Imperial Bounty [McCade Series Book 2]
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by William C. Dietz
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Since her brother's absence, Princess Claudia has seized the throne and brought the Empire to the brink of war with the Il Ronn. Only the missing Prince Alexander can stop Claudia's plans--and Sam McCade has only three months to find him. But Princess Claudia controls the Imperial Fleet and will stop at nothing to keep McCade from bringing in his imperial bounty?
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1988
eBookwise Release Date: September 2008
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [364 KB]
Reading time: 232-324 min.
McCade was hunting an icecat. Or maybe the icecat was hunting him. It wasn't clear which, but it didn't matter much, since he was in deep trouble either way. First, because he didn't know much about hunting icecats, and second, because icecats knew a lot about hunting people. Which wasn't too surprising since they'd been at it for fifty years. That's how long humans had been on the iceworld called Alice. The process of natural evolution had molded icecats into killers, and to them, humans were targets just like everything else.
Naturally the colonists had fought back, but it wasn't easy. Icecats can move with amazing speed, and never give up. Their name comes from a vague resemblance to Terran cats. Unlike Terran felines however, icecats have heat-sensitive membranes located in the center of their foreheads. Operating like infrared scanners, these membranes allow them to lock onto radiated heat, and follow it even through a raging blizzard if necessary. They also have excellent vision, good hearing, and lots of teeth. All of which explains why icecats are normally hunted by well-armed groups instead of individuals. "Not that I planned it this way," McCade said to himself.
It had all begun when a roaming icecat attacked a small herd of variant caribou about twenty miles to the south. In a matter of minutes the rampaging beast had almost wiped them out. By the time Lane Conners arrived, there were bodies everywhere. And when Conners attempted to defend a wounded animal, the icecat jumped him too. He had used his pocket com to call for help. Moments later his wife, Liz, hit the big red panic button just inside the door of their pre-fab dome and raced to his side. A general distress call went out, and as luck would have it, McCade was closest.
McCade was returning home from a series of routine law and order visits to the small mining settlements which dotted Alice when the alarm came in. It had been a long trip. But on Alice you don't ignore a distress call. Not if you want anyone to show up when it's your ass on the line. Amazingly enough the rancher was still conscious when the medics arrived. As they loaded him into the chopper he grabbed McCade's arm. "Get the sonovabitch for me, Sam. Otherwise he'll be back ... and next time it might be Liz or one of the boys."
McCade saw such agony in the rancher's eyes that like a fool he agreed, ready to say anything to get Lane into the helicopter and on his way. So as the med evac chopper disappeared into the southern sky, McCade got into his aircar and took off toward the north. What looked stupid now had seemed reasonable back then. Rather than wait for help, or take the time to put together a pack, he'd decided to follow the icecat's tracks north hoping for a quick, easy kill. He should've known better. When it comes to icecats ... there's no such thing as a quick, easy kill.
So he'd dropped his aircar into a clearing, and set out on foot, trying to get ahead of the beast and ambush it. But so far all he'd seen was ice, snow, and the low, twisted evergreens which passed for trees on Alice. "Where the hell are you anyway?" he asked in frustration, but there was no answer except the crunching sound of his own footsteps as he walked through the ice and snow. Around him the shadows grew longer and darker, creating a thousand hiding places, any of which might conceal an icecat.
As evening approached it brought with it a frigid breeze, supercooled by glaciers a hundred miles to the north, and sharp as a knife against the small area of unprotected skin at his throat. Walking cautiously he reached down to turn up the internal temperature of his heatsuit. Eventually he'd run out of power for it. Maybe he'd freeze to death while waiting for an icecat to kill him. The thought struck him as funny somehow, so why wasn't he laughing? "You're losing it, Sam old boy," he said to himself. "Pull yourself together. You've been in worse spots."
And it was true. In his days as a professional bounty hunter he'd come close to death many times. But somehow those encounters were different. He'd been in control, always the hunter, never the hunted. Here that was reversed; the icecat was in control. It could fight or disappear, and whichever it chose, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Suddenly he stopped, his eyes riveted to the snow in front of him. The icecat was close. There was no mistaking the huge plate-sized paw prints which overlaid the cross-hatched pattern of his own boots. The sonovabitch was following him! And had been for some time. Together they'd made a large figure eight. With a sinking feeling McCade realized how far he'd come. The aircar was miles away.
He glanced over his shoulder one more time, and started up a nearby slope, instinctively seeking higher ground. Perhaps he could find a better vantage point toward the top. Eventually his path was blocked by the sheer face of a cliff. Locating a small crevice which would protect his back, he forced his way in, and did his best to make himself comfortable.
During his climb, the already dim sun had sunk farther in the overcast sky, making it even colder. McCade reached down to turn up the gain on his heatsuit, and then thought better of it. Even on its present setting the power pak wouldn't get him through the night. He did his best to settle down and concentrate on the task at hand. "All right you flea-bitten sonovabitch ... I'm ready when you are ... come and get it."
Another hour passed. He scanned the area below for the umpteenth time. Even under his visor's high mag setting, there wasn't much to see. He was about to give up when he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Or had he? Maybe it was just a trick of evening's half light. No, there it was again, a shadow among shadows, a momentary blur only half seen.
Then he had it, a long low body, winter white giving way to summer gray, almost invisible against the volcanic rock. A strong neck supported a large triangular head, with two fan-shaped ears that twitched slightly as they sampled the evening breeze. Huge eyes moved this way and that, each independently scanning the area for any signs of danger. If they looked his way would they see him? And what about the animal's ability to sense radiated heat? Could it detect him?
McCade felt a lead weight drop into his gut as the beast's hideous head swiveled toward him and stopped. How good was his heat shielding? Maybe there was some leakage that the icecat could detect. The icecat snarled, the thin lips of its false mouth pulled back to reveal razor-sharp teeth. The sound echoed back and forth off the cliffs.
The last echo of the icecat's snarl was still dying away when the animal vanished into the shadows. McCade thought about all those teeth and shuddered. The ones he'd seen were bad enough, but he knew there were still others located in its abdomen. Icecats have two mouths. A false mouth used for breathing and killing, and a real mouth, exclusively devoted to eating. Having made a kill, icecats immediately drape themselves over the body to keep it from freezing, thus bringing their real mouths into contact with the carcass. By sliding this way and that, icecats can efficiently strip a man-sized carcass in minutes, all the while keeping their false mouths and sensory organs available for defense. It is, the biologists like to point out, a very efficient adaptation to conditions on Alice. McCade didn't doubt it, but had no desire to take part in the process himself.
Nonetheless he stood up. To hell with waiting. If he didn't move soon he'd freeze to death. So if the icecat wouldn't come to him ... he'd go to it. He felt the muscle in his left cheek twitch as he shifted the comforting weight of the slug thrower from one arm to the other. The weapon had a rotary magazine filled with alternating hollow point slugs and shot shells. As the planet's only police officer, it was just one of the many weapons McCade carried in his aircar. Properly handled it could take out a squad of Imperial Marines. Unfortunately, he thought, icecats are tougher than marines, and probably smarter.
Carefully he eased his way out of the rocky crevice. There wasn't much cover as he moved downslope, but he used what there was, pausing every now and then behind outcroppings of rock to check his surroundings. He was almost at the bottom when he spotted the icecat making its way across the opposite slope, pausing every now and then to scan ahead for radiated heat, or sniffing the breeze for a foreign scent.
Apparently satisfied with its surroundings, the beast moved off toward a patch of bare rock, attracted perhaps by the glow of radiated heat surrounding it. A few more yards and McCade would be close enough. He flicked the weapon's safety to the off position and moved forward.
Later he wasn't sure what warned him, whether it was an almost imperceptible sound, a tiny disturbance in the air, or some sixth sense, but whatever it was caused him to step right, and saved his life.
The second icecat hit him a glancing blow as it went past, knocking him down, and jarring the weapon out of his hands. Fighting its own inertia, the big animal scrambled to turn around, while McCade clawed desperately for his sidearm. He felt the slug gun come free just as the icecat leaped. The gun roared four times before the huge body landed on him, driving all breath from his body and plunging him into suffocating darkness.
Pushing up with all his might, he fought desperately to get his breath, almost gagging on the animal's stench. In spite of his efforts the icecat's muscular body didn't give an inch. Instead it squirmed, and slid this way and that, trying to bring its real mouth into contact with his flesh. The intervening heatsuit was the only thing between him and all those teeth. In a few seconds those teeth would make contact with the wire mesh of the suit's heating elements, eat through those, and go to work on him. Wire mesh! It gave him an idea.
He pushed up as hard as he could with his left hand, and managed to slide his right down until he found the heatsuit's controls. Fingers fumbling, he accidently turned the knob to the right, before realizing his mistake and turning it to the left. He prayed there was enough juice left in the power pak to do some good. A second later the icecat's teeth came through the suit's tough outer fabric and made contact with the inner wire mesh. As the power pak's full output hit the icecat's nervous system, the cat convulsed and jerked away.
Momentarily freed, McCade quickly rolled left, and landed on the auto-slug thrower he'd lost earlier. As he picked it up he saw the icecat was already back on its feet, shaking its head like a dazed prizefighter, and preparing to attack again. The weapon in his hands seemed to weigh a ton. With a strange sense of detachment he watched the icecat shift its weight, gather itself, and leap into the air. Meanwhile the barrel of his weapon continued its slow journey upward. Some distant part of his mind noticed the animal was bleeding profusely from six or seven bullet wounds, and wondered if anything could kill it. Finally the slug thrower completed its upward arc, and he touched the trigger. The icecat seemed to run into an invisible wall. It crumpled in midair, and for a moment it was enveloped in a pink mist, as blood and flesh sprayed out behind it. Then it landed with an audible thud, and slid the last couple of feet, until its head almost touched the barrel of his gun.
For a moment he just sat there, too shocked to move. Finally he struggled to his feet, unable to take his eyes off the icecat's huge body, shaking like a leaf. Then he heard the other icecat roar and, whirling, heard the sound of his weapon merge with his own screams. The animal was already in the air, his slugs stitching a bloody line across its chest, when his weapon clicked empty. Closing his eyes McCade waited for the inevitable impact. Instead there was just a dull thump followed by silence.
Opening his eyes, he saw the second icecat was also dead, lying only a few feet from the first. Suddenly his legs gave way and dumped him on the ground. He did his best to throw up, but failed. When the dry heaves finally stopped, he leaned back, and took a look around. It was almost completely dark. He shivered. A quick check confirmed that his suit's power pak was completely exhausted. Well, he couldn't complain about that since it had saved his life. Of course, what good was that if he froze to death?
"You're losing it again," he told himself, "cut the crap and do something useful." Shivering, he tried to think. The aircar was miles away, and he wasn't sure he could find it in the dark. So he should stay put and build a fire. With what? He knew from previous experience the low scrubby vegetation didn't burn worth a damn. Still, he had to do something. Trying to stand, he reached out to steady himself, and his hand encountered something warm. The body of the first icecat.
Of course! Given their bulk the dead icecats would take a while to freeze. Maybe even all night. That gave him an idea. It wasn't pleasant, but it might save his life.
Taking a deep breath, he drew his power knife, flicked on the blade, and went to work. Twenty back-breaking minutes later, he'd finished, and was curled up inside the icecat's warm abdominal cavity. Outside, large piles of entrails lay where he'd thrown them, steaming as they released their warmth into the cold night air, twitching as smaller nocturnal animals gathered to share the unexpected feast. Eventually larger animals would arrive, and start in on the main carcass, but by then it would be morning, and they'd be welcome to it. That was the theory anyway. By now he was so tired he didn't care if it worked or not. Sleep was all that mattered. Doing his best to ignore where he was, and the stench that went with it, McCade curled up even tighter and drifted off to sleep.