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The Hunt

Eric Brown began writing when he was fifteen and sold his first short story to Interzone in 1986. He has won the British Science Fiction Award twice for his short stories, and his novel Helix Wars was shortlisted for the 2012 Philip K. Dick award. He has published over fifty books, and his latest include the crime novel Murder at the Loch, and the SF novel Jani and the Great Pursuit. He has also written a dozen books for children and over a hundred and thirty short stories. He writes a monthly science fiction review column for the Guardian newspaper and lives in Cockburnspath, Scotland. His website can be found at: ericbrown.co.uk.

Roberts climbed the hillside and approached the forest, moving stealthily. For the past two hours he'd stalked the wise old stag up the valley, only for it to move off every time he came within range. He'd paid a thousand pounds to tramp the sodden glens for the privilege of bagging his first stag, and now twilight was descending.
The cold wind lessened as he entered the woodland's musty gloaming. A silence descended too, broken only by his footfalls through the dry undergrowth.
He'd left the main body of the hunt behind two hours ago. Lord Carstairs and the rest were tracking along just below the high ridge, hoping to make a kill or two before dinner back at the Hall. Roberts, ever the maverick, had caught a glimpse of a stag on the skyline. He'd kept the sighting to himself and moved off up the glen, following the animal towards the forest.
Its great antlered head would grace the dining-room wall of his townhouse back in London.
Sunlight struck low through the trees, slivers of dazzling gold which made sighting ahead almost impossible. The footing was uneven, an obstacle course of fallen logs and tussocks of fern. He trod with care, his shotgun broken under his right arm.
At one point a male pheasant racketed from the undergrowth, startling him. It sped off low through the trees, making its characteristic, ridiculous ululation, its long rust-colored tail feathers whipping like a sine wave in its own slipstream. Intent on larger prey, Roberts let it go.
Then, thirty yards through the trees, a glimpse of gray....
He paused, controlling his breathing. All was still and silent in the forest. This was what made the cost of the weekend worthwhile: the thrill of the chase, the anticipation of the kill... those eternal seconds when hunter and hunted are connected by something older than time, something elemental. He raised his rifle and took aim at the chest of the stag standing proud, fifty yards away.
Something flashed suddenly ten yards to the right of the animal, startling both the stag and Roberts. Before he had time to curse his luck, the stag was off, bounding through the trees. He knew that pursuit through this terrain, now that the stag had been startled, would be futile.
He peered through the forest.
What was it that had flashed like that, startling the stag and putting an end to his sport?
He'd taken it as a glint of the setting sun, initially. But the light was silver, not gold--and there it was again.
It dazzled, moving towards him. He shielded his eyes, peering.
Gasping, he made out a silver figure moving smoothly through the trees towards him.
"What the...?" he began, backing off.
The figure was tall, thin, and consisted entirely of a blinding white light. He made out limbs, two legs and two arms, a domed head.... But it was like nothing he had ever seen before. And it seemed not to walk, but to float.
And it was carrying something.
A cylinder.
A huntsman all his life, Roberts knew a weapon when he saw one.
The figure raised the cylinder and fired.
A bright blue light vectored from the weapon and missed Roberts by a matter of centimeters.
He turned and ran, or rather stumbled through the undergrowth away from the figure. His breath came in ragged spasms. He was overweight and not accustomed to running. He could just about manage a day's tramping the glens, but he was out of condition and unable to sprint.
He slowed, his chest skewered by shooting pains.
He staggered on a zigzag course through the forest. Another blue light lanced through the air a meter to his left. He cried out in fear. If he could put the trees between him and his pursuer, perhaps he could escape. But once he broke out of the forest and came to the open land, he would be an easy shot.
In desperation he veered north, keeping to the trees. The forest rose up the hillside and, after half a mile, crested the ridge. With luck, Carstairs and the others would be there, at the summit. They would save him from whatever it was that was chasing him.
He glanced over his shoulder. The silver figure was even closer now. It raised the cylinder and fired.
Roberts cried out, tripped, and fell.
He scrambled to his feet, turned and faced his tormentor. He raised his rifle, but he was shaking so much that his finger was unable to find the trigger.
The floating figure halted ten yards away, watching him. Its domed head was featureless, helmeted, but a visor set below the brow watched him with dispassion.
Roberts raised his hands, weeping now, and pleaded for his life.
"Please, have mercy," he cried.
The silver figure raised its weapon and fired.
This time the light hit Roberts in the center of his chest.
The Human would look good mounted in a display case in the exhibition area, the hunter thought. It was a prime specimen, big and fleshy--a perfect representation of its race.
It would be the last Human caught and exhibited by the Lavonians. Humans were a primitive race--ranked even below the Grell on the Galactic Intelligence Scale: they lacked the finer sensibilities of the Higher Races such as the Lavonians. But the Central Council had recently decreed that even a species as lowly as the Humans should be spared the hunt.
In one month the Human would be returned to its planet, released from stasis, and set free where it had been caught. It would recall being chased, and being hit, but no more--and when the creature came to its senses, only two minutes would have elapsed by its own reckoning.
It would be left with no memory of what had occurred on Lavonia--but the hunter would access the creature's mind to ensure that it was altered in one, vital way.
It would never hunt again.
The citizens of Lavonia liked to think of themselves as humane.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 7th, 2016

Author Comments

I was walking the dog through the beautiful Borders countryside in Scotland when a stag appeared fifty yards ahead of me--a wonderful sight. If I'd had a rifle, I could have shot it. And some people would have. "The Hunt" soon followed.

- Eric Brown
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