The Fiercest Creature on Altair

© David Massey

Altair: Biggs Colony Orbital

THE RAIN THUNDERED DOWN in deafening sheets, bouncing off the tree tops and percolating through the thickly matted vegetation onto the land below. As the small party hacked and cut its way through the dense jungle growth, they cursed the weather and the continual damp. Their clothes and equipment were soaked through, not from the violence of the storm above, but from their own sweat and the heavy mist which rose from the thick earth beneath their feet.

Except for Grossman, each one felt heavy and cumbersome, ill adjusted to the high gravity of Biggs Colony. The chirruping squeals of native birds and insects filled the air, competing with the drumming rain and drowning out all hope of conversation amongst the five humans. The woman at the head of the trail finally gave up and raised a hand, hastily dropping it as she brushed a vine frond. She glanced at the offending plant and, having verified that it was not one of the many poisonous varieties, she raised her arm again to signal a rest.

The others in the group carefully inspected the ground around them and settled to the floor wherever they felt safe. All except Helmut, who simply dropped to the ground and lay there, panting.

"You! Boy! Get up and pitch a tent! Don't dawdle!" Colonel Griddley barked at the young man, who sullenly rose from the dirt, unshouldered an enormous backpack and started slashing at the nearby undergrowth with a machete. Griddley allowed himself a grin. The youngster would probably be fine in a few more trips time. At the moment he was resentful. but most new slaves were. In a short while he would come to know the routine and accept it.

The others lounged about, sweating in the damp heat of the jungle, keeping a wary eye out for the insidious creeping vines of the planet. They waited with varying degrees of patience for Helmut to finish the simple shelter, but none moved to help him. They all regarded the menial work as beneath them. They had other things to concentrate on.

Angela Bhramanatha was nominally the leader of the group, though she, like all the others, acknowledged the Colonel's greater experience in the field. She was the one paying for this expedition and she felt responsible for the group. She was also the one who could lose the most if they failed to make some good catches. Getting trapping permits from the Reaganville authorities had taken some string-pulling and some unusual favours. She didn't want all that time and effort to be wasted.

Angela had picked her team as carefully as she could. Helmut came with the Colonel, and although she was not as happy with slavery as Griddley obviously was, all the papers were legal and certified by the appropriate Empire vassals. It was useful to have someone around who obeyed orders and could do the hard work, even though he did seem very young. She unconsciously swatted at a bug as it brushed against her cheek and just caught herself in time. There were a lot of dangerous flying, creeping and crawling beasts - even plants - on this world, but often they posed no threat while they were alive. The venom of nearly every insect was poisonous. but most stung only when they were attacked. The normal Earth-bom reaction to brush away an insect was exactly the wrong thing to do on Biggs Colony.

She glanced across at Benjaminn Grossman, the only local in the party, and hired as a guide. He seemed calm and collected in the jungle, barely sweating and simply leaving the bugs to crawl over his face and clothes. They rarely bit humans. Something in the sweat told them that the off-world flesh and blood was no good to them. Although there was a great deal of things on the world which were dangerous to humanity, there was nothing more poisonous to the indigenous creatures than a good mouthful of Earth-stock protein.

She knew that Benjaminn was actually a common or garden farmer on this world, from one of the enormous plantations, probably. The authorities had advertised on her behalf and she had no option but to accept whoever they assigned to her. Luckily he had turned out to be a competent guide and ushered them through the jungle with reliable ease. Once or twice they would probably have fallen foul of the native vegetation if it hadn't been for Benjaminn's timely advice. He was also a reasonable tracker, though not up to the Colonel's standard. Already they had bagged three igaunalads and a Finlay beast, now safely returned to the marshalling compound ready for shipment to Tau Ceti where a wealthy client was waiting.

Grossman looked up at her from his slumped position against a gnarla tree and smiled a knowing smile. Sometimes he made her a little uneasy, but she couldn't tell why. With his gaze on her, Angela had to turn away. She saw the Colonel leaning forward to light his pipe with a sparker and almost laughed out loud. The Colonel was a fabulous anachronism. Every inch of his frame exuded a military finesse from a bygone day. He even sported ridiculous beige garments cut in incredibly ancient mode. The pipe fitted the image to perfection.

He had been a lucky catch. She had advertised for a senior hunter and he had, according to her sources, called off a hunt on a close-by world to have a crack at the natives of Altair. She knew that he lived for hunting, and that obtaining licences for Altair was a rare privilege indeed, but she was flattered that Maxwell Griddley had decided to come along. She had not expected the slave, nor Griddley's gun boy, but they had simply finished off the party, and three were almost as cheap to feed and house as two.

The fifth member of the group was Griddley's gun boy. Walter M'banwe, entrusted to looking after the weapons and vid gear of the hunters. M'banwe had three diplomas from the technical universities in the Federation so he was well qualified to care for the sophisticated equipment which provided the back-up to this venture. She had been unsure of having the cameras along on the trip, but the Colonel had assured her that the vid rights to the expedition would probably earn more than the catch. It had taken a couple of days, but now she hardly noticed the unobtrusive vid spheres floating along with them to the sides and rear. Certainly there was no way the quiet humming of their motors would disturb the prey, not with all the hubbub generated by the jungle and the continual rain.

"What do you think Colonel?" she shouted over the thunderous rain. "Is there any point in pressing on today, or should this be a real camp? How about you Benjaminn?"

Grossman pointed to his ear to indicate that he hadn't heard and Angela shouted the message again. Benjaminn shrugged his indifference but Griddley took his pipe from his mouth and shook his head in denial.

"No, there's still two hours of good light left. We'll rest for a half hour then press on. This looks like a good trail we're following, I don't want to lose it in the dark."

"Bloody fool should have brought night-vision goggles," muttered M'banwe, while arranging his remote pick ups to give the best coverage of this impromptu camp. You could never tell when some unlikely incident would appear and make good vid fodder, and he was too experienced to let an opportunity slip by.

"Hey, boy!" Griddley's commanding tones rang out again. "Try and collect some fresh water. And don't forget the cleansing tablets this time!" He nodded to himself in satisfaction as the young lad found the plastic sacks with a minimum of fuss and hooked them up correctly in the low branches. The lad was a quick learner and responded well to rewards, he'd make a good hunter.

"Better take your salt tablets, everyone," he called out, and took one himself to illustrate the point. The heat and humidity of the jungle could sap a person's strength, but worse was losing the vital minerals and salts through sweating. Native life was low in several important minerals for humans, and all the locals regularly took supplements to keep healthy. Going into the deep jungle meant keeping well supplied with anything the local fauna could not provide.

Griddley was enjoying himself hugely. He stroked his greying beard thoughtfully as he contemplated the rest of the day's hunt. He had been discussing things with Benjaminn and was pretty sure that they would track down the beffix that evening. With the other animals caught, there only remained one or two of the birds to bag then their quota was full. Although he would work at a variety of occupations, he was most comfortable with the big game hunter persona. The persona of Maxwell Griddley had served him well over the years. His military rank, entirely spurious, had increased over the years, to match his age. He now called himself a Colonel and carried himself with the appropriate commanding air. No-one seemed to question his credentials and it got him access to some lovely jobs and an interesting set of contacts.

Not that he didn't take his hunting seriously, and he was very good at it as well. When he added it up, about half his time was spent trading in animals of one sort or another. It was profitable and mostly legal. Certainly this trip was entirely above board. Angela had already sorted out a buyer for the animals before they had arrived at Biggs Colony; a wealthy banker who sponsored a zoo on Tau Ceti. Maxwell was pretty certain that Benjaminn was a stooge for the local government, making sure that all the animals tracked were caught live. It seemed strange to Griddley that trade in live animals was legal here, but export of skins was not. Maxwell Griddley rarely trusted men appointed by anyone in authority. In fact he rarely trusted authorities at all.

Helmut had finished the simple shelter and everyone huddled into it while the worst of the storm blew itself out. Griddley had developed a simple strategy for trapping with an inexperienced crew; take frequent short rests and never, ever show any impatience. If Angela was tired and needed a rest, then they could all take one. It was cramped inside the simple shelter, but it kept the rain and mist out. At least this break gave him a chance to smoke his pipe in comfort.

Helmut lay across the entrance to the tent. Somewhere along the line a slaver had taught him that a slave's life was the least important in a group like this. The idea brought a frown to the hunter's brow. He would have to improve the boy's self image in the next few years, or he wouldn't be as useful as he could be. At one point the questing tentacle of a local vine tried to probe through into the concentration of warmth in the shelter, but Helmut had seen it and reacted quickly with his machete. Griddley nodded to himself; the boy showed promise.

The rain lasted a further half hour then gradually petered out. The noise level reduced to the normal bedlam associated with the jungle and the group continued on its way. The mist rising from the jungle bed increased in thickness and odour as the normal stifling heat drove the moisture back into the air. A miasma of rotting vegetation and decaying animals filled the air, but the group had their filters in place and could ignore the stench. The Colonel tapped out his pipe on a nearby rock and announced that it was time to move off again.

Angela liked to feel that she was leader of the group and should decide when it was time to move off again, but she knew that it was the Colonel who really decided the path they were to follow. She looked on in bemused admiration as the hunter plodded around, peering into this and that thicket, probing at a vine or two and having muted conversations with Benjaminn. A couple of minutes of nosing about and the Colonel had re-affirmed his directions. Giving terse instructions to his slave and to M'banwe, he began hacking onward through the vegetation. To Angela, one direction looked exactly the same as any other, but she was sure that the native and her hunter knew their stuff, so she shrugged and followed on.

It was M'banwe who caught the first glimpse of the itorilleta. He was glancing at one of his many monitors, feeding back low grade pictures from one of the three floating vids. The sight stopped him dead in his tracks. He let out a low grunt of surprise and then a louder cough, trying to attract the others.

"Hey boss!" he called in as quiet a voice as he could manage. "I don't think you should go much further." M'banwe tried to keep his voice calm, but there was a slight stutter which instantly caught the hunter's attention. As he made to come back to the technician, M'banwe made quick gestures to stop him. He slowly and carefully slipped the monitor off his wrist and tossed it to Griddley who caught it deftly without seeming to move.

The careful movements of the two men had affected the rest of the group who all stood stock still. Griddley glanced at the small screen in his hand. He'd already guessed what was there but it was no comfort to see it confirmed on the monitor. The image was grainy and poor quality but there was no mistaking the shape which filled the picture. "Now this is what hunting is all about" he thought to himself.

Biggs Colony has more than its fair share of creatures inimical to mankind, but without doubt the most cunning was the itorilleta. Looking like a cross between a dinosaur, a spider and a scorpion of old Earth and crowned with a waving mass of sensitive tentacles. the twenty-metre tall beast stood across a faint trail. Just off the corner of the monitor screen, Griddley could see fronds of the jungle moving; some smaller animals were making their way along the faint trail, about to fall prey to the patiently waiting creature. Griddley had no doubts about who the intended prey were.

Angela stood stock still; something was worrying the Colonel and had truly put the frights into young M'banwe. Even as she watched, the hunter was motioning to his technician in an intricate series of gestures what he wanted. The young man slowly unbuckled his backpack and let it slide to the floor. Reaching into it, he drew out a machine which Angela first thought was an elaborate shoulder-mounted vid camera. It was only as M'banwe started to add the barrel section that she thought of it as a gun. She had not even known the Colonel carried such a weapon. She was sure it was not legal on this world. M'banwe reached into the pack a third time, bringing out a further barrel extension or some other device for the gun. to be joined by a fourth and finally a fifth element.

Benjaminn Grossman also looked surprised at the appearance of the artillery. He recognised it from his days as a conscript in the planetary expeditionary force. It was an infantry support weapon, more useful in stopping armoured vehicles than in bird hunting. Either the Colonel was over-reacting or they could be in real trouble. There was a quota on hunting native wildlife and one of his jobs was to make sure the quota was not exceeded, but he had a shrewd idea that this animal was not going to he taken alive.

The Colonel had the weapon now and was hefting it in his arms. He squared his shoulders under the gun and began to set off down the trail at a cautious pace. Helmut had been staring open-mouthed at the construction of the fire-arm, his eyes wide and his whole body tense. He needed no instructions to keep still. The jungle terrified him and he wished he were safely back on board the blue prince's ship where the only dangers were the slavers' whips and prods.

Only Benjaminn was looking in the boy's direction as Helmut's nerve broke. A convulsion ran through the young man's body and he released a wild scream before running off into the tangle of trees around them. Grossman dived towards the young slave's legs but missed and lay sprawled in the mud. There was a sudden thrashing in the jungle immediately in front of the group and eight legs the size of small trees brought the body of the itorilleta into view. The giant misshapen belly was fully ten metres off the ground, supported on limbs which looked spindly in comparison to the bulk above. The questing head peered myopically down at the jungle floor while the ring of sensory tentacles about its neck and head probed for the commotion.

Angela screamed and M'banwe ran at her, dragging her into the jungle on the opposite side to the slave. A thin tentacle, barely a decimetre in diameter, shot out from under the eye ring of the monster, spearing towards the disappearing boy. There was another scream and terrified shouts as Helmut was lifted from the floor of the jungle high into the air. He swept towards the creature's jaws, carried on two additional limbs which jutted from the body just behind the neck.

The Itorilleta grabs Helmut

A deafening roar filled the air from the centre of the path, as if a swarm of wasps from hell had risen into the sky. The noise temporarily overwhelmed that of the forest as a line of brilliant green pin-points seemed to flow along the length of the creature. Spouts of yellow blood sprayed from each bright spot as the Colonel directed his fire skilfully at the beast.

Roaring its agony, a strange ululation from the animal's twin mouths, the itorilleta turned to try and locate the source of its pain. Helmut was flung from the creature, falling away into the forest as the monster tried to combat the stream of explosive shells which were raining into its body. The creature reared up and with surprising agility span away to run into the jungle. The Colonel stood, buffeted by the recoil of his own gun, keeping the sights trained on the disappearing hindquarters of the animal.

Just as it was about to vanish into the dense jungle, he flicked a second trigger and there was a sharp report. An instant later there was a tremendous concussion as a grenade hammered into the back of the animal - and then it was gone, into the jungle. As Benjaminn and the others looked on, the Colonel kept up a constant fire, walking forward to follow the thrashing monster. With deliberate steps the Colonel increased his pace to a jog and advanced onward, a wild gleam in his eyes and a triumphant smile tugging at his lips.

The others picked themselves up from where each had fallen. They could hear the crashing in the trees around them as the wounded animal and its pursuer chased through the jungle. Flights of screeching birds and local insects fled into the air, out of the monster's path. M'banwe was first to recover and sent the two floaters still under his control scooting through the wreckage of trees after the beast. Benjaminn offered his arm to Angela and she struggled to her feet leaning heavily on the guide. The three looked at each other, bewildered and confused expressions flitting across their faces as they tried to take in what had happened. With one accord they set off after the Colonel and his prey.

They found him a quarter of an hour later, standing at the edge of a cleared space where the body of the itorilleta lay twitching in a pool of yellow blood. The jungle was quiet around them, silent except for a muted rattling sound. The noise was coming from the Colonel's gun which continued to try and fire, though its magazine was long emptied. The Colonel stood panting, gazing at the shattered body lying on the jungle floor. A shudder ran down his body, followed by a second and then a third, and he drew a deep breath into his lungs, letting it out as a long, low whistle.

"I don't think we'll be allowed to keep this one Angela," he commented as he turned away from his kill and back to the group. "Has anyone seen Helmut?" he asked.

There were guilty looks exchanged between the rest of the group as they realised that they had completely forgotten the young slave. M'banwe sent his camera floaters off to scour the jungle for signs of the boy. Angela dropped inelegantly to the floor and started applying a disinfectant cream to one of her legs which had been caught by a vine in the pursuit. M'banwe let out an exclamation and pointed to his screens, gesturing to Benjaminn. Helmut had been found, curled tightly into a foetal position on the floor of the jungle, hugging his knees to his chest.

"Here, take this." M'banwe thrust a small earpiece into the native's hand as the man started off into the trees.

"I can direct you from here," he explained. Grossman grinned at the technician and slipped the device into his ear, then trotted off into the jungle.

"We'd better move away from here, Angela. The local scavengers will get here soon and it's probably best to be somewhere else in case they start to fight." The Colonel was dismantling his gun and packing it away while M'banwe issued curt directions to Benjaminn. She nodded, and the three moved back down the trail of destruction left by the wounded itorilleta. M'banwe kept a continuous stream of talk with Grossman, keeping him informed of their relative positions, so that the native was able to rejoin the group when they returned to the crude shelter Helmut had made only an hour before.

That night the group was unusually quiet. The normal banter and chit-chat about the day's progress was missing from the conversation. Each member of the group was nursing some kind of wound, since in the hurried chase they had all sustained some injury. The Colonel was suffering from a bruised shoulder in particular, but of the five he was certainly the happiest. He sat at the edge of the shelter, peering into the moonless night sky. He sucked on his pipe and listened to the haunting cries of the night creatures.

He was aware of Helmut sliding close to him in the dark and turned to face the boy. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Don't send me away. Please don't send me away. I won't do it again." The pleading tone in the slave's voice grated on the Colonel's nerves, but he understood the cause.

"No, lad, I'll not send you away. You did well to come this far. A bit more seasoning and you'd take on that creature bare handed!"

Helmut looked at the floor, unconvinced by his master's good humour.

"No, I mean it lad. I paid good money for you and I made sure of you before I parted with the cash. I expected someone to break when you all realised what we had met. At least you ran away, instead of collapsing and gibbering at its feet. Without your distraction I might not have got such a clear shot.

"Anyway, it's all done now. You are patched up and the beast is dead. Tomorrow we'll head back to the kill. We should be able to pick up the rest of Angela's quota if we just wait by the body. I want you to get used to this sort of thing, so you don't pull a fool stunt like running away again. You can have first shot in the morning."

Helmut was confused by the Colonel's words. He had expected to be yelled at, possibly thrown out or sold on, but his master was giving him more responsibility not less. Perhaps this life of adventure and hunting would not be so formidable as it had once seemed. He crawled off to find a comfortable place to sleep, leaving the Colonel with his pipe and the night sky. He was determined to do better next time.

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