After the Meltdown, On the Hunt

Mark Jacobs

Only after we got separated from the rest of the hunt team did I tell Vanilla Marie I loved her. Melodramatic, yep, and poorly timed. The sun was going down, and our way back to the ship was blocked by angry people waving weapons. To make things worse, I had a lousy sense of direction.

The day’s wet heat was hanging on. We were standing in an alley alongside a high mud wall catching our breath. V had high frizzy hair and the roundest dark eyes I ever saw. When I told her I loved her, she said, “Fulton, you are a mindless idiot.”

We heard drums.

Probably none of this makes sense. Let me go back to the beginning.

After a long spell of lemons, my luck changed, and I scored a sweet assignment. All I had to do was cruise to Africa on the Burthen, go out on the hunt, and write a puff piece with embedded 3-D art for Adventure International. Submit piece, get paid, cruise home in the sun.

Before your outrage meter shoots up to 11, think about what I knew at the time: All participants—those who ran and those who ran after—signed a consent form. If something happened, AI compensated the victim’s family. In the promo holographs, the alumni raved about the opportunities the hunt gave them and their families. They were grateful to AI. What would you have done?

I am an average individual. Before the trip, I never gave much thought to the cruises, the hunts, or what used to be called, back before the meltdown, international relations.

I'm tired of people saying the meltdown changed everything forever. As a planet, we blew it. Agreed. We let hate win and technology get the better of us. We underestimated the killing capacity of robots and drones and the multiplier effect. We crawled into our shells and told scary stories about people in other places.

Africa took more than its fair share of the destruction when the drone war spiraled out of control. And then, of course, the robots made everything worse. One of the casualties of the meltdown was curiosity. Safer not to have any. Hardly anybody wanted to travel. If you saw pictures of misery, you closed your eyes. If AI said they were doing a good thing with the hunts, you believed them.

Go ahead and hate on me.

On board the Burthen, I was surprised by the diversity of the travelers. Young and old, male and female, there were examples of every American kind and color. Right off the bat, I started interviewing people, building a file for my piece. I figured I’d profile a few of them and have the background ready to stick in when I needed it. Not all of them were of equal interest, journalistically speaking.

And then there was Vanilla Marie.

Our second night out, she was standing at the rail on seven deck drinking a Tropical Storm. It came in a tall glass in which miniature lightning bolts shot continuously through cloudy blue liquid; a gimmick, but a cool one. She was staring out over the Atlantic, looking as if her puppy had just washed overboard. I really liked her spike-heeled flip-flops. When I asked her if I could profile her, she turned me down.

“Not interested, Journo-Boy.”

“They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

“You obviously don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“What’s going on.”

“Then tell me.”

“This whole thing… we’ve been here before.”

“Not me,” I said. “This is my first time out.”

Shaking her head in disgust, she walked away. I was strongly drawn to the tall, self-possessed woman and wasn’t going to let rejection stand in my way. So I stuck with it. Whenever she thought she had escaped, up popped Fulton. Across the ocean and the days, she got sort of used to me. Two or three times, she let me buy her a drink. The drinks didn't cost me; they were part of my deal with AI.

Once, I stood her a Tropical Storm in the bar on the top deck, which was done up in a jungle theme and included colorful parrots with clipped wings in the branches of real trees.

“I know you think I’m stupid,” I said.

She sucked on her Storm as mini-lightning jags crashed around the liquid blue. “Not stupid, just ignorant.”

“Enlighten me.”

“The sins of the fathers,” she said. “We’re committing them all over again.”

It made me uneasy, not knowing what she was talking about. And as we approached the west coast of Africa, the atmosphere on board changed. People tensed up. It had to do with the hunt. The handful of veterans developed cult-like followings of first-timers. I recorded a few of the stories they were tossing off, but that got old. I knew my craft. I didn’t have to hear every last self-serving anecdote to put together my piece, which I was calling All Aboard: The Burthen Africa Hunt Cruise.

I managed to sit next to Vanilla Marie at the final orientation session, which they held in a conference room amidships on the same level as the pool. To set a serious tone, they served no alcoholic drinks. I was struck by the ferocity of her note-taking.

In the vid they showed us, a lissome man in his twenties named Moussa was filmed having the locator chip implanted in his chest. He smiled and chatted with the technicians. There were symmetric chevron scars on his cheeks, markers of tribal affiliation that stretched back into the fathomless past. In a later clip, we watched him disappear into a surging city crowd, taking advantage of the head start he was allowed.

The evening before we docked, we were divided into teams of five. Each team had a tracking device keyed to the locator chip of the individual we were hunting. Competition was ruthless; there was a prize for the first team to score. We wore armbands with our team color. We were the green team.

Sounded simple enough. You disembarked into the chaos of the port. You kept in touch via wrist radios. You followed the signal emitted by the implant in your guy’s chest.

He had some advantages. One, he knew the city. Two, the population of the city was on his side. (AI had learned the goodwill value of spreading swag around. There was an active gray market in trinkets, especially the electronic stuff. Of course, I could not include that in my piece.) Three, as the day went on, the signal strength from the chip decreased. If they hadn't designed it that way, there would be no sport involved, and your kill inevitable. This way, it was a real hunt.

I told the organizers a lie. I was featuring Vanilla Marie in my article, so I needed to be on her team. It worked.

“I should have known,” she muttered as the green team congealed by the gangway. She was dressed in khaki with lots of pockets, some of them big. In the morning sun, she looked graceful and slightly sweaty.

“Mind if I call you V?”

Rounding out our team was a professor of communication sciences from Vanderbilt, an introverted woman of forty who constantly brushed her hair off her forehead; a rancher from Montana with the steely glint and steady nerves you expected of a man who dealt in livestock; and a guy with no discernible personality who ran some kind of import-export business. We’d had dinner together the previous evening, a bonding exercise that tanked. The rancher talked firearms. The professor talked about her feelings. The business guy picked at his ear. V radiated her disapproval, and I tried to express some silent solidarity with her. Go Team Green.

“You notice we don’t know his name,” whispered V the moment we touched solid ground.

She was a head taller than I and had to lean down to catch my ear.

“Whose name?”

“The man we’re hunting. It’s part of the desensitization process.”

“What desensitization process?”

If I had tried, I could not have said anything better calculated to irk her. But I knew something was not quite right. Adventure International patrons did not start off after their target fretting about the desensitization process. Vanilla Marie had reasons of her own to be on the hunt.

You’ve seen scenes like this in a hundred action vids. A mass of poor people, elbow to elbow in a dusty space, buckets and bundles, children in slings on the backs of traditional mothers. A rising tide of foreign sound fills your ears with strangeness. A mélange of smells: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Bicycles and overladen handcarts are on the verge of constant collision. Eyes you can’t avoid. Misery you can’t escape. Crumbling buildings. Donkeys, goats, and emaciated cattle with visible ribs.

“Let’s stick together,” the rancher said. “No freelancing. Everybody got that?”

We got it. With no discernible effort, he had become the head of our team. I had thought he would stand out like a sore thumb in his ten-gallon hat and alligator boots, but once we were in the crowd, I realized how outlandish all of us were.

The Vanderbilt woman said, “I’m getting a signal.”

Okay, in retrospect, I knew more than I admitted to myself. I knew Vanilla Marie was opposed to the hunt. And I knew—a small unruined part of me did, anyway—that we intended to commit murder and call it entertainment.

The locals knew the drill. As we formed a pack, they parted to let us through. A little kid grabbed my pant leg and howled. I shook him off. Never mind what I knew about our dark purpose, the sense of excitement was heady. I had chosen a pistol because it was easy to carry. Anyway, my job was to observe and report, not to kill. The AI logo was embossed on the grips, which somehow made it look harmless.

The signal led west into the congested heart of the city.

I tried not to look at Vanilla Marie. She, too, had selected a pistol.

Our guy was good. Any time we thought we were gaining on him, the signal dipped and shifted, and suddenly he was moving in a different direction. Even the export-import guy was impressed.

“I got to hand it to the son of a bitch. He knows what he’s doing.”

“We’ll get him,” the rancher said.

We had stopped to reconnoiter. He lifted his hat, ran a meaty hand through wavy gray hair. He was fit and tough, an experienced hunter. He had persuaded us not to hire an AI guide. It’s not because of the money, folks. It's because we want a clean hunt.

“Do you really think we’re going to get him?” asked Vanilla Marie.

He settled the hat back onto his head. “Sure do.”

Her smile was bright and hard as she told him, “We’ll see, won’t we?”

They didn’t like each other.

We set off again at a pretty good clip. The day’s heat was upon us. We had been warned about water consumption but went through a lot of it. Despite my intake of fluid, after a while, I felt light-headed.

We fell into a pattern. Pick up a signal. Trot. Draw stares as clusters of citizens made way. Watch the signal fade. Stop. Pick it up again. Trot.

The morning was consumed, and then the afternoon.

“Now’s the time to make our push,” said the rancher at another rest stop, inflating his leather cheeks and puffing. “Mark my words, that damned signal is going sideways on us any minute now.”

We scarfed down some energy bars, knocked back an energy drink full of electrolytes. Make sure you talk about the hunt-day rations. Your reader needs to know that we take meticulous care of our guests. We are attentive to their every need. Adventure International is not just a company, it’s a way of life.

Because I am a journalist, sentences formed in my mind as we jogged along, and I observed unusual new things. Clauses, dependent and independent. Bon mots and telling adjectives. You can’t change who you are.

Or can you?

The moment arrived. We came to a small square surrounded by shacks of mud brick. Strips of burlap hung limp in the doorways. The roofs were mismatched sheets of battered aluminum held down by stones. People sat in doorways and along the outer walls of houses in latticed shade. Babies played in the dirt. Boys kicked a lopsided soccer ball. A blind man with a grizzled beard leaned on a stick, head cocked to one side, smelling us or hearing us. Then, out of the door of one of the smaller houses stepped our man. The tracking device was going crazy.

“Got him,” said the import-export guy, his satisfaction huge.

Seeing us, the man with the locator chip in his chest pulled up short. He smiled.

He was young. They were always young, perfect specimens of healthy humanity. He wore red sneakers, a blue T-shirt, yellow running shorts with a military stripe. He was a handsome man who had accepted his fate, doing his best to keep the benefits package he was bequeathing his family uppermost in his mind. His wife's welfare was assured. His children would eat nourishing food. They would remember him as a hero. His smile, full of grace, did not erase the fear from his face.

The rancher was keen to take aim, tense as a pointer downwind. To my surprise, he offered the kill shot to the rest of the team.

“Anybody want to do this?” he said. “I’ll be the fallback, in case you miss.”

The Vanderbilt woman and the import-export man both wanted to shoot. Skill development. Experience. Bragging rights. A story with a long shelf-life. Their money’s worth. All those reasons were part of it, but they were pretexts. Really what they wanted was to pull a trigger. They wanted to kill a man. He had made them sweat. His blithe flight through an alien landscape had mocked them.

“This one is mine,” said Vanderbilt.

She raised the AI rifle she had been lugging, but before she could shoulder it, Vanilla Marie made her move. She ran to the side of the square where the victim was waiting to be cut down and put an arm around him. Suddenly, she was shouting in French. From one of her big pockets, she pulled a head cam. Fastened it on. Whatever went down, she was capturing it. With luck, the recording would be posted on a site that mattered.

For a moment, nothing. The square quickly filled up with people flabbergasted to see a tall white woman with a camera on her head. Then they began paying attention to what she was saying. My French was not good, but I followed it. Wake up. Save this man, find your freedom. Like that.

It worked. For one sickening moment, I thought the rancher would shoot Vanilla Marie. She had gone over to the enemy. But people were rushing us, and we were overwhelmed. They took away our weapons. I was never so happy in my life as I was to get rid of the damn pistol. I was laughing.

In a different world, Vanilla Marie would have been hailed as a liberator. They would have made speeches. In this world, after the meltdown, on the hunt, she was subject to the same fury as the rest of us.

It was going badly for her. I pushed through the crowd to the side of the square where she was making a noble but stupid effort to film the melee. Someone knocked the camera from her head. It went flying.

I grabbed her by her slender arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait, Fulton.”

“Do you want to die?”

She shook her head. She couldn’t get past the idea that they hated her as much as they hated me. I yanked her along, and because the rancher had become the focus of people's anger, we were able to skate.

We escaped the square but not the city. The fire that Vanilla Marie lit was doing its work, spreading fast. Across the capital, I was betting, residents who had only pretended to be indifferent were turning on the hunt teams.

There was a smell of burning, the sound of women ululating. Our wrist radios were gone. That meant we couldn’t talk to the ship. We needed a plan.

We kept going. Every time we reached a turning, we chose the direction that felt safer. We were quickly lost. That was when the drums began.

After I told Vanilla Marie I loved her, and she told me I was an idiot, I felt entitled to make a comment.

“Well, you got what you wanted.”

“What?”

“Now we know how it feels to be hunted.”

She glared at me, and I asked her, “Will you answer a question?”

“What?”

“Are you in some sort of resistance group?”

“I wanted to be.”

“But this, it was all on your own.”

She nodded. Her lower lip turned out. She was proud of what she had done.

“I thought if I did something that mattered, people would take me seriously.”

So there was an organization. At least, she thought there was. Now was not the time to dig into it. Any moment someone would happen past the intersection and notice us.

We followed the alley in the darkness back to where the wall ended. Across the way, next to a field, we could just make out a small house squatting alongside a big tree. There were no lights. It was quiet, and the place had a deserted feel. We took a chance. It seemed safer to stay in one place than to wander around until somebody caught us. We went into the house, which was empty. When Vanilla Marie shined a flashlight, the beam fixed on a low door in the back wall. We went through it into the yard, which seemed to be an open-air kitchen. The ashes were cold in the brick fireplace.

The ground was lumpy. I bent over and picked up a lump. It was a mango from the big tree. I peeled a couple of them with a pocket knife, and we ate.

There were chairs in the backyard. We sat in them, hoping whoever lived in the house would not come back.

“Did you plan on spending the rest of your life here?”

“I thought people would be grateful.”

“Never mind. We have to get back to the ship.”

She shook her head. "If I go back, they’ll arrest me.”

“Only if people from our team make it back alive. Which I’m pretty sure is not going to happen.”

“So, what, I’m supposed to slink back and pretend nothing ever happened?”

My brain quit working. I was tired of everything, including Vanilla Marie. You wouldn’t think a person could sleep under such circumstances, but sleep we did, on the ground under the mango tree. There were constant cats, and a hen flew up to a low branch of the mango and roosted. Gradually the drums stopped, the shouting stopped, and the city went quiet, although smoke drifted in long low clouds.

I did not want to wake up. Waking meant thinking. But something kept drilling into my brain, and I sat up in confusion. Vanilla Marie was already awake. There was a smear of ash on her cheek, and her eyes were red and swollen from catastrophe smoke.

“It’s the ship,” she said.

They were blasting the horn. That was what woke me.

“They’re telling us how to get back,” I said. “Now’s the time, V. We have to make a run for it. They won’t wait forever.”

“You go. I don’t want to be arrested.”

“Now who’s the idiot?”

She turned away, trying to make defection easy on me.

“Get out of here.”

“Vanilla Marie.”

“Go.”

As mentioned above, I am an average person. I went cautiously through the house. Back down the long alley, staying close to the wall. It was late night or early morning, and I was grateful for the smoky half-dark and the horn bursts from the ship. To get back, all I needed was a little luck.

So why did I stop? Why did I turn around? I wish I had an answer that didn’t make me seem better than I am. I went back.

The sky was beginning to lighten. The city was still. Vanilla Marie was eating a mango, a gray kitten playing at her feet. Out of all the things that could happen to a person to change his life, this was what changed mine. We ate more mangos. We went out into the street. We walked.

At the corner that decided our destiny, a black goat grazed on weeds sprouting in thick clumps in an empty lot, and an old woman walked toward us, balancing a basket of onions on her head with her good arm, the other swinging uselessly at her side. She did not seem surprised by the sight of us.

Nor was she taken aback when Vanilla Marie spoke to her. Everything seemed normal. Everything was fine, or that was what I got from the reassuring sounds coming from the old woman. We followed her home. The house was full of kids. They fed us rice with chunks of goat meat. I felt my strength coming back. Somehow it seemed normal when the man we had been hunting came through the front door.

He looked amazingly good for a person who had been through the ordeal he had been through. He had changed into a pale blue robe. He was calm and seemed rested. He spoke first to the woman of the house and then to Vanilla Marie.

It sounded, to me, like a story. When he stopped for breath, I asked V what he was saying. She looked at him for permission to translate. He nodded.

“His name is Abdulaziz,” she told me. “He has two wives and seven children. They are the sun and the moon and all the stars of Heaven to him.”

My sense of shame was beyond acute.

“Will you tell him I am sorry?”

She looked at me with the contempt I deserved.

“Just tell him.”

She did. He listened but did not respond. They talked again for a while as the woman’s children fluttered around the yard playing hide and seek. I listened until I couldn’t stand it anymore and asked Vanilla Marie to translate again.

“Abdulaziz thinks I must be some sort of powerful person. If I go back home and tell people about the hunts, they will stop. I’m trying to explain that I have no power, but he doesn’t believe me.”

At that moment, I did not want to be an average person. That was exactly what I was, though, the last in a long line stretching back to the original horror. Maybe the thing to do was cut off my hand, the one whose fingers might have pulled a trigger. Better yet, cut off the head whose eyes had failed to see. That was what I was thinking, but what I did was stand up. I went to the pot of rice and meat on the wood fire. The woman of the house understood what I was about and handed me a clean plate. I filled it. I carried it over to Abdulaziz. Everything that mattered in the world was riding on whether he would accept the plate of food from me. After an interval of centuries, he did.


About the Author

Mark Jacobs has published more than 175 stories in magazines, including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Hudson Review, and The Iowa Review. A complete list of his publications, including books, can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.