Book: Man-Kzin Wars X : The Wunder War (Man-Kzin Wars)

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Chapter 2

The next morning I woke with the birds and a chapel bell. The monks had already prayed and broken their fast, as they put it, but they were indulgent towards sluggard guests, and there was something put by for me in the refectory. I had trimmed my beard, eaten, and was just finishing a pot of what was surely the best coffee in the Alpha Centauri system when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Good morning, Professor Rykermann."

It was Brother Peter. He was already carrying a collecting-gun, and thrust into his belt was a dust-gun with which someone with quicker hands and eyes than mine might shoot down collectible insectoids on the wing. I was a little surprised to see he had one of the monastery's strakkakers slung over his shoulder. Behind him stood Brothers Joachim and John. They were armed as well.

"And a-hunting we will go!"

"Aren't all these weapons rather .  .  ." I knew there was an antique word, and it came back to me from some history course. "Overkill?"

"No."

Normally the monks would be in thoroughly good spirits at the prospect of helping me on a collecting expedition. That part of my work was most people's idea of a holiday. But there was something serious in their faces that morning. I knew them as friends, and behind their politeness and what I thought of as their professional serenity I sensed tension. They didn't argue about the strakkakers but kept them.

There was no point in taking the car. The place where they had made the sighting was only a few hundred meters from the main gate.

Inside the walls were fish ponds and gardens with many Earth as well as Wunderland plants: a lot of these (netted over, as were the ponds, against various large and small flying pirates) were grown for their fruit, but some were purely decorative: casurina trees, cape lilacs, the scarlet of bougainvilleas and nodding palm fronds. Along with the flutterbys, Earth bees were loud. Near the gate the kitten was sunning itself in a patch of marigolds. A couple of bright flags flew on the higher towers.

We walked through the parkland-like meadow of red and green grasses star-spangled with flowers. The monks had a small business making perfumes from nectar, and perhaps that encouraged the flutterbys. They rose about us out of the grasses in glorious multicolored clouds.

But there was an undercurrent of something else. The usually tame animals in the meadows seemed nervous. Apart from the more usual domestic animals, the monks had raised a small herd of zebras for decorative purposes, and their black-and-white variations and heraldic profiles as they grazed usually provided a pleasing contrast with the riot of colours. Today, I saw, the zebras were clumped together, standing in a circle as far away from the swamp and the grove as they might get, the stallions facing outwards.

"This thing we saw," Brother Joachim told me again, "it's big. Bigger than a tigripard."

"So the abbot said. But three strakkakers? I hope you're not leaving your house defenseless."

Brother John, I knew, laughed a good deal. He wasn't laughing now.

"It's not only big. It's dangerous."

"How do you know?"

"Just because I wear this robe doesn't mean I'm not a hunter."

"Hunter's instinct, you mean?"

"More than that. Instinct usually whispers. This was screaming: 'Run! Run for your life!' That was even before we saw it.  .  .  . The creature was nightmarish. If we'd told the Father how terrifying it really was, I don't think he would have believed us."

"I hear what you're saying, and I respect it. You're a hunter, but you're a scientist, too. What was so terrifying about it?"

"It's not easy to put into words. But part of it was that it shouldn't have been there. Look, Professor, a tigripard makes sense ecologically. But this didn't. It was too big."

"Odd, I told the abbot that last night. But size can be hard to judge at dusk."

"Not this size. There are the bushes where we first saw it."

"Yes?"

"It stood twice the height of them."

"We all agree on that," Brother Peter added.

"That's more than the height of a man."

"Much more."

"It looked like .  .  . like a cross between an oversized tiger and a gorilla. There's something else. Something hard to explain. It was .  .  . monstrous . It loped away a few moments after it saw us, but—and we're all sure of this—in those moments it was weighing up whether to attack us or not. And it had us at its mercy. If it had decided to attack, we were dead. We knew ." The others nodded.

I thought I understood what he meant. Not from experience but professional observation. A hunted animal knows when it has been marked out as prey. There is a sort of subtelepathic thing, an ability to terrify prey by projecting intent, that is part of a certain type of predator's stock in trade.

And yet .  .  . the serious settlement of Wunderland had begun with the arrival of the first slowboat carrying the Families and the core of settlers three centuries before. It had been surveyed before the colonists unpacked, and the most obvious types of big fierce animals, in the immediate area at least, had been found and either eliminated or moved to islands. Since then there had always been natural scientists at work classifying, dissecting, ecologizing.  .  .  .

But relatively few of them, and much of their work was directed to practical matters—agriculture, husbandry, mariculture, genetics, conservation, toxology, biological physics—rather than the fairly self-indulgent pleasures of pure zoological research.

I was only the second to occupy my chair. As the abbot and I had said, we were a long way yet from knowing even all the larger animals on the principal continent of Wunderland—it would be a sad day for me if we ever did!—but this was Circle Bay, only a short flight from Munchen. The Abbott had complained to me that light pollution from the city would soon be affecting the monastery's little visual observatory (a telescope in orbit was beyond the monastery's modern budget and not its style anyway).

The monastery's nearest neighbors were small niche farms, worked by vigilant, reliable robots under minimal human supervision. Grossgeister Swamp was large, not fully explored, known and rumored to be the abode of odd things as well as odd people. But as a scientist I thought it highly unlikely that it contained some kind of giant tiger.

Or was it? Tigers, I remembered, had lived in swamps as well as jungles on Earth. The Sundabands at the mouth of the Ganges had been so infested with them that towers were built for stranded sailors to shelter in. At the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, they had regularly swum the Johore Strait to the new city of Singapore to eat workmen. Water would support a big body, too—but the swamp had its own large assortment of strictly water-dwelling predators, including some analogous to Earth crocodilians. I doubted anything like a tiger could compete with them in a watery or muddy environment.

Apart from aerial and satellite surveys, and the expeditions of scientists and fishermen, there was a small population of humans, marshmen and swampmen—"characters," some fairly dubious—who seemed to like living in the swamp and often made some income as hunting and fishing guides. The swamp was undoubtedly dangerous for the ignorant, and these "characters" would have to be well-acquainted with it. Hard to imagine that a big land-dwelling predator had managed to live so near a populated zone for so long quite undetected.

But was it impossible?

Sometimes, when we were not taking it for granted and speaking of it as our home, even we, the Wunderland-born, tried to make ourselves realize how alien we were. It was good, I thought suddenly, that the first colonists had come in large numbers and, though we were thinly scattered on the planet still, our population was now in tens of millions.

I was glad that when I was born there had been a good scattering of settlements. A small, single colony, like some of the later ones on more distant planets, might well be a terrifying place to be. What was it like for a settler to look up at the night sky from the single settlement on one of the new colony worlds—assuming they had a night sky—and feel himself so utterly alone beyond that single pool of light?

We, and the tough loner humans of the Serpent Swarm, descendants of the tough loners who had first colonized Sol's asteroid belt, were, if we thought about it, quite alone enough.

Reduce the Sol system to a scale model on a large field: Sol is a ball nine feet in diameter. Walk away from it for about five minutes, a fifth of a mile, and you come to the orbit of Earth, a little ball about an inch in diameter. Earth's moon, the size of a small pea, is about two and a half feet from it.

Wunderland, on this scale , circling the nearest of all major stars, is 50,000 miles away.

No good. Draw what picture you like. Know that our ancestors made the journey. The mind still can't really take it in. But we should not be surprised by strangeness here.

Brother Joachim dropped on his knees and pointed to a patch of bare ground.

The tracks were of four-toed, clawed feet. The claws of a carnivore, I was sure. And they were big . Bigger than a human foot, and sunk farther into the ground than a human footprint would have been. Something very solid indeed appeared to have made those tracks. Unless this was some sort of hoax—and I could not imagine why these monks might be hoaxers—it was a creature that was still very heavy in Wunderland's gravity.

Now I saw it had left an obvious trail. A wide swath of vegetation, including small trees, was broken and beaten flat. Its tracks pointed straight for the swamp. I cocked the collecting gun with its tranquillizer darts, meant to be good for both Earth and Wunderland animal physiologies. The monks unslung and cocked the strakkakers. Brother Joachim moved in front of me.

Following the trail could hardly have been easier. As we descended into the marshy ground the prints grew deeper. Clawed-up divots of dirt confirmed the creature had been moving at speed, and here and there were the marks of forepaws .  .  . very curious forepaws.

Near the borders of the swamp proper the trail turned aside, towards the grove of Wunderland trees. It entered the grove.

And ended. There was a wide circle of disturbed ground, nothing more. I wondered if the creature had somehow buried itself or tunneled out of the grove. That seemed contrary to everything we knew. And those prints were not from the claws of a digging animal. But Wunderland was not Earth.  .  .  .

I got the car then and we examined the site from the air. The car's ground effect obliterated the trail as it went but we filmed it first. The track from the grove to the spot where the monks had seen the creature became obvious, as did the track back to the grove, and the wide circular disturbance of the ground and bushes there. It appeared plain that the creature had left the grove and proceeded to higher ground near the monastery as if to observe the buildings.

There was no indication of how it had entered the grove in the first place or where it had gone. There was no disturbance to indicate a tunnel or burrow. This was not the cave country of the limestone ranges, there were no cracks or sinkholes, and radar had charted the location of all the shallow local caves long ago. We flew over the swamp's margins, and saw nothing new. Even the normally teeming flying and swimming creatures of the swamp seemed unusually silent and scarce.

The monks and the abbot seemed almost apologetic, but any biologist learns to bear with frustration and delay in fieldwork. I asked them to keep their eyes open and not to hesitate to call me if they saw the odd creature, or any other odd creature, again, and then I flew back to Munchen. But if I was reasonably philosophical about it, some disappointment remained. To have captured an unknown species of large animal, carnivore or otherwise, would have been a very big thing.

And the monks had been good witnesses that there had been something there. Something big and catlike. I was sure they were telling the truth to the best of their ability. Before leaving I had examined them separately and their accounts remained consistent. I wondered if I would ever see one.

The voicemail on the instrument panel lit as I approached the city. I thought it might be the Monastery calling to say they had seen anything new, but it was something that struck me as a good deal odder: the mayor's office. They wanted me right away.

 

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