Short Story: Huntmaster

Skeletal steel and concrete rose as sharp darkness in gray light, stalagmites threatening the sky impotently while the ground devoured them over eons. Once the seats of Kings, Titans, Tyrants, now they were little more than remnant bones of an old world. One lost to myth and time equally: Former SkyGods’ temples now consigned to decay, as with all lost epochs.

Perhaps one day, such remnants would be excavated: dug from the depths to be better understood. Those few living and aware of the possibility, doubted its happening.

Their numbers were fewer each day.

Krant had learned the hard way that it was impossible to rebuild what had been lost. Though there were arguments what was lost didn’t deserve reconstruction, they were academic. For scholars, by scholars. Theoretical works at most.

More, they were distractions. Attempts to ignore the issue at-hand, rather than address it. Nothing was being done, globally. Civilization was stagnating. The animal-Human, too, because of it. That was all that mattered.

When Humans needed most to ensure their survival as a species, that was unacceptable.

Krant knew of the Empires, distantly. The mountains were his home. Like his village, no-one cared to attempt conquering what could be neither easily reached nor exploited. It made him more qualified than most to impartially examine anything– everything.

Life worked differently in the mountains, honing one in some ways more than others, but mostly doing only that. Honing, tempering. It was a unique way of life: one of a kind. People at the base of the mountain, or in the plains, never worried but for the harshest of winters and driest of summers.

Mountain people worried and toiled all year.

Life in the plains was split into varying seasons, each accordant to the prosperity of the last. Off the mountain, people had breaks: time to watch crops grow before harvesting them. Krant’s people had no breaks. They ate only what they could hunt or slaughter infrequently, and foraged or grew the rest during the slight warming at mid-year that brought occasional sunlight. The rest was spent in hunting, fishing, general chores and hard labor.

Such lives were worlds apart.

Quite simply, Krant’s people were the Forgotten. They knew it, didn’t mind. Having never presented a threat to the Empire when it was building itself, Krant’s people were too far out to incorporate, and not worth the risk or effort to force out or hang otherwise. So, Krant and his family, their mountain village of thirty other families, lived as one entity, separated, and caring not for the Empires– nor likewise.

Yet no-one minded. Life was life. The villagers had been interlinking and splitting for a century or more: like the cells people knew they’d never again see. Some sought fortune and glory, peace, down or in the mountain. Some never left the village’s confines, tending to little more than herb gardens and hunting needs.

Still more, like Krant– and in each their own way, worked each day to strengthen their village, family, or people.

Krant himself often led Hunts, sharing the food procured freely with those nearest and neediest. Blood or not, they were all kin. He’d helped to build and lead death-pyres for at least one member of every family in the village. Often, more. He’d held his fair share of grieving masses at bay against the tumult of inner-turmoil. Enough that he felt the flesh of each as that of his own.

Level-headedness and sound logic had made him a leader in more than a few situations. Fortunately, none requiring much in the way of danger.

This would be different. Krant knew it even now. Something was happening in the forest. The trees were too still. On normal nights, what few tree-dwelling creatures remained in the world, often reported soundly until sunrise. Or else, they frolicked, hunted, or skittered to and fro amidst the leaves and grasses of one of Earth’s few greeneries.

Nocturnal animals, Krant as Huntmaster knew, had survived much of the cataclysm that had stolen the old world. Most theories put forth Human fear of the night in the first decades of the old-world’s collapse as cause. That fear, theoreticians postulated, allowed such animals to thrive, as Humans tended to hunt large prey (often predators) in twilight hours.

Simply, Humans killed predators as prey during daylight so their prey flourished at night.

That was the theory, anyhow. Krant wasn’t sure he believed it. He was certain of its effects. Presently, there was nothing in the trees. Nothing moving. Sounds faded the nearer the rising smoke came. Krant had tracking a wood-dog when he noticed it, he understood why now.

Two days before, he’d wounded the wood-dog: large and cunning like a wolf but descended from dogs rather than the other way around. It seemed what Evolution refined could refined itself– to terrifying result.

Nature had turned one of man’s best friend’s into its newest predatory nuisance.

Fortunately, they were abundant enough that a diet to be supplemented in the event of lean times. Carrying the rest of the village’s needs on his back meant he himself (and a few others at that) didn’t scoff at stray meat.

It had attacked, alone, about midnight.

Unlike most creatures, it sought campfires as a means to hunt or scavenge. Certain Canines no longer feared Humans, no matter the cost it might incur them in the end. Usually, they attacked in large packs that way. Overwhelming so that each man was caught off-guard when it began. In the case of this creature, only starvation would compel it.

It had been a lean winter.

It wouldn’t even be good enough to eat, Krant knew. The best he could do was put it out of its misery: nothing deserved the torture of starvation. Let alone when wounded, as he done to this one. So, an act of mercy had compelled him onward. The irony not lost on him that he’d eat it as likely as it him, given half the chance and starving.

Now, it was close. Somewhere nearby. He felt it in his gut. The smoke risingupwind meant it’d caught scent of the camp. Injured or not, it would attempt another meal.

Krant used it as an excuse to move in range of the fire. Its inner ring of light glowed half-obscured by tents in a grove of trees. Red, black, and white glittered proudly in the hidden grove, beneath low flames of a cooking spit.

Already the men were on their feet, swords drawn: Empirical men. Gruff voices.

“’Ow could they’uv got wind of it!?” One cried.

“Shut your goff, you fool,” another hissed. “It’s dogs. Dogs!”

Further ranting was drowned in what Krant knew to be true, but might never prove.

The sounds of the Wood-dog circled with a mournful howl. It off-balanced the men, frightened them. It leapt from behind a tent, knocking one of the men to the forest floor and dragging him off as it followed through. The others turned.

It was now or never. Krant acted on his gut, fearing only what he could not live with otherwise.

The world went red, then black. Krant was on the heels of the remaining, two men. They chased the dog as it drug their comrade. He chased them, driven by a force he knew but could not place. In a moment, he was atop the nearest man. His dagger plunged into his side from behind. Withdrew. Rose, slashed.

Moments of blood-warmth flashed in war-poses over gurgling sounds lost to time: Lightning-capturedimages of terror, like frames in old-world film.

Then, it was over. The Wood-dog was gone, one Empirical corpsemissing.

Krant’s blood-rage subsided. Its source mystifying but its cause obvious. He confirmed his suspicions after raiding the camp for supplies and information. There, in script form and signed by an Emperor’s Agent, orders to “seize and raze any unregistered settlements.”

The village!

Why else would the Empire have sent people here? Why else would they’ve been camping in these woods, so obviously trying not to be found? Krant wiped the last of the blood from his dagger, knowing the answer. He broke camp, using its most-flammable contents to build pyres for the bodies

He set them alight and walked off toward home.

Two things would never happen again from that day forward, Krant knew: he would never eat wood-dog again, and the Village would never be at-peace again. The Empire had just declared the extermination of “unregistered settlements.” That meant they were consolidating, constricting, exerting their authority to maintain control of their lands.

War was coming. Krant would be ready.

Short Story: Middle-Class Do-Gooders

Time and again the question’s come up, yet no satisfying answer’s ever given:

After the Paris Incident, where were the governments? Where were those elderly systems of altruism and virtue-true; justice, law and order?

Everyone has theories, but no-one quite yet comprehends their reality on a grand scale. The few that do offer only that, “it’s a long story.” In the end though, something must go on the record. Otherwise, the posthumous sigh of countless, government-workers’ fates might form a singularity. With the last collective breath before Humanity is collectively molded and compressed into one strand of spaghetti, we would all know the irony of being lost to poor record-keeping as they were.

So, for the record, where were the governments? Those gracefully aged systems of redundant, bureaucratic interconnectivity, flowing data, and utter nonsense?

They were on life-support and fading fast.

They’d held on for years; stubborn-vegetables that just wouldn’t go. The only time they were of any use was when the really-SOL-but-not-quite-criminally-so folks needed financial assistance. Usually, it was the last of the well-meaning middle-class kids that wanted to grow up, go to college, and fight the system from the inside, man.

What a crock of shit.

That’s the shit-ended stick those poor kids never knew they were grabbing. They grew up, training to fight for what was right, the way that was right. Then, just ended up chewed up and spit out anyway.

Not because you couldn’t fight the system from the inside, mind you. On the contrary, in fact. The system was meant to be fought from the inside. Or rather, manipulated. And really, only from a level of control such as afforded to those highest within that system.

And the middle-kids weren’t getting in. The system was hard-coded against them a millennium before their birth. While they’d played the game well, it wasn’t their game and they didn’t know how not to be cheated at every turn. After all, how could they? Government education made them and the game.

No-one ever said that, but they needn’t either.

Governments and corporations did the same thing. One merely did it better. Nothing about governments was ever created with “customer service” in mind. Nothing could match the corps’ “quality” hand sticking it to you. It wasn’t possible. Government wasn’t formed with quality in mind. It was patch-worked into a scrap-hull to keep the whole ship of humanity from sinking.

Governments had been built to function. Nothing more. At that, only inside the parameters of a specific set of tasks. Usually, ones revolving around maintaining order and occasionally defense or public safety.

It was all very theoretical in nature… until it wasn’t.

That “wasn’t” ended up hellish. A constant battle for ground against bureaucratic bullshit red-tape that as much strangle one as made one want to strangle themselves. The cause was that very say scrap-work. Its constant scattering of debris into ancient gears formed of things like Aristotle’s Constitution and popular assembly. Things ancient even before modern government.

Intent aside, governments were ramshackle systems thrown together from need and desperation. Often, in times of unconscionable chaos. They were astronomically-distant from the well-planned, well-executed, multi-tiered and multi-leveled corporate platform.

It was the difference between a home and a skyscraper; both housed humans but one went beyond the simple ideas of shelter to incorporate the reality of human society. Both had their place.

But in an age where even government complexity, was far below the simplicity of one’s own alarm clock, it was a wonder they held on at all. People were surrounded by state-of-the-art, egghead-designed greatness, but were letting ancient peoples unaware of toilets dictate their reality?

Give ‘em a break.

In retrospect, it is more amazing governments existed and held on so long. By the time they fizzled to nothing, they were laboriousbrutes. Their own, monstrous size would’ve killed them were they not gracious enough to die-off themselves.

Their timing sucked though.

The last “official” government organization dissolved a mere 72 hours before Paris was retaken. The explanation was simple, they’d finally run out of money. Governments were presented a choice; close up shop by night-fall or start cutting into everyone’s pay-outs with every moment longer they ran.

Rather than soil what remained of their legacy, the governments closed up shop and paid off their people.

Flooding the streets with their unemployed, hopeless, and disenfranchised world-wide.

In other words, the exact kind of folk gearing up to purge the corps from Parisian and French borders. Without realizing it, the last slight between government and corp caused The Fall. That once-fruitfully perverted relationship, now reduced to an old wound. One each former-employee now felt a right to in some, thirsting way.

The resulting chaos, at any other moment in history, might’ve been tamable. The recovery possible, if painful.

Oops.

Resistance numbers tripled. New-recruits became fueled with hints of righteous fury. The newly-terrified-and-unemployed saw the corps (rightfully) to blame for the dissolution. Their shifting, tumultuous worlds. That this truth went unrecognized to the general public for decades is hindsight-admission to then-present knowledge of the damage being done.

The evidence of it was clear enough in the generation of soldiers eventually forming corp-sec. They hadn’t cared for their country’s sovereignty. Otherwise, they’d never have left. They cared for action. Adrenaline. They’d been trained that way over generations of stewed and stoked violence. Mostly, so they’d compromise into working for a system older than time rather than fight for something better to begin with.

Remember; their game, their rules. Play by ‘em or fuck off.

Once more it was the remnant middle-class do-gooders that had gotten involved. The same generation of kids watching their peers get cut down around the board, in one way or another– figurative or literal, depending on creed, orientation, color, geography or belief. The middle-kids knew they weren’t doing any good at all, were actively hurting themselves and their people.

So, their aim shifted. Though their priority remained the same; Need. Real need, and the offering of aid.

Do-gooding and all they joined the fight. The landscape of concrete parasites now flattened to dust is evidence enough; they joined the fight with fresh motivation and turned the tables. Were it not for the governmental dissolution, corps would’ve won. Or, they’d have had an easier fight for a while; better recover from the sudden landslide that eventually buried them.

If the Paris Incident taught anyone anything, rash action more seriously upset the game’s balance than just letting shit blow over. Then again, were corps not inundated by resistance fighters from the dissolution, it’s possible they’d have rallied. Even allowing Paris its reign while denying further territory might have eventually worked out– the powers that be might have lulled LeMaire’s people into complacency, before launching a sweeping offensive eliminating problem once and for all.

Short of something catastrophic though, their actual plan never would’ve worked.

In that case, the corps would already be something they weren’t, dictators rather than systems. Their reign would have gone from one of subtlety to one of utter flagrance. In that roundabout way, perhaps then, they were always doomed.

Whatever the answer, those middle-class do-gooders actually did what they meant; they changed the world. If only after being forced out into it, their very presence the change it needed when it needed it.

A valid victory nonetheless. And in the spirit of Humanity, that same sort of back-assward, self-fulfilling prophecy that gave everyone exactly what they wanted in the end no matter how absurd.

No matter the case, it made for one helluva story for the record-books.