The usual caveats apply. Comments/recommendations appreciated. As a reminder, Ton’Skel is still learning ‘earth’ words and speech cadence.
“Is the Hyderabad here? If so, can I borrow a shuttle? I need to go hunt some Silverbacks down in the southern hemisphere and I don’t want to leave Ton here by himself for what could be a week or more.”
Fargo shook himself as he contemplated having more or less direct communications all the time with Jace as long as he was in his cabin. This is…going to take some getting used to.
Jace replied, “I have the regular shuttle doing some work for the space station, but I can give you the stealth shuttle. It’s capable of supporting the two of you for a week, but I’ll add extra rations to the autochef for Ton’Skel. When do you want it?”
Sensing Ton nearing the cabin, along with Cattus and Canis, he hurriedly answered. “Um, day after tomorrow. Early morning?” he added, “Can you hear me?”
Jace’s reply was tinged with humor. “Of course. I’m hooked into your e-tainment system. I hear everything that goes on in the cabin. And you snore.”
“I…” The door opened, and he was almost bowled over by Cattus and Canis, both vying for his attention, even as they shook the last of the snow from their pelts. He jumped to the side and said, “Sit, dammit. Wet animals are not welcome in here; you two know better!” Cattus sat, then popped up and headed for the kitchen as Canis cocked her head, tongue hanging out and did her version of the doggie smile at him. Ton’Skel, filthy to the elbows, came in, closing the door behind him and Fargo said, “Have a good run?”
“Yes, did you know you have a gold deposit at the waterfall?” Ton’Skel proffered a couple of small nuggets, and Fargo held out a hand, allowing him to drop them into it.
“Gold? Where? And how did you—”
Ton’Skel shrugged. “I can…how you say, sense gold. There is…what is word.” Frustrated, he almost snarled.
Thinking for a second, Fargo said, “Runoff? Not the main seam or vein?”
“Runoff. That is word. It comes from higher, but not far. Edges are not smooth.”
Bouncing the nuggets in his hand, Fargo bit his lip, then said, “I…have to go hunt Silverbacks. I may be gone a week or more. You…can stay here, or go to the Enclave, or come with me. It will be…living out of a shuttle. Not comfortable.”
“Can I hunt,” Ton’Skel asked excitedly.
Fargo grimaced. “I…it is going to be very dangerous. Let me show you.” He brought up the vid Remington had taken from Betsy when he took down the two Silverbacks at the mill site, and started it without comment. Ton’Skel leaned forward intently, growling at the multiple shots Fargo took to bring down the first, then physically jumped back when the second Silverback tried to pounce on Fargo.
Scrubbing his face, Ton’Skel asked, “Why so many shot? Is not good!”
“I will show you.” Fargo brought up the pictures of the Silverback he’d skinned out after shooting it at the waterfall. He got up and brought back one of the 16mm rounds, flashing up a pic of the cracked skull. He pointed and said, “This one had a lesion of some kind on the brain.” The next pic showed the measurement of the thickness of the frontal skull plate at almost a half an inch. Flipping the round to Ton’Skel he said, “That is the round I shoot. Sixteen mm, it would not penetrate that thickness, plus it would take an almost perfect angle to actually get a chance to even crack the skull.”
Ton’Skel leaned back and cocked his head. “How did you kill?”
Bringing up the vid of the shots from the bench, he said, “These are the test shots. I’ll show you each of them, then the stills from the test.” He added, “Frankly, I was extremely lucky on this particular kill.”
After the vids ran, he said, “Questions?”
“Why the shots to each…shoulder? Then two more, then three?”
Fargo grimaced as he remembered the wash of fear after his dissection of the carcass. That was a purely lucky shot that night. No frikkin wonder I never killed one in the sim on the ship. I never thought about having to make it through all that damn bone structure. I didn’t do my homework. Thankfully, that one was…crazy.
He put up the pics of the cut away meat, the shoulder bones, measurements, and did the same for the rear shoulders. The final pics were of the penetration of the round and the damage to the dual hearts and lungs. “There is an enormous amount of bone to get through to even get to the hearts. And I am an excellent shot. That is why it takes seven shots minimum to take one of these down.” He pulled down a set of claws from the mantle and handed them to Ton’Skel. “These are the claws.”
Ton’Skel’s claws inadvertently came out and Fargo chuckled, “Yes, he’s got you by…at least an inch, if not more. And they always hunt in pairs. Linked pairs, so they coordinate their attack on their prey. One distracts, the other pounces from the rear.”
“How did you, have you killed others?”
“Yes, I’ve killed several pairs.” Looking at Ton, he added carefully, “I am…an empath. I can…sense animals and their locations. You’ve seen me do that with Canis and Cattus.”
Ton’Skel nodded. “That is…fortunate. I do not have gun.” Frustrated, he growled, “I can go, but cannot hunt is what you say?”
“Yes, I will not put you in danger, Tyag.” Purposely using his Ghorka name, he continued, “What would happen to me if I let you get hurt, much less killed? What do you think the Enclave would do to me? You are still a child in their eyes. I would lose all support within the Enclave and might be tried by a tribunal for your death.”
“They would do that to you?” He asked in a surprised tone.
Fargo shrugged. “The first principle in the human race is to care for the young. They are the future. So yes, they would do that to me.”
Ton’Skel snarled in frustration, “I will go, and understand I will not be allowed to hunt.” Shaking his head, he finally said calmly, “I would watch you and learn your skill.”
“I can’t teach you empathy, but you can watch and see how the Silverbacks hunt. If nothing else, it will teach you to always watch your back,” Fargo said with a grimace.
The next morning the Hyderabad’s stealth shuttle settled quietly on the snow field in front of the cabin at first light. Fargo and Ton’Skel walked through the snow to the small ramp, escorted by Cattus and Canis. Fargo sent, “Go to your packs. Do not return until I do. Both animals jumped up, and he hugged both of them before they trotted off through the snow. He glanced back at the cabin, absently patted his pockets to make sure he had everything, and walked into the shuttle.
He was surprised to be met by Jace and asked, “You’re not making the runs on the ship?”
Jace grinned. “Oh, I have fully qualified subordinates to take care of things like that. Shall we go? I have the location plotted and our ETA is fifteen.” Glancing at them, he said, “As soon as you secure your gear and take your couches, that is. The compartments by the hatch are available for your bags and rifle case.” Fargo and Ton’Skel quickly stored their bags in the compartments and settling into couches across the aisle from one another.
Ton’Skel rubbed his hand over the couch. “This is, how you say, comfortable?”
“It’s an acceleration couch, it had better be comfortable,” Fargo said. He laughed, adding, “We’re going to be in them a while. We have about eight thousand miles to cover. We will sit in these for nine divs.”
“I can sleep?”
Fargo chuckled. “Yes, you can sleep. I’m going to do that too.”
Jace interrupted their back and forth. “Lifting. We will climb to low earth orbit and arc down from there.”
Two divs later, with Ton’Skel fast asleep, Fargo got up and went forward to the cockpit. Slipping into the couch next to Jace, he asked, “Why are you here?”
Jace turned to him. “You need to know what is going on. Someone leaked that Ton’Skel is still alive and escaped the embassy attack at Star Center. Traders are all over this sector, asking questions and poking into any world they can. They know he’s in the wind, they just don’t know where, and are turning over the rocks under the rocks to find him.”
“Shit. That is not good.”
“No, it is not. So far no Traders have attempted to land on Hunter, but I expect them to show up soon. They seem to move toward the DMZ in a coordinated sweep.”
“Trying to flush the prey?”
Jace nodded. “And the vatcarrot and tree limb approach. Five hundred thousand credits to whomever turns him in. Death to those that hid him and all within one hundred miles if they find Ton’Skel themselves.”
Fargo whistled softly. “That is a lot of credits!” A second later, his mind processed the rest of the statement. “One hundred miles? If he was in a city—”
“The city would be destroyed, everything out to one hundred miles.”
“So Rushing River, my family, Nicole, Holly, the Herms…” Fargo said softly.
“Who actually knows he’s here beside Nicole, OneSvel, Nastass, and the Enclave?”
“That’s it. Nobody else.”
“Nobody at GalPat,” Jace pressed.
Fargo gripped the couch. “Boykin. Warrant Boykin. She’s not the talkative type though.”
“Are you sure?”
Fargo relaxed and chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure. She’s a little redhead with an attitude almost as large as yours. She’s also a combat vet and cool under pressure. You remember her.”
Jace nodded. “Yes, I do. However, external pressure can be exerted.”
“I don’t know. I think she would bow up and die first. She’s…one of the most honorable I’ve seen, right up there with the Ghorka.” He looked around. “Are there any rats on board?”
“Aft of the cockpit, port side, third compartment. Mini-mess. Autochef, e-rats, water, etcetera. Fresher is to the starboard.”
Fargo got up and went back. Opening the compartment, he dialed up a bulb of coffee, grabbed an energy bar, and returned to the cockpit. Slipping back into the couch, he glanced over at Jace and projected, “Can you hear me?”
“Of course. All of my entities can communicate with you like this.”
“I need to go to…Myoto. They are having a problem with animals raiding the towns.”
Jace grinned. “And that has nothing to do with GalScout’s desires, correct?”
It startled Fargo to ‘hear’ that. “How did you know?”
“I know all, I see all, I—”
Fargo sniffed. “Yeah, right. But I still need to go. Problem is, it’s a month long trip and I don’t know how long I need to be there.”
“I can cut eight days off the transit to and from. There is one area that is being…harassed by the animals.”
“What kind of animals?”
“Something like dinosaurs.”
“That’s what they are calling them.”
Fargo mumbled, “Not sure I’ve got enough gun or shoulder for that.”
“Ton’Skel is coming forward.”
“Thank you for the info, Captain.” Fargo turned. “What do you need, Ton?”
“Bathroom and something to drink.”
Fargo pointed them out and said, “I’m going to go back to sleep. I’d suggest you do the same.” Ton’Skel nodded, his mouth full of an energy bar, as Fargo made his way back to his seat.
Seven divs later, Jace sat the shuttle down gently in an open field about a mile from where he had spotted the Silverbacks on the IR system. “This good, Fargo?”
“Perfect. Now we’ll see if they are curious. I’m going to open the hatch, step out, and see if I can sense them as soon as I load my rifle.”
The hatch cracked open, and he stepped cautiously out, extending his empath sense as far as he could. Turning back, he made sure the hatch was closed as he realized he was overdressed for the location. Sweat beading on his head, he finally sensed two Silverbacks approaching the edge of the clearing. One stayed at the far side of the clearing, just deep enough in the trees to not be seen, as the other of the pair slipped around to his right. The one he was facing started to his left, becoming visible through the trees, much like a moving shadow. It finally prowled to the edge of the clearing and yowled. Fargo honored the threat as he tracked the second Silverback to his three o’clock position. Odd, they didn’t completely split. I wish they would hurry up, it’s hot out here, too damn hot! I’m sweating like a nearpig and I really don’t need sweat in my eyes right now. He quickly dried his hands on his pant legs, juggling the rifle as he did so. He used his left sleeve to wipe his forehead, momentarily blocking his view of the one Silverback.
When he dropped his arm back to the rifle, the Silverback was silently charging him and he jerked the rifle up to his shoulder, Dammit, pay attention you stupid sumbitch! He sensed the other Silverback still back in the trees a bit, so he drew down on the charging one. Seven rounds. In order. Left right, left right, center. Almost as fast as he thought it, he fired seven rounds, dropping the Silverback in the grass thirty feet in front of him.
Spinning to his right, he caught the mate as it took its first bound into the meadow. Methodically, he shot seven more times and dropped that Silverback forty feet in front of him. He heard the hatch start opening and yelled, “Close the damn hatch! I need to make sure they are dead! Stay in the damn shuttle!” He saw the hatch cycle back closed and ran toward where the first Silverback had gone down, moving through knee high grass. As he got closer, he swung wide, senses fully extended, but felt only Ton’Skel in the shuttle.
Easing up behind it, he put two rounds into the back of the animal, making sure he aimed at both hearts. Circling toward the second Silverback, he repeated the approach and shots, loaded a new magazine, and made for the shuttle. “Open up, Jace. I’m melting out here.” He saw the ramp come down and Ton’Skel standing at the top of it, almost hopping from foot to foot.
“You got them! I watched it with the captain on the cameras. They did not do as you told me.”
Fargo glanced at him as he stripped off the jacket and underlayers, putting his shirt back on at last. He went to the autochef and got a bulb of enhanced water, drank it, then another before finally slumping on a couch. “What didn’t they do? He asked.
“They did not split completely. They were…maybe one hundred thirty degrees apart.”
Fargo shrugged. “Not all of them do the same thing. Unpredictable is the name of the game.” Looking up, he added, “You might want to get rid of the heavy clothes before we go back out. It’s seventy degrees warmer down here.” Ton’Skel quickly stripped out of his heavy gear, putting on just a shipsuit and waiting impatiently, alternately looking at the closed hatch and Fargo.
“They aren’t going anywhere. I want to rest a minute and let the adrenalin dump get out of my system before I go skin them out.”
Jace stepped out of the cockpit, when into the fresher, did his business, and came back to them. “It might be better to stay here tonight and move in the morning to the second location.”
Fargo nodded. “I still need to skin these two out, and I want to see if anything comes to poach them. If we wait until tomorrow morning, less chance of the other pair setting up on us before I’m ready.” He got up with a groan and picked up his rifle. “Okay, Ton, let’s go see if we can get these two skinned out.”
Two divs later, Fargo and Ton’Skel were back aboard, the two pelts securely stored in a cold compartment on the exterior of the shuttle as the sun set in the east. After a run through the fresher, they sat in two couches at the front of the shuttle and watched the vid screens as some large birds attacked the carcasses of the two Silverbacks. Ton’Skel said, “Big birds. They…” He made a downward motion with his hand.
“Pecking is what it’s called,” Jace said.
“Pecking and rip meat. Jaws very strong!”
“Actually, they are called beaks, Ton, but they are definitely strong. And they have claws on their wings to help them hold on to prey, along with their regular claws on their feet.”
“Many things here have claws,” Ton stated as he inadvertently flexed is claws out.
Fargo yawned and grumbled, “Y’all can talk, just do it quietly, I’m going to sleep now.” He pulled a curtain out of the headrest and over his face as Jace chuckled and Ton’Skel looked over at him.
Early the next morning, Jace lifted the shuttle and moved the two hundred miles to the second location. Due to the rocks, they searched for over a div before finally locating the two Silverbacks on a steep slope above the tree line. The closest landing place was about two miles from them, in a high meadow that dropped off precipitously on one side.
Fargo loaded his rifle and stepped out, scanned the meadow, noting lots of rocks mixed in the scrubby grass, and grimaced. The temps were noticeably colder, and he was laboring to breathe. Lousy footing. Must be fairly high up. Probably over seven thousand feet. Extending his senses, he could not sense the Silverbacks and went back to the shuttle, closing the ramp behind him.
“It’s going to take them a while to get here, if they come. If not, I guess I’ll try shooting them from the ramp.” Slumping in a couch, he said, “Jace, let me know when you spot them on IR, will you? I’m going to take a nap. We’re pretty high up.”
Jace smiled, “I’ll do that, and pressurize so you have more O2.”
Some time later, Ton’Skel lightly tapped his boot. “Captain says he sees them coming down the mountain.”
Fargo groaned and rolled out of the couch. “Thanks, Ton. Guess it’s time to get busy. Lemme hit the fresher and I’ll get out there. Hopefully, this won’t take long.” Ten segs later, he stood facing the direction the Silverbacks were approaching from. Dropping into an almost trance like state, he stood still, waiting. Suddenly, the first Silverback appeared at the edge of the clearing directly uphill from him. It dodged in and out of the trees, moving to his left as it slunk into the meadow.
The second Silverback moved to his right, in the shadows of the trees, but in the meadow. He couldn’t help but worry as he stood there. Should have just shot them off the ramp. This is stupid. Too close. Way too close. Fargo took a deep breath, knowing the attack was coming momentarily, settling himself. As the first Silverback screamed, the second charged from the side. Fargo wheeled, fired seven rounds into that one as it leaped, and stepped back as he spun back the other way, firing seven more rounds into the first Silverback that was almost on him. The Silverback knocked him rolling, and he bounced to his feet as quickly as he could, but neither of the Silverback moved. He stepped around and fired into the aft pelvis of both Silverbacks, his hands shaking on the rifle.
Quickly slapping a new magazine into the rifle, he rotated in a complete circle, his sense extended as far as it would go. He didn’t sense any further predators within range, and he relaxed slightly. Looking up at the ship, he waved, then took out his vibroknife to skin out the Silverbacks.
He heard a roar, turned, and rolled to his feet, rifle in hand as he saw Ton’Skel jump on the back of another Silverback that had come out of nowhere. He froze for a moment, unable to process what he was seeing. Snapping the rifle to his shoulder, he tried to get a shot, but the two rolled and clawed at each other in a furball, moving too quickly for him to take a chance. They were also raising a dust cloud as he dropped the rifle and looked frantically for his vibroknife. I can’t let him get killed! No…not now. He projected, “Jace, I need your help! Ton’s in a fight with a Silverback and I don’t have a shot!”
“Five seconds,” was the answer as he ran toward the roaring, yowling mass. When he got there, he danced around trying to get his knife into action, but his reactions weren’t fast enough. Suddenly there was a loud crack, and the Silverback slumped to the ground. Ton’Skel rolled off it just as Jace pounded up.
Ton’Skel looked up at Fargo. “I…think I killed,” he panted. “First kill.” A clawed hand slipped down to his waist, and Fargo saw blue green blood pulsing from Ton’Skel’s side.
Jace picked Ton’Skel up as if he were a baby, cradling him as he turned and sprinted for the shuttle. By the time he got there, Ton’Skel was lying in a couch as Jace threw the first aid kit at Fargo. “Get him bandaged as well as you can. He’s going to need a medbox sooner rather than later if he’s to survive.” He turned to the cockpit, adding, “As soon as you can, get in a couch and I’ll push the Gs up.”
Fargo realized the shuttle was already moving as he looked down at Ton’s torn abdomen. He slapped bandages on him. “Why in the hell did you do that? That was the stupidest thing…you should have let me die, damn you!” Reaching under Ton’Skel, he put more bandages on his right hip and slumped in the couch next to him, holding an oxygen mask to his face. “In my couch. Do what you need to.” He would have screamed if he could, as the G forces hit. Dimly he thought, Didn’t know this shuttle could do that. Wonder if the Gs will kill Ton before we get to the ship?