The Hunt – Megan Shepherd

SIX STEPS LONG BY six steps wide. Cora must have paced the perimeter of her cell a hundred times. There was no clock. No window. No way to tell if she had been there for three days or thirteen—not that time even passed the same way on the space station. The only objects in the room were a stiff plastic-like blanket that always felt cold, a toilet, a water spout she could drink from, and a glaring ceiling light that never turned off. Sitting in the corner, legs pulled in tight, she splayed her hand across the black observation panel set into the wall. Her nails against the smooth surface looked jagged and gnawed. We have taken you for your own good, the Kindred had said. We are your saviors, they had said. She pressed her fingers against the black panel, one at a time, one for each of the five friends they’d separated her from. Lucky. Leon. Nok. Rolf.

Mali. Weeks ago, they’d been strangers caged together in an artificial Earth where they were observed like wild animals behind bars. The experiment hadn’t lasted long. Neither had Cora’s failed escape. Stupid, she thought, to think I could ever escape from them. When she took her hand away from the panel, traces of moisture from her fingers clung to the glass before vanishing. Five gray spots against the blackness. Five stars against a dark sky. Five notes that might begin a song. But not stupid, she thought with resolve, to believe we’re any less than them.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, concentrating on focusing her senses. She could still remember, deep in her bones, what it had felt like to trigger her telepathic ability. It had started as a dizzying wave and distorted vision, and then—yes, there—she had been able to sense a figure standing on the other side of the wall, and—yes, again—she had even been able read Cassian’s thoughts. It had only happened once, though she had tried in vain to make it happen again. She stared at the black panel, again trying to sense behind it, though her neck ached and her eyes were bleary and worries kept itching under her skin, reminding her such abilities were unnatural. Freakish, even. Back on Earth, she’d be committed if she claimed to sense things with her mind. Back on Earth . But there might not even be an Earth anymore. “Wishing on stars never got me by,” she sang to herself quietly.

Lyrics had always helped her clear her head of her worries. In songs, she wasn’t a freak, just a girl far from home and the parents, brother, and shaggy old dog she missed more than anything. “Wishes, and hopes, and kisses good-bye . ” She traced her finger in an arc against the panel, composing lyrics that faded as soon as they’d been written. “I wished to stay stronger, instead I got . ” Her voice went hoarse with lack of practice, but her finger kept writing: M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S. The letters faded until there was nothing but blackness. For a second, maybe two, that dizzying sensation started to creep over her again. Her vision blurred at the edges. She almost sensed that something was moving beyond the walls, or maybe someone, or maybe several someones.

The walls and floor began to vibrate. The rumble rose through her legs, making her heart trip and thunk, and she shoved to her feet, startled. The vibrations grew into a hum that filled the room. The hair on the back of her neck rose as if someone’s warm breath were whispering against it, and she clamped a hand over her nape. Concentrate, she told herself. You can sense what’s out there. You did it once. You have to do it again. The ceiling lamp grew so bright she had to squint. Light came from the walls too, as they split apart in intricate puzzle-like shapes that revealed a doorway.

More light poured in from the opening, coating her skin with warmth. She flinched and shielded her eyes. Footsteps. Then, voices. Someone was speaking words she didn’t recognize, in a monotone voice. The Kindred’s language. She tensed, fearing why they might have come. And then a clearer voice, in English, cut through the light. “Stand.” A shadow eclipsed her.

She blinked her eyes open cautiously. Black eyes looked back at her—no pupils, no irises, just puddles of oily black, set into a woman’s face the color of burnished copper. Tessela. One of the guards under Cassian’s command. Cora gasped at the sight of a familiar face. “Tessela! Please, let me out—” “You are guilty of disobeying Rule Two and Rule Three,” Tessela said mechanically, as though Cora was just another troublesome human. “Of attempting to escape your enclosure. Of lying to the Warden.” Cora blinked against the light. “That isn’t the whole story.

You know that.” Tessela grabbed Cora’s arm with shocking strength and hauled her to her feet, then released her and stepped away. Another Kindred stood in the doorway, dressed in a uniform so dark a blue it was nearly black, with the most intricate knots she’d ever seen running in twin rows down the front. He stepped into the light and she drew in a sharp breath. Fian. Another of Cassian’s team. The first time she had met him, he’d nearly choked her to death, never mind that it had been a trick by Cassian to earn her trust. She rubbed the base of her throat at the bad memory. “If you just ask Cassian . ,” she started, but faltered on the sound of his name.

No, Cassian wouldn’t help her now. Cassian had bent the rules for her when she’d had trouble adapting to her previous enclosure, but that was before her escape attempt. Before she’d found out Cassian was the Warden—the one manipulating her the entire time. Light reflected off the sharp needles and gleaming metal of an apparatus in Fian’s hand. Her stomach curled. The Kindred claimed they didn’t experiment on humans, but she’d seen them sticking needles into a dead girl, looking for signs of evolution. It seemed the only thing the Kindred feared was that their precious human pets, whom they had so ironically sworn to protect, might one day become as clever as they were. And we are, Cora thought loudly enough for Tessela and Fian to read it. Tessela only blinked. “Extend your arms by your sides,” she commanded.

Cora shook her head. “Where are Lucky and Mali?” “Extend your arms.” Tessela took a step toward her. “This is for your own good.” Cora ducked and ran for the wall where the doorway had been, but Fian was impossibly fast. He grabbed her arm with a twist of pain and held her hand out to her side. Tessela took the apparatus from Fian. It began to hum, probably triggered telekinetically. “It was my idea to escape, not theirs,” Cora insisted. “You can’t punish them.

” Tessela approached with the apparatus. Now that it was closer, it looked similar to the sensors that the Kindred medical officer, Serassi, had inspected them with, only this one had half-inch-long needles protruding from the end. “We do not believe in punishment,” Fian said flatly. “That is a primitive concept.” Cora would have laughed if her throat hadn’t been closing up in terror. What did they call being locked in the cell, if not punishment? Tessela pressed the needles to her skin. Cora hissed as the needles suddenly moved on their own, not stiff but fluid, working their way into the palm of her hand. Too tiny to be painful, but just as uncomfortable as microscopic worms burrowing into her skin. “Please,” she gasped. “Tell me if Lucky and Mali are okay.

And Nok and Rolf too. Are they still in the cage? Is Nok’s pregnancy okay?” Cora gritted her teeth as Tessela pressed the apparatus to her other palm. “Just tell me!” Tessela finished and holstered the apparatus. Cora looked down at her hands. A strange pattern of lines and pinpricks covered her palms and circled the base of her fingers like half-moon rings. The half circle on her ring finger was more prominent than the others. The pinpricks there radiated out like a star. In the cage, the Kindred had branded each ward with constellations to pair them together; but these concentric circles and rows of tiny markings had nothing to do with the night sky. “I don’t understand.” “You aren’t meant to,” Tessela said.

“The code is for our record keeping, not yours.” Fian released her, and she sank back against the wall. She squeezed her fists, curling her fingers around the lines and symbols that now marked her as Kindred property. With a rumble, the wall seams started to break apart again to reveal the doorway. She jerked her head up. A new figure filled the doorway. Black eyes. Skin the color of copper. A scar on his neck and a bump in the bridge of his nose—imperfections on an otherwise perfect face. Cassian.

Focus? She could barely breathe. The first time she’d seen Cassian had been in her dreams. With his impossible beauty, she had thought he was an angel. Now she knew: he was a monster, like all of them. Looking into his mind that one time and seeing a flash of almost human-like regret for what he’d done to her hadn’t changed that. “You,” she said. “All of you.” She jerked her chin at Tessela and Fian. “You think you’ll always be in control, but humans can be as smart as you. The minute I get out of here—and I will—I’m going to show everyone on this station what humans are capable of.

Reading minds. Sensing things. They won’t be able to deny it anymore.” She hoped they didn’t detect the tremor in her voice that whispered freak in the back of her head. Cassian folded his hands calmly. “That would be unwise.” He motioned to Tessela and Fian. “Leave us.” Fian and Tessela obeyed like clockwork, moving in unison toward the door, which sealed closed behind them. The starry light from the wall seams spilled over Cassian’s skin, softly reflective, almost as if he was the god Nok had talked about from her childhood stories in Thailand.

“Fian’s uniform, in case you did not notice,” Cassian continued, “has the twin-knot design of a delegate on the Intelligence Council, the highest governing party on the station and a collaboration among all the intelligent species. My position as Warden is powerful, but the delegates will always far outrank me. Those of us sympathetic to the human cause have painstakingly toiled, over the course of many rotations, to infiltrate it; you should be thankful Fian is on our side, not theirs. If a true delegate witnessed you saying such things, you would never leave this chamber.” “You can’t threaten me.” “I am merely telling you the truth.” His head turned as his gaze skimmed over the room, lingering on her fingerprints on the black panel. “You are not the only one in danger. If they were to learn of my involvement, they would demote me to the lowest position—a star sweeper, sent to clear astral debris in a solitary ship. Ninety-five percent of star sweepers are killed by asteroid collision in their first run.

” Cora balled her fists harder. Like she cared what happened to him. She wanted to hate him. She did hate him. And yet her mind flashed back through moments when hate had been the last thing she’d felt. He had given her stars, when she couldn’t sleep. He’d saved her life, when Fian had nearly strangled her. He had stood in the artificial ocean surf, and uncloaked his stoic emotional walls, and looked at her with real eyes, not black ones, and whispered to her with real emotions, not hidden ones. And he had kissed her. She looked away.

Nothing here is real, she reminded herself. Love most of all. He took another step into the room. She couldn’t tell where he was looking with his all-black eyes, but his head tilted toward her clenched left fist, then her right. “I want to help you.” His voice was softer. “Our goal is, ultimately, the same. If you can read even a small piece of my mind, then you know that is true.” “If you’re going to apologize again, forget it,” she cut him off. “I’m tired of hearing that you betrayed me for the good of humanity.

That you broke my mind so that I’d evolve to the next level.” She paused. “That what you felt for me was real.” But this time, he did not contradict her. He only removed a long piece of fabric from a deep pocket in his black uniform and held it out. She took it hesitantly, too curious not to, and let the smooth fabric unroll. Straps. A hem. An ankle-length dress. It wasn’t like the formal robes both male and female Kindred of low status wore.

Nor the white sundress she had worn in the cage. This was gold and silk, richly made, and it held a faint trace of cigarette smoke and a perfume, but one that was older, not like her mother’s designer scents. It was a real artifact from Earth, unlike all the re-created clothing, which smelled like ozone and didn’t have the right weight. “What is this?” she asked. She’d expected to spend the rest of her life in the cell. They wouldn’t kill her—that would go against their unbreakable moral code. But it didn’t mean she wouldn’t be drugged, or worse. “This is a second chance,” Cassian said evenly. “For both of us.”

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