into strips, and hang them over the poles. Then we march in the sunshine and make sun-dried jerky.” The grin vanished. “I don’t know what to do with the organs, though. They won’t last, in this heat.”
“Ooh, gross!” Crystal exclaimed. “You mean like the heart and kidney? Throw them away!”
“Bad idea.” Ocean’s comment surprised Crystal. “Crystal, meat can be a nutritious food and you don’t need much else, but you have to eat everything. If we could make sausage, we’d throw in–“
Ryan caught her from behind and clamped his hand over her mouth. “We’d put in all the kinds of meat”, he finished for her.
Barf averted, Rigel thought. All we’d need is for Crystal to hear that the intestines are part of sausage..... Later, he nearly barfed himself when he asked about making sausage, and Ocean explained that the lungs and brains should go in, too.
It was an hour before they set off again, but their spirits were all high. Full nutrition or not, it was going to be good to have meat.
Five days, Rigel thought. Five days, and we should have come over a hundred kilometers.
“Brooding about our speed again?” Ryan asked him as they watched Oran supervise the stacking of dead wood for a fire. Once again, it wasn’t the grove Rigel had meant them to reach. “We’re going as fast as we’re going, buddy.” He marked off on his fingers: “Sixteen klicks, twelve klicks, ten, fourteen, and today eighteen.” Those were all estimates, of course; they had no way of measuring distance but counting their own paces. “Everyone got sore the first day, suffered from it the next two, recovered, and now we’re starting to get good at it. So we’ve only managed seventy instead of a hundred? We’re moving.” He caught a chunk of wood Dmitri tossed at him and stacked it. “More important, we’re learning to work together. We’re getting in shape. It's progress.”
“We’re destroying muscle mass”, Rigel countered.
“Meat for a while will help. Maybe Antonio can kill another deer on his own.”
“Maybe.” Rigel brooded. “And maybe I’m just feeling like no matter how far we go, it all looks the same ahead. Where’s this water?”
“Ocean said at least four more days, probably five.”
“Probably five”, came Ocean’s voice. She dumped an armload of small branches near Oran, who had decided things were organized enough for him to concentrate on a fire pit and then a fire. “I know it’s there. We’re getting closer.”
Rigel looked to be sure no one but “council” was close before answering. “We may not have five days”, he told them. “Unless we find more water, we barely have water for three days.”
“Someone could go ahead, with empty bottles”, Ryan suggested.
Rigel shook his head. “And what are the odds of the right group having the gun when a cat attacks? No; we stay together, until Chen can find the right tree to make bows.”
Oran spoke up. “With a long spear, you could stop a cat.”
“How long is ‘long’?” asked Rigel.
“The person’s height plus a meter. Then you put on a crossbar half a meter from the tip.”
Ryan was curious. “What’s that for?”
Oran looked at him seriously. “So when you wait for the cat to jump on you, and you stick the point in its throat, it can’t reach you when it starts climbing the spear to tear your throat out.”
“Uh-huh. Ever done it?”
“Hardly”, Oran conceded. “But it doesn’t sound too hard – just point the spear tip at the cat’s throat and stay grounded.”
“Okay, what’s ‘grounded’ mean?” Ryan wanted to know.
“You stick the butt of the spear in the ground, and kneel and hold it, and stay far away from the tip. The cat does the work by landing on it.”
Rigel intervened. “Well, so far we don’t even have any spears as tall as any of us. We can talk about this again if we ever get some long enough to work. The point right now is no one goes off ahead – whatever we’re going to do, we do together.”
That night Anaph held a bonding ceremony for Melanie, Dmitri, and Casey. Rigel’s mind was elsewhere, trying to come up with a solution for the water problem. To have come this far, to have had the luck they had, to be working together as well as they were, and then die from lack of water... His mind snagged on the word “die” and wouldn’t let go: hadn’t they died already? There was something important there, he was certain, but nothing came.
He remembered nothing of the ceremony; dinner, though, was a different matter. Each person got three strips of meat wrapped around something in the center – but before they started eating, Rita had a little lecture.
“Eat all of it”, she said. “It’s got what we need to hike another day. We’ve had cramps, and dizziness, and headaches, from poor nutrition. Each one of these has something different in it, with nutrition to fight those things. So chow down!”
Ocean sat next to Rigel and explained the three items. One had deer heart, one had liver, and one had kidney, inside. They’d crushed “Anaph nuts” and one almost-ripe strawberry per serving to help flavor it before roasting it over the fire. Rigel thought the effort was great, but wasn’t so sure of the results; in his view, the only way to eat kidney was drunk enough that everything really did taste like chicken.
Everything got eaten anyway. Mostly, they were so hungry they were ready to try grass – and some had been trying different plants along the way.
Maybe with the meat, they could go harder tomorrow. That was in Rigel’s mind as he snuggled up against Devon and aimed for sleep. But the thought that went with him to dreamland was this: five days’ hiking, three days’ water.