Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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The Customer is Always Right
By Bill Wolfe

A Mare Inebrium Story
Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield



     Closing time at the Mare.
    Usually this was one of Max’s favorite times of the day.  Bruce, the bouncer, had finished his shift and gone off to run twice around the bazaar—one of the seedier sections of town—as part of his nightly exercise routine.  It had been a while since he’d run into someone willing to try and make trouble, so he had mentioned that he was going to have to change his route.  The run was only part of the training.  Both Blanche and Trixie had been sent home, the doors were locked and the tables all cleaned.  His back to the room, Max was sitting alone on the inner edge of the long bar, a datapad in his hand showing the total of the day’s receipts on the right-hand side, and his inventory on the left.  He was going to have to order a few hundred cases of Krupnick, soon, from Earth.  It had lately become the status beverage of choice among some of the City of Lights elite.  
Expensive to start with, Max’s mark-up made it a veritable cash cow.  After managing the bar for over two hundred years he knew, of course, that by the time the new supply arrived, the trends would have shifted and he’d be overstocked.  But he didn’t care.  Good Krupnik was always worth the investment and the current fad was rapidly depleting his reserve.  It was a quiet, restful, peaceful time.  .  .and Max reveled in it.  
    He wasn’t sure exactly when he knew that he wasn’t alone.  The sensation crept upon him like a chill fog, unnoticed until it has fully obscured the path.  At two million years and counting, Max was well aware that being immortal only meant that nothing had killed him yet.  Without altering either his breathing pattern or level of muscular tension, he glanced into the large mirror over the long, wooden bar as his hand edged toward the powerful blaster he kept—charged and ready—just beneath the inner lip of the bar where he was sitting.  
    But what he saw gave him pause.  Or rather, what he didn’t see.  There was nobody in the room.  He took a moment to take in the eclectic array of interesting items and artwork distributed throughout the place.  His eyes lingered for a second on the original Picasso painting that had so intrigued one of the Peacekeepers who had been in earlier.  The fellow kept saying that it looked like something from his homeworld, a ridiculous statement.  Max had been worried for years that Sebacians would find out about humanity.   But his friends had dismissed the idea.  The Luxan and Nebari with him said it looked more like something a child would do, and the Hinerian in the floating chair agreed.  Only he thought it would have been more likely something a child would do in its diaper.  From his vantage point, Max should have been able to spot anyone or anything creeping up on him.  In that most ubiquitous of all humanoid foibles, Max shrugged the feeling aside.  It may well be impossible to overestimate any man’s capacity for rationalization.  
    Perhaps because he had already begun to relax, chiding himself for being so easily spooked by the empty tables and silent walls, the deep, resonant and close:  “Good evening, Max,” startled him with unusual intensity.  At least, that’s what he would later decide.  An Immortal, especially one as wise and experienced as Max, would be hard-pressed to admit—even unto himself—that there was an ethereal quality to the voice to send a chill deep into any soul.  It was an oily, sibilant slickness which says plainly:  ‘You are my prey.’  It was the voice used by the spider.  .  .only this time, Max was the fly.
    With inhuman speed and startling agility Max dodged sideways and dropped behind the bar.  The solid wood barrier was reinforced with subtle forcefields which had proven impenetrable to numerous weapons.  Spinning and rolling in a move which would have made a contortionist cringe, he flung out his hand and snatched the heavy blaster from its bracket below the edge of the bar.  Conserving his momentum, he tucked himself into a tight ball and tumbled until he was facing upward, blaster ready.  Anyone peeking over the bar would get a snoot full.   With the patience of a cat who knows that the mouse just ran into the drainpipe, he waited.     
    “My sincere apologies for the theatrical entrance, Max.  I quite assure you that I am well back from the bar, unarmed, and my hands are in plain sight.”  For all of its aforementioned horrid undertone, the voice this time held a note of contrition.  
    But Max had not been idle while the other spoke.  He had silently scooted to the far end from where he initially dropped and expertly palmed a hard rubber coaster—the kind used to insulate the tankards he used for a Farengi Freeze, which was made with liquid nitrogen.  He eased himself into a crouching position and quietly rolled the coaster down the floor toward the other end of the bar, weapon at the ready.
    As he had planned, the coaster impacted some loose Lothieen Lager bottles that Larrye, the assistant bartender, had left lying about.  They tinkled ever so slightly, just enough to draw attention away from his position.  Powerful leg muscles propelled Max up with an explosive force so measured and controlled, that in an instant the blaster was laying across the bar and aimed solidly at the tall, gaunt intruder who was—as he had promised—standing well back and in the open.  
The figure seemed shrouded in darkness despite the cleverly designed, ubiquitous lighting of the room.  A coal black, wide-brimmed fedora cast an impenetrable shadow over most of his humanoid face, revealing only a narrow, sharp chin.  Dressed almost completely in black, from his sturdy boots to the draped cloak which hung from his thin frame like a deflated cocoon, the intruder stood motionless as any statue.  Inhumanly still, actually.  The only contrast to his soot habile, was the richly silken cravat in blazing white peeking between the cloak’s ridiculously high collars.  It was held by a blood red, ruby pin crafted into the clever semblance of some flying mammal.
    “Not one move, pal.”  Max quietly advised.  He knew within a picogram how much pressure the blaster’s trigger would take.  If this guy so much as blinked funny he was history.  “Now we play the game of Three Questions to determine whether you leave here upright, or vertical.  First:  Who in all the Hells  are you?  Second:  How did you get past my security?  And Third:   .  .  .Uh.  .  .Third, WHERE have I heard that accursed voice before?”
    Now that he had the time to think, Max realized that he had indeed heard that voice once before.  Long ago and far away.  .  .as the story goes.  Max’s remarkable capacity for remembering faces, names, voices and postures was just one of the reasons he was the Omniverse’s best bartender.  
    “I could help you to remember, Max.  Though I doubt very seriously that you would allow me to do so.  And you would be quite right, of course.  Not even I could assure you that I would not use the situation for my own.  .  .advantage.”  And the dark figure tilted his face to the light, revealing a high, proud forehead, pronounced cheekbones and aristocratic nose.  All these framed a pair of piercingly intense, shockingly intelligent eyes which gazed at Max with a veritable cornucopia of emotions.  
    Max could see a weariness in those eyes which he had seldom encountered outside of Fort Mountain, where billion-year-old Immortals sometimes sat for days simply breathing, existing almost entirely in their chattering, overstuffed memories.  It was the true bane of Immortality.  Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it.  
    But he could also see hunger in those blue-gray orbs; a constant gnawing hunger never satisfied, merely temporarily satiated.  And he almost fired.  And indeed, he remembered where he had heard that voice before.  Perhaps Max would still have fired his weapon—though he now knew it would be useless—had he not also noted in those eyes the wisdom of one who has made many mistakes and who has learned something from each of them.  But above all, he beheld in those eyes a glint of humor.  A promise that deep within and no matter what had transpired before, there was a hope of redemption.  Over the centuries, Max had befriended children, watched them grow through adolescence, adulthood, senescence and eventual death; and had learned less about them than he did from staring into those eyes for a mere moment.  His finger eased from the trigger, if only slightly.
    “Shee-Pesh,”  Max breathed.  “You managed to escape your planet after all.  What about the curse?”
    “You never did pronounce my name correctly, Max.  But you do remember after all this time.  Three score and ten, the acceptable limit for the life of a man, some would say.  I strove to make you forget our encounter, you know.  I had hoped to accomplish that much at least.  .  .”  The shoulders visibly slumped, as if in disappointment.   “But it is rude of me to delay answering your question, my apologies.  Have you the time for a tale? I note something in the very atmosphere of this place which demands from me whatever tale I have to tell.  Remarkable, truly.  And I quite assure you that my answer will also explain my presence both in this establishment and upon this sphere, so distant from my beloved homeland.”
    Although he was bone tired, and feeling each of his two thousand millennia of life, Max had spent many sleepless nights for reasons far less intriguing.  With a nod, he acquiesced.  He carefully reset both the heavy stun level and the safety as he returned the blaster to its bracket beneath the bar.  A useful tool under ordinary circumstances, he knew the weapon would have been worthless against this opponent.  Plasma fire would only have ruined his visitor’s immaculate trousseau.  
    “Care for a drink before you begin?” Max asked.  Though he did so with a wary note that Trixie, had she been present, would have picked-up upon immediately.  “You occasionally sip red wine, I am told.”  
    “Perhaps later,” again, a look which spoke volumes.  “But feel free to prepare a beverage for yourself, dear Max.”
    As Max retrieved a partially full bottle of Krupnick from his rapidly dwindling stock, he noticed that his visitor was wandering about the main bar and studying the various accoutrements Max and The Owner had collected over the years.  He seemed transfixed by a crystal sculpture hanging over one of the far booths.  He was lightly stroking it with his long, claw-like index finger.  The piece was something The Owner had sent from an archaeological site on the far side of the galaxy.  And Max had found it to be just plain ugly.  From what Polios had told him, the current experts had promulgated diverse theories about the object ranging from a torture device tailored for the psionically gifted, to a speleothem, a cave formation from some alternate reality where high-pressure molybdenum carbonate crystals could naturally occur.  How it came to be abandoned in one of the dead worlds of this universe had yet to be explained.  
    As he approached, he noticed that his visitor had produced a rich crimson kerchief and was dabbing his eyes.  His tears, if tears they were, were merely dark splotches on the fabric by the time Max arrived.
    “They knew their world was dying,” the visitor sighed.  “And they poured all of their frustrations and fears, their hopes and their regrets into this delicate work.   However did you acquire this masterpiece, Max.”
    “You made it work?”  Despite himself, Max was intrigued.  “Shee-Pesh, The Owner of this establishment dabbles in rare objects.  He placed it here, temporarily, in the hope that one our.  .  .ah.  .  .varied clientele might just recognize its purpose.  Seems the old guy got lucky after all.  What is it?”

    “It is a repository, Max.  The last effort of a sensitive and intelligent race to assure that their most important achievements were not forever lost.  If you lightly stroke the crystal.  .  .it sings.  You have but to listen.”
    Max reached a tentative hand towards the object, as if to gently caress one of its faceted edges.  With a blur that was barely registered by his optic nerve, he found his wrist locked in a vise-like grip.  His visitor’s bony grasp was like tempered steel.  Max had wrestled practice androids and well knew the feeling of immense strength precisely controlled.  And he knew that it would be futile to struggle against this being in any physical manner.  He relaxed his arm and gently opened his hand in surrender.  There would be time later to investigate The Owner’s new toy.
    “Again, Max, my apologies,” the visitor said as he released his grip.  “The sensations were.  .  .quite intense, and I’ve no wish to repeat the experience any time soon.  Perhaps we could sit somewhere else, less a stray vibration.  .  .” And he nodded toward the object innocently dangling from the ceiling.
    “Of course,” Max agreed.  “You know what they say about curiosity and the cat, don’t you?”  He lead the way to a comfortable booth on the far side of the room as he spoke. “Always one of my weaknesses, really.”
    “Curiosity is also one of life’s great motivators, Max, as I am quite sure you know.  Once hunger, thirst and bodily comfort are taken care of for the moment, curiosity leads all species on to greater and more complex questions.   And so the circle of life continues.”  The visitor paused, for a moment and favored Max with an intense look.  “You mentioned the curse.  Did you ever wonder why I took the old woman’s words so seriously?”
    “Frankly, Shee-Pesh, I did,“  Max answered.  “Though we met only briefly, I didn’t.  .  .and don’t.  .  .consider you the type to be easily spooked, or to give much credence to superstition.   As odd as that may sound.  .  .considering.”
    “Considering what I am, you mean?”  The visitor affected a humorless smile.  “And remind me to teach you how to say my name, properly, Max.  But there should be time for that, later.”  The visitor gestured for Max to pour his drink and to get comfortable.  ”I will begin by answering your question.
    The old woman’s words were not a true curse, although I quite assure you that she had it in her do so if she were sufficiently provoked.  Her people are called The Rom.  And they are ancient even by your standards.  They do not originate on my homeworld, though many of them have forgotten that this is so.  Her words were merely a fortelling, and I have long respected such things.”
    As the intruder spoke, Max’s superb memory had kicked into high gear and he was recalling more and more of the episode seventy years in the past, on this creature’s homeworld.  The old woman’s weathered and creased countenance had twisted into a near rictus of loathing and fear.  There were expletives salted throughout her diatribe that even Max’s portable translator could not parse.  “But she knew what you were, Shee-Pesh,” he interjected at the pause.  “And the.  .  .the intensity she put into what she had to say was certainly sincere.”
    “You think so?”  Again that look of amusement from the stranger that did more to relax Max’s apprehension than his words ever could.  “She would blush like a schoolgirl if she heard you say that.  Assuming, of course, that she also knew your true age and experience.  Her people have many talents but above all they share an aptitude and love of all things theatrical.  It was just part of the show, as they say.  But I digress. . .
No.  If you recall, her words were.  .  .’You will never leave this world of your own accord, Spawn of Evil.’  And that fortelling, dear Max, was without flaw.”  The stranger paused, allowing Max to consider the implications of the old woman’s prophecy.
    “You have, perhaps, heard whispered rumors about a race which calls itself simply 'The Pack?'”

#

    Command beta Rrraal/Tchak always had a problem keeping his muzzle shut.  Even as a pup he’d been singled out many times by the den alpha for yipping in anticipation as he and his cohorts closed on the frightened Herds of the colony world where he had whelped.  Some of the chastisements had been quite.  .  .intense.  In cold weather sometimes the old wounds would still throb.  And although the memories could still make him snarl, in his deepest heart, Rrraal/Tchak knew that the old alpha had been right.  
    The old den alpha before him, the Scoutship alpha didn’t want Rrraal/Tchak’s opinion, didn’t care about his beta’s desire to run wild amongst this pathetic Herd, driving it blindly into the waiting claws of the rest of The Pack.  There were times when the best thing to do was to present your belly to the universe and dribble a little urine in total supplication.  But to do so was simply not in Rrraal/Tchak’s nature.  He would never admit it, of course, but he was a rare individual indeed.  He was a socially functional—though barely—rogue male.  And he was almost foaming in anticipation at how the plump, docile and untouched Herd he had been passively studying on his screens this twelveday would feed his entire Pack after their long journey to these new hunting grounds.  The migration to establish a new feeding range in this distant galaxy had taken far longer than expected and they had been subsisting on preserved rations for years.
    Tail tucked submissively, gaze lowered, claws sheathed and teeth staunchly secured behind stiff lips, he had approached the Scoutship alpha with his audacious and innovative plan.  “Almost twenty billion of them!”  Rrraal/Tchak's voice was nearly a whine, he was so anxious.  “This island is remote, rarely visited by any of their seagoing vessels and they are meek!  We could jam their communications and hunt them by night.  They wouldn’t miss a few twelves from such a vast herd.”
    “By night?  You would have us break with our ways and hunt The Herd under the cover of darkness?”  The shock and disgust in the alpha’s tone was unmistakable.  I’ve read your reports, Rrraal/Tchak,” the alpha towered over his groveling subordinate.  “I’ve observed that they eat plants, but many of them also eat meat.  Might they not take notice if we hunted this small Herd?  And they do have some natural defenses, after all.  They have, in the past, managed to kill small numbers of themselves in ritualistic battles over mating rights and such.”
    “But they do not hunt their prey, Alpha.  I have recorded scenes from their processing plants.  They prepare and sanitize their animal protein to the point where it would be little better than the rations we’ve.  .  .”
    “So that is the true nature of this cowardly stalk, eh Rrraal/Tchak?”  The alpha advanced, claws and fangs apparent, asserting his dominance with every nuance of his posture and scent.  Due to a slightly better diet, the average height for a scoutship alpha of The Pack was about three meters.  Shlaar/Kritch topped out at nearly three and a half, though he tended to be a bit lean at only a hundred and ninety kilos.  But what he lacked in raw strength he made up for with whipcord reflexes and an almost instinctive ability to inflict maximum damage with minimal effort.   In a dog fight, he was quick and nasty and many a heavier opponent had found himself briefly staring at his own trachea clamped securely in the alpha’s narrow jaws.
    “Worthless cur!  You would have us hunt the Herd before the rest of The Pack arrives?  Perhaps spooking some of it into flight because your miserable belly overwhelms your obligation to your Pack?  And you would seek to lead this ship, your own brothers and sisters into this ignoble pursuit of easy gratification?”
By this time Rrraal/Tchak had submitted to the point that he was prostrate on the deck before his alpha.  “But I only thought that we could.  .  .”
    “You thought?  Groveling pups such as yourself are not fed to think!  You complain about the rations you are given but do you understand that on the denships even now converging upon this Herd, The Pack is starving?”  The alpha’s hands were clenched with such rage and anguish that blood trickled unnoticed onto the deck plates only centimeters from Rrraal/Tchak’s tightly pressed snout.  “Our report so far has been encouraging enough to turn the ships from their previous target because it will spare The Pack a mere few days of their suffering.”
    “Even now, inconsiderate whelp, our pups, our very pups are whimpering themselves to sleep, too weak to train properly for the hunt.  Too many of them succumb to hunger and attack their own den mates and thus by the Law of The Pack they must be spaced, their precious protein forever discarded lest it poison the body of The Pack.   The ships will be here in just over a twelveday and by my estimate it will take our small craft only a few hours to completely destroy the bulk of the planetary and system defenses.”
    “And as for your desire for the hunt.  .  .  As you so gluttonously pointed out, you plant-eating cat lover, there are twenty billion in this Herd.  And it is plump, and meek and so very unaware.  When it arrives The Pack will scatter and fall upon it like an all-consuming rain.  So desperate is our situation, there will not even be a hunt for this Herd, beta Rrraal/Tchak.  We are going to set up a stun field around the planet from this ship and The Pack is simply going to feast.  A few twelvedays after we land, perhaps less, this Herd will be only a tasty memory.  Satiated and strengthened, we will be off to our next Herd, where we will resume our traditional ways.   And we will leave this world bereft of all land life with the possible exception of a few burrowing or cave-dwelling mammals.  We need this Herd intact and unaware of our presence.”
    Rrraal/Tchak was deeply shocked by this uncharacteristically blunt revelation from his alpha.  The situation must be dire, indeed, if The Pack was planning on suspending the very hunt, itself, for this Herd.  His former desires and schemes seemed puny in the face of the magnitude of the catastrophe that faced his Pack.  Deep inside himself, perhaps for the first time ever, he felt a tiny bloom of something for his people.   As much as he loved, dreamt and lived for the hunt, he no longer felt that formerly overwhelming need.  He was sickened by the thought that his own selfish desire for the chase, the smell of fear from his prey and the ground shattering thud when he took the prey down had almost lead him to jeopardize his Pack.   
    Whereas before the allure of fresh blood gushing over his muzzle had clouded his judgment, the thought now brought only shame.  Not for the act.   Oh no indeed, for he still loved the hunt, but he felt an intense shame for the power that his selfish desires had held over his duty to The Pack.  They were depending on him and he had schemed and cajoled merely to fulfill his own needs and at the risk of severe injury to The Pack.  
    “My Alpha,” Rrraal/Tchak began, tentatively.  “I had no idea that our plight was so dire.”  He strove to do something he had never tried before.  He did not to mask his true feelings, but offered the scent of his inner soul for his alpha to sniff.  “What can I do to help The Pack and to atone for my actions?  
    “Beta Rrraal/Tchak,” the alpha seemed perplexed by his subordinate’s demeanor and words.  “You smell sincere.  Perhaps I will give you an opportunity to prove to me and to The Pack that you are worthy of the trust you have received. “
    At this the alpha deliberately turned his back on the prostrate beta.  He paced back and forth before the main veiwscreen as if trapped by a sturdy cage.  He paused and pushed a few buttons on the passive sensor panel and retrieved a current estimate of the total live protein tonnage for the half of the planet currently in sight.  As if satisfied by the results of his query, he allowed an almost inaudible yip of pleasure and suddenly whirled to fix his lupine stare at the hapless subordinate still lying on the deck.  The beta had not so much as fidgeted during the alpha’s deliberation.  Complete submission, exactly what the alpha had dared to hope for.
    “Rrraal/Tchak, you will lead the culling party to the planet.  Bring me one token beast from this Herd for the Ceremony Of The Kill.  You will demonstrate your loyalty to your alpha and your Pack by restraining yourself while on the planet or by the Great Mother of us all, this ship will not be limited to processed protein at tonight’s kill.  Do I make myself clear, beta?”
    “Completely, my alpha,” Rrraal/Tchak’s voice was steady but sincere.  “I offer my flesh to The Pack.  I affirm my belief in The Way of The Pack.  May the hunt never fail.”  He had spoken this ritual before countless hunts, but never before had he felt them as he did now.  If his alpha told him that his protein was needed for the sustenance of this crew, he would have gladly exposed his neck for the Swift Kill.  The feelings were both frightening and immensely liberating.  He swore to himself a secret oath that no matter what his traitorous emotions urged, he would.  .  .not.  .  .fail!
    “I accept your offering, beta Rrraal/Tchak,” the alpha completed the ritual.  “But for now I order you to the Silent Hunt.  Bring me one of these so that we may taste of this Herd and pronounce it fit for the sustenance of The Pack.  Take a stealth craft and make sure that the stalk is swift.  Some of this Herd’s optical sensors are advanced enough to detect our cloaking fields during the day, so you must take your prey by twilight or dawn.  Only animals hunt at night.  Go now, and prove to The Pack your worthiness.”
    When the beta had gone, Shlaar/Kritch, alpha of the scout ship turned to the scarred and grizzled female standing ever at her alpha’s back.  She was also the only one on the bridge wearing full body armor and carrying a sidearm.  Feared by the crew for her quick anger and vicious moods, she was the alpha’s enforcer, first officer and mate.  Her relentless loyalty was as much a part of her as the cybernetic hind leg which many a new crewmate had learned never to ask about.  
    “You will pilot the craft for the Silent hunt, beta female Graal/Gatch,” he spoke softly lest the rest of the bridge crew scent his suspicions.  “If he cannot contain his blood lust, rip his belly open but bring him back alive.  He does not deserve the Swift Kill.”
    A simple nod was all the affirmation the alpha required.  Not much for conversation, the alpha thought as he watched his mate's fluid gate and full hind quarters leaving the bridge.  But she is a true bitch in heat when the den is warm and dark.  He expertly suppressed a shiver of desire and turned back to the console for an updated report on the solar system’s defenses.  Endless scenarios played out upon the screen and in each, this small scout craft easily defeated the combined military might of this entire species.  Nothing could go wrong.  The Pack would regain its strength with this Herd and then move on into a galaxy that was wide open for The Hunt.  They had made it.  Competition and overhunting in their old territory had left The Pack weak.  Other Packs were skulking about their borders, waiting for any opportunity to push them out.
     Although Shlaar/Kritch, alpha of this small craft, had counseled against the migration, citing the terrible cost of the long trek through the intergalactic void where there were no Herds to hunt, he now knew that it had been right.  The Alpha, Shlaar/Kritch’s own littermate whose Name must now never be spoken, had led His Pack to hunting grounds so rich and abundant with game that the hunt might, literally, never end.  It was going to be glorious.
    Shlaar/Kritch turned his mahogany glare to the blue planet hanging ripe in a field of brilliant stars.  This planet was the homeworld of an emerging empire in this galaxy.  Considered warlike and technologically moderately advanced by the local Herds, this Terra, this Earth, was no match for the devices or the ferocity of The Pack.  By Pack standards, the scoutship was a mere popgun in their arsenal but it would more than suffice to render this Herd defenseless and, eventually, stunned into abject unconsciousness.   Perhaps it was a mercy, for all its violation of the tradition of The Hunt.  For unlike the rest of the populated planets in this defenseless galaxy, this particular world would never have to fear the approach of The Pack as It spread through this new territory like a hungry plague.   
    The denizens of this orb would not have to watch as their mighty armadas and alliances and federations fell before the unstoppable juggernaut of The Pack’s onslaught.  They would never know the demoralization of seeing their emissaries of peace ripped to pieces in ritual combat, and then consumed.  This Herd would never be forced to learn The Way.  It was said to be a proud race, so perhaps it was best that it never became a colony world of The Pack, offering its sons and daughters to The Hunt by the small Pack—usually only a few million strong—left behind to hunt, breed and build more ships on each world as it was conquered.  This Herd wouldn’t have to live the slow attrition as more and more of its members were born only to feed the ever growing Pack which ruled their world.  Would never see most of that Pack, now stronger and larger, emerge from that colony in their sleek new ships to join The Pack, leaving behind only a token force, and to start the process all over again.  
    In his deepest heart and only in the most quiet of his private musings, when his belly was full of still-warm meat and with a satiated Graal/Gatch curled snugly against him in post-coital slumber, Shlaar/Kritch felt some inkling of sympathy for The Herds he had hunted.  Theirs was a difficult and demoralizing existence.  Their only relief the occasional cub or adolescent they would manage to take down and trample.  It was how The Way culled the slow and weak.  But he had never allowed these feelings to interfere with his duty to The Pack.  And, of course, when the lust of The Hunt was upon him, he would take his prey without hesitation or qualm.  If others ever felt this way, he had neither heard nor scented it.  And to tell the truth, it never really bothered him much.  It was simply The Way.  
    Beta Shlaar/Kritch was no fool.  Though young, he had earned his command position.  He knew exactly why the alpha’s mate, Graal/Gatch had been chosen to pilot the stealthscout for this mission.  If he lost control and hunted this Herd, she would wound him and bring him back to the ship for the Swift Kill at the claws of his alpha.  But he didn’t care.  He was determined not to fail in his duty.  He intended to prove his worthiness both to his alpha and to himself.  For he was truly a changed beta.  He ordered that they head for the dawn line on the pristine planet below.  To avoid a storm front, he had her bear slightly south of his original target area, to a mountainous region north of a small inland sea.  
    It would be a quick, in-and-out operation.  Simply locate and stun a lone heardbeast and take it to the Scoutship for The Ceremony of The Kill.  He wondered who amongst the crew was of lowest status, for that one would have the privilege of making the kill and doling out portions to the rest of the crewmates.  Shlaar/Kritch hoped that his role in the Silent Hunt would secure a portion of the liver.  Always his favorite piece and no matter the species or biology of The Herd, the liver always seemed to taste exactly the same.  The Great Mother had designed her creations well, he thought.
    Dawn was swiftly approaching as the sensors on the cloaked craft—barely a blurred distortion of the fading stars—picked up movement outside a small village.  One of The Herd was making his way toward a large, fortress-type dwelling and though traveling on foot, seemed to be moving at a rapid pace.  He thought, perhaps, this might be one of the breed known as ‘joggers,’ which Shlaar/Kritch supposed would make it a bit on the lean side and he was in the mood for more substantial fare.  He almost changed his mind about this prey but decided that the relative isolation and the fact that there were no other members of the Herd anywhere nearby outweighed his personal tastes.  Oh, he was a changed beta, indeed.  
    “That one,” he ordered, indicating the moving blip on the sensor screen.  "Narrow the stun field and target the beast just as it reaches this clearing.  We will need the open space to take the ship through these dense trees.“  Complying without hesitation, Graal/Gatch did as she was ordered.  As their prey approached the designated spot, she fired.  
    And she missed.  It was the only explanation for the fact that the prey suddenly dodged to the side and put on a burst of speed toward the fortress.  
    “Jam all RF and subspace communications bands, localized field,” Shlaar/Kritch ordered.  His research indicated that individuals of this Herd often carried communications devices on their persons.  He regretted that there was no way for him to help Graal/Gatch reacquire the target as she scrambled to institute the local blackout while simultaneously piloting the craft.  Stealthscouts required no copilot and he had no controls.  Just a seat behind the pilot and an all too excellent view of the catastrophe this mission was rapidly evolving into.  
    As he noted with approval Graal/Gatch’s swift programming, he tried to keep an eye on the prey on the main sensor screen.  It had reached its massive den and disappeared within.  The blackout would take care of any land lines running from the edifice.   Shlaar/Kritch made his decision.
    “As soon as you are sure the Herd beast is isolated, land inside the large courtyard of the building and institute a wide area stun field, I have seen where it entered and will track the beast by scent.  If it interacted with any other of the herd I will simply kill them without leaving evidence and take the prey on board.”
    “It will be dawn, soon, beta Shlaar/Kritch,” it was, perhaps the longest sentence the alpha’s mate had ever spoken to him.  And it was also a warning.
        “The courtyard will screen us from all but direct overhead observation and I will complete this hunt swiftly.  You have done well, Graal/Gatch, we will not fail.”
Outwardly, Graal/Gatch was all business—as always—nonetheless, within the female seethed with shame.  She did not know how she possibly could have missed this prey.  Though the stun beam was narrow, her targeting scanners showed that it enveloped the Heard beast, completely.  The field would slow nervous system ion exchange to the point where consciousness could not be maintained and no muscular control was possible.  It would slow metabolic processes and should last for half a twelveday, at least.  This Herd did not posses the technology to create the portable interference field generator that Shlaar/Kritch was even now strapping to his wrist so he could go out to the planet’s surface and retrieve their prey in the active stun field she was extending to cover the huge building into which it had fled.  Somehow, she had missed her target and she was just going to have to live with the shame.
    “I will be back soon, and with tonight’s prey, Graal/Gatch,”  Shlaar/Kritch spoke to the pilot with quiet confidence.  “We will report all to our alpha, as is our duty, but I see no reason why the rest of the crew should be briefed on the specifics of this mission unless he decides to do so.”
    Security beta Graal/Gatch spared a moment to turn and look directly into the eyes of the beta before her.  He met her gaze with simple surety.  They shared a brief moment of Pack unity that neither had before even known existed between them.  Politics and rank hierarchy aside, they were one, and what injured the scoutship alpha’s mate, injured The Pack.  Without further discourse, he leapt from the open bay door into the silent courtyard.  In the sky above, the last stars faded into the pale blue haze of dawn.
Graal/Gatch fine-tuned the data on her sensor screen as the beta made his way unerringly and by scent alone to the location of the now motionless Herd beast.  There were a few lesser life forms within the building, rodents, a few birds and some winged mammals in the upper rafters, but nothing else.   She had detected no signals and no attempts to summon the rest of the Herd since she’d erected the damping field only moments after her shot had missed.    Missed. She still couldn’t believe it.  If the crew found out she would have to fight at least two of the lower ranked females just to reassert the dominance she had held for years.  And one of them was tough, young and mean.  She remembered her alpha’s departing words as to Shlaar/Kritch‘s actions.  Her alpha already had suspicions about this beta.  He wouldn't inquire too seriously if she brought him back dead instead of wounded.  Perhaps if, when the beta returned to the stealthscout with the Herd beast she was to take him by surprise.  .  .     
With a start she realized what she was contemplating and shook herself in disgust.  The beta had performed admirably on this mission and might just make a fine alpha some day.  His quick thinking at ordering the damping field had taken her by surprise but it could have prevented disaster.  The mission wasn’t going well at all but it wasn’t the beta’s fault.  It was her finger on the trigger.  Her shot that had missed.  Missed!  
    No.  Her duty to her alpha and to The Pack was clear and if she was challenged by a few subordinates due to a perceived weakness, the gamma who made that mistake would find its snout securely clamped within her jaws.  And if she lost?  Well, she hadn’t been born a beta.   It was simply The Way and she would just have to serve The Pack at whatever rank she could maintain.  If it was The Way that she serve as an omega, good only for watching pups or scrubbing plasma conduits, so be it.    
    Lost in thought, she was a little surprised to realize that Shlaar/Kritch was even now emerging from the heavy wooden doors leading to the courtyard.  Draped easily over his shoulder was the inert form of their prey.  The Silent Hunt had been completed.  Although the sun was now nearly above the horizon, it was time to head back to the Scoutship under full stealth.  She had a report—and an apology—to make to her alpha.

    “You missed, Graal/Gatch?” the alpha was literally stunned by the news.  “Could the prey have possessed some technology, perhaps?”  
    “There was none on its person when it was brought aboard.  I checked.”  It had been Graal/Gatch’s thought—hope?—as well but still the only logical conclusion was that she had missed the shot.  Missed!
    “And Rrraal/Tchak, you scented nothing to indicate that he cannot control himself?”
    “No, my alpha, on the contrary, he handled himself with distinction and in only the best interests of The Pack.  He is young, true, but when the hunt went foul he never lost sight of our goals and wasted no time or energy on.  .  .emotions.”
    “Very well then, my mate,”  Shlaar/Kritch's tone was soothing.  “You have done well and will receive a portion of your choice from the kill.  You earned it.  Do not maul your error, for it did not make any difference in the end.  The Silent Hunt was successful and the Herd was not spooked.”  
    Graal/Gatch gazed for only a moment into the eyes of her alpha.  He could be as gentle as an omega with a pup, at times, and a fierce opponent when pressed.  Mates for life, regardless of status, she still felt a thrill of amazement that he had chosen her when there had been so many others vying for his attentions.  When they had locked-down their den for tonight, after the Ceremony of The Kill, she was going to show him what it meant to be her mate.  She would make him feel what she felt now if it took the whole bloody night long.  And with a whimper of excitement, she went on about her duties.
    From his quarters, Shlaar/Kritch, contacted the communications beta on the bridge.   “Summon the lowest ranking command crew to the bridge and muster all claws to the arena.”  He spoke his orders almost absently.  She missed?  
    “It is time to prepare for the Ceremony of The Kill.  And move us into the shadow of this world’s moon for the duration.  I want to remain as unobtrusive as possible until we are finished and back to full strength.”
    “Understood, alpha,” came the terse, competent reply.  Shlaar/Kritch allowed himself a feral grin, this was a fine crew.  His lowest ranking omega, Kliin/Petch, would have earned beta, or at least gamma status in any Scoutship crew he had previously commanded.  Only the best for this Hunt.  Only the best.  His littermate, The Alpha, had given him first choice out the entire roster of The Pack and he had chosen well.  
    She missed?
    His reverie was interrupted by an urgent call from the theta quartermaster.    “My alpha, when I went to awaken the Herd beast I found it already awake.  The stun wore off!”
    “Impossible,” the alpha replied.  “Are you sure?”
    “Affirmative, the security monitors show that it awoke a few moments ago.  It arose, tested the door to its cell and has been sitting quietly ever since.  I’m looking at the monitor now, should I bring it to the arena?”
    “No, have the beta quartermaster do it, theta,” Shlaar/Kritch answered, thoughtfully.  No Herd in the alpha’s experience could shake off a stun field in less than a few days.  He pressed the comm. button again, “Beta Raal/Tchak to the holding pens.”  There was a mystery here, and he intended to get to the bottom of it.
    “No, my alpha, I am certain that it was stunned when I found it.  We had saturated the entire fortress where it had denned with a level-four field.  It apparently went straight to its den upon entering the building and I found it in its cot.”  There were others present and the alpha already knew of their earlier difficulties so Raal/Tchak was stalking a fine line with his answers.  He had not forgotten his promise not to mention anything about their earlier difficulties.  
    “Describe this cot,” the alpha was becoming more annoyed with this unusual  Herd beast by the moment.
    “It was a remarkably sturdy and ornate contraption of seemingly fine wood, narrow, barely large enough for the Herd beast to lay supine and it was very well padded.  Some kind of natural fabric, very soft, lined the walls, bottom and lid.  It looked quite comfortable.”

    “Is that all?”  Shlaar/Kritch knew that he was missing something but he was at a complete loss as to what.  
    “Alpha, I don’t know if it is important, but.  .  .”  the beta began, tentatively,  “the Herd beast’s den seemed to be hidden, as if it was expecting a predator to try and dig it from its burrow.”
    “Explain.”
    “Its den was in the lowest levels of the edifice and behind several sturdy doors, some of which were cleverly hidden.  If it weren’t for the fact that it had recently passed through, I would never have scented its path.  Even a few minutes later and I would have needed a sensor lock from the ship to find its den. “ The beta paused, a thought suddenly occurring to him.  “And there is one more thing, my alpha, this beast denned alone in a building which could hold hundreds.   I passed at least two twelves of rooms which seemed to contain sleeping quarters and that appeared to have been abandoned for several twelves of years.  But there were no others of the Herd to be found for kilometers.  Perhaps it is some kind of rogue?”  
    “Communications beta, have we a reliable lock on the Herd’s language?”  Slaar/Kritch was considering another break in tradition, but he never really got the chance.  He was interrupted by a frenzied call on ship wide from the quartermaster’s com.
    “This is quartermaster theta Graal/Tchet, we have a hunter down!  I repeat, hunter down, in the holding pen!  This is not a drill!”
    Slaar/Kritch’s hackles raised in an instant.  His instincts were telling him that this Herd might just have a few surprises in store, after all.  “All paws except bridge crew assemble in the arena waiting area.”  And to those present he added:   “Seems we may just have a real Hunt, after all.”

#

    The Alpha was hungry.  Lately, it seemed he was always hungry, but he accepted that as nothing more than his due.  He had plenty to eat, of course, for he was The Alpha of his entire Pack.  But while the processed rations fed the body, the spirit was left wanting.  Lately he had dreamt of his whelping days on the colony world, where he had first learned the joy of The Hunt and the madness of the kill.  His old littermate, Shlaar/Kritch, had been on his mind often, of late.  Many of his dreams stalked the time his littermate took the Calot too low and because he was a tenacious pup, refused to let go even as he was dragged beneath the spiked hooves of the frightened, stampeding beast.   The Hunt alpha, the one they all called ‘Mange’ behind his flanks because the chemical weapons this Herd had employed before they were subdued had burned half the fur from his body, had already begun the howl of the cull when the pup who would someday become The Alpha, sprang to his littermate’s aid.
    To the young hunter, it was a simple exercise in physics.  The Calot would have to be toppled so that it landed on its left side, and not on its belly as they normally did.  As he loped in from the west, he slowed his pace momentarily because he needed to hit the beast’s long neck from at least a thirty degree oblique angle.  In his mind as he closed on his prey were the cold mathematics of spatial dynamics and multiforce vectors.  He constantly calculated angles and speeds and terrain variables and he knew that he had judged correctly even as he leapt.  So it was a shock to find himself caught in the midst of the ground-shattering avalanche of tumbling, sliding meat and bone which he, himself, had instigated.  
    And he knew fear.  Though he had often taken Calot during a Hunt, this time he had done so without the Hunt madness taking over.  It was more than a sobering experience, it was an epiphany.  The beast was not dead, merely stunned from its fall and he was in the perfect position for the Swift Kill.  But he could not.  The beast  was just lying there helpless and his littermate, who would later alpha a Scoutship on a mission of unimaginable importance to The Pack,  was little better.  Even stunned by the fall, Shlaar/Kritch refused to unclamp his jaws from the creature’s rib.  At any moment it might struggle to its feet and for all his rational genius, the lupine killing machine was frozen like a Herd beast in a spot light.  
    Without the Hunt madness to direct his actions, the hunter who would someday become Alpha and lead his Pack out of their home galaxy was forced to think with his rational mind.  He aimed a directed, controlled and nonlethal blow to the base of his littermate’s skull.  Again.   And again.  .  .until the unconscious hunter finally released his grip on the bleating, wounded Herdbeast.  He managed to drag his littermate a few feet downhill into the relative shelter of some loose rocks before the bellowing beast scrabbled to its hooves and trotted off to join the Herd.  
    It wasn’t long before he heard the approach of his littermates and the Hunt alpha.  As he steeled himself for the punishments that were sure to follow, he reflected upon what had happened.  It was an ability that the ambitious pup intuitively understood could be used to his advantage.  An attack without the Hunt madness directing his actions would be more precise, more controlled, and most importantly, only as lethal as he wanted—or needed—it to be.  Too many good commanders died at the claws of the up-and-coming betas in senseless challenges over the leadership of units, vessels and posts.   
    Perhaps he could practice his newfound ability to attack without the hunt madness and use it to move steadily upward without having to kill good alphas whose only failing was that they occupied a vantage point he only needed for a short while.  For he had always known that someday he would lead his Pack to great things.  Or he would die in the attempt.  It was The Way.
    But The Alpha's dreams of late had also been troubled.  The denships were slow, ponderous and the voyage between galaxies had dragged on for years longer than had been calculated.  Unknown magnetic eddies had created immense 'dead spots' in the intergalactic void where the larger ships wallowed, almost unable to move.  The Pack's scientists had never quite explained how the bosons—the very stuff of space, itself—could be affected in this way but they had learned to detect these areas and means were found to skirt the edges.   But the cost in time and distance had been enormous.  
    The most pessimistic prognostications made before the exodus had begun put all the denships well within the new galactic plane with more than a year's worth of stored rations still in the larders.  The Pack had passed that point with three years still to go.  Only draconian rationing and strict birth control had allowed The Pack to survive as it had.  Half a billion hunters had been culled—in one fashion or another—during the voyage, their precious protein cycled back into the ever open mouths of the few pups who were allowed to be born at all.
    But his old littermate, Shlaar/Kritch, had come through for his Alpha once again.  This one Herd along with all indigenous species and even its own herdbeasts would provide The Pack's five billion hunters nearly a thousand kilos of protein each. But the time was running dangerously short.  The Denships were difficult to slow and badly in need of a maintenance overhaul.  The Pack needed a herd of sufficient size and docility to allow them to stop, rest and truly prepare to hunt these fertile new grounds.  
    The rations were almost exhausted.  Once they were gone, any delay.  .  .any delay at all, would be a catastrophe of unbelievable proportions.   The Hunger Madness would overtake his people within a matter of days and each hunter would kill everything that moved.  Everything that didn't manage to kill it first, that is.  

#

    Shlaar/Kritch, as alpha of the scoutship, knew that he could show no wonder, no fear, and most importantly, no indecision as he—along with his senior betas—viewed the record of what had transpired in the holding pen.  
    The Heard beast lay where it had been dropped.  Arms and legs askew and its head cocked at an angle which made Shlaar/Kritch's own neck ache with something akin to sympathy.  There was no doubt that this creature had been fully stunned.  
    Suddenly, and without preamble, it was awake and sitting alert, staring about the room.   The beast's ugly, furless face betrayed no fear, only curiosity and.  .  .hunger? as it arose and explored its confines.  
    It moved with a lithe grace which Shlaar/Kritch found both intriguing and somewhat disturbing.  Taking down such a nimble beast in full flight would present challenges far beyond its pitiful natural defenses.  Bipeds could be tricky prey, ducking and weaving in ways that sometimes seemed to defy all physical laws.   
    The heardbeast finished its examination of the holding pen and quietly sat on the last bench, farthest from the entrance.  .  .waiting.  But its look, its posture its every nuance was not that of prey.  It waited, staring at the heavy door the way only the finest of natural hunters will watch an unsuspecting Herd, awaiting only the opportunity to strike.   With trepidation, Shlaar/Kritch fast forwarded the recording to the time index where the quartermaster beta, a grizzled veteran of many campaigns, entered the pen.
    He too must have seen something disturbing in the beast's demeanor.  For without being ordered to do so, he carried a handheld stunner prod set to maximum charge.  And though ordered by his alpha to bring the Herd beast to the arena, the beta also paused at the entrance to close and voicelock the pen door behind him.    
    Shlaar/Kritch's true heart filled with pride, for though the beast had escaped, it was not due to any lack of diligence or any overconfidence on the part of this hunter.  Which made what happened next, so very much more frightening.
    The beast rose when the quartermaster was nearly upon it.  In measured tones.  .  .it began to speak to the massive, lupine quartermaster.   In flashing magenta below the screen: NO TRANSLATION AVAILABLE
    "Move on, beastie," crooned the quartermaster.  "You've got an appointment in the arena."  And still the creature spoke, seemingly without any concern for the stun prod only inches from its chest.   "Come now, little snack," the quartermaster continued.  "No sense making the alpha wait for.  .  ."  And at this he paused, head cocked like he was listening to something.
"What's that?" the quartermaster seemed distracted, the hand holding stun prod drooped momentarily. "Why yes we are on a space ship!"  And still the banner below the screen read: NO TRANSLATION AVAILABLE
    And still the herd beast spoke its unintelligible babble.  It took a few moments for the scoutship alpha to notice the soothing, insistent tone to the foreign words, it reminded him of the soft crooning made by experienced den omegas as they soothed the pups for sleep.  Even over the speakers of the security screen, Shlaar/Kritch felt the effects of the heard beast's voice.  He found himself relaxing, his mind going pliant.   Absently, he noticed all the other hunters standing nearby were loosing their hunt postures.  .  .
    On the screen, the stun prod was now pointing toward the floor.   The herd beast became quiet for a moment as the hapless quartermaster kneeled before the heard beast so that they could look each other in the eyes without stooping.  It was a very intimate, very private moment.  
    On the screen, the creature moved!

#

    The Alpha was dreaming again.  An insistent buzzing permeated the dry, lifeless landscape before him.  His Pack behind him was hungry, but before him lay only desolation, devoid of prey as far as the eye could see and the still air carried no scent.  The buzzing continued until it overwhelmed his senses and coalesced into the sound of his denside com unit.   He slapped it hard with unsheathed claws as his conscious mind struggled to separate the dream from his waking reality.  "SPEAK!," he roared into the damaged, but functioning unit.  
    "Alpha," it was the strident voice of his flagship's nightwatch com beta.  "We have received an urgent message from Shlaar/Kritch."  The Alpha was awake enough, now, to note that there was no apology from the beta.  There must have been no doubt whatsoever that disturbing the Alpha was both the right choice, and necessary.   "Put it through to my den."
The com beta was good.  Too good, really, to be only the night watch beta even if it was for the Alpha's own flagship.  She would have risen to command a dispersal fleet, at least, except for a tendency to blink, hard, just before she attacked.   Any hunter who ever saw her fight figured it out and was therefore warned.  She'd lost dominance fights to lesser opponents over and over again. But what she lacked in political skill, she made up for in initiative and the ability to think her way through a tough spot.   She had seen Shlaar/Kritch's short, recorded, terrifying transmission.  And she had seen how it ended.  
A full ten minutes before a shaken Alpha issued the orders, she sent the call for all senior betas and denship alphas to be awakened and either sent running to the flagship's large conference room, or standing by in their com centers for an urgent transmission from the Alpha.  
    The Alpha decided to let Shlaar/Kritch's final transmission speak for itself.   His bravery and dedication to duty were more eloquent than any argument the Alpha, himself, was currently able to mount.  Even his verbal slip, near the very end, was forgivable under the circumstances.  
    "Scoutship three of the second twelve to Flagship.  Urgent message, first priority to the Alpha.  This is scoutship alpha Shlaar/Kritch to The Alpha.  Message follows.  .  .divert.  I say again, DIVERT COURSE TO SECONDARY TARGET.  This Herd is not suitable.   Repeat.  This Herd is not suitable.  Herd is immune to all available weaponry.  Stun works only once and only for a short period and after that it has no effect.  Repeat. Herd cannot be taken with conventional weapons."  The scouship alpha's face, cut and bleeding with at least three of his front fangs missing, contorts in a brief rictus of pain as he uses his one good arm to move his other, shattered arm to a new and presumably less awkward position.  In the background—muffled—is the sound of continuous weapons fire.  Flashes from plasma bursts strobe from somewhere out of the viewer's range while the sound of projectiles ricocheting down ship corridors and the whine of phase disruptors vie for auditory dominance.  Explosions rock the ship and the wounded alpha momentarily looses his balance, slumping toward the com.  
    "The remnants of my crew is dying, even now, to buy time for this transmission and for one last effort to rip this beast's throat.  Self destruct is active but severe damage to the drive chamber may interfere.  I have set a crash heading for this accursed planet's moon using only our ancillary thrusters.  It's all I can do."  Shlaar/Kritch pauses for a moment and looks into the com.  "They aren't mortal Alpha.  And they aren't prey.  We took only one.  .  .only one!  For the Ceremony of the Kill.  As soon as the stun wore off it killed one of my crew and then it went to the arena and it waited for us to come and find it!  Strong.  So very strong!.  And it is faster than anything we've ever seen.  My crew, by ones and twos and twelves, it tore through them like they were pups."
    An eerie silence ensues.  All weapons fire is now silent.  Shlaar/Kritch turns away from the com and his shoulders sag.              "The bulkhead door is moving.   I shot out the pneumatic controls but the beast is forcing the door anyway.  I have moments only.  I hereby name beta Rrraal/Tchak honorary battle alpha.  He ordered all of his support troops behind the airlock to face the beast alone.   As it approached he ignited a shaped charge on the outer bulkhead and evacuated his position to space.  It almost worked.   The beast managed to hold on to jagged metal as the atmosphere and a still-firing Rrraal/Tchak rushed past.  But even vacuum had no effect on this creature and it continued its attack."
    With effort, Shlaar/Kritch draws his sidearm and turns to face something offscreen.  "This message will take several twelves of hours to reach you my Alpha, so by the time you hear this it will all be over.  .  .but I must tell you this.  I grappled with this Herd beast before my hunters pulled me from its grasp.  And it looked into my mind.  It knows everything, Alpha.  Everything!.  But worst of all Taar/Deddt, my old littermate.  This Herd feeds on us!"
    On the screen the scoutship alpha howls a battle challenge and charges out of the viewer's range, firing his sidearm at full automatic.  A moment later he is propelled back into frame, his feet cannot be touching the floor.  A single, thin, furless and strangely delicate pale arm his only support.   The claw-like, five digit  hand has grabbed the alpha by his body armor and unbelievably, it is crumpled in its grasp like so much metal foil.  Finally, the beast shows itself to the com.
    It is naked, furless except for a short-cropped pelt on its head and a smaller at its groin.  Remnants of what may have been garments ring its neck and wrists, the rest burned and blown away by repeated weapons fire.   Its alabaster skin is unflawed, unscratched, pristine.  In full view of the com, Shlaar/Kritch raises his sidearm once more and literally touches it to the unblemished, thin, bony chest before him, and fires.  The energy bolt passes through the creature unattenuated, leaving the creature's flesh unharmed.
    As if tiring of this game, the creature patiently takes the glowing-hot weapon from the alpha's hand and crushes the titanium alloy frame like it was so much stale bread.  The alpha's curved, sharp and unquestionably lethal claws scrabble upon the naked flesh of his opponent like it was made of laminated ceramics.  They slide off leaving not so much as a scratch.  He continues to try and bite at the arm holding his body armor in what must be a terribly painful grip right up to the moment the creature looks into his eyes.  For a mesmerizing moment, they pause, a palpable interchange, a nonverbal discourse is obviously occurring.  Neither the Alpha, who has already seen this recording, nor any of his loyal betas in the room or on their desperate ships can do anything but watch and wonder what is transpiring between these two combatants.  
    On the viewer, the unimaginable transpires.  The creature lowers the still hunter and steps up on the com officer's seat.  The two are now eye-to-eye and the creature begins to speak.  The low, sonorous murmuring in the creature's unintelligible dialect has the same effect on the Alpha the second time he hears it as it did the first.  Regardless of the tension of the moment or the knowledge of what is about to transpire, he relaxes.  Absently, almost, he notices that the senior staff in the room with him are doing the same.  And he cannot help but wonder how much more potent the mesmerizing prowess of one of these beasts would be in person.  Inwardly, the Alpha steels himself for what comes next.  The scoutship alpha, his lifelong ally and littermate and a hunter renown throughout The Pack for his tenacity and unwillingness to give up—even when he should, bares his throat to the herdbeast.  It is not supplication, it is surrender.  
    And the creature feeds.   A horrid sucking sound as two fangs dig deep into the exposed throat of the alpha.  More horrifying than this, from a Hunter's perspective, is the look upon the scoutship alpha's  battered face.  Shlaar/Kritch's countenance is serene perhaps even blissful.  No Hunter of The Pack should ever perish with such a look of acceptance, and without so much as a snarl or a growl in his throat as he enters the afterlife.  It is the ultimate betrayal of The Way of The Pack.  The onscreen exsanguination continues, the moment holds.  Soon the alpha's knees buckle so the creature must prop him up using its iron grasp until it has drunk its fill.  Eventually, after an eternity of the constant, sickening sound of feeding, the creature gently lowers the alpha out of com range.
    It turns to face the com.  A small trickle of the alpha's blood stains its lower lip before a wickedly fast, thick pink tongue whips out to clean it off.  Staring directly into the com, and in perfect Packspeak it addresses the viewer.
    "Oh, do send more, please."  The eyes bespeak great age, immense wisdom and unmistakable hunger. "Surely there are more of you than just these?  It's been so long since we've had fresh prey."
    Perhaps the creature would have said something more revealing but at that instant the ship's proximity warning alarm interrupts with its telltale squeal.  The creature looks for the first time at what must have been the readout on the main navigational viewer.  The com does not face the right direction to see what the creature is looking at but a moment of shock is replaced by a wry grin of respect.  It looks at the fallen alpha and executes a courtly bow. "Clever puppy.  Oh yes, very clever, indeed."  
    And at that the screen goes blank.  
    End of transmission.  
    There is a shocked, palpable silence in the conference room and in the com center of every denship, scout and battleclaw in the fleet.  The Alpha pauses to collect his thoughts.  Outnumbered by at least four to one, The Pack would be helpless against a planet full of these creatures.  The trail is both clear and difficult, but it can be done.
"My Pack," The Alpha exudes confidence from every fiber of his being.  "Our brave scouts have done what scouts are born to do.  They have scented a Herd that we are not yet ready to Hunt."  If he was expecting grumbles of disagreement, he was disappointed.   All in the room knew too well that this Herd was not prey.
"We must divert to our secondary target Herd without delay.  I want estimates from both Navigation and Supply in my Den by first watch.  The rations will have to be cut, I know that, but I want exact figures as to how much we will have to cut in order to have a small feast—using the very last of all our stores—just before we make planetfall on site two.  Shlaar/Kritch and his crew will be celebrated."

#

    Max looks down at his nearly full glass of Krupnik.   For a moment, he wonders how it got to be there.  He takes a sip of the amber liquid and as it burns its way down his throat, his mind offered a solution to a puzzle that his unconscious had apparently been working on while he sat rapt by the story.  
    "The shadow of the moon," he says, surprised to hear it.  "The ship took you into the shadow of the moon.  The stunner never worked at all, did it, Shee-Pesh?"
    "Tepes, please, Max.  Pronounced: 'TSE-Pesh.'  It isn't a difficult name for someone of your linguistic experience."  The vampire's grin was actually good-natured.  "Vlad Tepes is a name both honored and despised for many generations on my homeworld."
    "Tse-Pesh?" Max ventured, tentatively.  "Don't know why I have a problem with that.  I've been told I sing a mean D'rrrish bawdy bar song and I'm not sure mammalian voice organs can even make some of the subsonics they use.  You mind if I just call you Vlad?"  
    "By all means, Max, but I must ask the next question."   He paused here, trying and failing to hide a certain eagerness.  "Do you recall the terms you offered after our little.  .  .contest?"
    "I do now," Max truly had an excellent memory—both boon and bane in an Immortal.   He remembered meeting Tepes by a campfire at the base of the Great Wall of China more than seventy years ago on his last visit to Earth.  They had engaged each other in conversation and Max still didn't know if he'd ever met anyone with more wisdom, insight and interest in sentient nature than this enigmatic man.  
    The old woman, from a culture called Gypsy by the locals, had recognized Tepes immediately and had called him out.  Her foretelling had indeed come true.  Tepes had not left his planet voluntarily.  He was taken as he slept.  But curse or foretelling, the mood around the campfire had changed and it was Max who suggested they take a little hike along this small, surviving segment of the Great Wall.  He wanted to continue their conversation.  
    Max would soon learn that taking a night time stroll with Vlad Tepes was a risky proposition.  .  .even for a bartender willing—and able—to step in and break up a fight between two angry Kzin.
    But he also learned that the vampire had a code of his own.  Of course, he could overpower and feed upon nearly anyone, but the blood was only part of his sustenance.  What Vlad Tepes truly craved could only be given, never taken.  Looking into the eyes of his prey, the vampire would seek out any weakness any fear, any doubts and calmly, slowly—though only seconds might pass to an outside observer—convince his prey to surrender unto him a taste of what he had lacked for centuries.   They surrendered to him their very soul.  And to momentarily assuage the immense void in his being where his soul once resided, the vampire would feast.   
Over the centuries, Vlad had encountered many individuals who could resist him for short periods of time.  There would always be those who knew their weaknesses well, and who had accepted them.  Those who knew their fears and did not, in turn, fear them.  And of late he had also fed often upon the souls and blood of aliens, and found them all at least as temporarily satisfying as any human.   But he sensed in Max, an Immortal who was born when human kind was barely down from the trees—and who possessed a personality and an outlook that was immensely fresh and curious about all things—a depth and breadth of soul which the vampire dared to hope might actually satiate the deep hunger within.  
    And for the first time in nearly half a millennium, he tried.  He wanted Max to surrender as he had not wanted anything since the final screams of the last invading Turk he ever killed echoed from the steep mountain passes of his beloved Walachia.  He used every trick, every bit of craft he had learned over the centuries to break through Max's will, but to no avail.  He had encountered psionic species before who could shield against him but the Immortal seemed to posses no such skill.  In fact, Max seemed to be human except for subtle nuances in his scent and for the distribution of heat throughout his body.  
And his wisdom!   At two million years, Max knew himself like no sentient being should ever know.  He shrugged the vampire's advances into his psyche aside like they were so much flummery.  The seduction—for that is what it always was—had no effect on Max.  And when the vampire finally gave up his efforts to taste Max's soul, they talked.  
    Max is the Omniverse's best bartender.   And bartenders don't just listen, they hear.   In the hours—before dawn—that they conversed, Max learned more about humanity from this inhuman monster than centuries of research had been fully able to delimit.
    The vampire had learned to look deeply into the very pit of humanity and to exploit what he found in an effort to feed his never-ending ache.  And he had found much.  Some of this he shared with Max, even as he poured out his lurid story for the first time ever.  
    Castle Poenari, his mountaintop fortress, built by the dying hands of the Boyars who had butchered his family.  And, of course, their children, and wives and servants.  .  .all of them.  Forced to work without food or rest to complete his new throne, the sniveling nobles who had betrayed his father and murdered his family save only he and his brother, watched their own children perish of malnutrition and exhaustion before they themselves succumbed.  For they were fat and lazy to start with and lasted far longer than their blameless kin.    
    The fearsome Ottoman Turks, unstoppable, brutal and bent on trampling his hard-won, ancestral lands beneath their iron shod boots. Twice, through craft and an even greater brutality, the Walachian nobleman had turned the advancing Turks from his borders.  And when the Turks, along with his younger brother, Radu, had gathered a mighty army against him, a deal struck one night with a creature neither he nor Max could fully comprehend.  A soul in exchange for virtual indestructibility, immortality, and the physical strength to defeat his enemies.  What is a soul, actually?  Most can only feel it when it pains them at the loss of another.  And the soul of Vlad Tepes had wounded him beyond all understanding, all endurance.  The bargain was struck.
    The foul creature had told him that he would lust for blood, and that he would never again see the light of day.  .  .and the young Walachian nobleman had accepted it.  For his lust for the blood of his enemies had seemed insatiable and the light of day shed no illumination upon his dark heart, anyway.  So he agreed.   
    But though he had not been told of the void left when one's soul has been traded, even now the vampire was sure that that rash, impulsive young man would have agreed, anyway.  He could not have known, for no mortal could have conceived the ceaseless emptiness of a soulless existence.  After the first few decades, when his last mortal enemy lay butchered at his feet, his physical lust for blood had faded.  It had been centuries since he had fed for any reason but to accept the surrender of his prey, to taste, if only for a moment, the flavor of a living soul as it departed the body along with the blood.  
    For the first time in his existence, the vampire tried explain to this fellow Immortal, a seemingly normal man of incomprehensibly immense experience, that under the right circumstances, when the victim had surrendered to Vlad's seduction, something wonderful occurred.  For that fleeting moment, as his victim's soul lost its foothold in the flesh and expanded outward, it edged into the aching void where his own soul once resided.  And this is what he hungered for.  If he merely killed his victim, without the seduction, the joining.  .  .he was denied that prize.  
    And as he recalled his story for Max, in those dark, lonely trees along one of humankind's most impressive achievements, the Great Wall whose very stones consisted not just of mortar and stone, but sweat, pain, blood and lives lost to its completion, he dared to make another bargain.  He could sense in Max a soul as endless as his physical form.  The vampire felt as if the soul before him were a bottomless well, filled to the brim, from which he draw all that he desired without depleting the whole.  He had never before even imagined such a treasure could exist, but he knew that he must taste it.   He must.
    Unable to sway Max in the manner he had relied upon for so long, and unwilling to try and take that which can only be given, he had simply asked his fellow immortal for what he craved.  And after gazing deeply into those eyes which had so often been the last sight some hapless mortal had ever beheld, Max had an idea.
    It must have seemed an easy bargain to make.  When this troubled creature of the night asked of him a boon that nobody in his two thousand millennia of life had ever dared, a favor beyond risk and far and again beyond what any reasonable being would think to offer, Max—being Max—considered how he might turn this unfortunate situation to its best possible use.  With all his experience and wisdom, Max knew that the poor creature would strive to meet his obligation, but must forever fall short.  Perhaps an eternity would pass before the vampire would realize that he could never fulfill his end of the promise.  But how much good could he do in the meantime?
    "Vlad Tepes," Max had promised—getting the vampire's name slightly wrong in the attempt.  "Your centuries of evil, preying upon the poor weak souls of this world can never be undone.  But if you start now, it is possible that since we are both immortal, there will be enough time for you to somehow make up to this world for all the misery, the pain and the loss that you have inflicted upon it.  When that time comes, you can seek me out at the Mare Inebrium on the planet of Bethdish.  And you can tell me your story."
    "But you may do so only once.  And the worthiness of your efforts will fall entirely upon my judgment.  Are we agreed?"
And in those dark woods, with the eastern sky only beginning to brighten, the vampire had struck his new bargain.  When he had made up for all that he had done, he could have what he desired.  In the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Max finished his vacation on Earth, met some good people and had seen some wondrous sights, but in the back of his mind he had—from time to time—wondered what he had set in motion that eventful night.
    "So you will uphold the bargain, dear Max?"  There was a new shading to the vampire's countenance.  Max did not need two million years experience studying faces to recognize a trace of that most ubiquitous of emotions, hope. "I have told you my tale and I cannot help but to believe that you know the rest of the sad tale of The Pack."

    "Indeed," Max answered.  "I know, for instance that ten years ago, or so, they were on the verge of utter starvation when they swooped upon the world of Holodise.  Do you think that they were so desperate that they decided to forgo the Silent Hunt?"

    "They were unfortunate, indeed, Max.  Did you know that there was a resort on Holodise where the very rich from countless worlds went to play?   Where every whim, every fantasy, every wish could be granted by the clever, sentient holograms who populated that world and who are—as you can imagine—the very finest holoreality programmers in the known universe? "

    Max nodded, the answer dawning upon him with a shiver.

    "My research has revealed that on the day before The Pack arrived, one of their gests went missing." The vampire paused to let this sink in.  The population of Holodise was somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty billion.  And their central AI was possibly the best in the galaxy.  A resident of Holodise was a living, breathing sentient being and any Turing test or passive scanner would show him to be as organic as any life form you'd ever want to meet.  But he wasn't made of matter, only the cleverly-designed force fields of holograms.  They were born, they grew, they died and they were by any definition you might care to apply, as 'real' as the next sentient.  But they weren't organic.  Fun to talk to, brutal on a chess board, but worthless as a snack.

    "Who could have imagined," the vampire continued, "that when these  artificial creations became self-aware and demanded the freedom to pursue their own destinies, that they would contribute to the salvation of their home galaxy, and save the lives of all who had oppressed them?"

    "Who indeed?" Max answered.  And at this he began to roll up his sleeve.  "And the few million who made it to their next stop didn't fare much better. They nearly destroyed the Enantiomere home world before they realized that the protein and carbohydrates of that species cannot be metabolized by anything else in the known universe.  Their molecular structure is backwards, a mirror image to the structure of all other known life.  They continued to starve even when their bellies were full of what seemed to be perfectly good meat."  At the word 'meat,' Max shuddered again. "I understand that for the most part, Pack ships destroyed other Pack ships rather than leave them behind.  Once the majority of the crew had turned on the others.  .  ."

    And a thought struck Max.  "But with their technology, if even a few hundred managed to form a small pack in this galaxy!"

    "Have no fear, dear Max.  When I heard about the misfortunes encountered by the rest of The Pack, I decided to hedge my bet with you—so to speak.  I wanted to make sure that my tale was without logical flaw.  To this end I have spent the last decade, or so, since my escape from Earth making sure that none survived.  When one such as I goes on the hunt, you can be sure that the prey will be found.  You have my word."  

    And at this the vampire reached into his ridiculous cloak—more a high collared cape than anything else—and produced a finely-crafted wooden box.  He opened the simple clasp and withdrew a long wooden spike, dark mahogany wood polished to a bright shine and tapered to a point as sharp as any needle.

    "You have my assurances, Max, that this will suffice should you need it."  He took the wooden weapon and lightly pricked his finger, drawing a small bead of thick, almost black, blood.  "If only the hapless hunters aboard that small vessel which has served me so well in hunting down the rest of their fellows had possessed one of these, this tale might have had a very different end."

    "As a matter of fact, this very piece once nearly ended my suffering, long ago.  A fellow named Van Helsing.  .  .but perhaps there will be time for that tale on another night?"


    "You think there will?"  Max asked.  "Will I have the opportunity to hear how that one ends?"

    "One never knows, Max.  Never a Gypsy woman around when you need a little foretelling, is there?"  As he spoke, he opened his shirt, slowly, button-by-anachronistic button.  He placed the sharp end of the stake to his breast directly above his heart. "If you must use this, dear Max, do so quickly and without qualm.  If my existence—I shall never again call it 'life'—ends at your hand this night, then perhaps I will take a small portion of what you seem to have in such abundance with me to whatever fate awaits.  It is a far better end than I will ever truly deserve."

    "You can do this, Tse-Pesh!"  Max was adamant.  "You have shown immense control in the past.  You can stop before I have to use it!"  But do not doubt that I will do what I must.  I have many more things to accomplish before I go.  And in the words of one of your own world's philosophers:  'Miles to go before I sleep.'"

    "I understand, Max.  Are you ready?"  The vampire, Dracula, Vlad the Impaler and a host of names lost to the ages, calmly placed Max's hand on the stake which even now, pressed into his immortal flesh.  A tiny trickle of dark blood staining the perfect white blouse bunched below.

    "I hope you can stop yourself in time," Max sighed his final warning.  "But I will admit to you that you have more than compensated your race for the crimes you have committed.  Once more, Vlad Tepes, you have turned back the invader from your homeland. "

    The vampire's courtly bow of acknowledgement was no less gracious for the fact that he could not move his chest very far, for the wooden stake seemed anxious to find the creature's heart and slid an easy centimeter into his flesh before Max thought to relax his grip to allow it to move along with the bow.  Almost no resistance at all from flesh impervious to so many weapons.  .  .all of them seemingly more powerful than this simple stake.

    The tableau was set. There they sat, poised for the moment, Max, the Immortal and someone who really should have had more sense than to be doing this, but true to his word, nonetheless.  

    And the vampire, using an astonishing reserve of self control as the anticipation grew within him until he thought he would burst with the sheer magnitude of it.

    "No matter what happens," Max said with a grin.  "This is another item that is never going to make it onto the menu.  The only other is a truly sublime beverage known of as 'Star's Tears.'  But that one will never be served here at the Mare and anyone who asks for it will find his ass introduced to the street.  But I digress.  .  .  ."

    Max presented his wrist to the vampire, prepared to surrender a small portion of himself, but not all.  In his other hand, powerful muscles were tensed and ready to deliver a killing thrust if this sad creature could not control his powerful desires and did not stop himself in time.

    And in the time honored tradition of his ilk, he intoned the formal incantation used by bartenders everywhere, since the beginning of time.  "Your drink, Sir."




End

© 2004 Bill Wolfe

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