The hideous creature was climbing nearer. Every second brought it closer to the thin branch John was crouched on. If he hesitated a moment longer, he’d be in range of those viscous claws.
He took a deep breath, wrapped a couple of thick vines around his forearm, and jumped.
For a moment he was falling through space, then the vines went taut and he swung like a pendulum towards the malevolent shape of the creature. It seemed taken aback and didn’t have time to raise its claws before John cannoned into it, his feet outstretched and legs tensed like a battering ram.
There was a grotesque thud as John’s booted feet connected with the creature’s side. The force of the collision drove the breath out of John and sent the creature flying to the jungle floor with a howl.
The vine swung back again and John dropped to the ground, rolling and coming up into a fighting stance. His hand whipped the machine pistol out of the lilac holster at his hip. By touch alone he verified that the barrel of anaesthetic darts was in place, then advanced towards the creature.
It was on its knees on the ground and seemed to be panting heavily. As John neared, the evil head whipped round and snarled at him, a look of hatred in the blazing eyes. It began to turn to face him, though John’s keen gaze noticed it was moving more slowly than it had before. Had the crushing impact and fall injured it?
Injured or not, it still presented a deadly threat and John wasn’t prepared to take a chance of letting it get near him again. If the creature kept up the game of cat-and-mouse any longer, it might well be too late to find Hector Henderson.
John aimed his machine pistol at the creature’s hairy neck, hoping that the needles of the tiny darts would find that area easier going than the barrel-like chest. He fired a quick burst just as the creature lunged at him again. The little darts spat forward, catching the creature just below the chin. It roared angrily and swiped at John with a huge hand.
Fortunately it was the back of the hand that caught John in the chest, if it had been the claws he would have been ripped apart. Even so, he was driven backwards as if pummelled by a wrecking ball. He hit a tree and slumped to the ground, gasping for breath.
The creature turned to face him once more, determined to finish him. But as it approached, it seemed to stumble slightly. Then it staggered to the left. John recognized the first signs that the powerful anaesthetic darts were beginning to take effect. He braced himself, clutching his chest with one hand, while aiming the pistol with his right.
The creature took two more unsteady steps and promptly keeled over in a heap. The jungle seemed to quiver with the impact and then all was still.
With a painful effort, John forced himself to his feet. His chest felt as though it was on fire. He stepped over some large roots and knelt near the creature. It was breathing shallowly, clearly unconscious. John knew that if the darts worked as they did on humans it would be no threat for at least an hour.
He stood up and was just about to continue the search for Henderson when something caught his eye. He hadn’t noticed it during the struggle, but there appeared to be a piece of torn fabric around the creature’s waist. It was half hidden by the long hair, but John brushed it aside and took a closer look.
It was khaki in colour and bore a portion of a faded white patch with letters on it, which spelled out ‘ERSON’. It didn’t take someone with John’s intellect to work out the name in its entirety would have spelled ‘HENDERSON’. Had the creature found Henderson and attacked him? Was it possible that John’s mission was already a lost cause?
Then John looked closer. There were traces of the torn fabric all over the creature’s body. It was as if it had been torn from the inside out, not ripped off by the creature’s claws. But then surely that could only mean one thing…
In spite of the heat of the jungle, John shivered. Somehow this….thing…before him, the creature that he had just battled was Hector Henderson. John could hardly dare believe it, and yet what other explanation was there? What had happened to the poor fellow to make him like this?
John’s hand was absentmindedly fumbling with his equipment pouch when the clink of the serum phials snapped him out of his awed daze. Of course, the serum! Brains had said they had no information on the nature of Henderson’s condition, simply the makeup of the serum he required to survive. This monstrous condition, however it had originated, must be kept at bay with regular doses of serum, the very thing John was now feverishly scrabbling for in the equipment pouch.
He loaded one phial into the injector mechanism, leaned forward and activated the plunger against the creature’s neck. Then he took two steps back and waited.
Seconds passed, then a minute. Nothing. Had John let his wild imagination run away with him? Was this creature nothing more than some undiscovered beast that had already killed Henderson?
Then, ever so slowly it seemed, the hair on the creature’s body began to recede. The horrific features of the face began to contract and morph into the recognisable face of a man. The long legs and huge hands with those deadly claws began to shrink in size until they were nothing more than human limbs. The whole process took less than a full minute, but to John it felt far longer.
When it was over, John half stumbled over to Henderson’s unconscious form. He drew a Penelon shock blanket from a container no bigger than a matchbox and placed it over Henderson’s rag-covered body. It would be some time until Henderson would awaken from his artificially induced slumber; Brains’ knockout darts would see to that.
Ignoring the pain in his chest, John walked a few yards into a nearby clearing and raised his video watch into transmitting position. He grinned at the worried frown creasing Alan’s youthful features as the image beamed onto the tiny screen from Thunderbird Five’s control room.
“John! What happened, are you okay?”
“Fine, just fine. And have I got a story for you!”