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
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
“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
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
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
“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.”
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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
“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
“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.”
“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
“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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
"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
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
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."
© 2004 Bill Wolfe
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