The bear stood on her hind legs, resting upright with her left paw gripping a tree. Adaptation to this terraformed planet had shortened her snout, given her long, droopy ears and a wiry, black mane at her neck. Also, her fur across her back, legs, belly, and snout was green. But aside from that, she was clearly a bear. She still sniffed at the air with a black button nose, still held to the tree with sharp, curled claws, still scanned through the trees with depthless eyes that stopped when she saw the two men watching her.
“Shit,” said the first man, Varick de Tour.
The second man, Thorolf Ulfsen, said nothing.
The bear sniffed twice in their direction. Evidently finding nothing of interest about them, she turned back to the tree, raked the claws of one paw through the thin white bark, then did so again with the other.
“What’s it doing?” asked Varick.
In truth, Thorolf had no idea. He was not an expert on bears. Nor did he know how to hunt them, for there were none on his homeworld, Song. Luckily, Varick, the CEO of a shipping company based out of Lloytenbrau, the spaceport on this planet’s moon, knew even less.
“Marking her territory,” Thorolf guessed. “Let’s get a little closer.”
“Closer? Can’t we take the shot from back here?”
They were still maybe 100 meters away.
“The closer the better. She’s not bothered by us, yet. Stay quiet and close to me, and keep your finger off that trigger, if you don’t mind.”
They took a few steps towards the bear, Thorolf leading the way with slow, measured strides, careful to disturb as little of the foliage as possible. Varick did not. A twig snapped beneath his boot, and the bear’s head swiveled towards them again. Thorolf froze. Varick raised his rifle.
It had a long barrel, the thick stock pressed into his shoulder encased in gold. The scope with twelve settings was attached between the grip and chamber on an arm designed to nestle the eyepiece perfectly against his face when he pressed the weapon to his shoulder. It was a weapon perfectly suited to the man—it was the weapon of a rich trophy hunter willing to pay someone else for the credit of the kill.
That was how Varick introduced himself to Thorolf in a Lloytenbrau bar the night before. “I’m asking every smuggler, freespacer, and bounty hunter in here if they’ll help me bag a Verark bear tomorrow, planet-side. I figured I’d start with the longest gun in here—which turned out to be mine—and work down from there. So, what do you say?”
Thorolf decided Varick must have been rejected quite a few times already, since his own weapon was a double-barreled snub-nose, its wooden stock specially rigged to rest against the bicep of his arm if he ever had need to shoot from the hip. A dueler’s blaster, a going-away gift from his brother.
He didn’t raise it now, but put a hand on Varick’s barrel. He pushed, slowly, until the weapon pointed to the forest floor again. The bear huffed, dropped to all fours. Three steps drew a breath from Varick and brought the bear to within 75 meters. Then a bird darted out of a bush just in front of it, missing the bear’s head by an inch. One paw swatted at it, then another, both missing as the bear rose onto its hind legs, following the quick movements of the bird.
Thorolf lowered himself to one knee, motioned for Varick to do the same. Pad to shoulder, offhand on the forestock grip, barrels raised level with his eyes, finger curled around the trigger. The bear struck the bird just before it fluttered out of her reach, slammed it to the ground with a thwump that startled more birds around them. She ate it.
“Take your time,” Thorolf intoned.
He was aware of the rifle rising beside him, could see its muzzle out the corner of his eye.
“Wait until it feels right.”
The bear suddenly jumped at another bird skimming just above her head, gnashing her bloody teeth at empty air as she tried to follow it. The momentum swung her onto her back, where she batted at the birds above her, snarling while her legs cycled in air like a baby in a crib.
“Show me your head,” Varick said in a stage whisper.
Thorolf rolled his eyes.
The bear rolled back onto her front, facing away from the two men now. She pounced on one more bird, then paused, turning her head slowly towards the two men.
Thorolf tensed, waiting for her to rush them, to cross the 75 meters between them in the time it would take him to blink, for Varick’s shot to miss and for the bear to be unfazed by his snub-nose. Her claws were long enough to rend his flesh, teeth sharp enough to pierce his skull. But she did none of these things, despite the sweat on his palms. She only stared at them, motionless, her head presenting a perfect shot.
“It’s now or never,” he told Varick.
Metal grinding against metal echoed through the forest, the universally known and understood sound of a bolt-action on a rifle being pulled. Thorolf tensed for the shot, but it never came.
“Guess it’s going to be never,” said a voice he didn’t recognize. “Weapons on the ground, hands in the air. Both of you.”
To show he intended to cooperate, Thorolf let go of the forestock grip and held his left hand aloft.
“If you don’t mind,” he said without turning, “I’d like to have some sort of protection against that carnivore over there.”
“That carnivore is an endangered subspecies,” said the unfamiliar female voice. “Furthermore, you are currently standing in a wildlife preserve under W.S.C. protection. Let me put it more bluntly—that bear ripping you apart is better than what will happen to you if you kill it.”
“Better do what she says, Thorolf,” Varick said. “W.S.C. is the power in these parts. They don’t mess around.” Accompanying this speech, Thorolf heard the sound of Varick’s rifle being placed on the forest floor.
The bear was still interested in them, now turning and ambling in their direction with loping, careless strides.
“The sooner you put that rifle down, Thorolf, the sooner we can resolve this whole situation,” the woman said.
Thorolf wasn’t sure what made him angrier—that she had snuck up on him, or that Varick had used his real name.
He tried to calculate the odds that her rifle was on him and not the bear, and what that meant for his chances if he dove to the left, spun in midair, and fired a blind shot at where he thought this newcomer might be. Even with the stress of the approaching bear and the seething hole in his stomach at the situation he found himself in, Thorolf knew the calculation was not in his favor. He put down the gun.
“Good. Now, that spaceship back there, to whom does it belong?”
“Him,” Varick answered, too quickly.
“Who’s asking?” Thorolf added, too slowly.
“Ranger Bibi Oheim,” said the woman, “at your service. Sadly, Thorolf, it is my duty to arrest you and impound your spaceship for running an illegal poaching operation. Conviction of this crime will result in the confiscation of your ship and weapons, a prison sentence of at least 12 years, and a fine I can tell right now you can’t afford. Do you understand these charges and their consequences as I have explained them to you?”
“I ain’t running shit,” Thorolf said, sensing wisely that he still shouldn’t turn around. “He’s the man that hired me. Arrest him for running a poaching operation.”
“According to Wenextian law, the owner or captain of a ship is considered to be the mastermind of any operation in which the ship is used as an accessory,” Ranger Oheim responded duly. “Your passenger may be taking part in the operation, but overall responsibility still lies with you.”
“And what are you going to charge him with?” Thorolf spat.
“Come now,” Varick interjected, “surely I can’t be charged with anything. This fellow enticed me into this trip, assuring me it was entirely legal. I had absolutely no idea the Verark bear was an endangered species, not being from around these parts.”
Thorolf’s shout agitated the bear. She squatted on her haunches, roaring a warning at the three figures.
“Now listen carefully, you two,” Oheim said as the echoes from the roar started to die away. “She’s not going to charge us—yet—but make any sudden movements and she will. Starting with Thorolf, I want you both to get to your feet, very slowly. Go ahead, Thorolf, nice and easy.”
The bear grounded its front paws again, roared a second time. Thorolf looked at his rifle, still within easy reach of him.
“Don’t try it,” Oheim warned.
“Good. Now you, sir.”
The bear took a step forward, then a second, and roared a third time.
“Oh god,” Varick whispered. It took Thorolf a moment to realize the man was pissing himself.
“There is no god right now,” Oheim said, suddenly much lower and much closer to them. “There is only you, me, Thorolf here, and that bear. Ain’t nothing going to come out of nowhere and save you, except me. That makes me your god, bud, so—”
A scream broke through the silence of the forest, a literal blast of sound that ruffled the bear's fur and shook the ferns with a gust of hot air. Somewhere above them, completely unrelated to what they were doing there—or so Thorolf guessed—a passing ship was pushing Mach 1.3 inside the atmosphere. It left a blue and pink chemtrail behind it, drawing the bear’s attention to it. Varick, seeing this moment for what it was, sprang away into the woods, running as fast as his long legs could carry him.
“Hey!” Oheim snapped.
Thorolf grabbed the opportunity too, spinning with his arms out, his hands clenched into fists. They clubbed into Bibi, first the arm holding the forestock of her rifle, then into her stomach, which he backed up with a shoulder lowered into her stomach. A discharge from the rifle exploded a tree just in front of Varick, drawing another screech from him as he stumbled backwards, losing his footing and falling to the ground. Thorolf and Bibi both fell as well, he on top of her, struggling for the rifle that was attached to a strap wrapped around Bibi’s body.
She clocked him across his cheek—a strong punch, nevertheless misjudged, since it took one hand from the rifle and gave him the strength to lever the weapon out of her other hand, even as he fell backwards from the blow. The strap dragged her with it, right into a spot where Thorolf could smash the stock against the side of her forehead.
A roar and a scream from the bear and Varick echoed through the woods. The bear had charged. Thorolf spared them one glance, and saw that it was too late for Varick. The rifle and strap were connected by a simple buckle, which Thorolf undid with shaking fingers. He grabbed his own rifle as well, then took off at a jog, Bibi starting to blink and stir on the ground.
“Hey!” she muttered.
“Help the rich man,” Thorolf called back, not turning around.
His ship, the Night Wolf, waited not far away. He could see the steam that still billowed from its engines above the trees ahead of him, and he remembered the trail he and Varick had taken soon after landing. It was a shame about Varick, he reflected, but his money probably wouldn’t have been any good to Thorolf anyways. Neither of them were ever going back to Lloytenbrau.
“Stop!” shouted Bibi. A laser round kicked up the dirt between Thorolf’s legs, freezing him in place.
“Idiot,” he muttered. He had forgotten about Varick’s rifle.
“Next one’s in your skull!”