Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


The Last Safari

By Talbot Pratt

Tobias Veale returns in another tale -- the ultimate hunt on the edge of time with the future of humanity at stake...

The thick midday air presses heavily on the winding snake of a river. The jungle heat is intolerable, made all the worse by the constant oppressive humidity. Somewhere, off in the tangled verdure that walls both sides of the brown waterway, a big cat screams in sharp primordial defiance. A bird shrieks and monkeys jabber in reply, the sound rising in a brief explosion, like pheasants taking wing. Then, just as suddenly, the noises fade away and silence again melts over the scene.

In the dugout canoe, you slowly raise the big Sharps rifle to your shoulder and take a bead on the low, log-like shape floating just fifty feet away. It is a crocodile, and a monster, at that. A magnificent specimen, nearly nineteen feet from tail to snout -- or your name isn't Tobias Veale.

From behind you in the canoe, you hear Barango, your Kimaji guide, gasp in sudden alarm -- alarm and dawning comprehension. You're not surprised. You didn't tell him the entire truth, did you. He thought you were just here to map the river, to seek its source, a latterday Burton. He didn't know about the Sharps. You didn't tell him what you do for a living. You knew he would never approve if he knew, and, if he didn't approve, he would refuse to guide you to this place -- the fabled nesting ground of the sacred Kimaji crocodile.

And that would have been a crying shame.

"Bwana!" The shock in his voice is almost comedic. He sounds like a prim old lady encountering an orgy at the church bazaar. "What are you doing?"

Tightly, under your breath, you reply, "Don't worry, Barango. This river is thick with the brutes. You're not going to miss him, I promise."

Before he can speak again, and maybe frighten off the crocodile, you squeeze the trigger and feel the satisfying nudge of the stock against your shoulder. The Sharps coughs, and a scarlet mist explodes from the crocodile's head just behind the raised eyes. In an instant, the water erupts. In the blink of an eye, it is transformed into a foaming thrashing mess, gaudy with red, the monstrous beast writhing and whirling in a fantastic fit of dying convulsions. The colossal size of the thing, the fury of its final wretched agony, the smell and sounds of death, it gives you a lump in your throat. This is what it's all about, you think, to be a Great White Hunter.

This is what you live for.

So mesmerized are you by the sight, you don't notice the soft thumping of paddles approaching from around the mist-shrouded bend in the river. You don't notice until you hear the sudden horrified scream, a wretched wail part despair and part fury. It jerks your head around and you see three long dugout canoes just gliding into sight, each bearing six Kimaji warriors gaily clad in egret feathers and monkey skins. The broad heads of their assegai spears gleam like raised torches.


Barango sees them, too. "Bwana, do you know what you have done? Are you mad? You have killed one of the sacred crocodiles of the Kimaji!"

You know what you have done. You also know that you are in big trouble if you don't think of something -- something quick. You recognize the painted old fart in the middle of the foremost canoe, the one with the rattles. He is Nego, the witch doctor. You spoke to him just after hiring Barango. You promised him you would not disturb his sacred crocodiles. Now he looks like he could eat you alive.

Still, you didn't get to be the top big game hunter on the Dark Continent by giving up at the first sign of trouble. You have always had a knack for finding a way out of a tight situation. Say what they will about you, you always have a plan...

In one smooth motion, you raise the Sharps to your shoulder and fire off a shot. The old fart lurches back against the warrior behind, his face practically blown away in a grisly red cloud. Barango screams in horror, a high womanly shriek. He rises in the canoe, arms waving frantically, practically overbalancing it in his distress. But you are already onto the second part of your plan.

You have dropped the Sharps into the bottom of the canoe and snatched up a paddle. Frantically, you dig at the river, the canoe shooting forward, aimed for the nearest bank. Barango tumbles backwards. Behind you, screams of horror and rage rise like a pursuing tidal wave. Desperately, you shoot a glance back over your jerking shoulder. The canoes are in hot pursuit, paddles spraying silvery veils. In the prow of the lead canoe, one of the warriors raises a bamboo tube to his lips. Barango shouts as the blow dart strikes him in the shoulder.


You face forward again, straining at the paddle. The canoe's blunt prow grinds up on the low sandy bank almost throwing you on your face. Grabbing up the Sharps, you scramble ashore, Barango following behind. You see the wretched fear shining in his eyes and realize that he is in as much trouble as you. After all, it was he who convinced Nego to let you come this way. He was responsible for you. And now he will die if they catch him.

Of course, if that blow dart was tipped with curare, he will die, anyway. Too bad, you think -- good guides are hard to find.

Together the two of you make for the thick sanctuary of the jungle. It is only twenty feet, but, just before you enter its dark embrace, you feel something sting your neck. You know instantly: it was another blow dart. Damn.

You pull out the dart and hurl it away.

And then you are both staggering through the clawing darkness, running and running endlessly, stumbling over logs and beating through vines, the sound of pursuit steadily fading away into the backwards distance.

For a moment, you think you have escaped, just like you always do. But then, without warning, the ground drops away from beneath your racing feet. You don't even have time to shout. Earth and stone spills downward in a sudden yawning pit, the torrent carrying you both in a breathless rush, both down in a wild, unstoppable plunge into utter, abysmal darkness...

You open your eyes at a sudden sound. For a moment, you can't remember where you are, or how you came to be there. Then you recall -- the cave-in. Damn. The area is riven with limestone caves; one of them must have collapsed. You wonder if anything is broken.

Then you see the monsters.

Misty beams of light herald their arrival. The light beams play over the surrounding walls of the cave, then across the floor, throwing back the darkness and revealing the loincloth clad figure of Barango lying only a few feet away. Finally the light finds you and it dazzles your eyes. Out of the dazzle seven figures emerge, seven creatures entirely clothed in gleaming rippling silver fabric, great glass globes encasing their heads.


Rather, demented nightmares. It is nearly impossible to describe. The heads seem like a grotesque blending of insect and fish, huge multifaceted eyes glittering above hideous dilating sucker-like mouths, the whole covered with a hide of glistening fur.

Then, worst of all, they speak.

"Stay where you are or we will kill you. Stay where you are and do not move."

The words are horribly distorted, never intended to be spoken by such mouths, but you understand them well enough -- you understand and you obey. You don't move.

By now the monsters have gathered around you and Barango, playing their lights over your prone forms. You hear Barango moan. And then the monster -- the same monster who spoke before -- asks you: "How did you survive?"

You don't understand. Survive? You always survive. It's what you do. You always have a plan.

"What do you mean? I don't understand the question."

"The cave was sealed. We detected your bodies with our scanners. We broke through with a drill. How have you survived so long?"

Survived so long?

"I don't know what you mean."

For a moment, the monsters converse amongst themselves, their natural language a weird liquid bubbling sound. Then they look at you again.

"The oxygen in this cave, trapped in this cave with you -- our scanners indicate it is nearly a million years old. You have been trapped here a million years. How have you survived so long?"

The blow darts.

Eventually, you figure out that the poison on the blow darts was not curare, but perhaps a related substance. Somehow it preserved you, keeping you alive in a state of hibernation in that cave -- while all the while the world passed on.

Passed on for a million years...

Eventually you realize that. But that comes later.

Now, the monsters place you both in strange stretchers enclosed with clear plastic. The air inside is dry and hurts your throat. They bear you to a gleaming metal ship parked in a jungle clearing. Taken aboard, you find there is only one window on the ship, a small round one at the front. Strapped down as you both are, there is no way to see out that window, but you can see the sky through it. You can see the blue and the clouds, and only a short time after the ship takes off, you see the blue gradually darken to black, a deep, fathomless black speckled with hard, pin-prick stars.

And you realize you are in a spaceship.

These are not monsters. They are aliens.

They take off their helmets.

You listen without really hearing as one of the aliens explains about the enclosed stretchers. The aliens are ammonia-breathers. Oxygen is poisonous to them, which is why they must wear special suits when walking on the surface of the planet. (They don't call it Earth. They call it "the planet".) The spaceship is a ferry to take them to the mothership in orbit, and the atmosphere inside is ammonia -- which would be fatal to humans, of course.

You listen to all this without speaking, barely understanding. All the while, two words repeat over and over again in your mind, endlessly circling, like vultures over a corpse. Million years...million years....million years...

In the mothership, you are both given special suits with transparent globular helmets to supply you with oxygen. Even so, you can catch the odd whiff of ammonia contaminating the inside and it terrifies you to think what would happen if you were to crack the helmet.

You find you are a prisoner, with Barango as your only companion. The two of you are placed in a room with two beds, one door and one round window. Looking out through the window, you can see the Earth, a blindingly beautiful blue-white ball set against the infinite deeps of space. So close and yet so far away.

Million years...million years...

Time passes slowly. The aliens provide food and drink, but the food is disgusting, rancid and decayed. You can barely choke it down, but at least it keeps you alive.

After a week, an alien finally comes to question you. No longer clothed in his suit, he is more horrible than anything you have ever seen in all your travels. His body is thin and insect- like, with furry limbs and long, chitinous claws. Small vestigial wings hang between his shoulders and a glistening fluid seeps constantly from his pores -- like a bug dipped in honey.

"We came to the planet from a far world," the alien explains. "We came to conquer, but we have found you humans more...tenacious than our scouts had led us to believe. We have exterminated most of you humans, but still pockets of resistance exist."

You take grim satisfaction in these words. So -- after a million years, humans can still fight the good fight. We still know how to stomp a bug or two.

"We learned your language from your records which we discovered in vaults. We learned much from those records, but still you manage to elude us. Though we have captured humans before, they have told us nothing, even under torture. We wish to find a weakness. Tell us, what weakness do the humans have? How may we defeat you?"

Until now, Barango has listened in quivering silence. He doesn't deal with captivity well. He has eaten little and lost considerable weight. His eyes stare from their sockets like shiny white marbles. But now, suddenly, he leaps up from where he was squatting in the corner. He springs to his feet with a shriek like some wild animal, and bounds across the chamber, straight toward the alien.

"Monsters!" he screams. "Horrible monsters!"

The alien barely reacts. It carries a slim, red metal tube. From the tip of the tube, a jagged blue-white beam of light lances, the air crackling with an electric sizzle. The beam slices a black line in the floor, billowing smoke, halting Barango's charge and sending him reeling back in surprise and terror. A foot closer and the beam would have cut him in half. As the smoke clears, the alien lowers the tube weapon.

"Do not try that again," he says calmly.

Now you know the situation. There are pockets of resistance, the alien said. If there is resistance, there is still a chance.

True, the whole thing seems rather hopeless. Here you are, a million years out of your own time, in a world on the brink of extermination by alien invaders, just you and your Kimaji guide. But then, you realize: it's all a matter of perspective.

A million years ago, you were the top big game hunter in Africa, in the world, even. You hunted tigers in India, lions on the Serengeti, kodiaks in Alaska. There isn't a creature alive -- wasn't a creature alive, anyway -- which you haven't bagged at one time or another. You were the very best. The quintessential "Great White Hunter".

Now, what are these aliens but simply one more big game animal? True, they may be smarter and more technologically advanced, but game is still game. You have always relished a challenge, haven't you. Well, then, here is the ultimate challenge, the biggest game of all, a trophy animal to top all trophy animals. All you have to do is bag them.

All you need is a plan.

For a time, you stand at the window, staring at it, through it at the polished marble of Earth. A plan. Yes.

And have one...

The next day, you tell Barango the first part of your plan. Every good plan, so you have found, has two parts. So does this one. But you only tell Barango the first part, not the second.

"These aliens are like insects, right?" you explain. "So, I'm betting they have a leader somewhere, a sort of queen alien, someone more important than all the rest." You pause, hoping for a reaction, but Barango just stares. "So, here's my plan. We tell the aliens that we know a way they can defeat the humans, but we will only tell this information to the queen alien. They'll have no choice but to take us to her. When they do, we grab her and force them to take us back to Earth."

For a full minute, Barango doesn't say a word, just stares. Finally, frowning, he asks, "How can we possibly 'grab' this queen? These monsters, they will kill us with their lightning sticks."

Of course, you were just waiting for him to ask that question. You reach under the bed in the corner and bring out two of the red metal weapons. Barango gasps. "But how, Bwana? How did you get these lightning sticks?"

"These aren't really 'lightning sticks', Barango. They're just pieces off the legs of the bed. I painted them with the blood from that rotten meat they feed us. They're not exact duplicates, but they look similar enough to fool the aliens -- at least, until we can get off this ship and back to Earth."

Though initially doubtful, Barango finally agrees to go along with your plan. The next time food is brought, you tell the alien that you know how to defeat the human race -- but you will only tell it to their queen. The alien goes away and several more days pass. Just about when you have decided it didn't work, four aliens come to take you to the queen.

With the false weapons hidden against your sides beneath your arms, you are led through tight, winding corridors, the walls damp with slime. Barango looks terrified and you are worried he will give the game away. But soon you enter a vast cavernous chamber where another insect alien, slightly larger than the others, sits on a massive, spiky throne.

This is obviously the queen.

She watches you as you approach, her multifaceted eyes glittering, her whole furry body gleaming with liquid exudations. She leans forward as you stop. She seems tense with excitement.

"You say you know how to defeat the last of the human resistance?" she asks. "Tell me, then. Tell me and I will let you live."

You have already discussed this moment with Barango. Subtlely, you both move forward a few steps, closer and closer, until only a few feet separate you from the queen. Her tone grows impatient at your silence.

"Speak! How may we defeat the human resistance?"

Nearly there. A single lunge is all that is required. You could grab her easily. But then, suddenly, you step back leaving Barango alone.

"He's going to kill the queen!" you scream, pointing frantically at the startled Kimaji guide. "He stole a weapon -- he's armed!"

You never find out what Barango was thinking. Maybe, for a moment, he forgot the "lightning stick" he was carrying was fake, or maybe he was trying to show them it wasn't real. Either way, he begins to wave the pretend weapon, thrashing the air like an insane conductor with a baton.

His features, through the transparent helmet, are something to see.

In seconds, a dozen "lightning sticks" cut him to pieces. You watch the whole thing impassively, careful to keep your own fake weapon concealed against your side. When it is over, they lead you back to your prison.

Now for the second part of your plan...

Part 2: Conclusion

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The Last Safari is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)