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The Siege Part II

Written by DustyBottums :: [Sunday, 29 August 2010 15:04] Last updated by :: [Monday, 06 August 2012 11:21]

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The Siege

Attack of the Amazons

By Dusty B.

PART II

XV

Arrowhead Military Facility

31 miles outside of Taos, New Mexico

Miles Keaton spent the last hour of his life being bored.

Spring had truly arrived; the bitterly cold desert nights that had plagued the small military test site seemed finished for the season. The day had been rather hot; actually, only now, just shy of midnight, had it cooled to a comfortable level.

Miles spent most of his time inside the 10x10 checkpoint booth, his attention fixed on the small bank of monitors that ran along one wall of the cinder block shack. Each one showed a similar image: a long length of wire mesh, electrified fencing; the scene illuminated in the familiar neon green of the night-vision camera. The guardhouse itself was a squat, plain building. It was still the slate gray of the cement clocks used to frame it; its makers had never even thought it worthy of paint. It had a sliding Plexiglas door that faced the unpaved drive leading into the base, and a row of three-foot windows that ran around the entire structure, allowing a standing person to see in every direction.

Miles often thought that the sheer number of cameras covering the area bordered on overkill; after all, the sensitive nuclear testing of the ’50s was over, and now Arrowhead was reduced to relatively minor league assignments: Humvee armor testing and the like. Not that Miles was complaining: Sitting on his butt in Arrowhead’s guardhouse meant he wasn’t sitting on his butt in Kabul. Or Baghdad.

Still, there were elements of his job that both annoyed and entertained him. The sameness of the shack’s interior always lit from within with that same dull green hue… and that last monitor. It was this last monitor that Miles would always mention to anyone not familiar with the base. Like Stella, the big old waitress down at Harvey’s Atomic Café. How that place had managed to stay in business, since most of the business left with the nuclear test ban treaty, he wasn’t sure. But open it was. And whenever he had a night free, he would leave the barracks with some of the base’s 1300 men, make the 15-mile trip to Harvey’s, and drink watered-down beer while listening to the 45s in the jukebox that refused to break down, albums that hadn’t been changed since 1987. Then someone would kick the machine (after all, how many times can a guy listen to ‘We’re Not Gonne Take It’ or ‘Round and Round?’), and Stella would get hot and bothered about them tearing the place up, not like the old days, when soldiers had manners and such, and how… blah blah. And then Miles would tell her a neat little story to take her attention away from the jukebox.

“So, Stella, you want to hear something funny?” he would ask.

“Not from you, fancy pants,” she’d bark back.

“Well, I’m gonna tell you anyway,” Miles would say, his speech thick from too many beers. Sometimes the ‘S’s in his stories didn’t make it through his lips just right, and sometimes he’d forget parts of the story entirely, but he would soldier on and recite it, or a similar tale, from memory.

“So, the guard house is fulla these monitors, right?”

“Okay, Miles. Monitors.”

“Yeah, monitors. You call ’em that cause you use ’em… you use ’em to monitor the base, see?” he’d say, and then burp massively.

“That’s a pretty healthy one,” Stella would say, and then cackle.

“Thanks. Thank you. So, monitoring. Thass what I do. There. At the base. I monitor. All the time. 24/7, baby. Something going on at that base, you know who knows about it? Hmm?”

“You?” Stella would ask, wary, as if it was a trick question.

“Thass right! Have I told you this before?” Miles would mumble.

“Yeah, last week, honey.”

“I didn’t think so. So, I know about it before anybody. Cause havin’ all those cameras is like having eyes all over the place. I see everything. I know everything. An Army tessssing facilily, with over 1500 men on base at all times… and I’mna one in charze of it. I know everything that happens there, you bet.”

“But do you know your tab is up to close to $40?”

“I didn’t know that. But thass not important right now.”

“Well, it’s kind of important to me, honey,” Stella would cackle.

“So, anyway, at the end of this big row of monitors… the last one… down here,” Miles would say, and hold his hand out to the right, “Down here is that last one, see? Right… here. And you know what’s on this last one? Hmm?”

“The front gate?”

“No, no, you silly. The front gate. See?”

“Oh, now I get it.”

“Right. The front gate. Which is funny. Cause if you’re looking at the monitor, like this… right here… it shows the front gate. And if you don’t move at all, if you just kind of poke your head up like this… and look out the window that right above the monitors… you… you know what you see?”

“The front gate?”

“No! Haven’t you… haven’t you been lissning, Stella? You see the front gate. Through the window. They got this camera on the front of the guardhouse, looking at the front gate, when all you have to do is look up out the front window. Nuts.”

“Yeah, that’s a weird one, Miley. Now pay up,” Stella would say.

“So I looked it up. Twel’ Hunnerd Dollass! Thass what the United States military paid for that little bitty camera. A camera to watch a gate that’s fifteen feet from the front window of a manned guardhouse. $1200 stinkin’ dollars.”

“Yeah, well, I only need ten more to make it $40,” Stella would say, holding out her hand.

Miles wouldn’t stop talking as he dug out the final required bills. “$1200! And that doesn’t mention the $350 for the monitor. And who knows what the wiring cost. Or the amount to put it in. Crazy. Crazy, I said.”

“I heard you the first time.”

“Do you believe the Army is that waissfull?” he would slur.

“Oh, I believe it probably is,” Stella would say.

“‘S juss waissfull,” Miles would sigh, and then collapse back onto his stool.

It was this wasteful spending that now drew Miles’ attention, however.

He sat slumped in his cheap office chair, nearly asleep. In this slow stupor, he actually frowned at the increasing brightness. He slowly began to stir, slowly awakening, his eyes squinting at the bright green light coming from last monitor. He blinked rapidly, as he sat up, but even now, the glow was starting to decrease, even as he got the fleeting impression on a bright bluish-white glow coming from the windows above him.

“What the fuck is this all about?” he wondered aloud, and first sat up, leaning forward, and then finally standing up to look directly out the windows set shoulder-height into the wall.

About ten feet beyond the fence, something shimmered in the black of the desert night.

Keaton stepped out of the guardhouse, his eyes never leaving the strange sight before him. He never thought to turn on the machine that committed the cameras to video (Arrowhead was such a small, antiquated facility that the automated surveillance system found on most other bases had not yet been installed). He also never thought about radioing the base about the sight before him. Or even picking up his handheld radio.

Miles stepped close to the fence, only dimly hearing the low, steady hum of the electricity in the wire. His vision was fixed on what was before him.

The dim outline of a rectangle hung in midair about ten feet beyond the fence. Its border looked like it was made from a thin, silvery blue ribbon-like, slightly metallic substance that rippled, as if he were gazing at it through a vast quantity of moving water. Tiny points of light, like stars, gleamed throughout the ribbon, and a particularly bright one would flash and sparkle for a moment in a purely random order. The center of the shape was inky black and totally opaque; it blocked his view of the road behind it, which was illuminated by the sodium-vapor arc lights that surrounded the gate. The shape itself was about four feet high and around six feet wide. Miles guessed it hung in the air, bobbing slightly, about four feet above the ground.  It looked as if some giant hand had used a rectangular cookie cutter to punch a hole out of the scene, leaving behind a total void in space, bordered by a hazy, ill-defined border of electric ribbon. Miles listened closely, but the phantom shape before him didn’t seem to make any noise over the sound of the current in the fence, but… wait… a dim sound, so faint he wasn’t sure he was hearing it at all; he thought he could hear a clear, bell-like chime every time one of the star-like flecks in the ribbon flared brightly. The sight was utterly entrancing. Miles felt no fear or trepidation, only wonder. He had no idea how long he stood there with his mouth agape before it happened.

As he watched, a woman stepped from the black center of the portal.

To use the simple word ‘woman’ to describe her was like saying that the Arctic gets a little chilly sometimes. It was if God himself had stopped the conveyor belt during a shift of people-making, regarded this new specimen, and simply turned every dial He had to ten. This was Miles’ thought as she stepped from the inky black portal, appearing from seemingly thin air. First a leg, then a hip, then a torso, then her head, arms…she ducked her head and made the long step down to the ground, planted her feet, and squared her shoulders. The moment she did so, the dim shimmer of the bluish ribbon surrounding the portal faded, and Miles’ vision of the road behind her was restored; the portal had vanished. But she remained.

Her physical appearance was such that Miles had difficulty even trying to think about how to take in the sight before him. Should he focus on her entire form? Or her eyes? Or her beautiful face? Or her impossible, Olympian build? The gentle sweep of a hip, or the swell of her bust, the curve of her jawline, or the apparent hardness of her arms? If Miles’ mind had been a machine, it would have been screeching to a grinding, sparking halt at that moment. Miles cast his vision at her feet; from the desire to give his thoughts a clear order, or out of some unconscious deference to her, he wasn’t sure which.

She was tall, easily six feet if she was an inch, and outrageously proportioned. Her feet and most of her calves were encased in boots of a shiny black reflective substance, with a medium heel that spoke of the perfect melding of utility and fashion. The upper body of the boot seemed to have some measure of elasticity to it; as she shifted her weight, her extraordinary calves would flex and dance in a muscular rhythm, and the boot seemed to expand and contract to allow it. Her thighs flared outward in an impressive quadriceps display; they bulged hugely, but not so large that they appeared awkward or oafish. She was dressed in some kind of bodysuit, also black in color, which clung to her tightly; it was tight and thin enough to reveal every bulge of muscle and every separation between them beneath it. The black material was taught and vaguely reflective, but not overly so, with an appearance very much like a shiny spandex composition. As she shifted her weight, Miles could see the dim, white highlight of reflection in the material right at the area affected by the muscle movement in her taught thigh; it was as if a painter had used a splash of white to highlight this area in a painting to accentuate the muscular definition.  She possessed the exaggerated build of an ideal female athlete. Her legs were incredibly long, making her trunk seem short in comparison; she nearly had the profile of the standard comic book heroine.

Her thighs tapered to her trim hips and waist; above this, stacked columns of muscle, plainly visible through the tight fabric and accentuated by the highlights that danced across its surface as she moved.

Goddam, Miles thought. Forget ‘abs of steel.’ Those are abs of fucking titanium.

Nearly every muscle group was visible through the black covering of the bodysuit: abdominals, serratus, every group Miles could recognize from the charts at the gym but could not name.

Her trim abdomen swelled outward, upward, into the most startling torso Miles had ever seen. On some level, he knew he was taking in the whole of her body, the impressive girth of her torso, the width of her shoulders, the thickness of her chest. But he also knew that certain male impulses had begun to take over his senses.

His vision had pretty much focused on her bust by now.

Epic. Astounding. Miles felt his mouth go dry. The black material featured an oval cutout, a keyhole design that allowed the wondrous vision of her bust to shine. Her breasts were large, but not cartoonishly so, and appeared firm, riding high atop what was probably a foundation of pectoral muscle beneath. They met in a classic display of firm, tight cleavage, featured perfectly by the cutout design of her top.

Like the creamy skin visible through this cutout, the skin of her shoulders and arms were likewise bare. The bodysuit tapered up from the armpit to loop around the back of her neck. Her bare shoulders were wide, in keeping with her athletic build, and capped with small mounds of feminine muscle. Her arms were at her side, but revealed in the light enough for Miles to see an impressive degree of definition there, too; her forearms were of an impressive diameter and her biceps might even rival his own. Hell, no. Bigger. Or at least far more defined. She wore bands around her upper arms, just above the bicep, made of a similar material as the bodysuit, by the looks of it. Below her elbow, she wore strange sheaths of chrome-like metal that caught the light from the guardhouse flood lamps and reflected it back even brighter.

His vision traveled up, following the powerful yet graceful curve of her neck; her chin, strong and square yet somehow also delicate-looking; her high cheekbones and the dramatic, cat-like shape of her eyes. They were a clear ice-blue, so bright they were nearly gray, framed above by high arching eyebrows. Her hair was as black as the night she stepped out from; it was long, wavy, a slightly ‘bigger hair’ look than what was fashionable at the moment; it seemed to give off a healthy glow of its own.

She had a strange air of familiarity about her; Miles thought about it for just a second before it came to him. Facially, she looked a little like that one country singer, the dark-haired one that danced around in the little denim jacket, the one who copied that ‘Addicted to Love’ theme in her video… however she was much taller, bustier, and had 30 or 40 more pounds of muscle than the famous performer. And she was so mind-numbingly gorgeous that Miles had temporarily forgotten where or even who he was.

Her vision turned to meet his own, and one side of her mouth rose in a slow grin, slightly dimpling her perfect, alabaster cheek. Miles swooned at the mere meeting of her glance, but something… something about that grin… it made him uneasy, and he didn’t know why. Something about it wasn’t right. It wasn’t an expression of mirth, relief, or goodwill. It was a look of cold, calculating cruelty. Something deep in his subconscious spoke to him, bubbling to the surface, hinting at the true nature of this strange woman and her seemingly impossible arrival.

Get away, his mind whispered. Get away from here.

“Who are you?” he demanded, taking a step toward the fence between them, but his voice cracking a little with the last word. Damn.

Get away…

The woman’s smile widened, and she took a step as well, several, in fact, to bring herself to stand at arm’s length to the softly crackling fence.

“Who are you, I said, and what are you doing here? This is a restricted area!” he barked, louder, but the deep subconscious voice in his head continued.

Get away…turn tail…and…

The woman smiled again, and with a deliberate slowness, raised her hands, hooked them into claws, and took hold of the electrified wire before Miles could shout another warning. None of the events he expected happened.

There was no scream. There was no explosion of movement as she was driven backward, heart skipping, or, worse, stopped instantly from the surge. None of this happened. Instead, what Miles got was a show of fireworks.

There was a sharp CRACK! As the circuit was broken, the humming turned into a loud electric sizzling sound. Two large, five-foot flowers of golden sparks suddenly bloomed where the electric leads met the contacts of the rollaway gate. Behind him, the small portable substation in back of the guardhouse, which regulated the current flowing through the gate, whined, began smoking, and finally exploded with a concussive BANG! He could hear the cooling fan, no longer being driven, spinning on its own, but unevenly; one of the blades must have come off in the explosion; with a single warning squeak, the fan tore free of its housing and whickered off into the night. The two large sodium-vapor lights above the gate flashed and went out, leaving only the floodlights from the guardhouse lighting the scene.

Get away, Miles, now…!

The woman stood steadfast, unblinking, apparently unaffected by the tremendous surge of electricity that had just flowed though her body. Miles took a step backward, now afraid, and saw her lip give the tiniest twitch. And then she moved.

With no wind up, with no apparent effort at all, the woman powered her arms down and to the right. She did it easily, as if she did it in mid-air, like some Tai-Chi exercise. There was no pause for exertion, no grunt of effort. She did it quickly, efficiently, and without hesitation. But the heavy wire mesh of the fence, the strong steel of the framing… for a split second, Miles didn’t believe what he saw.

The previously electrified fence simply tore away, folding in on itself; the heavy steel reinforcement beams that ran through it bending backward under the force of her grasp smoothly, in a single, sudden movement, accompanied by the tortured squeal of bending metal.

Get away, his mind whispered.

With graceful, unhurried movements, the woman stepped through the gate, formerly 1200 pounds of reinforced fencing that she had just pretty much bent in half with no apparent effort. Her vision remained fixed on Miles.

Run.

Miles took too many steps backward, somehow afraid to turn his back on this strange woman, and his feet got tangled. Down he went with a grunt. He shuffled backward on his hands for a moment, long enough for his panicked mind to see her take her first terrifying steps forward, toward him.

Miles sprang up and ducked through the open door to the guardhouse. His eyes passed over the monitors, the small desk, his chair, the desktop radio which he was suppose to use in case of emergency. His vision passed over all of these and settled on what he sought.

She was now halfway between the guardhouse and the ruins of the fence. Miles scrambled out of the building and came to a stop only six or eight feet from her, half that distance bridged by the length of his M-81 rifle. “Hold it right there, bitch,” he said, sighting down the barrel, which was unnecessary at best at this distance. “I don’t know who you are, but make one move and I’ll…”

With her now familiar grin, she extended a foot and began to take a step.

BLAM! The rifle made a flat, loud cracking noise as it expelled its lethal contents. But somehow, Miles’ vision must have been affected by the sound and the brief muzzle flash.

Because now, the woman stood before him, one foot still extended, toes pointed and resting on the ground, but now her right arm was before her where it wasn’t just a millisecond earlier. Her hand was clenched in a fist, her metallic glove on her forearm in front of her face.

Miles heard the telltale PING! and successive whine of a deflected bullet, and even saw a tiny puff of desert sand out of his peripheral vision. But… that was impossible, wasn’t it? What his mind was telling him she did… that was impossible.

He lowered the rifle to his hip and squeezed off another round. This was followed by similar results. The crack of a rifle shot, the metallic whine of a deflection, and now the woman stood before him, her left arm raised now, her forearms crossed in metallic-gloved ‘X’ shape, her grin and one arched eyebrow visible behind her protective stance.

“What the f—…” He never got the chance to finish his declaration.

Once, years before, Miles had played paintball with his brother and two nephews during a family reunion. It had been hot, sweaty work; much more effort was required for it than Miles would ever had guessed. He understood its appeal, but it was a little too similar to his standard military duties to be much fun for him. But he vividly remembered crossing a clearing in the trees, hearing a sound, and turning, only to see his nephew poke his head up from a thicket and open fire.

Miles always remembered what the bright yellow paintballs looked like as they streaked across the clearing at him (and directly onto his chest, for the record). They made a streak in his vision, a colored blur, with the dimly realized vision of the ball at the head of it. The speed was calibrated just right, something like 200 or 300 feet per second, and they moved at an incredible but obviously nonlethal velocity. The colored streaks would blast through the air, just slow enough for you to see it coming and actually have rational, complete thoughts before the impact, but more than fast enough so that there was no hope of you being able to move out of the way. The movement of this strange woman was a lot like that…

As she killed him.

She took a single step forward, her right leg rising at the hip, her calf chambered for a kick, her arms surged downward, fisted, channeling as much force into the maneuver as she could muster.

What? No way, Miles thought. No one can move that fa—

There was a tremendous, blinding, explosive concussion as her front kick smashed into the center of Miles’ chest. The force of it shattered his ribcage like it had been fashioned from glass; his heart and most of his internal organs were half-pulped from the sheer force of the blow. A thin, faint ring of desert dust, ankle high, exploded outward to a ten-foot diameter around the two figures from the sheer force of the blow.

A quarter second later, Miles’ corpse took flight, propelled straight backward with unimaginable force; his body looked like a human-shaped missile shot from a cannon. His form struck the guardhouse at the level of the Plexiglas windows, shattering most of them in a shower of plastic shards. His body also clipped the thick aluminum window frame as it passed through the opening; the unforgiving structure sheared off one of his arms and his left foot as he tumbled through the opening, the force of his impact even knocked loose a few random bricks around the window frame. The momentum wasn’t greatly reduced yet, and Miles’ remains blasted across the small office to come to a sudden, crunching stop against the far wall of the structure. The incredible force the woman had transferred to his body, it wasn’t quite enough to send him through a solid concrete wall.

Instead, Miles’ body collapsed noisily on itself as it struck the back wall of the guardhouse; bones snapping, skin tearing, organs liquefying. What was left rebounded, sliding down the wall beneath a greasy crimson streak three feet wide. Miles, now not much more than a pulped bag of tissue, came to rest between the wall and the desk in the guardhouse of the Arrowhead Army Research Facility.

And it is here that Miles Keaton of Winton, Illinois, son, brother to two, a military man who liked to read scientific journals in his free time, and whose hobbies included swing dancing and R/C car collecting, passes out of the tale. He was the first official battle casualty of what was to become known afterward as The Amazon War.

It wasn’t the screams, or the sound of screeching metal, or even the rapid tat-tat-tat sound of automatic gunfire that roused Private Jimmy Neely from sleep. Instead, it took the low, rattling THUD of a small explosion to wake him.

His feet hit the floor of the barracks just as it was shaken by another bass-filled explosive rattle, and by then the sounds were all coming home to him, cutting through the fog of sleep as it quickly dissipated. Around him, some of the other men assigned to his unit were duplicating his reaction. Wild-eyed, they hastily pulled on the tan hides of their Army-issue desert combat boots and seized whatever weapon they had at hand. Some carried the standard M-81 rifle, others only carried the classic infantry sidearm, the .45 pistol, the design still in service after 80 years.

A crowd of men, Jimmy among them, staggered to the exits, the world filled with shouting and confusion inside the barracks, the sound of gunfire and screaming outside. Some went into the surprise attack without their boots on; forgotten in their haste; others, like Jimmy, had managed to get some pants on but scrambled outside wearing only the standard brown tank top. The doors of the barracks opened, and the men poured out into the facility’s courtyard.

The scene was one of complete chaos.

Why didn’t the alarms go off? Jimmy wondered. This is unbelievable.

He hunkered down involuntarily as another explosion ripped through the night; a stack of 55-gallon drums loaded with engine oil ignited and shot skyward, rocket-like, on the other side of the camp. Jimmy could see the outlines of men tumbling through the air in the distance, backlit by the angry red ball of fire from the blast.

The men stumbled out into the courtyard, shielding their eyes form the brightness of the fireball and the multiple blazes burning all around the facility. Somewhere, an alarm warbled to life, the hair-raising sound of an air-raid siren, but was almost instantly cut off, which was even more disturbing than the sound of the siren itself.

Jimmy staggered out into the courtyard, onto the densely packed gravel of the drive, and heard raised voices coming from his left side. He planted his feet, half-raised his rifle, and turned to face the rising tide of voices.

A number of men, olive-green clad soldiers like himself, scrambled around the bend of the gravel roadway, coming out from behind one of the large aluminum Quonset huts that served as a barracks. Some were at a full sprint, some were scrambling backward on their hands and knees. All of them had the same expression of stunned panic on their faces, a mixture of shock and sheer terror that Jimmy had never seen in his young life.

What the hell is going on? His mind screamed over and over. Who hit us, and why here?

The crowd of fleeing men thinned, and then she stepped into view.

Even at this distance, some fifty yards, Jimmy could instantly see that she was no ordinary woman. She was as tall, or taller, than most of the men struggling to escape her grasp. And her build, and her outfit, and her… my God, is she smiling?

And she was also smeared with generous amounts of blood.

The scene was filled with men running to and fro wildly, desperately trying to get to their respective stations. One of these men, nearly oblivious to her presence, strayed too near, to within an arm’s length of the strangely dressed woman. Jimmy couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the scene unfold.

The woman snarled, her gorgeous features wrinkling into an arrogant sneer, and as easily as a man would lift a pencil, she reached out and snatched the man from the ground, his feet still pumping comically for a second. With a hand on his shoulder and one on his belt, she lifted him over her head, arms extended, a man as physically big as she was, at least, and he cried out for a split second. Not for long, for she barely paused before slamming him earthward. His descent with interrupted, however, by an equally unmovable object: her raised knee.

The man’s body broke neatly, like a dried stick or broom handle, bending nearly double, sideways, over her raised muscular thigh; his scream came to an abrupt, ominous, sudden end. With a dismissive shrug, she tossed his body to the side, where it flipped over itself to lie prone in the dust.

Jimmy Neely’s mouth opened in a comical ‘O’ shape of shock and surprise.

A second solider, this one in full desert fatigues, rushed her from the side. The woman was far quicker than he; she pivoted at the waist, her right arm flashing out straight to clothesline him across the upper chest and base of his throat. Even at this distance and with the high level of ambient noise, Neely could hear the heavy concussive THUD of her strike, accompanied by the soft, bewildered groan of the soldier as he died. His body continued in its course past her, but flipping end over end backward before it crashed to the ground.

She killed three more men in the few seconds it took Neely to decide to join the crowd of soldiers fleeing before her. He could see her seize a fourth man in her deadly grip, her left arm snaking behind the small of the man’s back as she pressed him close to her, her right braced across his upper chest. With no apparent effort at all, she brought her arms together in a sudden surge of muscular power; the man’s back broke with a brittle SNAP as his torso bent backward on itself.

Jimmy didn’t see her drop her newest victim to the ground; he scrambled the twenty-five yards necessary to join the crowd of ten or so men that had been backing steadily away from her.

“What’s goin on?” he screamed at the man closest to him, struggling to get his voice over the din of screaming men, thudding explosions, and intermittent sirens.

The private he addressed spun, his eyes huge and panicked, his rifle raised. Jimmy held his hands up, palms outward.

“Hey! Carlson! What the hell is going on? Who the hell—“

“Oh, God!” the private screamed, sweat running down his dirt-streaked face. “God, God God… she killed them! She killed them all!”

“Who?”

“Everybody! She killed them all! They’re all dead!”
“Who?!”

“The captain! Sarge! All of them! She killed them all!”

“How many? Who is she? How?!”

“All of them! She killed them… with her hands!” he screamed, openly weeping. A huge wet patch appeared on the front of his desert fatigues; the ammonia smell hitting Neely like a hammer in the dry air of the night. With an unintelligible cry of despair, the private threw his rifle down and scrambled away into the night, as fast as his legs would take him.

Another scream, closer. Neely spun only to see the woman, who was now closer, her legs in a wide, low stance. She was at the end of some equally unbelievable movement. Her arms were extended in front of her, and Neely could see why: A uniformed soldier streaked away from her in a tan and olive-green blur, his arms and legs pinwheeling wildly as his body raced through the air of the compound. His body was still moving what had to be forty or fifty miles per hour when he came to an abrupt, bone-shattering stop against the concrete side of a bunker 80 or 90 feet away.

The ridiculous, impossible nature of the scene somehow made it slow down in Jimmy Neely’s perception. His flummoxed senses could only observe the spectacle before him. The strange woman was nearer now; and Jimmy could see that yes, not only were the seemingly impossible acts of violence she was committing with ease amazing in and of themselves, but so was her appearance. She was tall, broad, strongly built, like some kind of Olympian athlete, and gorgeous to boot; her furious, blood-chilling expressions of rage seemed oddly balanced by wide grins and soft laughter, only to be replaced by more frowns and audible growls of fury.

My God, Neely thought. She’s enjoying this. She’s having fun.

Another solider charged at her, hands reaching for her throat, and another soldier died; this one killed when she spun like the most graceful dancer in the world, only to extend her leg at the last second, blasting his abdomen with a side kick that knocked the life from him instantly.

Neely brought his rifle to his shoulder and sighted up the lethal woman, putting his crosshairs in the center of her chest. He exhaled once, twice, and squeezed the trigger gently as he blew out a breath.

The trigger mechanism clicked softly as stainless steel teeth clicked once, twice into matching spaces; the bolt slid back and the firing pin drove forward, propelled by a high-tension spring.

Somehow, over the din of fires, sirens, explosions, and screaming men, she heard this.

The pin struck the shell, the powder exploded, and the round leapt from the rifle’s muzzle, but it never hit its intended target.

The woman leapt to the side, her long, athletic body stretching out as it tracked over the desert ground for a seemingly impossible distance; with no wind up or preparation, she sprang an easy 20 feet to the side, her arms stretched out before her, hair buffeted by the breeze of her shoulder-high flight.

All of this happened too fast for Neely’s eyes to track fully, much too fast for him to react in kind. His finger stayed depressed, and the rifle went fully automatic. A deadly hail of bullets filled the space where she had been fraction of a second earlier, only to slam into the bodies of a group of men behind her. Neely stopped firing and watch in horror as one... two… five men dropped in his kill zone, felled by his own weapon.

The woman, meanwhile, finished her incredible leap with an equally impressive forward tuck; she landed softly, almost delicately, and rolled up to her feet with uncanny grace and seemingly little effort; she dealt another death blow in the same motion, her fist blasting up from knee level to smash into the head of a nearby soldier. The man’s face disappeared in gory red halo, his body taking flight to flip end over end and land ten feet away. She seized the next man nearest her and pivoted at the waist, tossing him gently, the way someone would throw a pillow across a room.

Instead, the effect was dramatic. The screaming man shot across the thirty yards separating them to crash into Neely and the men nearest him; they all fell to the ground with a thud and various grunts and cries of pain and surprise.

The man’s impact knocked the gun from Neely’s hands, and he lay still, stunned, for a moment. A new sound rose over the din of the chaotic scene; the high-pitched mechanical sound of a high-revving engine. A small vehicle darted into the courtyard, and even in his harried state, Neely instantly recognized it. It was the WWII-era Willys Jeep that served as the base’s mascot. Some soldier he didn’t recognize was at the wheel; he was hunched over the thin steering wheel like a man on a mission. He swerved this way and that, the pale yellow headlamps casting its light on the dozens of men leaping out of the way as he sped by. And then he centered the hood on the invading woman, who now saw him and planted her feet in a wide, dominating stance and placed her hands on her hips… and smiled.

The Jeep accelerated across the courtyard, making a beeline for the woman; it had to be going at least 35 or 40 miles per hour when it reached her. Neely’s breathing stopped for a moment as he watched from his position amid the tangle of bodies; his eyes squinting, anticipating the impact. But he could never have anticipated the result, even after all he had just seen. His mind seemed to slow everything down into slow motion so he could take in the spectacle.

Calmly, almost leisurely, the woman extended her left hand to meet the vehicle as it reached her.

It occurred then to Private Neely that he knew what it felt like to go mad.

The top of the grill and the thick metal of the hood in the area where she placed her hand deformed, denting, bending around her palm and fingers like it had been made of warm butter rather than steel. The Jeep was brought to a nearly immediate stop; most of the momentum was directed at the rear wheels, which had nowhere to go but skyward.

The Jeep, woman, and driver now moved together as if they were joined. The woman was driven backward at first, but only a few feet; however there was no give to her stance and no sign of pain or injury. Rather, she simply slid backward; her boots cutting into the hard, dusty ground like plow furrows, leaving an eight foot streak, showing the distance she had traveled. The Jeep fared worse; the hood, heavily dented and collapsed around her hand, crumpled further, and the rear of the vehicle rose until it was slightly past vertical.

The woman turned slightly at the waist, and raised her right hand to land, palm flat, against the top of the dashboard. The momentum of the Jeep was lowered enough that this latest hand plant was enough to stop its motion suddenly, with this strange, remarkable woman holding the entire vehicle rock steady at a vertical angle.

The driver got the worst part of the collision. His forward motion continued, even if that of the Jeep did not; when its progress was arrested by the seemingly limitless power of the attacker, he simply continued traveling; now free of the vehicle, he flew in a gentle and shockingly high screaming parabola where he eventually landed on the metal roof of one of the barracks with a bang.

Neely’s brain had long ago given up trying to process information. Faced with something that was patently impossible, he had simply reverted to the basic nature of human existence: survival mode. He pushed a body off of himself (whether that man was dead or merely unconscious, he didn’t care) and stood. His eyes darted around the normally open courtyard, which was now choked with wrecked vehicles, smoking fires, and bodies – lots of bodies. He didn’t take time to count, but there had to be at least fifty or sixty corpses on the ground, some of them horribly misshapen, some simply torn, literally, to pieces.

The high-pitched squealing sound of bending metal came to him, and he turned only to see another feat his mind could simply not process accurately: the fearsome woman snarled, her beautiful features now a mask of rage and effort, her hand tensing mightily, with the fabricated metal of the dash crumpling under the force of her grip.

Her arms, her legs, her entire body swelled; she seemed to nearly ripple and grow before his eyes. Her arms thickened to a girth impressive for all but the biggest fitness competitors, definition and striations of muscle around her baseball-, no, softball-sized biceps seemingly beyond what was humanly possible. Every knot of abdominal muscle was visible beneath her skin-tight bodysuit, her legs swelled in a surge of muscular power, and with a soft, feminine grunt, she lifted the dark olive body of the Jeep off of the ground and held it at arm’s length above her head. Small pieces of dented metal and debris fell from the body of the Jeep, and dirt spun off of its still-spinning tires; the motor chugged briefly and died.

And she laughed.

Neely could hear her, plain as day, as if they were together alone in a quiet room, even though she was thirty yards away and they were surrounded by a scene of flaming chaos. Her laughter was full, deep, and chilled his blood. It was the sound of a victorious warrior, whose spirits were made even loftier with every additional ounce of spilled blood.

An anonymous soldier, clutching a wounded arm, made the mistake of trying to dart past the woman, back down the dirt road that led to the main gate. Even holding the impossible weight above her, she was still far faster than he could ever have been. With a smile, a twist, and a grunt of sudden effort, the woman powered the Jeep downward, her right hand holding the dashboard bearing most of the effort. The entire vehicle slammed earthward in an olive blur, in a sense serving as a huge steel hammer. The crumpled, ruined grill of the Jeep struck the fleeing soldier first, much as it had struck the hand of the fearsome woman a few seconds earlier, but the effect was much different.

The full weight of the truck was amplified by the apparent strength of the female attacker. In a flash, the Jeep slammed to the ground with a metallic crash and sub-aural thud that Neely felt more than he could actually hear, and the fleeing soldier, trapped between the propelled vehicle and hard, dusty ground simply ceased to be; he was effectively pasted, his body liquefying and becoming not much more than a smear on the gravel drive.

The woman, releasing the ruined hulk of the Jeep, gave a smirk of satisfaction. She raised her leg, placed one of her glistening black boots against the green metal surface, and pushed. The Jeep tumbled end over end, many times over, crashing through a throng of panicked soldiers like a giant’s oblong metallic bowling ball. It rolled over a number of them, threw others to the side, and eventually crashed into a barracks fifty yards away, where it tore a ragged hole in the aluminum siding of the structure and exposed a number of men hiding inside, finally coming to rest on top of a number of them.

A soldier in fatigue pants and a brown tan top suddenly appeared close to the base’s attacker, weapon drawn. The young man raised his .45, his hands together, curled around its grip, and squeezed off three quick shots from only 10 feet away.

Finally, Neely thought, it’s over.

But it wasn’t to be. Not yet.

The woman sprang into sudden, swift motion. In a movement too fast for the human eye to track fully, her arms flashed up before her, her forearms raised in a muscular ‘X’ shape. Small eruptions of sparks glinted off of the metallic gauntlets she wore over her wrists and forearms, the high PING! sounds of ricochets plainly audible. Two rounds went into the dirt, causing small puffs of pale gray dust, but the third came directly back at the shooter. The young man jerked explosively as the round struck him directly between the eyes. His arms dropped limply, his head nodding back and forth forcefully as he fell in a heap to the ground.

“No! No, no!” Neely cried aloud, screaming out his feelings about the shooter’s sudden death or his own feelings about what he was witnessing, he wasn’t sure. Somehow, over all the noise and confusion, the woman heard him as well.

Neely’s heart nearly stopped when the woman’s gaze locked onto his own, and again… she smiled.

For the men at the base, the day was lost. Nearly all had given up trying to stop this strange attacker who had appeared from nowhere and brought so much death and destruction with her. Most of the men simply gave up and broke ranks, fleeing for their very lives.

The woman squared her shoulders, and began striding across the courtyard, her long, sleek legs scissoring back and forth in a purposeful, nearly strident gait; her eyes never left Neely’s position. Neely tripped over a corpse, and skittered backward, watching her slow advance in growing horror.

Not all lost their nerve; a man charged the woman with a strange weapon. Jeezus, Neely thought, is that a bayonet? The deadly attacker never even slowed; she simply blocked the man’s awkward attacking lunge and swept him up in her arms, turning him to face away from her and she walked on. Her left hand clutched the back of his head and the upper portion of his neck tightly, the skin there a bright white, attesting to the power of her steely grip. Her right arm was braced across the man’s abdomen, pulling him tight against her as she strode forward, his feet leaving twin trails in the dirt.

With a casual flex of her left arm, the woman pulled down on the base of the man’s skull, then suddenly reversed the force she was exerting, now pushing up and away from his shoulders, her grip never wavering. His spine made first a series of high, brittle clicking sounds, followed by a horrible, meaty popping sound, the sound of untold amounts of cartilage collapsing.

Gak!” the man hiccupped; an odd, chirping kind of cry, strangled and choked-sounding. He immediately began to spasm, and the woman dropped him unceremoniously to the dirt, where he lay in a twitching pile.

Her gait never wavered, and her smile only grew wider.

Neely scrambled back further, faster, unable focus his mind enough to remember how to stand and run, like so many of his fellow soldiers were now doing.

But not like the one that suddenly stood before the strange invader.

The soldier had been lying on the ground, and even Neely had thought it was just one casualty, one of many. But the soldier must have been only feigning death, for now the invader was staring down the soldier’s .45.

The soldier squeezed off a shot, point-blank, but even that was too slow. The attacking woman threw her right shoulder back, pivoting the barest hint of an inch in that direction, all the while slightly raising her left shoulder and turning her head in a smooth, sudden movement that was nearly to fast to see clearly.

A brief flash leapt from the pistol’s muzzle, but too slow; the bullet went wide, cutting the air where the attacker’s head had been just a split-second before. The invader wasted no movement; her left had continued upward and seized the soldier by the wrist. The woman jerked forward and down suddenly, rotating her grip forward. The soldier’s arm offered no resistance; it folded downward instantly in a direction it was not meant to travel. The elbow joint popped out of place with an audible POP and the soldier’s forearm shattered with a grisly cracking sound. The soldier’s knees went weak and the fatigued form sagged earthward with a cry of pain; a high-pitch squeal that joined the chorus of cries of the scene.

But Neely paused, as did the attacker. Something about that sound…

The invading woman raised the soldier still in her grasp higher, the soldier gasped aloud in pain, and the sound was high-pitched in tone, too high for…

The woman snatched the military cap off of the soldier’s head, and Neely could see the shoulder-length blonde hair spill out from under it. Then the diminutive stature and thin build of the soldier, concealed by the bulky fatigues, was now more readily apparent. Neely wasn’t really surprised, he was a young man, young enough to have had women around him his whole military career. It wasn’t like he was one of the old guys, the lifers, who still grumbled about how it used to be, and how the women among them would be better serving their country by cleaning the mess hall instead of learning how to dismantle an M-81. The appearance of a female in uniform didn’t faze Neely. But it seemed to affect their attacker.

The statuesque woman paused, and even though her reaction was fairly short-lived, Neely saw it. The woman’s eyes widened in momentary surprise, and she stopped her advance. She simply stared at the female soldier who writhed in pain in her clutches. The woman’s brow furrowed in an expression that was at once one of wonder, annoyance, and anger. She seemed as if she would speak to the smaller women she held, possibly ask her some kind of question. For the barest moment, the fearsome invader seemed totally flummoxed.

But it didn’t last. Her expression finally settled on one of resolute anger. She slid the outside edge of her right hand down the soldier’s face and neck, then down to her upper chest. The woman then extended the first two fingers of her right hand, and drove them sharply into the chest of her captive, just to the right of the sternum.

“Unnhh!” the soldier cried, and her head dropped and body sagged instantly. She was unconscious, not dead, for Neely could tell she was breathing. But she was very much out of the fight, rendered unconscious instantly, as if the woman had hit her with a hammer to the head instead of two fingers to the chest. The invader let the soldier’s form slide earthward; not a touch with kid gloves by any means, but still more gentle a touch than she had allowed anyone so far that night. Her vision fixed on Neely once more, and as she started walking toward him again, her expression changed from annoyance and confusion back to her original look of haughty high humor.

Neely’s back slammed into the wall of a concrete bunker, and he stood, trying to shrink away from the approaching woman as far as he could. Part of him, a larger portion than he would care to admit, had already given up, had already written off his chances of ever surviving this night. Maybe that was what kept him relatively still as the strange attacker approached and came to a stop less than three feet from him. Neely reconsidered his original assessment of the woman now that he saw her up close. She wasn’t merely on the tall side; she was easily a six-footer. And she wasn’t merely attractive; despite all the incredible, horrible feats he had just witness her perform, Neely knew she was the most beautiful, elegant creature he had ever seen.

The young man stood somewhat slack-jawed before her, and the woman’s smile grew the tiniest bit wider; one of her high, arched eyebrows rose slightly in malicious bemusement.

Neely’s heart felt like it was about to leap from his chest; his breath caught in his throat for a moment when he saw her begin to reach out to him. Her hand rose, long, delicate-looking fingers splayed out in a fan, the nails a liquid red color. The woman batted her eyes once, twice, and her touch settled on the middle of his chest. Despite all his fear and the warning his rational mind was blaring in his brain, Neely felt himself stir a little.

The woman smiled, a full, wide smile full of condescension and malice. She mockingly puckered her crimson lips and blew him a kiss, just before her arm powered forward in a shove of irresistible power.

Neely’s body sprang backward, driven by her seemingly effortless touch. This is it, he thought. I’m gonna hit that wall and that’ll be it. But it wasn’t; his body rose just enough that he was driven through one of the building’s open windows. His head clipped the frame with a thunk! And the world swam into a watery gray tunnel as he landed inside the structure.

He wasn’t sure how long he was out of it. Not long, he realized, since he could still hear the cries of the men outside the building and the intermittent thud of small explosions as the base burned around him. Only a few minutes probably.  At least he was safe, in here. Maybe he could get away before —

His thought process screeched to a halt as his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness inside the building, and all hope of escape left him once and for all.

The dim light coming through the open window fell across her shoulder, some of it gleamed in her hair, nearly sparkling as it reflected the pale blue moonlight and dim orange of distant fires. Her face was lost in shadow, yet Neely thought that he could nearly make out her eyes, staring out at him from that inky darkness. Something new came to him, a high, sweet-smelling scent, earthy, yet holding great promise.

It was if someone had given him a shot of adrenaline. His heart rate climbed instantly, his body broke out in a thin sweat, and, despite his understandable trepidation, he could feel the familiar tightness growing in the crotch of his fatigue pants. And, somehow, he knew that she knew all of this, and he also knew she was smiling. Even though his fear, he could feel the familiar sensations burning in his body as he grew aroused; he closed his eyes and tilted his head back involuntarily, his mind numbly trying to process the conflicting emotions of fear, horror, and sudden, inexplicable lust.

“What’s your name?” she asked, her voice husky, yet entirely feminine, and oddly musical. Neely closed his eyes, as if to soak up the sound, like an audiophile in a fit of aural nirvana.

“Jim Neely,” he whispered back, slowly opening his eyes. She stepped forward slowly, out of the shadows, into the pale shaft of moonlight. Her appearance was devastating; Neely literally couldn’t believe that a woman could look like this, could look this appealing. He tried desperately, but found he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her as she came nearer. His mouth opened, he hesitated, and closed it again.

“What is it?” she asked gently. She raised her left hand and placed it on his right shoulder, and the telltale bulge in his pants was clearly evident, even in the relative darkness of the room.

“Are… are you an angel?” Neely asked, giving voice to his wonder, and fear.

The woman’s smile grew in delight, her teeth flashing an impossible pearl-like white in the dark; a soft, brief chuckle in the form of a ‘hmmm’ sound was part of his answer.

“An angel? Is that what you think I am?” she countered, delighted.

Neely only nodded.

“But do I come from heaven?” she asked, placing her other hand on Neely’s other shoulder. The sweet scent grew stronger, and Neely’s heart fluttered in his chest once more. His hands almost began burning; he worked the fingers back and forth eagerly.  “Or hell?” she finished.

“I don’t know,” Neely whispered. “But I don’t care.”

The woman laughed softly. “And why is that, Jim Neely?”

“Because… all I want…”

“Yes?”

“All I want is…to…to…”

Her voice dropped to match his own whisper. When she spoke, Neely felt as if his heart would burst.

“To touch me?” she asked, curious.

“Yes,” Neely whispered back at once.

The woman leaned forward, her face passing Neely’s own, to where her lips were a mere fraction of an inch away from his right ear. She blew a gentle breath across his ear and the side of his neck, and saw with satisfaction Neely’s skin erupt in gooseflesh as the hair stood on end. She placed a single, gentle kiss on the lobe of Neely’s ear; he moaned aloud and shuddered. She paused, and spoke the words he longed so badly to hear, despite the terrible feats he had seen her perform.

“Then, go ahead, Jim Neely. Touch me,” she said.

It was all the encouragement he needed. His hands, like two wild beings with their own thoughts, sprang forward to seize the sides of her abdomen. Neely’s eyes widened as his hands explored the ridged surface of her abdomen and the smooth, sleek slope of her hips. The bodysuit she wore was slick, nearly greasy-feeling, but with no residue left after his touch.

“Touch all of me,” she implored softly.

Neely’s hands took in everything, they clasped the firm swell of her buttocks, the muscled sweep of her upper thigh; they traveled up over her midsection to first delicately touch, then more forcefully fondle her breasts, which stood proud and firm on her chest. Neely couldn’t believe the odd mixture of absolute femininity and underlying hardness and strength he found in her form. There was some give to her skin, a gentle dimpling on her breast, butt, and thigh caused by his forceful touch, but beneath that was the feel of shocking diamond hardness, and the impression of a strength he could not begin to comprehend.

“Very good, Jim Neely,” the woman said softly into his ear. “Was it nice?”

“Yes,” Neely moaned in answer, his hands still making forceful circles on her breast.

“Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think I’m beautiful?”

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Neely whispered.

“What do you want me to do, Jim Neely?” the woman asked gently, and Neely’s touch ceased. His eyes met her gaze, then widened the tiniest bit in apprehension.

“I…I…”

“Do you want me to touch you?” she asked, her whisper tinged with derision.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, also without hesitation.

With no effort whatsoever, her hands sprang to the sides, tearing the brown tank top off of him with a brief ripping sound. Her hands seized upon the waistband of his pants, and with a sudden burst of muscular power Neely could feel in her suddenly iron-like body, she tore his fatigues in half, the thick material proving inferior to her efforts. With a similar motion she reduced his shorts to ruin, and after a mere moment, he stood shuddering before her, a mixture of fear, lust, and full, throbbing erection.

Her right hand found the length of his member and closed around it, alternately squeezing and releasing it. She leaned forward and kissed Neely full on the mouth, her slick crimson lips sliding across his own, her tongue first forcing his lips open and then probing the space behind his teeth, slathering itself across his own tongue as she kissed him more deeply, more passionately than he had ever been kissed in his life.

The strange woman sighed softly, felt a burning sensation beneath her skin, and somehow pushed it forward, toward the surface of her body, the surface of her skin. A heavy, thick scent, sweet, high-smelling, erupted from her body and filled the space around their entwined bodies. It was a smell like ripe, sweet, cut fruit, of health, vigor; it was tinged with the musky scent of sex as well, and when she flexed some unnamable part of herself, it poured from the exposed skin of her upper body, her head, her neck and shoulders.

Combined with her oddly delicate touch and the slippery ministrations of her touch, it proved far too much for Jimmy Neely’s senses. With a loud, forceful groan, he came in great spasming bursts, coating her hand with a tremendous amount of his primal fluids. She sighed in satisfaction, and broke the kiss.

“Nicely done, Jim Neely,” she moaned. “A little…soon, for my needs. But… fortunately for you, you’re still a young man. You should be able to do it again, yes?” she smiled.

He only stared at her, his ears still ringing from the most forceful orgasm of his young life.

Without another word, the woman pushed Neely backward until his shoulders pressed up against the rear wall of the barracks. Her left hand lowered to her most intimate region, and the fingers quickly and expertly opened a small flap in the slick black material that had previously been invisible.

“What—“ Neely began, but was silenced as she seized him once more, this time for more roughly than before. She assumed a wide stance, and grabbed the bare flesh of his buttocks roughly. She drew Neely toward her, and before he could speak, he could feel the still throbbing tip of his erection slide down her abdomen as she nearly lifted his weight from the floor and guided the most intimate part of him toward her waiting body.

The feel of her bare skin on his own was nearly electric, and with a soft sigh, she shifted her hips forward, essentially now straddling him while standing. Neely could feel the soft pull of her sex on the tip of his erection, and with a gentle moan, she pushed her hips out just a bit further, and Neely felt himself slide into her.

This was when Jim Neely’s mind stopped working in a logical fashion.

It was like nothing he had ever experienced. Neely was still a young man, and though he had had only a few partners, he was schooled well enough in the art of lovemaking. But this… this was something new. Something as unbelievable as the feats of strength he had witnessed only a few moments earlier.

A firm, slick grip tightened along the considerable length of his shaft; gripping him almost to the point of discomfort. It felt like a silken iris of muscle, spinning open and shut against his length, all while pulsing in and out, in and out.  The woman’s grip on his buttocks eased, then vanished as she instead grasped the sides of his face in her hands and kissed him deeply, savagely, her mouth open and the slickness of her tongue and crimson lips sliding across his mouth, his chin, his neck. It dawned on a small, rational part of Neely’s mind that their position was impossible. He was held at a nearly 45-degree angle; without the strength of her arms about him, he should have fallen over backwards, pulling himself free of her grasp.

But he didn’t fall. He could feel her touch on his face, her kisses, but it was the firm, silken grip below that fascinated him. The woman’s hips were rock steady and unmoving, yet the act of sex was occurring. The woman threw her head back and moaned loudly, fiercely, like some wild thing, one arm thrown back, the other cupping the back of Neely’s head in a firm grip. Neely looked down and he could see his length sliding in and out of the woman, and his thoughts echoed dumbly in his mind as he struggled to understand what was happening.

My God, he thought, she’s doing it all. She’s pulling me in and pushing me out…

It was true. He could feel his own hips being drawn upward as she pulled his length into her, using only the mysterious grip inside her body. Neely realized that it should be painful for him, as roughly half of his body weight was theoretically being suspended from his throbbing erection, and yes, now that he noticed, there was a kind of dull ache forming around the base of his groin, but all this was lost in the waves of unbelievable muscular contraction surrounding his length.

The woman shuddered, and the silken grip on him tightened suddenly, pulling him deeper into her than ever, and nearly out of defense, Neely came again in a huge crashing burst.

On and on it went, his body twitching as he emptied whatever reserve he had into her; he was dimly aware of the woman roaring in a mixture of delight and savagery above him.

Yes!” she roared, her voice suddenly huge and filling the room; it was the sound of conquest and triumph. “Give…it…all… to…ME!”

Neely’s body began jerking awkwardly as the woman’s hips seemed to literally chew into his own; the unnatural pleasure of the moment now mixing with pain as he was drawn far, far, into her body, her silken grip now exquisitely painful as she pulled far too hard on his most delicate part. But on and on his throes of passion went, for more, much more than a minute, and then two, as the orgasm wracked his body and he began spasming wildly. Neely’s heart hammered so strongly he thought it might burst through his ribcage and literally leap from his chest; suddenly its rhythm became irregular. It skipped a beat, then two, and his breath first caught, then left his body in a gasp as the weird mixture of pain and pleasure continued ever onward.

Then his heart raced forward a few beats, then skipped several more. Neely realized with dawning alarm that drawing a breath was suddenly incredibly difficult; it was if his lungs had stopped working effectively. He tried sucking in great breaths of air, but the oxygen didn’t seem to make it to his bloodstream. He could feel the huge, hammering beats of the thick muscle of his heart, clenching wildly in an awkward rhythm, struggling to stay alive, but the desperate beatings of his toughest muscle was nothing compared to the surge of muscular power he could feel from this strange aggressor. All of this occurred to him, even though it was diminished, as it was filtered through the pleasure of the huge, unnatural orgasm that wracked his body for nearly three full minutes. Suddenly, for Jimmy Neely, everything ended as the moment peaked. Not for him, but for the woman ending his life.

The woman released the hold on his skull, and her arms reached up behind her own head. Her nipples pushed the slick black material of her bodysuit outward in inch-long tent-like shapes, and suddenly every muscle on her incredible body flexed into sharp, clear definition; large and unknowably powerful, but altogether feminine. She drew in a breath and roared out the sound of her triumph.

It was a huge, primal sound, one of conquest, lust, and murder all rolled into one. Her scream was deep and powerful, and the sound of it carried outside, where it chilled the blood of the soldiers fleeing or still fighting the flames and fires of her attack. And it was the sound that pulled Jim Neely back to reality as he died.

Every muscle in her flexed hugely, in a massive surge of feminine power. Every muscle. Including the ones that had held his body upright and used him for her own savage pleasure. The silken grip around his still erect length exploded in the throes of her passion, a final surge, a final flex peaked after her primal scream.

There was a loud, audible click, a snapping sound, as of thick, bone-like gristle being shattered in two.

Neely’s mouth opened, breath suddenly filling his lungs to scream. But the sound wouldn’t come; the air was driven from him as his heart surged and leaped in his chest, with a final huge, wavering beat… and then stopped.

For a few seconds, his eyes drifted over the face of his tormentor, his attacker, his angel. Her expression of satisfaction, her rosy glow of sexual heat, and her cold, impersonal indifference to his plight were the last things he saw as his vision first wavered, then began to darken, and finally faded to black as oblivion took him.

The woman moaned softly to herself one last time; a sly grin, like that of a cat which has gotten its fair share of milk, formed on her full, pouty lips. She shifted her grip a bit, her thighs biting into the body of the dead man beneath her. Her thighs swelled in a graceful dance of muscular power, and there was a grinding, perfectly audible series of cracking sounds as the bony frame of his pelvis was torqued beyond its limits. A final, bony POP! was heard as his body gave way, and she opened her stance a bit. The still erect length of the man, with an unnatural joint evident midway down its length, slid from her sex. His body fell unmoving to the ground, his member still gently pumping a tiny amount of clear seminal fluid onto his groin as the last traces of life left him.

The woman smiled to herself contently. It had been far, far too long since her last intimate encounter with a male, however fragile they might prove to be. Her entire body seemed to sing, to thrum pleasantly; she felt the power surge though her and relished the slowly dissipating afterglow of her arousal. And she could feel it – what she had stolen, what she had taken from the man – moving through her body. She could feel her inner workings pulling it further and further into herself, deeper toward her core. There was a pause, and then a dim, warm glow that spread outward, radiating gently though her as she could feel the successful nature of her mating take hold. She sighed contently… and became aware of a new sound. Something coming in through the window, followed by a soft, metallic sound.    She cast her sharpened senses toward the floor, the direction of the sound, and her eyes widened in surprise as she ascertained its origin.

A fist-sized hand grenade was on the floor, not three feet from her right foot, spinning on its side.

More quickly than a person should be able to move, the woman spun gracefully, crouching, chambering her legs for a great leap. She turned sideways and jumped for the window, her arms thrust before her, her legs powering her body up and out of the building in a single huge thrust.

A blast of air, followed by the peppery spray of shrapnel struck her lower legs; followed by the heat of the orange ball of flame that disappeared nearly as soon as it had been born all chased her body as she shot through the window and clear of the building. She tucked her head, and rolled gracefully, effortlessly to her feet, snarling in surprise and the faintest degree of pain, to come face to face with the soldier who had thrown the device.

Her right hand blasted upward, the fingers curled up tightly, the heel of her hand smashing into the jaw of the surprised man. The lower half of his face liquefied as his body flew up and away from her, the concussion far more than his delicate brainpan was built to withstand.

The bastards. A group of them, numbering at least 20, rushed her suddenly. They had been lying in wait and organized themselves while she had taken a moment (too soon, in a mild violation of her mission) to pleasure herself with the man known as Jim Neely. A few of them had summoned what little courage they could muster, and now they rushed her in a single group, meaning to overwhelm her suddenly.

How cute.

“At last!” she roared, her voice husky and strangely musical in its cadence. “At last someone will show me what passes for courage among you!”

Her voice carried over the din of the burning base easily, falling on the ears of the group of men as they made their final, desperate charge.

One of the first among them held a .45 in front of him as he ran, squeezing off rounds as he screamed and strode toward her. The woman’s superhuman vision tracked the bullets as they left the muzzle; she had not needed to, actually; the man’s bouncing strides made nearly all of the shots miss wildly. Two tracked near enough for her to be concerned, and with two tiny, incredibly quick movements with her arms, the slugs were deflected harmlessly away from her.

Now within her reach, the soldier thrust out the pistol to fire a round point-blank, but he was never to get the chance. The terrifying woman’s hand clamped down on top of his own and squeezed savagely. The man’s hand and every finger on it broke with the loud series of crackles of collapsing bone now so familiar to the terrified contingent of soldiers. Then the squeal of deforming metal as the woman exerted so much force with her single-handed grip that the pistol and the pulped remains of his fist ground together to become one. The man screamed in agony and dropped to his knees.

The raven-haired attacker stepped in close to him, wrapping her metal-encased forearm around the base of the man’s skull. She spun, as elegantly as the most graceful ballet dancer, her leg snapping up to explode into the chest of the next man. It was hard to tell which CRUNCH! of snapping bone was louder, that of the collapsed chest of her kick victim, or the snapped neck of the pistol-wielder. Nevertheless, two more bodies joined the dozens of others on the dusty and bloody ground.

The remaining force of men charged onward, but fared no better; their feminine attacker simply took them apart, sometimes two and three at a time. She hefted one man aloft like he was no more than a pillow; a quick jerk from her diamond-hard arms snapped his spine like brittle kindling. Dropping his prone form, she leapt into the air, above the heads of the next two men to reach her position. She seemed to hang in mid-air, motionless for a moment. She extended her hands, unhurried, cradled the heads of the men, and with a casual, easy movement, drove them together beneath her. She made it look easy, as if she put no effort into the maneuver as all; indeed, her mid-air pause and the force she exerted on the men below her made her movements seem almost gentle. The reaction by the men told another tale altogether: their skulls were driven into each other with terrifying force, the sound a dreadful, hollow-sounding wet CRACK! like two meat-covered coconuts being dashed together with terminal force. The men choked out nearly identical grunts of pain, both abruptly cut off by the impact, and they sagged to the ground, their skulls oddly misshapen. Their attacker finished her leap: she did a gentle forward somersault, her legs snapping down onto the shoulders of another man. His face was buried in her crotch, her weight slamming down onto his shoulders. He was driven to his knees, a muffled cry coming from deep in his chest; it ended abruptly as the woman torqued her hips savagely to the side, a clearly audible POP! erupted from the man’s neck. She planted her feet and he too fell twitching to the ground.

A lethal chop to the throat, and another man died gagging. A spinning kick of such grace that the man who became its victim was entranced by her motion, following every movement that led to his sudden, explosive demise. One man, over six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, held aloft like a weightless child only to be slammed to the ground with mind-numbing, deadly force, and then used as a club against five more of their number.

Man after man fell, until the utter hopelessness of their situation became clear once again. The small number of survivors of the valiant 20 suddenly turned tail and ran, and she came after them, running them down as if they were children, her hands and feet, no, her entire body bringing the gifts of pain and death to each of them.

Is this all?” she roared into the open air, the cords on her neck in stark relief as she screamed out her triumph. “Have you no warriors to give me even the hint of a challenge? Have you no… Agghh!”

Suddenly, a hissing, sharp report sounded in the night air. She turned at the last split-second, and the dark blur flashed by behind her, nearly missing her. It would have struck a normal person directly between the shoulder blades; her speed and superhuman reflexes saved her. The bullet, a big, high-velocity sniper round, instead grazed the exposed muscle of her back, clipping the defined lower half of her right trapezius. A small crimson explosion puffed into the air behind her as she snarled in rage and pain.

“Arrrghh! Coward! Where are you? Face me, coward!” she screamed, her face a mask of rage, surprise, and pain.

But they had seen. The soldiers who had been fleeing, panicked, before her had seen this first wound on her body, and now they stopped, unsure of what to do next.

Where are you, worm? Show yourself!” the raven-haired woman shouted into the night air. “Show me where you – Ack!”

Another round blasted into her, and this time the aim was true and she was unable to dodge the path of the projectile. The big round slammed into her left thigh. The entrance wound was minor, petite, even. But the exit wound was another matter. A fist-sized chuck of muscle blasted away from the rear of her leg, the bright crimson spray turning into a torrent of blood that flowed freely down her calf, over the shiny black boot she wore. The mere impact of such a round would have driven a normal man to his knees, or blasted his lower leg free of his body; this was no normal human, however. She staggered, but did not fall.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut against the pain, gritted her teeth, and roared her pain and anger through her clenched jaws. But she had seen the flash, the flower-shaped muzzle flash from on top of the barracks nearly 60 yards away. She had seen….

Despite her pain from the huge, gory wound to her thigh, the woman knelt and scooped a rock into her hand. She concentrated, and above the din of the embattled camp, she thought she could hear the sniper chambering another round. Her movements slower, more sluggish, but still more than what seemed possible, she sighted her target, wound up, and let the inch-square rock fly. Her granite projectile streaked the 60 yards to her target, and was every bit as effective as his lead one: It caught him in the right eye as he sighted up another shot. He choked out a hoarse cry as the stone buried itself in his brain, and collapsed, unmoving, on the roof of the barracks.

But it was too late. The tide had shifted.

Two, three, then four flat, surprisingly unimpressive reports rang out, and the woman jerked in quick succession as the pistol slugs tore into her lower back. She spun, snarling, driving her hand down like a hammer and cracking the skull of her attacker, killing him instantly. But her blood flowed freely from her wounds, the same precious scarlet that ran in the veins of the men she was attacking, and their spirits soared when they saw that as incredible, as unbelievable as the woman and her abilities may have proven to be, she was still an organic, natural, living thing… and she could be hurt.

And what could be hurt, could be killed.

They came then, sidearms blazing. Yes, she was still able to deflect an astounding number of rounds with the bright silver gauntlets on her forearms, but many of the bullets hit home. A round buried itself in the base of her neck, barely missing her spine. Another took a chunk out of her right bicep. Three more plowed into her foot, making the simple act of walking an exercise in pain. Three rounds fired by the same man buried themselves deep into her bosom.

But she wasn’t done, either. Her progress was slowed, and now she had lost much of the uncanny grace she had exhibited before. But at close range, her strength seemed undiminished, and the death toll mounted as she exacted her rage on their number. More men fell, unmoving, into the dust.

“Fuck this,” one bloodied and terrified man, a solider named Watts, muttered to himself, over and over. “Fuck this fuck this fuck this.”

Watts pulled the pin on a fragmentation grenade and lobbed it straight at the woman’s head from a distance of 35 yards. He hoped she would be too preoccupied with the men scrambling near her feet to see it coming…

He was wrong. With a snarl, she turned just in time to pluck the grenade from the air. But she wasn’t fast enough to throw it away.

The device went off with a heavy, concussive bang, a cloud of dark smoke obscuring the woman and those around her.

Immediately, screams could be heard. Screams of men with hot shrapnel imbedded in their arms, their legs, their faces. Some of them would not survive the night. But among them was another sound, this one feminine in nature.

She lay on the ground, gasping. Blood poured in great torrents from the various bullet wounds to her body. But Watts and the men crowding around him crept close to stand over her prone form and their attention was fixed on the ragged stump where her arm had been.

The tattered flesh of her wound was blackened and burned; a great freshet of blood gushed through the meat of the wound with every beat of her heart. Her eyes were wide saucers of disbelief, her mouth an awkward ‘O’ shape as she gasped for air like a fish suddenly thrown onto the shore.

“Arterial blood,” Watts observed matter-of-factly. “She’s finished, boy---“

He was interrupted by a harrowing shriek, an ear-splitting war cry from the dying woman warrior that raised the hairs on the necks of every man who heard it.

With a burst of reserve power no one could have foreseen, the strange woman leaped to her feet, and with her remaining limb seized the man closest to her by the face. Her grip closed suddenly, the clawlike shape of her hand biting into his skull with a muffled CRUNCH. He dropped to the ground, jerking spasmodically. She knelt, then rose once more, and began attacking the crowd around her with a new weapon, gripped tightly in her remaining good hand. Four more men died from her latest savage attack, their heads stove in and their bodies smashed by her deadly new weapon, the grenade thrower Watts among their number.

She attacked them with her own severed arm, swinging the ruined piece of meat like a club.

Roaring with a high-pitched, wheezing squeal, she descended among them, spinning furiously, the disembodied limb a terrifyingly effective weapon as it smashed man after man into prone, still submission. But even her superhuman abilities seemed to have their limits, for after a few moments of this fresh attack, she paused, wheezing. She took a single slow, shuddering step forward, faltered, and fell to one knee. A soldier rushed her, a knife of huge proportions held before him. She slapped his hand away, wrapped her remaining arm around his torso, and squeezed once, massively. A liquid gurgle came from his yawning mouth accompanied by a series of muted cracklings inside his body. She rolled him out of her grip to collapse onto the ground, just as a pistol shot sounded, then two, then three, and then the night erupted with the sound of gunshots as the men gathered themselves in a semi-circle around their tormentor.

Her body began jerking wildly, hitching this way and that as dozen after dozen of rounds crashed into her body. In the thirty seconds that followed, more than two hundred rounds of small arms and high-powered rifle fire slammed into her body, and though she sagged slowly forward, clearly mortally wounded, she was not yet dead.

A uniformed, blood-smeared man appeared behind her. He strode forward to stand directly behind her and raised his weapon, a military riot-suppression firearm; essentially it was an 8-gauge shotgun, its muzzle a double-barreled, yawning, cave-like construction. With no fanfare or ceremony he placed the barrel to the back of the frightful woman’s head.

Cowards,” the woman choked, her blind, shattered eyes moving over their ranks as if she could see them, the words coming though the splintered mess of her ruined teeth and jaw. “You…cowards, all…” she choked, her head sagging.

The soldier behind her pulled the trigger of his weapon, and twin flares of death burst from the gun and took off the back half of the fearsome female warrior’s head. Her body pitched forward, sprawling face down into the dust. Her body twitched once, then twice, and then grew still.

Silence descended then, for a time.

No one spoke, no one moved. Even the cries of the dying seemed to fade. The man who had fired the final, lethal round, a captain named Jeffrey Dean, surveyed the scene grimly.

It looked as if the entire base had been leveled by an extremely effective airstrike. Everywhere he looked, fires raged out of control. The distant thudding explosions from the direction of the armory had stopped for a time, but the sky to the west had a dull red, rosy cast to it. And the bodies.

Dozens of bodies. Scores. Piles of military men, broken and twisted, some torn completely apart. Hundreds. Nearly as far as he could see. Dean was an experienced military man, he had seen more than his share of combat in the Middle East, and never had he encountered a scene of such one-sided destruction before. And all of it done by a single, lone aggressor. Alone. Apparently unarmed. And a woman, at that. He stood there stiffly, fatigue setting into his body as the adrenaline left him suddenly, and it occurred to him that he was very, very tired.

The moment passed. The sound of the flames seemed to swell, the cries of the wounded picked up as a semblance of order was restored. Men began running to and fro with stretchers; on them was an assortment of the wounded, most suffering from injuries to horrible to describe. Dean had never seen injuries like these during wartime; instead of shrapnel injuries and burns, these soldiers sported wounds more suited for a blunt trauma investigation. One man was carted past, both of his arms broken and sticking out at weird angles. Another passed; his head was crushed, his cranium grotesquely elongated, yet he was still alive. Another obviously had his femur dislocated from his pelvis, a huge purple knob of bruised flesh showed where the ball joint pushed out against his skin.

But order was slowly restoring itself. Dean even did his part, shouting orders to some men cowering in fear, getting them up, getting them moving, getting them busy enough to try to put the horrors of this night behind him. A squad of soldiers in silver metallic flame-retardant suits showed up with a portable foam unit, and began combating the fires that had, until now, raged without being addressed.

“You there,” Dean barked, pointing at three men who lingered behind the crushed hulk of the antique Jeep. “What’s your difficulty?”

One of them snapped to attention. “Our squad leader, sir. He’s…” the young man pointed to a greasy smear that used to be a man where it covered the dust on the ground.

“He’s what?” Dean barked roughly.

“He’s… he’s dead sir,” the man – hell, boy – stammered.

“Well, that’s obvious, son,” Dean snapped back roughly. “Do you think I’m so stupid that I can’t tell when a man is dead?”

The young man’s eyes turned away from Dean’s face as he stood taller, straighter, his hands snapping down at his sides. His two companions did the same. “No, sir!” the boy barked back.

“I didn’t think so. Now what you’re going to do is assist the men fighting the fires in and around the communications building, as alerting the chain of command is our best course of action right now, isn’t it?” Dean roared.

“Sir, yes sir!” the trio of young men shouted back.

“Then what are you waiting for, gentlemen? Move! Move! Move!”

“Yes, sir!” they all barked, and scattered. But the first young man lingered, his eyes still unfocused over Dean’s shoulder. He took a step, paused, and the resolute nature, an expression of the resolve that Captain Dean had helped him find with just a few words, faltered. Dean could see it happen. The resolve faded, his eyes widened a little, and his slackening expression betrayed the reappearance of fear on his face.

“Sir…” he said weakly. “Oh, no, no, sir.”

Dean turned, afraid of what he would see.

Behind them, about 60 yards away, on the opposite side of the courtyard and not far from the corpse of their deadly attacker, a thin, pale bluish-white ribbon seemed to swim out of nothingness. Tiny white flecks in the translucent strips seemed to sparkle, like diamonds, in the light of the fires. The area spread, the ribbons reaching out, expanding smoothly, slowly at first. Dean realized the fragile-looking, rippling ribbon of light was roughly rectangular in shape, and it slowly expanded from about three feet across to about fifteen feet, and about eight feet high.

The scene framed by this ribbon, of soldiers looking at it in the same stupid wonder that Dean and the others were gawking at it from this side, slowly faded, growing more faint, less distinct. The area in the center of the shape grew more opaque, darker, the way a movie fades to black, until there was nothing in the center except a black so dark and absolute, it became a thing nearly tangible in appearance. Dean thought that if he was closer and reached out his hand, that black atmosphere would have a physical feel, like crushed velvet.

“What the fuck is this?” the boy behind Dean hissed, his whisper full of fear.

“I don’t kn—“ Dean began, but the words died in his mouth, and he felt the strength suddenly run out of his legs. Someone stepped from the inky blackness at the center of the door, for Dean was now sure that’s what the rectangle was.

A woman.

She was tall, far taller than most of the men that now shrank from her sudden appearance. She had to be at least 6’3” or 4”. And she was even more heavily muscled than the woman that had so easily destroyed their camp. Her chest and hips flared out from an exaggeratedly trim, muscled midsection, her legs a bulging display of toned quadriceps, her generous bosom riding high atop a sheath of pectoral muscle, her arms a vision of thick, rounded biceps.  Her long blonde hair framed her strikingly beautiful face, her features strong, the jaw square, the cheekbones high. Her hair glimmered in the light of the fires as if it had been spun from shining gold, her bangs unruly as they spilled over her forehead and part of the way over her eyes, the remainder pulled into two long groups roughly resembling pigtails on the sides of her head, a little toward the back. She wore a red bodysuit, not unlike the dead woman’s. The blonde woman’s was made of a shiny, slick-looking fire-engine red material, with a vertical stripe of white stars running down the outside of each leg. The top clung tightly to her muscled frame, running down from her shoulders in a tank top-type of design.

Her bright, incredibly intense blue eyes surveyed the scene silently, but the expression she wore, one of simmering contempt and icy malice, was all too familiar to Dean and the rest of the soldiers who had gathered to see her mystical arrival.

“Oh no no no,” the boy behind Dean breathed, his voice a hoarse whisper. “No no no.”

The last vestige of hope left Deanleft them all then – for her arrival was just the beginning.

More women began stepping from the inky black portal, with increasing speed. A shorter woman, only 5’4” or so, but so heavily muscled she looked like a cartoon character, with thighs so thick they rubbed together when she walked. Another blonde, this one nearly six feet herself, but all legs, with the figure of an Olympian athlete. A brunette, her raven-black hair pulled into a rough ponytail behind her, her face painted with three blue stripes on each cheek, the dark coloring of which was matched by the midriff-bearing, bikini-style costume she wore, her abdominal muscles a series of sharply defined, washboard-like ridges on her belly.

Another woman emerged, who wore a loose-fitting purple robe that was cinched tightly about her thin waist with a black sash, only the lower half of her face visible beneath the darkness created by the hood she wore. The robe parted as she strode forward, her long, delicate ivory leg flashing like a finely muscled limb of a champion ballroom dancer as she walked.

Yet another woman stepped from the void; her ethnicity less apparent, her mocha-colored skin looking incredibly soft, nearly velvet-like as it covered her considerably muscled physique.

On and on they came until there were more than two-dozen of them standing before the group of men who stood silent and aghast. Some of them carried long, pointed staffs that looked like finely-honed spears; one even carried a shining blade, her hand gripping the sword tightly.

The doorway through which they had passed faded slowly from sight, the men and scenery behind them becoming visible to Dean and his men once more. At first, no one moved or spoke.

The massive blonde cast her eyes about the scene, taking in the visions of death and destruction with a look of unmistakable satisfaction. Then her eyes came upon the ruined, bloody shape of the woman on the ground before them. Dean expected a display of anguish, or anger, or even pity, since he believed that this cadre of new threats belonged to the same mysterious clan as their original attacker. He got none of what he expected.

There was no softening of the blonde’s expression. There was no pity. No anguish. If anything, there was a tiny nod, as if in respect to the dead, and that was all. The blonde looked up and about once more, opened her mouth, and spoke, her voice loud, clear, and melodious.

“Our sister has fallen. Sheila had won the right to be the first in a series of many, knowing she was going to war and that death was sure to be her final reward. She fought well. She will be remembered.”

The women around the statuesque blonde repeated the phrase aloud, together, in disquietingly accurate unison: “She will be remembered.”  The massive blonde woman continued.

“Her legacy shall live on. Yours…will not.”

The women spread out, assuming threatening, warlike stances.

“For you, for the world of men, we Amazons bring a gift,” she shouted, her voice rising, her tone more menacing than ever.

Amazons? Dean’s mind repeated, shocked. Did she just say ‘Amazons’?

The blonde’s eyes narrowed, her crimson lips curled in a bitter snarl of disgust and aggression. “Our gift to the world of men,” she said.

By now, the remaining soldiers had begun to scramble away, fleeing into the night, screaming for a rescue that would never come. Dean simply stood, slack-jawed, and watched the end come with deadly, rushing speed. “A gift…” the woman said, and screamed her final words.

“Of death!” she cried, and leaped forward into a group of soldiers, who exploded outward in a cloud of flying, tumbling bodies.

“Death!” the group of women cried, their voices a terrifying tide of violence and power, freezing the blood of the surviving soldiers, who turned and ran in blind terror; by then it was too late, for the Amazons were upon them.

XVI

At 12:01 a.m., March 21st, life as the world knew it changed forever.

According to some eyewitnesses who managed to escape the carnage on the Williamsburg Bridge, the figure that stepped down from the curb and onto the roadway was large, oddly imposing, and amazingly, quite feminine in appearance. And according to these same reports, this woman stepped directly into the path of traffic.

Not that it mattered, in hindsight.

The police officials taking the statements paused and exchanged wary, cautious glances.

I know how this sounds, the people all said. But I’m not crazy. I saw it.

What happened then? the officials would ask.

The truck slammed on its brakes, there was a white cloud of burnt rubber. And this chick, this big chick, she reaches down…and she picks up this truck, I’m serious.

A woman picked up a UPS freight truck, is what you’re saying.

Yes! One of those big brown things. She just…picked it up. First the front then, as she worked her way down it, the whole damn thing. Pretty soon she just hefted it up, and stood there, with this truck above her head, and she was laughing.

She was laughing?

Laughing her damn head off. I know it sounds crazy…but if you had seen it. If you… if you had…

It’s all right, take your time.

If you had seen her, you would have believed she could do it. I mean, this chick was big, like, bodybuilder big. She just kind of lifts this truck up, and then she throws this thing, I mean she just fuckin’ chucks it, and it goes bouncing down the lane, where all the cars had stopped. And it rolls down the lane, and it’s crushing cars and the people in ‘em…Oh God. It was horrible.

Umm hmm. Then what did this… this superwoman do?

Are you makin fun of me? Cause I know what I saw, motherfucker.

No, not at all, just trying to get a picture.

Well, then she just goes apeshit. All the cars had stopped; traffic on the bridge was completely stopped, right? So she just starts walking along, turning cars over.

Wait. She turned cars over?

I told you, this chick threw a muthafuckin’ delivery truck, and you’re gonna tell me she couldn’t turn a little car over?

Sorry.

She starts turning these cars over, and everything just went to shit from there.

What did the people do?

They died, man. They just died.

“Hey, Lisa,” Brett smiled, stifling a yawn.

Even though it was late, around midnight, the student gym at the University of Georgia was hopping with activity. Semester exams were still a month away, so no one was cramming yet, and the entire football squad had taken to doing their second round of workouts later, and at the student gym rather than the football stadium facilities. Probably to impress the ladies, Brett thought. Either way, the large, open building was filled with iPod wearing, iron-pumping coeds and the familiar, metallic clanking sounds of their endeavors.

“Hey yourself, Brett,” Lisa chirped back, her thousand-watt smile nearly making his heart hurt. Lisa Simmons was the catch of the day, for sure. She was a little on the short side, not much taller than five feet, but damn! She was cute, a perfectly made little blonde girl with ice-blue eyes who compelled every male she met fall instantly in love with her. She was a little shorter than average, but she made up for it in other ways: She had sort of a compact, squat build, with shoulders perhaps a tad wider than the ideal body image. She was also a little more heavily muscled than a person would expect, but it served her well as she led the school’s gymnastics team. Her compact form was mind-boggling flexible, surprisingly powerful and, unlike a lot of the girls on the team, she was stacked, too. Round on the top and bottom, and little in the middle. And cute as hell.

So, Brett Ritter, being single and male, was glad to see her as she stepped up to his post behind the counter of the facility, her student ID in hand. It was a ritual they often repeated when she came in to work out, a remedy for what she called her ‘raging insomnia.’ Of course Brett had asked her out several times, but so far to no avail. Maybe tonight would be different.

It was different already. When he looked up to see her come around the corner of the entrance, he saw she was not alone.

Three other girls were with her, dressed in similar shorts and stretch-top workout attire.  Two of them looked quite a bit like Lisa, sort of smallish in size, compact, and blonde. The other was a little leaner, but taller, a black girl of medium, light coffee-colored complexion. All looked fit and sported impressive athletic figures, and were startlingly attractive.

“Hey, who are your friends?”

“Oh, these two are friends of mine from the team. This is Kelly and Shonna. The tall one there is Tandy.”

“And she’s not on the team?”

Lisa grinned, and stepped close, her hands raised in a mock-conspiratorial fashion. “Tandy’s a cheerleader. Don’t tell anybody.”

Brett glanced at the black girl, who smiled wryly and raised her hands and shoulders in an equivocal ‘sorry’ gesture.

“Mum’s the word,” Brett smiled, and replied.

“We were just getting a little crazy and thought we’d make use of the new 24-hour schedule.”

“Ugh,” Brett yawned. “Tell me about it. These night shifts are killing me. And my class average.”

“So we’re good?”

“Well… I mean, yeah, I guess. Do…do you guys have IDs or anything? I’m supposed to you know, like, scan them,” Brett apologized.

“I lost mine,” the girl identified as Shonna admitted.

“Me too,” Kelly added.

Brett and Lisa looked over at Tandy, who shrugged again and waved her hand dismissively. “I never got one,” she explained. “The line was too long. The hell with that.”

Brett nodded. “I hear ya. They really have to do something about the student services building. Everything takes, like, forever in that place.”

“So…we’re okay?” Lisa asked again.

“Well…I... I guess so…” Brett stammered.

“Oh, come on,” Lisa cooed, and covered his hand with both of her own. Her touch was nearly electric, she actually batted her eyes playfully a little. Brett’s heart fluttered a bit in his chest.

“Yeah, okay, okay. Just don’t say it was me.”

“Never.”

“And now you really have to let me buy you dinner. Or some beers.”

“Deal,” she chirped, and with a lunge, leaned close and pecked a kiss on his cheek. Brett could feel a slight warmth on his cheeks as Lisa laughed, waved, and stepped away from the counter.

Just then, the flat screen TVs that were spaced throughout the gym flickered and went to a storm of black and white static. Most of the students lifting weights or running on treadmills paused, then dismissed it and went on with their workouts.

Brett saw the four girls exchange a strange, knowing look. Lisa looked concerned, the girl named Shonna gave a tiny, nearly imperceptible nod, and Tandy actually grinned in silent answer. Lisa, with a strange expression Brett couldn’t clearly read, turned back to face him at the counter.

“Hey Brett,” she said, “What time have you got?”

“It’s…uh... a little past twelve.”

“Umm hmm. Okay. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“Hey do you guys want to… you know, like…?” Lisa asked, making a small, noncommittal vague motion toward the exercise equipment with one hand.

“Oh, yeah,” Shonna said strangely. “We sure do. Don’t we, ladies?”

With that, the three of them split up and moved deeper into the exercise floor of the gym.

“Lisa leaned over the counter once again, giving Brett a dose of plentiful cleavage displayed by the tight baby blue of her stretch top. But Brett didn’t see it; in fact, he was still looking after the trio of new girls as they walked – no, sauntered – into the gym. They all dropped the small gym bags they carried, just let them fall to the ground before they even reached the exercise floor.

Tandy approached a huge young man who grunted with effort while he pounded out reps on the bench press. The boy’s arms and midsection were enormously muscled and incredibly defined; a testament to the long hours he surely must put in at the facility.

He let the bar fall back into the iron supports with a clang, and blew out a long, agonized breath. Tandy didn’t even pause; she drew close to him, and threw her right leg over his crotch, thumping down onto his hips with a playful bounce.

“Oooof!” he grunted, and half-sat up, surprised.

“Hey there,” Tandy grinned down at him.

“Umm. Hi.”

“I’m Tandy.”

“Uh. Okay. Hello, Tandy.”

Tandy ran her fingertips lightly over the young man’s arms and chest, tickling the skin where his black tank top allowed his considerable musculature to be displayed.

“What’s your name?”

“Hunter.”

Tandy laughed aloud. “Oh, that’s awesome. How ironic.”

The muscle-bound young man’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “How is my name ironic?”

“Because, baby, tonight…” Tandy grinned, licking her lips, “you’re the one being hunted.”

She balled up the front of the boy’s shirt and pulled. He allowed himself to be drawn up to a sitting position, and Tandy’s lips met his own. His expression of confusion faded, his eyes closing, his thick arms encircling her trim waist.

Kelly was busy herself, talking to another man who was lying face down on the hamstring machine. He was curling a stack of weight with his calves, pulling a padded bar forward and up toward his rump while he braced himself on the bench, face-down. Kelly knelt close to him, and spoke into his ear. He was a little older than Tandy’s mark, a grad student maybe. Either way, he was similarly enjoying the contact; he was chuckling softly while still trying to complete his workout. Shonna leaned toward the closest concrete column, her feet now bare. She extended her legs, stretching them out.

“So…how are you? Don’t see much of you these days,” Brett asked, bringing his attention back to the cute little blonde before him.

“Sorry, I’ve just been real busy,” Lisa explained.

“Too busy to see yours truly? What, you studying hard?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“What, you got some big test coming, or something?” Brett asked.

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Hmm. For which class?”

“Uh…History of Warfare and Male Suppression 101,” Lisa laughed.

“What?” Brett laughed back.

“Nothing. Just an old joke.” Lisa took his hand in her own, and to his astonishment, began to take the few steps to the side to come around to his side of the counter.  “Brett, listen, we’ve got to talk,” she said softly.

“What about?” he asked, his pulse quickening a little bit. Maybe he had a chance after all…

But he would never find out. Even before he had finished his question, the big gym was filled with a series of new sounds. Brett’s vision snapped up to the source of the commotion, and what he saw astounded him.

A high-pitched squealing, noise, harsh and grating, came to him from his right. He looked over and saw the bench where Tandy had been flirting with the big weightlifter. But she wasn’t flirting anymore.

The squealing sound came from the thick stainless steel bar that the young man had been using. He was no longer lifting it. The bar was now bent, curved behind his back, and around his considerable chest, with Tandy pulling the ends tighter together in front of him. The feminine muscles padding Tandy’s shoulder, arms, and back came alive, swelling with evident power, her face now a grimace of grim determination. She pulled harder, and the thick chrome steel bar bent further, stretching, the last few inches curved up severely as she used them like handles to torque the metal. The shiny bar looked like metallic taffy as she pulled it tighter around the boy.

That’s…that’s impossible, Brett thought stupidly.

Tandy grunted aloud, and the bar closed tighter around the boy suddenly, crushing in on his thickly muscled frame. Evidently the hardness he had spent so long perfecting was no match for the force Tandy was exerting on it; there was a loud CRACK! then another, and finally a short series of popping crackles that issued from the young man’s torso. His arms were trapped at his sides, his hands fluttered about weakly, his head thrown back. Tandy jerked the bar once again, and with a casual over hand motion, the bar squealed horribly, loudly, and twisted over on itself.

Fuck me. She’s just tied him up with a steel bar, Brett’s stunned mind repeated over and over.

A scream, loud and definitely masculine, issued from his left. His head pivoted, only to see Kelly atop the grad student. Her elbow bit into his back as he lay prone on the hamstring machine. Her hand gripped the weighted bar still supported by his legs. With a grin of effortless enjoyment, she simply curled the weight toward her, extending the man’s legs higher and further than they were meant to go. He squealed once again, his arms thrashing about. Brett could see the stack of weights rise. That’s close to…180 No, 190…maybe 200 pounds on there. And she’s curling it. With one hand.

Indeed, Kelly’s left bicep bulged shockingly; her back and shoulders were exposed by the white workout top she wore, and Brett could see firm, rippling ridges of large, though still feminine muscles spring to sudden, flexed life across her frame. Further and further she curled the bar over the back of the squealing man, who thrashed about harder than ever. With a sudden, violent motion which spoke of far more power than she had used until this moment, Kelly slammed the bar up and forward; the steel cable connected to the weight stack snapped, and the padded bar (and the legs of the grad student) exploded forward until they rested on the upper back of the now unconscious man. His hips popped out of joint with an incredibly loud report as she effectively folded him in half. Movement caught Brett’s eye; his head turned toward the middle of the room.

Shonna was already in motion, her compact body a blur as she flipped and leaped down the entire length of the gym. Her body tumbled end over end as she executed a picture-perfect series of cartwheels, tucks, and handsprings, her pace seemingly inhuman as she flipped down the length of the building. Finally, she flexed her left leg and was airborne, her hair trailing behind her, waving in the wind current created by her motion. Her right leg extended out, swollen noticeably with muscle, her toes pointed forward sharply. It made her long, muscled limb seem almost like a lance or similar weapon as her entire body cut the air with a hiss.

Her outstretched limb slammed into a young man who stood in front of a huge wall of mirrors against the far wall. He had been curling barbells steadily, his back had been turned to her, he had been so into his workout that he didn’t even see her coming until a split second before her kick speared him.

He shot forward suddenly, as her momentum was transferred to his body. His back broke with an audible, snapping CRACK sound, and he sprang forward, arms thrown out to the sides, still gripping the barbells in his fists. He slammed face first into the bank of mirrors, shattering the full-length surface into thousands of glimmering, razor-sharp shards. He made no sound (in retrospect, Shonna’s initial impact was probably sufficient to kill him). Now slashed to ribbons, his body rebounded a full six feet, where it slammed into the tensed right shoulder of Shonna, who already stood waiting. She threw his limp left arm behind her head, slammed his body close to her own with her right, tucked her head, and gave a burst of muscular power with her lower back and legs. She lifted the young man up and backward, hanging in midair, and then slamming down with great force onto the back of his head in a perfect suplex maneuver. This all happened very quickly, in the space of only a few seconds. Shonna released her hold on the limp, unmoving man, and sprang easily to her feet, laughing.

“What the fu… Brett started, turning toward Lisa.

It wasn’t her lethal blow that silenced him then (although that was coming). It was her expression. Her beautiful blue eyes were turned up to him, and he saw no kindness in them at all.

Her right hand closed the distance between itself and his face too quickly to see, nearly too fast to comprehend. She struck him with mind-numbing force with the hard, flat surface of the heel of her hand, her fingers arched back to allow the full force of her blow to be channeled directly into her target.

She struck him at the base of his nose, her lethal blow slamming into his skull in a pronounced upward trajectory. The cartilage and bone of his nose and the front of his face exploded into a number of sharp, jagged fragments that were propelled by the force of her strike. They shot up and back, like shrapnel from a bomb, to neatly sever blood vessels that fed his brain; they sliced and impaled the delicate gray matter there.

As quickly as she had struck him, Lisa pulled back to regard her handiwork. Brett was still standing, still blinking, his breath coming in choked, ragged gasps as he stared skyward… but, for all intents and purposes, he was already dead. The middle of his face was a ruined, exploded horror, and after a short series of galvanic twitches, he fell into the wall behind him and slid down it, a shocked expression on what was left of his face.

“Goodnight, Brett,” Lisa chirped, and smiled.

At 12:01 a.m. in Columbia, South Carolina, the night clerk at a 3-star, nearly booked roadside motel was killed by the gorgeous woman in a tight blue minidress. She didn’t even have to come inside to do it.

Hooker, he had thought.  Hot one, but still. Look at those legs. Goddam.

“That’s $89.50,” he said into the holes in the bulletproof glass of the night window. The woman flipped a credit card through the four-inch gap at the bottom of the thick, clear plastic. The man reached for it, and when he did, her delicate-looking hand slammed down onto his own. The musculature in her exposed arm leaped into sharp detail suddenly as she squeezed, and broke nearly every bone in his hand.

He opened his mouth to scream, but before he could, the woman simply set her feet squarely and pulled, a huge, massive jerk that could have felled trees. The man’s body shot forward, slamming his face into the nearly unbreakable night window with lethal force. His head cracked open like a ripe melon, and his twitching body slumped to the floor when she released him.

The woman spent the next half hour tearing the doors off the hinges of each of the motel’s 115 rooms, killing the inhabitants of each with her bare hands.

At 12:01 E.S.T. a McDonnell-Douglas manufacturing plant was taken apart. Only a handful of security tapes survived to tell the tale. Over the course of thirty minutes, half a dozen women of stunning appearance and proportions raided the plant just a few miles outside the small city of Redding, California. On the tapes, they appear to execute every employee on duty that night, in a series of brutal slayings the likes of which local law enforcement officials had never seen. After the 80 or so employees had been killed, the apparent leader of the group of women could be seen to crouch beside a huge, cube-shaped example of industrial machinery, several times taller than she was. Amazingly, with an explosive heft, the entire frame of the machine shifted, broke free of its bolted moorings, and began to rise. Then the image on the tape was consumed by static as the plant went offline.

The entire plant burned to the ground, reduced to smoldering cinders by morning. There were no survivors.

A similar raid was conducted in a much different place, but the same time. At 12:01 Eastern time, a cargo van pulled up to the front entrance of a Wal-Mart in Derry, a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska. The store, one of the large, big-box affairs, was open 24 hours. The retail outlet was the only one in a 25-mile radius, and that, combined with its proximity to a major college campus, made it extremely busy, even at this late hour. Authorities credited these factors to the incredible body count discovered the next morning when the welder was finally able to cut the twisted steel from the doors. Something  – or someone – had wrapped thick angle iron through the sliding doors, sealing them shut, making the store a prison.

The store’s interior was a scene of absolute chaos. It looked as if a bomb, a sizable one, had been detonated in the center of the linoleum expanse of the sales floor.

The bodies themselves, over three hundred of them, were stacked like cordwood against the far wall of the sporting goods section. While none of them exhibited wounds attributable to the standard firearms the police officials were used to seeing, each nevertheless appeared to have died a terrible painful death, judging from the seemingly neverending parade of agonized expressions on the still, silent faces.

While the building was still locked down, with most of the squad outside, the SWAT team members scoured the building. In the center of the store, they found a small island of neatness amid the rubble; a big screen TV was set by itself, a small table next to it. On the table sat a camcorder, its price tag still attached to it. It was smeared with the telltale dark brown tint of dried blood. It was still on. Next to it was a stack of five MiniDV tapes. Each had a simple message written in flowing, elegant script on their labels.

Play me, they said.

With some trepidation, the leader of the SWAT team fed the first tape into the machine, and his gloved finger pressed the play button. He was soon to wish he hadn’t.

At first, he wanted to forget the bodies, wanted to think it was a prank. Some college kids on a drunken tear. They sure looked like college kids, anyway. The huge TV screen filled with a series of quick images, the terrified faces of employees and shoppers on their knees, their hands clasped behind their heads. The sounds of crying, of sniffles, of terror. And above that, the laughter of a number of women – young women, really, there were six of them, all told, on the tape, including the camera operator, and none of them looked to be over the age of thirty. Please, please let this be some college prank…yes, young, and attractive, from what could be seen. Attractive and insane. Because the one in charge, the one that just addressed the camera in a teasing, laughing manner, actually had the nerve to introduce herself and her companions by name into camera, and to the future viewer. Her derisive tone was unmistakable as she addressed the unknown ‘Mr. Police-man,’ putting a weird stress on the word ‘man’ before erupting in girlish laughter once again, before she seized the man at her feet with one hand and –

“Oh, my God,” the SWAT team leader whispered. He had to shout his command over the sound of the screams and horrible gurgling that came from the television. “Turn it off. For the love of God, turn it off.”

We’re not even sure ourselves what you’re seeing at this moment, ladies and gentleman, we’re coming into this as blind as you are at the moment. But we’d like to assure you that everyone here at CNN headquarters in Atlanta is working hard to get you the most accurate information as quickly as possible. We’d also like to remind you that we don’t want to cause alarm, we don’t want anyone to panic, but it seems that something is happening, there seems to be some kind of coordinated…uh…event, happening at the moment, right now, both here near our headquarters in Atlanta and in the nation’s capitol. Right now we’re calling it an event, we don’t…we don’t want to cause panic, we’re not calling it an attack until more details become apparent, but we urge everyone who can hear this broadcast to remain in your homes, to stay off the streets and –

Wait a moment. I’m being told that in addition to…in addition to Atlanta and Washington…there seems to be disturbances in Detroit… What? This can’t be right, Doug, I need this fact-checked before we can…one moment, ladies and gentlemen…I …ladies and gentlemen, it’s been confirmed by not one but two CNN field reporters that the city of Detroit in on fire; not just one or two buildings, not some Devil’s Night affair, but the entire city is aflame. We’re working to bring you pictures of this event, we’re trying to get a traffic helicopter airborne and the moment, but we’re having a hard time finding a pilot willing to go into the area, we’re not sure why; most have said that for some reason it isn’t safe to fly. It says here that one asked to go airborne, one pilot responded with the words, ‘No, sir, I will not fly. It isn’t safe. Not even up there. They’re everywhere, they’re even in the sky.’ Obviously we’re not sure what he means right now, but we’d like to remind you to stay inside, keep your loved ones inside at the moment and we urge you to prepare for any eventualities. If you live in the Detroit metro area…if you live in the Detroit metro area, I…We just got this word, we just got this update from the federal disaster agency FEMA, we have a brief from FEMA, and it urges Detroit residents who live west and north of Woodward Avenue to evacuate immediately to the north and west. Once again, FEMA urges residents of Detroit north and west of the city to flee in those directions. Those moving west are advised to head to the city of Dearborn, where the conference center is being turned into a shelter. Those going north should head for Flint; the old AutoWorld building is serving as a shelter there. Once again, the city of Detroit is apparently on fire, it is burning out of…and…just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, we…we have a feed from Detroit now, we have a helicopter in the air and…and…my goodness. Oh…oh, this is terrible. This is just…this is simply unbelievable. As you can see, the entire night sky above Detroit is just red; it’s just this scarlet hue from the fires below. This is like the great Chicago fire, maybe even bigger, more severe…this is…I…I’m like you at this moment, America, I just can’t believe it. We’re surely looking at one of the greatest disasters in American history right now, watching it unfold before us as…as…oh, dear. Detroit, my prayers and the prayers of the rest of the country are with you tonight.

Now…now I’m being told that we have a feed coming in…we have a new report coming to us, we have a camera crew in New Orleans, and that we…yes? Yes? Ready? Yes, we’re going to them now, and on the screen behind me you’ll see…

Hello?

Hello, Kyra? Can you hear me?

Yes, yes, I can hear. I can hear you, Dan.

Ladies and gentleman, from New Orleans, CNN correspondent Kyra Phillips. Kyra, what’s happening down there?

Dan, we’re here in the Lower Ninth Ward, and for the last hour…no, the last 90 minutes or so, there’s been some kind of…some kind of disturbance, not far from here, about half a mile – and…wait. Dan? There’s…static…I can’t…there…

What kind of disturbance, Kyra? Is it anything like the news we’re getting from Detroit and some of our major cities at this hour?

I…I can’t speak for other areas, our coverage here has been spotty at best and this area still hasn’t recovered fully from Hurricane Katrina. But this area, this disturbance…it’s made the locals here uncomfortable, mainly because of their memories of that storm. You see, most of the sounds we’re hearing, and over the last few minutes there’s been a significant…um, increase in the sounds…most of this disturbance is coming from the direction of an electrical substation, the same substation that provides power to the flood gates and pumps that hold back the waters of Lake Ponchartrain…this was one of the stations that failed during Katrina and…

Kyra, are you able to hear any—

I’m not sure…Dan…recept-- …not since 1996 have we…time…OH MY GOD!

Kyra! Kyra, what was that? I don’t know if you can hear me, but your feed is still live, we still have video and audio, can you describe what that sound was, why—

Oh my God, oh my God, what the fuck was that?!

Kyra, Kyra, can you tell us… can you hear me…

Oh, shit, shit, shit. Oh…oh, My God. Okay. Oooookay. Whew. I…I …Dan…Dan? Are you there? Dan? I can’t…what? What, Steve? No. No, I don’t. Okay. Yeah? Yeah, I should. Okay. Dan, I don’t know if you can still hear or see me –

Yes, Kyra, we still have your feed, although there’s some interference, some static—

...But we’re going to keep broadcasting in case you can. A few minutes ago there was a fresh burst of gunfire…automatic gunfire, quite loud, and it seemed…loud… Heavy, machine-gun type…extended time…and…there were other sounds, a squealing, bending, metallic…and just now, a few seconds ago, there was a loud explosion, a huge thud that we all felt as much as heard; I mean, this was close, it hurt my ears, they still hurt, that’s how close it was, we could feel the air move, the shockwave of the…the blast… and…over…quieter now…

Kyra? Kyra? We’re losing your signal, your signal is breaking up…we’ve lost the picture but can still hear your audio feed…

I…can hear car alarms…and then…what…Not sure what…water?

Kyra? Kyra, can you hear me?

…Pretty sure…oh my God. Oh, no. Oh, God, no. Not again.

Kyra, what is it? Can you hear me? What do you hear?

…Water. It’s the sound of water.

Kyra? Can you—

Hold on! Hold—

Kyra! Kyra? Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have…we seem to have lost…we seem to have lost our feed, our feed from the city of New Orleans. We’ll get to work on that, and bring you an update on the fire that seems raging out of control in Detroit. For now we urge you once again that if you can, we urge you to stay in your homes, stay in your homes and off the streets. We’ve had reports of confusion, and in some cases, downright chaos in the streets of several cites: Detroit, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and now apparently New Orleans among them, and believe me, right now, there’s no place safer than your own homes. I don’t think anybody knows what’s going…nobody knows…all right, all right, Doug. Okay. Right. Okay…

Ladies and gentlemen, at this time CNN is advising that the country, or at least several parts of it, is experiencing some sort of shared disaster, some kind of shared calamity, unlike anything in American history. It is surely bigger already than the events of 9/11, although we cannot say with any certainty that there is any kind of coordinated attack right now, but…but logic would tell us that this is more than a mere coincidence. We’ll try to bring you more information as it’s made available to us, we’re waiting for a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, and when that comes…available… we’ll… now…now there’s reports…here…and…Atlanta…and we’re able to bring… however long…sound? Hey! You! Get away from…the air…

Static.

The bright circle of light thrown by the Mag-Lites was blinding him.

Men, at least eight of them, standing over him, over the bed. Why were the lights still off? Their faces were blurry; he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He was still half-out of it from sleep, but he could sense their confusion, their sense of earnest apprehension… and fear…? As his thoughts swam into focus through the haze of sleep, he could hear their voices, and the voice of the man gripping his arm. It was low and hushed as he whispered orders to the men with him, then addressed the man they had just roused from slumber.

Turn those off! Yes! All of them. Keep it dark. And quiet! Sir? Sir, are you awake?”

“Jack? What the hell is going on?” the elder man barked crossly. Jack McCraddock, a tall man in his mid-40s, recoiled, his face a grimace, a raised finger over his lips. The entire scene was lit by a single flashlight, and even that was dim, for one of the men had most of it covered by the palm of his hand.

Shhh! Quiet, please. Quiet! There’s a problem, sir.”

What?” the elder man asked, now more quietly, but wary. And, for the first time, feeling the first twinge of his own fear.

“We’re not sure, it’s still too early. But we have to get you out of here. Now.”

We have to leave?” the man asked, his eyes shining in what little light there was.

Yes. And we have to leave, now. Right now.”

But, why?”

Because it isn’t safe here, Mr. President.

“Are you seein’ what I’m seein?” Luis Guzman asked the burly man behind the wheel of the police cruiser.

Officer Marcus Dingle (and don’t think he didn’t get teased about that name, oh, yes, he did! But only until he had his last growth spurt at the age of 17 and rocketed to a height of 6’5” and a weight of nearly 300 well-muscled pounds. After that, those kind of comments pretty much stopped) didn’t even turn his head to answer his partner of three years. “Umm…yeah.”

Silence filled the interior of the Crown Vic; even the pimp they had cuffed in the back fell silent as they all gazed at the vision in front of the car, illuminated by the bright headlights.

The tall industrial buildings of the city’s port district rose all around them, out of sight above the upper border of the windshield. The familiar, gassy whisps of steam issued from vents and grates at street level. The light played funny tricks in there, bouncing all around and making weird shadows. And, from out of this strange combination of steam and shadow, stepped a woman.

She was fairly tall, maybe 5’9” or 10”, and really leggy, she had a dynamite figure, like maybe an aerobics instructor or something. That would make sense; she was dressed for the part, in some kind of spandex-looking getup. She flipped her long blonde hair out of her eyes, stepped up to the front of the car, and smiled, waving at them playfully.

“Tell me she’s one of yours,” Guzman said to the pimp in the back. “Tell me you're shooting for the new ‘personal trainer’ fetish.”

“Naw, man,” the man nearly drooled around his numerous gold teeth. “She ain’t one of my girls. She too fine to be one o’ mine.”

The girl skipped around the car, and leaned down to Dingle’s eye level, bending at the waist, putting her considerable assets on display in a shameless motion. “Hello, officers,” she chirped. “Whom do you have in custody?

“Ma’am, we don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here,” Dingle rumbled, his voice deep, seemingly two octaves lower than one would have even suspected. “But we received a report of some kind of disturbance down here at the docks, and it isn’t safe to be here.”

“Isn’t safe?” she asked, frowning. “Looks safe enough. Believe me, I can take care of myself.”

“I don’t doubt it. But all the same, we’re asking you to head on home.”

“I would like to go home, officer, believe me. But right now I can’t. It’s a very long trip, and at the moment I haven’t the means to get there.”

Yesssss,” Dingle heard Guzman mutter.

‘Well, I’m sure we could arrange to take you home,” Dingle offered. “But with the suspect back here…”

“What did he do, officer?” she asked, looking over Dingle’s shoulder to gaze at the two-bit hood staring back at her. “Of what crime is he guilty?”

Dingle noticed then just how perfect this girl seemed to be. It was startling, really. Her hair looked like it was cast from the finest brushed bronze, her trim, athletic build put on perfect display by the strange, clingy white jumpsuit or uniform she wore. The curve of her hips, the line of her shoulder, the gentle arch of her eyebrows over her ice-blue eyes…

“Wh-what?” Dingle stammered as he shook himself awake.

She only smiled, like she had expected him to be distracted. “What did this man do?” she repeated softly, smiling.

Dingle shook his head in refusal, but Guzman piped up, anything to keep the conversation with her going a little linger.

“Lady, you’re looking at one of the busiest pimps in the city.”

Her brow furrowed in a questioning look. “Pimp?”

“You know, pimp? A hustler?”

“No. These terms are unfamiliar to me.”

“Jeez, where you from, lady?”

“Luis,” Dingle warned.

“What?”

“You wouldn’t know where I came from,” the woman answered matter-of-factly. “It is quite distant from here. But what…what is a, a ‘pimp?’”

“Jesus. You know, a pimp. He sells girls. He sells girls to men who pay for them, and then he takes the money.”

The woman’s eyes widened in genuine surprise. “He… he sells women? But for what purpose?”

“You don’t get out much, do you?”

“Humor me, please,” she asked, her eyes still wide in astonishment, but her tone darker.

“Men pay to…you know… be with the women. And he takes the money.”

The woman’s eyes widened further, her mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. “Do you mean to say that he…he…sells women…. for sexual favors? He sells them for sex?”

“Duh, yeah,” Guzman said, slightly annoyed, no matter how fine this woman appeared.

The blonde’s look of amazement froze for a few seconds, then shifted, quickly, and radically. Her brow fell low over her eyes, her mouth turned down in a snarl-like frown, nearly baring her teeth, and her hands clenched into fists at her sides. And for some unknown reason he couldn’t even come close to naming, the muscled hulk named Officer Marcus Dingle was actually afraid of her.

Without a word, the woman took two steps to her right to stand before the rear door of the cruiser. Her movements became too quick and too incredible for either of the officers – or the pimp, for that matter – to process fully or effectively.

With a flash of her arm, her fist punched out the window, spraying tiny chunks of safety glass all over the back seat of the cruiser.

“Hey! Hey hey hey!” the pimp began to stutter, trying to angle himself away from the shower of fragments.

The woman then used the same hand, her right, to seize the bottom border of the door’s window frame. She tensed her hand, and, unbelievable as it may have been to the occupants of the car, the steel of the door creaked loudly and crumpled around her fingers, as if it was made of a material no more substantial than tinfoil.

“Jesus – ” Guzman began. But his exclamation was never finished; with a casual-looking jerk of her right arm, the girl tore the entire door off of the police cruiser, the steel hinges shearing off with a metallic squeal. She threw the door over her shoulder, where it sailed away into the darkness, out of sight. In a flash, she ducked into the car, seized the neck of the pimp, and pulled him free of the vehicle.

Dingle’s eyes were round circles of shock. The girl had to be a gym freak after all. Maybe she was all hopped up on steroids or something. She had to be, because right now she held a full-grown man’s body two feet off the ground with just one arm, and it sure didn’t look like she was trying very hard.

“You dare to behave in such ways?” she snarled. “Do you think women so weak that you can use their very bodies to gain money?”

The pimp opened his mouth, but no sound emerged but a choked gagging sound, and a low, meaty crackle that Dingle was afraid might signal a collapsing vertebrae. He unsnapped his seat belt, hand falling to his hip before he could even get his door open.

“Uh, wait,” Guzman said, his face curiously blank as he stared out through the windshield. Dingle turned his gaze in the same direction.

A new shadow made its way toward them through the same haze of mist and darkness that the woman had stepped from. Something about it, about the way it moved made it somehow familiar to him, yet the size, the sheer mass of the thing…

“No,” Dingle said aloud.

The mist parted as another woman stepped to within an arm’s reach of the cruiser’s bumper. But she was as much like the first as Dingle himself was to his skinny partner.

The woman was massive. Even that word didn’t begin to do her titanic frame justice. The woman who stood before them simply looked like a huge hulking comic book character come to life. No person – male or female – has ever been built like this, Dingle thought.

She stood at least… she had to be at least… seven feet tall, Dingle figured, maybe more. The frigging woman was at least seven feet tall! Looked to be at least four feet wide at the shoulder, hell, maybe more, maybe five; she had to weigh 350, maybe 400 pounds. She wore tiny black shorts that gleamed in the twin beams of the cruiser’s headlights, and they left the huge swollen muscularity of her thighs bare for the world to see. Every muscle group was detailed in stark relief, the deep lines of definition and muscle striations plainly evident. Her abdomen was bare as well, her cartoonishly small waist a hard, gnarled mass of tensed abdominal muscles. Her barrel-like chest was covered by a shiny black stretch top, which left most of her upper chest bare; huge, balloon-like breasts tented the material outward, like volleyballs or even small beach balls mounted atop iron plates of flexed pectoral muscle. Her arms, bared by her sleeveless attire, hung massively to either side of her body. Her fingers flexed and opened, the tendons working visibly on the undersides of her enormous forearms. Her head, looking ridiculously small compared to her impossible body, sat atop a short, thick neck; her hair a crewcut, short platinum blonde affair. Her dark eyes were laser-steady on the two cops in the car.

And still, Dingle thought, she still looks like a woman. She’s…. she’s even kind of hot. Even with that body. She still looks like a woman, he thought in amazement.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” Guzman managed to choke out when he could speak. “Including a woman bigger than you.”

Guzman was being generous. Marc Dingle stood 6’5” and 300 pounds, and this woman wasn’t just bigger than him, she dwarfed him.

“I think we might be in big, big trouble,” Dingle whispered.

“I think— ” Guzman started, but was interrupted by a grinding, cracking sound, loud, and close. Dingle looked over his shoulder, and saw the pimp’s head slide backward until it hung loosely between his shoulder blades, and his feet stopped twitching.

Sonafabitch. She broke his neck.

“Oh, God!” Guzman shouted, “No!”

Dingle turned his vision forward once again, and saw the huge woman move with terrifying speed and grace. She took a single step forward (and he would have sworn he could feel a deep thud of her footfall even though his seat and through the suspension of the car), and with an expression somewhere between a snarl and bemusement, she arched her back, her gigantic, rippling arms went skyward. Her hands balled into fists the size of canned hams, huge knuckled affairs at the end of her impossible arms; every muscle flexed into swollen, engorged life, and she roared audibly, a deep, penetrating sound that spoke of her power yet somehow retained a quality that reflected her femininity. She arched her back, arms winding up, and then exploded downward with a fierce, deafening bellow, her hands pounding downward in twin hammers of death.

Game over, Dingle thought.

The hulking woman’s hands struck the cruiser’s hood halfway down its length. In a quarter second, the sheet metal collapsed, the engine was knocked free of the motor mounts, the suspension collapsed, and the frame of the car was driven down to – and three inches into – the rough asphalt below. The entire front end of the car flattened, then bent up around her driving fists. The back of the car rose, the tires coming off the ground; her strike had been so powerful that it actually bent the entire frame of the car in a slight ‘U’ shape.

Guzman was thrown into the dashboard with more than enough velocity to kill him. Dingle survived the first strike, his nose a dripping red tomato from where his face was driven into the steering wheel. He was dazed, but not so much that he couldn’t see the woman grin and thrust her massive arms out to either side. The ruined front of the car tore in half, splitting up to the passenger compartment like a log. It would only take a couple more pulls and she would be able to tear into the compartment, and, he suspected, himself as well.

Well…shit, he thought through the haze of his shock.

Just then a shadow fell across his shoulder. He had forgotten about the other one, the gorgeous blonde that had so easily killed the guy he had in custody. Goddamn it, he thought. What the hell is go

Darkness took him before he had time to move or speak.

The floodlights around the gargantuan processing plant seem to light the entire world in an unhealthy, glaring blue-white color, and Harold ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson hated it. He was around it so much, as the night shipping manager, that it seemed to illuminate everything he saw, even during the day.

Man was not meant to live under artificial lighting, he thought to himself. Or to push pencils all day.

As personally unrewarding he might have grown to see his position, it provided him with the means to keep his wife and kids housed and fed, and gave them a healthy start on Kevin’s college fund. So he stuck with it, keeping the trains…and trucks…and planes…and barges…running on time.

The plant Hutch supervised 5 nights a week was the largest single Con-Agra plant in the country. It was nestled where several major conduits met: The mighty Mississippi, where enormous barges brought wheat in great golden piles too high to fully comprehend; the largest CSX East-West junction, for shipping material of great weight in great quantities, and the McLachy-Turner Interstate Spur, which led to I-80, one of the biggest shipping truck routes in the country. Hundreds of tons of food passed through the plant daily: chicken, tuna, wheat, beef, pork, potatoes, fruit, you name it. It was sorted, classed, inspected, prepared, sometimes even irradiated, right on site. Then it was divided up and packaged, again, right on site, under what was, in principle anyway, one roof. Then the prepared material went out again, to be loaded on still more barges, more trains, more trucks, under several hundred different name brands, headed to stores. Nearly a third of the food was shipped directly to wholesalers, who would go on to ship the food to various outlets, like fast food chains.

All told, nearly 35% of all the food in the continental United States passed through this plant at some point on its way to the American – and global, for that matter – dinner table. It was an undertaking of truly mind-boggling proportion, and it ran fairly smoothly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Until tonight.

Hutch sighed. Karen was sick, and when she came down with something, it was only a matter of time before he came down with it too. Yep. Any day now, he would get feeling pretty bad, too.

“1 truck, 1 shipping container,” a tinny voice crackled over the radio. “ADE Trucking, gross…1-3-5-4-0 pounds. That’s a little light, guys, according to the lading info, isn’t it Lady?”

Hutch heard Billy Gorman’s voice on the box as the younger man addressed the driver at the check-in at the east gate, and two things struck him: one, the truck was light, far lighter than what was on the bill of lading, and that Billy had referred to the driver as ‘lady.’ Sure, they saw female drivers from time to time, but not many, never more than a couple per day. But today, it was different; there had been literally dozens of female drivers that day.

“Another skirt, hmm?” Hutch said softly into his mic, and heard Billy snort on the other end a little.

‘That’s an affirmative, control,” Billy’s voice came back on the little speaker.

“Well? Is she wheat or chaff?” Hutch asked reflexively. It was their little code for female drivers, who, usually, were not the most photogenic examples of womanhood.

“That’s wheat, control. I’d say it’s major, major wheat,” Billy muttered into the mic softly.

“Well, that’s interesting,” Hutch said aloud to no one. He was alone in the control room, high atop the tallest building in the gray cluster of the plant’s structures. Although, even from this height, his view of the east gate was blocked by the roofs of nearby buildings, and, in the distance around where the gate would be, he could see only the tall, thick shapes of elevated water tanks. “Billy, I’d check it.”

“Seriously?” the disappointment was evident in his tone.

“It’ s off by three tons. That’s a lot. Besides, it’ll give you a chance to check out Hottie McDrives-A-Lot.” Hutch sighed, pulled out the correct inspection form, and sat down, his feet up on the desk in front of him.

“Okay, control. Whatever you say. Ma’am? Hi there. Yes, could you pull into that area right there? Right, that yellow area right there? Yeah, we’re going to have to check your load, ma’am. Right. Thank you.” Then, lower, “Thanks a lot, jerkoff. Now she’s pissed.”

“What’d she say?”

“Nothing, but I can tell. Jeezus. She’s fine, but she could freeze beer with those eyes,” Billy’s voice echoed tinnily on the radio. Under his voice, Hutch could hear the truck pull away, and then the distinctive sounds of air brakes as the truck stopped in the yellow zone.

“Ready, control.”

“3117563,” hutch read the number off the top of his form, and waited as Billy, nearly a mile away at the east gate, copied this number down on the top of his corresponding form.

“Ready, control.”

“Open her up,” Hutch advised, and smirked to himself a bit. “But be nice about it.”

“Sure thing control, whatever you say. Ma’am, if you could, could you open up the container please, now? Right. Okay. Thanks. Just a second, control.” A pause.

A long pause.

Silence.

“East gate?”

Silence.

Uh, Billy, what’s going on down there? Did you…”

“Hey, control?” The tone of Billy’s voice was changed; it was tense, now, and hard.

“Yeah?”

“Better send somebody down here,” Billy said, and now the tension in his voice was greater. Even talking to him at this distance, through a radio, Hutch could hear the unsettled quality of the young man’s voice. He sounded ruffled. Unsure.

Scared?

Hutch put his feet down, and pulled the Motorola handset closer to him. Ever since 9/11, the plant had a security force, but it was small, and there was no telling how long it would take them to get to the east gate. “Billy? What’s up?”

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t a truck full of chicken,” Billy informed him.

“Well, what is it, then, Billy?”

“It’s…it’s a truck…full of girls.”

“What?!?”

“You heard me. It’s full of…girls. Dozens of ‘em.”

“But…what?.... Is this a joke, Bill?”

“If it is, I’m not in on it. Ummm…ladies, we’re going to have to…um…run this past some people in the office, and uh…. no, I don’t think…. ma’am, if you could just sit down for a moment, we’ll have somebody…. hey, control?”

“Yeah, Billy?”

“Control, get somebody down here please? There’s…I…hey! Hey, no. Ma’am, please sit down, please go back and…hey! Hey! You…. Guh!”

Hutch eyes darted back and forth as he strained to hear was coming across the radio; Billy’s voice, growing more agitated, a quiet, rough sound, like something scraping across something, Billy’s warning, and then a guttural, grunting sound. Billy?

Hutch raised the Motorola walkie to his mouth and pressed the ‘send’ button. How the hell was he going to report this to the plant’s security force? Seize unknown truck carrying women into plant?

He never got the chance.

The entire office thumped, the deep reverberations coming through the very floor, every window in the place rattled in its frame.

“What the hell?...” Hutch began, and spun in his chair to face the windows. He heard a faint, high-pitched shriek, his college days as a welder’s apprentice reminded him what was causing it: it was the sound of shearing metal.

Slowly, in the distance, he saw one of the enormous water holding towers shudder, tilt oddly to one side, and then, with the strange slowness imparted by great size and distance, saw it topple down, out of sight behind the roof of the building next door. Another huge THUD shook the grounds of the plant. He raised the walkie once more, eyes wide, but someone beat him to it; in the distance Hutch could hear the warble of a siren cycle up to its distinctive wail.

Another thudding sound, bigger, deeper. Closer.

“Control, control! This is Abrams in F120. We’ve got a fire in here?” the radio crackled, Abrams’ voice dripping with the first signs of panic. “We’ve got to get everybody out!”

Hutch watched with shock as the different channels of the radio came alive; safeguard after safeguard tripping, all at the same time.

What the hell was going on?

Less than thirty seconds after FBI Special Agent Jennifer Carnes’ head hit her pillow, she sat back up, her head cocked to one side.

Through her open window, she could hear the distinctive high, long wail of the air-raid siren. Memories of her midwestern childhood rose to the surface of her mind; and a tiny, irrational part of her brain, still aged 9 years, shouted ‘Tornado!’

But this was Baltimore, and she knew better. She swung her legs out of the bed, and flipped on the small flat screen on the top shelf of her armoire. Static. She frowned, now officially concerned, and picked up the phone to call the office. No dial tone. She grabbed her cell phone and clicked the side button to light up the front display. No bars.

Damn. Damn damn damn, she thought.

Seven minutes later, she was dressed and back in her car, heading back to the Baltimore field office, desperately scanning both FM and AM radio bands…

…And finding only silence.

The sun was would be up soon, the first faint glow of it was visible to the east, just beyond the darkened silhouette of Big Ben. But for the eight uniformed policemen laying on the cold, hard cobblestones of the alley, their limbs at strange and unnatural angles, it didn’t matter. They had already seen their last sunrise.

“Do it!” the larger of the two women snarled, her expression and body language that of a warrior caught in the middle of a battle. Her tall frame was crouched in a half-squat, her fingers splayed into claws. Her hands were coated in a sticky crimson film; none of the blood on her hands was her own. One of her heeled feet still rested on the throat of one of the Bobbies; his face a frozen look of shock. “Do it now!” she hissed.

The smaller woman, who was at least 6 inches shorter than the other, and obviously younger, returned the other’s gaze with a nakedly worried expression, her eyebrows raised, questioning. Her hair was drawn back in a brown ponytail, the black cocktail dress clinging to her frame. She looked, in fact, as if she were on the verge of tears.

Kill him!” the first woman snarled, her face a mask of fury, her lips pulled back from her tightly clenched teeth. Even in the half-light of the burgeoning dawn, her height, her full, voluptuous build, and the terrifying savagery of her tone would have struck any observer there.

A soft, gurgling cry sounded to her right, and the younger, slimmer woman turned her clearly troubled eyes to look at the man she held two feet off the ground. Her fist held a wad of his dark blue uniform in an underhanded grip; she powered her hold on him a little, her substantial bicep swelling, the muscles of her shoulder working under the alabaster skin. The man hitched in another breath, but did not move. A thin trickle of blood and a more ominous watery fluid ran from his left ear. Even still, the man was alive, and he shouldn’t be.

The larger woman became more outwardly calm, but her lips were still bowed up slightly in the hint of a snarl. Somehow, her change to a more sedate state made her seem even more dangerous than before.

“Charlotte,” she said, softly, her full voice strangely melodious, and the longer she spoke, the less her faux British accent was apparent. “You must kill him. Now. That…. is an order.”

A tear formed in the corner of the smaller woman’s eye. “I…I…” her voice was softer, higher, more girlish than the first. At this moment, she looked to be no more than 20, even though she was close to twice that age. “Susanna…I…I can’t.”

Susanna’s gaze was oddly flat, dangerous. Unwavering. Her stare bored into Charlotte’s until the younger girl had to look away; she cast her eyes down to the street.

“You realize…You know that I’m a full captain, yes?” Susanna said slowly. “I took all seven of these other pigs. I’ve ordered you to take just one. Do you mean to refuse?”

Charlotte didn’t speak, she simply nodded, her gaze still cast earthward.

Susanne stepped over the bodies strewn across the alley, her long legs taking her to stand aside the man suspended from Charlotte’s apparently unsure, but rock steady, grasp.

Unngghh… pl… please,” the man choked weakly, his eyes unfocused. One arm stirred as if he thought to raise it, and found he couldn’t.

In a sudden flash of lethal movement, Susanna lashed out, her closed fist crashing square into the man’s face with savage, bone-crushing power; the sound was a heavy THUD mixed with the sound of cracking bone. The man’s face collapsed, the front of his skull a dished-in, pulverized mess. The collar of his uniform, a thick woven cotton that made up his department topcoat, tore slightly where Charlotte held it in her iron grip, and his body sagged a few inches, now a just another broken, crushed body to dress the street with.

Charlotte’s head drooped a little as well, her shoulders dropping in obvious distress, a movement that spoke of defeat. She slowly lowered the battered body to the ground, kneeling briefly to lay the man down with care that even bordered on tenderness. A single drop of moisture gathered in her left eye, swelled, then spilled down her curved cheek to fall the stone street below. She sighed once, twice, quietly, and then stood, her gaze still lowered as Susanna stepped before her.

“You have elected to refuse the direct order of your superior. You have betrayed the trust of your sisters…and of your Queen.”

Charlotte winced at this last, as if struck. More tears, maybe these for herself, began to form in her eyes.

“You know the penalty for incompetence. You know the penalty for defiance.”

Charlotte nodded weakly.

Susanna’s fingertips closed on Charlotte’s chin, and gently – how gentle her touch could be, and yet so horrible, Charlotte thought – turned her face up to meet her own gaze. Susanna’s expression was of one of furious anger mixed with equal parts of regret and resignation.

“Your shame is your own,” Susanna said, her voice strained as she struggled to contain her emotions. “It will not be mine.”

Charlotte nodded, tears spilling freely down her face now, her eyes and mouth crumpled sadly as she fought back her despair.

Susanna brushed back some stray hairs from Charlotte’s face with her left hand. She was a warrior born, with four or five times the strength Charlotte possessed, yet now her touch was gentle as it whispered along the younger girl’s cheek. Susanna bowed her head just enough to kiss her, their lips meeting briefly. Charlotte closed her eyes, kissed her commander – and lover – back, quickly but with feeling, and waited, blankly, expectant.

Susanna drew Charlotte’s body closer, roughly, and closed her arms around the younger girl’s arms and body. She powered the bearhug down, hard, fast, and she could feel Charlotte’s body first resist, then begin to falter.

Charlotte’s breath whooshed out of her lungs, and Susanna’s grasp kept her from drawing another. Her mouth opened, desperately gasping, working, but no air was to come. Her eyes fell upon Susanna, who, until the past few weeks, had been first her sister, then her teacher, and finally her superior, and who now gazed back at her with a flat, icy stare of indifference. Charlotte’s eyes were wide, disbelieving even though on some level she knew that this had to be her fate.  Something deep and fundamental in Charlotte’s torso gave under the pressure and shifted with a muted crack and she uttered a soft, choked whimper. Susanna lips neared Charlotte’s ear.

“Be at peace, sister,” she whispered, and only her voice, thick and remorseful, showed any emotion at all.

She powered down even more, and a slow, soft grinding crackle began deep inside Charlotte’s chest. Susanne could feel her own form swelling, getting bigger, thicker, harder, as bore down on the younger girl, her own chest filling with her breath even as it pushed into Charlotte’s and drove hers out. Charlotte’s feet came off the ground, slowly, and Susanna gripped her with her left arm harder than ever; her right forearm crept up, her hand relaxing, her fingertips probing, searching. Finally, they found it; a tiny, hard nub at the base of the skull, where the cranium was attached to the neck, a small bony protrusion on the first cervical vertebra. Susanna’s first two fingers and thumb seized on it with unknowable force, like a hydraulic steel clamp. With a tiny, quick pulling, twisting motion, she torqued the joint; a low, meaty POP was the only sound.

Charlotte’s low, almost involuntary grunting stopped suddenly; her body went rigid, as if struck by lightning. Her entire form twitched once, massively, paused, and then twice more, then grew slack and still. Her eyes grew wider than ever, as if in amazement, as if she could actually see oblivion rushing at her. Maybe she can, Susanna thought sadly. Then, in only a few seconds, it was over. Charlotte’s eyes grew still, unfocused…and then glassy as the last life left her body.

Susanne knelt, laying Charlotte’s body on the ground. She retrieved her brown leather purse, a leftover from the ridiculous call girl disguise that she and her ward had used earlier that evening, and placed it under the younger girl’s head. With infinite care she crossed Charlotte’s hands across her chest and straightened the girl’s dress. When she was done, she knelt beside the body, her head bowed, and whispered to herself so softly that only someone standing next to her would have heard:

When the last of my days have come, and the last of my deeds done,

May I have half the peace of this scene.

For now I fight with staff and rod, as long as it please the Gods,

In loyal service to my Queen.

“Farewell, my sis—”

A black and white van, screeched to a halt at the mouth of the alley, its sirens wailing. The doors opened, and half a dozen policemen spilled out onto the street, where they drew their clubs and sprinted in her direction.

Susanna rose to her feet, her hands slowly curling into fists at her side. In mere seconds, she could feel her regret and sadness drop away from her entirely; it was instantly replaced by the burning, singing bloodlust of battle and fury, the nearly mindless desire to hunt, maim, and kill. She crouched low, the muscles of her considerable build thrumming, singing, her arms bowed out, her hips dropping, her legs bending down into a crouch, ready to pounce on the first man who was foolish enough to come within her reach.

“So be it,” she growled.

And smiled.

Basir Al-Salaam was one of the richest men in Cairo. The vast fortunes he had amassed from his international arms sales had made him one of the most feared men in the region, although he, like many of his ilk, had mistaken that fear for respect. Except he, unlike his competition, had enough foresight to employ the greatest book fixers in the modern era. While his activities were widely known to agencies like Interpol, they were entirely unable to track the path of his money coming in. Instead, they were able only to track the funds going out; much to the dismay of scores of law enforcement officials, his expertly laundered money was invested in legitimate pursuits; a new form of genetically engineered corn, several types of techniques for ethanol production, and even an endowment for the arts, a rare thing for a man of his ethnicity. In fact, the closest thing to an arms deal they could link him with was his investment in Cytech Industries, a science think-tank with offices in the American Southwest and Northeast, that did occasional contract work for the U.S. military. As far as arms connections go, it was a flimsy lead.

But none of this was on Basir’s mind as he drank the sweet amber colored liquid from the tall glass in his hand. For now, in the middle of the night, his attention was elsewhere.

The room was dark, lit only by a number of candles, the thick tallow of each pooling around the base as they burned down. Basir himself sat on the floor, atop a Turkish rug that cost more than the yearly income of all the street vendors outside combined. He leaned backward, his back braced by the heavy rolled pillow. A thin haze of smoke hung in the air; the tobacco of his hookah was laced with a pinch of opium, and the combination of the smoke and drink should have made Basir content, satisfied, maybe even a little sleepy. But it hadn’t happened. For now, he sat on the rug, comfortable, but enraptured: the sound of the music washed over him, and the vision of the dancing girl before him had struck all sense from his mind.

She was dressed in red, vaguely resembling the appearance of harem dancers in Hollywood films of the 1950s. She had begun in a full-length robe, nearly shroud-like, spun of silk-like fabric that seemed to hold the dim light of the candles. But that was some time ago, and piece by intoxicating piece, the outfit had come off in stages. It wasn’t in the disgusting, sordid fashion so popular in Western countries, no; here, it was long, slow, and delicate. First, the pulsing throb of the music. Then, as the notes swirled up in a blast of traditional music, the robe fell; revealing more crimson material, but now cut to hug the form beneath more closely, to reveal the woman beneath in layers, one piece at a time. Next, the sash from her waist, revealing the first hint of skin; a firm, taut abdomen; a ruby ringed by gold in the small recess of her belly button, the facets of the scarlet jewel caught the light and reflected it back to Basir in a flood of prismatic color. And all the while, the blood-colored veil swished gently from side to side as she moved, and only her eyes – dark, wet, heavily made-up – were visible to him, the only thing that truly mattered. They seemed to speak to him, to hold him with some strange power. He wasn’t even aware that he had handed over his free will, such was her power over him.       Nearly an hour later, when the recorded music had finished and the stereo hidden in the dark reaches of the room had fallen silent, she turned to face him. She stood before him, proud and unafraid. Only the veil and the thin, semi-transparent loose pants remained; the rest of her attire had been strewn about the room in the throes of dance. The ruby glittered at him, matched only by the reflective charms on her necklace, forming a traditional gold motif. Her body itself was bare, her appearance a perfect representation of womanhood, easily the best female body Basir had ever seen. And her eyes…she stood nearly naked before him, there should have been some level of embarrassment, of self-conscious concern…and there wasn’t. She stood, legs slightly apart, one foot extended, toes downward, arms at her sides, relaxed, her chest thrust out proudly, nipples stiff, whether from the cool of the night air or excitement, Basir wasn’t sure. And the entire time, her eyes, like dark wet pools of limitless depth, caught him, and held him.

Silently, she stepped forward, moving with unnatural grace. She stood astride his sitting form, and those eyes held him with their power. “Basir,” she said, and it was not a question.

“Yes,” he whispered.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, she reached up with one delicate hand to remove her veil. It swung away from her face, revealing her full beauty to him for the first time. Basir actually gasped when she turned her full gaze toward him once more. Her lips, a scarlet matching the jewel in her belly, parted, her sweet breath entrancing him further, if that was possible. She knelt on top of him, her weight surprising, and not unpleasant.

You’re mine,” she said in his native language. Again, it was not a question.

Yes,” he said so softly it was nearly inaudible. Her lips rose again in a slow smile.

It was three days before the smell brought some inquisitive visitors from the street inside the ancient stone building, where they found Basir, his body a ghastly horror of abuse. They also found four of his bodyguards, some exquisite tobacco, and a stack of women’s bedroom attire neatly folded beside the bodies.

“Sir, we’ve got to get you out of here,” Jack McCraddock hissed, and in the confusion of being awakened in the dark, President James. P. Hargrove’s stomach did a gentle flip-flop when he saw that most of the Secret Service agents standing around his bed had drawn their sidearms.

“What is it?” Hargrove asked as he pulled on a pair of slippers, his hands searching the nightstand for his trademark low, rectangular glasses. “Is is Pakistan again? Is it…oh, no, it isn’t India, is it?” he asked.

“Right now, we really don’t know, sir,” Jack said suddenly. “It seems that something is happening, now, right now, in several places. It seems that there’s some kind of coordinated series of strikes.”

“On us?” the President asked, now shocked fully awake. He had put on a robe and was tying the belt, but now he paused. “Are we under attack?”

“Yes, Mr. President. But not only us, it looks bigger than that.”

“What?”

“Sir, we really have to move now, please sir, if you could please…”

“Jimmy?” Etta, her voice thick with sleep.

“Etta, dear, there’s something going on and I…”

“Sir, please, we need to go…”

Another agent, a young black man, tugged at McCraddock’s elbow and whispered into his ear.

“What?! Are you sure?”

“What is it, Jack?”

“Jimmy, what is it?”

“Okay, we go with Marine One, then.”

“Jack! You need to talk—”

A muffled thud, moderately distant, reverberated through the floor, the distant rumble sounding like a brief thunder. Several of the agents swore aloud.

“Now!” McCraddock cried. “Service agents, we are LEAVING!” he roared, and pulled the President roughly toward him.

“Etta!” Hargrove cried, his hand extended to his wife, who sat up in the bed, her face betraying her creeping terror.

“Mike, Tony!” McCraddock cried, and pointed at the bed. “You’re her detail. Take the armored car! Get her there!”

“Yes, sir!” Two of the agents hustled to her bedside and helped her swing her feet to the floor.

“Wait! What the devil is going on?” Hargrove demanded. “Can you just tell me that and then we can…”

Another rumble sounded, the floor shook again, this time more severely. Whatever it was, it was getting closer.

‘Sir, we’re leaving, now!” McCraddock cried, and he drew his .45 as the six agents pulled the president toward the door.

The twin oak doors burst open, and a woman stepped in, another Secret Service agent normally assigned to the First Lady’s detail, a small, petite redhead named Lisa Barrow. She wore a suit resembling McCraddock’s, only tailored for a smaller female frame. Her eyes blazed behind her fashionable, Sarah Palin-esque glasses, her pistol at arm’s length, pointed toward the floor, her trigger finger extended along the side of the gun in a classic ‘at ready’ stance.

“Jack!” she cried. “Thank God! We’ve got to get the Pres—”

McCraddock raised his hand without hesitation and shot her through the forehead; a neat hole appeared in her forehead while a blast of red mist exploded onto the door behind her. Her expression of shock didn’t change as she slid to the floor, and the shrill screams of the First Lady seemed to go on and on.

“Sweet Jesus Christ!” the President roared. “Jack, what the bloody hell—”

McCraddock shoved him roughly into the hall, where he and the other 5 men formed a protective bubble around the man elected to lead the country.

Oh, sweet Jesus, Hargrove thought to himself as they stepped over Barrow’s body. Blood was not unfamiliar to this man; unlike the string of recent presidents, Hargrove had served in the military and had seen his fair share of combat in Vietnam. He had seen his brothers in arms die bloody, and at the time had even grown cold and callous about it, as they all did, as anyone would have – you have to, to survive in that situation. But here? In the White House? And now? And why her? Why Lisa Barrow? He and Etta had liked her, and had even discussed arranging a ‘chance’ meeting between Barrow and their youngest son, as soon as he was out of medical school, after Hargrove’s first term was over. And now she lay on the floor of a White House bedroom, with a significant portion of her head decorating the door.

Another rumble, another shake, this one quite loud. And close, too; the hallway grew brighter as light gushed in through the window at the end of the hall. The hallway was a mass of rushing bodies, it was nearly impossible to make heads or tails as staffs, escorts, security personnel, and aides scrambled about, screaming.

“Sir, this way!” McCraddock yelled, and tugged at the robe. The six agents barreled down the hall, knocking everyone in their path aside roughly. Hargrove did his best to keep up, trying to move while staying hunkered down, and, oddly, he laughed out loud as he was compelled to speak to those being pushed aside.

“Excuse me, pardon me,” he chanted loudly. “Coming through.”

“Down hallway, make a hole!” McCraddock shouted. “Lancer on the move,” he barked into the microphone clipped into the cuff of his jacket.

A chorus of cries, screams really, came to them from the opposite end of the hall. Hargrove and the agents paused, just for a moment, while another pounding blast, this one quite close, close enough to hear shrapnel and dirt hit the windows, sounded from outside. The hallway was lit once more in a harsh yellow-orange light; and for a second, Hargrove could see the silhouetted figures at the end of the hall. It was hard to make out, but…what the devil? What was that?

“Go! Go! Go!” Jack cried, and with a final rush, the six agents were able to shield their charge and direct their motion enough to reach the elevator at the end of the hall. The door slid open and the group of men tumbled through it, collapsing into a shuddering heap as the steel door slid shut with a quick, quiet shushhh of hissing hydraulics.

“What was that?” Hargrove asked, his eyes wide. “Who were those people?”

McCraddock didn’t answer, only checked his pistol. He ejected the magazine, inspected it grimly. Put it back. Cocked it.

“There were people…in the air. They were throwing…people? Did I see that?” Hargrove asked.

“I’m not sure, sir. All I know is that we have to get you out of here, no matter what.”

“Barrow…you…you shot…”

“Sir, we couldn’t take the chance.”

“Chance? What chance? What are you talking about?”

“Sir, I’m sure you’ll be briefed later, and we don’t have time right now to…”

“My wife—”

“Mike and Tony will get her to Mount Weather, sir.”

“Mount Weather?!”

“It’s the safest place we could find quickly, sir. Right now you, your wife, the Speaker, and SecDef are being evacuated there.”

“What about Cooper?”

“The last I heard he was still being located. Glacier’s a big park, sir. But they’ll find him.”

“Good God. I’ll feel a lot better when I know what’s going on.”

“Sir, when we hit the ground floor, we have to leave here running. Can you manage it?”

“I was charging through rice patties before you born, Jack. With a 70 pound pack and an M-16.”

“Yes, Mister President, and I’m 44. It’s not like it was last week.”

“I’ll still mop the floor with ya, you little punk,” Hargrove grinned humorlessly. “Say the word.”

“That’s what I like to hear, sir. We exit out the quad doors, then down the steps, across the south lawn. Marine One’s waiting.”

“Marine One?”

“Normally we’d use Andrews, but it isn’t safe, so the best thing to do is get you into the air right away.”

“All right.”

The elevator car thumped to the ground level, and McCraddock held his thumb to the ‘close door’ button.

“I guess it’s time, Mr. President.”

“All right, Jack. Thank you for what you’ve done so far gentlemen, and whatever you may still have to do.”

The circle of men around him simply nodded, tense, and at the ready.

“Give the word, sir?” Jack asked, looking back at the man he swore to protect with his life, if necessary. Somewhere, he found the peace of mind to offer an agreeable wink.

The President nodded, somehow managing to look hale, hearty, and nearly even regal as he crouched slowly into a ready position, a man in slippers and a bathrobe who was had turned 70 only a few weeks before. He even grinned a little, and Jack felt a flush of patriotic affection. That’s why I do this job, he thought, and nodded.

Hargrove nodded back, his heart galloping in his chest. He felt younger than he had years. But, if only Etta was here, now.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Hargrove made it to the chopper. So did McCraddock. But three men in the detail did not.

No one knows which side fired first. In the end, it probably didn’t matter. All anyone knows is that, for some reason, somehow, sentries on either side of the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from its southern cousin fell suddenly and ominously silent at 12:01 Eastern Standard Time, and then people on both sides started shooting.

By 8 a.m., tanks were moving.

Nice ass, Larry thought to himself.

The girl waved him goodbye, one of the cigarettes she had just purchased dangling from her full, pouty lips. He even winked at him – his heart fluttered a bit at this – and then turned, pushing the door of the convenience store open, then stepping out into the night. Larry craned his neck around the register and the lotto display to watch her go, that amazing can on display in those tight jeans, swishing this way and that in a walk that was half strut, half catwalk.

Damn.

“Damn,” a voice said.

Larry jumped a bit, wondering if he had accidentally spoken aloud. But he hadn’t; the phrase had come from the next man in line, middle-aged guy whose head had tilted a full 45 degrees to watch the young woman leave. “Damn,” he said again, shaking his head appreciatively.

“Wasn’t that somethin’?” Larry asked agreeably. “We don’t get too many in here like that.”

“No kidding,” the man replied, setting a 6-pack of Rolling Rock down onto the counter. “I think…well…. yeah. Yeah, I’d say she was about the most beautiful young thing I’ve ever seen in this old life. Least since I was in school, up in Hartford.”

“Yeah, well, glory days and all that,” Larry said, lapsing into his ‘guy talk’ mode. He half turned to his left, his left hand automatically going to the stack of bags hanging from a hook. “If I had to keep a list…”

“What the hell?”

The customer’s exclamation caught Larry off guard. He could hear the sudden tenseness, the dawning alarm in the man’s voice. He glanced up at the man, and saw the customer was still watching the girl through the store’s glass door. He turned to follow the man’s gaze.

The girl was doing something to one of the gas pumps outside.

As Larry watched, she kind of set her feet a little, squatted, and put her arms around the metal rectangle that housed the pump.

“What the hell…” Larry echoed, his brow knit in a confused expression.

Then with a quick twisting motion at the waist, the girl pivoted. The metal frame of the pump squished in the middle, like it was a big toothpaste tube. When she jerked, the girl tore it free of its bolted moorings. Then she stood, explosively, her arms still wrapped around the pump.

Even inside, and at this distance, the two men could hear the squeal of tortured metal as she ripped the pump free. Larry winced; he was involuntarily ready for the big ball of orange flame. It didn’t come. He ran to the door, his eyes wide.

Gasoline gushed form the torn piping in three great amber floods, pooling quickly around the concrete filling station island. The mangled pump was on its side, ten feet away. The girl was walking away, her back to the store.

“Fuck!” Larry shouted, and shot through the door, out into the store’s parking lot. The customer, alone at the register, simply stared, confused, his head turning. His gaze fell to the series of red switches on the wall behind the counter. It was the bank of master switched for the pumps, and they were all on.

“Goddamn you!” Larry shouted. “What are you doing?” he yelled as he trotted across the concrete. “Look at this! What did you do to my pumps? How did you do…” his eyes went wide.

The woman, now nearly to the edge of the concrete, casually flipped something over her shoulder, the way an adult would flip a coin to a kid. Larry’s eyes traveled up to where something glittered in the air above him, above the deep amber pool of fragrant gas, above the gushing remains of the pump. Larry could see it, clearly, and almost as if it was in slow motion.

It was a silver Zippo lighter, its wick burning with a small yellow flame.

Instinct took over. His eyes and brain measured its flight. His heart nearly stopped. Without hesitation, he leapt forward through the air, his body extending, his right hand flying out in front of him. His high school track coach would have been proud; it would have been his best long jump ever. His shadow, cast by the harsh glare of the streetlights, tracked below him as he sailed horizontally over the brown liquid. And all the while, his brain followed the events in that same slow motion, his eyes were fixed on the falling lighter. He grimaced, it was ahead of him still; even with his great leap, it wasn’t going to be enough; his lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl, he growled aloud as he reached, he put everything he had into getting his right hand as far forward as he could; at the last second he stretched out his hand, and his fingertips actually touched the smooth, brushed steel of the lighter…

…As it fell past his hand.

People asleep in their beds ten miles away were awakened by the sound.

No one knows who was responsible. But the order was given, and once it was given, it could not have been rescinded.

Shortly past 0430 hours, a squadron of B-52 bombers took to the skies over the Aleutian islands, their extra wing-carried fuel tanks full, their bellies fat with lethal devices the size of school desks. Just short of 0500 hours they passed into Russian airspace, and engaged a number of Russian attack aircraft. While the MIGs were far faster and incredibly nimble in the night sky, the electronic countermeasures of the American planes were superior to anything the Russians had developed, and the three B-52s that had escaped the melee climbed into a protective layer of cloud, their radar position covered by wave after wave of silver metallic chaff. The remaining MIGs patrolled the skies until their fuel was spent and the pilots had to ditch in the frigid waters below. The 52s continued on their pre-assigned path, on their pre-assigned task.

At 6:47 a.m., the Russian city of Vladivolstock ceased to exist.

At 8.02 a.m., Mount Rainer was illuminated by two suns: one from the east, the other from the white-hot coastal basin that was once Seattle.

Just after midnight, nearly every person in America that was still awake picked up their telephone and tried to call a member of their family. Judith McConnell of Daytona Beach, Florida tried to call her estranged husband, who still lived in suburban Detroit. All she got when she dialed the number was some kind of strange beeping tone. When she hung up to try again, she didn’t even get a dial tone. Burton Wallace of Springfield, Illinois went straight to his cell phone to call his youngest daughter, Cindy, who worked as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, and was traveling to Hawaii on business.

“All circuits are busy,” a computerized voice informed him. “Please try your call again later. Thank you for choosing Verizon Wireless.” He kept trying until daybreak, until the battery on his phone went dead. His call never went though. Doretta Parks, an elderly woman in San Francisco, tried to get in touch with her son, a young black man who worked for the Secret Service. She was unsuccessful. The sudden, nearly incomprehensible load on the Earth’s communication systems was simply far too great for anything to work as it should. To add to the disaster, several key tower centers, cell phone call distribution centers, and even a number of power plants seemed to fall ominously silent just after midnight, decreasing the level of efficiency even further. In fact, only a few select people, in mostly rural areas, were able to place a call, and even then, it was only fairly early on that night. By two o’clock a.m., the only calls completed were between people using expensive, rugged satellite phones. But by 3 a.m., even they had stopped working. No one described here in any detail was able to place a call that night at all. And after 3:00, no one else, anywhere, did either.

Neither did people from every state in the union. Or Canada. Or the United Kingdom. Or France. Or Russia. Or Australia. Or the West Indies. Or Singapore. Or India. Or Norway. Or Hungary. Or Peru.

Robbed of the most basic communications device in the home, most people with cable and satellite connectivity tried the next best thing, and opened their email boxes on their computers. The entire internet crashed at 3:12 a.m., and for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell spoke into a crude but serviceable prototype of an invention called the telephone, the world went completely, eerily silent.

XVII

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

I don’t remember how long I sat on the edge of the bed, exactly. I just know it went on for a while.

The reports were nearly almost the same, across the whole spectrum. Unknown this, unconfirmed that, blah blah blah. Too bad I wasn’t a talking head for CNN or MSNBC, I could have clued everybody in pretty quick, as unbelievable as the story was turning out to be.

One reporter would talk about some far-flung late-breaking news story, and then the coverage would switch to something else, some kind of disturbance closer to home. Lastly, the big-name reporter in charge of the program would wonder aloud if somehow all of these events were connected somehow, that maybe – and then the screen would go to furious dancing black and white pixels of static. A switch to another network, another ‘this just in’ type of interruption, and then…more static. Credit was due to one local news network, however; they actually managed to get a report out that revealed authorities were searching for ‘a trio of college-age women’ that were wanted in connection with a late-night crime spree. Then they too, fell to static.

After about three hours of this, I clicked the ‘off’ button on the TV’s remote, and silence filled the room. Cassie sat behind me, her back leaning against the headboard of the bed. I didn’t look, but I could feel her looking at me, I could sense her gaze practically boring two small holes into the back of my head.

“Well, you weren’t kidding,” I said softly.

She didn’t reply, and when I turned around, I could see the strange mixture of sadness and alarm that had been rising in her all day on full display. I moved to the top of the bed, and started to reach for the telephone. I had a family to warn, after all.

“Don’t bother,” Cassie said quietly. “It won’t work.”

“I have to try,” I muttered, annoyed, but she was right. When I raised it to my ear, there was nothing, not even the tiny hum of interference you get when the phone is powered but not serviceable. It was like a cold, dead hunk of plastic in my hand. I hung it up again, trying to make as little noise as possible when I set the receiver back down onto its cradle.

We just kind of sat there, with neither of us saying anything, for a long, long time. The window was open, and after what had to be close to an hour, I could hear the faint warble of a siren in the distance. I saw Cassie’s eyes flash up to look at the window, but that was her only motion, only her eyes moved. But I could tell she was edgy, alert. She was ready to spring into action at a second’s notice; she only looked relaxed.

“I should have called my family,” I said quietly. It wasn’t an insinuation, and it wasn’t meant to be one. It was simply a regret.

“Perhaps,” she said. “But we talked about that. You agreed with me; we couldn’t take that chance. It might have made us easier to find.”

“And maybe it wouldn’t have.”

“Well, it’s too late to second-guess it now. Put it out of your mind.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Stop it. I didn’t mean it that way, and you know it.”

I sighed. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m just worried, you know? Two kid brothers. My mom. And if this is all true, what you say is coming…I should have called.”

“I didn’t know it would be this soon. I thought this was still a few weeks, maybe months away. I’m nearly as shocked about it as you are.”

“Why would…they…move so soon?”

Cassie’s vision dropped to the comforter on the bed. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m completely in the dark about it. Perhaps I was misled purposefully. I can’t say that my…individualistic tendencies were completely unnoticed back home…I mean, back there.”

“Really?”

She nodded. “I’ve always sort of marched to my own drummer.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Although, I think that’s mostly ego talking. In the big scheme of things, you and I are fairly small players in what’s to come, I think.”

Visions of Cassie jumping across that alley, with superhuman ease, of her snuffing out the lives of a trio of street punks the way anybody else would lift a finger…her last statement threw me.

“Small player? You?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve talked about the differences, remember? I’m only a half-breed. I’m very nearly as human as you are.”

“Lady, I can’t bench press a Chevy.”

“But you know what I mean. Compared to a true Amazonian foot soldier, I’m…what’s the expression? Small potatoes?”

“And how many of them are coming?”

“It’s hard to say. I’m not even sure how many there are, all spread across Themiscyra. Thousands, for sure. Tens of thousands, probably.”

“Hmm.” Then, a new thought, one that hadn’t occurred to me as of yet, broke into my worried mind. “Hey. Thousands of them, how many like you?”

“What do you mean?”

“How many, you know, how many have been taken, like you were. I don’t want to use the term half-breed, but…”

“You can. Gods know they do, all the time.”

“Yeah, but they’re assholes.” I let the words hang there for a moment, and Cassie glanced up at me, a slow, tired grin turning up one side of her face.

“Yes. Yes, they are,” she agreed.

“But seriously. How many of them are there like you? You know, turned?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that anyone’s bothered to count. We’re definitely a minority. And an underclass. Looked down on.”

“So much for women creating the idyllic paradise. They look like they got prejudice down pretty well.”

“That’s true. We’re definitely an underclass. Simply because we’re not Amazons born, we have fewer rights and less respect. But we still fight and die, like the rest of them. Why do you ask about them?”

“I was just thinking,” I said, “about something you said a while back. About halfers being assigned posts in this world, almost like sentries?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that would be a lot of them, right?”

“Many, many of them.”

“I guess it would be too much to hope that a lot of them felt the way you do about things, right?”

“I’m afraid so, Danny. I’ve seen…no, I’ve heard some of them…talk…as I do…about this world from time to time. You know, thinking out loud? Questioning. Questioning the dogma they’ve been fed since their Becoming. Wondering aloud if the world of man is so bad.”

“Well, that figures.”

“How?”

“Cause, darling, if they look like you do, they’re going to get attention. Male attention. And it’s hard to rip the throat out of somebody who brings you flowers every Friday, isn’t it?”

Cassie half-nodded in agreement. “I suspect you’re right, about a number of them. Of course, the number is small, and their fear of the discovery of their doubts would make them hard to find. But…but if you’re entertaining thoughts of me leading some kind of insurrection, you’re mad. We wouldn’t stand a chance, we’d be wiped out in minutes.”

“Well, it was worth a shot,” I sighed, and Cassie regarded me with a level look. She leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I flushed the tiniest bit, the way I seemed to whenever she drew near.

“What was that for?”

“For just being you.”

“Hey, all right. I’m just me all the time. Is there more where that came from?”

“If you play your cards right, mister. But we should rest now. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day. And they won’t be getting any easier, either.”

We slipped into bed, the lights off and the room quiet. We both lay there for a long time, silent, each knowing the other was still awake.

“So how is this going to work? What’s their plan?” I finally asked.

“We should sleep.”

“Well, until we do, we should talk. If I know what you know, our chances are better, right?”

I heard her sigh a bit in the dark. “All right.”

“So you’ve been on…missions…for them before, right?”

“Sort of. Not really. More like, hunting parties. Small, brief excursions.”

“How does that work?”

“A small band of warriors travels through a doorway…”

“Yes, but what ‘doorway?’ You say you travel from dimension to dimension, but you’ve never said how, besides magic.”

“There’s a class of Amazon, they’re like magicians. I don’t know what power they use, all I know is that it’s mystical in nature. Given by the gods, probably. They do this short recital, and summon a doorway. I don’t know how they do it; I kind of think they don’t really know for sure, either. But all I know is that it’s rare, and very, very hard to do. It’s not something they do lightly.”

“You don’t like talking about it, do you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

She thought for a moment, and although we were still fairly new in each other’s lives, I thought I could picture what her expression was at the moment, troubled, thoughtful, with a slightly wrinkled brow and one eye pinched shut a little.

“Because they scare me a little,” she confessed.

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“Cass, after what I’ve seen you do, I can’t picture you scared of anybody.”

“You haven’t met one of the Weird Sisters.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re…strange,” she said, and I could hear the hesitation in her voice, her trepidation. And, I must admit, the feeling was a catchy.  “They’re a creepy bunch. Spooky. They wear robes, for one. They hide their faces, mostly. And they talk funny, in tongues, sometimes. And they live alone, completely alone. They take no mates.”

“No men?”

“I said, no mates. Remember, Amazons only take men when they want to reproduce.”

“Oh. Then…hey…waitaminute.” The realization hit me, and my silence drew out a little, my shock evident.

“I thought you would have figured this part out by now.”

“But…but…I…oh, boy. Seriously? You, too? I mean, have you…do you…you’re…”

“Of course. Does it bother you?”

“I just…” I stopped stammering, but my mind was spinning, I’ll admit.

“In a society without men, the girls will find a way to…keep themselves busy, Daniel.”

“Well…I guess. I…” I sighed. “You’re…you’re okay with it?”

“I have to be. And yes. I hope you’re, as you say, ‘okay’ with it, too.”

“Well, I have to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Believe me, it’s only natural. For my kind, at least.”

“Then I guess it’s different, here,” I managed to say. “It has whole other meanings here.”

“Does it?”

I struggled to answer. How could I put something I had never really thought about into words?  “Maybe not. I don’t know. All I know is that right now, if all Amazons look the way you do, honey, you’re making the fantasies of schoolboys everywhere come alive tonight.”

She laughed a little. “Of course, it doesn’t mean I…I don’t like some men…like you, for example…” She rolled over toward me a bit, and threw one of her steely legs across mine, and draped an arm across my chest possessively. “You’re mine. I like you, too.”

“So two women together doesn’t bother you?”

“If they’re expressing love? No. Not at all. The opposite. Two women, intertwined? It’s lovely. It’s beautiful.”

“What about two men?” I ventured.

She recoiled a bit at that. “Eww, gods, no! That’s disgusting,” she exclaimed. I could imagine her nose crinkled up in disgust at the thought. Then she regained her composure and chuckled. “Boys are gross,” she said in a faux little-girl voice.

“Nice.”

“All of them but you,” she said.

“Sure, whatever.”

“I mean it.”

“Hey, no fair. I can’t concentrate when you do that. We were talking about the spooks, remember?”

She shuddered hard enough for me to feel the mattress shake.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And nothing. They’re just…strange. Deep in my heart, I always thought they…and their powers…were unnatural.”

“Powers?”

“Portal summoning. Seeing the future, sometimes with frightening accuracy. Making things move, but without touching them.”

“Wait. They have… like, mind powers? Telekinesis, or something?”

“Yes. They’re like…in this dimension, most people would call them witches. They have some kind of control over the elements. I’ve seen one of them in action, on a hunting party. Just once. And I hope I never see it again. A strong witch can kill a man without ever touching him.”

“Jesus.”

“So one of these witches opens a doorway, and then what?”

“Legions of Amazons pour through. Into pre-assessed areas of attack.”

“Assessed by women like you. Plants. Moles.”

“Yes. But this time, it’s different. This world, this Earth, has always been the biggest, the most abundantly supplied world we’ve ever visited. Forgive me, but the hunting here…has always been…extraordinary.”

My blood chilled just a little, as I remembered her confession in the car earlier that day…her previous exploits…and conquests…in my world. “What changed it for you?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You said it yourself, hunting has always been good here. You’ve…admitted being here before, of taking lives here before. So what’s different this time?”

“I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s just say I had a change of heart.”

“But, why?”
“Dan, come on. I’d rather not—”

“I just figured I should know. As long as we’re being honest with each other. I mean, for all I know, maybe this, what we’re doing, this running, this hiding, maybe that’s all part of your mission, too. Maybe you’re just biding your time.”

Cassie grew very still beside me, and I could sense her anger. “Listen,” she said softly. “If I were going to kill you, it would have been long ago. And you wouldn’t have even seen it coming. And there’s nothing you could have done to stop it.”

“You know what I mean,” I protested.

“We should sleep now,” she said softly, and this time there was a new inflection in her voice. It wasn’t anger after all.

“Cass, I’m sorry. Really. I’m just trying to understand.”

“All right.”

“I just want to know why you…changed.”

“It wasn’t overnight. I’ve had questions on and off for a long time. Maybe someday we can talk more about it.”

“But…”

“Don’t push your luck, Daniel.”

“Okay, okay.” I sighed. “I just wonder, why now?”

“Hmm?”

“Why now?” I asked, confused. “You said it yourself, this world provided everything they needed. Hunting, mates, resources. Right?”

“Yes.”

“Then why now? Why mess with a good thing?”

Silence for a moment. “I don’t know.”

“I mean, are we a threat? Did the Amazons ever think about a massive invasion like this before?”

“Once.”

“When? Why?”

“By your calendar, 1945.”

“’45? But why…wait. The bomb.”

“Bingo.”

“Because Amazons aren’t all down with science.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. That makes it sound like they – we – shit – that makes it sound like they don’t have the mental capacity for advanced science. They do. Believe me. Amazons are very, very intelligent. As bright as regular people, regular humans, anyway. But when it comes to the sciences…it just doesn’t grab them the way it does humans.”

“I wonder why not?”

“Because they don’t need it,” Cassie went on. “Think about it. Amazons don’t get cancer. If they did, they’d have to look for a cure. They don’t need a rifle to hunt; a fit Amazon can run down a deer, outwrestle a bear. Why focus on something you don’t need?”

“Okay. I guess that makes sense.”

“Amazons get science, they get technology, and they can use it. They just don’t have to. And that’s our chance, I think.”

“We have a chance? I thought you were all doom and gloom, ‘Oh God, we’re all gonna die terrible bloody deaths.’”

“We still might. Probably will, in fact. But there’s an old Amazon saying that applies here.”

“Which is?”

Only a fool despairs while she still draws breath.”

“Okay. Nice, catchy. But what chance do we have?”

“This,” Cassie said, and gently rapped two knuckles on my head. “The old, reliable human brain.”

“Our smarts? But you said…”

“Not your smarts. Your wits.”

“Huh?”

“Amazons don’t need science, so they don’t use it, remember?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Well, Amazons have this enormous physical ability. Strength, speed, stamina, you name it. They hold physical dominion over anything and everything in their world, and most others as well.”

“I don’t feel better about our chances yet.”

“And because they are so physically superior, they never have to think. They never have to be inventive. Innovation is so extremely rare in Amazon culture.”

“So they’re not perfect, I still don’t see how that…”

“They have no creativity.”

I considered this. “Okay. So our only chance is based on the fact that they can’t think out of the box.”

“Right. Amazons typically move directly from Point A to Point B, fairly predictably, since they’re used to crushing the opposition fairly easily. There is some creative thought that surfaces sometimes, but it’s usually restricted to the designing new campaigns on the battlefield.”

“So back to ’45. Why didn’t they invade then, if they were so scared of atomic weapons?”

“We got bad info. Give credit to the State Department. They kept the Manhattan Project pretty secret for a long, long time. We didn’t find out about it until it was too late to stop it. And, there was a faction in the Amazon hierarchy that didn’t want to do anything about it, anyway. Especially since the bomb gave humans the power to destroy your world, not ours.”

“Umm-hmm.” It was a lot to take in. Fatigue, and the weight of everything I had learned in the past couple of days suddenly hit me. I could feel the burning sensation of tiredness in my eyes, and the magnitude of our situation worried me. I was tired, and more than a little scared. And the questions still spun in my mind: Why here? Why now? And, why me?

“Are you all right?” Cassie asked after a little while.

“Fine, just…a little freaked out, I guess.”

“That’s understandable,” she said, and snuggled a little closer to me. She started stroking her hand gently across my chest, and moving the leg thrown over my own up and down, slowly. I noticed her breathing slowing, lengthening. But my mind kept repeating the same questions, and repeating the same visions, too: three battered, broken bodies in a Baltimore alley. A strangely entranced desk clerk. The terrifying, predatory nature of our last sexual encounter, which I was lucky to live through. Her hand drifted down, slowly, exploring…and stopped.

“Dan? What’s wrong?”

“What? Oh, I…nothing. I just…I’m tired, and I...uh…”

“Are you afraid?”

“Well, yeah, of course, there’s an invasion going on and…”

“No,” she said in the dark. “Are you afraid of me?”

“No.” Silence. “Yes. Maybe a little.” I was a conflicted mess of emotions. Yes, I loved her, and yes, I was simultaneously appalled by what she was apparently capable of. I was afraid of her, of her strength, and what she could do with it, and at the same time, I wanted her badly, all the time.

“Daniel, listen to me. I think you know how I feel. I’ve deserted my life, my people, everything and every person I know for you. I’m here, I’m committed. I’m pledging myself to you, if you’ll accept it.”

“Of course.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Cass.”

“But you won’t trust me?” she asked, and her hand tweaked me a little.

“I just…you hurt me. Physically. Badly. I’m still all black and blue.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“How do I know you won’t do it again?”

“That was battle-lust. I was incapable of controlling it. It…it won’t happen again.”

“But…”

“Daniel.” She sat up a little, very close to me in the dark. The digital alarm clock threw off an extremely dim blue light, just enough for me to see twin glints of light in the dark, where her eyes must be. I wonder if she can see in the dark, I wondered, and felt myself shrink even further.

“Daniel, listen. As long as I draw breath, as long as I am living, I will never, ever hurt you again. Do you understand that?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, but do you believe it?”

“I believe you’ll try not to,” I said. “And I hope you don’t. But…but I just don’t know. If you could have seen the way you were…”

“That’s over now.”

“How can it be over?”

“Because I’m part human too, remember?” she said plaintively. “I’m human, too. And this is my pledge, my vow. Never again.”

“All right.”

Her hand continued her ministrations, but to no avail. I just couldn’t manage it. There was too much noise in my head.

“Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t think I’m going to be able to tonight.”

There was a long pause, where she grew very still. I could sense she was considering something. Finally, she spoke.

“It would comfort you. It would comfort…both of us.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Do you want to? Is the mind willing? Just, the body…?” she trailed off.

“Something like that.”

Another pause.

“I…I could make it possible.”

Here we go, I thought. That sure didn’t last long.

She must have felt my heart rate increase, or sense my sudden trepidation. “No, no! Not through force. There are…ways. Things I know. Things I can do. But you have to want me to.”

“Umm...well…okay.”

“So do you? Want me to?”

“Yes.”

“And I have your consent?”

“To what? You have to ask, now? I…”

“This is part of my vow, Daniel. I’ll not do anything a human couldn’t do, not without your consent. So…do I have it? Your…”

“Permission?” I interjected.

“No. I’m still part Amazon. Asking for permission is not in my genetic make-up. But I do care for you, and I’m asking for your consent.”

“All right.”

“Very well, then. Relax,” she said softly, her mouth very close to my ear. Then she began breathing softly, very long, deep, slow breaths, and I could sense her flexing her body, and then relaxing, flexing, then relaxing, in waves. I didn’t know what she was doing; it was like she was preparing herself for some kind of physical test. She began to breathe through her mouth, drawing deep breaths in, out, in, out.

And then I realized that my breathing had, for some reason, matched her own. I became dimly aware that my heart rate had jumped a bit, and I could feel a damp coolness on my brow where a thin layer of perspiration had leapt to the surface of my skin.

Then, a scent: the same faint, citrusy-sweet smell that I had noticed on her before, thick, sweet, and clean-smelling almost like a lemon-scented oil or verbena, with the barest tinge of a deeper, muskier scent below it. It was intoxicating; it seemed to come from her in waves and it filled the room, and within seconds it was all I could think about, everything else dropped away and I only knew that I was there, and she was there, and that was all that mattered. With no command from my brain to do so, my arms reached out for her, and she slid into them, naked now, her glorious, perfect body settling down upon my own; my most intimate part sprang to sudden, swollen life. It was incredible.

I’ve only been under the influence of drugs a handful of times in my life; I’ve always been more or less a straight arrow when it came to that kind of thing. But the closest thing I ever experienced to this happened when I was very young, in college. A girl I was fascinated by and obsessed with, not in the healthiest of ways, had lured me out with some of her friends to a dance club in a seedier part of town than I was used to. But I was entranced by this girl, so I went. And on the dance floor, she leaned in close, wrapped her arms around my neck, and kissed me, deeply. I was halfway to being drunk anyway, and I returned the favor. Then, she pushed something into my mouth with her tongue, and, being in the state I was in, I just kind of reflexively swallowed. I had a pretty good idea what it was that she had given me.

I spent the next six hours in quite a state. I walked around with a hard-on that wouldn’t quit, and every time she touched me, it created surges of pleasure that just seemed to roll over me like a wave. We ended up back at her apartment, where we spent three full hours rolling around on her living room floor, in the throes of an artificial ecstasy. Soon after, I was dismissed and some new guy took my place. In the long run, I was lucky – she was found dead two years later, on the floor of her bathroom with a needle still in her arm, and I managed to not catch anything from her. But the memory of the feeling that pill had given me stayed with me.

Until that night with Cassie. I don’t know what it was she was doing, but the scent she was giving off in waves, combined with her proximity, her weight, her body…God, it was electric. I expected little blue sparks to erupt wherever she touched me. Before I knew it, my heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt a high, tight, pleasant and familiar burning in my loins.

Yes,” she sighed, close to my ear. “Show me your love,” she whispered, and blew a breath into my ear, down the side of my neck, where the skin rippled to life in gooseflesh.

Incredible. In about three minutes, I had gone from frustratingly impotent to a man on the verge, and with her command, I came in a huge burst, gasping for breath. She nuzzled and kissed my neck as I gasped for air, and I could feel her smile against the skin of my neck.

“See?” she said softly. “I told you I could be gentle. I don’t even have to touch you.” He kissed me deeply, and when her tongue danced lightly across my own, I felt myself begin to swell improbably once more.

“I wish you would,” I gasped, and she laughed softly aloud, and the wonderful scent of her arousal came again, and for a time, we were able to put everything troubling us out of our minds.

The first rosy light was just beginning to peek over the dark of the tree line visible outside the window when I woke from sleep and sat up suddenly in the bed. My eyes were wide open, and I saw everything with clarity. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

Cassie had been up for a while, as was her habit. She may require more food, more calories a day than I did, but she sure required less rest. I could see her body silhouetted where she sat on the foot of the bed.

“Cassie.”

“Yes, Dan.”

“We have to go back.”

Silence. “What?”

“We have to go back to Baltimore. Well, a few miles outside of the city, exactly. We have to go to Trevor’s place,” I said.

“Who?”

“Trevor. Trevor Ainsbury.”

“Who’s that?”

“An old friend of mine. He’s a military liaison for AdvanTech, this big contractor. He’s on the R&D side of things. We have to go see him.”

“But Daniel, they’ll be expecting this. It’s not safe. We can’t.”

“Cassie, we have to go. We have to see him, no matter what. Even if the Amazons do expect it, and even if they’re waiting for us, we have to try.”

“Why do we have to, Daniel?” she asked, turning to look at me in the light of the coming dawn. “Why?”

I tried to keep my voice as level as I could as the realization blossomed fully in my mind.

Because I think I know why they’re here,” I said.

END PART II

Categories SWM Library

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