Worldbuilding Prompt #358 - The Narrow Bridge

This post is a response inspired by an image prompt in the Worldbuilding community. It's taken me a little longer to write than I intended, we've had a most uncharacteristic heatwave here in the UK, and the room I work in has been more like a sauna than an office !

Source - the original image prompt - Roads by @ipul27 in Stock Images

Colonel Trallon wiped the end of his nose to get rid of the rain drops which were running down it, and looked across the newly built bridge with disdain.

"Well, Chief Engineer Maddan, I have to say I am disappointed. We're trying to open this planet up for colonisation, and that means building decent infrastructure. This bridge is not it. In all my years as inspector-general of colonial infrastructure, this miserable little bridge, on a miserable little world where it never... ever.... stops raining has to be the least inspiring thing I have ever seen. Explain yourself !"

Maddan shrugged, water cascading off the shoulders of his waterproof tunic. His face didn't give any hint of his emotions. He had expected this kind of reaction from the slightly plump desk-jockey martinet before him.

Steeling himself for the inevitable explosion, Maddan started to explain. "It's very simple, Sir. This bridge is the only access to the plateau. We don't want the colonists to cross over. The Colony Council studied the survey reports, and decided it was the best approach. It's a beautiful bridge, stop being so negative, it's perfect for our needs."

Trallon's face was reddening even before Maddan finished. No-one ever disagreed with him, or did anything when he criticised them except grovel and apologise.

"Unacceptable ! This plateau has ten thousand square miles of the best lumber-woodland on all of Bale IV, and when it's been cleared has the potential to provide valuable agricultural surpluses to the Imperium. Not to mention the minerals we can extract from it. If it had a decent clearing, it would have been the seed-point for the whole colony."

"It's Redland, Sir. Our colonists have decided this world will be called Redland. Bale IV is just the designation on the astrological charts, but if a world is to feel like home, it needs a name which feels right to it's people."

Waving over a couple of his crew, Maddan picked up a shovel to help them fill in some of the ruts in front of the bridge. Light as they were, the tracks of their Krads had churned up the rich waterlogged red soil, and the ground near the bridge needed to be filled and firmed.

Without looking at the fat colonel, Maddan continued. "Sir, the plateau has been declared a nature reserve. We can go in by Krad to get the easier minerals if we're quick. But no-one who has gone in to stay overnight has come back, and when we tried taking GEV's over they were like a magnet and were destroyed within minutes. Listen carefully. Just listen to the sounds over there, right now."

With his face a mask of scepticism, Trallon melodramatically put a hand to his ear, cupping it in an exaggerated show of listening. As if on cue, a distant trumpeting roar sounded from the dense woods on the far side of the bridge. Then another one answered it, much closer, and almost deafening.

"What the...!"

"We call them pyrovores, Sir," Maddan answered the unvoiced question. "The initial survey didn't pick them up, because they live in caverns below the plateau and only come out to feed. That one is pretty close, they've got exceptional hearing so it's probably heard us and will come sniffing around in a few minutes. So far, the weapons colonists are allowed have done nothing except bounce of the scales of those beasts and annoy them even more. Although they are bad tempered enough even on a good day."

Trallon looked concerned. Perhaps this was starting to get through to him.

"We can have the Navy come along and hit them from orbit. Would that solve the problem ?"

Maddan looked shocked. "No ! We can't just wipe them out ! They are a unique species, and the few studies we've been able to carry out suggests they could be on the cusp of developing language and a primitive society. Plus, the plateau is riddled with subterranean caves. If the Navy has to resort to orbital bombardment, it'll shatter and deforest the plateau, and then it'll be no use to anyone."

"So what are you going to do about it ?" asked Trallon.

"Nothing, Sir. The plateau will belong to the pyrovores. We can go over to study them from a safe distance and extract occasional minerals. Eventually we or our descendants may well be able to establish proper communication with them. Maybe even uplift them. But until then, the bridge is narrow enough that they won't be able to fit, and weak enough to break if a two-hundred foot long beast weighing around one hundred tons tries to cross it."

That was the point where heavy footsteps crashing slowly and rhythmically through the jungle announced the arrival of the hitherto hidden pyrovore. It emerged from the treeline onto the track and started working it's way towards the bridge, snuffling and grunting as it searched through the undergrowth. The monster was huge, bigger than the two hundred feet Maddan had described. If anything, it looked like a giant tyrannosaurus rex, bipedal and balancing on a long tail, with beady little eyes and a huge maw, although thick mottled brown and bright red scales were definitely not normal for something that looked like an overgrown therapsid.

Colonel Trallon stared across the bridge at it with an expression of awe on his face. "Magnificent !" he murmured to himself. "Just imaging hunting them, having a head that size on the wall as a trophy."

"Well," he announced in a haughty, superior tone. "Your pathetic colonial weapons might not touch it, but let's bring it down to size with this."

He unbuckled his holster, and drew a Kjaelon XXIV plasma pistol from it. The weapon was the latest model issued to the Imperial Navy, designed to look chunky and intimidating, although the chrome plating and textured artificial diamond grips were far from regulation. Pistol in hand, Trallon started across the bridge, striding toward the huge creature.

"Ummm....." Maddan said. Then turned to his comrades. "Jorin, Vetak; run."

They turned to get clear just as the monster reacted to the Colonel's approach. It probably picked up his scent rather than seeing him. The gigantic head swivelled towards him, and Trallon opened fire with his pistol, bolts of orange plasma zipping towards it with unerring accuracy.

Nothing happened. The bolts didn't burn through the scales, they didn't bounce off. It was as if they had just been absorbed. The monster focused glittering black eyes on the small humanoid in front of him, and slowly inhaled, drawing itself up to it's full height. Then it exhaled, breathing out a jet of white hot flame with a trumpeting, deafening roar.

Trallon was caught in it, a brief expression of surprise visible on his face before it melted off him and he was enveloped. The flame flickered orange as his flesh evaporated, and the creature inhaled. All of the flame was sucked back in, the vapour of the Colonel's flesh as well, leaving just a few of the largest bones, charred, to clatter to the flash-dried trail floor.

Maddan looked at his men. "He should have asked why they are called pyrovores. I guess we need to send back to Primat for a new Inspector General."

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