I ran, and the sounds of my heavy boots hammering into the thick concrete of the hangar were lost in the vastness of the shipyard.
I ran, and the wound in my stomach opened again so that blood poured down my sides with every step.
I ran, and the beast inside of me screamed for me to go faster. To be stronger. To not stop until we had reached our destination.
I ran, and then I came to our ship. It was painted a dark gray, or maybe it was a dark navy, or maybe it was a dark burgundy or red. The colors of the one hundred and sixty-meter long ship shifted as I approached, and I wondered if the paint was playing tricks on my eyes, or if my vision was seeing colors wrong because of my tiger form.
It really did look like a cross between a manta ray and a bat. The wings were sleek and had strange circle cuts on the front as if they were the back edges of curved blades. It looked elegant, fast, and deadly at the same time. There were no corporation markings or serial codes painted on the side. It was just the strange rainbow gray paint and dark black accents. The diamond-shaped clusters I noticed on the blueprints looked to be either weapon or drone launching bays, but I couldn’t tell from my position on the ground. The vessel’s stubby wings were still eighty meters off of the floor of the hangar.
I could see why Eve liked the large ship. It reminded me of her. Dark, beautiful, deadly, and mysterious.
I ran to the back and prayed the cargo bay was down. The craft was sitting on its landing gear, but I didn’t see any side lifts that could carry us up to the multiple entry doors. There were probably some shipboard systems, but those would otherwise have to be accessed from the inside.
I ran down its length and saw the rear end of the craft. It did have a bit of a stubby tail at the end. I couldn’t tell why they incorporated such a thing into the design because it seemed more cosmetic than useful. It was a strange starship. The design wasn’t like anything I had ever seen in Earth’s system, and I wondered how Elaka Nota came up with the specs.
“The cargo hatch is open,” I growled to the woman as soon as I saw the lip on the rear.
“That’s good,” Z muttered sleepily from over my shoulder.
“Stay awake!” I growled at her as I sprinted past the tail of the manta ray shaped starship.
“I’m trying. I’m just drained. Aren’t you tired? Eve is asleep…”
“No. You need to fly us out of here.” The cargo door of the ship was forty meters wide, and the slope rose for thirty meters to the floor of the ship’s hold.
I reached the top of the ramp and let out a satisfied purr. There was a manual override button for the giant door, and I pressed it with my palm.
A loud beeping sound echoed through the chamber, and a hiss of hydraulics sounded. Then the ramp began to slide back into the ship while the sides closed.
The doorway looked a bit strange. Most ships I had seen used one large piece of metal for each hatch part. These doors were made of layered metal diamonds. It kind of closed like a set of teeth or the shutter of an old camera’s aperture. It was elegant and looked impressive, but it must have cost them a lot of money to design. What was this ship’s intended use?
“We are in!” I shouted as soon as the doors closed. I almost couldn’t believe we had made it this far.
We still had a long way to go.
“Don’t sleep!” I smacked my hand on Z’s ass, and the hacker let out a surprised yelp.
“Hey! I’m awake!”
“Good. Where is the bridge?” I asked.
“Third floor. Run down the hallway opposite the door. Can you put me down?” she asked with a huff.
“Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” she said. Her voice didn’t sound sleepy anymore, so I leaned forward and helped her climb down from my shoulder.
“Course, I don’t see you smacking Eve on the ass,” the hacker said as she rubbed her butt.
“She needs to rest. You have a concussion. If you close your eyes, you migggggght not open them again,” I growled.
“Are you trying to tell me that spanking me is good for me?” she raised a blonde eyebrow and smirked.
“The bridge, Z. We need to get the fuck out of here.” I pointed in the direction she just told me to go.
“Yeah, but you aren’t off the hook. We’ll talk about this later.” She pointed at me, and her blue eyes seemed to lose their focus for a half second. She was still bleeding from the injury on her head.
We ran through the cargo hold of the ship. The space was large, empty, and clean. There was a small hill of steel boxes in one of the far corners, and I guessed they contained spare parts for the ship. I didn’t see any of the shuttle craft, or fighters, or drones, and I hoped they were already loaded into their launch bays. Most of the ships I had been on used the cargo hold as both storage and a launch bay, but those were clandestine missions, most of the advanced military craft had specialized areas for launching external aircraft.
“The elevator should be right up here,” Z said. The hacker was alternating between running and shuffling with her hand against one of the walls so she didn’t fall over.
“Are you going to be okay to fly this?” I asked when we reached the double doors of the gray elevator.
“No.” She laughed. “I’m good with computers. I can probably get her off the ground and out of the planet’s atmosphere, but that is because it will have auto sequences. We need to get a real pilot. Flying something this big requires training. Aren’t you like some sort of military guy? Don’t you know that shit?” The elevator dinged, and we both stepped inside.
“I’ve flown shuttle and small craft before,” I said.
“Yeah. So?” She leaned against the wall and took a deep breath.
“It is the same thing,” I explained as the doors closed behind us. The metal, fabric, and paint all smelled brand new.
“Cool. Then you can fly this out. I’m not feeling so good.” Z closed her eyes and brought her fingers to the cut on her scalp.
“Don’t close your eyes,” I warned her, and my anger started to heat. Did I need to be in this tiger form anymore? Probably not, but as soon as I changed back into a human I’d have to sleep sooner rather than later. Eve was unconscious, and Z was about to pass out. Someone needed to stay awake until we were safe.
“What were we talking about?” The blonde woman looked around the elevator car with a bit of confusion.
“You said you aren’t going to be able to fly this ship.”
“Yeah. We need a pilot. Do you have training? I’m not talking about small stuff. This girl is a hundred and sixty meters of cutting edge super corp military technology. The specs said she can comfortably fit a hundred and twenty people on board. Do you have the skill to twist it through a dogfight?”
“No,” I admitted. I understood that pilots had to go through advanced training, but a good chunk of that was just learning what commands to give the onboard computer so it could just execute the flight movements. All Z had to do was get the ship off Trappist - 1e and initiate the hyperdrives. She was the closest thing we had to an actual pilot, and I felt as if the hacker was underestimating her abilities.
“Me either. Ha. Fuck, I’m tired.” She sighed heavily and leaned against the wall. “Yesterday I was figuring out how to spend all the money you were going to pay me. I was going to buy a cat. Ha. I really like them. I found this one with tiger stripes. I’ve always had a thing for the old Earth cats. Now I’m about to steal one of Elaka Nota’s hyperdrive ships with a man who is a giant walking tiger. This is the weirdest sex dream I’ve ever had.”
The elevator dinged and saved me from a response. Z stepped off of the wall, and I caught her before she could collapse. Her head rolled down to her chest, and she sighed. I was about to pick her up again, but the hacker shook her head and then walked out of the elevator. There were two doors ahead of us, but Z turned around the corner of the elevator tube, and I found myself staring at the screen display from the ship’s sensors.
The bridge of the strange ship was smaller than I actually expected. It was twenty-five meters long and six meters wide. Lining the edges of the room were ten workstations, each with a comfortable looking black leather chair sitting in front of a bay of a dozen screens. In the center of the long room was a raised map dais. The holographic image was currently on, and I could see it slowly circle around a slightly zoomed out view of Trappist -1e. There were hot red, yellow, orange, and green spots on the map of the planet's surface area, and I guessed that these were identified military locations.
On the far side of the bridge, sitting beneath the display screens, were a cluster of eight padded leather chairs. Three of the chairs were sunk into a cockpit style of controls, and I had been on enough ships to know that they were for the pilot, copilot, and navigator. The other five chairs each had smaller terminals arranged into the armrests. These were the seats for the captain and other officers of the ship.
“Ugh. Help me wipe my face off. I don’t want to bleed on this chair. That looks like real leather,” Z said as she tried to wipe her cheek.
“It is. I can smell it.” I set Eve down on one of the other chairs and then rubbed the back of my paw over Z’s face and neck.
“That tickles,” she giggled.
I sighed and then helped the blonde girl get into the pilot’s chair. She was obviously in no condition to fly this thing, but I would do an even shittier job, and Eve wasn’t doing much of anything at the moment.
“I’m opening the bay doors,” she said after she tapped on one of the input devices attached to her chair. “Ha! My code still works. I was kind of worried someone else would have come in while we were running and changed it.
The entire front of the bridge was made of screens, and I saw the roof of the hangar above us begin to part as if someone was pulling open a citrus fruit.
“Ugh. I need to figure out how to turn on this engine. Hmmmm.” Z plugged her skull cord into the dashboard of the cockpit and then wrapped her arms around her chest.
“This is… weird,” she said after a few moments.
“What?” I growled at her. I was starting to get angry. Why hadn’t she figured this out yet? I heard Eve begin to stir next to me and a bit of my anger fled.
“It’s designed weird. Software wise. It’s almost like--”
“Part of the code was written organically.” Eve finished for her.
“Yeah. How did you know?” Z asked the vampire.
“What does ‘written organically’ mean? Can you just get us out of here?” I asked with a grunt of hungry rage.
“I’ll try to help,” Eve reached for my hand, and I helped her rise from her chair. Then the dark beauty descended the steps and sat in the copilot’s seat.
“It means that it looks like the software wrote parts of its own code,” Z explained. Her eyes were closed, but I could see the eyelids twitch as if she was reading something. “Looks really clean.”
“Like an AI?” I asked.
“Maybe,” the hacker said. “I think I found the sequence. I also found some documentation that will probably take two months to read. This beauty is supposed to have a trained crew on board. We’ll be lucky if we can get out of this system without face planting into an asteroid.” Z hit a few buttons on her dashboard and then reached for the elaborate set of controls docked in front of her.
“Engines are on! Wooooo!” the blonde woman shouted with one of her fists in the air. “Screw the countdown. Bays are open. Here we go. Hold on to your assholes.”
Text began to scroll across the visual screen that showed the view out of the ship. The writing was mostly in English, but there were plenty of 1s and 0s mixed in with some of the phrases. It looked like techno jargon, and I was thankful again for Z’s help. There was no way Eve and I could have done this by ourselves.
We would have hired a pilot, but yes, she is a blessing.
Eve’s words came into my mind, and I saw the beautiful woman turn around in her chair to smile at me. The gesture helped with the rage in my stomach. We had made it this far, we were almost free. We just needed to get off the planet.
Then they wouldn’t be able to catch us.
The ship lurched forward across the bay. It was a jerking motion, and I was thrown out of my chair.
“Fuck! Nooooo!” Z cried.
“What’s wrong?” I growled as I picked myself off of the floor behind her chair.
“There is a lock on the landing gear. I’m going to try to rip it off of the hanger.”
“Didn’t you fix that in the control tower? Don’t the bay codes fix that?” I asked.
“Yes and yes. This is just a manual lock for safety. Look.” She pressed a few buttons on her controls, and the camera view changed on the forward display so that we now saw the undercarriage of the craft. Our ship had eight pairs of multi-jointed landing gear so it could cling, or roll, off of virtually any surface. Two of those legs were encased with what looked like a three-meter tall metal wrap.
“I can’t unlock them from down here. I think I’ll rip off the landing gear legs if I try to push forward,” Z explained.
“I’ll go unlock them,” I said. My shotgun was hung over one of the chairs, but the rifle that Eve had carried was on the floor, and I picked it up.
“Uhhh. Do you see the far right view camera? Twenty bad guys are running in this direction. You won’t make it.” The blonde woman pointed at the screen with a frantic gesture.
“I know,” I grunted as I stepped around the captain’s chair.
“Stop him!” I heard Z yell to Eve.
“I can’t. He would die for us. His honor demands it.”
The door to the elevator was already open, and I hit the button to go down to the cargo bay. I was sure there was another method to get out of the ship, but I didn’t have time to figure it out.
“That sounds like a bunch of--” Z’s voice was cut off when the elevator doors closed, and I didn’t get to hear the rest of her words.
I took a deep breath and tasted the scent of the new spacecraft. I was tired. My body ached everywhere. My brain felt scrambled by the screams of the creature who lived inside of me. My stomach wound was still a hot poker of agony, and my left arm still couldn’t work very well.
Thinking this was going to be my last few minutes of life made the beast inside of me screech. It didn’t want to die and I almost collapsed with the conflicting fight-or-flight desires. It wanted to flee as much as it wanted me to rush out the door and murder all the gunmen running toward the ship.
Or maybe it was just my human brain telling the monster that the women I swore to protect wouldn’t be able to live unless I freed the legs of the starship. I kept relying on the animal they had put inside of me, but maybe it was the part of me that was human and wanted to save the people I cared about. My humanity was really what kept me going. The tiger was just a mindless killing machine, but my soul was the sight I used to aim the weapon.
Maybe that was why I managed to live so long after all the other test subjects had either gone insane or died in battle.
The elevator door parted, and I sprinted out to the hallway. The cargo hatch was already opening, and I guessed Z had commanded it so I wouldn’t have to spend precious seconds hitting the button. The ramp wasn’t all the way down yet, but I didn’t care. I jumped from its edge, dropped the five meters, rolled on the ground, came up with my rifle ready, and fixed my sights on the lead figure in the pack of gunmen.
The group was still a hundred and fifty meters away, but they were running toward my position while I ran to their side. I almost didn’t expect to hit the man with our distance and movement variables, but my burst of bullets did connect, and he tumbled back as if I’d punched him in the chest with a sledgehammer. I guessed his armor soaked up most of the damage, but my accuracy did cause the rest of the group to either scatter, drop to the ground, or begin to return fire. It was the outcome I wanted since any of the three bought me a few more seconds to get the locks off.
The bullets flew past me like angry wasps, and I forced my powerful tiger legs to run faster. The first lock was only thirty meters away, but the storm of bullets made the distance feel like thirty kilometers.
A shot hit my armored back, but it did little more than push me forward. I gasped with surprise when I didn’t register any damage, and then I slid the last final meters to the landing gear.
Bullets bounced off of the thick lock, and I moved around it so I would have some cover. The brace around the landing gear was attached to the ground with a set of thick metal hooks, and a circular lock mechanism driven by side hydraulics. I studied the contraption for a handful of seconds, got pissed off because I couldn’t figure it out, leaned out from behind the cover of the leg to shoot at the men, and then leaned back behind cover to study it again.
I grabbed part of a cylinder piece that looked like it had a handle embedded in it. Sure enough, the grip popped out from the structure. I rotated the mechanism a full turn counterclockwise and the hydraulics began to hiss. Then the thick hunk of metal popped off the landing gear and came to rest on the floor.
I switched the grip of my rifle so I could pull the trigger with my left hand, and then I leaned out from the other side of the leg to shoot at the men. My left arm was still weak from the injury, so most of my shots missed. A few did hit, and the gunmen screamed something in the language I couldn’t understand.
I darted out from behind the landing gear and ran toward the last lock. My burst of gunfire gave me three or four seconds of reprieve, but the men were soon shooting at me again. Instead of trying to push my legs to get there as quickly as possible in a straight line, I started to zig zag. First, I ran forward ten meters at full speed, and then I cut to my left and ran that way for a few seconds. I faked as if I was going to run toward the next leg, but then I circled back so that I was heading the wrong direction. The tactic made my beast scream at me, but the gunmen couldn’t figure out which direction I was heading, and all of their shots were going wide.
Then I saw a spider drone, and I knew that my life was about to end.
It dropped from the side of our ship like a real spider would have moved, and it hit the concrete with a thunderous boom. The thing had landed between the gunmen and my position, with the tank’s minigun pointed in my direction.
There was no cover for me to hide behind except for the distant leg of the starcraft.
I ran as hard as I could toward that last leg.
The beast screeched for me to go faster and it poured its power into my limbs. The edges of my vision turned bright red with strange power. My heart pushed gallons of adrenaline through my system. The planet stopped spinning, and time became nothing but a frozen lake. It had captured me within its terrible grasp and I would never escape.
The drone’s minigun began to spin.
My furry hand closed around the lever of the lock.
The bullets left the minigun. Their sound cut through the air like a thousand angry chainsaws.
I twisted as hard as I could on the handle, but I couldn’t hear the hydraulic hiss over the spider’s gun.
Goodbye Eve. Thanks for saving me.
Goodbye Z. It was good knowing you.
I had been through hundreds of near death experiences. My brain had stopped playing the visual summary of my life. All I wanted now was the sudden fiery death that the spray of bullets would bring me.
But that death didn’t come.
I opened my eyes when I heard the screams of the gunmen. The spider was shooting them instead of me, and the men were being ripped apart as if they were made of red colored glass. The guns stopped whirling after the last armored man turned into a puddle. Then the top part of the tank turned around to point its gun at me.
Z is controlling the drone. Come back inside of the ship so that we may leave.
I gasped with relief and nodded at the robot. The thing turned to its side, and I followed it toward the rear of the manta ray spacecraft. The gates closed as soon as we entered, and I made my way back to the elevator.
“Get in your chair! We have to go!” Z shouted as soon as I stepped onto the bridge.
“Confirmed.” I threw my ass in the leather seat. This time I remembered to buckle the harness around my chest. “Thanks for the save,” I said to the blonde woman.
“Ha. I kind of like you. Would have been a shame to leave you behind. Here we go; stealing a priceless experimental starship from one of the most powerful corporations in the Trappist solar system: Take two.” The girl laughed and hit a button on her dash.
Then we took to the sky and stars.