Welcome to the Neighborhood
Mark Ono banked his glider around the tall crown of the jujube tree and swung onto the heading that would take him back across the Finagle River. Then the wings fell off. Something seemed to grab the glider’s tail and jerk it downward. He caught a glimpse of the right wing spiraling to the forest floor before the cockpit slammed into the trunk of the tree. The force of the crash jerked him out of the seat and flung him through the canopy into space.
Ono fell through a series of ever thickening branches, tearing his flight suit and ripping his skin until he hit a fork in the trunk. The sudden stop as his right leg got caught in the space between the big branch and the main truck made him scream in pain. He felt the backpack start to slide off and still had the presence of mind to grab it with his left hand and hug it tight to his chest.
He hung there for a second, upside down, staring at the ground ten meters below and caught his breath. He wiggled his toes, moved his foot and ankle, and checked his other leg and his arms. His right knee hurt like hell, and likely he’d torn some ligaments, but other than cuts and bruises, he didn’t think he’d broken anything.
Ono carefully shifted the backpack until it was wedged solidly between some nearby branches. The pack held rope, his bead pistol, and his communicator as well as a water bottle and a couple of ration bars. Without the rope, he’d be stuck up this tree, even if he could raise Forestry HQ on the communicator. ComSat coverage in this area of the planet Holdfast was spotty, since the Wangaru Preserve he’d been flying over was far from the nearest settlement. The closest habitation was fifty clicks away and on the other side of the Finagle at Harper’s Trading Post. If his leg wasn’t too bad, he supposed he could hike out, although it would mean one, maybe two nights in the bush. Better to call HQ and see about an airlift.
After securing the pack, he heaved his upper body up, grabbed the big branch that held him, and slowly worked his leg out of the fork. He sat on the branch and took stock of his knee. It was swollen and purple, but he could flex it a bit and thought it would bear his weight.
Ono tied a bowline and hooked it over the thick stump of an old broken branch. The stump was strong enough to hold his weight, but he’d still be able to flip the loop off of it once he was on the ground. He was too experienced a bushman to want to be out in the wilderness without a good rope.
He shouldered his backpack, tugged at the line a few times, and then eased his weight onto it. Half a minute later he was on the ground and tugging at the rope to flip it off the branch. He carefully coiled it and stowed it in the pack. He tested his weight on the right knee and winced. Workable, but any running would be more of a quick hobble.
“Oh well,” he said aloud. “The only thing to worry about around here is the jumpin’ jiminies, and if a pack of them starts hunting me, I couldn’t outrun them anyway.”
That thought made him check the charge on his bead pistol. It was at 98% and the magazine had a full load of eighteen iron pellets. The miniature rail gun wouldn’t stop anything as big as an uglybeast, but would take down a jiminy. He hoped he didn’t encounter any of the medium sized predators nevertheless.
Ono froze as he heard a violent thrashing in the brush on the other side of the tree. The whole point of his aerial survey had been to track the South Finagle uglybeast herd. The huge herbivores were generally docile, but the bulls could be territorial and he had no desire to meet one on the ground.
He eased his head around the thick jujube trunk and laughed.
“So that’s what brought me down,” he said. “A damned grandfather slurp.”
The thrashing resumed and Ono walked toward the wreckage of the glider. The slurp had its burrow in the roots of the tree, and judging from the size of the hole, the thing must have been as big as an orbital shuttle. Its long blue tongue was tangled in the struts of the glider’s tail and the more the animal tried to retract it, the tighter the tangle became.
“Serves you right,” Ono said. “I bet you thought I was a fat helobird. Serves you right.”
He was about to turn and follow the cleared trail the uglybeast herd had forced through the forest, but stopped. He was a Forester. His job was to protect the indigenous flora and fauna.
Humans had done well on Holdfast over the past ten years, and had, wisely Ono thought, set aside the entire landmass south of the Finagle River as a nature preserve. Foresters were assigned to keep human contact with the native wildlife in this preserve to a minimum. The slurp would die of slow starvation if Ono didn’t free its tongue from the wreckage. The trouble was, once he cleared it, there was nothing to prevent the slurp from lashing out with that tongue and pulling him in as its next meal.
He sighed and drew the bush knife from his belt. He slowly approached the wreckage and surveyed the tangle. Clearing it wouldn’t be that hard. The bush knife could cut through the carbon fiber of the tail section and removing a couple of struts would let the tongue pull free.
The slurp seemed to sense his presence and the thrashing increased.
“Easy,” he said, reaching out to touch the thick blue tongue. “See, I don’t taste good. You don’t want to eat me.”
He cut quickly through the fibers and cord that had trapped the slurp’s tongue. As the last tangle fell away the slurp grunted and the tongue whipped back into the hole. Ono tensed, ready to flatten if it lashed out again, but nothing happened. A slow rumbling growl came from the hole, but the slurp had apparently lost interest in dinner.
“He’ll probably sulk for a while,” thought Ono. “I’ll be long gone by the time he starts to get hungry enough to want another meal.”
He felt a stirring in the ground underfoot and moved away from the remains of the glider as the forest floor started to subside under it. The cleanup crew was already here. No one had ever seen a live cleanup, only fragments of dead ones, but they were fast and efficient at removing debris from the forest. They ignored metal and concrete but took anything organic, even carbon fiber materials. They seemed to function like Terrestrial earthworms, only much faster and more aggressive. Because of them, sleeping or camping on the forest floor was impossible. He’d have to find a tree to climb if he was out overnight.
He started off down the uglybeast trail, but stopped after a hundred meters, his knee already throbbing. With the bush knife, he cut a thick springwood sapling and leaned on it as a staff. He might make fifty clicks like this, but it would be slow, tough going. He resolved to call for an airlift as soon as he found a big enough clearing to let the air car set down.
He hobbled along, distracted by the pain in his leg, which was dangerous in the wilderness. How dangerous became clear a few minutes later when he almost blundered into a nest of vampire bees. He had reached out absently to push the leathery skin of the nest out of his way when he came to his senses and stopped, his hand mere centimeters from the black surface.
He exhaled slowly and backed away, only relaxing once he was several meters from the nest.
“That could have been a problem,” he said to himself. “Get a damned grip. Ono. You aren’t some clueless Newbod.”
The nest hummed softly and he shuddered. Vampire bees weren’t that big, only about a half centimeter in size, but they were aggressive if disturbed. The swarms preyed on the uglybeasts, sucking the herbivores blood with a long, knifelike proboscis. The beasts tolerated it, although a big swarm could sometimes drive an uglybeast into a rage with the multitude of small bites. What was a mere annoyance to a twenty meter long animal could be deadly to a mere human with thin skin and less blood that the smallest uglybeast calf.
The bees formed a swarm around the queen, the wings of the outermost insects linking together to make a thick black skin. One touch, or any puncture of that skin could cause the whole swam to mobilize and attack whatever had disturbed it. Ono gave this swarm a wide berth and struggled to stay more focused as he limped away.
The trail wound through the jujube forest, headed generally toward the river. That made sense, since the last place he’d seen the herd was heading down to the water to drink. Another 500 meters along the trail he came to a clearing in the forest canopy. It was only about twenty meters across and choked with jujube wood from a huge tree toppled on its side but still alive. There was no room for an air car to set down, but it could extract him in hover mode. He knee was hurting again. He sat down on a nearby root and pulled the communicator from his pack.
At first the no service light blinked at him, but after moving around the clearing, he found a spot where he could acquire a weak signal.
“This is Forester Mark Ono, calling any receiver within range. I have crashed in the Wangaru Preserve and need extraction. Anybody receiving this transmission please relay my request to Forestry Headquarters. Coordinates follow.” He touched the icon to upload his location to the satellite.
“Hey, Mark, this is Jack Harper. Reading you but the signal is weak. Are you OK? Are you declaring an emergency?”
“A bit banged up, Jack, nothing serious. No Mayday, but an airlift would be appreciated,” Ono answered. “Are you picking this up on the ComSat feed, or short range?”
“Short range only,” said Harper. “The Comsat uplink is off line all over the planet. HQ isn’t saying why or when it will be repaired. We still have contact with Limestone Station on the short range. They can relay to HQ. May take a couple of hours to get a reply, and likely another day to allocate a car to swing down and pick you up.”
“Right,” sighed Ono. “I’ll keep moving. I’ll leave the tracker on and check in whenever I can get a signal. I’m heading north by northwest. I figure I’ll be about ten clicks from you by this time tomorrow.”
“Good luck, and watch your six, Mark. The jiminies have been out and about on this side of the river. Harvey Klink lost a bull to them yesterday.”
“Thanks for the relay and the heads up, Jack. Hopefully the pack stays on your side of the river. Ono out.”
He stood, leaning on his staff. His knee felt a little better after the rest and he set off at a good pace, following the game trail toward the river.
Holdfast’s 28-hour day and twelve degree axial tilt meant for long afternoons in this latitude. The orange sun had already begun to slide below the tree line, and the shadows on the forest floor were deepening. Ono began to look for a likely tree he could climb to get some sleep. He’d spend the night and try the communicator again at first light. Both the cleanup crew and the jiminies made it dangerous to camp on the ground.
He selected a likely looking jujube tree with branches he could reach that were still high enough that a jiminy couldn’t get to him. He pulled himself up and wedged his pack into a clump of small branches. He took out the rope and lashed himself to the trunk before stretching out his legs along two wide branches.
Below him, he heard a faint rustle in the brush. He watched as a jumpin’ jiminy poked its snout out of the bushes and sniffed the air. It approached his tree and three more followed it. They had clearly been dogging his trail for a while, and he hadn’t noticed, another indicator as to how fatigued he was.
Ono pulled the bead pistol from the pack and watched them approach. An adult jiminy stood about a meter high on its hind legs and looked like a marriage between a kangaroo and a wolf. When walking they dropped to all fours using their short forelegs. When chasing prey, they bounded on powerful hind legs covering up to ten meters in a single leap. They ran prey down, eviscerating it with the razor sharp claws on their forelegs before tearing into it with powerful jaws and teeth. Individually, one was no match for a man with a good heavy stick; in packs they could be very dangerous. In habited areas they had learned to fear humans, but here in the wilderness, Ono was prey.
The lead animal followed his scent to the base of the tree. It looked up at him and screeched. Then it jumped. Narrow jaws full of sharp teeth snapped just a few centimeters below his branch, too close for comfort. Ono aimed the bead pistol at the jiminy’s head and squeezed the trigger.
The small iron pellet slammed into the animal’s skull at three times the speed of sound. The jiminy dropped in mid screech and the others scattered. Two minutes later, the cleanup crew roiled the ground beneath the dead jiminy and the carcass disappeared beneath the dark soil. Ono had no other visitors for the rest of the night.
He was awakened at dawn by the sound of machinery. At first he smiled, thinking of rescue. Then he frowned. The only people likely to be operating machinery in the Wangaru were poachers or illegal loggers, neither of whom would welcome an injured Forester.
He eased gently down from the tree and slung the backpack over his shoulders. Leaning on his staff, he found his knee was stiff, but less painful to walk on than it had been the day before.
Wan light shone through the canopy, the sun not yet fully above the tree line. He approached the clearing, the sound of machinery getting louder as he did. He crouched behind the partially uprooted base of the giant jujube tree and peered through a break in the dense thicket. A small orbital landing craft of a design he didn’t recognize had set down in the clearing. The energy of its fusion drive had vaporized a perfect circle in the dense tangle of jujube wood around its landing skids. A small dozer was pushing the larger branches aside, enlarging the clear space. Four dark figures in what appeared to be coveralls or environment suits moved about, unloading containers from the landing craft. Their outlines looked wrong somehow. Not human.
As he tried to work his way forward, one of the figures spun around and looked straight at him. Ono recognized it as a Skex. The Skex Consortium claimed the three planetary systems closest to Holdfast. As far as Ono knew, there was no conflict between Humanity and the Skexis other than a minor dispute over navigation rights through the Holdfast system. He was about to stand a walk into the clearing to find out what the aliens were doing there, when the one who had seen him drew a bead pistol and pointed it at him. The Skex shouted to its companions and fired at Ono.
He ducked behind a thick jujube branch and the bead pellet splintered the wood just above his head. He turned and ran, hobbling badly on his injured knee. He could hear the Skexis crashing through the underbrush behind him.
Ono made it to the tree where he’d spent the night and glanced back. The Skexis weren’t in sight yet but he could hear the sound of them getting closer. He ducked behind the tree trunk and hauled himself up, climbing higher this time and worming deep into some tangled small branches about five meters above the ground. He drew his bead pistol. If the Skexis had thermal imaging, he was dead. He was counting on them following the uglybeast trail and not looking up.
Three of the Skexis ran past his tree, continuing up the trail. A fourth followed them more slowly, sweeping the surrounding forest with a scanner of some kind. Ono held his breath, aiming the bead pistol at the alien with the scanner. The Skex stopped, pointing the scanner at the underbrush near the base of Ono’s tree. It began to raise the instrument, aiming it higher and higher, zeroing in on Ono’s hiding place. Suddenly it froze and lowered the scanner. It peered into the bush to the right of the tree.
Ono lowered the bead pistol, but raised it again when he heard a warbling shriek, the hunting call of a jumpin’ jiminy. The Skex drew its own bead pistol but didn’t move, clearly not realizing the danger it was in.
“Over here,” Ono shouted down to it, sticking his head out of the branches. “Climb!”
The Skex looked up at him and shifted its weapon to aim at Ono. That was when the first jiminy hit it. The animal raked the alien’s right leg with its foreclaws, hamstringing the Skex and knocking it down. The second jiminy jumped onto the alien’s chest and tore at its abdomen, scattering blood and flesh across the trail. Then the rest of the pack was on it. Ono fired his bead pistol, taking down three of the jiminies, but it was no use. Soon the whole pack was involved in the feeding frenzy.
The noise brought the other three Skexis running back. In the melee that followed one more of the aliens went down but its companions managed to kill or drive off the rest of the jiminy pack and pull it free. The survivors limped back to the clearing, Ono apparently forgotten for the time being.
Ono stayed in his hiding place, considering his next move. It seemed clear that the Skexis weren’t just visiting the preserve. Either they were poaching, or more ominously, considering the mysterious failure of the Comsat link, scouting for a larger force. Ono knew he had to warn Forestry HQ, and maybe even the planetary militia, but didn’t want to risk using his communicator this close to the Skex base. He started to worm his way out of the branches, intending to get farther down the trail before the Skexis regrouped and came looking for him again.
A loud bellow from the trail leading to the river made him stop. An uglybeast bull lumbered into view, swinging its shaggy head back and forth the way they did when angry or agitated. It must have heard the cries of the jumpin’ jiminy pack and had come to investigate. Even a pack of jiminies was no match for an adult uglybeast, but could take down a calf. The big bulls protected their harems and calves aggressively, hunting down jiminies and crushing them underfoot whenever they could. Ono could hear the rest of the herd coming up the trail from the river, following the bull at a safe distance in case the leader encountered the jiminy pack.
Farther off, he heard the rumble of machinery again. Apparently the Skexis had decided to drive the dozer rather than chase him on foot. The uglybeast heard it too. It raised its head and sniffed and snorted in the direction of the Skex base, which gave Ono an idea. He carefully aimed the bead pistol at the bull and put three quick rounds into its rump. The beads hurt, but the big animal’s hide was so thick that little real damage was done. All Ono accomplished was to enrage the beast, which was exactly what he intended. The bull charged toward the sound of the rumbling machinery, touching off a stampede of the entire herd.
Ono clung to the tree trunk as it swayed and cracked under the weight of dozens of massive bodies. He could hear shouts and screams from the Skex base, accompanied by the sound of tearing metal. Uglybeast roars and groans filled the air and clouds of dust rose from the forest floor, obscuring his view.
Two minute later the rumbling and roaring of the herd died away and the dust began to settle. The jujube forest was unnaturally silent for a long while before the humming and hooting of the tree lizards and howler bugs gradually resumed. Ono climbed gingerly down from his hiding place, the pain in his knee worse after crouching bent up in the screen of branches. He found his staff lying next to the tree; the cleanup crew had been preoccupied with the dead jiminies and the scraps of Skex on the trail and had missed his dead springwood branch. He leaned on it gratefully and hobbled slowly toward the Skex base.
The clearing was a shambles. The downed jujube tree had been crushed and scattered. The orbital lander lay on it side, the upper half flattened like a crushed soda can. The dozer was nothing more than a twisted mass of metal. The ground around it roiled with the efforts of the cleanup crew. Ono gave it a wide berth.
The rustle of branches behind him made him spin around, pistol in hand, expecting a return of the jumpin’ jiminy pack. Instead, two Skexis stumbled out of the brush looking dazed. One of them saw him and shouted to its companion. Both of them drew long bead rifles. Ono turned and ran into the bush, iron beads whistling past and splatting into the tree trunks around him.
He ran on, eventually hitting the trail as it curved back toward the slurp tree where he’d crashed. He eased past the vampire bee nest, still hanging in the trail somehow. The uglybeast stampede must have taken a different path. Ono stopped at the bend in the trail that would take him back to his starting point. He drew the bead pistol, an idea taking shape. He didn’t relish the idea of a firefight, not with fewer than ten rounds in the pistol and no reloads. Hopefully he wouldn’t need more than one. He settled his weight on his good leg and lifted the pistol, aiming carefully.
The Skexis came into view, approaching cautiously. They spotted Ono and raised their weapons. One of them shouted to him, possibly a demand to surrender. Ono fired the pistol, hitting the bees’ nest dead center, before dropping to the ground. The swarm boiled out of the gap in the black skin, engulfing the Skexis. Ono crawled away, trying to ignore the screaming behind him.
A dozen meters down the trail he struggled to his feet. He leaned on his stick and made his way slowly back to the slurp tree. He hoped to find another clearing on the other side of the tree and try to raise someone on the communicator.
He skirted the tree, staying outside of the range of the slurp, in case it had recovered and was hungry again. He thought he glimpsed a break in the forest canopy a few hundred meters ahead and started that way. The Skex stepped out from behind a jujube sapling and barred his way.
It was taller that he and wore a military style uniform that was torn and spotted with blood. Its face was vaguely felinoid with narrow dark eyes, forward facing ears and a lipless mouth full of jagged teeth. It held a bead pistol pointed at Ono’s chest.
Ono raised his arms in what he hoped was a universal gesture of surrender. The Skex growled something and raised the pistol to aim it at Ono’s head. Ono closed his eyes, waiting to die. Instead of the whine of a bead pistol discharge, all he heard was a gurgling grunt. He opened his eyes.
The Skex had dropped the pistol and was clutching at the thick blue tongue that wrapped around its neck. Its eyes bulged as the tongue tightened its grip. Then it was dragged, kicking feebly, back toward the hole under the giant jujube tree. The slurp hummed contentedly, the way they always did when they had caught something big.
Ono sagged against his stick and sobbed with relief.
MINUTES OF THE SKEX HIGH COMMAND, GALACTIC STANDARD DATE 2437.33: REPORT ON INVASION PREPARATIONS FOR THE PLANET HOLDFAST
High Commander Grell: Thank you, General Forsk. Have you anything to add to your report?
General Forsk: Only that the search teams were unable to find any trace of the bodies of my scout squad. Either the Humans removed them, or they were completely destroyed by whatever weapon this Human, Mark Ono, used on them. If that is the case, I would not want to go up against the scaled up ship borne version of it.
Grell: Chief Intelligence Commander Hark, what have you discovered about the Human.
Chief Intelligence Commander Hark: Mark Ono is described in the Human database we were able to access as an ordinary male of average intelligence. He, like all humans, received six weeks of basic military training upon coming of age, but has no other military experience. His job description is Forester. This appears to involve wildlife surveillance and management as well as regular patrols of the wilderness area south of the central river that the Humans call the Finagle.
Forsk: He’s not military? I find that hard to believe. He destroyed a squad of my best Special Operations troops.
Hark: Nevertheless, by all accounts he is nothing but an average Human. He does have extensive experience in the wilderness and has knowledge of the abundant dangerous wildlife indigenous to the planet. The Human home world was once even more dangerous than Holdfast until they completely remade it. They seem to have gravitated to a variety Class 5 worlds since their initial contact with Galactic Civilization. This has not engendered much concern, since it has been common knowledge that such worlds are too full of dangerous flora and fauna to be practical for colonization.
Grell: Obviously the Humans feel differently.
Hark: Yes. We had not thought that Class 5 worlds could evolve intelligent life in the first place and so were wholly unprepared when the Humans suddenly appeared in the Galactic neighborhood.
Forsk: Still, this Human, Ono, must have special capabilities, or perhaps bioengineered augments. After all, his job is to protect the other Humans from the predatory animal life on their planet.
Hark: You misunderstand, General. Ono’s job is to protect the indigenous wildlife from predation by other Humans.
Forsk, whispered: Dear Infinity, what manner of people are these?
Grell: Indeed, General. Commander Hark, what has been the Human response to our incursion into their space?
Hark: On the surface, they have accepted our explanation that one of our ships suffered a systems failure and crash landed on Holdfast. I’m sure they know the true nature of the mission, but since it failed so completely they have chosen to avoid conflict. They even issued a statement of sympathy for the dead team, citing the extreme danger of the Holdfast wilderness. This is in keeping with their policy of being what they call ‘Good Neighbors’, by which they mean a position of neutrality and non-interference. I suggest we encourage that policy at all costs. We do not want to antagonize them and have them embark on a more expansionist course. The limited history of their species that we have been able to access suggests a high degree of aggressiveness, even ruthlessness, in military action.
Grell: Agreed. General, you will stand down any forces directed toward Human space other than those engaged in clandestine monitoring. Further, I will advise the Council and the Chairman to get word to our allies that the Humans are to be left alone. We will also get word to the Brotherhood of the Night, the Gorsk Empire, and the Hargashi Junta that the Humans are under our protection and any action against them will be regarded as an attack on the Skex Consortium. We will need time to determine how best to accommodate our new neighbors. Infinity help us.