I step through the double doors, eye the scanners lining the frames. Larsen greets me, wearing his usual beige trousers and easy jacket, boots polished to a shine and the far-too-friendly smile beneath his thick moustache. He looks no different in real life than he does on his weekly casts.
“Melcher!” He thrusts a hand out. “Good of you to come.”
I take his hand, meeting the pressure of his squeeze. He tries to twist my wrist but I hold firm, let him know I won’t concede.
“Always grasp the opportunity to learn from a fellow hunter.”
“Always the analyst. You’ve done well through your patient study.” His grin twists into something ugly. “But what I have to show you will change all that. I’m afraid that our rivalry ends today.”
I don’t give in to the threat—if I can stand the intimidation of a sorrack in the northern Foreen tundra, I can withstand this man’s bullying. “We’ll see.”
“We will indeed. But come, let me show you the galleries.”
This is so obviously Larsen’s place. We walk along highly-polished wood in a perfectly controlled atmosphere, passing memorabilia from countless worlds. We see nobody else, of course, boosting the image of Larsen as a man alone, facing down some of the most dangerous beasts in the universe. Those who do the majority of his work receive an insincere ‘thanks’ if they’re lucky.
“How’s life?” he asks as we walk.
“Good.” I know he’s prodding, wants me to talk of Sheena, of our life together. I never talk of her in interviews, but it’s hard to keep everything private.
It was easier before this stupid rivalry, before Larsen got the publicity bug.
He walks half a step ahead of me, confident in his own domain. I study him, see the signs of his excitement.
It must be something impressive, this latest kill of his. “New beast, or an old adversary?” I ask.
“A little of both. You might say this is a change of tactics.”
He glances over at me, but I don’t show my surprise.
Larsen is a creature of habit, now that he’s found a method that works. Pay the researchers, mount a team to hunt the prey, send in others to weaken it, then wade in to deliver the killing blow personally, and take all the glory.
It’s still dangerous, though. While many of the stories are clear exaggerations I know he bears many scars.
We’re alike in that.
“I’ve taken a leaf from your book on this one,” he tells me. “The way you spend so long studying your quarry—I admit I once saw that as indecision, but I understand now how it can yield the perfect approach to a new target.”
“Should I be honoured?”
He shrugs. “Your record has been a constant prompt for me to improve. Some of the things you’ve done have been awe-inspiring. Taking that goriath on Katcharam, for instance. So impressive—and without losing any of your team, too.”
I remember—the biting cold, the terrible fear as those multiple heads snapped at me and my team, the wounds we all suffered. But we did the job, and the beast was shipped off to the facility for further study.
Study which helped Larsen. We found the weakness, exploited it six months later. Lost ten men, but slaughtered two of the beasts.
Sheena called him a monster for that, and I loved her more than ever.
She didn’t accept my profession at first. She called it bloodthirsty, said I had no humanity. But I persevered. I told her of my team’s studies, the wealth of knowledge we uncovered. When she said these magnificent beasts needed to fear humanity I agreed, and told her that was the point. By killing a few, I was protecting the many.
It was harder than any hunt, but worth every moment. I never knew what was missing from my life until I met Sheena.
Larsen flings open a grand double-door. “The main gallery!”
Heads line the walls, lifeless eyes staring down at us. There are fangs and tusks, shaggy manes and smooth scales. Creatures from land and sea and air, from cold and from heat. Monsters the size of a house and beasts no larger than a man’s head. Life destroyed from countless worlds.
We walk among them, and I remember Larsen’s well-publicised descriptions of his struggles against these creatures. And I remember the hidden truths, the lives Larsen had sacrificed to remain on top.
I hated the man. In that moment, I could have pulled the stealth-blade from the lining of my jacket, could have pierced the man’s black heart.
But I don’t give in to emotions. I watch, and I learn.
The gallery twists and turns through many rooms. The number of different species is worthy of a museum, but there’s no imperative to learn here. These are trophies to Larsen, nothing more.
We reach a smaller door, and Larsen stops. “It’s in here,” he says. “My most prestigious memento. This one will finally put an end to our rivalry.”
“Unless I top it,” I say. “There are always new worlds and new challenges.”
He smiles, sickeningly. “After seeing this, you won’t threaten my position again.”
He opens the door onto darkness, but light slowly floods the small room, brittle white on black walls. The air is chilled, and my breath fogs.
There’s a single trophy, fixed to the wall ahead.
My hand brushed my jacket, but I can’t attack Larsen. I can’t give in to emotions like that.
And I can never hunt again. I know now that Larsen will sacrifice anything and anyone to remain at the top, including his own humanity. He’ll destroy all that’s good in his quest for glory. He’ll prove himself the best whatever the cost.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” he says, pushing me forward.
I look up, into the lifeless eyes of the only person I ever loved.
In The Dark
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The Long Way Round