Hunting On Ethera
by M. Raoulee
The first rat came to Ethera on a cargo ship. It escaped planetside quarantine and fled into the blue pollen dust of the Northern continent spring.
A decade later, spring was no longer blue.
Gwinnie remembered growing up in a world without rats; translucent gel trees towering over her tea parties. She remembered her mother telling her to shake the pollen off of her shoes.
She stood outside of her workshop the day before her forty-ninth birthday and tapped her boots even though she didn’t need to.
As she tried to fix the Lao’s sputtering coffee machine, the time display blinked at her obstinately no many how many times she twiddled it.
She called the ecological oversight committee that afternoon. “Ma’am?” the secretary said. “We appreciate your feedback, but the ban importing extraplanetary fauna is still in effect. So, even if you did make such a donation…”
“There wouldn’t be cats.”
“There would not.” At Gwinnie’s silence, the secretary added, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I just needed to ask.” They said goodbye.
Her daughter Gretchen had been weaving around her legs through the entire conversation. As it ended, she whacked Gwinnie on the hip with one of her toys— a chunky plastic dinosaur.
“Mommy isn’t your workbench.” Gwinnie sighed. She hoisted Gretchen into her arms.
Her daughter and the dinosaur gazed at her, unblinking.
Gwinnie got poppyseed cake and tea and new boots for her birthday. All of her children insisted on sitting on her lap, even Michah who came home from college just to do it. The time with them in the garden seemed both infinite and small, down to the part where she rapped her spoon on the last empty teacup. “There is one more thing I’d like,” she said.
All the children asked, “What?”
“To go to the workshop.”
Even if her family was disappointed, they still escorted her to the door and promised that the fridge would be full of leftover cake.
Gwinnie hadn’t built anything more complicated than motorized carts in years. Her tablet was filled with FAQs, tutorials and emails from one of her old trade school friends.
She cut dozens of film feathers, more than she could use. She snapped one camera array in half and ordered another without thinking of the cost. Her 3D printer chugged on two enormous claws.
The night she finally went to bed at a reasonable hour, it was no longer her birthday. She curled up beside her wife, turned her screen brightness down, and began to type out command strings for the controller.
Gwinnie finished her robot one rainy morning. It came out a sleek silver thing that flowed across the workshop. She almost couldn’t believe she’d built anything like it, but there it stood in her shadow. As she opened the door and showed it the outside, it chirped with birdlike curiosity.
“Come on. Let’s…”
Across the hedgerow, Gwinnie’s neighbors kept a struggling gel tree in a mesh enclosure. The mesh had been chewed apart. A brown rat gnawed on a tubule branch.
The robot saw it before Gwinnie did. It shot across the damp lawn, kicking up feather grass. The rat tried to run, the robot jumped after it, and the enclosure went over, bits of branch flying off in all directions. Then the robot disappeared, streaking off towards the street corner.
Gwinnie swore and went after.
The neighbors were understanding about the mess, at least once Gwinnie offered to fix it. She and they and the robot sat on the porch, talking it over with hands full of tea.
They hadn’t been there for half an hour when the robot shot off again. A crack sounded in the bushes, a shrieking, and then the robot dropped an enormous dead rat right on the porch steps.
“I thought velociraptors were bigger?” said one of the neighbors.
“That’s a different kind of raptor, actually,” Gwinnie muttered, pulling on a pair of gloves. The rat went into a disposal bag. “There are a lot.”
“Still seems like overkill,” said the other neighbor.
“Well, the rats are overkill.”
Which was apparently funny enough that the neighbors managed to ignore their growing cache of disposal bags.
Gwinnie tweaked the robot’s AI a bit before taking it to Friday Market. It strode alongside her now rather than breaking towards every rat to rustle into its awareness.
The only tricky target was the one scaling the side of the baker’s stall. The robot scratched at the street, watching it, then Gwinnie, and then the rat again.
“Do you mind?” Gwinnie asked, gesturing a little too obviously. Before the baker could say much, the robot scaled the tent poles and plucked up the rat with a loud crunch.
The other shoppers nearby went silent.
“Please tell me you sell those,” said the baker. Gwinnie didn’t pay for her baguette that day.
A few weeks into summer she realized that she hadn’t fixed any coffee makers since the Lao’s. Her desk overflowed with order printouts and imperfect film feathers.
Gwinnie met with the ecological oversight committee in the heart of what had once been a gel tree grove, but was now a rather sad picnic spot lined only with feather grass.
At the first sign of a rat, she signed to the robot. It slipped out into the sunlit distance. The grass parted and rippled. Conversation drifted into waiting banter. Minutes passed.
The robot slunk back, two rats dangling in its jaws.
“I wouldn’t want one of those running around unsupervised,” mentioned one of the councilmembers. “That said, how many can you make?”
Gwinnie listed the event as a hunt club on the community schedule. Half of the people who turned out were there just to see the robots. Two had already bought their own, then there was Gretchen, Gwinnie’s wife, the baker, and a gentleman from out of town with a retro film camera.
Gwinnie tried to look confident as she stepped in front of her audience, though she felt clumsy compared to the robots. “I thought we should introduce ourselves. You don’t have to say much. Just tell us something you love about Ethera.”
Everyone had something— the sky and the community, memories of the gel trees spreading to the clouds. Once they’d all said their pieces, Gwinnie lead them into the fields.
As she taught them the hunting gesture, a silver host raced into the underbrush and petals sang down around the group.
There is no last rat on Ethera. The rats are clever and keen-eyed. Their kind has survived on ships since humans were confined to the oceans of old earth. They live on.
The velociraptor hunt clubs do as well. The first becomes two and the two becomes ten. Some members build their own robots, but others insist on having ‘originals’ made by Gwinnie’s family.
Every spring, fields all over Ethera fill with laughter and with shining silver claws.
On the morning of her fifty-ninth birthday, Gwinnie walks out to her workshop before her grandchildren can catch her for breakfast. She knocks blue pollen from her boots before stepping inside.
© 2018 by M. Raoulee
June 8th, 2018
M. Raoulee is a queer author and artist residing in Arizona with a tortie and a lot of broken glass. You may remember her from Brave Boy World, Broken Metropolis or you favorite peculiar corner of sci-fi fandom. If not, welcome aboard. Happy to have you.
Illustration is by Rica March!
Scene break dinosaur illustrations are by Kelsey Liggett!