Part 4: Outsmarted
The groundtruck slides to a quiet halt behind the flophouse. It sits there for a few minutes, its windows opaque, with only the light ting of cooling powerplant metal giving it any sign of life.
Then the cab door opens, and Chon-Zek gets out, his eyes flicking about behind smartgoggles, calculating angles, compensating for the pools of darkness in the late night gloom of Harriman City.
Beyond the goggles, he’s dressed a little differently than he was a several months back, at least to a professional’s eye. Bounty hunting is not the same as leg-breaking and general goonery, and drawing on his professional knowledge, plus the stories he heard during many dozen family dinners growing up, he’s dressed for the role. His overcoat has some nice built-in tech, ablative panels and impact-reducing fabrics built-in, and it can even double as a survival shelter if reconfigured properly. It cost him a tidy cred, and he’s aware that his cash reserves are low, what with the equipment and travel costs, the bribes paid to draw on his Syndicate contacts to try and find his prey, and all of that on top the debt he went into buying out his membership in the branch of the Syndicate he belonged to.
And that doesn’t count the cost of the truck’s cargo.
They could have given me a leave of absence. After all I’ve done, my legacy – even with the embarassment, they could have – but, no …
Chon-Zek realizes he’s gone way out on a limb, financially, professionally, and even emotionally. The Boss advised him against it – “Vengeance is only good business when it’s about business, not vengeance” – but he took the plunge. It was never a choice. Pride, anger, fear – all drove him to it, and carried him the past months. He’s pulled in a few bounties along the way, small, petty targets, for practice, for creds, to start to build a name. He’s had no time for more, consumed by his real hunt.
But it will all have been worth it if he can bag this particular bounty. It will restore his reputation, certainly. And it will, yes, net him a pretty cred from the Syndicate for recovering a deserter. And as far as emotional payback goes …
Chon-Zek eyes the largely-dark flophouse, the goggles helping him to see a few figures in windows, perhaps watching him back. He mentally reviews the reports he’s gotten back on his target’s movements, and gets out of the dank air, back into the truck to wait.
I’m not sure what will happen after tonight. Do I continue with this career? Or do I return to the Syndicate, resuming my life there, within their embrace, furthering my family’s destiny? He is enough self-aware to realize that such a question must wait for the morning. All he knows is that the long hunt is over, his prey is found, and all that is left is to enjoy the show.
Chon-Zek watches, and waits. The back street is mostly the backs of buildings, many of them showing just blank walls. A few are desolate and abandoned, at least one tumbled down in an earthquake into a field of rubble and weeds.
And it’s quiet, especially within the cab of the truck. Not even the occasional warble of goon squad vehicles can be heard.
At length, he sees in the rear view mirrors, what he has been waiting for, coming from the direction predicted.
Yae strolls down the back street like he hasn’t a care in the world. The lighting on this street, three or four layers off the main drag, is hit or miss, wide-spaced poles, half of them malfunctioned or vandalized, but there’s enough with the smart optics of the goggles to catch Yae’s silhouette, his size, that ridiculous hat …
Chon-Zek’s local contact (an appallingly expensive private detective agency here on the planet, which irritatingly refused to give him a Syndicate rate any longer) spotted the xeno three weeks ago, recognized him from the flyer Chon-Zek had sent out, and tracked his movements regularly to and from this flophouse. There is no other reliable nexus of behavior; the xeno’s been spending some time at the spaceport (far too crowded for Chon-Zek’s purposes), but the target’s other outings have been hitting – dining at – little eateries and restaurants all around the city – with no pattern discernible and no repeat visits.
Well, of course. If I owned a restaurant and that oaf visited, I’d do my best to be sure he didn’t return, either.
At any rate, the flophouse seems the best location, both because he returns to it each night and because the types staying there – transient spacers, people down on their luck and spiraling into homelessness and death, folk desperately hoping to for a break to let them get off-planet, that sort – aren’t likely to complain about a disturbance, or be listened to if they do.
Chon-Zek steps once more out of the cab. Show time, you son of a bitch. On hitting the crumbling plascrete pavement, he calls out, “Yae Kvyr!”
The figure, a few dozen meters away, pauses. Then he points a beefy finger. “Friend Chon-Zek!” He holds open his arms as though Chon-Zek should run forward into a bone-cracking embrace.
Chon-Zek smiles, and taps the programmed softbutton on his handcomm.
The rear of the truck opens, and the beast leaps out.
It occurs to Chon-Zek, not for the first time, that there are much simpler ways of killing a being. A shot in the back. A snipe from a rooftop. But those would be … unsatisfying, at best. A Yae whose head was blown off, a hole punched through his torso, would die far too quickly for Chon-Zek’s liking
Besides which, worst-case scenario, the lumbering xeno would duck at the wrong moment, or the gun would jam, or the shot wouldn’t actually kill him. Ditto for rigging a bomb in his room, that sort of thing.
No, for certainty and for poetry, Chon-Zek knows that Yae must not only be killed, but defeated.
The pengristch bounds out of the back of the truck, hitting the ground with a tremor that Chon-Zek can feel through his boot soles. It stands two meters tall at the fore-shoulders, its four limbs as big around as a standard human torso, massive hooked claws exceeded in their terrifying size only by its cavernous maw, which could likely bite that same hypothetical human in half. Its stench of chlorine and rotten meat is staggering.
Chon-Zek paints Yae with a green laser target from his handcomm, and pushes a second softbutton, triggering (so he’s been assured by the “exotic creatures” merchant from whom he rented the beast) the attack instinct. The pengristch’s central eye snaps to the light, it lets out a roar that seems like to break every window on the block, then it bounds toward Yae –
– who has been standing there, seemingly frozen in terror, staring at the creature.
“Is beautiful!” the xeno finally intones. “But did not get you any—”
The pengristch lands its last jump directly in front of the xeno, dwarfing even his mighty frame, and bats him aside with a massive paw.
Yae flies through the air and crashes into the building across the street. The pengristch bounds after him, and he barely has a moment to get back to his feet, shout “Yes!”, then – Chon-Zek can’t see, but it looks like the creature is attempting to swallow him whole. Or perhaps half, which would suit Chon-Zek just as well.
There are dueling roars and yelling in the shadows by the wall, and Chon-Zek has to step a bit closer and to the side to see what is going on. He stares when he sees that Yae has somehow managed to brace his feet against the wall, and used that support to grab the pengristch’s upper and lower jaws, holding them open beyond the ability of the creature to close them, even as it howls and scrabbles to get proper purchase, its clawed limbs digging deep gouges into the plascrete below.
For what it’s worth, Yae himself is clearly being pushed to the limit, face in a grimace, letting out a series of grunting, hooting sounds of strain and despair and –
No! No, he’s not – he’s laughing. Laughing by all the --!
“Dammit, Yae,” he screams. “I’m trying to kill you! Stop enjoying this!”
The xeno’s grimace turns upward slightly into a broad grin. “No!”
Chon-Zek stomps his foot. “See!? This is exactly why I’m trying to kill you!” He stomps on the ground again. “Every time, you just laugh and laugh and joke and don’t take anything important seriously!”
Yae gives a final sideways shove, pushing the pengristch aside so that its forward lunge drives it into the cast block wall with a loud thud. “You are wrong, my friend. I take this very seriously.” He puts all of his weight into a massive punch at the side of the pengristch’s head. “It is the sort of challenge that even the women will sing songs of! If any of them knew –”
The pengristch lashes out, a massive backhand from a forelimb sending Yae ass-over-teakettle through the air, landing with a loud bang atop a garbage skip.
Chon-Zek growls at the creature, which is now just standing there, somewhat dazed from the impact. He targets Yae again with the laser and presses the attack button. The pengristrch roars and races toward Yae, who’s rolling off the skip, while Chon-Zek chortles. “I’ve got you this time, Yae. Always the strongest, always the biggest – but not anymore! Not anymore!”
Yae makes a snorting sound. “You wound, Chon-Zek. Am not always biggest – though, maybe mostly am, since homeworld.” He sidesteps the charging beast deftly, though with a bit of a stagger at the end. “But as child did fight bigs –” He waits a moment until the pengristch charges him again, then leaps forward, like some insane game of hopfrog from Chon-zek’s childhood, legs splayed to either side, thick fingers looking tiny interlocked on the pengristch’s head. He vaults the beast, hits the ground behind it, and runs as fast as he can back toward the other side of the street.
“—and learned things, and from fighting smallers,” Yae shouts over his shoulder, pursued by the pengristrch. He reaches the other side, and dives forward himself, grabbing a light pole (it bends precariously), swinging himself around in a circle, and slams both of his feet into the side of the creature’s head.
Even with the size disparity, the impact is enough to stagger the pengristch. Howling, it lashes out again, claws snapping the light standard.
“Ha!” Yae grabs up the light pole, a four meter length of extruded polycarbon fiber, and hefts it like pike. “Now, see how smart beast is, too. And take good look.” He pokes it lightly with the end of the pole, which is still glowing. “Is pengristch, from Wilhelm, I think.”
“You know it?” Chon-Zek boggles.
Yae shrugs, gives the creature another poke, a bit harder. “Have read, just a little – but no spoilers! Never thought would meet.” He gives another poke. “Do owe you for experience,” he adds, politely.
The bounty hunter fumes. The creature is batting lightly (relatively speaking) at the end of the pole, but not charging, or biting it off, or knocking it out of Yae’s hands. I was promised a savage, unstoppable killer, dammit! He play the green laser across Yae’s chest again, attracting the beast’s attention, then stabs his thumb down on the handcomm to trigger the attack response.
The creature screams with range, but instead of any of the responses Chon-Zek was expecting (or, it seems, Yae), the pengristch uses its clawed forepaws somehow to grab the light pole itself and, before Yae can react, swings it up, then down again – Yae still holding on, as he smashes into the street with a loud grunt – then flings it upward, Yae losing his grip and creating a high arc (shouting as he does, “Oh, is smart!”), to land with a loud crash atop a hapless groundcar parked a half-block away.
The pengristch rears up, roaring, then bounds after him, Chon-zek in cautious pursuit.
“To slay –” Yae shouts out, voice strained, painfully sliding off the far side of the vehicle, "-- to slay such a creature, in its right mind – this would be truly great.” A shuddering sigh, ending with a wince. “Alas.”
Yes, Chon-zek thinks, alas you’ll never do it.
The creature lands atop the groundcar, just where Yae had been moments before. It’s actually the size of the groundcar, which means four of the vehicle’s six pneumatic tires explode with the impact. Yae ducks under a scythe of claws, going to his hands and knees. “Alas, is not fair, friend, forcing creature to fight. Takes away all fun.” He tucks and rolls away as the pengristch, howling, leaps down at him, batting at Yae like a cat trying to catch a ball.
Yae rolls away from its reach and rolls to his feet, staggering with a distinct limp. “So stop forcing.” His left arm snaps back, then forward, throwing the broken plascrete pavement fragment he picked up while on the ground. It smashes into Chon-Zek’s right hand, the one holding the handcomm, sending the device tumbling through the air into the darkness and weeds and rubble.
“You idiot!” Chon-Zek screaming with pain. “That comm cost more credits than your ugly head is worth!”
Yae shakes said head, sadly. “Too much attachment to material things is unhealthy.”
“Fuck you!” Chon-Zek retorts. “I’m ending this!” He reaches down with his off hand (the rock seems to have broken some bones in his primary, which only makes him more angry) to cross-draw his blaster, when he realizes he’s forgotten something.
No, he’s missing something.
Where’s all the roaring?
Chon-Zek looks up, and sees the pengristch has stopped, and is gazing at him with all three of its eyes, then at Yae (whose back is turned it), then back to him.
“What are you doing, you stupid beast?" Chon-Zek yells. "Kill him!”
Yae sighs. “She is not under brain control now. I think maybe she is not so eager to fight.” Yae throws a glance back at the creature. “Not sure why, but the galaxy is a strange place.”
“Wait – if you knew the beast was under my control, why did you take so long to attack my comm?” Yae starts to open his mouth, and Chon-Zek holds up a (broken) finger. “No. Let me guess. ‘ Where would challenge be in that, friend Chon-Zek?’”
Yae beams at him. “Yes! Yes, you understand! Am so happy!”
Chon-Zek starts fumbling again for his blaster, and the pengristch starts a booming growl. He pauses, and the growl stops.
“See?” Yae says, still with the smile. “Is smart. And maybe a little angry at you for the button pushing and pain and all that. You think?” He looks back. The beast gives a snort.
Yae claps his thick-fingered hands. “Well, would love to be catching up, asking about old friends, but had only come by to pick up things. Shipping out tonight. Big trip. Maybe find what am looking for at other end. If not?” A shrug. “Lots to eat. Lots to fight. Plenty of ways to make honest living, no?”
The pain of his hand is beginning to spike through his anger. “I’m … going to kill you, Yae.”
“Ha! That is spirit, friend Chon-Zek! But not today. Today – tonight – you have personnel problem to work out.”
He turns to the pengristch. “Next time, will settle, yes? Will be a great song made after. Meantime, you and friend Chon-Zek, thinking you have matters to discuss.” He gives a slight bow, which the beast mirrors with its – her – head. Yae winks at Chon-Zek. “Smart!” he whispered, and then turns and strolls toward the flophouse.
The pengristch turns its massive head back to Chon-Zek. The bounty hunter considers how long it will take him to draw off-hand, whether the blaster will even be effective, the difficulty level of finding the handcomm in the night-shrouded debris of the fallen building, and how far away the truck is.
“Well,” he says, “shit.”