life debt
dylan jeninga

“Christ on a pike, it’s hot.” 

Oskar Dusza, wilderness guide and safari ranger, chuckled politely. “Once we get back under the canopy, it’ll cool off a few degrees.”

 “A few degrees cooler is still hotter than the Lava Pits of Mercury.” Levi Bakker, CMO of a satellite maintenance company and big game hunter, tossed his empty ration pack to the ground, where a patch of indigo fungoids began to grasp at it. “At least the damn stingflies aren’t quite so bad in the sun. Not that it’s ever really sunny on this planet, is it?”

They were stopped for breakfast by the side of a shallow stream cutting through the dense Venusian jungle, about a mile beyond the electric fence of Veneragrad Colony. The gurgle of the creek was accompanied by the constant droning of toadbats, chatterbugs and other forest dwellers, and the aromas of their instant-cook ration packs mingled with the ever-present odor of rotting vegetation.

Bakker tugged at the khaki button-up clinging to his skin. “Now if only it weren’t so ungodly humid.”

It was a familiar complaint. “After a while you get used to never being completely dry.”

“I’m sure I’ll adjust. No gain without a little pain, eh?” 

Bakker mopped his brow with a napkin from the ration pack.  He was sporting the “classic” explorer's look that was in style among the System’s big game hunters, including a wide-brimmed hat and a khaki ensemble complete with waterproofing that was proving entirely inadequate on the second plant. The hunter was undeniably handsome, with blond hair tied back in a ponytail and cool, steely eyes. Under any other circumstance, Oskar might have asked the wealthy huntsman out for a drink, but for now he was merely responsible for making sure his client stayed alive and shot something that would look good above his mantle.

Oskar, in contrast, was short in stature and shorter of hair, clad in a Venusian mossleather getup that shed water like a duck. His pack was stuffed with items chosen out of long experience: a survival kit (complete with first aid supplies, water filters, a knife, rope and a two-way radio), a few extra pairs of socks, a sonic stunner, and a palm-sized translator loaded with the known Venusian dialects.

He had little love for the hunt, despite his practice at tracking Venusian megafauna through the acres surrounding Veneragrad. But, at least this way, he got to work in the field rather than steamrolling trees in the damn logging camps.

Bakker’s personal assistant, a young, wide-eyed man who Oskar gathered was named “Sem”, adjusted his bulging backpack and stooped to pick up the discarded ration pack, which was rapidly being overgrown with blue feelers.

Oskar placed a hand on the assistant’s arm. “What did I say before we left? Don’t touch anything. Don’t lean on trees, or pick the flowers, or anything, remember?”

Sem drew his hand back. “Sorry.” 

“Is that little weed dangerous?” leered Bakker. “Venomous? Maneating?”

“No,” Oskar admitted, noting the disappointment on the hunter’s face, “but plenty are.” He reached down to free the litter from the fungoid himself, careful not to damage it. “So unless you’re a safari guide, I ask that you keep your hands to yourself, please.”  

With a sucking sound, Bakker pulled his backpack out of the mud. “I’m sure Sem was being safe. We’ve been on plenty of hunts like this, after all.”

Oskar didn’t particularly care to be contradicted by a client. Still, he was diplomatic enough to remember how much the man was paying him, and experienced enough with people like Bakker to know when they were fishing for him to ask them about their hunts. “Oh? Have you been to a lot of planets?”

“That depends on what you think of as ‘a lot’. Let’s see,” he counted on leather-gloved fingers, “kraken hunting on Titan, ice fishing on Europa, a safari each on Mercury, Earth and Mars, and two on Callisto.”  He turned to Sem.  “Am I missing any?”

Sem handed his employer the rifle he’d been holding for him. “That’s all, sir, unless you count our hunts on Ganymede.” 

“Nah. It’s not a real hunt unless you get off your homeworld, in my opinion.” Bakker accepted the gun. It was an old-style bolt-action cartridge-loader, with a beautifully polished wooden stock and a high-tech scope. It had obviously been meticulously cared for, and by the way he caressed it, Oskar thought maybe it was a good thing he hadn’t asked for that drink. His client’s heart was obviously already accounted for.

“But,” Bakker went on, “I’ve never penetrated the savage heart of darkest Venus. It’s a hole that’s been eating at me for a while now. Almost as much as these stingflies.” He swatted one of the oversized insectoids on his arm and wiped its remains on his mud-spattered shorts.

Oskar glanced at the perpetually overcast sky. “Might wanna reapply your repellant, then, ‘cuz the morning rainstorm should start any minute and we’ll want to be under the trees when it does.”

Bakker followed Oskar’s gaze, rifle slung over his shoulder. “Eh, I can handle a bit of rain. All part of the adventure!”

Oskar smiled politely.



Even under the insulating canopy, the downpour was deafening.

The jungle was always noisy, but the constant droning of chatterbugs, toadbats and other crawling, flying, stalking and climbing things was drowned by the deluge. Waterfalls from the treetops turned parts of the game trail they were following into bogs, and Oskar had to navigate carefully to make sure none of them were sucked into the mud. 

Veneragrad was founded on a hill surrounded on all sides by an ancient rainforest; from which it was principally built. Now, for a ten-mile radius around the colony, young trees competed with thorny vines and verdant bushes for a chance at cloud-filtered sunlight - what professionals like Oskar called a “second order forest”. Practically, what it meant was that the undergrowth was so thick, a person could go five steps from their group and get lost.

“Jupiter’s ass, we must be nearly there by now. How far have we come?” Bakker shouted over the din as Oskar waited for him to catch up. Sem was close behind, slogging valiantly at his employer’s tail. 

“We’re about two and a half miles from Veneragrad,” Oskar replied.

Bakker let out a sardonic laugh that was taken up by the chatterbugs in the trees, who echoed him playfully, barely audible. “You’re kidding me! We’ve been hiking for hours! Surely there’s some alien monster worthy of a bullet around here?!”

Oskar shook his head. “We’re actually making good time. There’s a mantipede nesting not far away that’s been attacking loggers at night. That’s where we’re going.”

“How far is ‘not far’?” 

“A couple more miles.”

Bakker laughed again. Sem paled. 

Oskar put on his best sympathetic look.“We could go a bit faster if we climbed up onto the ridges. That’s a trick the predators use.”

Sem got even paler, but Bakker’s expression grew hungry. 

“What kinds of predators?” he asked.

“Big ones the loggers call v-rexes and bastardons, and maybe pisszards. We don’t want to run into any of those.” Oskar’s stunner might drive them off, but with the really big boys, he worried it might just make them irritated.

Bakker nodded approvingly. “You folks have some colorful names for your monsters!”

“Yeah,” Oskar sighed. “Loggers get creative out there. I don’t think we could pronounce their real names, anyways.”

“Real names?” Sem asked, huffing.

“Their Venusian names. That is, what the local Venusians call them. The ones who pass through this area.” There were a few Venusian groups Oskar was familiar with, although his contact with them was sparse and mostly limited to brief greetings and occasional trades.

“There’s a colorful name for them too, isn’t there?” Bakker asked, trotting behind Oskar as they picked their way through the muck. “Aren’t they called ‘loogies’?”

Oskar cringed. The Venusians were probably unaware of the epithet, and probably wouldn’t have seen the insult if they were. Nonetheless, he was chagrined on their behalf. “Yeah.”

“Why?” wondered Sem, apparently intrigued. 

“They’re supposed to be like little lizards covered in slime,” Bakker explained with relish, “like big walking loogies.”

Sem smiled faintly. “Ah, that’s funny.”

Bakker went on. “They say they’re downright deadly primitives, with poison-tipped spears and an appetite for human flesh.”

“No,” Oskar cut in. He tried to keep up a friendly rapport with all his clients, but the buck had to stop somewhere. “They don’t eat people. Who told you that?”

Bakker shrugged. “You hear stories. ‘Beware the stalking, slithering salamanders from the second planet!’”

“Ignore the stories. Nobody from Earth has ever been killed by Venusians.”

“You don’t know that for sure. I bet if we asked the loggers, they’d have some stories to tell about the loogies.” Bakker seemed unaware of the safari ranger’s reddening expression. “If there’s one thing I’ve seen on my safaris, primitives are primitives whatever planet you’re on.”

“They’re not ‘primitives. They’ve reshaped the entire jungle to suit them. You see those fruit trees?” Oskar pointed to a row of saplings at the trailside, branches heavy with bright-orange bulbs. “They plant them along the road as they travel. They’re nomads. At least, the locals are. I’ve seen them foster herds of wild bluebucks and other game animals in the area, too. In Veneragrad we’re still trying to get wheat to grow, even though the rainforest drained all the good out of the soil eons ago and the mold is merciless.”

“Whatever you say,” Bakker replied, but Oskar got the distinct impression the hunter hadn’t really listened to his speech.

As quickly as it had begun, the morning monsoon ended, like a faucet being shut off. The hunting party enjoyed being able to talk to each other without needing to scream. They better appreciate it now, Oskar reflected, before it rained again.

They continued along the trail, stopping once to rest and again to edge carefully around an ambulatory megashroom that had wandered onto the trail. Oskar also took a moment to point out what appeared to be mantipede tracks, much to Bakker’s delight, as well as some big tracks he didn’t recognize, which delighted Bakker even more.

They were nearing their goal, mounting a hill at the edge of Oskar’s regular hunting ground, when an unfamiliar trumpeting sound, almost like a roar, was picked up and bandied by the chatterbugs.

Oskar paused. Strange animal calls were hardly a new thing on Venus, but that one sounded particularly loud and, although the chatterbugs made it hard to tell for sure, uncomfortably close. It crossed his mind that they might have accidentally intruded on some animals territory, and he took the stunner out of his pack, just to be safe.

“What was that?” wondered Bakker aloud.

“V-rex?” Sem asked, looking as tense as he ever had.

Oskar listened closely. “Didn’t sound like it. I’m not sure.”

The cry sounded again, even closer than before. Before Oskar could stop him, Bakker ran off into the bush, rifle raised.

“Mr. Bakker! Stay by me!” With an internal groan, and not a little concern for his client’s safety, Oskar turned to Sem. “Stay here,” he ordered, chasing after Bakker once he had nodding consent from the hunter’s assistant.

Oskar raced through the undergrowth, brushing aside man-sized leaves and leaping over roots covered in marching insectoids while he tried to catch sight of Bakker’s long ponytail and khaki back. He nearly tripped over the prone hunter, partly because the latter was hidden behind a wide tree stump, and partly because he was distracted by the scene before them.

A tiny Venusian, no taller than Oskar’s waist, was facing down an animal ten times its size in the shadowy glen beyond their hiding spot. The creature was sleek and broad-shouldered, with trunk-like legs, webbed feet and a wide amphibian head full of needle-like teeth. It bellowed again at the Venusian, and the chorus of responding chatterbugs only seemed to make it more agitated.

Bakker let off a shot. The deafening crack silenced even the chatterbugs as the beast staggered.

“Got ‘em,” Bakker announced, working the action on his rifle. The animal turned its small black eyes in their direction.

“Bakker,” Oskar muttered, raising his stunner, “let’s go. Right now.”

“Just a moment, Bakker replied as he lined up his sights again. The creature gave a thunderous roar and charged.

Oskar was about to unleash a sonic blast when Bakker’s gun spoke again. The animal, whatever it was, yelped and stumbled, rolling in a huge meaty wave that flattened the shrubs a few feet from where Bakker’s barrel was smoking. Spasms wracked its moist, brown flesh, and with a last shuddering sigh, it was still.

Bakker worked the action again, discharging an expended cartridge, and stood. “Got ‘em, for real that time” he said triumphantly, wiping his brow on his forearm.

Oskar let out the breath he realized he’d been holding. “What the hell were you thinking?” He said, unable to control his tone.

Bakker looked confused. “What?”

“Never run off into the jungle like that. You could have died!”

“Almost did, I think,” the hunter confidently shouldered his gun. “Good thing I had this beauty on me, eh? What is this beastie, anyways?”

Oskar had never seen an animal like the one dead at their feet before. Which was interesting, but less so than his client’s blatant disregard for his own safety. “I don’t know. Listen, maybe you think you can handle yourself out here, but I’d appreciate it if you’d just follow my lead. Otherwise, we’re going back to Veneragrad.”

“If it’s a new species, that means I get to name it, right?” The hunter was lost in his own musings. “Maybe something like ‘dickopotamus’. Or maybe ‘frogosaur.’ Something the loggers will actually use.”

Oskar was biting back a frustrated reply when the forgotten Venusian scampered atop the massive corpse. It did, admittedly, sort of resemble a salamander, with small black eyes and stubby limbs. Electric yellow stripes ran down its glistening blue skin, a pattern unlike any Oskar had ever seen in Venusians before, and on its back it carried a thorned stick in a mossleather sheath. It addressed them in choppy croaks.

“Grawk grawka grawk.”

“Hello, little loogie. Did you like the show?” Bakker eyed the Venusian amusedly. Oskar fished through his bag for the translator.

“Grawka grawk grawka grawk.”

“Um,” Oskar stared at the translator screen. The device’s AI was having trouble placing the Venusian’s dialect, evidently it wasn’t from around here.

“Grawk grawk grawka.”

With a ca-click, ca-click, Bakker slid fresh cartridges into his gun. “Well, what’s he saying?”

“He’s saying something about the animal you shot, I think. The translator is trying to figure it out.”

“He’s thanking me, I imagine,” said Bakker. “I saved his life! You’re welcome, loogie.”

“Grawka grawk grawka.”

Oskar squinted as he read the translation. “Something about… ‘life’… and ‘debt.”

“Wait, life debt?” Bakker’s laugh was deep and hearty, and loud enough that the chatterbugs laughed along overhead. “Oh, you poor little bastard, I’m sorry. I bet you wish I’d let that monster chow you down!”

“What are you talking about?” Oskar furrowed his brow. The translator had only picked up a couple words from the Venusian’s speech, and he didn’t understand what his client had gotten that he hadn’t.

“A life debt! I saved him from certain death, and now he owes me his life. The saved becomes the savior’s servant until one of them dies. Oh, I really feel bad for our slimy friend here!”

Oskar was skeptical. “That’s a thing?”

“Sure! Everyone knows about it. It’s a thing with primitives.”

It sounded incredibly impractical to Oskar. You have to be someone’s slave just because they saved your life? Was the rescued party simply supposed to drop everything and bow down to their rescuer? What about their responsibilities, their obligations? Their goals? It didn’t strike him as something any sane person would agree to, but before he could say as much the Venusian was talking again.

“Grawk grawk graaaawk.”

“It seems like he’s trying to get us to follow him” said Oskar, partly reading from the translation, but mostly tipped off by the fact that the Venusian was gesturing further into the jungle with his stumpy arms. “Something about a house, or a community.”

“Ah, now we get taken to meet the chief!” Bakker said knowingly. “I’ve heard stories like this. There’ll be some kind of ceremony, or maybe a feast.”

Any banquet laid out by Venusians would likely contain at least a dozen things poisonous to humans, but Oskar wasn’t convinced that Bakker’s theory was correct anyways. “Thank you,” He said into the translator, “but we should be moving on.”

The Venusian just repeated their request to be followed. If anything, the little amphibiod’s arm waving became more insistent.

Bakker elbowed Oskar in the ribs. “Come on, think about what a story this would be. The time I became lord of the loogies - or at least, one loogie. I’ll embellish a bit for the boys at the lodge.”

Oskar watched the Venusian gesticulate. Here, apparently, was an entirely unknown community of Venusians, not all that far from the forests where he worked. Maybe they were just passing through, maybe they were moving in, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he could speak their language. And for that, he’d need to give the translator more material to work with.

“How far away do you want to take us?” He asked tentatively.

“Grawka grawka grawk grawka grawk.” The translator seemed to think the Venusian was indicating a distance of either a few yards or hundreds of miles. Given the difficulties of traversing the rainforest, though, Oskar doubted the stout native had come from all that far. Their community was probably somewhere nearby. Who knew, maybe Oskar had hiked near them before, completely unaware...

“Tell you what,” said Bakker, “If it’s too far, we make our apologies and turn back, eh?”


Bakker pouted. “Why? You don’t trust our new friend?”

It wasn’t so much that Oskar feared what the Venusians would do, as he worried how his client might behave. “We’re going after the mantipede.” But as he started back toward the game trail, the Venusian hopped down from their perch and bolted toward him, blocking his path with a squawk.

“Seems like he insists,” The hunter clucked his tongue. “Don’t be rude. I may not actually have any use for a tadpole as a footman, but we can at least oblige him and tour his village or whatever. You don’t want to be culturally insensitive, do you?”

Oskar pursed his lips. God help him, but he’d never been invited anywhere by a Venusian before. He didn’t want to pass up this opportunity at a connection. Although he could barely make out the cloudy sky through the dense foliage, he estimated the sun was nearing zenith. They had time for a detour. “Let’s get Sem.”

“Hopefully nothing’s eaten him,” said Bakker.

“What happened to ‘Venusians are dangerous savages’?” Oskar glanced sideways at his client.

“Maybe your little anthropological seminar convinced me. Or, maybe I’m hoping you’re wrong about the loogies.” Bakker hefted his rifle. “Now that would make for a good story.”

“Just follow my lead,” Oskar said with a frown, “okay?”

Bakker grinned. “Sure, safari ranger.”


It took some patient, repetitive explaining into the translator from Oskar, as well as some commanding and pushing on Bakker’s part, but eventually the Venusian understood and they were able to march back to the trail where Sem was waiting patiently.

“Oh,” he said when Bakker had explained the situation to him, “so the Venusian is like Friday, from Robinson Crusoe.” Oskar didn’t know what Robinson Crusoe was, but Bakker thought it hilarious, and he immediately started calling their new acquaintance “Friday.” After an hour or so of marching through the green, Oskar started doing it too.

Friday proved to be a vigilant guide. He led them along wide game trails, circling to ensure none of them strayed from the path he’d set out for them. At one point, he led them through a marsh, swimming crocodile-like nearby and nudging them to where the silty water was shallowest.

He even waited patiently when they emerged from the swamp and the humans stopped to gingerly peel hand-sized fanged worms from their legs. The leeches horrified Bakker and Sem, and repulsed Oskar a bit too, but Friday seemed unbothered as he yanked one of the bloodsuckers from Sem’s left knee. Oskar reflected that the Venusian might have made a decent safari ranger.

The second rain of the day began. They were in the old, tall, first-order jungle by then, and barely a drop reached them from the canopy. Oskar never ventured this far from Veneragrad, mostly for safety reasons, and now he regretted it. The towering trees reached so high that the emergent canopy was wreathed in low-hanging mist, making for a beautiful, almost ethereal view from the jungle floor, like a forest nestled in the clouds. It made Oskar feel small. He almost said as much to his fellow marchers.

Finally, Friday led them down a winding path into an overgrown ravine that was shrouded in fog.

“I had no idea it could get any more damn humid,” Bakker remarked, wiping his brow on his sweat-soaked shoulder. Sem’s face was locked in a permanent grimace.

Friday hardly seemed to notice the fog, directing them unflinchingly down slopes completely hidden to Oskar by the vapor. The smell of decay grew stronger as they descended, nearly making the humans gag, although their Venusian guide seemed not to notice that, either.

Oskar recognized the smell. Venus was a geologically lively planet, with hundreds of volcanic archipelagos dotting its warm seas, and this odor coupled with the steam could only mean -

“A hot spring,” he said as they stepped into a clearing, the words catching in his throat.

There was a hot spring, all right, a great bubbling cauldron of black mud running the length of the ravine floor. Above it, stretching between the overhanging trees, were dozens of narrow suspension bridges teeming with blue-and-yellow Venusians of different sizes. Dangling between the bridges were what looked like teardrop-shaped homes woven from some sort of fungoid, and still other structures Oskar didn’t know how to identify.

He’d been to Venusian camps before, but only after they were abandoned. Sometimes when he was out in the field he’d stumble upon a row of muddy burrows at the edge of a stream, or near a swamp, and rifle through the abandoned baskets, pottery and other strange knicknacks the former residents hadn’t deemed to take with them. But this wasn’t like that.

“It’s loogie city!” Bakker exclaimed as Friday led them to a sort-of town-square at the edge of the spring. The spring was entirely circled in clay tiles painted with vibrant geometric patterns, and it was at this line that their little Venusian turned held out a stumpy hand.


“I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to wait here,” Oskar said. Friday had barely spoken to them the whole journey, bringing the translator no closer to understanding his dialect. A moment later the little Venusian dove into the spring and left them standing on the shore.

“That was clear enough,” said Bakker.

Sem was gawking at the architecture suspended above their heads. “I used to go swimming in a hot spring with my family every year,” he said. “It never smelled like this. It smelled more like… boiled water.”

Oskar nodded. He’d once visited a spring in Iceland, before he emigrated to Venus. “This one’s in a rainforest.”

“There are a ton of damn loogies here,” Bakker observed. Oskar had noticed too. He’d never seen a Venusian community this large, and it didn’t look like it was just blue-and-yellow Venusians here, either. He saw a few with patterns he recognized, some speckled with fiery reds and others mottled with purple and black. Traders, maybe? Immigrants?

The Venusians were taking notice of them, too. Scores of small black eyes had stopped to watch them from above, and others were peaking above the churning water of the spring, barely visible unless they blinked.

There was something else in the water, too. In the very middle of the spring were dozens of broad, brown heads that struck Oskar as familiar.

Sem had apparently noticed as well. “Are those… um, dickopotamuses?”

Their question was answered when one of the beasts emerged from the jungle at the distant end of the spring, trumpeting loudly and being answered by its submerged fellows. Two Venusians were scurrying to remove a mossleather harness covered in pouches from its back. Once they were finished, a third Venusian used a thorny stick to urge the animal into the boiling mud.

Without being sure why, Oskar suddenly got a bad feeling in his gut. “Alright,” he said slowly, “we got to see the village, let’s head back.”

Bakker eyed him quizzically. “I thought Friday told us to stay?”

“I’m not sure, the translator barely works. And we still have to get to that mantipede before dark. Some really nasty things come out at night.” Oskar eyed the overgrowth uneasily. The crowd of onlookers continued to grow.

“I can’t believe you had no idea this was here,” Bakker said absently, apparently having resolved to ignore Oskar’s previous statement.

“Nobody knew they were here,” Oskar said, a bit defensive.  “The jungle is barely explored more than ten miles outside Veneragrad. Only the loggers ever go much further, and they haven’t been here.”

A smile crept over Bakker’s face. “Terra incognita. Or should I say, Venus incognita. Doesn’t that make you want to stay, just for a minute? What kind of story would we tell if we left now? ‘Yeah, a loogie who owed me a life debt took me to his fabulous jungle city, but we left before we had a look around.’”

“I don’t think-”

“Look,” the hunter interrupted, suddenly forceful, “you’re the one who told me these fellas are peace-loving forest nymphs. And if you’re wrong, well, these tadpoles are welcome to try something,” he patted his rifle almost mischievously. “Besides, like I said, Friday owes me.”

Oskar had never meant to communicate that the Venusians were harmless. On the contrary, he’d seen what happened to even the most ferocious predators that got caught in their traps. “They’re Venusians,” he said, “not primitives or... peace-loving nymphs.”

“Sure, sure. Don’t get yourself worked up. I’m just saying, I’ve heard about this kind of thing. We’ll get introduced to the chief, or the king, or whatever, and there’ll be some fuss, and then they’ll give us a rainstick or something to symbolize Friday’s bond to me.”

“I think the fuss is on its way,” said Sem.

More than a dozen v-shaped waves had appeared in the murky water of the spring, headed their way. Oskar was reminded of any number of swamp carnivores, but as they drew close to the shore they were replaced with a cadre of Venusians, dripping mud.

The group tottered out of the spring and surrounded them, croaking amongst themselves and making animated gestures at Oskar, Bakker, and Sem.The translator immediately grasped at this new source of information, and went to work processing it. 

“The welcoming party, I assume,” Bakker flashed a grin at them.

Oskar examined these new Venusians. One of them, he suspected, was Friday, shaking mud from his rounded fingers, but the others were larger than him by a foot or more, and some had scabs where patches of their skin had dried out. Whoever they were, they’d apparently lived a long time.

“Grawk graaawk grawk grawk.”

One of the older Venusians had spoken, addressing the rest. Maybe some kind of council of elders?

“Grawka grawk.”

The translator was of no help. Whatever they were discussing was far enough outside the experience of its programming that it couldn’t even look to known dialects for guidance.

“Greetings,” Bakker said with a bow. Sem copied him haltingly. “My name is Levi Bakker. Your man led us here after I saved him from a raging beast.” The hunter glanced at Oskar. “Did you get that?”

With a bit of reluctance, Oskar ran Bakker’s statement through the translator. The device did its best, converting his words into squawks and croaks, but Oskar personally would have given it a bit more time to get the language down before trying anything more complicated than “hello”.

The gathered Venusians watched, transfixed, as the translator crowed at them. When it was finished, they continued to stare in silence. It made Oskar tense.

Sem shifted uneasily. “This is…”

“Did I offend their refined sensibilities?” Bakker asked, not taking his eyes from the Venusian before him.

“I don’t know,” said Oskar truthfully.

At last, one of the larger Venusians, this one with a bundle of eggs stuck to its back, chirped something, and Friday stepped forward to face them.

Bakker chuckled. “Well, whatever it was, they’re over it now.”

Friday replied in a similar chirping fashion, transitioning back into throaty syllables as he launched into what was, as far as Oskar could tell, a recounting of how they’d met.

With another chirp, a different council member sent a Venusian lurking overhead diving into the spring. They emerged a few moments later cradling a tiny version of the broad-headed animals, apparently an infant, which they set at Friday’s webbed feet. The creature promptly curled up in a ball, as if asleep.

Friday stooped to pick the baby animal up, then turned and faced the humans. “Graaawk grawka grawka grawk grawka.”

“Very generous, your majesties, thank you-” Bakker said, stepping forward genially. A pair of Venusians dropped from above, blocking him from getting any closer to the council, baring pointed teeth.

Bakker threw his hands up. “Whoa, alright, don’t approach the throne.” He stepped back, eyes wide with surprise. Oskar saw him finger the safety on his rifle.

“Okay, I’ve seen enough. We’re leaving.” Oskar said a brief thank-you into the translator and turned to go. Before he was able to brush past the council members behind them, however, more Venusians fell to the ground, adopting defensive stances. Friday hissed.

“I saved you, you little snot!” snapped Bakker.

The bad feeling Oskar felt earlier had, through all this, continued to gestate. Seeing the newborn animal awarded to Friday had only sharpened his suspicions, and now, he had no idea what would happen to them. “Bakker, whatever you do, don’t act aggressive.”

“Why not?” The hunter had the rifle raised. More Venusians were plopping down from the treetops, or else scurrying from the muddy spring to surround them.

“We don’t want a fight,” Oskar practically begged.

“You’re right, we don’t, but these backstabbing savages seem to have their own ideas.”

“Sir,” Sem said, utterly terrified, “please listen to Mr. Dusza.”

“Shut the hell up, Sem,” Bakker fired his rifle into the air. “Back off! All of you! This is your only warning!”

There was a moment of quiet when even the chatterbugs were silenced.

Then the Venusians pounced.

For all their displaying of fangs, none of them actually bit Oskar. The slimy swarm instead held him down, tugging at his pack and ripping at his clothes. He thrashed to free his arms as his bag was torn open, spilling its contents in the mud.

Oskar threw himself at his scattered belongings, bowling Venusians aside and feeling around desperately  in the muck. His hands finally closed on his stunner and he fired.

The blast was dampened by the mud, but it was enough to send the Venusians around him scurrying. Wiping the dirt from his eyes, Oskar looked around.

“Damn tadpoles-” Bakker was shouting as a crowd of Venusians dragged his precious rifle from his hands. “Goddamn loogies-” A squawking, hissing wave rolled over the hunter. Sem was completely obscured, and Oskar only knew he was there beneath a pile of Venusians by his panicked screams.

Knowing he should go back for clients, Oskar paused as the Venusians he’d driven off regrouped and slithered back toward him.

In the end, the choice wasn’t that hard. He ran, stunner and translator in hand.

He tore through the jungle, unleashing sonic blasts behind him as the chatterbugs carried Bakker and Sem’s cries after him through the trees. He lept over roots, slogged through swamps, and ducked under branches as he retraced their path through the jungle, half-delirious with panic.

Even when he was sure there were no Venusians on his tail, he kept running, crossing the border from ancient forest to his familiar, young, overgrown woods, eventually finding the spot where they’d first run into Friday. Already, the corpse of the animal Bakker shot was blanketed in carrion-eating fungoids, all but indistinguishable from the jungle floor.

He followed the familiar game trail back toward Veneragrad, finally allowing himself to slow to a jog. He should report the incident to the authorities at Veneragrad right away, he knew. As soon as he got to the colony. First thing. When he passed through the gate he ran to his cabin and locked the door, collapsing onto his bed and taking deep breaths. He’d report everything as soon as he calmed his racing heart.

By the time he emerged to visit the Veneragrad sheriff’s office, it was well past sunset. The clamor of the nocturnal jungle made him jump when he stepped out, and he forced himself to laugh at his unease. He knew what had happened, after all, the translator had finally picked up enough words to translate everything Friday’s people had ever said to them, and it all made sense.

They found Sem standing in a creek, waving his arms around, completely naked. He told the sheriff the Venusians had stripped him and Bakker of everything they had, down to the clothes on their backs, and turned them loose in the jungle. Then the hunter had abandoned him, promising to send a search party when he got back to civilization.

Bakker was never found. He was lost in the jungle, presumed dead.

A week after they’d first left on safari, Oskar met Sem in the Veneragrad bar. He bought them both hard drinks and took a table in the corner. Rain was streaming down the plastic window, obscuring the dark rainforest beyond the fence.

“Do you think you’ll go back out there?” Sem asked, drink untouched. He was covered in stings, sores and bandages, but was otherwise recovered from his time exposed in the Venusian wilds.

“Yeah,” Oskar said.

“Not me. I’m leaving on the next shuttle. Then I’m never leaving my house again.”

They sat in silence for a while. Oscar sipped his drink.

“What I can’t understand is why," Sem said. "Why’d they turn on us and take our stuff? After Bakker saved one of them?”

“Did he?”

Sem gave Oskar a confused look. “Yeah. He shot that thing, the dickopotamus. Friday even said something about a life debt.”

Oskar took the translator from his pocket and slid it across the table. On the screen, the very first words ‘Friday’ had said to them were displayed, now mostly translated.

“You took the life of my (untranslatable animal name), you owe me a debt.”