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Le Jeu de la Perfection (A Game of Perfection)
(Tyranaël -2)

de

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

(Excerpt from: Chapter 1, p. 5-11)

 

Samuel has already settled into position lying low on the ridge. It overlooks the small depression in the savannah where the pride of unicorns is grazing, about half a mile away. The heat would be really hot if it were not for the steady breeze - which is blowing towards them, of course; Maura Fergus, the young woman who is their guide, was not bragging: they're at the extreme limit of the range for their missiles tipped with anesthetic darts, but she has brought them closer to the unicorns than anyone has since colonization.
Starling, the agent from the International Science Agency, the sponsor and leader of the expedition, comes from the United States - the kind of guy who needs to be constantly reminded that this planet was not named Virginia after the former American state but after the first human child born there. Even worse, he's from Texas, proud of his - now quasi-mythical - cowboy heritage. From his prone position, he's already watching the unicorns through binoculars, muttering indistinctly but excitedly in Anglam. Colchak, the other ISA employee, has loaded the last missile gun and hands it to Samuel, who adjusts the sight to observe the unicorns.
It's a large family, in the usual formation: five lookouts deployed in a circle some distance from the main group, about twenty others grazing, sleeping or cavorting. A little way away from the group, closest to them, is their target: the unicorn that just gave birth, with her cub. Ah, darn, a male is coming towards them. The father, maybe. Male unicorns are not excluded from the female-dominated pride, unlike in elephant groups, whose social structure was much like the unicorns'.
"Magnificent, magnificent!" Starling whispers in Anglam. In general appearance the unicorns are enough like horses to awake in him some atavistic yearning for a lasso, perhaps. As tall as a big warm-blood horse, the male is about seven feet at the withers. But doesn't Starling notice anything else? All the proportions are slightly off. Samuel's eyes follow the lines of the imposing figure with a persistent, vaguely uneasy feeling of discomfort: the woolly coat is red-brown, striped with barely visible darker bands, contrasting with the long white mane and the tail, equally long and flowing; the hindquarters and back legs are way too powerful, the muscles stand out too strongly, the arched neck is more like a stag than horse, the muzzle somewhere between horse and German shepherd, the head much more massive than that of a true horse. And, of course, between the eyebrows, above the big, round, slightly bulging eyes, (no doubt the most horse-like feature of the animal along with the thick mane and tail), there's the horn: smooth and sharp, more than two feet long, curving slightly upward like a rhinoceros's.
And red: covered in blood. The male is just back from hunting. Between his teeth, he carries a mariotte by the scruff of its neck - a small four-legged carnivore with a hyena-like smile that shares the savannah with the unicorns. He stops in front of the female, head low, offering his horn. The female licks it once, then pushes and prods her cub until it sniffs it and, eagerly, licks it clean. Once his horn is spotless, the male drops his prey on the ground, holding it down with one of its three-toed, sharp-hoofed hind feet; he tears it apart with his equally sharp teeth, offering chunks to the female; she picks them with her supple lips and feeds them to her cub.
Amazed, Samuel can't help whispering: "They do eat meat!"
He had still thought it was a legend. The unicorns left the Northern reaches of the continent long ago, and he had never seen any before coming to the Southeast - and then only in envirosims, in Cristobal. The envirosims just show images with boringly reassuring commentary. They don't really say much about unicorns, or, for that matter, about any living thing that is still stubbornly holding out against humans on their adopted planet.
Starling shows off his knowledge. Apparently, he feels the need to shine even in front of underlings. An ISA exec recently posted to Virginia, he's very proud of his project - as if this idea, trying to domesticate unicorns, didn't resurface each time there was a change of administration, either on Earth or on Virginia!
"They were originally omnivores, you know. A kind of smallish earth-digging quadruped, a bit like peccaries. With no major predators, they developed carnivore behaviour over time and grew bigger. Even now, while they mostly consume vegetable matter, they still need certain amino acids that don't occur in the vegetarian diet and that they are unable to synthesize. A bit of meat once in a while takes care of that."
Samuel is barely listening. He is watching in amazement as the female unicorn feeds the bloody morsels to her cub. The male has left, his work done, and is lying down at a respectable distance from them.
"So, shouldn't we get this show on the road?" Colchak whispers, wriggling deeper into his grassy cradle. He places the missile launcher on its tripod and starts adjusting the sight. Roused from his contemplation, Samuel does the same. The young guide is lying close to him in the grass; he feels her body stiffening. Even though they've never discussed it, he knows she disapproves of this expedition. But she's a government employee, she can't afford personal opinions.
Samuel isn't sure either. It's not as though they were going to kill the unicorns: only anesthesize, capture and study them - in a non-destructive way: the species has been protected since the big scandal of Year Eleven, when some other clever guy from ISA tried (in vain) to eliminate them by infecting them with a virus. And then again, Samuel is a trainee, he can't allow himself personal feelings either if he wants a permanent position as a forest ranger. He didn't escape from the North just to have to come back with his tail between his legs because he hasn't been able to earn a living anywhere else. His father would just love that. He wasn't able to hack it in Cristobal, nor the oil fields by Dolgomor Lake... And the mines - he doesn't even want to think about going there. He needs open spaces and clean air, that's all there is to it. Forest ranger, even in the South, far away from his beloved Winters, would be the perfect job. No way he's going to miss this opportunity by getting sentimental.
They picked him for his skills as a marksman, although that hardly matters. The missile is equipped with a heat-seeking sensor and can hit its target on its own as long as it can locate it inside the programmed spatial parameters. Considering how much one missile costs, however, they would just as soon have somebody who is a good shot.
Starling switches on his com and sends a sotto voce warning to the recovery team, which is waiting two kilometres away with the big helijet and the trucks.
"And it's a go!" Colchak whispers.
Samuel wipes away the sweat that has begun to run down his forehead - lying in the high grass like this, they're screened from the cooling breeze. He acquires the unicorn in his sights and arms the small missile.
"Ready," he says.
"On three. One, two..."
Three.
The female must have heard the whistling projectile, she starts to stand up, alarmed. Too late. The little one also lifts its head, just enough to present its neck. He jerks back with the impact, tries to stand up, but the drug is already taking effect; the dosage was well calculated. For the female too: in spite of her efforts, she can't get up and lies back down, foaming at the mouth - a side effect of the anesthetic. Then her eyes roll back in her head, and she lies still.
"You can come and pick up your merchandise," Starling says into his com, extremely satisfied with himself.
Suddenly something moves. Samuel's gun sight is completely filled with a red-brown mass. Startled, he focuses again on the whole scene. Running to the female and her cub, the male prods them with his muzzle, once. Then he tilts his head back and gives a warning cry, a weird whistling growl that carries far on the wind, as far as where Samuel is crouching. A quick pan out to the rest of the pride: the unicorns are all standing, the lookouts in attack formation facing the direction from which the alarm came. Then, as one, they suddenly turn away and flee at full speed.
"Look, he's staying behind!" comes Starling's surprised voice.
Samuel looks again. Indeed, the big male is still standing near the drugged female and cub. Just as Samuel acquires him again in his sight, the animal starts trotting, faster and faster, horn high, in the direction opposite to that of the pride, diagonally approaching the ridge where the hunters are hidden.
"What's he doing?" Maura Fergus says in a low, disbelieving voice.
Samuel follows the male unicorn in his sight: the white tail and mane are streaming buoyantly in the wind, the animal seems to float above the long grasses, moving with flowing, supple strides - such graceful lightness for such a massive thing...
The unicorn brusquely changes direction and pace; he's at full gallop now. He reaches the lowest point of the ridge, jumps up...
And keeps on galloping. Straight at them.
"HEY!" Starling shouts, standing. Maura Fergus is already on her feet, Colchak too. Samuel also, wide-eyed: the animal is less than three hundred metres from them, that's impossible, it can't get any closer, it can't be attacking them, no unicorn has ever come close enough to a human to attack!
Colchak has discarded his missile launcher. He is feverishly loading his shotgun, as the hammering of the hooves quickly grows louder.
"No!" Maura says. She loads Colchak's missile launcher with one of the spares, slaps it down into Samuel's hands, presents her shoulder as a support.
Samuel adjusts the weapon's sight; his head is buzzing. The unicorn suddenly appears in the lens, enormous: horn low, nostrils flaring, a whitish foam dripping from his mouth... But under the dark continuous line that is the eyebrow, the brown eyes are not as much wild as fiercely focussed. Samuel swallows hard, centres the crosswire on the brown chest. His finger tightens on the trigger...
"Fire, dammit!" Starling shrieks.
He fires. He sees the missile hit the unicorn's chest. The animal doesn't even change course, is still galloping at them. What, not enough drug? Did Maura mistakenly load the spare calibrated for the cub?
No, this male is bigger than the female, that's all, the drug doesn't take effect as quickly. The animal is slowing down now, his movements becoming uncoordinated, awkward and heavy. He stumbles, recovers - it is like a desecration, Samuel doesn't want to watch anymore. He lowers the launcher, flipping his visor up, but of course he still sees: barely a hundred metres away the unicorn is now trotting, slower and slower, stumbles again, falls down on his knees, gets up... He is walking now, staggering. Fifty metres, forty... A dry buzzing in the sky: the helijet. The male hears it, perhaps; he stops, stands unsteadily, head down, foam dripping from his muzzle. He stays upright just for a moment, then his legs give way under his weight and he topples over on his side, all at once, ten metres from the humans. The earth beneath their feet shakes with the impact.
Samuel realizes he has dropped the launcher. He's out of breath; there's a searing pain in his chest as if he were the one who'd just been running. In front of him are Maura Fergus's shoulders. He puts his hands on those shoulders. He doesn't know why, but nothing is more important in this instant than touching her, touching someone. She turns towards him. For the first time, he notices her eyes, of a colour so pale that only her contracted pupil is visible, almost, in the sunlight. He knows she wants to cry. He too feels like crying...

© 1996 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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