The beast stood proudly in the clearing, its enormous bulk glistening as it grazed amongst the leaves all around. The dappled sunlight filtered through the tall trees, the soft shadows rippling across the creatures skin. Even in this peaceful state it was obvious why only the hardiest of predators would attempt to attack it. Tom crept closer, using the thick vegetation for cover, ensuring he was downwind of the creature. Raising his scope he sighted on the animal, taking in every wrinkle of its skin through the lens. His camera snapped a rapid set of images, taking in every three-dimensional detail.
Without warning gunfire erupted from the South, the staccato shots spooking the great beast. It turned its large head, eyes finding Tom in an instant. The rhino snorted once, turned its muscled body to face the same direction and charged. Tom didn’t even falter, he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance trying to outrun this beast in this kind of terrain. He stood his ground and waited until the last possible moment before diving behind the bowl of a nearby tree. He felt the air behind him explode with force an instant before the charging rhino sped by, too caught up in its own momentum to react and turn in time.
Tom was already up and running in the opposite direction, moving swiftly and silently through the jungle. Hopefully the rhino would leave him be, satisfied it had scared him off. It was the shooters he was more worried about. With barely five percent of any form of forests remaining, species that would once have never encountered such terrain had been placed together, the perimeters guarded day and night to protect the last of Earth’s treasures. Some, like Tom, were allowed access, to study the animals within and ensure they were adapting well. But as with all valuable commodities, there were those who would pay dearly to take what was in short supply.
Tom didn’t feel the ground shake beneath his feet and risked a glance back, sighing with relief that the rhino had given up before it even began. Returning his gaze to the front Tom felt his body connect solidly with a branch at chest height, the impact knocking all breath from his lungs and sending him lurching backwards. Stars swam in his vision, the dappled green light above moving in and out of focus. From his right came the sounds of leaves breaking, harsh voices and clipped orders. Trying to stand Tom found his head swimming, falling back down before he could even put a hand out to stop himself. The noises grew closer, obviously drawn by his actions. Lying still Tom hoped his modest attempt at camouflage would do him some good, hopefully letting the poachers walk on by without ever seeing him.
Not today it seemed. Within moments he had been hoisted upright, arms bound tightly behind him with a military-issue binder. He didn’t struggle, at this point he felt more likely to throw up than make a break for it. A thin white man strode into view, straw hat obscuring most of his face but what was visible was too white to have spent any time out in the Sun.
“What do we have here my friend?” he said jokingly in a thick South African accent. Grabbing Tom by the chin he lifted his head so their gazes met. Tom felt his breath quicken.
“Van Meer,” Tom whispered, the dawning realisation of the situation now sinking in, every sense sharpening in response. He felt his pulse increase, pupils dilate as they began to take in every detail around. Any sense of disorientation had been shaken off.
“Thomas Sully, my it has been a while. I can’t thank you enough for that last batch of photos you sent the Commission. That cost me an awful lot to cover up brother.”
“Next time I’ll remember to keep copies for the press.”
“No my friend, I don’t think we’ll be having any more trouble from you after today. I have a nice rhinoceros to dehorn so I’m going to leave you in the very capable hands of my associates here. Have a good life Mr. Sully.”
Van Meer turned and walked back amongst his men, grin affixed firmly in place.
“I’ve got one last thing to say to you Wikkus.”
Van Meer turned slowly, enjoyment at finally having the upper hand evident as he took his time.
“Oh really, well please my friend, do share.”
“I found your rhino. COME ON!”
The final cry was all the sneaking animal needed, bursting forth from the trees where it had been stalking Toms trail. The assembled men turned at the sound of thunder, barely reacting before the beast pummelled into them. Three and a half tonnes of muscle and sinew, topped with a solid horn, ploughed through anything and everything that got in its way. As soon as the man behind Tom let go to make his own getaway Tom jumped and rolled into the underbrush to the side, frantically digging for the small knife in his boot.
Around him the men were in complete disarray, some had begun training their rifles on the creature, firing off rounds as quickly as they could. In its heightened state of rage this only fuelled the rhino more, send it into a frenzy. As the bullets finally sought to put a dent in it the men looked around taking stock of their situation. Van Meer lay groaning amongst the buttress roots of a large tree, blood flowing freely from a chest wound. Others were rolling in pain or deathly still. They found no trace of Thomas Sully, only the frayed bonds lying in a heap.
Tom was always amazed at how much could change in such a short distance. Setting down in Los Angeles he saw the sea of concrete slabs, stretching away into the infinite horizons. The San Pedro Space Port glistened proudly below, its many pads ferrying people and cargo to and fro every day.
Grabbing his bag from the overhead locker Tom made his way towards the exit, already missing the clean air of a tropical climate compared to the cloying smog that seemed to pervade every metropolitan area nowadays. Stepping onto the tarmac Tom looked up into the clouds, watching the latest shuttle descend from the heavens against the dark sky. Just six days and he’d be heading up to Luna, then on to Pandora. Six short days to get his life in order before he was gone for the better part of a decade.
It wasn’t much of a change really; he had spent much of his adult life out of the cities, trekking through what was left of the wild, making a name for himself as a wildlife researcher and photographer. As a child he had spent a lot of time outdoors with his brother, but whilst Jake had gone on to join the Marines and end up god knows where to be outside, Tom had settled for something… simpler. Yeah, because facing off against rhinos and poachers is safer than shooting from the seat of an armoured mobility platform he mused to himself.
If only his brother could see him now. Tom cut his thoughts short, they hadn’t spoken since their Dad had passed away and neither saw fit to reconnect. Shifting his bag higher Tom headed towards the terminal, the clouds overhead growing in size and darkness. He had sold his apartment before leaving on the last trip, doubting it’d be worth the extra rent for a few days. An old botany friend had agreed to lend him his place in Downtown, only a six mile walk from the port. Funny how six miles in a city could feel a lot further than the same distance over thick terrain in a rainforest.
Not even a mile out the heavens opened and the first drops of rain began to pound down. What few pedestrians were about at this time of night took cover and hurried along but Tom kept on at a steady pace, pulling a well-used poncho from his pack. Always be prepared, Jake had taught him that. Taking the piece of paper with his friends address on Tom tried to figure out where he was supposed to go, it looked like he’d missed a turning somewhere and ended up on the wrong street.
Passing an alleyway he took a quick turn, still deciding if this was the correct direction.
“Give me a bearing any day,” he murmured to himself.
Walking further down the alley Tom realised he was not alone, ahead a shadow moved and a large man stepped into his path. What little light reached in this far from the street fell short of revealing the mans face, but Tom could get a picture from the stench alone.
“Got any change?” the man asked, stepping closer.
“No sorry,” Tom said, moving to the side to step past. The shadowy figure did the same, not hiding his intent any more.
“Bag looks heavy, why not let me hold on to it for you?”
It was a statement, not a request and Tom felt his options narrowing. Five thousand miles just to have some idiot in an alley mug me? he thought with disdain.
“Look pal, there’s nothing in here except dirty washing and some half eaten ration packs.” Not exactly true, there was also several grands worth of photography equipment, not to mention GPS and other technological aids.
“Give me your fucken bag or I’ll knife you right here,” the man said, stepping so close to Tom he could feel his pungent breath. The dim light glinted off the thin knife held in the mans hand, it was small but deep enough to be of concern.
“Put the knife away and we can both go on our way,” Tom said slowly, one hand held defensively in front of him, the other balled ready to fight.
The man didn’t even say anything, just plunged his arm forwards, driving the knife towards Toms stomach. Tom didn’t think, didn’t analyse the situation, he just reacted as he’d learnt to do many years before. Pivoting to the side he grabbed the assailants wrist, twisted, snatched the knife and spun around in one fluid motion. It was over before it even began, the man lying on the ground, his breath coming in shallow gasps while blood pooled around his chest. The knife stayed firmly in place between his ribs, a clean cut to the heart. It would be over soon.
Tom looked up at the sky, the falling rain stinging his face and wondered what would have happened if it was him lying on the ground instead. He would call the company first, they could sort this kind of thing out with the police, he was too valuable an investment to let rot in a jail while a perfectly good avatar went to waste. Six days and six years later he would be on Pandora and this would all be behind him.