Chapter 13:

The Meeting

Badass (8-4D-455)

Location: forest road
Health: 100%
Energy reserves: -3%

The strike and the fall had dazed the little spider-rat. It lay motionless under the oak, all eight legs strangely spread out, feeble rat jaws gaping. Badass raised his club to deal the creature a mortal blow, but suddenly the woods echoed with a deep thrumming and the crash of branches, swiftly approaching. There’s a whole herd, was the first thought in Badass’s mind, and judging by the noise, at least one of them is terribly large. He considered for a while whether he should flee or not. At the village, he and Badger-Bart had managed the culling alone, but Bart had done the greater part. Could I manage a whole herd of giant spider-rats by myself? Badass wondered. That moment of hesitation was enough for the crashers in the wood to arrive. As Badass stood, club still poised to strike, to his great surprise he saw a two-headed elk emerge from the bush, instead of the expected herd of spider-rats. But he was even more surprised to notice a pretty ragged and angry-looking unfamiliar woman sitting astride the elk.

“Don’t!” shouted the stranger, driving the elk between Badass and the tiny spider-rat, forcing Badass to take several steps back. “That’s my little friend!”

Badass blinked at her dimly and let his club fall. He was certain that this woman wasn’t from the village in the spruce. The new arrival returned his stare, glowering, and the first thing that caught Badass’s attention were her eyes. Strangely wide, with impossibly large pupils.

The woman must have been a survivor from the spaceship, there was no doubt about it. Her clothing incorporated local materials, but the weave underneath, although torn and tattered, was unmistakably the blue-and-red smart fabric overalls of a spacesuit.

“Sorry,” said Badass, examining the two-headed elk the woman was riding. It was a proud animal, a mighty pair of horns like a crown on both heads. If it charged me right now, I wouldn’t even have time to squeal before it trampled me underfoot or pierced me with its horns, thought Badass. It seemed that just like Naiscy and the others herded the spider-rats, this woman had domesticated the elk and the spider-rat pup, the so-called Little Friend. Little Friend must have been her cattle, providing silk for the fabric.

“You must have been here a while,” continued Badass, wondering how the woman could bend such a beast to her will. It must have been hard to bring down, not to mention tame.

“A while?”

The woman repeated the question so strangely that Badass didn’t understand whether she confirmed it or wondered to herself. “I don’t know,” she finally replied, mumbling so quietly that it was hard to understand. “Five or six local days, I think.”

The dazed spider-rat began to move its legs. It rose to its feet, stumbling, opened its jaws as if to test whether they were still intact and, having satisfied itself with the results, climbed quickly up the elk’s leg, settling on the beast’s neck between the two heads to stare down at Badass with all its eight eyes. The elk quivered uneasily for a moment, but the woman searched the cocoon pockets on her chest for a handful of spruce shoots and threw them to the animal. One of the elk’s heads started munching them off the ground, the other glanced once at the spider-rat and then turned its attention to Badass. Its eyes were glazed over and it looked to be in a strange trance, much like its mistress. Something weird was happening between the two, but Badass didn’t quite understand it.

“Do you have any water? I must drink,” asked the woman. Indeed, she looked exhausted and pale, with dark rings around the eyes.

“I don’t.”

The woman nodded, as if expecting it. Unexpectedly, the elk raised its other head, the last spruce shoot still dangling from its mouth, and started stumbling towards the lake, chewing lazily. The woman made no effort to stop it and Badass, not wanting to lose this new acquaintance immediately, grabbed his basket from under the elk and hurried after them. The woman seemed a bit cracked in the head, but Badass couldn’t say whether the strangeness came from dehydration and exhaustion or whether she was concussed from the shipwreck in space and the following landing.

“What’s your designation?” the woman asked. “I am nine-kilo-oscar-five hundred-and-twelve.“

Badass was surprised that the woman addressed him with a ship designation. She must have been from another section, or a brand new clone, because in Badass’s part of the ship they soon abandoned the number and letter combinations for more convenient nicknames.

“Eight-alpha-delta-four hundred-and-fifty-five, Badass to my friends.”

The woman snorted, as many did, upon first hearing the name Badass. Meanwhile, he tried to remember the other’s designation, but had to glumly concede that he had forgotten it the moment he heard it. Luckily, Skinny came to his rescue, having immediately entered the new acquaintance into her catalogue.

“Indeed, why not. Badass then,” said the woman to herself.

“Don't you have a shorter name?”, Badass asked nine-kilo-oscar-five hundred-and-twelve.

“A shorter one? Haven't needed it so far,” said the woman thoughtfully. “Nine... K-O,” she mumbled quietly. “Kay-Oh…”

“Keio?” offered Badass.

The woman’s expression lightened.

“All right then, Keio!”

“But where are you going?“ asked Badass. He was concerned that they were moving in the opposite direction to his destination. The badger colony grew more and more distant.

“I must find water,” said Keio.

Oh yes, water. Badass scratched the back of his head. The woman was heading for the lake and that wasn’t a place Badass was keen on visiting right then. What if the damned birds had found their nests looted and were waiting there, guarding? He glanced up at the sky, but the trees hid it from view and it was tough to say whether a vengeful flock circled overhead or not.

“Hey, don't go there. The lake is that way, but the lake birds...“ Badass explained how the gulls attacked him upon landing and how they could stalk the coast in defense of their nests. “But I just saw a spring! It's quite close, that way,” he said. He had indeed noticed a spring, but hadn’t paid it much mind.

“All right,” agreed Keio, patting her elk and guiding to where Badass pointed.

The spring wasn’t far and Badass could see the woman had suffered from a mighty thirst, as a long time passed before it was quenched. The elk also seized the chance, drinking first with one head, then the other, munching on spruce shoots in the meantime. Badass even dared to pet it once, but the elk grew nervous, so he retreated to the other side of the spring, sitting down.

While the woman drank, Badass told her about his adventures, starting with the escape pod breaking apart upon entering the atmosphere. He spoke quite openly and thoroughly, hesitating only once, debating whether to mention the badger colony. You never know, she could also have been an enthusiastic badger hunter. But considering the elk and Little Friend who had scrambled up a tree to mind its own business, Badass decided that Keio didn’t look like someone who would want to commit genocide against intelligent badgers.

So he went on, omitting nothing, describing how he happened upon the badgers and later the village in the spruce and finally mentioning that he was on his way to the badger colony to warn them about Badger-Bart’s hunt. Badass kept a careful eye on the woman’s expressions and reactions. But his trust paid off: no hunting fever came over Keio. Listening to Badass’s tale, she shook her head several times and finally said: “Let’s go! Let’s warn the badgers.” She pulled herself up onto the elk, who looked much more restless than before. It seemed their bond wasn’t as deep as it used to be.

“But the village?” Badass asked. “I should take you to them first. You could rest and… You don’t look so good.”

Keio grunted. “If what you say is true, I don’t want anything to do with these people, survivors or not.”

“They aren’t that bad,” said Badass. “Naiscy and Tooler…”

But the woman silenced him with a gesture.

“No. Let’s go to the badgers.”

Badass wasn’t about to argue, as he wanted to reach the badgers as quickly as possible. He got to his feet and started leading the way.

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