Bruce Gehweiler & C.J. Henderson bring us the conclusion of “The Hardest Glory” a two part story, set in the shared-world of Byanntia. — ed. N.E. Lilly

Beginning of Part 2

Who the hell is behind this?” Dorton was scowling, his anger twisting his face into a frightening mask. Behind him stood one of his armored men, the massive, helmeted figure that had stood behind him the first day on the platform. The ranchers before them stood immobile—frightened. Silent. Not certain of which figure they were more afraid.

“We don’t know,” pleaded the man to the front, an Asian in his forties. “We have no idea.”

Joe Matson stood to the back. He remained as quiet as the others, but not because he had no answers. He knew who the current thorn was in Dorton’s side, but he dare not let such knowledge show on his face or in his manner.

“Bullshit,” snarled Dorton. “You have to have some idea.”

“But,” offered another ranch boss, barely able to keep from stammering, “you’ve got your fliers watching us, tabbed everyone with a tracking chip, how could any of us do anything?”

“Listen, Mr. Dorton,” interrupted Pete Dawson, former deputy of New Dodge, “everybody’s scared to death. Nobody here is gonna go against you. I’m not goin’ to lie to you. No one’s happy about you takin’ over. But there just ain’t anything we can do about it. You pretty much proved that the first day.”

“Obviously not to everyone,” replied Dorton. “Unless you think my pilot shot himself out of the sky, or that I’d see some advantage in blowing up my own ground tractors. Or maybe you think the two men of mine shot down last night killed each other.”

“I don’t even see how any of us could kill one of you,” offered Joe. “You know the level of weapons we’ve got on this world. Ain’t none of us on Byanntia has anything powerful enough to scramble your armor.”

“Nobody on Byanntia has anything powerful enough to scramble our armor,” repeated the warlord in a mincing voice. He let the question hang in the air for a moment, then slammed his fist to the table, roaring, “Then who the Hell is killing my men?!”

All in front of Dorton remained quiet. Most hung their heads in fear. None of them was ready to play the hero. They had families to think about, children to protect. They also knew that a man like Dorton might decide to blame one of them anyway. Or to use one of them as some sort of example. Joe could tell from the tension he could feel in the air that if most any of those present knew his father was still alive, they would give him up immediately. He kept his head lowest of all.

“Maybe I should just join forces with the Kuzzi,” said Dorton to the silent room. “Just wipe you shitheels out and work a deal with them. What do you think of that idea?”

“I don’t think it would work,” answered Joe. When Dorton called for an explanation, the young man told him, “the Kuzzi don’t like any humans, but they’ve started to realize that we’re not out to do them wrong.”

“Convenient theory,” responded Dorton. “What makes you think we couldn’t convince them we’re as noble as you? Why wouldn’t they work for us if we rewarded them right?”

“A while back,” piped in one of the other ranchers, “some vermin landed in secret. They came to hunt the Kuzzi, to skin them, so’s they could sell the pelts for coats. Apparently there are some pretty twisted rich bastards out there. Anyway, we fought alongside the Kuzzi to stop them. We turned the survivors over to them to do with as they saw fit. Since then we’ve been gettin’ along pretty good.”

The man wiped at his forehead with his sleeve, adding, “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Dorton, it’s just the truth. You couple that with the fact the Kuzzi ain’t really the kind to be bought off, and I think Joe’s right. We ain’t got no heroes in this room, sir, least of all me. We just want to stay alive.”

Dorton stared his unblinking stare for a long moment. After a handful of seconds he turned in his chair and looked up at his massive guard. Joe watched the man’s eyes, wondering if he were somehow asking the sentry a question. When the guard’s helmet moved a fraction of an inch, Joe was certain he was nodding to Dorton.

But, wondered the young rancher, what was he nodding about?

After another few seconds, Dorton dismissed the ranchers. He told them to go back to their spreads and to stay there. The invader made it quite clear that he and his men would be looking quite strenuously for those individuals who had been playing havoc with his operation.

“We’re going to be tearing up your precious planet, so you’d all better stay close to home, because anything we see moving anywhere outside the designated safe areas is going to be fair game.” No one spoke; they merely turned and headed for the door. Then, just as they reached the door at the back of the room, Dorton called out;

“Oh, and we’ll be seeing just how how well you and the Kuzzi are getting along these days.”

As the ranchers filed out into the street, those to the rear of the group heard him mutter;

“We’ll be seeing about that real soon.”

*     ***     *

Kincaid and Matson rode through the darkness along a trail just below the mountains to the west of New Dodge. In the weeks they had lived together, scouting the enemy, hiding, waiting, planning, it was amazing how little they had actually said to each other. Matson was not completely surprised that Kincaid had no questions as to what had happened to this or that person. The hermit cared nothing for humanity, that part of it he had left behind on Earth, or those who had traveled the stars with him. Indeed, every conversation the two had had thus far Matson had initiated. Thus the old rancher was caught completely by surprise when Kincaid asked him;

“So, we killed some of ‘em. How long you gonna hold me to my word—’til I’m dead?”

“If that’s what it takes.” When the hermit did not respond, Matson reminded him, “you’da been dead years back if it weren’t for me, so what’s the problem?”

“No problem. Just curious.”

Matson nodded—satisfied. He did not add any unnecessary words  to their conversation. Kincaid was not a talker, and besides, words carried a long distance on the night air in the open desert. Especially with the mountains behind them to act as an amplifier. Their foes could be anywhere in the darkness, listening for them. The old man thought it unlikely, but he was not one for pressing any amount of luck unnecessarily.

After another hour the pair reached the spot to which they had been headed. As Kincaid began to pull together a shelter for their horses, Matson began to climb the rock wall behind them. The going was slow for the old man. He was tired and he was dying. His breath came in short gasps and his fingers hurt as he dug their bony lengths into whatever cracks he could find and then used them to haul his body upward. The weapon slung over his back weighed like as anchor does on a sinking ship.

Just a few more weeks, Lord, he thought, refusing to look down, refusing to quit. Just a few weeks. I ain’t been one to ask much, you know that’s fact. But, I don’t think I can do this one on my own. But, you give me the way out of this one, let me deliver my wife and boys outta this, and believe me, Lord, I am more than ready to join you.

Matson’s hand found a pocket of dust and loose shale shards. His hand struggled to find purchase, fingers stung by the keen stone edges, slipping in the dust. Grinding his teeth together, he ignored the pain and continued upward. By the time he reached the ledge he needed, his weary heart was pounding madly, blood throbbing loudly in his ears.

Matson shrugged his way out of his weapon’s harness, falling onto his back as soon as it was safely beside him. Air rushed out of his lungs as fast as he could drag it in. For several long minutes the old man lay helplessly on the outcropping, panting and wheezing and praying to not die—not just yet, anyway.

Finally, once Matson had calmed his nerves and heart, once the throbbing pounding had left his ears, he held his hat out over the edge of his sanctuary and then clicked his pocketlight on and off within it several times. Down on the ground below, Kincaid did the same. Although the hats did not completely hide their signals, the pair judged the idea safer than shouting. At this point the men began phase two of their plan.

Breaking off a small piece of rock with a small hammer, he then tied an end of fishing line around the rock and threw it over the edge, holding onto the end of the line. When he felt a tug he began hauling the line back up the cliff. After a moment, Matson’s efforts were rewarded when a length of dark nylon rope came sliding over the outcropping’s edge.

Securing the rope through the neck loop of one of the two pitons he had brought up the side of the mountain with him, Matson then took his hammer and, using his hat as a mute, he hammered the securing rod into the ledge. He ruined the brim of his worn Stetson, the last article of Earth-made clothing he still owned doing so, but the sacrifice had been made to muffle the noise of his efforts. After a few minutes tense waiting brought no enemy patrol ships, the old man lay back, placing the damaged hat over his face as he muttered;

“And now, we wait.”

It was three days before Matson was able to put his plan into operation. Three days waiting on his ledge. Three days alone. In the baking sun. Thinking on why he was doing what he was doing. Because no one was going to take Twin Feathers away from him. Because no one threatened his family and got away with it. Because he goddamned well felt like it.

Because he was dying.

Jacob Matson had clung to his ledge, hour after hour, the sights of his weapon aimed toward New Dodge. At night Kincaid sent him up food, refilled his canteen, all transfers made via their length of rope. During the daylight hours, Matson lay stretched out, enduring the relentless heat, his eyes shaded by the brim of his hat constantly scanning the horizon, watching for the enemy’s small attack fliers.

After observing the opposition’s forces for a while, Matson and Kincaid had determined that the enemy’s main ship had disgorged only four of the smaller assault vehicles. The old rancher knew if he could take out those fliers, he would have gone far in evening the odds between the invaders and the rest of Byanntia.

Dorton knew a lot about their planet, about its people and their ways. He knew their communications systems, their transportation routes and their weapons capacities. At least, he thought he did. Luckily for Jacob Matson, he did not know everything. When the Kuzzi’s god-thing, the Gr’nar, had begun its rampage, it had been stalked by a big game hunter who had believed he had an ace in the hole—a Hoffman Brother’s Wide Bore. The hunter had perished, but Matson had quietly appropriated his rifle and stored it away for ..., well, the rancher did not know for what exactly he might use it when he took it, but he was now glad he had done so.

The Wide Bore came with explosive rounds so powerful they could topple any creature the Earth had ever seen. If Matson could place a round just so, he could bring down the fliers. He knew he could; he had already done so. Now, with the invader’s makeshift staging area on the edge of town in sight, he waited for the fighters to return to homebase.

After three days, they did.

Dorton had only four fliers when he arrived on the planet. Now he had three. Not knowing if he could count on ever getting another opportunity to take out the aircraft, Matson had waited day after day for all of them to return to base at the same time. Often he had found two of them parked there on the outskirts of New Dodge. There had almost always been one of them there in his sights. But, it was well into his third day stretched out on the ledge, his body aching from constant contact with the sometimes burning, sometimes freezing granite, that all three of the fighters were at their landing strip, on the ground—all in the same place at the same moment.

“Well, praise Jesus,” muttered Matson, stiff and tired and aching all over, “and pass the humpin’ ammunition.”

Quickly the old rancher stretched his arms, his legs, forcing the pain and knots and all the other little crippling annoyances from his body. Reaching into a vest pocket, he pulled out one of the stims he had been holding for an important moment. Opening the small metal box, he frowned at the sight he knew would greet him.

Two.

He had only two of the pills left. Doc Lieber had given him thirty of them less than a month ago, just before his birthday. Lieber had been strict in his instructions. The stims were only to be taken on extremely bad days, when he needed the energy and relief they could flood one with far more than he needed the days they would cut off from his life. Matson had been taking them recklessly since leaving home to find Kincaid. Indeed, they were the only reason he had made it so far. The last one he had taken just before making the climb to the ledge. He could have never made the assent without one.

Couldn’ta done any of this without ‘em, he thought, disgusted with his weakness. Picking one of the pills out of the tin, he slid the box back into his vest and tabbed the pocket secure. Then, he stared at the pill.

He had to take it; he knew he did. He could not risk making his next shot without a steady arm, without a body free from the agony his was feeling at that moment. A thousand times over the preceding days he had thought of taking one of the stims, dreamed of it. He had barred such dreams from his consciousness, however, forbidden himself such thoughts.

What was the use, he told himself, to be alert and ready if there was nothing to be alert and ready for? What did he think he was going to do for energy when the moment came if he gave into his petty weakness and gobbled up his only chance? The only chance his wife and sons and everyone he knew had?

That was over now, though. For the moment the abuse he had endured was banished from his body. Smiling, he reached out and pulled on the rope—two short, two long, two short. Kincaid understood the signal and began tying off the end to his saddle horn. Then, he moved his mare along slowly until the rope grew taunt. After that he waited.

Above, Matson kept his eye glued to the Wide Bore’s sight, waiting for the right moment. He knew it would come soon. Dorton had been clever so far, keeping the fliers separated. Something must have gone wrong with one for all three of them to be on the ground at the same time.

Com’on, he thought. Pop the lid on one’a ‘em. Any one of ‘em. Just gimme my shot, goddamnit.

After another eighteen minutes, a small team approached the fliers at a rapid clip. As they drew close, they split into two teams, each heading for a different ship. Grinning with anticipation, Matson followed their movements, waiting for what he needed. He had used scores of explosive rounds on the flier he and Kincaid had brought down, slamming away at its tremendous hide until he had ruptured it and toppled it from the sky. He no longer had that luxury.

With less than a dozen rounds left, he had to be careful, had to think about what he was doing. Not believing his good fortune, two of the fliers being opened up at the same time, he dried his clammy hands off on his pants and then gripped the Wide Bore, studying the scenario below him. The view through the weapon’s sight revealed that the men were opening the one flier to tinker with its engine. The other, Matson blinked, astounded to have Lady Luck showering him with such an opportunity, they were making ready to fuel. The old rancher chuckled. He could not help himself.

Well, go on, get to it, he told himself, adding, or were you thinkin’ they were going to make it even easier for you?

Deciding such a thing was barely possible, he began to plot his attack. He had his angles ready, when suddenly one of the workers stepped directly in front of the fuel chamber. For a second, Matson cursed his luck. Then he remembered just what kind of ammunition he was using, shut one eye, and squeezed the trigger.

The first round tore through the mechanic as if it had not noticed the man’s presence, not exploding until it hit the solid resistance of the flier’s chemical converter. Before the first round had struck the man, however, a second had already been squeezed off. As it struck the converter, a third was sent directly after it. Instantly the area exploded in confusion as the flier being refueled tore itself to pieces. Hot metal and sputtering chemicals flashed in every direction. Flames green and black and orange flashed into existence, then winked out just as quickly, replaced by an ominous gray cloud of mushrooming dust that billowed upward.

Even as the first explosion was just beginning to erupt, however, Matson was cooling squeezing off his fourth shot. The explosive shell tore into the flier with the open engine. The force of its explosion had just begun to lift the machine from the ground when a second round hit the same exposed area. The second flier exploded then, not quite as spectacularly as the first, but the force of its demise added enough power to the holocaust to tear open the third vehicle.

As more smoke poured into the open sky, the rancher was already making his way down the cliff. He had his hands tight on the rope and was skidding down the wall at top speed. On the ground, Kincaid was moving his horse back toward the mountain, allowing Matson to descend without having to work hard. Both men made a silent prayer that the single piton would hold.

It did.

“What took you so long?” Kincaid’s wisecrack gave Matson pause. The rancher merely smiled, however, and answered;

“Stopped for lunch. You ready to ride?”

“Ask me at dinner,” answered the hermit. Throwing off the line from his saddle horn, the two men abandoned everything not packed in their saddlebags. Throwing himself up into the saddle with relative ease, Matson silently thanked Doc Lieber’s unintentional aid, and then fell into place behind Kincaid as the two worked at putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the nightmare of fire and explosions which was still working at destroying the north end of New Dodge.

Well, I sure in hell don’t like this.”

Matson lowered his binoculars to turn and look at Kincaid. The hermit moved his head and face in a way that indicated he was not pleased with the sight before them, either. Both men turned back to the sight that had drawn forth Matson’s comment.

Down below them was stretched out the winter campground of the first Kuzzi tribe the original human settlers had ever met. Although normally nomadic through the spring, summer and fall, the Kuzzi had gone to their winter retreat when Dorton and his troops had first arrived. Their plan had been to simply wait out the violence they knew would have to follow. Their hopes had been to wait out the tide of Earther aggression, hopefully to pick up the pieces when the two sides had destroyed one another.

Their hopes had been shattered as Dorton had chosen that morning to move on the clan’s winter home with all his remaining forces. Though Matson and Kincaid had indeed deprived the invaders of their air support, they still had three heavily armed and armored vehicles along with those ground skitters they had taken from the Byanntian humans.

Seeing Dorton and his people arrive at the winter campground was not what disturbed Matson so, however. Although that would have been a curiosity for the rancher, what was unfolding before him was not something so much curious as it was frightening. The Kuzzi Matson had known and dealt with since his arrival on the planet were all there, but they were not alone. Something had brought other Kuzzi tribes there as well. Dozens of them. Scores of them.

Hundreds of Kuzzi firespots dotted the early evening scene. Matson knew that translated to literally thousands of the feline creatures being in the area.

But, disturbing as the idea of Dorton meeting with such a massive amount of the Kuzzi was, it was not that fact which had bothered the old rancher, either. The thing that had him swallowing hard was the fact that Dorton’s forces had at least a hundred Byanntian humans captive with him. And an equal number of Kuzzi women and children as well. Whether his wife or sons were among the prisoners he could not tell in the failing light. But he meant to find out. Moving down out of the hills as quickly, yet carefully, as they could, Matson and Kincaid headed for sea level to find out what was going on.

When they had reached the plains and were about to start for the center of the activity, Matson suddenly turned to Kincaid and told the man;

“Hey, no sense in both of us gettin’ fried. Go on, take off. You done enough.”

“What?” Kincaid simply stared.

“You asked me before if I was goin’ to guilt you to death, and I guess the answer is ‘no,’ after all. I appreciate your help, but you done all a man can do. Ain’t no reason you dyin’ with me. You paid your debt in spades. I’ll finish this hand.”

The hermit continued to stare for a moment, then said quietly, “Invite a man to supper, make him cook the meal, then send him home before the main course gets served ...”

Kincaid let the words hang in the air, then spat out a sticky wad of phlegm that glued itself to the inter-laced branches of a nearby spiner bush. As the thick wad oozed slowly through the plant’s thorns and tiny leaves, he added;

“You don’t mind, Mr. Matson, I’ll be tagging along a while longer.”

The old rancher stared in surprise as the hermit gently snapped his horse’s reins and continued on toward the event unfolding before them. Then, Matson got over his surprise, accepted that Kincaid had as much right to throw away his life as anyone else, and cued Dancer to start moving as well. Silently, the two men moved toward the massive gathering still growing before them.

The humans who came in the before time are not the friends of the Kuzzi.”

The speaker was Dorton’s over-sized personal guard. The big soldier spoke to the felines in their own language, his voice amplified by his helmet’s electronics to the point where all could hear him across the vast plain where the new arrivals had camped. Matson took in the scene as they approached.

“You all know what they are capable of.”

The guard had chosen a most horrific of podiums. He stood on a boulder situated near the center of a chilling sight. Roughly six months before Dorton had arrived, another group bent on exploiting Byanntia had invaded the planet. These men had been hunting Kuzzi, however, killing them for their pelts to satisfy a monstrous off-world taste for wraps and jackets made from the skin or fur of aliens. The local humans had stopped the interlopers, then turned them over to the Kuzzi along with the several hundred pelts the murderers had procured.

“Look around you if you have forgotten.”

The felines had hung the skins on sticks planted in the ground surrounding the boulder. The monuments had been decided upon as a way to not only honor the dead, but to remind the living of what humans thought of the Kuzzi. Any who looked closely would note that a number of the sticks did not hold a feline pelt, but a flapping flag of human skin and hair, sign posts which made it quite clear what had been done with the hunters. And what Kuzzi thought of the human race.

“We came to this world to bring permanent order, to bring an end to human exploitation. But the humans who came to steal your land, to shove you off your own planet, they resist. They destroy. You saw what happened in New Dodge two days ago.”

Matson and Kincaid kept their heads down as they dismounted their steeds, tieing them off at the scrub forest’s edge. Slowly they made their way forward, listening to Dorton’s bodyguard as his voice continued to boom.

“Explosions that tore open the sky, that rained filth and acids down upon you, the crops you harvest, the seas you fish.” His hand pointing toward the captive humans, he bellowed, “If they push us back, you will be their next targets. And yet, you help them against us.”

“You speak wrong,” answered an elder Kuzzi near the front. Speaking in English so Dorton and all the others could understand, he said; “We no interfere with you. Why would we? Want you to destroy each other. Want you gone. Help one side over the other ... for what reason?”

“I don’t know,” answered the towering guard. “But it has to be. We knew where every human being on the planet was, and yet there has been sabotage since we arrived. Who has done this if not the Kuzzi?”

The crowd stood silent. None had an answer. After a moment, however, a different Kuzzi elder shouted in response;

“Enough talk of human this and that. Forget human. Mean nothing to us. Tell us why you take Kuzzi slave. What you think? What you mean?”

“We hold your people for two reasons,” answered the bodyguard. “First, to make all tribes in this area come to this place. Second, to prove that we will not stand for your turning your hands against us.”

As the large armored figure waved its arm, another of Dorton’s soldiers moved two bound figures forward—one human and one Kuzzi. As the pair were driven to their knees, the guard shouted;

“One from each race will be slain until you give up those who have fought against us. We have no grievance against the Kuzzi peoples except in this thing.”

Matson strained his eyes, then felt his stomach churn violently. The Kuzzi male on his knees he did not know. The human woman was another matter, however. It was his wife, Shelby. As he calmed the rage boiling his mind, rage that could only harm his chances of doing anyone any good, the bodyguard’s voice boomed out once more.

“Give us those who have tried to aid the humans and we shall not only free all Kuzzi, but we shall give you these other humans as your playthings, to dispose of as you see fit.”

The dried hairy skins flapping on their monument sticks rustled ominously. Then, before any more could be said, Matson stepped boldly out into the light and began making his way toward the boulder and the speaker perched atop it.

“Oh, hell,” he shouted. “What’re you botherin’ these good people for, ya moron? I’m the one’s been griefin’ ya.”

Shelby screamed out an indecipherable string of syllables, then burst into tears. Atop his boulder, an abnormal amount of shock seemed to rock the towering guard. Pointing at the advancing rancher, he bellowed;

“Jacob Matson.”

All heads turned. The old man continued to stride with as much confidence as he could muster as the Kuzzi ranks parted to grant him passage, their eyes going wide with the sight of him. Their reaction was understandable, of course, for as far as any of them knew, Jacob Matson had died and been buried. As the rancher moved forward, however, he wondered;

Now how in hell did that bastard know who I was?

Not wanting to give his opponents a moment to think, he shoved his personal thoughts aside and shouted to those around him;

“Remember this moment. Think on it long and hard. These men are thieves and murderers. Without the slightest proof, they would have killed your women and children, because they were simply too stupid to figure out what was going on.”

From inside one of the armored vehicles, Dorton ordered Matson shot down immediately. But, despite the path the Kuzzi had opened for the rancher, none of the invaders had a clear shot. After foolishly threatening the felines, no one thought it wise to stir them up by accidentally killing one now. While they continued to flounder, Matson made the only move he had left. Yanking one of the monument sticks from the ground, he pulled the human remains from it and flung them down, spitting on them where they fell. Then, hefting the sharpened stick in both hands, he shouted;

“Well, I say it’s time to clear these deathers out of here. I call for one-on-one.”

“Old weak thing,” the bodyguard growled, “I will kill you with the ease of dispatching a pinga beetle.”

Who was this guy, wondered Matson once more. He speaks Kuzzi, he recognizes me without a second glance ...

The towering figure leaped down from atop his boulder, hitting the ground with an easy grace. Grabbing up another of the human-draped sticks, he tore the skin from it and flung it behind him, coming forth to meet Matson in the clearing between the monuments and the massed Kuzzi. Off to the side, the prisoners pressed forward to see what was happening, blocking Dorton and his men from interfering. Waiting for him, the old rancher moved his hand to his face. He had slipped his last stim into his hand before he had left the shadows. Now he moved it into his mouth surreptitiously, tearing it with his teeth and swallowing it dry as best he could.

The drugs found welcome in every corner of the old man’s body. His nerves praised their relief as did his muscles, his spine, his churning stomach and burning eyes, his raw legs and hands. Matson tested his grip on the stick, loosening and tightening his fingers. He felt his heart racing, could feel the ice sweats springing from hundreds of pores, letting him know he had finally pushed his luck one time to often. Knowing his window of effectiveness could be monumentally short, Matson cursed;

“You gonna fight or you just gonna play around all day?” Dorton’s bodyguard stared down at Matson, then made a noise of disgust.

“You think not being dead is a surprise,” answered the towering figure. Reaching upward, as he snapped open the catches which held his helmet fast, he added;

“You be not the only one with surprises to reveal.”

And suddenly, the rancher understood how Dorton had known so much about all their ranches, all their operations, so much about Byanntia itself ...

“Great hoppin’ weevils ...”

So much about the Kuzzi ...

“I don’t believe it ...”

And how he had recognized Jacob Matson instantly ...

“Bollatu!”

The massive guard was a Kuzzi, the one who had made the decision to allow the first humans to stay, confident the Gr’nar would destroy them. The only Kuzzi chief ever thrown out by his own people and one of the only felines to go off-world, with a ticket paid for at the spaceport by Matson himself out of the Twin Feathers account.

“So,” spoke Bollatu, grinning down at his opponent, “you are as surprised to see me as I was to see you. Fine. You do realize, calling one-on-one means nothing. Even if you could beat me, Dorton would not honor any victory demands you might make. You have killed yourself, old human.”

“Did you hear him,” shouted out the rancher. “They will not honor the ways of the Kuzzi.”

Matson stopped talking and rushed his stick above his head, blocking Bollatu’s opening attack seconds before it could crush his skull. The effort strained the old man’s recently renewed strength, forced the breath from him. The Kuzzi whirled his stick about, bringing it around and in toward the rancher’s side. Matson ducked down and let the length sail over his head. He also managed to stab forward as he did so, but Bollatu easily stepped back out of the way.

“Do you see this coward’s face?” Matson cried out to the warriors all about him, “Do you see this one who hides behind human armor, who wears pants? Pants?”

The rancher smiled as he heard the harsh titter of Kuzzi laughter all about him. He fought desperately to keep his teeth showing as he blocked another of Bollatu’s shattering blows, feeling the hit through his shoulders, down his back, in both hips. The Kuzzi whirled his stick again, forcing Matson backward into the circle of monuments.

The action gave the old rancher a moment’s rest for the larger Kuzzi could not maneuver as easily through the sea of fur-wrapped poles as could the human. Angered at the accidental refuge Matson had found, Bollatu swung wildly, knocking down monuments left and right, sending the skinned remains of the slain felines crashing to the dirt.

“Do you see his actions,” cried out Matson, voice panting, veins throbbing, vision blurring. “Is this a creature you can trust?”

And then, a false step caught the rancher’s heel in between two rocks. Down he went, ankle twisting badly, spine cracking against the ground, head slamming into one of the monuments. Pain filled every corner of his body. Blood flung itself up his throat, over his lips, splashing down his chest. The stim was already wearing off—far earlier than it should. Matson knew what that meant.

In a rush, Bollatu moved forward, bringing the pointed end of his stick to bear just over Matson’s throat. The Kuzzi savored the moment, years of torment vaporizing as he tasted the sweetness of his triumph. Matson, who had brought the humans, who had beaten the Gr’nar, who had survived and prospered while he had been forced out of his tribe—now all was reversed. It was the human who would be thrown away, useless. Finished.

The old rancher released his grip on his own stick, grabbing instead at the one aimed for his throat. The Kuzzi only smiled. Let the puny human try and turn his hand. He would show them all that humans were no match for the Kuzzi. Which, of course, had been his intention all along.

Earlier, he had convinced Dorton that coming out of town and grabbing feline hostages would be the best way to get their cooperation. Of course he had known better than that. Since the beginning, since he had met the mercenary far off-world, Bollatu’s plan had been simple. He would use the fool Dorton to his own ends, to return to his home, to rout the humans, and then he would trick him into angering the tribes so that he might step forward and grab control, not just of his own tribe, but of a hundred tribes. A thousand. Seconds from his triumph, he asked;

“Would you like to beg for mercy before the mighty Kuzzi nation?”

“Yeah,” answered Matson in a tired but loud voice, “I got somethin’ to say to the Kuzzi about mercy.”

Testing his failing grip on Bollatu’s weapon, flexing his fingers, the old rancher sucked down a deep breath, then shouted as loudly as he could;

“As far as mercy is concerned, I hope you furry son’sa bitches have got the good sense not to show this bastard any.”

And then, Matson pulled with all his failing might, jerking Bollatu’s stick down and through his body, pinning himself to the ground.

Shelby screamed, then struggled to her feet. As she ran forward, hands tied behind her back, Bollatu stared in horror for endless seconds. The miserable human Matson had cheated him again—again. Then, suddenly, he looked about himself. First he noticed the Kuzzi pelts knocked to the ground by his attack. Then he noticed his former tribespeoples closing in on him.

The Kuzzi bounded for the bolt thrower he had left behind on the boulder. At the same time several of Dorton’s troops started gunning down hostages—human and Kuzzi. Screams shattered the night and the world erupted into a nightmare of struggle at that moment, Kuzzi armed with spears, humans with rocks, all united in their singular desire to slaughter the invaders.

As Shelby Matson collected the kiss she had been promised in her husband’s final note, the gathered humans and Kuzzi charged the armored cars recklessly, and they died by the hundreds. But one by one, they peeled their hated enemies out of their cans and punished them for their perfidy long into the night.

In the morning, the survivors counted the dead. The number was not reported as so many Kuzzi murdered, or so many humans slain. The number was reported as 472 Byanntians lost.

Byanntians.

From that day forward.

C.J. Henderson C.J. Henderson is the creator of the Jack Hagee hardboiled PI series and the Teddy London supernatural detective series as well as the author of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Black Sabbath: the Ozzy Osborne Years, and far too many others to mention here. He has written over 50 books and novels, hundreds of short stories and comics, thousands of non-fiction pieces and welcomes all your comments at www.cjhenderson.com.

Bruce Gehweiler is an author for several fiction book publishers including Padwolf Publishing, Elder Signs Press/ESP, and Die Monster Die Books. He has sold over thirty short stories that appear in such magazines as Inhuman and Tales of the Talisman and anthologies such as The Dead Walk Again, Hear Them Roar, and Where Angels Fear co-authored by C.J. Henderson. He is the editor of several anthologies including Crypto-Critters I & II (Padwolf Publishing 2006 & 2007), New Mythos Legends and Frontiers of Terror (Marietta Publishing 1999 & 2002).

If this is your first time here, here are some things you might like to do:

  • Join our e-mail newsletter
  • Subscribe to our rss newsfeed
  • Subscribe to our podCast
  • Digg/Share:
  • myspace.com/spacewesterns
  • Livejournal: nelilly