Want a look-see at what I’ve been up to? This is my latest project, An Unauthorized Field Guide of the Hunt. Or you can call it my pornocats. I sure have been, LOL.
“Entering an arena is like being awarded a ticket in the most exclusive mega bucks lotto in the galaxy…except that ticket is accompanied by vicious claws, fangs, and a barbed penis.” ~ Shane West
Mariket, Arena 4
Shane bounced lightly on the grate floor in the crowded hovercraft to stay nimble as he monitored the red light above the bay door. He used his peripheral vision to assess the ship’s complement of Hunt competitors. He wished he could believe the division of competitors for transport to Mariket was coincidental and that his assignment to a ship with just two other humans was bad luck. Lying to himself—if only to calm his screaming nerves—would result in failure and pain, though. The cats never left anything to chance. For some unknown and unknowable reason, the cats had chosen to insert him into the arena with a group that included few likely allies. That could mean screening tests had indicated Shane was a poor candidate, to be discarded early and ruthlessly. Or the cats might believe him so well suited for the Hunt that he’d been selected for the gift of vulnerability.
Either way, when that light flashed green and the bay door glided open, Shane was in deep shit.
He slowed his breathing by inhaling a long drag of air through his nose until his chest fully inflated and then released it through his lips in a protracted though silent hiss. Panic wouldn’t help.
Shrugging to secure his backpack comfortably on his shoulders, he pretended not to notice the spicy stench from the majority of Nambians on the ship. So what if the agile and ferocious creatures could trigger their own heat? Any cat who would fall for the promise of a fast fuck rather than the lure of the chase wasn’t for Shane. Let the Nambians squander limited time and resources on orgies. Shane hadn’t come to the Hunt to entertain lusty cats as their whore.
He just hoped the Nambians didn’t think much of his strategy, either. If they’d identified him for elimination when they exited the hovercraft, Shane was doomed.
The red light flickered.
The shields had lowered to allow hovercrafts into the arenas then.
Not much longer.
Shane’s pulse sprinted as his fight or flight response kicked into overdrive. He lifted his hand to curl his fingers around the strap of his backpack to anchor it. The cats never allowed them to take much into the Hunt, but he couldn’t afford to lose his kit. Vulnerability was fine, maybe even good. Helpless stupidity wouldn’t be forgiven.
By the time the pneumatic door slid wide, Shane had already leaped forward. Smaller, quicker, Shane pushed through his fellow competitors and squinting at the brightness of the arena from the gloom of the ship, he jumped through the bay door. He contorted to free himself from a tug on his pack and grunted at the jar of his feet landing on solid ground.
He bent to dislodge another grasping wrench on his pack. And he ran.
To the trees.
He focused on making it through the thick underbrush that circled the landing pad and the fact that cats waited in that forest, primed to hunt him, was irrelevant. At least the cats wouldn’t beat Shane and worse to strut their strength and superiority. Leaving the Hunt too soon was more dangerous than all the competitors and cats in the arena combined, an early evac as good as a death sentence for him. If he didn’t reach another landing pad and ally with a larger group of humans…
He streaked across the field cleared for the hovercraft. Snarls, screams, and the thuds of fists landing on flesh erupted behind him before he’d scrambled halfway to the woods, the sickening sounds a chorus signaling the predictable rush of medivacs during the first moments of the Hunt. Let them fight. Fewer rivals for Shane with the cats. He’d last longer. Plus, the brawl would occupy wardens. He he wouldn’t have to worry about the officials intruding to spur this season on.
Pounding footsteps followed closely behind Shane as he raced toward the forest. He’d never believed he was the only competitor on his ship with the brains to opt out of an unfriendly alliance at this entry point. He didn’t need to be smartest, though. He needed to be fastest.
With a frantic glance, he pinpointed the least dense sliver of overgrown thicket ahead and legs pumping, he shot directly for it. Whoever was trailing him—more than one competitor judging by the collection of uneven pants—would be on him once he entered the woods, but he might still give them the slip if he forged a quicker path through the barrier of briars.
He barreled into the prickly patch of leaves and twigs, lifting an arm to shield his eyes from jutting thorns that whipped at him as he used his momentum to punch a hole in the brush. Brambles gouged his hands, his neck, any exposed skin. Ignoring the sting, he raced on. The scritch of tearing fabric and brief flare of pain at his thigh didn’t stall him. Even the vines tangling around his feet didn’t slow him. When he tripped, he simply rolled, allowing the weight of his body to ram him forward. He tumbled once, twice. Too fast. A disorienting spiral of violent green whirled around him until his legs hitting a slender tree jerked him to a stop. Shaking his head to clear the dizziness, he scrambled on all fours through a tunnel of dappled leaves. He was almost in the forest proper. If young trees grew and native wildlife had made a path of bent limbs in the thicket to feast on ripe berries, he must be close.
The brush thinned.
Shane lurched to his feet, stooping in the cramped space. He could move faster now. Even as the underbrush cleared around him, he knew he’d failed, though. The labored pants behind him had dispersed, curses and sucking breaths echoing from both his left and to his right.
He hadn’t outrun them.
As the leaf-cover melted away, he spotted one of the other humans running to his right. He was smaller than Shane, who was considered tall back home on Narone where sporadic growing seasons had stunted evolution in human development. The crown of Shane’s head barely reached the chins of his kind everywhere else, but this human was shorter still. Shane could take the guy in a fight, if he had to. Not so the gigantic Aretu ahead and to Shane’s left, whose black eyes streamed wet from the daylight that must be blinding him, but whose long legs and wide stride ate up the distance Shane tried to put between them. He wouldn’t fair well against Aretu talons or camouflaging black fur come nightfall.
At least one other competitor ran behind them, probably two, but the greater need for haste didn’t allow Shane to glance over his shoulder. The walls of rich lush green they’d burrowed through muffled ringing cries and growls from the melee they’d fled at the landing pad, but that didn’t mean any of them were safe yet.
Shane stumbled to a halt only when the black dots that danced across his vision from lack of oxygen made him cripplingly light-headed and his empty stomach proved it wasn’t so hollow Shane couldn’t wretch up bile at the brutal pace. He bent over, hands braced on his knees, and vomited to the forest floor.
The Aretu didn’t look back. It kept running. Good riddance.
The human next to him cried out and collapsed to the ground in a heap of flailing arms and legs a few paces away. The other human from the ship slammed into him, the two of them rolling in a clump of limbs. Their combined shouts rang out loud enough to draw every predator in the arena. Fantastic. If Shane wasn’t so busy puking his guts into the dirt, he would’ve cursed. May as well shout the news from the treetops. The travelling feast is here!
Startled from his disgust, he jerked away from a canteen shoved under his nose – more specifically, from the shimmering scales of the triple-clawed hand offering water to him. “Not to drink. To rinse your mouth,” an unmistakable trilling voice said.
Horror jolted up his spine and forced Shane to tilt his head up.
He hadn’t evaded the bloodthirsty Nambians, after all.
Hard to tell since this one leaned over him, but the Nambian looked like a runt, not quite as tall as others of his kind and not as bulky with muscle. If Shane straightened to his full height, this Nambian would tower above him by the span of just a few hands. The iridescent scales were smaller too, roughly the size of Shane’s thumb instead of his fist. This predator was young, barely an adult, which might have convinced Shane had driven the reptile to flee a species alliance at the landing pad that would pick off weaker members as soon as rivals had been dispensed with—if not for the notorious sacrificial loyalty of Nambian competitors in the Hunt.
“Allies?” the Nambian hissed.
Shane mightily resisted the urge to throw up again. “Thanks,” he told his assassin. Shane accepted the silver canteen and pretended to spill a little of its contents to ensure what spattered to the forest floor wasn’t acid. Maybe poisoned? Under the Nambian’s reptilian gaze, Shane lifted the canteen. He shifted casually to the side and placed the webbed skin separating his thumb and forefinger between the opening and his mouth before feigning a sip, then spitting sour saliva into the dirt to dutifully “rinse.” Returning the canteen to his own kit, the Nambian squeezed his shoulder. “I will see,” the scaly predator said through his weirdly lipless mouth, gaze indicating the other two humans groaning nearby. “Stay.”
Since the Nambian hadn’t attacked yet, Shane sat on the ground and rested. Struggled to catch his breath. Maybe the Nambian preferred to eliminate the pesky humans from the Hunt one by one. A single man wasn’t as strong as the cunning reptiles, no matter how young, but humans outnumbered the Nambian for now so Shane was probably safe. He’d exercise patience while the others tried to pull together an alliance among this landing pad’s refugees, wait for his opportunity to slip away. Mentally praying for a distraction, he watched the Nambian stride to the others.
“Snake got him. Does anyone have something sharp?” one of the humans, the chunky blond who had crashed into the first man, asked.
The Nambian pivoted to angle his creepy scaled head in query at Shane.
“No,” he reluctantly admitted.
The creature grinned, pointy teeth menacing. “I do.”
“Get away from it,” the other human whined, clasping his leg to his chest.
“You’re bit and it’s already swelling,” the blond said. “Do you want to leave the arena on an accident medivac this early?”
Rucking up his Hunt shirt, the Nambian withdrew a forbidden dagger from the waistband at his scaly abdomen. “The venom must come out,” he agreed, beady black eyes focused on Shane instead of the others. “You could die.”
As if Shane needed another clue that the Nambian would make Shane his bitch if he didn’t get the hells away?
The blond guy held out a flat palm for the contraband knife. “I grew up on a farm with a lot of vipers. I know how to extract venom. I’ll do it.”
Smirking at Shane, the Nambian handed over the knife.
The blond proved humans could be as sly and deadly as every other species sent into the arenas by immediately sticking the dagger between shiny scales and into the Nambian’s gut. As they wrestled for control of the smuggled dagger, Shane hauled his winded ass off the ground. He’d sprinted out of sight before the echoes from the first screams died in the alien forest and the wardens’ shouted warnings to “Stand clear! Drop the weapon!” rumbled. A trio of med techs wearing the standard blue Arena 4 jumpsuit streaked by Shane.
One less Nambian to compete against.
The snakebite would trigger the medical evac of the other human, too.
Maybe Shane’s luck had turned.
* ~ * ~ *
He jogged all day. The five landing pads inside the arenas were spaced so far apart he wouldn’t stumble into range of other competitor groups and a more secure human alliance until tomorrow, but Shane hadn’t survive to adulthood by being careless. Once he broke free of the perilous bottleneck at his own entry point, he doubled back to ensure the blond hadn’t continued following him. Then, he slowed his pace to watch for signs. Scuffed dirt. Broken branches. Disturbed leaves.
While he hadn’t fostered in the countryside of Narone in his teens, Shane had dodged raiders after one of his brothers had arranged for a malfunctioning speeder to dump him in the Badlands once. He could avoid others when he needed to.
He sure needed to.
Cats most readily accepted humans. No one was sure why. Thousands of offworlders queued through the cats’ screening center on the Seskeran moon every mating cycle and dozens of species had made the cut to be inserted into one of the five arenas on Mariket. All were hunted. No other offworlders won the Hunt as frequently as humans, though, which put one hell of a target on Shane’s back. That the cats pounced and toyed with humans most was unnerving. Add the ferocity of other species desperate for a victor and the harrowing odds against humans usually persuaded those tempted to enter the Hunt to reconsider. Winning was too horrible to contemplate. Most humans stayed away.
Shane hadn’t enjoyed that luxury. He must compete. His brothers’ attempts to kill him had forced him to the one spot in the galaxy impregnable to uninvited offworlders–Mariket. If he managed to impress the cats and convince them to accept him in trade negotiations after the Hunt concluded, he would become too valuable to his home planet to waste. Narone wouldn’t tolerate losing Shane to petty family squabbling. He would finally be free of them. And safe.
If he didn’t fuck it up by mating a cat.
He must compete well. Very well.
Just not too well.
Rather than pondering the perilous dance of his Hunt, Shane concentrated on scouting for berries, nuts, and anything that looked edible as he jogged. He’d made not thinking about the Hunt and the cats his mission inside the arena. That mission would be more successful if, instead of freaking out, he narrowed his focus to only what was immediately necessary. Escaping his hovercraft’s group of competitors before his bruised and bloodied body became the stepping-stone of a victor? Necessary.
Shane squinted at pea-sized purple berries in the highest limbs of bushes ahead.
Finding something to fill his cavernous stomach and show off his self-sufficiency?
Sweeping his surroundings for predators, Shane slid his pack off his aching shoulders at what must’ve been well past midday. Hard to tell with the gloom, Mariket’s sun hidden by the forest canopy. He unzipped his pack and retrieved one of the few personal items the cats allowed—his flatscreen. Unlike many competitors, poverty hadn’t driven Shane to the Hunt so his screen was security coded to power up in the palm of his hand alone. Stomach gurgling, he waited while the device read his handprint and decided that a dirty, sweat-streaked Shane was still indeed Shane. The screen glowed to life. With a few taps of his fingers, Shane was thumbing through a plant identification guide he’d loaded into the handheld device.
He smiled moments later when the leaf arrangement on the stems, the shape and color of the berries, and even the dark fertile soil all indicated he’d discovered a meal that wouldn’t poison him. He shut down the screen to conserve battery life and returned it to his pack, trading the device for a collapsible cooking pot.
He circled the bushes, picking berries at chest height. Other forest scavengers had already stripped fruit from that point down. No matter how his stomach grumbled, he harvested a thin band along that watershed mark so he wouldn’t leave obvious signs of his presence to others. Luckily, he spotted wild mushrooms beneath the lowest branches that his screen once again assured him would not kill him. Between the berries and the mushrooms, he filled his pot.
That should increase his odds with bookies taking bets across the galaxy. Another step closer to becoming too valuable for his family to kill.
Carrying the pot so he could toss bites into his mouth, he moved on. The berries burst, tart and juicy, on his tongue. The mushrooms were bland and unpleasantly rubbery, but he’d been able to harvest more of them so the volume pacified the yowls of his stomach.
He veered off his current heading when half the berries and mushrooms were gone. The gods must have blessed him because the sound of gurgling water guided him to a pond the size of his sleeping quarters back home. Ordinary lilies floated on the surface. Insects snapped and buzzed. He crouched behind giant ferns and studied the tracks in the mud surrounding the water source while he finished his supper. No claw marks, which was both warning and relief. Nambians and other taloned competitors hadn’t visited the pool. But neither had the cats. Maybe they were all too busy fucking to care about one lone human roaming their hunting ground.
He set out again when he felt the cool night creeping near. He needed to be far from a water source and hidden by the time the forest gloom deepened to pitch black.
The cats were nocturnal. Mostly.
Shane hiked as long as he practicably could, but this time, his luck gave out. He wanted a pile of rocks, a hill not built by biting insects, maybe a cave. He found none. Fallen trees that might’ve provided a camouflaging shelter had been markedly absent during his journey through this section of the arena. The forest was the forest was the forest. There were towering trees and random clusters of bushes and then still more trees and bushes. In some areas, predators could survey the forest floor from above virtually unimpeded.
Damn cats didn’t play fair.
When the shadows of dusk began darkening the woods, Shane couldn’t wait anymore. Others would stalk the arena once daylight fled, exploiting species adaptations that made the inky black their home. Without weapons, Shane was worthless in the dark and his strength too wasted from running. He had to hide.
Though vanishing inside a shroud of thorns made his nerves jangle, finding a shallow trench in which to bury himself under a blanket of forest detritus felt too much like a grave. A thicket heavy with leaves was his best bet. He crouched and retrieved the standard issue sleeping bag from his backpack, hoping the thin material was warmer than it looked. Tamping down shrieking unease, he wriggled under a cascade of greenery and unfurled his bed for the night. He twisted to tug his pack into the claustrophobic space to serve as his pillow. He unzipped the sleeping bag so he could squirm inside, twisting to squeeze into the tight cocoon. Hands shaking, he arranged the lowest branches of the thicket to hide him and fastened the sleeping bag to his chin. He considered pulling the drawstring tight around his face so he wouldn’t lose as much body heat, but he wanted to hear anything nearby.
No cat or competitor would be able to see him.
That was bad. Very bad. Competitors who disappeared made for a boring Hunt, which might prod wardens to flush him into the open if fighting at the landing pads had tapered.
And the brush surrounding him felt like a crypt.
Shane couldn’t remember the last time he’d hiked so much, though. He’d certainly never run so far. His overtaxed muscles burned, the sting at his feet promising blisters he’d been too rushed to check at the pond. Exhaustion weighed him down. Willing his body to relax, he closed his eyes.
They popped wide at the distant rustle of branches in the tree canopy overhead.
The arena was full of them, not to mention the millions of small animals he’d spotted as well as the tracks they left in damper soils. Shane had camped in the Badlands, enough to understand jumping at every sound would result in a restless night that robbed his body of sorely needed sleep.
He’d never been hunted, though. Not like this. The whisper of leaves and every scrape of phantom twigs set his heart to pounding. The cats weren’t on his trail yet. Shane had been smart, conservative, devotedly applying the tips he’d learned at the screening center. Why would the cats go after him when the much more entertaining Nambiums were so thick on the ground? He’d never followed reports or betted the Hunt because the violence of the chase spooked him, but even he knew the first days were dominated by sexual gluttony. The real Hunt started days from now, when the cats grew weary of mindless fucking. Once the fog of arousal faded and the cats’ lust had spent on the most readily available prey, only then did the cats play.
Shane trembled anyway, fear growing as the black of night swallowed him whole. If he lifted his hand to his eyes, he wouldn’t see his fingers. Not in the arena. Maybe not anywhere on Mariket. The tree canopy blocked the glow of the Seskeran moon and smothered starlight. With his eyes now deprived of information, his sense of hearing sharpened. His stomach clenched at the faintest, most innocuous sounds.
No cats were here. That scratch to his far left was the scrape of twigs rubbing in the breeze, not claws skittering over tree trunks and limbs. He was safe.
He shivered, though, because he didn’t feel safe.
He felt like he was being watched.
Cats were unlikely to be nearby, but wardens were rarely far. Nothing mattered to them except orchestrating the most productive Hunt that would attract competitors to the arenas for the next mating cycle. They couldn’t physically touch Shane. Hunt rules forbid that, but they could steer cats and competitors in any direction they wanted, toward safety. Or danger.
Making an enemy of wardens by vanishing had been a colossally dumb idea.
When he jerked in his sleeping bag at the chirp of an insect near his cheek, he disturbed the thicket, which swayed. Shane silently cursed. His competitors and the cats wouldn’t need to go to the effort of hunting him. Shane’s nervous stupidity was as good as a clarion alarm. At least the cats were too busy fucking Nambiums to press the advantage of his embarrassing lapse and he had this first night to correct his mistakes.
Although he’d been right about the bush concealing him, it wasn’t the best choice for shelter. Nearby wardens would flush him out. Darkness increased his claustrophobic paranoia and the sensation of being trapped and smothered by the brush made him too jumpy, tricked him into small nervous tells that pinpointed his location. If he sat and leaned against the tree near the first tangle of briars in this cluster instead, where he could use some of the prickly branches as cover, he would be partially exposed to the night, but steadier. Less prone to anxious twitches. He’d also pacify wardens disgruntled with him for disappearing.
He might even manage some rest.
He just needed to slither from the thicket without alerting the entire arena. Since moving quietly at night was a skill he must master to succeed in the Hunt, he might as well start practicing while the cats enjoyed their whores elsewhere.
Lowering the zipper of his sleeping bag and, to do that without noise revealing his presence, he must move the fastener down the teeth of the zip one by one. Slowly. Glacially. To ensure panic didn’t rush him, Shane counted his heartbeats between each incremental descent. One, two, three, then the fastener lowered a single notch. One. Two. Three. Then again.
At this rate, dawn would break before Shane freed himself from the mother-fucking thicket that made him shake, but he forced himself to breathe smoothly, evenly. Twenty lifetimes later, the zipper had traveled as far as his left shoulder. By the time the bag had loosened to his elbow, Shane shivered from cold instead of fear. He was also convinced leaving the thicket before daybreak was a mistake only marginally less catastrophic than hiding inside it in the first place, but he couldn’t bundle back into the sleeping bag. The sleep he craved was impossible and the endless march of time before dawn intolerable. So he lowered the zipper until he was able to comfortably work his arms free. Blind, he groped for the brambles he’d arranged to camouflage his tunnel into the bush and moved them aside until his careful, reaching hand met only cool night air.
He lifted up, wincing at another inadvertent shake of the thicket, but he aligned his body with the hole he’d re-created without rustling the leaves again. He froze. Listened. A pair of night animals squeaked at one another in a high-pitched chatter that must indicate no large predators stalked them. Except Shane, of course, and he couldn’t care less about whatever forest vermin called the woods home.
He just wanted a comfortable place to rest.
He inched from the thicket, squirming forward so soundlessly the thunder of his pulse in his ears was louder than the slide of his body over the cool earth. Instinct prodded him to pause at the opening before wriggling farther, but he couldn’t see anything, including the eyes of the animals chittering at one another so close.
How a planet populated by cats could have rats astounded him.
If the rats were lively, Shane was positive he could complete his escape from the thicket unmolested, though. His speeding pulse calmed with each breath of fresh, free air he drew into his lungs. Threading his legs, still cocooned in the sleeping bag, through the narrow hole in the briars was agonizing when the urge to yank them away taunted Shane, but he resisted. He somehow managed to reach, gracefully silent, inside the brambles for his pack too.
Now, he needed to find that tree.
In the black, sucking darkness.
After slithering the rest of the way out of his sleeping bag, he cradled his backpack and the bag against his chest and crawled. Shane had committed his surroundings to memory when he’d chosen the site for his camp. He knew where he was and where that tree should be. Since he’d invested in moving as slowly and quietly as possible, he’d even familiarized himself with the forest noises by now.
So when a quiet chuff joined the caroling nocturnal sounds, the rats weren’t the only animals to freeze.
Shane’s heart stopped. Just stopped.
* ~ * ~ *
The Hunt begins when I wrap up some final bits and shove this bad boy out the door, but it’s never too early to boot up your flatscreens to place your bets for this season’s victors, compadres. Which competitors will you cast your votes for? Keep your eyes right here for competitor profiles and other Hunt news!