By Rene Steen

Sunset is a depressing time of day especially this far out in the desert. Clumper can smell the approach of night, and it makes him nervous. I'm sure he still remembers the wound he received a few years ago when, caught out after dark, we were attacked by a clawtaw that reared up out of the sand and took a large chunk out of his rump before I could flame it with my 'ruptor. It is a bit early for those monsters yet, but I can't help looking around nervously at the sand, watching for the tell-tale ripple that is the only fore-warning of an attack. Already long, cobalt shadows stretch out from the crests of the dunes causing great lakes of inky darkness to form in the hollows while the temperature has dropped from its day-time 55 degrees Celsius down to a mere 3 degrees Celsius. Having lived and worked in the desert so long, I instinctively ride Clumper along the crests of the great dunes, staying out of those sombre umbrae as I am well aware of the fauna that lurks there. It sure is a hard way to earn a living, grubbing in the desiccated sand in hope of finding mechojunk... or technojunk, if lady luck is really on a roll. That's what I do. I am a scavenger, duly licensed and legal; not like those scabby pirates that pillage the digs at every opportunity and sell mechojunk on the black market.

I thought I saw the sand ripple then, about twenty meters away in the shadow. It could have been a trick of the light though, as the sun's giant bulk is partly behind the horizon now, the visible portion taking up half of the western sky. This always causes light flicker that lasts well into twilight making things seem to move, when in actual fact they don't. I peer intently at the spot, but after a few minutes I am satisfied it was actually light flicker, so I remove my hand from the butt of my 'ruptor. A flight of fangers, heading north, is silhouetted against the reddish-orange glare, their long, serpentine bodies rippling in the air as four bat-like wings propel them through the thin atmosphere. I watch them warily until they dwindle to tiny specks before finally vanishing into the northern twilight. Highly aggressive and deadly venomous, those beasts.

Far off in the distance I can see a reddish flash as sunlight reflects off the city's dome and suddenly I long for the journey to be over. It is still so far away but I hope to make it before full dark. Clumper gives a little whickering moan, tossing his armoured head, and his blood red eyes flick nervously from side to side. 'hurt pain night thingees come' he broadcasts in his rudimentary think- talk and at the same time picks up his pace until he almost canters.

'Steady Clumper' I soothe him; 'If they come, I flame them. No hurt pain.' That seems to settle him a little, although he doesn't slow much and still keeps anxiously scanning the desert around him. My ecosuit beeps and I glance at the temperature dial set in the right wrist. It has just reached 0 degrees Celsius and the suit's temp controller has kicked into gear. In the valleys between the dunes a white mist has begun to form. Water vapour that will quickly turn into frost. Already I can see several Arakis scuttle from their hide-outs and make their way down towards the precious moisture. They look like large mops with bodies twice the size of a man's head, and eight ropy legs that move independently of each other. One stops briefly and I can see the luminous green glow of a dozen eyes as it stares balefully up at me before darting away into the valley.

Blackness descends as the sun is reduced to a large ruby slice just over the horizon. Above me the sky has turned a deep purple and harsh, bright stars splash unwinking across the ether. I hold my 'ruptor in my hand now, its clear plastalloy barrel pointed at the sky. Off to the right I see the sand ripple and swirl. No trick of light this time, it is definitely a clawtaw and he is heading our way. Clumper shies to the left as he detects the approaching beast's mind pattern and I think a soothing thought at him as I level the 'ruptor at the growing mound.

Sand erupts upward as if a mine has exploded underground, and out of the maelstrom rises a large, dark shape with eye stalks twisting this way and that as it surveys its surroundings. If you have never seen a clawtaw before you will not fully comprehend the fearfulness of this beast. This one is relatively small as the species goes, standing about three meters high as it rears on four clawed legs, its carapace blotting out the thin wedge of sun still showing above the horizon. The two forelegs wave menacingly in the air as it scurries forward, brandishing two long pincer claws that open, then shut with a loud snapping sound. Right between its eye stalks is a small depression and this is where I aim, think-talking to Clumper, telling him to hold ground. I hit the button set in the gun's butt and a brilliant violet flash tells me the weapon has activated. The clawtaw topples backwards and comes to rest on its carapace, six legs and two claws feebly waving in the air as it dies. A thin tendril of smoke curls from the charred hole between the eyes and I see my shot was accurate, frying the tiny brain instantly.

'Clumper home. Night thingees come. Hurt pain' comes the frenzied think-talk as Clumper breaks into a gallop. I look towards the dome city and see the entrance is only a few hundred meters away as the last of the sun sinks behind the horizon leaving the world in inky darkness. I read somewhere that there was once a moon that lit up the sky, but it hasn't existed for several millennium. Now I anxiously glance at the tracts of sand between myself and the force-gate where large pools of pale blue light illuminate the city perimeter. Ripples are approaching me from two directions and I am nearly dislodged as Clumper makes a clumsy leap to avoid the striking fangs of a large araki that has wandered out of a shallow valley nearby. One of his armoured feet strikes the creature a glancing blow and it explodes in a spray of black ichor. Two clawtaw erupt from the sand and advance on clattering legs, clashing their large scythe-like claws as they move to intercept us. I fire at one, but Clumper's rolling gait makes my first shot go wild, while my second ricochets off the creature's carapace. Too late I see the second Clawtaw has maneuvered itself into range and, even as I turn to fire at it, one claw closes on Clumper's right rear leg. He screams, loses balance, and falls forward onto his knees. Around me the world suddenly spins crazily as I'm catapulted out of the saddle to land awkwardly on the sand. My ecosuit cushions the fall and I know I'm unhurt as I come up onto one knee. Clumper has broken free and gallops towards the blue light that surrounds the force gate several hundred meters away. Total panic urges him on and, even though I think-talk to him in urgent tones, he gallops blindly on towards the safety of the city without replying. Forgetting about Clumper, I swing the 'ruptor around and face the two monsters now advancing across the sand, their bodies glistening with reflected light as they brandish snapping claws. A violet flash from my 'ruptor splashes against the underside of one body, hurling the creature back onto the sand and it makes a rapid clicking noise as it rolls around trying to scrabble back onto its feet. Aiming at the oncoming bulk of the second Clawtaw, I tighten my finger on the stud of my weapon confident that my shot will dispatch it but just at that moment the sand beneath me crumbles and I tumble helplessly down the face of the dune into the sombre darkness below. Scurrying sounds cause me to hasten to my feet and I feel a squat body brush against my leg. A feeling of terror comes upon me as I imagine steel like fangs sinking through my ecosuit, injecting deadly venom into my calf. Only by sheer willpower do I stand my ground, thus avoiding a panic stricken flight through the darkness that could only end in my death from an araki bite. Deliberately calming myself I activate the suit's spotlights fixed on either shoulder and beams of friendly, welcome light chases away the shadows. Arakis scrabble away from me. There must be several dozen of them, all trying to get back out of the light. Slowly I swing the beams around, picking up others advancing out of the darkness, fangs bared to attack only to scurry back as the light hits them. I climb against the avalanche of sand, moving a few meters forward and then several back as if walking a treadmill. In time I reach the top of the dune, look over the rim and see that which I feared would be the case. The two clawtaws are still there, pacing around. Behind me soft, sinister shuffling sounds alert me to the fact that arakis are climbing up the face of the dune towards me. To further my predicament I have lost my 'ruptor during the tumble and am now weaponless. I have to get out of the pit, away from the arakis and yet I have to avoid the homicidal crustaceans pacing along the crest of the dune a few meters away. Sanctuary lies so near, a mere dash of a few hundred meters, but it may as well be a hundred kilometers with those two killers nearby.

There are no choices for me. Within moments the arakis will reach me and I will feel the fiery pain of their fangs just before the eternal darkness swallows my soul. I decide to make a run for the dome which beckons me with its electric blue light. Sand sprays out from under my boots while the twin pools of light bounce crazily before me. The nearest clawtaw spots me and makes a strange mewling sound as it scuttles on six legs, waving cocked claws, turning to intercept me as I run past. It rears and lunges, but too late. My attention is on the other, which has reared up on its four back legs and is moving forward rapidly. I swerve further to my left, sprinting as hard as I can. The crustacean is fast and I know I am not going to make it, especially as I hear the other one scrabbling towards me from behind.

'Friend come. Clumper take home. Hurry, hurry'; the think-talk takes my attention away from the approaching horror. I break my stride and look around until I see the armoured form of Clumper prancing nervously nearby, red eyes rolling in terror at the approaching clawtaws. I can see his flanks trembling as he suppresses a natural urge to flee, and I run up to him, leaping into the saddle as he turns and begins his sprint for the dome. A loud "crash" makes me look around in time to see the two giant crustaceans collide as they reach the spot where Clumper and I were seconds before. They begin to tear at each other, giant claws ripping through body armour, loud screams and mewling rending the thin atmosphere.

As we enter the pool of blue light Clumper slows to a trot and heads for the portal that leads into the dome.

'You came back.'

Clumper tosses his head and snorts. He is embarrassed.

'Clumper come. Take friend home.' he think-talks and I hear his apology. We are approaching the portal and my ecosuit picks up the coded signal as the security system checks our identity. My suit squawks back the proper response and I see the force field dim as security disarms it to allow entry into the dome. We follow the old shoreline, tracing the perimeter of a sea which disappeared millenniums ago and I cannot help but wonder how it would have looked way back when the bay still sparkled under a bright, round moon. I catch happy thoughts from Clumper, who is dreaming of his supper as he clops past the sign announcing that we have entered Sydney's city limits.


Copyright 1997 by R.J. STEEN

About the Author in his own words: "I am 44 years old, male and live in Port Lincoln, South Australia where I work as a police sergeant. Writing has been a hobby of mine for about ten years, although I have written stories earlier than that. To date I have not sold to a publisher. I am married with two children, a boy 22 yrs and a girl 19 yrs."

You can e-mail Rene at: renest@terra.net.au

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