Cleve seems ill at ease, but he has certainly spent more time in the wilderness than I have, so I trust that he has good cause to be. “Lead the way,” I tell him. “You seem like you’ve been outside of a city before.”
“What do you mean? Like outside?” he replies dryly.
“I mean not just to a park.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” I think he’s holding back a chuckle.
“So by all means, lead on,” I tell him. “I’m Mariah by the way,” I add, realizing that even though I know his name, he would have no way of knowing mine.
“Oh. Call me Cleve,” he replies. “And this is dirt.” He points to the ground around us. Okay, so he really does have a sense of humor. “I think,” he adds, and once again I see that bit of discomfort about him. “We shouldn’t stay close to this hole. Time to head to higher ground to see what we can see.”
We clamber back up the hill we just came down. It’s a taxing hike, but Cleve finds a bit of a path left by the beetles tromping back and forth to their (former) nest. “What do they eat?” he mutters. I assume he means the furry beetles and provide a list of suggestions: fungus, smaller critters, people like us. Maybe, though, he meant whatever was large enough to make that sinkhole. That I have no ideas for.
We pass the caved-in nest and continue upwards, pausing when we reach a stable area at the top of the hill. The shadows seem a bit longer now than when we first emerged from the nest. “When it gets late enough, we might be able to see that there are lights coming from somewhere,” I suggest. “You can’t have humans without light pollution.” It might even count as early evening now, given how low the reddish-orange primary sun is. That one is named Rigil Kentaurus. The B star, Toliman, should be visible somewhere nearby in the sky, too, as a smaller bright light, but looking at it straight on can damage the eyes, so I don’t search it out.
The color of Rigil Kentaurus reminds me of sunsets viewed through the haze of pollution back home. Now that we’re higher up again, looking out across the valley and lowlands, I realize there’s actually some sort of low-lying mist or fog. It’s not whitish-gray like Earth fog, though. This looks bluish, even reddish in places. Maybe it’s related to the time of day? Or maybe I just didn’t notice it earlier, with all the other new sights.
Cleve is breathing heavily from the hike up and makes a quip about having been asleep for a hundred years. I point out that it was really a hundred thirty and in cryopods only rated for a hundred. He frowns a bit, and I hasten to add, “But don’t worry, your pod had a reassuring green light on it.”
“I’m still alive, so I think it worked out,” Cleve says, ever practical.
We’re on the highest hill in this general area. There are more impressive peaks behind us, away from the body of water we’re facing. Way up the coast, days away by foot, the fading light glints off a large glass dome. It is definitely too far away for the gunshot to have come from. Attached to it, we can also make out smokestacks and the black plumes pouring forth from them. My turn to frown.
We do not see any sign of roads, but it’s possible motorbikes or other small vehicles could travel through the fungus forest without them. Cleve points out where the coast comes in closest to us, which is much more reachable than the dome. “It’d probably be easier travel up along there,” he says.
“And then we’ll be by water, which is a good thing, right?” I ask.
“Don’t know if it’s salt water, but we can work with it,” Cleve says confidently.
It’s too late to get far today though, so he picks this spot for our camp. I look around, a bit at a loss, and ask, “So… how do we do this? Do we just make a pile of mushrooms to sleep on?” I’ve never slept outside in my life, which up until now, I’ve always viewed as a positive. “How do we do this camping thing?”
Cleve rubs his stubbly chin with a hand and surveys the area. “Don’t know much about these mushrooms. We should probably make a clearing. Do you know anything about this planet?” he asks me.
I do, but nothing too relevant to our current situation. I apologetically explain that there wasn’t much to know about the flora and fauna prior to planetfall. “I’ve got some pictures of what scientists thought the plant life would be like, based on the temperature and water profile.” I pull out my sketchbook and flip to them. “But these aren’t really accurate,” I say with a frown, comparing them to some of the plants around us.
As I start erasing and making a few corrections from my own observations, Cleve asks, “Well, is the water, water?”
“They believed it would be, based on the long-range scans,” I confirm.
“Okay, well that’s something.”
We have no idea what season it is, or even what latitude we’re at, but the weather is fairly temperate. It is getting a little cooler as the suns go down, though. With his knife, Cleve cuts away some of the briar-like mushrooms to make space for us to sit around a fire. He looks miserable, or at least leery of the mushrooms. Meanwhile, I gather fallen fungal branches for firewood, since they seem drier.
“What are we eating?” I ask once we’re settled down next to our giant blaze on Cleve’s blanket. He reminds me about the ration pack he gave me earlier. I pull it out of my satchel and tear it open, but once I see what is inside, I find I have the same question as before. “What are we eating?”
“Meat protein IMPs*. Hundred percent lab-grown. Yours is chicken/poulet. Mine’s poutine/poutine. With gravy.” He bites into his, and I tentatively do the same. The taste seems off to me, but Cleve assures me these were designed with an impressive shelflife. And they’re all we really have right now. “So, on Earth, mushrooms are hit or miss,” he tells me. “They could have poisonous spores. That’s definitely something we would want to be careful about eating. But I really don’t know. I’ve never met a beetle with acid and fur, either!” He throws up his hands in exasperation. “And this place seems to be all mushrooms, all the time.” Something in the firelight catches his eye then. He pokes around at the edge of our clearing and then announces, “Wait a minute… this is a kind of clover.”
With eyes newly opened to the possibility of actually recognizing something, we scout around the area a bit more. Cleve identifies more terrestrial plants: a pine sapling here, a clump of moss there. I’m a little sad to see that out here, but I’m not surprised. There were plans to bring seeding material from Earth, of course, but what use it would be put to on Chiron was a source of much contention. It seems like in this region, at least, plant life from Earth was not confined to domes. Someone must have decided that since there was no advanced life here, letting invasive species loose was all right. Or maybe someone was just sloppy. It’s a common human trait.
Cleve’s mood is buoyed by the find, though. It is evidence that the soil has the right nutrients for Earth life. The air too, though we’ve been breathing that for several hours now with no harm. “We’re surviving, I guess. We’ve made it this far,” he says, in what passes for optimism from him. “But don’t go eating mushrooms!” he reminds me. I trust his judgment on that, though I see no harm in wearing one on my blazer.
Cleve’s rations also include coffee, and that seems to cheer him up more. I lean back on my hands to gaze up at the night sky. Once his drink is done, Cleve declares, “We’re going to take shifts.”
It is stated with some certainty and as though I should understand. “What does that mean?” I ask.
“We’re going to take turns sleeping and take turns watching.”
That makes some sense. There’s only the one blanket. “Watching what?” I ask. “To keep the fire alive?” Then I get the longest string of words yet from the man. Cleve gives me a crash course in overnight survival outdoors, including what types of threats to watch for while your companion sleeps. He points out what approaches predators might use and where the sightlines around our campsite are poor. He does not go so far as to set up traps—maybe because we don’t have any pots and pans to rattle—but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. My instinct about this man was right; he really does belong outside, at least outside on Earth. I’m sure once he gets the hang of the plants and animals around here he’ll shed some of that tension he’s been carrying in his shoulders all day.
Cleve assigns me first watch, which is fine with me. I don’t think I could fall asleep right now, not even with all the wearisome hill climbing. I’m still too jazzed to just be on Chiron. I’m actually here. I didn’t know my plan was going to work.
* IMP = Individual Meal Pack (Canadian MRE**)
** MRE = Meal, Ready-to-Eat (American military rations)