Hunting Ground

MJG Science Fiction, Stories 0 Comments

REN, TEKALUS, LORIE

They pick up the blip off the bait drop corner, burning bright green on the inner screen of their visors, flashing with a rapid-fire heartbeat, scouring afterglow trails into their eyes.
It’s the strongest they’ve ever seen.
Each blood beat swells across their visors like an explosion, waves spreading and lapping over the in-screen maps, washing out grey line buildings and buckled black roads beneath it.

“He’s a fat one, eh?” shouts Lorie happily, plumps out his black armoured arms before him like they’re resting on a vast belly.

Ren and Tekalus wince at the static burst in their helmets.

post_apocalypse2

Image from here.


“Shut up, would you?” suggests Ren.

“You oaf,” snaps Tekalus.

Lorie lets his merry arms drop back to his weapon, smooth black tube slung over his left shoulder with one wide leather band, hinged at its rear to the thick armour encasing his right shoulder.

“I’m just saying,” says Lorie, quieter. “It’s a strong pulse.”

“So that makes him fat?” asks Ren

“It’s just a joke,” protests Lorie. “You guys don’t get anything.”

Ren sighs, his breath crackling through the visor’s comms to the other two. “Yeah, funny. Look. He’s not fat, OK. The signal’s big, could just mean he hasn’t eaten for ages, or he’s hypoglycaemic. Diabetic, even.”

“That’s right,” chimes in Tekalus. “It’s not a measure of how much blood he’s got, just how much tracer he’s got in his veins.”

“I know that, it was a joke!”

“And look at how fast he’s going, you think a fat guy full of bait could move like that?”

“Just shut up, alright? It was a joke. I know this.”

“Well it seems to me you didn’t, because you said he was fat, and that-”

“Settle down,” interrupts Ren, holds his hands up. “Just look at him go.”

The other two fall silent, watching the green blip dash speedily round a building some 30 blocks distant, its pulse backwash rippling out and distorting the virtual world. Tekalus makes a snorting noise, pushes Lorie so he rocks on his motex.

“What?” barks Lorie.

“You thought he was fat, Jack.”

“Just shut up.”

“That’s enough,” says Ren impatiently, taps his gauntleted hands on the steering yoke of his motex. They make a clunk, clunk, clunk sound, distorted through the open audio catches.

“I never said anything about Jack,” mutters Lorie.

“Both of you stow it,” orders Ren, “and let’s go.” He slides his chunky black-clad legs back into the slots of his motex, guns the engine. Hears the roar, muted through the helmet, and watches his visor with rising excitement as the green blip, for a second, pauses, maybe skips a beat.

He tears off into space, leaving the other two stranded at the Out. Within seconds they follow.

The grounds whip by grimy and splintered beneath them. Overturned cars lie like dried up ants in dead road riverbeds, curled and dim and forgotten in the harsh motex underlights. Skyscraper ground floors leer at impossible angles, held rigid but buckled under the weight of the dome.

The comms in Tekalus’ and Lorie’s visors buzz to life, Ren’s voice crackles through.

Ren: “Through the comms, OK?”
Tekalus: “Yeah. Pretty dark sector this, huh?”
Ren: “Level 3 D on the listing. Fatboy out there must be resident, the way he’s moving round.”
Lorie: “It was a joke, just stop saying it, OK?”
Tekalus: “You sure this sector’s licensed right now? I don’t read any other hunters.”
Ren: “They’re here. Got a message from a contact, said they were emptying out the blocks, down by the river, you know? Flushing them all here.”
Tekalus: “What contact?”
Ren: “Just another hunter. A contact. Said it was a good haul.”
Tekalus: “So there’s blips down here, but you sure it’s licensed?”
Ren: “Trust me, OK?”
Tekalus: “This hunter friend of yours, he got a reference?”
Ren: “These questions of yours, got a point?”
Tekalus: “Alright, only asking. Anybody interesting then?”
Ren: “He said so. Fitter than the dregs, maybe some athletes.”
Tekalus: “Great. Well, we better ease off, don’t wanna scare fatboy too early.”
Lorie: “Stop saying that! It was just a joke.”
Ren: “That street, the raised area. See it? Quadrant X32, looks like a cinema lot. We’ll stop there.”
Tekalus: “Yeah. What’s Lorie going on about?”
Ren: “God knows.”

Ren’s motex lands smoothly first, brakes along the rooftop as his fins retract, fans kick out. Flips the audio catch in his helmet as Tekalus pull up alongside. Hears the muted judder as his own engine cuts out, Tekalus’ slows down, then louder with the catch open.

“So how you wanna do this?” asks Tekalus, dismounting.

“I think solo. Bit of competition.”

“Every man for himself then,” confirms Tekalus, does a quick spot check on his suit.

Lorie glides in and cuts his engine. “He’s just a few blocks away.”

“Yup. We’re going after him solo,” repeats Ren, checking over his own suit, buckling in the tube to his shoulder.

“Trophies?” asks Lorie eagerly

“Ren?”

“Yeah. I think, subtle. Knucklebones, maybe. I’ve got none of them.”

“Come on,” moans Lorie.

“Stop your whining,” says Tekalus.

“No, knucklebones are pointless, I want a skull. You’ve both got skulls.”

“No skulls,” says Ren.

“Why not? I want a skull!”

“Oh yeah?” asks Tekalus, steps close.

“Yes, dammit!”

“I see,” says Tekalus, then shoves Lorie hard against the rusted yellow hood of a jack-knifed automobile, resting like a buttress against the old cinema’s walls, exhaust pipe leaning through broken windows like the sucking end of a cigarette. “You wanna be more nimble, then,” he advises.

Lorie crashes off the hood, drops, rolls. His suit goes clunk clunk on the stone floor. Heaves himself upright. “Screw you!” he shouts, steps up to Tekalus.

“Now now,” says Ren, black silhouette in the gloom moving to stand between them. “Knucklebones it is, and that’s that. The fat boy keeps his head?”

“Why?”

Ren glances to Tekalus, who nods. “Why? Well, us being here might not be entirely legal. A skull’s too obvious, yeah, too easy to trace.”

“Not legal? You just said this zone was licensed!”

“Well, maybe. Who can say, all these sectors look alike. Right Tek?”

“Yup.”

“So we can’t be expected to know whether every single one of them is licensed or not, can we?”

“Of course not,” Tekalus chirps, grinning behind his visor.

“That would just be too much to remember.”

“Too much for one little brain.”

“Enough, I get it. No skulls.”

“Gotta be quick to get to them there knucklebones though, Jacky boy,” joshes Tekalus, nudging Lorie.

“Get lost,” mumbles Lorie half-heartedly.

“Right, to business then,” says Ren cleanly, business-like. “This is sector 265a. There’s a generator cusp in the upper left, we should be pretty close right now. Stay away from it, it’s gonna be hot. He won’t go there if he’s local, which he has to be the way he’s moving around, so it’s not a problem. If you get lost, hurt, scared, whatever, just let us know and you’ll be fine.”

Tekalus makes a snorting sound into his comms, sounds a little like ‘Lorie’, and Ren spins to him.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing my black armoured arse. Come on Tek, you know what your father told me, so just stop it alright. Take it seriously.”

Tekalus says nothing. Lorie grins behind his visor.

“Again. Call one of us, you’ll be fine. Call your daddy, if you like Tek. Only person that’ll hear is me though, so I wouldn’t bother. Black lights all the way, maybe red, but don’t over-use them. The visors are better if he’s distant. Careful with the tubes, be sure one of us isn’t nearby. Anything else?”

“If he’s fat I want one of your skulls,” says Lorie, sounding cheery again after Tekalus’ rebuttal.

Ren slaps him round the back of the helmet. Clunk.

“You cheeky clown. OK.”

“Jesus,” sighs Tekalus.

“Any point of entry?” asks Lorie.

“Just do your thing and stay out of my way,” states Ren, and jogs off into the darkness. Seconds later, Tekalus and Lorie peel off too.

***

The hunt goes fine until the blip trails underneath the generator, top left of the sector. Red zone. The hunters stop in their tracks, puzzled, and watch the inner screen of their visors closely.
The blip speeds up, flashes faster and harder, wending its way through intestinal corridors deep inside a big skyscraper in the generator’s shadow. Offices probably. It changes elevation in a lift shaft, races along a long thin walkway, out into a wide open space underground, across, deeper into the generator’s territory.
Then it stops. Comes to rest by a thick wall, corner to a fresh corridor after the open space, and it doesn’t move, and it doesn’t pulse. Sighs bleed through the comms system.

Ren: “He’s only gone and died.”
Tekalus: “Why would he go under the generator like that?”
Lorie: “He’s had a heart attack, look, it’s just stopped.”
Tekalus: “Shut up, Loz. It’s static, like, it isn’t moving at all. That’s not a heart attack.”
Lorie: “I told you he was too big, he couldn’t handle the hunt. We brought him down.”
Tekalus: “Stop talking nonsense. He’s under a generator, it’s gotta’ be burning up in there. He should be tripping out, running in circles, something.”
Lorie: “He’s just exhausted, I’m telling you.”
Tekalus: “Look, your heart doesn’t just stop like that if you’re exhausted. He’s dead.
Ren: “Where are you both?”
Tekalus: “I’m south of the complex he’s in now, maybe a block.”
Lorie: “That’s miles away! What are you doing there?”
Tekalus: “It’s called strategy, you damn runt.”
Ren: “Where are you, Lorie?”
Lorie. “I’m skirting the entrance. It’s only the lip of the generator, how bad can it be?”
Ren: “Right. That’s it. He’s dead, we move on.”
Lorie: “Why? It’s only a few hundred yards from me. It’s only the safety zone, who cares? I want his skull.”
Ren: “No skulls, remember? No nothing. We’re leaving now, call your motex and I’ll meet you at Tekalus’ position.”
Tekalus: “Second that, I’ve already called mine.”

The green blot stains the visors, unwinking but still bright.

Lorie: “I’m going in.”
Tekalus: “What?”
Ren: “No you’re not. No way.”
Lorie: “It’s only a little radiation, what the hell is this suit for, if it can’t take a little fringe heat?”
Tekalus: “That’s crazy talk, Lorie.”
Ren: “You’re not going in there, Lorie. Listen to me. The blip, he’s dead. There’s no point. What’s the point in trophies you didn’t finish yourself?”
Lorie: “Shit, you would say that.”
Tekalus: “What’s that supposed to mean? Look, none of us can take credit for it. He’s just dead.”
Lorie: “Shut up, no. I killed him, I ran him down. And where were you two? Frolicking around in the distance, playing it safe. Now you’re just jealous, I’m going to get a trophy, and you’re not.”
Ren: “Loz, listen. He’s dead. The radiation killed him, there’s no point going in.”
Lorie: “He isn’t dead from radiation! Dammit, I can’t have anything can I? He’s local, why would he run into death like that? It’s something else, a heart attack ‘cos he’s so big, something like that. I ran him down.”
Tekalus: “Lorie, get your ass back here.”
Lorie: “I’m already in.”

Lorie’s marker enters the building on their visors, and they watch.

LORIE

Walking down a corridor, getting hotter. The blip remains, static. Infrared is useless now, the walls are too hot and black light only picks out movement.
There’s no movement ahead, the blip is still.
Tekalus and Ren bicker on his comms, but he doesn’t switch them off. He realizes, this is the closest he’s been to one of the hot-spots. He feels his palms sweat inside the heavy black gloves. Tightens his slick grip on the tube slung over his shoulder. Nestles fingers into the 3 trigger points.
Turns a corner, sees the long walkway ahead, and beyond, the open space. From the specs, looks like a car park. Through the visor, just nothing on black. With red it’s all heat blur, eddying patterns of orange through yellow, metal versus stone, in contrast to himself, if he looks down at his body. Cold black lightening to grey, getting warmer.
Considers using his whites, but no. That would be stupid, would give away his position, in case the blip isn’t dead. In case.
Listens to the roughened breathing of Ren running down to his entry point, talking to Tekalus holding position and waiting for the motexes to arrive.
Fever grips him. Excitement. This was going to be his kill. His kill, and they couldn’t take that away. The stone floor clunks under his booted feet, muted by the soft plashing of the grounds’ ever present watery slush.

Ren: “Listen to me, Loz. This is how it goes: You can feel yourself getting warmer. You’re starting to feel dizzy. You’re sweating. The suit feels too hot, you want to take it off.”

Buzz buzz in his head.

Ren: “Have you looked around on infra red? Check out the counter, it’s way above body temp. It’s hot in there, buddy. You really need to leave, now. Tek, any word from the motexes yet?
Tekalus: “On their way. Lorie. Look. Sorry bout that comment, Jack be nimble thing. I wasn’t thinking.”
Ren: “He’s right, it was just a joke, Loz, he meant nothing. This is daft. Look. I’ll give you a skull, you’ve proven you’re worth it. Just come out.”
Tekalus: “Come on out, buddy.”

The Jack joke. Be nimble. Be quick. His father’s book: ‘Under the candlestick’. They’ve read enough to mock it, written as if high, in a sing-song little kid way. His father called it literature, but it just got him teased. It had put them where they were, mid cordons with the others, whose families had maintained the standard for generations, held their positions in the Dome. And his father?
An upstart, to them. Nouveau riche, they used to call them. Built on the story of a dim-witted drug-riddled kid called Jack, and his search for the truth in the grounds, beneath the dome.
But this, this would show them. He wasn’t weak like his father. He wasn’t just another useless Jack down here, he was like them. He was a hunter, and he would prove it. They said knucklebones? This was about a skull. A real, proper skull, one he brought down himself.
They wouldn’t talk like that then.

He crosses the open space feeling a little dizzy, nearly stumbles a few times. Finds himself with slow fingers ready to flick the switch for his whites, as he stumbles, and his arms feel heavy. It’s OK. He’s just tired he thinks. The suit will fix it.

Ren: “He’s slowing down.”
Tekalus: “Just get him out.”
Ren: “Right. Alright. Loz, listen. Loz? You’re nearly there now. Just go, get the blip’s head, and get out. It’s just yards, you should be able to see him. Hurry up. We’re waiting for you.”

Insects in his ears. Green beacon glowing before his eyes. Metres. Closer. Flicks to infra red, but nothing distinct. Blacks, nothing. Then flicks on his whites without thinking, and sees.

Blank grey concrete, layering into black at the hazy circumference of the white sphere of light. Empty silent stone all round.
And before him, a rectangular chunk of something green, where the blip should be. He steps closer.

Ren: “Just get the knuckles and come on out, Loz. I’ll stand you a drink for this.”

Green/grey fabric, he sees buckles and pockets sewn into the sides. He sees straps, and realizes, it’s a rucksack.

Tekalus: “So what happened to him? Is he fat? Heart attack? Talk to us Loz.”

But.

Lorie: “He’s not here.”

He pushes at the bag, heavy.

Ren: “What? Repeat that. Sounded like you said he’s not there?”
Tekalus: “That’s not possible. I’m tracing the bromide in his bloodstream, shit, you see the blip still, don’t you? He’s right on top of him.”

Pokes at the straps, lifts the bag so the opening end faces him. Starts to work on the drawstring fasteners, difficult with these chunky gloves on.

Ren: “What’s going on, Loz? You have to talk to us, where is the blip?”
Tekalus: “Shit. Ren, switch to suit comp’s. He’s got his whites on!”
Ren: “Wha? No!”
Tekalus: “Loz, turn your whites off buddy! Turn the lights off, Loz, listen to me. I’m your friend, turn your whites off!”

Pulls his gloves off, feels the instant burn on his skin. A reservoir of sweat spills out. Kneels by the bag, tube forgotten and dawdling round his back, opens the drawstrings, peers inside.

Ren: “It’s been too long Loz. I don’t care. Just get out.”
Tekalus: “What’s there, Loz. What are you seeing? Are you sure it’s not the blip? Are you sure?”

Inside the bag, a metal box, silvered. He feels inside, scalding to the touch, his head is light though and barely feels the pain as his skin blackens on the metal. A lid, he grips the edge, tugs on it. It’s been hammered shut, and he heaves against it.
It pops open, the contents splash out.

The green blip explodes across the visors, then is gone.

Ren: “What happened? Loz, what happened?”
Tekalus: “Loz, the guy just exploded! What the hell happened?”
Lorie: “It’s blood. The trace, just blood, on my hands.”
Tekalus: “What the..?”

Lorie recoils, wipes the slick red mixture from his hands against the suit, but it doesn’t wipe off, just slicks around the shaking red palms as he slides them greasily over the metal. He feels like throwing up, the churned liquid of the metal box pooling around him, casts about for his gloves, reaches down for the tube. Doesn’t comprehend what’s happening properly.

Ren: “What is it Loz? This is very important. What blood, what’s going on?”
Lorie: “Blood, and guts. Bits of food. In a tin, a bag. In. Mixed, the blip.”
Tekalus: “Is it him? Where’s the blip gone? Damn, Loz, just get out!”
Lorie: “I can’t find my gloves, I-”
Tekalus: “What? Speak to us, Loz? What?”

There’s a crackling of static, a loud crash, then Lorie’s life signs drop from their visors.

Ren: “I’m going after him.”
Tekalus: “What? No, you can’t.”
Ren: “I have to. It’s my fault.”
Tekalus: “He’s gone, Ren! You can’t.”
Ren: “Go and wait for the motexes. I’ll be there, with Lorie and trophies, in no time.”
Tekalus: “Ren, shit. Maybe it was a bomb, I’ve heard of that. They could have rigged this up! Ren, his life signs are gone, he’s gone, let’s just get out of here.”
Ren: “Can’t do that, Tek. Just have those motexes ready.”

REN

Tekalus carries on protesting, but he ignores it. He never should have let Lorie go off alone. He knows it, and now he has to fix it.
At the entrance to the building, already feeling the generator’s effects. Just watch your stats, Ren old boy, he says to himself. Just keep an eye on the old counters, and we’re going to be fine.
Straps his thick gloved hands round the tube tightly, steadies his nerves, and climbs the ramshackle stone steps up to the building’s entrance. He’s on blacks, but there’s nothing. He feels prickling heat creeping along his spine, into his shoulder blades.

Ren: “Give me some readouts, Tek.”
Tekalus: “There’s nothing. You can’t see anything, neither can I. Don’t do this.”
Ren: “Watch my vitals. OK?”
Tekalus: “Damn, Ren, what do you think you’re going to find down there?”
Ren: “I don’t know.”
Tekalus: “Well you have to think! What happened to the blip? What happened to Lorie?”
Ren: “Calm down. You hear? This is me! Calm down. He just collapsed, too much heat. That’s it, I’ll get him, we’ll be fine.”
Tekalus: “This is bad, Ren.”
Ren: “Just watch my vitals.”

Stalking through the building’s crumpled facade, booted feet crunching in mounds of ground glass like thick sand, crumbling up against stunted metal frames. Just outlines, he sees nothing but outlines. The stretch of a store foyer before him, corridors leading out back.
Through.

He’s the leader. Always has been. His father tells him, he’ll take over the candidacy some day. He’ll be a leader of many men, important men, so he has to practise now. He’s responsible for these two. He’s responsible for everyone, it’s what he does.
His father says so. Spread his broad shoulders, shrugs sometimes, and says, it’s going to be your job, and that’s that.
Tekalus’ father thought so too. Had come to him, one night he’d jetted round to pick up Tek before some big night, asked him to one side. Tek was off to the motexes, gearing his up, throttling the gas impatiently.
“How are you, Ren?”
“Fine, Mr. Rebus. And you, sir?”
The older man, grey at the temples, rested an unblemished clerk’s hand on his shoulder.
“Worried, Ren. It could just be my wife’s fault, but I worry for Tek all the time. He’s a good boy, but.”
“Sir?”
The man squeezed Ren’s shoulder.
“Just look after him, OK? Keep him out of trouble.”
He’d smiled, nodded, said something yes sir.

Feels the heat, sweat trickling into his eyes before being sucked into the suit’s vents. Lift shaft, he climbs down. Finds himself wondering if this was how Lorie was feeling. It feels bad. Why would he do this? He doesn’t understand. He has his reasons, he has to save Lorie. He has to look after them. But Lorie, why would he want to go through this?

Ren: “Talk to me, Tek. Feeling light-headed. You getting anything?”
Tekalus: “No, no signals. The motexes are here now. What can you see?”
Ren: “Nothing. There’s nothing moving, everything’s too hot to see. I’m on the level.”
Tekalus: “I got you. His last position’s just along that corridor. You’ll be there in seconds.”

Hears the voice of his hunter contact drifting through the haze. Some good hunting, he’d said. Plenty of blips, he’d said, some athletes maybe. Be sure and be here now, plenty of blips, some good hunting.

Snap out of it.
He shakes his head, tries to stay alert. He’s here for Lorie, that’s it. Can see the wide open space spread ahead, then around him, and he’s walking towards the corner where the blip was last sighted, where-

Tekalus: “He’s back! You see that? He’s back!”

On the visor, Lorie’s life signs flash back up to normal levels. Little elevated, but better than dead.

Tekalus: “He’s behind you, at the lift shaft. You see his marker? He must have just come round, or something. You must have passed him.”
Ren: “I didn’t see him.”
Tekalus: “He’s fine! You see that? He’s reading out normal. Loz, can you hear me?”
Ren: “Tek, I didn’t see him. There’s the lift shaft, then the corridor, I didn’t see him.”
Tekalus: “So?”

He takes the final few steps, to the corner, where the blip faded out.

Tekalus: “You’re going the wrong way, Ren. He’s back, behind you? You see his marker, right? Well, he’s right there.”

Switches on his whites. Sees a burst open silver container, a grey/green oblong bag, a froth of black blood and lumps of sodden bread, vapour rising as the mixture boils off in the heat, and something else.
A glove, amongst the mess.

Tekalus: “He’s coming back now. Must have seen your whites, damn, he must be out of it. Man, he had me worried. Maybe his comms got damaged when he fainted. He must have just fainted, damaged something.”

Trails of the crusted black blood, leading round the wall.
Round the corner.

Tekalus: “Ren, what are you doing? What’s back there? He’s behind you, you hear that, just turn around, you’ll see him. You two really should be getting out now.”

Round the corner. The pale white body of Lorie, luminescent in the clinical bright lights, stripped of his suit. The ground bloodied and steaming around him, wreathing him hazy through the vapour. Strands of blonde hair jutting from his caved-in face. No suit.

Ren: “He’s dead.”
Tekalus: “What? Say again.”
Ren: “He’s dead, I’m looking at Lorie, and he’s dead!”
Tekalus: That’s impossible, I’m reading his suit right behind you, just turn around he’s-”
Ren: “It’s not him! Shit, it’s a set up Tek, it’s a setup!“

Spins around, brings the tube up to angle, white lights pick out the lumbering black shape before him but then a flood of blue light and-

The transmission cuts out, after a long hollow scream and a whisper that could have been ‘sorry’.

TEKALUS

Tekalus: “What the hell was that? What’s going on? Loz? Ren? Somebody talk to me. What’s going on down there? Talk to me, for god’s sake, what’s going on?”

Ren’s readings drop from the visor. His marker winks out. Lorie’s marker turns about, heads back through the open space, and Tekalus watches. Flicks through to the comp transmit, reads that Lorie’s tube just launched. Watches his marker along the narrow corridor, into the lift shaft.
Paces between the motexes, illuminated dimly from a narrow view port above. Their perfect gleam seems unreal against the visor’s readout.

Tekalus: “Lorie what are you doing? What happened to Ren? Where is he? What’s going on?”

No answers come, but Lorie keeps moving, up the lift shaft. His comms must be damaged, but what happened?
What did Ren say?

Tekalus: “Look, Loz, maybe you can hear me. I know your suit’s damaged, but listen. You have to go back, Ren’s down there somewhere. What happened with your-“

Setup.
He fired his tube. He let Ren pass him, and said nothing. Where were his whites then? And Ren. He said sorry.

Tekalus: “Oh shit.”

Jumps on his motex, fires it up. The engine’s roar builds, and he slams the accelerator. The wheels slide up, fins expand, and he slots his legs into their sockets. The machine gusts, detritus blows from underneath, and he’s taking off.
The Lorie marker has sped up, started to run, half a block distant.

Tekalus is up and screaming through the bleary under-lit grounds, scant inches above the road as his motex gathers speed. To the Out, he has to get to the Out, the only way.

Tekalus: “Who are you? Who the hell are you?”

No answer. Lorie’s marker at the motex dump. Tekalus’ visor registers one of them start up. He imagines he can hear it behind him, the roar of fans, jets, trails, fins, winding up. Chasing him, and he realizes he should have blitzed the ignition on them while he had time.

Tekalus: “What do you want?”

Behind him. Picking up speed.

He’s getting some lift. He’ll need it, for the Out. Racing past hulking memories of architecture, drizzled down and rusted remnants of buildings. Skims under some raggedly strung power lines, over the twisted growth of traffic light boxes, straight lines mangled under the dome, though still seeming to claw for height.

He thinks of his father. His father’s hopes for him. He finds himself worrying, what will they do, when he doesn’t return? Will they stay together? He hears the rows, sometimes. He hears them use his name, at first he thought it was anger, or complaints, or something his fault. But then he was younger. Now it’s all implied. The way she holds a cup in his father’s presence, her tone of voice, how it changes when she talks to him. And his father, reads the news on his own. His eyes are watery, whenever they speak.
Now he knows, because they don’t shout anymore. They barely even speak, and when they do it’s her prim polite manner, his resigned half-smiles.
It isn’t his fault, but they stay together because of him. He knows it. All those times they called out his name, he was the only thing bonding them to each other.
And now.

The thought to turn, to do something, to face whatever killed Lorie and Ren, is hidden behind a picture of his parents, falling apart, and he can’t look at it like that.

The flight goes by in seconds, the Lorie marker steady behind him. He knows he’s been crying, but he can’t wipe away the tears.

Slows down for the Out. The margin will be tight, he knows. He’ll jump. Fly by.

Slows down, pulls his legs from the slots and the engine begins an automatic descent, but not fast enough. He leaps, clunks into the Out. Rolls, picks himself up, races to the ladder and up. He can see the other motex, lights blazing closer over the up-rooted land below.

Top of the ladder, breathing heavy, tight pain in his chest, broke a rib maybe. Holds his hand over the scan pad.
Red blink.
Access denied.
He shakes his head, holds up the other hand, before the pad.
Red blink
Access denied.
Tries to calm down, shakes his hand, holds it again slow before the pad.
Green blink.
Access granted.
The hatch hisses, starts to slide open, and right then he knows it’s not going to be fast enough.

Swivels to watch the motex approach, Lorie’s black suit standing up, tube outstretched. He grapples for his own, sways from the ladder, has to reach back so he won’t fall. Eyes are dry.

Tekalus: “Who the hell are you?”

His head set crackles to life.

“Just another hunter.”

The tube flares up, blue lights blossoming in its depths. Tekalus watches, caught doe-like in the glare, until his helmet smashes back into his brain.

His life signs drop out of the last visor remaining.

END

DARK FICTION

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