Fire With Fire – Snippet 18

The sound seemed to break free of the same dense thicket in a dusty burst of tubers, shoots, and fronds, all erupting away from the Pavonosaur that churned to a stop in the midst of the savaged foliage. The predator searched right and left — and then snapped erect as it noticed something it had evidently never seen before.

A human.

Caine stared back at the monster. The Pavonosaur’s body had a narrow cross section, tapering into a long, sharp, paddlelike tail that might have belonged to a monstrous tadpole. Its head completed the suggestion that this creature was built for speed both on land and in the water: the long, thin snout — more reminiscent of a crocodile than a dinosaur — was not scaled, but was the tip of a seamless carapace that swept back around and over the eye-and-ear sensor cluster, ending in a small, bone-finned crest that covered the rear of the skull. The mouth cycled through a panting open-closed motion, revealing not teeth, but a set of serrated ridges, threatening like three serried ranks of wood saws.

Caine swallowed, held as still as he could, cheated the barrel down a little lower. It’s a young one. Three meters toe to top, at most. Aim low and shoot steady. Twenty rounds in the box, staggered between dum-dums and tungsten-cored discarding sabot. He can’t take more than four or five hits. Can he? Can he? Jesus, let’s get this over with: start your charge, you ugly bast —

The Pavonosaur’s head swung back in the direction his prey had fled, and with a hissing rattle, he leaped along that course —

Because the black-brown biped was still there.

Caine — maniacally focused upon the Pavonosaur — only now noticed that the first creature had not made good its escape. Or, if it had, it had returned. What the hell –?

It’s trying to help. No other possible reason.

Caine had swung the gun, tracking the Pavonosaur, before he was aware of doing so. He squeezed the trigger twice, shouted “Hey, HEY!” in the intervals between the recoil of the rounds.

Neither hit. But the Pavonosaur swiveled its head in his direction so quickly that Caine wasn’t sure he saw the motion: one moment its head was lowered in pursuit of the biped, the next it was staring at Caine.

Staring back, leaning forward into a challenge posture, wondering if this meant he was suicidal, brave, or both, Caine shouted: “HEEYYY! SHIT-HEAD!”

The Pavonosaur answered with a painfully high-pitched screech and came streaming over the ground, bent low and forward as it sprinted toward him.

Caine leaned low into the sights and fired one, two, three rounds —

The third clipped the Pavonosaur in the shoulder; it came more quickly, if that were possible, without a single waver in its stride.

Caine was about to start hammering out the rest of the clip but saw a change in the creature’s gait. It was slowing — but not because it was hurt, or reconsidering its charge: it was preparing to gather its legs under it to jump up on the rock that Caine had slept upon.

Wait: right before it jumps — was an instinct more than a thought. Fortunate, because the Pavonosaur was quicker than human cognition. Even as Caine was realizing that the creature was going to give him a split-second opportunity to fire at a stationary target, the monster had half-contracted into its preparatory crouch.

Caine saw the torso rise into his sights; he fired three fast rounds. He rode the recoil of the last back down and kept firing, steady and sustained, about one round every second.

At least two of the first three hit: the Pavonosaur stopped just as it was about to uncoil upwards into its leap, tried to recover, caught another round square in the center of its chest. That produced a dark coppery-purple stain and a screech that was equal parts shock, pain, and indignation. It tried to reset for its jump, but Caine’s steady volume of fire kept the monster from regaining the initiative. Two rounds went wide or high: two more hit its torso — and the animal staggered back, either unaccustomed, or completely unadapted, to a flight reflex.

That moment of delay was the fateful — and fatal — moment in its attack. Caine’s bullets now hit regularly. More purple spattered outward, this time lower in the belly. Then a thin, pulsing spray — brighter and more coppery — at the base of the neck. Two more hits and the Pavonosaur slumped over with a crash that Caine could feel through the rock under his knees.

Caine breathed, was ready to indulge in a relieved forward sag — and realized that he had, at most, three rounds left in the clip. And if they hunt in pairs —

He was on his feet, right index finger pushing forward against the magazine release as his left hand tore open the cover of an ammo pouch and tugged out a fresh magazine. As the expended clip clattered at his feet, he brought the other up into the receiver, wrestled briefly to get it seated correctly, and then gave its bottom a sharp upwards slap. A crisp snap announced it was ready. Caine retrained the rifle on the bush that had vomited out the Pavonosaur: nothing.

Movement to the left — slow, silent — caught his attention: the biped? Still there?

He turned his head, careful not to have the barrel of the gun track along with his gaze.

The biped was still there — possibly staring back at him. Caine couldn’t tell because he couldn’t see anything that looked like eyes. A smallish and tightly-furred head — shaped like an edge-on tetrahedron — topped an improbably long neck that swayed slightly back and forth like that of an ostrich: that had been the motion Caine had noticed. The body, also closely furred, was akin to a wasp-waisted gibbon with comically long limbs and oddly-flanged hip joints. A knee-length, bifurcated tail flexed once, restively — and then each half pursued its own, independent prehensile coilings and unfurlings.

Now what? Want a nice banana, monkey? Take me to your leader? Let’s pretend this never happened?

Caine decided not to move, not to speak. Anything could be misunderstood — except what he was doing now. And with all animals — whether intelligent or not — the best outcome for any first encounter is not a breakthrough in communication, or peace-offerings, or an exchange of phone numbers: it can simply be measured by duration. The longer it is, the better it is — and the more likely that neither party will consider a second contact aversive.

So Caine stood and looked at the biped, which was evidently doing something similar in return. Caine started counting: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand…

At “thirty,” the gangly gibbon-with-double-coati-tail was still there, scratching at one — thigh? — with half of his tail. Evidently, this degree of relief was insufficient; he/she/it reached out a hand — or paw, or something — that seemed to writhe at, rather than scratch, the troublesome spot.

Oh, well, if we’ve become comfortable enough for actual movement — Caine shifted the gun, looked down to check the time — and noted rapid motion from the corner of his eye.

The biped seemed to speed sideways into the bush, as though it had turned its hips without turning its torso, or had somehow rotated its legs at the hip. Either way, it was gone before Caine could blink.

Evidently, the biped’s prior decision to engage in unconstrained movement had not indicated a willingness to tolerate the same from Caine. Instead, the creature had reserved the exclusive right to run like hell at the faintest hint of action from the newcomer. Which was a perfectly reasonable choice, Caine reflected: had anyone taken a picture of him during his motionless half minute, they might well have titled the image, “Still Life of Human with Assault Rifle.” After what the local had seen that weapon do to a Pavonosaur, he/she/it had every reason to err on the side of extreme caution.

Local. I’m calling it a “local.” The assumption of intelligence — that’s a big step. But was it? Bipedal posture, opposable manipulatory digits, a voluntary return to danger in the hope of — what? — luring the Pavonosaur away from the hapless stranger? Or was it all on a par with African mountain gorillas — behaviors that mimicked, yet were not really indicative of, intelligence? One way to find out.

Caine moved off the rock slowly — both watchful for other predators and determined not to make any sudden motions that an unseen observer might find unsettling — and walked over to where the biped had stood. A quick scan revealed nothing. Caine followed the creature’s exit trajectory into the bush and again saw nothing — except a large, recently snapped frond stem. Caine frowned: odd. The creature seemed so adept at moving in the forests, it was hard to believe that it would have been so clumsy as to break —

No. That wasn’t what had happened.

Caine darted into the bush, scanning quickly — and five meters further on, found another freshly snapped tuber. No other damage to the foliage was evident: not a leaf turned back, not a weed crumpled underfoot. Nothing except the freshly exposed pith of the tuber, gleaming like a white trail-blaze. Which is exactly what the local was doing: leaving a trail.

Caine looked into the forest: yes, they were locals.