"I'm afraid go in there." The hermit looked back at him.
John considered the situation. The overgrown entrance was man-high, but barely visible against the brushy slope. If the Dragon were inside, he couldn't have the old man between them. He would only get one shot.... He moved ahead of the old man, but stood to one side of the entrance.
"Get closer and call it out," he whispered, loudly.
The old man looked dubious, but cupped his hands over his mouth and called in a weak voice of unmistakable respect.
"Aaksh.... Aaksh, it's Ben."
("Aaksh?... He's on a first-name basis with it!")
Silence.... John listened to the helmet audiosensor. The old man's restless movements were audible against the nightsounds.
He crept up to the entrance and stood facing into the cave, his trigger finger painfully tightened. Now he was beginning to shake -- he could hear himself shaking. But, from the cave ... nothing.... If the Dragon were inside, it must have heard them. He gestured for the old man to move up to the entrance beside him. "Again!" he whisper- shouted.
"Aaksh! It's me -- Ben!" he hollered. The helmet audiosensor clipped down, then restored.
After an agonizing period of silence, the volunteer looked over at his companion. "We're going in. Stay behind me, and don't try anything."
Slowly, he moved inside. As he brushed through the vegetation growing around the entrance, he could see there was a dim light coming from back in the cave, around a curve in the narrowing passage. He halted and pushed up his goggles. If he had to fire, the flame would overload them and blind him.
While he waited for his eyes to adapt to the dim light, he listened to the extended audiosensor. He heard something that sounded like water running. The old man wheezed nervously behind him.... He moved forward, again.
The cave narrowed into a corridor and curved around to the left. If the Dragon showed up here, he thought, he'd have it -- if he could react before it rushed him.
Under his feet, the dusty floor collapsed.
"Uhhh!..." He fell -- but not too far.... Just enough.
* * *
John remained conscious through the pain that followed. He was face down on an earthen floor. His back had been hurt when the hip pack and flamethrower tank bore down on him. Now they hung askew, but were still bound to him by the straps. When he raised his head, a trickle of salty blood ran from his nose to his mouth.
He lay still for a while, trying to orient himself. Then, he tried to undo the straps. A stab of pain reminded him his left wrist had broken the fall.... He managed to free himself. Then, slowly, painfully, he rolled over onto his back and stared upward. At the ragged hole in the false floor, the hermit was staring down at him. He wasn't smiling.
"Guess you ain't so high-and-mighty, now," he said.
"Help you?... I did help you. You got what you wanted. Now you're on your own, mister.... Maybe you can burn Aaksh when he comes back. Maybe not.... I ain't waitin' to find out."
With that, he disappeared from view. With the extended audiosensor, John could hear him running from the cave and into the trees.
He sat with his back against the side of the pit, facing toward the cave entrance. He had tried to stand, but the pain in his back was too great. He pulled the flamethrower nozzle into his lap -- so he could get to it, fast. He listened, then turned the audiosensor off, and tried the radio. The receiver was still working, but when he pushed the red locator button under the cap, the receiver didn't cut out for a second, like it should have. He slapped the XMIT switch, breaking the dowel, and held it down.... No cutout.... The transmitter was broken.
What a mess.... Trapped like an animal in a pit he couldn't get out of, and no way to call for help.... That his transmissions probably couldn't be heard from the cave, anyway, was no consolation.
He was about to discard his helmet, when suddenly...
"MOUNTAINVIEW FIELD, THIS IS GLIDE ONE.... DO YOU COPY?"
A pause, as the unreceivable reply eluded him. He was out of the line- of-sight for Commo in the village -- to say the least. He was surprised he could receive the motorglider. She must be nearby.
"ROGER.... I'M RUNNING LOW ON FUEL.... HEADING YOUR WAY, NOW.... ETA IS THIRTY MIKES. PRESENT POSITION IS SECTOR GOLF ROMEO."
She had spotted the Dragon.
He brought up the map and keyed in the position code. An outline of sector GR was superimposed. The red circle marking his present position was in one corner.
* * *
He sat in pain, awaiting the Dragon.
The pilot had made her second transmission -- the phony engine trouble report which told him the Dragon was coming his way.
It would get a surprise when it showed up -- if he didn't pass out, first. He listened closely to the extended audiosensor for the sound of footfalls. He doubted the Dragon would be able to sneak up on him. The gritty floor of the cave made that unlikely.... ("Maybe I'm falsely reassuring myself.")
The radio began picking up static -- some kind of pulse noise. He had never heard noise at this frequency before. It wasn't distant thunderstorm static. The receiver must have been damaged, too.... His mind began to drift into dark thoughts.
He damned himself for putting the hermit behind him.... If he had put the him in front, the old man would have taken the fall. Or, if the hermit had known about the pit, he would have funked out, and neither of them would have tumbled.... He was certain the hermit had withheld information he could use to get the Dragon. The old boy probably counted on his pal to keep colonists away from his comfortable home in the woods. It probably gave him a big charge to be favored by a monster that so terrified others. John swore to himself that, if he got out of this alive, the old man would pay dearly for his treachery.
The static was getting louder. It intruded on his thoughts of revenge. He turned the radio off.
He began considering what he would do with the hermit. He should take him back to the village for interrogation.... A return to reality occurred when he considered the chances of being able to accomplish anything, now.
Then, his reverie was interrupted by the extended audiosensor -- movement outside the cave.
("Damn!") He had been deep into thoughts of revenge.
He heard the vegetation covering the entrance falling back into place, followed by slow steps along the floor of the cave.... ("The Dragon's coming!")
He raised the flamethrower nozzle toward the hole he had made when he fell through the pit-covering. His finger tightened on the trigger. He had to give the Dragon a facefull before it saw him aiming at it. If he used too much fuel, it might run down into the pit and burn him.... He hoped the Dragon wouldn't fall in. That might finish both of them.
He reset the audiosensor to NORMAL. The footfalls were growing louder.
Suddenly, they stopped. ("It must have spotted the hole in the floor.... Come and see your victim, Dragon.")
He shook as he waited for its ugly face to appear at the hole. He tried to control his arms so he wouldn't spoil his aim. They seemed leaden, but shook.
"Hey, man! Don't shoot! It's me!... I'm back."
The old man stopped chopping at the false floor with his axe. The hole was big enough, now.
"I'm comin' down." He threw down a knotted rope he had staked to the earth, and began climbing into the pit. He was surprisingly nimble, for someone so old.
He moved to John's side. "Can you stand up?"
"Not by myself. Help me up."
The old man knelt, and took hold of the flamethrower nozzle. "Let's get this out of the way."
The volunteer relaxed his grip and let the old man have the nozzle. He rolled over to favor his right hand and put his palm on the ground to push himself up a little.
The old man suddenly stepped back. In a flash, he wrapped the end of the rope around the hippack and flamethrower. "What're you doing?" John asked, helpless to prevent what he suspected.
"I'm pullin' your fangs, boy." He lifted his face to the hole. "I've got it! Pull away!"
John watched as his only weapon was swiftly yanked out of the pit. He glared at the old man, who retreated to the far end. "You son of a bitch! I knew you were in this together!"
Then, the rope came hurtling back down. The old man used it to climb out. When he got to the top, he stood up and looked back down at the stricken hunter. As he stood there, his partner moved forward to stand beside him.
* * *
It was big -- at least two meters tall -- and powerfully built. Metallic green, and scaly -- with a snouty face and a crocodile's mouth full of sharp teeth. It had clawed hands and feet with four strong fingers and a thumb. On the outside, it looked like a cross between a gorilla and Tyrannosaurus rex. But, he could see the intelligence in its yellow, reptilian eyes -- the ones it was looking down at John with.... It stared at him, even though it already knew what his species looked, and tasted, like.
As he contemplated this horrible thing, it suddenly occurred to John that the static he had heard before must have come from the Dragon. He reached up and turned on the radio. The noise blasted his ears. the Dragon was some kind of electro-creature. It alternately received and emitted radio-frequency radiation, apparently through its biometallic skin. Its thick footpads probably served to insulate it from the ground. It sure didn't need a portable on a string around its neck.... He speculated about what the homeworlds would give just to study it. If only he could capture and sell it, instead of killing it.
"This is Aaksh, ruler of Greenworld," intoned the hermit -- its man. "He don't talk. I talk for him. He puts thoughts in my head."
"Yeah?... Which one of you is the dummy, then?"
"You're the dummy, mister!... Dumb to come here thinkin' you could kill the Master of the Forest!"
"That makes two of us."
"Oh, no.... I came here because I killed my wife, and had to run. I was huntin' for food when he found me, just like I said."
The Dragon growled -- a deep, gutteral sound that some of the victims must have heard before they died.... ("Is it my turn, now?" John wondered.)
A pause.... Then, the old man picked up the flamethrower nozzle.
"Say your prayers, boy.... Aaksh wants YOU to get what you were goin' to give HIM." He pointed the nozzle at John.
The Dragon growled again. The old man looked over at it for a few seconds, then down at the hunter.
"He wants me to thank you for not usin' your radio to report what you saw -- heh, heh...." The Dragon's toothy smile seemed more like a grimace. It stepped back from the edge of the pit, well behind the old man.
As their shared jest waned, the wife-killing hermit pulled the trigger of the flamethrower nozzle.
The old man was enveloped in brilliant flame and black smoke. He screamed ... and screamed. And collapsed into a pyre of his own making.
Burning fuel spread outward, and some of it flowed down the far wall of the pit. John, helpless to move away, watched it burn itself out, short of him.
"Sorry, old man.... I forgot to tell you -- that tank was made to rupture and ignite if anyone else tried to use it. Guess you didn't push that little ole button in the bottom of the grip, first."
Then, he passed out.
* * *
"Hey!... Wake up, man!"
John opened his eyes, and focused on the two shapes standing at the edge of the pit. They were men from the village, carrying old shotguns.
"Cephas ... Jude?"
"Righty-o," replied Cephas.
"How did you guys get here?"
"The InterMedic helo.... It's in a clearing, out there," added Jude.
"How did you know where to find me?"
"Suzie saw you and some guy go in the cave. Then, the guy came running out. When he came back with the Dragon, she figured you were in trouble, so she took a chance and called us on Emergency One. The Chairman got the helo, quick."
"The motorglider pilot."
"Oh..." John hadn't known her name.
"What happened here? Who's this?" Jude asked, pointing to the smoking remains of the hermit.
"The Dragon's man.... Watch out. the Dragon's up there somewhere. It was with this guy when the flamethrower tank exploded."
"There's nobody here, now -- 'cept old Smokey, there.... Don't worry. The motorglider's circling tight. Sun's up. She'll see the Dragon if it comes near the cave.... You think it got burned?"
"I don't know. It moved back before the guy pulled the trigger. It must have gotten away."
"Hell, then, it's probably still running," said Cephas.
"No.... It's probably hiding and watching.... But that's okay. I know how to find it, now."
The volunteer smiled, despite his pains.
"Just listen.... It doesn't maintain radio silence."
Later, as he lay abed, recovering from his injuries, John Anishinaabe reflected on the matter of the Dragon, who was still at large.
He thought about his ancestors on Old Earth.... About how they resented the colonists from across the great salt sea. How they fought and killed to keep them out of the sacred homeland.... Those colonists saw his ancestors much like he saw the Dragon: as something dangerous standing in the way of settlement. Something to be confined -- or exterminated.
Maybe, the villagers could come to some kind of agreement with Aaksh.... After all, he was an intelligent being, just like them. He'd gotten along pretty well with the hermit.... ("Maybe, I should volunteer, again -- this time to try to communicate with him...")
"John!" The commune Chairman suddenly entered his room in the clinic. "How're you doing?"
"Okay -- so long as I don't make any sudden moves," he joked.
"I've got some good news for you.... Thanks to the info you gave us, we got the Dragon." His expression was one of glee.
"The posse used radios to track it to another cave. Then, they burnt it out.... We just got the message. I knew you'd want to hear about what happened."
The volunteer hunter looked glum. "Yeah ... good work."
"Good work by you, too, John. You made it possible.... Well, I've got to make the announcement on the InfoNet.... Hang in there. If you need anything, let me know.... See you, later." The Chairman waved goodbye and left the room.
John stared at the ceiling. ("Why do I feel so bad about the 'good news'?")
He wondered.... ("Maybe, there are more Dragons.") *
Story copyright © 1995-1996 Fredrick Rustram <frustam@CapAccess.org>
Artwork copyright © 1995-1996 Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>
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