The Hunter raised his head in sudden awareness. Unlike the native inhabitants and even the chameleon Patrollers, who had also come to the Earth in the time of humankind's greatest need, Randolf and his Hunter brothers used the roadways of old instead of the rail conveyances that kept humans out of reach from the fortress walls and out of the sight and scent of the Carnivores.
All his senses attuned, Randolf turned slowly on the cracked tar, reached out to track with his keen sense of smell, his sensitive sight, his ultra-honed instincts. He probed beyond the steel fortress the humans had sealed themselves away inside from the thick jungle that had overrun the Earth in the time since the sun became one of their deadliest enemies. The Hunter and Patroller living areas, Comm Central, the City of Hope, and Castaway City--all lay within the fortress gates.
Darkness fell in a shroud across his path, and yet he could scent the tiger Carnivore, could feel its patient, mocking gaze despite the distance between them. This one wasn't like the ones he'd hunted and killed swiftly, with his bare hands and teeth. This one stalked him, eluded him. The vision...
Why do you watch me? Hunt me? Why do you not show yourself for what you are? You are not like the others.
Like a wind blowing through his mind, the words followed, not his own, and yet he knew they were truth. I am not like the others. I am your destiny, Hunter. You will face me...and lose.
Carnivores had no emotions and killed out of pure instinct, and yet they were clever. They had had no choice but to become so. Even before the men and women of Earth had fought in the first Intergalactic War thirty years earlier, their planet had begun turning on itself. The temperature had risen, increasing the carbon dioxide, and made prolonged exposure to the sun more deadly than ever before. Jungles and deserts had overtaken the Earth, and humans could survive only in jungle areas--the only place water and shelter remained. Unfortunately, Carnivores had risen to overtake the planet. Humankind--severely decreased in number--had returned to the Earth following the war to find their families slaughtered by the oversized man-eaters. In this time, men outnumbered women considerably.
Answering the humans' much belated cry for help, Hunters and Patrollers had come to the Earth and stopped the Carnivore blood baths. Humankind had sealed itself inside steel fortresses in an attempt to stop the Carnivores, yet despite the seemingly impenetrable fortress intended to keep them at bay, the beasts managed to kill even now. Always, they came without being seen, and though their coming was infrequent, they managed to kill stealthily and escape again unseen. The Hunters had searched endlessly and unsuccessfully without the fortress for the Carnivores' lair. It was as if the Carnivores had learned to control their hunger. No longer did they emerge and kill recklessly the way they had during the years war had taken most of the Earth's inhabitants and threatened those left behind to the point of near extinction. Perhaps, the Hunters had speculated, the Carnivores themselves were becoming extinct.
All along the road, Randolf stared through the closely-spaced, steel bars that rose nearly ten feet into the air and ended in sharp spikes, but the Carnivore had withdrawn. The jungle beyond the fortress enclosure felt silent and cloying, ripe with the scent of flowers, overgrown plants, and blood.
No, the blood was on him. Many a fortnight had passed since the Carnivores ventured inside the fortress walls. The humans were afraid and rarely ventured out into the open from their sealed homes and rail conveyances. This day, Randolf had tracked one with fierce hunger inside the gates. Tracked and killed it. But the man-eater had given him his scar. He looked down at the barely visible swipe of needle sharp claws that had raked his chest only once before he ripped its throat out with his teeth. Now he wore those very same claws around his neck as a souvenir of his victory this day. Tonight he and his brothers--the warrior priests from the planet Chaashane--would have fresh meat instead of the dried stores they had brought with them from their planet.
Turning aside, Randolf again moved in the direction of the Hunter Abode. Killing the Carnivores was his duty, and he had pledged his service to the wary humans for his four-year enlistment, which drew near its end. The needs of many outweighed the needs of one. Life must not be wasted. Humankind needed help if it were to survive the Carnivores and re-populate their planet again. All of their focus was on keeping their species alive and pure, so they accepted the help and protection given them by the Hunters and Patrollers. But they'd never liked them or welcomed them on their planet. Nevertheless, the Hunters considered it their duty to serve their Creator by serving all those who needed aid.
Nearly every human Randolf had met could be described in one word: Afraid. The humans were afraid of the Carnivores, afraid to hunt them by themselves, for fear of reducing their numbers again. Afraid of the toxic environment their own hands had brought about with their pollutants in the time past. Afraid of their protectors because of the special abilities they possessed and for the potential threat they posed in tainting the purity of their people. Most of all, they were afraid of dying out completely. Many of their warrior women who had fought in the Intergalactic War had rebelled against the decree of their elders passed long before the end of the war forbidding humans to pair-bond with other species.
The very few women on their planet--those who were capable of reproducing--were worshipped, coveted as their most valuable possessions, and given privileges no one was given on the planet. These women--Queens--had become nothing more than prized breeders. Once in a moon-cycle, their eggs were harvested in the attempt to "grow" a pure human race comparable to the days before their near extinction. The precious eggs were paired with sperm from only the strongest males and fertilized in a laboratory. Pair bonding was rare, allowed only in Castaway City, which was also within the enclosure, between sterile males and women who had failed to produce an heir. Families no longer existed in the City of Hope since children were gestated in labs and raised in sex-specific institutions to eliminate the likelihood that humans would be exposed to alien races.
Nevertheless, in the thirty years since the war had ended, the human race had continued to die out. Randolf believed if they continued in their fearful, illogical ways, they would not pass another thirty years without becoming extinct. The elders had refused to listen to anyone's counsel save their own, shrugging off anything not resembling their 'scientific logic' as superstitious nonsense. Nevertheless, Randolf believed the Creator of the Universe had judged and passed sentence on their illogical need to control the uncontrollable, which had led them to futilely seek creation of pure humans untainted by the aliens in the universe around them.
Ahead, he could see the sprawling buildings of the Hunter Abode. As on their planet, all things connected, including family living spaces. The buildings on the Earth were not as elaborate as those on Chaashane, and the Hunters serving their tour of duty had brought very few possessions, as was their way. No home could equal the one on their own beloved planet. They accepted their role as protectors for a designated time--protectors with no mementos of home save those they wore on their person. The humans had given them a large parcel of land within the fortress walls far from their own dwellings, where Hunters and Patrollers took shifts around the clock guarding. Here in Hunter Abode, they could spend a few hours outside of the humans' unwelcoming tolerance. Or they had been able to until one Queen had done the unthinkable.
Randolf's far-seeing gaze sought and found the window within the Abode where he knew she would be standing. Lady Sher of the Amethyst Star, a Queen and Procreator, had moved into the Hunter Abode two moon-cycles past. No one could have predicted it, could fathom it, nor could forbid it. As a Queen, all things were free to her on the planet. With her had come a garrison of Patrollers, further upsetting the balance of the Hunters' privacy and place of acceptance.
No one dared ask her "Lady Sher, why have you come to live here among us?" Randolf himself did not question her senseless decision. Because he knew.
Silhouetted in the growing darkness by the candlelight behind her, she stood in the window fragile and exquisite beyond anything he had ever seen. Without the light streaming in mercilessly during the day, she could tolerate this place she occupied when he came off-duty to his abode.
She risked the forbidden, unaware of her own intentions, he sensed. She, like the tiger carnivore that stalked him, was not like the others of her species. Unlike the rest of her people, Lady Sher of the Amethyst Star had absolutely no fear.
She had come to the Hunter Abode two moon-cycles previously to be nearer him just as he had taken a tour of duty to Earth to fulfill the vision foretold during his maturity ceremony. Randolf had come to meet his life-mate, sealed in the Amethyst Star.
* * * *
Sher didn't back away, out of the twilight, out of his reputedly sharp eyesight, even when Randolf looked up and searched out her window from more than a mile away.
How could she escape him? She had no desire to. For this very reason she'd come to the Hunter Abode. To watch him. To be near him. To fuel an obsession she knew could never be fulfilled the way she wished, was, in fact, forbidden by the laws of her people because she lived in a time when humans had become an endangered species.
Yet, as a Queen, she'd gone where previous procreators and those eventual ones wouldn't dare. What had she to fear, surrounded with protectors on the inside in the Patrollers, and protectors on the outside with the Hunters? Why shouldn't she know the state of their existence? Why shouldn't she live since she had no other hope in life?
After the age of sixteen, when she'd finally become a Queen, and the scientists could no longer forbid her, she'd spent much time listening to their advice. Finally, unable to keep herself from her own need for something more, she'd gone out of the palace, out of the City of Hope. Always surrounded by a garrison of the Patrollers--small, sleek, telepathic creatures that resembled the now extinct species of wolves she'd read about only in books; creatures that had a body chemistry that allowed them to surround anything and camouflage it so it appeared to disappear entirely--she had covered every inch inside the steel fortress. By day, she'd explored the communications center, which handled all intergalactic relations; the Headquarters for Safety and Regulations, where the Patrollers and Hunters checked in to their individual sections each day to give reports and receive orders; and even Castaway City, a place considered beneath a Queen.
Sher placed her fingertips against the glass as she recalled her travels and adventures, those few other Queens had experienced.
She'd also seen the Patrollers homes and social structures--strange, pod-like buildings that were made of a material unlike anything available on Earth, which they brought from their own planet. Earth was nearly as poisonous to the Patrollers as it had become to humans. Only by wearing special masks and inside their pods, which had the life-support suitable for them, could they survive for short amounts of time. They were a people who lived in a hive-mind structure that didn't encourage individualism. In appearance, each of them looked exactly the same without variation. With linked minds, they never acted as one, but as a group.
The Hunters were much different--even in their living structures found only in Hunter Abode. Sher glanced around at the Hunter home she dwelled in. Their homes were no more than compartments where they slept, though all were linked together in a complex building. Socially, they gathered in a place within the building on the lower level that she'd heard called "The Tank", which was much like a dining room. There was a brotherhood between them. They each had personalities, and no two looked alike.
Randolf, in particular, intrigued her. Again, she glanced down from the window, searching out and finding him as he approached from the road. Unlike the other Hunters, who showed the proper deference to her by not meeting her gaze because of her status above all others on the planet, Randolf's eyes followed her whenever she went. She had never gone alone anywhere. The Patrollers went with her. And Randolf had been with her. He followed at a distance, yet she always felt him. Even when he was off-duty, he watched her.
Hunters had a very human appearance. However, their home-planet was very similar to current-day Earth, and they could tolerate the sun easily. Even among the various races still inhabiting the Earth, without the ability to be in the sun for long periods their skin had paled considerably. Hunters were all dark, with sharp, white teeth and pointed ears under the thick black hair that covered their heads. Thick eyebrows, the hair around their mouths and jaws, and their arms was also very dark and more abundant than on humans. She'd often wondered what their bodies were like beneath the sleeveless tunics, pants and boots they wore.
Randolf was nothing like the men, scientists and politicians, of Earth. His body moved like that of the Carnivores she foolishly wanted to see outside of books and old movies. Men on Earth, those who worked in the labs and institutions and congress, didn't look at women the way Randolf looked at her. In the quest to keep mankind pure, men and women were kept completely separate for most of their lives, except those males who served the females. Children and adults were also separated. No relationships, not even friendship, were ever forged between the sexes, or in units some might consider families. She would never know or recognize the children she produced for her people. The few times she'd asked after the eggs harvested from her, she'd been told it was not for her to know.
Things were different here in the Hunter Abode than the way they were in Castaway City. Life wasn't sterile, even within the enclosure as it was. Friendships were a strong part of their lives in this place. Humans had made them unwelcome despite their request for aid and the hesitant tolerance between Hunters and Patrollers, stemming from the Patrollers distrust given the fact that they couldn't sense Hunters the way they could every other species. Remaining with her hadn't been easy for them since she'd come here, but their sense of duty and obligation to her as a Queen prevented their departure.
She watched Randolf enter the designated city of his brother-warriors. No longer could she watch him from afar. As the only being capable of intimidating her, she relished a meeting between them. "You must not go out, Lady Sher of the Amethyst Star," the Patroller hive insisted as one in her mind.
"It's evening. The sun won't harm me." Already, she moved toward the door.
"Carnivores prowl at night, Lady Sher of the Amethyst Star."
"You'll be there," she said confidently, and before her words had completed, they took up their places on all sides of her--not close enough to enact the invisible camouflage; nevertheless, ready at the slightest indication of danger to surround her.
Briskly, she moved down the stairs that led to the main level of the compound. As she did so, she lowered the gossamer veil over her face. The fabric was from another world, sheer and light, capable of protecting and providing her relief from head to toe against temporary exposure to the sunlight and the extreme humidity.
She emerged from the compound just as Randolf approached from the road. Though he didn't approach her as close as she would have liked and did lower his gaze and his head in deference, he took a risk no other would have. He met her eyes again as he said, "Layus-mon to you, milady" in the custom of his own people.
She saw his faint surprise and respect that she knew of his culture. More than any other people, she had studied those from the planet Chaashane.
"Carnivores hunt at night, Lady Sher. You are not safe outside at this time."
Only briefly, she glanced at the Patrollers around her. "As you can see, I'm well protected, Hunter."
The haughtiness in her own voice rang back at her, and she disliked it intensely. This was her first attempt to engage him in a conversation. Few would believe she lacked the courage to do so before now. She--the fearless Queen who'd broken all the unspoken rules by venturing outside the City of Hope, who had visited Comm Central, the off-worlders' headquarters and homes. She who had entered Castaway City, home to the scorned and forgotten. She who had made a home for herself where only Hunters inhabited. She who fulfilled her obligations to her people and who wanted to know the unknowable...with a Hunter.
Trying not to show her discomfort at his patience in waiting on her for either more conversation or dismissal, she said, "I so infrequently see the outside. Surely I'm allowed to when it's safe?"
"It's never safe, milady, but you have seen it all..." Once more, he lowered his gaze deferentially, but she sensed the amusement there, too. "As you say, Lady Sher. What have you to fear?"
Many considered her reckless. She was well aware that she was mankind's best hope. Previous Queens had been unable to reproduce for years and those offspring who had survived conception were rumored to have died at some point after their fifth year. No other females were of harvesting age aside from her. If she became lost or killed, the human race could become extinct. What right did she have to feel lonely? What right did she have to a personal life, aside from her role as little more than a breeder? What justification did she have for longing for an emotion long since banned for humans--for chosen ones? Her heart's desire could never be fulfilled, especially not with a Hunter, this very one who filled her every waking and dreaming mind with forbidden longings she couldn't begin to understand. What right did she have to want to understand these feelings inside her?
Around her, she sensed the unease of the Patrollers, yet this amused her because they usually lacked emotion. Standing with this Hunter had them on edge, and, as her gaze met Randolf's dark, compelling one, she realized that he shared her amusement about this.
"Perhaps you'd like to stay and ascertain my safety as well, Hunter?" she said softly, unwilling to let her glance stray from his.
He didn't disappoint her when he matched her unwillingness to stray from their meeting. "If you wish, Lady Sher, I am at your disposal."
Warmth she couldn't name filled her face. Technically, he was off-duty for the night, and she'd seen the importance the Hunters placed on joining together, talking, connecting with one another. Yet she couldn't help her nod as she glanced around at the compound, where Hunters watched them without direct interest.
Life was so different here than in the City of Hope. Her people were focused entirely on procreation, reproduction, avoiding extinction at all cost. All study was based in some part on learning the past, present, and future of the human race so the scientists and politicians could debate how best to act now to achieve the desired result of repopulating the Earth with humans. But here life buzzed with colors and scents, things to do and listen to. They laughed in this place, something she'd never heard until she ventured out of the city of the chosen. Hunters played and listened to music as entertainment instead of purely for education. They played games outside of those that enriched the mind. No, life here wasn't sterile. It was primal, and, since she'd come here to live, she'd felt a kind of excitement she couldn't explain.
Conversations within the City of Hope amounted to question and answer exchanges, commands, and those debates and lectures associated with politics and education. Now that she'd secured a legitimate reason for Randolf to stay with her, her mind became a blank. He continued to watch her in an intense way that would have been reprimanded anywhere outside of the Hunter Abode. His gaze seemed to see right through her, and she couldn't help noticing the way his eyes drifted over her body before returning to her face. The warmth in her face increased, and she took an uncontrollable step toward him. The scent of him so close made the blood race wildly in her veins.
"Your day of hunting was a success?" she asked, seeing the necklace of Carnivore claws that signaled a kill to his people. He would be honored this night with his people...once she allowed him to leave her side. She knew his kill had been logged at the S&R headquarters and then delivered to their city for consumption. She also knew she should have been disgusted by it and the scent of the cooking meat that permeated the whole of the city. Her people were brought up to abhor meat and killing, but she couldn't help her fascination with their customs.
"Yes," Randolf responded. "Today, I have had success. Perhaps you would care to join my brothers and I for the celebratory dinner?"
His invitation shocked her, and she spluttered in protest, "But...you...you eat the meat of your kill, Hunter!"
Smiling slightly, he nodded. "That I do, milady. Very few races who do not are as strong as we are. In this way, we honor the life taken because we waste nothing."
Sher turned away, wanting to deny the weakness of her own species. As they could no longer tolerate their own climate or the now dominant species on the planet, her people had become vegetarians, subsisting on the plants they grew within the fortress. Though many claimed it was a choice made to strengthen their people, logic told her they'd had little choice in the matter. And the smell of the roasting meat, far from disgusting, forced her to admit to herself that, given the choice again, most humans would be carnivores themselves. Her own meal of vegetables and fruits had done nothing to calm the raging hunger the scent coming through her window tonight had caused.
The Patrollers surrounding her suddenly became wary, and she pivoted her glance around her to find Randolf so close to her, her breath suspended in her throat.
"Is that a refusal to my invitation, Lady Sher?"
She saw his teeth--blindingly white, and sharp as daggers--and his firm, soft lips curled around them, and her heart thrilled within her. He wasn't human, despite a resemblance to humans. Humans must never pair bond with any other race. It was their law. Yet she would have liked nothing better than to touch her own mouth to his.
What did she know of being social, of interacting with a man? She knew nothing. Only that this hunter had filled her every thought since the very first time she saw him. Her unexplainable longings, her loneliness, had grown out of the very need she had to be near him. Next to him. Close enough to touch him and never stop. She wanted the forbidden. The one thing she could never have.
Just as sudden as the Patrollers' wariness came Randolf's own. He crouched, eyes narrowing to slits, teeth bared, nose working the air. Without looking at her, he urged her back toward the compound. "You must go inside, milady. It is not safe here."
A second later, he bounded away with the other Hunters in a blur of speed and strength, affecting her as much as his nearness had. But, when the Patrollers surrounded and whisked her back inside, she couldn't murmur the slightest protest.