Chapter 1

I'm Murray, Murray the hunter. I don't hunt game like you'd think. I hunt telepaths. Kill them? Hell no! We NEED telepaths! Without them we'd all probably be dead in a generation or three. I suppose I'd better tell you what happened so you can make sense of all this.

I'm told that it was around 2040 or 2050 when the sun started acting up. That wouldn't have been so bad by itself, but the sun triggered something in the Earth and the poles reversed. wiping out our natural radiation shield, the VanAllen Belts. It was an extended period of solar activity and power well beyond what anybody thought that our sun could put out. The radiation storms fried the power grids, the communications grids and the satellites. Planes were knocked out of the sky. Jets turned into fancy bricks and automobiles stopped where they sat, never to run again. Skin cancer became as prevalent as the common cold. That year's crops fried in the fields.

Without electricity the coolers, chillers and freezers died. Factories died without a whimper. Deliveries ceased. Cash registers stopped working. Banks had no balances. Whatever food was out there in the distribution warehouses, inter modal trailer yards and transfer points rotted where it sat. The die-off was relatively fast. The journals from that time make for fascinating reading. Some farms and ranches banded together and some villages kept their acts together, manually tending large communal gardens and tending animals for the table and raising the next generation.

Within a few years there was a noticeable increase in birth defects, many fatal. I suspect that a lot of entries in the journals kept by the midwives noting stillborn children were actually smothered to death because the family wouldn't have been able to support crippled mutant babies. I've seen journals both applauding and decrying the 'purity' oaths demanded by some teaching colleges. If you didn't take the oath you didn't get your medical certificate. For generations after that new parents didn't dare let their old grannies alone with any children with obvious mutations because they were certain that 'granny' would snap the infant's neck without a moment's hesitation.

The mutations fell out into several distinct categories. There was a general haploid mutation whose marker was a cleft palate. It usually signified severe brain and nervous system issues. Then came the dwarfism mutation and its reverse the tall-fella mutation. There was also the feline mutation with a list of characteristics topped off with a 'cat's face', the ursine or bear mutation and the lizard-man mutation. All these morphic base-lines seemed to stabilize after the first five or six generations that they originally showed up--incredibly fast!

I expressed the 'tall-fella' traits. I was a bit over eight feet tall, black hair, a face that looked like it was carved out of walnut with an axe and bright blue eyes. I had very fast reflexes and could run like the wind. I was quite strong as well-- stronger than a normal by quite a margin. I carried a four-foot-long cavalry saber, steel-tipped flights and a throwing stick. Oh, and I had a sport ability--I could sense telepaths. Everyone showed up in the back of my head as a little glow. Telepaths showed up like a lit match.

A lot of mutants lived out their lives in the woods, only coming into the villages to trade for supplies. It was a rough life and bringing up children was frought with danger. Occasionally their children would come to town to sit and people-watch. Nobody bothered them if they didn't bother anyone. Hell, if the village chased away the kids then we'd be chasing away the traders. That would be foolish bordering on suicidal. Outlying villages like us got their antibiotics and immunization media that way.

Why did the world need the telepaths? We could make the tractors work. We could make the combines work. We could make the big semis work, all with the power of our minds. We just spun up the flywheels and off she went. Without us we'd never harvest enough food. Some were intuitive doctors too. There were no medical colleges left, hence no certified doctors.

On the day in question I found myself drawn to a short figure sitting on a ring bench that protected a huge oak tree. It was a great place to sit in the shade as it was next to the road leading out of town. They were sitting cross-legged on the bench. They wore a hooded cloak which covered their features. That alone was a pretty good indicator that they were mutant. I ambled over to sit a spell beside 'em. As it got on towards noon I pulled a bacon and cheese sandwich out of my shoulder bag, cut it in two and offered 'em a half. I heard, "My thanks." I saw a small gray-furred hand reach out to pick up that sandwich. The fingers were tipped with claws. Full feline expression.

The haploids were usually killed at birth. Of all the mutations, the felines and the dwarfs were the most persecuted because they were smaller and more vulnerable. I take that back. They appeared more vulnerable. A pissed-off adult felinoid could easily ride a fully grown bear into an exhausted bawling wreck that wanted nothing more than to go hide and somehow get rid of the demon on its back. The children though, were all vulnerable.

I slowly pulled out my canteen and swallowed a slug, then put it on the bench between us. I caught a glance at my face then a good look at the canteen. Those sandwiches were dry. They'd have to be half camel not to have a dry mouth after eating it. "Go ahead, have a pull or two. That sandwich was a few hours old and got a little dry."

Yep, I was right. It was a juvenile feline, and probably female. "Here to people watch? Trade?"

She sighed. "Naaw. I've come to live here, I guess. My folks were killed by the damned pigs. I can't make it alone and don't know anyone well enough to ask for shelter. Do you think I could stay somewhere here in town?"

Bingo. This is what the village paid me for. "I can guarantee that you have a place here. This is how it works. You go to school, then get trained in the talent until you're proficient. After that you pledge to spend four years working for the village. After that you either work for pay or find another place to ply your talents. How does that strike you?"

She got a serious look. "Sounds like military recruitment."

I nodded. "It's similar but there's damned little chance of you being in combat."

She thought for a minute. "Three squares a day? Dry cot? Clothing?"

I nodded. "All provided for. Dormitory life, though." She came to a quick decision. "Accepted." We shook hands. "We've got a single woman's bunk house. That's where you'll be staying. There'll only be a couple of you right now. You can always ask for Murray if there's a problem. That's me."

She said, "Josie Tails".

I got her a bunk, clothing, boots, a towel, soap and a brush. Then came where to find the Inn's diner and the classrooms where she'd be spending her days. I waved and left her with a full belly and thumbing through a textbook. I went back on duty patrolling the road. That was my real job. I was a ranger. It was a lonely existence as I was constantly on the move, stopping only for a week here, a month there. I've had a few 'rendezvous' with female rangers, but it's usually been a case of 'wrong place, wrong time'.

Three nights later I was pulled out of a solid sleep by a panic. It wasn't mine. I felt it was Josie! I grabbed my sword and camp knife then ran like hell. I could feel the direction in my mind. I ran so fast I felt my muscles and tendons ache and tear. Nothing got in my way. Nothing could have gotten in my way. I burst through the door to the women's dormitory, seeking. I was confronted by Darryl Simms with his fist around Josie's throat, scrabbling her clothes away from her groin in a desperate attempt to rape her up against her bed frame. I used the tip of my saber to cut through his spine just as it joined his skull. He dropped as if his strings had been cut. I wrenched him fre of her body and dropped the corpse to the floor. Josie fell into my arms and wept like a wretched thing. I held her to me and, god help me, I promised never to let her go. She'd been punched in the shoulder, cheek and hip by a frenzied adult male. He wrist was broken as well. She was in sad shape.

The next day the village guard judged me without guilt, but old Emmet, Darryl's uncle persisted in raising hell against me. I decided that I'd had enough. I brought him to judgement at the village tribunal. He spun his greasy tale about long held vengeance and murder. I brought to bear the facts that Darryl had been held in gaol for the rape of four other teens staying in the transient women's quarters, yet he'd been allowed free when the witnesses went missing. I stated that the punishment had been administered before the witnesses could be buried. Emmet screeched out his best but we all knew where the axe was buried. Still, Emmet had an extensive family in the village. There were too many Simms' weighing in on the vote. I called for a short recess. I took Josie to the oak tree. "Girl, do you trust me?"

She looked quite serious. "Oh, yes."

"Then take my hand and close your eyes. Think of water. Let the water flow towards me. I am going to borrow some of your talent for a task."

I felt that oak tree; root, trunk, bark, branch and leaf. I drew on Josie's power until I had the power to cause a shift in the oak's chemistry. Over about a week all the leaves turned orange. It was a marker. None would trade here. None would stop here. None would trust anyone from here. This place was anathema as long as that tree lived. The village was doomed.

We took to the road. I asked Josie to guide me to her family's holding. We opened up the cabin for habitation once more. I went hunting for swine.

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