Natalie ran through the mud and the toxic rain, past the bones littering the zebra habitat, past the gaping mouth of what used to be a gift shop.
There it was. The Sidewinder rounding the corner. Headed for the World of Bats.
She couldn’t believe her luck. She’d been wandering the empty streets, trying to score some R, her hair drenched, a fog settling over her mind—when the world’s most-wanted serpent-robot mass-murderer lumbered out of an alleyway on mechanical legs.
That fucker was sharp—put together who she was in less than a second. Hissed, exposing a forked tongue and fangs like ice picks. Bolted into the abandoned zoo.
Natalie had heard it could even shapeshift. That was bullshit. Comfort for the losers who’d choked at the prospect of a 5 million-credit reward. Not her. A few hours from now she’d be buying shots for all those assholes. Prove to everyone what she already knew—she was the top tracker on this planet.
She almost landed on her ass taking the slippery steps three at a time. The stench of guano and mildew overwhelmed her. Broken glass crunched under her boots.
All she had was a mini-blaster. She flicked on its flashlight. About as useful as a goddamned match. An MK-2900 was what she needed—laser sights, centiplex vision, a charge powerful enough to reanimate the dead.
But the mini-blaster would have to do. She had 3,267 kills under her belt. And nothing was going to stop her from 3,268.
She stalked around the corner of the first cave. Moisture dripped from the ceiling.
Quite different than when she was there as a child. She had been more thrilled than terrified, the bats darting across, making those squeaky echolocation sounds. And she played a little game. She would stick out her hand and walk toward the darkness, the wall always seeming further away than it was.
Thunder shook the earth. She moved to the next cave. The light went out. How was that possible? She had only used this thing—
Dodged at the last second. Jaws striking inches from her ear. She dropped into a roll and fired three times. Three misses.
The Sidewinder took off, shrieking. Left her in the cool of the darkness. Her knee bruised and bloody. She hobbled toward the exit. Forced herself to sprint through the puddles. Hot, vengeful pain shot through her leg.
She could’ve used a few caplets of R, a Tercos injection, a cup of coffee. Anything to stop the shivering, force her synapses to fire.
She passed a cage where a red panda used to munch on bamboo stalks. Eight-year-old Natalie had adopted the red panda as her favorite. With its raccoon tail and soft fur, it was a microcosm of perfection.
To think that a creature like that had once existed. On Earth. She knew this was true, yet couldn’t wrap her mind around it.
Shit, that robot could fly. She guessed where it might have gone, desperate to catch up. A crack of lightning saved her—outlined a silhouette ducking into the tropical bird habitat.
So The Sidewinder wanted to try an enclosed space again, wanted to fight. Good. She liked it better that way.
Fat raindrops pelted the greenhouse roof. She crouched, crept across the boardwalk. Her knee throbbed and she sank a tooth into her tongue, a futile effort to replace the pain.
The Sidewinder climbed a tall Eucalyptus tree. Probably planning to attack from above.
She pulled the trigger twice. Blue electricity ripped apart the tree’s base—splintered, groaned, came crashing down. Pinned The Sidewinder against a rock. The reptilian head thrashed about, spitting venom.
That machine killed 156 men, women, and children, and seven of her fellow trackers. But it was no match for her.
Natalie was lining up her shot when a bright light expanded. Filled the greenhouse, warm and shocking. She covered her ears and shut her eyes tight.
The phenomenon vanished as suddenly as it appeared.
The Sidewinder had morphed. Into a red panda. Chewing on the leaves, its big brown unblinking eyes staring at her. She didn’t understand—not that it was a shapeshifter, there were a few of those, but that it knew her.
And she realized she hated the world around her. The burning skyscrapers and the glass-eyed users and the rain, always the fucking rain. Hated how so many places were just like this zoo—places where something used to be.
She crouched next to the red panda. Rubbed its pointy, velvety ears and scratched its head. When was the last time she had touched a living creature?
She stood, rubbed the snot off her nose with the back of her hand. Aimed and fired repeatedly. Blew the red panda into chunks of smoking flesh. Blood covered the Eucalyptus leaves.
She tapped her earpiece. “This is 0007816377.”
“Thought today was your day off?”
“It was. Until I terminated target 89014.”
“You heard me. I’ll be by to collect.”
She wondered how much everything she valued was worth.
Five million credits sounded about right.
Chris Rhatigan is the co-editor, along with Nigel Bird, of the upcoming Pulp Ink anthology from Needle Publishing. His fiction has appeared in A Twist of Noir, MiCrow, Mysterical-E, Yellow Mama, Thrillers, Killers ’n Chillers, and Pulp Metal Magazine. If you dig short fiction, stop by his blog, Death by Killing.