Pittsburgh lay across the river valley like a skeleton unearthed, broken skyscrapers forming a rib cage above a spine of roads. McKitterick Kij descended, the antique Remington Safari rifle strapped to his back clip-clapping with each step.
The last. But what else could he do? A hunter hunts. He zoomed his vision to magnification ten. Prosthetic eyes were his one concession to biotechnology.
Leaves pirouetted through a gap between buildings, brown-husk corpses driven by invisible wind. McKitterick had explored a hundred cities, each with its own voice, its own resonance with the wind.
He panned to the river and a rusted metal bridge. The roadway had long ago crumbled, but it was still discernibly a bridge, still capable of its designer’s intended function. Midway across, he spied the liverbeast, a great slab of muscle and meat supported by four telescoping legs that ended in broad fleshy feet with webbed toes. Its head was small, with tiny flipping ears and marble-hard eyes above an angular snout featuring full, sagging lips.
Instinct drove McKitterick to one knee, swung the rifle around his shoulder, released the safety and took aim on the protruding lump atop the squat neck. He squeezed the trigger, letting the barrel kick to one side. The bullet struck pavement, raising a spray of dirty asphalt.
The beast’s ears perked and swiveled. It turned its head, the wide nostrils pinched closed. Its lip distended.
McKitterick did not hear its whuff, but felt it to the marrow of his bones. He longed for the adrenaline rush such moments had once brought, but felt instead only the mechanical satisfaction of a challenge delivered.
Grudgingly, the liverbeast trotted off. An echo of slapping meat filled the valley.
Midday, McKitterick spotted dung near a church’s tilted doorframe. The building had been glazed, the work of termite-like insects that digested silicates and excreted a glistening protective layer. A century of neglect had depleted the colony, leaving a pattern of protected areas and nascent decay.
He broke apart the dung pile. A rich, sweet aroma rose, not chemical enough for liverbeast. Perhaps human. He’d best keep his eyes open.
Atlanta had housed a feral human population. He’d nearly lost his life in Atlanta. The panther he’d stalked for a week had jumped him while a half-crazed man clung to his jacket, begging for scraps. Fortunately his client — a vivacious little woman from Madagascar colony — had stepped forward at just the right moment. The cat had savaged her instead, taking one limb and a portion of her face before he shot it dead. The woman had gone into shock. His reputation had skyrocketed or plummeted depending upon which dotnet one consulted, but the incident had not harmed his bookings.
He would not share this hunt. He wondered how he would react as the liverbeast died, its bead-eyes gleaming, legs wobbling on the verge of caving, will losing ground centimeter by centimeter to inviolate laws of life and death.
How would he feel? Perhaps that bullet would kill him too. In a way, at least. There would be no more great hunts, only yammering customers leeching his memories. It made him want to turn back, but how could he? To deny the last hunt must be worse than embracing it.
Surely that was so.
He camped on a square of manicured grass near a broken fountain, setting up his tent amid sweet cut-grass scents. Engineered organisms bred away from their strain over time. It was amazing that this colony of grass-cutting ants survived. In the case of the liverbeasts, no breeding was possible. Their basic design precluded that.
Early in the millennium, when genetics had been seen as humankind’s salvation, a number of species had been engineered to fill particular needs. Ants endowed with a compulsion to chew through grass stems at a particular height, snakes engineered to create antivenin in a mammalian-derived sheath, beetles gifted with digestive enzymes that converted discarded plastics into chitin.
No project had been more ambitious than the liverbeast. Using rudimentary blueprints from the then-living rhinoceros, scientists crafted an animal that filtered and converted toxic wastes with admirable efficacy. Within a hundred years they had cleansed the world’s great cities of pollution.
By then, people had recanted consumerism and the cities become irrelevant, leaving the liverbeasts to continue in solitude their onslaught against technology’s dwindling leavings. This beast must be very old. Would that make it wise or weak? More dangerous or less?
McKitterick unfolded his sleeping pad and laid it out inside the tent. Make it a good hunt, he thought. At least make it that.
Stars emerged through the dying light. He built a fire to keep any local dog packs at bay and ate protein mix.
Towering buildings enclosed him, their glass faces pockmarked with dark gaps. He felt trapped. He felt alive.
Morning woke McKitterick from a dissolving dream. He crawled into a dawn reflected through glass corridors to discover he’d had visitors overnight. A complex pattern of paw prints surrounded the tent along with hand-like prints from raccoons or large rats.
He made coffee. Its pungent aroma filled him with a lust to be moving, to be doing.
As he was cleaning up, he heard a whuffing grunt and turned to find the liverbeast standing in taller grass near an overturned bench. It stared through glistening-dark eyes, ears twitching and twisting.
McKitterick felt a momentary panic — the beast lacked horns or any sort of offensive weaponry, but possessed more than enough bulk to crush him. He’d been stupid to leave his rifle in the tent. Sloppy.
The beast shook its head and reared, displaying a tumor-riddled, pinkish belly. McKitterick rolled for the tent opening. He reached inside for the rifle, found his skinning knife instead, and came to a defensive crouch.
The liverbeast was gone. McKitterick listened to the receding slaps of its feet. Toward the river. That must be where it lived.
“Your curiosity has not served you well,” McKitterick said. He forced himself to finish breakfast and pack up the tent. Such discipline normally came easily. Today it was torture.
The beast’s trail led steadily south along the shoreline to an industrial section. Here, the Monongahela River was matted with dark green leaves, uniform oblong planes that hovered at or near the clucking surface. Rusty root tendrils surrounded hard oval vegetables beneath.
Harvest barges would arrive soon. Fish fared poorly in the oxygen depleted water, but these vegetables fed human colonies. “The mathematics of necessity,” a politician had once decreed when politics still mattered. McKitterick found that he missed even that antiquated system. Now, people trusted AI’s to decide important issues, logic replacing heart, debate conquering passion.
Tracks climbed the rocky slope from the river’s edge. McKitterick followed, emerging onto a weed-choked asphalt plane encompassing the remnants of a series of low buildings, a landscape of vine-covered bricks and rusted girders.
The sun beat down on his balding head. He’d once been hired by a man with luxuriant green hair that oriented toward the strongest light source. “To nourish my thoughts,” the man had boasted to a lady friend. “To keep me cool. To ward off the stray cancer.”
That wasn’t human. It was not human.
The beast’s tracks disappeared, then reappeared among many such tracks. It was difficult to tell which sets were fresh, which stale.
I must be close. He swung the rifle around, unchambered the shell, squeezed the trigger, sighted through the scope. With only a single shot in the breech there was no margin for mistake. That was how he preferred things and why his hunts remained popular.
Faded billboards proclaimed: PPG, Duquesne Power, InterTech, Jones & Laughlin Soho WorldCom. The beast could be anywhere in this maze of stone and steel.
He walked toward the nearest building, three yellow-brick walls and a canted, broken roof. Adrenalin trickled into his blood, an electric thrill made distant by his growing exhaustion.
He lifted the 338 Magnum cartridge between thumb and index finger, inspecting the belted casing for any flaw. Old ammo was as unreliable as old memory. Had he already checked this one? How many times?
He re-chambered the bullet.
McKitterick searched three buildings before his stomach begged for a break. The rest of his body had been begging for hours, the aching back and knees, the throbbing hip. He bore it all stolidly, but he listened to his stomach.
He found a shaded area where a dead tree had fallen against a living one, creating a sort of archway. Normally, he would sit with his back to a trunk, facing the buildings. But a liverbeast was no panther, stealth was lacking from its repertoire, and he longed to look upon the river.
The sadness inside him had grown throughout the morning, a sadness he did not quite understand. At first, he’d dismissed it as an understandable consequence of the last great hunt, but it felt larger than that now.
He retrieved a HotMeal Ration from his pack and activated the chemical heater. As the first steam vented, a wet beef-gravy smell that seemed dimmer than it ought, he heard the low whrump of the beast.
Coming for water. Even a liverbeast needed that precious commodity. He jammed a fruit-wafer into his mouth and grabbed his gun. It was time. Time to kill the thing. Time to end this.
The beast came into view from behind the fallen tree, sunlight accentuating its bulbous sides. Liquid dribbled from between its back legs as from a faulty valve.
McKitterick lifted the gun barrel. Through the eye? The heart? If he were it, what would he prefer? He took aim at the beast’s chest. From this range, the bullet would have no trouble penetrating.
The beast turned suddenly, facing him.
McKitterick paused. Was there a brain behind those eyes? Through the scope, they seemed less brilliant, rimed with pus, the eye folds crinkled with age. Still, there was something. Did it feel alone, the last of its kind?
The beast stood on hind legs and sniffed.
“Here,” McKitterick said. “Are we both blind?”
It angled down a worn gully beside a cracked concrete sewage tube and stepped into the river, forcing itself among the weeds. Water transformed it, turning cracked gray skin shiny new. It huffed and grunted, releasing pain, embracing relief.
McKitterick stepped into the shallows, the water cold against his aching shins. He planted his feet and aimed for the hump atop the liverbeast’s neck. His finger felt wet and hot on the trigger.
The explosion filled his ears with static. Pain stitched his side. The sharp spike of hot-metal gunpowder was so quickly gone that it hardly existed in his nose. He remembered a lion lunging, a deafening boom, blood spraying his face.
The liverbeast grunted. Clawless feet slapped water, sending ripples toward him.
McKitterick slipped. For a heartbeat, the plants suspended him, long enough to steal a half-breath and notice the beast’s rust-brown blood skimming toward him. Leaves parted, their roots tickling his neck; hard fruits scuttled along his ribs. He sank slowly, eyes squeezed tight to protect the sensitive bioelectronics within.
He felt the surface close over him and was suddenly submerged in the sadness that had stalked him all day. Perhaps it was not growing inside him at all, but only now exposed, an ache he’d kept bandaged beneath layers of the hunt. What would be left for him in this world after today?
He thought of faceless colonies tucked inside ecologically engineered mountain networks, energy from the sun-mirrors nurturing them like vegetation. His lungs nagged at him to breathe. Pressure squeezed his chest and face.
Was I the last true man?
He opened his eyes to the gray-green water.
Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in various places, from Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction to Microliterature. He lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, and edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink.