Chapters:

A Hunter Lost.

Chapter One.

A Hunter Lost.

Two men stand in a darkened room filled with blinking lights and complex medical equipment. One is a soldier, covered in the scars and medals of a dozen wars. His face is stern and wrought into shape by the strain of responsibility. The second is a doctor, dressed in a plain lab coat and faded jeans. His face is prematurely worn by lines of stress, insomnia, and anxiety flirting with frustration. An old-fashioned clock strums on the wall: a quiet note of warning every second.

A third man lies suspended in midair by intricate supports of metal and transparent plastic. Neither old nor young, his face seems frozen in time and changes subtly depending on the angle from which you look at it. His hair is salt-and-pepper grey. His eyes are open but unfocused. His irises are wide and black. Cables snake their way from his temples to the screen of a large monitor that shows two scenes from his recent past. Two scenes that directly contradict each other. Two lives of different men with the same name and features. Two parallel realities.

One is a survivor who persevered to carry the burden of others.

One is a man who broke a promise out of grief and anger.

The image on the monitor smirks mockingly at its audience. The clock on the wall measures seconds in polite indifference. The room waits for a decision.

Time stands nearly still in morbid curiosity.

***

The ship revved in midair as Hunter pushed the acceleration stick to the limit. The vehicle started so violently that he was thrown back by the momentum and hit his head on the dashboard, accidentally activating the radio.

“Bad Bad Leroy Brown” blasted out of the tiny speakers. Hunter swore under his breath and fumbled to find the off switch. As the ship’s movement evened out, he tried to steady his breathing. He hadn’t meant to do that. It was stupid and dangerous to accelerate so fast near the docking station, with all the other vehicles parked in tight rows near the landing pads. Hunter glanced at his hands to confirm what he already knew: they were trembling slightly. For what must have been the fourteenth time that day he thought of swinging by Mason’s to buy some tobacco and rolling paper, if the shop was still open.

He thought of the sickly but satisfying smell of nicotine on his fingers. And of how good it would feel to take the edge off (even with something as mild as a cigarette).He then thought of how weird it was that one man running a convenience store, light-years away from Earth, could bring back the use of a two century-old bad habit just by selling cherry-flavored cigarette paper. Mason truly was an entrepreneurial genius.

Hunter willed himself to snap out of the random musings and focus on the route he was taking. His train of thought was erratic and unreliable today. Just like his driving skills. As he flew over the misty landscape, dotted with patches of tall grass, he saw the last remnants of the base below being hastily dismantled. The smaller buildings could still be folded back to compact cubes that would later re-expand at a new location. The bigger structures had to be stripped for raw materials. Most of that work was already finished and the ground below was littered with a bizarre forest of thin metal poles, frames and archways. Hunter felt especially sad watching a huge industrial repair robot crushing and compressing the walls of the arts club.

He and Jena used to go there on weekends. It was a decent-looking building by exploratory-base standards. It had been painted by Mason and his crew in what he described as “vintage colors” – a kind of washed out orange and green. They had done the paintjob in curves over the building walls, so it looked like green and orange waves were washing over the large cube-shaped structure. The words “Arts Club” were painted in fancy white lettering over the entrance. The letter “t” was stylized into a little saxophone. It was in stark contrast to the other bland buildings, which were all the dull gray color of polymer steel. It was like a flower growing out of concrete, a bright spot in a sea of boring tones.

The natural part of the landscape, however, the part that was not man-made, was anything but boring. Hunter glanced to his left and caught himself wondering, for the hundredth time since he had come to this planet, how something so beautiful could be so hostile. The mountain ranges took your breath away, even from this huge distance. Spiraling upwards in thin jagged peaks, they hummed a deep violet in the morning sunlight, their pinnacles covered in dazzling white snow. Some looked like pictures of regular mountains from Earth that Hunter had seen as a child, some looked like curved sabers, and some twisted upwards in phantasmagorical shapes above the blue-green sea of grassy valleys. Veins of crystal the color of emeralds wound their way up some of the mountain slopes, catching the rays of the sun and glinting brilliantly. They looked small and thin from far away, but Hunter knew that you could run along their length for hours and never even glimpse the place where they sprung from the rock like emerald rivers. The impossibly azure sky above the mountain range seemed to wash over the landscape like a weightless ocean, littered with lazily drifting clouds. It was all like a scene from a dream or a child’s coloring book: a beautiful painting of white, purple and green.

Hunter jerked the steering stick downward and started his descent towards a medium-sized building: another bland cube of grey drowning in a sea of waist-length blue-green grass. He aimed for the roomy landing pad on the roof. It took him three tries to hitch to the docking station. He was nervous and sweaty by the time he’d accomplished this simple task. Hunter promised himself he’d get some sleep tonight even if it meant taking a sedative. He despised sedatives on principle but his shaking hands weren’t doing anyone any favors today, he decided.

Finally, he climbed out of the cockpit and jumped onto the roof. The miniature aircraft behind him looked almost like a child’s toy up here. It took up less than a third of the landing space designed for larger vessels. But Hunter knew that you could get yourself (and others) hurt or killed with it just as easily as with a bigger model: the Eskarina was a repurposed military fighter and packed an engine that could outstrip any civilian aircraft. He’d picked it up years ago at a government auction for a ridiculously large amount of money. Jena was furious. They had been saving up for a holiday trip together.

The memory brought a smile to his lips, which disappeared instantly as the sweet smell of the mist rose up above the building and hit his nostrils. Hunter’s eyes went near-blank again as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was everywhere now, this damned smell: in his clothes, in his hair, in his bed sheets. It was impossible to filter or wash it out once it set in. This morning he had smashed half a dozen cups in an uncharacteristic fit of blind anger when he had discovered the smell had somehow crept into his hermetically sealed jar of coffee. Hours later, he questioned whether it had really been there or if his mind was just expecting everything to smell this way nowadays.

Hunter went through the maintenance door and ran down the steps to the second floor of the building. The stairway opened into a small waiting area with a couch and some potted plants brought all the way from Earth. Hunter frowned, looking at the strange leafy shrubs standing in every corner of the waiting room. They looked like skinny green bushes with dark-purple blobs (supposedly – fruit) growing on some of the branches. He tried to remember what the things were called. Figus trees? Ficus trees? He was always bad with names. Hunter shook his head and marveled how the chief could have paid half his salary for this morbid collection. The things were truly ugly.

He glanced at Katie, the bored receptionist, sitting near the entrance to the chief’s office. She was a young woman in her late twenties, dressed in khaki overalls and a bright blue t-shirt that Hunter knew had “I give out free shrugs” written across the front. It was one of her favorites and aptly demonstrated her habit of ignoring workplace uniform guidelines.

“Hey there, Katie. Running low on tacky t-shirts? This is the second day in a row I’m seeing that one.”

He forced a weak smile out of himself. She chuckled.

“You’re getting better, Vale. That was almost a joke.”

He negotiated another unconvincing grimace from his strained facial muscles.

“Is the big man in?”
Katie slumped back in her chair and waved in the direction of the glass doors behind her.

“Sure. Our fearless leader, ever vigilant and watchful.” A loud crash echoed from the hallway behind her, then - muffled swearing. She rolled her eyes and threw up her arms in exasperation, as if giving up a lost cause. “It’s been like this all morning. He’s probably busy crying over all the expensive plants he won’t be able to take off-world when we leave. Just go on in.”

Hunter nodded and walked towards the double doors leading to the chief’s office. The keypad was already disabled and the entrance was wide open. Hunter’s stomach lurched: no security, no personnel except the receptionist, automated systems turned off… the chief probably expected to start boarding the evacuation shuttles in several hours at most. This meant that he had received the all-clear from the brass. It was a done deal now. The base was going to be abandoned. Hunter passed through a narrow corridor and through the inner wooden door with the sign “Chief Expeditionary Officer, PAE”.

Just as he set foot over the threshold, the base’s alarm blared in sharp, deep-red panic: the cry of a large wounded animal or the last screech of a ship crashing down from orbit. Hunter reached for a non-existent gun holster out of old habit. The day, unbelievably, had gotten worse.

***

“Explain this to me once again, doctor. I thought you said your equipment was extremely accurate. Were you lying or have I developed hearing problems?”

“Look, I… sir, colonel”, Dr. Evans pulled at the collar of his sweater. “It is accurate. I’ve never seen results like these in the five years our department has been using the memory collector.”

“Memory collector?” The colonel frowned. “I’d have though you eggheads would have come up with a more scientific name for a device worth as much as a medium-sized battleship.”

“Um… it does have a more scientific name, sir. It’s just that ‘hippocampal neural wave retractor’ is quite a mouthful for most people without a bio-engineering degree.”

The colonel turned to the monitor.
“You have two terabytes of completely contradictory data here, doctor. And I’m fan of Occam’s Razor. If we were at war right now, I’d be inclined to think you were a traitor, inexpertly trying to plant false information. As it is, the simplest theory I have is that you or your assistants are incompetent and screwed up the tests. Help me find a more plausible explanation so I don’t have to send you to jail… Mr. Evans.”

“Look… look, sir. Just please give me at least two days’ time to run diagnostics. I’m sure we can figure out the problem. You have to cut us some slack. The situation is completely unprecedented.”

James Evans clutched the hem of his lab coat until his knuckles turned as white as the coat’s material. The desperation in his voice was palpable. The nervous face behind the sleek carbon-rim glasses was thin and sharp, almost ghostly.

“Fine. You’ll have your 48 hours. But I want real results by then. Has the intelligence unit delivered the subject’s personnel files?”

“Yes, colonel. I’ve got them here somewhere.”

Evans nearly dove into a pile of wires and datapads strewn across a work desk in the corner of the dimly lit observation room. After a few seconds of nervous rummaging, he emerged with a small device sporting a slightly outdated holoscreen.

“It’s all here sir.”
The colonel carefully took the data stick from the scientist’s trembling hands and pressed a small flat silver button. His face was thrown into sharp relief by the sudden pale light of the holographic file projection. Old jagged shrapnel scars ran along his cheeks like craters. Three deep age lines crossed the width of his forehead – the sign of man more used to thinking than talking. The light seemed to stop at his silver hair, as if having decided that illuminating anything so extremely white was decadently unnecessary. With the tired eyes of a soldier-turned-bureaucrat, he expertly scanned the lines of white-green text, narrowing his eyes every so often at a perplexing paragraph.

“You said he had a wife, Evans?”

“Yes, sir. Jennifer Vale. She seems one of the central figures in both scenarios.”

The colonel frowned.

“There’s very little in here about her. Did she die in one of the crashes?”

“No, colonel. She was sick, for a very long time. She was one of the first victims of Delgot’s. She worked as a microbiologist in the field, way before the colonial government was aware of the… peculiarities of the planet.”

“So where was she when the evacuation started?”
Evans shrugged.

“More than likely - in the local hospital or medical bay. People with Delgot’s don’t usually move around much, sir.”

He smiled sadly, displaying the first non-nervous emotion since he started talking.

“And there’s still no cure?”

“Not a reliable one, no. It’s not really much of a priority, given the rarity of the condition, sir.”

The military man frowned once again at the pale green hologram. His eyes looked through it at a point in space, unfocused and deep.

“You know, doctor… I’ve been serving for thirty six years now. I’ve seen a lot of things. Some still keep me up at night, once in a while. I’ve seen more people die than you have probably even met at your relatively young age. But this…” he waved the data stick, the hologram flickered. “This new chapter of space exploration we’ve stepped into…”, he sighed. “I don’t know how to deal with this.”

“Really, sir?”

Evans tried to sound polite, but once again just came off nervous. Luckily, the colonel wasn’t paying him much attention.

“Yes, it’s all just too out there, this crap. It defies experience and training. I mean… living ecosystems? Garden worlds with natural nerve gas? How’s that for a brain-twister? Or just simple cruel irony?”

He finally looked at the doctor - a heavy stare from beneath silver eyebrows.

“Do you know that I’ve been to the crash sites?”

Evans froze, wide-eyed.

“You have, sir?”

“Yes... Not a pleasant sight, of course. But that wasn’t the issue. That wasn’t anything new, see. It was that smell, Evans. That damned smell. We had protective suits on, completely hermetical. Full biohazard and radioactive protection. But the smell still… got… in. Made me sick, nauseous. And I never get nauseous, Evans, I used to be a fighter pilot on a Titan-class carrier. But this thing made me want to cough my insides out onto that damn blue grass. Smelled like… smelled like…”

“…burnt caramel.”

The old-fashioned clock hit a deafening note in the ringing silence. The two men, one young, one old, stared at each other for a long moment of mutual understanding. James Evans spoke: quietly, calmly.

“I worked on Demeter’s exploratory base for two months when it was just established. I asked HQ to be reassigned as soon as we had satellite communications. I ran… I ran, colonel. Those people who stayed, they were braver than me, though I guess that doesn’t take much.”

Evans fidgeted with a spare datapad he was still holding in his hands. He was avoiding the colonel’s eyes, but his voice was still calm and measured.

“We all knew something was wrong. Something we couldn’t yet observe or quantify. The men and women who stayed just wanted to believe that we could live there, that we could make that planet our home. It was… mesmerizing. Like living in a childhood dream come to life in the form of mountains, rivers, forests. Colors beyond description. Sights that modern computer visualization can’t match or even imagine. But the smell was like a hint of the place’s true nature… the smell was…”

***

The smell was truly everywhere now. Thick and choking, it filled every corner, every passageway and hospital room. Hunter sped up, ignoring the stitch in his side, racing down the medical bay’s corridors, barely managing to make the turns without crashing into walls. The siren was louder here, cutting through the silence like a red-hot scalpel. He knew what it meant and the thought filled him with leaden dread. Ice-cold butterflies danced and tore at the inside of his stomach.

“Sir, sir please, where are you….”
“Hunter, don’t go in, you know the quarantine rules….”

The words of the hospital staff, both familiar and not, were a distant buzz in his ears. Almost white noise, almost static. He shoved someone aside and heard the sound of crashing instruments and furniture. He didn’t know who it was. He didn’t care. He saw the quarantine doors at the end of the hallway. The stitch in his side was a dull throb now, nearly imperceptible.

He almost reached the doors when the tazer hit him. He growled like an animal and fell down on his knees, hard, with a sharp cracking sound. A primal anger boiled inside him, unhindered by the electrical charge, unhindered by the sickly-sweet smell or by the sound of rushing footsteps and commanding voices.

Under the mournful wail of the siren, he roared her name like a captured animal, over and over. He screamed it until he could no longer resist the electricity coursing through him like lightning. Then all he could do was whisper.

“Jennifer…”