The Bad News Worm Hunt
by David Castlewitz
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Peter pointed first at the snuffling rock hound and then at Jack Cameron, who shouted orders to his lieutenants at one moment and, the next, demanded that everyone get in a single line. Overhead, a four-engine drone hovered. Peter guessed it had been sent ahead earlier. Now it reported something that got Cameron excited.
The line morphed from ragged to straight, extending across the edge of the campsite. Harriet dropped her sack at her feet and kicked it behind her. Peter wanted to pan the scene from out front, but when he stepped out and turned to record, someone pushed him roughly back into place.
The ground vibrated. A cloud of dust rose across the open plain. At both ends of the line, drivers stationed their vehicles: halftracks for hauling tents and supplies, three-wheeler bikes, and open-sided cars used by the staff for transport. Engines rumbled.
“Make some noise,” Cameron shouted, his arms lifting and falling, hands open, as though scooping up the air.
In the distance, within the billowing dust, a dark line emerged. The lone rock hound that had gotten everyone’s attention had disappeared. In its stead, thousands of the longhaired beasts emerged from the dust. They ran with their heads down. Their dull gray fur stood straight up around their necks, like spikes of an army in attack mode. They chirped and growled, alternating between the two sounds as though singing a war song.
The line of people clapped hands. They roared and stamped their feet. They screamed and cheered. Transfixed on the sight of the oncoming beasts, Peter hollered as loudly as anyone.
“Hold fast,” Cameron ordered. “Don’t break. Hold fast.” Faith in the leader’s commands seemed contagious, and Peter tried to capture the look of confidence on the faces nearby.
The rock hounds faltered in their assault. A few skidded to a stop, their tiny claws digging in and sending up waves of grit and sand. Those that came to a complete stop were overtaken by their brethren behind them, and all along the front of the herd rock hounds tumbled one atop the other in a frenzy of squealing and honking, with gnashing teeth and flailing feet drawing blood.
The attack faltered. The rock hounds slowed to a walk. Then they stopped, sniffed at the ground, whiskers half-buried. In places, they pulled up thin wiggling worms. Peter hadn’t expected that. So far as he knew, the dog-like animals ate moss and grass and other greens.
Slowly, the herd moved away from the humans, and in their wake they expelled a cloud that smelled like rotten eggs. Mounds of feces, along with a few dead rock hounds, littered the ground. Peter ventured out of line to get a better view of the mess. No one stopped him and, soon, others joined him in walking between the piles of excrement and crushed bodies.
Harriet stopped beside a dead rock hound and poked at it with a glass rod. She extracted blood from its wounded side and filled a vial that she put into a special compartment in her carryall.
Tiny translucent worms wiggled in the gelatinous feces. “Parasites,” Harriet said, as though explaining the life forms’ purpose in the rock hounds’ life cycle.
“You wormers,” Cameron announced, “ready up. Because you’ll be getting what you paid for!”
Cheers erupted from the hunters. Several pulled hand axes from their holsters. Others had short chainsaws at the ready. The crew chiefs ushered them away from the stinking refuse left by the rock hound herd.
Peter found a position that afforded a panoramic view. This would be the highlight of the day. He imagined the sweeping music that would accompany the action, and the thunderous poetry that would be added when his raw recordings were edited by the team of technicians and artists who produced the final product.
The ground trembled. Small slits appeared in the gritty soil. Bulbous dark knobs poked up from underground, along with thick tubular bodies and spiked tails. The emerging worms chomped on the rock hound remains, lapped up the feces, and devoured the tiny parasites squirming in the liquid mess.
The hunters pounced. Saws buzzed and axes fell. Bright red blood, much of it thick and hot, sprayed the air. Peter stayed back. He didn’t want to ruin his goggle-mounted cameras. Harriet dashed back and forth from one end of the killing ground to the other, shouting:
“I’ll pay triple market rate for a head. With eyes and teeth. A full head. Triple rate.” Face flushed, she warded off pieces of flesh that flew in her direction. Soon, she backed up, out of range. Peter kept turning in her direction, catching her antics with raw footage, thinking he had juxtaposed her manic actions with the methodical work of the hunters, who chopped and sawed and kicked, scurrying away from spiked tails and staying clear of live worms that gnashed their teeth and came at their feet.
Two of the hunters each brought Harriet an intact head, one with its oval eyes wide open and the center pupil streaked with blood, and small red wounds across its ridged head. She inspected the prizes, pried open their jaws, and counted the tiny teeth arrayed across both the top and bottom of the mouth. Peter zoomed in on her examination, thinking he’d add some commentary later to put the scene in context.
“This one’s acceptable,” Harriet said, and produced a pouch large enough to swallow the worm’s head. She pushed aside the one she’d rejected. Its hunter, a tall man with a crooked nose and straggler black hair, glared at her. Then, head down, carrying the worm’s head by a flap of skin where it had been torn from the body, he stomped off to get in line at the broker’s table.
Peter finished recording only when he ran out of space in the cameras’ memory chips. Long tubular bodies lay inert; others slipped into the crevices in the ground. Blood-splattered hunters divided their spoils, having worked in teams of threes and fours. The broker sitting at her table inspected the booty. Numbers fluctuated on the board behind her, displaying the prices for heads and tails, kilo-weight, half-kilos and quarters. Even eyes had their worth. As did tongues and — surprising to Peter — ears.
“Got what I came for,” Harriet said, lifting her shiny white bag, as though showing off her take.
“What’re you going to do with it?” Peter asked, genuinely curious. He knew that some of the hunters would keep their prizes to mount for display, so they could brag to friends about the killing spree. Others were content to barter with the broker and get paid now and not deal with preserving their catch and paying custom duties later, though they’d get a much better price once off-planet.
“Dissect it,” Harriet said in response to Peter’s question. “Sequence the genome. What do you think I’m going to do with the thing?” She snorted. He took that as a rebuke. With a shrug, he wandered into the shade thrown by a large umbrella hoisted over a vendor offering cold drinks. He ignored the entreaties and slipped to a crouch so he could change out his recording media.
All around him, the landscape had changed, he noticed. No more sleeping tents. No latrine in the near distance, away from the main camp. No mess hall. Nothing that resembled the expedition as it had been when he woke. It had been transformed, and he marveled at how well the change had been accomplished
Jack Cameron strolled past with one of his young lieutenants in tow. Peter caught enough of their passing conversation to realize that the drone he’d seen flying earlier had been responsible for bringing on the herd of rock hounds. Some sort of sound emitted by the flyer had sent the dog-like creatures on a rampage.
And that brought the worms!
“Start offering chits to those who want to go on,” Cameron said to his lieutenant. “The rest can go back. Get an accurate count. Nobody’s funding the night hunt.”
Peter perked up. He and Cameron exchanged a glance. Cameron crooked a finger and Peter stepped towards him. “You record any of what I said?”
Peter shook his head. He indicated the goggles in his hand. “I just reloaded.”
“I don’t want any of this behind-the-scenes stuff.” Cameron turned back to his young lieutenant. A few more words sent the youngster running.
“What’s a nighter?” Peter asked.
“Buy in for it. You’ll find out.” Cameron walked away.
“Where’s your worm’s head?” Peter asked when Harriet approached.
“I sent it back with a porter. You staying for the nighter?”
Does everyone know what that means except me? Peter wondered. “Are you?”
“Just for the experience,” Harriet said. “I’m not sponsoring it.”
Peter guessed he could afford to pay full-freight to join the expedition. The recordings he’d get would be valuable.
“Night hunting’s hyped up as dangerous.” Harriet sidled up to Peter. “Stick close. They’re ferocious at night.” She hugged his arm.
She’s a strange one Peter thought. Friendly and alluring one moment, an old lady better left alone the next. As curious a specimen as anything he’d encounter on an alien world.
Copyright © 2018 by David Castlewitz