Science Fiction

Project Hannibal

By

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Synopsis

How do you hide a herd of mammoths?
Climate change threatens to melt the Arctic permafrost layer and unleash a devastating cascade of greenhouse gases. As a vital step in maintaining a livable Earth, a brilliant geneticist has resurrected genetically engineered mammoths. But when the government bows to political pressure to terminate Project Hannibal, animal trainer Luis Cortez goes to extraordinary lengths to spirit his hand-raised mammoth herd to freedom in the wild.
Estelle Dupris is a flying doctor visiting patients in an isolated Native Alaskan village. With her is her teenaged niece, grieving after her mother’s suicide.
In Alaska's harsh and beautiful landscape, Luis and Estelle’s worlds collide. Enriched by a diverse cast—a Black doctor transplanted from New Orleans, a gay Latinx animal trainer, a Native Alaskan state trooper—Project Hannibal is a story of overcoming adversity while recovering hope and faith after terrible personal loss.
"Kathryn Hoff doesn't just write a character, she brings a genuine person to life, full of complexities, doubts and flaws." Douglas Phillips, author of the Quantum science fiction series.

Project Hannibal

In an observation blind perched fifteen feet above a flower-filled meadow, Dr. Henri Anjou fidgeted, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. It was the beginning of June and, by Alaskan standards, a beautiful spring day. The hardy grasses had already grown knee-high in the short, intense Arctic growing season.

At the edge of the meadow where the aspen and spruce cast long shadows, a heavy fur-draped body rustled among the drooping branches. A leg as thick as a tree trunk stepped forward. A broad foot flattened the grass.

The cool air stirred with a deep rumbling growl. A low grunt answered.

With a snap, a limb was torn from a tree. It disappeared into a hungry maw.

Magnificent, Anjou thought. Major Butterick couldn’t fail to be impressed by Project Hannibal’s—his—creations.

The portly major puffed up the ladder to the platform, his corporal pausing to lend a gentlemanly hand to Anjou’s research partner, Ginger Kim.

“We’ll tour the laboratory later,” Anjou said, “but this is what you’ve come to see.”

When they’d all crowded into the ten-foot-square blind, the corporal peered around with an appreciative grin. “This is lots better than my uncle’s deer-hunting stand.” He raised his arms as if sighting down a rifle barrel and mimed the recoil of a shot. In the tight quarters, his elbow nearly hit Ginger’s face.

Barbarian. Anjou nudged the major toward the horizontal window slots. “There, Major Butterick. After twelve years of intensive research, applied science, and painstaking husbandry, Project Hannibal has brought back mammoths, alive and well, resurrected from extinction.”

Butterick removed his mirrored sunglasses and squinted toward the meadow. “Where?”

Anjou snapped his mouth shut. They were mammoths, for God’s sake. How could he miss them?

Ginger patted the major’s arm with a motherly smile. “They’re hard to spot against the forest, aren’t they? Just where the trees begin, see where the branches are moving? The herd is there, feeding on the new growth.” In her white lab coat she resembled a dumpy iceberg.

The mammoths’ long red-brown fur blended into the dappled shadows. They were quiet except for the crunching of spruce boughs between molars as big as bricks and rumbling calls pitched almost too low for humans to hear.

“Right,” the major said. “Got ’em.”

Anjou sent Ginger a relieved smile. The Combat Capabilities Development Command was the US Army’s research arm, created to develop scientific breakthroughs for military use. Project Hannibal’s DevCom grant was up for renewal—it was crucial to get this pea-brained staffer on their side.

Drawing himself to his full, lanky height, Anjou began the speech that always impressed visiting dignitaries. “What you see here is a modern miracle, created to avert a man-made disaster. Global warming is the biggest threat humankind has faced since the last ice age. Each one of these animals has been painstakingly genetically engineered from Asian elephant stock and reconstructed woolly mammoth DNA to fill a vital environmental role. This small herd is of incalculable value to the future of our planet.”

The mammoths’ heritage was clear: long thick limbs, the rear legs jointed forward like human knees rather than back like a horse’s hock. Backs that sloped upward from hips to shoulders and huge heads that rose higher still. Fur as long and shaggy as a musk ox’s. Long trunks that reached into the spruce to rip off twigs. And tusks of gleaming ivory, only a foot or two long in this young herd but already formidable, scimitar-curved weapons.

Butterick gazed at the animals with a puzzled frown. “But I thought mammoths were supposed to be huge. Those don’t look any bigger than my pickup. Hell, Henry, I’ve seen buffalo as big as that.”

Anjou bridled at the mispronunciation—he’d already corrected the major twice. Henri. On-ree. Was that so hard to remember?

Ginger stepped up, as earnest as if she were still a grad student straight off the plane from Seoul. “Our mammoths’ reduced size is absolutely essential for faster deployment. That was one of Dr. Anjou’s most important innovations.”

“Large size creates large problems,” Anjou explained. “Look at elephants: an elephant cow doesn’t begin to reproduce until she’s fifteen years old, and then she has only one calf every four years. Our environmental problems can’t wait that long. By careful selection of the gene mix, we’ve sped up the process. Each of our females will be able to produce a calf every two years beginning at age five. Our big male may be only six thousand pounds—half the weight of a bull elephant—but our mammoths have a significant reproductive advantage.”

The corporal looked up with a knitted brow. “Three tons, huh? Suppose they, you know, run out of control?”

Anjou’s teeth clenched with the effort to remain patient. “They’re supposed to be out of control. They’re wild. Undomesticated. That’s why we’re going to deploy them only in uninhabited areas—to help make sure our precious wild frontier stays wild.” Protecting the frontier usually got enthusiastic support from Alaskans, even if what they really meant was protecting my land from other people.

Butterick folded his arms. “Hannibal was the greatest military tactician of the ancient world. From a project named after him, I expected something a little more…impressive.”

Anjou smiled—he’d deliberately picked the name of a military genius for a project funded by the US Army. “When Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps and invade Roman territory, he leveraged the capabilities of the natural world to fight a superior power. That’s what we’re doing. By using mammoths, we’re harnessing the natural world to combat climate change.”

A young tree came crashing down under the foot of one of the mammoths. A smaller animal moved in to steal some of the tender twigs, only to be roughly shoved away by the tree wrecker. The mammoths bandied squeals like the off-key squawks of novice trumpet players until they settled into some sort of order and again ate together peacefully.

The major frowned. “They destroy trees. How can that be good for the environment?”

Anjou exchanged a puzzled glance with Ginger. Every other VIP the army had sent to visit the project had at least read the briefing materials.

“Trees are beneficial, of course,” Anjou answered, “but only in the right place. We need to protect the permafrost areas, where no trees should be. The greatest danger to maintaining a livable temperature on this planet is the thawing of the permafrost. Right now, there is far more carbon locked into the permafrost layer than exists in all of Earth’s atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws—if even a small percentage of the permafrost thaws—then greenhouse gases will be released in amounts that will dwarf all our puny efforts to control emissions. Worse, it will have a cascade effect: as the thawing soil releases methane, the greenhouse effect will warm temperatures even further. It’s vitally important to the future of the planet that the tundra remain frozen.”

“And your so-called mammoths are going to help?” Butterick asked.

Keep it simple. “Trees trap heat. Mammoths eat trees. The mammoths will inhabit the margins where the tundra meets the forest. Herds of mammoths will compact the ground at the fringe of the permafrost area, right where thawing might occur. They’ll feed on the trees that otherwise might encroach on the tundra and contribute to thawing. They are the ideal way, the natural way, to ensure the ground underlying the tundra remains frozen.”

“Humph. I don’t see much military application.”

Anjou was beginning to feel desperate. Was the man being deliberately obtuse? “Climate change is a threat to national security,” he said. “What with droughts and rising seas, we’re already seeing population movement on a scale that threatens global stability. Isn’t preventing the underlying cause of population displacement better than trying to hold it back with armies?”

“The Russians are pursuing the same kind of research,” Ginger offered. “After all, they have even more permafrost to protect than North America.”

Clever. There was nothing like a little Russian competition to spur the US military. “But while the Russians are still trying to figure out the genetics,” Anjou added, “Project Hannibal has succeeded. We have live, functioning mammoths ready to deploy.”

Butterick rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “What about the enviros? Won’t they object to introducing an invasive species?”

Ginger smiled like a fluffy cat. “They’re not invasive—mammoths were part of the natural environment in Alaska until humans wiped them out. We’re simply restoring a native species, like putting wolves back into Yellowstone.”

“Yeah, well, not everybody was happy about that, either.”

The major put his sunglasses on and turned back toward the laboratory buildings and the pad where his helicopter waited. “You know, the administration has a lot of other pressures to think about. Like the homestead movement. As the weather’s pushing more people out of the lower forty-eight, they’re showing up in Alaska looking for land to settle. And with the temperatures moderating, maybe a warmer arctic region could be good for some people, you know? With twenty-four-hour sun in the summer…Have you seen the size of the cabbages they grow down at U of A?”

“That’s just what we don’t want.” Anjou pushed his hands forward as if holding back an unruly crowd. “Plowing land for crops would just accelerate the release of greenhouse gases. Protect the permafrost, that’s the important thing. Future generations are depending on us.”

Butterick chuckled. “Future generations depending on a bunch of mini-mammoths? That’s going to be a hard sell in Washington. Before I go, I’d like to go down and see them up close.”

Anjou bit his lip. “That wouldn’t be advisable, Major. Except for our livestock managers, the mammoths have had no human contact. We’ve deliberately maintained their wild nature—you wouldn’t want them getting used to people any more than you’d want a grizzly in your backyard.”

“But if you really want to see them better,” Ginger hastily added, “I’ll call Luis.”

She spoke into her radio. “Luis, bring one of them closer…Yes, I understand. Just do it.” She turned to the major with a simper. “Just give him a moment.”

A slight, dark man wearing jeans walked out of the trees.

“That’s Luis Cortez,” Anjou murmured. “Head mammoth wrangler.”

Wading through the grass to the middle of the meadow, Cortez paused, scowling, to look up at the blind. “These are wild animals, not pets. They don’t do tricks. I’ve trained them for certain behaviors to make it easier to care for them until they’re deployed, that’s all. For your own safety, keep your hands inside the blind and don’t make noise.”

Anjou’s jaw tightened. Arrogant bastard. I pay him. If I say they should do tricks for the funders, then Cortez should damn well show us some action.

Cortez turned to the shadowy figures lurking among the trees. “Ruby, hey-up!”

A slow, deep creaking like the groaning of a giant. A mammoth stepped into the sunlight, trunk lifted.

Butterick leaned into the window.

“That’s Ruby,” Ginger whispered. “Seven years old. She’s our herd matriarch.”

Ponderously, with head nodding at each step, Ruby approached Cortez.

Her fur straggled, catching on the grass as if a horse’s mane had grown over her whole body. Even her trunk was covered with dark fuzz. Long front legs supported humped shoulders. Massive, domed head; eyes fringed with long lashes. And curved tusks, already half a yard long. Ginger had counseled against the tusks—they could become a magnet for hunters—but Anjou had insisted. If I’m going to bring back mammoths, then by God, they’re going to have tusks.

The mammoth reached Cortez, sounding again that long, drawn-out groan. Delicately, she touched him with the tip of her trunk, like the pats of a sinuous hand, as he spoke to her in tones too soft for Anjou to hear. The mammoth’s shoulders were even with the top of Cortez’s head, the crown of her hairy head a foot above that.

“Mammoths,” Anjou said quietly. “With all the essential adaptations for arctic life. The fur has insulating properties that rival even the polar bear’s. Elephants’ ears are large, designed to dissipate body heat in a warm climate, but mammoth ears are small, the size of your hand, to avoid frostbite. Similarly, the tails are stubby and fur-covered, almost invisible. The fatty hump over the shoulders is for storing energy.”

The mammoth’s trunk raised, turning toward the observation blind like a periscope. Her big foot stamped.

Major Butterick grinned. “I think she heard you call her fat.” He cupped both hands around his mouth. “Bring her closer!”

Damn fool!

The mammoth’s head jerked back, her tusks flashing upward.

Eeeeaahhh! With a screaming cry, she backed up two steps, then turned and hustled back into the trees.

Anjou’s teeth ground. Cortez would be pissed.

But instead of the profanity-laced reproof that Anjou expected, Cortez remained in the middle of the meadow, looking not toward the stand of spruce where Ruby had faded from sight, but to his left.

Unmoving, Cortez said, “Stay…quiet.”

To the side, half hidden among the shadows, was another mammoth—a much bigger one. This one had tusks as long as Anjou’s arm gracefully curving upward.

Anjou took an involuntary step back. “Diamond,” he whispered. “Bull. Very aggressive.”

The bull snorted, flaring his little ears. He shook his head, slashing the air with his ivory sabers.

“Easy, Di,” Cortez crooned. “There’s no danger. Ruby was just startled, that’s all. Move out, big fella. Tcha.

Stamp, stamp. Trunk raised, the bull took two steps toward the blind.

Anjou tried to keep his heart from thumping too loudly. Diamond was his most magnificent creation, and his most frightening. A mammoth’s sense of smell was better than a bloodhound’s and Cortez had warned that mammoths were especially sensitive to hormones. In Diamond’s case, even a human male’s pathetic dose of testosterone was enough to spur the competitive impulse to drive away a rival.

And there was Anjou, trapped with two other men in a sardine-can of a blind. Even he could smell the masculine sweat.

Diamond came closer, treading the meadow flowers into the mud.

Ginger crouched in a corner, hand over her mouth, making herself small. The corporal, eyes wide and face pale, held position strategically near the ladder.

The pudgy major stuck at the window, hands gripping the ledge, breathing heavily, a foolish grin on his face.

Anjou made a quick calculation. The blind’s platform was fifteen feet off the ground, the top of Diamond’s head about eight feet. Even with a seven-foot length of trunk, they should be safe.

Diamond was right under the window now. The breeze carried in a reeking miasma of wet fur, barnyard dung, and urine.

At a drainage port at the bottom of the wall, a furred snout appeared. Snorted.

Somewhere below the platform, Cortez was spouting nonsense. “Easy, Di. Come on, boy. Move out, now. It’s just a couple of tourists, nothing to worry about…”

The observation blind swayed, creaking alarmingly.

The snout appeared higher, poking into the major’s window, nostrils snuffling.

Butterick slowly and quietly backed away.

Right. Fifteen feet was nothing. Mammoths were smart and agile enough to brace themselves against a tree trunk to get to the highest shoots.

“That’s enough, Di!” Cortez said sharply. “Get down, you big baboon. Tcha! Move out. Tcha!

Whatever the magic words were, the snout disappeared. Another creak, and the blind settled back into its normal position. In no hurry, the mammoth strolled back into the trees.

Ginger glared at the major. “Was that close enough for you?”


On the tour of the laboratory facility, Anjou pointed out the precision equipment the taxpayers had funded: computers, DNA sequencers, a cryogenic electron microscope, and the massive incubation tanks. The corporal asked idiotic questions; the major kept quiet, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.

When Butterick’s helicopter finally lifted off to return to Fairbanks, Anjou turned angrily to Ginger. “What was that about? Everyone else we’ve dealt with at DevCom at least understands the science. He didn’t ask a single question about the genetic modifications.”

Ginger gazed thoughtfully after the helicopter. “I don’t think Butterick flew here to evaluate the project—he was sent to find ammunition to kill it. He’s going to write a report saying we’ve used millions of taxpayer dollars on an ultra-secret project to breed the mammoth equivalent of a Shetland pony. The army’s going to pull our funding.”

“But future generations…”

“Future generations don’t vote,” Ginger snapped. “Homesteaders do.”

Anjou blew out a breath. Ginger had warned him months ago that the homestead movement was gaining traction and that Project Hannibal might become a casualty to political expediency. Once again, she’d proved her information network was damnably efficient.

Ginger placed a comforting hand on his arm. “Don’t despair, Henri. I have a plan.”

About the author

Conservationist and teller of tales. I've dug in the dirt on archeological sites and overseen billion-dollar investments in developing countries. Now, I make up stories centered on the fundamental question: "What if...?" Author of Bloodstone, Ghost Ship, Fugitive, Eclipsed, and Project Hannibal. view profile

Published on March 01, 2021

70000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Science Fiction