THE LAST TERRAN by Blake Rogers
The wind moaned, mouthing its anguish, biting through to the bone. Lod shivered.
‘Now is our chance,’ muttered Kroom. ‘Now we fight!’
He brandished his blade. Lod looked at him in alarm. ‘What are you talking about?’ he demanded. ‘We can’t fight all of them!’
‘I can fight anyone, wizard,’ Kroom boasted. ‘Now hear me…’
‘I’ll hear nothing,’ Lod hissed. ‘We need to get away. Obviously that patrol has been despatched in search of us…’
‘So we attack,’ said Kroom. ‘Or do you want to cower in the snows until you freeze? Draw steel and join me, dog of a wizard!’
With any more ado, he rose and charged down the side of the ravine, kicking up snow as he went. He opened his mouth wide: a battle cry echoed from the crags. Lod watched in horror. Just his luck to be sent into a land of darkness and cold on a suicide mission accompanied by a berserk barbarian from out of galactic prehistory. Assuming Kroom’s story was at all true. Surely even the Warlord who brought down the Galactic Empire wouldn’t do anything as foolish as this.
Numb with cold and horror, Lod watched from hiding. The night side Sporn lowered the spears they carried and prepared to defend themselves from this one man attack.
Kroom plunged into them, a whirlwind of limbs and steel. Eviscerated Sporn sprawled in the snow, leaking hissing ichor, the barbarian hacked, kicked, and punched his way through the patrol.
And for a moment, Lod thought that he was going to win. He made a manful effort to rise from where he crouched, ready to make a display of joining the fight at the last minute—he wasn’t as fast as Kroom, was he? But he’d do his bit—but then he saw the Terran fall.
Terrified, Lod froze back into the shadows. The big barbarian lay like a felled ox on the white expanse of snow. The Sporn approached, nervous, fearful, spears fully extended, ringing the prone body. Lod shook his head. Even Kroom couldn’t have expected to prevail against so many opponents. Now he was alone in the dark and the cold, with a mission he had to complete, or else he must trail back to Sporn City dragging a tale of failure. And then what? Back to scavenging the price of an exit visa among the lonely hills?
Kroom stirred, dragged himself up to his knees, and shook his head as if to clear it. Lod gasped. But then the Sporn descended on the barbarian, seizing his arms and hauling hem behind his back. One of them bound him with ropes of some fibrous fungal material. Then they urged him down the ravine with kicks and blows.
Lod watched until they were all out of sight. They made no attempt to find him. He wasn’t sure whether to feel glad or insulted. But it was all over now. He couldn’t hope to succeed now Kroom had been captured. Curse the barbarian. What an idiotic move. Obviously he would have been defeated. Now he was a captive and only Lod remained at liberty.
He heard a humming sound above the moan of the wind. Looking up, he saw a pale gleam. Another drone? They were still searching for him! Fear filled him with adrenaline, and he darted away down the slope, heading round the other side of the crag. Snow spurted up on either side of him, a chill white spray. He had to find a better hiding place before the drone appeared over the crag.
At the last second he flung himself into a narrow gully, snow filled. Here he lay watching from behind rocks as another glowing circular shape began to quarter the area. It was heading up the slope. Lod had got past it by his downslope dart. But now it was hovering over the route back to the glacier and any chance of escape from the dark land. Lod rose, brushing snow from his limbs, and staggered on down the mountainside.
Half an hour later or so—it was difficult to judge time in a land of night where the moons never set—he found himself half climbing half falling to the bottom of a cliff. Beyond it the countryside stretched into the darkness, scattered with huge, lichen grown boulders between which grew plantations of sickly looking land anemones that glowed unpleasantly in the triple moonlight. The wind had died down. Lod was exhausted. He wanted a hole to climb into, to lie down and sleep. But he knew that it would be a sleep from which he would never wake.
He heard noises of movement from some way off. Groaning, he dragged himself away through the groves of land anemones and up a rise. Beyond it was a trackway leading towards the fires of a settlement on the horizon. Marching up this track was a small group of Sporn. Lumbering in their midst, paws bound behind his back, was Kroom.
Lod returned to the shelter of the anemone grove to think. He needed Kroom if he was to survive in this land. Or did he? The barbarian had proved himself a liability. What else did his captivity indicate, except that? He was strong enough, yes, tough—but he lacked Lod’s brainpower. And if he had been such a great warrior, why had he let himself be captured? Why not die fighting? Lod remembered the visicasts of his youth. The warriors of the old days were always dying in battle, harness on their backs… But Kroom was strong, Kroom was tough, and Lod was not.
Only one thing for it. He had to shadow the Sporn and wait until such a time as they made camp somewhere, then sneak in and cut free the barbarian. Then they could fight their way out and continue.
He rested his hands on his belt. Then panicked. Where was his knife? He looked down frantically. No sign of it. He had definitely hung it from his belt!
He turned and peered up the dark mountainside. He must have lost the knife up there somewhere. Probably when he dived into cover from the drone.
Now he had no hope.
No hope of freeing Kroom—what was he supposed to do, bite through the barbarian’s bonds? No hope of fighting. He was small and weak. All Proteans were. They had many talents. But fighting wasn’t one of them. But what he could do… it took energy. And he had very little of that. So he must make the long, wearisome journey without weapons, companions or other assistance.
He gritted his teeth. It would be difficult, but he would do it. He had little brawn but he had brains—just what that lummox had lacked!
He summoned up an image of the hologram he had seen in the Intermediary’s hut. He was now on the other side of the mountains, on the edge of the plain of lichen. The Place of Power, as Kroom had named it, where the root mind was concealed, lay in… that direction!
Beyond the settlement. A long way. But in this cold, staying still was not an option. He must start moving or freeze to the spot. But it took a long time to chivvy his cold limbs into action.
At last they started moving, and he made his way down the slope and into another grove of blue and yellow land anemones that towered above him, their tops heaped with snow. They passed alongside one trackway, another one leading to the settlement, and he scuttled into cover when he saw another patrol of Sporn passing, spears in hand. They were still looking for him, it seemed. Had they any idea of the mission he was on?
He wondered if they would torture Kroom, and if it would wrest any intelligence from the barbarian. Surely Kroom would not betray him. But he would not have thought even that prehistoric dolt would have made a full frontal attack against such crazy odds. No wonder the empire fell. What he couldn’t understand was how the Old Ones had been so feckless as to let the galaxy get into such foolish hands.
The patrol passed by, and he rose and started moving into the anemone forest. He could feel chilblains developing. He knew that frostbite would come next. His belly rumbled, and he was reminded that Kroom had been the one with the food. Lod had seen no sign of any animals anywhere nearby.
Halting again, he inspected the stalks of the land anemones that surrounded him. They looked too woody to be easily digestible. And how could he hope to cook them? Or cut them up? He remembered the resolve he had felt when he set out. It was fading now, fading into nothingness in the cold light of the three moons.
He snatched up a rock from the ground and began hammering at a great anemone stalk, wider than the trunk of the trees that grew on the light side of the planet. Broken fragments fell onto the ground. Lod flung away the rock and snatched them up. He examined them queasily, then stuffed one into his mouth and chewed experimentally. After all, didn’t the Sporn eat them? Or did they just use them for building? He had also noticed some of them wearing leathery clothes that appeared to be made of dried fungus.
Eventually, the tough anemone meat went down. It didn’t taste too bad, reminding him a little of beefsteak. Soon he was feeling better, and he returned to walking through the anemone arcades. Somehow it didn’t look so threatening now it might provide him with a source of nutrition.
As the snow began to fall again, he wondered if he would be able to light a fire with it. He kept back some of the land anemone to dry it within his belt pouch. Next time he halted for a rest in the shelter of an anemone grove, he experimented with making sparks using his belt buckle and a piece of stone. It was quite successful, and soon he had them fountaining down onto the dried anemone. It began to smoulder. Lod fed the fire with dry gobbets of anemone, and soon he had quite a blaze going. He sat beside it luxuriating in the warmth, with strips of land anemone baking on stones beside it. The aroma was luxurious.
But it attracted unwanted attention.
He woke from his daze to hear the flap of leathery wings from beyond the anemone fronds, and saw, flying down towards him, a winged creature at least seven feet from beak to tail. It opened up its grinning jaws. They were full of fangs.
Lod leapt up. His indolence fled like shadows from the scorching light of noon. The winged creature landed in a flurry of snow. He saw that it was a huge bird, pale in plumage, though the tooth filled beak seemed strange, not to say primitive—like some prehistoric nightmare out of chaos. It strutted through the snow towards him and the fire, giving the baking anemone meat sidelong glances.
Lod had a brainwave. Crouching down, he snatched up a hot piece of anemone meat, and flung it towards the bird. It leapt up with a quick flap of its wings, and snatched the anemone meat from the air and gulped it down. Ruefully Lod blew at his scorched fingers. It landed again, strutting forwards with more sidelong looks, first from one swivelling yellow eye, then the other. Grimacing, Lod flung it another hunk. Only one was left, he noted, as the bird gulped this one down as well. Maybe he had the thing appeased for now, but…
He threw the last chunk and the bird swallowed it. But when he crept over to the stem to bash some more fragments off, the bird struck at him with its beak, knocking him to the ground.
He touched his thigh where the creature had caught him and felt it wet with blood.
He snarled as the bird jabbed again, and flung himself to one side. It swung round, looking from one eye then the other. Lod rose to his knees. It pecked again and he was knocked sprawling, landing in a snowdrift outside the lea of the anemone grove.
The cold drove away the last vestiges of indolence. Bleeding in two places, he forced himself to his feet and ran, the bird first sprinting after him through the forest, then flying as they came out into a snowy plain of lichen. Squawking, the bird beat at him with its wings and pecked with its fanged beak. He stumbled over a rock, caught his shin on it and fell again. He felt the wind of the bird’s descent as it swooped one last time.
An abrupt squawk split the air and the bird crashed into the snow. He rolled over, clutching at his shin, rose and approached. The thing was dead. He soon saw the reason why. A stone tipped spear, its shaft a length of dried anemone, projected from its breast.
Lod whirled round. A small group of Sporn was watching him. He turned to run. One of them lifted something and began to whirl it round his featureless head.
He hadn’t got more than six feet when something struck his legs with swingeing force, wrapping and tangling itself round and round. He fell yet again, this time unable to rise. The lengths of woven mushroom leather effectively bound his legs together and he could not move them more than to twitch them impotently.
The Sporn strode up, spears in hand, to surround him. He lay back, yielding to the cold embrace of the snow. It was futile. Like Kroom before him, he was now a prisoner. No wonder all the efforts of the dayside Sporn had failed.
This land of darkness was deadly.
Two seized him, one his shoulders, the other his feet. Others gathered round the carcase of the bird to butcher it and hack steaks from its fleshy parts, stuffing into sacks the meat they did not devour. Now they returned to surround the prisoner.
Flanked by the rest, the two Sporn carried Lod away into the shadows of the anemone forest.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK