Jaq smiled as he and his father walked down the long bridge from the A.R.C. Staging Area base to the Zyn Forest beyond. He gripped his new rifle with excitement; this was the first hunt his father had offered to take him on, and had even bought him a brand new laser carbine from the Trade Terminal to hunt with. It wasn’t often that teenagers were allowed out of the family housing units set up for A.R.C. members during these trying times; the planet itself was often hostile. The Zyn Forest was largely safe, though, as long as you travelled as a group. It also helped that the Revival Network had come online; now if something tragic did happen, the victim would awaken not too far away with little more than aches and pains. Not that Jaq wanted to test it. He’d never died before, and he’d be damned if he died on his first hunt; he wanted to make his father proud. He clutched the Carbine to him a little more tightly; they didn’t make armour to fit a sixteen year old, and if the prey they were hunting caught up with him, he could get hurt. Just because true death was a rarity, didn’t mean the pain was any less.
The field arrayed before the forest proper was spread out before them as Jaq’s boots moved from metal to dirt. His father gripped his own laser carbine loosely; the older man was a spitting image of Jaq, except with more defined muscles, and a streak of grey in the hair. The Omegaton Digital Inventory System bound to his right wrist showed that he was left-handed; it was one of the few ways he and Jaq were different. Jaq’s ODIS, besides being far newer, was strapped to his left wrist. The young man wondered if that was significant, other than the fact that his father always walked to his right, with his rifle pointed away.
“We’re in pleak territory now, Jaq,” his father said, beconing him to kneel in the taller grass. “Pleak are small creatures, and not very dangerous on their own. Even if you’re bitten, it won’t hurt much. But pleak are seldom alone; they live in gigantic groups, called hitchcocks, and are docile until attacked. If you do attack, and get too close, the hitchcock will surround you. Take care and shoot from as long a distance as you can.”
“Yes, father,” Jaq replied, nodding. He looked out across the field, and saw a blue-feathered bird flying in circles, looking for food. “I see one!”
“Good! Now, carefully take aim, and squeeze the trigger.”
Jaq looked down the sights of his carbine, took a deep breath, and squeezed. There was almost no recoil, the beam of light shot across the grass in an instant, and hit the bird square. With a squak of pain, the blue-feathered pleak turned and started flying straight for them.
“Don’t let up, boy, open up!”
Jaq did. Three shots later, and the pleak was dead on the ground. The pair walked over to the carcass, and Jaq hit a couple of buttons on his ODIS, collecting it. “That’s one for today’s harvest!” he said, satisfied.
“Yes,” his father said approvingly, “but one pleak won’t feed even one family. We have to harvest enough to sell to the other A.R.C. families and feed not only the base, but supply ourselves with necessities!” He pointed in a direction toward the shore, about five hundred metres away. “I want you to track that direction, keeping to the edge of the hitchcock, and until you hit the beach over there. Don’t get in too deep. Then track back this way. Got it?”
“Good. I’ll be heading that direction,” he pointed toward the far shoreline, about the same distance in the other direction. “If we hunt in this pattern, we’ll gather enough meat for ourselves and a dozen families in less than an hour! Let’s get to work!”
Jaq turned toward the point his father had indicated, and started shooting at the nearest pleak. As each fell, he collected the carcass, which his ODIS separated the meat, feathers, offal, and other useful things found in it, and stored for later use. He found his nervousness at being in the field fading as he slipped into a routine. He kept himself from getting too close, but was always pushing toward the shoreline where his father had pointed. He was amazed at the bright colors; when the hunters brought the carcasses back, the ODIS units had already packaged them for distribution. He’d never seen pleak alive before.
Something stung the back of his head, and he whipped around to face an angry, red-feathered pleak squaking at him. He turned his rifle on the bird as it swooped at him again; this time its razor-sharp beak took a slice out of his arm, and he gasped in pain as blood stained his jumpsuit. As the bird turned in the air to come for a third pass, he fired at it, the beam hitting the bird square in the head, and killing it. The carcass flopped to his feet, and Jaq gasped. He was bleeding, both on the arm and back of the head. His brown and green jumpsuit was torn and stained. He collected the carcass and hit a few buttons on his ODIS. A First Aid Pack materialized to replace the carbine, and he hit a few buttons to let it do its work.
The wounds mended and the pain subsided as the green mist from the FAP covered him. He wasn’t sure what made the strange device work; it was a Chikara invention that had been around for less than a century, but it worked well. Within moments, he was able to rub the spot on his head that had been hit by the bird and not feel any real pain. The jumpsuit was still torn, of course, but there were repair terminals back at the base. He materialized the carbine again, and turned toward the shoreline.
He discovered he had made it. The water of the inland passage was before him, and he smiled a little. Checking his ODIS, he noticed he had thirty complete carcasses stored; enough to feed thirty people. Each one would get two PED at market, meaning he had sixty PED in his storage. That made him smile; although he couldn’t keep all the money, and his clothes would need repair, but he would probably manage to get ten or fifteen PED out of the deal; not a bad take for a day’s hunt.
He turned around to head back toward the spot he and his father had started from and found that the path was barred by a large number of the small, aggressive birds. What do I do now? Jaq thought, trying to figure out a method to circumvent the encroaching hitchcock. Even if I were to walk into the tide, the pleak are aggressive enough that they might attack anyway, and then I have nowhere to retreat to. I could swim; but it’s a long distance to the far shore and I don’t know if there is aggressive marine life in there. He weighed the options. Carpe diem.
Pulling up with the rifle, he opened fire. Pleak dropped one after another, as he cut a path back toward the place he was to meet his father. As he pushed forward, the birds started to close in on him, even as his ODIS collected the carcasses of the fallen. The first hit came from his left, a cut from a blue pleak, just below where the first one had been. Two shots felled the bird. A second one came in and snapped his ear, and he cried out; the cartilage was cut in two, and he felt a hot stream of blood flowing down the side of his face. That one took three shots to down.
I should have paid better attention, he thought, downing a green-feathered bird as it swooped for his eyes. Claws, small but sharp, tore at his back and arms as six more took turns attacking him. He was covered in his own blood, most of it from shallow but painful cuts all over his body. It hurts, he realized, it really hurts. He downed yet another as it came in for another strike, and ran. His legs burned with every step, lacerations and deeper stab wounds from the pleaks’ sharp beaks ran bloody over his body. He started to feel fatigue. I’m losing too much blood. This is why pleak are dangerous to hunt. He turned to find still more of the damned birds following him. This could be it. I wonder what the revival terminal will feel like.
Beams of light flashed from his right, downing two birds in as many seconds, the remainder of the four fowl turning to face their new attacker. Gasping at the repreive, Jaq tried to fumble with the touchscreen of his ODIS, but his blood-covered hands weren’t able to manipulate the controls very well. He needed his FAP.
“Fool boy,” he heard, as the shadow of a man loomed over him.
He knew that voice, but he couldn’t remember from where. Pink and green light washed over him and he started to feel his wounds mend. He turned to find his father, glowing with the energy of a Restorative Mind Force Chip, as the older man healed him. “Thank you, father.”
“I should have let you be revived. One trip through that hell and you’ll never want to die again; but I remember when the Revival Network wasn’t present on Cyrene. I don’t ever want to deliberately test its power, especially with my own son.”
Jaq nodded as he got up. His jumpsuit was thoroughly ruined. There were tears and holes in it everywhere. He hit a few buttons on his ODIS and a spare materialized around him. “That wasn’t fun at all.”
“Good! Maybe next time you’ll listen to what I tell you. Come on, these birds won’t cook themselves! Tomorrow we come out and do it all again.”