Story: Artemis & Orion: What the Stars are Made Of
Michael’s story is an honorable mention for the Artemis and Orion contest (October 2015). To see the original contest specifications, click here. To see the winner and other honorable mentions, click here.
This story is so creative—I laughed out loud several times, and Michael worked with the mythology in a unique way that’s still true to form. He even includes Canis Major and Canis Minor (Orion’s faithful hunting dogs). You can find him on Facebook.
What the Stars Are Made Of
by Michael Lapallo
A foxhound yipped with excitement, sniffing and pawing at a patch of dirt on the ground. A tall, grizzled old man with a crossbow slung over his shoulder came to join him.
“What have ya got there, Max?” he asked in a distinctly Bostonian accent. “We onto somethin’ yet?”
He rubbed his fingers in the dirt and studied it.
“Yeah boy,” he said. “We’re on to somethin’. Come on, Minnie, let that thing go.”
Minnie was a smaller, more playful foxhound. She had found a small cockroach crawling through the grass. It appeared she was trying to befriend it. The old man crushed the bug with the butt of his crossbow.
“Of course the damn cockroaches survived the apocalypse,” he said. “Those things can survive anything. At least that one wasn’t eight feet long like the last bug I squashed.”
He looked up at the North Star, glistening in the night sky. They were going the right way.
“The stars are a magic thing, pups,” the man said to the dogs. “There was a time when you couldn’t see a damn one of them ‘round these parts. Too much light pollution. Now you can see everything. Aren’t they a beauty?”
He admired the view as he strolled down the path which Max had found. The two dogs followed at his heels.
The old man had been a war veteran once. He was retired now, of course. There were no organized governments or military left in the world. Not after the Great Collapse. Still, the man carried himself as he did when he was in the Rangers. He’d buzzed most of his gray hair off. He had a patchy beard which didn’t do much to conceal the scars on his face. He wore a brown leather coat, fingerless gloves, and thick boots.
“Here we are, pups,” the old man said. “Times Square, New York City. You know my pops used to call this place the centah of the universe?”
Fifty or a hundred years ago, this intersection would have been quite busy. There would have been honking cars, pedestrians, and neon lights on the buildings. Not anymore. Now it was full of vines, trees, and overgrowth. The once majestic towers of Midtown Manhattan were now crumbling ruins. Raccoons, birds, and mice were their new tenants. There were cars, but a layer of rust covered them all. They hadn’t been functional for decades.
“There used to be so much life in this city, pups,” the old man continued. “Now there’s nothin’ here but us and the creepy crawlies. And this pretty lady. What have we got here?”
He spotted something moving in the distance. He pulled a travel scope out of a pocket of his coat and put it up to his eye. He saw a deer darting through the overgrowth.
“Hello, lady,” he muttered. “Come on pups, we’re eating tonight.”
He moved silently through the trees, holding his crossbow at the ready. The two dogs trotted along at his heels.
The deer stopped to take a drink from a stream which ran through a large chasm in the road. The man knelt behind a car. He aimed his crossbow, using the hood of the car for support. Max began to growl. The man coaxed him to remain silent. He centered the crossbow’s scope just above the deer’s midsection. Minnie let out a bark. The deer looked up, startled. The man squeezed the trigger, but he was too late. The arrow landed in a tree behind the frightened creature as it darted away.
“God dammit, Minnie,” the man said. This animal was going to need some discipline if she was ever going to be worth anything as a hunting dog.
The day didn’t end up being a total bust. The man had managed to snag a rabbit which Max had found scampering through some hedges. The rabbit was now in a bag which the man had slung over his back. He dug into his coat and pulled out a paper package containing a stick of deer jerky. He tore off pieces for both Max and Minnie. The two dogs snapped the up meat hungrily, then went off to play in a stream that had formed at the base of an old water tower. The man chewed on what remained of the jerky for himself. When he finished, he dropped the paper on the ground.
He heard something to his left; a small stretching sound, like the tensing of a bowstring. He froze in place, then turned slowly towards its source.
There was a girl. She was standing on a car. She couldn’t have been older than 22. She was wearing a leather tunic and moccasins. She had her hair pulled back in a braid. She was holding a bow with an arrow notched, and was pointing it straight at him.
“Watch where ya pointing that thing, kid,” the old man said, holding out his hands in surrender. “Ya might poke someone’s eye out. What do you want? I got some rabbit here if you don’t mind white meat. I haven’t got any caps on me.”
For those who had survived the apocalypse, bottle caps were an unofficial form of currency. Ever since the collapse of the dollar, bills and coins weren’t worth much.
“I don’t want your caps or your game,” the girl said.
“Well, you gotta want somethin’.”
He was rather impressed that this girl had managed to get the drop on him. There weren’t a lot of people in the world who could sneak up on him like that.
“There is,” she said. “I want you to pick that up.”
“Pick up… you mean this old thing?” The man knelt down and picked up the paper which his jerky had been wrapped in. “So you’re the litter patrol, is that what this is? Kid, you know the world’s already gone to shit, right? It’s not like my little piece of garbage is gonna send it over the edge.”
“We were born of the Earth-Mother,” the girl said. “If we show kindness to her, she will show kindness to us.”
“’Earth-Motha’? You really gonna address this planet like it’s ya mom? If you say so, lady. You’re the one who’s packin’ the heat.”
He shoved the paper in his pocket. She lowered her bow and relaxed the string.
“What’s a kid like you doin’ this fah outside a colony?” the man asked. “You know there’s all kinds of mutant creepers out there that would love to make you into a snack, right?”
“I’m counting on it,” she replied. “As a guardian of the Earth-Mother, it is my duty to track down and end all evil creatures that wish to do her and others harm.”
“Like my wrapper?”
“Evil comes in many shapes and sizes.”
“Poetic. That’s nice, kid. You sound like a real idealist.”
She jumped down from the car and slipped the arrow into a quiver which dangled from her belt.
“Have I seen you before?” the girl asked. “You seem familiar.”
“I doubt it.”
Her eyes grew wide.
“I have heard of you,” she said with excitement. “You’re Oskar O’Ryan, the Great Hunter! That’s what they call you, right? They tell so many stories of your feats in my village.”
“I’m an okay hunta, alright? Let’s not get too excited. I have no idea where that nickname came from. You can call me Oskar.”
“Is it true that you’re the one who ended the Terror of Tribecca? Was it really a giant vampire bat that was stealing livestock?”
“The stories may have been embellished a bit,” O’Ryan said, dismissing her enthusiasm. “But yeah, the thing was pretty big.”
“Do you still have the medal the mayor of New York gave you? The one he awarded you for vanquishing the Chimera that attacked Brooklyn? You do, I can see it!”
She reached towards his coat and pulled a necklace out from under his shirt. It was made from polished wood, and carved into the shape of a star.
“I still carry this piece of junk around, yeah,” O’Ryan said.
“I’m a hunter, too,” said the girl, “the best in my village. They call me Arty. Someday they’ll call me Great Hunter, just like you. What are you hunting now? I’ll come with you. I’m a great shot.”
“Beat it, kid,” O’Ryan said. “I don’t need a sidekick.”
“Sidekick? You wish, old man. Nah, I’m talking about a partnership. We’ll take down whatever beast you’re tracking together.”
“I’ve already got my partners,” O’Ryan pointed out, “and they actually know when to shut the fuck up. Max, Minnie, get over here.”
He whistled at his dogs. They shook off the water from their coats and ran to his side.
“I’m serious about my shooting skills,” Arty persisted. “See that soda can on top of that billboard? I’ll bet you five caps I can knock it off.”
She whipped an arrow out of her quiver and launched it, barely pausing to aim. It sailed true, penetrating the can and knocking it off the billboard. Arty gave O’Ryan a smug smile and held out her hand.
“That’ll be five caps, please.”
“I nevah agreed to ya bet, kid,” O’Ryan said, waving her hand off. He took his travel scope out of his front pocket and focused in on the can. He calculated it may have been as far as 250 yards away. Even by O’Ryan’s standards, that was impressive.
“Alright, you can tag along. But ya do what I tell ya to do, alright? If I tell ya to bail, ya bail. This isn’t a fun day on the archery range. This is real shit.”
“Whatever you say, partner.”
The two hunters walked down what remained of 7th Avenue towards Central Park. The two foxhounds trailed behind them.
“There’s this mean beastie that’s been roaming through these parts,” O’Ryan explained. “I saw it once. A big, ugly scorpion. Must have been the size of a tank.”
“You don’t mean Scorpio?” Arty asked. “My whole village is terrified of it.”
“Why do you kids gotta give retahded superhero names to all these things? It’s a giant bug, alright? It eats people. Call it whatever the fuck you want, we’re putting it down eitha way.”
“It’s not a bug, it’s an arachnid,” Arty corrected, “and it’s still a living thing created by the Earth-Mother. No matter how much it grosses you out, you should show it some respect.”
“It was created by nutty scientists with god-complexes, not ya hippy ground-mom,” O’Ryan retorted. “And I’d have a lot more respect for it if weren’t a carnivorous monstrosity that desperately needs to die.”
“Your complete disregard for things that live isn’t as cute or funny as you think it is,” huffed Arty. “You should show some respect to the creatures you hunt. The Earth-Mother gave us life, and she can take it away.”
“Yeah, ya goddamn right about that last part. If there’s one thing the earth knows about, it’s killing. Why don’t you ask the city of San Francisco what it thinks about ya earth-mommy. Oh wait, ya can’t. It was leveled to the ground after the San Andreas Fault went nuclea’. Why don’t you ask the city of New Orleans what it thinks of ya earth-mom after the oceans rose and swallowed it into the sea? Why don’t you ask New York City, for that mattah? Look at this place. Used to be one the greatest cities on the planet. Now it’s a city of vines, moss, and ruin overrun by mutant creepy crawlies. If the earth’s a motha, she’s the kind who smothers her infant with a pillow and drops it in a dumpsta. The earth isn’t anyone’s friend anymore, kiddo. Not to us.”
“The Mother gives and the Mother takes,” Arty replied. “Nurture her, she’ll nurture you. Torture her, you’ll make her angry. Mankind has not always been kind to her. This is what happens when we lose our way.”
She gestured out at the ruinous metropolis before them. O’Ryan grunted.
“Alright, kid, I need ya to tell me something. I just can’t wrap my brain around this. Out of one side of ya mouth, ya spoutin’ all this hippy crap about Motha Nature and showing kindness to living things. And then out of the otha, ya tellin’ me ya gonna be some kind of Great Hunta like me. You know what I do, right? I kill things. I kill a whole lotta things. It sorta goes with the dictionary definition of the word ‘hunta.’”
“I know what a hunter is,” she said indignantly. “Hunters are a natural part of the ecosystem. Bears hunt. Wolves hunt. Eagles hunt. Sometimes people hunt, too. We have to eat. We’re born, we eat each other, and we die. We decompose, and new life rises from our remains. It’s all part of the cycle the Earth-Mother designed.”
“I don’t always hunt to eat,” O’Ryan said. “Sometimes I hunt because I like the challenge. What must ya earth-mom think of me, huh? You know what I got in this here bag?”
He slung it off his shoulder and dropped it at her feet. Max and Minnie sniffed it eagerly.
“My rabbit,” O’Ryan confirmed. “It’s gonna be dinna in a moment here when the sun goes down. Saw him hopping through the brush and put an arrow in his carcass. I killed Thumper, kid. What kind of a heartless bastard am I? That’s gotta beat droppin’ paper on the ground, if we’re judging things. So you’re okay with the murder, but almost lit me up with ya peashooter because I dropped some trash?”
“That game will sustain us during our hunt,” Arty said. “It will give us the calories, energy, and nutrition we’ll need if we’re going to take down Scorpio. By taking down that terror, we’ll spare the lives of innocent villagers.”
“Don’t call him fuckin’ Scorpio,” O’Ryan scorned. “So you’re talkin’ utility, huh? It’s okay for me to pop the rabbit because that’ll enable us to pop the bug? Save some lives, take anotha? What makes you think you can rank one life as being betta than others? What makes you think the bug’s life is more precious than yours or mine? What about the villagers it does or doesn’t eat? They’re better than the bug, too? Who made you judge, jury, and executiona?”
“Of course I subjectively rank the value of life,” Arty said. “No one wants to admit they do, but everyone does in their own way. Even a vegetarian might. Suppose someone decides that plants are worth eating, but meat isn’t. They’re still judging lives. A plant’s is worth taking for nourishment, an animal’s is too precious. That’s a value judgment. You do it, too, I’d wager. Suppose you had to choose between saving the life of a loved one and the life of 10 strangers. Wouldn’t you rank the loved one’s safety as being the most important?”
“I don’t got any loved ones left,” O’Ryan said. “Ya ‘Great Motha’ took ’em all. When the sea rose and Boston flooded, none of ’em made it out alive.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Wasn’t ya fault, kid. You’re just worshiping the deity who ganked ’em, that’s all.”
O’Ryan, Arty, and the two dogs ate their dinner in the remains of Time Warner Center. They roasted the rabbit on a spit which they set up in an abandoned office on the 22nd floor of the building. O’Ryan had insisted on this building in particular. He wanted to get a proper view of Central Park, where their target was roaming. While the dogs were gnawing on leftover bones, O’Ryan got up and walked to one of the windows. Arty followed. O’Ryan wiped dust off the glass and gazed through it with his travel scope.
“There she is,” he said. “Right there by Columbus Circle.”
He passed the scope to Arty. She put it to her eye and saw a black speck moving around outside the park. She homed in on it, adjusting the range on the scope to make the image come into focus. There it was. There was Scorpio itself; a large, black arachnid with giant claws and a stinger. It was feasting on some rotting corpse on the road, and making quite a mess of it.
Arty shook her head.
“I don’t like this, Oskar.”
“You’re not getting hunter’s anxiety on me, are you?”
She shook her head again.
“There are some things that the Earth-Mother didn’t mean for us to mess with,” she said. “Some forces are too great. Too powerful. I don’t like the look of this thing. I don’t like the feeling it gives me in my gut. Do you even know how to kill it?”
“Listen, kid. They don’t call me ‘Great Hunta’ for nothin’. I’ve bagged beasts bigga than this ugly son of a bitch. It’s got armor all over, but I can blast a hole in it with Baby.”
He reached into his coat and whipped out a .44 Magnum.
“Ain’t she a beauty? Eastwood used ones of these in Dirty Harry. She’ll cut straight through that armor. Once I’ve blown a big enough hole, you stick ya arrows in there. Right where they count, that’s all ya gotta do. Tomorrow, you and me are gonna go down there and make a pincushion out of this thing. You wanna be a hunta, or don’t ya?”
“Great. Then stop ya whinin’. If ya gonna be my sidekick, ya need to nut up.”
“Partner,” she corrected.
“Call it whateva ya want. Get some shut eye. Tomorrow is game day.”
O’Ryan slipped out of the building around midnight while Arty and the dogs were sleeping. If this hunt was going to go without a hitch, he was going to have to do some prep work.
He walked past Columbus Circle and the USS Maine Monument. He crossed West Drive and moved towards Heckscher Playground. He had hunted a few mutant beasts in these parts in the past. He was hoping he would be able to get some use out of some old traps he had set up here. They still worked for the most part, but would need a few hours of maintenance.
By the time he’d finished rigging up the traps, it was almost morning. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and slung his crossbow over his shoulder. He could finish his hunt when he had the others around.
He heard a small hiss and a series of “click, click, clicks.” He froze.
The scorpion was here. It was glaring down at him from on top of Umpire Rock. It was huge; it must have been 12 feet long and eight feet high. It was jet black and covered in a thick exoskeleton. Its pincers were clicking together rhythmically. Its beady, black eyes were fixed on O’Ryan. It was letting out a chirping sound. O’Ryan didn’t know exactly what that sound meant, but he guessed it had something to do with hunger. Hunger, or anger. Maybe both.
The scorpion broke into a run, skittering in towards O’Ryan. O’Ryan turned and bolted through Heckscher Playground. He removed his crossbow from its sling and notching an arrow as he went. He vaulted over a metal railing and ran under a swing set. He heard the swing set bend and snap as the scorpion shattered through it.
O’Ryan came to a line of trees. Now was the time for the first trap.
He turned to face the scorpion. It was almost in position. O’Ryan pointed his bow at a cable that was holding up a tree trunk. The cable was a thin target, but O’Ryan had hit smaller. He let the arrow fly, and it pierced the cable. The tree trunk plummeted, landing on the scorpion’s midsection. The scorpion shrieked as it struggled against the trunk’s weight. O’Ryan whipped Baby out of the back of his coat and blasted the scorpion twice in the face. The armor plating held, but he’d made a dent.
The scorpion lashed at the trunk with the blade on the end of its stinger. It struck it several times till the trunk splintered in two. The scorpion shook off pillars of wood and continued scurrying towards O’Ryan. O’Ryan turned and ran again.
The scorpion surely would have been upon O’Ryan already, if not for the injuries inflicted by the tree trunk. O’Ryan crossed Center Drive then headed towards what remained of Victorian Gardens Amusement Park.
The park wasn’t what it used to be. The rides had all lost their paint and overgrowth had taken them over. There was a line of small cars on a rail, a Kite Flyer, a rollercoaster, and other abandoned attractions. What O’Ryan was most interested was the Bumper Boats. This used to be a pool where there were flotation devices for kids to drift around in. The boats were gone, but there was still water. It muddy and filled with slime, but it would do.
O’Ryan leaped onto a stage next to a Hydro Racers ride. There was a generator up there which he’d taken from another ride. Two cables ran from the generator and into the muddy pool. O’Ryan kept one hand on a switch on the generator and waited.
The scorpion entered the park. O’Ryan could see its feelers on the underside of its abdomen waving about. It was using them to sense its prey—O’Ryan himself. It saw him standing on the stage just between it and the pool. It scurried towards him, going through the muddy water as it went. O’Ryan flipped the switch on the generator, and it roared to life. Like all sources of power in this city, the generator was close to dead. But there was just enough juice left in it to send an electric charge through the cables and into the pool. The scorpion shrieked again as the water rippled with electricity.
O’Ryan drew Baby from his coat once more. He lined up the gun with the hole he’d started on the scorpion’s armor. He fired three shots. Two of them hit. The patch of armor was hanging by a thread now, and O’Ryan only had one shot left in Baby. The scorpion was writhing too much for O’Ryan to get a clean shot. He’d have to take it to one final trap.
He jumped off the stage. He sprinted out of the park, across East Drive, and towards the Central Park Zoo. He knew the shock he’d given the scorpion wouldn’t be enough to kill it. He figured, though, that it would slow it down enough that he could get to his next trap.
He entered the zoo by crawling through a hole in the fence. In the center of the zoo, there was a pool where there used to be a sea lion display. The pool was all dried up now, so O’Ryan wouldn’t be able to do the electricity trick again. But he still had a purpose for it.
The scorpion found O’Ryan once again. It scurried over a wall and skittered towards him. It was clicking its pincers together menacingly. O’Ryan could see he’d shaken it from that last stunt he’d pulled, but it was still hungry. O’Ryan stopped running and faced the scorpion.
The ground underneath the scorpion collapsed, and it fell into a hole in the earth. It had fallen into the sea lion’s empty pool. During his prep work earlier that night, O’Ryan had constructed a thick canopy of sticks. He’d then covered the canopy in grass, leaves, and dirt, and pulled this canopy over the pool. The scorpion had just taken the bait and walked over the canopy, causing it to break under its weight. The scorpion shrieked again as it landed in the pit.
O’Ryan whipped out Baby one last time. There was one bullet left in the chamber; he’d have to make this one count. He lined it up with the hole in the scorpion’s armor and pulled the trigger. The piece of armor popped off and landed on the ground. O’Ryan had now exposed a piece of flesh behind the scorpion’s armor. He hoped that it would lead to one of its vital organs or something. He took his crossbow from its sling and tried to line up the scope with the hole, but he wasn’t fast enough. He had underestimated the scorpion’s athletic ability. The enormous arachnid reared back and leaped into the air, clearing the side of the pit. It lashed out with its stinger and jabbed O’Ryan in the ankle. O’Ryan yelled and fell to his knees.
He raised his bow and tried once more to align his scope with the exposed flesh. The scorpion swiped at his bow with one of its massive claws, knocking the weapon aside. O’Ryan reached for the last weapon he had left; a hunting knife on his belt. The scorpion seized him by the torso with its other claw and raised him off the ground. O’Ryan could see its face now better than ever. Boy was it ugly.
O’Ryan lashed at the claw with his knife, but the armor was too thick. It didn’t help that the poison which the scorpion had injected into his ankle was now taking over his body. He was feeling weakened and numb all over.
“So this is how it ends for the mighty O’Ryan, huh?” he said. “Eaten by a big, ugly bug.”
An arrow whizzed through the air and landed in the spot of flesh O’Ryan had exposed with Baby. The scorpion shrieked, louder this time. Black ooze dripped from the wound. It scanned the zoo frantically, seeking its new attacker.
Arty entered the zoo, flanked by Max and Minnie. The scorpion saw her come in through the hole in the fence, bow in hand. It dropped O’Ryan and made a run at her. Arty let two more arrows fly, both of them striking the beast in the same spot of exposed flesh. The scorpion howled and turned around in circles, trying to knock the arrows out of its body with its claws. The dogs ran at the beast, barking furiously. The scorpion turned and bolted into the overgrowth, leaving a trail of black goo in its wake.
Arty rushed to O’Ryan’s side. He was lying on the ground, clutching at the small blade the scorpion had left in his ankle. Arty ripped the blade out and tossed it aside. She took a roll of linen out of her satchel and wrapped it around the injury.
“That’s not gonna save me, kiddo,” O’Ryan said through gritted teeth. “I’ve suffered worse wounds than this. I’m more worried about the poison.”
“I’ll get you to the medicine man in my village,” Arty said. “He’ll have something for this. An antidote.”
“Fuhget it,” O’Ryan dismissed. “I’ll be gone in a minute. Ya motha finally got me.”
She knew he was right. His skin had gone pale. Blue veins were visible underneath it. His breathing was labored and he could barely move.
The two foxhounds came back from through the brush. They came by O’Ryan’s side, whimpering slightly. Max looked sad. Minnie looked confused. O’Ryan scratched Minnie’s head.
“You’ll take care of my dogs, right kid?”
“I will. In my village, we respect everything that lives.”
“Of course ya do, Pocahontas. You’re gonna take down that scorpion too, right?”
“I don’t know, it’s so big.”
“You got this, kid. You’re gonna crush it. You got nice grouping; I saw how you landed those arrows. Here, take this.”
With a quivering hand, he reached up and pulled the wooden medal from his neck. He handed it to her, and she took it.
“You’re the Great Hunta now, partner. I’m the Great Hunted.”
He laughed at his own joke. He choked, and blood came out of his mouth. Arty took out another clothe and helped him clean it up.
“What does ya village reckon happens when we croak?” O’Ryan asked.
“We go back the earth, where we came from.”
“Nah kid, it’s bigga than that. We’re not just dirt. We’re made of stardust. Carl Sagan said that. Once upon a time, a star exploded, and everything in this world came from that explosion. That includes ya motha. That includes you and me, kid. Everything you see here is the product of a star going nuclea’.”
He wheezed and clutched at his chest. Max whined. Arty stroked him behind the ears.
“Like you said kid, these things go in circles. Things are born, things die. Death gives way to life. This world’s gonna die too, someday. Our sun will go nuclea’ just like that otha one did. It’ll swallow the earth, and we’ll be back to the nothin’ we came from. I like to think our mattah will be reborn as stars, completing the cycle.”
He raised a shaking finger and pointed to the sky. Morning was coming, but stars were still visible through the blue haze.
“You wait and see, kid. I’ll be out there in the stars.”
His body was overtaken by convulsions. White foam spilled from his mouth. Arty could see he was in great pain. She took her linen clothe and forced it over his mouth and nostrils. After she’d blocked his air intake for long enough, he suffocated and went still.
She ran her hand over his face and closed his eyes. She dug two fingers into the dirt, drew a mud cross on his forehead, and whispered a small prayer for him to the Earth-Mother.
She rose to her feet. She took the wooden necklace O’Ryan had given her and tied it around her neck. She picked up her bow from the ground, and her eyes followed the trail of black ooze running into the hedges. This creature wouldn’t be hard to track.
“Come Max, come Minnie,” she said. “We’re going hunting.”
© Copyright 2015 by Michael Lapallo. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of Michael Lapallo.SUBSCRIBE