by Frederick Rustam
"It's decided, then."
There was a murmur of agreement among the colonists assembled in the Community Hall. Although the meeting had been under way for only a few minutes, a summary of the problem they had come to discuss had been disseminated by the InfoNet, last week, to every terminal in the village and outlying farms. Every member of the commune had had a chance to consider alternatives. It was a problem they had been discussing among themselves for some time.
Tonight, they were holding an old-fashioned folkmoot, as they always did for the resolution of an important matter. It had been easier than it might have been.... One man had volunteered.... In the restlessness of the audience, a great relief was evident. There was also a good deal of sympathy for the volunteer.
Some had felt they should hire an Assassin from Laagulaan, but the Chairman countered that the commune couldn't afford to hire anyone of that caliber.... Left unsaid was the widely felt reluctance to bring a ninja of that dread Order into the village, even though they were reputed to be well-behaved professionals.
"Thank you all for coming to discuss this," said the Chairman. "Now we have to prepare our volunteer for his hunt. You should return to your homes before it gets dark."
As the audience broke up and began to leave, many of them looked back at the volunteer, who was still sitting in his chair -- certain it would be the last time they would see him.... They knew he had volunteered because he had recently become a widower, the only one in the village. He deserved a double measure of sympathy -- for having lost his wife in an unfortunate accident, and for the consequent inevitability of his having to be the one to slay the Dragon.
* * *
John Anishinaabe adjusted the straps which bound him to the flamethrower fuel tank above his small hippack. He had a lot of walking to do, and he knew he would be fatigued when he confronted the Dragon. The Committee wouldn't let him use a packmule. They felt it would make too much noise, and they feared he might grow tired of packing the heavy tank and transfer his only weapon to the mule.... He had wanted to carry a radpistol, too. But they were afraid he might rely on it, solely, with disastrous results. There were reports that radgun fire wasn't lethal to the Dragon.
"Now remember, you must maintain radio silence -- unless you're in distress," said the comm tech ("Commo," to the village). If you need to call covertly for a pickup, lift the hinged cap, and push the red button. It'll transmit a coded pulsetrain on Emergency Two. If it's received, our gonio will get a fix. Try to be out in the open when you do it. Then, we'll let you know we're sending the InterMedic helo."
"How do we know the Dragon can't make the fix, itself?"
"We don't, for sure. But, we've kept the code as short as we can, and still get a fix."
John shook his head. "I still can't see how an animal like that can intercept radio."
"He's got a portable on a cord around his neck," said Cephas, the village joker.
"Knock it off, Ceph. Or, maybe you'd rather go, instead," said the Chairman.
"Not me! I was just tryin' to lighten up things."
Commo continued. "Look, John -- it's not an animal. It's probably smarter than us. Every village that tried to get it, using radios, has failed. It always seemed to know where they were. The guy from Plainsville I talked to swears it's listening. Says it skedaddles right after someone radios a sighting to a posse."
"We just can't take any chances. You're pretty much on your own, anyway. So, play it safe," added the village medic.
The Chairman continued his briefing. "Now, about the motorglider... she'll be loudflying near you, but not centered on you. If she gets a radar motion contact, she'll call us on Emergency Two and say she's coming in to Mountainview field because she's running low on fuel. She'll give the contact's position as her position.... When you hear her, key it into your helmet map. We just have to hope the Dragon won't figure out what's going on.... Then, she'll go quiet and circle the contact until she hears from you, or she does run low.... Got it?"
"If it picks up radio, won't it pick up open radar, too?"
"Maybe -- but, what can it do if it does? If it stops while she's emitting, it's immobilized. Anyway, when she gets a contact, she'll turn the radar off and rely on infrared. She has your signature.... If the Dragon heads for you, she'll use minimum transmitter power -- to make the Dragon think she's moved on -- and make another radio call to us. She'll say she's having engine trouble.... When you hear that second call -- watch out."
"Got it.... You want to test the radio before I leave?"
"No," replied Commo. "Not now, while the Dragon's on the prowl. I checked it out this afternoon."
"OK. I'm ready."
"Douse the lights," ordered the Chairman. Cephas jumped to the switch, perhaps to redeem himself for his flippant remark.
John opened the door, and pulled down his night vision goggles. Under the sole illumination of the stars, everything turned pale green. He took the first steps into the night.
"Good luck," called out the Chairman. He spoke for all, but none of them expected that their volunteer would have much luck.
When colonists began to settle Greenworld, they thought it was the best planet yet charted. Most of it was like the best of Old Earth, and better than any of the New Earths. They built farms and villages, worked the rich soil, tended domestic animals, and hunted in the forests. Life there was ideal for people willing to accept the limitations of country life. There was plenty of good land for the idealistic and disciplined who had learned, in the crowded cities of their homeworlds, what the really valuable things of life were. They became a rural people with urban skills.
From Seaside, they spread out toward the mountains, building individual communities of like-mindeds. The villages were separated by ancient differences, but linked into a loose confederation by radio and by a common desire to make Greenworld a paradise for them and their decendants.
It wasn't very long before they discovered their wonderful new world had a catch: It belonged to a monster.
At first, hunters failed to return from the forests. Their discovered remains told a grisly story of something hungry. Later, it came out of the forest to get their livestock. They knew there were some predatory animals on the planet, but guard dogs usually kept them away. Whatever was killing the livestock killed the dogs, too.
When children began to disappear, some posses of colonists rushed off to the woods with guns and hounds. The hounds had difficulty with the Dragon's scent trails. Some hunters claimed it didn't leave any -- an example of the myths that began to grow about the beast.
Then, from a motorglider, a pilot got a glimpse of the monster in a clearing. She said it looked like a "man-dragon". They started calling it the Dragon. As time passed, it became obvious that the monster was as intelligent as humans, and possessed formidable sensory powers. When a hunter got a better look at it and radioed the sighting, the Dragon started for him right away, even though he was hidden from sight.... His last transmission was a scream.
Later, someone had fired at it from a distance, with a radrifle. It ducked into the trees, and didn't seem to be badly hurt. No one had ever taken a close shot, and lived to describe the results.... Fewer and fewer foolhardy hunters went after it. The colonists hunkered down. Each farm and village had its intrusion alarms, but the Dragon often defeated them, as if it had had a part in devising them. It was then that they realized it could sense things no human could.
When it became active around Mountainview, the villagers decided to go after it, using fire as a weapon. They built a flamethrower. But, they needed was someone to wield it. They knew that when a posse went after the Dragon, it got wind of them and laid low.... One man moving quietly at night might have a chance.
John Anishinaabe headed for the nearby foothills. From the plotted sightings, the villagers speculated that the Dragon had a concealed den somewhere above the plain, but below the high mountains. They also guessed it hibernated during the winter, when it could be tracked by its footprints. That was when the killings stopped for a season.
It was a warm summer night. Under the canopy of leaves, starlight dimly illuminated the ground -- Greenworld had no moon. With his goggles, he had little difficulty in seeing where he was going. In his helmet, he had, in addition to the wide-field goggles, a sensitive audiosensor. When he stood still it would autoswitch from NORMAL to EXTENDED, and he could hear distant sounds.... The helmet had been filched from a homeworld Special Forces unit by the brother of a villager. John had to learn how to use it by reading a tech manual and practicing in the woods near the village.
When he reached some rocks on a cleared knoll, he pulled himself to the top and stood quietly. The helmet had an IR motion-alarm which was supposed to notify him if it detected anything warm and moving behind him. There was a chemical sniffer-alarm in the helmet, too. But, they hadn't been able -- for obvious reasons -- to reset it for the Dragon's odor. He faced off in four directions and listened, carefully.... He heard only the usual night noises, much amplified.
As John stood motionless on the rocks, watching and listening for something that would show he was on the right track, he reflected on the legendary hunting skill of his ancestors of Old Earth -- the ancient ones who lived beside the inland seas. John's surname demonstrated the determination of his forebears to remember those ancestors. By now, though, John's genes were so admixed with those of other peoples that his appearance was unremarkable. His conception of himself as an Ojibwa was a pearl that he had shared with no one, except his wife, now dead. She, herself, had been descended from the Dinee, the people of the great dry land.
Still, he found himself wishing that one of those ancestral forest warriors, with his arrows and throwing tomahawk, were beside him now. His skills might be more useful than all the fancy tech-stuff in his stolen helmet.
He muted the audiosensor to check on the VHF-AM radio receiver. He knew he wasn't supposed to transmit except in an emergency, but he felt a little more secure listening to the soft background hiss of the receiver.... Emergency Two was quiet. He should have no trouble hearing the motorglider pilot -- if his attention weren't captured by something immediate.
He fingered the XMIT switch on the side of the helmet. It was jammed with a thin wooden dowel which would break if he pushed the switch hard, but would keep him from making a mistake which might reveal his position.
He wished the village would transmit occasionally to reassure him that he was still connected to them, but they were afraid the Dragon would intercept their signals and guess it was being hunted. He restored the audiosensor, with its crickety sounds, and clambered back down the rocks. At the bottom, he brought up the map display in his goggles and headed for the area where the most sightings were plotted. Thereabouts, he would look for a cave. If the Dragon lived there -- but was not inside, just then -- he would wait for it with his fiery torch.
* * *
John was threading his way through the trees and shrubs, stumbling occasionally. Suddenly, he stopped. Ahead, he he saw a trail. He checked the map. It wasn't charted.
When he reached it, he could see that the grass and weeds had been worn down by occasional traffic -- of what? He brought up the compass overlay. Even if forest animals had made the trail, the Dragon must use it to save time. It ran from the foothills toward the sea.
Somewhat reluctantly, he turned onto the trail, and began following it toward the foothills. He was afraid that, if the Dragon were waiting ahead, he might walk into an ambush. Sound carried better down the trail, and the monster might lurk in the shrubs beside the trail and jump him from behind. He stopped and listened to the extended audiosensor.... Nothing.... He moved on. If it were one of the Dragon's trails, it would lead him closer to its den than he could get by wandering around among the trees, waiting for a call from the motorglider pilot.
He unslung the flamethrower nozzle, and used it to push vegetation aside, being careful to keep his finger off the trigger. If he should stumble and fire a blast of flame, he might be detected a long way off -- and give the motorglider pilot's LWIR a jolt that might cause her to break radio silence.
... Well, maybe not ... but he didn't trust her, entirely. She flew out of Seaside, the large town which was the first settlement on the planet. Its "urbanized" inhabitants, who avoided the outback, were dimly regarded by the rural pioneers...
He stopped and squinted.... A light, ahead, where the vegetation thinned out. He listened to the audiosensor. He thought he could hear some faint motion sounds. Or, perhaps, was he was imagining? He didn't trust the audiosensor that much, either.
He crept forward as quietly as he could. The crunching and crackling at his feet sounded loud to him. He wondered how the forest Indians could move so quietly. Their secrets had been lost in the long decent to his generation.
As he moved around a curve in the trail, he saw, outlined in the starlight, a crude log cabin. Interior light was visible through a shaded window on the side, and was spilling carelessly through an open door, bright in his goggles.... Surely, this couldn't be the Dragon's home. The creature was too smart to live in a place so easily detected. He checked the map. No structure was charted here.
He moved as close as he could to the clearing. He doubted he could sneak up to the door without being heard. He would have to rush it and hope to surprise the occupant. If the Dragon were inside and unaware, he might be able to burn it before it could get him.... He raised the goggles, and waited for his eyes to adapt. He took deep breaths, preparing himself for battle. His heart pounded.
Now!... He dashed forward into the clearing and up to the open doorway. His finger all but squeezed the trigger of the flamethrower, as his eyes frantically swept the interior of the cabin.
("What the hell?...")
Lying on a cot and reading a book by the light of a solar-storage lamp, was a bewhiskered old man.
"Freeze!" he shouted, feeling a little foolish as he did so.
The old man's eyes widened with fear as they took in the stranger pointing a flamethrower at him. He dropped the book and threw up his arms.
"D-D-Don't!" the old man stammered
With difficulty, John relaxed his trigger finger, as he considered the unlikely probability of what he was seeing.
"Who are you?"
"Just a hermit," the man replied. "A harmless old hermit."
* * *
John glared down at the old man. He had lowered the flamethrower nozzle, but kept his finger on the trigger. His questioning voice was loud in the night.
"You expect me to believe the Dragon lets you live here out of the kindness of his heart?"
"He don't bother me. That's all I know." The old man wheezed when he inhaled.
"That's not all you know. Is it?"
"I ain't botherin' nobody...."
John stood silent for a moment. "You're bothering me, old man. ... I'm bothered by you living safe in Dragonland, when people who come here to hunt get chopped."
"I ain't seen nobody."
"You're lying! The same trail that brought me here would have brought others.... You know what happened to 'em -- don't you?"
The old man remained silent.
"You know what.... You and the Dragon. You two've got some game going."
"No, we ain't.... How could we?"
"I don't know -- but you better tell me, or I'm gonna burn you and this shack good." He lifted the nozzle and gripped it with both hands.
"No! Don't. I'll talk...." The fear on the old man's face showed his acceptance of John's threat. "... I came after him, last year.... I wanted to be the one to get him, but he jumped me while I was sleepin'. I almost had a heart attack when I woke up and saw them teeth o' his. I figgered I was a goner.... But, he didn't kill me. He tied me up and dragged me back to his cave...."
The old man had trouble telling the truth from this point on.
"I taught him our talk...."
John exploded. "You did what?!"
The old man cringed. "What could I do? He wanted to learn Universal. ... I guess he wanted to understand us."
"Understand us? It wanted to kill us! And you helped it. You gave it a weapon greater than any gun."
"You would have, too -- to live.... And, don't forget, I'm stuck here. He won't let me go.... I had a wife and a farm. Now, I got nothin' he don't give me."
John lowered the nozzle. In spite of his anger, he felt sorry for the old geezer.
"If I burn the Dragon, you can leave. But, you better not tell anyone what you told me, or you'll wish you were back here.... Now, get up.... You're taking me to the cave."
"Now?... It's after midnight."
"Now ... while the Dragon's out hunting."
"He'll kill both of us!" The old man began shaking.
"You can take your chances with me. And, I promise you, if you try to run, I'll turn you into a bonfire.... Let's go -- you in front."
Slowly, the hermit rose and shuffled to the door. He paused and squinted into the starlit clearing, as if he expected to see his nemesis waiting for them, outside.
John turned the lamp off and followed the old man out the door.
GO TO PART 2
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