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What Colour Is the Wind?

by Aleksandar Žiljak

„I’ll pay you well.“

„I told you, I’m not into that any more. Take Cannhauser.“

„I want you, not Cannhauser.“

„What’s wrong with him? His guests return in one piece and loaded with trophies.“

„Nevertheless, you’re the best.“ Praunsperger measures me across the glasses and the half-empty bottle of whiskey. It’s almost midnight and the bar is closed; only the two of us sit at the table in the centre. In the corner, Hoagy strums some easy tunes, more for himself. Agnagna finishes his work at the bar, wiping the glasses dry and arranging them neatly on the shelf. He’s got only a few more left.

I think about what Praunsperger just told me. What’s true is true. Cannhauser is good. So are Boddington and Welsh, even young Kuzma is not bad. They all run good safaris and satisfied customers praise them ecstatically. But, the hunters that I led … They were bagging the biggest trophies, just like ones that Praunsperger wants. And so he wants the best one, the one who knows the knowledge. Only, as I keep telling him for the past hour, I’m not in that business anymore.

And then you enter, Gordana, and everything stops. Hoagy’s fingers above the piano keys, Agnagna’s dish cloth in the glass, and my breath. I thought, hoped foolishly, that after all this time you would mean nothing to me, as if we meet for the first time in our lives. A stranger, you will be just a stranger. I repeated this to myself like some mantra, all these days since Praunsperger called to say that he’s coming with you and that he wants me to be your host. Now when I see you, I know it didn’t help. No matter how much I braced myself, it didn’t help.

You look round, recollecting. It was a long time ago, Gordana, but the bar greeted you just the way it was, the way you remember it. The same horns and tusks on the walls, the same framed photographs, the bar, the tables, the chairs, the same faces. Those were the most beautiful days of your life, you said it yourself and I see it in you now that you returned. After seven years, just for a week or two, but you returned. It was inevitable.

„It’s quiet outside,“ you say to no one in particular as you sit at our table. The moment of the tense silence is behind us. Hoagy continues to play the piano and Agnagna takes a new glass to wipe it. They both try to be as unobtrusive as possible, as if all this doesn’t concern them one bit. Praunsperger is quiet, sniggering to himself. He certainly knows how much you meant to all of us. He’d better be quiet; I’m ready to smash him to pieces if he as much as opens his mouth. But, he’s smart. Without a word, he reaches for the bottle and pours himself another whiskey.

And the two of us, Gordana, we don’t even have the guts to say hello after all this time. Something snapped a long time ago and now we have to continue as if nothing happened, and we don’t know where or how. There is so much I’d like to tell you, so much left hanging in the air that morning when you left. I’m getting mad at you, at what you’ve done, at how you used me. You knew that when you came in, Gordana, and you have no answer and therefore just: It’s quiet outside.

Who knows, maybe it’s for the best. A hello would be just like an apology, and we both hate apologies. I go to the bar and take an ashtray and a glass, one of those that Agnagna just wiped dry. I put them before you and throw in the ice, the cubes tinkle, and I fill you the glass. I watch you as you take the cigarettes out of your pocket and I realise that I still love you. Now I know that I never stopped loving you, and it is not that I didn’t try.

You haven’t changed, Gordana. You’re the same as you were when you left, perhaps with just a little shade in your eyes that wasn’t there seven years ago. And you take me for a ride just as you did then. Praunsperger knows, and so do you, that I will accept the moment I see you. That’s why he brought you with him.

„Have you settled the permits?“ I give up finally and pretend I don’t notice the triumphant grin crossing Praunsperger’s face. As Great Gillian used to say, no matter if the guest is asshole, you have to remain professional. Always just professional.

* * *

„Thank you. This hunt means a lot to Praunsperger.“ I leaf through his permits. Everything is in order and regular, with invoices, seals and signatures. He paid for one bronto, a gompho, a sarchus and some horns. But it’s the bronto that he really wants. And a big one, he said. The annual quota in this region is about ten heads, depending on population growth, and he spared no expense to enter it.

We remained alone at the table, Gordana. Praunsperger left in his black floater half an hour ago, escorted by his men who waited for him outside. Agnagna also finished and went home. Only Hoagy plays in the corner, as tireless as ever. You light a new cigarette and blow away the smoke. You didn’t stop smoking, and you said you would.

„You still keep my pictures on the wall.“

„’Cause I don’t know how to throw a year and a half of my life down the drain,“ I sigh. „Why don’t you teach me how it’s done?“

„I didn’t mean to…“ You throw a glance at Hoagy. You were good friends, Gordana, spending many evenings together at the piano. Nevertheless, this is now just between the two of us and there are things you don’t want him to hear.

„Hoagy, where do you switch yourself off?“ Hoagy answers me with one of his up-yours cadences, and then he stops playing and runs his fingers through his hair. His image at the piano starts flickering, the holo-projection fades and disappears, leaving us to gnaw at each other. Your glass is empty and I refill it. We are silent. We didn’t begin well and we ought to try again.

„You know, I wasn’t free to do what I really wanted. Neither am I now.“

„Why don’t you quit? You’d find job, people like you are highly appreciated here.“ There are quite a few of your trophies on the walls, Gordana, and your sharp eye and steady hand are still remembered. Somebody would certainly take you to be his assistant.

„It’s not the same as it was with you. You signed, served your term and when you decided you didn’t like it any more, you took off your uniform and that was it. There’s somewhat more small print in my contract.“ I don’t know how to reply to you, Gordana. In some sense, we were both in the same line of business. It took me to the Airborne Infantry; I was young and it seemed quite cool and OK. See the new worlds, meet interesting people and kill them. Five years later it was all a little bit less cool and OK, and when the day came to sign again, I said thanks, but no, thanks.

And you, Gordana? I shouldn’t even know that you were in the Agency, let alone ask you how you joined. Were you attracted, the way I was, by the promise of an interesting and dynamic job, unaware what shit it was? Or was it your only way out? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there’s any point in asking you.

* * *

The wind was the colour of thirst when I first saw you, Gordana. The drought was at its peak, torturing the parched land. Weeks were to pass before the plain was reborn under the first thunderstorms. Dust devils danced across the cracked soil, animals roamed through the shimmering air like apparitions in the distance.

You waited for me in the bar. I can still see you at that table, over there in the corner. You listened Hoagy play – just for you, it seems to me now – and smoked. You waited almost three hours for me, Agnagna whispered in my ear later.

I came late in the afternoon. Makumba drove me back, tired and sweaty, my throat filled with dust, after searching for the borus pack that prowled the suburbs. I combed the entire area with his troopers, but in vain. The pack withdrew and spoors were all we found. Finally, I told Makumba that people should watch their children more closely and remove the garbage, and that an extra patrol or two wouldn’t hurt. In short, a wasted day, just as I knew it would be.

I was surprised when I saw you sitting at the table and even more so when you asked me if I needed an assistant, as I let the word out couple of months earlier. I asked you what do you know, and you just took a pile of photographs from the bag and laid them before me. I took them in my hands and rummaged through them. Several elephants, a black rhino, buffaloes, my breath stopped as I looked at the pictures. Greater kudus, elands, oryxes, several smaller antelopes, warthogs. And lions, couple of leopards, even a crocodile.

For five years you were a professional hunter on Earth. Kenya and Zimbabwe, you said. And I knew there was no hunter who wouldn’t envy you, Gordana. True, a bronto is fiercer than the grumpiest rhino and lions are just cuddly kittens compared to sarchuses, but the Earth was still the one and only. The eternal dream attainable only to a handful of those rich enough to squeeze into strict annual quotas.

You brought a Heym carbine with you, I still remember when you pulled it out of its sheath. A fine .375 Holland and Holland Magnum piece, a good choice for Africa and quite sufficient to test you on the home-ground. So, I took the Rover the next day and drove you into the bush, just to see what you’re made of.

And you must have been born with that rifle, Gordana, it fit your hands so well and you were such a good shot. You stalked almost without a sound through the densest thorns, always keeping the wind in the right direction. Dust, thirst, sweat and flies were there to bother someone else, not you. And you were patient. Where almost everybody else would give up, you waited calmly for that right moment for which every hunter lives. The one, unique moment, when everything falls perfectly into place and all that’s left to do is pull the trigger.

And you learned fast, Gordana. In a couple of weeks you were reading spoors as if you had been in the bush for years. And you also had that something, the knack, I never knew what else to call it. The game and you were like one. A twitch of an ear, a blink of an eye, a tightening of a muscle: you knew what they meant at every moment. As if you read its mind, you could tell exactly where the animal would step, where it would look, from which direction came the wind it would scent… Only Great Gillian knew how to observe that way. Some of his magic stuck to me, but you, Gordana, you had it in you.

* * *

The wind is the colour of brown flanks patterned in narrow vertical white stripes as the syndy comes out of the bush less than hundred paces away. The animal sniffs the air cautiously, ready to bolt back into safety at any moment, but the wind blows towards us and the syndy doesn’t smell us. I study it through the binoculars. A bull, beautiful, large, standing some metre and a half tall at the shoulders. Both pairs of his horns are good, the front resembling letter V above his nose, and the rear curving above his head like crescent moons.

Praunsperger is at my left, a metre away. You, Gordana, are beside him. He glances at me. I nod, it’s going to be a good trophy. He points his rifle and follows the syndy through the telescopic sight, waiting for the right moment. He does not show nervousness and I don’t have to calm him and whisper advice. It’s not that I came to like him any more in the past three days, but he’s good, better than I thought he would be.

The syndy stops, as if disapproving. The animal senses that something is not right, but we are well hidden and it shouldn’t see us. The syndy moves on towards us, stepping carefully through the dry grass. The water is near, luring the thirsty bull, teasing his nostrils. The day was long and dry. Suddenly, the syndy freezes. Something startles him and he turns and runs, the swift legs carrying him back into the bush. Damn!

Still, Praunsperger decides and pulls the trigger. The shot stops the stamping hooves. It’s all over in a heartbeat. The body falls in the grass, twitches several times and finally calms. We approach it. Praunsperger nods, pleased as he sizes the horns with a proud glitter in his eyes.

I congratulate him and we shake hands. The shot was really masterful. Many others would screw up, missing or, worse, just wounding the game. Praunsperger comes to his knees beside the syndy, holding his rifle with one hand and lifting the bull’s head with another. You, Gordana, take out a camera and snap a picture of him, and then of him and me as we shake hands once again over the trophy. Then you pass me the camera and kneel next to Praunsperger.

I look at you, tiny in the viewfinder, and I know that this time the game is somewhat different. Every safari is a long and dangerous journey. The objective is somewhere in the bush and the dust and thirst, and nowhere is it written that we all must return safely. And now I’m the one who knows all the rules and makes the moves. The endgame depends on me. I decide who is to stay and who will not.

* * *

„If only you wrote a word or two. That wasn’t much of an effort.“

„I couldn’t.“ The cigarette burns almost to your fingers and you put it out in the ashtray. You stand up and go to the gompho’s tusks on the wall. All four of them are still here. They offered me good money to sell them, Gordana, more than once, and each time I refused. You caress the ivory, your first true trophy. „I didn’t have the courage.“

„Or the Agency wouldn’t let you?“ You’re not surprised that I mention the Agency, Gordana. I didn’t think you would be. You’d probably be disappointed if I didn’t tie up all the loose ends. After all, I had seven years.

„You’re walking on a very thin ice,“ you say in a low voice as you sit back and take a new cigarette. „You don’t play with the Agency.“

„All the same, I have to know.“

„Is there something you don’t know already?“

„I figured out what happened. More or less. I even suspect why. Still,“ I lean towards you, our gazes meeting through the cigarette smoke behind which you try to hide in vain. „There are things that I want to unravel, Gordana. You owe me that much.“

* * *

The wind was the colour of your hair, Gordana, when I suddenly realised that I loved you. It carried your hair across your face as you stood there, shaking, speechless, pale before the massive grey gompho’s body that collapsed in the grass some five metres in front of you. It took you two shots from the express rifle to stop it, and now the mature bull was laying there, with all four tusks flawless.

It was one of those „police“ jobs that Makumba threw at me, and I accepted them because they were the opportunity to bag something above the quota lawfully. Three days earlier, the same bull came and trampled the tourist caravan without any discernible cause. Fortunately no one was hurt, except that two Toyotas needed new fenders and hoods and everybody in them new pants. But, they saw that the animal was hurt and so Makumba decided to bring it down before it did some serious shit.

And so we went hunting that morning, Gordana. It wasn’t too hot, the sun was not yet so merciless and the wind caressed our faces gently. We trod through the grass, nearing the edge of forest by the river bank slowly and carefully. Then I thought I saw something in the bush. I signalled you to stop and went ahead. I tried to penetrate the semi-darkness with my eyes. Was there a body hidden behind the dense wicker-work of thorny branches and twigs, or was it just a play of light and shade? I pushed the safety catch to OFF and pointed my express rifle in tense anticipation.

Suddenly, the thrashing and breaking and snapping of branches behind me, the mad roar, the thumping of the heavy feet. It all happened in a blink. The first shot, the second, the hard fall of the huge body. The last scream of the animal that knows it’s finished and then silence and you, Gordana. Just standing there, only partly aware what really happened and the wind was full of your hair as I realised I loved you. Suddenly, out of the blue. Even today, I don’t know how and why.

Was it the warmth that radiated from your smile, lit by flames crackling merrily in the night? Or was it because of your green eyes as they dreamily wandered across the endless plain caressed by the early morning sun? Maybe it was the long blond hair, living a life of its own under the hat, carried by the hot wind? Perhaps you were simply so different from all the others, idle and spoilt, that would come to my tent asking me to break the monotony of their empty lives at least for a moment and not giving anything in return, because they had nothing to give in the first place.

Only, when you said ‘yes’ later in the heat of the night, my life suddenly had meaning. And you whispered to me, in the sweaty peace of embrace, that it was never so beautiful and I believed you as we kissed and sank back into each other. And now I wonder, Gordana. Was it all just a farce, a prelude to the bloody finale that you and Praunsperger designed? I must find out. I uncovered everything else, and I have to find this out if it’s the last thing I do.

* * *

As soon as I spotted a print in the earth, I stop the Rover and got out to take a better look. The track is fresh. The beast passed here perhaps an hour or two ago. The tree is near; it doesn’t take some sense of smell to know that a territory is marked there. Praunsperger grabs his express rifle and steps out of the vehicle. You, Gordana, study the bush on the other side of the trail. The beast crawled into it and, who knows, maybe it’s watching us right now.

„What now?“ Praunsperger asks.

„Two ways,“ I size him up. „Womanish and manly.“

„What’s the womanish way?“

I study the track again. The beast passes this way every day. A group of trees is some fifty metres away. They are firm, with a good view from them. „We put a hide on those trees. When the sarchus drops by, we’ll have him in the clear. Maybe he shows up this evening, maybe not before tomorrow.“

I can see Praunsperger doesn’t really like it. Sitting in a tree is certainly not his idea of excitement.

„The manly way is to follow him, I assume?“ Praunsperger measures the print. The animal is large. Maybe four metres long without tail, standing about metre eighty at the shoulders. Together we did both, Gordana, but you admitted that you definitely prefer the hide. „What if we don’t find him?“

„He’ll find us,“ you answer, wondering what this meant. As a rule, I determine what we are going to do. It’s all a matter of judgement. Some suggest the hide themselves, guessing what is awaiting them otherwise. Frankly, they at least know themselves; I respect them more than the fools who first make bold and then fill their pants when it gets rough.

„Your choice. Only, hurry up! It takes time to erect a hide.“ I let Praunsperger decide for himself. Somehow, I have a feeling that he likes living dangerously. And then again, there is no place for a weak link in front of the sarchus. Praunsperger studies the print once again, and then the dense bush.

„We follow him,“ he chooses finally, not disappointing me one bit.

Half an hour later, the wind is the colour of the yellowish fur striped black that waits for us in the bush as we stalk with our rifles ready among the tall thorny shrubs. We listen to every rustle tensely, every leaf in the wind, a pia-piac singing hidden somewhere in the thorns, the buzzing of wings of innumerable insects. We found more tracks. The beast is here somewhere, before us. Or maybe behind us, you never know with the sarchus.

Praunsperger searches the bushes in cold blood, slowly, with no hurry, all the time keeping his forefinger on the trigger. Only when he’s completely certain that no-one is watching him, from behind the treacherous curtain of branches and light and shadows, does he move onto the next shrub. I guessed well. Praunsperger is not just a pencil-pushing rat seeking some adrenaline from time to time. He, too, is a player, just like you and me, Gordana. I’m certain he did this before. Even if he is afraid, he holds his fear firmly in his fists. He won’t let it jump him.

You are to the left of me, Gordana. Suddenly, you stop and tap your ear with your finger. I understand immediately what you wish to tell me. With my hand, I signal Praunsperger to stop. I listen to the silence all around us. The bush knows instinctively that something is going on; even the wind is quiet. Pia-piac stopped its song, all I can hear is nervous piaaack. Perhaps we make the little black bird uneasy, perhaps not.

Everybody covers his part of the bush. The sweat breaks through, the silence drives us crazy. This is the worst part, where it is shown what somebody is made of. Here the nerves break. With the corner of my eye, I look first at Praunsperger and then at you. We have to stay calm and wait. The place is not bad, there’s plenty of room to the nearest shrubs, sufficient to fire a shot.

Suddenly, a loud piaa-piaa-piaa-piaaack! bursts from the shrubs, freely translated as ‘I think a saw a pussycat!’ Now all three of us are certain that the sarchus is close. The eyes try to penetrate the thorns, but in vain. As long as the beast is still, there’s little hope that we’ll spot it.

And then, everything becomes an explosion of lightning-fast movements. The beast leaps from behind the thorny curtain seven or eight metres away. It will be among us in a second. We all empty our rifles without thinking, instinctively, fingers squeeze on their own. There is no time for waiting and courtesies and who is the guest and who will fire first when the fifteen centimetres long canines are within inches of our throats. Three mighty slugs stop the sarchus in mid-leap. The powerful body falls in the scream of pain. Praunsperger fires his second shot and finishes the beast.

It is only then that everything hits the brain. How close it was! If the sarchus had waited a little more, if he let us come a little closer, it wouldn’t have ended well. You begin to laugh, Gordana. The tension is released, the bush echoes in joy that we are all in one piece. And I study Praunsperger as he proudly sizes the metre long head and huge jaws and beautiful fur. I didn’t miss the speed with which he reacted when the beast charged. He was ready for it; he didn’t allow himself to be jumped. The game goes on, the end is uncertain and it makes no difference that I know the moves in advance. It may not be enough.

* * *

„Africa was a lie.“

„I know.“ We lay the cards on the table, Gordana, one by one. When I saw how good you were in the bush, I didn’t suspect for a moment. I didn’t have reasons to suspect then. I forgot how quickly one grows together with the rifle and learns to move through the bush, if only one has a good instructor. I also forgot the VR-simulators, although I saw a good one several years earlier. And it never occurred to me what can be done with photographs, with a good software and some skill. „Hoagy asked around. They never heard of you on the Earth. I wonder if you ever hunted anything at all.“

„Oh, I did“, you nod as you blow away the smoke. „Two-legged game.“ I see in your eyes that it is all you’ll tell me about it now, perhaps even in the future. But that explains a lot. Moving, skills with weapons, good aiming. The two-legged game is the most dangerous of all. I tried it. In that sport, I was both the hunter and the hunted.

The clock on the wall is ticking the night away, Gordana. I take the bottle and pour you a glass, then one for myself. We drink a lot, but we can both stand it. It’s one of the things we have in common. Suddenly, you lean to me. „Ask me a silly question!“

„A silly question?“ I don’t get it at first, Gordana, but then I realise that we’ve known each other for too long. You can see that I want to ask you something. Perhaps you even guess what it is, and you are a little fed up of beating around the bush.

„Yes, one of those questions that no one knows how to answer.“

„OK! But, you first.“ I cannot gather strength. I need more courage, I’m afraid of the answer.

„All right“, you sit back in your chair. „Have it your way. What colour is the wind?“

„You expect someone will answer that?“

„I don’t know, maybe. I asked my Dad that when I was five. We walked in the park that spring and he was asking me what colour was something. He would point at the tree trunk, and I’d say brown. The crowns were green. The flowers… They were yellow and white and tiny blue, all sorts. And the sky was blue, naturally, and the clouds were white. They went across the sky and I asked my Dad what’s chasing them that fast, and he said it was the wind. And then I asked him what colour is the wind. He never answered me, neither he nor anybody else.“ You put out your cigarette. „Your turn!“

All right, Gordana, if that’s the way you want. There‘s no turning back now. And hopefully you’ll answer me, as somebody will answer you some day. „Did you ever really love me, Gordana?“

* * *

Kyle Moersdorf contacted me to make arrangements for safari a full three years in advance. I don’t know if it was because he planned his life that way, or because he wanted to be sure that he would enter the quotas. Whatever it was, when he got in touch with me, I looked forward to hitting a real jackpot.

He came from far away, from the Sariska IV. Nevertheless, he wasn’t quite unfamiliar to me. As far as money was concerned, he didn’t know what to do with it. He got rich quickly. Within fifteen years, he owned some fifteen mines on six worlds. He also had political ambitions, screw the money without the power. He created the image of the successful businessman, an enterprising and bold man rising on his own, stuff like that.

I fast-forwarded through several of his speeches, just to find out who I was dealing with. His politics were pretty rotten, but the voters on the Sariska were buying his spectacular campaigns. The highest positions were within his grasp. Of course, he wasn’t without enemies. There was a lot of criticism and attacks. Those more disgruntled even carried out two assassination attempts.

When he himself wasn’t in the cross-hairs, Moersdorf was a passionate hunter. I asked around. Allegedly, he was a good shot, which made me glad, and he paid his guides well, which made me even more glad. He planned to stay for quite a long time. He had on his list almost everything that could be hunted here.

Then you arrived, Gordana, some year and a half after the first Moersdorf’s letter. When the time for his safari came, the two of us were already a well-tuned team.

The first to land was Moersdorf’s head of security. We had a long talk and I almost sent both him and his boss to hell. Moersdorf was not my first VIP. I had led marshals and politicians and actors before. After all, the safari was entertainment for those with deep pockets. But these guys really crossed all the lines. They insisted on setting up and maintaining the camp themselves. They even brought their own cook and food-taster. No way, I said, I have contracts with a dozen men who make their living from doing these jobs. The guy just looked at me from behind his shades, took out the check-book and asked me how much I was paying them. Someone else would be offended. Fortunately, my boys were quite happy to collect the money without as much as moving their little fingers.

Then they asked for the hunting-ground maps. They hung above them all day. We just looked at each other, Gordana, as they were deciding where to approach close and where to put guards. They also brought two armoured floaters and an ambulance, with the complete medical emergency team. When even Makumba asked me finally what the hell we’re doing, I could only shrug my shoulders.

And then, five days later, Moersdorf himself arrived. By then, I was really pissed off with his security team. I mean, if he was so afraid, why didn’t he remain sitting in his fucking bunker? I told him that the first evening, in somewhat more polite words, but I told him. You were there, Gordana, and heard me. And he just looked at me and asked me if I knew how many people depended on him? And did I know how powerful his enemies were, various weaklings, envious intriguers and petty souls that did not understand the grandeur of his ideas?

At that point, I just wanted to sleep through the entire safari. I’ve seen them all, but I like those with funny ideas about their importance least of all. You came to the rescue, Gordana, pointing out that the excessive security would scare the game. We had nothing to worry about, Moersdorf laughed, his men were there just for the two-legged beasts. Once in the hunt, he claimed, we won’t even see them.

And I had to admit that he didn’t lie. It was obvious on day one that his team was well co-ordinated. They controlled the roads discreetly, the floaters buzzing around the hunting-ground, but it was all taking place far away from us and the game.

The four of us always headed for the hunt. You and me, Gordana, Moersdorf and Eckener, his personal bodyguard. Fortunately, that one knew how to move in the field and handle the carbine. And it was going good. Moersdorf was a deadeye and he piled up several fine trophies in the first few days. As time passed, two sarchuses and a gompho joined them. Moersdorf didn’t hide his pleasure and we, Gordana, secretly congratulated each other on a job well done. We’d planned the whole safari weeks in advance; we knew exactly where to go for the best trophies and where to ambush them. We had a deep wallet in our hands and we really decided to make a killing.

And then we went for the bronto, the high point of every true safari. We found Moersdorf a beautiful old bull, standing over three metres tall at the shoulders. Two regular horny knobs above his nose were almost thirty centimetres in diameter. We followed him for a while and we knew his territory, where he went and where he hid. All we had to do is bring Moersdorf before the bull and let the two of them settle it.

I’ll never forget that early morning as long as I live, Gordana. The wind was the colour of the dry grass that rustled all around us, whipped and bent by the hot breath. The four of us on the track, with me leading. We all carried express rifles in .600 Nitro Express calibre, only Eckener had a .500 carbine. The bronto is dangerous and requires fast shooting. Moersdorf’s rifle was a real cutie, original Purdey made to order. He was showing it off with great pride, and I didn’t even dare ask how much it had cost. Fortunately, he knew how to handle such a heavy calibre weapon. It was plain to see when he brought down the gompho. Frequent are the guests who are actually scared of their rifles, and with the horny beast charging from fifty metres away, that ends very badly.

We went through the grass, looking for our bronto. He had to be somewhere near. Then I spotted him by the edge of the bush, some two hundred metres away. I gave a signal and we all froze. I waved Moersdorf to join me. He came to me and stopped, filled with admiration as he studied the bull through the binoculars. It was a huge animal, with massive neck, heavy head and thick, folded grey skin resembling old armour. From the distance, he appeared sluggish, almost dull. But it was a dangerous illusion, and we all knew it. A bronto is strong and fast when it wants to be.

We spread out, Gordana. You were on the right, I was on the left. Moersdorf was in the middle, with Eckener somewhere behind. We slowly started towards the bull. He was browsing peacefully. We were silent, the wind was good, we used shrubs and trees as cover. The real expert will sneak to the bronto as close as possible. A shot from the distance will only wound it and drive it into the bush, and going after it then equals suicide. No, a bronto has to be approached within at least fifty metres and then brought down with one or two good hits.

And we started just fine, Gordana. In the tense silence, we managed to approach within seventy metres of the bull. A bronto is near-sighted, so unless one doesn’t jump around waving his hands, it’s not much of a feat. But, the giant has good senses of smell and hearing. I wanted to nod to Moersdorf to prepare himself – when the bull suddenly stopped browsing and lifted his head. I cursed silently as his nostrils flared. The wind changed direction just for a moment, but enough for him to smell us. And then the huge mass moved. We all pointed as one, pushing our safeties off, but no one dared squeeze the trigger.

With his head held high, the bronto ran towards us for some fifteen metres before stopping again to sniff the air. By that time, he knew well enough where we were. He was blowing and snorting, ready to charge. All he had to do was decide whom to attack first. I turned to Moersdorf. He was aiming at the animal, beads of sweat on his face. He waited, in full heat, the moment was still not right for him. You stood somewhat back, Gordana. It was only later that I became aware how strangely calm you were, as if you knew exactly…

Then the bronto charged. Moersdorf still didn’t do a thing, he just waited. And the beast rumbled towards us with his head low and his tail raised like some flag. I wanted to shout at Moersdorf when the first shot thundered. I saw the exact spot where the slug penetrated the thick skin, but nothing happened. The machine carried on at full steam. The second shot, another hit, the huge body shook but didn’t fall.

Moersdorf was empty. There was no time to wait for him to reload. I pulled the trigger, the first, the second. I hit the bronto with both shots. They shook him some more, but nothing else. I grabbed new bullets. And you, Gordana, you were just waiting.

Eckener fired instead and hit. It took him whole eternity to chamber a new bullet. Then, the second Eckener’s shot. By then Moersdorf reloaded, but it was too late. Five tons of brute force charged by me and drove madly straight into them. I saw Moersdorf simply disappearing beneath the bronto’s feet, not even realising what was happening. Eckener wanted to dodge, but the bronto swung his head and tossed him aside like a rag-doll. It was only then that you fired, Gordana. Your second shot, and mine, almost simultaneously, and the bull finally fell into the cloud of dust and lay still.

I ran to the place where Moersdorf and Eckener were lying. I couldn’t believe my eyes. If somebody had told me earlier me of this outcome, I would have called him a liar to his face. Seven, eight, nine hits! I had never heard of a bronto taking that much. Two or three bullets were usually sufficient, five in the worst case.

I found Moersdorf in the trampled grass. Or rather, what was left of him. The bull simply turned him to pulp. He even broke the rifle like some toothpick, not one bit impressed by its price. Eckener had a lucky day. The animal broke his ribs and legs, but he would live. He watched me dumbly as I took out the radio and informed the head of security that he had just lost his job. And you, Gordana, walked over to the dead bronto and caressed his cheek, as if he were an old friend of yours.

* * *

„A long time ago, in late twentieth century, they conducted an experiment.“ Praunsperger reclines in the canvas chair, illuminated by the camp fire, holding a beer in his hand. The distant howling of boruses reaches us from the bush, merging into an eerie symphony with the calls of smaller nocturnal creatures. Only when spending the night in the wilderness can one understand where all those fears and superstitions stem from. „Somewhere in Europe – and I think this is very important – a bunch of kids was told to choose their favourite of the sequence of computer-generated landscapes. Guess what they all chose?“

„I don’t have a slightest idea.“

„Everything flat, grassland, with a single tree here and there and hills in the distance.“ I just look at Praunsperger, not really getting what he’s trying to say. „Well? Grassy plain with scattered trees. What does that remind you of?“

„The savannah“, you answer, Gordana. „The African savannah. Or this here, it’s similar.“

„Exactly,“ Praunsperger nods. „European children chose the African savannah as their favourite landscape. I hope I don’t have to tell you that they’d never seen it in their lives.“

„So?“ I really like people being smart like that. On the other hand, it could be worse. The usual subject on long safari nights is rifles, calibres and bullets. And Praunsperger guesses correctly that one became boring ages ago. „What’s that supposed to mean?“

„Don’t you see?“ Praunsperger drinks up his can of beer and takes a new one from the cooler beside his chair. „It’s a remembrance of our original homeland. Humans came from the African savannah and the kids remember it subconsciously. Even after two million years, and after millions of light-years. Somebody had an idea to repeat that experiment on several planets and they got the same results.“

„That means,“ I begin screwing Praunsperger up, „when Hemingway went to Africa, it was a sort of return to the cradle, wasn’t it? And I thought all these years that he wanted to prove that he had a bigger truncheon than an elephant.“ Or a gompho, while we’re at it, just like the old tusker that Praunsperger brought down with two shots this afternoon.

„You don’t really like safari, do you?“ Praunsperger suddenly becomes serious. Perhaps I touched some nerve in him. And you, Gordana, become tense, as if you recognise some cause for alarm in his posture.

„A job just like any other. I admit, the hunt has its appeal. On the other hand, I can live without it. But what really makes a safari disgusting to me sometimes,“ now I go all the way, whether he likes it or not, „are the guests.“

For a moment, Praunsperger sits up, rigid in his chair. I see something murderous in his eyes, as if he’s about to jump up and punch me in the nose. Then he stops himself, relaxes and opens his beer. But, it is seething in him, he can’t hide it completely. So it should, I think to myself. Son of a bitch fucked up my life and why should I pamper him? And if I touch him somewhat before the endgame, even better. Maybe he’ll miss the winning move. And you, Gordana, wonder if this was really necessary. You still don’t know what kind of game we are playing and what is at stake, and that I must not loose.

* * *

„Moersdorf had to be stopped.“ You light a new cigarette, Gordana. The smoke whirls above the table. We’re both tired. It will be dawn soon, but we want to take this to the end. This may be the only chance we’ll ever have.

„Why didn’t you try the simple election defeat?“

„Elections?“ you laugh bitterly. „Elections are too dangerous a toy to be left in the hands of the voters. You heard Moersdorf’s slogans, I suppose?“

„‚We, the humans‘,“ I nod. „‚The biggest, the best, the most enterprising of all the races in the Universe. And the others won’t let us spread and prosper‘, shit like that.“ Anthropochauvinism and xenophobia are nothing new, people like Moersdorf are everywhere. But, I realise, seldom with such money and influence.

„And Moersdorf had quite an audience. It rings nicely in your ear when someone tells you that you could grab God for his beard if only there were no others to stop you. But there was more, Moersdorf had plans.“

„He wanted to be elected into the Federal Congress, if my memory serves me well.“

„And from there, he aimed for the top. The Federal Executive Council… And he would have succeeded, all the projections were showing that.“

„All right, so what? The others would murmur for a while, Moersdorf would quiet down, spend his term and that would be it.“ You, Gordana, look at me, surprised that I still don’t understand. You blow away the smoke, wondering if you should tell me or not. All that we said so far could have been read anywhere. Then you lean towards me, your voice becoming quiet, as if we’re not alone, as if there’s someone to hear us.

„Moersdorf believed, completely seriously, that he was chosen to free the human race from the bounds of the Conventions.“ I’m left speechless. Only now do I hear something going ‘click’ as the things fall into place – and I finally comprehend the true importance of everything that happened. I recall what Moersdorf told me on the first evening in the camp, about petty souls that do not comprehend the grandeur of his ideas. Sick, I thought then without even suspecting how sick. On the other hand, there’s a method in every madness, and that went for Moersdorf, too.

Briefly retold, the Conventions protect the living world and cultural heritage on all the known planets from over-exploitation and destruction. They regulate everything: environment and habitat conservation, hunting quotas, mining procedures, measures against pollution, waste disposal, even the city planning and population density. The Conventions make sense, they help maintain the continuity of evolution and preservation of old cultures. But they also cost money, time and effort. And some insist that they limit the development, restrict business and discourage free enterprise. In Moersdorf’s case, a simple and cheap-to-operate strip mine that would turn the entire region into desert, is simply forbidden by law. Poor fellow, he must have been frustrated. And he wasn’t the only one; many grind their teeth at the mention of the Conventions.

Most important of all, the signing of the Conventions was the condition under which the human race was allowed to spread throughout the Galaxy. It is a galactic Holy Scripture that is not negotiable and that is enforced by all disposable means, as my battalion commander would eloquently put it. Their cancelling can have only one outcome. „War … With everybody, Vegans, Kahtans, Trinitians, Baglins … They’d fuck us up. And I mean really and truly.“

„Moersdorf thought otherwise. And he had support in some circles; they started developing scenarios. Fifteen to twenty billions killed was an acceptable price for them. Fortunately,“ you put out your cigarette, Gordana, „there are still some sober heads under the peaked service caps.“

Or those that can count. In the case of an almost certain defeat, the human race would be happy to be allowed water-pistols, let alone armed forces. In that situation, many would be out of job, if not dead. „Assassination attempts? I heard of two.“

„We tried once. The other was some inside quarrel. Moersdorf had a talent for making enemies. It didn’t work,“ you shrug your shoulders, Gordana. „You saw his security.“

„The hunting accident,“ I mutter. That was the only time when Moersdorf was vulnerable, the only opportunity to get him. That’s where I came in, Gordana. The Agency bugged Moersdorf and followed his moves. You knew his plans, you knew that he would be my guest. And when you heard that I was looking for an assistant, you came. „That was your idea?“

„Praunsperger’s,“ you wave your head. „The assassination attempts increased Moersdorf’s popularity. We didn’t want a martyr. We needed something away from the public and away from the Sariska, so that his people cannot react on time. There was some irony in it, Praunsperger has some twisted sense of humour. Moersdorf was vehement when hunting quotas were in question.“

* * *

The investigation was a routine, although the corpse wasn’t. Makumba put together the investigation board and they took our statements and ruminated on them for several days. When they added everything up, they concluded that the bronto was unusually tough and that Moersdorf hesitated too long with his first shot. Your waiting, Gordana, was not even mentioned. But it nagged at me, oh, how it nagged at me.

Moersdorf’s men picked up their things immediately after the results of the investigation were read. They covered expenses without any objections and took his remains back to the Sariska. Legally, I was insured. One goes on safari on one’s own responsibility.

The whole commotion lasted for a week, Gordana; there was neither time nor nerves to sit you down alone and ask you some questions. And then, on the eighth morning, you flew away. You took your rifles and left without a word, sneaking out of your room while I was sleeping, just like a girl running away from home. By the time I realised you were gone, it was too late. You flew away in a chartered ship, in an unknown direction.

Makumba dropped by that afternoon. With a can of cold beer in his hand, he told me it would be smart to forget everything. Moersdorf and that damned bronto and you, Gordana. Makumba is a friend of mine and I knew he was warning me as a friend. He would have been sorry if something happened to me. I saw that he was worried, I didn’t want to say to myself scared. The powerful ones landed in our nicely remote place, played some game of theirs and told him to clean up and keep mum. And that pissed him off. After all, he is the law here. And when Makumba left late in the evening, Gordana, all that was left to me was a knot in my guts and a bunch of questions.

I quickly figured out that you wanted Moersdorf to kick the bucket. If you had fired when I did, maybe Eckener would have stopped the bronto. But, you waited for Moersdorf to bite the dust. And then I realised how poorly I really knew you. All I knew about you, about your life, was a bundle of photographs from Africa.

But that was some lead and I followed it. I told Hoagy to sniff around on Earth. Discreetly, I warned him, so that they don’t come banging on our doors. There was no need to tell Hoagy twice. If there ever was an artificial intelligence in love, Hoagy was the one. And when he told me three months later that they didn’t have a slightest idea about you in Africa, had never heard, never seen, never issued a licence, the Agency crossed our minds.

Someone wanted Moersdorf’s head. It didn’t matter to me then if it was because of politics or something else. Someone knew where, when and with whom was he going on safari. The hunting accident was an ideal way of assassinating someone. In Moersdorf’s case it was probably the only way that would pass relatively quietly. Someone sent you to be on the spot, Gordana, trained you and fabricated your life to make everything convincing, and planted you to do the dirty deed. And someone was powerful enough to put a pressure on Makumba. The Agency was quite a logical someone. Elementary, my dear Watson. A child would get this far.

The next question was how? You can’t exactly walk to a bronto and ask him to stomp that guy over there. That remained in the air for the next four years, until Hoagy dug out an interesting text written by a certain Trinitian. After that, everything was clear, the bronto’s toughness and your stalling, Gordana. I could just take off my hat. It was planned by a genius, and nobody could figure it out…

By then, I’d finished with safaris. Moersdorf was the last customer that year, and by the next season I’d retired. I had plenty of time to think it over and I realised that I was not particularly keen on hunting. When I left the army and when Gillian took me as his assistant, it was just a job. It was only in the long nights without you, Gordana, that I realised that it was the easiest way for me then. The bush, the rifle, the game instead of enemy, the hunt instead of combat. Almost like the army, but easier: I didn’t have to readjust, and all that shit that made me leave the Airborne was no more. When Gillian got killed, stupidly, when his floater crashed, I kept his business alive and became the best.

Then you came, Gordana.

And when you left, a gaping hole was all that remained. By the next season, it didn’t mean anything to me anymore. Money was not a problem. Gillian left me the bar, it made some profit and so I retired. In the beginning it was tough and then time helped. It does heal, after all. I’d go to the bush just to be alone, just to see and hear nobody. When Makumba needed me, I’d take the rifle and do the job. It’s not fair to leave a friend neck-deep in shit. Everything else was flying on the autopilot day after day.

Here and there, a girl would come by to warm my bed, more to convince myself that you’re not the only one in the Universe, that you came and went, to show you that you don’t mean anything to me anymore. From time to time, an occasional piece of the puzzle would accidentally fall in its place. That was how the Agency stopped being something anonymous and got a name. Praunsperger. Stanislaw Praunsperger.

Hoagy stumbled upon him while looking for you, Gordana. He left hooks everywhere; I told him to let me know if you got caught. And so, one morning two years ago, he screened me a report from the session of some Federal Congress Committee. One of the big shots at the table was this Praunsperger. The reporter mentioned him as the head of the Internal Security Department, one of the most important branches of the Federal Security Agency. Definitely a big game. The reporter didn’t say a word about his right hand, dressed in the dark grey business suit, who was shown passing him a document folder. You obviously went well, Gordana, progressing from the dusty bush to the Congress offices and committees.

* * *

„You’ve been a long time with Praunsperger?“

„You mean, have I slept with him?“ You want to take a new cigarette, but you find the box empty. You curse through your teeth, crumple the box angrily and throw it on the table. If there’s something you really hate, it’s when you run out of cigarettes.

„It sounded that way? I didn’t mean it to.“ Truly I didn’t, but I cannot help noticing that you don’t answer me, neither yes nor no. I shrug mentally, rise and go to the bar. I open the drawer under the register where a box of cigarettes is stored somewhere deep in the corner.

„You kept it for me? All this time?“ I nod. While we were together, I took care that a spare box was always in the drawer. And when you left, I left one. Hell, it doesn’t ask to eat. Somewhere deep in me I felt, knew, that one day you’ll need it. You open the box, take a cigarette and light it. „Praunsperger, you ask? We worked together for years. As he climbed, I followed.“

„Is he any good?“

„Oh, yes. Efficient, does the job. Makes himself good connections. He’s ambitious, he wants to enter politics. But, you don’t want to cross him. And he plays dirty.“

„He steals?“ It would come as no surprise to me. The Agency is certainly not a place where auditors come often. As somebody once said, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And there’s both power and absolute power in the Agency. All one has to do is scoop.

„What am I to tell you? If anybody asks, this safari is booked as a local security situation assessment. And there is more.“ I see that you’re not happy with it, Gordana; you’re chin-deep in the dirty laundry. Praunsperger obviously crosses his authority wherever he can. Then it dawns on me and I suddenly realise why he chose me for this safari before so many others.

„Tell me something. How much do you know about Praunsperger and the Agency?“ You wave your head, Gordana. Much was already said that shouldn’t have been. And I’m not really interested in details. „Let me put it this way. If you decide to write your memoirs, what would happen?“

„It would be crazy and unforgettable. Heads would roll all over the place, so many heads that maybe they would even forget about mine.“

„Praunsperger’s?“

„His first. But not only his. Why do you ask?“

I just dismiss it with my hand, but now I know what’s going on, Gordana, and I’m amazed that you don’t see it. Maybe you got careless sitting at the desk, so careless that you don’t see the obvious. And it fits perfectly with what you told me about Praunsperger. There is some irony in what he’s cooking up for us. Only, the old fox forgot that a good magician never repeats the same trick twice.

* * *

The wind is the colour of death. Every successful hunt is inevitably dedicated to her. The bronto lies in the dry grass, huge wounds gaping on his back, blood flowing through the thick skin. „Explosive slugs,“ Praunsperger says as he reloads his rifle. „It wasn’t exactly sportsmanlike, don’t you think?“

Everything started exactly as Praunsperger had planned. We found him the bronto, the biggest bull in the neighbourhood. Perhaps he was a little bit smaller than Moersdorf’s, yet he was quite nice. We stalked close to him, not more than fifty metres, when the animal sensed us. Just like Moersdorf, Praunsperger waited for the bronto to thunder dangerously close before he fired both his shots. The bronto barely swayed, just like Moersdorf’s. Praunsperger was empty and the huge mass was rolling straight at you, Gordana. Two quick and accurate hits were your only hope.

This time I had a carbine and I fired when you did, Gordana. My slug penetrated the skin and detonated. The rose of blood blossomed on the bronto’s back while inside the power of explosion tore everything apart, rib-cage, spinal cord, muscles. That was sufficient, I knew it would be. The huge body collapsed in the grass. You barely managed to jump away so it doesn’t crush you, Gordana, and I fired once more to finish the animal.

And now Praunsperger objects that it wasn’t sportsmanlike and I know that we’ve finally entered the endgame. He can forget his original plan; there’s no more hunting accident. All he can do now is let it pass or switch to plan B. I count bullets mentally as I approach the dead animal. Praunsperger has two in his express rifle. You, Gordana, fired one, so you still have one, and I have three in my carbine. And the pistols are here, if there’s time to draw them. „Neither is the nervous symbiont very sportsmanlike, if I’m not mistaken.“

Praunsperger looks at you angrily, Gordana. If looks could kill, you would be gone by now. And his rifle is pointing at you, seemingly by accident. All he has to do is pull the trigger. „Don’t blame Gordana. I had plenty of time. Seven years… Perhaps, had you left her to me, I would have something to do at night. This way…“

Everything is on the table now, there’s no more place for secrets. Hoagy discovered the text describing all known neural parasites and symbionts, sheer wonder how numerous they are. Not only that, the text also contained observations on their effects and telepathic abilities, as well as the remark that some of them can be used to control the host directly. „Gordana let you know when we chose the bronto for Moersdorf. That was her assignment, that’s why you planted her. That was weeks before Moersdorf arrived, you had plenty of time to place a symbiont.“

„I see we both read Strenenka-vah“, Praunsperger replies. Strenenka-vah was the Trinitian who wrote that article. His occupation was parasite exterminator and he obviously had a rich experience.

„When Moersdorf found himself in front of the bronto, you controlled the symbiont telepathically to run him over. Once in full steam, it took nine bullets to stop the bronto. Again, thanks to the symbiont. Well thought …“

„Only, my advice wasn’t listened to and the job was left unfinished,“ Praunsperger snarls. What was that supposed to mean, I wonder. Were you to chop my head off in the end, Gordana? Is that why you left?

„Obviously you love history, Praunsperger.“ I let his remark pass; I’ll discuss it with you later. „Now you repeat the same trick. Only this time Gordana was the target.“ And you, Gordana, only now realise what’s happening all this time and what was the real purpose of this safari. Praunsperger has ambitions. The least indiscretion would cost him dearly, and you know too much. Dead mouths are shut forever.

„I must admit you worked it all out correctly. Only, you forgot something.“

„Oh. What?“

„The one who controlled the symbiont. When we were killing Moersdorf, he flew in a special floater some ten kilometres above the hunting ground. He can’t be far away now, don’t you think so?“ In that moment, quiet buzzing reaches us. Praunsperger’s black floater rises above the bush some hundred metres away. I can see her doors pushed back, somebody sits inside and I already guess what he’s doing. „You don’t have much chance. I’ve got a good sniper there.“

Instead of a reply, I take out a remote controller from my pocket. I pull out the antenna with my teeth and, before Praunsperger realises what I intend, I press the button. An explosion thunders across the clearing. Our sergeant taught us well how these things are done. The floater breaks in two, the pieces remain seemingly hanging in the air, and then, in flames and smoke, they crash back into the bush. It will take tools to pull out the remains of whoever was inside. „So much for the sniper. This wasn’t very sportsmanlike either, but what am I to do?“

„Well played!“ Praunsperger remains calm, convinced that things are still in his hands, regardless of the floater. „Maybe it’s better this way. We’re not kids, we don’t need baby sitters. Now, this is strictly between us. The way I see it, who fires first, wins all. Or perhaps looses all?“ Praunsperger’s barrels are still pointed at you, Gordana. I can kill him, no problem, but will he manage to fire before the slug tears him apart?

„Drop you rifles! Right now!“ Again, there is something dark in Praunsperger’s eyes, something I’ve seen the other night, by the fire. You are familiar with that look, Gordana, since you lay your rifle in the grass without a word. I stall. The rat in my head runs in circles. To shoot or not to shoot? Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. „You heard me,“ Praunsperger threatens through his teeth. „I’ll shoot Gordana if you don’t drop your rifle!“

Now we go all the way, Gordana, with your life at stake. The seconds pass as we measure each other. Who will loose their nerve first and fire? Praunsperger doesn’t have much choice, too, and I think it’s only now that he becomes aware of that. If he kills you, I kill him and he saw what kind of bullets I have and what they do. And then again, you are disarmed, Gordana. If he could swing his rifle quickly and get rid of me, you would be no problem. That is his only way out, if only he could swing his rifle quickly enough…

And that’s where I’m waiting for him, and son of a bitch senses it as the sweat breaks on his face. He stops being so self-confident. A sniper up there would be handy right now, just to keep me busy. But what’s done is done, he has no choice and finally he decides.

His move is fast as a lightning, but I’m faster. Praunsperger’s trunk bursts in a bloody pulp, but the damned hand squeezes in the convulsion and fires and brings you down, Gordana, with a bullet in your leg.

I run to you. You are conscious, with your trouser leg soaked with blood. I cut the fabric with knife and dress the wound with a compression bandage. I can do nothing more. That should be enough, but the wound is bad. The bone is shattered; I don’t know what’s with vessels and how long you will last. I take the radio out and call Makumba. I tell him not to ask any questions, I give him co-ordinates and shout for the ambulance floater. And then we remain alone on the clearing, Gordana. I’m afraid to move you, and it would be wise to get out of here. There is too much carrion next to us and the smell of blood lingers everywhere.

We get company fast, one never waits for long when a buffet is laid. Wings flap above us, the air whistles through the shiny black feathers. I lift my head. The first teratorns dive and land, almost falling as they bounce in the grass. More are coming, and a harpagorn or two with them. As they circle on thermals, all the birds in a twenty kilometres radius watch each other. As soon as one starts descending, it means that it has found meat and others follow.

Several teratorns climb onto the bronto, as if they want to usurp the carcass. They balance with their huge wings as they crowd with the others. One grabs an opportunity in all that commotion and plucks the eye from the massive head and devours it as the humour drips from its sharp beak.

You grab me tightly with your fingers and tug at my sleeve, Gordana. You try to tell me something, but the pain cuts you and you fall back into the grass. It’s over, I whisper as I remove the hair from your forehead and wipe the sweat. It’s going to be all right, I comfort you, not very comforted myself. If only Makumba would hurry…

The sound of howling and yapping, almost like laughter, reaches us from the bush. Boruses scent the blood and call each other. The brown eyes study us through the thorns, measuring and calculating. The birds move away, their naked heads turning in all directions. Some fly away, reluctantly and with difficulty, and perch on near-by trees. The spotted beasts with large heads hesitate, walk around, sniff the air. They sense that these are not the ordinary remains after a predator’s feast. They’re not quite certain what happened here. There are too many unfamiliar scents, sweat, gunpowder, smoke, fear, but the hunger is strong and drives them out into the clearing.

I know they will not attack us. In their eyes, I’m the predator and you, Gordana, are my prey and I’m the only one entitled to you until I’m satiated and until I leave the half-devoured carcass to the weaker. But it’s going to be tricky if the sarchuses show up. And they just might, there’s enough meat here for them, too.

The first borus comes to Praunsperger. The birds jump away, making way for the stronger. The borus sniffs the body, uncertain about which end to begin. And then the gaping wound finally invites him and he bites and tears with his strong jaws. Others come and throw themselves at the corpse, tearing and opening the bowels. In a moment everything becomes a witch dance of bloodied jaws, trailing intestines and frantic pushing, snarling and squealing, cracking of bones and fluttering of wings as the birds grab the bloody pieces that fall in the grass. More beasts emerge from the bush. Not much remains of Praunsperger, but the bronto is here and there’s food like never before. Everything around us is a whirlpool of voracious gorging and we are in the middle of it, Gordana. We belong to each other again, whichever way it ends, we belong just to each other.

„I never answered your question,“ you moan through the pain, Gordana. Perhaps you never will, who knows. Neither of us loves empty words. ‘I love you’ was not often on our tongues, there were better ways to say that to each other. We were pawns in somebody’s game and now life is in our hands. To start afresh is the only thing left to us. We both tried without each other and it didn’t work out. In the end, it didn’t work out.

I kiss you, wet with sweat. I hold your hand as I search for the floater with my eyes. It’s still not here. The feast continues around us. One borus, his fur red with blood, impertinently lies in the grass two metres from us, gnawing at the meat that remains on bones too small to be a bronto’s. It looks at us, suspicious, and ready to fight for his snack if anybody tries to take it away from him. Maybe somebody else would be sick, Gordana, but we saw too much and we know the bush too well. Every death is always just the beginning of another life.

And life is the game that was always best played in twos.

Copyright © 2004 by Aleksandar Žiljak

Aleksandar Žiljak was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1963 and studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engingeering. Since 1997 he is a fulltime artist, specialized in wildlife illustration and science fiction paintings. Since 1991 he is also active as a writer and has established himself as one of the leading Croatian sf writers. His first story collection was published in 2004. He received the Croatian Sfera Award five time for his short stories and illustrations. He was involved in the InterNova project from early on and has contributed several stories and nonfiction to the German Nova. A translation of one of his finest stories, „Ultamarine“, will be published in Nova 17.

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