Holden missed noise. It had taken a while for him to realize it, but once he had, the idea took root inside his skull. The quiet was oppressive.
The soundtrack of modern life he’d taken for granted now haunted him. He had people to talk to, but what was missing was the sound of civilization. Cars, music, crowds—everyday sounds that blended together to create the hum of humanity. But on this future Earth, the hum was as dead as the human race. What you had instead were days of silence, punctuated by the sudden screech of metal, of screams and violence.
All you had were the few people close to you.
Today had been an especially quiet day, which made Holden’s noisy blundering even worse. He still didn’t understand how Umta moved through the woods without making a sound, while the rest of them might as well have been wearing bells.
A twig snapped beneath his foot like a firecracker going off.
A few yards to his left Nevaeh crouched low, watching him. Her expression said stay still, but Holden needed to plant himself in a better position. They’d picked an open glade to set up in, but the ground underfoot was too boggy. There was no way to brace himself, and by now he’d been on enough boar hunts to know that, without solid ground, he’d crumple like paper under the animal’s charge.
The earth was firmer to his right, where the long grass was thick and its root system held the moist dirt together. As stealthily as he could, Holden moved to take up his new position. He carried two spears today, both topped with scavenged metal sharpened to points. The longer one he held loosely in his left hand, and the shorter one in his throwing arm.
Holden winced at every crunch as he picked his way through the grass, but a new sound froze him in place. He heard Umta’s distant growl, followed by the roar of something . . . unnatural. It was closest to a piglike squeal, but synthetic sounding. Like a bad recording of the real thing. Holden hefted his throwing spear and scanned the glade’s perimeter.
The creature came charging out of the underbrush, just feet from where Holden had been standing. Holden’s first instinct had been close—this animal might have once been a boar. But instead of fur, the thing was covered in a mass of wriggling tentacles, each one as long as a finger. The beast’s voice box and much of its lower jaw were missing, and in their place was a plastic speaker that broadcast the series of grunts and squeals. A short slim spear was already planted firmly in its flank, and blood glistened along its side. The beast was berserk, in pain and looking for something to gore with its razor-like tusks. Even though Holden had moved positions, he was still the closest target. But the boggy ground that had troubled him slowed the boar down too. As it turned toward him, its feet slipped in the soft earth.
Holden hurled his short spear. His aim was off and the spear landed with a thunk in the boggy ground.
It took the boar thing two seconds to get its feet underneath it again, but that was time enough. Cole was shouting nearby, trying to get the creature’s attention. What the hell was he doing? He was supposed to be guarding the far side of the clearing in case the animal made a run for it.
Tusks down, the creature charged. One of Nevaeh’s spears glanced off its back. Well, she’d hit it at least.
Holden’s heart pounded, but he breathed past the panic. Bracing the butt of his long spear against the hard earth, he faced the attack.
Cole and Nevaeh shouted even louder. Bodies crashed through the trees as the others came running. For a brief moment, the world was noisy again.
Holden waited until the last second, then turned the spear to meet the creature’s charge. The boar thing hit the spear with enough force to send shocks of pain up Holden’s arms, but he didn’t let go. The sturdy plasti-steel shaft buckled but didn’t break.
The beast let out a burst of static as it died, but its tentacles kept writhing long after it stopped breathing.
After a few long, horrible minutes the forest was still again.
Loki, Sunita, and Umta emerged from the trees. Loki let out a low whistle as he surveyed the scene. “Christ, what the fuck is that?”
No one answered. They’d tracked what they’d hoped was a normal boar, and it was hard not to be crushed to find just another monstrosity. The group had begun seeing more and more animals like this—horribly mutated creatures, machine-and-animal hybrids. Holden suspected that the caretakers were behind it. Even as game grew scarce, they encountered more and more of this kind of handiwork. The poor creatures wandered the wilderness in agony. It seemed like pointless cruelty, but maybe there was a purpose behind it all.
Maybe it was just the caretakers’ idea of fun.
“You take it down all by yourself, Holden?” asked Loki.