Two weeks after we landed on Roanoke, Magdy, Enzo, Gretchen and I went for a walk.
"Watch where you land," Magdy told us. "There are some big rocks down here."
"Great," Gretchen said. She shined her pocket light - acceptable technology, no computer equipment in it, just an old-fashioned LED - at the ground, looking for a place to land, and then hopped down from the edge of the container wall, aiming for her preferred spot. Enzo and I heard the oof as she landed, and then a bit of cursing.
"I told you to watch where you landed," Magdy said, shining his light on her.
"Shut it, Magdy," she said. "We shouldn't even be out here. You're going to get us all in trouble."
"Yeah, well," Magdy said. "Your words would have more moral authority if you weren't actually out here with me." He flicked his light up off of Gretchen and toward me and Enzo, still up on the container wall. "You two planning to join us?"
"Will you please stop with the light?" Enzo said. "The patrol is going to see it."
"The patrol is on the other side of the container wall," Magdy said. "Although if you don't hurry it up, that's not going to be the case for long. So move it." He flicked the light back and forth quickly in Enzo's face, making an annoying strobe effect. Enzo sighed and slid down off the container wall; I heard the muffled thump a second later. Which left me, feeling suddenly very exposed on the top of the containers that were the defensive perimeter around our little village - and also the frontier beyond which we were not allowed to go at night.
"Come on," Enzo whispered up to me. He, at least, remembered we weren't supposed to be out and modulated his voice accordingly. "Jump down. I'll catch you."
"Are you dumb?" I asked, also in a whispery voice. "You'll end up with my shoes in your eye sockets."
"It was a joke," Enzo said.
"Fine," I said. "Don't catch me."
"Jeez, Zoe," Magdy said, in a definite nonwhisper. "Will you jump already?"
I hopped off the container wall, down the three meters or so from the top, and tumbled a little when I landed. Enzo flicked his light on me, and offered me a hand up. I took it and squinted up at him as he pulled me up. Then I flicked my own light over to where Magdy was. "Jerk," I told him.
Magdy shrugged. "Come on," he said, and started along the perimeter of the wall toward our destination.
A few minutes later we were all flashing our lights into a hole.
"Wow," Gretchen said. "We've just broken curfew and risked being accidentally shot by the night guard for this. A hole in the ground. I'm picking our next field trip, Magdy."
Magdy snorted and knelt down into the hole. "If you actually paid attention to anything, you'd know that this hole has the council in a panic," Magdy said. "Something dug this out the other night while the patrol wasn't watching. Something was trying to get in to the colony from out here." He took his light and moved it up the nearest container until he spotted something. "Look. There are scratches on the container. Something tried to go over the top, and then when it couldn't it tried to go under."
"So what you're saying is that we're out here now with a bunch of predators," I said.
"It doesn't have to be a predator," Magdy said. "Maybe it's just something that likes to dig."
I flicked my light back up to the claw marks. "Yeah, that's a reasonable theory."
"We couldn't have seen this during the day?" Gretchen asked. "When we could see the things that can leap out and eat us?"
Magdy motioned his light over to me. "Her mom had her security people around it all day long. They weren't letting anybody else near it. Besides, whatever made this hole is long gone now."
"I'll remind you that you said that when something tears out your throat," Gretchen said.
"Relax," Magdy said. "I'm prepared. And anyway, this hole is just the opening act. My dad is friends with some of the security folks. One of them told him that just before they closed everything up for the night, they saw a herd of those fanties over in the woods. I say we go look."
"We should get back," Enzo said. "We shouldn't even be out here, Magdy. If they find us out there, we're all going to catch hell. We can see the fanties tomorrow. When the sun is up, and we can actually see them."
"Tomorrow they'll be awake and foraging," Magdy said. "And there's no way we're going to be able to do anything other than look at them through binoculars." Magdy pointed at me again. "Let me remind you that her parents have kept us cooped up for two weeks now, waiting to find out if anything might bruise us on this planet."
"Or kill us," I said. "Which would be a problem."
Magdy waved this away. "My point is that if we actually want to see these things - actually get close enough to them that we can get a good look at them - we have to do it now. They're asleep, no one knows we're gone, and we'll be back before anyone misses us."
"I still think we should go back," Enzo said.
"Enzo, I know this is taking away from valuable make-out time with your girlfriend," Magdy said, "but I thought you might want to explore something other than Zoe's tonsils for once."
Magdy was very lucky he wasn't in arm's reach when he made that comment. Either my arm or Enzo's.
"You're being an ass again, Magdy," Gretchen said.
"Fine," Magdy said. "You guys go back. I'll see you later. I'm going to see me some fanties." He started toward the woods, waving his pocket light in the grass (or grasslike ground cover) as he walked. I shined my light over to Gretchen. She rolled her eyes in exasperation and started walking after Magdy. After a minute Enzo and I followed.
Take an elephant. Make it just a little smaller. Lose the ears. Make its trunk shorter and tentaclly at the end. Stretch out its legs until it almost but not quite seems impossible that they could support the weight. Give it four eyes. And then do other assorted weird things to its body until it's not that it looks like an elephant, it's just that it looks more like an elephant than it looks like anything else you can think of.
That's a fantie.
In the two weeks we'd been trapped in the colony village, waiting for the "all clear" to actually begin colonization, the fanties had been spotted several times, either in the woods near the village or just barely in the clearing between the village and the woods. A fantie spotting would bring up a mad rush of children to the colony gate (a gap in the container wall, closed up at night) to look and gawk and wave to the creatures. It would also bring a somewhat more studiously casual wave of us teenagers, because we wanted to see them too, we just didn't want to seem too interested, since that would mess with our credibility with all our new friends.
Certainly Magdy never gave any indication of actually caring about the fanties at all. He'd allow himself to be dragged to the gate by Gretchen when a herd passed by, but then he spent most of his time talking to the other guys who were also happy to make it look like they had gotten dragged to the gate. Just goes to show, I suppose. Even the self-consciously cool had a streak of kid in them.
There was some argument as to whether the fanties we saw were a local group that lived in the area, or whether we'd seen a number of herds that were just migrating through. I had no idea which theory was right; we'd only been on planet for a couple of weeks. And from a distance, all the fanties looked pretty much the same.
And up close, as we quickly discovered, they smelled horrible.
"Does everything on this planet smell like crap?" Gretchen whispered to me as we glanced up at the fanties. They waved back and forth, ever so slightly, as they slept standing on their legs. As if to answer her question, one of the fanties closest to where we were hiding let rip a monumental fart. We gagged and giggled equally.
"Shhhh," Enzo said. He and Magdy were crouched behind another tall bush a couple of meters over from us, just short of the clearing where the fantie herd had decided to rest for the night. There were about a dozen of them, all sleeping and farting under the stars. Enzo didn't seem to be enjoying the visit very much; I think he was worried about us accidentally waking the fanties. This was not a minor concern; fantie legs looked spindly from a distance but up close it was clear they could trample any one of us without too much of a problem, and there were a dozen fanties here. If we woke them up and they panicked, we could end up being pounded into mincemeat.
I think he was also still a little sore about the "exploring tonsils" comment. Magdy, in his usual less-than-charming way, had been digging at Enzo ever since he and I officially started going out. The taunts rose and fell depending on what Magdy's relationship with Gretchen was at the moment. I was guessing at the moment Gretchen had cut him off. Sometimes I thought I needed a graph or maybe a flow chart to understand how the two of them got along.
Another one of the fanties let off an epic load of flatulence.
"If we stay here any longer, I'm going to suffocate," I whispered to Gretchen. She nodded and motioned me to follow her. We snuck over to where Enzo and Magdy were.
"Can we go now?" Gretchen whispered to Magdy. "I know you're probably enjoying the smell, but the rest of us are about to lose dinner. And we've been gone long enough that someone might start wondering where we went."
"In a minute," Magdy said. "I want to get closer to one."
"You're joking," Gretchen said.
"We've come this far," Magdy said.
"You really are an idiot sometimes, you know that?" Gretchen said. "You don't just go walking up to a herd of wild animals and say hello. They'll kill you."
"They're asleep," Magdy said.
"They won't be if you walk right into the middle of them," Gretchen said.
"I'm not that stupid," Magdy said, his whispered voice becoming louder the more irritated he became. He pointed to the one closest to us. "I just want to get closer to that one. It's not going to be a problem. Stop worrying."
Before Gretchen could retort Enzo put his hand up to quiet them both. "Look," he said, and pointed halfway down the clearing. "One of them is waking up."
"Oh, wonderful," Gretchen said.
The fantie in question shook its head and then lifted it, spreading the tentacles on its trunk wide. It waved them back and forth.
"What's it doing?" I asked Enzo. He shrugged. He was no more an expert on fanties than I was.
It waved its tentacles some more, in a wider arc, and then it came to me what it was doing. It was smelling something. Something that shouldn't be there.
The fantie bellowed, not from its trunk like an elephant, but from its mouth. All the other fanties were instantly awake and bellowing, and beginning to move.
I looked over to Gretchen. Oh, crap, I mouthed. She nodded, and looked back over at the fanties. I looked over at Magdy, who had made himself suddenly very small. I don't think he wanted to get any closer now.
The fantie closest to us wheeled about and scraped against the bush we were hiding behind. I heard the thud of its foot as the animal maneuvered itself into a new position. I decided it was time to move but my body overruled me, since it wasn't giving me control of my legs. I was frozen in place, squatting behind a bush, waiting for my trampling.
Which never came. A second later the fantie was gone, run off in the same direction as the rest of its herd: away from us.
Magdy popped up from his crouching position, and listened to the herd rumbling off in the distance. "All right," he said. "What just happened?"
"I thought they smelled us for sure," I said. "I thought they'd found us."
"I told you you were an idiot," Gretchen said to Magdy. "If you'd been out there when they woke up, we'd be scooping what was left of you into a bucket."
The two of them started sniping at each other; I turned to look at Enzo, who had turned to face the opposite direction from where the fanties had run. He had his eyes closed but it looked like he was concentrating on something.
"What is it?" I asked.
He opened his eyes, looked at me, and then pointed in the direction he was facing. "The breeze is coming from this direction," he said.
"Okay," I said. I wasn't following him.
"Have you ever gone hunting?" Enzo asked. I shook my head. "We were upwind of the fanties," he said. "The wind was blowing our scent away from them." He pointed to where the first fantie to wake up had been. "I don't think that fantie would have smelled us at all."
Click. "Okay," I said. "Now I get it."
Enzo turned to Magdy and Gretchen. "Guys," he said. "It's time to leave. Now."
Magdy flashed his pocket light at Enzo and seemed ready to say something sarcastic, then caught the expression on Enzo's face in the pocket light's circle. "What is it?"
"The fanties didn't run off because of us," Enzo said. "I think there's something else out there. Something that hunts the fanties. And I think it's coming this way."
It's a cliche of horror entertainments to have teenagers lost in the woods, imagining they're being chased by something horrible that's right behind them.
And now I know why. If you ever want to feel like you're on the verge of total, abject bowel-releasing terror, try making your way a klick or two out of a forest, at night, with the certain feeling you're being hunted. It makes you feel alive, it really does, but not in a way you want to feel alive.
Magdy was in the lead, of course, although whether he was leading because he knew the way back or just because he was running fast enough that the rest of us had to chase him was up for debate. Gretchen and I followed, and Enzo took up the rear. Once I slowed down to check on him and he waved me off. "Stay with Gretchen," he said. Then I realized that he was intentionally staying behind us so whatever might be following us would have to get through him first. I would have kissed him right then if I hadn't been a quivering mess of adrenaline, desperately running to get home.
"Through here," Magdy said to us. He pointed at an irregular natural path that I recognized as being the one we used to get into the forest in the first place. I was focusing on getting on that path and then something stepped in behind Gretchen and grabbed me. I screamed.
There was a bang, followed by a muffled thump, followed by a shout.
Ezno launched himself at what grabbed at me. A second later he was on the forest floor, Dickory's knife at his throat. It took me longer than it should have to recognize who it was holding the knife.
"Dickory!" I yelled. "Stop!"
"Let him go," I said. "He's no danger to me."
Dickory removed the knife and stepped away from Enzo. Enzo scrambled away from Dickory, and away from me.
"Hickory?" I called. "Is everything all right?"
From ahead, I heard Hickory's voice. "Your friend had a handgun. I have disarmed him."
"He's choking me!" Magdy said.
"If Hickory wanted to choke you, you wouldn't be able to talk," I yelled back. "Let him go, Hickory."
"I am keeping his handgun," Hickory said. There was a rustle in the darkness as Magdy picked himself up.
"Fine," I said. Now that we stopped moving, it was like someone pulled a stopper, and all the adrenaline in my body was falling out from the bottom of my feet. I crouched down to keep from falling over.
"No, not fine," Magdy said. I saw him emerge out of the gloom, stalking toward me. Dickory interposed itself between me and Magdy. Magdy's stalking came to a quick halt. "That's my dad's gun. If he finds it missing, I'm dead."
"What were you doing with the gun in the first place?" Gretchen asked. She had also come back to where I was standing, Hickory following behind her.
"I told you I was prepared," Magdy said, and then turned to me. "You need to tell your bodyguards that they need to be more careful." He pointed at Hickory. "I almost took off that one's head."
"Hickory?" I said.
"I was not in any serious danger," Hickory said, blandly. His attention seemed elsewhere.
"I want my gun back," Magdy said. I think he was trying for threatening; he failed when his voice cracked.
"Hickory will give you your dad's gun back when we get back to the village," I said. I felt a fatigue headache coming on.
"Now," Magdy said.
"For God's sake, Magdy," I snapped. I was suddenly very tired, and angry. "Will you please just shut up about your damn gun. You're lucky you didn't kill one of us with it. And you're lucky you didn't hit one of them" - I waved at Dickory and then Hickory - "because then you would be dead, and the rest of us would have to explain how it happened. So just shut up about the stupid gun. Shut up and let's go home."
Magdy stared at me, then stomped off into the gloom, toward the village. Enzo gave me a strange look and then followed his friend.
"Perfect," I said, and squeezed my temples with my hands. The monster headache I was on the verge of had arrived, and it was a magnificent specimen.
"We should return to the village," Hickory said to me.
"You think?" I said, and then stood up and stomped off, away from it and Dickory, back to the village. Gretchen, suddenly left with my two bodyguards for company, was not far behind me.
"I don't want one word of what happened tonight to get back to John and Jane," I said to Hickory, as it, Dickory and I stood in the common area of the village. At this time of night there were only a couple of other people who were loitering there, and they quickly disappeared when Hickory and Dickory showed up. Two weeks had not been enough time for people to get used to them. We had the common area to ourselves.
"As you say," Hickory said.
"Thank you," I said, and started walking away from them again, toward the tent I shared with my parents.
"You should not have been in the woods," Hickory said.
That stopped me. I turned around to face Hickory. "Excuse me?" I said.
"You should not have been in the woods," Hickory said. "Not without our protection."
"We had protection," I said, and some part of my brain didn't believe those words had actually come out of my mouth.
"Your protection was a handgun wielded by someone who did not know how to use it," Hickory said. "The bullet he fired went into the ground less than thirty centimeters from him. He almost shot himself in the foot. I disarmed him because he was a threat to himself, not to me."
"I'll be sure to tell him that," I said. "But it doesn't matter. I don't need your permission, Hickory, to do what I please. You and Dickory aren't my parents. And your treaty doesn't say you can tell me what to do."
"You are free to do as you will," Hickory said. "But you took an unnecessary risk to yourself, both by going into the forest and by not informing us of your intent."
"That didn't stop you from coming in after me," I said. It came out like an accusation, because I was in an accusatory mood.
"No," Hickory said.
"So you took it on yourself to follow me around when I didn't give you permission to do so," I said.
"Yes," Hickory said.
"Don't do that again," I said. "I know privacy is an alien concept to you, but sometimes I don't want you around. Can you understand that? You" - I pointed at Dickory - "nearly cut my boyfriend's throat tonight. I know you don't like him, but that's a little much."
"Dickory would not have harmed Enzo," Hickory said.
"Enzo doesn't know that," I said, and turned back to Dickory. "And what if he had gotten in a good hit on you? You might have hurt him just to keep him down. I don't need this kind of protection. And I don't want it."
Hickory and Dickory stood there silently, soaking up my anger. After a couple of seconds, I got bored with this. "Well?" I said.
"You were running out of the forest when you came by us," Hickory said.
"Yeah? So?" I said. "We thought we might be being chased by something. Something spooked the fanties we were watching and Enzo thought it might have been a predator or something. It was a false alarm. There was nothing behind us or else it would have caught up with us when you two leaped out of nowhere and scared the crap out of all of us."
"No," Hickory said.
"No? You didn't scare the crap out of us?" I said. "I beg to differ."
"No," Hickory said. "You were being followed."
"What are you talking about?" I said. "There was nothing behind us."
"They were in the trees," Hickory said. "They were pacing you from above. Moving ahead of you. We heard them before we heard you."
I felt weak. "Them?" I said.
"It is why we took you as soon as we heard you coming," Hickory said. "To protect you."
"What were they?" I asked.
"We don't know," Hickory said. "We did not have the time to make any good observation. And we believe your friend's gunshot scared them off."
"So it wasn't necessarily something hunting us," I said. "It could have been anything."
"Perhaps," Hickory said, in that studiously neutral way it had when it didn't want to disagree with me. "Whatever they were, they were moving along with you and your group."
"Guys, I'm tired," I said, because I didn't want to think about any of this anymore, and if I did think about it anymore - about the idea that some pack of creatures was following us in the trees - I might have a collapse right there in the common area. "Can we have this conversation tomorrow?"
"As you wish, Zoe," Hickory said.
"Thank you," I said, and started shuffling off toward my cot. "And remember what I said about not telling my parents."
"We will not tell your parents," Hickory said.
"And remember what I said about not following me," I said. They said nothing to this. I waved at them tiredly and went off to sleep.
I found Enzo outside his family's tent the next morning, reading a book.
"Wow, a real book," I said. "Who did you kill to get that?"
"I borrowed it from one of the Mennonite kids," he said. He showed the spine to me. "Huckleberry Finn. You heard of it?"
"You're asking a girl from a planet named Huckleberry if she's heard of Huckleberry Finn," I said. I hoped the incredulous tone of my voice would convey amusement.
Apparently not. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't make the connection." He flipped the book open to where he had been reading.
"Listen," I said. "I wanted to thank you. For what you did last night."
Enzo looked up over his book. "I didn't do anything last night."
"You stayed behind Gretchen and me," I said. "You put yourself between us and whatever was following us. I just wanted you to know I appreciated it."
Enzo shrugged. "Not that there was anything following us after all," he said. I thought about telling him about what Hickory told me, but kept it in. "And when something did come out at you, it was ahead of me. So I wasn't much help, actually."
"Yeah, about that," I said. "I wanted to apologize for that. For the thing with Dickory." I didn't really know how to put that. I figured saying Sorry for when my alien bodyguard very nearly took your head off with a knife wouldn't really go over well.
"Don't worry about it," Enzo said.
"I do worry about it," I said.
"Don't," Enzo said. "Your bodyguard did its job." For a second it seemed like Enzo would say something more, but then he cocked his head and looked at me like he was waiting for me to wrap up whatever it was I was doing, so he could get back to his very important book.
It suddenly occurred to me that Enzo hadn't written me any poetry since we landed on Roanoke.
"Well, okay then," I said, lamely. "I guess I'll see you a little later, then."
"Sounds good," Enzo said, and then gave me a friendly wave and put his nose into Huck Finn's business. I walked back to my tent and found Babar inside and went over to him and gave him a hug.
"Congratulate me, Babar," I said. "I think I just had my first fight with my boyfriend."
Babar licked my face. That made it a little better. But not much.