(Standard Year 2241)

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The sleek shape flitted before him like an errant mosquito. His fingers danced with excitement over the weapons controls as his practiced eye watched the tracking scanner for the lock-in. This was always the best part of the hunt, when the quarry knew it was caught, yet still fled from the inevitable. This, he thought exultantly, is true satisfaction!

The faint circle in the center of the scanner disappeared, the image of his prey dead center in its matrix. With a rush of ecstatic hunger he fired the modified phaser - one short burst, like that of a torpedo - and rose to the highest plateau of pleasure: watching, feeling a needle and the racer within explode in a soundless, scattered pattern of beauty and light.

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"I don't want to go to any party," Ruth Valley announced stridently. Her voice still held a touch of her earlier hysteria, though she had managed to conceal any other signs of grief.

David Maxwell tugged on her arm. "You're going," he said forcefully, and pulled her through the open door of the elevator to Cal's penthouse. It felt like he'd had to pull her all the way from the Clave. Not that he didn't understand. Seeing Missionary get blown out of space was certainly justification for hysteria. But when one had been a racer for as long as he had, one learned to accept sudden, violent death. And partying was, in Clavist tradition, the way one honored the dead. When nine times out of ten you only knew someone by the name given their ship, it was hard to do anything else meaningful. Even when that death was a hunt.

He shuddered once, then more determinedly dragged his cousin to the residence of Ruis Calvario.

Cal was very rich, rich enough to keep the top four stories of his company's office complex in Rio as his private residence. Rich enough to keep an open house for Clavists and other degenerates. Rich enough to provide week-end-long, Haven-drug-supplied parties for his favorite needle racers. Cal had been a racer himself when younger. Now in his sixties, he still enjoyed the company of other Clavists.

"Everyone's going to be stoned," Ruth complained. "I'd rather not. Not tonight."

"You need it," David told her. "We all do. Besides, you and Missionary were close. How's it going to look if you don't show?"

"It's morbid, David," she muttered.

"Barak," he corrected. "And it's no more morbid than an Irish wake. When you've been a Clavist..."

"...as long as I have blah, blah, blah. That's a bit pedantic, don't you think?"

"I know tradition, Mensch. Death is so..."

"But murder isn't!" Ruth shouted furiously. "And it's Spike! Missionary was murdered in cold blood. Premeditated, calculated murder!"

They were standing at the foot of a wide, winding staircase, just inside the outer double doors. The actual partying was going on in the main rooms, through another set of double doors to the right. Neither saw their host descending the staircase.

"All right, but what can we do about it, any of us?" David yelled back. "We can't exactly take it to the authorities, now, can we?"

"Somebody has to do something about the Hunter!" Ruth demanded.

"You didn't seem to have that opinion a week ago!"

"What?!"

"Or was all that intensity 'doing something' about him?"

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

"The Hunter - or maybe you know him better as your precious Katana!"

"Terry?" Ruth gasped, then erupted in a short bark of laughter. "You're out of your fucking mind, Barak."

"Am I?"

"Terry is no more the Hunter than I am," Ruth scoffed, " - or you are."

"Then where did he come from, Mensch? Where did he go?"

"Spike. From Indi. He was Indiian, remember?"

"Yeah, a sensitive. I wonder if they can feel death from a distance. That would be a kick, wouldn't it?"

"That's sick," Ruth snarled.

"So's the Hunter. The ultimate kick would be hunting a lover, wouldn't it? The Missionary and the Mensch look a lot alike."

"I won't listen to this!" Ruth hissed angrily.

"He came out of nowhere two weeks ago, disappeared again a week later, with no record of his existence anywhere," David countered. "I had my father check." Ruth started to object, but David went on. "No one was hunted while you and he were holed up, and the minute he leaves - blast! Missionary gone. He got his kicks from public exhibition - two in a needle, that dance floor in London..."

"Terry was good and kind and gentle..." Ruth began.

"And he told you his name," David interrupted, "because he couldn't very well tell you 'Hunter' could he!"

Furiously, Ruth slapped David's face, then whirled and marching through the double doors into the main room and announced, "I'm for going after the Hunter! Who agrees!?"

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Jeremy Paget looked slowly up from his Rigellian haze. "The woman is insane," he muttered to the groupie beside him. The sentiment was echoed around the huge room.

"After the Hunter?"

"Is she twitchy?"

"Hunter's got weapons."

"Blast! You're out!"

How do we 'go after' the Hunter?"

"Mensch is a twitch."

"Spike!" Ruth retorted fiercely to the last comment. "I won't fly Mensch again, not ever!"

"Looks too much like Missionary," David said pointedly. Ruth was about to whirl on him when Cal's arm draped suddenly around her shoulder.

"I think she's right," he said, and smiled charmingly down at her. "There wasn't a Hunter when I was racing, but if there had been... I tell you all, we wouldn't have let him cut us down like so many sheep." He turned an urbane gaze to David. "And Barak, you know as well as I do that a needle's signature once out can't be mistaken for another's. Missionary may have looked like Mensch on the ground, but that would mean nothing to another pilot."

Ruth was startled by Cal's sudden appearance, but she more than welcomed the support. She gave him one of her best smiles, then stuck her tongue out at David. That her own cousin could accuse the half-Indiian, half-Japanese man she'd fallen so hopelessly in love with hurt her more than she was willing to admit - at least to him. She'd thought, while Terry was still on Terra, that he'd had some bad business dealings with the Maxwells, but that had proven not to be the case. She still didn't know what kind of trouble he'd been in. She hope she would someday get the chance to ask him.

Will I ever see you again?

Zilama, I guarantee it.

I'll find a way to hold you to that, Katana. Her thoughts returned to the present with David's, "So tell us, Mensch, how exactly do we fight a double-sized needle that has phasers?"

"I don't know," she answered from between clenched teeth, "but I'll think of something."

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"Mensch is a twitch," Jeremy muttered as David slumped down beside him and took the lit pipe.

"She's gonna get hurt, Cobra," he said, "When her Terry finds out..."

"Who?" Jeremy slurred.

"Katana."

"What's he got to do with it? He's gone, right?"

"I don't think so," David replied grimly.

The handsome black man sat up a little straighter. "What?"

"I think Katana has another name."

"Yeah, you just said it. We all do, Barak. So what?"

"Not Hunter."

Jeremy stared for almost a full minute. "I know you don't like the man," he said at last, "but that's taking animosity a little too far."

"I'm right, Cobra."

Jeremy shook his head. "You're as much of a twitch as Mensch."

"I'm gonna prove it, somehow."

"Yeah, okay, Barak, whatever you say. Just leave me out of it. I'm on one last run before Fleet and I don't want to meet a mongoose." Jeremy returned to the attentions of his groupie.

David finished the pipe by himself.

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"Why does he have to pick on Katana?" Ruth demanded of Cal. "Never mind," she answered herself, "I know why. Barak can be so stubborn and so petty..."

Cal led her to a couch and handed her a lit pipe. "Calm yourself, my dear," he urged gently. "Allow me to express my condolences. Missionary was a nice boy."

Ruth nodded and took a long drag, then put the pipe down. "I wish I knew how to start." She looked up at him. "What do you think?"

Cal took a seat beside her, but didn't answer for a while. When he did, he was looking into the glowing bowl of the pipe. His words were soft and apologetic. "I never met your Katana," he said, "but I heard a great deal of talk about him for the short time he was on Terra. Now, I'm not saying Barak is right but..." He paused. "I do know that a katana is a weapon."

"It's also a work of art," Ruth insisted, "and her Maker was his brother. They're Japanese, it's a traditional sword, a mark of honor. No one but samurai, the upper class, could own one." She found herself flushing at Cal's indulgent smile. "I read about it," she explained, then turned a suddenly fierce gaze on him. "Hell, a kamikaze is a suicide pilot and I never heard anyone accusing Le Roi of trying to kill himself! Names don't prove anything."

"Of course not," Cal soothed, and picked up the pipe, handing it to her. "Have another hit, dear. Or how about - no, you don't indulge in Haven chemicals, do you?" Ruth took the pipe. "Why should Barak be so certain about Katana?"

"Because Barak has appointed himself my personal guardian," Ruth replied bitterly. "And Katana was a better racer than him. Better even than me." She paused, then murmured, "jealous yutz."

"Ah," Cal returned, as if he understood. "You and Katana were - intimate." Ruth didn't bother to correct the intimation that David's jealousy was sexual. "But if there is no other evidence," Cal went on, "isn't Barak being a little premature in his accusations?"

"Barak is being a first class schmuck," Ruth muttered. She took another hit, then handed the pipe to Cal. "Cal, I have to do something, Katana isn't the Hunter!"

"And such a monster should be stopped in any case, yes?"

"At least you understand."

"Yes, I do, Men - " Cal grinned, " - excuse me, Spike. And I'll do all I can to help you."

Ruth suddenly threw her arms around Cal's neck, kissing him. "Thank you!" she exclaimed. Cal smiled fondly, and nodded.

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"What do you think can be done?" Jeremy demanded. "The Hunter don't stick to a schedule or hunt in any one place. Are you going to politely ask him to stop killing people?" The tall black man stood beside his needle, glaring. "You're from a gentle, quiet, peaceful world, perhaps you've never heard of phasers," he went on, his voice dripping sarcasm. "They're a type of weapon. Weapons can be used to kill things. The Hunter uses phasers to kill things. Racer things. Is this simple enough for you? Am I making myself clear? Or do you want to be the late Mensch?"

"Very funny, Cobra," Ruth retorted. "And the name is Spike."

"Funny?" Jeremy returned stridently. "What funny? I may be crazy but I ain't stupid! There isn't anything we can do. We don't have weapons." He took a deep breath. "Do you really think you can just wait around until he shows up, follow him, find out who he is, and get back to the Clave without him hunting you?"

"Not 'just,'" Ruth began.

"You're completely out of your mind!" Jeremy broke in.

Ruth set her jaw. "I'll do it, Cobra."

"Not with me you won't."

"Cobra..."

"No way, woman. I'm getting' out alive. I'm no hero and no fool."

"Then why join Fleet?" Ruth sneered sweetly. Jeremy ignored the taunt.

"What'll you do even if you manage it?" he demanded. "Who'll you tell? How could you prove it? And how do you prosecute without giving us all over to the patrol? No way, there is no way in hell!"

"And how many more needless deaths do we have on our consciences?"

"We?" Jeremy began. "I didn't..."

"If we let the Hunter get away with it, we're responsible too!"

"Sweet Jesus, she's turned moral on me."

"Somebody has to take Missionary's place," Ruth reminded sharply.

"Not me, mama."

Jeremy turned away from her, toward his needle. Ruth stamped her foot in frustration, then stalked deliberately to the Spike. Whether he liked it or not, Cobra was going to help.

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She was beautiful, the Hunter. Not her proper name, of course, but she was so often called that it was like a nickname. He ran his hands lovingly over the smooth metal. Cobra's last run today, he thought hungrily. He has always been so carefree, a flamboyant lover of excess. The hunt will be a good one. He'll squirm under the sights. And Mensch can be dealt with at leisure. He shook his head, laughter lighting the dark eyes. Foolish woman. Doesn't she know the Hunter is invincible? Not yet, perhaps. But she will learn. That, too, will be a good hunt.

He climbed up into the cockpit, checking his instrument panel. The sensors were working, the navicom was set, the phasers were charged and ready. Come, my beloved. We have an appointment.

To the Clave was easy. She was registered as a personal transport as far as the Terran Patrol was concerned, and Haven inspection for the Clave itself was lax for the important. So nice to be important to the Havens, he mused drolly. A cloak would have been too costly in energy for the small ship, and would have spoiled the game. In any case, he was good at evasives and more than familiar with the kind of sensor capabilities needles had. In order to follow another craft, one had to get a lock on it, and angled approaches were very difficult to trace long enough for that to happen. With angles, and by keeping just out of range of his prey - his sensors had a longer reach - he could hunt as he pleased with little fear of repercussion. He had to close in for the kill, of course, but there lay the thrill. A good flight was so sating...

He didn't have to wait long for Cobra. The lovely craft with its elaborate decorative signature was easily identified. She soared up out of the ecliptic and he followed hungrily.

He didn't see the gold beauty that raced up a minute behind Cobra.

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Ruth played with the scanner, trying to get a fix on Cobra. Her sensors were a touch more sensitive than usual; her expertise with computers saw to that. She could, with only a little difficulty, follow him without his knowledge. She kept reminding herself that she was only practicing at the 'following" part of her plan, but a nagging fear pulled at her nonetheless. She made a few more adjustments, and got a lock on Cobra's ID signal.

Then almost shrieked aloud as another signal moved onto her viewer, directly behind Cobra.

Her instinct was to veer off and get out. But if she did, Cobra would die.

Won't he anyway? How can you stop a hunt? Your high-sounding plan seems as crazy as Cobra said it was, doesn't it?

I have to do something, I have to help him...

How?

Ruth thought furiously. Needles couldn't lock on angled runs - unless this particular needle had more sophisticated sensors than normal -

It's got phasers, so it must have a way to aim them, fool! Phasers can't lock on two targets at once, can they? And a signal passing through a target lock will disrupt it. I remember that from Decker's ship.

You're not really proposing...

If I can distract the Hunter long enough for Cobra to get away...

He'll come after you.

Not if he can't get a lock on me.

She accelerated, feeding computations into the navicom, and prayed.

###########################################################

Something raced across his scanner, too angled for the sensors to catch it. It startled him and the sensors automatically tried to orient on it - and in so doing, lost the lock on Cobra. He swore furiously, keying in instruction for the target lock to ignore other signals. Again the second shape tore into the lock, disrupting not only the aim, but his incomplete instructions. Only one kind of craft maneuvered like that. There was another needle out - and it had seen him.

He quickly altered course and orientation. This hunt had been planned for Cobra, but now there was no hope of completion. Still, even a morsel was better than nothing, though the meal had been denied. He didn't recognize the ident markings of this new craft, but it would have to do.

He cleared the sensors, and started the scan for the new needle. Nothing. Could it have been an echo, some malfunction of his scanners? It had been at extreme range. Some trick of his eyes, perhaps? They did consider him old, after all. He laughed grimly. I can outrun any of you. I always could.

He made a quick decision, to get back on Cobra. But that, he realized coldly, is impossible now. Cobra had been accelerating, and he was out of range. Without the target lock, there was no way to track him. An echo? Or a distraction.

But no. If it was real, where is it? He swore again at the bitter disappointment. He could wait, and hope for another victim, but that wasn't nearly as good as stalking. Nothing was as good as stalking. Not parties, not chemicals, not money or luxury or sex. All that had long since paled. Even the darker perversions were now but routine, prelude to the hunt. Nothing excited like the hunt, nothing sated like the kill. It was his passion, his only pleasure, his opiate. And now, it was spoiled.

Only for today, he reminded himself

But this, a last run, and Cobra, Cobra...

Yes it was an ultimate, and could have been more, but it is lost now. Come, we must think of an alternate. And there is this, too; one day, Mensch will be spectacular.

With that soothing thought, he turned the Hunter and headed for home.

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The first angle has been wildly lucky. The Hunter veered from Cobra. Ruth rejoiced, then turned the Spike to repeat the maneuver. That was a little trickier, for the larger ship was scanning for her. She raced away, doing several sharp turns and speed changes and reverses - then realized she couldn't possibly track him and stay out of his scanner at the same time.

Let him get away after coming so close? No!

You saved Cobra, isn't that enough?

NO!!

So what are you gonna do?

Ruth grit her teeth. Telepathy.

That's cheating.

And this is the Hunter.

She took a deep breath and concentrated, forming a thread to lock onto the malevolent presence within the metal shell of the Hunter. Contact came with a small shock and a shiver of dread. There was something familiar...

She desperately shrugged it off and set her course to follow blindly her mind's lead.

###########################################################

He maneuvered easily into the hangar, cutting the braking thrusters. The sky was a deep blue, the sun high. He was still disappointed, but it could be drowned in a few hours at the best pleasure house in Rio and plans of the next hunt. It would resurface, he knew, as boredom set in, but he'd deal with that then. He climbed out of the craft, pulling off his helmet.

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Ruth followed the Hunter to Terra. My god, no wonder we could never trace him! How could we let the Clave's scanners set off Terra's? They'd triangulate and we'd be discovered. She shook her head clear of the thoughts, keeping her craft up and away from Terran sensors, and focused. Her dread increased as her thoughts spiraled down over the Western hemisphere, the Americas, South America, Brazil, Rio...

"Goddess, no, NO!" She cried it out loud as she quickly reversed course, racing back up away from the mental sight. Ruis Calvario's penthouse hangar had opened to receive the double needle that had killed so many racers - and out of it had come Cal himself.

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Cobra had come back safely and Barak was waiting for her. "You idiot...!" he began, then stopped at her white face and haunted eyes. "Ruth?" he whispered hesitantly.

"God, David, Cal's the Hunter!" Ruth screamed, and burst into tears in her cousin's arms.

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Continued in Part Two

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