He considered packing another, but decided he wouldn't need it at the close range he'd be when he reached his quarry. One would be enough. He secured the spear in the barrel of the launcher but didn't lock it into the firing position. Sometimes, even the best launchers fired their spears when they were accidentally struck. Besides, he didn't want to compress the spring for the duration of the journey. He didn't expect to encounter anything else until he got close to his intended victim.
He picked up the faded old photograph, looked at it briefly, then put it back into his box of mementos: the old music box that didn't play anymore. There was nobody around who could fix it. The community's last watchmaker had died without training an apprentice. Today's young folks didn't want to learn challenging things. All his people had sunk into apathy and lassitude. They knew it was expected of them, in return for the charity goods the Others supplied.
It was with dark, secret thoughts that the hunter prepared himself for the trek though the grasslands beyond the eroded hills of his homeland.
"Someone has to do this," he muttered. In his part of the cave, no one heard him. There were fewer people around than ever. The originals had died off, and most of today's women were barren. Since there was so little food available, newborns weren't desired in this impoverished world, anyway.
The hunter made his way to the mouth of the cave. He pushed aside the dust flap and stared toward the horizon. Even in the dim light of early-morning dusk, he could see the beginning of the distant, waving grass. He should reach his goal before nightfall.
That was good. He would need darkness for the return journey.
As if by pre-arrangement, the buttermilk overcast had thinned, and blue sky now showed through big openings. In the last hour before sundown, it began to look as if the visitors might be able to see more than they had come to see.
The pale yellow light of the low sun flooded the scene with its warm glow and highlighted the scented tobacco smoke that stagnated in the still air. Ms. Camilla Geier had to suppress her repugnance at the smoke. She did a good job of it, though. Controlling distastes was one of the requirements for success in her profession.
"Is it golden here every evening?" she asked. "Is that why they gave that colorful name to the lake."
She sat on the porch with the cottage's owner in a comfortable wicker chair. Her vidtech sat on the balustrade, resting the weight of his utility jacket, with its pocketed vidcorder and batteries, on the polished wood. In his camera-mask, he looked like a man who had been in a cruel groundcar accident, and had chosen to conceal his residual injuries. He stared---thus aiming his lens---at the elderly gentleman in the padded rockingchair. He 'lectrozoomed to capture every wrinkle in the man's ruddy face, as was customary in an interview shoot.
The white-haired old man smiled indulgently at the journalists. Long years of public life had taught him how to deal with these vultures. He recalled how he had dealt harshly with some of them during the Frontier Troubles. But that was behind him, now. He handled those memories the way he handled most of the ones he couldn't forget.
"Most evenings, unless it's cloudy on toward sundown," he replied to her question.
"Why all the color?" she queried in her usual abrupt manner.
The Colonel was accustomed to a more respectful kind of interrogation, but he knew how to make allowances for people who couldn't figure things out for themselves. After all, she was here to "profile" a global hero; it wouldn't do for him to be short with her. He wanted posterity to know him as both a ruthless soldier and a man of grace and polish, disparate as those characteristics might seem to be.
"Well..." he began. He had to proceed carefully, from this point. He must not seem to be evading reality, but he must eliminate any trace of braggadocio in his delivery. His history had become controversial among this world's younger generation. "...The radiation killed most of the vegetation in Indian Country---there, beyond the grassbelt, where the hills begin. The soil blows around a lot. The dust gets into the atmosphere, and that causes the colorful sunsets."
"A nice side-effect of the Salting," mumbled Synax, the videographer, in his usual tactless manner. The reporter ignored her partner and kept her smiling gaze on the Colonel. The old fellow seemed unfazed by the vidtech's cynical remark.
"Tell me about the last battle," she asked the Colonel.
"Not much to tell. The natives dug themselves in along the other side of the lake, over there." He pointed with his pipestem to the long, narrow body of quiescent blue water at the bottom of the gentle slope beyond the cottage. "We outflanked 'em while they were firing at our decoy boats. Before they could escape into the grasslands, we had 'em backed up against the lake. It was a turkey-shoot... so to speak."
He immediately regretted his choice of words, but the reporter chose to ignore their import.
Ms. Geier squinted against the lowering sun. "Is that a monument over there on the far shore?"
"Yes, carved in native stone. Put up shortly after the victory by our fighters, themselves." His voice sounded a note of pride as he explained this peaceful accomplishment in a time of war.
"Why was the Salting necessary?" She had done her research, but she wanted to hear the old soldier tell it in his own words.
"Raids. Guerrillas from Indian Country came over here and massacred settlers in their beds." He avoided the fashionable word, "terrorists."
"You call the Reserve 'Indian Country.' What does that mean?" Her bland smile almost disappeared in her querulous expression.
"It's a term from Old Earth. We were closer to our terran traditions, then. The Indians were Earth aboriginals, like the Mutos. They were dealt with much the same way, except for salting. The Mutos required ...uh... special treatment." When he said this, he kept his expression as benign as he could.
Ms. Geier glanced at Synax, who smirked as he recalled assuring her that this interviewee would boast about the treatment he had given the troublesome natives. He'd said the old killer would use euphemisms whenever he had to admit something bad from his notorious past.
The hunter observed his quarry through an old child's telescope. The fading yellow light was still bright enough. He couldn't quite make him out at this range, but he could see where he lived. There was too much land between them for the hunter to reach him, in time, by crawling through the tall grass. That way, it would be dark before he got there. Besides, he wanted to approach boldly in the light of the late sun, despite the danger that presented.
He moved forward briskly toward the water.
The hunter had been this far, before. He had taught himself to swim here because this was the deep body of water he would have to cross to reach his quarry. He had practiced during the hours of darkness until he knew he could swim across the width of the lake, and return the same way after the kill.
As he strode through the grass, he felt naked and exposed to the gaze of all the world. He knew he could be seen from a long distance away. Would his quarry spot him and react defensively? He took another look through the spyglass. He could see that the victim-to-be was talking with others of his kind. This might prevent the approaching hunter from being spotted until he entered the water.
At his belt was the hollow reed he would use as he swam just under the surface. He had learned how to use it without accidentally inhaling water. He knew, though, that it could be seen moving through the water at a time when he was blind to the surface.
On the other side, he would have to leave the cover of the water and openly approach his quarry. That would be a test of his determination to kill.
The sun was turning orange. It was going to be one of those spectrally-colorful evenings for which the lake country was known. The people on the porch of the cottage were now too occupied with the interview to observe the progression of color.
The visitors observed their subject carefully. At this point in the interview, his every nuance of expression was significant for the shoot. The old man was too concerned with formulating his replies to the increasingly-incisive questions to appreciate the spectacular sunset. Besides, he had seen too many of them. He considered the natural beauty of the place he had chosen to live to be a natural right of conquest.
"Colonel, as I'm sure you know, you've been stereotyped as a killer of innocent natives. Do you have any regrets about what you did?"
The Colonel's benign expression faded. The interview had arrived at the juncture he expected it would.
"You mean what I had to do. We were fighting a war, you know, a war for possession of this beautiful land. A land that our descendants, like you young folks, could hold and enjoy in peace."
Ms. Geier scarcely acknowledged his implication. "Yes, but..." Before she could proceed to a further provocation, he elaborated.
"Do you think I enjoyed killing natives?" He paused, but he didn't expect an answer to his question. "Why, we got along better with them, when they let us, than you people do today. That was before the settlers pushed into the territory, of course. I did what I had to do when things turned ugly. Your noble savages weren't exactly innocent, you know. Ask any old settler what it was like then."
"You mean to say that you had friends among the natives?" This was a new idea to the star reporter.
The Colonel looked a little pained at her lack of understanding. Research was, he knew, no substitute for actual experience.
"Friends, yes... some." He hesitated, as if uncertain whether he should pursue this matter further. Then he blurted, "I even had a native woman, for awhile."
Almost immediately, he regretted revealing this. He knew it would excuse nothing and would stimulate the reporter to ask more intrusive questions.
"Really?" She had suspected this to be so, but had been reluctant to inquire about such a personal matter.
"Many of us did. There was no shame in it." He took on a wistful expression. "Lutua..." He stopped, his thoughts momentarily elsewhere.
He snapped back to the present. "That was her name. She was the best woman I ever knew. I never was able to marry and settle down, until it was too late. By then, I was too old and too scarred to have a family."
"What happened to Lutua, Colonel?"
The old soldier's expression darkened. "I had to give her up. The government ordered me to. The settlers made a fuss about it, you see. The raiders were butchering 'em, so they didn't trust any native, then. It was like the old Mau-Mau times on Earth."
Ms. Geier was so mesmerized by the Colonel's personal revelation that she didn't ask what "Mau-Mau" meant.
"Where did she go---into the Reserve?"
"There was no Reserve, then. It was just the land beyond the lake. I had all our kept native women ferried across and dumped into the grassbelt. They moved on into Indian Country."
"And got salted," muttered Synax, who couldn't resist the comment. Ms. Geier gave him a withering glance. He was not her regular vidtech. Again, she regretted the illness of Cora, her regular, discrete assistant. She might have to edit-out his gratuitous remark.
"How sad," she hastily offered to the Colonel.
"Yes... sad," added the Colonel, who looked sad, himself, as if he had found the recollection too depressing for him to conceal his reaction to it.
An uncomfortable silence ensued.
"Uh, Syn, would you get an insertion shot of that beautiful sunset?"
As the hunter reached the rocky shallows of the lake shore, he lifted his head out of the water just far enough for a look-see. Up the slope, close by, was him he sought. He had no intention of charging his quarry. He would approach slowly and deliberately to show his intended victim that he was determined and unafraid. If he saw him run inside for a weapon, though, he would have to rush him. The old man was probably still a crack shot.
This wasn't intended to be a lightning raid, like the old warriors used to make. The hunter had been planning this special hunt for a long time since his mother's death. It had been prompted by what she had told him before she died.
Now he was here. It was time to do what had to be done. He rose from the water and walked painfully over the graveled shoreline to the cultivated lawn. The greensward felt luxuriously alien to his water-softened feet. He unlimbered the speargun, pushed the spear deeper into the barrel until it cocked the strong spring, then lowered the weapon to his side, all without stopping.
It seemed incredible: none of the Others had spotted him, yet. They were gossiping among themselves. He advanced steadily, but cautiously, up the slope toward the cottage in the reddish light of the setting sun, behind him. Suddenly, one of the men on the porch turned and looked right at him. The hunter hesitated a little, in sudden fear, then resumed his slow march.
Synax gaped. The approaching stranger was wearing a demon-mask.
"Who's that on the lawn?" he asked, interrupting the interview. Interviewer and subject ceased their conversation to squint into the horizon-touching sun.
A short, stocky man in ragged clothing was walking up from the lake. Even at this distance, they could see that his skin was rough and mottled. He was completely bald. He had only a semblance of a nose. Both of his hands were missing some fingers. But he had enough left to grasp a gun of some kind.
Ms. Geier looked at the Colonel. "Who?..." She had difficulty getting her words out, a rare occurrence for a star reporter. "That isn't a Muto, is it?"
The Colonel scowled at the advancing figure. This was a day he'd been awaiting for a long time. Now that it had come, he found himself wary but untroubled. His old soldier's aplomb had never failed him before, and he knew it wouldn't now.
"You two had better move off the porch for awhile."
"That is a Muto," said Synax, redundantly.
"Go!" emphasized the Colonel. "Now!"
The two journalists rushed to one side of the porch, paused, and looked back. The Colonel was motioning for them to move out farther, as he continued to sit and stare at the advancing Muto.
"Let's get out of here," advised the vidtech.
Ms. Geier overcame her fear long enough to snap at her colleague. "Are you getting this?!"
"Sure---uh!" he replied as he backed up, almost falling off the porch and onto the grass. "I'm getting it. But what am I getting?"
"I don't know, but it's going to make a terrific story."
"Yeah, but only if we aren't part of it."
They ran out onto the lawn too far for their liking. Synax 'lectrozoomed as close to the two subjects as he could with what he had. His teleconverter and shotgun mike were in his case in their rented groundcar, but he wasn't about to go for them now, even though he knew the warm air would cause a far-shot scene of the porch to waver as if reflected off water.
"We won't be a part of it. That Muto's only got one spear, and I have a feeling it's not meant for us," Ms. Geier stated with perfect accuracy.
The Colonel observed the Muto closely as the man came up the porch steps and stood before him, dripping water onto the floorboards. He was certain he'd never seen the fellow, before. Not that it made any difference. At the Colonel's advanced age, one young assassin was as good as another.
They stared at each other intently, but neither was very tense. Neither made a hostile move. It was almost like a meeting scheduled between friendly rivals. The Muto spoke, first. His voice was harsh and strained, but controlled. He spoke with an accent that was familiar to his prey.
"I wanted to get a good look at you before I kill you," he said, dispassionately but with a sneer. "You're not a monster anymore. You're just a feeble old man."
The Colonel ignored the insult. "You people took your sweet time getting here. It's been years since I quit the game."
"Nobody sent me. I came on my own."
The Colonel's eyebrows raised, slightly. "Personal revenge? You weren't even alive during the Troubles."
"Yes, personal." The man's dark eyes revealed nothing.
"This is about Lutua."
"What?" For the second time that day, he felt the weight of that name from his dark past. "Lutua?"
"Have you forgotten the woman you gave a child to and sent off to die in the Badlands?"
The Colonel's face became a mask of self-injury.
"A child?" His mind reeled. "You?"
His finger tightened on the trigger, but he kept the speargun at his side when he saw tears well up in the old soldier's eyes.
"I didn't know."
"Would it have made any difference?"
The Colonel gripped the armrests of his chair, seemingly to rise. Then, he relaxed and rubbed them slowly with the tips of his gnarled fingers.
"No. I had my orders. I had to do it."
"You killed so many. What was one more death to you? She was only your loving concubine."
The Colonel smiled, wanly.
"You'll never understand how I felt about it, son."
As a reply, perhaps to his careless use of the word "son," the Muto raised his speargun and pointed it at the old man in the rockingchair. "This is not just for me. It's for my mother. And for the living death you gave to her and all my people."
He paused, then lowered the gun and fired the spear into the floor between the feet of the old man. THUNK! It penetrated the hardwood up to its barbs. The loud sound startled the journalists watching and recording the scene.
Then, the Muto turned and slowly left the way he had come.
"Why didn't he kill you?"
The Colonel stared beyond the reporter at the Muto, who was swimming toward the blood-red sun sinking into the lake ahead of him.
"He did... symbolically." He glanced at the reporter but avoided the vidtech's mask, with its merciless eye. "Sometimes, they do it that way."
Ms. Geier's curiosity had been sharpened by the colloquy between the two men whose words she had been unable to hear. Her fear had prevented her from intruding, and her guilty knowledge of this fear whetted her appetite for the truth.
"What did he want? I don't understand, Colonel. Why did he come here?"
The Colonel returned his gaze to the swimming figure.
"He came to deliver a message."
"What message?!" Her shrill voice mirrored her frustration in failing to understand what she had seen, and her annoyance that she wouldn't be able to explain it properly to her audience without making something up.
"Oh... that they haven't forgotten me, I guess."
At this noncommittal remark, Ms. Geier gave up on her subject. She turned to her partner. "Thank you, Colonel. Let's get out on the lawn, Syn. I want to shoot a location-closing before the sun disappears."
They left the porch without another word to the old soldier in his rockingchair. He sat, watching them shoot the closing, his thoughts far from the sunset scene.
The star reporter checked her appearance in a compact mirror, adjusted her hair, and posed while the vidtech turned on the fill-lights in the front of his jacket. He put his fingers into the special control pockets to adjust them to illuminate her face while she stood with her back to the setting sun. It was a tricky shot, but he knew it would look good. The whole interview, with its unexpected drama, was a great shoot.
Behind them, the Colonel rocked back and forth. Though animated, he was dying.
But only symbolically.
Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. He finds writing stories more enjoyable than indexing documents.
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