Alien safari, p.17
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       Alien Safari, p.17
 

           Robert Appleton
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  Chapter Ten

  He saw the flat-ship first, its empty open cockpit sinking into the lake, nose pointed to the sky. The infantile glugging noises and the pathetic fssshhh of escaping air just before it vanished didn’t do justice to a formidable Phi machine. It had given the vicar a run for its money, and now they were retiring together, at the end of a pursuit the likes of which Hesperidia had never seen.

  Jan stood up behind him, dug her fingers into his collarbone as she scanned the water for signs of Stopper. Her best friend in the world. On any world. The main reason she was still alive, still—

  “There! There he is!” She gave Vaughn’s sore triceps an almighty squeeze. “Can you see him? Swimming with Finnegan. He made it! Vaughn, he made it!”

  Good for old Stopper. And good for Finnegan too—the big merc had to have gone back to free the dog from its cage in the vicar’s hold. A definite point in his favor. How many in his position would have gone to such lengths to rescue a strange animal? Not many, Vaughn had to admit.

  Polotovsky trod water a short distance ahead, waiting for them to catch up. Meanwhile, two more men and a woman, who had to be the Phi pilots, were scrambling out onto a nearby island.

  “Time to switch places—I won’t be a minute.” Vaughn took the bike around the far side of the submerging vicar, then gave Jan the mask and his weapon. He wasted no time in sliding into the tepid water, where he palmed his way around the craft’s exterior before swimming into the open hold. It was dark inside. Gunmetal murky. A mausoleum of floating sundries, each item now the potential difference between life and death. But he only had time to retrieve two things: the emergency distress beacon—a small bronze cylinder clipped under the dash; and a spare mask from the rack at the rear of the cockpit. He’d seen Jan put the latter there. The former he’d clocked during his first outing in the vicar. Habit. Preparation was always key.

  Preparation, improvisation, resolve.

  The key tools of survival on any world.

  On the verge of his lungs exploding, he breached the water and slapped a fresh mask onto his face. Let the mould reshape to fit the features of a dying man. He flushed it with O2, then he inhaled. He didn’t want to stop. So he affixed the straps properly and just floated there on his back, grateful to have that choice: to be able to float, to exist.

  By the time he swam back to Jan and Bess the vicar had vanished into the depths, while all the other survivors were safely ashore, with the addition of several men gathered at the water’s edge. One wore short shorts, football socks, and had tanned, knobbly knees. Bilderbeck.

  The others were all armed.

  Those weapons were pointed in Vaughn’s direction. And with that implied threat came an indisputable one, yelled with uncharacteristic anger by one of ISPA’s foremost diplomats: “Get off the bike and swim ashore, or I put you both out of my misery. I’ll not tell you twice, Mr. Vaughn.”

  Saul DeSanto, formerly the greatest Omicron agent of his generation, was a diplomat no more.

  “Go ahead, shoot,” Vaughn shouted back. “You’ll destroy your own prize. What happens then?”

  “Have it your way. I can just as easily cripple you from the air without touching you or the bike. Think about it. Would you rather be stranded out here on your own? You’ll die of thirst or hunger, after which I get the Fleece. You might try to swim to the far shore with the Fleece, but you’ll only get so far, and I’ll inherit what’s mine. You might try to make a fight of it, but you’re massively outgunned, and I’ll still get the Fleece. Whatever happens, my young friend, I get the Fleece.”

  “Not if he destroys it first,” answered Jan. “A-ha. You didn’t think of that, did you, dickhead?”

  “Actually, that’s the first thing I considered. And you should know that Mr. Kalstrom here is a crack shot with his sniper rifle. He has it pointed straight at your unfortunate face, Ms. Corbija. If you should make a move other than to slide into the water, he will kill you. Did you hear that, Vaughn? Your lady friend dies unless you both swim over here immediately.”

  Vaughn tried to think outside the box, to a solution DeSanto would not expect. I could tear into an ascent, get the bike to rear up, block his shot. No, he’s too close, the bullet would hit Jan before I got enough lift. And they’d only follow us in the shuttle, drop an e-bomb near us, kill the bike permanently. What, then? Throw her into the water, hope he doesn’t fire in time? No, he’d only take her out while she was swimming...

  “Mr. Kalstrom, you have my permission—”

  “No!” Vaughn holstered his pistol. “You win, DeSanto. We’re coming.” In his pocket, he flicked the protective cap off the head of the emergency beacon, and twisted it a half-turn clockwise, activating it.

  Jan nudged him. “Vaughn?”

  “We’ve no choice, doc. He’s right. Whatever happens, we die, unless we go with him now.”

  “But he has to kill us now, don’t you get that? He can’t let us live. We know too much. We’ve seen too much.”

  “He’s conflicted.”

  “He was conflicted. Not any more.”

  “How do you know?” asked Vaughn.

  “I’ve got ears. And a bladder about to go ker-plooey.”

  “You’ll have to trust me. I’ve known him all my career. Is he capable of doing it? Yes. Would he hesitate before pulling the trigger on one of his own? I’m willing to stake my life on it. DeSanto bleeds Omicron. He might be an Omega big shot now, but I’m telling you, this, right here, is the last thing he wants. So stick by me and don’t do anything stupid, we might have a chance.”

  “What about Finnegan and Polotovsky?”

  Vaughn was silent.

  They slid into the water and swam together, not looking at who was aiming what at them from the shore.

  Bilderbeck, possibly the weediest-looking guy Vaughn had ever seen in the field, at least had manners. He fished Jan out of the water and escorted her away from the gun-toting officers, rubbing her arms to keep her warm. Meanwhile, the two fugitives were on their knees at gunpoint, hands clasped on the backs of their necks, watching Vaughn quizzically.

  So much for him helping them escape...

  But what else could I have done? We were always outgunned.

  While scrambling to his feet, Vaughn slid on the wet rock, cracked his knee. Kalstrom scoffed and kicked him in the gut while he was down. The sharp pain flailed from the point of impact, then spread like an acidic ink blot, blurring his vision.

  “Where’s your badge now, asshole?” The sonofabitch stepped on Vaughn’s hand with his heavy boot. He felt something crunch. Jesus, that hurt.

  “That’s enough,” said DeSanto. “Get him up, bring him to me.” The old man scanned the foggy island. “Over here.” He motioned to a dry, raised area away from the many rock pools. His shuttle, about three times the size of the vicar, stood on the far edge of the island, partially shrouded in mist, some fifteen meters behind where DeSanto stopped.

  Kalstrom took delight in frog-marching Vaughn to their senior officer. The Phi bastard kept slapping him upside the head when DeSanto wasn’t watching, and before he left, whispered in Vaughn’s ear, “When he’s done with you, you’re mine, chickenshit.”

  “That’ll do, Mr. Kalstrom,” said the old man.

  “Sir.”

  When Kalstrom had gone, DeSanto heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Sit down if you want, son. You’ve had a rough couple of days.”

  He’s expecting me to refuse, to tell him to piss off. Which is why I’m going to do the opposite. And keep doing it. Keep him on his toes.

  “Don’t mind if I do. You look like you could use a little rest there yourself, Saul.” The first time Vaughn had ever called him that.

  The old man surprised him in return by smiling, then joining him on the cool rock. “That’s better. Less formal.” Even though one of them held a gun on his lap. “I think it’s time we discussed this as old friends, don’t you? No badges, no titles, no bullshit. Tell me, what do you think I should d
o here.”

  Vaughn massaged his sore midriff. “Have a bite to eat, sir. Something quick, high energy. I’d recommend maximum blast setting, to the back of your throat. Make sure it leaves a mess. I’d hate for anyone to able to recognise you later.”

  DeSanto nodded slowly, held his unblinking poker stare on his opponent. “We have made rather a shit-swill of this thing, haven’t we.”

  “Sorry, was that a question?”

  “You see, I’d be more than happy to let you and your doctor friend go free...if I thought you could be trusted to keep the events of the last couple of days to yourselves. But a funny thing happens when you’re surrounded by Phi officers for any length of time. You start to think like one. And thinking like a Phi has made me realise—you can’t win a war without making sacrifices. Which brings me back to you and the good doctor. Hell, even the other doctor, Bildebug, or whoever he is. You’ve all three witnessed me bypassing the law here, just as you all three know full well that if I hadn’t done this, those laws probably wouldn’t survive another year. Not if we’re faced with a major invasion. War must bend laws in order to protect them, Vaughn. You know it’s right. If I’ve taught you anything, it’s to know when to make the big sacrifice...for the greater good. We’re none of us indispensible, not when billions of lives hang in the balance. But the Fleece is.”

  Vaughn shrugged.

  “I just can’t see why you’d want to oppose me on this.” The old man shook his head. “Have you learned nothing from me?”

  “No, sir. Not nothing.” And for the first time, Vaughn actually felt sympathy for his ageing mentor, who was clearly ambivalent about the choice before him, what his own crusade demanded he do next. “I just wish you’d learned from your own teachings, that’s all. The Omicron DeSanto would never have dreamed of bending laws for the greater good. A politician’s mind works that way, sir, but not a lawman’s. You say you can’t understand why I disagree with you, when everything you’ve ever taught me disagrees with you. You’re out on a limb, sir. And it’s not gonna hold. Even if you do get away with it this once, you’re going to keep on bending rules, breaking laws until there are none left. Then where will you be?”

  “That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

  “You authorized the sat net override, didn’t you—for Lewartow’s mercenaries? The Kingmaker had permission from the ground, but the Nina ship didn’t. It got through anyway. That could only have happened if someone with Omega clearance interfered with sat security protocols.”

  DeSanto was silent.

  “And you’ve also manipulated the incoming comms to Kraczinski’s office. First when you requested that he come here personally to handle the investigation, knowing what a plodder he is. That covered Dr. Corbija’s emergency call for assistance, and also lent the whole operation at least an appearance of legitimacy. But as soon as he’d have uploaded his descriptions of the five dead men to his office, and you’d seen that Finnegan and Polotovsky weren’t among them, your Phi team were on hand to move in and find them, or rule out their having survived the crash.

  “Then you’ve blocked all subsequent comms from this planet, including my requests for back-up. Again, to contain the operation, to prevent word from getting out. I’ll bet you almost had a stroke when I showed up on Iolchis. Did you sweat much, DeSanto? Wondering who I’d told, what I’d told.”

  “I suspected you’d stick your oar in where it wasn’t needed. With Mbowe, for instance...”

  Vaughn recalled the booby trap. His insides knotted with rage. “That was yours?”

  “No, lad. We had nothing to do with it. That was an inside job, a purely Iolchian affair.”

  “But you do see a pattern emerging here. Even you can’t miss it.”

  DeSanto fingered the grip of his weapon.

  “Sir, don’t go any further down this path. It’s not too late to turn back.”

  “What you say might have been true once, but—”

  “No buts about it, sir. We’re not Phi, we’re Omicron. And Omicron don’t frag each other in the field to save their own asses.”

  “You always were naive, Vaughn.”

  “Then take a leaf from my naivety, sir. Whatever you’ve lost, or mislaid along the way, re-learn from that goddamn book you helped write. For God’s sake, remember what the badge means. Remember what you swore to uphold. Leave the war to the machinery. The Fleece won’t save us. The only thing that will save us is what we already have and the Finaglers don’t.”

  “And what’s that?”

  Vaughn pointed across to Stopper, who was standing guard between his owner and the Phi men.

  DeSanto pulled his face. “A pet?”

  “An indescribable bond, sir. A GenMod canine and a traumatised woman with cybernetic reconstruction. They’re from different species, different worlds, they can’t communicate through language, they can’t even breathe the same air. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more devoted pair anywhere. It makes no sense. You couldn’t requisition it for a battle any more than you could requisition luck. They’d gladly die for each other, even though it doesn’t benefit either species in any way. That’s what the Finaglers are missing. They’re like a Darwinian swarm sweeping through the galaxy, obedient to their species’ innate urge to conquer. There’s nothing inexplicable there, nothing personal. No compassion driving them on. They’re billions of individuals fighting for the same cold, logical reason. But we’re fighting for billions of different, precious reasons, none of which matter to anyone except the individual fighting for it. That’s why we’ll win.”

  “Because it means more to us?”

  “It has to. We’re fighting for our homes and our loved ones. The Finaglers are fighting to expand their dominion; they want our planets, our resources.”

  “Right, but what has that got to do with us, here, now?”

  Vaughn slicked his wet hair back, to stop water streaming into his eyes. “Well, you can be a Finagler, sir, or you can do the right thing and allow us to respectfully disagree. We all have our own opinion on what should be done with the Fleece. And between us, we’ve fucked things up royally, haven’t we. So I say let the law decide. We all go to the bureau together, explain everything, hand this decision over to the smartest legal minds in the Core Congress. They might want to militarise it, they might not. But we should let democracy take it from here.”

  “More idealistic shit. You don’t fight a war democratically. You really have gone soft, lad.”

  “Does that mean you’ll execute us?” He stared hard at his mentor’s stolid, pensive expression. DeSanto gave nothing away as usual, but the very fact that he’d called Vaughn over for this private conference spelled out the mental war waging within him. Let them live and throw away his career, or kill them and try to win the war his way?

  Stopper howled on the water’s edge, then kicked into a running, bounding, snarling crazy zigzag around Jan, as if he knew the Phi men meant her imminent harm, as though he’d overheard DeSanto’s thoughts and feared what he was about to do.

  The old man dropped his gaze, scraped the barrel of his metal pistol over the smooth rock, leaving a tiny white line between him and Vaughn. “You’ve left me no choice.”

  “But sir—”

  The ruckus at the water’s edge drowned his words; Stopper couldn’t be silenced, not even by Jan’s pink whistle. He barked and snapped at everyone in turn, wet or dry, friend or enemy, then crawled on his belly, like a hunting dog, when he turned to the water.

  Vaughn glanced at Jan. She shot him a startled look that instantly jogged his memory of her story in the cave. Deep water. North of the equator. Dogs howling. She was visibly shaking as she shoved her way out of Bilderbeck’s embrace. But it wasn’t the cold making her shiver, he knew.

  A screechy-grinding noise, like the warping of heavy iron, tore everyone’s attention to the mist-shrouded half of the island. The shuttle slid back a few meters, its nose now almost completely hidden in the fog. The cracks and twangs of
safety glass splintering from its taut fixtures were unmistakable. More warping metal. More splintered glass, this time from the windshield.

  It was as if a huge boulder had been set on top of the craft and was collapsing it incrementally, the hollow shuttle trying its best to stay rigid but slowly buckling under the massive weight.

  “What the fuck’s going on?” Kalstrom dashed to save the ship but didn’t make it. A godawful hissing noise stopped him in his tracks, forced him to cover his ears. He slipped, had to scramble back to his feet. He looked around to see which of his men had followed him into the fray.

  None.

  The shuttle suddenly rolled onto its side, as though it was a die someone had flicked over. The incredible cacophony of ship’s instruments, Phi equipment, and mangled bulkheads tumbling around inside sent everyone scurrying back to the water’s edge. They watched in horror as the craft was catapulted through the air, off the island, spinning, twisting, its rear half crushed and streaming its wiry vitals like a man whose legs had been severed. It disappeared inside the mist. No one heard the sound of its splash over the eruption of hisses from the far side of the island.

  The hisses seemed to be distinct from each other, at different pitches and volumes. When they overlapped, the collective noise was like a giant chainsaw spitting acid onto a boilerplate.

  Then they went quiet.

  Stopper didn’t—he barked his head off in front of Jan, and only stopped to snarl and howl. During one of those snarling fits, Vaughn leaned in close to Jan and said, “Hydra.”

  She didn’t say a word. Her quivering lips formed the syllables. Her fist tried to crush the whistle. Echoes of her past trauma appeared to hit her one after the other, silent recollections manifesting physically, reshaping her expression, her mouth, her very posture into the Jan Corbija of that night several years ago. She hunched to one side, knees slightly bent, ready to run but daring herself to look—at the monsters behind the mist, at the nightmare that had returned.

  “Everyone stay where you are.” DeSanto palmed the grip of his gun with both hands, then pointed it at the ground, not trusting himself to hold fire. An accidental shot might enrage...whatever the hell was out there. “Doctors, what are we dealing with?”

  Bilderbeck whipped his head around to face the old man. “Wha—Jan, Jan knows about them. I—I’ve only read the reports. I never come this far south.”

  “They’re Hesp Hydras,” she called out, a little too loudly for Vaughn’s liking, but she was upright again, she was emphatic, and she had the bit between her teeth. “If you want to stay alive past the next few seconds, you’ll do exactly as I say. Understood? DeSanto?”

  “Very well. It’s your party, doc.”

  “Kalstrom?”

  “Here.”

  “Give Vaughn, Finnegan and Polotovsky their weapons back.”

  “Screw that.”

  “I said now, asswipe. You’ve just watched these things crush an EP shuttle like it was a tin can. The second they sense where we are we’ll all be taken, unless we can fight them off. We need as many guns as possible, and we need to work together right this instant. Either we all fight or none of us makes it through this. DeSanto?”

  “Do it, Kalstrom. Everyone gets a weapon. Bildebug too.”

  “First thing, get away from the water.” She led Vaughn by the hand as she hurried inshore, accepting DeSanto’s spare pistol on the way. “It’s not much of an island, but whatever happens, we stay in the center. Stopper here will point us to where the next attack is coming from. Now, when I shout a number, one to twelve, I want you all to aim everything you’ve got in that direction. The north of the island will be twelve, the south six, and so on. The instant you see something slither into view, you blast it until it disappears.”

  “What if they attack from more than one direction at once?” someone asked. One of the Phi men. “The dog can’t tell us that.”

  Kalstrom scoffed at his man. “The game’s rigged, numbnuts. Accept it. We do like Ms. Corbija says. That way we at least have a fighting chance.”

  A fighting chance. A fighting unit.

  And just like that, all differences between them were on hold. All prejudices suspended. They were a true herd of Hesperidia, united to repel this common threat—the planet’s deadliest predator.

  “What else can we do, doc?” asked DeSanto. “Are they afraid of fire?”

  “I don’t know. Animals usually are. Why? Can you make one?”

  “Several. Enough for a perimeter. But only short duration.”

  “How?”

  “Polotovsky’s weapon fires incendiaries,” he replied. “We have clothes to burn. Then there’s the hoverbike. It’s got a supply of pyro fuel—most of it probably leaked out on the way, but if one of us can swim out there, bring that back, maybe we’re in business.”

  “Shite. So that’s how y’all tracked us.” Finnegan, cocking his Shelby, turned to his partner. “Well, sweetheart, I guess we’re hired again.” He got to his feet.

  “What do you mean? You’re not swimming. Why can’t this jerk-off go?” Polotovsky aimed her weapon at Kalstrom. “Or one of the others? Why does it have to be us?”

  Finnegan kissed her forehead. “Because me and Bess go back a long way. She’d hate it if anyone el—”

  Stopper yowled at the top of his lungs and leapt into action at the northwest edge of the group.

  “Ten!”

  Jan ripped off two shots before anyone else could react. No telling if they hit their target or not. A devastating volley of pulse blasts, incendiaries and tracer bullets followed, cutting an irresistible swathe into the mist at ten o’clock. Overkill. The hydra would likely have submerged again by now. But Vaughn was swept up by the fear and euphoria along with everyone else, a maelstrom of artillery sights and sounds demonstrating why humans could conquer any foe pitted against them, alien or not. In that moment, these were his brothers and sisters in arms. They were magnificent. Indestructible. They were hunters.

  He got off half a dozen shots before Kalstrom waved for a ceasefire. When the silence returned it was twice as empty, twice as frightening. For without evidence that they’d hit anything, the danger was all the more inestimable.

  “We scared it away.” A hopeful appraisal from one of the Phis.

  “Not for long,” replied Jan. “You’ve no idea how tenacious these things are.”

  DeSanto crouched to the ground, bowed his head for a private pensive moment. Then he snapped to his feet. “What are they, doc? What exactly are we dealing with?”

  She looked to Vaughn, as though for permission. He was about to give her one of her own patented grave nods, as if to say, I know it’s painful, but you need to tell them your story, everything you told me. But he decided he didn’t want her any more emotional than she already was. And anyway, he, Vaughn, was the only person she’d ever shared those traumatic memories with; he wanted to keep it that way, personal between the two of them, a confidence they alone shared. She could always give a handy XZ description of a hydra without having to delve deeper.

  “You said they’re three-in-one or something, right?” He threw her a wink. “They can split into three?”

  “Right. They’re descended from Hesperidus tridenticus, which was fairly small, a lot like Earth’s squid, but it had three sharp tentacles that were actually quasi-sentient. They could detach for short periods, for hunting purposes, the way we might throw a spear or send scouts out to reconnoiter. You couldn’t really call it a symbiotic relationship because the individual parts belonged to the whole, so—”

  “Doc, the short version,” interrupted Finnegan.

  She slanted a cold look at the big merc. “My point is...that quasi-sentience has evolved with them. The tentacles are no longer detachable appendages; they’ve become the hydra. What we’re dealing with is three predators in one. At rest, they’re joined. We think each member is endowed with capabilities unique from the other two: for reproduction, for example, we’re pretty sure
only one has a sexual organ; then another might be the best navigator, or the best at doling out their food supply, say if a particular member’s short of protein or iron, he’ll see to that. Then there’s—”

  “Doc, bottle the natural history,” said DeSanto. “How do they hunt?”

  Stopper’s growl turned everyone to five o’clock. But the poor guy was chasing his own tail. He’d bitten his tongue trying to get at it, and his gums were now stained red. After a blow from Jan’s whistle he desisted, red tongue hanging out and all. His sheepish look—of apology?—offered to each of them in turn was a pitiful sight.

  Jan flicked her eyebrows at Vaughn, as if to say, I know, I know. GenMod intelligence, right?

  “I don’t know how they hunt,” she answered DeSanto’s last question. “We can only speculate. Right, Bilderbeck?”

  “Uh-huh. They’re much too deadly to study. Even the smaller ones. And I never go this far south.”

  “Yes, we got that part,” replied Polotovsky. “Thank you.”

  “But I can tell you how they attack,” said Jan.

  Kalstrom hawked up a gob of phlegm and spat it onto the ground. “As a hive mind, right? Highly intelligent. Amazing problem-solvers. Attack from all sides, quick, brutal, efficient.”

  “All except the part about attacking from all sides, as far as we know. How did you—”

  “They’re hunters, doc. Same as us. They have their weapons and tactics, same as us. Natural predators. There’s nothing mysterious about them. All I want to know is, how big are they?”

  Jan swallowed a lump the size of a golf ball. “The biggest one on record was about eighty feet.”

  “Eighty feet long? Eighty feet off the ground?”

  “Yes, and yes.”

  “And they crush you then bite, or just bite.”

  “Whatever they decide, I guess.”

  The Phi officer said something to his colleagues that Vaughn couldn’t hear. And to the rest of the group: “This isn’t good enough, people. Our island’s in no way defensible. We’re just buying time, and for what? Sooner or later we’ll run out of ammo. We need an escape plan. Quick and dirty, whatever you got. I’m still thinking the hoverbike—it only has two seats, but we could maybe squeeze one or two more on at a time. How about it?” The question was for the whole group.

  Vaughn kept quiet about the emergency transmitter he’d activated. For one thing, any rescue from the local EMS rock-hoppers—if the signal even reached that far—would likely take hours to reach Hesperidia. He didn’t want the group thinking they should stay put on this island, waiting for an airlift that might not come. The hoverbike idea was better. Keep everyone thinking, improvising. We’re better survivors that way.

  “He’s right.” Finnegan peeled out of his girlfriend’s grasp and slid his steaming Shelby into its leg holster. “Three trips to shore. Ferry service. It’s our best shot.”

  This time Polotovsky said nothing. She accompanied him to the water’s edge, ever watchful of ripples in the lake. She kept looking back—for signs of alarm from Stopper—while everyone else waited in the circle, silent, not knowing what to say.

  Vaughn glanced at each of them in turn. Would any of them have volunteered if Finnegan hadn’t? Would Vaughn? He couldn’t answer that. Right now he was just relieved he didn’t have to.

  After receiving a slap on the ass from his girlfriend, the big man slid into the fog and disappeared from view. Vaughn held his breath, wondering why the bravest acts always passed in obscurity, without fanfare. A million acts of life-or-death heroism on a hundred different worlds, and the goddamn sportsmen got all the applause.

  The Phis whispered among themselves. Bilderbeck gazed gormlessly into the muzzle of his pulse weapon, perhaps trying to figure out how the mechanism worked. Stopper brushed between Jan and Vaughn, then back again, his tail frozen stiff between his legs. Meanwhile, Saul DeSanto, by far the oldest member of the group, crouched to hide his trembling limbs. The rank and authority he’d spent a lifetime attaining had deserted him. He was no one on this island. His crusade...meant nothing.

  The only thing that mattered was Finnegan making it back with the hoverbike. All eyes were on half-past six. Any moment now, a bitch named Bess would pierce the fog and ride into legend on a second world in as many weeks. Already, Iolchis would never forget her. Vaughn would have to find some way to get her into his report, if he ever got to write it.

  A warm breeze touched his forearm and his neck, but the mist hadn’t budged an inch.

  Stopper stood on his hind legs, pawing at the air. His warning howl came too late. The attack hit from eight and ten and twelve all at once, taking the group completely by surprise. A shadow with three prongs the size of smoke-stacks collapsed onto the island. The sentient heads separated and quickly converged as they fell; one swooped dead center, the other two snaked in from either flank, snatching up anyone who hadn’t immediately thrown themselves onto the ground.

  DeSanto screamed as he was taken—impaled by a solitary saber fang attached to the roof of the hydra’s mouth. Hundreds of smaller teeth lined the jaws, all the way to the back of its throat. The giant fang ripped right through his chest. A sliver of clear, syrupy liquid jetted from the tip of the fang. Venom? The old man managed to fire off a couple of wild shots. One blasted a hole in the side of the monster’s jaw, but it didn’t stop the mouth from snapping shut from all sides. Not a mouth like a snake’s or a crocodile’s; no, it irised shut with incredible force, then its entire body appeared to contract in several choking, crushing waves from mouth to belly.

  All this happened in just a few seconds. Vaughn didn’t have time to realise his mentor was gone.

  Meanwhile, three of the Phis, and Bilderbeck, the nerdy XZ, were devoured by the other two oily green hydra heads. The survivors opened fire from ground level.

  Kalstrom punctured the left-flanking sentient umpteen times, but his high-energy blasts also cauterized the very wounds they inflicted. He wasn’t bleeding it. Only enraging it. Its brother in the center slithered around the back of the Phi, reared up like a cobra, and slammed itself bodily on top of him. Hundreds of tonnes of muscle and sinew flung down with a vengeance. The impact shook the island to its roots. Kalstrom was crushed completely. The hydra snacked on his roadkill remains.

  At eight o’clock, Polotovsky tried her best to hang on to the last remaining Phi man—fingernails on ankles—as the third hydra snatched him aloft. A brave attempt. But the momentum of the swing tossed her like a ragdoll thirty feet through the air, into the water. Into oblivion. The predators then wound together in a slow-writhing, scaly clutch. One of them sniffed the edge of the island—to check where the unclaimed prey would be when they were ready for a second course?—and slid in after Polotovsky.

  Meanwhile, Jan and Vaughn landed shot after shot at anything that slithered, anything that moved, anything that shaded the fog. The hydra was definitely still there, loitering offshore on the surface of the water. Conferring? Digesting? Licking its wounds?

  Vaughn touched Jan’s shoulder, a gentle ceasefire prompt. Their continued firing clearly wasn’t having its desired effect, and was only reminding the monsters that they’d left the table early. Jan bared her teeth as she fired twice at the sky in frustration, then collapsed sideways into Vaughn’s arms.

  She was close to hyperventilating.

  “Lie still,” he said, couching her aslant his lap on folded knees, an incredibly uncomfortable posture for Vaughn but he didn’t have the heart to disturb her. They were the last two on the island, along with Stopper, and they both knew that if the hydra attacked again there would be no survivors. He ran his fingers through her damp, style-less hair, hair she hadn’t bothered to beautify since the last time the monsters had come for her, all those years ago.

  She didn’t speak. Her heavy breaths against the glass of her mask created moisture spots that mushroomed and then shrank, again and again. She gently wrapped her arms around him, her shiver strangely feeding his own desire t
o be as intimate as possible with her in these last moments. Shared moments. He hadn’t been this unguardedly close to anyone for so long...

  So long.

  Stopper barged past him, knocking them both over. He assumed a protective position out front, tall and rigid, angling back on straight forelegs, ready to pounce. GenMod or not, his ancestors were from Earth—the original recipients of that enduring, affectionate moniker, Man’s Best Friend. Stopper wore that heritage proudly now. Friends like him didn’t hesitate to lay down their lives for their companions, no matter what the odds.

  The hydra inched ashore at ten o’clock, flat on the ground this time. Stopper saw it first and snarled, lowered his front half even further, set to explode into action. The monster fixed its gaze on him—ranks and ranks of small, gemstone eyes arrayed on its skull like ridges of braided hair an African woman might tighten over her scalp. It flared its enormous mouth, exposing hundreds of blood-stained teeth. The single venomous fang drew back, as though on a muscular lever, and twitched in readiness.

  Stopper stood his ground.

  The killing strike came swiftly. Unstoppably. Vaughn jumped to his feet and hurled himself at the dog with all his weight, knocking him sideways away from the monstrous bite. The fang cracked the ground where Stopper had been; but only the rock broke, not the tooth. Vaughn and the dog wrestled to get free from one another. Meanwhile, several of Jan’s shots hit the hydra’s eyes, but they didn’t deter it.

  Vaughn sent a snapshot, a full-energy pulse blast right down the throat of the onrushing mouth. It didn’t seem to make any difference. Jesus, would anything stop it?

  He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger again. A hot tunnel enveloped him, its walls vibrating sibilantly. He waited for the impact that would snatch him from this life, and hoped it would be quick.

  A blunt hit on his right side sent him reeling to ground. But the scream that split his ears was not his own. He looked up in horror. He was outside the hot tunnel, the vibrating walls. Jan—it was Jan caught in the teeth. She’d done for him what he’d done for Stopper a moment ago. Thrown him out of harm’s way. Saved him. But at a terrible cost...

  He aimed his pistol. Damn it. The hydra flailed from side to side as it felt around its mouth with three separate tongues, perhaps trying to pinpoint Jan’s location. Vaughn couldn’t risk hitting her. The jagged teeth at the edge of its mouth had dug into her. One or two had pierced right through her stomach and her thigh. He knew he’d have to hit the bastard soon or she’d be gone forever. A dirty shot. A blind shot. A shot in a million.

  The hydra lowered its jaws and shook its head, trying to tip her out. Clearly it knew there was something in its mouth, but she was impaled on the outer teeth, perhaps the least sensitive, and she wasn’t touching anything else. So maybe it didn’t want her in there until it could be sure what she was. All the while her screams rained down on Vaughn, screams she’d vowed never to give, hurting him in ways he didn’t know he could be hurt.

  He took aim at the center of its eye array—

  The crazy dog leapt into the hydra’s mouth and stood over Jan, his barks echoing into the deep, pulsing cavern.

  Vaughn fired.

  The giant mouth slammed shut with such force, the punch of expelled air sent him sprawling over the rock.

  Oh God, no!

  What had he done? What hadn’t he done in time? He’d waited too long. He’d hit the thing in the worst possible spot, forcing it to bite down. He’d killed her. He’d killed her.

  And there was nothing left for him now.

  He got up, calmly brushed himself off, and began a slow, steady walk to the end of the island. To his end. He’d endured enough. Life had taken enough from him. As completely as he’d ever felt anything, he knew it was time to go home.

  The flash of blinding light inside the mist ahead was for him, at the other side of the hot tunnel, the vibrating, sibilant walls. Deep inside the succubus. It was time to pay his debt.

  Red flames erupted from the light, snaking their way left and right around the rim of the island, as far as seven o’clock, as far as ten. The ground shook. He could no longer hear the hydra’s hisses, only the steady rumble of the flames, like a low, undying exhalation of breath on the edge of his world.

  The tall, hunched figure of a man stumbled out of the red glow. He was carrying someone much smaller than him in his arms. “Quick, Vaughn, put your jacket down!”

  “Finnegan?”

  “We’ve no time. She’s almost gone.”

  “Who?”

  “Who do you think? Come on, man, pull your shit together.”

  So, Polotovsky had survived. That was something. He would do all that he—

  “Jan?”

  He wrenched his jacket off, ripping the seams. It was Jan. Crushed and broken and leaking from a dozen wounds, but she was still here. Somehow, Finnegan had pulled her from the hydra’s jaws? “How did you—”

  “The sumbitch spat her out when I gave it a taste of ignited pyro. Nearly a gallon, right in its fucking belly. One thing’s for sure, it ain’t three no more. Here, Vaughn, hold her gentle. I’ll be right back.”

  Vaughn ripped his shirt off, tore it into several strips. Three he used for tourniquets, one at the top of each leg, tight against the femoral arteries. Her right leg was completely crushed. The puncture wounds in her back and her midriff were nasty; just one of them would have been life-threatening, but she had at least five. All he could do was try to stem the bleeding—pressure applied as strongly and diligently as he could with only two hands.

  “Finnegan! Where are you? What the hell are you doing?”

  “Just hang on.” The big man ran back with a crushed dog in his arms. He set Stopper down beside Jan and sank to his knees, out of breath. “She’ll be with us...any second. The others—all gone?”

  Vaughn nodded.

  Finnegan scrubbed his dripping face, then plastered his longish hair back. “Well, I don’t want to get your hopes up, Vaughn. What we’re gonna try might not be possible. Burns and localized wounds are one thing, but this...”

  Vaughn sat up straight. His surprise at seeing Polotovsky tear across the island toward him was nothing compared to the rush of hope he felt inside when he saw what she was carrying.

  It was about the size and length of an inflatable camp bed, sagging over her shoulder. It sublimed a heavy, white gas. The liquid inside its translucent skin twinkled with microscopic life, and pooled at the bottom of each compartment. There were about twenty compartments, or pockets, each of which bore its own unique signature, written in alien hieroglyphs. Vaughn guessed the language might be ancient Iolchian, belonging to the long-extinct civilization that had worshipped giant pilgrim visitors from the stars, visitors who, even to this day, periodically crossed that desert world on the exact same latitude.

  Polotovsky unfurled the Fleece to its full size and lay it flat on the rock.

  “Vaughn, we lift her on three, easy as we can.” Finnegan took hold of her smashed thighs. “One...” Vaughn gripped her under the arms. “Two...Three.”

  They eased her out of the pool of blood and set her breadthwise onto one side of the Fleece. Then Finnegan laid Stopper at the opposite end. Neither of them appeared to be breathing, and Vaughn didn’t think anything could undo the damage inflicted on them. They were beyond help. Beyond miracles, alien or otherwise.

  Polotovsky folded the ends of the blanket over Jan and the dog in turn, then, with Finnegan’s help, rolled both patients together into the center of the Fleece. She pulled the men away to a distance of about fifteen feet and said to Vaughn, “You shouldn’t look till it’s over.”

  “Why not?”

  “Same reason you shouldn’t look directly at a blazing sun.”

  Not the most reassuring piece of advice under the circumstances, but he’d been hurtfully dazzled twice in as many days. He wasn’t about to make that same mistake again. “How long...”

  “Don’t know. With the extent of her wounds, wh
o knows, ten, maybe fifteen minutes? We’ve never tried it on anyone so near...” Polotovsky heaved a sigh. “She believed in us, didn’t she?”

  “She was willing to give you a chance.”

  “Then she’s a rare bird. I hope to God she makes it.”

  There was so much Vaughn wanted to say: about Jan’s fierce intelligence, her dry wit, the undimmable compassion she’d protected deep inside her all these years, despite what this planet had thrown at her; that she was a woman like none he’d ever met, like none he expected to meet again; that he wanted the full Alien Safari tour someday, but only if she was his guide, and the tour never had to end. He’d gladly erase everything that had happened in the past two days, but not Jan. And not Stopper. There was so much he wanted to say...and he might never get to say it.

  First came the heat. Smooth, rising, somehow spinning, a thermal whirlpool that distorted temperature and gravity and charged the particles in the air. The hairs up and down his back bristled. Imperceptible color shifts in the mist and in daylight itself seemed to draw in something magical from the atmosphere surrounding the island.

  A mounting brilliance in the light behind him had to be the Fleece at work. The healing experiment made no sound, but its friction reached him, traced his skin with ticklish claws, made him shiver warmly. He had an unnatural shadow, as did Finnegan and Polotovsky. The silhouettes stretched starkly across the ground to six o’clock, where they rose enormous against the misty barrier, and held vigil over the island, genies summoned forth from the ashes of ancient Hesperidia.

  Vaughn stood transfixed, a vague sadness sweeping through him, back and forth, back and forth, the draught following the swings of an invisible pendulum—time. Jan’s time. His time. Struggling to stay in sync. But between its strokes, he experienced swells of pride beyond anything he’d felt in the heat of the hunt as an Omicron agent. The lives he’d saved, the rights he’d wronged, the victims whose grief and anger his work might have given some measure of solace: maybe he was worthy of his reputation beyond that unmentionable choice he’d made at the beginning.

  Maybe he could go back to the bureau after this. Maybe he could find something else to do with the rest of his life. Maybe the cosmos would go on ticking if he called an end to the hunt.

  A fourth shadow slid across them, dominating. Vaughn spun around. He saw the erect silhouette of Stopper against the still-bright light enwrapping Jan’s half of the Fleece. The dog howled. He wouldn’t leave his mistress’s side, not even when Vaughn ran over to check that he was fully healed.

  He was!

  Not a scar remained. Blood matted his coat, but otherwise he appeared perfectly restored. No one would have believed he’d just been crushed in the jaws of the planet’s deadliest predator. Vaughn’s hope effervesced. He knelt beside Stopper and watched, waited. The cocoon of light was shrinking, its brightness on the wane.

  Something was happening.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” he whispered to the dog. “Me too.”

  But when the light and the heat finally died down, and Polotovsky unwrapped her, Jan did not spring to life. She did not move. The life the Fleece ought to have restored was not there as promised. Not even a flicker.

  She was beautiful. The Fleece’s restorative powers had knitted her back together, at least in part. The horrific scarring on the right half of her face and neck was gone. In its place, dirty, dusky skin and features gave symmetry to what he’d already surmised was an attractive Latino face. Her puncture wounds and abrasions? Gone. But he couldn’t figure out why the skin on her right side looked so pristine when the bones inside her shoulder, ribs, thigh, and leg remained disfigured, almost flat where they’d been crushed.

  “She’s had cyber reconstruction in the past?” said Finnegan.

  “Several years ago.”

  “Then there’s your answer.” The big man crouched over her, checked for a pulse. He let his head drop to his collar. “Everything organic has been fixed, but the artificial parts...the Fleece must only work on living matter.”

  Vaughn collapsed to his knees and checked her pulse for himself. Nothing. God, not even a flutter. Vigorous chest compressions yielded no response. He sat up, closed his eyes. He felt as though he were lying on the back of the hoverbike again, holding his breath, waiting for a intake of kind air that might never come.

  It never would. Not now.

  She was gone.

 
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