1997 - 2006 G. Dallman
June 17, 1997 Version 2.0
Revision Date: 05/20/2006
Howard felt a mixture of subtle dread and almost painful longing at Heffnss' idea of a Hunt, but his desire to again stand upon the planet of his birth, even if for a short time, outweighed his fears. As he accompanied Aarrl into the shuttle bay, he was surprised to see a male Dirhal TwoRing driving his rented (now stolen) Wagoneer up the entry ramp and into the ample cargo area of a waiting landing craft. He was amazed to note that when the Watcher started the dilapidated beast, the traditional blue-gray petrochemical fart that should have belched from the exhaust-pipe was missing. The engine sounded much better too. It was almost soundless!
Concurrent with the Jeep disappearing into the shuttle, a sharp metal-on-metal grating sound emanated from the interior or the craft, followed seconds later by an irate TwoRing, who stood on the endgate and shouted at the Human, his ears laid back and saliva-flecked fangs showing. "The copulating brakes on this sorry excuse for a land vehicle are the next thing to a suicide technique!"
Aarrl gave an ever-so approximate translation of the Watcher's tirade. "Garron reports that the inertial dampers on your vehicle are near-useless."
"Inertial dampers?" responded Howard. "Oh, you mean the brakes!"
"Yes, that which cancels forward momentum. I fear Garron may have slightly damaged your vehicle."
As Howard stood shaking his head, a second shuttle, parked nearby, was similarly being loaded with, what looked to the Human like a levitating armored personnel carrier. The mottled brown APC just barely fit through the gaping rear opening of the lander, and once inside, its one hundred and sixty metric tonne mass took up all of the available room behind the pilot's station.
The Ursine sensed Howard's impending question regarding the APC and delivered a preemptive explanation. "PackCaptain Raall, always being the cautious one, feels it would be best to bring a little something extra to compensate for your vehicle's woeful lack of firepower. This and two hands of Watchers will accompany the Hunt."
Even as the Gashka spoke, ten heavily armed Dirhal, in dull black full body armor, exited the airlock and strode single file into the waiting APC. Seconds later, with the whine of motors, the APC's endgate, then that of the lander, swung shut.
As he watched, a curious thought crossed the Human's mind. "How's the pilot going to get past that armored vehicle?"
"There is no need for a separate pilot," growled Aarrl, "the pilot's console of the shuttle is slaved to that of the assault vehicle. Its driver will control the shuttle from his position."
Howard looked around for the rest of the hunting party. "Where's everyone else?"
"Raall, Krrfinn and Heffnss shall arrive shortly. The priest leads them in the Ritual of The Hunters of New Worlds."
"Aren't you going to hunt too?" asked the Human.
"No. The only hunting I do on this voyage is complete. I hunted you. The others will indulge their Carnivorous instincts. It will be good for them to taste the flesh our Progenitors ate."
"Will you eat what they kill also?" asked Howard.
"Most certainly, as shall we all, but only they will claim the right to eat while the blood is still warm. We who watch shall have our fill only after what is left is returned to SoulRipper."
A few minutes later, the remainder of the party emerged from the airlock and silently boarded the shuttle. All were wearing the traditional Sennal Hunter's garb; that is to say, nothing.
"Aren't you going to be cold?" Howard asked of nobody in particular as he took his seat next to Aarrl.
Heffnss favored him with a frosty glance. "Novice, we wear the same garments as our Progenitors. How frequently have you seen the fossils of ancient predators clad in the skins of their Kills?"
"Only those of ancient Humans, my Teacher," answered Howard.
"And are we Human, My Student?" asked the Feline, his muzzle open in a grin that had little to do with humor.
Howard wasn't sure if the priest's question was rhetorical or not, but thought it best to answer. "No, my Teacher."
"Your solicitude is touching, my Student, but misplaced," growled Heffnss, in a manner that indicated that the matter was ended.
The Human was pleasantly surprised at the minimal level of sarcasm in Heffnss' voice. On several occasions, well-meant questions had lead to scathing rebukes from the irascible priest.
By the time the short conversation was ended, Howard noticed that the section of deck carrying the lander was being lifted up through the ceiling of the hanger bay, into launch position. There was a brief moment of gravitic weirdness while the gravity generator on the shuttle took over from SoulRipper, and they were on their way.
* * * *
The flight reminded Howard of a morning commuter bus ride. Everyone seemed to be caught up in their own little universe, with only an infrequent grunt or growl of unenthusiastic conversation. The only voice to be heard was that of the pilot, Garron, occasionally conversing with SoulRipper.
After what seemed like a young eternity but was actually no more than fifteen minutes, Howard felt the bump and roll of atmospheric turbulence, indicating that their journey was about at an end. A short while later the shuttle thumped onto the ground and almost immediately the endgate whined open to clang against the frozen soil. Despite his heavy coat, the Human shuddered as sub-freezing air rushed in, dropping the internal temperature of the shuttle by sixty degrees in a matter of seconds. Outside, it was still pre-dawn dark with the slightest glow of subdued moonlight filtering through the low clouds. A light snowfall sifted down to blanket the landscape, swirling into the shuttle, driven by a brisk wind that funneled up the cut of the roadway they had landed upon.
As Howard exited the lander, he immediately saw that he was standing in almost the exact spot from which he had climbed out of his car to meet Aarrl and Raall on that first night. The tall, lightning blasted fir stump stood just to the left of the lander. When he looked down, the Human thought he saw the faint, ice-filled tracks left by his Jeep when he'd parked it in that same spot.
Alerted by the slightest of sounds, Howard looked up to see the second shuttle break through the low clouds, slowly descending to land with a dull, earth-shaking *thud* in the middle of the road about thirty meters from where he stood, its aft end facing him. As soon as the lander touched down and the endgate swung open and the massive Sennal APC silently floated out and rotated to face them. Within seconds after it cleared the endgate, the seventeen metric tonne iridium slab motored back into position and the shuttle silently lifted back into the night sky, and under the guidance of its autopilot, quickly disappearing into the darkness. In a few seconds it was as if it had never been there.
As the Human watched the shuttle disappear into the low clouds, the rest of the hunting party disembarked, looking about and breathing in the crisp pre-dawn air. After a couple of minutes, they were followed by his Jeep. Howard was again amazed at how quietly it was running. Not even a whisper escaped from the rusted exhaust pipe. As soon as Garron had the car backed out of the shuttle, he climbed back aboard and in a few moments was airborne, following the other shuttle to a convenient parking orbit, to wait until needed.
Even with his heavy coat, Howard was getting colder by the moment and was anxious to get the Jeep's engine warmed up so he could run the heater. The second he got behind the wheel, he could see that things weren't the way he'd left them. In the middle of the dash was a small metal panel that had not been there before. On it were a couple of indicator lights and several digital gauges, their readouts in Sennal. When he turned the key nothing seemed to happen except one of the indicator lights went from blue to red and the other started to blink bright orange. The gauges also did things he didn't understand, changing rapidly until they settled down. Still there was no engine noise or vibration. Just on a hunch, Howard pulled the transmission lever down into *Reverse* and released the brake. The car slowly inched backward. When he put it in *Drive* it crept forward. Very Strange!
As Howard was exploring the new mysteries of his car, the other doors opened and his companions started to fold their large frames into the Human-sized vehicle. Howard was very glad he hadn't rented a Volkswagen. Aarrl sat in the front seat, which initially caused the Jeep to tilt a bit nose-down and list to the right. Next, Heffnss climbed into the back seat behind Howard, which evened out the list but caused the car to rock slightly nose-up. By the time Raall and Krrfinn squeezed into the back seat beside the Feline, the car was really riding nose high. Looking in the rear-view mirror, the Human was wondering if Krrfinn might be putting on a little weight. Heffnss looked decidedly unhappy being wedged into such tight quarters but refrained from complaining. The two Dirhal looked as though they were enjoying the novelty of the whole thing until Raall started to sniff the air. With four large Sennal of several species in the tight confines of the Jeep, the atmosphere within was definitely starting to take on a wild odor.
"You are Pregnant!" growled Raall, favoring his mate with an icy glare.
"That's impossible!" returned Krrfinn. "You know, my Lord, I have vowed not to conceive for the duration of this mission."
"I can tell the difference in your scent. You are pregnant."
Heffnss stared idly out his window, obviously feigning an intense interest in his exterior surroundings. Howard, still watching the rear-view mirror, could swear the Feline was trying to hide an evil grin.
"What are they arguing about, Aarrl?" asked the Human.
"Krrfinn seems to have made a slight miscalculation," rumbled the Ursine.
Raall was beginning to growl menacingly. "If I am not the sire of this cub, Who Is!?"
"Aside from the Human and Heffnss, there have been none but you, my Lord!" returned Krrfinn, also becoming angry, her ears now flat against her skull.
"SILENCE!" spat Heffnss.
Both Dirhal froze in mid-growl and Howard just about jumped out of the car.
"Before you tear each other's throats out, I suggest you communicate with the T'Roann. There is an answer, though probably neither of you will like it."
Raall brought his wrist communicator to his muzzle, intending to do just as Heffnss suggested, but the Sasskal reached over and covered the keypad with one huge hand. "This is not the time, my friend. It can wait upon our return. Though you both should know that it is not Krrfinn's fault. She has not broken her word of her own volition."
"Then, Lord Priest, who's blood do I spill for this breach of honor?" growled Raall, his lips pulled back from his fangs.
Heffnss leaned back in the seat as best he could, savoring the situation as he let the moment drag on. Finally he raised one clawed finger and pointed at the back of the Human's head.
"Do not toy with me, Heffnss!" Roared the PackCaptain, spraying a saliva mist all over the right side of Howard's face.
Not being able to understand what was going on, the Human was becoming really nervous. When the priest pointed at him, followed by Raall's latest outburst, it was too much. Flinging the door open, Howard dove out, landing in a poorly executed tucked roll in the snow covered grass at the road's edge. Scrambling to his feet, he hastily back-peddled several paces more, nervously waiting for whatever was going to happen next. Inside the car, he could still hear the enraged PackCaptain yelling his Lupine lungs out.
"S'Challh or not, he is Human!" roared Raall, "He's even less likely to be responsible than you!"
"None the less, WarMaster, it is the truth," growled Heffnss in a quiet voice. "The T'Roann will have to explain it to you, but upon my Honor, I swear it is true."
Through all of this, Krrfinn had remained quiet, but now she started to make a soft hissing sound, which slowly evolved into a growling Dirhal laugh. "The first time, he accused me of violating him!"
"It is a fair reciprocation then?" commented Aarrl, more than a little bemused by the situation.
"I find your choice of words most interesting, Councilor!" laughed the Sasskal, earning himself pained looks from the others. "If you would please fetch my Student, he seems to be a bit skittish at the moment."
With a labored groan from both Ursine and suspension, Aarrl climbed out of the car and walked around the back until he was a couple of meters from the visibly shaken Human. "You may return now. The war is over."
"What was that all about?" asked Howard, still quite nervous. "Does it have anything to do with me?"
"Well…Yes," The Ursine reluctantly answered. "But Heffnss says it is not your fault."
"What do you mean?"
"Not now. Ask Heffnss about it later," temporized Aarrl, still confused himself. "We shall talk about it after our return. Yes. Now you must get back in the vehicle. None of us knows how to operate it. Everyone will feel better after the Hunt."
Reluctantly, Howard returned to the car, keeping a wary eye on the rear-view mirror as he slowly slid behind the wheel. Rraall's ears were still flat against his head and Krrfinn seemed to be staring at him strangely, her expression totally unreadable. With considerable trepidation he closed the door and turned the ignition key. Again the lights changed color and the gauges registered whatever it was that they were supposed to, but still there was no engine noise. When the Human put the car in gear and stepped on the gas, the ancient vehicle surged ahead much faster than he expected. In just a few seconds, they were flying down the gravel road at over a hundred kilometers an hour. Quickly, Howard let off on the gas.
"Wow! What did they do to my car?" he asked Aarrl.
"Garron found your internal combustion engine to be one of the most criminal artifacts he had ever encountered. Rather than allow it to pollute the air in his shuttle, he had a few of the Toccal engineers remove the old engine and install a de-rated fusion bottle and electric drive. Do you not think this much better?"
Howard's fright of a few minutes prior seemed to evaporate in light of his new discovery. "Damn right it is!" he nearly shouted. "How fast do you think it will go?"
"Unmodified, the same fusion bottle will provide sufficient power to accelerate a fully loaded shuttle to three percent of light-speed."
"Perhaps my Student will desist from mooning over his new toy long enough to take us to the Hunt?" snarled Heffnss from the back seat.
"Yes, my Teacher," sobered the Human.
With infinite care, Howard depressed what, in its past life, had been the gas pedal. Despite his caution, the car accelerated much faster than he thought prudent on the icy road. It took several minutes of experimentation for him to find the best place to rest his foot on the accelerator so as to keep the vehicle's speed within sane limits.
After traveling seven kilometers north, along the winding road, Howard became aware of lights following about fifty meters behind them. It was several seconds before he belatedly remembered the APC that accompanied them. Risking life and limb, he watched in the rear-view mirror as the massive assault craft followed silently behind them, skimming less than a meter above the frozen road.
After another few kilometer Heffnss rolled down his window and started to sniff the air. "We are close. Proceed slowly, my Student."
Another half a kilometer down the road and the Feline's tufted ears were pointing straight up and his chops watering. "Stop here. I smell a group of about nine herbivores."
Obediently, Howard pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine and lights. With a muted *thud*, the following APC settled to the frozen ground and powered down. By this time, the first glow of dawn was seeping through the clouds so that even the Human could see well enough to navigate through the sparse woods and brush at the side of the road.
As Howard got out of the car, he could hear the faint whine of motors as the turrets atop the APC turned to point rapid fire pulse cannon and lasers up and down the road, covering either approach.
Heffnss unfolded himself from the car, and walked, seemingly randomly, into the woods and stopped, Aarrl followed a short distance behind.
"I grieve, Oh I grieve that all this may soon fall to the Seeds of Bitter Regret," he muttered to himself, his voice so low as to almost go unheard.
Aarrl looked at him quizzically, but, despite dread's cold breath raising the hair along his spine, refrained from asking the Sasskal of what he spoke. After a few seconds the Feline shook himself and took a deep breath, forcing his fey thoughts aside for the day.
Heffnss sniffed again and headed deeper into the woods, taking a path that lead slightly to his left. The others followed, with Aarrl bringing up the rear. As hard as he tried to walk quietly, Howard repeatedly incurred scornful glances from his Feline Teacher, who's hearing obviously was on par with his hyper-acute sense of smell.
The hunting party had only been walking for a few hundred meters when Heffnss stopped at the edge of a clear-cut swath about five hundred meter wide. About ninety meters into the clearing stood a group of nine white-tail deer, led by a magnificent eight-point buck. Heffnss pulled a few hairs from his arm and released them into the slight breeze, gratified to see them gently blown back toward him. Silently, the Sasskal and the two Dirhal huddled together as they made their plan and selected their targets.
After a minute, the three hunters slowly made their way into the underbrush that covered a significant percentage of the clearing. In seconds all three had disappeared from the Human's sight. Another minute later, the three emerged from the brush about thirty meters from the grazing deer and immediately began a lightning sprint toward their intended targets. As soon as the hunters broke cover, their prey scattered in panic.
Howard was stunned by the speed at which the Sasskal was able to cover the distance to his prey. The eight-point scarcely had time to take three bounding paces before the huge Feline was upon him. With one quick slash, Heffnss tore the deer's throat out, leaving it to kick the remainder of its life out in the small clear spot where it fell. A rapidly expanding pool of bright red steamed into the cold morning air.
Raall and Krrfinn simultaneously took out after their respective targets, though not with the same speed as Heffnss. It took them both about one hundred meters to overtake their prey, and when they did, they hauled the struggling animals to the ground, tearing their throats out with their teeth. Soon both Watchers stood panting over their victims, panting, with dripping, red smiles.
While the Dirhal pursued their prey, a small doe that had fled in blind panic from the approaching predators, bounded into the scrub only a meter from where Aarrl stood. As the deer hurled past the Ursine he lashed out with his huge right hand, striking the doe along the side of its head, bending it back along the animals graceful neck. Howard could hear the *snap* of its spine as the herbivore spun in the air to fly past him tail-first.
The instant the doe landed, Aarrl was upon it, clamping his huge jaws on its neck, taking a bite that almost severed the animal's head. Blood dripped from the Ursine's muzzle as he rose, his eyes bright with excitement.
Howard was both vicariously exhilarated and slightly sickened by the Hunt. It seemed at first that it shouldn't be any different than watching The Discovery Channel, but up close where he could smell the blood and hear the wet gasps of the dying deer, it was different.
A few minutes later, the Sasskal returned with his Kill over his right shoulder and blood on his muzzle where he had taken a large bite out of the animal's flank. The two Dirhal were satisfied for the present with the mouth-full they had each taken during their Kills.
"Ah, my Student, behold the food of the Progenitors!" roared Heffnss as he dropped the buck at the Human's feet.
As soon as the deer hit the ground, the Priest drew his Scholar's Blade and with one stroke opened the animal from neck to groin, allowing a steaming pile of entrails to spill out onto the frozen ground. As Raall, Krrfinn and Aarrl presented their Kills, the process was repeated. In short order, the edible organs were separated from the offal and returned to their respective body cavities. The rest would remain for the woodland creatures to do with as they would.
Again with his Scholar's Blade, Heffnss sliced the buck's heart into five pieces, offering one to each member of the party, as a form of Communion, celebrating the lives of the slain creatures. Howard looked down at his as it was offered to him still quivering on the flat of the Feline's blade, knowing better than to betray any reluctance. Heffnss doubtless felt he was according his Student a great honor in allowing him to partake of the Kill while still in the field. Without further ceremony, the four Sennal devoured their offered portions, eyes closed in ecstasy. Howard, with his herbivore's teeth, was left to gnaw and tear at the fibrous meat. At first, the Human had to fight to keep from gagging on the warm, salty portion. The taste and smell were unpleasantly gamy, and it was only with extreme difficulty that he managed to swallow it at all, leaving him with blood stained hands and mouth like the rest of the hunting party.
When they got back to the car, Howard was surprised to see that someone had thoughtfully included a supply of what looked like gray plastic body-bags in the rear cargo area. The slaughtered deer went into these, saving the Human the need of smelling the dead animals for the duration of the trip. None the less, as the party got back into the car, it became immediately evident to Howard with his feeble olfactory ability, that even without the added aroma of the trophies, the air in the car was going to be quite thick. Now, added to the natural body odors of the tight-packed Sennal was a whole new menagerie of effluvia generated by excitement and fatigue. Despite the cold, Howard rolled his window all the way down, welcoming the bitter cold but clean air. By Howard's watch, no more than an hour had past since he had parked. It was now full daylight, and sometime during the Hunt, the snow had stopped.
* * * *
Okanogan County Deputy Sheriff Sam Watkins had fought like hell to keep from getting this assignment, but to no avail. How was he supposed to know it was the Judge's wife? Now here he was, patrolling the boonies, spending his days cruising up and down these goddamn back roads without even as much a speeding ticket in the last three weeks.
Ahead he saw an old Jeep Wagoneer pull onto the road from where it had been parked in the long grass and scrub. For a moment, it fishtailed wildly as it accelerated at a rate he would have thought impossible for such an old beater. Sam knew a good thing when he saw one, and gave chase, overtaking the speeding Jeep after about a kilometer. As he approached, he could see that its license number was on the hot-sheet, matching the description of a vehicle which had been reported stolen from a cut-rate rental agency in the Seattle area two weeks before. As he got closer still, Sam hit the lights and then the siren for the first time in weeks. God, that sounded good! Disappointingly soon, the Jeep pulled over the side of the road, stopping in a spray of gravel and ice shards.
* * * *
Howard had no more than pulled back onto the dirt road, inadvertently accelerating much faster than prudence dictated, when he noticed an insistent, flashing blue light following along behind. At first he thought it was the APC until he heard the dread sound of a police siren. About thirty meters behind was a black and white, late model Chevy Caprice with enough strobe lights on its lightbar to do a rock concert proud.
Without thinking, the shocked Human pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. The Sheriff's car came to a eye-throbbing stop a few meters behind.
"Student. Why do we stop?" demanded Heffnss. "The transport will arrive soon."
"We've been stopped by the County Sheriff's car behind us, Teacher," explained Howard, pointing behind him.
"How could this be, Student? I felt no gravity beam from this other vehicle."
"No, my Teacher, I have been compelled by law to stop."
"I see… And which law is it that binds us with the vehicle behind, my Student?"
"I think it may pertain to the theft of this vehicle, my Teacher. I only rented it for one week. When it wasn't returned, its owners must have reported it to the police as stolen."
"Ah, I see," growled Heffnss. "Then the person in the vehicle behind us is an agent of the vehicle hire establishment, who seeks to kill you for defaming the honor of his employer through the unauthorized extended use of his property. He is to be complimented on his hunting skill. I trust that you will defend yourself well, my Student. Die bravely if you must."
"No, my Teacher, he will not kill me, but he will most certainly arrest us all immediately." Howard knew the futility of trying to explain American legal custom to his Sennal companions.
Aarrl had been silent throughout the conversation, but now contributed the benefit of his understanding regarding Human legal habits. "Your Student indicates that we will be taken as prisoners and detained at length, under armed guard, in an institution for the criminally incompetent."
"Have they no Honor?" roared Heffnss. "Fear not! We shall not become prisoners of the Vehicle Hire Agency while I still live!" Instantly, the huge Feline thrust his door open, unfortunately without bothering to use the door handle. Accompanied by an outward eruption of fractured bolts and shattering glass, the offending portal departed the car, landing in the middle of the road with a dull thud. Less than a second later, it was followed by 285 centimeters of enraged Sasskal.
* * * *
For the second time in as many minutes, Deputy Watkins tried to radio in his situation. There was no response from Dispatch, not even static. It was as though radio waves had ceased to exist. He tried yet again as he waited to see what the folks in the stolen car were going to do. Sam could see through the accumulated grime on the Jeep's rear window that there were five occupants within, two of which appeared to be remarkably large. All of them seemed to be arguing volubly so that the ancient Jeep was almost bouncing on its suspension.
After several minutes crawled by with no response from Dispatch, Sam heaved a sigh of frustration, got out of his cruiser and started toward the Jeep, hiking up his gun belt and unsnapping the safety strap on his holster as he walked. Someone in the stolen car, probably the large guy in the back, was shouting loudly in a voice that sounded like a tiger-fight. Sam cautiously approached to within three meters of the back of the jeep when the rear door on the driver's side flew off as though it had been mounted with explosive bolts. The deputy instinctively dropped to a crouch, reaching for his weapon. Before his had his gun half drawn, he stopped, staring slack-jawed as a *Huge* feline creature, brandishing a scimitar-like blade, hurled itself from the back of the car, to stand with legs spread, in the middle of the road.
Training fought with primal fear as Sam's bulging eyes followed the form of the monster before him. From its clawed toes to the tips of its tufted ears, atop a Saber-tooth head, it was almost nine feet tall and definitely male. As the fearsome apparition took a slow step toward him, Sam finally conquered his paralysis enough to finish drawing his weapon. Rising to a standing position, legs spread, he took shaky aim at the approaching horror, only to loose his composure completely when the monster spoke.
"I compliment you on your hunting skill, Agent of the Vehicle Rental Agency," growled Heffnss. "However, I can not permit you to take us prisoner. My Honor forbids it."
"Don't come any closer or I'll shoot!" shouted Deputy Watkins, suddenly noticing that his pistol was pointing at the ground in front of him. Hastily, he jerked it up to aim in the approximate direction of the approaching menace.
"Is this a weapon you brandish?" asked Heffnss, in a mocking voice, as he took another deliberate step forward, his fully extended toe-claws easily sinking into the frozen ground.
"Stop!" croaked the Deputy, now trying to steady his shaky weapon with both hands.
*Ting* - thud.
Sam looked down to see that he now held only the receiver-end of his .40 caliber Glock. The barrel and everything forward of the trigger-guard had been sheared away by one effortless swing of the Feline's blade.
An instant later, Deputy Watkins felt a weight on his left shoulder and shifted his eyes about to see the Feline's blade resting there, its glistening edge a scant inch from his chin. Warmth coursed down his leg as nerveless fingers allowed the now useless chunk of Glock to fall to the frozen ground. His wobbly knees suddenly buckled and he landed on his butt, amidst the puddle of his fear.
"P…please," he squeaked.
"Calm yourself," hissed Heffnss. "For a Hunter of such prowess, you have scant courage. Where is the honor in slaying such a pitiful creature as you?"
Frightened beyond pride, the realization that he was not going to die in the next instant seeped into Sam's befuddled brain. Numbly, he slowly raised his head and looked around. Behind the impossible Feline, a middle-aged man was emerging from behind the wheel of the Jeep. With a mental tingle, the Deputy recognized him as Henry…no, Howard Ripley, the guy who was supposed to have originally rented the vehicle.
"Hey Ripley, tell your friends they can take the costumes off now. This isn't funny!" called Sam, his voice trailing off into a whining plea.
"I'm afraid they can't do that," Howard replied, smiling wickedly.
Sam was feeling more confident in his continued existence now that he could sense some of his old self slowly crawling out from whatever dark hole it had crept into. "Bullshit!" he shouted, with more conviction than he felt. "Can't or won't?"
"No can do," answered Howard. "They're not costumes. Look behind you." He was enjoying this a lot more than he thought he should.
Ever so cautiously, mindful of the heavy blade still in a position to give him the shave of his life, Sam looked behind him. Levitating soundlessly next to has car was a machine that looked to be a cross between a giant brown breadbox and a Main Battle Tank. Despite the fighting machine's alien shape, its purpose left nothing to the imagination, as it bristled with nasty looking weapons, all pointed at him. As Sam watched, a hatch motored open on the APC's forward gunner's cupola and a helmeted visage that would have done Lon Chaney jr. proud, favored him with a toothy, wolfish grin.
"Oh Shiiit!" Deputy Watkins suddenly became very pale as his consciousness, exercising the better part of valor, fled.
"Humans are such fragile things," muttered Heffnss as he watched the pitiful Human collapse onto his side.
Turning to Howard, the Sasskal pointed to the prostrate form at his feet. "What would you have me do with this, my Student?"
Howard thought for a moment before an utterly stupid yet brilliant idea sprang fully clothed into his mind. "Take him with us, my Teacher. Now that he's seen you, the best way to destroy his credibility is to give him an Alien Abduction story to tell. Among Humans this is the single best way to be regarded as delusional. My teacher, it is an indisputable fact among rational Humans that there are no Alien creatures."
"Ah, my Student, what a disgustingly fiendish suggestion!" roared Heffnss as he returned his Blade to its magnetic scabbard at his back.
As Howard and the Feline stood over the comatose deputy, Raall and Krrfinn got out of the Jeep to see what all the excitement was about.
"This one shall be visiting us for a short while," Heffnss said to Raall. "You know the routine: See that he is made uncomfortable and remains frightened."
Raall did indeed know the routine, a little fear and intimidation works wonders in the hands of experts! Smiling wolfishly, the PackCaptain raised his left hand and made a few rapid gestures in BattleSign to the gunner who was still looking on from his cupola. Slowly, the one hundred and sixty metric tonnes of iridium rotated 180 and settled to the ground with a reverberating *thud*. Moments later, after the endgate swung down, two Dirhal, their weapons slung over their shoulders, dismounted the vehicle and scooped up the semi-conscious deputy, depositing him on the floor of the APC like a sack of potatoes.
* * * *
Sam came to his senses with a jar as he was unceremoniously dropped. His crotch and right leg were wet and freezing cold, though he couldn't remember why. As he reluctantly opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was seven viscous looking, Wolven warriors staring back at him, their muzzles agape with canine grins.
Looking toward his feet, he could see Ripley and the murderous cat-thing looking back at him through the open endgate. Their appearance seemed a cruel parody, he thought, of his parents seeing him off at the bus station on his way to much hated summer camp. The evil smile on Ripley's face was anything but reassuring. Sam vaguely wondered if perhaps the creature that called itself 'Ripley' could be an alien too!
Looking up at the grinning Watchers, panic seized him and Sam tried to get to his knees, only to be violently knocked down by one of the wolf creatures, as a rifle-butt smashed into his chest, crushing the breath out of him in an agonized wheeze.
The alien roared at him through glistening fangs, in a manner that suggested speech. "Remain still, vile Agent of the Vehicle Rental Establishment!"
As Sam watched helplessly, his chest fiercely throbbing from the rifle-blow, the APC's endgate motored shut, locking him in with the pack of bloodthirsty aliens. Moments later, he could feel the vehicle rock slightly as it lifted off the ground, banked through a sharp turn and rapidly gained speed. Sam shrank back with a imploring whimper, as one of the aliens roughly grabbed him by the front of his jacket and effortlessly hauled him around so that he was facing the front of the vehicle. An instant later he was slammed into an ill-fitting seat and harnessed in so tight that he had to fight to breath. At the front of the vehicle he saw a bank of large video monitors that gave an astonishing real-time view of the terrain outside.
With no option but to sit, strapped in an uncomfortable seat never designed for Human nether regions, Sam watched the snow covered treetops flit by below. Around him, the aliens were frantically strapping themselves into their own seats, tugging on harnesses with a will.
After cruising along the treetops, the driver turned in his seat and growled something unintelligible to the Human. "Hold on tight, we're going vertical!"
The 160 tonne vehicle suddenly pitched nose-up and shot skyward in an eight gee climb. Brutal acceleration pushed the Human into his seat with crushing force, as the sky displayed in the leftmost monitor suddenly became bright blue as the APC broke through the cloud deck. Relentlessly, the near-unbearable acceleration continued for several minutes more as Sam struggled for breath and the sky darkened from powder blue to deepest purple and then to star-studded black. The high pitched whine and vibration of the engines rattled the Deputy's teeth, completely drowning out his own pitiful whimper.
Abruptly, both sound and acceleration ceased and a few seconds later the limn of the Earth rolled into view on the monitor. Sam gasped! Until that moment, the reality of his situation hadn't truly sunk in. He was really being Abducted by Aliens! Sam didn't know which was worse, being kidnapped or being in a situation that even remotely resembled something out of The National Inquirer!
Deputy Watkins, being a down-to-earth type of guy, hated to fly and never harbored even the mildest fantasies of being an astronaut. Again he fought to control wayward sphincters as fear mounted on top of fear. Unlike Ripley, this wasn't a wondrous experience at all for him, as each second brought only added dread. He was about to give silent thanks to Whoever might be listening, that at least he wasn't weightless, when he noticed the ends of the straps at his shoulders begin to float, snaking lazily in the breeze from the ventilator above him! Another sphincter threatened to throw in the towel as Sam swallowed violently through clenched teeth. A thin thread of bile-tasting drool crept up his left cheek. Breakfast wanted out, but the terrified Human wasn't about to give his captors the satisfaction of seeing him loose control again. Sam's attention was drawn to the alien in the seat to his left as it grinned wolfishly, its long tongue lolling weightlessly, shedding the occasional droplet of saliva, which floated away on the ventilator's current. Sam's stomach lurched again!
In an effort to take his mind off of his rebelling innards, Sam focused his frazzled attention on the bank of monitors, watching the stars shine brighter than he'd ever thought possible. Dead ahead in the darkness was a bright spot that seemed to grow larger by the second. After a few minutes, the brightness resolved itself into a brilliant white spacecraft the size of a Greyhound bus; wedge-shaped in the front and flat at the back. As the APC approached, the shuttle rotated so that its back end pointed toward them and its endgate cycled open, gaping like a giant mouth.
Silently, the APC lined up with the shuttle, gliding in with unhuman accuracy. With a suddenness that was almost as disconcerting as weightlessness, gravity returned. Sam almost lost it again as his insides avalanched painfully downward.
Just as he was again queasily making the acquaintance of gravity, the stars slued in the monitors and a painfully bright sun came into view. Despite any evidence to the contrary, Sam was sure they were moving. In his unfertile imagination, he could see the Earth rapidly shrinking in the distance behind them. In fact, when a second monitor came to life to show an aft view, that's exactly what he saw. Shortly, not only was the entire Earth in view, but soon a fat crescent of moon came into view too! Again fear bubbled up from it dark well-springs and Sam moaned feebly to himself.
* * * *
Cognition of a sort return as the APC's endgate banged resoundingly against the shuttle bay floor, causing Sam to sit up with a start. Seconds later, he was roughly grabbed under the arms by sharp clawed fingers and hauled out of the vehicle between two wolfish aliens, his rubbery legs flailing about almost useless. As he was half carried down the endgate, the deputy's follicles spasmed when he glanced off to his right where another group of aliens were removing four glistening gray body bags from the back of the accursed Jeep, the limbs poking at the insides of the bags protruded at unhuman angles. With morbid curiosity, Sam dug in his heals, trying to catch a further glimpse of the macabre scene, but was hauled away with a snarl and a viscous jerk that nearly dislocated his shoulders.
Vague images and impressions swam through his consciousness as Sam was frog-marched down interminable corridors and through numberless hatchways, until he was pushed into a brilliantly lit chamber filled with strange apparatus and reeking of powerful antiseptic. Directly in front of him was an operation table, black leather restraints hanging from its sides!
Watkins screamed and struggled to no avail as the two Dirhal who held his arms lifted him and with silent, brutal efficiency, strapped him to the table. As soon as he was secured, the two wolven Watchers turned and left, leaving him to the demons of his overworked imagination. Thoughts of dreadful torture and lurid, if not unspeakable, medical experiments flooded his panicked mind.
Less than a minute after the Dirhal left, Heffnss strode into the operating room/torture chamber to loom over the cowering Human. Sam shuddered as he felt the Feline rested one clawed hand on his left leg, above his knee.
"We meet again, Agent of the Vehicle Rental Establishment," purred the Feline, his tail forming a question-mark behind him. "Perhaps you have a use that requires not much courage."
As the Sasskal spoke, a Field Surgeon floated into the chamber, its multi-branched arms extended before it.
"What do you want with me!" screamed the deputy, thrashing uselessly against his bonds as the terrifying machine approached.
"Nothing more than you can provide," cryptically answered the Feline.
Heffnss turned to the Field Surgeon, pointing to the wetness on the front of the deputy's pants. "The Human has an incontinence problem, perhaps you could treat it."
F.S. had played this role many times before and knew exactly what to do. If the Field Surgeon had a sense of humor, it would have laughed wickedly. Mammals were so susceptible to this! Soundlessly, it retreated to a storage cabinet, only to return seconds later with an arcing electrocautery grasped in one multi-branched manipulator and an evil looking endoscope in another, its business end slowly snaking about, seemingly of its own volition, glowing with red laser light.
"NNNOOoooooo!!" Sam shouted, his eyes bulging, as once again his fickle consciousness ducked out on him.
/These Humans are truly amazing,/ commented F.S. /They are the only creatures I have ever encountered that are self-anesthetizing./
Seeing that its tools had served their purpose, the Field Surgeon replaced the not always so innocent equipment and again approached the unconscious deputy. As it hovered over him, it extended a manipulator and released a small cloud of vapor with seemed to seek and then flow right through the Human's skin.
/It will sleep for one half SubCycle and awake suddenly with no ill effect. The contusions on its thorax will be healed,/ said F.S. as it turned away from the sleeping form. Being only a semi-sentient machine, it was never bothered by such Organic foibles as Medical Ethics.
The Feline smiled to himself. This had been a lot of fun! Little did his Human Student know when he suggested this ploy, that it had long been part of the Watcher's Standard Procedure for this sort of operation. Few weapons are as powerful in the hands of the tricky, as fear in the minds of the ignorant!
* * * *
A few minutes later, Heffnss stood aboard a shuttle in near-Earth orbit, the sleeping deputy cradled in his arms. With a reality-bending thought, in the manner of his kind, the Sasskal and his snoozing burden materialized beside Sam's car. Sitting the Human behind the wheel, Heffnss closed the door and a picosecond later was once again aboard his shuttle.
* * * *
Static spat and hissed. "Dispatch to Unit seven…"
"...Nnooooo!" Sam woke with an involuntary shout, bumping his chest painfully against the steering wheel as the radio blared. In his mind the visage of the evil Feline and his infernal torture machine still loomed over him.
"Dispatch to Unit seven…" the radio repeated.
Quickly, still breathing hard, he looked around, almost not believing the evidence of his senses. The air in his car was rank with stale sweat and urine.
"Dispatch to Unit seven…Respond, Unit seven…"
Sam grasped the microphone with a shaking hand. "Ah…Shit…Seven to Dispatch. You're not going to believe this." He really wasn't sure now if he believed it himself.
* * * *