They say that the state of knowledge about a colony planetís natural history can be quite accurately measured by the Ąrat count". When the settlers arrive and take stock of the fauna, everything small and furtive is first referred to as a rat. In the course of a few years, this description is narrowed down to fewer and fewer animals, until only one particular species remains or the name disappears entirely. This means that Wild West is over and Linné has gotten another world into his clutches. It also means that other names had to be found for the rest of the creatures, and sometimes the misnomers get pretty bizarre. For instance, how the duck-billed monstrosities Iíve been watching for the last thirty minutes got stuck with the name of Ąegret" is entirely beyond me.
Up from where Iím lying on the streamís embankment, I can see a whole family of them cruising around between the thick stalks of the flowering reeds. They look like little dragon-prowed speed-boats, painted in camouflage colors. I am also gradually getting the impression that they have an uneven number of legs, but I canít be sure at this distance. Then I remember the sights of the hunting laser, and I lift the weapon from where it is resting beside me and bring the mounted telescope up to my eyes.
The laser is composed of plastics and hypocrisy, in about equal parts. Since mowing down the game with a continuous beam was not considered sporting by the manufacturers, it has been limited to short pulses separated by second-long intervals. Never mind that even the nearest miss makes no noise for the quarry to get alarmed about, and that, at low angles and if your prey is furry, itís likely to be set alight and burn up before you can get to it. But it is the only weapon that Chunder owns, although he has never fired it, or any weapon. Iíve at least been through Basic training, and know which end is front. So when my brother asked me to try and shoot the thing that is decimating his turkeys on a regular basis, I couldnít well decline and leave the business to his inept hands. Even though Iím on holiday. Thatís why Iím here, lying in wait for the culprit. Chunder even has a name for his poacher - heís calling her Old Pancake.
The egrets, looking even more like toys when magnified, have stopped their milling about. Now some are beginning to climb up the stalks on webbed feet, shouting abuse downstream. I note that indeed each of them seems to have a whopping seven legs, when a brownish shape moves through my field of vision, seemingly under the waterís surface. I jerk away the telescope. Clearly discernible in the twilight of the evening, an elongate body the color of old leather is navigating through the reeds in my direction. I bring the weapon up again. Evidently, Old Pancake is creeping up through the stream bed.
I have read up on her species. A musculus parvus, or muscle in the vernacular, is shaped in circumference almost exactly like two parabolic curves joined at the bases - God may not throw dice, but he certainly uses compasses. The body is flat except for a bulge about three-fifths of the length back, under which rests a cranium which contains all internal organs including stomach and brain. Two eyes on flexible stalks project forward from the bulge; a five-jawed, rather octopus-like mouth opens on the underside. The cranium is the only bone in the entire body - all the rest is one huge, immensely flexible muscle. All Musculiformes are predators; the larger varieties, on the two equatorial continents, weigh in at half a ton and usually bring down their prey by pouncing on them and breaking the cartilaginous excuse for a backbone sported by most of the local fauna. Since they themselves need fear no breaking of bones, they all share a consummate disregard for heights and caution in general.
Engineered turkey seems to agree with muscles, too. Old Pancake is almost one and a half meters in length if Iím any judge, and sheís progressing towards Chunderís flesh-pots like a rippling shadow on the gravel bed. Only her eyestalks are clearing the water. I draw a bead on them, try to steady my hand and squeeze off a shot.
The flicker of green light dissolves in a puff of steam. Then the muscle erupts from the water like a missile launched from a submarine - naturally, she doesnít know where that bite came from. To a chorus of egrets screaming their beaked heads off, she hits the sand on my side of the stream and makes for a clump of trees and bushes some thirty meters away. I fire twice more as she is whizzing by me, but fail to hit as she moves like a flat-fish trying to emulate a rabbit: an undulating glide interspersed with rapid dashes to the sides. When she reaches the bushes and dives into them with an amazing bound, a last shot seems to pierce her Ąfoot" near the right rim, but I canít tell for sure. Then she disappears into the shrubbery.
I scramble to my feet, snatch up the laser and run after her. At the edge of the trees I hesitate. That beast seemed large and fast enough to be troublesome, and she certainly is not fazed by a few flesh-wounds - owing to their rugged lifestyles, muscles seem to collect scars as other people collect 3deos. Yet she was running from me, wasnít she? I plunge into the bushes.
I have barely taken two steps into the greenish shadows when Old Pancake slams into my breast like a sack of wet clay fired from among the foliage, throwing me on my back and knocking the wind out of me. She must have taken to the trees immediately after entering the clump and now has decided to pull the back-breaking trick on me. She is botching the follow-up, though. Instead of chewing into my abdomen, she has chosen the butt of the laser to clamp her jaws around. This is not doing her any good - Iíve seen Chunderís daughter hit rocks with the thing, and what that girl canít shake apart should be pretty much indestructible. Still, Iím getting rather panicky, and instead of leaving her to the laser and trying to get away, I pull the weapon out screeching from between the mandibles. I hastily reverse it best as I can while lying on my back under the considerable load of the muscle. Always quick on the uptake but slow to learn, Old Pancake lunges forward with wildly swiveling eyes and chomps down on the nozzle. Not, in retrospect, a good idea.
For some seconds each of us is preoccupied, she trying to chew her way through the lens, me grappling with the elusive trigger. Just when I manage to push my fingers past the safeguard, Old Pancake is evidently getting second thoughts - like, ĄIf that really is part of his body, why isnít the guy screaming?" At the moment that sheís about to spit out the nozzle, I finally pull the trigger, blasting her from a distance that a soldier would call point-blank and anybody else would call damn well un-sportsmanlike. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the bolt exit through the top of the muscleís bulge, accompanied by a sharp crack - as the laser itself is noiseless, I figure itís her cranium expanding with the heat.
Old Pancake immediately goes limp, and her eyestalks slowly droop. Iím lying beneath her, panting and feeling heartily sick. Man, the Armed Forces definitely didnít miss much when I went into surveillance!
When I have wriggled out from under the dark mass, I decide to stay out here until my brother comes looking for me and revives me with something alcoholic.
A death-watch, if you like.
Also, I think Iíve broken a few ribs.
florian weller april MM
The Breaking of the Dam
The sword was lying on the scratched kitchen table amidst a fine scattering of metallic dust. It was an old Polish cavalry saber, acquired by his grandfather during the Second World War under circumstances that he never seemed too keen to talk about. The blade was sharp if slightly dented, and before polishing had been of the same dull luster as the ornate basket hilt with its frayed stump of a tassel. He had spent the better part of the afternoon etching it with the diamond bit of a glass-cutter; the designs he had used had been painstakingly copied off a blurred photograph of a 16th-century Turkish cutlass. As he rose from the table and walked around it to stand in front of the window, he carelessly swiped most of the dust onto the floor with a quick motion, staining his palms an inky gray.
He looked out across his overgrown garden, onto to the burned-out husk of the neighboring building. The setting sun, incandescently orange, was grazing the jagged silhouette of a splintered beam. It looked unreal in its huge size and with the flaring cloud-streamer projecting from its midst. Horizon illusion, he thought, and didnīt feel convinced. He was aware that he was losing the ability to rationalize. In fact, he knew that in order to strip all varnish of normality off his surroundings, he need only step outside and observe for an hour the procession of silent passers-by in the darkening street. Not all of them peaceful; not all still sane.
Not all human.
This as much as anything else had driven him to extract the saber from its dusty cardboard coffin in the attic, to make this bid for control and understanding of a changed world: the knowledge that there would never again be such a thing as an unenchanted evening.
Four months does not seem long enough a time for a civilization to crumble in. And the actual downfall, the evaporation of order, had taken mere weeks. But the blow was struck from a direction that had not even been known to exist, and with a force unprecedented in history. Therefore, cultures all over the world had not just toppled, but been smashed into pieces when magic came back into the world.
Two thousand years ago a dam had been built by one who wanted the world to change. It was not perceptible as such and intangible in its rise. Yet it stemmed a flow that had been as important to humanity as the force of gravity, and equally unrecognized in its role - the steady current of magic, giving meaning to reality. Now the wells of the mystical fell dry. As the nourishment of myths and fairy-tales dwindled away; as the last rivulets of magic shrank and disappeared; as the ministers of the new order did their best to seek out and destroy those who still had access to some tiny, secret spring, mankind settled the dry reaches uncovered by the damming. Slowly, replacements for the lost forces were found. As the centuries passed, more and more intricate designs appeared that no longer were hampered by the grit of the uncontrollable in their artful hearts. And all this time, while we progressed from hand-looms to electronics, the only evidence of the confined ocean was an occasional faint mist that wafted from its surface, condensing in a random dew of meaning where it was least expected; maybe, too, the deep regions where quantum physics tapped into the lowest trickles that could never entirely dry out. We had no idea that there could be anything more. So no one was prepared, the so-called industrialized countries least of all, when the dam broke - rather: was broken, intentionally - at the eve of the third millennium.
He glimpsed a shooting star flash into brief existence near the horizon, visible even against the glare of the sunset. Now, in May, there were less of these to be seen. He remembered the nights of January, when the newly frightening darkness had been shot through with dozens of meteors every hour - satellites burning up in the atmosphere, no longer kept in their orbits by failing computers. All over the world electronics were getting swamped by immaterial restraints; there presumably wasnít a functioning digital watch to be found anywhere by now, to say nothing of planes, and nuclear reactor controls (he had lived through the winter months without sickening. Many hadnít. Thinking of children was still painful).
Yet for every thing that was gone, something new - new senses, new sensations - seemed to have emerged. At night, he had heard the mice under the cracked concrete whisper of short and feverish lives in the dark. He had seen a little boy, easily in tune with his surroundings, float among the branches of a tree, fast asleep. He had seen a cat transform into a green-eyed woman under the moon. When she had smiled at him out of the darkness, with a predatory glint, she had seemed serene. Probably the cats had always known.
Coming to terms with the new reality was harder for some than for others. The more people had leaned on the crutches of technology, the harder they had fallen when the returning tide swept their feet out from under them. Organization was impossible; communication links all over the world were broken. The last TV pictures anyone had seen were those that signified the breaking of the dam - the pictures of the fireworks, launched to celebrate the new millennium, that had shaken as if in a wind and then taken on a new form before the image dissolved in white noise. He could still see it perfectly in his mindís eye: the red and yellow and green flares flowing together to shape the one word of condemnation, arrogantly confident that a secular world would still know its meaning -
- UPHARSIM -
- too light. After twenty centuries, still too light.
And he suddenly realized that what had finally prompted him to try and tackle this world was anger. Anger about being dismissed, with a single word in Hebrew, as if nothing had been achieved in these countless generations, nothing at all. The experiment has failed; leave the guinea pigs to die.
He turned and strode back to the sword on the table. Hefting the blade, he willed the runes to flash into blue life. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the hilt started to flow. Slowly, with languorous movements, it molded itself into a hand of metal, gripping his.
He smiled. This was in keeping with the rules as he was beginning to perceive them. A bargain where nothing was expected; a gift where a bargain was offered. Elated, he turned to the door.
A deluge was sweeping the world, crushing in its eddies the scattered flotsam of civilization. He felt that he was not going to be drowned by the wave.
He was going to ride it.
florian weller mai MM
Dawn is breaking as he enters the ravine that leads up to the lava beds. Although he is moving west, his sensitive eyes are already beginning to object to the gentle illumination seeping into the cracks between the basalt boulders. Padding up the steep incline with a rapid eight-legged gait, he tries to avoid looking directly at the patches of glinting mica that catch and reflect the pearly light. Thereís not much need to look around anyway - he uses this return route to his den after most of his nightly forays into the lowlands, and the territory is known to him. As he maneuvers uphill through the receding shadows, looking much like a rather heavy crocodile with too many feet, he is leaving a ragged trail of dried pond weed in his wake. The night has been spent mostly underwater, and with much profit - he is almost satiated.
What little appetite is left in him shoulders its way forcibly into his consciousness when he is passing the rocky knoll that marks the exit from the ravine. Thereís a most intriguing smell wafting over from the direction of the two boulders sitting on the knollís top. The smell says Ąfood". In his simplistic view of the world - in a nutshell, things to fight, eat, rape, ignore, and run from - this is by far the most finely partitioned category. It includes, among others, things to devour whole, things to gobble up by the maw-load, things to burrow into like a maggot into an overripe fruit, and the best of all, things encountered when not being hungry but which you cram in anyway because they taste so good. This smell happens to belong to an item of the latter kind. The urge to get out of the increasing brightness and into his lair is not really putting up a fight; up the knoll he goes, sniffing in anticipation.
The small furry carcass that is lying on the fine gravel between the boulders meets his expectations admirably. It is a couple of days old, so the flavors have had time to develop, he notes appreciatively. Turning his back on the offensive glow the rising sun is casting on the underside of the ever-swirling lowland clouds, he takes a nibble and finds he approves of the taste. Yet just as he is about to unhinge his jaws and do away with dessert in one gulp, he notices a flash of color in front of his face. He looks up, then hastily jumps back a few paces and starts hissing menacingly. Right in front of him, so close their noses must nearly have been touching, thereís another male, feeding with impunity on the opposite side of the same morsel! The offender has his head down and is taking a tentative bite. Intent on putting an end to this, he arches back his neck, bares all teeth in his crocodilian snout and emits a mighty bellow.
The other one goes on chewing pensively for a few moments, then suddenly rises his head, seems to do a double-take and backs up some paces. But he does not run away. On the contrary - his mouth opens in an aggressive gape, and his stance signifies defiance. Obviously, the challenge is met.
So be it! His species does not fight among themselves, but he has won more than one intimidation match in the past. He raises the first pair of legs from the ground and spreads his talons; his head begins to sway from side to side, and he fixes a baleful stare at his opponent. He has some trouble making out the other onesí form clearly, because the sunrise seems to be coming up beyond the curved neck (he does not find that odd in any way) - but after some heartbeatsí hesitation, he sees his posture being matched. The displayed claws appear to be of a rather large variety, too.
Rage flares up in his heart at this sight. The impudence! Well, if the invader wants to go the whole hog, let him try to beat this! He inhales deeply, tenses his neck muscles, then opens the flaps at the base of his jaws - and with the outgoing breath his gills fan out, in two magnificent arches that all but meet over the top of his head. He roars triumphantly at his opponentsí swinging shape, where no gills are to be seen. For a few tantalizing moments, it seems as if the other might break away and run. But then suddenly a twin bow flashes out to frame the hateful skull - and its spread is every bit as wide as his own!
His courage evaporates. Never yet has anyone matched the extent of his gill arches. This is frightening indeed, but he does not budge. He keeps his stance, swaying from side to side, hissing in defiance, as the world grows brighter and brighter, as his gills begin to dry out and his vision to fail in the excessive light. The opponentís form is becoming a black silhouette, then, by degrees, a mere blurred outline; still he does not flee. Then, as the sunís orb parts with the horizon, he finally gives up - retracts his sore gills, closes his parched mouth, pulls his legs under the body, and hunkers down in defeat. His last glance, before he tugs his head between his forepaws, shows the unwavering victor looming over him, claws extended, facing the sunrise with the sunrise at his back.
The two men arrived at noon in a balloon-tired transport which they parked at the base of the knoll. After ascertaining through a pair of binoculars that the crest was occupied, they climbed up, the younger one taking along a small canvas bag. Reaching the top, he at once with an appreciative whistle strode over to where the still form of a large male Eightpaw Saurian lay curled up like a dead caterpillar. As he lifted a gill flap to place a hypodermic, the Saurian feebly lifted its head and gave a weak hiss; but its body was rigid with submission paralysis. It received a shot, and soon started snoring soundly in a thoroughly crocodilian fashion.
Meanwhile, the older man had picked up a small furry object from between the boulders and was now shaking it at his companion with an annoyed air.
ĄWill you look at this? The bugger took off both haunches, and a good part of the back! Thereís no way I can reuse that one. Those things donít grow on trees, after all!"
ĄBut they do grow on trees, Mike", the younger one responded reasonably while unfolding a web harness from his bag and draping it over the Saurian.
ĄWhatever", Mike said irritably, flinging the corpse away. ĄIf we waste a whole arborabbit on every male lizard punk in this basin, weíll have to import them by the shipload. I think four seconds delay is still too long. He should never even have had time to touch the bait!" He walked over to the western boulder, reached up and peeled a thick, transparent foil off its face. He rolled the up the FlexiScreen and stuffed it in his pocket. The young man looked up.
ĄWell, set it to three seconds for the next one, but I wouldnít go below that. Now could you please signal the chopper to come and pick up this guy?" He gazed at the snoring creature again, with admiration. ĄWhat a huge beast! That must have been some showdown."
florian weller mai MM