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Chapter 9

Death and afterlife were abstract concepts to me when I was a human. They remained a mystery even after I was transformed into a Panther and gained the strength of body and spirit not only to survive, but to complete my mission of vengeance against my enemies. But every Panther had visions before and during their rebirth. When the powerful tentacles of the black tree took my radiation-ravaged and dying body in its embrace, I was ready to die. Only I didn't die. The sapphire water known as the Water of Life, nature's special secret, opened my spiritual eyes in a way I never thought possible before.

I died to live again and died again protecting my children. It was a good death. Strangely enough, the afterlife held no angels or anything even remotely related to the human version of heaven. There was no hell and no paradise. But there were visions of the past and what I perceived as abstract visions of a possible future. I was nothing, and I was everything. Things like gravity, pain, and pleasure were all gone. I was an astronaut without a body floating in the darkness of space without stars. The feeling of being lost was terrifying, but when I saw the darkness diminish, I instinctively reached for the light. . . .

I saw myself standing in an open field wearing the clothes I had worn when my father called me about the approaching Armageddon. I saw a clear blue sky and a distant city on the horizon. I knew that the enemy bombs would soon fall, but there was nowhere to hide from them. The wind played with my long hair, and I felt the warmth of the sun on my face. I looked at my digital wristwatch. The seconds ticked by and the digits changed. Then the tiny screen went blank.

I knew what would happen next. A second sun, a thousand times brighter than the sun that gave us life-giving warmth, appeared in the sky consuming the world in its deadly brilliance. Its rays reached out to me, igniting my clothes, my skin, my hair. The pain of dying in such a horrific fire was unimaginable. I instantly turned into a pile of carbonized bones. Something told me that I didn't really die this way. But this Tanya Gray was dead. She was just as dead as her father and mother, her cat Jim, and everyone she knew and loved.

My vision shifted, and this time I was in the loving embrace of the black tree. Its long needles, connected to its black tentacles, were deep inside my dying human flesh. The tentacles slithered along my skin like snakes, only these snakes were warm and their touch was soothing. The black tree was healing me, caressing me, changing me, making love to me. . . . Yes, it felt better than sex, better than any opiate I could imagine. I didn't want it to stop. My body was filling with alien power the likes of which I'd never felt before. I saw a vast sapphire-colored ocean stretching before me as far as the eyes could see. I walked along the beach, my Panther legs effortlessly carrying me, leaving large footprints in the sand.

I noticed a dark figure ahead and as I approached, I saw a male Panther standing over the bodies of several dead humans. The Panther's armor was splattered with human blood, and his powerful hands were coated in crimson. Sticky, red fluid was dripping from his claws. The humans lay at his feet like broken dolls, their organs ripped out of their bodies, throats slashed, bones shattered by inhuman force.

"Dear God, what have you done!" I screamed.

"Two species cannot share this world," the Panther growled. "You will have to make a choice which side you will be fighting on."

"You murdering bastard!"

"No, sister, I am just like you. You can't deny who or what you are."

"Tanya, you are not a killer. . . ." the voice of my dead boyfriend Jack Mitchell said.

"Tanya Gray," barked the voice of General Douglas Pierce, commander of the Crystal Temple Sanctuary, my savior, my confidant and my tormentor. "Look at what you have become! Look at what you did since you've lost your humanity!"

"Your species will never rule this planet," snarled the voice of the dead Reverend Trevor Bay. "The war is not over, and the day of reckoning is coming. Your blood will paint the way to the future!"

The vision of the beach and the sapphire ocean vanished, and the black void lightened and became gray. Gravity seemed to press against my eyelids, and I shuddered as I felt my limbs move and twitch. My senses returned one by one, and I smelled the familiar odor of antiseptic. Dreams and visions had no smells, and I realized that against all odds, I was back in my Panther body and fighting to wake up. My eyelids still felt heavy, and I summoned all my will in an effort to open my eyes.

* * *

"Her blood pressure is stable," said a male voice I didn't recognize.

"A human would have died from such wounds," said a female voice.

"Not me," I said hoarsely, opening my eyes a fraction and squinting against the lights overhead.

"She is awake!" the male voice said. "Give her a quarter tube of adrenaline injection."

I slowly opened my eyes and looked at the faces of two physicians dressed in brilliant white. Blinking away the cobwebs of my coma, I ran my tongue over my dry lips. "Water," I said.

The female physician, a good-looking Latin woman in her mid-thirties, nodded and soon I was sucking on a straw from a plastic water bottle, draining half of it before she gently pulled it away.

"Welcome back, Mrs. Gray," she said with an easy smile.

"How do you feel?" asked the male physician.

"I feel alive," I replied. "How long was I out?"

"Three days," replied the woman. "The surgeons dug three large steel balls out of you. One of them nicked an artery, but your body shut down, preventing major blood loss. Your unique body chemistry saved you. Anyone else would have been dead. I am Dr. Rodriguez, and this is Doctor Brand."

I glanced at the diagnostic screens. They showed my Panther anatomy in full detail, and all systems and organs appeared to be in order. Green reassuring lights blinked steadily. My body was connected to an IV tube, and apart from the slight soreness of my muscles from being immobile for three days, I felt fine.

"My family," I said. "Eric and the girls—"

"They are okay and unhurt," Dr. Rodriguez replied. "Your husband sustained minor injuries and a slight concussion. Once we confirmed your identity, we called the authorities. The FSS sent agents to protect you. They are posted outside your door. We will inform them that you are awake."

"Thank you," I said. "I need to speak to my family."

"You can contact them right now," Dr. Brand said, nodding at the videophone beside my bed. "They're at your apartment and the police SWAT unit is guarding them. You have been a victim of a terrorist attack. There was a bomb."

I suddenly felt cold inside. "How many died?" I asked dreading the answer.

"The Seymour family was the main casualty," Dr. Rodriguez said somberly. "The FSS forensics team determined it was a bomb designed to act as a larger version of a military claymore mine. It was a directed explosion. The boy was killed instantly, and Mrs. Seymour died on the operating table despite our best efforts. Mr. Seymour is still unconscious, but he will fully recover."

My eyes burned and tears came. I couldn't stop them. "I am so sorry," Dr. Brand said.

"Call us if you need anything, anything at all," Dr. Rodriguez said softly, and her fingers touched my shoulder. After making sure my vitals were stable, both doctors left to give me some privacy. I cried my eyes out, feeling enormous grief and impotent rage fighting for domination over my body and spirit.

I finally summoned my will and ordered my rage to cease and desist. There would be time to unleash it later when we found out who was responsible. I sat facing the videophone screen and made the call to my apartment. Eric responded after the second ring, and his face popped up on the screen as the connection was made.

"Tanya," he said with enormous relief. "Baby, you're alive. . . ."

"I am alive and out of danger," I said.

"We are coming over," Eric said. "The SWAT team wouldn't let us out of the building. The mayor has ordered the mobilization of police patrols, and the FSS is looking through the recordings of the incident. It's all over the news."

I nodded in understanding. "The kids are okay?"

"Yes. They're worried sick about you. I thought . . . we might lose you."

"You won't lose me," I said. "I am a tough cookie."

Eric smiled sadly. "I know you are. We prayed for you."

"And I prayed for you, honey. All will be well. What else happened while I was out?"

"The president doesn't feel well," Eric replied. "The news report said she's suffered a stroke. Her mind is clear, but they say there's only so much medical science can do. She is nearing the end of her natural life."

"I want you to take the children back to our summer home," I said. "The capital isn't safe. I am not sure what is going on, but I think this is only the beginning. And it couldn't come at a worst time. If President Gaetani dies, the hostile warlords will take it as a sign of weakness, especially with the new and untried successor who will take her place."

"We still need to see you," Eric said.

"I am not going anywhere," I replied. "I will be waiting for you. All of you."

"Stay strong," he said. "We will see you soon. I love you."

"I love you. . . ."

"TV on," I commanded and the voice-activated screen came to life. I scanned the news channels looking for anything out of the ordinary. Aside from reports on the recent terrorist attack in the capital, there were several reports about other regions and countries and continued conflict between the warlords and the other warring tribes beyond the borders of New America. President Gaetani, even bedridden, was still in control of her mind and body. The government spokesman urged the nation to pray for her health and speedy recovery.

The death of the first female Catholic president and the longest reigning leader in American history was only a matter of time. No human-designed drugs or even the magical Panther serum could keep away the incoming end of her natural lifespan. The president will die, the nation will mourn, and another president will take power. I hoped Gaetani chose her successor well.

The door opened, and a trim woman with a short haircut and wearing a black military bodysuit, pistol-shock baton, and knife and armor vest came through. "Zoe," I said recognizing FSS Agent Cartier.

"I came as quickly as I could," Cartier said and sat on a chair beside my bed. "The president knows what happened. She is glad you are out of danger."

"Do we know who was behind it?"

"We will soon find out, I promise you. But we do have some leads. The public surveillance cameras captured it all in detail. We know the identities of the terrorists who left that bomb. Judging by the way it was done, your family and the Seymour family were the targets. No other humans died except for that poor waitress who picked up the bomb case. They used plastic explosive paste and large ball bearings. At this range, even the Panther armor could be penetrated."

"You think this is the work of the HLF?" I asked.

"We're certain of it," Cartier replied. "The two people who carried out the attack were John Shultz and Maria Woo. Shultz used to work at a clothing store, and Woo was a junior bank manager. The SWAT and the FSS raided their apartments as soon as we established their identities. They were gone by the time we got there. We searched their apartments and found secret caches with HLF propaganda cards and computer optical disks."

"If they didn't have time to leave the city, they'll lay low and wait," I speculated. "The security forces are on full alert. Still, they might slip through."

"They might have other means of escape if they had help," Cartier said with a frown. "The HLF has many sympathizers across the country. They are allowed to speak their minds but will not act like this without fear of reprisal. Rumor has it the disgraced Senator Estes was one of them."

"I don't trust rumors until they become facts," I said.

"I understand how you feel, Tanya. I lost friends in the past. Some died in the line of duty and others to the wrath of human criminals and hostile Panthers. We have enemies on the both sides of the spectrum. God knows how all of this might end."

When Eric and my daughters walked into the room, I wanted to get up from the bed and embrace them. Agent Cartier gently tapped my left shoulder and shook her head. Hope and Faith held my hands and kissed me, and Eric kissed my forehead and held me close to for a full minute. I could hear the beating of his two hearts, and my eyes went moist with emotion at seeing them alive and well. Eric caressed my tubular, black hair and smiled.

"Honey, you have no idea how happy we all are to see you alive," he said. "Everyone knows what happened. We also know that Nick's wife and son are dead. Nick is expected to recover. I don't know how to give the bad news to him when he does."

"I will do it," I said as Hope and Faith stood on both sides of my bed, each holding one of my hands. "There will be an investigation and retribution."

"We have the leads, and we are following them," Cartier said.

"Eric, I believe you know Agent Cartier of the FSS," I said.

Eric straightened, kissed me again, and walked up to her. He towered a full head over her, but she looked up at him unflinchingly. "We thank you for your help in this matter, Agent Cartier. There's much to be done. I know how things work in your society in regard to terrorism. If human law can't punish these people, then Panther law will."

Cartier smiled coldly. "God help them if you catch them first."

"God will sit back and watch," Eric said. "Please keep us informed."

"We will, Mr. Tomson. I promise."

Eric nodded, and Cartier glanced at her wristwatch. "Well," she said, "since everyone is okay, I better get going. Duty calls." She looked in my direction. "What are your plans once they release you from the hospital?"

"We're going home," I replied. "The capital is not safe."

"We haven't had an incident like this since New Washington was built," Cartier remarked. "Humans and Panthers built it together as a symbol of our alliance and friendship. And now someone is trying to ruin it all."

"We can save what we built by ruining them first," I said. "Before we leave, I want to speak to the president."

"She will be glad to see you again," Cartier said. "She's facing the most difficult time in her life, Tanya. We all pray for her, but we must acknowledge the inevitable."

"We will do what we can, my friend," I replied. "Please stay in touch."

"Always," Cartier said.

She shook hands with Eric and the girls, then left. The door closed behind her and Eric, Hope, and Faith sat around my bed looking expectant and anxious.

"We will go home after I see the president," I said. "She may not have much time left given her condition. I want you to stay in our community and protect each other. If the HLF comes into our town looking for trouble, you all know what to do. We are facing changes in human government, and I want us to be ready for anything. You kids must be especially careful. No more wild adventures and escapades. Study, practice your martial arts and weapons training, and wait for me to return."

"Yes, Mom," Faith and Hope replied in unison.

"You know what you're doing, but please be very careful," Eric said.

"I will."

We embraced again as a family. "I'll be okay." I smiled. "I promise."

"We love you so much," Eric said as he reached for the door handle.

"We love you, Mom," Hope's voice cracked with emotion.

"We will wait for you." Faith smiled.

"I'll be home soon," I said. "Bye, kittens."

"Bye, Mom."

The door behind them closed, and I was left alone in my hospital room. I turned on the television and watched the news. One of the news reports mentioned a newly discovered predatory species the scientists called Venatrix Herbia, the Hunter Weed. They were still working on how to classify these new species, but from the footage it was apparent that this thing blended with its environment and attacked without warning. Green tentacles covered with spikes formed a ring around an unsuspecting deer, creeping upon it until they sprung forth like a pack of grotesque pythons. The deer never had a chance once it was wrapped with it and covered with a writhing green spiky mass.

"Yikes," I said as the newscaster spoke with the scientists who had observed the creature via remote aerial drone. Since war had ended and changed our planet, Mother Nature came up with some pretty interesting species to replace those that were lost. Hunter Leeches, mutant wolves and bears, tree-jumping snakes, and smoke cactus were considered to be almost benign in comparison to the Hunter Weed. But I had more pressing things to think about than new predator hunting in the wilds. It was time to get a clean bill of health, see President Gaetani, and make sure justice found those who were responsible for the recent atrocity.

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