A new short story about a Christmas parade, an Arctic metropolis, a hunter, and a zoo full of lab-grown animals.
This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Electricity was rationed at night in Longyearbyen, yet a few lights blinked stubbornly over the empty streets. Automated trash collectors alternated from side to side. One of them paused, as if sensing the tall man’s presence, then buzzed on, sucking up glittering confetti from the frozen ground.
The man lit a cigarette and tilted his head back, trying to discern the tops of the towering skyscrapers, but the buildings were engulfed in darkness. The city’s residents were still in their beds, many sleeping off hangovers after the Third Light Parade. But even if they had been awake and peering out their windows, they still might not have seen him. Between his height and the huge rifle strapped to his back, you’d think he’d be fairly noticeable, but he was so calm, so unnaturally quiet, that he blended in with the shadows. Only the tiny swirl of smoke from his cigarette gave him away.
He’d been one of just a handful of passengers on the flight from Wainwright. Nearly empty planes were rarely permitted to take off nowadays, but on the last night before the holiday madness started, not even the airport staff in Danmarkshavn had bothered with questions when the plane landed to recharge.
With the massive Christmas Parade only a week away, he knew people would soon be flocking to Longyearbyen to see the spectacle, despite the recent steep rise in flight costs.
The city’s light festival lasted all of December, with smaller parades every week. It was as if the inhabitants wanted to block out the winter darkness and use every opportunity to bring lights and noise and fun to the streets. But the grand finale—the Christmas Parade—was exceptional. Svalbard archipelago, a haven long known for its religious and cultural mix, welcomed new citizens from all over the world, and the Christmas Parade had thus evolved over the years into a synthesis of traditions from everywhere; no one would be surprised to see a man dressed up as an odd combination of Scandinavian barn gnome and scary goatlike Krampus standing with a Catholic priest or an imam on one of the floats.
The tall man gazed at the trash collectors wheezing past and sneered at the innocent cheerfulness of it all. The pulsating Arctic metropolis was—in his view—merely a puttering, provincial town.
He observed lights coming on high above, one by one, in the ocean of windows. The city was awakening. He tossed his cigarette on the frozen ground and twisted it under his boot a little.
The townspeople, he mused, had no idea how lucky they were that he was not here for them.
On the other side of Longyearbyen, in a building at the mouth of the Advent Valley, Trym yelled at his alarm clock to make it stop. Unfortunately, it hadn’t yet learned to recognize his groggy morning voice. Not even hurling a pillow was effective. Grumbling, he dragged himself out of bed, turned off the piercing noise, and then glanced out the window, a habit he’d formed over the past week.
In the summer season, he could see the tall mountains surrounding the valley. But on this December morning, he saw only lights from nearby windows and the little gathering of people waiting outside his building.
Narrowing his eyes, he studied them. They didn’t hide their presence. On the contrary, several relaxed in camping chairs, chatting, lanterns at their feet. Now and then they’d glance up at his window, and one of them even waved to him.
“Vultures!” he muttered and yanked the curtains shut.
Seething, he pressed the small bird-shaped tattoo concealing the chip in his inner arm, activating Thelma. Instantly, the big screen stretched bright and colorful across his kitchen cabinets.
“Thelma,” he commanded, “one triple espresso!”
The coffee machine whirred into action, and the rich scent of freshly ground beans filled the air. Trym plopped down onto a kitchen chair.
“Open the inbox!”
If you went by the flood of messages he currently received, not even counting the advertising junk, Trym had become a celebrity. Most were inquiries from journalists or letters from people he’d never met but who still felt like expressing their views. “Delete, next, delete, next, delete, next,” he muttered.
Skimming through the news, he noticed that the Third Light Parade was the main topic, with lots of pictures and interviews with enthusiastic onlookers. Trym frowned. He’d never grasped the point of the whole December spectacle. The food was OK, but all those parades and costumes, not to mention the crowds—he just hated it.
Then, below all the merry news, the headlines he’d been looking for:
Still No Sign of Levi
Police Widen Search to All Basements
Governor Promises Levi Will Be Found Before Christmas
Fans Fear Levi Is Dead
The articles were accompanied by various pictures of Levi and, to Trym’s shock, pictures of himself. Swearing, he told Thelma to switch to phone mode. Thelma’s soft voice flowed into his ears: “Your voice mailbox is full. Your first message is from …”
Impatient, he listened to only a word or two of each notification before commanding, “Delete!” Only four messages caught his attention—one from his boss: “It’s chaos here, Trym. Stay away until this is sorted.” One from his co-worker Kaya Kunene, the zoo’s public relations and communications manager (and—more importantly—his ex): “Good news! The film company has moved up the documentary’s production. The crew is here working with me already, and they’ve hired a really esteemed director to attach to the project! We’ll be famous! Call me!” One from his mother: “Why haven’t you returned my calls? I’m your mother. It’s Christmas, and you haven’t even told me if you’ll make the family brunch!” And one, received just minutes earlier, from an Ernst Douglas: “I know what you did. We need to talk.”
He told Thelma to send noncommittal short replies to the first three and sat mulling over the last one. The man’s voice was so cold, so sure. Unnerved, Trym listened to the message a couple of times but still had no clue: Who was Ernst Douglas?
He jumped when the doorbell rang. Then, with a loud beep, words popped up on the kitchen cabinets, a text message from Ernst Douglas: Let me in. I’m at your door.
In the corridor stood a tall stranger, slightly hunched, with the low-set brim of his hat hiding most of his face. Trym’s eyes widened as he saw the rifle sticking up behind the man’s neck, the muzzle covered in worn leather. The man stared back at him, a steely glint in his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse:
“Where’s the lion?”
They say important things happen by coincidence. If the city hadn’t been so distracted by the Second Light Parade, Longyearbyen Zoo would have been packed with the usual crowd. If the zoo hadn’t been left on its own but for a couple of security guards with hangovers, someone would have noticed the vacant cages sooner. But as it was, no one had noticed the penguins were missing until a shop attendant stumbled across one in the freezer room at Nordlys Supermarket. Since the zookeepers were occupied with catching the squeaking birds, it went unnoticed that the lion Levi was missing until its keeper arrived with the cat’s usual nighttime snack—raw factory lamb. By the time the alarm finally sounded and the zoo’s manager called the governor, the animal had gained a head start of several hours.
You might find it strange that a missing creature could create such a fuss in such a big city. But then you haven’t comprehended the significance of either the zoo or the lion. The zoo animals, despite all having been created in laboratories—though not in the factories, mind you—were great entertainment. The zoo itself was an important social gathering spot on weekends. It had shops and cafeterias, even a roller coaster. The animals were the main attraction, of course, weird as they were with their fur and claws and many limbs. But the animals also tugged at the humans’ souls, reminding them about the lost world, about things they knew only from pictures in ancient books.
The animals tugged at the humans’ souls, reminding them about the lost world, about things they knew only from pictures in ancient books.
And then there was Levi.
The zoo owned two male lions. That there were two was, in itself, sensational. The zoo’s manager had never heard of any other zoo that possessed more than one.
And of the two, the older lion was one of a kind.
No one knew for certain where this lion had come from, except that it’d stayed for a short time in the Copenhagen Zoo and St. Petersburg Zoo. The mystery surrounding the big cat had resulted in countless myths about its origin. Though critics claimed that the tales were fabricated by Longyearbyen Zoo, many believed the lion was the real thing—born in the wild, some even asserted. Levi had a dedicated website and fan club, managed by Kaya, and people traveled to Longyearbyen solely to see it. The lion meant big business and money.
But for the people who visited every weekend, Levi’s existence meant that the world had not completely fallen apart, that there was life where they’d thought there was only death.
Levi meant hope.
Svalbard had become a popular center in the Arctic Ocean after the Great Ice vanished. Then, as the world became increasingly uninhabitable, people sought out the Arctic for more than holidays and business. Fleeing the deadly sunlight in the south and the wars that had broken out in the wake of the fatal climate change, the swarms of refugees had steadily grown over the past century. This posed a challenge for Longyearbyen, which in its very earliest days had housed only a few thousand hardy people. Now, centuries later, it wrestled with the limits of how fast a city could expand. Temporary barracks housed the new arrivals outside the city while the governing council debated what to do with them.
In December, it was difficult to tell when a day started and ended, but Kaya figured it was midday. Although Arctic winters were still dark, they were not as they’d been in ancient times, when snow had covered everything. The ground still froze hard once the sun left for the winter months, but much of the surface ice thawed in the daytime. In Refugee Town, though, ice glazed the narrow alleys all day. And now it glittered in the white beam of the police spotlight.
Kaya stood huddled outside the barricade tape, watching the officers work. The cold breeze ruffled her curls. Her toes felt numb inside her boots. She wiggled them, trying to get the blood flowing, and glanced at the small group of refugees waiting in silence behind her. Frightened, she thought. As newcomers, they hadn’t yet acquired the affection the locals had for the lion. To Kaya, they seemed as fragile as the windowless buildings surrounding them. The governor had proclaimed that the temporary shacks were built of sturdy material, but Kaya suspected that any powerful gust of wind could easily blow them over.
Unaffected by the police officers’ scowls, she leaned over the tape to scrutinize the package on the ground. She couldn’t see its contents clearly from where she stood, but she knew it was factory meat. Despite the frost, there was no mistaking the smell. She wrinkled her nose.
“Officer, is it factory lamb?” she called to the uniformed man standing a few meters away.
Not really wanting to answer but hesitating because she had such a lovely smile, he muttered, “We don’t know yet. Got to take it to the lab.”
“It looks like it’s wrapped. That indicates someone put it there, right?”
“What do you think? Was it meant for the lion?”
He shrugged and made a gesture that could be interpreted as either yes or no.
“Do you think it’s poisoned?”
An officer, his face wrinkled, stalked up, his broad shoulders stiff.
“We’ll send out a press release later, Miss Kunene,” he said gruffly, then turned his back to her. His colleague quickly followed suit.
Amused, Kaya studied their backs briefly, then sighed, realizing she wouldn’t gain anything further of interest in the refugee settlement. Before having to settle for the zoo gig, she had wanted to become a real journalist, an investigative one even, or a leading spokeswoman for an important cause, and she found it energizing to question the authorities. She made her way out and over to her parked sail rover. It stood out with its pink sail, but its somewhat decadent look portrayed exactly the image Kaya wanted. Fondly, she patted the vehicle and climbed onto the sturdy seat.
She didn’t put up the sail right away, just sat gazing at the bustling scene. Since cars were so expensive, Longyearbyen’s streets were full of rovers whooshing past its many bicycles. The city had so many rovers that competition to train as a sailmaker’s apprentice was fierce. Tram systems crisscrossed the archipelago, with major stations at the university, airport, and Platåberget space station. Yet many inhabitants preferred the sail rovers, even though they couldn’t rely on a constant wind flowing between the skyscrapers. Still, at this time of year, the days were more often windy than not.
Kaya thought hard. It could be that someone wished to poison the lion, of course, but she had another hunch: The meat in Refugee Town had been put there by an abettor, someone who wanted to feed Levi, someone who had probably placed similar packages all over the city. Someone who cared about Levi …
Frowning, she activated her Thelma. The screen flashed over her hand. Trym had replied to her call with a short text: Fabulous news! I’ll call you later. She mulled it over. Kaya knew Trym well enough to be alarmed by his contrived cheerfulness. They had worked together for several years, and their workplace alliance had escalated into a short-lived romance, followed by an unfortunate de-escalation back to a flirtatious workplace alliance. That was the way with Trym, a frustrating pattern of two steps forward, one step back, that even his mother complained about. The more Kaya cared for him and confided in him, the more he seemed torn between reciprocating and placing distance between them. Distance had been winning out in recent weeks, and forced cheerfulness was Trym’s preferred means of staying detached. She knew that something wasn’t right.
She couldn’t have come this far without trusting her gut.
Never ashamed, Kaya didn’t hide her ambitions. She simply knew she was destined to be something greater than a lion’s publicist. The prospect of a major documentary film about Levi offered an unexpected opportunity after what had seemed like an unfortunate detour in her career. It had taken some persistence to persuade the film company, but Kaya had succeeded—just before Levi’s flight became global news. Kaya couldn’t deny she relished the limelight the film would now provide, and she had tried hard to convince Trym that this attention could prove advantageous to him and his cause as well. But being in the spotlight was definitely not Trym’s thing—even if the zoo manager had enthusiastically endorsed the idea—and the present holiday cooling in their relationship coincided with the greenlighting of the film project.
And the lion?
No one needed to know the truth, but indifference came close to describing her feelings for the animal. If she were honest and not being paid to flack for the feline, she would call it ugly, hairy, stinky, and very, very scary.
Maybe she was just jealous of old Levi?
Trym appeared to prefer the lion over the company of humans. He cared for Levi for Levi’s sake. For Kaya, the lion’s significance lay in advancing other things: her career and her connection to Trym, which she was eager to preserve and deepen. But too often, the lion they had in common seemed to deepen the chasm between them.
Trym wasn’t the only one obsessed with the lion. Levi had hordes of dedicated fans. They volunteered for the many search groups. The children drew pictures of the lion and hung their art on the zoo walls. Priests gave intercessions for the big cat’s survival. More and more fans gathered outside the zoo, waving homemade posters proclaiming what Levi meant to them and how much they wished the lion would come home.
Too often, the lion they had in common seemed to deepen the chasm between them.
Even the other lion seemed upset at Levi’s absence. The zoo manager had told Kaya the younger cat had started to pad restlessly back and forth in the lions’ enclosure, panting and growling.
Fascinated, she observed the mass hysteria surrounding Levi’s disappearance. You’d be a fool not to capitalize on it.
Kaya Kunene was not a fool.
As someone with unrestricted access to the zoo, and one of the last people to see Levi in captivity, the police had questioned her, of course. She didn’t mind; she’d used the opportunity to look around the police station and chat with the officers. It was a coincidence, she had told them—a stroke of luck, you might say. She’d been in the zoo that night talking with Trym about the documentary film, trailing after him when he’d gone to feed Levi, so she was with him when he found the lion’s cage empty.
Her mind kept coming back to him. Creasing her forehead, she examined his message again. He’d seemed upset and sad at the police station, but she’d spotted an amused gleam in his eyes too, as if he were secretly pleased by it all.
The media folks surrounded his apartment building and followed him everywhere. But Kaya believed they watched him closely only in the daytime. Anyhow, day or night, she suspected he could easily escape his stalkers. Like Kaya, he was a local and knew his way around the city.
Did he know where the lion was? Would he try to capture it? She inhaled sharply.
“Thelma, call up the cameraman!” In seconds, his voice spoke into her ear. Not bothering with niceties, she said, “I have an idea.”
While talking rapidly, she raised the pink sail and steered out onto the busy street.
In Longyearbyen, a lion roared in the darkness, the sound so powerful it shook many humans out of their sleep and out of their beds, frightened by the wild presence in their streets.
The lion roared, raging against the foreign night smells, so different from those of the zoo. Then it whimpered and became quiet.
The night, a peaceful balm, was Ernst Douglas’ favorite time to be in a city. The quiet hours, when even the most stubborn nightclubbers have headed home and before the city has woken up. He found Longyearbyen nights particularly pleasing, since most of the lights were turned off so early.
The battered sign outside the old airport hung at an odd angle on its tilted pole, but the image on the rusty surface was still visible: a red triangle with a polar bear in the middle. Shaking his head a little, Ernst marveled at the thought of the giant white bears waddling freely about, a deadly threat to any unfortunate humans crossing their paths. He’d seen photographs, of course. Breathtaking fierce beasts that feared nothing.
Oh, how I wish I were there.
Often, Ernst felt sure destiny was playing games with him—there had been a mistake; he was meant to live in another time, back when the world was filled with wild animals. These days, a hunter had to be content with tracking down the rare stray animal, usually an escapee from the laboratories. There was more money in manhunts, assignments received through the dark web.
He contemplated his conversation with Trym. The police reports had said nothing Ernst hadn’t already guessed. Nevertheless, the meeting with Trym had been revealing. It always paid to be a little bit aggressive with people. Not that the younger man had admitted anything to do with the escape of either the lion or the penguins, but Ernst had a gut feeling the zookeeper had played a significant role in both incidents.
Ernst Douglas always hunted on instinct.
So now he was keeping watch over the zookeeper. Not hanging around outside his apartment like those media lunatics, of course, but tracking Trym, certain the young man would lead him to the lion one way or another.
He felt he understood Trym now.
Whenever he was out on surveillance or a hunt, Ernst took pride in getting to know the individuals he stalked. The so-called superiority of humans made him laugh. In his eyes, most humans were like animals: easy to read, their movements so very easy to predict.
But even so, he always felt a deep respect for the object of his pursuit. To really get close to someone or something—to get under their skin, to understand their fears and pleasures, their desires and wants—you had to accept that it went both ways; you had to become involved in the relationship, use the necessary time to build a close connection.
The hunt was a commitment.
A hunt was also the truest form of relationship Ernst knew: the forming of the bond between hunter and hunted. The kill was, in the end, merely a necessary trifle. Ernst was not one of those hunters who needed to decorate their walls with the heads of their dead prey. What Ernst hungered for was the prey’s growing acknowledgment that he, the hunter, was the one who would end its existence. This was what Ernst craved, this final acceptance. Ernst didn’t view himself as a religious man, but he saw this acceptance almost as a sacrament.
A hunt was also the truest form of relationship Ernst knew: the forming of the bond between hunter and hunted.
Hunting a predator was the supreme challenge: It forced the predator to admit that it too was hunted. A true survival of the fittest, he thought.
And the lion …
The lion would be his ultimate test. Not an animal fabricated and genetically modified by humans but a beast of pure instinct. Of course, confinement in various zoos for so long might have muted the lion’s wild nature. Ernst realized that. But he hoped—oh, he longed—for its free spirit to still be there, hidden beneath that thick fur: a true predator.
He’d sensed its presence all the time he’d been in Longyearbyen, its pungent smell carried in the wind.
And that roar the other night. Goose bumps rose on his arms just thinking about it.
Grinning, he saluted the bear on the sign, then strode to the runway, his boots crunching on the ice. The runway, unused for centuries, was barely visible under the mosses and stubby arctic grasses growing there undisturbed. Perhaps it was nostalgia for the old days, maybe cultural heritage preservation issues, but this spot was curiously one of the few in the city that had been left to its own devices. With the housing crisis the city was enduring, he guessed it was only a matter of time before massive building machines interrupted the peace of this place.
He pushed the rusty gate wide open, its metal hinges squealing, and set his package down behind a dumpster, tearing open a corner to bare the contents.
Ernst had calculated that it would be hard for Levi to find food, habituated as it was to humans feeding it on a regular schedule. It could seek out restaurants and grocery stores. However, few places threw away food these days. Ernst suspected that Trym had planned to feed Levi somehow, but that would be difficult with the media watching him.
The lion would be hungry. Awfully hungry.
Ernst had been leaving these packages around Longyearbyen for several nights, in places where he knew the lion would be able to find them—not downtown, but at the fringes of the city. Refugee Town had been a blunder. The lion would want to stay away from people.
The factory meat from Ernst would curb the worst of its hunger. And because the meat packages would smell like Ernst, the animal would associate the food with him and hopefully track him down outside Longyearbyen.
There, it would meet its end.
Levi lifted its broad nose up in the air, sniffing. Following exciting scents that were both familiar and not, the lion headed out of the city. It didn’t move quickly; its limbs were stiff with age and the chill of the night, yet it trod smoothly, silently, its heels never touching the ground, the large footpads cushioning the sound of its footfalls.
Perfect. Satisfied, Ernst surveyed the entrance of the cave and the view outside. He’d placed the last package of factory lamb below the opening. When the lion found the package, Ernst would have good aim from just inside the cave. The valley was deserted except for the space shuttle launch site in the middle. The station was only a black silhouette, but the towers were clearly visible against the night sky. He guessed the station was abandoned, since no tram tracks led to it. Not many could afford to travel to the space colonies anymore, and the few who did would leave not from here, he reasoned, but from the newer station at Platåberget. Anyhow, most people would be at the Christmas Parade tonight, so he’d have the place to himself. Perfect.
“Sure took you long enough.”
Ernst swung around, raising his flashlight high to illuminate the inner cave. “Who’s there?”
Astonished, he stared at Trym, who was walking toward him. Ernst burst into laughter.
“Wow,” he said after a while, catching his breath, still chuckling. “Not many have surprised me. But you …” He reached over his shoulder to loosen the rifle from his back. Shaking his head, he narrowed his eyes. “How did you know I’d be here?”
“It wasn’t that difficult when I got why you were in Svalbard.”
“Oh, yes! You’re a hunter. Of course Levi would be a temptation. It wasn’t a smart move to seek me out first thing, though. I’d never heard of you before and would have proceeded in blissful ignorance, but your visit made me curious. I did some research to find out who you are. You’re not a very popular guy, are you?”
Ernst listened, his mouth set in a hard line. He held the rifle loosely by its strap.
“I followed you, of course,” Trym continued.
“You followed me?”
“Yes. Not that difficult, actually. I’m also aware you’ve been trying to keep an eye on me. You probably didn’t think I’d notice, but that hat of yours is easy to spot. Did you think I would lead you to him in case you didn’t succeed with the meat? I gave Levi food the first week, you know, made sure he had warm places to rest during the day. But when you arrived and started feeding him too, I had to change my plan.” Trym shrugged. “It was easy to guess you planned to kill him somewhere deserted, someplace where you could lie in wait. I guessed a cave, since we don’t have many mines anymore. This cave is close to the city, so I took a chance and waited for you here. And it fits nicely with my original plan for Levi.”
“Why didn’t I see your sail rover?”
“There’s another entrance that only locals know about. I hiked here often as a kid.”
Ernst was silent. He noted that Trym, unlike everyone else, referred to the lion as he. He pondered this, along with everything Trym had just told him. He was pleased to have been surprised. There’s a lesson here somewhere, he thought, his lips curling up at the corners. With his other arm, he felt around in his pocket and pulled out a cartridge. He’d underestimated Trym for sure.
He noted that Trym, unlike everyone else, referred to the lion as he.
A shuffling sound made him go utterly still. Wordlessly, he watched the lion emerge from the depths of the cave and pad around Trym. It stopped in front of the younger man, keeping its golden eyes fixed calmly on Ernst. Bulging muscles trembled under its thick fur. Its tail whipped from side to side. Levi appeared to be protecting Trym.
It’s enormous! Despite all his preparations, all his expectations, Ernst felt awe. Its head alone was almost three times the size of a human’s.
He sensed greatness in this animal, something old and majestic. Underneath that matted mane, something powerful and wild lurked. He could easily picture it lying in the shade of heavy baobab branches on the African savanna, just like in the images he’d seen in ancient books.
He smiled broadly. “Thanks, Trym. I’ve not had this much fun in a long time. But now I must ask you to leave. You see, there’s a bond between the lion and me. I needed to hunt it; I need to kill it.” He sounded almost apologetic.
The lion cocked its ears and growled as if understanding what he’d said. The hair on Ernst’s arms bristled. He raised his rifle and aimed it at the animal. The lion was a little too close for his liking, but Ernst always followed his instincts—and they told him this was the way it must be.
Trym stepped in front of the lion.
“Get out of the way. I don’t want to hurt you,” Ernst snarled.
“All right.” Ernst pointed the muzzle at Trym. “If you insist.”
Levi roared, the deep sound reverberating through the cave. Its dagger-like fangs glinted in the dim light. Distracted, Ernst fumbled with the trigger. With the lion’s roar still ringing in his ears, he never heard the thud of paws hitting the stone floor, approaching rapidly.
Along Longyearbyen’s main avenue, the Christmas Parade moved downward toward the docks. The floats inched past the crowds cheering from the sidelines and from the thousands of windows. Out on the fjord, brightly lit ships of all sizes glided by. Even the colossal wind turbines far outside in the Advent Fjord were festooned with lights.
Longyearbyen Zoo’s float displayed a gigantic lion covered with blinking lights, a Santa hat, and a banner displaying the words Come Home, Levi! The zoo manager stood at the front, waving to the crowds, which went wild with chants of “Levi! Levi!”
Trym hoisted Ernst up by his armpits and sat him with his back against the mountain wall, then picked up the rifle and sat down on the other side of the cave opening, facing the hunter. He anchored his flashlight in a rocky crevice behind him, the light beaming toward the ceiling, bathing them in a faint white glow.
Ernst held his hands over his stomach. Trym squinted, unable to see much in the meager light, but the bloodstain on Ernst’s torn shirt appeared to be growing. The lion had not bitten the hunter but had swiped his powerful paw across his chest and stomach, and Trym guessed the extremely sharp, strong claws had dug deep into the man’s flesh.
Levi sniffed at the wounds. Then it huffed, came over to Trym, and laid its large body down next to him with a thump and a heavy sigh. Trym reached up and scratched behind Levi’s rounded ears. The animal leaned toward him, rumbling deeply, and bumped its head against Trym, almost knocking him over.
Trym’s gaze flicked back to the hunter.
“You weren’t supposed to be here,” he said, spitting the words out in anger. “This …” he tapped the rifle. “This is not right. It’s not fair.”
Disgusted, he pushed the weapon away, the metal grinding against the rock floor. Levi looked at him, eyes glimmering yellow, then lowered its head to rest on its forepaws.
Outside, northern lights swept the sky. Trym admired the display for a moment before eyeing the hunter again.
“I have planned this for too long for you to destroy it. You see, Levi is old. No one has ever heard of such an elderly animal before.”
Ernst’s eyes were closed, his face twisted in pain, but Trym knew he was listening.
“Levi is unique,” he continued. “I feel closer to him than to anyone else. We have a bond you could never understand.”
Ernst opened his eyes and squinted at Trym. “You’re wrong.” Grimacing, he shut his eyes again and grunted: “I understand better than you think.”
“You thought he followed you. But he was following my scent. He trusts me. I’ve been his keeper since he came to Longyearbyen. I know him.”
Shivering, Trym leaned closer to Levi, seeking the lion’s warmth. It didn’t open its eyes, but Trym felt it press tighter to his side. He should make a fire, he thought. There were firestones in his backpack. But he didn’t want to leave the lion alone with the hunter.
“He’s dying. The past few months, he’s been stiffer and stiffer, though I massage him every day. I’ve known for a while that he’ll die soon. He’ll die tonight. My gut tells me so.”
His eyes glistened with tears as he gazed at the northern lights dancing green across the sky.
“I decided to free him when the boss told me they’d started searching for a female. They hoped for cubs,” Trym said. “They weren’t sure it would work with a lab female but wanted to try while Levi is still alive. His offspring would bring lots of money. They all wanted to use him. Money, fame, careers. It’s disgusting!”
The hunter sat motionless, head bowed.
“Now he will die in peace,” Trym said. “No cameras filming, no people fussing and gawking all the time, commercializing his misery.” He thought of Kaya with regret, wiped his tears away, and smiled wistfully. “Now he will die as a free animal.”
“Now he will die as a free animal.”
Far away, behind the mountains, the Christmas Parade fireworks burst into myriad colorful stars and other shapes.
“Did you know that the people of the North used to celebrate the turn of the sun, the return of the light and the warmer seasons?” Trym said. “Christmas should be a new version of that, a pure celebration, but instead …”
His voice trailed off, as he realized there was no longer anyone there to answer.
“They have to be here,” Kaya whispered. She pulled a red cap down over her curls, flicked on her flashlight, and began to walk up the slope, treading carefully. She’d been trying to locate Trym’s whereabouts for several days before thinking of the cave, where he’d taken her for a hike on one of their first dates.
The cameraman unpacked his equipment from his sail rover, yawned, and followed Kaya. They had started out quite early. He’d stayed up too late after the Christmas Parade, but Kaya had been so sure on the phone, so convincing—“We must reach them before they leave!”—so he’d said yes. He regretted it now. Even if Levi was quite possibly born in the wild, probably the last real lion the world would ever see, the thought of encountering a large lion in a cave was terrifying, to say the least.
The camera was heavy, the frosty ground slippery. The land was nothing except sand and rocks with a few tufts of grass here and there. At the top, he spotted Kaya standing motionless. Then he saw it, too. Out of habit, he lifted the camera onto his shoulder, but Kaya pushed it down.
She shook her head, staring at him intently, her eyes filled with tears. “You can’t film this.”
He gave her a long look, then slowly set the camera down.
The gap in the mountainside was right in front of them. Three figures were visible in the dimness of the opening, as if on a stage. On one side, Trym sat with his back against the wall, sleeping. The lion lay halfway over him, its great head covering his lap and legs.
The golden eyes staring toward them were empty, just like the eyes of the unknown man who lay so still on the other side of the opening, one arm outstretched toward Trym and the lion, as if he’d been trying to reach them.
Trym stirred, blinked, and watched them for a while, unseeing. Then, as if becoming aware of their presence, he shoved at the lion, trying to get up. The cameraman quickly walked over to help him. Finally, Trym was able to stand. He gazed at the big cat, then crouched down and stroked its face.
The cameraman leaned over the hunter, shaking him a little.
“It’s no use,” Trym said. He sauntered over to Kaya.
“Why are you crying?” he murmured.
“It’s so sad.”
Baffled, he studied her. “I didn’t think you liked the lion?”
“What … ?”
“I know you, Kaya.” He gently wiped away the tears on her cheeks. “You didn’t care a fiddle about Levi, did you? Yet here you are, crying.”
“Yes,” she whispered. She sounded surprised.
They stood in silence for a long moment. Trym’s face was pale, but Kaya thought he seemed oddly peaceful.
“C’mon, let’s get going,” he told her, putting his arm around her. “We have a Christmas brunch to go to.”
In Longyearbyen Zoo, a lion roared.
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