A dystopian Science Fiction Short Story
by R.W. Van Sant
Part of the
Synaptic Overload Anthology
Humanity justifies the killing and eating of animals because we believe that animals lack souls. Beliefs are malleable things, subject to changing conditions, and capable of evolving to justify altered conditions. If criminal activity is immoral, how much of a stretch is it to believe that criminals have no souls, or that not paying a debt is a crime against the person extending credit. Might we not one day have a society which believes that criminals and debtors are indeed as soulless as the animals we hunt for food?
Morning dew lay frozen on the grass, white and slick, making a run toward the box in the center of the glade more treacherous. The tired man crouched low, unmoving, in dense foliage at the edge of the grassy field, shivering in the chill of the morning air. Clouds of white mist emerged from his nostrils with each breath, threatening to give his position away. The ripped prison green clothing did little to protect against the cold of the October night. Cresting the mountain, the sun shed beams of heat and light warming the valley. If he didn’t move soon, it would be too light to take the risk, and the man would go another day without eating. Better that than to run wildly into a trap.
Hunger won out, driving him out of the foliage. A rustling sound across the field startled him, and he dove back into the brush. Across the glade, a strange man in a green prison jumpsuit ran out of the thicket in an imperfect zigzag pattern, falling and slipping on the frosted grass as he did so. The man’s stomach protested his movement. The stranger was going to get to the food before him. The hungry man crouched low to the ground and watched the stranger dash for the box, secretly hoping he would fail. What kind of animal had he become? To wish another man dead over food, it was barbaric. Disgusted with himself, the man turned away and crawled deeper into the brush. It wasn’t long before he heard the sharp bullet report ring across the glade and echo back in the mountain. It was a trap, and the stranger, who was almost definitely lying dead, had saved him from making the same mistake.
His stomach grumbled and squeezed painfully in its emptiness. They would soon come to retrieve the body. It might be safe to return in a couple hours and see if any food remained. They only took one per day, usually. The man crawled deeper into the woods until he came across a small stream only a few inches wide. A light layer of ice covered the trickling water. He moved to a wider section, a couple feet wide, and pushed his cold hand against the ice, cracking a hole that allowed him to wash his dirty face and take several deep draughts to fill his empty belly.
The sun rose over the edge of the mountain, shedding its warmth over the valley. Under the protective covering of the foliage, however, very little of it fell on him. In the water, he saw a large tadpole swim around looking for cover. It was strange to him that somewhere in the wild, an animal survived. It was perhaps the first living thing he’d seen outside the zoos since the world ecology collapsed. Now animal life only existed in captivity or the deep oceans. Even the habitat he currently crawled through existed only because there were those who preserved it while the rest of the world devolved into the desert. He’d heard that the rich and well to do kept such gardens, but to see a wild animal alive in one filled him with awe. It was a miracle of nature and most likely one of the last of its kind. He reached out and caught it in his hand, it squirmed to get away as he put it in his mouth and swallowed.
The sun was just above the mountains, and its life-giving warmth was slowly filling the valley, too slowly. The man, hidden in the greenery, was likewise shielded from its heat. He crawled into a small clearing, where a small patch of light broke through, and lay there with the beams bathing his face and upper torso—waiting for the heat to spread to the rest of the wood.
All was quiet except the rustle of the wind on the branches, a tranquility that was soon disrupted by a growing, mechanized rumbling. They were coming to gather the body. It grew loud and then stopped. A few moments later, it started again and continued to fade until it was indistinguishable from the rustling of the branches. It was time to move again. The man, his muscles still cold and sore, forced himself into an upright position and headed back toward the glen.
The body was gone, as was the food. There was a red patch where the stranger’s blood had spilled across the grass. There was something else there, a small box, much smaller than the food box that had been there before. The man’s eyes scanned the horizon for the slightest sign of a disturbance. He couldn’t see anything. If they were still out there, they were well hidden. The man knew that he should turn and go back into the brush, but the box might contain food. A mouse often stole the bait from a trap, if it moved fast enough, or was lucky enough. What the hell, he felt lucky, or desperate.
As fast as his feet would carry him, he ran into the glade, running a zigzag pattern that he hoped would not give the murderous bastards a clean shot. As he approached, he dove on the small black, metal box tucked in his head and should so he could grab it and roll back onto his feet at a full run. He heard the weapons report; they were a way off, but still, the ground exploded mere inches from where he’d been a second before. The man scrambled and dodged until he dove tired and scrapped into the foliage on the far side of the clearing. How many shots had they taken—three, four? The man ran his hand across his head and body to see if they struck pay dirt. He could feel no new pains, but the blood he slipped in made finding any new wounds difficult.
Once sure he wouldn’t leave a blood trail, the man crawled back into the brush with the box. He made his way back to the stream to wash the blood and dirt from his legs and hair, barely recognizing the reflection of the man who stared at him in the water. Had it only been twenty days? He opened the lunch box and found it contained two sandwiches, a small bag of potato chips, a couple apples, a thermos of coffee and—below it all—he found the Holy Grail, a small sheathed hunting knife. All he could do was stare and think of its implications. He now had a knife: a way to make tools, a way to fight back. He tucked it into his belt.
The man took one of the sandwiches and pulled it apart. The meat was most likely bologna, with cheese and lettuce. His mouth watered uncontrollably at its smell. It didn’t look or smell poisoned. He took a bite and chewed it carefully. One mouthful was all he’d allow himself until he saw how well his body took to the food. He packed the rest back into the box and crawled back to a protected alcove in a large rock he’d been sleeping in. The densely foliated region had a good vantage point of the valley. By the time he got to it, he was pretty sure the food wasn’t poisoned, or spoiled. He crawled into the shelter and opened the box. Attentively, he took a bite from an apple and waited for any poison to affect him. Nothing. The sweet juice dripped down his cheek, but the searing pain or dizziness that would have accompanied a poisoning never came. The food was safe. Some poor sap had dropped his lunch. His loss. The man ravenously finished the fruit.
The man ate one sandwich and the apple. He opened the thermos and drank almost half of the still warm coffee. This did more to make him feel warmer than the late fall sun had. He closed the lunch box and buried it under a bush, covering it with pine needles and rocks until it looked indistinguishable from the surrounding ground. Just in case anyone came looking.
The knife was sharp and, in his hands, gave him a feeling of power, though he’d hate to go up against a man with a high-powered rifle armed only with a knife. At least it was sharp, and the sheath had a wet-stone attached so he’d be able to keep it that way. The handle was hollow and contained fishing hooks, line, matches, and a tiny compass. If he could escape the valley, then he might be able to use it to cross the desert. The thermos could hold water to help him survive the wasteland. If he were lucky, he might make it to a town. No, he had no idea even where he was, or in which direction a town might be.
Even in the heat of the noonday sun, the man was still cold. He toyed around with the idea of making a fire, but that would be suicide. They would see the light or smoke and then find him. To stay alive, he’d have to remain cold.
A nearby stick helped him pass the time as he used the knife and vacantly sharpened one side to a point. The pointed stick gave him an idea. If he found a long stick, he could make a spear, or perhaps a bow, anything with which to fight back. He abandoned the plan instantly. It was too complicated, a spear had no range against a rifle, and without feathers or plastic, he couldn’t make an arrow accurate enough to be effective. He hadn’t seen a bird in the wild since he was a child. Simple plans were better, easier, and often more effective. He could booby trap his den. Hidden stakes strategically placed all around, leaving only one way in could help keep out unwanted visitors. At least he’d be able to sleep securely for the first time since they dumped him in the valley.
Filled with new purpose, the man went out to collect properly sized sticks. The dirt and grass below him were getting too well traveled so the man crawled closer to the roots of the plants, trying hard not to break or bend a leaf or twig that would give away the paths he was roaming. To be useful, the sticks would have to be at least a foot long and strong enough to penetrate the cloth and legs of trespassers. He circled the large clearing, careful not to get too close to the edge. They watched it too closely through their rifle scopes.
The man found sticks that fit his qualifications easily enough. Without the knife, however, it would have been impossible to cut them from the trees. It was necessary to take them from trees hidden from sight lest the loss of some branches draw attention. It took several hours, but at least he was being proactive and taking some degree of control over his life. That very act of defiance lifted his spirit. Halfway through the last branch, an unexpected sound stopped him dead in his tracks. Sobbing, soft and feminine.
The man put his hard-earned booty under a shrub and brushed the dirt and leaves over it before quietly dropping to the ground. More sobbing—it sounded like someone in pain and despair. Serpentine, the man slid along the base of the smaller plants, using the leaves and branches to obscure him, he made his way toward the sound. His ears strained to hear any other sounds, but all he could hear was the sound of one person rustling lightly and a woman’s sobs. He moved from plant to plant until he could see a female form through a break in the flora.
She was young, in her early twenties, he guessed. Long, light brown hair obscured her face, flowed over her shoulders, barely covering her scratched and dirty, but otherwise perfect, chest visible through the ripped fabric of her green inmate garb. The man crawled around quietly. He wanted a better look, but not at the expense of being seen nor heard. As he circled, he could see the woman was crying and shivering in the cold. The outfit she wore was ripped and torn all over, revealing a shapely figure and her hands were just as firmly tied behind her back. The man’s heart went out to her, but it was obvious that she was bait. They couldn’t get him to expose himself for food, so they offered sex. He could feel the unseen rifle barrels that must be trained on her, waiting.
“Are you alright?” The man ventured from his hiding place. “Don’t turn.”
“I’m cold, and I hurt all over.” She shook the hair from her face so that he could see the tear and dirt-streaked face. “I’m not going to die.”
“I don’t know if I can get to you.”
“Don’t try.” She struggled again. “I don’t want you to die on my account.”
“How many are there?”
“I don’t know, at least three.” She stopped.
“Why didn’t they kill you?” the man asked. “They didn’t rape you?”
“No, “She said softly. “If you’re a rapist you should know I’m impure.”
“My husband went on a business trip and came back with more than a gift from the airport.” She said. “V.D.”
“At least it means they won’t kill me.” She continued. “At least not intentionally.” she coughed.
“I’m not.” The man said. “A rapist, I mean.”
“I didn’t mean… look we were all convicted of something to get here.”
“Economic malfeasance.” He said.
“I got involved in a highly leveraged investment deal. It went sour, and I couldn’t pay the margin call.”
“That was risky. Why take such a chance?” The man didn’t respond. How could he tell a stranger about his brilliant son? How he had failed to save enough money to pay for his college. His family wasn’t church members and, therefore, his son couldn’t count on a scholarship. He took a chance on promising stock, it didn’t pay off. He failed again, and he was paying for it. The woman shivered violently as a cold wind blew through the valley. “I’d kill for a blanket.”
“I’m sorry.” The man looked up into the cloudy sky. “It looks like it might rain. They might come to retrieve you if it does.”
“Or leave me to be raped or worse.” She said.
“I doubt that.” He said. “No offense, but you are impure. They don’t want to contaminate any of us out here.”
The woman sniffled.
“Why are you here instead of your husband, surely they know it’s not your fault?”
“The bastard turned me in, said it was I who cheated. I was sentenced to this place when I couldn’t name my lover.”
“Why would they believe him?”
“He confessed to his priest and repented.” She laughed until it devolved into a coughing fit. “He was doing his penance before I even got back from the doctor’s office.”
“I can cut you free. I have tools.” The man crawled a little closer. “Once it gets dark, we can escape the valley. If we get far enough, I can make a fire.”
“I got tools.”
“No, don’t!” She started crying again. Flakes of snow started to drift down between them. “Don’t you get it? This is a trap. I’m the bait. Are you stupid? Keep away from me.”
“It looks like it’s going to really snow. Perhaps it’ll snow enough to prevent them from seeing us.”
“I don’t want to be responsible for your death. Just go. I’ll be fine.”
The man lay there and contemplated his options; he could leave the woman to her fate, run away like a craven animal. He could sacrifice his last shred of humanity for a few more days of breathing, or he could take a chance and wait for the snow to worsen then crawl toward her and use the hunting knife to cut the cords that cut so viciously into her legs. As the snow started to come down more rapidly, he made up his mind.
Staying as low to the dirt as possible, he crawled toward her.
“Stop!” she said. “You’re a fool.”
“Move your wrists, I’ve got a knife to cut the ropes.” He maneuvered the knife so that he could slice the cords between her wrists without doing further damage to her. The last thing he wanted was to slip and cut her wrist. The cords flew apart as the blade cut through them. “Done, move your legs over.”
The bullet came in through the side of the man’s head, penetrating his skull, ripping through the gray fleshy inside leaving the other side of his head in a spray of blood and brain, which saturated the screaming woman’s remaining clothing. The man’s lifeless corpse slumped onto the snow.
“Not for me.” She cried.
“What a shot.” The hunter cried. “Did you see that? Way to go, son.”
“Did I get him?” The boy lowered his high-powered rifle and looked up to his father and their guide.
“Yes, it was a fine shot. Clean kill.” The guide said.
“The new infra-red scope cut straight through the snow, Pop.” The boy said. “What about the girl? Does she get shot now?”
“Oh, no.” The guide said. “She’s a good God-fearin’ woman, not a criminal like he was. She’s got a soul, and she’s helped us get our seventh kill. She’s finished her punishment.”
“Criminals don’t have souls?” the boy asked.
“Son, we talked about this. His crimes and unwillingness to accept God into his heart have marked him as soulless. He’s no better than any other animal that God gave us dominion over.”
“What happens to her?” The boy asked.
“It’s not our concern.” The hunter said.
“She’ll be cleaned up and spend the rest of her life in a convent where her poisoned body cannot tempt a man.” The guide said.
“Oh,” the boy shook the snow off his hat. “Pop? It’s getting a little cold.”
“Yeah, sure. Go ahead and get back to the lodge. Make sure you go to confession and wash up, and I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Sure thing.” The boy ran to the cart and handed his gun to the chauffeur, who stowed it beneath the seat.
“Tell your mom I’ll be right up.” The hunter called out. His son waved, jumped into the seat, and sped off through the snow.
“We’ll have the meat cleaned and packaged for you, sir.” The guide said.
“Good, and take a good roast to the cook for supper. It’ll be good with that old Bordeaux I’ve been saving, and I’m so sick of fish I couldn’t tell you.”
“Aren’t we all?” The guide smiled broadly.
“See you back at the lodge.” The hunter went to his cart and sat down next to his chauffeur. “You know when I was a child, and the animals died out I thought I’d never get to hunt again.”
“The Lord provides, sir.” The chauffeur started the cart and turned it back onto the path back to the lodge.
“He does, indeed.” The hunter said.