NOVEMBER 1, 3017
Kaya stares at herself in the mirror, remembering that fateful afternoon so many years ago. She lay in her son's bed for a year, barely eating or drinking, taken care of by Sun. While in her state, she had managed to ask Sun to get rid of all the food and appliances. They had been dropped off at a donation center for those who had survived the disaster. She hadn't kept any of her pots and pans and most of her dishes were gone. The stove was still in place, but never used, and the dishwasher had been removed, leaving a giant gaping hole in the cabinetry. All the bathroom doors were shut, as she had no running water, and the only time she actually went in any of them was to make sure nothing had crawled in there and made itself a den or to use a mirror like she was doing now. The pictures had been tidied from broken glass and frames and placed in a box. Anything that had been in the storage closet under the stairs had been removed. Even most of her clothes had been removed. The books and the bookcases had been left untouched, along with the children's room.
Clicking back to reality, Kaya grabs her comb and runs it through her long curls, her hair almost reaching her knees. Reaching behind her, she grabs her black hair and braids it over her left shoulder. Almost five winters, five ziemas, have passed since then. Five years she has been alone. She leaves the bathroom and sliding her feet into her boots, Kaya grabs her bow and quiver of arrows resting on her bed and straps them to her back. The sun has fallen beneath the horizon and it is time to hunt. Leaving her bedroom she stops in front of her children's room. She hasn't been inside for years. Resting her hand on the closed door, she recites a soft prayer for their souls. Every night she says this prayer right before a hunt. Every night for almost four years now.
Locking the door behind her, Kaya walks the perimeter of her house. After she had finally returned to her senses, she had found planks of wood from collapsed houses and nails and had boarded all of her windows. Now that the glass had shattered, she needed all of these opened areas closed so no one would come inside. It had been a large pain in the ass, but she had managed it. When she had run out of the nails she had in her toolbox, she took the ones holding the frames on the walls and used those. When those had run out, she had scavenged foundered homes and buildings for building materials. The fence around her house had been fixed and expanded. She had dug a well in her backyard and kept it safe with a car door she had garnered from an abandoned vehicle on the street. A garden was created and grew alongside the house, using her own urine as a way to fertilize and make the herbs, fruits, and vegetables flourish. Even her peach tree had begun bearing fruit last year.
All seemed quiet around her home. No one dared mess with her well or her garden, not since the last person who did ended up with an arrow in the butt. Satisfied with her surroundings, Kaya grabs a satchel left leaning against the garden fence. Inside are nuts and dried herbs in small little velvet bags, and weapons of various styles. The sky is dark now and Kaya knows no one is watching. Pulling out a belt from the bag, she grabs a machete and a dagger with a blade about fifteen centimeters in length. The belt holds a sheath for each blade and she buckles it into place around her waist. She sifts through the bag, making sure all of her tools are in order; a compass, rope, bandages, and an ointment she made out of herbs she found in the woods. Pulling out a small canteen, she walks to the well and moves the car door aside just enough to expose the opening. Grabbing the bucket whose chain has been bricked into the well, she lowers it down to fill with ground water and pours the cool liquid inside the canteen. Standing up, Kaya places the canteen into a pocket latched to her belt. Grabbing her satchel, she climbs the inside of the fence and launches herself to the ground, heading north into the woods.
Up in the lower branches of a tree, Kaya nocks an arrow in preparation for her hunt. Her breathing is calm, paced, and shallow, so as not to make too much noise and scare away the small animals she hopes to make her dinner. Spying a delphi, a marsupial animal resembling Earth's opossum, Kaya raises her bow and arrow, stretching out her left arm and pulling back the string until her right hand is level with her chin. "What are you doing up there?" she hears below her. Startled, Kaya turns, almost loosening her arrow.
"Damn it, Sun. I almost shot you in the face."
"Sorry. I thought you were food and was about to come after you. I was startled when I found you in a tree."
"Sun, you know how I smell. You know I'm not food."
"I know, but you know my sense of smell is a bit off until both moons are on top of each other." Kaya looks up at the sky. Both moons are visible now that it's dark, sitting side by side, but the only way the zoanthropes know when their abilities are at their peak is when the red moon is above the yellow moon.
"Every twenty-nine and a half days, am I right?"
"Yep, and that doesn't happen for another three days. It's even worse now that I'm pregnant again."
"Shouldn't you be home with Johnny and Terra?"
"My mom's with them. Johnny injured himself in the last hunt, and my mom being human makes it difficult to hunt as well as we do. I have to make it home soon, anyway. My breasts are already beginning to swell, so Terra's bound to be hungry soon." At this, Sun adjusts her breasts inside her shirt, wincing slightly at her own touch. "So what are you doing in that tree?"
"The same reason you are out and about. I was about to shoot a delphi when your dumb ass ruined it. Now I'll have to wait even longer for something else to come along. Maybe I'll be able to find another delphi, or even a rocyon."
"Sorry about that. I seriously thought you were a bigger animal. I must have confused your scent with the delphi's. I did find a nest of sleeping sciuros if you want one," Sun says, holding up a satchel toward Kaya. "I know it's no delphi, but it's something. There are, like, seven of them in there so you can take two if you want." Kaya jumps down from the tree landing inches away from Sun. Opening the satchel, she grabs one and shoves it into her own bag.
"Thanks, but one is enough. You have a husband and a child to feed." Kaya's heart aches saying these words. Damn it, it's been five years. Get over yourself. "Besides, I'll be hunting for a little while longer. I'm sure I'll find something." Hugging Sun, she adds, "I'll see you tomorrow, and hopefully, you won't confuse me with food again." Laughing, Sun parts, and heads home. Kaya smiles at her friend and once again climbs the tree in anticipation for another critter to come out into her line of vision.
If it were safe to hunt during the day, she would. In the light, her vision is clearer, being able to see the magnetic energy fields everything emits. In the darkness, the colors are dim and she has to concentrate much harder to see them. Her sense of feeling them doesn't change, but the colors they emit are what she needs to see. But if she hunts during the day, she becomes the hunted. So many of her people, the new people, like her and Sun, the Chaoziran, are being hunted, disappearing to Jove knows where. She can't take the chance of being captured. At night her only worry is finding food, but during the day, she has to be extra careful in hopes that none of the humans find her out.
Karl sets his beer down on the table. The pub is noisy and full of hunters. The stench of man sweat assaults his nostrils and he's sure that someone has vomited somewhere. "So why are we here in Summer Tree? Couldn't you find a city in Saxet that wasn't hit by an asteroid? There are plenty of states here in Haven, hell, in the entire continent of Ironside, that aren't crawling with crazy people around a large crater. It's hard to find a place here with electricity."
Michael looks up from his notes at his older brother. "Seriously, how many times must I remind you that the Chaoziran are more powerful and more common around the site of a meteorite? The radiation helps heighten their abilities."
Karl snorts and takes another swig of his beer. "Calm your panties, man. You don't have to get all snippy."
"I'm not snippy. If you would do your research ahead of time I wouldn't have to keep repeating myself. It's incredibly vexing and it makes me want to punch you in the face."
"Blah, blah, blah, I don't care. I repeat, why are we here?"
Michael grows in frustration. "How old are you? Thirty-five? Why must you act like a child?"
"Why must you act like an old fart?"
"Karl, shut up. I have not had enough beer for this shit."
"Quit being such a whiney bitch. Why. Are. We. Here?"
Growling louder, Michael balls his hands into fists and takes a few calming deep breaths. He does not want a fight with his brother. He doesn't care that Karl is the older of the two. He's taller and less drunk. He could easily lay Karl down flat, but now is not the time. "We are here for the same reason we were in Morning Star last week. We have a bounty to collect."
"What kind? Lycan? Ailuran?"
"No. No zoanthropes."
"Blood suckers, then."
"No. No vampires or zombi, either." Michael leans in closer to his brother. "We're hunting a nahualli."
"A witch?" Karl's voice drops down to a whisper. The last thing he needs is for one of the other hunters to overhear. "That is the rarest form of Chao there is. They can easily manipulate people into thinking they are human; they blend in with everyone else. Are you sure there's one here?"
"Yes," Michael says, pushing his notes around toward his brother. "The Ironside Disease Control Center specifically hired us to find this witch. They're willing to pay us 1,500 each if we bring her in unharmed. Only 1,000 each if she's hurt but brought back alive, and 500 if we bring back her body. Her name is Kaya Miller, formerly Blackthorne. Her parents were Peter and Zinnia Blackthorne. Five years ago she was married to a Jason Miller and had four children. All of them, including her in-laws and three siblings she had, died in the asteroid crashes. Up until recently, it was thought that she had died in the disaster as well. When the DCC came to sweep the area last month, someone reported seeing a woman exiting out of the house listed under Jason's name. She's rarely seen during the day, and rumor has it she is never found around any of the zoanthropes or dhampirs. There's no evidence to show she's a regenerate, either. The picture on file is from about fifteen years ago when she was still a teenager, so I'm sure she's changed, but probably not by much. I'm told that nahuallis, along with the dhampirs, age slowly." Leaning back against his seat, Michael waits until Karl lets everything sink in.
"So all we have to do is bring her to the Capital alive and we end up with three grand?"
"That's pretty much it."
Karl studies the picture still on the table. "How old was she here?"
"She looks twelve. So you're saying she still looks like this?"
"Pretty much. The only thing that she could have changed is her hair, unless she's ended up with some disfiguring scar across her face or something." Karl continues to stare at the picture. "What is it?"
"You say this was taken almost fifteen years ago?"
Michael nods. "Yeah. It's the only picture they had on file, the one she took when she received her driving certificate on her identification card. Why?"
"It's just that she looks so tiny, like a child."
"Technically she is tiny. She's only about 15 decimeters high." Michael watches as Karl traces his fingers over Kaya's features. Her dark curls are short and frame her face, her brown eyes large and innocent. Her lips are full and her light brown skin seems flawless, with only a few freckles scattered across her round cheeks and button nose. A look of confusion crosses Karl's face. "Whatever it is, don't worry about it. She's thirty-one right now, not much younger than I am."
Karl sighs and pushes the papers back at his brother. "You're right. It just makes me feel weird. We're in our thirties, just like she is, but we look like we're in our thirties, you know? Here I am, I've got crow's feet at my eyes, and grey hair sprinkled on the sides of my head, and there she is looking twelve. That's not natural."
"That's not the only thing unnatural about her, and that's why we have to find her and take her to the DCC."
"I need another beer," says Karl and raises his right hand to flag down a waitress.
Michael quickly scoops up his papers and slides them neatly into a folder before shoving them into the bag draped on the back of his chair. I don't know what's gotten into him, he muses. Since when does Karl care what our subject looks like? We've bagged dhampirs who've looked just as young. Maybe not quite so young, but young nonetheless. Not to mention the zoans we've captured that were only children. It's a good thing her children died in that asteroid crash, though, or else we would be hunting them as well.
Kaya sighs. After an extra hour in the woods, she was unable to find a larger animal to eat. The delphi never returned after being scared off by Sun. She had seen a mus, a rodent even smaller than the sciuro, but it had been snatched up by a strigi bird almost immediately after Kaya had taken aim for it. Now she stands in her backyard in front of her grill, poking the firewood and frowning at her partially-cooked sciuro. "This is some bullshit," she mutters, turning over the skinned animal on the rack. "I would have settled for a lepus, but no, even that was asleep and hiding somewhere." A sudden cracking noise startles Kaya out of her foul mood. Moving quickly and silently, Kaya grabs the lid of the grill and sets it gently on top, closing the vent and extinguishing the flame. Crouching low, she walks the perimeter of the garden and squeezes into a corner by the gate, making sure she is hidden by shadows. She hears voices, men's voices, none of which she recognizes.
"Is this it?" asks Karl, taking in the view of the house. Michael nods. "Are you sure? It looks abandoned."
"It's the address on the paper the DCC gave me. It has to be."
"Mikey, this shit looks like no one has lived in here for the past five years. I mean, look at this. All the windows are busted and boarded up, the fence is a hot mess, though still in one piece, and there are fucking coppe webs everywhere. Sure, the grass is much lower than it should be, but it's still too tall for anyone who would want to live in this place."
"True, but isn't that what you would want people to think if you were trying to lay low? She can't possibly live like a normal human when people believe she's dead."
"Nobody can live like a normal human in this place. There's no electricity, no water, no nothing. Hell, the only people who could survive in a place like this would be Chaoziran. This area must be crawling with them."
"You're probably right, Karl, but that's not what we're looking for here. Let's go check shit out."
Shrinking further into the shadows, Kaya holds her breath in anticipation. So the bounty hunters (Karl and, was it Michael?) are finally after me, she reflects. She presses her ear harder against the fence post in hopes of better hearing the conversation.
"I can't see anything through the boards on the windows, it's too dark inside." says Mike. "Have you tried the door?"
"Yeah, it's locked."
"And? When has that ever stopped you?"
"Listen, genius, we came here straight from the pub. I am most likely drunk and all of my shit is in our room back at the motel by said pub. Excuse me for not thinking we were going to go hunting immediately after drinking, because, you know, that makes sense."
"SH!" Mike hisses. "Shut up, Karl. A simple 'I left it behind' would have sufficed. Geez. Now be quiet, you're getting too loud." He signals at his brother for silence. Grimacing, Karl throws up his hand in a rude gesture toward his brother. "Oh, real classy, Karl. Quit being a child."
"Stop being such a pansy. There's nobody here."
"You know, sometimes you are the worst bounty hunter ever." Sighing, Mike walks over to the gate and attempts to peer over it; he's just tall enough that the tip of his nose touches the top. Now paralyzed with fear, Kaya sends a silent prayer out into the ether in hopes no one notices her as she squishes further into the corner where the fence meets the brick of the house.
"Anything?" pipes Karl when he notices Mike standing on tip-toe against the gate.
"Not really. Even though there is plenty of light from the moons, there are too many shadows cast from the plants. All I can see is what looks like a car door on the ground."
"Why the hell would someone leave a car door in the middle of their backyard?"
Incredibly frustrated with his brother, Mike sighs and reaches for the gate's handle. "Man, I don't know." The gate gives a little but doesn't open.
Kaya closes her eyes, curling into a ball. Please let it still be locked. I went to hunt by jumping over the fence. I came back by jumping it again. I never used the gate. Please let it still be locked. Please, please, please.
Mike pulls on the handle again, harder this time, hearing metal against metal. Looking down, he finally notices the small padlock looped through the gate's latch. "It's locked. Doesn't miss a single one, does she?"
"You could jump the fence."
"You jump the fence."
"Dude, I'm drunk. I could break something."
"Yeah, well you're also short, useless." Quickly ducking, Mike narrowly misses a punch thrown directly at his face. Kaya relaxes at the sounds of the boys' scuffle. The two of them can be heard rolling in the grass, grunting and cursing, spitting out bits of grass and dirt. "Knock it off, Karl!" Mike seethes. Karl is pinned to the ground, his face in the dirt and arms behind his back while Mike sits on him. "We don't have time for this."
"Fine!" Karl spits, dirt still stuck on his lips. "I'm fine. Now, get off me." Rising to his feet, Mike lets go of Karl's hands. "Are we done here?" Karl asks, dusting the dirt off his hands and clothing. Kaya stiffens. "I'm tired, drunk, and now bruised and probably bleeding." He taps a spot on his bottom lip, checking the tips of his fingers. "Yep, I'm bleeding. I am fucking bleeding. Way to go, Mikey."
Mike shrugs. "You took a swing at me, remember? You deserved it. As to whether or not we're done here, yeah, we're done. Without any of our supplies, we can't get much done, now can we? Especially with her having locked everything. I could jump the fence, but I'm too tired myself to exert that much energy. We'll call it a night and head back to the hotel. We'll come back tomorrow."
"Good, because I am done." With a spit of blood, Karl punctuates his sentence.
Keeping her ear pressed to the fence, Kaya waits until the boys' receding footsteps are no longer heard. Slowly letting out the breathe she had forgotten she was holding, Kaya lifts herself up and stretches her now stiffened joints. The temperature outside has dropped since she started cooking the sciuro and she's lost her appetite. Quietly climbing the fence, she peers over it to make sure the men are gone. Seeing no one, she drops back down and walks to the grill, opening its lid. The sciuro is still only partially cooked, but still warm. Not wanting it to go to waste she grabs it, walks in the house through the back door, locks it behind her, and sits on the couch in the living room. Taking a bite of meat, she considers her new situation. Well, she concludes. I'm fucked.