This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
Checking the tracker he saw his quarry was moving again, heading away from him slowly. Very slowly… it had only covered another forty metres by the time he caught sight of it. He was still a good sixty metres away but had a good shot. He settled down into a crouch, bracing the rifle against a tree and using the computer enhanced telescopic site to bracket his target. Sure enough it had a dead sheep which it dropped to the ground. Lance started to squeeze the trigger but something made him hold back, release the pressure again. He knew he should take the shot while he could but something wasn’t right. Then it clicked. The sheep. Prize ewe? If it was then Lance would hate to see the rest of the flock. This mangy creature looked like it might well have dropped dead before the Gasro even caught it. There was little flesh on it, one leg was badly crippled and its wool coat was patchy. No wonder Old Peter hadn’t wanted him coming out here. He was obviously planning a little insurance fraud, not to mention the animal welfare charges he’d face for letting an animal suffer in that condition.
That didn’t change things though. Lance re-sighted on the Gasro but again held back. This time he knew why. Two young Gasro had appeared from the undergrowth, crept close to what must be their mother and started to pull chunks off the sheep. With a sigh Lance dialled down the power levels to medium. The adult still had to be killed. No exceptions were allowed. With the reduced power and a clean shot he could make sure the young survived, that they at least had a chance. Small as it would be being orphaned at their age. Lining up the shot again he zoomed in farther, locking the mothers head in his sights. And saw a flash of silver at her neck.
Puzzled he zoomed in even further. The digital display took a second to adjust and then he saw it. A control collar. Unmistakeable to someone with his two careers, they were heavily outlawed and both police and gamekeepers were dedicated to stamping out their use. The devices were high technology, far higher than that normally seen on this world. Somehow, and Lance would freely admit to not knowing the details, they allowed control of any creature much more complicated than a worm. The level of control varied according to intelligence with more intelligent creatures, or humans for that matter, able to be set complex tasks. There was no way to resist, no way to fight. On human subjects it was known that the persons core sense of self remained untouched, often screaming inside against what they were made to do but with no external sign. Any human captives kept under control for long needed extensive therapy to even begin to recover. For animals it was almost always best to put them down.
Lance powered down the rifle, keeping the scope running. Something was very wrong here. This close he could tell the point of origin of the tracker signal to within centimetres, and when he checked he wasn’t surprised to find it was the collar. Old Peter had more on his mind than insurance fraud and animal welfare. This was a far worse crime, one likely to get him life in jail if he was lucky. Then again no one had ever caught a live Gasro. On the black market the price must be incredible.
The mother had sunk to the ground now, was shaking her head – clearly in pain. Even trying to rub at the collar but its design was too strong, too flush to her skin for it to be removed so easily. So it was running, as if he’d had any doubt, and yet she was fighting it. Had fought it well enough to attack Old Peter, to grab the ewe and make her way more than three miles out here to her children. The pain must have been incredible. Lance’s heart went out to her. And he made his decision. Powering the rifle down completely he swung it onto his back, stood and started walking slowly towards mother and children.
When he was ten metres off the cubs noticed him, shuffled back into the undergrowth growling. He wasn’t scared of them. They truly were young, the size of a toddler and with the same lack of balance. The mother would be the danger. She lay on the ground but her eyes were following him. He could see her immense arms ending in bare pads now but they had razor sharp talons that could extend like a cats. He raised both hands, turned out to show they were empty. Slowly moved closer.
“It’s all right girl,” he said softly. “I’m going to help. Just let me come closer and I’ll get that thing off you.”
He knew she couldn’t understand him. He hoped his tone would work. When he was two metres away she let out a low growl, her claws starting to extend. Lance stopped, waited. After what seemed like long minutes but was probably only twenty or thirty seconds the growling stopped and the claws were pulled back in. Hoping that was a sign of trust Lance slowly took a step forward. She was still watching him intently but there were no more growls. Heart pounding he crouched down beside her, so close she could snap his head off almost without moving. He had no choice – the control linkage for the collar sat against the front of her throat. He slowly reached down to his belt, lifted his multi-tool up. She growled again and he froze, breathing heavily now despite his best efforts.
“I’ve got to use this girl,” he said softly. “It’s the only way to get it off. I hope you can hold back just a little longer, I can tell you don’t want to hurt me and that you’re scared and in pain. Just give me a little longer.”
As he talked he slowly moved the tool closer to the collar. After a few seconds the growling stopped again. Taking a deep breath he hoped that was a good sign and he moved the multi-tool the rest of the way. It interfaced with the collar immediately. Routines devised specifically to deactivate control collars kicked in and within seconds the collar was dead. Lance reached up with his other hand, clicked the manual release and slipped the collar off. He leant back slowly, watching the huge creature in front of him carefully. He was completely stunned when she lifted her head and let out a deafening roar, mouth almost by his head. She lurched to stand on her back feet, towering over him as he sprawled back on the ground. She let out another huge roar then dropped to all fours, face flying towards Lance’s. He’d always thought of himself as a brave man but this was too much. Squeezing his eyes shut he tensed for the killing blow. When it came his heart nearly jumped out of his chest, but instead of pressure or pain he felt a huge, hot, wet tongue licking the side of his face. Shocked he opened his eyes, just in time to see the mothers huge tongue as she gave him another lick. The tension of the hunt and the shock and fear of the last few moments transformed into laughter. He couldn’t help himself, lying there being licked by an animal that few people had seen let alone got close to he laughed himself silly.
When he managed to get control of himself, and the mother had finished wetly sandpapering the side of his face, he realised the young were back. They were pulling at the sheep’s carcass again but there wasn’t much there for them. The mother settled down again, clearly exhausted from her long fight against the collar. Lance realised she wouldn’t be out hunting food again soon without eating herself and the two young would need feeding. He removed his pack slowly but the mother seemed relaxed. It was widely thought that Gasro were intelligent as animals went, partly because they’d never been caught by hunters or traps. She seemed to have decided he was a friend and to trust him. Or possibly she had no energy left. Either way she didn’t react to his actions.
Digging into his pack he brought out the emergency ration bars. He only had ten but they were packed full of energy and vitamins. One could keep a man going for a full day. They should be enough to keep the young Gasro going. They were nervous at first, but he bit a little off and offered some to the mother. She took it, ate it, so her cubs followed suit. In the end he gave each cub three and the other four to their mother. Then he pulled together his pack, made sure the collar was sealed in his pack, stood and started to move away. The mother lifted her head so he stepped back, laid a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll be back later. I promise. You rest.”
She seemed to understand, settling her head back and making a deep rumbling sound. The two cubs went to her and cuddled up, keeping warm against the rain. Lance made sure the location was in his tracker so he could find his way back then he set off.
Lance should have headed straight back to Old Peters place to find out where he’d got the collar, who he was to sell the captive Gasro to. For the moment he was more concerned about the Gasro and her cubs. Returning home he grabbed a large box of ration bars, dropping them into his rucksack, and started to walk back to where he’d left the creatures.
By the time he arrived the light was fading fast. All three were where he had left them. At his approach the mother’s head rose, taking him in, but there was no growl and she soon lowered her head again. Settling down by them he opened his pack and started opening and giving out the ration bars. This time there was no hesitation, the two young cubs were snuffling the bars even before he’d unwrapped them. The mother ate more too. Between the three of them they got through forty bars, almost half the supply he’d brought. Lance had one bar himself, he’d had nothing else to eat since lunchtime.
By now the light had almost completely faded. He knew he should be getting back, the walk in the dark would be tough but the sooner he started the sooner he’d get home. The mother started her rumbling again and the two cubs moved to curl up against her. Lance, sat almost against her chest, found one of the cubs half nestled into him. He decided to wait a few minutes, to let the cub fall asleep before moving it so he could leave. The mothers rumbling continued, a soothing sound. Within a few minutes Lance found his head nodding. He leant his head down on the mothers soft fur. Lulled by the soothing noise and the warm softness of her fur he fell deeply asleep.
* * *
Lance woke the next morning to sunlight on his face and a loud snuffling followed by a sneeze. Opening his eyes he saw one of the cubs head buried in his backpack trying to get at the ration bars. Laughing he pulled the backpack off its head and started distributing the food once again. By the time all the bars had been eaten even the cubs looked full, and the mother was clearly much recovered from her ordeal. She stood, stretched, then dropped to all fours again so her head would be near Lance’s. She gave him one last lick on the face, then turned snorting to her cubs. Lance watched as the three of them disappeared into the trees, surprisingly quietly for such huge creatures. Gathering his things he turned for home smiling the whole way back.
After dropping everything off, showering and dressing in clean clothes he set off for a much less pleasant task. Old Peter might have dabbled in theft and fraud before but now he’d taken a huge step up. If he was lucky he’d get hard labour for life. If not he’d get the death sentence. The federation wanted to stamp out use of control collars and used draconian punishments to achieve that. Though having seen the impact on the Gasro Lance wasn’t so sure they were draconian any more. Maybe the punishment did fit the crime.
He arrived at Old Peters place, rang the bell and waited. The door was opened by Vince, the towns undertaker, and one look at his face told Lance all he needed to know.
“When?” he asked.
“Not long after you left yesterday. Just too much damage. Did you get the beast that did it?”
Ah yes. That was the problem Lance had been putting off. Legally he had to kill the creature. And he hadn’t.
“Yes,” he lied. “I caught it late last night. Shot it, finished it off at full power. Nothing of it left.”
“Good!” replied Vince. “Good. Means we can sleep safe at least. You need to see him?”
“No. Not for now. I’d better go fill out the report.”
Lance turned away, headed for the town hall. Technically he’d done wrong, he knew that. But in his heart he was sure it was the right thing. The Gasro had clearly been provoked. Somehow Old Peter had gotten the collar on her, probably using the sheep as bait, but despite that she’d kept fighting. Had battled her way back to her children. Lance knew that the fact a Gasro could resist the collars could never get out. If it did every Gasro would be hunted down by agencies with huge funding. By the federation to learn how the resistance worked and the criminal makers of the collars to prevent that knowledge being any use.
* * *
Five months later Lance was walking through the woods several miles out from town, checking things out in his gamekeeper role. And if he was honest enjoying the summer sun and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Gasro he’d saved, or her cubs. Since that day he thought he’d seen them in the distance once or twice, but never up close. He could understand their keeping well clear of people, but he felt a little regret. He’d have liked to have seen them up close, to have known they were fairing well.
Still, it was a beautiful day. He couldn’t help smiling as he followed the path through a small stand of trees, a stream trickling beside the path. Suddenly a giant stepped out from behind a tree, only a couple of metres ahead. Giant was the only word for him, well over two metres tall and weighing probably three times Lance’s weight, all of it muscle. The muscles on his arms and chest bulged, clearly the result of bioengineering. An E-Merk, enhanced mercenary. Lance knew of them but only from off world bulletins and the occasional problem in the planetary capital. The shock of seeing one here amongst the trees stopped him dead.
Before he could recover his arms were grabbed, pinned painfully behind his back. Twisting his head he could make out another E-Merk holding him. He tried to struggle but couldn’t move at all. A third E-Merk stepped into sight and then someone he knew. Cal Roberts. Owner of a local export business, selling everything from wool to local fossils. Never in any trouble. A model citizen. Until now.
“Ah… Lance. My good friend Lance.” The way Cal said it made it clear Lance was anything but a friend. More like something Cal needed to scrape off his shoe. “The man who just had to go stick his nose in where it wasn’t wanted. Had to go hunting down that poor Gasro. Had to kill it. Not only kill it, vaporise it.” Now his voice turned harsher. “And do you know what that cost me and my business partners? Do you have any idea? A live, collared Gasro? It was worth more than this entire planets output for a year. And you had to kill it.”
“It wasn’t controlled,” gasped Lance through the pain from his arms. “Even though it was collared it killed Old Peter… it managed to get back into the woods. He hadn’t turned the collar on.”
The lie came easily, whatever happened to him he could keep the Gasro’s secret safe.
“So? Even dead its corpse was worth more than our pitiful town earns in a year. But you had to vaporise the corpse. And we know it was a corpse, because you’d already killed it to be able to remove the collar. Not only that but you started an investigation that made life very difficult for us. Two of my business partners were almost caught. They had to choose death over capture, destroying their ship. Taking a navy patrol with them I might add. Of course they had no choice as they were collared. They had to follow their orders.” He smiled at that. “But that leaves you. You have cost us so much that you must pay. We waited a while so it wasn’t too obviously linked. And we have a special reward for your efforts.”
He reached into a bag he was carrying, brought out a gleaming control collar. Turned it backwards and forwards so the suns rays caught it. Lance stared at it in horror.
“Yes. A special reward. You, my good friend Lance, have been working too hard. You’re about to suffer a complete breakdown. First you’ll return home and get out that wonderful rifle of yours. Then you’ll pay a visit to your sister, your loving sister, just in time for tea. And when you get there you’ll gun down her, her husband and all three of their delightful children. And anyone else that gets in your way but not any witnesses that keep their distance. We want everyone to know the killings were carried out by you.”
Anger and fear lent Lance strength, he struggled against the grip of the giant holding him but it was as if his arms were secured by steel bands.
“Yes, struggle while you can!” laughed Cal. “But let me tell you the best part. After all that killing you’ll head back home. And once there you’re going to tune the rifle down lower, put it to your head and pull the trigger. That’s where one of my men will relieve you of the collar. Which we’ll use to bring in another Gasro. All very neat.”
He stepped towards the struggling Lance, placing the collar around his neck and snapping it shut. Immediately it felt like millions of freezing cold needles pierced Lance’s head. After a few seconds Cal smiled and stepped back. Lifting a small black box to his mouth he spoke.
Lance immediately stopped struggling. Inside he screamed, raged, fought. But he had no control. His body wasn’t his own.
“Let him go,” Cal instructed the merk holding Lance. The man let go, walked around in front of Lance and stood grinning at him.
“Little man!” he sneered in a deep voice. “Going to kill your family aren’t you?” He reached out and turned Lance’s shirt collar up, ensuring it was tight. “Can’t have anyone seeing your nice jewellery can we?”
Suddenly the merk’s face changed, the taunting smile replaced by a look of horror. He took several quick steps back. A huge shape brushed past Lance, an adult Gasro already swinging an arm with claws fully extended at the merk’s head. The merk moved faster than Lance thought possible, bringing his massively muscled arm up to block. Lance knew that the flesh was hardened with carbon inserts, the muscles reinforced far beyond human norms. As the Gasro’s blow made contact with his arm it was a battle between evolution and engineering. Evolution won. Easily. The arm was smashed aside, the blow continued and the claws ripped half the man’s head away. He was dead long before he hit the ground.
The other two merks dropped into combat stance but looked scared. They had no weapons, why would they? Their bodies were weapon enough for today’s dirty work. Until now. The Gasro pounded forward, dropping to all fours and snapping its jaws closed on the left hand merk’s head, shutting off his scream. The second merk saw his chance and ran forward launching a crashing blow at the side of the animals head. It didn’t connect. Two Gasro cubs, each already the size of a large dog, flew out of the undergrowth smashing into the merk and dragging him to the ground. While not as clean as their mothers kill, it was nearly as quick.
Cal stood frozen, seemingly unable to take in what had happened. Now, as the adult Gasro turned her gaze on him he took two shaky steps backwards. Then, with a sickly smile, he turned his head to Lance and raised the black box to his lips.
“Choke to death!” he shouted.
Moments later the adult Gasro reached him tearing him open from stomach to head with a single blow. Lance hardly noticed. His throat muscles had contracted, his body was gasping and choking but no air was reaching his lungs. He knew he could breath. Knew it was only the collar’s control preventing him doing so. Knew it but couldn’t force his body to respond. He was going to die. His one comfort was that his family was safe, that the killing spree Cal had planned would never happen. It was small comfort though as his body refused to draw a breath.
The adult Gasro turned towards him, came closer. In another situation the puzzled look on her face would have been funny. Then a huge paw reached towards his throat, claws extended. She was trying to help. But how could she? Sitting back on her haunches she extended the other front paw, claws also extended, towards his throat. Lance’s vision was starting to go dark at the edges. He felt a scratch on the side of his neck, but with it came a sense of release. The collar tumbled to the ground, split apart by the creatures sharp claws and immense strength.
Free of its grasp Lance fell to the floor, rolled onto his back. But he couldn’t breath still. His lungs and throat were in spasm and he couldn’t make them work. The Gasro’s head loomed over him, mouth open to reveal razor sharp teeth. A terrifying sight normally. But at the end of a narrowing tunnel of vision as it was for Lance it held little fear.
Then she blew, sharply, in Lance’s face like a doctor getting a baby to breath. Lance coughed in surprise, choked a little and gasped down a lungful of air. It stank of the creatures hot breath but seemed like the finest air he’d ever tasted. He coughed again before gulping down another wonderful breath. Then another.
She stayed with him. Stayed standing over him during the next few minutes as his breathing returned to normal and he slowly sat up. The two cubs were dashing in and out of the undergrowth, chasing each other, mock fighting. Checking back on their mother and Lance from time to time.
Once he felt a little better Lance stood and picked up his backpack, not even remembering when he’d lost it. He took a deep drink from his flask then laughed as the two cubs came up and tried to stick their noses into his bag.
“You guys sure didn’t forget did you?” he asked, digging into his pack and retrieving some ration bars. He always carried far more than he needed now, just in case. The two cubs dug in happily, their mother ate a few. Lance himself ate three – in response to the shock he guessed. The cubs happily worked their way through the rest.
The mother climbed gracefully to her feet, staying on all fours. Lance stood, face to face with the giant creature knowing he was completely safe. He gently reached up to touch the side of her face.
“Thank you,” he said.
And in his mind, as clear as day, came the reply. “No. Thank you.”
Lance’s jaw dropped, he stood staring. The gentle voice came again.
“We seek peace here, rest. I think you will respect that. Keep our secret. But we owe you our thanks, my children and I. Look for us. We will return at times. After all, my boys love your food.” The last sentence carried a definite sense of amusement.
Then she turned, stood upright and started to walk from the clearing with a deceptively slow pace, still covering the ground quickly due to her size. The two cubs each nuzzled up against Lance’s chest. They didn’t speak, yet he thought he sensed feelings from each. From the first a warm affection. From the second the same, but layered with the contented sense of a full stomach.
Smiling Lance watched them all disappear into the trees. He stood watching for a long time after they disappeared, smiling while tears rolled unnoticed down his cheeks.
Finally though he turned back to the scene of carnage around him. This would take some explaining… or maybe not. Glancing round he realised what so obviously had happened. Cal and his E-Merks had tried to capture a Gasro, tried to collar it. And it had gone badly. The creature had broken free killing them all and destroying the collar. He nodded to himself, that would do. And that would give him license to investigate Cal’s business and find out who else was involved. Not to mention where those merks had come from. With this much evidence of their attempts to collar the Gasro there would be no calls for the animal to be killed this time.
Satisfied he glanced back after the departed family, realising that was exactly how he now thought of them. Part of his family. Family that had gone away for a while, but family that he’d see again soon.