“Ready for weapon assignments!” the man’s voice growled over my headset as the front door of the aircraft’s cargo bay opened.
The scientist walked out with two guards at his side. They were big men, with dark olive colored skin and long hair pulled back into warrior braids. The front visors of my fellow prisoners’ helmets were all open, and I saw them glare at the scientist. The tall blond man didn’t give a fuck about our hatred. To him, we were just test subjects. Lab mice in a cage that he could experiment on until we died under his needle.
Today was our day to die.
The powerful engine thrust of the airship pushed from beneath my seat, and the craft started to shudder. We were entering the atmosphere of some planet, and I saw the clock on the top of the bulkhead begin to count down from sixty seconds.
“Subject Eighteen. Rifle with: pistol, knife, two grenades,” the scientist spoke as if he was reading from a list, and I wondered if he had some sort of display inside of his eyeball. Restraining bars on the seat next to me unlatched, and one of my companions stood. He made a growling sound toward the blond man, but the scientist raised an eyebrow with annoyance. The two men stared at each other for three seconds, and then my fellow prisoner moved to the weapons wall to arm himself.
“Perhaps I should remind you all that your collars are still set to their non-violent modes. If any of you feel like attacking, or making any sort of aggressive movement, well, the thing will go off. Pop goes the weasel, or in this case, the kitty cat.” The blond man laughed and then turned around to face the row of prisoners on the other side of the narrow cargo bay. “Subject Twenty-Two. Rifle, pistol, knife, two grenades.”
Another prisoner’s restraining bars lifted, and the man stood from his seat. All of us were wearing our loose fitting battle armor, but this man was the largest of our group of fourteen, and he crossed his arms over his black chest plate instead of moving to the weapons rack.
“Subject Twenty-Two, did you not hear me correctly? Retrieve your weapons from the--”
“Fuck you,” Subject Twenty-Two said.
Then his head seemed to implode with the sound of a gunshot.
Maybe it was actually an explosion, but he was wearing his armored helmet, and it just filled up with blood, brains, and bits of his skull like a bowl of pasta. Subject Twenty-Two toppled over like a felled tree, and a plume of black smoke began to escape his armor at the neck joint.
That was where our control collars were.
“Oh darn. I forgot to tell you all!” the scientist said as he spun around in the cargo bay. “These collars consider foul language an ‘act of aggression’, so maybe you all should just do what I fucking tell you unless you want to die like Subject Twenty-Two.”
None of my fellow prisoners spoke, but I started to fantasize about ripping my restraining bars out of the bulkhead wall, smashing the two guards into puddles of red goo with the pieces of titanium, and then ripping open the scientist’s throat with my teeth. My fangs would pierce his flesh and muscles just like his needles had done to my DNA. I’d feast on his agony just like he had relished torturing me for the past two years. It was my animal talking, but I didn’t know if it was my human animal or the other animal.
The other animal that this fucking scientist put inside of me.
The blond man read the next subject name off of the list, then the next, and the next. Finally, I was the only prisoner seated, and the asshole moved to stand in front of me.
“Adam, Adam, Adam,” he sighed. “Oh sorry, I mean Subject Two. This is your thirty-first sortie. I just can’t seem to kill you. Whatever shall I do? Oh, I know. You have point. Shotgun, pistol, knife, and how about a smoke grenade? That should do you fine.”
The bar released from around my chest and neck. I thought about diving toward him. I thought about breaking his flimsy-looking neck with my big hands. I thought about crushing his face with my knuckles and grinding his bones with my teeth, but I’d been around for long enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on him before the collar would kill me. Even thinking about it right now was probably giving the device all sorts of warning signals.
“Well, hurry up now. The team needs its point man.” He gestured to the equipment rack.
I moved over to the wall of weapons, grabbed the single smoke grenade, twenty centimeter long knife, and fifty caliber pistol. There was only one shotgun on the rack, but there were four more rifles. Every sortie I had ever been on or heard of always ended the same way for the prisoner that was on ‘point.’ They were the first to get filled with bullets, or lasers, or whatever other weapons our enemy of the day was using.
No one ever came back from using the shotgun on a mission.
“Let’s go, Subject Two.” The sound of the aircraft’s engine filled my mind, but the scientist’s voice was now coming through the speaker on my helmet.
I grabbed the shotgun, checked to ensure the drum magazine was filled with ammo, and then attached two more of the drums onto the belt of my armor.
Fuck it all. If I died today, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about this asshole experimenting on me anymore.
“This mission is slightly different from the earlier ones you all may have been on. The target is a megatower about three kilometers to our north. Your helmets will highlight the building as you descend. Enter through the roof and get to the tenth level. Once you are there, the hacking team will interface with your armor to open the security doors. We are looking for a biosample contained within the labs there. Once it has been retrieved, you will rendezvous back on the top of the roof where this aircraft will pull a fly-by pick up. Eliminate all resistance to your mission. Are there any questions?”
“So, this is just a smash and grab? Not a search and destroy?” Subject Eighteen asked.
“Yes. Follow Subject Two. When he dies, move up numerically for your point man.”
I had to bite my tongue. This fucker expected me to die. Maybe he had gotten bored with me. I had been his first, well, second actually, and I’d never broken under his torture. It probably pissed him off that he’d never seen me beg for my life like all of his other playthings.
“Engaging collars. Prepare yourselves for half-shift,” the blond scientist said over our headsets.
The back ramp of the aircraft began to lower at the same time as our collars engaged with pheromones. I could have turned on the transformation at any time without the collar on, but the steady trickle of drugs that the device delivered into my neck controlled which phase of my mutation I stayed in. The scientist didn’t want me changing when it wasn’t useful to him.
The first painful sensation that came to me was in my spine. It felt as if I was growing taller, and I was. I gained a half meter within a few seconds, and I heard a few agonized groans from the other prisoners echo through my headset.
My muscles began to enlarge. They twisted, thrashed, and tried to leap from my skeleton, but my skin kept them from escaping the agony pouring through my blood. The pain of my transformation also brought a feeling of euphoria. Unlimited strength seemed to fill my arms, legs, and chest. It felt as if I could bend the shotgun into a 90-degree angle, but I kept my desires in check.
I’d need the gun if I planned to stay alive.
I didn’t see the fur, but I felt it explode from my skin and fill the remaining spaces between the armor. My jaw widened with my skull, and my old teeth were forced out of my gums by six centimeter long fangs. I never had access to a mirror, but I knew what the other prisoners looked like when they changed their forms, and could guess what I looked like:
A walking tiger in black carbon plated military armor.
My eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell were always the last to change. Even when I looked like a human my senses were still heightened, but when the collar forced me to shift, I could smell a drop of blood two hundred meters away, hear a whispered conversation at a hundred meters, and see in absolute darkness. I could also heal from most wounds in a few seconds. Except if a bullet managed to penetrate my helmet. There wasn’t any healing from having a brain ventilation.
The ramp to our aircraft finished its descent. Well below us lay the endless lights of a megacity. I had no idea what planet we were on, or what city we were floating above, but I never did. I just knew the agony of tortured experiments and the brief moments like this when I could take my rage out on my enslavers’ enemies.
“Go!” the scientist shouted at me as he gestured out the ramp and to the night sky.
I ran to the edge of the ramp and leapt from the craft. The city was larger than I had first thought, and the expanse of megatowers, lights, and structures spread out for as far as I could see in all directions.
I heard the growling of the other prisoners fill my headset as they jumped. I guessed we were about three thousand meters in the air, and I felt the wings of my armored suit expand out from my underarms to connect with the matching joints on my leg. They wouldn’t act as a parachute, but the devices would let me fall with the accuracy of a sniper rifle, and I could open up the parachute when I was over the target.
If just for a few moments.
There was no weight, no pain, no fear of being tortured, or shot, or poked with needles. There was only the roar of the wind, the blackness of the sky, and the ocean of city lights below me. I could live here forever, but I would never be able to. The collar around my neck made any dream of real freedom impossible. The only pleasure I had was this fleeting freefall, and the violence that would soon feed the raging beast they put inside of me.
As I thought about the mission, a flashing blue arrow appeared in the far distance. I angled my body in that direction and felt the wind fight against the wings. It took me a few seconds to get the feel of my falling rate and adjust the angle of descent, but soon I was plummeting toward the destination like a missile.
“Subject Two, there will be auto-turrets on the roof of the building. They probably won’t pick you up, but prepare for evasive action,” a woman’s voice came through my helmet and cut through the sound of the wind howling past my head. It was the same woman who gave me orders during all of these missions, and I didn’t know her name.
“Building ahead. Change your angle to the right by four degrees,” she instructed, and I turned my body a bit, so the dial displayed on the visor of my closed helmet pointed where she indicated.
The megatower wasn’t the largest structure in the massive city’s sky, but it was very wide, and I saw space for a dozen VTOL craft to land. The visor on my helmet highlighted the auto-turrets, but I could see them pivoting slowly in a circle instead of focusing on the group of descending super soldiers.
“Prepare for chute deployment in three, two, one,” the female voice said as I plummeted toward the roof of the giant building.
As soon as she finished counting, the parachute deployed out of the back of my armor. It was an ultra-light, super thin, razor cloth chute which did little more than slow my fall to something that wouldn’t turn my body into pudding. The fabric deployed only fifteen meters above the roof, and it yanked me from the dive I had aimed past the building like a rubber band snap.
My legs screamed when I landed, and the shock reverberated up through my spine and into my skull. Had I been a normal human, the fall probably would have killed me, but this impact was just another drop of pain in my pool of agony, and my beast healed whatever damage had been done to my legs in a matter of seconds.
A beep sounded through my helmet, and I saw the alert on my visor indicate my chute had been released from the back of my armor. The material would disintegrate in a few minutes and leave no trace that we had ever been here. Well, there would be no proof of our presence except for the mountain of bodies we were about to leave in our wake.
“Roll call,” I growled into my microphone. It was hard to talk while my body was in this form, but I wanted to make sure the other prisoners were at my back.
They all growled out their numbers in order when they landed, and I grunted out the order to advance toward the nearest doorway.
The other prisoners ran behind me, and we zigzagged around the auto-turrets before we made our last dash across the open roof. The doorway looked to have an electric lock panel on the outside, and the female voice ordered one of the other mutant tiger-men to place his helmet cable into the drive slot of the thing. He did so, and the door dinged into an unlock mode some ten seconds later.
“Subject Two goes first,” the female voice instructed.
Subject Eighteen opened the door and then covered the top with his rifle while I swept my shotgun into the hallway of the megatower. I didn’t see any security guards from my angle, and I sprinted down the drab gray hallway to the next corner.
“Make this right, then proceed approximately eighty meters. There will be another hallway on the right where there is an elevator. Expect guards there,” the woman said in my headset.
“Got it,” I growled as I ran down the hallway. There were dozens of closed gray doors, but no one came out of them to interrupt us.
“If you can eliminate the guards silently, there will be less chance of an alarm.”
“Maybe you should have gggggiven me a pistol with a silencer then.” It was hard for me to make the ‘G’ sound without elongating the word into a growl.
“That sounds like insubordination, Subject Two,” the woman sighed.
I wanted to scream at her across my headset, but I knew it would just end with my death. Instead, I just focused on my running speed, and then readied myself for the guards who were probably waiting around the corner. Before prison, I had loved to run, and my powerful legs now carried me twice as fast as I could have ever hoped to sprint as a human.
I hung to the left side of the hallway and then cut a hard right to turn into the tunnel where the woman indicated the elevator would be. Sure enough, two armored guards were waiting there. The pair weren’t ready for my arrival, and they wore soft looking body armor that might only stop small rounds. The men spun as I bounded toward them, and they began to reach for their pistols.
I threw my shotgun at the head of the guard on the right. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the long gun bounced off his nose like a rubber ball. My left hand swung out a half a second after I threw the gun, and my claws extended from my fingertips, pierced through my thick gloves, and slashed across the throat of the guard on my left. He tried to scream, but my attack had separated his vocal cords, esophagus, and most of his neck with a spray of red that coated the hallway.
The first guard was rocking back from a broken nose, and I caught the shotgun as it bounced back to me. My furry fingers grabbed the weapon in the correct places, and a quick twisting movement smashed the butt of the gun into the man’s skull. A loud, wet, crack sounded, and the guard collapsed to his feet with a broken cranium. He was probably dead, and I grabbed his security card before my fellow prisoners rounded the corner.
“Good job, Subject Two,” the female voice said through my helmet. “Take the elevator down to the tenth floor. Biosample is on the north side of the building, opposite where the doors will open. Bring the sample back to the roof for extraction. Do not damage the sample,” the voice warned.
I slid the security card across the control panel of the elevator and then hit the call button.
Subject Eighteen elbowed me gently, and then he nodded at the ceiling. I followed his yellow eyes and saw the security camera globe at the corner.
“Let’s hope they aren’t paying attention,” he growled to the rest of us.
“They are. Gggget ready,” I warned as the elevator doors opened.
The team of super-powered tiger-men packed into the elevator, and I hit the button for the tenth level. Even if the security team saw us, I had taken care of the two guards, and summoned the elevator, in less than five seconds. The elevator car we were in was practically plummeting toward the tenth floor in a free fall, and I doubted our enemies would have time to prepare a welcoming committee for us. Hell, they would probably need a supervisor’s permission to stop our elevator car.
The freefall began to slow, and I saw that we had reached the teen levels of the building. Two seconds later the door to the tenth floor opened, and I jumped out of the lift.
Right into a group of thirty guards.
They were ready for us. I didn’t know how the guards had assembled so quickly; maybe they had actually seen us land on the roof and decided not to raise the alarm, or maybe they had known when our aircraft reached this planet and planned to let us make it this far. Either way, the world around me seemed to slow to a crawl, and I threw myself to the side while I shouted out a warning for the other prisoners.
Bullets screamed from the enemy guns like thunder.
My visor cracked with a hit, my helmet snapped back, the air exploded out of my chest, and I felt my leg twist when dozens of bullets peppered me.
One hit my collar.
I already thought I was about to die when I exited the elevator, but the strike to the collar made me gasp again. I prepared for my existence to end, but instead of an explosion of darkness caused by the device giving up its life, I just landed on the gray tile floor. This level had an open floor plan, and the only cover was a small brick wall that wrapped around the perimeter of the place at waist level. I managed to crawl behind this barrier before anyone else could shoot me, and then I glanced around to get a better bearing on my position.
The group of enemies were behind me. They had set up a synthetic barricade and were shooting into the elevator. A few of my companions had made it out the doors and found cover behind the short wall, but the rest of the team was pinned in the lift car, or dead on the floor of the room.
A few of the guards noticed me peeking over the wall, and they turned to fire on me. I ducked down below the rim and reached for my smoke grenade while the bullets smashed into the stone next to me. The grenade pin came out with a snap of my finger, and then I counted for two seconds before I tossed it over my head. I heard the guards shout with a warning when it bounced next to them, but I didn’t bother to look and see exactly where the grenade landed, I was too busy crawling away from my old position.
I had been lucky, and my armor managed to catch the bullets. Even if I had gotten shot, I probably would have healed through the damage, but the injury would make me move slower, and speed was a crucial component of any gun fight. Or at least, it was for this one, since it only took me a handful of seconds to crawl about fifty meters and circumnavigate the pack of guards.
The group of armored security was backing away from the gray smoke of my grenade. They hadn’t realized I was no longer in my earlier spot, and I guessed that they must have assumed I was injured and couldn’t crawl. All of their backs faced me, and they seemed to be focusing their fire on my old position; as well as two other spots on the opposite side of the room. Armored tiger-men corpses lay everywhere, and I counted seven of them in the brief second that my eyes passed across the opened door of the far elevator.
My shotgun barked in my hand like an angry pit bull.
The first guard exploded into a spray of blood as the slug ripped a watermelon-sized hole in his chest. The next man died an instant later when his head disappeared from his shoulders. I risked one more shot at the back of the guard who seemed to have the nicest looking set of armor. The slug connected, and as soon as his torso disappeared in a fine red mist, I ducked back under cover behind the wall. Then I continued to crawl away from my old position.
I didn’t think any of the enemy guards had actually seen me, but it didn’t hurt to keep moving. My surprise attack caused them to begin screaming, but I didn't understand the language they spoke, and I could only guess they were asking where I had gone.
One of my fellow prisoners began to shoot back into the crowd of guards as they retreated, and I took the opportunity to pop up from behind my cover and assess the situation again. The guards weren’t military, that was for sure, and the shift in combat had eroded their battle plan.
My shotgun fired a half a dozen more times, and each slug turned one of them into a corpse.
“Subject Two, turn to your six. That hallway will take you to where the sample is. Subjects Eighteen, Thirty-One, and Twelve; you will cover Subject Two’s movement and then finish the rest of the guards. Confirm when the guards are eliminated so that Subject Two can move the target safely.” The woman’s voice came over my headset with an uninterested timbre, as if she was commenting on a boring football match.
I turned around and saw the hallway the woman indicated. The smoke from my grenade had already filled the area, so I sprinted toward it while the other three prisoners opened fire on the guards.
The crack on my helmet visor was skewing my vision a bit, but it was more of an annoyance than an actual handicap. I made it fifty meters down the corridor, followed the woman’s orders to turn left at the first intersection, and then came upon three guards that were painting the hallway with their rifles.
The men fired as soon as I turned the corner, but I had predicted they would be there; either through my sense of smell, hearing, or animal perception. I slammed my right boot against the far wall and ran up the side for two meters or so. The first spray of bullets flew past my helmet while I fired my own shotgun. The slug took the first man in the chest, and he exploded into a spray of crimson like a dye filled water balloon. The second slug took the man on the left in the helmet, but the armor did little more than cave inward like a thin aluminum can of soda.
I flipped off of the wall and fired my third shot while I hung upside down above the last guard. My jump carried me past his position by the time I landed, and my ears told me that the slug had ripped through his spine like a big rig truck. I continued with my sprint and twitched my ears a bit in their helmet cavities to test the hallway ahead of me. I didn’t hear any guards around the next corner, but I decided to execute a running slide around the edge just to be safe.
There weren’t any guards, but I did see that the hallway turned into more of a laboratory type environment. The walls were all glass, and I sprinted past rooms holding a seemingly endless array of tables, microscopes, and glass tubes. I didn’t see any scientists, or doctors, which was a relief. I didn’t like the idea of killing men or women who weren’t armed, but I didn’t have a choice.
I almost fired my shotgun with surprise when I heard the voice. Perhaps, ‘heard’ was the wrong word. It was almost as if I had daydreamed of someone uttering my name.
“Huh?” I growled as I checked over my shoulder, but there wasn’t anyone behind me.
“What is wrong, Subject Two? Keep your eyes ahead. There is a security door at the end of this hallway.”
“Confirmed,” I growled into my headset as I continued my run.
The woman had been correct, and I saw a massive metal door up ahead.
“Insert the terminal wire from your helmet,” she instructed.
I unwound the meter long cord from my helmet and plugged it into the terminal port of the door’s keypad. The door looked like something out of an old movie, with an actual bank vault type wheel I would have to crank to open once they had hacked the keypad.
“The security on this door is robust. Please hold for a minute,” the woman’s voice said over my headset.
“I don’t have a minute,” I growled as I looked behind me. A group of six guards turned the corner at the far end, and I swung my shotgun toward them.
I didn’t want to be tethered to the side of the wall while the woman hacked, so I ripped off my helmet with my left hand and fired a burst of slugs toward the guards with my right. The hallway was incredibly long, I guessed a hundred meters or so, but I’d always been a good shot with any of the weapons my captors gave me. My first slug took out one of the far guards with a hit to the stomach, my second took another in the shoulder, but my third went wide, and made a fist-sized hole in the wall above their heads.
The four remaining guards jumped back behind the corner, and I dove away from my helmet so that I could go prone. I fired another few shots at the end of the hallway when one of the guards stuck his head out, but I didn’t think I hit anyone with the shots. I definitely turned the wall and corner into Swiss cheese, so I figured the men might consider retreating a bit.
Adam, please help me.
It was a woman’s voice. Not the woman who spoke to me through my headset; her voice was slightly grating on my nerves, and I wasn’t wearing my helmet. This woman’s voice was beautiful, and it seemed to come into my brain as if I had thought of it myself. Even though it was soothing, her words made a chill run down my spine, and I squeezed the trigger of my shotgun a few more times to kick the feeling of fear away.
What the fuck was going on?
The guards hadn’t poked their heads back out from around the corner, and I wondered if one, or more, of my slugs had gotten lucky. I waited with my belly on the floor for a few more moments and then crawled backward to my helmet. The keypad turned green, and I yanked the cord out of the port before I put my helmet back on.
“Where did you go?” the woman demanded.
“Had to drop the helmet so I could address the guards,” I growled.
“Do not do that again. I almost triggered your collar,” she seethed.
“Fine. I just didn’t want to be tethered to the--”
“Subject Two, complete the mission,” it was the blond scientist’s voice speaking, and I felt my rage boil up from my stomach like hot vomit.
I grabbed the wheel to the door and spun it to the left. I heard a bunch of locking mechanisms inside of the thing shift, and then a loud clicking sound when I reached the end of the spin. The door was lighter than I expected, probably because of the giant hinges I saw on the inside of the door when I swung it open.
“Proceed with caution, Subject Two. There might be automated security measures inside of the storage vault,” the woman said through my headset.
Help me, Adam. I’ve turned off the security. Only you can—
“Guards are all eliminated,” one of my fellow prisoners growled through my helmet.
“Excellent. Meet up with Subject Two, quickly,” the blond scientist said.
I walked past the security door and let out a low growl of amazement. The inside of the vault was a jungle of computer monitors, vats of liquid, and black rubber tubes of various diameters. The rest of the building had been immaculate, sterile, and organized, but the inside of this vault looked like the innards of some sort of cyber monster.
The voice panned between both of my ears with a dizzying effect while I stepped over a meter wide piece of tubing. The strange woman’s voice did seem a little louder now that the door was open. As if the voice was coming from inside of the vault as well as inside my head.
The room extended back farther than I expected, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of struggle inside of the room. There were tipped computer monitors, broken tubes leaking a salty smelling mixture of liquid, and scattered wires where a path once was. I continued to move through the chamber and expected either the blond scientist or woman to make a comment through my headset, but neither of them did.
Until I reached the biosample.
“What is this?” I asked as soon as I saw the giant tank at the back of the room. It was maybe six meters tall, and three meters in diameter. It was in the shape of a cylinder and filled with the same hazy liquid that dripped onto the floor.There was also a naked woman inside of the tank.