THE LAST HUNT
by Richard Paolinelli
(*- All rights to this story are the authors and are fully reserved. No unauthorized copying or reprinting of this story without the permission of the author is permitted. This was originally published in the 2018 Superversive Press anthology, To Be Men.)
I turn forty years old today and I will mark the milestone by making it the last day of life on this Earth for a man whose name I do not know. I have never met him. He has never personally done me wrong, nor I him. I had never seen him before in my life until I picked up his trail just three days ago.
There will be no birthday cake, no party, no presents, no family or friends gathered around to help celebrate the day as there have been in years past. Only a man’s death, by murder or by execution depending on how you choose to look at it, and that delivered by my own hand.
In the past year, I have been the bringer of death to seven men and four women. You might call it murder while those who tasked me with the mission call it a justified execution. I, and the other seven hunters who like me embarked on this mission across what had once been known as North America, simply called it our duty. It is a duty that we have tried to carry out as swiftly and as mercifully as possible. Well, at least most of us do.
All I want to do is finish this final task and return home to my family and work my farm once again after being away for so long. It was my curse to be a skilled tracker and a marksman with a rifle from any distance, great or small. Those qualities made me a prime candidate to be a Hunter. Knowing that the fate of humanity was at stake, especially if the best at what we do did not accept our mission, gave me little choice but to put down my plowshare, take up my gun and do my duty.
The journey to this day began before I was even born with a fateful decision by the ancestors of those I have hunted. A little over a century ago ours was a united country of fifty states between Canada and Mexico and the future ahead was filled with limitless possibilities. But within two decades the country had splintered and those on either side held the view that if you were not one of “Us” then you were one of “Them.” There were a handful of course, caught between the two sides, that tried to hold the country together but the strain was too great – perhaps not even God himself could have held it intact much longer – and the inevitable finally happened.
On the one side were those that gathered in great numbers in the larger cities, living their lives in a jungle of concrete, asphalt and steel. Rare it was to find a tree, much less a blade of grass, among the roads, sidewalks and buildings that stretched into the clouds. High technology was their god. The dirty air above and the even dirtier streets below seemed to permeate into their very souls. No depravity was frowned upon and the residents of the megacities began to look down upon those living out in the rural areas beyond their city limits. Even though the cities relied on these rural areas to provide fresh water, grow the vegetables and raise the livestock that provided them with the food and water they needed to survive, they still sneered and derided the “regressive” people out in the wastelands they called “flyover country.”
Those that chose to live out in “flyover country” were more than happy to let them stay in their bloated cities as long as those big-city people refrained from trying to tell them how to live their lives. They had tech of course, but they did not abandon all of the old ways their ancestors had used to survive. Theirs might be a simpler way of living, but it was a good way to live. I can attest to that as it is the way I and my family live today. None of us feel deprived of anything by our choice, nor did any of those who came before us.
Yet, those in the big cities seemed to be enraged by the lack of envy shown by our ancestors. For years they tried to force their ways upon us without success. Then when those they had looked down upon for so long loudly and clearly rejected them and all they stood for, the big cities made a fatal decision. They disowned the country and rejected all that it had been founded on. Amazingly, those in the larger cities in Canada and Mexico quickly followed suit and cut themselves off from their former countrymen.
The cities began walling themselves off from the rest of their country. Some cities – like Phoenix, Denver, Miami and Atlanta – stood as sole sentinels of progressive perfection behind concrete walls standing forty feet in height. Others became mega-areas as multiple cities combined to build one massive wall around them. All of the Bay Area was united behind one oval wall that even stretched out into the ocean. Philadelphia stood at one end of an oval wall, with all of the Burroughs of New York City at the other and New Jersey nestled in between. D.C. and Baltimore had become one megacity, as had Buffalo and Toronto and San Antonio and Austin in Texas.
When the last of the walls were complete, thirty megacities from Montreal to Mexico City dotted the North American landscape. A hyperloop train, running on tracks miles below ground, connected all of the megacities as well as cities in Europe, Central and South America, Asia and Australia. There were no access points to the tunnels anywhere but within the cities, not that those outside the walls would ever want to access them in the first place. When the hyperloop was up and running and the tops of the walls thickly lined with razor wire to prevent anyone from climbing over, all of the access doors built into the wall were permanently sealed.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, the megacities sealed themselves behind those walls, forever closing out those that lived on the other side. Any needed food and water were shipped in along those underground trains. The progressives of the megacities were finally rid of the deplorable masses out in the hated “flyover country,” once and for all.
Oh, they liked to let us know how much better things were for them than it was for us. We could receive their news broadcasts and some kept in occasional touch with relatives living somewhere within one of the walled cities. For the most part we just shook our heads and happily went about our business of living our lives as we saw fit.
And what we saw as the perfect way to live was to limit the sizes of our towns. Few buildings ever reached higher than three stories. We ate what we raised or hunted, living not only off the land but in conjunction with it, conserving and managing it so that it would always provide enough for all of the generations to follow. We have tech of course, but it too was carefully managed so that it did not dominate our way of life. It was a tool, like any other, carefully and wisely used to our benefit.
We were content.
Then it happened. I suppose you could say it was inevitable, especially with the mega-cities having trapped themselves like bacteria in a Petri dish. I don’t know if they ever figured out where it began or even who Patient Zero was, but the Jaesmin Plague spread like wildfire to every point of the globe connected to the mega-cities by the hyperloop tunnels. We knew it was contagious, although it was not an airborne plague which meant we were not likely to contract it simply by breathing the same air blown from the cities.
It had no vaccine or cure.
Because of the close trade ties, all of the continents quickly fell victim to the disease. All except the one they had all shunned, those parts of North America outside the towering walls. We could monitor the news coming from the rest of the world and quickly moved to make sure no plague-carrying refugees landed upon our shores. We did not need to worry about the mega-cities, or so we thought, for they had so effectively sealed us out that they had literally sealed themselves within their own coffins. Yet, roughly one hundred residents managed to find a way out of the deathtraps before the plague claimed them.
Thus the Hunters were born. Eight of us, sworn to perform a grim duty, sent out to hunt down these escapees before they could spread this pandemic. For our families and friends we undertook the task, assigned to eight different regions to track down the threat and eliminate it. We could not let them live, even in exile, not with the death they carried within them. The plague was merciless, having already wiped out billions across the globe. For all we knew, the forty million of us living outside the now-dead megacities across North America were all that remained of the human race. In the name of preservation of the species, these one hundred had to die.
I was given Region V, an area that included the megacities of Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Chicago-Madison-Milwaukee megaplex. Most of the escapees I was sent to run to ground had come from that massive megaplex and they took some time to run down.
Of the eleven of them I actually got within shouting distance of or closer, they all pleaded with me to let them live. They promised to stay away from us. But it was a risk I had no right to take. I told you earlier, I took no pleasure in carrying out this mission and granted them as swift and as painless a death as I could. The bodies and the nests they had left behind were burned. After every kill I would impose a seventy-two-hour quarantine and then test myself to ensure I had not contracted the plague.
So far I’ve been lucky. The Hunter assigned to Region VII made her final kill just outside Atlanta only to discover she had become infected. Her final message included her shooting herself in the head as the shack her final target had called home went up in flames.
The Hunter in Region II had been a good man, but his sixteenth, and final, execution had been one too many and he’d gone mad. The Hunter in Region I had been sent in after him and she had been forced to kill him before he attacked a small town of innocent, and very uninfected, people.
After one long year, there remains only one living escapee, this man I am closing in on in a wooded area just outside the ruins of Minneapolis-St. Paul. With two Hunters dead and the other five having completed their mission and returned to their homes it falls to me to rid our world of the last threat of human extinction.
So here I sit, waiting beside the only water within twenty miles, waiting for my quarry to come and drink. Humans cannot survive more than a week without it and I know he has gone quite some time without any water. He has no choice but to risk coming here and hope that I am not waiting for him.
I see him now, cautiously approaching the stream-fed lake, his gaze darting all over. His clothing was not made for roughing it in the woods and was torn and tattered. He looked pathetic and miserable out of his element. I felt a pang of sympathy for this poor creature and then forcibly steeled my heart against such a feeling. Too much is at stake for me to yield to the natural feeling of compassion one human would have for one in such dire straits as this one.
In a time long since passed, honor would have demanded that I at least give him a chance to make his peace with his maker. But I am too close to him now and the disease he carries does not allow me the luxury to risk such exposure.
I do grant him the only small measure of mercy that I can however, allowing him to drink his fill of the cool, clean water. Even this act is tempered though by the fact that if he falls into the lake after I fire, he could contaminate the water. So I wait and let him stand up and step away from the lakeside.
Then I fire.
My last hunt is finally over.
After I burn the body and his nest, assuming that I survive the quarantine period, I can finally go home to my family, my farm and my old life. I have killed a dozen, to save millions. When I look upon the lovely face of my wife, and the sweet faces of my children, I will know why what I have done was necessary and I will be able to live with what I have done. This is the truth I will hold fast to when the nightmares come to remind me of what I have done this past year.
As I set about disposing of the body and the infected nest it had once called home an old verse from the Bible comes unbidden to my mind: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Now, I can go home.