Note: The first version of this story was written for Tori's 10min writing challange collab. While I think the short version of Outwild Hunters works well enough on its own, it didn't give me enough time to arrive at the ending that I wanted. Here is the story, expanded to 2216 words. It's probably a lot longer than most people are used to/willing to read on HitRECord, but I hope you'll stick with it and give it a chance.
I'm no good at running. In no time at all I find myself out of breath, sweat pouring down my back, heart pounding and crashing as though it could pop right out of my chest.
Not like the other hunters. They can run for days, some of them, and I mean that literally. I heard a report last year that one hunter (a man who had, by all accounts, gone far beyond what was recommended by those who create, administer and distribute the treatments) ran for 91 hours without stopping in pursuit of a target. I can't imagine the stress that put on his body; afterwards he had to get a recovery team to bring him home, and he spent the next week on ice, breathing through a tube, but he was up and working again in eight days. He caught the prey, too. A huge beast, nine feet tall, six tusks, four legs, all of it roaring, wild fury. Apparently they're not uncommon on the East Edge, though they're rarely that big. The creature left him in its dust on the first day, and he just kept tracking it at a constant speed.
I couldn't manage that. The longest I can run without stopping is usually more like 40 minutes. Came last in my test group on the marathon exam. I'm not even fast in the sprint. Running isn't my thing.
Like they always say, the treatments treat each of us differently. They never did much for me physically. Science doesn't give with both hands.
I succeed in other ways. For one thing, I'm smarter than most of my colleagues. In the Outwild that can count for a lot. Strength isn't useful unless you know how to use it, and I know how to use what little strength I have. I try to avoid getting into fights with animals. I think the closest I ever was to a beast when I killed it was about three inches.
That was an unusual creature all over. In my six years as a licensed hunter, I have never before or after seen another animal like it.
On that occasion I was hunting with a pack, which is not something I do often. This is not just because most hunters are loud, insufferable boors who are as uncultured and thoughtless as any of the things they kill. In part it is because my personal preference in hunting is for stealth, strategy, and study. It involves recognising the qualities of the landscape, understanding the movements of the animal, and predicting its moments; my colleagues tend to prefer a high-speed chase followed by close physical combat. The other reason for my reticence to hunt in a team is that the treatment's enhancements to the tangibly physical, strength, speed and stamina, are far more common than those I have experienced, and I often struggle to keep up.
We set out at dawn, and by noon we had already bagged five beasts, including two small ones alive, for study in the laboratories. The biggest kill was an enormous, hulking thing with in thick, long fur that covered its whole body. It was as tall as a man, and had no visible head. We later found that it had several oral openings positioned around its flanks, and appeared to feed at least partially on things which became entangled in its hair. It also had eight short, stubby legs, standing on four at any one time, with the other four concealed in the fur on its back, as we discovered during our party's brief engagement with the creature, when an attempt to knock it over merely resulted in it rolling onto the alternative set of legs and making a bid for escape. It didn't get far. Another of the animals we killed that morning resembled a fish, though it swam through sand and delivered a nasty bite to the leg of one unfortunate hunter.
The pack paused for lunch as the sun reached its highest point. The other hunters were in high spirits, and were laughing and bragging about how many kills they each expected to have if the hunt continued at its current rate of success. I kept to myself and tried to conceal how sorely I needed the break, hoping that my body could be fully recovered by the time the others grew bored of resting. Alas, lunchtime turned out to be very short indeed. We had only been still for a few minutes when someone called out that they had spotted something on the horizon. Someone called out that it would look good mounted on his wall. Nothing more could be heard over the sound of the party readying for the chase. And they ran.
They ran, and I couldn't keep up. Every nightmare I had had since graduation was coming true. I was being left behind by bigger, faster, stupider hunters, people whose good fortune it had been to receive treatments which had visibly improved them. People whose only interest was in killing, with no thought for the strange and wonderful quirks of mutation and evolution who were their prey. Don't mistake me; more often than not, I kill my targets. Transporting a living creature is much more difficult and generally pays only slightly more. I understand that what I do is a necessity, but I still believe it is possible to be a hunter while retaining a sense of humanity in the way you respond to the prey.
The other hunters didn't care. They were still laughing as they tore off, their feet pounding on the dry ground. I hurried after them, but with no real hope of catching up. At least I couldn't possibly lose them. Their tracks would probably be visible for months, until the rains arrive to erase them.
When I did eventually catch up, it was not to the victorious aftermath I expected. The pursuit was over. The battle was not.
There had been seven of us when we set out. As I galloped, breathless, towards the skirmish, I counted only two human figures ahead. I dropped to the floor, and tried to comprehend what was happening.
Among the scrub and sparse plants of the plain, I could make out three still bodies, bloody and ripped. One of the dead hunters seemed to be missing a face. There was a spare arm stranded a few years from its owner. One prone body was still moving, at least; a man whose name I thought might be Fielder. I didn't rate his chance of survival without a doctor.
The two who still stood were attempting to subdue their opponent, an activity which, from my distance, resembled boxing a cloud. I crawled in closer, shielding my eyes from the sun, but I still couldn't make out what the thing was. All I could see were two hunters, a man and a woman, using whatever they could to try to defeat this white blur which had made such short work of their teammates. I continued, trying to come up with some way I could help without making things worse.
I had just resolved to make my way around the other side of the fight to form a triangle, when a voice called out my name. It was Fielder. He was gazing intently at me. The two fighting figures heard, and turned to look. The great shimmering blur reared up, and I got the sense of a vaguely canine body shape. It was over twelve feet tall. It lashed out one enormous paw, and the last man's head was removed his shoulders. It traced a brief arc through the sky, and came to rest just a few yards from where I lay in the weeds.
The white shape bounded past the woman, to where Fielder lay suffering. It lowered a white muzzle to the man's neck, and simultaneously stamped, hard, on his chest. I could hear his ribcage shatter from where I was. It was followed by the low, wet sound of chewing.
The woman and I made eye contact and, for the first time, I recognised her. She was called Bricks by the others, for her reputation as something of an immovable object. She was a short, stocky woman whose stature did not suggest the speed that the treatments had given her, while her too-sharp cheekbones and too-small nose suggested very clearly that whoever had administered her had done so with minimal concern for guidelines and regulations. She gave a slight exhalation, a strangled gasp, her treatment-forced features contorted in a look of complete despondency.
The great beast looked up, suddenly, as though it had forgotten we were there, and for the first time I saw it in its full majesty.
It was huge, and resembled nothing so much as a vast fox or wolf, well over twenty feet from nose-tip to tail-tip. Its front legs doubled back, like a praying mantis, and ended in paws the size of soccer balls, while its powerful back legs ended in single, hooked claws. Now that it was still and close, I could see that its fur was not actually pure white, but glistened a very slightly pinkish hue in the sun, like mother-of-pearl. Some patches of fur looked dented, with rows of hairs bent out of shape. There were no signs of injury done to the beast. Four two-foot-long ears stood up vertically from its head, above seven eyes set like turquoise in its skull. The muzzle which had so recently been attending Fielder's viscera was sharply pointed, and included a shark-like mouth, complete with multiple rows of teeth.
The shining behemoth stood, and looked at Bricks for a very long moment. Then it barked. The noise echoed like a bomb exploding, and it seemed to wake all three of us from our stupor. Bricks raised her gun and fired a blaze of bullets at the creature. The beast braced itself, and its muscles rippled discernibly beneath its needle-like armour. The bullets deflected, shattered, bounced, but they did not penetrate its fur. I just steeled myself, praying that none of her rogue shots would hit me. The wolf took a step back and then launched itself, airborn, at Bricks. She screamed as it half-fell, half swam through the air at her, performing a mad twist in midair before making contact with the hunter's torso.
The twist continued as the creature proceeded on its unstoppable trajectory right through her, corkscrewing its body past Bricks's bullet-coat, past her ribcage, past her spine, throwing bodily matter about like a bloody Catherine Wheel. It landed, solidly, gracefully, a long way on the other side of her, while her shocked head and shoulders dropped amongst the brush. It shook itself, shedding what scraps of my only ally remained clinging to its teflon coat. And it turned to me.
I saw that its eyes had no pupils of any shape. I saw how its four ears suggested a crown, and how its snout carried no whiskers, but had a hard tip, the use for which I had just witnessed. It didn't move, but stood about 60 feet away, regarding me with those blank, blue eyes. My hand found itself gripping the gun that lay at my side. Calmly, I realised that I was not quick enough to outrun it, not even if it had given me a day's headstart. I had to kill it to live. Simple enough.
As slowly as I could manage, I raised myself to my knees, then to my feet. As I straightened up, it moved. So did I. I recall how dazzling it was, the afternoon sun gleaming off the pearly armour that grew from its skin. Before I knew what was happening, the thing was right in front of me. And the barrel of my gun was pointing straight down its throat. I pulled the trigger, and it fell. So did I, the monster's dead jaws wrapped around the end of my weapon. From the outside, it seemed entirely undamaged. The defensive qualities of its hair must have prevented my bullet from escaping its skull.
I passed the next several minutes lying spent amongst the carnage. Eventually, I reached for my mic and called a recovery team to collect me, my fallen colleagues, and the massive creature which had killed them. While I lay awaiting my rescue, I debated whether I had been saved by my slowness or my speed, and prayed that there wasn't another animal like the one I had just killed anywhere close.