by Elaine Vilar Madruga
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Originally appeared in New Orbit Magazine.
“Big fish eat little fish.”
Muh roamed the corners of what was, in times past, his home.
Now he was prey. The hunter was on his tail. He sniffed like a hound. Destroyed his hideouts. Muh’s time was nearing its end. There was no way out, and the Gods of Water and Mist had stopped answering him thousands of moons ago. So, he blinked his purple eyes open and braced himself for the blow.
The shot came at him as if in slow motion: a flash of pain laced through his translucent skin. For a brief moment, he attempted to wiggle out of the electrical net the hunter had thrown over his wounded body, but soon he gave up. Muh understood. It was a fair price. For too many eons, he had postponed that moment of liberation and forgiveness.
Slowly, he let himself be dragged into the void.
The sour taste of his fluids bathed his body. He convulsed. His wound was severe. He didn’t have to see to know that. Blind, he dragged his tactile extensions that hung like weak horns on his forehead to measure the size of the fire hole that singed his guts.
Immense like a lunar crater. Painful.
He screamed in terror.
Water trickled through the hole in his stomach. His body had turned into a flimsy layer of skin and some bones as thin as fog. He tried to keep his liquids from being drained, but in vain. Soon he’d be as dry as a root of that Red Winter of the Conquest that already extended to several moons.
He couldn’t think any longer. Bits of his guts spilled to the parched earth of his world.
He convulsed again, but he no longer felt anything, not even the spasms of his own body. Then he stayed still. He had already fallen into the abyss, and unconsciousness led him further and further down. He couldn’t crawl or escape from the hunter.
“I’m dying.” His words trickled in a halting mumble while the hunter rummaged through his deepest liquids, but without causing him, strangely, more suffering. “The Death Gods of the Mist have taken pity on my loneliness in the end. Luxo’s last survivor.”
Miles Artsixten inched forward. The dying prey’s screams hurt his eardrums. They sounded like the pan flutes with which the Earthling women entertained their party guests, but much more pervasive. Miles thought if he had to listen to that sick dog’s lament for a few minutes, he would end up losing his mind and shooting himself in order to spare himself from the torturous howl.
His hands were shaking. Certainly, his aim wouldn’t be accurate. That morning of pursuit and hunting had exhausted his senses. He only wished that the day would end once and for all so that he could return to the refuge—not always warm—of the base, with the prey in good condition.
“If they dry completely before death,” Miles recalled, “the hide is useless. Pure shit can’t be recycled not even as pulp for coats.”
He rummaged again through the dark hole that pierced the dying animal’s flesh. To his relief, although the shot had ruptured some of the water bags—liquid testicles, as the veteran hunters would say half-jokingly—at least a dozen remained intact. Sufficient. He hadn’t wasted his time like a fool running through the forests on that infernal planet of conical trees whose leaves looked like blue and red bubbles, or listening to the constant moaning of the plants he stepped on in his tracks. At least, this time the veterans wouldn’t make fun of him. Not too much.
With a smile of sheer elation, Miles loaded the last cartridge he had saved for the hunt that afternoon. Slowly, like a gourmet who savors the greatest dishes. Now that he knew the water bags were safe, he could slow down and savor the moment.
He rested the mouth of his gun on the creature’s translucent head. It was important to refrain from shooting fools and crazies, because he could lose all the pay of that day and his time. “My first prey,” he thought cheerfully. “Let’s see what the fuckers at the base say today. Shit! Eight hundred megacredits for this hide, at least.”
He delivered the final shot, with the elegance and calmness of a veteran.
The beast gave a deafening sigh, as if the pan flute had been accidentally crushed and broken into a thousand tiny bits.
“Shut up now!” shouted Miles as he covered his ears.
“I wish these creatures would die in silence,” he thought with a grimace. “But I suppose it’s too much to ask.”
With the tips of his metal-toed boots, which were as hard as knives, he touched the creature lying dead at his feet. A trickle of water ran across the earth. Almost nothing.
Then the silence fell. An absolute, devastating silence.
The moaning shrubs on the planet stopped wailing. His boots sank into the leaf-covered ground. Metallic creaking. He made clicking sounds with his tongue as he wiggled it, restless, inside his mouth. But nothing else.
A shiver ran down his spine and his scrotum tightened. He needed human company soon, even if it was only those idiots at the base. He needed to be safely away from this silent graveyard.
“Who knows? Maybe we do kill off whole species,” he thought. “Perhaps I’ve just killed the last of its kind.” He grimaced, not convinced of his own words.
But anyway, what did it matter? Those were the arcane laws of survival. No one would judge the Earthlings for expanding their domain beyond the boundaries of outer space.
It was simple: men had turned out to be the creatures most likely to survive in the war of conquest, while the indigenous inhabitants on that planet scurried to hide like scared rabbits in their bubble holes. Humans had simply hunted the rabbits and seized their world.
Big fish eat little fish.
Miles did quick mental math. The Imperial Wrecks of the Earth had explored the galaxy for centuries in search of some intelligent being. In all that time, only ten of the discovered worlds contained the miracle of life. A lifeform very different from the one the conquerors had expected: arboreal pygmies, mutant animals covered with scales, insectoids that possessed double larynges and emitted the most incredible dodecaphonic sounds, feline Siamese twins that mated at all hours and everywhere. Miles did the math. “We wipe them out. The end.”
“A hunter never trembles before his prey,” he reminded himself as his game’s considerable weight almost caused his knees to buckle. “Damn these frightened creatures!”
He marched with steady steps through the forests of bubbles and crystal, which were silent for the first time in a long while. In the meantime, the numbing cadence of the red rivers forced him to move more slowly than usual. His mind was full of thoughts about his destination and the leap-years that separated him from his home. He heaved an anxious sigh.
The iron skeletons of the hunters’ huts suddenly rose before his eyes.
Miles entered the base. He walked almost bent by the weight of the dead beast. It was really prized game. His ticket to join the ranks of veterans. His amulet.
An orgy of deafening whistles received him. The men gave him a big hand and showered him with their usual swear words while they busied themselves with sharpening their knives and reloading the diexs, those poison capsules that had saved a veteran’s skin more than once. Quite a few beasts lay in blind ambush among bubble trees and leaped out with deafening roars.
“Bravo, bravissimo, dear friend,” the hunters howled, emitting a cacophony of cheers and curses. “Some of us were quite certain that you’d come home empty-handed.”
“Go fuck your mothers’ whores.” Miles spat out in perfect English, although many didn’t even understand a syllable and just laughed at him. After all, few still understood the cradle tongues that had gone out of use so long ago. “Leave me alone, fuckers.”
He moved away from the group. He drew his own knife. Carefully, he took a seat among the veteran hunters—the place that until that afternoon had been off-limits to him and the rest of the rookies in the group—and began his task. The metal walls of the base shone as the particular odor of hunting and carcass suddenly wafted through the air.
Six strokes of the knife on the beast’s greasy hide were enough to remove it. Eight. Ten. He carved his name on the flesh with skillful movements. The tanning machine would do the rest of the work.
“Well,” a veteran hunter on his right smiled at Miles without looking up from his own work. “Did it put up a good fight? Was it fun?”
“That thing.” The veteran smiled again and then hurled a curse in some dead tongue Miles didn’t speak. “What the hell did it do? Did it fight back?”
“No. It was a cinch. Nothing to it.”
“Same as all we’ve done in this damn colony,” the other man conceded. “An occasional diversion would do us good. We’re getting rusty little by little. Listen to what I tell you. Damn the day I signed the papers to be here. Killing harmless creatures! Speaking of which, it’s better for us, although the damn peace on this planet ends up frying my left hemisphere.”
“Better for us.” Miles bent over. The fatigue began to crawl through every bone in his body. “Why the left hemisphere?”
“Just because. C’est la vie.”
Miles’s face shrunk into a grimace as if he had aged prematurely. With a slow gesture, he picked up the hide, which had already been tanned and made free of contaminating agents, as the insistent call of the machine went off. He ran his fingers over the hide and caressed its texture, which was both rough and exquisite. Then he entered his cubicle.
Miles knew the hide would make life much easier inside the base. “All mighty megacredits,” thought Miles with a wry smile. Good organic food and some fleeting pleasure in the human contact simulators. Nothing too sexual, just a hug would suffice. “Like my mother’s hug,” he thought. “My poor mother back home on Earth.”
A stab of loneliness shook him, but he still continued to spread the hide over the bare floor. Then he stepped on it. He was surprised by the warmth that it gave off and its scent that reminded him of forest, fog, and water, as if the whole essence of that planet were condensed in the piece. Red seas, purple waves, crystal forests. Flame-shaped stones. Bubbles. Fire. Fear. The beasts’ bloodshed eyes.
“If you could see all this, Mother.”
Old memories raced back to him in his dream and led him to the sands of the Earth he remembered as clearly as the day of his departure. His mother held her handkerchief etched with the blue cross of the First Orthodox Church of Naurì, crossed herself for luck on her sweaty forehead, and then stretched out her hand in a wave goodbye without tears.
He dared to dream of his return to Earth, as someone a little older and richer. His mother, all wide eyed and astonished, in his memory hadn’t aged even a day and wouldn’t die without seeing him come down from a ship of the Imperial Wrecks.
“What could I give you, Mother?”
The hide between his fingers was still hot, as if life existed beneath it.
He thought of his mother’s arthritis, which not even the deepest prayers of the pastoral congregation of the First Orthodox Church of Naurì had been able to cure. He remembered those pains and increasingly colder nights on Earth.
“Mother,” he whispered and imagined her wrapped in the body heat of his hunting trophy, listening to the same noises of the mysterious planet with bloodshed eyes and breathing in that strange smell of birth and death.
“It’ll be for her,” Miles thought. He already knew he wouldn’t be parted from the hide no matter what happened.
He dreamed of beasts gazing at him with open scarlet eyes.
He just dreamed.
Soon he’d return to Earth.
It had to be like this.
He had a son. His name was Dird—The Blessed One in the language of the Church of Naurì. But he never got to see him grow, smile, or contemplate the green forests on Earth.
Everything was so fast—like the cruel rainfall that seeped into an anthill and destroyed the work of generations.
For Miles, it was perhaps preferable.
War had already broken out. The fright had begun.
Over the dome cities on Earth, the silence was spreading. First slowly, then overtaking everything. Waves of panic and suicides. Screams that pierced the night. Ships that flew over the skies like gigantic water stains.
Earth had fallen into a net. Big fish eat little fish. Scrambling for survival, humanity and its most beautiful creations had turned into a herd of beasts hidden in their holes, which always left behind thousands of indelible marks. Footprints that came in handy for hunters who would sniff around and annihilate.
Meanwhile, humans beat themselves with what was left of their pride. And still many refused to admit to being prey.
“How did this happen to us?” Miles wondered with a crazed look on his face. He saw so much, yet had no idea.
Settler, hunter… and now prey.
Because while men struggled with their ideas of conquest and expansion throughout the known universe, Earth was attacked like a helpless bubble that now – fifteen years later – seemed to burst from one moment to another. Flames swept the cities and fields, and it was too late.
“Big fish eat little fish,” Miles recalled with a naked smile, touching his body covered in rags of what was once a soldier’s uniform. Three years earlier, his own dome city had been burned down as a defenseless shack and the few who had survived the encounter with the invaders fled with useless hopes and memories. Nothing else.
“What do they have left to conquer?” Miles lamented while he rubbed his aching temples.
He had wandered from city to city for several years. Crushed by a terrible fate, each city had crumbled under the weight of new masters. Conical ships—which were so similar to clouds that it was impossible to determine whether it was a rainy day or an attack was imminent—flew over the skies and then dropped a load of atomic plasma that swept everything in its path: men, fields, crops, domes.
Miles kept shivering at the dèjá vu. He was perhaps the last man left alive on Earth.
Then he began to accept.
He knew resistance was a futile effort. All his doubts and his pains were nothing more than an unimportant thread in the immense tapestry of the conquest. His time had come to an end.
He began a long way back to the ruins of what was, in times past, his home. He didn’t want death to catch him by surprise, because the few good memories he still had were bound, no doubt, to the place where the ashes continued to smolder, despite the years that had passed.
Now he knew the feeling of running away and getting caught. To be the beast the conquerors – those giant Cyclops who peaked at the world from the divinity of their only eye – were striving to chase like rabbits.
Deafened from constant blasts, Miles trod. In the distance, the dark figures of the Cyclops still searched for a prey’s trail.
Bright green eyes like lighthouses found his beast footprints.
A gigantic metal glove pointed at Miles, and then he understood.
“I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die like this,” he screamed inside.
He ran. He ran with all the remaining strength, despite hunger and thirst. His famished bones looked like rattles he had hidden under a simple layer of skin. He ran over the mute ashes, not daring to look back.
A dozen clouds began to swirl in the sky and cover it with a strange metallic color. Miles thought that it was another attack, and that those conical ships would strike him dead silently, in a few seconds. But no. It was only the rain.
Then he stopped.
He extended his fingers.
He couldn’t run anymore. His lungs were broken bellows that groaned for rest. Miles acquiesced.
“It’s useless trying to escape,” he thought as the Cyclops’ steps came closer and closer.
The conqueror shouted in his intelligible language. Miles looked up, but he could barely see anything other than those rain clouds. He couldn’t hear or understand anything. He stood still, his throat full of pain and a bewildering peace that dazzled him.
One shot fired as if in slow motion: a flash of fire struck his flesh and stopped, just for a moment, his heartbeat. He collapsed slowly, with a little pain and fury. He couldn’t defend himself. He couldn’t stop the Cyclops’ blows.
He vomited his own blood.
A cold sweat covered his limbs and forehead.
“At least I won’t be the last one,” he said, his teeth clenched in pain that pierced each of his bones like an arrow.
Then he froze completely.
Shaist-elxer, an illustrious Ikku and Namar, stepped forward when he saw the collapsed prey. He observed it in detail. “These things are so weak,” he thought with a grimace. The hunt hadn’t even been exciting. He barely touched the carcass with the back of his hand. It disgusted him.
An ikku couldn’t return to the Nest with such a prey.
“I’ll have to look for another,” he lamented for a moment and muttered his curse at the damned planet.
Then Shaist-elxer walked impassive through the few remaining forests on Earth, the crash of waves closeby.
He stopped for a second to listen and discovered right away that nothing buzzed in his ears. He eased his pace while Earth’s colors took shape in his memory and a particular scent seeped into his sinuses.
Scents of seas and borders. Scents of fire and seasons. Scents of life and death that exploded in the last memory of his glory.