Barghest – Prologue

Barghest Main Page

Isaiah 45, 6-7

Year 2088

Approximately 380 light years from Earth


“A.I., continue dictation for Xenobiology Assessment, twelfth entry. ” The scientist scrolled through her file of notes on her tablet before finding what she was looking for. Clearing her throat, she began dictation again, “Twelfth entry, planet Keres 6b-3: Terrestrial Animals, Section three, Miacas Immanis. First Paragraph.

“Miacas Immanis, so named for the biological similarities with the extinct Earth family Miacidae, is the single largest carnivore on the third satellite of Keres 6b. Like Earth placental mammals, Miacas Immanis has hair, a developed neocortex, mammary capabilities, live young, and a circulatory system that regulates temperature. In appearance, the Miacas Immanis is familiar to humans -” the scientist paused and clicked through several windows to find a series of image stills, “- see photo 4238-90, with its resemblance to several Earth species, notably big cat, canine, and bears. This combination of features, along with night vision which gives the eyes a red appearance in low light, has led to the nickname ‘Hellhound’.

“Paragraph. Habitat. Keres 6b-3, as previously mentioned, consists of a supercontinent with numerous freshwater lakes and rivers. Although it has no tropical or subtropical climates, all other recognized climate zones are present. The Hellhound is a habitat generalist, found in each zone, and thrives in all but the polar ice caps. This is speculated to be a result of increased radiation levels, rather than weather conditions. Several subspecies have evolved to take advantage of unique features of their geographic location as well as adapt to challenges. Examples include coat thickness and coloring.” The scientist paused recording as an entry chime sounded.

“Come in,” she called. A technician entered with an electronic pad, extended for review and approval.

“Pack twelve is moving in. They should be within camera range of the station in a few minutes.” He waited patiently, hands tucked into his lab coat pockets while she skimmed the pad.

“Oh?” She smiled, “And how is Fenrir doing this week?” Pack twelve was her favorite of all of the tagged subjects, primarily due to the alpha that led them. It was as much his unusual dark coloring as the above average intelligence he had displayed throughout the study that drew her interest.

“He’s picked up a few stray sub-adult males. I’d say it should make things interesting the next time they run into another pack. Should generate some good film of dominance and mating behavior.”

“How has Koine taken to her mate’s new subordinates?” The scientist pressed her palm against the screen to authorize the request and handed it back. She entered a command into her terminal and one wall flickered before displaying tiled images from eight external cameras. Night on the moon’s surface was fairly dark, and long. The sun had set several hours prior and the moon’s rotation would not turn to face the parent planet for several more. The darkest time was typically preferred by most hellhound packs for long-distance travel where young would be exposed without a den available for retreat from threats.

The technician laughed, “She got them in hand pretty quickly, I’d say. Those rookies won’t even approach Fenrir without looking to her first.”

“That sounds about right,” she smiled too. “Let me know as soon as you get them tagged with the monitoring implants.” The technician voiced his agreement and left, closing the door behind him. She leaned back in her chair, putting her feet on her desk to watch the live video feed, and resumed her entry.

“Paragraph. Physiology. The average size of the Miacas Immanis is similar to that of a large tiger, with some variance among subspecies. Length ranges from 2.9 to 3.38 meters from nose to tail. Sexually dimorphic, males can weigh as much as 610 kg, although the median is 560 kg, while females are smaller and typically between 510-535 kg. This size is reflective of their diet and hunting practices. Although hypoocarnivorous, they consume primarily large ungulates. The Hellhound lives up to its name, methodical, cunning, and efficient as a pack hunter, but even a solitary animal is easily an apex predator. A lone adult male can bring down an Armored Bellicomer, see image 265-03, in less than a minute and consume most of the 100 kg of meat in a single glutting.

“The body is designed for powerful leaps and speed over short distances. Miacas Immanis has a plantigrade stride that gives it a lumbering appearance when walking, but enables both a top running speed of up to 60 km/h and the ability to balance on hind legs for displays of aggression and dominance. Heavy musculature over a dense bone structure and thick skin and fur make for a deadly opponent that can take multiple hits from the spiked tale of a Bellicomer or sharp ridgeline of Tudwick’s Abeoral with little consequence. A broad, short snout is characterized by heavy, large teeth and significant jaw pressure for breaking through tough exoskeletons and bone. A.I., pause recording.”

Movement on one of the screens drew her attention, and she watched as a large figure stepped out of the dense foliage at the edge of camera range and into the open grassland that surrounded the base of the research station. The deep, blue-black of Fenrir’s coat was easily identifiable as he paused and assessed his territory. The camera zoomed in on his ears as they flicked toward the station. His eyes glowed red in the low light. The scientist smiled in the solitude of her office. It had been obvious the day he was tagged that the alpha Hellhound was aware of the presence of the researchers, and that he felt they posed no threat to him or his pack. As usual, he marked his territory, subtly claiming the station and its inhabitants by rote of urinating on the perimeter fence before he stepped over it.  The pale shape of his mate, Koine, followed. She was flanked by two other males, betas, and her most recent litter trailed behind her.  The rest of the pack filed slowly into the clearing. The animals were known to create dens for themselves when no cave was available, but on the front door of the station Fenrir allowed his pack to lie down in the open. He kept a line of his most experienced fighters between the station and the pack, and himself settled at the opposite side of the clearing, facing any danger that might seek to attack them. His mate curled up behind him, tucking their two cubs against her belly.

“A.I., resume recording. Although Hellhounds are fertile year-round, there appears to be a significant tie between fertility of the alpha pair and that of the pack. An unmated alpha has pack mates with young in less than 3% of studied cases. Whether this is biological or behavioral is not yet clear. Two cubs is typical of a litter; approximately 30% of births recorded are singles, and nearly half result in twins. Multiples of three or more grow less common as the number of cubs increases. This reinforces the research showing Miacas Immanis to be strongly parental. Life-long monogamy is standard, although dedicated polygamy is present in one of ten mated individuals.

“Coat color varies by subspecies,” she continued, almost whispering as if the animals might hear her. “Light browns, reds, and pale tans are most common, although several individuals with black or even white fur have been documented. The thickness is seasonal, depending upon region.

“Sensory perception is vastly superior to humans. Ears are pointed and placed on top of the head. Long, sensitive hairs along the outer edge increase perception of sound across distance and in ranges undetectable to homo sapiens. The sense of smell is acute, perceiving up to -6OUE, and plays an important part in marking territory, hunting, mating, and pack behavior. Both urination and sweat glands are utilized for the purpose of marking places and individuals. Apocrine glands in the face and eccrine glands in the feet are highly concentrated and appear to be consciously regulated by the individual. Their perception of heat and cold is diminished in exchange for increased resistance to both.”

The researcher began a long recitation of data indicating tests of sensory perception and how it affected behaviors. The animals were strong swimmers and frequent bathers, which was thought to be a result of removing undesirable scents to allow for more easily identifiable scent-marking of individuals. “Miacas Immanis is social and extremely territorial with significant ritualized behaviors. The first kill in a new or recently re-entered range is always executed by the alpha, which will then consume the rich organ meat before inviting other pack members to join him. This varies only when the alpha has pre-adolescent cubs that have been weaned or when his mate is pregnant, in which case he defers the choice parts for their consumption. Similar behavior is exhibited during courtship rituals.

“Either a male or female may initiate courtship. The former through vocalizations, posturing, and a rapid thickening of coat growth around the neck and head, the latter through vocalizations described as humming, physical challenges, and submissive posturing. This may continue for several weeks, or a single day, before the couple engages in a type of staged combat – which may become life-threateningly real if one partner is severely displeased with the other. The outcome and length of the battle that results in a successful mating is dependent upon the individuals. Some alphas have spurred any females that do not immediately lay prone and submissive. Others break off courtship if the combat is not sufficiently vicious. If both parties are agreeable, the male may then present gifts of meat, particularly rich organs, to the female. This may continue until she accepts his offer by bedding down in his personal den.”

“Hunting is an essential skill for the Hellhound not only due to the meat-rich diet, but also the importance of healthy, abundant food in courtship. Their kills are efficient, and methodical. Most often, the primary hunter will quickly lunge for an exposed soft tissue of the inner thigh, neck, or shoulder joint and sever a major artery at that point. Secondary hunters distract the prey to allow such an opening. They are also capable of what researchers have classified as ‘vengeance’ kills. Should another carnivore take down a member of a pack, either young or infirm, the lead hunters will track down and kill the perpetrator – without consuming the meat.”

The scientist continued with detailed descriptions of the communication used by packs: vocal, expressions, and posturing. It combined with other behaviors and medical data to indicate a high degree of intelligence. “Paragraph. Given another million years of evolution, Miacas Immanis could develop into a primary class species, on the intellectual level of modern homo sapiens sapiens. A.I., pause.” She stopped, standing and staring at the display wall. Fenrir was rising with the rotation of the moon. The planet Keres 6b was cresting the horizon. The gas giant lit the field with a brightness similar to an overcast day on Earth. For ten minutes, she watched silently as the alpha circled his pack. He arrived back at his starting point as the first of the planet’s rings appeared in the sky. Massive, shaggy black shoulders rose above the rest of the pack, so that Fenrir stood on his hind legs. He was more than three and a half meters tall. His snout tipped up, and he raised his voice in a true roar that could be heard for miles. The pack answered him, the sound deafening not just through the speakers, but loud enough to vibrate against the metal walls of the station. His subordinates finally quieted, but Fenrir remained standing.

His vocalizations mellowed into what the scientists referred to as the ‘Claim Song’. His howls and subdued roars had a melodic quality. She could imagine what he was saying.

Mine. My place. My territory. My pack. My mate, my cubs. Mine. Challengers, fear me. Prey, run from me. Blood hot. Sky bright. Pack strong. Mine.

After a quarter hour, Fenrir fell back to all fours and walked a tight circle around his mate and cubs. He settled down to rest for a few more hours, until the planet had fully risen and the sun would be not far behind. His eyes, no longer red, but bright green, focused on the station. His ears flicked dismissively, as if to warn the humans that he had no interest in them, but if they were to become a threat he would rip out their throats as easily as purring.

“A.I., record. In light of these and other discoveries regarding Miacas Immanis, and the potential of the species, I strongly recommend that they be removed from consideration for genetic compatibility testing. Moral objections to Project Reform itself aside, the Hellhound is a unique life form that is highly self-cognizant and should be recognized as such and treated with respect, rather than as a biological coding repository to be plundered by human beings. Should the Defense Advanced Research Projects Division continue on to the next phase of testing the Miacas Immanis, I will lodge a formal objection with Congress.”

She sat, reading through her dictation before glancing once more at the display, then at the personal photographs and professional accolades displayed on her workspace. “A.I.,” she said slowly, “delete last paragraph. End recording.”

Chapter 1