She could feel him drawing closer, but she could run no faster. She couldn’t stop either. She had to fight to the end. So much felt unfinished for it to end this way. There had to be an out that she just couldn’t see yet. The woods could only provide her with so much cover. She had to get out. She had to draw him out and find a way to give herself an advantage, any advantage.
She saw a clearing up a head. She could see from the footfalls on the rocky path that it probably led to a cave, most likely an enclosed area where young lovers went to be undisturbed for a few moments of pleasure. The smoother path was probably used as transportation, a footpath to a backwoods factory or farm. People. Someone who could help her or at least keep him far enough away so she could recuperate and send a signal for help.
He was still a ways away, but she knew he still easily tracked her. She didn’t worry about hiding her footprints, hoping the darkness gave her some cover as she hurried down the path. She finally saw something, not a factory like she thought but definitely inhabitable. Perhaps it was occupied or had some working telecomms.
She headed toward the back in case someone was inside not expecting a fugitive. If the blood and scratches on her face looked as bad as they felt, then she must have looked a horrific fright. There were no windows low enough to give her a view inside. She finally found a door on the opposite wall from which she came. Once she got inside, she realized she had walked right into his trap.
Earlier that day…
“I’m sorry. I’m just surprised to see you here.”
Chessy sat beside Nesake at the counter, nursing a beer that could have only been made in an illegal still. Raven had taken her eyes off Chessy’s, still feeling guilt over Jess’ death. Learning the truth about Chessy did nothing to quell that guilt. Clones often grew close to their originals when the original lived. Raven had not had much experience dealing with clones, so she assumed the two had been close.
Chessy slowly sipped at the beer as if it would have any effect on her. Her blank face belied nothing: anger, sadness, annoyance, nothing. Raven excused herself to seek a quieter silence in one of Nesake’s perpetually empty rooms. The bed felt harder than she remembered from last time, but that may have been because she was in a different room, not because she grew increasingly more used to the craft’s accommodations. She wished she had a telecaster to find a broadcast that played old music as she began to drown in the silence of the bare room.
She needed to get out.
Raven decided to go straight for the front door rather than one of the side entrances so that she could avoid the restaurant and seeing Chessy’s face. But she only got as far as the bottom of the stairwell before she ran into Art and Jimmy in the middle of a less than chaste kiss.
“Raven,” Jimmy said as he unlocked his lips from Art’s. “Tobi’s gonna show us a safe place in town to hang out. We need a little R&R. You wanna come with?”
Raven caught the backhand to Jimmy’s chest before Art could stop himself.
“I know you two wanna be alone or go out on a date or something. I really don’t wanna be a third wheel.”
“Well, Tobi was gonna go to Dusdenee while we were out. I was thinking you could join him.”
Raven saw Art relax a bit with the explanation. She almost declined but a ride into town with someone who wasn’t hostile to her at the moment may have been just what she needed.
The quiet ride did nothing to stop the tension Raven felt since arriving back at Nesake’s place. Tobi left her alone in the transport with Jimmy and Art while he went to make sure it was safe for them to go into the establishment with no danger of someone tempted to turn in Jimmy. He gave them the all-clear when he came back and dismissed the happy couple to their date. Left alone with him, Raven found her voice again.
“Look, just point me to a quiet corner where no one ever goes and no one will recognize me. I’ll just read a book until you’re all ready to go back to Nesake’s.”
Tobi made no move to take them anywhere. “You do this a lot?”
He read her befuddled expression perfectly. “You find ways to be alone and avoid everyone to push them away? You wanna go somewhere and read a book with all of this around you?”
Raven rolled her eyes and looked out at the city bustling by her. “I’m not avoiding anyone. I’m a marked terrorist remember. Wouldn’t be wise to be out anywhere here where someone can recognize me and turn me over to Security.”
“And that’s why you’re coming to Dusdenee with me.”
Protesting would be futile. She knew that. She pouted anyway, acting like a petulant child just told she would have to visit the grandma who annoyed her by pinching her cheeks until they turned red.
“Need to stop and get us some ostrich feathers first. Don’t tell Nesake I got some elsewhere. She’d tear out my tongue and stick it up my arsehole.”
Raven laughed. For the first time in weeks, she had a reason to laugh. Tobi parked outside a hole in a wall, declaring he would be right back. Raven played with the audio telecasts. Perhaps she could find a program that devoted itself to late-20th, early-21st century Earth music like she used to listen to back at her home in Unone. She loved those blocks devoted to Jimi Hendrix. She would shut herself off in her room and let the music take her to another place and time she was sure didn’t differ much from her own. Yet it felt familiar. It felt like she knew him and his yearning to be where he truly belonged.
The thunk that slightly shook the land transport startled Raven. Tobi hadn’t come back, so it wasn’t him climbing back into the vehicle with her. She got out to investigate. She looked around the back and saw nothing that could have collided, nothing that left any damage. Her preoccupation with finding the source of the disturbance caused another. She ran right into the man coming from the opposite direction. They apologized to each other and she gave the vehicle another once over before Tobi came back, ostrich feathers in tow.
Raven had to admit the drive to Dusdenee gave her a pleasure she rarely had: the pleasure of being driven by someone else. No one went for drives anymore. Land transports had to be used for a purpose. Only corporations, privateers and obscenely wealthy kieras used land transports. She was surprised that as a privateer, Tobi used his vehicle when there was no profit involved. She listened to him chatter about former lovers, spending his entire life training with The Blank, the love of Art’s life before he died. And music. They both shared a love for the same ancient rhythms that got left behind when humans on Earth saw the need to terraform and colonize other planets to survive.
Before she knew it, the silver, brown and gray concrete and steel of Rotterdam turned into a lush green accented with pink, purple and yellow wildflowers. The cracked asphalt paths gave way to rocky paths not suitable for land transports that still ran on wheels. Yet she still knew when they finally got into Dusdenee. Unlike the preserves that offered carefully crafted and controlled environments with little to no actual green despite the presence of animals that thrived in woods and jungles, this was the real thing.
Tobi parked the land transport just outside the thick of the woods. “We can hike to the spot I like and have a picnic there. Then I can show you a few more places around here I like. We’ll be back to Nesake’s by dark.”
Raven followed Tobi’s lead for about half an hour, taking in her surroundings. Admittedly it was beautiful. Terra Firma 9’s atmosphere felt so sterile and stern, almost as if it waited for the day the Siralope Star took its vengeance for taking it for granted. Only vengeance came in the form of a vigilante group.
“Here we are.”
Tobi’s spot waited for them like they’d specifically been expected. The hollow log made the perfect bench whether they wanted to sit on it or relax against it while sitting on the ground. Raven chose the ground. Tobi unwrapped the food he brought for their feast: ostrich feathers, grapes, melon, brie, ostrich paste and crackers.
“Never understood why they call them ostrich feathers when they don’t have anything to do with feathers,” Tobi said as he popped the crunchy ball of what looked like a potato skin in his mouth.
“It’s supposed to distract us from the fact that we’re eating the actual skin of the ostrich, not feathers,” Raven said. “Ostriches used to be a delicacy, only for the wealthy. About 300 years ago, an ostrich farmer nearly overran one of the planets in the Troiwee system with them. They’re not as rare anymore, but we still like to hold on to the delusion that this is a delicacy served in only the fanciest restaurants. I know pretty much anyone can farm them now and breed them like rabbits, but we still need to convince everyone that food like this is in short supply.”
Tobi looked at her with surprise then smiled. “Lot more aware than you let on.”
“Had to be. People get nervous when you start to question the order of things.”
Tobi turned to her to give her his full attention and was about to speak when Raven heard the whizzing by her ear. There was no mistaking the dart in Tobi’s neck as he clutched at it with his rapidly waning strength. She grabbed him and watched as his eyes began to dim. The paralysis took over his body, but he managed one word before he lost consciousness.
She had been with the others when they left the weigh station, so he quietly followed. Fortunately, two of them went off alone and she only stayed with one of the older men. He got his chance when they stopped outside Glib’s for food. He knew then they were going off to be alone. He intentionally shook the land transport when he put the tracking device on it. She got out of the vehicle and he bumped into her to make sure it was really Teresa “Raven” Moody.
The bounty would be nice. No doubt he would rather have that than a life sponsorship from Blue Nova. However, he liked the chase. The hunt was the best part. Seeing how smart the quarry could become right before he cornered them and made them submit and admit he was the best hunter in the UCNSS.
He knew better than to underestimate Moody because of her size, but the odds still looked good for him. She was nothing but a child prodigy with the added benefit of schooling. That kind usually relaxed on keeping up with themselves physically. And as a pilot, she had no reason to run long distances and would probably collapse after a few hundred feet.
Even if she did collapse, he’d still have a good hunt. The radar told him they were heading to Dusdenee. He didn’t get to hunt there often, but it was a good spot. There weren’t too many places to hide and the worst that could happen was that a quarry could climb a tree, hoping they had been more clever than he. They never were.
He gave them an hour headstart before he tracked the vehicle to Dusdenee. After finding the land transport, he disassembled just enough of the engine to keep it from working. Just in case. They were easy to find with only foot patterns. She walked slightly behind him, letting him lead. That meant she wasn’t exactly sure where she was.
He would have to take care of the man first. Things could go wrong if he simply tranqed Moody and gave her companion time to regroup and get away. No he had to take the man out of commission first.
He found them sitting near the Low Log having a standard picnic affair. All that was missing were the cookie sandwiches and lemonade. Nothing in their body language told him this was a romantic outing, but they regarded each other as friends. A friend coming to her defense could be a hell of a lot deadlier than a lover, so he loaded the tranque with enough to put the man out almost immediately and leave him incapacitated for at least six hours. That would give him plenty of time to play around with Moody and take her back to claim his bounty. He took aim.
It had come from the direction of the vehicle so she couldn’t head that way. While her decency told her to stay with Tobi, her survival instincts told her she was better off following his advice to run.
Raven set out deeper into a woods she didn’t know.
She ran wild unaware of her surroundings, ignoring the low branches that whipped at her face when she didn’t move out of the way in time. She ran where there was no clear path, where the trees became less dense, where she heard fallen branches breaking underfoot. The sound of her breathing drowned out any other sound like birds, reptiles and other creatures that may have given her some clue as to where she was and where she was heading.
She ran until she felt the thought of getting caught felt more inviting than the tightness in her chest that made breathing a chore. She came to a clearing. It wasn’t much bigger than the one that she and Tobi occupied earlier, but she was aware that this left her with few options to hide. Raven decided to head to the left instead of straight ahead or right, the more obvious directions. She had no idea how much good it would do, but it was worth a shot.
She tripped over tree roots and broken branches for nearly half an hour before she saw her chance at some relief. A honeysuckle grove grew high and deep. Even if he had a sniffer, her pursuer could not sniff her out among the strong scent of the honeysuckle. She looked around and found a fallen branch thick enough not to break under pressure. She began to sharpen one end against a stone until she had a crude but effective spear. Raven then went into the tall honeysuckle patch and sat down. She waited.
The time elapsed could not have been as long as she imagined, but she finally heard him approach. She slowly and silently got into a crouching position. His footsteps stopped. He retraced himself and went over to where she had sharpened the branch. He then headed over to the honeysuckle, unsure of whether or not Raven was there or had simply passed through to hide her scent. He slowly walked through the patch. Raven took deep breaths as she heard him getting closer. She heard him remove the sniffer, coughing as if it would help him clear the overpowering scent of honeysuckle she was sure had trapped itself in his nostrils. He was almost upon her. Without the sniffer, his eyes were directed straight ahead of him, not down. He finally came within striking distance.
Raven sprang from her crouch to plant the spear into his shoulder blade. It did not seem to hurt him, but the action startled him enough to make him drop his weapon. Raven took her chance, made her fists into a brace and delivered a blow right to the back of his head. Upon seeing he was stunned enough to take some time to regroup himself, Raven ran again. This time she would take the easy looking path to the right of the clearing.
That bitch had outsmarted him!
He had no idea how a pilot would know about honeysuckle and sniffers, but he lost track of her and deduced she had to have made her way through the honeysuckle. There was no way she could have gone to it then doubled back without him noticing her. That meant she must have forged ahead.
But he had underestimated her audacity. She had lain in wait for him and went on the offensive. He had not expected her to fight this way. Now he had a nasty wound and possible concussion from a blow he did not think she had the strength to deliver.
He wasn’t sure if he had lost consciousness, but he had definitely lost time. She might have gotten a little better at navigating the forest during the chase. He no longer doubted her capabilities. He picked himself up from the ground, found his sniffer and limped his way out of the honeysuckle grove. She had gone back toward the clearing, so he set off back in that direction.
He had fully expected her to go back to where she had come. The sniffer told him differently. She had gone in the direction he had hoped she would go when he knew she would reach the clearing. The only place the path right of the clearing would take her was to the old mill. It had been abandoned for years and had no traces of technology. He had hunted quarry there before. She would be there long enough to look for a communicator or some other way to get out.
Then he would take his time. He had planned on being merciful, but he now had to repay her for the damage she had caused. His shoulder hurt like hell and he wasn’t able to get it fixed right then. His cockiness meant he never brought along painkillers since he knew he would sustain no injuries. But now he wanted to give her back every bit of pain he felt at that moment.
She had gone the long way to the right of the clearing. He would cut at least an hour by taking the path straight ahead. He might get there roughly the same time as she without having to run or speed his pace. But they would both still get there by dark.
He ignored the lush scenery he’d seen many times before. Instead, he mentally plotted the route he would take to easily transfer Moody’s dead weight through the woods back to his vehicle. He could have brought a hoverboard, but that made him stand out unnecessarily. Now the injury to his shoulder would be more than a minor irritation. It would slow him down and make it more difficult to carry her.
But it was possible. The pain minimized as he found himself closer to the mill, anticipating the moment he saw the beautiful fear in Moody’s eyes when she realized she was caught. He loved that fear; he would love it even more coming from the one person who had managed to fool him in a hunt.
He knew she was inside. Her scent grew stronger in the sniffer. She had no time to get away and the carefully enclosed building gave her only one way out. He was now standing in that way.
She was literally backed into a corner. She sized him up as he slowly approached her intentionally drawing out the moment. He was not much taller than she and he stood muscular where she stood solid. She knew her size would not keep him from rendering her unconscious so that he could take her, but if he only wanted the reward, she was dead anyway.
He stopped less than a body-length away from her. He eyed her shoulder as if contemplating an eye for an eye. He looked her in the eye again. Whatever he saw in hers seemed to anger him. He raised his weapon and Raven saw that was adjustable. He could set the poison to merely paralyze her temporarily or set it to kill her slowly as the venom spread to her heart. She didn’t see the setting he chose.
Unlike the villains she saw in old films, he didn’t give her any witty remarks, didn’t tell her what he planned to do. He just did it. As soon as she heard the weapon discharge, Raven dropped in a crouch and covered her face, just barely missing the dart that whizzed by her ear before it hit the nest full of Troiwee wasps.
He realized his mistake too late. The angry wasps charged at him and quickly swarmed the uncovered parts of his body, his face, his hands and the exposed flesh from his uncovered wound. His agonizing screams told her exactly how much pain he felt as the wasps repeatedly stung him in an effort to draw more of the blood they smelled from his injured shoulder.
Raven moved slowly away from the nest. She would leave him here. If he was lucky, the wasps would devour him within minutes. If he wasn’t, he would manage to get away and have to live maybe a few more days as the wasp venom infiltrated his blood, making it a carrier for their eggs. But just when she was almost free of the horror before her, Raven saw him point his weapon at her and got off the shot he needed. As she pulled the poisoned dart from her thigh and felt herself slipping into darkness, she hoped it was enough poison to kill her so that she would not have to perish in the same way as the hunter.
Her eyes felt thick with sleep, but she picked up the faint smell of Nesake’s cigarette as she came to the edge of a dream. The dryness in her mouth felt like sandy spurs had grown right on her tongue. She heard the faint sound of someone saying “she’s moving” and felt the presence of another person come closer to her. She swallowed as much as her dry mouth would allow and said one word.
The sound of breathing and relief permeated the room as Raven managed to crack her eyes open and see a hazy light that could only be artificial. She felt a hand on hers then another on her back gently forcing her to sit up. She didn’t fight. She then remembered what had happened before and realized she must have been paralyzed from the dart to the leg. Someone place a cool cup of water to her lips and helped her get it down her throat without choking. She savored every drop of the cool water, even the drops that rolled down her chin and hit the thin blanket covering her.
Once she was refreshed, she repeated her question. “Tobi?”
“He’s alright.” Nesake had spoken. “The poison wore off him by dark and he managed to make it back to the transport and send us a communication. When we found out what happened, we got to Dusdenee as soon as possible. It took a couple of hours to find the mill, but at least we found you still alive. Chessy gave you an antidote once we saw what the poison was and carried you back here. Tobi’s resting now. He’s had a long day.”
The dim twilight coming through the window told her she had been out of it for almost a day. Nesake and Chessy must had taken turns watching over her, nursing her to make sure she came out of her coma. The two people she thought hated her most were now looking over her and seemed genuinely glad she had survived.
“The dead has arisen!”
Only Jimmy could make such an inappropriate joke, but Raven wasn’t upset to see him closely following Art to her bedside. They all chatted a while and promised Tobi would come by later to reassure her he was alright. For now, she needed to rest.
Nesake stayed with her through the night, talking to her when she couldn’t sleep. That was how she learned that Chessy was not upset with her about Jess.
“Clones are just as complex as humans,” Nesake explained. “Some like Chessy get attached to their originals. In her case, they were like sisters. Sometimes they take on a different relationship, which really is kinda weird. I mean how could you fuck something that looks just like you. But Chessy knows what happened with Jess was an accident. It was the chance she took. She’s just a little lost right now without her original, but she’ll be alright.”
“We’ll have to figure that one out. We’re a little worried that a clone got through and infiltrated like this. We’re gonna have a lot of doubts and suspicions in the group, but we can manage. Clone technology isn’t common. We can trace back to where Cheven’s originated then go about seeing how much got out. If we’ve already been discovered, then who knows how long and what’s been planted already to make us self-destruct.”
The quiet that came over them was not uncomfortable but still somber. The Blank had been decades in the making and now looked to be in danger of failing before it ever had a chance to begin. Raven realized she was not the only possible liability. However, now she had to make herself an asset in an increasingly dangerous game.