Once Bitten: a short story
Tex Sloan swatted the resident lizard away and pressed his face close up to the cell bars trying to catch a breath of air that wasn’t so solid you could lean up against it. Sweat dripped monotonously from his hatchet chin, channelled down deep folds weathered into his skin; a skin tanned almost black through long, lonely, hours of deep space-hopping running too close to stars for comfort, and wondering when the law was finally going to catch up with him.
Not that the latter was of much consequence now, he thought bitterly as he eyed the sombre flag of the Fighters Against Moral Turpitude hanging soddenly from the pole erected in the square. He wondered sourly that they’d allowed anything so phallic to remain. Someone had, however, seen fit to hack off the finial, crudely and viciously by the look of the splintered wood, and Sloan winced at the thought.
One of the fighters walked by on the far side of the square, swathed from head to toe in the shapeless, identical, black garments they all wore, and shouted at Sloan to get away from the window. It was a man, the voice told him, although it would have been impossible to tell otherwise. It was, moreover, a man armed with Sloan’s own very sophisticated side arm that would effectively remove his head from the window if Sloan didn’t do it himself first. Wisely he complied, sinking to the dirt floor with a groan.
The rough stonework of the cell wall gouged his back unmercifully and he asked himself for the umpteenth time since his capture why he hadn’t bothered to check the political position before he’d jetted in. But then, he’d always had such rich pickings from Validor before. How was he to know that the moral minority had suddenly got lucky? Politics and religion always were a dangerous mix. He groaned again as he thought of the harvest he could have had: impecunious colonists willing to sell their surplus daughters (and sons) into a life of debauchery right across the Galaxy (or high-living, it all depended on how you looked at it). Those same surplus sons (and daughters) had always been more than willing to go, too.
And who wouldn’t? Who wanted to live on Validor anyway, hot, stinking, humid, devil’s armpit of a place that it was? Certainly not Sloan. But here he was and here, it seemed, was where he was destined to stay until the FAMT decided what his “punishment” was to be. Judging by the crudity of the hatchet job on the flagpole he shuddered to think what that might be. These new boys didn’t take too kindly to loose living, evidently. Up to now his trade had been the easy option and the living so loose it rattled. The surprising change in regime since his last trip had now made it no option at all and Sloan wondered what had happened to allow the FAMT to grab power – and what had happened to the former bosses of the colony, and the majority of colonists come to that. He hadn’t seen a woman since he had arrived and the formerly swarming settlement was apparently now almost deserted, apart from the Fighters.
The hatch on the cell door slammed open, something was thrust through, and the hatch slammed shut again. Sloan groaned some more. Dinner. And he didn’t have to see it to know what it was. More stinking, slimy, lizard. They might at least have the grace to take the tails off. The chef had no imagination. But, then again, perhaps he did.
Sloan poked around in the bowl distastefully with the wooden spoon and reluctantly transferred a portion to his mouth. To the side of him one of the raw ingredients scuttled up the wall and another gazed unblinkingly at him upside down from the ceiling. With the Validorian lizard so abundant it was hardly any wonder that they were such a staple ingredient of the local diet. And, Sloan thought, probably a major contributory factor to the acidic turn of mind that seemed to have come over the population: anyone forced to live on this gunk was bound to turn into a terminally dyspeptic tightass - he should have seen it coming. Shuddering, he grasped the tail between his fingers, sucked the sour flesh from the body and tossed the remains into the corner. One of its larger living relatives pounced on it and bore it away eagerly, fast outpacing another of its kind hard on its tail. They both disappeared out of the window, which is where Sloan threw the rest of the meal, gagging. He hammered on the cell door with the bowl.
“Hey, Ahmed whatever the hell your name is boy, how’s about some real food in here?” he yelled through the hatch. The Texan drawl twanged back at him from the empty corridor. That’s all that did. Disconsolately he returned to the window and risked a peek outside again. The black-garbed guard had gone now and, tantalising above the tree line, Sloan could just make out the tip of the eponymously named “Slaver”, squat and ugly on the outside, sleek and state-of-the-art on the inside, fast as sin, and twice as hairy when the cards were down - and absolutely useless where it now was. A lizard ran up the wall from outside and squat on the window ledge, regarding Sloan stonily. Sloan stared stonily back. “Beat it fellah” he said. The expressionless eyes bored into his.
Lizard is as lizard does, and the Validorian species, though much larger and more nimble than their Terran counterparts displayed much the same characteristics but for one thing: they had teeth. As Sloan found to his cost, when he made to bat it away. “Yaagh! you little bastard” he yelled pulling his hand away and inspecting the tiny puncture holes. Droplets of blood oozed. The lizard sat splay legged on the ledge, head drawn back, and blinked slowly, then skittered away as Sloan lunged for it again. He watched it scurry across the dirt of the square to a small scrub bush where it seemed simultaneously to stop and turn around 180 degrees, in the manner of its kind. From the safety of the bush it regarded Sloan impassively again then abruptly slap-legged off in pursuit of a low-flying insect. Sloan swore after it and sucked at his finger, scattering a few smaller lizards that had appeared.
The following day he endured the meal with more fortitude, simply because he was hungry having thrown his previous meal away. He stirred the tiny skeletons around with his spoon and hoiked around in his mouth for the smaller bones that had got caught in his teeth. The lizard was back, a distinctive stripe on its repugnant skin clearly identifying it. It squat on the floor under the cell window unmoving. It had brought in with it something dead-looking and disgusting. Sloan looked at the reptile sourly. “You’re back, huh?” he asked. “You want to finish what you started yesterday? Well, forget it pal. Scat.” He heaved the bowl at it and the remaining contents cascaded out like unwelcome guests at an ossuary wedding. The lizard left its prey, snapped up the skeletons in its mouth and went up the wall like it was horizontal and out through the window. “Cannibal too, huh?” he threw after it and stirred the dead-looking object with his foot. It buzzed briefly and expired. A small lizard skated down the wall, scooped it up and exited through the window.
The door clanged open and Sloan’s some-time resident guard pushed in throwing a washing robe at him. Behind him another guard poured water into a low barrel. It was a ritual that never failed to amuse Sloan. Cleanliness being next to Godliness the FAMT had taken the aphorism to the extreme, and bathed at least three times a day, donning the washing robe underneath the working robe before they took it off: ‘For nakedness is an abomination unto the Lord’, as the guard had said the first time he introduced Sloan to the practice three days before. For him - one of the damned anyway - the ritual had been cut to one a day. For a soak in a cold tub three times a day Sloan had almost convinced himself that he might have been persuaded to sign up, but one a day was all he was ever likely to be getting, so he made the most of it.
Taking great delight in provoking the guard’s fury he deliberately stripped naked before pulling on the robe and dunking himself in the bath, which was of necessity left in the corridor because it was too big to go through the door. Rules is rules and a bath below regulation size wouldn’t have had the required cleansing effect. In a pig’s ass, Sloan thought as he wallowed luxuriously in the tepid water.
He had thought about making a break for it on previous occasions, but there was only one way out and that was blocked by a thug who managed to look evil, even under the ubiquitous black robe. There were only two cells in the block. Up until two days ago the other one had been occupied - by something that communicated only by screams accompanied by what sounded suspiciously like something hard hitting soft body parts - and then even those had stopped and nothing had been heard since. Sloan saw that the cell door was now open and the cell empty, apart from the usual friggin’ lizards. Friggin’ lizards were everywhere. For creatures that like as not would end up as tomorrow’s casserole they had to be some dumb assholes to hang around. The guard threw him the dried stem of some plant these people used for back scrubbers and urged him to use it. The thing had serrations like a rasp and the first time Sloan had tried it he had drawn blood. Scowling, he went through the motions.
The corridor ended at his cell. In front it extended only some four or five metres to the barred door. Sunlight, filtering through the forest, threw dappled shadows a short way across the dirt floor until they lost themselves in the gloom beyond. Sloan didn’t like to think about what hung on the wall beside the door, or what hung down from the ceiling above, clanking occasionally as the guard paced back and forth waiting for Sloan to finish his ablutions. What he did dream about was the keys to the cell door which lived in a pigeon-hole affair in the far wall, but they may as well have been hung from the flagpole outside for all the good the dreaming was going to do him.
He sighed and wallowed in the bath, letting the back-scrubber float free. The guard gave a snort of distaste at such a blatant display of enjoyment and snatched it out of the water. He threw it on the floor, gesticulating angrily to him to get out. “Okay, okay, okay, keep your yashmak on! I’m out, I’m out!” As he stood there, dripping, one of the larger lizards on the wall ran down, grabbed the scrubber by the stem and dragged it off, slithering through the outside door like lightning. The guard thrust Sloan inside his cell again, threw a clean robe after him and slammed the door.
There was no need to towel down. Sloan just dragged the washing robe off, screwed it into a ball, threw it into the corner and let the heat evaporate the water off his body. As quickly as the water steamed off, the sweat oozed out and soon he was as hot as ever. He drew the clean robe on just to soak up the sweat. The soiled washing robe in the corner jerked around as two lizards vainly tried to drag it up the wall. Sloan kicked out at them. “What is it with you guys? You scavenge every friggin’ thing? Scat!” The lizards scatted to the window ledge and regarded him coolly, mouths agape, before turning and scooting outside.
Just for a change the meal that night was not lizard. When he had finished Sloan almost wished it had been, it had been bland to tastelessness, but it had been filling. The bowl rocked on the floor and Sloan steadied it with his foot; the striped lizard was back and trying to drag it away. “You’re nothing if not persistent” Sloan said, digging out a morsel of glutinous gristle from his back teeth and flicking it at the animal which grabbed it out of the air like it had never been there. Sloan found another piece in the bottom of the bowl and tossed it. It disappeared the same way and the lizard froze expectantly in front of him, eyes the colour of a dead man’s with about as much life. It crawled a few inches closer and sat there staring implacably. “You’re one sassy son of a bitch” Sloan said, hoiking out a final scrap of meat and offering it with his fingers. The lizard darted its head, threw the scrap down its throat, and nipped Sloan’s finger almost in the same movement. Sloan snatched his hand back, shaking it. “You friggin’ little ungrateful ... Jesus!” The lizard reared back defensively then, unhurriedly, waddled over to the wall and scooted up, pausing on the window ledge, then disappeared through the bars.
Over the couple of days Sloan and the lizard got more acquainted. If nothing else it relieved the boredom and the nips became, if not less frequent, at least more predictable. Sometimes he had even been able to stroke the creature on its head without the inevitable accompanying yelp of pain. Despite himself he was coming to anticipate the company. “Jesus H. I’m talkin’ to a friggin’ lizard” he muttered as he found himself coaxing the animal a few inches nearer. When it didn’t show at the regular time he found himself worrying it was on the next evening’s menu. “What the Hell! It’s a lizard. There’s hundreds of the friggin’ things”, he said, throwing his hands in the air.
There were. Sometimes the cell floor seemed alive with them, scavenging for what they could pick up. It seemed they were nature’s ultimate scavengers. Anything not screwed down or too heavy was quietly abstracted away, even Sloan’s waste matter from the bucket in the corner on occasion - and that made the thought of lizard stew even more repulsive. They even brought stuff in, and then others took it out again. The striped one always came back in the end, renewing acquaintance with the usual nip. Sloan had come to expect it.
It was bath night again when the lizard showed after a night’s absence. The evening meal had long gone, but Sloan had saved a few morsels. The guards had begun the laborious process of dragging the bath in and filling it when Sloan heard a scraping at the window and the lizard heaved itself over the window ledge, dragging something behind it. It dropped heavily to the floor and squat there, sides heaving. The object it had dragged in stayed wedged between the bars. Curiously Sloan pulled it out. It was the friggin’ bath back-scrubber one of the animals had sneaked off with the other night. “How the Hell had the critter been able to drag this?” he wondered. He hefted it. It wasn’t very heavy, but even so. Then he hefted it again and tested the barbs on his thumb. It wasn’t very heavy, but it was sure unexpected, especially when thrust suddenly into someone’s eyes. The bolt shot back on the door and the lizard ran back out through the window, taking with it a stray twig that another had just brought in. Sloan tucked the scrubber behind his back.
The black-garbed guard loomed in the doorway and slung the bathing robe into the cell. Sloan felt his mouth suddenly go dry and he tightened his grip on the saw-toothed brush behind his back. “Dress!” the guard barked, fingering the antique projectile weapon thrust into his belt. Sloan approached and bent to pick up the robe, then launched himself at the guard, whipping the scrubber out and down in a round-arm action, cutting across the man’s unprotected eyes and forehead in a single slash that shredded flesh almost to the bone. The guard shrieked and clawed at his eyes, lurching back against the cell wall and leaving Sloan just enough space to dart through, slamming the man’s head hard against the wall as he went. The guard bounced back off the wall and buckled to the floor, groaning
Alarmed at the commotion, the second guard filling the bath in the corridor dropped his bucket of water and wheeled to face Sloan who erupted like an avenging angel out of the cell door. The element of surprise was largely lost, however, and although the guard had no time to draw his weapon, Sloan’s second round-arm slash was parried by a hastily upraised arm. The barbs of the scrubber caught in the material of the man’s robe and was dragged from Sloan’s hand as the guard pulled his arm back. Sloan froze and watched as the man began to reach for the vicious-looking knife tucked into his belt ... and saw the victorious glint in the big man’s eyes turn first into amazement as he realised his hand was not getting anywhere near the weapon, and then panic as the barbed back-scrubber entangled itself even further amongst the hanging folds of the loosely-fitting robe, completely immobilising his arm. Quickly Sloan scooped up the gun that the first guard, slumped half-in and half-out of the cell door, had dropped and cracked the other across the head so hard the gun flew out of his hand and rattled off the wall by the gaol-house door. The guard went down as though someone had taken the bones out of his legs and upended the tub of water as he fell. Sloan leapt over him, splashing through the slopping water and tardy lizards caught in the swell and grabbed the keys from their niche. He bent down to pick up the gun ... and caught sight of the butt-end rapidly disappearing through the bars of the gaol-house door beneath a splay-footed body. “Hey, you thievin’ bastard! Bring that back. Jesus H ...!” Hurriedly he let himself out of the gaol, locked it again, slung the keys away into the jungle and gave chase to the lizard and its unlikely prey ... but the undergrowth was too thick, and all he could do was sprawl there watching the gun hauled away in fits and starts. He lay there, breathing heavily and swearing.
The clearing was quiet. It was the time of day when nothing much happened. “When nothing much happened”, Sloan thought ironically. “I’ve just half-killed two of Validor’s sons of lightness, broken gaol and God knows how many petty restrictions and nothing much happened.” He ducked down the side of the gaol-house, away from the open square, and squirmed through the brush in the general direction of away. The ubiquitous lizards parted before him like a bow wave. “I just wonder how much longer nothing is going to happen” he muttered to himself as he scrambled through the undergrowth, skirting the fringes of the clearing.
He had no clear plan in mind, other than to make for the “Slaver” and get the hell away. There were, however, a number of difficulties with that plan, admirable though it may be. Such as, the FAMT would probably have it guarded like a reliquary, he had no effective firearms to blast his way through, thanks to the lizard ... and the two guards in the gaol house had come to quicker than he had anticipated and were now hammering on the door to be let out. Shit! Acting on impulse had always been a fault of his. If only he’d had the foresight to tie and gag them it would have bought him more time.
He flattened himself on the ground, feeling the gnarled tree roots dig into his ribs like iron plates, as the door of a building just beyond the bush he was sprawling under was flung open and an inquisitive black-garbed figure stood on the threshold trying to establish the cause of the commotion. He barked a command into the hut and set off at a run across the clearing in the direction of the gaol. Soon two more figures ran from the hut and followed him, shouldering firearms. Sloan watched them go with interest. Where there were two firearms, he reasoned, there might be more. There might also be more bodies in the hut, of course, but nothing ventured …
He picked up a lump of wood and slipped around the blind side, sidling with his back pressed up hard against the rough wood of the building. There were few windows, and what windows there were had a film of grime on them, so it was difficult to determine what, if anything, was inside. He took a chance and launched himself through the door, rolling on his shoulder in classic commando style … and then felt rather foolish, for the room was empty. Except for the lizards, of course. They scattered like an explosion. The door had only been open for an instant but already the place was awash with them all but stripping the place apart as they carried off anything remotely transportable that was within their capability. Sloan rather doubted that a 5kz fully automatic light-bolt puncher was within their capability to carry away, which is what he had been hoping for, but the point was largely academic because there was nothing in the hut at all. Nothing save a bare table and a couple of chairs and the remains of a frugal meal that was getting more frugal by the second as the lizards freely helped themselves. “Shit!” He gave vent to his feelings in the only way he knew how and made to duck out of the hut again.
From the corner of his eye he caught the flash of movement to his left almost before his head had cleared the opening, and he ducked back in again. Then a familiarly marked shape scurried around the door frame and up the wall, pausing half-way up to favour Sloan with an impassive gaze before it hurried on to the ceiling, paused, and dropped onto the table grabbing hold of the choicest morsel remaining and carrying it off. It scurried over Sloan’s foot and disappeared around the corner. “Are you friggin’ following me?” he threw after it, and slipped off back into the jungle just as a confused shouting started up in the direction of the gaol-house. Doors slammed open in the huts nearest to the building and black-robed figures hurried out. He didn’t wait to see any more. Weapon or not, he had less than ten minutes or so to make the ship before they had it surrounded like a wall.
The ten minutes passed quicker than any that Sloan had ever experienced. And he was right. They did have it surrounded like a wall. Carefully he parted the leaves hanging around him like a shroud and peered out. The “Slaver” sat, squat and ugly, in the centre of the landing area, while an angry-sounding leader dished out orders to guards whose robes made them appear as broad as they were tall and, primitive though they were, the weapons each had made even thinking about a frontal assault suicidal. He gazed longingly at the hatch, battened down ever since he had landed and likely to stay that way forever now, for it responded only to his tactile command. It must have been troubling his captors a good deal, for the fabric around it looked dented and scarred, as though repeated attempts had been made to force it. The power-key they had confiscated from him on his capture had been a keepsake, retained out of nostalgia once the system upgrade had been installed on his last run. Obviously no-one had yet bothered to ask him why it didn’t work. Out in the backwoods it was unlikely that anyone would have heard of anything other than a mechanical means of accessing a ship’s systems. But for all the good it did the ship was just about as useless to him as it was to them, unless he could get clear access to the sensor panels alongside the hatch.
Lying there in the undergrowth the jungle encroached upon Sloan’s senses more than it ever had in previous trips, largely because previous trips had usually been spent in bars and dancehalls on the scout for useful talent. Now the hum of myriad insects droned incessantly in his ears, the ‘whoop’ of tree-living creatures echoed amongst the roof-canopy and the ‘tick-tick-tick’ of some monotonous creature weaved in and out of the individual sounds until the backdrop became almost like a living wall paper, oppressive and threatening. Each rustle was a warning, each slither a caution. But there was more than that. In the distance, through the thickness of the jungle, he dimly heard a systematic threshing. The bastards were beating the jungle, closing in a ring on the haven of the “Slaver”. Shit!
The noise excited more than the local wild-life. The guards patrolling the clearing grew animated and started scouring the fringes more closely, weapons at the ready. Sloan slowly slithered backwards through the undergrowth, thankful that the racket the beaters were making and the shrieking of the retreating wild-life masked any sound of movement on his part. Lizards boiled over his feet as he inched back. Some were crushed under his heavy boots, but it was almost inevitable, there were so many of them. Distastefully he swept the mangled bodies away. Immediately they were grabbed by their fellows and borne off, despite the panic that so obviously gripped them. Panic that was just beginning to take a hold of Sloan. Impetuous had always been his middle name. If only he’d stopped to work out an escape plan before he plunged out into the jungle … if only he’d thought to tie and gag the guards in the gaol-house before he made his escape … if only he had any idea at all how the hell he was going to drag himself out of the hole he’d just dug …
A large fruit, disturbed by the passage of an arboreal creature, fell to the ground in front of him, narrowly missing his head. A fleeing lizard grabbed its stalk in its mouth as it passed and made off with it, laboriously. Up! The only way was up! The thought came to Sloan with such blinding clarity that he could only wonder he hadn’t thought of it before. The ring of beaters now sounded perilously close and, as if any prompt were necessary, it forced him to make the decision.
A moment later he was squat in the fork of a large tree, trying desperately to look like a fungal growth, while fleeing creatures vaulted past him and the first line of beaters swept beneath his vantage point. They met up with the ring of guards around the ship with much angry gesticulation and a gabble of upraised voices. Vaguely, through the intervening leaves, Sloane glimpsed the Leader thrashing around him with a whip-like switch in the manner of someone surrounded by idiots who was facing a firing squad if he didn’t come up with the goods.
Nature then drew a welcome veil over events as night began to fall and Sloan relaxed as the Beaters were whipped off back to the village. The ring of guards around the ship was reinforced, however, and since each was now lighting a pitch-blend torch, it seemed they were there for the night. Sloan swore under his breath and stretched out on his branch, gauging just how he would get access to his ship before they figured on setting fire to the fucking forest to smoke him out. Light faded like someone had a hand on a gigantic dimmer switch and flickering torchlight gleamed off the automatic weapons each man held, tantalisingly bouncing off the pitted metal of the “Slaver”, almost within spitting distance but as good as a Galaxy away. Sloan settled himself along his branch resignedly and put his brain into overdrive.
Suddenly he became aware of eyes boring into the back of his head, and felt, rather than heard, something slithering down the branches behind him. It was then that Sloan realised he knew precious little about the Validorian fauna, particularly the sort that crept about treetops in the night. He froze along the branch, hoping to look like a piece of flaking bark, then a sudden, raucous, cry from deep within the forest raised the hackles on his neck. The cry was taken up from all quarters, only gradually dying away with Sloan’s racing heart. The silence that followed was all the more terrifying as he felt the slither getting closer. Slowly he strained his neck backwards, hoping for a glimpse of what was about to devour him whole ... and then stifled a cry as a heavy body slap-footed its way across his back and over his head, planting a foot in his mouth and stopped along the branch some way in front of his face. The shape turned round, almost as if on a central point and faced him, gaping a lipless smile in the reflected light from the torches, the light stripe on its back a streak against the dark foliage.
“You!” Sloan, breathed, once the adrenaline rush had finished draining his legs. He laid his head with relief on the branch, almost sure that the guards could hear his pounding heart. The lizard gazed back at him, expressionlessly, and inched closer. “Scat! Haven’t I got enough trouble without you scaring the shit out of me?” He waved his fingers at the animal hoping to chase it away. The lizard gazed impassively at the waving hand and then quickly nipped Sloan’s middle finger, retreating further along the branch.
“Yiipe!” Sloan swore under his breath. “You slimy bastard! I hope they get you for the pot!” The lizard gazed at him for a moment with pin-point eyes and then turned tail and disappeared amongst the branches. Sloan inspected his finger by the intermittent light of the torches, swearing softly. Then, there was a thrashing of leaves ahead, from the direction that the lizard had headed. It sounded like something falling off the end of a branch and crashing through the leaves to the ground. “Good!” Sloan breathed venomously. “Serve you right!”
He eased his position on the branch, wondering what to do next, when there was a sudden flood of light below from one of the patrolling torches. The disturbance in the trees had obviously attracted the guard’s attention, and Sloan pressed himself closely along the branch. Light flickered amongst the leaves sending shadows dancing into the canopy, reflecting from what seemed like a thousand flashing eyes as insects whirled towards the flames. Then, from in front, there was a sudden flurry of activity that sounded like something climbing clumsily back into the tree. Sloan swore horribly as the questing torch tried to pick up the movement and wavered back towards his perch. The lizard ran back along the branch, chased by the flickering light, slap-footed its way over Sloan’s body and scooted higher into the branches in panic. He raised his head to snarl quietly at the retreating lizard ... and looked down straight into the astonished, yashmacked, face of the guard and the burning torch.
There was a moment of mutual surprise and then the guard drew breath to yell for assistance ... but never got that far, for there was a quiet yelp of what sounded like desperation from above Sloan, a scraping of claws, a rattle of branches and a tearing of leaves, and something long and splayfooted hurtled past his eyes and fell heavily straight onto the upturned face of the guard. The man went down without a word and stayed down, with the torch all but extinguishing itself in the undergrowth.
Sloan took his opportunity. Quickly shinning down the trunk he heaved the lizard from the man’s face by the tail, snatched the guy’s weapon out of his hands, and slammed the butt end into his jaw, putting him out, before hauling the drab clothing off him by the guttering light of the torch. “Thanks, pal” he breathed to the lizard, as it slowly orientated itself and began to crawl away. He leaned the weapon against the tree as he pulled the heavy gown over his head and bound and gagged the unconscious guard with his own belt and handkerchief. Shaking with adrenaline, Sloan leaned against the bole of the tree with his hands while he caught his breath, then picked the torch up before it set the jungle alight. When he turned to the gun, all he saw was the butt end being dragged off into the thorny brush underneath a splay-footed body. Swearing he dived after it, but never got a finger tip to it. “Not again, you little shit!” he gritted under his breath. “I’ll have you for breakfast if it’s the last thing I do!”
Gasping, he stood up, consigning all lizards everywhere and their freakin’ thieving habits to hell and damnation, and took stock. All things considered, he had more of a fighting chance than he had a few moments ago. The enveloping gown was the perfect disguise, and the darkness was an ally. All that remained was for him to stroll nonchalantly to the ship, ask the big bruiser standing just outside the hatch to hold his torch for him while he I.D’d the sensor-plate, calmly walk in, shut the hatch in the bruiser’s face ... and blast off.
There wasn’t much alternative, really. The guard had probably been missed by now. Someone would probably have seen him coming into the forest and was even now probably wondering why he wasn’t coming out. Sighing, he trudged heavily towards the jungle’s fringe ... and trod on a squirming body which ‘yipped’ and squirmed away. He waved the torch and glimpsed a tail streaming away into the undergrowth, and then another, and a weave of reptilian bodies at the periphery of his vision, darting away. “Friggin’ lizards”, he swore. “They’re everywhere!” He paused to pick up a heavy branch, slipped it inside his gown, and stepped boldly out into the clearing which was more a lengthy runway slashed into the forest built for the antiquated prop air-craft the colonists used. In the centre it bellied out into a circular pad that doubled as a turning area and a landing pad for the occasional space-craft that called. By the overgrown appearance of the facility it was clear that the “Slaver” was the only space-craft to have called in a long, long, time: he should have noticed that when he jetted in.
There was a steady procession of torches parading around the ship and the fringes of the forest. The flames strobed across the clearing like an overture for Hell, with the Devil’s dark minions robed-up for the last Satanic Rites, armed to the teeth with hardware. Without the crutch of a gun he felt as though he was walking himself to his own funeral and clutched at the branch beneath his gown for comfort. Surprisingly he wasn’t challenged and, on the third circuit, followed the lead of some others ahead of him and joined in a criss-cross pattern, bringing him nearer to the ship. He tried to look menacing, inching all the while across the clearing towards the “Slaver”. But the move brought him even closer to others on the cross-over pattern. He nodded curtly and grunted to the robed figure approaching him, and thought he had got away with it. Then, from behind: “Hey, you! Where’s your weapon?”
It was a bowel-stopping moment for Sloan, but not as bowel-stopping a moment as when there was a sudden burst of rifle-fire from the fringe of the jungle and bullets sprayed across the clearing, pinging off the side of the “Slaver”. Sloan hit the ground without thinking and there was a pandemonium around him as other figures had the same idea and threw themselves down, unslinging their own weapons and opening fire randomly. The guards didn’t seem to have any clear idea of where the fire was coming from and, indeed, it seemed to be shifting, alternately firing into the clearing, up into the air and then back into the jungle, the muzzle flashes weaving to and fro. Sloan didn’t much care what the reason was. It was a pure gift. He half-ran, half-crawled across the clearing, came up to “The Slaver” and threw himself down beside the bruiser, who was casting around trying to pin-point the commotion. He barely threw Sloan a glance.
Sloan lay there for a moment to gather his breath, then suddenly clapped the man on the shoulder, pointing away into the darkness urgently. The man brought his weapon round to cover the supposed danger ... and Sloan brought his improvised club down on top of his head. He folded without a sound and Sloan scooped up the guy’s rifle and crawled over him to the sensor-panel.
The firing from the jungle had now stopped and, dimly seen in the dawn-lightened gloom, hooded heads were warily raising themselves from the ground. Sloan stood and nonchalantly leaned against the side of the ship, placing his palm against the panel. There was a click of relays that sounded like thunder to his ears, and the hatch - oh, so slowly – began to crack open to a whine of servos ... and the KRAKE,KRAKE,KRAKE,KRAKE of the intruder klaxon that, too late, he realised he had forgotten to turn off when he docked.
The heads all swivelled towards him, as the sun threw its first rays across the treetops and into the compound, illuminating him as though spotlit. “Ohh, thanks a bunch!” Sloan intoned under his breath and swung the rifle to the ready, spraying a stream of bullets above the heads of the nearer guards and willing the hatch to spring open wide enough for him to fall through.
Just then the firing started up again from the boundary of the compound as erratically as before, but coming nearer. Thinking themselves caught in a cross-fire the guards tried to dig themselves into the ground and Sloan peered into the lightening gloom to try to discover who was laying down the covering fire. There was little to see. The muzzle flashes came from down low, and jerked around as though the firer was in the throes of an epileptic fit.
The frame of the hatch brushed Sloan’s shoulder just then and he lost no time in tumbling backwards into relative safety and slamming the CLOSE sequence, covering the open doorway. Answering fire was now beginning to come from the prone guards, both towards the forest and to the ship and Sloan winced as the bullets ‘spanged’ from the hull and ricocheted past the narrowing doorway.
The firing from the forest was now quite close, and the reason obvious: three dimly-seen lizards were squabbling furiously over the weapon that had been dragged away from the unconscious guard in the forest. Each time they rolled over the ‘fire’ button was obviously depressing. Sloan was hardly surprised to see that he recognised one of them. He shook his head in wonderment as he fired a last burst through the doorway and threw the now useless weapon out, leaving the hatch to finish closing, and hurried into the command room to fire up.
The familiar whine of the power units thrilled the soles of his feet, and he wound the wick right up. The sooner he got away from this steam-heated rock the better. He slumped into the pilot’s seat, listening to the blister of slugs against the hull, and revelling in the sight of the enraged settlers seething with rage beyond the porthole. The klaxon finally ceased its screeching as the hatch clanged fully shut, and Sloan hammered the accelerators. Beyond the rising clouds of dust he could see the settlers falling over themselves to get out of range of the thrust. He tore the mask from his face and threw it into the corner, tossing a salute through the port. “So long, suckers ...”, he said, “... and screw you. If you’ll pardon the expression.” He laughed and pushed the throttles to full capacity feeling the thrust force him back into the seat.
Later, in orbit, he sat looking down at Validor swimming like a green jewel in the velvet black of space and slowly shook his head. Reaching for his client-list, he scored out a line heavily, and threw it back onto the console, setting a course on the navigation unit for the next planetfall. He also put in a call to the Central Polity Bureau to check the current state of insanity prevailing – there was no way he was going to be caught that way again.
A sudden clatter behind him made him start, and he whipped around in his chair, just in time to see a flicker of movement disappearing behind a floor console. But it was the rifle slowly oscillating to a stop on the floor that held his attention: it was the one he had thrown away just before the ship took off.
He reached for the hand-gun strapped to the side of the chair and gingerly rose to his feet. A pair of eyes stared at him unwavering from the corner. Unblinking eyes, set underneath a white stripe. “You!” he breathed. “How in holy hell did you get on board?” The lizard slapped out warily from the corner and dragged the rifle off again. “I might have known! Like a dog with a stick! What am I gonna do with you?”
The lizard dropped the rifle again and regarded Sloan with snake eyes. Sloan shook his head. “For one dumb animal, you sure earned yourself a free ride. You saved my life, you know that?” The lizard’s unblinking stare never moved. Sloan shrugged. “Well, I could’ve been saddled with Sindorian Swamp Hog, I suppose. Welcome to “The Slaver” fella. We make a helluva team.” He put out his hand to pet the animal. It bit him.
Sloan yanked his hand away and stanched the flow of blood. “Yeah, well”, he said “I suppose you don’t have much reason to be grateful to the likes of us, do you? Still, you got no cause for grief over where we’re goin’, pal – they’re all vegetarians there.” He grabbed a biscuit from the store cupboard and tossed it. “Make the most of that – we’re low on provisions. I never got the chance to make up. What the hell do you eat, anyway?” the lizard eyed the biscuit impassively and stared stonily at Sloan. “Hell, suit yourself, boy. I’m gonna get me some sleep now. It’s been a helluva day.” He shut his eyes, tilted his chair and put his feet up on the console. “See you in the morning, fella.”
The lizard sat there patiently as Sloan slept ... and was joined by another, and another ... and another. Behind them the disc of Validor retreated rapidly into the dark. In front of them, had they the wit, stretched limitless possibilities – but first ... the prospect of a good meal. Sloan stirred and opened his eyes and the last thing he saw was endless rows of tiny teeth.
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