? 1997 by Jerry J. Davis
James Gregson passed the last of the carnivorous trees and was
halfway through the clearing before he realized there were two men
in his camp. One sat on a log and the other on his chair, relaxing,
making themselves right at home. Not far away was a black and red
jeep, and on the jeep's door was the Bankrightk company logo.
One of the men looked up as Gregson approached. Gregson didn't
seem much of a threat; he was tall but good-natured looking, with
curly black hair and brown eyes. In his arms, however, was a long,
elegantly crafted electronic rifle.
"Look at the size of that stunner!" The man exclaimed,
laughing. He was thin, small, and had a pinched-looking face. He
wore an gray-green jumpsuit with what looked like 50
randomly-placed pockets, and had a name-tag that read, JACKO. "What
is it, a hundred years old?"
The other man, who was taller, rounder of features, wore all
black and was carrying a 10mm projectile pistol. His shirt bore the
Bankrightk logo and underneath was the stitched-in name RUDD. "We
hear you're really onto something, Gregson," he said.
"I don't appreciate you coming into my camp like this,"
Gregson said. "This area is staked and registered to me, and you're
"Hey, you don't have to go all huffy with us," said Jacko.
"We're here to offer you a position with Bankrightk."
"Prospecting?" Gregson asked.
"For what? A salary?"
"Salary, expenses, and a cut. More than you're getting right
"Which is nothing," Rudd said. "We ran a check on your
account. You're broke."
Gregson powered up his rifle. The indicator lights flashed on,
startling the two men, who stood suddenly and backed off a few
meters. "I didn't spend my life's savings to get all the way out to
this hairball of a planet, live in a tent in a field of mud, and
eat gristle worms and drink peat water for a year and a half, just
so I could have a cut of what I discover."
"They're making you a generous offer," Jacko said. "It's not
going to be repeated."
"You can repeat it until doomsday. I'm here as an independent,
and whatever I discover is mine. A hundred-percent mine."
"I don't think he's interested," Jacko said to Rudd.
"Your alternative is no employment at all," Rudd told Gregson.
"It's hard to go prospecting when you're laid up in a med center."
"Accidents happen so suddenly," Jacko said. "You never know
when to expect them."
"That's true," Gregson said. He slung the stun rifle over his
shoulder. "You want to make an accident happen, do it now."
Jacko and Rudd glanced nervously at each other.
"If you threaten me, you'd better be ready to back it up,"
Gregson told them. "I've killed deadlier creatures than you on five
different worlds, and I wasn't using an old stun gun, either."
Rudd sneered. "Gregson, you're way over your head." He and
Jacko turned and walked off toward their jeep. Gregson let out his
breath and relaxed. He watched as they started the jeep's engine
and rumbled off over the uneven ground. When it was out of sight he
leaned his rifle against the log and collapsed in his folding chair
with a sigh.
The main difference between civilized worlds and new colonies,
Gregson noticed, was that one had paved walkways and the other had
dirt paths. This planet, Aeolus, didn't even have dirt paths. He
made his way through the broken foliage, following the trail that
the Bankrightk jeep had plowed back toward "town." His stun rifle,
which was an antique his father once used, was slung casually over
Gregson knew the moment he heard Bankrightk had established an
office on this planet he was going to have trouble. He, like his
father before him, had wandered to the farthest reaches of human
space to get away from the corporations. It was no use, though --
wherever he went they would sooner or later show up. It stood to
reason that if there was a huge profit to be made, that is where
the corporations would go. It was like that throughout history. A
few brave souls would strike out into the unknown, searching for
that one big discovery, but the moment anything valuable was found
the corporations would step in and take it over.
Halfway to town Gregson made a detour, picking his way through
the branches and undergrowth, following the smell of hot bacon and
fried eggs, and -- oh heaven! -- freshly brewed coffee. The trees
thinned and were replaced by Earth plants; rows of corn, potatoes,
cabbage, carrots, tomatoes. There were pens with pigs, cows, and a
few horses. Chickens roamed about, each with a silver inhibitor
band around their necks to keep them from wandering too far. This
was Vern Hudson's farm, and the farm house ahead was a large
cylindrical water storage tank off one of the first colony ships.
The crops and the animals were all Vern's test subjects -- he was a
certified Ecesist, specially trained in adapting Earth life to
alien environments. Vern was nowhere in sight, but his teenage
kids, Bethany and Frank, were on the front porch with their dog.
"James!" Bethany called. "You're just in time. I made an extra
portion just in case you showed up." Bethany, who Gregson had been
courting for several months now, was 19 years standard, with
olive-brown skin, brown eyes, and long straight brown-black hair.
The top of her head didn't quite make it to Gregson's shoulders, so
she had to look up at him to show him her smile.
Her younger brother, Frank, wasn't smiling. He was 17 and
shared his sister's hair and complexion. He was a head taller than
her, however, and almost as tall as Gregson. He was huskier than
Gregson, with square shoulders and a beefy chest. He reached down
as Gregson approached and touched a button on the digital panel
embedded in the dog's head. The dog began to growl.
"Frank!" Bethany said. She touched the animal's head, and the
Frank reached for the dog again and she slapped his hand. They
glared at each other for a moment, and he turned and stomped off.
She turned and smiled at Gregson again, ushering him up to the
house and inside.
The food tasted wonderful, and the coffee was nice and strong.
As he ate, Bethany walked lightly around the table, talking. "...
and since we haven't seen any large tracks of any kind, we don't
think it's really an animal at all. Dad thinks it's spoor from one
of the plants. And I was thinking, if we could find what the source
is before my Dad does, you and I could share the title."
Gregson sipped his coffee, watching her walk, admiring her
soft curves and listening happily to her disarming voice. "If I
agreed to something like that," he told her, "your father would
have your brother kill me."
Bethany stopped, cocking her head to one side and looking at
him through whisps of her hair. "I don't think so."
"Besides, if it's a psycho-reactive agent then it's probably
useless to us. It can be reproduced artificially. The only thing
that would be valuable is if it's something that can only be
produced by a living thing, and we get the rights to the DNA code.
That's the key. If only the DNA can produce it, if the living thing
in and of itself is of value, can we profit."
"Like, if it's a psychic effect."
Gregson nodded. He stabbed the last bit of egg with a fork and
put it in his mouth.
"Dad doesn't believe in that sort of thing."
"Where is your Dad now, anyway?"
"Out at the catfish farm."
He paused in his chewing for a moment, looking into her eyes.
"Out there, huh?"
"Yeah." Her eyes betrayed worry. "I hope he's okay."
"I'm sure he is. You said you never found tracks. It's not an
"I said we never found large tracks."
Gregson dropped the fork on the table and reached out for her.
"Come here." She leaned into him, and he put his arms around her
and gave her a long hug. "He's going to be okay," he said.
"I know," Bethany said. She kissed him. They smiled at each
other, and kissed again. Gregson pulled back, still smiling, but
she wasn't finished kissing yet. She leaned hard against him to the
point where he almost lost his balance and fell out of the chair.
It was then that they noticed that her brother was yelling, and
that something was happening outside.
They hadn't made it to the door before it slammed open and
Vern came stumbling in, looking deranged. Close on his heals was
Frank, shouting, "What's wrong? What is wrong?"
"Dad?" Bethany said.
He bumped against them, stumbling, shaking, mumbling something
unintelligible. He got down on his hands and knees, crawling under
the table. There he curled into a fetal position, his eyes rolled
back so that they could only see the whites. He was panting and
sweat soaked his clothes, beading his face and making his hair hang
in wet, wiry strings. "It's ... a horrible, a demon ... gonna get
... everywhere ... follows me. I think it's a demon ... can't get
away ... can't ..." He shuddered, falling silent. His children
joined him on the floor, hugging him, telling him that he was safe.
Gregson went into the man's work room, passing the man's
elaborate bio-computer, his genetic assembly/disassembly
peripherals, found a cabinet full of pharmaceuticals and pulled out
some anti-shock tabs. He carried them into the dining room, knelt
down under the table, and placed one of the little white stickers
on the man's throat, near the jugular vein. Within minutes he began
to come out of it. He looked up at Gregson from under the table, a
shade of embarrassment in his expression.
"What was it, Vern?" he asked.
"It was horrible," Vern whispered, shaking his head.
"You saw it, then? An animal?"
Vern's mouth moved, but no words came out. When he found his
voice, he said, "Don't go out there. Don't do it."
"You know I've got to."
"Don't do it!"
Gregson turned to leave. Bethany shouted, "James!"
He turned back. "I've got to see what it is."
"It's not worth it." Bethany's eyes were pleading.
He gave her his best smile. "I'll be back."
The carnivorous trees looked more like gigantic moss-covered
fish bones than trees. They had an exoskeleton structure not unlike
Terran insects, and the "moss" was a sticky, deadly substance which
paralyzed and slowly digested several species of indigenous birds.
The most common was the flying dodo, which was a big green
bat-winged creature that regularly crashed into obstacles such as
houses, light poles, and carnivorous trees. One was fluttering and
crying out in its final moments as Gregson entered the forest.
He walked for a couple of kilometers before coming upon a
large, winding creek. He turned and followed it up hill, heading
east. The carnivorous trees thinned, being replaced by a taller,
uglier variety, which grew closer together and blocked out more
sunlight. Here and there a shaft of sunlight made it through, but
otherwise the forest was frighteningly dark.
Gregson slowed his pace and finally stopped. In front of him
the creek was dammed, creating a shallow pond of crystal clear
water. It was here that Vern Hudson was working on a strain of
catfish to be released into the main river. Beyond the pond is
where the trouble was.
He pulled out his biotascope and waved it back and forth.
There were hundreds of life form readings, mostly bugs. There was
nothing much bigger than his thumbnail. He checked the plant life
for biological outgassing; there were numerous substances, but none
registered as a psychoactive nor a pheromone -- at least none that
should affect a human being.
All around the pond were human footprints. One fresh set,
heading straight away from the pond and into the forest back toward
town, were clearly from someone running hard. As he studied them
Gregson realized his heart was pounding, that he was already
afraid. He wondered if it was natural, or if it was somehow being
induced. It's natural, he told himself. I'm a natural coward. He
took a deep breath and pushed on, walking cautiously around the
pond and into dense woods beyond.
About 40 meters past the pond, his biotascope began picking up
readings of a creature. It was right on the outside range of the
device, so he couldn't get much information. It was a larger life
reading, bigger than a dog but smaller than a human. He moved
toward it, wanting to get a look. The forest was so dense here he
couldn't see more than a few meters in any direction; the pond was
completely out of sight.
There was a loud cracking sound, and looking down Gregson saw
a crushed, hollow branch under his right foot. It was like the leg
of a large, dead insect. So much for being quiet, he thought. Then
he looked up, his eyes widening. There was a change to the forest.
Gregson's vision crystallized, the edges becoming sharp,
distinct. Tiny details of the trees, the forest floor, the light
and shadow, were all very clear. The feeling of dread swelled
inside him. Something was very wrong, very dangerous. His immediate
urge was to back away, to turn and run.
He took several long, deep breaths, forcing himself to
perceive. To analyze. This is like a drug effect, he thought. Or
like being in high quality VR. Or it's something supernatural, his
fear voice told him.
Gregson fumbled with his biotascope, making sure it was set to
He began moving slowly toward the creature. It was like trying
to walk upstream in a river. Every cell in his body was trying to
get him to turn around and go the other way. His heart was thudding
so hard in his chest that it hurt.
The dark tangle of branches around him were sinister, hiding
menace everywhere he looked. He could feel he was being watched. He
could feel the tension in the air, like a predator was stalking him
and was moments away from pouncing. Gregson became aware that his
mouth was dry, and that he was breathing hard. Sweat was streaming
down from his forehead and into his eyes.
Gregson had made it a dozen meters in toward the creature when
the sound came. Starting low and soft, it was an eerie undulating
cry, growing in volume and pitch. It was a horrible sound, a sound
that made his pounding heart skip a beat. Then he heard a crashing
in the forest behind him, and wide-eyed and gun ready Gregson
whirled around. He saw the two Bankrightk men, who had obviously
followed him into the forest, turning tail and running away.
Gregson's whole body shuddered, wanting to follow them, but he
clenched his eyes tightly shut and took deep breaths, trying to
The undulating cry was loud, now, and unnerving. It made it
impossible to think. Vern Hudson had called it a demon. It sounded
like a demon. But demons weren't real, they were fantasy. This
couldn't be a demon. This couldn't be anything supernatural. It was
just an animal. Just another animal ...
Gregson recalled all the deadly animals he'd seen in his
career, animals vicious and deadly. This creature didn't have to be
supernatural to be a demon. A demon could be an animal. A demon
animal that paralyzed its prey with fear and then went in for the
His biotascope made a sound. It was the proximity alert.
Gregson opened his eyes and glanced down at the screen, and saw
that the damn thing was right behind him. He yelled and ran. He
didn't look back, he just ran. The running was such a glorious and
wonderful relief that he kept going, effortlessly, as if a terrific
pressure was pushing him from behind.
Gregson arrived at his camp exhausted, only to find that the
Bankrightk men had been there first. They had taken revenge for the
fright they'd received. Gregson's tent had been cut apart with a
laser torch, and the contents smashed and strewn about like so much
garbage. He stood there, kicking at the remains of his cot and
portable cooking equipment. His power plant and biopack computer
were gone. It was basically everything he owned.
Of course he had insurance. Unfortunately, it took several
Earth-months to process, and until then he had the choice of
signing up with Bankrightk or being a bum. Without the biopak
computer, there was no way for him to register DNA samples.
He felt it welling up inside of him. Anger, and the desire to
kill. Common animal emotions. It was very distasteful, very
unpleasant. They were overpowering.
Gregson hefted the stun gun. It was a large, heavy weapon, but
it would not kill -- unless you used it as a club.
He set off purposefully toward town.
Bankrightk had the newest and nicest building in town. Unlike
most of the other reused tanks or spaceship pods, this
foam-concrete building was actually built as an office. It had an
authentic Sante Fe adobe look to it. The front door was securely
locked, and peering through the windows Gregson saw that it was
The local law enforcement offices were a rusty old half-tank
propped up as a rain shelter, with an empty glass office in the
back. The glass was cracked in several places, and the public
terminals to the orbital police station were all vandalized.
Gregson had known it was a useless gesture to even try, but he
thought he should go through the motions anyway. One of the
terminals, damaged as it was, still worked enough for him to report
the crime. The reply he received was that the department was
overwhelmed with search and rescue efforts, and wouldn't be able to
get an officer down to the settlement for at least a week.
Gregson pushed the key to acknowledge the message, but the key
stuck and the terminal began making an annoying beeping sound. The
screen filled with garbage characters. He stared at it for a
moment, then pounded on it with his fist. It stopped beeping, the
screen cleared, and on the display appeared an application for
employment. Gregson stared at it quizzically for a moment, then
shrugged and filled it out. Lord knows he was out of a job. It was
better than working for Bankrightk.
Gregson wandered around the settlement for a while, hungry,
unable to afford to eat, then in a depressed mood returned into the
wilderness heading for Vern Hudson's farm, hoping for another
charitable meal from Bethany. When he was in sight of the place,
Vern came running out, yelling hysterically. He was waving a
blaster in the air.
Gregson stopped short, wondering if the old man was angry at
him for something -- wondering if he should run. He almost did. But
there was desperation in the man's voice, and Gregson realized Vern
was yelling for help. "Bethany's out there!" he yelled at Gregson.
"Frank and Bethany went out there, and she's still out there!"
"Frank came back, but Bethany didn't!" Vern yelled. He was
wild-eyed with panic and worry. "Can't get Frank to show me where
she is -- can't get him to talk at all!" He grabbed Gregson's arm,
looking at him desperately. "I can't go out there alone."
Gregson took a deep, calming breath, but he was still gritting
his teeth. "Okay," he said. "Let's follow the tracks."
There were tracks all around Vern's fish pond. Gregson had
isolated Frank and Bethany's, but there were two more sets. He
remembered that the Bankrightk men had followed him there earlier,
then had run off when the terror struck. Gregson's fear was that
they had gone and armed themselves to the teeth, returning with
enough firepower to level the forest. His fears were justified when
he and Vern heard shouting and gunfire coming from the dense, dark
Gregson already had his biotascope set to record when the
terror started. He had some interesting readings from his previous
encounter, and wanted to confirm them. After the terror started
working on him he ceased to care about the recordings ... there was
no good reason for him to be out there, except that Bethany was
lost somewhere and he needed to bring her back. His worry for her
was like an anchor that kept the terror from carrying him away.
The Bankrightk men continued to shout and fire their weapons.
They sounded wild with fear and panic. "Those idiots," Gregson
whispered to Vern. "If Beth is out here, they're liable to kill
Vern said nothing. He clutched his blaster close to his chest,
sweat pouring from his forehead. His eyes were bulging and his head
continuously turned from side to side, like he was expecting
something to sneak up behind him.
They trudged several meters further into the murky forest, and
Gregson paused, pointing down. Bethany's footprints continued
forward, while Frank's lead around and back. This is where the
terror had gotten to him, and he'd left his sister all alone. The
Bankrightk men had paused here, and had continued on following
From somewhere in the forest came a weird, undulating cry.
Vern began to back away, but Gregson grabbed him by the shirt and
pulled him forward.
Vern blustered. "Let go of me!"
"Stay with me, Vern."
"I ... I can't."
"She's your daughter, damn it -- if you love her half as much
as I do, you going to stay with me."
It was dark, but there was a breeze tousling the tops of the
trees and occasionally a shaft of sunlight would spear down for a
second or two. The warbling, undulating cry seemed to come from
everywhere. Gregson pushed forward, rifle pointing forward, every
nerve on edge. He felt like he was dancing across the surface of
the terror, keeping above it while still feeling it. It was a
freefall feeling, unnerving and at the same time exhilarating. He
moved through a momentary patch of weak sunlight and once again
into shadow, the shadow now seeming deeper than ever.
His biotascope registered a life form ahead. A humanoid in a
highly agitated state. Blood pressure high, pulse rate high,
adrenal secretions abnormal. Neural pulse rate was two per second
higher than the usual ten. A far removed part of Gregson thought
that was odd.
Gregson made it to twenty meters from the person, keeping a
tree trunk between him and whoever it was. He turned to say
something to Vern and found he was alone. Vern had slipped away,
abandoning him. Gregson felt like turning and running after him,
but he didn't. He wanted to, but instead he held tightly to his
father's gun and closed his eyes, focusing his will. I am here for
Bethany, he thought. I am here for her.
He opened his eyes and studied his biotascope. The person near
him wasn't Bethany -- the body mass was too high. It was probably
Rudd, from Bankrightk. Beyond him was another humanoid, and thirty
meters further in was the creature.
There was more yelling, and then gunfire. Gregson stayed
behind the tree, hiding. The idiots were firing wildly at random,
totally out of their minds. The bio-readings from both were
identical; same high pulse, same accelerated neural rate. The brain
pulse, which was usually right at 40 cycles per second front to
back, was at an odd 57 cycles per second.
Gregson struggled to keep his breathing under control. Sweat
dropped from his forehead and smeared the readouts on the
biotascope. He squinted, focusing his attention with great effort.
The pulse in his own brain was also at 57 cycles per second.
Gregson wiped at the screen, touched the controls. He focused on
the creature, focusing on the neural indicators. It took a while,
as the creature was distant. The number finally came up.
It was the same magic number.
Gregson adjusted the stun setting down to it's lowest and
peered around the tree. Rudd had his back to him; Gregson saw him
as a dark patch of gray against darker gray. He aimed carefully for
the man's leg, and let off a shot. The gun discharged with a twang.
Rudd rolled around the ground, crying out. "It's biting me!" he