F i c c i o n e s
|Versión en español|
I was already awake when Hondo tapped my cheek with her monkey fingers. As I had been for the last hour, I was lying in my cot, with my eyes closed, half-listening to the pre-dawn chaos stirring outside in the forest. I was remembering a woman I knew all too briefly back on Earth during my real life and wondering what might have been. Usually I didn´t dwell on the past. Now however, on the hunting party´s first day together, it seemed best to recall the past than to ponder what was coming.
Hondo patted my shoulder then my chest.
"I´m up, fuzz face," I said, opening my eyes.
Hondo leaned her furrowed muzzle closer toward my face to make sure I didn´t roll over and go back to sleep. Her breath was hot and moist. God, she was relentless. I smiled to show that I was really awake. She didn´t start chattering as usual or tugging on my arm until I fixed her breakfast. She whimpered, and looked at the Remington military shotgun I had hung on the wall rack. The weapon, except to be cleaned, had not been out of its case in weeks. Even with her limited dwarf-ape intelligence, Hondo knew this venture was different from the others.
This would not be a cam-cord safari.
I scratched the curved horn on her forehead as I sat up on the edge of the cot. Instead of purring, Hondo waddled past me and lifted my pillow. She nodded, then put the pillow back. She was checking that her stuffed dolphin was safe. Last night, when the shuttle arrived from the mining base, she had taken the dolphinher favorite toy since she was a pupand hidden it under my pillow. I´d never seen her do that before.
Rising to my feet, I glanced across the lodge to the guest quarters. The double doors were open. Tashtego and Quinwall were still asleep. Pike´s bunk was empty. The corporate troubleshooter was up already. I thought I´d heard someone moving about earlier. I turned toward the kitchen bay plex. Outside, at the end of the walk, near the stream, the fluorescents in the shower-house were blazing. No foresight at all. She should have been resting like her hired killers. The day would be a long one with more likely to follow.
Hondo sighed and pointed at my uneaten supper on the noc-table.
Pike strolled from the shower-house. She was shrouded in a thin, hooded robe with a MarsTel logo branded over the breast pocket. Her legs and feet were bare. Didn´t she realize where she was? Didn´t she understand what the word ´wilderness´ meant? If this was an example of her common sense then she would be lucky if she ever saw her corporate cube again. I could only hope that she didn´t take me down with her.
I stepped onto the lodge veranda as Pike moved up the walk. In another time and place, I would have considered her attractive. She reminded mewith her green eyes and short-trimmed dark hairof the woman I´d been recalling earlier. But that was giving her qualities she didn´t possess. I knew Pike´s type too well. Her job was her identity.
"I´d forgotten how refreshing a water cleaning can be," she said, turning toward the dawn light feathering across the horizon. "Beautiful country. The trees alone are worth a fortune back on Earth."
"There´s coffee brewed in the kitchen," I responded.
"What´s your real name? I know it´s not Boone, and what are you running from?"
"Breakfast will be ready shortly."
She bounded onto the veranda. "I have learned that most off-world guides are on the run. Mostly from parental obligations and lawsuit judgments. Occasionally from hard crimes like theft and military desertion. I´d like to think you killed a person. It raises my opinion of you."
"I want to be on the trail before the sun is above the horizon."
"I´ve studied your bio-dex. It´s very well done but it´s forged."
I pointed at her bare feet. "Wear shoes. There are spider-rats in this region."
Pike looked down. "What are spider-rats?"
"Arthropods that look like tiny rats. They spin webs to trap their prey and their bite is toxic. Cobra venom is a placebo compared to the spider-rat."
Pike moved quickly to the doorway as she scanned the length of the veranda.
Behind her, Hondo scampered across the floor toward me. Suddenly she froze, staring upward, as Quinwall´s shadow fell across her.
"Get outta my way," Quinwall muttered.
"Don´t," I said evenly.
He looked at me and smiled. Warm. Genuine.
Hondo raced past him, and past Pike, to my side. Trembling, she clutched my leg.
Billy Quinwall was a big, bull-shouldered man with a thick black goatee. His hands were huge and I figured he could split my skull between them without strain. I´d read his bio-dex that had been sent before the group´s arrival. He had been a sergeant in Andromeda special ops and had been decorated for valor-under-fire in the Saturn Moon Uprising of ´41. The pirate press, however, tagged him a mass-murderer. One web-net claimed the Saturn Moon incident for which he´d been decorated had been faked to give the populace back home a hero to cheer. Only Quinwall knew the truth, but he wasn´t sharing.
Quinwall continued smiling. "Tour guide, I don´t hurt ... pets."
I squatted down and tickled Hondo´s ears. She hid her face against my shirt.
Billy Quinwall walked into the kitchen. The ex-sergeant´s weapon of choice, which I´d seen last night, was a custom-designed Mauser rifle with heat-scope and uranium rounds that could punch holes in the hull of a Perth-Class cruiser. He carried a serrated bowie knife in his boot sheath and a half-dozen throwing razor-stars on his belt. Whatever else Billy Quinwall was or wasn´t, he wasn´t outfitted for mere show.
Pike cleared her throat. "Boone," she said, "there´s a vested-interest agreement signed between your bosses at OWT and Caitlin Usher-Mars for this hunt. If you hinder its success, I´ll see your license pulled and you in detent. On the other side, if your shot brings down the target, when I receive your real bio-dex I´ll flush the info."
I scooped Hondo into my arms and stood. "Do you actually think we can do what Montoya couldn´t?"
"So was Montoya."
Tashtego shuffled to the doorway. She rubbed her eyes with her indigo-tattooed fist. "Dawn. You can clearly envision your place in the universe at dawn. I hate dawn."
Pike headed toward the guest quarters.
Tashtego yawned and scratched the dragon design on her left arm. "I think Caitlin Usher-Mars makes all her people pass a son-of-a-bitch qualification exam before they´re hired. What do you think, Mr. Boone?"
I pointed at her fire-serpent tattoo. "I think all of our next-of-kin stats had better be up-to-date."
* * *
A rogue had killed six according to the news net. The rumor around the taverns and transport stations was that it was a gray-dasher and the actual death figures were ten times six. The governor appeared on the net to assure all that it was not a dasher and sixty persons had not become brunch and that the problem would be resolved shortly. Experts had been hired. Then, the day before yesterday, the remains of Montoya and his hand-picked posse were found at the ruins near the Upper Rim campsite.
The transports were swamped with vacationers and mining company employees demanding the first off-world shuttle. Now the planet´s two key industries were being affected. A full-scale track-down was ordered by the governor.
Gunned helio-shuttles fanned across the frontier. Border patrols were tripled. A bounty was announced. More experts were hired.
They even drafted me. I heard the governor was drunk when she signed my conscription papers.
Eleven Earth-years ago, a Bedford probe had discovered this system, christened Rachel, and this world was simply tagged R-Four because it was the fourth planet from the sun. While the planet had polar caps and three huge oceans, vast forests and jungles cloaked most of the landscape. There were seven mountain ranges with peaks twice as high as any on Earth and a thousand rivers veining across its twin continents. No human life was found but the ruins of a machine-knowledgeable cultureestimated to be five hundred years olddotted the eastern and southern sectors. What had caused these people to leave or perish had not yet been uncovered. However, over two hundred thousand species had been categorized so far in the official data-pool and every week a half-dozen new breeds were added. Also in eleven years, the clipper hawk and tidewater bison had been hunted to extinction. A dozen other creatures were posted on the endangered species roster.
And that was before MarsTel had been licensed to harvest the planet´s mineral reserves.
In the beginning, the explorers who ventured to R-Four were mainly scientists and naturalist researchers. Then, five years ago, the planet was approved for vacation travel. I arrived with the first wave of outriders and scouts. I´d been hired by the mammoth Other World Travel as a wilderness escort. In my initial season, I established myself as the leading guide of the southern sector. Montoya had been ranked higher in the listings but he´d worked primarily in the western canyon regions. My excursions differed from Montoya and the other guides in two major aspects. They worked with crews; I worked alone. And I led cam-cord safaris only. No trophy hunts, no blood runs. I was the sole person armed on my junkets. Any weapon found on a member of my groups was cause for immediate termination of vacation package with no refund.
My current OWT contract had two firm stipulations: No blood hunts No MarsTel employees allowed in my parties. There was a tiny clause in the fine print about extreme circumstances canceling all qualifiers. That clause had been invoked yesterday by my bosses and the governor. A detention bonus was added for failure to comply.
* * *
Hondo strutted in front of me, her long arms pumping like a military recruit on parade, as we hiked along the river trail toward the Upper Rim. I´d locked her inside the lodge when we left but, three kays from home, she tumbled out of the thick bush, clutching her stuffed dolphin, and took her usual spot in our expeditions. Twice I tried to grab her. The second time she raised her fists above her head to show her displeasure then hissed to prove she was serious. A third attempt would result in a bite. I knew this from old scars I had.
To show my displeasure, I took an orangeher favorite treatfrom my pack and hurled it into the river.
Hondo sniffed, understanding me, then handed me her dolphin and started down the trail.
"What´s wrong now?" called Pike. She had taken position in our little single-file procession between Tashtego and Quinwall. After leaving the lodge, she had slipped on a headset, uploaded her com-link and been filing reports with MarsTel headquarters since. "Someone answer me. What´s the delay?"
"Pet discipline," Billy Quinwall said from the rear.
I followed Hondo down the winding trail. I figured we´d reach the ruins at the Upper Rim campsite by mid-day. The last confirmed sighting had been there. The confirmation was the remains of Montoya and his crew.
Tashtego jogged beside me. Her long hair was tied back in a heavy braid and sweat freckled her stud-pierced nose. Cradled in her arms was a Winchester M-Class assault rifle. An extra ammunition belt stretched across her slender chest. The rounds were micro-tipped. They didn´t kill a target, they annihilated it.
I surveyed the trawler birds in the trees looming beside the river. "I thought you only hunted outlaws in the Omega Nebula."
"Normally, Mr. Boone," she answered. "I invested in some bad slipstream stocks. The fee Caitlin Usher-Mars offered should clear my account. If I get the bonus for tombstoning the target, I can coast for a long run."
I slowed. The tracks from a herd of gypsy ponies cut across the trail. They were fresh. This was wrongall wrong. When a gray-dasher staked out its territory, other creatures vacated the region. That was documented and verified. So why were the trawlers and gypsies still here?
Tashtego pointed at a five-point fleece elk darting through the trees. "You have a real hard-on going for MarsTel. Is it professional or personal?"
"Both," I replied. "There are several methods for harvesting minerals. Most I have no problem with. We need the resources. MarsTel´s favorite technique, however, is to strip-cut and clear-mine as fast as possible. I´ve seen whole planets they´ve devastated. Caitlin Usher-Mars is a world destroyer."
"I hate the dehy-meals they serve on inter-system flights. So what? It´s the way things are and always have been. You live with it. Tell me, Mr. Boone, is playing off-world boy scout fulfilling?"
I glanced into her expressionless eyes. What did she know? She was trolling for info or hinting that she already knew?
Tashtego scanned the river then the treeline. "There´s not much data on dashers in the com-pool."
"Dashers are reptiles that usually travel in small prides of five or six," I replied. "They´re green-brown in color. Their bodies are built similar to a jaguar, their heads like a gator. The dasher population is about five thousand world-wide. Their life-span is approximately twenty years. In the water, they´ve been clocked at speeds of forty kays-an-hour. On land, over short distances, at twice that speed. They are carnivorous. They attack their prey and break the spine. The prey is still alive when it´s dragged back to the nest. Dashers like their meals fresh."
"Doesn´t sound that spooky. What´s all the fuss?"
"This is supposed to be a gray-dasher."
"What´s the difference?"
"A gray happens about once in every ten-thousand births. Its first prey is usually its mother. Then it kills the rest of the pride."
"It´s a cannibal."
"It´s an eating machine. Grays always travel alone. They stake out a territory then kill every living thing stupid enough to remain inside its perimeter. When nothing´s left, they mark a new territory and start over. It has been documented that a gray can rip the door off a helio-shuttle with its jaws and flip a Rainmaker tractor with its tail. It´s called a gray because that´s its color for the first six months of its life. After that it can change color to match its surroundings. You might mention to Quinwall that dashers are cold-blooded. The heat-scope on his rifle, like the heat radar on the helio-shuttles, doesn´t do any good."
"He can figure that out himself. Does the dasher have any natural enemies besides humans and itself?"
"Only one that I know of."
I looked at the dwarf-ape marching in front of me.
Tashtego frowned. "Is there a good reason you left her behind then?"
"I found Hondo when she was a pup. Her mother had been killed by spider-rats. I raised her. She´s a domestic. She´s never even seen a picture of a dasher."
"I hope she learns quick, Mr. Boone."
* * *
Billy Quinwall studied the deserted plateau. "Tour guide," he called, "the patrols have already scouted this sector. It´s pointless to start here."
I ignored him. The last confirmed sighting had been here. What more needed to be said?
Hondo spotted a bulwark and chased the timid porcus hog into its burrow.
I scanned the campsite turning in a full three-sixty rotation. How was Montoya ambushed here? Was every member of his crew asleep? The campsite itself was on flat, open ground. To the south and west of the plateau were low, wooded hills. Not very many places to hide there. The river coursed along the site´s northern perimeter and a wide ravine marked the eastern border. One cut-rate motion detector would have alerted Montoya to anything coming into camp. What happened here?
Tashtego shook her head as she walked toward the river bank. "The damn shuttle collecting the bodies erased all the tracks when it landed."
I looked down at a dark ring staining the ground. Blood. Not everything had been erased. I kicked an empty food pack into a bulwark hole.
"This was a unnecessary march," said Quinwall, aiming his rifle at a capstan snake slipping into the ravine.
"Don´t waste your round, sergeant."
"A round is never wasted killing a snake, tour guide." Still, he lowered his rifle and pulled his canteen from his belt.
Pike sat down on a concrete block as she quickly scrolled her com-link. In the center of the plateau was the foundation of an ancient rectangular building. I wondered what I always wondered when I saw these ruins. What had that vanished 500-year-old society been searching for? The terrain here had always looked like a mining camp to me.
"I just received a news net bulletin," Pike called. "A shuttle just crashed near MarsTel Camp Twelve. A flock of trawler birds flew into them and they nosed-dived. No survivors. Camp Twelve is at B´ldad Meadows. Where is that, Boone?"
I pointed northwest. "The Meadows is at the base of that mountain range. It´s a three-day hike from here."
Pike nodded and adjusted her headset.
I gazed upward at the red sky. Trawlers had brought down a helio-shuttle? It would have taken hundreds of the tiny birds to stall a shuttle engine. I turned toward Hondo. She was bouncing back and forth between three different bulwark holes. She wanted the creature to poke its head out and play. Something was definitely wrong. A gray had staked out this territory. The annihilation of Montoya and his crew had proved that. Why were the local mammals and birds still here? They should have migrated long ago. Or been eaten.
"This is insane." Pike waved her com-link. "I´m receiving another bulletin that spider-rats have over-run Level G at the main base. That can´t be. Level G is seven stories underground."
"Tour guide," Quinwall said, standing near the edge of the ravine.
I walked, skirting several burrows, to his side. Below, stretching across the length of the ravine, was a mammoth white web. It was the largest I had ever seen. Ten times larger than normal. One corner had ripped loose and was floating ghost-like in the breeze.
"Spider-rat nest," I said.
"A what?" Pike stepped between us and peered down at the web.
"Looks abandoned," added Quinwall.
"They usually do." I watched Tashtego as she moved down the river bank. "They hide until a creature gets hung up then they´re all over it."
"Let´s find out for sure." Quinwall smiled. "Call your pet over."
"Shut up," Pike snapped. She shuddered, white-knuckling her com-link, and back-stepped from the edge.
Quinwall squatted down and began assembling a heat detector. It was a pointless and wasted exercise. So was telling him.
"Well, well," Pike muttered, then she laughed.
A shiver hop-frogged along my shoulder blades as I watched her close her hand-com.
"It´s promotion time," she said.
"What do you think you know?" I asked.
She smiled. She was prettier than the woman she reminded me of.
Hondo stood up slowly from the bulwark hole she was probing. The dwarf-ape sniffed the air.
Pike tapped her com-link with her forefinger. "Five years ago, at MarsTel main headquarters in Corpus Christi, an executive vice-president had a heated disagreement with Caitlin Usher-Mars about mining methods. The exec disappeared later that day. He just upped and vanished. It was like he was swallowed whole. Never to be seen or heard from again. Caitlin Usher-Mars issued a reward for him and has doubled it every year since. She wants the man found. The man is her son."
As I spun about, pumping a round into my shotgun´s chamber, I knew we were too latethat we were prey. Montoya´s crew had been surprised because their motion detectors were monitoring outside the camp, not inside. The gray-dasher rose up from the trench it had buried itself in beside the ancient foundation. Dirt cascaded from its broad back. It had blazing yellow-crimson eyes. It had twin rows of massive jagged teeth. It curled and flicked its long tail. The rogue did not hesitate an instant. It rose, it charged. I fired my shotgun at the creature streaking toward us. The blast ripped along its scaly neck and shoulder. Black blood misted the air.
The gray quickened.
And it was upon us.
Pike shouted. Retreating backward, she hurled her com-link at the gray then plunged over the edge of the ravine. Billy Quinwall fired his assault rifle. Once. The titanium round cut a furrow across the gray´s skull as the rogue slammed into the sergeant, its claws snapping his spine and its jaws shredding his throat and face. Its tail whipped into my hip, smashing the bones, and I flipped head-over-kettle, crashing, into the hard pack.
Tashtego fired. Once-twice-three times. The shots sounded as if they were only one.
The gray rogue convulsed violently as each explosive-tipped round thudded, mushrooming, into its body. It reared onto its hind legs then pitched to the ground. The yellow-crimson eyes slowly closed. The thick tongue drooped from the corner of its mouth. Black blood bubbled from its wounds.
Hondo, hissing, darted back-and-forth around the gray´s prone body in a semi-circle.
"You alive, Mr. Boone?" Tashtego asked, approaching.
"Never seen a beast move that quick."
I collapsed onto my back.
Tashtego stopped near and aimed her rifle at the gray´s head. She booted its shoulder. "Damn, this thing´s ugly. I got my bonus."
Hondo continued her semi-circle, her hissing growing louder and louder.
No! I lunged upward with white-hot pain shearing through my hip. "Tash, it´s faking!"
The gray lashed out, its claws slicing Tashtego open from sternum to crotch.
She staggered sideways, stunned, dropping her rifle and clutching her arms around her body as she attempted to hold her organs inside. She failed.
The gray twisted toward me.
Hondo bounded forward and jumped onto the gray´s back. The rogue screeched as it thrashed up-and-down, side-to-side. I aimed my shotgun, praying for one clear shot. Just one. Hondo clung to the gray´s neck. The rogue torqued its head around and snapped at the dwarf-ape. Hondo stabbed her fingers into the yellow eyes. The gray shrieked, its jaws wide. As Hondo plunged her fingers deeper into the eye sockets, I jammed the shotgun into the gray´s mouth and fired. It collapsed with smoke curling from a gaping hole in its throat. Hondo scampered to my side. I triggered the shotgun again and again. When the weapon clicked empty, I reloaded and fired into the gray´s corpse again.
Hondo whined and stroked my arm.
I patted her horn.
I looked from Tashtego to Billy Quinwall then toward the ravine. My hip flash-flared in black agony as I elbow-crawled to the edge. Down below, coiled in the spider-rat web, was Pike. Her eyes were wide in terror and her mouth stretched in a muted scream. The nest was abandoned as the sergeant had suggested but no one, not me or anyone else, would be able to tell Pike. In her mind, the swarming spider-rats had already claimed her.
Pike´s com-link, I thought. If it wasn´t smashed, I´d be able to call for help.
Using the shotgun, gritting my teeth, I pushed myself upright. The pain was massive and instant. I knew I was going to pass out at any moment. I knew it. Dark waves shimmered in front of my eyes. My stomach knotted upward into my chest.
Hondo grabbed my arm.
A gray-dasher, twice as large as the one beside us, lumbered past the ancient foundation. Another walked along the river bank. No, there´d never been a record of two grays existing at the same time and I was looking at three.
A bulwark popped up from its burrow. A flock of tiny trawlers circled the campsite then filled the tree branches on the other side of the ravine. One landed on top of the large gray´s head. Several gypsy ponies and fleece elk trotted down the hills onto the plateau. A swamp lion followed the second gray. Snakes splashed in the river.
Now I understood what had happened to that ancient civilization 500 years ago. I knew what was about to happen to us for ravaging this planet. Slowly, ever so slowly, I brought the shotgun around.
The large gray, staring at me with its lifeless eyes, marched closer.
I fed a fresh round into the shotgun chamber.
Hondo snatched the barrel and tugged. I jerked toward her. What was she doing? She yanked harder on the shotgun, hissing, her small jaw clenched tight. What was ... ? Finally, understanding at last, I released the weapon. She quick-jigged in a circle holding the shotgun above her head. Then she howled and hurled the weapon into the ravine.
The large gray slowed.
Hondo bounded beside me and pounded her fists against her chest.
The large gray stopped. Its heavy breath whirlwinded the dust in front of it.
Hondo screamed at the sky.
The ponies and elk headed back into the woods; the trawlers soared into the air. The bulwarks retreated into their burrows; the swamp lion back-tracked along the river bank.
The two grays paired together and slipped into the river. I watched as the grays joined a pride of fifty other grays on the opposite shore. The pride headed into the forest as if they were one. They headed northwest toward MarsTel Camp Twelve at B´ldad Meadows.
Hondo nuzzled my cheek then waddled over to Pike´s com. Balancing it carefully in both hands, she brought it to me. She rummaged through my pack, plucking out her toy dolphin, as I contacted MarsTel base.
<<State location>> the med dispatcher said.
"Upper Rim campsite," I replied. Hondo placed her dolphin and an orange into my lap.
<<Nature of injuries>>
"Two dead. Two incapacitated." Hondo kissed my cheek and gently stroked the back of my head.
Hondo scampered toward the wooded hills.
<<Your name, sir>>
"Nicholas Usher-Mars," I answered.
Hondo stopped at the treeline, turned around and waved. Then she was gone.
Thirty long minutes later, a med-shuttle, looking like a flying white coffin, sailed over the horizon. Soon I would be returned to my world. It was time. I clutched the dolphin in my arms as the med-shuttle landed on the deserted plateau.
This short story originally appeared in Of Unicorns & Space Stations in August 1999.
Axxón Magazine #127 - June, 2003