by Zack

Author's note: This story takes place in my 'Star Fleet Survey Service' universe, but does not involve the same characters. The first story in that series is 'Field Survey'.


The interstellar liner Gropius was in hyperspace, and it would be for the next several days. Our destination was Zovia, an obscure solar system located on the very edge of Amalgamation space. I was getting off the ship there, and this interminable journey would finally be over. Right now, it was almost closing time here in the second-class lounge, and Sweet Su and her All-Girl Band, of which I am a member, were performing their final number. The sparse crowd of mostly drunks didn't pay much attention until I stood up and began my clarinet solo. I'm a classically trained musician, and I combine technical skill with a passion for music, even the insipid pop music Su chooses for us. Apparently, this was noticed by even the most indifferent members of the audience, because they gave me a solid round of applause. Of course, this was dwarfed by the roar of approval that erupted when Mari, the band's vocalist, stepped into the spotlight.

Mari is young and blonde, with a pale skin that makes her stand out in a crowd. She has a voluptuous body, barely covered by a diaphanous dress, and this is combined with a sweet face to produce an incongruous combination of wantonness and innocence. She waited a moment until the room got a bit quieter and then she started to sing. It was immediately apparent to all but the totally inebriated that she can't, but, as usual, most of the audience ignored this minor defect when she started to move about and let her body do the communicating.

As always, Mari attracted many admirers, but the most aggressive in this crowd was a handsome young man who elbowed out his rivals and took Mari in his arms for an impromptu dance. After a few moments he whispered in her ear. She appeared to consider what he had asked, but then she noticed Su glaring at her and quickly shook her head and disengaged from the man's arms. Su brought the music to an abrupt end and activated her microphone. "That's all for tonight, folks. Thanks for your attention, and we'll be here tomorrow." She glared at Mari again.

Aliea, the drummer, complimented me. "You got real talent, Dia. You're out of place in this outfit."

"Thanks, Aliea. You're good too." That was true, Aliea did have talent, unlike most of the others in the band. She was also the only one who showed me any friendship. Once again I regretted signing up for this trip. But classical musicians don't make much money, and I hadn't had nearly enough to pay my fare to Zovia, even on an old wreck like the Gropius, so my only alternative had been to work for my passage. I had a good job lined up on Zovia, but I had to pay my own expenses to get there.

The band packed its instruments and we hurried to our bunkroom. It had been a long day, and tomorrow would be more of the same. We weren't housed among the passengers of course, but we weren't even in the crew's quarters. Instead, we were adjacent to the machinery spaces, in a cramped room with eight bunks, stacked in two layers and arranged in two lines along the walls to either side of the entrance door. The Space Worker's Union required that its members have single or at the most double cabins, but us band members were just 'itinerant performers', so the management of this decrepit ship could force us to sleep in one small room.

Aliea opened the corroded door and was met by a blast of heat. "Oh, shit! The air conditioning has crapped out again. Didn't you tell them about this, Su?"

"Yeah, but they said they haven't got the parts they need to fix it. We'll have to live with it until we get to Zovia. It's not that bad."

"That's easy for you to say, you come from a desert planet. I don't like it!"

"Stop whining, Aliea, or I'll give you something to really moan about."

"Hey, I'm not blaming you," Aliea said, almost cringing away from Su's glare. "I guess I can stand it."

Su is half a head taller than me, and I'm fifteen centimeters taller than the next tallest woman in the band. Su is much stronger than any of us, and we're all afraid of her. I heard whispers that she hadn't always been a woman, but none of us dared ask any direct questions.

The band filed into the bunkroom. We were all tired, and there's no place else to go to during the ship's 'night'. I put my clarinet into my locker and tried to decide what to do: strip down to my bra and panties and sleep on top of the bunk's covers or strip bare and sleep under a sheet. It was too hot to do both. I decided not to risk getting naked; I'd had to fight off several gropers in the past. Unlike most of the others I'm not a Lesbian and I don't want to do anything that might encourage unwanted advances. All of the other women stripped naked.

The bunkroom had its own bathroom, a small cubicle at the end of the room opposite the door. It contained a sink, a toilet, and a single shower stall. I used the toilet and decided I'd wait until morning to use the shower, which was currently occupied by Aliea. I heard Su's angry voice and resigned myself to another round of bickering. Su and Mari have a dom/sub relationship, and Su was always abusing poor Mari. I learned the hard way to ignore their squabbles. I tried to intervene once when Mari was getting beat up and I really paid for it.

I washed my hands and face and left the bathroom. Out in the bunkroom, a naked Mari was kneeling on the floor in front of Su, who gripped Mari's hair in her left hand. "What did I tell you about flirting with men, slut?" She violently shook Mari's head.

Mari cried out and grabbed Su's wrist with both of her hands. "I'm sorry, Mistress! I wasn't flirting with him, he came on to me! I didn't do anything."

"You calling me a liar? I saw what you did, and I'm not gonna let you get away with it. It's time you had another lesson. Stay here!"

Su released her grip on Mari's hair and went to her locker. I took advantage of her move to slip by Mari and climb up onto my bunk.

Su took out a coil of thin rope and a plastic rod. When Mari saw these items she shrank down into a crouch. "No, Mistress! Please, don't hurt me. I'm sorry, I won't do it again. Please, no!"

"Shut up, slut. All I want to hear out of you now are screams."

Su held Mari's wrists together and wrapped rope around them. She knotted the rope and took several turns around the loops to form a cinch, then yanked Mari to her feet and put the end of the rope through a ring attached to the bunk support rod, near the ceiling. Su pulled on the rope until Mari was standing on her toes, then tied it off.

The rod was white plastic, about a meter long and a centimeter in diameter. Su whiffed it through the air and Mari whimpered. Without further warning Su struck, a full-strength blow across the center of Mari's bottom. A red welt and Mari's full-throated scream erupted almost simultaneously. For several minutes Mari screamed and sobbed, and I knew she was afraid to say anything, not even beg for mercy. Su waited, and then struck again, the blow crossing the first welt. Mari screamed and jerked at the rope, dancing in a frenzy of pain.

I buried my head in my pillow and tried to muffle the sound. I didn't dare to intervene, the last time I tried, several weeks ago, Su had tied me next to Mari and given me two lashes for every one she gave Mari. It really hurt, and what made it worse was the way all of the other band members, except for Aliea, laughed and cheered as I screamed. When I threatened to complain to the ship's captain Su informed me that if I did she would fire me, and if I was no longer employed by the band the ship would make me pay a fare or put me aground at the next stop. I don't have any money for a fare, so I had to keep my mouth shut. I could still feel the marks the rod left on my thighs and bottom, but they've faded enough so they don't show on my dark skin. I don't want any more, and anyway, for all I know Mari enjoys being whipped.

Finally the beating stopped. Su's target had to be just the small area of flesh covered by Mari's costume, and this was limited. She didn't release Mari immediately, and Mari's crying continued for some time after the lights went out. Finally all was quiet in the bunkroom and I drifted off to sleep. Su's orgasmic moans as she was serviced by Mari woke me briefly, but I ignored them and slept.

* * *

Some time later I was abruptly wakened by the loud warbling of an alarm. The alarm box over the bunkroom door was flashing a bright red light. The warbling stopped and a metallic voice blared, "Warning! Warning! Drive instability. All personnel board your escape pods immediately!" This was repeated several times, and then the warbling started again and the cycle was repeated.

The noise was meet by a chorus of groans. Aliea snarled, "Not again! This is the third false alarm in the last month. Is everything on this ship broken?" She hurled a shoe at the alarm box and it hit with a thump. The alarm stopped in mid-warble. "There! Now maybe we can get some sleep."

I climbed down from my bunk and opened the bunkroom door. "But what if it isn't a false alarm this time? Come on, Aliea, better safe than sorry."

"Fuck it! I'm not going to lie around in that smelly pod for the couple of hours it'll take this screw-up crew to decide that nothing is wrong with the drive." Another voice echoed Aliea's sentiments.

"Well, I'm already up, and I can go back to sleep in the pod just as easily as I can in this oven."

"Fine, Dia. You do what you want. See you in the morning."

I shrugged and walked down the dimly-lit corridor to the escape pod. The one advantage of our bunkroom's location is that it's close to a pod bay. I opened the pod door and climbed inside and strapped myself into one of the couches. Su, Mari, and three others, Zaphre, Selen, and Yan, joined me, leaving two empty couches. None of us had bothered to dress, but, characteristically, Su carried her white plastic rod. Su closed and latched the door and the dim lights flickered and then brightened.

Yan asked, "Why do they have all of these small pods, instead of just a couple of big ones? Anyone know?"

We all shook our heads. I have a fair knowledge of mathematics (most musicians do), but few people really understand the technology that they use without a thought, and that includes me.*

Yan continued, "Well, I sure hope the all-clear happens soon. This pod is smelly."

Then the lights went out and I felt an inexpressible wrenching sensation, as though my body was being turned inside out. The drive had gone unstable, the ship was destroyed, and the pod was jettisoned across hyperspace. I fainted.

*From A Child's Encyclopedia of Space Travel
ESCAPE PODS. Sometimes something breaks in a hyperspace drive and it becomes unstable. When this happens much of the matter of the drive is converted into electromagnetic and hyperspacial energy, and the ship is vaporized. Fortunately, this does not happen without warning, so the passengers and crew have time to get into escape pods. These are small craft that are space-worthy and contain air generators, food synthesizers, and other life support equipment. They do not have a propulsion system (except for a thruster with enough fuel to de-orbit the pod), but instead rely on a hyperspacial disemulator. When the ship's drive disintegrates the pod's hyperspacial disemulator absorbs energy and uses it to transport the pod through hyperspace. The pod's guidance system directs it to the nearest Amalgamation world, or (if none is in range) to the nearest habitable planet. Then the pod automatically de-orbits and deploys its airfoils to glide to a safe landing.

A common question is, 'Why are the pods so small?' The answer is that the volume that a hyperspacial disemulator can protect is limited, being inversely proportional to the fourth power of the radius of a sphere centered on the disemulator. This means most pods only have room for ten people or less.

* * *

I don't think I was out very long, and when I came to we were in freefall, which meant we were out of hyperspace. The pod lights were back on, and Su was looking at the viewscreen. I asked, "Can you tell where we are? Are we orbiting an Amalgamation planet?"

"No. This planet is marked, 'Not Designated'. I don't know what that means."

I struggled out of the couch straps and floated over to the viewscreen. The interface was simple and I was able to display more information. When I read it I groaned.

Su asked, "What's wrong? Even if this isn't an Amalgamation world we can live on it until the Survey Service rescues us, can't we?"

"It's worse than that. This planet isn't in Amalgamation space, it's near the edge of the galaxy. The best we can hope for is that nothing on the planet will kill us."

"What's the planet like? Can you tell if we can live on it?" I could hear the fear in Su's voice. The other women looked stunned, and no one made a sound, except for a whimper from Mari.

I scrolled down for more information. I read that the axial tilt was twenty nine degrees and the orbit eccentricity was 0.01. The gravity was 0.89 normal, and the atmosphere contained 24% oxygen and 75.3% nitrogen. The temperature was a bit hotter than standard. The planet was surrounded by a wide, highly reflective ring, which is very rare. Another unusual thing was that the planet was mostly covered by water, with only one very small continent. This formed a narrow strip oriented parallel to the equator at about 30 degrees north latitude, and it was very flat, with the highest point only about 350 meters above sea level. I displayed a picture of the continent. It looked like it was covered in plants, and there seemed to be a lot of rivers. So at least we won't land in a desert or on tundra.

"It looks livable, Su." If we don't land in the ocean when we deorbit.

Su started to ask another question, but she was interrupted by a chime and a female voice saying, "Deorbit sequence starting. All passengers must strap into their couches. Prepare for high acceleration forces." I scrambled to my couch and fastened the straps. I could feel the pod rotating and then the thruster firing. The de-acceleration pressed me into the couch, but it wasn't unbearable, and it only lasted for a few minutes. Then there was the rumbling of the airfoils deploying, and soon I could hear the sound of air rushing past the pod.

After a short while there was a metallic whine, a loud click, and then another chime. The voice said, "Prepare for landing. Brace for impact." At those cheering words Mari let out a scream and I tensed up and prepared to die.

The actual landing was anticlimactic. There was a heavy thump, then a bunch of bumps that gradually slowed until we stopped. The voice said, "Atmospheric analysis in process. Stand by." I literally held my breath. Was there some toxic gas or deadly microorganism outside the pod? The voice continued, "Air is breathable. No respirators required. Deorbit sequence complete."

We all cried and cheered. Su unstrapped and lumbered to the door. She pulled it open and clambered outside, first to set foot on our new world. Fine with me, if there's a tiger outside it can eat Su.

Su yelled, "Come on out, it's nice out here."

We all joined her outside the pod. It was nice outside. It was hot, but not impossibly so even in the sun, and there was a gentle breeze that helped keep us comfortable. The pod had landed in an open area near a shallow river that meandered across the bottom of a wide, shallow valley. The vegetation featured large, widely-spaced trees surrounded by low bushes and clear areas covered with a short, grass-like plant. The trees weren't eaten away at the bottom, so there probably weren't any large grazing animals, at least not around here.

"It's all so green," marveled Mari.

That was true. Every growing plant I could see was some shade of green, from the light, intense green of the 'grass' to the darker, muted green of the leaves on the trees. The bare ground near the river was tan and sandy. I'm no geologist, but it looked to me like it was part of a floodplain, and I just hoped we wouldn't get any heavy rain. I liked this landscape. Everyone else in the band lived in cities all their lives, but I grew up on an agricultural planet and I never lived in a city until I enrolled at the seminary to study music. This was like returning to my roots.

Zaphre laughed. "I've never been so scared. I thought I was going to die, but we've managed to come out alive."

Yan muttered, "Yeah, all of us except Aliea and Marzena."

That put a damper on my joy. Aliea was my only friend, and now she was gone.

Su said cheerily, "Yeah, I'm going to miss them too. But there's nothing we can do about it. All we can do now is wait until we're rescued."

Yan said, "If we're rescued. What do you think our chance are, Dia? You seem to know it all."

I don't think we have a chance of being rescued. But I can't say that. "I think we have a good chance, Yan. The pod landed intact, and the emergency beacon is working, if we believe the indicator. But it may take some time before we're rescued because we're so far outside of the Amalgamation. We might have to live here for weeks." Or decades. Or forever.

Selen spoke up. "I'm hungry. Do we have any food?"

I answered, "There is some stored food, and the food synthesizer will generate more from our waste."

"Eeeww. That doesn't sound too good. How do you know all that, Dia?"

"I read the instruction booklet they handed out when we boarded the ship." Which you obviously didn't.

Su proclaimed, "All right, Dia, you're our pod expert. Go get us some food."

I obediently climbed back into the pod. The lavatory and the food synthesizer are at one end, near the door, and the other equipment is at the other end of the pod. The couches are stacked along the walls in two layers, four on either side of a narrow aisle. Below the bottom couches are lockers that should contain the ready-to-eat food, as well as all of the other items needed for survival.

I opened a locker marked 'Food', took out six of the several hundred or so boxes stored there, and passed them out through the doorway. I opened my box, and once the food had heated I used the plastic spoon to eat the mushy glop. I suppose it's nutritious, but it didn't have much appeal. I resolved to search for some edible fresh food.

When the other women finished their meal they tossed the empty boxes on the ground. "Hey!" I shouted. "Put the trash in the grinder in the lavatory. The food synthesizer needs that stuff as raw materials. Besides, who wants to live next to a dump?"

Yan snarled, "Who crowned you queen, Dia? Don't tell me what to do." She clenched her fists and took a step towards me.

Su stepped in front of Yan and gave her a push that sent her sprawling. "I'm the queen here, Yan! And don't you, or anyone else, forget it! Dia's right, I don't want to live next to a dump. I'm appointing you the permanent garbage collector. You collect all the trash."

Yan glared at Su and I could tell she was furious, but she didn't say anything. She knew she wouldn't have a chance against Su in a fight. But I'd watch my back, if I were Su.

Su entered the pod. "What else have we got in here, Dia?

"We should have everything we need to set up a comfortable camp. This pod is really cramped for eight people if they have to wait a long time for rescue." I opened the locker marked 'Tent'. It was empty, except for a few plastic tent stakes and a some coiled guy ropes. "Of course, on a ship like the Gropius things tend to disappear." I pulled out the medical box. It still contained some surgical tape and several boxes of gauze, but all of the drugs were gone.

I opened the locker marked 'Tools'. There were a few hand tools, but most of the locker was filled by a plastic bag stuffed with dried plants. "What's this?" I pulled the bag out of the locker.

Su grabbed it out of my hands. "Wild weed! Don't you know that? This must be part of the crew's stash."

I know what wild weed is, who doesn't? It's one of the most popular recreational drugs in the Amalgamation, providing a sustained high without all of the unpleasant side effects of other drugs. It's the small leaves and seed pods of a plant that will grow just about anywhere, but the active chemical only develops if the conditions, (temperature, humidity, light, etc.) are exactly right. This means it's really cheap on some planets and very expensive on others. I'd tried it a few times, but it costs a lot on my home planet and I could never afford enough of it to get the habit. It's a popular drug among musicians, and I'd heard all of the band members complain about not having any.

Yan stuck her head inside the pod. "Did I hear you say wild weed?"

Su tried to hide the weed, but it was too late, Yan spotted it. She demanded, "Give me some! Don't keep it all for yourself!"

Selen and Zaphre joined Yan and they also demanded some of the weed. Su obviously didn't like it but she grudgingly doled out some weed to the three women. She didn't offer any to me and I didn't ask for any. The stash would be empty soon enough, and I didn't want to get a habit I can't satisfy. I left the pod and went for a walk. Everyone else happily chewed their weed and ignored me.

After the sun set the sky clouded over and a few drops of rain began to fall. Yan tried to climb into the pod, but Su blocked her. "It's too crowded in here. Mari and me will sleep inside and you and the others will sleep outside. Any objections?"

Once again Yan gave Su a murderous glare, but she didn't say anything. It was crowded in the pod, but Su's real reason was clear: she didn't want Yan near her when she was asleep, and she didn't want anyone near the stash of weed.

I asked, "Can I get a cushion off a couch, Su?

"Yeah, sure. Get cushions for everybody."

I stripped the cushions off the upper couches and handed them outside. I found some blankets in another locker and passed some of these out too. I also decided to take off my bra and panties. If we ever are rescued I want something of my own to wear. I put them in an empty locker.

When I finished Su ordered, "Now get out. Anyone tries to get inside the pod they're gonna really regret it."

Yan and Selen muttered angrily, but I didn't mind sleeping outside. There was plenty of shelter under the airfoils, the cushion was comfortable enough, and it sure smelled a lot better out here than in the pod. There were insects flying around, but they avoided me, I guess I smell different. I hope I smell bad to predators too. I didn't see any, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. While I was walking I didn't see any large animals or even any tracks. The only animal I saw was small, and it was eating plants, but there must be a predator to fill the niche. I just hoped it was the size of a bobcat, not the size of a leopard.

It was nice out here, and best of all, being outside meant I wouldn't have to listen to Mari and Su going at it. A gentle rain was now falling, cooling everything down. I watched it until it got dark too dark to see, then I stretched out on my cushion, wrapped myself in a blanket, and fell asleep.

* * *

I spent the next week gathering plants and testing them to see if they were edible. Theoretically, the food synthesizer can provide all the food we need if we put even inedible plant material into the grinder, but I didn't trust anything maintained on the Gropius to run for very long. The synthesizer included a food analyzer so I didn't have to take any risk by eating unknown and possibly poisonous plants. I was really surprised at how bountiful this planet is. I found three tree nuts and half a dozen different types of fruits and berries, as well as some root vegetables and a bush that had bean-like pods. There was also a grass-like plant that has a grain that looks like wheat, but I had no way to make bread or even porridge out of it. My prize find was a plant with an underground tuber that looked like a potato but tasted like a peach, with the texture of a really crisp apple.

According to the food analyzer, a combination of just what I'd found so far would provide a completely balanced diet. I told all this to the other women, but they weren't interested. They're stoned most of the time, and when they want to eat they open a food box. I didn't care, it would just leave more natural food for me.

Everything fell into a routine. During the day I spent my time hunting food and exploring. Walking around barefoot felt funny at first and my feet got a bit sore, but the ground around here was mostly smooth and it wasn't too bad. Soon I didn't even notice I wasn't wearing shoes. I didn't mind being by myself, because all the other women just bickered and complained when they weren't stoned. At night Su and Mari slept in the pod and everyone else was kept outside.

One night I was woken up by the giggling and moans of Yan, Zaphre, and Selen. They were having an orgy, and even though I was on the other side of the pod it was loud. I tried to ignore them and get back to sleep, but I couldn't do it. There was a lot of whispered conversation and then they crowded around me.

Yan said, "With just the three of us there's always the odd woman out. We want you to join in the fun, Dia."

"No thanks, I don't tilt that way."

"That's just because you haven't tried it enough. Sex is always better with a girl than with a man."

She (or somebody; it was too dark to tell) put a hand between my legs and rummaged around. I sat up and swung my fist sideways across my body, hitting somebody's head.

It was Yan. She yelled, "Yow! That hurt, you bitch."

She took her hand out of my vagina and muttered something I couldn't hear to the other women. They moved away, and I hoped that was the last of it, but a few minutes later they were back. "Please, just leave me alone," I begged.

There wasn't any reply, but all three suddenly jumped on me. It tried to wrestle them off, but it was hopeless.

Yan yelled, "Grab her arms!"

They pushed me flat on my back, and Zaphre and Selen held my arms while Yan tied my hands together. She wrapped loop after loop around my wrists, tied a knot, and then pulled my hands over my head and tied the rope to the pod skid. I pleaded, "Please, let me go! I don't want to have sex with you!"

Yan laughed, "What you want doesn't matter any more. It's what we want. Zaphre, gimme some more rope. Selen, sit on her belly. Bend her leg."

I fought as hard as I could, but I couldn't dislodge Selen. She and Zaphre forced back my left leg, bending it at the knee, and Yan tied my ankle to my thigh. My struggles were growing weaker now, and they quickly tied my right ankle to my right thigh. Someone sat between my knees so I couldn't close my legs. Then I felt fingers penetrate my labia and stroke my clit while other hands stroked my breasts and lips sucked my nipples. It should have been pleasant, but I was so angry and frightened I wasn't aroused.

Yan said, "Take good mental notes, Dia. We'll expect you to make all of us cum later."

I stopped struggling and endured. After a while the hands and lips stopped touching me. Yan said, "You're no fun, Dia. So much for being nice. Tomorrow we'll see how you respond to pain. Who's got the weed?"

The three women left me tied to the skid and went back to the other side of the pod. As soon as they were gone I squirmed until I could reach the rope on my wrists with my teeth. The knot wasn't very tight and soon my hands were free. I untied my legs and silently crawled away from the pod until I reached the river bank. I walked quietly until I was sure they couldn't hear me, and then I ran, the pale glow from the ring providing just enough light to keep me from tripping.

I alternately ran and walked all night and into the next day. Around noon I stopped long enough to find some food, and then I traveled as fast as I could until dark. The next day I moved away from the river and climbed a low ridge. From the top I could see higher ground to the west, so I judged that the pod landed near the east end of the planet's only continent. I descended the ridge and headed west. I kept traveling until I estimated I was forty to fifty kilometers from the pod. "Those lazy sluts won't follow me this far," I muttered.

I found a good place to stop, next to a low sandstone ridge with a large depression in the rock, not deep enough to be called a cave, but with enough overhang to keep the rain off. Not too far away there was a spring and a small pool of water. There were some tall plants that looked just like bamboo, and I thought that maybe I could use them to build a shelter of some sort. There was a lot of food around here, and I was going to have to try to gather and preserve some. It was near the end of summer in this hemisphere, and the planet's axial tilt means there will be a lot of seasonal variation. Now I wished I had brought a blanket with me, but maybe I could catch some of the small furry animals and make one from their skins. I'll also have to make a fire. But I decided to worry about that later. I stretched out on the sand in my 'cave'. It was still warm, and I was tired. I decided to sleep now, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

* * *

The Leader Council's meeting was almost over. The five beings, who originated on a distant planet they called Garra, were seated around a low table. They were small, with an average height of just less than a meter, and they were bipedal and hairless, with light tan skin and two brown eyes. They all wore a toga-like garment made of a smooth white synthetic fabric and sandals made of leather. A human might compare them to small hairless chimpanzees, although their legs were shorter and their torsos were longer than a chimp's. They had just engaged in a detailed discussion but a human would not have been aware of it, since the Garrans are telepathic and communicated through direct mental contact, although that communication was structured in a way that a human could understand using words.

Prime Leader Zan summed up. #So this year's harvest is projected to be no better than last year's, and we have several more cubs to feed. Almost all of the food we were able to salvage from the wreck is gone. We'll make it through this winter, but hunger is no more than a year away and beyond that is famine. Is that your conclusion?#

Chief Agronomist Wen nodded glumly. #That's about it. We just don't have the labor we need to expand our food cultivation. If only we had been able to salvage some machinery! If only the bonoms had survived the crash! If only we could digest the plants that are native to this planet!#

Zan replied, #No use grieving over what can't be mended. We could have crashed on a planet with a methane atmosphere, or one covered in hot lava. At least here we can breath the air and our seeds will grow. We can't give up. It is our duty to keep our culture alive until we're rescued.#

#What's the chance of that? Our hyperspace beacon needs copper parts to fix the transmitter, and this continent is made up of sedimentary rock with no metallic ores. There aren't even many hard rocks like flint or chert. We can't maintain a modern civilization with wooden tools and a few stone knives.#

Zan stood. #Enough of this wallowing in despair. We've got to keep up a cheerful front, if only for the benefit of the females and the cubs. Maybe the Gods will provide.#

Wen muttered #It's going to take a miracle.#

The meeting was interrupted by a young male. #Leader Zan! Leader Zan! The most astounding event has happened!#

#What is it, Hil?#

#I turned on the hyperspace receiver for it's monthly test and I detected a signal!#

#Is it a rescue ship? What was the message?#

#No, it's not a rescue ship. The signal is not like any I've heard before. I don't think it's of Garran origin! And it's not from space, it's from the surface of the planet! I can't tell how far away it is, but it's east of here, so it can't be more than four hundred xlems away, because that's how far it is to the east end of the continent.# [400 xlems=148.6 km. For clarity, all distances will now be given in kilometers.]

#We've got to investigate this at once! Wen, you've explored towards that end of the continent, haven't you? Travel east as soon as possible. Take Hil with you. Find out where this signal is coming from.#

Another one of the Leaders interrupted. #Wait, Zan. We must not make any rash moves without considering all of the alternatives.#

#What do you mean, Fla?#

#If the beacon is from an alien ship, what if they're hostile? Do we want them to know we're here? We lost all of our energy weapons in the crash. Do you want to face hostile beings with nothing but wooden spears and stone axes?#

Another Leader interjected his opinions and the debate raged on for some time. Finally it was agreed that Wen and Hil would investigate the source of the beacon, but would not make contact without further authorization. By the time this conclusion was reached it was almost dark, and the expedition was postponed until the next morning.

Wen and Hil started their journey before dawn, and by noon they'd traveled twelve kilometers. The Garrans evolved from an arboreal species, and their short legs and the way their hips were articulated made walking slow and running almost impossible. As compensation, their long arms were as strong as their legs, and they could easily travel through trees by swinging from branch to branch. This was a useful skill on their thickly-forested home planet, but not much use here, where trees were widely separated.

They both wore tunics and loincloths made of fabric hand-loomed out of fibers from a native plant, and broad-brimmed hats woven from the long dry stems of the native grass. Their leather sandals were made from the skins of native small herbivorous animals they trapped. They carried wooden spears (which they used as walking sticks) and had stone knives in leather sheaths attached to their belts. In contrast to this rustic garb, their backpacks had been manufactured on their home world from plastic resin.

By nightfall they had traveled over twenty kilometers and they made camp near a stream. The weather was warm and their food for this meal was pre-cooked, so they didn't bother to build a fire.

Hil asked, #Have you been this way before, Wen?#

#Yes, I was part of the group that explored this end of the continent. We didn't go very far, though, just another few day's travel. We'll be the first to see the end of land.#

#If we have to go that far. I couldn't tell the range to the beacon, just the direction. It might be over the next hill.#

#You're right; we've got to stay alert. We want to see the beings that brought the beacon here before they see us. I'm glad we didn't build a fire.#

The explorers were on their way at dawn. About mid-afternoon they were climbing the gently-sloping side of a low sandstone ridge. Wen was in the lead, with Hil about two meters behind him. Both were walking quietly and paying close attention to their surroundings. Wen reached the flat top of the ridge. The other side dropped abruptly, forming a low cliff. Wen stopped and looked around. Suddenly he dropped flat on the ground and signaled with his arm for Hil to do the same.

Hil slithered forward until he was next to Wen. He touched his head to Wen's so they could communicate without broadcasting. #What is it? Did you see something?#

#Yes, I saw a large animal. There! Do you see it? The large black animal drinking from that spring?#

Hil looked in the direction Wen indicated. #Yes, I see it. Look how tall it is, and how long its legs are! Is it native to this planet or could it be from the alien ship?#

#I think it's from the alien ship. We haven't seen anything like it before, and this continent is small and has uniform terrain. It's unlikely that a native species would be confined to a small area, so we would have almost certainly seen it during our explorations. The real question is whether it's an animal or a person. I think it's an animal. It's not wearing any clothes, and it's not carrying any tools.#

#Yes, but clothes are just a social convention in this weather, and you don't need tools to drink from a spring. It must be sapient. After all, it has the technology for hyperspace travel.#

#But it might have been cargo on the alien ship, not crew. Remember, we were carrying bonoms on our ship. What if this is just a stray animal?#

Wen crawled back from the edge of the cliff and signaled for Hil to follow. #There's only one sure way to find out if it's a person or not. I'm going to work my way along the ridge and call to it. If it can receive me it's a person, and if it can't it's an animal. You stay here and stay hidden. If it's hostile I'll try to draw it away from you, and you go back to town and warn the Leaders. But be careful it doesn't see you! It looks like it's fast, and it's almost twice our height and probably three times our mass. Even with our spears I don't think we'd have much of a chance in a fight.#

#You're more valuable than I am, Wen. You stay here and I'll call to it.#

#Yeah, but you're faster than I am, and I'm the leader here so do as I say. Move to where you can watch it too, but keep your head down.#

Wen shed his backpack and moved along the top of the ridge, keeping low and off the skyline. When he was about 100 meters from Hil he crawled to the crest of the ridge and quietly burrowed beneath a bush. The ridge dropped less steeply here, but it still allowed Wen a clear view of the lower ground. He was pleased to see that the creature had moved toward him. It was now beneath a tree not more than thirty meters away, and apparently feeding on nuts, which it shelled with its hands.

Prehensile hands, thought Wen. I wonder if it has opposable thumbs, too. Well, here goes. He broadcast as strongly as he could: #HEY!#

The animal didn't seem to notice. He tried again. #HEY!# Same result. Wen waited several minutes, but there was no sign that the animal had received him. He backed out of the bush and retraced his steps. About halfway back to Hil he crawled to the edge of the ridge and poked his head up. He was startled to find the animal was staring at him from only about twenty meters away. He quickly ducked into the high grass and froze. Several minutes later he very cautiously peeked again and was relieved to see the animal was again feeding on nuts. It showed no sign of having seen him. He called again, and again there was no reaction. He backed away from the crest and hurried back to Hil.

They touched heads again and Wen asked, #Did you receive my calls?#

#Yes, I certainty did. You have a lot of strength.#

#Did you notice any reaction from the animal?#

#No, nothing.#

#Me neither. Well, that seems conclusive then. The basic requirement for personhood is 'it calls', and this animal doesn't.#

#What do we do now?# Hil asked. #Continue our journey?#

#No, we can't pass up a chance like this. This animal is even bigger than a bonom, and if it can be domesticated it may solve some of our food production problems. I'll stay here and watch it. You go back to town as fast as you can and tell Zan what we found. Tell him to send as many men as he can, we've got to capture this animal! We'll need cord, nets, and all the ropeworms he can spare. Empty your pack of everything except what food you'll need and your water jar. I'll camp near here and keep the animal under observation. Now go!#

Hil hurried off. Wen scouted around for a lookout point and was fortunate to find a good place not far away, an outcropping on the far side of the ridge. A tree had fallen across two sandstone blocks, forming a crevice that he could just fit into. He could see the animal from here, and it would be difficult for the animal to see him. If it did see him the steep sides of the outcropping would prevent it from reaching him. Reaching me immediately. I hope it isn't smart enough to climb the ridge somewhere else and cut me off.

Wen carefully observed the animal for the rest of the day, recording video on one of the few cameras salvaged from the wreck of the colony ship. When it got dark the animal went to its den in a depression in the rock. Wen watched until he was sure the animal was settled for the night, and then he made a dry camp in a sheltered place on the ridge. Well before dawn he was back in his lookout position and was able to observe the animal for the entire day. He was careful to record in detail what food it ate.

That night, greatly daring, he crept close to the animal's den and heard it making rhythmic noises as it slept. He was now confident that it was dormant at night and used the opportunity to fill his water jar at the spring.

Wen watched the strange animal for the next two days. It got to be tedious, except for a few anxious hours when the animal moved out of his sight and he wondered if it had left its den area. All it did was sleep, gather food, and eat, with no sign of any intellectual activity. He noted that when the animal excreted wastes it took care to move away from its den before doing so. It seemed to be intelligent, at least compared to a bonom; once it used a fallen branch to knock down nuts from a tree. The only excitement came when it stalked one of the small animals. It crept close and then jumped at the animal, which took off running. It ran after the fleeing herbivore, with a speed that astounded Wen. The small animal was only able to escape by diving into a burrow.

Before dawn of the next day Wen was observing the animal in its den when he heard Hil cautiously call his name. He crept out of his observation post. Hil was crouched behind a bush about twenty meters away. Wen joined him and they put their heads together. #Where are the others?# Wen asked.

#About 300 meters back, hidden in some thick brush. Do you want to meet them there or should they come here?#

#We'll go to them. I don't want to frighten the animal. If it runs away we'll have a hard time catching it.#

Wen and Hil carefully descended the low ridge and made their way to where the others were hiding. There were six males, and Wen was glad to see that Ulo, the town veterinarian, was among them. The others were some of the largest and strongest males in the town. Each had a large wicker backpack, and Wen had them dump the contents. Besides food and personal equipment were piles of cordage, straps, and nets. Three ropeworms were coiled in small baskets, their green skins making them look like animated vines. Wen stroked each ropeworm in turn, and was gratified when their conditioning made them respond to his subtle signals by coiling and uncoiling, elongating and contracting.

Wen inspected the equipment and then addressed the group. #It appears we have what we need to capture the animal. Our best chance of capturing it is to take it by surprise, and the best way to do that is during the night, when it's dormant. Since it's active during the day I assume it uses sight as its primary sense, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have sensitive hearing, so we've got to keep quiet. Above all, be careful! This is a large, potentially dangerous animal. Its claws seem to be vestigial, but it does have fangs. Watch out for its legs, they look like they can deliver powerful kicks. Everyone find a comfortable but hidden place to wait until dark, we'll act then. I'll go back to my observation post and watch the animal.#

Wen crawled back to the post and found that the animal was just waking up. He watched it drink some water from the spring and forage for some food, and then walk briskly away in a straight line. He waited patiently, but it did not return. Finally, two hours after sunset, he gave up. The animal had moved on.

Wen called a meeting of the hunters. #It looks like we were just too late. The animal has apparently left this area. I don't think it saw us though, so it may not have gone far. I propose that we follow its tracks until we catch it or our food starts to run out. Any comments?#

Ulo said, #I suppose that's our best chance. We can't just walk away from this opportunity, our survival depends on obtaining draft animals.# The others in the group indicated their agreement, and at dawn the next day they resumed their hunt.

* * *

I woke up at dawn. Before I got up I mused a bit about my life. The days had just seemed to run together, since all I did was eat and sleep. This was a paradise, with a pleasant climate and food for the gathering, but there were problems too. I wasn't lonely yet, but what if it's years or decades before we're rescued? Can I stand a solitary life? What if I get sick or hurt? There would be no one to take care of me. I was briefly tempted to return and live with the other women, but I rejected the thought. I knew that if I went back those sluts would force me to be their sex slave. I'd be one right now if Yan had tied a tighter knot.

I finally decided that, like it or not, I was going to have to return to the pod. Not to live there, but I needed equipment, especially blankets for the colder weather that was surely coming, and rope so I could rig a snare to catch the small animals. It would also be desirable to have some bags or containers to store food and also a fire starter. I didn't think I could ask for this equipment openly so I would probably have to steal it. My decision was made, so after eating some roots and drinking some water I walked away from my campsite.

The weather was very nice today; not too hot and with a gentle breeze. Just for fun I ran, and the lower gravity and the higher oxygen let me leap and gambol. Then I calmed down and resumed traveling at a walk. I continued until the sun went down and then a bit farther, using the faint light from the ring. I camped near the river, but hidden in some thick brush. I didn't expect the sluts to be this far from the pod, but no use taking any chances.

I continued my travel for two more days, going very slowly and carefully so I wouldn't be surprised by any of the other women. I made my final approach to the pod before dawn, and found a good hiding place in some bushes on a low ridge a couple of hundred meters from the pod. From here I could observe the comings and goings of the sluts without them seeing me.

Unusually, Yan, Zaphre, and Selen climbed out from under the airfoil shortly after dawn. Even more unusually, they walked away from the pod, each in a different direction, rather than lolling around in the shade. They must have run out of wild weed, or else Su cut them off. Selen walked towards me before turning in the direction of a grove of nut trees about half a kilometer farther on, and I decided to follow her.

I followed Selen as she walked to the grove of nut trees. She was carrying a cloth sack on a rope sling over her shoulder. At the grove, she took a longer coil of rope out of her sack and tossed it over a branch and pulled on the rope, shaking it to knock down nuts. She was so engrossed in this that I was able to creep up close to her before she noticed me. Finally she saw me and she exclaimed, "Dia! Where did..." Then my fist impacted her jaw and she fell down, stunned but not unconscious. Before she could recover I pulled down the rope from the branch and used it to tie her hands behind her back. I wrapped several loops around her waist and tied it in front, anchoring her hands to the small of her back.

It wasn't long before Selen recovered, and true to form, her first words were a complaint. "Why'd you hit me Dia? And why'd you tie me up?"

"Just returning the favor, Selen. Surely you remember what you did to me just before I left? But why are you out here gathering nuts? Tired of the synthesizer food? Or are you just bored because you're out of wild weed?"

"There is no more synthesizer food! A few days after you left it caught fire one night. It was terrible. Su was sleeping inside the pod and the smoke killed her."

"What about Mari? Was she killed too?"

"No, Su was pissed with her so she gave her to Yan for the night. Of course, she's Yan's bitch all the time now."

"I can't say I'm sorry about Su, but I'm glad Mari is all right."

Selen shook her head. "She's not all right. Yan is even meaner than Su. She treats poor Mari like an animal. Zaphre and me complained, but Yan threatened to do the same to us. She's real crazy."

"Somehow I'm not surprised." I hefted the sack. "So you've had to gather natural food, eh? Lucky that there's so much of it on this planet."

"There's not! All we eat are nuts. We tried eating some berries and they made us sick. We don't know what's good and what's not. I'm real glad you're back, Dia. You know all about this place."

"I wasn't planning to stay, Selen. I just need some equipment to help me live through the winter. I haven't forgotten what you all did to me, and I don't want it to happen again."

"No, no, please, Dia! Don't go! If you go we'll starve. What happened was all Yan's idea, I never wanted to hurt you."

"That's not how I remember it. But enough of this chatter, I have things to do." I yanked on the rope around Selen's waist. "Move. I can't have you running around loose." I pulled her over to a large tree and pushed her so she was pressed against the trunk, face first, and I tied the waist rope around it. "Keep quiet. I'll untie you before I go, unless you start yelling."

"I won't Dia! I'm your friend. It was all Yan's fault."

I just shrugged and turned away. I searched under the trees until I found a fallen branch about as thick as my wrist. I broke off the twigs and smaller branches until I had a club about as long as my arm. While I was doing this I was thinking. Su's death changed the situation. I knew I couldn't best Su in a fight, but I was fairly sure I could beat Yan. Of course, if Yan beat me I'd be her sex slave, but if I won I'd be the new queen bee here and I could live in the pod, which was a lot better shelter than anything I could build. I didn't know how cold the winter would be, but the planet's axial tilt meant there would be a lot of seasonal variation, and I wanted to be prepared.

I slowly and carefully approached the pod, using the skills I learned during my childhood, when my brothers and I used to stalk each other in the woods near our farm. When I got close to the pod I heard crying, and I silently moved toward it until I could see Mari lying under an airfoil. She was in a brutally tight hogtie, and her back, bottom, and legs were covered with swollen red welts. Selen was right; Yan was a cruel bitch.

I was going to untie Mari but then I thought better of it. She might alert the others to my presence, and I needed the advantage of surprise. She didn't see me as I moved to the open pod door and looked inside. The interior was covered with soot and it smelled even worse than before, but it was otherwise intact except for the burned-out food synthesizer. I was happy to see the sluts had at least removed Su's body. I climbed inside and looked through the storage lockers. All of the food was gone and so was the wild weed. I remembered seeing a knife in the tool locker, but it was gone too. There was a small hand saw, and I took it. I also took all of the rope from the tent locker.

With some difficulty I used the saw to cut the rope into convenient lengths and I tied some specialized knots. (My brothers and I used to play tie-up games too). I put the rope and the saw in Selen's cloth bag and slung it over my shoulder. Then, club in hand, I quietly left the pod and walked in the direction that Yan had taken.

Yan was gathering nuts in another grove of trees, using the same rope-over-a-branch technique. She was more alert than Selen, and faced me when I was about ten meters from her. The knife was in a sheath attached to a belt around her waist, and she drew it as soon as she recognized me. "Dia! So you're back. We can take up where we left off." She cut off some of the rope over the branch. "Drop that stick and hold out your hands and I won't cut you."

"I don't think so. You drop the knife and hold out your hands and I won't hurt you."

Yan replied with a snarl and a lunge toward me, the knife held low in her right hand, ready for an upward thrust as soon as I swung the club at her. But I surprised her. I used the club like a sword, thrusting forward and driving the end into her solar plexus. It hit her solidly, aided by her forward motion, and she gasped and collapsed. I turned her face down and sat on her butt as I pulled her hands behind her back and placed her forearms together horizontally inside the loop of one of my special knots. A quick tug tightened the loop, and I ran the rope ends up under her armpits and across the back of her neck. I pulled the rope until her wrists were halfway up her back and tied it there. More rope tied her elbows together, and then I sat her up and wrapped rope around her torso above and below her breasts. When I finished Yan was in a box-tie I knew from experience was inescapable.

By this time she was starting to recover, and she struggled violently against the ropes, to no effect. "You win this round, Dia, but my turn will come and I won't be gentle with you unless you untie me right now. If you do I'll let you go and I won't track you down."

I laughed in her face. "You're delusional, Yan. I won't free you, I'm deciding whether or not I kill you." I tied a slipknot in one end of the rope over the branch and tightened it around Yan's neck. "Stand up!" I commanded, and emphasized this with a jerk on the rope, tightening the slipknot around her neck. Yan scrambled to her feet, a look of fear distorting her face. I tied the free end of the rope to the harness at the back of her neck. "I'm going to get Zaphre. If I don't come back you'll know I've decided that you should die."

I took the belt off Yan's waist and buckled it around mine and put the knife in its sheath. When I turned to go Yan screamed and started to beg and threaten incoherently, but I ignored her. I wasn't really going to kill her, but I figured she would be less likely to cause trouble if she thought I might do it.

I could hear Yan's screams for quite a distance as I walked toward where I thought Zaphre might be if she was also gathering nuts. My earlier explorations were paying off, as I knew where the groves of trees were located. Sure enough, Zaphre was where I expected her to be. I wasn't too concerned about her. She was smaller and weaker than Yan, and not aggressive at all.

When she saw me she exclaimed, "Dia! I didn't think I'd ever see you again. But be careful! Yan is really pissed that you ran away, and she made some terrible threats of what she would do to you if you came back."

"Thanks for the warning, Zaphre, but I've already taken care of Yan. Now I've come for you." I took out a piece of rope. "Clasp your hands and hold them out."

"Why do you want to tie me up? I won't give you any trouble."

"Yeah, but I'll feel safer if you can't give me any trouble. Do as I say. I don't want to hurt you."

Zaphre reluctantly held out her hands and I tied her wrists, wrapping the rope around them several times, cinching the loops, and finishing with a knot underneath where she couldn't reach it with her teeth. I tied her elbows together with a rope across her back, which fastened her hands against her belly. I hobbled her, just so she wouldn't be tempted to kick. I grasped her upper arm and said, "Come on, we're going back to the pod. There are going to be some changes around here."

On the walk back to the pod I thought about how I was going to secure my captives. Selen and Zaphre acted friendly now, but I remembered how they treated me before, and of course Yan was just vicious. Even Mari couldn't be trusted, as she was so easily influenced by a dominant personality such as Yan. I was going to have to keep them inescapably tied up, but loosely enough so they weren't damaged and could do such things as feed themselves.

When we reached to pod Mari saw me and begged, "Please, please untie me, Dia, I hurt so much. Hurry, before Yan comes back! Take me with you when you go."

"In a few minutes, Mari. I have to secure Zaphre first. And don't worry about Yan. She's my prisoner now."

I had a tentative plan. The pod airfoils had leading-edge slats, now extended. Their attachment points were accessible and high enough that I could just reach them, but the other women were too short to do so. I tied a rope around Zaphre's neck, not a slipknot, and tied the other end to the slat. "Lie down, Zaphre. I want to check the length of your tether." She was able to lie flat on the ground with a little slack.

I went into the pod and collected what I remembered seeing; pliers and a roll of thin steel wire. Outside again, I tightly twisted a piece of wire around the knot holding the rope around Zaphre's neck. Now she wouldn't be able to untie it even if her hands were free. The rope was made of an abrasion-resistant synthetic that was just about impossible to cut without a knife.

I untied Mari and she screamed with pain as the circulation returned to her purple arms. I tied her neck to the slat too, far enough away from Zaphre that they couldn't touch each other. I didn't tie her hands yet, and I wrapped wire around the neck knot.

Next I collected Selen from her tree and brought her back to the pod and secured her neck to a slat on the other side of the pod. I untied her wrists and retied them in front, just a few loops around each wrist and a single strand of rope about ten centimeters long between them. I tied her elbows with a rope across her back and secured all the knots, including the hobble, with wire. This wasn't completely secure, but it was the best I could do, and it provide enough slack that she could take care of her personal needs. I tied Zaphre and Mari the same way. Mari gave me her famous hurt kitten look as I tied her hands, but I ignored it. Mari may be a victim, but she's a treacherous victim.

Finally I went back to Yan. She was as tightly tied as she was when I left her, although she had obviously fought the ropes. "I knew you were bluffing, Dia. Untie me now and I'll give you a head start."

Yan's words were bold, but I detected the fear in her voice. "You're still delusional, Yan. I've come back to watch you die." I tied a rope around her right ankle. She tried to kick me, but I dodged behind her and lifted her leg off the ground. She stumbled and screeched at the loop tightened around her neck. I tied the leg rope to the rope across the back of her neck and stepped back as she struggled to regain her balance. I untied her neck rope and tightened it until she was on tiptoe, and then refastened it. "How long can you stand on your toes, Yan? Not long, I'll bet. This is going to be fun, for me."

I sat with my back to the tree and pasted a smile on my face. It wasn't long before Yan's threats turned to crying and pleas for mercy. When I judged that she was about to strangle I untied the neck rope and she fell to the ground, sobbing. As a further humiliation she had shit herself. I hobbled her ankles and used the rope around her neck as a leash to pull her back to the pod. I made sure the other women had a good look at the now-blubbering wreck of the formerly arrogant Yan.

By the time I finished tying Yan's neck to the slat she had recovered enough to ask me to untie her hands. "Not just yet, Yan," I replied. "How long were you in that hogtie, Mari? All night?"

"Yes! And part of the afternoon, too."

"Then I'll let you decide how long Yan's hands stay tied. When you think she's suffered enough tell me and I'll untie her." I had an ulterior motive in this. Besides driving a wedge between Mari and Yan, it would also give me an idea of how much influence Yan still had over Mari.

For the next several days I kept the women tied to the slats, except for twice a day when I took them separately to a latrine I dug about fifty meters from the pod. Eventually, I planned to take them on food-gathering expeditions, but I wanted them to become good and bored first so they'd consider food gathering a treat rather than a chore.

I made an exception for Yan. The area around the pod was littered with food boxes and other garbage, and I held Yan's leash while she picked it up. She was still in the box tie, so she had to walk on her knees and use her mouth. Every time she hesitated or complained I swatted her with the plastic rod she used to beat Mari, and I was surprised by the depths of the cruelty she brought out of me. Mari never did ask me to untie Yan, but I finally had to do it anyway, because I was afraid the strict bondage would cause permanent damage.

I was wearing my bra and panties now, because I felt being clothed while the others were naked put me in a dominate position. I had to do all the food gathering, and this took up most of my day, but one unusually warm afternoon I stopped at a deep pool in the river not far from the pod and decided to swim. I stripped of my clothes and the belt holding the knife and swam for some time. I finally left the water and stretched out on the grass in the shade of a tree to dry off. Soon I fell asleep.

* * *

Hil was the point man for the Garran expedition. He carried a beacon detector, and the signal strength told him he was very close to the alien beacon. He was moving slowly and carefully along the river bank, using the vegetation as cover, when he saw the big black animal, asleep under a tree. He urgently called to Wen, and a short time later he was joined by the rest of the group.

Wen took charge immediately. #We may never have a better chance to capture this beast! Quick, get the gear ready, but be quiet! And remember, be careful!#

* * *

I woke up suddenly. I could feel something touching my feet. I opened my eyes and I saw I was surrounded by large animals. I was very frightened. Were these predators I hadn't seen before? They were smaller than me, but so are wolves, and this could be a pack. I sprang to my feet and tried to run, but I tripped and fell heavily. My ankles were tied together! Now I realized I was surrounded by monkeys wearing clothes! I sat up and punched the nearest monkey, knocking it down. A two-legged kick downed another monkey and the others backed off.

One of the monkeys took a green vine out of a basket and flicked its end across the front of my body. It coiled around my torso just below my breasts, pinning my arms to my sides. Another monkey tossed a vine across my legs and it coiled around my thighs and locked my knees together. Seeing vines act like this startled me and I stopped moving for a moment. Not smart! A monkey slipped a black bag over my head and tightened a drawstring around my neck.

I kept thrashing and squirming, but it was hopeless. I couldn't fight what I couldn't see. Something circled my right wrist and then my left wrist, and my hands were slowly pulled together behind my back. By straining to the max I was able to briefly stop the relentless pull, but as my arms got tired my forearms were pressed together. I could feel small hands wrapping rope around my body, legs, and wrists. I was having trouble breathing. Was I going to die of suffocation by monkey? I forced myself to calm down so I could breathe.

When the monkeys finished tying me they took the bag off my head. I was wrapped in a cocoon of rope. I felt a thick 'bamboo' pole behind my back and felt the monkeys tie it to my ankles and waist. It was longer than I was tall, extending above my head. A monkey started to tightly tie my neck to the pole. I panicked when the rope bit into my throat and I started to choke, but another monkey made him stop and tie the rope around my shoulders instead. I was puzzled, because the monkeys were acting as a coordinated team, but no one said anything. The only sounds they made were grunts when I hit them. I wasn't quiet. I screamed and yelled, and I even pleaded and threatened. It didn't matter, they didn't let me go.

Once the ropes were tied a monkey stroked the green vines and they uncoiled. I flexed and twisted, but I couldn't move very much. Working together, the monkeys rolled me into a long net and tied its edges to the pole. I stopped struggling, because I was totally helpless now.

* * *

Once the animal was wrapped in the net the Garrans paused to rest. #Well, that was a struggle! Anybody hurt?# Wen asked.

#I'm afraid so,# Ulo replied. #Tilo was knocked unconscious, and Maf's arm is broken.# He opened the medical kit and applied a splint to Maf's arm.

Tilo groaned and managed to sit up, both hands clutching his head. #That's a powerful beast, and all of its limbs are dangerous. What do we want it for? Vivisection, I hope.#

Wen replied, #No, if we can domesticate it we can use it to replace a bonom. You know how badly we need farm animals.#

Tilo stood and walked unsteadily to the net-wrapped animal. #We won't be able to tame it unless it responds to pain. Let's test that.# He kicked the animal's long leg and it flinched and cried out. #Well, maybe we can do something with it. Too bad we didn't bring a whip.# He kicked the animal again. #Vicious beast!#

#Enough, Tilo! It's just an animal. We frightened it and it reacted instinctively. It's not morally responsible for hurting you, so leave it alone.#

Ulo asked, #Are you sure it's an animal, Wen? If so, how do you explain these items that were next to it? This is a knife, and these look like clothes.#

Hil interrupted. #We're very close to the alien beacon. Should I scout ahead?#

Wen replied, #Yes, do that Hil, but be careful you're not seen. Report back as soon as you can.# He turned to Ulo. #I'm sure it's an animal. It didn't respond to my calls.#

#You may not know this, Wen, but the ability to call does not develop automatically. It's dormant until it's activated by direct contact with an active mind. Usually, of course, parents activate their cubs without even thinking about it, but there have been cases of feral cubs without the ability to call.#

#I didn't know that. Maybe I was wrong about this beast.#

#It's so rare it's not common knowledge. But now we've got to determine for sure if this is an animal or a person.# Ulo placed his forehead against the beast's forehead and called, #Hello, can you receive me?#

* * *

One of the monkeys touched his head to mine and suddenly there was this voice inside my skull, and it felt like part of my brain I never knew I had opened up. I replied, #Yes, I can hear you! But how is it you're speaking Galactic?#

The monkey transmitted what felt like a laugh. #I'm not. On this primal level your brain automatically understands what it receives. You're just interpreting it as your spoken language. My name is Ulo and I am male. What is your name and your gender?#

#My name is Dia and I'm female. All this is a shock to me. I never knew I had this ability.#

#Can you still receive me when our heads aren't touching?# Ulo backed off about a meter. #Can you receive me now?#

#Yes, but it's very faint.# I squirmed in the net. #Could you release me? This is very uncomfortable.#

#I don't know. You did injure two of my companions.#

#I'm sorry about that. You took me by surprise. I'm not a violent person, and I promise I won't hurt anybody else.#

#Let me ask our leader.# Ulo called to Wen. #This is definitely a person. She wants us to release her from the net.#

While Wen was pondering this revelation and request Hil called. #I've reached the alien craft. It's small, I think it's an escape pod. And there are four more of the beasts, tethered to it.#

Ulo announced, #We found your spacecraft. Our scout said there were four others like you tethered to it. Why are they tied up?#

Although I didn't know it then, my reply was to have a profound effect on our future. I could have said I tied them up because I was afraid they might hurt me, or they wanted to make me their sex slave. Instead I replied, #They're animals,# not meaning it literally, just describing their behavior.

Wen exclaimed, #Farm animals? Can they pull a plow? We desperately need to cultivate more land, our survival depends on it.#

For some reason this reminded me of a porno video I once saw, featuring pony girls pulling a cart. Jokingly I replied, #Yes, I suppose they could do that.#

Ulo interrupted, #We have to be sure they're not people. I must test them to be sure they can't call.#

So much for my little joke about animals. If I could call, then the other women could call. I shrugged. #If you must. But be careful! Yan, the one on the far right, is especially vicious.#

Ulo hurried off. I called to Wen, #Can you release me now?# Then I wondered how I knew that the monkey's name was Wen and that he was the leader.

Wen gave his permission and the monkeys unraveled me from my cocoon. As soon as I was free I dressed myself in my bra and panties and buckled on the knife belt. Seeing me clothed and carrying a tool seemed to impress the monkeys and I felt it. Maybe they transmitted their emotions, too. I realized I had a lot to learn about my new ability.

I headed back towards the pod and the Garrans (How did I know that?) followed me.

Ulo met us just before we got there. #I tested all four of the beasts and none have any trace of calling ability.# He turned to me, #I'm surprised they don't have the ability but you do. You're so much alike physically.#

His report that that the other women couldn't call astounded me. Maybe all the wild weed had fried that part of their brains? But thinking fast, I replied, #You can see the external markers of the difference between us. My skin is dark, their skin is light. My hair is curly, their hair is straight. But these are just the outward signs; the unseen differences in behavior and intellect are very large. There's no doubt we had a common ancestor, but our evolution has diverged.# I thought of something else. #Did you notice the tattoos all over their skins? Those are ownership marks. Surely you don't think people would mark up their bodies like that.#

Ulo nodded. #That makes sense. Yes, they're definitely animals.#


I gave the Garrans permission to take what they wanted from the pod and they stripped it of everything metallic, leaving only the polymer hull. They made a large sled out of the local version of bamboo and loaded all their loot on it, and I hitched my 'team' to it. The sluts weren't happy to become draft animals, but since they were still tied up all they could do was complain. That didn't matter, since the Garrans didn't understand them and I didn't care. I salvaged Su's white plastic rod, and applied it liberally to any shirkers. It was hard going at first, but the Garrans set a slow pace, and by the time we reached their town the women were resigned to their fate and I didn't have to whip them much.

Once at the town I was housed in a tent until a house could be modified to accommodate my height. The four women were quartered in a custom-built stable, and my ropes were replaced by ingenious leather harnesses that allowed them a large degree of movement while making it impossible for them to injure anybody. At harvest time my team pulled a reaper, and that allowed us to gather the crop before the rains came. Wen was very grateful, because last year a lot of the crop had gotten wet and rotted in the field. Some of the labor replaced by our work was used by the Garrans to gather the natural food that we ate and a lot of it was preserved for the winter.

The winter was colder than I expected, and there was even a bit of snow, but we were all warm and well-fed. I doubt that the women could have survived on their own, so they got something in return for their labor. Of course, they didn't appreciate this.

In the spring the main task was plowing, and this was a tough job. The women pulled the plow, but I had to guide and push it, and we all worked hard. We were able to plow more than twice as much land as had been cultivated the previous spring, and the Garrans' profound gratitude was almost embarrassing.

The workload was easier in the summer, and I had a surprise for my team. I had salvaged some wild weed seeds from the stash locker, and had sown a small plot. Fortunately, the conditions were right to produce the active chemical, and I was able to reward my 'animals'. While I fully shared in the intellectual life of the town, the other women couldn't take part in it. But that didn't matter to them when they were stoned.

All things considered, I think things have worked out well for all of us. The Garrans now have enough food to survive and thrive. I am a respected member of this unique and fascinating community. And the other women are still alive and have all the drugs they want.

I sometimes think back on the misunderstandings which led to this excellent outcome and thank my lucky stars. Maybe one day we will all be rescued by one or the other of our species, which would lead to some awkward questions if it was my people. But, until then, I am happy with my new life!

The End

Copyright© 2012 by Zack. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at zack_writer@hotmail.com