Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part CVIII: Distraction

This page Copyright 2019, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
9 Fourthmonth 571JR
10 August 2366CE

Delilah's reaction to Frashkra and Karrok was mild; she had never encountered a Flike before, not even the ones who landed on Mark's World, and these, she knew, were not responsible for the murder of her first husband and daughter. She had, over the years since, got in the habit of wearing weapons, a slim 12-shot plasma pistol and a knife not far removed from the ancient Fairbairn-Sykes, but she accepted her Captain's word that these beings were not her enemies. She and her husband Ralph took the opportunity to add Flike biology to their knowledge bases.
The two Flike concealed themselves in their quarters, and Aurora's robot extensions brought meals to them. This confinement was difficult for the predators, but necessary; Aurora was carrying other passengers along the way, to further conceal her mission. Her itinerary would have to look like she was simply moving from one merchant opportunity to the next, and that she was heading toward Kmar by coincidence. The ONI operatives and the new ambassador and deputy were likewise keeping to themselves. There was no rule saying they had to make their movements public, or explain their sudden appearance on Kmar, where many ships, including Jeffersonian, came and went.

Clearsky, a low-population Republic Territory, had been named ironically. The cloud-veiled world resembled pre-Escape imaginations of Venus. There were occasional breaks in the clouds, and enough sunlight filtered through otherwise for life to form and thrive. Like Alpine, hunt-tourism was a meaningful part of the economy, with Common Life animals not too different from Terran dinosaurs.
Despite the risks of discovery, the opportunity couldn't be missed. Four Boat went on a "sightseeing" flight, secretly carrying Frashkra and Karrok to another hemisphere, away from the main settlements and Aurora's other passengers. Aurora and Solomon accompanied them, he with his favorite 6.5mm M11 rifle, she with her swords and 1911 pistol.
The things they were hunting today were herbivores, but rather larger than Solomon's little 6.5 was intended for. He also wore his M437 military plasma pistol, with 27 charges of 1.3 kilojoules each. That would cause a lot of damage to the meat, so he hoped it wouldn't be necessary. The "buffipedes" looked like a cross between buffalo and centipede, with twelve legs and a shaggy coat. The males also had a bone-armor protrusion on their heads for mating-combat. They approached two meters at the shoulder, and up to fifteen long. Their coats had some export and trade value, and the meat was as good as any beef or venison to be found on Old Terra.
This day, Solomon was wearing an AR visor, augmented reality, like the one Sarah Heusner had worn to land Haldred on Danforth IV. Aurora's hovering spheres gave him an unfair advantage, showing outlines of the prey, and his fellow hunters, through concealing foliage. Aurora also spoke to him through his earbud. "Frashkra and Karrok are difficult to track," she observed. Their tracking implants had been removed, by Ralph, when they boarded her. "They are truly natural predators, and have excellent woodcraft. They are far stealthier than Sarah." The Eyani Navigator and huntress was on the other side of the planet, making the most of the one-day layover. Most of the rest of the crew were with her, hunting as this group was. With the size of most game animals on this world, Aurora's cryopantries wouldn't run out of meat for the next several Transits. "This is the first time I have observed Flike on the hunt first-hand," Aurora continued. "It is good that these are our friends. I am reminded of the Great Snow Leopards we encountered on Alpine." That was after she had become sentient, during her response to the Flike raid on the freighter Heritage over Dakota, but before she claimed self-awareness at Mark's World. Even with all the sensors of a warship, she'd had trouble following the large catlike beings in tall grass. Flike in a jungle could be the stuff of nightmares.
Solomon tried to use his own senses, switching off the visor's AR functions. He could make out the buffipedes, even through the jungle, but the Flike were invisible to Human eyes, the natural blacks and browns of their leathery hide blending into shadows whenever they stopped moving.
Suddenly there was motion to his left, far from where either Frashkra or Karrok were supposed to be. A buffipede bellowed, first in surprise, then terror and pain. Switching the visor back on, he saw the Flikes' positions, the harem of cows - the buffipede bull seemed absent. Aurora's gynoid was several meters to his right... and now a new creature appeared among the cows, that even her sensors had not detected at all.
Everyone had studied Clearsky's lifeforms before embarking on their hunting trips, but perhaps hadn't fully grasped that these jungles had a homegrown nightmare of their own. To the earbuds of her own group, Aurora called, "Jagasaur!"

The Clearsky jagasaur looked like a cross between a jaguar and a tyrannosaurus. Its scales alternated colors, greens and browns and blacks, breaking up its outline in its native jungle. It was laid out somewhat like a big cat, usually moving on all eight limbs, but could rise on the rear four or even two, to grapple prey with the rest, each tipped with four catlike claws, often a decimeter long. Upright, it reached a height of five meters - twice that of an adult male Flike. Despite its size it was fast like a jaguar, rending first one, then another buffipede cow. Pieces flew, snapping branches and vines among the jungle growth.
Solomon and Aurora prepared to withdraw - they weren't equipped for this. The Flike, however, did not respond to her signal. Danner now heard a thing perhaps no Human had before: barks, yips, short howls and snarls. He thought it might be what wolves would sound like, if they were thinking people with a language of their own. This was one of the Flike hunting tongues, a prehistoric brevity code to coordinate their actions, separate from the language they had developed centuries ago, after Jagrash the First had unified Kmar. Few beings would hear such a thing and live.
The sounds echoed through the jungle, seeming to come from everywhere as the two Flike moved. The jagasaur had never heard such a thing before either, and seemed confused. Aurora's hovering spheres could barely keep up as the Flike suddenly fell silent, their plan of attack made, and charged the alien predator which outmassed both of them together.
Clearsky's gravity was nine point two meters. Flike had evolved in, and these had recently returned to, more than eleven. Karrok, only a green blur on Solomon's visor, flickering in and out as Aurora's spheres lost and regained sight of him, blurred also with speed as he dived under the jagasaur, slashing at its scaly belly with retractable claws of his own.
Frashkra bounded across a fallen tree, off the side of an upright one, swung like a gymnast from a branch, and landed on the back of the jagasaur's neck. The alien beast's armor was thick; Karrok had broken three claws in his slashing attack and had separated, lining up for another assault. Frashkra hugged close against the jagasaur, the grasping claws on his middle limbs finding purchase between scales.
The jagasaur screeched in fury, and Danner's ears rang. It clawed at Frashkra but couldn't quite reach him, though the jagasaur's flailing claws opened wounds along Frashkra's arms and legs. The Flike was clawing too, at the beast's eyes, both pairs. The cat-lizard could reach there, and swatted Frashkra's efforts away, only for the Flike's hands to return. Their speeds were comparable.
As the jagasaur rose upright, Karrok returned, slashing at the animal's rearmost legs, trying to cut a tendon. Solomon found himself closing on the battle, rifle in hand, and saw with his own eyes as Karrok snapped off another claw, snarling in frustration and pain... but bright red Common Life blood appeared on the animal where the Flike had struck, and it toppled, crashing to the jungle floor. Frashkra and Karrok disappeared behind it, or perhaps underneath.
Solomon's instincts for battle had taken over and he had run to the sound of the guns, or in this case to the passengers he was responsible for - not stopping to think whether the sentient predators needed or even wanted help. He had not at first heard his wife calling to him, warning him: "Jagasaur hunt in pairs!"
Sensing a presence Danner turned, and saw the male jagasaur rising six meters from the jungle floor, staring with all four of its golden, slit-pupil eyes at the strange little alien, raising one mighty claw-tipped limb to swat the soft pink thing away.

They had all read the Galpedia article - jagasaur hunted buffipede as mated pairs, the larger male striking first to neutralize the bull, the jagasaur's only threat in Clearsky's nature, while the female laid into the cows. Then the pair, and young if they had any, would feast at leisure.
Solomon could think fast under stress. He'd proven that many times, in the blackness of space and in the waste-choked alleys of port cities. He raised his rifle, underpowered as it was for this new threat but it was what he had in his hands, and it would be faster than dropping the rifle to draw his pistol. His thumb smashed the selector all the way down, to the high-speed full automatic setting, but the descending paw and claws would reach him before his muzzle could cover the target or before he could throw himself out of the way-
She was there.
Aurora, like her Captain, wore camouflage denim instead of her usual white, but she had braided her long, pale-gold hair for the hunt, and it streamed behind her as she leapt between her husband and the thing that wanted to kill him. Her Sakaguchi katana's pale-gold, molecular-edged blade flashed. The jagasaur's paw separated, sailing past where Danner stood, the stump fountaining blood across his face and chest as it swung by.
Blood covered Danner's visor but the AR functions were still on, Aurora's spheres still hovering above. With the imagery projected before his eyes he finished raising his rifle, putting the aiming dot on the animal's face, pressed the trigger, and held it down.
The 6.5mm bullets were core-bonded, not much improved from the partition types invented decades before the Escape, with dual lead cores in a copper jacket. The forward section was meant to expand to create a larger wound channel, while the rear would retain mass and momentum for penetration. Fifteen of them per second were launched at the jagasaur's head, until the forty-round magazine ran out.
Finagle's Law states that "the perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum". Only one of the creature's four eyes was hit. Even at more than 900 meters per second, some of the bullets actually bounced off the creature's thick scales. Enraged, it screeched deafeningly.
Aurora charged for another slash, at one of the legs the beast now stood on. It kicked before she could strike, with enough force to kill a Human instantly. She was hurled into a tree, which swayed with the impact, leaves and twigs and smaller animals showering down.
Solomon's empty rifle was already falling, and his right hand followed to reach for his plasma pistol. The AR visor was programmed to display the point of aim of whatever weapon he held, whether he could see the sights or not. The pistol came up, his finger found the trigger, and bolt after bolt of golden artificial lightning cracked into the animal.
Compared to even the 6.5mm rifle, the plasma had little penetration, flash-heating and disrupting whatever it struck first. Danner persisted, continuing to fire as the jagasaur drew back, raising paws and a stump to ward off the plasma. Scales shattered and fell, revealing the softer flesh underneath. Another paw was blasted off as a bolt found this more vulnerable tissue and bodily fluids.
Aurora returned now, leaping as Frashkra had with more-than-Human strength and agility. Her timing was perfect as Solomon's pistol ran empty of charges and she would not be in his line of fire until he reloaded. Her katana flashed again, across the back of the jagasaur's neck, severing the spine and central nervous control. At the end of her ballistic arc, Aurora somersaulted to a perfect gymnast's landing. The monster crashed to the jungle floor, its snout ending centimeters from Solomon's boots. With one last rattling breath, it died.

Aurora was disheveled but her artificial body was still functional. This was only the second time husband and wife had fought together, and he was still learning that he need not worry about her physical safety. With a nod to indicate she was all right, she turned toward where their passengers had last been seen, and Danner followed.
Thrashing could be heard on the jungle floor, and Aurora's sensor spheres constructed outlines for Solomon's AR visor. The buffipede cows had scattered. The female jagasaur rolled and screeched, lashing out blindly; Frashkra had destroyed its eyes. Karrok had joined him at the beast's neck, biting deep, searching for arteries or the spine. As the Human and gynoid approached, the jagasaur weakened, wheezed, shuddered, and became still.
The Flike held their grips for another minute, to be sure it was dead. Then they broke away, covered in the animal's blood and their own. They raised their wolflike muzzles to Clearsky's unseen sun and howled their triumph.

Aurora had brought a pair of her Humanoid serving robots in Four Boat, and set these to harvesting meat from the buffipedes the jagasaur had slain, and from the predators themselves. The Flike collected their own trophies: claws and fangs and scales from the jagasaurs' corpses. They dare not wear them on their mission to Kmar, but after fashioning decorations from them during the next Transit, they would be sent, in a roundabout way, to their fellow exiles on Selm. Aurora's recordings of the hunt would accompany them - the exiles dared not keep them on their own 'puters.
Solomon learned that Flike claws grew quickly, and that losing them in battle was to be expected. Among the possessions the pair had brought were hardwood logs for scratching posts, to control the claws' growth and to sharpen them, like Terran cats. These wore out, and spares were acquired at Clearsky.

"In hindsight," Danner observed, back aboard Aurora in Frashkra's quarters, "that was stupid, and I shouldn't have allowed it, much less taken part. Our missions might have been ended before beginning."
Frashkra and Karrok had a different view. "I disagree, Solomon," Frashkra said. Ralph and Delilah were here too, treating the Flikes' wounds. This was more of a crowd than the predators would normally be comfortable with, in such a small place by their standards, but they were basking in the afterglow of their successful hunt, visibly relaxed and content... and with their bellies full of buffipede. "Someday - once Jagrash is overthrown - this day's work will be worthy of song."
{I would not have missed this experience}, Karrok said through Aurora's translation, {even at the cost of my life. There are others who feel as we do about Jagrash, to take up our work if we fail - and what a tale to boast of to my sons!}
"Indeed, Solomon, Honored One, I am very grateful to you for this experience. I shall remember this day for the rest of my life... and now I know I am worthy of battle, in my own people's way. That was a thing I had never truly known before."
{Yes, Solomon-Captain,} Karrok agreed. {You have given us a great gift. We shall be forever in your debt. And yours as well, Honored One,} he added, bowing in his seat toward Aurora's gynoid. {Opportunities such as this no longer exist on Kmar. The only other Flike who can enjoy- ...I should say, participate, in such a hunt, are those who prey on the other peoples of the galaxy. I was never comfortable with Jagrash's policy of conquest and pillage. That is how Tkkro and Krishto and I found each other and developed the plan to steal Bloodletter.} That was the name of the Swiftclaw-class Flike destroyer they had made off with.
"Well," Solomon answered. "You can repay us by succeeding in your mission, overthrowing your dictator, and joining us in peace." To that, all drank.
Continued in the next excerpt....
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