The three peacekeepers ignored the urging of the colonists to begin searching immediately. Instead they spent the night sleeping in a small hut. Anila was a restless sleeper, awaking a half-dozen times, always envious at how Hadar slept so soundly he might have been comatose. Jov moved around in her sleep, her tail twitching almost constantly, but she seemed content. Eventually Anila gave up her efforts to sleep, instead sat cross-legged and meditated. That relaxed her almost as much as sleeping did anyway.
In the morning the colonists gave them another meal, with stewed fruit replacing the vegetables and the bread considerably sweeter.
“The diet in this place is sufficient reason for somebody to run away,” Hadar whispered to Anila and Jov. They both agreed with him. Anila could accept a lot of religious quirks, but why would a religion ruin one of its members’ most important pleasures by serving uniformly unappetizing meals?
Less than an hour after dawn the peacekeepers were ready with their backpacks to begin the search for the girl.
“What is her name again?” Anila asked.
“That’s so we don’t return the wrong girl to you,” she said, enjoying the look of consternation on the colonists’ faces. They were certainly a particularly joyless group of people. She was beginning to understand why Sarah felt the need to flee.
They approached the settlement’s invisible fence and waited for the signal that it had been turned off. Ephron watched somebody standing in front of a warehouse-like building until he waved his arm in the air.
“You can go now,” he said.
Immediately Hadar picked up a rock and tossed it in the direction of the fence. When it passed through harmlessly, he walked towards it, followed by Anila and Jov.
Jov’s weapon was the ability to track, so Anila and Hadar followed her as they passed through the field into the woods. They soon stumbled upon a group of white apes who were as startled to see the peacekeepers as they were seeing the apes. Up close they looked less like Earth apes. Their feet resembled flippers and their arms had no joint in the middle. But those arms were incredibly strong as they grasped small trees and easily pulled them out of the ground to get at the vegetation high over the apes’ heads. Their faces were decidedly un-Terran, more like canine snouts than apelike. Up close the white fur resembled the quills of porcupines rather than real fur.
The apes were obviously intimidated by the peacekeepers, immediately turning and fleeing from them. They did not even stop when they were a safe distance away, but kept running until they were totally out of sight.
“I guess the colonists were right that they are peaceful,” Hadar said.
“Don’t confuse fear with peacefulness,” Jov growled. “Terran cats are easily frightened, but they are still predators by nature. It might be our size that frightens the apes more than their disposition.”
“Our size?” Anila snickered.
Jov growled. “All right, your sizes.”
After tracking for several hours, the peacekeepers stopped for lunch. Both Hadar and Jov opened cans containing meat. Jov’s were chunks of meat in gravy, while Hadar’s was a loaf of bread stuffed with meat. Anila was a vegetarian whose stuffed bread was filled with beans and spices.
“This is a hell of a lot tastier than stewed anything!” she said as the spices filled her head. “I’m surprised they don’t flavor their meals with alcoholic drinks.”
“They certainly do,” Hadar said.
“How do you know that?”
“I sneaked a peak in the back room of the meeting hut. It contained a still.”
Anila and Jov both laughed.
After eating and resting they continued their search.
“How’s the trail?” Anila asked Jov.
“Faint after a whole week, but I’m having no problem following it.”
“Do you have any idea how far away Sarah is?”
“Not yet. From the faintness of the trail she did not pass this way recently. She could be halfway across the planet by now.”
Hadar sighed. “Too bad we could not track her in the shuttle.”
“You know I cannot track inside an enclosed vehicle.”
“Well, I wish the damned scientists would start working on that. It would certainly ease much of the harshness of this job.”
“Aren’t you the one who loves native flora and fauna?” Anila said.
“I do, but I’m not particularly fond of hiking for days on end. I could experience native life just as well by flying toward a location and sitting there observing for a few hours.”
They continued hiking through the dwindling day, stopping for another meal in the evening, then continuing until it grew too dark to see. They selected a relatively open area to set up the tent which Hadar carried in his pack. Anila carried the portable fence which she set up around them. While it was certainly not as powerful as that used by the colony, anybody passing through it would set off a signal loud enough to waken the three peacekeepers.
Unlike the previous night, Anila was so tired she fell asleep quickly and did not wake for a long time. When she did waken it was abruptly to a flurry of scuffling noises in the tent.
“Hadar? Is that you?”
“No, there’s something in the tent with us!”
Suddenly Jov flicked on a light which brightened the entire tent. All three peacekeepers gasped at sight of a huge creature standing in their midst, moaning as it looked anxiously at the light. It was one of the apes. When its gaze settled on Anila it moved towards her, its short arms held outward as if it intended to grasp her.
“Watch out for those arms!” Jov screamed.
Anila jumped to her feet and held her own arms out in front of her. Her weapon was the ability to confuse a being’s sensory input, and she unleashed it against the ape. Immediately it stopped walking and looked around the tent confusedly, its eyes wide and unfocussed. The problem with Anila’s weapon was that its effects spilled over, so the peacekeepers were momentarily disoriented as well.
The ape stumbled around the tent, waving its stubby arms, as the peacekeepers cringed away from its quill-like fur. Hadar particularly was jumping around the tent, shaking his head trying to see the ape. His weapon was the ability to make beings comatose, but first he had to touch them. If he could not see the ape, he could easily impale himself on its quills.
“Hurry!” Anila cried as the ape swung its arms over her head. Quickly she ducked and scampered to the other side of the tent.
Suddenly Hadar fell to the ground and rolled across the tent floor, stopping when he felt something.
“That’s me,” Jov cried. Hadar rolled away from him until he felt something else, by which time his vision had cleared enough to see the feet of the ape. Then Hadar gripped one of the feet in both arms and concentrated. Immediately the ape’s legs weakened and it fell to the ground. Hadar rolled away from its bulk in time to avoid being crushed.
Some careful probing quickly told them the ape’s quills were too sharp to move the ape easily, so instead the peacekeepers moved their tent and fence a short distance away. They set a rotation of watch-guards for the rest of the night, but none of them could sleep anyway. Instead they all sat and watched as the ape awoke, stared at them momentarily, then lumbered away into the woods.
“So why didn’t any of us hear the fence’s siren?” Hadar said.
“You sleep too soundly to hear anything!” Jov said.
“I accept that,” he said, “but it’s part of my nature, so it is not a personal fault. However, you sleep very lightly, and Anila hardly sleeps at all. Why didn’t one of you two hear it?”
Jov looked at Anila with raised ears. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Neither do I,” said Jov.
They say thinking briefly until Hadar said, “That eliminates the possibility that somebody turned off the fence for Sarah.”
They both looked at him, seeking some flaw in what he said, but unable to find any.
“So what do we do now?” Jov said.
“I guess we keep posting a guard outside the tent,” Anila said.
“That’s easy for you two to say,” Hadar groaned, “But I need more sleep than both of you.”
Anila laughed. “That’s no problem. We’ll extend our nights so everybody gets sufficient sleep. So what if we spend a few extra days on this planet?”
Hadar waved his hands. “Forget I said that! Maybe we should cut out nights altogether and find that girl as soon as possible so we can go to someplace more civilized.”
“Not to mention easing her parents’ worries.”
“Yeah, that too,” he said.
Anila and Hadar lay in their sleeping bags, eyes closed but very much awake as they waited for something to happen. Anila meditated, concentrating on nothing but her primordial sound. Gradually she drifted into the meditative state which always relaxed her no matter how stressful her situation might be.
An abrupt noise broke her state. She opened her eyes and saw a white ape standing in the middle of the tent, looking around as if it was searching for something. She stood up quickly and faced it. As soon as the ape saw her, its expression changed and it lumbered in her direction.
“Jov!” Anila cried.
Immediately the cat scampered into the tent, stopping at sight of the ape.
“I swear I was awake the whole time,” she said. “Nothing could have possible gotten past that fence without my knowing it.”
“Watch out!” Hadar said as the ape neared Anila. He hunched down and began to duck-walk across the floor.
“Don’t interfere!” Anila insisted. “I don’t think he intends to harm me.”
Hadar looked confused as he looked from Anila to the ape. His brow furrowed in concentration.
“But what about the quills?” he said.
“Please trust me,” Anila said. “There are no quills on his arms or stomach.”
She stepped past Hadar into the path of the ape. Both Hadar and Jov watched nervously as the ape neared Anila, then tilted his head a few times as if studying her. Suddenly it placed both arms around Anila and hugged her tightly to him.
“He just wants to be friends,” Anila said, smiling, as the others watched she and the ape abruptly vanish from the tent.
Anila awoke with a severe headache. She kept her eyes closed and performed a brief mantra to ease it. When she opened her eyes, she was sitting in a small grove surrounded by towering trees.
“Hello,” a voice said softly.
Anila turned around abruptly and saw a human girl standing in front of a cave entrance not far away.
“By any chance, are you Sarah?”
“You found me!” The girl covered her face with her hands and began sobbing. When Anila stood up, the girl hugged her desperately. “I didn’t think anybody would ever find me.”
When the girl was calm, they sat and talked. Sarah had been abducted by an ape in the same manner Anila had been. Now Anila realized the apes were teleports, which explained both how it escaped with Sarah and how it got into the tent twice. Sarah explained that the ape cared for her as if she was its child, even trying to breastfeed her until Sarah refused so forcibly the ape quit trying. At times the ape made Sarah walk with it to a nearby river where she helped Sarah drink and wash. On those trips they always encountered other apes with their own children.
“The young apes look exactly like human children,” Sarah said. “No hair, very thin. I think my ape lost its baby somehow and was replacing it with what it thought was an orphan child since I was not with another ape when it found me.”
“Maybe it thought it was adopting me too,” Anila said. “Where is the ape now?”
“It generally leaves me alone during the day while it seeks food.”
“So why haven’t you tried to find your way home?”
Sarah frowned. “Where are we? What’s my direction home? How far is it? I tried fleeing the first day I was alone, but after nearly getting lost in the woods surrounding this grove I realized I was a lot safer here being fed by my mother ape until somebody found me.”
“Well, we don’t have to worry about that now,” Anila said, pulling a small cube out of her pocket. “My team can find us via this device. Depending on how far away they are, we’ll just sit here and wait for them.”
“Are you hungry?” Sarah said abruptly.
Anila frowned. “A bit, I guess. Why?”
Sarah motioned towards the distant trees. “Mom is bringing us breakfast.”
Anila laughed as she watched the ape approaching carrying an armful of fruit. She actually felt sorry for the ape who was going to lose her children for the second time.