Part 1 of the two part story, Bruce Gehweiler & C.J. Henderson bring us a shared-world of Byanntia. —ed. N.E. Lilly

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Come out, come out, wherever you are. Last one to show his face today gets to be steaks and chops tomorrow!”

Chad Matson floated above the muddy water hole on his hovercycle, searching the horizon for the kison that had wandered off from the main herd. When herding animals that pack”‘grazed in the tens of thousands, maintaining a head count was next to impossible. But Chad had a feel for the great dumb brutes that wore his father’s brand. He could always tell when a few too many of them had strayed. And now, seeing the bottom silt of the last water hole before the vast Junsuka Desert that abutted the family farm churned and gray, he had all the proof he needed that some of them had strayed too far.

Can’t have that, he thought. Not this close to round”‘up. Dehydration ships on their way, Earth hungry for meat—no, no, you ignorant beef bags, none of you are leaving your bones in the sand on my watch.

Chad shifted his weight, nudging his cycle closer to an outcropping of bluish rock jutting out sharply over the water hole. The strange, pancake”‘stack formations that dotted Byanntia’s equator had never ceased to amaze the young plainsman. It had been his father’s generation—The First, as they were known—which had discovered the rocks’ life”‘saving secret decades earlier. The layered pores of the formations’ surfaces absorbed water, storing it in hundreds of tiny internal pouches. Crushing a section of rock freed the trapped moisture, a trick that saved hundreds of lives when the planet was first settled. True, the result was an oily tasting moisture thick with sand, but drinking it was better than dying. Chad’s father knew that fact all too well.

The rocks were actually a cross between mineral and vegetable life. A biologist who came out from Earth to see the formations described them as being something on the order of silicon based”‘sponges. Of course, he had not been able to explain why the rocks did what they did, or how they could be duplicated. Eventually he had left, taking whatever other diverting, but ultimately useless, knowledge he had with him, and life had gone on much as it had before his arrival.

Chad pulled a deep breath in through his nose, releasing it again through one side of his mouth. He was just about to make a looping circular pass out over the plains when something curious below caught his eye. A touch from his left foot sent his cycle in a measured drop, hanging him a scant yard above the still thinly”‘gray water.

“Goddamn,” he whispered, more from awe than a need for privacy. “That looks like bones.”

A numbing roar sounded behind the young plainsman, reverberating out over the desert. Chad down”‘thumbed his handlebar controls, sending his cycle into a reverse half spin that not only turned him around but sent him skimming rapidly backward out over the waterhole a measured thirty feet. The maneuver was a well”‘calculated move—one that allowed Chad to face whatever was behind him while instantly giving him a safe amount of distance. Or, so he had thought.

Chad believed he caught a glimpse of some kind of movement, but he could not actually see what it was that leaped from the outcropping toward him. A shadow stretched from the rocks to the hovering cycle in a fragment of instance, knocking the plainsman out of his seat. Chad’s back hit the water at the same moment his riderless vehicle crashed into the rocks. His head broke the water, his hands clawing for his sidearm.

What in Hell have I …

The thought died in the young man’s brain as a devastatingly powerful blow smashed against his chest. Air crashed out of his body, his throat constricting, lungs flattening, their walls collapsing inward. Blood splashed out over the young rancher’s shattered breastbone. His weapon fell from his suddenly useless fingers. His eyes blinked uncontrollably even as his knees buckled and his thoughts jumbled.

Dying, he realized. I’m dying. Have to warn—

A second blow collided with the back of Chad’s head. Skin broke, bone snapped, blood flowed.

Another roar sounded across the plains, followed by the sounds of a ruined hovercycle motor going into automatic shutdown, and then, a shadow pulled itself out of the water and moved toward the body floating face down in the water, its many teeth grinding in hunger.

This world is such a halt,” complained Stewart with the sneering righteousness of teenaged authority. “What could Dad have been thinkin’ when he helped settle this pit?”

“Seal your mush”‘hatch, will you?” snapped Stewart’s older brother Joseph. “My brain’s baked from having to tune your damn frequency morning, noon and night.”

“Bite one,” snapped Stewart. “With all the planets in this galaxy, why’d we have to get born on the most boring pukeball ever found? No double sun, no extra moons, no rings—might as well be all the drok way back on Earth.”

Joseph just shook his head. How many times did he have to say it? Anything extra in orbit around a planet causes changes in weather patterns. Satellites not much larger than Earth’s moon had been known to virtually tear planets apart by causing endless quakes and volcanic activity, not to mention the monstrous tides such bodies could create. And that insane nonsense about double suns—did the goofy kid have to spend all his time scanning those cheap pulse thrillers?

“How stupid can Chad be?” asked Joseph finally, hoping to change the subject. “Going out stray tracking on his own, with his comm shut down, no less. He doesn’t log a direction statement … I can’t believe Dad is going to let him start running the ranch next year.”

“Why you always have to ragrip everything Chad does?” Stewart pulled his kisonboy hat down over his forehead. “He can take care of himself. He took his bolt thrower. He’ll be back plowin’ through a stack of ribs while we’re still out here eatin’ sand.”

“I don’t get mad at everything Chad does,” answered Joseph, working to control his souring anger. “Just the stupid things. He’s too damn unreliable to run Twin Feathers and I’d just like to know what makes Dad think he won’t have us ass”‘deep in ruin after six months.”

Knowing there was more than a little truth to what his older brother was saying, but not knowing how to defend Chad against it, Stewart changed the subject. “Whatever—why don’t we try the comm again?”

“You do it,” sighed Joseph. Removing his hat, the middle son of the Matson boys let his straight, dirty blonde hair billow in the slight breeze created by his cycle’s forward motion. Staring out over the horizon, he tried to think like Chad would for a moment while his younger brother continued to call into his communicator. His dark blue eyes scanning the horizon, it was when he looked off to his left and spotted the dunes of the Junsuka that inspiration hit him.

“Follow me, squint. I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah,” growled Stewart under his breath, “Ain’t that just one of the things you’re full of.”

The two slammed outward above the still, thick grasslands, the stinger trees thinning rapidly as they approached the edges of Byanntia’s great desert. Nearing the water hole Joseph had remembered as one of Chad’s favorite location marks, he nudged his cycle to a lower speed, his eyes sectioning off and scanning the horizon block by block. After a moment, he said, “Hey, over there by that stinger …”

Joseph gunned his engine, heading toward whatever he had spotted. Stewart followed his older brother, staring more at the dangerous plant than anything around it. Stinger leaves and the tree’s younger branches made good eating while still green, but most of the planet’s inhabitants avoided them. They were far too wary of the tiny, spear”‘like barbs the plants could release at intruders to attempt to use them for even the occasional meal.

“Glory in the morning,” mused the older brother. “What in Hell did that?”

At the base of the tree lay a scatter of kison bones—broken, sucked dry, blood splashed everywhere. Oddly, the bones were completely stripped—every vestige of muscle, cartilage and fat removed as if boiled away. Something more disturbing caught Joseph’s attention. The ground was littered with stingers. Soil, grass, even the bones had been pierced. In the center of the fallout from the tree, however, there sat a semi”‘circle of clear ground. Untouched.

As if, thought Joseph, part of his mind refusing the notion he already knew must be true, whatever did this just sat there feeding … like the stingers didn’t bother it.

“So, where’s the rest of it?” asked Stewart. “Jing me, I’ve never seen a kill this clean. Like the meat was vacuumed off the bones. What can do that?”

“Get back on your bike,” answered Joseph, his voice cold and low, his eyes glued to the scatter of bones.

“You think the Kuzzi did it?” responded Stewart. “Doesn’t look like it. I mean, they kill a kison, they bury it’s heart near the kill. Don’t see any dig holes here. Maybe it’s not them damn aliens—maybe it’s some them new settlers, tryin’ to make trouble for Dad. What d’ya think?”

Joseph whirled around, confusion doubling his anger. “The Kuzzi were here first, you little shit,” he snapped. “They’re not the damn aliens—all right?”

“Drop it a notch, Joey.”

“Shut up,” barked Joseph. Climbing on his bike, the young rancher snapped a holo print of the bones and the curious stinger pattern. As the shock of what he had found began to wear off somewhat, Joseph noted several unidentifiable tracks near the vile scatter. Snapping another holo, a close”‘up of one of the prints, he brought them to his brother’s attention.

“You see those tracks, Joe?” he asked. “You see how deep they are? How far apart they’re spread? Does that give you some idea of how big this thing must be?”

Stewart’s eyes went wide as realization began to seep into his consciousness. Backing toward his hovercycle in a stumbling half”‘shuffle, he tried to mount the bike without breaking off his gaze. When he slipped and fell, he found himself staring down the barrel of his brother’s bolt gun.

“Sorry,” said Joseph, changing the angle of his weapon but not holstering it. “When you yelled, I …”

“No, no,” answered Stewart quietly. “It’s okay. Maybe we best just hug some cloud, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Joseph. As the two took their cycles quickly to a safer altitude, the older brother checked his power box. He wanted to make certain he not only got proper storage on the holograms he snapped, but that he had enough juice for a non”‘stop flight back to the ranch.

“I”‘I hope Chad didn’t run into this thing,” stammered Stewart.

“I’m sure the others have already found him,” lied Joseph. Eyeing the horizon nervously, he added, “But let’s get back to the ranch anyway. It is getting dark.”

What d’ya mean, Doc?” Angry denial and fear scratched at Jacob Matson, tearing at him, struggling to reduce him to the minor stature of ordinary men. “You’re sayin’ I got some disease forty years ago from the flight here to Byanntia that’s gonna kill me now?”

“That’s roughly it, Jacob,” answered the doctor, unable to comprehend how circumstances could have brought him to a moment where he would need to pity a man like Jacob Matson.

His patient fumed for a moment, lost in the struggle to understand what he had just been told. Matson was angry, yes—but not with his doctor. The rancher was angry with his own mortality, with the universe’s incredibly bad timing, with the fact that his unbeatable luck had finally dried up.

“So what’s the solution?”

“There is none, Jacob,” answered the doctor in a quiet voice. “There’s just nothing we can do. Medical science didn’t know about the effects of wave distortions forty years ago. You were the man on monitor duty while everyone else was shielded in their cyro”‘tubes. You took the hit.”

“And these waves, they aged me thirty years? But I still looked …”

“It was your organs, Jacob.” The doctor wore his traditional white jumpsuit under his all”‘weather range coat. Standing on the porch of the Twin Feathers ranch house, he tried to make his patient understand what had happened to him decades earlier. “The distortions set off chain reactions within certain nucleoids in your tissues … it caused them to burn up at twice their normal rate. Outside, yes—you’re still a man of ninety”‘five … not at all old by today’s standards. But internally, you’re pushing a hundred and fifty.”

“Can’t you fix them?” asked Matson, masking his growing desperation with his usual barking voice. “Transplants? Gimme a new heart, kidneys, whatever?”

“Jacob, even if you could survive the multiple transplants, which you can’t—which a twenty year old couldn’t—where exactly am I supposed to get an entire set of adult male organs? Try to understand—you’re crumbling inside, Jacob. You’ve got a year—tops. And you’re luckier than most to know about it this soon.”

Well, it’s good to know my luck hasn’t deserted me, after all, thought the patriarch of Twin Feathers with mocking humor. Resignation dispelling his unaccustomed fear, the thin, white”‘haired man took his doctor’s hand in honest gratitude.

“Thanks, Doc. At least it gives me a year to get Chad squared away on runnin’ the ranch—and a year to make sure there’s no diz’n squatters on my land when I’m gone.” When the doctor gave his patient a stern look, Matson merely chuckled.

“Oh, boohoo—stare all you want. What’re they gonna do, Doc? Put a dead man in the lock?”

The doctor was about to answer when Matson’s wife Shelby came out onto the porch. Her long straight silver hair still caught the late afternoon sun the way it did when she was a teenager, thought her husband. He looked at her intently, staring past her kison hide tunic dress and native Kuzzi jewelry, wondering for a moment how many more times he would be able to see her this way—realizing his days for doing everything important were suddenly, abruptly, finite.

“Why, Doc Lieber,” she said in a voice still rich with the twang of Earth. “I didn’t know you were here. And, Heavens, with a set of empty hands yet.” Shooting her husband a playful frown, she added, “You must think Twin Feathers’ hospitality severely lacking. What can I get you?”

“Nothing this time, Shelby, I was just leaving.”

“Oh, well then,” answered the woman, understanding the looks on both men’s faces, “why don’t you take just a minute to tell me what brought you all the way out here from New Dodge if it wasn’t my cooking?”

“I’ll be deferring to the honorable Mr. Matson on that question, ma’am,” answered the doctor as he slid his wide”‘brimmed hat back on his balding head. Buttoning his range coat, he said, “But I’ll prime the pump by asking you to go easy on this old goat of yours.”

The Matson’s watched the doctor as he made his way down the functional, cut stone steps of the ranch house to his Terrain Hugger. The silver hovercar lifted to a standard nine meter height and then silently began the journey back to New Dodge City. Staring into her husband’s eyes, Shelby Matson could see that something far worse than she could imagine was waiting for her.

Steadying herself for the worst, she asked, “All right, what’s up between you and the Doc? And don’t even think of passing on some of your usual runaround. I’ve been stuck with you too many years, raised too many kids and built this ranch up from nothing with you, so give it out and don’t hold off on the bumpy parts of the ride.”

“Plain and simple, bride, I’ve finally found that something I always knew was out there—that something I can’t bend with my own two hands or think my way around.” When white fire danced across Shelby’s eyes, Matson told her, “Let’s go inside … we need to talk.”

The two moved as one, the door closing silently behind them.

By the time Joseph and Stewart returned to Twin Feathers, the darkness outside matched the black moods in their young hearts. They were half caught up in worry over their older brother, half awash in terror that they might already know what had happened to him. The pair found their parents sitting on the sandboard couch in the den of the ranch’s central house. Joseph noted that his mother had been crying.

“You guys are pretty worried about Chad, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” answered their father, agreeing with the minor truth in order to keep his larger one concealed for the moment. “I take it you two didn’t have any luck.”

“No, sir,” responded Joseph. “And it’s too dark now to keep looking. You still didn’t find anyone who’s seen him?”

“Not yet,” said Shelby as she rose from the couch, straightening her dress. “But I still think he’s just wandered into Dodge to see his new girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?” exploded Stewart. “Don’t tell me he’s gone loopey over some squatter.”

“Well,” admitted their mother, “I don’t think she’s the daughter of any of the First—Chad said her name is Delilah Carter, which is not a name I remember from the Triumphant’s logs.”

“Jing me,” sneered Stewart. “Chad dancin’ dizzy over some tramp freighter whore …”

“Stew …”

“You’re gonna defend him, Joey?” snapped Stewart. “For dinkin’ with some runaway who jinked her family back on Earth. That’s just what we need for Chad to bring home, some selfabsorb who’s only claim to glory is deserting her own.”

“Cool down, runt, we got more important business right now.” Turning back to his father, Joseph said, “Dad, Stew and I found a fresh kison kill on the south range I think you’d better take a look at.”

“Son,” responded Matson with a edgy weariness, “I got a little more on my mind that …”

“You’re going to have to trust me on this,” interrupted Joseph as he inserted the holo he had shot out on the plains into the computer console there in the den. With the tabbing of a few commands, Joseph filled the center of the den with a three”‘dimensional image of the grizzly scene.

“What in the world …”

Jacob Matson’s voice trailed off as he studied the image in the middle of the room. He scratched his head with wonder, his illness suddenly completely forgotten. Joseph tabbed for a new image, telling his father, “There’s more.”

A second holo he had shot of one of the footprints came into focus next to the first image. Matson sat back on his haunches, studying the image before him as closely as he would if he were in the presence of the real thing. His left hand strayed to his face, pulling at his clean”‘shaven chin.

“I helped map this world, catalog its life forms,” he mused, his eyes never leaving the monstrously large track. “There’s nothin’ here anywhere near big enough to have done this to a full grown kison—nothing that leaves tracks like this.” The patriarch turned to his wife.

“Not even a pack of yappers could’ve done this. Nothing cleans bones like this … you know the Kuzzi better’n anyone, sweetheart. Could they have done this—maybe for one’a their ceremonies or somethin’?”

“Not that I know of,” Shelby told her husband. “They only eat meat once a month—and that’s just for religious observance. Besides, they don’t have the technology to strip bone that clean. Jing, I’m not certain even we actually can do such things—out in the middle of nowhere I mean.”

“Yeah,” grumbled Matson. “And even if they did, they didn’t leave that barkin’ track. Did they?”

No one argued with the patriarch. Standing slowly, his eyes not leaving the holograms, Matson started giving orders. As was expected, everyone listened.

“Joe, alert the hands. Play ‘em the holos. Then tell ‘em we’ll be standin’ watch tonight. Get ‘em to throw up the perimeter shields, too. Just a ten klik relay, for now—let’s not start throwin’ money away by the bushelful.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Matson’s oldest surviving son. As Joseph headed out of the room, his father turned to his mother.

“Shelby,” Matson ordered, “you call Sheriff Duncan. Let him know what’s going on. Flash him a copy of the holos. Make sure he throws the image out onto the landholder relay, too—this is not the kind of thing we’d want to be keeping a secret. And see if he’s got any word on Chad yet.”

As she moved to the ranch’s comm center, Matson told Stewart, “Boy, you make certain every man standin’ watch has some iron to fill their fist. Pass out the repeller rifles—make those mushheads depo a thumbprint for ‘em—and if those run out, break out whatever bolt throwers we have crated.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Stewart leaving the room at a run. Turning back to his wife, Matson told her,

“We’ll form up search parties in the morning. We’ll find Chad. And, if there’s some thing out there, we’ll find it, too. And we’ll deal with it.”

Shelby nodded in her husband’s direction as she waited for the line to the Sheriff’s office to clear. Staring at Matson, she could not help but be impressed anew with his grace under pressure. Never in the military nor ever elected to any kind of official office, still he was the kind of man who could think on his feet, who when he gave a command did not think twice about its being carried out. Shelby Matson knew the pressures tearing at her husband—concern about Twin Feathers, about Chad, about his failing health, and now this new mystery—and she marveled at how he could put his mind so coldly in order.

Then, Sheriff Duncan’s rough, but smiling face suddenly filled the comm screen. Shelby Matson fought back the tears she knew would return soon enough, and quietly began letting the lawman know what had happened.

Nope,” said Sheriff Duncan into his commlink, “Pete hasn’t seen Chad today, Mrs. Matson, nor anyone else, neither. I put the word out on the relay, but no one’s called in. I’ll put another pass on the system, though, make sure everyone on the vine keeps a scan out for him.”

“Thank you, Sheriff,” came Shelby’s delicate twang over the lawman’s office link.

“No, ma’am, our thanks to you and Mr. Matson for word on what your boys found. You’ll pardon me, but I’m afraid this might be serious. I’d best be about getting busy and letting folks know about this.”

Duncan and Shelby made their goodbye and then the lawman shut down his connection to Twin Feathers while keeping his link open. Turning to his second”‘in”‘command, Pete Dawson, a large man with a thick, black beard, the sheriff told him, “Well, you saw the same holos I did, let’s get moving. We’ve got to put the town on alert—and the outlying spreads, too. Probably even more important they all understand what we know so far. Tell Bennie to find that hunter that checked into town last night—Sanders, in the Naha Palace—get him over here to look at this track.”

“Sure, chief,” responded Pete. “But why don’t I just relay it over to him?”

“Because if he looks at it in his hotel room, then I don’t get to study him while he studies it. Comprende, He”‘Who”‘Needlessly”‘Questions”‘Authority?”

The deputy nodded. The big man had to admit that the Sheriff was always one step ahead of him, if not two. His hand on the doorknob, he stopped to ask one extra question.

“Chief, it’s just a thought, but isn’t Matson in a land dispute with some new immigrants right now?”

“I see where you’re going and it’s a good point,” admitted the sheriff, “but that’s not Jacob’s style.” Pete pulled at his chin a moment, then agreed.

“That’s true, I guess. If Jacob Matson wanted to put a scare into a bunch of tent squatters, he wouldn’t have to invent no mystery critter. He’s scary enough for that all on his own.”

The sheriff laughed. His deputy smiled with deserved pride. It was not often he was that quick with his wits.

“Yeah,” Duncan nodded, then paused to think. Turning back to Pete, he said quietly, “Of course, that means then that we’re dealing with something weird enough to scare Jacob Matson.”

Pete’s eyes grew a touch larger. Duncan knew how he felt. Cutting off their conversation before more time was wasted, the sheriff ordered, “Better set up a perimeter curfew for the entire town. Let everyone know we’ll be activating the shields at eleven.”

His second”‘in”‘command nodded, his evening suddenly becoming something in danger of spinning beyond his control. Grabbing desperately at his imagination, Pete managed to get it under control enough to keep himself from shaking. Then, the sheriff added, “And Pete, before you go outside, strap on a repeller.”

The bearded man nodded, shoving his hands deep within his pockets to stifle their vibrations.

Dim lights still glowed inside most of the tents, creating a rough circle of illumination in the vast blackness of the open range. Stars only vaguely dotted the night sky, most of those usually visible hidden along with the moon by an ever”‘thickening cloud cover. Still, the air was warm and sweet enough to make it a beautiful night—the kind that could make dreamers out of cynics, or lovers out of friends.

Delilah Carter stroked a comb through her golden hair as she sat on a folded blanket before the encampment’s central fire. A small bolter strapped to her ankle broke the innocent beauty of her pose. Her friend, Lina Dotson, sat next to her on the blanket. The only other person still at the central fire was Joel Goldstein, a young man who had come out on the same freighter as the two women. The trio soaked in the warmth of the fire, dreaming of the land they had come so far to conquer.

“I wish we could’ve brought a dog with us.”

“A dog?” asked Joel. “What for?”

“It just seems like there should be dogs here,” answered Delilah as she stared past the lonely camp fire to the stinger grove beyond. “With the prairies so wide and open and all—this place just looks like it was built for dogs.”

“Contradict,” said Lina. “if there were dogs here, they’d be barking at every little noise in the night. You ask me, no yapping dogs was one of the few things this place got right.”

“That and the opportunity for unlimited wealth,” piped in a smiling Joel.

“Joel wouldn’t care if we were ass”‘deep in wolves, as long as there was a credit to be made,” teased Delilah. “Would you?”
          “I’m sure some use could be made of the little puppies,” answered the girl’s fellow squatter. “It just takes a bit of entrepreneurial vision.”

“Uh”‘huh,” said Lina. “So, what’re you going to call your big ranch when it finally gets built? Something native sounding?”

“Native, huh?” answered Joel with mock seriousness, as if actually considering the woman’s words. “Guess I’ll have to go ask the Kuzzi what a good name for my camp would be.”

“Oh, sure,” snickered Delilah. “You do that. I hear they’re all nice and tucked away in their summer lodge now, up on the Northwestern side of Twin Feathers. Chief Bollatu’s sure to help you. I hear he’s real nice—for an alien, that is.”

“Have you seen them?” asked Lina with a shiver. “The Kuzzi, I mean? What do they even look like?”

Joel interrupted. Folding his arms across his chest, puffing himself up like a family elder about to explain the secrets of the ages, he said, “The shopkeeps in Dodge say they look like a cross between Earth tigers and Barovian Arctic shamblers.”

“And what,” asked Delilah with a frown, “are Barovian Arctic shamblers?”

“Well, Barovia’s an ice planet—I mean a real ice planet. Only life on it keeps to a pretty small band that runs around the planet at the equator. Which makes ‘Arctic’ something of a misnomer, I guess. Anyway, they’re pretty ugly devils—sorta like gorillas, ‘cept they’re all white and completely covered with fur. Got like a dog snout ‘stead of a mouth, good sense of smell, omnivorous …”

“Ohh, big word,” teased Lina.

“Ain’t the only thing that’s big about me,” bragged Joel. Delilah gave him a rough push toward the fire that let him know his humor was not appreciated. Pretending not to notice, the young man continued with his semi”‘lecture.

“They’re pretty intelligent, too. Level Two, on the Mondervian scale, really just one step beneath humans. They’re tool”‘users—even actually construct temporary dwellings out of pack snow. They make domes out of it, then they burrow down into the soil underneath. It’s how they hunt for tubers, small animals, that kind of thing. Supposedly they maintain pretty strict family units and even proper communities.”

“Can you imagine being the explorer who first lived with those things to catalogue their biology and culture and the such?” asked Delilah with a laugh.

“Not for me,” answered Joel. “I’ll pass on livin’ with overgrown albino monkeys.”

“Me, too,” agreed Lina. “With my luck they’d want to cross”‘breed and start a new species.”

“Like you wouldn’t cross mate with anything that had the right equipment and the price of a hot meal.”

Lina turned her back on Joel. She was about to throw a playful insult back at him when she noticed the look on Delilah’s face. Her friend was staring at the commlink on her wrist, lost in thought. Hoping to pull her back into the conversation, she guessed,

“Waiting for Chad to call?”

“I haven’t heard from him all day. I hope he’s all right.”

“Probably lost track of the time, sitting up in his ranch counting all of Daddy’s credits.” Breaking out his cigarettes, Joel reassured his friend, “Don’t worry about that nabob. He’s got it bad for you. He’ll be …”

Joel went quiet as a strong, unknown scent wafted into camp. It was a pungent smell, a gagging cross between cinnamon and rotting meat. Joel held off lighting his cigarette, squinting his eyes as he tested the air, trying to catch another whiff of the odd aroma.

“What’s wrong, Joel?” asked Lina.

“Not sure,” answered the young man as he strained to see through the darkness beyond the ring of tent and campfire light. “Just a smell, I guess.”

Joel turned back toward the two women. Lifting his cigarette once more to his still smiling mouth, he struck his lighter, saying, “Thought I saw a some kinda shadow moving out beyond the tents, but I guess—”

Words stopped. Joel’s cigarette shot forward out of his mouth, propelled by a stream of blood and darker fluids. His eyes bulged, his voice spasmed a short scream, and then his chest erupted in three spots, more blood and bits of bone spraying across Lina and Delilah. The two women screamed at the scarlet touch.

Heads poked out of tents. The muzzles of bolt guns followed. As people watched in disbelief, Joel’s body lifted off the ground and flew through the air, landing in the fire. The impact extinguished half the blaze instantly. In the remaining light, Delilah saw uniform, advancing puffs of dust rising from the trampled ground as if something were approaching her. The young woman stood frozen, even as two men ran up to her, demanding an explanation, intersecting the path of the oncoming billows.

The first man crumpled, his sides pushing inward, his head flying away from his body. As his mate turned toward the horrible sight, invisible blades seemed to pierce him with violent force. His body flew apart in huge bloody slices, his spine lifted out of his body then catapulted into the air.

Delilah ran. A terrible roar split the night behind her, followed by scream after scream that she recognized, all of them silenced abruptly one by one. Gun shots exploded. Children wailed. Then, before she had gone twenty yards, Delilah was hit in the side of the head by something flying through the air.

She did not know what it was—just something small but heavy that stunned her so violently she could not keep her feet. Stumbling into the torn remains of someone’s tent, she floundered in the canvas rags, then stumbled off into the darkness. She wandered dazed into the night, then finally succumbed to the throbbing pain in her temple.

At the edge of an embankment the young woman fell in a sad tangle, blackness sliding over her mind. Sliding down the gentle slope, all she heard as she slipped into unconsciousness were more gun shots, and the pitiful screams of the dying. Before she passed out, though, even those had faded, replaced by the rhythmic snorting of something large—something that slurped and belched and chewed far too loudly.

Sunrise was still several minutes away as the Matson’s ate breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits thick with honey and butter and crisp potatoes spiced with sliced peppers and onions sat in platters spread across the synthetic oak table there in the kitchen. Twin Feathers was a working ranch, a place that demanded a full day’s work from everyone—hard work that required full loads of calories. None of the Matson’s seemed to be able to work up their regular appetites, however.

“I’m sure the sheriff will send some men to search the squatter’s camps for Chad at first light, sweetheart,” said the elder Matson, trying to cheer his worried wife.

“He’d better,” answered Shelby, her jaw muscles tense, taunt. “I’m worried about my boy.”

“He’s no boy, anymore,” said Matson softly, encircling her left hand with his right. “He’s twenty”‘one and growin’ bigger every day and he’s bustin’ to let the world know who he is. He’ll be all right.”

The elder Matson tried to sound reassuring, but the effort was telling. The lines in his old face were deeper that morning than ever. It was obvious he had not slept well. Attempting to put his wife at ease, he told her,

“At worst he had some trouble with his hovercycle … had to spend the night using his range coat as a tent. Hell, why not? That’s what the things are for—right? Do him some good, toughin’ him up some more.”

“And a range coat is going to protect Chad against that thing that’s out there?”

“Now,” answered Matson, cautiously, not wanting to upset his wife but seeing no logical way around doing so, “we don’t know what’s out there. All we have is a footprint and some skinned bones that could’ve …”

“My boy is in danger,” shouted Shelby, her normally sweet voice suddenly thin and ugly. “And all you want to do is waste time feeding your face.”

Jacob Matson’s head moved back as if stung. Coldly, he dropped his knife and fork onto his plate as he rose and headed for the door without a word. Scrambling up from the table, Joseph and Stewart hurried after their father.

Grabbing up his kisonboy hat, Joseph said, “This is just typical Chad behavior, Dad. Impulsive, self”‘centered—it’s why he’ll never be able to run Twin Feathers. He’s got no sense of responsibility—not to mention the fact the range hands won’t ever respect a word he says.”

“Then they can find somewhere else to work if they don’t like who I put in charge of my ranch.”

“What about Stew and me?” asked Joseph. “We have to live here, too.”

Matson stopped in his tracks, his head sinking to his chest. Stifling the boil of rage festering within him, he turned slowly toward his son. His eyes hard slits, he growled his words in a low, dark voice.

“You’ll get your share of Twin Feathers when you’re of age. ‘Til you’re twenty”‘one, you’ll be Chad’s responsibility.”

“Chad’s gonna be the boss of me?” exploded Stewart. “I got no bang with Chad, but what’s the deal? Why would I have to take orders from him? What are you gonna do, Dad, whittle a rocker and just go dreamy on the front porch or somethin’?”

Matson ground his teeth for a half a moment, anger pounding the inside of his skull. He was worried about his son, worried about his wife and what her fears were doing to her, worried about how Twin Feathers would survive with him dead. Now his other boys wanted to give him something else to worry about. Putting his hand on the front door’s bolt, he drew it and opened the door full as he said,

“You two go back and talk with your mother. Let her tell you where I’ll be when you’re ungrateful asses turn twenty”‘one!”

“Jezz, Dad …”

“I didn’t …”

“Jacob, don’t—”

Matson put his head up, the burning glare in his eyes silencing his family. Staring at his wife, he told her cruelly, “Sorry, Shelby, I’d love to tell them all about the Doc’s visit, but I wouldn’t want to waste any more time while your boy might be in danger.”

Matson stormed out of the ranch house slamming the door behind him. Both Joseph and Stewart were hesitant to follow him. Turning to their mother for some kind of answer, both stared at her while Joseph asked, “What did he mean, Mom?”

Shelby Matson tried to contain herself as her sons approached. She looked from them to the table, her gaze resting on her husband’s plate. She stared at his half”‘eaten breakfast, at the knife and fork tossed carelessly into the cooling food, and then she noticed his biscuit.

She had made his favorite type that morning—standard white flour pan”‘biscuits with a slice of cheese melted in the center. Matson’s mother had made them for him when he was a boy back on Earth. Every few weeks, Shelby surprised her husband with a pan of them. He always lathered one with butter and jelly and then let it sit on his plate until he was finished with everything else.

The biscuits were his special treats, and he enjoyed them like nothing else. Shelby Matson looked at the biscuit there on her husband’s plate, smeared with butter and jelly—cold and untouched. Then, while her sons watched in confusion, the woman raised her hands to her face and began to cry.

Sheriff Duncan and Alan Sanders led the lawman’s five deputies out onto the range, leaving the familiar surroundings of New Dodge City behind.

“We’ll check all the most likely places the squatters might have set up shop for the night,” said the sheriff.

“Good thing about lots of people,” answered the hunter, “they leave lots of tracks. Should make things easy.”

“I think so,” agreed Duncan. “We’ll find ‘em before noon—guaranteed. Now, maybe Chad tried to go out and give them a little trouble and got in over his head. Most likely, what with the rumors about a certain blonde in this new batch in from Earth, he’s probably gotten himself mixed up in something, but it’s probably nothing we have to worry about.”

“Naw,” added Pete Dawson, “not until Chad’s a daddy and his mom starts screaming about whoretrash being shipped out on the next freighter.”

“Don’t see why we gotta babysit some rich snot brat, anyway,” added Ben Fogerty.

“Ben,” the sheriff said quietly to his youngest deputy, “the Matson’s pay their taxes, and therefore your salary, just like everyone else. They file a missing persons report, we follow up on it. You got a problem with doing your job all of a sudden?”

“No, sir,” answered Ben with a hasty gulp.

“Fine.” The sheriff kicked his hovercycle into a low gear and headed upward to a standard cruising elevation. As the others rose up beside and behind him, he added, “Well, with no further debate being necessary, let’s see if we can’t get this over with clean and fast and easy.”

All seven of the men rode in silence after that, each of them scanning the grasslands around them in all directions. None of them said anything further about Chad Matson. None of them mentioned the holograms they had studied before leaving, either. They all kept their eyes peeled, though. And one hand on their weapons.

Shelby Matson pulled her dark brown range coat tightly around herself as she stepped from the ranch house porch. Her hovercycle was waiting at the bottom of the steps along with two others. Joseph and Stewart stood alongside, waiting for their mother.

“Are you sure we should be doin’ this, mom?” asked Joseph.

“Yes, son. I do. I’ve studied the Kuzzi since your father and I first got to this planet. Chief Bollatu is a friend of mine. Maybe he’ll have some idea about where Chad is. Maybe he’ll know something about those bones and that track you found. And if they don’t know anything, well …” Shelby took a deep breath as she slung her left leg up over her hovercycle’s seat, “if nothing else at least we’ll be doing something.”

Shelby’s foot came down with practiced ease, kicking her cycle into gear. Elevating quickly, she shouted, “You two coming or not?”

Then she leaned into a curve, spinning herself smoothly around the side of the ranch house, heading for the Northwestern boundary of the ranch. Whether her boys were following or not, she really did not care. Right then all she wanted was the feel of air rushing against her face and body. And to see her eldest son. She would never stop wanting her son to come home. Despite the fact that she was already certain he would never come home again.

Read more from this serial.

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
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).

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