Science Fiction

The Last Indian War

By Brian Burt
Dec 15, 2018 · 6,346 words · 24 minutes

I was taking Senior photos in the woods when I noticed this little fella staring right at us! Good thing I had my long lens!

Photo by Tina Rataj-Berard via Unsplash.

From the author: Joseph Soaring-Hawk had seen it happen too many times: human colonists destroying an alien race in their haste to grab another planet. This time, he would find a way to stop it... no matter what the cost. (This story won the L.Ron Hubbard Gold Award and was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume VIII.)

The forest wrapped around Joseph Soaring-Hawk like a blanket.  The woodlands of Kelvyn were still alien to him, still bizarre.  Yet the rustle of leaves, the fragrance of vegetation, the spring of living carpet beneath his feet offered familiar comfort.  Corkscrew ferns twisted toward the sky in tightly bunched loops all around him, giant fronds feathering out to catch the orange sunlight.

The corkscrews amazed him.  Each tree was a scale model of the forest, supporting a complete ecosystem within its massive coils.  Unseen creatures whistled and chattered from a thousand leafy hiding places.  He felt in tune with the rhythms of nature here, reconnected to the threads of growth and life woven into the very fabric of his soul.  Eight interminable months trapped in the sterile shell of the Surveyor had almost driven him mad… but the land restored him.

Joseph sat on the base coil of a corkscrew to catch his breath.  He was in better shape than anyone else in the Surveyor’s crew, but the strong gravity of Kelvyn still sapped the strength from his muscles.  He took three swallows from his water pack and watched in fascination as a nearby porcu-pine lured its prey.  A brown flying-lizard not much bigger than a pigeon hovered between the branches, drawn by the aroma of honeysap that oozed from the porcu-pine’s bark.  As soon as the flyzard touched the sticky sap, the branches snapped together, impaling it with a dozen needles.  Nerve venom in the needles quickly paralyzed the tiny creature.

Joseph reckoned it would take less than three hours for the tree to absorb the flyzard’s nutrients.  Skin and bones would drop to the forest floor, where scavengers feasted on the porcu-pine’s leavings.  Nothing wasted.  Nothing killed needlessly.  Nothing consumed to extinction.  Life on Kelvyn was in balance… for the moment.

Joseph shook his head and pushed on.

He came to the glade that marked the boundary of the puffer-owl village.   A mousipede crouched in the grass near the center of the clearing, nibbling on the fruit of a bloodberry bush.  The furry rodent had no idea what a dangerous place it had chosen to dine.  Joseph studied the trees across the glade expectantly. A few minutes passed before the bloated outline of a puffer-owl glided from the upper branches.  It floated across the glade with silent stealth, riding the wind like a feathered zeppelin.

Suddenly it folded its wings and dove straight toward the mousipede.  By the time the little creature sensed the danger, it was too late.  It scurried halfway to the tree line on its dozen stubby legs before the puffer’s talons dug into its back.  It squeaked twice as its captor flipped it and sliced through its tender belly with a scythe-like beak.  There was silence as the puffer fed.

The puffers were the strangest birds Joseph had ever seen. Their round faces, large eyes, and thick bodies reminded him of Terran owls.  They had the same look of dignity and wisdom, but there the similarity ended. The puffers were huge — some as massive as fifty kilograms.  Because of the strong surface gravity of Kelvyn, they could not get off the ground without the buoyancy of their flight bladders.  These inflated with hydrogen extracted from the air when the owls rose, swelling them like balloons.

Like most of Kelvyn’s creatures, they had limbs to spare. A broad pair of forewings and a smaller pair of hindwings controlled their speed and direction of flight.  A third pair of vestigial wings resembled tiny arms.  Two pairs of spindly legs made their ground movements almost crab-like.  Each leg had folds of skin that were used like fins to maneuver in the air.  The puffers swam across the sky rather than flew.  To the rest of the crew, they were ugly as sin.

To Joseph, they were beautiful.

He studied the speckled plumage of the puffer as it fed. A pair of blood-red mogre teeth dangled from its ear-tufts.  He knew this one:  the warrior-chief, the one he called Cochise.  He waited for Cochise to finish, not wanting to interrupt the pleasure of the meal.  When Cochise rose once more into the trees, Joseph slipped across the glade.

As always, the village was silent.  Only the whisper of leaves and the occasional murmur of wings broke the stillness.  He wriggled between the loops of a corkscrew so his presence would not disturb the puffers. The tree coiled above him like a giant serpent.  Far beyond his vision, a clan of puffer-owls had built their living chambers, piling section upon section as family and home grew together, intertwined.  Nearly every corkscrew within four square kilometers housed its own clan.  These woods carried the living heritage of Cochise’s tribe.  Of Shaman’s tribe.

He thought of the bedraggled puffer crouching in the corner of the lab aviary, mangled and dying.  He felt a flash of anger; a pang of guilt.

The tranquility of Kelvyn abruptly exploded with the roar of machinery.  Joseph could not see the creatures hidden behind the leaves, but their terror and confusion buffeted him in waves.  He cursed and squirmed out of his blind, breaking into a run.  Within two hundred meters he was gasping for air, but he did not stop.  He barely missed an outstretched porcu-pine branch as he labored back the way he had come, legs pumping against the iron grip of Kelvyn, black hair dancing in the wind. When he staggered into the clearing near the camp, ten pulverizers were already online, gobbling the forest and turning it to mulch.

Joseph doubled over, sucking oxygen as fast as his lungs could manage.  He searched the work zone for Angus McIntyre and spotted the crew chief near a field console, poring through schematics with a cluster of foremen.  Joseph started toward them, wincing as a charley horse bunched his quadriceps into knots.  He dragged the leg across the flattened, denuded soil.  Several foremen stopped talking and turned in his direction. McIntyre followed their gaze, stroking a bushy red moustache that burned like fire in the orange light.  Surprise and amusement played across his grizzled face.

“Hawk, you look like twice-baked shit.  Those nature hikes are killing you, lad.  Maybe you should stick around here and suck dust with the rest of us.”

The foremen chuckled as Joseph drew himself up, tried to catch his breath.  “Mac… I told you not to clear any more… until I give you the okay.  This area’s not certified yet, and you know it.  You know the regs.”

McIntyre shook his head.  “I know the regs.  I also know that Corporate is rattlin’ their saber a little louder every day, and it’s not your head’ll be rolling if we fall behind.  Now, Hawk, I know how you feel about the greenery.  I love it, too, much as the next man.  But the fact is, we’ve got to finish the shell structure here and be hyperspatial toward Avalon inside of two months, or it’s my ass.  It may not look like much to you, lad, but it’s the only one I’ve got, and I’m bent on keeping it.”

The foremen howled with laughter as McIntyre bowed, a toothy grin spreading beneath his moustache.  Frustration rose in Joseph like the color in McIntyre’s ruddy face. The man was good-natured and popular, hard to dislike.  But he was wrong this time.  Dead wrong.

“It’s not your ass I’m worried about, Mac.  You can take care of yourself.  The puffer-owls can’t.  You’ve read my reports.  You know damn well we can’t build here!”

The laughter stopped.  “I’ve read your reports, Hawk.  Full of speculation and conjecture, nothing solid.  Nothing worth killing a colony over.”

“Nothing solid!  What about all the video, Mac?  The complex social patterns?  The inside of the clan chambers?  The use of tools?  You’re worried about killing a colony, but I’m worried about killing a species!”

McIntyre shrugged.  “Ants have complex social patterns.  Birds build nests.  Otters and monkeys use tools.  That doesn’t make ‘em sentient, now does it?”

Joseph’s eyes glittered like chips of obsidian.  “Those pulverizers don’t make you sentient either. Every day you gobble up another chunk of their world.  In another week, you’ll swallow Shaman’s entire tribal grounds.  It’s their ancestral land, Mac, and they won’t leave it. Without my authorization, you’ll be guilty of mass murder.”

McIntyre scowled.  “Mass murder, is it?  The same tune you sang five years ago about those hairy little beasties on Rathgar? Well, now, there’s a thrivin’ colony on that planet, and I don’t believe a one of them that built it spent a slim second in lockup.  Couldn’t prove a word of your ravings then either, now could you?”

 “No.  I couldn’t.  It’s hard to prove a race is sentient after it’s extinct.”

Tension swelled between the two men, thick and menacing. No one moved.  Finally McIntyre let out a sigh.  “I meant you no insult, Hawk.  A blind man could see your sincerity.  But I can’t stop this operation on a whim.  I’ll make you a deal.  You bring me proof of what you say, and I’ll stop.  You have my word, lad.”

Joseph studied McIntyre’s face intently.  The foremen shuffled nervously behind them.  “All right, Mac.  I’ll bring you proof.  Then we’ll see if your word means more than that bastard’s on Rathgar.”

He heard the angry muttering as he walked away, but he ignored it.

Joseph barely heard Cal Benton stumble into the lab, so drunk was he with euphoria.

“Hawk, what the hell’s got into you?  I haven’t seen you this happy since they ran Mac’s shorts through the pulverizers.  How come you’re not out in the woods with your little owl buddies?”

Joseph spun from his terminal and flashed a smile at the geologist.  Of all the people aboard the Surveyor, Cal was the only one with whom he felt any kinship.  They were the oddball scientists:  the geo-engineer and the eco-engineer.  Both were SEA independents who cared about more than a paycheck, and that set them apart.

“Cal, my friend, the weather grounded me today, and am I glad it did.  My little owl buddies don’t fly when it’s stormy out.  They’re scared to death of lightning.  They call it ‘fire needles.’”

Cal dropped his load of mineral samples.  “Right, Hawk.  How do you know what they call anything?”

“Shaman told me.”

Cal glanced at the crippled puffer-owl behind the transparent wall of the aviary, luminous eyes studying its captors as if they were the ones in a cage.  When he glanced back, he looked worried.

“Hey, buddy, you been swimming in the booze again?”

Joseph’s laughter rang against the walls, bold and unfettered for the first time since his arrival on Kelvyn.  “I found something better:  the proof Mac asked for.  I found the key to Shaman’s language.”

Cal’s eyes grew wide.  “You mean those critters really can communicate?  No joke?”

 “No joke. I’ve got a whole dialog on disk, just me and my feathered friend.  They can’t stop me now.  I finally get to use the S.P.C. just like it’s supposed to be used!”

Cal beamed back.  “Great, Hawk.  What the hell’s the S.P.C.?”

“Don’t they teach you rock-sniffers anything? ‘Sentient Protection Clause.’  The one rule the SEA got right before they sent us out here.  Any planet with indigenous sentient life is off limits to colonization.  The puffers get to keep their planet… and we get out.”

 “Oh, man… McIntyre’s gonna pitch a fit when you tell him.  And Corporate’s gonna have his balls for breakfast when he tells them!”

“They can castrate whoever they want, but it won’t change the regs.  Corporate’s lawyers know they lose their license to colonize if I prove the violation. They’ll bitch a lot, but they’ll get out.”

Cal shook his head.  “All that work down the chute.  When are you gonna tell McIntyre?”

“I’m on my way now.  Want to come?”

 “Are you kidding?  I wouldn’t miss this for all the platinum on Jarvis III!”

The pulverizers were roaring at full capacity when Joseph and Cal reached the edge of the clearing zone.  It didn’t take long to locate McIntyre, but the noise made it impossible to talk in the open.  The crew chief led them to a nearby foreman’s cube.  As McIntyre shut the door, sonic insulation enveloped them in blessed silence. Cal lowered his hands from his ears and grinned.  “One thing about pulverizer crews — they’re not gonna waste time gabbing.”

McIntyre rubbed his moustache and grinned back.  “You’re dead right, lad.  Nor can I waste time gabbin’ with scientists, so make it quick.”

Joseph held up the disk in his hand.  “You asked for proof that the puffers are intelligent. I’ve got it.  I couldn’t understand the lack of verbal communication in a species so advanced.  I saw them stand around and stare at each other, but they never made a sound.  It occurred to me that they might be talking and I just couldn’t hear.  I programmed the computer to scan the ultrasonic frequencies, and there it was: they have a musical vocabulary, pitched so high that the human ear can’t detect it.  They’re sentient, Mac.”

McIntyre scowled.  “God in Heaven, I knew you’d cook up something like this.  So they talk above the range of human hearing.  How convenient for you, Hawk.  Very creative… but not too believable.”

Joseph dropped the recording disk on the table.  “I’ve got a four-hour conversation with Shaman right there, electronically logged and verified.  Not only are we in danger of destroying these creatures, we’ve already started.  Shaman was the tribe’s high priest, just as I thought from initial observation.  When he saw us drop out of the clouds, he told his tribe we were sacred sky spirits.  After a few weeks with the pulverizers, we’d flattened half their hunting territory and driven most of the game away.  The chief labeled us demons and declared Shaman a false priest.

“In keeping with tribal law, he was banished.  He committed the puffer equivalent of hara-kiri — mutilated his flight bladders with a cured porcu-pine needle.  They left him helpless on the forest floor, unable to fly, easy prey for the first razorbeak or mogre that lumbered by.  He wandered into camp because he hoped he could undo the damage he had caused.  We had caused.  The computer can generate a complete transcript whenever you want.  You can interview Shaman yourself, with the computer as translator.”

“Log entries can be forged, Hawk.  Computers can be reprogrammed.  This entire thing could be your elaborate hoax.”

Joseph’s temper rose like an eagle on the wind.  “That’s bullshit and you know it!  I don’t have the access or the knowledge to mess with Surveyor’s brain.”

McIntyre rolled the hairs of his moustache between his thumb and forefinger.  “I’m not convinced o’ that.  A bright, determined lad like yourself could do most anything if he felt he had no choice.”

“Mac, you gave me your word.  There were a dozen witnesses.”

“I said if you brought me proof.  You’ve brought me nothing.”

“If you don’t stop this now, I’ll transmit all my evidence straight to the Space Exploration Administration.”

McIntyre smiled.  “You do that.  By the time the SEA get off their collective ass, this operation will be long finished and the colony trebled in size.”

Joseph stared at the stocky crew chief, knew with sick certainty that the man would not back down.  He turned to Cal Benton, who could only shrug.  The ghosts of a dead race shrieked in his temples.

“Just like Rathgar.  It’s happening all over again.”

McIntyre put a hand on Joseph’s shoulder.  “There’s nothing you or I can do.  Corporate needs the contract.  I need the job.  And you need to relax.  If you’re right about these beasties, they’re smart enough to go elsewhere.  There’s plenty of planet left for ‘em.”

Joseph slapped the crew chief’s arm aside.  “Not for long.  When we rape a world, it’s never the same again; it dies of shame and misery, then it rots around us until we leave.  That’s not going to happen here!  I swear I’ll find a way to stop you, Mac… and, unlike you, I keep my promises.”

Joseph kicked the door open and left.  The growl of the pulverizers swallowed McIntyre’s curses.

It happened that night for the first time.

One section of the colony structure and three pulverizers were demolished while the crews slept.  When McIntyre arrived at the lab with a pair of security goons, Joseph wasn’t surprised.  Cal Benton had examined the damage and tried to stick up for him.

 “Come on, Mac, you know he didn’t do it.  We don’t even know how it was done!  The stuff is shattered into little pieces, but there’s no burn marks, no trace of explosives.  You think he smashed a titanium shell with his bare hands?”

McIntyre wouldn’t listen.  One look at the man’s eyes told Joseph that evidence was irrelevant. He had threatened to stop the project, and now he was guilty by intent.  McIntyre tugged so hard on his moustache that he nearly pulled it off.

“I should have known better than to trust a man with a sentence for a name.  ‘Joseph Soaring-Hawk-Who-Sees-Far.’  How far do you see, lad?  Far enough to wreck my equipment in the dark o’ night?  Far enough to put the hex on my operation?  Oh yes, that far at least!”

McIntyre converted one of the storage cubes into a makeshift jail.  Joseph went without argument after Cal promised to look after Shaman.  The solitude gave him plenty of time to think. He knew McIntyre wasn’t a wicked man, just frustrated and confused.  To that Joseph could relate.  He was fighting to save a culture, and he was losing.  Soon Shaman’s village would be a memory, and here he sat like a caged animal, cut off from the sweet breath of the land… unable to stop the slaughter of a way of life.

Joseph knew little of his own Cherokee heritage: only scraps culled from thousands of history disks he had searched over the years.  He read of the Busk, the festival celebrating first fruits and new fires, but the words had no flavor.  He read of Sequoya and others who tried to adapt to the white man’s customs, hoping to salvage some shred of their culture.  In the end their efforts bought nothing but blood and suffering along a Trail of Tears.

Tales of broken promises — of broken people — left him hollow inside.  The essence of what the Cherokee had been eluded him, like the dappled outline of a lightning-buck darting through morning mist.  He knew that they respected nature, revered Her.  Some spark of that belief still burned in him. That was all.  His ancestors called to him across the gulf of time, but he could not hear.  He was disconnected from the past.  He did not fit into the future.  He was alone.

He would not let that happen to Shaman!

Cal shamed McIntyre into letting Joseph out the next morning after it happened for the second time.  Two more pulverizers and two shell sections were destroyed during the night.  McIntyre had given Joseph a perfect alibi by locking him in a metal box.  It was hard for a man like Mac to apologize, but he did his best.

“I made a mistake, Hawk, I’ll admit that.  You’re not the one wreakin’ havoc on my operation… though we both know you would if you could.  And since it’s not you that’s wrecking the place, I’ll wager I know who it is.  What it is.  If you have any influence with those fat balloon beasties, you better come with me.”

Joseph took a deep breath as Cal and McIntyre led him outside.  What a relief to see the sky!  The tension in his body unwound as the three of them ambled through the maze of plasteel and titanium toward the far edge of the site.  The roar of the pulverizers swelled, much tamer now that half their number had been reduced to scrap.  As the trio came within sight of the forest, McIntyre began to curse.  The trees and the row of structures nearest to them were blanketed by puffer-owls.  They wheeled overhead, diving and snapping at the crews, filling the air like a plague of feathered locusts.

McIntyre’s face was redder than his hair.  “They’re makin’ a shambles of the entire area! Nipping at the crews, dropping guano like shaggin’ cluster bombs.  We’ve only five pulverizers left as it is, and the lads can’t make any progress with this commotion.  I want them out of here!”

Joseph shook his head.  “You can’t blame them, Mac.  They’re protecting their homes, their families.  You’re only a few hundred meters from their doorstep.”

 “Blessed Christ, Hawk, it’s a big planet!  Tell them to move.  Tell them if they settle elsewhere, we’ll leave ‘em be.  My word on it.”

Joseph’s eyes darkened into midnight.  He couldn’t feel the sun anymore, as if he were standing in his own shadow.  While McIntyre smoldered, he turned to ice.

“I won’t tell them that, Mac.  I won’t lie to them.  It’s their land, and we’re stealing it.  If they go someplace else, we’ll take that too, eventually.”

Joseph had never seen a man any madder than Angus McIntyre.  He looked more like a cornered animal than the puffers that circled above him, singing their silent rage.  “Damn it, Hawk, be realistic!  I know how you feel, but we’ve no choice.  Earth and Mars are choking, smothering under their own weight.  If we don’t spread out, we’ll die!”

“So they die in our place?  Are we that pathetic?  How many species do we eat to stay alive?”

“It doesn’t have to be that way… but if these beasties want a fight, I’ll surely give ‘em one.  They fired the first volley when they wrecked my machines.”

Cal broke in before Joseph could put his anger into words. “Mac, that’s crazy talk. According to you, these things are just dumb animals.  They don’t have any weapons.  They couldn’t do that kind of damage in a hundred years!  Maybe this planet has some weird localized tectonics, some kind of seismic hiccup we haven’t detected yet.  I know you’re frustrated, but give me time to figure this out.”

McIntyre’s eyes were wild, paranoid.  He pulled a laser from his pouch.  “I expected you’d side with him, Benton:  spout some half-baked theories to protect his little pets.  I don’t know how, but these devils are sabotagin’ my operation.  Damned if I’ll stand around and watch ‘em do it!”

McIntyre spun toward the nearest structure, a hexagonal dormitory shell.  Puffer-owls covered every square meter of the roof, a flock of living gargoyles. McIntyre raised his pistol toward them. Before Joseph could react, a rod of light leapt from McIntyre’s hand into the mass of puffers.  At least a score exploded instantly, setting off a grisly chain reaction.  One after another the owls burst into flame, like a line of bloody fireworks.  Flaming gore and blackened feathers filled the air. Survivors climbed frantically above the inferno, but McIntyre kept firing, setting off a dozen smaller explosions. The smell of roasted flesh grew thick enough to make men gag.

Blind with nausea and rage, Joseph launched himself at the wild-eyed crew chief.  They fell to the ground, Joseph clawing for the laser, McIntyre still trying to aim at the retreating puffers.  Something white-hot and primitive flooded Joseph’s veins, chased all reason from his mind.  Again and again he swung his fist at McIntyre’s face.  He heard yelling, but the words meant nothing.  Hands clutched his shoulders.  He shrugged them away, threw another punch.  It took Cal and two burly roustabouts to pull him off.

The roustabouts held Joseph while two others helped McIntyre to his feet.  He still clutched the laser tightly in his hand.  An ugly purple bruise bloomed on one cheek; a split lip bulged beneath the bushy moustache now matted with blood.  McIntyre’s fury was gone, spent.  He forced himself to look at the smoking carnage.

A mogre slipped from the splintered tree line on six powerful legs, drawn into the open by the scent of death.  Its eyes glowed with ravenous malice as it clawed through the blackened corpses.  Massive crocodilian jaws snapped up the tenderest chunks, crushing them to pulp as they vanished into its maw.  Shackled by the roustabouts, Joseph could only shout to drive the demonic creature back into the forest.  Cal mumbled something reassuring beside him in a shaky voice.  Even the hard-bitten crewmen looked dazed.  McIntyre’s giddy brogue broke the stillness.

“That did ‘em, lads.  That showed ‘em.  The Fourth of July right here on Kelvyn!”

Joseph tried to pull free, but the roustabouts held him tight. “You son of a bitch.  Their bladders are filled with hydrogen.  You might as well hang blasting gel around their necks!  They never had a chance.”

McIntyre glared back at him.  “Oh, they had a chance.  A chance to move out, go elsewhere.  You wouldn’t offer it.  This is on your head.”

 “That’s bullshit, Mac,” sputtered Cal.  “Heartless bullshit.  What the hell’s gotten into you?”

“A desire to keep my job, and the jobs of all my mates.” McIntyre touched his swollen lip gingerly.  “You pack quite a wallop, Hawk, for a weak-kneed ecologist.  Nice to see you’ve some fight in you after all.”

 “If you want more, there’s plenty left.  Or would you rather just shoot me from a distance?”

A ghost of pity slipped across McIntyre’s face.  “No, Hawk.  Your brain’s a wee bit softer than your heart, but I like you.  I don’t want to hurt you.  I don’t want to hurt any more of those beasties.  If you really can talk to them, tell them to stay away from my equipment and my operation.  You tell ‘em… for their own good.”

 “I’ll tell you, Mac:  it’s a war now.  You ought to think about leaving yourself.”

McIntyre grinned and ordered the crews back to work. Just before the pulverizers roared to life, Joseph heard him laughing.   

The banging on his sleep-cube door didn’t wake Joseph. He had been up most of the night, haunted by ghastly visions of Shaman erupting into flame.  He crawled into his jumpsuit and released the lock.  As the panels slid apart, Cal Benton’s disheveled figure swam out of the orange twilight.  Cal looked as if he hadn’t slept much either.  His straw-blond hair hung in tangled loops.  His eyes were puffy with exhaustion.  And something else:  shock.

“Hawk, you better get over to McIntyre’s quarters right away.  There’s been an accident… a bad one.”

The two men jogged toward the temporary sleep-cubes where McIntyre and most of the foremen bedded down.  By the time they reached the scene, Cal was wheezing like an asthmatic. Joseph could see a large crowd gathered around the crew chief’s quarters.  He soon saw why.  McIntyre’s cube was gone — reduced to a pile of rubble.  Joseph spotted Mac’s deputy chief, Mike Marsalis, and headed for him.

“Mike, what happened?”

Marsalis glared at the two scientists.  “Maybe you should tell me.  The chief’s cube went to pieces last night with him inside.  He’s dead and buried… just a few hours after you told him he oughta haul ass out of here for his own safety.  Seems kinda curious, don’t it?”

 “Look,” said Cal, “a terrible thing’s happened here.  We’re all upset and a little scared.  But you men are professionals.  You know about demolition.  All we’ve got is a pile of fragments and a couple guys who heard a loud crunch, like the cube just collapsed in a microsecond.  What kind of machine could do that?  What kind of explosive could do that without scattering debris in every direction?  You’re an expert, Mike.  You tell me.”

Marsalis looked bewildered.  The buzz of the crowd faded to an uncertain whisper.  “I guess you got a point.  But something did this… and it might do it again.”

Joseph saw his chance.  “You’re right.  Whatever’s going on here, it’s not safe for the crews until we figure it out.  I think you ought to shuttle everybody back up to the Surveyor and stay orbital until we have an answer.”

Marsalis glanced at the ruins of the crew chief’s cubicle, then nodded with obvious relief.  The murmur of approval from the crewmen told Joseph he had won.  These men did not fear anything in the galaxy they could see, but an invisible enemy was too much for them.  They preferred to leave the unknown to the scientists.

“Sounds reasonable, Hawk.  Who do you need to stay?”

“For now, just me and Cal.  He’s got some theories that the geology of this place might be responsible, and I’d like to stick around and give him a hand.  The rest of you should get to safety and let Corporate know what’s going on.  We’ll contact you at least once a day with a progress report… assuming we’re around to give it.”

Marsalis’ eyes widened.  “I’ll start the evac right away.  Shouldn’t take more’n six hours to pull everybody off-planet.  We’ll send supplies down by drone when you need ‘em.” Marsalis grabbed Joseph’s hand. “You’re a brave man, Hawk.  A lot braver than we gave you credit for.”

Joseph and Cal were in the lab four hours later when the last shuttle blasted off for the Surveyor.  They both went outside to watch it disappear into the clouds.  Joseph clapped his partner on the shoulder.

“Good riddance, my friend.  Now we can get to work.”

Cal looked exasperated.  “Between you and me, Hawk, I’m stuck.  I’ve reviewed every scrap of seismic data I have, and there’s just nothing out of the ordinary about this chunk of rock.  I don’t know where else to look.”

“Don’t bother.  I know what happened to the buildings and the machinery.  And Mac.  For all his paranoia, he was right.  No seismic hiccups, Cal; just the puffers.  Did you ever wonder why the mogres stay clear of them?  The mogres can climb.  They could easily break into a clan nursery and swallow a few tasty fledglings.  But they don’t.  They know that the puffers can kill them with a song.”

“Hey, buddy, take it easy.  I know you’ve been under a lot of stress… but you’re losing it.”

“No, I’m not.  The puffers communicate in the ultrasonic range, remember?  Well, there’s something else… something unbelievable. They have this instinctive ability to identify the natural period of vibration of a solid object.  They can sing a note whose frequency just matches that period of vibration.  One puffer alone can’t do much damage, but fifty, a hundred?  A thousand?  They can create enough resonance to shake a thing to pieces.  Even a thing like a pulverizer… or a sleep-cubicle.”

 “Are you telling me… that your owl-buddies murdered Angus McIntyre?”

 “What would you do if somebody tried to wipe out your entire race?  They did what they had to do.  And so will I, Cal.  But I’m going to need your help.”

Cal studied Joseph with a new expression in his eyes: surprise, admiration, a trace of fear. For once, Joseph really had no idea which way Cal would lean.

“So what do I do?”

Joseph sighed.  “You just did it.  I need you to back me.  Feed Marsalis and Corporate enough geological gibberish to keep them away.  That’ll give me time to get my evidence to the SEA, prove that the puffers are sentient.  They’ll have to grant an injunction against colonizing Kelvyn.  Shaman and his tribe will be safe.”

Cal nodded.  “Okay.  Hell, I’ve always wanted to play hero… even if it’s just to a bunch of pudgy birds with thyroid problems.”

 “Well, you won’t have to slay any dragons, just a few pulverizers.  But first we need to spring a prisoner from the dungeon.”

Joseph opened the door of the aviary.  Shaman scuttled out, eyes aglow with gratitude, and raced outside the lab.  Then the crippled puffer-owl spread his speckled wings, inflated, and vanished into the sky.

Joseph smiled, joy burning through some of the exhaustion. The sadness.  The guilt.  “It took a while to figure out his physiology.  Once I did, it was easy to repair the damage.  Come on — let’s follow him.”

Cal appeared to have had all the surprises he could stand for one day.  “Where the hell is he going?”

“Home, Cal.  He’s going home.”

It did not take long to reach Shaman’s village.  Only a thin band of forest separated it from the outer edge of the colony site.  Joseph’s chest tightened when he realized how close the race had been.  He saw the same wonder in Cal Benton’s eyes that he himself had felt when he first walked among the corkscrews.  He liked Cal better all the time.  Maybe if Mac had seen this….

No.  It would have made no difference.

The two men stopped just inside the stand of trees that marked the boundary of the village.  Joseph pointed toward a massive corkscrew straight ahead of them.  The upper coils were covered with puffer-owls of every size and color.

“There.  In the middle.  That’s their chief, Cochise.  Beside him is Shaman.”

“What’s going to happen?  I mean, didn’t they banish him?”

“Yes… but they’ll welcome him back like a god. They have a legend about a warrior who was wrongly accused of cowardice in battle and exiled from the tribe long, long ago.  He crippled himself just as Shaman did, and the tribe considered him dead.  A few days later he returned.  Flying.  Fully healed. They took it as a miracle and made him chief.  The legend says he arranged a lasting peace between the puffer tribes.  Such a thing has never happened since.  Until now.”

Cal chuckled quietly.  “Man, that’s brilliant.  So are we just here as spectators?”

“No.  If we’re going to save the puffers, they have to cooperate.  They have to believe we’re not demons.  Right now, Shaman is telling them that we helped him escape, that we killed the rest of the metal monsters eating their forest.  When he’s done, I’ll prove I’m worthy of their trust.”

The puffer-owl elders rose in unison and glided forward to perch in the trees above them.  Cal rubbed his arm nervously.  “What the hell is this?”

 “Just watch,” hissed Joseph.  “And don’t interfere!”

Joseph bowed to the assemblage, then walked toward a nearby porcu-pine.  He reached into the pouch at his side and withdrew an ornamental knife.  His arm struck out in a blur.  A meter length of branch fell at his feet.  Joseph knelt and grabbed one end, carefully avoiding the needles.  He turned to the puffers and raised it above his head.  Without warning he whipped it down across his legs, driving the needles deep into his thighs before collapsing with a cry.

Cal rushed to his side and carefully pulled the branch loose, cursing softly.  “What kind of a stunt was that, you crazy bastard?”

 “Just… get me out of here.  Please.”

Cal was a slender man, but he managed to sling Joseph over his shoulder and stagger back toward camp.  “Of all the idiotic, brain-dead maneuvers I’ve ever seen, that one gets the blue ribbon.  Decided to cripple yourself just like your little buddy Shaman, huh?  If I’d known what you planned, I never would have let you go back there!”

Joseph’s thoughts floated in a sea of molten agony. “That’s why… I didn’t tell you.  I needed to be there.  And… I needed you.  Put me down.”

Cal sank to the ground in exhaustion, breath coming in strangled gasps, and laid Joseph beside him.  Joseph pulled a vial of medicine from his pouch and drank it.  The fire in his legs faded to glowing embers.

“I helped the puffers defeat my own people, Cal. According to their laws, I’m a traitor. They could never trust me… and, without their trust, I can’t help them.  I had to do my penance.  There was no other way.”

“I don’t believe you, Hawk.  I don’t believe how far you’ll go to save these critters.”

Joseph grimaced.  “You still don’t understand:  I deserved penance.  The puffers collapsed Mac’s cube, but how do you think they knew which one it was?”

Cal stopped huffing.  This time he barely looked surprised.  “Jesus, Hawk.  I’m lucky I’m on your side.  Still, did you have to maim yourself?”

“The porcu-pine venom doesn’t work as well on humans. I’ll hurt like hell for a while, but I’ll recover.  Then I’ll do an encore in the village:  just like Shaman, risen from the dead.  They might not trust an alien traitor, but they’ll trust an alien prophet.”

Cal grinned.  “You’re some piece of work.  You had it all planned out, didn’t you?  I better get you back so we can drug you up good… and so I can jabber some double-talk at Marsalis.  We’ll see this thing through together, buddy, then we’ll get the hell off this rock!”

Joseph nodded as Cal hoisted him, but he did not answer. The pain in his legs paled beside the guilt that burned in him.  Exploding puffers would haunt his dreams no longer.  They had been chased away by a ghoul with hair the color of blood and a moustache of flame.  Spectral eyes blazed at him, accusing.  Damning. He had conspired to murder a man — a man more scared than wicked.  His legs would heal, but this other wound?  He did not know.

Still, beneath the anguish lay a deep, cool well of peace. He glanced back at the green towers of Shaman’s village with immense relief.

This time he had not failed.

Joseph closed his eyes, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of Cal Benton’s strides.  For a moment he was gliding through the ancient forests of America with his ancestors — strong and unbowed — sinews stretching down into the fragrant soil like roots.  He would miss Cal.  He could never explain why he was staying.  Not to protect the puffers.  Not for the sake of science.  After so many lost and empty years, he had found what he was seeking.

Joseph Soaring-Hawk had found his tribe at last.

This story originally appeared in Writers of the Future.