A hunter captured

Chapter 1

The high burns, the dark is bright, the tunnels gone. Prey on the move, prey leaving hunting grounds, prey heading towards the green, the wide, the low. Follow. Slow. Careful. Eat the small on four legs. Not the same. Wait. The loud hurts. Alone better. Wait. Rest. Watch. Rest. Listen. Rest.

New meat! No, more loudstingdeath, nononono. Wait. A big mover, fast mover, prey leaving, nonono. Mineminemine. Follow. Jump. Quick. Hide. Jump. Fast. No rest, chase. Wait. Many big prey. Only me. Mineminemine. New high? New high! Many loudstingdeath! Run, hide. No strongbeast, no longtongue, no bigblinder, no killcrier, no mobpack. No brothers, only me. Good. Mineminemine. Wait. Rest. Watch. Rest. Listen. Rest.

A haggard bear of a man, 27 years old going on 80, came into a makeshift command center. Jameson was a Sergeant less than three months ago, but the near collapse of the chain of command left him unsure if he was technically a General, a Major or Supreme Commander Extraordinaire at this point. Everyone just called him Sir. "Is that son of a bitch still out there?"

A former computer tech with lanky limbs and a nasty pink scar over the back of his head, clicked to enlarge a video relay of the southern perimeter on the screen. "Yep, four days and counting, sir." He stretched the kinks out of his back and wiped his eyes. "Word has spread around the camp about it. According to that last batch of survivors we picked up, same infected has been following them since the city."

"How can they tell, Parker?" He looked down on the older man, sure that the leak originated from him. However, when dealing with a serious deficit of human resources, especially a particular skill set, some lack of discretion must be tolerated.

Parker was now keeper and master of the only known working surveillance system capable of picking up heat signatures and differentiating the higher temperatures of the infected from the immune. A better solution than printed flyers and signs had been. After all, asking traumatized, belligerent and sick with relief people to hold up their hands in the middle of a cornfield with no decent cover was barely reasonable at the best of times and impossible when a vicious pack is trailing behind. Those mistakes have taught a hard lesson and led to more soldiers' suicides and friendly fire than he'd ever admit to.

"The sleeve it's missing. Apparently one of them ripped it off trying to save someone rather than just shooting his head off. Stupid heat of the moment. The thing carried their friend away up a roof to finish up." He smiled wide, showing off the gap where his front teeth should have been.

"After that they stayed huddled together, with at least two people awake at all times. Heh, you know that short business man with the crazy mustache with them, he dozed off a little. Woke up just in time to see the thing crouched like a foot behind the chick with the fake leg. She was the only one really awake, didn't hear a thing. Shot, missed it, almost hit her with the ricochet, she turns to scream at him, and elbows the thing straight out the window." Parker laughed hard at that and wiped at his eyes again.

Jameson would never understand how the battered man could find it remotely funny, especially after nearly dying himself. "Smarter than the average hooded mutt. Probably waiting for some careless drop in our defenses. That's not going to happen." …again.

"Why don't you have someone just snipe it? There's no other infected for at least a hundred miles to hear the gunshot. After that 'hunter' tried jumping unto one of our gun towers we've done a bunch of recons and I even checked the satellite images. If there was a horde headed this way, we would have seen it. They're sticking to the cities and suburbs mostly."

"If it were completely up to me, it'd be shot, beheaded, incinerated and sealed in an airtight grave." A disgusted sigh escaped his lips. "Those scientists from CEDA that were holed up here still working on their petri dishes as the hired security stumbled outside. They're thinking of capturing it as a guinea pig. Been begging for one of the freakish ones for a while now. Especially a mutt mutated just enough to still be considered human, but not like the regulars in which the infection isn't developed enough to study it for a cure."

Parker glanced up, noting the scowl and hooded eyes. "You don't think that they can make a cure."

"Ever since the government outsourced part of our defense to private companies, I don't trust a word of it. For them it's money, not duty. Not that it matters anymore. Now it's just survival." A quirk of his mouth, pained and sorrowful. "Those things are soulless. The way they rush after people and just beat them down. If I were more religious, I'd say they're demon possessed." A pause and a rumbling deep breath filled the room. "There's no coming back from that." He straightened his back and settled his face.

The tech took up the pace to fill in the silence. "The lab coats already spread their gospel of hope, it can be treated, everything back to normal; grandma and the kids will be home with Rascal barking up a storm if only they can finish up that darn cure and shoot it into the clouds. It'll rain down from heaven and wash the bad away, just you wait." Parker scratched softly at the back of his head, his scalded skin tender still. "Yeah, I don't think they can do it either. But they got most of the people here wrapped around that dream. Hate to say it, even your soldiers. It wasn't you who gave the order to stop shooting. It was miss Dr. Reilly May, head researcher in biotechnology here at outpost Bumfuck, Nowhere."

Jameson glanced sideways at Parker and pointed at the crouching figure pacing amongst the trees on the screen. "What did you call him? A hunter?" It wasn't that he ignored what the scarred man had just said. More that his mind developed little hiccups in memory to put aside experiences that made him want to rampage, crush and destroy people whom went against all logic and reason, especially his own.

Parker was more than used to this. He had personal experience in the matter of what happened if he didn't let it slide. "Yeah, you know those four survivors with the terrible luck. Got picked up at Fairfield, helicopter crashed. Picked up again at Riverside by boat, the engine failed and they had drift to Newburg and actually caught a plane. Plane too damaged from those chinless gorilla-hulk-things, made an emergency landing near Allegheny of all places two days after we left. They're over at Theta base now. Everyone on the radios knows who they are. Some call them legendary. Some even call them bad omens. They got names for the special ones. Tank, Boomer, Smoker, Witch. They call your favorite mutts Hunter on account of their behavior."

"I can see why." He touched the screen again, his finger over the creature's head as though trying to smother it. "Humanity will still be at the top of the food chain once this is over. All the others try to beat, crush, strangle or slash at the immune, but once we're dead, they're done and move on. They gorge on our bodies when hunger hits." Jameson's voice deepened, practically a growl. "Not this bastard, it has to shower in our blood, throw it around like kid playing in a tub, teeth stained red with it. I'll have it knocked down. Reilly can have her test subject; I hope that taming the beast requires neutering and loads of negative reinforcement."

A short shove of his chair away, disguised at having to reach for something at the corner of the desk. Parker started playing with a pen instead of fire. "What are you going to do then? I'm with you a hundred and ten percent of the way, you know that right?."

"What else? Set a trap." His smile was a terrible thing.

So many, all mine. Mineminemine. Hungry. Wait. Dark. Watch. Soon. Wait…Now?!... No, wait. Rest. Wait. Noise! Prey?! Four legs…nomnomnom…more? No.

Wait. Noise. Big noise? Big prey! Alone! Dark! Alone! Mineminemine! Surprise. Up high green. Wait…wait…wait…crouch…wait…alone…wait. NOW. Jumpscreechpouncetackle. Happy.

Bright?! PAIN. RUN. ESCAPE. RUN. PAINpainrunrunrun…HEAVY ON ME! trap? NONONONONO! TRAP!...click?... Loudstingdeath, no! Struggle. Free. Loudstingdeath? No loud. No sting. Prey near. Attack? No. Trap. Wait. Hurt… tired… hurt… pain… whimper.

The volunteer bait was a pro football player in his prime, practically a slab of hard muscle, and right now he wouldn't be getting up for at least a day. Bruised, maybe broken, ribs and a concussion, nothing worse thanks to the protective gear. The offending assaulter was a foot shorter and looked half the athlete's weight at the most liberal of estimates and it couldn't wait to up and leave right now. A single floodlight immersed the scene in stark contrasts as the body wrenched itself around the ground in spasms, growls and shrieks cutting in and out.

Jameson came to a middle ground with Dr. May. While she would have preferred a less damaging way of capture, the idea of a net was tossed around and laughed at, it was either high voltage electricity or bullets. The infected were quite resilient against chemical tranquilizers so judging the right amount was too much like Russian roulette for everyone involved.

She had watched from the computer screens as it set itself up the tree, the heat readings from its legs elevating as though charging for its attack. The disorienting ambush, that horrifying shriek, the crushing impact, the quickness of it all; when viewed on several screens with different angles, force readings streaming down the side, heat readings in real time, it was beautifully elegant.

And from those videos she saw that it wasn't succumbing to the painfully numbing currents and the soldiers' resolve to hold their fire was dwindling rapidly. She ran out, ignoring Jameson's insincere chiding about putting herself in danger. By the time she got through the gates and unto the clearing, a soldier in protective clothing had managed to restrain the subject's legs well and the arms barely, but the claws had done enough damage to the suit that its wearer was getting residually shocked as well. For safety, he dismounted the trapped infected that continued to screech, yelp and flail in despair, too uncoordinated to free itself.

A young boy dressed like a soldier stood shaking, his rifle already raised. He cocked, aimed and removed the safety when the scientist stood in front of him. "Don't you dare shoot! Not when we're this close." The special infected struggled more fiercely at the sounds of a gun, the electric cables tethered to it twisting around. At that inopportune moment the generator shorted out and Reilly realized that she was within grabbing distance of the so-called hunter. She didn't look behind her and spoke softly enough to hide the tremor creeping through her core. "No matter what happens, don't kill it. We need to study some of the advance cases if we want to end this mess."

The teen lowered his weapon and waved her toward him. "Okay, okay, whatever you say miss. Now how about taking a couple of slow steps towards me, huh? Real slow and quiet now."

She knew from his wide-eyed fear that yes, she was stupid enough to stand too close and maybe, maybe she'd make it if she moved away carefully. Nonetheless, she's never seen one of these infected up close before and her intellectual curiosity was nagging at her. She had an equal chance of surviving by glancing at it and walking away as she did of just walking away. If she's going to get killed now, at least she wanted to die with one more bit of knowledge that she didn't have before.

It, no… he was looking right at her, eyes iridescent yellow pools of light like a cat's. His face was contorted in sorrow, anguish and fear. Yes, he's only scared. A scared sick human that needs a helping hand, and he wouldn't kill her. He knows she saved him, he must know. Such a graceful attack must have taken into account speed, vectors, at the very least basic trigonometry. It requires intelligence and with that can come compassion, yes? "I'm here to help you." She leaned down towards him, the soldiers raising their guns and shouting warnings.

He bared his teeth and rumbled low in his throat. With only a moment of hesitation, she tightened the restraints crisscrossing his chest and immobilizing his hands. He didn't struggle against it, just maintained direct eye contact, the growl sharpening to a whine. "How intricate your thoughts must be."

Not prey. Trap. Hurt. Everything trap. Wait. Escape. Wait. Attack. Wait. Kill. Wait… Mineminemine.

"Dr. May, have you been listening to a word I said?" Jameson's voice boomed at her. All force no grace.

She snapped out of her reverie. "No, sorry. Mind's full of what just happened. What is it?" She straightened up, full of courage and fire.

"Back away from the mutt. It can still bite, we don't know if you're immune like the rest of us survivors that fought our way here. I'd hate to quarantine you for an extended period of time." He held a muzzle in his hands, an actual leather and steel dog muzzle.

"If he was going to bite me, he would have already done so. Nevertheless, I'll humor you." She made a move to grab it, but Jameson held on to it.

"You've done enough, why don't you go prep the lab for it?" He spoke down to her, as he always has and always will. She considered him simple and shortsighted for it.

"Him, not it. This is an infected person we're going to help heal." Reilley motioned towards her new cause, daring him to contradict her. "The others have already started preparations. I'll accompany our patient if you don't think that's a problem."

This passive-aggressive dance has been practiced over a little more than a month, but it felt like years "Then let me hurry up here so you can get back to your important work." He crossed her path, kicked the downed beast unto its stomach and placed his size 12 boot squarely between its shoulder blades. This was met with renewed growls and shrieks which were summarily ignored. He lifted the hood so when he placed on the muzzle on, it wouldn't slip.

No! Nononono. Cover gone. Mine. Want. Cover. NOW...

The sudden bucking and frantic squirming threw him off balance, causing him to land on his ass. "He doesn't like that, does he? There's a distinct possibility that wearing hoods is symptomatic of the particular strain affecting his kind." The hint of scholarly amusement in her voice angered him more than outright laughing ever would.

He stood again and kicked hard, digging his boot into the stray infected's ribs, forcing out a yelp. When it stilled a bit, he slammed one knee down unto its back, ignoring the protests from the high-and-mighty researcher, and grabbed a large tuft of greasy, dirty hair pulling the neck painfully back. As he quickly slid the muzzle on, a life raised with rowdy mastiff training enough, his fingertips grazed along the creature's feverish neck and felt a thundering heartbeat.

Jameson gritted his teeth hard enough to hear the strain of it, barely mitigated fury boiling in his throat. "You should be dead, cold and slow, you monster. A corpse waiting to be buried." He brusquely slammed the head three times against the ground, the ill-fitting muzzle cutting into the skin on the face while at the same time keeping the nose from caving inward. The hunter was still conscious, face bloodied, hunching its shoulders, muscles shuddering violently, breath shallow and irregular, no longer resisting being pinned down. "Good. That put fear into it; like any disobedient dog, it needs a whooping to learn its place."

Small strongbeast. Angry weak strongbeast. Escape soon. Kill soon. Eat soon. Wait now.

"Thank you for the lesson in discipline, Jameson." Dr. May kept her shaking fists shoved into the pockets of her worn out lab coat, her tongue stilled against the roof of her mouth. When the field officer was this close to losing his temper, it was best not to set him off further. Another reason she intensely disliked the man and the situation she was caught in. "We have a stretcher right here, so if you could help in…"

"No. This thing is filthy. The only proper stretcher at this camp is for decent people, not trash." He stood up, noting satisfactorily that it tried to curl into itself rather than attempting to escape. Reaching down, he clutched the back of the blood-encrusted sweater, coiling it around his fist. In a swift motion, he hefted the body up. At this abrupt change of altitude, the hunter swiftly planted his soles on the ground and pushed out. The momentum lifted both the infected and Jameson's large frame a couple of feet into the air, shocking all present. The sweater ripped, yet held on enough to choke its wearer. As both bodies collided on the way back down, the hunter landed on top of Jameson where it struggled anew.

It didn't last long. "GodDAMN! Get me some rope." Jameson wrapped one beefy arm around the beast's throat, the other reaching for the fraying belt at its waist. He needed to get it completely restrained, even with the ankles tied together, it could kick out strong enough to break bone and that would not be a good end for a shitty day.

"Sir, I…fuck…I tied the legs up. No WAY could it run. I…I didn't think it could jump like that." The electro-proof suited soldier twisted the ropes in his hands, more terrified about messing up rather than the convulsive horror in his superior's arms.

Jameson spoke through gritted teeth and piercing eyes. "I do NOT have time for your excuses. Now get over here and give me the GODDAMN ROPE!" A second later he had what he needed in hand; a quick jab to a kidney giving him a moment's respite to loop the rope around the knot at the ankles, a quick wrap around the neck. A strong pull and the body arched outward, the feet touching the hunter's hips, the neck strained into near dislocation.

Dr. May ran towards him, ineffectually trying to push the officer off her test subject and potential patient. "Jameson, stop it. He can't breathe! You're going to kill him." She scratched at his hands, unable to loosen a single finger from the rope.

"After that little stunt, no. This abomination is going to take a nap." He pulled more tightly, the creature bucking once weakly, then with renewed vigor in a last ditch attempt as it felt life sift out.

Reilly cried out in dismay, tumbling to her knees, prying her fingers feebly between cord and flesh. "Stop crushing his throat! Even if he lives, he might suffer brain damage without oxygen." She gasped loudly in relief when she felt the makeshift noose slacken. The man can listen to reason, there's hope for him yet. She looked up incredulously, ready to commend him on taking a higher road and was met with disgusted contempt.

"You're worried about brain damage?! Look, this is your first encounter with a mutated freak." He leaned forward, resting his weight on one knee, arm poised to jerk back if need be. Jameson softened his voice and spoke in a slow measured tone. If little miss scientist insists in acting like a wide-eyed child, then he'd treat her like one. "I've seen hundreds of these hooded bloodhounds. They're all the same; blood-crazed animals without a single human thought left rattling around their diseased heads."

"Oh, you ignorant man!" She rose to full height and straightened her shoulders, surely shattering whatever illusion he could have that she was some naïve infant. The man was barely more than half her age and he presumed to know more because of some shiny metal on his clothes. "When I perfect the vaccine, I need to verify that cognitive abilities are present, that people remember and know who they are. I can't do that with a vegetable."

Jameson leaned down to tie the rope, lax enough to not strangle the infected yet still effective in hogtieing it. "You want a ticking time-bomb rather than a neutralized one? Then agree to my security measures." As he stood up, he pressed his boot over the hunter's head, pushing it down, the rope tightening.

She threw her hands into the air, mouth open in a loss of words as she turned around to look for an ally. "What you want is too much. We'd be jailed and you'd be the warden." It didn't take four days to gather the tools for a trap; it took four days for radio conflicts, pissing matches, authority disputes, unwilling compromises and stubborn stonewalling. She had the upper hand before, the promise of a cure or the very least a widespread and discriminating neutralizing agent that didn't level cities.

In his element, relying on common sense and combat instinct rather than bureaucracy and bleeding-heart solutions, Jameson felt in control again. "This whole operation has nearly gone FUBAR before it barely started. I will not risk the lives of the hundreds of people here because you can't accept some basic precepts of martial law. I'm ending this now."

"Fine, FINE! I agree to your ridiculous demands." She gave one last glance around, sickened by the lack of free-thinking individuals that would side with her. "There are six of your soldiers here as witnesses. I'll testify to whatever higher-ups that are left that you took extraordinary actions to ensure the safety of the survivors and the success of this experiment. Let him GO!"

He seized the grungy sweater once more, his other hand hefting the lower half by the belt and lifted the infected to bring it inside. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

The young soldier, actually semi-volunteer/conscripted combatant, was the last known survivor of a decent sized town saved by running away to a treetop hideout at the outskirts a day before the infection hit hard. He felt a familiar pinch at his stomach. He had come from an abusive home and the signs kept piling up that this place was headed the same way. Stress and nerves, his ass. Can't be no PTSD when they're still in the shit. His mates may think that they're blowing off steam; suffering from a serious case of unrequited sexual tension, but that ain't it. There's no ha-ha and buddy-buddy between those two ever. Naw, when the time comes he'll follow those dependable instincts and hightail it out of there. He didn't live to be fourteen by sitting down and being a good boy and wait for mommy and daddy to work it out.