Fire With Fire – Snippet 20

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After reaching the narrow, newer trail, he followed it for five hundred meters and then stopped: up ahead, there was a break in the canopy, large enough to let in a considerable volume of Delta Pavonis’ fading honey-colored rays. Caine took another dozen steps, glad for the opportunity to enjoy standing in some bright, unobstructed light. His day-end fantasies concocted a convenient shelf of rock, handy kindling, a campfire: all so real he could almost smell it —

He could. He could smell it. Burned wood, or plants — like a grass fire.

He unshouldered the rifle and moved off the trail, but kept it in sight, ten meters to his left. He edged forward, paralleling it as the canopy thinned and the light grew — and revealed a broad, open circle of dirt. What the hell –?

Hell. Yes, hell would smell like that. It wasn’t just the odor of burnt grass: it was meat, too. But not cooked: incinerated. He did not sweat, but felt his temples pulsing hard and fast: it was a different species of terror than he had felt while facing down a charging Pavonosaur. This was a sharp, cold wariness — because any bush could hide death, and any thicket could conceal the worst foe of all:

Humans. They had been here. This was their — his — work, Caine realized as he crept to the edge of the circle of dirt, and pushed at it with his boot. Scorched rock underneath. He rose, rifle muzzle tracking along the brush-line as he moved into the center of the ring, the charnel smell rising around him. He probed with his boot; more burnt rock underfoot, but at the far edge, another smell: gasoline. Thick and pungent, like avgas.

And something else, at the very edge of the circle: a footprint. But not human. Splay-footed, with the heel-print deeper than the front, it looked like a cross between a duck’s and a human’s foot. Four front toes — long and without any evidence of a strong metatarsal bridge — angled back into a wide, flat sole that flared out again where the heel erupted into a bifurcated back toe. But that rear digit had not left the kind of deep, crisp-edged imprint consistent with a sharp rear talon: it, too, was soft, flexible.

He followed the footprint out of the circle — and stopped: three freshly broken tubers. Just five meters in front of him. All in a row. What could it mean?

Then he looked down and he knew what it meant. End of the trail.

To the right and the left were oval cocoons — or would that be coffin-garlands? — of the fuchsia and indigo flowers, propped up into tented arches by their jointed, stick-like vines. Inside each colorful shell was a single, usually charred, bone. More footprints were here — dozens, some older, some recent.

He counted: there were thirty-seven of the memorials, stretching away into the brush in either direction. The northernmost end of the burial line was marked by a cluster of snapped tubers, and, looking down as the sun’s light faded from honey to amber, he saw a metallic glint. He knew what it was before he picked it up: a spent shotgun casing. The brass collar was twice as high as a commercial round, and its side was stamped with a single “0”: single-aught buckshot. A favorite with mass murderers of innocents — and a match for what Caine had seen winking at him from Bendixen’s bandoliers. Using a lens-wipe from his photo kit, he picked up the shell casing, wrapped it, put it in his other chest pocket. Bastards.

As he emerged back into the small clearing, he saw movement in the bush, crouched, but knew — from the strange sideways rush and then stillness — that it wasn’t human. The local had followed — or waited for — him here.

More motion on the other side, and a rush of air in the trees behind him. Scratch that: the locals are here. All around me.

Caine held the gun away, knew what he had to do even while several million years of carefully-evolved self-preservation instincts roared negations so loud that he couldn’t think. So he acted.

He crouched down, reached far forward, laid the rifle in the direct sunlight. Then he frog-walked a step back, waited another moment, and kneeled. He bowed his head.

The only thing he heard was the blood pounding in his ears — and he listened to it for what seemed like a very long time. Then, from the left, came a shuddering whistle that slowly turned into what was clearly recognizable as a thin keening. Two more “voices” rose up from the right, then many from the higher branches of the canopy behind him. He lost count, knowing only that there were many — dozens, probably.

And then nothing. As if someone had found the off-switch for their grieving, it was over. He looked up, heard a single, dwindling swooping noise in the trees behind him. And that was all. He was alone again.

He rose slowly, picked up his weapon, looked at the sun. Where to sleep tonight? I need to find some flat rock, a good clear area — and he suddenly knew that he had seen only one suitable place since leaving the camp where he had killed the Pavonosaur twenty years ago this morning. The mountainside amphitheatre. He expected to feel fear, but didn’t. Not because he had become brave — he knew he hadn’t — but because he was too tired by the many successive shocks, fears, and enigmas of the day. He headed back up the trail.

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So when he arrived at the head of the trail — where it met the western extension which led to the amphitheater, and the broad northern trail which led back toward the site of his encounter with the Pavonosaur — he was beyond being surprised to discover the local waiting there for him. Caine stopped, realized he was still carrying his gun in his hands, shouldered it. The local made a low noise — something like a buzzing purr — and set off on the northern trail. Caine, shrugging to no one but himself, followed without a word.

Following behind the local, Caine noticed what he had not before: that the creature’s — no, the being’s — legs had a “reverse knee,” like a dog or a cat, but that it stood and walked in a plantigrade fashion: its full foot in contact with the ground. However, when the local used a bit more speed, he leaned forward into the motion and came up onto his toes, shifting into a typical digitigrade stance. Which produced the distinctive loping gait that Caine had seen in the thermal-imaging footage from the Navy recon VTOL.

Four times within the first five or six kilometers, Mr. Local turned aside, led them into the brush for a few hundred yards. Each time their detour ended at another — albeit smaller — burnt dirt clearing. Caine was beyond outrage or even pity: that was for later, for a time and a place at which the responsible parties could be made — somehow — to pay for their deeds.