St'gre'h'ri-e stood in the saddle of her mount to scrutinize the land ahead of her. Something was disturbing the Plain Lines.
The vast plains of Boughari appeared to offworlders to be completely without feature, so flat that it was said that a man could see his destiny walking towards him if he could see far enough. But to Steg's seasoned eyes, the barren landscape became a pattern of telltale signs. The currents of the wind, the rustlings of small animals in the tall prairie grass, the play of dual sunlight, the clouds of tiny insects, all joined together to tell the seasoned herder all she needed to know. Of course, she had the latest in Corelian UV/IR scopes among her equipment, but the girl prided herself on being able to read the plains without the need of offworld tech.
Completing her survey, Steg dropped back into the saddle and spurred her mount forward. The antelope hesitated, and let a low chuffing sound escape its elephantine snout. The girl reached forward to stroke the animal's flank.
“Yes, B'eri, I saw it, too,” Steg said quietly. “The Plain Lines are wrong. We need to find who's disturbing them.”
This was Steg's first major test. She'd been on countless scouting parties, ever since her talent for reading the Plain Lines had developed. Now for the first time she was Point Scout, and tasked of all things with the yearly trek to the Rutting Grounds. She couldn't afford any mishaps.
Now she relied on B'eri's keener sense of smell as they slipped quietly through the tall grass. The wind currents above her told her the direction from which the disturbance came, but her mount would smell the source long before she could.
B'eri chuffed again and lowered her head. She'd caught a scent! Steg felt the antelope's body tense as it stalked its way forward. Steg recognized this stance in her mount. A 'lope was trained to stalk only two things. One was a cheert, the coyote-cats that prowled the edges of the herds in search of nerf too feeble or too young to keep pace. The other – well, Steg suspected that would be at the end of this trail.
Before long, the scent so obvious to B'eri became discernable to her rider as well, unmistakable among the natural odors of the prairie. Fuel exhaust! Steg was right. Poachers! The smell of their ships clung to them wherever they went on Boughari. Now the task was to determine whether they were licensed or not.
Of all the planets where nerf were cultivated, it was on Boughari where the species originated. But the Herdmasters were not so foolish as to assume they could maintain a firm grip on the vast herds that roamed the endless grasslands that comprised most of the planet. Poachers there would always be. So an elaborate system of licensing had been developed, to control and benefit from the activity.
As B'eri progressed quietly, Steg took out her airgun and sent a series of staccato blasts into the stalks of grass behind her. Within moments, another rider threaded his way through in response to her summons. It was young Gr'bh'ou, Steg's runner.
“Do you smell that”? Steg asked the boy. Make every moment a teaching moment, that was the way of the Herd. “Off-worlders are so used to the smell of their machinery that they don't even notice it. But if you want to be a scout, you'll learn to recognize the slightest whiff of it.” She leaned in to the boy. “Now, Grub, you head back to the Herd as fast as you can and alert Master L'her'h'i. I'll follow with a full report.”
The boy nodded earnestly, then turned his mount and disappeared. Steg smiled. Grub would make a fine scout in his time. Already he could thread his way swiftly through the thickest grass with barely a whisper to mark his passing.
She cut her evaluation short as a new scent made its way to her nose. Her eyes narrowed and her body tensed in anger. Ionized air! Were these poachers so foolish as to have brought their own ship? Did they think themselves so clever as to flaunt the Cardinal Law of Boughari?
One view of the offworlders' camp confirmed it. No need to look for license markings now. Any novice licensed poacher knew better than to land a ship on the Home of the Herds, outside the confines of the Port. Yet there it was, and on the fringe of the Rutting Grounds at that! Someone was mightily impressed with their own cleverness, Steg thought to herself. And for that they'd pay dearly.
Once out of range of the poachers' camp, Steg spurred her mount and set the 'lope bounding at full speed across the plains. Soon she spotted the cloud of dust in the distance that indicated the oncoming Herd. As she drew nearer, she began to make out the forms of the lead animals, and, looming over the others in the center of the herd, the Ur-nerf.
These magnificent beasts were unique to the nerf of Boughari, and marked the planet as the true Home of the Herds. The Ur-nerf, their multi-antlered heads held high over the vast multitudes of their progeny, lumbered forward in disregard of them, and the herd, as though conscious of that fact, maintained a respectful space around the huge creatures as they moved.
Finally, Steg spotted the outriders of her tribe, with Grub bounding ahead to meet her. "Point Scout St'gre'h'ri-e," he called out in formal address, "Master L'her'h'i awaits your report."
"Runner Gr'bh'ou," Steg gave the conventional reply, "Lead me to him."
“A ship, then,” Master L'her'h'i said quietly. His eyes met those of his fellow Herdmasters, gathered to hear Steg's report. Though outwardly calm, Steg noticed a deeper furrowing of Le'her'h'i's brows that belied his anger, the natural anger of all herdsman at the idea of offworld machinery sullying their grasslands.
“So close to the Rutting Grounds,” rumbled Master Rh'oub'h'ur. “They never learn, do they?”
“Greed and ambition,” said old Master Tr'ian'h'o-u sagely. “Ur-nerf antlers demand a high price out there. And the poacher who can supply them rules among his kind. There's no cure for greed and ambition.”
“One, perhaps,” Master Rh'oub'h'ur replied. “We shall see.”
“Indeed,” said Master L'her'h'i. “This shall be dealt with as custom demands. Prepare the mounts. Point Scout St'gre'h'ri-e, your runner has watch on the poachers?”
“Yes, Herdmaster,” Steg replied.
“Good. Return and take up his watch. We shall join you presently.” The Herdmasters rose and exited to their mounts, all but Master L'her'h'i, who stretched his neck and took a deep breath. The customs satisfied, he was now free to speak more casually.
“So, Steg,” the older man's eyes glinted in amusement, “your first foray as Point Scout and you bring us a ship of poachers. Impressive.”
“Half of the hunt is luck,” Steg said, using the old proverb to stifle her swell of pride.
The old master laughed, then leaned forward. “And are you prepared to speak for the Herd, as custom demands?”
This time Steg broke into a wide smile. “Of course, grandfather,” she said. “I've been prepared by the best teacher on the Plains.” And with that, she was off.
“That's my girl,” L'her'h'i said, watching her mount her 'lope. “What a Herdmaster she's going to make.”
Thola Cagra leaned over the dashboard of his ship, peering into the scope at the herd as it filtered into the Rutting Grounds. This was going to be perfect. They'd made their landing completely undetected, of that he was sure. Not a single sensor sweep, no alarm transmissions, nothing to give them away. Now they hid in tall grass awaiting the right moment.
The key was the scale of the project, Thola thought to himself. Too many fools tried to bite off too much at once. Sure, there was good money to be made in home-grown Boughari nerf meat, even in prize Boughari breeding stock. But one good antler from one of those Ur-nerf and he'd be set for life. A small ship and a skeleton crew was the key. They'd wait until the animals were in full rut, then spring the ship from its hiding place, grapple the antler, and blast it free before the Ur-nerf had a chance to react. The grasslands weren't patrolled, so it would be an easy matter to get away with the prize in tow. And a ship this small would barely register on the sensors. It was foolproof.
“How much longer do you figure, Thola?” Rico asked. It was hard to share his brother's enthusiasm, however logical his plan had sounded.
“It'll take them most of a day to settle. I think we'll get our opportunity sometime after dawn,” Thola replied with a grin. “Just hang in there, little brother. We'll both be rich men by noon.”
“You think so?” said Rico, gazing with wide eyes out the port window. “We've got company, Thola.”
Thola leapt up to join his brother at the window. A group of riders were clearing out the tall grass behind the ship. The rows of stalks fell to reveal a group of stern looking nerfherders mounted on antelopes, with a girl in front of them on foot, her 'lope standing at her side.
“We didn't figure on ground patrols,” Rico said bleakly.
“That's not a ground patrol,” Thola snorted. “It's just a bunch of nerfherders. We can handle them.” He grabbed their jackets and thrust Rico's to him. “Okay, Plan B. We're photographers for the Senate's Nature Survey. Suit up and look official. And relax. Just follow my lead and we'll be fine.”
Thola straightened up his jacket, took a deep breath, and opened the port. The two brothers strode down the ramp to the ground, smiling broadly at the stone-faced herdsmen.
“Well, hello there,” Thola said, looking for a sign of reaction.
The herdsmen remained silent.
“I… um… suppose you're curious what we're up to here.”
No one moved.
“I'm Thola Cagra, and this is my brother Rico. We're photographers, you see.”
Silence. “I've got a bad feeling about this,” Rico said quietly.
“Just keep calm,” Thola murmured to him. He met the girl's stony gaze and smiled his most winning smile. “Yes, we've… uh… been sent as part of the Senate Nature Survey. I'm sure you're aware of the survey. I can show you our paperwork if you'll just excuse me.” Still facing the herder, he began to edge back toward the ship.
“Poachers,” the girl suddenly intoned in a commanding voice.
Thola froze, a fleeting look of panic crossing his face. He turned to mount a defense. “Now wait -” But it was clear that the girl hadn't asked a question. She went on.
“You are in violation of Article 1 of the Trade Charter of Boughari, having landed a ship outside the borders of the Port. You have failed to obtain and display a proper poacher's license. And you have approached within range of this herd's Rutting Grounds.”
“Well, we -”
“You may also be guilty of impersonating officers of the Senate, but that is not an affair of ours.”
Thola's shoulders drooped. Rico groaned.
“For any of the other offenses, we are authorized to administer punishment. But our time is ill spent on such as you. You will be escorted to the Port, and remanded for transport off this planet. You will not return on pain of death.”
Thola smiled. “I'm sure that -”
“Your ship is forfeit.”
Thola stopped, thunderstruck. “Our ship?” He looked at the Herdmasters, who had remained silent and motionless. “You don't want to do that. I mean, you can't just let her up and impound our ship. That's – that's Senate property, that is.”
“We are not here to negotiate, poacher,” the girl said with a slight uptilt of her head.
“I'm talking to your bosses here,” Thola said, trying to retain a polite mein.
The herder girl was unruffled. “They are not here to talk,” she said. “They are here to observe and verify that procedure is correctly followed.”
Thola decided to change tactics. “Tell you what, um…” he said, meeting the girl's eyes with a charming smile. “I didn't get your name.”
“You're correct,” the girl said simply. “You didn't.”
Thola hiccupped a bit, then went bravely on. “Yes, well… You said you don't want to waste your time with us. So, why don't we just take our ship and leave? You'll be rid of us, and we'll turn ourselves in at the Port. You can have us tracked to make sure.”
“Let it be, Thola,” Rico said quietly. “We're caught, that's all. Can we let it be while we're still in one piece?”
“Are you crazy?” Thola hissed from the corner of his mouth. “We can still pull this off. But not if we turn the ship over to a scruffy bunch of nerfherders. Now stick with me!” He spoke up, still trying to get the Herdmasters' attention. “Look, I'll be honest with you. We're not with the Survey. But we do represent some powerful financial interests, and I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement that will be worth far more to you than this one ship of ours.”
“The ship is of no value to us,” the girl said evenly. “But it is no longer yours.” She turned to face the riders behind her. “Now, the Herdmasters will bear witness that proper notice has been given of the offense to the Herd. Having fulfilled our requirements according to convention, sentence will now be carried out.”
Rico took hold of his brother's shoulder. “Look, you're not getting through to her. I know we're losing the ship, but they're letting us go. We're not going to get a better deal.”
Thola leaned in. “Rico, look at these people! You think they're just going to drop us off, no questions asked? They're just as likely to cut our throats the first night out.” He stole a glace at the girl, who was still conferring with the riders. “Now, when I give the signal, we get back to the ship. We can hold them off long enough to start engines and get skyborne.”
“Hold them off!” Rico's face went pale. “We can't do that. We're in enough trouble as it is!”
“I don't mean shooting anyone. Just scatter them and keep them out of range until we can take off.” Thola's eyes glinted. “Maybe we can still grab one of those antlers on our way out.”
“You're kidding me!” Rico spat out, barely maintaining his composure. “You can't seriously think we still have a chance to pull that off!”
“Well, why not? Once we're airborne, what are those nerfherders going to do? We just have to… I mean, we just…” Thola's voice trailed off as an odd sound reached his ears.
“Thola,” Rico said, his gaze now focused on the girl, who had turned back to them. “Am I hearing things, or is that girl – singing?”
So it was.
St'gre'h'ri-e, Point Scout of the Annual Trek to the Rutting Grounds, sang out in a loud, strong soprano that rang out across the Plain. The melody was high and penetrating, and the brothers listened, fascinated, as her notes soared into the sky, bolstered by a low chant that now issued from the Herdmasters behind her.
“What… is…” Thola struggled for words against the music that seemed to pulse around him. The Runners had taken up the song as well, providing a tenor counterpoint to the Herdmasters' rhythm. All the while, Steg's high, clear voice seemed to draw him up. He took a few steps forward, Rico still holding his shoulder. They could hear, amidst the song, the sound of restless bleating from the herd.
“Thola,” Rico said quietly. “Do you feel that?”
Thola looked at his brother dazedly. Suddenly, he felt a subtle vibration under his feet. Dust began to rise from the ground, like fog from a lake, as the vibrations gained intensity. From a distance beyond the ship, a low rumbling cry issued as if in response to the shrill, staccato notes of the song.
The brothers turned to look as the ground shook beneath them. As they watched, a huge, many-antlered head loomed above the ship, followed by another, then two more. Rico grabbed Thola by the jacket, and the two of them flung themselves into the protection of the herders, who throughout the song had remained completely still.
As the brothers watched in horror, the four Ur-nerf, their eyes red with fury, attacked the ship. Their bellows mingled with the wrenching sound of tearing metal, crunching circuitry and shattering plastiglass, to punctuate the strident song still issuing from the herders.
Finally, having reduced the ship to handfuls of rubble, the great beasts turned with baleful eyes toward the gathered group of herders. But the nerfherders' song had already begun to change. The high, shrill notes disappeared, replaced with low, sweeping tones that wove a soothing pattern into the air. The chanting transformed into a gentle, coddling rhythm. The Ur-nerf stood stock still, the blaze slowly receding from their eyes. One of the beasts shook itself, turned and headed back toward the herd. Another followed suit, then a third, leaving only the largest Ur-nerf.
St'gre'h'ri-e stepped forward, her voice descending now. She approached the great beast and stretched out her hand, as the choir of herders grew silent. The huge Ur-nerf, its eyes fixed on the girl, bowed its immense head, and as the girl's song vibrated to a gentle close, she rested her hand on the muzzle of the creature. They stood there a moment, then Steg stood back, and the Ur-nerf rose once more, and strolled docily through the remains of the ship to return to the herd.
Steg returned to her mount and swung herself into the saddle. As the Herdmasters spurred their 'lopes forward to rejoin the herd, she looked at the two brothers, still cowering among the trampled stems of grass. “Runner Gr'bh'ou,” she said, “Please convey these offworlders to the Port.”
“'Morning, Jerz,” the Port Authority guard yawned as he stepped behind the counter. His companion was already stacking the night's reports. “What's new this morning?”
“Hey, Tabs. Nothing much. Couple of poachers brought in overnight.”
“What's their story?”
“Same old tale. Turned over by yet another tribesman with a name you can't pronounce. Apparently they'd taken a ship out there.”
“Oh, for – you're kidding!” Tabs shook his head in disgust. “Anything we have to do?”
“Nope. Rider said it was already handled. I just filed the report. They're off with the next transport.”
“Just as well. Last thing we need is to have to deal with some odd tribal matter.”
“Amen,” Jerz said, handing Tabs the key codes and heading out the door. “Nerfherders. Who can understand them?”