Friday, December 8, 2017

We Hunt Together: A Hominum Futurus Chronicle By Kevin Stadt

Oren, member of a new species of humanity specially adapted to live on an icy world, must hunt a Leviathan or his family will starve; by Kevin Stadt.

It hurt Oren even to breathe. He had three cracked ribs, a sprained ankle and stitches everywhere from last week's Owa'Unar hunt. As he gingerly packed his dogsled, a wave of dizziness hit him and he paused to rest. Oren leaned against the sled's frame and took in his surroundings.

To remind himself what was at stake.

Impossibly giant trees filled the forest in every direction, their bark colored in palettes of slate and indigo, their turning leaves gold and magenta. Trees so tall you couldn't see the tops with the naked eye, so thick people carved rooms into them for times when the winter got too cold to stay in the shelters built in their lower branches. Two of the young girls ran between the trunks, yelling and shrieking laughter with a half-dozen pups trailing. Kiel, his son, walked from one dog shelter to the next, dropping meat soaked with fat into bowls and taking a knee with each one to speak to them and stroke their grey fur. Oren noted how thick his son's beard had become this year, how broad his shoulders had grown.

Only Homo Hibernus could live on Arboros. Pure sapiens couldn't survive long in the cold, harsh conditions of the wintery forest planet. Just as the other varieties of human species had been designed to colonize specific environments as people spread throughout the universe, Homo Hibernus was engineered for Arboros. With their short limbs, round bodies, thick subcutaneous fat and accelerated metabolism, only they had a chance of surviving the beautiful yet unforgiving planet on the farthest edge of colonized systems.

Oren felt Soma watching. He turned to see her waddling toward him through the snow with a hide wrapped around her, the dark skin and almond eyes of her beautiful face set in a mask of worry.

He sighed. "Don't even say it. I know."

"Yet you're packing your sled for a hunt." Soma spoke with the slow cadence of someone who didn't live under the shadow of clocks.

"We're not going to make it through winter if I don't get an Owa'Unar."

"You're injured. How will you kill a Great One if you can't even pack your sled?"

He stepped close and put a hand on her belly. "This little guy needs food. It's my job to provide it." Oren felt the child kick and he smiled despite his pain.

"You are a good provider. A wonderful husband and father. It's true that we need meat for this winter, but we need you alive for the next sixty winters even more."

"The window is closing. The last of them will be crossing the northern land bridge in the next few days. This is the last chance." The Owa'Unar spent most of their lives in the vast lakes of Arboros. A full-grown bull could reach up to ten tons, with a long, whip-like tail that counterbalanced its elongated neck. The creature's body had four flippers that it could use to traverse short distances, such as when they crossed over land bridges to reach warmer waters farther south.

People on Arboros relied on the meat, fat, hide and oil from these animals to survive the winter. Failing to bring one down was not an option for a family of six, especially with a seventh on the way.

"Take Kiel, please. He's a good hunter."

Oren felt his face get hot and he spoke louder than he meant to. "How can you ask me to do that?"

"He's the best shot in the whole -"

"No. Absolutely not."

"I have known the same loss you have. I have the same memories and fears. But Kiel is becoming a man now. You can't keep him in a bubble and protect him forever. Will you go with him next season when he enlists?"

"Listen to me. He is not going to enlist."

"I understand your heartmind. No one in the universe understands like I do. But he'll be of age. Trying to forbid him from fighting the Chaku won't stop him. It will only send him to war with bad blood between the two of you."

He turned away and huffed off the fastest he could with his limp, gritting his teeth. How could she talk about their son risking his life on an Owa'Unar hunt, much less going off to war?

While his mind planned what he'd say to her when he returned, his feet carried him to the Cuv'aun tree at the northern edge of their property. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the rough orange bark.

"Tyr. How are you?" He paused and listened to the wind blow through the branches and what was left of the dry, purple leaves.

"Bless my hunt, son," Oren said. "Your brother and sisters have empty bellies. Your mother needs meat and fat for the winter. To make milk for your new brother, who's coming soon."

Oren sat down carefully on a rock facing the tree. "Kiel wants to come hunt the Leviathan with me. Worse yet, he somehow got it in his head that he wants to go fight in the war. Please, whisper in his ear. Tell him not to go."

He removed his thick fur hat and ran his fingers through his hair. His body ached everywhere, the pain of each breath punctuating his conviction that the Owa'Unar hunt was no place for Kiel. Oren tilted his face up and watched fat snowflakes fall, feeling them as they landed on his nose and forehead.

"Homo Hibernus came here to live simply, in harmony with nature. Free from the shackles of the other humans. The mindless entertainment that distracts them from how unhappy they are. The jobs that leave no time to slow down. The contaminated environments and poisoned food. The unnatural noise and artificial light and implants and augmentations." He noticed his words speeding up and he took a long, slow breath.

"We colonized Arboros because it promised freedom from the Homo Sapiens, Homo Apparutus and the others, the babble and clatter of their worlds. Now my own son wants to leave the peace and beauty of the forest to fight their war."

He let his head hang. "I'm sorry, Tyr. I'm sorry I didn't protect you better. I failed you as horribly as a father can possibly fail a son." Oren rose with stabbing pains in his ankle and ribs, then put his hand to the bark once more. "But I promise I won't make the same mistake again."

Oren returned to find Kiel practicing with his atlatl. He'd set up the target on a snow drift, a red circle about a foot in diameter representing the small area at the base of an Owa'Unar's neck. You had to sneak up behind the beast without him noticing you, get close enough to launch the spear perfectly into the sweet spot that would drop the behemoth, all while staying far enough away that the creature's tail wouldn't pummel you. To other hominum species, this kind of risk for food seemed insane. But on Arboros, people strove to live as close as possible to the ancient condition of humans, facing nature on nature's terms and with a minimum of technology.

Kiel loaded the spear into the atlatl he'd carved himself, reared back, took aim and released in a graceful motion. It hit the center of the target with an audible "thwack."

Oren felt a swirl of emotions at war in his gut - pride, fear, regret.

Kiel noticed Oren's arrival and wordlessly helped him harness the dogs to the sled. All three daughters played in the snow, constructing an elaborate igloo with multiple rooms and secret passages. Soma prepared dinner for the family, but took a moment to come out on the balcony of their kitchen up in the branches of an ancient and enormous tree. She waved and shouted for him to be careful.

After all was ready, Kiel stood between Oren and the sled. The two men silently eyed each other for a moment, and Oren knew Kiel was searching for the right words to argue with.

"Dad, please."

"No, Kiel."

The young man exhaled sharply and frustration clouded his face. "How do you expect me to stay here while you stalk a Colossus? You shouldn't be going at all, much less alone. Let me do it. Or at least let me come with you."

Oren stepped closer to his boy and put an arm around his shoulder. "Ah, son. Don't think for a second that I don't know you're becoming a man. It's not that I think you can't hunt. It's just..." He dropped his head and shook it. "It's just that my job is to protect you. Many have died hunting a Great One."

"I know. Dad, look at me." Kiel locked his gaze with Oren's. "I am not Tyr."

"But if something happened to you -"

"The life of bone and blood, this life we chose, is not always perfectly safe. But at least it's real. Let me live it."

Oren watched his daughters throw snowballs at each other.

"You're only seventeen."

"I'll be eighteen in three months. How old were you when you hunted the Leviathan?"

Oren fell silent. The whole family knew that Oren killed his first Great One at fifteen, as often as he'd bragged about it.

Yet he left alone, accompanied only by his dogs, his weapon and his worry.

The dogs pulled him along a well-worn trail to the lakes, through the forest of towering trees that had already lost most of their leaves for the winter. When they emerged from the woods, the majestic Ru'Duar Mountains lay beyond the twin lakes. The view of the orange sky, snow-capped peaks and vast waters would make a city dweller from Earth or Notrinus weep. Even though he lived here his whole life, normally Oren took the time to stop and let the wonder of it wash over him.

But today his mind had contracted into a tight knot. He barely glanced at the landscape. He gave each of the dogs dried fish and took his atlatl and spear from the sled. Limping, Oren made his way to a favorite spot where he could sit, hidden behind boulders, and wait to see if any Colossus crossed the land bridge between the northern and southern lakes.

He sat on the icy ground, his back against a frozen stone, weapon on his lap.

The reddish sun shone on his face, but with little warmth. He imagined the coming winter without an Owa'Unar. Such a winter had happened once in his memory, when he was a child. Though he was only eight, the experience branded itself in his mind. Hunger like he'd never known before or since. Cold he couldn't get rid of, no matter how many skins he buried himself under or how close he sat to a fire. The faces of his parents, brothers and sister growing gaunter week by week. They'd only barely survived with meager rations of dried fish and root vegetables, plus humiliating donations his mother begged from neighbors.

Winter on Arboros did not pity or forgive. Not even for Homo Hibernus.

He waited. Watched.

Hours passed and then more hours. No Great One.

Even worse, he'd seen no smaller game the whole day, either. Many creatures had gone to den for hibernation, while others had already passed through on their migration.

Eventually, as the sun dipped lower and his beard froze into a mask of ice, he pictured the scene of returning to camp with no food for his wife and children. And less than an hour later, it played out just as he'd imagined it - their excitement as they spotted his arrival from a distance, them craning their necks to see if his sled bore any trophy, and worst of all them assuring him it was okay that he'd failed and that he'd get one next time.

The next day he went to the same place and waited. He sat frozen to the spot, watching the northern lake's surface for three bumps in the water, the sign of a Leviathan's head, back and tail emerging as it neared the shore. But so late in the migration window he had to face the reality that all the Owa'Unar had likely already crossed. His mind spun, conjuring desperate means for feeding his family. They could make it a while on their dried fish, roots and vegetables, but that wouldn't be anywhere near enough. They could hunt and trap smaller animals, but such game were scarce and hunting proved dangerous in the deep winters on Arboros.

Oren heard rustling and the crunching of icy snow. At the edge of the woods, a Raz'Orq bull emerged, sniffed the air and approached the water. Six or seven feet tall at the shoulder, the bull resembled an Earth moose, except for its thicker fur and different horn structure. Rather than horns on both sides of the top of the head, the Raz'Orq bull had one three foot long black horn bifurcated into two sharp points at the end.

As the creature lowered its head to drink, Oren soundlessly got into a crouch and readied his atlatl. Wasting no time, his heart thudding in his ears, he stood and threw the spear as hard as he could.

The pain in his ribs almost overloaded his nervous system and forced him to fall to one knee. He gritted his teeth and dropped the weapon, his vision momentarily blurring.

He felt the ground shake and heard thunderous galloping. For the briefest moment his mind debated whether to run or lay flat on the ground.

Oren looked up to see the bull closing the distance, the spear sticking out of its hindquarters, its eyes red with rage, its head down for a horn strike.

Just as he tried to move out of the way, he felt the creature's horn slam into his chest and catch him under the arm. Suddenly he spun through the air, the ground wheeling in a circle around him.

He landed a dozen feet away in a snow drift, head first. Despite the pain and dizziness, he instantly stood and pulled a knife from his belt. But the creature apparently felt he'd made his point and already stomped back into the woods.

Reeling, Oren touched his throbbing head and felt a deep gash. His hand came down bloodied and his right eye was already swelling shut. The world grew dark at the edges as his vision narrowed.

To pass out alone here could easily mean death, either from cold or from hungry predators.

He ran to his dog sled, losing his step and falling several times along the way. Most people out in the bush kept a flare gun easily accessible on their sled, and Oren's rested in a pocket between the handles.

As he pulled it out and pointed it in the air, his vision tightened into a narrow tunnel and he had the vague sense that he'd fallen to the ground.

Consciousness slipped away from him, and he wondered whether his finger had pulled the trigger or not.



Oren felt warmth surrounding him. He cracked an eye open and saw firelight flickering on the ceiling of a cabin.

A grizzled voice spoke. "You out there hunting all by yourself?"

Oren turned toward it. "Henry." He grimaced and sat up. The old man smoked a pipe and fed wood to the fireplace. He had a wild mane of snow-white hair, a long gray beard and simple skin clothing. "Well, old-timer. Guess you saved my life. Thank you."

Henry smiled and blew smoke. "Happy to help. But tell me why someone in as rough a shape as you was out hunting alone."

Oren looked at his feet. "Just trying to get an Owa'Unar."

"I see. No Great One yet this season?"

"No. Almost bagged one, but he got the best of me. Banged me up pretty good."

"How big is your family these days?"

"Six of us already, and the wife's eight months pregnant."

Henry's expression grew serious. He puffed on the pipe, sat on a simple wooden chair and crossed his legs. "You have other food stores enough to get through?"

Oren shifted his weight to the edge of the cot. "Yeah, sure. Of course. We'll be fine."

The old man regarded him for a long moment. "You got an older boy, don't you? What's his name?"

"Kiel."

"Kiel. Why wasn't Kiel with you? Doesn't do for an injured man to take down a Great One by himself."

Oren stood shakily. "Thank you, Henry. Much obliged. But my family will worry. I should get back."

"How about you let your son take a crack at it tomorrow, and I could help. Who knows? We might catch a straggler trying to cross."

"No, thank you. I can handle it."

Henry rose and stepped closer. "I knew your father. Was a good man. Helped me on many a hunt in my younger days." He blew a ring and watched it hang in the air. "Homo Hibernus are a peculiar bunch, don't you find?"

"How do you mean?"

"Living out here, isolated. So far from all the other human species and systems. And spread so thin on this frozen world."

"I guess so."

"There's a stark beauty to our culture. I absolutely love it. The harmony with nature. The quiet. The simplicity."

Oren nodded, then Henry pointed his pipe at him. "But there's a darker side to it. A sense of superiority over the other hominum species. A stubbornness that borders stupidity. A lonely lack of community."

Both men stared into the fire for some moments and Henry's words echoed in Oren's brain.

"I know what happened to your first son. That kind of thing can change a man. Just let an old-timer give you a little advice. The life of bone and blood is hard. No doubt about it. Dangerous. But I believe it's also the most beautiful life to be had in any hominum system."

Oren found himself staring blankly at the dancing flames.

"This kind of life demands a price. We're not augmented and protected and hiding behind machines. We're not watching life on a display here. We're living it." Henry leaned closer and poked his pipe's mouthpiece into Oren's shoulder. "So let your son live it. Otherwise he might as well go live on Earth or Notrinus."

Oren contemplated the words as the fire popped and crackled. "Thanks, Henry." He shook the old man's hand.

Henry blew another smoke ring, this one huge and thick. "Just remember. None of us has to do it alone. None of us even could."



The next day, Oren and Kiel sat behind the boulders near the land bridge, watching and waiting. If he were honest with himself, Oren let Kiel come because he didn't really believe any more Great Ones would cross this season. He could bring his son for the hunt and get credit for doing so without actually risking anything. As they eyed the lake's surface, their atlatl on their laps, Oren replayed the old-timer's words in his mind.

"Kiel, why do you want to go fight?"

The boy kept staring at the water. "You don't watch the feeds. You have no idea what's going on out there."

He had to admit that much was true. Oren avoided news, especially from the other humans' worlds. In his mind, it was never anything happy or useful, never anything except ugly noise.

"Well. You're right. But I can guess. Violence, horror and death. Am I right?"

Kiel wore the expression of someone who'd just tasted something rotten. "How can you talk like that? Just because it's far away doesn't mean it's not real. Billions of people are dying. The Chaku took Earth!" Kiel clenched a fist in the air between them. "Earth! Don't you care?"

"It's not that I don't care. I just don't want to send my son to die. This is why our kind came here. To be disentangled from their nonsense."

"You don't get it. The Chaku didn't just invade one or two planets, and they didn't come to steal technology or resources. They feed on people, Dad. And their favorite way to eat us is while we're alive and screaming. How can you just go about your day like that's not happening?"

"It's terrible. Absolutely. But they won't come here."

"You're kidding yourself. They've already attacked dozens of human worlds. The Chaku are ravenous. They'll never stop unless we stop them. Better to fight them out there, away from our home. Better to fight alongside the other humans. If the Chaku beat the humans out there, and then come here, we'll be fighting alone."

Oren didn't know what to say. The image of the Chaku invading Arboros rightly terrified him. Especially in a scenario where the other hominum species wouldn't be coming to help. He was about to admit that his son made some valid points when several dark bumps broke the northern lake's surface.

He grabbed his son's fur coat and pointed at the water.

They watched it slowly work its way closer, emerging slightly higher with each pull forward. The enormous, grayish-green beast's neck stretched twenty-five feet from its giant, barrel-like body. An equally long tail balanced out the weight of the creature's neck, a tail that could be whipped with such force as to break bones and send a grown Homo Hibernus flying. As Oren had learned firsthand.

They crouched and snuck along the boulders to a point that seemed within range of where the Leviathan would cross the narrow land bridge. As the huge animal reached the shore, its forward progress slowed to a crawl. Its four flippers were gargantuan and powerful, and they could propel the predator with amazing speed and agility under the water, but on land they could only scoot the creature forward inches at a time.

With excitement lighting up his face, Kiel set the end of his spear into the notch of his atlatl. Oren raised his hand to stop him.

"Kiel, I'll take the shot."

Kiel's face twisted into a mask of teenage exasperation. "You're kidding me."

"That thing can kill you."

"It's more likely to kill you, and you know it."

He knew the boy had a point. But the scene of Tyr all those years ago flashed in his mind. Tyr missing the sweet spot, hitting the Great One in the back, the giant snapping its tail into his son's young body.

Tyr didn't die right away. It took two days. Almost fifty hours of him suffering, screaming, going in and out of consciousness. He and Soma watched their firstborn child die and couldn't do a thing about it.

Never again.

"Stay here and hide behind the rocks. Do as I say."

Kiel's eyes burned into Oren's. But he obeyed.

Oren crouched and stepped forward as quietly as he could, placing his spear in the notch of the atlatl. The Great One was huge, a fully-grown bull. He knew he was dangerously close. If he missed and angered the beast, he was well within striking distance of its tail.

But he knew he'd never make the shot from further away in his condition. As he reared his hand back he immediately regretted it, the pain in his side almost blinding him. Even as his atlatl catapulted the spear, he thought the shot would be off-target.

He was right. It whizzed through the frigid air and landed far short of the sweet spot, burying itself in the Leviathan's back. The creature bellowed a furious bass tone that vibrated the ground under Oren's feet and the heart in his chest. It swung its head, so tiny at the end of that protracted neck, and locked its black, beady eyes squarely on Oren.

With a wall of boulders behind him, he ran the best he could on his bad ankle. The Owa'Unar lifted its great tail and slammed it down just in front of Oren, blocking him. Oren tried to go the other way, but the creature did the same on the other side.

Oren was trapped. The Leviathan raised its tail to strike. Oren's body clenched and a thought shot through his mind. So this is it. This is how it all ends. Just like Tyr.

Suddenly a loud pop rang in his ears. A flare went up from the edge of the forest on the other side of the southern lake, past the land bridge. Oren watched it rise for a second, then his eyes followed its trail of smoke down to the ground.

Henry. The old man waved his arms, hooted and jumped up and down.

It caught the creature's attention. The Colossus swung its head in that direction.

Oren realized that the old-timer was distracting the animal so Oren could take another shot. But the failure of his first throw drove home the reality he couldn't deny: he'd never make it. Kiel would have to do it.

He be began to shout for his son to take the shot, but Kiel was already launching his spear. Oren watched it sail over his head.

It struck home, perfectly in the middle of the sweet spot.

The beast didn't even make a noise. It simply collapsed with a shudder Oren felt through his boots. For a moment, all fell silent.

Oren turned to his son, their eyes wide and mouths hanging open. A giant smile spread over each man's face and they raised their fists in the air, shouting in victory.

The exertion made Oren double over in pain, yet his smile remained. Kiel ran over and they hugged each other, laughing out loud.

Oren patted his son on the back enthusiastically. "You did it, Kiel! I don't have the words to say how proud I am." He put his arm around Kiel's shoulder and squeezed him, laughter still bubbling from both of them.

Henry made his way over, stopping to examine the Great One. Kiel sprinted toward the creature, shouting thanks to Henry as he ran. Oren limped there as fast as his ankle would allow.

The beast was a mountain. Enough food, fat and oil for two families.

Oren beamed at the old-timer and shook his hand. "Thank you, Henry. Seems you saved my life twice in two days."

"Happy I could help. It's amazing what people can accomplish when they band together, isn't it?" The old man held Oren's gaze as if trying to drive the point home.

"Well. I guess so. Who would argue with that?" He turned to Kiel. "Take the sled back as fast as you can and tell your mother. Bring everyone and the tools so we can dress it and take it home before nightfall."

Kiel radiated a pride that Oren knew his son would remember for the rest of his life. The boy hugged him again, shook Henry's hand and then raced to the dogsled.

Henry sat on a rock and took out his pipe, stuffing and then lighting it. "I'll stay and help you dress this beast. It'll take some doing to get it all cut up. And I have my sled nearby. We can use that, too, to help get it back to your place."

Oren opened his mouth out of habit and was about to refuse the help, but he caught himself. "We could use another pair of hands. I appreciate it."

Henry smiled and nodded. "Good."



The next day Oren found himself in front of the Cuv'aun tree again, where they'd buried Tyr among the web of thick roots all those years ago. He touched the rough bark and whispered words of thanks.

Next to him, Kiel took off his glove and touched the tree, whispering his own secret words. Oren watched his son and was struck more than ever by how adult he looked. His little boy.

He realized that his son had become a man, whether he liked it or not.

They both put their gloves back on and watched the snow fall in silence for some moments before Oren finally spoke. "I'm sorry I was so overprotective. It's just that your brother -"

"It's okay, Dad. I get it."

"You're not a boy anymore. You don't need my permission to leave Arboros and help the other humans fight the Chaku." He locked eyes with his son and Kiel nodded.

"But know that I understand why you want to go fight. The idea of you putting yourself in danger - it kills me. But I think you're right. Maybe all the human species do need to stick together on this."

Tears welled in Kiel's eyes. "Thanks, Dad. Really."

"Just don't let them turn you into a cyborg. Come back to us whole. Come back to us."

Kiel stepped close and put his arms around his father. "I will. I promise. And maybe I'll even let you help me hunt when I get back."

4 comments:

  1. A rich story that evokes an entire culture, deeply affecting,
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. powerful story and images. rites of passage tale superbly told.
    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent story with effective world-building, character development and action.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The value of teamwork! 'Dressing' ten tons of Owa'Unar will be a task in itself. Inventing a completely new civilization with fresh values is a huge undertaking, and I think you've done really well to condense all that - as well as the father-son/s and father/'old timer' relationship - into 4k words!
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete