by Paul Johnson
His whole body aches; every muscle feels the brutal pain of exhaustion. Splinters of pain, like fine shards of razor-sharp glass being jabbed into his cerebral tissue, pervade his troubled grey matter.
He feels broken, but knows that he must push himself, get to his feet, and keep moving. His life depends on it.
From his horizontal position, through one weepy half-shut eye, he sees rays of glimmering moonlight, silver-line beams, spearing through the nearby branches of trees. His vision blurs... focuses... blurs... focuses, as consciousness wanes back and forth, the black hole of despair threatening to swallow him up.
Voices, distant, but getting closer, carry to him on the winter breeze. He must get up... get up... GET UP...
Dried fallen leaves rustle under his body as he tries to move.
Why do they hunt him?
Why do they hate him?
Why do they want to kill him?
He doesn’t know. All he knows is that they’ve been chasing him for hours and won’t give up, won’t relent. Their hatred spurs them on through the black woodland maze.
He feels his swollen, dirty cheek; blood, warm and fresh, oozes from a deep cut. When he fell, he must have hit his head on a rock and passed out.
How long had he been unconscious? He doesn’t know, but it can’t have been that long otherwise he’d be dead by now, he’s sure — gutted like a fish, no doubt.
The sound of dogs barking, and men shouting, echoes through the night. Closer. His scent — unique body odour, individual signature trace — is spurring them on. He has a mental picture of slavering Dobermans bearing down and...
That gets him moving. He tries to get up on all fours... fails... tries... fails... tries... fails, body protesting against further punishment.
The whip-crack-BOOM of gunfire reverberates into the starlit, cloudless sky. Not a shot at him, but up into the beautiful black sequined blanket of the star-spangled abyss above.
... get up... get up... GET UP...
Struggling up onto all fours, breathing hot plumes of breath out into the cold November night, he has to move; it’s now or never.
With one mighty effort, he gets to his feet.
Somewhere in the distance an owl hoots approval.
He casts a glance over his shoulder. Dark, silhouetted figures, holding torches that cut cone-shaped beams of flickering light through the wood, are coming down the ridge behind him.
First, he starts to walk, body protesting against even the most tentative pace, but willpower spurring him into a slow jog. Twigs and leaves scrunch under foot as he gradually works his way up to a good speed. Even with a full moon, he must watch his step, the rough terrain being a minefield of potential pitfalls. If he were to trip, fall, and break something... well, that would be it.
“THERE!” Someone yells from behind him. “I see him!”
Branches scrape his cheek as he veers to the left, crashing past a bush.
“C’MON!” another one yells.
Chin down, working up a good pace, he doesn’t see them release the dogs, or the marksman who’s taking aim at his back. All he knows is that he has to run, run, run.
The whip-crack-BOOM of gunfire once again fills the night, making birds scatter from the trees; a panicked blur of wings temporarily partially obscuring the moon’s cratered surface.
He braces himself for the impact. A vision of his back imploding, blood and guts flying, spraying a macabre decoration across the woody landscape, fills his mind, but...
It misses, shards of bark — like wooden shrapnel — flying from the trunk of a nearby tree, make him wince, but he breathes out a sigh of relief.
They are close — too close.
His legs keep pumping, muscles straining, chest rising and falling in quick heavy gasps.
The dark figures start to descend the ridge quickly, their torch beams dancing erratic cones of light ahead of them. The hunters smell the sweet victory of the kill upon the cold winter breeze.
The hunted senses nothing but doom, though, as he skids to a halt, dirt flying up around him as he only just manages not to fall over the ravine that lies ahead of him.
How deep is it?
He doesn’t know.
Is there any way around it?
No. He scans left, scans right, and can’t see anything but the outline of the vast ravine stretching into the distance.
Looking back, he sees that his four-legged foes, slavering apostles of the hunt, have been released. And they’re gaining ground quickly, their ominous figures — ten of them, at least — bobbing up and down through the foliage.
Another whip-crack-BOOM of shotgun fire reverberates throughout the night.
He has only one option: so he stands at the edge of the ravine, looking down at the treetops below, estimating a good thirty-foot drop — a fatal drop, surely?
Fear of impending death seizes him, freezes him. It’s now or never, though, no time to waste. He takes a deep breath, composes himself, and jumps into the unknown.
First, he hits a branch; the sound of splintering, snapping wood marks the beginning of an unenviable descent of painful impacts. The branch rips straight through his flesh, making him scream in agony. His body contorts to the left, face filled with terror as he hits another branch hip first; a sickening thuck sound of bone breaking, mingles with smashing pine, and all the world around him fades first to a darker shade of grey... then to black.
* * *
He once again finds himself lying on the woodland floor, crippled with pain, staring out into the night, consciousness waning back and forth.
How long had he been unconscious? Not long, obviously; otherwise he wouldn’t still be alive. The dogs would have ripped him limb from limb, unless one of the hunters beat them to it and put a bullet through his head.
From above him, the sound of dogs barking, mingled with angry shouts of the pursuers, hurts his ears — piercing voices of hatred.
A slow tentative glance at his leg reveals white bone protruding through mangled, bloody flesh. He’s finished and he knows it, but a determination to live — a deep, deep yearning to survive — pushes him on, spurs him to make another feeble effort at evasion.
Looking up, he can’t see anything but the branches of the tree that so courteously slowed his descent. Good. That means that they won’t be able to see him.
Maybe they’ll just assume that he’s dead? But he doesn’t think so. No. They’ve been hunting him for too long now, so they will want to see his dead, crumpled body. Have a good old laugh his expense, no doubt.
The surreal trickle of a nearby stream, crystal clear water running its endless cycle, marks the passage of time, precious seconds. He has to try and get moving.
From above, on the edge of the ravine, come the baleful barks of the four-legged minions. Soon their masters will be with them, shining their torches through the trees, shooting speculative shots in his direction.
As he tries to move, fresh pain, intense ripping pain, seizes his whole body. Consciousness wanes back and forth... back and forth... back and forth... until finally the world around him once again fades to a darker shade of grey... then to black.
* * *
A dozen dark figures line-up along the steep edge of the ravine, shining their torches down into the black tree-filled depths below but, despite their frantic efforts, they can’t locate their prey. Torchlight strobes the leaf-strewn woodland landscape in cone-shaped pulses of light.
“We need to get down there,” a tall guy — the self-nominated leader of the pack — says. “We need to make sure th-”
“But there’s no way down. Look,” the protestor shines his torch left then right, along the edge of the vast ravine. “It could take us hours to get down there. I think we should just go, get the hell out of he-”
“Shut up, Dawkins!” tall-guy says. “I ain’t been chasin’ this creep for hours just to leave it at this, all right? I wanna see him dead and buried. Kapeesh?”
Dawkins shakes his head. “You’re makin’ a big mistake here. Let’s just go while we still ca-”
“Quiet!” another one says, raising his index finger. “Listen!”
They all listen, a dozen dark figures staring out across the valley, index fingers white-knuckle tight around the triggers of a multitude of shotguns; ready to let loose with a wall of lead at whatever might dare to come their way.
“I don’t hear nothin’,” Dawkins says.
The dogs hear it, though. First, they start to whine, look confused, heads cocked towards the starlit sky, howling. Razor-sharp teeth are soon bared but towards an unknown, unseen, adversary.
“What the heck is wrong with them?” another one says, alarmed.
It’s tall-guy who holds his index finger up this time. “LISTEN!”
A high-pitched whirring sound gradually fills the night. At first, barely audible, then doubling, trebling, quadrupling in intensity, ricocheting of the steep valley hills with a quadraphonic clarity of frightening perspective.
The dogs bolt, whining in pain as they go.
“What the hell!” Dawkins says. “Get hold of ‘em. Quick!”
The dogs soon disappear into the night, whining as they go, leaving their former masters to face their destiny.
The whirring sound amplifies to a painful pitch, causing them to drop their weapons and cover their ears.
Until blood starts to stream from the ears of the hunters.
Their screams fill the night as they try desperately to cover their ears, blood flowing over their hands.
Some collapse, the agony too much. It feels like their brains will fry if the whirring sound doesn’t stop... And then it does. It just stops. Cuts out. Ceases.
They all stare at each other, wide-eyed, incredulous. That stare communicating one message, and one message only: what the hell just happened!
For a few seconds silence rules the night, order returns to the world, sanity begs to once again become a reality... but then they all see it.
First, an aurora borealis style glow appears in the distance; fantastic rainbow shimmers of phosphorescent beauty light up the night, and make them all stare in awe, transfixed by this unnatural phenomenon.
Then it gradually appears above the brow of the hill, a disk-shaped wonder of spectral luminescence, pulsing... fading... pulsing... fading.
“What... the... hell...” the tall guy says, trailing off in disbelief, staring at his blood-soaked hands, then back at the hovering entity.
Dawkins chirps in: “I told you we shouldn’t have do-”
The spaceship moves forward with an elegant grace that no man-made machine could ever hope to emulate, lighting up the valley below with daylight clarity. It stops just in front them, the whirring sound now reaching mind-bending pitch.
The hunters — who are now the hunted — collapse, writhing in pain.
A beam of intense light shines out from below the ship, and the beaten, broken — but still alive — body of the alien that lies at the bottom of the ravine is gradually raised up through the trees, then disappears inside the ship. The beam flickers then fades away.
The whirring sound intensifies to a glass-shattering, eardrum-bursting shriek, and the world around the hunters fades to a darker shade of grey... then to black.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Johnson