Chapter Two -- Necrivore
“And how are we settling in?” Diamond asked. “All
“Don’t push your luck,” Hyena muttered. “Nobody’s killed each other. Good enough?”
Hippolyta entered the briefing room with trepidation. It had been three weeks since her introduction to the other members of the team
that had no name (though it was alternately referred to by various members of the Coalition as 4-H, Redemption Squad, and “those bitches
In that time, all of them keeping to her nocturnal schedule for greatest convenience, she had trained as she’d never trained before. They
all had. “Just think of it as boot-camp,” Diamond had said, and once the term had been explained to Hippolyta, she’d done her best to see
it that way.
And so they had trained. Sometimes with the regular operatives, more often alone in the catacombs beneath the mansion. Learning the
capabilities and weaknesses of themselves and each other did not quite make them friends but let them develop a very healthy respect.
Hippolyta, already in good condition, had honed her body until she could get through even the most rigorous courses. In straight hand-to-
hand, she could now best Hunter three times out of five, though the uncannily lithe Hellcat was still her better in the martial arts.
She was being tutored in the uses of a dizzying number of new weapons, quite the far cry from Avalon where the choices had been limited
to bows, swords, knives, and staves. Simulators helped familiarize her with driving and piloting a host of vehicles.
Sandwiched amid the training were lessons on a wide range of topics – setting and disarming explosives, using and bypassing security
systems, an overview of biological and chemical warfare nearly frightening enough to keep one awake days, and a hodgepodge of other
information. Her mind felt stuffed, glutted on new knowledge, yet she’d only scratched the surface.
She had also gotten to know her new companions, and like Hyena said, none of them had killed each other yet and that seemed to be the
best they could ask. The verbal sniping from Hyena was a regular occurrence. Hellcat seemed to only tolerate the rest of them and was prone
to lashing out with claws, saber-teeth, or bursts of fire when provoked. Of them all, Hippolyta felt kindliest toward Hunter, but even that
relationship was strained and without much warmth.
Then again, they weren’t here to be friends. They were here to do a job, to work together. Their lives would depend on each others’
alertness and abilities, not necessarily on any sort of sisterly affection.
Still, for better or worse, she was one of them now. They were the closest thing to a clan she had, and she was doing her best to view them
in that light. Not all was peaceable among rookery siblings … witness Tourmaline or Zachariah.
Diamond looked them over with a critical, vaguely motherly eye as they took their places around the oval table. Hippolyta still felt odd in the
new garments they’d provided, but the mirror had told her, and she had to agree, that they suited her.
In place of her halter, she wore a tight low-backed vest of a black shiny material that contrasted strikingly with her copper skin. The vest was
filled with an ablative gel to serve as armor that could stop blade or bullet – provided a blade or bullet managed to hit the comparatively scanty
vest instead of her much-more-visible flesh.
A wide belt cinched her bare midriff. A ‘utility belt,’ Hyena had called it with a sneer. Each of them had one, even Hellcat, and they included
a lock-release minigun, a coil of restraint-wire, a canister of sedative gas, and other potentially useful items. In Hippolyta’s case, the belt also
supported a new quiver, full of light but strong arrows tipped with an assortment of points.
To go along with the arrows, she boasted a new bow that paled her old one into insignificance. Made of some redoubled plastisteel, it had a
pull that a strong human male couldn’t handle, and with it she could sink a shaft six inches into cinderblock. It was as deadly-looking a thing as
she’d ever beheld, sleekly black and banded in gold.
Her new skirt rode low on her hips. It was made of the same stuff as the vest, and fell in a down-triangle panel to end in a point just above
her knee-spurs. The sides were cut very high, allowing for freedom of movement and showing flashes of leg with every step. In the back, the
panel was split into two triangles to admit her tail.
A band of black-enameled metal girded her left ankle. This was a tracking device to allow the Coalition to know where she was at all times,
because it was monitored from a false moon flying high above the earth. It could also be used to deliver a powerful, punishing electrical volt … a
precaution and disciplinary measure on the part of her so-called ‘employers.’
These last, they all wore. Even Hellcat, who spurned all other clothing, had such a band affixed to her leg. Hyena had objected the most
strenuously, out of concern that it would scramble her circuits. She maintained that she would suffer more than the rest of them if it was triggered,
to which Diamond had merely coolly replied that she was assessed as the one most likely to need an inducement. To that, Hyena only made a
face and mumbled something reprehensible.
“We’re fine,” Hunter said. “Ready. We’ll na be more ready. D’ye have something for us t’ do?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Diamond said. She picked up a remote control – Hippolyta’s understanding of modern technology had advanced
apace and she now felt quite familiar with such things, taking them as much a matter of course as she once had Avalon’s magic.
A woven tapestry was on the wall behind Diamond’s chair. It was disturbing, depicting a golden-armored figure wielding a scythe or sickle,
standing triumphantly atop the ruins of a pyramid. At the base, on jagged stones, were the shattered remains of what looked like a great jeweled
The tapestry rose, rolling up into a case with a muted clattering noise. Behind it was a screen, blank white.
“Better call the cable guy,” Hyena said.
Hellcat hissed warningly at her.
“What d’ye want o’ us?” Hunter asked.
Diamond exhaled softly. “Nothing much … just saving the world.”
“Oh, is that all?” Hyena yawned. “And what do we do after breakfast?”
“We are at the point of last resort,” Diamond said. “Normally, I would never want to send you off on something like this, especially for your
first mission, but we don’t have much of a choice. Time is running out.”
“Ye dinna need t’ convince us,” Hunter said, flatly and without emotion. “Ye’ve already got us by the short hairs, so tell us what ye need and
let us be on our way.”
“Very well.” She pressed a button.
On the screen, a photo of an object appeared. It looked to be a small silvery wedge-shaped robot mounted on tank-treads, with a mechanical
arm fitted with a three-pronged grasping tool. A black box winking with lights and dials was mounted on the top.
“This is Remy-6,” Diamond said. “A remote ‘bot similar to that used by the space program for the Mars missions. However, in Remy’s case,
it’s been sent quite a bit further from home.”
Hyena giggled coyly, a truly disconcerting thing. “Kinda cute!”
Hippolyta felt a chill that came wholly from within. “You don’t mean to send us there!” she gasped. “Through the magic portal and into the
world of the dead-eaters?”
The rest of her team looked at her as if she were insane, but Diamond nodded somberly.
“That is precisely what we mean, though of course I wouldn’t have put it in those terms.”
“Will ye put it in terms the rest o’ us can understand?” Hunter requested with strained politeness. “Because so far, I dinna much like the sound
“Of course.” Diamond rose and strolled the room while she spoke, the images on the screen changing to reflect what she was talking about. “A
few years ago, advancements in quantum theory made it possible to open frequency wavelengths between our world and others, all connected by
threads of quantum foam. I won’t bore you with the technical details, as it very nearly takes a physics degree to even pronounce some of the terms,
but what it boils down to is this: it became possible to send and receive radio and electromagnetic transmissions across these openings, and our
goal was to see if it was possible to transport solid items as well.”
A picture appeared of a man that Hippolyta recognized, though he was in much better condition in the photo. When last she’d seen him, he’d
been facedown in the mud, pummeled into a lumpy bag of meat by Ezekiel.
“Dr. Gerald Smythe,” Diamond said. “Project leader for Operation Doorway, author of its success … and failure. He developed a method for
opening a connective quantum path between these places – dimensions, realities, what-have-you. But these openings were of extremely short
duration, and unpredictable. Dr. Smythe realized that in order to keep one open, he needed to have a transmitter on the other side as well.”
“That’s where the robot comes in?” Hunter asked.
“Yes. Remy-6 was the sixth remote that was sent across, and the one that successfully made it. The pathway was stabilized, enabling us to send
in a few other ‘bots, remotes with cameras and video recorders, ‘bots with scientific sampling equipment. We wanted to get a good look at this
other world, see if it was habitable for humans. When it seemed to be so, Dr. Smythe started sending lab animals across.”
“And then people,” Hippolyta said. “Who were infected, became monsters, and had to be slaughtered.”
“Not quite,” Diamond said. “We didn’t get to the point of sending human volunteers. Something happened before we could. Something over
there came through, and infected Dr. Smythe and his assistants.”
“Something … what do you mean, something?” Hyena demanded. “What was it? Don’t keep us in suspense here.”
“Unfortunately, ‘something’ is the best I can do.” A video began playing on the screen while Diamond narrated. “Nothing shows up on the tapes
except for a faint mist, here. Moments later, Dr. Smythe and the others simply fall down unconscious. By the time properly protection-suited staff
can reach them, they’re burning with fever, incoherent, babbling about red eyes in the gloom. They were put under immediate high-level quarantine,
in the Tank.”
“How did Smythe escape?” Hippolyta asked. “Were you not watching him?”
“During his more lucid moments, Smythe ranted about the project and the necessity of bringing it to a close. We assumed he must have had
contacts among the guards, sympathizers who helped him escape and doctored the video record.”
Now the screen was showing a scene of blood and chaos. Even Hellcat, who had been paying more attention to chewing between her claws,
stopped and watched as the massacre played out.
“Four days after the incident, only a few hours after the disappearance of Dr. Smythe,” Diamond went on, “this happened. The other two
detainees underwent sudden transformations and killed two staff members, wounding a third. The survivor, a guard, was placed in an isolation
chamber and kept tranquilized, in case the infection was contagious. But the main priority was finding Dr. Smythe before he could hurt anyone,
spread the infection, or expose the project. We now know that he made an effort to contact Dr. Michelle Jessec, a former colleague of his, but
the same transformation affected him. He was subsequently killed by gargoyles.”
Hunter raised a querying eyebrow and Hippolyta shook her head. “My rookery brother Ezekiel. I … I missed.”
“After Dr. Smythe’s disappearance but before the transformations,” Diamond said, “we’d decided that we needed another physicist immediately,
to evaluate what had happened. Efforts were made to recruit Dr. Jessec --”
Here, despite it all, Hippolyta was unable to restrain a chuff of indignation, knowing as she did about their methods of recruitment.
“—and she was given some preliminary information. But thanks to the gargoyles, she has not been seen since. Which left us without a scientist to
lead the project.”
“What?” Hyena rolled her eyes. “You mean to tell me that even after all this crazy, deadly stuff went down, you didn’t can the project? Lemme
guess – big money involved, right?”
“Believe it or not, money wasn’t the main issue,” Diamond said. “The main issue was, and is, that we don’t dare turn off the Doorway on this side.
None of us are qualified, and we haven’t been able to recruit anyone with the right set of skills.”
“So yank the damn plug!”
“If we do that, we risk causing a rift. We could rip a hole in reality, one too big to be contained in the lab. As long as Remy-6 is on the other side
transmitting, the Doorway can’t safely be closed.”
“You mean for us to go and fetch it back for you?” Hippolyta asked. “Into this realm of monsters?”
Hunter curled a fist before her mouth. “That’s what they mean, aye. How many more have ye already sent, then? How many have gone and failed?”
“Six,” Diamond said bluntly. “Two teams of three. They never returned. We haven’t risked another trip, but the situation is becoming more urgent.
The Doorway device wasn’t meant to be left on for this long. It is showing signs of malfunction. Our best estimate is that we have less than forty-eight
hours before it collapses, and if that happens …” she trailed off ominously.
“What about the surviving guard?” Hunter asked. “Was the infection spread t’ him as well?”
“Yes. We’ve been able to keep him sedated, but every nine and a half days, give or take, he undergoes the same transformation. We’ve been
unable to find a cure. In all likelihood, he’ll have to be terminated. Another operative, the one who discovered Dr. Smythe’s body, came into direct
physical contact with the corpse but was not bitten. He has been in quarantine ever since with no signs of transformation.”
“What about us, then?” Hunter asked. “Ye’d have us go after this remote o’ yers, but what’s t’ keep us from being infected?”
“We’ll take all possible precautions, of course. Germ-suits have been designed for each of you, and you’ll be thoroughly decontaminated upon
“Sounds simple enough,” Hyena said. “We go over there, smash the cute ‘bot, and come home. Without getting turned into ugly white cyclops-
things. Piece of cake.”
“No, no, no,” Diamond said reprovingly. “You could smash Remy-6, granted, but if you do that …”
“We’ll be trapped on the other side,” Hunter finished.
They were taken to the Bellingham site by road, inside
a vehicle that resembled a motor home on the outside and a rolling laboratory
It startled Hippolyta to find out how far she’d been transported while she was an unconscious captive, because the manor house was
located several hours south, east of Seattle. She was only afforded snatches of glimpses of the countryside, as for most of the trip they were
kept in the back.
Each of them had been presented with their germ-suits, made of a lightweight but strong silvery-white substance. They would have enough
breathable air for twelve hours, as well as tubes offering water and a concentrated nutrient solution. Ear pieces and microphones would let them
communicate, and each of them was given a small tracking device to home in on the signals emitted by Remy-6. Compartments around the
midsection held emergency gear – a light source, a roll of sealer-tape, first-aid kit, and other things they hoped not to need.
“What are we supposed to do if we run into hostiles?” Hyena groused. “Bad enough I have to stay humanoid for the duration, but I can’t
use any of my weapons through this stupid thing.”
“We have other weapons,” Hunter said. “How’d ye manage before yer upgrade?”
Hippolyta, in a suit designed to allow for wings and tail and large taloned gargoyle-feet, was prepared to rely solely on her bow.
Hellcat growled, perhaps realizing that her teeth, claws, and flame-jets would be useless as well, unless she wanted to rip or melt a hole right
through her protective suit. But the garment was light and flexible enough to let her move unhindered, so they would still have the benefit of her
The Bellingham site of Coalition Technologies was on first appearance a modest office-industrial complex, set well back from the highway. But
like everything else within the organization, what was on the surface was only stage dressing, and the true business was conducted secretly below-
The vehicle drove into a garage large enough to quarter planes, and then onto an elevator platform that carried it swiftly down into the bowels
of the earth. Their team remained as they were, getting last-minute tips and suggestions on their gear from the operatives who’d outfitted them.
The attitude from all concerned seemed to be that the four of them were gone geese, good as dead, and nobody cared. They would be more
distressed by the loss of the expensive equipment. Even Diamond, in saying farewell, gave the impression of having written them off.
It rankled Hippolyta more with each passing mile and moment, and she began wishing to survive not only for her own sake but to show them
all. She sensed a similar resolve in the others.
They were taken through a series of complex security measures and finally presented to the division director, ‘Winchell’ Brock.
“Jeez, is this the best Diamond could do?” were the first words out of his mouth.
He was far younger than Hippolyta had expected, a sallow and thin-faced youth with a perpetually petulant expression. Had she not been told
of his parentage, she never would have believed it, for he resembled neither Diamond nor her miserly-gnome ex-mate.
With him were two operatives, a tall cold-eyed blonde in a steel-grey jumpsuit, and a calculatedly average-looking man dressed professionally
in midnight blue. The latter, Hippolyta thought she recognized from the night of the attack, and by the way his gaze narrowed when he saw her,
she was fairly sure she was right.
“Diamond wouldn’t have sent them if they weren’t up for the job,” one of the humans who’d accompanied them said. Hippolyta knew him only
as Op. 17, Diamond’s personal lackey.
“Unless she is trying to dispose of them,” said the cold-eyed blond in a clipped accent.
Hyena sauntered toward her. “Well, well, well. You do get around, don’t you, Inge? Looks like it’s been a downward spiral for someone
who used to kiss rich man Xanatos’ cute little ass.”
“Ja,” Inge replied. “Now I am reduced to supervising you.”
“Come on, cut the crap,” Brock the Younger said. “Diamond just better not blame me if you four get toasted.”
“We’re aware of the risks,” Hunter said.
“How spiffy for you. Mirano, Op. 11, take them on down.”
Op. 11 turned out to be the Inge-woman, and as they proceeded deeper into the recesses of the underground fortress, Hyena persisted in
taking conversational jabs at her. Hippolyta tensed in anticipation of the moment that combustion would occur, but with an icy aplomb that she
couldn’t help but admire, Inge held her peace.
At long last, they reached the lab which housed the Doorway. Despite all of their briefings and videotapes, despite knowing better, Hippolyta
still expected it to look like the magical portal of her first understanding. Massive hewn stone, perhaps, carved all around with mystical runes and
glowing with an eldritch light.
The reality was far less impressive, though the same couldn’t be said for the defenses that the Coalition had erected. Through triply-
reinforced walls of glass – well, of walls that were layers of clear crysteel compound sandwiched around an inert dense invisible gas, or so
Mirano explained – they could see the airlock and decontamination chambers leading to the lab proper.
Inside, computers hummed and gadgets beeped, and the focus of it all was a plain hollow cone laid on its side, with the wide end wired up
to a bunch of unidentifiable machines. Its narrow end, supported by a metal cradle that looked suitable for resting a ship in dry-dock, pointed
at the rear of the room. Wisps and threads of fog, not that much different from the ones that heralded the arrival of Avalon’s mists, issued at
irregular intervals from the open end of the cone. The aperture was perhaps five feet in diameter, which meant stooping for any of them except
the crouching Hellcat.
A pale, unhealthy-looking man was waiting outside of the airlock. He had a bush of curly ginger-red hair that made his pallor all the more
extreme, and wore his white lab coat as if it were a costume, and an uncomfortable one at that. He gaped at them.
“Dr. Laine,” Mirano said. “Any changes?”
“Nuh-no,” he stammered, staring from Hippolyta to Hellcat and back again as if he couldn’t decide which was the stranger thing at which to
gawk. “The readings show the same rate of deterioration. It’ll last another twenty-four, twenty-six hours tops.”
“I thought you were fresh out of egghead scientists,” Hyena said snidely.
“Dr. Laine is a graduate student from the University of Washington here in Bellingham,” Mirano said. “The best we could do under the circum-
stances. He can’t operate the Doorway, but he can at least monitor it for us.”
“Enough small talk,” Hunter said brusquely, and Hippolyta suddenly knew that the nominal leader of their group was afraid. Afraid of that portal,
afraid of this mission, but determined to go through with it nonetheless. Hunter pulled her helmet-hood into place and snapped the seals. “Let’s
get this over with.”
One by one, they passed through the airlocks and into the lab. When it was Hippolyta’s turn, she reflexively held her breath as pressurized air
puffed around her, flattening the fabric of her germ-suit against her body. Her ears made a funny popping that was more feeling than sound, and
at once her head felt lighter.
Eerie standing in the lab where three humans had been infected. Although it was clean and well-lit, although they had only fainted here and been
taken to the place called the Tank before transforming and dying, it felt haunted. Couldn’t have felt more so if it had been dank and gloomy and
dripping with raddled cobwebs, the floor strewn with rat-gnawed bones.
A rash of shivers swept over her, and she made herself stop with that line of comparisons. This was going to be bad enough without
She was alone with the draw and release of her own respiration, until Hunter’s tinny voice sounded in her ear. It made Hippolyta jump,
for the effect was of Hunter standing at her elbow when in fact she was across the room.
“Are ye all ready?”
“Who’s first, or do we play rock-paper-scissors?” Hyena, her features distorted by the curve of her faceplate, grinned a manic grin at
Hippolyta. “You can be rock.”
“I’ll go first,” Hunter said. “But stick together. When we get through, we’ve got twelve hours t’ find this Remy and come back before our air
Their helmets included a digital display, which had begun a backward countdown of their air supply the moment they’d snapped the seals. In
addition, Hippolyta saw that she could keep track of her body temperature and heart rate.
Hunter cradled her recoilless rifle in the crook of her arm. Her chest rose and fell once in a deep breath, and then she ducked her head and
stepped into the cone. Crackles of orange and white energy swarmed inward from the sides and danced around her body.
The effect was uncanny … as she slowly walked in, she seemed to dwindle in their sight. It was as if she was moving away from them,
diminishing in the distance, but the length of the cone could not have been more than fifteen feet.
“Fog’s thickening,” Hunter reported, and by now she looked only three feet tall, a child-shape with a toy gun. “Getting dark.”
“Flickers o’ red … like embers, like fireflies …” her voice was fading, and she was the size of a doll now, dozens of yards away.
“Weee-eerd,” Hyena murmured.
“Eyes!” It was faint and tiny, but full of alarm. “Dear God, they’re eyes!”
Hunter blinked out of existence.
“Come on!” Hippolyta said, and before trepidation could stop her, folded her wings tight over her shoulders and entered the cone.
Orange and white, heatless lightning tickling at her with long spindly fingers. Ahead, she could see the fog, and all resemblance to Avalon had
ceased. This was dark, murky, almost more like smoke but for the quality of chill that it seemed to hold.
She glanced back to see if Hyena and Hellcat were following, and her nerves were jolted by surprise. She was still the same, but the room
behind her had grown to immense proportions. It was stretched out in all directions, up to towering heights, out to panoramic widths, and the
colossal forms of the others were like monolithic sculptures of the ancients.
Facing forward again, she saw that the fog was gathering close around her, and blotting out the light. And yes, there were flickers of red in it,
fleeting and swift, like fireflies. Or, indeed, come to think of it, like eyes … like the ruby-blazing eyes of her sisters in anger …
Except they weren’t in pairs …
“Hey, what’s --”
Far away, a dim and miles-gone call from Hyena, and then she heard nothing.
The fog was everywhere. Fae-lights of orange and white twined up her legs and tail, along her arms, like creeper vines, like veins, throbbing with
tingling power. Eyes, coming closer, and now she could see them clearly. Bulging and blood-colored. Shining with a flat and mindless loathing. Eyes
seemingly attached to nothing at all, floating in the fog without sockets. Lidless, lashless, without bodies.
And then she was through, stumbling as the even slope of the cone gave way to a rough expanse of white. She recovered quickly and saw Hunter,
swinging the barrel of the rifle after a fleet, leaping shape.
But the shape had sprung to safety behind a hillock – no, not behind, it passed through the hillock as though intangible. Wondering if this magic
was how Dr. Smythe had escaped against all odds, Hippolyta had an arrow to the string swifter than swift. She moved to Hunter’s side.
“I’m here!” she said.
Her first thought upon seeing the terrain was of snow and ice, of glacial expanses and frozen tundra. But her helmet displayed the outside
temperature as well, and it read at a tolerable level even for humans. And when she walked, her feet first crunched through a gritty crust and then
puffed up clouds of chalky smoke. Fog, thinner than that through which she’d come, issued here and there from crevices.
“They’re all around us,” Hunter said. “I got that one, but the rest scattered.”
She pointed with the gun barrel, and Hippolyta saw a corpse sprawled akimbo, like a beached starfish. It was tall, more than half again their
height, but scrawny, gantrylike, emaciated. Totally hairless and naked, it seemed more like an age-old mummy than something that had been alive
only moments before … were it not for the spreading lake of watery reddish blood soaking into the pale soil.
“What is it?” Hippolyta asked.
“I dinna know!”
The air nearby suddenly thickened, and Hippolyta’s ears popped again as Hyena materialized through a wavery wall of dense fog.
As if it had been waiting for just such an opportunity, another of the creatures came vaulting through a hillock, all gangly limbs and long neck
and grasping hands.
Hippolyta saw its face clearly as it leapt at Hyena’s back, saw the deep creases and lines running from its flat pate to its jutting angle of a chin.
Saw two eyes, not red but yellow-green, and a lipless, toothless mouth from which a tonguelike proboscis flapped.
Only then did she consider whether a creature that could pass unhindered through solid matter would be bothered by an arrow.
Hyena, seeing Hippolyta wheel her way, flung herself flat and jumped back up all in one synchronized motion. “It’s only me, you --” she broke
off as the body hit the ground, arrow neatly centered between its eyes.
So much for that … whatever else, they could be shot. And that was really all that mattered.
Hellcat came out running on all fours, jaw working behind her faceplate. She skidded to a curving halt, leaving a swath of scuffmarks in the crust,
and if she’d had a tail, it would have been whipping side to side.
“What the blue hell?” Hyena cried, kicking the dead creature. “These don’t look like the ones they showed us!”
“Circle up!” ordered Hunter, and they complied.
They were at the bottom of some sort of valley or crater, the land around them rising in a large shallow bowl. Hillocks and ridges marched up
the sides, affording countless hiding places for the rest of the spindly creatures.
The sky overhead was featureless and black. No stars could be seen, nor any clouds. A low atonal wind, somehow empty and desolate, rose
and fell like the wails of a flock of grieving widows.
“What is this stuff on the ground?” Hyena scooped up a fistful of it and squeezed, the gritty substance crumbling away through her gloved fingers.
“Alkaline, I think,” Hunter said, poking the crust with her rifle. “A salt plain.”
Beneath the crust, the soil was dusty and grey. Hippolyta didn’t care for the way their feet sank into it, for they couldn’t know that they’d find
solid ground underneath or not. One misstep into a sinkhole …
Hellcat yowled to get their attention. She was the lightest of them, and with her weight divided by four rather than two, she was able to stay atop
the crust without breaking through. She was hunched low, acting for all the world as if she was trying to sniff something out but couldn’t with her
helm on. She settled for plunging her hand into the soil, rooting about, and coming up with an object that she dropped for them all to examine.
It only took a few seconds for them to know what they were seeing. It was a scrap of germ-suit, still attached to a faceplate that had been
cracked like an eggshell.
“One of the first teams,” Hunter said. “The ones that never came back.”
“They didn’t get far,” remarked Hyena.
Hellcat burrowed deeper and retrieved a bone, a fragment of jaw with several teeth. Two of them had fillings.
Hyena took it and ran her fingers along the mandible’s curve. “Down to bare bone. Bet you he was eaten.”
“I’ll not take that bet,” Hippolyta said.
“But where is the robot?” Hunter asked. “If it came through here, it should be nearby.” She turned in a slow circle with her tracking device, then
pointed. “This says it’s coming from well over there.”
“Let’s go, get it, and get out,” Hyena said. “This place is uglier than Armpit, Nevada.”
“Shh,” Hippolyta said. “They’re still out there. Watching us.”
“Watching is fine,” Hunter said. “It’s when they try t’ kill us that I get unhappy.”
Hyena laughed. “Let ‘em try.” Since she couldn’t use her own internal weaponry, she’d decided on a mini-cannon that mounted on a body-harness,
and now stroked it like a female endeavoring to please her lover.
Hippolyta wasn’t sure whether to be amused or appalled, especially given some of the lewd things Hyena had said over the past few weeks. She
decided to follow Hunter’s example and ignored her, keeping her attention on their surroundings.
It seemed that each feature of the terrain hid a threat, and she could feel the hostile gazes upon them as they proceeded cautiously in the direction
the tracker had indicated.
They were not attacked. Perhaps the weapons that had slain two gave pause to the rest. Occasionally, shapes flitted across their vision, growing
bolder but still mindful to take cover whenever one of them looked that way.
“It’s true,” Hunter finally said. “They dinna look the same, not at all.”
“Mayhap they change, transform, as the humans did,” Hippolyta ventured to suggest. “Mayhap they’re were-beasts of some sort. Michelle Jessec
told us that among Dr. Smythe’s last words before he changed were ‘not our moon.’ As if it might be some other moon to direct the tides in their
blood? A moon of this world? On a different cycle than our own, hence the nine-day interval?”
“Hate to break it to you, hot stuff,” Hyena said, “but look up. No moon. No stars. No satellites. Not even a sky-billboard advertising New Pepsi.”
Hellcat rose up on her hind legs, rear paws sinking into the crust, as she tapped Hyena on the shoulder. She extended her arm toward the horizon,
where the frosty curve of a moon could just barely be seen.
“Did anyone think t’ ask,” Hunter said, “when was the last time the man in quarantine underwent the change?”
“That would have been a wise and prudent question.” Hippolyta’s inner craving for adventure had never been at such a low ebb as this, when she
was literal worlds away from home and ringed with unknown and unknowable creatures. The initial flash of excitement she’d felt upon realizing she
was the first of her kind to stand upon the surface of this alien place had dimmed almost at once.
As they reached the top and took in the view before them, all fell silent.
The remains of a civilization were strewn across a rolling valley with the casual destruction that might have been left by gluttonous ill-mannered
brutes at the dinner table. A few recognizable buildings leaned drunkenly against each other, while heaps of rubble marked the positions of the others.
A muddy river was spanned by a twisted snarl of cables and beams that might have once been a mighty bridge. Huge charred patches and fields of
ash told a tale of doomsday.
And everywhere, scuttling through the wreckage, were more of the gantrylike creatures. They moved with frantic but purposeful speed, making
Hippolyta think of teeming ants.
“According t’ the tracker --”
“Don’t tell me … it’s down there somewhere,” Hyena said. “In what’s left of their city.”
“Got a plan, Commander?” she asked mockingly.
The moon was rising rapidly, and as it cleared the uneven bumps of the horizon they could see that it was full, ripe, and round. Not a crisp white
like the moon they knew, this one was an ivoried and misshapen orb blotched with brownish lines that branched like riverbeds.
The light it shed was yellowish and unwholesome, casting a sickly pall over the landscape.
“So much for yer theory,” Hunter said after several tense moments during which the scuttling scavengers did not alter from their actions.
As they neared the city, they were able to make out a rough camp at its edge. Shelters cobbled together from any available materials huddled in
clumps around a central clearing. Creatures returned from the ruins with burdens and parcels, taking them to this clearing and depositing them in
A soft whirr came from Hyena’s head. “Telescoping in … whoa.”
“They’re salvaging?” Hunter said.
“Sort of. Those are bodies.”
“Bodies?” Hippolyta echoed.
“And body parts. They’re dragging the dead out of the wreckage and dumping them in the field. Whatever flattened their city couldn’t have
happened too long ago, because most of those stiffs still have meat on their bones.”
“D’ye see the Remy?”
“Keep your shirt on, I’m looking.” With a rapid series of clicks – tic-tic-tic-tic – she turned her head in a sweep. “Got it. Oh, great. This is
“What is it?” Hippolyta asked.
“They’ve got him. Looks like he’s the guest of honor, all set up pretty on a pedestal with offerings around him. Including what looks like a
collection of human skulls. Figures. Strange new world, gross-looking aliens, worshipping their new god, and we have to go in there and bust it
up. Wasn’t this on Star Trek last night?”
“Except in Star Trek,” said Hunter, “the aliens all look human but for their funny heads, and speak English.”
“So we write a nasty letter to Paramount telling ‘em to get it straight.” Hyena blinked a few times, bringing her artificial pupil back to normal
size. “In the meantime, how are we going to get Remy out of there?”
“I’ll glide down and snatch it out,” Hippolyta offered, flexing her wings experimentally.
“Too heavy,” Hunter said. “And unless I miss my guess, don’t ye need air currents t’ glide? There dinna seem t’ be any strong enough in this
Hippolyta looked at the way the curls of fog rose undisturbed from the crevices and snarled softly. “You speak true. I cannot feel the movements
of the air, encased as I am in this garment.”
“So we’ve got a couple of other choices,” Hyena said. “If they worship machines, we see what they think of me, and maybe I get a primo spot
right next to Remy.”
“Aye, or they add yer skull t’ the pile.”
“Yeah. So we just say screw it and go through them like cheese through a goose.”
“They’ve numbers on us,” Hunter pointed out. “Substantial numbers.”
“But they are unarmed,” Hippolyta said. “And unarmored.”
“We’d mow them down.” Hyena patted her cannon again.
“Dinna forget what they did t’ the last ones who came here.”
Hippolyta said, “Mere operatives, perhaps ill-armed themselves, and not expecting a battle. They would have thought their only danger came
from the air, hence their germ-suits would protect them. They never imagined that there would be living things over here.”
“So we wipe them out? What gives us the right --”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Hyena rolled her eyes. “Haven’t we already established that this isn’t frigging Star Trek?”
Hunter considered that, and began to nod. “When ye put it that way …” She unhooked an explosive flare pistol from her belt. “Ready?”
Hellcat uttered a catamount screech that seemed to say it was about damn time, and led the way.
Despite Hunter’s earlier gunshots in the crater, the creatures in the camp had no idea they were beset until it was too late. The explosive flare
smashed into the biggest shelter and it went up in a ball of brilliant magenta-orange fire, and then they were upon their prey.
Hippolyta missed having the use of her wing-talons for holding spare arrows, but made do as best she could. Her arm moved in a blur of draw-
nock-pull-release, and all of the old pride and glory she took in her skill came roaring back.
This was what she was meant to do, be a warrior! And it wasn’t as if she was killing gargoyles, or even humans … these were alien in every
sense of the word. That made it all right in her mind. She was first to the crude altar where the remote ‘bot waited while her cohorts were still fighting
their way through.
She sprang to the top and stood over Remy-6, disturbing the skulls and eliciting chittering squeals of outrage from the aliens. Those that had been
on the verge of fleeing the battle now turned and rushed at her, to prevent her despoiling their treasure. She shot her quiver empty, felling a foe with
Hyena’s cannon was a thunderous booming to underscore the sharp crack of Hunter’s rifle. Hellcat was a blur through the crowd, her powerful
legs nearly snapping the gantry-thin bodies with her kicks. Even without the use of her claws and flame, she was next to reach the altar and leapt up
beside Hippolyta, landing deftly on all fours.
And still they came … surging forth from the ruined city as if in answer to some silent call. Hippolyta thought again of ants, of bees, and reasoned
that they might well be doing just that. From the shadows, from the rubble, they swarmed toward the altar.
Hunter and Hyena joined them, holding back the aliens with a steady outpouring of firepower. Hunter looked sickened, because this was truly
more slaughter than war, but Hyena looked as viciously jubilant as Hippolyta felt.
And still they came, a throng of them pressing close. Hunter tossed Hippolyta a laser pistol and she went to work, though there was something
markedly unsatisfying about squeezing a trigger and seeing a beam of energy shoot forth … there was no strength required, no rewarding thrum of
vibration as she felt when she released her bowstring.
Hellcat tried something new, and hefted the remote ‘bot high overhead. Her stance said that she was ready to dash it to the ground. It was a bluff,
for if Remy-6 was destroyed now they would lose their pathway home, but the aliens did not know that and were cowed. They fell back, the insectile
clicks and clatters of their speech sounding like the rattle of dry bones in a tomb.
“So far, so good,” Hunter said. “But if we try t’ take it out o’ here, they’ll be on us again before ye can say Sean Connery.”
“Hey!” Hyena said, annoyed. “What gives?”
Some of the aliens had apparently lost interest and were turning away, looking up. It passed from one to the next like ripples in a pond, all of them
gradually turning to look up at the moon.
“We’re still right here, chumleys.” Hyena made a come-along gesture. “What, playing hard to get?”
Hunter took advantage of the momentary distraction to reload, but Hippolyta let her gaze follow that of the aliens to see what held them in such
fascination. She saw nothing but the moon …
But the moon was different now, wasn’t it? This one was not tidally locked as was theirs at home, but rotated on its axis, and a new feature was
coming into view. A curve of red, like the spot on vast Jupiter and yet not, like a crater and yet not …
“Look,” she said.
“Great, first Star Trek and now the Death Star.”
“No … it’s na the Death Star,” Hunter said slowly. “It’s … an eye.”
Incredible that such simple words could strike such deep pervasive dread in Hippolyta’s soul, yet they did.
For it was an eye, this strange moon. The brownish branchings that had seemed to be riverbeds now lent it a bloodshot appearance, and the
giant maroon crater, remnant of an impact that must have nearly split the moon, was a glaring, baleful iris. It was a single disembodied eye staring
down on them from the heavens, and the yellowed moonlight turned to murky red.
The effect on the four of them was one of profound awe and unreasoning terror; that on the aliens was much more wracking. A general howling
scream rose up, the dark texture of agony and horror and release all combined.
They began to change.
Grey-brown skin was bleached to white, torsos and limbs thickening, re-shaping. Most of all did their heads alter as eyes melted together into a
scarlet bulging orb. The slits of their mouths widened and pushed out in a circular ring of teeth.
They were not identical to Smythe, but that could likely be attributed to the differences in the underlying original form. When all else was said and
done, though, it was plain that the humans had been affected by the same thing. Curse, spell, infection … it didn’t much matter.
As one, they charged. Not toward the small group of females at the altar; they ran in a slavering mob toward the rows of corpses. And now
Hippolyta understood. It wasn’t a mass grave but a mass feast for their unnatural hungers.
The pale cyclops-beasts fell upon the stiff, mangled bodies of their former kind with wild abandon. The casualties of war were devoured in fast
scooping bites, the flesh minced with each working of the oversized jaws, the resultant paste gulped eagerly down.
“Now would be a good time to make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here,” Hyena said.
They needed no further convincing.
Remy-6’s treads were caked with crusted salt, rendering
the ‘bot unable to move. Further, it had a large dent in one side, which
the result of being dropped by overzealous aliens in their haste to return it to camp.
It was not cumbersomely heavy but bulky, awkward, hard to grasp. Hippolyta and Hellcat ended up manhandling it together, managing a quick
trot rather than the outright sprint both of them might have preferred. Hunter led the way, swinging her rifle hither and yon, while Hyena brought up
the rear just looking like she would love for the necrivores to leave off their gruesome meal and start something with her.
Over and over as they hastened past the carnage, Hippolyta had cause to be grateful that the germ-suits prevented her from being able to smell
her surroundings. The scene was revolting merely to look upon. She did not even care to imagine what noisome stenches were being released as the
transformed cannibals tore into the rancid guts of the desiccated cadavers.
As they started up the hill, Hellcat’s hands slipped. They juggled Remy-6 between them, the issue very much in doubt. Then Hellcat extended
her claws, piercing through her gloves, and found purchase.
Hunter had nearly reached the top when a necrivore lunged out of the fog and seized her. She fired reflexively, etching a trench in the crust. Her
cry of alarm rang deafeningly over their communicators.
Hyena raced up, but then two white hands shot up from the ground and toppled her. She plowed a trench of her own as she fell on her face. A
second necrivore burst from its clever concealment, shaking salt and soil as it loomed.
Hippolyta reacted on impulse, thrusting the entire weight of Remy-6 at Hellcat. Her hand slapped only air at the top of her quiver, so she swung
the bow itself like a weapon and hit the first necrivore in the mouth just as it was about to clamp onto Hunter’s neck.
A shower of curved teeth and dark alien blood spattered out. Hunter rolled, bringing her rifle up as she went and blasting a hole in the necrivore’s
abdomen. Only barely slowed by the terrible wound, it raked the weapon from her grasp and swatted her hard in the head. Hunter went down, a
crack scrawled across her faceplate.
“Rragh!” Hippolyta jumped on the necrivore’s back.
She looped her bowstring over its head and twisted the bow, causing the string to cinch tight as a garrote. She could feel the grotesque workings
of its muscles beneath her knees as it bucked and tried to throw her loose.
Grimly, fangs grinding in anger, she held on and kept twisting. The cord was slicing into its neck, cutting through the flesh like a taut wire drawn
through butter. A vessel on the front of its throat gouted a geyser of dark, silty fluid.
In a death-throe frenzy now, the necrivore plunged and heaved so violently that Hippolyta was thrown clear, losing her grip on her bow. She spread
her wings, but there was no breeze to catch her, and landed jarringly with her head half over one of the crevices from which the fog issued.
Staring down into the depths, she saw more of the red eye-shaped lights whirling toward her. She yanked her head back fast and scrambled away
from the crevice.
Hunter had regained her footing and was a walking armory, having come up with a second laser pistol to replace the rifle and the one Hippolyta
only now realized she’d lost. A dot of red appeared fleetingly on the necrivore’s face, just between the bulging eye and the jagged gap of the mouth.
Then the dot, and indeed most of the creature’s head, vanished in a flare of energy.
The smoking, cloven-skulled remains thudded to rest on Hippolyta’s tail, driving it deep into the gritty ground. She yanked it from under the pinning
weight but heard a rip and felt a scrape, as a six-inch rent was torn in her germ-suit.
At once, she could hear her air hissing out through the hole. She grabbed her tail and clamped the edges together with one hand while pulling and
tearing a strip of sealer-tape to close it.
But had she been fast enough? Or was it too late? Was she infected even now? Was the alien plague or curse already working its way into her?
She threw a quick look up at the red-eyed moon, but the sight of it affected her no differently than before. But it was probably too soon … the
contagion might need time to settle in …
“Are ye all right?” Hunter was by her side, taking in the patched place on the tail of her suit with a worried frown.
“I hope that I am.” She looked for the others.
The second necrivore was mostly in pieces, scythed to bits by Hellcat’s long razor-sharp claws. One of its legs had been blown to gristle and
tendons thanks to a close-range blast from Hyena’s pulse cannon.
“Hellcat … her suit!” Hippolyta said. She still had the roll of sealer-tape in hand, and ran for Hellcat as the fiery mutate braced her forelegs atop
her kill and announced her victory with a roar.
“The ‘bot!” Hunter ran past them to Remy-6, which was lying on its side where Hellcat had let it fall.
Hippolyta struggled to get Hellcat to retract her claws and taped up the shredded ends of her gloves into clumsy mittenlike wads. It would have
to do …
“Want the good news or the bad news?” Hyena said.
“I dinna feel in the mood for jokes!” Hunter righted Remy-6 and shuddered with relief when the blinking lights were shown to be still blinking and
all the pieces seemed intact.
“Well, the good news is we’re almost there.” Hyena pointed down into the crater, at the thick curtain of fog that marked the spot where they’d
entered this hellish place. “The bad news is, they’re almost here.”
The rest of the necrivores had finished their meal, leaving little more than a scatter of bones where once there had been a mound of bodies. They
were fanning out, coming up the hill, as the scarlet eye of the moon watched with a god’s smug satisfaction.
“Go!” Hunter tried to pick up the ‘bot and staggered under its weight.
Rather than move to help her, Hyena picked now as a good time to begin following orders, and broke into a run toward the floor of the crater.
Hellcat snarled at the approaching army, then loped after Hyena.
Hippolyta only debated it for a moment before running back to Hunter. She grappled the cumbersome ‘bot into her own arms.
“I have it!” she cried. “You go on!”
Hunter’s answer was to open up on the necrivores. Hop-trotting backward as Hippolyta trudged on with arms that felt ready to snap, Hunter
laid down a covering fire until they were close to their point of entry. Then her laser pistol emitted a single weak splash of light and went dead.
The necrivores recognized their chance and came at them in a shrieking white wave. Of their two companions, there was no sign but for the
churned and disturbed tracks, so Hippolyta could only hope they’d gone through. There was no time to check.
“You must go first!” she yelled at Hunter.
“What?” Even with their earpieces and microphones, over the din of the onrushing hoard, they could barely hear each other.
Hippolyta settled the matter with her tail, snaking it around Hunter’s waist and swinging her entire body in a whipcrack motion to propel the
woman into the fog. Arms pinwheeling, Hunter vanished. But Hippolyta, outdone by her own maneuver and the weight of the ‘bot, overbalanced
and was engulfed by the fog. Lightning stabbed at her like a thousand needles. She screamed, but her scream went unheard in the crackling tumult.
She was picked up and thrown by the force of an explosion, head over tail, and then crashing down on a hard solid floor, landing squarely on her
back. Sick pain spun out from her bruised wingjoints. Her head connected with something metallic and the gong of it seemed to reverberate through
her entire body.
She coughed, which hurt her wingjoints even more, and looked around.
Four sore and unhappy females, one smoldering wreck of a remote ‘bot, a conical portal sizzling with sparks and belching smoke, and a lab.
“We did it,” she said.
“I want a new job,” Hyena groaned from somewhere in the vicinity, and Hippolyta understood that the metallic thing with which she’d connected
so concussively was in fact part of Hyena.
The airlock door opened to admit a host of germ-suited operatives, prepared to hustle them off to quarantine. Where they’d learn soon enough
if they had escaped infection.
Soon enough? The next nine and a half days hung over Hippolyta like the blade of an axe.
Continued in Chapter Three -- Betrayal