I am winter’s coil, or anyway am set beneath it as I walk down Hunter’s Alley into the deep of Monrovia.
I am a hunter too, so the name is appropriate, and I bear my knife. People speak sometimes of killers being fond of their weapon, but I never have been of mine. It’s merely something I use.
The sky is ash but beautiful, in its way; it has been cold all week, and the ice in the street reflects the boarded-up windows.
My name is Zarathustra but you can call me Zee; if you will call me anything.
Monrovia, the city proper, resides within its comfortable bearing of old heat; the old heat before the cold came, geothermal. The Earth is much cooled now.
People say the old days were better but I do not believe them. Too crowded, I say, from what little reading I’ve done; the videos I’ve seen.
Here now a body is like a wonder; someone new.
I step boldly under the ash sky cracking the ice under my boots, rubbing my bare hands and slapping them together, to hunt the boy. A thief.
Thieves interest me. Their motives are clear as day, on the surface, but underneath it is never so easy to determine. Cynics describe their behaviour as logical, but I have never seen such bald-faced violations of social contracts as logical.
Sometimes it is a simple death urge, of course. Sometimes urges of pure ambition (those are the dangerous ones). It’s not a new thing on Earth, the rich man become so through thievery.
Sometimes, like this boy, it’s personal. The boy does not care for the bauble except that his uncle loves it. Perhaps the uncle did something improper to the boy.
Unusual in such cases; my client specified the return of the property was immaterial. I was merely to see the boy dead.
I am reminded of Ashleigh and her dark hair in winters like this, because she was a creature of winter, and seemed to draw from it some sustenance not entirely physical. She glowed in the coldest month, and she welcomed the departure of Earth from her orbit, as it meant her chosen weathers were to become more dominant.
In idle moments I have thought that our Benefactors, in their lifting of our fragile orb from its ancient round path, were merely indulging the whims of women such as Ashleigh, her hunger for something new a sufficient reason to uproot an entire planet.
The ice here is like her skin.
Most of the old skyscrapers have been sealed, which is why I carry my ash-handle. I pry out cold nails from a stubborn apartment door and a few quick knocks take off the lock; it’s cold enough. With any luck the stairwell’s top door will not have frozen and I can get onto the roof.
The geothermal vents are still thankfully in use; otherwise this region would grow so cold I would soon be unable to move.
From the height of the roof, about 400 metres, I will be able to see the slightest movement.
My metabolism is slower than the boy’s; eventually he will need to come out to eat.
Many of the women of my city have already bred with aliens; the so-called princely class.
Perhaps there is something wrong with me that I never really objected; even now I can only manage a certain clinical interest. I can’t exactly blame them for working to survive; it’s what I’m doing too.
The cold of this north, and its emptiness, is soothing to me. A place where I can think. A place where I am needed. The sky is like my mind; vast, and unafraid, and waiting, waiting for the end…
The stars are visible by day more and more now as the atmosphere thins; it is being jettisoned as many of my race grow their new “lungs.”
But I have my breathing apparatus. It is light enough; I carry it in my backpack.
I use it now, once every five minutes, as I practice my samsara and slow my metabolism to a lizardly coil, awaiting my quarry below.
The snow erases the beams of the old reflective coating on the bridge overpasses, erases the narrow points of parking metres, the carcass of an old tram. A small outdoor theatre becomes a round white bowl, and within it suddenly I see the boy. He’s standing there.
“Boy!” I shout.
Like lightning his head twists towards the sound of my voice, though his autochthonous eyes must see me only as a speck atop the skyscraper. My own augmented corneas watch his face twitch with a strange kind of glee and as he lopes through the thickening snow I let out a little bubble of joy too, squeezing my breather into its sack and dashing back down the stairs.
You might call me a Cossack. Or a mere mercenary. The exact nature of your label doesn’t matter; what matters to me is this: do you understand what I’ve become?
And do you know why it is I do what I do?
The boy has a gate; that is what his shiny bauble is, a portable gate, deriving from the first years of our Benefactors’ arrival, when many continued to portal in, even after our population had been subdued.
Does the boy know it no longer works? Why did he steal it?
I am dreaming again, something I’m told the ancient assassins did, high on their hashish.
I can hear Ashleigh’s voice.
Whispering to me…
The boy is moving out of the city, a suicidal decision. If he were careful, he might remain undetected in the city for weeks, even months. But in the forest there is nowhere to hide; his heat signature can be seen even from orbit.
Is it right that I act in accordance not only with my ancestors but with my conquerors? Hunting is so ancient in this way; it serves several ends at once, not only the hunter’s.
Winter is who I love now. She remembers my feet, and washes them with her tongue. She teaches me what new things know; like green sprouts, tentative in the dawn. I am a sprout, come up into the air, marvelling at the sky.
“Boy!” I shout, with joy in my voice.
He turns to me, and finally he looks frightened, fleeing over the snow, stumbling, but moving, east, towards the wood. He has a beautiful face. He can’t be more than ten years old.
I remember now why I took this commission. The dream I had.
Some of the conquerors (our “Benefactors”) call themselves scientists, but I know that what they really are are madmen.
It is one of my strange gifts that the future has come to be before in my dreams, and though I have often forgotten this, I remember it when I need to, when one of the dreams comes.
I saw, as though I were a floating ghost, my body cold on a table but my eyes were awake, and alive, and I knew, as one knows in dreams, that the aliens meant to torture me for eternity. And keep me alive. Just to see what would happen. Out of interest.
So I am freeing them, you see. Freeing all the children, young and old, from the Earth.
“Boy, stop running!” I shout at him. He accelerates. I see that I am crying; the tears are freezing on my cheeks.
Near the edge of the wood the boy sees I will intercept him before he can enter its trees, and he stops and takes out his bauble, squeezing it in his hands, staring hard at it, desperate.
For a moment a wind comes, and my blood runs colder, and a few blue coils rip out from the edges of the boy’s hands, but then he cries out, as though burned, and drops the bauble in the snow, where it lies smoking.
I approach the boy, whose eyes are like mine, dark and lonely and solemn.
I watch the fizzling bauble, black against the brilliant white.
“What did you think it would do, boy? Take you away?”
The boy nods. Tears on his face.
“Where did you think it would take you, eh?”
“Away from here!”
“A good place to be, eh? Don’t you like the cold?”
And the boy is sobbing entirely then, and I find I have gathered him up in my arms, headed into the wood. Though I had intended to end it there. It had seemed the right moment.
He is fast asleep.
The wood is dark and alive, like my body. Over through the trees I can see the transmitter hovering, taking its photographs; I feel its scanner press against my skull, trying to will me to return to the city, to my assigned drop-off location.
I remember now the last time I tried this. Why I went mad.
I set the boy down, against one of the larger trees.
“Stay here, boy.” He is still asleep.
I climb the tree, making my way slowly up into the upper branches. The transmitter regards me coolly with its electronic eye as I take out my rifle and take aim.
My first shot misses and the transmitter, I swear, almost seems to laugh, as it hovers there in the air. My next shot penetrates its eye and it explodes in midair, and the boy screams, below, startled.
Then I’m running, back on the ground, holding the boy’s hand.
I still have the knife. If I must, I can kill the boy and then slit my own throat.
My name is Zarathustra but it is only a word I picked out of an old book, because I liked the sound. I do not know what my mother named me; I never knew her.
After an hour of running I begin to grow afraid; more transmitters are doubtless to arrive, and I only have a few bullets.
In the middle of a small fairy-clearing a pile of rocks reveals a narrow cave; I squeeze inside it and haul the boy inside after me. He’s so exhausted he falls asleep almost immediately.
I put a slice of the processed meat in my mouth and wait for sleep, like I wait for death, with an ironic devotion, and with fear.
In my dream I am a boy again, when it was still light. When I could still see the sun, the same size as it once was.
What is this life, that I am brought to dream these dreams that give me no help? Why is it that we are made to dream always of the things that we can no longer have?
Then I am awake. I nudge the boy, wedged against me under the rock.
“Boy. Why did you take that bauble?”
He opens his eyes and looks sleepily at me.
“My uncle said it would work. Show me a door to Old Earth.”
“We’re on Old Earth. Those gates go only to alien planets; even worse than here. Ha ha ha…”
The boy closes his eyes, as though to sleep again, but I nudge him awake.
“If you want me to kill you, I will,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” says the boy.
“You remind me of my wife.”
“Was she very beautiful?”
“Where is she now?”
“In the capital.”
“Did she marry an alien?”
His face is like a small stone, covered in rich carvings, moving in the last light of the day, trickling through the open cave.
“No. She just left me is all.”
He closes his eyes again but I can’t. I can hear one of the transmitters in the air; I hold the boy close, and do not move, for an hour, and then two, and then four.
One of the gates has opened; I see its blue against the black and grey of the dawn forest.
One of the aliens is there, its segmented body covered in a foreign fluid, its eyes watching me and the boy. I raise a hand to it. And it smiles. Then it takes a step closer, peering into our cave. It speaks into its translator on its chest.
“You are the hunter?” the voicebox says.
“Who is the boy?”
“Come with me,” the alien says, and I do, through the gate, the boy slung over my shoulder.
It is no longer winter here, but that is only because there are no seasons at all. We are on its ship, in a special containment barracks, like a military barracks, only the boy and I are the only ones in it.
I find that I am tired enough to sleep a week; and that is almost what I do.
The boy brings me a strange food, and I eat some of it a couple of times.
Sometimes I dream of my wife. Sometimes I dream of the snow of my home city of winter.
The alien has told me we are to be intercessors before his planet’s great committee, to speak for the last of my kind.
Story copyright © 2015 by Robin Wyatt Dunn
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Richard Wagner
Robin Wyatt Dunn writes and teaches in Los Angeles.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For nearly nineteen years he taught college-level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing solely on being a designer/illustrator.