The Lion

Author : J.D. Rice

The lion stares at me with all five of its eyes, and I know that my death is near. I call it lion, like so many colonists do, because I have no better name for it. Tripedal, with scaly flesh and pentocular vision, the creature is nothing like the lions back on Earth, except for the distinctive feathery mane that surrounds its curving, elongated neck. Like terrestrial lions, they've rarely been known to attack humans unless provoked. Unlike terrestrial lions, they view our very presence on this world as provocation enough to kill three colonists a month.

Slowly stepping forward in a criss-cross pattern, the lion lets out a low-pitched tone, like something from an electronic synthesizer, indicating its intent to make me its next meal. Nervously, I glance side to side, seeing nothing but purple sand and stone, trapped in the barren desert that borders the north side of our enclosed biosphere. I had hoped, when I ventured away from my scavenging party, to find nothing but valuable minerals in this wasteland. No one has ever seen one of these lions outside the southern jungle. But here he is, criss-crossing ever closer to where I stand.

Not daring to entirely look away, I shift my body slightly to the side and try to see how far I'd have to run to reach my jeep. Too far. I'd never make it.

The creature draws nearer, twisting its neck low and allowing its acidic saliva to drip to the ground below, turning the fine purple sand a fiery shade of red, a chemical reaction we haven't entirely been able to study. The feathers in the lion's mane stand on end as it comes closer, and the low tone it makes gets lower, lower, before finally drifting out of my ear's ability to hear. The silence is deafening. At any moment it will lunge and end my life.

Remembering my bowie knife, I fumble, hands shaking, to pull it from its sheath in a futile play at self defense. I was never a hunter, never a soldier. I came to the colony to get a fresh start, to get away from the crowded Earth and build a new home among the stars. We all did. But these creatures, these vestiges of a world resisting change, they've seen our frailty, they've seen our desperation, and they're fighting back. They say in nature that only the strongest survive. These creatures have taken that to heart, mangling our fences, destroying our listening posts, and making us a regular course in their meals. Humans may be the dominant order of life back on Earth. . . But here? We barely rate higher than a gazelle.

Suddenly, finally, the creature's three legs tense and release, launching its misshapen form in my direction. Blinded by panic, I swing my bowie knife wildly, stabbing and swiping as I feel his scaly body knock me to the purple landscape. I feel his suckery mouth close around my shoulder, acid burning through my jacket, melting my skin, digesting my flesh before it ever enters the creature's stomach. The lion flails, kicking its multi-jointed legs in the air, and then, just as suddenly as it had launched itself at me, it goes limp, my knife sticking out from what I assume to be its chest.

As quickly as I can, I push the creature off and pull my canteen from its clip on my belt. Pouring the mercifully cool water over my exposed flesh, I feel sweet relief from the lion's digestive saliva. A small pool of red sand grows from where the creature's bodily fluids leak from its mouth and knife wound. My own shoulder, while horribly burned, shows no signs of exposed deep flesh. It may yet be saved. I got lucky.

Heart pounding, half in remembered panic, half in triumph, I pull my knife from the lion's gut, then hear it. Three sets of ominously low tones.

“Damn,” I say. “They really do hunt in packs.”

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