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Harry noticed her as soon as he walked into the cosy dimness of the bar. There was a new bit of talent sitting at one of the round tables in the far corner. It was quite early yet, few of the guys were there, and nobody seemed to have latched onto her.
He did a slow slalom among the empty tables and stopped by her side. She was a blonde, maybe even natural, and looked nervous. Probably about 30, though it was hard to tell in the indirect light. Nice tits, but then again you can't tell when a girl is dressed, can you? He flashed the famous friendly smile at her. "Hi. Welcome to the pub. Can I buy you a drink?"
Her eyes measured his six-foot-two frame and managed to return the smile, though he could see it was an effort. "I'm... I'm not that used to alcohol. A shandy maybe?"
"Good. I'll have the same, but if you don't mind I'll leave the lemonade out."
Well, that got a laugh. He fetched the drinks, a beer for himself, the adulterated version for the chick, and sat down on the next chair, at right angles to her.
"Thank you," she said, "I guess we'd better introduce ourselves."
"I'm Harry Tompiere." He spelt it out for her, knowing from long experience that people never got his surname right without it.
"And I'm Midge Martin. At least, I've gone back to that."
Harry was quick. "You're divorced, are you?"
"It's a happy anniversary today: we split up exactly a year ago. That's why I thought I'd celebrate. This is the first time I've gone out since then. I've... I've decided I'm ready for a new start."
"Good for you. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You got any kids?"
"No, that was part of the reason we had problems." Harry could see she was upset by the question, but was trying not to show it. "He fired blanks, and wouldn't hear of raising someone else's kid, and I want children."
"Oh, there are too many people anyway, aren't there?" He laughed, to show he was only teasing, but she changed the subject.
"And tell me about yourself, Harry. What do you do?"
Harry finished his beer and leaned back. "Most people think that question means your occupation. There's nothing wrong with mine, I'm an electrical engineer. But I do that only to make money. What I do is to hunt."
Her face froze over. "Do you mean that you kill animals?"
"Well, they do taste delicious. Do you eat meat?"
She was silent for a little while, then admitted, "Yes."
"Yeah, what you eat is poor animals raised in slavery, then killed in an impersonal way. I'm a hunter. I care for nature, do things to ensure that conditions are right for the prey species. And it's more honest than leaving it to some butcher."
She looked up at him with a defiant look on her face. "Dress it up however you like, you get enjoyment from killing. That's wrong."
"No it's the natural condition of..."
"Fair go, Harry, I heard you out."
"OK, go on then."
"What do you hunt?"
"Whatever is in season. Foxes and rabbits are vermin, I hunt them any time. Deer ducks, feral pigs..."
"All right, Harry. Just imagine. You're this deer, a beautiful creature who is minding his own business, happily eating, being with your kind, out in a forest where you belong. And then suddenly something completely beyond your understanding happens, and a great pain blasts through your body. You turn to run as you hear the bang, but collapse after a few steps."
Her face glowed, and she looked far prettier when angry than when she was apprehensive.
But Harry had lost interest. A bang in the bedroom wasn't worth a constant argument about a bang in the bush. So, when he saw Tom and Jim barge in from the street, he waved them over. "Fellas," he said, "let me introduce you to this lovely lady."
He soon made his excuses and left them to it. "I need an early night," he explained, "I've got to get up before dawn. Tomorrow is the first day of the duck season."
But of course he didn't go to bed, no point to do it alone. Wasn't there a party at Jack and Judy's place?
First shot of the season! Harry smoothly tracked the huge cloud of birds clattering off the lake, but shifted target with a gasp. One mallard rising from the grassy edge was twice the size of any other, though with the duller female coloring. He'd never seen a duck that big!
He squeezed the trigger and saw feathers scatter: a hit. But the great duck didn't fall. Unbelieving, he watched it become a thin gray sheet that formed a strange curve. Bright colors chased one other across its surface: brown and black swirls changing momentarily into yellow, as it volplaned after each feather in turn. Within seconds, the giant mallard reappeared, and was again spiraling down towards the grass.
Harry blinked and shook his head. He must have imagined it. Too much beer last night? "Fetch!" he called.
Slinky reached the mallard as she touched ground. There was an indistinct gray melee -- then bitch and duck were both gone. Disappeared.
I'm going crazy ! Harry thought. He walked over and stopped a few steps from where they should have been. There was nothing to see but waving blades of ryegrass, clover in flower, paspalum, cooch, the same as everywere. Except, Slinky's neckband lay there on top of the grass.
I'll be buggered. He stepped forward onto solid-seeming, grassy sward to have his boots slip on something slimy. He landed with a thump, the gun flying from his hands.
The grass instantly rose into an oozy gray mound, enfolding his feet, his legs, flowing along his body with great rapidity. Terror stretched time, so that he saw every detail as the gray tide engulfed him, as an incredible pain started in his feet, flared along his shins, his thighs, his innards. Within a second, he'd been consumed by a fire, a supernova of agony. His mouth was still opening for the scream he'd never have time to make when his heart was eaten, when his dimming eyes saw the rising river of grayness swallow his head. Then, mercifully, his brain was gone.
Having consumed dog and man, the gray jelly had grown to many times Its previous size. It formed a two yard high standing egg-shape, covered in purple and green swirls, the colour of repletion. There was a loud click, and It disappeared.
The mussed grass held no clue other than Harry's few scattered belongings: his clothes, the gun, ammunition pouch, the backpack (but with the lunch gone), his sturdy boots. Oh, and Slinky's neckband.
The Earth circled the Sun, and the Moon circled the Earth. Several bits of man-made junk also orbited the Earth, but there was nothing else around.
And then, suddenly, the interstellar vehicle was there, neatly hidden beyond the far side of the Moon. Several cubic miles of space was occupied by a bewilderingly complex network of glistening ovoid shapes of varying sizes, joined by tubular ooze-passages.
Eight Beings waited for the Captain in the Conference Module. Katloi felt both nervous and proud at having been chosen for the intial reconnaisance. From their rapidly changing bright colors and the animated waving of pseudopoda, it was obvious that the other seven felt similarly.
Tading oozed over to Katloi, Its shape a tall cylinder. It was covered with a mixture of colors: bright green and yellow stripes indicating excitement, the red of laughter below this, but with flashes of brown and black swirls breaking through. That was the color of fear. It sent out a stream of pseudopoda, signaling, "If only we knew a little more!"
"Then we wouldn't need to go," Katloi answered. "From their electronic emissions, we know they're primitive enough to kill their own species, and that they have distance weapons. So, they're dangerous."
"Of course. But what about the chemistry of the planet?"
"It's a water and oxygen world."
"Sure, but their DNA, is it right or..."
The valve from the Command Module dilated, and the Captain oozed through. Tading stopped in mid-sign.
The eight scouts formed a line facing It. Each assumed a smooth ovoid shape, and became the snow-white of receptivity.
Showing the pink and orange swirls of declamation, the Captain signed, "My friends, I won't understate the risk. You have seen the evidence, just like I have. We are sure the simpler of the radio-wave emissions are designed to be translated into atmospheric vibrations, while the more complex represent vision as well as this exotic sense-modality. On the basis of our decoding, we know what they look like. They seem to be locked into a fixed shape. Somehow, they bear their weight on two stalks, we think by having a hard internal framework.
"These Beings are on the cusp of achieving space travel. Already they have sent primitive devices through their planetary system. And yet we suspect that they are dangerous. So beware, don't risk yourselves. But even more important, under no circumstances must they detect your extra-planetary origin. You need to go, in order to find out just one thing: the accuracy of their broadcasts. Any comments or questions?"
There were none. "Connect up to your translocators, and good luck."
Katloi's pre-programmed point of arrival was near a large population centre, but far enough from it for an almost certain unobserved materialization. On finding Itself on the planet, Katloi instantly assessed Its surroundings, and spread out to exactly imitate the ground cover: a mixture of soft-bodied green plants. The only disadvantage of being this low was that It could see little. Therefore, It extended a stalk that almost immediately became a miniature copy of nearby brown-shanked, green-foliated tall plants.
The yellow light of the primary shone on blue water. Animals half Katloi's current size swam on the surface, waddled along the shore, flew above it. Katloi studied them and assumed an experimental copy. No good, the thin downward stalks wouldn't bear Its weight. It oozed towards the water, maintaining the shape, until It was among the strange Beings. As several rose into the air, Katloi saw their flying mechanism. Two airfoil cross-section articulated limbs were covered with frondy extrusions. Achieving such a complicated shape took time and considerable effort, but soon Katloi was soaring among the smaller shapes. It was pleased at having achieved a suitable, motile camouflage. Its next task was to find one of the dominant Beings. It landed.
And by great good fortune, one was just approaching. It was using a similar form of locomotion to that of the flying Beings when on the ground, so in this regard the decoding of the transmissions was accurate. A smaller Being accompanied It, on four stalks.
The smaller Being rushed forward. It had a sort of elongated lump sticking out in front of the leading pair of weightbearing stalks. A wide gap at the forward edge of this lump opened and closed several times. Katloi deduced It was making atmospheric vibrations to frighten the flying Beings, because they rose in panic. Wishing to blend in, Katloi accompanied them.
Without warning, swift metal pellets blasted through Its body. It retrieved scattered components. Angry, hurt, disoriented, It resumed camouflage and landed.
The smaller Being attacked. Katloi defended, and got a nice surprise.
Katloi was the first to get back. The Captain turned a bright orange, the color of eager anticipation, as Katloi appeared by the side of Its translocation machine. "Tell me. How did you go?" the Captain signed.
Katloi swiftly rose into a respectful oval, and answered, "Respectability, I have good news. They taste delicious!"
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