Endangered

Xesh leaned back in his inertia seat and patiently awaited planetfall. This trip to Otruk III had been nearly a year in the planning and the most critical stage, getting through Customs, was fast approaching. He had sent his equipment on ahead several months ago marked as “camping supplies” (which was true enough, as far as it went) and had paid the appropriate bribes to certain middling officials at Colonial Customs Enforcement. Hopefully, his stuff hadn’t been impounded and there wasn’t a warrant for his arrest waiting for him at debarkation.

Otruk III was a developing world, a young colony twelve light years from his own homeworld of Uta-Teci. The local star, Otruk, was yellow, like Uta-Teci’s own sun, though slightly larger and hotter. However, Otruk III orbited farther out from its star than Uta-Teci did, and so had a somewhat cooler and milder surface temperature that was exacerbated, the planetary geologists said, by a period of global cooling that had begun several thousand years prior. But the world was wet, nearly eighty percent water, just as his species liked it. Descended from amphibious ancestors, the Tecii preferred a humid climate.

Most of the Tecii settlements were situated either on the swampy coastlands of the northwestern continent or underwater on the wide continental shelves. This was necessary, as it provided easier access to the mining operations of the ocean floor. Otruk III’s main export was rare heavy elements that could only be found in the oceanic crust. The continental interior was largely restricted as a biological sanctuary. Besides scientific expeditions, there was very little traffic into the interior except for the heavily regulated safaris for wealthy tourists. That, ostensibly, was the purpose of Xesh’s visit. At least, that was the purpose he had declared on his visa application. And why not? It was technically true (again, as far as it went) and going on safari was an innocent enough excuse for a well-off entrepreneur like himself to visit a largely backwater world like Otruk III. Sport hunting, however, was far from an innocent endeavor. In fact, it was strictly prohibited, and with good reason.

The native land and marine fauna of Otruk III was dominated by reptiles of all shapes and sizes. Many of the larger saurians were incredibly dangerous. Even herbivores were known to be deadly. On several widely publicized occasions, unwitting tourists had been trampled or gored to death by supposedly “friendly” plant eaters. Xesh had studied the records of these incidents closely. It was, after all, one of these herbivorous species that was his chosen quarry.

The three-horn was one of the most common saurians of the continental interior. It was gregarious, but had a decidedly bad-tempered disposition toward other species, and was well-armored with a tough hide and three forward-facing horns protruding from its skull. It was these horns that Xesh was after.

Besides the inherent danger involved in bringing down such a large and volatile creature, the Colonial Administration had banned hunting for more forward-thinking reasons. The government bureaucrats and their scientist underlings wanted the Tecii presence on Otruk III to have as little impact on the local ecology as possible and many of the larger kinds of saurian were believed to be endangered species vulnerable to extinction. The global cooling and falling sea levels, caused, perhaps, by an increase in planetary volcanism, seemed to be having a negative effect on saurian populations. They could probably bounce back as soon as the climate improved, but the ecologists didn’t want rampant hunting to tip the balance in favor of extinction.

Xesh couldn’t have cared less about such environmentalist concerns. His philosophy of life was decidedly in the survival-of-the-fittest direction. He also wasn’t in this business for the “thrill of the chase” that other poachers raved about. No, the only thing on his mind was that the eponymous headgear of three-horns was valuable on the black market back home on Uta-Teci. An ounce of the stuff was worth more than its weight in gold in some regions. It was believed by many to have medicinal properties, and apothecaries used it to treat everything from cancer to infertility. Personally, Xesh put no stock in such superstitious notions. It didn’t concern him whether any of the claims of curative value were true or not. He only cared that very rich people were willing to pay through the gills to get even a small sample of saurian horn. The risks were high, sure. He could be killed in any number of ways in the Otrukan wilderness. If he survived and was caught by the authorities, the consequences could be severe, perhaps decades of imprisonment on a penal colony in the Otruk system’s asteroid belt. All these risks, however, were worth it for the potentially enormous payout.

Xesh’s thoughts were interrupted as the shuttle’s public address system announced that they’d be landing at Lek-Toci City spaceport in a few minutes. Lek-Toci was a “city” in name only. It was one of the coastal towns, home to maybe twenty thousand individuals, most of them administrative staff, military personnel, and scientists. It was a far cry from one of the megalopolises of Uta-Teci, or even from one of the underwater cities that supported the Otrukan submarine mining industry.

After a smooth and uneventful landing, Xesh was relieved that there was in fact no warrant waiting for him at Customs. His visa checked out and he received a keycard to retrieve his other baggage (his “camping supplies”) from a storage locker on the other side of the debarkation area. Xesh strolled into the lobby and stopped to have a quick look around, adjusting his travel bag on his shoulder. Luckily, his contact was there, leaning not-too-conspicuously against a pillar across the room. He slowly crossed the crowded space between them.

“Glad to see you got here in one piece,” the contact said. “I’m Shan. Pleased to meet you.” He knew better than to ask for Xesh’s name.

Xesh nodded. “I just hope the baggage I sent on ahead arrived undamaged,” he said, holding up the keycard.

“Let’s find out,” Shan said. “This way.” He led Xesh through the crowds to the storage area. Rows and rows of matte green lockers filled the enormous space. “May I?” he asked, holding out his hand.

With the slightest twinge of reluctance, Xesh gave the keycard to him. Shan took a quick look at the number embossed on the plastic and handed the it back to him. He motioned for Xesh to follow him. They passed many isles of lockers before Shan found the right one: locker 1138.

Xesh inserted the keycard and the locker opened on squealing hinges. His baggage was there all right; another wave of relief briefly washed over him. Shan discreetly turned away as Xesh briefly inspected the three pieces of luggage, opening each one. Everything was exactly as he packed it.

“Okay. Let’s get moving,” he said. They left the storage area and Shan led him to the exit and into the vehicle parking area.

During the journey from Uta-Teci, the passengers of the space liner had gradually been acclimatized to local Otrukan gravity and atmospheric oxygen content. As such, Xesh felt no discomfort as he stepped out into the growing morning light of an alien sun.

“The hotel is only a few minutes away,” Shan said as they got into his small car. They drove the speed limit, Shan making it a point to scrupulously observe all traffic laws. No use in going through all the trouble to smuggle in this highly illegal equipment only for them to get pulled over.

The hotel was seven stories high, one of the tallest buildings in Lek-Toci. Shan found an empty space, parked, and they exited the car, walking briskly to the hotel entrance. Shan waited until Xesh had checked into his room.

“I’m sure you can find your way upstairs alright,” Shan said. Xesh nodded. “Well, I’m off to my next assignment,” Shan continued. “Enjoy your stay on Otruk III.”

Xesh took the elevator up to the third floor and found the correct room. He took a glance over each shoulder and held his keycard up to the door. It hissed open slowly. Xesh cautiously walked inside. It was a simple bedroom with a washroom attached. The air was comfortably moist and warm. He checked the washroom first – you could never be too careful – and then threw his luggage on the water-mattress. He opened each case and carefully inspected each item, checking them against his mental inventory of the stuff he had sent ahead. Nothing was missing. So far so good. Now for the final case.

It was a longish piece of luggage. Xesh undid the clasps and opened it. It appeared to contain nothing but personal hygiene items. Xesh undid a second set of clasps and slowly, carefully lifted up the false bottom of the case. He breathed a sigh of relief through his nose and gills. There, in the secret compartment, were the disassembled components of his Nova/Striker 9000-series big game rifle.

Xesh went to the door, double checked it was locked and crossed the room to the windows to draw the blinds. He quickly, but skillfully, assembled the weapon, checked the bolt action mechanism and magazine release, and then just as quickly and skillfully disassembled it and returned the components to their hiding place. Then he checked to see if all the nitro ammunition was there (it was) and returned the false bottom to its place and resealed the luggage. Everything was ready for tomorrow.

He did not partake in any of the hotel’s various amenities that evening. This was, after all, strictly a business trip and he couldn’t afford to lose his focus. He slept easily and rose early the next morning.

After gathering his equipment and descending the elevator to the ground floor he walked nonchalantly into the lobby and swept it quickly with his gaze. There, by the drink machines, was his second contact.

“I’m Alcar,” he said after Xesh walked up to him. “I’m here to drive you to the shuttle airfield.”

They stepped outside and into Alcar’s waiting vehicle. The airfield, run by a privately-owned shuttle company, was on the other side of town from the spaceport. They arrived after an uneventful fifteen minute drive through morning traffic.

Xesh had chartered this shuttle flight into the interior months ago, while making the other arrangements for this trip. It had taken some doing and a few more well-placed bribes to make sure that he would be the only passenger on this trip into the wilderness.

The small ten-passenger atmospheric shuttle was waiting on the tarmac for them. The pilot wasn’t there to greet them. He apparently knew better than to get acquainted with this particular passenger or ask too many questions. He was already on board the shuttle making his pre-flight check. Xesh took his leave of Alcar and climbed aboard, stowing his equipment in the luggage compartment at the rear of the shuttle. He took a seat towards the middle of the cabin and settled in for the four hour flight to the northwestern quadrant of the continent.

The pilot announced the imminent take-off and Xesh strapped in. The jet engines began to whine and Xesh felt the subtle vibration of the airframe through his seat. The shuttle taxied smoothly onto a take-off/landing pad and lifted vertically up into the air, ascending above the level of the tallest buildings in the nearby town before the variable-geometry engine nacelles swiveled to a horizontal position and the craft accelerated forward in a westerly direction.

Xesh occupied himself for the next four hours poring over maps of the northwestern quadrant. He occasionally glanced out the window and saw mostly floodplains and forested country of low, rolling hills. When the pilot announced he was beginning the approach to the remote landing strip, Xesh looked out the window again and saw the range of young, volcanic mountains fill the horizon to the west, running in a nearly unbroken line from north to south. A few of them were smoking.

The landing strip was a decidedly primitive arrangement; merely a dirt runway hacked out of the surrounding subtropical woodlands. It was used primarily by the scientific survey teams sent out by the Colonial Administration.

Xesh could feel the shuttle slow its forward momentum and hear the subtle change in the pitch of the engine whine as the nacelles pivoted back up to allow for a vertical landing. A slight bump indicated a successful touchdown. The pilot announced an all-clear and Xesh quickly unbuckled himself and retrieved his luggage from the rear. By that time, the exit ramp had already been lowered and he walked down slowly to the dirt tarmac, his large light-sensitive eyes blinking in the noonday sun.

To his surprise and aggravation, his guide was not there to meet him. He had been clear when making the arrangements that punctuality was of the utmost importance. The pilot wasn’t going to want to risk waiting around in unfamiliar country crawling with park rangers and hungry saurians. Xesh couldn’t really blame him. He was just about to turn back to the shuttle to speak to the pilot when he heard the soft purring of a hydrogen fuel cell engine in the distance. Brightly colored avians fluttered noisily from the trees in the direction of the sound. Xesh tensed. Was this his guide? Or was it the authorities, tipped off to his real intentions here? The rover finally broke from the tree line to the south, a figure in the driver’s seat looking in his direction and waving to him. Xesh waved back stiffly, still tense until he knew the true identity of the newcomer. The rover slowed to a stop in front of him.

“So sorry I’m late!” said the driver in the standard Tecii language with a heavy regional accent. “I was just coming back from scouting out the game trail and ran into a newly fallen tree. Took me a good while to clear it off the path with the rover’s winch. I’m Elak. I’ll be your guide and assistant tracker.” He was still sitting in the buggy as he extended his hand.

Xesh shook it and turned back to the shuttle, signaling to the pilot through the cockpit bubble that he was clear to take off. As the jet engine turbines began to cycle up, Elak tried to make small talk but he found that Xesh wasn’t in a conversational mood. “Anyway,” Elak continued, “There was fresh three-horn sign not far up the game trail. They can’t be far off. At this time of the year, smaller family groups begin to consolidate into larger herds for the march to their nesting grounds. Animals of all ages will be there, including large males. If we start now, we might be able to catch up with the family group that left their sign as early as tomorrow. I’m sure we’ll be able to get you into a nice position for observation.”

“Sounds good,” Xesh nodded. “How’re we doing in terms of rangers?”

Elak hesitated, a moment too long for Xesh’s liking. “There’s always rangers around when migration season begins,” Elak explained. “But I haven’t seen hide nor gill of any today. And the nearest ranger post is more than a day’s march away, closer to the foothills. We’ll be going in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t be worried over much about them.”

Xesh grunted. “Still,” he said, “We best get a move on quickly. No good standing around here any longer. The sounds of the shuttle and your rover might attract unwanted attention from any ranger patrols that might be skulking about or from over-inquisitive saurians.”

He loaded and secured his gear into the rover and slid into the front passenger seat. “Drive me to the head of the game trail,” he said. “I’ll see what’s to be seen there, and then we’ll pitch camp. No use tracking today. The animals likely won’t get far and they’ll be on high alert. I have no doubt that they heard the noises of the shuttle and the rover. Let’s get moving.”

They drove the buggy down the dirt path leading away southeast. Xesh reopened his map and after a moment of searching, found the airfield and traced the path with a finger. It was an artificial path used by the scientific survey teams to get from the airfield to a large lake several miles away. No survey teams had been through this area in a while and the path was partially overgrown. He could easily see how a fallen tree or other such obstacle could have held up his guide, but he never did see the spot where it happened. He might have missed it while studying his map. He thought of asking Elak about it, but he let the matter drop.

After a twenty-minute drive they reached the spot where the game trail, also heading down to the lake, perpendicularly crossed the path. “This way,” Elak said, parking the rover and waving for Xesh to follow him. They cautiously made their way along the game trail, going down hill on a shallow gradient. In no time at all they found the three-horn sign. The trail was overrun with their huge tracks. They had definitely been made only a few hours ago, perhaps sometime early that morning. From the looks of things, it was a medium sized family group with several adults and some juveniles of various ages. The tracks were somewhat confused as the animals walked over each other’s prints. Xesh studied them closely for some time.

“Look here,” he said. “It’s hard to say for sure, but I think the animal bringing up the rear of this group was injured in some way. Yes, it seemed to have been favoring it’s left hind foot. It looks like a very large adult. Very interesting indeed.”

Elak nodded in agreement but said nothing. “Well, I know all I need to know for the present,” Xesh continued. “If I had to venture a guess, this herd will stick by a reliable water source for at least a few days, waiting for other groups to arrive before making their way further south. I don’t doubt we’ll find them by the lakeside tomorrow. Come on. Let’s go back to the rover and find a suitable place nearby to set up camp.”

After some searching, they found a sheltered hollow a respectable and safe distance from the game trail. Luckily no other animals seemed to making a home out of the place. The equipment was quickly unloaded from the rover and Elak set about clearing brush and ferns away to set up the battery-operated cooking gear. There was no way that they would risk lighting a fire. The smoke could attract rangers or scare away their quarry. Saurians were rightly cautious when it came to fire. After the camp was set up, they moved the rover a short ways off the path and covered it with a camouflaging tarp made to look like local vegetation. By the time they were finished, it was already mid-afternoon.

Xesh spent the rest of the day cleaning his rifle, pouring over maps again, and resting. As the sun began to sink towards the horizon and the evening light dimmed, Elak began to get dinner ready. All of a sudden, Xesh noticed that everything had gone strangely quiet. Some of the humming of insects remained but the various bird and small saurian calls that had all day been a background soundtrack to their work were suddenly silenced. He was about to mention it to Elak when the gathering twilight was suddenly shattered by a sound that he had never heard before. It was a long, loud, rumbling growl that went on for several seconds. The echoes continued for several seconds more. The air seemed to shake with it the noise, the effect not dissimilar from that of a large drum or a heavy bass instrument. They both froze, looking out into the surrounding forest. The roar, if that’s what it was, seemed to come from some distance away, but was obviously from a very large animal. It came again, rumbling and rolling over the landscape like an avalanche of sound. It repeated several more times as the last light of day faded until it finally ceased.

“That was the territorial call of an apex predator, or I’ve never heard one,” Xesh finally said, breaking the stunned silence.

“Yes…” Elak managed. He’d been holding his breath. “I… I think most of the larger saurian predators are diurnal. Hopefully, whatever it was won’t be hunting tonight.”

“Both of us had better use the infrared goggles when on watch,” Xesh instructed. Tecii had comparatively good night vision, but after hearing that roar, Xesh was in no mood to take chances. “I’ll take the first watch,” he said. “Elak, you relieve me in four hours. Try to get some rest. We’ll have a busy day tomorrow.”

The night passed without further incident, and they didn’t hear the roar again. The only sounds were the normal nighttime noises of insects and small vertebrates that one encountered in the wilderness of any planet. The sun rose in the east, bright and clear, the following morning. After a quick breakfast, they shouldered their packs and picked their way back towards the game trail. Xesh held his rifle in a comfortable ready position.

They came to the spot where they had examined the three-horn tracks the day before and it didn’t seem that any other large animals had come that way during the night. They walked briskly but alertly, the trail continuing to slope downward towards the lake. Within half-an-hour they could see the water’s edge through breaks in the trees. The trail steepened abruptly for some way, but then began to level out.

As they approached the lake, they began to hear the sounds of large animals bellowing and calling. Xesh halted, and with a sign led Elak off the game trail and into the trees on his left. They approached the tree line at a shallow angle and after some searching discovered the huge trunk of an old tree that had fallen some time ago. The perfect spot to set up an observation post. Xesh set his rifle down carefully and slid off his pack. He opened it and retrieved his binoculars. “Now we wait,” he said.

Several hours passed. Many herbivorous saurians came to drink at the lake, but as of yet there was no sign of the three-horn herd. Elak began to get restless. Xesh was unperturbed. He had been on enough big game hunts on enough worlds to know that the hunter’s most valuable asset was patience.

A bellowing and hooting began on their left. “There!” Elak exclaimed, a little too loudly in Xesh’s opinion. “Here they come,” he continued, lowering his own binoculars and pointing as the three-horn herd broke through the tree line farther down the lakeshore and strode into view. “They’re beautiful!”

Xesh remained silent, studying the herd intently. As he guessed, it was a family group. He counted five adults (a large, healthy young bull and his harem of four slightly smaller females) and three juveniles (two subadults and a yearling). The adults were a mottled brown in color on their sides and legs with an area of dark purple coloration running down their backs. The massive frills that flared out from the rear of their skulls behind the two massive brow horns were streaked with red and orange markings. The subadults were a lighter brown color and had no markings on their frills, while the yearling was a mottled green with brown spots (clearly for better camouflage in the forest). There was no sign yet of the injured adult; all five seemed alert and healthy, walking briskly and without any obvious discomfort.

Xesh was about to say something to Elak when he looked back towards the tree line just in time to see the injured three-horn appear. It was an old male, very large with long, curving horns above its brows and a short but stout horn just above and behind its huge beaked mouth. Its head was down and its breathing labored. As Xesh had suspected since yesterday, it was walking with a pronounced limp. It was favoring its left hind foot, trying, only somewhat successfully to keep its weight off its right hind foot. If Xesh had to hazard a guess, this old male had recently lost a battle for dominance with the younger male now leading the herd. Now that would have been something to witness. Xesh had only seen documentary videos of these titanic clashes, but even those were awe-inspiring. Two opposing males would lock their massive brow horns together and, using their powerfully muscled shoulders, push and shove until one submitted or they both tired. During the battle, the old male must have tripped on some obstacle. It had cost him a twisted right ankle, as well leadership of the herd and access to the females.

The old three-horn’s status as former alpha-male made no difference to Xesh. As far as he was concerned, the impressive set of brow horns and the injury combined to make him the perfect target. Xesh lowered his binoculars and settled his Nova/Striker rifle onto the fallen tree. He eased the stock into his shoulder and looked down the electronic scope. He felt Elak stir beside him. The three-horn herd was making its way down to the lakeshore to drink, the other herbivores giving them a wide berth. The old male was still bringing up the rear, struggling to keep up with the others. The targeting reticle of Xesh’s scope came to rest on a point just behind the old three horn’s shoulder blade. One clean shot would pierce the animal’s heart and kill it instantly.

Up to this point, there had been a stiff morning breeze coming off the lake, keeping Xesh and Elak well upwind of the animals on the shoreline. But as Xesh put his finger on the trigger and prepared to squeeze, he felt the wind abruptly shift, now coming down out of the forest and towards the lake. He swore under his breath, almost certain that the three-horns would be spooked by their scent. But nothing happened. He refocused his attention and prepared again to take the shot when he was overcome by a rancid stench coming on the breeze out of the forest behind them. He heard Elak retch. Xesh shut his nostrils and gills and began to breath through his mouth. The horrible odor had smelled of death and decay. He tried to focus again, looking back into his rifle scope. He discovered that the herd and all the other animals on the lakeshore were now looking intently in the direction of the tree line. They had obviously detected the smell. He could see their nostrils flaring. The adult three-horns began a high-pitched hooting alarm call. The females began to herd the juveniles away, taking them farther down the lakeshore. Soon all the herbivores in sight were one the move, and the old male was lost from sight in the confusion.

Xesh swore violently, pounding his fist on the log. He turned to bark out orders to Elak but found himself staring down the barrel of a large-caliber pistol.

“Hands off the rifle,” Elak said calmly. “Stand up and turn around slowly. That’s it. Don’t try any antics or I’ll shoot you dead where you stand. Keep your hands up.”

Xesh complied, seeing no other options presently. “So,” he said, facing Elak, letting the utter contempt drip from his voice, “were you an undercover ranger this whole time or just one of their backstabbing informants?”

“Does it matter?” Elak countered. “I’ve got you right where I want you, and in a few minutes, a ranger team will be here to cart you off to the nearest post. From there it’s back to Lek-Toci and probably a nice stint in the mines of the asteroid belt.” Elak smiled grimly, clearly enjoying the thought of Xesh toiling away for the next few decades of his life.

From the forest, Xesh could hear the occasional rustle of shrubbery and snapping of twigs, indicating the approach of the ranger team. They were clearly an ill-disciplined lot, making all that noise. Suddenly there was a shout. Xesh could smell the horrible stench back on the breeze. There was a tremendous cracking and rustling, as of foliage being trampled by massive feet. More shouting, and finally an earsplitting growling roar emerged from the forest. Xesh recognized it immediately. It was the same roar that they had heard in camp last night, only terrifyingly close. Gunshots and more shouting could be heard as the thundering growl died away.

Xesh saw his chance. Elak had remained focused throughout the initial din, but the proximity of that roar caused him to jump involuntarily and turn his head to the source of the noise. Xesh leapt forward, grabbed Elak’s forearm and twisted, putting it into a painful hold. Elak grunted in pain and lost his grip on the pistol. It fell to the ground and Xesh kicked it away while at the same time trying to twist Elak’s arm behind his back. He wanted to position himself to put Elak into a chokehold, but Elak was no pushover. Xesh felt a blinding stab of pain as Elak landed a well-placed kick into the side of Xesh’s knee. Tecii bones were only partially ossified; in some places still mostly cartilage, especially at the joints. Xesh howled in pain. He saw stars momentarily. He jabbed out with his elbow and managed to catch Elak with a glancing blow to the side of his head. Elak staggered, and Xesh leapt forward with his one good leg, tackling him. As they rolled and struggled on the ground, Xesh could see the pistol out of the corner of his eye. He strained to reach it and finally had it in his hand. He rolled over and, without taking much time to aim, fired. The shot grazed Elak’s arm as he attempted to turn and run towards the lake. He stumbled. A second shot struck Elak in the back just below the shoulder and he fell flat on his face. He gasped and gurgled for a moment, and then was still.

In the distance, the cries and shouts of the rangers were dying away as they fled from the unknown menace in the woods. The roar did not sound again. Xesh rose unsteadily to his feet, wincing in pain from his wounded right knee. He saw stars again. He limped back towards the log and retrieved his rifle, sticking Elak’s pistol into his waistband. What a mess! A year of planning and a small fortune in expenses all wasted. He thought he had been careful when choosing a guide but had somehow managed to end up partnered with a police informant. Had Elak been undercover from the very beginning, or had he been turned in the time between when Xesh recruited him and when he’d arrived on this miserable planet? Then again, as Elak himself had said, in the end it didn’t really matter. Xesh’s hunt was finished.

Or was it? Xesh nearly jumped in surprise as he looked through the trees towards the lake and saw a three-horn standing not far off. The rest of the herd was nowhere in sight and this individual was standing by itself, breathing heavily and drooling, its eyes glazed over in pain as it limped slowly towards the waterside. It was the old, wounded male. Apparently, he had been left behind in the stampede. Perhaps this trip could be salvaged after all.

Ignoring his own pain, Xesh settled back into a prone position and balanced his rifle on the fallen tree again. He’d have to make this quick. Whatever had spooked the rangers in the forest had probably moved off by now. They’d be back before long, hoping that their contact Elak still had a prisoner waiting for them.

Xesh aimed down the electronic sight. The old three-horn was drinking from the lake and Xesh had a clear shot behind its left shoulder blade. He squeezed the trigger calmly and fired. The Nova/Striker 9000-series bucked as the magnum nitro round exited the muzzle at an incredible velocity. Xesh felt the kick as the huge gun recoiled into his shoulder. Through the sight, he could see the old three-horn twitch as the round entered its chest cavity through the relatively thin skin below the shoulder. Its heart would have exploded instantly. The animal didn’t even have time to cry out. It lifted its head briefly out of reflex and slumped to the ground with a resounding thud.

Picking up his rifle and slinging his pack over his shoulder, Xesh made his way towards the downed three-horn. He limped painfully, trying to keep his weight off his right knee. He’d have to apply some salve from his first aid kit to it later. Now the most important thing was retrieving those horns before the rangers returned. He wasn’t sure how he’d get them back to camp by himself. He’d manage somehow. Luckily, he still had access to the rover to carry his prizes out of here. It occurred to him that the rangers could very well have already discovered the camp and could be waiting in ambush for him there. Oh well, one thing at a time.

The horns, Xesh knew, were made of solid bone with a keratin sheath. He’d brought just the tool he needed. He opened his pack and removed the parts of a disassembled, battery-powered bone saw. Within a couple of minutes, he had it back together and climbed on top of the three-horn’s massive head, the snout of which was lying in the water. It took several more minutes, but Xesh was able to power his tool through the left brow horn. It fell to the ground, leaving a bloody stump behind.

Xesh hopped back down to the ground to take a short breather before tackling the right brow horn and the nose horn. He surveyed the massive corpse. His conscience was bothered not a bit that this wounded old creature had to die for him to get rich. That was the way of things, after all. Survival of the fittest. He felt the breeze shift, again coming from the direction of the forest. Then it hit him; the horrible odor. It was much, much closer now. He gagged involuntarily. Then he heard it; the pounding of massive footfalls across the soft ground of the lakeshore. Xesh looked up in the direction of the trees and saw the most terrifying creature he’d ever beheld.

It was a massive saurian carnivore, moving slowly, but gracefully on it’s two massive legs. It was larger even than a three-horn. Its scaly hide was a mottled gray and brown and it had a mane of black feathers running from the crown of its skull and down its neck and spine. Its head was huge, and its jaws, dripping goops of thick saliva, were lined with massive recurved teeth. Almost as an afterthought, like a prank of nature, two tiny arms with only two fingers on each hand hung limply at its sides below massive shoulder blades. Xesh recognized it instantly as the apex predator of this continent.

He was too terrified even to cry out, much less move, as the massive predator strode determinedly towards the three-horn carcass. It looked down at Xesh, towering over him, and cocked its massive head as if puzzled. It blinked its beady eyes several times and took a deep wet breath through its nostrils. Then it opened its jaws and lowered its head towards him. The horrible stench issued from the gaping maw as Xesh finally summoned the will to scream in terror before the massive jaws closed around him and he knew no more.

 

©2019 Thomas J. Salerno. All rights reserved

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