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                                                   The Huntress

 

London in the year 2948 was very much a city of lights. Every street in the city where people might have business during the dead of night, including the golden mile and the large shopping districts, was kept illuminated to the extent that it was often difficult to tell the difference between day and night. If that wasn’t enough, there were cameras everywhere, dozens of cameras per street, more cameras than they could possibly afford to hire people to monitor. All to protect the people of the city from the cat-like hunters who prowled the streets of the city and the South-East of the country and who had done so for nearly an entire millennium now.

The outskirts of the city were less bright. This was where the residential areas were, and the people who lived here had long ago complained of the bright light invading their bedrooms when they were trying to sleep. These streets were still lit, but not to the same extent as the main thoroughfares of the city. There were plenty of other security devices to protect individual homes from the Herbaht, and a self-inflicted curfew meant that most people were home from work long before it began to get seriously dark. If anything, the residential areas of the city had an even higher number of cameras scattered about the streets, some with infra-red lenses to better penetrate the dark. But it was generally accepted that these cameras weren’t monitored properly. They just didn’t have the manpower to watch every one, so they were checked only after something had happened, by which time the hunter would be long gone.

Also patrolling the residential streets, both during the day and at night, were a small number of UAVs. There were only about fifty for the entire city, so it was quite rare to see one; however, their cameras always had someone guiding them. If they saw something, they were armed with a tranquilizer gun capable of knocking a subject out for twenty-four hours, plenty of time for the authorities to move in and collect the target.

February Sivka was seventeen. She had been born in the town of Sou’nd, virtually the east coast of the country, and had moved to Upminster as soon as she had been able, where she now lived alone. During the day she worked as a computer programmer and web designer. She’d usually telecommute from home because of the perceived risk from the Herbaht. During the night she tended to relax with the newspaper or even an occasional book. She didn’t really know any of her neighbors all that well, but she had never given them any cause to be concerned about her occasional trips to the city. Thanks to years of experience and the right combination of make-up, February was able to effectively hide her true race even from those who thought they did know her.

Every month, sometimes twice a month, February climbed into the driver’s seat of her car while it was still daylight outside (and therefore not too suspicious) and drove to London. A long time ago she had changed the tires of her car to something with a different style of tread, in order to make it harder for anyone to trace back to her. Nevertheless, there was still a little bit of danger, so as soon as she reached the city and found somewhere to park, she would wander a few streets until she felt she had gone far enough and then steal another vehicle, using that to venture further into the residential areas of the city.

One of the reasons she had chosen to hunt this night was because there was to be no moon. However, she had miscalculated a little, because as she stopped the stolen vehicle opposite a tempting-looking backstreet, the sun was still in the sky, even if it was making its way slowly down behind the houses to the west.

February preferred to hunt in her natural stripes. She wore no more than a tee shirt and jeans that had been adjusted to make room for her tail and with a pocket suitable for a small laser pistol. She enjoyed the look of fear on the faces of her prey just before she struck, and on more than one occasion the mere sight of her had paralyzed her prey and she had been able to take her time. Then there was also the problem of the cameras. Should she attack someone while wearing a disguise and it was caught on camera, then those hunting her would have a better idea of what she looked like when she was trying to hide. True, she knew how to turn off the cameras, with the right gadget. But any time a camera went down, an alarm was triggered, and such outages were taken very seriously. She would effectively be signaling her position to the watchers. It was better to ignore the cameras and hope no one was currently monitoring them.

The backstreets and alleyways were veritable gold to the hunting Herbaht. The only light here came from a few small lamps hanging above the back doors of the houses. These were owned by the residents and, as a result, were not always turned on. There was less light here than there would be around the front of the houses. This was a far better place to lie in wait for potential prey.

February flowed gracefully from the car to the relative darkness of the backstreet, keeping in mind all the time the locations of the nearest cameras and listening carefully for the tell-tale buzz of an approaching UAV.  There were eight houses here, four on each side of the street, with the back doors of the houses opening straight onto the road. Outside the third house on the right was a large wheeled skip already full with what appeared to be mainly drywall and wiring. At the end of the backstreet was a line of eight garages, two of which were currently open and empty. The other six were each painted a different color than their neighbors and covered in graffiti.

Normal practice would be to lie in wait for someone to appear in the street. Maybe to wait in one of the open garages in the hope that it was in use and the owner simply hadn’t gotten home yet. February, on the other hand, had a bit of an advantage, with her background in computers and related technology. She walked straight up to the first door on her right and removed the front panel from the security lock.

It was going to be easier than she had expected. It was a simple combination lock, and the right five or six key depressions would open the door. She could try to simply guess the combination, but if she got it wrong, on her third attempt the door would likely seal itself to the opening, making it impossible to open. It would be far better to convince the tiny computer that the correct combination had been entered and so open the door.

As she considered what she had to do to trigger the door, the waft of an unmistakable scent seemed to creep up on her from behind. It was a human male, and he was scared. February wondered for a moment if this was someone on their way home to one of these houses, someone who hadn’t expected to see her standing there and attempting to break into one of his neighbors’ houses.  As easy as this lock might be to crack, it would be better and easier still to just grab a victim off the street.

The scent became clearer. There was intensity about it. This human was armed and preparing to attack.

She remained calm, pretending to be oblivious to the human. He was very scared and was likely to take his time making sure he didn’t miss. It seemed unlikely, but with any luck, he might even change his mind and decide she wasn’t worth the risk. Not that she was likely to reciprocate if he did.

 Slowly, yet aware all the time that if she took too long she’d be the victim, she removed the laser pistol from her pocket. There was a chance that he’d notice what she was doing, but only a small one because of how she was standing in relation to him. When she grasped the weapon in her hand and realized she was still breathing, she knew she had gotten away with it. Now she had to act fast. Time had to be running out.

She turned quickly, ducking as she did so and firing wildly at the general location of where the scent was coming from. The sudden movement she made caused the man to fire in panic at the place where February had been. His beam hit the door just above her head, and she was certain that it must have triggered an alarm somewhere. At the moment, though, she had other things to worry about, such as the nature of the weapon he was using. The assailant had kept the beam on and was using it like a targeting laser to trace a line down towards where she now stood. If he reached her with the beam, he could cut her in half easily. As it was, he was cutting through the door as if it was butter and searing the actual interior walls of the house beyond.

February didn’t take long to realize her danger and dived out of the way of the laser beam, heading as quickly as her feet would carry her towards the garages. As she did so, she tried to take maximum advantage of scattered debris and shadows. At least the sun had finally disappeared below the horizon, casting the backstreet into relative darkness. Once she was sequestered in the garage, she tried to assess her situation and locate the man shooting at her. The beam wasn’t following her. The shooter had turned it off. A laser rifle on full beam would drain the energy cells in under a minute. February had assumed from the smell of fear emanating from him that he was inexperienced at fighting Herbaht, but obviously he knew enough not to waste his energy.

The rifle spat again; it was on pulse this time. A number of short beams of light hit the far wall of the garage February was taking refuge in. The far wall was slowly torn apart by this barrage, and February could do little more than keep her head down and hope the shooter didn’t get lucky. It was clear that he couldn’t see exactly where she was or she’d be dead by now, but obviously he knew where she was.

The barrage of laser beams stopped after maybe a minute. There had been plenty of noise accompanying them, and the people living in the houses around the alley had taken an interest. They were looking out of the various barred or energy-shielded windows at the scene below. Some, upon seeing that the action was taking place in the alley behind their houses, quickly sought the relative safety of other rooms, but some insisted on watching the excitement. They would have been easy targets for February, had she not had someone with a laser rifle waiting for her to make a move. She knew she didn’t have long. Even if cutting the door hadn’t set off an alarm, she could see that at least one of the voyeurs was chatting into a mobile link. Maybe they were just calling a friend about the excitement, but it was more likely that they were calling the authorities for help. In a very short while this alley was going to be crowded with the army, and if February didn’t act quickly, her hunting days would be over.

She kept against the wall of the garage and looked for the figure. At first she could see nothing, but as she looked further and further she saw him. He had retreated to the very edge of the street and was outlined in the light from the next street. He may have felt safer in the light, but it made it easy for February to see him and must also have been making it harder for him to spot her. From where he was currently standing, it would have been impossible for him to have seen February working at the door; he must’ve sought cover there when she had first dived out of the way. That might explain why she had actually reached the garages alive.

February didn’t have time to make sure; she took careful aim, wanting to end this quickly and be away before anyone else came to join in. She pulled the trigger, and her pistol whined pathetically as it fired. Its beam hit the target dead-on but didn’t have the strength to harm him. She dived to the ground quickly as the wall above her collapsed under another barrage from a laser rifle set to pulse. She then rolled out of the way of the falling masonry after a part of the wall came close to hitting her head.

She fired the pistol again; this time, nothing. She looked at the weapon in shock for a moment. She had charged its power cells only that morning. Either the power cells were at fault or the laser pistol itself was no longer functioning properly. The problem with weapons taken from the dead was that they rarely carried spare energy cells. If either the laser pistol or the energy cell was no longer working properly, she had no further use for the weapon. She threw it to one side, not caring who might chance upon it.

Her bare hands, her claws and her teeth were all she had left to deal with her foe. It was true that she could try to just get away. The garage roofs weren’t that high, and she could be across them and out of danger in a matter of minutes. But if she slipped while climbing, she would be an easy target for the human to finish. She had climbed higher buildings than these garages many times before, but she wasn’t willing to bet her life on previous success unless there really was no other way. Also, the garages had suffered a lot of damage. There was a lot of rubble even just by her, and they might not even take her weight now. But the real kicker, the main reason she refused to just run from the situation, was because of anger, anger at the man for having the audacity to shoot at her, anger at herself for getting caught in this alleyway as if she had no more experience than a child, and anger at her laser pistol for letting her down when she needed it most.

The man had been quiet for a few minutes; then the sound of him unplugging the power pack from the rifle, no doubt with the intent to change it for a new one, echoed around the street.

February’s ears flickered at the noise, knowing immediately what it was and realizing that if she was going to move, it’d have to be now. This was it; especially in the weak light, the man would probably have to look at was he was doing to attach the new cartridge, assuming he was as green as he had seemed earlier. She doubted she could get to him before he reloaded. But she might at least change her hiding place and maybe get a little closer to him.

She moved slowly, carefully, making no noise to the wheeled skip. Then she watched him for a second before continuing. He was still fitting the new cartridge, maybe even having a spot of trouble trying to fit it, and had apparently not seen her move at all.  From here, she moved across to the left side of the alley. She was now on the same side of the alley as the gunman, but still out of sight thanks to the curvature of the street.

Once she reached the far wall, she stood very still for a moment, listening to her own heart thumping against her chest. He might no longer be able to see her from where he was, but if he had seen her move, then he wasn’t likely to stay put. She would have to rely on her sense of smell to judge his position. Fortunately the smell of fear was very strong. There was even a chance, despite the fact that she’d hit him with the weakened beam of her pistol, that he didn’t know she was no longer armed. But she couldn’t allow herself to believe that; she had to assume he knew his advantage.

A very low-powered beam hit the remains of the garage wall where she had been hiding. Low-powered, a very light drain on the energy cells and not powerful enough to kill, but good enough to search the area for the target. Though the beam had a weaker color, those new to the art of street fighting might not have been able to tell the difference and might still try getting out of the way.

February sighed with relief that he was still aiming at the garage. Obviously, he hadn’t seen her move to the skip or to the side of the alley. She could move closer to the gunman in her own time.

Someone at one of the windows overlooking the houses seemed to be trying to signal to the gunman and warn him where she was. For a moment February wished she was still armed and could shut the blabbermouth up. One well-aimed shot would’ve been enough, though that would also tell her opponent where she was.

She got closer and closer, edging along the back of the houses towards the gunman. She made cutting gestures at her throat to the figure in the window, who seemed to either not notice or not care and continued trying to warn the gunman of his danger.

The gunman opened fire on the garage again: another torrent from the laser rifle set on pulse. It demolished what remained of the wall where February had been standing and cut across the opening of the garage, hitting every shadow and every space where anyone could be. He might have realized that she was no longer there and might have been just making sure.

  February was sure that when he had drained the energy cells on the garage and was confident that she had left the scene, he’d probably go home happy to have fought a Herbaht and survived to talk about it. Well, February was angry with him for even thinking of trying to kill her; besides, she still hadn’t eaten yet.

As expected, the man lowered his weapon after a minute or two, having destroyed someone’s garage and caused a small fire close to where February had been hiding, showing without a shadow of a doubt that no one was hiding there anymore.

He advanced slowly into the darkness of the alley again. The scent of fear coming from him was stronger than ever. His rifle was held at the ready, sighted towards the remains of the garages. It didn’t seem to occur to him that she might no longer be in them.

February watched him as he moved, keeping herself low to the ground until she was ready to pounce. Then she sprinted towards him, hoping that the surprise of her actual location would buy her the few seconds she needed to close the gap.

The man turned almost immediately, and February saw the barrel of the rifle pointing straight at her. But it was soon clear that her speed and location had caught him by surprise, and he was firing wildly in what appeared to be a blind panic. A bolt from the laser went by so close to her head that it made her hair stand on end.

She threw herself at him, forcing him to topple over on his back. His arms came up to block her as she lashed out with her claws, so she hacked them to pieces. It was only a matter of moments before she got to his throat. She snarled and growled at him, surprised with herself as she tore him open. She’d never been so angry or, she started to realize, so scared. He’d nearly gotten her.

She stood up, covered in more blood than she had thought possible, and looked down at the corpse. It was a soldier, his uniform obvious now that she was so close. Somewhere nearby he must have a patrol car. It was probably best to find the vehicle before she tried to move the body. She took the laser rifle; there was always a possibility that if she left it some passerby might decide to try his or her luck before she was clear of the area. She checked its power pack. It had about a third left; at least there would be a spare this time, even if it was currently drained.

The patrol car was sitting with its lights on at the corner of this road and the next. She moved carefully towards it, her natural feline stealth making it relatively easy to cover the distance silently on the smooth road surface. The man she had killed might have a partner, though she felt it unlikely that one would wait in the car while the other risked his life. Perhaps the first had had a personal grudge against the Herbaht and had made some excuse to go alone, or the second one had simply not wanted to get involved. It was also possible that the second had been calling for backup while the first had tried to keep her pinned down in the alley. She would need to move quickly.

The road was clear, the car empty. It was unusual for a soldier to be alone whilst on patrol, but it was always possible that he had seen her whilst making his way home or on leave, or perhaps he had been running an errand for a superior officer when he had seen her. When she thought about it, there were many reasons why the soldier might have been alone. Whatever the reason was, February was only too happy not to have to deal with any other soldiers this night.

She moved quickly now. If he had called for help before confronting her, they would probably arrive shortly. Less than a minute later she was wedging the soldier’s bloody corpse unceremoniously into the rear storage compartment of the patrol car. It was an area so small that she could only get him to fit by tucking his knees up under his chin.

She then ripped the identification badge off of the soldier’s bloody tunic and pinned it to her shirt. It should be enough to fool the vehicle’s inbuilt security devices that she had a right to drive it.

 After closing the compartment, she climbed into the driver’s seat, but before she started the engine she wanted to see what other equipment the soldier might have had at his disposal. Usually a patrol vehicle’s armory would be locked with a pass code, not that that would’ve been much of an obstacle for February. On this occasion, though, the soldier had recently accessed the armory himself in order to tackle her and had left the otherwise secure compartment unlocked. She had hoped that she might find a replacement pistol in the compartment. Pistols were so much easier to conceal than rifles; unfortunately the army knew this too and rarely issued them to their troops. She’d probably have to find an officer in order to get one. Perhaps someone at her regional headquarters would have a spare. The thought seemed unlikely to her, but it might be worth a look. She was probably overdue for a visit anyway, but then she didn’t like to go too often.

The only other thing that seemed to be in the vehicle’s armory was a second laser rifle and an extra spare cartridge for use by a second soldier, had there been one. Then, as she was getting ready to close the car’s armory, she noticed something hidden under a loose canvas. A quick investigation revealed it to be a pair of bombs. They were quite versatile and could be thrown like a grenade, triggered by radio or set with a timer. There was also a pair of radio transmitters, one for each, resting on top of them. She didn’t have time to study them or worry about why the soldier had brought them with him for now, though; she wanted to be away in case help had been summoned to the area.

She turned to face the front of the vehicle and ordered it to start. The vehicle’s dashboard computer made a quick scan of the badge she’d taken from the dead man, and the engine flared into life. Since patrol cars could often be reassigned to a new driver at a moment’s notice, the security on these vehicles never even required so much as a thumbprint to start. To counter this apparent lack of security, they did usually have an erroneous thumbprint reader, which would send out an alarm to the vehicle’s headquarters if anyone ever placed their thumb there. They would then imprison the would-be thief until someone came to collect him. Not that anyone intent on stealing a vehicle so equipped was likely to try and use such a device, but it might stop that thief from looking further.

 


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