The three men remained motionless until the trihorns had passed.
Adrian Dumezil wiped sweat from his face and grinned. “Now there goes a beast I wouldn’t like to tackle. I thought this was a desert planet.”
“It is,” Jan replied. Because of the cold, and because most of the planet’s water was tied up in the massive icecaps, it never rained. Much of the year the land was barren desert, but in the winter ice crystals formed in the upper atmosphere and fell as sleet, snow, and hail. Throughout the winter this accumulated and, with the coming of spring, melted to release water for the growth of plants. Within a few weeks of its coming, the melt would pass, leaving desert again.
This was the stationary view. From space the area of the melt was a broad band of green moving slowly southward. Along the route of the green belt moved massive herds of herbivores and attendant carnivores, caught up in a perpetual migration. .
The landing craft had set down on the forefront of the green belt three weeks earlier and already the herds had largely passed by. Within days it would be necessary to move the hunting base southward several hundred kilometers.
They marched in silence then, broken only when Jan or Jason showed Adrian how to recognize siskal, lal, and greenhorn bushes and the tracks of the three major herbivores and their corresponding carnivores: the leers – huge, toothed, flightless birds – and longnecks, whose sinous necks and compact musculature made them particularly dangerous, and the tiny, scavenger krats.
They were ruins. Despite the stats he had studied, Jan had not believed that they would be.
The ruins topped a butte that rose perhaps a hundred meters above the surrounding countryside and extended for about a square kilometer. It took a sharp scramble to reach them and, when they had, there was little to reward the climb. Few of the stone walls remained more than waist-high and most of the city/castle/fortification/whatever was reduced to rubble by time. There was little to show what manner of creature had inhabited the place until Jason found a mural on one of the plastered inner walls. Its faded pigment showed a potbellied, winged mammal with what appeared to be grasping hands. In a corner of the mural, isolated by fractured plaster, were the foot and ankle of another creature. Jan stared long at it, then rummaged without success for the lost pieces of plaster. Adrian joined him, asking “Why so intent?”
“Because,” Jan answered, “that foot looks uncannily human.” They did not find the missing plaster, nor anything else to identify the masters of the ruin.
It was well past noon when they left the site, intent on returning to the camp by nightfall. Jason seemed troubled and managed to fall back slightly to speak to Jan alone.
“Something you said to Dumezil bothers me. You said that we would be here as long as we survive. What exactly did you mean by that?”
The precursors, as the makers of the ruins come to be called, are here because I felt that a survival story alone would be a bit dry and uninteresting without some hint of mystery. When I wrote these paragraphs, I had no idea how much this decision would influence the second half of the book.
Also, regarding the krats – Wild Kratts, the PBS nature show, was years in the future when my krats were born.