Hunted - After Earth, Page 2Peter David
“I don’t hate you, Daniel,” she said with a sigh. “I just feel sorry for you. Is that how you want to live? With someone who feels sorry for you?”
If it means not losing you? Yes. A million times yes.
But he didn’t say that. Instead all he said was, “I have nowhere to go.”
“I honestly hope, Daniel, that you find a path because … as much as I hate saying it … you’ve been going nowhere for a long time.”
Long after he walked out into the darkness of the streets of Nova Prime, those words were still ringing in his ears.
Sigmund Ryerson was seated in his office behind his expansive desk, studying requests for funding that had come through the Savant in the Science Guild. He liked science. He liked the discovery of things, and to see what humankind was capable of accomplishing if only given the opportunity to do so.
Then came a gentle knock upon his office door. He did not respond with words, but simply looked up curiously. His gray, owl-like eyebrows knit as he gazed at his assistant, Myers, with an unspoken question upon his face.
“A Daniel Silver to see you, sir.”
Ryerson frowned even more deeply and ran his hand along his smooth pate. “That name sounds familiar …”
“Your expedition, sir.”
“Oh, of course.” Ryerson snapped his fingers with impatience. “I swear, I’m going senile, Myers. Send him in, by all means.”
At which time the most bedraggled, devastated-looking individual Ryerson had ever had the misfortune to see walked through the door. He looked like he’d gone three rounds with death and come up the loser, but was too blind to realize it.
“Let me guess,” said Ryerson before Daniel could even get a word out. “Your girl dumped you?”
Daniel blinked in clear shock. “How did you—?”
“Know?” Ryerson chuckled, a deep, throaty laugh. “Son, when you’ve been around as long as I have, there’s not much you don’t know. Every expression, happy or sad, exultant or devastated, that I’ve ever seen in my life has—at some point—been on my face as well. That’s what you get for living longer than most of your peers. And the she-broke-my-heart look is one I know all too well. Back when I was a young man, Lord knows I saw that expression enough in the mirror. Trust me, when you get older, your priorities change. Sit down, sit down. Make yourself at home.”
Daniel slumped into the chair that had been indicated.
“I’m not going to insult your intelligence, son,” Ryerson went on, “and tell you that there’ll be another girl along, one who will appreciate you in a way that this other girl never did.”
“I don’t blame her for not appreciating me,” said Daniel in a hollow voice that would have been the envy of a spirit emerging from the grave. “I’m not worth appreciating.”
Ryerson shook his head and laughed once more. “Boy, she did a serious number on your head. And—correct me if I’m wrong—but I’m guessing that you’ve come to me because you want to do something about shaking that number out, am I right? Namely, coming along on my little trip.”
“How many on this excursion, anyway?”
“Seven men lined up. Some of the best sharpshooters on Nova Prime. And me makes eight. Now, I’ve heard great things about you, Silver. That you are a superb marksman, which naturally is of vast importance. Also an excellent athlete. And, most important, a superb tracker. Ursa have such fantastic powers of camouflage that we need someone along who can tell when we’re deep in their territory. From all accounts provided me by various men whose word I trust—men who have hired you for their own hunting expeditions—that would be you.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never been on an Ursa-hunting expedition. Whatever else you may have hunted, I can assure you that Ursa are something else entirely.”
“I’m something else entirely, too, Silver,” he said with a broad smile. “My preparations will be completely thorough. I’ve spared no expense. I’m told you have rugged determination, abundant confidence, and a devil-may-care attitude. That’s exactly the type of man I’m looking for. And if you were to come along, be our guide, that would make it a nice even eight in the party.”
“Eight’s my favorite even number, sir.”
“I think you’ll find my payment quite generous.”
“I don’t give a damn about your payment, sir. When are we doing this?”
“My little party is set to head out two days from now.”
“Then just let me stay here for two days and we’ll call it even.”
“You, sir”—Ryerson stood up and extended a hand—“have yourself a deal.”
Daniel shook it. It was thick and sandpapery, the hand of a man who was not the least bit daunted by heavy labor. For some reason, Daniel took comfort in that. The expedition being proposed was hardly one to be undertaken by a man who had lived a soft life.
“And as for your girl,” said Ryerson, “here’s my best advice: Don’t worry about her. Women are like buses: There’s always a new one coming along.”
“That’s comforting to know, sir.” Then he hesitated and said, “What’s a ‘bus’?”
“Some old Earth thing. How about a drink?”
“That would be excellent.”
They drank some of the best alcohol that Daniel had ever tasted. Ryerson’s private stock, or so he was told. Feeling the hot liquid burning down his throat, Daniel tried to convince himself that everything was going to be all right. That Ryerson would be correct and a new girl, a better girl, would come along. One who wouldn’t shred every bit of his self-confidence as if it were Ursa chow.
And when he finally had had enough to drink and was led to the bedchamber where he would be staying, he collapsed into the bed and resolved to dream about Ronna. Because if he couldn’t have her, at least he could dream of her as he had so many times before, even when she was lying right next to him.
There were no dreams of her that night, though, and it was only upon waking in the morning that Daniel realized that she was really, truly, and completely gone.
The Tangredi Jungle was situated on the other side of the planet from Nova Prime City, although high-speed transport made it fairly easy to get to. Normally it was a popular place with hikers and campers, but there had been recent reports of killings that could only be attributed to Ursa. Bodies ripped apart, or devoured with just bits of bone and flesh left to indicate that they had ever been there at all. Consequently, the Rangers had declared the area completely off limits to citizens of Nova Prime. It was an edict that made perfect sense; no reasonable individual would even think of disobeying it. The Rangers patrolled the area with some regularity, so you would have thought that any sort of hunting party through the Tangredi was an act of insanity. If the Ursa didn’t get you, the Rangers bloody well would.
This was a prospect that didn’t deter Ryerson in the least.
Daniel wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. What possible reason could there be for a man as high up on the food chain as Ryerson to risk being arrested, not to mention perhaps slain by an Ursa? It just didn’t make any sense to Daniel.
None of which changed the fact that he was busy crawling around on the ground, looking for some sign that an Ursa had been through the area recently; perhaps hours earlier.
Ryerson was leaning over Daniel’s shoulder, watching him with intense curiosity. Daniel was clad in an up-to-date camouflage outfit, as were all of them. It seemed only fair, after all. The Ursa were fully capable of blending in seamlessly with their backgrounds, so why shouldn’t human pursuers have that same advantage?
Ryerson’s hired hunters were spread out through the jungle, but they were not so unwise as to be in a position where the Ursa could pick them off one by one. Instead they were moving in groups of two, covering each other’s backs. To counteract the reputed camouflage abilities of the Ursa, each of their pulser rifles—nothing less would do the job—was equipped with a thermal sighting device. This should give the grou
p a drop on any overconfident Ursa operating on the mistaken assumption that their camouflage would protect them.
“You closing in on one of the bastards, Silver?”
“I’m seeing definite signs, sir. Like right here.” He tapped a small pile of dirt in front of him.
Ryerson looked puzzled. “Like what there?”
“Ursa bury their feces. Makes them tougher to track, or presumably they think so. The result is little dirt mounds that look just like this. Also I’ve seen traces of what looks like the talons of an Ursa in the dirt. I could be wrong. It could be some other predator, one considerably less dangerous.”
“But you don’t believe that to be the case.”
“No, sir, I do not,” he said firmly.
“Good lad. Looks like I made the right choice,” Ryerson said with a degree of self-satisfaction. “You certainly know a great deal about them.”
“I read a lot,” he said, his voice flat. He paused and then said, “Mr. Ryerson, what are we doing out here? I mean, really? Are you—?”
“Am I what?” When Daniel didn’t respond immediately, Ryerson cracked a smile. “Did I just get a diagnosis from my doctor that my time’s up? Or am I terminally suicidal and depressed? Something like that?”
“Something like, yeah.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, son.” Ryerson thumped his chest. “But I’m in the pink of health. Nothing wrong, at least that I know of.”
“Because it’s the next thing.”
“The next thing I want to do. The next challenge that I could find. That’s how you get somewhere, son: by seeing what remains to be done and then doing it. I want to be the oldest non-Ranger who has ever managed to kill an Ursa. If you ask me—which admittedly no one did, but that’s never stopped me before—the Rangers are a bunch of arrogant, overconfident smug fools. Telling people where they can and can’t go. Acting as if they are our only hope against the Ursa. I believe in self-reliance, Silver. Never a big fan of having someone else doing things on my behalf when I never asked them to, and then acting as if I owe them all some huge debt of gratitude. To hell with the Rangers. If you want a dead Ursa, then do it yourself. That’s what I say.”
“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to help you achieve your goal.”
“And what about you?”
Daniel was continuing to study the ground and was only listening with half an ear. “What about me what?”
“Feeling better about the girl trying to push you out of her life?”
“I don’t care.”
“That’s the spirit!”
“No, you don’t understand.” He turned to look at Ryerson. “I don’t care about anything. I’m nothing without her. Hell, I was nothing with her.”
“Come on, Silver!” He chucked him on the shoulder. “Nothing good ever came from feeling sorry for yourself!”
I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t feel anything. That’s the point.
“You’re right, sir,” he said, trying his best to provide some degree of emotion to his voice. “I’ll try to remember th—”
That was when the deafening roar of the Ursa sounded through the clearing.
Ryerson jumped, startled. Daniel remained utterly calm, not providing any sort of visible reaction. To him, there was no reason for there to be any reaction. He had expected this the entire time. When you were leading people into the belly of the beast, there was no reason to be startled when the beast made its presence known. Indeed, he found Ryerson’s shock and alarm to be mildly entertaining. What did you expect, old man?
It was impossible to tell from which direction the animal’s defiant roar had originated as it echoed through the clearing. It seemed to be coming from all sides at once. Quickly Ryerson activated the wrist communications unit that would keep him in touch with his hunters. “Nickerson! Philips! Chang! Anyone! Report!”
The response was a babble of shouts, one overlapping the next.
“No sighting yet, but the foliage is rustling—”
“There’s definitely one of them out here—”
“Could be two or three!”
“I don’t see any—oh my God!”
Shots fired. A truncated scream.
“This is Vale! Creighton’s down! I saw it tear his head off!”
“Maintain position, Vale, we’re coming!”
“Screw that! I’m out of—!”
The second, higher-pitched scream, Vale’s, wasn’t preceded by any pulser blasts at all. He hadn’t managed to get off any shots. He’d only had time to die.
It was complete chaos. Ryerson was spinning like a top, hearing death and destruction all around him, not knowing in which direction to look. Another roar, two more screams. Marsh and Inigo, by the sounds of it. Ryerson had hired some of the best hunters on Nova Prime, and the Ursa—for what else could it be?—was picking them off effortlessly.
“What the hell is this thing?”
“I am not dying out here!” came a terrified declaration from Chang, right before he was proven wrong. He managed to get off three shots, a personal best for the group, before his death scream erupted over the comm unit.
Ryerson was encountering a severe depletion of nerve. His face was the color of curdled milk, his eyes wide with horror. He fired several random shots around him into the jungle. The only result that came over the comm unit was a startled yelp from what sounded like Nickerson, yelling, “I’m shot! What idiot shot me?” right before the roar of the Ursa sounded and Nickerson shrieked like a baby demanding to be fed. Then Nickerson’s comm unit went dead, along with Nickerson himself.
“Silver, do something! Get me out of here!” Ryerson’s voice was just above a whisper, his throat constricted. Everything was happening so quickly. It had been barely a minute since the Ursa had first made its presence known, and it was ripping through his entire hunting party with hellacious speed. Ryerson clearly hadn’t yet been able to fully grasp what was happening.
Daniel simply looked at him with bland disinterest. “What is it about having a lot of money that makes people feel they are invincible?”
Ryerson shook his head in denial. “If that’s what you thought, then why did you come? Are you suicidal?”
“No. Not especially.” Daniel shrugged.
Suddenly a tree at the outer edge of the clearing shattered into splinters and there was the Ursa towering over them, not ten feet away. Several pieces of human bone were lodged in its teeth, and its muzzle dripped with blood and gore.
In the face of his impending demise, Ryerson—to his credit—did not flinch. The shrieks and the cries of death all around him had been overwhelming when he was dealing with things he couldn’t see. Now that he was face-to-face with the foe, Ryerson rose to the occasion. It wasn’t bravery so much as it was pure, gut-roiling desperation as he dashed diagonally across the clearing, firing his pulser repeatedly. “Die, you son of a bitch, die!” he shrieked as he fired over and over again.
The Ursa seemed more curious about him than anything, as if bewildered by this foolish little creature that thought it had the slightest chance against him. The pulser blasts rebounded off its hide. The direct hits actually left small scorch marks where they struck, but that was all. The beast didn’t rock back or acknowledge the impact in any way. It just stood there, absorbing the assault, like a parent waiting patiently for a child to finish its tantrum before taking full control of its errant offspring.
For five seconds that seemed as if they stretched into five minutes, the Ursa simply took it.
Then it disappeared.
Daniel, mildly curious about the outcome, had the calmness of mind to see a faint shimmer rippling across the landscape. Ryerson, by contrast, could not keep his panic and confusion in check. He whipped his pulser back and forth frantically while shouting, “Come out here and get what’s coming to you, you bastard! What’s the matter? Can’t take an
My God, he actually thinks he was doing well against it.
Ryerson never saw the Ursa drop its camouflage and shimmer into visibility directly behind him. Daniel could have shouted out a warning, but he didn’t bother. It was just prolonging the inevitable anyway.
Ryerson had no time to react as the Ursa’s maw enveloped him down to the waist. His scream was muffled and then silenced as the monster’s jaws slammed together with a sound like an ax chopping into the side of the tree. Ryerson was bitten clean in half. The creature tilted its head back and Ryerson’s head, arms, and torso all vanished into its gullet. His lower body actually stood there for a moment, looking ludicrous, before it collapsed. It lay on the ground, the remains of Ryerson’s internal organs seeping out and soaking the ground in red.
Then the Ursa made a deep coughing sound, like a cat about to toss up a hairball. Sure enough, its mouth opened wide, and it regurgitated Ryerson. The man’s upper half had already been partly processed by whatever stomach acids passed for the Ursa’s digestive system, and it was scarcely recognizable as human, much less Ryerson.
“Guess it doesn’t do well with rich foods,” Daniel said morbidly.
The comment caused the Ursa’s head to snap around. The creature had no eyes, but it appeared to be looking right at him. It had doubtless reacted to the sound of his voice.
Daniel just stood there and stared at it. He wasn’t going to provide the Ursa any more free guidance by speaking, but he wasn’t especially concerned by the fact that it was looking his way.
He remembered the stories about how, when death is imminent, your life flashes before your eyes. Daniel waited for that to happen.
And it did, sort of.
The disapproving looks from his parents when he failed class after class. The stern anger from his father when he’d thrown him out once he’d turned eighteen, telling him that if he was going to get anywhere, he’d have to be on his own to do it, because otherwise he had no motivation. His mother standing there, sobbing, but doing nothing to countermand her husband’s actions. There he was, crashing with various friends, getting on their nerves with his aimlessness, going from job to job, holding none of them, putting together no savings, wearing out his welcome again and again, always seeing that same look of disappointment.