By Eric Fritzius
Based on a sculpture installation by Eddie Booze
Saint Augustine the Bounty Hunter had never set foot in the state of Florida, though he had seen its lights during his descent through the pre-dawn atmosphere. His name was not actually Saint Augustine, which was a local phrase selected by his ship’s translation system to approximate his name. He would not realize this for some hours.
The energy signature of the prison transport had drawn him to this blue, backwoods planet and to the eastern coastline of one of its northern continents. His pursuit had been a close one by galactic standards, but the escaped prisoners still had a long enough lead to hide and shore up defenses. He hoped he could recapture them quickly. The two Bocaratons aboard—with their blade-like claws, scaly hides and vicious temperaments—might prove a threat to local inhabitants. The three Portsaintlucys, being considerably smaller, were less so, but they made up for their stature with equal parts camouflage and cunning. Lastly there was the Verobeach, the android mastermind behind the prisonbreak. Hers was a mind that would have given hunter legend Littledeerkey pause.
Mid-way along the coast, the energy signature led inland. Saint Augustine descended to follow, his ship’s stealth systems assuming the appearance of a `73 Dodge Dart hubcap. Some distance west, in the light of dawn, he came to a land of rolling green mountains which bore signs of the passing of a great storm. There were fallen trees and damaged structures over a considerable distance. Locals could be seen cleaning debris and sawing trees, while wires were reconnected to poles. What had happened here?
In a rocky bowl valley, just west of a small town, the trail of the energy signature ended. The transport lay crashed and abandoned, its controls smashed. Sensors showed six sets of prints leading out of the valley, in the direction of the town. On foot, Saint Augustine chose to first follow the three-toed tracks of the Bocaratons. This was a challenge, for they doubled back on their own tracks twice and even took to the trees, but the full-spectrum sensors of his hunter suit kept Saint Augustine on the trail and led him toward the town.
On the primary street of the town itself, Saint Augustine began to wonder if the translation systems of his helmet’s display were faulty. The signs above the first three buildings he saw indicated businesses that sold nourishment and friends, then the edge of harmony, then instantaneous serenity. Curious. Further east, a shop claimed to sell the totality of beauty. Many of the other businesses seemed to revolve around green valley-thorns. Saint Augustine first assumed the thorns were local currency until he noticed that there was a company on the next block dedicated to baking them. Oddly, another shop claimed to sell stardust — though why anyone would want the stuff he couldn’t guess.
He flushed one of the Bocaratons at mid-day. It had been hiding in a tree in front of a building the name of which translated to Commodores (1977) Vintage Items. The creature snarled and leapt onto the building itself, its claws carrying it up the brick toward the roof. Saint Augustine swung and fired his net cannon in one fluid motion. The Bocaraton was nearly swift enough to escape with only an entangled foot, but the accompanying stun charge and resulting fall to the ground stilled it. Saint Augustine clamped a restraining cuff around its neck before wrapping it in the net.
“Was that the last of the green ones?” said a voice. The speaker was a local seated at a small table in front of the Enthusiastic Legume. The man’s reddish hair was thin and he wore lenses near his eyes. Before him was a cup of dark liquid with a strong heat signature. “Got another of `em chained up in my tool shed, if you want him. Nasty sucker. Oh, and we caught two or three of the little shape-shifter fellows, too — though it’s kind of hard to tell with them.”
Saint Augustine was astonished. His helmet translator croaked: “You captured the other Bocaraton? And the Portsaintlucys?”
“Not sure about the names,” the man said. “We got a bunch of `em chained up in there, though.”
“Son, this isn’t our state’s first time on the dance floor with monsters from space,” the man said. “Why, in the last 50 years, we’ve had Enthmoms turn up in Point Pleasant, a Xorbant in Flatwoods, a minor invasion of Yergs up near Wheeling and enough Men in Black to fill a tractor trailer. And those are just the ones that made the papers.” The man took a sip of his dark liquid. “We get home-grown weird, too. We’ve fought off African lions, Bigfeet, and Andy Dick, to name a few.” He pointed at the Bocaraton. “Kind of unfortunate for your friends that we just had what felt like a hurricane. They came rampaging through town when most of us were still holding axes, saws and shovels from the cleanup. We whupped `em good.” The man set down his cup. “You see, West Virginians may not agree on everything. We may have a great many problems that we argue about. But I like to think that when it comes to pulling together to do the right thing, or get through an ordeal, or defend ourselves from toothy aliens, you’ll find us prepared for about anything. Now,” the man added, “you ready to take these things off our hands?”
Still carrying the Bocaraton, Saint Augustine followed the man to his home nearby where his tool shed was indeed found to contain an assortment of the wanted prisoners. The Portsaintlucys had shifted to match other items in the shed, but Saint Augustine sorted out the replica lawn ornaments from the real ones and attached linked restraining cuffs to each. Saint Augustine led the string of them back to the primary street and on toward the bowl valley. The man — who had introduced himself as Lair-E — accompanied to see them off. He only laughed a little after Saint Augustine introduced himself.
As the group topped the first hill, near James’s Vehicle-Based Eatery, there came the thrum of engines from the direction of the bowl valley. Moments later, Saint Augustine ship rose into the air — its stealth field masking it as a large boulder.
“Oh, schnargle!” Saint Augustine said. The Verobeach! It had to be her. His ship’s security should have been impossible to crack, but the Verobeach wasn’t known as the artificial dodger for nothing. Why hadn’t he gone after her first?
The boulder ship rose into the sky until its atmospheric engines kicked on in a burst of light, carrying it out of sight and into the black. They stood in silence for a long time. Then Lair-E cleared his throat.
“On occasion, we’ve also been known to take in strangers,” he said. “And, when it comes to strangers, I guess it don’t get much stranger than you folks.”