Last of the Great White Hunters
The mutant wastewilds of what used to be called Australia can be harsh on a man. The sun is ruthless and the atomically revivified vegetation not passive. The shortest of treks across an expanse of coilbush and suckweed is as tiring as it is disconcerting.
Jon Gustafson thought of himself as the last of the Great White Hunters, though he'd long ago turned brown and leathery from constant exposure to the elements. He flexed his hardship-seasoned muscles, feeling the dull, weary ache and wondering how sore his younger, greener companions must feel by now. Hateach them to doubt his abilities as wasteland expedition guide!
A ropy snake of suckweed clopped onto the juncture of his white expedition pants and tractor-tread boots. Gustafson severed it with a single stroke of his machete and hacked the fuzzy green stem to bits before it could hit the ground. Denied fluid pressure from the severed stem, the weed's hollow vegetable teeth went flaccid and its "head" fell to the ground.
There was a gasp from behind him, and a rustling in the coilbush ahead.
Alert! Gustafson cursed silently for allowing macho to cloud his concentration. Someone else had heard the noise first. For a man at one with the waste wildsthis he claimedsuch a mistake was dishonor. He set the machete next to his right foot, dropped to his left knee and unslung his M-14 in a single fluid motion. And allowed himself the short wash of pride that years of soldiering had instilled in him.
But the thing that emerged from the bush startled him, by its size and its idiot lack of fear. It came straight for him! Gustafson fired a short burst, riddling the creature with some thirty rounds in five seconds. It dropped like any creature will with gaping ventilation where its heart should be.
"My God! He shot it!"
That was the gasper again. Gustafson recognized him this times Fahnestalk, the expedition's most junior (and most obnoxious) member. The kid was haggard and still peeling from his first prolonged exposure to the sun, but he had mustered enough strength to be righteously indignant.
"You killed it!"
"Shut up!" Gustafson told him through clenched teeth. "It would have killed us."
By now the party had slogged through the over-underbrush and stood around the kill in a curious circle. The thing was of indeterminate sex and the size of a man. Its claws were as long as the last joint on a man's finger. Gustafson sighed and justified his overquick reaction to himself. The monster could have been dangerous! Yet, with a pool of dark blood welling on its furry brown abdomen, it looked less formidable.
So what the hell was it?
"A wombat," announced the walking encyclopedia, Fahnestalk. "Native to these parts in pre-blast days. Apparently still."
Gustafson's brow knitted. "A what?"
Fahnestalk grimaced with the impatience of youth.
"Phascolomys Mutaetu Vombach, New Order Latin. Marsupial mammal of the opossum family. Used to be the size of a badger," he chuckled. "Looks like they grew a bit after the Big Bang."
His features hardened again. "Why'd you kill it?"
"Don't be naive," Gustafson said disdainfully. "We're here to hunt, not collect zoo specimens. The hole can be patched and the mutie stuffed. Look nice and threatening in your living room, huh?"
Fahnestalk made a face.
Dominant again, Gustafson turned his attention. to the rest of the hunting party. "I know a few things. Marsupial means that the mother carries her young in a pouch, like a kangaroo. If that's a mother, then there's a baby vombach out there somewhere. Start looking!"
The men fanned out reluctantly. Fahnestalk knelt to examine the body closely. "You'd kill the cub, too? That's cruel."
"Cruel: We'll be doing the stupid thing a favor:" Gustafson prodded the body with his machete. "It won't be getting any more of Momma's milk. What... do you want to keep it for a pet?"
"You can't kill the cub," Fahnestalk said in a dull, flat voice. He was trembling and paler than seemed possible with his sun-bake, but Gustafson did not notice.
"Says who? You?"
"You're messing with the new order of things. Old laws don't apply now. The atomic war changed everything. Why, radiation alone..."
Gustafson cut him off. "Old laws always apply, tenderfoot. The Big Bang changed nothing'. 'Survival of the fittest' is the only law here." He checked the M-14's magazine and grinned. "And I am fit! Don't tell me I can't bag the baby!"
"You can't." Fahnestalk stared at the corpse and shook violently. "The pouch is there but not developed yet. You can't kill the baby b-because... this is the baby:"
The Last of the Great White Hunters felt an excruciating squirt of adrenalin constrict his stomach. If that's the kid, then how big is the mother? A terrifying rumble in the earth left no time for consideration. Another: Gustafson braced himself against the shocks and held his weapon ready. Fahnestalk and the others fell to the ground in terror, shaking of their own accord between tremors.
Rrrumble! Glowdirt, suckweed and coilbush rained everywhere as the ground parted and a huge shape rose from the depths of a .dark abyss. It kept rising: ten feet, twenty feet, more. Gustafson's jaw went slack and his M-14 pointed to the ground as the monster's shadow crossed him. With horror, he recognized the fully developed, adult versions of fingertip-sized claws.
Mother? Come for baby? Noooooooo!
The monster covered the distance between them in an instant. Gustafson snapped back to awareness too late: the M-14 was slapped from his grasp before he could bring the barrel back up. A taloned paw pinned his arms to his torso and lifted him toward the furry head. The mouth opened to reveal filmy incisors as big as a man's forearm.
"Shoot the thing, for God's sake, shoot it!" Gustafson screamed.
But his companions did not move. They were frozen with fear. No amount of shouting or pleading could rouse them to action. Worse, his gargantuan captor held him inextricably in her paw and lumbered over to the corpse of her young one. So limp, so bloody, so dead .... Her grip tightened for an awful moment as if she might crush Gustafson like a handful of suckweed, but gradually loosened again.
She began to examine her catch more closely. Gustafson hated the new cooing sounds she made. A fear greater than that of dying had crept into his consciousness. Mother wombat would not kill the Great White Hunter, no.
"Help me, you imbeciles, or I'm done for!"
Fahnestalk broke free of his trance, cognizant at last to the altered situation. He spoke softly as he looked from the dead wombat cub to its very alive mother and her new acquisition.
"Think of it," he said. "A matched set."
As if the words had been a signal, mother wombat pushed the whimpering Gustafson into her pouch and disappeared into the coilbush.
All Rights, including copyright 1980, owned by Jon Gustafson
ABOUT THE STORY
FOREWARD FROM PESFAZINE: Jon Gustafson won and commissioned this tale in August, 1980, as part of an auction to raise money for MosCon 2. The three or four PESFAns who attended its reading (a sidebar to M.J. Engh's elegant, excellent, published work) may remember it. As the high bidder, Jon got to pick a word for its subject (he chose "wombat") and I went from there. Fahnestalk crept in quite by accident. He has told me that I will die if this is ever published. I have heard that the most popular authors are dead, so I figure this is one way to get up on the boards quickly.
In truth, it's a proper lesson in humility that the opportunity to play with Alden Hackmann's hair went for $4.50 and the story went for $3.00!
AFTERWORD: Any resemblance of characters to persons living or dead (or in whatever quasi-dimensional state Jon & Steve currently exist) is purely intentional. Those who know them will recognize hardly a trace of my two friends.
So please don't hit me, okay? Steve Schlich