Wolverine meat wasn’t as bad as Julia had anticipated. Julia would not go so far as to say it tasted like chicken, but it wasn’t terrible either. Good thing bos could start fires.
However, bos lacked shovels, making burying Stuart difficult: they had had to dig with their hands. Afterward, Deleuze had said a few words of eulogy. Watching him, Julia wondered if they would later need Stuart’s body’s meat. Yes, it’s a sick thought, but Julia had done a lot of survivalist sims. Julia knew the smell of dead meat would bring more visitors and wondered if they could possibly have buried him deeply enough.
They finished dinner in silence.
No blankets that night, so the men spooned the women for warmth. Julia loved the feeling of Kenyatta’s cannon-like arms around her frame, but she could barely sleep. She heard jungle noises everywhere. Probably a bear wouldn’t attack them for no reason. Maybe 85% probably.
She could not stop thinking that Stuart’s death was her fault. This was why she hated active army duty. During the battle of Binto City, she had tried not to feel responsible for anyone’s deaths. She couldn’t possibly have saved Giguere, right? But if she spent the next ten years of her life the way Martina did…this would happen again. More deaths would be her fault.
Was that the real reason she’d fled New Jerusalem? #7 on the list? Not cowardice, not exactly, but the fear of guilt? Or whatever one called the fear of being up all night thinking of the heartache of the people who would never see their loved one again.
Ironically, she came all this way and it happened anyway. Stuart was an ass, yes, but he had a family, and they loved him. They would never see his smile or feel his embrace again.
Martina would say: no one blames you for it, so don’t blame yourself. How her sister built all these walls against empathy, Julia would never know.
Sleeping, Kenyatta shifted his weight slightly. Julia thought that she genuinely did want to help Kenyatta with his lifelong dream. But did he really mean it about asking Aquinas to replace her mother?
Maybe Julia was always going to have to decide between Kenyatta and her mother. Maybe she’d been denying that. Well, which one, then?
Julia wanted to postpone that, and in a way, looking for some kind of underground Aquinas-Atlantis around here made sense, because both Kenyatta and her mother would want to know about it.
But I did not come out here to die, she thought. None of us should have.
Julia eyed Deleuze’s ring. He was spooning Isabel three meters away. He was sleeping with the ring on and off. Wearing it, but not activated. Worst of both worlds. She would have to turn it on and then activate the homing signal. Hopefully a satellite would pick it up right away.
How heavy a sleeper was he? Only one way to find out.
Julia had slept with Kenyatta enough to know when pulling away from him wouldn’t wake him up. She did. My God, was it ever freezing. If I live through this, Julia thought, someone remind me not to go to Earth and camp in Alaska.
She crept over to Deleuze, put her hand gingerly on the ring, scrolled it, and…
“Come on, Maciel, really?” whispered Deleuze.
“Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying,” said Julia in an even tone.
“Stop trying to sabotage our mission, Maciel,” he said angrily. “I mean it.”
Isabel’s eyes opened to a squint. “What are you two doing?”
“Nothing,” whispered Julia quickly.
Julia crawled back into Kenyatta’s arms. She hated these cheap Applokia bos with which the army stocked the training planes; her newer one back home had its own homing device. Ugh. What were the percentage odds that they’d be down to one ring, worn by a light-sleeping zealot? Who would have thought to run that sim?
It had taken them roughly six hours to get from one part of the cliff, where the plane had disappeared, to another, where Stuart was killed. The next day, following the bottom of the cliff, it took about six hours to get back.
In her mind, Julia pictured a cave with an airplane-size mouth about halfway up the cliff. Since they had multiple bos, better to have one person – this time, herself – scale the wall using two hooks, like any other rock climber, and then when she got to the cave she would throw down the bos and talk them through the rest.
However, when they got there, the cave sat almost level with the jungle floor. They didn’t have to scale anything. Julia sighed with relief.
The cavern’s mouth was maybe ten meters wide and eight meters high: ginormous by normal standards, although everything native to Olympus Mons tended to be big. Standing at the edge, they couldn’t see the cave’s back, which meant the cavern had to be at least thirty meters deep. Julia reckoned it might be a lot deeper than that, because they also couldn’t see any trace of her plane.
“This has to be it,” observed Kenyatta. “That outcropping is what hid it from our view when we were up there yesterday. I even recognize where we were.”
“Oh my God,” Isabel said. “I have an amazing feeling that this is the entrance to Aquinas’ paradise.”
“What are we waiting for?” asked Deleuze. “Let’s do this thing.” He started into the cave, Isabel following right behind.
“Hang on,” said Julia. “Maybe we shouldn’t all go at once.”
“Wolverines don’t live in caves,” said Deleuze. “Well, they might, but this one’s too big. They’d want more warmth.”
“I think Julia has a point,” Kenyatta said. “I’ll hang here with her while you and Isabel check it out.”
Deleuze shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He and Isabel took a bo each, and entered the dark part of the cave.
“Everything okay, Jules?” Kenyatta embraced her. Julia loved that he was so sensitive to her.
She kissed him quickly. “I think so. Do you know all the predators in this part of the planet?”
“No, can’t say I do,” he laughed. “That’s Deleuze’s area of expertise.”
“But he would have told us if there was anything to worry about besides a wolverine, right?”
Rawwwwwwwwr! was the noise they heard as Julia felt her heart do backflips off her rib cage. She also heard Isabel scream like her hair was on fire.
“Bear!” came the shout from Deleuze. “Bear!!” The next thing Julia saw was Deleuze running out of the cave like a sprinter. He threw down his bo near their feet as he passed them, dashing for the trees. Isabel, screaming, was a couple of meters behind him.
Julia frowned. That old saying flickered in her brain: I don’t have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you.
A monstrous grizzly bear appeared at the mouth of the cave. As it came upon Isabel, Julia, and Kenyatta, it stood to its height of almost three meters and growled rawwwwwwr again. Julia felt her knees turn to jelly. This was the kind of fight she hated, just like on top of the BankBank building.
No, Julia thought, her spine literally stiffening. I already let an animal kill one human this trip. Not again.
Julia swung her bo at the grizzly’s head. The bear flinched as the bo bopped him lightly on the nose. The brown goliath looked confused. For a second, Julia smiled. Maybe this big fella just needed a reprimand, and then he’d leave them alone.
Nope. He growled and lunged at Julia with his right front paw. Julia managed to dodge it to her left, thinking he would follow with his left; instead, he connected with her body with a second blow from the same arm. Wángbā, this bear was quick, and not stupid. Lucky for her it was a follow-up strike, or it almost certainly would have killed her. Instead, the swat tossed her several meters into the forest, where she landed on soft moss. Don’t panic, Julia wanted to tell them, it’s just the 3/8ths g.
She’d given Kenyatta enough time to climb up above the cave and throw a largish boulder right at the bear’s head. Bull’s eye! The bear screamed, then swatted at Kenyatta. His miss meant that the boulder must have affected his equilibrium. However, the bear got close enough that Kenyatta had to scramble down. Kenyatta used Deleuze’s bo to hit the bear in his right forearm, then sprang away before the bear could hit him back.
“Quick bursts, everyone,” said Kenyatta. “Just run by him, hit him, and run away.”
Julia knew Kenyatta was right. If the bear was dizzy, and if all four of them could hit him in a consistent pattern, they might have a chance. Julia ran over, swung her bo, whapped his chest, and bounced away.
“Try to escape the bear with the same momentum you used to hit him,” said Julia. “We all need to stay at separate angles from him, so that he doesn’t know which way to go.” For the first time, Julia wished her fellow soldiers were here. They would know how to do this. Well, Deleuze and Isabel had done something like this on sims or VGs, right?
Deleuze was nowhere to be seen. And Isabel was shaking like a leaf. Which the bear noticed.
“Come on, Isabel,” yelled Julia. “Hit him!”
Julia saw Isabel summon her own courage. She tightened her mouth, planted her feet, and swung the bo like a baseball bat at the bear. She actually tagged him pretty good! But the bear swung his arm in retaliation, and hit Isabel directly in her midsection, from which blood immediately began gushing like a burst berry. Isabel collapsed, writhing in pain on the forest floor.
Now Julia and Kenyatta both attacked the bear swiftly and repeatedly, hitting and retreating from him again and again. They managed to prevent him killing Isabel, and avoid getting hit themselves, only because they were trained to leap in Mars g, and the bear wasn’t. They even maneuvered him a few meters away from Isabel, but they weren’t doing much damage.
Kenyatta yelled, “Deleuze, where the jībā are you?!?”
“Right here,” said a voice from a few meters distant. Julia saw Deleuze on an outcropping halfway up the cavern entrance, holding a boulder above his head. He threw it, but the bear wasn’t going to be tagged the same way twice. The rock missed the bear and almost hit Julia.
“Wángbā,” cursed Deleuze. “Well, uh, you can’t blame a guy for trying, right Julia?”
“Don’t get another boulder,” ordered Julia. “Pick up Isabel’s bo and help us.”
Deleuze looked at Isabel, bleeding maroon. “Yeah, I have a better idea.” With that, Deleuze tiptoed into the cave.
“Where in God’s name are you going?” asked Kenyatta, even as he ran by the grizzly and hit it again. “There could be another bear.”
“Nah, bears live alone,” he answered. “There may be something back there that can help us. Airplane parts, or other people.”
“Don’t leave, Deleuze!” shouted Julia. Jībā, he was a coward. That’s all Julia was doing out here on the other side of the planet, helping cowards. And not doing so well at that, she realized, glancing at Isabel struggling to keep her insides on her inside.
Instinctively, Julia moved to cover Deleuze’s exit. She went for a hard strike on the bear, and managed to connect well with his head. However, now that she was exposed, the bear brought a paw around and knocked her flat on the ground, a meter from his hind paws. Julia stared up at a grizzly that looked about the size of a skyscraper, and braced herself…
The bear’s head swiveled as it saw Deleuze running into the cave. The grizzly growled and ran into the cave after him.
Julia took the opportunity to lean over to Isabel. “Are you all right?”
“It looks worse than it is,” said Isabel, using the remaining bo to pull herself to a standing position. “Thanks, guys, you…you saved my life.”
Isabel’s breathing was labored, while Kenyatta and Julia were panting like they’d just run a marathon. Julia knew she couldn’t keep up this combat pace for much longer.
They all heard the bear growling and Deleuze screaming.
“Come on!” said Kenyatta. Julia blocked out the pain and grabbed Isabel by the arm. The three of them scrambled into the cavern.
Her eyes adjusting, Julia saw the airplane! It sat at the far end of the cave, which had to be fifty meters deep. Chump change by Olympus Mons standards.
As they came closer, Julia noticed that they were walking on bones. She looked down; they resembled human remains. Oh, what the jībā were Deleuze, Isabel, and Kenyatta thinking looking for Aquinas here?
Now, Julia saw that Deleuze was trying to fight off the grizzly with a panel of the plane. Julia had time to wonder: how did Deleuze pull off that part of the landing gear? But no time to figure it out.
Kenyatta ran up and attacked the bear, striking his back before skittering away. Julia followed up with another attack on his legs before she moved away. The bear stood up and did his rawwwwwwwwwr again. That was blood-curdling, all right, especially in this dark cave.
Deleuze lunged for the grizzly while it was on his haunches, swinging the panel at the bear’s heart. However, he missed, and the bear brought a mighty paw down on Deleuze…not missing his heart.
Julia saw Deleuze lying still at the bear’s feet. Were they too late? Had the grizzly just mauled Deleuze to death? Was he going to be this cave’s next skeleton?
The bear picked up Deleuze and threw him at Kenyatta much the same way Deleuze had thrown the boulder. Kenyatta managed to dodge, but Deleuze landed with a snap that sounded like his neck snapping. Yeah, he was dead.
“Don’t even think that’s your fault, Julia,” said Kenyatta. “You told him not to go in here!”
Julia was instead thinking that this grizzly had adjusted its throws to .38g. That’s quick evolution.
Julia yelled, “Come on, one two three Julia!” her bo made contact with the bear on her name. She ran past him and said “One two three Ken…” Kenyatta understood and hit the bear. “…yatta!” she said on his name. “One two three Is…” Isabel managed to swallow her fear and mimic them as Julia said “…abel!” Julia pushed herself off of a wall, pole vaulting past the grizzly. “One two three Julia!” Julia hit him again. “One two three Kenyatta!” He hit him again. “One two three Isabel!” She hit him. Julia could see Isabel was still bleeding.
Julia thrust herself again, saying “One two…” WHAM! The bear swung around quicker than he ever could have in Earth g. Julia flew straight into a rock wall, and heard an odd hollow sound as she bounced off its stone face.
Julia felt as if she’d been run over by a truck. She had fallen in a pile of bones…not good. And she smelled…fish? She looked around at dozens of half-eaten fishbones; these weren’t from humans, though she was sure others in the cave had been. Had the grizzly brought dozens of fish from a river all the way here? Do they do that?
Kenyatta hit the bear in his normal rhythm. Isabel caught notice of Julia’s unusual landing and ran over there, leaving the bear to trap Kenyatta in a corner.
“Hey, guys, help!” yelled Kenyatta.
Isabel walked through the fishbones. “Did you hear that sound the wall made?”
“We have to help Kenyatta!” Julia blurted. “Come on!” This time Julia couldn’t grab Isabel’s arm. After that last impact, she could barely walk. She limped the seven or eight meters to the grizzly and struck it with her bo in the back as a child might have done. The bear turned around and growled. Now Kenyatta hit it in the back as he scurried out of the corner.
The bear scooped up Julia with his arm and threw her at Kenyatta. Julia somehow thought that he seemed to like throwing; must be the g. Now they were both cornered. “Isabel!!!” screamed Julia.
Seven meters away, Isabel squealed, “This is it! This is the entrance!”
“Isabel! We’re about to die!” yelled Kenyatta.
Isabel yelled, “Not if you come heeeere!”
Julia whispered to Kenyatta only because she didn’t have breath to speak louder. “Hit him square in the stomach with everything you’ve got left.” As he did it, Julia pressed a button to retract her bo to its unextended length of about a forearm. When the bear opened his mouth in pain, Julia gathered all her strength, jumped in the air next to the bear, and stuck her bo in the bear’s mouth, forcing it open like a dentist’s clamp.
The grizzly roared with frustration, but he couldn’t close his mouth. Julia grabbed Kenyatta’s hand and they slipped past the bear, a few meters over to the fish bone pile.
Isabel was already there. “Check this out,” she said. She pushed on, and opened, some kind of manhole-size hatch that had, in the low light, seemed part of the rock wall. They all heard a whoosh sound; air from the passageway was almost sucking them in, like a vacuum cleaner. “I’m coming, Aquinas!” Isabel said, and jumped into the hatch. She disappeared within seconds.
Kenyatta looked at Julia. “You want to go first?”
“I don’t want to go at all. What is that thing?”
“It’s pneumatic tube technology, usually used by mining robots. At this point, though, I’m willing to take a chance.” The passage appeared too small for the bear, who was about four meters away and howling as he swatted at the metal tube in his mouth.
“You go,” said Julia.
“Not without you,” said Kenyatta.
Julia tried to think, not always easy when a grizzly bear is within spitting distance. “Kenyatta, these fish were left here for this bear. You’re suggesting we go to the people who welcomed us with a bear?”
Kenyatta was somehow grinning. “It’s a test. We passed it. Yes.”
Certain death with a grizzly, or probable death down a pneumatic robot shaft? The bear finally managed to push the bo out of his mouth. He growled an earth-shattering rawwwwwr. He wasn’t even bleeding, and now he was a meter away from a death strike.
“This,” Kenyatta said, “is because I love you.”
He grabbed Julia and threw her into the tube.