Clouds Fall to Earth, Chapter 1

Hunting Day
Rho Aquilae encounters earthbound people for the first time.

Rho woke from his nap and felt queasy. His berth seemed to sway and rock, but in reality it was immobile. No ground wind swept the plain where his family’s dirigible had anchored for hunting day, and it was this lack of movement that made his stomach turn and his head swim, because continuous motion was the normal state of his life.
The sun did not recede below the horizon for long during the summer season at this place on the earth, and so, while it was not long past midnight, visibility prevailed.
Rho rolled from his bed, rinsed his face with water, donned his compact goose-down hunting vest and joined his father, brother, and mother who already had risen and were eating a meal of dried meat and fruit in the dining area.
“Good day son. I hope you slept well,” his father said when Rho took his seat beside Deneb, his brother. “We have strenuous work ahead. Did you charge the e-m guns?”
“Yes, and the extra batteries.”
“Now, I know you are experienced hunters,” Salph said to his sons, but I must review our procedures. Success depends upon not taking anything for granted and becoming overconfident. Being members of the hunter caste means that others depend upon us.”
“May I, father?” Deneb asked.
Deneb was two years younger than Rho, and though he was a Hunter, unlike his other brother and other close relations, he was fine boned like most people of the other castes. His specialty was falconry, which he could perform from the dirigible, but he also was knowledgeable about ground hunts.
“For our target game of tarandus,” he began, “the e-m rifle can deliver a maximum of three lethal shots before you need to change the battery. But it’s unlikely that we will need to shoot, except in self defense against the insan-hayawan.  For this hunt we are to spread out the optimal distance and move the game toward Uncle and our cousins who are in the alder trees to the east.”
“Remember to use radios only when necessary, and Vela…” here Salph turned to his wife, “Be sure to bring down enough baskets after the kill and you, Denab, will help her. Rho, I want you to call your uncle Mirfak and find out when they are in place.”
“Are there . . .”  Denab began and halted.  “Will we see hayawan here?”
“Probably,” his father answered. “Remember that while they look sapien, they’re really animals, worse than animals, best avoided but only worthy of being shot. If they capture you they likely will eat you, after they sacrifice you to their idols. Your uncle spotted smoke of a village when he arrived, but it is far away from us.”
Rho stood up from the table and cleared his place, then he went to the radio room and called his uncle. His older cousin, Chertan, answered, “One hour. We’ll be ready in one hour.”
“Let’s hurry then,” his father said.  “We don’t want them to wait. Rho, you climb topside for a final surveillance for tarandus herds.”
Rho stepped out of the compartment and took in the view. The sky was grey and blue, the earth near, and below him the ground stretched away brown, golden, and green with subtle masses of rose. Between sky and earth stood a line of pyramidal rock and ice-covered mountains.  From the perspective of being anchored, the mountains seemed taller, sharper, standing in high relief.  Across the stretch of turf and low trees before him, perhaps three kilometers away and a kilometer between them, he could make out two small patches glimmering against the background like rippling heat waves rising from desert sand.  Those would be the camouflaged dirigibles of his uncles Mirfak and Rasalas and their families.
He arched his back and stretched his whole body before scampering up the netting covering of the silvery dirigible skin. His gaze lingered upon his glider perched on top and tied down, and he smiled in anticipation of soaring during the Thanksgiving Holidays when his family flight would meet with hundreds of others from around the planet. He always looked forward to the most important of the annual gatherings where people would trade, feast, visit relatives, perform dramas, see doctors and have surgeries, and when for sport the young people would catch mountain waves of air and glide high up in the southern solar vortex where the sky was always black.  But this coming Thanksgiving was to be even more amazing than usual, because he was to be married . . .
Rho suddenly remembered his task and took up his binoculars. Scanning all around, he saw a grey forest in the east with leading lines creeping almost imperceptibly from northwest to southeast. This was the tarandus herd. He zoomed in and could easily see their antlers and catch their distinctive prancing gait, and he noticed their point on the compass, took another longing look at his glider and climbed down to the lower platform.
Salph and Denab had gathered all their needed material and Vela handed them food parcels. “The surface water should be clean here,” she said and gave them quick hugs.
Rho climbed down the thin silky ladder after the other two men and stood on the ground. It always took him a minute to steady himself upon the immobile earth, and Rho looked up at their dirigible looming overhead. Its solar-collecting fabric blended with the blue sky and quiet white of clouds. Rho marveled at the ancient technology that gathered color from one side of the craft and projected it to the opposite side, making their airship practically invisible.
The men took compass readings and fanned out. Fortunately, the bloodsucking culicids, which in this part of the world in certain seasons often formed deafening, whining clouds around people and animals alike, were not bad, and he did not need a veil. Rho had taken the left position across the open ground and soon found a trail that tracked through a gulley with a slow creek moving through spongy turf. There were deep, wide footprints pressed into that turf, and Rho knew it to be an ursus trail. The gully gave him cover for approaching the herd—which he could now hear grunting and thrumming, though he could not see it—but the cover also made the trail dangerous.
As he walked along silently, he decided to leave this risky trail and walk toward a rise to his left, but he waited too late, because when he rounded a corner of a group of willows, a mature boar ursus was there in front of him ripping chunks of flesh from a carcass.
Rho froze, and sharp prickles shot into his hands and feet from a jolt of adrenaline. He began backing up, hoping the ursus would not notice him—a breeze was in Rho’s face, but the huge shaggy ursus caught movement, looked up, and with no hesitation at all, charged. The animal rushed toward him with improbable speed for its size. Rho yelled and raised his weapon, and the ursus stopped.
There was long waiting and neither moved. The ursus chomped his teeth and Rho began backing away again, his motion certainly almost imperceptible. But suddenly, still unsteady on his feet, Rho tripped and nearly fell backward, and the ursus charged again. Rho knew this was no bluff.
He sprung to his feet and ran toward a large boulder and stopped. The ursus was closing and Rho fired wild and missed. The ursus was nearly to him, and Rho suppressed his fear as he waited for the hum of the e-m rifle to rise to its optimal pitch and he fired again into its mouth. This shot burned a 14 millimeter hole through the body. The ursus collapsed at his feet, struggled to rise, and without waiting for the ignition coil to charge, Rho shot again immediately into its skull centered over the eyes.
The ursus breathed twice with long pauses between and stopped moving.  Rho took several deep breaths to calm his heart, drew his knife and stepped to the animal’s side. He knelt down quickly and inserted his knife at the correct place over the breast bone and powerfully up-twisted, lifted, and jumped back. Blood from the ursus’s carterid artery spurted into the air in an arc, steam emanating from the stream and the growing pool in the rocks, and at the same time the ursus’s legs kicked and clawed spasmodically and then finally grew still.
Rho walked over to the boulder, climbed up, sat a few moments to let his shock and fear subside.  He noticed his queasiness was gone—the excitement had driven it away.  He then radioed to his father. “I’ve killed an ursus arctos, sir,” he said. “A large boar, approximately 500 kilos. Will you report to mother so that she can triangulate its location?”
“Yes, son. Good work. Be sure to dress it right away so its heat will dissipate. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.  You may wish to go slower so that I can line up for driving the tarandus.”
“We’ll wait for you.”
Rho dressed the ursus quickly, tying off the penis and anus, and removing the intestines and other internal organs. This took only a few minutes. The hardest part was breaking the pelvic bones so that the colon could be pulled out intact. For this he used a rock to hammer his knife. Afterwards he rinsed in the icy stream, took a long drink, called his father, and then walked up to the rise and resumed his job as a driver.
The remainder of the hunt was routine, but Rho enjoyed watching the tarandus herd move in reaction to their efficient human predators. Individual animals on the perimeter moved away from him and the other drivers. Animals inside the herd, while they could not see the hunters, maintained a distance from their fellows so that they all flowed as one large mass with smaller internal streams that turned in counterpoint circles—a natural artistic expression. The herd together had greater perception intelligence than any individual, but they were no match for the humans who would harvest all they needed. The four shooters, who were Rho’s uncles Mirfak and Rasalas, Rasalas’ son-in-law Tarraz, and Rho’s grandfather Leo, picked out and dropped mid-sized bulls so as to let the large ones live and breed, keeping the species strong. The hunters' weapons made no noise when they fired that the prey could hear, so the herd never spooked.
Tired from the stress of the ursus kill and from running, Rho lingered on the ground long after the last packer had departed. He sipped water and ate some dried fruit. Because of the exhausting nature of their work, drivers were exempted from guiding the full, heavy baskets made lighter from small gas-filled balloons. Rho enjoyed the earthside.  It would be awhile before the next hunt. His people would preserve the meat by use of ultra-violet exposure that sterilized its surface and with a combination of air drying and electric dehydration. Some of the raw meat was cooked by means of microwaves. This preservation work would take days aloft and Rho wished to enjoy the smells of the flora and sounds of the wind in peace.
A kind of soft dusk approached when the sun passed behind a mountain range. Rho sat on a rise and thought of Lyra, his fiancĂ©.  He remembered when they met at the last Thanksgiving Gathering.  He had been one of the men to win the annual lottery that gave him the opportunity to pick a wife.  Of the few single women of marriageable age, he liked her best . . .
Rho woke from his nap without moving, his whole mind and body in rosy contentment. When he opened his eyes he caught motion across the plain. Slowly he lifted his binoculars and what he saw nearly took his breath away. It was a line of hayawan armed with their primitive weapons. Perhaps they were following the tarandus herd. Most of the males carried long spears or bowed sticks. Rho wondered how effective these might be and thought he should research this.  The hayawan appeared somewhat human, but the legends of his people and current news reports over the long-range radio confirmed their violent barbarity and sordid customs. Rho had been taught to fear them even more than the ursus. Never before had he been this close. Assured by the breeze in his face that would keep them and their white and black lupi pack from smelling him, Rho held his position and continued to study them. Their bone structure appeared to be heavier than that of people, and their skin color was slightly darker than that of his own family group, but other than these differences, it would have been hard to tell these creatures apart from real persons.
As he looked, Rho’s heart lurched. Into his view had stepped a young female, one that, if she was not yet paired with a male, she soon would be. She wore a dun-colored hide dress and a necklace of small white and red stones. Dark, thick braids of her hair flopped on her back as she walked. Rho stared and was unaware that his mouth was open. He lowered his binoculars and dared not look again, but he could still see her in his mind. The teachings of his people had presented the hayawan as being so completely repugnant that apparently never had anyone thought to warn against the bewitching appearance of their young females. Rho shivered and tried to shake loose the image that gripped him. He stood slowly and moved away toward his family dirigible. When he felt that there was sufficient safe distance from the group of hayawan, he ran all the rest of the way home to find everyone busy with slicing meat in preparation for drying.

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