Science Fiction hunting space opera regret

To Hunt a Sky Eel

By Daniel Ausema
Jun 10, 2021 · 3,286 words · 12 minutes

These two moray eels seem to be on friendly terms.

Photo by David Clode via Unsplash.

From the author: Typenn is famous for the immersive recordings he makes of hunting creatures throughout the universe. His pursuit of the majestic sky eel does not go as he expected.


Typenn started the recording as the ship's tesseract drive wound down. Visuals first. Everyone wanted to see the planet before anything else, when they jacked in to the scene. This time the planet was called Aemir, and its visuals would please his jaded audience. The bright planet made the backdrop look black, though a few bright stars were visible if I looked closely. A pair of moons circled the planet, small but in a pleasant arrangement from this angle. Within the innermost orbit, a thin ring gleamed silver. The planet itself was mostly orange and purple from up here, the orange of its distinctive plants, the lavender of its sky-reflecting oceans.

No need for audio yet, or the other senses, really, though each would come into play eventually. Typenn made himself breathe in a lung-full of the ship's air, in case it proved useful in production. The emotions, though, those always made it through and were the key to a successful recording. Typenn was careful to let himself feel the full excitement of the sight and of the hunt ahead. No matter how many dozens of exotic worlds he'd come to, he never had to feign that eager awe as the unfamiliar planet grew larger.

The recording would speed through the rest of the approach, and skip entirely the puffed up customs official who boarded their ship before they were allowed to come down from orbit. Humans weren't officially allowed on Aemir, ever since the planet had been closed to new immigrants, but Typenn let his crew handle whatever negotiations and bribes were needed.

Thoughts didn't translate directly to the recording, so he let the emotion of sneaking into forbidden lands fill him for a moment before going to inspect his weapons.

His hunting guide was an Aemir local named Sispawa. They were a tripedal species, but despite the extra leg--and arm--Typenn found her easy to identify with. In build they were closer to humans than many species in the known universe, and Typenn had found her demeanor a good match for his since she came on board. Knowing that he was recording, she skipped her usual jokes and held her arms open when he entered the room. "We have an array of traditional weapons." Light spilled from the nodes at the ends of her fingers, shifting in intensity as they played over the assembled weapons. "As well as some more modern guns."

Typenn waved away the high-powered lasers and looked at the older gear. His fingers rested on a hand-held harpoon sort of thing. "How does this one work?"

Sispawa pulled out a second item from the pile. "I have to lure it in close with this." Running her fingers beneath the pipes, she played a quick melody, the notes full of strange overtones. "Then you cast the spear when it's in range."

Typenn nodded. "Perhaps not as dramatic for my audience as we'd want. But we should take it along on the hunt. We'd talked about getting up into the sky ourselves, to bring the hunt to them. What do we have for that?"

The guide gave him a strange look before answering, a cautious, measuring look. What might it mean? Typenn tried to keep the uncertainty from from coloring his emotions. His viewers wouldn't want that as part of the experience.

"Not exactly traditional. By the time my people built flying crafts, the eels were protected. But I've modified some of our other hunting weapons to be useful in the sky."

She proceeded to explain a long-handled knife and several firearms that would work well for a dramatic hunt. Typenn let the information flow through him, learning it himself but focusing on the building excitement so that his viewers could feel it. Flying in close. Cutting at just the right point so the eel couldn't swing its tail around to defend itself. Firing the smaller gun to deflate the eel's air sacs in a specific way so that its fall wouldn't utterly destroy the carcass.

When they were finished, Sispawa added, "This is assuming you've paid all the right bribes..."

"Don't worry about that. My people are always careful to arrange such things."

She nodded her satisfaction. "Then I'll get everything set up."

Landfall was a necessary part of any virtual experience. Typenn positioned himself before the screen, letting the sight fill his view. Aemir's clouds broke against the ship into icy shards, parting to reveal the many orange hues of the land below. Where mountains and deserts proved inhospitable to the orange plants, even their rocks had a reddish-orange cast. The cities alone broke the color scheme on the land, with the gleaming blues, grays, and blacks of glass and steel and surely more exotic building materials. The lavender of the oceans seemed pale, a minor side note to the dry shades of orange. Far beneath the regular clouds were darker clouds, with a hint of color like the plants below. These were the nutrient-rich food of the eels, floating swarms of microbes and tiny plant-life.

The sounds of the ship landing enveloped him, familiar noises of the crew talking and double-checking, of the growing rumble and pressure as the atmosphere pushed against them before accepting them in.

They landed far from the cities, at the edge of a lake. Typenn staged his preparations on the beach of that lake, making a show of inspecting the sleek wings and engine of his body-flight-suit. There was a strong smell in the area, either of the lake or simply of the native vegetation. Typenn let it form its own part of his recording, to give his viewers the full experience of the hunt.

Sispawa helped him into the suit and climbed into her own. The first eel to fly into view they ignored. Typenn followed its flight, tapping his fingers against the controls.

"Too far away." She exaggerated the words with her lips to make up for the distance created by their helmets. She pointed back up and watched the skies directly overhead.

The eel didn't turn to come closer, no matter how long Typenn stared at it. He took out the traditional knife to give his hands something to do.

When another eel came into view, Typenn didn't have to wait to see if the guide would have them chase this one. It was so close, its body so much bigger than he'd realized these eels would be. They were into the air before the eel's entire length had cleared the mountain ridge.

Headgear muffled the roar of the craft, but the vibrations kept him always aware of it as he shot upward. The fuel would last only for a quick hunt, so they made straight for the eel. It kept growing bigger well after he would have expected them to reach it. Bigger than an s-class ship, than a cruiser, than the cumbersome transport ship Typenn had first left his home planet in. Yet there was nothing awkward in its movement through the sky. He had expected to be like the small birds on Earth, harrying their larger cousin, the hawk. The scale was more like a mosquito to some extinct, prehistoric monstrosity. Well, let him draw blood, anyway, as a mosquito would.

Typenn held the long-handled blade ready to make a crippling cut. He tipped his wings forward and burst ahead to make sure he'd beat the guide. No good having the guide's attack as part of the recording.

He passed through a cloud of the eel's food, and the air filled with the smell of old plants and rot. It brushed against his face, a light touch that left a thin smear of residue on his skin-tight mask.

As he came into the shadow of the eel, a ship appeared on the other side. Official colors, its pilot flashing a pattern at Typenn with his fingers. He didn't need to know how to read the locals' light codes to know it said "Stop" at the least, maybe even, "You're under arrest." Riding behind the pilot were two more locals, guns drawn, though thankfully not yet aimed.

Typenn dived. The flight suit was perfect for a quick direction change, and the officials were far back by the time he looked over his shoulder. Sispawa, he was glad to see, was right with him.

They screamed down to the ground, dropping into the shadow of a large cluster of tree-like plants, their stalks rubbery and their leaves orange.

The officials didn't follow.

"Good thing you made sure to bribe everyone." Sispawa brushed her fingers, lights flashing in a wild pattern, across the skin folds that stretched from her scalp down to her shoulders. "I had to guess, I'd say they took your money and then made sure they were in position to stop you."

Probably so, though he couldn't talk right now to tell her. How could his assistants have bungled it? He wanted to curse, tear the suit off, stab his blade into the dark soil. It wouldn't be right though, wouldn't be what his viewers wanted at this point. Instead he pulled back the straps on his suit, deliberately drawing each one fully out to give himself time to react. If his viewers noted the white knuckles and the pounding of blood in his head, well, hopefully they'd interpret it as simply a part of the challenge of the hunt.

A challenge was what they'd want. A game of sorts. Typenn schooled his emotions to reflect that, to react to this set-back as nothing more than an unexpected rain shower while tracking on some watery moon or a particularly wary prey on a planet teeming with hiding places. A challenge he should welcome.

Long practice let him mask his anger quickly so it would scarcely register.

"Then I guess we need to outsmart them. Where's a good place to use your musical instrument?"

Sispawa studied his face before answering. "Very well," she finally said, "I'll take you someplace."

Gesturing for him to fasten his suit again, she took off low beneath the trees.

The canopy of the strange trees left an orange-tinted emptiness between the trunks, the air musty with the smell of long-forgotten secrets. Little real protection in there from any ship still tracking them, but dramatic no doubt. Typenn could appreciate that. Despite the low and deceptive light, Sispawa made no effort to go slow. Trunks would appear and fall behind them before Typenn had any chance to steer. He could only follow her and trust.

Leaving the trees behind, they crossed a long and narrow lake, its purple much deeper than the sky itself, and climbed up into mountains so worn by the years they were little more than hills.

Typenn flipped onto his back so he could look up as they flew. No sign of the officials. Had they given up so easily? Assumed Typenn would be cowed? He flipped back so he could watch where they went.

Eroded or not, those mountains rose high into the atmosphere. They must have once been a truly impressive ridge of peaks. The air grew cold, even through his suit, and tasted vaguely of mint and salt.

Sispawa dropped down on the face of one peak, among scrubby plants that leaned against the incline.

"Not quite there," Sispawa explained as she gestured for him to leave his suit on but walk, "but the fuel won't last much longer. We'll climb on foot from here."

Every raindrop that fell on that peak seemed to have its own path down the mountain, a criss-crossed carving of tiny channels and deeper ruts. Even where erosion formed what looked like a real stream, the dry bed of that run was scored by smaller waterways. A bright red moss-like plant grew in the shade of the deeper channels while a scaly, pale blue plant grew in the full sunlight. They climbed easily, with Typenn sipping breaths from a higher-oxygen tank as the air grew thin. Even the stored air made him think of mint, of green leaves among the snow. There was no snow here.

In a hollow near the rounded peak, Sispawa stopped and set up the light pipes on her lap. The music filled the hollow as soon as she flashed her fingers underneath. Typenn focused in on her fingertips so his viewers could experience the full strangeness of her music.

Her people could modulate the light shining from their twelve fingers--a line of three long fingers on each hand, and a shorter thumb of sorts that came from the base of what Typenn wanted to call her palm. As she changed the light, the notes changed also, so that the four pipes could produce a large range of notes, especially when, mid-shift, the notes bent into the margins between familiar notes. Typenn was no expert on human music, but he knew that the patterns she played didn't sound much like a human song--the notes too close together, the chords discordant--but he enjoyed the sound it added to the hunt.

So focused on the music was he, it took the guide's cry for him to notice the eel, gliding in low. Typenn had felt dwarfed by its size when he flew close. Or he thought he'd been close, at least. Now, mesmerized by Sispawa's music, its full size struck Typenn. This was not merely large, not like the large animals he had hunted across the galaxy, not even on the order of the prehistoric dinosaurs of Earth and the various attempts to recreate then on uninhabited planets. He had seen those ancient bones once, joined into a colossus. He had hunted their modern incarnations. Placid giants or fierce predators, none came close to this eel. Its skin was mottled, white and gray and dark blue. On its face were long feelers, like a strange beard. Its tail wove from side to side, graceful and yet with what was surely enough force to sweep aside any creature or craft that came near. Even the mountainside seemed vulnerable. Its side rippled in time to Sispawa's music.

She was saying something, shouting it, even. He knew it, as a distant fact, but faced with that eel, he had no idea what she was shouting. Finally she took one hand from the pipes and gestured wildly for him to throw the harpoon. He might be distracted, but hunting was imprinted in every strand of his muscles. He didn't pause or fumble with the weapon or hesitate in the least, but flung the harpoon with all his strength straight at the eel's puffed-up central lip.

Sispawa had explained to him all about how the harpoon worked, which nerve it would strike, what the internal reactions would be. All Typenn had chosen to remember was where to strike. It was all he needed. The harpoon buried itself deep in the eel's face.

Traditionally, then, the locals would have run along beneath the eel as it settled to the ground, perhaps let it carry them if it passed over a valley or canyon. Sispawa hadn't thought that safe here, among the many drops and cliff sides, so they glided beside the falling eel in their suits, using as little fuel as possible. Typenn reached over to touch the eel as they floated downward. Softer than he'd thought. Or smooth, at least, the skin of a fragile creature, not such a massive beast.

The descent seemed to go on and on--the ground dropped below them as quickly as the dying eel fell. He shot a few times where Sispawa directed, to deflate the air sacs. At last it eased down to the light brown dirt of an agricultural highland. Orange and golden stalks of some sort of food staple bent beneath the eel's weight. Gentle it seemed, until the last instant when the carcass landed. The noise was only as loud as an old-fashioned door slamming, but the ground shook with the impact.

Typenn alighted beside the head. Dying seemed to have made the eel even bigger, the opposite of his usual reaction to killing his quarry. He reached up to touch that massive face and couldn't even reach the lip where he'd shot the harpoon.

He stepped back to get a better view of the creature. Six eyes circled the mouth, looking small in comparison to its head. A mane of tiny filaments spread back behind those eyes, scarcely visible. He took another step back.

So big. How had anything that big been able fly? How had he been able to bring it down?

This time as the sheer size of the carcass struck him, it came with a swell of extreme sadness. It shouldn't lie there like that. Why couldn't their carcasses just keep floating, dissolve away eventually into air? Let it feed the flying microbes it had fed on in life. It was wrong for it to be grounded.

"We'll have some local authorities here soon," Sispawa interrupted his thoughts. "Better get your posing in."

Still feeling sick, Typenn stood beside the creature's face then along its tremendous length, waiting for word from his approaching ship that they had a good vantage to record the eel's full size from above.

From above...that still seemed sad. A better shot would have been of a living eel, from above, to pair with many shots from the ground as it floated overhead, blotting out clouds and stars and entire swaths of the sky.

"Perfect, now let's move. When the officials get here, they'll take care of the carcass the right way."

Typenn nodded, unable find anything worth saying in response.

While the ship came in, though, he swore. "Wasted."

"What's that?"

"This whole hunt. Worthless. I...I let my emotions ruin the whole recording." Half to himself, he muttered, "Sad? Why? For this beast?"

"Edit it out, can't you?" There was something in her voice--a knowing tone? a touch of mockery?--that played just on the edge of what she said, though whether it was really there or just one of the frequent inter-species miscues, he couldn't be sure.

"No, not the emotional undercurrent. That can't be changed."

"Well, leave it in, then. Don't you want your viewers to experience the hunt, same as you do?"

Experience that sadness, the regret? Never. His viewers didn't want that. If only it had been some dangerous creature. Or placid and mindless, perhaps a threat in some other way. Not this majestic and aloof creature of the sky.

"So you need to go back out? We'll have to refuel the crafts and..."

"No." Typenn picked up the handle part of the harpoon and spun it in his hands. "Not that. I'm through here. I'll...I can find some dangerous predator somewhere for the next recording. Plenty of time still before we need to release something new."

An official-looking ship was coming down toward them by the time Typenn's ship landed. He and Sispawa rushed on board, while the crew swept in the equipment still lying on the ground Nearly every one of them hesitated, gave a second, awe-filled look at the beast as they worked. Maybe there was something in those looks, some part of the hunt he could yet use. He'd let it stand, even the sadness, and see what came of it.

The officials were landing by the time they finished, but the locals made for the carcass, ignoring Typenn's ship as it took off. The officials waved their lighted fingers in what seemed to be some sort of pattern as they stood before the eel. An arrest warrant for him? A eulogy for the eel? Typenn didn't stay to learn. It was his last view of his kill.

THE END

This story originally appeared in Perihelion.


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Daniel Ausema

Daniel Ausema writes lyrical tales of other worlds, stories of strangeness and wonder.