Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.

THE HUNTERS

By Paul S. Gibbs


"I wish you weren't doing this," Sah'saam said.

Snatched back against my will from the precipice of sleep, I growled. "Doing what?" I asked.

"Hunting," he said. "Tomorrow morning. With that…human."

I opened my eyes, to see his own hovering before me in the darkness like a pair of softly-glowing green lanterns. Through the open window above the bed, the cool night-breeze bore a spicy scent from the savanna, and the hiss and rattle of grasses crying out for rain. "Why?"

He slipped his hand between us and patted my stomach. "Because of them, mainly."

Again I growled--but a little more quietly this time. At three months, the bulge in my abdomen was scarcely noticeable; and apart from a few distressing bouts of morning sickness, pregnancy had not altered my lifestyle at all. Still…

"Our female ancestors kept hunting right up until giving birth," I pointed out.

Sah'saam chuckled and drew me close, smoothing and re-smoothing the fur on my shoulders in a way guaranteed to turn my growl into a purr. "Our female ancestors," he said, "weren't mated to me." He paused. "I just can't help wondering, Ehm'viir: why us? More to the point, why you?"

I pulled free from his grasp and sat up, drawing my knees against my chest--something which very soon I would no longer be able to do. Under the blanket at the foot of the bed, the tip of my tail skittered back and forth like a small frightened animal, until Sah'saam playfully trapped it with his foot. "Us, because we own the largest game park on Sah'aar," I explained patiently, as to a three-year-old kit. "And me, because Mackenzie knows I'm in charge of thinning the brush-demons."

"Did you tell him about your…condition?"

"No," I said simply. "Why should I? And anyway, I'll only be doing the tracking. It's in the contract. He'll take care of the actual killing."

"Unless he loses his nerve."

"Him? Not likely--judging from what I've read."

Sah'saam ran his claw-tips gently down my thigh, making me shiver. "Why in the Goddess' name would anyone want to hunt a brush-demon, anyway?"

"Well, not for food…"

"Obviously not."

"For him it's a…hobby. A pastime. Apparently he's after a trophy…"

"The best hunting trophy," Sah'saam said firmly, "is a full belly."

"--And besides," I went on, ignoring that, "do you have any idea how much he's paying us? Enough to furnish the nursery--and buy a new hover-skim."

Sah'saam paused for a long moment, mulling that, then leaned over and nuzzled my neck. "All right," he said--predictably. "But I'm going to monitor the scanners myself. Just in case."

In case of what, I didn't ask; I simply allowed him to draw me again into the warm circle of his arms, and together we drifted off to sleep. Just as well: my client was expecting me at first light--and wouldn't appreciate a groggy guide.

###

"You've never hunted with a human before, have you?'

Something about Sean Mackenzie made me nervous. Perhaps it was his sheer size: he towered over me by a good half-meter, and probably outweighed me by double. Or perhaps it was the overwhelming force of his personality. Sitting beside him in my battered old hover-skim, I found myself slowly crumpled against the cockpit door, and I battled grimly--and unsuccessfully--to keep my claws unexpressed. He noticed, of course: I had the feeling that very little evaded those shrewd dark eyes.

"No," I admitted. "I haven't. Among your people it seems to be a dying art. Present company excepted, of course," I added hurriedly.

"And among yours as well," he observed. He smiled. "Present company excepted." He paused. "I'm told that not one in five thousand Sah'aarans will ever have the experience--?"

"That's about right," I confirmed. "And it's getting fewer with every generation." Part of the reason why my mate and I are slowly going broke…

"A pity," Mackenzie said. "A species that fails to use its natural abilities is in danger of losing them."

I grinned, letting him see my teeth. "I've always believed in using everything the Goddess gave me."

"Obviously," he said. He looked me up and down in frank appraisal, and I felt my ears redden in embarrassment. Why, I don't know: everything that wasn't covered by my shorts and halter was concealed beneath a thick layer of golden-brown fur. Perhaps it was the intensity of his stare, which seem to penetrate all the way to my spine. Nervously I twitched the steering yoke, and the little craft rocked back and forth several times before steadying. Mackenzie appeared not to notice.

"The resemblance to Terran felines is truly astounding," he said admiringly. "Fur, claws, teeth, tail…Digitigrade, but bipedal, freeing the forelimbs to evolve into grasping hands. All in all, a highly-efficient killing machine."

"We prefer to think of ourselves as 'sentient beings'," I said wryly, and he smiled.

"As do we," he agreed. "Even when it isn't true." He glanced ahead. "Is this it?"

I nodded. "This is it." Such as it is.

Dawn on Sah'salaan Continent. Some fifty kilometers behind us, in the direction of the rising sun, lay our headquarters: the sprawling old house I shared with my mate and our half-dozen rangers. The nearest city--our capital, as it happened, a place I'd visited no more than three times in my life--was three hundred kilometers beyond that, with nothing but wide open spaces and maxigrazers in between. Ahead, the open savanna glowed orange and gold in the growing sunlight. Baked dry by the blazing heat of First-Summer, not yet refreshed by the drenching Interval, the grass lay dry and dead on the rolling hills, crisscrossed by a faint brown tracery of game trails. Below, the hover-skim's lift-field kicked up a swirling cloud of dust; it hung sullen in the still air like a twisting brown worm, refusing to disperse. Somewhere amidst those dells, wandering in search of food, were the scattered herds of Spotted Leapers and minigrazers that were the usual stock in trade of Sah'raal Game Park, Inc. I caught myself scanning the ground for fresh tracks, and with a snarl of chagrin I desisted. No need today.

"Impressive," Mackenzie said. "How much of this is yours?"

"About four thousand square kilometers," I said. "It's been in my family for more than three centuries."

Peering out the side window, he frowned. "It occurs to me," he said, "that this would be prime grazing land. I'm surprised that one of your meat-packing conglomerates…"

"They would," I said. "And to be honest, I'd welcome it." I shook my head. "But I can't sell. There's a provision in my great-great grandfather's will: the land can never be used for grazing or commercial development. And the market for hunting parks is a little soft these days. My brother got out of the business years ago; he's an engineer. Maybe he was the smart one…"

"No," Mackenzie said. "Not at all. I've been an engineer myself. That isn't living--not really." He nodded out the window. "This is." He paused and shook himself. "Where should we set down?"

I pointed to the left. "There," I said. "That's brush-demon territory."

As I spoke I sent the hover-skim into a shallow banking turn. Ahead of us, dark-green and lush, a wide ribbon of vegetation snaked through the dry hills, vanishing finally in the dust-haze to the north and south. "The Kaz'hran River," I said. "Actually more of a stream at this time of the year--but it never dries up entirely. Brush-demons hunt at night, and hole up near water during the day."

"So I've heard," Mackenzie said thoughtfully. "But--we should be able to flush one out?"

"Unless one flushes us out first," I said dryly.

He smiled faintly, gazing down at the stream. "I'm looking forward to it."

###

I set us down by a bend in the river, just outside the riparian fringe, and in the rapidly-growing heat we sorted our equipment. As I worked, I studied my client through half-lidded eyes.

He sat on the hover-skim's tailgate, frowning in concentration as he assembled his chosen weapon: a pneumatic crossbow. In my twenty-four years I'd had little contact with humans; in fact I'd met no more than half a dozen. A small sample--and one that included no one even remotely like Sean Mackenzie. In some ways his spirit seemed more Sah'aaran than human--and his intensity both fascinated and alarmed me. Forty-six years old; tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, he was quite handsome (as Terrans judge such things), with close-cropped dark hair and rugged sun-bronzed features. The long scar creasing his right cheek was by no means a disfigurement; rather, it added variety to a face that might otherwise have been too perfect. He wore khaki trousers, a short-sleeved bush-jacket with lots of pockets, and heavy, scuffed black boots. The iridescent purple band encircling his floppy hat appeared be the skin of a Centaurii slasher. He caught me gazing at him, and he looked up sharply; but his irritated scowl quickly melted into a lopsided grin. I turned away, my tail whipping.

My own clothing was a good deal simpler--and lighter. My shorts and halter were dark green, to meld with the underbrush, and were made of a tissue-thin, stretchy material that hampered neither my movements nor the passage of air. Low on my hips I fastened a webbing belt--a little less snugly than I might have, just a couple months before--and from it I hung a water bottle and a pouch containing a first-aid kit and a handful of foil-wrapped meat bars. Unlike the majority of my hunts, this one would most definitely not end with a full belly. I replaced my light woven collar--that indispensable preserver of Sah'aaran modesty--with a sturdier model containing a homing beacon, and I quickly braided my mane into a long orange rope that hung halfway down my back. Boots are not part of the Sah'aaran wardrobe, and the weapon I would ordinarily have carried I was contractually obligated to leave behind.

Finally I clipped a commpak to my ear and adjusted its tiny microphone. "Ehm'viir to base. Are you there, darling?"

My mate's cheerful voice came through loud and clear. "I'm here. What's your status?"

"Just about to set out," I said. "You should have us on your scope now."

"I do; I'm showing two blips in grid D-23. Hey--a lobster dinner says you never even sight a demon, with that human crashing through the woods."

"Have you read our contract, my dear?" I asked. "I'm required to keep trying, every day, until he gets what he wants."

Sah'saam snarled in amazement. "He's that serious?"

"He is."

"Well, good luck, then."

"Thanks." The Goddess knows we'll need it. "Ehm'viir out."

Mackenzie jumped down and strode over. A pair of water bottles and a huge sheath knife hung from his belt now, and a trim camouflage backpack rode high on his shoulders, along with his crossbow and a quiver of wicked-looking bolts. A human-style commpak was fastened to his ear, its microphone folded up out of the way, and he wore his homing beacon in a narrow grey strip around his wrist. "Ready?" he asked.

"Ready."

We made our way down a steep bank covered with dry grass, lugged boots and toe-claws keeping our footing secure, and into a dense stand of broadleaf and evergreen tatak, interspersed with twisting serpent-bush and thick layers of thorny pillow-clover. To the left, the river--the ultimate source of this fifty-meter fecund corridor in the midst of an arid grassland--was a sluggish grey thread, no more than ankle-deep, meandering through a wide sandy bed. I pushed my way carefully down to the stream's edge, and my client followed, his footsteps almost as silent as mine despite his heavy boots. A narrow dusty trail, thickly overhung, paralleled the bank, and beside it I paused, falling into a crouch, scanning the underbrush with eyes, ears and nose.

A moment later I rose and dusted my knees. "Nothing here," I said. I pointed. "Let's head upstream--the underbrush gets thicker that way."

"What kind of tracks should I be looking for?"

I frowned. Had his research been less extensive than I'd thought? Or--more likely--was he testing my knowledge? Scratching in the dust, I showed him. "The hind foot has four toes," I said. "Three in front, close-spaced, and one about ten centimeters behind. The arch of the foot doesn't usually touch the ground, so all you'll see are the claw-marks. The front foot leaves a diamond-shaped mark with claw-points at the tips. The stride is about a meter long in a full-grown male."

Mackenzie nodded. "Impressive."

We started upstream then, walking slowly. I took the point, and my client followed, silent and alert, his hand on his bow. Watching the trail required only half my attention--years of practice--and a some minutes later I spoke over my shoulder. "I'm curious, Mr. Mackenzie--?"

"Yes?"

"This…hobby of yours. I did some research after you contacted me; I know that over the last ten years you've hunted your way halfway across the Alliance. For a Terran in this day and age that's unusual, to say the least."

"Yes," he agreed affably. "It is. Virtually unprecedented, in fact--if I do say so myself." He paused, shifting the crossbow to his other shoulder, then went on, "I suppose you could say it's in my blood. My great-to-the-fifth grandfather was a big-game hunter in Africa and Asia--back when such a thing was still acceptable, even popular. In fact he was rather famous in his day. Our ancestral home in Scotland still contains his trophy room. As a small boy it terrified me, every time I visited--I was convinced that those lions, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, would somehow come back to life and devour me. It scared me--and fascinated me too. I spent hours there, just looking. When my father died and left me enough money to do whatever I pleased, I decided to follow in my ancestor's footsteps." He shook his head sadly. "It's impossible to be a hunter on Earth now--but not on other worlds. I decided I'd visit every planet in the Alliance, find the most dangerous creature there, and kill it. I've hunted slashers--" he touched his hat-band-- "Quadrian slime-snakes, Xerxian howlers…"

"And now it's Sah'aar's turn."

He glanced at me quickly, confused perhaps by my sour tone. "Yes," he said. "That's right."

I shook my head. "I'm afraid I find that hard to comprehend."

"Really?" he waved a hand. "I'd have thought the owner of a game park would understand perfectly."

"That's just it," I explained. "Game. The few of us who still hunt don't do it as a hobby, or for trophies. We want to experience how our ancestors lived--and we go after prey species, not other carnivores."

"You do."

"Only out of necessity," I countered. "Brush-demons are part of the ecosystem, but to protect my herds I have to keep them thinned. When my clients and I hunt game, we use our teeth and claws--but I kill demons with a stinger rifle. Usually, that is," I added ruefully.

"Do you indeed?' He sounded disappointed. "That's a shame."

###

An hour later I finally picked up a scent.

During that time we proceeded perhaps two kilometers upstream, following a path which several times threatened to peter out, but never quite did. The flood-plain on which we walked grew gradually narrower and deeper, the river biting into a range of low rolling hills; and the canopy of tatak and broadleaf closed in over our heads. The sky vanished, except for occasional pale-blue glimpses, and narrow shafts of blinding-bright sunlight pierced the inky shadows. The shade tempered the heat, but the air seemed thick, even oppressive, and very soon I found myself panting heavily. My client mopped his face periodically with a bright-red handkerchief. There was no wind, and the only sound was the fretful chatter of the stream.

Abruptly then, at a point where the path took a sharp bend to the right, I stopped short and crouched, signaling Mackenzie to halt also. To our left, a steep rocky slope led down to the water; opposite was an impenetrable thicket of serpent-bush and pillow-clover. An unremarkable spot--except for the clear and distinctive line of footprints that ascended the slope, angled obliquely across the trail, and vanished into the underbrush.

I crept forward slowly, and Mackenzie followed, gripping his bow. He knelt down beside the prints, while I dropped to my belly for a closer look--and a quick sniff.

"At least a day old," I decided a moment later. "The scent is almost gone." Still lying prone, I glanced to the right, along the path the demon had taken…and a purr of satisfaction rumbled through my belly. The sticky fronds of serpent-bush had been roughly thrust aside, forming a dark "tunnel" almost a meter in diameter. A well-used road, so it seemed: the pillow-clover at its mouth had been trampled to bare earth.

Clambering onto my haunches, I pointed. "That could be the entrance to a den," I said quietly. "Or it could just be a highway up to the plains." I glanced at Mackenzie. "Only one way to find out."

He took my point immediately, and his brow furrowed. "Worthwhile?"

"Could be," I said. I gestured at the tracks. "The footprints go in--but they don't come out. Sometimes after a demon has eaten well, it will hole up for several days…"

"You're the expert," Mackenzie said, his tone calm but his eyes lighting up with excitement. "If you think the risk is acceptable…"

I set my belt aside--it would only get in the way--and laid my commpak atop it. "I'll see if I can pick up a fresh scent," I said. I tucked my braid into the waistband of my shorts. "If I come backing out of there at a hundred kilometers an hour…"

He nodded and smiled thinly, unlimbering his bow. "I'll know what to do," he said. He dropped a bolt into the breech, and there was a sharp hiss of compressed air as the weapon charged. He did this with practiced ease, not to say negligence, and I shuddered, wondering how many unfortunate creatures had felt the bite of those evil-looking barbs. In comparison, teeth and claws seemed almost kind.

I crossed the trail and crouched down before the rough tunnel-mouth, inhaling deeply through my nose. A familiar, musty smell filled my head, making my claws express and starting my tail to waving. A brush-demon had indeed passed this way; or (I sniffed again) maybe even more than one. How recently? Hard to tell. I dropped to my knees and elbows and crawled forward slowly, straining my eyes into the deepening gloom, my ears pricked for the faintest sound. Three meters…four…

I'd done this before; of course I had. Only a fool hunts brush-demons at night, and during the day they remained hidden, avoiding the heat. To crawl into their dens was the only way, and I had, a hundred times--but always before with the comforting bulk of a rifle in my hands. Doing so unarmed and all but naked, with no more protection than what the Goddess had given me…was almost more than my courage could endure. Mackenzie might consider this a game, a pastime--but not me. The best trophy is a full belly… but my own stomach was empty and complaining, the muscles threatening to cramp. Goddess, let this be over today!

Six meters in, give or take, I froze and flattened myself to the ground. Ahead, the bushy passage topped a small rise and then dipped sharply, opening into a deep perpendicular gully, thickly overgrown and impenetrably dark, even to my eyes. And within that inky blackness, something was stirring. I saw nothing; but I heard a faint rustle--as of a heavy body shifting on a bed of dry grass--and a rattling hiss of wheezy, almost labored-sounding breathing. As I crawled slowly to the lip of the rise, the acrid stench increased sharply, tingling my sinuses and making my eyes water.

My heart began to hammer, and my tail was writhing out of control. Under normal circumstances I would at that point have been charging my rifle for a full-power shot, and switching on the small flashlight strapped to its barrel. Brush-demons are extraordinarily difficult to kill--but a close-range stinger discharge between the eyes will usually suffice. This time, though…Cautiously I eased myself back a meter or so, to consider my options.

There was nothing that could be called a breeze, but my whiskers had detected a very slight movement of the fetid air, flowing out of the den. Good: the damned thing wouldn't have caught my scent yet. Nor, apparently, had it heard me--though as a rule brush-demons have poor ears. Now what? I asked myself. This was a somewhat unique situation for me…

Only one choice. As quietly as I could, I scrabbled around in the underbrush, my fingers finally closing around a small egg-shaped stone. I drew my legs up beneath me, my toe-claws digging in, silently apologizing to my kits for what I was about to put them through. Then I took a deep breath and hurled the rock into the darkness with all my strength.

Unable to see my target, I'd had no idea where to aim; but a shrill scream, like someone tearing apart a sheet of iron, told me I hadn't missed. I was already in motion, even as a dark shape, low-slung and fluid, erupted from the burrow amidst a shower of gravel. I launched myself backwards, twisting around in midair and landing--the Goddess be thanked--on my feet, my nose pointing back the way I'd come. Bent low, not quite on all fours, I ran for my life. Centimeters behind, a long beak-like jaw loaded with snaggle teeth snapped at my tail; but fortunately, even in my delicate condition I was still a little bit faster. At the mouth of the tunnel I shouted "Incoming!" then curled myself into a tight ball and rolled. Meters away, I sprang to my feet and spun, panting hard and clutching my stomach.

Three meters long, reptilian, with pebbly grey skin and a craggy, spike-fringed skull, the brush-demon exploded onto the trail and skidded to a halt, a long shrill hiss escaping its throat. Confronted suddenly by two foes, it crouched at bay, blunt tail thrashing and beady red eyes flicking. A breeding male: even at a distance the purple throat-sac was unmistakable.

And my client--? He stood some four meters down the trail, calm, composed, his feet planted wide and his eyes narrowed. With a single swift movement he raised his crossbow, aimed, fired…and missed.

No--not quite. The bolt skimmed the beast's flank at a sharp angle, barely scoring that leathery hide, and buried itself nock-deep in the clover. The demon screamed again, all but deafening me, and threw itself onto its back, its stubby limbs beating the air. My client watched intently; but strangely, he made no move to reload his weapon. Thrashing frantically, the creature got its legs underneath it again, then took off up the trail, faster than I would have believed possible. I had to leap out of its way, lest I be run over. In seconds it vanished.

I rounded on Mackenzie--but in my astonishment my Terran had fled, every word, and I managed nothing more than a strangled yowl. He lowered his bow and flashed a brief, saintly smile. "Now," he said, "we may begin to hunt."

###

He held his ground, and for that I have to give him credit: any other Terran, I suspect, would have retreated from the force of my anger--or at very least from the sight of my claws thrust before his eyes. "You did that deliberately?" I demanded. My Terran had returned, but fury made my tone a spitting snarl.

Unperturbed, he nodded. "Of course."

"Why, for the Goddess' sake?"

He frowned in confusion. "Because I came here to hunt brush-demons," he said. He slung his bow at his back. "We should get moving--"

"No!" I said. I swallowed, reining in my temper, and went on, "Not until I understand what just happened. I flushed out a demon, and you had a clear shot. Why in the Dark didn't you take it?"

"As I said," he explained patiently, "I came here to hunt. Not just to kill. Surely you of all people must understand that…"

"No," I snapped. "I don't. No Sah'aaran would."

"Why?"

"We would never pass up such a clear opportunity," I said. "Anyone who did would be considered…irrational. Maybe even immoral."

He quirked a lopsided grin. "If I was hunting to feed my children," he said, "I'd agree." He shook his head. "But I'm not."

I turned aside. A pastime, I reminded myself. A game.

"--And am I to understand," Mackenzie went on tauntingly, "that for Sah'aarans, hunting is an entirely mechanical process? That you derive no pleasure from it at all?"

That struck a nerve, and I felt my ears redden. "No," I said. "Of course not. But…"

He nodded. "But for you the pleasure is in the kill, rather than the stalk," he said--and once again he sounded disappointed. "Perfectly understandable--for a carnivore. But please forgive me if my sensibilities lie elsewhere."

I glared up at him. "I've fulfilled my end of the contract," I told him flatly. "I got you a brush-demon. What you chose to do with it was your own affair."

He nodded. "I know," he replied. "And you'd be perfectly within your rights to go home." He peered over my shoulder, up the trail, and his eyes narrowed. "But I'm not ready to leave. So unless you're prepared to abandon me here…"

For a long moment I stood silent; then, with a growl, I whirled and snatched up my belt and commpak from the side of the trail. "All right," I said. "Let's get moving."

We did that, following a fresh line of footprints and a lingering reek. As we went I adjusted my equipment, and the commpak beeped even as I clipped it to my ear. "Base to Ehm'viir!"

Testily I tapped the button. "Ehm'viir here."

"I've been trying to reach you, darling," Sah'saam said. "What's going on?"

I sighed and glanced at Mackenzie, striding along alert and determined behind me. "The hunt," I told my mate. "For a while, anyway."

###

At the stream's edge I paused, gazing down at the clear rippling water just millimeters from my toes--and shuddered. "I don't suppose there's another way?" I asked hopefully.

Kneeling beside a set of all-too-familiar footprints, deeply incised in the damp sand, Mackenzie glanced up and frowned. "No," he said. "There isn't." He pointed. "The tracks cross the river--and so must we."

Easy for you to say, I thought darkly. But unfortunately, he was correct.

The demon had run far and fast. Already we'd tracked it more than a kilometer upstream, and a newborn kit could have followed the prints it left on the dusty path. That was uncharacteristic, and as we walked I pondered the anomaly. Surely the creature hadn't been badly hurt--if at all--by my client's skillfully-placed bolt. What had frightened it so badly, then? The crossbow--or Mackenzie himself? To my knowledge he was the first human ever to set foot in the Sah'raal Game Park. (And the last, if I had anything to say about it.) Could it perhaps have been his alien scent that caused the demon to flee so incautiously? If so, this might be a little harder than I'd thought…

Finally the tracks spilled over the left side of the trail, and descended a steep, crumbly bank to the stream. In that place, the drought-stricken river ran shallow but swift beneath a narrow ribbon of open sky, meandering in several braided channels across a wide flat bed of sand and gravel. The demon hadn't stopped, had not--so it seemed--even paused; the water had deterred it not at all. On the far bank, directly opposite the point where the footprints entered the stream, another set of identical fresh tracks ascended the slope and vanished again into the riparian fringe. Which left us with a problem; one peculiarly Sah'aaran--and particularly embarrassing.

Mackenzie rose and brushed off his knees, shading his eyes to peer into the leafy gloom on the other side of the stream. "It's there," he said with certainty. "It hasn't gone far. It's watching us now."

I didn't have to ask him how he knew. He'd felt it--and so had I. Illogical perhaps, scientifically indefensible…but true nonetheless. Brush-demons possess an almost mammalian curiosity, and this one--if it had recovered from its fright--would no doubt be wondering about the large, strangely-scented monster that had invaded its domain. I could see nothing, hear nothing…but I never doubted that the creature was indeed lurking in the underbrush, studying us. Which--considering the thing's size and speed--was not a comforting thought.

Mackenzie hefted his crossbow. "Time's a-wasting," he announced; and then, with no regard for his boots or his bloused trouser-cuffs, he strode out into the stream. A few steps--and he paused and turned back, to see me standing irresolute on the shore, my tail lashing.

He quirked a sardonic grin. "Funny--I'd always thought Sah'aaran hydrophobia was a myth."

Funny--I'd always thought the same about Terran tactlessness, I almost snapped; but something held me back. Perhaps the vision of a furnished nursery and a gleaming new hover-skim--but that's hardly something to be proud of, if so.

Mackenzie looked me up and down, evidently gauging my weight. "I suppose I could carry you…" he mused.

That did it. Ears burning, claws tingling, I shook my head. "No," I said tartly. "That won't be necessary." And with that I took a deep breath and stepped forward. No, the Sah'aaran aversion to water isn't a myth--but some of us have it worse than others. Fortunately the stream was warm, and not at all deep: it rose no higher than my shins, barely wetting my gold-and-emerald bonding-anklet. But the stones beneath my feet were loose and shifting, thickly coated with slimy green algae, and I had to watch my balance. Just as well: doing so distracted me from my terror. The ten meters to the far bank seemed a hundred kilometers at least. Goddess, what a day this is turning out to be…

Halfway across, my footing a little more secure and my hyperventilation under control, I glanced up at my client. "By the way," I told him, "you were wrong."

He looked back, frowning. "What about?"

"About the pleasure being solely in the kill."

His eyebrows rose; then, slowly, he smiled. "Glad to hear it."

The opposite shore--the western--was a mirror-image of the one we'd just departed, save that the strip of greenery was narrower, and occasional glimpses of blinding-bright, sunlit savanna were visible between the trees. Our quarry's tracks ascended the sandy bank (its great haste evident in the long scrabbling claw-scratches), crossed the narrow trail…and vanished.

Mackenzie nodded thoughtfully. "More cautious this time," he said. "Very interesting." He scanned the underbrush, then turned to grin at me. "So, tracker," he went on, "which way did it go?"

Once again I bit back the first reply that occurred to me; and with a sigh I dropped to my hands and knees for a sniff. A moment later I pointed downstream. "That way," I said, challenging him with a quirk of my eye to question my judgment. But he did not; he merely nodded and bowed.

"After you," he said grandly.

We set off again, a little slower this time, because I had to pause frequently to make sure we were still on the right track. Mackenzie strode along behind me, fingering his crossbow, watching with interest as I wore out my nose; and when we had gone perhaps twenty meters he cleared his throat quietly. "I'm curious, Ehm'viir…"

It was the first time he'd used my name, and like most Terrans he mangled the pronunciation. Without turning, I said, "Yes?"

"How did you get the job of thinning the brush-demons?"

Involuntarily I began to rub my right thigh, though the twinge I'd felt there was entirely imaginary. The lingering scars were concealed by my fur, and the leg was completely unimpaired, thanks be to good doctors and an imaginative physical therapist. Mackenzie's quick eye caught that small movement of my hand, and with a quiet snarl I desisted. I didn't care for the implications hidden in his question, either; but I decided to answer it on its merits "My first encounter with one," I told him. "I was young--and stupid. Afterward…well, you Terrans have a saying: something about 'getting back on the horse.'"

He nodded thoughtfully. "That explains a great deal."

Such as? I almost asked--but there would have been no point; I already knew what he meant. Many people had already expressed a similar opinion, including my darling mate, and even my father, the Goddess rest his soul. "Overcompensation"--or the Sah'aaran sound-group meaning the same thing--was the word most often used. And maybe they were right; though I'd always been inclined to regard it as my business, and mine alone. But now (as a twinge from my abdomen told me that I'd straightened up too quickly) I had to wonder if that was still true. Time to slow down, perhaps? Just let me get this day over with…

Half a kilometer downstream, in the dense shade of a gigantic gnarled tatak, I paused and cursed--because the scent-trail I'd so carefully followed had come to an abrupt and inexplicable end.

"Problem?" Mackenzie asked mildly.

"I don't know yet," I told him. "Give me a minute."

Perplexed, I glanced around. To the left of the path, a steep slope of perhaps four meters descended to the stream. Not impassable--but no sign that anything had undertaken the climb. To the right lay a thicket of serpent-bush, undisturbed as far as I could tell. The trail, corrugated by thick black roots, was innocent of prints in any direction. On hands and knees I circled the massive trunk, sniffing, trying to work around the head-filling, spicy smell of the bark. No question: the brush-demon had been here, and recently too--but its scent went no farther. So where--?

I'm no longer sure what alerted me. A flicker of movement, perhaps; or a tiny sound, the rasp of talons against wood. Or maybe a sudden breeze brought a familiar odor down through the thick air. But something told me to look up, and I did--just in time to see a huge grey shape detach itself from the tangled shadows and drop toward my client.

"Look out!" I screamed, and I started forward to knock him out of the way--though given his weight and mine, it would have been like trying to shift a mountain. But the brush-demon's long slashing tail caught me in mid-leap, sending me tumbling helplessly. Curled tight around my precious cargo, I fetched up hard against the tree, and a whole galaxy of stars exploded in my head. As such, I barely saw what happened next.

For a human, Mackenzie's reflexes were excellent--but just a little slow. As the demon fell toward him he dropped and rolled, coming up on his knees with his crossbow cocked and ready. But before he could fire, the beast's forelimb lashed out, knocking the weapon from his grasp and sending it sailing into the river. Mackenzie grabbed for his knife, but even as his hand closed around the haft he was thrown over backwards, the demon's great weight pinning him to the ground and its wicked jumble of teeth snapping at his throat.

In many hundreds of hunts I had never yet lost a client, and I wasn't about to start now. Unarmed--but far from helpless--I leaped, a snarl of rage tearing at my throat. I landed full upon the creature's wide back, digging all sixteen claws deep into its flanks. The demon let out a hysterical, steam-whistle screech, and rose to its hind feet, bucking wildly as it struggled to throw me off. I clung tenaciously, though it felt as if my limbs would be torn from their sockets. Opening my mouth wide and turning my head, I clamped down upon its thick neck, feeling the vertebrae crunch between my teeth.

The throat would have been more immediately effective; but the results were sufficiently spectacular. The demon convulsed, its limbs and tail flailing wildly, the joints popping and snapping. I bit deeper, and its blood fountained into my mouth, hot and rank. It continued to scream, a high-pitched tearing sound that seemed to drive spikes through my ears. I hung on, and the beast tore through the underbrush and slammed its body heedlessly against the tree-trunk. When finally it bent double and threw itself onto its back, I tore free and leaped clear, landing with my face in the dirt.

…But the damned thing wasn't dead, and it seemed that it might even recover, though violet blood was pouring from its sides and down its neck. It fought to right itself, its jaws snapping--but at that moment Mackenzie dashed past me and plunged his long knife into its throat. The demon shuddered, blood spouting from its mouth and nose…and fell still.

Mackenzie knelt down beside me, laying a hand on my shoulder. His clothes were filthy and torn, his hat missing, his face streaked with sweat, dust and blood; but apart from a few minor scratches on his neck and arms, he seemed uninjured. He wasn't smiling, though, and from the set of jaw I gathered that something was troubling him. What, I didn't know; perhaps the hunt hadn't been sufficiently textbook-perfect for his taste. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Slowly I levered myself up onto my elbows. The demon's blood, already clotting, coated my hands and feet and dripped from my chin; the foul taste of it at the back of my throat made me gag and sputter. My mane had burst free from its braid; my commpak had departed for parts unknown; and my belt had come loose, the pouch and bottle lying some meters away. Other than that…

"I'll live," I told him. I sat up; and as I did, I discovered that my halter had been all but torn apart. With a rush of embarrassment I struggled to adjust it, though Mackenzie didn't seem the ogling kind.

The stiffening corpse of our quarry lay supine across the trail, in a large and growing pool of blood. I looked--and quickly turned away, my stomach tightening with chill disgust. Never before had I felt that way after a hunt: even the mechanistic culling of brush-demons usually left me exhilarated. I pointed. "There's your damn trophy," I told Mackenzie flatly. "Take it or leave it--I'm finished."

He opened his mouth to reply…then glanced aside and nodded. "All right," he said. He nodded toward the stream. "Let me find my bow, and we can get out of here."

I nodded tiredly. "Fine with me."

He rose and began to pick his way down the slope. I remained where I was for a moment; then, with a sigh, I hoisted myself carefully upright, discovering numb spots--soon to be full-blown bruises--all over my body. Wrapping my arms tight around my stomach, I glanced once again at our victim--and shuddered. Goddess, I should have known! I thought bleakly. Me of all people. Was that what had Mackenzie so upset? That I'd neglected to inform him of the brush-demon's propensity to turn and hunt its hunters? It was a phenomenon I'd seldom experienced; I'd seldom placed myself in a position to.

I shook my head. Better tell Sah'saam it's over. I reached up…but my commpak had been knocked loose during the struggle. With a growl I glanced around, seeking the small device, and found it lying between two roots near the base of the tree. I reached out…

"Please don't do that."

I spun--to see Mackenzie standing near the brink of the cliff, frowning, squinting at me through the sights of his dripping crossbow. "Leave the commpak where it is," he said, "and step over here. We need to talk."

I did the former, but not the latter. Instead I drew myself to my full height, my tail whipping, and let him see my bloody teeth. "I take it there's something bothering you, Mr. Mackenzie?" I asked carefully.

He quirked a grin. "Not exactly," he said. "We need to discuss our future--yours and mine."

I shook my head, indicating the stinking body with a wave of my hand. "We don't have a future," I said. "I told you: that's the only brush-demon you're getting from my game park."

He sighed. "Please don't make this harder than it is," he said. "This has nothing to do with brush-demons. It never did."

"What--?" I began; but then my heart skipped a beat, and I felt my claws express. Suddenly I recalled the words he'd spoken several hours ago--and finally, belatedly, understood their significance. I swallowed hard. "The most dangerous creature," I said, and he nodded.

"Precisely," he said. "You." He nodded at the brush-demon, and his lip curled in disgust. "Not that."

I felt myself beginning to shake. "Then this whole hunt was a farce? Nothing more than a…lure?"

"No," he said. "Certainly not. It served a much more important purpose: it allowed me to see you in action."

"And since you have--what now?" I asked, nervously eyeing his weapon. "A chase through the woods? Your crossbow against my claws, winner take all?"

"No," he said again. "Not at all. You misunderstand me. I'm not after a trophy--and I'm not a murderer. I have no intention of harming you. Very much the opposite, in fact."

I frowned. "What do you want from me, then?"

"To be my partner," he said simply. "My soul-mate. I want you to share this life I've chosen. Up until a few minutes ago I wasn't certain; I didn't think you had what it takes. But when you leaped on that demon's back--then I knew. You're the one I've been searching for half my life." He shook his head mournfully. "There are so many creatures I've never been able to hunt, because doing so alone would be suicidal. But together, we'd be unstoppable. Nothing could escape us."

My eyes darted back and forth, seeking escape; but there was none. My collar was still in place, still broadcasting its homing signal, and I had no doubt that my mate was still diligently monitoring. But he had no reason to believe that anything was wrong. My commpak lay no more than a meter behind me; but with that crossbow aimed at my heart, it might as well have been on the further moon. "You're out of your mind," I suggested.

He shrugged dismissively, but in the depths of his dark eyes I saw pain, and I knew my words had struck home. "Perhaps," he said, lowering the bow a few centimeters. "That's what most of my species believes, at any rate. No Terran understands what I do, Ehm'viir. Not one. They're all revolted by it--even my own family. And the other Alliance species are no better. In all my travels I've never come across anyone who truly understands, truly appreciates what it means to hunt. But you--"

"No," I snapped. "I don't understand. Never. Hunting to feed your family, yes. Or because it's how your ancestors used to make a living, and you want to share the experience. But not that." I pointed at our forgotten quarry, already attracting swarms of insects. "And certainly not what you're proposing now."

"You will," he assured me, with rapidly-increasing enthusiasm. "After a time. I'll take you places, show you things…you'll wonder why you ever restricted yourself to a bankrupt game park and herds of stupid herbivores. I'll show you what it really means to be a hunter."

"No," I said firmly. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time, Mr. Mackenzie--but I won't do it. I can't--even if I wanted to."

He shook his head sadly, and his grip on the crossbow firmed. "Wrong answer."

My jaw dropped in amazement. "You can't be serious," I said. "You actually intend to kidnap me?"

"Since you've made it necessary--yes."

"And you expect to get away with it?"

"I do," he said. "Don't think I haven't planned this, Ehm'viir. I have--quite carefully indeed. First we'll get rid of these tracking devices. Then we'll take your hover-skim to Sah'salaan. My ship is at the port. By the time anyone realizes what's happening, we'll be off the planet. And after that…it's a big Alliance, my dear. We won't be found. Not soon, anyway," he added quietly, almost wistfully.

For a moment he stared into space, his expression unreadable; then he shook himself. Fumbling one-handed in a pocket, he pulled out two small objects and tossed them to me. Reflexively I caught them, allowed them to unfold in my hands--and found myself holding a pair of mag-seal handcuffs, and a muzzle made of wide black straps.

Mackenzie acknowledged my look of horror with a nod and a rueful smile. "Also necessary," he said. "For now. Hopefully not for long." He gestured with the crossbow. "Now, if you'll kindly put those on--your hands behind your back, please--we'll be on our way."

I made no move to comply. "Damn you!" I said desperately. "You don't know what you're doing." I indicated the band around my ankle. "I have a mate--"

He nodded again. "I know," he said. "And I truly regret taking you from him. If I'd been able to locate an unbonded Sah'aaran with your talents, I would have spared you. But I couldn't. He will be well-compensated for his loss…"

There is no adequate compensation for that sort of loss--but there was no point in saying so. "And," I began, but choked off. I cleared my throat and tried again, my voice barely audible. "And I'm…I'm pregnant."

His composure wavered, just for a moment, his eyes widening and the crossbow dropping. He gazed at me…then he smiled. "Even better," he said. "I'll teach your children how to hunt too. I'll teach them to understand--even if you never do." He gestured at the items I held, and his voice hardened. "Now, if you please."

I felt myself stiffen. Mackenzie might have studied my species; he might have known our hunting habits--but obviously, no one had told him about Sah'aaran parenthood. Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes between a mother and her kits. To give birth as a prisoner, to raise my children by his rules, as virtual slaves, far from their father and their home…No!

The maternal rage that bloomed within me then was like nothing I'd ever felt before: primal, savage, frightening in its intensity, blanking my mind and blotting out my reason. With a wordless scream I flung aside the handcuffs and muzzle and launched myself straight at Mackenzie's throat. For an instant he stood frozen; then he brought up the crossbow and fired wildly.

Had he not been rattled by my sudden fury, I might have died. But rather than plunging into my heart, the bolt passed through my upper left arm, halfway between my elbow and shoulder. My snarl became a cry of pain as a spray of blood and bone-chips burst forth, and the limb snapped backwards, flopping loose, suddenly useless. But my momentum was too great to arrest. In my anger and agony I might have used my claws on him, breaking every oath I'd ever sworn; but at the last instant I balled my fist and bent my elbow. My forearm and head slammed into his solid torso.

As I'd feared, it was like hitting a stone wall. My body sprang back, and I fell heavily on my injured arm, fighting to keep from passing out. Mackenzie grunted, the air forced from his lungs, and he stumbled back several steps…to the edge of the cliff. He teetered on the brink, his arms flailing; and then, with a cry of alarm, he toppled over backwards and disappeared. I heard several grinding thuds, followed by a splash--and then silence.

For perhaps a minute I lay where I'd fallen, shuddering spasmodically, helpless in the grip of pain and terror. Blood--my own, this time--streamed from my shattered arm; not pulsing, thank the Goddess, but showing no sign of stopping either. It would have been so easy to give in and lose consciousness…but I couldn't. Mackenzie could be back at any second, and he couldn't find me like this…The commpak, I told myself. Idiot, get the commpak!

I couldn't stand, but somehow I managed to raise myself to my knees. That made the blood flow faster, and one-handed I tore away the remains of my halter and wrapped it tightly around the terrible wound, a shrill whine escaping my throat. Then I crawled. Even as I went, my arm dragging beside me, the distance to the tree seemed to expand, and the universe lurched crazily before my eyes. I heard nothing from below, no indication that Mackenzie was returning…if indeed any sound could have penetrated the roaring in my ears. I collapsed against the tree-trunk, crying out as the movement jarred my arm, and fumbled for the commpak. It was a tough little unit, the veteran of many hunts…but if it was damaged, I was dead. Simple as that. I might be dead anyway, if help didn't arrive soon--or worse than dead.

It took an eternity to orient the radio within my hand, and another to locate the recessed emergency button. I barely possessed the strength to express a claw and press it. I held the commpak to my ear, and the high-pitched warble it emitted told me that I'd been successful. And that was all I could do. Letting the commpak drop, I curled into a ball, wrapping my good arm around my poor abused kits, and gave myself up to oblivion. In my last few lucid seconds I wondered where--or if--I would awaken.

###

Sah'saam managed to keep his composure until the police officer had departed; but as soon as we were alone he collapsed across the bed and drew me into his arms. He was trembling--for which I could scarcely blame him--and I stroked his mane comfortingly. "I thought I'd lost you," he breathed into my ear. He patted my belly. "All three of you."

"I thought the same thing, for a while," I told him.

I hate hospitals, almost as much as I hate cities, and as soon as my condition had stabilized I began to pester the doctors to let me go home. They were reluctant, but I was persistent, and finally they gave in; more to be rid of me, I suspect, than because I was truly ready. Ensconced in my own bed, in the sprawling old house on the edge of the Sah'raal Game Park, I rested. My strength had not yet returned, not quite, and I tired easily; but simply to lie there beneath the open window, smelling the grasses, listening to the wind, and flexing the fingers of my left hand, was entertainment enough.

It would be some time before my arm was back to normal; but considering how close I'd come to losing it entirely, that was a small sacrifice. I'd seen the imaging, and I knew that Mackenzie's hasty shot had shattered my humerus beyond repair. That bone, from shoulder to elbow, was now entirely artificial, a construct of carbon-fiber ceramics, custom-molded as the mirror-image of its mate on the right. The muscles, the tendons, the veins and arteries, had been carefully coaxed into place around it, and were healing slowly. In time my fur would conceal the scars. The physical ones, at least.

"When I saw you lying there," Sah'saam was saying, "and all that blood…" he choked off, and I nodded.

"I know," I said quietly. "But let's not think about it, all right? Otherwise we'll never get over it."

He gave my neck a quick nuzzle, and then, hooking a chair with his foot, he sat down next to me. "Agreed," he said. He nodded at the door, by way of indicating the somewhat incredulous detective who had just departed. "I hope she didn't upset you too much…"

I looked away. "No," I assured him; but bond-mates can't lie to each other, and he patted my hand soothingly.

"She had a job to do," he said. "And you have to admit: it is a rather fantastic story."

I nodded. "I suppose it is, at that," I agreed faintly.

Sah'saam reached across and cupped my chin, turning my head so that I gazed into his eyes. "Ehm'viir, darling, there was nothing else you could do. Injured as you were, you couldn't possibly have jumped into the stream. You had no way of knowing what had happened to him…"

I pulled free of his grasp and turned away. "No," I said. "I didn't." An undeniable fact, yes--but one that scarcely made me feel better.

As it turned out, Mackenzie had been in no position to pursue his plans after I knocked him over the cliff. While I'd lain there bleeding to death, my client, my attempted kidnapper, had been busy drowning. No, I'd had no way of knowing that he'd struck his head as he fell, nor that he'd landed face-down in the stream. By the time Sah'saam and the rescue team arrived, to find me alone and palely loitering, Mackenzie had been past saving. The coroner, the police, everyone, seemed prepared to rule it accidental…so why did I feel every bit as culpable as if I'd actually clawed him?

"You had no choice," Sah'saam assured me. He bared his teeth, and a soft growl escaped his throat. "To even consider stealing someone's mate and kits…"

His words were typical, Goddess bless him--but in the final analysis, I endangered my kits far more than Mackenzie would have. I'd lost a terrible amount of blood; and that, combined with the day's other violent occurrences, was almost enough to induce a miscarriage. Even now I wore a fetal monitoring unit strapped around my abdomen, and I was under strict orders not to remove it. But if I'd submitted, Mackenzie wouldn't have harmed me. Abducted me, yes; bound me, tried to brainwash me…but it wouldn't have been in his interest to hurt me--or them. Logically, I'd known that all along. Of course I had.

…But the image of him taking my kits away from me, subverting them, training them in his image, had tapped into something primal, some part of the Sah'aaran psyche that far predates our civilization. He'd had no way of knowing; even I hadn't realized what was lurking inside me.

"At first I couldn't understand why he did it," I said. "But now I do. He was lonely."

I turned to face my mate, and smiled. "That's something I haven't felt since we bonded," I went on, "but I do remember what it's like. The life he'd chosen made him an outcast; he was desperate to find someone who wouldn't see him as an atavism."

Sah'saam squeezed my hand. "Maybe so," he said. "But there's more to it." He took a deep breath. "Mackenzie was dying."

"What?"

"It isn't public knowledge yet," he added quickly. "But I got to talking to some of the police officers a couple days ago, while you were in surgery. Have you ever heard of the Xerxian lung-borer?"

"No," I said. "I haven't."

"Neither had I," he admitted. "It's a parasite, apparently; incurable--and lethal. It can be slowed down with drugs, but eventually it does so much damage that the lungs hemorrhage, and the victim drowns in his own blood."

I winced. "And Mackenzie had it?"

Sah'saam nodded. "He picked it up some years ago when a Xerxian howler mauled him."

I recalled the scar on his face--the one I'd thought so interesting. "I see," I whispered.

He frowned. "He didn't tell you?

"No," I said miserably. "He didn't. I…didn't give him a chance to." I swallowed. "How long did he have?"

Sah'saam shrugged. "Four, five years, maybe. Or less. It's hard to say."

Stunned, I let my head sink back into the pillows. "Then--if he'd succeeded, I would have been his captive for only a few years. He must have known that…"

"He did," my mate confirmed, "And he'd planned for it."

"Pardon?"

"They searched his ship at the Sah'salaan port," he explained. "He was sincere: he'd fixed up a cabin to receive a guest. An involuntary guest." He paused. "But he'd also made out his will. It was in the computer." He swallowed. "He left his entire fortune to…us. Fifty million credits, for the maintenance and upkeep of this park."

I stiffened, and my tail began to twitch. "He will be well-compensated for his loss," Mackenzie had said. At the time, the significance of his words hadn't hit me--but they did now. Like a punch in the gut. Fifty million credits, for five years away from my home and mate. A fair trade? I honestly couldn't decide.

"So--what happens now?" I asked.

"Obviously he didn't die the way he expected to," Sah'saam said. "And under the circumstances, his relatives will certainly contest the will. We could fight; we might win." He rubbed my stomach. "Think of the nursery we could build with that."

I did--and finally, firmly, I shook my head. "No," I said. "Let it go."

He frowned. "Are you sure, darling? You know what our finances are like…"

"I do," I said. "And I also know that I'd never be able to live with myself, if I touched any of his money now." I smiled and stroked his cheek. "We'll manage," I went on. "We always do--somehow."

"Somehow," he agreed wryly. He sighed. "All right. It would probably be one Dark-cursed legal battle, anyway."

We were silent for a moment. Then Sah'saam said, "Listen, darling…obviously you won't be doing any hunting for a while…"

"I'd say not," I agreed dryly.

"…But I've been thinking. After the kits are born, maybe we ought to have one of our rangers thin the brush-demons…"

Fixing him with my gaze, I showed him my teeth. "Over my dead body."

##END##


<--HomeShort Story Index