Ninety-First Small Fang of the Khan Zhaarnak'telmasa stalked silently through the brush of Xanadu with none of the tail-twitching an unschooled human observer might expect of a species which bore such resemblance to Terran felines. His whiskers vibrated gently, testing the air for minute breezes that might be caused by the movement of prey. His nostrils flared, testing for any unfamiliar scent. On a world so newly settled, and on which Zhaarnak had spent so little time, of course, most scents were unfamiliar. Truly, to discern which might be prey was a challenge worthy of a warrior!
He relished his task. Commanding a fleet in battle was an expression of farshalah'kiah—"the Warrior's Way"—and thus the truest and greatest occupation for a Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee, excepting only perhaps the piloting of a single-person fighter craft. Certainly, nothing could ever have induced Zhaarnak to choose a different life path than the one he had chosen, even were it not a matter of honor and survival to cleanse the Bahgs from the universe. Still, there was something primevally satisfying about stalking one's prey with one's own whiskers and nose and eyes. And satisfying as unleashing a wave of fighters upon a Bahg fleet was, it could not quite match the feeling of sticking one's own claws into prey.
Almost one might wish for a ground engagement, so that the warriors of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee might try themselves against the Bahgs as Ahhdmiraaaal Muhrakhuuuuma's had at Justin. But no, the Bahgs were no worthy and honorable enemy for the contest to be meaningful; they were vile creatures, undeserving of such an honor, and although Zhaarnak did not share his allies' deep conviction that mere life was the ultimate goal, he would not court his warriors' deaths unnecessarily if there was no great honor to be won.
Zhaarnak twitched his shoulders, disgusted at himself. His father's hunting-master would have had him whipped for such distraction! And on a newly-settled world, at that! If this planet's equivalent to the zeget had caught and eaten him, he would have deserved it!
He would check on the home camp, and then resume his hunt—this time, with true attention to his task.
It was child's play to sneak up on the camp, even as unpracticed as Zhaarnak was; no Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee would be as oblivious to his surroundings as the camp's inhabitant, not even a cub. But then, Raaymmonnd'presssssscott-telmasa was no Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee. Much as that might be hard to remember when they were engaged in battle together.
Admiral Raymond Prescott did not, quite, yelp when over a hundred kilograms of claws, muscle, and fur leapt upon him with a stomach-curdling yowl.
Almost. But not quite. And, from the satisfied look his vilkshatha-brother shot him, Zhaarnak knew how close it had been. Of course, given how high he'd jumped, it wasn't that great a deduction.
"You should not be so careless, Raaymmonnd," Zhaarnak chided him as he stepped back and let Raymond regain his composure. "What if some large beast stumbled upon you in this clearing and chose to make you his dinner? With your nose buried in your reading you could not hope to kill him before he killed you, even with your gun."
Raymond patted his sidearm, willing his heart rate to go back to normal. He knew how to use the gun, of course, but he was no Marine. Still, it was standard issue for Naval personnel going out into wilderness areas, for good reason. "Zhaarnak, you worry too much. You're not going far from camp on your hunts; you'd spot anything dangerous before it got close. And even if you missed anything, I've got motion sensors, heat sensors, and a forcefield that any critter would have to get through before reaching me. " All of these were also standard for Navy personnel in wilderness areas of largely uncharted planets such as Xanadu. So little of the planet's biota were catalogued that there might still be unknown threats out there. Zhaarnak had grumbled, but the last thing anyone needed was for the commanders of the Sixth Fleet to get eaten by native fauna on leave during a lull in the war. "You only managed to sneak up on me because you're keyed to the security systems."
Zhaarnak shot him an exasperated look, but chose not to press the argument they'd had before.
"Are you sure you wish to stay here in camp instead of joining me on the hunt?" he asked. "I would not mind your clumsiness."
Raymond took no offence at Zhaarnak's words. Orions were trained in hunting from the time they could walk—perhaps even before. A human who trained in woodcraft and hunting from such a young age also might be able to match an Orion on a hunt, but Raymond certainly couldn't. "No, thanks, I'm perfectly happy staying here."
"Are you sure?" Zhaarnak looked at him dubiously. Only infants and the very most elderly among the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee remained at the home camp when the hunt left, Raymond knew.
"Perfectly," Raymond said. "It's a sunny day, warm, there's a bit of a breeze, and there are birds chirping in the trees. I just want to lay here in the sun and enjoy a change from shipboard environmental controls. And I have a book I've never read before. Do you know how long it's been since I read something that wasn't work-related?" All those hours of reports, signing off on those of his subordinate and writing his own for his superiors. Expediting the establishment of the Zephrain RD base and other industrial capacity. Seeing that his ships and people were patched back together to the best of their ability. Writing recommendations to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that warp-point defense be reoriented to long˗range combat rather than short range. Planning ship deployments and battle strategies for the return to what had been Home Hive Three. He spent most of his day drowning in paperwork, all of it necessary but annoying. They were rotating their crews through 36˗hour leaves so that they would all be fresh and ready to go when it was time for the attack. He and Zhaarnak were among the last to take leave; when they got back, it would be time for final preparations. All the more reason to relax while he could. "I'm enjoying myself, really, I am. Don't worry about me."
"Very well, Raaymmonnd," Zhaarnak said. "But if you should change your mind, call for me!" After a searching look at his vilkshatha-brother, he loped back into the underbrush.
Zhaarnak resumed his hunt still baffled over his vilkshatha-brother's choices. On the bridge of a starship it was so easy to imagine Raaymmonnd as a Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee that it always startled Zhaarnak when he was reminded so thoroughly that Raaymmonnd was not, in fact, born his brother. This was more startling than most. To waste a rare leave time with reading when one could be hunting!
He paused, getting his bearings and testing the air. Was that? Yes, that was definitely the musk of an animal, with the slightly sour undertone that Xanadu's fauna possessed. Zhaarnak hoped that the creature would not taste of it. He judged the strength of the wind and the direction it was coming from, and slunk through the trees.
It took some time to track the creature and maneuver himself into a position where he could see it clearly. Zhaarnak almost grumbled in disappointment, but restrained himself. True, the creature was large enough, but it bore no claws or teeth, and its eyes were set back on its head to give it the widest field of vision possible—clearly, it was prey, not predator.
Still, it was an animal that had not yet been catalogued, and the odds of Zhaarnak finding another creature in time to kill it and dress the animal and test it before dinner time—and allow time for Raaymmonnd to cook his portion—were not good. It was this, or pre-packed food. He circled warily, moving into a good position for a head strike on the animal.
It tensed, shifting uneasily, and Zhaarnak knew it sensed something amiss. He was downwind, so it was unlikely to be smell, and he moved through the brush with the silence of one bred and trained to the hunt. And it did not seem to have seen him. Still, best to make this quick. His angle was not the best, but it would do.
He tensed, and leapt!
Raymond jerked upright at the sound of a howl that could only come from his vilkshatha-brother. He'd never heard Zhaarnak make a sound like that, and it did not sound good. Grabbing the gun, the communicator, and the first-aid kit, he ran towards the source of the sound.
Zhaarnak's cries quieted but didn't go away. If there were words, Raymond couldn't hear them, and grateful as he was for the guide to follow, fear crashed through his mind as he contemplated the things that could make Zhaarnak incoherent.
As he ran, his breath came in great gasps—he wasn't in bad shape, but he did do most of his work sitting down. He could feel his blood pounding in his ears. He smelled … God, what was that? It was foul. And it was getting stronger as he got closer to Zhaarnak's howls!
Raymond slowed as he got closer. If Zhaarnak wasn't dead yet, Raymond could take the time to asses the situation. He shifted his gear so that he could lift his sleeve to cover his mouth and nose. The pungent reek in the air made his eyes water. He came around a tree and stopped dead.
There was an animal—a big one, quadruped, no claws—lying wounded on the ground trying to drag itself away. And two meters away was Zhaarnak, apparently unwounded from all Raymond could see, writhing on the ground, caterwauling.
Raymond stepped forward and shot the animal. He didn't think it was still a threat, but he didn't want to have to worry about it while he dealt with the problem.
"Zhaarnak?" he said loudly, trying to draw his brother's attention. He called again, but Zhaarnak didn't seem to notice. The stench seemed to be coming from the Orion. "Zhaarnak!" he yelled, debating whether or not to touch him. If he was maddened or hallucinating, Zhaarnak could kill Raymond easily with a wrong twitch of his claws.
"Raaymmonnd?" Zhaarnak said, sparing him the debate. The Orion stopped thrashing about, though he kept twitching.
"Are you okay?" Raymond asked.
"I should think it would be obvious that I am not," Zhaarnak said. "Shiaaahk! That—that—" words failed him, and he let out a growl. "That thing sprayed me with some noxious liquid. I think it may be piss. I thank all the spirits of my ancestors and the gods of war and the hunt that none of it got in my eyes or mouth, but it is foul. And it will not rub off!" He rolled to another patch of ground and began vigorously twisting his body and limbs against it.
Raymond felt faint with relief, recognizing the behavior for what it was, a typical instinctive response to something in his fur he didn't want to lick off. With the ebbing of some of the adrenaline, Raymond felt his gorge rising at the stench. Fighting the urge to vomit, he opened the first-aid kit and grabbed the analyzer. "Let me get a sample of it, to make sure it's not toxic," he said, overriding the 'human' factory default and setting it for Orion biochemistry.
Zhaarnak stilled, and Raymond ran the analyzer's wand through his fur to catch the substance on it, studying the results. It didn't take long to return a verdict. "Non-toxic for external contact," he read. "Ingestion not recommended. No kidding." He shook his head. "Look, I think you're right, it's not going to rub off. And flying back to civilization with you smelling like that is not going to be fun. Is there a stream or pond near here, where you can wash? We've got soap at the camp, and some disinfectant goo in the first aid kit, and hopefully that will take care of the worst of it, at least."
"A kilometer to our southwest, there is a stream large enough to bathe in," Zhaarnak said. "I will go there. You return to camp and retrieve the soap. I wish to use it as soon as possible. I will set my communicator to emit a homing signal so that you may find me." He sprang up and started into a fast lope.
Raymond shook his head and tossed a locator beacon from the first-aid kit at the animal so they could find it again, and headed back the way he'd come.
Zhaarnak submerged himself in the stream, humming with relief at the feeling of it moving through his fur. And also with relief that, now that he was no longer running, he could hold his breath and not smell himself. It was very cold, but hopefully it would be effective.
He picked up a stone from the bottom of the stream and began rubbing his fur with it, hoping that would help remove the noxious fluid that covered the hair on his belly and legs. Alas, it had had ample time to soak in, and would probably be difficult to remove. He fumed. He had been enjoying himself so much!
By the time Raaymmonnd returned, Zhaarnak fancied that his fur smelt a little better. Either that, or he was becoming used to the smell, which was a horrifying thought.
Zhaarnak climbed out of the stream to take the tube of soap from his vilkshatha-brother, glad that there was no one else there to see him. Or smell him. Raaymmonnd was holding his sleeve over his mouth and nose; proof of how strong it was that even the human was overpowered by it. He applied a thick coat of the soap on the affected area, rubbing it in determinedly.
"What do you want to do with the carcass?" Raaymmonnd asked.
"Burn it," Zhaarnak growled. "It is unclean!"
"No argument there," Raaymmonnd said. "But how about letting the zoology people deal with it? They'll be happy to study it, and that way people will know to steer clear of it. As long as we can get you cleaned up, I don't think there's any need to mention that it got you, but they'll be able to tell its defense mechanism."
"Very well," Zhaarnak said. "There is no reason to lie, but there is also no reason to make me look foolish in the eyes of this world and the fleet just before a major offensive."
"Exactly!" Raaymmonnd said.
Zhaarnak leapt back in the water to rinse the soap off, combing his fingers through his fur to get all of it off. When he was done, he climbed back out.
"Well, it's better," Raaymmonnd said, though Zhaarnak noticed he did not remove his sleeve from his mouth.
Fortunately, the tube had been mostly full; there was enough in it for two and a half applications, at the end of which Zhaarnak was better, in Raymond's words, though still smelly. The medical disinfectant was useless, as Zhaarnak had expected.
The ride home in the aircar was silent and gloomy. Zhaarnak was still damp, and the windows were open for maximum ventilation. They had another night and partial day of leave, but they would be spending it in their quarters trying to get the odor out of Zhaarnak's fur.
Zhaarnak scowled. "I hope that this is not an ill omen for our upcoming attack."
"Don't be superstitious, Zhaarnak," Raaymmonnd replied, though Zhaarnak noticed he did not sound particularly confident. "Everything will be fine."