Asgaard is a young world with all the appeal and charm of the interior of a live volcano. Its temperature is usually near 120 degrees no matter where you are, and the humidity always seems to be 100%, even after one of its frequent rains. Asgaard is also a swamp world, covered by vast morasses and teeming with exotic lifeforms. Shortly after its discovery, the Lotedo Hunting Club purchased the planet and converted it to a hunting preserve where club members and guests paid exorbitant fees to hunt its exotic fauna.
Captain James T. Kirk sat in a poorly-refrigerated blind, sweltering and swearing at the air conditioning, himself, Edouard Thalfi, and the Asgaardi insects that seemed to feel that James T. Kirks hide was a free smorgasbord. Mostly, he cursed fatethe fate that had brought the Enterprise to Midgaard, Asgaards sister worldand to Annye.
Annye. In the twenty-odd years since theyd fallen in and out of love with each other, shed managed to become the wife of Midgaards governor, Edouard Thalfi, and one of the most prominent hostesses in this quadrant of the Federation. And though Kirk had aged and matured in the passing years, time had seemed to stand still for Annye. Her hair was just as blonde, her face just as beautiful, her talk just as empty-headed, her manner just as flirtatious as when theyd been in love and she was one of the most fascinating girls in the Junior Class.
It was Fate, Kirk finally decided, that had sent him to the party where hed met Annye again. Shed pounced on her former flame with squeals of glee and insisted that he stay as the houseguest of the governor and herself while the Enterprise was in port conducting scientific research on Midgaards moon, Valkyrie. Hed accepted and had then lived to regret his decision. Pretty Annye loved to make her dour husband jealous, and after two days of being constantly bombarded and embarrassed by her attentions, Kirk began planning a "shipboard emergency" that would require his presence and get him out of the governors house gracefully. Then Edouard Thalfi had offered to take him hunting ojalta on Nilfheim, the systems ice world.
Kirk had never been one for the blood-sport of hunting, but he had decided to tag along with the governor, jumping at the chance to remove himself from Annyes attentions. He told the governor hed be glad to go on the condition that hed simply be an observer no weapon, just a holocam.
The trip to Nilfheim had taken but an hour or two in the governors private shuttle. But the ojalta were gone from the ice plains, and after a few hours futile search, Edouard had taken him to the systems innermost world, Asgaard, to hunt. The governor presented his pass to the clerk aboard Asgaards orbiting watch-station, and they beamed down to the ranger station where Edouard again used his pass to check out a small hovercar, an assortment of camping equipment and a large bow.
Kirk flexed his neck absently. It had been nearly an hour since the governor had left the blind for their campsite to get the coolant for the air conditioner and his boredom was fast turning into irritation. Twigs snapped nearby, and he whirled to face the viewscreen on his left.
The intruder was Thalfi himself. Kirk watched as he poured the pale blue coolant into the air conditioning unit, feeling the temperature drop rapidly. His task done, Edouard Thalfi scrambled into the blind, clutching the empty container.
"Ah, much better," Thalfi grunted as he sat on one of the low chairs. "Its hotter than ever out there." He turned the air conditioner to its highest setting and settled back to enjoy the coolness. "Have you seen anything?"
"Nothing yet," Kirk responded, stretching and yawning.
"Well, its only a short time until sunset. We should see something soon." He turned to watch the front viewscreen, and Kirk settled back drowsily in his chair. A few minutes later, Thalfi sat up quickly, and Kirk grabbed his holocam. As they watched, a graceful, deer-like appa stepped down the trail to the pool near their blind. Kirk half-heartedly raised his cam, and the Enterprise captain had taken a picture or two, but Edouard put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Not this," he said softly.
A short while later, nybeasts pranced dorm to drink and stayed until a large, grizzled, dog-like carnivore came down the path. In a shower of water spray the nybeasts leaped through the pool and bounded out of sight on the far bank. The fenris wolf padded unconcernedly to the edge of the water and lapped the water, its tongue flashing between pale fangs.
For a few seconds, it lapped casually, large ears alert for any unusual sound. Suddenly, it threw its head up and stood for a minute, looking over its shoulder. Then it began to drink again, hurriedly, nervously, like a man late for an appointment, pausing every few seconds to glance over its shoulder.
The fenris wolfs nervousness was contagious. Kirk felt his throat go dry and his hearts rhythm pulse feverishly through his arteries. The pressure grew, and when a tiny shrew-lizard leaped out from the underbrush, Kirk jumped nervously. The fenris wolf, startled by the lizard or Kirk or both, flattened its ears and faded into the thicket with a snarl.
"Whats happening?" Kirk whispered.
Kirk strained his ears to hear and heard nothing. He was about to comment on this when he suddenly realized that the normal night noises were growing fainter. Something was coming toward the pool, traveling on a wave of silence. The snorting of distant nybeasts ceased, then the night peepers stopped singing. In the darkness it was easy to imagine that a blanket of silence was coming to smother them all.
"Its reached the big rock now..." Thalfi narrated, "...and now... it must be stopping by our camp."
Kirk could imagine something like a dead black fog covering the area, snuffing out insects and beasts and electrical equipment like a poison cloud. The edges of the silence moved towards them.
"There!" Thalfi whispered. "That group of peepers was in the malo thicket exactly 500 meters from here. We know where it is now."
Kirk managed, "What is it?"
"Bakemono. I cant describe them. Wait and see."
Thalfi had apparently scouted the area well, for he described the beasts location by the benchmark of the encroaching silence. "Now its by the club mosses at the head of this trail... shhh... here it comes...watch for the eyes. Theyre beautiful."
The silence grew heavier and more oppressive. Kirk stared into the darknessand saw... an illusion?
He blinked. It was no illusion.
Coming down the trailor rather floating nearly four feet above itwere a pair of horrible, round, luminous yellow eyes.
And they were staring into his soul, making him their own.
There was a click and a hiss as Thalfi loosed his crossbow bolt, and the mad eyes did a wild dance accompanied by a buzzsaw shriek which ended in a burble.
Then the eyes sank to the ground. Timidly, little night voices began.
"Heres the light, Jim," said Thalfi lazily as he handed Kirk a lightstick. "Go and tag him, will you? Pull my arrow out. I managed to cut myself when I fired. Ill be with you as soon as I put some dermaplast on this."
Kirk stepped stiffly out of the blind with the light in his hand and cautiously approached the still-twitching beast. The light fell on a black and white striped body that Kirk estimated to be nearly six meters long. He quickly tagged a tufted ear and pulled the bolt out of the bakemonos throat. It snapped convulsively at him, then lay still, thin streams of dark blood pouring from its throat. Its round yellow eyes stared evilly at him, and he felt a sudden chill. Footsteps sounded behind himit was Thalfi, coming over to look at his kill.
"Ah! My bolt...thanks ever so much," the governor said as he took the arrow from Kirk and replaced it in his quiver. "Here, lets measure it. Take this down by the tail...there... straighten the tail out...good...lets see... five point nine meters. Not bad. Not a record, but its not bad. Ill bet she masses near three hundred kilos."
"Yes. This ones a female. One of her mates will probably be along shortly. Lets pack up and move back to the camp. We can skin her here, away from the camp, and take the skin back to cure. Do you want the head for a trophy?"
Kirks stomach felt as though hed swallowed a bar of lead. "No, of course not," he said quickly. "I just wanted the holopics, remember?"
"Ah, well, Ill go for the hovercar, then. Wait here," Thalfi said and sloshed through the darkness in the direction of their camp. There seemed nothing to do but wait, so Kirk returned to the blind. He sat in his chair, sipping a cold karva, wondering why the death of this creature had seemed so ominous. Silence hung like a weight over the pool and blind and the dead bakemono.
It was nearly an hour later before Thalfi returned with the hovercar. Kirk stepped out of the small blind and used his lightstick to guide the governor to the shore of the pool where he could set the hovercar down safely.
Thalfi climbed quickly out of the vehicle. "Lets move the blind," he suggested. "The other animals will smell the bakemono and avoid this place until the smell goes away."
Together, they dismantled the prefab and its furnishings and stowed everything under the camper shell of the aircar.
"I think thats it," Kirk said with a sigh.
"Better check," Thalfi responded with his best pantherish grin. "Im perpetually leaving something behind."
Kirk walked back to the blinds site, lightstick held high. Behind him came a rising hum; the hovercar was leaving! Dropping the lightstick, he ran to the shore and leaped high to catch the vehicle. He felt vibrating hull beneath his hands for a brief instant and then his fingers slipped and he fell to the ground.
"Thalfi!" he called. "What are you doing?"
"Doing?" his voice drifted back, silky soft. "Why, Im arranging your death."
"Its very simple, old man. You touched the dead bakemono; your scent will be on it. Her mates will be here soon and will pick up your scent from the corpse. They can be very spiteful creatures, you know. Why, I recall the bakemono that hunted down the man that killed her mate and disemboweled him and then sat around, lapping his blood and waiting for him to die. Someone said that it took the hunter six or seven hours to die. And the bakemono just waited."
"You cant do this!" Kirk blustered.
"Ah, but I can," he purred. "It will be one of those dreadful accidents. Of course, Ill track down the bakemonos mate, but it wont help you much. Your death will distress us all so terribly. By the way, where do you want us to ship whatever we manage to dredge out of the bakemonos stomach?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because I know about you and Annye," he said in a voice that sliced like a swords edge.
"There is nothing to know about Annye and myself," Kirk said vehemently.
"Ive seen the way she looks at you; the way you smile and touch when you think I dont see. There were others, too, but theyre all dead now. Its your turn. Youre alone, the camp is gone, and you have no weapons. Another sad accident.
"I considered killing Annye, of course, but that would have been far too obvious. So, in another year Ill resign my post and go to live on another world, a world where there are few people. A harsh world. Shell age rapidly. Then well have no more of these incidents when shes old and wrinkled.
"Perhaps then Ill kill her," he mused, "when shes old and ugly. I wont miss her as much then."
"Governor Thalfi," Kirk said persuasively, "you know how Annye isshes a flirt. She likes to have men admire her. No one takes her seriously."
"That is what she wants me to think. But I know what she plots with her lovers when Im not around. The voices tell me."
A ghost wind raised the hackles on Kirks neck and sent chills down his back. Voices? Voices that told the governor about plots against him? Kirk remembered the symptoms from an Academy class on Human Psychology. Thalfi was undoubtedly maddangerously so, and certainly delusional. Kirk groped for a way to handle the situation.
"Governor Thalfi, you know that we were never alone long enough to plot anything," he said, trying the voice of reason again.
"You did it telepathically," he said. "I heard it all. Besides, didnt I say that I usually left something behind?" The hovercar rose, and Kirk could hear Thalfi laughing at his own joke as he floated northward. Kirk walked over to the fallen lightstick and paused to consider the situation.
According to Thalfi, the bakemonos mates should be arriving shortly, and he needed to be far, far away. He paused by the carcass for a moment, studying the dead bakemono in the soft glow of the lightstick. From the size of her huge eyes, he judged that they were night hunters only. Daylight hours should be a safe time to sleep.
He stared at the beasts twenty centimeter long fangs and the huge doubled claws on her feettypical carnivore equipment. He turned toward the pool and stared at the sky, trying to get his bearings. Weaponless and without food, his only hope for rescue lay in the Ranger station, thirty kilometers to the south. Thalfi must be somewhere nearby, but it would be impossible to track a hovercar without a scanner.
Kirk looked around. Was it imagination, or were the night voices growing quieter?
A peeper chorus went silent, and he wished hed learned the direction of the creatures. He turned off the lightstick, letting his eyes adjust to the light from the stars and the two small moons. If Thalfi hadnt shown him the wrong map, the ranger station should be to his left. It was a small chance, but his only one. He rechecked his bearings and noticed two more of the smaller moons rising full like a pair of eyes and chuckled at his imagination.
Then he noticed the silencedead silence.
He whirled to look at the moons and saw them joined by three more pair. They stared long and evilly at him, then fell abruptly from their heightsno moons, but eyes of his hunters.
There was only one place to gothe pool. He bounded into the water, hoping the creatures couldnt swim.
The pool was as warm as blood, and the water dragged at him with heavy fingers. He swam slowly to the deepest part and began treading water. Wet boots pulled his feet downward, and his clothes made his strokes thick and clumsy.
The bakemono (for such is the nature of things) proved to be adequate swimmers. On fur-padded paws they glided into the water. Their lantern eyes floated slowly over the pools surface as they swam towards him. Turning swiftly, he began a fast American crawl for the shore. The eyes followed slowly and relentlessly.
The land on Asgaard could hardly have been graced with the term terra firma, Kirk learned quickly. It seemed to consist mainly of gumbo-like mud and unfriendly vegetation, occasionally relieved by a patch of dry land or a rock or two. Pools and streams often barred his way. Grasses and tangling vines snatched at him with weedy fingers. His mud-caked boots dragged like lead weights.
The moons had started their descent when Kirk staggered to the shores of a large river, scant minutes ahead of the bakemono. The carnivores moved swiftly on land but seemed to be hampered by water, and Kirk, by carefully choosing a path, had managed to build a small lead.
Kirk had dropped to a sitting position, trying to get a short rest before his hunters appeared. The river was too wide to swim, but he knew he had to try crossing before the bakemono came into view. If he could land somewhere upstream, then he could perhaps throw them off the trail. He rose wearily.
The water was surprisingly cool and felt good to him as he waded into the wide river. It proved to be fairly shallow; at no point was it more than chest deep, and its pebbled bed gave him firm footing. He pushed rapidly through the water, glancing backward, expecting to see the eyes of the hunters, like demon moons, floating down the dark aisles of the swamp to the river.
Kirk crossed without seeing the dreaded lights of the bakemonos eyes. A chorus of tiny night voices welcomed him to the far bank, assuring him that no demons haunted his landing place. He sloshed wearily into the protecting shadow of a reedy tree. His aching muscles screamed for rest but he forced himself to wade along the banks a few feet further until he reached a tree with a large limb that hung low enough over the water. He crawled out along the branch until it danced under his weight, then lay down and watched the shore downstream.
In a little while, he saw the firefly lights of the bakemonos eyes winking in the bright starlight. If he didnt move, and if his smell didnt betray him, he felt that he might be safe yet. He watched as the bakemono swam the river, landing downstream, and vanished into the swamps on a wave of silence.
It could have been minutes or eternities later when he became aware that the sky was lightening. He hugged the tree limb and fell exhausted into a restless sleep where relentless eyes chased him across barren plains of darkness.
When he finally woke, the sun was setting, and he was aching from thirst. Carefully, he eased himself into the water, muscles protesting the slightest activity. The water revived him, and he stood for a moment in its coolness. The best plan, he thought, would be to recross the stream, leaving the bakemono to hunt futilely on the other side of the river.
But the evil-eyed hunters had been watching for him. As he waded out of the river on the far shore, he saw the striped bodies of his hunters pad into the water, and he groaned inwardly. He was weak from fatigue, hunger, and insect bites and knew it would be a miracle if he lasted the night.
As it turned out, the nightmares had been only a preliminary bout to this nights hunting. For an eternity, he slogged through the lightless swamp, always bare minutes ahead of the fangs and claws of his assassins. And always there followed the nerve-straining silence that nibbled at the edges of his zone of safety.
He sloshed on through the darkness for hours, his whole existence framed by the pale glow of the lightstick and the knowing gleam of the demon eyes in the distance. He fell into a choppy marching rhythm, his tired mind reciting old marching cadences from his Academy days. Left... right... left... He tripped over something solid and branches slashed at him as he sprawled. The lightstick flew from his hand and went out. Dazed, he lurched to his feet, tripped again, and fell, hitting his head.
Lights flashed in front of his eyes, and he searched with his hands for a rock, a stick, anything, but it was too late. Three pairs of waxy yellow eyes stared at him from a distance of bare meters. And then they began to move in, death staring from their eyes.
He didnt see the fourth bakemono, but knew it would be there. His head hurt, and his ears rang. The whine became louder and sharper. Lights flashed and flickered.
Numbly, he watched as the eyes blinked in astonishment at the noise. And then hands, blessed five-fingered prehensile hands were grasping him, and mens voices sounded in his ear. There was the hiss of a spray hypo and then sleep claimed him.
"Hes mainly suffering from exposure. Hell be back to his old self in two or three days. Good thing we locked onto him and beamed him up when we did."
"Excellent. Ill inform the Hood that we will be able to keep the rendezvous at Deivar Four after all. It was fortunate, indeed, that we were ordered to pick up the captain early, else he would surely be dead. Equally fortunate was your idea to program the scanners to respond only to Human lifeforms. It saved us much time and saved his life."
"Mmm...yeah. Spock, what happened down there? And what about the governor? No ones been able to tell me."
"The exact circumstances, of course, can only be determined once the captain has revived. For some reason, the governor and Jim were split up, with several bakemono chasing the captain. During the night, apparently while running from the animals, Jim passed near Thalfis camp. One of the bakemono picked up his scent from the bakemono carcass at the original campsite we found, and took up the goverors trail."
"Split up? Spock, Jim is too good a woodsman to make that mistake."
"We cannot rule out the possibility of foul play."
"What about Thalfi?"
"His camp was in ruins. After finding Jim, the ranger and I began searching for him, but all we managed to find was the governors crossbow in a pool of bloodHuman blood. The blood trail and the prints of the beast and the governor lead into the swamp. All further searching proved futile, and we had to abandon the trail and the governor to his fate."
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