Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Last Hunt - unsuccessful 2007 Pulp Idol Short Story Entry

The hunter moved slowly through the undergrowth, every movement calculated to make the least noise, every footfall placed to avoid twigs and dry leaves that might crack or rustle under his boot and alert his prey. Patience is a hunter's greatest attribute and this one possessed it in abundance. Minutes might pass between each step as every inch of the surroundings was re-examined and every sense turned to the task of stalking. Few men possessed the inner calm and sense of purpose that allowed for such painstakingly slow progress, but then few men would have taken of the task that drove this one forward.

Most people would have thought him insane, but the amount that he cared for other people's opinions of him could been placed on the head of a pin between the feet of the dancing angels. The few who had guessed his purpose had thought he was crazy, except for the Order and they had tried to kill him. He'd made enough money in the world of the 'normal' man that he no longer had to care what anyone thought, no longer had to conform to their limits.

In anything.

A night bird shifted on a branch nearby, preparing for flight and the hunter immediately became still, as immobile as his body would allow, the breath caught in his lungs, his heartbeat slowed to a rate that barely sustained his physical needs. The owl tested its wings and then took to the warm night air, off on its own hunt. The hunter raised his heartbeat slowly and allowed his breathing to return to a more normal state, but one that made no sound. Again, he started his studied advance.

He was close now, closer than he had ever been before. That fact would have flooded his system with adrenaline had he allowed it. Instead, he focussed on the job at hand, on the disciplines that had taken decades to master. A lifetime had been spent in pursuit of the skills that he needed, a lifetime in which normality had played little part. For a long time it might have seemed to be a normal life to the casual observer who would have seen only the remarkable success in financial and business affairs leading to extreme wealth. All that had been nothing more than a carefully constructed facade. The money had been a means to the end that hoped to see tonight, and the business merely a way of gaining that wealth. There had been no wife, no family, no friends, only the contacts that were necessary to his success. He hadn't missed them. In fact, he had barely noticed their absence.

The ground beneath his feet started to rise and he slowed his pace even further. His destination was now within his sight. There was no longer margin for error. To fail within sight of his goal would be too much to bear. He would perhaps not have the mental strength to start all over again if he lost his target again so close to success.

He breathed in the pre-dawn air and savoured it, but all was as it ought to be. The wind was as predicted, barely a light breeze but enought to take his scent away from the lair of his prey. That lair was just beyond the ridge that he had so carefully climbed.

As he approached the top, he sank to his knees and covered the last few metres fully prone. The red light of dawn was colouring the mountains to the east, but there was still time.

Time enough.

At the top of the ridge, he stopped his advance and became as still as it was possible for a human being to be whilst remaining conscious. Only his eyes moved as he surveyed the narrow gully below. They wore contact lenses that coloured the whites and prevented reflections. Nothing had been left to chance. Slowly, he brought the purpose-built customised rifle around to bear on the land below. He did not look through the sights as the light that was painting the sky above had not yet reached the gully and the equipment had no light-enhancing technology to get in the way. The shot will be taken with light enough.

A brook tumbled down a rocky course between the trees and dense undergrowth. A ground mist hovered somewhere between the moist earth and the crowded ferns, tendrils moving sluggishly in the faint eddies of air. There was a silence that seemed quite unnatural and yet was simply the land waiting to awake. There were few places like this left in the world, seemingly unable to survive the the urban sprawl of overpopulation, but persist they did despite humanity's best efforts to poison the planet.

Immobile, silent, the hunter watched the golden dawn slide down the trunks of trees like amber. His pulse quickened despite his will, but his breathing remained virtually undetectable. It would be here soon, come to welcome the dawn and exult in the birthing of the new day. The certainly of success came to him and with it a calm that he had believed was beyond his ability to acheive. Certainly it was beyond the hopes of the many teachers who had instilled so much self-control in both body and mind, but never quite managed to coach him to attain the ultimate inner goal.

And then it was there.

He did not see it come or hear the approach, but it was there nonetheless, stood to its fetlocks in the stream, drinking from the water. Thirst slaked, it shook its mane and lifted its head to the approaching sunlight.

The hunter placed his eye to the sights of the gun and waited. His aim was not direct, but to shift the gun was to make a noise that might warn his target. His prey would enter into the sights itself if he waited long enough. Patience and purpose had ruled his life for as long as he could remember. A few moments more and both would be dispensed with.

The morning light seemed to pause at the edge of the gully, almost as if preparing itself, and then leaped down to illuminate the stream bed and the beast that stood there. Its coat gleamed the purest white, almost painful to behold, and its long single horn glittered brightly. Few had believed in it during those long years of obsessive research. There had been times he had not been sure he believed it himself, but the Order had learned of his plans and the assassination attempts had begun. There was, though, no pleasure in being proved right, only his target and his purpose.

The unicorn reared up to greet the day, glorying in the sunshine.

The hunter's gun spoke once into the morning. Once was all that was required.

The journey back out of the forest was more rapid and relaxed than the previous night's progress had been been. The weapon was discarded, broken and bundled up with other equipment for which the hunter no longer had any need. Someone else would be despatched to collect and dispose of it. The body in the streambed would also be disposed of, though the hunter was not sure that any remains would ever be discovered there. That was not the way it seemed to work.

The car journey back to the nearest outpost of what men referred to as 'civilisation' was made in total silence. The hired driver knew well enough not to speak, though he resented the rich foreigner's arrogance. The flight back to his adopted homeland was equally silent, the flight crew locked away in the cockpit and he the only passenger in the main cabin. Within a day of that single shot the hunter was back in his apartment, half a world away from the gully and its stream.

It was already working, though. The effect could already be felt and was spreading. The old differences were heating up again, divisions thought to have been healed breaking open, arguments thought to have been resolved once again being debated hotly. The Middle East was once again burning, the Basque seperatists were once again making demands, religious sectarianism in Ireleand had led once more to demonstrations and riots, the Tamils had struck against the Sri Lankan government and Africa was again a continent at war with itself. At home there had been more violent killings in 24 hours than the whole of the previous year and the police were being attacked from all sides. Neighbourhoods were fracturing and the army had already been called in. The suicide rate had soared overnight causing aid agencies' phone systems to collapse under the burden. Even the churches seemd to have no message of hope, only rhetoric against the other religions.

Here, in the cool darkness and quiet of his home, the hunter allowed himself to consider the reality of his success. Drink in hand, he sank into his favourite chair, the tiredness of one weight on his soul removed to be replaced by a new one.

"I know you're there," he told the room and a figure stepped out of the deeper darkness, but remained wreathed in shadow. "The Order?"

The figure nodded.

"You failed."

"You succeded," the intruder countered.

"So, you're here to kill me?"

"No, " the intruder took a pistol out of his coat pocket and placed it on the table beside the hunter's seat. "To ask a question: do you think she would have approved?"

The hunter allowed his thoughts to turn to her at last. She had died so very long ago, killed whilst trying to help others, murdered alone, in fear and without hope. He had tracked down every one of those directly responsible and dealt them the same fate. That had been the easy part. Those men, though, had not been alone in their guilt. They were not responsible for the environment that created them, the systems that made them capable of such an act, the conditions that made them monsters. The whole world had played a role in her fate. Governments had turned away, nations had failed to act, populations had failed to demand resolutions to the problems that she had, in her own small way, fought to aid against.

But how do you bring a whole world to justice? How do you make them feel as desperate, terrified and lonely as she must have felt in that last hour? How do you take away a world's hope?

He had found the way and now it was done.

She would not have approved, would not have wanted it, but the dead do not revenge themselves. That is left to the living. It had been left to him and he had done it for himself, not for her.

Faintly, sounds of breaking glass, gunshots and screaming reached him through the window that the intruder had left ajar. On his way from the airport the hunter had seen fires and looting.

He considered the gun on the table. It was exquisitely customised for this purpose, as had been the one that killed the unicorn, the source of mankind's hope. At length, he placed the barrel to his temple and brought the story to an end.

Darren Humphries

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