To celebrate Druid’s Portal coming out in paperback, here is a short story. Guilt Factor is a science fiction story set in a dystopian future. Entertainment is always an innocent escape – but not for the guilty.

Guilt Factor by Cindy Tomamichel

The lion roared, thick mane rippling as the challenge rang out across the yellowed savannah. Grass swayed in the hot wind, and dust devils danced on the horizon. A vulture sat in a drought stunted tree, waiting.

Oliver sighted his gun carefully. Hidden as he was in the grassed bower, the lion seemed unaware of his presence. Slowly it turned and the golden eyes bored straight into his.

The lion knew. Instinct, and some capacity for learning had taught it well. At a run it came for the bower, and from his side a lioness rose up from the grass, flowing from stillness to full motion without a misstep.

Soft pads thumped in unison on the dry baked earth. Heavy large cat breathing filled the air, vibrating in feline rhythm.

Oliver fired, and the lioness stopped as if she had hit an invisible wall, rolled over and lay still. The male lion skidded to a halt, padding over to his companion and nudged her with his nose. Tawny eyes swung around.

Death was in his eyes.

Swift, he flowed over the grass, yellow hide blending with dry grass, the only sound the steady heavy pad of hunter seeking prey.

Oliver sighted again and fired, going for a head shot.

At the last second the lion swerved and the bullet grazed a flank. Oliver worked the rifle, reloading another bullet into the chamber. He stood up.

The lion took an enormous leap, claws extended and mouth open. Oliver shot him square in the chest, but the continued momentum carried the beast forward.

Oliver struggled out from underneath the still body. His own nostrils were filled with the hot dying feline breath, a savage dusty cat smell. Blood ran down his cheek, and he rubbed it.

His own blood.

“Bastard pinked me,” he muttered, shaken. “Never got that close before.”

The scene faded, first the horizon dimmed and blackened, then trees, grass and last of all the lions blipped out of existence. The last to fade was the feline blood soaked into his clothes. The lights came on, and he blinked.

“Times up, Mr. Carruthers,” said Wayne. The thin teenager flicked a few more switches and then came over to release Oliver from the virtual reality apparatus. Sensi-suit, antique rifle and finally the small transmitter plug from behind Oliver’s ear. Wayne checked the silver socket embedded in the skull. It looked a little red. He rummaged in his desk drawer for the first aid kit and swabbed the area with antiseptic.

“All ok?” he asked. Oliver turned, and Wayne saw one cheek was scored with blood.

“This ever happen before, boy?” Oliver asked, touching his cheek and looking down at the blood. He seemed fascinated, rubbing his fingers together, smearing blood as if to feel its texture.

“Soon have that fixed up, Mr. Carruthers. You play a lot, it must seem real to you,” Wayne soothed as he cleaned the shallow scratch.

Oliver looked down, a brief vision of the lion’s blood soaking into his shirt flashed, and then faded. “My ancestors were big game hunters. Thought I should carry on the tradition. Man against beast you know. Just stupid animals anyway, if they were as good as people they would still be alive- survival of the fittest-eh?”

Wayne, concentrating on spraying the skin bandage onto Oliver’s cheek, grunted noncommittally.

Oliver shook himself and snorted. Unnaturally dark hair stood out against his artificial tan. Bony fingers gave the rifle a last fond pat. “Still, no more left to kill now, more’s the pity.”

Wayne booked him in for his next visit and Oliver strode to the door, long legs pumping, his eyes scanning the room with the air of still stalking prey.

Wayne checked the calendar, he had no more clients today. He started straightening up the small foyer. The “Virtual Adventures” sign looked dusty, and he fixed this, then neatened up a few posters, the long extinct lions, bears, and rainforest birds looking back at him.  “I’m sorry I was too late to save you,” he sniffed hard as he stroked the lion’s face. He cleaned the grimy window, hating the view of endless buildings, human anthills that reached the sky.

Wayne sighed. There wasn’t much anyone could do now, it was too late. Humans shared Earth with a few hardy insects, scavengers and mass cloned food animals. Algal tanks underground had replaced plants that took up precious land. He walked out of the door, clanging the roller door shut behind him and set the alarm. Misty acidic rain fell, and he turned up the collar of his vinyl jacket. He tried to shake his gloomy mood with thoughts of a David Attenborough DVD and a hot soy burger.

Wayne had read somewhere that each living person carries within themselves atoms of those who have died. He hoped even an atom from so many extinct species lingered on him, in other humans. Maybe that’s why we feel guilty, he mused, sloshing through the blackish puddles. And from guilt comes the need to escape. So the rise of Virtual Adventures.

He knew the history of the animals last days, though he tried not to think of it. As the animals reached the brink of extinction, the remnants of species were filmed exhaustively, in full technicolour, with the dust, the smell, the sweat collated and recorded for posterity. Hounded by media, driven to the brink of the least habitable places on Earth, the creatures faded into shadows, and then they were gone. So many unique organisms lived on only in digital.

It had been because of people like Oliver with their lust for death. But most people were nice, he reflected, wanted just to see and smell animals, walk once through a rainforest on feet that had know only tarmac from birth. With the transmitter sending images direct to the brain, and the sensi suit adding feeling, it was as close to the real thing as was possible, without the dirt. He smiled, realising the advert replays had gotten to him. The small franchises were everywhere, and mostly he enjoyed selling dreams of the long ago.

#

The computers hummed in the quiet room. The constant buzz of electronic motion emitted a gentle heat, a mild hothouse bereft of flowers. In the bin, Oliver’s blood in the cotton swab evaporated.

Billions of atoms floated on the air conditioning currents.

Blood molecules reached circuitry. There were faint popping noises and blue beads of light ran along the golden neural network. The computers continued their gentle hum.

#

Wayne opened the roller door, whistling. A pallid sun fought to beam down through yellow brown smog, brightening the shop posters into life. He carried a small earth filled pot, holding it reverently. He placed it on the front desk and stood back to admire the effect.

The dandelion beamed back yellow cheer.

From behind, Oliver’s cranky dry voice made him jump. “They were weeds boy, doncha know that? My Grandad used to spray those things. Kill ‘em dead. Used to like a nice bit of lawn my Grandad.” He moved closer, his fingers outstretched.

Wayne moved, knocking Oliver’s hand away. “Not much grows in the soil anymore, Mr. Carruthers. Best we let it be.” His voice was gentle as he stood in front of the plant.

Oliver’s pale blue eyes flickered, but his hand dropped.

“Ready for another session then, boy?” he snarled, stalking into the lab. With a last glance at the dandelion, Wayne followed. Serrated tooth like leaves swayed in the breeze from the air conditioner.

Oliver had already punched in his setting and was getting into his suit. Wayne sat at the controls, watching him pick up the rifle, checking the sighting as though his life depended on it. With a last pat of his ammunition belt, he yelled “Go”. Already he was crouched down, peering into the distance, the lab walls not as real as his dreams.

Wayne reached over, flicking the “start visualisation” switch. Leaning back, he plugged in an earpiece and closed his eyes. The rich tones of Attenborough rolled out in endless fascination describing the habits of an African desert mouse.

Oliver crouched in the bower. Sometimes he varied the setting, but this was his favourite. Might try elephants next. One of his prized possessions was a faded photo of his great grandfather standing with one foot on the head of a dead elephant. Couldn’t show it to people these days, though, his face going sour as he remembered the horror the one time he had shown it to Clarissa. With her background he had assumed…

There they were! The male lion had stood up, sniffing. This time they seemed even more real, and he noticed scars of past fights that marked the dominant lion a survivor. He wondered for the first time what this, the last lion pride, had felt.

It seemed to be looking behind him. As he watched, the lion roared his challenge, rich, powerful, lord of his domain. A lioness joined him, rubbing her face into his thick black mane. A small puff of dust rose from the lions and vanished in the afternoon air.

Oliver felt hot breath on his neck. Scared in a way he had never felt before, he turned. Close enough to touch, three more lions.

Watching.

Yellow eyes with vertical alien cat pupils looked at him. Not with fear, just with the modicum of interest Oliver himself might show for a morsel of cheese after a large meal.

One reached out a large paw. Playful, it batted him, the tips of the claws just slicing his sleeve and scraping skin. Blood welled down from the four parallel lines. Clutching his arm, Oliver felt warm urine trickle down his legs.

The lion sniffed its paw, licking the blood off in a thoughtful manner. It was so quiet Oliver could hear the steady thump of vulture wings in the sky.

They all looked at him. As if they know me, Oliver thought, squirming in his sodden trousers. One took a step closer, sniffing at his crotch. Thick whiskers rasped across the wet fabric, and then suddenly it sneezed.

It was too much for Oliver. Whimpering and incoherent he butted his way out of the bower in an ecstasy of terror that blotted out the actual process, and then he ran. Behind him, happy as an overfed housecat with a mouse, the big felines lolloped, keeping just close enough in this ancient game.

He stumbled, rifle flying out of his hands. A large paw came down on his ankle, and he was pined. And screaming.

Wayne’s feet fell off the console at the sudden yell. What the?

Oliver was bleeding, rolling around on the lab floor. His sensi suit had large rips in it.

Wayne punched buttons, no response. His stubby fingers fled to the keyboard, but it was locked. He glanced at the readout.

Place: African savannah

Time: 2030AD

Lion count: 20.

20 lions? Hell, it was never supposed to be over 2, not out by a factor of 10.

He looked at Oliver again, who by now was lying in a pool of blood.

Power switch! But even as he raced across the room he knew it would be too late. By the time Wayne got half way across the lab floor Oliver had stopped struggling.  Blood spurted from Oliver’s jugular, only to be cut off as though some invisible mouth drank it down.

Wayne bent to remove the suit, but Oliver’s body began to fragment and more gashes appeared. It was carnage. Wayne staggered back, feeling sick.

By the time he finished retching, the body had disappeared. Pieces were dragged off the lab floor, bloody trails vanishing outside the field. Here and there were large padded prints of bright blood.

Wayne turned around slowly. Blood, everywhere.

“David Attenborough,” he swore, crossing himself.

Around him, the computers purred.

 

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Short Story: Guilt Factor
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