by Robert Buettner
Or The Moor of Yavet, wherein a commander of mercenaries is bedeviled by whispers, descends into madness, and destroys both his loyal companion and himself. Plus, there's monsters.
In the pre-dawn alien twilight, Roald Otman knelt in the mud, and groped until his blood-slick fingers found Rodric’s carotid artery. Cold, even in the equatorial heat. First Sergeant Rodric’s body lay tangled in death with another bipedal corpse, man-sized and reptilian.
The line wrangler who knelt alongside Otman stared across the ring of cleared ground that separated the two of them from the rain forest. The minefields in that ground protected Downgraded Earthlike 476's human settlement from the rest of this hostile world.
The wrangler shook his head. “Never seen these little ones cross the minefield before.”
Otman narrowed his eyes. “But this one did. My cameraman’s dead. Why?”
The wrangler pushed his broad brimmed hat back on his forehead and shrugged. “Bigger pred chasin’ after this one probably flushed it across. Coincidence.”
Otman frowned. After twelve years as a covert ops mercenary, he disbelieved in coincidence.
The wrangler pointed at the hilt of Rodric’s bush knife, protruding from the dead beast’s throat. It was his turn to narrow his eyes and frown. “For a nature photographer, your friend was good with a knife.”
After twelve years in covert ops, Otman also lied easily. He cast his eyes down and pressed his hands to them. The pose was only partly for show. Since his team had hit dirt two days before, he had experienced sharp, momentary headaches. Alien pollen and spores, probably. “It’s ironic. My crew and I came to film this uniquely savage ecosystem, and already it has consumed one of us.”
The wrangler laid a hand on Otman’s shoulder. “Mr. Otman, you seem like a nice fella. Want some advice?”
Otman managed the nicest smile a mercenary killer could, and nodded.
The wrangler, a Trueborn Earthman like the rest of the colonists, rested his hand on the gunpowder revolver holstered at his waist. “Here on Dead End, every man’s business is his own.”
Otman stifled an eye roll at the prospect of a terracentric rant about liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“And here every man’s business is dangerous.” The wrangler pointed into the mist that clung to the distant trees. “But making a movie out there? Call this a preview, a bad omen. Whatever. But Dead End’s waiting to eat you alive. The spiders are as big as supper plates. Even the plant eaters are carnivores. They only eat the plants to get the parasites inside. The mid level predators are like six-legged tyrannosaurs. And on top of the pyramid the grezzen are eleven tons of speed, guile and meanness. Natural history’s not worth what your documentary’s gonna cost.”
Otman nodded. On that, he agreed with this cowboy. Otman’s recon team came here not to film natural history, but to change human history. The prize they sought could win Cold War II for Yavet, and lose it for the Trueborns. And that was worth any cost to a Yavi, even one for hire.
Otman said, “Bad omen or not, it’s a risk we’re prepared to take.”
The wrangler looked up at the lightening overcast of his adopted world and sighed. “Well, then, safest time for you all to cross the line is dawn. The nocturnal predators are bedding down. But the day shift’s still yawnin’ and peein’.” He paused. “Sir, I know you’re upset. But if you’re bound to continue, an early start is safer. I can have the body buried for you.”
This civilian had no idea how abhorrent it was to leave a man behind. But Otman the “film maker” just swallowed. “That’s very kind. But I would prefer that we return the remains home to Yavet with us. Would it be possible for you to just have Mr. Rodric’s remains held at the local morgue until we return in ten days?”
The wrangler raised his eyebrows, just as something huge bellowed from the distant trees. “Sure. Just never thought about the possibility that you’d be returning.”
Then, without further discussion or emotion, the man walked back down the trail toward his line cabin. Otman watched him go and felt a strange kinship. This wild outpost and Otman’s overpopulated homeworld shared an indifference to death, though for very different reasons.
Otman stared, arms crossed, at the rainforest’s billion billion trees until the Earth man disappeared. Then Otman permitted himself a tear. Rodric had been Otman’s noncommissioned right hand for six years. But then Otman blinked, breathed, and ground his teeth.
Not at the wrangler’s indifference, nor even at Rodric’s death, but at Otman’s own failure.
As the team’s commanding officer, Otman had sent Rodric ahead to recon the vehicle path through the minefield before their “film crew” zig-zagged its three vehicles out beyond the perimeter. It was a routine precaution that Otman had delegated a hundred other times in a hundred other places. But this time Otman had actually wondered, fleetingly, whether predators ever got flushed in across the minefield.
Otman could have—obviously, should have—ordered Rodric to carry a rifle. Otman could have sent two men, not one. But Otman had done neither, because, as the wrangler had just confirmed, this attack was unprecedented.
Coincidence. Bad luck. Bad omens. Otman believed in none of those.
Otman believed in focus on the mission, in discipline, and in steel well maintained and accurately aimed.
He zipped Rodric’s death into a mental body bag and thumbed his handtalk. No names, no ranks. These Trueborns were frontiersmen, not counterespionage wizards, but a cover worth doing was worth doing to excess. “Bring the vehicles forward. But please don’t jolt the editing equipment.
“Yes...Mr. Producer. Uh...that Trueborn cowboy just passed by on the way back to the settlement. He said Rodric—”
”It’s true. But Mr. Rodric went down swinging.” Otman looked over his shoulder as three headlight pairs lurched toward him up the trail from the outpost.
He thumbed his handtalk again. “Let’s make sure he died for something.”
Otman knew that his team, to a man, felt gut-shot at the news of Rodric’s death. But he also knew that each man would now seal that loss away. They would grieve together, but only after the job was done.
Nine hours and fifty miles later Dead End’s hot, humid gray dawn had yielded to its hotter, humider gray afternoon.
Otman peered through the windscreen, as he swayed alongside his driver, aboard the second vehicle in a convoy of three. The locally rented, six-wheeled Bush Cats snaked around tree boles so thick that the biggest arterial uptube in the biggest stack city on Yavet could have easily fit inside one.
Otman drew a breath of local air that went down as thick and hot as breakfast syrup, and smiled. Heat. Humidity. Allergies provoked by a billion billion trees’ pollen. Otman loved it all.
Yavi grew up in stacked cities with ceilings for sky. Diagnosed agoraphiles like Otman, who enjoyed open spaces, were aberrant outcasts among Yavi. Fit to fight their society’s battles, but ill-suited to more genteel intel assignments.
The feeling was mutual. Otman had despised every moment of his last assignment, a desk job back home on Yavet, combing files to root out deep-cover Trueborn spies within Intelligence Branch. Otman had come to hate the mole hunts, hate the distrust in comrades that they bespoke. In fact, the one and only Trueborn thing that he had uncovered during his year of mole hunting was the expression’s origin. Moles were Earth rodents, probably mythical, that burrowed undetected through darkness, and eroded structures from within.
The Bush Cat bounced and he grimaced and smiled simultaneously. Here in the fetid jungle, intangible moles were replaced by palpable discomfort and danger, and men he trusted to share those dangers equally. And here his quarry, although also Trueborn, was real.
Otman gazed up through the Bush Cat’s open roof hatch. Silhouetted against low clouds, man-sized, fork-tailed dragons glided, wheeled, and screeched.
Otman shrugged mentally. The wrangler had advised them not to worry, at least not about the gorts. The flying monsters nested and hunted among the tree tops, never venturing lower than fifty feet above the ground. Gorts kept their distance because Dead End’s top predators, the grezzen, could bound fifty feet into the sky, swat a flying dragon dead with one paw, then swallow the gort whole before touching the ground again. So the suicidally voracious gorts didn’t threaten ground bound humans.
But, in the early colonial days, strikes by attacking gorts had routinely downed human aircraft. For decades now, nothing mechanical had flown above Dead End. Except the impregnably huge chemical fuel orbital shuttles, like the one that had shuttled Otman’s team, posing as a film crew, down from the interstellar Trueborn cruiser that had borne them out here.
Otman smiled and silently thanked the flying dragons. The Trueborns’ inability to fly Dead End’s skies, or rather the Trueborns’ smug attempt to prove that they could, had created the opportunity that had brought Otman’s team here, to the jagged edge of the known universe.
Otman’s handtalk crackled with a transmission from Desmond, who was operating the magnetometer in the lead Bush Cat. “Captain, I got metal. Big metal.”
The film crew pretense had been dropped as soon as the team passed out beyond Trueborn listening range. The men now wore jungle fatigues, and had broken out the team’s normal tactical weapons from “photographic equipment” crates, supplementing the “film crew’s” Trueborn gunpowder weapons. Recon Scout Team Eight was again full-on field tactical. Otman’s chest swelled, even as another headache pricked behind his sinuses. Everything out here, even the pollen, was their enemy, but that was the challenge they lived for.
Big metal. Desmond’s words raised hair, even on Otman’s recently-shaved neck. The only metal out here would be a manmade object, and a manmade object was the prize they sought.
“Range?” Otman leaned forward.
“I make it forty-six hundred yards, Captain.”
“Sir, the supply weenies disguised this mag as a photo image previewer. But they porked the mass calibration doin’ it. Five tons, wild-ass guess.”
It would be a dead-on guess. Senior Tech Sergeant Desmond had served with Otman longer even than First Sergeant Rodric had. Desmond’s courage and loyalty had saved Otman’s missions, and his life, often. Desmond, as the team’s sensor wizzo, wasn’t cleared to know what their quarry was, much less what it should weigh.
But Otman knew, and the guess worried him. Few Yavi had ever touched a Trueborn Scorpion’s hull, much less put one on a scale, but the briefers had predicted thirty-five tons.
Desmond asked, “Sir, should we make for the anomaly?”
Had the crash broken up the Trueborn ship? One bit of debris could lead to another.
Otman thumbed his handtalk. “Is the anomaly moving?”
“Like a rock, Skipper.”
Otman rubbed his forehead as the allergy headache spiked, then receded. “Make for it, Sergeant. But maintain present speed.” Racing to catch something that wasn’t trying to get away was reckless. And if this object was, or led to, their quarry, they were early.
Desmond’s voice rasped, “Skipper, that heading’s gonna take us past a flat topped hill. A thousand yards short of the anomaly. The hilltop’s bald granite, so it should be clear of local bugs.”
Desmond, like every soldier in the teams, wore multiple hats. He had just changed hats from sensor specialist to senior noncommissioned officer. Therefore, he was commenting on enemy situation. Though on Dead End the enemy was no army, it was the world itself.
Otman traced a finger across his vehicle’s flat screen map display, tapped an oval of enclosed contour lines. “Top elevation six twenty-six?”
“That’s it, sir.”
Otman eyed the flatscreen map again, then peered at the darkening sky. Why blunder up onto this unknown object at dark? Desmond, like any good senior noncommissioned officer, was suggesting to his commissioned commanding officer, without suggesting, that they halt short of the anomaly. That would place them on a defensible terrain feature, with daylight left to emplace perimeter sensors and point-defense weapons. It would create a night defensive position impenetrable by Dead End’s predators.
Otman nodded and thumbed his handtalk. “Nice catch, Sarge. We’ll laager up there for the night.”
Four hours later, Otman stood behind his team, while they sat, backs to him, in a semicircle on the bald granite summit. The laager position they occupied provided unobstructed fields of observation and fire. Better, three of its sides were hundred-foot cliffs that Otman doubted even the local monsters could scale. The summit was clean of vegetation and the dangerous local pests that sheltered in it. A nice catch by Desmond, indeed.
The team sat cross-legged, eating chow and cleaning weapons. Desmond stood at the semicircle’s center point, facing Otman and the men, displaying images on a flatscreen. For this hastily assembled mission, the ‘puter to which the screen was hardwired carried virtually all the mission-specific information about this world. Desmond was now transferring the dope to the team on the fly.
Otman, himself, had known so little about DE 476 that he had purchased a paper local guide when they arrived at the landing strip that passed for a spaceport. He had yet to open the book.
Desmond scratched his gray-fuzzed temple as a bright yellow, fanged spider filled the screen. “The locals call this here a Lemon Bug. Twelve inches across. Habitat you-bick-wit-us. They look mean, but for this ecosystem, they’re pussies.”
Cassel, the Medic and Grenadier, raised a hand. “Poisonous?”
Desmond shook his head. “This thing’s bite’ll kill a six ton local grazing animal in thirty seconds. But our biochemistry’s different. Humans just swell up, and puke for two days.”
Cassel, who was also the team newbie, cocked his head at Desmond, half smiled. “All the bugs here that friendly, Sarge?”
“Nope.” Desmond popped a new image. This showed a black bug the length and diameter of a flaccid penis. “Local name, Dick Bug. These aren’t passive.”
“Neither’s mine.” An anonymous comedian.
Desmond waited, stone faced, for quiet. After Rodric, he had been the team’s most senior, and avuncular, noncom. Now he was the acting top kick. “This is the only bug on Dead End that’ll kill a human. The sting feels like injected fire, and you die screamin’ in ninety seconds. There’s no known antidote.”
Somebody’s boot scraped granite as he squirmed. “Great. Those ubiquitous too, Sarge?”
Desmond swung his hand at the barren plateau. “That’s one reason the Captain picked this laager. Dick Bugs don’t like high ground, rock and open space.”
Otman smiled. Desmond had picked this position. But loyal, self-effacing Desmond wouldn’t accept credit in front of the men, even if Otman tried to acknowledge him.
Cassel scowled. “What about the grezzen, Sarge?”
Several grumbles of agreement.
Desmond scowled the school master’s stone face, again. “Keep your diapers on. There’s, like, eleven animals in the food chain before this briefing gets to the top predator. The little one gets chased by the big one what gets chased by the bigger one. Like from you maggots up to me.”
Otman smiled in the darkness. He felt like he could hear nine pairs of young eyes roll. Despite the kids’ reaction, the human glue that held a merc team - held any tactical-sized infantry unit - together was that every man in the team knew every other man completely, down to the way each rolled his eyes. And every one would lay down his life for the other. Not for flags or against tyrants, but because each man absolutely trusted that his buddy would do the same for him.
Only when the last man had finished chow did Otman crack his own ration. Simultaneously, Desmond’s brief got to Dead End’s top predators, the grezzen.
Each previous species that Desmond had profiled had been bigger, stronger, faster, and meaner than the last. The grezzen, however, were in a figurative and literal class by themselves.
Mature, male grezzen resembled, and had been named by the first Trueborn colonists for, a hirsute Earth carnivore called a grizzly. But while Trueborns had occasionally trained grizzlies, no one had ever “trained” a grezzen. At least, no one had survived and told about it. Absent empirical data, it was assumed that grezzen were roughly as intelligent as grizzlies, capable of rolling a large ball or walking on hind legs if stimulated by an appropriate reward. Which was more intelligence than they needed, given their physical gifts.
When Desmond finally put up a grezzen image, someone puckered a low whistle. Grezzen were ten times larger than grizzlies, eleven tons of six-legged muscle. Their carbon-12 based skeleton and integument allowed them to be disproportionately stronger, faster and more durable than species indigenous to normal Earthlike ecosystems. And they looked the part of top predator in hell, with three red eyes arrayed across a flat face, and tusks that curved down from their upper jaws like ebony scimitars.
According to Dead End’s fossil record, the grezzen hadn’t changed in thirty million years. Why would they? They perfectly dominated this world. And dominated the only offworld species who had challenged them for it. Dumb brutes that they were, grezzen had somehow, nevertheless, exterminated the first two Trueborn colonial expeditions. The grezzen had also slaughtered the reinforced Legion battalion that was sent along to protect the colonists of the second expedition. If the third expedition had failed, the Trueborns had planned to carpet bomb the place from orbit. But the current tiny colony had survived the subsequent decades, albeit by cowering behind minefields that discouraged the brutes, as well as the rest of Dead End’s unfriendly population.
Desmond finished his brief, repacked the background data ‘puter and simultaneously assigned the night watch schedule. Then he stomped the hilltop’s crevassed granite with a boot. “Long as the watch stays awake, the sensors and rover mines will keep all the big predators out. You can sleep outside instead of in the vehicles ‘cause the Dick Bugs don’t like it up here.”
Desmond’s offer brought smiles. Most Yavi preferred enclosed spaces, but the vehicle interiors were ovens, especially when left idling, as they would be to power the sensor and weapon arrays.
Otman laid out his own bedsack on the smooth-worn rock, trusted the watch to do its job, and fell into exhausted sleep after counting back just six digits.
Screams woke him in the darkness. He sat up, still inside his bedsack, and saw a running silhouette, arms flailing as though on fire. The man leapt into the third vehicle. The Bush Cat rocked as the man thrashed inside.
Otman heard the emergency brake release, then the vehicle rolled slowly forward, away from him.
Otman tore free of his bedsack, groped for his night snoops, couldn’t find them. He stumbled half-blind toward the vehicle, buckling on his sidearm.
In the darkness, others ran, some also flailing like the man in the vehicle.
The Bush Cat lurched along the plateau, then toppled off its edge.
By the time Otman reached and peered over the cliff, the ‘Cat rocked, inverted, on the scree below. Metal groaned and echoed, then the wreck burst into flame.
Otman staggered back, crushed something with his bare heel, and looked down.
A dead Dick Bug. He shuddered. A second bug was already squirming out of an inch-wide joint in the weathered granite. Otman drew his sidearm, reversed it, and hammered the bug with the pistol’s butt. Then another, and another. He looked around. The black nightmares covered the pale granite like writhing pepper.
Twenty minutes later, someone had thought to douse the rock with spare vehicle fuel, light it, and sear a safe zone around the remaining two vehicles.
Otman sat with his seven men on the hoods of the two Bush Cats, breathing in the mixed stench of burned kerosene and immolated bugs.
A soldier stared at Desmond. “You said this place had no bugs.”
Desmond, hollow eyed, shook his head. “The ‘puter said it.”
“The cracks were full of ‘em.”
Otman knit his brows, said to Desmond, “Let’s take another look at that ‘puter.”
Desmond nodded at the black smoke that still drifted up from the wreck. “It was in that ‘Cat.”
The eight survivors spent the next hours huddled atop the ‘Cats like castaways aboard flotsam. Most dozed. Otman couldn’t. All told, four dead. Over the years his units had taken casualties, and every one still pained him. But nothing compared to this debacle. How? Why?
Otman stared at Desmond, who lay on his back on the other ‘Cat’s rear cargo rack, staring up at the darkness. Otman had never known Desmond to misread a map coordinate, a warning order paragraph, or even a soldier’s name when distributing bonus vouchers. If Desmond hadn’t erred, then what had happened?
Perhaps local predators had driven the bugs into this non-normal habitat. As Desmond had said, the little ones get chased by the bigger ones, and so on. But that would have been a coincidence, and Otman still didn’t believe in coincidence.
So what else could have happened? Otman’s year of mole hunting had taught him how easily a ‘puter entry could be overwritten. It would’ve been simple. Reverse the habitat preferences of Dick Bugs.
Cold grew in the pit of Otman’s stomach. Something on this carnivorous planet was eating his team. Was that something eating from the inside out? Had the Trueborns planted a mole in his team? Plenty of Trueborn zealots would sacrifice their own lives to sabotage an elite Yavi covert team.
Otman frowned at the two bodies that lay bagged alongside the opposite Bush Cat. If there was a mole among them, who was it? Cassel was the newbie. The man Otman knew least. And as the medic, Cassel had accessed the tech ‘puter day in and day out, studying the medical idiosyncracies of this hellhole.
Otman turned onto his side, gazed at Cassel. The kid slept, his face hairless and placid. What better disguise than youthful innocence?
By dawn, the Dick Bugs had vanished, though they were not supposed to be nocturnal. Nor did the crevasses display any evidence that bugs, or anything else, made a home on this rocky tombstone of a hilltop.
Otman had been too exhausted, too stunned, too pressed by yet another fleeting headache, to think of the casualties until Desmond reminded him.
Two soldiers rappelled down to the wreck and roped up their comrade’s remains. The team cremated the three bodies, consecrated the ash, and were off the knob’s sloping back side and on track again before the gray sky was fully light.
The two remaining vehicles made good time, because the six-legged, six-ton grazers who rumbled across the planet in herds of twenty thousand had recently denuded the area. The grazing herd, which the team’s route skirted, was barely visible in the distance, a vast, serene brown line on the horizon.
That morning Otman had placed himself in the lead vehicle, along with only the magnetometer itself and the Bush Cat’s driver. One way to thwart a mole, if there was one, was to deny him information about the team’s next move.
So Otman himself first spotted the objective. The grazers had so recently passed through that the normally green, overgrown landscape was brown stubble.
The “object” proved to be many objects. The largest mass was an unremarkable cargo truck-sized habitat box, a “sleeper,” surrounded by empty food and fuel containers and vehicle spares. The durable effluvia of a long-abandoned campsite.
The trailing Bush Cat stopped fifty yards short of the anticlimactic objective, to repair a damaged road wheel before it stalled the vehicle altogether.
Otman dismounted the lead vehicle into thick mid morning heat heavy with insect drone, and Desmond walked forward from the following vehicle.
Otman kicked a rusted, empty cartridge box, looked around, hands on hips.
Desmond swore. “Captain, this crap’s been here for years. Some Trueborn’s idea of a safari. Gone wrong.”
Not, Otman thought, as wrong as his own safari had gone already. He stared down at his hands. Normally steady, they twitched, and as he stared he realized that his right eye had begun to twitch. He pressed his eyelid with a fingertip, to still it.
Otman snapped his head up. Desmond was staring at him.
“Captain? You okay?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Desmond drew back. “Nothin’, sir. You just seem a little, I dunno...”
Otman didn’t know, either. He knew that he disrespected officers who failed to focus on the mission. Who blundered. Who failed to protect their men. Now, for the first time in his career, he was such an officer. Guilt. Shame. These were emotions unfamiliar to him.
Otman breathed deep, refocused on the reality in front of him. The “sleeper’s,” corroded shell lay flattened, and scars in the soil revealed how it had been tossed and dragged first in one direction, then another, like a paper scrap, as the herds had grazed, then regrazed the spot over the years.
Desmond pointed at the scars. “This thing was prob’ly whole when the Trueborns abandoned it. Woog herds only regraze an area after it regrows. Two year intervals.”
Otman ground his teeth. This junk heap had nothing to do with a recently-missing C-drive starship. A dead end on Dead End. So far he had accomplished nothing except to get four good men killed. Now what?
The Bush Cat’s driver lowered his window. “Captain? Sarge? You feel that?”
Otman’s boot soles vibrated.
The vibration grew until the thatch on the ground twitched.
The driver wrinkled his forehead. “Could it be those woogs we passed?”
“Maybe.” Desmond shook his head. “But they won’t come this way.” He pointed at the barren ground. “No chow left.”
Thunder rumbled. The driver frowned. “Well, something’s gainin’ on us.”
Now a thin brown line showed in the distance. A dust cloud boiled, like a tank division at full gas. If the woogs were, for some reason, inbound, they would be lumbering no faster than a soldier could route march.
Otman blinked, and in that instant the brown cloud seemed closer.
He remounted the lead ‘Cat while he called to Desmond. “I don’t like this. Get back to your vehicle, Sergeant.”
Desmond was already on his way at the dead run, shouting to the crew, who remained clustered around the damaged wheel.
Otman tugged optical binoculars from the Bush Cat’s utility bin and cursed the cover story that denied them the body armor and optics of contemporary battle dress.
He focused on the herd. Even at this distance, the animals loomed as big as Earth elephants, but with corkscrew antlers and six legs.
They weren’t grazing. They galloped, crashing into one another in panic and disarray. Leading animals at the front stumbled, fell, then disappeared in the dust as those behind overran them.
Otman turned to his driver. “It’s a stampede. Get us out of here!”
Gears ground, and the Bush Cat lurched forward.
Thirty seconds later, the vehicle slowed so violently that Otman’s head struck the dash. “What the hell?”
The driver was staring at his rear view.
Otman frowned. “Floor it!”
“Sir? The others can’t keep up.”
Otman twisted in his seat and peered out across the rear rack. A six wheel could easily move on five, but the trail vehicle limped along, now a hundred yards behind them. It tilted on five wheels, its detached sixth lashed to its roof.
Already the stampede, its front now stretched across their left and right rear as far as could be seen in the dust, had closed to within one hundred yards of the trailing ‘Cat.
Within seconds, the stampede would swallow the crippled ‘Cat and flatten it beneath a hundred thousand hooves.
Otman shouted to his driver, “Stop! When they catch up, we’ll take ‘em aboard.”
Otman snatched a Trueborn big game rifle from the ‘Cat’s dashboard rack. He had seen a Trueborn cowboy holo once where a stampede was split by killing a lead animal.
He stood, head and shoulders out the roof hatch, turned and faced the stampede. Vibration shook the three ton Bush Cat on its suspension, now, and made aim impossible. But the vast target made aim unnecessary. Otman emptied the rifle into the herd, then groped for another magazine.
He reloaded, fired again. His shots no more slowed the stampede than thrown pebbles slowed a tidal wave.
The herd was fifty yards behind the trailing Bush Cat when the ‘Cat stopped dead, belching black smoke. Men spilled from the vehicle’s doors and ran, hopelessly slowly, toward the lead vehicle’s dubious sanctuary.
A lone figure scrambled out through the crippled machine’s roof hatch, a stubby grenade launcher in hand.
Cassel, the newbie kid, the putative mole, and the team’s grenadier, straddled the road wheel lashed to the ‘Cat’s roof, planted his feet, and fired into the stampede’s center.
A heartbeat later, the herd surged across the motionless ‘Cat like a wave across a stone. Cassel and the ‘Cat cartwheeled through the air in opposite directions, then vanished into the dust.
The lead animals, wild eyed, mouths agape, overtook and trampled the men running from the demolished Bush Cat.
In two heartbeats, the wave would crush the lead ‘Cat, too.
Otman aimed his sidearm at the herd, then braced his free hand on the roof against the final impact.
The delayed detonation of the grenade that Cassel had fired was muffled by the bulk of the bull woog that he had shot. The bull belched blood, stumbled, and fell a yard short of the lead ‘Cat, so close that an antler tip exploded through the Bush Cat’s rear window, and skewered the driver’s chest.
The herd divided, infinitesimally, around the fallen bull. Passing animals pummeled the ‘Cats flanks as they passed, so close that the smell and heat engulfed Otman, and woog hide scraped his shoulder.
Then the animals were gone. The thunder receded.
Someone moaned, then stopped.
Otman lowered himself back down into the ‘Cat’s passenger compartment, arms aquiver. The dead driver’s blood pattered the compartment’s floor. Nothing to be done there. Otman staggered out, then limped toward the wrecked ‘Cat. Between the two vehicles he found the others, trampled, twisted, dead to a man.
When he reached the crumple that had been the other Bush Cat, bleeding fuel, five wheels to the sky, he whispered a curse.
“Captain? Izzat you?” It was Desmond, pinned, but protected, beneath the twisted wreck.
Otman didn’t even answer, just nodded.
As the ranking man in the trailing Bush Cat, Desmond had waited for the last man, Cassel, to exit the disabled vehicle before he fled himself. Ironically, Desmond’s selflessness in going down with the ship had saved his life.
Otman knelt and asked, “How you doing, Sarge?”
Desmond coughed blood. “Been better, sir.”
Otman flattened himself belly down and peered beneath the wreck. Desmond wasn’t impaled. Otman had seen enough casualties to triage this as broken ribs, one of which had likely punctured a lung. “Better still if I can get this thing off you.”
Otman retrieved the intact ‘Cat’s Meds kit and sedated Desmond, then set a canteen where the man could reach it and returned to the operable Bush Cat.
It took Otman twenty minutes to remove the driver’s body from behind the lead Bush Cat’s wheel. First he had to cut the woog’s antler with a hand saw, then rend the antler’s tip from the driver’s back. The dead man’s blood had spilled out of the vast wound, coursed down the antler tip, and covered Otman’s hands.
At last Otman turned the ‘Cat around, rigged its winch cable and shifted the wreck. Once Otman had dragged half-conscious Desmond out from beneath the wreck he inspected him for other injuries. Then he turned Desmond on his side to drain the oral bleeding, and covered the injured man with a blanket to mitigate shock.
Then Otman, dazed by the enormity of the calamity, leaned against the intact Bush Cat’s fender. He stared down at his hands and tried to scrub the blood from them. Blood that his leadership, or lack thereof, had spilled.
Cassel the newbie a mole? Hardly. The kid had sacrificed himself to save his buddies, in the best tradition of the teams. So why, how, had this latest and most total disaster been visited on them?
Otman felt himself all over, and shame rushed hot to his cheeks. He wasn’t even scratched.
His fingers touched something hard, rectangular, in his fatigues’ breast pocket. Otman tugged out the forgotten tourist guide he had bought at the spaceport a million years ago.
Otman thumbed to the wildlife section. He skipped past the supposedly omnipotent grezzen, of which species not a hair had been seen, to the woogs. Woogs stampeded at the scent of predators. Stripers, the six legged tyrannosaurs that preyed on woogs, were attracted to, naturally enough, woogs. But they were also attracted to fire, kindled on this planet by lightning strikes, because animals slain by the resultant blaze often provided an easy meal.
Otman narrowed his eyes. A mole bent on sabotaging this mission couldn’t imitate a striper’s scent to force a stampede. But a mole could create a fire, and attract a striper, and achieve the same result.
Otman stared at Desmond, who lay with his eyes closed amid the dust-painted stubble the woogs left behind. Atop the granite hill, it had been Desmond who had reminded Otman about the dead. Which had led to the fire. Which had attracted a striper. Which had caused the stampede.
More than that, Rodric’s death had conveniently breveted Desmond to the team’s top kick, a promotion that had positioned him to recommend the night in the poison bug nest. And Desmond had no need to tamper with the ‘puter. He simply had to lie about what the ‘puter said.
Of all the men on this team, Desmond, decorated, plain spoken, loyal old Desmond was the least likely candidate for a mole. And so who better?
Enough of this! Otman still had a mission. Indeed, now the mission was all he had, all that kept him from sliding away from sanity. He set his suspicions aside, leaned in to the Bush Cat’s cab, and thumbed on the magnetometer.
His heart leapt. From this new vantage, a new magnetic anomaly had become visible. It glowed onscreen, seven miles away, nestled in a steep sided valley. The Trueborns’ lousier sensors would have missed it. More importantly, the mag computed the anomaly’s mass at thirty-five tons. But hadn’t Desmond said that the mag’s mass function had been porked?
“Captain?” Desmond whispered through bloody lips.
Otman thumbed the magnetometer screen black.
Desmond coughed. “Sir, I’m afraid I can’t be much help with the men.”
Otman stiffened. “You’re suggesting another fire, Sergeant?”
Desmond gathered a shallow breath. “Can’t just leave ‘em, Sir.” The sergeant stared up at Otman. “Sir, it wasn’t your fault. None of it.”
Otman smiled. “Oh, I know that sergeant. I know that quite well.”
“Sir? I mean, you been acting, well...”
“First I’ll police up the bodies, Sergeant Desmond. Then we’ll discuss it.”
Desmond tried to straighten to acknowledge the order, grimaced. “Yes, sir. As you say, sir.”
Even using the winch, it took two hours to gather the bodies.
Otman, sweat soaking his fatigues, stood panting alongside the rank of corpses.
Desmond inclined his head toward the canteen Otman had left him. “Drink, sir?”
Otman cocked his head. “A toast, Desmond?”
“To the success of your mission.” Otman knelt alongside the open Meds kit, and tugged out a field dressing.
Desmond squinted. “Sir, I -”
Otman peeled open the dressing pack. “What did they offer you, Desmond? When did you go over? Or were you Trueborn from the beginning, and planted?”
Desmond shook his head, slowly. “Captain, I don’t know what you’re thinking. Sir, I seen stress casualties before. You’re just, uh, troubled by the losses. And you blame yourself.”
Otman knelt beside the wounded man. “I blame you, Desmond. I don’t know how you got Rodric to drop his guard when he was reconning our route. But I know how you whittled us down, one ‘coincidence,’ one bit of ‘bad luck,’ at a time.”
Desmond kept shaking his head. “Sir, those things just happened. What you got’s called traumatic combat paranoia. It’s temporary. Let’s get you calmed down. Then we’ll continue the mission. The two of us.”
“The two of us? You think I’ll give you another chance to turn this world against me?”
Desmond, pointed a quivering finger at the open Meds kit. “There’s sedatives in there, sir.”
Otman reached down, turned Desmond onto his back, then pressed the field dressing over Desmond’s face, covering his nose and mouth. The older man stiffened, screamed behind the wadded gauze.
Desmond’s eyes bulged, he kicked both legs, and he tore at Otman’s forearms with both hands.
Otman shifted his weight, bore down, and forced the dressing against the wounded man’s nose and lips.
Desmond’s struggles weakened.
Otman stared into the traitor’s eyes. “Staff Sergeant Terrelle Desmond, as the ranking officer of this duly licensed contractor to the armed forces of Yavet, I have, upon due and diligent investigation, found you guilty of espionage and high treason. Wherefore I have sentenced you to summary field execution.”
Desmond stared up at Otman, eyes bulging, and shook his head, mute.
Otman glared down, kept the pressure on, until, finally, the mole choked on his own blood, and his body relaxed.
Otman didn’t cremate Desmond, or the rest of the team. Fool me once... He left the dead where they lay, to keep the predators busy, and so off his ass.
Then Otman drove the remaining Bush Cat off in search of thirty-five tons of metal.
By the time the ‘Cat lurched around the tight valley’s last bend, twilight shrouded it. But Otman’s heart skipped when he saw the object. Sleek as an ebony teardrop, half obscured beneath a ledge, the crashed star fighter lay on its side like a beached fish.
Otman stopped alongside the wreck, then paused with his hands on the wheel.
The self-righteous Trueborns fancied themselves guardians of peace, but fought one another so frequently that they gave wars numbers as well as names. So far, they had dominated Cold War II. Not because they were actually righteous, nor peaceful, but because they alone possessed C-Drive, the key to interstellar travel. But it was a key they hadn’t earned. They had just stolen C-drive from an alien race, then exterminated them.
Otman smiled. He was about to break the Trueborn monopoly.
He clambered up onto the Scorpion, then ran his hands along the fuselage until he found the latch to C-drive unit’s access panel. The unit inside, just as the tech briefers had predicted, was a stripped, shrunken version of a cruiser’s drive. It was so compact that the Bush Cat’s winch could pull it like a bad tooth. Then Otman would drive it back to the colony, conceal it in a crate that had contained camera equipment, and smuggle it off planet under the Trueborns’ upthrust noses.
He returned to the Bush Cat, bent and grasped the front winch cable in both hands. They were still bloodstained. But the stain was really on the Trueborn’s mole. Otman had defeated him, had defeated them, though at a terrible price.
And then Otman felt the allergy headache again, more intensely. He realized this time that it was not a headache. It was a probing. An inquiry. Otman had felt it first before he had sent Rodric out to recon the route, and again and again since.
He turned and stared back down the valley, in the direction he had come. Nothing. The valley’s head was also empty.
Otman lifted his gaze, and recoiled.
Twenty feet away, across the star ship’s hull, a great beast glared at him. Three red eyes glinted with more intelligence than a simple predator’s. The grezzen didn’t growl, didn’t move. But Otman felt it, he realized now, time and again.
And then it all became clear.
Grezzen so dominated this ecosystem and its lesser prey because they, for want of a better term, read minds.
That was why they had so easily exterminated trained and well equipped human troops. But when their probing revealed that the vaster human species had both the will and the means to exterminate them, they had feigned simplicity. They had tolerated and contained on their world a tiny human presence.
The grezzen cared less about Cold Wars, or about intrahuman affairs of any sort. But Otman had contemplated invading, however slightly, their world, and the grezzen cared about that a great deal. And so they had set out to destroy him, without revealing or exposing their true nature.
The grezzen knew where and when to flush a predator that would kill Rodric because Otman himself had revealed both Rodric’s location and his vulnerability. Similarly, they had forced an unexpected army of deadly insects into a place where Otman would not expect them, because he had revealed his plans to them. They had stampeded woogs to a place where, again, Otman would not expect to find them, because he told them. The mole in Otman’s team was Otman, himself. That was bad enough.
But Desmond’s death? That had not been the grezzen’s work. It had been the work of Otman, himself, of his suspicion, paranoia, and hubris. Or his madness. By any name, it could not excuse the monstrous horror that Otman had committed.
Across from him, the grezzen gathered itself like a tusked cat and rumbled a growl. Otman drew his revolver and cocked the hammer. But victory was impossible. And living with himself after what he had done unimaginable.
Otman sentenced himself, pressed the revolver’s muzzle to his temple and squeezed the trigger.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Buettner
Buy Robert Buettner's latest eBook Undercurrents here.