Home > The Hunt (The Hunt #1)(11)

The Hunt (The Hunt #1)(11)
Author: Andrew Fukuda

Or perhaps the Scientist had nothing to do with this.

Perhaps the hole was dril ed by the staffers later, after he'd disappeared.

But why? And if they knew they were going to house me in the library, surely they would have patched it up before I moved in. Again, none of this makes any sense.

And then a thought blizzards into my mind, chil ing me.

I shake my head, as if to banish the thought. But it's latched on to my brain, irrevocably now. And the more I think about it, the more likely it seems.

Somebody dril ed this hole. To night.

To test me. To fl ush me out.

To fi nd out if I'm a heper.

It makes sense. To night, with my unwashed body giving off an odor, suspicion is aroused. But more proof is needed before I can be accused. Sending a surreptitious sunbeam into the library during the day is perfect. Subtle yet dispositive. A sunbeam so smal that it wouldn't awaken a heper, but enough to jolt any normal person awake, making him fl ee to the far side of the library and demand a new room at fi rst dark. The perfect litmus test.

I pace down the aisles, trying to keep fear at bay. My fi ngertips brush against the dusty spines of leather covers.

There's a fl aw in my thinking, I realize. The only people who could possibly be on to me are those who've been in proximity. That would be the hunters and the escorts. But they've been with me all night long; we've never left one another's sight. Nobody has had the opportunity to slip away and dril a hole through two inches of reinforced steel.

I head back to the hole and study it even closer. The edges are weathered and dul ed, not shiny or sharp as they would be after a fresh cut. I bend down to the fl oor, looking for any fresh shavings.

Nothing. This hole has been here a while.

That leaves me in a bit of a pickle. If I feign anger tomorrow and complain about the hole, staffers will come over to take a look before sealing it up. But that hole will invite questions about my fi rst day of sleep— why hadn't I complained after that fi rst day? On the other hand, if I say nothing and this is indeed a ploy to trap me, then I'd be fl ushed out.

Then something clicks inside my head. Perhaps the beam is just a side effect of something more important. Maybe it's the hole— and not the beam— that is really the key to this whole mystery.

I peer intently at the hole now, taking in every tiny scratch near it, its height from the fl oor, its smal diameter.

But of course. It's the perfect size.

To peer through.

But when I look through the hole— the light outside blinding — it's a nothing. Just the bland, monotonous Vast, stretching endlessly in front of me, the hot sun bleaching whiteness into it. Not even the Dome is in sight. Dust and dirt and sand and light. That's it. There's nothing to see.

For the next hour, I pace the fl oor, study the sunbeam, peer through the hole; but it's useless. I can't fi gure it out. What kil s me is the feeling that I'm so close, that I'm actual y staring at the answer. Eventual y I sit down, my aching feet worn to the nub. I close my eyes to focus; and when I pry them open some hours later, the sunbeam is gone, the shutters have opened, and somebody is pounding at the door. Dusk has arrived.

Hunt Minus Three Nights HEPERS ARE BELIEVED to be anywhere between fi ve and ten mil ennia behind us on the evolutionary ladder.” The Director's voice drifts from the lectern with antiseptic detachment. “Certainly, hepers display the more primitive behav-ioral traits that our ancestors discarded many centuries ago. Think, for example, of their exceptional swimming ability. That trait harkens back to their relatively recent amphibian origins, when they dwel ed in the sea from which all life derives.

Their fi shlike ability to maneuver in water testifi es to the relative lack of evolutionary progress from that elementary stage. Think, too, of their beastlike ability to endure the sun's rays. This ability to withstand sunlight is a ge ne tic relic from the pre- cave era, when land- roaming animals lacked the intel igence to seek shelter in caves. They built up a resis tance to the sun, although said re sis tance inhibited the evolutionary development of the brain. A shame, that.”

His words fl oat to me like seaweed in murky water. I am sitting near the back of the lecture hal , as distanced from people as possible. I had a quick change of clothes (while my escort banged away at my door), but I'm worried about my odor. Nobody seems to have smel ed anything— everyone is stationary, no one twitching. I got through breakfast, early eve ning lectures, and a tour of the grounds, lunch, without anyone noticing. A large window to the left of the podium is thankful y open, a breeze blowing steadily in, dissipating any odor inside. So I hope.

“Their facial expressions— so slippery with unrestrained and unfettered emotions— harken back to the pre- linguist, pre- language era, when expressions served as a kind of sign language. Next slide.”

A photo of the legs of a male heper, covered in hair.

Everyone leans forward. Drool starts to line slowly downward from their fangs, like spiders descending to desktops.

“A vestigial ge ne tic artifact from an era predating the discovery of fi re. Without the capability to build fi re, hair was their only mechanism to ward off the winter cold. Elite scholars have postulated that this evidence of body hair predates even the stone era, when primitives would have been able to fashion rudimentary weapons to hunt and then use fur for clothes. I have written a book on this topic, the fi rst in my fi eld to postulate this now wel - supported theory.

Next slide.”

A photo of a heper eating a fruit, red skinned with yel ow substance inside. I see heads fl inch back in revulsion.

“Ah, yes. Quite inexplicable, this trait, to say nothing of it ghast-liness. It bespeaks their lack of predatory skil s, their inability to really kil anything larger than vermin. So they must hunt those things that do not fl ee: the things of the earth, vegetables and fruits.

This trait in time became in extremis to the extent that their bodies eventual y required fruit and vegetables. Deprive them of vegetables and fruit, and their bodies begin to break down. Reddish spots appear on their bodies, sores attack their lips, then gums, leading eventual y to the loss of teeth. They become immobilized, fal into a depressed, vegetative state. Next slide.”

A photo of the group of hepers under the Dome. They are sitting around a campfi re, their mouths open, heads cocked to the side, eyes closed.

“Nothing has mystifi ed and beguiled scholars as much as the hepers' ability to warble their voices with words, and with such remarkable consistency. Studies undertaken at the Institute have found that hepers are able to duplicate these ululations— what they cal ‘singing'— with astonishing accuracy. In fact, a song can be replicated minutes, days, months, even years after it is fi rst sung with near identical sonic frequencies. There are a plethora of theories out there; none are satisfactory save one, which I presented at the Annual Conference on Heper Studies last year. In short, hepers developed this ‘singing' ability under the mistaken belief that it helped the growth of vegetables and fruits. That is why we see them ‘sing' most commonly when tending to the farmland or plucking fruit off trees. Some scholars posit that hepers may also believe ‘singing' helps to sustain the burning of a fi re and to cleanse the body better. This is evinced in their tendency to warble their voices when assembled around a fi re or when bathing at the pond.”

I sit in my seat, hiding my inner amusement. Everything the Director says about hepers has the ring of truth and a learned authority about it, but I suspect it's nothing more than speculative nonsense. I suppose it's easy to so widely miss the mark when it comes to hepers, to quickly slide from honest scientifi c inquiry to unsubstantiated theories.

After all , if the roles were reversed and it was people who became extinct, people theories would likely be rife with exaggerations and distortions: instead of sleeping in sleep- holds, they'd sleep in coffi ns; creatures of the night, they'd be so invisible to the eye that even in front of mirrors, they'd lack a refl ection; pale and emaciated, they were weak and benign beings who could coexist peaceful y alongside hepers, somehow restraining themselves from ripping hepers to ribbons and sucking down their blood; they'd al invariably be incredibly good- looking with perfect hair.

There'd probably be some outright confabulations as wel : their ability to swim with dizzying speed under water; and ludicrous and laughable notions about people- heper romances.

Two rows in front of me, Phys Ed's head suddenly twitches violently backward. A short line of saliva fl ies off his fangs and swings upward, splatting across his face diagonal y.

He shakes his head.

“Pardon me,” he murmurs.

The Director stares at him, then proceeds. “Another aberration is their rather grotesque tendency to leak minuscule beads of salty water when they get hot or are under stress. Under these extreme conditions, they also emit large amounts of odor, especial y from the underarm region, which itself, especial y in male adults, contains a nest of body hair. It is common for them—”

Phys Ed's head snaps back again. “Sorry, sorry,” he says, “didn't mean to interrupt. But can no one else smel it?

Heper odor?” He turns around, and for one awful moment, his eyes settle on mine.

“Don't you?”

“A little. Just a little,” I offer.

The Director's eyes turn to me. A chil spreads down my body.

Controlled breathing; keep eyelids halfway down; don't dart my eyes back and forth.

“It's really thick, it's getting into my nose, into my head, it's hard to concentrate.” Phys Ed points to an open window.

“Mind if we close the window? I can barely concentrate—”

Abs, sitting two seats away from him, suddenly jerks her head back, snaps it forward again. “Just now. I smel ed it, too. Heper.

Pretty strong odor. It must be wafting in from outside through the open windows. What is it, heper mating season?”

The Director heads over to the open window. His face is placid, unreadable, but he's clearly thinking deeply. “I smel something as wel . The breeze is bringing it in?” His voice rises indecisively at the end. “Here, let me close the window, see if that helps. The hepers must be real y sweating it during the day. Wonder what they're up to.”

The lecture continues, but barely anyone is listening anymore.

Everyone is curious, sniffi ng the air. Far from cutting off the heper odor, closing the window has only intensifi ed the odor. It's me; the smel is emanating from me. How long before the others realize this? Their fi dgeting and agitated head shakes grow more frequent and violent by the minute.

I'm not helping matters— or myself— much: I've got to keep up the act, and my own head shakes and neck snaps are an exertion that in turn releases more odor.

Ashley June suddenly speaks up. “Maybe they've been sneaking in here during the day. Into this building. That's why their odor is everywhere.”

We look to the podium to see what the Director will say.

He's gone. Uncannily. And in his place is Fril y Dress, who, as usual, has materialized out of nowhere. “Impossible,”

she says, her voice shril er than usual. “There's no way a heper would come in here, into the hornets' nest. It's certain death.”

“But the odor,” Ashley June says, her mouth watering. “It's so strong.”

Suddenly her head snaps back, viciously. Slowly she turns around, her head lowering. She gazes at all of us, at me.

“What if one of the hepers snuck in here last night? What if one of the hepers is still hiding in this building?”

And just like that, we are fl ying out the doors, the escorts right next to us, at fi rst trying to coax us back into the lecture hal , but then, as we spin around corners and leap down fl oors (“The odor's getting stronger!” shouts Crimson Lips next to me), the escorts join in the frenzy, feed into it. Gnashing teeth, saliva trailing us, hands shaking in the air, nails grating against the wal s.

It's hard to separate myself from the group. That's my plan: to peel away, steal back to the library, and hope no one thinks much of my absence. But every time I turn a corner to get away, they're right there with me. It's my odor. And with all this running around, it's only getting worse. I was hoping they'd all sprint past me, giving me the opportunity to fl y down the stairs and out the door before they can double back. But they stay right with me. It's terrifying, to be so close to their teeth and claws. They will not be unaware for much longer.

What causes the group to leave me is more by accident than design. I black out— probably for no more than a second or two. One moment I'm running, the next I'm fl at on the ground, the group sweeping past me and disappearing around a corner. The lack of water. It's parched my throat, dried my muscles, ossifi ed my brain now. I'm past my breaking point.

When I come to— it's really more a grayout than a blackout — I know I have to move. The group will double back when they lose the scent; they'l fol ow the trail right back to me, lying weakened and prone on the fl oor, sweat on my forehead, the odor running off me in rivers. Move, I tel myself, move. But it's tough even to prop myself up. I feel as dry as attic dust, yet as heavy as a waterlogged sack of fl our.

There is silence in the hal ways, then the sound of footsteps growing louder. They're realizing. They're coming back now.

Fear jump- starts my body. I rol over, leap to my feet.

Doors. I need to put as many doors between me and them.

It'l slow them down, cut off my scent even a bit. Every little bit counts.

I push doors out of my way; seconds later, I hear those same double doors slammed open, like shotguns popping.

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