Hello and welcome to episode six of The Future History of Newburg podcast, a series of short stories about a peculiar town on a peculiar planet, where science and magic mingle in an effort to SAVE THE WORLDS. In the last episode, we met Ju-Long, and Ju-Long met a plant....lady. In this episode we're seeking her out again. I hope wherever you are, you're happy and relaxed. Here's episode six, The Hunt.
A sparrow hopped forward on the sidewalk, examining a crumb with miniscule movements of its head before pecking at it and hopping onto the next morsel. Capturing moving targets was a challenge. It was a challenge Helena enjoyed but made all the harder by her hair blowing into her eyes in the easterly morning breeze. She tucked a stubborn lock of straight brown hair behind her ear with her drawing hand. The olive toned skin of her ear was likely streaked black now with charcoal.
The sun came out from behind a cloud, and the shadow of the table legs outside of Sandy’s Donuts became bolder. Helena used the moment to darken areas of her drawing. A puff of wind sent the pages of her sketchbook fluttering, and the sparrow rode the breeze for a few feet before hopping back. It was time to put her charcoal stick down and study the essence of the subject. She popped the last bite of her jalapeno and cheese kolache into her mouth and observed the bird’s minute motions.
“Oh my! Your shading is beautiful! Your greys blend seamlessly but still make a distinct pattern of feathers. It’s really nice.”
Helena turned to see a woman with coarse blonde hair peering over her shoulder at her sketchbook. Puffy bags hung underneath her keen eyes, and a brown and white spotted puppy traipsed at her feet on the end of a blue leash. Helena smiled at the woman who extended a friendly hand and said, “I’m Doctor Laurent, Doctor Cary Laurent.”
Helena wiped her charcoal stained hand onto her camouflage pants and shook Cary’s hand while the puppy sniffed her boots. “Helena Janicek.” The little dog’s attention wandered to the rifle case Helena had stowed underneath her bench and he began to sniff intently.
Cary gasped and jerked her hand away from Helena’s. “You’re the hunter!” she accused. Helena didn’t deny it. “I was on my way to the municipal center to picket you! I cannot believe the parliamentarian brought a hunter to Newburg to destroy the lives of defenseless animals. How you can watch an innocent creature die at your own…”
Helena placed a practiced smile on her face. Usually, if she let them say their peace, people would feel better and leave. She was only half way listening now as she stared at the foamy spittle forming at the corners of the woman’s mouth. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t heard it all before. Some of it she even agreed with.
Destroying life-yes. Defenseless- no. Animals either had superior speed, strength, senses or a combination of the three. There were no defenseless animals. Unless you count the young, and if a hunter was shooting young game then he was not a hunter. He was a farmer, slaughtering the fattened calf.
Helena watched in her periphery as Cary’s puppy spotted the sparrow on the sidewalk and crouched. Cary continued her diatribe, her eyes pleading with Helena. It was true, there were times she had watched the innocent die, but… She shut her eyes against the memory, not allowing it a foothold.
The little dog pounced then. The sparrow, being much faster than the puppy’s amateur attack, flew with the breeze down Zinc Street. Cary jerked back on the leash and yelled, “No Fizzgig! Bad boy!” In the commotion, Cary’s com-ring activated projecting a large sign that flashed STOP THE KILLING! And then ANIMALS ARE PEOPLE TOO! For an instant, Cary seemed flustered by the accident, but then proudly raised the sign in the air with a look of defiance on her face.
Helena gently closed her sketchbook and tucked it inside the backpack at her side. “Look, Cary.”
“Doctor, Laurent,” she corrected.
“Doctor Laurent, I’m not here to kill anything. I’m just here in to trap something. I hope that helps put your mind at ease.”
Cary’s mouth twisted, “Why are you trapping it? So you can experiment on it?”
“That’s not my area of expertise, DOCTOR,” Helena said, yanking the zipper on her backpack.
“Dr. Laurent? I’d like to make you aware that you are on private property at the moment, and if your actions effect the business of Sandy’s Donuts, the owners would be well within their rights to file charges,” said a mellow man with deeply hued skin as he crossed the street toward the donut shop. He wore a blue polo shirt and sneakers, and a gold badge hung on the belt loop of his jeans. “You should probably head on over to the demonstration now. I’m sure they’re all waiting for you.” Chief Pearson slid his hands in his pockets as Cary pushed an exasperated sigh through her lips and turned her com-ring off. Without another word, she walked briskly across the street with Fizgigg nipping at her heels.
Once the Chief was satisfied that she was truly on her way, he turned back to Helena, his lips pressed together in a smile.
“Helena,” he greeted.
Chief Pearson sat down on the bench next to her with a grunt. His hair hadn’t been grey at the temples the last time she saw him. “The whole point of meeting you here was to get you away from the protestors,” he said.
Helena shrugged helplessly. “How’s Earth?” Pearson asked.
“Which one?” she grinned.
“Ahha. Our Earth.”
“Oh good, because I wouldn’t know about the others. Our Earth is good I guess… still turning. People still acting like it's going to stop turning tomorrow.”
“You took care of all those mutant monsters then?” Pearson asked.
“Which ones?” she quipped.
Pearson chuckled. He rotated and tapped his obsidian com-ring. A small screen of thumbnail images projected and was just visible between the two of them. “Two nights ago at the O’Keefe farm, something tore through the chicken wire and got all eleven chickens,” he said swiping through the images. The picture showed a huge hole ripped through a coop and white feathers strewn about the ground. More images showed enormous tracks in the mud around the coop. They matched the description given in the ranger’s report Helena had read earlier. “Those chickens were his heart and soul,” Pearson said. “He’s pretty torn up about it.” The last picture was of a pool of dark liquid next to the prints.
Pearson tapped his ring and played a video of an Asian man being strangled by a tree-like creature on a train. Helena continued to watch as Pearson explained, “This thing turns into vines and slithers out the train. Witnesses say it headed west toward the forest.”
Helena’s brow wrinkled in thought. A Bigfoot, a headless Bigfoot at that, and a half-formed tree person, both likely from the forest around Mt. Distant. What was going on in that forest? Why were they terrorizing Newburg?
“This isn’t any of your scientists’ doing is it? These things weren’t grown in a petri dish, right?” she asked.
“We’ve questioned everyone in any kind of relatable field, and no one-sage or scientist- is working on anything like this. Of course, you know how it is in this town. Competition keeps people secretive about their work, even from the law.”
Pearson turned off his com-ring, reached into his back pocket and handed her a black plastic box about the size of a pencil case. She opened it to find six syringes full of purple liquid. “It took some string pulling, but I got a sage acquaintance to brew you something special. It’s ten times stronger than a horse tranq, but it’s non-lethal,” Helena nodded and tucked the black box in her pack. Andy will get you your tranquilizer gun at the ranger’s station. This… is your holding tank,” Pearson said fishing a black, octagonal ball from his front pocket.
Helena made a skeptical face as she took the golf ball-sized object. It felt like it was made of rubber. She looked to Pearson for an explanation. “Throw it at your target and a field will open around it. It gives off a sound frequency that interferes with the cells in the skeletal muscles. Your target won’t be able to move.”
Helena nodded again, impressed, and popped the holding tank in her pocket.
Pearson glanced down at his feet. “Best not to walk around town with this. People here aren’t used to seeing that kind of thing,” he said gesturing to the rifle case beneath the bench.
“Understood,” she said.
“I better be off; I got a case that’s getting worse by the second,” he said as he stood. Helena rose and shook his hand.
“You’re not getting a donut?” she asked.
“Nah, the sugar makes me jittery. Helena, watch yourself. This one’s weird.” A look of concern settled on his face.
“Aren’t they all weird here?” she asked. Pearson shook his head and smiled as he crossed the street.
“We’re working under the assumption that this creature came into contact with the InvisiTech solution, right? And that’s why its top half was invisible?” Helena asked.
“It seems logical, if you consider Bigfoot logical,” Andy answered, looking around nervously. They were at the Northeast edge of the forest amidst a stand of lodgepole pines where Andy’s LIDAR drone had crashed. Andy had been jumpy ever since they got out of the hover truck at the park trailhead.
Helena brushed leaves aside, looking for any remnants of Bigfoot prints. Sadly, she only unearthed a centipede which skittered back under the cover of the leaves. “And the tree lady also had a left side. It was probably just coated with InvisiTech,” she said.
“Could be.” Andy nodded.
A blue jay passed over head calling loudly and Andy winced. Helena rolled her lips pensively and stood. “I know you wanted to accompany me today, but honestly it’s best that I go alone from here.”
Andy sighed and said, “You’re probably right. Less noise. Less distraction,” he smiled weakly. “Let me just make sure your tranks are set up.” Helena unholstered and opened the chamber to the tranquilizer pistol she carried and showed him two darts with purple liquid loaded inside. A regular tranquilizer wouldn’t work on a plant life form, but perhaps this potion would.
“What’s the range on this pistol?” she asked.
Andy adjusted his broad-brimmed hat and said, “Uhh 50 meters. Maybe. To get a good stick you’ll need to be a lot closer. I usually don’t support gun use, but in this situation I’m glad you have your rifle too.”
“Hunting a rogue, ice-drilling automaton across Newburg’s polar tundra taught me to be more prepared. Bertha makes every trip with me now,” Helena said adjusting the gun strap on her shoulder.
Andy looked around him one more time and then pointed back at the direction they came from. “I’ll just…head back now and radio the chief,” he said. Helena gave him a little wave as he hurried through the trees.
She decided to start her search at a pond about half a mile southwest from the crash site. Trees needed water. Tree ladies surely did too. All animals passing through this area of the forest would be drawn to the pond. Indeed, watering holes were the hub of the forest, and it was there where the truth of life was illustrated in bold strokes. The wolf ate the deer it tracked from the pond, deer ate plants, plants choked out other plants in competition for the sunlight. In order to live, life destroyed itself. Helena and Bertha found their place somewhere along that the continuum.
The pond was about an acre across and surrounded by brush that sought daylight at the edge of the tree line. Walking the perimeter of the pond, Helena saw several prints. Raccoons, bobcats, foxes, and deer all came here to drink. There were three well-traveled game trails leading from the forest into the pond where the tracks were so dense it was hard to distinguish them. She could tell one thing though: there were no Bigfoot tracks.
She didn’t know what the tree lady’s prints looked like. Perhaps they looked like human foot prints. If the left side of the tree lady wasn’t coated in invisible ink, then it stood to reason the creature didn’t have a left foot. It probably hopped through the forest on one leg. Helena suppressed a smile at the thought. In the end, she suspected the tree lady would travel from tree branch to tree branch in the form of the bundle of roots she saw in the video that morning.
Helena circled back to a cottonwood tree that stood at the north side of the pond, its roots bathing in the still water. It made the perfect place to set up for a while and watch the animal traffic. She sat cross legged against its rough bark and became still.
It was mid-day. She didn’t expect much action right now; the animals were lying low, out of the heat and the revealing light. However, if there was any activity, this would be the place for it.
Typically, she would draw the landscape while she waited. It was a great way to pass the time and stay observant. But this hunt required as much still hunting as it did glassing. She would only be here long enough to get a feel for the place and see if anything moved.
She watched dragonflies skim the water’s surface until a southeasterly breeze forced a cloud over the sun, signaling that it was time to move on. The change in light would make her movements less noticeable. She progressed west and deeper into the forest, walking then waiting, walking then waiting. Sometimes, she moved slowly and silently, rolling her footfalls. Other times, she shuffled swiftly through the dried leaves, mimicking the sound of a small scurrying animal. She saw a few of those, mostly rabbits and one porcupine. Prints were hard to detect with this much leaf litter around. Nevertheless there was nothing to indicate that Bigfoot or the tree lady had passed through.
Eventually, Helena came across a circle of standing deadwood, which still had dried, brown leaves clinging to them. She knelt beside one of the towering, lifeless trees and became still, watching while the sun crept toward the tree line. After a few minutes, a doe peeked out meekly from a thicket near the edge of the trees, her ears turning and assessing for danger.
Off hand, Helena observed that she had a good shot. With a rehearsed silence, she put the rifle to her shoulder and peered through the scope at large ears and wide eyes the same color as hers.
Lucky I don’t need the meat, she thought as she aimed Bertha down and behind the doe’s shoulders. The majority of the deer’s body was concealed in the brush, but she knew where its heart should be.
Helena caressed the trigger. She could create a quick death. But she wasn’t going to be the bad guy in a Disney movie. That would be heartless.
The doe looked straight at her then. Helena didn’t lower the rifle. She and the doe stared at each other for a long moment. All of a sudden, the deer bolted and disappeared through the brush.
Helena exhaled slowly and silently before putting Bertha down, and moving on. It was time for different tactic now that the sun was setting.
Another half mile up a gradual slope, she found a dry creek bed lined with trees on the southwest and a short cliff on the north, about 15’ high. In the rainier seasons water would spill over cliff and fill the creek, but right now it was the perfect place to set a trap.
She retrieved a fist-sized wireless speaker from her pack. Scanning through a variety of animal noises on her phone, she grinned when she finally made her selection. If Bigfoot liked the taste of chicken, then he might investigate some clucking noises.
Helena set the sound lure in the creek bed and climbed the cliff. Once at the top, she set her pack at the foot of an aspen. She rolled to her belly at the edge of the cliff, attempting to blend into the rock, and peered over the ledge. With the octagonal holding tank in her left hand and the tranquilizer gun in her right, she watched the light fade in the west.
A forest at night is not a place of rest. Insects and frogs that were silent during the day, tune up and play. Predators prowl under the cover of darkness. Small animals use the same shroud to hide themselves as they forage. Sounds become sharper and more frequent.
Tonight, however, the opposite was proving true. Helena’s wireless speaker clucked eerily in the open area below the cliff. She briefly caught the scent of smoke before the wind died completely. There was no cricket song, no scurrying among the leaf litter. The trees were living statues from which nothing emerged to investigate the looped recording.
Helena discreetly changed the setting to a rabbit distress call and waited. A rabbit call should have at least brought in a fox or coyote to inspect the noise, particularly on a moonlit night like this. Yet there was still no sign of any animal, no leaf drop, not a sound.
Grandma Bab used to tell her, “God gave you more than five senses, and you better use all of ‘em.” Helena’s extra sense sent goosebumps up her legs and to the back of her neck. Something was behind her. She spun onto her back and aimed the tranquilizer gun above her feet.
In the time it took to blink, she registered two towering, fur-covered legs in moonlight. A piercing shriek radiated from the legs as one massive foot raised and prepared to stomp on Helena’s stomach. Reacting quickly, she threw the trap device at the ground beneath the creature’s feet. The octagonal ball unfolded on impact and emitted an electric blue cube of light that expanded rapidly around the legs. The topless Bigfoot froze within the light, its leg still suspended in the air.
Helena rose slowly and holstered the tranquilizer gun. A low growl rumbled around her, building in intensity and volume until it became an ear splitting screech. Helena looked about wildly, searching for the source of the noise. It seemed to come from all directions. Suddenly, the blue field around the Bigfoot legs evaporated and the suspended foot pounded down, shaking the earth. The legs yowled again and set off at a dead run toward Helena. She wasted no time shimmying down the steep rock face, but lost her footing. She was able to use the momentum to tuck and roll, bringing Bertha down as a shock absorber.
Helena found her feet and sprinted out of the creek bed toward the tree line. A tree root looped up from the ground, catching her toe and sending her sprawling into the dirt. Pain seared through her right ankle, and she watched the root withdraw through the soil and gather into a ball beside her. The ball hastily metamorphosized into the shape of a woman with no left side. The woman screamed and extended her viney fingers to wind around Helena’s throat. Helena thrust the heel of her palm into the woman’s jaw and followed up with a solid right hook into her wooden ribs. The tree lady recoiled and gave another scream before morphing into a pair of large legs that stood over the fallen hunter.
Helena scrambled backward and found Bertha in the leaves as the legs prepared to kick. She chambered a bullet and fired as the monstrous leg kicked out, flinging the rifle away. She must have landed a hit because the legs retreated and then transformed into a giant centipede. The red, scaly bug dragged its body toward Helena on only four front legs, but with dripping poisonous fangs.
Helena leapt to her feet, and yanked the tranquilizer pistol from her belt. She fired the two darts into the centipede’s mouth. The creature shrieked and sprouted hair all over its body and deer hooves on its four legs. The hair quickly shed, turning to bark before the creature shriveled and was absorbed by the forest floor.
A high pitched wail sounded all around her, shaking the leaves in the trees. Helena recovered Bertha and hobbled as fast as she could through the forest on her injured ankle. The wail rose and fell in volume as she panted and limped through the trees, and every now and then she thought she could hear the strange sound of deep laughter.