It was known as The Art of the Hunt. It spanned most of the four systems and had been going, in some form or another, ever since the discovery of the dozen or so species which lived in the coldness of space.
Each of these species was worth a certain amount of points based on rarity, method of capture and condition of the specimen. The creature worth the most was a living Sundrop, caught without touching it. In the entire history of The Hunt five had been seen, and one had been caught, although it wasn't alive when presented to the judges.
In other words, there hadn't ever been a single living Sundrop caught.
The Sundrop was a small bird-like creature, three meters from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, with full wings and a long, sharp beak. It didn't have feathers, but from a distance, you couldn't tell. It was a bright yellow-orange and lived in a close orbit around a star of the same colour, which gave it its name.
There are a number of star-freighter class ships that lurk around inner planets and stars, waiting for one of the small creatures to appear. While this wasn't against the rules of the game, other hunters looked down on these people.
One of these other hunters is a small four-person crew, which, in between hunting, took odd-jobs carting both cargo and passengers around the four systems. The captain was a middle-aged man, who spoke when he needed to and stayed quiet the rest of the time, unless the subject turned to the Sundrop. On those occasions, it was very difficult to shut him up.
His crew were people who he had picked up over the years and who hadn't left. The pilot was a young woman who had only been on crew for a couple of years, having left her job to undertake The Hunt. Alongside her was a mechanic who had been around almost as long as the captain. He was fond of drinking and constantly argued with the captain’s stories about the Sundrop. Rounding out the current crew was the child of one of the captains siblings, onboard for a few years while his parents did a bit of hunting of their own.
Th e ship was currently on a wind down flight, empty of cargo and passengers and heading to a place where fly-by-night jobs were a dime a dozen. The four onboard had been happy enough to have a quiet flight after a long few months of hectic jobs and everyone except the captain was relaxing in the dining area.
“What’s the captain doing?” the pilot, who was called Carly, asked in between hands of cards.
“Who knows?” the mechanic – Tom – replied, refilling his flask. “He’s always doing five things at once.”
“As long as he keeps paying us,” the captain’s nephew, a surly young man named Gregor said shrugging.
“I just thought he would come and join us since we had a bit of downtime,” Carly said.
“Well, he said he wanted to get some hunting in before we made it back to central,” Tom said.
“He’s delusional if he thinks anything will be here,” Gregor scoffed. “This is a major shipping lane.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Carly said, standing.
“You're leaving?” Gregor asked, frowning.
“I wasn't going to let you win all my cash,” she winked at him and left.
The captain sat at his station, next to the pilots chair, and scrolled through a bunch of different articles on the status of The Hunt.
“What’s new, boss?” Carly asked from the door.
He waved her into her chair and flicked an article over to her screen. “I was just about to call you back. Apparently, there have been three hunter ships heading to an area between the second and third systems.”
“It’s a bit out of the way,” she replied, a little sceptically.
“I know. But there has to be a reason for the movement. There are lurkers pulling out of their salvage orbits and heading out. If we leave now, we’d get there ahead of them.”
“Whats the target?”
“No one’s saying,” he said with a smirk.
“You don't think … ?” she said, already flicking switches and re-orienting the ship. He didn't reply, but his look was enough to convince her. “Alright, gents,” she called over the radio, “we’re going after a Sundrop.”
It took almost three weeks for the ship to get out of the system and get close enough to the other hunt ships for communication. The captain had held off on radioing in their presence and let Carly listen to the ambient chatter from a distance.
They had limited fuel and they needed more credible information before they would dive in closer. Especially if there was no guarantee of a Sundrop.
While Carly listened intently for anything remotely useful, the captain took Tom to the cargo bay and between the two of them, they started to put together a complicated mechanism that had been buried at the very back of the bay.
“So this is it, then?” the mechanic asked.
“It looked like I would never get to use it again, but the speculation is too tempting to ignore.”
Once upon a time, the captain had been an apprentice aboard another ship and they had been big players in The Hunt. They had played at the start of a resurgence in the popularity of hunting and if you believed the captain, it was his ship that played a key role in getting it to where it was today.
The story the captain told was always different in its details, but the substance was generally the same: the resurgence started when a Sundrop flew alongside the ship and his captain let it go instead of risking harming it. Over the last few years, since that day, the man who would be captain had designed and built a device which he claimed was ideal for catching one of the elusive creatures unharmed.
A rogue star had been traveling between the systems for some time now and all the warnings had suggested the gathered ships leave the area as the gravitational effects of the star could damage the ships systems.
“Well?” Carly asked after the third day of being there.
“Just wait,” the captain said, watching the yellow dot.
As they watched, the yellow star unfurled and not only the largest Sundrop ever seen, but the largest single creature in The Hunt flapped its wings and shot towards one of the larger ships, which was already unfurling its capture device.
Meanwhile, the captain and Carly were smirking at each other and sending their ship in on an intercept course. It was show time.