I’m thinking of having the Gruezhlings talk less and behave more as simply outgrowths of Nathaniel’s psyche, but I’m not sure. Should they talk more? What do you like/dislike about their different personalities?
For several weeks the tiny spacecraft speeds through interstellar space. There are four boys on board: Nathaniel, a small dromaeosaurid dinosaur – Haticat, a soft-shelled, cat-like Gruezhling – Fred, a bear-like Gruezhling – and Doctor Bill, a rabbit-like Gruezhling with a PHD in fun. Gruezhlings are psychosymbiotes that do not ingest food, but instead feed off the energy of either boy-play or girl-play, depending on gender-type.
After escaping from Nathaniel’s parent and the adults of planet Pookatel, the boys travel the stars. For a while, they avoid heavily trafficked planets for fears that the authorities may still be looking for them. They are extremely bored, skimming only the outer edges of inhabited solar systems, looking for interesting planets to explore. They find nothing but boring, airless balls of rock and ice. Running low on food, water, toilet paper, and engine power, they near the red dwarf star Tizin.
“The guidebook doesn’t mention any planets,” Doctor Bill reports.
“But what else could it be?” Haticat challenges.
“Whatever it is, it’s awfully small and close to the star. It’s possible the surveyors just missed it,” Nathaniel reports, peering through the scope.
“Well, if that’s so, Haticat just discovered a new planet,” Doctor Bill says.
“Yaaay!” Fred exclaims.
“I’ll name it Tizin-A,” Haticat proclaims.
“We have to explore it. If I become any more bored I think I’ll go crazy,” Nathaniel declares, “Maybe we can find some food there, too.”
“It’s the right distance from the star for liquid water and the spectroscope shows a thick, oxygenated atmosphere, so it is a good candidate to have food,” Doctor Bill says.
“Do we have enough power left to be able to take off again if we land?” Nathaniel asks.
Haticat runs some quick calculations. “Yes, but with only ten percent to spare,” he says.
“That’s worth the risk to explore a newly discovered planet,” Nathaniel declares, “Plot a course to land.”
“Yes, captain,” Haticat answers.
The planet Tizin-A is small, the force of gravity on the surface only one-eighth that on Earth. It has a thick nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere healthy for dromaeosaurs and Gruezhlings. There are no oceans or forests. It seems to be mostly brown desert. The tiny ship lands in the soft dirt. The red sun peeks above the horizon as it rises, the hills casting long shadows, bathing everything in a dim, red light. Nathaniel’s normally bright green feathers appear brown. The boys get out and look around. “It’s very dry here,” Nathaniel remarks.
“Yup,” Haticat replies, bouncing around in the low gravity.
“With gravity this low, an atmosphere this thick can’t be very old. The planet must be losing mass to space,” Doctor Bill says.
Nathaniel peers at the horizon in all directions. “There doesn’t seem to be any sign of civilization, so we should be safe here. This can be our secret planet,” he muses.
“And no girls allowed!” Fred says.
“Of course,” Nathaniel says, “Let’s scan those plants over there to see if they’re edible.”
The boys walk over to a patch of brown and black shoots some distance away. Plant life is extremely sparse here, the landscape almost entirely dirt. Doctor Bill, Nathaniel, Fred, and Haticat each hold an electromagnetic scanner, identifying each compound by its nuclear resonance pattern one-by-one. “These plants all have too much lead for me to eat,” Nathaniel reports.
“There might be a way to leach it out,” Haticat says.
“It would be a waste of time; these plants have no usable organic compounds anyways,” Doctor Bill says.
“None?” Nathaniel presses.
“There are no sugars or amino acids. This plant’s enzymatic polymers are constructed out of some sort of sterol that isn’t even in the scanner’s computer library. I can’t even tell you if you can digest it or how your body will react to it. The plants contain absolutely no phosphorous at all,” Doctor Bill elaborates.
“Hmm. Let’s keep looking,” Nathaniel says, putting his scanner away and leading the way across the desert. Minutes later, he spies a single, tiny, isolated, purple-grey frond with wilted leaves. He scans it. “Still too much lead, no phosphorous, no amino acids, and only trace sugars – mostly ribose,” he says.
“No nutritional value at all,” Doctor Bill adds.
“I’m starting to think this planet is no good for food. Let’s test one more species,” Nathaniel says.
The boys wander around looking for another type of plant. For a long time, they only see the two they have already encountered. Finally, Fred spies a spiky, black sprout poking out of the ground in the shadow of a rock. “Over here,” he calls.
“Well, this one has far less lead, but still at toxic levels,” Doctor Bill says, scanning it closely.
“Still no phosphorous,” Fred adds.
“The organic profile is no different. No calories at all. Unknown toxicity. I wish I knew how to interpret these readings myself when a compound isn’t recognized by the computer; I might be able to tell you more,” Doctor Bill says.
Haticat taps the plant’s thorns with his three-fingered hands. “This plant is too spiky to chew anyways.”
“Oh, well. Let’s take off and go someplace else then – unless we find a good plant on the way back to the ship,” Nathaniel says.
The boys follow a different path back, but see nothing new. There seems to be no signs of animal life at all. There are no footprints, no droppings, and no partly chewed leaves. Except for a light breeze, the desert is perfectly still. “This is a boring planet,” Haticat says, “I need some fun or I’m going to implode.”
“I know, me too,” Fred says.
The boys climb back into the circular spacecraft and close the hatch. Fred checks the available engine power. “Hey, there’s not much power left. What happened?” Fred complains.
“What?” Nathaniel says and runs to check. “There isn’t enough to take off!”
“How did that happen?” Haticat asks.
“How much power did you use to land?” Nathaniel asks Haticat.
“It takes power to land?” Haticat says.
“Yes! You have to decelerate so we don’t break up in the atmosphere!” Nathaniel says.
“Oh that’s how it works. Nobody told me. I’m only a new pilot,” Haticat says.
“Ugh! We’re all new explorers, and the adults wouldn’t help train us. Now we have to wait for the solar panels to charge,” Nathaniel complains. “How long should the panels take to charge at this distance from the sun?” Nathaniel asks Doctor Bill at his station.
“Well, that depends on the amount of energy per photon, which is proportional to wavelength. I’m not sure what our power cells are configured for,” Doctor Bill says. He reaches around in a compartment. “Let me find the manual.”
The other boys anxiously sit around. Nathaniel paces. Doctor Bill looks back and forth from the manual to his station’s meters and dials. “That’s not good,” he says.
“What?” Nathaniel replies.
“Our panels are optimized for light in the mid-ultraviolet range. Tizin is a red dwarf star. It emits very little of its energy in the wavelengths short enough for us to capture – and the few photons of ultraviolet it does produce are almost entirely absorbed by the oxygenated atmosphere,” Doctor Bill reports, “It will take us more than an Earth-decade to have enough energy to achieve escape velocity!”
“A decade!” Nathaniel exclaims. “We don’t have water enough for that long.”
“No, but I have an idea how else we can gain power,” Doctor Bill says quickly.
“How?” Nathaniel asks.
“I can rig up a crank generator that we can turn with our arms. We can take turns,” Doctor Bill says.
“That’s a good idea; you’re smart. How long will that take to recharge our engines?” Nathaniel says.
“It’s hard to estimate. Maybe five weeks if we don’t get too tired,” Doctor Bill says.
“Five weeks? We still don’t have enough food or water for that long,” Nathaniel complains.
“I have an idea! We can build a dew-catcher. At night, any moisture in the air will stick and we can collect it in the morning before it evaporates,” Haticat says.
“That’s a good idea, too. We’re all smart! Okay, we’ll build the generator and the dew-catcher right away. As soon as we’re done, we can take another walk to look for food since we’ll be here a while,” Nathaniel declares.
“Yes captain,” Fred, Haticat, and Doctor Bill respond together. Nathaniel and Haticat work at hanging around the outside of the ship sheets of hydrophilic material taken from the seat cushions while Fred and Doctor Bill recycle parts of the engines to construct a magnetic inductor. Finally, they prepare to head into the wilderness, taking one-and-one-half days of supplies with them.
They walk and walk and walk but see nothing other than dirt, rocks, and distantly-scattered specimens of the three plant species already seen. Fred gets tired. Eventually they all get tired. “How long have we been walking?” Haticat suddenly asks.
Nathaniel checks his pocket-clock. “Four hours, fifty-one minutes,” he answers, “Why?”
“The sun hasn’t moved,” Haticat says.
Doctor Bill, Fred, and Nathaniel turn to look at Tizin. “It moved a little bit. It was lower before,” Nathaniel says.
“Not much,” Fred comments.
“The days must be longer here, but how much?” Haticat asks.
“I don’t know,” Doctor Bill says.
“We can measure shadows to find out,” Nathaniel says, smiling at his own ingenuity.
“Good idea, I didn’t think of that,” Doctor Bill says.
Nathaniel sets his scanner on the ground and measures the length of its shadow with his pencil, recording it with a mark from his teeth. Then he uses trigonometry to deduce the angle of the light. He looks at his clock and makes note of the time. “We’ll check again in an hour,” he declares. They decide to stop for a rest and a snack. Fred sits on a rock shaped like a shoe. The others lie down on the dirt. Nathaniel drinks from his water bottle. “It’s starting to get warm out here,” he comments.
“Yes it is,” Haticat acknowledges.
“With such a long day, and so little moisture in the air, this planet probably gets very hot at noon and very cold at midnight,” Doctor Bill reasons.
“It’s a good thing we brought blankets,” Nathaniel says.
“And if we have to we can always dig a hole in the ground. Temperatures are always more stable underground,” Haticat adds.
Finishing his rest and snack, Nathaniel gets up and continues his trek. The Gruezhlings follow. Eventually, Haticat spots a new plant species. “Hey! This is new; scan this,” he beckons.
Nathaniel scans it and lets out a sigh. “Same as all the others.”
“Oh no, my scanner’s batteries are dying. I didn’t think to charge them before I left,” Doctor Bill complains.
“Oh, neither did I,” Nathaniel says.
“Me neither,” Haticat says, “My batteries are low, too.”
“Mine, too,” Nathaniel says.
“Mine, too,” Fred says.
“I wish we were smarter. Then we would think of things like this,” Nathaniel says.
“It’s hard to remember everything from the library books at once. Maybe we’re too stupid to be explorers,” Haticat says.
“Well, we don’t have a choice now. We’ll keep going and if we see a new plant, we’ll bring it back to the ship with us to scan it there,” Nathaniel says. The boys walk onward, crossing a row of dunes, on the other side of which is a field of gravel. There is no vegetation to be seen for many kilometers. It continues to get warmer. Nathaniel ruffles his feathers with his claws, trying to let the dry breeze circulate through them. The boys stop to rest and plan where to go.
“The land seems to slope that way. If there is any water here at all it will collect in that direction. That’s the most likely place to find greater biodiversity and maybe something nutritious,” Doctor Bill says.
“Has it been an hour yet?” Haticat asks.
“I forgot to check. Hold on a second,” Nathaniel answers, “It’s been just over an hour.” He sets his scanner on the ground as before and measures the shadow with his pencil. Reaching in his other pocket, he takes out a calculator to figure out the angle of the sun and how far it has moved in an hour. Dividing three-hundred-sixty degrees by the change, he calculates the total length of the day-night cycle on Tizin-A. “The diurnal period here is three hundred eighty-one hours!”
“That’s twenty Gruezhe days!” Doctor Bill exclaims.
“It’s sixteen Lectipas days!” Nathaniel adds.
“If it’s already this warm now, it will be dangerously hot by midday, and our dew-catcher will only catch frost at night,” Doctor Bill says.
“That’s it; we’re going back,” Nathaniel declares. “I won’t let us die on our first voyage. We’ll have to send out a distress beacon and hope we are found by boys and not adults or girls.”
Using a compass, the boys trudge back to the ship by a different route. In six hours, they see nothing but rocks and dirt. They return exhausted only to find the hull smashed in so badly that it has detached in three places. Bits of the ship – including the landing struts and thousands of shattered solar cells – lay scattered about. “What?” Nathaniel gasps, running around the ship. There are giant footprints in the dirt on all sides.
“Look, the footprints go the same way we went. I think something’s following us,” Haticat points out.
“What kind of creature makes footprints that big? They look like gorilla prints but they’re as big as those of a T. Rex,” Fred asks.
“I don’t know,” Haticat answers.
“I wish we had stopped to buy weapons, but it was too risky with The Mama-And-Daddy and the police still looking for us,” Nathaniel complains.
“And tools, too. There’s no way I can fix this damage only with the tools we have,” Doctor Bill says.
“This expedition is a disaster! We’re too stupid to be explorers!” Nathaniel yells.
“I’ll charge the scanners and send the distress beacon,” Doctor Bill says.
The boys hand their scanners to Doctor Bill and proceed to scavenge the ship for additional supplies, filling their pockets and their backpacks to overflowing. Nathaniel grabs a handbag and fills it with crackers. He scrounges for any objects that will hold water and fills them.
“Bad news: The energy ports are ruptured. The power’s completely drained now. I can’t recharge our scanners or even send out the distress beacon,” Doctor Bill reports.
“Ugh! Okay, we’ll take turns with the scanners, using one at a time until they shut down. We’ll only make a scan for water every kilometer or so, so we don’t waste power by overlapping our scan ranges. We’ll figure out how to make another beacon later,” Nathaniel decides.
“Yes captain,” Haticat says.
“Yes captain,” Fred says. “What will we do if the monster finds us?”
“If the monster finds us, throw rocks at it to scare it away,” Nathaniel says, “Rocks make good weapons and are free.”
“True,” Doctor Bill comments.
The boys take off into the desert again in a different direction. They walk for hours and find no water. Nathaniel’s legs are sore. His pants chafe against the feathers at the base of his tail. Doctor Bill anxiously watches behind them. Three hours and fifteen minutes later he sees a moving black speck in the distance.
“There’s something out there,” Doctor Bill alerts. The other three boys turn to look. It is hard to judge its size at that distance without a scale of reference, but it must be very big. As they watch, the black speck stops moving.
“What’s it doing?” Nathaniel asks. As if in response, the speck starts to move towards them very fast. “Run!” Nathaniel yells.
The four run across the plain of hard dirt as fast as they can. Fred and Doctor Bill fall behind due to their short legs. Nathaniel takes the lead. The boys don’t know where they are going; they know only fear at this point. Although he is the fastest, Nathaniel is also the first to tire. He unwillingly slows down, allowing the others to almost catch up. His lungs feel like exploding.
Topping a ridge, Nathaniel sees a large cluster of thick vegetation in the distance. “Let’s hide in those bushes!” he calls.
The monster is visible now. It is gorilla-like, running on its hind legs, eleven meters tall, and carrying a translucent amber club over its head also eleven meters tall. When it gets closer, the boys see that it has not one head, but twenty-four heads arranged into a cone-shaped cluster facing in all directions – though they are too busy and distracted to count them right now.
Nathaniel reaches the patch of brush first, his companions lagging behind, just as the gorilla-monster tops the ridge waving its club.
Hiding is not easy as the monster storms through the brush, sweeping its club through the vegetation. The boys scatter in all directions, moving deeper into the vegetation. Soon, Nathaniel sees a pond at the center. It is an oasis! Moving closer to the shore, he takes cover under some strangely vibrating bushes. The monster approaches and Nathaniel rolls deeper underneath, holding still. He is sure it sees him, but the gorilla-monster stops and turns away, growling, returning to the desert. Why did it give up so easily? Nathaniel rolls over and sees now that these bushes all around him have no roots and levitate above the ground. The vibrating effect is caused by thousands of transparent, flapping leaves on the outer branches of the bush. It’s an animal! He takes a good look at this strange creature. Its core is made of twisted appendages ending in cones and covered in stripes of red-brown and yellow fur. It uses one cone-tipped appendage to suck water from the pond. From the core emanate many branches. Nearer to the core, the branches have thick, brown leaves. Further from the core, the branches end in small, clear, veined wings. Suddenly, a stout, pointed branch from the core of the bush reaches out and stabs him in the belly with a cone. The pain is so intense he immediately blacks out.
Several Important Discoveries
Nathaniel wakes up to find Fred, Haticat, Doctor Bill, and about thirty to forty monkey-like creatures standing around him. All the flying bushes are gone. Nathaniel itches all over and finds that he is very weak. “What’s going on?”
“These boys found us. They live on this planet,” Haticat says.
“Are you an alien? Did you fall from the sky?” one of the boys asks.
“We walked here from our spaceship,” Haticat says.
“But a monster smashed it and then chased us,” Fred says.
“A spaceship?” another of the monkey-like creatures asks excitedly.
“Was it The Gorilla? It probably saw you land,” another monkey-like creature asks.
“We saw a light come out of the sky and land over the horizon, so we came to look for it. The Gorilla probably saw it too,” another monkey says.
“It was a gorilla with a club and a lot of heads,” Haticat says.
“That’s it. It has twenty-four heads,” a monkey says.
Nathaniel rolls over and tries to get up. His side hurts. He is still very weak. Taking a good look at the creatures, he sees they are brown-furred, stand an average of one and one-half meters high, and greatly resemble monkeys, but with somewhat bear-like faces. Each has a large horn in the center of the chest, curving slightly upwards. They each wear short pants, slippers, and carry canteens and medium-sized bags strapped across one shoulder. Beaming, they all jostle each other to get a look at the four newcomers. Nathaniel starts to feel lightheaded and lies back down.
“Why are you tired?” a horn-chest monkey asks.
“A flying bush stung me,” Nathaniel says.
“Oh, those are called stingbushes. They’re bad,” the monkey says, “You’ll be okay.”
“Are there no stingbushes in outer space?” a monkey asks.
“No, I’ve never seen any,” Nathaniel answers.
“Good! I want to go where there are no stingbushes. I hate them,” a monkey says.
“Are there girls in space?” a new monkey eagerly asks. Every monkey seems to wait for a turn to ask a question.
“Yes. They’re everywhere,” Nathaniel says.
“Ugh! I hate girls!” the monkey says.
“Girls are bad. They talk all at once, don’t leave time to interrupt, and only speak in incomplete sentences,” another monkey complains.
“Girls only care about what is pretty or cute. They don’t care about justice,” one of the first monkeys complains.
“I think girls are the same everywhere,” Nathaniel muses. “Are there adults on this planet?”
“Ugh! Yes, but they never leave the cities, so we’re safe here,” a monkey answers.
“What are your cities like?” Haticat asks.
“Do you have roller-coasters? Do you have moving walkways?” Fred asks.
“No, we haven’t invented those yet, though we’ve been trying. We’ve never even seen them,” a monkey answers.
“You must not have been to Gruezhe. I thought everyone visited Gruezhe,” Fred comments.
“No, what’s Gruezhe?” the monkey asks.
“The planet I was made on,” Fred answers, “It has roller-coasters.”
“We’re all Gruezhlings, and Nathaniel is a dromaeosaur,” Haticat adds.
“Wow! Tell us all about outer space!” a monkey begs.
“You haven’t even been to outer space?” Nathaniel asks somewhat incredulously.
“No, and you’re the first to ever visit us – except for The Gorilla. It landed here almost forty years ago. We’ve been warring with it ever since,” the monkey replies.
So these creatures had never seen roller-coasters or spaceships before, but knew what they were and had tried to invent them. The words were part of the common language of all sentient life forms. “I have an idea,” Nathaniel announces, “We’ll tell you about outer space and you tell us about The Gorilla and where to find food.”
“Food? It’s everywhere,” a monkey says.
“All the plants we’ve seen since landing are poisonous to me,” Nathaniel says.
“You can’t eat tubers?” the monkey asks.
“Tubers?” Nathaniel says.
One of the monkeys finds a nearby plant and digs around it until he lifts out of the ground a large, peach-and-black-checkered tuber. Nathaniel and Doctor Bill promptly scan it. It is mostly starch, and low in lead and the mystery sterols. “Well, we are stupid; we didn’t think to scan underground,” Doctor Bill comments.
“I think I can eat it,” Nathaniel says.
“Good. This one can be yours. We’re going to have mealtime soon and then we can talk,” a monkey says. They scatter in all directions to dig up tubers.
“Hey, that’s strange,” Doctor Bill mutters.
“What?” Haticat says.
“My scanner’s batteries are fully charged now,” Doctor Bill says.
Fred, Haticat, and Nathaniel check their scanners. “Mine is too,” Nathaniel says. All their scanners are.
“That’s very strange,” Haticat comments.
“It’s a mystery,” Doctor Bill says.
The monkeys gather up one tuber each from all around the oasis and start a fire with the tops of the plants. After lightly roasting the tubers, they eat. Nathaniel tries one. It is a bit blander than what he is used to, but not bad. He washes it down with some water and feels much better from his sting.
After entertaining their new friends with tales of their past adventures, Doctor Bill quizzes the monkeys on their level of technology. He is disappointed to discover that they have only simple tools and cannot help him repair the ship. Nathaniel, Fred, Haticat, and Doctor Bill also learn from the monkeys that The Gorilla often makes surprise raids, breaking things and flattening people or animals with its club. Nobody knows why. While it has a large range covering at least a third of the planet, it has never gone into any of the five cities on the planet where the adults and girls live, making it only a problem for the boys in the wilderness. It eats only leaves from one type of plant – the water-leaf, so named for its reservoir of water at the center of each leaf. Although the monkeys have succeeded in injuring it many times, it always escapes and somehow heals overnight.
“Its poop smells good, but its farts can kill,” a monkey says.
“We tried catapulting our poop at it before, but it doesn’t care at all. It only hates its own poop, even though we think it smells good,” a monkey says.
“Everybody likes different things, but everybody hates their own waste,” Nathaniel comments.
“Yup,” Haticat adds.
“Yeah,” another monkey adds.
“The Gorilla only dislikes four things: its poop, getting stabbed, stingbushes, and drying powder,” another monkey says.
“Drying powder?” Nathaniel asks.
“It’s a special powder we make. If we throw it on you, it sucks out and absorbs all your water, making you dry,” a monkey explains.
“How do you make that?” Nathaniel asks.
“We grind up a secret root and mix it with a secret type of dirt,” the monkey says.
“Oh,” Nathaniel responds.
“We have to keep it secret from the girls, but we can tell you because we’re friends now,” the monkey continues.
“We’ll make some later today,” another monkey says.
“Well, I need to sleep now,” Nathaniel says.
“Sleep? The day just started. We want to go hunting with you. Your claws will help us,” a monkey says excitedly.
“We’ve already been awake for sixteen hours. I’m tired,” Nathaniel responds.
“Me too,” Haticat says.
“Sixteen hours? That’s too short. We stay awake all day and sleep all night,” a monkey says.
“Where we come from, our day-night cycle is only twenty-four hours,” Nathaniel says.
“Wow! That’s a fast rotation!” the monkey exclaims.
“On some planets, it’s even faster,” Doctor Bill mentions.
“How long are you going to sleep?” the monkey asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe eight hours,” Nathaniel says. He yawns.
“Oh. Some of us will stay here to guard you in case The Gorilla comes while the rest of us go hunting then,” another monkey, who seems to be the leader, says.
“Yeah,” another monkey agrees.
“Okay,” Nathaniel says.
Nathaniel is so tired he falls asleep almost immediately. His Gruezhlings follow suit, not because they can’t feed off the play-energy of the other boys, but because they must too recharge and repair.
Hours later, Nathaniel wakes up greatly refreshed. The air and ground are now getting quite hot. His side still stings a little, but he feels as energetic as ever. Three monkeys play nearby, rolling back and forth in the dirt. “Are you done sleeping yet?” one asks anxiously.
“Yeah, but it’s getting hot now. We need to either fix our ship or find shelter,” Nathaniel declares.
“Hot? It’s still morning. It’s not hot yet,” the monkey replies.
“I think we won’t survive past afternoon,” Nathaniel says.
“You must be from a cold planet,” a second monkey says.
“No, just one with a less extreme temperature range from day to night. Your night would be too cold for us,” Nathaniel explains.
“I think Fred, Haticat, and I can survive if we go into hibernation and stay perfectly dry; we have a higher tolerance for extremes of temperature and pressure if we turn asleep, and there’s no ionizing radiation here to degrade us,” Doctor Bill says.
“But I don’t want to turn asleep,” Haticat says.
“Are there refrigerators on this planet?” Nathaniel asks the monkeys.
“No, we haven’t figured out how to invent those yet,” they respond.
“We can use evaporative cooling by building a shelter out of sticks and wet blankets,” Haticat suggests.
“We need to make sure the air comes in across the blankets and exits out the top,” Doctor Bill says.
“I don’t see any sticks large enough to build with,” Nathaniel says, looking around at the thin bushes surrounding the pool.
“We don’t have many big sticks on this planet,” a monkey responds.
“I guess we’ll have to dig a hole instead and put a blanket over it,” Nathaniel concludes.
“We’ll help; digging is fun,” a monkey says.
The boys spend the next five hours digging with their paws and claws until they have a hole wide enough for several people to lie down in and deep enough for someone to stand in. They enter and exit by a narrow ramp on one side, keeping the bulk of the walls nearly vertical. The dirt is carried away on blankets and piled nearby. Nathaniel takes breaks rolling in it, trying to cool down. Unlike humans and some other beings, dromaeosaurs do not sweat and instead pant like birds. Next, they spread a wet blanket against the wall, blocking the ramp except at the bottom. Water makes the blanket extremely heavy, but they manage in the low gravity. They use stones to hold it down on the top of the wall, but it isn’t enough. They supplement the stones by poking sticks through the blanket into the dirt, boring them in. Next, they wet a second blanket and spread it over the top, ripping a hole in the center for ventilation, holding this one in place with stones as well.
“Now if the air gets too hot it will rise out the top and pull cooler air through the bottom against the cold blanket,” Nathaniel explains to the monkeys.
“Smart,” one monkey comments.
“When we get too hot, we go into the water,” another monkey says.
“Let’s go now,” the third monkey says.
“I don’t want to get wet. It’s very uncomfortable,” Nathaniel says.
“Really? We like it,” a monkey responds. The monkeys run into the spring-fed pond and start swimming. Nathaniel takes off his boots and rolls up his pants before wading in as the Gruezhlings watch from shore.
There are many animals in the pool, most of them starfish-like or urchin-like. One large green star is covered by short, highly flexible, writhing tentacles. A red and blue star has brown spines that retract and extend. A purple urchin with long, quasi-flexible spines periodically shivers. “There are interesting creatures on this planet,” Nathaniel says, holding the purple urchin.
“Those are called purples,” a monkey calls, “They’re yucky.”
“What’s that one called?” Nathaniel asks, pointing at a submerged, bush-like organism swimming by. He drops the purple and moves to grab it.
“That’s a jetbush,” the monkey answers. Upon close examination, Nathaniel sees that it moves by means of tiny jets at the end of each branch. Feeling for suction, he finds that water is drawn into valves near the core, pumped through each branch, and out into the jets. It has tiny grey leaves all over it. He drops it back into the water.
Nathaniel returns to shore where Doctor Bill scans a star appearing to be coated in copper tinsel that has crawled to the water’s edge.
“I think you can eat the animal life here, even though you won’t get any vitamins from it. This star is starchy like the tubers,” Doctor Bill declares.
“Interesting. Good work,” Nathaniel says. Tasting it, he finds the copper star spicy, chalky, and very gritty. “I like tubers better.”
The boys return inside their hole and find it already starting to cool. They move all their supplies inside, rewet the blankets, and fill all their water bottles. Afterwards, Nathaniel relieves himself outside and out of toilet paper, tries to substitute leaves. Pulling a leaf off a bush, the bush flinches and then slowly inches away. “These are weird plants,” Nathaniel comments.
The Pointed Planet
Soon, the hunting party returns dragging a most unusual creature. They immediately build a fire under it. Fascinated, Nathaniel watches as they dissect and eat it. Under his orders, Haticat takes notes. It seems to have six distinct circulatory systems connected only by what can only be described as dozens of internal placentas. The backbone zigzags up and down along the creature’s vaguely hippopotamus-like body. Many peripheral bones fill it out. The first third of the animal is comprised by a very large yet flat head with a giant hole running straight through it side-to-side. The skull ring – as Haticat discovers it to be when the monkeys finish skinning it – is supported internally by three bone struts that meet at the center of the hole. In between these bones on the inner surface of the ring are three eyes – or, at least that’s what they look like.
Behind the shoulder is another, smaller, side-to-side hole running through the animal. A single, vertical bone strut runs through it. What Haticat believes to be the mouth sits on the lower back side of this hole. The animal’s four legs are short and hippo-like, with ten splayed toenails on each foot. The animal also has two long, thin arms attached near the shoulders between the two holes. Each arm terminates in a five-fingered hand. The hide of the creature is very thick, rubbery, and covered in most places by spines. The monkeys are very careful removing it. There are several bloody wounds just the size one would expect to have been caused by the monkeys’ chest-horns.
With his eyes, Haticat follows the intestines from the strangely-located mouth behind the shoulder through all its twists and turns to the anus at the very tip of the long, fat tail. It seems to have no stomach or gizzard.
Nathaniel scans it and finds it starch-rich, but too rich in mystery sterols to risk eating. He decides to stick to tubers and stars. “What is this animal named?” Nathaniel asks the monkey leader.
“It’s a spiny potamux,” the monkey leader answers.
“There are also plated and grainy potamuxes on other parts of the planet,” a second monkey adds.
“They can drink water out of moist dirt by opening cracks in the bottoms of their feet,” a third monkey volunteers.
“Wow! That’s interesting,” Nathaniel says, panting so hard he can barely talk. He starts to back away from the cooking animal, the fire now roaring and making him quite hot. “When are you going hunting again?”
“I don’t know, maybe after we finish eating. You can come with us,” the monkey leader offers.
“I will. I need to gather up food soon before it gets too hot for me and have to stay inside my shelter,” Nathaniel says.
“Too hot?” the monkey leader says.
“It’s almost too hot now. The planets I’m used to have shorter days and don’t get this hot,” Nathaniel says.
“You’ll be bored inside for a long time,” the monkey leader warns.
“I know! I hate it. At least at night I can stay warm by shivering,” Nathaniel responds.
“We won’t be able to play with you at night; we’ll be sleeping,” a nearby monkey complains.
“Yeah,” Nathaniel says, “So when you’re ready, I want to go hunting and explore the planet with you.”
“Okay,” the monkey leader says.
Later, when the monkeys have finished eating the potamux, Nathaniel grabs a large bag to gather tubers in and follows them out into the desert. Doctor Bill, Fred, and Haticat follow. The monkeys keep mostly to themselves and talk incessantly for most of the outing. Whenever they do initiate conversation with Nathaniel or his Gruezhlings (usually to ask a question), they do so as a group with only rare exceptions.
Twenty minutes into the journey, Nathaniel has to rest and pant a while. He sprinkles a little water onto his head to cool down. An hour into the journey, the monkeys suddenly stop at a ridge overlooking a plain. “Be quiet or you’ll scare them,” a monkey warns.
“Scare what?” Nathaniel whispers, fanning himself with his claws.
“The laser stars,” the monkey responds.
Nathaniel strains his eyes. He barely makes out several dozen starfish-like creatures crawling over the sand in the distance, leaving distinct tracks.
“We’re going to sneak up on them from that way so they won’t smell us in the breeze. Once they know we’re there, we have to run and turn them upside-down very fast,” a second monkey says.
“And don’t look right at them; they’ll burn your eyes,” a third monkey warns.
“Really?” Nathaniel says.
“One caught me by surprise once. I couldn’t see anything for almost an hour,” the monkey recounts.
“They each have more than fifty lasers. They all try to point all of them at whatever is attacking them at the same time. You want to flip them over fast and stab them through the center so they die,” the first monkey teaches.
“And don’t look right at them,” the third monkey warns again.
Looping around to approach from the southeast, the monkeys sneak up on the laser stars, keeping low to the ground. At thirty meters from the nearest star, the monkeys suddenly charge, grabbing all the nearest stars and flipping them over, screaming. They stab each through the center with their chest-horns. Several of the monkeys triumphantly jump up and down, spinning the stars hanging from their horns and taking bites from the stars’ arms.
Nathaniel runs at a laser star himself, careful to look past it. He sees bright flashes of red in his peripheral vision. He kicks it over with his foot and stabs it through the center with his foot claw before kicking it in the air. Doctor Bill hangs back while Fred and Haticat run into the melee and flip over their own laser stars. Nathaniel helps kill them as Haticat and Fred have no teeth or claws.
The stars further away still shine their hundreds of red laser beams at the attacking boys. Each boy grabs his own victim and retreats. At a safe distance, the monkeys nibble at their catch, putting most of it away in their bags for later. Nathaniel examines his catch. It is forty centimeters across and white. Its top is covered with small, simple eyes and hollow, hole-tipped, swiveling spines very much like laser pointers. He watches as the swiveling spines slow and stop and the red lasers dim. Nathaniel tastes his. It is starchy, crunchy, and tastes faintly of fish, in a pleasant sort of way. The spines are completely inedible. “I like this animal,” he says.
“These are little red laser stars. Further south are big red laser stars and stars with orange, yellow, blue, or white lasers,” a nearby monkey informs.
“White lasers! That’s impossible,” Nathaniel exclaims.
“Impossible? Why?” the monkey asks.
“To be a laser, the light waves must be coherent,” Nathaniel replies.
“What does that mean?” the monkey presses.
These monkeys really are very uneducated! If the boys of the race are this stupid, the girls must be practically brain-dead! “That means each photon must be in step with all the others. To do that, they must all have the same wavelength. White light is always a mixture of different wavelengths; that’s what makes it white,” Nathaniel explains.
“That’s right,” Doctor Bill affirms. That the monkeys didn’t know all this makes Nathaniel wonder if the word laser means the same thing on this planet. Could language be different in different places? No, that makes even less sense than white lasers.
“All we know is that the light goes straight without spreading out, and it’s very strong,” the monkey says.
“Well, that certainly sounds like a laser. It’s a mystery I would love to study sometime,” Doctor Bill remarks.
“Maybe we can go south tomorrow and look for them,” another monkey offers.
“Maybe,” Nathaniel says.
The boys travel onward, leaving the sand and entering a hilly region. An hour later, they look up and see a herd of stingbushes on a plateau above. The breeze is stronger here. While Nathaniel rests, Fred talks to some monkeys.
“Let’s get the stingbushes. They’re yummy!” a small monkey exclaims.
“There’s no water. We can’t catch them here,” a second monkey complains.
“Why not?” Fred asks.
“When they drink, we can sneak up on them, but in the desert they fly away,” the monkey explains.
“I can catch them,” another monkey claims.
“No you can’t,” the first monkey counterclaims.
“Won’t they sting you?” Fred asks.
“Not if you really fast stab them in the brain that controls the stinging branches,” the bragging monkey explains, “Stingbushes have three brains inside coiled branches. One controls the stinging branches, one controls the drinking branches, and the third controls the wings.”
“Three different motor ganglia,” Doctor Bill comments, impressed.
Intrigued, Nathaniel asks, “How do you tell which is which?”
“The stinging brain always sticks out at a different angle from the other two,” the monkey answers.
The monkeys deliberate and decide to attack from all sides to force the stingbushes to flee past them, increasing the chances of catching one. Unfortunately, before they are all in position, the stingbushes panic and stampede. Nathaniel, Haticat, Fred, and Doctor Bill quickly get out of the way while the nearby monkeys attempt to close in. Two monkeys are stung and a third is knocked down. All the stingbushes escape.
Nathaniel notices that the stingbushes glide swiftly, but slow enough for a dromaeosaur to catch. Thinking for only a second, he chases after the stampede at top speed. Soon, he catches up with a lagging bush and jumps into it, quickly finding the correct brain coil and biting it off. He falls over as the bush continues to glide swiftly away. Catching up with it again, he bites off the other two coils. The stingbush collapses in a heap on the ground.
The monkeys run up behind him, cheering and making battle cries. “You’re fast!” one says. The strain of running has overheated Nathaniel and he sits down in the dirt, panting. He sprinkles a little more water on his head.
The monkeys quickly tear the bush apart, throwing away the calcareous venom cones and drinking cones and all the tough outer branches. They gather up all the brown leaves and unravel the core, placing the branches in their bags for later. “The leaves make good snacks, but the branches are only good cooked,” the monkey leader mentions to Haticat.
After scanning one, Nathaniel tastes a leaf. It is succulent and very spicy. It is also strangely oily even though the scanner showed no presence of triglycerides. It must be another compound that mimics oil. He drinks some more water.
After snacking, but saving the bulk of their catch for later, Nathaniel, Fred, Haticat, Doctor Bill, and the band of monkeys trek across the desert, returning to the oasis by a different route. On the way, they stop and rest at a smaller oasis.
It is hot. It is dry. It is so hot and dry that Nathaniel’s eyes hurt. His throat feels like it is beginning to chap. It isn’t even as hot yet as he can stand it, but the relentless persistence of the sunlight is wearing him down. Dromaeosaurs have high metabolisms and need technology to live in this type of environment. He takes another drink of water. Even his water is hot and disgusting. Fred, Haticat, and Doctor Bill fare better. The dryness does not bother them – only the heat. They are tired and starting to slow down, but are otherwise unaffected at this time.
While the monkeys and Nathaniel eat their laser stars and gather up tubers, the Gruezhlings walk around the pool and explore. Doctor Bill complains about his scanner batteries running low again and grudgingly decides to observe his surrounding visually. They see several kinds of small, monkey-like animals climbing through the large, thorny bushes. There are mouse-sized animals with long antennae curled at the ends. There are squirrel-sized animals with eight legs – two on the head in the place of ears and two close together at the end in place of a tail. There are also rabbit-sized animals walking on their hind legs and carrying their stiff, spear-tipped tails in their hands. Haticat watches as these spear-tailed monkeys hunt down one of the many mouse-sized animals, stabbing it repeatedly.
Meanwhile, curious about a plant that seems to have prisms along the sides and at the tops of every stalk, Doctor Bill steps closer to examine it. When he brushes against the soft, hair-like quills that extend from the base of the plant in all directions, suddenly every prism turns to redirect sunlight directly at him. He steps back and covers his face. “A most interesting adaptation,” he comments.
“That’s awesome!” Fred exclaims, looking at the bright spot of focused sunlight on the ground where Doctor Bill recently stood. Fred gingerly touches the quills on his side and the bright spot moves rapidly onto him. He laughs.
“This plant must confuse and deter herbivores this way,” Doctor Bill concludes.
“My turn!” Haticat suddenly says, approaching the plant. He runs in and out of the reach of the prisms so that light just misses him.
“Ha ha ha,” Fred says, doing the same.
“This is a fun plant,” Doctor Bill says, joining the game.
“I wish it wasn’t so hot so we could explore this planet all day,” Haticat says.
“Me too,” Fred agrees.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel talks with the monkeys. All the monkeys stare at him silently while he and the leader talk. “So you go hunting every few hours and don’t save food longer than that?”
“Yes,” the monkey leader answers.
“And you have to keep moving when an area runs out of food?” Nathaniel asks.
“We are nomads,” the monkey leader answers.
“How do the girls and adults find food in the cities?” Nathaniel asks.
“There’s more water in those areas so they don’t have to walk as far for food and the plants grow faster so they never run out,” the monkey leader says.
Nathaniel finds a stiff frond and fans himself with it. He decides to keep it. He fills his water bottles in the pool and pours some over his head. He hates being wet, but it is better than heatstroke. He counts up all his tubers to make sure he has enough until evening when he expects he can travel outside his shelter again. He is already very tired.
“Captain, I found something interesting,” Doctor Bill announces, carrying a large, slug-like creature.
“What is it?” Nathaniel asks. He watches as the mucus on its back bunches up and lenses in several places, forming what appear to be eyes, moving to follow any nearby movement. A thin layer of dust on the outside of the mucus parts around the bunches and coalesces at their perimeter. Nathaniel reasons that the creature must have photoreceptive skin and the dust prevents light coming in the sides of each eye and destroying the images. He has no idea how it controls the shape of the mucus layer.
“This creature keeps cool by sweating a mixture of water and alcohol. Alcohol’s lower boiling point makes it a more efficient evaporative coolant than water. If we can harness enough sweat from these creatures, you could rub it on you and stay cool enough to stay outside,” Doctor Bill says.
“It smells bad,” Nathaniel grunts.
“That’s fermentation,” Doctor Bill says.
“Those are called slips, because you slip if you step on one,” the monkey leader volunteers.
Nathaniel thinks. He hates being wet and he hates smelling bad. He also hates being hot and trapped inside. Is this what it takes to be an explorer? He takes hold of the squirming slug-like being. It is cold to the touch. He wipes it on his arm. In seconds, his arm feels much cooler. “Gather up as many of these creatures as you can. Find out what they eat, too, and bring that,” he orders.
“Slips only eat dead stuff. They’re scavengers,” the monkey leader says.
“We’ll make a compost heap of scraps back at our shelter,” Nathaniel says.
“Nobody likes slips around; they smell bad,” another monkey says.
“I don’t like them either,” Nathaniel says, “but I might need them.”
The monkeys talk among themselves as Doctor Bill, Fred, Haticat, and Nathaniel pick up as many slips as they can find (nine in all) and put them in a fresh bag. Finally, the whole group sets out for the first oasis again. They first walk through a low area populated by hundreds of what resemble clumps of grass except that they slowly inch along, leaving tracks in the sand. “What are those called?” Haticat asks.
“Grass urchins,” a monkey answers.
“Are they good for eating?” Nathaniel asks.
“No, they’re too tough and have no taste,” the monkey answers.
“And they make you constipated,” a second monkey adds.
Doctor Bill scans one. “It doesn’t have enough starch to be worth chewing, I think.”
“They look a little like purples,” Haticat notes.
“I wish we had a laboratory to study them in,” Nathaniel says.
The boys walk onward through a field of rocks, over a large hill, and along a dry creek bed for several kilometers before reaching the oasis. The hot air rising from the ground makes everything look wavy. Nathaniel pants heavily. He quickly retreats into his hole. The monkeys ignore him.
As his eyes adjust to the dim light, he is surprised by a slow-moving creature in the corner. It is approximately forty centimeters across, starfish-like, and covered with long spines. Unlike with the laser stars, these spines do not swivel and have no light holes, but rather are heavily barbed and rigidly fixed in place. Fred and Doctor Bill crawl under the blanket and enter the shelter. “There’s an animal over there!” Nathaniel exclaims.
“Oh!” Fred says.
“Those spines have barbs. How can we move it?” Nathaniel asks.
“Grab it from underneath,” Doctor Bill suggests.
“What if it bites?” Fred asks before Nathaniel has a chance to.
“Let’s ask the monkeys,” Nathaniel suggests. The three of them run outside. Haticat rewets the blankets and adjusts the stones outside holding them up. Rewetting blankets is awfully hard work. Given only water-bottle-sized containers, Haticat must run back and forth to the pool many times.
“There’s a spiky animal inside!” Fred mentions.
“What kind?” Haticat asks.
“Come in and look,” Fred says.
While Haticat and Fred return inside, Nathaniel and Doctor Bill approach the group of monkeys that sit in an irregular group and nibble on their laser stars. A few of them run for sticks enough to start a fire to cook the stingbush branches. “Hey, I have an animal in my hole. I need to know if it bites,” Nathaniel announces.
“What kind of animal is it?” the monkey leader asks.
“It’s a big star covered with barbed spines!” Nathaniel says.
“That’s an ekiki. It doesn’t bite. To move it, dig underneath it and pick it up, but don’t touch the spines,” the monkey leader says. The rest of the monkeys just stare and chew.
Without another word, Nathaniel runs back to the shelter with Doctor Bill and joins Haticat and Fred. “What do we do?” Fred asks.
“We dig underneath it,” Nathaniel says. Approaching carefully, he digs under the tip of one arm and grabs it underneath. He pulls, but nothing happens. The star has glued the rest of itself to the ground. He sees it tense up, causing the dirt to clump. He digs further, finding short, root-like appendages gripping the dirt. Just as he frees up the rest of the arm, the tip reattaches to the ground and holds on.
“This animal keeps sticking!” Nathaniel yells, frustrated. Fred and Haticat join to help dig, careful to keep away from the long, barbed spines. Finally, they get underneath the star, tip it over against the wall, and pick it up. Some of the spines break, leaving fragments in the wall. They carry the creature outside and throw it away. They watch as it slowly turns itself over and crawls away.
“Everything has horns or spines here. This must be a pointed planet,” Nathaniel concludes.