Why Hide When You Have All the Space In the World?

Story by wwwerewolf on SoFurry

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#8 of Little Brother to a Lion

A sci-fi story of James, a young vagabond who thought it would be easy money to work his way across the galaxy on an old freighter.

A shortcut through an unmapped system doesn't go to plan and James and the lion-like alien Crit find themselves fighting for their lives on an inhospitable alien planet.

And Crit's species are consummate carnivores.

Chapter 8:

Life. There's life on this godforsaken rock.

But what at first seems like a blessing quickly turns out to be a double edged sword as the predators become prey.

Comments and critiques are welcome.

Chapter 8 Why Hide When You Have All the Space In the World?

Watching Crit flounder around in the shallow pool was enough to release at least some of the stress that had been bunching at the base of my neck. He still hadn't seemed to have completely regained his own mind from the hunt, but seeing him look a cousin to a drowned rat at least made me feel a little more secure.

And anyway, if he didn't try to kill me for giving him a dunking I might be able to trust him not to eat me. And it was my first step to getting even.

"What was that for!?" He nearly roared it, his voice almost back to normal.

I just grinned and reached out a hand to help him from the pool. He shot me a glare, but took it anyway.

"What do you think, fur-for-brains? You think I'm going to just let you try and kill me, then walk away from it without a word?" I raised my other hand to poke him on his still bruised nose. "You owe me big time."

He lowered his head, eyes to my feet. "I suppose I do." He began stammering, voice catching in his throat. "I'm... I'm sorry, James." Free of the water now, he was making grasping motions with his hands, pawing at the space between us as though trying to pluck the right words from thin air. "I'll understand if you don't want me with you anymore." He still hadn't raised his eyes, "It's a long way to the main plant, and..."

And who knew if this would happen again.

I put a hand on his still dripping shoulder as we began the long climb up to the surface, away from the sunken pond.

"I think I'll take my chances." I let a smile creep to my lips as he stole a glance towards me. "I've saved your tail enough times already. It would be stupid for me to abandon you now, before I've had time to collect." I gave him a slight punch. "If you're so deadly, let's see you take out a few pirates on my behalf, eh?"

The shadow of a fang saw daylight as his lips twitched. "As long as I don't have to eat them."

"Sure." We were almost back to where we'd left the mangled corpse of the goat-cow. "I doubt they taste good anyway."

Slaughtering the remainder of the beast's body for useable meat was a grizzly task. We hadn't any knives, so I had to work with nothing more than my claws alone.

The flesh was tough and stringy, but I still found myself eating almost as much as I packed away. Packing was another problem, all we really had were the water bottles and James' backpack. And James was hardly enamoured with the idea of having all his drinking water coated with blood and viscera.

There was no way around it. All I could do was simply press as much of the dripping flesh as possible into the pack and offer to carry it.

Washing at the small lake was my only solstice. James was somewhere above, resting in the warmth of the sun.

The whole of the pool had taken on a rose colour by the time I'd rinsed the last of the blood and guts from me. I took far longer than I needed, scrubbing every last particle I could from my coat and claws. The cleaner I got the further away it seemed I could push my own beast, the damned creature that had nearly possessed me.

The water around me was fresh enough to drink, but it left a slight tingle where it touched my flesh. Likely just a trace amount of H2O2 from the oceans leaking through. Well, I'd be happy enough when I no longer needed to worry about that.

Back up with James a few minutes later, I laid on the warm ground beside him, sunning myself and letting the water evaporate from my pelt. I likely picked up more than a few pounds when I soaked, and there was no reason to be carrying that around with me when we started hiking again.

"So, James," I had to almost force the words out. The opportunity to lie still with a fully belly for a moment after the last few days was nearly intoxicating. "Where are we? I was simply following you."

He just rolled his eyes. "And I was running from you." He gave his arm a melodramatic wave. "We're here. Wherever 'here' is. I was trying for a more or less northerly run, but God only knows where we are now."

"Wonderful." I levered myself up on one arm. "So I guess we just keep heading north some more and hope we find something." I left unsaid the implicit 'before we run out of food or water'.

Crit seemed to have recovered surprisingly well from his little episode, though I did catch him watching me a little too intently every now and then. He seemed to be pushing himself almost to the point of being over-protective, if such a thing were possible out here.

He refused to allow me to carry the pack, always walked out front, and obsessed continuously over 'are you okay?' I was about ready to slug him just to get him to shut up.

The gorges that cut through the earth were growing more and more frequent, sometimes to the point that a hundred foot drop could be no more then a mere hand-span wide, completely invisible under the carpet of moss that continued to grow around us in a rainbow riot of colours.

I was much relieved to note the presence of a couple more herds of what-ever-they-were on the horizon as we continued. They didn't seem to know what to make of us, so we were just ignored.

I'd almost give my left hand to be here in a few thousand years to see if the creatures gained sentience and held a familiar looking, golden furred god as their symbol of death.

Leaping over the chasms created by the fresh water streams was almost routine now, they cropped up every few dozen meters. Crit's strong hindquarters didn't seem to have the least problem arcing the distance over even the widest pits, but I had to quickly learn not to look down into the seemingly bottomless black rifts.

Night caught up with us soon enough. We made camp in the shelter of one of the many rifts, finding a small cave that was hidden just under the surface. It wasn't that there seemed to be anything worth hiding from on this world, but it still felt safer.

I guess I should have my head checked out that I felt safer being pressed up in a dead end cave, next to the only predator on the whole planet.

I could just see a sliver of diamond sharp stars through the mouth of the cave. They were cut off by both the sheer cliff opposite us and Crit's bulk.

The azlin's voice was slow and heavy as he spoke. "You still awake, James?" he asked. I grunted. "So, what brought you to the ship of fools we call the Sirius, anyway?"

I straightened slightly. He hadn't asked me much about my past. It brought back memories that I wasn't so happy to deal with again.

"Why so interested now?" I fought to force the edge from my voice, trying to keep it light and unconcerned.

He rolled over in the darkness beside me, I could see the glimmer of one of his golden eyes.

"Don't know," his voice was slurred. "Can't sleep." He propped himself up slowly on one elbow. "Thought it might be interesting to find out." There had been a slight stutter in his speech when he mentioned sleep. Did azlins dream like humans?

"I'm a drifter," I said, trying to push his query away offhandedly. "The Sirius was looking for crew, and it was going in my direction."

"Before that." His voice was becoming clearer. He'd likely been close to drifting off before, but was wide awake now.

I took a deep breath, weighing my options. I didn't talk of my family much. It just wasn't my thing. I could lie, tell him to bugger off, or give him the truth.

And I really didn't feel like lying to a three hundred pound killing machine that was within arm's reach of me.

"My parents were..." I paused, trying to choose my words, "Difficult people. I think."

"You think?" He sounded amused now. I was tempted to punch him.

"What else do you want me to say?" My voice rose, despite my best efforts to keep it under control. "I hardly knew them, and they were dead by the time I was fifteen, anyway."

He flinched back from me a small measure when I said that, as if my words had struck him.

"Fifteen?" He said, "You wouldn't have even been from the den by then..."

"It's a bit different for humans," I gave him a gentle shove, "We're considered adults by the time we're eighteen."

"Eighteen?" A slight chuckle escaped his lips, "Why eighteen? Seems like an odd number. Why not just round it up to twenty?"

"Don't ask me. That's just the way it's been for centuries. Silly distinction in my opinion. I would have left years earlier if I could." I reached out to give him a slight poke in the gut. "What age is it for your kind?"

He shrugged, fur sliding over the rock beneath us, "Thirty-five Standard. We mature slower than humans. My kind lives to an average age of three-hundred and some."

Okay, I hadn't been expecting that.

"How old are you, Crit?" Looking at him, I would have guessed him not much older than I. Perhaps somewhere in his early thirties at most.

"Fifty-eight." That would have just put him in the age of majority when Bulla got his hands on him...

Crit seemed to push the subject away, focusing back on me. His eyes were on me now, shining in the darkness, making me itch.

"A family's oath is to their own. What so vile could have befallen to force you from them."

I just laughed. The sound came out more bitter and forced than I'd intended.

"Take your pick." I began ticking off points on my fingers, "They never wanted me to start with, but adoption isn't done where I'm from, so they were stuck with me. They threw me in a boarding school as quickly as they could, the cheapest one to be found."

"Boarding school?"

I guess there was no analog in azlin society. "Think of it as a live in education. They pay for me to spend all year there. They were only obligated to see me once a year, and that's all they did."

"You... you never saw your family?" His voice was weak, bordering on a whisper. "How could they... how did you..."

I just rolled my eyes. "It's hardly uncommon back on Amstys. The laws about abortion and adoption prevent anyone from being given up, so the boarding schools are overrun with the unwanted and the unplanned. I was just another one of them."

"My parents were obligated to pay for me," I continued, a scowl on my face from the mere memory alone, "but that changed quickly enough when they died." I let out a bitter laugh. "I only found out months after the fact, when the people from the government came to inform me that I had fallen into their care. The bastards had died in an air car crash in some other system. Nobody even told me where, and, frankly, I don't care to know."

"They did get the last laugh though." A grim smile tugged at my lips. "I never even got a penny of inheritance from them. They had all their money invested in off-planet banks. None of the laws of Amstys could touch it. My parents died, and all I got to show for it was a certificate of death."

"But, but..." Crit was stuttering in the dark beside me. His eyes closed now, head shaking back and forth as he tried to form an argument. None ever reached his lips.

"Don't worry about it, buddy." I wasn't sure why it suddenly mattered to me, but I felt the need to comfort him. My life had been so different from anything his society had ever known that he simply had no way to classify me.

"But... your father?" I could feel his hand close around my arm, so tight that his claws pricked my skin.

"My father was a bastard who wouldn't give two credits if I lived or died. He paid what it took to raise me because he had to. Not a chit more."

A sound came from deep within Crit, something like a high pitched cry, a wail that my own throat could never match. He never released his grip from my arm.

"Very well." I couldn't see his face in the darkness, but his voice had changed. It had been soft before, weak, but it had now fallen back to something more closely resembling the Crit I'd known on the Sirius. Strong and assertive, as though simply expecting people to follow him.

"You're coming with me, James."


He'd shifted, I couldn't see the glimmer of the stars behind him now.

"You're coming home with me. You've... I owe you my life. I can't allow you to live like this. My father rules the most powerful family of our world. I at least can give you that much."

I tried to brush him away, but he wouldn't let go. "Crit, get off. You don't owe me anything like that. Just getting us out of here is enough." There was no way I was going to follow him headlong to a planet full of his kind. They would likely just as soon consider me an exotic meal as a zoo curiosity.

"No." His voice was firm. "Everyone has a family. You are of mine now." I could just see the glint of his teeth as he grinned at me. "You may be weak, hairless, and ugly," a chuckle escaped him at that one, "But you're of mine now. You're my..." He paused for a moment before coughing out the word, "Brother."

"Yeah. Right. Whatever." I was still prying at his arm, trying to get him to loosen his grip. Right now all I wanted was to escape his grasp, anything else could wait.

Family. Right. Like I would ever be little brother to a freaking lion.

James' breathing evened off soon after as he fell asleep, but I continued to lay there and stare at the stars.

I doubted he believed me, or even knew what I offered him. No, I hadn't offered anything. I'd forced it upon him.

The word that translated into Standard as 'family' was far more in my native tongue.

There was no simple explanation in a way that a human could understand, but family meant clan, country, self.

There were a dozen families that ruled my world. My own consisted of over two million relatives. Migration of individuals between families was rare, but it did occur. Although, there had never been an alien welcomed into a family.

I'd given him my word that he was my brother now, and to break such a bond as that would be unthinkable. I could only hope that my father would accept my decision. If not, then the only honourable choice would be to replace him as the family head and make our will my own.

The stars above me continued to stare down, cold and unflinching. That would have to be a battle for another day.

Tonight I had found a brother, and I would treat him as such.

The next morning came as warm and dry as every other since we'd crashed upon this chunk of rock. The planet didn't seem to have much in the way of weather, or even a heck of a lot of wind.

Crit was already awake, perched upon his haunches on the surface above the little cave. He was gnawing noisily on a slab of meat from yesterday. The raw stuff was already going rancid. I was hoping he'd finish it off soon and find some fresh rations. The stench of blood alone was enough to make my stomach flip.

He stopped eating when he saw me, bowing his head in a subtle manner that I'd never seen before.

"Morning to you, James." His Standard was perfect, but there was an inflection to his words that itched at the corners of my mind.

"Morning." I sat down heavily beside him, twisting the top off a blood stained water bottle to take a swig. His eyes followed me as he held the half eaten bone to his lips.

"Would you like some?" He held the haunch of meat out to me, it was still dripping congealing blood on the moss between us.

I had to hold back a gag as the putrid thing hovered in front of my nose.

"Uh, no." I pushed his arm back, careful not to touch the flesh. "Raw meat's not really my thing." I rummaged around for another power bar. I only had one left.

His face shifted slightly, ears falling back. Even with his alien expression I could tell I'd managed to do something wrong.

"Raw meat doesn't suit me, Crit." I was rambling now, trying to patch up whatever stupid blunder I'd managed to make this time. "It's more than likely to make me ill in the long run if I eat it. My immune system just can't handle the nasties that it'll likely encounter."

"Very well." He seemed to perk up a bit at my explanation.

We set out for the day's journey soon after. My first attempt to welcome James into his new family had failed miserably. He didn't even know proper manners. To refuse food, any food, especially that which I had hunted down myself, was beyond insulting. I suppose it was for the best though, I didn't want to force any sickness upon him.

The gorges became ever wider as we continued north. We were no long questing anything resembling a straight line now. It was all I could hope for that we were still traveling in the right direction.

Tracking cross country is the easy thing to do, finding one's destination, not so much. If you're headed for something you can see a long way off, like a mountain, then you haven't much to worry about. But a base? If it was anything like the plant we'd stumbled upon before, we'd have to be right on top of it before we'd even know it was there. Only the emissions from the terraforming plant had betrayed its presence.

I heard something from behind us. A high pitched roar that was far beyond anything that James would ever detect. I knew that sound. It was the whine of an atmospheric drive.

Wrapping one arm around James, I dove for the nearest gorge, praying to the gods that there would be a hiding place. The best available was a small shelf in the shadows.

James was struggling in my grasp, but I dragged him along anyway.

"What the..." He hardly had the air to speak as I shoved him up beside me, barely out of sight.

"We have visitors." I hooked my thumb towards the sky. The whine was so loud now that even James' worthless ears should be able to hear it.

He just cocked his head at me and looked up. Nothing was in sight.

The craft shot past an instant later, a cargo raider that must have been a good half a kilometre long. It was painted jet black and bristled with gun emplacements.

The air shock from its passing was enough to throw me forward, hands clutching at any outcropping of stone I could find to keep my balance.

It took me a moment to realize that James was no longer at my side.

"Crit!" He was pitching forward, pulled by the vacuum of the craft's passing. The shelf we hid on was hardly wide enough for me to even find purchase, he was teetering in the void almost before I had time to think.

My hand flew out to grab him by the scruff of the neck, but I only managed to just snag him with the tips of my outstretched claws.

Time was all but slowed to a crawl as his momentum pulled against me. I was heavier, but he was completely suspended in mid-air. My other hand scratched at the rocks, claws leaving trails behind as I was dragged down.

I couldn't hold him. I was already on my knees, overbalanced into the blackness that swam beneath us.

If I let go of him now I would be able to just scramble back to safety. I banished the thought from my mind almost before it had formed. James was my brother now, and I would honour him with the same respect that I would any other of my family.

He was kin, and I would die for him.

No more than a heartbeat later my claws skittered free of what little purchase they had found. I pitched forward, pulling James into my arms as we fell. I had no illusions of finding anything at the bottom but our deaths, but I would shelter him all I could just the same.

The wind whistled past us for what felt like hours as the pale blue sky retreated far above.

My back hit the water beneath us like a brick wall, shattering it and plunging us into the liquid dark depths. We must have gone down a good seven meters before my raw and bruised spine found the river bed.

What little air that was still within me was forced out by the final impact. James, still in my arms, struggled free from my loose grasp and was nearly swept away in the rushing current.

The world had devolved into only base things as I struggled for air. Cold. Wet. Hard stone. Darkness. There was only one thing more, James' hand locked in my own.

He was scrambling. At first I thought he was trying to escape, to leave me here while he raced for the surface, but a moment later I felt him pull at my arm, lifting me from the rocks.

I'd no sooner raised my head then we were rushed off in the current. My weight had been enough to hold us in place, but lifting from the riverbed had allowed enough water under me to rush us away.

We twisted and spun through the bone-chilling darkness until I felt one of my outstretched arms break the surface. I still didn't know which way was up, but I knew I wanted air.

Long moments later my head broke the surface as we continued to rush downstream. My mane was matted down across my face so that I couldn't even see James as I dragged him sputtering up beside me.

There was no time for words as we flew downstream, knocking against the rocks. Every so often we had to duck our heads as the space above us closed up. There was nothing we could do but pray that we'd be able to return to the surface soon after. For all we knew this river could plunge underground for kilometres, leaving nothing but our lifeless corpses to wash out the far side.

There were no shores to the river, only sheer rock cliffs that rose on either side like the walls of a fortress. My claws didn't even leave scratches behind as I raked them across the featureless surface in the vain hope of a handhold.

Under we went again, the stone closing up above our heads without warning, plunging us deep into the folds of the earth. This time, however, we dived.

The bottom fell out from my gut as we entered free fall, plunging deep below where we'd been seconds before. There was not even the memory of light here as we spun through the depths.

My lungs were red coals burning through my chest when we were thrown free of the water.

James still clutched to me, we arced through the air, thrown from an underground waterfall. The world around us was an almost perfect black, only the vaguest shadows of light penetrating the inky darkness.

With a crash, we fell into the shallows. Landing on my feet in the knee deep water, I rolled to the side, drenching myself once again before finally coming to a stop, the tip of my nose a foot under the soft, lapping waves.

Sputtering and coughing, I kicked and flailed into a sitting position, finally able to pull in a lungful of dank air for what felt like the first time in hours.

James began to struggle, still held tight to my dripping chest.

"Crit, you bugger, let go. I can barely breathe!" I loosened my grip some, but refused to let him free.

For long moments it was all we could do to sit there in the cool darkness, quickly flowing water rushing past. Breathing, just breathing. The only sounds around us were those of running water. The only scent that of wet rocks.

"Crit?" James' voice was weak and small. "Where are we? Have I gone blind? I can't see anything."

Vaguely, I remembered that my night vision was far more sensitive than his. I could see little, he, likely, could see nothing at all.

I gently ran the pads of my fingers down his hairless face, checking for any damage. Thankfully, there was none.

"You can likely see fine, little brother." He stiffened at that name. "There simply is nothing to see. Even I can perceive little." I paused for a moment, gazing around us.

I could make out little that was more than a few strides away, but what I could see was bleak.

There was the faintest glimmer of filtered light cascading down from the ceiling above us and reflecting from the water below. A couple of meters to our left the water picked back up. I couldn't so much see this as feel it. The current of the shallows pulled at me to return to the death ride of the underground river.

"Is there a way out, Crit?"

Clutching him tightly to me, I rose. The air of the cave was cool, but not cold. It made me shiver none the less.

"I... I can see little." Slowly, I strode through the water to the nearby shore. The stone beneath us was soft and mushy. It was stone, certainly, not organic, but it felt so soft as to be easily swept away by the current.

There was a slight improvement to be found as we neared the cavern walls. Out of the blackness came a honeycomb like weaving morass of tunnels. There seemed to be more tunnels than there was rock. It was all dry now, but even in the darkness I could see the lines of where water had worn the stone away.

"So, what now, buddy?" At his insistence, I'd set James down to walk under his own power, but refused to let go of his hand, lest I lose him in these catacombs.

I shrugged. "I suppose we select a path."

We were about to set out when I was reminded by a foul stench emanating from the pack on my back that I was still toting around the flesh that I had butchered not so long ago. It was spoiled and rancid now. I dumped it and washed what I could before we continued. It would do us little good to announce our presence with the stench of rotten meat.

The air moved little down here, but my whiskers quivered just ever so slightly towards one of the seemingly identical passageways. That was good. Any movement of air suggested that we would find an exit that way. We set off.

The little light there had been quickly died, leaving me as blind as James.

The tunnel around us felt like it was composed of little more than silt, making it no surprise that water had cut through it so easily.

Was this entire planet made of nothing but dust? The surface had been covered in sand, and now the mantle was seemingly silt. Any more water produced here and the entire body might just dissolve in a few millenia.

There was literally nothing to see here. I had to take Crit's word for it that I hadn't gone blind. At first there was simply nothing. Blackness all about. But soon enough a texture seemed to grow before me.

I knew it was false, that it was nothing more than my sight starved brain playing tricks on me, but it felt like there was at least something out there. That made me feel a little bit better.

My world had been reduced to Crit's warm, leathery palm in my hand. We traveled for what felt like hours. I got to know every scar and ridge on the pads of his fingers far more intimately than I ever wanted to.

The walk was, thankfully, relatively smooth. We were in a more or less level tunnel, with just the slightest climb to it. Twisting back and forth, I truly had no idea where we were now as compared to when we'd washed ashore.

I could see it in nothing more than my mind's eye, but the sounds that came from ahead were those of the azlin prowling forward on three legs, carefully testing the ground before us as he took each step.

"Uh, Crit?"

"Yes?" His voice was smooth, but the fraying at the edges was clear.

"You want to talk about something?"

"What would you like, James?" I almost thought I could hear a slight purring chuckle as he spoke.

"Anything. Just," I took a deep breath, "Anything to keep the silence away."

"Very well, James." That purr had grown now, it was bordering on full on amusement, "We could continue our last conversation." I felt his hand tighten slightly around mine, a gentle squeeze. "You could tell me about your old family."

"My old...?"

"Your part of my family now, James. I do like to know a little more about the people I extend that singular honour to." His paw squeezed again slightly as he spoke, chuckle echoing softly around us.

His voice was light, but there was the tinge of iron beneath. He wanted to know of my past, and I had the distinct feeling it would be ill-befitting me to hide it from him.

"Crit, are you sure..."

He stopped walking, sitting down heavily on the loose surface of the tunnel. "I think we need to take a rest. How about you, James?" He pulled one of the water bottles from the pack and handed it to me. He didn't say a single word more, simply waiting in silence.

I rolled my eyes, for all the good it would do in the darkness.

"The boarding school I'd been enrolled in kicked me out at the end of the year, when I was sixteen. If the funds weren't flowing, then they didn't give a fiddlebird what happened to me."

"The men from the government were there on my last day of class. They had an aircar waiting in the parking lot to pick me up. I'd made friends while I was at school, having spent almost my entire life there, but none of them came to see me off. They still had lives, I didn't. It's not disgraceful to have one's parents die like this, but it's... it makes you a statistic in the system. Nothing more. It's not that people want to be evil, it's just that there's only so much money to go around, and it's never enough."

"My life at school hadn't been unpleasant. It had been simple and unadorned, but reasonable enough. We'd lived in dorms there, been fed cafeteria food, had a decent enough life. The government hadn't any of those things."

"My entire sixteen years I hardly set foot outside the walls of my school, and now I could never return. The government did what they could for me, what they were mandated to, but nothing more. I was just another name on their lists. Another liability to be dealt with until I turned eighteen."

"I was put up in an orphanage," I could feel Crit cock his head as I said that word, "They had twice the kids that the school had, and a quarter the budget. We didn't live, we survived."

"It was three months before I tried to run away." I could feel Crit wrapping his arm around my shoulders now as I spoke, "I didn't get any further than a dozen blocks. Say what you will about the government on Amstys, but they keep track of their children."

"I was hauled back, kicking and screaming, by a truancy officer. They didn't care a word for what I said. They were just doing their job and returning me home. That was a funny word for it, home. It wasn't, not really. Home had been back at school... I suppose. I'd slept in a different bed every few months of my life, with different people around me. The only thing that's been a constant in my life is me. Everything else changes, leaves. I'm the only thing that's remained."

"Heh." The laugh came unbidden from my lips, colder than I'd expected, "It's like I'm an island in a stream. The current rushes around me, yet I don't ever seem to move. Sometimes people wash ashore, loves, teachers, friends." I laughed again, softer this time, "You. But it never lasts. One of us is always off to the next port of call. There's no rhyme or reason to it. Things I wish I could make my life with are swept away from me in moments, others last for months."

Crit's voice was still and calm as he spoke, like velvet in the darkness, "That's not the way to live. One must have grounding, stability. How could you ever survive in such a... a chaotic fate?"

I shrugged, feeling his arm tighten around me, "How could you survive with so little change?" A smile touched my lips in the darkness. "I probably could have settled down if I'd put my mind to it... I suppose. But it just isn't my way. The world moves in one direction and I move in the other. That's just the way it seems to go, I've given up fighting it long ago."

All I could hear was the sound of the azlin's breathing, great huffs in the darkness. I could even feel the warmth of his breath on my skin.

His voice was little more than a whisper as he spoke again, "James... do you want to come with me? Do you want to come home, little brother?"

I laughed. He cringed back at the sound. "Home, Crit? I don't have one, and certainly not some wayward planet that I've never even seen. Tell me this, Crit, would there even be another single human in the whole system?"

He didn't answer.

"Crit," I reached up to give him a gentle punch to the gut, "If we make it out of here, I'll come with you. I'll see this magical home of yours, but remember that it's your home, not mine. I'll come, I'll breathe the air, touch the soil, like I've done on so many worlds. I'll even play with the kitts, or whatever you call them, but that's all I can promise."

"You never know, Crit. Perhaps I'll find someone and settle down, but I wouldn't bet on it. The universe just doesn't seem to have that in store for me."

That seemed to calm him slightly. He pulled his arm off my shoulders before he spoke again, placing my hand in his as he prepared to stand. "That's all I can ask for, James. I've made you my brother, and... and that is more meaningful than you could likely ever realize. We are who we are because of who the others around us are. That is the way of the universe. I've welcomed you as my brother. That, in some small way, makes me a reflection of you."

I had to snort at that one. "Damn poor choice if you ask me."

He didn't respond as he began picking his way up the tunnel again.

The journey continued in relative silence. There was much to think about, but little to say. Had I done the right thing to welcome James as my brother? Had there been anything else I could have done?

I owed him more than I could express, and there was no other way I could reward him. Yet what I gave him seemed more like a burden than I'd ever expected.

I'd of course realized that he was no azlin, he would see things through a warped mirror that would distort the great value of my pledge, but this?

I pushed the thoughts from my mind and focused on following the quivering of my whiskers as we continued slowly on forward.

Hours of trudging rewarded us with a prize that only I could see.

"There's light!"

It was dim and fluttering, wavering on the edge of perception, but it was there.

"What are you talking about, Crit? It's still pitch black."

"There's light, James. I swear it. Just like at the shallows." It was hardly enough to make out my hand in front of my face, but I could see.

The tunnel was climbing upwards ever so slightly more now, just enough for the silt to begin to slip under my feet. My claws were ill suited for scraping through loose sand covered rocks. James' rubber soled boots were better here. I felt ashamed that there were spots where he had to scramble ahead only to reach back and pull me upwards.

We hadn't seen any water since we'd waded from the shallows, and the sound of a drip in the distance was both reassuring and terrifying. We could still be deep under the surface for all we knew.

We were at long last vomited unceremoniously out into the light, a deep dell in the earth. The cliffs rose around us a good hundred meters of sheer rock on either side. The center of the bowl was taken up with a deep pool of water.

Unlike the previous pool and streams, this one was not pure. The water was neither a perfect crystal clear, nor was it the alarming blue of the oceans. It was a dingy, brackish brown.

And it smelt of life.

The edge to the pool was so sudden and sheer that we nearly tumbled into it. The water an arm's reach away was, while not frothing with life, obviously inhabited.

Unlike anywhere else, there was the hum of insects in the air and the flutter of small fish in the pool below.

"Uh, Crit?" James looked up at me, "What in the name of any and all science is going on here? We have oceans of acid, empty deserts of grey sand, the occasional heard of introduction species, raging rivers of pure water, and... this." He waved a hand towards the pool. "I thought they kept the number of species low on an in-process terraforming planet, in order to reduce the complexity of the bio-system interaction."

"These aren't any introduction species I've ever heard of." I lowered my nose to the pool, careful not to touch it as I took a sniff. The water was old and heavily used. I doubted it flowed out of here. It was likely fed by some underground river, then evaporated away. "Perhaps these creatures aren't meant to be here? They could be invasives, brought in by accident."

There was a thin rim around the edge of the pool, just enough for us to shimmy across. A small river cascaded down, far away on the other side, it seemed to be coming from the surface.

We were about a quarter of the way around when a ripple tugged at the water. I peered down, but the pool was so murky that I couldn't make out a thing that lurked beneath. Small fish and tadpole like creatures swam about. Although, for all I knew they could be blood-sucking leaches with poison glands that would immobilize me in seconds.

Half way across, James' foot slipped on the crumbling edge, sending a cascade of pebbles to ripple and gurgle into the water below. For just a second I would have sworn I saw something beneath the waves, but nothing came to the surface. I reached out a hand to steady the human before we continued on.

We were about two thirds of the way to the end of this skinny little ledge, and I was all the happier for it. Crit's small, cat like toes were able to perch and shuffle, but my flat human feet kept slipping, sending me scrambling to keep from a dunking as the ground crumbled away beneath me.

My back was pushed up against the cave wall while some vague grey light filtered in from the open sky above. It was still dim down here, but at least I wasn't relying on Crit for everything now.

I almost ran into him, knocking myself off balance when the azlin came to a sudden stop. One of his arms shot out to hold me fast as I teetered on the edge.

"Crit, what's..."

He simply held a finger to his lips in a sign that I'm sure he must have picked up from a human somewhere or other. Beneath us the water began to churn and foam. Something was coming to the surface. Something large.

I wasn't even sure what to make of it at first. The thing was a dull green, covered in bumps and warts. On whole, it must have been three to four meters across, rising at least a good two meters above the soiled yellow water.

It was a frog... I think. I'd seen one of these once, long ago in a zoo. Through half inch thick armoured glass. The sign had read: Do not feed the Balderen Mud Frog - it will EAT YOU.

I'd laughed at the sign back then. I wasn't laughing now.

Each of its eyes were the size of both my fists put together. Their lids peeled up, followed a moment later by a second set of milky white membranes beneath, to reveal green eyes that watched us lazily.

The three of us simply stood there for a good ten heartbeats, no one moving. Crit and I were pressed against the wall, feet slipping on our precarious footing, it floated languidly in the foul water.

"Crit." My lips barely moved as I spoke in a whisper, "Keep moving. Slowly. Keep moving."

His hand was still across my chest as we began to edge further on. He was all but dragging me along to keep me in reach. I wasn't complaining. I really didn't want to slip now.

With every step, I could see the hackles rise on Crit's shoulders. His mane normally laid so flat as to be nearly invisible against his tan coat, but step by step, millimetre by millimetre, it was blooming into a fearsome display around him that seemed to double his size. Even then, he was still nowhere close to the monster that floated before us.

It watched us as we moved, slowly pivoting in place to keep us in sight.

I racked my brain as we pressed onward, searching for even a scrap of information about the monstrosity.

I'd snuck into a zoo after hours, years ago, looking for a warm place to sleep in the midst of a rainstorm. The lights had been off back then, I remembered making faces at the impotent creature behind the glass. It had watched me impassively. Just as it did now.

But what had the signs said? I would have hit myself upside the head to try and shake something loose if I hadn't been so terrified.

It was an omnivore.

Oh. Okay. Now, was that a good thing or a bad thing? That meant it ate... everything.

"Keep moving." I whispered it between clenched teeth.

We were starting to pull away from it now, leaving it behind. It didn't move, didn't bother to follow us. I was almost ready to breathe a sigh of relief.

Then it lunged forward. I never knew what it was that triggered it. It could have been just waiting for us to get the right distance, or perhaps it was afraid its tasty morsels were about to run off.

Anyway, it shot forward, massive mouth opening. Cartoon frogs have tongues longer than their bodies, but I knew that was a myth. The tongue on this thing may not be all that long as compared to its body size, but at a meter long it was more than enough for me.

It didn't scream or cry as it came forward, our only warning was the rush of water around its body.

We'd escaped total darkness just minutes ago, but the blackness that I glimpsed down its gullet eclipsed anything I'd ever seen before.

Except perhaps Crit's own maw.

I didn't even have time to flinch as those huge amphibian jaws flew towards me. I got a single whiff of repugnant breath before I felt my feet slip from the ridge.

Crit's arm was gone from my chest as he pushed me from the arc of its jaws. He took my place as I slid away.

I didn't even have time to scream as I watched him disappear into the frog, its massive jaws nearly consuming him whole.

I just made out a bone-chilling roar before he was gone.

And my head was beneath the brackish water.

The thing, whatever it was, had lunged forward, almost too fast to track. It had instinctively chosen James, the weaker of us.

There was nothing else I could do. I didn't even know what it was, but I had to protect him as I would any kitt in the family. One quick shove and he was into the relative safety of the water. That just left me with the creature.

The world closed around me a moment later, surrounding me in a soft and squishy blackness.

I'd never considered what the prey must feel like when the jaws of a hunter came down around it. Now I knew.

I could feel the sticky wet tongue beneath me, and its soft, ridged palate above.

There were no teeth of note, and for that I could only thank the gods. The muscles of the beast's mouth moved around me, pulling me inward and back towards its throat. The jaws were crushing down on me, but most of their weight was closer to the entrance of the mouth. My legs were pinned, but my arms were still relatively free. And so were my fangs.

The beast may not have the weapons of a hunter, but I did. I could do little, but I still raked my claws down the soft flesh around me. All but unhinging my jaw, I bit down on anything within reach. It took a half-dozen bites, but I finally caught fast, putting a halt to the monster's efforts to force me down.

The smell here was repulsive, but at least there was enough air from the beast's own lungs to keep me from passing out. I held fast and forced my claws up and down the inside of the creature's mouth. There was enough blood spewing from the wounds I'd inflicted now that my fur was awash in the foul mixture.

The stupid creature didn't even know enough to let go. It couldn't swallow me, and was gagging on my struggles, but it wouldn't spit me out.

It was persistent, I'll give it that. My neck cricked as it continued to try and push me down. I could almost imagine its little frog hands waving madly in the air as it tried to swallow.

I nearly dislocated my shoulder in the process, but I managed to pull one arm forward, dislodging it from the creature's grasp and forcing it above my head, further down the beast's throat.

I only knew enough biology or anatomy for hunting, and I hadn't the slightest how this thing was put together, but I had to take a bet that it was something like an azlin, or a human for that matter.

Shoving my hand, and its razor tipped claws, down the beast's throat, I felt its windpipe split. One tube lead to the gut, the other to the lungs. There was no way I could tell which was which in the close, sticky darkness, but I chose the one that tried to force me back.

Pushing further, I felt the frog's body jerk around me, twitching as it realized its not so tender morsel was doing more than simply resisting.

I had a clear line to the creature's lungs now, nothing to block me. I raked my claws across every square inch of exposed flesh I could find, ripping and shredding it into a nightmare of gushing wounds and rended meat.

The result was near instantaneous. The blood quickly pooled in the frog's lungs, it was drowning in its own wounds.

I was no longer front and centre in its mind now. I was simply something to get rid of as it tried to void its lungs of the fluid quickly building up. And yet it still didn't release its jaws from around me.

I could feel us moving now, diving down under the brackish surface of the pool. My feet were still kicking in the beast's jaws, preventing its rubbery lips from sealing.

The fetid water rushed in around me. I'd been able to breathe before, piggy backing on the beast's own lungs, but not underwater.

Coughing and gasping, I couldn't prevent the water from ripping the breath away from me. My own jaws were clamped around an outcropping of the beast's flesh, and, much like it, I couldn't seal myself against the water that pressed in around us.

For long moments I feared that the frog would be able to hold his breath longer then I, drowning me out, but he surfaced again.

I was seeing black spots waver in my vision as I hacked up what I could, happy to be able to smell the beast's fetid breath once more.

The gasps that came from the frog were more sporadic now, short and halting.

I could hear something moving outside the creature.

Crit was gone.

My arms flailed in the water around me as I fought back to the surface. I could just see the tuff of his tail hanging from the Mud Frog's lips.

I almost couldn't watch. I expected that at any moment I would see the bulge that was Crit slide down the monster's throat.

But it didn't move. His tail sat there, hanging out, twitching.

For a moment the frog simply floated serenely, eyes closed. I could see it try to swallow, but nothing happened.

Its eyes opened, and it gulped again. Still no change.

Something must have happened within, for seconds later the frog's eyes were wide, head twisting from side to side. It disappeared underwater a moment later, only to surface again, blood leaking from its lips.

The blood was a murky rose colour. Not the red-orange that I'd seen from Crit.

The bloated and warty green arm of the frog was closer now, within reach. I lunged for it as it flailed through the air, hauling myself towards it.

"Crit!" I was sure he couldn't hear me, but I screamed it anyway. His tail was still twitching back and forth. I could only hope it wasn't his death throes.

Reaching for that tuff of hair, I felt it pull in my grasp. The skin beneath was still warm.

I hadn't any tools, not even a blade, all I could do was reach my hands between the jaws of the gigantic creature and pry them apart with my very fingers.

The frog was still alive, its eyes spinning wildly as I scrambled at its maw. It wasn't fighting me.

Like a spring trap, once I'd forced the jaws even an inch apart they flew open on their own accord. I could see Crit's bent and abused form within.

I didn't dare go any closer to the jaws than I had to, all I could think to do was grab him by the legs and pull.

His pelt was stuck to the tongue, held fast. It was a moment later that I got help from an unexpected source. The frog's tongue shot out, throwing us both clear from the monster, splashing us into the yellow waters, now tinged a shade of red by the creature's blood.

"Crit!" I hauled his head above water, "Talk to me, buddy!"

His jaws were still clenched around a clump of flesh that had been ripped from the Mud Frog's innards. He spat it into the water, a scowl on his face.

The words to escape his lips were once again in that native tongue of his that I couldn't ever hope to understand. But some phrases are universal enough not to need translation.

A moment later he was speaking Standard again, "Let's get out of here." He was already clawing at the stone shore of the pool, fighting his way back to the narrow path above. "There can't just be one of those things here. And I don't want to meet its mate."

I couldn't help but laugh as I followed him up. That was one of the few things I had been able to remember from my wayward visit to the zoo. Balderen Mud Frogs had sexual dimorphism beyond anything else I'd ever seen. The males were the size of large tad-poles, and completely harmless.

Food. Food, The Problem Is Always Food

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# Chapter 6 Well, One Thing Is Still Working There was nothing else to do, not a single sign of civilization, so we began walking inland. Hopefully we'd encounter some patch of vegetation, of life. The planet had been registered as 'In progress...

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And Not A Drop To Drink

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