Andrew MacFarland, Professor of English Literature, Mathematics, and Philosophy at Cambridge University gasped for air as he scrambled up the steep rocky trail, wondering for the thousandth time what he was doing here. When he had the breath, he kept repeating.
"What the hell is going on! What the hell is going on!"
At the top of the incline, he stopped, hands on knees, looking at his back trail, face dripping with sweat, stomach and chest tight with fear, making it almost impossible to breathe. At last, he stopped panting and he shook his head in bewilderment. You don’t go running around the bush like a teenager at 68 years old and 50 pounds overweight, yet he was. His bad knees and back should be playing merry hell by now, but they weren’t. He'd lost his glasses somewhere, he didn’t remember where, but for some reason he didn’t need them.
Nothing made sense. Not from the moment he woke up until now. Something was back there, something he couldn’t see. Twice, whoever it was had taken a shot at him, and by sheer luck or poor marksmanship, missed. Several times he’d stopped, once for half an hour, hunkered down in the brush trying to catch a glimpse of the hunter. Not so much as a leaf stirred, yet he knew someone was back there.
A cold breeze touched his sweaty face, bringing with it the earthy smell of the old growth forest around him, the dark gloomy depths beckoning with the promise of sanctuary, but he ignored it. He needed distance first, then maybe a place to hide in the cool green depth. Bees and some kind of butterfly he'd didn't recognize buzzed and fluttered about, and off in the distance he heard the sound of birds calling. A sound drew his attention, and looking up he saw the contrail of a highflying aircraft high scribe a thin white line across the cobalt blue sky. Its thunderous passage muted, softened by distance. The banality was almost prosaic and a place where he might spend a pleasant, peaceful weekend.
This definitely wasn’t Southern England in the autumn, or any place he remembered. The trees and vegetation were all wrong for one thing, and the air tasted different, yet he couldn't put his finger on what the different was. From the corner of his eye, he saw something move, or just a shadow of something moving, he couldn’t be sure. Whatever or whoever was definitely still on his trail. He moved on up the steep path, wanting to put some distance between him and the hunter, if he could, and try to lose him.
So far, he hadn’t had any luck at either, and there had to be a reasonable explanation why someone was hunting him, yet nothing came readily to mind. The last thing he remembered clearly was taking his usual evening stroll across the empty wheat fields to the pub, the autumn air crisp, fresh, and full of earthy smells. His thoughts on a quiet drink and maybe a game of darts at the 'Plowman's Daughter', both a welcome respite from grading bad papers, then… he tried to remember. Something about bright lights, maybe a tractor or farm truck coming towards him on the other side of Beacon Hill, the light getting brighter and brighter, then… nothing, his mind was a blank after that. Had it hit him? He didn't feel like he was injured.
A fork in the trail offered a choice, and something prompted him to take the steeper, right fork. He quickly stumbled up the rock-strewn trail, his eyes darting back and forth as he looked for a way out of this nightmare. A sharp pang of disappointment bit into his mind, and he cursed himself for taking this path. The trail ended at the edge of a deep gorge, and he stopped to catch his breathe. The only way forward was a narrow ledge, and he considered his chances, take it or go back? He looked over, seeing the cliff dropped almost six hundred feet straight down into the millrace at the bottom, muted thunder filling the misty air. Black rocks stuck out of the foaming cataract like rotten teeth, and a fall into that was certain death.
His gut told him it was too late to go back, and with some trepidation, he edged out onto the ledge, hands and back flat against the wall. He moved along for several minutes, and thankfully, the ledge didn't narrow or suddenly end in nothingness. At one point, he felt the rocky surface shift slightly under his foot and froze, but not in fear, at least no more than he already felt. It gave him an idea, and edging past he carefully slid his back down the wall, and felt around. Part of the surface had broken free from the parent rock, and feeling along the outer edge of the slab, he found broken pieces beneath. These he pulled out and tossed into the gorge, his fingers explored deeper, pulling debris out from under the edge. He stood and stepped on the back edge, testing it, finding it firm and unyielding. It wasn’t much of a trap, but anything was better than nothing right now. He quickly worked his way further along the ledge, hoping it went somewhere. Out here, he was too exposed, vulnerable if the hunter caught up with him. At last, the ledge widened out before cutting back into the forest and he breathed a sigh of relief. It only took a few moments to work his way up and around to the edge of the cliff, and he quickly found a place where he thought his trap was, and look down.
A clump of broad-leafed plants offered a perfect place to lie down under cover and wait. If the hunter took the same trail, it shouldn’t be long before he found out who was following him. He wasn’t disappointed, as after a few minutes, someone came out of the trees at the edge of the trail and looked over, much as he'd done. The person hesitated a moment, then took something off his back and placed it on the ground before edging out onto the ledge, almost as if he knew he taken that rout. Andrew thought about moving, as the bushes prevented him from getting a clear view of the man, at least he presumed it was a man. Definitely, the hunter, but a large hat covered his face, making it impossible to discern any gender or nationality.
The man showed more confident than he was, as he hefted the rifle and moved along the ledge with a sure-footed tread of a cat, or someone with years of experience in the field. That was his undoing. Had he moved along the ledge the same way as Andrew had, with his back flat to the rock, he might have passed the trap safely. Instead, he stepped on the outer edge and lost his balance. His scream of terror stabbed Andrew's ears as he went over, and throwing his rifle away he made a frantic grab the ledge. He missed and plunged to his death, his dying scream lost in the thunder and swirling waters below.
“Well, well, well. What do you know, it worked!” Andrew's face pulled into as mirthless grin of satisfaction as he stood up and looked at his surrounding a moment, contemplating what to do next.
There was no sign of power line, roads, or building, and the mountain wilderness seemed to stretch away in all directions with no sign of human habitat. He had no clue as to which direction to go, much less an objective to aim for. He didn't ignore the rifle laying on the trail, and rubbing his stubble covered jaw, debating the risk of going down for it. It was worth it, he decided at last, as it would put him on an even footing with any more hunters. He had no idea if there were any, but prudence suggested he err of the side of caution at this point. He waited another five minutes, but no one else appeared. The return trip along the ledge went quicker, and after picking up the rifle, he moved to the end. He looked around carefully before grabbing, what turned out to be a backpack, took off back up the trail to the fork.
Again, he climbed, wanting to get as high as possible, and a better view of the surrounding countryside. Hoping he could figure out where he was, and more importantly, who was after him. He sweated gallons, but with plenty of small streams to drink from, he didn't go thirsty. Now the sharp edge of panic had pasted, he began to think of his survival, his fear now a watchful presents behind his eyes. Without a watch, he had no idea of the time, but by the position of the sun, near late afternoon. He'd need shelter for the night soon, somewhere safe, and a place to make a fire if possible. The solution presented itself in the form of a cave, which he stumbled on by accident while carefully negotiating his way up a steep, shale-covered hillside. He would have missed the entrance, partly shielded by vines and low growing brush as it was, if the sun hadn’t been low in the sky. He carefully worked his way inside, taking care not to disturb the natural order of the brush, expecting to find an overhang, or shallow depression. He whistled in surprise when he discovered a cave that went deep into the mountainside. He couldn’t explore far without a flashlight or torch, but even a short distance from the mouth showed the vines and bushes screened it well from any casual search.
Gathering an armful of small twigs and branches, he started a fire well back inside, but close enough to the entrance to see what he was doing. Starting a fire was a bit of a chore, as he hadn’t started a fire the old fashion way for a very long time. However, once mastered it wasn’t something you forgot, like riding a bicycle. A bow drill was the easiest way, as striking sparks from a rock took time. First you have to find the right rocks, and he wasn’t about to go wandering around looking for them. A string tie-down from the backpack and a supple branch from a bush at the entrance provided the necessary material, and at last, a tentacle of smoke began to rise from the tinder bed, and he carefully blew on it, but too his chagrin, he blew too hard and the spark went out. He started again, taking care not to blow hard this time. The tinder caught, flaring up, and he quickly placed it in the prepared bed of twigs. It wasn't long before he had a small, but respectable fire going, and he sat back with a satisfied smile on his face. For a moment, he watched what little smoke the fire produced drift back into the cave, rather than out the opening, suspecting another opening somewhere deeper in the cave system.
He sat back with a sigh, resting on his laurels, but that didn't last long, and he soon had the contents of the backpack laid out on the sandy floor. The first thing he discovered was a fire starter, and he mentally kicked himself for not checking earlier. However, all things being equal, he was glad in a way he’d used his skill to start a fire, proud he could still do it. Without knowing how long the small blowtorch would last, he decided to keep it in reserve for emergencies, like pouring rain. The pack contained packets of some sort, food concentrate by the look and feel, and opening one, he sampled the contents. He pulled a face. It tasted funny, not unpleasant, just different, and the odd writing on the jacket wasn’t any help, very Arabic looking. Still, when had army field rations ever tasted great? Hunger was his first priority, then water. He heard water dripping somewhere deeper in the cave, and a quick exploration using a makeshift torch turned up a seep and a pool of clear, cold water. The pack contained a combination plate, a large cup or pot and utensils. By adding a little water to the food concentrate and heating it over the fire, Andrew soon produced a savory smelling meal. He couldn’t quite identify the flavor, but it was filling, and stopped his stomach growling at him. With a meal and several cups of water inside him, he felt content with the world and took time to contemplate his situation. He now felt more in command, at least of himself, and not panic driven. Now it was time to look to the necessities and his survival.
The pack also contained a long hunting knife, not very sharp, but he could fix that, plus sundry items any camper or hunter takes with him. In the two long side pockets, he discovered four tubes, and he scratched his head in puzzlement, wondering what they were for, seeing something similar to electronic circuitry on the outside of each. It some how reminded him of the circuits you see on the outside of a printer cartridge, and he couldn’t hazard a guess what a hunter would be doing carrying them. He put them aside for the moment, not wanting to break the clear plastic cover until he knew what they were for. The small side pockets produced food concentrate bars, or trail mix, he couldn't be sure which, and a multipurpose tool like a Swiss army knife, but it wasn’t. Odd-looking electronic binoculars added to the list, but no ammo. That could still be on the body, and lost to him. Whoever the hunter was, he traveled light.
What he couldn't find was any clothes, socks, or underwear that anyone going into the bush for any length of time carries, unless he only planned to be out of here for a few days. If so, why so much food? The hunter carried at least a week’s supply. At the bottom of the bag, he found something he thought was a tent or cover, until he got it out and unfolded it. Noticing a small valve on one edge, he opened it, hearing a slight hiss, and smiled as the bundle inflation, turning into a combined air mattress and sleeping bag. At least he wouldn’t have to sleep on bare rock tonight, or go outside and try finding something suitable to sleep on.
The sleeping bag was short for his six-foot two-inch frame, so what else was new. Even in the army, his sleeping bag was always too short. He'd made do, and it would keep him warm tonight as the outside temperature dropped. This high in the mountains it got chilly at night. He examined the rifle, and it puzzled him, as it was unlike anything he’d seen before. The stock was shorter than it should be, and trigger placed for someone with a much smaller hands. In appearance, it looked like an ordinary rifle, with a trigger, trigger guard, steel tube stock, but no magazine that he could find. A single shot weapon? Some big bore game rifles were like that, but from the look of this, it wasn't one of those. He also couldn’t find a breech or a cocking handle. A small lever on the side was obviously the selector switch, marked in the same odd script, but with three positions, One had to be safe, but why two more. Single shot and full auto? That didn’t make sense for a hunting rifle, especially without a magazine. He carefully moved the selector to the first position, keeping his finger away from the trigger, not wanting to discharge a round inside the cave. He didn’t feel like ducking a ricochet, or advertising his position. He moved the lever to the second position, hearing a loud click. To his surprise, the end of the barrel popped up.
"Ah har!” Now he knew what the long tubes were.
The tube slid out of the barrel easily, revealing the same electronic circuits on the outside as those in the pack. Now they made sense. They were magazines, each loaded with probably ten rounds each. Andy nodded to himself in understanding. He heard the military was working on something like this, but hadn’t realized they were this far along. All the rounds were stacked on top of each other, completed with powder charge and detonator, or initiator; he wasn’t sure what they called it. The circuits on the outside of the tube were computer controlled, and fired each round in sequence. This was a very sophisticated piece of technology, and not something the average hunter carried around with him. So, just who the hell was after him, and more to the question, why? From the moment he woke up in the middle of the alpine meadow until now, nothing made sense. He had nothing on him he'd left home with, not even his clothes. He now wore a nondescript gray, one-piece jump suit. He didn't feel disoriented, or drugged, but he had no idea where he was. On top of that, someone was trying to kill him, and he couldn’t think why.
Anyone he’d pissed off was long dead, or so far in the distant past it wasn’t important. As a young man, he'd done his time in the army, 18 years to be exact, going from the Royal Engineers to the SAS. He done a few things here and there, the mid-east war game, desert Storm one and two, worked in Colombia on anti-drug hits, and a few off-the-book jobs for the government. Anything he might know was so far out of date it didn’t matter. Yet, that brought him back to the main question. Why would someone be so upset with him now to want him dead in such a bizarre way? The KGB was gone, and none of the other intelligence agencies he knew had the resources to go to this much trouble, and why bother? A push off an underground platform, a fall from a high place, or just a bullet or knife in the back would be far easier and quicker. The Americans had the resources, the NSA or CIA, but he couldn’t think of any reason they’d want him dead. He hadn’t done anything to piss them off, well, at least not lately. So what did that leave? Not much, he thought. So who'd want to kill a fat old professor of English Lit in such a strange way? His students probably, a small voice in the back of his head said, and he laughed. Strike that. He wasn't fat any more, nor did he feel his age. In fact, he felt great, which made this even more bizarre. He spent an hour going over all sorts of possibilities, sharpening the knife as he did, but nothing explained his present condition.
He didn’t dare keep the fire going, as much as he’d liked to, and for a while, he lay in darkness and contemplated his situation. At last, much to his surprise, he fell asleep with those thoughts running through his mind, but he was no closer to an answer when he woke up. Things didn’t look any brighter the next morning, and even after a good night, undisturbed sleep. While chewing on a concentrate bar, he thought his way through the problem, considering his options. There weren’t many. He only had one really. Survival at any cost. If he couldn’t change the game, or the rules, so be it. If they wanted to hunt him, he would hunt them. That was one thing he knew something about. He wished he knew more about the people he was hunting, but people in hell wished for ice water, and they had about as much chance of getting it as he did answers. Time would tell how good these people were, so the first thing he had to do was not fall into the trap of under estimating his opponent. He took it for granted there were more of them, and they probably had him outnumbered, and outgunned, so what else was new.
How long they'd keep this up was another question, but suspected until they killed him. He sighed, if that was the case, he’d just have to make it as expensive as possible for them before they got him. Looking down the barrel in the sunlight, he tried to estimate the number of round remaining, and debated changing it out for a fresh magazine. The tip of the first round in the tube had an odd glassy look to it, and he nodded to himself. These might be smart round, maybe even hunter-killer. Once locked onto the target, there was hardly any way to escape, short of getting something solid between you and it, before it arrived... Then he re-thought it. The hunter had fired at him twice, and missed both times, so the hunter-killer rounds were out. So what did that leave? Then he had it, distance.
These were frangible round and probably disintegrated after reaching a maximum distance, unless they hit the target. This prevented stray shots wandering around and hitting other unsuspecting hunters. Or members of the general public out for a Sunday picnic with the kiddies. It made sense from a safety point of view, but what was the maximum range? That he would have to find out, as it could be a lifesaver if, or when the other hunters caught up with him. There was also the danger of giving his position away each time he fired, not something he wanted to do if possible, so what did that leave? He looked out of the cave, probably much as his ancestors had done for thousands of year, looking for the hunter and thinking of the best way to kill him, before he kills you. That brought up a good thought. Instead of going high tech, such as the rifle, how about going low tech like his ancestors. He looked down at his clothes, wondering if they were good enough to hide him. He doubted it. Now it was time to get dirty.
Taking a deep breath Andrew moving out of hiding and went on the hunt. There was a danger in coming back here. If they found it they could lay an ambush, so, it was either come back at night, or take all the goodies with him. Without the backpack, he could travel lighter and faster, and not have to worry about it getting caught in something at the wrong moment. He weighed the two before leaving, erring on the side of mobility and stealth. He careful arranged the brush behind him, adding a few bits here and there to hide the entrance and moved out.
It took him a while to find a small pond, and moving into the shadow of some low hanging branches he scooped up mud and began plastering it all over himself. With the addition of green and dried grass, some leaves and small twigs he ended up looking like a mud splattered fuzzy bear. Face, hands, and hair got the same treatment, until the only part of him not covered in mud was the palms of his hands. Now he went on the hunt, traveling back down his own trail of the day before. Finding a covered stand near the crest of a hill, he sank from sight and swept the open territory with the around him with the electronic binoculars. He didn’t take anything for granted, knowing from experience how easy it is to hide out there. A seemingly innocent bush or patch of grass could actually be a hunter on the ‘stalk’ as they slowly creeping towards him to get in range.
At this stage of the game, he doubted any would-be hunter was stalking him, unless he’d been very careless. Mostly they’d scouting round for his trail. Since yesterday, he hadn’t left much, but even so, a good hunter might pick his up. Distant movement caught his eye, and he saw three figures walked out from under some trees about a mile away. The binoculars weren’t powerful enough to let him see their faces clearly, just a fuzzy image of the three, he supposed were men, slowly working their way towards him. They appeared over confident and didn’t try to hide, and he debated what to do, rejecting several ideas. Then he had one, the low-tech approach. A second look at the ground between them showed they were following a dim game trail meandering between the trees. This passed below this ridge and carried on into a thicker group of trees just short of the forest itself. Andrew slowly and carefully worming backward, until he was clear on the back side of the ridge and started in the direction of the forest. It didn’t take long to find what he wanted, and using the now sharp knife, he cut half a dozen stakes, each about a foot long, before looking and finding the dim game trail entering the forest. A short distance in he found some nice low growing branches, and with just the material at hand he quickly set up his first trap and backed carefully away.
A few indistinguishing marks along the game trail would give the hunters something to track without revealing what. That done he worked his way to the top of a rise some three hundred yards away, circling around to come at it from behind. The low growing bush and tall grass offered itself as a perfect place to hunker down and he settle in for the long wait. The weak sun seemed to take forever to climb up the sky, but it did nothing to diminish the cloud cover when it did.
Movement caught his eye, and putting the binoculars to his eyes, he scanned the terrain. Sure enough, the three hunters were coming up the game trail, and it wasn’t long before one of them spotted the marks he’d made. All three sank to the ground, and because of the grass and brush between him and them, he still couldn’t get a good look. The three moved careful forward, entering the forest in line. Andy waited, humming to himself, almost counting off the seconds as he waited. He was off by a few second, as two of the hunters came charging back out of the trees. They stopped and looked back, arm waving and hopping around. The trap had done its intended job, but whether a kill of not he didn’t know.
The two hunters took off back the way they come at a rapid pace, looking over their shoulders to see if they were being followed, and Andy chuckled, knowing the effect of a spring trap can have on people. So simple and so devastating once sprung, impaling the poor bugger before he’d ever had a chance to scream. It surprised him that the other two hadn’t tried to retrieve their friend, but simply took off running. He watched for a while until they stopped, about a mile from him, sitting on the ground and chattering to each other and waving their arms about. Andy took off around the hill and back to his trap, and one look at a distance was sufficient to tell him it was a kill. He moved out of the trees, thinking that any additional supplies might come in handily, and he'd get a look at who was hunting him. Bark spalling off the side of a tree caught him on the side of the face, and he immediately dropped to the ground as the sound of the shot reached his ears.
“SHIT!” He swore, crawling quickly backward into the cover of a tree. “Fucking smart ass bastard!” Andy muttered, wiping blood off the side of his face. Whoever it was anticipated he’d be back to see the results of his handy work, and he’d almost paid the price.
The question was did he have the position to see him? Andy made it behind the tree without inviting another shot, and he quickly got to his knees, using the tree as cover. His eyes flicked this way and that, gauging his path, but without knowing exactly where the other hunter was, he knew it was a risk, and one he’d have to take.
“One, two, three!” He took off at a stooped run, weaving between the trees. Another shop rang out, peppering him with bark and twigs. “Missed, you myopic son-of-a-bitch!” He grunted, panting for breath.
He made it over a small rise; diving over as a third shot came searching for him. It whistled overhead with a double crack as it passed, but he was safe now, well relatively safe. Once out of sigh he quickly changed directions, counting in his head. At the count of five, he changed directions again, remembering the old mantra, ‘never, never run in a straight line’. It was an unfailing human condition, that when someone starts running from something, they always run in a straight line away from it, just as the other hunters had. Somewhere behind, he could hear someone, or something crashing through the bushes, probably the hunter thinking he got him.
Andy went to ground under the roots ball of a fallen tree, shaking dirt down on top of him. This wasn’t the time to hunt, but to vanish, and he did. He used his ears as eyes, listening to every tiny sound around him. Insects buzzed, the light wind moved the leaves and branches, somewhere off to his right a small animal moved through the leaf littler, then the sound of a breaking twig. There he was, creeping through the underbrush, hunting for some sign. He tracked the hunter as he moved around, obviously searching for his trail. There wasn’t one to follow in this sort of terrain, too much ground littler for one thing, and no straight-line direction for another. Just in case, Andy carefully eased the hunting knife out in anticipation of it getting up close and personal, but it wasn’t necessary. The soft footsteps moved away, but he wasn’t about to loose track of the hunter and carefully moved out of his hide. Off through the tree he saw the back of a shadowy figure, hunched over, scanning the ground.
“That’s it ass-hole, keep moving.” He though of trying to take a shot, then discarded it.
There was no telling if the other two had worked up enough courage to come back and join the hunt. Moving sideways, he slowly worked his way parallel to the hunter, putting a long ridge between the two of them. Here he speeded up, wanting to get ahead if possible as another idea came to mind. It would take a little bit of timing, and some risk, but he felt he could pull it off. Panting from exertion, he got about a mile ahead, finding a cut in the ridge where he could see the hunter working his way towards him. For some reason, he seemed to be following a game trail, but why he should do that was unknown. Andy swung the binoculars sideways, skipping along the trail. It entered a small group of tree, then out the other side, and it was enough for Andy.
Sliding back behind the ridge, he took off at a run, and rounding the end of the ridge, he slipped into the tree, quickly braking off branches as he went. About a hundred yards from the trail he stopped and sharpened each, making sure the chip fell out of sight. With six in hand, he walked down to the trail, finding what he needed after passing a large tree. Ahead lay a shallow depression, perfect for what he needed. The knife cut through the loamy earth with ease and peeling it back he excavating the soft dirt beneath. He didn’t need to go deep, just deep enough to hide the stakes. Jamming them into the dirt, he quickly filled the shallow cavity with leaf littler and small trigs before replacing the thin turf on top. It wasn’t much of a trap, but that wasn’t the point, he was the bate, and the distraction. A tough vine across the trail substituted for a steel trip wire, setting it just about ankle height about a foot from the trap. Andy took the rifle and backed off down the trail to the edge of the wood. Here he had two directions to go if this failed, but he was also prepared to shoot the hunter if he missed the trap. That would reveal him position to any other hunters but at this point, he didn’t care. The sun at last reached it zenith, but it was still chilly at this altitude, not that he was cold, as the suit kept him warm enough. He didn’t keep his eyes fixed on the trail but a constant vigil on his surrounding, not wanting to be caught again by some other unsuspected hunter wandering around.
He looked back in time to see the hunter round the tree, and immediately stepped out where he could see him. The hunter did, letting out a shout as he stepped back behind the tree. It was enough; the hunter took off at a run. He hit the trip wire, and ever at this distance, Andy heard the thud as he landed. A quick look told him his trap had worked. The hunter lay still, impaled on the sharpened stake, now red with blood where the protruded from his back. Another shout came from somewhere up the trail, but Andy didn’t wait to see who it was. He was all ready moving up the slope and out of sight. He did take one quick look through the binoculars, but his view was obscurer by the trees. The other two hero’s had re-joined the hunt and now stood looking down at the body of the unfortunate hunter. Andy made his way carefully back behind the ridge towards his hideout, feeling pleased with himself, the score was now 3 to 0 in his favor, but he only had to make one mistake for them to win. These people weren’t as good as he’d thought, but he wasn’t about to fall into the trap of thinking he was better, just luckier, and maybe a little sneakier. These people were relying on their high tech equipment to get the job done, and that had proved fatal, but if the game continued, what else would they bring in, helicopters?” He’d be hard pressed to handle them with what he had.
The director of the Fish and Game Department took his place at the head of the conference table, grunting softly as his old bones settled into the custom made chair. The seat hummed softly, conformed to his bony bottom like an old friend, and he made a medal note to take the chair with him when he retired, hopefully soon. He was worn out and knew it. Too many meeting, long hours, low budget, insufficient manpower, and now this, the latest crisis.
“So, what do we have?” He asked the table at large, seeing their bright, young faces looked back at him expectantly.
“Well, sir, it appears that several hunters have been killed during the first week of hunting season.”
“I’m well aware of that, and not surprised.” He said sharply, did they think him senile?
Visions of heavily armed hunters wandering around with weapons big enough to mount on a battleship came to mind. It was inevitable that some would mistake another hunter for a trophy animal, with consequential results. He let a soft sigh, thinking of the six more months of hunting season.
“Yes, sir, but we suspect something else might be involved here.”
“By the manner they were killed.” He said, sounding a bit unsure of himself.
“Explain.” The Director asked, gruffly, his bushy eyebrows pulling down in a scowl.
“Well, sir, a hunter came in and reported that his companion and another hunter were killed, which the park rangers verified after locating their bodies by their transponder signal. One was found washed up on the bank of the river 'Seven', a second by what I can only describe as a death trap.” He saw his swallow carefully. “Someone had lashed sharpened spikes to the end of a branch, then pulled the branch back and set a trigger. When released, the branch whipped around, impaling the unsuspecting hunter.”
“And the third?” He asked, feeling a little queasy himself thinking about it.
“He was killing when impaled on sharpened stakes set at the bottom of a shallow pit.” He passed a color photo down the table to the Director. One look was enough and he tossed it back onto the table.
“Humm, very odd.” His brow creased into a frown. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that.” He felt his stomach do a flit-flop seeing the grisly pictures. Not that he was unused to seeing dead hunters, but usually shot or dead from some fall or other. This was definitely out of the ordinary
“No, sir neither has anyone else, and that’s what puzzles us.” He looked around the table at the other as if seeking support, seeing them nod. “I… we think we may be dealing with a serial killer, sir.” The Director looked at him, his face blank, body unmoving.
“What brought you to that startling conclusion?” He meant it ironically, but it went right over their collective heads. “What level of experience did these hunters have?”
“All three were licensed as expert, director.”
“Not as expert as they thought.” His staff looked glum. This was murder, plain and simple, and they were right, this looked like the actions of a serial killer. “I think we’d better turn this over to the federal people, and make sure the public doesn’t find out about this,“ his eyes traveled around the table a moment in warning, “or we’ll have a panic on our hands.” Thought of retirement dance through the Directors head, but not the one he expected. Forced retirement in disgrace would probably be more in keeping with the present situation.
“Yes, sir.” The murmured. “But shouldn’t we find out the hunter or hunter responsible for this?” A comely young female at the end of the table asked, sounding a little nervous, and a little outraged.
“To what end?” The Director’s voice rumbled down the table like a bowling ball on wood. “Every hunter that goes out into the bush knows the risk he or she takes. It is not our responsibility to police each and every one of them on their hunting methods, now is it.”
“No, sir.” She muttered, looking crest-fallen.
“With our limited staff, the most we can do is to ensure the weapons don’t carry more then the legal number of rounds, no exploding or armor piecing, or the capability of traveling more than three hundred yards. Beyond that, the hunters are on their own as to how and where they hunt as long as they don’t exceed their bag limit of a given species.”
“But this?” She looked down at the color pictures on the table.
“Yes, this is clearly not our usually hunter, this one seems to be out for a different kind of game. The Director gave her a thin smile. “We do not have the recourses to handle this, so our only option is to call in the Federal people, dismissed.”
It was no good sitting here beating this to death. The facts were clear, they probably had a serial killer on their hands, or an insane person, and that wasn’t something his department or the Park Rangers were trained to handle. Walking back to his office, he sat in his second favorite chair with a tired sigh, and it was only mid morning. He dialed the number with a sense of foreboding. This would get out, and he could almost see the headline now.
“Good morning Mr. Director,” the auto operator recognized his number, “how may I be of assistant?”
“Put me through to the director.”
“I’m sorry, but the director is not available at this time, may I connect you to the assistant director?”
“Yes, yes.” He answered testily.
“Good morning, Mr. Director, how can I be of assistance this morning?” The Director looked morosely at the screen, wonder if he was talking to a computer-generated image instead of a living person; they tended to sound the same.
“It’s not a good morning, and you know it as well as I do!” He grumbled.
“Yes, sir. We are aware of the situation in the state park.”
“So? What are you going to do about it?” It irked him that they knew anything at all. So much for secure communications around here.
“As we speak, Director Telman is on her way to the reserve and should be landing about this time with a team.”
“She what!” The Director spluttered in outrage. “How dare she go traipsing off to my game reserve without informing me, or this office!” He thundered. The Assistant Director had the grace to flinch at the outburst.
“Yes, Sir, but being who she is, she felt no need to inform you, or your office before taking official action.” It was a gentle reminder of who her parents were. You don’t tell the only daughter of the President what she could or couldn’t do. The point sunk in and the Director of the Fish and Game settled down to a slow simmer. Just then, the Assistant Director looked off to the side.
“I have a priority message coming in, can you hold a moment?”
“Yes, whatever.” He muttered, turning away from the screen, more in frustration than anything else.
Swiveling his seat around the he looked out of the window while he waited, his eye picking out the prominent building of the capital. It was early summer, and the imported feather leaf trees had all their leaves. Colorful splashes of flowers dotted the landscape in the parks between the buildings, making it seem open and wild. As a child, he’d run playfully between those same flowerbeds, smelling one before dashing off to another as a particularly colorful group caught his eye.
“Mr. Director! Something terrible has happened!”
“What?” For a moment, he forgot where he was. “What happened?” He saw the face on his screen go pale.
“Its… it’s the Director, she’s gone missing.” He felt the blood drain from his face, matching the one on the screen. "She's and her team are not responding to any communications."
"Good God!" He spluttered, thinking about the repercussions if the killer got her as well.
The scene at the Presidential Palace wasn’t much better, with a lot of nervous people standing around waiting for the roof to cave in. The thundering voice of Amerian Telman, the President could be heard out in the street, let alone across the huge conference room.
“I want Special Operations team in there and searching for her as soon as possible, like NOW!" The president thundered. His aid winced, feeling his knees get weak. It wasn’t often the President vented his anger, but when he did, you knew it was for real.
“Yes, sir. We already have them on their way. They should be on the ground in less than three hours.” The Presidents eyes bored into him and he swallowed carefully. “I also have three hundred Special Forces en-rout, and they will have the area surrounded by nightfall.”
“I should hope so.” He glared at his aid, and his look was sufficient to impart the consequences of failure.
“First this invasion business and now my daughter goes missing.” He growled, his fist thumping the table with short sharp blows. “Our forces are being driven back on all fronts, and now this!” This sort of distraction he didn't need, but when had offspring ever listened to their parents.
“Yes, sir, but we have made some progress.”
“Yes, but not very important ones. I hope your Special Forces have more success in finding my daughter, alive, because if they fail, may the gods have mercy on their souls because I won’t.” He growled as he stormed out of the room.
Rita Telman pushed back against the rock wall behind her in terror, something she’d never felt before. Her bound hands and feet hurt from the tapes, and her head throbbed from the blow that knocked her out. This couldn’t be happening was her first thought yet she knew it was. From the first moment they landed, until now, everything had gone wrong. The bright fall weather of the Northern latitudes had turned nasty, nullifying half their high tech sensor equipment with drenching rain and poor visibility.
Low fog, or ground mist, which ever you like to call it, had reduced visibility to a few yards, and it had taken them a lot longer to find the site of the last killing. After that, things definitely went downhill. First, her lead hunter walked into some sort of trap, and she shuddered as she remembered the solid ‘thunk’ as the sharpened stakes thudded into his body. Looking at the trap, while trying to hold her stomach in place, she’d seen the ingenuity of the device.
Whoever set this had taken a low growing branch and pulled it back, attaching sharpened stakes to it. A simple trip wire triggered the device, setting it loose to whip round and catch any unsuspecting person at mid level. It was devastatingly simple, and impossible to detect with anything they had. This was the same method used to kill one of the other hunters, and so crude and effective that it made her skin crawl. She knew she should have called it off and gone home, yet pride and arrogance push her on. Whoever this was, they weren’t smarter than she was, right? Wong! This killer was smarter, as he’d all ready proved. The second agent had taken a shot at something she couldn’t identify, then another before taking a round to the head. That stunned her, as in this visibility it was either very lucky, or whoever made it was a fantastic shot.
Which ever didn’t concern her at the time, the only thing she wanted to do was to get away from there as quick as possible. She remembered running and scrambling through the bush back towards the landing zone and the safety of the transport, and getting completely lost. That was her undoing, as in the mist she failed to see the streambed ahead and took a nosedive over the bank. She’d landed wrong, mainly on her chest, thankfully, but she found out quickly how bad that was when she tried to get her comm unit to work.
She ran then as if the demons from the pit were after her, all thoughts of bravery and going home with a trophy head gone. All she wanted to do now was survive. Somewhere out there, Special Forces troops were combing the area and if only she could meet up with them, she’d be safe. That night she huddled under dripping bushes, having not idea where she was, or what direction she was going in. For all she knew, she was walking around in circles, which in fact she was.
She heard shooting during the night, and in hope of meeting up with her people, she headed in that direction the next morning. Her hopes sank when she stumbled across three bodies an hour later, their uniforms indicating they were members of the Special Forces team. They were all dead, and one quick look was enough to tell her they’d all been killed at close range, probably with a knife by the look of the wounds. All three rifles and their packs were missing, so whoever it was was now armed with military grade weapons and ammunition. She shivered, trying to imagine what kind of monster would do this. In desperation, she stumbled on, praying she’d find someone soon, before the monster found her.
Andy winced as he doctored the nasty looking cut along his ribs, wondering what the hell he was cut with. The melees of the night before startlingly clear in his mind. His foray out from the cave was prompted more by the need for information than anything, and for an hour, he scouted around but saw seeing nothing. Who ever shot at him the day before paid the price as he managed to take out both, one with a chance shot at two hundred yards, the other with a spring trap. Whoever these people were, they weren’t very good. On his way back to the cave, he found himself cut off by three hunters, so that answered the question of if they were still after him.
He went to ground under a dead fall, well screened and hidden from view. It was just as well, as two parties went by him during the day, hearing rather then seeing them. He waited until nightfall and carefully made his way back towards the cave, again taking a different rout. The trouble was he’d stumbled right into them. He remembered the sound and flash of shots, but rather than try to work an unfamiliar rifle, he’d simply dropped it and pulled his knife. Then it got very interesting as the three hunters tried to work out who or what they were fighting, and trying not to kill each other in the process.
He didn’t have to worry about that, as he only had himself to think about. Strangely, whomever he was fighting wasn’t very strong. Shorter and faster, something like ‘Charlie’ in the Nam. He remembered stabbing one, and breaking the neck of another, sinking the knife in at the same time. The last one came straight at him, snarling, and spitting in fury, slashing back and forth with something. It was that something he couldn’t quite see that got him along the ribs just as he managed to get a throat slash in. The hunter fell to the ground, gagging and choking on his own blood, heels drumming on the ground as he died. Not that Andrew waited around. He quickly felt around in the gloom, location their rifles and pack. If there were any of their friends around, he didn’t want to be here when they arrived, and in less then a minuet he vanished back into the forest.
Dawn found him ghosting along through the dripping trees, the air still, heavy with fog and dew. Long streamers of what looked like Spanish moss hung everywhere making strange shapes and bringing visibility down to a few yards at best. The gloomy forest stretched in all directions, or so it seemed, and was just the way he liked it. This was his playground, somewhere he was trained to work in. Many men in his unit pissed and moaned about working in jungle and deep forest, preferring the desert or open grassland. But a few like him, loved it, but each to his own. Some guys loved the mountains and snow, but most of the team thought they were daft, or soft in the head. They all did it of course, training in all sorts of environments, but when it came to missions, they looked for people who liked to work in a particular type of terrain, that’s why he ended up in the Nam working with the yanks.
The least said about their regular military forces the better, at least from his point of view. They wouldn’t have suffered half the casualties they had if the troops were better trained in jungle warfare, not to mention discipline and a few other things, like weapons. Whoever thought up using a wimpy 22 round in thick jungle should have had their head examined. The SAS tried that in Malaya with a 303, and paid the price. In this kind of terrain, you needed something heavier, like a 7.62 for what was laughingly call ‘long range’ in here, and a shotgun for close quarter work, like within a hundred feet. They’d done the work and paid the price for the information, but whoever was running the US military wasn’t about to listen to a bunch of ‘Foreigners’. He slipped from shadow to shadow, tree to tree as smoothly as a ghost, his clothing now a dirty nondescript color, patchy with wet spots, mud and hung with Spanish moss. If he stopped next to a tree and lay down, he became instantly invisible, which he did on many occasions at the slightest sound. Most were animals of one sort or another moving around him, as invisible as he was. Unless panicked, nothing moved fast in here, as it was a sure way to attract attention. He had seen what liked like deer, and what could possibly be a small bear, but nothing larger so far. Not that he was looking to run into anything if he could help it, as animals could give his position away just as easy as carelessness. It was almost as if he was twenty again, in his prime, his eyes sharp, body humming along as he once remembered, yet how could that be? He was sixty-eight years old and couldn’t see three feet without glasses. If nothing else about the whole mess bothered him that did.
There was absolutely no explanation for it that he could think of, nor any medical treatment that could give him back sixty years of his life. The only conclusion he could come to was that he was dreaming, or… dead? But if this was hell… well, it wasn’t that bad. Not that he fancied spending the rest of eternity running around the bushes killing people. He thought he’d be looking at a better reward than this for his life’s work. In fact, he’d been a very good boy for the last fifty years, ever since he’d met Angie. Even now, he missed her, and the children and grandchildren. Her death had hit him hard, but he still had his children and grandchildren, and with a bit of luck, he might even make great grandfather yet. Movement ahead sent him to ground, slowing his motion and sinking into the forest leaf littler in one smooth motion.
Movement and sound of someone stumbling through the underbrush reached him, and turning his head first one way, then another as he put a picture together in his head. Whoever it was definitely didn’t know their way around a forest, as he heard whoever it was tripping and stumbling. They were tired, as it took several moments for them to stand up after a fall and move on again, at least that was his interpretation of the sounds he heard. Rising his head, he took a quick look, seeing the head and shoulders of someone from the back, a bush hat hung by its strap around their neck.
“Dumb ass.” Andy muttered to himself. Watching as the person snapped off branches and twigs in their way rather than go between or around them, never once looking over a shoulder at his back trail.
Andy slowly looked around him, checking, and rechecking for anyone else. The dumb ass up ahead might just be a stalking horse, bate, to draw him out, yet the forest remained still long after the person had gone from view. If he was ‘bate’, then whoever was covering them was a long way out of position. Nothing stirred as he stood, moving sideways and parallel to the line of travel. It was almost child’s play to get ahead of him, as he was making so much noise he was impossible to miss.
Andy got five minutes ahead and sank into cover, his eyes and ears open for anything ahead. Whoever it was, he concluded was alone, and that one look told him they were unarmed, which was another odd thing. He laid the other three rifles down beside him and covered them with leaf matter, then shucked the backpack and did the same. Now it was just another anonymous lump on the forest floor like so many others. He pulled a few loose bits of moss around him, wiggling down even further into the leaf littler and waited.
Rita stumbled over another unseen root, muttering a soft curse under her breath. She wondered why normal, ordinary, sensible people would want to go stumbling around in here to kill some unsuspecting animal was beyond her. She liked her pleasures soft and simply, like a spar, or a warm beach somewhere in the tropics, a cool drink in her hand and a group of admiring males within easy reach. She struggled up, panting for breath in the heavy wet air, cursing again as she wiped the muck off her hands.
She was tired, dirty, hungry, and half scared out of her wits about what waited around the next tree or bush. Her hopes of finding any of her people becoming dimmer by the hour. Why hadn’t they found her? Kept going around and around in her mind with no answer. She pushed her way through some branches of a fallen tree, snapping off a few to get though, swearing as her foot slipped on the moss-hidden dead fall. A small clear spot offered three feet of unobstructed progress, and she stopped on the other side, panting for breath. Before her lay more forest, as far as the eye could see. To her it looked as if there was no end, and she was at a loss to know how she’d got in here in the first place. Muttering to herself, she walked on, but only got a few feet before something hit her on the back of the head and the lights went out.
“Thank god it's over! The monster got me.” Was her last fading thought as the darkness closed in.
Andy heard the hunter coming and remained still. He stopped by the tree he was behind and never saw him. Andy heard some muttering, but couldn’t make out the words, betting whoever it was, was swearing. As he walked, or stumbled by, Andy rose to his feet. One last check around the tree for other unwanted visitors, he took three soft steps and hit the hunter on the back of the neck with his fist. He dropped like a pole-axed steer without a sound. Andy dropped to one knee in the center of his back, his eye sweeping the dark forest around him. Nothing moved, no stampeding horde of protectors rushing at him, no shots, no nothing.
“Humm.” He muttered to himself, his forehead creased in a frown. He waited two minuets, expecting the worse, but all remained silent in the dampness. Satisfied, he rolled the hunter over.
“What the fuck!” He stumbled back in shock, shaking his head in disbelief. This was getting just a little too weird for him.
Rite first came back to consciousness with a splitting headache, finding her arms and legs bound. The bouncing around didn’t help any, and shaking her head, she realized she was being carried over someone shoulder, someone very large and powerful. He or it walked and climbed for what seemed like hours before letting her down and pushing her into some sort of cave. Now it sat on the other side of a small fire looking at her as it sharpened a nasty looking hunting knife, its face pulled into an odd shape. Rite pushed her back to the rock wall, heart pounding, hands, and limbs shaking and feeling something that went beyond terror into some unknown place where nightmares come from. What sat across from her was a monster that not even her vivid imagination could conjurer up.
Andy on the other hand squinted his eyes, high forehead pulled into a deep frown as he stropped the edge of the knife back and forth on a wet stone. If he thought none of this made any sense before, it made even less now. What he was looking at defiantly wasn’t human, more feline looking than anything else. If he didn’t know better, he’d say that someone was having a joke on him, a very bad joke, but after being shot at several times, and killing a few of these… He didn’t know what to call them. This wasn’t a joke. Even a quick search showed that this one was female and that bothered him at little. How many other female, hunters or not, had he shot or killed? The only possible explanation he could come up with was that this was a VR simulation he’d was stuck in it. He remembered some of his students showing him the latest generation of VR games, of humans battling impossible alien being on bizarre planets. In these, you wore a helmet instead of looking at a screen. Total immersion they called it. Could this be one of them?
It would explain all of this, his body, his skills; ever the wounds could be nothing more than an induced response. He shook his head. That didn’t explain why his hunger went away when he ate, or his thirst when he drank. He doubted that even the latest generation of VR could handle that. He’d been here for at least a week now, and if he was lying on some table, or couch somewhere, he’d be debilitated. The creature looked back at him, and he could see, or sense fear in its eyes.
This creatures was shitting in it pants, and that didn’t go along with the VR scenario. Creatures in there were always coming at you, until they were dead. He didn’t know of one where you could capture and hold one prisoner like this. That wasn’t to say someone had worked in the wrinkle. Yet could they also mimic pain as well? His side hurt where one of them had cut him, and even his probing fingers told him it was real.
So what did that leave? Not very much! This had to be real, but if it was, then he was in deeper shit than he first imagined. Then the cat thing growled something at him. So much for universal translation. Was it speech? It had to be, because you don’t build a technological civilization without it, or mental telepathy. All sorts of scenarios ran through his brain, they were warriors sent out to hunt him, or some sort of pet let loose in this playground. But none of it rang true. They’d been armed with sophisticated weapons, and knew how to use them. Their backpacks offered up concentrated food, knives, fire starters and all the other little things that any techno race would invent for itself. He didn’t discount that these feline had built such a techno base. It would be stupid and homocentric to think only human’s could do such a thing. Part of the proof of that was the clothes the alien opposite was wearing; they fitted her like a glove, and not some off-the-shelf issued uniform. She growled something at him again. In answer, Andy shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Now came the problem of trying to communicate with it, or her, as the case might be.
Rita got tired of the creature looking at her that way, feeling herself shiver as it kept stroking the knife back and forth on the rock. He was obviously sharpening it, but what for she didn’t want to imagine. Once the initial fear of death passed, she started looking at this creature, trying to decide what class of being it fell into. She’d never seen anything like it, not even in the history book of extinct animals. The face was hairless much like hers but its hair only covered the top of its head. Through the opening of its clothing below the chin, she could only see a few wisps of hair on its front, so unlike her it wasn’t covered in fur. It was the hands that fascinated her. They were so big, huge in fact, so deformed; remembering the feel of them touching her body sent another shiver up her spine. It could probably rip her apart with ease.
The face on the other hand, although very mobile had certain symmetry to it, two eyes, a nose, mouth, two ears, but not pointed like hers. The teeth seemed blunted and quite unsuited for eating meat. Her first thought that this was some sort of mutation went out the door went it lit a fire, but instead of using a fire starter, it used an odd, clumsy looking devise. It moved a stick of wood back and forth in some sort of bow and string arrangement, and to her astonishment produced fire. She shivered with cold and moved a little closer to the warmth, not that she wanted to get any closer to the creature than she had to. Her hands and feet hurt from being tied so long, but she doubted she get them free any time soon. The one thing she had no idea of was the creature intelligent? Could it understand basic words or ideas? If it could, maybe she could trick it into letting her go, but the look in its eyes ended that idea. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t stupid, and very deadly. It had killed several people, both with weapons, primitive death traps and with a knife.
“Can I have some water?” She asked at last. For a moment, the creature looked at her and blinked, freezing into position. “Water, can I have some water.” She carefully pronounced the last word, hoping it would understand.” Clearly, it didn’t as it just moved its shoulders up and down.
That puzzled her. Did the shoulder movement mean the same thing to it as it did to her? Usually it indicated none understanding. She pointed to the water flask with her taped hands, then her mouth. In answer, the creature stood, towering over her as it came towards her with the knife in its hand. She let out a moan, shrinking back against the wall in terror, it was going to kill and eat her. It grabbed her arm with a giant hand, and in desperation, she lashed out with her feet, fighting for her life. Almost with casual ease the creature captured her legs between its and lifted her bound arms above her head. To her astonishment, it slipped the knife between her hands and cut the tape. Then let go and stepped back, looking at her a moment before going over and picking up the water container.
Andy saw the motion of her hand towards the water bottle and realized what she was asking for water. Without thinking, he stood and moved over to cut the tape, and to his surprise, she started growling and kicking. Did she think he was going to kill her? It was easy to trap her legs and cut the tape and for a moment, he stood back, seeing what she would do next.
The feline didn’t move, so he went over and pick up the water bottle and handed it to her. Definitely intelligent but clearly the differences between them immediate led to misunderstanding. He sat against the cave wall and looked at her, contemplating the situation. The question was did she consider him intelligent? On the face of it, the answer had to be no. So where did he go from here? He cursed himself for his own stupidity, he was supposed to be a highly educated man, yet he’d failed miserable at the first human contact with another species.
The knife, something any human would understand immediately, seeing it both as a weapon and a tool, but did she? The look in her eyes said no, she was scared of it, him, or both. He slipped it back into it scabbard and carefully watched her reaction. There was a definite lessening in her stiff posture, meaning she was less scared? He had no real way of knowing, so what next. How did he convince her, without scaring her half to death that he to was intelligent, and didn’t really mean her any harm. Then he had an idea. Taking a packet of the food concentrate out of the pack, he added some to a little water in one of the pot and placed it over the fire, careful to stir it so it didn’t burn. He concentrated on normal, ordinary tasks, like unrolling two of the sleeping mat, bag, or whatever they were, keeping a weary eye on her all the time. Outside the weather deteriorated, and he heard thunder rumbling around the mountain. It was going to be a wet, miserable night out there for any poor sucker hunting him. Once the soup was hot he pouring some into a cup and held it out to her.
Rita watched the creature start doing odd things, like mixing the food with water and heating it over the fire. Why didn’t he eat it straight out of the packet as he was supposed to? Then it unrolled a two sleeping mats side by side and she started getting nervous again. What did it have in mind to do on them? It then poured some of the watered down food into a cup. It offered it to her before pouring a little into another cup and began drinking. That surprised her. This wasn’t the actions of some unthinking animal. It clearly showed some intelligence. The question was, how much?
Andy sat there, trying to think of a way to show this, what? Creature, animal, feline? He didn’t know quite what to call her, ending up with ‘being’. There had to be something definitive, something unmistakable she would instantly recognize that would show her beyond a doubt he was as intelligent as she was, but he couldn’t think of a damn thing. He offered her more food, and with an up and down movement of the head indicated she wanted more. That was a start; at least she hadn’t tried to throw the hot liquid in his face. Then a thought struck him, something simple, but complex at the same time. Taking one of the military rifles, he laid it down on the sleeping bag, and used the odd ‘Swiss Army’ knife tool, to disassemble it. It took time, and he didn’t really have the right tools, having to open different blades to find one that worked. He ended up with a bunch of scattered parts, all recognizable to him, even in their difference. The butt contained most of the electronic hardware, including what he suspected was the computer brains. The battery was flat, rather like the ones used in a Polaroid camera. There were no wire, just contacts between the butt stock and the receiver. The barrel fitted neatly into the receiver, and the electronic scope mounted on top. In less than five minutes, he had it all back together again, but didn’t slide the ammo tube in place. He laid it back down on the sleeping bag and looked up at the feline, seeing an expression he couldn’t interpret.
Rita looked at this strange creature in wonder, marveling how those huge hands could work so delicately. His over long, un-natural finger seemed to have a mind of their own as they worked. She looked at her short stubby fingers, wondering if she could do as well. She doubted it. Then it struck her, his disassembly of the weapon wasn’t to examine it, but to show her something else. This wasn’t some dumb creature acting on primitive level, but a highly intelligent being. That being the case, there had to be a way to communicate, despite the language difference, but how?
Then the creature did the most astonishing thing of all. Taking out the knife it very slowly reached over and carefully cut the tape binding her feet. She was free! Then, to compound her confusion he started to scratch something in the damp sand between them with a stick. 1, 11, 111, 1111, 11111. At first, she was at a loss to understand he was doing, and then she did. Numbers! He was counting. Then he handed her the stick and pointed to the floor. For a moment, she sat frozen in surprise. Understanding dawned. He was offering her the stick to continue the sequence, and trying the best way he knew how to communicate. She hesitantly took the stick and looked down at the sequence. It wasn't difficult to understand what he wanted, and continued the scratches up to ten. At that, he held his hand out, and she handed it back. He then pointed at the 11111 and scratched it out a used a V instead. Smoothing the sand, he re-wrote the numbers and she instantly understood. 1, 11, 111, 1V, V, V1, V11, V111. He then scratched out the ten and replaced it with an X, continuing the sequence, 1X, X, X1.
It was a simply system, but where was zero? He then started again, this time, as if reading her mind, started with 0 then 1, then scratched out the 11 and replaced it with a 2 symbol, he did the same for the rest of them, substituting each for the following 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, then stopped and looked at her. For a moment, she wasn’t sure what he wanted. She looked at the numbers again, at last the light dawning on her. They used 0 to 9 symbols, and from them they could make any number they wanted, unlike the first one, which meant they would have to invent multiple different symbols for larger numbers. He then wrote 3.1416 and a very strange looking symbol.
This had her stumped for a while, as math was not one of her strong point. She could see the relationship between the stick figures and the number symbols, yet the significance of the 3.1416 escape her. She muttered a soft swear word to herself. She was supposed to be a highly intelligent person, and the head of the Federal Police agency, yet she felt like a first year college student with an obnoxious professor putting her on the spot with a trick question. As if understanding her dilemma, the creature then scribed a large circle in the sand around the numbers, and it hit her. The basic universal language of math. The circumference of a circle can only be calculated correctly by using 3.1416. She clapped her hand and laughed with joy. That simple concept alone showed beyond a doubt that this was a highly intelligent being, and not some dangerous wild animal.
Andy sat back in surprise, seeing her obvious expression of delight. He’d done it. Now they had a basis of understanding. Both were intelligent being, and given time, they would find a way to communicate. His thoughts darkened a little as he remembered these being were trying to kill him, and he had no idea why. Now the question was how could he find out the why, and hopefully put a stop to it. It was no use trying to teach or learn each other's language, as neither of them had the vocal apparatus to produce the right sounds. So what did that leave? The only thing he could think of was sign language, but the question was, did he have time.
Rita was having similar thoughts, but in a slightly different direction. Clearly, this was the creature killing the hunters, but she couldn’t figure out why. Food might be one answer, but then again, how did he get here, a starship? Had he crash on this planet? The government would have known if he had, so what did that leave? Then she had it, the Orthlan! She jumped up and started pacing back and forth across the cave before she realized what she was doing. She stopped and looked over her shoulder at the strange creature, but other than partly baring his teeth at her, he’d done nothing. Did the teeth bearing mean he was angry, as it did with her people? No, she stopped, not wanting to read anything into his actions that weren’t there. She’d already embarrassed herself by doing that when he simply wanted to cut her bonds. This could get complicated. She had to find a way to make him understand that she needed to contact her people and tell them what was going on. But with them wanting to kill each other, how could she. Pacing did no good, just making her more tired then she already was. Feeling a little hot, she did the unthinkable and lay down on the sleeping mat, thinking he was going to lie beside her. That was unseemly for a single female in her culture, but seeing he wasn’t one of her people, what did it matter. She watched him for a moment to see what he’d do, and again he surprised her.
Andy watched the female pace back and forth and smiled. Some habits were universal it seemed. She was probably thinking, of a way to escape or something else he didn’t know. Then she lay down on the sleeping bag, looking at him with her intense yellow eyes. How far he could trust her was an unknown, and as much as he would have liked to sleep himself, he wasn’t that trusting. Instead, he picked up the other sleeping bag and wrapped it around himself to keep off the chill. In the end, she slipped inside the bag and pulled the top cover up. Inevitably he fell asleep, sitting with his back to the rock wall, a rifle gripped between his legs, banking on his now keen senses to wake him up.
It didn’t happen, when he awoke he found himself lying on his side, the sleeping bag now covering him, the rifle beside him, close to his hand. He sat up, feeling panicky, yet one quick glance around the cave told him there was no danger. The other rifles leaned against the wall next to him, the fire was lit, and the female creature was sitting on the other side, stirring something in a pot. She looked at him and purr/growled something. He wasn’t sure what, but it sounded friendly. She now looked clean and tidy, her fur combed or straightened back, eye bright and curious. She offered him some of whatever she was cooking in a cup, and held it out to him. Andy leaned the rifle against the wall. If she was a threat, she'd had every opportunity to do something while he slept. She hadn’t, nor had she tried to escape, or use one of the weapons. Andy contemplated the problem of communications, yet other then the basics of eat, drink, come, go and such, he couldn’t see any way to start an intelligent dialog.
The question remained of why her people were trying to kill him. He’d been unarmed and they’d hunted and shot at him. This wasn’t a case of mistaking him for some exotic kind of animal, but a deliberate attempt to kill him. All his assumption about some bizarre plot by some earthly group or agency to kill him went out the window once he seen who was hunting him. So what did that leave? It also brought up the question of who and why they’d brought him here, and how they’d managed to make him young again. He discounted the VR idea, as there was too many things that defiantly made this real. In the end, he concluded that he had to let her go, or at least get her to a place near her own people and let her go. Maybe she could help in some way to stop this.
After what constituted breakfast, Andy packed everything into one pack, and Rita clearly understood they were going, helping to pack a second pack. He picked up one of the rifles, hefting it a moment, then turned and held it out to her. She looked at him, then the rifle, growling something as she nodded and took it from his hand. Her stubby fingers expertly check the weapon, finding it loaded and ready to go. She bobbed her head, ears flattened and stood back, waiting.
In a way, it was the decisive moment for both of them, and the slight movement of his hand toward the knife in his belt didn't go unnoticed. Rita understood. In here, he could probably reach her and kill her with the knife faster then she could get the rifle into action. She also accepted that his trust was conditional, and understood his reasoning. Her people were trying to kill this being like some dangerous wild animal. In return, he was protecting himself the only way he knew how, killing the hunters first, both sides working from the wrong premise. The fact he'd given her a weapon at all, when he need not was a telling point, and she was careful not to point the rifle anywhere near his direction. He motioned toward the mouth of the cave, pointing to both of them. She nodded her head and fell in behind him as he walked out.
Andy took the usual care in exiting, scanning the surrounding countryside before he moved. The rain had left everything fresh and clean, with perfect visibility. It looked and felt normal and keeping low, he moved out, the female following, mimicking his movements. They made it to the edge of the forest with out incident and he breathed a little easier. Rita wondered at his hesitation, as one long sniff told her there was no one around. Then she chided herself. She was falling into the trap of assuming his senses where the same as hers, which obviously they weren't.
Just as they reached it, a booming sound crashed over the woods, and a moment later, they both saw a strange boxy looking craft crest the high ridge behind them and come in for a landing about half a mile away. The female started chattering and growling, shaking her head. She pointed at the craft and said something, and Andy just shrugged. She looked at him a moment her ears flicking up and down. Then she pointed at the craft, then at him, then herself before making one perfectly understandable motion. She drew one claw tipped hand across her throat.
“Shit!” Andy muttered. Whoever these people were they were both in danger.
Andy made the ‘come’ motion and crouching down worked his way deeper into the dimness of the forest, the female following close behind. His hope the new aliens would pick some other direction to head in didn’t last long. They headed directly toward the forest, as if seeking its protection the same as he did. Then the morning calm shattered into gunfire, but not aimed at them. A quick look told him that some of the people hunting him had run into the new lots, so whoever they were, they defiantly weren’t friendly. The enemy of my enemy is my friend didn’t seem to apply in this case, as there was something about the look of the landing craft that Andy didn’t like.
Its shape was wrong for one thing, and one quick look through the binoculars told him he didn’t like the look of these guys either. They were humanoid, in that they had two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but the face had an odd look to it, all gray and lumpy, like week old porridge. Their uniforms were black; as were the helmets and weapons, and he didn't need a translator to tell him this was a military landing force. There were about a hundred men, some hauling heavy weapons of some sort, while other carried canisters on their backs, probably food, or ammo. The firefight out in the open didn’t last long before they killed all of the local people. They’d managed to kill a few of the other, but not enough from Andy’s point of view. If they got into the forest, there would be hell to pay getting them out, but the question was, had the local authorities detected the landing? Then, to his astonishment, the female stood out in the open and started firing her rifle at the intruders.
“Of all the stupid…!” Andy grabbed the back of her jacket and jerked her down just as all hell broke loose and a shit storm of return fire swept the ground the bushes where she’d been standing. “Jesus H Christ on a crutch, woman!” He yelled. “Get your frigging ass down!” The female growled something and pointed at the intruders. “I know, I know. Bad guys! So what else is new!”
Sweating a blue streak, Andy bellied up to the tops of the ridge, using a tree as partial cover. The electronic sight hummed as he switched on, the screen lighting up to show a picture of the advancing aliens. A button below the selector switch zoomed in, and he could pick out individual soldiers, if that’s what they were. Close up they looked even uglier than through the binoculars. He sighted on one a little more daring then the others as he dodges from cover to cover. Andy anticipated where he would go next, sighing on the spot. The being moved right into his picture sigh, and he fired a moment before he reached the center spot. The shot took him through the head and he dropped. The rest went to ground, sending a firestorm back at him. Andy had all ready moved back and down, and he was thankful that he did. Some of the round blasted right through the tree and the ground, spraying them with bark, stones, and debris.
“Hold shit! What the hell and those guys using, a fucking cannon! Talk about overkill.”
Cursing he grabbed the females hand and pulled her with him, keeping low. It didn’t help as round kept tracking them as they moving. Somehow, they were following, infrared, or motion, he didn’t know. Ducking and running he weaved his way deeper into the woods using the tree and rocks as a shield. Panting for air they made it over a rise, face, and hands cut and bleeding from tree branches and flying debris.
“Rotten son–of-a-bitches!” He panted, coming to a halt as the barrage of fire slackened.
Now it was just probing fire, not really directed at them. Andy nodded grimly to himself. He looked around and found a thick tree he could scale. The broad first tier branches offered a perfect stand as he quickly brought his breathing under control. The view through the trees wasn’t great, but it didn’t have to be. All he wanted was a small window to shot through. He found it, seeing slight movement back towards the open ground. The Electronic sigh hummed as he brought it up again, and zooming it to max magnification he carefully scanned the woods.
Two aliens came into view, moving cautiously towards them. He flicked the sigh picture between them, gauging his shot and waiting for the right opportunity. It came when the rear most being stepped almost in line with the one in front. He took the rear one first, shifting his aim and shooting the second one before the first hit the ground. Ducking back behind the truck, he waiting for the return fire, but nothing came at him. Maybe whatever they were using didn’t work so well once they were in the forest. Whatever the reason, Andy took advantage of it. His training told him he should move before taking another shot, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
He did shoot from a different position in the tree, finding three others. These were hunkered down behind some bushed, looking around and chatting to each other. He got two before the third vanished from his sigh pictures. Satisfied for the moment, he jumped down, motioning for the female to follow. She did, keeping up with him easily. He didn’t stop for almost an hour, working his way higher. It wasn’t the best strategy, as it not only gave him a good line of fire, but the enemy as well. He found a good stand in a group of huge boulders passed the tree line with a back way out, and went to ground.
He had no way of knowing if the aliens would come this far or just simply take up residence in the forest to put into action what ever plan they had. It was curious in a way, that if this was some sort of invasion force why they were so few in numbers. A hundred or more wasn’t enough to cause major damage on a planetary scale, unless they dropped similar groups all over the place. So what were they? A commando group, SOG, or just an infiltration team with a special objective? The female lay down beside him, and he smelt her fain musky feline scent.
It was rather nice in a way, like fresh cinnamon. Movement some distance away caught her eye before his, and she touched his arm and pointed. He gave her a slight nod, making a downward motion with his hand. She understood and sank lowers, as he did. One reason he’d picked these boulders was their IR signature. It would be hotter than theirs, masking their signature, or at least he hope so. Settling the rifle so that only the very tip showed, he switched on and zoomed in. Sure enough, the group was heading this way, breaking out of the tree line four hundred yards away. He took the leader out with his first shot, seeing the rest go to ground.
A few shots came their way, but nothing close or showing they knew where they were. At max zoom, he searched the ground, seeing movement back towards the trees. He nailed another as he broke cover and tied to run a few more feet towards them, and to be on the safe side he backed down and moved his location. The female followed, mimicking his movements perfectly. She was a fast learner. Settling behind twin boulder, he inched his way around it until he had a clear view in the inverted V shaped notch. The tip of his rifle poking just beyond, but in the shadow of the cleft. Now he waited, ducking back to sip from his water bottle, automatically offering it to the female. She took it and sipped as well before passing it back with a soft purring sound. Andy interpreted that as a ‘thank you’ and nodded. He was in no hurry, but suspected the aliens might be, especially if they had an objective. The female touched his arm, pointing to something below them. Andy switched on and lifted the butt so he could look down at the spot. He bared his teeth, flashing a smile at her. She had good eyes. Something was wormed its way through the tall grass at the foot of the slope, but for the life of him he could get a clear look at what ever it was.
The grass movement was enough, and estimating where whoever it was he fired and withdrew the tip of the rifle. That would show up as a hot spot on infrared. As a precaution, he rolled over behind the boulder, but again, nothing came their way. The female used a small gap between two other boulders and took a look, then sank back and nodded her head. Another one down. He looked at her and wondered if he could convey to her what he expected would happen next. He pointed at the tree line and held his hand up, fingers extended. With his other hand he pointed at the ground, then tapped the dirt.
Her yellow eye watched him intently as he made a sweeping motion of his extended hand to the point on the ground. He then pointed at her, then the rifle, making pointing motions and pulling the trigger. For a moment she did nothing, then, nodded vigorously, and scooted over to the next gap in the boulders. She understood, and Andy breathed a sigh of relief.
Rita watched this strange creature, no, being. He acted as if this was the most natural thing in the world. He made many strange sounds, yet showed no fear of the Hiptar, or the barrage of return fire. She was a little upset with the way he’d dragged her down after she’d fired at them, but understood his reason the moment the Hiptar had returned her shot. If he hadn’t pulled her down, she’d be dead now. It was clear this being had a lot more experience at this sort of thing than she did. After that, she did everything he did, following his example. The trick with the tree was something else. How he expected to shot the enemy in thick forest, and up in a tree was a mystery to her, until he’d done just that. His odd behavior puzzled her.
He didn’t stand and fight as she would, but shot from cover and ran, shooting and running again. Now they lay behind some rocks, shooting and hiding, but it made sense. There were only two of them, and many of the Hiptar, but not as many as before. It took a moment for her to comprehend his little hand play, and a joy when she understood his none verbal instruction. He expected the Hiptar to rush them, and that both of them needed to shot to drive them back. His calmness was what affected her the most. He was neither angry nor fearful, as when he’d casually taken a drink and handed her the water flask.
His eye never stopped moving, yet he’d failed to see the camouflaged soldier creeping up on them. She had, and once it was brought to his attention, he had no trouble killing it. Could it be that is nose weren’t as keen as hers? She suspected so. As he'd predicted, they came in a rush, dodging and weaving in leapfrog movements passed each other in a classic open field maneuver. Andy fired, and kept firing, hearing the female doing the same beside him, switching magazines, and fired again. More and more shots came their way now, as the enemy located their position. Now he sweated. There was no way they could kill them all before they overran this position, yet he dare not run. There was a lot less of them as they made it over the top and came to a sudden stop. He could see it in their faces, fear, and for that critical moment, they hesitated instead of shooting.
Then, to Andy's astonishment, they pulled knives, or something like a broad, short sword out of their belts, much like the Gurkha's were aped to do in hand to hand fighting. Andy instinctively grabbed the female and pushed her behind him as he fired into the massed bodies, dropping it as he shot out the magazine. Then he drew his knife as they rushed him, cutting and slashing with their weapons. To Andy’s way of thinking it was crude compared with classic knife fighting, and by sheer strength and ferocity, he drove them back. His reward was a captured sword, and with that and the knife in his left hand, he yelled an oath and jumped into the middle of the main group, cutting left and right.
It was bloody work, and he didn’t get off scot-free. He heard a scream behind him, and disengaging he spun around in time to see three of the ugly suckers closing in on the female, knives drawn. Andy didn't have to think about it, or stop to wonder why he was protecting an alien female; he just let out a bellowing roar and charged. Hearing and seeing a monster charging towards them they hesitating, then turned to face the threat as he plunged into them. The fight was short and vicious, but being a head and shoulder taller, he had the reach, chopping all three down. He spun as the last one dropped, putting himself between the enemy and the female, standing defiant and covered in blood, his and the enemy.
“DAMN! It's good to be alive again! Come you fuckers; let's see how good you really are!” He screamed and charged.
They stumbled, back some firing weapons at him and he laughed. He might die, but what a way to go, he thought as the world seemed to explode around him. He chopped and stabbed right and left, feeling more than seeing the hits. In the end the sheer number of bodies overwhelmed him, but he managed to get two more before he went down, cutting the head of one with the sword, and gut ripping the other as he sank into darkness.
Rita spun round at the sound of weapons fire from behind her, seeing a Special Forces unit erupt from the rocks. The fight was short and vicious as they tore into the Hiptar, killing or capturing the remainder of the disorganized and demoralized force. The sheer ferocity of the monster they faced had taken the heart out of them. Almost sobbing in relief, Rita knelt down beside strange magnificent creature who sacrificed its life for her. Lifting his head and placed it in her lap, wiping his face clean as tears ran down her face.
“Are you wounded, Ma’am?” One of the panting soldiers asked, his eyes quickly looking her over for wounds before skipping to the strange looking monster on the ground. He visibly shuddered as he viewed the carnage it had inflicted on the Hiptar.
“No, no I don’t think so.”
“Thank the god’s for that, your father would have my hide on his wall if anything happened to you.” He'd probably have his hide anyway for not getting here sooner.
“I’m alright, but one is not.”
“Is that… thing dead? And what in the name of the martyrs is it?”
“This is someone who fed me and shielded me from danger, and someone you will honor, Captain! He died to protect my life.” She sobbed. The leader of the team looked around at the other for a moment, not sure what to do.
“Medic!” He yelled at last.
“Yes, sir, here.”
“See if you can do anything for this… being.” He said at last. The medic dropped down beside the female and checked the body of the strange looking creature.
“I’m not sure what constitutes dead with one of these… things," he said after a few moments of examination, "but as far as I can tell, it’s alive, but badly wounded.”
“Do what you can here to sustain his life and get a transport and a medical team out here now!” She only had to raise her voice a little to make herself understood. She was the daughter of the Planetary President, and in that, she was the President hand and voice.
“Yes, Ma’am.” It would be just his bad luck to have this creature died on him before the medical team arrived. He hated to think of the consequences if that happened. She'd probably have his head mounted on her wall if it did.
Andy woke up wondering what day it was, hoping it wasn’t Monday. He had a class to teach and he felt like shit. The pounding in his head was the worse. With a soft groan, he unglued his eye, swearing not to drink whatever he’d been drinking the night before. His eyes opened at last, but one look made him to close them again. He was still dreaming, cats, big cats chasing him through the woods, and some other ugly looking suckers that were even worse.
“How do you feel?” A soft voice asked.
“Like I was run over by a bus.”
“Yes, you know public transport? A great big mother fucking thing full of people that never stops when you are running for it…” He stopped and opened his eyes again, sure enough; this big cat was talking to him. Now he knew he was dreaming.
“I think I know the type of vehicle you are talking about.”
“Good, did you get the name of the driver?”
“No, I’m sorry to say I didn’t, otherwise I’d be sure to give it to you.”
“I’m dreaming, right?” He opened his eyes again. The cat was still there, still talking to him, a cat with a sense of humor at that.
“No, you are very much awake, and yes, I am sort of talking to you, with the aid of a translator.”
“Oh, right, of course, I should have known that.” He groaned a little louder as he sat up, or pulled himself up higher on the pillows.
Blinking his eyes, he looked around the room, finding it airy and full of sunlight that hurt his eyes. Colorful Curtains waved gaily in the gentle breeze, and they to hurt his eyes as well. It, he or she held out a plastic cup and a white pill, held in stubby fingers.
“This should help the hurt in your head.”
“Thanks.” Andy took the pill and swallowed it, doubting they wanted to kill him. One look was enough to tell him he was covered in bandages, so the fight wasn't a dream either.
“What do you remember?”
“What happened to you?”
“Oh that, well, from what I can remember, I woke up in a strange place with a lot of people trying to shoot me, then I captured one of them and found out they were… well, from my point of view, cats. After that, while trying to get her back to her own people and try to find out what the hell was going on, these other nasty buggers turned up, and they tried to shoot me as well. So I shot back. I remember them rushing me at the ends, and then, well, things sort of went blank.”
“I think there was a little more to it than that.” The Cat chuckled.
“Well, that’s about it in a nut shell.” Andy groaned softly as he moved his head.
“And you jumping into the middle of the Hiptar and protecting the said female?”
“Oh that. Well, she was nice and didn’t try to kill me when she had the chance.” The throbbing behind his eyes diminished, and he became aware of other people at the back of the room.
“So, you don’t recognize me?”
“I thought you looked familiar, but I wasn’t about to assume it was you miss?”
“Rita is my names, but I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing yours yet.”
“Oh, my name is Andy; um… that is Andrew MacFarland.”
“Please to meet you, Andrew MacFarland.”
“Same here, but how is it that we couldn’t communicate before?”
“I wasn’t carrying a translator then, as I didn’t think I’d need one to track down a serial killer.” Andy winced. She had a point. He had killed several of her people. He nodded his head to the others in the room. He heard her rumbling growl, and a moment later, laughter. “Not to worry, I think the misunderstanding has been cleared up. It turned out you were kidnapped from your Planet by the Orthlan and brought here.”
“And they are?” That explained the bright light coming over Beacon Hill. He'd been abducted by aliens, stories he'd always laughed at before.
“We have a standing contract with them to supply, shall we say dangerous off-world creatures for our hunting reserve.” She laughed again. “Usually we don’t get animals as dangerous as you.
“Dangerous? Me, hell no, I’m usually as sweet as a pussycat… Ops, sorry about that, no pun intended.” Wondering if she understood what he was talking about.
“We obtained a complete language package from the Orthlan, and I take no offence at your words, but, if you are as sweet as a pussycat, as you say, then I’d hate to meet a really dangerous member of your species.” Andy just laughed, she had a point.
"I'd say the Orthlan screwed up on this one, I was 65 years old when they picked me up, that's old on my world, now look at me."
"The Orthlan try to pick up older members of a species so as not to disturb the natural order of things. They also have the medical capabilities to regenerate any creature so it is in good health when it arrives." Rita said something to one of the people at the back of the room, and received an answer of some sort. "In your case it appears they took matters a little further then required."
“So, what happened, how come they picked me?”
“That is what we are trying to discover now, but it would appear that although the Orthlan are a peaceful people, and don’t engage in… war? They understand it, and our need to lean it to fight the Hiptar.”
“The Hiptar are the other ugly buggers we met.”
“And what were they doing here?”
“That was easy to find out. They were here to destroy one of our main planetary defense nodes, one we would be hard pressed to get back in service quickly.”
“I see, and we were in the way?”
“Yes, inadvertently, or luckily from our point of view, you chose to retreat in the direction of the installation. Without you, we wouldn’t have been able to stop them before they completed their task.” It all fell into place then, and in a weird way made sense.
“So, what about my killing off a few of your citizens?”
“First, I’d like you to meet my father, and be warned, his bite is worse than his bark. But not as bad as yours.” She laughed again. A tall, well, taller than the female came forward and stood at the end of the bed looking at him.
“My daughter tells me you have done us a great service, and after reviewing the information, I have to agree. Thank you.” He growled something to another of the cats, and then continued. "As to your hunting accident…” He let the words hang in the air a moment. "It's not unusual for hunters to mistake another hunter for game, and I suppose it would be poor thanks for us to punish you for defending yourself.”
“Thank you.” Andy felt he had something else to say, and waited.
“The Orthlan were kind enough to supply us with a complete history of your species…” he paused, as if looking for the right words, “and you puzzle me. So much war, so much killing, and yet you create things of such beauty.” Andy sighed, knowing what he meant.
“It is our curse and our salvation at the same time, sir.”
“I can see that. In war, you are so cunning, so devious, it astonishes us. You can kill and destroy so much so easily, and cry as you bury the dead and rebuild.”
“We have had a lot of practice at it, sir.”
“Yes, you have, yet I find you are not an evil species, unlike the Hiptar.”
“Yes, those buggers looked pretty nasty.”
“Yet you handled them with ease.”
“Not really, I just got lucky is all.”
“I don’t think luck, as you call it, had anything to do with it.”
“Well, I do have some experience.”
“You probably want to get back to your own planet, Andrew MacFarland.” The way he said it, or the way the translator presented it, made Andrew look up, slightly suspicious.
“Not really, you see, I now have a bit of a problem.”
“And that is?”
“This!" Andy made a waving motion at his body. "I’m now twenty odd years old or at least look that way. There is no way I can explain it, and that bring up a lot of problems.”
“Such as the planetary authorities asking you a lot of question you can’t answer?” Whoever this one was, he was sharp.
“Would you consider staying here, at least for a while?”
“And doing what? A traveling freak show?”
“No, no, I was thinking of something a little more productive than that, and more in line with your undoubted skills.”
“Oh? Such as?” He waited for the other shoe to drop.
“I think the Orthlan had more then stocking our game preserve in mind when they um… picked you up."
"Like what?" Andy wasn't sure he liked the sound of that.
"One, finding out if you were as dangerous as they thought, and dropping you into the game preserve at the beginning of hunting season, and possibly teaching us what you know about warfare.” Andy rocked back on the pillows. That was a surprise. He wished the he could read their facial expressions, but unlike human’s they didn’t have any he could read. In a way, this whole thing was a test. If the cats could kill him, he wasn't good enough. If he survived… He wasn't sure if he should be angry with the Orthlan or not.
He thought about it, considering the complications of returning to Earth looking like this. They might be able to turn him back into an old man, but he’d be damned if he let them. He liked being young again. From what he’d seen so far, the Cats experience and expertise in warfare left a lot to be desired. Then he made a counter offer.
“You are going to need more than one person, even me to help you. But, I just happen to know of a planet with a bunch of old farts with the experience you need.”
“Well, if you can get the Orthlan to give then the same treatment as me,” he waved at his body, “I’m sure I could convince a few of them to come here and help you.” That's if he could get them to believe him, he laughed.