Friday, September 3, 2010

The Lion Hunt

The voice called him out of his trance. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked around the room. Some of his fellow students were smiling at him. The newcomers where gaping with open mouths.
"You did well," his teacher said. He nodded, indicating the blade that was buried in the wooden target in front of him.
Lars looked behind him, where the mechanical crossbow was rewinding. As he watched, another blade clicked into place. Lars blanked the bolt out of his mind, and it ceased to exist until it thudded into the wooded target behind him, besides the first.
As the hour progressed, the teacher put him through his paces. Eventually he stood and turned off the crossbow.
"I believe you are ready," he said. Lars kept still, standing where he was. The teacher walked up to him and withdrew a small square chip from his sleeve. "See the head proctor of the hour and hand this to him." With that he turned to the remaining students, not another word of dismissal or farewell.
"What did you observe, Belle," he asked one of the youngest, a boy with dusky skin and a freshly shaven head.
"Lars ceased to exist for the bolts," the youngster said. Lars smiled to himself. That was the answer he had given when he first arrived.
"And yet the bolt hit the target." The teacher's voice did not sound disapproving. He seemed to be worrying at a puzzle. "How is that possible, Geri?"
A slightly older girl with a year's growth of hair recited the answer.
"Neither Lars nor the bolt ceased to exist. Lars insisted that his body would not be affected by the bolt. He reached for a future where this was true and followed that world line."
As the teacher praised the correct answer, Lars stepped into his shoes. A few steps shook the laces up. The doors to the hall opened as he approached, and he found the head proctor walking past at the very moment. Wordlessly he handed over the white chip. In return he received another chip which he pocketed. It was time to leave school.
A few minutes later he was walking down bustling 42nd, following a stream of pedestrians, and taking care to allow occasional people to jostle him. It wouldn't do to draw attention now.
Traffic wasn't bad. The predictive networks seemed to be free of glitches this day. Carriages hummed back and forth, the scent of ozone in the air. A little further along he reached a hotel and entered the waiting door. He took the elevator up and got off where it stopped. Choosing the left corridor, he found a door open and went inside. The door swung shut behind him.
There was a console on the sideboard. Lars stuck his chip into the waiting slot and punched a series of random digits. The light by the slot flashed green, and the screen lit up.
A man appearing in the screen and said. "Congratulations on graduating would have been in order a few decades ago, but you know better by now. Your first assignment will be a interference run. An older man living in a small village in southern Sudan must die instead of being protected from a man eating lion. A hunter is already on his way. He may kill the lion, but only after the lion has killed the old man. In this case the manner of the old man's death does matter."
With that the screen winked out. Lars retrieved the chip and stuck it in his pocket. There was a knock on the door, and a woman in a bellhop's uniform handed him a large package. He tipped her and closed the door again. The package contained clothes, money, and documents. He was on his way.
Much later he was crouched in the corner of an old Ford bus bouncing along a rutted road, about two days out from Khartoum. The floor was littered with chicken feathers and animal dung, and other passengers were packed in around him, clinging to the naked ribs of their vehicle. No one noticed Lars. Everyone was in excellent spirits, since the bus had suffered no break-downs, which was not the usual way of things.
At the expected moment, sound and dust and fire and shards of burning metal picked up the front of the bus. The explosion flung Lars clear of the wreckage, rolling a couple of times in the red dust before coming to his feet. He continued walking, without sparing another look for the burning inferno on the road behind him. Everyone would be dead. The antitank mine had been on that road for decades, missed by both UN and UAS mine removal teams, its trigger frozen from dust and corrosion, until today. This future was actually a fairly probable one. That Lars had managed to survive was on one of the more tenuous world lines, but the mine's explosion was on a nexus of world lines. With so many paths to choose from, Lars didn't expect many problems.
It was late afternoon. Here there would be no slowly setting sun, no dusk. Lars looked into his future and found a confluence of paths to follow. An hour later, with the sun almost down and the bush around him slowly waking for the night, he walked into a campsite. A pair of young women sitting at the fire looked up at his approach. He slowed and stood near enough to the fire that they could look him over.
The women were both dark skinned. If his appearance bothered them they showed no sign.
"Maa thaa tif all hinaa?" the woman on the left asked him. Lars assumed she was asking who he was or something like that. He didn't speak Arabic, but it didn't matter much. He knew the world line he needed. He whirled in place, bringing his hands forward. There was the sound of a rifle shot, and a bullet creased the skin above his left ear. He allowed himself to fall to the ground, feeling the blood run down the side of his face.
The women were shouting, and a man was shouting back. A few moments later a man walked into the firelight, holding a rifle on him.
"Do you speak English," he asked.
Lars carefully did not move. He knew this was going to hurt, but it was the easiest way to reach the world line he wanted. He spoke softly, "Yes," and closed his eyes.
A short while later he felt gentle hands on him. They probed the wound in his scalp. There was more Arabic, this time one of the women speaking quietly as if she were giving instructions. He felt the wound being cleaned, the sting of antiseptic applied, the touch of rubber covered hands supporting his head as a bandage was wound around his head. Eventually the hands left him, and he allowed himself to go to sleep.
In the morning Lars woke to find the man sitting by his side.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. His English was good, and Lars thought he could hear the Arabic in his accent. He looked at Lars with curiosity and some concern.
"My bus blew up on the road," Lars told him, keeping his voice weak and shaky. "I think it was a landmine." After that he let his eyes close again.
"What happened to the other people on the bus?" the man wanted to know, but Lars kept him waiting. Over the next few hours he doled out answers, keeping the man by his side. This was the hunter. Today he would not be hunting. What happened tomorrow would not matter for Lars.