Six was the runt. Most litters didn’t have more than five cubs, so naturally the sixth born almost always was. The southern packs already had a high mortality rate, but being the runt made survival that much tougher. As a result, Six was very tough.

At just over a meter from muzzle to hock, Six was only half the size of One. But what he lacked in size, he made up for in speed, cunning and sheer tenacity. One was still treating him like a lame cub, but after the deaths of Two and Three, the pack needed him. Four and Five often tried to re-establish their dominance over him, but Six fought like a ravenous tunnel viper, so Four and Five wore scars for every attempt.

This particular moment, however, was not the time for squabbling. One had caught the scent of a heard of crushers and the pack had not eaten meat for nine days. Six was ordered to take point while Four and Five circled around the right flank and One circled around the left. Five glowed a deep crimson, since the weakest was never sent on point and this meant that One had finally acknowledged the prowess of Six, but Five’s hunger was more urgent than his pride and he didn’t dare question One during a hunt. Six remained cold and calm as he moved silently through the dense foliage. He should have been glowing blue with joy at One’s decision, but he needed to blend and he needed to focus. He could feel the crushers grazing ahead and slowly crept to the edge of a clearing. He peered through the undergrowth and spotted the herd.

There were two males, one adult and one calf. They would be off limits, since males were rare and the pack wouldn’t want to remove this herd from the menu. The herd was led by a particularly large matriarch. Her broad shoulder blades stood nearly five meters from the ground, but the pack had no intention of trying to take down that giant hulk of muscle, bone and stone; their target was the two female calves grazing at the center of a circle formed by the matriarch and the other five adults. One calf in particular looked like she was only a few days old and barely had any rocks imbedded in her hide. She would be soft and slow. An easy kill, if they could manage to separate her from the herd.

The matriarch reared its head and dropped its giant tusk on a boulder, splitting it and sending painful vibrations up Six’s spinal column. It was unnerving, being this close to the matriarch, but Six knew she was only exposing a colony of crawling insects and hadn’t detected the pack. Six was perfectly downwind and crushers had a poor vibration sense. The breeze softened and stilled. Six could see his own sent slowly waft into the clearing, but it was still a long way from the nostrils of the herd. He whistled his quarry to the pack and they whistled back with their positions. Four and Five were nearing their mark and One was already in position.

Six tensed, his lean powerful muscles bunching and rippling visibly beneath his smooth translucent black skin. He didn’t have to wait long. The moment Four and Five whistled that they were in position, Six felt One’s clear ultrasonic attack tone tremble up his spine.

Six bounded into the clearing with blinding speed. The herd didn’t have time to react before Six leapt up the hindquarters of a smaller adult and sliced through her leathery flesh between two large flat stones, jarring one of them loose. The flat stone fell to the ground with a loud crack. He scrambled over her back, trying to do more damage with his claws, but only managed to scrape them against her imbedded stony armor, narrowly avoiding her sharp jutting shoulder blade as he cleared her head and hit the ground running. The crusher reared up on her four hind legs and slammed her tusk down, but Six was already beyond her reach and pouncing on the smallest calf, raking his razor sharp claws across the calf’s eyes. Even though the calf was less than a week out of the womb, she was already twice the size of One, but she was still too dumb and slow to defend herself from Six’s rapid hit and run attack.

One burst into the clearing and charged the Matriarch while Four and Five dashed in from the opposite side, running parallel and swiping simultaneously at both flanks of another adult. Four’s claws drew blood, but Five’s flank got skewered by the crusher’s tail spike. It was a lucky shot, but not lucky for Five. She thrashed her tail outward and flung Five through the air. Five hit a tree with a sickening vibration and slid down, twitching and bleeding out on the tangled tree roots. Four was enraged and went for the adult’s eyes instead of charging ahead like he should have. He clawed one of them out, but the half-blinded crusher reared up and her huge tusk hammered down at Four as he hit the ground at an awkward angle and had to scramble out from underneath her attack. The tusk grazed Four’s hind leg, wounding him, but he got away.

One leapt straight into the matriarch’s face and gouged an eye out before scrambling up and over her back, right between her shoulder blades. The matriarch’s tail slashed upward, trying to pin One against her back, but One was too fast and her bony spikes just cracked against her own imbedded stones.

As planned, the herd panicked and began to run. Although Five was dead and Four was limping, they still stood a chance to separate the smallest calf from the herd. This hunt was too costly, though, and Six wondered if he would be blamed as he ducked below the deadly thrashing tail of the adult male.

Then the hunt went from bad to worse.

A freak clap of thunder exploded in the clear blue sky, momentarily stunning the pack with its monstrous vibration. Six was outside of the herd and running around to make another pass when it happened, so he only rolled into a tree, even further from harm’s way. One and Four were not so lucky. Four rolled to a stop beneath the head of one of the other adults, who were unaffected by the thunder, and was cleanly cloven by the crusher’s sharply beveled tree-sized ivory pillar of a tusk. One met an even worse fate as the matriarch’s tail slammed down behind her and sent the long boney spike straight through his hindquarters and pinned him to the ground. One’s legs were instantly paralyzed and he knew he would bleed out as soon as she lifted her tail, so he ruptured his venom gland and swallowed, dying instantly.

Six turned and ran back into the trees.

Another clap of thunder exploded from the sky and sent Six tumbling head over heels. He recovered and resumed his flight from the enraged herd of crushers. He couldn’t make any sense of what was happening. He glowed a deep heart-broken violet as he looked up through the treetops into the clear sky. There were no clouds, but he could see the movement of something else.

Six finally reached the top of a hill and scrambled up a tall tree. Panting with exhaustion as he looked out at the unobstructed sky, he saw a sight that made even less sense than the thunder he had felt. It looked like two oddly-shaped black floating mountains were descending slowly to the ground. There were four giant bright plumes of fire beneath each of them, as well as many tiny lights that flashed like crystals catching the daylight. They seemed to settle gently on the flat northern plains below like a flying insect settling onto a leaf. The plumes of fire kicked up so much dust that both mountains were momentarily obscured, but after the ground and sky shook so hard that Six's vibration sense was blinded and he was nearly thrown from the tree, the dust settled and the black mountains looked like they were now part of the landscape.

Six just trembled and stared. He should have swallowed his own venom by now. His pack was dead and he wouldn’t survive long by himself, but two black mountains falling from the sky was too strange of an event, and his curiosity overcame his sorrow.

He might swallow his venom soon enough, but first, Six needed to get a closer look…

“Daddy!” Luna peeped excitedly between yawns as he lifted her from her cryo pod.

“Hi pumpkin, did you sleep well?”

“Yes, and I had lots and lots of really interesting dreams!”

“I’ll bet you did. We’ve been sleeping for over a hundred and fifty Earth years!” He chuckled, setting her tentatively on the cold floor to make sure she could stand up on her own. She had no trouble.

“The last dream I had was the best! I dreamed that I found a dog here and he was my pet and he protected me!”

“That sounds like a nice dream, sweetheart, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have dogs on Tanis Prime - and we didn’t take any with us.”

“But the dream seemed so real, Daddy!”

“I know, but prolonged cryo sleep tends to make your dreams very vivid and...”

“Oooh, but he was so neat, Daddy! He was long and black and see-through and he changed colors and he didn’t have ears and he whistled instead of barking and I named him Six!”

“Six, huh? Well that sounds like a very odd name for a very odd dog,” he laughed and ruffled his daughter’s matted hair.

Luna continued to chat about her imaginary pet while crewman John Banks tried to focus on the preparations for their first survey. This wasn’t the friendliest world to colonize, but he felt optimistic about their chances.

“Can I see, Daddy?” Luna hopped frantically, trying to see out of the viewport that she was too short to reach.

“Alright, but then you need to go eat and I need to get to work!” Banks lifted his daughter up and they both stared out at the dusty plains and the dark jungle beyond and the deep blue sky above.

“Look, Daddy!” Luna shrieked, “There he is! It’s the dog from my dream!”

Banks squinted and followed her finger until he spotted an indigenous animal crawling slowly toward the colony ship from the distant edge of the jungle.

“Huh!” He exclaimed in mild surprise.

The animal was too far away to see much detail, but it did look long and black and almost dog-like, just as Luna had described.

“See, Daddy? He’s real!”

“We’ll have plenty of time to study the local fauna, pumpkin, but promise me that you won’t get your hopes up! I’m sure your dream was just a coincidence and that thing out there is just as likely to try and eat us as it is to be domesticated.”

“But Daddy!”

“No buts! We talked about this, Luna! Tanis is a dangerous place and we have to be very very careful if we want to survive here, understood?”

“Yes Daddy,” Luna pouted, steeling one last glimpse of the curious animal and waiving at it before her daddy set her back down, “Bye Six.”

Forum Jump:

Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)