May 5th, 3032 Miramar Colony
So this is what dying feels like...
It's what she would have thought if coherent thought were still possible. It wasn't. With every break Hailey lost a little more of herself. With every rolling movement of flesh she screamed a little louder inside her head. Her throat was closed off, choking her. Everything was going so horribly, terrifyingly, painfully wrong.
Her bones broke again and again, her lungs contracted, compacted into a different shape. Her spine pulled and pulled, and then her head. Oh God, help me! She was dying. The pain was killing her. Hailey smelled blood--her own. She couldn't even feel the broken glass she was rolling over, the small pricks and cuts lost amid everything else. Flashes of light made her eyes want to roll back in her head; then there was darkness. For a moment Hailey thought she'd gone blind, but when she opened her eyes she could see again. Brief glimpses that made no sense. Black computer screens flashing light erratically. Data streams mixing, racing over them. They shouldn't be--she'd turned them off.
An overturned table. Glass shattered everywhere. Colorful liquids running together over the floor. Mixing and smoking. The fumes were toxic. Burned her lungs--which suddenly expanded beyond what she used to think was possible.
Images formed and broke up in thin air. She recognized a limb here and there, but even the scanner couldn't make sense of what it was picking up. Then it gave up and shut down. INSUFFICIENT DATA POOL blinked uniformly over all the screens now.
The lights were flickering red in alarm while a horrible squealing scream stabbed at her sensitive eardrums.
And the pain. Christ, just let it be over soon.
Shouldn't have done it...
Too late for that now!
No regrets. That's what she'd promised herself. Yeah, right. Hailey's eyes were bleeding now. She could finally feel the red tears soak into her fur. Her hands were useless to wipe them away, the claws too long. She'd poke her eye out if she tried. But she couldn't move even to do that. Her limbs twitched, still shifting, struggling through the in-between, going the long way around and backward several times.
But her mind was still so very human. It comprehended every step of what was happening. Could calculate how long she had before she passed out from the pain and how much longer after that until she bled out internally. She'd timed this perfectly, making sure no one would be around to catch her.
The one thing that had worked out exactly as it was supposed to. No one was around--to save her.
For just a moment, her mind seized on the most absurd thing. What would they find when they returned? Would Hailey still look even remotely human? Would she make it far enough to make identification impossible? Would they dispose of her like so much trash?
A horrible sound ripped from her throat and she couldn't tell if a creature even existed capable of making such a sound.
As if a timer had gone off inside her body signaling the end of what it could stand, her flesh rebelled against the change. Hailey screamed as her body broke and shifted again, reverting to the beginning.
She'd been so close!
And then all coherent thought froze again, drowned out by the breaking and shifting in her skull. Chips and fragments stabbed into her brain, momentarily paralyzing her, blinding her, and causing a seizure in turn. There was nothing to grasp onto. The world around her moved; her senses were completely disoriented, incapable of telling her up from down anymore.
She was spinning, and floating, and drowning, all at the same time, inwardly screaming for help. A tranquilizer, a cure. A goddamn blow to the head. No one could hear her. Any longer and no one ever would again. She would end up as just another statistic. A black mark on the already tarnished record of Dr. Amelia Marguerite Chase.
Except this one really wasn't on her, was it?
Hailey didn't know when precisely her body stopped shifting. The pain continued long after the world settled and the cold of the floor began chilling her bruised bones. Her breaths came in small, fast pants. Her ribs were broken; she could feel the sharp edges grazing her lungs. One wrong move and one of them would pierce through. And then she'd be dead for sure.
Ears ringing, eyes burning, body shaking uncontrollably, Hailey waited for the end to come. Closed her eyes and prayed. When the ringing eased and the sensation of falling returned she was almost glad. It's over now...
She couldn't tell what woke her but something must have. The residual pain still racking her body was nothing compared to the memory of her torture.
"Oh God!" She heard the horrified whisper from across the lab. She smelled the fear hanging thick in the air. The beast forced one eye open, moved her head to search out the source of the sound. "What have you done?"
The beast remembered that voice. Her neck protested the movement but she managed to tilt her head enough to catch a hazy glimpse of a person standing in the doorway. Blond hair. White coat. Familiar scent beneath the stench of fear. Sister.
The woman stepped closer. "Hailey," she said, her voice shaking. "Oh, God."
Hailey. Is that me? She breathed slow, deeper each time, testing her ribs. Whole. At least whole enough not to kill her right this minute. She flexed her fingers, curled them into her palms. Felt sharp claws pricking her skin.
The woman wasn't coming closer. She wanted to; there was tension in her as if she didn't know whether to run to or from the creature curled naked on the floor.
The beast tested her limbs, pulled her hands beneath her to push herself up. They held. But her head began splitting like a log, sending her back down. She clutched it, claws digging into her scalp to stop the pounding. Felt her face move and crack, beginning to change again. Somehow it stopped on its own.
The next time she tried to rise, she did it slow. Slinking backward, pulling her legs beneath her. She was weak. Sitting up hurt. Trying to stand was agony.
The woman was talking, crying; wouldn't come closer. Good. "Hailey," she said again.
The beast tested the word in her mind. On her tongue. "Hey-lee." Me. This woman knew her. Familiar scent. She couldn't place it. Sister. Pack? No. Another word. Human word. Fa-mi-ly.
The woman stepped a little closer.
The beast snarled, startling the woman as well as herself. She swayed, unstable. Two legs weren't enough to keep her steady. She couldn't walk like this. There was nothing around to offer support. Sharp things all over the ground. They hurt her ... feet. She looked at her hands, examining the long black claws. Pretty. They retracted then lengthened again.
"Hailey, d-do you know me?"
She looked at the woman again. Her vision was still cloudy and she couldn't shake her head to clear it. Hurt too much. Blond hair. White coat. Black squares on her eyes. Tears. Sister.
The woman touched something on a flat surface and lights twinkled in front of her. The beast jerked back, startled. "I'm your sister," the woman said as another person appeared between them. But it was wrong. Inside out. All bloody and ripped up. No skin. The woman made a sound of pain looking at that other person, then said, "Let me help you. Please, you need to let me help." Another step closer.
The beast snarled again, feeling fangs lengthen, and dropped into a crouch, ready.
The woman jumped back, hands curling into fists at her sides. "You'll die!" she shouted, angry and still scared. "God, Hailey, I told you no one ever survived this."
A lie. The beast could smell it. A vague memory snared her attention and she tilted her head. There was another like her. Different, but the same. He survived and has lived through many changes of season with a mate. The woman hid him and kept him secret. Why? He was bigger, stronger, a perfect predator who could protect himself and his mate. Was the woman part of his pride?
The beast snarled again, warning the woman away from a thing with glowing buttons. She was bothersome. Had she come even closer while the beast had been distracted? Hackles rising, she growled low.
The woman jerked back a step. "Damn it, why?" she shouted, making the beast bare her teeth in warning. The woman held up her hands. "Okay. Okay, just don't move." She shifted again, slow, deliberate. Not looking away from the beast until the very last second. Whatever she did, it made the wrong person disappear and flat things on the wall glow with moving lights.
For a moment the woman paid the beast no attention. She was watching those moving lights and the beast was too curious to look away. She merely tilted her head the other way and watched, amused, as the woman's eyes widened.
"A chemical catalyst? Jesus, Hailey. No, no, this is insane. You ... from his blood?"
Blood. Yes. The beast remembered blood. It was on the floor now, mixing with other things that smelled wrong. Something must have attacked her while she'd slept and brought her to this strange place. Only it wasn't strange. The beast might not know where she was but there was ... a voice. It told her what some of those things were, and where the entrance to this cave was, and it told her to stand up on two legs. She complied.
A dull ache in her midsection made her whine low.
The woman looked at her at once. "Hailey, listen to me. What you did is not stable. It will kill you if we don't fix it. It's killing you already." Hands behind her back. The beast did not like it. "You know me, Hailey. Hailey Chase, you are my sister. We're family. Let me help you."
Beasts have no ties. Predators hunt those that do. Sister or no, it didn't matter. One of them shouldn't be here. The woman moved like she belonged here. Her territory. The beast didn't belong. No matter; she didn't like it here anyway.
The woman spoke again. "Are you in pain?" Why was she speaking so much? "I can help you if you let me." A hand outstretched, beckoning.
Growling low in her throat, the beast shifted, stepping sideways, careful of the sharp things. The woman turned with her, keeping her in sight.
Another ache, this one sharper. More intense. It made her lose her balance.
"Hailey, please. Let me help you." As her eyes cleared, the beast could see the woman had something in her other hand. Shiny. Dangerous.
The flat things on the walls started screeching, flashing red. Too much. Too loud. Too bright. Her legs cramped, aching to push off.
The woman lunged.
The beast made a run for it, fleeing into the dark corridor, following her nose out into the night.
But it wasn't night. Everything was bright, lights shining all around. Humans everywhere. Don't let them see you. She crouched into shadow, watching. Couldn't wait too long.
She took a chance, running on silent feet down the long flat path, following instinct. She knew where to go. How to get there. Knew it would take her longer if she ran, but she couldn't reach it any other way.
Then she was in that place where her scent was everywhere. Her den. A window was open high up on the wall. She launched herself up, caught the edge twenty feet off the ground. Feet? What feet? Pulled herself inside and dropped to the ground for a moment, pain racking her body. She sat there and breathed until it eased. Was she sick?
She went to that place where she could get water into a big white basin. Fiddled clumsily with the water spout until it ran strong, then, following some long-lost memory, she stuffed the hole in the bottom with a silvery thing so the water could pool. She bathed there, crouched in the pool, washing off the blood and dirt. Some would not come off. If she tried to rub harder, it hurt. A wound? Under her skin, marking her.
The water helped to soothe it; it was cold. She used the nice-smelling things to remove the stench of that other place and then crawled out carefully and dried off with the dark red cloth. Towel.
She drank from the smaller white basin, irritated that it was so far off the ground that she had to stand on twos to reach it.
When she straightened, something moved in the shiny thing above the basin; startled her. Drawing closer, she watched her own features change, settle, change again, settle, but not the way they used to be. Memories returned slowly, each a sharp dagger piercing through her mind. She remembered things like minds and daggers now.
Couldn't comprehend the drops of water leaking from her eyes at first. Then understanding returned. The shock. The fear. The grief. What happened to me?
Her once beautiful auburn hair now fell in a tangled mess below her shoulders, white as snow. Her eyes had used to be more blue, hadn't they? They were pale gray now, like polished silver. She touched her cheek, gasping when she saw her black nails. Sharp. Not nails anymore; claws.
Hailey stumbled away from the mirror, wincing as her bruised, cut feet touched on the towel she'd dropped to the floor.
It wasn't her anymore. That ... creature ... looking back at her, it wasn't Hailey anymore. It wasn't the stubborn, curious, happy woman she used to be, the one who loved sunbathing and flirting, and driving her sister crazy.
The thing in the mirror, watching her now with so much horror in her silver eyes was so far from the person Hailey had once been that it couldn't be called human anymore. Her hair white from shock--it would never regain its original color, she knew. Her eyes like an animal's, her senses sharp beyond comprehension. She clutched her ears to block out the incessant loud drumming from next door but then she realized that it was her own heartbeat.
Her body had changed. It was leaner now, stronger, with defined muscles the likes of which she never would have had the strength of will to attain on her own. Most of her torso was black with bruises, her legs splotchy with them. How was she still standing?
Shock. Had to be. That kind of internal damage was fatal. As soon as her mind caught up with that, she would faint from the blood loss, and if it wasn't stopped, she'd die.
Odd, she didn't seem worried about it. Her reflection's head tilted, studying, curious. She was still standing. She would live long enough to heal. That strange detachment took her away from the mirror into the bedroom. She got into bed, turned a couple of times, and curled in the messy nest of blankets and sheets, clutching a pillow to her stomach.
She breathed in deep, analyzing the scents wafting in through her window. Curious scents, man-made and strange. Nothing the beast inside her recognized.
The beast inside me...
It wasn't inside her; it was her.
Hailey Samantha Chase had indeed remained on the floor of that lab. She'd never woken up.
So this is what dying feels like...