Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

The Last Indian War

[This story won the Writers of the Future Gold Award and was originally anthologized in Writers of the Future Volume VIII.]

The forest wrapped around Joseph Soaring-Hawk like a blanket. The woodlands of Kelvyn were still alien to him, still bizarre. Yet the rustle of leaves, the fragrance of vegetation, the spring of living carpet beneath his feet offered familiar comfort. Corkscrew ferns twisted toward the sky in tightly bunched loops all around him, giant fronds feathering out to catch the orange sunlight.

The corkscrews amazed him. Each tree was a scale model of the forest, supporting a complete ecosystem within its massive coils. Unseen creatures whistled and chattered from a thousand leafy hiding places. He felt in tune with the rhythms of nature here, reconnected to the threads of growth and life woven into the very fabric of his soul. Eight interminable months trapped in the sterile shell of the Surveyor had almost driven him mad… but the land restored him.

Joseph sat on the base coil of a corkscrew to catch his breath. He was in better shape than anyone else in the Surveyor's crew, but the strong gravity of Kelvyn still sapped the strength from his muscles. He took three swallows from his water pack and watched in fascination as a nearby porcu-pine lured its prey. A brown flying-lizard not much bigger than a pigeon hovered between the branches, drawn by the aroma of honeysap that oozed from the porcu-pine's bark. As soon as the flyzard touched the sticky sap, the branches snapped together, impaling it with a dozen needles. Nerve venom in the needles quickly paralyzed the tiny creature.

Joseph reckoned it would take less than three hours for the tree to absorb the flyzard's nutrients. Skin and bones would drop to the forest floor, where scavengers feasted on the porcu-pine's leavings. Nothing wasted. Nothing killed needlessly. Nothing consumed to extinction. Life on Kelvyn was in balance… for the moment.

Joseph shook his head and pushed on.

He came to the glade that marked the boundary of the puffer-owl village. A mousipede crouched in the grass near the center of the clearing, nibbling on the fruit of a bloodberry bush. The furry rodent had no idea what a dangerous place it had chosen to dine. Joseph studied the trees across the glade expectantly. A few minutes passed before the bloated outline of a puffer-owl glided from the upper branches. It floated across the glade with silent stealth, riding the wind like a feathered zeppelin.

Suddenly it folded its wings and dove straight toward the mousipede. By the time the little creature sensed the danger, it was too late. It scurried halfway to the tree line on its dozen stubby legs before the puffer's talons dug into its back. It squeaked twice as its captor flipped it and sliced through its tender belly with a scythe-like beak. There was silence as the puffer fed.

The puffers were the strangest birds Joseph had ever seen. Their round faces, large eyes, and thick bodies reminded him of Terran owls. They had the same look of dignity and wisdom, but there the similarity ended. The puffers were huge - some as massive as fifty kilograms. Because of the strong surface gravity of Kelvyn, they could not get off the ground without the buoyancy of their flight bladders. These inflated with hydrogen extracted from the air when the owls rose, swelling them like balloons.

Like most of Kelvyn's creatures, they had limbs to spare. A broad pair of forewings and a smaller pair of hindwings controlled their speed and direction of flight. A third pair of vestigial wings resembled tiny arms. Two pairs of spindly legs made their ground movements almost crab-like. Each leg had folds of skin that were used like fins to maneuver in the air. The puffers swam across the sky rather than flew. To the rest of the crew, they were ugly as sin.

To Joseph, they were beautiful.

He studied the speckled plumage of the puffer as it fed. A pair of blood-red mogre teeth dangled from its ear-tufts. He knew this one: the warrior-chief, the one he called Cochise. He waited for Cochise to finish, not wanting to interrupt the pleasure of the meal. When Cochise rose once more into the trees, Joseph slipped across the glade.

As always, the village was silent. Only the whisper of leaves and the occasional murmur of wings broke the stillness. He wriggled between the loops of a corkscrew so his presence would not disturb the puffers. The tree coiled above him like a giant serpent. Far beyond his vision, a clan of puffer-owls had built their living chambers, piling section upon section as family and home grew together, intertwined. Nearly every corkscrew within four square kilometers housed its own clan. These woods carried the living heritage of Cochise's tribe. Of Shaman's tribe.

He thought of the bedraggled puffer crouching in the corner of the lab aviary, mangled and dying. He felt a flash of anger; a pang of guilt.

The tranquility of Kelvyn abruptly exploded with the roar of machinery. Joseph could not see the creatures hidden behind the leaves, but their terror and confusion buffeted him in waves. He cursed and squirmed out of his blind, breaking into a run. Within two hundred meters he was gasping for air, but he did not stop. He barely missed an outstretched porcu-pine branch as he labored back the way he had come, legs pumping against the iron grip of Kelvyn, black hair dancing in the wind. When he staggered into the clearing near the camp, ten pulverizers were already online, gobbling the forest and turning it to mulch.

Joseph doubled over, sucking oxygen as fast as his lungs could manage. He searched the work zone for Angus McIntyre and spotted the crew chief near a field console, poring through schematics with a cluster of foremen. Joseph started toward them, wincing as a charley horse bunched his quadriceps into knots. He dragged the leg across the flattened, denuded soil. Several foremen stopped talking and turned in his direction. McIntyre followed their gaze, stroking a bushy red moustache that burned like fire in the orange light. Surprise and amusement played across his grizzled face.

"Hawk, you look like twice-baked shit. Those nature hikes are killing you, lad. Maybe you should stick around here and suck dust with the rest of us."

The foremen chuckled as Joseph drew himself up, tried to catch his breath. "Mac… I told you not to clear any more… until I give you the okay. This area's not certified yet, and you know it. You know the regs."

McIntyre shook his head. "I know the regs. I also know that Corporate is rattlin' their saber a little louder every day, and it's not your head'll be rolling if we fall behind. Now, Hawk, I know how you feel about the greenery. I love it, too, much as the next man. But the fact is, we've got to finish the shell structure here and be hyperspatial toward Avalon inside of two months, or it's my ass. It may not look like much to you, lad, but it's the only one I've got, and I'm bent on keeping it."

The foremen howled with laughter as McIntyre bowed, a toothy grin spreading beneath his moustache. Frustration rose in Joseph like the color in McIntyre's ruddy face. The man was good-natured and popular, hard to dislike. But he was wrong this time. Dead wrong.

"It's not your ass I'm worried about, Mac. You can take care of yourself. The puffer-owls can't. You've read my reports. You know damn well we can't build here!"

The laughter stopped. "I've read your reports, Hawk. Full of speculation and conjecture, nothing solid. Nothing worth killing a colony over."

"Nothing solid! What about all the video, Mac? The complex social patterns? The inside of the clan chambers? The use of tools? You're worried about killing a colony, but I'm worried about killing a species!"

McIntyre shrugged. "Ants have complex social patterns. Birds build nests. Otters and monkeys use tools. That doesn't make 'em sentient, now does it?"

Joseph's eyes glittered like chips of obsidian. "Those pulverizers don't make you sentient either. Every day you gobble up another chunk of their world. In another week, you'll swallow Shaman's entire tribal grounds. It's their ancestral land, Mac, and they won't leave it. Without my authorization, you'll be guilty of mass murder."

McIntyre scowled. "Mass murder, is it? The same tune you sang five years ago about those hairy little beasties on Rathgar? Well, now, there's a thrivin' colony on that planet, and I don't believe a one of them that built it spent a slim second in lockup. Couldn't prove a word of your ravings then either, now could you?"

"No. I couldn't. It's hard to prove a race is sentient after it's extinct."

Tension swelled between the two men, thick and menacing. No one moved. Finally McIntyre let out a sigh. "I meant you no insult, Hawk. A blind man could see your sincerity. But I can't stop this operation on a whim. I'll make you a deal. You bring me proof of what you say, and I'll stop. You have my word, lad."

Joseph studied McIntyre's face intently. The foremen shuffled nervously behind them. "All right, Mac. I'll bring you proof. Then we'll see if your word means more than that bastard's on Rathgar."

He heard the angry muttering as he walked away, but he ignored it....