Once there were monsters here.
At least that's what most people thought. I did. But we were wrong. The things we feared are real enough, but they aren't monsters.
Monsters exist only inside the human mind. Dracula, the Wolfman, Freddie Kruegerwe dream up these bogeymen to give faces to those shapeless fears that haunt us in the night. Once you confront those secret terrors and stare them in the eye, they are no longer monsters.
Dangerous? Certainly. Enemies? Maybe. But not monsters, not in the true sense of the word.
We wrote off the first disappearances to carelessnesspeople exploring alone without telling anyone where they were going or when they'd be back. They were lost months apart, no traces and no obvious connections. It's a bad idea to go off alone on a planet that's not fully explored, even if you are sick of seeing the same faces every day.
We'd been on Avalon more than three years when the third and fourth members of the colony went missing. By then, we'd lost some livestock, too. That was a problem; until we knew the chickens and pigs would survive and multiply, they were worth their weight in gold. It wasn't like we could bring in replacements in a hurry, not with Earth twelve light years away. So we rebuilt the stockades to make sure they'd keep the animals in.
That's when we discovered the problem was outside the walls.
No one saw it, of course. All we found were some tracks left by big, clawed feet, a few scratches where the creature vaulted the low plasrock wall, and the savaged carcasses of half a dozen hogs.
We had rocket scientists in the colony, but we didn't need them to figure out we were dealing with an unexpected threat. Almost four years we were on the surface before one of the things showed itself! How the hell could we know? The bioanalysis we did from orbit suggested predators, but nothing that we thought could stay hidden from us for long. Somebody would surely spot an animal that big sometime, wouldn't they?
The colony mobilized and went on a military footing. The prints were big, something on the order of a lion, but maybe half again longer and heavier. What really shook me, though, was that it got to the hogs and killed them so quickly and quietly that nobody heard or saw a thing. Except afterwards.
I'm a city boy. I never knew pigs had so much blood.
We started with five hundred colonists. We'd lost four and had two births, with two more coming in the near future. The babies were supposed to add to the colony's population, not stabilize it. The cavalry was a long way away and we felt vulnerable.
We'd built carefully the first weeks after landfall, putting a wall around the housing units for protection, just in case. The population of native herbivores was under control, so of course we assumed the presence of at least one species of large predator when we landed. We posted guards at night, too, but we let that slide after a while, even after we lost the first two colonists. Like I said, we figured we were dealing with carelessness, not carnivores. Nobody imagined something that big would come right into our back yard without being seen or heard.
For the first time I felt I was a vital member of the colony. I was nominally the settlement's Chief of Security, but for more than three years I'd been little more than a glorified mechanic. With nothing to protect against, I felt unneeded, inconsequential, and useless-excess baggage that should have been left behind.
And I should have been. I was only included in the mission because my wife, Sara, was one of the top research botanists on Earth, and one of the few willing to give up everything to found a new world. How the hell else does a cop from Bloomington, Indiana, get picked for man's first mission to the stars?
After the incident with the hogs, it seemed clear that we'd lost four colonists to the same predator. It was also clear, to me anyway, that I'd been sloppy.
At the town meeting the day after we discovered the hogs, I asked for and got permission to break out heavier weapons from the ship's armory. I also pushed through a motion to start up the night watch again. The hogs we had left were to be kept inside at night and the chickens were moved to what we hoped were secure quarters inside the town walls.
The next step was a hunting expedition to capture or kill one of these beasts. The "capture" idea wasn't minethat came from the colony's xenobiologists. I favored shooting first and dissections later. I made it clear to my teams that they were not to waste a lot of energy trying to subdue one of these beasts.
The problem was we never saw one. We spent months searching in expanding circles around the settlement. We covered the plains north and west of the towndiscovering a nasty native substitute for grass with leaves like razorsand the local equivalent of woodlands to the south and east. Not so much as a curious glance from one of the beasts.
They knew we were there, of course.
We went well armed. We carried pocket rockets, guns that look like a sawed-off shotgun with a pistol grip, except they fire a cartridge-sized missile powered by a solid-fuel propellant. Enough bang to take down a charging rhino.
Twelve standard months and we didn't fire a shot.
Even using some of the chickens as bait for a few nights didn't work. We still didn't have enough meat on the hoof to sacrifice more hogs, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. They weren't going to walk into our pathetic little trap.
One of the teams finally stumbled on the monster's secret. By accident, of course. After nearly sixteen standard months of searching, one of the teams got careless. Oh, God, what I wouldn't give to have that day back again!
My wife, Sara, was on patrol with Charlie Buck. I was back in the village, trying to undo the damage Joe Sheridan had done to one of the rovers the night before. Sara and Charlie separated because Sara'd found some native flowers she'd never seen before and wanted to collect some samples.
Twenty minutes later, she was gone.
The only clue we had that something was wrong was a split-second burst of noise from Sara's radio. I've heard the tape since, at least a hundred times. It might have been Sara screaming. I don't know. I pray it wasn't.
It took Charlie about ten minutes to run back to where they'd split up. There were signs of a brief, one-sided struggle. My God, the blood! The blood .
One other thing: Sara's weapon was lying nearby, bent nearly in two.
The barrel of that weapon was made of cold-drawn 4140, a chromium-molybdenum alloy that theoretically doesn't bend until you apply over 80,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. It's low-tech, but effective. And that thing took the time and effort to mangle her weapon. After Sara was... no longer able to call for help.
The point is, the beast didn't just bite it and spit it out because it didn't like the taste. It had to work and work hard to put her gun in that shapelike it knew what the gun was for.
Just like it knew.
Of course it did. The damn things were psychic. It's the only explanation that makes sense.
Think about it! Assume a big, strong, well-armed but relatively slow predator that needs to survive by catching and eating fast, alert, and very nervous prey animals. It can't outrun its dinner, so it has to stalk. In fact, it has to get so close that it can strike before its victim has time to react. Without the element of surprise, it starves. What better design than to give this predator the ability to know when its presence has been detected? Or when its prey is hurt, or weak, or asleep?
Or just preoccupied with some pretty flowers.
The thought gave me chills. The only time this beast would ever be seen was when it was about to feed. And it would be the last thing the victim ever saw.
Oh, maybe it's not true psi, reading thoughts and all that. Maybe it's just an ability to sense the emotional state of its prey, to know when a potential victim is agitated or calm, alert or distracted. Combine that with stealth and it would be enough.
The biologists thought I was nuts, of course. Not possible. Couldn't happen. Never been observed in nature.
Idiots. Sara and I just about had that ability with each other.
The colony's reaction was predictable: Poor Sanders, taking Sara's death so hard, creating a psychic killer to explain away his losshis failure. We're so sorry, Sandy, don't feel too bad, Sandy, you did your best, Sandy, and by the way, may we have your weapon and your keys?
I'm going to show them.
I had to sneak out of the village, but that was easy. Since Sara's death, my fellow colonists have been trying very hard to look everywhere but at me.
So here I am, on the little hill where my Sara became the fifth human to see the most dangerous predator mankind has ever encountered, and I haven't got a care in the world.
Walking along, without a radio or a weapon, thinking happy thoughts. Staring into that strange, alien, orange-colored sky.
That damned orange sky. Was that the last thing you saw, Sara, before that thing stole you from me? Did you see it? Did you think of me in those last few precious seconds of life? Or were you so frightened, so hurt and disoriented by its sudden, brutal attack that your last moments were nothing but
Stop it. Happy thoughts. Deep breaths, slow, easy, calming, relaxing breaths. Happy, peaceful thoughts.
Thoughts of me and Sara, drinking the cool water of a bubbling spring flowing through a forest on a lazy summer day; thoughts of her hand in mine as we looked at the stars, glittering like diamonds in the night sky over our home in Indiana.
On the banks of the Wabash, far away
I have an ancestor, a great-to-the-eighth-power grandfather, who was buried on a low bluff overlooking the Wabash River in 1816. He died in a boat carved from a poplar log, making the journey up the river with his children and grandchildren to colonize the wilderness. A local historian found his gravestone seventy years later, noted that it was the oldest in the graveyard, and wondered who he was and why he'd come to that place at such an early date.
A hundred years later, another ancestor of mine found the burial site, but the sandstone slab had disappeared, plowed under by farmers or stolen by vandals.
Who will note our passage here? Will anyone care enough in a hundred years to ask why we came? Will they try to reconstruct our struggles in badly written histories of the colony's early years? Will there be monuments to the dreams and the courage that brought us to this dark and bloody shore?
Does it matter?
Another old song drifts to me across twelve light years of cold, empty space: Back home again, in Indiana
Ha. Not likely. Not now.
Throughout history, our ancestors have given names to the monsters that haunted their dreams: Ghost, dragon, vampire, zombie. What name will be given to the first monster of this new world?
As I said, monsters are simply products of the human mind. And the only real monsters wear human faces.
Enough. Think happy thoughts.
Thoughts of disabling the motion sensors along the wall before leaving the colony this morning; thoughts of returning to the village tonight, long after dark, and opening the gates, all of them, quietly, late at night, with no one awake and watching.
Happy thoughts, of opening doors, quietly, so quietly, each and every one, to let in a monster. Thoughts of, of...
I'll be damned. So that's what you look like.