A soft brown glow outlined the Wall, its sheer size dominating the horizon. Sigmund was holding on to his spear, surveying the landscape with a pair of digital enhanced binoculars, one of the last few still working. Upstream he could discern Lake Spagelow dry this time of year, again too soon for comfort. Still no sign of Jared and Ernst though, he thought to himself. He turned around to look at his eba, scrounging for food around the low bush, with little luck that day.
"I told you the bush here is thin, the bedrock too hard for burrowers. Still you had to try, no?", Sigmund said forcing a smile, and the eba answered without pausing his search:
"Yes friend. I have to try. Every day."
"I suppose we all do. At least on Eden you have to. Come, let's get back to the buggy."
Sigmund started to walk away when the eba said in a gravely, steady and demanding tone:
"We wait for Jared and Ernst."
Sigmund rolled his eyes and sighed before turning to look at the eba with a patient, well-practiced manner that demanded most of his self-control. He spoke as if addressing a small child:
"The storm is going to hit us on the plains if we wait any longer. Let's go eba, and don't worry about Jared and Ernst. They're used to this sort of work. You could say they almost like doing it."
"You don't, friend?", the eba asked slightly tilting its head showing genuine surprise and interest. Its whiskers twitched involuntarily and Sigmund answered in a hurried tone:
"I would, if the job didn't try to kill me all the time. Now, come."
"I fear for them, our friends. Please, let's stay. Please, friend Sigmund," the eba's voice a pleading barytone, almost inappropriately petulant.
"They can find shelter in one of the old pumping stations if they're not that thick in the head. Now, I'm even asking you nicely: please, get in the buggy."
Sigmund was having second thoughts about leaving them alone, but he insisted on his original train of thought. He didn't want to die, not today, not in a sandstorm on Eden, not looking for two light-headed naborns. He couldn't help repeating in his mind, 'What where they thinking anyway?'
The eba, as if exhibiting a rare moment of telepathic skill or simply sticking to its guns made a small step, its eyes searching for Sigmund's own under his goggles. Its voice seemed uncannily human in its emotion:
"Let us look for them then. They may be hurt, may need help," the eba said while pawing invisible foes in the air, making a show of what it meant, as if Sigmund was deaf.
Sigmund rested his goggles on his forehead, and took another survey of the area. Today's storm would hit stronger than yesterday, it seemed to him; it was past mid-month and all the signs where there. Every kind of what little life existed on Eden was already sensing the change in pressure, digging deep and staying covered. Even the glow above the Wall was darker than usual. A killer storm for certain. After all those years, he didn't need a satellite image to tell him that. He shook his head in disbelief of what he was about to say, let alone do, but he managed to say to the eba:
"You are a real pain, do you know that eba? One of these days you're going to make me regret I took you in."
"Maybe friend. But now is more important than one day. Let us look for Jared, Ernst.", said the large cat, raising its tail suddenly upright.
"Only as far as upstream to the lake. Then we have to turn back, or we run out of power. Understand?" Sigmund said pointing to Lake Spagelow, so that he made it clear this was as far as he'd go.
"Yes, friend. No wasting more time. Go now. Find them!"
Sigmund started off with a brisk pace down the trail to the buggy, using his spear for support down the grainy sand and rock of the Lookout Hill. The eba was faster, its paws churning whiffs of grey-red dirt as it raced downhill to get to the buggy first, each time an unofficial race going on. As Sigmund was coming down the hill he muttered to himself:
"I'm going to die because of a talking cat. Talking cat on the first exoplanetary colony. Another first. Sigmund Tannhauser, extraplanetary idiot, extraordinaire."
The eba was already crouched inside the buggy, its head darting left and right for signs of activity, whether it be danger or friends, doing his earthly ancestor predators justice. Sigmund fastened his spear on some ingeniously designed side latches and jumped inside the buggy as well.
Sigmund took a last, quick look behind him and nodded to himself:"Eden. Right. What was I thinking."
He pushed the start button on the buggy, and the control panel lit up instantly, motors and servos whirring while the startup diagnostic ran. A few seconds later, they were heading upstream to the lake, at a quick pace. Riding along the dried up river bed of Musk River the buggy's motor whir blended with the sound of metal speeding over chipped pebbles and gravel. The buggy and the loose surface were perfectly paired, but plainly comfort had not been a design goal. It was impossible to compensate for the feeling of sailing over what felt like thick rock mud, the buggy frame tilting and swaying but always keeping the heading in the intended direction. The eba seemed to lack its earlier enthusiasm over what seemed to be its own, self-appointed mission. Sigmund gazed around the broken landscape for signs of Jared and Ernst with no success. He took note of the eba's apparent discomfort and asked:
"How are you feeling, eba?"
"Sick," the curt response and irritated tone meant 'sick' was a literal term.
"Oh, not again, please try to get to the sides before you..."
Sigmund's appeal was cut short when the eba could not stand the upheaval for much longer before vomiting on the back of the buggy. Its facial hair had become soiled and ragged-looking, its look was dreary and in no way did it resemble the predator its genetic stock had originated from. Sigmund started shouting with a modest hint of disgust in his voice:
"Not inside!The batteries are meant to ... Not inside the bugg, ever! This was not designed to come in contact with liquids ... You will clean it up."
Sigmund held his finger in the air as if lecturing a bothersome child, his tone firm but not angry. Perhaps agitated, and from the look on his face, rightly so.
"I will clean it up, friend.", said the eba feeling a little better and managing a thin smile, vomit still wet on its face.
"Why are you smiling? The storm is about to hit, we haven't found a single sign of the naborns and you just barfed. Don't get coy with me. Clean up your face, stop smiling."
"A smile cannot make things worse," the eba answered in a resolute voice, as if reciting religious dogma, or a corporate slogan.
As the buggy raced with its motors near maximum capacity, Sigmund stabbed the eba with an accusing look:
"Have you been talking with Chen? Because that sounds like something Chen would say. Chen's an optimistic fool. Remember, fools are much more likely to end up dead. Or on Eden."
"Strange that you should say that. He also says that you are the fool."
The eba blinked in surprise and bewilderment at what seemed to it to be a show of magnificent powers of deduction at work.
"Does he? Well, just shut up and keep looking. Remember though, whatever else happens, you are still cleaning that up," said Sigmund and took another look through his binoculars.
"There friend! To our right!"
The eba straightened its back suddenly, poised as if to strike, its whole body a compass indicator leaning on a definite direction. Sigmund turned his head and zoomed with the binoculars, the built-in pattern recognition trying to identify Jared and Ernst or somekind of human built tracks. He brought the buggy to an abrupt stop and scanned to their right again, this time with more diligence.
"I can see them. I'll run ahead friend," said the eba and casually leaped off the buggy and ran. It ate away at the landscape, leaving a brown and silver cloud behind it. Sigmund was stunned to silence and paused his search momentarily, taking in the sight of the eba speeding towards the Wall. The storm was still gathering on their back, on a desert planet twenty light years away from Earth, a sky the color of viridian with hues of blue and black.
Even after all these years, in times like these, Sigmund realised the awe that manifested around him and shivered. He took a deep breath and put the binoculars back on, now tracking the eba as well as two other figures too far away to positively identify them. Noone else was due out this far upstream today, none that he knew of.
He could safely conclude that it was either them or someone equally stupid, which would be no small surprise as of late with every number dwindling except for the amount of idiots running free. Sigmund kicked in the 'sediment' mode on the buggy, and its metal wheels - a memory metal - reshaped itself in a thin-faceted, gear-like, Eden-proven design. A few indicators lit up and the screen showed energy estimates. Gobbling down more power than the solar panels could provide, the battery would be exhausted before they reached Landing.
Sigmund snarled something in German and pressed on with the buggy, following eba towards the two figures, hoping the emergency fuel cell would be enough. He said to noone in particular, for no particular reason:
"Called me a fool did he? Chen, you are a d$%k."
As Sigmund and the eba approached the two young men it seemed they were indeed in need of help. The eba arrived first and was standing guard, looking out for whatever danger might still lurk around. The boys seemed in one piece. Jared, a thin lad with wiry hair, had met a sand-ant up and close and it looked like it wasn't much fun at all. He had several cuts and scrapes all over him. Possibly a torn calf muscle as well. He was limping on his left leg, putting his weight on Ernst both trudging along westward.
Sigmund slid to a stop nearby, and started walking towards the two boys, spear in hand, aggravation written across his face. He could not help himself chastising the two young men:
"So you went too far upstram searching for water. And you thought you'd become heroes or something. Used up the buggy's power still miles away from Landing and you went on foot. And got jumped by a sand ant. Feel proud for yourselves?"
Jared, the wounded one, immediately retorted, his tanned face looking smoothly impervious to any sort of guilt:
"You know we need the water and it was a small pack, three of them; we killed them all."
Ernst was sheepishly taking a look at the verbal confrontation, while packing their gear on their buggy. Sigmund went silent for a few moments, staring at the two boys with an uncertain look between anger and worry. At length, he pointed an accusing finger at Jared, trying to maintain an even though strict tone of voice:
"You're naborns and maybe you think you have adjusted better than the rest of us, but dying never helped anyone, did it? Killing three sand ants just messed you up so you won't be able to work again for at least a couple of weeks, and another buggy is lost somewhere out there and someone will have to go get it tomorrow, if it survives the storm! And all this to satisfy your adolescent craving for pack superiority. Very much so like animals! As if growing hair meant you've grown brains! Did you ever pause to think?"
The comment about the animals spurred some heavy eyebrow movement and piercing eye shots from the eba towards Sigmund, but once he shot back an even glance, it quickly retrained its attention towards safeguarding the rest of them until they loaded up.
"And what would you have us do, Teacher? Wait around till one of you provides a miracle? Until Eden decides to turn upside down for our own sake? You know we need water more than ever, so stop excusing yourself. Coward."