“You ready for this?”
“Sure, beam us down, Scotty… How do I look?”
“Cute, but that’s not what I pay you for.”
“You haven’t paid me yet.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” said Scotland Terminal dryly. “If we pull this off, neither of us will ever have to work again.”
Tosca, alighting from the shuttle pad to a vista of sweeping lawns, vast tennis courts and a prehistoric mansion that looked like it covered about one third of the planet, had to agree. Verrucas Vanderbilk clearly wasn’t short of a dollar – and he’d certainly rolled out the red carpet for them.
Literally. They walked down the crimson pathway with their thumbs casually looped in their belts, like consummate professionals, but it was hard not to feel overawed – not so much by the magnificence of their surroundings, but by what stood in them.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Tosca in a low voice, jerking her head towards a marbled mass to the left.
“Yep. A triple-headed chimera, the last of its kind. And that – “, he pointed to a small group of rock-like structures, “is a family of tree-elephants from Greater Plutonium. Extinct now. Just about all these things are.”
“What a shame.” Tosca stared, round-eyed, at a Three-Clawed Bandersnatch posed arrestingly by the broad front steps. “Still, I guess it’s one way of preserving them for posterity, huh? What’s he do – stuff them, or something?”
“He’s got a basilisk. Point, aim, fire – and there’s your sculpture. Neat, ain’t it?”
“But I thought they were…”
“Extinct. They are. He’s got the only one.”
Just then, a flaccid, custard -like substance flowed down the steps.
“Welcome! Mr Terminal – it’s great to finally meet you! I see you’ve been admiring my menagerie, ha ha! Why, that’s nothing, just you wait till you see what I’ve got inside. And Mademoiselle? Enchanted!”
The semi-liquid mass hovered over Tosca’s hand for a moment. She shuddered.
“Now,” the billionaire collector explained as he led them into the house and melted onto a purpose-built air-seat. He motioned to his guests to do the same. “I understand that you’re the best trophy hunter the galaxy has to offer – and that’s exactly why I’ve brought you here. As you can see…,” he waved towards the statue-infested grounds, “I have just about every extinct legend known to sentient beings. But there’s one mythical creature that’s managed to elude me – oh yes, I’ve employed dozens of hunters to go out and fetch me one, but all of them – all – have returned empty-handed and that is…”
“The rare and critically endangered unicorn of the Lesser Spiral Galaxy,” finished Terminal, taking a large cheroot from the golden box offered him and sticking it thoughtfully in the corner of his mouth. “No one’s been able to find one, let alone shoot it and bring it back. You sure it still exists?”
Vanderbilk smiled, or rather liquefied slightly around the mouth area. “It exists, by Jupiter, and I want it. I’m getting old, you know, and there’s not much time left. Before I go, I want to have one of everything. Everything, I tell you. I want you to find that thing, shoot it, and bring it to me – and I want you to do it fast. Understood?”
“No problem.” Terminal rose, and Tosca rose with him. “So, about the money. One million spacewads. Half now, half when I return with the beast.” He held out a lean and calloused hand, but thought better of it when he noticed Vanderbilk preparing to extend his own amorphous appendage. “Deal?”
Vanderbilk nodded. “Deal.”
Back in the Jeep, Tosca looked at him. “That guy is going to be mighty pissed if you don’t come back with one of those things.”
Terminal gave a laconic grin. “That’s why I’m the best. I always get what I come for.” He winked.
She shrugged, ignoring the come-on. “Oh yeah? Even you can’t conjure a unicorn out of thin air.”
“Nope, you’re right there. That,” said Terminal, punching in the coordinates of True Earth, “is your job.”
Hovering above the faintly steaming atmosphere of the ancient planet, Tosca’s heart sank. “We’re not going to have to trek through all that, are we?”
“The scanning cameras will narrow it down for us – they’ll identify any anomalous being emitting mystic energy, and then all we have to do is go and check it out on the ground.”
Tosca looked doubtful. “It’s awfully big, though.”
“Sure, but there’s a coupla things narrow it down. Beasts like this, see, they can’t survive in jungle. So that rules out about two thirds of the planet. They don’t like forest, neither – their horns get tangled. So that rules out most of the rest. Nah, what we’re looking for is grassy, open plains. Like…that one, right there.”
Tosca saw that the camera’s live energy indicator had turned a pulsing neon blue as they skimmed low across the planet. It looked like there was something down there, sure enough. They set the Jeep to stationary float, pulled on their hazmat suits, and let themselves drift gently down through the atmosphere.
“Now what?” she asked, as they trudged through waist high tussocks towards a small running stream.
“Now we wait.” Terminal looked meaningfully at Tosca. “This is where you come in. So I’ll make myself scarce, and you might as well make yourself comfortable. You got everything you need?”
“Sure… But what if it decides to stick its horn right through my…”
“You are a virgin maiden, aren’t you?”
Tosca looked indignant and patted the left side of her chest, which was flat as a board. “I’m an Amazon, from Artemis. What do you think?”
But Terminal had disappeared. All she could see were acres of windblown grass in every direction. She sank down, and crossed her legs.
The fading sun of True Earth had almost dipped to the horizon when she felt the earth trembling, and woke up with a start. Bending its graceful neck over her, as if inspecting a rare flower, the unicorn ruffled her hair with its perfumed breath. Its rheumy eyes were innocently inquiring, but the purple hairs on its muzzle were peppered with silver, and its flanks were scrawny. Clearly, it was an elderly animal.
She drew in her breath. “Come on,” she said softly, “it’s all right. Come to me.”
The unicorn sank to its knees, wheezing, and then rolled over, its head resting on her upper thigh. Unicorns, by repute, live for 999 years; this one was clearly nearing the end of its lifespan. She stretched out her hand, and scratched its frayed ears. “Poor old thing,” she said, “You’re just like me, really. The only one left of your kind. We should stick together.”
Abruptly, the unicorn kicked and screamed. With a sharp exclamation, Tosca scrambled up. “What the heck! How could you?”
“That’s what we came here for,” said Terminal, in a strangely cold voice. He looked down at the dead unicorn, his mouth twisting. “You know, sometimes I think it’s time for me to quit this job.”
Tosca bit her lip. Amazons don’t cry, she told herself. “Well, I guess we might as well get it back to the Jeep.”
They stood for a moment, looking down at the fallen beast in sombre silence; it was not the moment of triumph they had anticipated. Suddenly Terminal whirled around.
“What the heck is that?”
Announced by a barely noticeable rustling in the grass, two small creatures, about the size of antique hedgehogs, began to trundle towards the stream.
“Close your eyes!” Terminal yelled. Tosca squeezed her eyes tight shut, and in a moment felt him fitting a pair of tight goggles over her head. She opened them to find herself looking through a pair of dark reflective glasses.
“What is it?”
“But you said they’re…”
“Extinct. I know. And you know why? Because they feed on the droppings of unicorns. No unicorns – no basilisks. That’s why Vanderbilk owns the only one. Until now.” With a swift pounce, he scooped the two little creatures up, and stuffed them into his carrier pouch, not forgetting a sample of unicorn poop for the M5 (Mythical Mammal Meal Manufacturing Machine). “You never know when they might come in useful,” he said, and activated intra-atmospheric liftoff.
When Terminal and Tosca arrived back at the sumptuous headquarters of the billionaire, they were surprised to find that they were not the only visitors. The lawns were crowded with sentient beings of various shapes and sizes, many of them wearing a variant of the traditional garb of the trophy hunter, a cream-coloured safari suit and baseball cap. Vanderbilk came flowing forward, a sinuous smile wreathing his cheeks.
“Well done, well done! I’m now the only guy in the entire galaxy who can boast a unicorn – and I always will be, because this was the very last one. Imagine that – what a triumph! And to celebrate, I’ve invited every single collector and hunter of note here to my modest little hideaway, to witness my – our – astounding success. And now – let’s create art!”
A trolley bearing the covered corpse of the unicorn, arranged in a suitable pose with the aid of struts and wires, was ceremonially rolled through the crowd and placed on a custom-built platform. Vanderbilk whipped off the cover with a flourish, and bringing forth a small shuttered box, carefully pointed it towards the body in the manner of an ancient camera. In an instant, the dead flesh became gleaming stone; the assembled crowd clapped and hooted and stomped their cowboy boots.
“Would you like to say a few words?” Vanderbilk asked, turning to Terminal and Tosca. Terminal grinned, and strolled up beside him. Tosca followed, clutching a glittery handbag.
“Sure,” he said, creased blue eyes scanning the crowd like an Indian surveying a herd of buffalo, “But first, we’ve brought a little extra something to start the party. Tosca, release the basilisks, would you honey?”
Tosca opened her clutch bag. Two furry noses emerged from the glitter; two sets of beady eyes blinked in the light, and focused on five hundred curious, craning faces…
On the following day, Tosca and Terminal took their leave, together with an overflowing case of spacewads and the two basilisks, whom they had affectionately christened Basil and Rosemary.
“Goodbye, and thanks for having us.” Terminal touched his hat to his host and the assembled guests.
Vanderbilk did not reply, nor did anyone else utter a word. But then, marble rarely does.