The woman wasn’t quite floating or sinking; she drifted in the middle of the cylinder as if she was attached to an invisible string. Her hair trailed behind her head like a swirl of black ink, and I guessed that it must have fallen past her waist when she stood. She was curled up in a fetal position, and her eyes were closed.
“That is the sample. To the right is the control panel for the tank. Move over there and plug your cord into the slot.” The blond scientist’s voice was euphoric.
“A woman? You said this was a ‘live sample,’ not a woman. I don’t--”
“Don’t question my orders. I can trigger your collar, and one of the other test subjects will complete your mission,” the scientist seethed.
The voice filled my mind again, and I turned away from the panel at the side of the tank. It sounded as if it came from the woman floating inside the liquid. It sounded as if she was—
I need your help. Will you free me?
I stared up at the strange woman and tried to decide if I had just imagined the words. She didn’t even look conscious, and I saw no breathing apparatus on her beautiful face. The scientist had called her a live sample, but she looked as if she floated dead in the water.
Then her eyes opened.
They were red and seemed to glow when contrasted with her alabaster white skin. The strange eyes met mine, and it felt as if my vision tunneled until her face was the only thing I could see.
“Shit! It is awake! Subject Two, get to the terminal now and plug in your fucking cord!”
The strange woman untucked from her fetal position and the movement kind of broke my focus on her face. It had been a long time since I had seen a woman, let alone a beautiful naked one, and I had to blink a few times as I shook my head.
“Subject Two! Subject Two!”
The blond scientist screamed in my headset, but the strange woman in the tank held all my attention. She made a small gesture with her left hand, and the collar suddenly fell from my neck. For a fraction of a second, I just stared at the thick band of metal as it bounced on the ground of the vault, but my shock didn’t last long, and I kicked it away with a quick motion of my boot.
“Kill him!” the blond man said too late, and I saw the collar turn into a ball of fire half a second before I heard the explosion pop.
I turned back to the tank, raised my shotgun, and motioned for the raven haired woman to move away from me. She nodded and then swam down to the lower left portion of the tank. As soon as I guessed she was in a safe spot, I pulled the trigger of my shotgun. The first slug made a small crack on the glass, the second widened the crack so that it covered almost the entire length of the tube, and the third smashed the glass into a shower of a million diamonds.
“Subject Two, what are you doing? You can’t free it!” the scientist screamed into my headset, but I ignored him.
A torrent of water poured out of the broken tube, and I managed to grab the woman before the wave dumped her naked body on the glass. She was surprisingly light, and she leaned her head against my armored chest piece as soon as I swept her into my arms.
Thank you, Adam.
Her voice filled my mind again, and I glanced down at her face. Her red eyes were opened, but she didn’t look up at me.
“You freed me. It was the least I could do,” I said to her. The collar had been wrapped around my neck for two years, and my shoulders felt a thousand kilograms lighter with the thing off of me.
I carried the woman back through the tangle of tubes, and the helter-skelter labyrinth of computer equipment. If I was lucky, I could get out of the bottom of the building and into the streets of the—
“Subject Two has gone rogue. Subject Eighteen, Thirty-One, and Twelve. Eliminate Subject Two and retrieve the live sample. Do not harm the live sample.” The woman’s voice came across my helmet.
“Your mic is open to Subject Two, damn it,” the blond scientist screamed, and I heard a clicking noise in my headset.
You don’t need this anymore. They have a tracker inside.
The woman’s strange voice filled my mind, and she reached up to pull the helmet off of my head. I thought about resisting her since I kind of did need the helmet to protect me from the rifle fire of the prisoners who were now tasked with killing me, but I didn’t stop her.
My helmet made a splashing sound when it fell at my feet, and I let out a long exhale of freedom. Between the collar and the lack of a visor, I felt as if I had just been unshackled from my previous life. I was still a monster, though, and I had no idea what this city was. Fuck, I didn’t even know what planet this was, or how I was going to get past my old comrades and exit this megatower.
One step at a time, Adam.
The voice whispered in my brain again. I looked down once more at the naked woman I cradled in my arms, but her eyes were closed, and her head was pressed against the armor of my chest plate.
“Are you even talking to me? Or am I imagining this?” I asked the woman, but instead of her voice creeping into my mind, she just opened her red eyes and gave me half a smile. It was a gentle thing, her grin, and I felt the tension of my escape flee from my shoulders.
Then a bullet smashed a computer screen next to me.
I ducked to the side of the open vault door and set the woman down in a spot between two empty glass vats. A scattering of bullets pelted the side of the door and smashed into more equipment, but I had moved the woman out of the line of fire and didn’t think they could get a bullet into either of us until my opponents closed the distance.
I slid to the edge of the door, made a motion out from behind the steel, and then popped back under cover. Their bullets ricocheted off the metal of the vault door, and I sprang out after their first burst ended. The three armored tiger-men were about halfway down the hall, and they were prone on the floor. I jumped back behind the door before their next volley of gunfire and then looked over at the strange naked woman.
“There isn’t another way out of this room is there?” I asked her, even though I knew it was a stupid question.
The woman shook her head, and her long wet hair dribbled into a pool of water at our feet. There didn’t seem to be any emotion on her face, but her strange red eyes stared into mine with an intensity that made me slightly uncomfortable. The sensation almost made me laugh. This woman was tall and slender, but even in my human form I still stood a good fifteen centimeters taller than her and outweighed her by twenty five kilograms. In this half human/half tiger form I was a good sixty centimeters taller and probably outweighed her by sixty kilograms.
“Surrender Two!” one of the men, Eighteen it sounded like, growled.
I felt a bit of remorse tug at my chest. My fellow prisoners and I all lived in solitary confinement and only saw each other when we went on these missions. Eighteen had been around for the last three months, and the prisoner was a good comrade. He didn’t want to kill me, and I didn’t want to kill him, but I wanted freedom more than anything else, and I wasn’t going to surrender to the collar or their experiments anymore.
“Can you take off their collars?” I asked the woman, but she just shook her head again and pointed up to her eyes.
“You need to see them?” I asked, and she nodded.
Close as well.
The voice spun in my brain.
“They are about forty meters down the hallway. Is that close enough?” I asked urgently. If I could remove their collars, they would give up the battle. Then they could help me escape this building. I didn't know if I could trust the three other men, since we were all criminals, but any escape from this building would be easier with them than without them.
She nodded, and a shadow of a smile came to her colorless lips. It looked as if they had been starving the woman, and even though she was beautiful, I could see most of her bones poking through her skin. I was going to need to get her some food as soon as we got out of here, but first things first. I needed to get past my teammates, and out of this place.
“I will pop out and take cover on the far side,” I whispered as I pointed to the other lip of the doorway. There was enough space for me to squeeze there without the risk of getting shot. “Then you can peek out and take off their collars. Okay?”
She nodded and then took a few steps across the water. Her legs were wobbly, and I reached out my arm to steady her against the back of the vault door. She nodded to me after I positioned her close to the edge, and I readied myself to jump across the open gap.
Then a grenade bounced past the door.
“Shit!” I moved to cover the naked woman with my much larger body, but as soon as I pushed against her, and the door, I saw the metal sphere bounce back out of the vault as if someone had hit the reverse button on a video player.
Three surprised voices growled a warning a second before the explosive detonated, and the door of the vault shook against my shoulders. I let go of the woman and then darted out of the opening with my shotgun ready. The three tiger-men were laid out on the floor and covered with glass from the exploded walls of the hallway. Blood coated the surrounding area, and I guessed that they were either dead or severely wounded and in the process of healing.
I pulled the trigger on my shotgun three times, and a slug punched through each of their armored helmets. I sighed when the job was done and then reached down to each corpse so I could retrieve their extra grenades, pistols, knives, and ammo. The task took me half a minute, and I kept one eye glued on the far hallway in case more guards showed up.
“Can you use a rifle?” I asked over my shoulder. The woman hadn’t looked out from behind the vault door yet, and I guessed she was probably still too weak to walk.
I slung one of the rifles over my shoulder and then turned back to the thick metal door. It was going to be a pain to carry her out of here, especially when she was naked. I glanced around the bigger laboratory rooms surrounding us, and my eyes fell on a chair in one of the corners. It looked like someone had left a white lab coat draped over the piece of furniture, and I ducked through the broken glass of the wall to retrieve it.
“Here, put this on,” I told the strange woman as I handed her the coat. “Can you use the rifle?” I asked again after she slipped into the thin garment. It covered all of her chest and fell down a few centimeters past the top of her thighs. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing.
I am not strong enough. I can hardly walk. I am sorry, Adam.
Her eyes made contact with mine when she spoke, but she carried no facial expression. It was almost as if she wasn’t even speaking to me, or intending to speak to me. It felt as if someone else was talking for her, and they knew how to deliver the message right into my mind. It was creepy as fuck, and I almost thought about telling the woman that she was on her own now.
You have honor. Despite your past.
Her voice hit my brain like a hammer, and I felt a flush of shame in my stomach. I opened up my maw to speak, but the raven-haired woman shook her head.
Do not feel embarrassment, Adam. I understand you better than you might believe. Help me escape, please.
“I will. How do you know about my past?” I asked the woman, but she just stepped away from the wall and into the crook of my left arm.
“Alright. Let’s get the hell out of here then,” I said as I lifted her. “And let’s hope no more guards block our escape.”
There will be. They don’t want me to escape.