The strident whoop of the smoke alarm jolted
Michelle Jessec to her feet.
She started coughing immediately, though she must have been breathing the hazy, acrid air for several minutes without it registering
on her awareness or her lungs in the slightest.
It was thickest toward the kitchen, and as she hurried that way she remembered the grilled cheese sandwich.
Only the fact that she knew what it was because she’d put it there made the remains in the frying pan identifiable. Another observer
might have first mistaken it for a piece of ceramic tile, probably the sort of thing they used on the Space Shuttle to keep it from burning
up on re-entry. It was square, it was coal-black, and when she jabbed at it with the knife she’d used to slice the cheese, it was like trying
to stab cinderblock.
Michelle turned off the burner and bundled her hands in oven mitts before carrying the whole pan out the back door. A steady rain
was falling, and hissed vigorously as drops fell on the hot metal. She set it down on one of the cement stepping stones that formed a path
to the shed at the rear of the property. More baleful hisses drifted up.
She stood with her head bowed, feeling the water soak into her hair and run down the back of her neck. Only the insistent BREEE-ing
from inside, barely muted by the thin walls of the duplex, prevented her from slipping back into the dull-eyed state that she’d been in a few
With an effort, she lifted her head to the sky. Striations of dark grey, and if not for the oblong of light around her from the open door
and the other one spilling from the living-room window, she could have been on another planet or in another time.
The duplex was in a wooded, hilly neighborhood that was technically still part of Bellingham despite being a twenty-minute drive from
the center of the town proper. Aside from a tiny store that seemed to make more money from its espresso bar and dirty video rentals than
from the meager shelves of groceries, there wasn’t a business establishment for five miles in any direction.
Most of the houses were hidden from the wandering ‘road’ and looked like what first came to mind when one thought of survivalist
hideouts. There had been a push a few years back to expand the area, building apartments and duplexes to lodge the college students, but
Michelle’s duplex was one of the only ones that had been successfully built before the idea died on the vine. It was at the easternmost edge
of anything, and beyond her small backyard was nothing but woods and wildlands where few but the hikers dared to tread.
She let the rain wash her face the way her tears should have if she’d been able to release her tears. Now water was running down the
front of her neck and into her blouse, soaking it.
And the macrosphere in her breast pocket --
Michelle grimaced and dashed back inside, hastily pulling the sphere out and shaking it back and forth as if that would do anything helpful.
Her fingers slipped on the wet metal ball and it flew across the room, hit the dishwasher, rebounded, and rolled under the breakfast nook.
She scrambled after it, making muttering noises of worry and self-disgust under her breath.
Where was the fucking thing?
Oh, there, in the corner ... in a deep nest of dust bunnies. Very nice.
The macrosphere, so called because it was too big to be properly called a microsphere, was the size of an aggie marble. Its intricate circuitry
was hidden beneath a layer of fluff and grit.
She retrieved it and blew on it, which triggered a sneezing fit as dust bunnies swarmed around her. Kerchooing like a hound dog, Michelle
squirmed out from under the table and sat in the middle of the floor with the sphere cradled in the palm of her hand.
“Dummy,” she murmured. “What if you broke it?”
That was a question she didn’t need to ask. But there was nothing to be done for it if she had, because fixing something like this went far
beyond her skills. Even using it and the information it contained was pushing the limit of everything she’d learned in eight years as a practicing
Holding it with exaggerated care as if that might make up for first dousing it and then dropping it, Michelle went back to the living room. On
the way, she only paused long enough to rip the smoke detector off the ceiling and hurl it against the wall:
She kicked it, dislodging the battery, and the final breep became a broogh, which trailed into welcome silence.
The things one would usually associate with a room by that name were nowhere to be seen. No couch, no television. Between her computer
workstation, packed bookshelves on every wall, and the other equipment she used when she worked at home, it was more like a science lab
or cluttered professor’s office.
She didn’t mind. She never entertained, and on the rare occasions when she felt like relaxing in front of the tube, she had a little portable
TV-and-VCR in the bedroom closet.
The macrosphere drive was a new addition, not yet hooked up to her own computer. It came with an attached laptop, and every piece and
component was clearly marked with a company logo. Not the Everstar logo, not the company for which Michelle had been working since right
out of grad school at the precocious age of 21. This one was unfamiliar, a gold ‘C’ that widened in the middle so that it resembled a crescent
Feeling both resigned and fearful, Michelle opened the top of the sphere drive. Inside the black box was a weblike suspension of sparkly
grey foamlike fabric with a depression in it the exact size as the sphere.
Why had she been keeping it in her pocket anyway? She knew better than to treat a piece of expensive tech like that, even if it came from
But that was why she’d had it in her pocket. Mirano handled the sphere with the awe and reverence of a pilgrim with a holy relic, and by
stuffing it in her pocket she’d been trying to show her indifference. To show that he, his company, and his project meant that little to her. That
she’d take a look, sure, out of professional curiosity, but nothing he could say would convince her to sign on with Coalition Technologies Inc.
And then, after he’d said something that utterly convinced her, she’d been too out of it to think straight. Hence the cremated grilled cheese
She’d been sitting stunned for hours, in a weird state of panicked lethargy, burning with the urge to get up, call someone, do something,
and hobbled by the knowledge that there was nothing she could do, no one who could help her, and such a course of action would have only
led to worse.
Finally, concluding that some food might help clear her head and make a decision, she’d gone in and thrown together the sandwich. And
then her gaze had fallen on the drawings that covered the fridge, Toby’s drawings of dragons and gargoyles and fanciful creatures, and she’d
fled the kitchen unable to look at them. From there, she’d sunk back into her slump while her dinner charred.
I understand your hesitation, Dr. Jessec ... it’s not easy to consider career changes at a time of family tragedy like this ...
She could hear him now, in her mind, as clearly as if he was still standing in front of her in his sharp midnight blue suit with the gold lapel pin
in the shape of the C. That voice, cool and smooth as a mouthful of silk. That expression of false sympathy, with the cruel light dancing in his
Mirano had been flanked by his two silent associates, whose suits only emphasized how hard it was to get men that mesomorphic into
suits. All she could remember about their expressionless faces were mirrored copglasses and jaws so firm Schwarzenegger might have been
Oh, how she hadn’t wanted to ask! But how could she not? He would have told her anyway, she knew that, but would let her hang as long
as it amused him.
A fire. On the boat. Late last night, as Ron and Toby were on their way home from Seattle. Accidental, of course ... no one would ever have
reason to suspect otherwise.
But the first thing Mirano’s people would do if she didn’t cooperate would be to let Mom and Dad find just how accidental it hadn’t been,
and whose fault it was.
Then, when they were busy blaming their daughter for killing their son and only grandchild, the senior Jessecs would find a similar ‘accident’
happening to them ... a sadistic burglar, maybe, who decided to have some fun by killing the old couple slowly ... and they’d die knowing whose
fault that was as well.
Michelle dropped into her chair and used vacuum brushes and dust-attractant wipes to do all she could for the macrosphere. When it was as
clean as she thought she could get it, she mentally crossed her fingers and inserted it into the drive, closing the lid.
Her spine went limp with relief when it still worked. A quick diagnostic showed that no damage had been done, or at least nothing that she
She supposed she should see just what was on this sphere, what project had been worth murdering two people and threatening two more to
bring her on board. But she couldn’t concentrate, could barely think. Her head was full of images of Ron and Toby ... but whenever she
conjured images of them, all she could see was what it must have been like as the Jessica went up in flames.
Choking down a sob -- she would not cry, she had never cried, she’d survived all her years of school tormented by being the youngest in
her class without giving in to tears, she’d weathered Andrew’s death two days before their wedding with dry eyes, she could get through this as
well -- Michelle abandoned her chair and hurried to her bedroom.
She fell to her knees and flipped up the spread, rooting around underneath the bed until she found a heavy cardboard box full of loose
photographs. She kept meaning to put them in albums but never found the time, and the longer she went, the bigger and more daunting the job
The ones she wanted were right on top. Last December, when she had taken a rare two weeks off from work and gone home for a good
old-fashioned holiday with the family. Or as close to one as it could have been, since her parents had moved from their massive old house in
Chicago to a one-story rambler in Arizona. Made for quite a difference, but it hadn’t mattered all that much once they were all gathered under
Here were the photos. Herself and Ron, both wearing goofy Santa hats, hugging in front of the tree and sticking their tongues out at the camera.
Toby on the couch between his grandparents, grinning like mad. The one Dad took using the timer, all of them around a tacky cardboard fireplace
preparing to hang their stockings. One of her and Toby throwing wadded-up balls of wrapping paper at each other in lieu of snowballs ...
Michelle’s heart crumpled in her chest like an aluminum can caught in a large fist. She stared down at the image of her nephew, seeing herself
in Toby and feeling her future wither and die. They had the same color of hair, the same mirthful crinkling around the eyes when having a good time.
And now he was gone. Now Ron was gone, and that seemed impossible. Ron had always been there. He’d been several years older than her,
enough so that he was never forced to let her tag along by their parents. So many years, in fact, that they should have been strangers. Instead, she’d
idolized him, and he had never been anything but proud of her. Even when she’d been skipped ahead so many times, entering high school at ten and
graduating at thirteen. “My baby sister the genius,” he’d said, puffed with pride.
She turned up another photo, and winced. Herself sitting sidesaddle on the low stone wall in front of Mom and Dad’s house, looking pensively
at a desert sunset that lost only a little by being in black and white. That one was going to be the jacket photo for Ron’s next book, the one due
out in October.
Did his agent and publisher know yet? Did anyone know yet but her? Seen as how Mirano’s information was so timely as to be damn near
precognitive ... the son of a bitch!
When her brother had first come up with the idea of a pseudonym, Michelle had agreed to pose as ‘Jessica Reynolds’ for the author photo,
thinking it would be a just-once sort of thing. A funny little in-joke among the family.
None of them had counted on Jessica’s career taking off, and for each of the subsequent books, Michelle had agreed to be in the picture. She
drew the line, though, at signings and appearances. Much to Ron’s agent’s annoyance. He kept plaguing them with suggestions. A horror convention
in St. Louis. A book expo in San Francisco. And if he had his way, Michelle would find herself on a stage wearing a plunging Elvira-dress, vamping
No more of that. The new book would be the last one. In a way, three people had died in that fire. Jessica Reynolds was no more.
Michelle stuffed the pictures back in the box and crept onto the bed, wrapping herself around her misery the way a child might wrap around a
She would not cry. Not for her much-loved brother, not for her cherished nephew, certainly not for a pseudonym.
Telling herself that, she failed to notice the tears that streamed down her face to dampen her pillow, and eventually fell into the sleep of the
thoroughly emotionally exhausted.
It was as a much more composed and alert Michelle
Jessec that she approached her computer the next evening.
She’d slept for seventeen hours, waking only once at the nagging ring of the phone. That call had been from her supervisor, Dr. Lundquist,
sounding harried and snappish, but evidently Michelle’s blurry mumblings about being sick and oversleeping were convincing enough. She’d
then unplugged the phone and crawled back in bed.
Emerging at dusk, she felt like her head had been hollowed out and filled with whipped cream. Shock had numbed her so much that she didn’t
remember Mirano’s visit or his bad news until she staggered into the kitchen and found the back door wide open, streaky raccoon-prints on the
floor, and a soggy blackish mess swimming in the frying pan in the yard.
It had all come back then, cascading in on her with relentless clarity, but Michelle held herself together by pure willpower.
Now, two hours later, the kitchen was in order and she was showered and dressed and feeling more like a human and less like a flesh scarecrow.
She plugged the phone back in and called Dr. Lundquist at home, apologizing for her absence and failure to get in touch sooner. Would she be
in tomorrow? Probably not ... could they get by for a few days without her?
Dr. Lundquist sighed like the weight of the world was just transferred to her shoulders.
“Well, Michelle, you know how short-handed we’ve been since Gerald left.”
Michelle flinched; Gerald Smythe had quit Everstar with no notice and less explanation, and gone to work for Coalition. She wondered for the
first time what extra incentive might have been behind his defection ... and her stomach rolled queasily when she thought about his twin daughters
“I’ll try,” Michelle said. “I’m really sorry, Anna.”
“Well, feel better ... don’t overdo it.”
They exchanged meaningless pleasantries and hung up, and then Michelle pulled the plug on the phone again before it could ring. Because sooner
or later it would. It would ring with the news that wasn’t news to her, either delivered by someone in an official capacity (bad) or by Mom (worse).
At the moment, she couldn’t handle either.
Her stomach was raving like a beast, though her appetite was apparently nonexistent. She grabbed the first thing she saw in the pantry, a can
of Campbell’s something-or-other, and dumped it into a saucepan. While it heated, she considered taking another crack at grilled cheese but settled
for slicing up an apple and scooping a dollop of peanut butter onto the plate.
She cooked the soup without burning it, but quickly realized she’d forgotten to add a can of water and was ingesting concentrated Chicken and
Rice. The strong taste reminded her of the time she’d eaten a bullion cube on a dare.
Eventually, she got it right and discovered her appetite after all. The food vanished with a haste that was unseemly when Ron and Toby would
never take another bite, and Michelle felt pangs of guilt for being able to eat, to taste, to feel comfortably warm and full.
After piling the dishes in the sink, she went to her computer and turned on the laptop to see exactly what was on the sphere that had cost her the
lives of her brother and nephew.
Five minutes later, she was perplexed.
Ten minutes after that, she was astounded.
When an hour had gone by, she was utterly engrossed, and excited stirrings of discovery had driven everything else to the back recesses of her
She stayed where she was, riveted, stirring only to fish the occasional can of diet soda from the mini-fridge beside the filing cabinet.
By the time she finished reviewing the material on the sphere, it was full dark and her bladder was about to burst. She’d been unaware of the
growing discomfort but now it was a demandingly urgent need, forcing her to scurry to the bathroom in rapid mincing steps.
Relief. A personal promise never again to drink five cans of soda at a single sitting.
When that business was attended to, she washed her hands and stared into her reflected eyes as if to ask herself if she believed what she’d found
Another person might have said it was impossible, but Michelle knew better, knew that when it came to science, the word ‘yet’ always had to be
tacked on to any protestation of what couldn’t be done.
But if they’d done it ... the world would never be the same again.
And they wanted her to be a part of it!
Michelle screamed and snatched up her blow dryer, and swung it with all her might. It smashed the mirror dead-center and glass exploded outward
in thick black-backed shards.
“You bastards!” she yelled, whirling to fling the dryer into the tub. “If you’d only told me --”
If they’d only told her! If they’d only made it clear what they were working on, what they wanted to do, what breakthroughs they’d already
achieved ... if they’d done that, wild horses couldn’t have kept her from being a part of their project!
But no! Corporate paranoia, tell no one anything until they’ve signed and bound themselves by more oaths than a medieval knight! Force them
to agree or refuse blindly, in ignorance!
Kill people, when there was no need!
She clawed at the shower curtain and tore it free in a series of vinyl-ripping pops. The plastic rings rattled and chattered on the metal bar, sounding
like surprised squirrels. Michelle bundled the curtain into a ball and threw it on the floor. All the items on the windowsill followed -- shampoo, body
wash, bubble bath.
The furious fit abated as suddenly as it had begun, leaving her gaping in astonishment at the wreckage of her bathroom. Rather than try to tidy it,
she shut the door behind her and went straight to the kitchen, where she removed the package of double-thick Oreos from her hiding place behind
the microwave -- why she felt the need to hide them when she was the only one here was a mystery she’d never solved. She sat down at the dinky
table and plowed into them.
Several cookies later, she had gotten herself back under control enough to wonder if she had any milk left. As she was rising to get it, the door
in the other half of the duplex slammed resoundingly. The spice rack over the stove shook, and the marjoram and basil jumped ship.
Michelle shook her head, and then sourly reminded herself that she’d thrown a hell of a ruckus in the bathroom a few minutes ago, so who was
she to bitch if the neighbors made some noise? Wasn’t like it was the first time ... the other side of the duplex was rented by a quartet of college kids
in some sort of relationship-arrangement that had always eluded her, and when they weren’t partying, they were arguing. Made her wonder how they’d
lasted until finals ...
She paused with a container of spices in each hand.
Finals were over. The students had moved out, gone their separate ways for the summer.
The other side of the duplex was empty.
Or was supposed to be ...
thud ... rattle.
Footsteps, echoing on hardwood floors in empty rooms.
Suddenly wary, Michelle exchanged the basil and marjoram for a steak knife. She’d feel pretty silly if it was the landlord come to show prospective
new tenants the place, moreso because they might have arrived to hear her carrying on and destroying her bathroom, but ...
The clock assured her that it was after midnight. Her sense of time had been folded, spindled, and mutilated by the events of the past day, so she
had trouble believing it. But the blue glowing numbers on the microwave agreed with the clock.
Not even her landlord would bring someone around to look at the property this late.
click ... click ... click-click.
That metallic noise was very familiar, the attempted turning of a locked doorknob.
Michelle, feeling much less silly now and wondering if the steak knife would prove to be adequate or if she should have gone for the big bread knife,
tiptoed to the connecting door through the duplex’s shared wall. She could feel a presence on the other side, whether through hearing or scent or a
combination of all her senses, she neither knew nor cared.
click! A sharp, angry sound.
Fine time to remember she’d unplugged her phone ...
In addition to the lock in the knob, the door featured a chain lock on either side. But Michelle’s wasn’t in use.
Barely daring to breathe, she picked up the dangly end and brought it close to the brass slot. It went in with the faintest of scrapes and clunks, surely
nothing that could have been heard through the thickness of the door, but she knew whoever it was had heard, was now waiting in the dark with head
cocked alertly to one side, maybe with nostrils flared ...
That was stupid ... this wasn’t one of her brother’s novels. If there was someone on the other side, it was a person. Maybe a robber, maybe a
Coalition thug here to reinforce her agreement with a threat or scare, but certainly nothing else.
And then, a voice pitched very low: “Michelle!”
Her grip tightened and she said nothing.
“Michelle, it’s me ... Gerald! Gerald Smythe! Are you there? I know you’re there!”
But it did sound like him ... that cultured voice that didn’t have an English accent even though it seemed like it should, an effect that was even
stronger considering his name and the way he looked.
“Gerald?” she hissed.
“Michelle, thank God you’re here! Are they here?”
Renewed suspicion coiled through her. “Who?” she asked, though she knew.
“Anyone from the Coalition. I know they’ve been in touch with you. Please, Michelle, I’ve got to talk to you, is it safe?”
His genuine distress settled it; she undid the chain and unlocked the door. But as it opened, she backed off and held the knife at her side, muscles
tensed and ready to bring it up fast if it proved to be a trick.
Gerald Smythe came in, and as the light hit him, Michelle’s eyes widened.
Only a moment ago she’d been thinking how he looked like he ought to sound British. And he usually did. Tall, lean, with aristocratic features and
salt-and-pepper hair, the sort of man who gave the impression of having been born knowing how to wear a cravat and how to choose a good cognac.
That Gerald Smythe bore so little resemblance to the man in her kitchen that Michelle was tempted to believe it wasn’t him at all. Easier to think
that than to see Gerald like this!
He was gaunt, the bones of his skull prominently visible beneath skin that was stretched tight yet somehow seemed flaccid and doughy at the same
time. His eyes were the same robin’s egg blue they had always been, but the receding flesh around them made them appear to bulge from his head.
His hair was tangled, his cheeks and chin rough with stubble -- could this be the same Gerald Smythe who kept an electric razor in his desk so he
didn’t have to go home with five o’clock shadow?
“Gerald, what’s happened to you?” Michelle blurted.
“Don’t come too close. I don’t know if there’s a contagion effect.”
The word stopped her in her tracks. “Contagion?!”
“And I don’t know how much time I have.”
“Is someone looking for you? The Coalition?”
“Oh, probably ... would that that were the worst of it, but they’re the least of my concern. As far as my personal well-being goes, that is. It’s what
they’ll want from you that worries me. That’s why I’m here. I had to chance it. Michelle, have they gotten to you?”
She nodded. “I told them I wasn’t interested, but --”
“They gave you incentive,” he said sourly. “Yes, I know.”
“Krissy and Katie?”
“No ... my dog, Gretel.”
“Your dog?” Michelle said in disbelief.
“They tortured her, left her where I’d be the one to find her. And explained that the same mutilations would happen to my girls. I had no choice.”
“Only a dog? They killed my brother, my nephew!”
“They need you. At once. To pick up my work, take over for me.”
“What? You left their project? But what about your daughters? How can you keep them safe from these kind of people?”
“It’s not that. As far as they know, I’m in the Tank. I was sick ... we were all sick, everyone on my team. We caught something when they activated
it. It ...”
“It works? Gerald, you mean you did it? It works?”
“Too well.” He shuddered as if his body was seized by a giant and shaken. “Something came through, Michelle. It ... infected us. My memory’s a
fog ... I can only remember eyes. Red eyes in the gloom. They sent us to the Tank for observation. The medical people said we should be quarantined
for a month at least.”
“And they don’t want to wait that long when they think they’ve seen success,” Michelle said, knowing all too well how some scientists operated. “So
they want me to come in and cover for you. When did this happen?”
“Four days ago.”
She took an involuntary step back. “Why’d they let you out.”
“They ... they didn’t. I don’t know how I got out. I was in my cell, and then everything came over all murky, and the next thing I knew, I was outside.
On the road. I didn’t know where else to go, so I came here to warn you. Michelle, don’t do what they want.”
“I don’t have any choice either, Gerald! My parents will be next if I back out now, and I’ll probably join them!”
“Believe me, you’d be better off. What we saw ...” he broke off, trembling so violently that he fell against the wall. “We can’t let it out! We can’t let
it happen! No matter what the cost!” He slumped to the floor, clutching his head.
“We can stop them! We can get you to a hospital, let everyone know what the Coalition’s been doing, and it’ll stop! There won’t be any point in
getting rid of us then.”
“Don’t ...” he gurgled. “Don’t open it! Ahh ... God ...”
His hair went white. Michelle knew, thanks to Ron, that it didn’t really happen that way, that terror loosened the follicles so the darker hairs fell out,
leaving the lighter ones and the grey, but that was exactly not what happened to Gerald.
His hair went white. It changed, from the scalp out, as if paint was being pumped through each individual strand.
Agonized noises that sounded like speech came from his throat as he tried to cram himself into the corner, but it made no sense to her. “Necrivoria ...
not ... our ... moon!”
His skin went white.
He convulsed, and slowly raised his head with his hands over his face. When he spoke, it was with tremendous effort, forcing the words out. “Run ...
for the love of God, run!”
Michelle quite calmly decided that she was dreaming. Simple. Had fallen asleep at the computer and was dreaming this entire sequence. The stress
of the past couple of days. Sure.
Gerald dropped his hands.
The world stopped turning, time froze in place.
She had a year or more to look at him. To note with clinical accuracy how his robin’s egg eyes had turned red and merged into a single socket above
a nose that had melted into two sideways grooves for nostrils. And below that, his mouth ... a lamprey-like ring of small but sharp teeth. In slow motion,
his mouth opened wider, showing her that there were more rings of teeth, rows of them, and the agile gums could flex them outward in a seeking circle
The nostrils flared, and she remembered how she’d chided herself at the door that this wasn’t something out of one of her brother’s books.
Now she knew it was far weirder, and much worse!
As Gerald began to straighten up, those sucking rows of teeth protruding in her direction more obscenely than anything she could ever have imagined,
she understood in a flash that this was no dream. No matter how much she might wish for it to be.
All the same, as she ran for the back door she expected to move with the sluggish pace of a dream, so it surprised her when she covered the distance
in a heartbeat. She wrenched the door open and raked it shut behind her to buy a second or two. Enough moonlight filtered through the clouds to let her
avoid the worst puddles, but she still splashed up huge fans of muddy water racing to the gate.
Which was padlocked.
And she had no key. Had never needed one, because the only thing back there was a tangle of woods leading to a gully so steep it almost qualified as
The back door spun across the yard like a propeller and caved in the side of the shed.
The thing that had been Gerald filled the opening.
Michelle had never considered herself much of a fence climber until now. She monkeyed up the planks, and promptly snagged her pants on a nail. She
gouged her leg pulling free, sprained her wrist falling.
Wheezing in near-panic, she risked a look back over the fence, sure that he’d be right on top of her ready to drag her down and bite.
He was gone.
No, there he was, hunkered down by the back door of the other side of the duplex’s kitchen. Digging with his bare hands, making frantic grunts of
She knew this was the perfect time to make her getaway. Around the house, into her car, and gone while praising herself for never having given in
to the distrust that said she shouldn’t leave her keys under the floormat.
But what was he doing ...?
Gerald came up with a tattered bundle about the size of a leg of lamb, wrapped in a towel. He shredded the towel in his haste to get at the contents.
Her neighbors’ cat. Pussy had been hit by a car the week before finals, and they’d held a kitty funeral.
Necrivoria ... though she’d never heard the term before, as Michelle saw Gerald plunge his rows of teeth into the rotting haunch of the dead cat, she
got it. Herbivore, carnivore, omnivore ... necivore ...
Morbid revulsion held her in place as Gerald scarfed up his grisly feast. It took him two minutes to reduce what had been a very portly cat to nothing
but bones. Then his head swung around and that red cyclopean eye found her as if she was lit up.
He let go of the carcass and gave chase, being halfway to the fence by the time Pussy Galore’s bones hit the ground.
Michelle didn’t waste breath screaming. She fled for the corner and rounded it, and there he was! Springing over the fence with uncanny agility,
having anticipated her move!
She reversed and surrendered to her flight impulse. Straight ahead, no plan, just running, just trying to escape. The Gerald-thing sped after her,
Too late, she remembered the gully.
The land sloped away beneath her feet. This was a descent she wouldn’t have tried on the best of days, not even picking her way down one foothold
at a time, and here she was charging headlong down slick and slippery mud.
She would have been doomed even without the fallen log ...
Her left leg struck it and she was airborne, pitched violently up and out toward the snarled scrub, rocks, and deadwood lining the lower reached of
She hit hard, slamming into what felt like a solid brick wall. Her breath coughed out from the impact, her head snapped forward on a whiplashed
neck, and her eyes took in a view that her dizzied brain couldn’t comprehend.
Then, with a small moan, Michelle fainted.
Hippolyta came up on deck to find that the
argument she’d been expecting since sunset yesterday had finally come to
pass. The delay, what with
hurriedly packing Ron and Toby and most of their belongings aboard the Mists’ Passage, their hasty departure, and a full night’s sailing through
storm-tossed seas to find a secluded cove where they could shelter the day, hadn’t left much time for discussion.
Tonight, though, the waters were calm and the rain had ended, and they were almost to their destination.
“We should have left that very night!” Ezekiel was saying.
“We had no reason,” Corwin replied.
“Because you neglected to tell us --”
“I didn’t recall until it was too late! By then, dawn was upon us!”
“He was distracted by his injury and the medicine,” Cassius pointed out. “As was I. Neither of us could see much past the healing of stone.”
Tourmaline scowled. “Still, to greet us at dusk’s awakening with the news that a third assassin had been there, watching all the while ...”
“It’s a wonder reinforcements didn’t return to shatter us as we slept and finish their mission of killing the man and the boy!” Ezekiel said.
“Their names are Ron and Toby,” Hippolyta interjected. “They have names, brother, even as we do.”
“Well, if we had been attacked in our sleep, I would have shouldered the blame,” Corwin said.
“Fine good that would do us --” Ezekiel broke off and glowered at Corwin as he belatedly deciphered the sarcasm.
“We left as soon as we were able,” Icarus said. “What is, is. We are away now, and it is pointless to worry about what didn’t come to pass.”
“Then can we worry about what’s yet to come?” Tourmaline asked archly. “This notion of yours is madness, Corwin.”
“To reunite a family, and put a stop to an evil band of villains?” Corwin winked. “Well, then, if that be madness, then so be it.”
“Are you so eager to face them again?” She poked him high on the side of the chest, smooth golden skin that had only two nights ago been a
ravaged exit wound.
Corwin winced as if it was still tender, but didn’t lose his easy grin. “We’re gargoyles, aren’t we?”
“Are you saying I am less than gargoyle?” Tourmaline’s eyes slitted coldly.
“No, no, never that!” he assured her. “I’m merely surprised you agreed. I thought you might object more strenuously to bringing them with us.”
“Object? Whatever for? Because half my clan insists on adopting a man and a boy we’ve only just met? Because we’re taking on their enemies
as our own? Tell me, to what could I possibly object?”
“Their enemies are our own,” Hippolyta said. “I brought them upon us. This one that escaped would have known how his fellows met their doom --”
“Nay, sister,” Corwin said. “We’ve been through this.”
“And yet it is not over!”
She spun from them and loped to the stern of the ship. But the Mists’ Passage was not a large enough vessel to remove her from earshot, and
the words of her clan still carried clearly to her.
“The man Jessec, he killed one of them as well,” she heard Tourmaline say. “And he does not weep and wring his hands in despair.”
“He is numbed with shock,” Cassius said. “Even now he seems barely conscious of where he is and what’s happened. I doubt me he even
remembers the deed.”
Tourmaline snorted in exasperation. “Obviously ... the way he threw himself on his foe, it could have just as easily been his neck to break, or
the knife he held could have gotten twisted and skewered his eye. Had one of us been so clumsy in battle, it would have brought shame on the
“I still want to know why we’re interfering in human business,” Ezekiel pressed. “We could just leave these two --”
“They welcomed us as friends!” Corwin said.
“After we saved their lives.”
“They helped Corwin and I when we were wounded,” Cassius added.
“Wounded saving their lives.”
Corwin exhaled in annoyance. “Avalon sent us here to help them. Should we abandon our quest?”
“I will not be at Avalon’s beck and call,” Icarus rumbled. “We do what we must and what we feel is right, that’s all. Nothing is meant, nothing
“No, Corwin’s words make sense,” Cassius protested. “We know the magic of the isle and have seen it at work. Did it not send great Goliath
on many missions?”
“But if so, how far does our quest here extend?” Tourmaline said. “We’ve already saved the man and boy. Perhaps that is all we were meant to
do, and we presume too much by seeking the woman.”
“She’s in danger,” Cassius chuckled. “And far be it from us to ignore a damsel in distress!”
“Oh, very well,” Tourmaline sighed. “We cannot avoid all humans, for they own the world and if we are to live within it, surely we’ll have to get
used to dealing with them.”
“They’re not so bad,” Corwin said.
“They are weak and insignificant,” she countered. “But I find more in them to pity than to despise, and so we shall not leave them to their fate
when they so obviously need our help.”
Her announcement ended the discussion, and the group split up. Icarus returned to the helm while Tourmaline consulted the nautical map that was
allegedly to tell them the way to the land called Bellingham. Cassius returned below to check on Toby and his ailing father. Ezekiel went with him. And
Corwin approached Hippolyta, where she stood watching the rolling waves.
“Sister? As Cassius said, ‘tis unfitting to ignore a damsel in distress.”
“I am not in distress, Corwin.”
“Not of the body, but of the spirit.” He rested his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. “I cannot know what this has been like for you --”
“No, you cannot! No one can! For it is worse than I’ve let on, brother! Far worse!”
“Why? Sweet Hippolyta, why?”
She stared at the deck planking, unable to meet his eyes as she spoke. “Because it felt good. Such a thrill went through me as I cannot describe!
When I shot him, and I saw how perfectly to the mark my arrows had gone, I was flushed with pride. And when he fell, pouring his life’s blood, I felt
such a savage joy that I wanted to shriek it to the stars ... but at the same moment was awash in the most hideous horror I’ve ever known! How can
it be horror and joy in one?”
“It was power, and it was frightening.” He tried to pull her against his broad chest but she resisted, wrapping her wings around herself as a barrier
against her shame. “All power must be like that to some extent. Wasn’t it so when our clan first discovered matings? Much more joy than horror, I
grant thee ...”
The tone of his voice brought a faint and unwilling smile to her lips. “But a frightening new power, yes, I remember.”
“I think there’s no shame in being proud of your skill. It had to be done, after all, and if something has to be done, better that it is done well! You
are a fine warrior, one of the best of our clan. Take pride in that, sister, do ... because I know you are no heartless killer. These tears you try to hide
prove that distinctly.”
“Will you say the same when it is your turn, Corwin?”
“I can’t know until it happens, but I hope I feel the same things you do. I hope that when it is my turn, my foe is one who, like yours, has it coming.
Those men were murderers, or would have been had we not intervened ... and probably were beforehand, for they treated it as a matter of course.”
“How is it that you never seem to have doubts? How is it that you seem so much older and wiser than the rest of us, when you were hatched no
Corwin shrugged. “Perhaps it is that I had my doubts early on, when the rest of you were always so certain. And now I have resolved them, while
you are discovering yours.” He tried again to embrace her, and this time she let herself be drawn into his arms.
“I am afraid,” she admitted.
“Not of me, surely,” he teased gently, kissing her on the brow ridge.
“Of the next time I must fight. Suppose I come to like it too much, to crave that thrill and have the horror diminish? To become ruthless and violent,
merciless? To be ... to be like Demona?”
He frowned pensively, and glanced briefly over his shoulder. In that moment, as clearly as if he’d said it aloud, she knew what he was thinking --
if any are in danger of that, it is not you.
But instead of saying so, Corwin stepped back, stooped down, and peered intently into her eyes. “Did the Magus ever tell you that a gargoyle’s
eyes are like Seeing Stones to their soul? And that he taught me how to read the signs therein?”
“Somehow he never mentioned it,” she said, almost grinning despite herself, loving him for cheering her out of her melancholy.
“And I see no anger in you, sister-mine. Neither do I see bitterness, or hatred.”
“What do you see?”
“Someone bright and beautiful as a star, quick and clever as a hawk, and above all, loyal and good-hearted.”
“You’ve been spending too much time in the company of Lady Titania, brother. It’s made you even more charming.” She laughed, shakily but
genuine, and held him tightly. “What a mate you might have made, had things been different!”
He laughed too. “Careful, you might damage your standing as an avowed Amazonian! But then, even your namesake queen was eventually tamed
by a male ... ‘tis your good fortune that the Magus named none of us Theseus!”
“It would take more than a mere coincidence of names to tame me!” she cried in mock indignation, swiping at him with her tail.
“What would it take?” inquired Corwin with an exaggeratedly speculative grin. “A bit of nibbling on the wing joints?”
“I chose matelessness, not chastity!”
“That makes two of us.”
“But since you mention it, I think one other task we should set ourselves is to find out just precisely what it was that our ancestors did with their
tails. I heard Coyote and Mai jesting about it, and wonder what we’ve been miss -- Corwin?” She interrupted herself at his expression, which was
knowing and embarrassed and smug all in one. “You know, don’t you?”
“I ... er ... stumbled across it once.”
Before she could ask her next question -- which was to ask why the sly creature had kept it a secret from the rest of them -- Tourmaline hailed
them with the news that they’d spotted a likely, hidden docking-place.
“You’ll have to tell me later,” Hippolyta said, in a way that let Corwin know she’d brook no debate.
It was decided after a brief conference that Icarus would remain behind to guard the ship and look after Ron, while Toby guided them. Poor Ron
was unsuited even to take care of himself, let alone his son. Since the night of the attack, he had been sleeping nearly as solidly, and half again as much,
as a gargoyle.
Hippolyta could sympathize, and wished that she could seek refuge in dreamless slumber from the images that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
No matter how she justified it, no matter how she understood that it had to be done, that it had been the right and only thing to do, she would never
forget the look on the man’s face as he’d clutched in agony at the arrow piercing his torso.
It must have been a hundred times worse for Ron. A peaceful man, untrained and unprepared. Who had previously killed only in his fiction. Lashing
out in a frenzy of anguish. Falling atop the body and feeling the shudder of Agent Shaw’s body as death set in, smelling the sour outrush of his final breath.
Young Toby had been struggling bravely and manfully to take care of his father and behave like an adult, although any child in such a situation would
have been well within rights to fuss and tantrum and complain. Perhaps he might have, had he not been so fascinated by the fact that his companions were
gargoyles. He wanted to show them he was a good and worthy friend. Most of all, he didn’t want to ruin his chances of going for a glide.
He showed them a photo of his aunt. Michelle Jessec was a small woman but busty, and younger than they expected. Toby explained how she had
finished her schooling well in advance of her age-mates, and by his description she was someone of uncommon genius and strength of will.
“Will we scare her?” Ezekiel asked.
“We’ll try not to,” Corwin said.
Ezekiel gave him a sour look. “I mean, will she be afraid of gargoyles?”
“That’s why you’re taking me,” Toby said as if any idiot should know that.
“But we must be cautious,” Tourmaline said. “There may be spies --”
“Sure!” Toby cut in. “I didn’t try to call because I bet they tapped her phone, and they might have guys staking out the house! But you guys can just
whoosh, swoop on in, and they’ll never know it.”
“He says the house backs onto wilderness,” Tourmaline continued, quelling Toby’s enthusiasm by bracing her hand on the top of his head to keep
him from hopping up and down. “We shall approach from that side, but spread out, lest they are watching.”
They set out, gliding low over the city called Bellingham. Even so late at night, its streets were a sparkling map of lights. It was not the unearthly
radiance of Avalon, but it had its own beauty made more potent by the knowledge that this was something that had been made, invented, brought into
being by hard work and ingenuity instead of a matter of magic.
With Cassius bearing Toby in his arms (and having to caution the boy severely to stifle his delighted whoops), they soared higher into the hills.
Having been jollied into a better mood by Corwin, Hippolyta found herself enjoying the trip more than any glide since her very first unassisted one.
There was something different about the world, something vital and alive that was unlike Avalon. The unpredictability of the weather -- on Avalon, it was
clear and temperate, or gentle-warm rain and temperate, the sense of struggle and competition between all the living things as they fought to keep their
places, survive, thrive. None of it was made by or controlled by ever-present magic, and that made it seem more real than anything she’d ever known
Toby directed them to the house, and Tourmaline signaled for them to fan out. She and Ezekiel would approach the most openly, trusting to their
darker hues to blend in with the night, while Corwin and Hippolyta would rely on the trees for cover. Cassius waved to them and swung around in
search of a safe spot to leave the boy, near enough to come to their aid in case of emergency.
Although the hour was late, Hippolyta could see lights shining in some of the windows as she passed over the house and looped back to come
in low. The back door of the house flew open. A woman dashed out and began scrambling over the fence. She was followed by a pale man, and
after a pause
in which he did something that Hippolyta could not clearly discern, the pursuit was on.
She spied a likely-looking tree with a stout, perpendicular limb, automatically unslinging her bow from her back and reaching for an arrow. The
moment her talons touched down, the woman turned a corner and started toward the street. Tourmaline, coming from the side direction, swooped less
than three feet above her. The terror-stricken woman never even glanced up.
The man moved with astonishing speed. He leapt the fence as if there had been springs in his heels, looming over the woman. He voiced an eerie,
hungry keen. The woman changed her course with alacrity and plunged into the woods, passing the tree in which Hippolyta perched. It was Michelle
Jessec, beyond a doubt.
Tourmaline landed between the man and the fleeing woman, caping her wings with an arrogant flourish and raising one hand imperiously. “Halt,
He did, standing stock-still, a white wraith in a patch of deep shadow that concealed his face. He hissed like a serpent. And then he lunged.
Hippolyta nocked, drew, and fired in a seamless ballet --
The man tackled Tourmaline, taking and ignoring a stone-cracking punch and a vicious claw-swipe. He bore her to the earth and they rolled down
a short slope, during which the light fell on his face and revealed it clearly.
His rings of teeth bent outward in a needle-sharp pucker, and battened onto Tourmaline’s bare shoulder. The muscles of his cheeks and jaw
flexed once, hard, slicing away a perfectly circular scoop of a wound.
Tourmaline’s shriek could have shattered the moon. She pistoned her feet up, flipping the man over her head. He crashed jarringly, a landing
that should have driven the wind from him if nothing else, but bounced back up.
He grimaced, made a noise that sounded like, “Blyucch!” and spat the mouthful he’d taken back at Tourmaline. The effective scissoring edges
of his teeth had rendered the flesh to a wad of mincemeat in that single bite.
Hippolyta stared helplessly as her rookery sister scrabbled backward on her haunches, dragging herself with one arm because the other trailed
limp and bloodsoaked. The man closed in, a hateful gleam in his one ruby eye. He bent over, perhaps meaning to sample another section and see
if it was any more palatable than the shoulder.
Ezekiel dropped from the sky and swung his ironwood staff with all his might and momentum. It met the man’s back with a harsh crack like the
sound of a snapped broomstick. The man pitched flat, legs jittering as if they could not quite obey his commands. He pushed himself up on his arms,
snarling, and Ezekiel recoiled as he got his first clear look.
Trembling, Hippolyta loosed another arrow.
It sank fletching-deep in the ground, scant inches from Tourmaline’s thigh.
“Kill him!” Tourmaline screamed.
Ezekiel jumped as if he’d been jabbed with a pin. The man snapped at his knee, grazing the skin, and then the ironwood staff smashed down again.
And kept smashing down until long after the man had ceased moving. Ezekiel’s mouth was set in a horrifiedly determined line as he beat the body
into a crumpled mass.
“Enough!” Cassius cried, coming out of nowhere to pull Ezekiel away. “He’s dead! Enough!”
For a moment, none of them spoke. Then, slowly, so very slowly, Tourmaline’s gaze moved from the arrow beside her leg up to meet Hippolyta’s
“You missed. Twice!”
“Sister, you’re bleeding!” Cassius knelt beside her and groaned in appalled horror at the sight of the wound. He applied pressure to it, and it took
his entire palm to span the circular gouge.
“I --” was all Hippolyta could say, and her voice shook so that the single syllable was broken into four.
“What happened?” Tourmaline demanded. “He wasn’t ten paces from you!”
“I was afraid of hurting him,” she heard herself say in a weak whisper.
“What would you expect to do with an arrow?” Ezekiel barked. “Tickle him?”
“Leave her be,” Cassius said. “She’s still not over killing her first human, how could you expect her to kill another?”
“That wasn’t human,” stated Tourmaline flatly.
Cassius glanced in puzzlement at the body. “Yes, he is.”
Hippolyta swayed on the branch, steadied herself by holding onto the trunk. Because Cassius was right. Despite the terrific battering delivered by
Ezekiel, the man’s face was decidedly, though misshapenly, human. His skin was a pinkish color, he had two staring blue eyes instead of a single red
one, and his mouth was no longer a rounded maw of teeth. Only the blood running from his lips and chin -- Tourmaline’s blood -- proved he’d done
Tourmaline faltered. “That’s impossible! I saw him!”
“So did I!” Ezekiel said, gaping.
“We’ll unravel this later,” Cassius declared. “Sister, your arm.”
“I’m fi --” Tourmaline began, but then they all saw the pain hit her. Her emerald skin faded to a wan olive green, and her eyelids drooped to half-
Cassius hastily stripped, using loincloth and belt to fashion a makeshift bandage and tourniquet. He and Ezekiel picked her up, bearing her lightly
between them in a litter made from their linked arms.
“Where’s Corwin?” Cassius wondered.
“Here,” Corwin replied, emerging from the trees. He was carrying an unconscious woman, Michelle Jessec, and walking a trifle unsteadily as if
he was hurt. He stopped as he got a look at the carnage. “What the ... what happened?”
“Hippolyta failed me,” Tourmaline said, and fainted.
A short thunderstruck silence later, Corwin looked up at Hippolyta. “I’m sure she didn’t mean --”
“Yes, she did,” Ezekiel said, throwing her a glare. “If I hadn’t been in time, we’d be mourning our leader now! We still may, if we can’t stop
“Stop it!” Cassius commanded. “We haven’t time for this now! Back to the ship, before more humans come! Corwin, you have the woman,
good, she’s the one we came for. Forget the dead man. And hurry, I left Toby on a roof down the street.”
He started off, with Tourmaline in his arms and Ezekiel following. Corwin lingered.
“Sister?” he asked softly.
Hippolyta seized her quivering lip between her teeth. “I’m well, brother.”
“Pain makes us say things that --”
“Please don’t, Corwin. I know what she said and what she meant, and she’s right. I failed her. Twice. I missed. Twice. When have I ever missed
before? Not since mastering the bow. I hesitated, and look what came of it.”
“You can’t be blamed.”
“No? I’m sure Tourmaline will find a way. She’ll never forgive me, but that’s well enough, for how could I forgive myself anyhow?”
“Come down. Come back to the ship. We’ll sort this out.”
She nodded, hopping down from her branch and retrieving her arrows. The first one was wedged in a tree. The second snapped as she tried to
work it out of the earth, so she left half of it buried.
Even Toby sensed that chatter now was not a good way to brighten their spirits, and they returned to the Mists’ Passage in silence.
“Am I under a curse or something?” cried
Winston Churchill Brock IV, who had been trying unsuccessfully since the
age of eleven to get people
to call him ‘Spider.’
He liked the name because it implied a certain amount of deadliness, something that people were afraid of. It also implied that he was at the center
of a large web, which suited both his computer skills and his position as unit director of his division.
However, he’d learned the hard way that nicknames were given, not chosen. His refusals to answer to Winston, Win, or even Church had led
one of the upper-echelon agents to tag him with Winchell, like the donut people, and the fucking name had stuck.
He flung himself into his chair, rocking it back against the wall and digging his hands into his hair. “You know Diamond will be here by the end
of the week wanting a progress report! I told her four days ago that everything was fine, and now it’s all shot to shit!”
“It’s not that bad,” Op. 19 ventured. “We’ve got roadblocks all around Bellingham. He’ll walk right into one of them and --”
“What I want to know is how he got out in the first place.” Brock slammed his chair legs to the floor, leaning forward in a rapid movement that
would make the operative think that he was about to come across the polished granite surface and throttle him. “The Tank is supposed to be secure!”
“As far as we can tell, it is.” Op. 19, a slim man with medium brown hair and spare, carefully edited features, hoisted a shoulder in half a shrug.
“There weren’t any physical breaches.”
“So someone had to let him out.”
“The guards all deny it.”
“Of course they do, because they all know when I find out who it was, I’ll eat his ass for dinner! I want lie detector tests on each of them.”
“We’ll have to fly a polygraph in from --”
“Then do it! I want to know who let Smythe out and when, and if I’m in a particularly friendly mood, I’ll even listen to why. Who knows, maybe
there was a good reason. He was only under strictest quarantine for exposure to unknown biohazard agents, and --”
The muted tone of an alarm shut Brock up mid-sentence. He slapped a button on his desk and a print of orcas swimming through the cracked shell
of a flooded-out post-holocaust Kingdome (something that would never be seen, as they’d imploded the ugly concrete orange-juicer three years ago)
slid aside to reveal the flat screen of a monitor.
Op. 11’s face filled it. “There’s a problem downstairs, sir,” she reported.
“In the labs?”
“No, sir ... in the Tank.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The detainees, one of the medical team, and one of the guards are dead.”
“What?” Brock popped to his feet. “Dead? What happened?”
“Still trying to determine, sir. Situation’s been contained, but the surviving guard is in bad shape and incoherent.”
“On our way.” He cut off the connection and raised a scornful eyebrow at Op. 19. “Not that bad, you said ...”
Op. 19 didn’t bother responding, and fell in behind Brock as he headed for the elevator that would take him from the top floor of C.T.I. to the
The Tunnel was a half-mile passageway connecting the main building with the outlying labs. It was an impersonal arched stretch, tiled in a muted
blue-grey that was a hair away from the right shade to be cool and soothing; instead, it looked bland and oppressive. Banks of fluorescent lighting
shed a humming, chilly glow on the chrome handrails that lined the moving walkway.
The walkway went much faster than the ones commonly found at airports. Brock and Op. 19 carefully stepped onto the ribbed black rubber and
held on as the breeze of their motion whipped through their hair.
A hundred yards ahead, a white-coated team of mop-up Ops. were adding to their velocity by hurrying along the walkway. Brock decided to
pick up his own feet and see what had hit the fan this time.
“I must be under a curse,” he grumbled. “First the botch of the Jessec business, and now this.”
Op. 19 stiffened. “We lost two of our best men. That’s a little worse than a botch.”
Brock eyed him icily. “The fuck-up of the Jessec business, then. How’s that? And if you were so concerned about their lives, why didn’t you go
in and do something?”
“If I’d deviated from procedure --”
“Sure, you’d have been disciplined ... but Shaw might still be alive. And he was worth six of you.”
“How were we supposed to know there were gargoyles around? There’ve never been any sightings in this area.”
“They’re everywhere these days. Like rats. You’d just better hope that Shaw didn’t tell them anything. The last thing we need is a pack of
gargoyles on our backs.”
“If Shaw wouldn’t talk under the influence of Illuminati hypno-drugs, he wouldn’t cave in on account of a gargoyle.”
“Hunh,” Brock said, knowing Op. 19 was probably right but not wanting to admit it.
They reached the end of the walkway and disembarked, and as always the sensation was disconcerting. Brock’s feet stuttered but this time he
didn’t fall, and took a small measure of pride in that fact. It dimmed almost at once, because of course Op. 19’s pace didn’t falter at all.
The Tunnel ended at a thick, clear wall with retina scanners and a voice-recognition lock. The door opened onto a large round room, which
doubled as a guard station. Although they had been visible for several minutes, easily identifiable thanks to a series of cameras hidden in the walls
and ceiling of the Tunnel, the guard was wearing his gas mask and had his hand on the trigger that would flood the chamber if one of them tried
something tricky. In his other hand, he had a nine-millimeter automatic.
But seeing it only deepened the mystery in Brock’s mind of how Gerald Smythe had managed to escape the Tank. Not only was the Tank itself
supposed to be utterly secure and so well-sealed that not even a microbe could get out, he would have had to have come this way because there
weren’t any other exits from the underground levels.
Which meant, Brock realized, that at least two guards had to have been in on it. And that didn’t make any sense. In general, the security personnel
and the scientists cordially despised each other. It was possible, though remote, that Smythe could have cultivated a friendship with one guard. But two?
Two guards ... and someone in the video monitoring unit, because none of the tapes showed anything out of the ordinary.
A shop-wide conspiracy? All to whisk a snotty physicist out of the Tank? Brock could, by stretching his imagination, see someone letting Smythe
out of the brig, maybe, if that someone felt he’d been unjustly imprisoned. The Tank was another matter entirely.
Op. 11, a tall thirtyish blonde with eyes like the fjords, met them at the door. While the desk-guard was visibly tense and troubled, she was
composed as always.
As always, Brock was helpless not to let his gaze meander over how well her steel-grey jumpsuit fit. What the hell, who was going to blame him;
despite his lofty position here, he was still a normal nineteen-year-old with all the attendant healthy urges.
And as always, she showed no reaction whatsoever. “This way.” She led them to the viewing room, which let them look down into the rooms
below through triply-reinforced mirrored glass.
They were looking at the Tank, which despite its name was six separate isolation enclosures opening off of a central control room. Airlock doors
led into each, and also into a fully-equipped operating theater and medical lab.
It was a disaster area. Two of the enclosures had their front walls broken outward, and chunks of the six-inch-thick glass lay everywhere like
diamonds of impossible size. Several of the machines in the control room were smashed. And there were bodies. Three of them. Two were in civilian
clothes, one was in the charcoal-grey uniform of a guard.
The first two were the detainees: a fat asthmatic doctor named Sondra Neddleman, and a smartass young intern whose name Brock couldn’t
recall but had never liked. Didn’t matter now; they’d both been shot multiple times. Blood was sprayed around the room like abstract art, seemingly
gallons of it.
Not all of the blood had come from the detainees, though. The guard and the on-duty doctor were the source of a good deal of it.
“Yuck,” Brock opined. “What did that to them?”
“Apparently, the detainees,” Op. 11 replied.
“They look chewed!”
“Details,” Op. 19 said.
Op. 11 stood at attention with her hands clasped behind her back, a pose that would normally make Brock ogle like the horny post-adolescent
he was. But he found the gruesome spectacle of the mauled guard impossible to look away from, no matter how enticing the alternatives.
“Fourteen minutes ago, the third-shift guards arrived to relieve the second-shift. They found the scene before us, with one exception. One of the
second-shift guards, Harstein, was alive and trying unsuccessfully to reach the intercom to signal for help.”
Below, a door opened and the white-coated people who had been ahead of Brock on the walkway came in. They were covered head to foot in
germ-suits, moving a bit slowly and awkwardly due to the bulk.
“The third-shift guards raised the alarm but lacked the sense to wait outside,” Op. 11 continued. “They rushed in, moved Harstein to Medical, and
have since been confined to the surgical ward in lieu of proper quarantine. As the facilities are currently unfit, as you can see.”
“Will the guard survive?” Op. 19 asked.
“Unknown. He’s suffered significant blood loss and tissue trauma.”
“From the detainees,” Brock said. “You’re sure? Those two? What do the surveillance tapes show?”
Op. 11 strode wordlessly to a monitor. Brock and Op. 19 watched in growing incredulity as the action unfolded.
It began with a standard scene for the lateness of the hour. The lights were dimmed to simulate night, the detainees slept. One of the guards was
playing a computer game while the other perused a magazine, and the on-duty physician napped on a cot in the corner.
Then, at what seemed to be the exact same moment, both detainees experienced some sort of seizure. They fell from their bunks to the floor. The
guards, alerted by the noise, raised the lights.
The tape didn’t capture the transformation well, but it did show very clearly how the suddenly inhumanly strong pair smashed through the supposedly
unbreakable walls of their isolation cells. Dr. Neddleman was shot in the gut, but her ample layers prevented a fatal wound long enough for her to
overpower the guard and --
“She’s trying to eat him?” Brock said, feeling ill.
The intern went after the doctor, but the second guard -- Harstein -- intervened. In the course of their struggles, he was bitten several times and
then flung bodily across the room. The doctor had been too rooted in place by panic to do anything, and only found his wits and tried to run as the
intern closed in.
While the ghastly feast was commencing, Harstein pulled himself upright. Though bleeding, though in obvious agony, he drew his gun and kept
firing until both of the hideously altered detainees went down. He then attempted to totter toward the intercom, but didn’t quite make it.
“Christ,” Op. 19 murmured as Op. 11 fast-forwarded the tape. “They changed. They were exposed to something, but it must have taken a
few days to incubate. Thank God they were quaran --” He forgot how to finish the word and stood there with his mouth ajar.
“Smythe!” Brock said. “I want him found and I want him found now!”
“Scheisse!” Op. 11 spat, staring through the window into the control room.
Brock hastened to look, wondering what could make her lose her cool enough to swear. He saw it at once, and echoed the sentiment. “Shit!”
The germ-suited team had turned over the body of Dr. Neddleman to examine it.
“She’s back to normal!” Op. 19 said. “But ...”
“They revert when they die!” Brock had seen his share of scary movies as a kid, and his kidhood wasn’t as far behind him as it was for most
of these people. “Like werewolves! And they bite people, like vampires or zombies. Okay, first order of business --”
“Full autopsy,” Op. 11 said.
“No, first order of business is to trank Harstein and anyone who’s had contact with him. Trank ‘em to the gills and strap them down but good.”
Op. 19 was pale. “Contagion ...”
“You saw what those things did to the wall, so normal restraints aren’t going to be enough. Then autopsies. But our real concern has to be getting
ahold of Smythe. If he’s got this too ...” Brock trailed off, envisioning a spree of attacks leading to exponential increases ... shit! Diamond was going
to have his ass for breakfast! He had to be under a curse. “And get me Mirano. Stat. I want Dr. Jessec on site and going over the entire project
specs by noon.”
Op. 19 was too well-trained to look askance, but he managed to convey it without altering his expression. “Will we be shutting it down?”
“And blow millions of dollars as well as putting all our nuts in the grinder?” He coughed a little as he glanced at Op. 11, almost apologetically. “I’m
not doing that without a really good explanation, and with Smythe compromised, Jessec’s the only one who can do it.”
Icarus asked what had happened, but Hippolyta
couldn’t answer. Instead, she simply finished helping him cast off, and
then left him steering the
Mists’ Passage out to sea. She returned to the mid-deck, where Corwin had finished making the unconscious Michelle Jessec comfortable.
Toby brought a blanket from below, and tucked it around his aunt. “Is she going to be all right?”
“I’m sure of it,” Corwin said with warm confidence.
“But why won’t she wake up?”
“Well, she had a bit of a bump.”
“She fell?” Hippolyta asked.
“Nearly ... I was gliding along the gully and had just turned toward the house, hearing the ruckus. She must have been running downhill and tripped,
for she came flying out from the trees as if she thought she had wings of her own. If I’d not been there, it would have been a long fall and a hard landing.”
He shook his head and laughed disarmingly, running his talons through his hair. “Not even that! She collided with me and all I had to do was bring
up my arms. And let me tell you, sister ... these humans may look soft, especially ones so small and well-curved as this one, but try having one
catapulted into you at very close range! Took the wind from me, almost sprung my shoulder from its joint. She’ll ache when she wakes, and I’ll be
surprised if none of her ribs are broken.”
From below came a screech so shrill it made bones vibrate.
“Ah, Tourmaline’s come ‘round,” Corwin noted.
Hippolyta cringed guiltily.
The noise roused Michelle Jessec, who erupted out of her insensibility with a convulsive gasp that turned instantly to a moan. She crumpled to the
bed of straw Corwin had made, breathing in hitches and little mewled cries.
“Aunt Shelley!” Toby started to fling himself at her, but Corwin caught him.
“Steady, lad ... she’s hurt.”
The woman’s eyes, round as saucers, drank in the sight of the boy. “T-Toby?”
“You’re safe now,” Hippolyta said.
“Dreaming,” Michelle Jessec stated with a comprehensive sadness. “This is a dream.”
“No, Aunt Shelley, it’s real, I swear. Look, gargoyles!” Toby pointed with great excitement at Corwin. “This is Corwin, he saved your life! And
they saved me, and Dad too!”
“But they told me ... Mirano said ...” She fumbled for words, doubtful, unwilling to hope, unwilling to take false solace even in a dream. Then her
gaze shifted to Corwin, and she added, “But I remember ... falling ... hitting something ... seeing ... wings?”
Toby verbally fell all over himself relating the events of the past few nights -- the explosion on board the Jessica, the intervention of the gargoyles,
being questioned by the FBI, he and his father making a sudden exodus from their home. “And we had to come here, Aunt Shelly, ‘cause, see, they
were worried that the real reason someone was trying to bump me and Dad was because of you! Isn’t that wacky? Like you were a spy or a double
agent or something!”
Michelle burst into tears, great wracking sobs that shook her slight body and had to cause fierce spasms of pain. The sounds of misery pierced
Hippolyta’s soul, bearing as they did a terrible weight of guilt and self-loathing.
Hippolyta and Corwin exchanged a nonplussed glance, and then Corwin gingerly gathered Michelle into his arms. He rocked slowly, the way
Princess Katherine had used to soothe them as hatchlings, and soon she had subsided into watery hiccups.
“They wanted me to work for them,” she said, speaking so low they could hardly hear her. “They wouldn’t tell me on what, and I was happy
at Everstar so the salary alone wasn’t incentive. If they’d told me ... I would have been tempted! Who wouldn’t be? That kind of breakthrough ...
years ahead of what I was working on! But they decided they had to convince me like this ...”
Toby was crying too. “It’s okay, Aunt Shelley, we’re okay.”
“You need fear them no more,” Hippolyta said.
For the first time, it truly seemed to sink into her awareness that they were gargoyles. And more, that one of them was touching her, nearly
holding her on his lap. She tensed and looked up at Corwin in startled apprehension.
Had she not been so distraught herself, Hippolyta might have been amused by what happened next. That look of startled apprehension melted
like frost, and slow wonder suffused Michelle Jessec’s wide eyes.
“Gargoyles ...” she breathed. “Somehow I always thought you’d be ... that you wouldn’t be ... you’re beautiful!” She even raised a tentative
hand, but caught herself before she could touch his face.
Corwin grinned his abashed grin. “I’m fortunate, lady, that’s all, to have features held handsome by members of all three races.”
Most incredibly, somehow he managed to say it without sounding vain at all. He let go of her, and she was blushing, trying to collect herself.
Hippolyta had to smile.
Although her ribs did hurt, Michelle hugged Toby as if she’d thought she’d never see him again -- which, in fact, must have been just what she’d
thought. “Your dad’s really all right?”
“Well,” Toby hesitated. “Something bad happened, he won’t tell me what, but he’s been sleeping all the time and the rest of the time he just sits
“He crossed a line,” Hippolyta said softly, fixing Michelle’s attention with her eyes to assure the woman knew what she meant. “He acted as a
warrior, as a soldier.”
“Ron?” she whispered, dumbfounded.
“Huh? What?” Toby put on the grim pout all children seemed to wear when they sensed the adults were speaking in circles around them.
Cassius emerged from below decks, and as he appeared and moved into the circle of flamelight from the magical torch affixed to the mast, Michelle’s
mouth fell open.
Hippolyta rose, braced as if for a blow. “How is she?”
“Cross as a scalded cat, as Guardian Tom would say,” Cassius said merrily, and Hippolyta felt a bit of her tension ease. Not even Cassius would
joke if the news were all bad. “But there was a sticky froth in that bite wound, like what we’ve heard of in rabid beasts. So I doused it with an entire
bottle of what Ron called perrosside. That’s what made her howl. I’ve never seen such bubbling and foaming.”
“Oh, my ...” Michelle said. Then, hastily, she shook her head in short sharp arcs and averted her gaze, her blush returning in a bright tide.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Shelly! Cassius looks scary, but he’s really nice,” Toby assured her.
“He’s ...” She stole another peek as if to be sure of what she was seeing, and shook her head some more. “He’s ... um ... undressed.”
Hippolyta wrinkled her brow ridge in puzzlement at Corwin, and he did the same. But then his expression cleared and he chuckled.
“Cassius,” he called. “Cover thy glory, brother!”
“Cover my what? Oh! The human nudity taboo!” Cassius folded a wing to conceal himself. “Forgive me, madam ... we gargoyles aren’t ashamed
of our bodies as you humans are. I used my loincloth to bind my sister’s wound. I’ll go don another, but then if you could, I’d like to hear more of this
creature that attacked them.”
“Aye, as would we all,” Hippolyta said. “Was it a man or wasn’t it? And if not, what was it?”
“Don’t begin without me!” Cassius said as he retreated.
“We’re not ashamed of our bodies,” Michelle finally said.
“But isn’t that why you wear clothes?” Corwin asked.
“Well ... partly ... don’t you people get cold?”
“We have greater resistance to temperatures than your kind,” Hippolyta said.
“On Avalon,” Corwin added, “from whence we come, the weather was always mild. There was no need for protective garments.”
“You mean you always went naked?” Toby goggled at Hippolyta’s halter and the cleavage it revealed.
Corwin laughed. “Alas, no ... our human foster-parents bade us dress, for although we were not troubled by our nakedness, they were.”
Cassius returned, a spare loincloth of creamy white contrasting nicely with his ebony-black skin. Icarus, now that the craft was well out to sea and
in no danger of running aground, joined them.
“Ezekiel?” Corwin asked.
“I left him to stay with Tourmaline. He’s a bit unsettled. Says he bludgeoned a monster and then it turned into a human. And you know ‘Zeke. He’s
steadfast, not prone to flights of fancy. It cannot have been his imagination. So what happened out there?”
“It was a human,” Michelle said. She told them about Gerald Smythe, and the horrendous transformation he’d undergone. As she spoke, she
seemed to be watching them all for signs of disbelief, but found none. “He said something about ‘contagion,’ though ... if he had some sort of disease,
your sister might have been infected.”
“None of us have ever been ill,” Icarus said slowly.
“There was no sickness on Avalon,” Corwin said. “We never thought of what we might be susceptible to in the outer world.”
“The Magus said that our ancestors were remarkably hardy,” Cassius said. “Even when plagues swept the castle. We may be immune, or at least
resistant, to most illnesses.”
“This is no normal illness,” Michelle said. “If I’m right in my thinking, it’s not even native to this world.”
“Tourmaline is breeding,” Hippolyta said, discovering a fresh new layer of dread just when she thought she’d exhausted them all. “Could this harm
“You lay eggs? Cool!” Toby cried.
“We don’t even know what we’re dealing with,” Michelle said. “Gerald broke a high-level quarantine to get out and warn me. He knew better than
that! The only reason he would have done it was if he really believed that the danger was greater if the secret was kept.”
“What secret?” Icarus asked. His scowl was fearsome enough to make the woman quail. “What have you unleashed?”
Toby had been trying doggedly to follow the conversation, and his face suddenly lit up. “Aunt Shelley! You mean these guys really were government
agents trying to get to you, like on the X-Files or something? Because they wanted you to come work for them on some top-secret project, maybe a
“I don’t know if it started out that way,” Michelle said heavily. “But that’s what it always turns into. The quest for power is just a quest for the next super-weapon.”
“The plot thickens,” Royce Mirano said, his
voice muffled and made tinny by the filtration mask.
Op. 34 squatted beside the corpse. “I’ve seen a lot of dead men in my time,” he said, “but this is the first time I’ve seen one that was literally
beaten to a pulp.”
“Can you confirm it’s Smythe?”
“It’s Smythe, all right. Though whether the undertaker will be able to put him back together enough for his family to recognize him, that’s up in the
“Won’t matter. As I understand it, he’s got a date with the coroner and then the crematorium. I hate shit like this.”
After hearing about the massacre in the Tank, Mirano wouldn’t have chosen to approach one of the suspected infectees in anything less than full
biohazard gear. But, dammit, they hadn’t been expecting to stumble across Smythe’s body. And that was exactly what had happened; Op. 16,
scouting the area, had literally tripped over it.
Now Op. 16 was confined in one of the inflatable, pressurized, and germ-proof devices the operatives called the Beach Ball or the Hamster
Ball, in the rear of the van. Mirano and Op. 34, lacking biosuits, had been forced to depend on the masks alone.
That didn’t make Mirano terribly happy. He’d worked for a chemical and biological warfare development company in New Jersey long enough
to whip up a nice tight phobia about stuff like this. Which was why he’d jumped ship for the Coalition in the first place. They weren’t into that sort
of tinkering. Nice clean sciences like physics and computers, not messy ones that screwed with viruses or bacteria or people’s DNA.
“So what’s he doing here?” Op. 34 asked.
“That’s easier to answer than how’d he get out in the first place, but that’s Op. 19’s baby. Poor son of a bitch. First Smythe escapes on his watch,
then he gets sent along with Shaw. I’m glad all we got assigned was coaxing the woman.”
“Except she’s gone,” Op. 34 pointed out.
“Yeah. Okay, try this on ... Smythe escapes from the Tank, never mind how. He knows we’re trying to bring Jessec on board with the project, so
he hies his butt all the way out here to talk to her. Maybe wanting her to help him go public and blow the whistle on it, maybe to warn her and get her
to sabotage, who knows. Anyway, while he’s here, he gets hit with the same freakshow that went on back at H.Q. Goes after Jessec. Tears the door
off, chases her around the house, but she gets away.”
“How do we know she gets away?”
“Because she’s not scattered all over the goddam landscape, chewed into mulch like the poor slobs in the Tank.”
“Fair enough,” allowed Op. 34. “But then who does this to Smythe? Even if Jessec’s a karate master, which we know she isn’t, there’s no way
she could inflict this kind of damage.”
“Which means someone else entered the picture.” Mirano started to bend over, but that would have brought his head closer to the corpse than
he’d have cared for, and kicked at something on the ground.
Op. 34 turned his flashlight on it. “A broken arrow.”
“Op. 19 claims he saw Op. 10 bowshot twice.”
“Give the man a cigar.”
“So they mess up Shaw’s mission out in the San Juans, figure out that it wasn’t Ron Jessec but his sister that we’re interested in --”
“Op. 19 also claims Shaw wouldn’t blab, but none of us ever know until the time comes. Assume he blabs.”
“Then these gargoyles, interfering do-gooders by nature, come here.”
Mirano nodded. “Which means they’ve taken her with them. But they’ll be back.”
“Because the macrosphere drive is still in her living room. By the looks of it, she’d had time to go over the files, and she knows what we’re doing.
She’s seen what it did to Smythe. And the one big problem we had recruiting Michelle Jessec in the first place was because she was so annoyingly
ethical. Even if she was intrigued by the project, by now you can bet she’s decided we have to be stopped.”
“They have to be stopped,” Michelle concluded.
Hippolyta carefully masked her expression and looked around at her rookery siblings. Four of them wore identical careful masks, while Ezekiel
was openly baffled.
“I think you lost ‘em,” Ron Jessec said.
Since rousing from another of his deep slumbers to find his little sister at his side, his condition had markedly improved. He was still appalled at
the memory of what he’d done, the bloodthirsty way in which he’d acted, but was taking the first uncertain steps toward acceptance. The news that
the people they were facing were apparently pure evil was something of a consolation, to him as well as to Hippolyta.
“I know it’s a lot to take in ...” Michelle began.
Corwin gave her his most dazzling smile, the one that had once made even the virginal Artemis sigh wistfully. “Not at all! We understand. You’re
talking about a magic doorway.”
Michelle stared at him. “A what?”
“A magical doorway to another world. These ... ‘quantum particle chains connecting all points in the universe’ ... these ‘frequencies’ that can travel
between them ... it sounds like magic to mine ears.”
“So it does,” Tourmaline agreed. She was swathed in bandages from neck to elbow, but had refused all offers of medicine to help with the pain,
and leaned against Ezekiel rather than be flat on her back like an invalid. “And these wizards carelessly opened one to a place they knew nothing about.”
“Loosing evil sorceries that turned them into monsters,” Ezekiel said.
“No ... it must have been some sort of bacterial ... well, I guess that works well enough,” Michelle admitted.
“And you have in your house one of their Grimorums,” Cassius said. “With it, you might be able to undo their spells.”
“I’d at least have proof of what they were doing.”
“But Shelley!” Ron said. “We all know what these people are willing to do just to get you on their team! What do you think they’ll do if you
double-cross them? Think about Mom and Dad!”
“I have been, but I also have to think about everyone. About the whole world. And what Mom and Dad would want me to do, no matter the
risks. I know the mindset that groups like the Coalition have. Because something’s been proven dangerous does not mean they’ll burn it down, lock
the door behind them, and never look back. On the contrary! They’ll keep poking at it, trying to figure out ways to turn that danger to their advantage.”
“But something like this can be to no one’s advantage,” Corwin said. “Do they not see that?”
“No, they don’t. It’s that mentality that brought us man-made Ebola and the nuclear bomb. Viruses and radiation don’t care, and can’t be
contained or controlled. Whatever Smythe’s team found on the other side of that ... magic doorway ... is exactly the same.”
“Then we stop them,” Ezekiel said. “We storm their fortress and destroy the doorway forever.”
“You can’t do it that way,” piped up Toby, seeming quite pleased with himself to have something to contribute to the discussion. “It’s not like
they’re in a castle with just walls, big crossbows, and boiling oil.”
“Toby’s right,” Michelle said. “I’m sure the Coalition labs are well-hidden, probably underground, with electronic security and armed guards.
It’s probably a large complex. We wouldn’t even be sure what we were looking for, let alone how to find it.”
“There must be something we can do,” said Tourmaline. “This Coalition has done harm to me and my clan --” she spared Hippolyta a brief but
smoking look, “-- and while there is little point in revenge, there is every point in prevention. If I hear you rightly, more of these shapechanged
humans might arise, and they pose a threat to all of us, human and gargoyle alike.”
“I need the information on that macrosphere,” Michelle said. “I don’t know what I’d do with it ... the only thing I can think of is to pretend I
know nothing, go along with their plans, and try to find some way of ruining them from within.”
“Shelley, you can’t!” Ron protested.
“I probably can’t,” she agreed. “You know me, Ron, I’ve never been a good liar. They’d have too many reasons to be suspicious already
“Are there no constables?” Cassius asked.
“The Coalition is more than a technology company,” Michelle said. “They have ties to the government, I’m sure of it. I wouldn’t know whom
I could trust, and not have word of it get back to them.”
“But they can’t work this magic without you, isn’t that so?” asked Ezekiel. “Thus, you refuse.”
“And they slaughter her family,” Hippolyta said. “True, we have brought Ron and Toby to safety, but there are others she cares for that could
be used against her.
Ron drew in a slow gasp. “I just realized ... we can never go back. We can never go home, or we’ll be making targets of ourselves. We’ll have
to disappear, sever all contacts, build whole new lives and identities ...”
“Think not on that now,” Corwin said. “You are safe, and you are together. That is what matters.”
“I can’t let them hurt Mom and Dad,” Michelle said, “but I can’t continue Smythe’s work. I can’t help them. I don’t know what to do.”
“I still say we storm the place --”
“Ezekiel,” Tourmaline said warningly, and he lapsed into silence. “Woman, if they cannot find you, they will have no reason to hold your family
as bait. So you, like your brother, must vanish and make a new life.”
“Run away, you mean.”
“It seems as if you have no other choice.”
“They’ll find someone else to pick up the project where Smythe left off. I can’t let that happen. I have to try to stop them, somehow. But I can’t
do that without the macrosphere. Whatever else comes next, I need to go back and get it before they come take it away.”
“We will handle that,” Tourmaline said firmly. “Tonight, at once. Corwin, Cassius, Ezekiel ...”
Hippolyta sat straighter.
Tourmaline exhaled a soft growl and looked back to the males. “I do not like sending only the three of you, but it’s unavoidable as I cannot go
with you. Return to the house and find this device.”
“I will go,” Hippolyta said.
“Be cautious, because they may already know of us and be expecting us,” Tourmaline said, ignoring her.
Icarus cleared his throat with a noise like a small landslide. “I can glide, and fight. I need not always be left behind.”
“Very well,” Tourmaline said. “Four of you --”
“I will go too!” Hippolyta stood, half-extending her wings.
“No, sister, you will not.”
“I am fit to fight!”
“Are you?” Tourmaline rose unsteadily, eyes flashing. “I had hoped to spare you a public dressing-down, Hippolyta, but as you insist ... I think
you unfit for this task! You froze, you faltered. I will not put our brothers in a position in which they might need to rely upon you. Until you have
come to terms with this newfound hesitation, I dare not give you such responsibility!”
There followed one of the least comfortable moments known to all thinking creatures, in which the rest of the group looked away in various
directions and tried to make believe they were not listening, embarrassed on her behalf.
Hippolyta felt a quaver begin in the small of her back and spread slowly up her spine, and whether it was of shame or fury, she did not know.
Part of her screamed that she address this insult, another part shouted in support of Tourmaline’s accusations, and as those two parts warred it
out within her, she was helpless to move.
“Tourmaline ...” Corwin tried.
“Gabriel may have been able to get by with being a diplomatic and compassionate leader, hearing out and coddling the wishes of everyone in
the clan,” Tourmaline said coolly. “Peaceful Avalon offers that luxury among its many others. This is a place of life-or-death risks, and I will not
let hurt feelings influence my judgement.”
A second, longer span of uncomfortable silence spun out. Finally, Hippolyta blew out a shaky breath and let her wings fall around her shoulders
while she dipped her head in contrition and acceptance.
The first of the back-up teams, consisting
of a second van packed with fifteen arms-trained operatives, showed up
within ten seconds of their
promised time of arrival.
Mirano dispatched them into the woods in groups of three, searching for Michelle Jessec or anything that might remain of her, and to be on the
lookout for gargoyles. Thankfully, while the Coalition had never run into gargoyles before, they had access to detailed files and a decent idea of
what to expect.
“If the opportunity presents,” he added, “a live specimen would be appreciated. Use the gas darts first, stun-bolas second, guns last.”
Op. 34 disconnected the macrosphere drive from the laptop and packed all of the equipment away. To make sure that no copies of the
information were left behind, he also boxed up Dr. Jessec’s personal computer and every disk he could find.
Mirano was glad that the neighborhood was so scattered and remote. No neighbors were near enough to remark on the activity at the duplex.
The helicopter, an unmarked ambulance unit that would be used to transport Op. 16 and the corpse of Gerald Smythe back to C.T.I, would be
sure to draw some attention even out here in the sticks when it showed up.
That was unavoidable, and would just have to be suffered. Smythe and the others had gone days without showing symptoms, but they couldn’t
take chances. Had to know now what was in him, whether it had been transferred to Op. 16, and what it might do.
“All finished,” Op. 34 said, clicking shut the latches. “Unless she’s hidden a disk somewhere.”
“The fire will take care of anything we might have missed,” Mirano said. He checked his watch. “The arson boys will be here in half an hour.”
“Good thing it rained recently.”
Op. 34 grinned wryly. “I was a tree-hugger in college.”
“You can work with a man every day for twenty years and still never know all his painful secrets,” Mirano remarked.
“Wasn’t my fault … the girl I was seeing was into it. Vegan, no leather, free the egg-farm chickens, the whole deal.”
“She must’ve been a piece to get you to go along with that.”
“Let’s just say it wasn’t just my political consciousness she raised. But some of the old habits are still lurking around in me.”
“I’ll ask them to make it a contained, surgical burn,” Mirano said, smiling.
“Thanks.” He picked up the cases. “Mind getting that last one? We can get this stuff stowed and have time for a cig before the chopper boys
“Your environmentalist nymphette didn’t break you of that habit, I see.”
“Hey, she smoked … just wasn’t tobacco …”
They walked outside, toward their waiting van. The operative stationed at the door, yet another of the young fresh-faced kids that Winchell
Brock liked to fill the ranks with and then regretted because he ended up universally despising them, nodded as they went by.
“All quiet?” Mirano asked.
“Yes, sir. All but one of the teams have reported back --”
Mirano and Op. 34 both turned to face the source of the oncoming noise. A solid bar of pain slammed across their midsections. Their arms
jerked helplessly up, launching their burdens on a skyward trajectory as they were plowed under.
As he hit the spongy, muddy lawn, Mirano saw the winged shape bullet by above him, and reconstructed what had happened. The dark green
gargoyle had been wielding his staff crossways, clotheslining them in the stomach. And two more gargoyles, following on the heels of the staff-
wielder, snatched the computer cases out of the air neat as could please.
The kid on the front walk – how’d he get so far away, the chicken? -- was hollering in a panic, trying to untangle the straps of his dart launcher
from the tubing of his mask. Another operative, a grizzled older tough who called himself Judge, shouldered him out of the way and took aim.
“Gas darts first, goddammit!” Mirano would have yelled, if he hadn’t been wheezing and retching and feeling like his internal organs had been
shoved rudely up into his chest cavity.
Wouldn’t have mattered … Judge opened fire with a recoilless shotgun that thundered like the very voice of God.
One of the gargoyles pitched sideways, taking the brunt of the blast. Judge’s thin lips curled in a sneer of satisfaction, and that was when Mirano
remembered that of all the team, Judge was the only one who had personal experience with these creatures. The mechanical metal claw that replaced
one of his hands was evidence of a previous encounter.
Something bellowed from on high. Mirano instinctively tried to roll and bumped into Op. 34, who wasn’t moving. A quick glance told him why –
the back of his head had impacted explosively with a tree trunk.
His first thought was of life’s little ironies, and his second was the realization how lucky he was to be alive. They hadn’t just been knocked down,
they’d been thrown all the way to the edge of the yard. It was only luck that Mirano had landed on an open patch of ground. A foot in either direction
and he would have been as dead as Op. 34.
The shot gargoyle, the blackest and most satanic-looking thing Mirano had ever seen, made a crater in the sidewalk. At the bottom of the crater,
somewhere beneath that large body, was whatever was left of Dr. Jessec’s hard drive.
Another one plummeted from above, not so much descending as just dropping. He was massive and slate-grey, his wings bunched ugly masses
of tissue, and when he landed, the earth shook. He landed right in front of Judge, on the foot of the panicked younger operative, and tore the shotgun
out of Judge’s grasp.
More operatives were converging, and the other two – the one with the staff and a golden one with the macrosphere case – looped around and
came back. Mirano groped for his sidearm, spitting out a mouthful of what he hoped was bile but feared was blood.
Judge and the grey one stared each other down for a moment, and then both moved at once. Judge went for a dart launcher, not his own but that
of the screaming kid next to him. The gargoyle brought up the shotgun.
The shotgun discharged and blew Op. 28 into fragments as its barrel curved in the strength of the gargoyle’s powerful arms. He bent it around
Judge’s neck, a collar, a choker, a strangling noose of bored steel.
The dart gun went off -- ffftt! – and the sharp projectile impaled the grey gargoyle just below the collarbone. As it struck, the chamber on the
end popped open, spraying a cloud of the sedative gas. And of course the gargoyle, gasping in surprise at the sudden sting of the needle, sucked the
gas deep into his lungs.
A spotlight in the sky and the chatter of rotors announced the helicopter, zooming in low over the trees and jigging momentarily as the pilot took
in the scene below.
Operatives converged on the two that had foolishly returned to help the others. The green one shook, but with rage instead of fear, and launched
himself at them whirling his staff like a deadly dervish. Mirano, still helpless on the ground, could only watch as the end of the staff hit a man in the side
of the face so hard his jaw dislocated from both hinges and his neck snapped from the force of his spin.
Another operative whirled and released a set of stun-bolas, metallic balls on the end of a cable. The bolas whipped around one of the green
gargoyle’s ankles, failing to entangle him. But when the metal balls twisted tight and touched each other, electricity jolted through the cable and felled
him like a clubbed ox.
The grey one reeled back, stepping off of young Op. 41’s foot – Mirano couldn’t see the appendage from here, but figured that it was crushed
as surely as it would have been if an eighteen-wheeler had run over it – and went heavily to one knee.
The golden one was crouched low beside the black one, wings tucked against his back, the macrosphere case cradled in the crook of one arm.
But seeing his other companions fall, he sprang up with a fierce, weirdly noble cry. And something about him, the determined light in his eyes or the
way the wind chose that moment to throw his white hair dramatically, gave the operatives pause.
Mirano pulled himself to a sitting position and gestured to Op. 20 to take over as senior commander, since he couldn’t do it and the next highest
ranking one of them had a shotgun pretzled around his throat.
Op. 20 stepped forward. “Dart guns ready!” he barked.
You can take the man out of the firing squad … Mirano thought.
The ring of operatives, except for Op. 41, raised their dart guns.
“Aim!” Op. 20 called.
Then he twitched as if stung by a bee, and stuck out his tongue impossibly far … and then he collapsed.
Hippolyta was holding onto the railing of the
Mists’ Passage hard enough to leave marks. Her eyes felt
hot enough to ignite stone, and her teeth
ached from clenching them.
All else on board was peaceful. Ron, Michelle, and Toby were cloistered below, alternating between relieved joy at their reunion and discussing
possible courses of action once Michelle had the information on the macrosphere in her possession again. Tourmaline had finally consented to take
something for the pain, and relaxed in a near-doze.
That left them with only one of the pain pills, and Hippolyta was more and more sure that one wouldn’t be enough. That more would be needed.
A spark of moving light caught her eye. A craft, a flying craft, hugging low to the treetops. It seemed to be headed in the direction of Michelle’s
She knew who it was, who it had to be. And there was no question of what to do. She had been ordered in no uncertain terms by the leader of
her clan to stay put.
So she swan-dove from the prow of the ship, letting the air catch her just before she would have splashed into the waves, and glided toward land.
By the time she was close enough to see the house, she already had bow and arrow in hand, and more arrows held in her teeth and the small
talons of her wings. She was able to land on the roof with impunity, for all the attention of the ten or so humans was centered on the tableau that
had Corwin as its focus.
She saw Cassius struggling to rise, bleeding from many wounds all down his back. She saw Ezekiel sprawled motionless, and Icarus on his knees
barely clinging to consciousness. She saw humans everywhere, all of them dark-clad and carrying weapons that she couldn’t identify but didn’t need
to. They were weapons, their use was plain, and that was enough.
“Aim!” one of them shouted.
She did, at him. As he drew in a breath for his next command, she beat him to it and fired.
Her arrow pierced the base of his skull. The tip popped out of his mouth like a strange tongue.
Before he hit the ground, Hippolyta was firing again. She did not pause to think, just chose targets and let fly. Without ample aiming time, she
wasn’t sure of a kill with each shot, but no arrow lodged elsewhere than in a human torso. Four more of them went down before the remaining few
scurried for cover.
The flying craft had been about to settle to ground, but it soared high now and pinned her in a circle of harsh white brilliance. Its noise hammered
at her, drowned out the yells of the humans and her rookery brothers as Corwin and Cassius attacked. The roof around her kicked up flecks of its
Shooting at her! And her bow would be useless against such as that!
Hippolyta raced for the edge of the roof, toward the rear of the house and away from the battle so as to lure the craft away from her brothers. It
worked too well, for even in the thick trees she could not elude that blinding beam. It so dazzled her eyes that she glided into a tree, striking her
forehead a glancing blow and jarring her bow from her grasp. She recovered, but the bow was nowhere to be seen and a chatter of gunfire shredded
the leaves and branches around her.
She kept going, but unexpectedly came to the gully that Corwin had mentioned. The land fell away steeply, leaving her without cover, open and
exposed as the flying craft closed in.
Icarus came from nowhere, his damaged wings stretched to full extension and a grimace of effortful pain on his face. He collided with it as if he
meant to batter his way in, and then latched onto the side and began tearing at the metal shell.
Hippolyta shrieked a savage cheer and flew toward him. Together, they would breach that hull and deal with the troublesome foes within!
The craft banked sharply, perhaps trying to throw Icarus off. The pummeling downdraft of its rotors caught Hippolyta, wrenching her wings. She
lost control and the punishing wind sent her tumbling like a leaf.
She fell into the gully, unable to right herself, unable to tell up from down. She dimly heard Icarus roaring, and the groaning scream of metal giving
The gully was deep … she had time to recover before –
She hit a rock outcropping, and was engulfed in a sheeting white flare even brighter than the flying craft’s spotlight. She couldn’t move, couldn’t
breathe, couldn’t see. A terrible paralysis had locked her in an unbreakable grip.
Paralysis … stiffness … was this how it ended? Was this how it felt to die? She’d never imagined that she would still be aware to feel her limbs
slowly succumbing to the eternal stone sleep …
Over the faint chuckling of water from somewhere below her, she heard the patter of gravel raining onto the earth and knew it was coming from
her body, crumbling away.
Sliding … falling …
Hippolyta gave up and let herself sink into the cold darkness.
Neither Michelle nor Ron had the temerity to
suggest that Tourmaline go back below decks and rest.
Since the moment Toby had come bursting in to announce that he saw a helicopter in the hills above Bellingham, all of them had been waiting
tensely on deck. When the helicopter had further gone wildly erratic and then plunged from sight, only to announce its fate seconds later in a roiling
fireball, the tension had turned to stark horror.
And when Tourmaline had come to the realization that Hippolyta was nowhere aboard the Mists’ Passage, she had instantly shaken off the lingering
effects of the painkillers and become purposefully, icily furious.
“There they are!” Toby cried, almost hysterical in relief.
Four gargoyles descended to the ship, landing gracelessly and with varying evident degrees of pain. Cassius, whose back was sodden with his own
blood from shoulderblades to the base of his tail, had been supporting and supported by Ezekiel, who was unmarked except for scorched loops on
one leg but whose eyes had the shocky stare of an electrocution victim. Icarus’ movements were sluggish, his expression dead and dispirited.
Of them all, only Corwin seemed unharmed, and he bowed slightly to Michelle as he presented her with the case containing the Coalition-designed
laptop and macrosphere drive. But there was a bleakness about him that robbed his gesture of any meaning or triumph.
“Where is she?” Tourmaline asked with deceptive calm. “Hiding, I’ll warrant … and with good reason! When I get through with her --”
Icarus uncurled his fist and spilled gravel onto the planks. “For all your wrath, you can do no worse than this.”
Tourmaline was riveted, her mouth agape.
“The hurricane of that metal craft slapped her from the air,” Icarus went on. “She must have landed on an outcrop at the edge of the gully, for I found
fresh earth and …” He took a breath and released it with a shudder. “And her shattered stone and gravel below.”
“Oh, that impetuous dolt!” Tourmaline groaned. “I told her she wasn’t to go! I told her she wasn’t fit! And now what has she done? Disobeyed me
and gotten herself killed! And look at the rest of you, by the Dragon, you all could have died because of that --”
“NO!” Corwin’s wings exploded from his back and his tail whipped the deck with plank-splitting force. “Finish that sentence and I’ll challenge
leadership from you here and now, Tourmaline! You weren’t there … you know nothing of what happened!”
“She saved us,” Cassius said. “We were done for, at gun’s point. All of the wounds you see had been done ‘ere she even arrived, and when she
did … like an avenging angel …”
“If not for her, we would have been taken captive or slain,” Corwin went on. “She gave her life in that battle, and I will hear no ill spoken of her! Not
by you, not by anyone! Now, or ever!”
Icarus nodded. “She did what had to be done, though it cost her everything. All we’ve left is the memory of her. Don’t you try to take that from us,
“Leave her alone!” Ezekiel said, coming to Tourmaline’s side. “What she says is partly true. Hippolyta did disobey! We may well have --”
“You were unconscious all the while, brother, so don’t speak of what you can’t recall,” Cassius advised him sternly. “And if you were about to say
we may well have escaped anyway, then you’re either a liar or a fool.”
“And you, Tourmaline,” Corwin said. “Does it mean nothing to you that our sister is dead? Our own fair Hippolyta, fiery and strong, is dead! If
all that means to you is how it reflects on you as leader, if all that matters to you is your status and that she disobeyed your order, say it now and let us
part ways. For I cannot follow a leader who cares more for such things than the lives of her clan.”
“Curse you, Corwin, you know that I loved her!” Tourmaline said. “She was my sister and my friend!”
“Then show it,” Icarus growled. “Grieve for her, don’t blame her!”
Tourmaline turned from them, covering her face with her hands and bringing her wings around herself as a cocoon. Ezekiel gave his brothers a
reproachful look and put his arms around her, enfolding her in his wings as well.
No more words were said, and the sun rose over the Cascades to end that long, tragic night.