The passing of Sudan, the last male white rhino in existence, was widely reported this week and not unexpected by conservationists. The one silver lining is that he died of old age and not at the hands of poachers -- a small comfort.
Sudan's passing reminded me of a science fiction story I wrote some time ago, and available in my collection "Big Ideas, Small Form." As a tribute to the hard working humans that protected Sudan (visible in the NYT video linked above), I've decided to reproduce the short piece here.
Mitchell panned the rifle across the landscape until the lion was in its crosshair, aglow with the green hue of night vision. He never tired of watching them sleep, their powerful chests rising and descending with each breath. Motion in the bottom right of his view made him pan down; one of the cubs was stretching, its paw stabbing the sky.
Enough sight seeing, he thought. Time to get to work.
Mitchell swung his gun left a few degrees and landed his sight perfectly on a small patch of trees and brush. Slowing his breath to steady his aim, Mitchell observed the patch of vegetation for any movement. It was the perfect cover for poachers, and the closest patch of dense foliage to the pride.
Mitchell's com beeped to life and Noah's voice was in his ear. “You have anything?”
“Nothing yet. I've got eyes on the closest patch of green opposite the pride.” The subcutaneous mic triggered with the slightest whisper. It was five year old commercial tech, as was almost everything they had. The poachers had military tech. When it came down to it that was the problem. Well, Mitchell and Noah's problem at least. The geopolitics was for somebody else to worry about.
“Did you hear about Jonas at the Beta Site?” Noah was a talker, which didn't suit Mitchell but he tolerated it in the name of workplace harmony.
“They caught a team of four trying to breach the shield wall last night. It was pure luck, too; they'd left for patrol fifteen minutes early and caught the bastards with their pants down. They had Mark IV stealth suits in their kit.”
Mitchell cursed under his breath but the mic picked it up. He quickly moved a finger to trigger the touchpad on the rifle's grip, switching his sight to infrared. “What is it?” asked Noah.
“You mention this now and not during the shift briefing? Mark IVs are invisible to night vision and infrared!”
Noah's curse erupted in Mitchell's ear but he remained focused on the patch of foliage; there was too much at stake to be distracted now. Mitchell silently cursed Noah for not mentioning the stealth suits earlier. He cursed the poachers and their seemingly limitless resources. He cursed the Mark IVs and the military scientists that made them. He cursed whoever sold the damned things to the poachers, and he cursed himself for not knowing about the incident at the Beta Site; as team lead he should have kept a closer eye on the daily updates.
None of that mattered now. Mark IVs were invisible to all conventional detection systems. They possessed all the visible light cloaking abilities of Mark IIIs with the addition of a radiative heat management system that masked the wearer's infrared signature. Detection of a Mark IV via night vision from over ten meters away was near impossible, but the heat masking wasn't perfect. If the shooter wasn't already in position then they still had a chance of seeing a slight heat blur if he moved too fast.
At least that's what Mitchell had read online.
He scanned the patch of green and the empty plain around it for any thermal blur. If he saw anything it would be fleeting but he knew he'd have to take the shot. Human life was cheap, worth a lot less than the cats in this pride. Black Market price for a whole lion was well over 500 million Yuan, enough to set up a whole band of poachers with the good life. Still, seemed a cheap price to bring a species to extinction.
The com beeped to life again. “Sector Four, this is Control, please respond.” Mitchell recognized Colonel Mandela's voice, though he sounded more exhausted than usual.
“Mitchell, Sector Four. Go ahead Colonel.”
There was a pause. “Be advised we picked up a departing exhaust flare outside the dome by Sector Two about twenty minutes ago. It was poachers. In and out without us seeing. They… they got one of the rhinos.”
Mitchell let his head fall from the scope and into his arm. There was no need to keep looking now. Poachers wouldn't launch two ops in one dome in one night, not if they sped off fast enough to register an exhaust flare on the sensor net.
“Which one?” Noah's voice quivered as he asked.
“I'm sorry guys, it was Bertha.”
So that's it then, thought Mitchell. The last female rhino in existence. He gazed across the plain at the lions; two females and four males, the entire species barely visible in the night. No matter how strong they made the security around the preservation dome it always failed to keep out the poison of humanity.
Mitchell switched off his com unit, it was unprofessional to cry on the job.