James Chambers brings us the fourth tale of the ongoing struggle of the human colonists on Byanntia. It first appeared in No Longer Dreams (Light Circle Books, 2005.) — ed. N.E. Lilly

The boys hunkered low on the sheet-metal platform and waited for the next chromatic eruption to illuminate the night. They were not supposed to be there, high up on the narrow catwalk that topped one tower of the New Dodge dew wells. The fragile array of thermal reactive sheeting, strung on hinges between several makeshift framework structures, captured condensation and funneled it into low, squat tanks in the valley below. The settlers had salvaged the sheeting from the Triumphant’s massive cooling system, yet durable as it was, its reactive coating eventually grew stale with wear. After more than four decades on Byanntia, they had little left unused in storage. Bad enough it was dangerous for the boys climbing around on the lightweight structures untended in the dark, but lately, the dew wells had proven barely adequate to bolster the water supply of the community. Damage to even one tower could jeopardize lives.

Such thoughts, though, were as far from the boys’ minds as Byanntia was from Earth. Tonight was a celebration, and the trio had been anticipating the promised fireworks through months of hard toil and rigorous schooling—ever since Thom Horton and Mick Busco had announced finding the necessary raw materials to make explosives. In each boy’s pocket nestled a rare cigar, pilfered with care from the storehouse where they had spent the past several decades in nulltemp storage, doled out in miserly fashion to celebrate new births and other momentous occasions. Despite some of the farmers’ efforts to cultivate tobacco crops, the addictive weed would not take root in the Byanntian soil. Thus, they could only obtain fresh smoking supplies on the periodic trade vessels from Earth. The next ship, due in two weeks, would replenish the humidor. The boys hoped the new stock would cover the three missing stogies. It was a calculated risk, but then, so was everything on Byanntia.

Although they knew the importance of the dew well arrays, the boys felt confident that they could come and go without harming them. Not only did the tower offer a secret place where the three friends could savor their booty free of adult interference, but it provided the best unobstructed vantage point for the pyrotechnics. Up here, the boys were eye-level with the fireworks.

A screaming whistle sheared the dry air, then went silent while sparks of gold fire scintillated across the black sky. They blotted out the endless twinkling stars above and left afterimages floating in the boy’s eyes.

The next rocket shrieked upward, producing a palpable concussion and a rainbow of shimmering, metallic flickers.

The third turned the world crimson and tangerine and illuminated the landscape like a miniature red sun.

That’s when Frank Duncan spotted the long, dark shape trundling over the eastern hills. “Hey,” he said, jamming his elbow into Colt Bukowski’s ribcage. “You see that?”

“See what?” asked Colt. “Fireworks are damn near burning out my retinas.”

“Man, quit griping, already, will you?” snapped Grant Drasinovich. “It’s always something with you.”

“Well, we’re not even supposed to be up here,” nagged Colt. “We get caught, and you know we’re spending the next month digging trenches for the irrigation system overhaul.”

“No one’s going to find us,” Grant grumbled.

Three rockets erupted with a rhythmic crackling, their green and amber light painting the air.

“There it is again,” said Frank, pointing. “Way out there. Up in the hills.”

“I don’t see anything,” Colt answered.

“Wait,” interjected Grant. “I see it. Up on the ridge near that willow sapling, right? Looks like some stray kison calves—oh, damn, I just lost them.”

“No, not there. Lower,” Frank said. He palmed the back of Grant’s head and turned it.

“Oh. Coming down the eastern trail. Yeah, I see it. Looks like a Crawler,” Grant said. “Is that smoke coming out of it?”

Frank squinted and shielded his eyes with his hand as an electric, champagne burst brightened the shadows and thrust the damaged Crawler into stark view. It was headed toward New Dodge. A column of dark smoke wafted from its rear section. The gentle burbling of its motor reached across the plain.

“Who could be out there? Everyone’s in the town square for the party,” said Colt, now seeing the vehicle. “We better tell your Dad about this, Frank.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Frank agreed. “Let’s go.”

“But what about the fireworks? And the cigars?” pleaded Grant. “It’s probably just someone coming in late from Verdi’s Plain. Geddy McCarthur herds his kison out that way sometimes, and you know he’s always late for town events.”

“No way, man. I saw Geddy dipping into the punch with old man Matson before we left.” Frank raised an eyebrow and pitched an impatient glare his friend’s way. “Besides, that Crawler look like any model you’ve ever seen before?”

The Crawler was larger than any of those in New Dodge: heavier, with stronger treads, and reinforced siding. The boys had seen that much in the tide of light coming from the steady bombardment of cheerful explosions. Grant shook his head and grunted his concession. “No.”

A moment later, the boys were scrambling down the latticework toward the dusty earth. They leapt the final four feet to the ground, each rolling to his knees for an instant, before they raced off toward the lights and voices of New Dodge.

In the foothills, the Crawler continued its slow progress toward the settlement. Behind it, tall, slender figures crested the ridge, topping the lone, young willow there by several feet. They stood in silent appraisal of what filled the once-empty valley: the building and lights of New Dodge, all of it as alien and unwanted as the short, baldish creatures that dwelled there. They were disturbing, these beings who draped their bodies in patches of cloth and fiber, who worked the land in strange ways, grappling and struggling with it, forcing it to their own ends, rather than living in accord with the natural rhythms. Even the cycle of the Gr’nar, among the most powerful natural forces on Byanntia, had not been enough to cow the obstinacy of these brash and defiant beings called “men” and “women.” Tonight would be different. So it had been decided in the hearts and minds of the stealthy watchers. On this night, the frail human parasites would glimpse the real soul of Byanntia, and then their true measure would be taken.

Far from the darkness of the hills, picnic tables cluttered the town square. The people of New Dodge feasted on fresh kison, whole grain breads, young stinger leaves, and cakes and pies baked with the meager surplus of sugar, cream, and dried fruit donated by the surrounding ranches and farms. From the walls of the school, the medical center, and the administration building, which most people called “Town Hall,” hung strings of cold, glowing lanterns dripping soft light onto the festivities. A makeshift band of fiddle, guitar, horns, and drums played a fast-paced song that set many party-goers to dancing.

The entire day had been spent this way, given over to the arduous effort of eating, drinking, relaxing, and laughing. It was a rare occasion in the hardworking community, one that delivered an invigorating break from work and routine. It was a true holiday, a fête of distinctly Byanntian nature, different from those times small groups of settlers paid their respects to their origins by observing the holidays they had carried with them from Earth. This day, this observance, could only be celebrated on Byanntia and only by the people of New Dodge.

Back on Earth, before the settlers left, before even the Triumphant had been built and their equipment gathered, their journey charted and planned, their lives uprooted and cast upon a new course, scientists and researchers had issued an analysis of their chances for survival. It came in the form of a one-hundred gigabyte document that contained instructions, guidelines, and databases designed to increase their chances of founding a permanent settlement in thirty-seven different environments. Among all that information, a single statistic imprinted itself on the minds of the settlers: the scientifically derived fact that their chances of success rose from 22.7 percent to 64.3 percent if they lasted for eighteenth Byanntian months.

Today marked the forty-first anniversary of the first Turning Point, that historic first day of the settler’s nineteenth month on Byanntia, which had marked a new phase of hope and optimism that carried them through many of the bleak times that had followed in the ensuing decades.

Even the dour Stuart Duncan felt the high spirits electrifying the crowd tonight. At a table near the edge of the square, he craned his neck upward to take in the pyrotechnics display and considered the hardships the people of New Dodge had overcome—the missteps and the close calls, the friends and family members lost and put to rest in the semi-arid soil of their adopted home. He thought, too, of the many laid in the ground for whom this planet was the land of their birth, for only those who had come on the Triumphant—the First—could rightly call this place adopted, and when they lost one from among the second or third generations, the tragedy always seemed somehow greater than losing a member of the First. Still, they carried on. Each of the settlers shouldered part of the burden, but Stuart felt its pressure more than most in his post as sheriff. He knew these were good people who surrounded him, every one of them, but disagreements were inevitable. Differences of opinion were as common here as they had been on Earth. Such things could poison a place like New Dodge, a town barely past its infancy for all its years on the ground, and now, finally, taking its first steps toward a greater permanence. Duncan and the town leaders did their best and so far it had sufficed. They had guided the town to another Turning Point. But with one weight lifted from his shoulders, Stuart knew that others waited in the days ahead.

Sharon Duncan hooked her arm through the crook of her husband’s elbow and twined her fingers around his, rubbing their deep calluses. She leaned toward him and whispered, “Lighten up, Stu. Relax. It’s a party, remember?”

“I am relaxed,” he claimed with a broad smile.

“Uh-uh. I know that look. It’s one hundred percent pensive. There’s not a slack muscle in your body. So, you listen to me. If there’s anyone here who has earned a night off, it’s you. It’s the Turning Point, and you got us here through another year. Now, enjoy it for a couple of hours, because tomorrow, it’s back to business as usual for everyone,” Sharon said.

Duncan scooped the back of his wife’s head with his broad, thick-knuckled hand, and pressed her lips to his, holding her there for a long moment while the warm breeze passed between them. Breaking away, he said, “You’re right, you know.”

“Of course I am, darling,” Sharon purred. “When was the last time I was wrong?”

Stuart knew the best answer to that question, but the teasing reply dissipated at the sound of a familiar voice calling to him—Frankie, hollering from the far edge of town. He turned and saw his son racing across the outskirts of the buildings, his two best friends hard on his heels, all of them pounding their legs like the Gr’nar was breathing down their necks. Stuart shifted around on the picnic bench and waited.

“Bet I know where they’ve been,” he said to Sharon, his expression hardening.

“That boy,” Sharon muttered as she felt her husband’s shoulders draw tight. “Don’t let him ruin your night, Stu.”

“It’s not my night about be ruined,” he replied.

“Dad!” Frankie yelled again. He stumbled to a stop, skidding to one knee in the dirt, and knelt there panting, trying to speak. “Dad,” he repeated.

Grant and Cole pattered up behind him, the two boys bending over and sucking air. The run into town had lasted just over a mile, but the boys had covered the distance like a sprint, bounding and leaping over rocks and gullies, pumping their legs to maximum speed, ignoring the blood pounding behind their eyes.

“Dad!” Frank belted out between gasps. “We got company! Someone’s driving a Crawler down the east trail. We’ve never seen it before. It’s on fire or something.”

“What are you talking about, Frankie?”

“We saw it, Dad, coming this way. A strange Crawler. Smoke coming out of it,” Frank huffed. “Coming down the east trail.”

“So, you three were up in the well towers?” Duncan barked. “No other way you could see the east trail at night.”

Frank grimaced. “Yeah, Dad, yeah, we were. I know we’re not supposed to be messing around up there. We just wanted to see the fireworks. But listen, that Crawler we saw will be here soon. You can count on that. It’s already inside the shield perimeter.”

Frank’s quick admission snapped Duncan into focus. Under other circumstances, the boy would have hemmed and hawed, searching for a way to avoid the punishment he knew he was due for disobeying his father and breaking the law. That Frank had owned up without skipping a beat made it clear how alarmed he was by what he had seen and that he was doing his best to warn the town. Duncan respected that. It was the kind of behavior he’d tried to teach his son, the kind of thinking it would take for New Dodge to survive over the long haul.

“All right, I believe you, Frankie. You did the right thing by telling me,” Duncan said. “Don’t get it into your heads that any of you three are off the hook for being up in the towers, but I appreciate what you’ve done. Now, listen, I got a job for you. Whoever is coming into town, it’s probably best if we go out and meet them halfway, and until we know what we’re dealing with, we don’t need any diversions. So, I need you three to get down to the south clearing fast as you can and tell Thom and Mick to cut the fireworks short until they hear from me. Got it?”

All three serious-faced boys nodded.

“Then get going!” Duncan barked.

The trio took off at a dead run toward the town square and the meadow on the far side of New Dodge.

Duncan walked to a neighboring picnic table where the Matsons and the Hughes sat. Jacob Matson and Garris Hughes had broken off talk with their wives, distracted by Duncan’s conversation with his son. The last few weeks had been nerve-wracking, for New Dodge suffered through its third drought this year, and the two men had watched the arrival of Frank and his friends with worry. The town had been teetering on a knife’s edge of survival, and the settlers had come to despise unwanted intrusions. Bad enough the skirmishes with the Kuzzi they had weathered a few months back. Up until that bloody episode with the Gr’nar, the Kuzzi had more or less ignored them for years. But after Jacob Matson had single-handedly just about killed the legendary, invisible beast that came out of hibernation only every 68 years, the creatures had deposed their leader, the moderate Chief Bollatu, and tensions had flared. The conflict had settled down to a workable coexistence for the time being, but it was a long way from a permanent solution, barely enough to hold the lid on if nothing upset the balance.

Sheriff Duncan watched Jacob Matson rise, and he felt a pang about asking the man to exert himself. The lawman and the rancher were both well on in years, but Jacob had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness and was already living and breathing three or four months beyond Doc Lieber’s best expectations. And Jacob had lost his son Chad about fourteen months back, one of the first human victims of the Gr’nar. Chad had been meant to take over running Twin Feathers, the Matson’s ranch, but that responsibility had now fallen to his brother Joseph. Duncan told the two men and their wives what Frank had reported.

“So, I need you fellows to raise the Guard. Figure our better halves can spread word to the crowd to keep it low key while we set up a blockade out on the east trail. I don’t want that Crawler rolling in here until we know who’s driving it and why. Bad enough the damn thing already made it inside shield range,” Duncan said.

“Smart thinking, Stu,” Matson agreed. “I’ll go over to Town Hall, open the weapons vault, and prep some repellers. Want me to sound the alarm?”

“No,” said Duncan. “Let’s see if we can do this quietly. If it turns out to be nothing, I want folks to have a shot at getting back to the party.”

“In that case, I’ll round up the men, and we’ll meet you on the trail,” said Hughes.

Frank nodded and loped off toward the eastern end of town.

Elsewhere, the three boys elbowed their way through the crowd, jostling settlers and stepping on toes. They carved a pathway of surprised yelps and scolding shouts until they broke free on the other side. They flew downhill, letting the incline carry them until each step was almost a bound, covering far more ground than the boys’ natural strides. They yelled and waved their arms the whole way. Thom and Mick paused at the sight of the trio, then lit a fresh rocket that blasted overhead, where it unleashed a ring of blue sparks. Mick pointed his lighter toward the fuse of the next round, but Grant plowed into him at full speed, knocking them both into a tumble on grass.

“Grant!” shouted Mick when they stopped rolling. “What the hell is your problem, boy? You trying to kill me?”

Frank filled them in on the situation while Thom helped his partner back to his feet. The two men set aside the next firework shell and squinted into the eastern blackness. Thom raised a pair of field glasses from their strap around his neck and peered through them toward the east.

“Don’t like this,” Thom commented. “Running a Crawler at night without lights is a good way to pitch yourself into a ditch. Must have a good reason for wanting to keep a low profile.”

“More likely, it’s a bad reason,” said Mick. “I told you I saw someone over the ridge past Verdi’s plain the other day. And there’s no call for anyone to be out there this time of year.”

“And I told you it must have been Kuzzi,” Thom retorted.

“I know the difference between an eight-foot tall striped monster and a man,” snapped Mick.

“Well, whatever it is, I can’t say I’m ready to roll out a hearty welcome. Guess we better grab our repellers and hustle our rumps up there with the rest of the Guard,” Thom decided.

“You fellas stay here and keep watch on the works,” Mick said to the boys. “Not a good idea to leave them unattended. But don’t even think about playing around with them. Need to be a trained professional to do it safely.”

“No, you don’t. It’s easy,” chided Grant. “Just hold the damn lighter to the fuse then duck. Hell, you can do it, I can do it.”

Mick slapped Grant in the back of the head. “Don’t even think about it. Mess with my fireworks, and I will make it my personal obsession to see you on waste reclamation duty for the rest of your pathetic childhood. I do not need to hear it from your father for the next ten years if you blow yourself to smithereens.”

Thom doffed his field glasses and handed them to Frank. “Here, you can hold onto these, too. Was using them to spot our aim. They got night vision.”

“Cool, thanks,” Frank said.

With that, Thom and Mick dashed up the hill toward the town center.

Already, three men were marching to the eastern edge of town, armed with repellers and bolt throwers. The boys watched their silhouettes cross the steady glow from the lights at the power plant. A larger group of men trailed them, carrying picnic tables, which they turned over on their sides and set in the dirt to form a crude roadblock across the path, about fifty yards outside of town. Next came Garris Hughes and Richard Finch, shuffling along with shoulders bowed under the weight of a heavy noonlight that had once been part of Triumphant’s signal array. They planted it beside the tables. Finch swiveled the light’s drum around and activated it.

Icy illumination painted the trail, turning it to afternoon for more than a hundred yards. As far away as they were, the sudden light still hit the boys with a sharp, harsh glare. The rumble of the Crawler drew closer while their eyes adjusted, and by the time they could stare straight on toward the arc of the noonlight, they could see the Crawler rolling across the edge of the shadow and nosing to a stop just inside the range of the light. Black smoke, coarse and oily in the brightness, drifted from the back engine compartment.

“Man, talk about timing,” said Colt.

For a cold minute, nothing happened.

Stuart Duncan, Garris Hughes, and the Joseph Matson stood thirty or forty feet out in front of the makeshift checkpoint, repeller rifles hanging loose and ready in their hands. The Crawler idled, its engine gurgling and belching forth occasional bulbs of black soot that smelled of burning engine fluid. In the town square, the people of New Dodge grew silent and the band set down their instruments. The eyes of every settler turned toward the east, where spillover from the noonlight bounced and rippled on the flapping thermal sheeting of the distant dew wells. A stray wind caught some dust from the trail between the men and the Crawler, lifted it, spun it in a miniature cyclone that held for a moment, and then dropped it back to the ground.

With a mighty creak, the forward hatch of the Crawler swung outward and a man emerged, one hand cupped across his brow to take the edge off the artificial brightness. He took three steps down the trail and then stopped. One hand fumbled inside his coat until it emerged with a pair of desert sungoggles that he donned to protect his eyes.

He cleared his throat, and the sound carried through the silence.

“Well, Hiya,” he called. “See you brought out the welcoming committee. Not necessary, but much appreciated. My name’s Barnes Mungelson. My crew and I apologize for dropping in unannounced, but we could sure use some help.”

Mungelson wore loose-fitting clothing of the kind favored by rangers and desert researchers for its comfort and protection from the sudden, swirling sandstorms that plagued the Junsuka. Several days’ growth of beard spotted his jaw line. He looked tired and his left arm shook.

“Always happy to lend a hand to a neighbor,” responded Duncan. “It’s just that, well, pretty much every human who lives here on Byanntia happens to be down in the town square tonight. So, I think you can understand our intense interest in a new face. What business brings you our way?”

“Well, there’s damn few humans on this ball of dirt and even less civilized living, that’s no lie you’re telling. I guess this must be the famous town of New Dodge,” said Mungelson.

Duncan’s eyes narrowed and he tightened his grip around the stock of his repeller. “Mr. Mungelson, I asked you a question,” he stated.

Mungelson bristled.

“So you did, so you did,” he muttered. He stuck one hand behind his back and waved two fingers toward the Crawler. “Doing research out in the damn desert brings me to Byanntia. Collecting samples, monitoring weather patterns, looking for signs of new and interesting life brings me to Byanntia. And given our current situation, I’d just as soon I had never set foot here. We hit a sinkhole coming across some dunes and slid into some submerged rocks. Banged up the Crawler real good. Our pickup isn’t scheduled for another week, but we caught a bead on your satellite beacon and figured you were close enough for us to pull in to make some repairs.”

 “What outfit you with?” asked Duncan.

“LunaTech,” said Mungelson. “Got all our papers and permits in the Crawler. Be happy to show them to you, though I have to say, I wouldn’t mind knowing your name first.”

“I’m Sheriff Stuart Duncan,” he said. “I expect we’ll be able to help you fix that Crawler. We got some spare parts and half-a-dozen crack mechanics. But I’ll take you up on that offer, I think. So, let’s see those papers, meet your crew, and have a look at your cargo.”

“Sure, sure, Sheriff,” Mungelson said. He rotated, waving for Duncan to follow him. “Come on with me, and I’ll introduce you to my guys. One of them is injured. Sprained his ankle digging the Crawler free. He’ll be all right, but I suppose he wouldn’t mind some painkillers if you have a doctor in town.”

“We do,” said Duncan. “We’ll see to his injuries as soon as we take care of business.”

“All right, then,” replied Mungelson. He reached up to the hatch and pulled himself back into the Crawler.

Duncan looked over his shoulder at Garris Hughes, and whispered, “You catch that signal he flashed back to the Crawler?”

“I noticed it,” Hughes said.

“All right, then,” said Duncan. “Keep us covered. I’m not back in a reasonable amount of time, pull everyone into the square and get ready to blast this bunch to dust and debris if they cross the town line.”

Hughes nodded.

Through the field glasses, Frank saw his father’s subtle wave, hand at his side, in silent signal to Joseph Matson and Richard Finch. The two men broke off from the group, outside of the range of the noonlight, and disappeared into the night. Frank tried to track them, switching the glasses back to night vision, but the plume of smoke flooding out of the Crawler obscured his view.

“I don’t believe it!” blurted Colt. “Your dad is going into the Crawler.”

“Yeah,” Frank said, dangling the field glasses from his neck. “Guess he wants to make sure everything is all right before he lets these people into town.”

“You think that’s a good idea?” asked Colt. “Going in alone?”

“What do you think they’re going to do, Colt? Kidnap him and run? Where would they go? They obviously need our help. It’ll be fine. You know my Dad. Has to have everything signed on the dotted line before he so much as takes a leak. He’s just being careful.”

“That Crawler has seen better days, I’ll tell you,” observed Grant. He took the field glasses from Frank and scanned the vehicle. “Look at those scratches and gouges. Must have been some pretty sharp, hard rock to take chunks of metal like that out of it. Back tracks are off alignment. Probably leaking fluids under there, too.”

“Well, I figure we can get it fixed for them,” Frank said. “As long as we got Choi and Tomlinson around, there’s not much mechanical work we can’t do.”

“You think your dad is going to have our hides for being up in the dew towers?” wondered Grant. “That was pretty damn stupid, I guess. Not that we hurt anything.”

Frank shrugged. “He won’t let us off, you know that.”

“Look, he’s coming out!” blurted Colt.

Duncan emerged from the cabin of the Crawler, and the boys fell silent, captivated by the ongoing exchange on the edge of town. The stranger followed. The two men shook hands in the vehicle’s shadow.

  1. Duncan returned to the checkpoint. “They back, yet?” he asked Hughes.

“Nope,” Hughes said. “So, what do you make of these guys?”

“Everything seems to be in order. Got the papers from LunaTech, just like he said, notarized by a duly appointed representative of the United Rim. And he showed me a few bins of samples they got stored. Still, something doesn’t feel right,” Duncan explained. “That Crawler has taken a beating, something more than just tipping over on some sandy rock, I’d say. And there’s a strange smell in there. Faint. Can’t place it, but I know I’ve smelled it before.”

“Papers can be forged. Samples can be faked,” Hughes noted.

“Sure can,” acknowledged Duncan. “And I’m no soil scientist to say whether their rocks and dirt are the genuine article or not.”

“Want me to send Pete Dawson to fetch Professor Ridley? He’ll tell you in a second if the stuff is genuine,” suggested Hughes.

“Already thought of that,” Duncan said. “And I see it this way—if they’re on the up and up, no problem. If they’re not, the sooner they think we’re onto them, the sooner this could turn ugly. I think we should get them under control, separate them from that Crawler, and then we can get down to the nut of this on our terms.”

“Why don’t we just send them packing?” said Hughes.

“Broken down and injured? They need a place to go. Can’t be sure they’ll leave if we tell them to. They could just linger around out in the foothills and make trouble for us. Or worse, they might find their way into the squatter camp and rile that bunch up. More trouble we don’t need. Better to keep them where we can see them,” Duncan said. “And, Hell, who knows—maybe they’re just who they say they are.”

“I kind of doubt it, but all right; we’ll clear the trail another sixty yards or so to the vehicle shed. That Crawler ought to be able to make it. I can post fifteen, twenty men to block the path toward the square,” Hughes said.

“Do it,” said Duncan.

The sheriff approached the Crawler and waited for Mungelson. He surveyed the odd damage to the vehicle, the scratches and dents left as if something had raked across the hard shell and tried to pound its way into the interior. A hairline crack ran through the windshield, and Duncan pondered a dozen scenarios that could have broken glass made to withstand an avalanche. He felt satisfied by none of them.

Mungelson ambled out of the Crawler and met Duncan at the center of the trail.

“Have your guys follow my men to the garage. Then we’ll get you squared away and see about some food and sleeping quarters for the night,” Duncan said.

“That sounds better than fine, Sheriff. I’m grateful to you, my new friend,” replied Mungelson, a toothy smile creasing his broad face.

“Now, just hold off on all that,” clipped a clear, stern voice from the darkness beyond the edge of the trail. Joseph Matson and Finch emerged into the light, their repellers up and cocked, one aimed at Mungelson and the other at the Crawler. Something coarse and wet dangled from the crook of Matson’s arm and flapped in the half-hearted wind. The men’s expressions lit an anxious fire in Duncan’s gut.

“Whatever line of bull this scum has been feeding you, Stu, forget it. Him and his men are dirty poachers and liars. There’s blood all over the back tracks of this Crawler, and we found this in a broken storage compartment back there,” Matson said. “Thing is full of them.”

He hurled the fresh skin to the ground.

It fluttered in the tepid breeze and unfurled, its blue, black, and gray striping unmistakable, as were the dark red patches of blood spotting it. A caustic odor rose from the dead flesh, the same scent Duncan had sensed in the Crawler, but stronger, an odor he now recalled from when men had fought and killed for the right to keep this stretch of ground they called home.

“Kuzzi hide,” uttered Duncan.

Cold dread filled him then melted away to searing rage.

Duncan swung once, the blow so unexpected and fast that Mungelson took it flat in the center of his face without quite knowing what had hit him. He doped it out seconds later after he had dropped to the ground, rolled once, and came to rest on his back. Duncan lurched over him with his repeller aimed at the poacher’s heart. His knuckles were numb, but he felt confident his fingers could still squeeze the trigger.

Back in the clearing, Grant, still watching through the field glasses, cried out, “No way! Your dad just decked the guy, Frankie.”

“Give!” Frank ordered, seizing the field glasses, raising them to his eyes. “Oh, man, that’s a Kuzzi skin on the ground. These guys are hunters!”

“Outlaws,” Colt said. “Then that means they’re armed.”

Looking down at the wounded man, Duncan brimmed with venom. “Give me one good reason not to blast a hole in every single one of you sleazy sons of bitches,” he growled.

The vengeful edge in his voice shocked his friends as much as it did Mungelson. Hunting Kuzzi was illegal, punishable on Earth by life in psychiatric rehab, but that had not stopped a black market for the creature’s hides and organs from springing up. People who measured their souls in wealth and power had proven more than willing to spend small fortunes for the pride of owning secret items made of genuine Kuzzi hide, or for the pleasure of consuming the tiny clusters of glands in their chests that contained a rare chemical that was hallucinogenic in humans. There was more than enough money in it to tempt men like Mungelson, ample lucre to pay for their ships, bribe officials, and purchase the equipment needed to land in the wilderness. A week’s hunt could garner a hundred hides for clever, stealthy hunting parties, though the Kuzzi often proved dangerous prey. Career poachers were a rare breed. One who survived more than four hunts earned the tag of veteran, and those few who lasted six often earned enough to retire for the balance of their lives and live like kings. Not many did, though.

Everyone waited for Mungelson’s answer, their attention fixed to the steady black hole at the end of Duncan’s repeller.

Mungelson wiped his blood on his sleeve and cleared his throat. “They’re jes’ animals,” he slurred. “Not human.”

“They’re intelligent,” Duncan retorted.

“By whose standards?” burbled Mungelson. “They’re savages! Wild beasts! Dirty creatures roaming the hills with no more sense of social structure than a pride of lions. Sophisticated, yeah, but not like men. Way I heard it, the whole lot of them have just been biding their time waiting to see you killed by the Gr’nar. And yet, here you are, defending them?”

“This is their world, not yours,” Duncan said. “They’re not supposed to be like men. It doesn’t mean we’re free to murder them.”

Mungelson laughed. “It ain’t murder, and I really don’t care what you have to say. I thought we might work out an arrangement like reasonable, worldly men, Sheriff, but I’m just as happy to do this the hard and unpleasant way. Now, throw that repeller over here or I’ll have my men lob a blisterbomb into your happy little gathering down the road there.”

The top hatch of the Crawler clanked open and a dirt-matted figure popped up, a broad launch tube poised on his shoulder. The glow of its targeting display colored his face a pale green. He pointed the weapon upward, indicating the arc that would carry its projectile into the town square. Duncan recognized the gun and knew its range, knew what it meant for the settlers.

The missile would cover the distance in less than two seconds, then explode twenty or so feet overhead, dispersing a liquid sheet of death that would drench anyone below it, burning through clothing to coat their body with thick, caustic oil. Within seconds, the settlers’ skin would turn bright red and erupt with plump pustules and heavy blisters. The fumes would travel into their lungs and the same process would begin internally. Within a minute they would be lying on the ground, writhing, unable to move, barely able to breathe, and then the inflammations and lesions would swell and burst, carrying flesh away in great swaths shed like a snake’s skin. In less than three minutes, all those caught in the blast spray would be dead and reduced to bone and molten meat. Duncan played it out in his head. He thought of Sharon, pictured her body decomposing inside and out while he stood by helpless to save her.

“I got a bead on this prick, Stu,” said Finch, steadying his repeller on the man atop the Crawler. “Let me take him out, and end this right here.”

Finch was a top marksman, but if he missed or failed to kill the poacher in one shot, it could mean a painful death for many of the settlers. “Just hold off there for now, Rich,” Duncan said. “Now that we have the truth, I want to hear what Mr. Mungelson really wants.”

The satisfied smirk on Mungelson’s face burned Duncan, but he saw no option other than to stall until an opportunity presented itself. He activated the safety on his repeller and threw it to the ground. The poacher stood and brushed dirt from his clothes. He sniffled, produced a stained handkerchief, and pressed it to his face, shivering as pain shot through his head and down his neck.

“One hell of a punch you got there, Stu,” he snarled as he groped around for the repeller and found it. “Impressive for an old fart. Any harder and I’d be breathing out the back of my neck.”

“Let’s hear it, Mungelson. What do you want?” Duncan demanded.

The poacher shook his head. “Damn fool you are. You and all your friends here. Trying to find a way to live with those foul beasts out there while Earth stews in its own filth, suckling at the meager teat of clean meat and produce you send back. Men could take this world, make it our own, and live like we were meant to—free! Instead you choose to scrape and sweat, spill your blood into the soil so it can drink it up in a heartbeat like it never even existed. You make me sick, Stu.

Mungelson pulled the handkerchief aside, opened his mouth and stuck two fingers in while he mimed gagging and choking.

“Just tell me what you want,” blasted Duncan.

“Fine,” said Mungelson. He drew himself up inches away from the sheriff and leaned in close to his face. “We want protection and shelter until our ship comes to take us away. And then we want use of your landing facilities. Those miserable Kuzzi are getting smarter. They caught wind of us early this time and they were waiting. Came at us in a horde while we were stowing our take from one of their hunting parties. Got some new, heavy weapon, battering ram kind of thing, like a redwood trunk. Nearly broke their way into our Crawler, except the thing is built like a tank. We limped away from them, but they’ve been following us for two days. Thing is, we can’t spend another week exposed in the wild and we can’t risk them interfering when our ride comes. So, you and the rest of New Dodge are going to put us up until then, fix our Crawler, feed us, hide us from the Kuzzi, and then help us lift off. Got it?”

“If the Kuzzi have been tracking you, Mungelson, then they know you’re here,” Duncan said. “You’re asking me to put New Dodge at risk.”

“Understand something, here, Sheriff—New Dodge is already at risk. We used a fair number of blisterbombs fighting off the Kuzzi, but we got more than enough left to deal with your little shithole town here. So, I’m not asking you for anything, Stu. I’m telling you,” Mungelson said.

“Think it through, Sheriff,” Joseph Matson warned. “Even if we cover these animals for a week and then let them leave, the Kuzzi will know we helped our own kind get away with slaughtering their kind. They’ll never trust us after that. Won’t matter a bit that it was under duress.”

“I know that, Joseph,” Duncan said. “But what choice have we got?”

“Just take a minute to give it some thought, Sheriff. That’s all I’m trying to say,” Matson continued, and Duncan picked up on the young man’s unspoken message—buy some time. Something had been set in motion. Duncan did not know what to expect, but he had faith in his friends.

“Go on and let me take the shot, Stu,” pleaded Finch. “I’m telling you, I got this bastard dead to rights.”

“Yeah, maybe you should,” Duncan said, putting on a show of ambivalence. “Figure we don’t take our chance now, we’re just delaying the inevitable. We either fight this ragtag pile of kison turds or thousands and thousands of Kuzzi. Maybe we’ll get lucky with these losers.”

“Uh-uh,” Mungelson said. “You listen to me before you do anything rash, Stu, because my associate atop the Crawler is but one member of my crew, armed with the firepower necessary to cripple your little tin-walled happyland here at the push of a button. Go ahead and kill him. Kill me if you think you’re fast enough. You’ll be signing death warrants for a lot of people and your own at the same time. Well, you got the facts. Rest is up to you, Sheriff.”

“You’re putting me in one hell of a spot here, Mungelson,” Duncan said.

“Quit stalling. I ain’t got time for shooting the breeze,” the poacher spat back.

Duncan began to reply, but the blazing report of a bolt thrower cut him short.

The shot had come from the rear of the Crawler, the portion still cloaked in night, and the flash had pointed toward town. The poachers had a sniper mounted back there, out of sight, equipped with an infrared viewer and a long range weapon. Duncan cursed his stupidity for not anticipating such a maneuver as he whirled around and looked for the gunner’s mark. A second shot fired. Through the narrow spaces between buildings, the sheriff saw Mick Busco and Thom Horton laid out on the ground at the edge of the town square. Jacob Matson knelt beside them, a pile of discarded repeller rifles at his feet, scattered alongside those dropped by Mick and Thom. Each man had been carrying an armful of weaponry. A small group, led by Doc Lieber, broke off from the gathering and rushed to help the fallen men. Across the distance Duncan could not tell if they still lived.

Mungelson sneered. “Well, now, that’s about the saddest attempt to fight back I ever did see.”

Duncan looked to Joseph Matson and Finch for explanation. Both men’s faces had gone pale. The marksman lowered his weapon “Damn sniper,” Finch grumbled.

“I’m sorry, Stu. Dad thought Mick and Thom would get through with the guns, get the crowd spread out to defend the town,” Matson said. “We set them up before we reported back to you. Figured it was worth a shot.”

Duncan shrugged. “I suppose it was at that.”

“Well, what’s it gonna be?” Mungelson prodded. “As if I don’t already know.”

A knot tightened in Duncan’s stomach. Every one of his muscles trembled with the desire to clutch Mungelson and beat him into silence. But there was nothing he could do. He hated his helplessness. If it had been only his own life at stake, he might have sacrificed it, so long as he could take Mungelson with him. But he had others to watch over and protect.

“Keep your shirt on, Mungelson. I may be ornery, but I know when I’m licked,” Duncan said.

Mungelson’s face broke into a wide, self-satisfied smile, but it faded fast.

A sanguine howl filled the moonless sky: a long, anguished accusation, answered by other voices joining it in a discordant chorus that rose together and meshed into a single outpouring of pain, injustice, and anger. It thinned the blood of all those who heard it. The tall, dry grass that grew off the trail rustled with movement beyond the range of the electric light. The guttural wailing continued, increasing in volume as it drew closer, and achieved a shrill, painful pitch before it ceased as abruptly as it had begun.

Mungelson seized Duncan by his shirt. “We got no time left!” he screamed. “Order your men to protect us. Now!”

Duncan ignored the poacher’s frantic pleas. His attention fixated on the lithe form taking shape in the shadows by the rear of the Crawler. The towering figure stepped partway into the realm of the noonlight, where its powerful striped legs identified it as a Kuzzi warrior. The auburn embers of its eyes, still shrouded in darkness, conveyed its disposition. Muscles and sinew twisted and flexed and a bulky shape flew across the air. A poacher, his hands still wrapped around a bolt thrower, crashed to the dirt. A long spear angled with multiple blades and points protruded from between his shoulders.

A second Kuzzi joined the first, this one taller and stronger, its eyes enflamed with fury, its teeth bared and glowing in the dark. It stamped the dirt beside its wide taloned paws with the haft of its purjung, a spear identical to the one embedded in the sniper.

“Must be a hundred of them out there,” said Finch.

“More,” added Matson.

Guardsmen crouched behind the flimsy protection of the blockade, their weapons raised, their nerves buzzing with anticipation.

“Shoot! Shoot already,” cried Mungelson. “What are you waiting for? You’ll let them kill us all. Give the order, Sheriff, by the count of three, or I will have my man burn your town to extinction.”

Mungelson leveled the repeller toward Duncan and began his count. He never finished it.

At “two,” an explosion ripped across the air directly above the men, followed half a second later by two more. Even the noonlight paled in the sudden flash of colors that bit the men’s eyes and turned their movements into strobed pantomimes of activity. In the increased illumination, Duncan saw the ranks of the Kuzzi spread out in semi-circles on each side of the trail, two or three deep in places, their lines stretching into the foothills and beyond sight. Their long, creamy fangs, slicked with saliva, protruded from black gums; the dark lips of their muzzles were drawn back in shallow snarls. Their eyes narrowed to bores of ferocity, and their shiny, black manes stood erect and pointed along the backs of their skulls and down the line of their spines. Each one clasped a twelve-foot purjung, arrayed with three or more blades.

There were not a hundred, but hundreds, possibly thousands stretching deep into the foothills, as if the entire Kuzzi nation had turned out in witness for the events of this dark night.

A gunshot cracked, but Duncan could not tell who had fired. The clashing glares tricked his vision. A second report snapped. He ducked in fear of stray shots, but no other gun spoke, and he crouched, uncertain whether to run or defend himself. He rubbed his eyes as the parti-colored flares faded, giving way to the steady clarity of the noonlight. What had happened had taken only seconds.

Mungelson lay sprawled in the trail, blood spattered across his leather tunic, his chest pumping in erratic gasps for breath as consciousness bled from him.

The poacher armed with the blisterbomb hung from the hatch of the Crawler, his rocket launcher lost in the dust beside the machine’s tracks. Half a dozen men from the Guard, who had been further back and away from the full intensity of the explosions, had already surrounded and entered the vehicle, taking control from the stunned poachers inside. The men tried to ignore the fierce Kuzzi warriors, who watched and waited.

“You all right, Stuart?” someone asked.

A reassuring hand pressed Duncan’s shoulder. It was Finch.

“Told you I had the bastard dead to rights,” he said.

Duncan rubbed his eyes. “So you did.”

“Your eyes will recover. One of those fireworks went off right over your head. Another practically set that man on top of the Crawler’s hair on fire,” Joseph Matson said.

Duncan scanned his men as his vision cleared and wondered who had ignited the fireworks. He thought he already had a pretty good idea, but he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it.

The Guardsmen led the poachers from the Crawler and lined them up in a row in front of the vehicle. There were five of them, all dirty and tired-looking, with expressions ranging from frightened to defiant. Duncan felt cold hatred for these men, who were themselves more like beasts than the Kuzzi they hunted. The hum of leathern paws scuffing brown grass and coarse dirt snapped Duncan back to the moment. The Kuzzi tightened their ranks, moving into the light and closing the half-circle they had formed around the Crawler. Duncan could not interpret their reserve during the brief firefight. Why had the Kuzzi not taken the opportunity to sweep in and overwhelm the men with their numbers? He searched their alien expressions, but no face among them divulged a single clue.

The tall one he had noted earlier broke ranks and approached him.

Better than eight feet in height, he loomed over Duncan, a giant of muscle and bone and fur, the kind of beast fit to spawn a thousand legends back on Earth. The Kuzzi nodded and dipped his muzzle in a traditional greeting and then it growled a low rumbling sound that rolled on for a full minute. The other Kuzzi echoed him. They stamped the posts of their purjungs against the ground, the dull thumping building to a thunderous roar as more and more of them joined in, found a common rhythm, and turned the arid plain into a massive, muted drum that throbbed with fury and heartache. And then Duncan understood their discipline, their purpose.

How Mungelson or anyone else could consider these creatures less than human was something he would never understand.

With all the power they needed to enforce their will at hand, the Kuzzi had chosen to make known their desires and then wait to see what their human neighbors would do. Duncan knew the people of New Dodge were being tested tonight in more than one way. The standoff with the poachers had been defused, and now the Kuzzi had laid their claim. The hunters had broken the law, and Duncan knew he could imprison them, hold them until the Rim Authority could send a transport to take them back to Earth to stand trial. But Earth law was not the only law they had transgressed. Certainly, it was not the first law they had broken. Didn’t the Kuzzi have an even greater right to satisfy their need for justice? Kuzzi blood had been spilled, not human. The people of New Dodge had been unwilling players in the eternal conflict between hunter and prey, though Duncan could not say for sure precisely which role fit the Kuzzi and which the poachers. Not that it mattered. The way was clear to him now.

The sheriff crouched and retrieved the hide Joseph Matson had thrown to the dirt. He carried it to the Kuzzi leader, cradling it across his forearms, and then he knelt and presented the skin as though handing over the corpse of a fallen friend.

“My name is Sheriff Stuart Duncan, and I’m deeply sorry,” he said to the Kuzzi, not knowing if the creature understood. “I’m sorry for all this, for everything men like these here have done to your kind. That must sound hollow, and I know it’s no comfort, but these are bad men. We recognize that. They’re outlaws and murderers, and we do not associate ourselves with them.”

The Kuzzi took the hide and nodded once, a wet rumble rolling over in his lungs.

Duncan rose. “I imagine you have ones like them among your own people, ones you single out for punishment. I hope you understand what I’m saying.”

He gestured for the men guarding the Crawler to stand down, and as they moved aside, Kuzzi warriors took their place. A line of Kuzzis entered the Crawler, and after a short time, reemerged, each one carrying a share of skins in their arms, the remains of their fallen. Other Kuzzi raided the rear storage compartments, producing more hides, and soon the lanky warriors were stealing away into the darkness, the striped furs draped across their shoulders and hands. They moved in silence. Duncan’s heart sank at the number of skins reclaimed. He knew, measured in money, they would amount to enough to buy a city, but he could not comprehend that kind of bargain.

When the Kuzzi had completed their work, the sheriff ordered his men to take the empty Crawler into town and leave the poachers for their new captors. As he turned back to New Dodge, he found Jacob Matson blocking his way, the old man’s chest bucking from his jog out from town square.

“You sure about this, Stuart?” Matson asked. “You remember that day out past Morgan’s Bluff, back when we were charting the land? You know the place I mean? Way out on the edge of the frontier? Long time ago, I know, but we were both there. I can’t believe you’ve forgotten. That’s what you’re sentencing these men to. You prepared to do that?”

Duncan had already considered the sheer rock of the bluff, the gentle, sloping valley beyond it, and the terrible sight it had contained. He and Matson had been with ten or twelve other men scouting the outlying reaches of the region on hovercycles when they came to it—a thicket of purjungs and sharp pikes planted in the earth and draped with the skins and bodies of dead Kuzzi warriors, laid out there by a rival tribe that most likely had ambushed them coming south along the bluff. The stink of rotting flesh had been repellant, but even worse were the faces, the flayed skin with eyeholes and muzzles still intact, flapping in the wind from the tips of broken spears.

“Yeah, I know what it means for them,” said Duncan. “I’ll never forget what we saw out there, but I’m not the one sentencing them. We’re not the ones most wronged by these men. It’s the Kuzzi, and the fate of these men is up to them. Way it’s gotta be, Jacob.”

“But it was horrible,” prodded Matson.

Duncan looked his friend in the eye. Matson recoiled from the stark wetness he saw there. “More horrible than what they did to the Kuzzi?” Duncan asked.

The Crawler grumbled down the trail toward the vehicle shed. The poachers hollered and swore as half a dozen Kuzzi took position around them. They cursed the men for leaving them, but their pleas went wasted. Poking the men with the flat of their spears, the Kuzzi marched them toward the foothills. Soon only Duncan and the Kuzzi leader were left, face-to-face in the middle of the trail, their people withdrawing on both sides, stillness returning to the night.

“I hope neither of us ever meets men like that again,” Duncan said.

The Kuzzi leader snarled, a low, throaty sound. His fur rippled and shimmered as he shifted his shoulders. “So do I,” he spoke in a halting, feral tone. “For your sake as much as ours.”

Duncan watched the leader join his tribe. The words filled him with a sensation that he could not identify, one that dulled the edge of the outrage and horror he still felt and stoked the hope for the future that smoldered inside him.

When he reached the town square, he found nearly the entire populace of New Dodge circled around a pair of picnic tables on which his son and his two friends stood.

They were entertaining the crowd with the story of how they lit the fireworks that had saved the day; how they tested the wind, measured the fuses, took careful aim, crossed their fingers, and watched the rockets burn. Doc Lieber had reported that Mick and Thom would pull through with some bed rest and careful medical care, and the settlers were already looking to find some humor in the night’s events. When the boys finished their tale, Duncan waited for the laughter and cheers to subside before he stepped forward.

“Frankie, Grant, Colt,” he said. “You boys played a bigger role in what happened here tonight than you know. Maybe one day you’ll look back and understand it for what it was. As the sheriff of New Dodge, I want to extend the gratitude of the town to you for your fast thinking, your bold action, and your good humor through adversity. We might have been lost without it.”

The boys beamed with pride, smiles creasing their mouths.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that you broke the rules when you climbed the dew towers and that you broke them again, not an hour later, when you fooled around with Mick and Thom’s fireworks. Starting tomorrow, you’re all on three months duty digging trenches for the irrigation system,” Duncan said. “And, dammit, I don’t want to hear a word of complaint from any one of you the whole time.”

Frank and Grant looked stunned. Their grins evaporated. Colt’s shoulders slumped in resignation.

The people of New Dodge filled the square and the streets of their town with a typhoon of communal laughter.

“But tomorrow isn’t here, yet, boys. So for now, get your butts off those tables and let’s get on with the celebration!” Duncan boomed.

In response, a fiddle played and a horn blew, and the band picked up a jaunty beat as three young women dragged the boys into the center of the clearing and made them dance. Later that night, while the party wound to a close, the boys, tired and overexcited, puffed their cigars out behind the vehicle shed and grew dizzy on the potent smoke.

James Chambers has written tales of horror, fantasy, and science fiction that have appeared in Bad-Ass Faeries, Crypto-Critters, Dark Furies, The Dead Walk, Hardboiled Cthulhu, No Longer Dreams, and Warfear, plus the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Inhuman. His short story collection, The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales, was published in 2005.

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