Hunter or Hunted?
Hunter or Hunted?
A Mare Inebrium Story & a Writer's Challenge II story
Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield
I was sitting at the end of the bar, finishing an imported beer that Max had recommended, while the real estate agent next to me nattered on about the apartment he was trying to rent me. I had already decided to purchase a long term lease on the apartment in a near-by high rise, based on its closeness to the Mare Inebrium and the quality of the security system that I seen during the walk-through. I wasn't in town more than five or six days in any given month, but needed someplace to store the stuff I was starting to accumulate. Carrying around a couple of large crates was starting to get old, and while Max had offered to store my things at the bar, I wanted something of my own. It was a new feeling and I was starting to enjoy it.
I finally shut the guy up, and put my thumbprint on the contract. He sputtered his thanks when the comp pad came up green and I paid the five year contract off on the spot. He offered to buy me another beer, but I was getting ready for some serious drinking, so I wished him a good day and moved off to my favorite booth. The waitress watched as I sat down, and came over.
"What'll be tonight JJ?" Trixie inquired, one of her teasing grins spread across her face.
"Bring me a double whiskey, the good Terran stuff, not that debased Volit rocket fuel that Max tries to push. A beer chaser, one of the dark brews from the stock in the back, and a tray of cinnamon dusted Alque's.
Trixie nose wrinkled at the mention of the insect-looking entrée I'd ordered. "Ya know sport, you have some of the strangest cravings of anyone I know, and I've seen just about everything come and go through this place. What's the story behind that?"
I looked over at Max, who was chatting with a couple of Car'fonits. "Hmm, tell you what. Some time when you have a few minutes, and you think Max won't object, stop by and I'll tell you how you learn to eat anything that's handy when it's preferably to starving."
Trixie snorted and flounced away, her short skirt swinging back and forth. She looked over her shoulder and winked. "Max's objecting or not doesn't have anything to do with it. I'll probably drag him along just so he won't feel left out. Be right back with yer stuff."
I watched the small crowd for a few moments, watching the various races that came and went. Quick-footed Volits imbibed beside massive lumbering Slerns, while the resident D'rrish was deep in conversation with a whole band of Quenks. Humans made up no more than a quarter of the patrons of the bar, and not all of them were necessarily of pure stock...
I looked up as Trixie approached the table, with Max following close behind, with the two Car'fonits in tow. Trixie set the tray down with my food and drinks on it, then moved off. Max slid into the booth seat opposite me, while the two aliens, not being designed to sit down, stood at the end of the table.
I glanced at Max, then picked up the whiskey and downed half of it at once, followed by a healthy swig of the beer. Both of the Car'fonits were beta males, subordinates in the seven-member family that made up their basic social structure. They were bi-pedal, and about two meters tall. Coarse brown fur covered them from head to foot, with elaborate patterns bleached into it, signifying both internal family status and their personal achievements. I'd never meet a Car'fonit before, so I was curious as to what they wanted. They are natural hunters, living on a planet covered with plains and forests that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Most of their prey wasn't dangerous, but the ones that could fight back more than made up for the rest.
Max motioned to the elder of the two, and the alien pulled a handful of credit chips from his belt pouch and laid them on the table. There must have been two or three hundred in glittering Denebian chips, the most stable currency known in this section of space. I looked up at the two, who stared back impassively.
I pushed the chips around, but made no move to pick them up. "Okay Max, what's up?"
The older Car'fonit pulled a holo-pic from same pouch and laid it on the table beside the chips. His speech was slow and stilted, but readily understandable.
"My brother and I wish to hunt one of these. We have hunted all the prey that is available on our world. Now we cannot advance any further in our quest to be alpha males of our own families unless we achieve a measure of greatness not available to us on our home world. We have inquired for any one that has information in this manner, and this human has given us to understand that you may have some knowledge." The Car'fonit waved one clawed hand at Max.
I picked up the holo-pic from the table and showed it to Max, who just shook his head and spread his hands.
"Do you know what this is," I asked, laying the picture back down on the table? The white beast in the picture had been photographed outdoors, in its natural environment. "This is a GEEB polar bear, derived from Terran stock, but native only to Gaius VII. Have you studied this animal?"
Both of the aliens simply stared at me, waiting.
"This beast is a Genetically Enhanced, Engineered Bioform. The original polar bear, from Earth was big and bad enough, but some genius figured out how to make them even more dangerous. They're now about five and a half meters tall when standing on their hind legs and weigh about 900 - 1100 kilograms when full grown. The same process that made them bigger also gave them full color vision, a larger brainpan and opposable thumbs on their front paws. Because the company didn't want to have to import food animals from Earth, their basic biochemistry had been altered so they can survive on the local wildlife. They now travel in mated pairs that stay together for life. They're dangerously close to being considered fully sentient. The company that developed them keeps them exclusively on Gaius VII. They own the whole planet and bill it as a hunter's paradise. You have to apply for a license, and only ten or twelve are granted every year. They also restrict the weapons you can hunt with. Mostly spears, knives, and such the like, along with a few low-powered slug rifles. Gaius VII is a cold, artic world, with about 70% of it covered in snow and the narrow temperate band around the equator accounting for the rest. The bears have been on the planet now for about three hundred years, and have thrived."
The younger of the two aliens looked over at his elder and whispered a few quick words. A short, but heated exchange followed, with the younger alien subsiding with ill grace.
"Why are they considered so dangerous," the elder Car'fonit asked?
I leaned back and took another swig from my whiskey. "Either you gents study any Terran history, or do any checking up about this?"
This time the younger alien shook his head negatively, while shooting an evil glare at his companion.
"Well, it's like this. Earth has long been considered one of the more violent planets in known space, but it's been violence mostly directed against our own species. Bears, like men, hunt both to feed themselves and for the mere pleasure of the hunt. Neither species has ever had any trouble killing enough prey to feed themselves. This thing would need no reason kill either or both of you boys. And remember, where there's one, there is always a second one. There are more exotic and painful methods of suicide available in the galaxy, but I'd be hard pressed to come up with one right now. Besides, what makes you think you'll even get on the planet? The waiting list is about 12 years long, last I heard."
The elder of the two pulled a glowing yellow certificate from his belt pouch and displayed it proudly. "I applied for this when I was but a cub, barely able to talk or use a tri-caster for the call. I have saved for most of my adult life for the license fee. I have 30 Gaius days to arrive on the planet to claim my spot. I leave in the morning, with or without my beta brother." Saying this, he put the certificate away, and strode off towards the door.
The younger male looked at the two of us with what could only be described as sadness on his face. "I too, must follow him. We are pledged brothers, bound by a bond that may not describable in spoken tongues. Any advice for one facing his imminent death?"
I frowned and pushed the credit chips back toward the Car'fonit, who studiously ignored them.
"Yeah, prepare your family unit for a double funeral. In the last three years, only one bear, of a mated pair has been killed. Over thirty so-called intelligent beings have died, including a master Slern warrior, and a pair of Quelizar adepts. Remember, you can't bring energy weapons, explosives, or poisons with you. They check you thoroughly, both scope and body search before they put you down on the planet. The only good news is that they fit you with a transponder, so they find the bodies easier." I looked over at Max. "is the Reever anyplace near-by right now?"
Max shook his head, "Nope, been another murder, he's up to his eyebrows with work. Why?"
"Well, if anyone would have any advice on how to kill something this fast, this smart and this big, I figured it'd be him."
Max shrugged and spread his hands. "Like I said, he's professionally engaged. He solves crimes you know, he doesn't dispense advice on how to commit one."
The Car'fonit bowed to them both, a neat trick considering his physiology was really wasn't built for it and left, joining his glowering older pledge brother at the door. They both left, leaving Max setting across me in the booth. The bar was largely deserted, the real crowd wouldn't show up for about two or three hours yet. Larrye and Trixie weren't even breaking a sweat.
I pushed the chips over to Max. "There's gotta be some way of getting these back to those idiots' family."
Max nodded silently and scooped up the chips, dropping them into one of the pockets of his bartender apron. He looked at my depleted drink, and when I nodded my head, used the table's tiny teleporter to get me another round. Personally, I hate the things, cause I'm never sure they're delivering the right drink, but as Max was buying, I wasn't about to complain. The beer and whiskey appeared with a mild pop on the pad.
"You been there, haven't you?" Max asked, looking me straight in the eye.
"Yeah, about 45 years ago. I worked on a construction project for the corporation that owns Gaius IV. Paid damned good, and had excellent benefits. We were working the temperate zone, about 300 kilometers south of the nearest bears, tearing down the old hunter's camps and building one permanent main camp on the shores of the main sea that isn't frozen over solid. I was working with a couple of Quenk bands, five other humans and a Taloranian. We were tearing down the old camps, making sure there was nothing left behind of any salvageable value. The maintenance of these camps was what finally sealed their fate. Company couldn't be bothered with sending crews out to each one to repair the storm damage and keep them supplied, so they decided on a central location. We were about 1200 kilometers from the main construction site, working our way slowly towards it. It took about 4 days to tear each camp down completely and get all the salvaged materials loaded on the skimmer that had been stored at each camp for transport back to the main base. Some were only 20 or 30 kilometers apart, while others were a hundred kilometers or more from their nearest neighbor."
I stopped for a pull on the beer, and was pleased that the teleporter had sent the right one. "We'd been working for about 4 weeks local time, when we got an emergency flash from the main headquarters. Seems one of the stupid hunters had lost everyone in his party, even the cook he'd brought along. He was directly north of us; about 400 kilometers, and headquarters figured we'd get there faster than anyone else. They wanted a couple of volunteers to take the skimmer from the camp where we were working, fetch the guy back to where we were working, and they'd send some transport to pick him up. Well, you know Quenks won't separate for more than a day or two willingly, and the Taloranian wouldn't have survived the cold, so us humans drew straws. Jenkins and I got the short end of the stick..."
"We took off in the skimmer, heading north. Jenkins wasn't a bad sort, a drifter like myself, never anyplace longer than necessary, though with him I think it was just wanderlust. He was a decent enough driver, and between the two of us, we got to the camp just after dark on the third day. Gaius IV has very little planetary wobble, thus the days and nights are almost perfectly equal and the place has no seasons worth talking about. The camp looked like an entire invading army had been rampaging through it. Pop-up tents had been ripped to pieces, the two snow-cats turned into twisted hunks of metal, and bodies strewn everywhere. We thought we were too late, but as we pulled into camp, this little guy comes stumbling out of a hole in a snow bank, babbling like crazy. We finally got him calmed down, and into the skimmer. He wanted to leave immediately, but the skimmer was battery powered and we needed a decent charge that we wouldn't get until morning. Turns out he was the crown prince, or some such nonsense, of a little backwater planet in the Crab Nebula, out on his 'last adventure' before ascending to the throne. He'd brought his guide, a cook, butler and two other servants along. They'd been there for 10 days and hadn't seen anything more exciting than a couple of gurtons, which were the local equivalent of cows. They were on the point of packing up and heading home, when the two bears had attacked, from opposite sides of the camp, just before dark. In the resulting fiasco, the guide had actually gotten a couple of shots off from an old fashioned slug rifle and wounded one of the bears slightly, but that hadn't mattered much. The bears seemed to almost make of sport of killing the men. The prince wasn't sure how he survived, but he'd stayed in the hole in the snow bank until we arrived, leaving only during the middle of the day to pick up more warm clothing and food. I suspect he simply ran when the massacre started and hid in the first available place. I put him to bed in one of the bunks we'd rigged in the back, and told Jenkins I'd stay up in case the bears came back. We had no weapons, and I wasn't about to get out and search for any. It was a typical night, colder than a tax collector's heart, but cloudless. Gaius IV has three moons, and two them were up that night, so it was easy to see."
Max pressed the keypad on the teleporter again, and I was surprised to find both my whiskey and beer were empty. He leaned forward, "what time did the bears come back?"
I grinned, not altogether a pleasant sight with my present memories, and continued. "Just before dawn. The first one came into the remains of the camp on the far side, a good sixty or seventy meters away, just kinda poking around, putting his nose into this and that, like he was curious as to what was there. I was watching him closely, hoping he wouldn't notice us, when suddenly the skimmer shook like it had run over a land mine or something. Then suddenly, a huge paw punched through the metal roof and simply ripped back a meter wide, by three-meter long strip off the top. Jenkins was sleeping sitting up in the driver's chair, and he popped open the door and dove out into the snow. The prince screamed and rolled himself into the blankets and huddled as far back into the skimmer as he could. The cold air rushed in, then was blocked by this huge head that thrust its way into the cabin of the skimmer. The eyes that looked into mine seemed intelligent and I swear to this day, slightly amused. The bear snapped at me half-heartedly, unable to get a good bite because the size of the hole restricted it movements. Besides, I had snagged a metal wrecking bar from the tool bin and smacked it across the nose. I wasn't holding anything back and blood and pieces of fur splattered everywhere. I'd been aiming for an eye, but it had jerked back when it saw me swinging. The bear roared, and proceeded to rip everything off the top of the skimmer, including the solar cells. While it was busy doing that, I managed to get off a single distress signal to the main base, but I wasn't too hopeful for any kind of response. Shortly after, the radio died, probably because the bear had ripped the antenna from the roof."
"The entire time this was happening, the other bear had been stalking Jenkins, who was trying to get back to the skimmer. He'd run about a hundred meters into the forest after he'd dived out of the skimmer, and was slowly trying to make his way back. Every time he got within about twenty meters or so, the bear would appear and chase him back into the woods. I was watching all of this, knowing the bear was playing with Jenkins, as the bear was easily twice as fast. Finally, about mid-morning, the bear got tired of the chase, and the next time Jenkins tried to approach, it let him get to within five feet of the door before simply jumping on him and crushing him into the snow. He tried to get up, but then the damn bear bit his head off."
Max wiped one hand across his brow. "So what happened? Did you and the prince have to hang out in the wrecked skimmer until they came and got you?"
I tapped the teleporter keypad myself this time, figuring I had to be lucky; it hadn't messed up yet tonight. "No, the injured bear was seriously pissed, stalking around the skimmer, slamming it with her paw from time to time, rocking it, probably looking for the best balance point to tip it over. However, about noon, the two of them wandered away, though the female looked back several times and seemed to be on the point of staying. However, the male keeping urging it on, and finally they disappeared into the deep woods."
"By now, the prince was a blubbering mess, completely useless for anything. I got him to drink a couple of glasses of water, and forced some tranks down him. After he fell asleep, I assessed the situation, and I have tell you, it didn't look good. On my own, I might have made it out, running during the day, and trying to rest at night, but I didn't like the odds. I got out and scouted the camp, and it was obvious there was very little of use there, though I did find a couple of short range radios, good for about five to ten kilometers, some food, and a large chef's knife, but not much else. I was on my way back to the skimmer when I found the weapon that was going to let me kill the bears."
Max sat up straight and stared at me, "What, they'd somehow smuggled a blaster in, or you found something to make poison with?"
I shook my head, and took a slim metal case from my pocket and opened it. Inside was my credit stick, a couple of ID cards, and my spacer guild tags. I pressed carefully on one edge of the case, and twisted slightly at the same time. The bottom of the case popped open and a slim piece of plastic fell into my hand. I showed it Max, who took it gingerly from my hand.
"Careful, it's very sharp on both ends," I cautioned, as he examined it. "Originally, this was about 25 centimeters long, and there were actually 10 of them. It's a plastic used to make non-conductive thermal switches. Can I get a glass of cold water?"
Max nodded, and keyed the teleporter. A glass of water, with a few ice cubes in it appeared. I rolled the piece of plastic up into a little roll, then dipped it into the water for a minute or so. When I pulled it out, and dropped it on the table, it did not uncurl, but rolled around for a few seconds before stopping in front of Max. He poked at it carefully, and then looked at me in puzzlement.
"I found a good size piece of this material sticking out of one of the portable stoves the cook had brought along, and couldn't believe my luck. It was of course as stiff as a piece of steel when I grabbed it, but softened nicely when I got it back to the skimmer and warmed it up a with a little hand warmer. While it was doing that, I was searching the camp for the cook's spices, and sure enough, found what I was looking for. I used the tools in the skimmer to cut the plastic into strips, carefully put a sharp point on each end and then rolled them up and put them in the snow to freeze. When I took them out, they were about the size of my thumb and looked completely harmless. I then dipped them in cold water again, and then rolled them in salt, then left them outside to stay cold. You see, while the biochemistry of the bears had been changed, it wasn't a radical enough change to alleviate their need for salt and it was in damn short supply on this planet. I waited to see if the bears would come back, and sure enough, they did, just before dark this time. The female was in an ugly mood, rampaging around the camp, ripping anything that remained to pieces, while the male stood and waited patiently. They then approached the skimmer and started rocking it back and forth. By now the prince was awake and screaming again, which was part of my plan. While they were both snuffling around the back of the skimmer, trying to figure out the best way to get to him, I popped out and put the salt balls on a piece of metal which I had sprinkled salt on liberally and left it on the ground by the door, then yelled at the bears and threw a hammer at one of them. Didn't hurt it, but sure got his attention. I then jumped back into the skimmer and slammed the door. Both bears sniffed around the door, and then I could hear them licking the metal. I peeked out a window and the piece of metal had been licked clean and the balls were gone. My only concern was that one of the bears might have hogged all the salt balls. They tried to tip the skimmer over twice more, but fortunately, the mass of the thing defeated them. After about three hours, the male started roaring and clawing at his stomach, then ran off into the forest, crashing into trees and rocks as he went. The female stood there for about another hour, then she simply fell over, with blood pouring from her mouth. I waited for dawn, and then went outside cautiously. The female was dead, and already frozen stiff. I followed the trail of the male for about a half a kilometer, and found him dead also. He'd ripped himself open trying to get at what was killing him."
"When I got back to the camp, one of the short range radios was blinking, indicating someone was trying to contact us. I left it alone for a few minutes and checked on the prince. Besides looking like he'd been through an extended crying jag, he was fine. I explained to him how I'd killed the bears, but told him I want him to have the credit when they came to pick us up. Didn't need the publicity, you understand. I then used the radio to contact a rescue ship that was just about on top of us, and sure enough, the prince warmed right up to the hero's role of claiming both the kills."
Max sat up and stared at me. "But what killed the bears? These?" he said, pointing to the little ball on the table. I nodded and just watched the little ball, so Max did the same. After three or four minutes, it started slowly to uncurl, and finally straightened out completely about two minutes later. Max carefully picked it up and checked both ends, then looked at me.
"Sure, it's sharp, but it's so soft and pliable right now it couldn't hurt any one because it would just bend."
I grinned at him and picked up the sliver of plastic, then dialed up a Whistling Top, which is always served at body temperature. Max looked at the drink, then at me, as I dropped the sliver into the drink. It slowly sank to the bottom and I left it there for about a minute, then very carefully reached in and pulled it out. "Got a piece of paper handy?" I asked.
Max handed over a small piece from his apron pocket. I took the sliver and lightly drew it down the piece of paper, which fell into two cleanly cut sections. I then dropped it point first on the hardwood table top, where it stuck, quivering.
Max touched it carefully, then pulled it out and tried to bend the sliver, but nothing happened. He handed it to me very carefully and I put it back in the case I'd gotten it out of.
"Remember, I said it was a thermal plastic? Well, the company that designed had set it to retain its shape when it was cold and to stiffen to maximum strength at higher temperatures. The guts of the bears were even hotter than this drink and the slivers were tumbling around their intestines, slicing them open. They bled to death internally, it's as simply as that. I'm not sure what I would have done if I hadn't found that plastic sticking out of that portable stove. Those were the only two bears taken that year, and the prince was the big news on every newscast on his planet for months afterwards. He very discretely channeled some funds to me and I have a permanent open invitation to visit anytime I want."
Max played with the keypad for a few moments, and then stood up. "The rest of your drinks for the night are on me. I'll do what I can to get this money back to the Car'fonit's family, 'cause I see now they have about the same chance as a snowflake on a hot anvil. You haven't lived until you've had to outwit something that's decided that you'd make a nice snack, I guess."
I nodded and settled in for some serious drinking. The memories of Gaius had left me cold, and I needed some warmth. The whiskey was as good a start as any....
Copyright 2000 By John Powers
To reach me, please email me at my favorite Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio: John works for a well known computer company in their tech support section.
He has played most RPG games that have ever been conceived, and especially
enjoys AD&D, Price of Freedom and BattleTech.
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