The flight from the Panthera Range to the Felidae Ergs took less than an hour. The change in scenery below from the forest to the desert was so abrupt that Callie was now wondering if something unnatural was to blame.
“It looks like a different planet down there,” Felina observed.
The landscape was a dead brownish hue, comprised of a large, mostly flat sand sheet that stretched far into the horizon. There was no vegetation or water in sight. Most disappointingly, there were no buildings or vehicles to be seen either.
Callie held up her communicator and saw the destination icon blinking. They had arrived where it said to go.
“I don’t see anything down there,” Callie said as she leaned to look out the canopy. “You don’t think there’s anywhere we could land, do you?”
“Not a chance,” Felina said. “That terrain’s mostly flat, but it also looks pretty rough. Not to mention I wouldn’t want to risk getting stuck out here.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Callie said, disappointment in her voice.
“This place is an empty wasteland,” Felina said as she started to bring the jet about. “Whoever set that tracker up for you must’ve made some kind of mistake.”
“I guess that’s possible,” Callie said.
This was a huge waste of time and I’m no closer to finding T-Bone and Razor, Callie thought. The lieutenant had been right in her advice to prepare for disappointment, but those words didn’t help how Callie felt. This was her only lead. A desperate shot in the dark based on the insights of a scientist whose mental faculties Callie didn’t fully appreciate.
The thought of Councilman Anderson’s pending memorial bothered Callie deeply, and not just because of his death. Callie knew that with the SWAT Kats gone, there was a good possibility it would be the first of many memorials she’d be attending.
Callie was pulled away from her thoughts by a warning signal coming from the Sabre’s controls.
“C’mon,” Felina growled, and started flipping a switch up and down.
“What’s wrong?” Callie asked, becoming uneasy.
“It’s the landing gear,” Felina said. “One of the doors just opened.”
“Is that a problem?” Callie asked, trying to keep from succumbing to panic.
“No,” Felina said reassuringly. “Probably a loss in hydraulic pressure. It’ll slow us down a little, but we can still make it back to-”
Felina stopped what she was saying. A shadow had fallen over the two of them from above. Callie froze in place, and closed her eyes momentarily, gritting her teeth.
Please, she thought, and then opened her eyes, slowly looking upwards.
Above both Felina and Callie, gripped to the canopy and facing down at them, was one of the white, featureless creatures from the monitoring station. It was less than a foot above Callie’s head, and from that distance, she could see it in grotesque detail. Every serrated, triangular tooth was slightly worn, with small pieces of flesh in between some of them. Its skin, glistening when viewed at a distance, was textured in the loose lines of skin, as if whatever skeleton and muscles that it had underneath were just a half size too small. It was gripping to the canopy with its hands, each finger a white knuckled sausage. It had no nails. Where its eyes should have been was an empty area, just skin.
“L-l-l-lieutenant…” Callie whispered, her voice shaking, unable to take her eyes off the creature. It was moving its head up and down, pressed against the canopy, as if it were sniffing with it’s noseless face.
“Must’ve grabbed onto the landing gear when we took off,” Felina said, her attention also fixated. “Hang on, I’ll try to shake it loose.”
Callie gripped the sides of her seat, bracing herself. Thus far Felina had kept their flight relatively stable, with no unnecessary maneuvers. In an instant, Callie felt her stomach leap upwards as the world outside the canopy rotated 180 degrees.
“Gah!” Callie shouted, feeling her flight restraints dig in, holding her in place.
The creature above them started to struggle, and Callie could hear the squeaking noise of skin sliding across the canopy.
“Just a little more of a push,” Felina said, and sharply jerked the control stick sideways.
The world was now spinning, and Callie was sent violently sideways, pressed leftwards. The horizon in the distance kept turning like the hand on a clock. Above, she could hear the squeaking on the canopy get louder and faster, and in an instant the creature disappeared from sight.
“Guess he couldn’t hang on,” Felina said with a smirk, and leveled out, returning the horizon to normal.
Callie felt ill, on the verge of vomiting. Felina seemed to notice this.
“There should be an airsick bag somewhere around there if you need it,” Felina said.
“Thanks,” Callie said, and started to look around the cramped cockpit. There was a small slot to her right with the items in question, and she withdrew one. Callie opened it and brought it to her face. Before her stomach had a chance to release its contents, Callie saw movement to her right.
The creature was staring at her again. Before Callie could scream it had reached back with an open, grasping hand and drove it through the canopy. The cockpit was instantly awash in a gale of wind and blaring alarms. The white hand was grasping frantically through the opening it had created, and found Callie’s right thigh. Its grip was strong and painful, and Callie could feel each individual finger digging into her. She screamed, a combination of agony and fear.
In front of her, Lt. Feral was struggling in her seat. She had the Glock 17 in hand, and was trying to awkwardly point it toward the creature from within the tight confines of the cockpit.
The grasp on Callie’s thigh was intensifying, and she could feel her skin breaking.
“Get off!” Callie shouted, and started to hit the creature’s arm.
Three loud pops exploded in Callie’s ears, and she winced. Even with all of the other noise, the gunshots at that range were still deafening. Black spatters of blood splashed on her helmet and jumpsuit, and the creature’s grip released, the arm rapidly retracting from the hole in the canopy.
Callie grabbed at her thigh, feeling the bruises forming. Before she could say anything, the Sabre vibrated and started to careen.
“Great!” Felina shouted, turning her attention forward again. “It hit one of the stabilizers when I shot it off!”
The nose of the aircraft was moving downward, and the sand sheet of the Felidae Ergs was now filling her view. The jet rumbled now, and suddenly the world was spinning.
“We’re breaking apart!” Felina shouted.
This is it, Callie thought. I’m going to die. And I never got the Mayor to sign that stupid liquor tax ordinance. Callie regretted that of all the things that came to mind as she watched her life end, was that she was thinking about work.
The thought didn’t last long, as she abruptly found herself feeling many times heavier, her body compressed against her seat as what remained of the canopy above exploded outward and disappeared. In an instant it was replaced with the opposite, a feeling of weightlessness, and she was watching the Sabre careening out of control below her.
Am I dead? Is this some kind of out-of-body experience?
The weightlessness stopped and she could feel the straps of her harness pulling from above. The noise of wind calmed. Callie looked up to see an open parachute above her.
Callie laughed, tears running down the side of her face. A loud explosion interrupted the momentary joy, and she looked down to see the rising fireball of what had been the Sabre in the distance. The joy was now replaced by dread.
Callie didn’t see another parachute.
“Oh no…” Callie said out-loud.
The ground was now rushing up at her, and not having any formal training, she landed hard. The injury on her leg protested, and she instantly fell to the ground in pain. The parachute collapsed around her, draping her in its coarse fabric.
Callie laid there, and closed her eyes.
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