Hunt: An excerpt from “Outland Exile”

HUNT

CORE, Democratic Unity of America
08.35.17.local 11 10 AU76
As her consciousness floated in the middle depths, she felt the freedom of her movements and enjoyed the surge of her predatory impulses. For a moment, Malila rippled the chromatophores along her four- meter length in pleasure before returning her borrowed skin to the pattern of the hunt. Her appearance now owed second by second as sensors discerned the light falling upon them and mimicked the surface opposite to match.

Second Lieutenant Malila Evanova Chiu’s mind tasted the salinity, the pressure, the faint rhythmic surge and ow of the waves around her, and … her prey. In the instant of thought, she sent her winged diamond shape pulsing through the middepths, her skin adapting to the ow of water streaming over it, letting her slip along with barely a pressure wave. The designers of her avatar had subjugated all functions to the hunt, abandoning her need to feed, excrete, breathe, or pity. She saw in many dimensions of sight, sound, touch, and taste. Her sea avatar could harry, hunt, and kill even the largest animals on the diminished planet.

Reaching her selected rendezvous, she slowed and stopped. Although she had nothing as awkward as a mouth to disrupt her sleek envelope, she smiled. The prey were still oblivious to her, making a cacophony of clicking and splashing in the distance. It was time.

Malila Chiu mimicked a sound that had not been heard since the Meltdown. She stilled, waiting for the one animal aggressive enough to leave the group and give chase.

Once separated from the others, she could attack and kill her massive opponent unmolested. The beast would be expecting a ailing and disabled squid. Instead, he—it was always a male—would nd a merciless killer. In the very moment the whale paused in consternation, she would thrust forward into his vital organs and sever the huge conduits of the heart.

She thrummed again and could now tell that all the animals had stopped—except one. She again smiled her bodiless smile and waited, listening to the rapid thrust of her prey’s vast undulating tail as it forced the sea to part, pressing his attack upon her. By the noise, he seemed to be the largest Movasi she had ever taken. She moved away from her decoy sound and reset her chromatophores to render herself a mere ellipsis in the ow of water around her.

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It was only then she remembered to reengage her sound lters. While she had passively listened for her prey, her sensors had been sensitive to the most-distant sounds, but now Malila needed protection from the din of combat. In that instant, the attack began. A rapid crescendo of focused clicks hit her like hammer blows. The concussions seemed to atten her sleek shape, encasing her in a chaos of noise. Had she internal organs, the detonations would have disabled her. She drifted in the currents, trying to reorder her sensors. No longer able to hear, her courage in tatters against an invisible opponent, she ed.

Even as she sprinted away, she sensed the predatory green-gray shape, its forked jaws agape with its terrible scimitar teeth, sweep by to plunge into the volume of ocean from which she had just escaped. The sight of her huge opponent steadied her. She was turning to pursue when her returning sensors made her look below to see in the featureless depths the attack of the second whale.

It was no wonder the sonic signature was so large; the Movasi were hunting as a team. She had no strategy to confront them. She sprinted aside as the second whale, the greater of the two, rushed past, his wake tumbling her into confusion again.

She righted herself, with di culty this time, but had no idea where the huge predators had gone … or from whence they would come again.

Malila considered abandoning the e ort, but an unsuccessful hunt would condemn her fellow citizens to a cold, hungry winter. Other than the sharp beak at the leading edge of her body, she had no other weapons. Her defenses were stealth, speed, and cunning. To reduce her avatar’s sonar signature, the designers had eliminated the squid’s suckered and barbed arms in favor of her sleek shape.

Her dilemma was the same as every predator facing two adversaries. If she tried for a killing blow on one, she would be open to attack by the other. If disabled, she would be unable to ee; winning one battle, wounded, would be a death sentence.

Out of the buzzing of her returning hearing, she detected a murmur that might be the rushing charge of one of the whales. A thought gave her sudden con dence. Edie, her metaphract, a nonsentient translator between herself and the CORE, had found a saying: “If things go south, think sideways.”

It would depend on timing.

Malila tried to calm herself. She was just able to see the glint of the recurved white teeth rising up from the depths before she acted. Launching one of her two drogue buoys, she backed away a few meters from the path of the attack. The drogue buoy jetted away before in ating with a subtle click. It hesitated, almost like a confused animal, before it began its increasingly rapid ascent.

The smaller and younger of the two Movasi whales, sleek, massive, voracious, and eellike, altered his course and followed the drogue as it appeared to ee.

As the leviathan careened past, Malila darted forward, cutting a massive slice along the muscular green tail, blood spewing out of the widening red mouth of the wound. The bull turned toward her attack even as she disengaged herself. Before the snakelike head could seize her, she thrust the remaining drogue buoy deep within his still-living esh and ed up toward the warmth and light.

The great beast, no doubt, would nd no di culty in following her thin trail of cavitation bubbles in the water. At this depth, she knew, the wound she had in icted would hardly slow the whale’s next attack. Malila imagined jaws encircling her, the terrible teeth gripping her, even as she heard the Movasi surge toward her on his massive ukes.

She heard the buoy deploy.

Her hopes lay with the placement of the buoy deep within the whale’s esh. As it in ated, it would send a shock wave, like a small bomb, into the pressure-dense tissue. The whale’s center of buoyancy would shift, the buoy’s pressure and obstruction sapping his ability to propel the gigantic tail.

Moments later, the Movasi, seemingly disoriented, oated slowly past her, ailing toward the surface. The drogue balloon in ating even more as he rose, the wounded animal thrashed his huge pectoral ukes in agony, red and overwhelmed.

Her arsenal of drogues, meant to keep dead whales from sinking to rot in the abysmal depths, was now exhausted.

Where was the other whale? Malila cautiously lowered her sound lters again, forming a picture of the rst whale’s death throes from the cacophony of sounds. To her dismay, a sonar shadow lurked, obscured and silent near the surface noise. The other big male was waiting, pointing his snout in her direction. He was using his wounded partner to attract and distract … her.

Realization ashed through Malila, her skin prickling with the twin emotions of fear and rage. Again, she considered slipping away. Her top surface speed exceeded anything the whale might achieve. However, a strenuous and skillful ght did not ll any bellies; hunters were justi ed by success alone.

Sideways.

She regulated her buoyancy, adjusting it to become negative, and slipped into the cold, dark depths. Discovering a current of seawater running toward and under her remaining adversary, she let herself drift like otsam, tumbling and turning. She took no action until she was almost beyond the blood plume. Righting herself, she rose wraithlike until she could taste the still-potent billowing blood.

Turning, ashing, bursting from the bloody cover, abandoning pretense, she darted forward toward the cloaking sound of the dying whale.

Surprise was almost complete. As she emerged from cover, she saw the splashes of gray and green of the Movasi’s great ank and targeted him in the midthorax, halfway from snakelike head to tri d tail. Her quarry, nally sensing her presence, turned to meet the attack, his jaw serrated with back-curving teeth opening to seize her. Malila’s hardened beak slid along the muscular side before she could disengage and turn to protect herself from his attack. A long wound opened up and added more hot blood to the cold sea. She reversed course, pushing away from the beast to circle around the smaller ailing animal. The old bull surfaced and, laboring, blew a plume of overheated breath, the cold air condensing it into a tall bloodless column. There was nothing to do but circle the two Movasi, awaiting the killing chance.

The end, when it came, surprised her. Taking her reticence for injury or timidity, the old bull rushed at her as she appeared around the bulk of his dying companion. She retreated and in her ight matched her speed to the old one’s pursuit. As he accelerated, she led him away from the blood plume.

She taunted him, sometimes allowing him to approach closer if he appeared to tire, then lengthening the gap to make the whale expend the greatest amount of e ort and blood to keep her in sight.

Finally, he faltered. Perhaps convinced that she was abandoning her hunt, the old bull turned to retrace his path. As he did, Malila darted forward and plunged her beak into the unprotected ank. An immediate rush of hot blood rewarded her attack. She thrust on and felt her beak cut through cartilage, bone, and muscle. Only when the gush of high-pressure blood sprayed across her beak did she pull out from the wound. The great bull spun once on his axis and was still. She swam to the still-struggling younger one to dispatch him and signaled the sea tugs to recover the carcasses.

In due course, the nation would learn of her victory. The recovery of both Movasi after combat in the open ocean was noteworthy by itself; her status as a mere E11—only seventeen years old—added savor to the story. Hundreds of her people would toast her hunting skills over whale dinners. She rendezvoused with the boats to take the whales in tow. Malila was pleased.

Malila moved the controls in her O-A, experiencing the odd but reassuring disorientation as she left the body of her sea avatar.

In a trivial way, or so it appeared to her masters, Physeter movasii and all the toothed whales, both natural and genetically engineered, had been extinct on this particular planet for the last fty years. That was of minimal consequence, moreover, as Malila’s sea avatar, the Movasi carcasses, the surface tugs, the crowds cheering from the shore, and, indeed, even the ocean evaporated from the simulation stage as soon as Second Lieutenant Malila E. Chiu reincorporated. Technicians of the CORE submitted reports, wiped the temporary data stacks, and started the next scheduled simulation.

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