by Travis Perry -
The fist-sized cannonball made a neat puncture in the seam that ran down the middle of the mammothbug’s exoskeleton. Dazed by the blast of the cannon as she was, this was not the first thing Elsa noticed.
The first thing she realized was the bug charging her way, roaring in pain. It wasn’t until long moments afterward that some detached and objective part of her brain realized the shot actually had been in the right place, it should have hit the bug’s heart, killing it instantly…
Her mind pondered but her body scrambled up the rock face immediately behind her, knowing the bug would come straight after her and was a poor climber. She moved as fast as her elderly frame would bear, the bug roaring behind her—too close. The only thing that soothed the bitter certainty that she would die was the fact she had been certain of her own death before—and lived.
“Help, Lord!” her mouth said, it in turn operating independently of her slow-moving body and shot-critiquing mind. She found hand-and-toeholds and moved upward, not fast enough, she knew, as the bug’s roar drew terrifyingly near.
But then from behind her came the muted crack of a scythegun followed an instant later by the roar of its projectile breaking the mammothbug’s back. Elsa glanced down and saw the bug’s last twitching movement before death. Its carcass was not even two meters from the rock face.
Behind the bug’s body, she saw her savior, a grim-faced bearded man, in new-looking clothes, about a hundred meters away. “Thank you, young man!” she shouted and waved, feeling her face spread in a wide smile.
He approached without saying a word until he was close. By then, Elsa had recovered her cannon and her skeleton saw. She would have to cut the carcass in pieces and carry it bits to get it home. She’d be lucky to get it all back before the scavengers arrived, but once she returned with the first piece, the children would help with the rest. She began her work, starting to saw off the right front leg.
“What are you doing?” said the man, now only meters away, his weapon not quite pointed at her but not quite pointed away, either.
“Oh, taking home some of this kill for my little ones.” Observing his scowling face, she added, “Since you were so kind as to help me, perhaps you would like to take half for yourself?”
Now the weapon pointed itself directly at her. “This is my kill. Move along outta here.”
“Surely there is enough here for both…perhaps you would like to take three-fourths of the beast? I really need at least a small part for my family…you see, one of my sons abandoned us long ago and the others have died in the hunting, the last leaving a very pregnant wife and five little ones behind.” She smiled as sweetly as she knew how, trying her best to appeal to his sense of human decency.
“My kill, old woman,” his voice growled, not sounding particularly human. “Shove along. NOW.”
She moved, bitter tears streaming down her face. Why, dear God, she thought, would you save me from a quick death only to let me die a slow one?
She glanced back behind her and saw the man carving her bug into neat slices with a powered blade, paying no more attention to her at all. And it came to her in a flash of insight what she should do. There were a whole series of little ridges in this narrow valley—she should duck behind one, reload the cannon with the last of her powder and the last cannonball and kill the man stealing the food from the mouths of her little ones.
Behind a ridge no more than twenty meters from her intended prey, the powder and cannonball in place, heavy guilt flooded Elsa’s soul. This is wrong, she acknowledged and knew with bitter resentment that no matter what it would cost her, her God demanded one thing from her: forgiveness.
Elsa wept bitterly.