Naturally I went to visit the hot goth chick in the hospital after her brother, the dumbass rally driver, tried to put their car through a tree. I took flowers. To avoid the obvious pitfalls with that I told the florist I wanted something with no pink, no red and no roses. That got me something in orange, purple and leaves. I recognised gladioli and carnations but had no idea what the rest of the flowers were.
It took care getting the arrangement to the hospital in the car and keeping it in one piece but I managed it. When I got it to her room in orthopaedics I realised that perhaps the looks I’d been getting as I walked through the hospital hadn’t been due to my skin colour. Her corner of the four bed room had a lot of flowers, most of them pink but with a significant number of black arrangements. My orange, purple and green thing was the biggest of them all.
I caught her eye through a gap in the foliage, “I overdid it, huh?”
“In a nice way,” she agreed from the bed, her face makeup free, “but if I couldn’t see your hands I wouldn’t know it was you. Put that down on the table and pull up a seat.”
I obeyed. I thought she looked good, considering what I’d been fearing, but I was sure she was on painkillers given that her right leg was in traction. “So, your lips aren’t really black.” Lousy line, but it was better than anything else I could think of.
“And your skin really is green, so I’m not hallucinating.” She smiled at me and that was good to see. She beckoned me closer and I leaned in, “Before anybody else comes along, my brother swerved because there was a vij in the middle of the road. We both know what that means.” I sat back up. I did know what it meant. The vij is a small, off world creature, about the size of a terrier. Off worlders use them for security because they’re vicious, territorial, focused pack feeders. Vij were why I’d come up with the flamethrower. A vij on the loose was unlikely to be alone or far from where it had come from.
“I’ll look into it on Sunday,” I promised her. Sooner would have been better but getting to the site of her accident and back plus a few hours of bush bashing while I was there was going to be a full day trip. I was working every day up until then, so Sunday was my only full free day. The delay couldn’t be helped and I could check my equipment at night.
I stayed for about fifteen minutes then yielded my chair to one of her grandparents, made my goodbyes and left.
I visited her twice more before Sunday between work, making sure my gear was good to go and the usual stuff you need to do to keep the household running and the fridge and cupboards stocked. I ran into bits of her family both times and realised that I’d become known to them as ‘the young man with the flowers.’ I had been trying to avoid that. I think the hot goth chick was vaguely amused but that may have been the medication she was on.
Sunday was a good day for a drive out to the State forest where the rally had been held. Fine, sunny, not much wind and warm for winter. Not so good for wearing the protective gear I needed with the flame thrower and for vij. Fortunately it was winter so I wasn’t going to cook inside the stuff I needed to keep me safe. I was able to leave the car where the helicopter had landed to medivac the hot goth chick and the dumbass rally driver, then it wasn’t far from there to the accident site.
Their car had been removed and all the debris cleared away. The tree was still standing but missing a big piece of bark. I wasn’t expecting to find vij tracks, but I did. The vij or a vij or vij, plural had been back there after the accident and fuss were over.
I then tried to track it/them. You may laugh at this point. Bushcraft is not one of my skills. I can identify trees as readily as I can flowers and we’ve already covered that. On the other hand I do know what a vij’s foot looks like, it had rained during the week and I was starting off with clear footprints in the mud. I followed the prints first towards the escarpment but they soon looped back across the road and continued into the trees. It took me half an hour to lose the tracks. So I listened.
There were birds, high in the trees, but none of the whuffle-whuffle sound I associate with vij. At first. Then I heard a human voice in a coaxing tone followed by a curious whuffle-whuffle. In my experience vij are only curious about whether they can eat something. I moved carefully in the direction of the sounds, well as carefully as someone with no bushcraft wearing what I was can. I didn’t quite stumble loudly onto the scene but I’m sure it was close. There was a woman with two kids about four or five. She was crouching down between them with a piece of beef jerky in her bare hand, offering it to a vij and trying to get it to come closer. When I arrived she was saying to the kids, “I don’t know what it is but it seems to be friendly.” It was, of course, far too close to them for me to use the flamethrower even with the precision nozzle I’d fitted to it.
“Lady,” I had to do something, “drop the food on the ground and back away. It’s getting ready to take your hand off. Let’s hope its friends aren’t on their way.”
She turned her head to look at me and started to speak, “Who are-,” which is when the vij leapt at her because she’d broken eye contact. For her head, mouth open and teeth bared. The kids screamed. This was one of the times I surprised myself – I covered the distance between us in nothing flat and booted the thing while it was in mid-air. It hit the butt of a nice big tree and slid to the ground, sort of crumpled.
“That’s a vij,” I told the stunned woman. “They’re vicious and they run in packs. We need to get you, the kids and anyone you’re with out of here. If that’s the only one there is, then this’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen one on its own.”
“Mummy!” The older kid was pulling at her mother’s trousers and pointing at where the vij had fallen. Two more vij had emerged from the bushes and were ripping into their fallen companion, devouring before it was quite dead.
“Time to leave,” I said firmly. “No running ahead, no screaming. We are not food. We are walking away from the food.” The mother led the way and I brought up the rear. Now I knew they were there, every sound that wasn’t us had me checking for vij.
Fortunately it wasn’t far to their picnic site and car. The father, both the kids looked more like him than her, was setting up a picnic. His reaction was, “I thought you were going to be longer.” Then, pointing at me, “Who’s he?”
“I was attacked by a strange animal and he rescued us.” She sounded like she was almost crying. “I just want to go home now.”
“They’re following us,” added the bigger kid solemnly.
The smaller one added, “They ate the one that tried to bite Mummy.”
“But the picnic!” He had put a lot of work into setting everything up nicely on the rug and the food did look good. Behind me I could hear rustling in the undergrowth.
“Pick it up in the blanket, put it in the boot of your car and get out of here,” I advised. “I don’t think you have much time.” The mother was already taking the kids to the car. The noises in the undergrowth were getting a lot louder and the father’s expression as he glanced in that direction became worried.
He’d taken the open drink containers off the blanket and put them down beside the blanket very precisely as if he was protesting having to do this at all. Whatever he saw made him grab the four corners of the blanket and run for the car. I turned in place, thumbing on the flamethrower as I did. There was a wave of vij, maybe eight across and at least three deep coming towards us. I ran the flame across them from side to side three times to make sure I killed them all, wishing the whole time that I’d brought the wide angled nozzle.
When I turned back to the car, having turned off the flamethrower, the father was throwing the picnic blanket and its contents onto the floor of the back seat and closing the door. It made sense to me, the back door were faster to open than the boot and the kids were in booster seats so their feet weren’t down there anyway. I got there as he was closing his own door. He said, “Thank you. Was that all of them?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “so I’m going to look around for a while longer. I suggest you go straight home. If you see one on the road in front of you, don’t swerve, just go straight over the little bugger.”
“Who are you?” That was from the mother.
“Lady, I’m a bloke wandering around a State forest with a flame thrower. I don’t want anyone to know who I am!” Both adults almost smiled at that and then they went.
When I was sure they were safely off down the road I went back to looking. I found more vij and I found where they were coming from. Then I called a police detective I’d become acquainted with. This little compound out in the middle of nowhere had been done over in a professional, off world hit. These days I know what the burn scar of an energy weapon on concrete looks like and this place had them. Whoever had been running the place, and from the carapaces they must have been Iththuuk, had been killed and then the freed vij had cleaned up the bodies. If this place had been run by Iththuuk, then it was probably about drugs. Drugs are their thing and they don’t mind dealing in recreational, although their main interest is in antifungals. Murder and drugs is police business so they were interested, thank you very much.
I didn’t go inside the buildings, I tried not to go inside what was left of the compound but I kept killing vij until the police arrived. There were three egg sacs, one of them days away from hatching. The vij problem could have been much worse.
That should have been the end of it for me but the picnic family spoke to a reporter, I have no idea why. It must have been a slow news day because it made front page, down the bottom, of the broadsheet newspaper and then the family were on one of the evening current affairs programs. Something about ‘Terror in the Forest.’ They had an artist’s impression from their descriptions of my protective suit and the flamethrower. Frankly, I wish I had the money to make them look that good in reality. The whole thing didn’t disappear from the news for weeks.
The hot goth chick thinks it’s funny. Like she says, from all the carry-on you’d think I was some sort of superhero.
At least they didn’t find out I’m green.