She tried to still her pounding heart in order to hear even the faintest sound. Changing her focus, she gave careful scrutiny to the ground, looking for scuffed soil, a displaced rock, a broken thorn, or a bruised leaf on one of the plants.
Because of a dead battery in a motion sensor, the quetzal had come undetected in the night, crossed the defensive ditch, unhooked the gate latch, and slipped into town. That was the thing about quetzals, they were intelligent. Learned from their mistakes. This one obviously had previous experience with humans and knew the defenses. After the creature made its kill, it had known how to escape, charging headlong for the uplands. That was another thing about quetzals: for short distances they could run faster than an aircar.
The planet hosted an endless variety of different and deadly beasts.
Bems, though solitary and slow, relied on extraordinary camouflage and deadly claws to capture prey. The creature they called the nightmare inhabited the tropical jungle stretches just south of Port Authority. Also a master of camouflage, it mimicked the surrounding vegetation and invoked a special kind of horror: it first impaled and then devoured victims from the inside out. Fortunately nightmares almost exclusively lurked in mundo trees down south. Smaller threats like the slugs, spikes, and semisentient stinging, poisonous, and predatory plants filled out most of the rest of the known dangerous flora and fauna.
"Talina? You on the trail?" Allenovich's voice came through her earpiece.
She shifted her rifle, eyes still on the thornbushes as they rotated their branches to expose night-weary leaves to the rising sun. "I'm maybe three hundred meters from the head of the canyon."
"Still got tracks?"
Talina filled her lungs, hating the way her heart was hammering at her breastbone. "No. They vanished about fifty meters back."
"Shit." A pause. "You watch your ass."
"Yeah," she whispered and wished for a drink of water.
"Trish here. I'm on the rim just across the canyon from you, Tal. Iji says the drones are reporting that nothing broke out onto the flat up ahead. It'll take a while to recall them. I'm scanning the canyon with the IR. With the morning sun, that slope you're on is a patchwork of heat signatures. You sure it's there?"
"Yep." She swallowed hard, the rifle up, her pulse racing. "I can almost..."
A trickle of dirt broke loose to cascade from above.
Talina dropped to one knee, the rifle lifted for a snap shot as she stared through the optic.
The buzzing of the invertebrates changed; the chime shifted as if a whole section of them had gone quiet. Odd, that.
A pebble clicked and bounced down through the rocks and into the scrubby thorn brush above. Quetzal? Or just the morning sun expanding the eroded soil?
Damn, I hate this!
Her muscles remained bunched like knotted wire. Something about the invertebrates...
"Trish?" she barely whispered. "See anything above me?"
Why the hell couldn't humans have eyes in the backs of their heads? The morning air had grown heavy, oppressive.
"Can't make out anything definitive, Tal. Be damned careful. We don't want to bury you, too."
"Affirmative on that."
The quetzal had prowled the town, tracks indicating where it had avoided adults—aware of their weapons—and skirted the lighted areas. Sticking to the shadows and back ways, it had made its way to the personal quarters, stopping only long enough to peer into the domes and try the doors.
At Allison Chomko's it had found safe prey, had watched her leave her house on an errand. Then the creature had raised the unlocked latch before entering to make its kill. It had escaped, gone before anyone knew.