Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 21: “Hunt” • by Jonathan Sherwood

There is a moment when you realize it’s gone too far. You’ve lost control and in the blink of an eye everything is about to become horrific.

Hadiza kept the butt of her rifle tight to her shoulder. One eye looking through the scope. Finger hovering over the trigger. And realized this was that moment.

“Joe,” she whispered, hoping she spoke loudly enough for her ear comm to pick up her voice. “Joe, I think it’s here.”

Around her, the vast blue bamboo forest swayed in the constant breeze. A never-ceasing clatter of windchimes, mixed with the rustle of the bamboo’s upper leaves and the hiss of the light rain. Her knee sank into the mud.

“Joe,” she said louder.

“Hadiza,” Joe’s voice crackled in her ear. His voice echoed her strain. “Are you sure?”

“Dammit,” Hadiza muttered, and spit rain off her lips. Her eye never left the scope. She was sure she’d seen it, weaving around the bamboo like a goddamn ghost snake. And now, she stared with every neuron straining to discern something behind the endless stalks of swaying blue. She and Joe thought they’d chased it into this forest. Now she realized it had lured them here.

* * *

Hadiza and Joe Thurbone had started hunting night razors together a few years back. You couldn’t hunt during the dry season because you could be lost for days in the occasional dust storm, but she sorely missed  hunting on her home world, so when Joe pointed out that near their settlement on Odin III there roamed some nasty predators that could make for a good hunt, she surprised herself by taking him up on his offer. He was a little annoying, but around the campfire with the perimeter alarms set, all he wanted was the camaraderie of the hunt without getting too close.

Night razors turned out to be good sport—clever predators, sharp of claw and tooth—but you could take them down with a well-aimed shot. And although their claws and teeth were sharp, they gained the name “razors” for their weird shape; like a bear two hand widths wide. Black, furry pancakes on edge. On the open plains it made them easy targets from the side. Sometimes, evolution screws up.

But now, she understood, the razors’ natural habitat wasn’t the plains. It was right here.

They’d chased this one for miles that first night, never able to land a shot, so by the next afternoon, Hadiza had the idea of flushing it into the bamboo forest where it would be slowed. The beast went all-too willingly into the forest, and they plunged all-too willingly in after it.

In minutes, Hadiza realized their mistake. The razor’s thin body wriggled through the dense bamboo like a snake’s. She and Joe, on the other hand, were slowed immensely by the stalks and raised a clatter as the bamboo trunks rattled together with nearly every step.

“This sound’s driving me nuts,” said Joe after the third hour. “You remember Saanvi Das? She got lost in one of these bamboo forests and came out batshit crazy. They called it pareidolia. I guess when you hear the same sound uninterrupted for long enough, you start hallucinating sounds that aren’t there.”

That little bit of advice had saved their lives. About an hour later, Joe thought he heard something on their left, so they both swung their rifles around, eyeing every moving shaft of blue in the unending sea, so focused on what they were sure was there that it wasn’t until Hadiza heard a twig snap on their right that she spun her head around, and saw the eyes of the razor less than twenty feet away. She shouted, turning, rifle banging into the stalks, and the creature spun about and wriggled its way through the bamboo. They got a couple of shots off, but it was too little, too late.

“Go left!” yelled Joe. “I’ll go right! We’ll flush him back out!”

“Get on comms!” Hadiza yelled back, rifle in one hand and the other pushing the comm bead into her ear. She leaped and crashed her way through the bamboo. Speed was essential, and the noise would help spook the razor.

“More to the west!” said Joe. “Keep him going west toward the big sun! It’s probably less than a mile out of the forest in that direction!”

The suns were hard to see down here, but Hadiza could make out some shadows, and she ran, trunks smacking her in the face even though she held her rifle to block them.

After ten minutes, she yelled, “Shit, stop! Stop running!”

In the far distance, she could hear Joe’s crashing come to a stop.

“What?” said Joe, clearly out of breath.

Hadiza was in great physical condition, but that tripping-bounding-face-smacking running was too much. She breathed several times before answering.

“I’ve lost track of it. And we’re too far apart.”

“Shit.” Joe breathed twice. “Just felt a raindrop. Maybe we should just keep heading west and get out. I don’t mind roughing it, but getting soaked sucks.”

“Yeah. Damn. Hate to quit,” said Hadiza. Thin streaks of blood covered both forearms from the sharp bamboo. “But stay frosty. It may have taken off already, but maybe not. That one seemed pretty aggressive.”

“Yeah. We’ve kept it running a whole day. It’s probably tired as we are. Probably pretty pissed off.”

The drops became a drizzle. Try as she might, Hadiza couldn’t step as smoothly between the stalks as the razor could, and she caused the bamboo to knock together overhead. She couldn’t tell the difference between the normal sounds of rain and bamboo in a breeze and the clatter she was causing. But the razor might.

“Do you think it knows people hallucinate sounds in here?” Hadiza asked.

“You mean, maybe it brought us here on purpose?”

“Yeah, like a spider’s web. Maybe it’s how it hunts.”

“Shit,” said Joe. “Now you’ve got me fuckin’ spooked.”

“Same here, and I don’t like having this comm in my ear. Feel like I can’t hear as well on one side. Makin’ me paranoid.”

“Yeah,” said Joe. “Are you having trouble tracking the suns? It’s too damn overcast. Dammit.”

“What?” said Hadiza.

“I don’t know where I am. Damn this noise. It gets in your head.”

“Hey, it’s okay, Joe. Look, I—” She stopped. Spun around, rifle moving with her eyes.

“What is it? What’s going on?”

“Holy shit,” said Hadiza. “I swear to God I just heard my dad. I just heard my dad say something.”

“Jesus, Hadiza, it ain’t real. It’s that sound-hallucination thing. Don’t freak out.”

“I’m not freaking out. I’m not. But I’m getting out. I think I still know which way is west. Keep talking. I’m getting out and I’m not stopping. You get out, too, hear me?”

“Shit,” said Joe, and Hadiza could hear the breathing in his comm, and then a “Thank God, I see the edge. I’m almost out! Where are you?”

“I’m probably close. Just get out. I’ll catch—” And Hadiza dropped to her knee, rifle tight to her shoulder. Rain splashed off the barrel. “Joe,” she whispered, hoping she spoke loudly enough for the ear comm. “Joe, I think it’s here.”

“Are you sure? Take the shot! Take the shot!” said Joe, almost in a panic.

“I don’t see it. I don’t see it, but I can smell it,” said Hadiza, and then more to herself than Joe, “Can’t fake a smell, can you, ya fucker?”

“Hadiza, I’m out! I’m out. On the west side. Should I come back in? If, maybe if you shoot in the air I can zero in on the sound.”

Hadiza took a careful, level step. Another. She could see something ahead. Something lying low. The rain came down like noisy static. The bamboo chimed. The smell came again to her, like meat mixed with a sour musk. She slipped her finger onto the trigger. Another step.

“Hadiza, what’s happening? Goddamnit,” sputtered Joe. “What’s happening?”

She blinked several times as water splashed her face. She could just see it lying there in a crumpled heap. A leg. An arm. Joe’s body, torn wide open. His head torn clean off.

“Hadiza, do you need me to come back in?” crackled Hadiza’s earpiece.

There is a moment when you realize everything is about to become horrific in the blink of an eye.

A twig behind her snapped.


Jonathan Sherwood has written about science and scientists for research universities for more than two decades, and science fiction for even longer. He holds a bachelors in science writing from Cornell University and an MA in English from the University of Rochester. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and others.


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Pete Wood said...

Hunt demonstrates just what a diverse group of writers and stories we have in the Odin Chronicles. It's a great page turner that'll keep you guessing until the end.