By Christopher L. Bennett
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Christopher L. Bennett
All rights reserved.
The Sky Is Falling
Chakra City habitat
In synchronous orbit of Earth
Bast fidgeted inside the heavy chador, hating the way it cut off her senses. There were so many sights and sounds and smells she was missing, even down here in the maintenance tunnels, away from the cosmopolitan bustle of the city levels above. Not that she cared about the bazaars, the curry parlors, the orchid gardens, or the other tourist traps this backwater Stanford torus festooned itself with as it tried to build itself up, physically and otherwise, into a major cislunar port city. No, she cared about having her senses free, on the alert for enemies.
More fundamentally, she just wanted to get out of the heavy robes so she could scratch herself and groom her beautiful glossy-black fur. She wanted to set her tail free so she could work the kinks out of it. And then she wanted to kill and eat something.
So far this was a boring mission — just sneaking around in empty tunnels, no enemies to sharpen her claws on. But she didn't dare complain to Wulf. That would just invite another tirade on how she should be more devoted to their Glorious Cause. Yes, yes, she knew all about the Neogaians' sacred mission to reclaim the wounded Earth from the technocrats who subsumed nature beneath cold, dead machines and denied humanity its right to evolve. She knew how the disorder created by the construction of the city's new habitat rings made a good cover for their plan to infect Earthbound travelers with designer polyviral mutagens, a blow against UNECS's restrictions on human enhancement and a step toward bringing humanity back into harmony with Mother Earth's animal spirits. But listening to Wulf spewing dogma in her face with his foul canine breath didn't get her in harmony with her animal spirit. She was perfectly in harmony with her animal spirit, and it was telling her to go kill and eat something. Maybe Wulf.
Well, actually, right now it was telling her to scratch that damn itch behind her right ear. So she did — just a little scratch couldn't draw Wulf's ire, surely.
No such luck. "Bast!" Wulf snarled, looking back at her. He looked ridiculous, with the fur shaved off half his face so he'd look like a bearded human, and with the turban pulled down over his big pointed ears. He must hate it — he already resented her for her more advanced transgenic mods, for being closer to "pure animal nature" than he was. But that was what he got for being an older model, born human and chimericized with surgery and stem-cell injections, instead of a germ-line creation like herself. "Stop that," he commanded. "You'll tear your headscarf." She subsided, but hissed and slashed her claws in his direction. "Settle down! Remember, act calm and serene. Look at Caiman there."
Bast thought the croc-man was a lousy example. So still and quiet, always meditating, striving for a perfect animal nonsentience, just existing and watching ... now that was boring. Still, Bast quieted down, hoping to avoid another lecture on how they had to look and act like proper Muslims so nobody would suspect them of being terrorists.
But then Bast thought she heard something moving nearby. It sounded big — maybe a nice juicy rat or bird. There shouldn't be many vermin yet in this new ring segment, where the grass and trees were still being planted and few people lived. Maybe this animal had gotten confused by the new layout and lost its way. Or maybe it wanted the chance to play a fun game with a pretty panther-lady before making a nice new home in her tummy.
Except Wulf had to go and tell them they'd reached their destination. No time for play. With a sigh, Bast turned her back on the interesting foodlike noises and followed the others inside.
The corridor opened into an expansive space containing much of the new segment's nanofabrication machinery. Some of the machines had conduits rising a couple of stories into the space above — maybe a future mall, but for now there was just a network of girders and pipes where the floor would be. The space was deserted except for construction robots, due to the newness of the segment and the time of day — and the fact that Wulf had paid off the guard in advance.
Wulf led them to the cell-stock tanks that supplied the new segment's bioprinters and ordered them to stand guard. Caiman's stillness made him good for that at least — but Bast could be still and silent with the best of them, if there was a good pounce in store at the end of it. She hoped that any intruders would come from her direction so she could kill them before Caiman did. Hell, she just hoped some intruders would show up.
But then Taurean had to go and make conversation. He was here for muscle like Caiman and herself, but also for what little interaction they had with other people, since he had the most normal-looking face (so long as the turban concealed his horns) and an atypically amiable manner for a trained killer. But unfortunately, he wasn't the strong, silent type. He was rambling on about the mission, asking Wulf how the polyviral vectors would work, questioning whether the random animal traits they produced as they spread through Terran humanity could be as viable or safe as their own carefully engineered mods, stuff like that. She didn't listen closely. It did amuse her when Wulf snarled at Taurean for doubting the power of divine Nature to effect this glorious transformation, though her amusement faded as he continued his fanatical tirade. Dogs always made too much damn noise.
Noise — there was something moving around again. Maybe lunch, maybe an intruder (though what was the difference, really?). She couldn't tell with Wulf blathering and the stupid scarf squishing her pretty ears. She hissed for attention. "I hear something!" She caught a definite scent this time, distinctly animal. Maybe even human ... though it was increasingly hard to tell these days.
"Maybe you should hurry up and finish, Wulf," said Taurean. "I'd like to get out of here without any trouble."
Bast heard a clear movement up above and whirled to face it. A second ago there'd been nothing atop that big machine, but now a woman stood there. She was muscular but curvaceous, with wild hair the color of autumn leaves and an elfin face with enormous, almost catlike green eyes. She wore a green sleeveless tunic with a flamelike trim, matching knee-length boots, tight black hip-huggers, and a faux-leather gunbelt resting at a rakish angle upon her wide hips. This was no local cop or UNECS security trooper. With a flamboyant outfit like that, there was only one thing she could be.
The redhead smirked, tilted an angular brow, and spoke in a honeyed soprano, her cocky words confirming Bast's conclusion. "Looking for trouble? You just found her."
Which was good, since Bast was definitely looking for trouble.
* * *
Emerald Blair loved making dramatic entrances, watching all eyes turn to her as she came into a room. Of course, she preferred it when the owners of those eyes didn't also possess guns, combat mods, or both. But such was the lot of a Troubleshooter.
Besides, she was tired of being stealthy. Sneaking up on the Neogaian terrorists was one thing, but she and Arkady Nazarbayev had needed to sneak themselves all the way from Luna without the Union of Earth and Cislunar States finding out. UNECS had refused them clearance to operate within their territory even after Arkady had warned them of the impending Neogaian attack, insisting they were more qualified than any "Strider vigilante and his teen sidekick" (apprentice, thank you, and she was twenty-two) to keep their vaunted peace and order. She supposed she couldn't begrudge the Terrans their pride in that order, given how hard they'd fought to build it after the ecological and social upheavals of the past century. But she suspected their disdain for the Troubleshooters had more to do with prejudice than pride. Underneath their noble talk of equality was a not-so-veiled mistrust toward those who were enhanced beyond the norm.
She and Arkady could have just flown in at maximum thrust — she doubted even the Eunuchs were fanatical enough to shoot down a TSC scout ship — but that would have tipped off the Neogaians. And so the heroic Medvyéd, the mighty Bear of the Troubleshooters, and his glamorous apprentice, the Green Blaze, had spent eighteen hours heroically, glamorously stuffed inside a cargo pod, cushioned from the accelerations of mass drivers and capture nets by gel cocoons and their own augmented anatomies. On finally reaching Chakra City, they had made an entrance in only the most literal sense, cutting their way through the hull and sealing it behind them, and hoping that the vagaries of orbital mechanics had let them arrive in time.
After all that, Emry was so thrilled to come out in the open that she didn't particularly mind being the decoy. As she delivered her trademark Green Blaze entrance line (or her latest attempt at one, though she thought this one had better staying potential than "Now you're in trouble, Mama spank" or "Hey, look over there!") and drew the attention of the Neogaians, Arkady was already sneaking up behind them, ready to incapacitate them as soon as he got a clear shot.
But it was hard to be sneaky in that bulky antique symbot he wore, at least when your enemies had animal hearing. The leader, a canine chimera who'd already yanked off his turban to free his ears, spun his head toward the sound of the armored exosuit's whirring servos and barked, "Down!" just as the Troubleshooter fired. The therianthropes scattered, and only one of Arkady's tanglewebs hit, snaring the tall reptilian's legs. But as the other two males ducked for cover, this one deftly turned his fall into a roll (the sixty-five-percent gravity of this small habitat giving him more time for it) and bit through the polysilk threads with his massive jaw. Despite the Neogaians' anti-tech ideology, this one must've had diamond-coated teeth.
The female had ignored Arkady's shots. Eyes fixed on Emry, she had ripped off her chador, revealing a stunning black-furred cat-woman wearing armor fabric over her vital areas. The leader, whom Emry now recognized as high-ranking Neogaian Erich "Wulf" Krieger, was shouting, "Taurean, Bast, kill them! Caiman, with me!" But the she-cat didn't need to hear it — she was already screaming and leaping at Emry, claws fully deployed from her fingertips. The ferocity in her yellow eyes struck primal fear into Emry, paralyzing her. At the last instant she reacted, dodging right and tossing the panthress into a spin, but not before those claws put four shallow slashes across the reinforced skin of Emry's left arm. They must have been diamond-coated as well. Meanwhile, in the corner of her eye Emry saw the bull-guard firing a Gauss pistol at Arkady, not as quick as Bast to rely on animal instinct. The bullets bounced off the symbot's tough shell. Arkady was firing his plasma gun at Krieger and Caiman in flashbang mode, the laser pulses ionizing the air into blinding plasma balls with a crackle of miniature thunderclaps. Krieger clapped his hands over his large ears and staggered, but Caiman seemed unaffected and hustled him out of range while Taurean moved in to block his fire.
Bast had landed on her feet on the next air-filtration unit over, facing Emry and looking quite thrilled. "At last! A new toy!" she yowled, her feline muzzle giving her something of a lisp. Like a cat, she studied her foe, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Emry did the same. Bast's ears were in the normal human places, peeking out from her luxurious black mane, but the pinnae were large, pointed, and flexible. Her hands were human except for the claws, but the feet were pawlike and elongated, making her a formidable leaper. Her long tail swished agitatedly even while the rest of her lithe, slender body stayed perfectly still and poised. She seemed young to Emry, though maybe that was a natural feline abandon. Whatever the case, she was gorgeous. The cliché came unbidden to Emry's lips: "Nice kitty!"
"No," Bast replied. "I'm not." She pounced again, effortlessly correcting for Coriolis drift. This time Emry leapt up to meet her, aiming a spin-kick at her head. But Bast pivoted impossibly in midair, seemingly innocent of Newtonian physics, and dodged the kick, slashing at Emry's leg as she went past. This time the armor fabric shielded her, but the blow threw off her recovery, so she fell poorly and almost hit the side of the filtration unit. She caught herself and flipped up and over to land where Bast had just been, facing a Bast who was already crouched where Emry had been, tensing for her next leap.
It's the tail, she realized. That and her flexible spine let Bast shift her center of gravity however she wanted, enabling moves that seemed to laugh in the face of old Isaac. Okay, no more soaring through the air like in a wuxia movie. Emry planted her feet and awaited Bast's attack.
The panthress was quick to oblige, launching herself with great force, claws splayed. Emry grabbed her right wrist and punched her in the gut, but at the same moment Bast shot her legs forward and slashed at Emry's midsection. Light-armor fabric protected both women, but the claws of Bast's free hand dug deeply into Emry's right shoulder. Then the unexpected happened: Bast's tail looped around Emry's leg and yanked, proving itself as much primate as feline. Unbalanced from the collision, Emry fell back and had to fend off Bast's teeth as they went for her throat. She got her forearm bitten for her troubles. Angered, she kneed Bast in the gut and cuffed her head, then kicked the dazed therian off the edge of the filtration unit.
"Now do you see the flaw in the idea of sleeveless armor?" came Arkady's voice over the selfone clip on her left ear.
She rolled her eyes at the rote criticism as she scrambled to her feet. "But tin cans are just so passé."
"Forgive a mere mortal his caution, O demigoddess. At least try not to get yourself killed while I'm still responsible for you."
"Oh, go fuck a can opener," she shot back, but her tone was affectionate. The old schmuck was like a — well, like an uncle to her. But she was going to murder him someday; that was a given.
She looked down from the filtration unit, hoping to see Bast unconscious on the ground. But the she-cat stood there in a relaxed pose, purring loudly as she licked Emry's blood off her fingers. How does it feel to purr? Emry wondered. I bet it's amazing. "Rrrr, thick and yummy," Bast moaned, savoring the dense, erythrocyte-rich blood that fed the increased oxygen demand of Emry's muscles. "Come here and give me more!"
"Sorry, we don't deliver!" Emry wasn't about to jump down — the slow fall would give Bast plenty of reaction time. So she leapt still higher into the maze of ducts and girders overhead, taunting, "Come and get it, pussy!"
That proved a mistake. Emry had been hoping to lose Bast in the forest of conduits and get behind her, but all she did was get Bast more excited and hotter on Emry's (alas, only figurative) tail, following her easily through the maze. Bast's lighter, sleeker build let her slink along ducts too flimsy to support Emry's weight and slip easily through gaps Emry had to force her way through. Still, Emry couldn't resist taunting her, hoping to distract her focus. "Aww, no, now you'll get stuck up here and we'll have to call the fire department!"
Emry remembered playing with Kiri and Tigermuffin as a child: how they attacked a string or toy mousie most eagerly when it went behind the ottoman or table leg and "couldn't see" them coming. Emry had similar close calls with Bast, and those claws left their marks in Emry's arms a couple of times more, as well as doing a fair amount of damage to the conduits. Regrettably, none of them was carrying anything hot or caustic to spray out in Bast's face, as they surely would have in a movie or sim. Real life was such a rip-off sometimes. "Keep scratching up the furniture and we'll have to get you a manicure!" Bast slashed out with a foot, barely missing her. "And a pedicure. How about a sinecure? Get paid to sleep all day — what cat could pass that up?" The next swipe of Bast's claws raked across the back of her hand. Emry lost her grip and barely managed to catch herself on the pipe below. "Would you settle for a cured ham?" I'll need a cure for disembowelment at this rate. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett. Copyright © 2012 Christopher L. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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