by Michæl W. Bard
©2009 Michæl W. Bard
A last can clattered to a stop, thunking against the wall. His nostrils were drenched with the stinging of adrenaline, the stench of blood.
The bitterness of death.
With an act of civilized will, he forced down the instincts that urged him to scream over his killto rip and tear into the warm, inviting flesh.
The drenched, night-black panther crouched there, the coons blood all over his fangs, his claws. The blood staining his uniform crimson. Looking around, his shoed paws sliding a bit in the blood and gore, he felt his eyes pulled to the blinking light of the security camera. He yowled, terror washing over him. They saw it all. They knew. Already the alarm was out, the police were coming for him, were calling his parents. Hed given in to his instincts, hed murdered, and they would take him away to the Lunarian mines. Tears filled his eyes.
What was he going to do? What?
The smell of rich hot meat drenched his nostrils.
Pushing himself upward, his claws thick with the stain of death, lifeblood oozing between his fingers, he whimpered. What could he do?
He had to run, to hide. Get away, far away. Far away where theyd never find him. Far away where millions of years of instincts couldnt betray him.
Ignoring the ruined shop around him. Ignoring the discarded and illegal energy weapon hed kicked away that had knocked over a pile of cans. Ignoring the burn mark on the plastic display behind the counter. Ignoring it all, he fled.
Behind him, beneath him, were the bloody shoe prints of a brutal killer. Around him echoed the slap-slap-slap of his rubber soles, the corridor dim and dark even to his eyes. He couldnt go home, the outpost was small; everybody knew everybody. Hed even known the coon, though not well. Nikoleek His parents had warned him, told him that Nikoleek was a bad one. He remembered the rumors whispered in class, about drugs, about the coon getting into Squirrel Dusteverybody knew, and yet Nikoleek had never been caught.
And now Nikoleek was dead. Murdered at his hand. Meat on theno! He was, he had been, a sentient!
Still Grrulthran ran, his breath gasping in and out through his bloody muzzle, the taste of Nikoleeks life still on his tongue, bloody and curdled. Grrulthran had been so proud, hired for the night shift on the outposts only general store. An important job, being there to serve and help those who needed some canned meat (certified non-sentient), a chip, a late night book to curl up with. Something he could do through the darkness during school vacation, something that gave him money to treat his friends to pizza
A job that had unshackled the monster roaring inside him. Let it out to slice and kill.
He staggered, gasping for breath, into the airlock. The nearest one, nearest to the shop, nearest to his home. His home where, even now, the police were gathering, his parents cursing his name. Using his palm print, leaving bloody stains behind, the heavy outer door slowly ground open. He stepped into the suit storage. Certainly not the emergency suitsevery house had those in case of a blowout, loosely form-fitting tough plastic sacks that kept one alive as their beacon beeped and the wearer waited for rescue, or for pressure to be restored. Hed hated the endless drills, getting into the heavy, hot, sticky, stinking material. Fighting his instincts that screamed for him to escape the tiny enclosed space. But, afterward, the family cuddle, the mutual licking and grooming
Blinking back tears, Grrulthran found his personal exterior suit as the heavy door closed with a final clunk. The suit was new, a gift for his last birthday after hed reached his full growth. An adult suit, with radio, oxygen recycling system, insulated boots, full tools and navigation uplinks. Itd even been built by the same manufacturer who supplied suits to The Patrol. Grrulthran had dreamed of joining, had just finished writing the entrance examinations
but now? Theyd kill him on sight. Or drag him away to mine in the bowels of Luna. There to pay his debt to society, there to pay for his air and water in finding ice and precious ores down through cracks too thin and twisty for machines to safely work in. Down where tunneling through the bitter rock could open cracks to the surface
Hed go willinglyit was the least he deservedbut for the unbearable shame that would bring to his family.
The family hed never see again.
Even through his shuddering mouth, through his tear-blinded eyes, he went through the checklist by feel and long practice. He slipped out of his bloody, damning clothes, and slipped the protective plastic covers over his toes. After all, the last thing anybody wanted was to stretch a foot, and puncture their suit with a razor-sharp
The same razor-sharp claws that had killed.
The suit was drenched in his own familiar scenthis sweat from the times hed used it to explore around the outpost. Its weight was comforting, the material heavy, pulling and clinging to his blood-soaked fur as he shifted and stretched under the material. Gaskets expanded and compressed, constant pressure valves hissed; theyd be needed under the naked stars. Clipping the blood monitor to his ear, pushing the rubber breathing cup against his muzzle, he pulled the helmet off its hook and snugged it around his head, the clear plastic just tickling the tip of his ears. Remembering the first time hed been in a suit, he forced down the claustrophobic feel as the helmet pressed against his whiskers. He was used to the limited view through the front, the view past the controls and dials and monitors all around. Such pride had filled him the first time
Pride he wouldnt deserve ever again.
Green lights blinked on as he switched over to internal life support.
With graceful bounds, his tail wagging in its long gasketed container behind, he moved out towards the actual airlock. For a moment he thought about going home, facing the music. But he couldnt face all the muzzles turning away from him, the cuffs snapping around his wrists as the red-clothed police from Lunar City came to drag him away. He couldnt deal with the scents of hatred and disappointment and, worst of all, the scent of fear.
Soon hed be out on the surface. There he could hide, never to be found. A secret failure whispered about, but never paraded in public.
Grrulthran entered his code. The smaller door slid open and he stepped in, the material of his suit rustling and hissing around him. Inside he closed the inner door, and then opened the middle door. A bit of dust dragged in from outside swirled in clouds around his booted paws. Then it was into the outer lock, closing the middle door. A final check of his suit systems, the deliberate decision to switch off his beacon. Hed only barely stopped himself from logging his excursion as required, entering his planned destination, his estimated time outside. He looked to check his buddy and then he realized that he didnt have a buddy, that hed never have a buddy again. That he didnt deserve to have a buddy.
Had Nikoleek had buddies? Friends?
Tears shuddered through his body again as he keyed the outer door. Pumps clomped away, sucking precious air into storage. He felt his suit tighten around him, the tough material ballooning out as the exterior atmosphere was pulled away. The light changed from blinking red to solid red and Grrulthran was surrounded by vacuum. The outer door slid open; some dust was pushed away, slowly falling back to the floor in graceful parabolic arcs undisturbed by air movement. Outside it was dark, black except for the lights that marked the airlock clearly and brightly for anybody who might need it.
And then he was off, making the graceful bounds that were the best way to move through the lunar gravity, arcing through the vacuum, landing with long-practiced ease in a puff of dust, and then bounding upward again It didnt take him long to get out of the crater walls earth-shadow, out of the blinding lights illuminating the airlock, out to where he could see Terra looming above him, glowing softly and radiantly in blue and green and brown and white. He stopped, eyes looking up at its boundless beauty. It hung over him, impossibly full of bustling billions, ensheathed in satellites and ships and crowded with happy sentients. Safe beneath the orbiting bombs that The Patrol would never use.
Once hed dreamed of visiting it. Hed spent hours in the gym, weekend trips to Lunar City to build up his muscles flying in the vast air storage caves
All wasted now that he was damned. A killer. A slave to his instincts, throwing away all the rules of civilized behavior. An ultravore, a sentient that ate sentients.
With an effort, he tore his eyes away and resumed bounding through the dust, leaving new paw prints to cover the old, not thinking that he could be tracked. Just wanting to get away, to flee his crime, to die in peace, to atone for his sins without the shame a trial and sentence would bring.
For what seemed like hours, he bounded through the dust, the only scent in his nostrils his own fear. At first hed headed out into the crater, puffing through the thick dust, but then a bit of sanity took hold and he turned. He could see his footprints behind him, a trail leading any pursuers to find the damned; theyd parade him before his hating family, making sure everybody knew what hed done, so that his family would be unable to hide the shame from all the sentients through the system. Grrulthran didnt deserve to livebut then, neither did his family deserve any portion of his shame. Hed committed the crime, not them. It was he who deserved the punishment, the shame.
The shadows of the crater wall werent far. He switched on the lights secured to his helmet, illuminating his path with brilliant beams of searing white. They touched the cragged rock of the wall, jigging into cracks, racing over shards of fallen and shattered stone. He had to slow, to move carefully, slowly climbing up and up along the naked fragments of rock so much bigger than he, deep into the twisted depths of the cliff. Once hed read speculation that something must have impacted here long ago, shattering the crater wall into shards, leaving a new crater miles across, covered in broken remnants of rock. A torturous no-sentients-land of blind canyons, cracks that led nowhere, caves that twisted and drove into the canted granite. Even though it was more dangerous, he stayed on the rocks, off of the dust-tickled floor where hed leave a trail.
Hed go as far as he could, go to a place where nobody would ever find him. There hed crack his helmet, pay for his sin, and hide the shame from his family and friends.
He moved deeper
Grrulthran. Do you read, Grrurlthran? Please respond! The voice hissed through his headphoneshed never turned the radio off, never thought to. With shaking fingers, he disabled the transmitter. His hand paused, hesitated over the other switch, but then retreated, leaving the receiver set to the common frequency. Maybe it would give him some clues to stay ahead of those hunting him. He wasnt worried about reception amongst the rocks; in fact, he depended on it. The signals were relayed to one of the lunasynchronous satellites, and then broadcast downward in a wide beam, to ensure success in almost any terrain. His helmet antenna was designed for maximum vertical signal strength.
A different voice this time, more a mutter or whisper than a proper call. Well never find him. And did you see what happened?
Grrulthran cringed and moved faster, ignoring the risk. He had to find someplace hed never be found.
Rescue is online. Well get there once you find him.
Then the first voice again. Acknowledged. Stay in the hopper. Hopefully you wont be needed.
A new voice. Satellite surveillance lost him in the rocks. Setting the system to scan for reflective flashes. Were checking the historymaybe we can plot a course.
A stronger voice a deep voice. His fathers voice. Son, you dont need to run.
His fathermemories of the scent of their love flooded his mind. He shoved them away to concentrate. Tears blinded Grrulthran and he stumbled, sliding and skidding down the canted surface of a shard into the darkness. Scrabbling at the rough and craggy surface, claws pressing against the plastic covers, he grabbed an outcropping and stopped his slide, paws skidding on the rock.
Why was his father here?
Son, we still love you. Come home, alls forgiven.
Even though nobody could hear him, Grrulthran howled out a reply: I killed! I killed! My instinctsforget me He stopped sliding, and sobbed. Just forget me
Mr. Shangur, I dont think your voice is going to help. It was the first voice. Everybody switch to frequency C. Let me talk.
Acknowledgements chorused as Grrulthrans headphones fell silent, except for the hiss and crackle of uncaring stellar radiation.
Sipping some water into his parched muzzle, Grrulthran tasted the bitter iron of the blood hed swallowed when he ripped out Nikoleeks throat. His stomach clenched, hungry, needing. His mind screamed, he almost vomited the liquid back up, but that would foul the breathing cup over the tip of his muzzle and nose. Something that would kill him. Pulling himself back to his paws, he moved deeper into the tangled maze of rock, seeking silence where he could meet his judgment in oblivion.
Grrulthran. I know youre receiving.
How could he know that? Grrulthran leapt to another rock.
Grrulthran, nobody blames you. Its all on tape.
His shame certainly was.
Nikoleek was the one who attacked. He was high, he was the one who drew the laser pistol. He fired to kill you and
No, I killed him! My instincts killed him!
Im not sure why you arent deadbut you had no choice. It was just self defense. Theres
Lies, all lies! You just want to make an example of me! Grrulthran bounded from rock to rock, not even caring anymore about the risks. Not noticing that he was talking when no one could hear. He just wanted to get away from the voice that was mocking himthe voice that was luring him out to blacklist his family.
No judge in the system will convict you. Just come home. Lets talk
A new voice, faint, distorted. Weve mapped a possible path. Best guess co-ords
No! Why couldnt they let him die with honor?
He landedand this rock tilted, his weight disturbing its eons-old balance. With a grumble he felt in his bones, the mass slid, grinding and rumbling as it gathered speed in graceful slowness in Lunas 1/6 G. Grrulthran was swept along with it, scrabbling for some kind of grip, the tough soles of his boots sliding and skidding on the slick surface that shifted and rattled beneath him.
Screaming, he rode the chaotic mass faster and faster into the depths.
The rasp of his breath.
The beeping of an alarm.
The glaring crimson of dials warning of systems failure. He checked: His primary life support was still fine. He was breathing easily.
And then the pain hit. It tore though him, ripped out his heart, dragged screams from his lungs as his left leg burned. Some part of his training took hold and he gulped as many pain pills as he could suck into his muzzle and swallow. The pain faded to a red hot throbbing, but at least he could think.
Drills and practices burbled in his mind. Trained reflexes took over; he gasped for breath, but the air was still cool and fresh, thank the Maker. With one hand he reached for the emergency beacon toggle on his chest
Wait. Why did he want to be rescued? Hed attained his goals. Lost, almost certain never to be found. Trying to move again, the pain shoved its way through him, and he stopped. One of his helmet lights was dead, but with the illumination from the other he turned his head and looked down at his left leg
For a second he couldnt breathe.
There he could see the naked black furhis naked black furilluminated in the harsh halogen, with torn and ripped suit material around it. For a moment he watched blood ooze out and bubble as it vaporized into the vacuum. He heard rocks scrape against each other as he shifted his tail into a more comfortable position. It helped a little, but he could feel the icy cold of ages sucking at his back and legs where they pressed against the ancient granite.
With a sizzle of shorting circuits, his remaining helmet lamp burst into eye-searing brightness for a moment before going dark. His eyes blinked at the dots as they faded, leaving nothing but inky blackness.
They recovered and he could see the dimly glowing dials. The important dials. His oxygen supply was goodno leaks. Blood oxygen level was in the green. Suit power was gone, something must have shorted out. All that meant was that hed freeze before he suffocated. Unless he died of blood loss first Somebody once told him what to do, but for the life of him, he couldnt remember which threat was the most dangerous.
Did it really matter, though? Hed escaped. Or had he?
Hed fallen. As far as he could recall from the brief time hed had to look around, he could have gotten back to the surface, back into line-of-sight, if not for his leg.
And that meant they could still clamber down and find him.
He felt shards patter and slide over his good leg.
Safest would be for him to try and collapse what were hopefully unstable rocks on top of him. Bury himself forever. Entomb himself safe from ever being found, from ever forcing shame on his family.
Voice muffled inside the rubber breathing cup, he sobbed. Sobbing and bawling, his body shook, his tears hot and thick in his fur. His faceplate fogged, the dials became dim blurs as his body shook. All the emotion, the fear, the terror, poured out of him, the only witness being the uncaring blackness. He wanted to be hugged, to be held, to be licked like his mother did when hed had a bad day at school. Like she did when he came home shaking with the suppressed effort of overcoming his instincts, of taking what was dished out without reacting. Of always smiling and being pleasant, instead of ripping and tearing like his soul begged him to do so many times.
Great Maker, why him? Why?
He didnt want to die!
And yet he didnt deserve life or did he..?
When it had happened, when he fled, hed been in a state of panic. Fueled by fear and adrenaline. But now, none of that was the case; his mind was reasonably clear. Now, Grrulthran could think about what hed done, and why.
Unfortunately, he couldn't remember what hed done! He remembered Nikoleek coming into the store; the coon pulling a gun out from a jacket pocket; the blood splattered everywhere, and the charred patch on the wall from the guns discharge but there was a blank spot in his memory, a blank spot which obscured his actions.
In the radio messages hed eavesdropped upon, his father had said it was self-defense. Well, it could have been thatby the Maker, how Grrulthran wished it was self-defense!but it could also have been senseless, instinctual death. He just didnt know!
Shivering now, he gasped in the cold oxygen, but it didnt help. It was only delaying the inevitable.
He was just fourteen. He didnt want to die! His body shaking from the cold, he remembered his dreams. A couple of months ago a patrol cadet, a centaur named Kyros Imbreos, had lectured his class. Morals, hed said, are always a personal choice. Each individual sentient chooses what they consider honor, duty, and responsibility. From that, each individual decides what behavior is considered moral. Society sets a certain range that is considered acceptable, but its up to the individual to choose what to believe.
Grrulthrans breathing grew ragged as he sucked at the cold air, oxygen gushing in and out of his cooling body.
So what do I believe?
Whether it was self-defense or brute instinct, hed killed, used his claws and fangs to steal the life of a sentient. To both society, and himself, that was wrong. Period.
Tears froze on his cheekfur.
So, what did that mean? Honor, as his father had beaten into him, was protecting the family name. Duty was to go to society and let them judge him as the rules and laws of society ordained.
His father had taught him family honor, so hed fled.
No, be honest. It was an excuse, one hed clawed at like a falling cub. Hed fled, simple as that. Panicked and fled. That was just wrong, a moral failing.
His duty was obvious, and his honor was to do the right thing. That would protect and enhance the family name more than hiding and fleeing would. Flight was done. Whether hed walk again, he didnt know. If not, it would be a fair price.
He couldnt feel his leg anymore.
So that left responsibility. The highest of the values. Every sentient was responsible for his actions, or so hed read and been taught. Hed slain Nikoleek. No question. But had it been an act of self-defense, which any sentient had a right to, or was it his failure to control his instincts, a moral and psychological failing? Did the distinction matter?
What were the responsibilities of a citizen whod killed, whod violated the rules of society?
That was the important point: Whatever his motivation, whether self-defense or giving in to his instincts, Grrulthran had killed. That act, that violation, was what he was responsible for. And it was his moral responsibility to accept judgment (and punishment, if it came to that) for his actions.
Responsibility. Hands numb, he fumbled on the chest of his suit. There was an emergency beacon there, with its own separate power supply. The beacon should still work. Should
Finding the large switch, he padded at it with unfeeling paws until he felt a sudden movement. Had he turned it on? A regular beeping pinged in his ears. He had.
Be it right or wrong, whether they found him in time or not, hed made his choice.
And the Lunar Mines werent that bad.
He lay there breathing rapidly as his body chilled. Checking his oxygen levels, he realized that they might run out even before he froze. He couldnt move his tail, couldnt feel most of his body. He felt the rubble moving. Was the rock going to bury him completely?
And then he felt hands grasping him under his arms, pulling him back into the earthlight.
Back into a moral civilization. A moral civilization he was ready to face with pride and honor.
He had finally done the right thing.