Authors: Jennifer Foehner Wells
© 2016 by Jennifer Foehner Wells
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
“Oh,” said the general, “it supplies me with the
most exciting hunting in the world. No other hunting
compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt,
and I never grow bored now, for I have a
quarry with which I can match my wits.”
The Most Dangerous Game
The following excerpt is taken from correspondence originally intended for Barl Tinumun, a highly decorated admiral and leader of the drudii fleet fighting for Inaricaa at the end of the inaricaan-rewquian war in the Hesteau system.
The messages were sent by Commander Yern Iubem, one of many drudii scouts sent by Admiral Tinumun in search of Terra, the isolated, far-flung world the Cunabula wrote of cryptically in ancient digital texts. The Cunabula reputedly interbred several strains of their most aggressive hominid species on this world, planning to create a warrior species to protect their galactic genetic legacy in the difficult millennia to come. The drudii hoped to find refuge and allies on this world—if they could locate it in time.
However, by the time the messages reached the Hesteau system, Tinumun was already dead, betrayed by the drudii’s inaricaan siblings, who had created the drudii subspecies from their own people in time of war. It was at this time that the government of Inaricaa hired a lovek mercenary fleet to destroy the drudii fleet and then hunt down whoever had escaped.
I hope this dispatch finds you having successfully navigated the diplomatic negotiations for our rights at home. That is optimistic of me, I think, given that I haven’t received any reply to my previous seven missives as well as the hostility with which we were received upon returning home. I’ve routed each successive communique through different relay points in hopes that there is a simple mechanical explanation for your reticence, but as time goes on I worry for you…and for all of us.
This will be my final message. Simply put, our technology is failing. We were never meant to be colonists. Had we known we would be here for such a duration we certainly would have been outfitted differently. The time is long since past when we had enough fuel for a return trip, and the natives of this world do not have any industry that could recreate such complex compounds even in their crudest forms. But we are soldiers, not scientists, and so here we are.
I believe we are occupying the world we sought. As we had hoped, the terrans are a genetically compatible species. We proved this first via rudimentary genetic testing and then by virtue of physical trials.
The indigenous people are socially hierarchical in nature, competitive, patriarchal, tribal, jingoistic, and belligerent, for the most part. They are certainly more aggressive than any species we have ever encountered. This is a generality, of course. Exceptions abound, but I don’t think I mischaracterize the majority.
Culturally these people have divided themselves into factions, mainly by continent. These factions have become so entrenched that significant cosmetic traits have evolved to differentiate between them, further fueling their divisiveness, though our genetic tests show no significant difference between them. These factions frequently fight each other for resources and land. Within factions, familial subfactions have formed which do the same. Alliances between groups tend to be short-lived and abandoned when convenient.
We have found the terrans in a primitive preindustrial state, and the planet itself in a glacial geological epoch. Long-range communication on the ground does not exist. Travel is undertaken on the backs of large animals. Life is hard and primitive. Moving ahead without any technology will be a challenge. Record keeping will be difficult, but we shall persevere.
When we did not receive any reply to our third communique, we decided upon a contingency plan. I have separated the crew geographically, placing each crewmember on a different continent in close proximity to a geoelectromagnetic source. Marking those sources with durable monuments is a high priority so that you can find us when you arrive, since communication will no longer be possible.
We have perforce learned many skills the locals find useful, and I believe my crewmembers will prosper in this trade economy. Each individual is commissioned with the task of creating their own breeding program. We went over, at length, all materials we could find in the
’s archive on maintaining genetic viability and how to pass down our mission from generation to generation as a secret oral tradition. This puts myself and the two other female crewmembers at a disadvantage, given the prevalent patriarchal cultural norms worldwide, but we are undaunted. We will keep our breeding groups close-knit and we will be ready for you, if you come.
I, myself, have produced nine offspring by nine different male terrans. All nine display full druidic traits. I selected suitable terran mates for the two eldest, who have now come to reproductive viability. The second generation also displays full druidic traits. We test and train each child. If, in time, the traits become diluted, we will migrate to join another enclave for interbreeding. We will strive to keep our culture and knowledge intact. We have found the terrans to be quite flexible and curious about such things.
As a precaution we have sunk our ship in an ocean to prevent its detection. It raised too many questions among the natives, and leaving it visible on the planet’s surface only left us vulnerable to incidental discovery from outsiders.
This is the state of things.
I continue to hope that you are safe and will come to us here with the resources needed for our people to thrive out of harm’s way on this isolated world.
Commander of the
Truth, Honor, Victory
a good thing she loved him.
Darcy Eberhardt wanted nothing more than to plant her butt in the red, dusty gravel and refuse to go a step farther, but she plodded on in Adam’s wake anyway. Eventually, he’d stop. She’d learned long ago that unpleasant things like this interminable hike and the academic part of medical school felt Sisyphean, but everything, everything, everything had an end.
She’d keep going until she dropped, if necessary. She was nothing if not dogged, but she couldn’t refrain from protesting as they passed a flat, level area next to the sketchy trail, yet another perfectly adequate place to set up camp. “Adam! We’re going to have to do this again tomorrow, just to get home! This is far enough. It’s lovely here. Beautiful, even. Let’s stop.”
He was twenty paces ahead and just glanced back with a patient smile. “It’s not much farther. It’ll be so worth it, Darce.”
It would have to be monumentally exciting to be worth it at this point, she thought, but she wouldn’t say that out loud and ruin his fun. He’d been anticipating this hike for weeks. It seemed to be really important to him—and if it was important to him, it was important to her. So, she would trudge on until he let her stop.
She was too preoccupied by sheer exhaustion—not to mention hunger pangs, painfully blistered feet, and aching calves—to actually care about the scenery anymore. They’d woken before dawn to arrive at the trailhead as the sun came up, so they’d have enough time to do the hike in a single day. To say she was unaccustomed to this level of strenuous exercise would be an understatement.
Though the sky was still intensely blue, the shadows were lengthening and cooler breezes were kicking up. Her bra was still saturated with sweat and she was starting to feel cold and clammy now that the day’s heat was subsiding. She’d been drenched and dried a few times over the course of the day, boulder hopping and even wading through creeks to get to this remote location. She was a filthy, bedraggled mess.
Her ponytail had slipped down, plastering her tightly coiled locks, heavy and sweaty, against her neck. She paused to remake it higher on her head, and the cool breeze kissed her neck. She shivered despite the sun still shining on her. Even slathered with SPF 50 she was going to be darker after this excursion. She sighed. At least she was making some vitamin D.
What passed for a trail looked deceptively flat, but her calves knew otherwise. As her pounding heart slowed, she captured the bite valve hovering over her right shoulder between her teeth—gently squeezing to release a flood of plastic-flavored, lukewarm water into her mouth—and took in the scenery.
They’d gained some altitude. The view was breathtaking, with layered, red-limestone rock formations and scrub for miles in every direction. After growing up in the spaces between lush green cornfields in Ohio, the Arizona desert was like a beautiful, alien landscape.
It wasn’t attractive to whine and complain, but she just wanted to lie down, get warm and dry, eat something delicious, and not move for three days.
What a luxury that would be.
She already felt guilty about the break in her routine. She should be studying. Another round of exams was coming up and there just weren’t enough hours in the week to do everything. Maybe she shouldn’t have let Adam convince her to do this hike. He’d declared that she was too stressed, that she needed time away to refuel, that it would be easier to do the work if she could relax, get closer to nature, and remember what she was working toward. This wasn’t the first time they’d done something like this. Camping and hiking trips were his go-to stress relief. Normally she didn’t mind so much.
But she didn’t see how getting bone-tired on a hike was going to accomplish that. He was trying to help, but he didn’t understand. He was already living like an adult. He worked a nine-to-five job and had plenty of free time. He’d already forgotten what cramming for exams felt like. And this was so much more difficult than undergrad had ever been. It was relentless.
But he’d been more than patient for the last year and a half. He didn’t complain when she begged off at the last minute or fell asleep mid-date. He didn’t ask for much. So here she was. Humoring the guy who brought her breakfast in bed most Sunday mornings and didn’t complain that she spent the rest of the day studying instead of hanging out with him.
She shrugged. There was plenty of guilt to go around in medical school. Most relationships couldn’t survive this kind of stress. Almost everyone she knew was single or just having fun without commitments. But she thought that the two of them were different. They were stronger than most. They could beat the odds. If they managed to stay together, she’d make it up to him one day.
She shifted her weight. Her knees felt compressed and achy. The backpack should have gotten lighter as she drank the water level down, but it only seemed heavier as the day went on. She paused to stretch and adjust a strap, smiling ruefully as she remembered Adam chuckling at her when he caught her trying to fit her pathology textbook into the pack earlier that morning. She freely admitted now that it was a good thing he had, but she needed to stay within that book’s orbit if she was going to pass the class on the first try.
She resolved to break out the notes she’d smuggled into the pack and study for at least an hour when they arrived at the campsite. Microbiology wasn’t so bad. She had a good, solid foundation in that, thanks to undergraduate coursework. Pathology, however, was kicking her butt. It fascinated her, but it just didn’t seem like there was time to commit all of it to memory in a way that would last the rest of her adult life.
She constantly fretted about it. She was smart and worked hard. She would pass the boards. But could she retain all of these facts she was stuffing into her head, every last gene product, chromosome location, and toxin name? What if one day someone died because of this little hike? How could she ever forgive herself if that were to happen?
Everyone expected so much of her. She was the first to go to college from either side of the family. She hadn’t gotten to this point alone. She intended to work in poor underserved minority communities to give back. It was easier for people of color to trust a doctor with brown skin and they both needed and deserved for her to become the best doctor she could possibly be.
She sighed and looked up. Adam was waiting for her, just a few feet away.
“How do you feel, Darce?” he asked as she came up alongside him.
She didn’t trust herself to reply. He looked too cheerful, too unaffected by the thirteen-mile ordeal. She hated the feeling that welled up inside her. It was offensive to feel that way about someone she cared about so much.
What was I thinking when I decided to date an exercise nut?
He bussed her forehead and some of her irritation melted away. He was gentle and kind even when she was a total grump. He was definitely a keeper. “This is a very special place. It’s used mostly by my people, kept quiet to keep tourists from ruining it. There’s no one for miles. We’re completely alone.”
She grimaced and raised her eyebrows at him. “It’s special?”
He looked a little wary. “This isn’t like your mom’s new-age woo-woo stuff. It’s been documented, scientifically.”
A crow circled overhead, cawing raucously, the first sound she’d heard aside from their own voices and footsteps for hours. Her lip curled a little as she shielded her eyes to look up at it. Her mother would probably say it was an omen. Would it be bad or good? What would she say it meant? Truth be told she hadn’t spent enough time with her mother to absorb much of the nonsense. Her mom was always off somewhere new “finding herself.” Thank God her dad was a rock.
“What’s been documented?” she asked, trying to keep her skepticism contained.
His mouth screwed up into a mischievous smile. He tugged on her arm and pulled her along. She groaned theatrically and let herself be dragged. Whatever this was, his enthusiasm for it hadn’t declined a bit.
As they reached the crest of the outcropping, she slowed and dropped Adam’s hand. She could hear rushing water. Then the view opened up. A small, bowl-shaped gorge was nestled on the other side, with a fifty-foot waterfall ending in a pool of sparkling turquoise water.
Adam grinned. “Yeah? See? Not so shabby. And this isn’t the half of it.” He took off at a brisk pace down the slope.
She felt a little lighter as she followed him, giddily slipping in the loose gravel, moving faster than she had for hours. The trail wound down the shoulder of the ridge with a couple of switchbacks and got far steeper as they got closer to the bottom.
Someone had anchored a heavy chain in the cliff face to hold on to and carved some rough footholds. For the first time that day, Darcy worried a bit for their safety. A fall from that height could certainly be fatal.
She checked her cell. There was no signal and the battery was almost dead. It had been fully charged when they left, though she’d never had a phone that could hold a charge for a whole day, so she wasn’t surprised. She had the worst luck with cell phones. The batteries never lasted more than a couple of months.
Finally, they reached a point where the trail simply dropped off. A rickety wooden ladder had been placed there to descend the last twelve feet or so. Her legs felt wobbly as she climbed down, but they got to the bottom without incident.
Adam stripped, discarding his clothes on a pile of limestone fallen from the cliff face, and waded into the pool. Darcy glanced around, reassuring herself that they were truly alone, and quickly followed suit. The water was cool and shallow. Her weariness melted away as she submerged herself, washing away the sweat and grit of the day. She floated easily on the surface for a few minutes before she started to feel chilled and rose, refreshed, to dress and give Adam a hand setting up camp.
They pitched the tent some distance from the spray on a high spot jutting out from the canyon wall like a shelf. Adam assembled a lightweight camp stove and pulled out a package of dehydrated soup. Darcy arranged his bedroll inside the tent then came to join him, wrapping her own sleeping bag around herself and turning on their small LED lantern. Darkness was settling quickly inside the canyon. Temperatures could range by as much as forty to fifty degrees in the desert between day and night. Despite the growing chill, she was surprised to notice she really didn’t feel as terrible as she’d thought she would.
Adam handed her a baggie of whole-grain crackers. “Some carbs will help you warm up quickly, Darce.”
She took them gratefully and smiled at him. “So, okay. This is pretty amazing. Sorry I complained.”
He looked pleased with himself and handed her a packet of almond butter. She squeezed its contents into her mouth while the soup heated up. It was sticky, rich and satisfying. She resisted asking for his.
“You mentioned the People use this place? What for?” Adam was multiracial—part black, part Asian, part Native American. One of his grandfathers was a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Adam had never made much of that during their college days in Ohio. He just sort of passed as an ambiguously brown guy, with people always asking him where he was from. Since moving back to Phoenix after graduation, he’d been exploring the Native aspect of his heritage more. She envied that to some degree though she worried about him getting involved with what she could only call mysticism, something she was excruciatingly sensitive to because of her own upbringing.
But at least he was connecting with that group better than she’d ever connected with either of her own. She acted “too white” for most African Americans she knew and she would never be anything more than the token black friend for most whites. Neither group could truly understand her experiences. They were too far out of both of their comfort zones. Darcy lived in the space between two cultures, legitimately belonging to both, but never fully accepted by either. She was a piece without a puzzle. A minority within a minority.
But Adam understood only too well. It was a common bond they shared.
Adam rose carefully so he wouldn’t knock over the precariously balanced stove and took her hand. He led her across the gorge to an open place where someone had left several tall, narrow stacks of flat stones. There was a gnarled and twisted shrub nearby, covered in waxy blue berries and emanating the woodsy, pungent scent of juniper.
“Do you feel it, Darcy?”
Her eyebrows drew together. He was being uncharacteristically cryptic. She wasn’t sure where this was going and she was getting uncomfortable. “Feel what?”
“The energy of this place.”
She blinked slowly and dropped his hand. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but if he was starting down some shamanistic path…she couldn’t go there with him. He knew that.
She stood there, staring blankly at a stack of stones, probably placed there with some kind of religious intent. She couldn’t decide how to remind him that she had spent her childhood powerlessly watching her mother become sequentially obsessed with a multitude of gurus and belief systems, each time declaring it was the one true path, trusting, being drawn in, and often scammed. Before Darcy had moved in with her dad, there’d been many months of not eating much besides ramen, peanut butter, and government cheese, because her mother had given all her hard-earned money to another cybercriminal preying on those who desperately needed something to believe in outside themselves.
He knew her well enough to interpret her silence correctly. “Hey, no! No, no, no. It’s not like that.”
She searched his earnest face. “What’s it like, Adam?”
“No one completely understands it, but they’ve documented some weird stuff. Even the government has done some kind of geological survey, here and at other places like this. All this red rock is full of iron oxide. There are large quartz deposits under the rock and that’s got something to do with it. Also, there’s some kind of mineral called magnetite. It has to do with geology and magnetism. It’s like a hot spot of geomagnetic energy.”