2947-04-23: Tales from the Inbox: The Fall of Cerberos

The survivors of the failed colonial effort on Cerberos here on the Frontier are lucky to be alive. Of one hundred thirty colonists recorded in the settlement's records book, only ten remained to be evacuated when a supply ship finally touched down and took them aboard. The culprit - a xenopredator they justly dubbed the Cerberos Ravager - is the closest thing to a true dragon that human explorers have ever encountered on any habitable world.

Obviously, the lizardlike avian-analogues of Herakles IV have the basic body plan of a dragon, but these small, agile predators are hardly the stuff of legends. Cerberos's apex predator, by contrast, has the size, scaly hide, and appetite of the horrors of antiquity, though its anatomy is more wolf-like than lizard-like in many other respects.

Gilbert S. is one of the ten survivors, and he is lucky to be alive. As the unofficial head of the colony's militia, he led a final effort to divert the Ravager away from the survivors of its first attack - an effort that likely saved what few lives were extracted from Cerberos's ruins. He briefly stood up to the predator alone, armed no better than Nojus Brand - he had only a survival multitool. He doesn't know how he survived - one of the other colonists pulled him to safety after the beast dashed off in pursuit of his three brave associates, none of whom were ever seen again. It seems the beast tried to bite him in two and missed, but knocked him into the cover provided by a nearby boulder, which sheltered him from a second attempt. Gilbert remembers little, however; he suffered a severe head wound and only recovered after the survivors were rescued.

Speaking of our friend Mr. Brand - I have received word that he has recovered from his injuries and, despite the advice of his doctors, is planning a new adventure. My sources say he will be announcing his next destination soon, and that he has been consuming a large amount of Cosmic Background media offerings while recovering from his injuries. Perhaps his media diet even includes this text feed, and some of the strange worlds which our submissions have describe will someday appear on his vidcast program.

The last of the colony outpost’s buildings was a flaming ruin by the time the array had been made ready to send the distress signal. Cerberos had defeated its would-be tamers; now it was only a question whether the huddled dozens cowering in the irrigation ditches of what had once been a kilometer-wide farm plot would survive to be rescued.

Gilbert and three other men watched from the cover of a rocky hillock as a lone Ravager nosed through the burning rubble, looking for anything edible. Edible to a thirty-meter-long Ravager bull, of course, included human flesh – local meat was indigestible to humans, but nature had not been fair enough to ensure that the reverse was also true. Worse still, the Ravagers were clever, perhaps as smart as an Earthly bearnot sapient, but they learned quickly that only the largest human weapons could inflict any serious injury on their scaly hides, and that even the most powerful sonic fences had weak points.

The only thing saving the survivors from absolute annihilation was the fact that ravagers were solitary and territorial – they only had to fend off one at a time. The one which had ruined their settlement was the only beast for many kilometers. If it was sated, it would protect the surviving humans – a future food source, in its eyes – from its own kind.

Unfortunately, the Ravager had returned after leveling the town, looking for more to eat. Even as Gilbert watched, it dragged a few hopefully-lifeless bodies out from beneath the twisted beams and torn plating that some thirty homesteads had been reduced to, gupling down each one in a single mouthful. Soon, it would smell the survivors hiding not far away, and the only thing between it and them were Gilbert and his compatriots, who between them had only two Reed-Soares multitools, a single hunter’s rail-rifle, and a dodgy jolter pistol which wasn’t even lethal against human targets.

Gilbert loosened his white-knuckled grip on the high-tech machete in his hand, knowing that no amount of death-grip would let him cut through a Ravager’s thick scales. The four of them could only try to draw the beast off into the hills, hoping that it would not return for the remainder of the survivors. Their lives were already forfeit – but each of them had a sister, or a mother, or a wife, who would perhaps survive long enough for a rescue ship from the mining installation in the outer system to receive the distress signal broadcast from the colony’s faltering comms array and pick them up.

At last, with a decisive shake of its great head, the Ravager faced the landing field, put its nose to the ground, and began wandering toward the hopelessly outmatched foursome. Gilbert took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and prepared for the end. “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure homesteading with you.” With that, he hopped up onto the rocks and waved his machete at the beast, catching the light with the reflective flat of the blade to ensure its attention.

The Ravager looked up and snorted almost derisively at the challenge. It had shrugged off the fiercest counter-attacks the colonists could muster, so it had every reason to be unafraid. Even as it stalked forward, Gilbert taunted it, his legs trembling so fiercely he worried he would fall off his perch and break his neck before he had a chance to be torn apart by the xenopredator’s three-foot-long teeth.

The man with the rifle fired a single well-aimed shot, which slipped between the predator’s slightly open jaws and burrowed into the soft tissue of its palate. Surprised but not badly hurt by the tiny projectile, the Ravager snarled and backed away several thundering steps. “Now!” Gilbert shouted, and the group took off from its cover, running toward the narrow gullies of the hills.

The beast’s surprise lasted only seconds, and soon it was charging forward in pursuit of the fleeing colonists. It was faster than they by far, but before it could catch up, the four men dived into the cover provided by a cluster of boulders, firing a few flashy but ineffective jolter blasts to persuade it to stop.

“What now, boss?” One of the others asked Gilbert, peering out at the Ravager as it began to sniff among the rocks, looking for its hidden prey. It was a fair question – the nearest fresh cover was too far away to reach before they were overrun.

Gilbert gestured for the others to get ready, then held up his machete. “Go. I’ll give you the time.”

They knew it was pointless to argue. Gilbert pressed himself against the boulder, and the others crept farther away. A machete to the nose would only annoy the Ravager if he hit it exactly right; with dozens of lives riding on the diversion’s success, Gilbert knew he had only one chance.