When in Rome

By Grey’s Shadow


The Com Guardsman cursed and swatted at the buzzing warnets as he pushed through the brush behind the Sheriff. The finger-long, red-striped stingers had been stirred up by their passage. The old Sheriff looked at him and sighed.


"Y'all ain't larnt much 'bout this planet, have ya?" He pulled something from a pocket. "Close yer eyes."


The Guardsman complied, and felt a wet mist as the sheriff sprayed him down. The swarming warnets took off quickly as the repellant did its job. "Thanks."


"Don't leave home without it," the Sheriff replied as he put the sprayer away. He looked out into the brush, his keen eyes shining from the shadow between his floppy hat and handlebar mustache. "This way."


Slowly and quietly, the two men moved through the wooded undergrowth of Grinder's Switch, following a trail that the Guardsman could only see when the Sheriff showed him. As little help as he was, he had to wonder why he had been sent to join the posse. Probably just another move by ComStar to help relations, trying to understand how these rustic folk did things.


The Sheriff stopped, examining the ground and looking around. The Guardsman tried to follow the same signs the Sheriff was looking for. They were just one of several groups fanned out in these woods; they were looking for an escaped criminal, a condemned pirate who had jumped a Deputy, taken a gun and ran. And apparently, they were actually right on the man's trail. The Guardsman's hands flexed around his carbine in nervous anticipation as they began moving again.


The Sheriff seemed more relaxed, cradling his shotgun in the crook of his arm, as he paused to take a drink from his canteen. "Sniff."


The Guardsman did, and coughed as the sticky sweet odor filled his sinuses.


The Sheriff chuckled. "We call'em honeyballs. Just a fungus, nuthin' special. They make that smell when they bust open, so bugs come'n spread the spores."


The Guardsman sneezed. "Are we following that smell?"


The Sheriff grinned. "You bet." Then he turned serious. "Cuz they ain't in season. Smellin' em, that means someone busted'em early by walkin' on 'em." He pulled a small bottle from his belt. "Y'all need a hit from this, now."


The Guardsman looked at the inhaler. "What is it?"


"Medicine," the Sheriff answered. "Fungicide'n antibiotics. Unless y'all WANT honeyballs growin' in yer lungs. ComStar really needs ta train y'all more 'bout our local critters here."


The Guardsman nodded and took a hard pull on the inhaler, handing it back as he felt the chemical bite inside. Better than dying to some alien disease, he thought, as they advanced again.


Suddenly the Sheriff froze. "We're close," he whispered, and then spoke quietly into a radio. As he put the radio away, he nodded at the ground, "But so are they."


The Guardsman looked down. "Who?" And then he saw it, a trail of clawed print in the dirt. Very clear. Fresh. Even his inexperienced eyes could see that.


The Sheriff looked concerned. "Right now, I'm givin' us a fifty-fifty chance."


The Guardsman paused. "Of finding our man?"


The Sheriff shook his head. "Nope. Findin' him alive."


Suddenly there was a terrible scream and a gunshot, followed by more screaming and screeching and ripping noises. The Sheriff started. "Come on!"


The two men crashed through the brush as the screams fell silent, and the roaring and tearing gave way to low growls. The Sheriff brought up his gun as they entered a clearing, coming upon a charnel scene.


Around what was left of a man were several animals. Their muscular legs supported a birdlike body with a horny back and long tail. Some walked on four legs, others stood on two, as tall as a grown human. Their reptilian muzzles sported toothy beaks, like a cross between a predatory animal and a turtle. Blood splats on their scales marred what was otherwise near-perfect camouflage in the shadowy woods.


And the whole pack stopped their eating, and looked straight at the two men.


The Sheriff said one word: "Snaptors." Then his gun boomed, a square chest hit flipping one of the standing animals over backwards. The rest of the pack scattered as a brilliant laser burst from the Guardsman's carbine scythed across the clearing. Another blast from the Sheriff's shotgun, and the animals were gone.


As the Guardsman wathed the woods nervously, the Sheriff walked over and looked down at the dead pirate. The he looked up at the Guardsman and smiled grimly.


"Guess he weren't from 'round here either."