by Chesney Parker
I woke up suddenly; the panic of suffocation racing though my veins. It felt like a couple of hundred kilos of lead was pressing down on my whole body, for I could hardly move my arms and legs. Then I came to my senses and cursed the Captain for having the ship’s gravity turned up so high. I knew I’d get used to it later in the day, but it was definitely an unwelcome burden so early in the morning.
I heaved myself out of bed and slowly stood up, swaying dizzily as the blood drained from my head, then I looked at the upper bunk where my young nephew, Kim, was still sleeping. He’d have no such trouble when he awoke, of course; he’d lived most of his seventeen years on a much heavier planet than I had, so his body was well adapted to such stress. He’d also fare better than most of us when we reached our destination.
I wondered again about the wisdom of bringing him along on The Hunt. He really was too young, but he’d been so enthusiastically insistent, I had finally relented. My sister, Kim’s mother, would probably kill me if she ever found out; she thought he was going on a harmless camping holiday on a planet near her home. Instead of that, he was heading for a dangerous rendezvous far out beyond the known sectors of the galaxy. A rendezvous that would bring him into direct contact with some of the most dangerous and cunning animals in the whole universe.
I dragged myself heavily to the viewport, braced my thin arms against the curved rim and looked out at the unnamed planet that now filled the sky. Two days earlier, it had been but a small point of light, no larger than the millions of stars that filled the sky around it. But now the giant blue and white globe was so dominant, it almost seemed that ‘down’ was really straight out through the viewport, rather than towards the floor beneath my feet; this despite the heavy ship’s gravity that clawed at every cell in my body.
Kim stretched his arms, then sprang out of bed and joined me at the viewport, his bulky muscular frame rippling in the reflected sunlight. “Boy! That’s more like it. Now we can see the land and everything. How long will it take to find the game?”
“Probably have it spotted by lunch time; assuming the tip off the Captain got was accurate. If it was, we should be down on the surface by tonight.”
“Great! I’ll bet I get my first kill before midnight.”
“I’m afraid you’d lose that bet, young fella. We can’t land anywhere near the hunting grounds themselves. The game would see us and clear out. We usually have to travel overland for about six hours from the landing site. With any luck, you’ll get your first crack at it tomorrow morning. That is, if you can hold that monstrous blaster steady enough to shoot anything.”
“What do you mean? Of course I can! It’s only you weaklings from Transtar 5 that have to use those sissy little lasers.”
Kim ducked as I sluggishly tried to clip him behind ear with the back of my hand. I missed, of course, and Kim jumped into the shower recess and turned on the water to escape me, laughing all the while.
After breakfast, we sat in the cramped common room with the six other hunters, gazing through the large viewport and talking about other Hunts we’d been on. We all had stories to tell, except for Kim, of course, who listened to the exaggerated tales, while playing with his blaster. I noted the slight awkwardness with which he released the safety catch and hoped the lad would be quicker at pressing the impulse button when the time came to do so in earnest. With this type of hunting, there was always the risk that the game would retaliate if you didn’t get an accurate shot in first.
His blaster was unarmed, of course. All ammunition and power packs were safely stored away in the ship’s lock up. The Captain was not about to run even the slightest risk that one of his amateur hunters would blast a hole in the side of his beautiful ship.
I did not share the Captain’s view that his ship was ‘beautiful’; not when compared with the sleek modern design of other craft I’d been on. And it was so small. I kept banging into things every time I turned around. But, despite these drawbacks, his ship had one very redeeming quality; it was fast. It was probably one of the fastest, most manoeuvrable vessels in service today, except, maybe, for the latest military scout ships. But the government would never waste one of those just to chase illegal hunters, so the Captain was confident he could out run anything that came his way.
Kim was still having trouble with the safety catch on his blaster, so I reached over and tried to help. “You have to press and twist at the same time if…”
“I know. I know!” he said, wrenching his treasured weapon away. He continued to point the ugly black snout at various ‘targets’ around the room, repeatedly pressing the impulse button, but there was still a decided hesitation as he released the safety catch each time. I wondered if the mechanism was faulty, but decided not to pursue the matter for the moment; not while Kim was so petulant. I was a bit put out by his attitude, too. He should have been more appreciative. I had not only paid the exorbitant cost of the trip, but I also bought the blaster for him.
One of the other hunters leaned forward and said, “That’s a ridiculous weapon to bring on a hunt. There’ll be nothing left after you shoot something with that.”
“If I aim low, I can still take the head,” said Kim, thrusting his chin out at the other. “That’s all that counts, isn’t it.”
“Yeah. But what’re you going to do with it? Hang it on your nursery wall?” The others all laughed and Kim went red and began to stand up, flexing his powerful muscles, but I put a restraining hand on his shoulder and gently persuade him to sit down.
We landed that evening at a point which, as far as our prey was concerned, was well beyond the horizon. Then we climbed aboard a land skimmer and sailed silently along just above the tree tops. I gazed out the window at the dark tropical jungle through which we would soon be crawling. It was so thick, I could not see the ground at all most of the time.
We made temporary camp a few hours later and then, just before dawn, the Captain woke us and handed out quick rations, along with our supply of live ammunition and charge units. As we ate and loaded our weapons, he gave us details of the quarry we’d be stalking.
“Ok. Now listen good. The main group is just over the other side of that ridge there. Doesn’t look far, but it’s actually about five kilometres, so take it easy on the approach; you don’t want to arrive exhausted. We head straight up the hill from here. When we get to the top, I’ll create a diversion. That’ll get ’em coming out to investigate and you can pick ’em off one by one.”
“How are they equipped?” I asked, slipping a thin power pack into the handle of my favourite laser.
“I was coming to that. They’ve got weapons based on chemical explosives and metal projectiles, rather like the ones used on Earth way back in the twentieth century.” He laughed. “And they don’t even have any protection against their own weapons, far less anything we have to offer. Talk about primitive! We photographed them from space yesterday. But remember, those little metal slugs can make a mess if they catch you with your shields down, so turn ’em on as soon as we leave here and don’t switch ’em off again till we get back to the ship.”
I was feeling quite excited by this time. There’s nothing like the anticipation of a good hunt to get the adrenaline pumping, especially when you know the game can shoot back. It really is the ultimate thrill. There are laws against hunting primitive humanoids, of course, but we were so far away from any of the civilised sectors, it didn’t matter. And besides, they aren’t really human; not like you and me.
I secured the spare power packs in a small pouch strapped to the side of my leg, then helped Kim with his heavy back mounted charging kit. He staggered a little as I tried to do this because he was trying to connect his blaster into the unit at the same time. He just couldn’t wait to convert his weapon from an impotent piece of dead metal into a sleek and powerful killing machine. It would then be capable of delivering destruction in unbelievable quantities, just by the press of a button. He was so impatient, in fact, he forgot to turn his personal protection shield on when we moved out and I had to remind him.
“I know. I know!” he said, violently twisting the switch on the front of his imitation battle jacket. The almost invisible force field instantly sprang out, giving the familiar shimmer at the extremities of his body.
By contrast, as soon as the others had seen Kim plug his blaster into the power unit, they had immediately turned on their own shields, not trusting his youth and inexperience. Even so, such protection would be at the limits of its capability if it came to a direct hit at full power from Kim’s weapon, so most of them stayed behind him on the way up the hill. I stayed behind as well, but more from the effort of struggling against the high gravity, than through caution. Two other factors that hampered me were the air temperature and humidity, both of which were increasing rapidly as the sun rose.
On the way up, we had to pass through thick jungle undergrowth. The Captain, who was walking up front with Kim, used his laser to quietly slice a path through the vines and trees and more than once had to stop young Kim from using his noisy blaster for the same purpose. At the top of the ridge we all spread out and took positions from where we could get a good view of a large clearing about 100 metres away. When we were in position, the Captain took a small launcher from his back pack and fired a stun blaster high into the air. A few seconds later there was a deafening explosion away over to the left.
The nine of us lay prone on the soft damp ground, straining our ears and eyes for the first sign of movement. I was very glad to be lying down, for I was still panting rapidly from the exertion of the climb. After two or three minutes, we heard voices and, shortly after that, saw a humanoid in primitive jungle warfare clothing walk quickly through the undergrowth at the far side of the clearing. He was crouching low and holding a twentieth century style assault rifle in both hands.
Kim aimed his weapon and fumbled with the safety catch. “Hey, Uncle Ras, they really do look like us, don’t they.”
“Sure they do. Like I told you, there’s really only one human species in the galaxy. But these guys are primitives. They’re a thousand years behind the civilised races. Don’t fire yet, by the way. Wait till you get a good clear shot.”
“But they even have the same eyes as us.”
“Yeah, that’s right, but I’ve seen primitives with round eyes too.”
The man stopped behind some foliage on the other side of the clearing. All we could see were the leaves sticking out of the netting that covered his strange looking helmet. Then, while I was looking through my scope, trying to see if any others were following, I was startled by a nerve shattering buzz as Kim pressed the impulse button on his blaster. The bush, the man and about two dozen trees in the line of fire directly behind him, all exploded in a shattering roar as the atomic particles ripped mercilessly through everything in their path.
“Great suffering galaxies!” yelled the Captain in a hoarse whisper. “Can’t you learn to control that thing? You’ve got it set way too high. Your quarry’s been totally vaporised!”
“I know, I know!” said Kim, turning the control setting down from maximum.
The Captain shook his head. “Well, they know we’re here now, so The Hunt begins.” He rose to a crouched position and began working his way around to the right of the clearing, staying under cover as he went. The rest of us followed; Kim making far too much noise with his bulky load.
About ten minutes later, halfway down the slope, we were ambushed. One second there was the silence and stifling heat of the jungle, the next, the air was filled with little metal projectiles that spat at us in high speed repetition from several hidden positions behind the dense foliage. We instinctively ducked at first, flinching as the bullets pounded against our personal protection screens. Then, as we realised we were in no danger, we stood up and began firing indiscriminately into the trees and vines around us. A few minutes later the noise and the attack suddenly stopped. We scouted through the devastation in the immediate vicinity, but found no bodies, although we did find several man sized holes dug in the ground, each with a crude leafy cover.
“How’re we going to see anything to shoot if they come at us like that?” said Kim.
“Oh, we’ll get our chance,” I said. “They must have a camp nearby. That’s where the Captain’s taking us, I’d guess.”
“Great! Then I can really let loose with this thing, eh? I’ll bet I can level the whole place in five minutes!”
“You know, you’ve got a real destructive streak in you, young fella. Just check with me before you go wreaking any havoc in their camp. There may be some valuable artifacts we can claim. It’ll help pay for the trip.” I was now convinced that I should not have brought him along on The Hunt. He was far too juvenile.
I was up front with the Captain as we approached the primitives’ camp. Then, just as we rounded a corner, my world went up in a shattering eruption. I had stepped on an underground explosive device. My shield protected me from the blast itself, of course, but it did not prevent me from being tossed into the air. And when I came down, I twisted my ankle. On my home planet I could probably have carried on, but not in this excessive gravity environment. “You go on ahead,” I said to the Captain. “I’ll be alright. Just don’t forget to collect me when you head back to the ship, Ok?” I grimaced with pain and disappointment as Kim and another carried me off the pathway and into the undergrowth.
Kim’s parting words were, “Don’t worry Uncle, I’ll get one for you.” He had a look of grim determination on his young face as he tramped back through the vines to the pathway.
A little later, and with some difficulty, I managed to manoeuvre myself up the slope onto a small knoll from where I could see the camp a few hundred metres away. I couldn’t see the hunting party yet; they had to circle around to the side, staying under cover. All was quiet around the rough wooden huts inside the compound, so I sat and waited, cursing my luck. It was the first time I’d been injured on a hunt.
A few minutes later, as our eight man party approached the perimeter fence, I could see a brief flurry of activity on the opposite side of the camp, then all was quiet. It seemed we we’re in luck. Generally they’ve all scattered by this stage. These humanoids were not only primitive, they were stupid too.
I looked through my scope and saw the Captain talking to Kim and pointing at the large wooden gate. Kim then stepped forward with his blaster and five seconds later there were two very long and very deep holes where the gate posts had stood. The rest of the crude construction lay in fragments on the ground. Kim grinned back at The Captain, who ignored him as he strode across the debris, leading the party into the camp.
As they were moving cautiously across the open compound, several bursts of bullets assailed them from one of the huts. They fired back at the flimsy dwelling, destroying it completely, but as they ran across the open ground to collect their kills, I saw three humanoids, apparently unharmed, climb out from beneath the wreckage and run for cover behind the next group of buildings. And there were no bodies to claim when my colleagues checked through the wreckage, which seemed rather puzzling. Nothing should have been able to survive their high tech onslaught.
Eventually they were right in the centre of the village, walking across a narrow bridge made of vines and wooden slats. It spanned a small creek about 50 metres wide. All was quiet and I began to wonder if the primitives had escaped after all. But when the hunters were halfway across the bridge, I heard a rumbling noise. Then, to my utter dismay, I saw a modern land assault vehicle move out from beneath a large clump of foliage. It turned the corner behind them, its high powered atomic blaster pointing directly at their backs. They swung round, took one startled look, then began running in the opposite direction, only to be confronted by a similar protagonist which was just emerging from the jungle at the other end of the bridge.
Then, to my continued astonishment, a voice boomed out at them from one of the vehicles, using Galactic Standard language. I could hear it clearly from where I sat. “Stand where you are! Drop your weapons and remove your shields.” I stared in disbelief. How could primitives get such weapons, and how did they know our language?
Then I saw Kim raise his blaster and fire at the second vehicle. As he did so, I saw the Captain lunge at him, trying to knock the weapon from his hands, but it was too late. The blast from Kim’s gun dissipated harmlessly as it struck the vehicle’s military strength protection shield and, a moment later, both vehicles fired their weapons. All eight men were instantly disintegrated, their personal shields proving no match for the military blasters. When the smoke cleared, the bridge was dangling by its ropes from both sides and there was no sign of any of the hunting party.
I was horrified and dumfounded by what I had just seen and sat up higher to get a better look. As I did so, I came face to face with the muzzle of another military blaster, pointing at me from a clearing just below my position. Ten minutes later I was being carried into a lock up in the centre of the camp.
So here I am, lying on the damp floor, waiting to die. My stomach is churning and my head is spinning. I feel totally numb and utterly confused.
In another part of the camp, a soldier in twentieth century jungle fatigues saluted his superior. “The one remaining prisoner has been secured, sir. He’s given us the names of the rest of the party, so we can complete the report for Galactic Central. They were hunters, as you suspected, Sir. We’ve taken control of their ship and it’s being brought in under escort by one of the scouts.”
“Good. Now maybe we can get back to our re enactment of that long forgotten battle. Send a signal to the Blue Squadron. We re start at ten hundred hours.” The officer gazed out the window for a few seconds. “It’s a pity about poor Ling. But at least he was the only casualty.”
“Yes sir. But as you said before sir, going off alone like that, before activiating his shield, just wasn’t following procedure. Not by today’s standards; not even by the standards of the Glorious Viet Kong he was supposed to be imitating.”