THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW

FREDERICK BELL

ILON THE HUNTER SERIES BOOK 1

Chapter 12

Nalanusat was the only passenger to emerge from the open hatchway. Even as he waddled off the landing platform and onto the deserted field he rehearsed the same unhappy words over and over out loud to himself. “Something terrible has happened.” Not since first arriving by air transport had he seen anyone else on the runway. Nor were there any posted guards in front of the main terminal. A vehicle was supposed to have been sent to escort him back to the city, but there was no sign of that either. With news this important he could not wait here any longer, and so he started off by himself, moving forward with slug-like speed. It was near dawn when he arrived at the walls of city Soligcetis; the sun was an undulating yellow swell just above the dunes. When he reached the main gates armed guards were waiting to stop him. “Let me pass,” Nalanusat puffed, though gesturing more than talking. Finally, after he pushed several more breaths of air though the pores of his skin, he was able to make clear what he wanted and said, “I have come all the way from Betelgesel bearing an important message that only Poxiciti can hear. He must be awakened from his sleep at once.” As the huge metal gates swung slowly open he pushed his bulk inside and hurried on; a guard was calling out directions behind him as he plodded away. Dim yellow lights guided his way down a deserted street, past the city’s administration building, finally ending at the dormitory. More warders were stationed outside of the building. After repeating the same urgent message the guards pressed Nalanusat to answer more of their questions before deciding to let him through. The door briefly hummed then hissed open to a dark corridor beyond. One of the Epiphilinian soldiers, a heavily armed female with a dreg’s rank on her blue neck band, escorted him the rest of the way inside. “Let him through,” she barked at a second locked door. Eventually she led him to an elevator, then up to a expansive waiting room from which Poxiciti was summoned. While Nalanusat waited he took out his bottle of tesano and applied a fresh coat of makeup. The nozzle hissed as the bright

“Something terrible has happened.”

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green paint coated his face, a color that was said to attract even the most unresponsive females. After checking himself in the window he then focused his thoughts back to Betelgesel and wondered how he would bring this dark event into the light of day. “Tell me what it is you want and be gone.” Turning quickly around, Nalanusat saw the scientist approaching, his many attendants trailing behind him. He walked with a noticeable limp, had also a scarred face and a black eye socket from a recent laboratory explosion which had disfigured him. Now he was an important member of the Vulana, the ruling party comprised mostly of scientists and environmentalists. Once regarded by many as a subversive, male-dominated organization, they had gained considerable power and popularity during the agharl plague back home on planet Epiphiline. Poxiciti himself had successfully organized several protest campaigns against the ruling government, whose environmental policies many believed were responsible for the disaster that claimed millions of lives. His importance had given him the red band which he now wore around his neck. So when Nalanusat addressed him directly he spoke respectfully in his presence, as he could see that Poxiciti was indeed a powerful figure. “Are you Poxiciti, one who is imminently known and revered for his great works of science and learning?” “Of course I am,” he said clearly in the presence of everyone, indicating his rank by words alone. There was a trace of condescension in his voice. “And you?” “Nalanusat.” Since it was customary to avoid eye contact when speaking to one of higher status he lowered his head then spoke formally, indicating to him the importance of his own position. “I am the administrative assistant to Midlothian, who is head of city Anaxerxes and all those who she commands.” Poxiciti’s body trembled when he heard that name. She was notably one of the Vulana’s staunchest opponents. They had clashed several times in the past, although now she was currently embroiled in a corruption scandal involving fraud, kickbacks and political payoffs. If this low male worked for her then he was a traitor, to be hated and despised. “I find her incredibly stupid and wonder how one of such low intelligence could have possibly attained so high a position. Those whom she employs are idiots and incompetents.” He spoke directly to Nalanusat to ensure he clearly understood this fact. “And clean that disgusting mess off your face. I find it revolting to stand in the presence of one who uses such conveniences merely for garnering female attention. Males have brains too. We are equal to females. Seeing you this way diminishes the status all we males fought for.”

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Humiliated in front of everyone, Nalanusat withdrew a facial cloth and quickly wiped himself clean. Poxiciti nodded approvingly. “Much better. Now—what is this urgent news that bloated imbecile orders you to wake me before daylight?” With the evening’s events still fresh in his mind, Nalanusat fought to control his emotions. “Bad. Worse than bad. Terrible. Horrible!” “Stop!” Poxiciti sharply commanded. When he spoke that strongly the dense pores covering his skin hissed loudly as he sucked in the air. “There is no intelligence behind your words. Find it, and explain yourself immediately.” “I will.” Nalanusat apologized as one who obeyed his superiors. Though it was extremely difficult, he went on, saying, “Something terrible has happened.” “What? What has happened? Tell me quickly you fool.” “I have just come from Betelgesel.” “From where?” Poxiciti was already angry and spoke in the rudest possible way. “Speak at once and make no more riddles lest I have my guards beat the words from you.” “Forgiveness is asked, and the explanation is forthcoming. It is a bridge we are constructing across the Betelgesel river.” “Understanding at last. Then I can assume there is a problem that warrants my special attention?” Indeed there was. Under the threat of his movements alone Nalanusat conveyed every sense of disaster. From his garment pocket he withdrew a crumpled slip of wet selp paper and unfurled it on top of the table. The light-activated nanoparticles embedded in the paper quickly formed a detailed map. Using the wedge of his hand he touched the specific area so that it now re-formed a magnified image that he pointed out the recognizable landmarks. Poxiciti quickly deduced the bridge’s exact location. “I know this bridge,” he confirmed. “The last link between city Anaxerxes and city Tykrerek, a bridge of countless delays and accidents. What has taken the entire season to construct has in a single night been utterly destroyed.” “Destroyed? How?” “By fire. While we speak it is spreading to the forest beyond and burns out of control.” Through his tiny yellow eyes he made a pleading expression. “What can be done to lessen this terrible disaster?” “Unfortunately—nothing. A burnt forest is an incalculable loss. Since it was an accident of stupidity then there is little I can do. Your bridge is destroyed. Build another one.” “It was no accident.” Those who were present in the room, some assistants, a few environmentalists, Poxiciti included, looked at Nalanusat in absolute

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silence, no doubt hoping that he would further elaborate on this new and distressing news. Nalanusat tapped the selp paper, leaving a trace of slimy residue where his wet wedge touched. “There are two other bridges on this same road. Were,” he said, correcting himself. “All three were deliberately burned last night.” “All set by the same offender?” Poxiciti gasped audibly. “Then you had better quickly apprehend those responsible before they do this again.” From Nalanusat’s grim expression and raised hand signing for continuance, Poxiciti guessed that worse was to follow this already shocking news. “Eleven guards were found brutally murdered, five more are still missing, presumed dead. The sight of them is like nothing I ever want to look upon again. Flesh ripped apart by claws, bones smashed with teeth. Even while we were discovering the bodies flying carrion things were devouring their remains.” As he went on, Poxiciti found the grisly details of the guards’ dismembered corpses revolting and interrupted. “It seems to me that you should return immediately to city Anaxerxes for help. Even if only to assure the populace that their killers will be quickly caught and punished for this horrendous crime.” “I don’t think so. That is, what we are looking for is not of Epiphiline, but is in fact a wild animal, a deliberate and cunning destroyer, yet one who also is a bestial slaughterer that we must find and eliminate completely.” “An animal who plots murder in the night and burns our bridges too? Ridiculous,” Poxiciti said testily, reacting with vehemence and disbelief. “What you have described is a creature possessed of intelligence and planning. There is nothing like that on this new world but we Epiphilinians. However, a more satisfactory explanation might be that a group of armed terrorists committed this atrocity. We know of two such organizations that are already operating here on the planet, killing and destroying to advance their religious cause.” Nodding, but not agreeing, Nalanusat reaffirmed his city’s official position by saying, “The guards were first killed, then the bridges set afire. Animal tracks were discovered beside the bodies in all three locations. An animal that killed but did not eat. One witness reported seeing black creatures as I described earlier, fleeing the bridge while it burned behind them. One other survivor repeated very much the same story. If it is these creatures that are attacking us then there is no telling when they might strike again. What do you think?” “I think you are wasting my time,” Poxiciti said abruptly. “I am a scientist, not a fortune teller. If there are clues to be found then I

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may ascertain the only possible answer from the evidence. Not from mere speculation or wild reports.” Nalanusat arched his body to show this was exactly what he wanted to hear. “That is good. So if you, an important figure of science, searched these same sites, why then I believe your findings would prove to everyone that it was these monsters who did this.” “I?. . . I?” Poxiciti at last began to understand the point of this suppliant’s visit. “Then your fat master wishes me to visit these places?” “She thought that you might give this single matter your fullest attention.” “For that ugly thing?” he hissed. “Why should I want to help her?” “Only because it magnifies your great intelligence and diminishes her own status as a problem solver.” “True,” he said without any hint of modesty. “What else?” “I assure you that is all.” Then he carefully added, “Someone as powerful as Midlothian would not request aid unless it was of vital importance. You should not refuse her.” “And if I do?” Nalanusat heard this, and the strong emphasis was in his ready response. “She has many important friends. With such a tenuous grasp on power, Poxiciti, why risk having any more enemies?” There was a sudden flurry of movement as those in the room hurried to get out of the way. Poxiciti was trembling with rage. Had Nalanusat spoken that way to a female he would have died on the spot. Nevertheless Poxiciti had to fight to keep his emotions under control. “You talk big, yet I can see that you are one of small intelligence and thinking, and merit only dismissal. But tell me before I have you sent from my sight, why does she so steadfastly believe that a feral animal is the culprit?” “Stupidity does not permit me to answer this,” Nalanusat admitted angrily, feeling the harsh emphasis of his own words and knowing that he should now lower himself before Poxiciti had him forcibly ejected. “Only you would dare to prove her wrong.” He would. The building soon filled with the hum of activity. Messengers waddled in and out of sight, assistants gathered supplies, technicians packed equipment and instruments while important instructions were being issued for the journey. Poxiciti then led his retinue outside to the waiting transport which took them promptly to the sky port. After the shuttle was loaded they boarded and took their seats while the engines started to whine. A cloud of dust and debris came off the field as the shuttle arced skyward toward the rising sun.

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From the air, Poxiciti could see that most of the roadway below was completed, for it cut a wide swath through the forest and terminated at what must have been city Tykrerek, just barely visible on the distant horizon. In between were the burnt remains of the bridges; an ashen cloud of smoke rose visibly above each one. However they were heading first to Betelgesel, since that was reportedly the initial source of the attack. Upon arrival the first thing Poxiciti did was interview the witnesses. From the start there were some discrepancies with their testimony, but after further questioning he determined that most of what they recounted seemed to corroborate the basic story. After that he inspected the destroyed bridge for any clues that might reveal the true nature of the attack, though could see there was little left to study. The charred bones of wood floated downstream; massive broken beams rested half submerged in the running water. Curious onlookers crowded nearby; talk of what Poxiciti was doing here was starting to spread. There was no time to waste. His investigation would have to be completed before these witless workers ground the remaining evidence underfoot. And so he worked on through the morning yet was no closer to finding what he wanted. By midday, when the hot sun was directly overhead, he was looking about and realized that the wild animals he had so quickly discounted were perhaps now the most plausible explanation. In several places rimming the shore were their telltale footprints, now baked rockhard in the mud. “Look at these.” Poxiciti traced out a clean track in front of his assistants. “Seven toes, marked by claws. A two-legged creature, with a long length of tail. See where it has dragged it through the mud? This is a very big animal,” he remarked, noting the depth and size of the prints. “Has anyone bothered to follow these tracks to see where they might lead?” He scowled when he saw all the silent faces. “Were it not for my curiosity then all of this would forever be a mystery. See that they are followed to their end,” he ordered. As they were making their way past the rows of makeshift tents one of the construction workers appeared in a doorway and called them over. Inside Poxiciti saw several neatly spaced mounds, each covered with a dark sheet. “And these are the bodies?” A slow headshake answered his interrogative. “We picked up what we could find. Are you sure you want to see this?” He nodded for her to proceed. The worker gingerly peeled off the covering so that he could examine the remains for himself. It made a tearing sound where the dried blood and flesh had adhered. Obviously the sight of it must have been disconcerting for him

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because he was speechless for a long time. And when he did speak his voice sounded cold and detached. “The victim has extensive tissue and organ damage, multiple lacerations about the head and chest . . .” He touched the cold skin and took a deep breath of air. “Death occurred sometime last night, I’d say nearer to dusk. Interesting. The bite wounds are undoubtedly that of a wild animal. See these lateral incisions here and here, where the mandible bit cleanly through the backside and severed her spine. She died instantly.” The worker replaced the sheet and the moment of discomfort was over. “Whatever did this is obviously some sort of carnivore, although I didn’t see any clear evidence of consumption.” “As I explained to you earlier,” Nalanusat reminded him. “Now tell me what kind of animal kills only for the sake of killing.” “Only we Epiphilinians,” Poxiciti answered with harsh sarcasm. “We kill only to bring about peace and order,” Nalanusat responded angrily. Until now he had kept quiet strictly for the sake of the investigation, though this surge of anger he felt loosened his mouth. “You pacifists are all alike. Naturally you enjoy the benefits of our society without having to bear any of the cost.” “Your lack of intelligence is appalling. But for you I suppose it was far easier to rise to your position on your back than use what little brains you have to solve our people’s problems.” Just as the two of them were squaring off for another round of fighting, one of Poxiciti’s assistants, a young, hotheaded environmentalist named Inelefar, waddled into the tent, his arms swinging wildly to show the importance of the news he was bearing. “In the forest. I found something.” He led the party, though armed soldiers scouted the perimeter as they went forward. As they followed the trail deeper into the forest what they saw was indeed very peculiar, for these same tracks were now spaced much farther apart, as though this animal was able to leap great distances. “Now I know these creatures,” Poxiciti announced. “That is, I know of some ruthless profiteers who risk death to hunt them. It is a very dangerous beast I have only heard of but never seen, though one which is eagerly sought out by our detestable poachers and sold back home on Epiphiline.” Then he added with disgust, “Criminals who harvest life for profit—a monstrous crime! But they fetch a good price, these animal hides, for apparently they have certain luminescent properties that enable them to change color to match the background.” “Segathars. Their hides are very popular. And expensive,” Inelefar agreed. “In city Tykrerek I hear there are cargo cruisers being loaded every day with segathar skins.”

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“Of course in my city we have strict hunting regulations against that sort of thing.” Nalanusat felt compelled to say something affirming because it was known that both cities had close dealings. “Midlothian would never permit it unless—” “Unless she could profit from it,” Poxiciti broke in. He halted on the path. “I believe your words mask the darker truth—and that is, what she and her brain-deads really want is for me to sanction this wholesale slaughter, all in the name of public safety when it is really the money she is thinking about. Now tell me what I wish to know. Is she not already hunting these segathars to death?” Although Nalanusat never intended to disclose this information, he had never tried to conceal it either. In fact it was common knowledge back in the city. Bounty hunters were seen every day at the market place with their load of skins. For a dangerous service that Midlothian happily rewarded, they emptied the forest of a menacing and troublesome pest. “Since you prefer to put it that way—yes,” Nalanusat confessed. “She has granted special permission to cull this particular beast because it is a nuisance animal, better dead, for not only is it a marauder who depletes the forest of other, more valuable animals, but now it has proven itself to be a life-threatening danger to our own people.” “How convenient,” Poxiciti said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “A nuisance, and yet one who’s hide fetches an exorbitant price on the market. It seems as though Midlothian has found an effective solution to her problem while still making a handsome profit. And of course, with my approval she can now increase her efforts to kill even more. Had I her low cunning then I too might stupidly believe I was above the law. When news of this reaches the Vulana—and I promise it will—she will certainly be punished for her wickedness and disobedience.” It was no mere threat. Poxiciti could do that, report any offender of the strict environmental laws. His duty as the Vulana’s ecological enforcement officer was very clear. Any activity that might pollute or degrade even the tiniest part of the planet first had to have his approval. It was a very long process of environmental impact assessments and public hearings—the backlog was enormous. And any polluters or breakers of the law were to be dealt with severely. But the Vulana also had many opponents. For countless generations, the low males had little influence on matters of government legislature. The female power brokers, greedy, and politically corrupt, had brought Epiphiline to the brink of economic and environmental ruin. Now its oceans were polluted cesspools, its atmosphere nearly unbreathable, one global catastrophe following

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after another. Yet for the first time ever, voter dissatisfaction had swept the males into power, had given them the opportunity to fulfill their promises of a cleaner and better world. But so far they were failing, the damage was already done, their planet dying. Now this new world was their only hope, but because of their own stringent laws they were being criticized by the same environmentalists who now demanded a more cautious settlement. However the females, eager to regain power, wanted to see their own world quickly abandoned for this new one. Poxiciti felt the mounting pressure, but for as long as the Vulana ruled he would keep on fighting them to ensure a bright future for everyone. Finally they reached the spot Inelefar had spoken of. When he pointed down at the pile and kicked over some of the charred black wood, Poxiciti was as stupefied by its presence as everyone else. “A fire pit, still warm. I don’t understand. Tell me, did you look carefully for any sign of disturbance, anything that might show us some other force was at work here?” “Of course. I counted at least a dozen tracks, and they were all made by the segathars.” “Fascinating, yet highly improbable. Wild animals cannot make fire. Nor do they have the mental capacity to launch a well planned attack.” “Apparently,” Nalanusat said, terror in his voice, “this one does.” No doubt news about what they had found would be carried back to city Anaxerxes, would spread to the other cities as well and begin a groundswell of panic. Soldiers were dead, bridges were burnt down. That would not be easily forgotten. It was going to be a formidable task just to keep the people under control. Midlothian, the brute that she was, would order her armed forces to scour the forests and exterminate every last segathar—and what could Poxiciti do to stop her? If he interfered then his party risked losing the support of the people. Had none of this ever happened then perhaps both segathar and Epiphilinian could have lived apart, in peace. But not now. Poxiciti stood staring at where the segathar’s footprints and the fire pit came together. While he refused to see the connection, there was something at work here that had put these animals in Midlothian’s gun sight. What exactly was he going to tell the Vulana?