"Sorry about this, Pete."
"Fat lot of good that does me, you cheap bastard!". Pete was understandably upset. He dropped his tool belt and slumped his ample body into the Navigator seat. "Those cells are totally useless. We're screwed. No way you can wangle you're way out of this one, pal."
"Sorry Pete." Pete, in his chair, bit his nails."Look, I've done some scans of this planet. There's dry land and we can breathe the air. Maybe we'll be O.K. until the rescue party gets here." Pete spat a nail at the monitors. John called up the results of more scans.
"It's winter down there now, but in six months the sun comes out and the weather is temperate. We have enough supplies on the ship to last us. Treat it as a vacation. R & R."
"We're in the middle of nowhere. That planet's magnetic field is too strong for our SOS beacon. There's not gonna be any rescue party. The ship doesn't have enough fuel for atmospheric entry. If we survive the entry, we'll be killed by the local wildlife or die from starvation." Another mouthful of nail chewings flew at the monitors.
John knew he was right. They would probably be destroyed trying to land. He had to give it his best shot though. John cursed himself. He sat on a rock outside a cave and looked across a wide plain of snow that stretched to the horizon. Behind him a mountain range stretched up to the sky. Snow fell and the wind screamed around him, driving the snow into deep drifts.
"Sorry about this, Pete."
"Fat lot of good that does me." Pete was breathing hard from the walk up the hill from the burning wreckage of the ship. He pulled a pair of binoculars from the kit bag on the ground at his feet and began scanning the plain. "You said we could eat the stuff on this planet, right?" John looked up. "Yeah. Proteins, amino acids, all that stuff is close enough to ours that we can use it. You think we should start scraping lichen?".
"Oh, I can do better than that." Pete handed the binoculars to John and rubbed his belly as a broad grin spread across his face. "Take a look down there."
Binoculars to his face, John looked across the plain. Snow, snow and more snow.
"Snow. I see snow."
"Look at the drifts. Look closely." John looked closely. It wasn't all snow! There - the outline of an animal. White, curly fur to blend in with the snow. Stocky body. The size of a large dog. Now that he knew what to look for, he could pick them out easily. Shoulder to shoulder, nose to rump, as far in all directions as he could see. The snow drifted against them, covered them, blew around them.
"What the hell are they doing just standing there?"
Pete walked out of the cave. "Conserving body heat. Like the penguins back home in Antarctica. They stand in groups like that all through the winter, for months. When the spring comes, they head out to sea to feed. These things must do the same thing."
"Doesn't look like they could swim very well."
"I didn't mean that. Just that they survive the winter by huddling together." John dropped the binoculars to his side and turned to look at Pete. He was holding a brown disk the size of a dinner plate in his hand.
"Dung. We can use it to make a fire. The cave's full of the stuff. They must come up here when the weather's warmer."
John tried to wash his hands in the snow. It did taste somewhat like lamb. He wished for a wet-wipe. The grease had run down his arm to his elbow. A gust of wind blew the smoke from the dung fire into his face. He coughed and rubbed his tearing eyes. Killing the animal had been easy. They had walked down to the... herd? That would have to do. Pete had scraped the snow from the ground and pried a rock from the frozen ground. The alien sheep had looked at them with their big brown eyes but made no effort to move away.
"They don't know they should fear us!" Pete had said "This is gonna be some easy hunting." Pete had walked up to an animal on the edge of the herd. He raised the rock high above his head and smashed it down on the head of the animal. It had fallen to the ground, let out a single bleat, and died. Using knives from his tool kit, Pete butchered it where it lay. They had carried the meatiest portions back to the cave, leaving the snow stained red with the dead animal's blood leaking from the carcass. John threw a rib bone into the fire.
"I still say we should have used more of the meat." Pete yawned massively.
"Why? Plenty more where that came from. We could live here all our lives and not go through that lot." He gestured towards the plain.
"It just seems wasteful to me, that's all."
"Ah, stop your moanin'." Pete threw another piece of dung on the fire. "I gotta hand it to you, though. Of all the planets to get stranded on, this one's gotta be near the top of anyones list. Food for the taking, a nice fire, a nice warm cave, no nasty bug-eyed monsters. And fireworks every night!" Pete looked out through the cave entrance at the aurora lighting up the sky, caused by the magnetic fields. Curtains of blue, green, red and yellow streamed across the night sky. Spring was coming. The curly white fur of the animals on the plain was falling out, revealing a sleek brown summer coat. As their fat reserves were used up, their bodies became less stocky. Water ran in rivulets down the rock around the entrance to the cave, turning the ground into a quagmire of mud and slush. John walked through the mess, trying not to slip, and looked down to the plain. Almost as far as he could see, the snow was red with the blood of the slaughtered alien sheep. With the binoculars, he could pick out Pete, trudging his way back to the cave, portions of a carcass slung over his shoulder. His belly rolled as he walked and his eyes seemed to have sunken into mounds of flesh that rolled down his face and hung in huge jowls over the collar of his coveralls. John was convinced that Pete was going to have a heart attack at any moment. All he did was eat and sleep. For the first couple of weeks, they had killed one animal every few days. But Pete had begun to eat more and more. Now he walked down to the plain every day and killed four or five of the beasts. He carried the fattiest, juiciest parts back to the cave and ate until he was in a stupor. John shook his head in disgust. He walked back to the cave entrance and began fiddling with the SOS beacon salvaged from their wrecked ship. After a few minutes had passed, Pete entered the cave and began cooking his prize on the fire.
"Pete, I've been wondering. How does that plain support such a huge amount of animals? Surely they must chew the grass down to nothing when the spring comes." Pete broke a leg bone across his knee and sucked the marrow out.
"Nah, think of the bison in the old west. Millions of animals. It would take a week for a herd to pass. These animals will probably start moving when the weather warms. By the time all the grass is gone, they've moved on, and by the time they come by again, the grass has grown back." John didn't want to think about what would happen if these beasts migrated to a different place. He certainly couldn't imagine Pete chasing them across the plains, fat wobbling in the air. When John woke the next day, the weather had broken. The sun was shining gloriously bright and the temperature was at least twenty degrees warmer. He looked around for Pete, but he had already started his quest for food, and was approaching the herd. John sat on the rocks and watched with his binoculars. Something was wrong. He had a gut feeling that something about the herd was very, very different. Just about all of the animals had lost their white coats and now were in their sleek, springtime brown. Bodies now devoid of fat, muscle and sinew showing through their skin, John thought they had a sinister look. They looked less like sheep and more like... John leaped to the top of the rocks and began screaming for Pete. But he was too far away. As Pete raised a rock above one of the animals, it turned it's head to look up at him. The creatures foaming lips peeled back, revealing a set of savage looking teeth, canines dripping saliva. John watched Pete drop the rock, turn around and begin running back towards the cave. The animal turned and prepared to spring. Before it could leave the ground, the animal next to it ripped a huge chunk of flesh from it it's side. They began rolling in the mud, knocking into other animals who in turn awakened from their winter stupor and began lashing out at those around them. John had once seen a ping-pong ball dropped into the center of a room full of mousetraps. This was worse. Seemingly instantly, the entire plain erupted into a maelstrom of destruction, each beast savagely attacking it's neighbor, in turn to be set upon by others. John watched in stupefied horror, then turned and ran towards the cave. He started flinging dung towards the entrance. After an hour of frantic activity, he had built a low wall. Pulling a smoldering piece, from last nights fire, he began setting the wall ablaze until the entire structure was smoking and throwing off sparks. Then he sat down to wait, rising occasionally to build up sections of the wall that were burning low. After an hour, he heard Pete. He was calling for him from just beyond the rocks that looked down to the plain. John carefully cleared a section in the burning wall and ran through it to the edge of the rocks. Out on the plain, perhaps one animal in a thousand was left standing, the fittest and the strongest. After their long winter fast, they were gorging on their dead and dying neighbors. Pete lay just below, face red, chest heaving. His eyes seemed to have shrunk even deeper into his face and the sweat poured from his fat body.
"My heart! I'm having a heart attack!".
John jumped down from the rocks and with an enormous effort, dragged Pete's fat body into the cave. John rebuilt the wall of dung and made sure it was burning well. That night Pete died. He hadn't said anything since John had dragged him into the cave. He had taken some water, but he looked worse and worse. With the amount of flesh on him, John was surprised he had lasted as long as he did. John stayed awake the entire night, rebuilding the wall as it burnt low and watching the predators eyes around the entrance to the cave. It was going to be a long summer.
"I'm free, I'm free, good for me!" he sang. The crewmembers looked at each other. The man had obviously gone insane from loneliness. The shouting man began running around on the hard- packed earth waving his hands in the air, drool running down his chin. One of the crewmembers walked into the cave.
"Hey Charlie, you better come and have a look at this!" The other crewmember walked into the cave and saw the skeleton of a man lying towards the back. "Now why would he do that when he has all those sheep-things out there?".
They turned and walked out of the cave, grabbed the shouting man and began to walk back towards the shuttle. "You are under arrest for murder and cannibalism by the authority of the Navy. Do you have anything to say for yourself?".
The shouting man grinned from ear to ear and yelled "Wolf in sheep's clothing! Wolf in sheep's clothing!".
The crewmembers looked at each other. "You certainly are my friend. You certainly are."
You can e-mail Con at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Born in London, England. Moved to USA in 1983. Live in Hoboken NJ. Work for MTV doing your typical computer geek stuff. Married to Helen, no kids. Dress all in black but never depressed. The URL for the homepage is www.netcom.com/~cdowler But it's on Netcom, so it's not always reliable.
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