Kittens Christine Morgan (email@example.com) comments welcome Author's Note: this story is a sequel to Sins of the Father. The characters from the show Gargoyles are not mine although I love them as if they were, and they are used here without their rightful creators' knowledge or consent. Special thanks to Proteus for the technical details. If you spot a mistake, it's mine, not his.
"Mother Goose, this is Stork. Do you read me? Over." "I read you, Stork. Progress report?" "The cat's away." "Then the mice will play." Judge Halverson sighed. "Are these codes necessary? I feel like an idiot." "Hmm ... truth in advertising," the smug, sarcastic voice at the other end replied. Even across several miles, Halverson felt his instinctive dislike of Anton Sevarius bubble up. "I don't like being called a mouse," Inge Runolf, sitting beside Judge, muttered darkly. She ran her hand along the barrel of her Gauss needler with more fondness than she'd ever shown a man, or any other living thing, for that matter. The rest of the team, gathered tensely in the dim glow of the instrument panels, nodded in agreement. Red lettering on their dark brown combat suits spelled out their names: DONNER, RODRIGUEZ, KEENE, MATHERS, TORRES. Francisco Rodriguez brushed the controls, and the engine revved up from its prior muted hum. Their vehicle was much too sleek and sporty for Halverson's tastes, not military or functional enough. Too much like something a spoiled rich kid would buy. Which, he reflected, went a ways toward summing up Sevarius. The small craft was fast and maneuverable, almost too maneuverable. The controls were so sensitive as to be almost over- responsive. Cisco, though, played it like a virtuoso. It rose gently from its concealed spot among the rust-eaten machines crowding the old construction site, its wheels sliding up into the undercarriage, riding on a thin cushion of ionized particles. The slick wet ground, already icing over as the night's temperatures plummeted, could not hamper their movements. The seven of them were crowded but not cramped, not even with Keene's grenade launcher taking up enough room for an eighth person. Lawson Keene himself wore a grin that Halverson didn't like in the slightest. The big man was liable to be a problem. Bricks with a grudge often were. Halverson reminded himself to keep a close eye on him. Mathers, who was unfortunate enough to have the first name of Jerry and therefore could not avoid being called The Beav, chuckled to himself as he went for his pistol. The power holster, reacting to the nerve impulses in his wrist, ejected the gun into his hand. He replaced it and did it again. And again. And again. Until Inge Runolf leaned over and slammed his lower arm into the wall behind him. She brought her hard, Valkyrie-beautiful face right up to his and snarled through gritted teeth, "Knock it off, asshole!" Guadalupe Torres, Inge's complete physical opposite, shouldered her foam tank and strapped the hose and nozzle securely along the length of her arm. She flashed Judge a sunny smile and a thumbs up. Inge's opposite more than just physically. "Come on, break it up," Bradley Donner said, prying Inge's fingers from Beav's wrist. "We're not here to fight each other." "We're not here to fight anybody," Halverson reminded them. "This is a simple abduction. In and out, no fuss, no muss, no bother." "But now that we know where their lair is, we should go in and blast the bastards," Keene said. "I owe them for Burkie. He was a jerk, yeah, but he was family." "So why bring seven of us?" Donner asked. "And why with all our new toys?" He patted the stock of his assault carbine, running his thumb over the gold and black company logo imprinted on the side. "Just in case," Runolf said. "Judge and I have fought these creatures before. They're tougher than they look." "And they look pretty tough," Torres chimed in. "Yeah, but we let the big one fly away," Keene groused. He looked like a goodnatured farmboy, all ham-hands and red hair and freckles, but had the worst disciplinary record of any of the team. "There will be other chances," Judge said. "They're too valuable to destroy, especially before this study is complete. Mission priority is the female. We do what's necessary to get her and get out. No excessive violence." Runolf uttered a humorless chuckle. "Donner has a point, then. We're only equipped for excessive violence." "Then let's see some good judgement." Judge let his gaze fall heavily on Keene, who stared back belligerently before looking away. "You'll have trouble with him," Runolf said in a low voice. "Tell me about it. Okay, people, we're ready to go." He touched the communicator. "Mother Goose, this is Stork. Over the river and through the woods." * * "Hello! We're here!" Elisa called brightly. "Hello! Come in!" Fox Xanatos replied in the same cheery, singsong tone. Elisa drew back, startled. "What are you doing here?" Fox hefted Alex to her other hip and held the door open. "I brought a bunch of baby things that Alex doesn't need anymore. Us new moms have to stick together." Diane Maza pushed past her daughter and extended one hand, the other being occupied with a large present wrapped in pink and blue teddy-bear patterned paper. "I'm Derrek's mother, Diane." "Nice to meet you. I'm Fox. Fox Xanatos." Diane recoiled as if she'd reached for a snake. "Xanatos!" Fox winced. "Your husband is responsible for my son's condition!" "Mom ..." "And you come prancing in here like you own the place, bringing your baby, your normal, healthy baby, to flaunt in our faces?" "Mom! We're past that!" Elisa shot Fox a glare. "You could've warned us, though." "I'm sorry," Fox said. She looked earnestly at Diane. "David is a good man. He just sometimes doesn't think about the effects his actions have on other people." "Effects --!" Diane nearly gagged. Elisa interposed herself between them. "Mom, give her a break. She's crazy about him, crazy being the operative word. He even experimented on her once. But, listen, Goliath seems to believe him this time. He's had a change of heart. If he has a heart." "You're misjudging him," Fox said. "Yeah, well, there's case precedent." "We've got enough enemies without fighting each other," Fox said. "For Maggie's sake, can't we at least pretend to be friends?" "For Maggie's sake," Diane agreed, finally accepting Fox's handshake. "So, this is the little fellow who ruined Doyle's campaign. I never liked that man." "Me either!" Fox said firmly. "Let's not talk about that," Elisa interrupted. "I think we'd all be better off pretending that just never happened." "They kidnapped my son!" "And you were ready to turn over the gargoyles!" "Girls!" Diane said sharply. The voice of authority silenced Elisa, conditioned over her entire life, and also quelled Fox. "For Maggie's sake." "Did somebody call me?" Maggie waddled toward them, wings spread slightly to help her balance, distended stomach leading the way. "Hello, dear!" Diane hugged her and patted her belly. "Hello down there, too! It's Grandma!" "Ooh, heard that!" Maggie laughed. "Did you feel the kick?" "I certainly did!" "Hi, sis," Elisa said. "How's it going?" She always tried to make an extra effort to make Maggie feel like part of the family. The runaway from Ohio had never been brave enough to contact her parents, and except for the people of the Labyrinth, didn't have anyone in the whole city. "I feel like a walrus." "Don't worry. You get over it," Fox said. She frowned briefly. "I was karate-kicking bad guys before my epidural even wore off." Walking slowly to allow for Maggie, the women proceeded down the hall. Elisa, watching her mother's reaction, suddenly saw the Labyrinth through her eyes. Dark, subterranean, with thick pipes running along the ceilings, grates exhaling puffs of steam, distant rumblings. What sort of place was this for a baby? The hall was short, though, and the room they entered was brightly lit and comfortable enough to relieve Diane's misgivings. The walls were paneled halfway up and painted pale blue. A suspended ceiling hid the pipes and beams. The carpet was blue, the couch a muted grey and blue plaid with many throw pillows. Except for the lack of windows, compensated for by large photo murals of mountainscapes, it could have been a living room in any normal house. The room was further made festive by all of the decorations. Tissue-paper storks and baby booties dangled from the ceiling. A folding table was set up in front of the television, bedecked with crepe paper. There was a sheet cake covered with pink and blue icing roses, a few bowls of chips and snacks, four deep-green bottles of sparkling cider, plastic champagne glasses, paper plates with "Congratulations!" scrolled across them, and a small stack of gifts. A crib, stroller, mobile, and other objects, all obviously top-of-the-line and expensive were gathered in one corner. Elisa was still watching her mother's reaction and couldn't help laughing. Everything looked just right for a baby shower. Except for the two gargoyles that greeted them as they entered. "This is _so_ cute!" Angela held up a toy made to attatch to the side of the crib and play music when the ring in the bottom was pulled. "Alex loved that," Fox said, putting the heir to the Xanatos millions on the floor and letting him crawl rapidly around. "The black and white contrast is supposed to make the kid smarter." "Does it work?" Elisa asked. Fox shrugged and pointed. "Well, he still eats fuzz off the carpet." "Oh!" Maggie cried. "Don't worry about it. Yours will do the same." She snickered. "Owen sure does have to vacuum a lot now that Alex is mobile." Diane Maza was staring at the other gargoyle. "You must be ... Delilah." The white-haired female nodded slowly. "Yes. I am." "She's kind of shy," Maggie said, coaxing Delilah to join the group. "Elisa, she looks and sounds --" "Yeah." "Let's open presents!" Angela enthused. "Wait, wait, the games first!" Fox passed out pencils and paper and then produced a tray covered with a cloth. "Okay, under here are fifteen items associated with a baby. You'll have one minute to look at them, and then I'll take them away and you write down as many as you can remember." Elisa, with a cop's eye for detail, won that one. Her prize was a candy pacifier. Next, Fox made them sample different flavors of the same color baby food and try to guess what they were. Delilah claimed that prize, a bit embarrassed. Elisa noted that her language skills were much improved, though she clearly had some distance yet to go. "These are strange customs," Angela observed. "But I like the apricots!" "Did you do all this at your baby shower?" Elisa asked. Fox laughed. "Hardly. It wasn't so much a shower as a chance for all David's business associates and political connections to bribe him with expensive gifts. Next game, and you'll really hate this one, Maggie, is for each of you to take a good look at the mother-to-be and cut a length of this yarn that you think will go around her middle." Maggie groaned goodnaturedly and stood obligingly in the center of the room, turning this way and that. "Sure you have enough yarn?" Diane came within two inches of Maggie's girth, and none of the others were even close. "See?" she teased Elisa. "If you'd let me teach you how to sew, you would have done better. But of all of you, Derrek was the only one who paid attention." "He made my dress," Maggie said. "Well, he altered it." "I imagine it's not easy finding backless maternity wear," Fox said. "I cut cake now?" Delilah offered. Feasting on cake and sparkling cider, they all oohed and aahed as Maggie worked her way through the presents. There were rattles, toys, blankets, bottles, a gorgeous creamy leather album from Beth in Arizona, an exquisite woven African baby sling that Diane had brought back from her travels, but no clothes. Carefully, deliberately, no clothes. None of the others seemed to notice, but Elisa did and it bummed her out. How could they buy clothes for a baby whose shape was unknown? She'd gone shopping with her mother and seen Diane linger over little outfits longingly, but in the end she'd passed them by and bought other things. She suddenly felt really bad for her mother. Most of Diane's friends had grandchildren and were always cornering each other to show off pictures. Diane wouldn't be able to join them. She'd reached the exalted status of grandmother but would have to keep it secret. Not even the rest of the family could know. No birth announcements, no trips to Sears for portrait specials to tuck in the Christmas cards. Angela regarded everything with delight and awe, constantly sharing tidbits about childhood on Avalon and wondering what the clan used to do to prepare for new hatchlings. Elisa, trying to jolt herself out of her black mood, teasingly remarked without thinking, "Well, if I know Brooklyn, he'd love to show you." Angela and Maggie looked at each other, and it was only then that Elisa remembered Brooklyn's initial crush on Maggie, and his jealous reaction to Talon. "Oops," she murmured. "It's okay," Angela said, subdued. "Brooklyn ... I really like him, but ... oh, never mind." "You can tell us," Maggie said, shifting awkwardly around until she could put a hand on Angela's arm. "Oh, I just don't know," Angela said. "Broadway's awfully sweet, in his own bumbling way, and lately I've been thinking more about him. But I don't want to hurt Brooklyn! He told me something that he was afraid would make me stop liking him, and I don't want to let that happen, but whenever I'm with him now, it's all I can think of!" "Males are hard," Delilah said. Elisa choked on cider and her mother had to hammer on her back, all the while giving her a scandalized look. Fox laughed so hard she woke Alex, who had gone to sleep curled by her feet after deciding that discarded wrapping paper was more fun to munch on than cake. He joined in with a high-pitched squeal. Maggie held her stomach. "Oh, don't make me laugh! Oh, ow!" Delilah looked puzzled. "I say it wrong?" "No, dear, you said it right," Diane told her. "Everyone else just heard it wrong with their dirty ears." "I have to pee," Maggie announced. "See? You made me laugh. I'll be right back." She hoisted herself out of her chair and trundled out the door. Leaving Fox and her mother to explain to the perplexed Delilah, Elisa drew Angela aside. "Do you want to talk about it?" "I can't," Angela said, anguished. "I don't want my father to find out." Elisa thought back to the cathedral, and how Demona had taunted the chained Goliath. Intuition told her she was right. "Is it about Demona?" Angela gasped. "You know?" "She told Goliath." "He knows?!" Elisa reassured her as best she could, right up until Maggie burst, screaming, back into the room. * * "Creepy place," Bradley Donner observed. "Yeah," Beav said. "Reminds me of Aliens. Is this a stand up fight, or another bug-hunt?" "Cut the chatter, people," Halverson said sternly. Runolf, on point, held up a hand and they all froze. A door opened and closed, spilling light briefly into the dim, damp-smelling corridor. They heard shuffling footsteps and someone humming a lullaby. The female mutate hove into view, swollen with her advanced pregnancy. Halverson gestured to Torres and Mathers, and they crept forward. Their visors were even superior to the catlike night-sight the target was bound to possess, so they were within yards before she saw them. She gasped, fur bristling, amber eyes wide. Mathers lunged for her. She whirled clumsily, buffeted him with her wing, and fled. Torres leaped over Mathers but lost precious ground. The mutate let loose with a piercing, terrified shriek, and vanished through another door. "Go, go, move it!" Halverson commanded. "Keene, cover the rear!" He plunged after her. He shouldered through the door and was slapped in the eyes by the disrupted party scene before him. A woman in a red leather jacket drew on him. "Xanatos' goon squad!" she yelled in a furious, betrayed voice. He put a shot her way, sending her diving for cover. The target was being supported by a lavendar she-garg, the saccharine sweetie from Loch Ness, but there was nothing sweet in the way her eyes burned scarlet. Another gargess, familiar from their failed mission in the Pacific Northwest, was coming at them with a roar. "Take them down!" Inge Runolf yelled. Donner stepped to meet the white-haired female like a square dancer about to do an allemande right, caught her wrist, and tripped her headfirst into a pile of wrapping paper. Red leather jacket fired, her bullet punching into the wall an inch from Halverson's head. Mathers pasted her with a burst of hard rubber bullets, sure to sting and bruise and generally make her lose interest in busting butt. A child was wailing. Halverson looked, saw a baby in the middle of the carpet, all balled-up fists and bawling face. Donner, recovering from a vicious taloned kick, stumbled and toppled right toward the kid. Halverson swept him out of harm's way not a moment too soon. "Don't you touch my baby!" a woman shrieked. He had time to recognize her as Xanatos' wife and wonder what the hell she was doing down here among the mutates, when emerald witchlight exploded from her eyes and mouth and hammered him against the far wall with bone-numbing force. Runolf backed off from the advancing lavendar garg. A clawed hand came at her in a lethal arc. She threw herself backward. Her Gauss went hs-k! hs-k! hs-k! as dozens of thin metal slivers shredded a wing to leathery lace before stitching a ragged seam across inhuman flesh. A plump, middle-aged black woman was standing aghast in all the commotion. When Mathers passed her and cornered the target, though, this matronly lady hefted a bottle of Martinelli's and swung it like Ken Griffey Jr. The Beav's mouth disintegrated in a shower of broken teeth, shattered glass, and foaming sparkling cider. "Get away from her!" she said sharply, brandishing the jagged neck of the bottle. Beav goggled at her, then dropped like a sack of laundry. "Mom! Stay down!" Red leather jacket, who Halverson recognized now as not only the lead mutate's kid sister but the lead gargoyle's woman, didn't stay down like a good girl but rose up and shot Donner in the shoulder just as his carbine spat a deadly hail of teflon- coated bullets that would have wasted white-hair. Instead, she was only struck twice, blood flying in an amazing fan as she executed an almost balletic spin. Keene came raging in. "Kill them! For Burkie!" Mrs. Xanatos, her crying son cradled in one arm, followed up with a leaping karate-kick that sent Donner crashing to his knees. Halverson laid the butt of his pistol upside the woman's head and managed to catch the kid as she went down. He deposited the boy behind the couch. Bleeding and snarling, white-hair leapt upon Keene and savaged his face with her talons. He reacted by squeezing off a grenade, which plowed into the carpet next to the struggling forms of Runolf and the lavendar one. The combatants were hurled apart, Runolf twisting in midair to land on her feet and lavendar smashing through the refreshment table. The floor cratered in a gout of flame. Even through their protective helmets, Halverson's team was nearly deafened by the blast. The others were worse off, screaming their pain and shock into the ringing after-echoes. Halverson wrestled white-hair off of Keene and spun her around, right into Torres' capable hands. The diminutive Latina delivered what she liked to call the "Vulcan death-grip" and white-hair writhed, went rigid, and collapsed. "Yah! Yah! Yah!" Keene began chanting. He discarded his grenade launcher, brought up his carbine, and pulled the trigger. The look in his eyes was madness and beyond. Halverson had seen it before, knew what it meant, and dreaded it. The first armor-piercing rounds penetrated Donner's combat suit as if it was made of Kleenex. Most of Bradley Donner's insides exited his body in a chunky spray. Red leather jacket tackled her mom out of the way just in time. Lavendar, with icing in her sable hair, rose out of the cake like the entertainment at some nightmare bachelor party. Keene swung toward her, still yelling insensibly and firing wildly. Runolf, swearing in German, dove clear. Halverson knew what he had to do. He rammed the end of his pistol into Keene's ear and blew him away before the crazy bastard killed them all. Torres, probably the only one to keep her cool, went after the target mutate and extended her arm. There was a disgusting sound -- fshplooch! -- and thick white foam belched from the nozzle strapped to the back of her hand. It coated the cowering mutate from neck to tail, leaving only her head and parts of her wings exposed. The foam hardened instantly, completely immobilizing her. "Got her!" Torres cried triumphantly, and then would say no more ever again as a time-lapse scarlet rose unfolded where her throat had been, thanks to a bullet from red leather jacket. Runolf kicked red leather jacket, more of a stomp than a kick, bringing her boot down hard on the other woman's collarbone, then kicked her in the temple. "Elisa!" Mom yelled. She seized another cider bottle, and Runolf, taking one look at what remained of the Beav's face, got out of there in a hurry. Halverson thumbed his communicator, knowing that Rodriguez had to have heard some of the ruckus and would have the vehicle ready. "Jack fell down!" he said urgently. "Repeat, Jack fell down!" "I copy," Rodriguez's voice replied. Lavendar leaped at Halverson and knocked him flat on his back. He punched her in the stomach as her claws ripped through his combat suit, steel mesh lining giving way. Her tail wrapped around his neck and began to contstrict. The bony spur on her knee gouged a hole in his side. He found his dropped pistol lying next to his head, grabbed it, and shot her. She cried out, doused him in gargoyle blood, and fell off of him. Runolf, having retrieved Keene's grenade launcher, blew a huge hole in the wall. Halverson scrambled to his feet. His combat suit, triggered by the stress of the situation, injected him with a hefty dose of synth- adrenaline. At once, his limbs felt so supercharged with energy that he was surprised he didn't glow. The two of them, two left out of six, dammit!, shoved the mutate through. She was an awkward bundle, and when Halverson let his hands get too close to her head she punished him with a fierce bite, but then her eyes widened and she sucked in a breath and generally lost all interest in struggling. Rodriguez met them at the hatch just as the first of the Labyrinth's human raggamuffin inhabitants were coming around, braving the bitter cold to see what was going on. A well-placed few shots from Runolf convinced them that they were better off acting like good New Yorkers and staying out of it. The mutate uttered a low, agonized cry as they bound her hard foam cocoon to a bench and prepared for takeoff. "Damn it!" Halverson said. "We weren't supposed to hurt her!" "She's not hurt," Rodriguez, father of six, said knowingly. "She's in labor." * * Coughing. Crying. Groaning. "Elisa!" "Lemme 'lone, Mom, it's Saturday." Hands. Shaking. Rough. "Ow! Quit it!" "Elisa Maria Maza!" That brought her around in a hurry. She opened her eyes, couldn't see much, blinked, tried again, and realized it was because the room was filling with smoke, the carpet was on fire, there was a hole in the wall big enough to drive her Fairlane through, and her mom was obscuring the rest of her view. "They've taken Maggie!" Diane pointed through the hole. "Okay." Elisa was on her feet. She looked around for allies, saw Fox out cold on the floor, baby Alex crying and tugging on her hair, Angela lying in a bloodstained wreck, and Delilah crumpled. "I'm going after. Help them, find Goliath." With that, she grabbed her gun and was on her way. She reached the roof of the old loading dock just in time to see the vehicle rising smoothly. Freezing sleet and biting wind attacked Elisa like living things. There was no time to think. She ran along the slick cement surface, her feet trying to shoot out from under her, and made one desperate leap. If she missed -- She didn't miss. She caught hold of the craft and clung to it, her gloveless hands already numb, a straitjacket of agony wrapped around her. Sharp, digging pain in her collarbone and shoulder, throbbing misery everywhere else. The craft hummed onward into the night, apparently unaware of its external stowaway. Before they'd gone two blocks, Elisa was wishing they would find her and tie her up, just to be out of the cold. Before they'd gone seven blocks, she was hanging on by nothing but will and determination. Before they'd gone ten blocks, she knew she'd never make it. * * It was an unusual meeting of leaders. They'd never be friends, and trust was long and slow in coming after so many battles, lies, and betrayals. But they had all come to respect one another, and gradual bonds were forming between their clans. Goliath wondered again if this was a good idea. But it had been Elisa's suggestion, and therefore worth trying. He considered, then shoved two chips to the center of the table. "I'll raise you five," he rumbled. "You're bluffing," Talon said surely. "I'll call." "I'm out," David Xanatos said, dropping his cards in disgust. "I should be better at this game. In some other life, some parallel universe, I just know I'm a master." Goliath showed his cards with a resigned sigh, and Talon whooped. "I knew it! I knew you were bluffing!" "How?" Xanatos demanded. "His face is as unreadable as a stone wall." "Yeah," Talon said, raking in his chips, "but when he bluffs, his tail twitches." "What?" Goliath looked disbelievingly at his tail. "Good thing we're not playing for real money," Xanatos observed, "or you'd be CEO of my company by midnight." "Nah. Wouldn't care for the business suits." Talon gathered the cards and shuffled with the speed of a Vegas dealer. "Another hand?" "Let me get a drink first." Xanatos went to the corner wet bar. "Maybe it'll improve my playing. Anything for you?" Before either could answer, Brooklyn burst in without knocking. "Trouble!" Hudson, grimly belting on his sword, was right behind the younger gargoyle. "Matt just called. There be trouble in the Labyrinth." The table flipped as both Talon and Goliath sprang up. A bottle of brandy fell from Xanatos' hand and shattered. All three of them spoke at once, and it came out sounding something like, "Magelisalex!" "Elisa's mom called Matt," Brooklyn explained breathlessly, bounding ahead of them toward the exit. "She said they were attacked." "I knew I shouldn't have left them alone!" Talon raged. "Go. I'll be there." Xanatos darted down a different hallway, presumably to suit up. "What about Elisa?" Goliath felt fear wrap its cold fingers around his heart. "Why didn't she call us?" "I don't know. Matt said Mrs. Maza wasn't making much sense." "If anything has happened to Elisa --!" "And Maggie! What about Maggie?!" "I don't know!" Brooklyn said again. They reached the roof and the four of them were pelted with sleet. "Where are Lex, Broadway?" "Broadway be at a film festival," Hudson explained, getting onto a rampart. "Lex went shopping for a computer program. 'Tis just us." Goliath and Talon spread their wings and leaped into the night. * * Even expecting trouble, they weren't prepared for the sight that met their eyes. "Angela!" Brooklyn and Goliath cried in identical tones of anguish at the sight of her, lying so pale and still, one wing folded over herself and the other, what was left of it, extended gingerly to one side. Diane Maza was crouched over her, applying pressure to a terrible wound high on her chest. When they came in, she looked up tearfully at her son. "Oh, thank God! Derrek!" Xanatos, who had caught up with them outside, clanked in and tore off his helmet. His son, who had been shrieking inconsolably despite all of Claw's best silent efforts to soothe him, extended his chubby arms and wailed, "Dah-dah!" Claw handed over the baby with visible relief. Samson knelt beside Delilah, cradling her tenderly in his massive arms. His long black mane all but obscured her face. "Angela!" Brooklyn said softly, putting his own hands on the compress. "Don't go!" Xanatos held his son on his lap and gathered his unconscious wife to him, running his fingers along the hideous swelling purple gash on the side of her head. His expression was deadly. Talon held his mother, then drew back. "Where's Maggie?" "They took her!" Diane sobbed. The room stank of smoke and blood. Goliath counted four bodies in combat suits, one hole in the floor and another in the wall, discarded weapons everywhere, but no sign of Elisa. "Elisa went after them," Diane continued, clinging to Talon's fur. "She's hurt so bad, my poor baby, but she went after them. She said they were his! His goon squad!" She thrust an accusing finger at Xanatos. "I should have known!" Talon leapt forward but found Hudson in the way. "Have some sense, lad! He'd ne'er endanger his own son!" "Never," Xanatos said flatly. "He's tricked us before!" Talon tried to get around Hudson and still found himself blocked. Goliath took Talon by the shoulders. "Whatever else he may have done, this time he speaks true. What is important is finding Elisa and Maggie. Finding them, and bringing them safely home!" "Who else could have done this?" Diane waved at the destruction. "Not Quarrymen," Brooklyn said, stroking Angela's cheek. "Not Hunters, either." "I heard explosions, and saw a flying car," Samson said without looking up. "There wasn't any writing on it. Some of the Labyrinth dwellers saw it too. A man and a woman, and another man who came out of the craft." He finally raised his head and looked at Goliath. "One of them says he saw Elisa run and jump and catch hold of it, as it flew off." "Which way?" Talon's wings flexed. "West." "You can't just go chasing off after them with no idea where they went or who they are," Xanatos said as Talon and Goliath made ready to do just that. "They took my woman!" Talon howled at the ceiling, shaking his fists. Goliath nodded in agreement, and saw through his own fiercely lit eyes Hudson bending close to Brooklyn. "Ye'll have to go with them, lad," the older gargoyle said in a low voice. "What? Me? I can't!" "Ye must. They be thinking with their hearts, out o' their minds with worry for their mates, and 'twill lead to their downfall." "What about Angela? She needs me!" "I'll watch over her. Go, lad. The clan needs ye." "He is right, Brooklyn," Goliath said heavily. "I cannot trust myself to lead wisely." "This is absurd. You don't even know where you are going. Bring me that gun." Xanatos accepted the sleek carbine Claw offered, and studied the logo. "I thought so. Athens, Inc." "Who?" Goliath frowned. "A rising star among my competitors. Some former exp -- associates of mine. Experts at weaponry design. Quite good, really." "How do we find them?" Talon demanded. "I doubt they're your enemy," Xanatos said. "They're manufacturers, suppliers. Someone bought this gear. Maybe we can find out who." He flipped open a cellular phone withdrawn from somewhere inside his armor and dialled. "Are they going to die?" Samson asked. "Not if they can hold on 'til dawn, lad," Hudson said. "And we'll be making sure they do just that." Talon looked at Claw. "You're in charge. Take care of my mother. Protect our home." Claw inclined his head. "Damn it!" Xanatos dialled again. "Son of a bitch won't tell me anything for 'confidentiality reasons.' Damn honest businessman!" "What are you doing now?" Brooklyn asked. "Calling Owen to have him hack into their data banks and call up the purchase order." * * She was dying. Maybe she was already dead, and hell was cold. It wasn't until she became aware that the vehicle had stopped moving that Elisa realized she was still among the living. In her mind's eye, she knew exactly what she'd do. Drop, crouch, wait for them to come out. Take them by surprise. Cut them down if she had to. Rescue Maggie and get out of here. In reality, it took the better part of a minute to unclench her frozen fingers, and then she simply slid weakly off and puddled on the ground. Her hair lay in a sodden mass against her neck, trickling ice water down the inside of her jacket. The engines were silent. There was no sign of movement other than her own. She had no idea how long she'd been hanging dazed on the back of the craft. She took in her surroundings. A round, domed room nearly as big as a sports stadium, filled with a variety of cars, vans, helicopters, and other more exotic pieces of transportation. Parts of the dome looked as if they were made to retract, and steel doors reminiscent of airplane hangars were set in the walls. Several smaller doors, and even at this distance she could see the security-coded keypads winking red and green. No people in sight. The straitjacket of pain had been replaced with one of those medieval torture devices that clamped and twisted. Her left arm was mostly useless. The only way she knew for sure she was alive was because it hurt so much every time she took a breath. Not only did her chest ache and throb from the pellets she'd been shot with, but the freezing air had left her throat raw. It would be so easy to just lay her head on the cold hard floor and go to sleep. When she awoke, surely she'd be in her own apartment, with Goliath by her side, watching her in that endearing protective way of his. Instead, she forced herself to get up. Her legs didn't want to support her, and her feet felt like solid blocks inside her shoes. She staggered around to the hatchway and opened it, her gun gripped in a stiff, clawlike hand. Nobody. No goons, no Maggie. She pressed her forehead against the curved hull and tried to get her thoughts in order. When they were as clear as she figured they were going to get, she lurched toward one of the small doors. Some of the trucks had writing on their sides. General Industries, it read simply. Brown letters on white, nothing flashy. Elisa frowned. General Industries? Makers of household appliances, auto parts, and office equipment? A cover for Xanatos? She frowned harder. Not even Xanatos would have sicced his goons on his wife and kid. Not the son that meant more to him than life itself. But, if not Xanatos, then who? She reached one of the keypads and was about to try her luck, although sure that she would set off alarms and bring every guard in the place running, when the light suddenly switched from red to green and the door hissed open. Elisa threw herself against the wall and brought up her gun. A man in a plain brown coverall entered, clipboard in hand. Muttering to himself, he did not even glance her way but proceeded toward one of the trucks. She wasted no time slipping through the door. It hissed closed behind her, leaving her in a hall with bland grey walls and ribbed rubber flooring, with muted flourescents every forty feet or so. How was she going to find Maggie in this maze, a Labyrinth a hundred times worse than the one they'd left? No helpful Ariadne was going to pop up with a ball of twine, and Elisa was pretty sure she wouldn't find any "you are here" maps either. General Industries was a front for something, she didn't know what, and she was sure they wouldn't take kindly to snooping presence. Corridor after corridor, past rooms of computers and rooms of test tubes and rooms of caged apathetic animals. Time and again, Elisa barely avoided detection by the staff, some of whom were in brown, others who boasted nice lab coats, an ominous few in full radiation suits. Voices were coming her way. With nowhere else to go, she ducked through a door and found herself in a cavernous chamber. Her body, which had only just begun to warm up by making her tingle and sting all over, protested at the chill in the room. Tendrils of white mist, probably from liquid nitrogen, crept around her calves. The room was dark yet palely lit at the same time, most of the illumination coming in a cloudy, frosty glow from the tall cylinders that marched off into the distance. Each cylinder was rounded like a capsule, eight feet tall, and set into a metal base. Tubes and wires led into the capsules. The glass surfaces were covered with thin skins of ice, and shadowy forms could barely be seen within. Elisa crept to the closest one and rubbed away a small circle of frost. She peered in. Suspended inside was the body of a naked man. The tubes and wires led into his flesh. His eyes were closed, his expression slack and dead. His face was that of Anton Sevarius. "Derrek said he was dead," she breathed. "Cryogenics?" She spun to the next cylinder and rubbed a window, and her breath caught in her lungs. The man in that capsule was also Anton Sevarius. She tried the next. Sevarius. Her eyes scanned the ranks and ranks of capsules. Hundreds in all. She put her hands over her face. "Clones?" she whispered. "An army of Sevarius clones? All on ice? Why?" And then she knew. Sevarius must have found a way to transfer his mind from a dying body to a new one. Xanatos' quest for immortality had inspired the mad scientist to this hideous conclusion. She had a sudden urge to find an ax and start smashing glass. * * "Now, my dear, don't struggle so. You don't want anything to happen to your baby, do you?" Maggie turned in horror toward that voice. "Sevarius!" He smiled at her, a predatory shark's grin, and snapped a rubber glove on his wrist. "When Talon finds --" she started, then groaned in pain as another contraction built with crushing pain. Her captors had sprayed her with something that dissolved her foam cast, but before she could even begin to get her bearings they'd strapped her to a table. An operating table. In a well-lit room that reeked of hospital smells and was filled with glinting steel instruments. One wall was entirely taken up with a computer and monitor screens. Maggie strained against her bonds, but the metal-reinforced nylon restraints would have challenged her mate. "When's your due date, dear?" Sevarius asked, and by his tone he could have been a concerned country doctor. "Let me go!" The bright new-penny taste of terror filled her mouth. Throughout her pregnancy, she'd been worried sick about the birth, the health of the baby, and a thousand other things. Never in her worst nightmares had she imagined this. Anything but this! Anything but having Sevarius deliver her baby! "Now, you're not being very cooperative. I'm only trying to help you, after all." "Help me?!" "You don't need to beg. Really, Maggie, I do have your best interests at heart. Yours and your children's. You do know, it's twins." She fell back against the table and stared at him. "Oh, yes, I'm quite sure of it." He placed a device against her stomach and turned a dial. "Do you hear that? Two little heartbeats. Under a good deal of stress, I'm afraid. You're not doing them any good by struggling." The sound of her children's hearts, thumping rapidly within her, brought tears to Maggie's eyes. "Believe me, it is very important to me that they survive." "You want to experiment on them!" she cried. "I want to examine them," he corrected. "I want to see if the instability of the mutagenics affects them. Surely you've noticed the changes?" "What changes?" He called up a picture on one of his monitors. "This was Derrek -- Talon, as he prefers -- shortly after his metamorphosis. Note the tufts of facial fur, the coloration, the prominent ears, and of course the tail." Another screen lit up, another picture appeared. "This is the same subject, several months later. Quite a difference, wouldn't you say? The tail has receded, the ears likewise, and the texture and coloring of the fur has changed. Clear proof that the mutation has continued." Maggie looked back and forth between the images, her lip quivering between her sharp teeth. She remembered when they'd all noticed their tails beginning to shrink, gradually, week by week becoming shorter until they were bobcats' tails, then disappearing entirely. Fang had tried to talk about it once but Talon refused to discuss it. "So, naturally, I'm quite concerned about the effect this will have on your children. You can't tell me that you two proud parents aren't also worried. Isn't that why Talon came looking for me? How was I to know he was interested in my services? He is the sort to carry a grudge. That is why I didn't dare approach you openly with my offer." "What offer?" "Why, to help you, of course! Who else would be able to deliver your children? Surely you didn't plan to crawl into the closet all by yourself and then lick them clean!" "You captured me! Shot my friends!" He sighed exaggeratedly. "I had ordered them to avoid excessive violence. However, your friends gave at least as good as they got. And I'm told they initiated the attack." "You lie! You always lie! Why should I trust you?" "My dear girl," he said, stroking her brow as she tried to recoil from his touch, "what choice do you have?" She turned her head away, snarling and weeping. Not like this! her mind cried out. Not him! She refused to let him get his hands on her baby. She would resist! Another contraction seized her, and this time she felt the gush as her water broke. * * Owen Burnett pursed his lips as the words came up on his computer screen. "Mr. Xanatos, sir?" "I'm still here." "I've obtained a copy of the purchase order for that particular weapon's serial number." "Excellent! Is there a name?" "Yes, sir. Inge Runolf." Startled silence from Xanatos' end. "I've taken the liberty of calling up her employment profile," Owen said even as he did so. A picture of the tight-jawed Valkyrie appeared in the upper corner, along with a list of her physical statistics and other details. "Wasn't she listed among the dead in Scotland?" Xanatos asked. "Her and Judge Halverson." Owen heard voices in the background. Fox, sounding groggy and in pain, said, "Halverson! That was the name on the one that hit me!" "Delilah and I fought him!" Talon. "He was working for Sevarius!" "Apparently, we were premature in our assessment of the body count, sir," Owen said. He could also hear Alex, and was relieved to note that the boychild was shaken up but unharmed. "Is there an address?" Goliath's deep voice. Before Xanatos could begin to relay, Owen replied, "There is. General Industries." He relayed the information. "Good work, Owen. That'll be all." * * "Hold still!" Inge Runolf ordered. Judge Halverson winced as she poked the needle through his skin and drew it tight. The stitches would hold together the painful gouge long enough for the coagulant spray to scab it over, but he was having a hard time staying in place. Runolf, for all of her martial skills, evidently had neglected both first aid and home ec. She might as well have been using a stapler, which would have at least been quicker. Cisco Rodriguez stuck his head in. "There's a problem in the cryo unit!" he said urgently. "Power failures all over the grid. Could be mechanical, but we might have an intruder." Halverson tugged his combat suit back into place but left the helmet. He wouldn't need it. "Let's move!" * * Elisa hoisted herself into the ventilation shaft. She was sure that her actions would draw attention, which was her only chance of finding Maggie. It had been a stroke of luck to discover that each of the capsules was simply hooked up to one of a series of small power strips. She'd pulled the plug on a dozen or more of the strips, randomly, watching with morbid triumph as the lights in the cylinders faded. The thought that she might also be disconnecting legitimate cryogenically-preserved people did cross her mind, but she dismissed it as unlikely. Even if they all weren't clones of Sevarius, odds were that they were clones of people of his type. Not really murder, then. More of an abortion. That made her worry even more for poor Maggie, and for her unborn niece or nephew. She was just in time. No sooner had she hauled the grate back into place than the door opened, and her good friends in brown came in with weapons at the ready. The lead guy and the blond woman were the same ones she'd been seeing for years, starting with the time they'd tranquilized Goliath and she'd led them on a wild chase through the park. Pretending to be Cyberbiotics operatives, really working for Xanatos, and now somehow in league with Sevarius. Well, figuring that the scientist had done extensive work not only for Xanatos but for Thailog and Demona, it was only reasonable that by now he'd amassed enough of a fortune to maintain his own private thugs. These two, though, led charmed lives. Charmed, or else ... her gaze once again fell on the rows of cylinders. She massaged and stretched her exhausted, aching limbs as best she could without bringing new flares of agony. "The power strips are unplugged!" the woman called to her companions. "Search the room," the lead guy ordered. He moved quietly yet purposefully, alert. Elisa tensed. When he reached a spot below her, she kicked the grate out and jumped after it. The heavy grate struck the man, and her weight finished the job of driving him to the floor. A tremendous sheet of pain flared over her but she threw her knees into his back. He wasn't wearing a helmet so she cracked him on the head with the butt of her pistol. He grunted and went limp. A shot squealed off of metal, and Elisa turned to see another man running in her direction. She rolled and fired, crying out as her injuries bounced and jostled. Her first shot took him in the chest but didn't even slow him; the next one struck his knee. The armor there must have been weaker because he went down writhing and holding his leg. The blond came at her. Elisa ran behind one row of capsules, feeling like a kid playing hide-and-seek in the corn, which was absurd for someone born and raised in New York. She'd never seen a cornfield except for on television. But the image persisted. She took refuge behind one of the dark ones and watched the woman's shadow through some of the others. Trying to hold her breath for fear the plumes in the chill air would give her away, Elisa waited until the blond was almost on her, then leaped out, planted her elbow in the other woman's midsection, wrestled her gun away, and pressed the muzzle of her pistol under the shelf of her jaw. "Where's Maggie?" * * "Push! Harder! Oh, that's very good. Remember your breathing," Sevarius coached. Maggie sobbed helplessly as she followed his directions. Giving birth wasn't like having to use the bathroom. Once it started, there was no way to hold it. Loathesome as it was, she had to comply with Sevarius. "I see a fuzzy little head," he said, horridly cheerful. "One more good push!" Every muscle locked. Maggie felt like her bones were shaking apart. She bore down hard as she could, until red firebursts filled her vision. She swam in a haze, nearly blacking out, and the only thing that brought her back was a sound, a pitiful sound somewhere between a mewl and a cry. "It's a girl," Sevarius announced. "Give her to me!" Maggie threw herself upward as far as she could, but only got the barest glimpse of a small form as the scientist turned away. "Fascinating! Her eyes are sealed shut, just like a newborn kitten's! No teeth; good news if you were planning to breastfeed. The wings appear proportionate for her size ..." "Give me my baby!!" In a burst of strength, one of her wrist restraints tore free. Sevarius set the infant in a hospital bassinet and came toward her. "Now, my dear, let's not do anything antisocial --" She swung, and though her claws were unable to reach him, the dangling end of the strap whipped briskly across his mouth, splitting his lips. Beyond him, she could see something tiny moving in the bassinet, something with a tawny-gold pelt and dusky rosette markings. Its cries pierced straight to her heart. Another contraction, even deeper and glassier than before, put a quick end to her fight. As she gasped for breath, Sevarius pressed an air- injecting hypo against her neck. Almost immediately, she felt a dull heaviness in her limbs. He wiped blood from his mouth. "Naughty girl," he said, but all pretense at good humor and kindliness was utterly absent. Tight, tense, unbearable spasm, even with the drug rapidly coursing through her. Maggie screamed until she thought her throat would burst. "Here's number two," she heard Sevarius say from far away. "A boy." She tried to move, tried to raise her head, but it was a stone tumbling down a deep dark well and pulling her after it. * * Owen's voice spoke into his ear. "I decoded some secret files about General Industries, sir. I thought they might interest you." Xanatos diverted part of his attention from flying to a peripheral section of his HUD. Ahead of him, Goliath and Talon flew valilantly on, battling the elements while his armor carried him effortlessly along. Brooklyn, smaller than the two leaders but more agile and certainly thinking a bit more clearly, was pacing them. "Go ahead, Owen." "To begin with, sir, General stands for GENetic Engineering Research And Laborotories. You should now be receiving a directory of some of their most top-secret projects." "Thank you, Owen. Not quite an in-flight movie, but it'll pass the time." * * She crawled down the ventilation shaft, every movement a new adventure in pain, every new sound making her jerk and look back over her shoulder, half-expecting to see some ugly slobbering reptilian monster loping after her. The blond had seemed sincere, and with a gun to her face had surely been motivated to be truthful, but the further Elisa went the more she became certain that she was never going to find Maggie, let alone get out. The complex was huge, a regular ant farm. Tiny squares of light shone through a grate in the floor. Elisa crept to it and peered down, and saw with dismay that she was directly over a large cafeteria, about one-third full of people in lab coats or uniforms. To her further dismay, she realized that the metal shaft was only bolted to the ceiling instead of tucked away out of sight. She inched forward, and her left shoulder chose that moment to just give out like an old tire. She fell on her side with a k-ponk! that sounded big as a gong, and forced herself to instantly hold still despite the pain that rolled down the left side of her body. She ground her teeth, trying not to groan, hot tears trickling down her cheeks. If anybody noticed the noise, it went unremarked. When the pain subsided a bit, though nowhere close to its former levels, Elisa resumed her movements. She lay flat, scooting along by pulling with her right hand and elbow and pushing with her feet. She was on the grate now, staring down at a lab tech below her. He was eating a pastrami sandwich and reading "The Dilbert Principle," and Elisa was suddenly sure that the grate would fall and she'd end up in his lap. That didn't happen, and then the grate was behind her. An eternity later, the cafeteria was also behind her. Once back on more solid ground, so to speak, she laid her head down and shivered with reaction. Her shoulder was on fire, and a ginger exploration of the flesh around it found a bulge that was surely the end of her collarbone sticking up like a broken pencil. It hadn't broken the skin, small favors. "Oh, man," she whispered. "This is nuts. I'm going to die up here and they'll only notice when I start to stink!" The sound of her own voice got her moving again. It was only a matter of time before somebody noticed the goons missing, and found them sealed in the cryo tanks. And then, friends and neighbors, there'd be hell to pay. She reached an intersection, a capital T with the crossbar dead ahead. Both ways looked equally promising, or equally futile. Sobbing? Elisa held her breath to make sure it wasn't her own. Sure enough, distant muffled sobbing down the lefthand passage. She hitched herself around the corner without hurting anything too badly and found the strength to resume crawling. The sobbing was both a beacon and a balm, making her own suffering diminish and renewing her purpose. The grate was on the side instead of the bottom, and she found herself looking into an operating room. Medical equipment, computers, instruments. The table was stainless steel, orbited by shiny metal devices on folding metal arms, looking exactly like something out of a looney's tale of alien abduction, and lying on it, covered with a scrub-green sheet, was her brother's mate. One of Maggie's arms was securely strapped down. The other dangled limply, a ragged shred of tough nylon hanging from the wrist. Her head was turned to the side, her eyes shut, tears dampening her golden fur. No sign of Sevarius. Elisa tried to pull the grate in and was shocked to find that she barely had the strength to budge it. When it came free, it did so with a huge scraping sound, but Maggie didn't even open her eyes. "Maggie!" she whispered, loud as she dared, though after the noise the grate had made, it was probably a moot point. No reaction from Maggie. Elisa levered herself through the opening. Her questing feet found the seat of a chair, but just as she trusted her weight to it, the casters shot it out from under her and she crashed to the floor. What wanted to be a throat-shattering scream came out only as a harsh gasp, but for several seconds all she could do was lay where she'd fallen, fighting to keep from passing out. At last, she was able to get up. She made her way to the table and touched Maggie's arm. "Maggie? Hey, sis, it's okay. It's Elisa. I'm getting you out of here." Amber eyes slid briefly open, still mostly covered by the inner membrane. Elisa realized that Maggie was doped to the gills. "Bayy-beee," Maggie exhaled. Elisa struggled with the strap. "The baby will be --" she broke off as she glanced at Maggie's middle and saw it much smaller, shrunken. When she'd greeted them at the shower, it had been firm and taut and round, drumlike, a cariacture of a swallowed basketball. Just then, she heard a sound she'd previously dismissed. A faint rustling and mewling. Her mind instantly flashed back to a couple of kids sitting in front of a grocery store, a cardboard box between them and several cans stacked in front. A sign, written in crayon, had read: free kitty food, kitty included. In the box, tumbling over each other, had been six grey kittens. One of them had gone home in the Fairlane, nearly causing a wreck when it had gotten under the brake pedal, and that had been Cagney. Slowly, like someone in a strange dream, Elisa turned toward the noise. Two covered basinettes or incubators, hooked up to all sorts of equipment. She found herself standing by them with no memory of crossing the room. Stuck to each lid was a post-it note. Across the top was a cartoon of a brain in a jar flanked by two crackling electrodes, over the legend: FROM THE BRAIN OF ANTON SEVARIUS. And below that, in block printing, were two words that didn't make any sense to Elisa. RUMPLETEAZER on the right. MUNGOJERRIE on the left. Heart in her throat, Elisa lifted off the lids. "Ohhhh," was all she could say as she beheld her niece and nephew for the first time. They both had funny, bristly, stiff hair on their heads that reminded Elisa of baby cheetahs she'd seen in some nature documentary. The girl's fur was the same color as Maggie's but dotted with darker brown. The boy was the same shade as Derrek, and he too had the shadows of darker markings. Their eyes were squinched shut. Their faces were startlingly human except for the fur, with button noses instead of muzzles. The girl had her tiny fist in her mouth, while her brother tried to suck on air. Fragile, batlike wings were folded against their backs. She reached in and stroked the boy's cheek. He turned his head toward her hand. "Hey, kiddo," she said softly. "I'm your Aunt Elisa." The girl uttered a thin wail. Elisa touched her hand, and felt tears come to her eyes when those little fingers wrapped around her own. "Nothing's going to happen to you. I promise." "Elisa?" Maggie mumbled weakly. She went to her. "Maggie! Are you okay?" "Babies?" "They're here. They're beautiful." "Sevarius." "Yeah, I know. I'm getting all of you out of here." "Can't. Help ... babies." "I will. What's Sevarius done? He's got some code or medicine or something written on them. Has he given them anything?" "Names," Maggie said dreamily. "Because they're practically cats." "Huh?" Her head rolled to the side and she began singing "Memories" in a terrible, broken voice that was even worse than her earlier sobs. A light on the wall began to flash, and from the intercom next to it, a computerized but commanding voice issued. "Interuder alert. All staff. Sector 12. Intruder alert." "Oh, hell," Elisa said. "That's me. Come on, Maggie, let's get this thing unhooked." "No time. Save my babies, Elisa, please!" "I'm not leaving you here!" "Don't let him get them," Maggie begged. Her free hand clutched at Elisa's jacket and fell away. There was no way she could carry the twins and support Maggie as well. She was too drugged up to move, even if Elisa had been whole and healthy. "I'll come back for you," she vowed, taking another sheet from a shelf and tearing it into wide strips to swaddle the infants. "I'll find Derrek, and we'll come back for you." Maggie smiled, sighed and sank back into a stupor. She shrugged out of her jacket, eliciting a new icepick of pain from her collarbone, and fashioned two crude slings out of the rest of the sheet. Tucked one baby into each sling. Put her jacket back on and zipped it shut, leaving room for air. Awkward, but she had to keep them secure and warm. Her arms around the babies, cradling them to her chest, Elisa hurried out the door. * * "There has to be a more subtle way to --" Brooklyn began. Goliath and Talon roared together and peeled back a layer of sheet steel like it was a wet decal. Alarms brayed into the freezing night. "--do this," he finished. "INTRUDER ALERT! SECTOR 12!" "So much for subtlety," Xanatos commented. "I might as well get in on this too." He aimed his wrist laser and cut a circle in the cement slab revealed by the missing steel. Goliath delivered a punch that popped the circle down through a hole. Without so much as a pause, Talon was through and running down the dark corridor, yelling for Maggie. Goliath, saving his breath but his heart doubtless calling out for Elisa with just as much fervency, overtook him. "So much for me being the leader," Brooklyn muttered. He jumped through the hole and took off after the others, with Xanatos behind him. A group of men, security-guard-types and not commandos, rounded a corner in response to the alarm. The looks on their faces as their flashlights found Goliath and Talon bearing down on them would have been funny, if those faces hadn't been mashed to pulp a heartbeat later. By the time Brooklyn got there, the men looked like bowling pins after someone threw a powerful strike. All they way here, Brooklyn had been psyching himself up to deal with armed, organized resistance. He was ready to kick ass and take names, as Matt Bluestone sometimes said, and pay back every scratch these creeps had put on Angela. Goliath and Talon were even more vehement, and Xanatos was ready to dish out some vengeance for the threat to his son and the harm to his wife. They would have gone up against battle-armored superheroes, cheerfully. Instead, corridor after corridor and level after level, all they encountered were security guards and terrified people in lab coats. Poor fare to feed the hunger of revenge. Until, up ahead in a babble of raised voices, one stood out. "What the devil is going on?" demanded the familiar tones of Doctor Sevarius. At which point, Talon went purely bugshit. It was the only phrase Brooklyn felt adequately described the mutate's reaction. Berserk didn't even scratch the surface. Talon launched himself into the cafeteria. He looked twice his normal size, fur bristling like a Halloween cat, sizzling with so much electricity that tables and chairs were flung from his path before he even got near them. He scythed through the bystanders and was on Sevarius before the scientist knew what hit him. One of Sevarius' arms came off with a horrible overcooked-drumstick sound that would haunt Brooklyn for years. "Wait!" Brooklyn yelled over the din. "We need him to tell us where they are!" "Electric eels!" Talon snarled. "See if you can fake this!" Every flourescent light in the cafeteria simultaneously blew out. Talon, wreathed in blue-white energy, channeled every last volt of it into Sevarius. His jittering death-dance lasted only an instant before ending in an explosion of charred flesh. Something shot from the blackened, firecracker-in-a-tomato wreck of his skull. It was a metal projectile the size of a bullet, whizzing toward the door. A metal-clad hand seized it out of the air. "Braintaping," Xanatos said clearly. "Recording his every thought and experience, to transfer from one clone to another." Goliath looked as repulsed as Brooklyn felt. "This is the real Anton Sevarius," Xanatos said, holding up his fist. He slowly clenched it. Something cracked. Xanatos squeezed harder. There was a grinding noise. Flakes of metal sifted through his fingers. Grim satisfaction filled Talon's smile. He flung aside what was left of the body. Anyone still mobile was fleeing from the four of them. Goliath reached out almost idly and caught one by the neck. "Where is Sevarius' lab?" * * Judge Halverson awoke to the sound of the alarm. It was something that should have instantly jolted him out of sleep, and something that should have been much louder. He understood everything the moment he opened his eyes, and found himself slumped on the bottom of one of the cryogenic storage capsules. Not dead and replaced, because he was still wearing his combat suit and still in a hell of a lot of pain. No, the Maza woman must've dumped him in here while he was unconscious. Lucky she hadn't switched it on, or he would have woken up a giant Popsicle. He looked left and right, and confirmed his suspicions when he saw Inge and Cisco similarly sealed up. Inge was alert and angry, Cisco in pain and sporting a bloody bandage around his knee. "We have to get out of here!" Inge mouthed. Judge nodded. He experimentally hammered on the curved glass, but it was too thick to be broken that way. Inge was obviously unarmed or she would've tried something by now. In fact, he could see her beloved Gauss lying in a swirl of white mist a few yards away. His own holster was empty, but his captor hadn't taken time to search him thoroughly because his little personal luxury, a derringer-sized gyroc pistol, was still on him. He drew it, aimed at the capsule's seal, and fired. Moments later, Inge was retrieving her Gauss. * * "Maggie!" Talon cried. She rolled her head his way, eyelids fluttering sleepily. She murmured something, a fragment of a song. Talon was at her side, cradling her head, looking like he wished he could kill Sevarius all over again. The room was a mess. A grate was lying on a desk, a chair was tipped over, scraps of green cloth were scattered on the floor. "Goliath, look!" Brooklyn reached under a desk and came up with a gun. "It's Elisa's!" "Then where is Elisa?" "And where are the babies?" Xanatos asked. "What?" Talon whipped around. "They've been born. Look." Xanatos gestured at the basinettes and held up a pad of paper covered with scrawled notes. "Twins. Girl and a boy." "Maggie," Talon said urgently, stroking her brow. "Maggie, where are our children?" "Derrek ..." she breathed. "Elisa ..." "She's been drugged," Brooklyn said. "Here." Xanatos rummaged. "This should counteract the sedative." "Sevarius!" Maggie sat up, wild-eyed, lunging against her bonds. "Damn, that was quick!" Brooklyn observed. When Talon saw the restraints, he growled fiercely and shredded them, then held his mate close. "He's dead," Talon assured her. "This time, he really is." "Elisa took the babies. I made her go." She buried her face against Talon's chest. "I never even got to hold them!" "You will," he promised. "We must find her," Goliath said. He strode to the door, yanked it open, and there stood a man in a brown combat suit identical to the ones covering corpses back in the Labyrinth. The man, whose nametag spelled out HALVERSON, had a ridiculously small gun, but when he fired, Goliath went down with authority. "Surrender now," Halverson said, stepping over Goliath's outstretched arm. A woman appeared behind him, blond and cruel, carrying a strange weapon that Brooklyn instinctively knew was the one that had hurt Angela. Xanatos stepped forward. "Well, well. Former employees. Too late to fire you." The two looked startled, but that didn't stop them both from leveling their guns at the man in the red and black armor. Talon pulled Maggie off the table and sheltered her with his wings and body. Brooklyn realized he was still holding Elisa's gun. No time to think about it or worry that he'd never used one before. He pointed and pulled, just before Halverson tried to blow a hole in his former boss. Aiming for the guy's head, he instead hit the tiny but powerful gun. It exploded in his hand, turning that hand into something that looked like a soggy sponge with a few toothpicks sticking out of it. Xanatos' metal-plated fist pistoned out and shattered Halverson's nose. The man flew backward and out of sight. "That's for Fox." The woman sent a snapping and hissing silvery jet at Xanatos. The needles broke harmlessly against his armor. And then Brooklyn was on her, roaring, grabbing her blond ponytail and playing crack-the-whip against the wall. Her forehead left a crater in the plaster and she collapsed in a boneless heap. "That's for Angela," he said. * * The strident bray of the alarms made the babies cry. The strident bray of the alarms also meant that nobody else could hear the babies cry. Typical mixed blessing, Elisa thought as she ran down yet another corridor. Ran wasn't the best word for it. A quick stagger was the best she could manage, and she was rapidly tiring. Twice now, she'd nearly blundered into frantic groups of people. To make matters worse, she had lost her gun somewhere along the line. She would never find her way back to the hangar, and even if she did, what then? Steal a truck? Hotwire a helicopter? EXIT. The sight of the sign was so utterly unexpected that she nearly went past it, thinking that it had to be a hallucination brought on by pain and panic. DO NOT OPEN. ALARM WILL SOUND. "What have I got to lose?" Elisa said, and shoved the bar. Alarm did indeed sound, one more voice in the crowd. But the door opened, and fresh, cold air swirled around her face. She'd worked up quite a sweat, and that moisture evaporated instantly in a bone-deep chill. She emerged onto a large concrete surface ringed with an iron waist-high fence. Through the wind and sleet, she saw many sparkling lights below and distant. The clouds were heavy and black against a sky beginning to lighten. Had she really been here all night? The complex behind her wasn't underground so much as it was built into the side of a hill. She could see the hangar dome on the extreme far side and was amazed how far she'd managed to come, but also dismayed because there was no way she could reach the vehicles within. The wind let up a little, and she saw a narrow staircase leading down. The steps were slick with ice and water, a fire-escape switchback that descended hundreds of feet to a parking lot. Trying to navigate that, in her condition and carrying her precious burdens, was just plain crazy. The door alarm sounded again. A man in a brown combat suit stood by it. A bloodstained bandage was around his knee, he leaned heavily on an aluminum crutch, but he had a gun. "You shot me, you bitch," he said. Crazy or not, the staircase was her only chance. A bullet spanged off the iron fence ahead of her, followed by a second that hit just behind her as she fled along the edge. The babies squalled and squirmed in her arms. She didn't dare let go of either of them to secure a handhold. Her feet stuttered on a slick step and even over the whistle of the wind she heard her ankle pop. A bullet passed through her hair as she stumbled. It was all too easy to see herself tumbling down the stairs, coming to rest in a broken pile on the next landing, helpless and unable to move while her pursuer descended to finish her off. She was spared that fate, this time anyway, by catching herself on the handrail with her left elbow. It sent a bolt of pure agony slamming up to her shoulder and across her chest. She shrieked but kept going, splashing through puddles of sleet on the landing, caroming off the far rail, making the turn and starting down again so now a level of stairs were between her and the gunman. Cold, so cold. Her breath was ice and fire in her lungs. Another bullet struck sparks off the steps. His aim was terrifying! She didn't even want to think about what he could do unwounded and in good weather! Down, down, another flight and another, the cars in the parking lot seeming as far away now as they'd been when she started. She'd never make it; it was only a matter of time until -- She slipped. Her right foot shot out from under her and went through the space between stairs. She landed on her hip and right shoulder, twisting to shelter the babies. Not even able to scream anymore, just panting like a hunted animal at the end of its strength, she scrambled to her feet again. Just in time to get shot. The bullet only grazed her thigh but was enough to knock her back, against the rail, over the rail. She fell, and this time there would be no strong, magnificent Goliath swooping to catch her. Only the parking lot. The world was silent except for the wind. Even the babies had stopped crying. She could still feel the warmth of their tiny bodies against her, the only warmth in all the world, the only way she knew they were still alive. She turned herself to absorb the impact, even though it might be kinder to let them die in the fall. * * Cisco Rodriguez saw the woman fall and knew it was over. He turned and began hauling himself up the stairs. The outer door opened. Probably Halverson, responding to the alarm which also triggered a signal in their visor HUD's. "It's all right," he yelled above the wind. "I got the intruder! She's dead!" "RRRRRRAAAAARRRRRGGGHHH!" Something truly enormous lunged at him. It was wounded, he could clearly see the raw and tattered hole in its side, and that was the last thing he saw before two huge clawed hands settled on either side of his skull and the world ended in a flash of white light. * * Xanatos, who had been able to link up to the HUD signal used by Halverson's team and led them to the door, knew it was pointless trying to reason with him. With one wing hanging at an unnatural angle, Goliath couldn't have glided down to the parking lot below. He made as if to throw himself over, regardless. "Wait!" Xanatos slung Goliath's arm over his shoulders and blasted off. His computer-enhanced visor saw her first, and he could pinpoint from the way Goliath's grip tightened to the point where it dug trenches in his armor the exact moment that he saw her too. He landed between two cars and released the gargoyle. Overhead, Talon and Maggie and Brooklyn were fighting the tricky winds as they, too, descended as rapidly as possible. "No ..." Goliath said, crouching beside Elisa's crumpled form. Brooklyn landed. "Oh, Elisa," he said miserably. Xanatos reached for her, and Goliath angrily shoved his hands away. "Leave her be!" "Look." He pulled open her jacket, revealing the source of the movement he'd seen. The babies howled as the icy air hit them. Maggie cried out, her knees buckling as she landed, and crawled to Elisa's side. She clutched the twins, weeping. Talon knelt beside her, torn between joy for his children and grief for his sister. Goliath ran his fingers through Elisa's dark hair, the pain of his injuries nothing compared to the suffering now evident on his face. "It's almost dawn." Brooklyn's voice was dull, dispirited. Xanatos bowed his head. He'd come to not only admire the gargoyle but like him as well, and hated seeing him suffer like this. What would he do, if that were Fox dying in his grasp? "Dawn ..." Goliath said. His hands moved over her face, her neck. Paused. "The lifebeat! She lives!" Xanatos shook his head sadly. "Goliath, she's gone." "No! See there!" A thin cloud of a faint breath stirred at Elisa's lips. "Alive?" Talon dared to hope. "We'd never get her to a hospital," Brooklyn said. "We can't even move her. She's dying." "No," Goliath said firmly. "I'll not let her. Elisa, my love, hear me! Stay with me!" He lifted her, held her in his arms. Forced his damaged wing to join the other one in folding around her. He glanced up at Xanatos. "Protect us." "Of course," he said automatically. Goliath pressed his brow to Elisa's. Her head moved, and Xanatos saw or thought he saw a faint flutter of a pulse in the hollow of her neck. Although they could not see the rising sun through the thick clouds, Xanatos and the mutates knew the dawn in the stiffening skin of the gargoyles. Brooklyn went first, a sculpture of sorrow with a single tear running down his face. "Stay with me," Goliath murmured as his skin turned to stone. As Elisa's skin turned to stone. Xanatos yanked off his helmet, unable to believe his visor and not sure if he even believed his own eyes. But there, before him, was the proof. Elisa, solid stone, in Goliath's arms. "Holy mother of God," Talon sounded as if all the breath had been driven out of him. "How --?" Xanatos heard himself talking, although his brain was still trying to come to grips with what was in front of him. "Sometimes objects change with them, but sometimes not. I never thought --" "Will she make it?" Maggie ventured tremulously. "Heal, the way they do?" "Sunset will tell us," Xanatos said. "If love and will can do it, Goliath has enough of both. Until then, we'll do as he asked. We'll protect them." * * The stolen helicopter hovered above Castle Wyvern until the pilot had proved to Owen's satisfaction that he was indeed Mr. Xanatos. Fox, her head bandaged and the bruise creeping out from under it like an inkstain, hurried to meet him as he got out. When she saw Maggie and Talon, each holding a swaddled bundle, she hugged her husband fiercely. "I knew you'd do it, David!" "I can't take all the credit. Elisa saved the babies." "Where is Elisa?" Fox asked. "Her mom's worried sick. I tried to get her to come back here with me, but she wanted to stay with Angela and Delilah. They both made it until dawn, so it looks like they'll be all right." Xanatos nodded. "That's what we're hoping for." He slid open the cargo bay door and Fox gasped in astonishment. "But that's --" "Elisa." "My God, David, is it possible?" "Everything is possible, Mrs. Xanatos," Owen said as he joined them, but even he looked surprised. "How's your head, darling?" "I have just three words for you. Extra strength Tylenol." Xanatos turned to Maggie. "You must be exhausted. I'm sure Alex wouldn't mind some company in the nursery." Fox took a peek at the twins. "They are just priceless!" she exclaimed. "The price was high," Talon said, glancing at his sister. "Very high." "Show them the way, would you?" Xanatos asked his wife. "I've got some things to discuss with Owen." Fox led the mutate family inside. When they were safely out of earshot, Owen raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Sevarius?" Xanatos sighed. "Dead, I think. I evacuated the General complex and planted thermite detonators; that'll take care of the clones and other experiments." "A shame to have to destroy everything," Owen said. "Sevarius may have been a renegade, but he did have his moments of genius." "Yes, he did." Xanatos reached into the helicopter and brought out a silver metal suitcase. "And he was considerate enough to record them all on disk. Once we break the encryption codes, we'll have detailed files on all of General's projects. Why let good information and research go to waste?" "People and equipment can be replaced," Owen observed. "Oh, and there's this." Xanatos handed him a small object. Owen unwrapped the paper square, his eyes flicking over the cartoon and the legend at the top without so much as a ghost of a grin. "From the brain of Anton Sevarius," he read. He prodded the small metal sphere, its surface covered with microcircuitry, with the tip of his finger. "In this case," Xanatos said, "literally." * * "We've decided to name her Diane," Derrek said. "But we'll call her Dee for short, to avoid confusion." "Why, Derrek," the new grandmother said, cradling the baby. "I'm honored! But don't you think you should name her after Elisa?" "That's her middle name." Maggie glanced at the clock, saw that it was still hours yet until dusk, and squeezed Derrek's hand. "We owe her everything! We have to have a chance to thank her!" "We will," he said with a surety he didn't really feel. They all fell silent for a moment. Diane had been to the roof, seen her daughter locked in stone and in Goliath's embrace, a sight which removed her last doubts as to the deep and intense love the two shared. Now, here with her mutate son and daughter-in-law, she finally felt acceptance. Not resignation to her children's fates, not a determination to tolerate their differences, but a true acceptance. They were happy, and that was all any parent truly wanted. "What about this little fellow?" Diane tickled her grandson's chubby chin. "You're not naming him after your father, are you? Oh, I wish he could be here! Of all the times to go ice-fishing!" Derrek shook his head. "I know all about how Dad feels. If he'd wanted anyone named after him, he would've tagged me with Peter Jr. No, we thought it was only fair to name him after Maggie's dad, Tom. Thomas Reed Maza." * * The explosion ripped apart the General Industries complex and shook the surrounding community so hard that many thought it was an earthquake, the fabled California "big one" hitting their coastline by mistake. The warrens of corridors and labs folded in upon themselves like a house of cards. Chain reactions of chemicals fueled white-hot blasts. Genetically-engineered viruses were incinerated, new lifeforms boiled away in their test tubes. "Millions of dollars, years of work, gone just like that," the man said. His companion nodded. "You know what this means?" he asked. His companion shrugged. "We're out of a job." Inge Runolf skimmed her fingertips across the controls and the craft rose on its cushion of ionized particles. "I hear Athens is hiring," she said. Judge Halverson, barely able to see anything through the bandages that felt like they were all that was holding his nose onto his face, or holding his head together for that matter, thought it over. "That sounds promising." * * The clouds had moved on, leaving a crisp, bitterly cold and clear sky over Manhattan. As the day deepened toward twilight, an anxious knot of people gathered in the courtyard of Castle Wyvern. The last pale gold winter rays of the sun slid off the topmost tower. Statues trembled. Cracks appeared, spread, grew. Fragments flaked off. With a snarl and a stretch, Brooklyn cast off his stone skin. His face immediately fell into a soul-deep expression of anguish, knowing in his heart that by now Elisa would be several hours dead. Goliath thrust back his wings, sending stone chips flying. His arms tightened in an embrace. His eyes opened. To find Elisa's gazing up at him as her own stone skin fell off in a shower of dust. "Goliath?" He crushed her to him. "Elisa!" Heedless of the watching crowd, he kissed her. "Elisa!" Brooklyn cried. "You're all right!" "What ... happened?" She moved her limbs, felt her collarbone and the torn place in her jeans where a bullet had grazed. Only unmarked skin lay beneath. Nothing hurt, everything worked the way it should. And, shaking gravel from her hair, she knew how it had come to be. There would be time later for explanations and speculations. All that mattered was that Goliath, in his love, had worked a miracle. * * The End
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