By Jami Lynn Saunders


Saunders


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Jami Lynn Saunders:

 

FERAL—CHAPTER ONE: WHO'S AFRAID OF THE DARK?

Children played once, or so I was told. The airborne death that swept across the country and wiped out American civilization came in 2077, decades before I was born. I once asked Mother Frances why it happened, but she just shook her head and looked like she wanted to cry. I’ve heard some claim it was because of politics, others say religion. Most say it doesn’t matter anymore.

The biological weapon was something like mad cow disease or a strain of rabies adapted from the feline genus. It killed tens of millions, but it wasn’t the worst of it. After the United States launched a nuclear counterattack, we suffered something called World War III. Many now refer to it as the Final Cataclysm. Most of the cities on the planet were reduced to rubble. Billions of people were killed.

There were survivors, of course. A handful of people were immune to the disease and also managed to escape the nuclear devastation. But most of the survivors became feral. They’re not much like humans anymore. They’re more like rabid animals, with a ravenous appetite for live flesh, especially the flesh of normal humans. They like to torture their victims before eating them.

Some people got sick from the Fallout but didn’t die and didn’t become feral. They became something else entirely. They mutated into a kind of human/feline creature. They can transform, at will, from a human being to a cat-like being and back again. In their cat form, they’re strong as a tiger. And unlike the ferals, these creatures didn’t go insane. We call them werecats.

People who didn’t get sick or nuked tried to rebuild as best they could to create safeholds against the ferals and werecats. New York, where I lived, is a safehold. It’s run by a self-appointed, corrupt militia. Some people left New York and took their chances with the ferals rather than remain under the boot of the militia.

Most people are more scared of werecats than they are of ferals. You can always recognize a feral, but with werecats you never know. Your neighbor might be one. Your best friend might be one. For their own protection, werecats mostly stay in their human form. But sometimes they’re forced to change, and that’s when they’re most vulnerable. Everyone hates werecats. In a world like this, why would anyone want to survive? With what I learned just three hours ago, I sure don’t. In fact, I wish I’d never been born. My name is Pippa Reyes, and I’m a werecat. This is my story...


THREE HOURS EARLIER

Pippa slunk back into the shadows and crouched next to the ruined wall of an old building. She never should have left her own birthday party, but the streets outside, dimly illuminated by a full moon, had looked too inviting to resist. Or was it the moon itself that had called her? Pippa didn’t know. All she knew was that this time she had gone too far.

Pippa peered out from the alley she’d been hiding in and looked around, tried to remember which way she’d come. She listened to the silence, heard a skittering sound from across the street. She looked and saw a mouse scurrying into a basement. She saw its two tiny eyes look back at her before it disappeared. Her night vision was getting better. She didn’t know why.

Pippa stepped out from the alley and turned right, hoping she was headed in the right direction. But the buildings she passed, or what was left of them, were unfamiliar. She turned around and headed back the way she’d come. When she reached the corner, two beams of light suddenly lanced toward her. She froze, too frightened to run.

By the time she got her wits about her, four boys had exited the Jeep whose lights had found her in the darkness.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” one of the boys said as they approached her. Pippa turned to run, but two other boys grabbed her and held on.

“You’re a long way from home, little orphan,” the first boy said. He looked no older than she did.  “Aren’t you one of those orphan girls from the Hunter Library?”

Pippa nodded. Maybe he’d let her go.

“Thought so,” he said. “You look too clean to be a straggler, and you’re definitely too pretty to be militia. I’ve never had an orphan. Guess tonight’s my lucky night.”

Pippa squirmed against her captors, but they held her tight.

The boy snapped his fingers, and a dozen other teens emerged from the shadows. Tears welled in Pippa’s eyes, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of hearing her beg.

“Don’t cry little girl,” he said as he lifted her chin up to face him. “It’ll be okay. Tell you what, why don’t you step into my office and I’ll make it all better.” The boy walked into an alley, and his gang forced her into it behind him.

Pippa told herself to breathe. She felt her skin burning, felt waves of heat surging through her as her fear grew.

“Don’t worry little girl, it won’t hurt—much. You’re in my neighborhood now, and if you wanna pass, it’s gonna cost you. If you survive the payment, you’re free to go.”

The boy grabbed her blouse and ripped it open as his gang cheered. Pippa began to hyperventilate, her breath coming in short, shallow rasps.

“Hey, Bruno, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” one of the boys said to the leader. “She looks like she might be having a seizure or something. Alexander won’t be happy if we kill another one.”

“Shut up, or I’ll give you a seizure,” Bruno snapped.

He pulled Pippa close to him. “Little girl, you can fake your panic attack all you want, but this is still gonna happen. Now give Bruno a kiss.”

He grabbed Pippa’s hair and yanked her head back to kiss her. Her eyes reflected the moonlight and a soft hiss came from the back of her throat.

Bruno pushed her away and stumbled backwards. “You’re a friggin’ cat,” he said, his voice catching. He looked at his gang, who were staring at Pippa in horror. “She’s a friggin’ cat!” he screamed at them.

The gang hesitated for just an instant before swarming all over her. Pippa heard their screams of rage, and fear, too, saw their movements as they aimed kicks and fists at her. She writhed in pain, but not from the gang’s blows. Her limbs were stretching and contorting, and her face felt as if it might split apart. Her fingernails became claws, and she struck at her attackers, ripping into flesh, smelling their blood as she tore at them. She clamped her teeth around someone’s neck and bit down hard, heard the life gurgle out of him.

She wavered for an instant, and her hesitation doomed her. The gang pummeled her until she was a beaten, bloody wreck. They pinned her face down against the dirty wet bricks of the alley until she could barely breathe.

“Corey’s dead,” one of the boys shouted. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Not until I’m done with her,” Bruno barked. “Cat or no cat, I’m gonna finish what I started.”

“We’ve got wounded, Bruno,” another boy said. “We gotta go.”

“We go when I say so.”

Bruno knelt on Pippa’s back and bent down to put his mouth close to her ear. “You’re going to pay for scratching me,” he whispered.

A new voice came out of the shadows behind them. “Here kitty, kitty.”

The gang turned toward the voice and saw another young man standing at the mouth of the alley.

“Anyone seen a werecat?” the young man said. “I lost one. Hey, what you got there, Bruno? Looks like you found my kitty.”

Bruno scrambled up and away from Pippa to face the intruder. “Aiden. Never thought we’d see you again.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Aiden said as he took a step into the alley. “I’ll take the girl.”

“I don’t think so,” Bruno said. “She’s my kitty now.”

“Nope, you’re wrong, as usual,” Aiden said. “That girl’s under my protection, so you’ll need to hand her over.”

Bruno sneered, and the rest of the gang laughed out loud. He pointed down at Pippa, who lay unmoving on the ground. “Some protector you are.”

Aiden sighed theatrically. “Let her go, Bruno. Otherwise, we’ll have a problem.”

“We already got a problem, Aiden. Unless you came back so I could cut off your other hand.”

The gang laughed out loud as Aiden shook his head. “You got lucky, Bruno. Not gonna happen again.”

“You’re right, this time we’ll just kill you. You shouldn’t have left us, Aiden. Alexander put out the word to snuff you the moment we found you. Looks like we found you.”

Bruno nodded toward the newcomer, and his group marched up the alley to deal with him. A high-pitched whizzing sound rose above the noise of their footsteps as Aiden flung off his trench coat to reveal a fire saw attached where his right hand used to be. A dozen red lasers spun around the saw, casting a lurid glow onto the walls of the buildings on either side of the alley. The gang was running at him now, but the narrow alley gave Aiden an advantage, and his weapon bit into the first attacker like a buzz saw cutting balsa.

The gang member screamed in pain as blood spurted from his body and bits of flesh spun away. A second boy went down, and then a third, and the momentum switched to Aiden. Within seconds, most of Bruno’s gang lay on the ground screaming. The few that remained standing backed away and rejoined their leader. Suddenly Bruno pulled an old revolver from his jacket. He fired once and missed, and Aiden rushed him before he had a chance for a second shot. Aiden swept his fire saw upward and cut off Bruno’s right hand. It fell to the bricks, a finger still hooked through the pistol’s trigger guard.

Bruno dropped to his knees, howling in agony and holding his right arm tight against his chest.

“What goes around comes around,” Aiden said, standing above the fallen leader. “Take what’s left of your gang and get out of here before I slice and dice every one of you.”

Bruno and his group struggled to their feet and disappeared into the night, leaving their dead behind.

Aiden turned to Pippa, who lay curled in a ball. She flinched when he touched her.

“Hey, Pippa. Pippa Reyes, it’s okay,” he said softly. “Mother Frances sent me to find you.”

“I’m a werecat,” she whispered.

“I know.”

“How?”

“Mother Frances told me. We can talk about it later. Right now, I need to get you back to the Hunter Library before those cretins come back.”

Aiden helped her to her feet, then grabbed her shirt off the ground so she could cover herself.

“I need you to do something for me before we leave,” Aiden said as he lifted Bruno’s severed hand off the ground. “I need you to pull the ring off his finger. It belongs to me.”

Pippa stared at him.

“Please,” he said.

Pippa nodded and pulled the ring from the severed hand as Aiden held it in his one good one.

“Thanks, kitty cat,” Aiden said. He held out his ring finger. “If you’d be so kind.”

She slipped the ring onto his finger.

“Thanks again. It’ll help us find our way home.”

Aiden balled his hand into a fist, and the ring lit up, giving off the brightest light Pippa had ever seen.

“Sun ring,” Aiden explained. “A gift from Abby Hunter. So was the fire saw.”

“You know Abby?”

Aiden nodded. “We’ll talk later. First, let’s get you home before Mother Frances comes looking for you herself.”

Aiden took Pippa’s hand and led her out of the alley, but they didn’t get far before she stumbled. Aiden caught her before she fell, and they stood there a moment, Pippa leaning against him, as he steadied her with his strong arms.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel so weak.”

“We’ll use the kitty cat express,” Aiden said, and he picked her up and cradled her in his arms. Moments later, she was asleep.