Back | Next
Ensign Brainard looked downslope as the warning rang in his ears. With its keen sense of smell, the reptile would track them as inexorably as the tide came in.
OT Wilding leaped down the steep slope, sacrificing himself to the lizard's jaws in order to save the rest of them. Wilding repeated, "Get back!" even while he slid and tumbled along the track the cypress bulldozed.
It would work. The gift of one life would conceal the existence of five more from the short-sighted reptile.
Brainard opened his mouth to shout, "Back from the edge!" to his remaining crew.
Off the beach far below, the vine-covered torpedocraft sat like a flaw against the beautiful water surface, which quivered with the thousand colors of a fire opal.
Ted Holman had sacrificed his life to torpedo the Wieseland save K67 as it fled under Brainard's command. Brainard wasn't going to abandon Hal Wilding as well.
The monitor lizard lifted onto its clawed toes to scramble over the debris. Its great head swung from side to side, bringing one black eye, then the other, to bear on the officer-trainee. It was the tongue, quivering like a fork-tailed serpent, which would guide the beast to its kill.
"Get back!" Brainard shouted to his crew. He leaped down from the crest to rescue his executive officer.
Brainard stayed upright for half the distance. He was running out of control, but his legs pumped swiftly enough that his boots crashed down each time just ahead of his center of mass.
Wilding lay spread-eagled in the muddy saddle. He rose to his hands and knees, then tried to force himself upright with the chewed rifle which he had somehow managed to grip during his fall. Wilding's back was toward the oncoming monster.
A sprig of running cedar, bruised but not destroyed by the avalanche of timber, lifted a feathery frond at motion and the chance of a meal. The tiny suckers on the underside of its leaves slipped from the ensign's heel, but the touch was enough to cost Brainard his balance. Instinct flung his arms and legs out in a grotesque cartwheel which could do nothing to save him.
Brainard hit on his shoulders. He somersaulted, chance rather than skill, until the roots of a tree demolished by the avalanche flung him into the air. He sailed twenty feet, scraped down on his left hip and arm, and rolled sideways into the man he had come to rescue.
"Come on," Brainard said.
Brainard's voice was a whisper because all the breath had been knocked out of his lungs. He stood up, trying to center himself as the universe spun around him. He had to concentrate on the job. Nothing but the job.
The sun seemed brighter. He'd lost his helmet. His rifle and the pack with his extra ammo had gone too, flung off in his chaotic dance downslope.
The laser communicator was still strapped to his chest. It clacked against Wilding's crutch as Brainard tried to grip the officer-trainee for a packstrap carry. Brainard slapped the quick-release buckle and dropped the communicator to which he had clung with hysterical determination from the time they abandoned K67.
"We can't . . . ," Wilding wheezed.
Brainard took a step. His boot slipped. He had to steady himself with his free hand. A curtain of tears and terror turned the torn slope into a gray-green blur.
Another step. Piled timber crashed nearby. A clod of mud jolted Brainard's back.
The stench of death drove aside every other sensory impression. Wilding twisted out of Brainard's grasp. The ensign turned to seize Wilding again and saw the monitor lizard.
The beast's forelegs and belly glistened with mud, but its hooked claws were clean. The beast's scales were knobby and thick enough, even on the wrinkled skin of its long throat, to shatter a rifle bullet.
Not that either man had a working rifle.
The monitor's open mouth stank with the rotting effluvium of its previous meals. Its tongue flicked out once more and sucked back as the beast struck at Wilding.
Wilding thrust the rifle he used for a crutch into the lizard's mouth, wedging it upright between the upper and lower palates. He clung to the prop. The beast hissed like a boiler venting and reached out with its claws.
Brainard shouted. The laser communicator was at his feet. He picked it up by the strap and swung at the monitor's head.
The heavy mace crunched when it hit. The lizard's right foreleg twisted up and back to probe the point of impact. Wilding lost his grip on the rifle and fell down.
Brainard tottered as he tried to lift the communicator for another blow. "Geddown!" screamed Caffey from behind him. Brainard lost his footing as he looked back in surprise.
Caffey's machine-gun roared out a fifty-round burst that emptied the drum magazine and heated the barrel white. Blue-gray smoke from the flash suppressant in the gunpowder spurted around the scene in a bitter cloud.
Blood speckled the monitor's yellow maw and the bullet-drilled dimples in its scales. Several rounds sparked as they punched through the alloy receiver of the rifle in the lizard's mouth. The prop folded as the jaws began to close.
Newton and Wheelwright knelt/sprawled beside Caffey. They were firing also, but their shots were lost in the storm of heavier bullets from the machine-gun.
The injuries might be fatal . . . but a lizard this size would take days to die, even if some of the bullets were lucky enough to penetrate the bone-armored brain. Before that happened
Leaf stepped forward. He thrust, rather than threw, a blob of burning barakite left-handed into the reptile's mouth as the jaws closed. The long, yellow-gray neck spasmed. The lizard's autonomic nervous system caused the throat muscles to squeeze and carry the lethal cargo toward the belly.
Brainard rose into a crouch. He'd lost his pistol, but the butt of Wilding's sidearm still protruded from his holster. Brainard would take that and
A muffled blast knocked all the humans down.
The monitor lizard's writhing body hurtled downslope in a series of convulsions. The monster's head had vanished. A cloud of liquified blood, bone, and flesh covered everything in a fifty-yard circle with pink slime.
The men roused themselves to sitting positions. Everybody seemed to be all right, even Wilding. Hell, even Brainard, except for the ringing in his ears.
Nobody spoke or tried to stand. Below them, the monitor lizard thrashed through the jungle beside the track the cypress had cleared. The beast rolled onto its back repeatedly. The motion flashed its mud-smeared belly scales against the less reflective green-brown mottling of its back and sides.
"I always heard," said Leaf finally, "that if you stepped on barakite while it was burning, it'd blow your goddam foot off. Guess it's not a good idea t' swallow it, neither."
Brainard swallowed. His conscious mind was totally disconnected from his body, but instinct braced him upright and started to bring his feet under him. "I thought I told you to use all the explosive on the cypress," he heard himself say. "So we were sure it went over."
"Sorry sir," the motorman said. "I guess I was in a hurry."
"That's okay," said Brainard.
He stood up and looked toward the top of the ridge. He couldn't imagine how they'd avoided breaking their necks on the steep, muddy slope. There was no way in hell that they could climb it again; nor was there any reason to do so now.
"Right," Brainard said. "We'll head for the other hovercraft now. If we move fast, we ought to be safe enough following where the tree slid."
He eyed a fig that stepped slowly toward them across the cleared swath. The plant tottered forward by extending one slanting root after another, like the legs of a man walking.
"But we better be fast," he added.
"Sir?" asked Wheelwright as he locked a loaded magazine into his rifle. "Is there going to be crew on the boat?"
"No," said Brainard flatly. "There isn't. The vines got them. There may be a working laser communicator, though."
He toed the unit he had carried from K67. The monitor lizard's claws had punched three finger-deep holes through the unit's tough outer casing.
"The other hovercraft . . . ," the ensign added softly, " . . . is K44."
He was dreaming:
The wand of honeysuckle wavered vertically against the opalescent dawn. A seaman fired at it. Three bullets slapped the tough vines and blew away scraps of foliage.
The bolt locked open. The seaman ejected the spent magazine and reached for a fresh one. His ammunition pouches were empty. He began to cry.
The honeysuckle toppled forward. Its upper end scrunched over the hovercraft's bow, forming a bridge to the great mass of the plant trembling across the narrow stretches of sand and surf.
Leaves uncurled from the tip of the bridge. The speed at which the plant moved when driven by the rising sun was as unexpected as it was horrible.
The coxswain stepped close and slashed with a cutting bar. The multistranded vines resisted, but the shrill whine of the bar laid a swatch of the questing tendrils on the deck.
The bridge hunched as though it had nerves rather than tropisms. The coxswain shouted in triumph and took another cut. A tendril he had missed on the first pass wrapped around his ankle.
The man screamed. He chopped downward. His bar hit the deck short of the vine and howled vainly for a moment. Before he managed to free his ankle, three other tendrils gripped the coxswain's waist, left leg, and the wrist of the hand holding the cutting bar. His environmental suit was no protection. Hollow, inch-long thorns sprouted from the base of every leaf.
The coxswain screamed as though he would never stop. The burgeoning vines crept over him like a blanket drawn up to cover a sleeping infant.
A seaman with a knife lurched forward to help. A tendril lifted toward him. The seaman turned and ran.
The screaming did, of course, stop.
Giant crabs crawled in the surf foaming about the hovercraft. Their claws thumped against the skirts, trying to get a purchase on the tough fabric. Occasionally a crab drew itself halfway out of the water. The crustacean always lost its grip because of the plenum chamber's outward batter.
Honeysuckle fanned in a thin sheet across the deck. There was very little waste motion. Tendrils climbed the gun tub and explored its interior. They quickly realized that the warmth which drew them was that of hot metal rather than a source of nutrients.
The twin seventy-fives had twice blasted off the wand of honeysuckle rising on the shore. The big bullets cratered the beach and jungle beyond. Scavengers, drawn to the commotion, now battled on the torn sand.
But the gunner had fired all his ammunition. Minutes later, the crewmen emptied their personal weapons in a volley at the honeysuckle's third attempt to raise a boarding bridge.
Rifle bullets nibbled at but could not sever the thick strands of the vine's core. . . .
The tendrils which wrapped the breeches of the twin seventy-fives, and other vines that reached a dead end, immediately went dormant as the plant withdrew scarce resources. Leaves withered; the stems themselves went brown and brittle-looking.
Other vines humped and curved themselves more quickly, driven by light and drawn by the surviving crewmen huddled together in the stern. The sun was a ball of white heat shimmering through the clouds of the eastern horizon.
There was a slowly-sinking mound of leaves where the coxswain had been. The epithelial cells carrying nutriment back to the core from that writhing pile had a red tinge.
Tendrils washed toward the hovercraft's stern in a sudden wave. The XO batted at a vine with his empty pistol. Foliage curved around his hand and gun like a green glove. He screamed and threw himself over the rail.
A crab sprang up from the surf. It caught the XO's thigh in pincers eighteen inches long. The honeysuckle did not relinquish its hold.
The young officer hung in the air. Vines wrapped his head and shoulders, muffling and finally choking off his screams. The sea beneath him was a froth of crabs struggling in the blood which poured from his severed femoral artery.
More men cried out. It had the whole crew, all but him. The stern rail pressed the small of his back. He drew himself up on it, raising his feet from the deck across which tendrils swept.
A column of honeysuckle rose from the twitching corpse of his motorman. The tip was as tall as his head. It quivered delicately, absorbing the data from sensors which measured temperature, sound waves, and the moisture content of air exhaled from an animal's lungs.
The vine toppled forward. He screamed as the hollow fangs drove into his face and chest. . . .
The door banged open. "Are you all right? Brainard! Are you all right?"
There was a light on in the hallway of the Junior Officer's Barracks. Brainard didn't at first recognize the speaker silhouetted in the doorway, but the hard, familiar lines of his own room brought him around like a douche of cold water.
He sat up. His sheet tangled him. He flung it off. Despite the room's climate control, his body was clammy with sweat.
"Are you all right?" the other man repeated. Lieutenant Dabney, who'd been on the Board of Review that afternoon. . . . He had the room across the hall. His voice was more calm now that he saw Brainard was under control.
"Oh, God," Brainard whispered. He covered his eyes with his hands, then realized that darkness was the last thing he wanted. He switched on the bed lamp.
There were more figures in the hallway. He must have let out one hell of a shout when the honeysuckle wrapped him. . . .
Lieutenant Dabney swung the door closed and knelt beside the bed. "Bad dream?" he asked mildly.
"Wasn't a dream," Brainard whispered. "I was aboard K44. I think I was Ted Holman. They all just died. The sun came up, and the honeysuckle got 'em all."
"Hey," said Dabney, "it was a dream. We all have them."
He patted Brainard's knee, but his grip grew momentarily fierce. "Believe me," Dabney rasped in a bleak voice. "We all have them."
"Oh God," Brainard repeated.
The lieutenant twitched. "Look," he went on, his tone cheerful, reasonable, "don't worry about K44. They took a direct hit. Hell, they probably got caught in the secondary explosions when the Wiesel went up. Instantaneous. A lot better than what happens to civilians, dying by inches in a bed while the medics cluck."
He patted Brainard again and stood up.
"Thanks, sir," Brainard said. "I'm fine. But" He shrugged. "But that isn't what happened to K44's crew," he went on. "They beached their ship. And when the sun came up, the vines got moving."
Brainard smiled. It would have been a friendly expression if his eyes had been focused.
Dabney licked his lips. "Yeah," he said. "Well, if you're okay. . . ."
He reached for the door handle. Before he touched it, he turned and said, "Look, Ensign . . . this isn't exactly my business, but I've been in the Herd longer than you have."
Dabney looked up at the ceiling. He cleared his throat and went on, "Cabot Holman, he's a good officer, don't get me wrong. But he'd always taken care of his kid brother even though there wasn't but three years between them. Ah, nobody's going to think anything's wrong with you if you decided to transfer out of hovercraft. Or. . . ." Dabney met Brainard's eyes. He relaxed visibly to see that the ensign's expression was normal again. "Or look, you could just transfer to some four-boat element besides the one that Holman commands. Okay?"
Brainard stood up. "No, that's okay," he said. "I appreciate what you're saying, but I'll do the job in front of me. Understand?"
Nobody could misunderstand the sudden crispness of Brainard's voice.
"Sure," agreed Dabney with a false smile. He opened the door, stepped through it, and closed it behind him in the same fluid motion.
Brainard sighed. He turned and unpolarized his outside window.
The sky was opalescent. Hafner Base was to the west of the Gehenna Archipelago. Dawn would have broken over the myriad small islands there half an hour earlier.
Back | Next