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The Siege Part III

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

The Siege

Attack of the Amazons

PART III

“I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws ...”

-Abigail Adams, 1776

Chapter 18

The first rays of light crept over the horizon, and the sun rose on a world fundamentally changed.

Kevin Kidwell had always been a bit of a geek.

Of course, that moniker wasn’t perfectly suited to him, just as any such wide brush cannot possibly paint the entire portrait of a human life. But all the same, he guessed he would have fit into the mode better than most.

He was of average size and appearance. He wasn’t overly into sports as a boy, although he was able to chuck a football farther than many of his future classmates at MIT were able. He chased knowledge in high school the way some guys chased girls. He wore glasses that were a little too thick for his age, and actually preferred the thick black frames, even back then. He scoffed a little at that now, now that he was in his 30s and far beyond youthful vanity, that style of eyeglasses was popular once more. He did read the occasional science fiction paperback, and yes, he preferred Star Trek over Star Wars. In his defense, he kept his hair short, manageable, and non-greasy, and he never, ever used a pocket protector.

In fact, those that knew him well came to understand that Kevin actually exuded his own, quiet brand of cool. He liked foreign films and would often go to the theater alone when he couldn’t convince friends or a date to go along. He wore flannel shirts of all colors, even in the summer, for the feel as much as the appearance. He drove an ancient, battered Scout, and enjoyed the weekly upkeep the testy vehicle needed to stay in operable condition. He liked rock and roll, and often tried to thump out power chords on his old Gibson at all hours (without much success), not that he had any neighbors to annoy.

Kevin lived ten minutes outside of the town of Weed, on the slopes of Mt. Shasta in northern California, in a small, modest rental chosen precisely for its isolation. He liked the quiet. It made it easier for him to think.

Which is what he was really good at.

Thorndike. KBR. CyTech Industries. McDonnell-Douglas. Morton-Thiokol. There wasn’t one member of the military industrial complex that hadn’t pursued him as he finished his collegiate studies, and with good reason. Here was  kid with more brains stuffed in his noggin than anyone could ever recall, who had first blown his professors away and then turned down an entry position at JPL. And it wasn’t out of some ego trip, either, it was only because he just didn’t want the work.

His specialty was quantum mechanics, but much to the chagrin of his college advisors, who espoused their belief that he was meant to further the study of one branch of science over and over again throughout the course of his studies, he refused to be limited by one discipline, by the rigid, remarkably inflexible doctrine of the working scientific community.

For people who are supposed to be looking for truth, he would often say to anyone outside the field, scientists sure can’t see over their stacks of forms and permission slips.

So instead, he took lesser positions in various smaller science organizations, always being careful to avoid ones that had a large administrative wing, or depended too much on office work. He’d rather be out in the field, literally, than stuck in a cubicle. Of course, the treatise he’d written when finishing his work at MIT, The Behavior of Accelerated Photons in Unstable or Negatively Charged Space was, even after nearly a decade, one of the most frequently discussed (and debated) works on record, and even while Kevin was enjoying a position working on Legionnaire’s Disease for HUD, or examining beetles for the Forestry Service, his superiors would realize that he was that Kevin Kidwell, and why the hell was he here, doing this job?

It was because he was a curious guy, and because he was able to move from discipline to discipline with the kind of ease that made his coworkers jealous. Kevin was a nice guy, sometimes even a little too nice; he was known to occasionally give too much credit to a research partner if that person was a decent worker and put in enough seat time. But even so, envy is the science world’s elephant in the room. It’s always there, but nobody ever talks about it.

So Kevin did his best to take himself right the hell out of that room.

In the last couple of years, Kevin had done some work for the U.S. Geological Survey, based out of the office in Vancouver, Washington. He even spent about two months camped up on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens, and once sat on the crater rim for nearly two days during a minor eruption, using his binoculars to watch the growing lava dome extrude four cubic yards of hot, sticky rock every second. At that rate, the mountain would be a complete peak again less than one hundred years after the 1980 blast. His work on the mountain led to an increase in the USGS budget and the start of a new urban volcano hazards program.

Try doing that while you sit in a cubicle.

All this had brought him to Northern California, and Mt. Shasta. He thought of it as a forgotten mountain; not much was written about it and a lot of people he conversed with in other places had never heard of it. Yet it was California’s highest point, had a base bigger than Rainier, and had recently burped.

Six months earlier, a series of small mini-quakes had issued from the mountain, a swarm of more than 200 in a single day, and this had been followed by a large, sudden spike in carbon dioxide levels near the summit. Either of these events alone would have captured the interest of those in Vancouver watching the remote sensing equipment, but together they might be an indicator of some large, messy trouble to the good people of northern California. It was deemed worthy of some eyes on the ground in the area, and who better than the brilliant guy whose intellect threatened every boss he had in the home office?

So here Kevin was, in a small rental on the slopes of the mountain, paid for by the U.S. government, and watching a mountain that might decide to explode. He had no idea that events were already in motion that would make that somewhat improbable event look inconsequential in comparison.

The eggs he made were great, he had been getting them from Sadie down the road, who raised her own, thank you very much.

“Free roaming,” he said aloud to no one, and finished off the plate.

He turned on his computer, and brushed his teeth while it booted up. He paused, toothbrush in hand when he heard the error alert. He tried logging on again, and once again saw that the connection had failed.

“Hmm,” he muttered.

He finished dressing (it was to be tan cargos and red flannel today), and saw that his satellite television network was down as well.

“Hmm,” he grunted again, his brow furrowed a bit.

His cell was dead too. And the landline.

He stayed silent, but his frown grew more pronounced.

***

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

It was insane. There were cars everywhere, even that early in the morning.

I had a little more information than the average Joe was privy to, but I still felt like I was in the dark. The sun had come up and we raided the breakfast bar in the hotel meeting room (bagels, mostly, but they had hard boiled eggs too, and Cassie ate nearly all of them). There were a few early risers in the room as well, two couples and a guy who was obviously a trucker. There wasn’t much conversation, but what little there was focused on how the cable seemed to be out and nobody could get a cell phone signal, either. Cassie and I just exchanged a prolonged worried glance, and climbed into the Tahoe and headed back toward the city.

Or tried to, anyway. The main arteries into the city were clogged with cars. Our progress ground to a standstill.

She didn’t say anything, but I could tell Cassie was tense, like a coiled spring trapped in her seat. She started to speak, bit her lip and turned her head, sighed, thought better of it, and then spoke anyway.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” she said.

“I know.”

“But you’re going to do it anyway.”

“Yep.”

“You know they’ll see this coming.”

“You’ve said that already,” I offered.

“Because it’s true. Right now I bet the…upper echelons are hearing about my failure to report. It won’t take them long to figure out what’s going on. And then they’ll come for us.”

“Okay,” I said. “I know you’ve said that you weren’t in on the planning of whatever this…invasion…is, but still. You lived with them. They taught you. You’re one of them…kind of. What do you think their next move is going to be?”

“I’m not sure. There was a plan that has been floating around Themiscyra for some time, but it never had much traction…but maybe now it does.”

“Plan?”

She shook her head. “Not really, not in the sense of military campaigns you might be familiar with. More of an idea. A concept.”

“A concept of….?”

She sighed. “I don’t know, maybe call it Operation Dark Ages. ’Cause that’s where they want to send you.”

“Huh?”

“I told you, Amazons aren’t all about technology. All things being equal, an entire squad of human soldiers wouldn’t have a chance against even one unarmed Amazon warrior. But give the squad some new weapon…give them The Bomb…or something more immediate, more useful, more…portable…”

“So something has happened that they see as a threat.”

“I think so,” Cassie agreed.

“And what’s the goal?”

“I’d say the goal would be to set humankind back about 1000 years. Get rid of a lot of that technology, and make the playing field a little more uneven. More in their favor.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. But I think it would be a safe bet to say that they’ve probably attacked the world’s infrastructure in some big, fundamental way. And probably a few relatively small, random attacks that are designed solely to impress the witnesses. Mental warfare. To kill morale.”

“So what would be their next move?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s just a guess, but I’d say they would actually pull back. Maybe leave entirely. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re still trying to be stealthy about it.”

“You call an outright attack ‘stealthy?’”

“If they pulled back entirely, absolutely. The entire world hasn’t has the same experience you have, my dear. It doesn’t know about us. Most people, probably the majority, who met up with some Zons last night didn’t live to tell about it. And those that did, well, imagine how crazy and confused they would sound. And then add to that the complete media blackout? No cell phones? It would be tough, but conceivably, they could keep mankind in the dark for a while, if they wanted to. And they probably do…they were happy with the status quo. They’d love to go back to you guys living in huts and castles, ignorant to their existence. It would make hunting better.”

“You sound like you’re a little in awe of them.”

“It’s hard not to be. They’re probably waiting around to see if what they have done has started any wars.”

“Oh, my God. They can do that?”

“Honey, they’ve done it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. But that’s my idea. I think most of them might be gone, even now. And right about now, they’re compiling their reports of victory, and soon – if not already – they’ll notice one report missing. A report about the demise of a certain Daniel Pittman. And then they’ll send the Hunters.”

“You say that like it’s happened before, Cass.”

“It has,” she said, and chuckled when she saw me start a little bit. “What, you think this is the first time somebody like me…has had…you know…feelings…for someone like you?”

“You make it sound oh-so romantic, dear.”

“It is what it is.”

“Hey.”

“And it’s happened before. A few times, actually.”

“I just figured with how you described them, you know, so warlike and all…I didn’t think any of them would…let something like that happen.”

“Come on,” Cassie said, nearly rolling her eyes. “You know enough about love to know that you don’t ‘allow’ anything to happen. Sometimes, it’s there, and it just can’t be controlled, you know?”

“Boy, do I.” I gave her a smile.

“Sometimes it’s like this. Sometimes it’s a scout, like me, who knows this world better than most. Who might meet someone, and spend a lot of time around them. And there’s a few others who kind of think the way I do now, remember. Not many, but some.”

“Okay.”

“And other times, it’s after an attack, after a scouting party. A breeding partner is brought home, and stays…and kind of…well, stays…and sometimes he lives a little longer than he should.”

“Jesus.”

“Well, it’s happened. Sometimes, certain feelings develop, although in that case, it’s usually more of a motherly instinct kicking in, I think.”

“Don’t ever use the word ‘motherly’ when you talk about breeding partners, okay? It’s weird.”

Even in her tense, aggravated mood, she scoffed a little at this.

“So, what then? They bring a guy home, do him a bunch of times, and suddenly it’s love?”

“Not usually. Usually, he wouldn’t survive the night. Once his function is done, so is his usefulness.”

My blood turned a little cold the way it did when she talked like this. “Okay.”

“Hey, you wanted to know.”

“Yeah.”

“But yes, sometimes, if he’s especially good or…you know…notable…he might be allowed to live for a while. And if it’s long enough, certain affections can develop. It’s natural.”

“Wait, so you think that the Amazon culture is, by its definition, a little unnatural?”

“I’m here, with you, on the run, aren’t I?”

“Point taken. What happens then?”

“The sister in question comes to her senses, and usually she’ll ask a friend or superior to make a visit, and…resolve the situation. Usually while she’s away on a hunt, or errand.”

“Oh boy.”

“Yeah.”

“What about when it’s someone like you? Here? You know, away from the motherland? Someone who maybe feels the way you do about how they do things?”

“Well, that’s a little more difficult,” she said.

“Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do,” I chanted in poor attempt at a Cuban accent. Cassie just looked at me, unsmiling. “That’s…that’s from a TV show. I Love Lucy. Way back in the…”

“The 1950s. Yeah, I know. I was there, I went to a few tapings.”

“Huh?”

“Laugh track?”

“You were in the studio audience?”

“Three times.”

I shook my head, smiling. “Right. Sorry. I keep forgetting my girlfriend is a nearly immortal Amazon. It’s a thing.”

“You’re forgiven. I like the idea of you thinking of me as…you know. Like you. Normal. Ordinary.”

“Honey, you’re anything but ordinary.”

“Thank you.”

“So…romances…in this world?”

“Yeah,” she trailed off, her eyes unfocused, distant. “Yeah, well. There’s a special unit. A squad of sisters, you could say. These romances, that scouts sometimes fall into…well, they’re really rare, but when they happen, there’s a pattern. First, they get quiet. Then they report again, but way too much, trying to cover themselves. It’s obvious, but they do it. Then more silence, and then they run. And when they do, sisters are sent to run them down.”

“Like bounty hunters?”

“Pretty much. But they don’t like to send them out, especially when they’re trying to keep a low profile. The methods of the group…of the leader…well, they’re not exactly subtle.”

“You sound like you have a grudge.”

“Little bit.” Her gaze fell, and she stared at her lap in silence.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah. No problem.” Cassie said, and pinched my cheek.

“Good,” I said. “And also, ouch. Super strength, remember?”

“Sorry,” Cass laughed, and leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Better?”

“Definitely. You get lucky, I might let you pinch me more, later.”

“Oh, mowwwrr,” she laughed.

“So tell me more,” I said. “This is kind of fascinating. Terrifying, and fascinating.”

The snarl of traffic before us loosened just a bit, and I was able to sneak up few car lengths.

“This is no good. We need to be moving,” Cassie said, her face placid but her voice betraying her agitation.

“The traffic’s too thick. I can’t go any faster.”

“Then we need to get off the road.”

“The GPS is down, too. I could get off, take residential roads. But I’d probably get us lost. What’s the hurry? I thought you said going to Trevor’s was a bad idea.”

“It is a bad idea, and if it were up to me, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

“He’s my friend,” I said. “And on top of that, I think he might have something to do with why all this is happening.”

“Care to enlighten me?”

“He came to me with some information about a new weapons technology his company is developing. Or, was developing, now, I guess. Really strange stuff, real cutting edge. They were calling it ‘pulse technology.’”

“Okay. What is it?”

“I don’t know. The science of it was beyond me. It dealt with supercharging individual rounds of ammunition, making even a flesh wound a lethal injury. But I think it might be more than that. But I have no idea how we’re going to follow it up. I’m hoping he can tell us.”

There was a long pause in the conversation then, and I could feel Cassie looking at me.

“You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?” she asked.

“There’s a chance.”

“Daniel…I…I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. If you’re right, if he is involved in this somehow, then there’s a good chance…”

“I’m still here, right?” I asked, a little too sharply. “Supposedly I was set as a mark too, right? And I’m still alive.”

“Only because I allowed it.”

Her tone was as flat as her gaze, and I got that weird little chill again. I loved this woman, but I could see just how strong the entire belief system of her upbringing was. And every once in a while, it caught me off guard and was a little disturbing.

“But I hope he’s okay,” she offered. “He’s your friend, and I hope he’s okay.”

***

The entire world had gone crazy.

The system of governmental checks and balances, law enforcement and public safety systems, and vital economic infrastructure of the western world really was a marvel of modern complexity. However, like all things which have outgrown their original design, the chances for disaster increase exponentially with every increase in complexity.

Right now, every system was in chaos.

Special Agent Jennifer Carnes actually bent over in her seat and rested her forehead on her desk and closed her eyes. She had always been an action junkie, true, but this was ridiculous. She was going on her third day without any sleep. Incredibly, even with everything she had seen in the past few hours and with the storm of thoughts swirling in her head, her eyes slipped shut. A dim, distant part of her mind realized she was falling asleep.

Good, she thought. Can’t function like this. Can’t concentrate. Maybe after…

“Carnes!”

Her eyes snapped open and she sat up quickly, blinking the mist from her eyes. She had expected to see McCall standing before her desk, his cigar stub smoking, his grating voice barking some new order at her.

Instead, it was the face of Randy Timmons. He held a steaming Styrofoam cup in front of her face. When the aroma of the coffee reached her, her senses came back into focus a bit, and her stomach growled. She started as she realized she hadn’t eaten in nearly a whole day.

“Morning, sunshine,” Randy grinned.

“Thanks,” she said, taking the coffee. “What are you so happy about?”
“Are you kidding? This is what I signed up for. Action. Excitement.”

“Randy a lot of people died last night. We think.”

“Well, those people at that lab sure did.”

He was right about that one. When they had finally arrived at the industrial complex last night, the check-in McCall had expected at the gate was unnecessary. The gate had been destroyed, torn from the track and nearly ripped in half. The guardhouse had stood empty as well. And when they had finally gotten to the lab…well…it was a scene that Jen would find hard to forget. Whatever technology they had been scheduled to test the next day was toast, the computer banks had been smashed, the physical equipment little more than piles of twisted steel, ready for the trash heap. And the crew for the test, both the mechanical tech services guy and the theoretical guys, the statisticians? What bodies they could identify looked like they had been dropped through a giant meat grinder.

And now there was a complete loss of communications. With everybody. So far the bureau was starting an actual physical line of communication to Washington, with messengers in cars trying to ferry information back and forth, although it was still early enough that none had yet returned.

The default position of the Bureau, and what they guessed was the rest of the government, was that a small coordinated strike against the country’s vital infrastructure has occurred, and that soon the situation would right itself. Jen thought that it was even bigger than that, due to the ominous lack of information from other parts of the globe; however, the rational part of her mind scoffed at a worldwide coordinated attack. Some things just weren’t feasible, right?

But she still couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever was happening was big. Really big, and that it involved everybody, her included, and especially the carnage they had uncovered at the lab’s industrial grounds. There was a certain tendency toward ego in this view, she knew, to believe that what she had seen was so important when so much was going wrong…but all the same, it was a feeling from which she just could not escape.

“You’re tired,” Randy said, suddenly serious.

“Hell, yes. Aren’t you?”

“Sure. But Brubaker came in to help cover our sector, I nabbed some shuteye a little earlier.” On McCall’s order, any agent who could walk was being summoned, in person, to report for duty. Even with this new standing order, they were still painfully short-staffed. The office was never intended for use as a day-to-day branch of the local police force. And this, along with everything else, was compounded by the inability to talk to anyone, about anything.

“God, I wish somebody would get the phones up.”

“Listen, if you need a break, you know my place is right around the corner,” Randy offered.

Jen was careful to nod and acknowledge this in a neutral fashion, without a smile or frown. Randy had made his feelings about her plain some time ago.

It was a strange relationship, not because they worked together but because they so often didn’t. It was odd that their paths didn’t cross more often, being assigned to same field office. But quite often they were working different cases, and it was fairly rare that they shared the same assignment.

Randy Timmons was a good guy, and Jen liked him well enough, but that’s about as far as she had wanted to take it. After considering it briefly, she had decided he was a little too loose, a little too outgoing, loud, and well, young for her. Which was strange, because Timmons was actually four years older than she was, at least by the calendar. But the same laser-sharp drive that had propelled her with so much notable force through her education and stint in the service all too often also propelled her though her personal life. Anyone who came off as less serious about their career (and presumably their life) than she was became simply unacceptable as a potential partner. As a result, she often felt like she was the adult, and Randy was just a big, enthusiastic kid she had to look out for, even though she was the younger of the two of them. A distant, remote part of her mind understood that this way of thinking was probably unwise and elitist, but she couldn’t help it. In the end, she felt it was better to just roll with what she knew.

But that hadn’t mattered to Randy. He had cornered her outside a downtown bar one night the last December and had confessed both his feelings and his awareness that nothing would come of them. Randy might have been a trifle silly from time to time, but at least he had the self-awareness to recognize the fact and own up to it. But he also told her that it wouldn’t change the way he felt, and he just wanted her to know that.

So, as gracious as the offer was, it was something that she had to politely decline, even if three hours worth of sleep on a couch would have been just fine at the moment.

“Thanks, Randy. But I think I’m needed here. We both are, I think.”

“Right-o. Just know it’s out there if ya need it,” he said, with a perfect balance of good manners and poorly concealed regret.

“Thanks.”

“So…what are you working on?”

“Right now, not much. Falling sleep at my desk, maybe,” she said, and took a tentative sip at the coffee. It was bitter, and strong, the way she liked it. “Thanks for this, too.”

“No problem,” Randy answered. “I was just trying to pick your brain a little bit.”

“Not much there to pick, at the moment, I’m afraid.”

She grew quiet then, thinking, sipping the hot, bitter brew intently. She started a bit when Randy spoke after a moment.

“Man, listen to that,” he said softly.

“What…” Jen started to say, and then stopped as she realized she had nearly whispered. She looked around the office. Full of people, most were working dutifully at their desks, a few others were talking amongst themselves in the same hushed voice she had found herself using. Every few seconds there was a gentle rustle of papers. No phones rang, there were no loud exclamations of laughter or irritation. It was a full, bustling FBI field office and it sounded like a tomb.

“This is weird,” Randy ventured. “I know most people are in the field, but still…”

Then the lights went out.

Somebody uttered a startled, strangled cry, and Jen turned her gaze toward the now darkened ceiling.

The backup floodlights came on, filling the room with a sickly yellow glow.

“Oh, no.”

“What is it?”

“Come on,” she said, standing and pulling her dark blue blazer off the back of her chair. “Let’s go for a walk.”

It was the same outside. Every once in a while, Jen hated it when she was right. All up and down the block, there was a steady stream of people pouring out onto the street.

“Damn.”

“What is it, Carnes? What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we’re in big, big trouble,” Jen said, her brow knitted in worry. “The entire city…hell, the entire country goes dark, communication-wise, in the middle of the night. Internet’s down. Cell phones. And now, ten hours later, we’ve got blackouts.”

“Yeah?”

“So how many hours do you think the city could be run on battery power, on generators?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Half a day…maybe a little….oh, boy. Power, too?”

“I’m just thinking out loud here,” Jen said, glancing both ways down the street.

“And what else are you thinking?”

“Water.”

“That’s what I was thinking, too,” Randy nodded.

“Still…”

“So you’re saying somebody took out all social services and utilities?”

“Like I said, I’m just thinking here. And I’m starting to think that McCall should get in touch with somebody in DC, and I mean pronto.”

“Who?”

“The National Guard.”

“Holy shit!” Randy exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack. People can live without phones. Power is a different story. Hospitals? Schools? Grocery stores? Without power, you won’t be able to even pump gas for a car.”

“Oh, shit, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Come on, let’s go get Brubaker and Mellon, they can do the water check.”

“But where are we going?”

“Call me crazy, but I think this has something to do with that thing last night. That lab in the industrial park.”

“Come on, Carnes, that was just one event. One of many. What makes you think…”

“I don’t know, okay? I just have a hunch. Something about it was off, and I just have a really bad feeling about all this. But we need to move, now, and get on this.”

“Okay. I roll with you.”

“What was the name of the lab’s parent organization?”

“AdvanTech. Military and defense contractor. They owned the lab outright, along with another testing facility down near the harbor.”

“Not too shabby, Timmons.”

“We aim to please. Also provided IT support and systems design for a few private firms, mostly in the security and law enforcement field. Wells Fargo, freight companies, Kent-Allan Security, stuff like that. Just inked a big deal with that contractor, um…CyTech Industries, I think.”

“Nice. Who’s there that we could talk to, I wonder?”

“On a Sunday? Probably not many. Especially given this,” Randy said, and waved a hand at the steady influx of people into the street. “Even if there is someone there, the phones are down. It means going there in person.”

“Corporate offices?”

“Outskirts of town,” Randy nodded.

“Bingo.”

“I’ll drive,” Randy said grimly.

CHAPTER 19

It was pretty quiet.

“Maybe they’re gone for good,” Kerrigan said, his fixed on the house in a blank stare.

“But maybe they’ll be back.”

“How many times have you known anybody to come back after doing…that?”

Detective Mitchell Herndon gulped a little. He had seen quite a number of disturbing images in his 14-year career, but what they had stumbled across in the early hours of the morning had upset him badly. The family in the house hadn’t just been murdered…they’d been…toyed with. By giants wielding machinery, by the looks of it. And the father…something in his guts rolled over and he groaned a little, trying his best to forget the image.

“I’m really tired,” Kerrigan whined.

“Jesus Christ, will you shut up for a little while?”

“But I am.”

“You fall asleep and I’ll report you.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” Kerrigan groaned. “Nobody would know, and if they did, they wouldn’t care. But not you, not Mitch Hern..”

“Just, you know, shut it awhile, okay?”

“Mr. By the Book himself.”

“Give it a rest.”

Mitch looked out over the steering wheel of the plain black Crown Vic. He had parked up the street just a little, just at the top of a gentle rise…but all the same, it was hard to conceal the car very well. It was a private road, and there were only four houses on it. The one they watched, a big colonial at the end of the turnaround, sat on the most land of all of them and it made staying near it difficult. He had nudged the Crown Vic up to the edge of the road, getting most of it under the low hanging branches of a willow. It would have to be good enough. He checked his watch, sighed, and picked up the radio.

“Dispatch, this is BPD 597. Checking in at 1100 hours.”

“Copy, car 597,” the voice crackled back through the small speaker. “Logged at 1100.”

“Dispatch, are the phones still down?”

“That’s affirmative,” the female voice said, and with that Mitch thought he heard the first human emotion in her voice that he could recall ever hearing…and it was one of irritation. “Phones are still inoperative. And most of the city seems to be losing power as well.”

“Oh, great.”

“Exactly.”
“Okay, dispatch, will radio again in approximately one hour.”

“Copy that car 597, one hour.”

“597 out.”

He hung the mic back on the dash and sighed, and shifted down into his seat, trying to get more comfortable. They had been waiting for nearly three hours, ever since the coroner’s van had left.

“You don’t really expect them to come back, do you?”

Mitch allowed himself to think of the house’s interior, the way he had seen it hours earlier. It had been completely ransacked. Furniture overturned, tables smashed. The inside of the house had been a study in rage and ruin, the bodies an example of depravity itself. But the study…

The study had been immaculate. It was well-equipped, with the newest ink jet printer still warm on its desk. The chair was still neatly tucked under the huge oak desk, papers and documents were still stacked neatly in plastic trays, filing cabinets seemed in order…

But something had struck Mitch as wrong, something he couldn’t put his finger on…it took him nearly an hour to finally realize what it was that was nagging him. The office was in fine shape, seemingly undisturbed…but the computer was gone.

The modest flat screen monitor still sat atop the oak desk, but the space below for the tower itself was empty. And given this guy’s position, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. No, he didn’t think the people responsible were ever coming back, but right now, they didn’t have much to go on. It was best to sit…and wait.

“Patience,” Mitch said softly, and sighed.

It was as if he summoned the vehicle with his word. As soon as the sigh had left his lips, he heard the soft crunching of gravel in the distance behind them.

“Heads up,” he said softly, and turned his gaze to his rearview mirror. Kerrigan stopped in mid-yawn and craned his neck around. “Stay down,” Mitch whispered. Both men sank into their seats and tried to stay out of sight as much as the design of the car and the tint of the windows would let them. Mitch looked over his shoulder, waiting.

The truck rolled past on the gravel road, its tires crunching softly on the gray rocks. It was a black Chevy SUV, the windows nearly as dark as the ones on the cruiser, and there was no indication the occupants had noticed them as it passed fifteen feet to their left. Mitch and his young partner held their breath as it pulled in front of the house, paused, and then came to a gentle stop in the turnaround in the street.

“Holy shit,” Kerrigan muttered, a fine sweat breaking out on his brow.

“Behold. The wisdom of Herndon,” Mitch whispered back, never taking his eyes off the truck.

Whoever it was, they were acting as dodgy as suspects would have been. For a good three or four minutes, nothing moved.

“What are they…” Kerrigan started to say, and then stopped as they saw the passenger door open.

A young woman got out, and walked slowly to the front of the vehicle, never taking her eyes off of the house. She watched the front door for a moment, and Mitch saw late morning sunlight reflect off her blonde hair as she turned her head to the truck, she said something to the driver and then he got out, too. He was a tallish guy, with dark brown hair, in a white shirt with khakis. He joined her at the front of the vehicle, and Mitch noticed he moved with a tiny limp in his right leg.

“You seeing this?” Kerrigan asked unnecessarily.

“Yep.”

“Should we go down there?”

“Wait….wait for it…”

The two moved the front door, and even from this distance, Mitch could see the enormous amount of caution and care they were using. It reminded him of a National Geographic film he had once seen, where a herd of zebras had crept up to a water hole in the middle of a dry season, even though they suspected it contained crocodiles. And when the reptiles did spring forth, it was still a surprise, even after all that caution.

“Look at that,” Kerrigan said softly. “What are they waiting for?”

“They don’t want to go in there any more than we do,” Mitch answered.

The duo seemed to nod to each other, and they slipped through the front door into the structure.

“Then why did they go inside?” Kerrigan asked.

Mitch pulled his 9mm from its holster and clicked the safety to the ‘off’ position. “Because there’s nowhere else to drink,” he said.

What?”

He shook his head. “Never mind. Come on, let’s go.”

“Danny, I’m sorry.”

He just nodded, silent. His eyes wandered over the wreckage of the inside of the house, his expression curiously blank.

Cassie stepped closer to him and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. But now we know. And we can’t stay. We have to go.”

“Maybe they weren’t here.”

“Danny…”

“Maybe Trevor and Lizzie had taken the kids somewhere, maybe they weren’t here when they came.”

Cassie’s eyes met his own, and even though she nodded half-heartedly, he could see the gentle look in her eyes. “Maybe. Maybe so.”

Dan just shook his head sadly from side to side. “They loved this house. Lizzie, especially. They were such good people, Cass. You would have liked them.”

“I’m sure I would have, Danny, but we need to go, now. Seriously. Please.”

“I can’t believe it looks like this now,” he said, the slightest waver to his voice. “it was always so neat. Tidy. And now…” his voice trailed off weakly, his arm raised in a pathetic display gesture, waving in the direction of the shattered living room. His eyes were distant, vacant, and he didn’t see Cassie’s expression darken in concern.

“Daniel, listen. There isn’t time for this, all right? There isn’t time. Later. Do you hear me?”

“What?”

“Later. We can mourn them later. I promise you. But right now you have to focus. I need you to focus.”

Dan turned away from her suddenly, a light gasp his only sound. Cassie looked over her shoulder, and immediately saw the cause: a large brownish-red smear had been drawn across the white stone wall near the fireplace. There was a big, thick round spot, with several passes drawn back and forth below it, each one a little less distinct than the one above it. She touched the dried stain with her fingertip, and rubbed the tip with her thumb.

“Hmm…this is older than I first thought. This probably didn’t happen last night.”

Dan didn’t answer her, only looked at her with his same blank stare.

“Which is good, in a way.”

“How the hell is that a good thing?”

“Because it lessens the chances of them still being here,” Cassie explained patiently. “But we still can’t linger. We have to go.”

“Why? You just said…”

“Yes, I know. They might not be here, but other people are. Did you see that car we passed on the road?”

Dan didn’t answer that he hadn’t; he didn’t have to.

“Well, there were two people in it, and I think they’re police officers. They’re watching the house, right now, and they’re probably on the way right now.”

“But...”

“Daniel, we need to go. Now, soldier. This isn’t the mission right now.”

Something clicked into place for Dan then. It was a change so fundamental, it was nearly audible. It was certainly visible. He blinked his vision clear, straightened his shoulders, and nodded.

“Okay. Right. But first we should get some information. The reason they came here at all, I think.”

“Okay….but hurry, please,” Cassie said. “We have to go.”

“No, you don’t,” Herndon said from the doorway. “Don’t move.”

***

The bunker looked like something from a bad 1950s thriller, but McCraddock supposed that the facility fulfilled its purpose well enough. From this large, darkened office, the President theoretically could contact all branches of the military, as well as have an open line of communication with the White House Situation Room. Various rooms branched off the West Tunnel, each one providing a specific function. One served as a cafeteria. Another was the compound’s hospital. Several crew quarters. And, of course, the living quarters for the President.

The Army Corps of Engineers had hollowed out a good portion of the Virginia mountain’s granite way back in the early 50s, in the hopes of creating a nuclear bomb-proof refuge close to Washington. They had succeeded, although the facility had never been tested for that specific purpose, and, God willing, never would. But the 34-ton blast door at the mouth of the tunnel afforded a sense of security, and the compound proved useful during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a sudden and mysterious northeastern power outage, and again during the events of 9/11. Mt. Weather was designed to keep 200 people alive for over a month, in perfect seclusion and protection, filtering air and treating its own water, keeping those inside removed from whatever events that had brought them there.

And now, the cacophony of voices and chaos faded as they were all ushered from the room, and the heavy door clicked shut behind them with an echoing report. The Naval officer with the nuclear football sat in a metal chair by the door, his back stiff, his posture one of steadfast vigilance. Merton Banks, special advisor to (and longtime friend of) the President lay on a cot against the far wall, his tie loose, his collar unbuttoned. Hargrove himself sat in office chair at a small metal desk near the center of the room, his exhaustion now evident.

The old guy’s spirits had been pretty good up till now, but now the inevitable ‘crash’ had arrived. Heavy bags of exhaustion swelled under his dark eyes, and his craggy face seemed even craggier by the minute. He had finally been brought a proper suit after nearly an hour, but he had left the coat off and left his collar unbuttoned. Hargrove wiped at his eyes with his fingertips, and sighed.

“Is there any word from Washington, Jack?”

“I’m afraid not, Mr. President.”

“The Secretary of Defense? Billy?”

McCraddock shook his head. “No, sir.”

“What about your people out in Montana? Could they find the Vice-President?”

“We’re not sure, sir. Right now, it seems all communication systems are still down; cell and internet access is nonexistent, and we’re only getting intermittent reports from Washington, and that’s over the radio.”

“Radio?”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“What kind of radio?”

“Citizen’s Band, Mr. President.”

“Cripes. I’m the President of the United States, and I’m talking to truckers and ham radio enthusiasts.”

“Salt of the Earth,” Banks volunteered from his cot, and Hargrove waved him off in a motion that spoke at once of minor irritation and time-tested familiarity.

“I feel….like a mole in here,” Hargrove complained, and sighed deeply. “I never thought I would run from a fight.”

“You had to,” Banks offered.

“What?”

“Constitutionally bound, right?” Banks asked, and gestured to Jack. Hargrove turned to the man in charge of his security detail.

“That’s true,” McCraddock agreed. “In this case, we’re somewhat limited in what we could have done, sir. We’re legally bound to keep you, and the chain of command, safe.”

“And you have, but at what cost?” Hargrove asked. “My God, Jack. Lisa Barrow? What the hell is going on?”

In the confusion of the evacuation and the laser-focused determination to do his job, Jack had managed to put the episode out of his mind. Now, with time and distance, it swam back into focus. Lisa’s uncomprehending look, the way her head snapped back when the slug traveled through her forehead…

“Based on our intel, it seemed the right thing to do at the time, sir. It may still be the right thing, even now. We won’t know for quite some time, I think.”

“What intel?”

“Just as the situation began to spin out of control on the grounds, sir, we received some preliminary reports of a series of security breaches, each one closer to the White House. Then, one by one, we started losing contact with sentries, and then the decision was made to get you and as many advisors and staffers out of there as quickly as we could.”

“But what does that have to do with Li….with what you did…with what happened?”

Jack sighed, his cool, calm demeanor cracked the tiniest bit by the strange nature of his information. “Sir, the only intel we had at the time referred to a woman, or women, who…somehow…contributed to the series of breaches. I am simply unable to describe it any better than that, sir; the information was sketchy at best, but we received several reports that warned of female members of the security and staff detail, and that they apparently were in on the events that transpired.”

“Jesus. But what did happen, Jack? We don’t even know exactly what happened, let alone who is responsible.”

“I’m afraid that’s true, Mr. President. But I’d say it’s a safe assumption that there was an attempt on your life last night.”

“Not just his,” Banks piped up from the other side of the room. “We couldn’t find most of the Joint chiefs, remember. Or many members of the Cabinet.”

“What about my wife?” Hargrove asked. “Is there any word about my wife?”

Jack paused, then slowly shook his head. “No, sir. I’m sorry. Nothing. But…but I’m sure she is fine, and will be here shortly. There are good men on her detail, and…”

“Stop treating me like a mushroom, Jack.”

“…and…what? Uh, what, sir?”

“Isn’t that what you do to mushrooms? Keep them in the dark and feed them shit?”

Jack shifted on his feet, unsure of himself, and relaxed only when he saw Hargrove and Banks exchange a weary, tired smile.

Hargrove nodded, and gazed at the floor. “I wish she were here,” he said softly. Jack shifted his feet uncomfortably, and glanced at Banks, who only watched Hargrove with a mixture of sadness and concern. And then the moment passed.

“I’ll tell you what, though,” Hargrove said, his gaze firm, his mouth set. “People died tonight. And not just in Washington, either. And when we find out who is responsible, we’re going to make them pay.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

***

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

I froze, and even though I had never broken any law more significant than a speed limit, I instinctually raised my hands the second I saw the pistol in his hand.

He was definitely a cop, I could tell right away. He was a couple of years older than me, and he wore a plain, generic suit. He was starting to lose his hair a little, and sported the ever-present ‘cop mustache,’ which matched the same shade of black as his receeding hairline. His  eyes were bright and his gun hand didn’t waver.

I couldn’t say the same for his partner. He was a younger guy, probably only in his mid or late 20s or so, with dirty blonde hair and the beginnings of a pot belly. He was definitely the more squirrelly of the two; his eyes darted back and forth between me and Cassie every couple of seconds, as if he couldn’t decide on which one of us to watch more carefully. Eventually he decided on me…if it had been one of her ‘sisters’ instead of Cassie, that might have been a fatal mistake.

“Okay, keep your hands up, please. I’m Detective Herndon of the Baltimore Police Department,” he said calmly. “You’ve entered a crime scene, and we’re just going to have a little talk about that, okay? All right. This is Detective Kerrigan here, and he’s going to check you for weapons, and what not, and then we’ll talk a little bit, all right?”

Kerrigan stepped forward, turning his finger around in a circle gesture to Cassie. “Turn around, please. Hands on your head.”

Cassie obliged, and just for a second I saw both of the officers take in her figure as she raised her arms skyward, her hands laced together on her head. Her gaze met mine, her eyes worried, her face holding a strange pinched expression. She made a tiny tilt of her head in the direction of the cop as he bent down behind her; I immediately frowned and tried to shake my head a bit. She rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Do you have any firearms, knives or needles on your person?” Kerrigan asked routinely.

“No sir,” Cassie answered.

“Okay then. Spread your legs apart just a bit, please. Thank you.”

He patted her down quickly, his touch pausing just a bit when he tapped the inside of her lower thigh. I could see his surprise at the firmness of Cassie’s leg; he tapped the same spot twice more, his brow rising a bit.

“Okay,” he said, rising, and with a click of polished metal he had one of Cassie’s wrists in a handcuff, and pulled her arm down before her. She looked at me again, rolling her eyes in annoyance, and slowly dawning irritation. I shook my head again, and once more she sighed in frustration. After a moment the detective was finished and she stood handcuffed before him.

“Thank you, if you could just have a seat, there, ma’am. Thank you,” Kerrigan said, and again there was the slight hesitation as he was caught again by Cassie’s appearance. She flashed him an irritated smile and sat, her cuffed hands in her lap, on a wooden kitchen chair which the other cop, Herndon, had turned upright for her.

“And you? Any weapons, knives, or needles on you?”

I shook my head, and waited with my hands on my head as I was checked as well. It was clear which of them was the one in charge of the operation.

“My name is Daniel Pittman, I’m a friend of Trevor Ainsbury, the man who owns this house,” I said.

“All right, Daniel,” Herndon said. “Do you have any I.D. on you?”

“In my wallet, in my truck,” I answered.

“Okay. And you, miss?”

“My name is Cassandra O’Connor. I’m Dan’s…I work with Dan.”

“Right. And do you have any I.D.?”

She shook her head.

“Okay. And where do you all work?”

“For Kent-Allan. Downtown. They’re a defense contractor that does security work for the military and industrial…”

“Yes, I know who they are and what they do, Mr. Pittman.”

“Trevor works for AdvanTech, we met professionally and became friends.”

“And why did you come out here today, of all days?”

“Well, with everything that was going on, I…I just wanted…to check in with him, you know…I couldn’t get in touch with him and I became concerned…”

“So you ran right here, is that it?” Herndon asked. His face was the perfect picture of impassivity. I couldn’t tell if he believed me, or was mocking me, or genuinely asking me a simple question. I found it disconcerting. He was a good cop.

“Yes, sir.” Kerrigan had finished and now I had my hands cuffed in front of me as well.

“All right,” he said, nodding. “Okay. I appreciate the information. What we’re going to do is pretty simple, all right? We’re going to go out to the car, and I’ll have to run a background check. If everything checks out, you guys can be on your way, all right?”

“Detective, please, my friend, Trevor? Did something happen here? Can you tell me, please?”

“Sir, I’ll be happy to answer your questions as best I can, but only after the checks, all right?” Herndon asked, and then gestured toward Cass with his left arm. “Miss? Could you come with me, please?”

Cassie stood, and looked at me as she stepped closer to him. For the first time, she looked unsure of herself, unsure of what to do. We really have entered the undiscovered country, I thought to myself.

I gave her a shake of the head and nodded in the cop’s direction. She frowned and allowed him to take her arm just above the elbow (he paused, too, looking at his hand on her arm in surprise). He led her outside. After a moment, I couldn’t hear their feet on the gravel anymore.

“You say your I.D. is in your vehicle?” Kerrigan asked, trying to copy the easy, authoritative voice of his partner, and doing a poor job of it. He then asked me a few questions, most of which had already been asked by his partner.

“Where is he taking Cassie?” I asked, trying not to sound overly concerned.

“They’re just going up the road to our cruiser. It’s easier for us to…it’s better if we get separate statements on an occasion like this.”

“We’re not lying or giving you guys a hard time. Things are a little crazy out there today, and I wanted to check on Trevor.”

“Um-hmm.”

“I know that sounds fishy with whatever obviously happened here recently, but it’s the truth.”

“All right.”

“If you just check on our information…”

“You say you have your I.D.?”

“Yes, sir, my driver’s license. My keys…” I said, gesturing with my head toward my left front pocket. The detective made a motion to get the keys when we heard the new voice come from the top of the stairs, and we both froze.

Uncle Danny?” it said.

***

With the traffic as bad as it was, it took Carnes and Timmons far longer to reach the AdvanTech corporate offices than it would have on a normal day. People hadn’t panicked, exactly, but there was a low, simmering unease that pervaded the day in the faces of the drivers they passed.

“This is weird,” Randy said as he swung the bureau’s black Mercury around a stalled station wagon. “This whole thing. This whole day. It just feels…off.”

Jen just stared at the faces as they passed, knowing her own expression must seem a lot like the ones she was seeing. “They’re scared,” she said softly. “They don’t know what to do yet. So I’m not worried…yet. As long as their confused, they’re…” she sought for the word. It took her a moment to find it, and when she did, she found it left a bad taste in her mouth.

“Confused?” Randy offered.

“…manageable,” Jen finished.

“But what happens after that? If things don’t change? If they don’t get better?”

“Here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen,” Jen muttered and then fell silent, watching more sullen, confused faces glide by.

“Okay, so, we quiz them about the lab, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Jen answered as they strode toward the huge black glass doors of the building. The structure itself was quiet, on a quiet street more than three miles from the expressway. There were a few cars scattered throughout the parking lot, but no visible activity to speak of.

“How far do you think this goes?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve gone all Sixth Sense with this whole thing. You said you think whatever is going on is connected to that lab?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

“Well, what about all those other defense contractors? Kent-Allan? CyTech? Shouldn’t we check on all those, too?”

Carnes sighed as they stopped in front of the glass doors to the lobby. “One thing at a time, Randy. If something stinks here, I get the feeling it’ll stink there as well.”

“Okay. Sounds reasonable.”

Randy went to take a step into the glass, and stopped short when the doors didn’t open automatically. He paused, confused, then rolled his eyes. “Power,” he said aloud, more to himself than to her, and stepped back with a shake of his head. He pressed the ‘talk’ button in the gray keypad next to the door, but there was no sign of it working. Half a minute passed.

“Uh…”

Jen reached out and rapped on the dark glass four times, hard enough to make the glass vibrate loudly in the frame and make her knuckles protest. Nothing. Randy repeated her knock, and again they waited.

“Nobody home, I guess,” Randy said, and shrugged. The agents stepped back from the building and gazed skyward at the tall glass façade.

“Yeah, but…” Jan thought aloud, her brow furrowed in thought. Something wasn’t right. She didn’t yet know what it was, but something was…off...

“Maybe after some crews get out here and they can get power back on we can—”

“Hey!” Carnes nearly shouted, her eyes wide in sudden realization. “Look. Cars, right?” She pointed to the two dozen or so vehicles that littered the building’s parking lot.

“Yeah. People might have left them here, or they’re just inside and can’t hear us knocking, or maybe…”

“Yeah, but look.” Carnes made a sweeping motion at the building with her hand. “What do you see?”

“A building we can’t go in.”

“Because?”

“There’s no power,” Randy said, and when he looked back at the building he froze.

“Which is strange because…”

“None of the windows are open,” Randy finished, and looked at Carnes with an obvious mixture of admiration and poorly disguised affection.

“Yeah. With no AC, that building would get to be like a sauna, and I mean, in a hurry. So, cars means people, but…this.”

“Uh-hmm,” Randy nodded, but he had already turned away and was halfway back to the door. Jen trotted to catch up, and as they stepped onto the door mat they both unconsciously pulled the hem of their jackets away from their belts, putting their Bureau badges on full display.

Randy raised his hand to knock on the darkened glass once more, but he didn’t get chance. The door swung open and a tall brunette stepped out, her shoulder squared against the heavy glass.

“Hi there,” she half-grunted against the obvious weight of the door. “We saw you earlier, but with no power we couldn’t figure out how to get this door open. It’s automatic, you know,” she said as if in apology. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, ma’am, we’re with the local office of the FBI and we’re trying to collect some information about some rather odd events last night,” Carnes said, her voice falling into the usual pitch and meter it took on when conducting official business. She glanced at Randy at the appropriate time, as well, at the point when they made eye contact and Randy would offer her a supporting nod or glance.

She didn’t get it this time, however; Randy’s attention was fixed on the woman holding the door open. She was tall, really tall. And leggy. She wore a skirt that was an inch or two above the knee, dark green in color, and a frilly white blouse that was just the right size to show off how trim (and relatively busty) she was. She wore small rectangular glasses, and her jet black was tied in a loose bun on the top and back of her head, twirled in a loose pile that seemed the very definition of stylishly unkempt, yet somehow business-office appropriate. Sure, Carnes could see that the woman was very attractive, but Randy’s eyes seemed glued to her.

“FBI?” the woman said with audible alarm, her mouth open in a small “O” shape of surprise.

“Don’t worry, we just have a few…a few questions,” Randy half said, half stammered.

“Questions?” the woman repeated, and raised an eyebrow, her gaze stuck in Randy’s direction. Incredibly, Carnes could see a thin, fine sweat break out on brow of her partner.

“About the…the incident at your lab last night. Down by the river, the waterfront district?”

The woman pulled her gaze back to Jennifer, but it took an obvious force of will. “Oh, that,” she said, as if referring to a minor office mix-up rather than an assault on a multi-million dollar laboratory. “Yes, that was just awful, wasn’t it?”

“Uh….well…that’s one word for it, I suppose,” Carnes agreed slowly. She struggled to keep her voice even, but inside, her mind was whirling. Something was off about this whole exchange, more than just the exceptional events of this day. Randy would have made a comment about her ‘spider sense tingling’ if he had been more aware of anything but the woman’s hemline. “We’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind,” Carnes finished.

“Well…I…I’d love to help, Agent…?”
“Carnes.”

“…Agent Carnes, really I would, but…well, gosh, I’m just the secretary, I don’t really think I know anything that you’d find important.”

Did she just say, ‘Gosh?’

Jennifer glanced sideways again, and was dismayed to see Randy just staring on, gazing at the woman in undisguised fascination.

“Well, then I’ll just talk to you and some of your co-workers, then, just to do some information gathering. The more things we get, the more complete our investigation will be.”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not sure…I just don’t know how to….gosh, Mrs. Carnes, I don’t know if I…”

“Ms. Carnes.”

“Oh.”

“Could I…could we speak to your superior, then?”

The woman bristled a little, visibly at that question, at that term. She had turned back to gaze at Randy, but now her head jerked suddenly to face Carnes again, and just for an instant Carnes could see her brow darken in surprise…and maybe the first hint of anger?

“My superi…..hmm. Well…my immediate commander isn’t here at the moment.”

“Commander?”

The woman looked Carnes up and down, and now obvious irritation flashed in her strikingly bright blue eyes. “My boss. She’s not here. Nobody here can answer your questions. I suggest you come back later.”

“That’s a suggestion?”

“Hey, Jen. Come on, maybe we could….” Randy said softly, finally coming out of his temporary fugue.

She raised a hand slightly in his direction. “All right, well, surely you’d want to help a federal investigation, right?”

The woman’s sparkling blue eyes were fixed on Jen’s own, and now Jen could feel the spite burning in her gaze.

“Of course,” the woman said with poorly concealed venom.

“Then, perhaps we could come in and do some preliminary questioning around your office?” Jen’s phrase, given her tone, was only a question in terms of sentence structure.

The woman’s gaze remained locked on Carnes’ own for a long moment, long enough for Jen to worry to herself, Damn, she really isn’t going to let us in. But then a cold, icy smile spread across the woman’s face and she broke the stalemate by looking back to Randy.

“Surely. Come right in,” she said, and pushed the door open wider with one hand.

“All right,” Randy said with a falsely genial smile and the awkward tone of a man who is aware women are quarreling before him and doesn’t precisely know why. He stepped inside while Carnes waited, her brow furrowed in thought.

The woman led them down a long interior hallway, the quiet of the office building oppressive around them. They let her get a comfortable amount of space ahead of them, and then Randy leaned down to Jen as they walked.

“What’s going on? What’s with the fireworks?”

“I don’t know, something’s wrong.”

“Jesus, here we go. You and your hunches.”

“I’m telling you something is up. She doesn’t want us in here.”

“Neither would I after your little routine out there.”

“And did you see her open the door just now? Before, it was all she could do to get it open and hold it there. But now? Whoosh,” Jen finished, and made a one-handed pushing gesture. “What’s up with that?”

Randy paused for a moment, now unsure of himself. “You’re paranoid,” he said, but with a trace of uncertainty.

“Don’t think so. She’s up to something. This place is up to something. This whole thing is just…off.”

The woman before them turned abruptly, letting them close the distance with her as she shrugged, now as seemingly good-natured as she ever was. “See? Not much going on,” she offered. “Mostly just administrative stuff, clerical matters. A lot of what happened last night in still being sorted out, by the higher-ups, you know,” she said with a ‘give me sympathy’ nod.

Another woman dressed in stereotypical secretarial fashion stepped out from a doorway behind her, although this woman was blonde and a few years younger than the first. She was just as tall though, and of equally striking appearance. “Uh…um, hello. Who are your friends, Dina?”

“These are two FBI agents who are going to help us get to bottom of last night’s….occurrence…at the waterfront lab,” Dina replied with a shit-eating grin that set off every alarm in Jennifer Carnes’ mind.

“Oh, all right. How…how nice,” the blonde said, her shock quite evident. She looked around, almost comically, at the hallway, at the wall, at the stack of manila folders in her hand. “Uh…that’s great,” she finished lamely.

“Yes. I’m sure it is. Maddy, could you tell everyone that the agents are here, and would like to take a few statements as to recent events.”

“Really?” the blonde’s shock was even more evident, and now bordered on a minor panic attack.

“Really.”

“Uhh…okay.” In a flash she was gone through another doorway.

“She seemed a little nervous,” Jen remarked carefully.

“Did she? I didn’t notice,” Dina said dismissively. “Can I get you some coffee….?”

“Timmons. Agent Timmons.”

“Agent Timmons?”

“No, no thank you.”

Ms. Carnes?”

Agent Carnes. And no, thanks. We’d rather get right to it, rather than, you know…stall for time.”

“I see. Very well. You can follow me.”

The woman named Dina turned and took them through a large open work area, with rows of desks and computers that filled the room. Maddy, the nervous blonde, passed by them, going the other way, and Jen though that she looked more concerned than ever. They slowly made their way through the maze of desks, stepping over trash cans and around three-sided cubicles.

In addition to the desks and computers, the large room was also filled with secretaries.

Jen’s eyes darted around the room, taking in the surreal scene quickly. There were 25 or 30 desks in the long, open room, and probably a dozen or so women flitting about, moving stacks of manila folders from place to place, shuffling papers and the like. One was even moving a computer tower from desk to desk. A quick glance to the side told her that Randy still hadn’t picked up on anything amiss; his face still bore the same, sleepy/happy expression. But to Jen, it was obvious.

A large number of secretaries, but no bosses. And no men. Of the dozen or more people in the room, none were male. And each woman was a magazine advertisement come to life, the epitome of the stereotypical ‘attractive female office professional.’ Most were dressed in nearly the same fashion as Dina: a sensible skirt, a white frilly blouse; some wore light business jackets. Nearly all of them wore glasses. Most of them were tall, and extraordinarily leggy; a handful were downright striking in their stature; Jen was sure that at least four of them were no less than six-footers.

She could see Dina eyeing them as she led them through the room, and trying hard to conceal the furtive glances she cast at the two agents. Once on the other side, Jen held Randy back and spoke quickly in a hushed voice.

“See? What’s wrong with this picture?”

Randy was practically drooling. “Nothing. This is the most…amazing…office…ever.”

“Look. They’re shuffling around, but not actually doing anything.”

“You’re paranoid. Look,” he said, and gestured.

Dina was waiting for them at the end of the hall, one hand on the edge of an open door, the other resting on her hip, which was cocked fetchingly – and a little arrogantly -- to one side.

“See? Not much going on, I’m afraid.”

“I couldn’t help but notice that you and your co-workers are just moving some things around? It looks like you’re removing a lot of files.”

“Mmm-hmm. Reference materials,” Dina said curtly.

“Reference materials?”

“Out with the old, in with the new,” Dina intoned humorlessly. “We’re just using the spare time to archive some of the old materials that have been stacking up around the office. We’re storing them in here,” she offered, gesturing into the small room, which Jen and Randy could see was a small storage closet. The left wall was nearly hidden by tall stacks of boxes filled with file folders.

“Reference materials,” Jen repeated, her eyes locked on Dina’s.

“Yes. Please, come on in,” Dina said, and waved them into the space. “You’re more than welcome to check the material, if you like,” she added, with a grin that Jen thought could be described as only chilling.

Randy followed her inside, and Jen stepped in after him a little more warily. He turned to inspect the wall of boxes before him.

“So this is the bulk of the work you’re doing?” he asked vaguely.

“Yes, for instance, these boxes to the right, up here….” Dina began, pointing.

She was very fast.

Randy looked up to where Dina pointed, close to her gesturing hand. In a flash, her hand was against the side of his head, palm flat, and with no obvious effort, she thrust sideways, driving Randy headfirst into the wall. His skull impacted the wall with a sickening, hollow ‘bonk’ sound, and he collapsed with a sigh into a motionless heap in the corner.

Even though she half-expected something to happen, Jen was shocked at the speed and ease of the other woman. Dina had moved so fast she had been almost a blur. Jen’s right dropped and began to pull back her jacket as she went for her gun.

“Fre---” she started to say, but didn’t get to finish.

In a flash, Dina turned and was on her. A chop with her left hand sent Jen’s gun-seeking hand off to the side, everything south of her elbow numb and throbbing. Dina’s right hand, its fingers curled into a strange, blade-like shape, landed on Jen’s upper middle chest.

In that flashing quarter-second that seemed to go on forever, Jennifer Carnes saw the brunette woman’s eyes flash with an icy malice that nearly made her own heart stop, her mind simply saying ‘No, no no – nobody is that fast,’ and then the woman’s hand moved with a strange, tiny pulsing strike against Jen’s breastbone, and the world went suddenly, completely dark, and she knew nothing more.

***

Uncle Danny?” the tiny voice said.

The hair on the back of Dan’s neck went up as he instantly recognized the voice. He craned his neck around to lookup the huge staircase that filled the right side of the room, and the detective, Kerrigan, copied his motion.

She stood at the top of the stairs, looking exactly as he remembered her. Her dark blonde hair was in total disarray, though; it stood off from her head in frayed and knotted bunches. She wore a rumpled white T-shirt that was two sizes too big (probably one of her father’s, Dan thought), and a pair of red and green checked plaid pajama bottoms. Her bare feet were dirty, her toes curled over the edge of the first stair at the top.

“Ellie?” Dan called.

Ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod!” the girl chanted as she ran down the steps, her voice nearly lost over the thrumming of her feet on the carpeted steps. She didn’t even make it to the bottom of the stairs; she jumped the last four steps, a teenage bundle of tussled hair, tear-streaked cheeks, and hoarse sobbing.

Danny tried to raise his arms to catch her, but the handcuffs he wore made it difficult. Ellie landed on him with a thump, her thin frame hanging from him as she encircled his neck with her arms, and drew her face to his chest, her body wracked with sobs of simultaneous anguish and relief.

“Who…what’s going on?” Kerrigan asked shrilly.

“It’s the daughter. Ainsbury’s daughter,” Dan explained, and tried to return her embrace the best he could. “Hey there, Ellie,” Dan said to her gently. “Are you all right?”

“Noooooo,” she moaned, her shoulders quivering, her face wrinkled up as she struggled to cry, breathe, and talk all at the same time. “Not really.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart, it’s okay. You’re going to be fine. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Where have you been?” the cop asked her, his expression one of wide wonder. “We’ve been going through this house for two days! Where were you all this time?”

“Hey, hey, relax, all right? Look at her,” Dan said, annoyed. “Christ, man.”

“All right, okay, sorry. But what happened? Were you here the whole time?”

Ellie released her grip on Dan’s neck and slid down to stand on the ground, down to the 5-foot-2 height that Dan remembered. Her face was still red and flushed, but she managed to get herself under control, for the moment, and she swiped away the wetness on her cheeks with quick, savage wipes of her left hand. “I…uh…I was here, I was in my room.”

“The whole time?”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “The whole time,” she said, and began crying again.

“Shhh, come on now, El. Deep breath,” Dan offered, and tried to console her as well as he could with his hands bound.

“Why….why do you have…these?” she asked, looking at the steel manacles encircling Dan’s wrists. Then sudden mistrust darkened her eyes. “You…you didn’t…you couldn’t…”

“No! no, sweetie, no, of course not. There’s no way I could ever have had something to do with this. But you…what happened?”

Ellie thumped down into a plush leather recliner, the very image of physical and emotional exhaustion. “I don’t know,” she cried, her hands trembling. “It was so…so weird. It was horrible….” She began to sob again.

“You’ve got to try, honey, you’ve got to try to tell me what’s been going on here, what happened here, okay? It’s important.”

“O…okay.”

“Where’s…where’s your dad?” Dan asked her gently.

Ellie’s eyes flicked up to meet Dan’s as her face turned a new shade of scarlet. She tried to speak, faltered, then steeled herself, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks.

“He’s dead,” she said in a tiny voice.

Dan blinked slowly, nodded his head, and looked at the floor in silence. He had been hoping that she hadn’t been here when it had happened, but now it was obvious she had.

“You were here?” Kerrigan asked brusquely. Ellie simply ignored him, her eyes remained fixed on Dan’s own as she began to speak.

“Mom, too. And George. I’m the only…now it’s just me. It’s just me now.”

A strangled choking cry escaped her at the end of the sentence, and Dan held one of her hands in his own. He simply waited.

“They came at night. I didn’t know any of them. These people…these people came, and then Dad came into the room, and he told me to hide, he said people were coming. He said to get into the closet.”

“The closet?”

“There’s…a room. A little space, really small. Built into the wall. For hiding. If you didn’t know it was there you wouldn’t find it.”

“Panic room,” Kerrigan said to no one.

“I…I got out of bed and Dad said he loved me and then he pushed me, hard, he pushed me and I fell backward over the bed onto the floor. And then he went across the hall, to go to George’s room to tell him too, but they…by then they were in the hall. They were in the hall already and they were shouting, and he was yelling. I couldn’t see much, just feet from under the bed. And then a little bit when Dad was yelling, he was trying to push them back and he was y….yelling…he was trying to hit them but it didn’t bother them much…and he was swearing and yelling. One person, a woman, came into my room, I could see her feet. But she…she went right back out again, and when Dad was yelling I got up and got into the closet. There’s this sliding door that you go through, but I had a shoe rack in front of it, I had to move the shoe rack and I was so scared that they would hear me too, I was so s…s…scared…”

“Did you see any of them? A good look?” Kerrigan demanded.

Dan cast a disapproving glance at the cop, but Kerrigan didn’t notice. Dan just shook his head – this cop was young and had a lot to learn. The guy who had taken Cassie out to the car sure wouldn’t treat Ellie this way.

“Not really. Just for a second, from the back, from inside the closet. There were a few of them, four or five…and…it was weird, ’cause they…they…”

“They what?”

“They weren’t men. It was women, all of them. No guys.”

Kerrigan frowned. “Really?”

Ellie just nodded, a motion that Dan returned. An image, very brief, flashed through Dan’s mind, of a young street punk taking flight, probably already dead, propelled by only the force from the arm of the woman he was sure he loved. Her abilities constantly both impressed and frightened him, more often than not, and now he was hearing about a group of them, an honest to God group of them, each of them with a purpose less pleasant than hers but with even greater strength. His blood ran cold at the concept, and also at the thought of them standing in the hallway, tossing his friend Trevor about like a pinball.

“And then?”

“Then I got into the closet. You slide the door shut and you lock it from the inside. I did it…and…then….and…”

“What?”

“Then I…I heard…I can’t. Uncle Danny, I can’t.”

“It’s okay, El. It’s over now.”

“I…heard….my Dad….he…he was shouting…and then…he…he started screaming.”

Dan’s gaze locked onto the detective’s; his expression one of expectant disgust, the cop’s one of mild confusion.

“He screamed so loud, and for so long, oh, God…I was crying but I had to try to be so quiet. They were downstairs, down here, and I could still hear him screaming, and then Mom, too, they were both screaming, but then she stopped, she was yelling and screaming and then that just stopped, like, real sudden, and then it was just Dad, and he was screaming ‘No, no’ over and over again and then louder, like they were…like they were hurting him.”

A fresh gush of tears spilled down her cheeks. Dan patted her hand.

“It’s all right, El, we’re going to take care of you now.”

Ellie sniffed and her eyes met Dan’s. “We?”

“Me…me and a friend. She’s going to help us now.”

Ellie looked around the room, eyes darting back and forth. “Is she here? Who is it?”

“She’s outside with another officer. But we’re going to take care of you, okay?”

Ellie sniffed again and nodded, and made a valiant attempt, given the circumstances, to return the comforting, sad grin that Dan made.

“And then what happened?” Kerrigan asked.

“Jesus, maybe we should give her a minute,” Dan said.

“Nothing. It just got really quiet. I wasn’t sure if they left, or what. It just got real quiet, and I waited. I just sat there and didn’t move. I was so, so scared. I just waited and waited. And then…then I…I…I fell asleep,” she said, embarrassed.

“You’ve been up there this whole time? Asleep?”

“Well, I…”

“What about when the police came? Why didn’t you come out then?” Kerrigan demanded.

“I heard people, but I thought maybe someone had come back, they had been looking for something, I think, I thought maybe one of them or some of them had come back and…”

“That’s kind of hard to believe….ah, Ellie? Right? Ellie, that’s hard to believe.”

“But that’s what happened,” she said, her eyes red, but finally starting to dry. She wiped her cheeks on her sleeve and blinked her eyes clear with a sniff. “That’s what happened.”

Kerrigan simply stared at her, long and hard, so long that Dan thought he was going to have to say something. But finally the detective moved, and made as if to go toward the kitchen.

“Do you want anything? Something to drink?”

“Could I have a glass of water, please? I’m so thirsty,” she said, her voice a little hoarse.

“Sure, one second,” the cop said, somehow taking all the kindness out of the gesture with simply the tone of his voice.

Ellie watched him turn and walk away, her eyes taking in his full measure with some obvious trepidation.

“You’re going to be all right,” Dan repeated. “I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you.”

The young girl nodded, and ran her hands through her hair, trying to smooth down the dark blonde, tangled mass. “Oh, jeez. I feel so gross,” she said with disgust.

Dan forced a little chuckle. ‘Don’t worry. You’re fine. And we won’t tell any of your friends.”

Ellie smiled the same blank, sad little smile and rubbed her eyes. “I’m tired, too.”

“You’ve been through a lot,” Dan offered.

“I was wondering,” Kerrigan said when he returned with some water. “How did you know your father was…you know…gone? You knew he had….passed away.”

Ellie nodded. “Umm-hmm.”

“How?”

“Well, I saw him.”

“Oh.”

She took the glass when he offered it and took a several long huge, long swallows, the ice clinking on the edge of the glass. “Oh, good. That’s good. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Kerrigan brushed off the ottoman before Ellie’s chair, and sat down carefully on it. “You…you say you saw your Dad?”

“Yeah,” she said, her vision locked on the floor before her.

Detective, really, I think it can wait until—”

“But you also said you had been in the closet the whole time, until just now.”

“Yeah.”

“Well? Which is it?”

Ellie’s brow lowered in a frown. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I think you do,” the detective answered.

“Hey, I don’t think we should be…” Dan began.

“I’m not sure, you know, it was late, and it happened so fast. I mean, all this happened so long ago…” Ellie said, her hands raised in the beginnings of frustration.

“Excuse me?” Kerrigan said. “What do you mean? It was only two nights ago.”

Ellie paused, suddenly, obviously unsure of herself. “Really? It…it seems so much longer.”

Dan was about to object to the detective’s questioning once more, but now he too stopped, his eyes narrowing, his head turning to face the daughter of his best friend. “El?” he asked. “What do you mean, ‘It happened so long ago?’”

Ellie waved her hands about in frustration, and gasped. “You know, it…there was so much…and it was so…confusing. And then…”

“I get the feeling there’s something you’re not telling us, Ellie,” Kerrigan said grimly.

“But there is! I mean, there’s not! God, I don’t know what I mean. It’s just I…I mean…God, I just…it’s like…time went by so fast, and I was….I…oh….”

As Dan watched, he saw Ellie, the girl he had known since she was practically a toddler, he saw her face knotted in anguish, frustration, and irritation….he saw her face change. Not just her expression, but her entire face. Her movements slowed, no longer those of a harried teen, and her hands dropped, and her gaze became cold and icy as her entire face shifted somehow.

It happened very quickly.

Ah, fuck it,” she spat.

“Jesus, no,” Dan breathed, and then louder, to Kerrigan: “Hey…look out!”

“What—” Kerrigan began, but it too late.

The young girl drew her leg up, knee cocked, and drove it forward, almost leisurely, into the chest of the cop sitting across from her. Her foot connected with his torso with a heavy THUD sound, and he tumbled over backward, the breath pressed from his lungs like the air from a bellows.

Dan stood, a motion mimicked by the girl, who had spun to face his direction now. He raised his hands to defend himself, knowing already that it was probably hopeless if what he feared was actually true, and remembered he couldn’t raise his arms, not well, anyway, his hands were still bound by the cuffs.

As agile as Dan may have been, even with the cuffs, it didn’t matter. Ellie – or the girl who looked like her – was so much faster she resembled a child playing with a toy as she turned on him. She clutched his right arm, her grip like a hydraulic vise on his forearm, and even as Dan drew in breath to shout Cass! at the top of his voice, she pivoted and her right hand flashed out with a hiss. She slammed the meat of her hand between her extended thumb and index finger into the base of his throat; golden stars of pain exploded in his vision and the air in his chest was driven out in a feeble wheeze. Ellie jerked his arm downward roughly, and Dan heard a muted POP come from just above his wrist as the lower part of his right arm suddenly swelled with a searing hot pain. He gasped again, meaning to cry out, but only a strangled wheeze hissed through his tortured throat. Ellie gave him one last parting shot, a right, open-palmed little popping blow to his chest that was nearly playful in comparison; all it did was send him tumbling backward into the easy chair where he thrashed about in a foggy state of panic.

Kerrigan was up now, his eyes wide, his tie thrown comically over one shoulder. His right hand reached under his jacket for his service pistol, but he fumbled the motion a little. Ellie sprang forward, moving with the same weird grace that Dan had come to know so well, to stand before the much larger policeman.

“Hey, cutie,” she growled with a chilling grin, and reached out to wrap her arms around him, pinning his arms to his sides. She wasn’t big enough for her hands to meet behind him, but it didn’t seem to matter. Here he stood, a fully grown man trained in self defense and the use of standard issue firearms, and he was held, helpless and gasping, in the embrace of a 16-year-old girl.

“Hey, goddam it, let me go! Get the fu….uuggggh!” His words collapsed into a thick, croaking gurgle as Ellie bit down with only the strength in her arms. He tried to reach for his sidearm, but the powerful circle of steely arms about his middle sent his hands further out, away from his body.

“Mmmmm, nice,” Ellie laughed, and intensified her hold even more; the T-shirt didn’t look so big anymore, now fitting her about how it should have. Her arms became steel cables  drawing tighter against him, the ridges of the hard muscles in her forearms standing out in ridiculous definition. Kerrigan’s breath was completely gone and he was panicked to find that he couldn’t draw in another, such was the power of her embrace. He jerked this way and that as best he could, trying to throw her balance off, but he might as well have been struggling against a stone pillar. He kicked out, or at least tried to, in response; Ellie just grinned, increased her hold even more, and with no visible effort at all simply hoisted his frame into the air; as a result, Kerrigan’s feet simply kicked ineffectually in space.

Ellie turned to face Dan, who was sprawled on the overstuffed easy chair, his wounded right arm clutched close to his chest, his left hand held cradling his throat. His heart fluttered in his chest, his eyes stood out from their sockets. Somewhere a part of his mind told him that the blow she had dealt his neck was not intended to be fatal, and he believed it, mostly. But all the same, it was nearly impossible to draw breath through the agonizing pain in his throat, and his lungs burned for air. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, and he was panicking.

Ellie watched his squirm in the chair, bemused. Her expression showed no effort at all, even though she held the detective off the ground in her arms. “Relax,” she teased, “You can breathe, you just feel like you can’t. You’d be unconscious already if you couldn’t,” she finished, and then directed her attention back to the cop she held aloft. She flexed again, harder, and a terrible, barely audible gurgle came from the man. A thick, meaty CRUNCH sounded from somewhere deep in his chest, and he grew still, his eyes fixed on her own, filled with unspeakable pain.

“So, where’s your little bitch? Hmm?” Ellie asked, the first signs of anger showing in the tone of her voice, the set of her brow. “Huh? Where’s your whore?”

“C…C….” Dan gasped.

“Yeah, we all know her name,” Ellie spat. “Where is she? Huh? Now that you really need her? And trust me, you do. ‘Cause when I’m done with him” – she punctuated her phrasing with an extra squeeze; another one of Kerrigan’s ribs snapped with a brittle report and he twitched madly, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut – “you’re next on the menu, ‘Uncle’ Danny.”

Another jolt, accompanied by several more muted crackling noises from the torso held aloft before her.

“E….eh….Ell….” Dan choked out, his voice little more than a raspy hiss, “H….ow….?”

“They took me, asshole. The sisters took me right after they came here, and they told me about themselves, and you, and her, and they showed me things, Oh Goddess, the things they showed me, and you have no idea how…fucking…good….this feels!” she barked, tensing against Kerrigan’s body with each word, his abdomen and lower chest becoming more narrow with each passing second.

“B…B…but h….”

“Jesus, you want me to lay it all out, you old fuck? Time doesn’t work the same everywhere, Danny. A year somewhere else can be a day here.”

Dan tried to rise, tried to stand, but the grating pain in his arm and the fiery pain in his throat kept him down.

“You came out here, what a few months ago? For dinner? I was 16?”

Ellie pulled in even tighter, an unpleasant squishing noise now accompanied the intermittent poppings and cracklings coming from Kerrigan’s body.

“Well, months to you. Years to me. I’m at least 18 now. Maybe older. Did you ever see a 16-year-old look like this, anyway?” Ellie said playfully, her face now lit up in a radiant smile. Indeed, Dan could now see how she filled out her clothes, differently from even a few moments ago. The pajama bottoms were now tight against her legs, showing how defined they were and how the thick swelling of her quads bulged out at the thigh, half of her smooth, tanned calves now visible past the bottom of the pajama leg.

“Come on, won’t you just fucking die?” she hissed in irritation, and then poured on the power from some hidden reserve, her arms cutting into Kerrigan’s torso like a knife through butter. A thick, liquid squishing sound came once more as Ellie’s hands met behind the cop’s back. Another surge of power, and his back broke with a loud, crystalline SNAP. Ellie’s eyes rolled back in her head, she bit down on her thick lower lip and made no effort to conceal her obvious pleasure in doling out the man’s deadly punishment.

Mmmm, goddess,” she sighed, and pulled in suddenly with all her might.

Kerrigan’s head rose straight up, more out of reflex or response to internal pressure than anything else, for even in his pain-wracked state, Dan was sure that the cop was already dead. The eyes opened, and actually bulged visibly from their sockets, attesting to the inhuman power the small blonde girl was exerting on the cop’s torso. As Ellie closed her eyes and nuzzled her face against the man’s chest, Dan could see blood bead up in the corners of Kerrigan’s eyes, and being to spill down his cheeks in tiny twin rivers of crimson. His tongue, thick and swollen, was driven comically out of his mouth by the great pressure. After a moment, a thick trail of blood began to flow from one nostril, and then the crunching ceased, and then even the squishing noises stopped as the space between Ellie’s arms became an iron-rimmed circle no more than six inches in diameter.

With a bored sigh, Ellie opened her eyes and tossed the corpse she held to the side where it flopped bonelessly on the floor. A tiny bead of blood had landed on her tanned cheek, and as Dan watched she met his gaze with her own, wiped it off with a fingertip, and sucked it clean, her lips pulling at her fingertip playfully.

“That was nice,” she said. “He wasn’t my first kill, they showed me how and made me do it plenty of times, to show that I could. To show that I was worthy. They even let me take a couple of them before I killed them, I got to mount them first and that was even more fun,” she nearly giggled with excitement. “But you….you’re going to be special. They said I could do anything I want to you…anything I want, for as long as I want, as long as it gets done.”

Ellie leaned down and caressed Dan’s groin with her right hand, but her touch was utterly different than Cassie’s; it was rough and hard and devoid of any tenderness.

“This is what you want, right, Danny? Is this what she does? Is it?” she hissed.

Dan just writhed around in the plush chair, trying to protect his wounded arm, shield his throat, and get away from her touch all at the same time.

“Huh? Is this what she does, Danny? Or, wait. I bet she calls you Daniel, right? I just bet she does. So, how does this feel, Daniel? Do you like it?”

There seemed to be no escaping her. No matter how Dan turned and squirmed, there was no getting away from her clawing, rough hand. He tried to get up and she sent him backward into the chair again with a casual push from her bare foot, the toes splayed out against his chest. Dan’s eyes darted around the room, hoping, searching. Ellie pushed down with her foot, driving out what little breath Dan had managed to inhale, and held him fast, pinned to the cushioned leather of the chair. She gazed down at him, her arms at her sides, only one foot pinning down a grown man, and he could see the flashing of a terrible mirth in her eyes.

“I’m going to do things to you, Daniel,” she said, relishing every word. “I’m going to do things to you that you won’t believe are possible. Some of it you might even like…at first. And when I’m done, if you’re still alive….I’m going to tear…you…apart,” she finished in a predatory growl.

Dan’s eyes fell from her gaze and saw a glint of light from behind her, a splash of light that drew his eye. It was the polished steel front wheel of his Chevy, visible across the room and through the open front door. His hands were moving before he even registered the idea as a detailed concept in his mind. He steeled himself against the white-hot pain in his wrist, and reached downward, stretching his bound arms across her bare foot.

“Squirm all you want,” she hissed. “Squirm for me, worm.”

With a grunt of pain and effort, Dan turned at the shoulder and his hands made a groping, pressing motion on the outside of his pocket and he hoped that his feeble version of a plan would work.

“Ma’am, a little faster please,” Mitch Herndon said, and gestured with his left arm, his right still maintaining a light grip on her shoulder. Cassie craned her neck around every twenty feet or so to see the Ainsbury place, her agitation and worry showing clearly on her face.

“Please, officer,” she said, “Could we please go back? I don’t want to get to far from Daniel. I think this place isn’t safe, with all that’s going on.”

“Safe from whom?” Mitch asked. He had no reason to suspect this young blonde woman of anything; in fact, he had already pretty much accepted the fact that she hadn’t done anything wrong and was exactly who she said she was. Yet something about her was just not right. True, she was fairly tall and looked pretty fit, and on top of that she was a pretty good-looking girl, sure, but it was more than that. Something wasn’t right, wasn’t normal.

“There’s just a lot of stuff going on right now, and I don’t think I…I don’t we should leave them alone down there,” she said, her voice tense and agitated-sounding.

Mitch glanced at her face as they walked along, only twenty feet or so from the cruiser now, and something in her face, in her eyes, brought it home to him. This young woman carried a weight on her that he couldn’t see, but he could damn sure feel.

“You’re not a very happy person, are you, Ms. O’Connor?” he asked.

She stopped in her tracks and her gaze locked onto his, a look of surprise finally cutting through her guarded nature. She opened her mouth to reply, didn’t, closed it, paused, and didn’t know how to respond.

That’s when it happened.

Far behind and below them, the alarm on Dan Pittman’s SUV went off; the horn honked loudly, with maddening insistence, and the lights flashed, bright even in the late-morning sun.

They both turned to see it, but while Mitch took a second to take in what was happening, Cassie was already in motion. She raised her hands before her and with a sudden, swift, and alarmingly easy-looking motion, she separated her hands and the chain between the cuffs broke like it was made of nothing more substantial than peanut brittle. The cuffs broke with a metallic plink sound, and Mitch half turned to face her, his eyes wide.

“What the --”

In a flash she was on him, her arms shoving him around like he had no weight to his body. Resisting her touch wasn’t an option; in a second she had him wrapped up in her arms as she now stood behind him, one arm across his chest and grasping his opposite limb, the other gripping his right shoulder. Cassie straightened her fingers, making a blade out of her hand, and brought it to Mitch’s neck.

“Trust me, detective, this won’t hurt you. You’ll be fine in an hour.”

“Hey! St..”

With a tiny burst of power from her right arm, Cassie drove the tips of her first three fingers into Mitch’s neck, directly into a cluster of nerves under his ear and just behind his jaw. It wasn’t a killing blow, although with more force it would have been. She merely meant to incapacitate him, as much for his safety as her own.

The bundle of nerve fibers fired instinctively as she irritated them with her blow; the muscles around them clenched as part of the muscular reaction to the stimulus, and the sheath of muscle in Mitch’s neck clamped down, effectively stopping the flow of blood to his brain for a few seconds before the effect passed.

Guuuuhhh!” Mitch half-groaned, half-grunted, his eyes rolling up into his skull. A black veil fell across his vision, and two seconds later his body jerked reflexively and then went limp; he collapsed in her arms, totally unconscious.

Cassie knelt, gently laying the detective’s prone body down just off the edge of the road. She rose, her brow knitted together in a frown, her heart pumping madly. In a flash she was running, her long legs powering her down the asphalt, seemingly far faster than what was naturally possible.

“So do you like it?” Ellie hissed down at him, her right hand a claw which bit down painfully on his groin. “Am I as good as she is? Huh?!” she demanded, her fearsome grip growing ever tighter.

Dan’s arm was a symphony of misery where Ellie seized it and twisted the keyless entry device from his hand. He could feel the jagged edges of splintered bone grinding against each other, feeling like it was filled with coarse, burning sand. He gasped and the key ring dropped to the floor.

Ellie drew even closer, her body pressing against his own, her eyes closing for a moment as she savored the feel of him against her. Her breathing deepened, and Dan was instantly aware of a familiar high, sweet scent, one he had come to know very well in the last few days. It came off her in waves, and he barely had time to think, oh, no not this, please, not this, before that thought to was driven from his mind by the overpowering smell and closeness of her, and as hard as he tried to fight it, he felt a wave of amazement and alarm as he felt himself begin to stir against her. Her lips pulled back in a feral, primitive grin as she leaned in even closer to him and acknowledged his arousal by grinding her hips against his with a growl.

No, oh no please not this, not her, no…

Ellie voice came from above him, mocking, full of malice and selfishness even now, even in the first acts of lovemaking. She gazed deep into his eyes and asked him a brutally simple question.

“So, Daniel…is she as good as me?”

She didn’t get the answer she expected.

Better,” Cassie said matter-of-factly from behind her. Ellie straightened and whirled around impossibly quickly, her hair a blur of motion.

As with the other occasions he had seen Cassie in action, it happened nearly too quickly for Dan to see. It was almost as if he was left with visual impressions which he had to put together after the fact, like he was a secondary character in a film with a personal frame rate 1/3 slower than that of the characters around him.

Cassie blurred to a stop, already prepared for action when she spoke. She knelt, her curled, deadly-looking fist nearly at floor level, and when Ellie began to turn, she started her swing, leaping up from the floor and pivoting at the waist as she powered the blow upward in a flashing arc.

She timed it perfectly; her fist crashed into Ellie’s left jaw, and Dan felt – and thought he could nearly see – the THUD of the crashing blow; it was a heavy, loud, concussive blast that Dan could feel deep in his chest.

Ellie simply rocketed away from him, up and out, as if she were shot from a cannon.

She slammed into the wall to Dan’s left, her arms and legs flopping madly about from the force of the blow, and proceeded to tear through it. Her body blasted through the sheetrock in a burst of powder, snapping not one but two 2x6 wall studs, and then exited the building entirely, tearing through the framing to explode through the stucco on the outer wall of the home…and she kept on going. Cassie and Dan could both see her tumble to a stop on the lawn twenty feet away. Incredibly, after a long moment, they could also see Ellie’s shoulders shudder a bit, and carefully, gingerly, she drew herself up into a standing position.

Dan started to scramble to his feet, but Cassie just held him fast and shook her head.

“Don’t worry, she’s had enough…for now.”

Ellie turned to face them, one hand held to the side of her face.  She turned slowly back to regard the pair of them through the woman-sized hole in the wall. She snuffled back a breath through her smashed face, and spat a huge clot of crimson phlegm onto the ground through her mask of rage. A long, gooey gout of blood trailed out after, sliding from her mouth as she tried to make her ruined jaw work.

“Oh, my God,” Dan murmured softly. He’d known Ellie since she was just a kid. And now…well, two weeks ago, he would have been really spun, would have needed some serious help to work through it all. But now he found it was starting to come a little easier. It still upset him to see her, of all people, like this; while he couldn’t necessarily accept it, he could accept the idea of it, and for now, that would have to do.

Ellie’s snarl, incredibly, weakened, and slowly turned into a humorless grin, her blood-smeared lips spread over cracked and bloody teeth. Another bloody clump of drool slid from her mouth, and even though the words that came out were as much a ruined heap as her jaw apparently was, Dan and Cassie both were able to make out what it was she gurgled in their direction.

Another time. Soon.

The grin widened even further, and with barely a hint of a wind-up, Ellie dropped to the ground in a squat, the muscular ridges of her legs tearing the seams of the thin flannel pajamas open at the thigh, and with a singular, powerful movement that was as smooth as it was quick, she powered herself skyward and to the left, out of their line of sight. While she vanished from Dan’s perception, Cassie could make out the sound of her landing, many tens of yards away, and the soft pad-pad-pad sound of her bare feet as she retreated from sight and hearing.

“Jesus jumped-up-Christ,” Dan groaned. “What the hell is going on, Cass?”

“Do you really need me to do a play by play?”

“But you said….you said they never take any girl over the age of eight. Ellie is…well, she was…twice that old!”

“I said they don’t, I didn’t say they never have. It’s pretty rare.”

“Why?”

“Because they wind up like that,” Cassie said simply with a shrug. “She’s the worst possible news right now to anybody she might meet up with. She’s completely crazy. Off her rocker.”

“Uh…”

“Come on, imagine it. You’re a teenager, your hormones are going crazy anyway, the world is this crazy, scary mixed up place. Then a race of superwomen come along, murder your family, probably in front of you, and then they take you to another…I don’t know, dimension, and then blast you with supernatural energy left over from gods you’ve never even heard of, let alone believe in, brainwash you, and poof! You’re one of them.”

“Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

“Something like that, yeah. It would be enough to make you crazy.”

“So she’s…she’s gone? There’s no hope for her?”

“Daniel, I’m sorry,” Cass said, kneeling to be on his eye level. “But whoever that girl once was to you? She’s dead. That girl is gone. Forever. I’m sorry, but it’s true. She died with the rest of her family. What’s left…what’s left is just her shadow. A trace of who she once was, and that shadow is filled with all things hateful, and spiteful, and wrathful. They took everything she once was and replaced it with a hollow, mad thing.”

“Like what they did to you,” Dan asked, not sure if it was a question.

Cassie’s face maintained her usual warrior impassivity, but he saw, with measure of instant regret, the flash of pain sweep through her eyes.

“Yeah. A little like that.” She saw him holding his arm. “What did she do?” she asked, the tiniest hinter of a waiver to her voice.

“I think she broke my arm. I heard something pop.”

“Here, let me see. How does it feel when I…damn. Sorry. Yes, it’s broken. Oh, Daniel, I’m sorry. What should we do?”

“I think I need to go to a hospital. Where’s that cop who was with you?”

“He’s sleeping.”

“Nice.”

“I try.”

CHAPTER 20

It was Randy’s moans that woke her up.

The second Jennifer Carnes opened her eyes, a heavy, thick bolt of nausea rippled through her, and she grunted aloud with it. “Oh, ugh. Oh, oh ugh.”

Randy sat up and rubbed his eyes, looking around blearily at the small closet they were locked in. “What happened?” he said foggily.

“I’m not sure. I..I’m not exactly…ouch!” Jen hissed in a breath sharply and raised a hand to her chest. It hurt like a mother, a spot in the center of her chest, right at the top of the breastbone. “Jeez…ow. I…uh…I kind of remember you getting your ass kicked by a girl, though,” she finished.

“What?”

“That woman you were drooling over, she rammed your…wait, you’re saying you don’t remember?”

“I’m asking, aren’t I?” Randy said uncharacteristically. He was cradling his head in his hands, blocking out the light with his palms the best he could.

“Hey, come here, you,” Jen said, and gave his head the once over. She dimly remembered the woman slamming Randy’s head into the wall, and then turning on her, but after that, it was pretty much a blank.

“I don’t know, you seem…hold on.”

She turned his head from side to side in her hands, and paused when she could see his left ear. A thin trickle of blood and an even more worrisome clear, watery fluid had run from his ear and down into the collar of his shirt.

“Umm, Agent Timmons, we might have a problem.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It might only be a perforated ear drum. Does your ear hurt?”

“What?”

“I said, does your ear hurt?”

“What?”

“Okay. Your head? Head?” she asked again, thumping on her own noggin.

“Oh, yeah,” Randy nodded, and looked as miserable as anyone Jen had ever seen. “It feels like it was cracked wide open.”

“It nearly was. She bonked you really good. She….umm, she must have really known what she was doing. Looks like she got the drop on us both.”

“I would like to go home, please,” Randy said weakly, and rested his face in his hands once more.

“You and me both, brother,” Jen said, standing up and fighting another wave of nausea. “But I think we need to get you checked out. It’s the hospital for you, kiddo.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh yes,” she said, and tried the door, which was locked, of course. “Umm. Okay. Well, we could…” she pulled out her cell phone, and stared at the blank face of it for a moment, remembering.

“Well, shit.

***

Kevin Kidwell cruised up Weed’s main drag in his old Scout, and was alarmed by what he saw. People he knew well didn’t return his hand waving, or, if they did, it was with a quick furtive glance as they climbed into their cars or ducked into the various small stores along the street.

He had a sneaking suspicion that it was like this everywhere, that the general sense of unease after the recent events was pervasive. After all, most of the major networks were down, and even local TV station had gone to battery or generator power…and even that wouldn’t last forever.

There had been print news delivered yet, and most radio station had no news to report, either. It was as if the entire society was one long string of Christmas lights, and someone was going down the line, taking one bulb out at a time.

No internet. No phones, not even cells, it seemed. Fewer TV stations with each passing hour. And one of the last reports from the Associated Press, repeated breathlessly on the air by an intern on the local NPR station, was that several big cities in the East, Atlanta, Boston, Washington, and Baltimore among them, had begun to lose power. Without power, sewer substations couldn’t function; now water sources in those areas were suddenly suspect. In NY, public transportation had ground to a halt; vast numbers of residents had began fleeing Manhattan on foot, the Williamsburg bridge had become nearly impassable.

Kevin pulled to the curb and sat for a moment, the engine idling. The enormity of the situation the country (the world? Some early sketchy reports mentioned trouble in Paris, Moscow, and Hong Kong) was in started to sink in, almost seeming to press on him with a physical weight and an icy feeling in his chest.

“This…this could be bad,” he said out loud to himself. “This could be really, really bad.”

His first thought was to talk to Billie.

Kevin had been dating Billie Casperson for about six months. She ran a medium-sized stable on the outskirts of the town, where she housed and cared for the horses owned by the town’s more well-to-do types. She was a tall, athletic, brown-haired woman of 30, who could swing herself up onto a horse with shocking ease, and who rode circles around him whenever they would go for a ride together. She seemed content to run her small business and live in a small town, and she didn’t say much. In fact, it was the only relationship Kevin could remember where he was the more talkative one. It wasn’t that Billie was taciturn or ill-tempered; she wasn’t, she laughed quite easily and had a generally pleasant disposition, but she tended to be a little on the quiet side. Billie Casperson, as the old folks in town said, doesn’t talk unless she has something to say.

This personality trait was a blessing and a curse to Kevin. They had met at a local park eight months ago, bumped into each other at the grocery store two months later, and then had begun a casual relationship soon after. But it had been a relatively slow process, with true physical intimacy entering the equation only a month ago. Kevin was having a hard time gauging where everything was going, how he was performing as a boyfriend, and questioned even if that was how she thought of him. He was growing weary of simply calling her a friend when mentioning her to a co-worker in a casual conversation. He’d tried to broach the subject with her before, the direction of their slow-moving relationship, but all he got in return was a quiet stare, a couple of shoulder shrugs, and an occasional nod, followed by a thoughtful “Hmmmm. I don’t know.”

As bewildering as it was, it was also attractive, in a way. Billie didn’t babble on constantly, she didn’t feel compelled to discuss the latest reality show on NBC ad nauseum, and as far as he could tell she had no interest whatsoever in pop culture. He knew she read a lot, one room of her small cabin was lined with bookshelves filled to overflowing, and she seemed to like music enough to listen to him play (or try to play, rather) his acoustic guitar late at night…but beyond that, she was a bit of a mystery. He knew he was fond of her, and he suspected she felt a similar way about him, but he couldn’t prove it, and neither of them had said anything about it yet. And at this rate, they might never get there.

She was outside when he pulled up, her tall, slim figure bent to the side as she lugged a small training saddle toward the open barn door. She looked up and gave him a obligatory smile in greeting.

“Hey you,” Kevin said as he stepped down out of the Scout.

“Hey yourself,” she said, and set the saddle down on a weather-beaten picnic table by the barn door. She dusted off her hands a bit and hugged him carefully, giving him a peck on the cheek as she pulled away.

“Is everything okay?” Kevin asked.

“What do you mean?”
“I just wanted to check on you. You  know, coupe of weird days, now.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, and took off the wide-brimmed hat she wore. “Weird stuff. Coffee?”

Inside, he sat down, his mind uneasy. Billie seemed pretty carefree, considering the circumstances. She sipped her steaming mug quietly, watching him.

“So…none of this worries you?”

She was slow to answer. “Sure, I guess it does. A little. Seems like they always get these things worked out in the end, though.”

“All right…maybe they do. But…but don’t you think this is extraordinary?”

“Extraordinary how?”

“Well, nobody can call anybody, all the phones are down. And the internet is history, even for people eon cable modems or satellite connections. Most radio stations are off the air, or at least all the reliable ones. All I could get on the way over here was old Burt.

Burt Haymans lived on the outskirts of town in a tiny old Airstream trailer, slaving everyday over a generator that didn’t run as much as it did, and raving over fifty square miles of airwaves about how this month was the final one in the cycle of the End Times…except he had been doing it for about fifteen years.

“Maybe Burt’s getting to you,” Billie said without much humor.

“I don’t know, I just find it kind of strange that I’m more worried about it than you are,” Kevin explained.

“That bothers you?”

“Well, maybe a little.”

Billie shrugged a little. “Maybe you need to relax a little.”

Kevin was at loss for words; he just stared at Billie across the table, but she didn’t drop her eyes. For a long time neither one of them spoke.

After a while, Kevin turned his hands over, palms facing up, and ventured a suggestion. “Maybe…I was thinking…thinking that maybe we should prepare, you know? In case this goes on longer than anybody thinks?”

“What do you mean?” Billie asked, her brow wrinkling in a slight frown, the first emotion she had shown all day.

“Well, I’m just saying…have you noticed the road? The highway’s been empty all day. And I parked over by the grotto and looked across at the Interstate, and it isn’t any better. People are staying home, I think.”

“So?”

“So that means that trucks aren’t being driven. And in this country, when trucks aren’t being driven, people don’t get ice. Then they don’t get milk. Then eggs, or cheese. Then food in general. And I don’t have a supply of canned food, honey.”

Billie seemed to consider this. “Yeah, all right, that sounds like a good idea. Better safe than sorry, I guess.”

They took Billie’s F150 into town since it had more cargo space than the Scout. On the way into town, crackling static on the radio covered nearly all the bands…and then it wavered. A sound, far off in the distance, full of interference, but a sound all the same.

Kevin recognized it at once: It was the sound of the emergency broadcast signal, a high, droning whine designed to get the listener’s attention.

“Hey, pull over ,babe, quick! Pull over.”

Billie pulled to the curb and killed the engine. They both leaned in close, struggling to hear over the crackling static. The tone beeped three times in succession, and then it fell quiet.

“Well, I guess it…” Kevin started to say, but Billie stopped him with a hand to the chest, her ear turned to the truck’s dashboard speakers, her light brown hair pulled clear behind her ear.

“….as of last night. No more word is available at this hour,” the small, tinny voice said, barely above the background noise. “Once again…the nation’s capitol is engulfed in flames at this hour,” the voice went on. “The condition of the government is unclear as communications appear to be down across the entire country. Martial law has been declared in the city. Once again, the status of the President, the vice-president, Congress and the key members of the Cabinet is unknown at this time. Reports of…similar conditions have been reported in the cities of Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami….phis…Minn…..deliphia and Boston, but again, these reports are unconfirmed. There have been unconfirmed reports of some kind of major event occurring in or near the city of Seattle, Washington, but the reports were early this morning and totally unclear…”

Kevin sat stock still, his eyes widening a little as the story unfolded. He could see Billie, feel her watching him, gauging his own reaction. Behind the speaker now, he could hear something else, another sound. More people, talking, one’s voice raised in alarm but he was unable to make out the words over the guy who was now speaking directly into the mike, overdriving it, distorting his voice just a  little bit.

“Citizens are encouraged to stay in their homes for the duration of this event, as it appears that a major, coordinated attack on the nation has occurred, and…and…”

“You! Get away from there…”

“Help!”

The broadcast, as weak-signaled as it was, was now devolving into a static-filled chaos.

“Citizens should stay off the roads and remain in their homes until more information can be gained…and…what? No, I will not. Get your hands off of me, damn you! Citizens should…aaaaggghh!”

The transmission ended with a final, authoritative click, and then a strange, fuzzy silence. But not before the final, gagging, mewling cry was choked into the microphone. Kevin’s blood ran cold. To him, the final sound of the broadcast was clear: a weak, pitiful scream, mercilessly choked off before the broadcast ended.

They sat for a moment in silence. When Kevin looked back at Billie, he saw that her face was still a mask of impossible, placid calm.

“Doesn’t this bother you?”

She seemed to think about this. “Obviously.”

“Then why don’t you react to it?”

“Would it help if I panicked?”

“Well…No, of course not, but…”

Only her voice showed any emotion at all. It rose just a little, giving her irritation away. “Would it help if I was a wreck, if I was worried sick? If I needed you to come save me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Does it bother you that you don’t get to play the hero, Kevin?”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said in exasperation.

“It’s nice to be so easily dismissed.”

“I think we better get moving, darling,” Kevin said, motioning ahead of the truck.

Billie didn’t speak, she merely turned her attention back to driving as she pulled the big truck back out onto the road.

***

In the end, no one would ever find out who sent that weak, feeble signal over the airwaves. No one would ever know the names of the three people who wouldn’t survive to see the natural end of their broadcast, let alone the madness of the days that followed.

But it was enough. While most communication hubs were down, smaller hosts caught the signal, and passed it on. The faint, crackling message was relayed by HAM radio operators all over the country, the more dedicated among their number with nearly the power of small radio stations themselves. The key elements of the message traveled by handwritten, hand-delivered means and in the tiny town of Uteppa, Wyoming, it even traveled via telegraph lines that had sat dormant for decades. But mostly, it traveled by the most ancient device known to man – the spoken word.

And as the slow, sweeping current of the message spread west in the weeks that followed, people across the land listened…and prepared.

***

The hospital was a nightmare.

It was now nearly dusk; they had arrived in the early afternoon, but the emergency room was a hideous bottleneck through which no one seemed able to pass. The setting sun was casting its orange light through a thin, black acrid haze; most likely it was from the fires that were supposedly burning in Washington. There were far more people in the streets as there should have been, and even though Dan knew the actual formal attack was only a few hours old, he was amazed at its effectiveness. People everywhere were isolated, confused, and angry. He knew enough to realize the East Coast – hell, maybe the whole country – would soon be a virtual powder keg waiting for the proverbial spark.

The pain in his arm had increased for the first few hours, but had now receded to a dull, throbbing ache that only flared up when he flexed or moved his forearm. Hours spent waiting…waiting…dusk was now coming fully on now, and still he waited.

But he was much better off than many of the people who had passed by him. The snarls of traffic on the city’s highways kept the number of accident victims down, but the few who did pass by were in terrible shape for having to wait so long for care. A large number of people had come in with broken arms, legs, various cuts and scrapes; in several cases it was obvious that they were combat injuries. It didn’t take long for the word to spread through the room (and presumably the country) these injuries were the result of looters beginning to smell opportunity in the darkened, deserted storefronts of the city.

As the sick and injured filed in, their numbers growing quickly, Dan and Cassie met each other’s gaze. No words were necessary, neither gave voice to the growing anxiety between them until Dan felt compelled to lean over and mutter to her under his breath.

“So I guess it’s started, then? The breakdown?”

Cassie merely nodded, a mixture of sadness and expectation on her face.

“It was fast,” Dan added, his face grim. “Too fast. Much more than I expected. It’s only been hours, days…and now this?” He shook his head in disgust. “Maybe we’re not worth saving.”

“Don’t say that,” Cassie said firmly as she visually scanned the room, much as she had been doing since their arrival. “It’s not your fault. Society’s. It’s a different world now than it was even 50 years ago. Everyone today is used to cell phones and drive-thru dinners. The ideas of inconvenience and discomfort are new to some people. It’ll take some adjusting. It’s bad, and will probably get a lot worse, but then it might actually get better for a while, if…”

“If, what?”

“If they let it,” Cassie finished. “At this point, I have no idea what to think. I have no idea what they will do. Having you alive, with me, is a big unknown. Either we’re of little importance, or huge importance, I have no way of knowing on the outside.”

“Or maybe it’s up to us to decide which it will be,” Dan offered, and Cassie paused, nodded, and offered him a tiny smile.

“GODDAM it,” shouted a middle-aged woman near the door. She was filthy, smeared with dirt and what looked like grease, and wore a tattered shawl over her shoulders. Yesterday Dan would have guessed that she was homeless, but today anything was possible.

“How long do I have to goddam wait?” the woman half-screamed, half-wailed, putting a strange emphasis on the profane elements of her speech.  “I just want to see Dr. Wyatt, I always see Dr. Wyatt. I need to see him, this goddam lady kicked me in the goddam guts. She killed the other guy, but me she only kicked and goddam it hurrrts…”

Where in the past a squad of hospital attendees would have rushed out to treat her, this time only one came, and this one obviously only an intern. The woman continued to rant, her voice only marginally lower in volume.

“Hey, Daniel, how’s your arm?” Cassie asked casually enough while she turned to look at him.

“Hurts like hell, but as long as I don’t move it…”

“Gee, that’s nice,” Cassie said flatly, and then, lower, with a small false smile still on her face: “Listen, look at me and don’t look away, okay? I think we’re being watched. Or, more precisely, you. You’re being watched.”

Dan’s heart leaped into a familiar gallop in his chest as his stomach lurched.

“Okay.”

“Play it cool.”

“The coolest baby,” Dan replied, and offered a dazzling, genuine-looking smile. “Do I have to ask?”

“A woman, on the other side of the aisle, four rows back. Sitting next to the guy with the icepack on his head. Got her?”

Dan feigned a cough, his face moving down into his curled fist, the business suit-wearing suspect a colored blob on the fringe of his peripheral vision.

“Yeah,” he said in between fake hacks. “What do we do about it?”

“Nothing. Nothing yet, anyway. Too many people, too many questions. Since they’re going with a stealth approach, I think we’re okay for now. But…”

“But, what?”

“They’re not paying any attention to me.”

“So?”

“So I don’t think they’re with the Am….I don’t think they’re with them.”

“Why not?”

“Because one of them is a guy,” Cassie said, and managed a little grin, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “That’s like, the first thing they check.”

“Right.” Dan sat back in his chair and tried to stretch without moving his arm, to little success. “So who is she?”

Jen couldn’t believe it.

“I can’t believe it,” she said softly.

The diamond-hard perfection she strived for in her professional life didn’t leave a lot of room for chance; yet here it was, staring her in the face. And still she couldn’t believe it.

“What?” Randy asked through the fog of his concussion.

Carnes held up the personnel file in her lap so it was easier for him to see; it was a dossier describing a relatively unimportant mid-level manager for a military contractor.

“And?”

“And the guy works for Kent-Allan. Who shared a joint contract with AdvanTech. Who employs women that beat you up.”

“Hilarious. And?”

“And, who we were going to head over to find this guy as soon as you’re fixed up,” Jen said.

“All right. And?”

“And…” Jen pointed subtly in the direction her eyes were locked, “He’s sitting right there.”

Randy did a triple take between the photograph on the dossier and the nondescript guy sitting on the other side of the emergency room. “Hey. Hey! Holy shit.”

“Yeah,” Jen nodded. She slid the file back into a folder, put this into her bag, and gathered her jacket, tossing it over her left forearm as she scanned the room, careful to keep the guy in her peripheral vision the whole time.

“What do we do?” Randy asked, the tone of his voice betraying the misery of his concussion-induced headache.

“We wait,” Jen said quietly. “This is all tied up in something bigger. I can’t explain it. It just is, I know it. And maybe this guy knows something about it. So we wait and see what he does.”

***

Mitch Herndon had never lost a partner before, and he was damned if he was ever going to lose another.

He watched the front of the apartment building over the rim of his coffee cup, the events of that morning replaying over and over again in his mind. He remembered the house, he remembered detaining the couple that showed up in the SUV. He remembered leaving the guy with Kerrigan, and heading out with the woman to do a background check. But that’s where his memory started to get fuzzy; he couldn’t recall what happened next. He had a vague sense of a physical event that he couldn’t describe fully; all he could mentally process was a deep sense of surprise, of shock, at some physical act. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground beside the road, the world coming back to his senses with a strange fuzziness, with a sore neck and a terrible headache. He had staggered back down to the house (noticing the SUV was gone), and inside he had found his suspect gone, a strange, piano-sized hole punched through the side of the house, and his partner’s corpse on the floor. It had looked like he had gone through a winepress; Kerrigan’s body had undergone some weird trauma; he had been literally crushed to death.

As fuzzy as many of that morning’s details were in his mind, Mitch could remember one thing clearly: the guy’s name: Dan Pittman. A quick check revealed 6 men in the greater metro area with the name; a browsing of DMV files which would normally have taken seconds took hours, due to the Net being down….but still, they had managed to find 5 Dan Pittmans listed for licenses…the antiquated mode of searching had come through, quickly revealing the guy he was after. An APB went out on the guy and the car, arrest and domestic search warrant issued for his name. Mitch mentally gave thanks that the police department used short wave radios rather than one of the newer, network-based services so popular with other cities. He was still able to call in information, even while others were completely stymied.

And so now Mitch Herndon sat as low in an unmarked cruiser as he could, sipping coffee, waiting in the hopes that the guy would come home, and that he’d bring that blonde woman with him. While Louis Kerrigan hadn’t been one of Mitch’s favorite people (far from it, in fact), he had been an honest cop. He deserved better than he got, and Mitch, along with two other officers watching this apartment and the additional pair watching Pittman’s workplace, were determined to make it right.

***

The door opened, and the head of the bar’s five patrons and three employees all turned to watch the entrance with thinly veiled suspicion: the looters had come out not long after the power had gone out, and there was no telling who would try to ransack the place. The bar’s owner, a hulking, round-faced guy nicknamed B.B. (for Big Brian), even reached under the bar to lightly touch the sawed-off Louisville slugger that hung from a small metal hook there. Another moment showed that he didn’t need it, though. If these were looters, he could be looted anytime, preferably over and over.

The first one through the door was a little blonde chick. Young, really young. Probably not even old enough to drink yet. She was on the short side, but curvy in a nice, fit way. She was packed into faded blue jeans that were a size too small and a white T-shirt of similar proportion. Her hair was pulled back into two little tails, the way a lot of the sportier college girls had taken to wearing their hair a couple years back. She was kind of smiling, in weird, nearly smirking way. Brian bet she was kind of bitchy, he could tell these things within seconds, usually. But a hot little bitch all the same.

She wasn’t alone, though. A tall woman in a hooded sweatshirt came in with her, equally attractive even though not much more than the tip of her nose and her chin were visible beneath the hood which covered her head, and she was followed by an even taller black girl with a light, coffee-colored complexion, who was easily the prettiest of the three. The three of them exuded a strange, unnamable athletic quality – Brian immediately just assumed they were on some college team or something.

“Wow,” Brian heard Billy, the bar’s busboy (and line cook, on slow nights like tonight) mutter behind him. Billy was only 20 himself, but he was a good kid and Brian trusted him to mind the place when he wasn’t around.

But Billy had spoken too soon. The hooded woman backed up a step and held the door open, and then she walked in.

The most beautiful woman Brian had ever seen stepped across the threshold into his bar.

She was tall, 5’10, at least. A six-footer, maybe? It didn’t matter. She had the same strange, indefinable quality, like that of an athlete. Maybe it was the way she moved, a fluid, graceful motion, nearly lazy in its initial impression. She moves like a wild animal, Brian thought. Well, wouldja look at that.

She wore a red cocktail dress whose gold trim glimmered a little in the dim light of the bar that somehow didn’t look too dressy for a casual night out, its gold-encrusted design fanning out across her generous bustline in dual sweeping, wing-like shapes. If the girls with her (for that’s the station they had been reduced to by her appearance, that of mere girls in relation to this woman) were pretty, this woman was a goddess.

Close, but not quite, as B.B. would soon find out.

Long legs, curving hips, pleasantly broad shoulders partially bared by the wide straps of her dress. A body made up of gentle curves and fit, toned muscle. A huge mane of raven-black hair, looking stylishly disheveled and neat at the same time, impossible as that seemed. High cheekbones, a strong chin, perfect skin, high, arching eyebrows above eyes so blue and bright they seemed to be illuminated from within, with the arching, cat-like shape of her eyes seeming to be the very model of the brunette ideal. She was perfect, just perfect, and Brian knew his mouth was open in an “O” shape, and he didn’t care.

“Oh,” he heard Billy say, and then silence as everyone in the place, even Heather, the waitress, stopped in their tracks, silent, for a long, long moment.

The group of young women stopped inside the door and surveyed the width and breadth of the bar, the dim lighting, the sparseness of its clientele. The one in front, the brunette, was obviously the one in charge, she carried the definite yet unnamed air of leadership as easily as her beauty eclipsed the considerable appearances of her companions. With a few slow steps, the group made its way to the plain oak bar, the eyes of each woman passing over the people in the place as they went.

Brian was no stranger to the rough stuff. He owned a bar in downtown Baltimore, for one thing. But he also had lived through a stint in the Army, too. After that, he had spent some time in the Outlaws, and then later as a gang member riding old rail lines through the Northwest. And he was still a relatively young man, still only in his early 40s. He had seen his share of mud and blood…and yet there was something…there was something he couldn’t name, something about this group of seemingly innocent young women that just felt…wrong.

“Hello there, ladies,” he offered somewhat warily, and noticed Billy’s questioning look in his peripheral vision. Billy had heard the tone in his voice, how it lacked the usual certainty. “You sure picked a strange night for a bar crawl.”

The brunette turned her gaze on him, and sure as the day he was born, Brian felt his knees go a little weak. It was almost like she had slapped him lightly, he could almost hear a ringing in his ears. Her gaze was flat, haughty, a little presumptuous. Definitely a woman used to getting her own way. When she spoke, her voice was full, a little low, and throaty, and oddly musical in its cadence.

“A ‘bar crawl?’” she asked, and somehow this innocent question carried the weight of a demand.

“Uh…yeah. You know…going from place to place? Drinking a little at each one?”

The brunette’s crimson mouth spread wide in a grin, the impossible brightness of her teeth glinting in the bar’s dim lighting. Her expression seemed to somehow be both beautiful and predatory at the same time.

“Oh, we have come to this establishment only. And we have not come to drink,” she said softly. She turned to face the little blonde who stood next to her, and tilted her head in some sort of knowing motion. The women split then, fanning out across the bar in a slow, easy spread.

It was innocent enough, but damned if there wasn’t something about it that creeped Brian out. He stepped up and he touched the rough wooden surface of the bat under the bar.

“Well, things are pretty rough right now,” Brian offered. “Everything shut down like it is, and the power even went out. Only reason we’re open is the generator out back.”

The brunette slinked up behind and then around one of the guys hunched over the bar. She stared at his face as her hand trailed across his shoulders, not taking her eyes off him as she sidled up to his side. “Is that so?” she answered Brian without looking at him.

“Yeah. But it means we have some cold beer, though. Probably the only cold beer in Bal…”

“I told you we did not come here to drink,” the woman snapped, her gaze turning to Brian suddenly, the icy malice in her voice clearly evident.

“Well, okay lady, what did you come in here f…”

‘I like you,” the brunette interrupted, speaking to the guy she had her left arm draped around. She touched the left side of his face lightly with her right hand, a strange, bored, expectant smile on her face.

“Well, that’s nice,” the guy said, gazing back at this stunning woman as if she had materialized out of the air beside him. “I’d say that’s a good --- gaaahrk!”

The fingertips of her right hand had moved so quickly, so effortlessly that her sudden touch had seemed almost delicate as she tapped the man’s throat just under his Adam's apple. She was already resting her hand on the bar before the man shuddered visibly, eyes going wide, his breath stopping after his single, soft barking cry.

“What the fuck?” Brian wondered aloud. The eyes of everyone in the bar were riveted to the scene as they all watched, fascinated, seemingly unable to move.

The big bearded guy at the bar was choking, or something like it. His chest hitched up and down, but he made no sound; no harsh gargling, no gasping came from him…only a quiet, understated liquid croak escaped his mouth. It was as if his airway had been completely sealed off. His arms jerked in a spasm of growing alarm and panic. He would have risen from the stool, but the brunette’s arm was still draped across his shoulder, and even though it was preposterous, it seemed like her single slender but toned arm kept him glued to his seat. Beads of sweat sprang to the surface of his skin, and his face was suddenly a flushed, bright crimson.

“He can’t breathe,” the brunette smiled matter-of-factly at Brian. She spoke as if she were discussing the weather or some trite, commonplace event.

“Why? What happened?” Brian demanded over his shock.

“Because I closed his throat,” the woman said, her tone that of an adult explaining an obvious fact to a petulant child. “He cannot speak, or, more importantly, breathe. He is suffocating. He is suffering.”

“Stop! Stop it! Help him!”

“First you will tell me what I need to know,” she said calmly, and nodded to the smaller blonde.

The blonde woman stepped forward, producing a 4x6 photograph from the back pocket of her jeans. She held it up so Brian could see the picture; it showed a plain, nondescript-looking guy in his 30s with brownish hair and an expression that could be called somewhat sleepy yet still intelligent.

“His name is Daniel Pittman,” the brunette said. “It is said that he is known to frequent this establishment. We require any information you may have as to his whereabouts.”

What is it with these crazy bitches? Brian thought. And why does this brunette chick talk so funny? And what the hell is she doing to this guy?

“What the fuck!” Brian exclaimed, and pulled the sawed-off bat from beneath the counter, holding it in his big fist. “Help this guy, he’s turning fucking purple!”

The guy’s eyes had rolled up in their sockets, his quiet liquid burbling growing weaker by the second. The brunette turned to regard his appearance, measured Brian’s state of outrage, and then she shrugged her shoulders in a motion of vague indifference.

“Very well,” she said, and placed the heel of her palm under the guy’s chin. She still held her left forearm across the guy’s shoulders and neck, and with little warning and no obvious effort at all, she drove her right palm upward suddenly while bracing with her left.

The guy’s head pivoted backward with a sudden jolt, a thick, meaty POP sounding from somewhere deep in his neck. The brunette released her hold, and the man’s considerable bulk slid off the stool to the floor, silent and still at last.

No one moved. No one spoke.

“Holy shit,” Billy breathed softly. “I think he’s dead.”

“HUT!” the brunette suddenly cried, her voice shrill and suddenly very loud and piercing. At her call, the three women with her burst into swift, sudden motion.

The little blonde girl spun on her heel, her left hand pistoning out, striking Billy in the chest and pinning him to the rough wall behind him. The black girl seized the hair of a guy sitting alone at a small round table, and drove him face-first into the rough wooden surface; his head connected with the table with a loud, hollow BONK noise, and he grew motionless upon it.

Brian took a quick step forward, his foot rising to rest on the plastic milk crate on the floor behind the bar. He hadn’t gone over the bar too often lately, but this was going to be a good one.

Except it wouldn’t. The tall woman in the hooded sweatshirt stepped quickly beside the brunette in what was obviously a sudden protective stance; her hands dropped down to her sides, fingers extended. Her face was nearly completely hidden in shadow under her hood, only the very tip of her chin visible. She stood straight, becoming suddenly rigid.

Brian froze.

But not of his own volition.

He couldn’t move.

It was as if a huge, unseen hand had suddenly wrapped itself around his entire body. He could feel a huge, invisible pressure surrounding him, trapping his arms against his body, pressing in from all sides in an even, yet strangely amorphous shape. Tighter this unseen hand pressed in on him, tighter, and with a dawning sense of panic he realized that drawing breath was noticeably more difficult. Even in his disjointed, panicked state, he knew the weird hooded bitch was doing this, but how? She wasn’t even touching him! He tried to speak, to roar out his fury at them, but all that came out with a forced groan.

Huuuuhhhnnn,” he gasped.

The brunette smiled broadly and stepped back away from the bar, squaring her shoulders, thrusting out her chest and drawing up to her full height – wait, was she taller, somehow?

“Now, you must listen. Mulita is always so eager to demonstrate her considerable power, and she is so very, very difficult to control. Isn’t that right, Mulita?” the brunette said, smiling at the hooded woman.

The only reply was a strange, soft hissing sound, a whisper that was barely audible and in some weird, sibilant language no one in the bar could understand, yet it made the skin of all who heard it crawl in sudden gooseflesh.

“…..sai ahdameh nongali,” the woman said, but the sliding, slippery sound of her hushed whisper seemed to come not from her hooded form but instead from another place, very close to the ear of those who heard it, making each person jump in surprise, their noses wrinkling, as if they had been suddenly forced to touch something slimy and unpleasant.

With the new hissing words, the invisible grip holding Brian grew even tighter; it was painful, now, and he groaned anew, the cords on his neck standing out a little.

“You mustn’t struggle,” the brunette said, still smiling. “There is no hope of ever escaping her grasp.”

Brian could only grunt in pain and fury once more, his muscles tight and burning as he strained against whatever strange force held him.

“Hey...” Billy began, but was silenced when the blonde holding him to the wall pressed in suddenly, her hand compressing his chest. His breath left his lungs with a whoosh, and he seemed to fold around her hand a little. As everyone watched, the blonde simply smiled and raised her offending hand while maintaining the pressure of her hold. Incredibly, Billy’s feet turned down, and then rose from the floor as the young woman drove him up the wall. Billy gripped her forearm weakly, his eyes wide, unable to draw a full breath against her grip. His feet dangled a full 12 inches from the floor. The blonde, obviously drawing delight in her casual dominance of the seemingly bigger and stronger Billy, smiled up at him, her bright blue eyes nearly sparkling with their own inner light.

“Princess,” she spoke for the first time, “Please, may I have this one? May I have this one to play with?”

Brian’s whirling thoughts were spun anew. Princess? Did she just call this brunette woman fucking ‘princess?’

“Patience, Caitlyn, patience,” the brunette chided gently. “Perhaps if we get what we seek, we may indeed have time for you to…to indulge yourself.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Caitlyn breathed, staring up at young man she held aloft so easily. Billy, even stunned as he was by his predicament and the not inconsiderable discomfort her hold had on him, saw the expression on her face and heard the tone of her voice and recognized it immediately for what it was: lust. The blonde called Caitlyn held him against the wall, her compact, athletic form seemingly more than equal to the task, her eyes shining, her breathing a barely controlled panting, her tongue stealing out to actually lick her lips into a glistening moistness as she gazed up at him. He noticed something then, a scent, a hint of a high, unfamiliar sweet smell that was utterly delightful, and despite the discomfort of his predicament he felt the first faint but unmistakable sensations of his arousal, of the slow thickening of his own intimate anatomy. He tried to focus his thoughts, tried to remain alert, and a part of his mind knew that it was strange he could be so distracted while experiencing such an unbelievable event…yet another part of his mind, the majority, evidently didn’t care. All her could see was her, all he could feel was her, all he could think about…her. As the young woman smiled up at him, a strange, wicked light in her eyes, he gave into the sensation as felt himself spring to full, pounding life, his physical desire a real, sudden, all-encompassing reality.

Brian had no such sensation; all he felt was confusion and a dawning sensation of pain as the invisible fist holding him tightly bore down harder. He grunted loudly, sweat stood out on his brow.

“The man we seek,” the brunette, the princess, asked. She was obviously drawing some pleasure from this exchange, but nothing like the one named Caitlyn. Instead, hers was more professional, more businesslike…but it was also undeniable. “Pittman. Do you know where we may find him? And, perhaps more importantly, have you seen anyone with him?”

Brian stared at her, frozen, whether it was in shock or in defiance even he was not sure. After a moment of silence, the brunette nodded to herself.

“Contessa,” she said without her eyes leaving Brian’s trapped form, “Show these…people….that we are serious in our request.”

“Yes, Diana,” the young black woman said as she approached another guy at the bar, this one a thin, older gentleman who seemed frozen to his seat. In a flash, Contessa’s arms were wrapped around him; one across his throat, the other around his forehead. A gentle “Hah!” exclamation sprang from her lips as she jerked to the side in a sudden powerful movement. The man’s neck broke with a loud, brittle SNAP like the sound of a large tree branch breaking; he shuddered violently as Contessa released him and he slid down to form a quivering heap on floor. Contessa merely stood over him, staring at the corpse, her eyes wide, her breath coming in large, excited gasps.

Brian tried to shout his outrage, but again all he could muster was a strangled choking sound. The fist around him grew tighter; it was now difficult to draw even the tiniest of breaths. The chill of panic settled in his chest and wrapped its icy fingers around his heart.

“You see, we require this information, and we do not have time to spare,” the brunette, this Princess Diana, said in low, threatening tones. “You will tell us what we wish to know.”

The eyes of the waitress, Heather, flashed between the brunette, the strange hooded woman, and Brian in desperation. Diana saw her indecision, and motioned with her head in her direction. Heather saw the black girl, Contessa, move toward her, and her expression went from indecision to terror as she shrank backward against the far wall of the bar.

“P..p…please,” she cried.

“You know of whom we speak,” Diana said plainly, her eyes seemingly boring a hole through Heather’s own. “You will tell us what you know.”

“But…But…if I do, will you let…”

But Diana interrupted her stuttering question with a single, loud word, a name. “Mulita!” she cried.

The strange hooded woman reacted immediately, as if she knew what was to come next. Her arms rose outward slightly, her hands closing into fists. More of the weird, hissing dialogue slid out of mid-air, almost in the ear of everyone who was in the room. Once again Heather, Billy, and those left alive shuddered and recoiled instinctively.

“…pallifune dagga quintola…” the slimy, liquid-sounding voice hissed.

Even though the small, rational part of the minds of the bar patrons registered it as impossible, it happened. Brian’s body rose three feet in the air, his arms and legs trapped tightly together, his choking cries that much louder as the invisible clutch on his body bore down with new, fearsome strength.

“Please,” Heather begged through her tears.

“Mulita,” Diana barked once more.

Brian’s body spasmed visibly as something in his chest gave way; a lump the size of a softball suddenly sprang to life on his upper abdomen, pushing his T-shirt out in a rounded bulge as the sound of a brittle, bony CRACK sounded from within him. Brian’s eyes went wide in shock, the forceful, muted sound of a breathless scream coming from his throat.

“Oh, God!” Heather cried, tears running down her face.

“Speak!” Diana commanded, her figure towering over the tiny, quaking form of the waitress.

“P..p…please,” Heather choked out once more, her hands held out protectively before her.

“Again!” Diana barked, and a grisly, muted popping sound accompanied the sight of the right side of Brian’s chest collapsing on itself as ribs splintered and the unseen force compressed his suddenly frail-seeming body. Brian’s eyes were wide in shock and terror, but this time no cry followed this new abuse; instead, his head slid forward as the muscles in his neck spasmed from the pain.

“No!” Heather cried instinctively.

“Again!” Diana roared.

Brian’s torso spun violently to the right a full 90 degrees in a quarter second; the vertebrae of his lower back cracked with a single clean, resonant POP sound; once again his entire body shuddered, but this time his cry was a weak, muted mewling sound. He was fading.

“Okay! Okay! I know the guy! I know him! He was here! He comes in a lot!” Heather said, her eyes wide in terror, snot from her nose now streaming down her face much like her copious tears. “He comes in all the time! Twice a week, at least! Please! Please!” she cried.

“Yes?” Diana asked, her left eyebrow arched very high, her lips pursed in mocking expression of doubt.

Heather was totally outside of herself now, whatever self control she might have once had was now history as words exploded from her, coming faster and faster the longer she talked, tumbling over each other in a rapid dash from her mouth.

“…he comes in all the time and I think he might like me sometimes but other times he doesn’t seem to be any different I don’t know where he works or what he does cuz sometimes he pays with cash and other times he uses a credit card I forget which kind and its never been declined and he drinks a lot of White Russians and they aren’t cheap so maybe he has a lot of money but I don’t think that matter as far as I go cuz the last time he was in here it was only a couple of days ago he was in here one night and this girl there was this girl that met him here and I don’t know her never seen her before but she was here came on a motorcycle cuz she had a helmet and it was obvious he was into her he kept undressing her with his eyes and she was blonde but I didn’t know here and she just sat there talking to him the bitch and they only stayed long enough for one drink because they were so totally into each other and I can’t blame him because she was pretty hot and even though she wore a jacket I could see she had a nice body and so they left oh fuck me and please and they left and I haven’t….oh, God…oh, please I haven’t seen them since….oh, God, please….please don’t hurt me,” Heather finished with a gasp, the words finally slowing down, coming to a close. “Please,” she gasped, exhausted.

“Shhh,” Diana said softly, her hand gently cupping Heather’s chin as she turned her head up to meet her gaze. “Quiet, little one,” she said with a chastising grin. “You’ve been very helpful. Your service will not go unrewarded.”

Heather merely stood there, gazing up into the eyes of the impossibly beautiful woman who stood before her, holding her chin in a firm, irresistible grasp. All Heather could do was quake in fear and make a low, shuddering moaning sound of terror.

“So I will allow you to live,” Diana finished. “However I can tolerate your pathetic mewling no longer. I will hear no more of it.”

Diana’s right hand curled into a fist, the first two fingers extended, and in a flash she drove them an inch into Heather’s throat, just above her breastbone. Heather’s eyes went wide, her breath frozen in sudden pain and shock. Diana then rotated her fingers 90 degrees with an equally swift motion.

There was a deep, fundamental-sounding CLICK that issued from Heather’s throat, and her eyes lit up with a pain the likes of which she had never known.

“Guk!” she hiccupped awkwardly.

It was the last word she would ever speak. Years later, upon her natural death, the surgeon performing the autopsy  would claim that she must have experienced some kind of strange localized degenerative disease, or suffered a catastrophic injury that surely should have killed her, judging from the utter ruin that once was her voice box.

Diana released her and Heather’s hands went to her throat, her mouth opening and closing soundlessly like a fish’s. “Now…look at me,” Diana commanded, and even in her panic, Heather’s eyes met Diana’s own…and after a few seconds Heather’s gaze began to glaze over.

“Be still, now,” Diana said softly, and Heather’s movements slowed…then stopped. She stood, completely motionless, staring uncomprehendingly at the brunette woman before her.

Sleep,” Diana commanded simply.

It was like someone had hit Heather with a hammer. Her eyes rolled up in their sockets and she slid to the floor to lie in a heap. Diana gazed down at her, her eyes shining, and after a few seconds the tiny sound of Heather’s soft, feminine snoring was audible. Diana’s smile widened as she gazed around them room once more; Caitlyn still held the boy aloft, but her effect was evident as the boy was ready to burst through his jeans; Contessa was ready to pounce on the next bar patron; Mulita still held her unnatural grip on the bartender.

“Lita,” Diana said softly, and nodded.

A soft sigh slid by the ear of everyone in the room.

Brian’s body nearly imploded, the brittle symphony of cracking shockingly loud and his form collapsed on itself, followed by the graceless fall to the floor as the hooded woman released him.

“Caitlyn,” Diana said with a knowing grin. “You may indulge yourself, but quickly, please.”

The glimmer of excitement in the little blonde’s eyes became a shining light of expectation and utter glee. She still Billy aloft, pinning him to the wall with her left hand. With her right, she took hold of Billy’s belt and jeans, and jerked downward suddenly, tearing every layer of clothing wide open with one easy-looking motion, revealing the quivering length of the young man. The blonde encircled him with her free hand, and the reaction was immediate: Billy shuddered visibly, his eyes closing, and he groaned aloud with the force of his arousal. A long rope of fluid shot out and away from him, and Caitlyn laughed aloud, a sound with no mirth or goodwill in it.

“That’s one, worm,” Caitlyn half-moaned with laughter as she pulled Billy from the wall and held him close. “Let’s see how much more I can squeeze out of you.”

“Be quick about it, girl,” Diana ordered, but the joy and her own arousal at the sight of Caitlyn’s easy dominance was plain. “Quickly, now.”

“And the rest?” the young woman named Contessa asked, her face flushed, her breaths coming in tiny gasps of excitement.

A feral grin of cold malice spread over the beautiful and terrible face of the brunette woman, an expression that quite literally chilled the blood of every man left alive in the room. Her ruby lips glistened in the dim light, her electric blue eyes shining.

“Kill them,” Diana commanded simply. “Kill them all.”

CHAPTER 21

“This is really all you have?” Kevin asked, incredulous.

“Yep,” the older man answered matter-of-factly. “Sorry, Kevin.”

Kevin and Billie a wordless glance, and both silently regarded their half-empty shopping cart. A few tins of corned beef, some canned soup, and a few boxes of Ramen soup were all they could find in the entire store.

“I can’t believe it,” Kevin said, the wonder in his voice nearly masking his disappointment.

“Stocking up, eh?” the older man asked. “Well, I don’t blame you. Hell if I know what’s going on. I don’t think anybody does. Never saw anything like it in my time, anyway.”

“But, John, you must have some stuff somewhere that we could…”

“I’m sorry, Kevin, but no. The only reason I have that is that Joley Wilson ran out of money, or she would have taken this stuff, too.”

Nothing seemed to crack the cool, impassive face of his companion. Billie’s demeanor had been constant throughout the day, a plain, even keel. It was reassuring, but it slightly disconcerting too, all the same. Some emotion would be nice to see, even if it was some mild trepidation.

“Well, I guess we’ll have to make do,” Kevin said, and hefted the box of supplies.

“I ain’t never seen anything like this,” the elder man offered. “Even back when the Ruskies put that Spootnik thing up in the air. I thought, Lord, people have gone and lost their minds over a little itty bitty ball beeping up there in the dark. But this? Jesus H. take away people’s damn TVs and cell phones and you’d think it was the everlovin end of the world.”

“Yeah, I suppose so, John.”

“Thing’s gonna be all right, Kevin,” the old man said. “They always are. Things’re gonna be all right.”

“I hope so. Good luck, John. Let us know when the trucks come again.” Kevin realized with a sense of dawning horror that he had almost said if the trucks ever come again. He shuddered at his near Freudian slip.

“Sure will. Have to put out sign, I guess. We’ll find a way. Always do.”

“Okay. See you, John.”

“Bye now.”

The drive back to Billie’s ranch was quiet, since they both strained to hear anything of note over the soft fuzzy whine of interference on the radio. Nothing came to them over the airwaves.

Billie parked the big truck in the turnaround, as near to the house as she could get it. She killed the engine, blew out a long, slow breath, paused, and spoke.

“You really think something is going on?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said, a strange sense telling him to be guarded in the conversation. “I don’t want to get all riled up for nothing, as ol’ John would say. But, yeah. Something’s up. Cell phone, internet, cable’s out. No communication. And it’s not just here, this area…the TV dish would still be up if it were. I just…I just don’t know.”

A small silence fell as she considered his answer, her brow knitted in thought.

“Why?”

“I was wondering what you want to do about it.”

“Me?”

“Is there someone else in the truck?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know what I could do,” Kevin said simply.

“You’re a smart guy. Super smart, even, let’s be honest. Science is your thing, you could probably solve some of these problems. Why aren’t you trying to help?”

Kevin studied her face before answering. “I thought I was. Trying, anyway.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“I noticed.”

Her hand fell to his forearm, her grip surprisingly strong. “You are, though. Helping.”

“Thanks. And, ouch. Take it easy, She-hulk,” Kevin said, rubbing the place on his arm she had touched. “Jesus.”

“Sorry. I get carried away.”

“I guess so.”

“So…”

“Yeah, so.”

A longer silence drew out between them.

“So, are you going? To try to help whatever situation is happening?” Billie asked without looking at him.

“What are we talking about, Billie?”

She turned to face him, her expression still one of cool impassivity…but beneath it Kevin thought he could detect the first tiny crack in the façade. He just wasn’t sure what he was looking at, what she was telling him.

“Because if you’re staying, I’d like you to really stay,” she said.

“What?” he replied.

“For a brilliant man of science, you’re a little dense sometimes.”

“Thank you.”

“I want you to stay. Here. With me. Together. Move some stuff over.”

“Do I get a box? Or a shelf in the closet for my stuff?”

“I might even give you a drawer in the dresser.”

“Wow,” he said, a slow smile on his face.

“Yeah.”

“Oh…okay. Uh, I guess we could do that, if you want.”

“Only if you want to.”

“Of course I do, it would be good. It would be nice. Simpler,” he offered.

“Yeah.”

“Why do you want me to…you know, move in?”

“Something is happening,” she said, her eyes locking onto his. “You’re right about that, and…well…I think you’re important. I want to keep my eyes on you.”

***

The lights in Dan Pittman's apartment turned on, lighting the windows with a pale yellow light.

“Holy shit,” Mitch Herndon muttered to himself in soft wonder. He nearly dropped his coffee in his surprise; part of him has given up on anything happening here. He got the Styrofoam cup into one of the cruiser’s holders and grabbed the Motorola walkie from the dash.

“Marty, I’ve got lights on up front. Lights on.”

“What?” The disbelieving tone was plain, even in the poor, tinny sound coming from the small speaker. “Who went in?”

“Nobody up front. Did someone get by you?”

“Nobody I saw. And I’ve been staring at the freight elevator all night.”

“Damn. All right. I’ll meet you there in a second. We go up.”

“Okay.”

Mitch was out of the car, and he adjusted the firm bulkiness of the flak jacket under his gray sport jacket. He paused, considering, and then leaned back into the cruiser to unlock the small-stock Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. He checked the load, double-checked the safety, and trotted across the  street and down the darkened alley beside the apartment building, his vision fixed on the illuminated window in the apartment above.

Martin Ridgeway, a cop of about Mitch’s own age and strikingly similar in appearance, met him near the rear corner of the brick building. He clipped his radio to his belt with his left hand; his right held his service revolver at the ready.

“How the hell did they get past us?” Martin asked, his tone giving away his annoyance.

“I don’t know, doesn’t matter now,” Mitch replied. “You know that code?”

Ridgeway had tracked down the building’s super earlier that day, a task made maddeningly difficult by the present circumstances. Two days ago, a simple phone call would have done the job. Now, precious man-hours were lost just to get an electronic door code.

Four buttons pressed on a keypad later, they crept down the darkened hall. It was a fairly dingy space, given the upscale nature of the apartment building, but then again, it was mainly an unused freight entrance, after all.

Ridgeway motioned toward the metal grate over the elevator, his head nodding toward it questioningly. Mitch shook his head. Too loud. Ridgeway nodded and slowly pulled pone the staircase door. Mitch, shotgun raised, stepped silently into the stairwell, checking every ‘danger zone,’ just as his training had taught him to do. He tilted his head, and Ridgeway followed, the door closing behind them with a soft click.

They slowly made their way up the stairs, pausing for an extra moment at each landing, listening for anything out of the ordinary, their every sense straining to pull some kind of information from the darkened atmosphere of the building. Finally they arrived at the landing for Pittman’s floor. No sound.

As quietly as they could manage, the two men slid into the hallway outside Pittman’s apartment. Mitch even forced himself to go into shallow breathing so his ears could detect as much as he could. Ridgeway followed, head turning from side to side, keeping a wary eye on their 6 o’clock. Mitch’s eyes had by now adjusted fully to the dark, and his breath hitched to a stop in his throat.

The was a tiny sliver of pale yellow light across the floor and far wall of the hallway: the door to Pittman’s apartment was open, the inch-wide gap allowing a tiny amount of light to spill out….along with the voices.

There was somebody inside.

Or, some bodies, more accurately.

The sound of hushed sibilant voices. It was hard to tell how many people were inside the apartment, or how old they were, or even their gender. But the barely audible sound of stealthy movement and the whispers were indication enough that whoever it was, they didn’t want to be discovered.

Then why the lights? Mitch wondered. He was confused. Something didn’t add up, didn’t make sense. Did he really believe it was Pittman and that blonde woman from this morning? No, not really. Pittman may have been a lot of things, maybe even a murderer, but he hadn’t come off as stupid. And that woman – she was actually the one Mitch was worried about. The way she had carried herself…it had been somehow extraordinary and strangely subtle at the same time. He still didn’t remember what had happened, why he had blacked out. Somebody must have hit him from behind or something…still, he should have a cut, or at least a bruise, or something. Nothing was making sense.

And worse, he was nervous. Mitch touched his brow, just below his slightly receeding hairline. His fingertips came away moist. Why was he sweating? What was he so goddam nervous about, anyway? He concentrated on steadying himself; deep breath in, deep breath out….slow that heart rate…deep breath in…

A sound came to the two cops at last, a muted, soft thump thump thump of running feet, several pairs.

And it came from above them.

Herndon and Ridgeway’s eyes both swiveled skyward simultaneously, and Ridgeway gave quiet, hissing voice to what Mitch had instantly thought.

“The roof!”

Sonofabitch. Mitch didn’t know how they got up there, but that’s how they had gotten in without being seen. Before he could acknowledge, Ridgeway was moving.

“Marty, wait!” Mitch hissed, but the other detective was already past him and halfway through the door.

It could have been a textbook example of the best way not to enter a room: Ridgeway thrust the door aside with one hand, the other holding his revolver in front of him at arm’s length. And before it had even begun, the situation was sealed.

Before Ridgeway had cleared the blind spot created by the door, before Mitch could cry out again or even put out a hand to stop him, the eager detective’s gun had passed the far edge of the door. There was a blur of motion too fast to see, the sense of a great force at work, and a hand shot out from behind the door and seized Ridgeway by his leading wrist.

Ridgeway howled out an inarticulate cry, as much from surprise as pain, and seemed to suddenly leap into the apartment as he was pulled forward with great force. Then the door slammed shut before Mitch could see the offending attacker.

“Shit!” he shouted, nearly in reflex, and tried the handle. Locked. A sound came from inside, and it wasn’t the sharp CRACK of a pistol shot he expected. Mitch was pretty sure it was Marty, and pretty sure it was a scream.

Mitch kicked the door, once, twice. Damn – it was thick, sturdy. Solid. Not that cheap laminate-covered cardboard crap. Heavy and durable. Still, with the third kick, a heavy, jarring blow that seemed to reverberate a little painfully up his leg, he thought he could see the door frame give a bit. Kicks four and five came quickly as he saw a wide crack appear and finally the harsh brightness of split wood in the frame. He threw all of his weight behind the final charge, his shoulder slamming into the door; the frame gave way with a brittle, fibrous tearing sound and the door fell to the side and downward into the apartment where it sat at a crazy, raked angle in the entrance. Mitch scrambled over it, bringing the shotgun up to bear against whatever he might find.

He didn’t have to look far.

A short hallway in front of him, a small kitchen to his right. Fifteen feet in front of him, Ridgeway stood at a strange, canted angle, his hip turned to the outside, one arm behind his back, the other draped across his own throat, his eyes wide as he sucked in a ragged breath, the awkwardness of his position evidently making even breathing difficult.

And behind him was a woman.

She was young, barely more than a girl, really. She couldn’t have been more than 25. She was slight, shorter than Ridgeway, with blonde hair tied down in tight rows ending in short tails. She was in tight jeans and a plain white T-shirt that showed off a curvy yet athletic figure, and somehow, amazingly, she seemed to have some kind of controlling hold on the bigger, heavier cop.

“Hi,” she said cheerily, smiling at Mitch as though they were meeting on a sunny beach rather than a potential crime scene.

“Freeze!” Mitch shouted, training the Mossberg in the general direction of her head.

Damn. Wrong weapon, he thought miserably.

If having such an imposing weapon pointed at her face disturbed her, the young woman didn’t show it. Her grin broadened, and her notably bright blue eyes seemed to sparkle with their own inner light.

“Nice gun,” she mocked. “Do all men here have such big, big guns?” she said in a playful voice that Mitch unconsciously noted was far too cavalier for the situation. It just added to the unreality of the whole scene, and just helped to feed Mitch’s weird feeling that something was amiss, something was just off.

“Let him go, goddam it,” Mitch ordered, his voice taking on the harsh, barking tone of assumed authority. He took in the woman and his fellow cop; he couldn’t see clearly the hold she had on Ridgeway, it was some kind of odd grappling maneuver; Mitch stared at the tangle of wrists and elbows, hands and pressure-whitened flesh, but somehow her weird grip just didn’t make sense to him; he couldn’t see how it would be painful or incapacitating.

“Him? Sure,” she chirped, and made a tiny, sudden jerking motion with her hands and one arm.

A strange, thick, muffled tearing sound filled the hallway, shockingly loud in the small space. Ridgeway’s hips turned right, his torso turned left, and his head slipped to the side with a thick crunching sound.

“Aaaagh!” Ridgeway gagged; and then he was free as the young woman released him. He fell to the floor, where he lay motionless, his eyes darting form side to side in wide, sudden terror.

“Marty?” Mitch asked, suddenly unsure of himself. What the hell was going on? What had she done to—

Reflex kicked in, and Mitch pressed the safety button in with a thumb and squeezed down on the trigger. But before the bright flash and roar of the report, he saw the girl blur, as if she…

The flash and concussive sound of the blast passed, and Mitch’s eyes opened.

She was gone.

What the fuck. He inched forward, his knees slightly bent, left hand working the action of the Mossberg, bringing a fresh shell to bear. He peered around the corner wall; carefully after Marty’s costly mistake, and saw no one there. Keeping his vision up, he knelt beside his fallen partner and stole a glance at his face, and search for a pulse with his left hand.

Ridgeway’s eyes had stilled, now fixing on Mitch’s own, but his entire form had stilled as well. Mitch’s mind reeled; it looked like Ridgeway was no longer breathing.  A second, longer glance seemed to confirm this; Mitch heart leaped into a quick, tight gallop in his chest when he saw Ridgeway’s eyes take on a wet, glassy stare.

Panting in mounting alarm, Mitch stood, taking a two-handed grip on the shotgun once more. Goddam it, he thought wildly. I think he’s dead! I think she fucking killed him. What the blue fuck is going—

A sound, the quick, light pad pad pad sound of feet; Mitch spun in the direction of the long hallway on the other side of the big, open living room. He was aware of an iron staircase leading to a metal catwalk-style landing above him. He stole a glance in that direction, saw nothing. He began to turn around to—

WHAM!

“Ugh!” Mitch grunted as his body was propelled forward. The sudden, huge impact in his upper back sent a heavy thud through his body; his left hand came off the gun as he reflexively pulled the trigger. The Mossberg roared again, throwing the steel shot into the ceiling high above him. The recoil threw the muzzle of the gun sideways, but he kept his grip on it as he shot across the room and smashed into the back of an expensive leather sitting chair.

Mitch rolled over, bright golden stars spinning on the edges of his field of vision. He fumbled with the gun, trying to bring it up to bear on his attacker who had somehow snuck around behind him….or had flipped down from above. Or…

Fuck it, Mitch thought. I’ve about had it with this getting kicked around shit.

He staggered to his feet, his head swimming, and raised the shotgun.

The young woman was halfway between him and the door. She paused, her expression going from one of obvious, totally inappropriate mirth to one of…was it hesitation?

“Don’t you fucking move,” Mitch said, his voice low and deadly.

A lopsided grin formed on the girl’s face. “Like this?” she asked, and before Mitch could even process what she had said, she sort of jumped, no, more like skipped a single step backward, except this step put her all the way back into the hall, outside the door.

“You’re lucky I have to go, right now,” she said cryptically.

“Don’t you fucking do it or I’ll—”

Whoosh.

The Mossberg roared once again; ragged circle a foot in diameter appeared in the drywall on the far side of the hall.

She was gone.

“Fuck!” Mitch cried. He listened head cocked to the side. Nothing. Then, the familiar soft thrumming of feet on the roof above him.

The fucking roof.

His feet were moving before the realization even had time to sink in. Out the door, check your zones. Hallway. Clear. Run. Stairwell. Clear. Up we go…

Mitch’s lungs burned as he tore up the steps as fast as he could go. Still, he couldn’t see the girl above him, and he should have been able to. This was wrong. This was crazy. What was she, some kind of fitness freak? Some kind of fucking Olympian? Mitch had never seen anyone, male or female, athlete or not, move the way this young woman could. Her speed, her strength, the effortless way she did…it made him feel fat, sluggish, like he was packed in heavy syrup.

The last landing was dark, but there was no one there to greet him as he had feared. He could see a lighter shape, a brighter straight line ahead…

The door to the roof stood open, the night sky of the city shockingly dark since nearly all of the lights were off. The moon shone down from above, its ¾ shape casting the roof of the building in an eerie pale blue glow, bright enough for Mitch to make out his shadow on the asphalt coating beneath his feet.

She was there, running, although at not much more than a jog, moving away from him, watching him over her shoulder as she ran.

As she ran toward the edge of the roof.

Huh?

“Freeze!” Mitch roared. Somehow this crazy bitch had gotten into his suspect’s apartment, and then she had somehow jujitsued, or some damn thing, his partner to death, and now she was gonna do a double back flip off the roof into the grave.

“Don’t fuckin’ do it!” Mitch shouted, and began running after her. But she was too fast, even though he was sprinting and she was merely trotting, she was still too far ahead, she was still going to get to the edge before he would…

And as he ran after her, he saw her actually raise her right hand and give him a little wave.

Mitch slowed to a walk in amazement.

She took a long, skipping step up onto the raised edge of the roof, bunched her legs beneath her, and then uncoiled them in a huge burst of muscular power, knocking a dozen bricks loose from their mortar, and propelling herself not down to the street but into the sky.

Into the fucking sky.

Mitch stopped, his mouth slack, wide open. All logical thought processes in his mind stopped as he saw what he thought – no, what he knew – wasn’t possible.

The blonde shot up and out away from the building, arrow-like. Her leap carried her a good forty or fifty feet out and up a little, then her momentum seemed to fade; Mitch was sure this was merely the start of the long arc that ended with her dead on the street below. But instead the girl just swept her arms back, on either side of her body, like she was doing a long, leisurely breaststroke in an invisible pool, but now her arms rested alongside her body, her head arched upward a bit.

And she fucking rose. Up. Higher in the air.

Her momentum was regained, she wavered for a second and then rose again, as if buoyed by some unseen hand that drew her skyward. She continued this, series of long, slow inverted parabolas with renewed speed in their centers…Mitch got an impression of her bemused glance at his inability to follow her further (or, more likely, his shocked, slack-jawed expression)…and then she was gone.

The shotgun fell from his grasp and clattered to the ground beside him.

***

“You know we’re being followed,” Dan said evenly, his eyes darting back and forth between the road in front of them and the headlights that glowed dimly in his rearview mirror.

“Yes,” Cassie replied simply. She sounded unconcerned, amused even. Dan shook his head slightly in wonder as he glanced at her craning her neck around to star out the rear window.

“What?” she asked after a moment.

“Oh, nothing. Just that you seem so unfazed by this newest development.”

Cassie smiled wryly a little, but didn’t take her eyes off of the headlights behind Dan’s SUV. “Well, I don’t know who they are exactly, but I know who they’re not, so…I don’t know. I’ll take a break whenever I can.”

She did look away know, and Dan saw her look at him briefly.

“Okay, what? Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” she said. “I was just thinking the same thing myself. About you, I mean.”

“Huh?”

She leaned over quickly and kissed his cheek and sat back again. Dan caught a faint whiff of her clean, distinctive scent for the briefest of moments, and felt his heart flutter a bit in his chest.

“What was that for? I mean, I love it, but did I do something right or something?”

Cassie grinned. “I was thinking the same thing about you. You’ve only had a small amount of time to process all this, hours really, this whole huge, huge thing…and here you are, reacting pretty well. Strong. Solid. Like a soldier. A good one, at that.”

“That means a lot coming from somebody like you.”

“Still. It’s good. It makes me happy, and glad. And proud. I’m proud of you.”

Dan felt a swell of goodwill bloom in his chest, one that made him – no, compelled him – to smile, even though he tried to suppress it. He just nodded.

“What was it like?” Cassie asked. “The combat you saw?”

Dan snorted short, amazed laughter. “Are you kidding me? You’re…you’re a mythical warrior. A full-on, super-powered, ass-kicking Amazon warrior and you’re asking me about combat?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re full of surprises, you know that?”

“I suppose so. But it doesn’t answer the question.”

The skin under Dan’s eyes tensed and rose up just a little in the dim light of the truck’s interior, a normal person wouldn’t have noticed. Cassie saw it, of course, she saw far more than even Dan suspected.

“It wasn’t very much fun,” Dan offered quietly.

“The classic Pittman understatement,” she said, only half joking.

“I guess you could say that.”

“Good, because I did,” she said, and they shared a strained smile.

After a silence, Dan spoke. “In some ways it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I saw people do things, awful things. People I thought I knew. Doing things I never thought a human being could do to another. Among the guys I was sent over there with, and among the people we were trying to protect. Everybody. Just...awful.

“And of course, just me personally, this whole thing,” he continued, motioning to his right side with his hand. “It gave me all these wonderful cold mornings when it feels like my right side is made out of glass. And the way I start pulling to the right if I have to walk more than a couple hundred yards. It doesn’t really hurt anymore, at least not like used to, but still, I can feel that it just isn’t right, and never will be.”

A silence. Then:

“But…?” Cassie offered, her gaze fixed on him.

“But…but it was also good, in a weird sick way. Good because it wasn’t all bad.”

“Yes.”

“I saw things, terrible things. But I also saw things that shocked me, that on their own would be the most amazing, most uplifting things you could imagine.”

“Like?”

“There was an explosion, a car bomb, right? Leveled the entire market area of this little square in northern Baghdad. And it’s not like the movies, okay? A bomb like that goes off, it’s not like there’s this huge orange fireball that engulfs everything in flame. A true IED goes Pow! And there’s a flash of fairly brief flame, sort of, and it’s the blast and shrapnel that kills people, and actually, mostly it’s the blast. And a cloud of dirt. Dust. It’s not this big, long, fiery ‘boom’ that catches everything on fire. It’s more of a fast ‘pow’ that explodes your lungs if you’re too close.

“Well, usually. This time, there was some kind of secondary incendiary device. Maybe it was a fuel oil mixture, or maybe just some tanks of gas, I don’t know. But this car bomb goes off, flattens everybody, and this wet, sticky-looking shower of flame just…blossomed, right in the middle of the square. All over. And all over this produce cart, where this guy had been selling vegetables.

“The blast had killed him. His cart gets doused in what looks like napalm. The whole thing burned a long, long time.”

Cassie’s brow knitted together in a slight frown. “This is uplifting to you?”

“Of course not. But there was this little girl…”

Silence descended for a time.

“And?”

Dan looked away, through his side window into the inky darkness beyond it. “Maybe some other time.”

“Okay.”

There was a long silence between them then that was not uncomfortable.

“I have some questions for you, though.”

“There’s a shocker.”

“Seriously.”

“All right,” she said.

“There’s a thing. A huge thing. We haven’t talked about it at all.”

“Ah, yeah….that.”

“What you said was true? I mean, it is true?”

Cassie nodded. “Every word. Right here. I can feel it.” She patted her flat belly. “How do you feel about it?”

Dan shrugged a tiny bit and balanced it with a half-grin. “I know how I feel about you. I had pretty much given up hope of starting a family, didn’t really feel the need for it until fairly recently…but then in came you…of course, given our present circumstances…your…well, history…I’m concerned, of course. But I’m glad. I feel pretty good about it, mostly. Great.”

“And…?”

“Well,” Dan said, blushing, “I’m kind of proud, too.”

“Proud?”

“Yeah. I mean, it turns out Supergirl is a real, flesh and blood person.”

“Oh, no. Don’t say it,” Cassie laughed.

“…and I knocked her up. I gave a superheroine a case of the preggers.”

“Oh, jeez.”

They laughed together at the sheer silliness of the entire situation, their hands interlocked over the center console of the SUV. After a moment, their mirth faded.

“But you’re worried,” Cassie finished, her smile fading.

“Of course I am. We’re at war now, as you so fondly like to point out. Doom and gloom, right? No possible chance for survival, let alone happiness?”

“I—”

“What are we going to do, just run until we can’t run anymore? Until they take everything over?”

“No. We run until we can take care of this,” Cassie said, her voice low as it took on a tone of deadly seriousness as she patted her belly once again. “We take care – I take care – of this, and then we fight back.”

“A two-man army, huh?”

“I’m thinking three.” She patted her belly again.

“What?! Don’t tell me that Amazon kids come out of the womb swinging.”

Cassie chuckled. “Nope. No such luck. It usually takes a while to develop. I was thinking more about finding us some help. We’re going to need it.”

“I suppose we are.”

She paused, and her slight smile faded. “This is probably a bad idea,” she said. “This is almost as obvious as going to Trevor’s house. They’re going to see this coming.”

“Yeah, I guess they might. But if I’m right, the information Trevor passed me is a must-have item.”

“And you think this is why they…you know.”

“What?” Dan smirked. “This is why they sent you to kill me?”

The good humor fled the SUV’s interior like a physical thing. Dan saw the sideways glance and the pained expression on Cassie’s face and was instantly sorry he’d said it.

“Hey, that…that came out all wrong. I didn’t mean…”

“No, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. But yeah.”

“Well, then, yes, actually,” Dan answered. “Not long before you entered the picture, Trevor had passed me some information about a new weapons system that he thought would revolutionize warfare. He claimed he’d be able to retire early.”

“And you believed him?”

“Trevor was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a braggart,” Dan continued. “I believe what he said, or at least that he believed it. I was going to follow up on it, but I sort of got…distracted.”

Cassie smiled wanly at this, and patted the back of Dan’s hand.

“But yes. I’m sure of it. Whatever it was Trevor and his guys at AdvanTech discovered, it was deemed dangerous by these sisters of yours. And that made him a target.”

“And you, too.”

Dan nodded. “Guilty by association. Which might work for us; I’m hoping that Team Super Bitch might assume that I knew what I had, and that I would take it home, or lock it up, or take it somewhere safer.”

“None of which you actually did, of course.”

“Hell, no. It’s sitting on my desk. An interdepartmental envelope filled with folders and papers, and some stuff on a pocket-sized external hard drive.”

“And you really think that’s the key to everything?”

“Well, babe, at this point, at least it’s something,” Dan offered. “Which leads me to, these lights behind us. What are we going to do about that?” He glanced over to the passenger seat, and saw Cassie grin coldly.

“Leave that to me,” she said.

“Leave that to you,” Randy repeated.

“Yep,” Jennifer Carnes answered.

“Right. Super Fed to the rescue,” Randy spat. “Just because somebody got the drop on me today…”

“Somebody got the drop on both of us,” Jen said, her gaze fixed on the red taillights in the distance. She was trying to keep her distance, but the power outages and the general sense of unease had kept most people home, and the freeway through the heart of the city was eerily quiet. She feared that the lack of other cars had made their presence known already; if so, it would be even harder to get to the bottom of whatever was happening.

Randy rubbed the side of his pounding head. “Yeah, and it hurt,” he added. “My fuckin’ brain hurts. I haven’t had a concussion since I played football.”

Jen didn’t answer him. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the big truck in front of them make its way down the freeway, turn off on an exit, and then slow down to carefully pick its way through a pack of stalled cars.

“What’s with this, anyway?” Randy wondered aloud. “What’s with all the cars just sitting her in the road?”

“I think they ran out of gas,” Jen offered. “No power, no pumps.”

“But the power’s only been out a little while!” Randy complained, somewhat petulantly.

“And they must have been on ‘E’ already. Just wait.”

“Why?”

“In a two weeks, nobody will be driving.”

Randy just stared at her, his face betraying his slow, dawning horror. “What? You mean…you don’t think…you don’t think it’ll go on that long, do you?”

“Who knows? Who even knows what’s going on? Until we figure that out, I’d say anything could happen.” Then she grimaced. “Shit.”

“What?”

Jen pulled over against the curb, trying her best to blend the nondescript sedan in with the cares cluttering the side of the city street. “I think we’ve arrived,” she said. “I was afraid he was coming here.”

“To…his job?” Randy wondered as he peeked over the dash. “I’ll be damned. Who would go to work on a night like this?”

“Hopefully, we’ll find out,” Jen muttered. She carefully pulled her sidearm from its holster under her arm, checked the magazine and safety, and replaced it. Randy, eyes wide at first, did the same.

“Talk to me, Carnes,” he said softly, his vision tracking over the silent scene, the darkened buildings, the stalled cars, the idling SUV further up the block. “You think this is trouble?”

“I don’t know,” Jen said, her expression unreadable, impassive. “I just don’t know.”

“I don’t know!” the voice crackled over the radio.

Mitch pressed the pedal down harder, the Crown Vic surged forward with a muscular growl. “Then tell me what you do know!” he barked.

“We’ve got the two subjects who just entered the building. Pittman and this blonde woman you described,” the SWAT commander replied. “They had some trouble with the door, maybe the power is out and made the electronic access limited or something.”

Herndon swerved around a bakery truck that had somehow come to rest in the middle of the street, and had a sudden flash of gratitude that the roads were nearly deserted. “How did they get in, then?” he demanded.

“Not sure of that, detective. From where we’re sitting, we couldn’t see everything. It looked like he couldn’t get in, and then the woman came over and somehow she helped or something, cause now they’re inside. Looks like they jimmied the door or something.”

Mitch paused. Something about that….something about that wasn’t right. It seemed….he had seen it coming. Like he had expected it.

“What did she do, exactly?”

“I told you, we can’t really see the door that clearly, over.”

“All right, sergeant, listen. You’re going to stay right where you are until I get there, you understand? You stay put and stop them only if they leave before I get there.”

“But..”

“No buts about it. I’m 20 minutes…light traffic, make that 15 from your location. Repeat: do not go in under any circumstances.”

There was a slight pause, just enough for the full nature of the SWAT team’s displeasure to be expressed nonverbally.

“Roger that, detective. It’s your call.”

Mitch nodded a little. “All right then. How many men are with you, over?”

“Normally we’d have a crew of 15 jammed into this little wagon, but given tonight’s circumstances, we’re a little short handed. There’s nine, plus me, which makes 10. Over.”

“Ten?”

“Sir, the city is nearly completely shut down, you’re lucky that you got even close to that….hold on.”

The radio seemed to go dead in Mitch’s hand.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach. This made Herndon even more annoyed than he already was; ordinarily he was a even-keeled and sure-footed. The events of the past day had knocked him for a loop, and it was a feeling he didn’t enjoy. And now…dammit. Something was up, something was wrong. He didn’t know what, and these damned…instinctual feelings ran directly counter to his meticulous, empirical nature.

“What is it, over?”

Silence.

“I said come in, SWAT, I do not read you, Over. I say again, SWAT come…”

A burst of static broke in then, and the sergeant’s voice came over the radio, but this time it was different, it was suddenly less sure, less commanding.

“Uhh, detective, something might be going on here, we have a bit of a development. We’ve got other parties on scene, apparently, sir. Looks like they’re going to enter the building as well. Over.”

“Shit!” Herndon barked and pushed the big Ford even harder, the speedometer climbing past 60, now 70…

“Two new subjects; one male, mid-30s, well dressed; one female, early 30s, both professionally dressed, she’s in some kind of business suit, or something and…hold on. Shit.”

“What is it?” Mitch barked into the mic.

“She’s got a gun,” the SWAT leader replied. “Repeat, the female subject is armed. They’ve gone inside as well now. Permission to…”

“Denied, permission denied; I’m only a few minutes out, sergeant, you and your men will wait for me before you attempt any breach of the building. Over.”

“…but..”

“No breach, I said! Not until I can get there and we can sort this mess out and find out who these people…”

“Fuck!”

The word was hissed, a sound of real anger and desperation caught and kept quiet only at the last second. A second passed, and then the SWAT team leader’s voice came over the radio again, this time practically seething with anger.

“All right detective, I don’t know what kind of joke this is, but either I’m assuming tactical command of this situation right now or we are leaving and busting up your stupid little joke right now, is that understood?”

“What are you talking about? What joke? What the fuck is going on there?” Mitch demanded.

“A whole new bunch of people are joining your little party, detective.”

“What?!”

“We’ve got…three, no…wait….four, count them, four more people arriving on scene; four new female subjects, repeat four new female subjects, arriving on scene. I’d say early 20s through mid-30s, all casually dressed except the tall brunette in front; she’s in a goddam dress like she was going to some kind of formal or something. Over.”

Mitch was silent, his frown deepening.

“They’ve just walked onto the scene, detective, walked on and now they’re…yeah, that’s affirmative, they’re entering the building…”

In his mind’s eye, Mitch saw a cute blonde girl crack Ridegway in half again.

“Looks like there’s gonna be quite the party in there,” the SWAT team leader said.

Mitch saw her leap out of his line of fire, into the hallway, off the roof, into the fucking sky. These images replayed in his mind even though he knew they could not be true.

“We’re going in. Over.”

“Negative!” Mitch said, his voice even, controlled, but barely. “Do not breach. Repeat, do not breach the building. I’m calling this in, wait for backup and my arrival before you breach…”

“Backup?” The sergeant’s tone betrayed his confidence. “There’s ten heavily armed men here, most of a major city’s SWAT team. To breach a building holding a total of eight people, one lightly armed, most of them women? Are you kidding me?”

“Listen, I…”

“We’re going in, and we’re going in right now, detective, and when you get here we’ll have them all lined up in a row, cuffed and ready to answer whatever questions you might have. Then I’ll be able to go home and see if I can save the steaks in the freezer.”

“Goddam it, sergeant, listen to me! There’s a woman…maybe more of them, maybe more than one…more than one of them I believe to be extremely dangerous; she’s already killed one cop today and I think…”

“Then you’ll have a row of prisoners and one corpse, detective. Over and out.”

“No! Wait, goddamn it! Sergeant! Ser…goddamn!” Mitch roared and dropped the mic.

Well, the hell with pedestrians, Mitch thought, and floored the accelerator. If one wanders out in front of me, he’s gonna get pasted.

He gripped the wheel with both hands and took a deep breath.

Dan jogged down the dim hallway, his steps as light and quick as he could make them. His heart was thrumming in his chest in the same familiar pre-raid cadence he had known so well in Iraq. It was a strange combination of adrenaline and queasiness.

This must be what and actor feels like before he goes out on stage, he thought. As weird as it struck him, he could understand how some people could become addicted to the rush.

He reached his office and took his keys from his pocket, keeping his fist tightly closed about them so they wouldn’t jingle in the gloom. Some careful selection and a turn of the knob, and he was inside.

There was just enough light in the room to see the envelope and small gray rectangle of the hard drive on his desk. He blew out a soft sigh of relief and took them up, dropping the drive into his pocket and clutching the heavy manila envelope tight enough that in his haste he wrinkled one side of it.

There was no way he could have known for sure if the information in the packet, and on the drive, was the reason he had been targeted specifically…but somehow, he did. On some gut-deep, instinctual level, he knew. Just as he knew its survival was more important than his own.

In less than 30 seconds he had turned and was out of the room, now moving past his secretary’s empty desk. That was as far as he got before the sound of the man’s voice came to him.

“Daniel Pittman?”

Dan, even though he half expected to make contact, jumped all the same. He glanced up to see the speaker, a 30-something guy in a suit, step out of the gloom with a small pistol leveled in his direction. Three seconds behind him, and to the left, was a companion, a smartly dressed redhead in a similar pose.

“Don’t move, please. My name is Randy—ugh!”

Her speed and agility still took Dan by surprise, and he knew that no matter how many times he would see her in action, the unnatural speed, strength, and grace of the woman he loved would always mystify – and frighten – him.

Cassie stepped out of the gloom of the mouth of an adjacent corridor, moving quickly, much too quickly to fully track her motion in the semidarkness. She was blur that passed over the man’s gun hand; a thin, whip-crack of a blow could be heard, and his weapon clattered to the ground, accompanied by a gasp as he clutched his wrist.

Cassie pivoted, her hand clamping onto his forearm, and she spun him like a top while maintaining her grip. He faced away from her once more, but this time his arm was stretched across his body, Cassie’s grip holding him tightly as she stepped in behind him. Cassie drew him close to her, crushing him up against her with only one arm; his breath whooshed out of his body as she struggled against her steely form.

The redhead turned, trying to bring her gun to bear on the intruder, but again Cassie’s unnatural speed won the day. Her right hand shot out and clamped down on the woman’s arm, just below the wrist, and raised it skyward. The woman hissed in a breath through her teeth, in both pain and frustration. Cassie was taller, and the woman was practically on her tiptoes, trying to win the battle over her little black pistol as she grunted with effort.

After a few seconds, the tendons on the back of Cassie’s hand pulsed, the sleek muscle of her forearm shifting as she powered down her grip. The redhead gasped, the tail-end of the sound one of real pain, and her hand opened reflexively. The small pistol fell to the ground beside her partner’s.

“Wait, we’re fed—“ the woman began, but Cassie released her grip on her arm, and the woman teetered then dropped back to down to her feet, but only for a moment. Cassie seized the front of the woman’s business suit, balled her hand into a fist, and thrust it skyward. The redhead rose again, this time bodily, to dangle at arm’s length, her feet kicking in the air a little.

This will never get old, Dan thought as he watched Cassie disarm and control two grown, armed adults like they were playthings. Struggle as he might, the man couldn’t break free of Cassie’s controlling arm, and the woman was held aloft as if she were weightless, her hands locked around Cassie’s steely forearm.

“Who are you?” Cassie asked, her voice firm and betraying no sign of strain from the seemingly impossible feat she was performing. “Who are you with?”

“We’re federal agents,” the woman gasped as she dangled. “…FBI.”

“There’s a lot going on tonight. Why are you here?”

“…let….let me down!”

“You’re not in the position to demand anything, ma’am,” Cassie said matter-of-factly. “I have no wish to hurt you, but I could, easily, and I promise you that I will if you make any sudden movements against us.”

Cassie kicked her foot backward lightly, twice, and the service revolvers skittered across the floor toward Dan. He picked them up, tucked on behind his belt and held the other one at the ready.

“How-…” the woman gagged.

“We’re asking the questions here,” Cassie interrupted. “Again, I have no wish to hurt you, but if you make the slightest movement against us, I will not hesitate. Do you understand?”

The redhead nodded, strategically going limp in Cassie’s grasp, and the other agent simply gagged as he struggled against the arm braced across his chest.

Cassie released them, the woman staggered but stayed upright, the man tumbled to one knee, his mouth open as he gasped for breath. But their eyes rose to watch Dan and his impossibly strong companion.

“Why have you come here?” Cassie demanded. “Who sent you?”

“I don’t know who you are, but…” the man started, but his female partner cut him off.

“No one. We were looking for you, Mr. Pittman, and happened to locate you at the hospital. We simply followed you here.”

“You received no orders, then?” Cassie asked sternly, her brow knitted in a frown.

The redhead just shook her head.

“Why were you looking for me?” Dan asked.

“We’re not at liberty to divulge that information at this time,” the man spat as he rubbed his chest.

“The Bureau is investigating an incident involving a series of organized crime figures, important ones, who were heavily invested in the private contractors. Military contractors,” the woman finished as her partner gave her a dark, wondering glance.

“Kent-Allan,” Dan added.

She nodded. “And a testing facility with KA ties was nearly demolished recently. It’s just…now…the situation seems to have progressed beyond…local limits.”

A moment passed where they watched each other warily.

“It’s connected, isn’t it?” the redhead ventured boldly. “Whatever is happening out there? These crime figures you speak of. The test facility. Now the city, maybe the country.”

No one moved, or spoke.

“And you,” she added, nodding toward Cassie. “Whoever you are. Whatever you are. You’re a part of this.”

Cassie nodded slowly.

“Who are you? How can you do….what you did? It’s…impossible.”

“I’m sorry, Agent…?”

“Carnes. Jennifer Carnes.”

“Agent Carnes. I’m sorry, but what you think is possible is going to go through some unpleasant changes soon.”

The gazes of the two women locked, the razor-sharp acuity of the woman’s stare was not lost of Cassie. She was a woman to watch; she may not have been one of her fearsome sisters, but she was a woman of great intelligence and strength of another sort nevertheless.

She’s sizing me up, Jennifer said silently to herself. I can feel it. Jesus, who is this woman?

“Do you believe what I have told you?” Cassie asked.

Carnes didn’t believe in instinct, or hunches; her empirical nature was far too scientific and exacting for such romantic inventions. But now, in the single strangest situation she could ever hope to encounter, she found herself disarmed and overpowered in front of a mysterious stranger…and yet Jennifer trusted her.

“Yes,” Carnes answered, and Dan saw the other agent’s brow rise in surprise.

Cassie nodded. “I’m glad. It may help keep you alive. Because if you think this bad…”

“It’s going to get worse?” Jennifer finished without humor.

Cassie was the only one who didn’t give a small jump of surprise when other voice answered from the shadows behind the two agents.

“Yes,” a throaty female voice said from the darkness. “Much, much worse.”

The SWAT team was still moving through the gloom of the stairwell two floors down when they heard the first cry; a high, shrill warble that was not quite a scream, and definitely female. Whatever it was, it was impossibly loud and reverberated through the stairwell, its fierce, harsh tone and sheer weirdness raised the hair on the neck of all who heard it.

“Jesus!” the sergeant exclaimed, pausing for an instant. Then, the flat pop-pop-pop crackle of small arms fire.

“Shit! Move!” he barked, and the team of 10 men double-timed it up the steps.

The spiraling war cry echoed out of the dark, and the first thing Dan saw emerge was the compact shape of a smallish young blonde woman, already airborne, her arms thrust our beside her, her hands raked into claws. She shot past the two federal agents who ducked reflexively to either side of the wide, darkened corridor.

The woman sailed toward them, very quickly, and even now Dan’s brain had trouble processing that which he saw.

There’s no way, he thought dumbly. That’s a forty-foot jump. Nobody can jump

But by then Cassie was already in action. She spun, grabbed Dan by the front of his shirt, and completed her turn, her legs bending deep, her arms thrust out in front of her. Dan simply followed her lead; it was if her were weightless. He was airborne himself, briefly, then slid on his back across the slick linoleum, behind his secretary’s empty desk.

The rest happened very fast; Dan would think later that it had seemed like a fight from a cartoon, a roiling cloud of debris with a hand visible here, and a foot sticking out there. It was as if an omniscient projectionist was running the movie at double the frame rate, and normal humans could only get impressions of the speed, power, and grace of the true combatants.

The young blond took advantage of Cassie’s self-sacrifice. She shifted while she streaked through the air, now her right leg extended, arrow-like, her foot canted inward, the outside of her foot slicing the air like a blade.

The foot slammed into Cassie’s back squarely between the shoulders with a hollow BOOM. Her leap completed, she seemed to step deftly down out of the air as her forward travel ceased, into an action-ready crouch, her fists raised.

All of her momentum was transferred to Cassie’s body in a split second. She grunted, loud, a sound of real pain and shock that hurt Dan’s heart, and then her body leapt into the air and shot past Dan’s position as if fired from a cannon. Cassie slammed into the thick oak door of Dan’s office, and it didn’t even slow her down. The door, its frame, and the narrow windows on either side of it exploded inward as Cassie’s body disappeared into the gloom of the office. The woman straightened, her head turning suddenly in Dan’s direction.

“He’s here,” she barked, pointing, turning her attention back down the hall.

“Excellent,” the voice replied from the gloom.

Dan turned, leaning on one elbow. He could see two – no, three – women striding into the faint light at this end of the corridor. One tall, dark-skinned…another wore a hood that obscured most of her face. But the one who walked between them, a tall brunette…Dan blinked, hard. Even in these dire straits, he could not help himself.

My God, he thought. She’s perfect.

The male FBI agent was just picking himself up as the trio advanced. The black woman placed a hand on his chest casually and shoved as she walked past; he was lifted bodily into the air and slammed into the wall six feet off the ground with a guttural “Ugh!” as the impact knocked the air from his lungs. The redhead waited prudently for the trio to pass before going to his aid.

It was that moment that Dan came to his senses, and the life he had wanted to leave behind came back to him in a rush.

He turned a little to his side, just enough to pull the pistol from his belt and draw a bead on the small blonde in front of him, and he thumbed the safety off. His finger squeezed down on the trigger as he fired three times in quick succession.

The blond had been caught off-guard, she had been looking at her advancing friends. Even so, she was still incredibly fast, and she got her arms up as the first shot left the gun. Dan saw she wore things on her wrists, like wide, silvery bracelets, and then there was a flash and a pinging whine as she deflected the first shot with one.

Had she been further away, maybe even just a few feet, rather than practically standing over him, she might have had a chance at the other two rounds as well. But the slugs got past her crab-like defense and slammed into her left shoulder; a fine misting spray of red bloomed behind her and she lost some of that otherworldly grace for a fleeting moment.

A moment was all Dan needed. He tracked right, and fired twice more. His third round struck the young woman in the center of her chest; her mouth opened in a small “O” of surprise.

Even now, wounded as she was, she still possessed an unnatural speed and economy of movement. Off balance, wounded, and bleeding, she was still able to get her right arm up high enough to deflect the fifth round. It flashed off her bracelet with a metallic whine and Dan could hear – no, he could feel – the round zip by his own head in a ricochet; but he was as steady as the young woman was resilient.

Dan barely paused; he raised his hand the slightest amount before the woman could adjust and fired once more.

A small, neat, utterly black hole sprang into existence directly between the woman’s eyes. A soft sound, a grunt of “Guhh!” left her lips, and Dan’s saw every muscle in her head and neck fire once as the circuitry in her head reacted to the mortal wound. Deep striations sprang into being in her neck, her shoulders, even her arms.

Then, her lights went out.

She toppled over backwards to lie in a heap.

NO!” the word came a scream of shock and rage. Dan picked himself into a crouch, and saw the thin black woman explode into a sprint. She was closing the distance between them with shocking swiftness, and somehow Dan was less than surprised when he raised the small pistol, squeezed the trigger, and felt it jam in his grasp.

Damn, he had time to think. I guess that’s it, then. That was quick.

The black woman was a streak moving through the gloom of the office, now only a few feet from him. All Dan could do was watch as---

---as a boxy white object shot past him like cannonball, coming from the interior of his office. Even at such a velocity, Dan recognized it.

It was his office laser printer.

Two and half feet square, its 40 pounds of metal and plastic struck the charging woman full in the face. The device seemed to explode with a sound like a small traffic accident; bits of plastic and even bits of paper exploded outward in a flower-shaped cloud of debris. The black woman’s head snapped backward like a heavyweight boxer who had just taken a tremendous blow on the chin. Her feet flew from underneath her as the printer’s impact stole her momentum; she thudded to the floor on her back with concussive blow that Dan felt as much as he heard.

Cassie leapt from the shattered doorway to land deftly before him. She crouched low, ready, her fingers splayed into claws, her shoulders squared, eyes shining. She stood over him that way, watching the brunette and hooded woman as they approached warily. Her breathing was in deep, ragged gasps, and when she spoke, Dan almost didn’t recognize her voice for all the barely suppressed fury it held.

You can’t have him,” she snarled.

There was something so unnatural, so nearly elemental about these women, Cassie included, that anyone there would have instinctively shrank from the sheer different-ness of them, of Cassie and her tone…but the brunette merely smiled wanly.

“Cassandra,” she said softly.

“Not him,” Cassie growled again, and Dan suddenly knew how a baby grizzly must feel when its mother addresses a perceived threat.

The brunette shook her head in mock dismay. “Cassandra, please. Please don’t tell me that you…have feelings for this…worm, do you?”

Her tone as she finished her sentence was telling; the brunette’s mouth tuned down at the corners as if she had to spit the detestable sounds out before they poisoned her.

“Diana, no,” Cassie said, the tiniest bit of harshness leaving her voice for the moment as it took on the barest hint of a request, of a plea. “You’re taking this world. You’re taking everyone else. Leave him alone.”

“Cassandra –”

…please.”

The tone of Cassie’s voice was plain, the enormous weight of obvious emotional need giving it an almost tangible weight as she said it again, her incredibly bright blue eyes shining in the gloom.

Please.”

Dan saw the brunette, Diana, waver. But it was only for an instant. She was unsure, for a fleeting second, the raw emotion of Cassie’s request had unsettled her. But then her eyes fixed on Cassie’s own and then the hint of her dangerous mirth returned.

“Cassandra, please, my dear, you’re embarrassing yourself. And how would you protect him? You, a half-breed. Isn’t that the correct term? Against us? Against myself? I’m royalty, my dear. After all…” the brunette said lightly, and then, as her smile faded to a look of malicious contempt as she finished her statement with a cryptic reply.

Her strength is my strength.”

Dan didn’t know what Diana meant with that phrase, but Cassie evidently did. She wavered, visibly. She took a single, small uncertain step backward. Dan could see a sudden perspiration on the back of her neck.

Oh my God, Dan thought wonderingly. She’s terrified.

He had finally come to grips with Cassie’s origin, of her story, and her dread of what was to come. He had seen her manage feats that a week before he would have deemed impossible, the stuff of comic books and fantasy novels. He had witnessed a strength in her that staggered his senses. And now, seeing real, tangible terror in her filled him with a dread he had never known.

The woman known as Diana balled her right hand into a fist and took a single step forward, and Dan felt himself shrink back from her tiny advance out of some strange instinct for self-preservation. Why he should be physically terrified of a woman in a short red evening dress, the most beautiful woman he or anyone else anyone had ever seen for that matter, would be lost on an observer to the scene. But it was a feeling, a sensation; Dan supposed it was the same mindless terror that a mouse feels when hunted by a cat.

Cassie, visibly shaking, matched Diana’s forward step with her own.

The dark-skinned one was up now, though shaken. She swayed ever so slightly on her feet. The creepy woman stood by in an odd posture, her arms slightly raised alongside her body. The two federal agents stood back, unarmed and unsure about what to do, the male in obvious pain, his arms protecting his chest.

“You have shamed us all,” Diana spat, real venom showing through her calm demeanor. “And now you will die in dishonor.”

Cassie didn’t answer; she merely crouched lower, and balled her hands into small, deadly-looking fists. Diana crouched low, her lips pulled back in a feral grin of anticipation, and began to spring forward—

FREEZE!” boomed a voice, loud, as a dozen bright white beams of light shot through the room at odd angles.

The Crown Vic skidded to a halt, and Mitch Herndon had the door opened even before the heavy cruiser had come to complete stop. He charged up the steps to the Kent-Allan building, his right hand clutching the shotgun tightly. He had barely made it to entrance when he heard something in the eerie silence of the deserted city street…a familiar sound he almost expected, and dreaded. After a second, he zeroed in on its location, and paused, listened, backed up a few steps, and looked skyward.

There, many stories above, he saw the silvery-black tinted windows of the Kent-Allan building flashing from within with a muted strobe effect, accompanied by the faint rat-tat-tat-tat of automatic weapons fire.

“Shit,” he spat, his heart sinking.

Then, on the same floor but to the right of his position, one of the windows exploded outward in a crash of thousands of diamond-faceted shards. They twinkled in the moonlight for a second, surrounding the bulky, black-clad form of a SWAT team member in the center of the ice-chip cloud. He shot out away from the building, seemed to hang in the air for a second when his forward momentum faded, and then dropped earthward, his speed accelerating. Mitch, surprised, watched him the whole way, unable to divert his eyes.

The man never made a sound. He struck the ground at a speed near terminal velocity; his body slammed into the concrete with a sound unlike anything Mitch had ever heard. It was a heavy, reverberating thud mixed with a hollow crack that made Mitch blink instinctively against it. The body bounced bonelessly two feet back into the air before settling, leaving a crimson grease spot on the rough cement where it first struck.

Shit!” Herndon said again, but this time with anger. His lips mashed down on the cigarette between them and he rushed through the building’s door, which lay to the side, twisted and deformed.

The sergeant only got the one word out.

It was almost as if the strange women had expected it. They whirled in the direction the SWAT team had come, out of the dark, low, with automatic rifles and night vision goggles at the ready, and were upon them before the approaching cops knew what was happening.

The dark-skinned woman shot across the room, again a streak in the gloom, and set upon the sergeant. She completed an impossible 20-foot leap to slam into him, her legs wrapping around him at waist level, her feet locking together behind him. He staggered for a split second under the shock of the impact and her weight, but he didn’t live long enough to do anything about her advance.

She straightened her legs, ankles still locked together. The sergeant’s pelvis cracked first in half, then into many other blade-like fragments, offering no resistance at all to her strength. Before he could scream, the woman seized his head roughly on either side of his face and wrenched his head and neck to the left in a sudden, savage jerk. His neck made an audible CRACKLE sound as several vertebrae literally exploded from the force she exerted on them.

“Hey!” one of the other cops shouted. Only now was there a reaction, the beams flashing in her direction, such was the speed of her attack.

The woman planted her feet on the ground, the sergeant’s ruined, misshapen form visible now. Still cradling the dead man’s head, she bared her teeth in a snarl and pivoted at the waist, jerking upward and to the side as hard as she could.

“Jesus CHRIST!” one of the cops screamed in horror as he saw the sergeant’s head leave his body, the sound one like thick, wet burlap being torn in half. A thick jet of blood burped out of the stump of the sergeant’s neck, leaping up into one of the white flashlight beams like thick red water in a decorative fountain.

The sergeant’s body toppled to the side, and the woman unceremoniously released the head. It fell to the floor with a heavy BONK sound, much like a dropped bowling ball would have made.

It was then that things got confusing.

Dan would remember the scene later, and it reminded him quite a bit of the firefights he had seen in the Middle East. Gunfire, bodies flying about, the endless flashing of muzzle blasts, people screaming but unable to be heard over the deafening roar of their weapons, and slathered over all this, a deep, nauseating terror. He saw only bits and fragments.

The cop nearest the black woman raised his weapon, but she grabbed its muzzle and jerked it away from him without any effort. She jabbed it back at him, the butt of the gun obliterating much of his face. Someone started firing; white muzzle flashes lit the scene. The hooded woman raised both hands skyward; incredibly, one of the SWAT team members rose into midair in return, legs kicking, fully six feet off the ground. She paused, then tore savagely at the air, her hands ripping out to either side, her fingers hooked into claws. The dangling SWAT officer followed – both pieces. He tore in half at the waist, his legs shooting to the left, his torso to the right; in the brief muzzle flashes Dan had a fleeting impression of the rope-like innards in mid-air, still tying the halves together.  More weapons began the firing, their staccato voices joining the chorus. One of the men staggered from the fray, and brought his rifle to bear on Diana, who approached the center of the chaos. She seemed unafraid of her danger, and began to raise her bracelet-covered wrists, but the female Fed leaped before her, hands thrust out toward the cop.

Wait—!” she shouted, but it was too late.

The cop’s rifle bucked as it fired a dozen rounds in a burst, most of them stitching up Jennifer Carnes’ abdomen and torso, making small, neat dark holes in the front and huge ragged, bloody ones in the back.

She made a harsh, loud barking sound of shock and pain; the one sound that oddly enough Dan could hear over the din. She staggered, then slumped backward into the arms of Diana. NO!, Dan could see the woman’s partner scream out, his eyes wide in disbelief. Diana’s were equally wide as she cradled the woman, her face and chest covered with beads of blood as if she had been spritzed with the stuff.

Behind them, a scream was heard as the dark-skinned woman made some weird-looking gesture and a SWAT team member leapt skyward, crashing up through – and disappearing into – the drop ceiling twelve feet above them.

Diana knelt, cradling the dying woman in her arms, her icy exterior dropping away for the smallest of moments. Then it passed, replaced by sheer, unadultered rage, her classically beautiful features now contorted into the epitome of seething anger. She gently laid the agent’s body down, stood, and closed the distance between herself and the offending cop in three quick strides. The cop, still in shock over his mistake, didn’t have time to bring his weapon to bear again.

Diana’s strike began three feet behind her as she wound up the most powerful-looking haymaker Dan had ever seen. She paused, then released the blow in a blurring strike nearly to fast to see, her fist an iron cap on the power ram of her arm. She screamed out a strange cry, half roar, half shriek as she struck the cop square in the face.

His head exploded.

A hand fell to Dan’s shoulder and jerked him to his feet as if he were weightless. He turned his head and saw Cassie’s face close to his own.

Come on,” she screamed over the racket. “We’re getting out of here!”

“How?” he asked stupidly, but she was already in motion. She dragged him a short distance to the right, behind his secretary’s desk. She released him as she accelerated, turning sideways. She lowered her head and right shoulder, closed her eyes, and hit the wall at speed, in a powerful, low stance that would have flattened any linebacker in the NFL.

She tore through the wall, sheetrock and 2x6 studs yielded to her momentum with a thud and a cloud of gypsum dust. In the nearly constant white light of the muzzle flashes, Dan could see her tumble out into the hallway beyond, then pick herself up to her feet. Come on, she motioned, flapping her hand at him impatiently.

He didn’t hesitate. In a second he was out in the darkened hallway, trying to keep up with her as they ran down its length.

“Who is that woman?” Dan asked.

“That group? Those were the Hunters I told you about. She’s their leader.”

“She’s stronger than the others?” he panted as they came to the end of the corridor.

Cassie nodded. “Much. She would have killed me in seconds. I can’t believe how lucky were are, those men showing up like that.”

Dan turned to look back down the darkened hall. He could still hear the gunfire, lessened now. And now, interspersed with it, he could hear another sound.

The sound of men screaming.

“Yeah. Lucky,” he said softly.

“I didn’t say for them,” Cassie said, and turned her attention to the silver steel doors set into the wall.

“There’s no power, so we’ll have to take…”

“No time,” she said simply, and set her fingertips into the narrow seam between the doors. She bared her teeth, and pulled.

Even in the gloom, Dan could see the musculature of her neck, shoulders, and back come to life, swelling into visibility, becoming more defined, even through the thin blue top she wore. And, although he should have expected it by now, her might proved too much for even the steel doors. With a creak they parted enough for her to get her hands into the gap between them. She paused, then poured it on for real.

This time, there was a harsh, metallic squeal from somewhere inside the elevator door mechanism. A sharp, creaking sound followed; some vital part of the inner workings was shearing, but she did it. She pressed outward, enough for them to get through the doors.

The elevator car wasn’t on their floor. They were greeted with an empty space and a series of greased metal cables. They both leaned over the abyss and looked down, the shaft lit by the faint, final light from the battery backups.

They could see the passenger car, far below.

“Shit,” Dan hissed. “It looks like it’s at the damn lobby.”

“Climb on my back,” Cassie said, her gaze locked on the roof of the car below.

“What? Are you kidding me? That’s at 20 stories, we’ll never--”

There came a loud, hollow booming sound from the darkened corridor, from the direction they had come, followed by a blood-curdling shriek of a man in untold agony, all sounding closer than before.

“Okay!” Dan piped up, and climbed onto Cassie’s back.

Even though her frame was slightly smaller than his, being near her when she was in this state was always a surprise. It was like climbing into a tree made of iron, such was the feeling of strength in her rigid frame. He locked his feet together around her hips, and wrapped his arms around her abdomen. He buried his face against the back of her neck, and closed his eyes.

“Okay, go!” he shouted.

Cassie sprang forward, Dan’s added weight seeming to have no effect on her agility or balance. The muscle of her back and shoulders shifted as she moved, becoming harder, fuller. Dan thought that it felt like he was clinging to a statue made of living steel as she travelled into the void of the elevator shaft.

Cassie’s hands locked onto the cable, a smooth surface of steel threads woven together into a ropelike structure. She grasped tightly, the tendons standing out on her forearms. Even with her preternaturally strong grip and the help of her feet pinching the cable, the black grease coating the wire was too effective; they were slowly starting to slide downward.

“Here goes!” she called, and eased up on her grip.

They went into a freefall, the slick metal surface singing through her hands. Even with the grease, she felt her skin heat up and sing out in protest. A section of cable, rougher than the rest, passed through her hands in an eye blink; a single stray thread of wire, thicker than a pencil lead, had sprung free from its winding. This punctured the meat of her right hand between her thumb and first finger. On a normal person, this wound at this speed would have been quite serious, it would have ripped a good portion of his or her hand away; now, it made a small ragged hole in her flesh but the wire was bent double by the force of the impact and pulled back through the wound it had made as they shot down the darkened shaft. Cassie hissed in a breath in surprise, and pushed the pain to the back of her mind.

Shiiiiiiiit!” Dan moaned, his voice rising. He could see the roof of the elevator car getting closer, closer, very close now, so close that he could better see the rate at which they were falling.

With only 20 feet left to go before a final, likely deadly impact, Cassie closed her eyes and closed her fingers with all the force they could muster.

Eeeeaaarrgghhhhh!” she squealed through clenched teeth; the friction was even worse than she had anticipated. It felt like the skin of her hands was tearing away in bloody chunks.

But it was enough. Dan felt their movement downshift suddenly with a thump, then a tremendous THUD ran through his body, much like a small traffic accident. His teeth clicked together and he was momentarily stunned. He dropped off Cassie’s back and slid to the ground, slightly dazed. He looked up to see Cassie standing in the center of a dish-shaped depression in the roof of the elevator car, her hands still locked around the cable.

“Cass?”

“Are you hurt?” she asked, her voice oddly tight-sounding.

“No, I don’t….I don’t think so.”

“Then let’s go,” she said, and knelt, grasping the small square emergency exit door with her injured right hand, which was a blood- and grease-smeared ruin.

“My God, your ha--”

With a casual-looking jerk, Cassie tore the entire emergency door from its frame, the thin steel folding nearly double in the process. Without a sound, she dropped through the opening into complete darkness.

Dan followed, lowering himself down slowly, careful not to put too much pressure on his wounded arm. He let go of the edge of the opening, and landed in the center of the car with a thud.

“Ground floor; electronics, women’s hosiery, pet supplies,” Dan said softly.

“You’re a strange one, Pittman,” he heard her say in the darkness.

“Agreed. Let’s get the hell out of here, huh?” he asked.

“All right. Stand back.”

Dan took a step backward, even though he had no idea which way was toward the rear of the car. He could hear the soft sound of Cassie’s hands moving over the smooth surface of the car, looking for the seam in the door. Then he heard her grunt softly, and the doors rolled back with a creaking sound of buckling metal.

There was just enough light in the lobby for Dan to see a man standing in the opening, the business end of a shotgun nearly touching the smooth skin between Cassie’s eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said coolly.

The last of them died horribly. Diana seized him by his shoulders, her clawlike grip crushing muscle and bone like it was paper. Contessa, the dark-skinned woman, grabbed him around the waist from behind. They jerked him in opposite directions at the same second, his spine first snapping, and then separating, as they effectively tore him in half.

They dropped their halves unceremoniously, pausing to give each other a victorious smile and to drink in the sudden, welcome rush of heat from the battle. Mulita glided to their side, her weird grace and perfect silence unnerving even to them.

Diana’s eyes passed over the room; the shattered, mangled members of the SWAT team lay in great piles of broken bodies, some of them literally torn into pieces. Her gaze came to rest on their blond companion, her still, silent form still lay on the ground, arms akimbo. Diana felt the barest touch of…was it sadness? Remorse? Then it passed.

“She died in glory,” Diana stated, as if it were a eulogy.

“Glory,” Contessa repeated softly.

A sound came to them, a soft, bubbling, choking sound.

The woman.

Diana knelt beside her, and turned her over onto her side. The redhead shuddered, wheezed, and a huge glut of thick arterial blood ran from her mouth to pool on the floor. Diana raised her torso, one hand gently cradling the side of the woman’s face.

“You were brave, little one,” she said, her voice tinged with the barest note of real regret.

“Never mind her, Diana,” Contessa said. “We must find the traitor. There is yet time.”

“No. Surely they are gone from here by now. We allowed our…passions…to distract us. But this one…”

“She is but a frail, Diana.”

The woman wheezed, shuddered, and coughed another glut of crimson onto her chin. Her eyes, clouded by pain and her obviously mortal wounds, batted open, then shut in a quiet, dignified, deeply personal mortal struggle.

“She is that,” Diana agreed, “but frail as she is, she has great strength. She is a sister in heart, if not in body. She does not know me from a stranger, yet she threw herself to my defense.”

“Let us leave before--”

“I will decide our present course,” Diana said flatly, her ice-chip blue eyes blazing, her sudden stare in Contessa’s direction disquieting in its intensity. “…and I alone. Or do you forget yourself?”

Contessa shrank back like a chastised child, her sudden obedience – and fear – suddenly obvious. “Yes, Princess,” she said, with a small bow.

And with that, Diana made her decision. She stood, pulling the dying woman up with her, her left hand scooping her up under the legs, right hand supporting her back.

“Mulita,” Diana said, her tone one of command. “Bring it forth.”

There was the slightest pause, the hint of indecision in the air.

Diana turned to regard the witch. “Now,” she said, her tone flat and deadly.

Mulita rose to her toes, spread her arms wide, and the familiar, slithering language sounded close to the women’s ears. Before them, the air seemed to ripple, to shimmer, and slowly, it began to grow hazy, then dark. A shifting, silvery ribbon formed at its edges.

Contessa stepped forward uncertainly, not wanting to incur the full wrath of her liege…yet, what she suspected troubled her greatly.

“But…Princess…surely…..surely you don’t…you wouldn’t….” she stammered.

“My business is my own,” Diana said with hesitation. “As are my burdens. It is my decision to make, and mine alone.”

“Yes, Princess,” Contessa said, casting her gaze downward as she took a step back.

The silvery ribbon and the inky blackness at its center seemed to solidify.

“Now. Let us away,” Diana said.

And from the shadows, hidden among the tangle of broken bodies, Special Agent Randy Timmons looked on, his breath nearly frozen, his eyes wide in wonder, as he watched them take his partner into darkness.

“If you so much as move, I’ll turn your head into a canoe,” Mitch said matter-of-factly. “Believe me.”

“Yes,” Cassie said simply, her eyes fixed on his own.

“Well, that’s a start, isn’t it?” Mitch said. The, his eyes widened visibly as it struck him. “Holy shit. It’s you,” he said wonderingly.

Cassie said nothing. The detective’s eyes darted to the side, for a second, to take in Dan standing just behind her.

“And you, too. You came here? You actually came? You know you’d be looked for here.”

Dan just nodded grimly.

“Detective, we have no time,” Cassie said levelly.

“You just hold it right there, miss, I’m-”

“Please, we have no time,” she implored, and the sheer emotion conveyed by her voice made him suddenly a little less sure.

“What the hell is going on here?” Mitch asked, wincing at the sound of his voice, which for some reason wasn’t as forceful as he had intended it to sound.

“We have to leave, now,” Cassie said, her tone somehow making her demand into an urgent request. “If you heed my warning, you’ll leave as well.”

Mitch’s gaze rose skyward, briefly, involuntarily.

“Don’t go up there,” Dan warned.

“And why not?!”

“Because you won’t like what you find,” Cassie said softly.

Utter silence surrounded them, the racket from the floors above had faded.

“What did you people do?” Mitch asked. His nerves were crying out; he felt as if the flesh on his arms and the back of his neck and shoulders was actually crawling.

“We did nothing, except retrieve some documents that will help shed light on recent events,” Cassie said. “But now we must go, or we will likely die.”

Mitch studied her gaze, sweat beading onto his brow.

Cassie dropped her vision for the first time, looking first at the barrel of the pump-action shotgun, then back to Mitch’s face. When she spoke, her tone made her outrageous assertion simply a statement of fact, and not the threat it would have been coming from anyone else.

“Detective…you know I could take that weapon from you, yes?”

Herndon paused, and then, incredibly, he nodded.

“I could disarm you at will, and then, perhaps, worse. You know this to be true.”

Mitch wondered silently at himself as he nodded again.

“But I give you my word, I will not. All I ask in return is your trust.”

Dan glanced skyward, the growing sense of urgency seemingly to crawl under his skin like ants. “Cass….”

Mitch looked between them for a moment, and then, slowly, he lowered the shotgun and thumbed the safety on.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he heard himself say. Jesus! He thought to himself. She’s a felon! Maybe a murderer! Why don’t you offer her a smoke?

“Please, detective, please do not go up there. The danger may have passed for the moment, but I cannot guarantee your safety if you do. There are people there...who would do you harm.”

“People…like you?”

Cassie nodded, a slightly pained expression in her eyes.

“I know. I’ve…I’ve seen…someone. And she did…things…things I can’t explain.” Dammit! his mind cried. Why are you talking?

“Then you know nothing good can come from facing them again. Please do not pursue it.”

Mitch considered this, then sighed, and shook his head.

“It’s….it’s my job,” he answered slowly.

Cassie paused at this, and nodded. “I should have suspected this. You are a stout and honorable man, Detective…”

“Herndon. Mitchell.”

“Herndon. I sensed this about you. If we are all very lucky, you will have a large part to play in the drama when the time comes.”

“Cassie…”

Mitch just nodded again, and she slowly, gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “We will find you when it is time. Until our paths cross again, Mitchell. Until then, be wary. Be careful. And be true.”

And with that, they were gone.

It was a horror show. Mitch fought it as long as he could, his flashlight playing across the bodies.  The crime scene literally looked as if it had been hit by a suicide bomber. Tangled, twisted bodies were strewn across the room, some whole, some not. None were left alive, and there was no sign of the perpetrators of the slaughter.

Mitch sat down in an office chair, leaned the shotgun against the wall, and slumped forward, cradling his brow with his hand. It also helped to cover his eyes.

“Jesus,” he said quietly to himself. “What the fuck is going on here?”

A soft, nearly stealthy sound came from beneath a bloody tangled mass in the center of the room. Mitch looked up and saw a single, trembling hand reaching skyward.

“Hey. Some help here?” Randy Timmons asked quietly.

***

In Weed, California, Kevin Kidwell and his girlfriend Billie Casperson spent the night trying to tune in a signal, any signal, on the old radio she dragged up from the fruit cellar. They were unsuccessful.

The trouble, the real trouble, began around the same hour in Cleveland, Ohio. An argument in a Circle K, over two packages of chocolate Zingers – the last products on the shelves – escalated into first a shouting match, then a shoving one. An hour later, two dozen young men met outside, more shouting ensued, and one of them brandished a chrome 9mm pistol. One shot rang out into the night, then another. Soon, the street became a warzone, and only one police cruiser was dispatched to quell the disturbance. The officer was killed immediately after her arrival, and the car torched. Then, the storefront nearest the scene was smashed, the nearly worthless junk in the window stolen, and a flaming chunk of the cruiser’s plastic dashboard was hurled through the space. Twenty minutes later, the storefront was fully ablaze, the crowd had swelled to become a mob of over one hundred people and growing every minute, and it began to move west, deeper into the city’s downtown, and then out toward the western suburbs. Two packages of cheap pastries. All with all great conflicts, this one began over something very small, and grew to consume the fate of hundreds, of thousands.

The Great Riot of Cleveland had begun.

By morning, most of the eastern seaboard was dark. By the next night, so was most of the western one.

Across the country, that night saw the first deployments of National Guard troops into civilian areas, panicky town selectman and urban planners everywhere were declaring martial law. The terrified citizenry, cut off from its steady stream of communication and outside information, panicked. Rumors of terrorist attacks sprouted before even the lights went out. Then came tales of Washington in ashes and a president deposed. A coup de tat. The citizenry, in mere hours, was whipped into a froth of paranoid frenzy. The citizenry was also well-armed. Enter National Guard troops, with orders to shoot to kill.

Unfortunately, even on that first night, they often found reason to.

Hargrove was alone.

Not in a true sense, since he was surrounded by subordinates, even his best friend, who was a part of his cabinet. He watched McCraddock try in vain to stay awake. The Secret Service agent’s eyes would droop, then slip closed, then snap open again. He was fighting to stay awake the way an anxious puppy sometimes does, but finally the exhaustion was too much for him. His eyes closed, and his head sagged back against the couch, and after a moment he began to snore softly, like many of the people in the room. So while he was surrounded by people sworn to advise and protect him, Hargrove was actually alone.

There was still no word from Washington. There was no word from his wife. For him, there would be no rest tonight.

***

They rode on silence, directionless, for a time. No one spoke. The roads were completely empty, it was if they were the last people on Earth. The bright lights of the big SUV lit the road before them, illuminating everything but what they should do next. Finally, Dan pulled the truck to the side of the deserted highway, and turned to face his companion.

“What should we do, Cass? You know what we’re up against better than I do.”

She shook her head dolefully. “I only know what they can do, not what they will do. Your guess is about as good as mine.”

“You think they’ve given up on the stealth thing?”

“Did any of what you saw tonight look stealthy to you?” she asked with a humorless smile.

“No, I suppose not.
“They’re going to take over, they’re going to enslave everyone.”

“They can do that?” Dan asked. “There’s enough of them to do that?”

Cassie nodded. “Probably. It won’t be easy, here, or in other big, well-armed countries. But you saw what even just a few of them can do. I bet some smaller, less advanced countries are already finished. I bet there are some countries that already don’t exist anymore.”

“Jesus.”

“But it won’t be easy. Because of people like you.”

“Huh?”

“You don’t even realize it, do you?” Cassie said. “You killed one of them, Daniel. Tonight, you defeated an Amazon warrior. A fierce one – an elite. A hunter. That’s impressive. And rare.”

“I didn’t ‘defeat’ her. I just shot her. I surprised her. I got lucky.”

“In my experience,” Cassie said, sliding across the seat to lean over the center console and give him a discreet peck on the cheek, “Luck doesn’t exist. Either things happen, or they don’t. We make our own luck. As a woman, your woman, I love you. And right now, as a warrior…I respect you.”

Dan looked at her, her bright blue eyes, her tired, sad smile, even the tiny flecks of crusted blood under nose from when she has smashed through his office window and door. Even now, tired and beaten, she was beautiful and he loved her. He felt his heart swell with a pride he had scarcely known.

They kissed now for real, deeply. He caught a hint of her scent, that high, sweet smell, and felt his heart leap in his chest. Her right hand, wrapped in an extra shirt since they had no proper bandages, rubbed his thigh, and moved about, exploring.

Finally they broke the kiss and looked at each other once more.

“What do we do?” Dan asked again.

Cassie slowly took his hand in her own, and placed it against her flat, taut abdomen. “First, we take care of this,” she said.

Dan nodded. “Is it…is there, you know, a difference? Is there anything…are you going to become Supermom, or will it be Superbaby, or…”

“It’s the same,” Cassie said with a strange little smile. “Completely normal. 9 months. A full term. Then, a normal birth.”

“Will it…”

It?”

“Okay, he…or she…will they be normal? Or, you know…exceptional?”

“I don’t know. There’s never been an….an Amazon child that wasn’t given over to the Becoming. Until the ceremony, the children seem normal. And those….” She sighed. “Obviously, those were all girls.”

“So we’re moving into the undiscovered country, then.”

“We appear to be, yes.”

“So…this is important,” Dan said, patting her belly softly. “He – or she – is important. And to more than just us.”

Cassie nodded, her eyes shining. “Yes.”

Dan blew out a breath, returning her nod. “Well, that’s it, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“For us, it’s over,” he said decisively. “At least, for now. You want to try to stop what’s happening? To fight them?”

Cassie nodded, watching him closely her eyes glued to his own.

“Me too. And we will. Together. But not now. We can’t now, because of this,” he said, patting her belly once more. “This comes first. Above all else. Because it’s important. More than me, more than you. It’s more important than anything.”

Cassie nodded, on her face an expression of complete love mixed with an infinite sadness.

“So, for the next 9 months, planet Earth is going to have to get by without us.”

He kissed her again, quickly, then he restarted the truck. He pulled back onto the road and carefully maneuvered around the cars that had already stalled on the road.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“I think I know a place,” he said. “It’s pretty remote. It’ll take us a few days to get there, long days. A lot of time on the road. But not in this rig,” he finished.

“Why not?”

“One, it’s big. It’s noticeable. Plus, they might be looking for it. We’re still the stars of Amazons’ Most Wanted, right?”

“Yes. We may not be the headliners of that show, but we’re still in the lineup. Especially now.”

“What’s different now?”

“You killed one of them. The brunette back there? The one in charge?”

“Yeah?”

“She’s in charge of that group of hunters, and she doesn’t play around. You killed one of her captains. She’s won’t forget it. You just made an enemy for life, and she’s powerful.”

“Powerful?”

“She’s royalty.”

Dan eyes widened. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. A princess.”

“Princess?” Cassie nodded and Dan shook his head in disbelief. “Oh, great. I’ve pissed off the princess. Is she, you know, special, or something?”

“Let’s just say we’re lucky she got distracted when she did. Otherwise she’d be washing pieces of me out of her hair right now.”

“Really? Or are you, you know, exaggerating for effect?”

“I wouldn’t joke about this. She could crush this truck like a sardine can, with us in it. As different as an Amazon is from a…a normal person, she’s that different, or maybe more, from the average warrior.”

“Oh, my God,” Dan sighed.

“Yeah.”

A moment passed, and then Dan spoke again. “So if she’s royalty, and she’s a princess, and there’s no men, and therefore no king…that means there’s like, a queen, right? An Amazon queen?”

Goddess!” Cassie cried softly, her eyes wide. She made a quick motion between her forehead and her chest, almost as if she were crossing herself. From where he sat Dan could feel her sudden, yawning terror at the thought like it was a real, tangible thing. “We will not speak…of…that,” she said quietly, nearly meekly. “It is forbidden.”

Dan stared for a moment, alarmed.

“It’s just…we do not speak of…her. Ever. She is real, I even caught a glimpse of her once, but at a great, great distance. Her reign is total in its nature. Complete.”

“No one ever questions her rule?”

“If you knew more about us….about them…then you would understand the utter folly of that question. We mustn’t speak of her anymore.”

Dan considered this as he watched Cassie’s face closely. “Okay.”

When she could speak again, Cassie touched his arm lightly. “So, the vehicle?”

“Right…like I said, they might be looking for it. Plus, this thing is a gas hog. Trains are obviously not running on time, and people are going to panic. Fuel might suddenly be much harder to find. We need something more efficient. Smaller. Easier to fill, easier to get around on.”

A faint smile came to Cassie’s face. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I might be. It certainly would be easier to move around on them. But it’s a couple of days away. Our fannies might be a little sore by the time we get there.”

***

Her hand slipped on the smooth rock, and she nearly fell.

Her left hand shot out, instinctively, and found a solid hold. The shoulders bared by her tank top were deeply tanned and the small, hard muscles of her shoulders bunched impressively as she arrested her fall with just her upper body strength – of course, if she had failed, the safety harness wouldn’t have let her drop far, anyway.

She blew a hard breath out, as much out of frustration at her carelessness as at her luck. A steady drip of perspiration ran down from underneath her helmet and down the bridge of her nose, to drip onto the rock with regularity; the headband she wore under the fiberglass and foam helmet had soaked through hours before.

She planted her feet in a couple of good toe-holds and ran her ascender up a few precious inches on the guide rope. She would have rather climbed without the guide rope, but some things they just wouldn’t let her do. She was lucky she was allowed to take her enthusiasms as far as she was able.

She let go of the rock face and leaned back, her harness going taut and her weight nearly fully on the rope, the single lamp in her helmet now shining into the night sky rather than at the white-beige rock face she was in the middle of conquering. She was plunged into darkness, and she hung like that for a time, reveling in the perfect silence. Not many people understood climbing at night, but those who did, they really understood it. Imagine taking a solitary activity, and then taking away light, your only friend, she would tell them. You’re completely alone. There’s nothing in the world except you and the rock. It’s all up to nobody but you. And, deep inside, you know you’re going to beat the mountain.

She flexed her hands, felt the bones shift and heard a tiny muted cracking of knuckles. She felt the first inklings of the exhaustion that awaited her, and welcomed it. She sure wouldn’t have any trouble falling asleep tonight.

She smiled to herself, totally enjoying the moment. She stretched out an arm, found the next inch-deep crevice, and began to pull herself toward it.

But instead, she felt the harness around her chest and hips grow tighter, pulling at her weight. And then, the cliff face began sliding by her, seemingly of its own accord. 

“Hey!” she shouted. “Stop! You up there!”

Her watchers paid her no heed, she continued to rise, faster now. She gave up, let her head droop in frustration as she went slack in the harness.

I only had 50 feet to go, she thought miserably. Don’t they get that? I wouldn’t have bothered if I had known I wasn’t going to finish.

A few seconds later she was at the top, and some tugging and hushed expletives, she was over the ledge, on the flat top of the ridge.

Bright lights, blinding and somehow nearly obscene after the quiet serenity she had known just seconds earlier, exploded all around her, throwing her headlong into a bustle of noise and confusion.  She was suddenly surrounded by a dozen people; some of them held clipboards before her, two were already working on getting her out of the climbing harness, and one even held a Blackberry out for her to see the screen, which was blinking a single two-word message: Network unavailable. One man stepped especially close to her, and she looked him in the eye when she spoke.

“What the hell is this about? Why did you people pull me up?”

“There seems to be a problem, ma’am. The entire country just went dark.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, her annoyance fading, and replaced with a growing sense of unease. “Here, let me get that,” she snapped at someone’s bumbling hands about her waist. She unclipped the quickdraw attached to her harness so she could finally get off the guide rope.

“We’re not sure.”

“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” she barked, shrugging out of the black nylon webbing of the harness. “This is supposed to be a vacation, you know.”

The man close to her was direct and didn’t mince words.

“We haven’t been able to contact Washington for some time,” he said.

The bustle of activity around her faded, the scene seemed to grow quieter. The man’s message seemed to almost come through a tunnel. This was it. The moment she had secretly feared would happen.

“How long?”

“Hours.”

“Why not? Is it a communication thing, or…?”

“No, we’ve even lost the satellite phone network.”

“The President?”

“No word. Nothing. Nothing on the emergency channels, either.”

Someone handed her a bottle of water. She paused, thinking, took a long draw on the bottle, took a deep breath, and nodded.

“Okay. Well, I guess that’s that, then. Protocol?”

“We get you somewhere safe. Most likely, Nellis, or maybe Offut.”

She nodded grimly again. “Okay,” she said, took another gulp of water, and held the bottle out for someone to take, which someone did. “Let’s get a move on, then, shall we?”

The man before her returned her nod and grim expression when he spoke again.

“Yes, Madam Vice President.”

***

It was well past midnight when Dan pulled the Tahoe into the parking lot of their destination. They got out and approached the door warily; at this hour the business was closed, but with the condition the city was in, Cassie reminded him, they had to be particularly cautious. She watched the lot and the street beyond while Dan peered into the dark showroom, trying to see through the decal of the familiar circle-shaped logo that was stenciled on the window.

“I think they’ll have what we need,” he said, squinting. “But I’m not sure how we’re going to get in there.”

Cassie glanced at him with an expression of half bemusement, half exasperation. She unwound the blood-splattered T-shirt dressing on her hand.

“Oh, God, Cass,” Dan said in real alarm. “Your hand!”

“It looks worse than it is,” she answered.

Dan frowned, unconvinced, but if it still pained her, she didn’t show it. She grasped the fixed door handle with both hands, braced herself, and pulled.

It occurred to Dan then that he would never get used to this; it was simply to strange and too far removed from his experience for his brain to recognize as an actual, real, and permanent phenomenon.

The handle, made of thin aluminum, bent back fairly easily, to a point. Cassie reset her feet, and pulled again, applying a slow, mounting pressure. Any more would have simply torn the handle off.

A quiet, nearly gentle creaking issued from the metal door as it subtly deformed, a metallic groan sounded as she pulled the fascia from over the lock mechanism. With a sudden, hard tug, it was torn away, leaving the half-inch bolt in plain view. Cassie gripped it and pulled the bolt free with her thumb and forefinger.

“Here you go,” she said with a nearly embarrassed grin, and dropped the bolt into Dan palm. He shook his head in amazement; he could feel the warmth from the friction in the piece of metal. She paused, and leaned closer, looking at his shocked expression and the sudden, thin film of perspiration on his brow. She sniffed the air by his neck, and pulled away, her grin going from one of embarrassment to a sly sideways glance. “You still like it when I do things like that, don’t you?”

“Huh? Well, I….you know…”

“Get in there, stud,” she said, dropping her voice an octave lower for comedic effect.

Once inside, Dan reached instinctively to turn the lights on, but was rewarded with nothing but more gloom and shadow. Arms extended before him, he made his way over to the accessories counter, and fumbled through a few small cardboard displays. Finally, after a minute or two of rooting about blindly, his fingers brushed across a familiar shape. He returned to Cassie’s side in the middle of the room.

“Okay, here goes. Surprise!” he said, and flicked the wheel on the cigarette lighter he had found.

The small yellow flame leaped into being, making a small circle of golden light in the gloom. It was enough, apparently, for them to see more easily.

“Oh, Daniel,” she gasped in delight. “They’re beautiful.”

She crept forward to caress the fiberglass fender of the nearest bike with her wounded right hand, the surface smooth and cool under her fingertips.

“Yeah, these should do nicely,” Dan smiled.

Two brand new BMW GS1200 Adventures stood on their kickstands in the dim light cast by the cigarette lighter. One had blue trim, the other red. The fiberglass bodies were streamlined and modern-looking, while the rear and lower half of each motorcycle hinted at the machine’s true purpose. There, wide, knobby off-road tires and a high suspension gave the bikes an aggressive, capable appearance. They looked like exactly what they were: a long-distance cruiser combined with a capable off-road dirt bike. They were the ultimate enduro: More than capable on difficult terrain, yet fast and stable on the tarmac.

Each bike was fitted with large silver panniers on the rear, one on each side and another large storage compartment behind the seat. Both also sported large magnetic tank bags for extra storage.

“You think anybody will mind if we borrow these?” Dan asked, smiling.

It took a few minutes to gather what they needed. Knowing that they were truly on their own, Dan and Cassie decided that they had better use as much safety gear as possible. They were each able to find riding gear that fit them well, including light gray Gor-Tex jumpsuits that were cool yet water-resistant, as well as jackets with protective skid plates sewn into the elbows and over the spine; the jumpsuits had a similar setup to protect the knees. Gloves, boots, and helmets were located as well; the latter being true cross-sport helmets, having the long fiberglass visor of a motocross hat but also the plastic face shield of a high-speed cruiser design.

When they were suited up, they nodded to each other and stepped toward the pair of bikes before Dan laughed out loud.

“Keys would help, hmm?” he laughed.

Behind the counter they found a large gray metal box hanging on the wall. It was solidly made, and a big chromed padlock with a thick hasp held it tightly shut.

“Well, I’m not sure how we’re--” Dan began.

Cassie’s right hand, now properly bandaged and protected by the motocross gloves, pistoned out in a blur. There was the heavy, thudding sound of a great impact and of buckling metal as the front of the two-foot square metal case collapsed around her fist; the jingle of many keys inside it was plainly audible. She turned the left edge of the case’s door up with her fingertips, the steel growing warm to the touch from the pressure she was so casually exerting on it. The she jerked downward, tearing the door free on the hinge side, leaving it to dangle from the heavy padlock, exposing row upon row of keys hanging on hooks.

“Or, we could do that,” Dan said dryly.

They shared a quick smile and after some searching found the keys to their new machines. Dan turned the ignition on and glanced at the gauges.

“Full tank of gas, too,” he said. “How thoughtful of them.”

“Quite. But Daniel, I’d feel much better knowing exactly where we’re going and what we’re planning to do.”

“Soon,” Dan said. “Let’s just pick up a few things and get as far from the city as we can, okay? When we stop, we’ll talk more about it and then we can decide on everything.”

“All right.”

“We’ve got a long way to go, though,” Dan said. “And we should be ready for anything.”

“Agreed.”

“Then we have another stop to make.”

Their raid on a local sporting goods store took longer than it had to get the bikes. But when they were finished, over two hours later, they truly were equipped to handle almost anything. The panniers of the bikes were stuffed with clothes, maps, and various MREs, the kind of dried food packets Dan had come to know (and despise) in his military days. But the meals were calorie-dense, easy to prepare, and had a shelf life measured in decades. Compasses, first-aid kits, and a set of walkie-talkies were also included, along with things like blankets and batteries, some vitamins and small chlorine pellets for making potable water. The large seat containers were used to carry ammunition: with some nylon webbing with plastic buckles and some hose clamps, Dan was able to fashion an ugly but functional way of fixing some slip cases to the bikes, much like how rifles were slipped into the saddles on horses in old Westerns. He slipped a pump-action Remington 12-guage into Cassie’s holder and stood back, admiring his handiwork. Even though it was a big, long gun, it sat behind the seat on the right side. The panniers and rear case, topped by two bedrolls in weather-proof cases attached by bungee cords, made such a large hump of material that the stock of the shotgun wasn’t all that noticeable. He made a similar setup on his own machine, but included a Browning .30-.30 with a small scope. They both ran the straps of small shoulder holsters through the magnetic tank bags, and in these they both included a pair of 9mm pistols. Again, with the small mountain of motorcycle and camping gear, the weapons were not all that noticeable, at least from a distance.

“We have to go,” Cassie said. “This is good, but has already taken too long.”

“I second that, sweetheart.”

“All right, then. I’ll follow you,” she said, and pulled her helmet on and lowered the clear visor.

“Okay. Just out of the city. Then we find some nice quiet spot, park it, and rest. We might want to consider moving only at night, too, right?”

Cassie made a motion, half a nod, half a shrug. Dan buckled his helmet and returned the gesture, toe-clicked the bike into neutral, and thumbed the ignition switch. It rasped into life, thrumming pleasantly beneath him. Once again he was pleased at the exhaust note; it was quieter than he had been expecting. Good, he thought, the quieter the better. It was difficult to operate the throttle with his wounded arm, but not impossible. It was sore, and he thought it would definitely be begin to ache much sooner than he would like, but with slow, careful movements, he found he could still ride.

He cast a glance into his mirror and saw Cassie behind him, her bright blue eyes clearly visible, watching him. They made eye contact and she gave a little nod and fired up her bike, giving it the double “I’m ready” engine rev.

They carefully walked the bikes through the sporting good store’s front door (Cassie had opened the steel door much as she had the BMW dealer’s, figuring it would be faster and easier to load the bikes with the machines actually in the store). They idled through the lot, pulled onto the road, and two minutes later they were doing 50 miles per hour on a deserted urban highway, heading west, out of the city.

***

There was very little pain, after the first few minutes.

At first, it had been agonizing, nearly incomprehensible in its intensity. She had never felt anything like it before, it had been like ten men had lined up with 5-lb sledgehammers to batter her torso with abandon. But now, that pain, and every other sensation in her body, was fading; it went from a searing, paralyzing agony to a painful, deep throbbing, then became a dull ache, and finally subsided to a distant buzzing.

She realized she was dying.

For a moment, the barest of seconds, she was angry. Seething, in fact. So much left to do. The entire world was before her, she had worked so hard and yet an early end was all she was to be given in return for her efforts. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all. It wasn’t right.

But even that rage, a pinpoint of fiery emotion in the very center of her, wasn’t enough. She felt it go, and released it almost willingly. It winked out, its remains a mere smoldering ruin to go with the shattered body containing it.

Her rage was replaced with sadness.

There would be nothing more for her, then. For her, the struggle was over. A sadness so great no amount of tears could sate it spun in her mind, and in that moment she wished only for sleep, for rest.

So weak, now. So weak. And cold.

Then, the yawning blackness opened beneath her, she felt herself teetering on the edge of the infinite, and a grim, crawling sense of mortal fear bloomed in her mind. It was a mindless, gargantuan apprehension that reduced her, shamed her for her childlike wonder at its scope.

So weak. So cold.

Her thoughts dimmed. Their voices faded, growing indistinct, jumbled. And then quiet. Years, decades, an eternity of quiet darkness spanning only seconds, and lifetimes. Her center loosened, became unhinged, and free. She floated away from herself, allowing it to happen, and she welcomed it.

Something changed.

A sudden brightening. A dark maroon instead of darkness. And from the silence, a hollow hiss.

Her lassitude was dialed back; while she seemed to still float she could feel a part of her click into place with a nearly audible snap. A distant rumble and a hiss. Somewhere in her, her non-face smiled.

I can hear the ocean, she thought. Waves on the beach.

What strange thoughts to have in the final seconds. What strange, insane thoughts to entertain as life drains from its prison of flesh and bone, while…

Something, a feeling, a sensation, brushed by her face. Lighter. A dim, remembrance. Warmth.

Sunlight?

With an effort no one could ever know, she fell back into herself, gasping at the return of the throbbing, pulsing agony of her broken, shattered body. And she used her iron will to open one eye to a slit. She saw in the glaring brightness things she knew she recognized, but she had neither the energy nor desire to name them, to know them.

Waves. A light sea foam, frothing at the edge of emerald green waters.

Something in her physical body shifted, and her mind screamed out against it. She moved, or was moved, she knew. The knowledge of herself as a sovereign entity returned to her. Her eye-slit vision flashed again.

A small waterfall. A pool of greenish-blue water. Bright rocks, sporting patches of soft lichen.

Trees. Tropical trees with strange umbrella-shaped limbs. An earthen footpath.

Her body shuddered with movement again, jostled, and she gasped.

Shadows now. A doorway.

More jostling. She began to drift, to fade, her final collapse of self truly beginning.

Pressure, and coldness. White stone steps. Golden figures around her. A riser made of smooth, cool marble. An altar?

She slipped sideways, and welcomed it.

Words. They echoed in her ears, and in the fading sphere that was her mind.

They were equally known to her and yet mysterious, like the sound of a song that is new yet familiar. She felt the words move over her, around her, through her. Then, she faded into a perfect dark, made of perfect silence, for an eternity.

And then the sky opened up.

A cone of white fire slammed into her body, her mind. It singed her, blackened her, exploded every part of her; it crushed her utterly and remade her. It was everything; it was the alpha and the omega and all that comes between them. It was white hot fire and thunder that both soothed and consumed her.

She fell back into her body with a thump; her sideways slide was arrested as every nerve cried out, as every synapse fired, as every fiber of her being caught fire and burned with a blinding brilliance. Her pain ended; it was blasted from her in an instant. The searing, all-encompassing flame replaced it, fed upon itself, and seemed to grow. She arched her body, her mind, her soul in shock and the sense of it all; even her sex blazed into a sudden white-hot fury as her mind was literally born again, bathed in the light of a billion suns, and in this light she was reborn and recreated as the universe was born in a flashing, unknowable second. A voice that was not a voice and without sound spoke in her shining mind, and her sense of self returned, changed, heard this voice, and welcomed it; yes, yes! anything to make this go on, anything.

Anything, she thought from outside herself. Anything at all! Anything I am, or will ever be, is yours, as I am yours! her mind cried out. Impossibly, a new, even greater blast of light, of heat, of power, of thought coursed through her, and she shrieked out the exquisite pain, the indescribable ecstasy, and the burning, blinding fury of her birth in a clear voice that rang throughout the world.

Yes! she cried. Yes! Oh……MY……

GODDESS!

END PART THREE

TO BE CONTINUED

Categories SWM Library

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