(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
PEOPLE WERE IDIOTS. THIS was not new information. Hayami had been on the job for twelve years, first as a beat cop, then as a detective, and the amount of sheer stupidity she had seen occasionally made her wonder if mother nature should just wipe out humanity and start over with a smarter species. Like cats, or crows.
The most recent example of human stupidity was the pack of glammed-up girls walking down the sidewalk right in front of her. Despite numerous public safety advisories, despite the fact that there were black and whites patrolling the streets downtown constantly, despite the fact that twenty-three people had been grabbed off the streets of downtown Dallas in the last six months, five girls in their early to mid-twenties were just walking down the street in the middle of downtown, headed to one of the nightclubs.
They might as well have been wearing signs saying, ‘Kidnap us, we’re easy targets!’
She was watching them file into one of the clubs when her phone rang. She reached down and hit the accept button without looking that the caller ID, and immediately regretted it.
“Takahashi,” she said.
“You’re downtown again, aren’t you?” Michelle asked.
“What? No,” Hayami said.
“Oh, really? Then where are you?”
“I’m at home, trying to decide what I want to watch on Netflix.”
“Oh, really? So, if I knocked on your front door right now, you’d get up and let me in?”
Hayami sighed. “You’re standing on my porch, aren’t you?”
“I’m standing on your porch with pizza and a six pack, and you’re downtown again.”
“I’m downtown again,” Hayami said.
“Damn it, Yami, what the fuck?”
“I’m trying to solve the damn case,” Hayami said. A bit of motion caught her eye and she watched as a woman riding a big red touring motorcycle pulled into the parking lot across the street from her.
“By sitting downtown and watching idiots take stupid risks?” Michelle asked. “That’s what we have black and whites for. You should be at home, resting. You’re never going to solve anything if you’re exhausted all the time.”
“I can’t just sit at home and do nothing. Whatever’s going on is escalating.” She watched the woman on the motorcycle take off her helmet.
“I know,” Michelle said, “but you’re not working this case alone. There’s a reason we’ve got a whole task force on this.”
“Well, the task force isn’t doing any better than I am, are they?” Hayami asked as she watched the woman lock her helmet in the storage box mounted above the rear wheel of the bike.
“We’re all working our asses off,” Michelle said. “Why are you taking this one so personally? You’re usually pretty good about separating the work from your life.”
“I don’t know,” Hayami said as she watched the woman start walking. “This feels different, somehow. Bigger.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know. But my gut is telling me that we need to shut down whatever is going on fast. I…” Hayami stopped as she saw the woman turn down a side street.
“I’ve got to go,” Hayami said.
She didn’t answer. She just grabbed her phone out of the docking cradle, climbed out of the car, and slammed the door.
“Stupid fucking people,” she muttered to herself as she ran across the street. The woman was doing everything she wasn’t supposed to be doing. Moving alone at night on a side street. It was almost like she wanted to get grabbed. Hayami shoved her phone in her pocket and did a quick check to make sure her gun was where it should be as she started down the same side street as the woman.
“Hey, wait up!” she called. The woman ignored her, so she picked up her pace again. She’d almost reached her when she heard a heavy vehicle behind her. She glanced back and saw a brown delivery van coming down the street towards them and felt a chill run down her spine.
“Fuck,” she said as she turned back around. She ran the last few feet to catch up with the woman and grabbed her by the shoulder. The woman spun around.
“Let go,” she snapped.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Hayami said.
The woman looked over her shoulder, and instead of the fear Hayami expected, there was a look of pure annoyance. Before either of them could say anything, the van rolled to a stop, and four men jumped out. Hayami grabbed her gun.
“Dallas PD!” she yelled. “Down on the ground, now!”
The men from the van didn’t even slow down. Hayami took a step back as she picked a target and fired. The distance between them was so short there was no way she could have missed. The man she’d targeted rocked back from the impact, but he didn’t slow down or stop. She fired again, putting three more rounds into the same guy before he grabbed her gun and ripped it out of her hands. She watched, stunned, as he crushed it like it was made of playdough, then tossed it aside. She turned and tried to run, but she didn’t get more than two steps before she was lifted off the ground and tossed over a shoulder.
The same man she had shot in the chest four times carried her to the back of the van and tossed her in. Another man was waiting for her there. He grabbed her wrists and slipped a pair of zip cuffs on, and cinched them tight. The van pulled away from the curb and started accelerating while the man who had tied her up searched her. He found her phone, badge, cuffs, knife, spare magazines, and backup gun, tossing each out of the back of the already moving van. The other woman didn’t seem to have anything on her worth tossing other than a phone.
While he was searching her, Hayami did a quick headcount. Her, the woman, the four men who had grabbed them, and a driver. Hayami looked over at the woman. She was tall, with skin just a little darker than Hayami’s own and had short, close-cut hair. She was still looking at Hayami with nothing but annoyance on her face.
“You couldn’t have just minded your own business?” the woman asked in a tone that made it sound like Hayami had spoiled a surprise party or something.
“Shut up,” one of the men said. He drove the command home by punching the woman in the face hard enough that her head bounced off the side of the van. Hayami was a little shocked, because rather than a broken nose and unconsciousness, which was what she’d expected, the blow didn’t seem to do anything except make the woman look even more annoyed. At least at first. The woman glared at the man who hit her for a few seconds, then leaned her head back and closed her eyes, leaving Hayami to face their kidnappers by herself.
Jakari leaned her head back against the side of the van and closed her eyes because she always found it easier to remote pilot a Talus without visual distractions. She reached out through one of her Phylactery’s control links to one of her Shims, and felt it respond, almost eagerly asking for commands. She sent them, and fifteen blocks away, the motorcycle she’d left behind roared to life. The three saddlebags and the front fairing flowed together, morphing to form a rider for the bike that looked a lot like Jakari’s current human form. The bike righted itself and backed out of the parking spot as the kickstand folded away, then it rushed forward, turning down the same street Jakari had been walking down, then tearing after the van.
She wanted to scream in rage and frustration as she guided the motorcycle along the streets. She’d been roaming downtown Dallas for almost a week playing fat, happy, and stupid while waiting for Cikara’s people to grab her, and the night it finally worked, some stupid human had to get in the way. Why couldn’t the woman have just minded her own damn business?
She had to admit, there was a part of her that had admired the woman. After all, few people would risk their life to try and save a total stranger. And when the danger appeared, the woman had kept her head and reacted like a warrior, producing a weapon and trying to put down her enemies. It would have worked if her enemies had been human, but trying to get a kill with a projectile weapon while you were fighting a Gadan was next to impossible. There was a reason both the Suil and the Char used directed energy weapons. The only way to get a kill was to destroy the Phylactery, and Phylacteries were tiny. Hitting one with a bullet was next to impossible.
Jakari shifted her attention back to her Talus as the rear of the van came into view through the sensors on the motorcycle. It wouldn’t take long for the Char soldiers to spot the motorcycle and figure out what it was, so she would have to do this quickly. She gunned the motorcycle’s engine and brought it up along the passenger’s side of the van, the side she was leaning against. She pulled her legs up and planted them on the floor of the van, which got the Char soldiers’ attention, but before they could do anything, the rider on her motorcycle reached out and drove its hand through the paneling, tearing a hole in the side of the van. Jakari used her feet to kick off, shoving herself out of the hole in the side of the van with inhuman strength at the same time the motorcycle launched itself into the air.
She heard the human woman scream, and she understood. For a human, the move would have been suicide, but Jakari wasn’t human. Far from it. As she flew out of the van, her body gave up the human form it had been holding, even as her Talus began to morph. She hit the rider in the chest, but instead of knocking it off the motorcycle, or tipping over the motorcycle, the mass of the rider, the motorcycle and Jakari’s body all merged and flowed together. TOP matter, the substance which made up Gadan bodies as well as their technology, reorganized itself as Jakari and her motorcycle took on a new, single form.
The new form stood three meters tall, and looked like a giant, metal Gadan. Purple armored skin, proper digitigrade legs ending in paws with razor sharp alloy claws. A tail for balance, a round torso, strong arms, sharp talons at the end of the fingers and a head with a proper snout instead of the smushed face of a human.
Jakari hit the ground running, her massive strides easily keeping up with the van, but she didn’t have a lot of time. The van had already started to morph as well. She swiped at it with both arms, tearing a gap. She reached in and snatched the human through the gap before it could close and then jumped again, morphing as she sailed through the air. She split her own mass from the Talus, resuming her human form, as the Talus morphed back into a motorcycle.
“Hold on to me,” Jakari yelled. The human wrapped her arms tightly around Jakari’s waist and a moment later, the motorcycle hit the ground with tooth-jarring force. There wasn’t a lot she could do to cushion the landing for her passenger, but she hoped it wasn’t too much for the woman. She managed to hold on, so Jakari took that as a good sign. She gunned the throttle, accelerating the bike far faster than any human-built engine could manage.
“Jakari to Mamachi,” she said as she started slewing back and forth across the road, trying to make them harder to hit. “I’ve been made. Five Char in pursuit with one Class Three construct. Assistance required.”
“Support inbound,” Mamachi said. “ETA ten minutes.”
“Fuck,” Jakari said as the first plasma blast dug a hole in the road off to her left. There was no way she was going to last ten minutes while babysitting a human. If she were alone, there wouldn’t be a problem. She’d put her and her Talus up against five Char goons and a Class Three any day. But humans were squishy and given that she’d blown a shot at Cikara’s ship to rescue this one, she wanted to keep her alive.
She swung onto a cross street, morphing the bike through the turn, shifting the center of mass so it held to the road instead of turning into an uncontrolled skid. The human screamed, but Jakari ignored it. She had to if she wanted to keep them alive.
“I need a battlefield,” Jakari said. “Guide me.”
“There’s an airport four miles from you,” Mamachi said.
“Too many people,” Jakari said. “I need something empty.”
“Got it!” Mamachi said. “I’m sending you the guide path now.”
A red line superimposed itself over the middle of the road, telling her she was headed in the right direction for now, just as another plasma bolt dug a hole in the pavement. She risked a glance in the mirror and saw a Char hover sled following. Not a particularly formidable enemy, and if she was alone, she would turn and fight, but her human passenger complicated things. Still, no reason she couldn’t fight back a bit.
She morphed the bike’s saddle bags into rear-facing plasma canons. She’d have to time her shots carefully, since she actually gave a shit about collateral damage and innocent bystanders, but as she swerved back across the centerline of the hover sled, her targeting system locked on and she fired. The shot hit the center of the sloping glacis plate on the front of the sled and gouged a huge trench in the armor but didn’t manage to cut through and hit any of the Char soldiers, and before she could get off a follow up shot, TOP matter flowed into the trench and solidified, repairing the damage.
“What is that thing?” the human yelled.
“Bad news,” Jakari said. The red line turned yellow and an arrow pointing left popped up, indicating an upcoming left turn. She braced for it, and when she reached the right cross street, she slung them through another impossible turn and gunned the engine again, hoping to gain ground.
The human didn’t scream this time. She just held on tight and leaned into the turn, but Jakari could smell the fear hormones coming off the human. She was terrified, and Jakari wished there was something she could do about that.
“Help is on the way,” she said, hoping it would calm her. She didn’t tell her there was no way in the galaxy that the help in question would arrive in time to do any good.
She saw the hover sled reappear in the rear-view mirror and said to hell with it. An alien tank was chasing her down the street. She wasn’t going to die to maintain cover that was already blown. She kicked the motorcycle into the air and morphed it, converting it into a grav-sled. As vehicles went, it wasn’t that far removed from the motorcycle, only instead of wheels, it rode on columns of antigravity, which made it a hell of a lot faster. She shoved the throttle forward, running from the hover sled faster than they could follow.
They flew under some sort of elevated roadway and then through an intersection that led them into some sort of shopping area, when Mamachi spoke up.
“You’re coming up on a bridge over an empty riverbed. The riverbed is your battleground. Best I can do.”
“It will work,” Jakari said as the bridge came into view. She drove out onto it and throttled up the anti-grav, lifting the grav-sled high enough to jump the guard rail. She hit the ground below and stopped.
“What are you doing?” the human asked.
“Get off,” Jakari said. “I can’t fight them and protect you at the same time. Get up under the bridge and hide. Wait until they’re distracted and run back to that shopping area. There were people there.”
The human had the sense not to argue. She climbed off the grav-sled and ran back under the bridge. Jakari didn’t waste any more time. She put as a good bit of space between her and the bridge, then shifted back into her mech form and turned around. She deployed the plasma cannon on her right arm and waited until she saw the hover sled approaching the bridge. She fired once; a single, tight beam shot. Not enough to do any damage, but just enough to get their attention.
The sled turned towards her and came down into the riverbed. As it approached, four of the five Char soldiers jumped out and the hover sled began to morph.
“Oh, this day just gets better and better,” Jakari said, as she braced for the fight to come.
Hayami had never questioned her own bravery. She’d stared down hardened criminals, raided drug labs, arrested men twice her size, and even gone back to the job after taking a bullet on her vest. She knew she wasn’t a coward, but she couldn’t help but feel like one as she ran away from a fight. She crawled up the embankment that supported one end of the Inwood Road bridge, tucking herself into the darkness where the bottom of the bridge met the top of the embankment, then she turned and watched.
She watched as the woman from the van, Jakari, she’d called herself when she was calling for help, stopped the…whatever it was she was riding and turned it around. It began to change shape, moving and flowing like liquid as it surrounded her, slowly growing to maybe ten feet tall, and taking the form of some sort of purple anthropomorphic cat.
It was enough to make Hayami wonder if she’d finally lost it. If the stress from work had finally made her crack. She’d grown up on her dad’s rather extensive anime collection. She knew a mech when she saw it. She also knew they didn’t exist. Not really. But there one was, raising some kind of weapon.
There was a bright blue flash, and Hayami blinked, trying to clear the spots out of her eyes. A moment later, the strange tank-like vehicle that had been chasing them sailed over the side of the bridge, stopping just before it hit the ground. The four men who had grabbed her and Jakari jumped out of the vehicle before it started to morph the same way Jakari’s vehicle did, flowing like a liquid from one form to the next. Only this form was twenty feet tall.
The fight started before the larger mech had finished taking on its new shape. Jakari fired five shots into the larger machine, then broke into a run. The men lifted their arms, and Hayami wasn’t sure if they had weapons, or if their arms morphed the way the vehicles had, but they started shooting plasma at Jakari’s mech.
Jakari dodged, flipped, rolled, jumped, and maybe even danced her way around the plasma fire coming at her. The whole time she kept up a steady stream of return fire. She used her left arm to pump shot after shot into the larger mech, which couldn’t seem to finish its transformation while getting hit. Her right arm targeted the men on foot, but they were every bit as fast and nimble as she was. They used their numbers to their advantage, spreading out so she couldn’t hit more than one of them with a single shot.
Hayami knew she should use the distraction of the battle to run and get help, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes off what was happening. She was terrified for Jakari. She didn’t know the woman at all, but she knew that Jakari had saved her life. She also knew that she had unintentionally blown a mission that could have stopped the kidnappings cold. She’d been right about something bigger going on, even though she had no idea what she had walked into, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the woman who had saved her behind. Even if she couldn’t help.
The first death was as sudden as it was unexpected. Jakari was still keeping up a stream of fire into the larger mech, staging it and blowing pieces off, but one of the men tried to come at her from the side, and she suddenly jerked her left arm around and fired, leaving nothing of him but a burn mark on the grass.
The kill cost her, though. The break in fire was enough to allow the larger mech the chance to change a piece of itself into a shield, and when Jakari turned her attention back to the larger mech, she could no longer hit the main body, and it was able to finish taking on its new form.
After three shots splashed against the shield, Jakari seemed to give up on the larger mech and turned both guns on the men. The second kill came almost immediately. The men weren’t ready for the change in tactics, and Jakari caught one of them with a shot from her left arm.
The third kill came just a moment later when Jakari charged one of the two remaining men. She kicked him into the air and shot him as he fell. She turned toward the last of the men, when a blast from the larger mech hit her, knocking her back and blowing the right arm off her mech.
The larger mech swung its shield in front of it as Jakari started to raise her left arm to fire at it, but the last second, her arm dropped and she fired into the larger mech’s foot, blowing it off at the ankle. The larger mech toppled over, flailing the whole way down. As the larger mech fell, Jakari’s mech morphed again, shrinking even as it grew a replacement for its right arm.
The last man tried to get a shot in while Jakari was morphing, but he missed. Jakari turned and fired, hitting him with both of her plasma cannons before her mech had even settled completely into its new form. With the last man gone, Jakari turned her attention back to the larger mech. It had grown a new foot and was getting back up, but Jakari charged it. It started firing at her, but Jakari dodged this way and that, avoiding the shots until she was so close Hayami didn’t know how the larger mech could miss, but Jakari sprang into the air, jumping over the next plasma bolt and coming down on top of the larger mech. Jakari’s mech’s legs morphed, turning into giant spikes. She drove both of them into the larger mech’s torso as she wrapped her arms around its neck. It reached up, clawing at her, but something big launched out of the back of Jakari’s mech, and as Hayami watched, it turned into something that looked like a dog with bat wings, flying away from the two mechs as fast as it could. Hayami looked back at the two mechs, just in time to seem them both explode.