by Miriam English
Pet pointed to a light streaking across the night sky. "Look! A meteor." She didn't actually use the word "meteor" because she had lost her real parents when she was very young and didn't know much of her human language. She used the equivalent word from Mother's language. Mother had rescued and raised her.
Pet was human, in her twenties, had smooth, brown skin, and long, curly, black hair. Mother was a native of this planet and looked like a woolly mammoth — she was almost that big and had a long, thick, shaggy coat like one, but her enormous round head had a meditative, contented face like a sloth's.
Each evening Mother and Pet lay together here on this flat rock overlooking the valley to watch and listen. This world had no moons or lights from technological civilisation so night was always dark. Tonight there were no clouds so the stars were especially sharp and beautiful. But without clouds the night was colder than usual. Pet pulled Mother's shaggy gray hair around her for warmth and snuggled closer in beside Mother's neck. She felt, rather than heard, the very low sounds Mother would call out, talking with others of her kind beyond the valley, even beyond the horizon. Low frequency sounds can easily travel for great distances. Mother's people lived sparsely on their world, yet all remained in constant contact through their infrasonic, rumbling conversations, passing messages on, from one to the other in a huge planet-wide network. Mother would then translate the conversations for Pet into sounds audible to human ears. Mostly Pet and Mother used Mother's language when talking to each other, but when a human word would suit they used it. Mother intentionally continued to use what little human speech she could, in case humans visited this world again; her hope was that Pet would be able to talk to them and rejoin her people.
Mother told her what she was hearing from others. It wasn't a meteor. It was a spaceship and it had landed near the remains of the colony Pet's people had built all those years ago.
Pet stood excitedly, "My people?"
Mother slowly stood also, "No. Sorry little Pet. We must go to the cave. They are Hunters."
Pet's stomach suddenly felt hollow. She whispered, "Here again." She clenched her fists.
"Come little Pet. It is not safe here."
They moved as quickly as possible, Pet running ahead and Mother ambling on all fours. They went around the side of the hill, under the great fern-like trees to Mother's cave. The entrance was obscured by giant mosses and ferny plants, and they pushed their way past the damp vegetation into the dry and relatively warm cave interior. There were no lights or furnishings. Mother could always see well enough by the feeble infrared light of her own body heat leaking through her thick coat, but Pet radiated so much heat she lit the cave like a lantern. Pet, of course, being human, was quite blind in the cave, but had perfected the skill of clapping her hands and judging distance by the echo. She'd spent every night for most of her life in here so knew it intimately anyway.
Several hundred years ago this had been a shallow cave, but over time Mother had extended it, as her people have always done, by gradual digging, just a little each night. Some of the mountains were riddled with tunnels, carved out over millions of years. Mother's cave, being relatively new, only extended a short couple of hundred meters, into the mountain and had only the one way in. The single entrance gave it less chance of being found, but meant that if discovered they were trapped. There was no threat to Mother's people native to their planet, but the Hunters had come a few hundred years ago from another world and Mother's people had learned to take precautions against the blood-soaked visits every few decades. The Hunters never stayed for long, and left no colony of their own. They didn't eat those they killed, but slaughtered, mutilated, took trophies, and left again. Killing seemed to be some kind of perverse sport to them.
Pet was pacing back and forth in the dark, her fists clenched, her mind going over these horrible creatures and their return. She was angry and very scared.
Mother said, "Please, Pet. Do not worry. We will be safe here."
"They should not be allowed to do this. How can you just accept it?" She felt tears coming and that annoyed her further. She wiped the tears away angrily.
Mother gave a calming rumble. "We don't believe there is any solution other than letting time run its course. The problem takes care of itself. Those that put great effort into war, that consider soldiers noble, that think force solves problems, that love weapons, they tend to die out by exposing themselves to violence. Those who love peace and are wise enough to prefer nonviolent lives tend to survive in increasing numbers even though some are killed by the mad ones. If the peaceful members of a species are unable to do this, then the species exterminates itself. It is unavoidable."
"But that could take many, many lifetimes!" Pet shouted, her voice loud and echoing in the dark cave.
"Yes. On a small island it happens quickly. On a large continent it is slow. But the situation with the Hunters is different. They have access to other worlds. Their boundaries are less defined. Perhaps the Hunters attacked the landing party of a peaceful spacegoing species and stole their technology. They don't seem to be smart enough or cooperative enough to develop the technology themselves. If so, then the people who accidentally gave the Hunters access to space should have been more careful. It would be best if violent species were confined to their planet until they have either outgrown their violent infancy or destroyed themselves."
"So the Hunters could remain a threat forever?"
"No, there will always be the pressure to become less violent — violence always increases the risk of death to the violent individual. Peace tends to increase the lifespan. So even though the Hunters have escaped the bounds of their planet, the pressure to be peaceful still operates — much reduced, but still there. It could take millions of years, but they will eventually become peaceful or die out."
"Someone should do something about them."
"What can be done?"
"Take their space travel technology from them. Kill them to stop them hurting other peaceful people."
"Willingness to kill is counterproductive. And forcibly exterminating the Hunters eliminates their potential to become a peaceful species."
"I still think someone should do something to stop the Hunters killing."
"The Hunters are doing it. The most violent ones kill themselves, the less violent ones survive better. Patience, little Pet. Interfering just makes things worse, not better. Come, little Pet." She reached out a big leathery paw, pulled Pet to her and wrapped her big, warm, furry arms around her. "Please sleep, small one. We are safe here."
Nestled between Mother's neck and shoulder, with Mother's long fur blanketing her, Pet was warm, but spent a very restless night. She kept thinking she heard the approach of the dreaded Hunters. She was scared and angry. Those monsters had killed her parents, had wiped out the colony, and had murdered countless numbers of Mother's people. They might one day find the homeworld of Pet's people... if they hadn't already. Her thoughts suddenly chilled her. She might be the only one of her kind left anywhere.
Pet feared these creatures terribly, but hated them more. She couldn't stop thinking about the aftermath of previous visits. She and Mother would investigate a suddenly silent friend some valleys away, only to find them gutted and dismembered and missing some toes or teeth taken as trophies. Such events left her trembling with nausea and revulsion. Pet had barely any memories of the extermination of the human colony, but the horror stayed fresh. She could vaguely remember her parents' daily attempts to communicate with enormous, friendly Mother being suddenly interrupted one day by sounds of explosions and cries, and she could remember Mother having tucked her into the warm neck-pouch and ambling as fast as she could into the dark forest, all the while murmuring that she must be calm and quiet, that bad people had hurt her family and wanted to hurt her, that they needed to get away. Pet had been terrified. Now, around twenty years later the fear remained, but anger had grown with it.
Before daylight Pet crept out of the cave and made her way awkwardly in the darkness toward the remains of the human colony, where the Hunters now were.
By the time the sky began to lighten Pet had crossed a valley and a hill. She was about halfway to the site and still had no idea what she going to do. All she knew was that she burned with hatred and desperately wanted to find a way to destroy these vile creatures — to kill as many as she could.
She was about to step out from under the cover of trees to cross a small meadow at the bottom of the valley when she heard the sound of one of the Hunters' small scout flyers approaching. Without thinking she grabbed a pole that was a fallen stick-palm, hefted it and when the scout screamed into view, threw the pole into its jet intake. There was an explosion. Fragments of metal and stick sprayed out, shredding shrubs and small palms. The scout nosedived into the trees behind her and was torn apart. Pet ran to the site of the crash. One of the hunters had been ripped to pieces on impact with a tree. The other was lying broken on the ground, not moving. Pet picked up a sharp stick and moved warily closer. Its four thin legs were crushed and bent askew and the main, flat body was seeping blue liquid where a stick had penetrated between the large, overlapping scales. The creature's eyes were closed. The nasty pincers and thin, soft, short tentacles on either side of its mouth were not moving. She stepped closer and touched it with her stick. An eye fluttered open and stared glassily at her, causing her to step back involuntarily. Then, remembering the murder of her people and many of Mother's people, she growled, stepped forward, and thrust the stick deeply into the creature's eye. The tentacles stiffened, the pincers widened, then both relaxed.
Pet felt sick. Turning away, she continued grimly on her previous path. Once more at the edge of the trees, she looked around in the early dawn light to see if all was clear, scampered across the meadow and began climbing the last hill. She knew that when she reached the top of this hill she would be able to see the Hunters' landing site.
On the crest of the hill she crawled under the cover of some shrubs and lay there watching the encampment below. The Hunters were fast-moving on their four thin legs, and their overlapping plates of armour made them seem safe from attack. They carried small catapaults slung under their wide, flat heads. The tentacles near their pincers could reach down, pull the device out to fling a small, explosive ball. The Hunters seemed to be as violent to each other as they were to other creatures. It seemed to make no sense. A couple of times she had seen fights break out among the creatures. Others would form a circle around the opponents. In the first fight she saw, one of the fighters had quickly killed the other by jumping on its back and, gripping the other's head in its pincers, gradually tore the other's head off. On the other occasion the "winner" bit its opponent's legs off before standing on it and sinking its long, curved pincers neatly into the other's head. The several onlookers stepped back a few paces and used their little tentacles with their catapaults to pelt small explosive balls at the victor, blowing bits of the creature all over the area. The group then dispersed as if nothing had happened. Pet watched, thoroughly revolted. These creatures were insane.
After a couple of hours of watching, she got a shock when her foot was grabbed. Before she could react Mother dragged her backwards away from the edge of the hill, lifted her by her foot and stuffed her into the pouch under her enormous, round head, then hurried back down the hill, away from the Hunters' site. When Pet started to protest, she was told to be quiet. Noise risked them both being killed.
When they were far enough away to be able to talk quietly, but without slowing, Mother told Pet how disappointed she was in her.
Pet said angrily, "I want to make them pay for what they did to my people and yours. I was looking for a way to attack them."
"I thought you had a good mind. I now doubt that. I saw what you did to the creatures on the scout craft."
"They deserved it."
"You do not understand what you have done. You have given the Hunters what they love most. Have you realised yet what they do? Killing is valued highly by them. By killing two of their people you are now a prized catch. You have condemned many of my people to death because the Hunters will put much more effort into killing anything in this area in an attempt to find the prize. You have not slowed or discouraged them; you have renewed their interest in killing my people."
With a shock, Pet understood. Her heart sank. "I'm sorry Mother." She jumped out of the pouch, stumbled from Mother's forward motion then started to run back the way they'd come, but Mother reached out with a back paw and tripped Pet over. Before Pet could scramble to her feet again Mother had turned and gripped one of Pet's arms firmly in her big leathery paws. Pet protested, "Let me go. If I let myself be caught by them they won't be so interested in killing your people."
"Your death is not a solution. I've already warned my people. We will hide until the Hunters leave. Stop being a danger to both of us. Come now."
Pet sighed and climbed back into the pouch and Mother resumed her run through the forest, pausing a few times along the way to take cover under fern trees when a scout craft shot overhead.
After some hours of traveling this way they came to the crest of a high rocky hill, the top of which was a great heap of giant boulders. It was almost devoid of vegetation. Mother's pace slowed, having to wend her way between the enormous rocks. Finally she stopped at a massive boulder that sat on three others. There was a space between the great boulder above and a gigantic flat rock beneath — enough space for mother to crawl in on her belly. The other side of this shelter looked out high over the steep hillside they'd just ascended.
Pet left Mother's pouch and took in the vast panorama. "Why have we come here?"
"We would not be safe at our cave. A line drawn from the Hunters' landing site to the wrecked scout ship points straight to it."
Pet's face reddened. "I'm sorry," she said meekly.
Mother grunted. "There is a larger cave behind us hidden under the boulders. We will sleep there at night, and during the day we can come out here and watch the Hunters and warn my people."
In the misty blue distance Pet could see the Hunters' landing ship. Suddenly she saw a flash and a cloud appear on a far hill and some little while later a muffled boom. Several minutes later another flash and smoke in a valley, then another delayed boom.
With a feeling of forboding, Pet asked what they were.
"The Hunters are finding and killing my people."
Pet moaned. She pressed her knuckles into her face and whispered, "My fault."
Mother said softly in her deep rumbling voice, "All we can do is wait."
Pet said bitterly, "I wish they could all be destroyed. Bloodthirsty people like them don't deserve to live. The world would be a better place without them."
"Oh, little pet. If that was so then I would not be here and neither would you. Your temper and thirst for revenge shows your species is still immature and violent. A hundred million years ago, in my people's infancy, we were ferocious and loved to fight. If we had been exterminated at that time we would never have become a people who love peace, knowledge, and wisdom. We came close to destroying ourselves many times before we learned the lesson: anger, hurting others, destruction... these are never the solution to anything; they are actually the problem."