Hunted - After EarthPeter David
BY PETER DAVID
Fable: The Balverine Order
Fable: Blood Ties
Fable: Jack of Blades
Fable: Edge of the World
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The Incredible Hulk
The Camelot Papers
Tigerheart: A Tale of the Anyplace
One Knight Only
Fall of Knight
The Hidden Earth Chronicles
Book 1: Darkness of the Light
Book 2: Heights of the Depths
Sir Apropos of Nothing
Book 1: Sir Apropos of Nothing
Book 2: The Woad to Wuin
Book 3: Tong Lashing
Blind Man’s Bluff (Star Trek: The New Frontier)
Year of the Black Rainbow (with Claudio Sanchez)
The Fallen Angel
Gypsies, Vamps and Thieves Book 4: Pyramid Schemes (forthcoming)
After Earth: Ghost Stories: Hunted is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
2012 Del Rey eBook Original
Copyright © 2012 by After Earth Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of The Random House
Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
DEL REY is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Cover illustration: Stephen Youll
Other Books by This Author
The Earth is a distant memory, abandoned by humanity during a time of ecological catastrophe millennia ago. Humankind’s descendants found a new home on a world they named Nova Prime. There they thrived and grew, until the arrival of an aggressive alien species humans dubbed the Skrel, who attacked the survivors relentlessly for years. But humankind fought back with unfailing determination, led by the valiant United Ranger Corps, and resisted the Skrel’s best attempts to wipe them out. The war persisted off and on over centuries, and then the Skrel genetically engineered a weapon of mass destruction—one that would test Ranger determination and resourcefulness like no other.
The Ursa lunged, its mouth wide and slavering, letting out a deafening roar designed to paralyze its prey upon attack.
On first sight, it seemed to be nothing but mouth. Its gaping maw could easily have swallowed Daniel Silver whole. If chewing was required, that wouldn’t be an issue, since its mouth was crammed with massive fangs. It propelled itself forward on twisted, muscular legs, its talons providing it traction on any terrain.
It was the most formidable, devastating predator on the whole of Nova Prime, and it was bearing down on Daniel with the speed and force of a hurricane.
Without hesitation and unfazed by the creature’s speed, Daniel brought his pulser to bear. He was in a partial crouch in order to gain greater steadiness, and he held the pulser in a firm, double-handed grip. His eyes narrowed slightly and he fired off half a dozen quick shots. The Ursa attempted to dodge them, but Daniel adjusted without even thinking about it, each blast hitting home with unerring accuracy.
The Ursa flipped over onto its back. Its legs trembled violently as it let out an ululating howl of agony, and then with one final wail, a death rattle sounded in the creature’s throat.
Suddenly the Ursa began to flicker. A faint buzzing noise accompanied the flickering.
And the monster disappeared.
Daniel twirled the pulser a few times before sliding it into the holster on his hip. There were a few appreciative whistles and a smattering of applause, and Daniel bowed in response.
There were many sharpshooting ranges throughout the city. It was a leftover from the more militaristic days of Nova Prime, when everyone was expected to be proficient in small-arms fire. Recent generations had come to rely more heavily on the Rangers, whose training had become more refined and Ursa-centric, thus allowing the balance of the population to pursue less violent vocations. Nevertheless, weapons practice was ingrained into the mentality of the Novans; you couldn’t be too prepared for an Ursa incursion, after all, and even the Rangers couldn’t be everywhere. The range where Daniel preferred to practice was one of the smaller ones in Nova Prime City, but its technology was absolutely state-of-the-art. Like many of the larger ranges, it carried a sizable selection of holographic targets for users to choose from, but there was no denying that the most popular of them all was the Ursa.
Daniel and the other shooters were standing behind a counter that ran the length of the gallery. The holographic targets were on the other side and would snap into existence at random moments, charging at equally random times from different directions. Glowing numbers at the far end of the range displayed each shooter’s success rate, and Daniel’s was the only one at 100 percent.
Daniel was over six feet tall, so long and lean that his teen years had been hellish. He’d been constantly tripping over his own feet until his body finally got itself sorted out. Now in his early twenties, he had brown hair so long and shaggy that he sometimes tied it back to keep it out of his eyes. He was all wiry muscle that seemed to develop naturally without his doing the slightest thing in the way of working out. His most charming asset was his ready smile, which he flashed now at the others who were complimenting him on his accuracy.
“You are incredible, Danny,” one of them said. “No Ursa stands a chance with you.”
“I know, I know. It’s a gift. What can I say?”
“You can say it doesn’t mean a thing.”
It was Tucker who had spoken. Tucker, the guy who owned the place. Short, squat, and barrel-chested, he walked slowly toward his customers. He had no choice in the speed of his gait; his right leg was artificial, causing him to lurch sideways. “Sure,” he continued, “you can pat yourself on the back and talk about how great you are and take all the bows you want. But all the pulser blasts in the world won’t slow down an Ursa. Not in real life. I know because years ago, I was as stupid as any of you, and when I ran into one of those things I figured I could handle it. And I was damned lucky that it only got my leg, because I wouldn’t have lasted more than another second at most. And if the Rangers hadn’t shown up just before that second, there’d be no one standing here to tell you idiots that you shouldn’t get too damned cocky. Fun and games are fine, but this”—he gestured around the shooting range—“that’s all this is. So don’t any of you get any fool notions in your head about taking on one of these in real life just because you can pop a few good shots in its head in the comfort and safety of a shooting range. Because you know nothing about nothing. Understood?”
Heads bobbed in response and there were mutters of “Yes, sir.”
Daniel’s smile didn’t come quite so readily as he put the pulser down, feeling an unaccustomed sense of chagrin. But he quickly brushed it aside. Daniel had never been much for allowing him
self to be brought down, or at least not for long. It just wasn’t in his nature.
So his smile quickly returned, and that seemed to annoy the hell out of Tucker. “Did you hear anything I said, Danny? Does anything matter to you?”
And the smile broadened even more. “Ohhh, yeah. One thing. And that’s more than enough. In fact … I feel like I have to tell someone. So I’m telling you, Tuck …”
“Me? And to what do I owe this honor?”
“Because you’re the closest thing I have to a friend. So here it is: I’m proposing to Ronna.”
Tucker put out a hand and shook Daniel’s firmly. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Who the hell is Ronna?”
“I’ve told you about her. You must’ve forgotten …”
“I don’t forget a thing, Danny. You’ve never mentioned a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. I just figured you were, what do you call it … a hermoglodyte.”
“I have no freaking clue what that is.”
“It’s someone who doesn’t care about either sex.”
“Kind of doubt that, but in any event, that’s not me.” He paused, his eyebrows knitting. “Did I really never tell you about her?”
“Not a word.”
Daniel thought about it and then smiled again. “Well … maybe I just kind of liked keeping her to myself. Plus, you know, I tell you about her and then you’re always asking how she is, and it becomes a thing.”
“A whole thing, yeah. And time goes by and you’re asking me how we’re doing, and if we’re talking about getting married, and all that stuff.”
Tucker stared at him. “Daniel … out of curiosity, in your own mind, just how much time do you think I spend giving a damn about your personal life?”
“Try definitely none. Propose, don’t propose. I absolutely could not care less.”
“That’s good to know, Tuck,” said Daniel, and he strode out with that typical sway of his. Tucker watched him go and then shook his head.
“It’ll never last.”
The city was finally shaking off a lengthy heat wave, and consequently a welcome breeze was wafting through and taking much of the humidity with it. The smart fabric that composed the curved walls of the apartment was allowing the evening breeze to flow through it while keeping out the humidity. The apartment itself was sparsely furnished, the living room decorated with simple, curved chairs and a round table in the kitchen area. Daniel was looking in the other direction, gazing out through a window at the glowing residences of Nova Prime City that studded the landscape, a glittering testament to the resilience of humanity.
Across the room, Ronna was sitting at the table, picking at the remains of the dinner she’d prepared. She was quiet this evening, which was rather unusual for her. Normally, she was the chattiest person Daniel had ever known.
Finally, she broke the silence. Sounding as indifferent as someone could when they were relaying information, she said, “Someone called and left a message for you.”
“Oh, yes? Who?”
“A guy named Ryerson.”
Daniel thought about it a moment. He wasn’t familiar with anyone named Ryerson. Except …
“Not Sigmund Ryerson.”
“That’s it. You know him?”
“I know of him. He’s some well-to-do eccentric guy. Why would he be calling me?”
“He said he heard you were one of the best trackers in the city. He wants to go on an expedition.”
She looked at him levelly. “He said he wants to track down and kill an Ursa. Be the oldest non-Ranger on record to kill an Ursa.”
Daniel was having trouble believing what she was saying. “Go out of his way to push his luck with an Ursa? That’s nuts.”
“You did say eccentric. Besides, you’re a good shot.”
“Yeah, but it’s like what Tucker was saying earlier today: Blowing apart an Ursa in the privacy of a shooting gallery is one thing. Going in and maybe getting yourself killed … who needs that?”
“Okay, well, I told you that he contacted you, or tried to. The rest is up to you.”
“That’s fine, but I really don’t have any plans to get myself killed, so …” He shrugged.
She returned to picking at the remains of her food as if the preceding discussion had never happened.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Every day that he was with her was a blessing.
“I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have you in my life,” he said, giving voice to his thoughts.
Ronna smiled, but it looked strained. She patted the table across from her. “Could you sit down, Daniel?”
“Sure can. My knees bend and everything.” He did so eagerly, sitting with his fingers interlaced. “Actually, there’s something I want to talk to you about. I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship.”
“Yeah. Do you ever think about the night we met? At the bar?”
“There was that guy who was bothering you, and I was the bouncer and told him to knock it off. And he beat the crap out of me, which got me fired, and then you took me back here to take care of me …”
“Yes, Daniel, yes,” she said with vague impatience. “I remember. I was there. Is there a point to this?”
“The point is that even if it hadn’t been my job, I’d still have jumped in to help you.”
“That’s …” She closed her eyes for a moment, looking pained. “That’s nice to know.” He should have noticed it, should have realized that her mind was in a totally different place from his. But he didn’t.
“But here’s the thing …”
“There’s a thing?”
“You’re not happy.”
She actually seemed surprised to hear him say it. “You know?”
“Sure I know. And I know why. It’s because I haven’t been willing to commit to you. And it’s crazy of me not to, because you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“No, I’m not,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “I’m really not.”
“Yes, you are.” He slid the chair back, came around the table, and, to her confusion, dropped to one knee. He took her hand and, with as much reverence as he could muster, said, “I can’t afford a ring right now, but listen to me …”
“Ronna, for as long as I’ve—”
“Daniel, I need you to leave.”
He remained exactly where he was, his brain trying to wrap itself around what she had just said. He didn’t let go of her hand initially. “You mean … you need me to go out and pick up something for you? Because if that’s it then, sweetie, you know … not the best time because I was kind of in the middle of something here. So if you could just wait—”
“This can’t wait, and I know what you’re in the middle of. And yes, you’re right, I’ve been unhappy, but it’s not why you think.” She’d tried to pull her hand away moments earlier but hadn’t managed it. This time she did so with much greater force and freed her hand. He didn’t lower his; instead it just remained there in the air, as if he was trying to grasp something that wasn’t there.
“Daniel, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and we need to stop seeing each other.”
He still hadn’t fully processed it. “For how long?”
“For good. I need you to move out.”
“But why? I mean, I knew you were distant … I knew you were unhappy … but I figured you were waiting for me to propose or something!”
“If that’s what I was waiting for, I would have been dropping hints. I haven’t been doing that.”
“Okay, but … you haven’t been dropping hints about anything. How was I supposed to know—?”
“You weren’t. It’s not
you, Daniel. I swear it’s not you. It’s me.”
“I’m not stupid, Ronna. Saying it’s you is really code for saying it’s me.”
“Daniel, listen: You’re nice. You’re sweet …”
“Both good reasons to dump me.”
“… but you have no direction! I mean, God, you can’t even stick with a hobby!”
He was about to protest that characterization, but in looking around the apartment, he realized he couldn’t. There was the half-finished sculpture of Ronna, thick with dust, from the time he was going to be an artist. Also dusty was the violin in the corner, a reminder of his broken resolve to become a musician. These and a dozen or so other unfinished, abortive projects that he’d never seen to fruition.
He gestured helplessly. “To hell with the hobbies. I want to stick with you!”
“So that I can keep enabling you! So I can keep making you feel better about going nowhere. You keep telling me how your parents said that you had no direction, no plan for your life.”
“Right! And you said they were being needlessly cruel.”
“No. They were trying to help. I see that now.”
“Ronna,” he said in frustration, “I can change—”
“Don’t start, Daniel, because we both know you can’t. Or won’t. We’ve had variations of this conversation at least three times in the past year alone, and you nod and smile and say you’ll change, and you never do. And you’ve managed to convince me that you never can.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is there someone else? Are you dumping me for someone else?”
“No. But what I’m convinced of, Daniel, is that there’s someone else out there for me that I won’t have to push into making something of himself, because he’ll have the drive to do it on his own.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’re always going to mean a great deal to me, Daniel, but I can’t be your support system anymore. It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to me. You can send for your stuff once you’ve settled wherever you’re going to be, but I need you to leave. Now.”
His mouth moved and finally words managed to catch up. Barely above a whisper, he said, “I … I can’t believe you hate me this much …”