Captain Rudolf Steiner (Rudo to his friends) of the Motavian Division of the Palman Army casually strolled through the forests near Arima on his way home, whistling a soft tune and liking very much the way the warm sun felt on his face. As he did this, he took stock of all the things in his life he was thankful for -- a part of his usual homecoming routine, and since he was currently on weekend leave, the list started forming in his head.
He was thankful that Algo was currently at peace. That certainly made his job in the Army much easier, not to mention safer. He was thankful that Dezo's current leader, General K'Cren, seemed to be a passive one who was not hell-bent on eradicating Palman life from the distant ice-covered world, as too many Dezorian leaders of the past had been. Of course, with the space travel ban, it wasn't as if there even were any Palmans on Dezo, but still... an overzealous Dezorian leader, not unlike some the planet had had in the past, could start a full-scale invasion of Mota or Palm, and with all the space ships gone, the first two planets would have been practically defenseless, but K'Cren seemed to care only about his own world, so, Rudo was thankful.
And speaking of the space travel ban, it also meant that Rudo would never again be required to serve a tour of duty on Palm, as he had done early in his career, before the ban. Despite the loss of space travel, then, Rudo was somewhat thankful for the ban, for it kept him closer to his family.
Family. The word always brought a smile to Rudo's face. He was only 34 years old, but while others of his age, friends he grew up with, were either just starting families of their own, or were still searching for that special someone to share their lives with, Rudo had already found the former Alizabeth Fromen and current Liz Steiner, and had already shared a decade of life with her. Liz was the daughter of one of his favorite instructors at the Paseo Military Academy, and they had met at his junior year's formal ball. They dated steadily from that point forward, through his graduation a year later. Two years after that, on a wonderfully sunny day in August of AW 1275, he and Liz were married.
There was only one thing in his life Rudo was more thankful for than Liz, and that was the baby girl that was born to he and Liz just a dozen months earlier. They had named her Jennifer, and as soon as the doctors had allowed Rudo to take a holoimage of his "little poyola pie," he had done so. Now, whenever he was on duty away from home, he carried the picture in his breast pocket, along with one of Liz.
Though it was Liz who taught Rudo what love was, it wasn't until Jennifer came along that Rudo truly realized everything that love could be. That tiny human being, who had only turned one year old a week ago, was the pride and joy of Rudolf Steiner's life, and he simply could not wait to hold her in his arms again. In fact, he almost thought he could hear her in the distance right now, laughing at some sort of funny face her mother was making for her.
Coming upon some thick foliage in the forest, Rudo drew his standard-issue Army knife and cut the branches aside... and then he saw another thing he was thankful for: his home. Liz and he had built the forest-surrounded cabin themselves shortly after their marriage. They cut down trees to make room for the house in a secluded spot of forest outside of Arima, and then they had used the timber to actually build the cabin. Sure, it might have been a little small (though cozy would be the word Rudo would have chosen), but it was theirs, and more importantly, it was home. Finishing off his list of thanks, Rudo decided he was thankful for having absolutely everything he wanted in life... except maybe a baby brother for Jennifer.
Pulling himself out of his mind-wandering, Rudo fixed his eyes upon the cabin. Slowly, he came to a stop. His heartbeat steadily increased as he realized, Something is wrong. The front door was open, but that was not unusual; Liz often times left the door open while she was in back, hanging clothes on the line. What was it that bothered him then?
Stretching all his senses to their maximum, he slowly started to hear his daughter laughing. I guess maybe I wasn't completely imagining it a moment ago, he decided, but then he realized: Jennifer wasn't laughing, she was crying.
Okay, calm down, he told himself, though despite his assurances, his pace towards the cabin started to quicken. Liz is just in back hanging clothes, Jennifer needs changing, and any minute, Liz is going to run around the side of the house and in through the front door.
He watched, and waited. But Liz did not come barreling into the house from the back yard, and Jennifer continued to cry. That's when Rudo noticed that the front door wasn't exactly open, after all. Wooden splinters jutting away from the hinges at odd angles immediately told him that the door had been broken down.
Dropping his satchel of belongings, Rudo broke out into a sprint, charging across the forest clearing they had created to serve as their front lawn. "Liz!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. At that moment, his daughter wailed louder. In response, Rudo bellowed in fear, then he began screaming his daughter's name, "Jennifer! Jennifer!"
Rudo stopped and stood in the entrance to the front door, gasping and bringing a hand up to cover his mouth. The living room was a complete mess. Splinters of wood from the front door had rained down across the entire floor... but what made Rudo's body tremble and his eyes leak tears was the sight in the middle of the room.
His beloved Liz lay on top of a pile of wooden and ceramic shards that used to be their coffee table and the vase on top of it. Her body was twisted at an odd angle, and it appeared that her back had been broken when she had been thrown on top of the table (By who?! the non-grief stricken part of his mind shouted). A thin trail of blood trickled down from her mouth, and her arms were lined with deep gashes which stained their carpet red.
When Rudo finally found himself able to speak, he cried out, "Liz!" and ran to her side. The logical part of his mind knew he shouldn't move her, but the part of him that loved this woman with all his heart made him cradle her head in his lap. "Liz, I'm here," he whispered softly through his tears as he stroked her forehead and her hair. "I'm here, sweetheart."
"..je... jenni..." his wife whispered softly. Then, she exhaled a deep breath of air, and she was gone.
Rudo lowered his forehead towards her own, the tears starting to well up inside, and at any moment he knew they'd burst, but before he could rest his head... Jennifer's cries suddenly came back to him.
From her nursery down the hall, the baby girl wailed and screamed. Rudo got to his feet as fast as he could, laying Liz's head gently back on the carpet. I know that cry, he thought with dread. That's not, "Daddy, I need to be changed" or "Daddy, I want my bottle," that's "Daddy, I have an owie."
On his way to her nursery, Rudo almost tripped. He looked down, and saw his Shotgun was resting on the floor near Liz's right hand. So she had tried to defend herself and Jennifer, he nodded. He reached down for the weapon... and learned who had attacked his family. There, in the corner, previously unnoticed due to the fact that he had focused solely on Liz, was the corpse of a Biomonster, species Locust. Standing near two meters tall on their hind legs, Locusts had two large pincers which reached down for their prey and brought it up to the two large fangs which poked out of either side of its mouth. They also had a tough endoskeleton, though this dead one which lay crumpled in Rudo's corner now had a shotgun blast in its chest, thanks to the late Alizabeth Steiner.
Only a few seconds had passed since Rudo lay Liz's head back on the floor. In one swift motion, he had picked up the shotgun, noticed the dead Locust, and broken into a dead run for Jennifer's nursery. When he reached the doorway, he again stopped in his tracks. The sight before him was something he had only previously seen in nightmares -- his absolute worst nightmares, and Rudolf Steiner screamed.
A Locust -- exactly like its friend in the living room except alive -- was standing over Jennifer's crib, its pincers inside, poking, cutting, and gashing the helpless infant, who could not move except to kick her arms and legs in terror and pain. Jennifer's screams were so loud it was almost hard for the Locust to hear Rudo's, but indeed it did. It raised its insectoid head away from the bleeding baby and focused its single blue eye on Rudo, tilting its head to the side in an expression of puzzlement, the fangs on its face clicking idly. "Come and get me, you bastard," Rudo screamed to the Biomonster, holding the shotgun out in front of him. He couldn't fire now -- the damn thing was too close to Jennifer's crib. But slowly, it was inching away, swaying side-to-side on its hind legs towards Rudo.
"That's right," Rudo said softly, though his voice caught in his throat half-way through as he glanced at Jennifer's blood-soaked crib mattress. "Come to papa, you sonuva--"
At that moment, the Locust stopped inching its way towards Rudo and charged. For one brief stunned moment, Rudo was amazed at how fast it could move on its thin hind legs... but that was just for a moment. After that, Rudo pulled the trigger of the shotgun, and then he pulled it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
The first blast blew off one of the Locust's pincers, the second blew a hole through its chest, the third finished the job, and the subsequent four succeeded in decimating the corpse. Rudo pulled the trigger with no effect three more times, released the empty power pack from the shotgun, and then dropped the entire weapon to the floor. Then, he ran to his daughter's side.
He looked down into her crib. Her one-piece pajamas, white with a Musk Cat design Liz had declared "adorable" upon seeing them in the shop, had been cut open in various places by the Locust's pincers. Around each gash in the fabric was a deep red stain. And Jennifer's face... Rudo turned away, his sobs bringing him to his knees, as he saw the multiple lacerations which would no doubt have deformed his baby girl for life... if her cries had not stopped during the time he took to kill the Locust.
Resting his back against Jennifer's crib, Rudo buried his face in his hands and finally let his grief explode. His sobs shook his whole body, and for the first several minutes, he literally screamed in grief. All that he had been thankful for, gone. The love of his life, dead. His baby daughter... Will never be able to grow up he realized, drawing more shakes of grief. He was left with the house, but no one to share it with.
Slowly, he got to his feet and walked into the living room, refusing to look at Liz's body again, at least for now. He stepped into the kitchen, pausing only to kick the corpse of the Locust Liz had killed on the way. There, in the kitchen, he found the decorations Liz had setup for Jennifer's birthday party. "I guess it will be okay if we have the party a week after her birthday," he had told Liz via Visiphone just ten days earlier. "Jennifer probably won't know the difference."
"Of course not," Liz had chuckled back. "She's not even going to care that it's her birthday -- at least not as much as she's going to care that her daddy's home."
Daddy's home, now, poyola pie, he mentally told his daughter. Daddy's home and his world's shattered apart without you and mommy in it.
He stepped towards the Visiphone -- that same Visiphone Liz had spoken to him on -- and though he intended to turn it on, he instead found himself pressing the button to access Mother Brain. "What can I do for you, Rudolf Steiner?" came the computerized female voice.
"Why..." Rudo started, his voice caught, then he started again. "Why did you make them? Why are those Biomonsters out there?" He paused, sobbed. "Why won't you tell us how to fix you?"
"I'm sorry, I do not understand your query," Mother Brain replied. "Please state it again."
Rudo grunted, shook his head. "Never mind," he whispered. "Just get me the Arima authorities." Instantly, his Visiphone's screen lit up, signaling that the call had been initiated. As it went through, Rudo reached up to the breast pocket of his Army uniform. Almost always, this move meant he was reaching for the holoimages of Liz and Jennifer inside. This time, however, he didn't reach in the pocket, but outside of it.
Pulling off his rank pin, Rudo set it down on the counter next to the Visiphone and covered it with his hand. He was no longer in the Palman Army. Today, he would make funeral arrangements, and tomorrow, he would bury his wife and daughter.
The day after that, he would be a Hunter.
I'm an assistant at a laboratory. Ah... sorry, I can't tell you which lab I'm working at.
|Please send all comments and feedback to mike at ripplinger dot us|