He crouched, head down, clutching his sword, hoping to blend into the bushes around him as he heard the hunter tracking along the trail above. The hunter moved past and he waited a long time before cautiously raising his head, lest the hunter had doubled back in the hopes of luring him out of hiding and ambushing him.
Song was to die for treason. He dared to speak out publicly and to write that the regime was wrong to spend so much on weapons and so little to improve the lot of the people. That the Supreme Leader, Defender of the Realm, should change his priorities and place the welfare of the common people first. And so he was sentenced to die by slow hanging. His cell was filthy, meals less than meager, and frequent physical abuse by the guards a given.
Two days before his sentence was to be carried out, he was taken from his cell to a small barren room where a black suited man was seated behind a dingy table. The guard stood by the door while the man spoke, “You do not deserve this, but I am offering you a chance to avoid hanging for your treasonous actions and live, if you participate in the Hero Hunt.”
Song’s mind raced. A chance to live? A hero hunt? “What…,” he finally said.
“Rich capitalists pay the state for the privilege of hunting down and killing condemned vermin such as you. If you can avoid being killed for three days, then your life will be spared and you will be expelled to another nation.”
“And if I don’t accept this offer?”
“Why then you will be hanged in disgrace as scheduled.”
“I have no choice, it seems.”
“Good, you will participate in the next hunt. You will be moved to a cleaner cell and be given a better diet until the hunt. The filthy rich capitalists want to get their money’s worth by having a good hunt against a worthy quarry which means someone who is strong and physically healthy.”
The guard opened the door for the man in black and, as he rose to leave, Song asked, ”How many have survived the hunt?”
The man smiled thinly, “I shouldn’t answer your impertinent question, but I will. None. But there is always the chance that you may be the first.”
Curry had inquired out of curiosity. A skilled hunter, he had participated in several Combat Hunts involving armed androids, but the novelty and challenge had worn thin. Then he heard of “Hero Hunts.” It sounded too outlandish to be true. A hunt to the death involving real persons?
He was scheduled for an orientation video conference to learn more. His contact was a beautiful woman, age about thirty, who spoke accented but fluent english. “Yes Mr. Curry, that is correct. The hunt does involve humans. They are prisoners, usually male, who have already been sentenced to death for the most heinous crimes. Murder, rape, rape-murders, vicious assaults. The scum of the earth. They volunteer to participate in the Hunt as a means of redressing their debt to society. As the hunter, you would be doing no more than bringing them to justice. And if you are a good marksman, as I assume you are, then you would be granting the prisoner a quick and relatively painless death rather than one by hanging, From your inquiry questionnaire, I see that you are a veteran of the android combat hunt where the quarry is armed with a handgun. The quarry in our hunts is also armed, with a traditional three foot short sword. So there is some element of danger to you since the prisoner is highly motivated to survive the three day duration of the hunt.”
“What happens if he does survive?” Curry asked.
“If he does, his life is spared and he is exiled to another country. Also, there is no refund of the entry fee if that happens and the hunter does not score a kill. Any other questions? No? Then I will check back with you in two days about your decision.”
Curry was a decent man and he wrestled with the idea of hunting down another human and killing him. It was true that the person he would pursue had already been sentenced to death for some terrible crime. He deserved to die. So as the hunter, he would only be carrying out a death sentence that would be done without him, he rationalized, and in a more merciful way. Even so, could he really be an executioner, really shoot another person? He’d heard the phrase somewhere that man is the most dangerous game. Now there was a chance to find out. His inner hunter won out over his inner humanist.
The woman called back and the contract was signed. “Don’t worry about not speaking our language. You will be equipped with a bilingual translating collar that will do simultaneous translation.”
“Will the quarry also be equipped with one?” asked Curry.
“Yes. In fact that will be your hunt trophy. After the kill, his collar will be mounted for you to display. And you will be celebrated as a Hero of the Nation. We will arrange for your transportation and hotel so you need not do anything further except to pack and decide on your weapon of choice.”
Early one morning, Song was brought to the same room where he elected to be a quarry. The Hunt Master waited. “Song, the hunt begins tomorrow. You will be taken to the hunting preserve immediately so that you can familiarize yourself with the terrain ahead of the hunt. We do not want the guest hunter to find the hunt too easy. Otherwise they would leave disappointed by the lack of challenge and tell others which would be bad for future business. We have ready for you a grey jump suit, a pack with rice balls for your meals, a translator collar that will be locked in place around your neck, and a short sword that you can use to defend yourself. Should you kill the hunter, you will not be punished. Now go and make the hunt interesting tomorrow for our guest.”
He was immediately locked into the back of a prison van and, accompanied by two heavily armed guards, driven into forested rocky hills. “Do not try to escape, one of the guards said. The perimeter of the hunt area is marked by a highly electrified fence and under observation at all times. Also, if you should somehow get past the fence or gate, an explosive charge in your neck collar will explode.” The guards unlocked the gate, pushed him through, relocked the gate and left.
After the sound of the van faded, Song was struck by the quiet. Only sounds of nature. Wind ruffling tree branches, bird calls. “Hello, he shouted but there was not even the hint of an echo. Well, I’d better get started exploring, he thought. The preserve was a rough square, 1.5 kilometers to a side. There were a few deer trails and others that looked less permanent, remnants of past hunts perhaps. He didn’t dwell on that thought too long. The perimeter fence was painted bright red and Song followed it along two sides before realizing that he also needed to explore the interior. The preserve was dominated by one high point, a rocky hill bare at the top overlooking the rest of the area that was mostly forest. From the top Song noted several open areas below to be avoided. He found two small caves. Too obvious, not suitable for hide outs. The underbrush had leafed out, this being early summer, and Song realized that not only did that make movement through it slower and noisier, but that he would leave a trail that would be obvious to a skilled hunter. Wait, Song thought, perhaps I can turn that to my advantage. What if I tramp out some trails like a sort of maze coming off the main trail? That may confuse the hunter and buy some time—I need to stay alive for three days. I’d better get to work while there’s still day light. Song laid out some trails that ended blindly and others that doubled back on themselves, working until it was twilight. He ate two rice balls and drank from the canteen that he’d filled from the stream running through the area. The hunter may watch along the stream for me to come for water. Now better sleep while I can. But sleep did not come easily.
He picked a spot for the night on a small rise off aways from the gate area but where he could still hear an arriving vehicle. An hour after sunrise, he heard a Land Rover pull up to the gate. He heard the Hunt Master say before driving off, “Good hunting, Mr. Curry,” and his heart rate increased and his palms felt clammy.
Now it begins, he thought, as he watched Curry start up the trail to the top of the hill. He’s getting the lay of the land. I need to stay well hidden and motionless while he’s up there. Song had decided that his best chance was to carefully follow behind, since the hunter would be looking forward most of the time. He saw Curry stop to look at one of the false trails he’d laid the previous day, and then move on. Not going to waste time on an old trail.
Curry set up his shelter at the top of the hill and sat down with binoculars to first methodically scan the entire preserve. He placed a perimeter alarm so that his quarry could not sneak up on him at night. Song watched from below and was getting a cramp from lying motionless when he saw Curry stand up, pick up his carbine and start down the hill. Looks like he is going to search the terrain on foot. I’ll follow him quietly. Curry stopped suddenly from time to time to listen and Song had to stay alert to stop moving whenever he did. Song remained undetected for the first day.
The second day began with Curry again surveying the area from the top after sunrise. Later he found where Song had slept and had also relieved himself. I think he’s on to what I did yesterday. I’ll try going in the opposite direction from him. He almost ran into Curry but heard him coming in time to duck into cover. With luck he was undetected but it was a close call.
On the third morning, Song was up before sunrise. So was Curry with his binoculars to visually sweep the preserve. The sun was rising when he saw Curry pause his scanning and look back in his direction. Curry stood and started down from his camp. Could he have spotted me? Did my glasses reflect the sun? Why didn’t I sleep on the east side? He felt the icy sweat of fear and began to move as quickly and with as little noise as he could. This time Curry had no trouble finding and following his passage through the brush until he finally saw a figure dressed in grey moving ahead of him. As Song began to cross one of the clearings, Curry called out, “You might as well stop and end this chase. I have you in my sights.”
Song turned, breathing hard, clutching his sword. He saw that Curry had his carbine trained on him and briefly wondered about charging him. To go down fighting. Curry wondered the same and kept his finger ready to pull the trigger. But Song decided, I’ll not die like a desperate cornered rat. He stood up as straight as he could and flung the sword aside. “If I am to die, I’ll do it like a man. Go ahead and shoot if you must. Aim well.”
“Before I execute you, tell me what terrible crime you committed to receive a death sentence. Murder, rape, assault?” Curry asked.
“I was sentence to death for treason by publicly saying that our Glorious Leader should put the needs of the people first instead of the army.”
“Wait,” said Curry, “ Say that again. You aren’t a violent criminal?”
Song repeated what he had said, then asked, “Is that what they told you?”
“Yes. That I would be carrying out a just sentence by executing you for violent crimes.”
“Well if you believe that go ahead and do it without further questions. You will be called a hero, for ridding the realm of me and my ideas.”
Curry lowered his carbine, “I can’t kill a man because of his thoughts.” He walked warily towards Song still holding his gun at the ready. He bent and picked up the sword. “Tell me about yourself. What’s your name?”
The next morning the Land Rover returned with the Hunt Master. As he got out he saw Song and Curry standing side by side waiting. He frowned, “You are a poor hunter, Mr. Curry. There is no refund for an unsuccessful hunt and there will be no Hero Certificate or trophy.”
“Oh I think the hunt was quite successful,” said Curry. “And I think I found my trophy.”
“And I met a hero,” said Song.