Phys Ed raises his arm. “I don't get it. If they get there before dark, they'l be safely holed up before we even get to start. This is supposed to be a Hunt, not a siege.”
By the number of head jerks all around, it's clear that Phys Ed has struck a common nerve.
But Fril y Dress is unperturbed, slowly scratching her wrist.
“My, my, a little antsy this eve ning, aren't we? One thing you have all forgotten is the sheer gul ibility of the hepers.
They'l believe anything we tel them. After all , we domesticated them, we know how to pul their strings.” Her face suddenly turns stern.
“There is no shelter. No building, no shutters, no wal s, not even so much as a brick. The hepers will be completely exposed for you to hunt.”
At this, a smacking of lips ensues, so loud that, again, we can barely hear Fril y Dress speaking.
“. . . stash of weapons,” she says, fi nishing her sentence.
Phys Ed raises his arm again. “What did you mean by ‘a stash of weapons'?”
Fril y Dress scratches her wrist, obviously pleased with herself.
She pauses, knowing she has our attention. “There is a very signifi - cant change from the previous Heper Hunts. We've decided to arm the hepers. With a stash of weapons. This wil undoubtedly slow down the Hunt, make it more chal enging, and help you derive greater enjoyment out of it.
Raise the stakes, raise the plea sure.”
“Arm them? With what kind of weapons?” asks Beefy, his voice gruff, more curious than alarmed.
An image of a spear and dagger is projected on the large screen.
I recognize them as the ones the female heper had brandished— and thrown at me— the day before. “It was once hoped that the hepers would learn to use the spear and dagger as weapons. They did, but their lack of strength rendered these weapons as useless as toothpicks. Fortunately, however, our staffers here at the Institute have come up with some more robust weaponry, something with real zing.
Something that can actual y hurt. And possibly maim.”
The wrist scratching that began with the images of the spear and dagger comes to a sudden stop. “What kind of weapons?” Beefy asks again, warily now.
Fril y Dress turns to him, and there is suddenly nothing fril y or dressy about her gaze. “This,” she whispers, and another image is projected on the screen.
It looks like a rectangular cup, but instead of an opening on one end there is a glass encasing behind which three glassy bulbs point outward. The surface of the weapon is paneled with a highly re-fl ective metal, mirrorlike. A large chrome button sits atop the weapon on the other end.
“This is the three- bulb Flash Uniemitter, or simply FLUN for short. FLUNs can infl ict devastating fl ashes of light. Push the button situated at the back, and out shoots a continuous ray of light— not mercuric, mind you— that lasts up to two seconds. The beam is quite powerful: at a luminous effi cacy of about ninety- fi ve lumens, it will singe your skin deeply and painful y on initial contact. If the beam is held for a second or longer, the ultraviolet resonance will cause vomiting and loss of consciousness. If you happen to look directly into the beam, you will be blinded, perhaps permanently.”
It is, as the saying goes, quiet enough to hear a heper hair drop.
“That is the lowest setting.”
“How many settings are there?” Beefy asks.
After a dramatic pause, Fril y Dress says, “Five. At the highest setting, a single shot is powerful enough to burn a hole through you.
It has fi ve times the potency of the noon sun rays.”
Ashley June's arm wisps up like a plume of smoke. “How many?”
Her question is vague, but Fril y Dress seems to understand perfectly. “There are fi ve FLUNs in total. Each heper will be armed with one. Each FLUN shoots upward of three shots. It has a range of about thirty feet.” She purses her lips as if sucking out stuck entrails from between her teeth.
It is very, very quiet. “Why?” asks Beefy.
This question is also ambiguous, but again Fril y Dress has no problem understanding it. “We're doing it for you, my dear. To make this Hunt truly memorable, to make it surpass the excitement of any previous Hunt.”
Nobody is moving now, nobody seemingly breathing. Only her dress moves, swaying about her wide body, embroidered fronds and ferns and sunfl owers spinning about her.
“In fact, not only do we want to increase the combativeness between the hunters and hepers, we want to increase the level of competition between the hunters as wel .” Her voice has taken on a robotic tone, as if she's spouting a script.
“This will indubitably make the Hunt that much more interesting and ultimately enhance the winner's enjoyment.”
“How are you going to increase it?” Ashley June asks, glancing at the others. Her voice is a whisper in the airy lecture hal . “The competition between us?”
“Sometime later to night, you'l each be given a piece of equipment. Nothing that will help you actual y kil the hepers, but it will make the chase to them more interesting. The equipment is designed to give you an advantage over your fel ow hunters. Perhaps.
They're all still in the prototype stage, so their ability to deliver as advertised is unproven.”
“What kind of items?” Abs asks. She's leaning forward, intrigued.
“Wel , some of you will be given shoes designed to give more bounce and speed. We estimate that it will make you about ten percent faster. Others will be given either a SunCloak or SunBlock Lotion. Worn and applied properly, they can be used to block the early- dawn and late- dusk sunlight. We think, anyway. You'l be able to leave perhaps ten minutes before the others, an eternity of difference in a race like this. Some of you will be given an adrenaline shot.
You get the idea. Things that will give you minor advantages over the others in the chase. But again, let me emphasize: These products haven't been completely tested. You use and rely on them at your own risk.”
“I was hoping for something more along the lines of a protective suit— against the FLUNs,” Crimson Lips says.
“I wouldn't worry about the FLUNs,” Gaunt Man says before Fril y Dress can respond. “Remember, they're animals.
They won't even be able to fi gure out how to operate the FLUNs.”
“Believe that if you will ,” Fril y Dress says, her voice even and cold. “If you think that gives you a competitive edge over the others, then think that. The others here will be only too glad to take advantage of your will ful ignorance.”
“Hey, you can't talk to me that way—”
“Funny, that. I was just about to ask for a volunteer, thank you for offering.”
“Volunteer? For what?”
“That's right, just make your way up to the stage.” Fril y Dress takes out a pair of shades from her belt, puts them on. “I suggest you all put on your shades now. Except you,”
she says, looking at Gaunt Man.
Gaunt Man gets up slowly, his hand creeping up to pul his earlobes. He stops himself. “What's this? What's going on?”
“Nothing the escorts haven't already gone through this morning.”
“What's this? I'm not getting out of my seat,” he says, sitting back down now.
“That's not a problem.” And then Fril y Dress takes out a secreted FLUN from beneath her dress. “ Didn't I just tel you this thing has a range of thirty feet?”
Gaunt Man strains back against his chair. He's pinned, got nowhere to go.
“Consider yourself lucky. I've set it on the weakest setting.
But I think you'l still be impressed.”
“Wait!” Gaunt Man's head snaps forward, then to the side.
“The Director said punishment had already been meted out. Upon the escorts. There's nothing left—”
“But to show what you were so lucky to miss out on. Albeit a very watered- down demonstration, compared to what they had to face. You'l live.”
There is a click as her thumb pushes down on the button. A sharp, clear beam shoots out of the FLUN. Arms raised before our eyes, we're all blinded by the fl ash. Except me, of course. I see the beam hit Gaunt Man on his chest. His arms fl y to block it, but already there is black smoke shooting out of his chest. He fal s to the ground as if toppled by a sledgehammer, his body writhing in pain. His mouth is wide open, but no sound emits. He turns to the side, his tongue thick and dry and protruding out of his mouth; a sludge of yel ow vomit pours out.
Fril y Dress releases the button. “Oh, stop being such a drama queen,” she says as she fl oats by him and out.
We're ushered out of the lecture hal and taken on another tour of the facilities, more empty classrooms and laboratories. After our face- to- face encounter with a live heper yesterday, looking at heper teeth and anatomical heper diagrams fails to arouse any excitement. The only area remotely interesting is the kitchen. Gaunt Man rejoins us there, having gotten clearance from the doctors, looking even more bitter than usual. The chefs are busy in the kitchen preparing for dinner, carving up huge chunks of cow hide. The group stays around the main prep table, where the sight and scent of bloody meat draws them. I meander over to a side table where an apprentice chef is at work.
“Now that,” I say, salivating at the fried potatoes and noodles, “is absolutely disgusting.”
The apprentice chef, a smal man with beady eyes, ignores me.
He scoops out the food and slaps it into a large plastic container.
He opens the door to an oven behind him, tosses in the container, and slams it shut. He pushes a button and walks away. “Heper food,” he murmurs. After taking a quick look around to make sure no one's watching, I open the oven door. Except it's not an oven.
The container's gone: down a long narrow tunnel, on a conveyor belt, into darkness.
Footsteps approach the group from behind. With a military cadence. It's a staffer, his face chiseled and serious. “Your presence is requested,” he barks, his sharp chin pointing at Ashley June. “Immediately.”