Cast of Wonders 221: The Jungle Between (Dinovember!)
A special thank you to our audio producer Jeremy Carter for the excellent photo in this week’s episode artwork. Check out his Etsy shop, On The Edge Photos.
The Jungle Between
by Holly Schofield
I look over at my wife Anahita, where she squints at yesterday’s video of the theropod. She pushes her hair back from her sweaty forehead, the very picture of a field biologist. We have extended a canopy over our work area in front of the shuttle yet the temperature is still 34C and heat radiates up from the ground under my boots. I close my eyes for a second and roll my shoulders. In our ten days on Munroe Two, we have only collected minimal data on the tool-using parthenogenic dinosaurs, not enough to publish. Any conclusions will be iffy at best. Our allotted time ends tomorrow.
Unlike similar species back on Terra or on the fifteen other colonized planets, Munroe’s theropods balance on that evolutionary cutting edge. Anahita mutters in her sleep each night about reduced micro-aggressions and low degrees of intragroup conflict.
Our six-year-old daughter, Kelty, is equally enamored with the planet and with the theros–one dino in particular.
“Kelty, honey! Not too far, okay,” I call across the clearing.
“Aw, Mom, I’m fine!” She skooches a bare half-metre closer, dragging her toy plastic pirate treasure chest with her. The immature thero with the shrivelled left arm–the one Kelty calls Zoola–waddles after her, tail swaying.
I push away my tablet. My fascination–specifically, nesting site fidelity in this precocial species–is, so far, long on speculation and short on data. I don’t expect that to change over the next twenty-hour day. Not when I can’t get hold of a single damn egg to study.
“It’s like being allowed to lick an ice cream cone when you’re starving then having it pulled away,” I say to Anahita. As much as I’m a registered member of The Uniworld Interplanetary Indigenous Anthropology Association and sworn to uphold the UIIAA’s directives, I sometimes think they may have gone too far.
“No, Tanya, it’s like being shown a photo of–no, a photo of a em>sketch of an ice cream cone. A cone that’s back at Burgundy Base.” Again and again, Anahita reviews yesterday’s video of Kelty playing with the immature thero, interspersed with glances to where they now squat together over something at the end of the meadow.
The thousands of hectares of jungle that surround us smell like the compost chute on an interplanetary ship. Occasionally other scents permeate, a strange one like celery, and a sultrier one that Anahita says reminds her of cardamom. A thousand unclassified species of birds make discordant music on every side.
Of the three of us, only Kelty is not frustrated by our stay here. When we first landed the shuttle four kilometres from the village–the edge of the Samuel Limit–I’d hardly let Kelty out of the airlock to play and insisted she wear an enviro-suit at all times. She’d whined and wheedled and I’d relented on both counts. Munroe’s other ecosystems are generally similar to Costa Rica or the inland rainforests of Qin Jiong Five, although this continent is more poorly documented.
“Still time to fly a drone over the village.” Anahita is only half-joking about breaking the directives. “Or leave a spypatch inside one of their huts, eh?”
I shake my head firmly. I remind myself that the UIIAA is actually being generous. Being this close to a theropod village in the spring, in egg laying season, is a privilege never before awarded–but an exasperating one. If we were to bring back DNA or albumen samples, our research would move light-years ahead–until we were fired and banned from the UIIAA forever.
The theros’ sentience has never been in question. They are adept with tools, have a language of sorts, make fire and construct primitive huts and food storage containers. The last study, two years ago, found a broken and discarded stone knife with markings arguably decorative. All of that a bright red flag to the UIIAA saying “don’t interfere”. Anahita has yet to work out a basic social structure within the all-female population, nor resolve why the babies disperse at birth yet manage to return to the village at adulthood. As for me, the reproduction itself is fascinating. What triggers the egg-laying? How do they keep the gene pool sufficiently robust? Without one of their hyper-ellipsoidal eggs to study, or even a piece of shell, we know very little.
The UIIAA is not completely wrong. Theros deserve their privacy until they decide to volunteer to end it. When a hunter or gatherer passes by our shuttle, her reptilian slit-eyes crinkle as if humans are the strangest thing they ever saw, and, here, two hundred light-years from Terra, we probably are. Who knows? Without our influences, in a few millennia theros may develop a cultural aspect worthy of adopting. Anahita certainly believes that–she’s sure an all-female culture must have something to teach our own. I smile over at her but she’s perched on the edge on her folding chair, frowning at her screen.
I pick up my high powered binoculars and zoom in on Kelty. She’s grinning as she plays. I swing the ‘nocs onto Zoola. Ten centimetres taller and massing slightly more than Kelty, she could be a Terran non-avian dinosaur from a thousand guessimated sketches. Her hind legs and thick tail form a supporting triangle, allowing her to bend over the game she plays with Kelty. Green-and-gold hide, like snakeskin but with heavy folds like a thick carpet, slides into a lighter yellow shade around her hefty hindquarters. A brown cord straps her stone knife to her chest. I picture myself using my stun gun to subdue her and do a full bio-exam. I smile at my daydream–if only I weren’t so ethical.
Zoola grasps Kelty’s treasure chest in one of her stubby four-fingered hands. She picks a bug–an ant I think–from Kelty’s jumpsuit and hands it to the bird-like symbionts (or are they parasites?) that keep it company. One of the tiny creatures pecks the wiggling bug from Zoola’s nimble fingers. Zoola’s thin-lipped mouth curves, emoting…something. Her jaw is filled with sharp teeth. Why do I trust her with Kelty? Motherly instincts? The theros’ sense of community? Or perhaps it’s the intelligent and warm look in the eyes of this particularly well-behaved thero.
The immature interloper with its overly soft brown skin is particularly well behaved. It does not seem to need the taming that a youngster of my people would require. I pretend not to notice the elder interloper watching me from across the clearing where it perches on an awkwardly stilt-footed object beside its curiously shiny giant hut. The hut landed like a fiery raptor at the beginning of spring’s early arrival. A roof, cleverly woven of white root fibres, flaps above the second interloper as it stares at a little board mumbling to itself. Moisture oozes down their furred heads and naked faces.
To amuse myself, I copy the small interloper’s actions and lay more grass across the wooden box, as if we were enfolding it into a web. Perhaps it is practicing for when it matures and lays an egg. The box is cleverly crafted like all things the interlopers have, with a peculiar smell like spoiled resin. Like the shiny hut, it is without pleasing curves; all ugly sharp angles and lines. I cannot guess its purpose: perhaps to hold seeds or dried meat for the rainy season. It is currently filled with carved items that resemble the interlopers in miniature.
I am fascinated by these interlopers. The small one appears to have no need to forage for food and is fed by its elders several times a day, like a helpless mousling in a nest. I fear it will not survive when the elder interlopers have lived out their life span and return to the loam. If I am ever allowed to keep one of my eggs alive until it hatches, I will carry the tiny baby to a place of abundant food, so that it will be the strongest, most fearsome of our people ever. I swear I will do this, although it goes against everything I have been taught by the elders. I touch my belly and feel the spring-sweet promise of my first egg in my loins. My time will be soon.
I sit back on my haunches, swishing my tail in the dry grasses to let any creatures know I am nearby. I touch the stone knife in my belt. Despite my imperfections, there is little in the jungle that can hurt me or match my swiftness, but I am farther from the village than is wise at mid-day. The elders are kind to me because of my arm, so kind that I have few daily chores in the village, and never ever any chores in tending the egg cache by the river. They do not want me to see the creamy texture of the eggs, the pleasingly smooth oval of the soft shells, the hatching of the tiny offspring as they tumble from their webbing to the forest floor and scatter. They do not want to cause me pain seeing something toward which I will never contribute; yet they cannot allow my useless arm and small stature to spread among the people. The old tales speak of pushing the imperfect ones off a cliff edge, tumbling them to their death. Sometimes, being treated like an outsider makes me long for a very tall cliff.
The immature interloper adds another sun-bleached stalk of grass to the pile, forming a sheet of tangled grass over the foodbox, as if it is inside a miniature hut. I sniff, tasting the wind and its smells of kritkrit pollen and small leafbiters. Soon I will leave these curious interlopers and return to the village, killing some bushtappers on the way. I will sit to one side of the communal fire, stroke my egg-filled belly, and cook my solitary meal while the others chatter about their day and tell tales into the night. The fire is not part of the old tales, it is a new thing to this village an eight-eight’s generations ago, but the crackle and dance of the flames is as pleasing to the eye as charred meat is to the belly.
I sniff the air again, my claw scraping my stomach hide in sudden worry. I wait until a breeze riffles the tuftgrass. I sniff again. The acrid scent of blood-wasps twists my stomach like a tightening vine. It is early in the year for a swarm but this spring has come early. Wasps can tear through the jungle as easily as my knife through moss. Softer creatures, like the interlopers, will be flayed raw instantly. I rise on my haunches. The swarm is approaching from beyond the silver hut, moving fast and hungry. I cry out.
I should run toward the river, to protect our village’s egg cache, eight-eight’s toppertree-lengths away. The eggs, first-laid of this season, may not yet be wrapped in thick enough webs to prevent the wasps’ laying their own eggs in our soft-shelled offspring. I turn riverward and take a step. The village elders do not want my help; they would want me to hunker down where I am, to bury my face and genitals deep in the welcoming loam and wait for the wasp cloud to pass.
The faint humming, as ominous as a wounded thrasher’s moan, grows louder. My urge to protect our offspring grows stronger. A swarm stays clumped and moves relatively slowly; I can outrun and outwit the wasps if I start now.
At my feet, the small interloper plucks grasses, unaware.
The large interlopers by the silver hut cry out and wave their arms, leaping about like fleas. The cloud is almost upon them. The darker-furred one farthest from the silver hut, is soon engulfed and ceases to hop. The other has opened a door in the silver hut but looks at its companion then across the clearing where I stand with the small interloper, which is now making squeaking noises.
The small interloper stands on bent legs, its foodbox dangling from a hand. Its squeak increases in pitch. It begins to run toward the silver hut, toward the wasp cloud, toward certain death. I dart forward and snatch it up into my arms as the first of the swarm reaches us, all poisoned stingers and fiercely beating wings. The edges of the small one’s foodbox dig into my belly and the tiny carved contents fall to my feet.
The silver hut and the two adult interlopers are lost inside the black cloud. I turn and run into the dark, welcoming jungle, staggering under a weight that is half my own.
In one single instant, my world has changed. Anahita hangs near death, plugged into the shuttle’s med-sys, and Kelty has been taken away by the thero she was playing house with. The chip we inserted into Kelty’s arm at birth indicates she’s almost two kilometres northwest in a proscribed area, and, thank the multitudes of stars, she’s still alive. As I shove various portable medical instruments into a pack, and quickly put on an enviro-suit and a breather as a defence against more bees, I glance at Anahita’s face, grotesquely swollen by multiple stings. The med-sys analyzer has tentatively identified the thumb-sized attackers as a type of omnivorous bee. Presumably, they function like a forest fire, periodically cleansing the ecosystem through genocide.
There is nothing I can do for Anahita; I move a strand of curly black hair off her face and get scolded by the med-sys for lack of sterility on my hands. “You better be alive when I get back,” I say, my throat tight.
I grab Kelty’s enviro-suit, stuff it in my pack, and head out the shuttle’s airlock. The 0.8 gees allow me to lope across the field and into the dark jungle. My headset attunes itself to the volume of the many bird calls and rustlings that surround me on all sides. I set it to “record” without breaking my stride. I plunge between huge ferns, past coffee table-sized flowers like giant purple tulips, under fuzzy vine tendrils that brush against me and twist with more than the wind. Some kind of pollen drifts down on me. I am far across the Samuel Limit, in violation of laws and my own moral sense. I ignore it all. Only Kelty matters.
The enviro-suit whisks away my sweat as I plow through gullies and over ridges. Kelty’s signal grows stronger, a solid green blip on my overlay. Soon, I am only one ridge away, then a dozen meters. The crowded jungle gives way to a patch of mist in the trees. No, not mist. Some gauzy material that contain opaque white lumps. Theros move between the lumps, occasionally stopping to touch one. It’s a theropod egg cache; that hypothesized-yet-unobserved reservoir where a “lay and walk” species has managed to supersede their instinct. No clumsy stick nest on the ground, no abandonment to predators and weather. It’s hypothesized, but undocumented, that eggs are, at this evolutionary stage, communally cared for until the late spring hatchings. Each egg swings gently in a white hammock, supported by several strands from overhanging branches. Adult theros, some barely mature, some elderly, drift between shrouded trees, apparently checking for broken strands and bee damage.
I hurry forward, double-checking that my suit is recording audio, visual, and olfactory. My voice shakes as I make audio notes: “Each ten-centimetre egg is suspended, wrapped in a filmy mass of…stuff. Spider webs! Spiders! Spiders occupy a tree across the clearing. Their webs form the protective wrappings and suspend the eggs a metre off the ground.”
One egg lies on the grass, several smashed bees surrounding it. The shell has several oozing punctures and a thero is hunched over it, keening.
I’m relieved to see that Kelty’s signal is coming from the left. I won’t have to approach the mass of crawling black arachnids on the far side, each the size of a dinner plate.
Theros glance at me as I forge past, apparently more concerned about their offspring than a non-threat like me.
I sweep aside sheets of webbing, frantic with haste. Kelty is sitting up at waist-height in a hammock just like a baby in a cradle. Her tear-stained face breaks into a half-grin as she sees me approach. Zoola stands nearby, her good arm raised and gripping a stone knife. I make a quick step forward, a hand on my stun gun. The thero’s clever yellow eyes catch mine and she cuts the slit in the web wider, freeing one of Kelty’s arms.
“Mommy, mommy! Zoola saved me!” Kelty waves.
“Oh, sweetie, oh, my sweet one,” I say and kneel, wrapping her in my arms, heedless of the webs, Zoola at my side, and the curious looks of the other theros.
I watch the small interloper wrap her fingers, as small and brown as worms, around the large interloper’s woven root-clad torso. The large one wipes a soft hand across the small one’s wispy-haired head, leaving a smear of kritkrit pollen behind.
Finally, the large one stands and carries the small interloper away, leaving the webbing in tatters. My flits finally catch up to me and settle on my shoulders and the slope of my back. One nuzzles my ear hole.
The elders have mostly finished evaluating the minor wasp damage. They begin to look askance at the interlopers and one, Crat-zu, takes me aside. She was the first to greet me upon my return to the village as a maturing juvenile. Like all of my people, I have little memory of my childhood, a confusion of starvation and satiation and long dark nights. But I remember Crat-zu’s kindness when I walked into the village, cradling my shrunken arm, unsure of my welcome.
Her tongue flickers and her head spikes stand upright with concern. “You have drawn the interloper here.”
“Apologies, elder. I do not know how it tracked me. I backtracked over the creek gravel twice. I went the long way through the valley and managed to lose the wasp swarm in an updraft wind.” I rub a swelling on my lip where a wasp had stung.
“You have endangered the egg cache. Your mind does not run as fast as it should.” Crat-zu leans in and sniffs, then taps my swollen stomach. “You are with egg. You will bring it to the communal fire tonight and we will watch you burn it and so give it a kind journey back into the loam.” She pats my shoulder in sympathy.
I turn away from her kindness. I put a hand on my stomach, my egg, my sole legacy before I return to the loam. The elders might say that all eggs are as one, that all people are as one. Yet they burn my eggs because my arm is different. I feel more akin to the solitary thrasher that roams endlessly from valley to valley. Does the dim-witted fur-covered creature hunger to keep its children safe from harm? Does its stomach kink as it gives birth in awful bloody chaos as lesser creatures do, knowing its small ones will soon roam away over distant mountain tops?
From under my lowered brow, I study the torn hammock. After laying my egg tonight, I will have no choice but to watch it burn. I could try to place it here. I am small enough to outwit the night guards and slip my precious ovoid treasure into a vacant hammock, but without Crat-zu’s blessing–without her throat mucus coating my egg to scent-mark it–the other villagers will crush it and I will be deemed even more simple-minded. Likely, I will be held in even closer confines within the community I both abhor and cherish.
I have no choice but to burn my egg.
I stumble another step and bump against another hammock, so distraught it takes me a moment to remember what I stashed there in the confusion of the last few hours. The shape within is not a pleasing ovoid. It is angular and square.
It is the small one’s foodbox.
Perhaps it is a symbol to the small interloper, a symbol of the security it feels, being in the continuing care of the larger interloper, its parent. Without it, the small one must be distraught. I feel a surge of affection for it. It, too, has no choice.
I tuck the foodbox under my good arm, unsure if the elders will allow it in the village, but unwilling to see such craftsmanship go to waste.
Anahita is awake when I return. She manages a smile even as the med-sys continues to replace her blood from our reserves. The shuttle disposal systems have returned the bee poisons and stingers to the dirt outside the shuttle. Kelty clambers onto the medi-bed and into Anahita’s arms.
I blink back tears, fighting my emotions. My reaction can wait. Kelty needs a full medical evaluation. I start with a physical exam that covers every inch and turns into a massive three-person hug. Kelty relaxes then wiggles free. “My treasure chest! I don’t have it! It’s back at the funny white string place. My toys fell out when Zoola grabbed me but I need to get my box!”
“I will buy you a dozen treasure chests, back at Burgundy. Remember we leave tomorrow because of those pesky protocols,” I say, managing to keep my voice light. Kelty has few scratches and a broken fingernail and, perhaps, some nightmares to come. Her sturdy frame has kept her from any more serious injury. If she had been any younger, it might have been far worse.
Kelty nods and she slumps against Anahita’s side. Her eyes close. She must be exhausted, poor dear.
Anahita looks up at me, her eyes swinging to Kelty and back again signalling she wants to have a conversation that Kelty should not hear. “What did you record? Did you gather anything? Is your moral compass spinning?”
I shake my head. “Nothing.”
Anahita clucks but subsides back onto her pillow.
I sink into a chair. I have the recording–the delightful recording!–but, it can never form part of a formal study without jeopardizing her career as well as my own. I’ll simply keep the chip to feed my sense of wonder at the marvelous biological variety the universe holds. I look over at Kelty’s flushed and sleeping face. I’m good at protecting things, keeping things safe for years at a time. I can manage that with this chip too.
I start a sequence to encrypt the file. I can hide the tiny chip in Kelty’s personal gear which does not get checked as closely as Anahita’s and mine. It’s presumed that a professional would not stoop so low as to use their daughter to violate the directives.
The nearest screen tells me that the sun is setting outside. I need to collect up the tables, chairs, and other paraphernalia outside. Suddenly exhausted, I decide to leave them for tonight and collect them just before take-off tomorrow. I will also do a full chem-sweep of the clearing, in accordance with UIIAA directives.
It will be like we were never here.
I have wandered until moons-rise, drinking from the creek that feeds the river. I have no appetite but I force myself to eat a bushtapper, ripping off limbs and crunching them raw, providing pointless nutrients to the egg I carry, the egg that will burn tonight. My thoughts are crowded and messy like a dense jungle lies between my ears. As I push aside cold ferns and tread through brush, I try to take my thoughts elsewhere. The foodbox under my arm presses into my hide and I shift it uncomfortably. The small interloper intrigues me still; from its mannerisms, it has known much happiness so far in its short strange life. For the first time, I think that the larger interloper must have laid that particular egg, that particular offspring, and is nurturing it so closely due to that bond between them. It is a new thought to me and I stop in a small clearing to look up at the twin moons, then down at the loam below that created us.
All of us.
I cannot fix my own sadness but I can fix the small one’s. I make an abrupt turn into the night wind.
First moon has long set by the time I approach the silver hut. I leave the foodbox by the ugly foot of the hut and go to sleep in a hollow log just inside the jungle.
I do not return to the village.
As the sun awakens the jungle the next day, I stand below a toppertree, letting the steam from the warming earth fill my nostrils. My genitals throb from the laying. I watch as the large interloper, covered in again in white woven root fibres, emerges from the silver hut and picks up the ugly items scattered about. It pauses by the silver hut’s leg, then picks up the foodbox, hefting its weight uncertainly, retreating into the silver hut.
I watch until the sun grows above the tree crowns and my underparts are no longer so swollen and sore.
When the silver hut magically rises into the air, I clutch my bad arm to my chest and I think about my egg, its hatching, and its new life beyond the loam.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. She is the author of over fifty short stories, some of which are used in university curricula and have been translated into several languages. Her works have appeared in Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Analog, and many other publications throughout the world. This is her fifth appearance in Cast of Wonders. Watch for new stories soon in Analog, Brave New Girls, and The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. For more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Amy H. Sturgis
Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Vanderbilt University and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She serves as faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University, staff at the StarShipSofa podcast, and Editor-in-Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics. You can follow her on Twitter, or check our her website for more details.
About the Artist
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.