My just released novel
The most dangerous post in the fleet was military liaison for the Terran Embassy to the Eres. Humans used food and drink to smooth negotiations. The Eres used hunting. The more important the topic, the more dangerous the prey and the more primitive the arms they would use to take that prey.
Sweat tickled the end of Commander Nobuta Tanaka’s nose. He would much rather discuss the proposed treaty over tea and pastries, or in deference to the Eres, tea and steak. But they had to do it the Eres way. At his side, Sheshak, Tanaka’s host, stooped to examine the pile of dung left in the trail beaten down in the waist high pseudo-grass.
A kashek, Sheshak had called the beast they sought. An herbivore, to be sure, but an herbivore the size of a Terran white rhino, combining the worst elements of wild boar and Cape buffalo. To slay the beast, Tanaka carried a spear. A fifteen-centimeter crosspiece was bound to the shaft with sinew half a meter behind the chipped obsidian point. As protection, he wore nothing but sandals, a pair of neocotton shorts, and a light coating of sunscreen.
At least during the war, he had had a destroyer surrounding him when he faced an Eres hunter-killer fleet.
Hunting preserves covered fully half of Chakentak, the Eres homeworld. The Eres kept them pristine for their various ritual hunts. This region, in the equatorial area, most closely resembled the savannah of Africa. The leaves were more blue than green, the sky more purple than blue, and the sun a harsh white dazzle in the sky with no hint of Sol’s friendly yellow.
Sheshak served as Lesser Stalker to the Great Pack Leader, a position combining duties of a Deputy Minister of State and of Defense. He set off at a slow trot, following the trail of flattened grasses. Tanaka followed in his wake, grateful for the muscle booster treatments, much safer than an earlier generation’s steroids, that allowed him to keep up in the heavier gravity of Chakentak.
In moments of dark humor, Tanaka thought the Eres resembled nothing so much as a cross between a small Tyrannosaurus Rex and an ostrich.
Stalker Sheshak was large even for an Eres, standing two and a half meters from the top of his head to the ground. A truly lipless mouth split the ovoid head, forever baring triangular teeth in a mirthless grin. A sinuous, half-meter-long neck connected that head with its powerful jaws to the bulbous forward-leaning body and its short arms and thick, stubby tail, perched on legs with backward pointing knees and heavy, clawed feet.
They had been following the kashek since picking up its trail shortly after the rising of Chakentak’s F5 sun. Tanaka had spotted droppings that smelled like boiling cabbage. Sheshak pointed out three-toed prints spanning half a meter each in the muddy ground near a small spring. Tanaka noted furrows where the kashek had used its tusks to root for edible tubers, furrows as neat as any autocultivator could make. In its passing, the kashek flattened bushes and tore strips of bark from the occasional small tree.
The sign became fresher as the sun passed zenith. They were getting closer.
At a small stand of brush, Sheshak stopped and made several gestures in the Eres hunter’s sign language. Tanaka ostentatiously touched tongue to upper teeth in the Eres gesture of agreement.
Sheshak drew a twenty-centimeter obsidian dagger from the belt supporting the Eres version of a loincloth and began to circle slowly to the right in an effort to get upwind of the prey and flush it toward Tanaka.
Tanaka licked his lips as he crouched in the stand of brush. The spear seemed feeble indeed against a three-ton monster. Even that was more than Sheshak would have if the kashek chose to charge into the Eres’ scent rather than fleeing it.
Some minutes later the sound of a large body pushing through the brush told Tanaka that Sheshak’s ploy had succeeded. A few seconds more and the beast hove into view.
Tanaka lunged from his place of concealment, driving the spear ahead of him and into the flank of the kashek. The razor-sharp point bit deep and Tanaka continued to drive it forward until the crosspiece slapped against the beast’s side.
The kashek howled, a surprisingly high-pitched sound from such a large animal and twisted its stubby neck to reach the pain in its side. In so doing it spotted Tanaka. The spear nearly jerked out of Tanaka’s hand as the kashek charged. The spear point continued to tear the monster’s insides. The kashek was effectively dead, but that did not mean it could not kill Tanaka in the process of its dying.
Clinging to the spear shaft, Tanaka skipped backward at almost a dead run. Were he to lose his grip on the spear or make one misstep, he could be trampled under the beast’s feet, gored on its horns, or gutted by its tusks—so many ways to die.
Almost as the thought crossed his mind a root caught Tanaka’s ankle, dumping him to the ground. Somehow he clung to the spear as the kashek’s attempts to reach him shoved him along the ground. Pain lanced through his back as rocks and branches tore at his flesh.
Unable to regain his feet, Tanaka had just wrapped his legs around the spear when Sheshak appeared and leaped on the beast’s back. Sheshak’s clawed feet dug into the kashek’s sides, anchoring him in place. His powerful jaws gripped the back of the kashek’s neck while he drove the obsidian dagger over and over into the beast’s throat.
The kashek bucked in rage at the new torment, finally jerking the spear from Tanaka’s grasp. Tanaka rolled to his feet and backed slowly way from the weakening kashek.
The kashek sank to the ground and shuddered in the final weakness before death took it. Sheshak stood, blue-black blood dripping from his jaws. Sheshak drew the spear, its shaft now shattered, from the still quivering beast and drove it one more time into the kashek’s side. The kashek shuddered a final spasm and then was still.
Sheshak turned to Tanaka. “Your people have asked for a drawdown of forces along the border.” The stilted Terranglo came from a vocoder implanted in Sheshak’s jaw. “We will reduce our forces there by eighty percent. For verification, you may place an observer, a proven hunter, at each of our bases within fifteen of your parsecs of the agreed border and on each of our ships of third fang class or heavier serving in that region.”
Tanaka stared at Sheshak in shock. He had just preempted what was to be Tanaka’s own opening bid in the negotiations. “I will have to check with my government,” he said, “but I think they will agree.”
Sheshak jerked the spear from the now dead kashek and held it out to Tanaka. “Good.”
Something was very wrong, Tanaka thought as he took the spear. Something was very wrong indeed.
Since Eres hospitals were not equipped to handle humans, the Terran embassy had its own infirmary, capable of handling most minor illnesses and injuries. More serious cases, they stabilized then transferred to one of the Terran naval ships usually found showing the flag at the Eres capital.
Tanaka lay face down on a bed in one of the infirmary’s rooms. Pain killers had numbed his back so that only a hint of discomfort remained, enough to remind him to be careful of his injuries while regen stimulators did their work. A couple of days would suffice to heal the wounds from his brush with the kashek and within a week even the scars would fade. In the meantime, the doctor had told him to rest. Here. In this room painted in Institutional Green.
With a slight hiss, ventilator fans drew in outside air, partially suppressing the smell of antiseptics. Tanaka only wished the sound would drown out the room’s other occupant.
“Are you listening to me, Tanaka?”
Tanaka turned his head to face the other person in the room. Clad in a color Tanaka knew as Anthracite Gray, Bryon Andersen, the nominal Ambassador to the Eres, frowned down at him. “Do you expect me to believe this?”
Tanaka frowned in turn but could not invoke the energy to get angry. “Do you think I’m lying?”
“No.” Andersen sighed then sat in the chair next to Tanaka’s bed. “No, it’s just completely unlike them. They never agree to terms so quickly. Never.”
Half an hour. It had taken half an hour of ranting before Andersen had reached this point. At least the regen stims had left Tanaka too drained to be tempted to throttle the Ambassador.
“It was a good hunt,” Tanaka said.
“Even if it were the greatest hunt in the history of the Eres, they wouldn’t agree so quickly, or so thoroughly. No. There’s something else going on.”
With great effort, Tanaka turned on his side to face Andersen. “Agreed. The question is what? And since they’re offering everything we asked for, can we really say ‘no’?”
“I want to,” Andersen said. “I really, really want to. This deal smells to high heaven of a trap but…”
“Pass it up the chain. It’s above my pay grade.”
“’Above my pay grade.’” Andersen grinned. “I like that.”
Andersen stood and smoothed down the front of his gray formal tunic. “You just get well soon. Out there, you might be able to find out what’s behind the Eres’ most generous offer. In here, that’s not going to happen.”
Sheshak, Lesser Stalker to the Great Pack Leader, tilted his head back in the traditional Eres gesture of obeisance. “Great Pack Leader, I bare the throat.”
From behind the computer workstation where he carried out the business of State, Krashnark, Great Pack Leader of All the Eres, raised one hand in greeting. “Peace, Sheshak. This is no formal hearing.”
“As you will, Pack Leader,” Sheshak said. His gaze flicked to the left where Greater Stalker Stakak, Sheshak’s nominal superior, stood stiffly, his hands clasped before him, his tail braced against the floor and supporting part of his weight—an informal-formal posture similar in intent to the Terran military’s “Parade Rest.”
The office was stark, even by Eres standards: Krashnark’s workstation, a few comconsoles, a kiton wood table for larger meetings, and a bare handful of trophies commemorating a few of Krashnark’s successful hunts. Most notable of the trophies was a Thisok tooth from Krashnark’s Greater Thisok Hunt. Krashnark had taken that tooth from the Thisok, using no more than a bone dagger, while the beast was still alive. After the hunt the Thisok had been released into the wild, to hunt, and be hunted again.
“The hunt went well?”
“The hunt went well,” Sheshak confirmed. “The beast was dead on its feet when I fell upon it. Honor to the Terran Tanaka.”
“You overleap,” Stakak said. “It is not your place to grant honor to Terrans.”
“As do you, Greater Stalker,” Krashnark said. “If one in my presence is to be called to bay, I shall do it, not you.”
Stakak tilted his head back, “I bare the throat.”
Krashnark flicked his tongue over his teeth. “This is not the time to fight among ourselves. Stakak, you are a great hunter and have earned your place here. No one questions this. But Sheshak knows Terrans like no one else. He knew them as predator and prey in the Great Hunt, and he knows them as…not prey, now.”
Stakak’s head swiveled to face Sheshak. “I did not know you are of that sect.”
“I am not, or, not exactly,” Sheshak admitted. “They have given me much to think on since the Great Hunt.”
“Much to think on? They are weaklings who forget what it is to be Eres.”
Krashnark slapped a claw on the table. “Peace!”
“I bare the throat,” both Sheshak and Stakak said.
“Better,” Krashnark said. “I am your pack leader. Unless you are ready to challenge me, you will heed my words.”
Again, two voices spoke as one. “I bare the throat.”
“Good.” Krashnark stepped away from his workstation and circled his desk to stand before Sheshak. “I need to know, will the Terrans agree to our request.”
Sheshak hissed softly in Eres laughter. “Oh, they will agree. They will debate and seek the trap in the request, but they will agree because what we ask them is what they wish to ask us.”
“But will they act as they have agreed?” Stakak asked.
“They will. They will reduce their forces on the border if we show them that we are reducing ours.”
Krashnark tapped his teeth together in thought. “That is good. That is very good. Is there anything we can do to encourage them to haste?”
“Speak, Lesser Stalker,” Krashnark said.
“If we could begin to reduce our forces, even before they agree, they will hasten to show that they, too, desire peace between us.”
“Nonsense!” Stakak said. “They are predators, as are we. If we show weakness to them, they will fall upon us like a thisok on a wounded gliktar.”
“They will not, at least not soon,” Sheshak said. “They are predators of a sort, that much is true, but they are…a strange kind of predator that feels compassion for the prey.”
“And I pray to our ancestors that you are right, Lesser Stalker,” Krashnark said, “for we must pull back those ships regardless.”