she should be dead by now, instinctively she knew this
from a predatory
attack if not from age. four years after her customary banishment from
the herd her life had endured, when by all rights she should have perished
within the first, she was that old.
the scattering of coarse hairs that sprang from her wrinkled, mammalian
hide did nothing to ward off the chill. she shivered. the season was changing
and she would face another winter alone. grandmother hornedfrill snorted
softly and the noise lost itself among the tangle of broad ferns crowded
around her ground-level nest. eyes closed to the darkness, she probed
with her senses. dawn was approaching.
at first the sun sat low behind the gray overcast, barely scattering away
the night, then as it rose the air grew thick and pungent with the days
thaw of waking fungi. hardly a breath of air stirred, allowing lazy infant
clouds to form off the tops of the warming evergreen trees. sleepy minutes
passed into an hour, then two. as she rested beneath the forests
needled canopy grandmother could not see the sun as it crept higher, a
white cotton disk hidden beyond the mackerel cape of the low-pressure
front, but the rise and fall of the dragonflies hum as thy darted
near and then back told her the day was well on its way, and more importantly,
that no predators were near. in the distance, where the river flattened
on the meadow and ceased its talk, she could hear the matronly call of
the gentle duckbill mothers as they herded their juveniles to the waters
old grandmother lay wearily against the bole of her gigantic conifer.
hiding low among the giant ferns, she was scarcely visible with her four
squat legs tucked beneath her long, fat body. her enormous horn-frilled
head and calloused, horned nose lay crookedly on the edge of the depression
shed worn onto the soft ground. the earth smelled rich and heavy
with the odors of fall. breathing deep, she exhaled, sighing. she did
not yet feel like rising and she decided to extend the nap she had begun
the night before. the dragonflies droned and the earth stayed cool as
the day rolled forward into mid-morning.
after a time she tried to rouse herself, merely out of habit. cracking
an eyelid, she peered through the veil of cool leaves down the path toward
her cave, which was really just a jumble of angular rocks that had tumbled
down the mountain during a long-forgotten quake. collecting along the
edge of the river nearby, they had toppled to a halt in such a way as
to provide a deep, cavernous opening. it was large enough to admit her
height, yet too small for a comfortable den. she had found sanctuary there
many times, fleeing from great thunderkillers looking to make a fresh
meal out of her. as she hid the beast would pace, snort, sniff, scream,
and then ram the entrance, infuriated at not being able to reach where
she huddled in the back.
crouching in the dark, she would exercise patience and her fearless, staring
eyes would reflect the geometry of the caverns opening just enough
to maintain the antagonists attention. finally, after an hour or
so of waiting in vain for her to emerge, the simple-minded carnivore would
lose interest or simply forget why he was there at all and wander off
to look for new prey.
grandmother closed her peeping eye. why should she rise? she did not yet
feel hunger. better to rest. continuing to drift through her nap, warm
and curled, she gradually began to perceive a tingling warning nudge at
her primitive brain. quietly she listened, wondering what it was that
caused her instincts to stir her from her sleep. but she detected no unusual
sounds. all she heard was the irregular beating of the dragonflies
wings and the soothing discourse of the river. unalarmed, she kept her
eyes closed and continued to rest and just listen, alert now, but unconcerned.
then, as her senses groped the atmosphere, she detected a sound that didnt
belong in the forest. an off-key disturbance, like a great ethereal pant
or inaudible sigh. indeed, it was more of a stirring ripple over her skin
than a true noise. it was abnormal. yet the dragonflies droned, she noted.
in the presence of any predator they never failed to alight and freeze,
for they themselves were a treat for many. her perplexity deepened and
with instincts piqued, she listened intently. fleeting moments passed
and the strange, skin-crawling reverberation did not return.
then suddenly, another sound. impulse cocked her head, an infinitesimal
movement. yes, now a peculiar, intermittent dripping, like water falling
softly, irregularly, from the high canopy bows to the leafy undergrowth.
almost like a non-rhythmical drip following a rain. but it hadnt
rained for days. confused and alert, she kept her eyes closed, minimizing
motion. carefully she flared her spongy nostrils, testing deeply the air
that had begun to waft ever so gently into her face. instantly she sorted
through all the thousands of forest scents, noting absently that a frost
would be coming any day. a futile effort. she inhaled more heavily, risking
a discernible rise of her large, greenish-brown belly. her coursing instincts
demanded she be wary and she fully expected her old nose to pick up the
rotten odor of a predators breath, something which never failed
to herald his arrival. her leg muscles twitched and shuddered as part
of her tiny mind told her to rise and flee to her cave.
but she stayed where she was for there came no thundering footsteps, no
telltale scent of decomposing flesh wedged between a large predators
teeth; only the mingled smells of the forest. it seemed there was nothing
to fear. seconds passed and the warning persisted, mounting with intensity,
and she became more and more alarmed.
then suddenly she knew! beyond any shadow of a doubt, something was out
there. something unknown. a creeping sensation trickled up her neck and
bile surged into her throat and she peed as she fought back a convulsive
shiver of panic. she told herself not to move, not to twitch, for she
was in immediate peril, and terror seized her.
immobility was a tried defense, but her insides trembled and she battled
with the desire to mewl in dismay. the last thing she wanted was to reveal
her hiding place beneath the giant ferns. only the rhythmic flaring of
her reddened nostrils and the rise and fall of her body accompanying her
anxious breaths indicated she existed at all. or so she thought.
from behind the broken curtain of standing timber her antagonist watched
her every move. he was game today for a spirited hunt, but feared this
old female would be no sport.
his eyes withered into slits and his wicked teeth grew dry from his frozen
grimace. her efforts to conceal herself amused him, for in the chill of
the forest shadows her mammals breath rolled from her face like
a flag. it condensed into steamy vapor, wisping up from the tall foliage
where she lay to completely expose her position. a thunderkiller would
not have been able to distinguish the difference between her breath and
the mist rising from the muskeg.
but this was not the territorys thunderkiller.
the nomadic thinkerkiller watched her through eyes linked to a more cunning
brain than his cousins. using a deliberate flanking angle in back
of her tree, he hid from her view and downwind from her keen sense of
smell: coldly calculated. unlike the vanishing species of thunderkillers,
thinkerkiller loved the thrill of the hunt more than the taste of the
kill. today, as always, his creeping approach was no more than that of
an ocean breeze.
the predator stood frozen in his crouch, watching casually, stretching
his game to a climactic orgy of terror. his prey imagined herself hidden
as she lay still under the ferns, but he sensed her growing fear and was
delighted. wanting her to see him before he dove, he dipped lower, like
a machine, and tried to drill the invisible essence of his stare directly
into her brain.
finally, when she refused to shift, he could wait no more. he took a single
step with his gigantic clawed foot, silent, cautious, not taking his eyes
from the back of her skull; savoring that brief climactic moment he loved
best-that floating space of time between the end of the hunt and the beginning
of the attack.
then suddenly the insects hushed and forest sounds died all around. grandmothers
fear peaked beyond her control. she jerked her heavy head off the ground
as if its weight were nothing. to her left and right she scanned, frantic,
confused, for she could still neither hear nor see an intruder. panic
and uncertainty rolled her golden eyes in all directions.
then, as she stretched her short neck to look beyond her tree, she saw
him! he was close! his huge eyes seemed like orange moons. his perverted
face seemed to grin as his jaws parted wider and from tightly drawn jowls
dripped great drops of saliva, falling for a great distance to buckle
the leaves of the ferns. she shrieked with fright and started to rise,
but she was old and slow.
springing with both back legs the thinkerkiller heaved his tonnage with
lightning speed. grandmother turned her lethal frill and long nose horn
toward him, hoping for a gut-wrenching stab.
the thinkerkiller didnt attack like a mindless fool, as would the
larger thunderkiller. he was shrewd, cunning, more evolved. her horns
could cause serious damage, even pierce through the protective shields
of rib-like bone that lie beneath the thick skin of his chest and belly.
he wanted no part of her defenses. cleverly, he sprang over her offering
and came about on her unprotected right, his tiny forearms appearing useless
as they flailed the air like an infants. he landed with thunderous
vibration and his gigantic feet cut deeply into the soft ground as he
skidded and spun to a halt.
perfectly timed. in an explosion of flying earth and moss, he whirled
toward her with surprising grace, dipped his head, and lunged for her
body. in one fluid motion he sank his teeth into her thick hide. she screamed
in agonized response and he locked closed his jaws, tightening until he
felt all his fangs connect.
rib bones shattered. instantly the sharp claws on his forelegs began frenzied
tearing, exposing her soft entrails. grandmother screamed with torment
and in battle-answer swung her arsenal to gore him in his massive shoulder,
puncturing deeply into his muscle.
a bloodless wound. he roared and released, but then struck anew at her
exposed viscera. again, she swung with her horn, but it was a feeble gesture.
life was leaving her.
enraged at her painful counter attack the great carnivore never let up
his assault. he raked with his claws and tore with his serrated teeth,
possessed of a murderous ferocity known only among his own kind. her torso
burst apart, and then he ripped through her thick layers of sinewy neck
muscle and heavy spinal cord until hed wrenched off her head...a
master at mutilation. he kept his huge mandibles locked around the ragged
edge of the bodys gaping neck opening, rhythmically shaking his
head from side to side, whuffing loudly with every swing
she was dead.
there was no question. her severed head lay next to his blood-bathed feet,
dead eyes fixed and staring down the short trail leading to her cave that
she herself had worn into the undergrowth.
finally his vicious shaking slowed, and then stopped. he released the
steaming body and it dropped heavily to the earth. incapable of remorse,
he stood and looked at it savagely, panting, staring, blood dripping from
his teeth. then, as if the mingled shrieks of battle werent enough
to shatter the day, he suddenly threw his head back and roared, long and
loud with the resonant sound of cold-blooded victory. the horrendous noise
split through the forest like a raw clap of thunder and the intensity
of the sound wave tossed large, neighboring insects from their perches
where they fell dead to the ground.
as his scream died away, the crazed fury also faded from his glittering
eyes. slowly, a vacant and unmistakable expression of indifference appeared
in its place. quietly, gradually, the leaves began to rustle softly around
him, as if shaken by an invisible force. he snorted, blasting the foliage
with his reptilian breath, causing typical sounds of scuttle. thinkerkiller
knew they would come. they always came. he gazed down at the cooling remains
and grunted with satisfaction. the kill had been better than he had hoped.
lurching heavily to sidestep the body, he lumbered away, gaining casual
momentum with each rocking step. he wasnt hungry.
expectantly, the little scavengers that always trailed along with the
great beast moved in for their breakfast
the shock was like a physical blow and a surge of raw dread seemed to
warp the air in the room. the musky smell of human fear suddenly rose
to mingle with the once appetizing odor of fresh baked rolls, which sat
untouched on the sideboard. fifteen sets of eyes stared into the hub of
the conference room, the thoughts behind them stunned beyond logic as
the vision of the slowly retreating predator faded away. the recording,
with its screams of violent death and uncensored images of victory, was
the confrontation between the leathery earthlings was real, yet disassociated
from the actual present; an event being months old, now it was merely
a pinpoint of history, a three-dimensional hologram image inside a liquid-filled
crystalline tube risen from its housing in the center of the ovular, solid
rock table. for a few brief moments the creatures deafening roar
echoed through the deeper level of darkness, and then the abrupt quiet
dropped like the crack of a gavel in the ears of the native martians.
the holo-tube thrummed, crackled with bright bolts of static electricity,
and then changed to a blank deep purple, awaiting a new command. the terrifying
image was gone; the horror of it, however, lingered and its long-term
implications sank into everyones mind with immediate and nauseating
clarity: earth was hostile. the immigration and colonization was suddenly
in serious jeopardy...
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