Tom MesserThe shuttle from Earth touched down in the midst of the Darius mining colony, allowing a slightly disappointed Benjamin Wallas to step outside. He stood at approximately six feet and had not the impressive physique of the large miners that walked here and there in the warm night air. The breeze tousled his short brown hair as he began to wonder if he had made a mistake. The settlement was not quite what he had expected. It was not that it was run-down or shabby, but rather sparse and plain-looking. The square pre-fab metal buildings hardly lived up to the outer-space frontier outpost he had romanticized about. Maybe it would look better during the day.
He sighed into his oxygen mask and started towards the building adjacent to the launch pad, suitcase in tow. At least the atmospheric pressure is enough that bulky pressure suits are unnecessary, he consoled himself, not feeling very consoled. What worried him was that the next shuttle was scheduled for six months from then. Even if he decided to quit tomorrow, he would have to remain for the duration. Six months seemed like a long time.
Inside the building, he presented his papers to a markedly disinterested clerk. "Hi, Benjamin Wallas, glad to meet you," he said, extending his hand. The clerk merely looked up from the documents and then down again, obviously not impressed with what he saw.
"So, you're our replacement computer expert," the clerk stated flatly, still reading. "Well, I suppose we've been hurtin' for one since the last guy kicked off. Your quarters are in the building outside and to the left. I'll send somebody down there to give you a tour." With that the clerk stamped the CosmoCorp seal on Wallas' papers and thrust them back. Silently, Wallas accepted them, and after donning his mask, dragged his things with him outside.
The room proved to be adequate, and at least private, if nothing else. After Wallas had unpacked his few things, there was a knock on the door. In the hall stood a large, hairy man who introduced himself as Arnold Brachman, his guide. He turned out to be a gruff fellow, who avoided conversation for most of the tour, merely pointing out buildings and explaining their purposes.
"So what do you do around here for fun?" Wallas finally asked his quiet guide, curious as to how he could spend his free time in this rather dreary-looking place.
"Well, mostly we like the tavern. They serve decent drinks and its a pretty good place to hang out and unwind. And there's girls." Wallas grimaced at the thought. CosmoCorp provided for just about everything, including booze and whores for the men. This was definitely not one of the more liberated areas in the galaxy. "And sometimes we go scamping--that's big around here." Wallas just stared blankly. "Hunting," Brachman said in reply. "There's a bunch of critters that live out in the forest. We call 'em scampers because all we ever see 'em do is scamper around. They make pretty good game, and there's lots of 'em."
The ground rumbled with the shuttle's departure. Now refueled and restocked, it was on its way.
Later that night, Benjamin Wallas lay awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling. Hanging out with the guys just wasn't his thing--they scared him with their obnoxious shouts and their loud revelry. Instead, he stayed in his room and thought about his situation, especially the part about six months, until he finally drifted into sleep.
The next week passed slowly enough. During the days, Wallas was content to throw himself into his work, since the colony's computers needed work, and there was no one else who could question his authority concerning their operation. His co-workers were tolerable enough, although he forgot each one's name as soon as it was told him. But none of that mattered to him anyway, since he spent nights alone in his room--sometimes reading, sometimes staring into space, always wishing he could be anywhere else. He did such a good job at isolating himself that he was surprised at the end of the week when he heard a knock on his door.
"Yes?" Peering out into the hall, he saw ten miners, including Brachman, the one who introduced him to the camp.
Brachman appeared to be the spokesman for the group. "Uh, we were wondering if you'd want to go scamping with us. There's room for one more in the car."
"Well--sure, why not?" Wallas had nothing to lose. Almost anything would be better than just sitting around, and he didn't want to offend anyone. Grabbing his mask and putting on his coat and boots, he joined them in the hall, and was swept along with them through the airlock and out to the hovercar.
As he boarded the car, Brachman handed him a rifle and winked in approval. Wallas studied the weapon--a simple projectile gun with a small oxygen clip on the side, since ordinary firearms could not function in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere. Otherwise, there was nothing special about the gun, since they did not want to give the hunter too much of an advantage. The car hurtled away from the colony, across the treetops, and then suddenly stopped and lowered a rope ladder from its side.
"Okay Wallas, you get to be first!"
Meekly, he slung his rifle and climbed down into the forest, not wanting to argue. As he hopped off, the ladder was quickly retracted and the hovercar sped away. He began to wonder if this were anything like snipe hunting.
Sitting down on a nearby stone, he meant to just stay there until they returned, hoping it would be soon. This would not be a very funny joke. Even the lushness of the alien forest was lost on him. He was too busy lamenting his situation to notice the magnificent Darian version of trees, which had leaves of green, red, and blue. The variety of undergrowth was indescribable, and strange animal cries echoed through the forest.
A snapping twig brought his attention back to reality. There, ten feet in front of him, was what had to be a scamper, frozen in fear. It was almost four feet long from head to toe, and all Wallas could think of was an immense grey beaver with no tail. Its head was small compared to the body, which could have been thinner than what it appeared to be with all of that grey fur. Caught standing upright, the thing held its paws close to its chest and studied him with its black eyes.
Wallas stared back at the scamper for at least a minute before he remembered his purpose. Slowly, he reached down and picked up his rifle, never breaking eye contact. He shouldered it, but as soon as he prepared to fire, the creature scurried away. Wallas ran in the direction that it had escaped to, determined to bring back something to show for his hunting trip.
Stopping, he looked around, straining his eyes, when something hard hit him in the back of his head. Dazed, he turned and saw the little monster in a tree, pelting him with fruit with an amazing strength. He raised his rifle again and saw the thing drop a piece of fruit it was holding and stare intently. He sighted down the barrel, but it wouldn't move.
Disheartened, Wallas lowered his rifle. "You won't even let me get mad enough to shoot you, will you? I give up. I don't care what they think anyway. The beast cocked its head, as if trying to understand him, when suddenly, a net was thrown over him. Wallas turned and saw at least six scampers hauling the net in. His cry was cut short as one of the scampers yanked the net and he fell head-first onto a rock.
He woke lying in a bed in the colony's infirmary with an enormous headache, staring up at Arnold Brachman.
"What happened?" he managed to croak.
"We'd finally given up searching for you, and when we got back, we found you sprawled on our doorstep with a huge lump on your skull. Never did nail any scampers, either."
"Wallas chuckled to himself, agitating his head injury. But wait--nets, trap, that meant...
"How many of those things have been killed since you started hunting them?"
"Altogether, who knows? We've only been doing it for a while, but we usually fare pretty well. Why?"
"Because, I think..."
They were interrupted by shouts from outside. Brachman strode to the window and gasped. Wallas pulled himself out of bed and staggered over.
Outside, hundreds, maybe thousands, of scampers gathered at the edge of the forest, all grasping strange objects. Two apparent leaders stepped into the clearing, laid down what they were carrying, and waited, their arms outstretched. All over camp, men stared in astonishment.
Despite the pain, Benjamin Wallas smiled to himself. Maybe the scampers were finally through with the miners. Now, someone would have to deal with them.
Then a lone man stepped out into the clearing and raised a rifle.
No! Wallas wanted to shout, but it was too late. The man fired. The shot rang out through the forest, and everything was still as one of the two scampers in the clearing slumped to the ground.
A rock flew through the air and dropped the man. He crumpled and bled on the ground, not moving.
And then it all started. The scampers rushed the camp, screaming in strange, high-pitched wails. Men ran towards the supply shed, scrambling for weapons.
Wallas paled. If the men got hold of rifles, it would be all over. Even though vastly outnumbered, human weaponry would be the end of the scampers. Without even realizing it, he made his decision. Perhaps it would make him a traitor--not just to the mining colony, but to his own species--but Wallas did not care. For once in his life, he was going to do something he thought was right.
To Brachman's surprise, the dizzy computer specialist ran out the door and through the melee, heading for the supply shed.
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