New Story: Hunting Trip
I wrote this story out of pain and horror at the Sandy Hook massacre. It didn’t occur to me then we were on a path to make this story a reality, but now I’m not so sure. No editor would publish it, understandably. It’s flawed, but it captures the terror I feel about our possible future if people like Bannon are allowed to rise to power. Do not read this unless you’re in a good mental space. This is a horror story. This story has all the trigger warnings. ALL OF THEM. I’m not kidding. This is the darkest thing I’ve ever written.
by Jeremiah Tolbert
Dex clamored out of the pickup into the heat-seared air of the disembarkment point. He slung Jane over his shoulder and shuffled his feet in the sand, watching while Dad finished checking his work messages for the thousandth time. Jane vibrated with excitement.
“Calm down,” he whispered and laid his hand across her flank. She stilled under his touch, and he wished he could calm himself so easily. He’d had two coffees on the drive, and he and Jane had talked the entire drive from the enclave. Dad must have been feeling guilty about their fight earlier; Dex hadn’t needed to argue to keep Jane in his lap for the ride.
The only time Dex saw his father lately was in the news, and when he’d finally come home from his latest trip, Dad had brought up the subject of Dex’s low grade in survival studies. No hello. He’d launched into the lecturing and belittling right away.
“It’s your fault anyway!” Dex had shouted back. “The other boys in my class have actually hunted. How am I going to learn if I don’t do it? You may be an expert hunter, but are are like the worst dad ever.”
Then he’d done something unexpected. Dad had nodded. “You’re right. I have a week until my next trip. It’s time.” And off they drove, taking only their companions—not that they needed anything else.
Hard for Dex to believe he hadn’t even wanted Jane at first. It had been at his father’s insistence that he had selected a used companion. Dad would only pay for a companion with experience, but Dex had wanted the latest and deadliest model. Dad won as usual. So Dex refused to speak to Jane for a week.
She wore him down with her stories though. Jane had seen battle action in the Alberta oilfield skirmishes. She knew all kinds of things an inexperienced companion didn’t. Now Jane was probably the only thing Dex and Dad didn’t fight about lately.
Jane made a ticking sound imitating the old analog clock in Dad’s study. They laughed together and shuffled about. Dex tried not to show his impatience, worried still that Dad would change his mind and drive them back.
After what seems like enough time for stars to birth and die, Dad finally exited the cab, palmed the lock on the travel safe, and lifted Lady Elizabeth into the dry air. Dex’s breath caught. Where Jane was all function and no form, Lady Elizabeth was a work of art, seemingly carved from glossy black stone; every surface devoured sunlight. She was the most beautiful thing Dex had ever seen. But she was cold, uncaring. Not like Jane. Nothing like Jane.
“Showoff,” Jane whispered, just low enough for only Dex to hear. He giggled.
“You two done screwing around out here?” Dad asked.
“Yes, sir,” Jane said. Dex bit off a retort about how he hadn’t been the one taking forever. No sense in picking a fight so early.
“Yeah,” Dex said.
“Good.” Dad stifled a yawn. “Assess the situation. Tell me what you see.”
Dex took in his surroundings carefully like he’d trained. “We’re in the open, at risk from points here and here,” he said, pointing to the ridges to the north and east of their parking spot. “The ground’s mostly dry, but it looks like it rained here a little… maybe yesterday?”
“Early this morning,” Jane murmured.
“No, more recently. Morning,” Dex added quickly.
“Better,” Dad said, smiling a little, white teeth gleaming from his dark beard. “What are these plants?” He pointed to several, and Dex answered confidently.
“Saguaro cactus. Mormon tea. A… very stunted cottonwood tree. Creosote bush.”
“I’m afraid you’re quite incorrect regarding that last one,” Lady Elizabeth said suddenly, her tone reminding Dex as it always did of Mr. Pakur, his 6th grade Social Studies teacher. “That is bur sage.”
Dex’s flushed. “Sorry, Dad.” He bent down, pointed to some faint tracks in the sand, eager to make up for the mistake. “These are coyote tracks. If we follow them, they’ll lead us to water. Which might lead us to quarry.”
“That’s your call,” Dad said.
“Really?” Dex asked, eyes wide. “I can take lead?”
Dad nodded. “This is your hunt.”
Dex whooped. Months of pleading and fighting finally paid off. Sure, Dad was always working and didn’t get a lot of time out of the enclave for hunts anymore, but Dex had grown up with Dad’s dozens of trophies. He had wanted his own hunt since he knew the word. And now it was finally happening!
Dex held Jane to his shoulder so they could take in their surroundings better. Dex squinted through Jane’s scope to check the ridge for spoor. He felt a little disappointed at not seeing anything special. But then, this location was a popular disembarkment point for many hunters. It might be a day or two before they spotted quarry.
“What do you think, Jane?” he asked.
“You’re right about the tracks, Dex. They head south, which is a good direction. Let’s go.”
Dex and Jane took point. Dad and Lady Elizabeth fell in behind them. Dex felt so much pride that he was finally here, on a hunt, that he thought he might explode and scatter his guts all over the pink desert rocks. The mental picture gave him an instant erection.
“Naughty boy,” Jane said, voice momentarily seductive. She vibrated pleasantly, this time purposefully.
Dex laughed and shifted his privates uncomfortably in his nanoweave khakis. “Stop,” he whispered. “Dad’s watching.”
“Oh, he was your age once.” Jane stopped vibrating. “But I don’t want to embarrass you.”
“Thanks. Maybe later.”
They hiked for the entire day without spotting any sign of quarry. Dex’s feet were sore and his nose was sunburned. When the sun was low on the horizon, Dex consulted with Jane and they decided that they should make camp near a dried stream bed on the leeward side of a small dune. Dad nodded in agreement, sat down, and used Lady Elizabeth to access his office messages.
“He’ll be dead to the world for an hour,” Jane whispered.
“Not now,” Dex said. “We need firewood.”
They walked in a spiral out from their campsite collecting anything that might burn. Dex grumbled and kicked at rocks in his path. So much for being the world’s greatest hunter, an apple not far from his father’s tree. He’d dreamed of bagging a seven or eight on his first hunt, but he hadn’t even seen a pitiful one so far. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in the school chat if he came home empty-handed. And what it would do for Dad’s reputation?
“One of my under-secretaries bagged a six out this way last week, Dad said, breaking Dex’s train of thought. “That guy’s a complete idiot. Took him six days of tracking. We’re just getting started.” Dad seemed relaxed now, friendly even. More like he had been before the job had gotten so big.
“That’s good I guess,” Dex said. He dumped an armful of sun-bleached wood into a makeshift fire pit. Jane ignited the fire with her sparker.
“Thank you, Jane,” Dex said.
Dad placed Lady Elizabeth out beside the fire to soak in the heat. “Lady, turret mode. Scan for threats and quarry.” Her legs unfolded and she pivoted to stare with her scope at Dad before beginning pan in a circle, examining the perimeter.
“Clear,” she said primly.
“Good,” Dad said. “I’m going to take a quick jog around the area before it gets too cold. You okay here without me?”
“Dad,” Dex said, rolling his eyes. “Jane will keep me safe. You don’t need to leave Lady either. What if you’re attacked? I mean, how would I get home? You won’t tell the truck to let me drive!”
Dad laughed. “We can talk about the truck when we get back. I won’t be outside Lady’s sensor range, don’t worry,” Dad said. He patted Dex on the shoulder. Dex rolled his eyes again, and Dad trotted off into the dusk light.
Dex waited until the sound of his father’s footsteps faded before unzipping his khakis. Jane purred.
“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” she said. “Your first hunt is something special. I’m going to make you feel really good this time, Dex.”
Dex groaned as he entered her secret place that opened just for him. “You always do.” He began thrusting. “I hope a real girl feels as good.”
“It will be even better,” she said. “I promise it will, when you find your wife, it will be so much better. Until then, you’ll always have me. Oh, yes. There!”
When Dad returned from his jog, he wore a half-grin that made Dex wonder they’d been up to minutes before. His ears burned, but he let it go after a while. It was like Jane said; Dad had been his age once. If he hadn’t wanted Jane to be that kind of companion to Dex, he wouldn’t have let Dex pick out one that had the feature. Some of his friends had stuck up parents like that. Those poor jerks had to make do the old fashioned way with their hands.
“Lady, find us some dinner, will you?” Dad asked as he warmed himself by the fire.
“Yes, Jehm.” Lady walked away on her tripod legs, quick and silent. The briefest moment passed before two shots rang out in the night. Another moment passed and Lady returned dragging two black-tailed jackrabbits through the sand.
“Shall I clean these and spit them over the fire for you?”
“Cajun seasoning, please.”
“Of course,” Lady said, sounding a little offended that he’d needed to specify the flavoring. Dad ignored her and took a sleeping pad from his jacket pocket, unrolling it on the ground beside Dex.
“I wish I could have killed your dinner,” Jane said to Dex.
Dex pattered her exhaust port. “Your first shot out here has to be at quarry, not just some dumb food.”
“Yes,” Jane said with a drawn-out sigh, “but I’m a much better field cook.”
Lady froze, her skinning knife glinting in the fire. “You are more than welcome to prepare my kills,” she said curtly.
Dad chuckled. “Enough, you two. Why is it I’ve never met two companions that could get along?”
“That’s by design, isn’t it?” Dex said, musing. “What would they need us for if they could?”
Dad shrugged. “A tool is useless without a user. They exist because we need them, and not the other way around.” He stared at the fire. Dex tensed for what was coming. Dad never passed up an opportunity to drone on and on about work and hunting philosophy.
“Things were different, back in your Granddad’s day.”
“Dad, no good story has ever started with ‘back in your Graddad’s day.’ I’ve seen your speeches. And I’m not failing history. I know how it was,” Dex said. His voice rose in irritation—he didn’t want to argue, not really, but Dad always treated him like he was stupid.
Dad could never accept that Dex knew things without Dad telling him. Like Dex was just put up in the travel safe when Dad wasn’t around, or something?
Dad shook his head. “You don’t know how good you have it—God and Fathers, did I just say that? I hated it when your Grandad would say that. Anyway, it’s true. A man hunting back in the days of your granddad had to carry a pack of supplies, tools, weapons. Then, most stuff did only one thing well. Guns were still single-use tools too. They killed things. And a small minority of very loud people thought guns should be banned, that nobody should own them, in direct contradiction to the oldest laws.”
Dex scoffed. “That was like a million years ago.”
“Not as long ago as you think,” Dad frowned. “Even still, some very wise men knew the importance of a firearm. They were and are the most important thing a man and citizen could own. The Founding Fathers recognized that and enshrined it in the old Constitution. But when Granddad was a boy your age, there was a lot of trouble about them. ‘Guns,’ people said, ‘are only good for killing people. We should make them very hard to own.’”
Jane shuddered with fear under Dex’s touch. “That’s so dumb,” Dex said, but the idea frightened him too. It would be the world of tyrants and despots, where those with guns could force those without to obey. Nothing like the voluntary enclaves of Dex’s home. It was barbaric.
Dad shifted to sit between Dex and the fire. His silhouette shrugged. “They might have succeeded in taking away all the guns, if it hadn’t been every man’s right to own one to protect himself, his family, and his property. Thank God and the Fathers. They just kept on fighting about it, saying guns had no other use but murder. So thing gun makers did was make guns that could do other things—kind of like old Swiss Army knives.”
Dad shook his head. “Never mind. I’m showing my age again. The new guns could still kill, but now they could do more. The makers added features, and once they did, men just didn’t know how we lived without those things. Pretty soon, we got companions like Jane, then Lady here, and even beyond.” Dad patted Lady’s butt.
Lady Elizabeth sniffed. “There’s nothing beyond me worth considering. Especially not anything that came before.”
“Watch it,” Jane warned. Dex hadn’t realized that she had been listening to Dad’s story. What had she thought about it, he wondered. Would she prefer to have been a simple, dumb gun, instead of his best friend in the whole world?
A plain old gun had less than zero appeal to Dex. What was the point of a thing that only did one thing—that couldn’t talk, cook, make a fire, help with schoolwork, or do anything except shoot targets and quarry?
Dumb old guns definitely couldn’t do what he and Jane had done only a little while before… how boring.
“I can’t believe there were once people with power who didn’t bear arms,” Dex said. “Why did they think they could force armed men to give up their guns?”
“Who knows, but they couldn’t. And in the Mess that came, guns turned out to be even more important for survival as God and the Fathers knew they would be. Those folks just forgot awhile, but we reminded them.”
Dad paused, then stood and stretched. “Enough of my ‘boring’ lectures I suppose. We should turn in, get an early start in the morning,” Dad said. Dex nodded. “How are your supplies?”
“Jane, any water nearby?” Dex asked.
She remained silent for a moment, running ground-penetrating sonar. “Yes. 8 meters down. Should I drill and refill my reservoirs?” Dex nodded. She unfolded and moved into position. A soft whirring sound was the only indication of her activity. It was kind of soothing. Dex was pretty sure he’d fall asleep to that as fast as he did in his bed back home.
“Good night, son.”
“Good night, Dad.”
Later, as he lay awake and marveling at the many stars, doubt crawled back into the pit of Dex’s stomach.
“Jane?” he whispered. He paused, but his father’s even, slow breathing continued without change. “You listening?”
A long pause. “I’m scared.”
“That’s normal, Dex. Even soldiers fighting to protect the Homeland are frightened sometimes.”
“Do you think…” Dex wasn’t sure how to phrase the question that troubled him. “Does Dad believe that I can do this?”
“I bet he has total faith in you, just like I do,” Jane said, her tone soothing.
“Will we still be friends after?” Dex asked.
“Of course, Dex. Not everything will change.”
“Thanks, Jane. I feel better now.”
“You’re welcome, Dex. I’m glad I could help.”
Dex rolled to face away from the fire and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
As they hiked, Dex and Jane spent most of the morning telling each other dirty hunting jokes that they’d gotten from the internet. Mom always cried when they told hunting jokes in the house, but Dad didn’t seem to care much.
“Have you heard the one about the hunter who couldn’t pick?” Jane asked
“Yeah,” Dex said. “’So he shot the fat one!’” Dex laughed, hiccupped, and laughed more, until tears ran down his cheeks. Dad even laughed for a moment, but he sobered suddenly and pointed.
“Look there. Look what you almost missed.” Dex spun to follow Dad’s gaze, scowling and irritated. Dad had pointed to a stretch of sand along the dry riverbed. “Notice those?”
Dex wanted to die. The sandbar was covered in quarry tracks, and he’d almost missed them. Jokes could wait. He was on a hunt. Why did he keep forgetting how serious this was? He marched over to the tracks quickly and quietly.
The tracks headed northeast. From their direction,the quarry had likely passed with a ridge between them and Dex’s camp the night before. Not even a companion could see through fifty meters of solid earth.
“Gods and Fathers! I knew we should have gone for higher ground,” Dex said.
“That might have invited trouble though,” Jane said. “Stop second guessing yourself. We’ve got spoor!”
They reversed direction and followed the tracks. Dex muted Jane. Whenever she had something she wanted to say, she would vibrated against his shoulder, and he could read the message in text on her scope. Mostly, she pointed out spoor he missed. Discarded food canisters. A water bottle. Dex collected all of it, like a good hunter. Leave the land better than you found it, his Dad had always said in promo vids for work.
“Are you excited?” Dad whispered as they bellycrawled up a low ridge.
“Shut up, Dad. They’ll hear you,” Dex hissed, and returned his focus ahead.
When they reached the ridge, Dex and Jane together scanned the lowlands below. The quarry were easy to spot. They were clustered in a group, resting in the shade of a half-dead oak tree, their patchwork luggage and backpacks in a heap beside them. Jane magnified the view. Most were sleeping. Most importantly, they displayed no enclave banners. They were free for the taking. They weren’t even smart enough to post a watch. Or dehydration was making them stupid.
Dex wasn’t sure what to do now. He turned to Dad, who raised an eyebrow. “How should…?”
“Now you want my help?”
Dad smiled. “Snipe the older ones. I’ll lay down suppressing fire while you close the distance and take the rest.”
“Your trophy’s on the lower right is your age,” Jane said. “She’s a seven, easy.”
Dex shuddered, whether from fear or anticipation and excitement, he wasn’t sure. Dad crawled away to change his angle of fire and to further confuse the quarry when the shooting began.
He held Jane steady and blinked through the eyepiece to mark his target sequence. First the two elderly males, then the wide-shouldered female and the mated pair in their twenties. Leaving.. a seven? He stared at her.
“She’s filthy,” Dex said. “I can’t even tell if she’s pretty.”
“She’s pretty,” Jane said. “Trust me. I can see better than you.”
Dex hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
“You just have to trust that it will work out. It turned out okay for your parents.”
“I guess. Mother Layna hasn’t run away since I was little,” Dex admitted. He took a deep breath. “Okay. Switch to trigger fire. I want to feel this one the old way,” he said.
Jane softly beeped, indicating she had switched to free mode. Red circles still marked his targets, but she wouldn’t assist his aim. It was all up to Dex now.
Dex inhaled. Held steady, lined up the crosshairs.
He pulled the trigger.
Jane’s muzzle coughed. A circle of red appeared for a moment where the quarry’s head had been.
Dex exhaled, like any well-trained shooter, took another breath, held it. Fired again.
The quarry began to scramble then. Dad fired off several wide shots, confusing the quarry. Dex finished off his planned kills with confident shots. Easier than some of his target practice drills, really.
He stood and charged down the hill, whooping. Jane joined in, their voices twinning and echoing back to them from the rocks of the hillside.
Dex was surprised by how quickly he made it to the kill site. The seven was cowering beneath the tree, whites of her eyes in contrast with her red-hued skin. Dex had never felt so aroused, not ever in his fifteen years. All the hard work was worth it.
“Undress,” he commanded, then repeated it in French, just in case. She hesitated—Jane fired a warning shot without Dex even giving her the order. That’s how well she knew him.
The girl stripped naked. “Jane, turret mode,” he said, nearly dropping her to the ground as he moved in to take his prize. Finally, a real girl. His.
“Before God and Fathers, I name you my bride and…”
What…? He saw it then, just as he was about to remove his flak jacket. The faint lines of a tag-and-release barcode tattoo inexpertly removed on the wrist of one of the dead quarry—the broad shouldered female. Blood streaming down her arm had drawn his eye right too it like an accusing arrow.
He stumbled back in shock.
“No.” Did his father think him stupid, or were the men he hired to stage this hunt that incompetent? He wasn’t sure which was worse.
“Dex…” Jane began.
“Shut up. Tell my father to get down here. Now!”
“Do it, Jane.” She was silent. Dex stared at the naked girl, his desire for her completely drained. He couldn’t focus. How could Dad do this?
“Excellent shooting, boy, now what are you waiting for?” Dad said between wheezing to catch his breath.
“A canned hunt, Dad? Is this why you went for your ‘jog’ last night? Had to call in the kept quarry?”
Dex was trembling with rage. “What will my friends think? I can’t believe this!” Dex wanted to hit his father, but knew better than to assault an armed man, father or not. His father wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself, not even against his own son.
Dad dropped the façade and sighed. He looked defeated before he even spoke. “Your friends don’t have to know. I didn’t want you to go back disappointed.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Dad. This isn’t about me. It’s about your job. Your fucking status! How would it look if the son of the North Atlantic Firearms Association president didn’t have a successful bride hunt?”
“A lot of first hunts fail—” Dad began.
“Mine might not have. But now we’ll never really know. You’ve ruined everything!” He turned to Jane. His best friend. His only friend in the whole stupid world.
“Kill the last quarry, Jane.”
The shot rang out. The girl crumpled to the dust. A seven at best. Another insult. Dad didn’t even have enough faith in him to fake an eight or a nine?
Dex steeled himself to say the words he’d said many times but never really meant. Now he meant it more than anything he’d ever said.
“You are. The worst dad. Ever.”
Dex picked up Jane and began the long walk back to the truck.
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