Conclusion to the two part story, Bruce Gehweiler & C.J. Henderson bring us a shared-world of Byanntia. —ed. N.E. Lilly
Read more from this serial.
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part I
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part II
The usual spew of blue dust fled from the approach of Jacob Matson’s hovercycle as it neared the ground. The sun was halfway across the sky, but still the rancher had seen no traces of Chad. The patriarch had moved across Twin Feathers in an orderly fashion, making a methodical sweep of his land. Frustrated by the lack of results practicality was producing, Matson swung his cycle around, heading south instead.
It had suddenly dawned on him that on the day before, Joseph and Stewart had been heading for the southern watering hole to look for Chad when they had been sidetracked by the discovery of the bones and the bizarre tracks. Checking the level on the waterhole had been one of Chad’s duties the day before.
Not exactly rational, Jacob, the back of his mind whispered to the elder rancher. Why the water hole? With a grim note of despairing finality, Matson told himself;
“Even monsters have to drink.”
Another thirty minutes put the rancher within visual range of the waterhole. Light reflecting above the water line told Matson he was on the right track. He sounded his cycle’s horn on the way in, but no response was forthcoming. As he neared, he could see that what he had spotted was a hovercycle. This one seemed to have hit an outcrop of rock near the waterhole, then flipped over backward and fallen into the pool.
The rancher slowly circled the remains of the hovercycle twice. Once he was certain that it was his son’s vehicle, and that no one was pinned beneath it, he backdropped his own cycle to the shore, unholstering his bolter as he landed. The half dozen kison ranged along the shore continued drinking, undisturbed by neither the machine nor its rider’s approach.
At first Matson inspected the ground near the edge of the waterhole, hoping against hope that he might find some tracks that would give him a clue as to what had happened. As he expected, the ground, long baked by the dry winds constantly coming in off the Junsuka offered nothing in the way of information. With a long sigh, Matson waded into the warm water to retrieve the downed cycle, hoping it might offer some sort of explanation.
Halfway there, his boot came in contact with something hard—something that hadn’t been on the bottom of the waterhole long enough to be sucked down into its grasping, muddy bottom. Jacob Matson closed his eyes, his chest jumping involuntarily. His mouth a thin, tight line, he bent toward the water, his head shaking softly as his fingers closed on whatever he had kicked. When the rancher finally opened his eyes again, he stared at the object in his hand—a dripping, human skull stripped of its meat.
Sinking to his knees, Jacob Matson cried the tears for his son that the day before he could not find for himself.
Alan Sanders rode nearly a half a kilometer out in front of the sheriff and his deputies. While those following him were maintaining a safety height of some thirty feet, Sanders stayed less than four feet from the ground, his cycle barely skirting the high grass. The hunter was searching for clues, true enough, but it was not the reason he was doing so in such a risky fashion. Sanders was a hunter. A decade earlier he had left his family and friends and all he knew behind on Earth to seek the thrill of tracking new and different life forms. He lived for the hunt. It was his life, his reason for being.
Sanders did not necessarily have a need to kill those things he hunted. It did not bother him, of course, spilling the blood of brute animals, but slaughter held no great thrill for him, either. Plunging into oceans, ranging across mountain tops, tracking all manner of beasts in forests, lakes or through the skies, it was the chase that filled the hunter with passion. Rooting them out, finding them no matter how they hid themselves, beating creatures designed by the whimsical natures of a thousand different worlds at their own games—that was what Alan Sanders lived for. It was why he had come to Byanntia in the first place.
This is it, he thought, his lips unable to keep from curling into a smile. The old rummer was right. This is going to wrap the past in a ball and trash it. The whole droking universe is going to know my name after this.
Sanders could not forget his good fortune. Months earlier he had run into one of the few Kuzzi warriors that had ever left Byanntia. For the price of three drinks, the old alien had told the hunter the story of the Gr’nar. Sanders had not been certain he believed the trembling sot, but he was a good judge of beings—human or not, sober or drunk. Even if he was being misled, Byanntia had promised to hold enough new creatures to at least give him some well”‘needed practice. Zoos, scientists, collectors—there was always someone looking for something different. He knew he could force a profit out of any new planet. Then, on his second day on”‘world, he had been called by the local lawman who had shown him the footprint—a mark revealing design characteristics common in creatures possessing both strength and speed. The footprint screamed to him—carnivore. Predator.
And, he speculated, if even half of what that wrinkled drunk told me is true, this is …
Sanders stopped speculating, his mind going instantly on the alert. Something still and bright had caught his attention, something living, but motionless, perched halfway down a sloping ridge off in the distance. The hunter raised his arm to indicate to those following that he had found something, then gunned his engine heading straight for it at top speed.
As he drew nearer, the distance setting of his goggles focused on the object. It was a blonde woman in a yellow jumpsuit laying face down in the scruff. Sanders studied the terrain as he closed on the unmoving figure. His instincts told him it was safe to approach. He could feel that nothing was lurking nearby waiting to pounce.
The hunter rolled the woman onto her back, brushed the hair out of her face. Her pulse was normal. She was alive, but her breathing was shallow. Fearing she might be in a coma, Sanders pulled his canteen from his cycle and splashed her face, washing away the caked blood smearing her forehead.
“Is she alive?” asked Duncan as he set his hovercycle down next to the pair.
“Yes,” acknowledged Sanders. Pointing toward the woman’s head, he said, “As best I can see so far, she only has a single wound on her left temple—here—as if she was struck a blow. She’s lost blood, but I her color’s good, so I don’t think it was much. She’s probably not too badly off.”
“Was it the thing?” asked Pete.
“No,” answered the hunter. Pointing up the slope, he said, “look at the scuff marks. That’s her trail. She slid down over the edge from above. Probably fell during the night. She got here on her own, then collapsed.”
Duncan sent two of his men up the hillside to see where the tracks came from. The two started up the gradual slope carefully. The hillside was a mixture of baked clay and sand. One wrong step would send a climber sliding back to the bottom in an unstoppable rush. Knowing it would take his men a few minutes to make their ascent, the sheriff turned his attention back to the others. As he did, the girl suddenly responded to Sander’s ministrations. She sat up quickly, then yelped as she winced from the pain in her head.
“You’d better take it easy,” cautioned the sheriff.
“It killed them,” she said simply in a quiet monotone. “Tore them all to pieces. Threw them around like dolls. It smashed them and cut them and, and, and it, it …”
Then the blonde woman went silent once more. Leaning against Sanders, she stared forward unblinking, either lost in thought, or in the avoidance of it. The hunter asked Duncan, “Any idea who she is?”
“Delilah something or other,” answered the sheriff, searching his memory. “Squatter. Bunch of about thirty came out together from Earth a couple of months back. Romantic idiots, in love with the notion of the Old West, or something. Thought they were all goin’ to be range kings in six weeks. Mostly they’ve just been sort of a nuisance to the real ranchers. This one don’t have any family if I remember correctly.”
“Brave kid,” said Sanders, sympathetically, “coming out here on her own.”
“From what I hear tell, she didn’t have much choice. Step”‘father back on Earth taking advantage, mother not sticking up for her … just decided one day that anything was better than that, and she joined up with a group that needed another body to tally their bulk passage.”
Sanders did not feel the same level of disdain for the girl that the sheriff obviously did. With a modicum of admiration in his voice, he said, “Still, when you’re in a bad situation, it takes guts to do something about it instead of just taking it. Even running away is better than doing nothing.”
“It came into our camp last night,” the girl said in a droning voice. Still unblinking, unmoving, she rambled, “It killed everyone. Everyone. Blood everywhere.” Then, she turned her head, her eyes seeming to focus on Sander’s face.
“We couldn’t do anything to stop it—stop the blood. Nothing can stop it.”
“Delilah,” Sanders spoke slowly and clearly in a friendly, fatherly tone. “Why couldn’t you stop the creature? Was it too large? Too strong? Too fast?”
“You don’t know what, Delilah?”
“Don’t know how big, or fast. Don’t know anything about it.”
The sheriff’s eyes closed to slits. His look caught Sander’s eyes, but the hunter did not turn his attention away from the girl nestled against his arm. As she continued to look up at him, Sanders asked, “Why, Delilah? Why don’t you know anything about the creature?”
“Couldn’t see it.”
“Because it was so dark?” suggested Duncan.
“No,” answered the girl calmly. “Plenty of light from the fire. Just couldn’t see it.”
Suddenly the sheriff’s attention was drawn to the top of the ridge. His men had reached the top and were signalling frantically for the others to join them. Duncan headed for his hovercycle, calling up to his deputies as he walked across the plane.
“What is it? What d’ya find?”
“It’s a camp, sheriff. What’s left of one. There’s bodies everywhere. Bones, too. Human. Lots of ‘em. It’s pretty fierce up here.”
“We couldn’t see it.”
Sheriff Duncan stopped and spun around at the girl’s voice. Angrily, he growled at her, “Listen up, you little fool. Start makin’ some sense. What the hell attacked you people? What was it? Tell us, for God’s sake. You said there was plenty of light. Well, if there was plenty of light, why couldn’t you see what it was that killed all your friends?!”
“Because,” answered Delilah in the same cold, absent voice. “It was invisible.”
Shelby Matson and her sons flew through the entrance to the Valley of the Twelve Peaks. Ahead of them, two Kuzzi tribesmen stood guard over the narrow passageway. Even after more than twenty years on Byanntia, Shelby still felt her breath catch at the sight of the native warriors. The pair on guard were typical specimens—both roughly eight and a half feet tall, with short coats of horizontally striped fur covering their bodies.
The blue, black and grey markings were a natural camouflage that blended well with the alien landscape. The male’s heads were surrounded by a thick and glossy black mane. A single stripe, usually black, parted their foreheads and muzzles while other colors varied across the individual Kuzzi’s faces. Their chins and jaws were covered with the longer black fur of their mane, setting off their muzzles which were accented by hard, blue lips.
Most Kuzzi males had very broad shoulders as well as chests that rippled with layers of muscles. They were generally short”‘waisted, with powerful, backward jointed legs. Their forward facing feet were quite human in design, save for their feline toes and claws. Their hands followed along much the same lines.
The two Kuzzi on guard were using their hands at the moment, holding their purjungs—long spears with multiple curved blades—to the ready. Shelby and her boys knew what their poses meant. Dismounting their hovercycles, translator headsets already adjusted and in place, the trio bowed formerly, then Joseph and Stewart stood back as their mother addressed the guards.
“I am Shelby Matson, come with my sons to seek an audience with Chief Bollatu. We desire his council on a most important matter which not only concerns us, but the Kuzzi nation as well.”
“Wait here,” answered the taller of the guards who turned and walked into the valley. The other warrior’s nostrils twitched. He sniffed the air, seeking clue about the visitors’ intentions. His yellow and black eyes never strayed from the trio. He knew the human woman—had seen her in council with Bollatu more than once. Her familiarity meant nothing to the guard, however. Humans were not to be trusted without caution. It had been a hard”‘learned lesson years earlier for the Kuzzi. There were none who wished to learn it anew.
Shelby pretended not to notice the guard’s examination, choosing instead to look upward at the white and clear crystal peaks stretching hundreds of feet upward there at the edge of the valley. Sunlight was pouring through the massive quartz”‘like formations, creating a dazzling abundance of rainbows throughout the valley. The refracted light help disguise the entrance to the Kuzzi’s fortress home, just one of the natural defenses that had made the valley the perfect shelter for the Byanntian natives for countless centuries.
The first guard returned after several long minutes. He waved Shelby and her sons inside, then escorted them through the valley to the Kuzzi marketplace. Female Kuzzi, the races’ artisans and merchants, were on all sides of the quartet, buying, selling and bartering their wares. Byanntia’s indigenous sentient females usually ranged from seven to eight feet in height. They were similarly marked as the males of their species, but they did not share their mates’ manes or massive shoulder structure. Their smaller bodies were still layered with sinewy muscle, however.
Stewart stared at several of the females for a moment—specifically at the three pairs of small breasts that lined the chest of each. All Kuzzi went naked throughout the year, their short fur being all they required in the way of protection from the elements. Even the jewelry they crafted was mostly cerimonial and reserved for only certain times of the year. The human custom of clothing oneself confused and amused the Kuzzi. The only material used by the natives, for their pouches and litters and their great nomadic tents, came from the skin of a colossal fish that lived mostly in the northern seas. The Kuzzi word for the leviathans was unpronounceable by nearly all humans, so the Firsts had settled for renaming the great fish Melvilles.
Joseph studied the draping walls of the tent to which he and the others had been lead, looking for the telltale vein lines in the fabric. Like most humans, his contact with the Kuzzi was limited, and the idea of living in fish skins had always fascinated him. He turned his attention to their host, however, as they all entered the main chamber of the tent.
Shelby and her sons were led to the center of the room where a number of Kuzzi—male and female—sat in a circle on round mats woven from various wild grasses. As one the natives all stood and faced the ranchers. Shelby and the boys made the proper bow to which the Kuzzi responded by bowing in return, then returning to their seats. At that point, a female stepped forward from behind those seated and approached the Matsons.
“What wisdom do you seek from great Bollatu?” she asked.
“We seek several things. First, of greatest importance to me, we are searching for my son, Chad Matson. He has been missing for more than a day. We were hoping some member of the great Kuzzi tribe might have seen him.”
At that point a male—older, larger than the others—stood and approached Shelby.
“No Kuzzi see your cub these past two suns, Shelby Matson.” As the rancher made to interrupt, the male continued. “No Kuzzi leave the summer lodge since beginning of the summer cycle.”
“But,” questioned Joseph, half”‘confused, half”‘suspicious, “the Kuzzi always hunt heavily in the summer months. What’s so different about this year?”
“This,” answered Chief Bollatu, “is year of the Gr’nar.”
“What’s a grrrr”‘nar?” asked Stewart, repeating the foreign word as best he could.
“Gr’nar is evil god of the Junsuka. He come forth every eighth handful of cycles.”
Joseph did the math quickly in his head—the Kuzzi’s four”‘fingered paws had lead them to create a numbering system in base eight. Every sixty”‘four years, he thought.
“The harmony of the plains is destroyed at his approach. Blood flows. Terror fills the skies as tears flood the plains.”
Joseph did not believe a Kuzzi god was killing his father’s kison—but it was a big universe. It was possible something lived on Byanntia the settlers did not know about yet. Something that followed a longer cycle than the seasons of the year.
That means, thought Joseph, if Bollatu is onto something here, the last time this happened was sixty”‘four years ago—decades before the First arrived.
Shelby’s commlink hummed. She punched the uplink button, announcing, “Shelby Matson.”
“It’s Jacob, sweetheart—you got the boys with you?”
“Yes, we’re at the Kuzzi summer lodge.”
“Get back to Twin Feathers—now! I’ll explain everything when I see you at home. Keep your guns handy and stay high off the ground. The shield will be up at the ranch, so give a drop”‘call at the perimeter.”
“Jacob, I don’t understand.”
“I’m with Duncan and his deputies—we met up out at the south waterhole.” His command voice softening, Matson explained, “There’s something loose on the plains, Shelby. Something murderous. Warn the Kuzzi, but leave now—please.”
“The Kuzzi already know.”
Shelby Matson’s commlink went quiet for a moment. Then her husband’s voice returned, colder than before.
“I should have thought of that,” he said cryptically. “You go home—take the boys with you. Tell Bollatu to expect me. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Shelby’s comm went quiet once more.
Sanders moved across the range by himself, his spectrum goggles constantly shifting the available light bands. Now that Duncan and his men knew the creature was invisible the hunter saw no reason to continue pretending he did not know, either. Not that the lawmen realized he had come to Byanntia equipped with prior information. Sanders had not pulled the goggles out until he was alone. The sheriff and his men had been tied down by the discovery of the slaughter at the squatters’ camp. As much as the sheriff might have wanted to continue on with the hunter, his duty held him at the disaster site. The terrible attack had to be investigated—the dead catalogued.
Duncan had ordered Sanders to remain on”‘comm, however. The hunter was to report any sightings, as it were, of the thing that had left the barest remains of some thirty human beings on the plain above the spot where Delilah Carter had been found. The lawman had not veiled his threat of taking action against the hunter if he did not comply.
Sure, Sheriff, thought Sanders with a smirk, I’ll get right to you, as soon as I’ve got an invisible carcass to take off this rock with me.
It had been some hours since the hunter had set out on his own, following what few tracks the thing had left behind. They had faded quickly, however, leaving Sanders to simply guess at which direction the horror might have taken. So far he had not found any indication he was getting closer to the monster of the plains. Delilah’s story had put the attack on the squatter camp more than half a day previous, making what few claw prints and broken grasses Sanders had found to follow an extremely cold trail. The hunter did not mind, though. He had a plan.
The information Jacob Matson had commed to the sheriff had helped Sanders immensely. The hunter had been told by the old Kuzzi warrior that his tribe moved away from the desert into the northern mountain canyons whenever the Gr’nar was to return. Generally, the creature preferred to hunt where it was warmest. The slaughter of the squatters had taken place at an extreme southern latitude from the Twin Feathers ranch, close to the Junsuka. Matson had confirmed that his son had been killed at an extreme southern latitude from the Kuzzi summer lodge. Which meant that the creature had moved east, away from the Kuzzi lodge—toward New Dodge.
Interesting, mused the hunter. With the Kuzzi safe in their lodge for the duration, could this mean the Gr’nar knows about the changes that have taken place in its world since it last went to ground?
Spotting a shattered copse of stinger trees, Sanders dropped his hovercycle down to investigate. In the center of the ruined grove he found what he expected—the glimmeringly clean skeletal remains of half a dozen kison.
“You sure are one hungry son of a bitch,” said Sanders aloud as he surveyed the carnage. The monster had eaten tons of meat in the last few days. Bending over one of the larger piles of bones, he asked, “When the hell do you stop for a breather?”
More to the point, wondered the back of the hunter’s mind, when do you take a dump? Where does this thing leave its spoor? Does it ever? And how does it move about? It always leaves tracks at the kill sites, but nothing you can follow anywhere. It just shows up, kills, eats, and …
Sanders’ mind dragged him back to the bar where he had met the elderly Kuzzi. That was what the alien had told him. That was why he had left Byanntia. The Gr’nar came every sixty”‘four years. It ate everything in sight—slaughtered every living thing in its path until the summer ended—then disappeared for another sixty”‘four years.
“But he said you disappear after every attack, too.” Sanders spoke aloud to the fields all around him.
“So how do you do it?” he called out as he stood up from his examinations. “What’s your secret? Do you fly? Burrow? Swing through the trees? Curl up into a ball and roll across the land—what? What’s your gimmick?”
And then, suddenly, the ground beneath Sanders trembled slightly. As grains of sand bounced between the blades of grass, the hunter stepped quickly to his hovercycle. Pulling his over”‘sized Hoffman Brothers Wide”‘Bore from its sheath, he tabbed the sideprime calling for explosive rounds. Doing a rapid but thorough perimeter swing, Sanders scanned the grasslands in every direction, looking for some sign of the great beast.
“Come on, I know you’re here somewhere,” whispered the hunter, his nerve ends tingling with his favorite thrill. “It’s all over now, Gr’naree. So, why don’t you just come on out and make this easy on both of us so I can head back to New Dodge and start buying rounds of drinks for the house?”
With nothing moving in any direction, Sanders closed his eyes for a moment—listening. He threw his senses outward in all directions, straining to catch some tiny scrape or tread or whisper that would identify his target. The hunter could tell the creature was somewhere nearby—could feel the proximity of his target as he had hundreds of others on a score of other worlds. Licking his lips, he opened his eyes and whispered;
“So where are you, you bastard?”
And, as if in response, the ground beneath Sanders opened and massive, invisible fangs separated the hunter’s legs from his body.
“Damn fool,” cursed Duncan. Staring down at Sanders’ stripped remains, he asked the stark scatter of bones, “Damn, greedy, arrogant stupid son of a bitch—how’s it feel to be dead?”
When the hunter had not responded to any comm messages, Duncan had traced the retrieval signal from his rented hovercycle. Communicating with Jacob Matson on his way to search for Sanders, Duncan invited the rancher to meet him along the way.
“How’s the interrogation going, sheriff?”
“Don’t start on me, Jacob,” snarled Duncan. “Bad enough everything else that’s happened. Now I got me a dead offworlder. If you think I want a squad of Rim agents pokin’ around here, you’ve been punchin’ kison too long.”
“Might be welcome,” offered the rancher, spreading his hands to indicate the carnage all around them. “Considering …”
“We’ll handle this ourselves,” snapped the sheriff defiantly.
“Yeah,” answered Matson with a weary sigh, “we’ve been doin’ a bang”‘up job so far.”
Duncan stared at the elder rancher, but said nothing more. He knew Matson was not blaming him for anything. The old man only wanted to see dead the thing that had murdered his son. Deciding that continuing his investigation would be more profitable than further bickering, the sheriff returned to studying the bones of Alan Sanders. Scratching at his head, he noted;
“I’m not sure what this means, Jacob, if anything—but did you take any notice of the fact that this yahoo’s legs are far off from the rest of him?”
Matson had noticed that, but had made nothing of it. Now, at the sheriff’s questioning, he turned his attention to it once more.
“All right, so the thing took his legs off first,” said the rancher. “So what? What’s that tell us?”
“I’m not sure it tells us anything.”
“Everything we see tells us something. The question is, is it anything we need to know? Like, did you check his weapon? Did he get a shot off at this thing?”
“Nope—the entire clip still registers solid.”
Matson took the weapon from the sheriff, turning it over in his hands. Making a gesture with his eyes that indicated he did not know what to make of the loaded weapon, the rancher slid it into the side sheath on his hovercycle. After that, both men stopped to think. The creature was invisible—it was possible the hunter never had a chance to frame a shot. But still, even if the thing were quiet enough to sneak up on Sanders, it might have taken a chunk out of his back, or taken off his head, or possibly an arm in its attack. But his feet?
Jacob Matson went slightly pale. Turning to Duncan, he ordered the lawman to mount his hovercycle even as he did the same. As the two men took to the air, the rancher explained.
“Look for a depression, in the ground, I mean. A hole, or burrow … anything that looks like it was just recent filled in.” It only took the two men a moment to find what they were looking for—a sunken spot in the ground nearly two feet across. Sand and loose soil had already begun to blow over it. Indeed, if the range grass had not been somewhat smashed in that area, the men would not have noticed it. As the two landed near it, Matson said, “When you reached me I was out at the Kuzzi lodge. Wanted to question them about this thing. Figured they should know more about it than we do.”
The rancher broke out the short utility shovel from his hovercycle’s tool bin. As he started to dig into the depression, he said, “Damn furheads didn’t know shit, really—or at least they weren’t sayin’. But one thing struck me funny. Whenever they referred to the thing, the translator would spit out the word ‘snake.’ I didn’t think much of it then …”
Suddenly, Matson’s shovel hit something mixed in with the sandy soil. Less than two feet from the surface, a black core of manure began, one filled with bits of cloth.
“Well,” said the rancher, his eyes narrowing to dark slits, “now we know why it doesn’t seem to leave too many tracks.”
Matson returned to Twin Feathers alone. Duncan had been forced to stay behind with Sanders’ remains—an offworlder’s death meant plenty of United Rim paperwork to be processed before the next Enforcement ship made port.
Well, that’s his concern, thought the rancher as he landed his hovercycle in the main stable yard of his spread. I got other things on my mind. Like takin’ care of the son’va bitchin’ thing that killed my son.
Leaving his flier where he landed, Matson headed into the stables. Going straight to the last stall, the rancher called out to his favorite horse.
“Okay, girl—I’ve got a job and a half for us today. Are you ready?” The large, grey and tan saddle horse gave a nod of its head that coaxed a thin smile from Matson. As the rancher pulled down his no nonsense working saddle, he congratulated himself once more on insisting in the early days of their expedition that horse embryos be included in their cargo.
Most of the other members of the First had been happy to rely on groundcars and hovercycles, but Matson had known better. Despite their programmability, mechanical transports were not the answer to every problem presented by ranching on Byanntia. The kison were often easily spooked by machines of any kind, and hovercycles had proved disastrous on inclines of any great steepness, let alone inside the cool, but narrow range passes the kison headed for whenever the summer temperatures began to climb.
As Matson finished with his saddle’s cinches, he whispered to the mare, “Besides, you’re smarter than any damn computer, ain’t ya, girl?”
Again the horse nodded. Matson’s mouth drew to a tight line, his smile grim, lips pursed, as he nodded in return. Grabbing up Alan Sanders’ Hoffman Brothers Wide”‘Bore, he slid it into his saddle’s sheath even as he hung a good length of plas”‘hemp line over the horn. Then, throwing himself up into the saddle, he headed south out into the open range—ready to end things one way or the other.
It did not take Shelby Matson long to piece together what was happening from the clues she had. When she saw her husband’s abandoned hovercycle in the main yard, then discovered his favorite mount, Dancer, missing, she knew Jacob had ridden out to track the beast. What she did not understand was why he would trade his flier for a horse. Getting Sheriff Duncan on the comm had explained that to her. Instantly she called her remaining sons to her.
“Stewart, I want you to get the hands together. Tell them that thing is still out there and moving toward New Dodge. I want Twin Feathers on triple watch tonight—every man on a cycle and scatter patrolling—full lights.”
“Spit,” answered the boy. “That’s a lot of credits. Cheaper to run the shields at full.”
“Besides being invisible, apparently the damn thing travels underground, Stew. Shields won’t stop it. Tell the men to be prepared.”
As both boys adjusted to the new information, their faces showing their obvious discomfort, Shelby told her oldest boy, “Your father’s ridden out to find the creature. I think he …” her voice catching, her words clogging in her throat, the woman veered off from her thought, saying instead, “you and I are going after him.”
“Dad won’t like us interfering with whatever he—”
“Joseph,” snapped the woman as she pulled her personal bolt thrower from a drawer in the living room desk, “I’ve been interfering with your father’s plans whenever I damn well felt like it for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve been around to warn me about it. And right now he’s got a pulling long lead on us, so if you want to see your father alive again I suggest we get moving.”
And with that, Shelby Matson headed for the front door without bothering to look to see what her boys were doing. She knew them both. She knew what they were doing. Just as she knew what she was doing.
All right, you damn bastard, thought Matson, where the Hell are you, anyway?
The rancher sat atop Dancer while the mare drank from the southern water hole. Matson frowned that Chad’s flier was still there, uncollected.
Well, why not? the rancher asked himself sadly. My boy’s remains are still here. What difference does it make if his cycle is still here?
Matson had ridden the northern edge of the Junsuka for several hours, waiting for the Gr’nar to show itself. His assumption was that the creature had stumbled across Chad at the water hole by accident. It had wanted a drink and had found a meal instead. Chad was the only victim who had been airborne when killed. The various kison, the squatters, Sanders—all of them had been on the ground when attacked.
Duncan and his deputies and Sanders, the bunch flew over the whole area all day without a stir. But, the hunter lands for five minutes and he’s dead. That damn thing can hear through the ground.
Matson pulled back on his reins, forcing Dancer to rear, making the mare stamp the ground several times hard.
“You want something to hear,” he said, “hear that.”
The rancher repeated the maneuver several times. Then as he paused to listen, Dancer suddenly backed off from the watering hole. The horse began spinning in short, nervous circles, throwing her head this way and that. Matson smiled. Taking the reins in one hand, he snapped them meaningfully, starting the horse toward the blue outcropping nearby.
“Knew you’d sense the damn thing, girl,” he said soothingly. “Knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
The rancher lead the mare up onto the sloping pancake”‘shaped rocks, hoping he was getting the beloved animal out of harm’s way. Then, he slid out of the saddle, pulling Sanders’ Hoffman Brothers Wide”‘Bore from its sheath. The weapon held two hundred rounds, ammunition that could be primed to different functions as required. Assuming he needed real stopping power, Matson tabbed the sideprime calling for explosive rounds. Then, he dropped to one knee and waited.
The rancher kept his eye to the weapon’s roving sight, watching the ground for movement. He nudged the viewfinder’s automatic scanner to its highest setting, waiting for the slightest unnatural tremor in the grass. The seconds ticked by, forming one minute, then another. Matson let his eyes dart to the side for an instant, looking at Dancer. For a moment he wondered if he had misread the animal’s panic. Then suddenly, he knew he had not.
A trilling roar echoed up out of the ground. As Matson wheeled in the direction of the muffled growl, the earth split open, a wide spew of soil and sand flying outward on both sides of the cavity. Closing one eye, the rancher tightened his finger on the trigger.
Five rounds erupted from the Hoffman Brothers rifle. Matson spaced them out along a line at roughly one foot intervals. Only two of them missed their target.
“Great, jumpin’ Jesus …”
The air filled with a wild series of shrieking bellows. Spews of dark fluid erupted from seeming nothingness, splashing up and around in all directions. Dancer screamed with fear, scrambling futilely in an attempt to gain higher ground. Earth and rocks flew through the air in response to the creature’s thrashing. A sizeable chunk of stone slammed into the side of Matson’s head, knocking him over. The rancher did not let the injury stop him. Crawling to his knees, he fired another series of five shots. With the creature now out of the ground and thrashing wildly, only two shells of the second volley found their target.
The explosive rounds blasted huge slabs of muscle and fat out of the creature’s sides. The Gr’nar began to take shape as its blood coated its body, giving Matson a rough idea of the thing’s form. Its body was elongated, punctuated along the sides by a series of jointed legs. The forward”‘most legs seemed to have the ability to lift off the ground, as if they could be used as pincers, putting the rancher in mind of an Earth scorpion.
Having a definite target, Matson fired again, carefully lining up his shots, pumping round after round into the beast. Each explosion rocked the creature, sending it staggering backward. The rancher did not shoot rapidly, but calculated each blast, firing slowly, savoring his revenge. He purposely did not fire for its head, preferring to draw out the thing’s suffering. That was a mistake.
As the rancher paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, the Gr’nar threw itself to the ground, rapidly digging its way beneath the surface. Matson fired off thirty rounds in less than a second, but it was too late. The creature had disappeared from sight.
“Damn!” shouted Matson, cursing his reckless actions. “Goddamned stupidity. Idiot.”
Not smart, Jacob, he thought. You had that thing—had it cold. Now what are you going to do?
Indeed, he wondered. What could he do? Dancer was still clawing away at the porous stone wall behind him, wild with fear. Could the Gr’nar dig its way upward through the rocks? Could it reach them from below? How fast could it heal? Had he done it serious, permanent damage, or had he only blown away excess outer layers—an action that might only madden the beast?
For a moment the rancher considered following the Gr’nar down its hole, but that avenue was denied to him. The walls caved in behind the creature as it retreated, explaining why none of its other burrows had been discovered without a search.
“All right,” he whispered, “That won’t work. So what else can we try?”
Remembering Chad’s downed hovercycle, Matson decided to see if the flier was still operational. He stared at it from his position high on the outcropping. The hovercycle was still out in the waterhole, resting on its back. The rancher stood, only to go dizzy from the action. Touching the side of his head, he found it horribly tender and covered with blood. Clutching desperately to consciousness, Matson grabbed the loop of rope hanging from Dancer’s saddle. Taking one last look out over the surrounding area, he hopped down to the ground in four short, careful leaps, then staggered lightly to the edge of the pool.
The front of the cycle was crunched inward, but the body of the flier seemed intact. Matson stood still for a moment, listening for the Gr’nar. No sound reached his ears except that of the hot wind washing over the prairie. Even Dancer had begun to calm down. Carefully, Matson stepped out into the pool, heading for the hovercycle. Reaching the craft in only six steps he grabbed onto its starboard runner and pulled, testing to see if it had become mired in the bottom.
Not yet, he thought as the cycle rolled over, responding fairly easily to his efforts. Checking its control array, Matson could see that the flier may have crashed, but that it was still workable.
“Don’t know how much life you’ve got in you,” he told the dripping machine, “but I’m willin’ to bet you might be able to help me out here.”
A touch kicked the starter to life. Bringing the hovercycle up to only a few inches above water level, Matson maneuvered the flier to the shore. Then, he set to work rigging his rope out as a snare. The rancher worked carefully, stopping every few seconds to pause and listen for his enemy. He was fairly certain the monster was not yet moving, but he could not be sure. The ringing in his ears was growing worse, his vision blurring.
Mopping the blood on the side of his head with his shirt sleeve, the rancher grabbed the hovercycle’s remote control, then stepped away from his trap. Slowly, he raised the flier to a height of ten feet off the ground. Satisfied the hovercraft could hold its position, he returned to the rocks where a now quiet Dancer waited, eyeing him cautiously.
“Don’t blame you, girl,” he said slowly, hearing the dangerous slurring in his voice. Ignoring his injury, Matson sat down heavily on the blue rocks and once more took up the Hoffman Brothers wide bore. Tabbing the sideprime, he switched to small caliber rounds. Then, the rancher took careful aim at the center of the noose he had spread out on the ground.
A trigger pull and a small spray of sand lifted in the center of Matson’s trap. The rancher counted to five then fired again.
“Com’on, you bastard. Com’on up.”
Again he counted and fired. Counted and fired. Again. And again. He ignored the slick feel of blood dripping from the side of his head to his shoulder. Paid no attention to the feel of it sliding down his back.
Again he counted and fired. Again. He blinked to drive away the blurring creeping into the corners of his vision. Then he fired again. Waited and fired again.
The ground split asunder in the center of the noose. The Gr’nar broke through the surface of the ground, biting and snapping, hunting for the prey the bullet’s impacts told him was there. Matson fumbled for the hovercycle’s controls, instantly depressing the preset control that would lift the flier straight into the air.
The Gr’nar screamed as the noose jerked tight around its body. As the creature bellowed, the hovercycle ascended, dragging the horror up out of the ground and suspending it in the air. Dropping the flier’s remote control, Matson again raised his weapon to his shoulder. The sideprime switched back to explosive, the rancher took aim as best he could and fired. His first round blasted into the body of the Gr’nar, dragging more monstrous bellows from the terrible thing. Another round followed, then another—ten more.
“That’s for my boy, you piece of shit,” screamed Matson. Tears filling his eyes, he screamed, “for Chad!”
He fired again, but this time no explosion met his ears. He had missed. Blinking, working desperately to focus his failing eyes, Matson saw why. Unable to escape his bond, the creature was climbing the rope upward to the hovercycle.
“No, Goddamn it!”
Matson fired again and again, but he missed the beast with most of his shots. It was moving too furiously. With much of its previous blood and soil coating scraped away when it had retreated underground the rancher could not get a bead on it. The creature was not nearly as exposed as before, and Matson’s vision was clouding over. The rancher knew he might slip into unconsciousness at any moment.
“No,” he growled defiantly. “If I go, you come with me!”
Then, raising his weapon higher, Matson took aim on the hovercycle’s engine and put two rounds into its power chamber. The flier exploded with a roar that shook the countryside. Burning metal and plastic rained everywhere. The Gr’nar was ripped through in two score spots by the explosion. A black and purple cloud blasted across the skies as the remains of the hovercycle fell from the air, dropping the Gr’nar to the ground. Jacob Matson did not witness the event, however.
A large section of the flier’s stabilization unit had struck the rancher in the chest. Matson went down on impact—hard—six ribs cracked, two shattered. Blood poured over his lips, slashing down across his chest. The rancher floundered on his side, trying to right himself. Pain tore through his body, clawing at him, dragging him back toward unconsciousness once more. Pushing the urge to surrender aside, however, Matson began to make his way slowly to the monster’s side.
Wandering through the broken wreckage of the hovercycle, the rancher reached the Gr’nar only to fall to his knees when he arrived. Biting back the pain, he stared at that much of the hateful creature as was made visible through its coating of blood and dirt and soot. He was not afraid to get so close to the monster. The Gr’nar’s bellows had been reduced to quiet whimpers. The thing was dying—helpless.
Matson stared into the thing’s face, trying to read its expression. The rancher lifted his weapon once more while at the same time the Gr’nar made weak scrabbling motions, trying to dig its way back beneath the surface. Matson cocked his weapon. The creature responded to the audible click, staring up the barrel of the Hoffman Brothers special.
Matson hesitated, staring back at the beast. His legs shaking under him, he held his fire for a long moment, then finally he lowered his weapon and spoke softly to the Gr’nar.
“Go on,” he croaked, his hate draining quietly away. “Get out of here.”
Then, the rancher turned his back on the bleeding, dying horror and slowly made his way back to the outcropping where Dancer waited. Matson sat down heavily, his weapon slipping from his fingers—forgotten.
The Gr’nar was finished. He knew it. He could see in its eyes that it could only return to its hibernation in the hopes of being reborn again in its next cycle.
“Go ahead,” muttered Matson. “With me dead, this place is gonna need some kind of son’va bitch in the background to keep it from goin’ soft.”
Maybe he was crazy, he thought, but life needed adversity. If he could handle the Gr’nar, so could whoever held Twin Feathers sixty”‘four years later.
“And if you can’t,” he spat a wad of blood defiantly into the sand, “then you don’t deserve her.”
The rancher could hear the whine of his wife and son’s hovercycles approaching just before he passed out.
Read more from this serial.
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part I
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part II
Other works by C.J. Henderson
- The Hardest Glory—Part 2 (Oct 21, 2007)
- The Hardest Glory—Part 1 (Oct 14, 2007)
- They Were the Wind (Aug 12, 2007)
- Young as the Mountains (Jul 15, 2007)
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part I (Jun 17, 2007)
- more by C.J. Henderson
- Interview with C.J. Henderson by N.E. Lilly (Feb 10, 2008)
- The Hardest Glory—Part 2 by C.J. Henderson (Oct 21, 2007)
- The Hardest Glory—Part 1 by C.J. Henderson (Oct 14, 2007)
- Law of the Kuzzi by James Chambers (Sep 9, 2007)
- They Were the Wind by C.J. Henderson (Aug 12, 2007)
- Young as the Mountains by C.J. Henderson (Jul 15, 2007)
- Time of the Gr’nar—Part I by C.J. Henderson (Jun 17, 2007)