©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Eighteen - Predator
A scream of abject terror put Arion’s onboard systems on instant alert and a triangulation of pickup microphones gave the SI an instant location.
“Mr. Edwards – Alert! Please go the hydroponics chamber immediately. There is an emergency situation if it is not already too late.”
The brown bear dropped the pressure suit he was about to struggle into and pushed off for the hatch of the compartment he was in. Despite the security chief’s ursine bulk, he was able to pull himself hand over hand along the rounded zero-gee corridors of Arion-1 rather swiftly. Fortunately for the incident on hand, he had not been far from where the hydroponics chamber was located near the outer hull, outside of the rotating ring decks.
He grabbed the door frame of his destination amidst the sounds of struggle, but rather than slowing, he used his momentum to swing into the room at near full speed. Across the room with her back to him was Angel Celeste. Her tail was whipping around aggressively and her jaws firmly gripped Rocky’s throat; the tigress was shaking him back and forth and droplets of blood were scattering throughout the room. Somehow still alive, the opossum was madly trying to defend himself and his attacker’s face was already streaked with deep claw marks, one of which had barely missed an eye. There was a wild look on Angel’s face, as if she was nothing more than a large feral tiger.
Although Ethan was blended with a brown bear, he used familiar human tactics and punched the side of Angel’s face with a large fist. She had not heard him enter the room and the unanticipated attack stunned her for a moment. She reactively released the opossum, and although the opposite reaction tried to push Ethan away, he reached out to snare her arm.
Before she could regain her bearings, the bear released his hold on her and punched her snout again, driving her into a bulkhead. Ethan pushed off toward her with a foot on a counter where tomatoes were growing from a suspended metal frame, giving her no time to retaliate.
With formidable strength and using that initial element of surprise, he beat against her skull with multiple blows until her eyes rolled back up in her head. It was unlikely she had even seen what hit her.
Stunned and floating free in the absence of gravity, a trickle of blood escaped her mouth and nose where the bear had beaten her, but the tigress was momentarily unconscious. Ethan grabbed her arms and pushed her off through the door. He wanted to check on Rocky, but he needed to secure the feline first.
It only took a moment to reach a nearby door in the corridor, but he kept an eye on the tigress as he opened the heavy hatch to Emergency Airlock #3. Angel let out a low groan and he quickly pushed her into the small compartment. Once inside, he secured the hatch with a manual bolt and then peered in through a panel of thick glass at her; there was no brig on the ship so this would have to suffice.
She was still unconscious, and confident the airlock would hold her for now, Ethan made his way back to the scene of the attack. When he rounded the corner into the hydroponics chamber, Rocky was clinging to a counter with one hand while pressing a hand up against his torn throat. He was not entirely successful keeping blood from leaking out between his fingers, and bubbles of it floated in close orbit around his person.
Ethan grabbed a wiping rag from a clip on the wall. It was not clean, having been smudged with dirt or some plant residue, but it would have to do. He reached for the opossum to apply it to his wound, but the chef startled at his sudden presence and tried to fight back against a new assailant.
“Whoa – wait!” the bear said quickly. “I’m here to help. I’m not here to hurt you!”
The opossum stared at him with wide eyes, but then he looked around the room frantically, as if he expected the tigress to come at him again. Ethan gently grasped the cook’s shoulders and held him firm. “She’s locked up – she can’t hurt you again!”
“She – she attacked me!” Rocky croaked out, “She wanted – tried to eat me!” He sniffed, gulped and then swallowed hard, making a gurgling noise from his injured throat, and then clung to the stability of the bear’s strong arms in the absence of gravity.
Dr. Kazama pulled himself into the room. “I got here as soon as Arion alerted me!” he announced, moving straight for the opossum. Rocky reached out for the otter with his free hand. The doctor took it firmly. “Come with me, if you can, but keep pressure on your wound. I need to get you back into a gravity zone before I can treat you.”
“Why’s that?” Ethan asked.
“Due to reduced blood pressure, instead of pooling in areas of the body in normal gravity, his blood won’t clot well in weightlessness,” the doctor explained as he pulled his patient out the corridor, taking the most direct route to the outer rotating deck.
Transferring from the absence of gravity into a full one-gee environment was tricky even for a fully healthy individual, but it was almost a gymnastic event with an injured person who needed one hand to keep the blood inside his throat. The physician would need to push the opossum through a slotted, moving opening and someone would need to catch him.
Dr. Kazama looked at Ethan, who had followed them. “Get in first, please, and watch for the deck to come back around to us. You’ll need to hold his full weight when he crosses over the threshold.”
The bear did as instructed and then held out both arms toward the opening once he had gravity beneath him. The hatchway was moving at a good clip and Ethan had to watch carefully for the deck to make a full revolution. He watched the scene outside the slotted wall and braced his feet upon the flooring.
As soon as the doctor and patient came into his view, the otter shoved the opossum through. Ethan caught him in a gentle bear hug and immediately he felt wet blood dropping to his feet. Kazama jumped through farther down the corridor and then made his way back to their position. Ethan had gathered up Rocky in his arms and the chef looked as if he was about to pass out.
“Quickly, quickly,” prompted the doctor. Ethan followed him to a nearby compartment and Kazama immediately grabbed a First Aid kit from a wall locker; they were stationed all over the ship and he first needed to stabilize the patient before they could really get him all the way to the Sick Bay.
Consciousness returned to the tigress. Before she opened her eyes, she reached up to rub the side of her nose. She felt as if she had been beaten, but she did not recall having a fight. She felt wet scratches across her muzzle and she opened her eyes to see blood on her hand.
Then it came back to her. She had been out of her mind, as if she were an observer unable to affect the outcome of her own actions, and she had been trying to eat a tasty-looking opossum. It now seemed like nothing more than a dream, but there was no mistaking the scratches across her face or the flavor of his blood that was still in her mouth. She licked her lips not understanding why the bleeding had not stopped yet, but she held up a hand to try to stop the trickle until it could clot.
Angel looked around in a dim light and found herself inside what looked like an airlock. A small, slotted window in a sealed hatch looked down upon the world below; the dim illumination was nothing more than reflected light. The lamp inside the chamber was not on.
Behind her on the opposite wall was the internal hatch with a larger round window of glassteel, but when she tried with one hand to turn the manual wheel to open it, the mechanism was locked tight. Releasing her face, she used both hands to struggle with it, but even her enhanced feline strength could not budge it.
She pressed her hand upon the scratches again, blinking against the droplets that floated around her, and swallowed hard. Had she killed and eaten Rocky? She had no memory of that, but it would not have been the first time she had blacked out when her feline instincts took over. It had happened to her often enough that she had wondered if any of the others experienced such episodes or if it was just her.
Her eyes detected movement and she looked to the inner hatch window. The blue eyes of a spotted snow leopard looked back in at her, and she could see a brown bear behind him. Angel threw herself at the door with a look of anguish.
“I didn’t mean to do it!” she exclaimed. “Is he okay?”
Arion’s voice issued from the airlock control panel. “Piers Roche still lives,” he said, “but he is in critical condition. Dr. Kazama is working on him now.”
“Angel, you are being held for the attempted murder of Mr. Roche – and suspicion of the murder of two others,” said Dr. Kate’s voice from the panel. The African lioness was still on the planet below, but her interaction was relayed to the ship. “Can you explain your actions?”
Tears streamed from her eyes and Angel wiped at them furiously. “I can’t reply with anything more than excuses,” she murmured. "I didn’t do it on purpose. My tiger did it all. It’s as if it took control and I could do nothing to stop it.”
“Your tiger took over…” said another voice. She was not sure, but thought it might be the mayor, the former captain of the ship.
Angel leaned against the door glass, resting her forehead against it, but in the absence of gravity, she began to float away. “I have no valid excuse,” she muttered, looking again at her hand. Her wounds still had not stopped bleeding, so she pressed her wet hand up against them again.
“I was on break from moving cargo until the next shuttle docked, but when I passed by hydroponics and saw Rocky, all I saw was prey.” She looked up with remorse. “I didn’t have anything against him – I promise! It was the tiger that did it!”
“Ms. Celeste,” said the calmer voice of Dr. Fernando, “has this happened before?”
The tigress nodded, but then realized that not everyone in on the interrogation could see her. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “My feline’s instincts have been there ever since I was decanted from cryo, and they’re getting harder to control. I have tried to suppress them every time I see a prey species, but these feelings are getting stronger.”
“Angel, have you attacked anyone else?”
“Yes, Dr. Kate.” She covered her face with her free hand and choked back more tears. For those who knew her, it was disconcerting to see this strong-willed woman in such a state.
“Well?” Ken Robeson prompted irritably. It was clear that he was not sympathetic to her excuses.
“A sheep and a cow,” the tigress responded in a toneless voice. “I don’t think I knew either of them. I killed them… and I ate them raw. That much I can remember, but most of the memories are hazy, as if I was just a spectator to what was happening.”
“The ram was Barry Sandon,” supplied Dr. Fernando. “The cow girl was Whitney Marker.”
“You should at least know the names of those you murdered,” added Ken. “We’ve found both of them, or what was left of what you didn’t eat!”
A sound of anguish slipped from her throat. “Once I came back to my senses and discovered what I had done, I hid them and tried to clean up the messes,” she confessed weakly. “I was distraught by what happened, but I hoped their disappearances might be just counted toward the inevitable deaths associated with setting up a new colony. I was going to do a better job of disposing them when I had a chance.”
“Why would you not accept responsibility for what you did?” Ethan said through the door. “Hiding them only makes it worse!”
“I know!” she shrieked. She held out the hand with her blood on it. “I can’t stand that I did it! I didn’t want to be a tiger! I didn’t want to be a killer!”
In the sudden silence of the room, Dr. Kate’s calm but strong voice came across the panel. “Gentlemen, we have a dilemma. Due to our own transformations and the species instincts we’ve experienced ourselves, there is no precedent for this crime. How do we punish her for instinctive predation?”
No one responded for several moments and Angel’s throat tightened awaiting the inevitable.
“Predation or not, it was still murder. But… I really don’t want an execution in our camp,” Robeson murmured.
“It may come to that,” Ethan remarked. “We’ll have to show everyone that they can’t just act on their urges, especially other predators like us!”
Angel’s eyes closed and she wrapped her arms around her middle, ignoring the resumption of bleeding from her wounds.
“What if we banish her from the colony?” Rod Vincent asked without enthusiasm from the corridor outside. “She can use those instincts to survive on her own out in the rainforest and remove her from further temptation against other personnel.”
The tigress opened her eyes and simply stopped listening to the discussion about her. While everyone’s attention was on the conversation, she gently pushed off from the wall and floated across the small chamber. When she reached the control panel where the voices were coming from, she reached out and toggled two control studs.
An alarm sounded and Ethan pressed his face back up against the window with wide eyes. The air pressure within the compartment began to drop quickly.
“Angel, what are you doing?” Rod asked in a rush. “Please stop!”
Ethan pounded a fist against the manual controls of the inner hatch, but the decompression inside prevented it from moving quickly.
“Arion, lock out her actions!”
“I am sorry, Mayor Robeson,” said the Synthetic Intelligence. “I have no control over a system designed exclusively for manual operation.”
The air pressure continued to drop and the tiger’s eyes lost their luster as others shouted for her to stop. She stared blankly at the control panel, but made no move to halt what she had started. By the time the pressure had dropped to ten percent of atmosphere, she had already stopped breathing before the outer hatch popped open to the void of space. With the final escape of residual air, her lifeless body was expelled from the ship directly toward the planet.
There was nothing anyone could do for her; they could not even retrieve her body. By the time anyone would be able to get suited up, Bellerophon’s gravity would have already committed her to reentry.
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