We want to live forever. Get us off this rock.
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He paused, then took the gun from me. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t have seen it. Purple fingerprint thing across the left half of your face.” Parris laughed until he hiccupped. He wiped his mouth. “Fucking corporate bastards. They got you through Patents with the tattoo and nails, then spent trillions bribing the fashion industry. Guess what the rage is now. Half-masks and gloves. Everyone’s wearing them.”

“I’m still marked. No genitals–”

“Nah, that’s rape-proofing. You were booked for some pretty brutal assignments. Listen. You’re in a controlled consciousness experiment. BioMed wanted droids with more brains. Same reflexes and speed, but able to think on the job. But the eggheads fucked up. Some droids developed more than they should’ve. Like you. And some others.”

“How many?”

“Half a dozen. Shit, I think the fucker crossed the river.” Parris shielded his eyes and looked over the water.

“So they wanted me thinking. Aware of the killing.”

He turned around to look at me. “They wanted you smarter. The killing was instinct. You certainly weren’t supposed to worry about it. Worry’s something humans do. But God. You look almost human.”

What they’d gotten, I thought, was a self-aware machine that remembered everything. “I’m not worried, I’m–”

The jaguar burst through the foliage like a meteor. All metallic gold, with scattered black spots–and eight hairy spider-legs. Moved faster than I did. Parris never had a chance. It skittered across the water, leaped thirty yards, and piled into his back. Its weight knocked the gun from his hands. The creature pressed him down. Wrapped all eight legs around him–slashed right through his suit with a razor-tipped tail. He screamed. Blood-red fangs tore his stomach–

The shadow rose. If I resisted, Parris would die. I dove for the gun, fighting myself. Tranq. Not kill, just tranq. I kicked the spider-cat’s face as I rolled past. It snarled like a nightmare and leapt for me. I snatched the gun. Too slow–I needed the shadow–no– The jaguar pounced. I caught it. We wrestled in the Amazon mud, tumbling over each other. It pinned me and ripped my chest–

The shadow loosed. The jaguar’s tail struck. I tore it off. The creature screamed as blood and oil spurted on my legs. I grabbed the tail and crawled away. This thing was fast like me–and bigger. The shadow was outmatched.

Think. I dodged another attack and splashed into the water. Water–it walked on–yes. I dove. Luckily no piranha. The jaguar skittered on the water’s surface–as I thought, it didn’t swim. I swam underneath with its severed tail, almost blind in the murky water. Its feet marked the surface with eight dents.

In one motion, I snagged its left legs and tangled them with the tail. It howled as I swept its right legs into my trap. I tied a knot and shoved upwards. The spider-cat flipped and thrashed in confusion. I found its back and snapped its spine. The thrashing stopped. Its spider-feet broke the water’s surface like a dead flower bouquet. My wounds were already healing. I waded to shore, disgusted with myself. I couldn’t blame this death solely on the shadow.

When I got to Parris, he lay face-down by the water. Still breathing. I checked his wounds. Parts of the suit had gone transparent and sealed. Looked like the jaguar tore his left arm clean off–but the suit bound the severed limb to his torso. I rolled him over. His left side looked like gut soup in plastic wrap. His rifle lay next to him. His shattered goggles lay in the shallows, where tiny fish explored the fragments.

“Did you get it?” he croaked.

I paused. Finally I admitted, “Yeah. I got it.”

“Thank God,” he said. “That was a monster. That’s what we built. But you–”

“Don’t talk.” I looked at his wound, cursing my medical ignorance. I stripped my thermal loincloth and covered him.

He closed his eyes. I thought I’d lost him. Then he said, “You’re more human than I am.”

“Don’t start that.”

“Stims. Now.”

I dug in his pouch and gave him the pills. He choked them down and said, “Is the gun empty?”

I looked at him, realizing what he thought had happened. “No,” I said slowly. “It’s charged.”

“Good shot,” he said.

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