Clean and refreshed, the duo sat down with the last of their rations. They had stretched their food supply as best they could, but now they were completely out. The only other food in the area was the questionable dried meat from the Pa’Ran – which neither of them wanted to even think about.
“So, what can we eat out here? We have plenty of water, but it’s a week of travel to our destination and we’re out of food.” asked Cian.
“Precious little. Normally there are animals and insects at oasis like this one. There are a couple plants that are edible. The Pa’Ran look to have eaten or scared away all the wildlife and insects. You notice that ship of theirs is a bug magnet? The goop attracts em and they stick. Other than that, we can eat the starchy paste from the Paiai bush. The one with the sharp thorns I was using on our clothes. Taste bitter, but it’s food.” Vanna answered.
“Paiai? Why is it called that? There is a similar plant on our world called an Agave.” Cian asked.
“Oh, the first one that found it bumped into it. Stuck a thorn in his arse. He yelled ‘Paiaiiii!’ Name stuck. Like the thorn.” Vanna deadpanned.
Cian just stared at her. “That’s a joke, right? I swear, I can never tell if your joking or serious.”
Vanna smirked mischievously, but didn’t say anything.
“Well, we should gather some of the edible bits before we go. How far till we get to the greener land that you said we could find game in?” Cian asked.
“About three days.” Vanna replied.
The two of them spent an hour gathering up all the Paiai they could find. Vanna explained they would grow back from the roots and that the roots weren’t edible, so they cut most of the leaves away. That done, they spent a few minutes gathering water. The canteens purified the water and they carefully poured it all into their other containers. Then they packed all their gear back up and headed out toward Gregar’s Hill.
They were both still armed with the Pa’Ran spears. Vanna had her pistol, and Cian had his bag filled with Pa’Ran spearheads. He had went back into the ship and gathered them all – twenty seven had fit in the bag with his other gear. He left his badly corroded knife.
The next morning Cian used Mend on both of them. They chewed the Paiai leaves for the first evening and two more whole days before they ran out. By the end of them, Cian never wanted to see a Paiai leaf again. But it kept them going, and the constant fluid intake finally had his dehydration cured. Vanna continued teaching Cian what she could as they traveled, and they even sparred a bit with the spears – neither of them really knowing how to properly use them.
They were out of the dunes by noon on the third day. The terrain was rapidly changing, with the sand becoming rocky soil and a few more green plants growing around them. Setting up camp at the end of the third full day of travel, their bellies were empty and they were grumpy, snapping at each other.
“If you didn’t eat so much, our food would have lasted longer!” said Vanna.
“What?! I barely ate any more of the Paiai than you, and I’m twice as big and carrying most of our supplies!” said Cian.
“You ate at least twice as much of it as me. I knew I should have rationed it out evenly.” said Vanna.
“I did not! I could always find out what roast Rastlin tastes like!” said Cian.
“You try it, jackass. I’m the one with the gun.” said Vanna.
“Shoot me, then.” said Cian.
“Maybe I will!” said Vanna.
Cian huffed and crawled into the tent to lay down.
Vanna insisted she would sleep outside the tent to be away from him, but she came in when it got colder.
They were both feeling weak from hunger the next morning.
“Sorry for blaming you for the food and calling you a jackass. I get grumpy when I’m hungry.” said Vanna.
“It’s okay, I was being a jackass. I get snippy when I’m hungry too. I shouldn’t have joked about eating you. I’m sorry too. How much farther do you think until we find anything edible?” said Cian.
“Tonight if we’re lucky, another day or three if not.” said Vanna.
“Well, at least we have water.” said Cian.
Vanna just grunted in response.
They pressed on. By mid-morning on the fourth day, the rocky badlands gave way to lush grassy plains.
Around noon, Vanna suddenly shot her pistol off into the grass. “Whoo! Got it!” she said.
“What? Did you hit something?” Cian asked.
“Plains rabbit! Come on, pretty sure I hit it!” Vanna replied, walking toward the spot.
Sure enough, in the thick grass lay a large golden rabbit with a hole through its side. Its fur was almost an exact match for the tall grass growing here.
“How did you even spot it?” asked Cian, incredulous.
“We been walking on the trail for an hour. How’d you not spot it?” replied Vanna.
“Trail? Is that why we turned back there? I thought we had just gotten off course.” said Cian.
“But I shushed you and pointed it out! Why would I shush you if we wasn’t tracking something?” Vanna asked.
“I thought you were just tired of talking?” Cian said.
Vanna sighed and shook her head, tossing her kill in her bag. “Pay attention. There are probably more along this path, it looks like a well used rabbit trail. If you see one, tap me on the shoulder and point. I’ll prolly already shot it, but you need to learn to see.”
A few hours later, Cian spotted movement!
In a flash, before Cian could point it out to her, Vanna had her pistol up and put a smoking hole in it.
“Hey, I saw that one before you shot it!” Cian said proudly.
“Good! You can learn. Let’s stop and make a fire. Help gather up bundles of dry grass. Twist it and tie it off tight with a few of the fibery bits. Will burn longer that way and we can cook these. One for you and one for me!” said Vanna.
An hour later they sat around their dying fire, nibbling on the piping hot rabbit. Cian looked over the skills he had picked up the last few days.
Combat Reflexes increased by 0.8% to 13.1%
Mind over Body increased by 1.1% to 32.4%
Basic Energy Equipment increased by 2.3% to 8.4%
Marksmanship increased by 1.7% to 4.9%
Small Arms increased by 2.1% to 7.7%
Polearm Fighting increased by 0.5% to 8.3%
Tracking increased by 5.7% to 10.9%
New skill learned! Perception.
Perception increased by 1% to 1%.
Perception – Better than 20/20 vision is cheap in a world of high technology. The skill to actually see is priceless. Improves ability to spot hidden things.
New skill learned! Survival.
Survival increased by 1% to 1%.
Survival – The ability to live off the land is a rare skill in a world of star ships and galactic markets. The knowledge to find edibles, build fires, and make shelter.
New skill learned! Cooking.
Cooking increased by 1% to 1%.
Cooking – The skills necessary to prepare food, from basic to extravagant.
Cian mused over his progress. The physical skills seemed a direct benefit – his aim was getting a little better with the pistol, but he still couldn’t shoot anything like Vanna. His combat reflexes skill helped him to dodge and move quicker. He was getting defter at swapping energy cells and maintaining the rechargeable gear they had. And now that he was following trails, he was quickly picking up tracking skills and spotting things he hadn’t noticed before.
But his highest skills, the mental skills he had, he wasn’t sure of. He felt like he knew how they worked better and guessed he was a bit quicker in using them, but for being his highest skills they didn’t seem to be actually improving his ability as they went up.
“Credit for your thoughts?” Vanna interrupted.
“Oh, just thinking about my progress. I’m getting better at tracking! I actually saw the trail the last time.” Cian replied.
“Good. Won’t be much use on a starship I’m afraid, Mr. Future Starship Owner, but at least you can learn!” said Vanna, smiling.
As they sat there, snacking on the remnants of their meal, Cian thought about his real life. It didn’t seem so important anymore, like a distant memory. If he was stuck in the game, maybe he should just embrace it? He felt happier and more alive than he ever had as Cian the Janitor. “This is nice. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.” Cian said.
Vanna gave him a funny look. “Wandering through the wilderness. Almost killed by bugs. Starving. You must have had a lousy life.” she said.
“No, no. When you put it like that… But no, I mean now. Out here on our own, sitting here by the fire, enjoying a good meal with a good friend by the firelight. It’s peaceful. Nice.” Cian said.
“Yeah,” she replied after a few minutes, “it is kind of nice. I miss old Garlo though. He was a good boss.”
“Yeah, sorry. I keep forgetting what you went through, losing your friends at Chalo.” Cian said.
“S’okay.” she replied simply.
They sat there like that for a few more seconds.
“Right, we better get moving. Burnin’ daylight!” Vanna said, interrupting the moment.
Right before dusk they spotted another rabbit trail and managed to bag a third one. They set up camp next to a small pond and Vanna gutted it while Cian gathered grass. They roast it over another fire, sharing it. They washed their clothes again and took turns rinsing off a bit in the pond before they went to bed.
“We’ve meandered a bit, but we’ve kept up a good pace. We should be in Gregar’s Hill in four or five more days. Maybe a little more, since we gotta hunt on the way.” Vanna said.
Cian agreed, and they went to sleep.
The next morning Cian got up early and took a look around while Vanna was still asleep. This area was much more lush than the terrain they had passed through so far. He sat by the pond and relaxed.
Something made a swirl by the bank.
Cian stood up, alarmed. He went closer and watched closely. Fish! It was a fish swimming near the surface! Cian started to turn to go tell Vanna.
“Mornin’” interrupted Vanna from behind him.
“Vanna! There are fish in the pond! We should try to catch some before we go!” said Cian.
Fish, big and small, were swimming around the shallows near the bank. Some were hunting bugs that lighted on the surface, others were hunting the smaller fish.
“Good eye. What we gonna catch ‘em with, though? I aint got a net or fish hook.” said Vanna.
“What about the spears?” said Cian.
“Hmm. Good idea, but I aint eating nothin’ that touched those blood sucking things. We can make a fishin’ spear from some of the bushes here.” said Vanna.
“Ah, I didn’t think about that. These spears are kind of gross.” said Cian.
The two of them gathered a pair of strong saplings and began making fishing spears. Cian already had a pretty good idea of what to do from watching survival TV shows, but Vanna provided vital tips to get them made correctly.
The split tips were sharpened and tied with extra Paiai fiber that Vanna had brought along and held apart with two small wedge shaped sticks. Vanna showed Cian good knots to tie them off with the fibers and how to fire-harden the tips in the coals of their fire. Soon they had two long, very sharp, four-pronged fishing spears.
Cian stripped to his shorts and waded into the shallow water with his spear.
Vanna tied her robe up at her waist and followed him in with hers.
The two of them worked the shallows, standing still and quickly spearing any fish that got close.
Cian took to fishing much quicker than he did to hunting. He was using his surpass limits skill to boost his agility and was surprised at how well he was doing. He was catching more than Vanna!
“Wow, Cian, good job. You’re a natural at this.” she remarked.
“I can’t believe there are so many fish in this small pond!” said Cian.
“It’s small now, but look around – this whole area floods in the rainy season.” said Vanna.
“Oh. Well, we can catch a bunch and bring them with us. We won’t have to stop for food at all and can make better time.” said Cian.
“Yep. You keep going, I’ll make a fire and start gettin’ these ready. I’ll cook us up some breakfast and we can cook the rest slow over a fire most of the day. They should keep till we make it to Gregar’s Hill.” said Vanna.
Vanna made a fire and prepared the fish that they caught and Cian caught a few more before breakfast was ready.
Cian checked his interface. His skills were going up pretty fast.
Survival increased by 12% to 13%.
Perception increased by 6% to 7%.
“Why you keep looking off into space like that, anyway?” asked Vanna as she handed him his fish, served on a stick she had cut to roast them on.
“Oh, uh. Just thinking.” Cian said. He wasn’t sure how to explain the game interface.
“Huh. Alright. Good one spotting the fish, this will make the rest of our trip much better.” said Vanna.
“Hey, this is really good. What did you season it with?” said Cian as he tore into the fish.
“Was some herbs around the area. Wasn’t just gettin’ firewood when I was walking. I found enough for the other fish too.” said Vanna.
“Nice. Good work. It’s delicious.” said Cian, finishing the first fish and reaching for another.
The two of them ate their fill and chatted amiably for a few minutes, then got back to fishing. The rest of the day went by much the same, with breaks for lunch and dinner. By the end of the day they had a sizable pile of roasted fish, and Cian had improved his skills even further.
Survival increased by 6% to 19%.
Perception increased by 2% to 9%.
The two of them sat there in front of a dying fire as the light faded.
“I still can’t believe we caught so many fish in such a tiny pond.” remarked Cian.
“You caught most of ‘em. It sure is an awful lot, though. I bet you caught almost every fish in the darn thing.” said Vanna.
“Oh, there are plenty more. The smarter ones just never came close enough.” said Cian.
“Hah. Guess we get ta eat the dumb ones then, eh? Don’t you humans say ‘you are what you eat’ or somethin’ like that? This mean you gonna be dumb by the end of this?” Vanna said, smirking.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure fish are rich in something that makes it brain food. Omega fats or something.” said Cian, trying to remember.
“Right. Omega 3 fatty acids. Don’t mean you aint gonna get dumber, though. It’s already working, you forgot what they was called!” said Vanna, giggling.
“Oh, hush you. I aint any dumber than you are.” said Cian, catching himself and laughing “Damnit, now I’m talking like you.”
“What’s wrong with the way I talk? You calling me dumb? Now you done offended me.” said Vanna, giving Cian a serious look.
“Nothing! Nothing! I just talk differently is all. You talk perfectly fine!” insisted Cian.
Vanna grunted and gave Cian an angry look.
“Look, really. I think you talk beautifully. I didn’t mean anything by it. Honest.” said Cian apologetically.
Vanna stared him down for a few tense seconds, then broke out laughing. “Gotcha! Hahaha. I don’t care, it don’t offend me none. I know I got a different way of talkin’. Picked it up flying on the Weave. You should hear my brother, aint half his crew that can understand half o’ what he says.”
“You suck. I thought I really offended you.” said Cian sourly.
“Oh boo hoo. You shoulda seen your face!” said Vanna, smiling and giggling.
Cian laughed. “Okay, you got me. You’re really hard to read!”
The two of them sat quietly, chuckling for a few minutes and snacking on some fish as the flames got low and the embers glowed.
“Tomorrow we can head out for Gregar’s Hill. Since we got the food solved, we should make it in four days.” said Vanna.
“Sounds good. I think I’m going to lay out here a bit and watch the stars. It’s a nice night, not too cold and not a cloud in the sky.” said Cian.
“Mmm. That sounds nice. We should stay close for the stealth field, no tellin’ what’s out here at night.” said Vanna.
Cian grabbed a couple of blankets and the two of them sprawled out between their tent and the embers of their fire. At some point Vanna got up and buried the fire, then the two of them climb into the tent and went to sleep.
The duo awoke to a loud roaring noise. It sounded like… Ship thrusters? What were the chances? They shared a bewildered look before peeking out of the tent, staying within their stealth field. A small gunship was landing on the other side of the small pond.
“Oh no. Raiders.” whispered Vanna.
“Raiders?” asked Cian.
“Yeah, likely. No police markings. No reason to land an unmarked gunship out here unless you can’t land in a city.” Vanna said.
The ship’s engines sputtered out and it came down hard, sinking into the dirt.
“Well, maybe they’re just having engine trouble and making an emergency landing?” Cian said.
“Engine trouble my arse. Look there, blast marks. Ships been in a fight. And on the aft. Looks like they took a Peacekeeper missile. That’s their ‘engine trouble’.” Vanna replied.
“Shit. I hope they don’t see our camp.” said Cian.
“Mmm. I buried the fire last night. Paranoia done paid off again. Everything else oughta be hidden by the stealth field.” said Vanna. “Oh hell, the battery’s almost gone.” she said. She moved quickly and swapped the battery with a fresh one almost instantly, the field flickering for a mere moment.
“I hope they didn’t see that!” said Cian.
“Me too.” said Vanna.
Suddenly a loud clank and some grinding noises came from the boarding ramp. It began folding down, slowly revealing the interior.