So now you've seen the first trailer for After Earth, Will Smith's new movie set in a future after the human race has abandoned our original home planet. But what kind of post-apocalyptic, space-faring future are we looking at here? And what kind of challenges do our descendants face, in M. Night Shyamalan's space opera?
Here's your first clue — an exclusive excerpt from Peter David's prequel story "After Earth: Ghost Stories: Hunted." The full e-book goes on sale in a few days, and it's the first of six prequel e-shorts. David is writing two of them, and there are also two each by Michael Jan Friedman and Robert Greenberger. These short e-books will fill in more of the backstory of the After Earth universe, to get you up to speed before After Earth opens on June 17.
by Peter David
The Earth is a distant memory, abandoned by humanity during a time of ecological catastrophe millennia ago. Humankind's descendants found a new home on a world they named Nova Prime. There they thrived and grew, until the arrival of an aggressive alien species humans dubbed the Skrel, who attacked the survivors relentlessly for years. But humankind fought back with unfailing determination, led by the valiant United Ranger Corps, and resisted the Skrel's best attempts to wipe them out. The war persisted off and on over centuries, and then the Skrel genetically engineered a weapon of mass destruction—one that would test Ranger determination and resourcefulness like no other.
The Tangredi Jungle was situated on the other side of the planet from Nova Prime City, although high-speed transport made it fairly easy to get to. Normally it was a popular place with hikers and campers, but there had been recent reports of killings that could only be attributed to Ursa. Bodies ripped apart, or devoured with just bits of bone and flesh left to indicate that they had ever been there at all. Consequently, the Rangers had declared the area completely off limits to citizens of Nova Prime. It was an edict that made perfect sense; no reasonable individual would even think of disobeying it. The Rangers patrolled the area with some regularity, so you would have thought that any sort of hunting party through the Tangredi was an act of insanity. If the Ursa didn't get you, the Rangers bloody well would.
This was a prospect that didn't deter Ryerson in the least.
Daniel wasn't quite sure what to make of that. What possible reason could there be for a man as high up on the food chain as Ryerson to risk being arrested, not to mention perhaps slain by an Ursa? It just didn't make any sense to Daniel.
None of which changed the fact that he was busy crawling around on the ground, looking for some sign that an Ursa had been through the area recently; perhaps hours earlier.
Ryerson was leaning over Daniel's shoulder, watching him with intense curiosity. Daniel was clad in an up-to-date camouflage outfit, as were all of them. It seemed only fair, after all. The Ursa were fully capable of blending in seamlessly with their backgrounds, so why shouldn't human pursuers have that same advantage?
Ryerson's hired hunters were spread out through the jungle, but they were not so unwise as to be in a position where the Ursa could pick them off one by one. Instead they were moving in groups of two, covering each other's backs. To counteract the reputed camouflage abilities of the Ursa, each of their pulser rifles—nothing less would do the job—was equipped with a thermal sighting device. This should give the group a drop on any overconfident Ursa operating on the mistaken assumption that their camouflage would protect them.
"You closing in on one of the bastards, Silver?"
"I'm seeing definite signs, sir. Like right here." He tapped a small pile of dirt in front of him.
Ryerson looked puzzled. "Like what there?"
"Ursa bury their feces. Makes them tougher to track, or presumably they think so. The result is little dirt mounds that look just like this. Also I've seen traces of what looks like the talons of an Ursa in the dirt. I could be wrong. It could be some other predator, one considerably less dangerous."
"But you don't believe that to be the case."
"No, sir, I do not," he said firmly.
"Good lad. Looks like I made the right choice," Ryerson said with a degree of self-satisfaction. "You certainly know a great deal about them."
"I read a lot," he said, his voice flat. He paused and then said, "Mr. Ryerson, what are we doing out here? I mean, really? Are you—?"
"Am I what?" When Daniel didn't respond immediately, Ryerson cracked a smile. "Did I just get a diagnosis from my doctor that my time's up? Or am I terminally suicidal and depressed? Something like that?"
"Something like, yeah."
"Sorry to disappoint you, son." Ryerson thumped his chest. "But I'm in the pink of health. Nothing wrong, at least that I know of."
"Because it's the next thing."
"The next thing I want to do. The next challenge that I could find. That's how you get somewhere, son: by seeing what remains to be done and then doing it. I want to be the oldest non-Ranger who has ever managed to kill an Ursa. If you ask me—which admittedly no one did, but that's never stopped me before—the Rangers are a bunch of arrogant, overconfident smug fools. Telling people where they can and can't go. Acting as if they are our only hope against the Ursa. I believe in self-reliance, Silver. Never a big fan of having someone else doing things on my behalf when I never asked them to, and then acting as if I owe them all some huge debt of gratitude. To hell with the Rangers. If you want a dead Ursa, then do it yourself. That's what I say."
"Well, I'll certainly do my best to help you achieve your goal."
"And what about you?"
Daniel was continuing to study the ground and was only listening with half an ear. "What about me what?"
"Feeling better about the girl trying to push you out of her life?"
"I don't care."
"That's the spirit!"
"No, you don't understand." He turned to look at Ryerson. "I don't care about anything. I'm nothing without her. Hell, I was nothing with her."
"Come on, Silver!" He chucked him on the shoulder. "Nothing good ever came from feeling sorry for yourself!"
I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't feel anything. That's the point.
"You're right, sir," he said, trying his best to provide some degree of emotion to his voice. "I'll try to remember th—"
That was when the deafening roar of the Ursa sounded through the clearing.
Ryerson jumped, startled. Daniel remained utterly calm, not providing any sort of visible reaction. To him, there was no reason for there to be any reaction. He had expected this the entire time. When you were leading people into the belly of the beast, there was no reason to be startled when the beast made its presence known. Indeed, he found Ryerson's shock and alarm to be mildly entertaining. What did you expect, old man?
It was impossible to tell from which direction the animal's defiant roar had originated as it echoed through the clearing. It seemed to be coming from all sides at once. Quickly Ryerson activated the wrist communications unit that would keep him in touch with his hunters. "Nickerson! Philips! Chang! Anyone! Report!"
The response was a babble of shouts, one overlapping the next.
"No sighting yet, but the foliage is rustling—"
"There's definitely one of them out here—"
"Could be two or three!"
"I don't see any—oh my God!"
Shots fired. A truncated scream.
"This is Vale! Creighton's down! I saw it tear his head off!"
"Maintain position, Vale, we're coming!"
"Screw that! I'm out of—!"
The second, higher-pitched scream, Vale's, wasn't preceded by any pulser blasts at all. He hadn't managed to get off any shots. He'd only had time to die.
It was complete chaos. Ryerson was spinning like a top, hearing death and destruction all around him, not knowing in which direction to look. Another roar, two more screams. Marsh and Inigo, by the sounds of it. Ryerson had hired some of the best hunters on Nova Prime, and the Ursa—for what else could it be?—was picking them off effortlessly.
"What the hell is this thing?"
"I am not dying out here!" came a terrified declaration from Chang, right before he was proven wrong. He managed to get off three shots, a personal best for the group, before his death scream erupted over the comm unit.
Ryerson was encountering a severe depletion of nerve. His face was the color of curdled milk, his eyes wide with horror. He fired several random shots around him into the jungle. The only result that came over the comm unit was a startled yelp from what sounded like Nickerson, yelling, "I'm shot! What idiot shot me?" right before the roar of the Ursa sounded and Nickerson shrieked like a baby demanding to be fed. Then Nickerson's comm unit went dead, along with Nickerson himself.
"Silver, do something! Get me out of here!" Ryerson's voice was just above a whisper, his throat constricted. Everything was happening so quickly. It had been barely a minute since the Ursa had first made its presence known, and it was ripping through his entire hunting party with hellacious speed. Ryerson clearly hadn't yet been able to fully grasp what was happening.
Daniel simply looked at him with bland disinterest. "What is it about having a lot of money that makes people feel they are invincible?"
Ryerson shook his head in denial. "If that's what you thought, then why did you come? Are you suicidal?"
"No. Not especially." Daniel shrugged.
Suddenly a tree at the outer edge of the clearing shattered into splinters and there was the Ursa towering over them, not ten feet away. Several pieces of human bone were lodged in its teeth, and its muzzle dripped with blood and gore.
In the face of his impending demise, Ryerson—to his credit—did not flinch. The shrieks and the cries of death all around him had been overwhelming when he was dealing with things he couldn't see. Now that he was face-to-face with the foe, Ryerson rose to the occasion. It wasn't bravery so much as it was pure, gut-roiling desperation as he dashed diagonally across the clearing, firing his pulser repeatedly. "Die, you son of a bitch, die!" he shrieked as he fired over and over again.
The Ursa seemed more curious about him than anything, as if bewildered by this foolish little creature that thought it had the slightest chance against him. The pulser blasts rebounded off its hide. The direct hits actually left small scorch marks where they struck, but that was all. The beast didn't rock back or acknowledge the impact in any way. It just stood there, absorbing the assault, like a parent waiting patiently for a child to finish its tantrum before taking full control of its errant offspring.
For five seconds that seemed as if they stretched into five minutes, the Ursa simply took it.
Then it disappeared.
Daniel, mildly curious about the outcome, had the calmness of mind to see a faint shimmer rippling across the landscape. Ryerson, by contrast, could not keep his panic and confusion in check. He whipped his pulser back and forth frantically while shouting, "Come out here and get what's coming to you, you bastard! What's the matter? Can't take any more?"
My God, he actually thinks he was doing well against it.
Ryerson never saw the Ursa drop its camouflage and shimmer into visibility directly behind him. Daniel could have shouted out a warning, but he didn't bother. It was just prolonging the inevitable anyway.
Ryerson had no time to react as the Ursa's maw enveloped him down to the waist. His scream was muffled and then silenced as the monster's jaws slammed together with a sound like an ax chopping into the side of the tree. Ryerson was bitten clean in half. The creature tilted its head back and Ryerson's head, arms, and torso all vanished into its gullet. His lower body actually stood there for a moment, looking ludicrous, before it collapsed. It lay on the ground, the remains of Ryerson's internal organs seeping out and soaking the ground in red.
Then the Ursa made a deep coughing sound, like a cat about to toss up a hairball. Sure enough, its mouth opened wide, and it regurgitated Ryerson. The man's upper half had already been partly processed by whatever stomach acids passed for the Ursa's digestive system, and it was scarcely recognizable as human, much less Ryerson.
"Guess it doesn't do well with rich foods," Daniel said morbidly.
The comment caused the Ursa's head to snap around. The creature had no eyes, but it appeared to be looking right at him. It had doubtless reacted to the sound of his voice.
Daniel just stood there and stared at it. He wasn't going to provide the Ursa any more free guidance by speaking, but he wasn't especially concerned by the fact that it was looking his way.
He remembered the stories about how, when death is imminent, your life flashes before your eyes. Daniel waited for that to happen.
And it did, sort of.
The disapproving looks from his parents when he failed class after class. The stern anger from his father when he'd thrown him out once he'd turned eighteen, telling him that if he was going to get anywhere, he'd have to be on his own to do it, because otherwise he had no motivation. His mother standing there, sobbing, but doing nothing to countermand her husband's actions. There he was, crashing with various friends, getting on their nerves with his aimlessness, going from job to job, holding none of them, putting together no savings, wearing out his welcome again and again, always seeing that same look of disappointment.
And he hadn't cared.
The only one he'd ever cared about was Ronna, and eventually that same expression had been on her face as well. It didn't matter what the Ursa did to him; he was already dead, killed by that disappointed look.
Nothing matters without her. And I don't matter; she made that clear.
The Ursa slowly approached him, but it looked confused, as if—without the guidance of his voice—it couldn't tell where he was. Its foul breath washed over Daniel, and it was all he could do not to choke or gag or make some other sound that would surely pinpoint his presence for the Ursa.
Despite his indifference to his fate, Daniel couldn't help but be intrigued by what was happening. He was there, right there, in front of the Ursa, yet it seemed unable to zero in on him. Daniel held his breath, not for fear of being discovered and killed, but out of curiosity as to how long he could elude detection simply by doing nothing at all.
He had no idea how much time passed as they just stood there, predator and prey. The Ursa seemed confused and frustrated, certain there was something there but unable to figure out where it was.
Daniel realized he was still holding his pulser rifle in his right hand. He'd seen close-up how useless the weapon was against the Ursa. No wonder the Rangers used a techno-bladed weapon called a cutlass: The techno-filaments were so sharp that it was claimed a Ranger wielding this weapon could cut off your arm even if his thrust missed; supposedly the wind from the miss alone would get the job done. Daniel doubted this was true, but he knew from what he'd observed firsthand that pulsers did nothing against the creatures, while the pulser-less Rangers had many kills under their belts, so they must be doing something right.
Very slowly, just to see what would happen, Daniel leaned left, then right. The Ursa made no corresponding reaction. My God, it really can't see me. At all. Emboldened, he cocked the triggering mechanism of the pulser and then lobbed the ineffective weapon to his right. It landed ten feet away and, upon impact, went off.
Instantly the Ursa lunged toward the rifle, landing squarely upon it with its huge, taloned paws. Rather than try to depart the area, Daniel remained where he was, watching the Ursa with something that seemed utterly inappropriate to the situation: amusement.
Suddenly the Ursa's head snapped up. It let out a furious roar and for an instant Daniel wondered if somehow it had perceived him.
And then the entire clearing was alive with activity. It was a squad of Rangers, coming in from all sides, including one who leaped directly in front of Daniel, shoving him off his feet. "Get down!" ordered the Ranger.
"You get down! I was fine!" Daniel snapped at him, but nevertheless he remained on the ground. An Ursa he could handle; Rangers were officious jerks. No point in antagonizing them.
The Rangers converged on the Ursa, cutlasses at the ready. The Ursa didn't know which way to "look" first, its head snapping left and right. The Rangers moved with a fluidity that impressed even the cynical Daniel. They slashed, jabbed, attacked, and then retreated while others moved in to take their place. Daniel remembered, in one of the many courses he'd ultimately failed, reading about prehistoric humankind back on Earth, when hunting parties of men would assault creatures many times their size using their spears and their sheer numbers to accomplish their goal. Daniel suspected that it was much like this: attacking from many directions, then pulling back, and then assaulting their prey once more so that the animal wasted its energy defending the feints while being wounded by the strikes that did land.
A dozen seeping wounds had appeared all over the Ursa's hide. It tried to disappear, to hide behind its camouflage, but the Rangers would have none of it, anticipating its path and striking even though they were only approximating where it was. Yet somehow they managed to hit home with their attacks.
Finally the creature let out a roar so thunderous that the ground under Daniel's feet seemed to shake. Then, gathering the power in its haunches, the Ursa leaped straight up, high over their heads, its trajectory carrying it deep into the brush. Seconds later it was gone.
"Secure the perimeter," said the Ranger who appeared to be in charge. "Make sure no other damned fools decide that hunting an Ursa is a game for amateurs." With this comment, he looked disdainfully at Daniel.
"Don't glare at me, big man," Daniel replied laconically. "I was just the hired help. This wasn't my party."
"The very same."
"He's under arrest, then. Where is he?"
"There," said Daniel, nodding in one direction, and then gesturing in the other, "and there."
The Rangers saw on opposite sides of the clearing the regurgitated remains of Ryerson's upper half and what was left of his lower half. Several wrinkled their faces in disgust.
The officer stared at him for a long time. Then he turned to his subordinates and said, "Call in a detail to clean up this mess. And have him"—he pointed to Daniel—"brought to my office."
"Sir, yes sir," they chorused.
Office? Why his office? If they're going to arrest me, why not just clap me in jail and then schedule an appearance before a magistrate? An office makes it sound as if we have something to talk about. What could we possibly have to talk about?