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Sheila Clark (writing as TGZC)
The girl strode along confidently, all senses automatically alert as she watched and listened for any indications of inimical animal life. The great scattered herd of unicorns she had seen yesterday should be not far away, for unicorns were notoriously slow movers. She eased the quiver of arrows on her shoulder, wishing it were possible to pad the narrow strap a little to stop it cutting into her shoulder, but their little colony was too lacking in resources to permit that luxury.
She should be in sight of the unicorns by now. Even if many of them were lying down, and so hidden from her sight by the tall grasses, some should be standing, their long, single horns in full view. But there was not a horn in sight. Where were they? Unless - it would be exceptionally bad luck if, now of all times, the area was to be cursed by a pack of smilodons!
She swung herself lithely into a tree and stared around her. No. Definitely no unicorn horns. Nor any of the long necked cameleopards. She cursed softly to herself as she dropped back to the ground. Now she must search for small game, a much more strenuous occupation, for she must not go home empty-handed. It was always unfortunate when a hunter failed to catch enough to feed his family, and to-day - and for many days in the future - she would have to support her half-brother, his current mate, already eight months pregnant and therefore wholly dependant on others for her food, and the women's four other children; for her brother was lying helpless with a leg broken by a buffalo he had unwarily attacked, his first arrow having merely wounded it without disabling it. The girl did not in the least mind her status as unsuitable breeding material, but she did find herself resenting the custom that decreed that she should be responsible for the family of her injured brother as well as her two idiot siblings. It wasn't even as if the four children were his! Under these circumstances, why shouldn't their fathers take them?
Certainly, the rest of their people wouldn't leave them to starve, but life was too difficult, with too many congenitally disabled through inbreeding for any hunter's failure to support his/her family to be accepted with equanimity. Sometimes she wondered which of the original seven survivors of the crash that colonised this world been less than perfect genetically speaking; perhaps more than one had been.
The weakness hadn't shown up until the fourth generation - and then the results had been almost fatal. So many of that generation had been born disabled! Now, no-one had more than one child by the same mate; and any parent producing two imperfect children could not breed again, nor could his perfect offspring for fear they carried the weakness as a recessive gene. The girl herself was fit, strong and intelligent - but her two idiot paternal siblings, neither of whom had any imperfect maternal siblings, damned her. Yet, when she compared her life as a hunter with the lives of the women who were allowed to breed, she realised how fortunate she really was. She did not have to worry herself into an early grave, eternally pregnant and burdened with young children, always afraid that this one would be less than perfect, undesirable - and if it was, whose fault was it? Which parent carried the genes of destruction?
But even as her mind considered the history and problems of her race, she remained watchful. A movement not far away caught her eye. She froze, then moved again as another hunter came into view. Their paths converged.
"No luck, Rena?"
The girl shook her head. "There was a herd of unicorns here yesterday, Pedro. The only thing that could have moved them so quickly is a pack of smilodons. Be careful."
Pedro grunted acknowledgement of the warning, privately considering it unnecessary. Younger than Rena, he could not remember the last time a pack of smilodons had migrated into the area. He considered that the tales about the beasts had lost nothing in the telling over the intervening fifteen years, but when he had once dared to suggest that the beasts couldn't be as ferocious as the tales depicted, he had been assured that they were. Now it seemed that he would find out for himself. Oh, he would be careful, he knew. Unwary hunters never lasted long. He would be as careful as he was when facing - say a wolf, or a dragon - but he was far from convinced of the extent of their ferocity. Strange, though, if Rena were right about the unicorns - and she was a most reliable hunter - wolves or dragons didn't panic unicorns badly, so something more vicious must have shifted them.
"But am I encroaching on your planned route?" Rena was asking now, in obedience to the hunter's code of conduct.
"Not at all," he replied. "I was travelling at random. Perhaps I encroach on yours, since you knew of the unicorns?"
"No longer, since the beasts have moved."
"You are going on?"
"I must. Had you not heard? Brian has a broken leg."
Pedro made a face. "Unfortunate. When does Silver re-mate?"
"Not for at least two months, unless the child is early." Rena shrugged. "At least no-one will expect Brian to take another wife until his leg is mended and he can hunt again.
"I marry next month," Pedro said gloomily.
Rena chuckled. "Don't sound so pleased about it!.."
"I don't mind marrying. I object to supporting another man's children. Their fathers should have to support them."
"I was thinking much the same about Silver's four. But a year from now, remember, another man will be supporting your first child."
"I would prefer to support my own," Pedro said slowly.
"Do you believe in monogamy, then?"
"Yes, I do!"
"It's bad for the gene pool."
"This way is simply spreading the bad genes. It's why the fourth generation was so badly affected, even though the third instituted monogamy - the women of the first two generations having children to as many men as possible, supposedly to help the gene pool. Of course everyone ended up with the faulty genes!"
"The doctor of the survivors approved."
"The doctor of the survivors was one of five women who had only two men between them. Of course she approved! It was one way to get a man!"
"It also increased the second generation faster. And the trouble didn't arise until the fourth - and that was the generation that was the result of a return to monogamy, as you pointed out."
Pedro looked unconvinced.
"It is not, however, a problem that we need consider," Rena added. "Even if you asked to have only one wife, the Elders would never approve."
She glanced round. As the older of the two hunters, she had the right to choose first the direction in which she wanted to go. "I will go this way, Pedro. Good hunting!"
"Good hunting." He watched her stride away, quickly vanishing from sight in the long grass as she dropped into a slight dip in the ground. Then he selected his direction, and moved on.
"Class M planet, Captain," Spock reported from his library computer sensors. "Distribution of land and water approximately the same as on Earth. Oxygen content of atmosphere slightly higher. Life form readings. Intelligence is indicated, but not extensively so; possibly a species is just beginning to evolve into a sapient life form, for the reading is extremely localised, intermixed with non-sapient readings. Humanoid."
The landing party materialised on a grassy plain. Most of the grass was about chest high, but Spock's eyebrows shot upwards as he realised that some of the blades of grass were taller than he. It limited visibility quite severely.
"Fertile," Kirk commented, unnecessarily.
Spock swung his tricorder round. "Life form reading, Captain. One intelligent, a large number of non-sapient readings, feline characteristics..."
He broke off as a scream of agony intermixed with terror rang out, to be cut off short.
"This way!" Kirk pulled out his phaser and ran. The others followed close at his heels. The grass was not tangled at all, and parted easily to let them through to a scene of utter horror. Two beasts that looked like great sabre-toothed tigers had hold of a limp humanoid body. They were pulling at it in a grisly tug-of-war. There was clearly nothing that could be done to aid the victim. Several more of the great cats were watching hungrily, but it was impossible to see how many. However, although nothing could help the victim, the instinct to do something was irrepressible. Kirk moved forward a few steps.
One of the watching cats leaped towards him. He fired his phaser, still set to stun force. Nothing happened. The great beast landed lightly, and bounded forward again.
From behind the landing party an arrow hissed, to catch the beast squarely between the ribs. It gave a snarling squalling sound, twisted in mid-air end fell heavily. At once several of its fellows pounced on it. It gave one more vicious snarl, then fell silent. Another arrow hissed, and another, before the men could turn, and each arrow hit one of the great cats squarely. The two fresh casualties were in their turn attacked by their unhurt packmates.
Kirk turned in time to see a girl fire off a fourth arrow. Without even waiting to see if hit its target, she drew another from the quiver, and fired it while its predecessor was still in the air.
She beckoned with her head, then, and waited, another arrow notched while the men joined her, then indicated that they should move away. She backed after them, watching intently as long as she could see the beasts, then watching even more intently for movement in the grass that might indicate that one or oven more of the smilodons was coming after them; though she privately considered that the surviving beasts had enough to think about, in the form of their grisly cannibalistic meal.
Kirk pulled out his communicator. This girl was obviously a member of a civilised culture, no matter how primitive; but it would not be possible to speak to her while they had to keep a sharp lookout for these sabre-tooths.
"Kirk to Enterprise." He noted with relief that she didn't look startled.
"Enterprise. Scott here,"
"Four to beam up, Scotty."
The girl turned to him as soon as they materialised.
"Captain, you must send me down again. I must warn my people about the smilodons."
"The smilodons are a migrant species. There have been none in our vicinity for fifteen years. I suspected their presence earlier to-day, but had no proof. Now, however, I know. I must warn my people."
"I see," Kirk said. "That's easily done, Miss - ?"
"Rena - how did you know I'm a Captain? And how is it you speak excellent English?"
"We're the descendants of a crash almost two hundred planetary years ago. Our legends indicate that our years are rather shorter than the years our original ancestors knew, so I don't know how long ago it would be by your reckoning."
Kirk nodded, and turned to his First Officer. "Mr. Spock," he said. "What are the co-ordinates for the main concentration of Human life forms you found?"
Spock moved to the console and set the co-ordinates himself. "Ready sir."
Kirk joined Rena on the transporter. "What was the name of the crashed ship?" he asked.
"Check it out, Mr Spock."
"Energise." They shimmered out of sight.
Kirk beamed back alone. "They want to stay," he said.
"Indeed," Spock commented.
"It's their home. Smilodons and all. But apart from the smilodons, it's a good planet. I'm recommending it for settlement. They do badly need some fresh blood - almost half the population is badly mentally handicapped as a result of inbreeding, and one or two of the others are physically handicapped. Have you found out about the Venturer?"
"Yes, Captain It was a colonising vessel some hundred and seventy standard years ago. It disappeared without trace... but its intended target was many light years from here."
"If it went out of control they were more than lucky to find somewhere at all, even if they did crash," Kirk commented. "Anyway, I've told them our medical crew will check them out, and find out which ones are liable to have defective offspring. It's the only direct help they'll accept apart from one or two items to help their hunting and farming."
He punched the intercom. "Kirk to sickbay. Bones, get your medical gear ready - you've got routine physicals to attend to on the colony below."