A PERFECT MEAL
written by: Stanley Wilkin
I spotted the reptile beating down the tunnel and immediately blasted it. It squealed, throwing out its long, orange tongue, reared to its full height of two metres or more and in its death throes lunged at me. I fired again, striking its upper body where most of its vital organs were, and it jerked backwards, yellow blood shooting everywhere. Although it was probably already dead, I shot it several more times. When I had finished, the creature had a substantial hole where its chest had been. I glanced around to check the rest of the entrance, directing my torch towards its recesses, and then flicked on my phone and reported in.
"Got one. Almost through. May have to block this tunnel off. That's the third this week."
The supervisor immediately responded.
"Stay there until maintenance arrives." He ordered.
"Yes, sir." I replied.
I sat on a nearby rock my back against the dome, not taking my eyes off the tunnel entrance. Where there was one beast, there were usually others. I studied the creature, my fear and disgust arising. By then, its blood had formed a deep, wide yellow pool spreading out from the entrance and bubbling as it negotiated cracks and gullys. Realising it had been venomous, and remembering the routine, I went to my booth and took out a flame-thrower. I sprayed the creature, covering both its carcases and the spreading blood. The beast ignited in a fury of colour, becoming a blackened, twisted, unrecognisable husk in minutes.
Maintenance arrived shortly afterwards with a complement of soldiers. As they flooded into the tunnel entrance, I got into my jeep and left them to it. I'd had a long day and wanted something to eat by then. As I drove away they were already building a prefabricated metal wall just inside the tunnel entrance.
At that time, Ranger headquarters was three miles from the dome wall, both east and north. Of course, now it's closer. I drove hard. My stomach was beginning to ache from hunger. Because we were losing men each month, there were too few Rangers to cover every tunnel and every section of both the dome and the fields directly outside.
Food was waiting for me when I arrived. Ola was the best chef headquarters had had, seeming to know exactly when to prepare food. She'd started as a Ranger, but a flyer had bitten off her arm. As it greedily swallowed her appendage, she blew its head off. They found her later, her stump still pumping blood, and rushed her to hospital. It took her six months to recover as infection set in. While she was recuperating, she begged not to be retired. At Epilion, the main settlement, every kid wanted to grow up to be a Ranger. As a force we were admired and respected and because becoming a Ranger was so hard, intellectual dexterity and high fitness levels were essential, few left it willingly. Due to Ola's angry refusal to retire and her widespread popularity within the force, she was put in charge of Ranger Headquarter's kitchen.
As usual her food, a mixture of local vegetables covered in sauce, was delicious and I wolfed it down. As I cleaned my plate with a cereal roll, Ned walked in. We were old friends, starting Ranger training together. I'd actually known him at school, but we only got talking on our first day of induction. We then found we had much in common and soon we were going everywhere together. He liked beer and so did I. He liked women and I did too. I also liked to compose songs but I never told him that. Ned had been there for me when my wife died. He was just beginning his shift at that point and therefore still retained the rosy hued look of someone just out of bed. A bit of toothpaste was clinging to his top lip.
"What happened?" asked Ned. "I heard about it as I was signing in."
"Another reptile managed to find a way in. Tunnel 7 this time." I replied. "I was checking that sector when I saw one popping its head out, looking for one of us to eat no doubt."
"A big one?"
"A small one. About three metres, thank God." I exaggerated. "Venomous."
"The worst." Ned admitted. "So, have they blocked it off?"
"Yep. I called maintenance in straight away. But that's another tunnel closed."
"No choice. If they now know that way to get through, it'll get worse. First the little ones, then the bigger ones will be coming in."
I grimaced. "Too true. But, Ned, we're running out of tunnels now. They seem more adept at finding them and breaking through. One time the wooden gates had stopped them. Then the metal ones provided protection. Now we have to construct metal and concrete. How soon before they break through all that? It's one after another. We've just dealt with Tunnel 3 and that was bad enough." Okay, I was morose. But I'd had little food and sleep for several days.
Ned sipped some juice. "That was the toughest so far. Four men dead."
"Eaten." I reminded him. Thank God only one of them was a Ranger. "They are getting through everywhere. Not just the tunnels but also the outside perimeter, somehow ignoring the laser matrix."
We all knew by then how desperate the situation was but it wasn't yet openly talked about. Ned placed a hand on my arm.
"The science bods are working on more powerful weapons. We'll stop them as we have before." He changed the subject. "What's on the menu?" Ned sat down. 'I'll have a bite before I start."
I nodded. "Ola's outdone herself." I smiled for the first time in days.
Ola brought over some piping hot vegetables in a deep multi-coloured bowl. "Eat up lads. I've plenty here."
Ned dipped his spoon into it.
"It's hard out there now, Jim. Too hard."
I nodded. I got up.
"I've gotta go, Ned." I gave an involuntary yawn. "I haven't slept for two days."
"Well, old friend, wish me a quiet shift. Hope I don't get eaten." He replied, giving his puckish smile.
I began packing my equipment into a haversack. I said: "I hope you don't get eaten." The blessing was traditional now. "They can't get us, old friend. We're too wily for the beasts. Besides which, we taste foul. They'd spit us out again."
"You they might. Me? They'd save me, I taste so good." He began rubbing his stomach and pretending to dribble.
Laughing I cheerfully slapped his back.
"Next time we'll grab a beer."
Getting back into my jeep, I drove further into the settlement where my home, a farmstead on the southern stretch of the dome, was located. I passed the reservoirs and orchards created by some of the original settlers, who had chosen this planet in this sector because of its abundance of fauna and flora. There was also no apparent sign of sentient beings. The first scouting parties had spoken of huge continents covered with an immense variety of broad-trunk trees, huge fern like plants that rose to a hundred feet, orange and red vegetation and flowers of every possible colour. Their report included a catalogue of the fauna, stressing how a number appeared suitable for domestication.
Stella, my beautiful wife, and I had moved to this area ten years before from a village outside the perimeter. There'd been twelve families and Stella and I were the Rangers. We were a great team. Any creatures that ventured close to the outside perimeter fences, set up by the first settlers, we took care of immediately. In fact, at first it was easy. A turkey-shoot. They'd rush the fence and we'd pop away, taking them down one by one. After a few years the raids became more frequent and the beasts more numerous. We struggled to deal with them without support of Rangers from other settlements. When an adult and child were grabbed, torn apart, and eaten the entire village decided to abandon the settlement and seek the protection of Epilion. With an armed guard of Rangers and soldiers the remainder of us fled.
Sadly, Stella was caught in Tunnel 6 a few years ago. Ned saw it happen. She lasted two seconds before they carried bits of her away. All that was left to me was her skull which one of the larger beasts spat out. That was unusual. They normally devoured every bit of the humans they caught, ligament, bone, organs and flesh. They found us highly nutritious. I mourned for a year, my only solace shooting the creatures whenever I could. I tore up her photographs, preferring the vivid nature of my memories.
I was in a deep sleep when Ned called. The ringing scythed through my brain. I jumped up, grabbing the phone.
"You awake?" He asked.
"What the hell, Ned?" I responded.
"They've broken through again. Hundreds of them."
"What?" I rubbed my eyes.
"Get out here fast. Tunnel 6. It's a goddamn nightmare."
I was dressed and rushing out in minutes. Ned never swore. The jeep loaded up with every weapon I possessed, I sped off towards the dome wall.
I arrived within twenty minutes and was faced with our shared nightmare. Reptiles, fliers and jumpers were flooding out of the tunnel entrance. Singly and together they emitted a cacophonous noise that flooded the colony. Hundreds of them were already scampering across the rocks, mouths agape, showing fangs of all sizes and shapes. They attacked in swarming masses, large and small, different species acting it seemed as one. As soon as a beast was brought down, another, equally ferocious, took its place.
Thankfully there were no hulks, the largest of the beasts.
Twenty Rangers were in position, slowly and surely pumping shells into the mass. A further thirty or so soldiers were sending controlled fire in a steady line. The carcases were piling up.
Stopping the jeep I sped towards the advancing host, seeking shelter when I got nearer. Jumpers, who moved at astounding speed, broke into the foremost ranks. We poured fire into them, our projectiles meeting at a single point, destroying everything in the way. Their noise when struck was deafening. They kept on coming. From some perspectives the attack appeared co-ordinated, jumpers and flyers striking at the same time certain points of our defence, retreating at the same time and then attacking again.
Whenever a tank drove up scores of the different specie would direct their ire upon it, swarming over the chassis until it disappeared from sight.
I spotted my supervisor at the head of five Rangers. He gestured for me to join them. We struck towards the left, firing as we went. As we did so two truckloads of soldiers arrived with several tanks directly behind them. They were flung into the centre of the mass, causing devastation with their flamethrowers and cannon. With intense hatred, we poured all the firepower we had into the beasts, marching towards them shoulder to shoulder. These creatures had to be stopped before the big boys got wind and tried to break through as well. Then, the entire colony would be overwhelmed and destroyed.
As cautious as we were, our men were picked off. The flyers and jumpers were striking us from all directions. They had already lifted up and decapitated two Rangers and no doubt, given our limited numbers, would eventually have got around to the rest of us. The flyers flocked above us fighting over our comrade's innards.
Thankfully another army platoon arrived along with about two hundred ordinary citizens. The soldiers had brought several extra cannon. In an instance they cleared the fliers and directed their power on the creatures still tumbling out of the tunnel. It helped I can tell you. Now we gradually pushed them back down. The yellow blood flowed like a river over the rocks and bristling fern. Soon the ground was covered with a five foot high mound of burnt, ravaged carcases. The work was hard and by the end, after a day-long shift with little sleep, I was exhausted.
Two tanks and fifty men, mainly Rangers, followed the beasts down the tunnel as they fled. An hour later, flopping down wherever we could, the cost was counted. Fifteen men had been lost. We could not afford to lose so many. Maintenance arrived and began the arduous task of sealing up the tunnel.
We Rangers always took the brunt of incursions. That was our job. But recently we were constantly losing men, good irreplaceable men. That day, too many were eaten. A few, like the supervisor, had lost limbs. A Ranger took years to train. After that terrible day there we no longer had the personnel to guard the colony effectively. The remains of our fallen colleagues were placed in a plastic bag and put into the back of the jeeps. Out of respect, I placed a cloth over the bags and murmured a quick incantation. We went slowly back to headquarters, our job temporarily don.
Thankfully, Ned, to my immense relief, returned. When he entered the canteen, where most of us were gathered, I threw my arms around him. He was fast becoming my remaining friend. We were the only Rangers of our year alive or intact.
"Thought they'd eaten you this time." I said.
"Nah, they didn't have the right sauce."
We both laughed, more to relieve the tension of the day than as a consequence of the quality of our humour.
"Where were you?" I asked. "Hiding somewhere?"
"Right there, mate. Right there." He growled, turning away from me.
I could tell by his response that, like all of us at one time or another, my tease was spot on and he had hidden. When Stella died I was hiding behind a rock. Of course, I had not known she was in danger, but the beasts had circled around and attacked us from behind. After fighting the beasts for fifteen years, my nerve had broken. I'd grown desperately sick of seeing friends torn apart. Sometimes we ran away, as fast as we could from the fliers and jumpers. Sometimes, we'd just had enough and couldn't keep fighting. Ned and I had been Rangers for fifteen years. We had fought the beasts at one tunnel or another, or out in the open in the surrounding forests and fields. We had fought hand to claw, and often been injured. We had the right to hide.
"Doesn't matter, mate, if you did. We've all done it."
He turned back to me. "I know, mate. But we shouldn't really. We're Rangers."
I gave him the outstretched salute. He returned it.
"Rangers." I echoed.
I began singing the organisation's song and soon Ned joined in too. Ola was next to take up the anthem, and, within seconds, a dozen voices were singing it throughout headquarters. Our voices strained we all retired to the bar next door, downing several jars of beer. The singing started up again, continuing until the early hours.
We believed in the force. Without people like Ned and I there wouldn't be a colony. As a boy living on the outside, I had wanted to be a Ranger like many in my family. I cherished the thought of wearing the sky blue uniform, beyond the visible colour spectrum of the beasts. I often pinched the caps of a Ranger cousin and marched up and down shooting at leaves and flowers. I know Ned had been the same.
In those days we had the upper hand. The colony was expanded from the original site, on a narrow peninsular, and settlements were being built along the jagged coastline. The forests were being cut down, as our ancestors cleared more land for cultivation. When beasts were encountered they were shooed away or slain. At first the settlers did not understand how dangerous the local fauna was, nor how unpleasant to eat. Many were cooked and eaten but all attempts at culinary finesse failed to make any palatable. The meat was usually far too tough and acidy. Many were poisonous. Our ancestors had no valid reason to domesticate them or to hunt them. Our policy was to shoot them on sight. In the end it was agreed that all the beasts were something of an acquired taste and so we ate them only when necessary and usually in tiny portions. We kept to vegetation and fruit.
They did not feel the same way about us.
That evening Ned and I, after a nap in the dormitory, went out again driving along the dome's northern edge. Like everyone else, we were loaded down by a sense of the inevitable. At least five of us, Rangers or Epilion citizens, were eaten each week. The colonists were drifting towards the settlement centre for greater protection, abandoning homes closer to the dome edge. My own neighbourhood was becoming deserted. Many of the neighbouring homes were empty the fields around untended. Food was growing short.
The beasts had first attacked twenty years after Epilion was founded. Initially, just one or two opportunistically lunged at passing individuals. It gave us an excuse to shoot as many as we could but soon the attacks became premeditated and people were injured. Rumour went around the colony that they sometimes were seen waiting in ambush, watching farmers working in the expanding fruit and vegetable fields.
It did in fact work well for a generation, but absorbed the colony's energies. Our efforts were directed from then on to dealing with the beasts instead of growing food and exploring our new planet. Then the turning point came. No one really knows what happened. The events are mired in myth. Somehow a small number of children, supervised by two teachers, strolled off the usual protected walkways. In front of a gang of surface miners searching for radioactive metals, our sole export, a dozen small beasts and two giant ones appeared from the trees and killed each of the party with a single bite, devouring them afterwards. Nothing like it had been seen before. It was then that the Rangers were formed to guard the nervous citizenry. As the attacks grew, so too did the force. True to human nature, we then began a systematic extermination of the larger specie. It was after all a strategy that had worked in so many other environments.
Repeated attacks, increasing in intensity, reduced the colony to one highly fortified settlement hewn from rock into which was drilled massive tunnels in order that the colony could come and go. Beyond a small perimeter, where we farm, wait the beasts. Many huddled there are immensely large. We had no idea that such creatures existed on the planet. Although they can be killed it is usually with difficulty. Only a direct cannon-shot has so far proved efficient.
It is clear to us all that the beasts will not give up and equally it is clear that we cannot kill them all. There are far more than our ancestors realised and also they appear to procreate remarkably fast. Some seem to grow to adulthood in a year. I guess we are unlikely to survive. Unfortunately, although we cannot bear the taste of them, the beasts love the taste of us. We are a delicacy for them. It isn't hunger that drives them on, but the appetites of the bon vivant. They would die just for one bite of us and a chance to savour our flesh. Those with a strong stomach amongst us have observed that they take the largest human prey first, sharing them judiciously, leaving children, for example, to the last. In fact, they have been observed taking children away to be eaten later. Snacks, I suppose. We are all therefore likely at present to end up in the beasts' digestive systems.
That night Ned saw the first one crawling stealthily on the dome's curving skin. He quickly shot it. As it hit the ground I turned my flame thrower on it. It screamed as it died. Another one appeared immediately afterwards. Seeing us, it bared its teeth and attached. We poured bullets into it. Another appeared as the second one died and it was then that Ned called in an emergency. Alarms sounded again throughout the colony.
Ned and I retreated to a rocky area, filled with short thick trees covered in early blossoms. From there we sent out endless streams of fire, shooting at any movement. Within minutes we were joined by other Rangers and one troop battalion. As one we began to slowly move forward, shooting as we went. The creatures, mainly crawlers and jumpers, began to retreat and a sense of relief descended upon each one of us.
Out of the brittle, hazily delineated shadows the first hulk appeared. We stared in horror at its towering form. Ned and I looked at each other, Ned mouthing quietly in the constant din:
It took several cannon blasting at once to bring the monster down. As it tumbled majestically down several others of its kind appeared behind it. We were ordered to move forward once more and we did so constantly firing. As we awkwardly strode over the terrain, Ned was lifted into the air by two quarrelling flyers. A hundred feet up, his body appearing red before the blue and white dome, he was pulled apart as even more flyers descended on his carcase. I killed as many of them as I could. They left nothing of him for me to bury.
By the end of the afternoon, every citizen seemed to be fighting beside me. I briefly noticed Ola standing on a rock, firing with her one arm before disappearing beneath a dozen small jumpers. I saw one scuttling off with her wig dangling from its jaw. A thousand beasts must have died that day. Their yellow, pungent, vile smelling blood filled every gully and rocky enclosure. Although we drove them off again an unnerving discovery was made. The beasts had gained entry through a crack in the dome. We patched it up but clearly it was only a matter of time before we were overwhelmed. If they gained entrance at the same time through several cracks we would have no chance.
I stayed in my home for the last time that night. Although I mourned Ned, I had the sense that it was bound to happen sooner or later. The outlying regions were being abandoned. I made coffee and relaxed, alone with my thoughts. Outside, there was little sound. Occasionally I heard the wind sweep up the street debris and push it past my door. I strolled out onto my veranda and noticed several fires in the distance, of abandoned homes on fire. The flames licked at the dome's skin. The darkness was growing as electricity was turned off in the nearby estates and farmsteads. As always, Stella's beautiful face appeared before me. At such times, she was very young, nineteen again, her black hair rolling over her shoulders in silken, carefully modelled waves, her eyes brilliant with successful sex. Before going to bed I picked up my guitar and began composing a slow, distinctive tune. It was to be my final song. I called my requiem "The Last Battle." I was never much good at titles.