Authors: Stephen W. Bennett
Koban Universe 1
By Stephen W Bennett
Koban Universe 1
Text copyright © 2014 Stephen W Bennett
All Rights Reserved
Cover art designed byMisha Coutinho Richet,
These storiestake place in the Koban Universe
and are derived from the Koban series of books.
This eBook is licensed for your personal use and enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy from a distributor.
Thank you for respecting the months of long and hard work of the author.
This book is written in “American” English, so there may be some differences in spelling and usage than in other countries use of the language.
This is a work of fiction and all characters are fictitious or are portrayed fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
ContentsThe Australian KrallBats of a Leather Flock TogetherKobani Kiddie CappersThe Smuggler and the Crime LordThe Australian Krall
Maggi Fisher had taken her friends advice, she went exploring on her hundred and twelfth birthday. Not that she looked her age. The latest round of genetic modifications had age regressed her, so that she looked less than a decade older than the two gene modified teenagers she took with her.
Cory Martin and Danner Greeves had received theirown gene upgrades five months ago, right after their sixteenth birthday, the legal age of consent for making that decision. They wouldn’t notice the effects of the age limiting modification before age twenty-five. No one (not the adults, anyway) wanted someone around with life-long youthful hormones ruling their passions, exhibiting reckless behavior, and having a know-it-all attitude. That sort of behavior was reserved for powerful politicians.
This mismatched human trio was accompanied by two rippers, the huge tiger-liketeal colored carnivores from the largest continent of the planet Koban. Kally and Kopper was an unmated young pair of those sentient predators, along for an adventure.
The sole mature member of the partyfound she had to cope with more than the normal dangers of exploring a large wild island. The nearly continent sized island was being called New Australia, mainly because it was shaped somewhat like a bent rectangle, and was in the southern hemisphere of the planet.
Standing beside the still yet-to-be-unloaded shuttle,Maggi was already questioning her sanity at agreeing to take on this “adventure.” Both boys and the two cats had immediately vanished into a forest, which surrounded the large clearing where they had landed.
To be fair to the four youngsters, Maggihadasked them to get out and scout the immediate surrounding for threats. However, she hadn’t expected them to disappear into the woods, racing to see who could reach the edge first. The decaying dome at the center of the mile wide clearing was what she had expected them to explore first.With her!
The dilapidated structurewas another of the long abandoned habitats of the Krall, the large reptilian aliens that were at war with humanity. They had abandoned this savage heavy gravity world until they could selectively breed, and evolve to live and compete here, many generations in the future. The Krall were conducting a slow war of extinction in far distant Human Space, using their combat deaths to cull poor warriors, as they fought and killed entire human populations, to improve their breed of warriors.
Human combat test subjects, left behind on Koban to die when the Krall left nearly twenty-three years ago, had managed to solve their survival problems here with biotechnology. Specifically, extensive gene modifications. They had selectively employed genes from several Koban predators, to make a new race of the Homo sapiens species, which they called Kobanoid. Fully compatible to intermarry and reproduce with the other races of man.
The Kobanipeople now had an incredibly fast reacting organic superconducting nervous system, the carbon fiber muscles of the rippers, the night vision and enhanced sense of smell of those cats. Possibly the greatest physical gift from the rippers were the genes for contact telepathy. The cats used physical contact via a fleshy neck frill, to exchange thoughts and images with each other, and to sense the thrill of the kill from their dying prey when touched.
Humans,although a proven violent species, were not interested in sensing the terror a kill experienced as it died. Instead, they used their hands to touch each other to communicate telepathically, sending and receiving, pictures, emotions, and language, the latter only if the being they touched spoke a language. This communication worked between any species.
TheKobani had also borrowed the ultrasonic hearing of an airborne Koban predator, the wolfbat, and had incorporated genes for carbon nanotubes found in whiteraptors, to make their bones stronger, more flexible, and thus far more difficult to break. These traits combined to make them fully capable of competing with the fast, strong, high gravity native life of Koban, and so humans finally flourished here.
Thiscurrent trip of exploration was one that Maggi’s other scientist friends had suggested she needed (and they secretly needed a break from her complaints of boredom). Everyone would benefit from knowing more about their lightly populated, partially explored world. Since this wasn’t suitable for a one-woman project, she sought other participants, and invited those that had free time to go with her. That proved to be only two boys who were between school sessions, sons of her closest friends. In addition, she found two young-adult rippers that wanted to go along for the exploration and hunting. Sometimes you take what you can get.
Looking at thetall trees, with dark blue leaves and thick black trunks, the sinister looking forest had swallowed up her enthusiastic but reckless young team. She shook her head. “I might as well have come alone.” She often grumbled to herself, when there was no one else to listen.
“I didn’t expect the cats to do much to help make camp, but those two damned boys could save me some back strain.”
She said this as sheeasily tossed an Earth-weight two hundred pound case of supplies out onto the teal colored grass and watched it slide ten feet, imparted with the force of her annoyance. On Koban, the case weighed the equivalent of three hundred Earth pounds. The pretty and petit woman hadn’t even needed to strain as she lifted the large heavy box. She just liked to gripe, and missed having someone present to listen.
She unloaded several moreheavy boxes of camping gear, before she heard the first sounds from the direction of the dome.
There had beenbird-like noises coming from the woods as soon as the rear hatch was opened. There also were tantalizing new scents on the breeze, which was blowing from the direction of the trees. She and the two boys were sensitive to the same smells available to the rippers, but their nasal passages didn’t contain as many receptors as did the much larger heads and nostrils of the cats, and thus the aromas were not quite as rich to them.
No sooner had she said, “Go out and scout the area for anything big and dangerous,” than all four of them were shoving to see who would get out of the hatch first.
Now, looking towards the dome more carefully, she saw that some of the armored window glass sections were missing. They had sprung from their frames and fallen to the dirt blown landing area of the old tarmac pavement. The half dozen openings she saw on this side of the structure would let in all manner of birds, and any animal that could climb that high. There had to be other such chance openings around the curvature of the structure’s sides, which she couldn’t see. There were four major entrances, which also might have been left open. Storms in Koban’s dense, oxygen rich atmosphere pushed with greater force here than on lighter gravity planets. Without periodic maintenance over the last hundred or so years, the support frames of the abandoned dome had gradually shifted and warped slightly. Widows had come loose.
The noise sheheard came from the direction of the dome, and she realized it was in the ultrasonic range of her newly adapted wolfbat hearing. She glanced to the sky automatically, to see if there were any wild wolfbat squadrons circling overhead. If any lived on this island, they wouldn’t have a truce agreement with humans, making people simply new prey animals for them.
However, there were none to be seen circling overhead. Shecould hear their ultrasonic calls, and if they dived on her, their echolocations of the distance to her would be a warning of their approach. She was armed, faster than they were by a significant margin, and considerably stronger. She’d hate to have to kill any of them, since she considered those at home almost pets. Nevertheless, some faint sound in the ultrasonic range had echoed through the empty passages of that dome, making its way to her ears.
She recalled what she heard, her memory organization having been improved by wolfbat sound processing and storage. The sound she’d heard wasn’t grouped like a multipart wolfbat cry. The dog-sized fliers didn’t have a true language, but every flock they had ever encountered had a considerable repertoire of complex calls, which produced cooperative action between squadrons of hunters, and between individuals of the flock.
The sound she had heard just now was less…;articulatewas the word that came to her. More like a noisy squawk than communication.
Glancing back atthe woods, she didn’t see anything unusual there. Certainly, not her co-explorers returning, who had likely been drawn into some impromptu hunt by the cats. This big island was isolated from the closest continental land mass by hundreds of miles of ocean. The animals isolated here were expected to have evolved to be quite different from those they knew on the three major continents, even if some of those species had managed to drift across the ocean on storm debris, over the long passage of time.
The birds and small flying reptiles they had seen darting about had appeared similar to those found elsewhere. Many of them probably migrated seasonally. They were much the same as those at home, even if sporting different colors and plumage, and had different songs, calls, or squawks. Actually, the large number of small flying creatures spoke against there being a flock of wolfbats in the dome, or even a nest nearby. Those animals preyed on other fliers, and kept the numbers down wherever a flock was found.
She couldalways use the transducer, embedded behind her right ear, to call to the two boys, so long as they stayed within a roughly twenty-mile transmission range. She wasn’t worried about them being out in the strange woods. Both boys were armed, and had two seriously dangerous predators with them as guardians and companions. That was if they even encountered anything too tough for them to handle on their own. They had returned from an expedition to Jura continent two weeks ago, having traveled with a larger party, and their fast reactions and deadly aim had been demonstrated multiple times on that trip.
There were K-Rex, raptors, huge carnivorousplesiosaurson Jura, and other dangerous large and fast moving dinosaur analogues. That continent was surely a more dangerous place than this island. Arial surveillance and satellite imaging had not found any huge prey animals, and without those, there would be no need for predators to grow to giant size.
Maggiheard faint ultrasonic echoes again through the openings in the dome sidewalls. She made up her mind. She was here to explore, and that’s what she was going to do!
Talking to herself she muttered, “I’m going to see what lives inside that cavernous old domeright now. The boys will just have to set up camp alone when they get back.”
Thetwo teens had bragged they knew how to do it like pros, after their camping trip and exploration up the Ricco River on Jura continent. If they wanted to sleep off the ground and inside a tent tonight, they’d damn well have to prove their boast. She locked the shuttle hatch and recoded the door with a simple four number code, doing it out of a smidgen of spite. The food was still inside, so it was a case of no-work-no-eat! She left them plenty of bottled water.
As any Kobani did, despite gene mod strength and fast reactions, she checked her two pistols. One was an old Krall made pistol, which fired caseless rocket propelled ammunition. She checked her fanny pack, holding eight magazines of sixteen-rounds each, making sure they were all full, and that she had soft nose slugs (for blunt force stopping power), armor piercing (if some thick skulled, or heavily muscled animal appeared), and one magazine of explosive rounds, just to make her feel complete. Her other hand weapon was a .45 automatic, a human made weapon. She had a spare thirteen round magazine for that, and ammo inside the shuttle.
The Krallpistol had nearly no kick because of the rocket propelled ammunition, and it was ultra-light weight. However, the .45 was a more comfortable fit riding against her hip, because the Krall weapon was bulkier. Maggi was more than strong enough to handle a larger bore weapon than the .45, but strength alone couldn’t keep the kick from jolting her slight built frame back sharply after each shot.
Both boys had carried their .50 semiautomatic rifles with them, as well astwo pistols each, and there was a third rifle still here, for her. If the dome doors were locked, she considered the jump and climb she expected to make to reach the lowest opening on this side of the dome, where a third level window had fallen to the ground. At fifty-seven inches, the length of the .50 caliber bolt-action rifle was too close to her five feet two inches. The weight of it wasn’t a consideration for her, but having that length slung across her back could be. She left it in its case.
Besides, she wasn’t goinghunting; she wanted to see what sort of birds had taken up residence in the old dome, and were making those high frequency squawks. She patted the hunting knife strapped on her right calf to confirm it was secure, and started to trot towards the dome, only a quarter mile distance.
There was small brush and grassgrowing in the thin layer of dirt that had blown over the wide circular landing pad pavement surrounding the dome, but no trees. Those had halted their relentless advance at the outer edge of the partly buried landing field. There was a half-mile of light teal colored grass on the open ground around the building, all that the thin soil covering would support.
As she neared thebuilding, even her enhanced vision didn’t reveal a great deal inside the shadows of the missing windows. Dirt and dust had partly covered the intact windows ages ago, and relatively dim light leaked through them now. Out here in the sun, her ripper vision wasn’t adapted for that interior dim light. It would adjust immediately to the lower light levels, once she was inside.
Despite the shadows, she caught sight of something small and gray, which swiftly pulled back into a darker area. It seemed to startout moving on four limbs, and then rose up onto the rear set just as it vanished. It was a bit smaller than a wolfbat, and the brief glimpse showed it had a different body type, because there was no flight membrane stretched between the limbs.
Shesuddenly pulled up short and muttered. “Huh! They left the doors open.” She had just discovered that several of the ground level doors, under the overhang of the closest garage entrance were standing ajar. No need to jump up to scramble through a broken window. The doors of every other abandoned dome on Koban had been closed against the elements, and most were even locked.
The rifle would have been no encumbrance to carry by this route, but it didn’t seem worth returning for it now. She still wasn’t going hunting.
As she neared the closest door, which wasstanding open by almost two feet, she drew her .45. As her thumb pressed, and thenslidthe safety forward, the small power pack in the gun butt also chambered the first round with a soft clicking. Fast reactions or not, there was no reason not to be prepared.
In the shadeof the overhang, her eyes quickly adapted. In the dust below the doorframe was a jumble of scuffs and marks. The small looking prints were indistinct, but there had been a lot of traffic through this doorway. A dome like this, if left open, made a great den for small animals to hide from their predators. It did occur to her that a den this large might also be home for some large predators.
Looking through the gap, there was only open floor visible, so she used one hand to push the door open wider. It pivoted on the hinges easily, without sticking or making a squeak. Krall construction used a composite form of carbon on door hinges, which appeared to be self-lubricating with a form of graphite. The ease of movement didn’t seem particularly odd. Unless perhaps the dome was old (it was), or if the doors were used far more frequently than expected.
She looked to each side and up, before sticking her head through the opening. Nothing waiting, and even the maintenance shop here appeared more barren that she had encountered at a half dozen other old domes. The Krall were wasteful, and often left behind useful items, such as their computers (rather poor quality anyway), trucks with fusion bottle power (very sturdy), and a small amount of furniture, broken weapons, old body suit uniforms or damaged armor. None of that was evident here.
She walked through what would be a maintenance area for vehicles at most domes, or a storage area for supplies, such as ammunition or small arms. The line of tough window material, which normally lined the next wall inside, had all been smashed, and the large wide swinging doors were torn off the hinges and piled haphazardly near a sidewall. There wasn’t enough undisturbed dirt here to leave identifiable individual tracks on the floor. There clearly was a considerable amount of traffic through the doors at times, but there wasn’t a sign of life at the moment. Not even the insects she expected to see, also unusual for as long as the place had been open to whatever wanted to enter.
Passing through a broken doorwayin the back wall, she walked along the corridor to the next set of destroyed doors, which led down a wide passage towards the large hall or auditorium that was always at the center of one of these domes. There appeared to have been some sort of fighting here, long ago, from the amount of dust accumulated on the broken windows and doors she saw on the floors. The debris had been moved to the sides, but not cleaned up, and no repairs started.
There was still no sign of another of the little gray creatures, like the one she had seen through the third level opening earlier. She had not heard another sound, other than her own muffled movements, and the sound of wind whispering through the hallways. That air movement proved there were other openings out of here, or the breeze couldn’t flow through so continuously.
When she reached the central hall, she saw her first signs of life. Or rather, there were many signs of past life. There was a disorderly pile of bones, filling almost a third of the central area’s floor, stacked three times her own height at the center. She pivoted in place, looking all around, seeing or hearing nothing alive.
The typical ring of eight elevators was spaced around the wall of the hall, placed midway between each of the radial passageways that led in to here. They were all closed. There were stairways built next to each elevator. In this dome, the stairs led up, and descended down into darkness. This building apparently sat over one of the underground Krall factories, which would have once been operated by a slave race. The Krall only fought, they didn’t make anything but war, and lay eggs to make more Krall.
She stepped several feetover to the closest bones, and saw that they were not only old but were clearly animal bones, and had been broken open to get to the marrow. None of the bones or skulls was of animals instantly recognizable to her. That wasn’t surprising, since they knew little about the animals on the island anyway.
Maggi was mystifiedby the macabre display of bones. What animal would, or could, pile them up like this? Rising from the broad base of the pile, the bones at the peak would have needed to be thrown over fifty feet to reach up there. Four legged predators like a ripper, or a swamp dog, didn’t have that sort of dexterity using only jaws. A wolfbat could drop them from the air, but she was confident none lived near here. Why a predator would trash, or decorate was a better word, their den this way was another question.
As she skirted thepile, staying near the closed elevator doors and wall, the breeze flowing from the passage she had entered by finally brought her a scent of the death all so evident, as she went halfway around the large room. The outer bones, those at the base of the pile, were old and desiccated, with little odor. As she moved downwind of the stack, the odor grew stronger. It was chillingly familiar.
She drew herother pistol, and sought the source of the smell she recognized.
Looking higher, the evidence wasin plain sight, scattered on the topmost layers of the heap of bones. They were so mixed and jumbled that they had not registered as different from the animal bones lower down. The evidence also formed the freshest new top layers.
Onesmall, cracked open skull was peering at her, from where it had been tossed after the brains and flesh were stripped and eaten.
A young Krall.
It had been probably eight or nine years of age, old enough to start early warrior training, and subject to the brutal culling administered by the adult trainers. There had been no Krall trainers on Koban for twenty-three years. Furthermore, this particular dome, the only one on New Australia, had clearly been abandoned about a hundred years ago. Yet she estimated this skull was on a living creature less than aweekago.
Peering closer, she saw that there wereat least a hundred such small skulls amid the tangle, and a few significantly larger ones, which would correspond to a slightly older Krall of novice age. All of them having been killed and eaten, with their bones tossed here. The symmetrical pile suggested that the remains had been tossed there from every side, and the high central point was equidistance from the railings of the three rings of balconies around the hall.
She was sure the feasters had had ringside seatsas they added to the pile. There was also no doubt as to who the killers were. Feral Krall infested this island.
They would haveoriginally hatched from a deserted nest of probably one low status Krall female, possibly two or three, and after a century, the offspring had to be seriously inbred. The deadly but untrained aliens would grow and reproduce unchecked, and might eventually swarm over an entire continent or perhaps a whole planet if all of the landmasses were connected.
On nearly any planet but Koban, they would kill and eat every animal encountered, and eventually have only each other to eat. On the larger landmasses here, the high gravity prey animals were extremely fast and tough, and their predators even more so. Feral Krall couldn’t spread very far against that competition. This isolated island might be a different case, and vulnerable to being overran.
The largerKrall bones, literally teenagers it appeared, probably ate hatchlings when nearby game grew sparse. Any fight between a pair of older Krall would lead to a least one set of larger bones on the pile. The adults, those that survived to that stage, must have to move out in ever widening circles to hunt for diminishing prey each day. Those surviving until about eleven to twelve years old could breed with a sibling, and the females would lay clutches of as many as twenty eggs.
Maggi considered the mathand time span a moment. Proof that all of those hatchling femalesdidn’tlive to reproduce and find enough food, was the fact there had beenroomto even land here by this dome. If only twenty eggs (with ten females hatched, on average), had each laid twenty more eggs every twelve years, for a hundred years, the island would be hip deep with Krall. However, the survival rate of hatchlings was an unknown factor here.
Eachround of new hatchlings would fight each other, and eat anything they could find or kill, and were subject to predation from older Krall, and from Koban predators when they went outside. That must be why there were no insects in this charnel house. They were food. The smaller Krall would also have to learn to hide from the hungry larger ones, unless starving and they had the numbers to try to take a bigger one down.
That figure I saw was one of the small onesshe thought. It feared being seen by me…
“Wait.” She interrupted her own train of thought aloud. “Even small, these are Krall! Those little shits are not afraid ofme. Simply looking for an advantage.”
Looking at where she stood, that advantage came to her.“Damn! I’m in the middle of their turf, alone.”
Confirmation came inthe flurry of ultrasonic sounds that her voice provoked. From the passageway she had just traversed, scrabbling taloned feet and high frequency gibberish issued forth. More of the same came from the other passageways, and some from above on the balconies. They had done what adult Krall warriors, in their arrogance of superiority, rarely did. Sprang a trap. This may be how they had killed a few of the larger Krall examples on the bone pile.
Thenaked ones she suddenly saw climb on the railings were more than hatchlings, but slightly smaller than a novice warrior. These were not speaking anything that sounded like language, just making angry, competitive sounding cries, without lower frequency sounds mixed in with them. They must have learned that making low frequency sounds spooked hearing limited prey prematurely. Maggi was definitely spooked with what shecouldhear. It sounded as if there were quite a few of them.
Looking for a route forescape, she headed for the closest stairs, planning to shoot her way up the steps, intending to exit through one of the outer wall openings. As she turned that way, one of the young Krall directly above her leaped from the second level rail, straight down at her. She shot it through its gaping, tooth-filled mouth, while it was in mid ultrasonic screech.
The loud reportof the .45 ended the low frequency sound restrictions, when that dead, five-foot killer smacked into the floor, a future dinner for others. There were impressive roars of anger from those that witnessed the killing. They might not feel individual loyalty when they ate that dead clan mate, but peer pressure and instinct said they couldn’t tolerate the existence of prey animals that attacked them.
Five moreof the pre-novice aged Krall launched from the railings, just as more turned the corners of the nearest radial corridors. She calmly picked off all five that were dropping towards her, headshots each, and stepped away from where she had been standing, to let the corpses land there. Their leaps were as accurate as any adult’s would have been, right on target.
For mostsentient creatures, six noisily delivered deaths would probably have turned them back, or at least caused them to pause. If anything, she appeared to have triggered a berserker’s rage that she had only heard described. The lower pitched screams of rage were nearly as loud as any delivered by an adult. If they had been armed with guns, she’d already be dead. Only a few older ones even carried a club.
If she was going to get away, she needed to find a route outnow, or a secure place to stand them off while she called for backup. Her mind in high gear, she decided that the swarming balconies were no safer than the ground floor, and the radial passageways were filling with them, funneling them into the hall. There had to be many hundreds of them.
She couldn’t help her next wry thought.How the hell did they plan to divide me up? A bite apiece?
As she fired the Krall pistoleight times to make a lane, she stepped over bodies and moved past the front of a closed elevator door. On a wild hunch, she holstered the .45 in a blur, and stuck a finger in a talon hole on the call panel to see if the door would whisk open. It didn’t. No power, of course. Probably being backed into a box with no way out wasn’t a good idea anyway.
Down! There were none of the maniacal horrors coming up from below, and plenty coming down the stairs.She drew the .45, and both guns blazing, one with a SWOOSH, the other BLAM, she accurately plowed her way through the dozen midsized Krall leaping and rushing down from the upper levels. Her eyes already adapted to lower light, she saw no sign of heat signatures below, or movement in the dimmer light. When she entered the darkness, her eyes would adapt more to the lower light, giving her the full night vision of a ripper.
Holstering the .45 again,she leaped down to the first landing where the stairs turned, and swapped the magazine on the Krall pistol even before lightly touching down on the balls of her feet. There were Twenty-nine rounds gone, twenty-five Krall dead and four with serious head wounds. She knew that her remaining ammunition wasn’t enough, even at the same efficient one-shot-one-down rate, to keep her alive for another fifteen minutes. Not if the berserker’s rage of the feral Krall continued to drive them to kill her at any cost.
“Link to Team.” The transducer, a rice grain sized device buried behind her right ear, would use that audio cue to connect to Cory and Danner, if they were within range.
She didn’t wait for an acknowledgement and she stared talking.“Boys, I found feral Krall inside the dome. I need your help to get out.”
The answer wasrelatively quick, but for someone with an organic superconducting nervous system, the delay of almost three seconds was very noticeable. The signal, as she descended below the metal framework of the dome and flooring, with a steel ceiling now over her head, was weaker than if relayed by the transmitter of an Artificial Intelligence on a spacecraft. They were relying on the signal strength of only their small transducers, perhaps twenty miles in open territory. She was underground and they were in dense woodlands.
Coryanswered her, and the signal was weak and broken. “Aunt Maggi, we found …em too. We’re fighting… way… to the shuttle. We didn’t take… ammunition…us, so we’ll reload, lift off…., laser… way through …., …et to you. Tel…where you are.”
Maggi was shocked by, and ashamed of her earlier display of spite and pettiness. Not because they had encountered other Krall,she hadn’t caused that, but by the instant realization that she had locked the shuttle hatch with a new code, to force them to set up the camp before they ate. The small amount of spare ammunition was locked inside with the food. They never expected a fight.
She could hear the Krall’s talons on the stairs above her, so going back up to improve reception would expose her to dozens of them, leaping down the stairs at her. She stood her ground a moment, firing accurately around the corner and up the stairs.
“Cory, the new code for the hatch is two one four one, the hatch code is two one four one. Do you hear me?”
“… what? … we…”
She couldn’t remain this far up the steps to hear what else he might have said in that broken transmission. She fired her last round from the .45, then used its butt to smash in the skull of a four foot, red eyed little demon. It had suddenly leaped down onto the back of the corpse she had just created. Between its grasping talons, her hand flashed out and back before it could close its grip. After that, the deep pistol butt shaped dent between its blazing red eyes occupied what little mind it had left.
She whirled and leaped down anotherentire flight, as the thuds of her pursuers struck the landing she had just vacated. There was no more ammunition for the smaller gun, so she holstered that and snapped the retainer while she leaped down another flight, firing the Krall pistol again as she did. The .45 could always be a short club if needed, since those boney heads were hard on your bare hands.
Thefaded light from above illuminated the open stairwell, enough for her night vision to see two more flights left, before reaching the first level of the factory. That was always where administrative offices for the slave managers were located. The Krall didn’t go in for safety railings, so slipping over the side was a possibility if you went too fast. The sound of several snarling bodies falling past her on the right, demonstrated that fact. If they survived the fall in the 1.52 g’s of Koban gravity, they’d try to intercept her when she reached the bottom.
She couldn’t see very far away from the pool of dim light around the stairs. Had she been reliant on her normal human vision, she would be all but blind, with only the faint glow above revealing the shadows of the hell that was coming for her.
When she reached the last landing, the heavy thudding sounds of two other Krall landing to the sides of the stairwell told her more were down ahead of her. Unlike trained warriors, these advertised their presence and intentions with deep-throated screams. The two closest ones moved towards the base of the steps from her right.
She could seeboth were limping, with an obviously broken leg for one, because she could see a bone protruding. Krall were bred to ignore pain, and had and astounding ability to halt bleeding. These were likely the first two that had plummeted past her, with the longest drop. They retained the natural physical gifts bred into them, and had landed on their feet, even if striking with a force greater than their thick muscular legs could absorb.
Twohalf-grown Krall had jumped down to her left to try to get ahead of her, or perhaps they were pushed off by the press of bodies. No matter how it happened, they were attempting to cut off her retreat from the two larger Krall.
She kept track of every roundfrom each magazine, and had two left in this one, with four targets below her. In training, she was told to swap magazines more often, to avoid running empty. However, with her speed of reloading, the lack of armed opponents, and her limited ammunition, she intended to use every single shot she had. One-on-one, she could probably defeat and kill a full-grown warrior with her hands. However, she couldn’t afford to let them slow her down while others closed the gap.
Her next direction to run was chosenfor her by the two cripples. She shot the two healthy ones, as they came into the light from her left, a slug through an eye for each. Then pulled her knife from its calf sheath, and made a running leap from the landing that took her in a high summersault over the two cripple’s up-reaching arms. She figured correctly that they couldn’t jump high, and would be too slow. When she was inverted over their heads, she reached down in a flashing motion and lopped off extended fingers, on both hands for one of them, and on a single hand of the other. The molecular thin edge, and hardened blade, could significantly scour most metals. Flesh and bone wasn’t much of an obstacle. Using knives on human captives was a warrior’s entertainment for the trained killers. This was not fun for her, simply self-defense.
Her memory of the standard layoutof Krall factories, told her this corridor split in three directions at the base of each set of stairs. She could go left, right, or straight away from the last step. She had chosen the right side, because the two slowed cripples she jumped over were to her right. This would circle her towards the next stairs along the corridor ring that passed behind the elevator shafts. The inbred undisciplined beasts all seemed to have charged to the same stairway where she had descended. She imagined it was similar to being pursued by the Krall equivalent of Neanderthals, if even that bright.
There wereno sounds from ahead of her in the nearly inky darkness, where a pale glow of dim light came down the next stairwell.
She noticed that her Infrared vision, somewhat less sensitive than that of the Krall, was detectingsmall heat related contrasts along conduits and dead light fixtures on the walls. These helped guide her around the gentle curve. She didn’t make any more sound than necessary, but those after her didn’t need to hear her footsteps to guide them. They could literally follow their noses. Her own sense of smell was claimed to be equal to that of the Krall, but huntingthemdown in the dark wasn’t her problem. They only needed to follow the single scent that was hers.
They were followingnoisily after her now, and she intended to stay far enough around the curve to avoid a direct IR image of her heated body. With her enhanced metabolism, she’d be quite visible in the dark. She put on a burst of speed to get to the second junction around, and pressed her hand hard against the inner wall, dragging it and building friction.
When she reached theselected junction, she passed the open stairwell, and dragged her hand along the wall on the other side, then lightly lifted it as she went. She next whirled and backtracked, to dive through the open radial corridor that led straight away from the bottom of the steps. She jumped as far as she could down that corridor to avoid a heat spot where she touched the deck. If she’d timed it right, she made the turnoff before the first of her chasers could catch a glimpse of her around the curve.
Not that she waited to see. This passage intersected with another concentric ring corridor in roughly twenty feet, and she made a left turn into that one before the sounds of pursuing growls and inarticulate grunts passed where she had made herjump. As she had hoped, momentum kept them moving straight, and the scent trail continued briefly.
Most tellingfor them was the faint IR glowing streak, which she’d left on the right side wall, focusing their attention to that side and away from her true direction. Even when the warm streak faded, the push of the mass behind the leaders moved them farther in the wrong direction. When the scent and IR streak ended, they had to shove to go back the way they came. Lacking language, they couldn’t communicate other than by clubbing those in their way, and displaying the signs that the trail had gone cold.
Soon, her new scent trail direction attracted Krall who had been farther back in the pack, and they moved into the correct corridor.By then, Maggi had made another two turns and had gained some separation. It was effectively pitch black for visible light, and the temperature differences of the structure around her was largely based on the heat conductivity of the materials used. She had a memory of factory layouts from having been inside several other underground facilities, and this level was more or less a standard layout for any of them. Two levels down, the factory would open out into larger high ceilinged production and assembly areas, with hoists and abandoned machinery lining wide and open pathways between various manufacturing stations.
There was no way of knowing what the clan that had once lived here had forced their alien slaves to make for them. However, there would be many levels below her, and huge high ceiling areas that spanned four or five levels. There was ample room to try to avoid the Krall, but eventually she’d run out of ammunition, and they would finally sniff her out and corner her in the dark. Being faster and stronger did not trump sheer numbers.
Thiswasn’t a matter of heroically selling her life for a good cause in the war with the Krall. These were inbred dregs, left behind with no regard for what the unchecked progeny could do life on an isolated land mass, like this island. On any of the other three continents, these primitive acting Krall throwbacks would already be dead, unable to compete with the larger and tougher animals found there. In the end, they probably couldn’t beat out Koban life on this island either. The dome had provided them a refuge from predators that might pass this way. When the normal prey animals diminished from over hunting, the Koban predators would discover a taste for Krall flesh.
None of those thoughts helped Maggi with her own predicament. She didn’t see this ending in a triumphant victory over a pack of wild Krall. There wasnothing for her to gain in this fight, or for the rest of the Kobani on the planet, regardless of how many of this plague of killers she took down with her. Besides, she had placed her companions at risk, because of her irrational feeling of annoyance. What had shethoughtthose four youngsters would do? She sent them off with no instructions at all, except to “scout for threats.” She could have Mind Tapped them in a few seconds with a touch, telling them to stay close, and return quickly.
Now she was going to diedown here, and they might die trying to reach her. She didn’t want their bones to join the pile with hers, although she couldn’t think of a way to get high enough to improve the weak signal of their transducers. She had lost the signal at about thirty feet below the main floor, when she was still close to the open stairwells. That was a direction closed to her now, at least if she wanted to delay her death. Despite the darkness, her IR vision component could guide her. There were other stairs (also next to dead elevators) closer to the center of every Krall factory complex. She went in search of one of those now.
When she reached the nextset of stairs, she knew that the stale, unstirred air here had put her pursuers on her trail again. Wherever she went, some scent would lead them. She was wearing a light jacket, because this island was so far south that it had cool night breezes, coming off the polar ocean currents that flowed past. She started down the stairs, seeking some place she could leave the jacket as a distraction.
As she descended, the walls gave way to a vast feelingof space, where there were echoes from the blackness around her, sounds of condensation drips, and the smell of mustiness. The lack of visual temperature contrasts close to her, for easy reference when she entered the large open volume, caused her to experience a momentary sense of vertigo. She couldn’t orient herself properly, and the lack of stair rails could send her off the side of the steps if she wasn’t careful.
When she adjusted her focus, she realized thereweretemperature variations detectable farther across the vast feeling space. Old machinery, walkways between them, power and cooling lines, conveyer systems, and structural members could faintly be discerned. The Krall, with their more sensitive IR vision would be able to move faster here than she could. The ripper genes conveyed superior low natural light vision, because they never hunted in total darkness, as she was in now. She had to pay close attention to where she walked, to stay centered on the steps.
When she reached the wide walkway at the bottom of these steps, she touched some of the machinery. It felt damp and gritty to the touch, with flakes coming lose between her fingers.There had been no maintenance here for a very long time, and unseen rust probably coated many of the metal parts, catwalks, and support beams.
She walked between tall mysteriouspieces of equipment, and turned down several side walkways, to get her heat signature out of sight of the stairs, once her chasers reached this far. They were coming, because she could hear them.
Ah. They’re back to using the natural cunning displayed when I first entered the dome,she noted. They had stopped making low frequency sounds, which most animals on Koban could hear, and were using only ultrasonic gabble. It still sounded like nonsense, but it was clear they wanted to sneak up on their prey, unaware that her wolfbat gene modifications let her hear them coming.
They were so confidant she couldn’t hear them, that they were being very noisy. To better sense from which way they were approaching, she closed her eyes and simply listened. She had a clue to orient herself, because they would be trailing her by scent, and would be descending the same stairs she hadjust used. As the first of them reached the top of the steps, the echoes of their multiple voices started echoing all through the cavernous volume, reflecting from the walls, machinery, and catwalks.
A peculiar sensation pervaded her mind, as the sounds reflected and reverberated. She had a definite sense not only of where they were, behind and above her on the stair top, but they were over her right shoulder. As she turned her head, the echoes arriving at slightly different times and from different directions, she believed she could pinpoint their location. Not only that, but she could visualize her own catwalk, and the huge hydraulic press she was concealed behind.
Press? How do I know that?It dawned on her that the shape she sensed next to her, in her mind, fit the design of other Krall factory equipment she had seen in operational factories. She sensed an opening in the side of the press, where material to be shaped would be placed. Quietly, she stepped closer and, eyes still closed, reached a hand out and precisely touched the edge of that recess. She hadn’t needed to fumble. She had found it easily with her eyes closed. She cautiously moved down the walkway several steps, and with more confidence, reached out and touched the other side of that opening.
She was forming a more detailed image of her surroundings by the second, as the echoes arrived, and were placed in some sort of order in her mind. She had no idea how it was happening, but the ability was certainly familiar to her. She had Mind Tapped wolfbats many times, after they had scouted for them, to provide the human partners with their mental images of what they had seen. Part of those images came from their eyes, part from their mental images built from echolocations. A human couldn’t make the sounds required for echolocation, but the Krall were being obliging, and doing it for her.
One of the side benefits of the wolfbat hearing genes, had been the inherent improvement in memory organization, experienced in the brains of every Kobani after that modification became fully incorporated. The orderly structure for improved memory storage and fastdata recovery had been noted, examined, and they thought it was understood as a byproduct of the wolfbat’s need for an audio map of the world when flying through a darkened jungle or cave. However, it hadn’t occurred to them to test it like this for humans, when visual cues were unavailable.
Maggididn’t have precise ranging cues, based on a personally generated echo measured position in this audio space. However, her mind was automatically organizing the sounds into a perception of the entire space around her. She “knew” just how wide the press was that she was touching. That there was a walkway eleven feet on the opposite side, where a formed metal alloy chest plate could be removed. This press was part of a Krall body armor production line. One that she had seen previously, in a different well-lit factory.
Thisacoustic ability was one they hadn’t realized they had. Useful, even if a lesser version of the sharply defined images sensed previously from wolfbat minds. Humans were predominately-visual creatures, so it hadn’t occurred to them to look for this. She could use this ability to elude her pursuers better in the dark, but it literally wouldn’t get her out of this hole.
Now that she could sense where there was cover from the Krall’s IR vision, she could move along places of concealment. She even had an intermittent sense of where the sound emitters were (the Krall when they were making noise). Fortunately, some of them were babbling all of the time. It wasn’t language, but there were repetitions of the same sounds from different voices, which suggested they did use rudimentary voice signals.
She could tellthis hydraulic press had a narrow opening all the way through to the other side. Her eyes still shut, she crawled through the tight space, quelling the thought that the press might suddenly activate, and convert her into a messy organic replica of Krall chest armor.
Other than the near hatchling sized Krall, the thick chests of the larger ones would notfit through the opening that had passed her slender frame. She could try other tricks like this, to slow them down. She felt confident she could shoot and hit them with her eyes closed, if they were within fifty to a hundred feet, and acoustically outlined. Her goal was to avoid letting them get that close, because the flare of a shot would identify her position to the entire volume of Krall seeking her. They would come swarming by multiple routes if she was seen.
She passed a small dangling power cable and used her strength to flex it repeatedly, and broke off a thirty-foot length. She removed her jacket, and tied it in a bundle to one end while she walked, her eyes mostly closed. She was unable to resist the periodic need to open her eyes, to see some IR blemish of whatever she was passing. It was confirmation that her mental audio picture hadn’t misled her. That she wasn’t about to step off a catwalk.
She found a place where a slender strip of metal stretched over afifteen-foot gap between parallel walkways, with a long drop below. There was no clue what the strip was used for, but it was just lying there, and didn’t appear strong enough to hold her weight.
She tied the other end of the cablearound the strip, and shoved the looped knot out as far as she could, with the jacket hanging down over the drop, as a scent attractant and faint heat source. She lay prone, and scooted out as far as she could, to shove the knot farther away, and felt the metal strip start to sag. It didn’t seem attached to either side. It was a stupid trap, which wouldn’t sucker a four year old. Perhaps a feral Krall would “fall” for this.
She worked her way through thefactory maze, and knew from the accumulated sound sources and noise level, that the trackers had reached the crawl space through the press. It hardly delayed them at all, and they simply walked around. It was good she hadn’t wasted much time trying that.
A short timelater, two screeches, and a clattering of heavy bodies hitting far below proved that the trick with her jacket had worked, prompting a sardonic thought.
Gee!Two more down and a bazillion to go!
That was an exaggeration.Her ears actually reported there were only a fewhundreddown here searching for her. Apparently, none of the nearly mindless dolts was willing to branch off and search very far away from the main scent trail. Otherwise, she thought her movements would be sharply curtailed by their ability to see her heat signature from a distance, if they had simply spread out more.
Having that thought proved prescient,and proof arrived only a few minutes later. Suddenly, there was an ultrasonic cry from a distant catwalk, well separated from the main group that was following her. This Krall had not been making any audible noise at all, and Maggi had been unaware of its position before this. Even now, it was only a dim IR glow to her at that distance. There wasn’t anything between her and it to block the view, and her hotter body glow had been easily spotted. She could handle just that one, but others would be drawn like moths to her IR flame.
The cacophony of ultrasonic calls from the larger group told her the“first sighting” call wasn’t entirely inarticulate. It must have been an equivalent to “tally ho” or “prey here.”
There was a benefit to herfrom the noise increase, as the huge underground cavity filled with high frequency hoots and howls. The definition of the structures around her improved for several seconds. She mentally scanned the acoustic mind picture for somewhere to make a stand, where they couldn’t get to her en masse. She found one, but it had no possibility of retreat once reached.
The underground factory was centered under the dome, and the floor of the dome was partly supported from below by structural beams. One was a large vertical “X” shaped central beam, which appeared to provideprimary support for the ceiling, at a point her memory told her must be under the center of the great hall above. The beam was completely clear of catwalks for three levels below the ceiling, and at its top, there were four smaller angled support beams, which branched away, to distribute ceiling support over a wider area.
If she reached that upper junction, she would have the four angled beams to use for moving rapidly around the four sides of the central support. The Krall would have to climb straight up to reach her, onlya few at a time. When her ammunition ran out, she had her knife, strength, and intelligence, to hold them off longer.
She started running for the center of the complex, where she could get close to that support beam. She was exposed to view for part of her run, and new calls reporting her sighting reverberatedeverywhere, which at least refreshed her acoustic map of where things were located. It was nice she could count on that level of support from her would-be-killers.
She saw a problem as she neared the center, and the resolution improved. Herpresent level didn’t have a catwalk that came closer than twenty feet of the beam. Krall were now at the stairs she would need to climb, to reach a higher level that came within a few feet of her goal.
As she neared the edge of the catwalk closest to her target, it was literally time for a leap of faith over the dark abyss. Running in the pitch dark, she slapped her right foot down less than an inch from the edge, and jumped.
The distance was well within her ability to leap, even in 1.52 gravities, and she was certain she was on an intersecting trajectorywith the beam, arcing over the deep dark chasm. What her mental map could not tell her, was the texture of the beam she needed to grasp in the dark. If it were slippery and damp, she would slide down, unable to reach her intended refuge at the top. Moist wasn’t actually in doubt, not in this dank humid environment. What she needed was a gritty or rusty surface, for a secure grip that would permit her to climb.
She’d kept her eyes closed for the jump-off, using only the mental mapas reference, but now opened them to try to see the details of the beam as she drew near.
There would be thanks offered to the god of thermal conductivity. Heat from the dome above had crept down the beam, and its edges glowedfaintly, where the heat was radiated away.
Themetal had a wonderfully dirty, marvelously coarse, slightly rusty surface for a secure grip! It probably left a red mess on her clothes and hands, and particularly her right cheek, pressed thankfully against the damp coolness. Now she had the means to climb, and tenuously started up, testing her handholds on the rough surface of the edges, and trying out climbing techniques. In only a few seconds, she was moving like a spider monkey up the beam on one bar of the “X,” going hand over hand, using booted feet squeezed in hard for her lower grip.
She was in clear view of probably every Krall that had been after her, but because they had been in the process of descending to her level, they were clustered close to a distant stairway, fighting each other to get down first. She passed the catwalk that extended closest to the beam in a few seconds, even as some of the more fleet footed chasers ran towards her.
The beam was too sturdy to transmit any vibration of the impact of Krall bodies as they jumped on below her. However, the almost joyous grunts of a close pursuit sounded directly below her, only twenty feet behind.
Lighter, stronger, and more agile, she outpaced them to reach the four-way junction, where forty-five degree angled smaller beams branched out to the sides, providing a place for her to sit. As she looked down, she could see the body heat of a chain of pursuers climbing after her, the closest one forty feet below.
The Krall werediscovering that extended talons were less useful for this climbing task than fingertip pads, as Maggi used. There was considerable scrabbling as talon tips slipped and they had to renew their grips. One or two had found that retracted talons and their four thick finger and toe pads worked better, but the Krall already above those fast learners were slower to figure this on their own.
Maggi drew her pistol, and decided she would pick off the smarter climbers first, particularly those that might hit climbers behind them as they fell. In a flash of insight, she decided against headshots, for the quick kill. Instead, she shot at hands.
The fourth one in trail, directly below her, was shot in its right hand as it held onto pull itself up. It was surprisingly quick. It planted its wide left hand around the end of the beam with a retracted talon grip, and still moved up a foot. She admired its tenacity so much, that she shot its left foot to see if it could use that combination to continue.
A waste of asecond bullet, she reprimanded herself. Then was vindicated as it slipped free, and grasped at the Krall just below, pulling it free as well, who it in turn caught at the shoulders of a third, sending three killers into the blackness below, roaring their rage.
Rational beings would have seen the futility of the high losses to be incurred, just for a single adversary who couldn’t escape. If they merely waited for hunger and thirst to do its work, she was doomed. Except, the enraged reaction confirmed that this wasn’t going to be a rational response.
Maggi knew there had been autopsies done on Krall, which suggested that there was an adrenaline-like chemical, whose production spiked suddenly when warriors around them were killed or they themselves were wounded. It triggered the familiar berserker rage. The Krall didn’t particularly like each other, respected sometimes, but not liked and never “loved.” A prey “animal” that killed one of them often became the intense focus of rage and revenge. Most humans didn’t survive that level ofattention.
TheKrall that the Planetary Union Army normally faced were trained and carefully selected warriors, capable of reluctant withdrawal, and of much smarter actions than these sad representatives. Those higher status warriors had been culled from a mass of hatchlings, such as those that had managed to survive here, with no culling and completely untrained. With each death, more of them leaped out to make the climb, eager for their chance at a challenging kill.
Thanks to such mindless, driven persistence, Maggi was eventually down to her final magazine of all explosive rounds. Therehad to be a considerable pile of flesh in the lower levels of the complex, directly under her. The clangs of impacts on metal had shifted to duller thuds, as the bodies accumulated. Other Krall had made their way down into the dark factory from above, either coming from the dome, or perhaps from the surrounding woods. If some were from the woods, then she may have helped draw them away from the boys and the rippers. They would have had much more room get away outside anyway, and could outpace any chasers if they avoided being cornered, as she was.
Eventually reaching the sixteenth and final round, she had to decide if that one would be saved for herself or not. She saved it for the time being, holstering the pistol, and drawing her eighteen-inch molecular edged blade. She hung upside down by a knee, from one of the angled supports, slashing at hands, wrists, and fingers as they came in reach. She nearly lost the knife once, when she stabbed straight into the top of a skull, and the violent twist of her victim’s neck nearly tore the weapon from her grip.
Thishanging position only permitted her to defend three sides of the main support beam. From time to time, a Krall would reach up, grab the angled support farthest from her on the opposite side, and swing a leg up and over. She would then have to quickly pull up and dispatch the “successful” climber with a flurry of cuts and slashes. Despite her best efforts, she was slowing down. It was only a matter of time before she would take too long to kill one of them, and others would gain a handhold behind her.
She made her decision. It would beto deny them a direct victory. She intended to leap out over the abyss, and use her final saved round on the way down.
That time wasfast approaching, she knew, as she barely managed to keep two of them from reaching the top behind her. That’s when she felt them finally change tactics.
It wasfelt, because the unexpected jolt nearly shook her loose from her one handed grip, as she swung over and slashed the fingers off a hand griping a top support beam. They were somehow battering the main beam she thought, to shake her down.
The jolt came again, and she was better prepared this time to hold on, but debris splintered from the ceiling andunexpectedly struck her in the face in the darkness as she looked up, lodging tiny fragments of grit in her eyes. Unable to see their IR signatures, she’d have to rely on her mental acoustic map to continue the fight. The sound absorbing enemy bodies could be faintly perceived when they were close to her, via occultation of background sound reflections. Of course, they often could be sensed directly, because their noisy mouths made their heads and eyes a target for her blade.
The third, much harder impact, shattered large segments from the ceiling, because she felt from which direction thelarger particle spray came. The pieces stung when they hit, and one larger shard nicked her left cheek. Unless a smaller angled support beam had just pulled free, she couldn’t understand how that happened. Nor could she imagine how these Krall had managed to apply something heavy enough to act as a battering ram on the sturdy beam. Apparently, a few of them were more resourceful than she had expected, compared to those still climbing towards her.
Because the battering had caused some of the climbers to slip down the column, she had a moment to reposition herself, to confront the next closest climber. It was fortunate that she was climbing over an angled support beam when the next and stronger impact came, because the chaotic loud low frequency noise disrupted her mental acoustic map, and simultaneously slightly displaced the beam she had reached for in her blindness.
Missing her handhold, she spun downward, saved only by a knee hooked over the support she had straddled. Without the mental map of where she was in space, she’d have to listen for a few seconds to rebuild that. The Krall were screaming their anger even louder, as if she had done this. She needed to try to blink the grit out of her eyes, using the tears generated by the irritation. If she could regain part of her IR vision, she might hold them at bay while her mind rebuilt a map from the sounds echoing around.
With effort, she tried and failed to open her eyelids. Dust, mixed with tear duct fluid had gummed them closed while she’d held them tightly shut. Shifting her knife to her left hand, she used her right thumb totry to pull the right eyelid gently open. It hurt, as this activity drug grit over the surface of her eye.
Dazzling light blinded her for a momentas the eyelid lifted, and she thought she had done that to herself. Possibly a shot of pain induced optic nerve activity. Except her eye, even though closed, adapted swiftly to a continuing glare, closing the iris. It was then that she sensed the pink glow through her eyelid. The light was real. The ceiling must have cracked, to allow light through from the hall in the dome above her. The Krall wouldn’t need IR to see her now, and she couldn’t take advantage of the same light. If several of them got hold of her, she might not be able to fight free.
She thumbed open the holster retainer and drewthe Krall made pistol. It occurred to her for the first time that a Krall bullet ending her life was too ironic. She should have saved the last round of her human made .45 instead.
There was a clanging metal on metal sound on the girder on the opposite side of the main support. She prepared to straighten her leg, to start the drop into the dark depths, pistol ready.
“Hey! You going to just hang there, or help us?”
Thinking she was hallucinating, sheasked eloquently, “What?”
The hallucination had Danner’s sassy mannerisms. “Clever reply, as you would tellone of us. Climb over and grab the line I just tossed over that cross beam. We see the locals are climbing up to get you. We’re out of ammunition, the shuttle lasers are ruined, and you need to get your butt over here.”
She used her right hand to pull herself up to straddle the support beam. “How the hell did you find me?”
She heard Cory in the background mutter, “Just like her to quiz us, instead of listening to usknuckle headedkids.”
“Uh. I heard that, young man. Danner, I can’t see, I have dirtand grit in my eyes. I’ll climb over to the other side. You guide me to the line.”
Following his directions, she found the line in a few seconds, with an improvised hook on the end.
“I can pull myselfover on the line if I tie it off here. Where the hellareyou? You don’t sound very far away.”
“We’re stickingthrough the floor of the dome. I guess from your perspective, we’re stuck through the factory ceiling. You only have about twenty-five feet to go, but I suggest you tie the rope securely around your chest, and swing down to let us pull you up by hand. Hurry if you please. There are Krall almost up to you.”
Shequickly looped the line around her chest and under her arms. At the sound of a snarl from right behind her, she pushed off into the darkness. To her accelerated perceptions, the second before the tug of the line was felt passed like an eternity. She had resigned herself to jumping to her death a moment ago, but with salvation now at hand, this short drop was terrifying.
As she wasbeing pulled up, her body rotated, and her ears sensed the enraged snarls of the Krall that had just missed grabbing her. When the point of origin of that sound suddenly shifted closer, she knew it had launched itself after her.
Simultaneous withDanner’s warning, she quickly drew and fired her last bullet.
TheKrall’s screech ended with the swoosh-blam of the explosive round and a spatter of wetness on her face and arms, thus eliminating that particular bit of noise pollution.
“…Damn, that was a nice shot,” Danner amended what he was saying, all in the same breath.
“Got your sight back just in time,” Cory added.
“Nope. Still can’t open my eyesyet. However, I’ll have a neat trick to teach you two. Assuming you can learn how to use your ears.” She enjoyed the pun.
She felt a hand on her shoulder guiding her as she was lifted, and a rectangular opening bumped and scraped against her shoulders, then hips.
When she put her handout, feeling for support, she felt an instrument console tilted at an odd angle. She also smelled the inside of something she knew well, which could not be here.
“How did you get adamned shuttle down here? What happened to the broken windscreen you just lifted me through? I don't smell Kopper or Kally, just your sweaty armpits.”
“Wow. You’re welcome. So glad to hear your thankful comments.” Danner sounded as much amused as annoyed.
Cory added, “If the window pisses her off, just wait until she finds out about the rest of the shuttle.”
“OK. I’m sorry.” She responded. “Thank you both. Please get me a water bottle and the med kit, so I can clear my eyes. You can tell me what happened as you do that.”
“Uh…, I’ll have to get a cup of water from the shuttle water cooler. You tossed all the water supplies out with the camping equipment. We couldn’t bring them inside with us because the cases wouldn’t fit through the windscreen frame. Which we had to shoot out, by the way, just to get back inside. The hatch code was changed somehow.” There wasn’t an accusation there exactly, but a question was certainly implied.
“Oh. You didn’t hear my last transmission?” The guilt came back to her.
“It was broken up, and we were kindof busy fighting off a bunch of big, unusually stupid Krall.”
Her heart skipped a beat when neither of them mentioned the two rippers, and she couldn’t smell a fresh scent from them.“The cats?” She dreaded an answer.
“Oh. They were too large to fitthrough the window. We used the ammunition stored in the shuttle to help them tear a hole through the wave of Krall coming out of the woods. They were headed for the open plain a mile on the other side of the trees. No Krall can catch them there, and after what we and they did to them getting back to the shuttle, I can’t believe the Krall would want to try that again.”
“After you were inside, why didn’t you open therear hatch for them?”
“Speaking of using ears.” Danner chuckled. “Didn’t I mention the code was changed? The standard code wouldn’t work.”
“Did you try the console master switch? It’s the override if you’re inside you know.”
“Uh…, no.” He sounded sheepish. “We were shooting Krall out the window at the time, so Kopper and Kally could break through to the woods. We only thought of it later, after the Krall were crawling all over and banging on the top and sides.”
The application of water had loosened the gum around her left eye, and when she pulled both lids back, she had Cory pour more water onto her upraised open eyes to flush them, blinking and rolling her eyes to clear them of grit. She could see a little now.
Squinty eyed, she asked,“Why are we stuck here with our nose pointed down?”
“Because the pointy end of the shuttle made a better battering ram?” Answered Danner, with a smirk.
His expression annoyed her. “You broke through the floor of the dome with the shuttle? Were you nuts? How did you plan to get out of the same trap where I was? That all of us are in now? This thing isn’t going to fly us back out you know. It must be smashed to hell.”
“Before Cory burned an entry into the side of the dome for me tohover through, to reach the central hall, I called Prime City by radio. They answered, and help is coming.”
“Oh.” She was mollified somewhat.
“You don’t want the answer to the most important question?” It was Cory’s smirk that irritated her now.
“How we found you.”
“If I have to drag it out of you, I won’t tell you about the neat new thing we can do.”
“Fine. You really made them angry and they all went down after you. The ultrasonic screaming came up from all of the stairwells, and we put our ears to the floor and heard it loudest from almost directly below us. Onlyyoucould have pissed anything off that much, and sure enough, we heard you curse a couple of times. You do that a lot, you know, when you think no one can hear you.” He hurried on, when he thought she was about to demonstrate her century old mastery of swear words.
“Anyway, we had to see what was happening down below, and there was no other way to make a hole. Sorry about the shuttle you borrowed.”
Danner quicklyjumped in to remind her of her offer, hoping to divert her anger a bit longer. “What trick can we do that we don’t know about yet?”
Not fooled by the obvious diversionary ploy, she went along with it anyway, because she really did want to show off what she’d learned.
“Hear those Krall still screaming out therein ultrasonic? I want you get close to the broken window, close your eyes, and listen for a few minutes. Then tell me what you see in your minds.”
Their surprised expressionsa minute later was reward enough to pay for a wrecked shuttle.
Bats of a Leather Flock Together
The giant not-live flier vanished into the sky, leaving Jura continent behind, and the former passengers watched its retreat from the gently rolling flat terrain atop the huge elevated pedestal-like formation. Flock Leader issued a recall to the four circling squadrons, sent to scout the area around the rocky plateau, as their supplies were unloaded.
Thefour-mile wide flat-topped slab of stone rose several hundred feet higher than the surrounding rain forest trees, its vertical cliffs were draped with jungle vines, and the forest grew almost to its flanks.
The flock’s effort to colonize this areahad been supported by their human partners, in gratitude for services from the newly elected Flock Leader and his new Flight Leader, for past scouting missions to this largely unexplored continent of Koban. Last season they had scouted for a small pack of humans and a pride of four rippers, to travel upstream next to a river seeking where shiny bits of hard rocks were born. Why their human partners wanted the shiny rocks was a mystery the Flock Leader never understood, since they could not be eaten. The mind pictures implied they traded the shiny rocks with humans that did not live on Koban, for different not-live things you still could not eat.
The flockinsisted they be paid with something useful, things they could eat or use to make a strong nest, like meat that could feed them for many days without the need to hunt, as they made their new nest in the crevasses leading deep into the cliffs of the plateau. The cold bags of cubes of high quality rhinolo meat would be the last of those they would have, because there was none of those horned beasts near here. That didn’t actually matter to them, because before the humans became flock partners with them and paid them in that meat, the only time a squadron brought home rhinolo meat was when rippers left a kill unguarded. A wolfbat squadron, or an entire flock, could not bring down such large animals, and they had to scavenge to obtain such rare meat.
There were many small to midsizedprey animals here, living in and below the trees and on the top of the plateau for them to hunt. One thing they had learned from ripper mind pictures was never to kill all of any one kind of prey animal in a small area, or then there would be no more.
Their human partner’s mind images also suggested this was smart, so that a flock would always have enough food to eat. They would try to do like the rippers, and not have so many pups that the flock needed to eat everything they could find, and split into new flocks that would soon fight over what little was left to hunt.
There were distant flocksliving at other plateaus, and they would be a source for trading females when fresh blood was needed in the flock and as opponents for raids if the younger squadron males needed an outlet for their excess energy. These neighbors were lost flocks, which had established themselves here long ago, when individual squadrons or entire migrating nests were blown here by storm winds, forced to cross over the wide waters between the lands. Their signal calls were very different, but then, remote flocks in their former homeland also had strange signal calls. The wolfbats could learn new calls quickly, not as fast as they built complex mind maps made from sound echoes, but those mind maps could hold more than just the pattern of reflected echoes.
The human partners, when they learned to hear like the wolfbat, also could make complex sound maps in their minds, and could save other information in the same matrix. Flock Leader and Flight Leader both had new ideas, learned from humans, which they had saved for use if they were able to lure followers to come here, to a fresh exciting place to form a new flock, with new prey.
Their practice with mind sharing with humans, and with rippers, had left them with an idea of how they might convince cousins of rippers to work with them as well. They could spot prey too large for a wolfbat from their aerial advantage point. On the ground, large cats that could pull down such prey, often could not find them, or position themselves for an ambush to make a successful sprint after fast and agile prey.
Because all of the families of cats on Koban had inherited the ancient common ability to share mind pictures, Flock Leader hoped they could find a way to cooperate with them, as they now did with rippers and humans on hunts on their home territory. He and Flight Leader had seen it was difficult to obtain cooperation from the mated pairs of lions that lived on theopen plains of this new land. They lived in relative isolation, and did not cooperate in hunts even with others of their own kind.
However, they could delicately, and cautiously,try to approach other cat families for cooperative hunting in the forest. Cautious, because to those cats a wolfbat was not only a competitor for some of the same food sources, but potential prey.
Wolfbat flocks near dryer regions at home had learned to help dessert panthers find prey among the dunes, in trade for a share of the kills. This had beeninitially arranged by their human partners, after they had trapped and shared thoughts with many of the midsized cats. The purpose of the humans was originally only to convince the cats to leave people alone, or to be hunted by them in turn. However, they recognized that threats alone would not prevent a hungry predator from attacking one of them if a person was found all alone.
The key was to reduce how hungry the panthers became, and thus be willing to avoid a more dangerous sort of prey. That’s where their cooperation with wolfbats was the key. To help them find their prey more quickly, then guide them to the prey, or chase the prey to them. The concept of payment had been harder to convey, but leaving a quarter of a kill in exchange for more frequent kills was eventually arranged.
Without humans to be the mediators it would be more difficult, but Flock Leader had hopes it would work. If it did not, there was ample smaller prey in the forest canopy, in the occasional clearings, and along the riverbanks of a huge slow flowing river only a few miles away. If they hunted other plateaus with wolfbat populations, there would be inter flock warfare.
When the squadrons returned, they reported numerous signs of flying birds and reptiles in the treetops, or gliding above them, and small four legged animals eating the vegetation on the more exposed flat top of their new home. Distant flock calls were heard from the nearest plateau, well away on the far side of the river, so they haddistant neighbors out hunting today.
When Flock Leader signaled a migration to a new home, the squadron males divided the weight of the meat sacks between them and rustled their leathery blue wings as they opened them for the effort of the leap into the sky carrying the extra weight. They had to move their food supply first, into the large cavern that the humans had discovered under the plateau’s top. They said they used a form of echo, like wolfbat sounds, which found the hidden cavity and an entrance, but that the method didn’t make a noise that could be heard by ears. The hard dish the human herd leader pointed to was shaped a bit like a round ear, and he told them that it “saw” the underground opening from high above all of the air.
When a smaller not-life flyer brought Flock Leader and Flight Leader to explore last week, they had soon found the crevasse openings under the vines that hid the deeper passages leading into the large cavern. They were exactly where the human partner’s mental pictures indicated they would be found. The cavern was much larger than they needed right now, but had room for them to grow into a great flock if they found enough food.
The higher priority meat was already being moved, with Flight Leader showing thefour squadron leaders the way. Flock Leader called out to the females to prepare to follow him. The twenty four females, many already bearing future pups, grasped one each of the coils of light but strong chording, which the humans gave to them to weave long lasting support webs to hold their individual nests. That would keep their nests clear of the sides and floors of the cavern, where slithering predators would potentially come to eat their pups. The not-life coils were stronger, thinner, and longer than the vines they would have used. The slithering creatures would find them very difficult to use as a crawlway.
For two days, they were busy stringing the chords into a series of crisscrossing supports for the more complex webbingthat the females instinctively wove using the thin lines. Then most of the flock flew out to gather vines, sturdy limbs, and foliage to line the basket like structures, and thus provide firmer support for the weight of a family, and to hold the flightless pups securely. They were careful to leave the concealing vines over their outside entrance in place.
This washard, energy consuming work, and with their high metabolisms, they would have frequently needed to interrupt nest building to hunt for food. The high quality meat they brought with them sustained them while they completed their base of operations, and they had some left, in case early hunting failed to prove productive.
That proved to be a nice reserveof meat, but unnecessary for their continued survival when the nest building was finished. Prey was plentiful and at least in this area, not particularly wary of the unfamiliar presence of wolfbats. That would change of course.
The females were settling into theirnests and preparing them for occupation by one or two pups each, using a soft downy blue lining, pulled from additional fur that pregnancy hormones caused to grow long and fluffy on their stomach. Flock Leader’s mate was as busy as the other females, and she was cranky and tended to snap at him (literally) if he perched on the side of the nest too long, presenting himself as the leader he was to the other wolfbats.
Most of the other males were off either guarding the entrance to the nest, out hunting, or scouting the new territory. As future fathers of many species had learned, on multiple worlds, going hunting for large game was often less hazardous duty that simply standing near your expecting mate.
Flock Leader, a fresh screech of irritation in his ear as motivation, wisely elected to be the leaderoutside, for a while. He went to seek signs of some of the several varieties of felines that were said to inhabit this jungle region. It was raining as he made his exit between the vines, but the rain was warm, and thus more inviting than his most recent contact with his grumpy mate.
He circled over the jungle canopy, sometimes dipping below the crowns of the giant trees, and flying under or between their layers of limbs, watching for signs of catson the forest floor. He saw marsh dogs, eight or ten in a pack, sniffing their way through the surprisingly sparse underbrush. The amount of ground cover here was less than in the forests where Flock Leader had previously lived. There was less sunlight leaking its way through the canopy of these trees, with overlapping limbs constantly trying to steal every photon of light from their neighbor.
He often saw browsers and scavengers rooting through the leaf litter, seeking tubers, insects, leaves, or small animals. He saw a fewfly covered stripped carcasses a time or two, often near small streams that the frequent rain fed. There were arboreal creatures in the trees, half the mass of a wolfbat, but taste tests had proven their rangy meat was bitter tasting, apparently a result of their tolerance of a bright red fruit that was toxic to most other animals.
Obviously, water sources were places a predator could wait for meals to arrive. However, there were so many small streams and pools, that this didn’t narrow his search area greatly.
When his ears detected shrieks and screams under the canopy to his left, closer to the large river, he flew that direction, chewing on one of the last cubes of rhinolo meat, expelled from his throat storage sack. Flying burned more energy than gliding on thermals above the forest.
He soon followed the noise to apack of two dozen screamers. They had surrounded a large deer-like animal and her fawn. The sixteen to twenty inch high, two legged blue theropod dinosaurs had surrounded the two much larger creatures. The mother could have easily broken through the ring by leaping over or forcing her way through the little predators. However, her fawn, probably only a few days old, was unlikely to avoid the teeth that would try to grip its hooves and leap at is throat, in an effort to trip it and bring it down. Once on the ground, the small sharp teeth would deliver multiple wounds, to bleed it to fatal weakness even if helped to its feet by the doe.
The blood on the dappled fur indicated that the fawn had already been attacked, perhaps even down briefly, since there were bleeding bites on its lower legs, sides, and on its neck. There were a few such blood marks on the doe’s legs, but she would have been able to kick the attackers loose. The heaving flanks of the bleating fawn were evidence of a longer chase, and that the pair had finally been overtaken when the fawn’s energy ran low.
The screamers, namedthat because of their attack strategy of leaping high and emitting a high pitch loud screech to terrify their prey, used their leaping ability to overcome their natural height disadvantage. They used numbers and endurance to pursue and overwhelm tired larger prey. The doe was well above their normal prey size, unless the pack was considerably larger. A solid kick not dodged could cripple or kill a screamer, and a broken leg meant a slow starving death alone, or even sooner if another predator found them.
Clearly, this modest sized pack had chosen the pair with the goal of separating the fawn from the mother, and now that the chase had reached the point where the fawn had to stop running, the standoff was merely a waiting game. A screamer would dart in andnip at one of the fawn’s legs, adding to the steady flow of blood that would weaken it until it sank to its knees. Once bled enough for the fawn to collapse, the doe would eventually give up the lost fight and save itself for the next breeding season. The greatest risk for the screamers was that the doe would hold them off until the noise drew a much larger predator, and it took their prey away from them.
Flock Leader looked at the shaky fawn’s wide legged stance, barely able to stay on its feet, and he felt great sympathy. For the screamers!
As a fellow predator, he had been in similar standoffs when he was a squadron leader, with too few wolfbats under his command to take a prey animal down directly, forced to wait them out as they weakened from wounds. Too often, a passing ripper or pack of wild dogs would claim their prize as they waited. To him the fawn looked like tender succulent meat that would feed a third of his flock for a day.
Had hisflock been closer, or he heard one of his squadron’s calls above the trees, he would have gladly have called in a team of his larger predators to steal the fawn from the screamers. Three of his younger squadron mates could lift the fawn, and fly it into the lower limbs of these trees for rendering. However, he was on his own, and his predator’s sympathy went to the screamer pack.
Accustomed to cooperation with humans, and sometimes with rippers, Flock Leader analyzed the problem from that standpoint. If he were helping those partners, in exchange for a share of the kill, what could he do that would earn him a share of the meat?His advantage as an aerial scout wasn’t needed, because the prey was already found and surrounded. It was obvious to him after only a moment of circling, staying well above the scene below.
He partly folded his leathery blue wings and dropped in a controlled dive, suddenly uttering a low frequency scream that served noecho ranging or communication function for wolfbats. It was deliberately scaled to the hearing range of other animals.
The startled looks of the screamers, as they glanced up at the falling blue blur was proof enough they heard him. However, they didn’t scatter, because they instantly recognized that he was alone, and thus could not take the fawn from them.
The doe also looked up, and her already tangible fear was evidenced as she backed away from her fawn, unprepared for this second assault. Wolfbat attacks and cries may have been heard by her previously, with another flock just on the other side of the river. Perhaps it may have been instinctive. She oriented her two long straight horns vertically, to defend herself from a strike from above at her exposed neck, prepared to thrust them back at any contact there or on her back.
Flock Leader had no intention of going for her neck, or even biting her legs to try to trip her, and thus risk a kick. He opened his wings at the last moment to swoop over her rump, and he used his rows of forearm grasping claws to scour her flanks, raking his claws on each side, and delivered a hard nip to her short, nervously whipping tail. He pulled up well behind her rearward thrusting horns, which protected her elongated neck and front shoulders.
His final cry, as he flapped rapidlyup and made his wings snap taut to generate a loud popping sound, accomplished his purpose. The startled doe leaped forward, into the circle of screamers, who promptly went after her legs and leaped onto her back. She panicked at finding herself attacked from two sources, and in that instant, her sense of self-preservation was stronger than the bleating of her trembling fawn. She shook off her attackers as she ran into the scattered underbrush between the bases of the giant trees.
Flock Leader landed in the lowest limbs just above thescene of slaughter below him, and observed with interest as the screamers quickly went for the throat of the fawn, ending its kicking and cries in a few bloody minutes. They were less efficient at this, because of their smaller size, and thus less merciful than wolfbats would have been in ending the prey’s life quicker.
However, the concept of mercy was as alien to the wolfbat as it was the screamers. This was survival, not a sporting event with manufactured rules. A struggling prey animal was likely to injure you, and delayed the start of feeding.The sooner it was dead the better.
As the screamers started to feed, Flock Leader made alow frequency sound from time to time, to remind them he was watching them, and some of them kept at least one eye on him at all times. The two dozen slender little hellions had more to eat than they could hold, despite the fawn’s limited supply of flesh and organs. It was rare that a pack this small could protect the leftovers of a kill for a repeat feeding the next day, and they couldn’t carry it away. They ate what they could and then stayed near, to try to protect the kill from other small scavengers overnight. If any competition of size appeared, and their digestion had not progressed enough to remove the lethargy they now felt, they would be compelled to surrender the remains of the carcass.
Flock Leader watched as they left theside of the kill, one by one, the smallest and least dominate pack members being the last to feed. That was when he silently swooped down, and used his front leg claws to snare what was left of the exposed backbone and skin, and flapped furiously to gain altitude with the reduced weight of the fawn. One haunch fell away, the connective tissue bitten away, but the remaining weight proved there was meat enough left to feed at least two or three wolfbats for a day. None of the screamers made a serious move to stop him, and even the screeches of protest were softer than before the kill had been made. They were small, and had a stomach to match. They were full.
He returned to the limb where he had watched the feeding, and draped the carcass securely over several branches. He then flew above the canopy and spotted the plateau, and saw a squadron circling in a thermal above the cliffs. Aloneas he was, the carcass was a bit too heavy for him to fly it to the nest, so he issued a loud ultrasonic call, and waited for the sound to travel the two miles. When he saw the squadron leader turn his four squad-mates towards the sound’s source, he issued a new cry, which would allow them to home in exactly on his location.
When they arrived, he issued the follow-me-to-a-kill call, and led them through the tree canopy to where the remains of the fawn lay on the branches. He commanded they feed on the remains while he flew low over the screamers below, forcing them to notice that he had numerous flock mates at his disposal now. It would be obvious to the dominate members of the pack below that he was a leader of this flock, or at least of the squadron.
He regurgitated another cube of rhinolo meat from his throat pouch, and stayed behind after he sent the squadron back to the nest. He knew without the remains of a kill to hold them here, the screamers would return to their own nesting area to digest in safety. At least that was what a cousin species of them on Flock Leader’s home continent would do. He wanted to follow them.
After anhour of observation, he spotted some of the pack trailing off through the trees, in groups of four or five. Staying high, he kept several groups in sight as they wandered through the forest. After a time he found their home territory, which he marked in his memory from above the tree tops and flew home.
On subsequent days, between hunting, he would return to the screamer’s home territory, and sat and watched for them to form hunting parties. The pack consisted of perhaps seventy members, but he only followed those hunting parties of about twenty or more. They were most likely to try for larger game, which could furnish him opportunities to help. He had given up on finding cats to try to form a partnership. They were possibly nocturnal, too isolated, or too stealthy. He’d not seen any in days of looking.
After a month of doing this, and bringing Flight Leader with him because that wolfbat had experienced cooperation with other species, he had established a pattern. He and Flight Leader would spook prey towards them, or help them bring it down by a surprise attack if they had it surrounded. Then, when the prey was too large to eat in a single feeding, the flock was called in to claim the remains. Despite dropping remains of some small flock kills near screamer packs, there was no indication that any of the pack was appreciative, or inclined to participate willingly in hunts with a wolfbat. There was noapparent partnership developing, but rather a kind of tolerance of the wolfbat’s presence. They only left food behind for wolfbats when it was too much for them to consume.
Individually, a small screamer was easy prey for a wolfbat, although they were seldom found alone. Nevertheless, Flock Leader could have swooped down to catch one of the small tidbits if they were not on guard, and if he kept his wings from rustling and avoidedcreating a whistling wind stream on the fastest possible dive. He was frustrated at their lack of recognition that he was improving their hunting success, feeling so frustrated that killing one of them to refuel his metabolism was an idea growing stronger in his mind today.
He had spotted a droveof hairy black pig-like animals, which were large enough that even a squadron of eight wolfbats would be hard pressed to contain a medium sized one long enough to tire it and overcome its stamina. A large pack of screamers could possibly maintain continuous pressure and wear down one of these sturdy animals, by rotating out tired pursuers to let them rest for a bit. However, even a large screamer pack could not easily contain or turn the massive body of a fleeing pig, to prevent it from rejoining the drove of other pigs, and receiving their group protection.
Flock Leader turned back to thelarge hunting pack he’d been shadowing, and swooped low to make a cry to get their attention, trying to get them to follow him. That seemed easier than attempting to turn the pigs towards the screamers. In a group, the pigs had little to fear from a lone wolfbat, and clustered together for protection, with the weakest and smallest at the center of the drove, they could refuse to turn in the direction he wanted to herd them. He’d tried that before.
Thelittle hunters looked up at him, but didn’t move in the direction he flew as he passed over. They looked around and didn’t see anything he had driven towards them, so they mostly ignored him.
On his third low passto induce them to follow, two of the smaller and presumably younger and less experienced screamers actually leaped at him with snapping jaws. An agile turn avoided them, but this left him more annoyed that these inexperienced pack members actually treated him as potential prey.
Having worked with humans and rippers, he thought of away to make his point that he was to be respected, and at the same time to get the pack to follow. He’d noticed they obeyed the typical pack rule, when they defended endangered pack members, and helped them if they could. He knew how to get them to follow, and hopefully understand shortly that he was not their enemy, despite what he was about to do.
On his fourth low pass over the pack of screamers, he kept his eye on one of thosesmall ones that had jumped at him, the one that had reached the highest. It had discolored yellow-green topknot head feathers, marking it as slightly different from the blue-green color of the others. Staying alert for any full sized pack members that might decide to jump up at him this time, he flew over the targeted screamer. It obliged him by a short running start, and made a respectable four foot high leap.
Itsresulting strangled sounding squawk was less loud than the normal scream of the bird-like two legged little predators. That was because it only wasableto utter squawks, with a wolfbat’s jaws clamping onto its skinny neck as it reached the height of its leap. As Flock Leader lifted smoothly with the screamer wiggling below his jaws, it continued to squawk, alerting the pack that it was alive and calling for help.
Flock Leader traveled perhaps a hundred feet and landed on a large tree root, and looked back to the pack, the lightweight screamer noisily dangling from his relatively loose jaws. Initially a number of larger screamers ran after him, but assumed the pack member was lost to them, and would remain out of reach as it was killed and eatenin a treetop. They had halted their pursuit.
Seeing that the victim was still alive, and his captor had landed where they could reach him, the entire pack entered the chase. Flock Leader let them close to within thirty feet, then leaped into the air and climbed to perhaps ten feet, just above the pack’s frequently observed best possible leaps, and flew slowly, with the squawker still raising hell in his jaws.
It was hard to fly properly, because Flock Leader kept his head rotated to the side so that there was no sharp crimp placed on the neck of his captive. The entire plan would be a waste if he accidentally killed his lure. The pack was actually closing the gap, so he put on a bit of additional speed. They all continued to follow, perhaps thinking his prey was too heavy for him, or the wolfbat was hurt in some way.
The pack had entered their normal prey-tracking mode, which was free of screams, despite the fact that Flock Leader clearly knew they were following, and the sound would not alert him more than he already was.
Except for the incessantcroaks of his unwilling “passenger,” the drove of pigs would not hear a large pack of screamers closing with them. Ahead, he could see the shaking of some of the tall ferns where the pigs were still rooting for tubers or grubs. Now he was undecided. Should he fly over and draw the pack with him or land and release their annoying little ungrateful pack mate, and hope they would see or hear the pigs and attack.
He landed, and released his captiveunharmed when the pack was again thirty feet away, and he flapped directly towards the pigs, a short distance away in the ferns. His now released screamer raced towards the pack, but the dominate pack members in the lead of the chase went right past it, to make certain the wolfbat didn’t turn back, or perhaps was injured and unable to escape for some reason.
Flock Leader passed a few feet above the pigs and they instantlysquealed an alarm at sight of him, calling drove members to cluster together for defense, as usual. What he did that was not usual as he passed over, was to suddenly dip down and rake his jaws and claws along one side and flank of an old sow. He had identified her as the probable weakest member of the drove from his previous scouting. She obligingly squealed loudly, and bolted a few feet from the edge of the group.
No matter ifthe screamers were merely still in pursuit of Flock Leader, or had zeroed in on the scent and sounds of the pigs, the result was a sudden burst of the pigs from their fern cover, with the pack in close pursuit. The chase would not last long, because the screamers would soon realize they probably could not isolate one of the much larger pigs if they stayed clustered and ran as a tight group. However, Flock Leader turned and came at the same sow from the front and this time bit and clawed her other flank and side in passing. She was not seriously injured, but the sight of blood would definitely draw the screamers attention, and the sow lost close contact for a moment with her group as she recoiled again from the attack.
Adozen of the screamers leaped between the sow and the drove, which caused her to veer farther from her group protection. Flock Leader made a low frequency scream she would clearly hear as he again dove directly at her face. She pulled up her run just a moment before he climbed back up, which allowed most of the other screamers to catch up to her, and suddenly the bleeding sow was surrounded, at a standstill and watching her only protection recede into the trees.
Hersnorts and squeals of terror had caught the attention of several of the other pigs, one a large tusked boar that seemed to be the dominate male, and he and two other male pigs were slowing, looking back. Flock Leader quickly dove at them to distract them, then pulled up and chased after some of the now exposed piglets, which were normally hemmed in by the protective adult pigs. They squealed in fear as he screamed loudly at them and bit one in passing. The boar’s choice became one of returning to defend the surrounded old sow, or to go protect the future of the drove. The future won, and the pigs soon vanished into the underbrush.
The screamersbegan their task of wearing the sow down, with simultaneous bites coming from all sides, and leaping up to come down with their middle toe claw raking her sides, drawing more blood. It wasn’t going to be a quick end for the big sow, not with attackers a small fraction of her size. Even a squadron of wolfbats would have had to exhaust the large animal gradually. This was larger prey than either set of predators would normally have tackled alone. None of them had the bite force to clamp jaws on her thick short throat to close her windpipe to suffocate her, or jaws large enough to cover her mouth and muzzle for the same sort of faster kill.
Climbing above the trees, Flock Leader called for two squadrons he saw circling near thedistant home plateau to join him. This prey would be far more meat than the screamer’s entire pack could consume in days. He suddenly heard loud screaming from the pack, down below the obscuring tree crowns. Had the drove of pigs returned after they saw the wolfbat depart?
Confident his two squadron leaders and the Flight Leader had seen him with their sharp eyes, and marked his location, Flock Leader dove back down through the overhanging branches, twisting and turning to getbelow their multilayered cover.
It wasn’t the return of the pigs that had the pack screeching, itwas a large spotted feline thief that had arrived to claim the weakened sow as its own, a leopard analogue on this part of Koban. At roughly half the size of a female ripper, the light teal and deep blue spotted cat was still eight or nine times the mass of a wolfbat, and over fifty times the mass of an individual screamer.
The screamers had backed away from the much larger predator, which appeared to havealready injured two members of the pack, seen limping out of range of another swat of those sharp claws. The sow, already wobbly on its thick stubby legs, and in no condition to run, couldn’t catch a break. One predator after another had her marked for a meal. The cat could easily bowl the tired unstable prey onto her side if it leaped and shoved her, but the task of suffocating it would take time. With its jaws on the pig’s throat, the cat would be vulnerable to darting attacks from the screamers.
The sow weighed perhaps two times the mass of the leopard, an animalslightly larger than the cat would normally try to kill if it was with its drove. This was an opportunity for theft of more than a week’s worth of meat, which seldom presented itself. However, it had a problem. There were no low trees below the light blocking towering forest giants, where it could climb above the screamers with this heavy prize, particularly if it were still alive and kicking.
Closer to the river,over a mile away, there was open sky along the banks and many smaller tree varieties grew there. Except the cat couldn’t carry the pig that mile, not with forty or so screamers biting at his haunches when his jaws were occupied.
Then his luck grew worse, as he caught sight of the wolfbat dropping down through thehighest tree branches. He was more than a match for a thirty to forty pound wolfbat, but an entire squadron would be able to drive him from this prey. There was a “V” shaped cleft, formed by two above ground massive roots, which led to the base of the nearest tree from the leopard, only twenty feet away. It suddenly lunged for the front lower left leg of the sow and jerked it off its feet, and pulled with all of its strength to drag the fallen pig quickly towards the cleft. The huge roots rose over five feet high right where they merged into the tree’s trunk, with relatively smooth and vertically planar sides sloping up to the tree.
As thespace between the high roots narrowed as the cat backed into the cleft, his flanks were protected from side attacks, and it only needed to release the pig’s leg three times to defend itself. Twice to bite and paw swipe at screamers that came too close, and once it leaped and nearly raked its claws along the leathery membrane of Flock Leader’s right wing. That would probably have proven fatal for the bat if he were injured and flightless, located where the screamers or the cat could reach him.
The leopard backeddeeper into the narrow juncture at the base of the tree, its haunches touching the thick high roots on either side, its tail touching the trunk. The wiggling pig providing protection from screamers that could only reach him by climbing over the pig. One enterprising, but not terribly bright little screamer, worked its way up the narrow crest of one of the long sloping roots, and poised itself above the leopard. It belatedly realized that alone, it would be suicidal to leap down onto the cat. Its precarious position nearly proved fatal anyway, when the cat leaped up after the poor planner. It was a narrow escape as it dropped down the opposite side of the root, the leopard’s claws sweeping the air where it had just been.
The cat pulledsideways on the pig’s leg to turn it fully onto its back, exposing its throat. With a glance at the screamers, and the circling wolfbat, it knew it could bite down on the sow’s windpipe and still keep both eyes on potential threats, positioned as it was between the walls formed by the roots. It clamped its jaws on the grunting animal’s throat, and pressed its neck frill down against the pig.
A significant part of the joy of thekill for any of Koban’s cats was to use their contact telepathic ability to experience their prey’s fear of them, and receiving their last thoughts and images. The leopard pressed the soft, organic superconducting nerve filled neck frill against the pig, as it clamped its jaws tight and shut off the flow of air.
The pigs fear of dying, and the savage images sent from the cat’s mind triggered a delectable “flavor” of mental terror from the sow,which produced the sense of dominance that all felines of Koban had evolved to relish. One byproduct of what humans called frilling was the enhanced communication this telepathic ability provided between cats of the same species, and between different varieties of cats, with the means to pass on learning to their young, experience, and facilitating peaceful social interactions.
Flock Leader, having shared thoughts directly with rippers, at first with humansacting as intermediaries between them and the feared rippers, was experienced enough to know what to expect. When the pig’s life started to fade, the cat would be mentally distracted despite its open eyes. Just as humans could act as a filtered, slightly insulated two-way conduit for thoughts between a ripper and a wolfbat, the pig, while still alive could do the same. Any of Koban’s life forms, with their universal superconducting nerves, could link a cat’s mind to any other creature touching the same animal that the cat frilled. That would permit shared images and emotions between all three creatures. In this case, the pig’s thoughts were irrelevant.
This was a moment whereFlock Leader had to take a risk if he hoped to form the hunting partnership he’d wanted to forge. He’d done this sort of link with humans and rippers many times, but never with a wild feline who had never shared a wolfbat’s thoughts, and probably never had a peaceful meeting of the minds with another species. He would have to risk turning his back on the screamer pack, and place himself in dangerous proximity with the leopard.
The two squadrons he’d summoned would be here soon, but he couldn’t waitfor the reinforcements. The weakened pig would probably be dead by then, and the cat would break the link when it released the sow’s throat. The Flock would flourish better here, as they did at home, if he could make the cat understand the advantages of cooperation in hunts.
Swooping downsilently, he passed over the heads of the forward edge of the largest and most dominate pack members, squawking and stamping their small feet in agitation in the wider part of the root cleft. The screamers had largely ignored the wolfbat after the leopard arrived. Startled, they pulled well back from the pig as he swept over them, wings rustling for air braking as he landed. His recent snatching of one of them was made fresh in their thoughts by this close passage.
Using the pig’s thickbulk for cover, Flock Leader crawled low to reach the animal’s hindquarters. Closer to the head would strengthen the mental connection, but that would provoke an attack from the cat. The ass end would have to do.
As he placed his muzzle on thesow’s nerve dense genitalia region, the frill link was established. Two years of practice with humans and rippers had taught Flock Leader how to withhold transmitting its own mental images. That was a learned tactic, to withhold information in order to negotiate the size of a food reward for scouting reports for humans. Unlike rippers, humans always offered less than he considered a fair payment in meat cubes, and he learned to withhold his mental images until he received more than was offered.
He blocked his own thoughtsfrom the cat now, in order to receive the unguarded thoughts of the leopard, which would remain unaware of the wolfbat’s mental presence. Other than verifying that the pig still lived, Flock Leader ignored its fatalistic desperate thoughts. Predators couldn’t be concerned about the prey’s objections to being eaten.
The leopard was in a blissful mental state, as expected, and although his view of the area was monitored by some autonomous part of its mind, watching for obvious threats, its awareness was focused on the delectable dying thoughtsand fear from the pig. It would require only a couple of minutes for that to end, so the cat sometimes relaxed its bite to extend the process.
The first thing Flock Leader noted was that there were no images of cubs to feed, or a mate with which to share this bounty.That was good. Those would have complicated the negotiations. The cat was determined to eat its fill, but was resigned to not being able to retreat to a safer place, to preserve the entire carcass for its sole later consumption. That was a point for negotiation, an offer of future bounties like this one.
Flock Leader gently inserted a thought that the wolfbat had made this possible, by leading the screamers to such a large prey animal. His intention was to show the cat that a wolfbat could find more large prey from their silent position above the forest floor, using their rapid mode of travel, and lead the cat to animals too large or dangerous for a wolfbat to attack.
The conceptwasn’t rejected outright, but the cat, thinking it was its own wandering notion, thought only of the opportunity of prey theft from wolfbats, as it had committed today with the screamers.
The strange thought arrivedto it that the wolfbat had already helped the screamers isolate the pig from its drove, and helped them hold it in place as they wore the animal down. That explained the lone wolfbat’s presence, when it could never take down a pig that size alone, nor steal it from the large screamer pack. The cat’s first smug thought was that it had taken the prey from not one, but two competitors.
The idea that sharing the prey now, in exchange for future help in obtaining other large animals was taking trust too far. The cat thought this concept was an outlandish bit of daydreamingin its part. What would ever convince the screamers and wolfbat to do that, when they would soon be fighting for the part of the carcass the cat would have to leave behind?
Suddenly, images of past hunts, with wolfbats departing with the remains of different large prey that the pack had been led to find by the wolfbats filtered into the cats mind. The images were so strong that it knew they came from another mind, and certainly not from the pig.
The leopard raised its head, not releasing its jawsby lifting the pigs head, and saw the wolfbat hidden behind the bulk of the sow’s body. Flock Leader quickly sent stronger images of past hunts, and cooperation with rippers, of kill sharing with them. This cat knew nothing of rippers, but the frill and mental contact was unmistakable as having occurred between this wolfbat and a cousin feline species. A gigantic set of cousins in fact, that nevertheless benefitted from the proposed cooperation with this smaller predator.
Unexpectedly, an angry, strident new mind joined the group frill.One that wanted both of the larger predators to leave. It nipped at the wolfbat, who then tried to share the same thoughts as it had with the leopard. The concept of hunting cooperation, as they had seen over the past month from the wolfbats.
With brain power considerably less than either the cat or bat, the little terror, dominate within its own pack, bit the wolfbat harder, to try and force it away fromtheirprey. They would drive off one predator at a time. The bat drew the bitten wing farther from the screamer, now standing on the side of the lower abdomen of the sow.
Suddenly, Flock Leader, maintaining muzzle contact with the pig for the mental link, heard a welcome sound.It was the ultrasonic calls of Flight Leader, who had arrived with two squadrons, each with eight flight members. There were seventeen wolfbats coming, and he could hear their echolocation signals as they navigated down through the crown of trees. He called out to them, sending only a rally cry to circle his position. His very reply would permit them to home in on that sound and find him.
He renewed his offer of cooperation with the cat, and included the dominate screamer in the offer. The screamer, not understanding where this thought came from, instantly rejected the idea. However, Flock Leader made it clear that with a combined force of eighteen wolfbats, the offer would only be open for a short time. The flock could take and hold possession of the entire pig if Flock Leader chose to do so.
To make the point that he was negotiating from a position of strength,Flock Leader suddenly swept his lightly bleeding and nipped wing over the screamer, who was looking fearfully up at the new threats. He pulled the five-pound theropod close, and not so gently closed his jaws around its neck, and then returned his muzzle to contact with the pig. The sow’s heart had just stilled, and the mental link would not last long now.
The emotions and images were as sharp as Flock Leader could make them. Share this kill, and we will help you make more such large kills. If not, we will take this one for ourselves. He offered a show of trust, that from his position of strength he did not need to make. He would let the cat have its fill of the prized organ meat, then allow the screamers to eat what they could hold today, and then his squadrons would strip the pig and carry the meat in their throat sacks to their home nest in relay. The link was fading, and then was lost as the leopard lifted its head, breaking frill contact.
There had been no acknowledgement from the catbefore the link faded, no indication that it had accepted the offer. If it chose to leap over the pig and attack Flock Leader, who was holding the dominate screamer in his jaws, both would die before either of their support forces could save them.
The cat looked into the wolfbat’s eyes, opened its fanged jaws, and plunged them into the soft flesh of the lower throat of the dead pig, starting its feeding processby tearing open the flesh. Flock Leader backed away, and released the screamer, who still didn’t care for the deal, but couldn’t control the outcome. It ran clear of Flock Leader, joining the apprehensive pack watching the circling wolfbats.
Trusting the leopard or not, orbelieving the wolfbat or not, the pack would learn to adapt to the new and larger prey they would be able to attack and share. If they received their fair portion, the cooperation would continue, even if all they understood was they were eating better if they followed the lead of these larger predators.
Flight Leaderunderstood what was happening and the need to wait, and when Flock Leader flapped up to join him, they controlled the impatience of their squadron mates as they anxiously watched other predators eat a prize they could have claimed.
In a relatively short time,the cat had its fill and it looked up with bloodied jaws to the circling wolfbats, then it leaped over the pig and scattered the screamers. It was petty gesture of dominance, which made certain they understood the hierarchy here. It walked calmly into the forest, with a wolfbat sent to follow it to its lair. They would need to find it again for the next hunt.
The screamers promptly swarmed the pig’s carcass to feed.
Outraged cries came from the squadron fliers at allowing the smaller screamersto eat from this kill. Without an actual language, the deal just negotiated by Flock Leader with the cat would only become apparent to the other fliers over time, as the flock’s food supply increased, despite having to share with other predators. The small stomachs of the screamers were soon filled, leaving a considerable amount of meat for the flock.
Finally, thetwo squadrons were ordered to descend, to eat their fill, and store chunks of flesh in their throat sacks to take back to their mates and pups in the nest. They would need to make a several round trips, because this was considerably more meat from a single kill than the flock usually acquired. Pig meat was a sweeter, fatty, high-energy delicacy than they normally obtained.
With thecooperation of the two new hunting partners, there would be opportunity for a greater variety of larger animal kills, which would bring types of meat the flock had seldom savored. As Flock Leader, and organizer of the joint hunts, he would have the right of first choice of meats over his other flock members on future large kills.
It wasgoodto be the Flock Leader.
Kobani Kiddie Cappers
“Physically he looks like a healthy two month fetus, Carol.” Aldry Anderfem put her scanner rod back in its charging holder on the portable body scanner. This first pregnancy for a “full” Kobani couple was being followed and studied with intense interest.
Carol looked ather pleased husband. “See? I told you I knew it was a boy.”
He was elatedif he was having a son, but wondered how his wife knew. “Hon, the baby doesn’t have language yet, nor real thoughts. Certainly, no mental pictures to share with us or that he could understand from us. Are you certain you or I didn’t accidentally insert our own desires to have a boy into the baby’s mind, and that’s what you sense? A baby girl that thinks she’s a boy?”
This was part of what Aldry was here to assess, and to reassure these young first time parents of what to expect. To explain how an unborn child, conceived of Kobani parents with the latest set of genetic modifications, would be affected by its parent’s new mental ability and the child’s own inherited mind reading ability.
She chuckled. “It may not have been obvious on the monitor Richard, but there is definitely a ‘stem on the apple.’ You are indeed having a boy, not a little girl who thinks she’s a boy. I can’t sayfor certain if the fetus has received any thoughts from you two or not. This is the first one ever, but accidental mental influence from either of you is unlikely with the fetus. It’s after the delivery you need to exercise caution.”
Technically, Carol Slobovic and Richard Seeker were not the first Kobani couple to become pregnant, and a half dozen other children had been successfully conceived, with the expected and predicted rate of normal prenatal development. The term “normal prenatal development” was what had been redefined for Kobani births.
Those previous six gene-modified mothers had all delivered healthy and normal babies within the last few months. With the high activity metabolism of a Kobani mother and fetus, the gestation period only lasted between seven and eight months, which was an expected result. These were not preemies, because full term development didn’t take as long when tissues grew quicker, and organic superconducting nerves assisted in that faster development.
However, thoseprevious seven children (one delivery was twins) were the progeny of what was being called “early gene mod” Kobani. The child of Carol and Richard would be the first to be born of parents with genes that providedallof the gene enhancements available, or that were anticipated. The first full Kobani birth.
Their babywould inherit more new gene complexes than any of the previous children had, and one of those modifications was more revolutionary that any of the others. It was an ability never encountered in a life form of any species, on any world other than on this planet.
Koban was aworld with gravity 1.52 times that of Earth, with a significantly higher percentage of heavy metals and rare earths. Eons ago, that availability had provided primitive life there the building blocks for organic superconducting nerves. All subsequent higher animals on Koban had evolved to incorporate this lightning fast nervous system. That made possible the evolution of additional features, unique to this planet. The fastest, strongest animals ever encountered anywhere lived on Koban, in abundance.
Through the strange fortunes of a war forcedupon humankind by aliens, over twenty three thousand people were forcibly stranded on dangerous Koban. This was done by an enemy that called themselves the Krall, who had tested their captives for fighting ability. The captives were later left to die when the enemy departed Koban, to start a protracted war with humanity.
However,the marooned prisoners didn’t die, they adapted. Not slowly, through natural evolution, because that could never have proceeded quickly enough to save them. There had been geneticists and bio scientist left behind among those stranded thousands, and their militarily “worthless” scientific equipment was left stowed in holds of captured human spacecraft, which the Krall had permanently disabled from flight. Those scientists found a way for people not only to survive on the beautiful but highly hazardous world; but they proved it was possible for humans to thrive on Koban.
Genetic enhancements were the key to survival here. They began with the addition of well understood, but three hundred year old gene modifications originally designed for use in worker human clones. These made the clones more suitable for hard menial work, in harsh climates on hundreds of new colony worlds, and for fighting wars. That was before the practice of human cloning and gene modification was firmly outlawed under penalty of death.
The forbidden clone mods made survival barely possible on Koban, but left even those that accepted the changes facing a risky and grim future. With the ice broken on the legality of using gene mods to survive, some of the castaways chose to do better than simply scrape by. Besides adapting themselves to be safer on Koban, they wanted to make sure that the powerfully built Krall would be unable to dominate them physically, if they ever met again.
Every form of higher life knownto Man was based on variations of DNA. The scientists learned to incorporate favorable genetic features copied from Koban’s native animals. The chosen candidate animal for an organic superconducting nervous system was a fast and powerful tiger-like Koban predator, called a ripper. This second nervous system initially ran in parallel with the normal human nervous system. Later, they also incorporated the genes for the carbon fiber reinforced muscles of a ripper, as being most compatible with the nervous system selected as their model.
However,the carbon nanotube genes for making stronger bones came from a different Koban species, a dinosaur-like large raptor, which needed stronger bones to handle its greater mass in the high gravity. After the first successful Koban derived changes, the people with those features were super strong, faster reacting than a Krall, and much harder to “break.”
Thesefirst Kobanoids, the racial name they called themselves, were later described as having “early genes.” The first of these Kobani parents passed the Koban genes successfully to their children, who inherited all of the traits of their parents.
Then the science and technology of the genetic improvement process took a sudden leap forward, when improved medical equipment became available to the people on isolated Koban, after they finally managed to restore contact with now war torn Human Space. It had been twenty years of isolation for Koban, and human worlds were losing the war to the Krall.
War had always spurred technological developmentsthroughout human history, and technology was advancing, but it wasn’t enough. What was required was to match, and even surpass the Krall physically, a strategy that required use of outlawed biological and genetic technology. Something the Planetary Union that governed Human Space refused to consider. Koban was the only place where that illegal strategy had been applied.
The Kobaniacquired new families of microscopic biological nanites from allies in Human Space. Originally developed for repairing the bodies of wounded soldiers and civilian casualties, they could regrow limbs, damaged tissues and organs. The Koban based scientists modified them and were able to increase the growth and linkages of new tissues and nerves, doing it faster and more effectively. This was a necessary step to produce many superior humans, capable of fighting and beating the Krall, who were bent on the total destruction of a physically inferior human species.
Kobaniscientists succeeded in producing stronger, and much faster humans, who were better fighters than were Krall warriors. However, to be truly a new race of the Homo sapiens species, they had to be able to breed true with each other, and with unenhanced “Normal” humans of the general population. That ability was demonstrated with the inevitable mattings between Normals on Koban, those who avoided the alien gene themselves, and the early Kobani that some Normals came to love. Any gene mods used required that the recipients retain the ability to pass on their new genes to their offspring.
The leap in medical technology allowed multiple new desirable genetic traits to be added, and they were able to incorporate them all together, rather than one at a time. Had the Kobani incorporated the new genes in a more sedate manner, that phase might have resulted in some “middle gene mod” Kobani. Instead, the new nanite technology allowed a major transition, skipping ahead as five sets of new genes were incorporated simultaneously.
The people that received all of the changes were said to be “full Kobani.” Some of the young people with those changes did what impetuous lovers have always done. Mated and merged their genes.
There was a gene complex to provide the Kobani with low-light night vision and infrared heat detection, and one to enhance the sense of smell. These too were derived from the predatory night hunting rippers. Other genes were copied from a large flying animal called the wolfbat, which provided ultrasonic hearing, a capability that the Krall also had. Another mod was one that didn’t have an immediate effect, but would have a long-term implication for humanity, because it prevented aging once a Kobani reached their mid-twenties, and regressed the age of older Kobani to that same physiological age.
However, it was a revolutionary and unprecedented fifth gene complex, also taken from the amazing, sentient, and intelligent rippers, which had the greatest potential for immediately altering human social interactions.
It was a feature that gave the recipient a form of contact telepathy. It was a consequence of a rare mutation in the early evolution of the felidae family, involving their organic superconducting nerves. Every known member of the cat-like families discovered thus far on Koban displayed this capability. A touch, particularly by a nerve dense organ, would enable the exchange of thoughts, emotions, and mental images with any life form.
Aldry was a geneticistwho acted as a medical doctor at times, and the fetus within Carol was the first child conceived by two parents with Mind Tap, as the telepathy capability was called in humans. In rippers, the ability was called “frilling,” because the telepathy nerves were concentrated in a fleshy frill on the necks of those predators.
She and her fellow geneticists had designed the nerve dense fingers of human hands to be the most appropriate sites for the bestmind-to-mind linkage to the human brain. Although any tissue infused with nerves would serve to convey some degree of weaker mental communication.
There wouldcertainly be physical “contact” between a fetus and its mother. How might that affect the mind of a developing fetus? This provocative question had every potential Kobani parent concerned, and Aldry was one of those conducting research.
It was one thing to acceptand employ these gene mods as a consenting adult, or even to permit those as young as sixteen years old to elect to receive the mods, per the age restrictions in place for informed consent to request them. However, a fetus never has such an option, and how the potential exposure to unshielded adult thoughts might change them was unknown. Would Mind Tap contacts between the parents and a fetus alter their brain development? Their minds? Ensuring their babies had a normal childhood struck future parents as vital.
Richard reflected his and Carol’s concerns. “Will Mind Tap affect our baby? That’s what our own families have been asking us, Dr. Anderfem. None of them have the full set of mods as of yet, and they don’t understand details of Mind Tapping very well. Carol and I do understand, and even we don’t see how we can always shelter a still forming baby from ideas that are too mature for them to grasp. We’re worried about Ryan losing his innocence and missing a real childhood.”
Aldrysmiled. “I see you had a boy’s name picked out.” Then she offered some words of reassurance.
“Richard, we aren’t operating totally in the dark concerning mother and fetal mental contact. We’ve had rippers living with us since before you two were born. As you know, Kit and Kobalt were the first ripper cubs we raised, adopted as orphans into two families, and they have both become parents multiple times in the last twenty-three years.”
Theripper siblings were the best known of the cats, and they had lived among humans the longest. They hadn’t even met another ripper until they were nearly grown, being reared by their human “mothers and fathers,” raised with human siblings they considered brothers and sisters. Yet, the two cats had knowledge of wild ripper society that predated their first contact with other cats.
Aldry continued,“We know what Kit has shared with us, of what her unborn cubs can sense from her and what she can sense from them. She also has some faint memories of mental sharing from her own mother, when her mother had been hunted and shot. I know you’ve heard the story of the two people at Hub City she’d attacked and killed in hunger, because she was pregnant and trapped inside their electrified compound. This was long before we formed the partnership we have today. You two were adolescents when we made our first truce with the nearby wild ripper prides.
“Theripper knowledge Kit and Kobalt received all came as their mother lay dying, as she gave birth. It had to have been a traumatic event, but they don’t actually remember that.”
Carol asked,“You mean they filtered it out of their memories?”
A head shake from Aldry. “No,their mother did. She knew she was dying, and wanted them to know something of their heritage, so she gave them powerful images that they retained, but didn’t understood until older. She didn’t share terrifying images. They know a small amount of their father only because mom passed it along. He apparently died months earlier, in a dimly conveyed memory of a hunting incident. It might be why the mother was outside of her family pride and hunting alone. Somehow, she wandered into the Hub City compound when the electrified gate was briefly left open she became trapped, and found she had no wild game to hunt. She gave her cubs all the knowledge she could before dying.”
Richard raised an eyebrow.“You mean they didn’t get any images from good old pop via direct contact? I was thinking that would be something I might try. To let Ryan know me in advance.”
Aldry both shook her head and shrugged.“Aside from that being a risky and bad idea to try, Rich, I’m afraid your mental contact with your baby is going to be zero until after his birth. Kobalt has said he knew nothing of any of his cubs before birth, and little afterwards until they were weaned. Ripper moms and other females have the only permitted mental contact with cubs before weaning in their society, and mental contact isn’t at all what you might expect before birth. We think it’s going to be extremely limited mental contact between you and your unborn baby, Carol. If there is any at all.”
“Why? I saw his little handson the scan you just performed. He had one pressed against the sac just now.”
“Right,” Aldry agreed. “The placental membrane sac. That protective sheath that encloses your child. It has no superconducting nerves whatsoever. It is a near insulator for a Mind Tap connection with the baby’s hands, or in the case of ripper cubs, from a neck frill contact. We designed our hands to be the primary contact point for the nervous system responsible for our mental connection to our brain, and evolution put that contact area in the neck frill for rippers. However, evolution placed no nerves in the placental sac of any mammal-like species of any world. Please note that there were no nerves in the primitive egg shells that gradually evolved into placental sacs either.” She shrugged again, and continued.
“Of course, the human placenta isn’t identical to that of Koban mammal analogues, but one place where they do match is in the complete lack of nerve connections in the membrane of the sac. Think about it. What evolutionary advantage would there be for the mother to experience the painful tearing of that sac when giving birth?”
“What about through the umbilical cord that connects the baby to me?” Carol sounded rather plaintive.
“Carol, the umbilical vein supplies the fetus withoxygenated, nutrient-rich blood from the placenta, and the fetal heart pumps deoxygenated, nutrient-depleted blood through the umbilical arteries back to the placenta. However, there is no nervous system connection between you two via the cord.”
“Ms. Anderfem, I thought Kit and Kobalt experienced mental contact with their mother before birth.” It was obvious she had expected to sense the developing mind of her fetus, and was disappointed.
“The sac and umbilical aren’t perfect insulators, hon. Remember, we don’t have to make hand-to-hand connections to share thoughts, and any skin contact will work, even if not as strong or efficient a circuit. I think that nature has luckily provided a natural safety buffer for the fetus, who doesn’t yet have the mental faculties to process information concerning an outer world it has never experienced. I’d urge restraint and extreme caution with Mind Tap transmissions, even after the baby is born. Anything the baby sends out, you two as adults should be able to handle, but the reverse isn’t going to be true.
“Until we know more of how this ability will alteryour child’s mental development after he’s born, limit yourself to simple ‘baby thoughts’ even through the toddler years. Just as human parents have used ‘baby talk’ with their children since prehistoric times.”
Richard wasn’t satisfied yet. “Doc, how were the thoughts and impressions of ripper history passed to Kit and Kobalt by their motherif she couldn’t frill them? I’ve shared both of those cat’s thoughts on their pre-birth knowledge, just as soon as Carol knew she was expecting. New experiences have overlaid most of that for those cats, but they say they did have some knowledge at birth.
“They say they both were born with quite a bit of ripper lore and knowledge, and yet when I’ve played with cubs from Kit after weaning, or those from other ripper mothers, they don’t seem to know much ripper history or culture at all. As they grow older they do, but why not give it to them as fast as they can absorb? Kit and Kobalt managed OK, and thanks to our mods, we have a much larger mental storage capacity than a ripper.”
“Not a reasonable comparison.” Aldry rebutted. “Their mother was dying. She had only moments to give them information that might help themto survive, if they could. She probably did the equivalent of mental screaming to reach them. There was no other choice, and the humans that shot her were approaching her babies, as she gave birth with her last dying breaths. If they didn’t kill the cubs, as she hoped they wouldn’t, they would need the mental images she gave them when they were old enough to put the mature ripper images in context. The emotions they grasped right away. Kit says she and Kobalt felt and always remembered her love for them.”
She looked at the young couple earnestly. “Showing that you love your unborn fetus and the newborn infant is one thing, and those purely emotional images are surely helpful and healthy. Nevertheless, do you want to risk passing a kaleidoscopic lifetime of images to your child before, or just after birth? With no experience or context for any of them? As Kit and Kobalt’s mother had to do for them, in a final act of desperation?” She answered her own rhetorical question with a shake of her head.
“You have both been on raids against the Krall. You’ve felt fear, seen fighting, experienced terror,deaths, and considerable violence and gore. Those are extreme images and you’d never inflict them on your baby. However, even benign images for you might not be suitable for an infant. They have no knowledge of the wider world. How do you know what will frighten them, distort their perceptions of other people and life in general? What their boogeyman will be?
“We humans have tens of thousands of years of experience rearing our children, and we have always exposed them to the world incrementally. Were you allowed to watch the more graphic Tri-Vid news broadcasts, the violent entertainment dramas, or sexually explicit programs when small? With Mind Tap, that experience would feel far more real and frightening than when seen on Tri-Vid, which only enters their awareness through eyes and ears, not via direct mind-to-mind contact. Don’t be too quick to abandon tried and true methods simply because you can.”
They nodded, and listened. Like most young parents, Aldry knew they’d make mistakes, learnfrom them, and strive to correct them. At least a full Kobani could directly experience the unshielded mind of their child. A parent would know exactly what bothered them or frightened and confused them.
At least until the smart, rapid learning little demons learned they could block their thoughts, and tell mental lies with false images. Then, when they were inevitably caught at this activity, the modern equivalent of washing their mouth out with soap, or standing them in the corner would apply.
Probably, the most severe punishment imaginable to a child would be ruthlessly administered. The dreadedlong lecture, delivered in a manner where tuning the parent out would not be possible. A Mind Tap could be sheer adolescent torture in that case.
Please, mom and dad. Stop. I won’t do it again. I promise!” The parents would know a kid meant that, when they thought and said those words.
“Uh…, Doc,” Rich started tentatively, “you said Kit and Kobalt’s momprobably reached her children’s minds by mental shouting while under duress.” Would Carol or I be likely to inadvertently do this when under some form of intense…, uh… feelings?” His face reddened.
Aldry didn’t need to touch his hand for a quick Mind Tap to figure this one out. “You mean sex?” She smiled at his discomfort, andthen chuckled at Carol’s shocked realization of the subject he’d just brought up.
“Well, yea... Last night we…, uh, you know.”
Aldrypretended to look shocked. “My goodness, your neighbors in the nearby apartments heard you two? Didn’t you display any restraint or discretion?”
Carol slugged her husband’s arm. “You made it sound like we did something in public!”
She looked at Aldry, red faced.“It was passionate, but very private. We’d never disturb our neighbors.”
Aldry grinned.“I assumed as much. I was making a point.
“The normal tact you would use to guard your privacy is exactly the sort of mental privacy you maintain when using Mind Taps with friends, family, and of course with nosey strangers. You don’t accidentally reveal your personal and intimate thoughts to them because you wouldn’t want to do so.
“Parents have made quiet love with children in the next room, or even the same room, for as long as there have been people. You won’t warp a fragile little mind with your adult thoughts, because you wouldn’twantto do that. It won’t get past the mental privacy all of us with Mind Tap ability maintain continuously. Before birth, it won’t easily get past the placental sac to the fetus anyway.”
She grinned wickedly. “I shook hands with you both when I arrivedand sensed nothing. I had noideayou were such animals.”
Four years later,Ryan Seeker, the human ripper,as he thought of himself, was playing in his fully enclosed compound in the backyard of his mom and dad’s settlement home. He had played all morning with Kam, the young male ripper his parents had recently adopted, only a year after they moved out of the more congested Prime City dome. They thought Ryan would bond better with Kam in a more natural setting than an enclosed dome. As if that was even in doubt. Of course, he and Kam had instantly bonded.
At age nine months, Kam had been weaned for three months, and he liked his surrogate temporary mom, but he knew she was not to be his permanent family. He was the sole survivor of his litter, and was told his wild mother had died in a rhinolo stampede when he was four months old. Aunt Beverly was nice to him, but she wouldn’t let the little orphan get out and run in the woods and plains. She had made it clear that he soon would have a permanent mother and father. An actual human family pride to join.
Playing outside was something Kam knew wild rippers a little older than himself were allowed to do. Aunt Beverly was only protecting him she said. There were bad things outside that he wasn’t ready to face. Nonsense, he was a ripper! He could face any threat.
Ryan hadbeen begging his own mom and dad to adopt a ripper cub since he’d turned two, over a year and a half ago. One of his other kindergarten friends had a cub in her family now, and she was younger than he was! He was ready to take care of a cub!
The only outside playtime he hadat home was often spent alone, at their isolated gazelle ranch. He stayed cooped up in the “baby” box that ran the seventy five foot width of their house, extending thirty feet back. Anytime his mom or dad didn’t have the time to play with him, he was placed there to watch them work on the gazelle ranch. The enclosure was made of transparent and extremely tough flexible plastic, with side vent holes too small for him to pass through. That way his mom or dad could work outside in the feedlot or near the barn and still see him. The clear plastic curved up and twenty feet overhead, to attach to the back of the house, under the edge of the second floor roof.
It was astupid box! For babies! He was almost four, and he felt insulted, treated as if he was still a helpless infant. Their nearest neighbor’s house was a half mile away, and that single mom, “Aunt” Gretchen was always home alone (her husband had died fighting the Krall he had learned), but she had an empty-headed eighteen-month-old daughter that Ryan wasn’t allowed to Mind Tap. They knew he’d share more thoughts than her mother would want Ingrid to know about yet.
Ryan’sdad was often off planet, also involved with something to do with the fight against the Krall, doing it on different worlds. Both of his parents blocked their thoughts about what happened there. Before he was born, his mother had also fought the Krall. It was unfair. He wouldn’t cry or be frightened, not as he’d been of unknown things when he was small.
His dad came home every monthor two for a couple of weeks, and then he left again. Ryan complained that there was nobody his age to play with when he was away from school on weekends. Two weeks ago, before his dad left again, he said he had a surprise coming for Ryan. The flash hints Ryan could catch came only when his mom and dad would be holding hands and smiling. He suspected they were sharing mind pictures and thoughts that they were keeping from him. He was no dummy. He would sneak up on them from behind the furniture, and suddenly reach out to touch their joined hands. He sometimes caught a glimpse of what thoughts they were sharing, and it wasn’t always boring stuff about other people, or things for the ranch or house.
Aweek ago, he had briefly detected some of their hidden thoughts were about him, and was about something that would make him very happy. Only they had already exchanged the images of what it was, and he missed it before they shielded their thoughts and switched the topic to something else.
When he pestered them, they shared somethingwith him that wasn’t much of a surprise. His dad touched his hand and Mind Tapped him the supposedly great news, “I’ve instructed Sam to raise your computer access level next week, and if you stay out of arguments at school, I’ll raise it every two months.”
Ryanwas naturally interested in the expanded computer interface he would be able to get from Sam, the house Artificial Intelligence, but that was only an incremental boost in what he was allowed to learn from it already, and not full access. That was nothing new.
The real secretsurprise turned out to be the family addition. Two days ago, Kam came to live with them. To join their family “pride” as the ripper thought of them. Now that was truly a terrific surprise. It also gave him some new mental pictures and secrets to “trade” with his school friends. His dad had shipped out again yesterday, which Ryan had decided meant he had left on a spaceship not a large cityship, like the one he’d seen on the computer network about a water world colony.
Hehad told Ryan, “Help look after Kam for mom, and teach him the house rules. He isn’t allowed to hunt our gazelles. I’ll take you both out to watch a ripper hunt on the savanna when I get home. In another year you both can go on a hunting trip with me.”
Ryan couldn’t wait to go hunting. Literally, he could not wait! He securely blocked those thoughts.
The new source of ripper Mind Taps had given him someglitzyimages to share at school, because Kam knew about different things than did most kids, and he didn’t filter or block out anythingfrom Ryan.
“Brother,” offered Kam on his second day in his new home, “I can share some images that could be like those you asked if I have seen.” In milliseconds of mental contact, a kaleidoscope of thoughts and pictures were transferred.
Ryanlooked puzzled, but touched the cat’s neck frill and told him, “Those are funny images for sure, and I don't know what the people were doing. Anyway, I think I can trade them at school for something we both would like to know. Thanks.”
There weresecret things that his school friend Sanjay bragged that he knew about, which he wouldn’t share with anyone until they had something trulysnarkleyto give him in trade. Now Ryan had new currency.
At school, where all of his full Kobani friends were a couple of months younger than he was, he was better than any of them were at finding out things that their teachers or parents routinely hid from them. Hidden because they weretoo young to know,was the preposterous claim made by the adults.
Heoffered to share everything new that he learned with the others, unless they had absolutely nothing to trade in return. His new images had a price. As normally the richest source of shock value information for his classmates, he was the one that decided what was most valuable to trade. He personally wanted to know things about hunting. About how to hunt the sorts of animals outside the fenced homestead compounds, about the herd animals that lived on the savannas or browsed in the small groves of trees that dotted the area.
He wondered what happened in a war that was so bad that it was never shared with kids. He was curious about all the many things that their parents kept hidden from them. The more secret, the more it whetted his appetite to find out. He thought this urge to hunt, and learn secrets, was connected to the dictionary meaning of his family name, Seeker.
Adult’s mind pictures and blocked knowledge had become kid currency, and he was usually richer in that than his classmates were, because he was adept athunting downthe filtered adult level knowledge. He didn’t have that last name for nothing! He was a forty-two inch tall, fifty-three pound sleuth of truth (Koban weight, of course).
He likedto walk up to an unsuspecting new adult, politely offer his hand to shake, and ask a leading Mind Tap question as he did so. Such as, “Have you ever hunted a rhinolo?” On another person, he might ask about seeing a whiteraptor, or shooting a moosetodon or yak. Their minds weren’t as instantly on guard as would be the case if he asked something like, “Have you ever killed a Krall?” He knew they would shield, because he’d tried asking things like that a time or two. When he did, the adult’s mind became a granite wall.
He acquired manymilder, but still restricted images from adults, which came easily into a person’s unprepared mind when he asked them less shocking questions. At least before their mental walls gradually went up for that inquisitive little boy. He mixed it up, by using Mind Tap conversation with oral questions in his little boy’s voice, to keep them off guard.
Simplydiscovering that adults could hide their thoughts had been an awakening for him when he was only two and a half. After that realization, he practiced hiding his own thoughts, and learned through interaction with other Kobani children, how to block his thoughts from them while picking their open minds. Of course, at first they seldom knew anything of value that he didn’t already know.
His example, and success at learning new things, waseventually noticed by the other kids, as well as by the adults with whom he regularly came into contact. Adults without the Mind Tap ability were his richest source, because they didn’t automatically guard their non-personal thoughts very well, and oral questions seemed to keep them distracted enough that they didn’t consciously apply mental blocking as quickly as did a full Kobani.
The kids called this sort of mental slippingbrain leaks.His dad’s commander, Colonel Greeves, called thembrain farts.
He’d learned from his teachers that the mind structure, at least of every full Kobani, had developed amazing memory retention and instant data recovery. It was an unanticipated side effect of the ultrasonic mental maps of their surroundings they could construct, using gene changes for wolfbat ultrasonic hearing. The superb memory organizing ability didn’t seem amazing to him at all. Why would heeverchoose to forget anything he’d learned? It seemed impossible to do, and stupid even to try.
In the first hour of playing with Kam, and sharing mind thoughts, he discovered the young ripper had a considerable repertoire of human images, for which it had no context, or understanding. Some images Ryan understood instantlyand explained to Kam, others he didn’t fully grasp, and a few completely mystified him. Kam was the repository for things he had seen in his former keeper’s home, learned from visitors that frilled the little cat, or that Kam acquired from the few mature female rippers he had frilled.
The little ripper’sformer caretaker had not felt any inhibition in allowing the cub to see her private activities. She’d be horrified if she knew what was being shared with kindergartners now. Ryan had seen both of his parents without clothing when he was so small he still slept in a crib. He’d never seen them do some of the things that the woman that cared for Kam had done. He was sure he would figure it out in time. These were images of several naked adults, which he could save for trading with the other kids when he understood what Kam had seen, and decided on their value. It didn’tseemlike very valuable information, despite the level of secrecy displayed around children versus ripper cubs.
Kam wasmost interested in Ryan’s knowledge of the savanna in general, in the part within the gazelle ranch’s fencing, and of the animals raised here to sell for their meat. There was also apparently a market for their teal colored, beautifully marked blue and white hides, and the long curved and sharply pointed black horns. That was something that defied explanation for Kam. That stuff wasn’t edible!
Ryan’s parents, the neighbor woman Gretchen, who helped manage the ranch, and his teacher, Ms. Walters, all said the gazelles had been given the name of bluestreaks long ago, because they ran so fast.
Sinceevery herd animal on Koban ran fast, and many had shades of blue or teal on them, a color shared by Kam himself, that the name didn’t seem particularly unique to Ryan.
Once Kam was toldby mom and dad,in no uncertain terms, that he would notbe permitted to hunt, or even to terrorize the family’s moneymaking herd animals, his hunting interest shifted to outside the compound.
It was thehuman-sized gazelle’s speed and agility, which had intrigued Kam when he arrived, and he was only half their adult size at an age of nine months. They were what he told Ryan was normally considered a prey animal by wild rippers. He desperately wanted to hunt and experience a prey’s death mentally via frilling, and then eat his fill of bloody fresh meat. However, his new mom and dad had impressed on him how much trouble he would be in if he killed the “pride’s” herd animals. Oh well, there was even larger and more challenging prey outside of the family territory, which were not pride owned animals.
He’d had his first taste ofraw meat after being weaned from simulated ripper milk, fortified with ground meat. It was mostly cubed bits of rhinolo meat, which both Kam and Ryan knew was far too large and dangerous an animal for Kam and him to hope to hunt for at least a couple of years. Besides, the waste of more tons of meat than they could possibly eat would be something adult rippers said was a terrible, unforgivable thing to do for the mere pleasure of a hunt.