“You bring the rest of the money?” the blonde hacker asked a few seconds after she sat on the bench beside me. We were in the middle of a yuppie high-end mall in one of the richer nexus points of the city. She had texted me the address here half an hour ago, and I’d left Eve alone in our hotel room again.
“Yes. Do you have the info?”
“Yep.” The woman pulled out a manila folder that I could see was stuffed with papers. “I’ve got hard and soft copies. I was in and out without a trace.” She set the folder on the top of her tattered jeans, and then she crossed her arms.
“Here is the remainder.” I pulled out the rest of the cash rolls in a grocery bag and then handed them to her. The young woman glanced into the opening, pushed her hand inside to move around the rolls of cash, and then nodded to the man who stood about ten meters from us. He walked past us and took the bag from her.
“Here,” she handed the file to me. “I’ll let you look through the soft copies. I give excellent customer service, so I’ll stick around for a few minutes to answer any questions you might have.”
“Thanks.” I opened the folder and began to flip through the pages. Each of the eight had their own printout report with various photos. The information seemed more than complete, I even saw the target’s food preferences, lists of favorite restaurants, and pastime preferences. One of the lines in the report caught my eye, and I set my finger on it.
“Uwuwto Alwin spends this much at a strip club every week?”
“Ha. I was kind of hoping you’d see that one. His favorite joint is actually down the street from here. I checked their records and confirmed his habit. He’s got a bunch of favorites over there and gets them all into the room for the kind of activity his wife probably wouldn't appreciate. I’ve got video footage of some of them on the data stick I provided. If you are interested in watching them.”
“Sounds like it could be useful,” I said with a nod.
“Heh. I thought that would at least get a smile out of you. You’re quite the stoic, huh?” she asked.
“Just working. These two live on company property?” I asked as I pointed to the only two presidents on Eve’s list.
“Yep. They do travel between the two principle megatowers Elaka Nota has in the city and the facilities they have on the west side. I didn’t have enough time to find a pattern though. I think you are better off putting the hurt on the other six first.”
“You seem sure of my plans,” I said to her as I rolled up the folder. I had a spare ammo case on my belt that was empty, and I managed to fit the printed info into it with only a bit of paper crumpling.
“Not my business, but I hope you get what you needed from my work. If you require anything else, there is a drop box data mail server I use. Don’t try to call me back on that number I contacted you with. I already burnt the phone.”
She held out her hand, and I grasped it with my much larger one.
Then I saw the armed security.
They were wearing medium weight armor. It only had two plates on the chest, stomach, thighs, and shins. The rest of their armor was the soft stuff that would stop most low-caliber pistol bullets or shrapnel. There were four of them and I only saw them because the mirrored window of one of the storefronts at the mall was bouncing the image of an adjacent hallway into my line of sight.
I didn’t know for sure if they were here for me, but I couldn’t think of any other reason why men with rifles and body armor would be in strike team formation in a chic looking mall.
“You were found out,” I growled to the hacker as I stood from the chair.
“What do you mean? I didn’t get traced--”
The men rounded the corner about eighty meters ahead of me. They turned toward me, and I saw the red holographic marks of the sights on top of their weapons. The mall wasn’t that busy, but a few other shoppers saw the men and shrieked as they fell to the ground.
I pulled the blonde woman away from the bench and then lifted her into my arms when the bullets started spraying. Her boyfriend had been between us and the gunmen, and I saw his body seize with the wrath of their first rounds.
The hacker screamed, and I sprinted into the closest shop. The glass behind us shattered a half second after we passed over the threshold, and I felt one of the rifle slugs tap me on the right shoulder. I wasn’t wearing any of my armor, and the bullet passed through my lungs before exiting out of my back behind my left shoulder.
“Shit!” she screamed as I twisted with the bullet’s passing.
My body almost instantly began to heal, and I was able to keep running through the pain in my chest. It was hard to breathe, though, and I coughed up a mouthful of blood onto the blonde woman’s tight tee shirt. She shouted again when my blood splashed her, but I thought it was because she was more worried that the bullet actually hit her in the chest.
I had run into a women’s clothing shop, and I pushed over stands of garments, displays of jewelry, and dozens of neon advertisement screens. There were no shoppers inside the store, but the salesgirls all screeched when the glass broke, and they scurried out of my charging path.
I ran into the dressing room area and slammed my right shoulder into the wall to help myself take the sharp left turn. The adrenaline running through my blood had made me forget about the bullet hole in my shoulder, and I fought against the wave of dizziness that bounced through my bones a split second after I impacted.
“You’re shot!” Z said as I stumbled around the corner. There had to be a back door to the place, I just needed to find it before the armored guys with the guns found me. Fuck. I should have brought my armor.
“It’s fine,” I hissed through the pain, but I could tell from the hacker’s panicked face that she didn’t believe me.
I saw a metal door at the end of the last straight hallway, and I leapt over a pile of cardboard boxes to reach it. The thing was locked from this side, and I had to throw the hacker over my right shoulder so I could twist open the metal locks.
“Wait. Put me down!” Z pummeled her hands against my back.
“No,” I said as I pushed open the door and stepped through. “They will either kill you or torture you to find out what you gave me before killing you.”
We were in the back alleyway of the mall. It was a dark metal and brick hallway with old fashioned thermal lights sporadically arranged for only the bare minimum of needs. I made a right turn and sprinted in the direction the men were coming from. If my plan worked as I thought, I would be able to get out behind them, sprint across the mall, and make it to the maglev station before they could get to me. Fighting really wasn’t much of an option. They wore body armor that would probably deal with my pistol bullets with little problem, they carried rifles that would be more accurate at longer ranges, and there were four of them. I might have stood a chance if I had my gear, but I didn’t, so it was time to get the fuck out of here.
“I didn’t mess up. I left no trace. How did they find us? Oh shit. Blake is dead. Fuck.” I couldn’t see her face because of the way I carried her over my left shoulder, but her words were filled with anguish.
I didn’t feel much empathy. She must have made a mistake, and now I was going to have to claw my way out of a cage of armored men. We were probably both going to die, and Eve would be on her own. The woman would likely be captured if she tried to go outside to get food, so my death would result in her being captured again.
The idea made me angry, and I felt the beast in my stomach threaten to rip free.
A door some forty meters ahead of me opened with the loud slam of a boot, and I yanked the chrome revolver from its holster on my belt. The thing felt a little too large in my human hand, but it would have been a perfect fit in my tigerpaw. The hand cannon didn’t even have highlighted sights; it was just a plain black rear with a plain black front sight that would have been completely useless if my eyes couldn’t see in low light condition.
An armored head emerged from behind the door, and I lined up the shitty sight as best I could before I pulled the trigger. The massive cylinder spun as the hammer cranked back. A tenth of a second later the hammer sped forward, and the thumb-sized bullet shot out of the heavy barrel. It caught the man in his armored head, and the metal folded around the slug as if it was made of inexpensive foil. His brains shot out across the dark hallway behind him, and his lifeless body began to fall to the ground.
Z screamed when my revolver barked, and I heard the other men curse behind the door. I had made the shot while running toward them, and they probably didn’t expect me to jump through the opening and fire more bullets at them.
But that was exactly what I did.
There were all lined up in the back of the store hallway like ducklings following their mother. My shot went through two of the men's armored chest plates with a single red flavored explosion. My next shot took the man in the back of his helmet, and most of his head disappeared in a cloud of skull matter. The three of them fell in unison, and I put a final bullet through the second man’s head because it looked as if my slug had gone through the right side of his chest and hadn’t killed him instantly.
“What the fuck!” Z yelled. Her head was facing behind me, and she had no idea what I did.
“I took care of them.” I reached into my belt and grabbed one of the speed loaders for the revolver while I pressed open the cylinder with my right thumb. Two seconds later I loaded the new rounds into their homes and pushed the spare unfired bullet into one of my pockets.
I turned to poke my head back out into the hallway. I didn’t see any gunmen, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more. I didn’t think this group of men were the same ones I originally spotted. It meant that there were at least eight of them in total.
“Holy shit. You killed all of them,” she gasped when I turned my body so Z could see the carnage.
“They must have figured out who you were when you broke into their system,” I growled to the hacker. Each of the men carried a rifle, and I squatted down with her still on me so I could scoop one up.
“No. That is impossible. I’m telling you. They didn’t see me. It has to be because of you. Who the fuck are you?”
“Doesn’t matter. They don’t know who I am. We need to get out of here. Stop wiggling!” I smacked her ass with my hand, and the woman let out a gasp. “I’m going to give you two options,” I growled as I holstered my heavy revolver. Then I grabbed three of the rifle magazines from a body and stuffed them in my ammo belt. “Option one is that you cooperate with me, and we get the fuck out of here. Option two is that I put a bullet in your head so you can’t talk when they get you. Which do you prefer?” I hated to threaten the woman, but the last option was doing her a bit of a favor. If these people caught the hacker alive, she’d probably wish she was dead thousands of times before they were done raping her mind.
“Well, that isn’t much of choice, but I doubt you are going to esca--” a spray of bullets ricocheted off of the wall of the dark hallway, and I stepped back to avoid any of them accidentally hitting us.
“Can you shoot?” I asked.
“No,” she whined.
“You are going to have to learn real fast.” I set her down and then motioned for her to pick up the rifle.
“How are you still walking? You’ve got a fucking bloody hole the size of my palm on your back,” she asked as she bent to grab one of the long guns.
“I’m hard to kill.” I poked my head out from behind the door and then jumped back as another burst of bullets sprayed around me. There was a pair of them leaning out from behind the doorway of the women’s clothing shop where we exited, and I guessed they were about thirty meters away. I readied my rifle and took a deep breath. I’d probably get hit when I popped out, but as long as it wasn’t in my skull, I would be okay. I had super healing, and they didn’t.
The muzzle of a rifle touched my back, and I froze.
“Let me go, fucker,” the blonde hacker pressed her new rifle to my back. Her hands were shaking, and tears descended her cheeks.
“Or you’ll shoot me?” I asked with a smirk.
“Don’t even question it. These assholes are looking for you. I’m not who--”
“How are you going to shoot me?” I interrupted her.
“With the fucking gun you dumb--”
“The safety is on.”
“Huh?” she looked down at the rifle where the trigger was, and I brought my left hand around to yank the gun out of her hands.
“Do you want to die? Stop fucking around and I’ll get you out of here!” I shouted at her as I dropped the gun. “Just stay out of my way, and you’ll probably live. You try something like that again I won’t feel bad about ending you.”
“Fine!” she shouted back at me as she crossed her arms. As soon as she did, another spray of bullets slammed into the opened door and the brick of the hallway. Her face turned white again, and I could see the terror in her eyes.
I jumped to the edge of the door and squeezed off a burst toward the men shooting at us. One of the men was crouching, and the other was leaning out over him. My bullets tore into the armor of the man at the top, and he let out a scream. The sound made me think he wasn’t dead, but he did squeeze the trigger of his rifle when his body fell into the shop, and the hose spray of bullets destroyed most of the lights on the ceiling.
The misfire also distracted the man crouched below, and my second burst of bullets tore into his unarmored throat. Blood sprayed into the hallway behind him, and he collapsed onto the floor of the corridor. I figured this was the original group I saw in the main part of the mall, and I guessed there were two more of the riflemen left in the back section of the store.
I gestured for the hacker to come out of the hallway behind me with my left hand. She nodded and followed my command. I aimed the sight of my rifle at the far door, but the other two men hadn’t risked peeking out to see my position.
“Let’s go,” I whispered to her as I started to step backwards. She was already running, and I waited until I was a good fifty meters away from my old location before I turned to sprint after her.
“These places sometimes have service eleva--here!” she shouted. There was an intersection in the corridor, and I followed her to an elevator alcove.
“I’ll watch. Hit the button,” I ordered as I checked both directions of the hallway. We were sitting ducks here until the elevator arrived. All it would take is one grenade to end us, or a group on either side to pin us down.
I counted the seconds, but no more armed men came from either side. Fuck, this was too easy. They wouldn’t have just sent eight after me. They must have known I’d torn through twice as many guards in their building to escape.
The elevator dinged behind me, and I turned my rifle toward the lift. The green doors were more grate than solid door, and I could see there were no enemies inside the lift before the door opened.
“Down?” Z asked as we stepped inside.
“Confirmed,” I said as I looked up. There was a service door on the ceiling, and I pointed to it after the blonde woman hit the button.
“We are going to go up there,” I told her as I motioned for her to step into my hands.
“Why?” she asked as she put her shoe in my grip.
“Because I said so. Push off the door and climb up.”
“Fuck, it’s stuck. Got it!” she hissed as the hatch came loose. I pushed up with my arms to press her through the hole, and she wiggled through.
“I don’t think I’m strong enough to pull you up here,” she said as she reached down to me. The movement was honest, and her blue eyes actually looked concerned that I couldn’t follow her up.
Z was a good person.
“Move aside. I can get up myself.”
“It’s four meters-- what the fu--” she fell away from the door when I leapt to the ceiling. My vertical jump didn’t take me all the way through. I would have needed to be in my changed form for that, but I got the upper half of my body through the hole. Then I grabbed onto the lip and pulled myself the rest of the way up.
I slid the door closed three seconds before the elevator stopped moving. There was a ding before the door opened, and then bullets sprayed into the main part of the lift space below us. The sound of the bullet storm down below echoed through the elevator shaft, and Z pushed her fingers over her ears to help protect herself from the screech.
“They aren’t here!” one of the voices down below hollered.
“Still on the fourth floor, or they got off at the third or second. Team Six and Seven. Take the stairs up to the fourth floor and third floor. Team Four and Five, take the elevator up to the third and second. Three, move to the second elevator and hold the position.”
A staccato of boot steps echoed through the room on the other end of the elevator door, and I guessed from the timbre of the echo that it was some sort of high ceiling concrete parking garage. I couldn’t exactly see the details of the men who ran into the elevator, but I could catch a bit of them through the small sliver on the edge of the door where Z and I crouched.
The doors closed with a ding, and the metal cables that connected the elevator up through the shaft began their slow reel. I gestured to the hacker with a lifting motion and then pointed at the door at our feet. Z’s blue eyes got larger, and she shook her head. I stood from my crouch, set the rifle in my hands to full-auto, and then pointed to the door. Her shoulders slumped a little, and then she grabbed onto the handle.
Z pulled it off with a jerk, and I squeezed the trigger on my weapon. Bullets sprayed out of the muzzle like water and poured into the elevator with a scream of thankful release. The men below me were all wearing armor, but they hadn’t expected death from above. The ones I didn’t instantly kill when the bullets went through their helmets were critically injured when the rounds passed through their shoulders.
I emptied my magazine, reloaded with a bit of a fumbled movement since I wasn’t familiar with this rifle, and then checked the room below. The walls were painted red, and the bodies of the eight men formed an armored carpet. None of them moved, and I gestured for the blonde woman to come closer to me.
“I’ll lower you down. Hit the button for the ground floor.”
“What? No. Ewww. There are bodies--”
“I thought you wanted to live?”
“Yeah. Fine.” I held out my left hand, and she grabbed it. Then I swung her down into the elevator.
Z tip-toed over the corpses as if she was afraid that they were still alive. The door dinged as soon as she reached the control panel, and she hammered at the buttons to change the direction.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the doors closed, and then the woman looked up at me when the elevator began to descend. I leaned down to the hole, and she latched onto my left arm. It was easy enough to yank her back up, and I gestured for her to stand to the side of the roof closest to the door so she would be safe from potential bullet fire that might arch up to me.
There was probably going to be a lot of shit in this parking garage.
The commander’s voice had ordered the squads to separate, but that didn’t mean there still weren’t men down guarding this door. I would have to push through them. I was going to have to kill them if I wanted to escape this trap.
I was going to have to change.
“Don’t scream. I won’t hurt you,” I told the hacker.
“Huh?” I was surprised at how well she handled herself up till this point, but my words had the adverse effect than what I intended. She took a step away from me and teetered on the edge of the elevator car.
“I’m going to change my appearance so we can get out of here. I’m going to look different, but it is still me. Understand?”
“Do you want to live? Just don’t freak out when I change. I’ll try to get us out of here. I need the strength and speed.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I tasted the blood of the dead men on the air. I felt the gravitational release of the lowering elevator. I heard the girl’s panicked heartbeat from the other side of the roof where we hid. The universe seemed to spin around me like all of the galaxies circling each other with their solar systems. Their suns. Their planets.
Rage filled me. The animal tore loose from my stomach and filled my soul. The power of it took every cell in my body and made it better. Stronger. My spine popped and grew new discs as the old ones exploded. I felt my new bulk push against my pant legs, the boots around my feet, and the jacket around my shoulders. The clothes were all a few sizes too large for my human frame, but they were almost too small for my changed body. I yanked the now-too-tight hat off of my head and tossed it to the roof of the elevator. I wanted to rip free of the rest of my clothes and kill everything around me until my world was red and screaming.
The hunter was my name. I killed to live.
“Stop,” I growled at her as I opened my eyes. The world was a few shades yellower, but at the same time, it was brighter. The agony of my transformation still echoed through my skeleton and muscles, but I was more than used to it by now.
I welcomed it.
The door dinged, and I waited for it to open before I poked my head down below. If there were more armed men downstairs, seeing their dead friends would probably give me a reaction.
I didn’t wait for the rest of the man’s words. I dove headfirst through the doorway into the elevator. As soon as my torso cleared the hole, I spread out my legs so that my feet caught the edge of the roof. Had I been human, the motion would have been impossible, but now every part of me was filled with strength. My boots hooked against the roof without any sort of pain, and I hung upside down from the shaft with my gun pointed out of the door.
My rifle was still set to full-auto, and the first wave of bullets slammed into two armored men closest to the opened elevator. They lowered their guns when they saw the carnage wrought to their friends, and they hadn’t considered that a hunter was so near.
It was the last mistake they would ever make.
I moved my holosight’s red dot to the next pair of targets. Screams of surprise and the sounds of my rifle bullet casings splattering onto the bloody pool beneath me filled my ears. These two men died as the first did, and I savored the warm sensation of joy their deaths brought to me.
Even as it made me angrier.
I pointed my sight down toward the end of the distant garage. There were four black armored vans there, and another group of armed men were guarding the vehicles. They were about one hundred and twenty meters away, but the soldiers had heard the gunfire and were now moving in my direction.
I fell from my hanging spot and managed to twist in mid-air so I landed feet first. One of the dead men at my feet had a cylindrical smoke grenade tied to his armored vest, and I crouched down so that I could yank it free with my left hand. Half a moment later it was rolling out of the elevator door leaking smoke, and I was exchanging the mostly spent magazine on my rifle for a fresh one I had grabbed from another body.
“Shoot in the eleva--” one of the men started to shout as I sprinted out of the body filled room.
The smoke had only begun to permeate the air of the parking garage, and I would have preferred more of a visual cover before I tried to escape, but I wouldn’t live for much longer standing in the confined space, so I had to force an exit. My hope was that the men wouldn’t notice me dashing through the small amount of smoke already out. Or, if they did notice me, they would have a harder time shooting me because I was moving so fast.
Two of the four men did see me as I darted past. They cried out a word of warning and pivoted their rifles to try and get a bead on me. I was too fast, though, and I sprinted the long open distance between their vans and the smoke before they could get a shot off.
The backs of two of the vans were open, and I pointed my rifle inside of the first one when I ran past. As I expected, there was a drone control panel and a pair of pilots inside. The men pivoted in their chairs as I fired, but my bullets tore through their unarmored bodies as if they were made of warm gelatin.
The next opened van also held a pair of pilots inside. They were a little more prepared than the men I had just killed, and they were both reaching for their sidearms. Neither of them were able to draw their weapons before my bullets reduced their lives to red splats across the display monitors.
Each of those screens had bent robot legs on the edges of the video feeds, and I guessed these two men were piloting spider-tank drones. A crazy idea came to my animal mind, and I set my mental fangs to chew on it while I figured out how to kill the other four men I had just ran past.
I poked my head out from around the edge of the armored van to gauge the battlefield. The smoke filled the concrete garage a fair amount now, and I saw the shapes of the four men as they moved to the edge of the smoke. The garage was about half filled with expensive looking automobiles, so there were plenty of places for them to take cover.
I debated my options for a few seconds while my opponents took their positions. If I only had to worry about myself, I would jump into one of these vans, and drive it into one of the hundred of slum zones before ditching it. They would have a hard time following me because I had just killed their pilots, and I would be able to escape into the neon city again.
But I had made a promise to Z, and I didn’t go back on my word.
One of the men to my right made a signal with his hand, and the other three advanced to the next set of cars while he kept his rifle pointed in my direction. I toggled my own weapon to single-fire mode and aimed my holosight at his helmet. We both fired at the same time, but we were still a good eighty meters away, and we each missed. His bullet bounced off the armor of the van, and mine ripped through the luxury sports car he was taking cover behind.
The other three men fired a half a second after their friend, but the van deflected all of the bullets. I bobbed out with my chest as if I was going to take a shot, pulled back inside when they fired against the side of the van, and then jumped out to sprint behind the other van. The men hadn’t expected my movement, and their next volleys missed me.
I slid under the other van and went to a prone position. I saw their boots under the cars in the distance, and I lined up the dot on my holosight. One of the men’s feet disappeared when the bullet hit him, and he fell screaming to the concrete. My next shot took him in the neck, and the man’s cries turned into a bloody gurgle.
Three left, but I was running out of time.
I jumped to my feet and sprinted back toward the van I had just been inside. This time I didn’t enter the back hatch, I just ran around the far side and poked my head out of the front "A" pillar of the vehicle. The first man I shot at was still behind the luxury sports car, and I set my rifle to burst-mode before I squeezed the trigger. I made three quick trigger pulls that sent the bullets into the vehicle. I didn’t know exactly how many got to the other side, but the man made a short scream after the second burst, and he stopped screaming after my final spray.
The smoke started to fill the entire garage, and I considered my options. Staying behind the vans was probably the safest bet because I had armored cover. It would mean the battle would probably take longer, though, and I didn’t know how long it would be until the other squads decided to return. I still needed to run back to get Z out of the elevator, and the other side of the parking garage seemed very far away now.
My other option was to jump into the smoke and try to maneuver around behind the two gunmen. It was risky and might end up with me getting pinched between the returning squads, but I wasn’t going to get out of here without making some risky moves. I took this choice and dashed into the thick roll of smoke coming from my grenade.
“He ran into the smoke!” one of the guards said from their position before they fired off a burst in my direction. The trio of shots wasn’t even close to hitting me, but it did give my sensitive ears a good idea of where the men were positioned and I crept through the thick mist behind them.
“Shut up! Listen for his--” one of the men hissed at the other, but I had moved quicker than they had expected, and I could make out the rough shape of their bodies four meters past the nearest car. I fixed my holosight on them and then pumped two bursts into each of their bodies.
My magazine was nearly empty, so I thumbed the release next to the trigger and replaced it with a fresh magazine, and then I grabbed three more off their bodies, along with a pair of smoke and defensive grenades. I listened for a few seconds for the sound of approaching military boots before I ran back toward the elevator.
The door was closed, and I growled under my breath. Z was probably still above the car, and the wall didn’t have a display that showed me which floor it was on. Or, it did have a display, but bullets had destroyed it.
“Hey!” I heard a voice hiss at me.
I turned to my right and saw that the blonde woman was hiding behind a car in the corner of the garage twenty-five meters from me. I trotted over to her and then gestured through the smoke of the grenade.
“We are going to take a van and get out of here. Can you pilot a drone?” I asked.
“Are you going to eat me?” she asked, and I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
“No. We need to get out of here.” I yanked on her arm, and half dragged, half carried her through the smoke.
“Here,” I said as I pushed her into the back of the van I thought had the spider drone pilots.
“Oh, you said ‘pilot a drone.’ It was hard to understand you. Yeah. I can do that. I’m not as good at it as I am at hacking but--”
“Keep them off of us so I can get us out of here,” I said as I yanked the two bodies out of their chairs and tossed them onto the concrete. As soon as they were removed from inside, I closed the hatch behind us and gestured for her to sit down at one of the control terminals.
There was a door on the other side of the van, and I squeezed my broad tiger-striped shoulders through the opening. Then I wiggled into the driver’s seat. The ’start’ button for the van glowed a bright green color, and I pushed my furry thumb over it to bring the engine to life.
“Shit!” I shouted as I punched the steering wheel. Maybe one of the other vans would work? The clock was ticking, and the rest of the guards would be here any second. I still had a smoke cover, but I wanted to run, not fight. I was more than a little surprised that I was still alive.
“It has got a security lock!” Z shouted from behind me. “I’m trying to take care of it.”
“Hurry! They are going to come back any moment,” I thought I said, but the anger and panic were eating into my vocal cords, and my words just came out as a series of growls.
“Try now!” she shouted again, and I slammed my finger into the green button.
The lights of the van’s display lit up with an aesthetically pleasing swirl of colors. I sighed with relief and brought my boot down on the acceleration pedal. The van leapt forward like a jumping toad, and I scraped across the side of a thick support column with a sharp tearing sound.
Then we were moving, and I made the first sharp turn to angle the bulky vehicle up the exit ramp.
“This drone is on the other side of the garage. Do you want me to cover our--”
“Yes!” I growled over my shoulder. The ramp was at a sharp angle, and the van’s front end kicked up off of the pavement half a meter when I hit the end of the slope. The axle popped down on the wheels, and the mass of the machine bounced a few times before it felt as if I had full control of the steering again.
“I just lit up the group of fuckers standing next to the drone. Woooweeeeee! This thing is a beast! Heading to the-- Hey!” she shouted as I took a turn too quick.
The back wheels of the van broke loose from the road, and I had to counter steer with the front to keep from fishtailing into oncoming traffic. The van popped up on its two left wheels, but I managed to get it back down with a wiggle of the steering wheel.
“I’m trying to work back here!” Z yelled. “Keep the wheels on the ground!”
“You do your job, I’ll do mine. Did you get all of them?” I turned the next corner a little slower this time, and saw a ramp that would take me to a highway. I didn’t like the idea of being out from the shelter of the megatowers, but I also wanted to get as much distance from the battleground as quickly as I could. I really only had ten minutes to ditch the van somewhere before Elaka Nota would realize we stole it. Then they would send their drones, or their heavily armed military units.
“I’m waiting for them to come back to the ground floor. Oh! Here they come.” I thought I heard screams come from the audio feedback from the drone, but it was a bit hard to hear it over the sound of my heartbeat slamming into my ears and the beast screaming in my stomach.
“I think I got them all. Sixteen total. Had to chase one up the stairs a bit. This drone is ridiculous. Their bullets bounced off of the armor like gnats, and it responds really well to my controls. I’m not even much of a drone pilot.”
“We are going to get out of here,” I said as I angled the van toward the next off ramp. I had probably put a good five kilometers between the mall and our position, and I wanted to get rid of the van before Elaka Nota got their aerial drones following us.
The off-ramp led us to another crowded part of the city, and the traffic was denser than I expected. I turned into the first parking garage, drove in through the exit so that I didn’t have to bother with the toll, ripped holes in all the tires when I ran over the spikes, and then parked it in the first available spot on the lowest floor.
I let out a long sigh as soon as I turned off the engine, and I closed my eyes to calm my anger. It battled with me for a few moments, but I hadn’t been in this tiger form for very long, and my red hot emotions slowly soothed to a swirling blue haze. I was visualizing the beaches and oceans of Earth. I have never seen them in person, but I’d spent plenty of time looking at them on video feeds. Plenty of other planets had oceans, but there was something about the videos from Earth that always made me relax. Something deep in my DNA must have known it was home. Both the human and the tiger parts.
“Hey, you okay? Are you dead?” Z was shaking my shoulder, and I opened my eyes.
“I’m all right.” I yawned into my fist and sat up in the driver seat. My body screamed at me to sleep, and I knew we were going to have to get into a taxi as soon as possible or I would pass out on the street. I hadn’t been in my half-tiger form for that many minutes, but the change back kicked my ass. I now had to fight another battle to keep my eyes open. It was a battle I would lose in fifteen minutes, so we needed to get back to the hotel.
“Can you change from a human to a tiger-man to a human again all the time? Who are you?” she asked. There was no longer terror in her blue eyes. In fact, she seemed to be generally concerned about me.
“It doesn’t matter for now. I need you to meet someone, let’s go.” I opened the door to the van, helped the young woman get out, and led her to the nearest stairwell.
“What about your rifle?” she asked when we started climbing the stairs.
“It will draw too much attention on the streets. They might also have a tracker on the weapon. I doubt it, but I have another rifle. We just need to get a taxi, then another, then try to get back to my friend.”
“Who is your friend? Is she another scary tiger-person like you?” Z asked, and I could hear the fear in her words again.
“No. She is much scarier than me.”