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Authors: J. Clayton Rogers

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BOOK: At the Midway
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They scrambled down the near slope into a stand of small trees.

"Wait!"

Shots rang out ahead of them.  A second later came soul-tearing screams.

"The camp!"

"Are they shooting this way?"

Stray shots became as much a concern as the monster.  They looked back.  Had the beast in the Kiltik raised itself out of the river, the men in camp would have seen it over the short trees, but the brow of the low ridge showed scrub grass and sky.  Nothing else.

Working the bolt, Hart reloaded his Remington and nudged Cumiskey with the stock.

Reluctantly, Cumiskey hefted his Springfield rifle and followed.

The shooting ahead had stopped.  So had the screams.  In his mind's eye Hart saw the horror show beyond the thin screen of trees.  The camp in shambles.  Men injured and shouting.  What could be the cause?  Had the river beast circled round them?

They smelled smoke.  Invisible but potent.  Otherwise, all was green.  Evergreen and more.  One did not expect so much green this far north.  A strange misrepresentation.  Even the beast matched Hart's preconceptions better.  It was huge.  Brown.  Wild.  A killer.

"Oh Christ, I can't...."  Cumiskey stopped, then began to pull back.  "I can't...."

"Don't make me go by myself."  Hart found it difficult to talk.

"I can't...."

Cumiskey was still back-peddling when one of the larger trees came to life.  He had no idea what was happening before his head, chest and torso were engulfed in an enormous maw.  His feet kicked up, whisking the grass briefly before a smaller version of the creature in the river lifted him off the ground.

Hart stood in shocked immobility.  A scream froze in his throat, like a seal trapped in ice.

A slight flick... and Cumiskey was gone.

The monster's body had been hidden in a hollow behind a clutch of saplings.  Trees snapped sideways and the ground shivered as it hopped up in front of Hart.  The lieutenant had a clear look at its strong forward limbs.  They were not legs.  They were diamond-shaped.

There was a loud report and Hart's arms jerked as his gun leaped out of his hands.  Reflexively, he'd pulled the trigger.  He'd been holding the rifle waist high, pointed at the monster, but he did not wait to see if he'd scored a hit.

Bolting through the woods, he'd gone about a hundred yards when he burst into the remains of the camp.

Smoke came from the half dozen tents set up the night before.  The camp stoves had been tipped over, their fires touching off the tents, which had been waterproofed with paraffin.  Highly flammable, they went up like Election Day bonfires.

The fires obviously bothered the creature in the middle of the camp.

It was surrounded by the mangled remains of Lieutenant Hart's little troop and it did not look as if anyone had survived.  Shreds of khaki mixed with tattered flesh.

The creature spotted him.  It was another small copy of the river beast--still, far larger than the largest bull elephant.  Apparently, the only things that kept it from charging were the paraffin-fed fires.  It snapped at them, twisting in a circle with snarling whines, its sharp snout singed at each approach.  Hart could not see light under its body.  The creature moved with its stomach to the ground like a tremendous seal.  Its narrow neck was incredibly lithe.  It seemed to be trying to pick up the fire so it could set it aside.

"My men... my men," Hart thought.  "What will they think of me?"

He ran.

A sound chased him.

"Tooo... nel...."

 

II

 

On the Cliffs of Time

 

The Tu-nel had met many challenges throughout their long history.  Older than the family of sharks and the venerable turtles, they had sniffed the fetid breath of extinction more than once....

 

The last man alive, other than Hart himself, lay hurt and terrified.  Both of his legs were crushed and he was quickly descending into shock.

There had been eighteen men in the camp when the two beasts burst into the clearing.  The men were presented briefly with the chance to run, but they did not use their opportunity soon enough.  They were stupefied by the beasts, yet on first glance it appeared the creatures were too large and cumbersome for rapid movement.

A fallacy quickly and lethally disproved.  The Tu-nel dropped to their stomachs, folded back their front paddles and dug their rear limbs into the ground.  Large chunks of dirt and grass were thrown back as they thrust themselves forward.

The soldiers managed to fire a few shots--to no effect.  Most of them were crushed in their tents.  Others were trampled in the open as they tried to make a stand or attempted to run.  A few were caught in huge jaws as the Tu-nel flashed their necks like scythes across the campground.  The annoying yapping of the dogs was hushed with the flick of a stubby tail, leaving a heap of fur and jutting bones.  The struts of Lieutenant Hart's bidarki snapped wickedly as one of the creatures whipped around to chase two men running for the woods.  It flattened one man at the fringe, then followed the other into the trees.

Through his agony, the soldier with the crushed legs had a blurred image of animal frolic.  These monsters were playing.

At least, that was the misty impression he had the instant before the beast snapping at the tent fires rolled to one side and finished crushing him.

The two young Tu-nel had been snacking on salmon during their entire trip upriver and they'd eaten their fill.  Rather than making them lethargic, however, all that food fueled a burst of playfulness.  The sounds the men heard the night before and that morning had been made by the mother, still in the river.  Only one of the young Tu-nel belonged to her.  The other, a male, was a tagalong.  The young ones had slipped away from the Kiltik late last evening, chasing each other and knocking about in the trees.  The huge adult found it uncomfortable moving on land, so she sat in the deepest part of the river and called to the errant young ones--who did not respond.

When they spotted the men in Hart's camp, they promptly charged.  It was great sport treading the bipeds underfoot.  They did not make the connection between the soldiers and the tiny wounds caused by their rifle bullets.  Certainly the young male paid no notice, for he already bore deep scars on his right flank--inflicted by the mother Tu-nel when he swam too close during their first encounter.  Next to that, the .30 caliber bullets slapping into his chest were hardly noticeable.

The burning tents were another matter.  The young male had never encountered fire before.  When he ducked his head into the fire, the sensation was more peculiar than painful and he snapped at the flames again and again, mystified as to why he could not move them out of the way.

Once the fires died down, however, the male forgot the strange phenomena and rushed into the woods to find the young female.  He discovered her rubbing the length of her body against some trees.  This action perplexed the male.  The female hissed, rolled to her other side, and began rocking back and forth.  Trees snapped and fell under her weight.  She moved to the next rank of spruce and repeated the sequence.

The male sniffed and lifted its head above the trees.  In the early morning sunlight his skin took on an olive-gold tinge.

Unlike the ancient reptiles that they superficially resembled, Tu-nel had prominent follicles of nasal hair.  When the young male caught a whiff of smoke from the camp, his nose was tickled and he sneezed, revealing his teeth.  Tu-nel teeth were long, sharp as coral, and socketed.  They could slice through the thick shell of a giant marine turtle as easily as a boy bites into a cupcake.

A series of loud cracks and another line of trees went down under the female.  As the male lowered himself, he brushed against some spruce boughs and a peculiar tingle shot through him.  He lifted himself again and came down on the trees in front of him, his skin rasping against the rough network of limbs.  The tingle was multiplied a thousand times.

More trees were felled as the male repeated the procedure.  He began to emit little grunts of pleasure as he learned more and more about the art of scratching himself.  Resting his chin against the crown of a tree, he slowly moved outward, laying himself and the spruce down in one long sliding motion as the branches scratched neck, body, cloaca and tail.

Within an hour, the two young Tu-nel flattened nearly three acres.

"Tooo... nel...."

All morning long the female had ignored her mother's calls and, now that her thick skin was satiated, she began loping towards the river.  Unwilling to be left alone, the male followed.  On reaching the crest of the shallow slope where Hart and Cumiskey had lain, they fell to their stomachs and slid down, kicking out like otters on a mud slide.  They plunged into the water and darted to the adult.  She greeted the young female with a snort.

The male was still excited from the morning's play, but he swam too close and his enthusiasm was rewarded with a sharp tail-slap from the mother.  He fell behind the females and sulked, but things had improved  At least now when he approached the mother did not try to tear out his throat.

This trip on the Kiltik had been special to the young ones.  The fresh water felt strange and clean on their skin.  But the Tu-nel rarely went upriver anymore and the mother was feeling confined by the shallows.

It had been an unintended journey, the result of a combination of misfortunes and one more consequence of the noise.

After one hundred and thirty-five million years and untold tribulations, the Tu-nel had met their match.  It was not something they could touch or smell.  It was not something they could fight.

It was the Age of Steam.

The ocean had always been a noisy place.  For one thing, it held the world's largest collection of ill-bred diners.  Fish could be stupendously noisy eaters.  Some made feeding sounds that would have reminded a man of a sawmill, and the mammals who shared the seas with them were no less indelicate.  Gray whales plowed up large swatches of seabed while tearing through the tiny sand-tube houses of the shrimp-like creatures they preyed upon, making the ocean thud with avalanche sounds.

And the songbook of the fish was endless.  The drumfish
Baridiella
drummed with its swim bladder.  The croaker
Micropogon
made frog sounds and peculiar snare-drum rolls.  Leaning backward, sea horses joined the two bony projections at the back of their skulls and snap-snap-snapped.

The fish had an infinite number of ways to create snorts, clacks, claps, ticks, squeaks, moans, tones, and groans.  Percussive effects could be produced by hitting the ocean floor, each other, or themselves.  Many fish sported sonic muscles.  By burping gas from their swim bladders into their foreguts, such as the toadfish did, they could peep and burble to their hearts' content.  Pufferfish ground their pharyngeal teeth as though they were undersea hurdy-gurdies.  All to the accompaniment of crustacean castanets.

Then there was whale song.

There was a time when the singing whales rang the globe with their symphonies.  Some could make themselves heard on the other side of the planet, setting up vibrations in the water to carry their news and intent.  Those not graced with such talent could at least pass important messages along.  All the whales in the world were in-the-know.  Yet now, while it was a news service not yet matched by man, man had effectively scotched it.  Because man had set upon the great currents engines which disrupted their long-distance communications.

The Tu-nel also had girdled the planet with their songs.  One hundred and thirty-five million years of evolution had given them a matchless repertoire.  Their most common transmission, "tooo-nel," was fraught with nuances and meanings, which were taught slowly and patiently to all young Tu-nel.  Their long necks and lateral temporal vacuities formed, in effect, magnificent Alpine horns.  On land this instrument was fed directly from the lungs, but underwater the Tu-nel first transferred air to a special compression chamber near the base of the neck, circulating it for song while losing a minimal amount of oxygen.  A glottal cavity was responsible for the hollow double-vowel sound preceding Tu-nel songs and all but erased the subtle consonant at the beginning.  In ages past, under the right conditions, they could make themselves heard from sea to sea.

No more.

Disastrously for the Tu-nel, steam engines intruded directly upon the frequency of their songs.  Even a small auxiliary engine could deafen them.  The roar and ratchets did not hurt their sensitive ears.  It was the sudden isolation that threw them into turmoil.  They were accustomed to the constant hum and jump of sea music.  The songs had provided them with consolation and news.  A song could be a night cry or joyous birth.  Songs told them where the food was, the best weather was, the enemy was.  And now they were gone.

Had they roamed in herds, the result would not have been so catastrophic, but the Tu-nel gathered in large groups only during the mating season.  Every year they gathered around a few inconspicuous islands in the Aleutians.  As they drew closer, the sounds of the engines grew less intrusive and they could hear each other with relative clarity.  This was absolutely necessary, because the Tu-nel were always voracious and the surrounding sea was heavily depopulated during their gatherings.  Battling males and choiring females worked up ferocious appetites.  They had to stay in constant contact with the scouts who patrolled the outlying areas.  On receiving a signal, a temporary truce would be sounded and the combatants would race out to the food the scouts had located.  Once fed, the male rivals returned to the deadly scrimmage, while females violently jostled each other as they orbited the arena, determining status in their own particular pecking order.  The scouts, old bulls who had given up the mating battles, resumed their vigil.

BOOK: At the Midway
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