Bacon. Pork Chops. Sausage. Ham.
All foods I hadn’t had in over a week. Hell, I’d hardly had food in a week. Yesterday I ate a caterpillar I found crawling on a branch. It was the first meat I’d had–if you could call it that–since my exile.
And now, there in front of me, snuffing at the underbrush, strips of sunlight through the thick pine trees giving its plain brown fur tiger stripes, real food. Meat. Bacon.
I mean, it was a boar. Stubby legs, short tusks, black eyes. If I’d watched any nature programs on the holo I’d probably have known that boars were incredibly dangerous when threatened, able to charge and gore even a prepared hunter, smart and tenacious.
I hadn’t, hence my hunting the thing with possibly the crudest bow ever made by a man, and a handful of sticks with sharpened rocks jammed in the front for arrows.
So basically, as soon as I hit or missed this pig with my ill-conceived attempt at archery, any human in my place, with my complete lack of hunting ability and complete lack of zoological knowledge was in for a serious shitshow when that thing came charging.
I didn’t know that yet, and was still just focused on the thought of the food in front of me. Counting my pork chops before they hatched. It was a pretty great way to die a completely inglorious death, but the constant painful writhing of my stomach seemed an even worse way to go.
I drew the bowstring back, gave myself a brief three-count, and let fly. Miraculously, the arrow went reasonably straight and into the flank of the boar, which responded with a scream seemingly much larger than it was, and the charge I should have known was coming.
When you see a dog out on a walk with its owner, you tend to think something like ‘good puppy’. It’s not until you see a dog of the same shape and size that’s chained in someone’s yard, barking its head off, flecks of drool flying everywhere that you realize…that dog you saw earlier, it has the potential to really mess you up if it wanted to. Dogs are strong, fast, they have teeth and will use them. Despite being less than half our size, a dog isn’t anything I’d ever want to willingly tangle with. They can rip and tear and drag you right the hell down.
Now take that dog, give it tusks, and multiply its weight by four. This is what was now charging at me, screaming bloody murder for the arrow I’d put into its side.
As soon as I saw it crashing at me, I bolted. I’d been a quarterback on my football team until I was exiled a week ago, and my instincts were honed appropriately. When something huge came at you dead-on, you moved.
Problem was, this thing was no lineman breaking free for a second and looking for the sack, it was freaking fast, and if it got me down, I wouldn’t be getting up to do the next play.
It closed in on me almost instantly, zig-zagging through the trees even easier than I could. I couldn’t outrun it, and I couldn’t shake it. That left one option.
When a sack was coming, you couldn’t just run and delay the inevitable. The defensive line couldn’t hold forever, and the more you ran, the more yards you lost if they hit you. The only remaining option, once your defense and evasion failed you was to make a play, any play, even throwing the ball away, but you had to turn and do it.
So I turned and faced the charging boar. I had, maybe two seconds tops, before it rammed into me. Two seconds to form a plan out of this mess I’d put myself in.
Fortunately, that kind of thing was what I did best. And fortunately, I wasn’t quite as unarmed and helpless as I looked.
Hovering inches above each of my hands, two blades of pure energy materialized at once and hissed and crackled in the air. Lightning, frozen mid-jump, a straight solid bolt of pure white, the edges bleeding frenetic energy and dripping sparks. I dropped into a low stance, approximating a swordfighter I’d seen in a holovid, and as my hands moved, the blades moved with them, hovering far enough away that I only felt the intense heat.
The pig gave zero shits about my new weaponry and, if anything, redoubled its charge. It closed the remaining distance with a screeching squeal, its brown mane down its back bouncing back and forth with each stride, the dirt thundering under its approach, it’s tusks flashing in the mottled sunlight.
I brought my hands down and stepped to the side in one motion. The pig’s scream intensified for only half an instant and then fell silent. Its charging body flew past me and slammed into a tree hard enough to shake a new layer of needles onto the already-dense carpet of the forest.
It was super, duper dead. I’d hit it right behind the head, and in the single moment I’d had my blades jammed into it, I’d burned halfway through its neck, severing the spine and filling the air with the sickening but enticing smell of burning meat and hair.
I was reminded for only the briefest of moments how easy it was for me to take a life.
So, not exactly as planned, but also kind of exactly as planned. I went back to pick up my bow and arrows, not that they’d really done anything. The only reason I even had them was because the reach on my swords wasn’t remotely as far as the senses on these animals. Running after them through the brush, waving my swords like a living fire hazard hadn’t done much to fill my stomach thus far. But with as angry as that boar had been, I probably could have baited it into range just by jumping out and flipping it off.
But hell, I’d done it. First successful hunt. Hopefully many more boars were in my future.
I dragged it slowly home, too cumbersome to lift, thinking bacon, bacon with every step.
Until a week ago if you’d asked me who and what I was, I would tell you I was Athan Ashton, typical high school senior, and quarterback for the Black Sharks. That was really about it. Talking about my football scholarship or that I was the team’s star player or any of that other crap, while true, was a lot closer to bragging than I liked. I might mention I liked the color green and my favorite food was fish if pressed.
This week, the answer would be a little more succinct. Exhuman. One word to sum up a life.
Exhumans are very rare, very dangerous people. Anyone, any age, any gender, any time could wake up one day and suddenly be an Exhuman. You go to bed someone, and you wake up something else.
Exhumans have powers, something about them just defies physics in a way which has been studied endlessly and never discovered. Some are incredibly strong, others are fairly tame, but all of them put Exhumans on a different level than an ordinary human. Powers like, for example, my ability to wield blades made of lightning. Useful, maybe. But nothing anyone ever wanted.
Because, the problem with being Exhuman is that they all go bad, or so we’re told. You can’t just give that much power to a person and expect them not to use it, and when they do use it, terrible things happen to everyone around them. Spectacular ‘Exhuman events’ the government calls them, where entire city blocks are destroyed, hundreds or even thousands die, worse than any natural disaster, because at the end of the day, what’s behind it isn’t some capricious act of God, but the selfish intent of what was once a human.
Many…I hoped most…chose as I did, when I got my powers. I did the right thing and surrendered to the authorities. Hands and knees and kissed the pavement, hoping for quarantine. There was no quarantine for Exhumans, only execution.
That was the very short version of why I was out here, starving and dragging an almost-beheaded boar through the wilderness. I’d been exiled and forbidden contact with any human ever again. In exchange, they allowed me to live.
I mean, that was only after they tried to kill me. As it turns out, Exhumans aren’t easy to kill either.
It was most of twenty minutes before I caught sight of my new home, and another ten before I had the pig outside my front door. “The Bunker” I named it, a little 4-foot tall half-underground concrete free-standing structure, built by God-knows-who for God-knows-why. It kept the cold out and the rain out and I didn’t ask too many questions after that. Grass grew on the roof and I liked that my house had hair.
I left Porky outside for a moment and descended the wide concrete stairs to grab some wood I’d stashed next to the door to start a fire, giving myself a minute to adjust to the dark instead of groping around blindly and giving myself tetanus on something in here.
The many harsh angles of the place came into focus. Rusted metal shelves, rusted chain-link, rusted machines, rusted everything. The Bunker had once been a storage unit or machine shop or something, but had been abandoned forever ago.
Some stuff was still usable. A couple bolts of synthetic weave and some piles of rope I’d already used to make a comfortable hammock, even some preserves to eat which had a horrible acrid taste but hadn’t made me sick. If I were ever able to get the machines back online, there was a mass-fab unit in the corner which I might be able to use to print pretty much anything I could ever want.
I mean, it’d never happen, but I had the rest of my life out here, why not dream a little.
I grabbed my bundle of wood and went back into the fading afternoon. For fire, at least, I had all the technology I’d ever need, in the palm of my hand.
Another lightning blade popped into being in front of my outstretched palm, tiny this time, like a knife, but still crackling and sparking, and still hot as ever, and I pushed it into the wood. I’d learned the wood needed to be dry or else the water exploded and scalded you, but this stuff was good and flared into a blaze after just a couple of seconds. I wasn’t sure if my swords could even cut things so much as they just melted them with incredibly intense heat.
“Okay,” I coughed, choking on my own throat. I realized I hadn’t said a word out loud to anyone in days, and swallowed heavily. “Okay, now how do I turn you into bacon?”
I cut or melted apart the pig as best as I was able into gross bloody chunks and propped them on sticks around the fire. Soon, the smell of cooking meat filled the air despite my failure at all things butchery and cooking, and my stomach felt like it was trying to lunge through my chest to get at the food faster.
A week with nothing but water, a couple small jars of preserves, a couple eggs stolen from nests, and whatever nuts and roots I could render to edibility. And that one caterpillar. I guess I should have been happy to be exiled in summer instead of winter, but that happiness really only got me as far as ‘starving and miserable’ instead of ‘dead’.
So of course I overcooked the shit out of the meat, but as I learned, when you were that hungry, even charred meat was amazing beyond words. Having enough food to tear a bite off with my teeth, even if it was only basically pig-flavored leather at the hands of my cooking, it was still heaven. And I had enough food for days, if it kept. Which…I didn’t know if it would, but I would just keep cooking and eating until I couldn’t anymore.
An hour later found me bloated and happy, a full stomach, a warm campfire, a comfy…if dusty and claustrophobic shelter, and a beautiful sunset over an endless sea of pine in front of me. Feeling like that, it was hard not to be optimistic, and hope, something I’d lost grasp of along the way, seemed to flood back into my being, the reminder that some days would be full of pig and happiness, even if other days I was contemplating eating handfuls of dirt just to put something in my stomach.
Maybe this could work out. Maybe I could stretch this into some ideal camping trip. Make myself a real bow, shoot a bird out of the sky for supper, make myself a nice hat to keep the sun off my neck, that kind of thing.
I smiled stupidly, putting out my fire and carting the remaining cooked boar inside for safekeeping as I prepared to go down for sleep before I had to navigate the rusted labyrinth of my house in pitch blackness.
Those were stupid, idle thoughts, and I should have known better already. Nothing is ever that easy for an Exhuman.