The Wild Frontier

The Wild Frontier by David Macfie

The following day, the Baltra team left Genesis. The jump to the next settlement site was uneventful and several days were taken to put up the temporary tented accommodation and organize all the provisions, building materials, tools and equipment as well as all the members of the team. They landed just south of the site for Newtown and used the space there beside the lake.

Once they were settled, Jamie looked out over the new landmass. It was much wilder than Chatham had been, since the only activity that had taken place here was the construction of the desalination plants across the lake and the restructuring of the water flows. Jamie gazed all round his present position and was reminded of the old Davey Crockett song of his parents’ day. Davey was reputed to be ‘the king of the wild frontier’ and that was exactly how Jamie felt in that moment. There was no civilization west or south and only a smattering to the north. On the east was the sea. It really was virgin land. In the distance to the south he could just make out what looked like herds of the indigenous antelope and bovine species and there were birds everywhere. He found himself hoping that the new activity here could be completed without damage to this pristine ecosystem. He’d certainly talk to the agrarian and conservation group about that. After a long moment he shook himself and gathered his leaders.

The priorities were agreed – first, completing the laying out of the whole Newtown settlement of warehouses, factories, public works facilities, and then, finally, houses. This would include dams, generating facilities, schools, hospitals, malls and so on. The first construction would be the warehouses to store all the provisions and materials that were already on site and would continue to arrive regularly. Next on the list were the factories that would create all the components of the pre-fabricated housing and other buildings. Once the factories were in production the focus was to be on the public works buildings and the infrastructures for dams, roads, education, energy generation and distribution, communications, health care agriculture and conservation. Once this was all in hand the focus would shift to housing for the new residents of Baltra.

As a result, the atmosphere was frantic and everyone worked fifteen hours a day to get on top of the workload. Before long Jamie and Pantando-Ka realized that this was a stupid approach. If they continued like this, they would have lots of burnout and breakdowns. They decided that everything must slow down and revamped all the targets to give their willing but fatigued workforce a break to a more balanced lifestyle. At this point, only the robots were really fit. Everyone else was seriously tired. In a paradox of nature the slower pace actually improved productivity. There were fewer mistakes, people had more energy, rework was reduced and everybody was happier and more relaxed. Over all, the same methods were used that had worked so well to complete Genesis before the refugees arrived.

In a month the warehouses and factories were done and materials production was at full capacity. In the meantime more humans arrived from the ships that had started to arrive again. So all the teams were adequately staffed and things were moving along well. The landscape round the Newtown site had completely changed into a replica of the huge building site that had greeted Jamie’s team when they arrived on Androm. Pantando-Ka had slotted easily into his role as overall leader of the Baltra settlement but he still discussed most things with Jamie before implementing them. Jamie, therefore, had the time to move freely about the workings, helping where-ever it was necessary. Soon that became increasingly unnecessary. The specialist teams settled into their activities and, with guidance from the members of Jamie’s group of humans, had satisfactorily achieved control of their workloads. Jamie found that he had nothing really constructive to do. He felt useless and complained to Jenny.

“I feel like a spare part,” he said, in a grumpy voice. “Up until now I’ve been busy all the time, but everyone else has become so competent that they don’t need me anymore.”

“”They’ll always need you,” replied Jenny, placatingly. “You give them confidence and stability. You’re the problem solver and the leader and they’ll always turn to you when things go wrong.”

“That’s just the point. Nothing’s going wrong. This whole thing is running like a well-oiled machine. Productivity is as good as it can be and everything’s on plan. I’m getting cabin fever because I’m idle. I can’t go out and break something to create a situation where I’m needed.”

“Of course you can’t. That would be ridiculous. But maybe there is something to be done that needs your skills. Why don’t you discuss it with team, Pantando-Ka and Dendaro-Ra and see what they say.”

“Good idea. Thanks for listening.”

At the meeting the following morning, Jamie raised his situation and his feeling that he was spare and asked if anyone had any ideas. There was a pregnant pause, while everybody looked at everyone else. As the silence lengthened, Jamie began to feel edgy. Finally, Pantando-Ka broke the uncomfortable silence.

“I’d like to have thought about this for longer,” he began. “But I see that this is bothering you a lot, so let me first say that your contribution has been large up until now and, I believe it will continue to be so. But that doesn’t help you right now. So, I’ll be brutally honest. At the moment, there is nothing that really needs you here. And I can understand how irritating that is for you so I think we must find something elsewhere for a time. That means we have to change the question. We have just arrived on Baltra and everything has concentrated on the Newtown site. Before everything focused on the desalination plants and the water management issue. The rest of Baltra hasn’t had any attention at all. So the new question is what do we need to be done elsewhere in preparation for future activities on the rest of the landmass?”

There was another, more positive silence, while the group thought about this. First to offer a comment was Laura.

“Robert and I need to have three pieces of information for each area. First we must know what natural vegetation is there and particularly what trees and grasses, second what indigenous wildlife there is and third, are there any natural features that will affect the siting and boundaries of farms. Oh, and another thing, we’d like to know what life there is in the rivers and lakes. I can prepare a brief for that.”

“I thought we’d done all that already,” Jamie observed. “We did the dams and landscaping when we produced the masterplans for each landmass and I thought we’d checked this other stuff at the same time.”

“Not at this level of detail and some work had already been done on Chatham so it wasn’t urgent. In fact I think it might be a good idea for Robert and me to come along with you then we can leave quicker.”

Jamie was looking happier by the second.

“When we first got here, I was looking out on the land beyond the building site and remembering an American hero called Davy Crocket, who was dubbed ‘king of the wild frontier’. These ideas make me think of being the Davy Crocket of Baltra. I rather like the idea of being king of the wild frontier.” This raised a laugh and lightened the atmosphere.

“You can use one of the helicopters to get around.” Offered Pantando-Ka. We’ll teach Jamie to pilot it. After all he’s already steered a star ship so a little helicopter shouldn’t be a problem.”

And so it was decided.

The following day, Jamie began to learn how to fly the helicopter, watched somewhat skeptically by Robert and Laura. They were understandably nervous at travelling with a rookie pilot. But Jamie seemed to have an affinity for the controls and took to the job like a duck to water. It took only three days for him to become adept and one more to completely satisfy the regular pilot. The only outstanding problem was refueling without constantly having to return to Newtown. Pantando-Ka solved it.

“We brought four helicopters. We can use the other three to ferry fuel and supplies to agreed locations, marked on a map. You just have to get to each of them to get to the next place. Which way had you planned to go?”

“Anticlockwise from here so north first,” replied Jamie, decisively. “I want to see the boundary between Baltra and the ring land early in the trip.”

Nobody questioned this decision. They all knew Jamie well enough by now.

“OK,” agreed the Taurian leader. “We’ll stock in that direction with two of the helicopters and send the third south. I assume you will leave tomorrow?”

“Of course. There’s no time like the present.”

Early the following morning all four helicopters took off, fully fueled and stocked. Three flew quickly to their first restocking points, while Jamie traveled slowly enough for Robert and Laura to see changes in the terrain that they were interested in.

The first stop came shortly after the end of the Newtown building site was reached. They took plenty of photos and notes that were loaded straight into their laptops. Also, when they found unknown vegetation they took samples that were placed in moist soil in eco-friendly bags made of a bio-degradable material similar to plastic. They also studied the life in the first large lake in the north-east to south-west watercourse through Baltra. They even trawled in the deeper water using a net that was dropped and dragged by the helicopter. Everything they found was rapidly measured and photographed and mostly replaced. Only once in a while they dissected a specimen to find out more. AS soon as they were content, they moved on.

There were only two different bio-diverse regions in the north-east corner of the landmass – the areas close to the lake and the rest so about a week into their survey, they reached the transition between Baltra and the ring land. The transition was, on average, about three kilometers wide from livable conditions to desert.

This region produced a few surprises. First, they found more life close to the desert than they expected. There were lots of insects and spiders and scorpions and more surprisingly several species of flies. There were also many more plants than in a comparable region on earth. They encountered snakes and lizards as expected, but just more different species than they had been told. But the biggest surprise was that there were small antelope like mammals that had evolved to eat the available vegetation. The flies fed on their dung so that explained why they were also there. Finally came the biggest surprise of all. Close to the end of a day, as the sun was nearly set, the three were quietly sitting checking samples and gathering their gear. Suddenly, a sleek shape appeared from behind them. It was the size of a cheetah and clearly feline in nature. It scrutinized the humans with curiosity but no fear. Its eyes were large with dilated pupils that reflected what little light was left. Its orange irises were barely visible. Clearly a night hunter, its shape was more like a leopard with the same bulky muscles and its fur similarly yellow-orange to match the sandy conditions. But the markings were different. They looked more like the stripes of a zebra and were colored brown with a green tinge like much of the shrubby vegetation. This carnivore continued its scrutiny for several minutes then, glided away. The three let out their collectively held breaths.

“That was amazing,” whispered Laura, awestruck. “There aren’t supposed to be any carnivores in this region. How could such a creature be overlooked?”

“I guess nobody looked this carefully close to the land ring before,” mused Jamie. That cat came from the desert, which suggests there is food for it there.”

“We saw the small antelope here, but if that’s the main prey why doesn’t it live here?” queried Robert.

“More research is required in this area, but it isn’t useful as farm land so we don’t have time right now. I wonder, though, what else might be over there.”

The three had agreed to move on so, early the following morning, Jamie was checking the helicopter. He was walking round it inspecting the skids and the tail rotor and the engines for signs of wear and leaks. He was concentrating on his task and not paying much attention to his surroundings, when a loud grunting roar caused him to swirl round to face the desert. A very large lion like creature had seen him and decided he was food. It was at least a third bigger than an African lion and it was about fifty meters away. But its bounding approach was biting eight meter chunks out of that. He had, maybe, six seconds to come up with a defense or he was breakfast.

The beast was completely ignoring the tent where Robert and Laura had been roused by the noise. Jamie saw two shocked and terrified faces peep past the door flap. His mind raced through his possible options. He had six seconds left. Then he remembered he had left his hunting knife on the floor of the helicopter. He quickly reached up through the open door and felt around until his hand brushed the blade. He lunged and grabbed the hilt and faced the oncoming animal, which was one bound away. He knew he’d only get one chance to avoid the teeth and the claws and do enough damage to scare the beast away without killing it. He waited much as he had when facing Pantando-Ka. When the beast pounced he ducked under its leap and scored the knife along its chest and belly, opening a shallow cut from collar bones all the way to the tail. The animal screeched in surprise and pain and landed clumsily. Jamie had followed after it and slashed into the meat of the tail. With a second screech that sounded more angry than pained, the lion decided discretion was the better than valor and raced off.

Jamie stood shakily, taking deep breaths to calm himself again. Robert and Laura came out and rushed to him.

“Are you all right,” Lara asked, in a trembling voice. “I thought that thing had you for sure.”

“I’m fine. He didn’t touch me.”

“Why did he run?” asked Robert. “I saw that you cut to chase away rather than to kill, so he wasn’t hurt badly.”

Jamie grinned. “I got lucky. My cut reached one of his testicles.” There was a moment of silence then all three burst into the laughter of relief and genuine amusement.

“I suppose you could say you made a balls-up of the whole thing,” said Robert, dryly, once the first round of laughter had subsided. That caused round two with the three holding their sides.

“Let’s pack up and get out of here. I’ve already had enough excitement for one day,” said Jamie still gasping for breath after laughing so much.