You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Bear Hunter-

The Bear Hunter

a short story by Michael R. Lockridge

George Quintana finished his breakfast, and rinsed the bowl in the sink. He looked around his new fifth-wheel toy hauler recreational vehicle with some pride. It had been reinforced to his specifications, so that he could haul it confidently behind his Ford F-450. The large diesel engine and four-wheel-drive were necessary to haul himself and his toys deep enough into the woods to suit his purposes.

He stepped back into the toy section of his ample mobile mansion. His creation sat silently in place, secured by the travel webbing. George hummed a bit to himself as he began breaking down the webbing to free his creation. Once the webbing had been removed and stowed, he disconnected the electrical power line and the air lines.

The huge exoskeleton sitting before him sucked light into its mat-black finish. He had gone to considerable trouble to reduce reflective surfaces on this model. Off-the-shelf parts had to be refinished or covered. Custom pieces, and there were many of these, had to be sent out for powder coating or other specialized finishes. George had machined much of the creation himself.

George reflected on his inspirations. His father tinkering in the garage, or cleaning and maintaining his several hunting rifles. Crabfu, the long-time mechanical genius who had resided on the Internet for decades. Thomas Edison. Leonardo Da Vinci. Walt Disney and his Imagineers. As he reflected, he adjusted various elements of his creation.

As he strapped himself into the behemoth, George remembered his father’s passion for hunting. A passion he had passed on to his mechanically inclined son. Rifle, bow, black powder and pistol hunting. They had done it all.

Remembering his father’s untimely demise from a heart attack gave George pause. He brushed away a tear, and then finished the process of enmeshing himself in his creation by inserting his arms into the arms of his colossus. He snapped five toggle switches inside the left arm with his left hand, and the colossus came alive.

Slowly, deliberately, he moved his left arm toward a robust button on the wall of his toy hauler. The servos within the behemoth’s left arm responded and moved to this command. With the back of his surrogate left hand he pushed the button, being careful not to foul the three sharp blades that extended from that mechanical hand like claws.

The rear door to his mobile home and shop began to descend into a ramp. The rail mounted seat on which his mechanical being sat slid forward. Once clear enough to stand, George did so. He checked the read-outs in his heads-up display. All systems were good to go.

He stepped forward, and moved away from the vehicle. The rail mounted seat retracted and the doors closed. George was now outside, equipped in his new creation, deep in bear country. George took a few steps, and again checked the display. The indicators were still good. He began walking into the woods, seeking his prey.

As he sauntered through the woods, he used the strength of his amended systems to clear the path. While the gyro guided balance system was robust, George still proceeded with caution. Taking time to move a downed tree or other interfering object would be less costly than causing his creation to tumble.

Getting up off of the ground in this thing had proved challenging in the lab. George did not want to test the process in the field. Not in the very heart of the realm of the brown bear. Anywhere else would be embarrassing. Here, it could be deadly.

George checked his shielding as he approached the first baited area. His arms and legs were fully encased. Forearms and lower legs were armored with a fairly heavy gage alloy. The upper arms and legs were somewhat lighter in gage, but reinforced by heavy bars. His torso was enveloped in a reinforced mesh, a compromise to allow for air flow and reduced weight. His head was encased in a helmet with a Plexiglas face plate, and flexible reinforcing columns along his neck.

The power for the unit was a combination of electrical and pneumatic systems. He carried enough compressed air to power his system for two hours at minimum use. The tanks and batteries resided in housings on his back, along with a small compressor. The compressor was powered by propane, and would be used after the hunt to renew his air pressure.

George found the first bait disturbed, but no bear was present. He turned toward his second bait, and moved slowly through the woods. Even before he entered the clearing he could hear the bear rooting about near the bait. George stepped quietly into the clearing, and watched his quarry.

The bear was confused and frustrated. The blend of bait scents George had concocted was intended for that purpose. So far his quarry had not noticed him. George watched the young male, assessing how the battle would go. He had not yet engaged a creature so magnificent in combat. This would be his first battle.

It was time. George spoke a gentle command into the microphone. From a speaker mounted in his chest guard the challenging bellow broke forth. A sound bite, but a well chosen one. A bear’s challenge.

The bear spun around like lightning, standing on his rear legs and looking quickly from left to right. He did not find the bear he was looking for. The strange contraption standing in the clearing caught his attention, but was not immediately perceived as threatening.

George stepped forward. The bear dropped to his four feet, and ambled forward. The creature appeared more curious than angry, but he tossed his head displaying his confusion and concern. George moved more quickly.

The bear reared and charged. George tucked down to keep his center of gravity low and hit the bear in the chest with a head butt. The bear swung with a paw and struck the shoulder of his strange enemy, then lost his balance and fell backward.

George moved in quickly, swinging his clawed left arm downward to disembowel his worthy opponent. The bear was quick, and rolled away back onto his feet before the blow could strike. The creature came around quickly, hitting the side of George’s helmet hard enough to cause a ringing in his right ear. The blow rocked the exoskeleton sharply to the side. Servos hissed and whined to keep the vehicle upright.

The bear turned swiftly and hugged George in the mid-section. The jaws and teeth dug and snapped, denting the wire mesh shielding that protected George’s mid-section. The vehicle stabilized, and George tried to clear his mind for the fight. The fierceness of the assault had overwhelmed his senses.

The bear grew frustrated with the resilience of his opponent’s belly. He reared back and dug in again. Something snapped, and George felt part of the meshwork protecting his flesh push against his stomach. Nearly in a panic, George forced himself to think.

Quickly he bent down and grabbed the bear’s rear legs. George lifted the beast, holding the huge creature upside down. What to do with it?

Both George and the bear stopped fighting for a second when there was another roar from behind the exoskeleton. It was a strange sound, incongruous in the situation. George recovered first, realizing that the compressor motor had started in order to renew the air pressure in his system.

Taking advantage of the bear’s confusion, George released the grip of his right hand and brought the claws on the back of his hand down in a swipe across the exposed belly of his enemy. The bear screamed in agony as the blades opened his flesh.

Overbalanced by the great weight in his left hand, George’s systems once again hissed and howled trying to compensate. Realizing that he might topple over, George released his grip on the bear.

Entrails dragging on the ground, the bear turned and again charged. George managed to get a grip on the creature’s shoulders, holding it away from his own torso. George had no idea how close the bear was to breaching the shielding on his own belly, but he was unwilling to let the animal test the matter.

The bear began to slow. Loss of blood was finally ending the struggle. Soon George realized that the only thing holding up the beast was his own exoskeleton. He tossed the beast to the ground, and drove the blades of his left hand deep into the animal’s throat. His final blow was met with a sluggish outflow of blood from the resulting wound. In moments the animal was dead.

George grabbed a foreleg of the beast, and began dragging it back toward his camp. He was almost within sight of his camp when the low-pressure alarm in his exoskeleton began chirping. Dropping the beast, he started jogging toward his camp. He hit the big button on the outside of the door to his rig, and waited for the door to drop and the seat to deploy.

He had just seated himself when he heard the next alarm. The compressor was out of fuel, and was shutting down. In moments he would have been operating on emergency electrical, with just enough power to move the unit a very short distance. He had cut this one very close.

Once the unit was safely inside his mobile shop, George initiated the shutdown procedure and began separating himself from his creation. He had some difficulty getting the guard covering his chest to open, and had a fleeting vision of starving to death, trapped inside the strange device.

Finally the guard sprung away, and George was free. He examined his creation, and found it largely intact. He could see that he had come very close to losing the battle due to a flaw in the chest guard design. George took a few pictures of the damage, already working on design improvements in his head.

George whistled as he worked. He plugged in the helmet camera to his main computer, and began downloading the images from the battle. He got everything connected, so that he could recharge the system. He still needed to go out and get his trophy.

While the vehicle recharged, George put on the tea kettle and then headed for the shower. He figured he had two hours before the system was ready to go. A shower and a quick meal. Nothing much, though.

Tonight George intended to feast on a very fresh bear steak.

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