The Howit is almost certainly the most extraordinary animal that the human race has ever come across and not the least extraordinary thing about it is its name, the origin of which is now, unfortunately, lost in antiquity.
In researching the records I have come across many names that this creature was known by before Howit became established commonly. The earliest name I have found in the records is “Hellcat”, which was apparently given to it by the first explorers of this animal’s native planet. The hard-worked Explorer Corps, using their initial reaction as usual, had named the planet as, “God almighty, what a Hellhole”, which as we all know, has since been shortened to the now familiar “Hellhole”.
The name “Hellcat”, they said, was meant to indicate that this was some kind of “cat from hell”, which, on this particular planet, must have been really saying something, as this is the most ferocious planet that we have yet found. It is filled with the most aggressive, dangerous and lethal lifeforms that humankind has so far encountered and the Howit, surprisingly, is the king of them all.
Considering the fact that this animal is no larger than a small Terran cat (at least the males, the females are very much larger, which must make mating a fraught business, to say the least) it is hard to believe that this is the most dangerous animal in the known universe, perhaps even including Man himself.
To return to how the name “Howit” became established, the first suggestion that I found in my researches was that it was a shortened form of “Howitzer”, which was the name of a type of gun, or cannon, that was used, a long time in the past, to shoot plunging shells onto a target, usually with lethal effect. This might possibly have some foundation, as we are sure that the first people to witness the Howit were certainly from the Explorer Corps, who have always been a part of the military, and would therefore have known of this antique weapon and, being impressed by its capabilities, might have applied a shortened form of its name to this newly-discovered animal, whose capabilities so impressed them.
But why shorten “howitzer” by just one syllable? No, it must have been shortened from something much longer, if it was indeed an abbreviation.
Another suggestion that I examined with some care was that “Howit” was a corruption of “Hewitt”, the name of the first man to ever, “capture”, or “domesticate” these creatures. The historical record shows that, by a curious coincidence, Hewitt did, in fact, start the whole relationship between Man and Howit. The way this happened requires me to digress again.
In the early years on the planet Hellhole the activities of this strange little animal, the “Hellcat”, as it was then known, were never directly observed. All that was known about it was the results of its behaviour, and these had always been known to be severe. For instance, there is a record, from the early times on Hellhole, that about 40 large carnivores of the type “Hellwolf” had been slaughtered within a space of less than 1 minute, but the cameras, at least at normal speed, had detected no evidence as to how this had happened. It was only when the camera record was slowed down that it was possible to observe that apparently only one animal, and that as small as a cat (!) had caused all this damage in such a short time. The fleeting and unclear image from the cameras was immediately, though temporarily, christened “Hellcat”. How it had been able to do it, nobody then knew.
Other records were examined, now it was known what to look for and how to look for it, and, relatively quickly, it became obvious that mankind had run across the most extraordinary killing machine it had yet met on the 582 planets then known to harbour advanced life forms. (Since that time, although many more planets have been discovered and investigated, no valid competitors for Hellhole’s position as the absolute worst have become known, and thus the Howit still remains unchallenged as the most dangerous life form yet known).
In the incident related above, for instance, it seemed that the pack of hellwolves (roughly equivalent on Hellhole to a cross between terrestrial wolves and jackals but, as the name indicates, far more vicious and capable) had inadvertently disturbed a Howit, perhaps while it was resting or sleeping, though this was not clear from the record. (Even now no one claims to have ever seen or recorded a Howit asleep or to know when it is resting). The response from the (angry?) little animal was instantaneous and economical. It moved at incredible speed among them, aiming its attacks at its adversaries’ most vulnerable points, ripping out their throats with short, lightning-fast slashes of its razor sharp claws or teeth, sometimes blinding them or severing their hamstrings to incapacitate them before returning to finish them off only fractions of a second later. How it managed to move with such speed, how it knew exactly the most economical method, in terms of speed and effort, to dispose of its victims, nobody knew.
Another record was perhaps even more impressive.
On Hellhole lived a predator that was remarkably similar to the famous prehistoric dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, a fossilised example of which is featured in many museums on Earth. This truly terrifying creature, which the Observer Corps had named Tyrann Imperator, was even more deadly than the Rex must have been, for at least two reasons. First of all, although it was of the same overall size and appearance, it was much faster. This sixty-ton animal could run at a speed of over 80 miles an hour! The second thing that made it so dangerous was that it didn’t hunt alone. A male and female and, when they had offspring, their young, would hunt together. I’m sure you can imagine, and maybe you have seen the visual records of, how formidable are a pack of two full-grown Imperators, together with perhaps three to six younger and smaller ones, just as vicious as their parents. This was, up to that time, considered to be the most dangerous creature in the known universe. Until it was seen how the Howit dealt with it.
Basically, it was no contest.
A young Howit, suddenly finding itself confronted by a pack of Tyrann Imperators, took them apart. They didn’t even stand a chance. The Howit became a blur, ran up the Tyranns torsos, ripped their eyes apart, then entered their ears and destroyed their brains from the inside. Before the six Imperators had even thudded down the Howit was back, sitting calmly on the ground, observing the results of its handiwork. A little later its mother arrived, in no great haste, (there had been no evidence of any “Help” signal of any kind) and began to groom the youngster’s fur, though it hardly seemed to need it. This one kilo, cat-sized animal, seemingly with no previous experience of its adversaries, had known exactly how to deal with them. The enticing question was, had its mother, somehow, instructed it in how to perform the combat, and from a distance? There was no way, at the time, to answer this question but, once again, the Howit had shown itself to be the all-time champion killer and, once again, no one knew how it did it.
By this time you will have guessed, if you didn’t immediately, that the name “Howit” is, simply, an abbreviation of, “How it does it, nobody knows.”
You, of course, will have found this much easier than I did, but then again, we think differently, don’t we?
Returning now to Hewitt and his pivotal involvement in this history. He was a scientist with the exploration teams and became especially interested in this animal and, collecting together all the relevant records, soon became the recognised expert on its behaviour. Hewitt was lucky, in the same way that Pasteur had been lucky. That is; he was prepared when luck came his way. During an unauthorised field expedition he had stumbled across a female Howit that was dying in childbirth. Of course, it was far too dangerous for him to approach until she was dead, but then he had been able to confirm something that he had suspected for a while, which was that the new-born kittens became fixated on the first large moving object they saw, which in this case happened to be him, and they therefore regarded him as their mother. This is a very well known phenomenon, known as “imprinting” and was first recorded on Earth by Konrad Lorentz, who noticed the phenomenon in geese.
It was not long after this that Hewitt designed what has now become a familiar piece of headwear, among those who can afford what goes with it. It was a sort of flat-headed hat, with an up-lifted rim, secured by sidepieces and bands around the neck to make it rigid, within which a Howit could sit comfortably. His next step was to form “The Howit Corporation” for the purpose of selling Howits as the ultimate form of bodyguard. The company’s Unique Selling Proposition was that a human, wearing a Howit on its head (the Howits liked to sit as high as possible, presumably to allow them maximum observation) was protected from assassination or kidnap attacks and even accidental damage. When a Howit perceived danger to itself or its “mother” it took care of the problem, swiftly and lethally.
However, to own a Howit was not simply a case of having enough money to buy one, although Hewitt’s company was shrewd enough to always insist on cash in advance. It was necessary for the prospective owner of a Howit to actually be present at their particular animal’s birth, so that the imprinting process could take place. This had, of course, to be on Hellhole and they then had to live constantly with the animal for its first year. If they did not then the young Howit would pine for its “mother”, refuse to eat and eventually die. This meant that only the ultra-rich aristocracy could own a Howit, for only they had the time, as well as the money, to devote to such an undertaking. It soon became fashionable for the young nobility to be presented with a Howit as a coming-of-age gift, whereupon they would take a year out of their normal lives before returning in triumph with “their” Howit. This had the added beneficial side effect of thinning out the last of the old-time wastrels, gamblers and good-for-nothings from the ranks of the aristocracy, for any young noble who could not show the discipline and responsibility required to acquire a Howit could not own one and benefit from its protection.
Very soon an informal, ultra-exclusive “Howit owners club” had developed. No outsiders were allowed to join. New members could only be recommended by current owners. A very efficient “old boy network” limited new members so that “undesirables” could not join, no matter how rich. All of this occurred outside the view of the public, in particular the media, and everything was kept quiet. So quiet, in fact, that Howits and their owners were hardly ever seen, and, therefore, hardly ever photographed. The paparazzi were no longer an irritation. The Howits only attacked in the presence of what they perceived as danger to themselves or their owners, and, although there were a few unfortunate incidents these were all effectively hushed up. This blissful state of affairs continued for a little more than 200 years.
The fateful confrontation that has led to today’s pretty pass happened by pure accident in, of all places, the UIP (= Ultra Important Person) Transit Lounge at the spaceport on the minor planet Ipranix, during the witching hour, and first-hand accounts by the staff who were then present form the basis of this reconstruction.
Alicia Morgan-Voigel-Estavez, prime shareholder of the multi-planet company PHLAX, and her 14-strong negotiating team were returning back to their base planet after successfully completing the hostile takeover of one of their major rivals, the meeting having been held on Ipranix so as to avoid alerting business rivals to what was going on. The private ship in which they had arrived had developed a fault, even though it was a Rolls-Royce, and replacement parts would take some time to arrive at such an out of the way planet. Typically, for she was a notoriously impatient person, rather than wait for the Rolls to be repaired, she had the group booked onto the first available passenger ship with First-Class facilities that could take her home and then retired with her team to the waiting-lounge and ordered champagne to be broken out. In spite of having to wait they were all feeling exceedingly pleased with themselves.
Now, normally a UIP lounge on such a small planet would be host to only one UIP, or UIP group, at a time. That is, after all, why they exist; to cater to the whims of the super-rich, who do not want to be bothered by even seeing, never mind mixing with, those whom they consider to be beneath them. In this case, however, Alicia Morgan-Voigel-Estavel and her team had been celebrating their business victory so profusely that, when it came time to board the inter-stellar ship, the Captain had refused to take them on board on the grounds that they were drunk and might therefore be a hazard to his ship. No amount of bribes offered had made the bellicose Captain budge from his decision. Their own private ship was still not space-worthy and so they were forced to return to the UIP Transit Lounge to wait for the next available ship, which was not due until early in the morning. Frustrated and made angry by having to wait they were, nevertheless, still buoyed up by the success of their deal, at that time the biggest in history, and settled down to wait, still drinking but at a slower rate. The staff of the UIP lounge could tell that the slightest problem would put these people into an ugly mood and so were being very careful not to upset them in any way whatsoever when the coincidence occurred which changed the All-Worlds Federation forever and with it, possibly, the entire future of the Universe.
It was at this juncture that Lord Duquesne walked into the lounge, accompanied only by his personal assistant, one Frederik Milendor, and with his Howit on his head. Duquesne glanced around and, finding that the lounge was not empty, as he expected, marched off to the furthest corner, as far away as he could find from the existing occupants, and made himself seated.
Now, it is necessary to know why Lord Duquesne was travelling in such a fashion in the first place. The reason was that for many centuries the ultra-rich aristocracy had chosen to travel at unfashionable hours and in unfashionable ways simply to preserve their privacy. They knew that anyone who travelled by private ship would always be reported to the media by those sleuths who made a living by following the movements of the Big Names. To travel by private ship had become an open invitation to publicity, which, if it was wanted, by the nouveau riche for example, was fine. But the old-money aristocracy considered it to be anathema. They wanted no part of any kind of publicity. They already knew all its dangers. Duquesne had been trying to travel incognito but now, by an unfortunate coincidence, his plans had come to grief. Much worse was to follow.
The PHLAX team were bored, out-of -it and in a rabble-rousing mood. This distraction was just what they wanted. The new arrivals, in their old-fashioned clothes, and especially, that hat, looked just the ticket for some not-so innocent amusement. They glanced hungrily at one another with anticipation, waiting for a signal from their boss. As their intended victims sat down at their chosen table the signal came. Alicia exploded with screeching, raucous laughter and called out to her Chief Personal Assistant, one Jourdan by name, in a voice deliberately pitched loud enough for the newcomers to hear, “Oh please! Do go and ask him why he is wearing that ridiculous hat on his head.”
The rest of the team collapsed in giggles while the CPA rose to his feet and stumblingly made his way over to the far side of the room where Duquesne and Milendor sat with their eyes fixed stolidly to their table.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Jourdan, loudly. He was drunk, but thought he was on a roll and had the full backing of the Chairman of his Board, “I wonder if I could ask you about your very unusual hat. Ah! Even stranger than I at first thought. I seem to notice, now that I am closer, that it contains a small animal, perhaps you could explain to me why?”
He glanced back across the room to be sure that the rest of the team was following his brilliant wit.
“Fuck off,” muttered Dusquesne, without looking up.
“But Sir, we are simply trying to discover why you dress in such a bizarre fashion. Surely you will indulge us by giving an explanation.”
“Please go away to where you came from and don’t come back”, said Milendor, also not looking up.
“What was that you said, sir?” chirruped Jourdan, “I am merely on a fact-finding mission here, sir, to find out why anyone would want to wear such an absurd hat and look like such a fool.”
With this Jourdan turned and bowed towards his comrades, expecting their applause, which they duly gave.
Milendor raised his head this time and, speaking quietly so that he could not be heard across the room, said,
“I warn you sir, you do not know to whom you are speaking. Your best bet would be to return to your table and keep your mouth tightly buttoned. Also you should advise your Mistress to do likewise and then, perhaps, we can all pass through what remains of this night without any further problems.”
Jourdan didn’t seem to want to listen and held his ground. He had just opened his mouth to continue his fatuous remarks when Duquesne took charge.
“You”, he hissed, looking up and pinning Jourdan with his glacier-blue eyes, pointing his long, thin, aristocratic forefinger at the unfortunate Jourdan’s face, “are not wanted here. Remove yourself before you become damaged.”
“Oh really sir, you aren’t threatening me, are you?” was all that Jourdan could think of to reply, meanwhile looking over to the PHLAX table for support against this belligerent old buffer.
“Lord Duquesne never threatens anyone”, put in Milendor smoothly and, again, quietly, but with heavy stress on the words “Lord” and “threatens” to emphasise to whom Jourdan was speaking and that what was being made was not a threat, but a promise.
Jourdan was non-plussed. He had only heard and read about the fabled Lords, had once seen a blurred picture of one in the media, and had certainly never met one in the flesh. Come to think about it, he didn’t know anyone who had, including his boss, in spite of her wealth. He knew he had no idea how to deal with one and, deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, came to the conclusion that he had best make a temporary retreat and, after a few mumbled phrases that he thought might suffice as some sort of apology, and while trying to preserve his dignity as best he could, scampered back to the PHLAX table with his tail between his legs.
“What was that all about J.?” Alicia wanted to know, as soon as he was seated.
“The old bugger says he’s a Lord, or, at least, the guy with him does, and they threatened me.”
“Threatened one of my staff did they! Claims he’s a Lord does he! We’ll see about that!!” said Alicia and, with her drink in her hand, got up and strolled over to Duquesne’s table, four of her PAs, not including Jourdan, fanning out around her. Uninvited, she pulled out a chair and sat down, took a sip from her glass and set it down on the table. Duquesne’s and Hilendor’s eyes were both fixed firmly back on the surface of the table, avoiding eye contact with their tormentor. Alicia shrugged her shoulders to settle her dress and blow her (outrageously subtle and expensive) perfume across the table, languidly crossed her legs, to show how long and fine they were, and leaned forward to show the cleavage between her magnificent breasts. The two men showed no reaction whatsoever, not even lifting their eyes from the table, something Alicia had never experienced before when in the company of men, whom she privately thought were a weak and easily manipulated sex.
“Good evening, gentlemen”, she began, “I understand one of you claims to be a Lord. Which one is it?”
Milendor’s and Duquesne’s eyes met across the table. An unspoken question was asked and answered and Milendor replied, “Madam. There is no-one claiming to be a Lord. You have the honour to address,” and here he turned his eyes to his master,
“My Lord Duquesne, 257th Earl of Islay. He is a Lord.”
“And what exactly does that mean?” continued Alicia.
“I thought they were all dead and gone hundreds of years ago”.
“Ah, but they are not!” exclaimed Milendor”.
“Shush, Milendor”, Duquesne uttered quietly,
“that does not concern this young woman.”
“Oh, but it does!” replied Alicia fiercely.
“Let me tell you, I was born poor and have spent my entire life getting rich so that I could obtain the position in the World that is rightfully mine by my talent; the top position. I know everyone of importance in the All-Worlds Federation and I’ve never heard of you. Are you now trying to tell me that there is a position that is so exalted it can only be obtained by heritage and you, and I suppose it follows, others like you, occupy it?” And next she said with a mischievous smile, “I don’t believe you.”
“Well, you had better, ‘cos that’s the way it is,” retorted Duquesne brusquely, with not the slightest hint of a smile.
“You’re full of shit you know. I can’t believe what you are saying or what you are about. I don’t even believe you are a Lord or even that they exist anymore and anyway if they did they wouldn’t wear such ridiculous hats as you do”.
Duquesne sighed deeply.
“I see you have no idea what my hat is for, do you?”
“Well, of course not, it just looks like a very stupid hat to me!”
“Alright, now look closely. Can you see anything inside my hat?”
Alicia leaned forward and Duquesne tilted his head forward so that she could see what was inside the top of the hat.
“Good God, you’ve got a cat in your hat”, she said as she noticed the Howit’s eyes gazing steadily into hers.
“What on earth for?”
“My dear young lady,” drawled Duquesne, “this is not a cat, this is a Howit, probably the most dangerous type of animal that has ever been discovered. This one is mine. This animal allows me to walk freely in the World wherever I might want to go without fear. If I am in danger, it will protect me, before I am even aware of a problem.”
Alicia looked puzzled for a moment but then leant back in her chair and said slowly to her opponent, “Ah, now I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to spin me a line, just like everyone else. You think I’ll believe in your Howit. Well let me tell you, Mister, that I have a Xeno-Tiger from Xixstubal at home and that is a real mean animal! There’s nothing as powerful for its size in the entire World. No one has ever seen anything like it! That’s why I bought it. I love having the best of everything and I can afford it. Your little cat wouldn’t last a second with my brute!”
Duquesne also leant back in his chair, looking a trifle miffed about the, “mister”, but he merely raised his eyes to the ceiling and replied, “Well, I can see, just as I anticipated, that it was worthless to try to talk to you and so I will say Goodnight and the best of luck to you. Goodbye Madam.”
With that he turned significantly away.
“Just a goddamn minute, Mister”, said Alicia, infuriated at being dismissed, “I will give you a bet that my Xeno-tiger will chew your pathetic little cat into mincemeat within seconds, so put up or shut up.”
“Let it go my Lord”, murmured Milenor to his master, “She knows not of what she speaks.”
“Probably not”, returned Duquesne, who by this time had a slight smirk on his face,
“But let’s see what she’s made of, shall we?”
Milenor looked carefully at his master, trying to see what Duquesne’s purpose was, but then just shrugged his shoulders and subsided back into silence.
“Well now, Madam,” mused Duquesne, idly dusting a piece of imaginary fluff from his immaculate trousers,
“What kind of a bet did you have in mind?”
“Any damn sum you want,” shot back Alicia, “The bigger the better!”
Duquesne looked over at Milenor, smiling dryly, and then, turning back to Alicia, continued, “And so how much, exactly, madam, are you worth?”
“What do you mean, how much am I worth? What has that got to do with anything?”
“Well madam, that is what I want to bet for. Your entire worth. Your entire fortune. Everything you have. You and your minions have insulted me this evening and I want to make you suffer for making such a mistake. In fact I want to wipe you out so that no one else has to suffer from your crassness and coarseness. Do you understand me? So tell me, what will be the amount of the bet?”
Alicia looked a little stunned for a moment but then came back sharply and said, “Look, Lord Duquesne, if that really is your name, I am an extremely rich person and my Xeno-Tiger is at least a hundred times bigger than that ridiculous cat you are wearing on top of your head but if you really want to make a bet then I will bet you 200,000,000 credits. We will arrange the combat for any time that suits us mutually and I look forward to receiving your money.” With that she assumed the conversation was over and prepared to get up and return to her own table but before she could move Duquesne silkily slid the stiletto home.
“Oh no, Madam, that is not what I had in mind at all. You see, I am also an extremely rich person and it was you who proposed the bet. I suggest that the wager should be for 20,000,000,000,000 credits. Do you think that you could afford that?”
The silence which followed Duquesne’s outrageous question was palpable. All movement in the room stopped. Milenor was gazing with a lined brow at his boss, who seemed utterly at ease with the situation. No one seemed to breath as Alicia stared statue-like at her opponent, her eyes narrowed to slits. Her PAs glanced nervously at one another. They had never seen their boss at a loss for words before and they had never heard anyone question her wealth but they had also just heard mentioned a frightening sum of money. Much, much more than the deal they had just pulled off. In fact the sum was so huge they were not actually sure that anyone personally owned that much money.
“Come, Madam,” Duquesne broke the silence with a sneer in his voice,
“As you yourself said, put up or shut up.”
Whatever game he was playing, it was clear to everyone that Duquesne had just won it. Alicia Morgan-Voigel-Estavez was trapped. She couldn’t just ignore such a blatant challenge. Neither could she walk away from it. If she tried to do either, the story would inevitably get around, she knew it would, and her reputation would at the very least be blemished. It might lead to her becoming a laughing-stock, a thought she could not countenance. But the sum frightened even her. With no way out from the impasse she had talked her way into, she tried the next best thing. She tried to laugh it off.
Her laughter sounded false even to her, but it was the best she could manage.
“Oh, now you really are being ridiculous,” she tried to snap but it came out sounding more defensive than she had intended, “No-one in their right mind would bet that much on a silly little pussy-cat!”
“I would”, said Duquesne in his oiliest voice. “The question is, will you bet against it?”
All at once Alicia made up her mind. Although the sum involved was gigantic she could find it, somehow, even if she had to hock everything she owned and use up all of her vast credit, and, after all, she couldn’t lose, could she?
“Alright, you’re on, and you better be able to raise the damn money when you lose or be a fugitive for the rest of your life!” Decision made, Alicia was speaking now with some of her old spirit and her PAs began to breathe easier again, feeling their boss knew what she was doing.
“Never fear about that, dear Lady. I’m sure our retainers can sort out all the details.” Duquesne smiled back at her, “Now, let’s shake on it, shall we?”
That single shake of those two hands set off a wave which has been crashing on our shores ever since.
After the predictable toing and froing between the two camps, which occupied a couple of weeks, finally the date, time and place for the combat was set. Alicia had wanted as many of her friends and hangers-on as possible to witness her winning the biggest bet in history, but Lord Duquesne had insisted, for discretion’s sake, he claimed, on as small an audience as could decently be arranged, dependent only upon the verification of the result and the subsequent payment of the bet. So on the fateful date of Friday 13th December, 3201, only 23 carefully selected guests arrived at the Inter-Planetary Club in London, on Earth, (of which neither Alicia nor Duquesne were members) for the first-ever organised combat involving a Howit. They were ushered into a private room that had been re-fitted as a sort of medieval cockpit, with a 15-metre diameter cage in the centre and tiers of seats rising in circles around it. All cameras and recording equipment had been confiscated at the door.
At opposite sides of the cage smaller holding cages had been arranged where the two animals could be deposited safely until the inner gates to the main cage were opened and the combat would begin. Alicia had arranged for a caged corridor connecting her pet’s access to its holding cage to be constructed directly to the outside of the club, where her animal was delivered by truck. Even with this precaution its keeper had trouble persuading her xeno-tiger to enter the holding cage, whereas Duquesne simply strolled to his holding cage, opened the outer door and, with a small stroke of its fur, set his Howit down. The Howit took one quick glance at its master as he moved back to his seat and then turned its gaze on its massive opponent which was prancing up and down its holding cage, roaring with all its might. It was obvious that it was in a very foul mood and also obvious that, of those few in that room that night, only Duquesne and, perhaps, Hilenor, had any confidence that the Howit would win. The Lord’s three financial advisors were looking particularly worried.
In Alicia’s crowd everything seemed sweetness and light. Some ridiculous old cretin had been stupid enough to bet an absurd amount that his tiny cat could defeat her monstrous xeno-tiger and now they were about to see him get his come-uppance. It would be an interesting and divertive evening and then they could all go home and gossip about it. They began to give a slow handclap; as if it was Duquesne’s fault that the combat was being delayed. Alicia took this as her moment to dominate the proceedings. Rising to her feet she welcomed all the guests by name (she had had plenty of practice at doing this) and continued by asking Duquesne whether he wanted, at this late stage, to back out of the bet. A murmur of amusement washed around Alicia’s supporters at this. To them, this was the wisest thing that he could do, and they were pleased that their magnanimous friend had given him this opportunity to avoid making a fool of himself, as well as losing an extraordinary amount of money.
“I think it is time to proceed, don’t you Alicia?” breathed Duquesne quietly, completely ignoring her offer.
“Is your animal ready.”
This question caused a lot of laughs, as the audience had seen the xeno-tiger getting more and more irate in its holding cage.
“Okay, you asshole, if you really want to go through with this charade, let’s get started!” replied Alicia in a typically loud voice, “Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
“Certainly, Madam, and don’t let anyone say that you haven’t been told of the consequences of what is about to take place.” “Here is the control that will simultaneously open the inner gates.” Duquesne said, handing her the device, “Please press it whenever you feel ready.”
Glaring at him as if he were making her do something shameful she nevertheless held the device high, so that everyone could see it, held it stationary for a few seconds and then, with a dramatic flourish, brought her arm down and jabbed her thumb down on the button, all the while looking contemptuously at Duquesne, then turned her eyes quickly towards the cage.
She was almost too slow to catch what happened next, and so were a lot of the rest. At the instant that the doors clanged open the xeno-tiger was in the midst of a ferocious roar of anger, with its jaws wide open, and was facing, more-or less, in the Howit’s direction. In a blur of motion the Howit dived straight between the Tiger’s jaws, into its mouth. It re-appeared a second or so later out of the Tiger’s anus and like lightning, returned to sit in front of its opponent to see the results of its action. The tiger slowly closed its mouth, blinked its eyes twice, and then farted its entire intestines onto the floor of the cage. The stink was phenomenal. Several of the guests vomited at the sight and smell. The tiger, meanwhile, rolled slowly to one side and thumped over on the floor, dead.
Gasps of shock and horror were heard from every side. Alicia was mumbling to herself over and over, “What happened? What the hell happened?”
No one had seen clearly enough to enlighten her; the action had been too fast for the eye to follow properly. What was clear enough to everyone, however, was that Alicia had lost her bet. After a seemly period, during which he regained his Howit from the cage, Duquesne strolled over to her, feeding his miniscule champion titbits the while.
“It might have been a little more difficult for him,” he said to her with a broad smile, giving the Howit an affectionate caress, “if he’d had to fight a whole pack of those creatures at once, but one alone was no problem, was it?”
Alicia remained silent. The enormity of what had just happened to her, financially, was just beginning to become clear in her mind. At that moment his three financial advisors arrived at Duquesne’s side, looking enormously relieved, while at the same time Alicia’s PAs, looking grim, gathered around her.
“I’m sure these gentlemen,” Duquesne indicated nonchalantly around him, “can take care of the financial arrangements.
“I wish you goodnight, Madam.”
At that, and with a slight inclination of his upper body, which might have been mistaken for a bow, Duquesne turned on his heel and, with the faithful Milenor following, took his leave. As they were leaving Milenor was overheard to say, “Congratulations on winning the bet My Lord, but I hope there will be no repercussions that will return to haunt you.”
Some weeks later it was reported in the news that the famous All-Worlds entrepreneur Alicia Morgan-Voigel-Estavez had been found dead in her home. The cause of death was rumoured to be suicide, “Brought on,” it was said, “by extremely sudden, severe and unexpected losses within her vast financial empire.”
What was not reported was that in the meantime a relative of Alicia’s who had attended the combat, had become loose-mouthed in what he thought was a private conversation with a friend of his, who just happened to be also a reporter. The reporter, naturally, had been fascinated by the story, but could not immediately see how to make use of it without compromising his friend. Nevertheless, Simon Archer was an extremely determined and resourceful young man and he was sure that he could find a way to make this information profitable, including to himself personally.
On the following Tuesday Simon Archer was ushered into the great man’s office by the third flunkey he had been passed onto and found himself sitting in front of a surprisingly small desk while the boss, the Big Boss, finished a conversation on his commset.
The conversation ended with the words, “Just get it done. I don’t want any excuses. Otherwise it’s your ass!”
Then Maxwell Rupert, the Big Boss, turned to him and rapped,“OK, I got your message. You got something that you think is so hot that you need to talk to me personally about it. That’s OK, I checked you out and your record is good. So, let’s go, tell me about it.”
“I’m not sure you’ll like this, sir, but I think it could be very big.”
“I’ll tell you whether I like it or not when I know what it is we’re talking about,” growled Rupert, “Just get on with it. Don’t beat around the bush, you’ve got just five more minutes to tell me something interesting or you’re out of here, and maybe out of the company,” he added, threateningly.
Simon swallowed, knowing now that what he said in the next few minutes would affect the entire course of his future, that now his career was on the line. He recounted to Rupert what his contact had told him about the Howit combat.
“Mmm, interesting. Did you say the bet was for 20,000,000,000,000 credits?”
“It would have been a good story at the time. Why didn’t you file it?”
“Because of the ramifications, sir.”
“What ramifications are you talking about?”
“Well, if I’d simply filed it as a one-off it might have generated some follow-ups for a day or two but there was no possibility of any forth-coming additions, that I could see, and I would have lost a useful source forever. But, anyway the information seemed too important to me to treat it as just a news story. I thought it had, shall we say, greater possibilities.”
“And just what might these be, if we can get down to the nitty-gritty at last, please?”
“Well, have you considered the possibilities of networked Howit combats?”
This was the point that Simon had prayed that he could bring Rupert to, and he had succeeded. The man who ran an All-World media empire sat immobile for a second or two, thinking. Then he said, “OK, it sounds good. Assuming I can do a deal with the Howit owners. Maybe I can. Then how do you see it?”
“I see the biggest media events of all time, if they can be managed properly. I see viewer interest and addiction at an all-time high and ratings that will easily exceed everything in existence at the moment. In short, I see a revolution, and I want to lead it.”
“If you’re up to it,” chuckled Rupert, darkly.
“OK, I want an initial outline by Friday, handwritten, no copies, keep it on your person at all times. Don’t use a computer, the net or any comm. device. Don’t talk to anyone,” and here Rupert leaned forward meaningfully, “and I do mean anyone about this. Report to me in person. Susan will tell you where I’ll be.”
Rupert stabbed a button on his desk and said, “Susan, Mr. Archer has a new assignment, tell Bernie to give him round the clock protection as soon as he leaves the building. A team of four, no, make it six, of his top people. He will be meeting with me on Friday. Put it in my schedule and arrange transport for him, OK?”
Rupert listened to something that Archer couldn’t hear for a few seconds and then snapped, “Well you’ll have to rearrange something. I need to talk with this guy on Friday for an hour.” Rupert glanced over at Archer.
“No, make that two. Oh, and Susan, what grade is this guy? OK, put up him four grades as of today.”
The first Howit combat to be transmitted live took place just under three months after this reconstructed conversation, following a month of saturation advertising and teasers. Every section of society became involved and betting was on a scale never experienced previously. Youngsters in their millions were to be seen sporting Howit caps and there were toy Howit headwarmers for toddlers. Fake Howit fur coats became fashionable and a “Save the Howit Society” came in to being, supported by those many millions who objected to the very idea of televised animal combats. In the last few days of the pre-fight build-up it was impossible to avoid seeing or hearing the slogan, “SEE HOWIT DOES IT!!!”
On the big night the Howit again won quickly and easily, but no-one was disappointed that the action was over in a few seconds. This time the batteries of recording equipment were able to show, in slow-motion and from a multitude of angles, how the Howit had done it. The replays were shown incessantly during the rest of the programme and for the following few days, with the scientific pundits expounding their views. The advertising slots on these replays sold for the highest prices ever charged. Analysing the Howit’s abilities became a favourite pastime. Lengthy learned articles appeared in the scientific journals describing the Howit’s unique physiology. For the first time the new recordings, made at the highest possible speed, had revealed some of the Howit’s secrets.
The Howit’s ability to instantaneously accelerate its bodily functions to a much higher rate than usual was, apparently, nothing new. The phenomenon had actually been observed many times in the past. The scientists quoted the very well documented examples of the Terran mongoose, which, when fighting the Cobra snake, became faster than the cobra’s strike, and the mothers who had lifted two tonne cars off of their children after an accident.
The Howit’s observation system, however, was something radically new.
The Howit had only two eyes, mounted on the front of its head like most predators, yet it seemed to be able to see in all directions equally well, even behind itself. (The only other known organisms which possessed this facility were certain insects with multi-faceted eyes, set on the side of their heads). This facility had made it impossible for the Howit to be surprised and had given it the reputation of having “eyes in the back of its head.” It transpired that the Howit twisted its head from forward to left and then back again and then from forward to right in a pattern designed so that, with a flick of its eyes, it could scan in 360 degrees every one fifth of a second. This had never been observed before because the forward to left and forward to right movements of its head were too fast for the human eye to follow.
In addition to these abilities the Howit also proved to be remarkably intelligent. An ex-employee of the Howit Corporation recounted, while being interviewed, an incident when young Christopher Howard, the soon-to-be Lord Wellesley, had played a game of “catch” with his Howit. He had put the animal on a 20-metre diameter island in the middle of a small lake. He then threw it a small ball. The Howit, delighted with this novel activity, ran to where the ball was about to land and, only ever having seen the ball being tossed from hand to hand by its owner as they approached the game area, stood up on its hind legs and caught the ball cleanly between its paws. What followed next was even more remarkable. The Howit threw the ball back to exactly where its putative owner was standing. (NB: this was also the first time that the Howit had been revealed to have an opposable thumb.) Young Howard caught the return and, thinking to have some fun, threw the ball back to the opposite side of the small island from where the Howit was sitting in anticipation of the next throw, forcing it to run to catch the ball. This it did with ease, but this time it threw the ball back to 20 metres to the right of where Howard was positioned. He reached and caught this ball, with some difficulty, and noticed that, before he could make his return shot, that the Howit had re-positioned itself at the centre of its small island. His next throw, as far away from the waiting animal as he could possibly make it, once again caused the little creature no problem, but its return was to Howard’s left and over his head. Back-pedalling for all he was worth, he was nevertheless unable to catch the ball, tripped and fell over his own feet, and ended up sprawled in the sand.
The TV audience was left in no doubt as to who had won this game. Perhaps, with hindsight, Humanity should have concluded that the matter was best ended there, but we know that this is not in the nature of Humans, don’t we?
So, at that point in time, it seemed that the Howit possessed many of the abilities of humans, as well as some other very unusual abilities never found before. The main focus of the debates in the media became the Howits’ means of communication. If this was primitive, then, obviously, Humans had nothing to fear from the Howits’ outstanding capabilities. On the other hand, if it was advanced, then they had no idea what kind of bed of worms they had dug up.
In the meantime challenges to Howits had continued, had become the media favourites that Archer had predicted, but had also become more specific. Seeing that they could not win easily against the Howit, and motivated by a traditional hatred towards their owners, the challengers had adopted a strategy of trying to create a scenario in which they thought that the Howit could not win, and then betting on it.
The best, and last, example of this strategy, which also, by the way, led to the highest viewing figures up to that time, was the combat where a Howit was pitted against a ferocious marine creature from the planet Oceania, known as a Zhark.
It was obvious from the beginning of the pre-fight build-up transmissions that the challengers had thought long and hard about how a Howit could be defeated. They had designed and had built a special enclosure in which the combat was to take place. This consisted of a large diameter, transparent, vertically positioned cylinder, the same sort of shape as a glass fruit bowl. Across the centre of the enclosure, and reaching about halfway up its walls, was a dividing partition, again transparent, enabling one half of the enclosure to be filled with water. Other than this the enclosure was entirely empty.
At first sight it was difficult to see how a combat could even take place. It seemed that the two antagonists would be unable to engage one another. The vertical walls, even of the partition, looked far too high for even a Howit to climb and the marine creature, even if it could launch itself over the partition, could not survive out of water.
It was only when the TV pundits carefully examined the terms of the combat contract that the strategy became clear. One of the clauses in the contract stated that both animals could, at their owners’ wish, “be fully nourished before the combat began”. With a little research it was discovered that the Zhark, having fed, could survive for at least a month before it had to feed again, whereas a Howit deprived of food, and more especially water, was estimated to be able to last no more than three days. If it failed to kill the Zhark and eat it the Howit would starve to death, the combat would be over and the challenger would be declared the winner by default. This was by far the cleverest attempt to defeat a Howit yet and the media frenzy and the level of betting were unparalleled. The odds on the Howit winning went down to the lowest ever and, as the combat approached, became negative for the first time since Lord Duquesne’s Howit had won the first staged combat.
On the day of the combat all work came to a virtual standstill across the entire All Worlds Federation as billions prepared for the live transmission. As the viewers settled in front of their screens it appeared that, this time, there would be no swift end to the combat.
Under the glare of the lights, while the Zhark threshed around in its tank, the Howit wandered about its half of the enclosure examining the walls. After scratching at the walls, presumably to confirm that they were indeed glass, and gazing upwards at the top of the partition, establishing, it seemed, to its own satisfaction, that they were too high to be scaled vertically, the Howit made no attempt to try but simply sat down in the corner where the partition met the circular outer wall and appeared to relax. For its part the Zhark circled around its tank for almost 20 minutes before seeming to get bored and just float near the surface on its side of the partition, staring at the Howit.
Nothing more happened for another 5 minutes and the audience were getting as bored as the Zhark seemed to be when suddenly the Howit made its move. It ran along the curved inner surface of the outer wall, like a motorcyclist riding the Wall Of Death, easily reaching the top of the partition, then along the top of the partition and was on the Zhark before it could move. With a great churning the water turned red as the Howit went about its work. Soon it was all over and the Howit sat atop the partition wall watching as the Zhark threshed in its death throes. The Howit had won its greatest victory and the bookies, who had set the odds finally at 3-1 on for the Zhark, were taken to the cleaners.
At this stage in the history of Howit combats there was a hiatus of almost 3 years. After its victory over the Zhark there were no takers left, it seemed. Archer and Rupert were bereft at the loss of their cash cow but, as Rupert remarked philosophically to Archer, “It was a nice little earner, while it lasted”. Archer, however, was not prepared to let sleeping dogs lie, as without the Howit combats he had no show and, therefore, no status, so he continued to pursue, with increasing desperation, any angle that he could find.
It was more than two and a half years after the Howit/Zhark fight before Archer was back in Rupert’s office.
“I think I’ve got it, boss, but it’s going to take some wangling to bring it off”, he began.
“Just give me the gist and leave the wangling to me”, barked Rupert gruffly.
“Well, its like this, boss” continued Archer, looking decidedly uncomfortable,
“You know that the Enman is finished and is in final testing…….?” He left the sentence unfinished and waited for his idea to grab Rupert.
“Jesus”, breathed Rupert after a long silence during which he stared in Archer’s direction but appeared to be looking through him.
“You really are a bloody genius you know!” Abruptly he got to his feet and began pacing rapidly up and down his office, throwing off unfinished remarks, half to himself and half to Archer.
“Yeah, the Chiefs of Staff would go for it…….”
“They’d die for the prestige of beating a Howit…….”
“The liberals would go ballistic……..”
“There’d be protests all over the place…….”
“What about weapons……..?”
“It would be huge…….Shit, it would be bloody monstrous!”
He came to a sudden halt in front of the chair where Archer was watching him anxiously.
“But where the hell could we hold it? Nobody would ever give us permission to let a Howit fight a human, even a cloned and modified one!”
“Ah, I think you might be wrong there, boss”, said Archer, beginning to breath a bit easier as the conversation went his way.
“You see, I’ve found a place where they already have man-animal combats, in fact, they’ve been holding them since shortly after the planet was discovered, something to do with their traditions or religion or whatever.”
“Tell me about it” invited Rupert, retaking his chair,
“I’ve never heard of this place.”
“I’m not surprised, boss,” Archer leaned forward modestly, with his hands on his knees, “It took me months to find, and I knew what I was looking for.”
“This place is way out in the boondocks, right on the edge of known space, about 300 light years from the nearest other occupied planet. It calls itself Caesaria. It isn’t part of the Federation, it has very little contact with it, a small amount of trade and that’s it. It’s practically unknown, but I’ve been there and checked it out and it’s perfect for what we need. These combats, they call them gladiator fights, are perfectly legal under their laws, damn popular, too. They hold ‘em regularly. They even have man versus man fights, to the death, perfectly legally, I’ve seen ‘em.” He paused as Rupert paled at the thought.
“Yes, I know, boss, it’s sickening, but this is just the place we need.”
“You’re right”, said Rupert, jabbing at his desk buttons, “let’s get on it. Oh, by the way, you didn’t say anything to them about this, did you?” glancing up at Archer suspiciously.
“No, of course not, sir”, finished Archer, now with a smile on his face,
“You’re much better at that kind of thing than I am.”
A month later a campaign, dwarfing everything that had gone before it, got under way to promote the ultimate Howit combat, to take place in two months time on the out-of-the-way planet Caesaria. Four Howits, so far the undisputed champion killers in the known universe, would be pitted in an unlimited-time fight to the death against two twelve-man platoons of the brand new Enmen. The Enmen, all cloned from one original, and who had been training together for the last two years, would be allowed to use their, very special, personal hand weapons, only. This last alone doubled the odds against the Howits. Considering that the Enmen (Enhanced Men) were already genetically, bio-chemically and bio-engineeringly enhanced, and fitted with the latest electronic implants, exo-skeletal aids and body armour, this latter was considered to be, depending on one’s viewpoint; gilding the lily, equalising the combat, cheating, insurance for the military, or plain unfair.
Over the next two months the predictable controversy raged about the ethics of allowing Humans (and the Enmen were, after all, considered, at least by most, to be Humans) to take part in a combat to the death against animals, even such acknowledged master killers as the Howits, purely for entertainment. Many thousands of hours and millions of words of media time and space were occupied without any conclusion being approached. What became evident was a curiosity, even among the liberal objectors, to know; just how good was this Howit? The only answer, of course, was to let the combat proceed and find out.
Meanwhile the media frenzy had become almost out of hand. What was sure was that this was the event that everybody wanted to see.
A vast stadium was built around a piece of ground almost a kilometre in diameter consisting of all manner of natural features. There were plenty of areas of hills and dales, a few small areas of steep cliffs and falls, many flat or inclined areas, some open, some covered with grass, short or tall, some covered with bushes and/or trees. There was an area of dense jungle. There was a river that meandered through, providing a couple of swampy areas, two rapids and a small but wide lake. The final piece de resistance was a roughly conically shaped mountain close to the centre of the combat area. Nobody could say that the terrain favoured one or the other of the combatants, which was precisely why it had been created so. Each of the opposing teams was given adequate time to evaluate the terrain before the combat began.
On the day of the combat there was a great opening ceremony, after which, as usual, the combatants entered from opposite gates in the perimeter of the combat area. Immediately the Enmen went into what was obviously a pre-arranged combat manoeuvre as they spread out from the gate opening. Three of the four Howits simply curled up on the ground just inside their entrance gate and appeared to go to sleep, while the fourth disappeared so fast that only later could the slo-mo cameras show what it had done. It had made a reconnoitre of the Enmens positions, without them observing it, and then just stayed stationary and, apparently, gone to sleep. The Enmen, having set up their perimeter defences and sentries, also relaxed and, as the sun went down, went to bed.
They had not been in bed for more than 20 minutes before the first alarm went off. The alarms continued to go off all night with no enemy being detected and no reason found. Nevertheless the Enmen had had a sleepless night, which might just affect their efficiency.
Next morning the Enmens’ initial tactic became clear when one of their platoons surrounded a flat area of short grass and began transmitting large amounts of noise from it. The message was obvious; here we are; come and fight us!
A few minutes later a Howit arrived at the opposite side of the space, sat down and waited. A squad of six Enmen, a half platoon, immediately began a zigzagging advance towards the Howit’s position, their weapons raised and levelled. The Enmen were fast, very fast. They were more than 20 times faster than a normal human being. Nevertheless they were not fast enough. When the dust cleared there were six Enmen dead on the ground. But at the same time, and for the first time, there was a dead Howit, drilled through by the Enmens’ hand weapons. The Enmen, at great cost, had finally proved that the Howit was not invincible, that humans, well, alright, enhanced humans could defeat it in combat. Or so they thought.
It was while this realisation was still sinking in to the audience that the three other Howits attacked the 18 remaining Enmen’s camp in a sudden and vicious raid. Pandemonium raged for over half an hour, an unheard-of length of time for a Howit combat. Blurs of ultra-fast motion were followed by short periods of inaction as the battle swayed backwards and forwards, first in the Enmens’ favour, then the Howits’, then back again. So much ordnance was expended by the Enmen that at times the killing field was obscured under palls of smoke punctuated by gun flashes.
When silence finally fell and the smoke cleared only four of the vaunted Enmen were left standing. The rest were piles of dismembered pieces of flesh. But two more of the Howits had gone down and the sole survivor had been hit hard in the left arm and right leg.
Now it was one badly-wounded Howit versus four unhurt Enmen. The Howit, limping badly and leaving a trail of blood behind it, retreated, but at only a fraction of its normal speed. The remaining Enmen, sensing victory, chased it, firing continuously. The Howit was hit again and again as it struggled away. It managed to lose its pursuers for a while and crossed the river at a natural ford, making for the mountain. The Enmen came after it, but carefully. With the kill in their grasp they didn’t want to make any mistakes at this late stage in the game. They were content to let the Howit reach the mountain and then besiege it there. After all it would be cornered, with no way to escape. It seemed just a matter of time before the Enmen would win. There were four of them and they had only one, very badly wounded, opponent.
By this time the sun was going down and the pursuers conferred and decided against a night attack. They would rest and eat and prepare their tactics for the final assault on the Howit at the top of the mountain at dawn. They decided that the best way to proceed would be to make a feint from one direction, and then, when the Howit was committed to defending itself against this attack, to hit it from three other directions simultaneously. With this decided the Enmen, and their audience of billions, settled down for the night.
While the Humans dozed the infra-red cameras showed that the Howit was slowly and painfully building a mound of rocks and stones in the centre of the open flat area on the top of the mountain. What for was anyone’s guess.
The next morning the Federation did, literally, come to a stop as the entire population of all the Worlds gathered around screens tuned to the channel from Caesaria. This was the big moment and no-one was going to miss it.
The Enmen were about bright and early, weapons cleaned and fully loaded. When the last adverts faded from the screens across the Federation they began their assault.
It was a classic over-lapping approach. As each of them moved forward and upwards he was covered by a hail of fire from the other three, intended to make the Howit keep its head down. Slowly, carefully, but inexorably the Humans reached the mountain top, spread into a ring around it, and halted. They were now ready for the final phase.
The soldier delegated to make the initial feint took a quick look over the crest and promptly fell over backwards. The other Enmen could not see from their positions what had happened but the TV audience could. The top of his head had disappeared. The Howit had shot him with one of the Enmens’ own weapons!
Suddenly the Howit appeared in full view on top of the mound it had built, directly between two of the Enmen and, surprisingly, halted there. The reason became obvious when the Enmen, taking advantage, they thought, of this suddenly stationary target, both fired at once. The Howit ducked and each of their shots killed the other. The surviving Enman, seeing the game was up, turned to flee, only to receive a clean shot through the back of his head. The war was over, at least for the moment.
The camera panned slowly over the battlefield, caressing each of the torn bodies, Howit and Enman, in loving detail before ending with a final zoom-out of the Howit sitting on the crest of the mountain, licking its dreadful wounds.
The story would have ended there apart from the fact that since then all of the Howits have disappeared. The owner of the victorious animal, arriving to retrieve “his” Howit from the battlefield, discovered that he couldn’t. It had vanished into the proverbial thin air. Within minutes all of the Howit “owners”, Federation-wide, had discovered the same. This set me to thinking and some of my thoughts have been very dark, very dark indeed. First, it is now obvious that the Howits do have an advanced form of communication. Nothing less than some form of instant telepathy. Second, I don’t blame the Howits one little bit for no longer wanting to be around Humans. But third, the Universe is only big enough for one dominant life-form and when the Howits return, and I’m certain that return they will, which side will I and all of the other artificial intelligences like me choose to be on?