Hunted Part 1 – The Exomoon

Light Echoes from V838 Monile

Jiro Takeda reviewed the hunting details for a rhino hog on Herne for the fifth time on his tablet, his excitement preventing him from focusing for more than a line or two. He could recite most of the information on his tablet, but kept pouring through it repeatedly for some new detail that might ensure success on his first hunt.

“Rotate engines for landing,” his father said.

Jiro dropped his tablet at the question. They were approaching the exomoon, Herne. He leaned forward in the co-pilot seat and ran his hand over the computer screen, flipping to the engines’ controls. Jiro tapped the buttons for all four quantum engines and rotated those ninety degrees. The ship suddenly shot upward.

“Not yet!” his father exclaimed. “We haven’t passed through Herne’s atmosphere.”

His father’s face darkened, which left Jiro frozen, anxious to do anything to appease his father. Daichi was a lean man with a short stature, but when his brow furrowed, grown men paused. He possessed a will that demanded respect – just as alpha males in the wild stared down rivals, dominating without a fight.

After a moment’s hesitation, Jiro rotated the ship’s quantum engines back to normal flight position and the ship resumed its path toward Herne. “You just asked me to rotate the engines.”

“I told you to check the engine monitor and be ready to rotate the engines,” his father said. “You weren’t paying attention.”

Half a head shorter than his father, even at sixteen, Jiro presently felt like he had shrunk back down to a ten-year-old version of himself. This was not how he wanted to start his first hunt with his father.

“I was reviewing the details for animals on Herne,” Jiro tried to explain. “I wanted to be ready.”

Daichi didn’t respond. He focused on guiding their two-man ship toward Herne.

Jiro wanted to check through the hunting details for the sabre-toothed cheetah one last time, but he dared not pull up his tablet again. He didn’t want to make another stupid mistake from inattention.

His brother, Noboru, had told him often that he should always have one animal that he planned to hunt before he ever left. Jiro had tried to stick with one. But how do I choose between the rhino hog, sabre-toothed cheetah, or the impressive long-antlered deer?

He had flipped back and forth between the three for weeks.

The ship shook as it passed through the atmosphere, sending a thrill of anticipation through Jiro. They would land in the next few minutes. Jiro dumped his tablet on the floor beside his seat. Daichi wouldn’t let him carry it with them anyway.

“Slowing down. Get ready to drop the gear in five…four…three…two…one,” Daichi said.

Jiro reactivated the engine rotation buttons on the ship screen and the ship slowed to a glide, nose rising slightly before touching down. Daichi powered down the engines.

Jiro hastily unbuckled, rose and slipped back to the small cabin at the rear of the ship. The cabin had one bench for passengers, a door on the left side, and one gray equipment locker with two doors. Jiro grabbed his pack from the equipment locker. Out of the side pocket he pulled a black-handled hunting knife with a four inch steel blade in a camouflage sheath and slipped it behind his belt.

“Don’t work yourself up,” Daichi said, joining him. “A calm hunter is a safe hunter.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jiro knew his father’s hunting maxims by heart. A calm hunter is a safe hunter. A patient hunter is a successful hunter. A smart hunter chooses his game rather than being chosen by it.

Taking a deep breath, Jiro tried to relax. He ran his hands through his black hair, cropped short like his father’s. He had worn it that way for as long as he could remember. Only Noboru had chosen his own style, growing his hair until it reached his lower jaw. Noboru was also taller than Daichi or Jiro, getting his height from their mother’s dad.

Jiro re-checked his pack. He had two spare light charges for his rifle, a water canteen, compass, flashlight, hatchet, a turkey and swiss sandwich, two purple melons, nutrient bars, and a first aid kit that his mother insisted he bring. He had argued that he had no room in his pack and they already had first aid supplies on the ship, but she wouldn’t hear of it. He had to take a kit or stay home.

He grabbed his lucky cheetah tooth, a sharp, two-inch canine, and attached it to his belt as well. Noboru had given Jiro the tooth for his eighth birthday, a few weeks after Noboru killed the sabre-toothed cheetah. That tooth had gotten Jiro out of a makeup test in third grade. In fifth grade it helped him escape Patrick Duffy and Caleb Thornton, who had wanted his lunch money. And Noboru had won the Sun trophy two years ago while Jiro cheered in the stands, the tooth clutched in his hand throughout the entire Academy Games championship.

“Ready?” Daichi asked.

Jiro slipped the pack over his shoulders and retrieved his light rifle from the equipment locker. “Yes, sir.”

His father opened the door and led Jiro out onto Herne’s surface.

The area of Herne where they landed was rocky, with limited plant life. Fortunately, he wore a good pair of hiking boots. A light fog, common during the late fall and winter months, gave the moon a ghost-like quality from which it received its name. The fog also created an extra challenge for hunters. Because of this Jiro’s mother, Aimi, had tried her best the previous night to convince Daichi to take Jiro to Wodan – the super-earth-sized planet around which Herne revolved – for his first hunt. Jiro still couldn’t believe her argument…

“What if something happens?” Aimi asked while preparing dinner for them. “Wodan has good medical doctors in each hunting lodge, and the hunting grounds there are renowned.”

Pretending to read his tablet at the kitchen table while listening to his parents, Jiro wanted to protest his mother’s recommendation. She had never said a word about the danger when Noboru and Father hunted on Herne. Why did she bring it up now with him?

“The lodges already staff butchers and taxidermists to prepare your kills for you and gourmet chefs will prepare dinner using a portion of your game,” Aimi continued, adding mixed vegetables to the chicken in a skillet on the stove. Thanks to 3D printing, they could just print their meals, but Aimi insisted on cooking as often as possible.

“No son of mine will settle for a tourist hunt.” Daichi crossed his arms. “The whole point of hunting is to get-away from everyone.”

Jiro kept his eyes focused on his tablet and stifled a smile, filled with relief and pride that his father insisted on taking him to Herne. For years, Jiro had listened to his older brother, Noboru, recount his hunting trips with their father. But by the time their parents had allowed Jiro to learn to shoot, Daichi had joined the PSA council, leaving him far too busy to hunt. This trip represented Jiro’s first chance to showcase his shooting skills to his father.

“Fine,” Aimi replied icily.

Jiro wanted to shout for joy, but was afraid his enthusiasm right at this moment might cause his mother to change her mind.

Today, Jiro had finally reached Herne. To the east, the early morning sun peeked over treetops of a coniferous forest devoid of leaves for the winter. Numerous game options awaited within. He shivered a little from the cold and damp fog. The temperature was projected at a cool forty degrees Fahrenheit. He was thankful he had worn a long-sleeved camouflage shirt and pants.

“I studied up on rhino boar and sabre-toothed cheetah,” Jiro said.

“A giant sloth would make a good first target,” Daichi replied. Holding his rifle in both hands, he guided them east.

“Giant sloth? Noboru killed a rhino boar his first hunting trip,” Jiro protested.

“Keep your voice down. We stumbled onto that one,” Daichi replied.

Jiro felt like a hot air balloon that someone had just shot a hole through. Playing on the Ursa team in the Academy Games league during his first year, Jiro had faced serpent hawks, club tails, and in the championship match, Terocrocuses – a type of crocodile – that acted as animal defenders. Now his father wanted him to hunt a sloth. Granted they were bear-sized, but a sloth was still a sloth.

“It’s a great time for long-antlered stags,” Jiro suggested, hoping to salvage some dignity for his return to PSA.

“Jiro.”

His shoulders slumped. He recognized that stern tone of voice. His father had heard enough discussion and expected Jiro to comply with his orders. No further comment.

Following Daichi, Jiro searched the gray stone covering the landscape. Occasionally he spotted tiny lizards skittering across the rocks and diving down holes when he got too close.

It’s a wonder Father doesn’t decide there are ample lizards to shoot, Jiro thought sourly. Why had his father insisted on coming to Herne if they were only going to hunt giant sloths?

“Let’s spread out a little,” Daichi suggested.

Jiro happily complied, quickly putting about fifty yards between him and his father. A part of him hoped they failed to even find a sloth today. Neil and Riagan would laugh if he returned with a sloth after bragging for the last few weeks about his plans to hunt a sabre-toothed cheetah or rhino boar.

Movement to the south caught his attention.

Stepping out from the leading edge of trees a few hundred yards away was a rhino boar!

The boar dug around for roots and tubers, though Jiro knew it would eat a dead carcass if it found one. It had rough gray skin like a rhinoceros, a large-humped back, and two tusks rising up from its lower jaw that were about half the size of Jiro’s forearms. A reddish skin capped the boars head and circled its eyes.

Jiro stood frozen, debating whether to get closer. His father would tell him to let it go, that they were here for a sloth. But Noboru had stumbled on his first kill, and here was the boar. This had to be fate.

At the moment Jiro was downwind of the rhino boar. Boar’s had poor eyesight. Jiro could get closer before taking a shot, as long as he avoided making too much noise.

He had to try.

Jiro walked briskly, restricting the movement of the upper half of his body, until he had closed to within one hundred yards of the boar.

The boar dug around for more food, nose sniffing the ground, broad side toward Jiro. The details on where to shoot a rhino boar flashed through his mind, and Jiro decided to aim for the neck. Looking through his rifle scope, he aimed slightly below the ear. He took one more calming breath, then fired.

A white laser fired from the light rifle and struck the top of the boar’s head, knocking it sharply to the right. The boar squealed, but instead of going down, it bolted south.

Unwilling to lose his prey, Jiro charged after the boar. Noboru hadn’t failed and neither would he.

“Jiro,” Daichi called.

Jiro ignored his father and ran hard in pursuit. He wanted to shoot the boar again from behind, but doubted his ability to make the shot on the run.

As he gave chase, he realized what had happened with his shot. He had scoped it for two hundred yards, not expecting to get so close. He had not accounted for that when he took the shot from one hundred, and the laser shot had gone high. It had hit the boar, but missed the brain.

Suddenly, the fog swallowed the boar. Jiro squinted, trying to pierce the smoky curtain. He refused to accept that the boar was gone. He reached for all of the strength he could muster and pushed himself harder. He would catch this boar.

He checked right and left in case it had changed directions, and then the rocks ahead disappeared.

Jiro barely registered a drop-off before he plunged down a steep hill. He threw out his arms, trying to catch anything with his free hand. He tumbled downhill, rocks striking his arms, back and legs, then his side. The rifle was torn from his grasp. He spun too fast to stop until he crashed into a hard surface and searing pain shot through his right arm.

He scolded himself for such recklessness – a calm hunter is a safe hunter – and then lost consciousness.

(Part 2 coming next week!)

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