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The Hunter

The most fearsome gang in Sydney fights an unexpected existential threat.

I slap at an inoculation-mozzie on my neck, as I aim my harpoon launcher at the heat signature of the deer that runs across the forest floor, the swelling sounds of Smashing Pumpkins "Cupid De Locke" filling up my ears. The deer stops, taking shelter underneath a tree. I squeeze the trigger. CRACK! The deer falls down, and turns translucent as several spinning chunks of meat appear. Epic Victory: Clean Kill! a deep voice shouts as the celebratory text repeats the sound across my field of view. I see my hunter level rising at the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Haha, suck on that Nguyen. I clamour down the branches of the tree, retrieve my harpoon, wrench the deer open with my implanted hand claws, then put the meat inside my metal jaw and chew. It tastes like pork, but gamier. It’s deliriously good. The other Reavers run out from their hiding spots, and jump and cheer around me, picking up the meat, and tearing into it. Soon, only a skeleton is left. A Reaver hoists it up over their shoulders.

“Come on comrades, back in the van,” our battle leader snarls, as we climb into the death-black flying van with machine guns on its sides, decorated with deer bones, rusted metal skulls and spikes, and smeared with bloody war paint. 

Our red-bearded Irish battle leader turns on Cattle Decapitation’s "The Anthropocene Extinction," the chieftain’s favourite album, and it clashes awfully with the music that I’m listening to, so I hit the mute switch on my full-immersion wi-fi headphones, and turn my music off. Our van soars into the air, the jungle turning back into a city underneath us. Run complete! appears across my field of view, then quickly fades.

“Good hunt,” the battle leader says. “Congratulations on your new rank, Cersei.”

The other Reavers grumble their assent. I feel the meat high, and adrenaline wearing off, as I look out idly across the streets, and wonder who we killed tonight. What were they doing in the suburbs after dark? Don’t they know better than to linger in a hunting ground?

Our van lands on its designated spot within the open-air garage on the top of our building alongside a fleet of vicious-looking custom stolen vehicles: a hover-bike with chainsaws strapped around its wings, a flying Beetle covered in spears, and decorated with the snarling face of an echidna with fangs, and a retro Holden flying Ute with an AI-guided Flechette cannon bolted to the tray. The rebuilt auto-turrets on the corners of the roof swivel towards us, then away, seeing that our landing codes are valid, and we’re not a threat. The building used to be a private shopping complex with apartments: a pre-fab pseudo-archaeology built to cheaply imitate the housing of the rich, and abandoned after a successful gang attack.

The holes from rocket-propelled grenades, and remnants of small-arms fire run up and down the ultra-skyscraper, stitched together with a string of force-field generators, whose output can be overclocked, and linked up to create a field protecting the entire tower, rendering us immune to anything below an orbital cannon or a nuclear attack. We pile out of the van onto the roof where the engineers are working on our vehicles, smoking meth, and listening to Cabbage’s "Uber-Capitalist Death Trade." Sometimes our tower feels a little bit too much like living in a Mad Max movie, but it’s been my home ever since I turned 18, and was kicked out of the dome. The Reavers found me starving in the gutter shortly afterwards. They gave me my extensive new digestive system, a job, and a purpose. It was hard for me to get my head around the hunts at first, but at least the programs FMDoll writes for our VR headsets flag the truly helpless as VIPs, or possible recruits instead of prey.

Getting used to getting up at eight PM, and living off of only deer meat wasn’t quite as hard you’d expect. Like almost all Australians today, I grew up mostly on recycled proteins anyway. The orphanage only fed us the expensive stuff like pork, kangaroo, or cricket tacos for ads, or puff-pieces for journalists—usually when the prisons or retirement homes, that the company that ran our orphanage also ran, had caused too big a scandal to suppress. They never let us outside, said that their insurance didn’t cover it. But everybody knows there isn’t any crime beneath the dome, so honestly, I think they kept us locked up so we didn’t run away. If anybody knew what really went on in there: the rapes, the “training classes,” which were just a fancy name for the sweatshop work they’d have you do in the retirement homes and prisons, and the mandatory propaganda sessions where dissenters would be rooted out, and strictly punished, with rented, censored, VR-booths our only method of escape… I guess you could say that it was ample preparation for the outside, in a way, but I wouldn’t say it left me filled with love towards my fellow Humans, not until the Reavers came along, at least. They’re like my family. My fucked up, cannibalistic cyborg family. The kids back at the orphanage were only ever bullies, snitches, or other bodies between me, and whatever resources I needed. They never gave us quite enough of anything to go around.

We troop down the stairs towards the turbo-elevators, and ride them down towards the shops, which have all been hollowed out, and turned into a variety of different facilities. The re-appropriated food court is a prison full of wailing bodies, waiting for their turn to join the hunt as prey, while the cinema is used for getting drunk, and watching old TV shows, and movies. We head towards the armoury, which used to be an old K-Mart or something, passing by a tattoo studio with a functional artist-bot whirring as it paints a Japanese design on someone’s back. We turn over our Harpoon guns at the customer service desk inside the armoury, and strip off all our equipment. I hand my horned VR helmet and headphones over to an androgynous Korean teenager who nods in thanks, and hands me a syringe of Kuru medication. I inject it in my neck, and turn towards the battle leader.

“Let’s get fucking wasted,” he shouts. “I’ll meet you losers there.”

We cheer, and follow him towards the cinema.

“I was wondering when you’d get back,” a bright voice says.

I turn around. FMDoll is smoking weed beside the entrance to the food court.

“Say no more,” the battle leader winks. “Come on, comrades.”

The hunting party laughs, punching me on the arm, or messing up my hair as they walk past us.

“Oh hey,” I say, embracing her, and we kiss. “What are you doing outside of the cinema?”

“Smoke break,” she says, and nods towards the food court. “I was gonna go and talk to those guys if I get too bored. I like knowing who they were before they ended up as prey, as well as what they’re fighting to get back to. Sometimes they won’t talk, but when they do it’s always super interesting. I think it helps with winning bets on whether they’ll manage to elude our hunters too.”

The Reavers found out pretty quick that FMDoll is wasted on the hunts. She can go out with an asthma mask, and is a deadeye shot with any gun, but she has terrible anxiety, and usually can’t handle it whenever things get dangerous or unpredictable. She used to lead a team herself until they had to exchange fire with a rival gang. Her team were overwhelmed, and started dying all around her. She panicked and ran, right into the hands of another Reaver team that heard her group’s distress call and was coming to retrieve them. They calmed her down and all went back together, but by the time they got back there were only laser-burnt, dismembered bodies left. This wasn’t her fault, and the chances are, if she’d have stayed, she would have just been cut down with the others. But she blamed herself for running anyway, and locked herself inside her apartment for a week, refused to even get out of her bed. Other gangs would have killed her for retreating, but our chieftain is a kinder man than that. He saw that she was skilled with programing, and made her the head of a group of hackers working in the base instead. They handle data security, and upgrades to the VR hunt that gives us a degree of separation from our prey. She’s Indigenous, and dresses like an early 2000s cyber-goth, complete with stompy boots, and green-and-black dreadfalls, but her boots and jacket are made from laser-resistant armour, and she’s always carrying at least two pistols and a heated blade. She joined two years before I did, and is about three years older than me, and I love her more than life itself.

“Do you reckon you’ll be going out again?” FMDoll asks.

She hands her joint to me.

“Maybe,” I take a drag and pass it back. “Depends on what comes up.”

“It’ll be a Pharma raid,” she answers, breathing in. “We’re running low on Kuru medication.”

“Is it weird I sort of enjoy Pharma raids?” I reply. “It’s more fun fending off the gangs, and security fascists than it is just taking pot-shots at the deers.”

“I don’t relate to that at all,” FMDoll says. “You know how I deal with rifles pointed at me. Everybody does.”

“Nobody holds that against you,” I reply. “You’ve done great things for the team.”

“Some of them definitely do,” FMDoll says, and laughs. “It’s a good thing our chieftain has that pro-disability philosophy to keep them all in line. Whatever that was called again.”

“Anti-ableism? It’s part of intersectionality,” I say.

“Yeah, that,” she says, and grins.

It’s amazing how much helpful stuff we didn’t learn about in school. I thought that it was just the classes in my shitty orphanage, but FMDoll went to a fancy boy’s school under the dome, and from what she’s said the content of her courses wasn’t any better than mine. They run everything they teach us through this lens that they call “economic objectivism”, which is basically a fancy way for saying that if it doesn’t make somebody rich, it doesn’t matter. We never found out about gay rights, disability rights, the history of Australian politics, or anything like that: just different customers, and what they wanted. If that wasn’t you, then you had to take whatever scraps they’d give you, which obviously never involved money changing hands despite the fact they made a world where you need it for everything. That’s human nature. Just the way it works.

“Comrades, gear up, and present yourselves for a pharmacy raid,” the chieftain says over the speaker system. “We need a group of five for Kuru medication. Drone Intel says the Neo-Patriot Front gang were hired for defense.”

“Nazis,” I reply, beaming. “Well now I’ve got to go.”

“Be careful,” says FMDoll. “You worry me when you get manic like this.”

I kiss her.

“It’s okay, I’m on my meds,” I reply. “Just giddy at the prospect of shooting at someone who deserves it for a change.”

“I mistrust people who are giddy about shooting anyone at all,” FMDoll says.

“You do what you have to to get by,” I shrug.

“I know,” says FMDoll. “But still. Don’t forget me when you’re out there, okay?”

“Never,” I say, and kiss her again.

I run to the armoury and retrieve my gear, then take the elevator to the roof. We wait a moment for a final Reaver, then pile into the flying van. Our leader for this run is quiet, and doesn’t like to use the music player. We loop around the car park of the 24-hour chemist fortified with simple sandbags by the Patriots. They don’t seem to have any drones or turrets, and they’re too busy arguing with some guy in a Matrix trench coat to look up and see our flying van. Pharmacy Raid: Start! appears across my field of view, then quickly fades. The HUD loads up, and I turn on a futurepop and EBM revival music stream, and check that my stun rifle is operational. We land our flying van behind an office bunker, and creep around the edges, taking cover behind a line of gene-locked flying cars.

The Patriots are armed with laser rifles, and dressed in custom-printed military uniforms halfway between an SS soldier, and the communist Australiana of Unity, the instigators of the 2069 attempted revolution. We fire at them with our stun rifles and one freezes, electricity arching across his body momentarily, then leaving him stuck in place. The leader and the younger Reaver move to flank the three surviving Patriots, while they open fire on our fortified position. There’s two loud zaps as two more freeze, then I finish off the third myself. The guy in the trench coat puts his hands up in the air.

“I’m a street philosopher,” he says. “Don’t shoot!”

The younger Reaver knocks him out with one clean punch. We never shoot the thinkers, but we have to bruise them sometimes, so our reputation as a savage horde remains unchecked. We regroup at entrance to the pharmacy, attaching neural terminators to the prone bodies of the Patriots, so that they don’t unfreeze before we’re ready to collect them. The leader uses hand signals and eye-contact to arrange the group around the door. He waits until we’re in position, and then holds up three fingers, two, one…

We bust down the door, and the deer behind the counter screams. The leader hits her with a bolt of electricity from his stun rifle then we raid the shelves for medication. Once our arms are full, we run towards the door. A grenade flies out of the shattered frame and hits the ground. It fills the room with thick black smoke.

“Corporate police! Everybody on the ground!” somebody shouts.

Police in armoured suits with built-in gas masks storm into the pharmacy. I pull out my disintegrator pistol, and barely get a chance to aim before a burst of sonic submachine-gun fire knocks me to the ground. My eyes blur and blood runs from my ears, and nose, and then I’m coughing from the smoke. The opening strains of Apoptygma Berzerk’s "Love Never Dies" echoes in my head as my vision fades to black…

I open up my eyes, and see a line of burnt corpses crucified upside-down on blackened iron crosses. I hear the sound of jeers and laughter, then the world goes dark again. I wake up, and see the gunmetal grey walls of a corridor within a corporate bunker, the sound of Polish fash-hop emanating from a nearby room, then pass out once again. I come to in a rusty cage alongside four of the other Reavers. We’ve been stripped of our guns and hunting gear, and hear the sound of screaming from a chamber somewhere close. This isn’t jail. This isn’t even a Patriot compound. Where are we?

“Trash punks,” the younger Reaver mutters, seeing the confusion on my face. “Be better off if they’d just killed us.”

“No wonder the police were only using sonic sub-machineguns,” I reply, clutching my head.

I lie down on the squalid ground, and look up at the ceiling. This is an expensive place to have a squat. Someone must be renting it for them. I look over the standard corporate propaganda screens, some malfunctioning or smashed, others covered in swastikas, anarchy symbols, and white supremacist graffiti, and wonder who is paying them, and why? They mustn’t be concerned about getting their bond back, whoever they are.

The door at the end of the room slides open, and a punk with a blue Mohawk, two Russian military surplus metal arms, and a purple-tinted laser eye carries our battle leader in, with two other augmented, heavily pierced punks armed with disintegrator rifles at his side. I think it’s mostly just for show: they wouldn’t bring us back here just to shoot us, and the automated security inside these bunkers is designed to fend off hostile corps and hired hackers, so they can obviously tell we wouldn’t try to mess with it unarmed and undefended. Our battle leader has been beaten bloody, and seems to be missing two of his right-hand fingers. The younger Reaver gets up and tries to slug the closet punk, but the other two fire their disintegrators at their legs, vaporizing them, and instantly cauterizing the wound. The younger Reaver topples over, screaming out in pain. The lead punk spits on them.

“Anybody else wants to try and be a hero?” he asks.

The punks walk out of the cage and slam the door behind them, laughing.

The other two Reavers are already tending to the tortured battle leader, who is rasping something underneath his breath. I go over to the younger one.

“I don’t know what I expected,” they say, looking at the empty space where their two legs used to be. “But when I saw him like that, I just…”

“It’s okay,” I reply. “We won’t have any shortage of spare cyber-limbs once we get out of our cage, and fry these guys.”

“I admire your optimism, but I don’t see how we’re getting out of this,” the younger Reaver says.

Suddenly the lights go out, and come back dim and red.

“Warning, external defenses have been compromised,” a female voice says. “Drones and turrets are disabled.”

Another Reaver comes up beside us and says:

“The battle leader says they tortured him for the location of our tower. Apparently…"

There’s an explosion somewhere distant outside, and a scream. We look in the direction of the sounds.

“Apparently,” the Reaver says, turning back to look at me. “The company who owns the pharmacy has tracked our raiding patterns. They knew that we’d run out of meds tonight, and they knew that we’d raid that store when we did. They were hoping they could capture us and use us to destroy the gang for good.”

“I guess supplying us with Kuru medication isn’t great for their family-friendly image,” I say.

“Yeah, you think?” the Reaver replies. “Anyway, the leader didn’t tell them anything, but when the others get us out of here…”

There’s the sound of rapid laser fire somewhere close, and then more screaming.

“It’s going to be vital that we get on to the corporate level, and check out everything they have on us. Hopefully we can find out where their central server is too. They’ve rented a space cannon, Cersei. They can fuck us all up in a second if they find us.”

The door slides open and FMDoll steps out, holding two disintegrator pistols out in front of her. The chieftain stands guard in the corridor behind her, holding a laser gatling gun, keeping close watch on the hall. The door slides closed.

“Cersei!” FMDoll shouts, holstering her weapons. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”

She rushes over to the cage to let us out.

“FMDoll? You’re out of the base?” I reply.

We hug.

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave you here,” she says. “Who knows what they would have done to you?”

“They do,” I reply, nodding at the battle leader and the legless Reaver.

FMDoll’s face falls.

“Stay here,” she says. “I’ll get them some help.”

“We need to move as soon as you get back,” I reply. “Our battle leader said this whole thing was a set up. The company who owns the pharmacy wants to find our base. Apparently they have a disintegrator satellite.”

FMDoll nods and kisses me on the head.

“Be back soon, she says, and leaves.

“I wonder how she got past the defenses?” a nearby Reaver says.

“Hacking, I guess?” I reply. “It’s cyberpunk, don’t question it.”

“I’m so fucking sick of cyberpunks,” the nearby Reaver says.

“Aren’t we all,” I say and roll my eyes.

The door slides open. FMDoll returns with two medics, and four Reaver soldiers. Their metal mouths are smeared with blood.

“There are laser rifles near the bodies in the hall,” FMDoll says. “Anyone who’s up for it, join me and Cersei in a raid against the corporate level. Don’t worry about your VR headsets. We can do this on our own.”

“How did you guys even find us?” I ask.

“I can’t believe you didn’t read my patch notes,” FMDoll says, feigning shock. “No seriously, you should read my patch notes. I put a tracker in our VR sets for just this sort of situation.”

The door opens. The chieftain grins, and I wave back, but then I notice all the bodies. I see the smears of blood, the blown off heads, the bodies torn apart by hungry Reaver mouths and hands. The way we have to live. I vomit.

“Been a while without the VR, huh?” FMDoll says sympathetically, patting me on the back.

I wipe my mouth and nod.

“I think I’ll need to take a long break after this,” I say.

“You’ve more than earned it,” says the chieftain. “This whole group has.”

FMDoll reaches down and picks me up a rifle.

“One more run,” she says. “Then we’ll have a break. Maybe take a holiday in Melbourne?”

“That’d be nice,” I say. “I’ve never even left the city…”

“We’ll steal you something subtle you can stay in,” says the chieftain. “I’ll post a run up for a vehicle hijacking and travel supplies when we get back to the base.”

“Thank you,” I tell him. “For everything.”

“It’s up to me to keep the dream of Unity alive,” he says, gently squeezing on the trigger to keep the barrels of his gatling gun spinning, his eyes far away. “I’m the only one that’s left.”

We jog down the hall to the elevator, cutting down a few remaining trash punks as we pass.

“If I was them,” the chieftain says. “Then I’d be fortifying on the corporate level. We have to expect that they’ll be ready for us.”

I look at the shattered bodies of the punks on the floor.

“How many of them are even left?” I ask doubtfully.

“Not many,” replies FMDoll.

“But we still can’t underestimate them,” says the chieftain.

The elevator dings. The doors slide open slowly.

“Alright,” I say. “Let’s do this.”

We pile into the elevator, and FMDoll jabs the button for the corporate level. I watch her tap her feet and clench her fists, and I can tell how anxious all of this is making her. To anyone who didn’t know her she would look so strong, unshakable, but I can almost hear the mantras she’d be saying in her head: “You’ve got this babe. You’ve been through worse. Remember what your father did, and how you got away.” She sees me watching her and smiles. I’ll have to show her how much I appreciate her bravery when we get home. The elevator opens.

The punks have set up a disintegrator turret up in the middle of what would normally be the reception foyer, but it doesn’t even get a chance to register our heat signatures before the chieftain turns it into chunks of white hot metal. The punks fortified around the turret stare at it, and back at us in shock: no one must have lived to tell them that we had an eight foot Maori packing heavy weapons on our team. FMDoll vaporizes two behind the desk, while I kill one more behind the seats with a head shot from my laser rifle. The other two throw down their guns and run away, and their torsos turn to dust under the disintegrator fire of the two Reavers behind us.

“Stay close,” the chieftain warns, as we cross the hall that leads to the executive offices.

My heart is thumping as our boots crunch on the broken glass from the smashed window-walls along the way towards the server room. When we reach the door, the chieftain opens it, slowly.

TSHCEWWW!

A purple laser beam, so hot it melts a groove into the floor, shoots out of the open door. One of the Reavers throws a knockout grenade inside, which explodes with an electric crack. We file in afterwards.

“You’re too late… you fucking… traitor… cunts,” the blue-mohawked man from earlier rasps, taking gulps of air between his words.

He’s propping himself up on a double-ended Blackbox laser Glaive while electricity, that should be strong enough to down an auto-tank, courses uselessly along his body. Behind him, every server rack and monitor is smouldering and smashed.

“You may have gotten past my boys, but this is where it ends,” the trash punk slurs.

The chieftain laughs.

“FMDoll, see if there’s anything you can salvage from that wreckage. Everybody else…”

He cracks his knuckles.

“Leave this Nazi scum to me.”

“Bring it on, old man,” the punk spits.

The Reavers and I watch on while the chieftain fights the punk. It doesn’t last for very long. The punk fires his eye laser again as the chieftain charges, but he deflects it with his metal arm. Once they’re in close range, the punk swings down the red laser on his glaive while the leader ducks and digs his claws into his chest, pulling out his beating heart, and eating it in front of him.

The punk gasps. I laugh, and he falls to the floor gushing blood. The leader bellows out a canine war cry, and we all join in.

“That was easy,” the chieftain says, wiping the blood from his lips. “I guess Nazi punks are shit at fighting too. FMDoll, how’s that hack job coming?”

She gets up and shakes her head.

“Absolutely nothing left,” she says. “He didn’t just destroy the racks, he wiped them first. He must have known that we’d be coming in here next.”

“Cersei,” the chieftain turns to me. “Any idea where else we can go?”

“The corporate police were the ones who took us here,” I reply. “We could raid them next, or maybe the Patriots?”

The chieftain laughs.

“The Patriots are out. We went there first, didn’t think to check their files though. Honestly there isn’t too much left. We might actually want to record the news tomorrow.”

The other Reavers chuckle.

“So, the police station then?” asks FMDoll.

“Good a place as any,” says the chieftain. “Do you two want to come?”

I look at FMDoll.

“No, I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night. All I want now is a warm bath, and some TV shows in bed,” I reply.

FMDoll smiles and kisses me on the neck.

“Fair enough,” replies the chieftain. “I think that we can call this raid complete.”

We walk down the hall and back into the elevator, ride it to the ground floor of the bunker, and bundle into the echidna-painted flying car as Reaver vehicles rise into the air around us.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? FMDoll says.

“Not as beautiful as you,” I say, and giggle.

It feels as though we’re teenagers again, not in the way that those years really were, but in the way that they’re described in the old stories. If anyone had ever asked me what I wanted to be growing up, if that question didn’t seem absurd to anyone who hadn’t been born rich, I don’t know if I would have chosen how I live today.

But when I gaze into her eyes, and think of all the other places that my birth could have taken me, everything I can imagine seems so pale compared to this.

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