Catch a Falling Star
by John R. Plunkett
Dr. Stannus strode briskly into the Star Home operations center and took his place at the flight director's station. He glanced around- very much like a conductor surveying his orchestra- and cleared his throat. He even tapped a stylus on the edge of the console. "Begin pre-launch checklist," he declared in ringing tones. "Call Go or No Go. Range safety?"
"Go flight," one of the myriad controllers responded.
The checklist continued, enumerating the myriad items necessary to seeing a safe conclusion to the mission. At the end of it the doctor grinned. With his sharp, craggy features, hawk-like nose, and bald pate surrounded by a fringe of long white hair, the expression made him look like, in the opinion of some of the younger controllers, very like the proverbial mad scientist. "Mission Control to Shooting Star," he announced. "We are go for launch at-" he glanced at the mission clock- "T minus one minute thirty."
"Roger, Mission Control." Theobald Aaron "Kit" Carson lowered the face plate of his helmet and checked the telltales to verify a tight seal and the proper operation of his suit's environmental systems. Then he keyed the cockpit intercom with his toe. "Okay, people. Call 'em down and locked."
"Down and locked!" Aurora daughter of Marla and Jaiden exclaimed, loudly enough that Kit winced. "Let's light this candle already!"
"Down and locked," Snowflake daughter of Winterfrost and Starlight reported, closing hir own suit's faceplate. "This isn't a rocket, you know," shi pointed out.
"Maybe not, but it's the thought that counts, isn't it?" Garrek Redfox put in. "Down and locked."
"Indeed it is," Goldfur daughter of Desertsand and Longstripe agreed. "And right now the thought that counts most is that we're about to take an experimental space craft on its maiden flight," shi added. "Down and locked."
"T minus one minute," Dr. Stannus called.
"Speaking of which-" Kit lay his gauntleted hand on the console between his chair and Snowflake's, patting it gently with his fingertips. "Ready, darling?" he asked gently.
"Yes, Daddy." The voice sounded very similar to Aurora's.
"It's all right, dear," Snowflake assured. "It'll be just like before, when you rode the sled by yourself. A quick jaunt through hyper-space, that's all. You've done it dozens of times."
"But never with you all on my back."
"True, but there has to be a first time for everything, doesn't there?" Kit pointed out. "Don't worry, Star." He caressed the console tenderly. "You'll do fine."
"I'm not worried about me," Star replied wistfully.
"T minus thirty seconds."
"We'll be okay," Aurora declared. "We know you won't let anything happen to us."
Star said nothing, not the least because she didn't entirely trust herself to speak. Instead she worked her fingers on the grips welded to the sled's back and settled her belly against the pad provided for that purpose. Truth was, what bothered her the most was having no control over the sled's flight. That province lay entirely with her family, riding in the passenger module fastened to her back, and the controllers on board Star Home. Being merely passenger felt... strange. Wrong.
"Everything'll be fine," Goldfur put in. "Though..." shi trailed off.
"Still worried about the lightweight core?" Garrek inquired.
"Truth to tell, yes," Goldfur admitted.
"The Quezon City accident was seventy-five years ago," Garrek pointed out. "Since then technology's improved by leaps and bounds. Lightweight cores have operated safely for years."
"Yeah, I know," Goldfur sighed. "I just... aw, heck."
"T minus ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven-"
Since Star lacked lungs she couldn't take a deep breath. If she'd ever thought about it in just that way she would have said that being what amounted to sentient star ship was great fun. Surely there could be no experience comparable to the joy of space flight. Softies- that is tiny, soft-bodied people like her mom, her dad, and the project scientists- could do it, sure, wrapped in their bulky life support devices, but their tiny, hopelessly limited senses couldn't even begin to appreciate the grandeur of it. Which was, at the heart of it, Star's exact problem at the moment. Making the little, fleshy people understand what she saw was like- like explaining color to a blind person. A blind person could understand the theoretical existence of color and even develop instruments to detect it, but that didn't mean it would then be possible to discuss art appreciation. For her own part, Star did not understand how the tiny people understood supra-luminal travel. They'd explained it to her, of course, but what she saw when a ship jumped into hyper-space seemed to have no bearing on what they said. Inevitably this lack of understanding had created tensions which, in more than a few cases, had flared up into screaming fits. So, in the interest of harmony, Star had learned to keep silent unless whatever it was could be explained to the scientists or possibly endangered someone she cared about. Which was, when it came down to it, at the heart of her current dilemma. Recently the sled's core had begun to... sing was the only word Star could think of to describe it. Under certain operating conditions the core emitted a signal that Star thought of as a grumbling. Sometimes it would build into a moan... then a wail... and finally a screech that, if she'd had teeth, would have set them on edge. When Star complained to the project scientists they told her nothing was wrong; all the core's emissions were normal and refused to change its operating parameters simply for her comfort. She'd learned to endure it... until one test when the screech suddenly changed into a standing wave that caused the whole warp field to go... inside-out was the only word that came even close. Star jumped off in panic, inflicting serious damage to the sled's energizer when her own spacewarp field conflicted with that of the sled. Both she and the sled returned intact, though the sled somewhat less so. The scientists read her the riot act up one side and down the other for panicking and damaging expensive equipment for no good reason. Their instruments only measured a faint burble in the warp field's power level; they didn't see, as Star did, how it fundamentally changed shape.
But was the inversion dangerous? In truth Star really didn't know. It felt dangerous, for reasons she couldn't clearly articulate even to herself. The scientists said it wasn't; the Quezon City accident had led to a major review of how lightweight cores were designed, built, and used. Which fact, far from setting Star's mind at ease, only made her more uncomfortable. Knowing that there was a danger would actually be easier to handle that not knowing one way or the other. As if that weren't enough, the ante was upped by placing on the line five lives Star cared more about than her own: her father Kit, her mother Snowflake, her best friend Aurora, and Goldfur and Garrek, whom she'd come to regard as secondary parents.
"Five. Four. Three. Two. One-"
In the last second Star made a decision. She resolved that if, at the moment of insertion, the warp field looked ready to evert she'd jump off, just like she had before, and be damned what the scientists thought about it. She didn't know that anything bad would happen if she didn't but the thought of riding it out gave her the willies. Maybe it was just a childish fear- she knew she wasn't that old- but also knew that she saw things the scientists didn't. They couldn't figure out how her star drive worked, when to her it was blindingly obvious. They even had the gall to tell her it was impossible!
Star's synthetic organic, holographic logic based brain could process information more than a hundred times faster than a merely organic one. She had it going at full speed and then some as the sled's warp field charged for insertion. With all that hyper-focus it might have occurred to her to wonder what effect her own emotional tension might have had on the situation, but it did not. Even for her insertion happened too quickly to allow for rumination and second-guessing. Looking back, she'd swear that the warp field had become unstable but in truth she wouldn't ever be certain. Only two things were certain: that the insertion felt wrong, almost from the very beginning, and that the psychic weight of her family on her back pressed heavily on her mind. She did the only thing she could under the circumstances: she jumped.
On one of the many view screens Dr. Stannus watched the insertion. Shooting Star floated in space, a slender cylinder with rounded ends attached by outriggers to a pair of warp pods. The outriggers angled upward slightly so that as Star clung to the sled's top the combined center of mass would be directly between the pods. The engineers had imitated Star's sleek, sharp lines, even though the Shooting Star would never intentionally enter an atmosphere. As such it looked like something that should go fast, appropriately enough.
The warp field built up, appearing as a shimmering bubble around Star and the sled. Suddenly it collapsed into a dazzling point of light with long rays reaching off left and right. Dr. Stannus' grin broadened. Textbook perfect.
"Flight, Engineering," one of the controllers said, frowning at hir console. "I've got-"
A soundless burst of light filled the expanse of infinity visible through the Ops center view ports. It was so incredibly bright that people facing the ports were blinded, and even those looking away were dazzled by reflections. Fortunately Dr. Stannus had turned his head to look at the Engineering controller; he reeled back from the flight director station, swearing and scrubbing his face in a futile effort to clear the pulsing afterimages. For him, at least, they slowly cleared. What he saw didn't reassure him; at least a quarter of the controllers were shouting and groping blindly, and alarms shrilled from almost every station. "All stations, report!" he bellowed, cutting through the babble.
Silence fell. For a moment no one spoke. "Sir, the core went unstable right at insertion," the Engineering controller reported. "They... they randomized."
Dr. Stannus opened his mouth, then shut it. The warp bubble was supposed to encapsulate a star ship in a pocket of normal space since matter, as it existed in this universe, could not exist in hyper-space. The malformed bubble had done just that- but with differing physical constants in different parts of it. As an example, one part of the sled might have found itself moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light while another plunged to the temperature of liquid helium. It wasn't hard to imagine what would happen to a person- or a ship- under those circumstances. The flash of light had been what remained of the sled, returning to normal space as a burst of hard radiation. "Oh, my God," he breathed, the shock finally registering. "They're gone."
The rich odor of seashore in his nostrils drew Kit gradually back to consciousness. He floated up gently as if from the bottom of a deep well, becoming marginally aware of the waking world before fully entering it. Thus when his eyes opened and beheld an expanse of dazzlingly bright white sand lining the edge of a brilliantly blue ocean it didn't surprise him in the least. Unfortunately, another sensory impression also made itself known to him: to wit, that patches of skin along one entire side of his body felt as if they'd been treated with strong acid. A shriek burst from his mouth and he thrust himself up into a sitting position. A hot and merciless sun, one whose rays Kit's fair, northern European skin had never been made to resist, blazed down from above. It's touch felt like liquid flame on the angry red patches marring his arm, leg, hip, and bits of his torso. He scrambled to his feet, thinking only to shield his tender tegument from further radiation damage, and tripped headlong over something soft, warm, and furry. Though the sand wasn't so terribly hard, driving face first into it from a standing height left him momentarily stunned.
"Whuzza?" a bleary voice inquired. The furry mass stirred, rising to its feet. "What the... Kit?"
Kit's fingers twitched. Goldfur. The voice definitely belonged to Goldfur. Gritting his teeth he rolled to put his burned parts underneath, shaded from the sun. Grinding them against hot sand wasn't much better. He sat up and looked around.
Two other furry bodies lay sprawled nearby: Snowflake on hir back, legs curled up as if shi were a dead bug, and Garrek on his belly, in a circle with the tip of his tail in his mouth. While Kit struggled to think of something to say Snowflake groaned and rolled slowly onto her side. Goldfur somewhat unsteadily approached Garrek; while bending over to touch his face shi stopped suddenly and blinked several times, wavering slightly back and forth. "G- Garrek?" shi asked, lifting his chin. His eyes flickered open and he sneezed loudly.
"Kit?" Snowflake, with some effort, rolled onto hir belly. Shi grimaced, repeatedly licking the top of hir mouth as if trying to clear a nasty taste out of it. "What... where are we?"
Kit scrubbed his face. His mind felt foggy and dissipated, as if he were still half asleep. And yet he didn't feel tired at all. He simply couldn't seem to hold himself to any one thought for any length of time. His mental process drifted aimlessly, like leaves on a pond. "We're on a beach," he began, mostly to marshal his own thoughts into some sort of order. "It's pretty hot-" he slung sweat from his brow- "and that sun's damn bright." He made to touch his burned shoulder and wisely thought better of it. He turned slowly, studying the line of trees beginning where the sand ended. Having spent most of his life in temperate zones or on board space habitats he wasn't any sort of an expert on tropical botany but these plants had the sort of long, drooping leaves one generally associated with equatorial climes. "We must be in the tropics somewhere," he concluded.
By then Garrek had risen to his feet, though not without some assistance from Goldfur. While Kit spoke Garrek fluffed his chest fur, trying to get the sand out of it. Then he frowned, fingering his pectorals as if he'd never seen them before. He stroked his upper arms, then looked at Kit. "Where's your clothes, Kit?" he asked.
Kit blinked. "My what?" His mental cog wheels spun for a moment before engaging on the new topic. He looked down at himself. "I'm naked," he keenly observed.
"Nothing wrong with that," Snowflake commented, giving Kit a long, thorough look, from head to toe and back again, with particular emphasis on the pelvic region. Then shi frowned. "Kit, what happened to you?" Shi stepped up and gingerly touched his shoulder.
"Ow!" Kit recoiled. "I'm burned," he exclaimed. "Fried like a breaded steak."
"But-" Snowflake shielded hir eyes, scanning the horizon and portions of the sky. "Why weren't you wearing sunscreen?"
"Why in the world would I be wearing sunscreen?" Kit shot back hotly.
"If we're going to the beach you should have," Snowflake pointed out. "You know how delicate you skin is."
"Yes, I believe I'm very aware of that right now," Kit growled. Then he frowned. Even his badly clogged brain was beginning to see problems with this situation. "Where are my clothes?" he mumbled, scratching his temple. "Do you have your communicator, Snowflake?"
Snowflake, Goldfur, and Garrek all looked down at once, hands drifting to their waists. "I don't seem to have my belt pouch," Snowflake said.
"Neither do I," Goldfur put in.
"Or me," Garrek added. He glanced up and down the beach. "Doesn't look like we left them laying anywhere either."
"Does... anyone remember why we're here?" Kit inquired.
A lengthy silence followed that question. "Who's looking after the kids?" Goldfur blurted suddenly.
"Leanna, I expect," Garrek replied.
The word kids tumbled through Kit's mind along with many other things and, by happenstance, clicked with one of them. "Star!" he exclaimed.
"What?" Snowflake whipped around. "What about Star?"
Kit's mouth worked. A feeling gripped him that Star somehow figured very largely in everything that was happening. But putting it all together proved more than his faculties could, at the moment, handle. "We need to get somewhere and contact Star Home," he decided. "I- I'm afraid something's happened."
"Okay." Snowflake nodded. "Let's go." Shi turned toward the trees.
Kit took a step and let out a yelp. "Cripes!" he exclaimed, hopping back and nearly tumbling over. "That sand is hot! I wish I had my shoes!"
Snowflake looked down. The sand was hot, but thick pads protected hir feet from the worst of it. "Here, get up on my back," shi suggested, side-stepping with hir hind legs to bring hir lower body beside Kit.
"Thanks." Kit swung his leg over Snowflake's lower back and would have fallen over had not Goldfur steadied him. He put his arms around Snowflake's torso, then reached up just a little and fondled hir breasts.
"Hey now," Snowflake admonished, more playfully than not. Shi made no attempt to dislodge Kit's hands.
"Pity these aren't on your back," Kit commented, snuggling in comfortably.
"Shi'd be mighty funny looking, wouldn't shi?" Garrek commented. He walked to Snowflake's right as they moved toward the trees.
"I think they look fine right where they are," Goldfur declared, giving Snowflake's bosom a thorough looking over. Goldfur wasn't any way lacking in the mammary department but Snowflake's were quite visibly larger and so very nicely rounded.
"I'm glad someone appreciates them," Snowflake sniffed.
"I do, really," Kit replied, fingering the glands under discussion as if testing them for weight and consistency. "I'm sure they look much better on you than they would on me."
Garrek snorted; Goldfur burst out laughing. "That's for sure!" shi chortled.
Just behind the trees the group came upon a roadway. Snowflake paused before setting hir foot upon it; the road had been surfaced with crushed gravel and tar. Under the hot sun the tar had melted, forming semi-solid pools along the road's shoulders. Snowflake wrinkled hir nose; shi'd seen gravel roads before but always they'd been stabilized with a clear, epoxy-like resin that didn't melt and definitely didn't stink like an oil spill.
While Snowflake ruminated a faint, rhythmic popping sound drifted from somewhere up the road. Almost as one the four turned toward the sound, raising hands to shield their eyes from the sun. The popping grew louder, accompanied by a sound of rushing air. Suddenly a four wheeled groundcar exploded from behind the concealing foliage, rushing along the blacktop at a high rate of speed. Then, though the roadway was smooth and relatively straight the vehicle swerved erratically. Snowflake yelped and dove aside to avoid being clipped. The vehicle swerved back onto the roadway and withdrew at an even higher rate of speed, leaving behind a cloud of dust leavened by the odor of burned rubber and an oily, cloying smell that made Snowflake wrinkle hir nose in disgust. "Maniac!" shi screamed, shaking hir fist.
"What the Devil was that all about?" Garrek demanded, helping Kit to resume his place on Snowflake's back. He'd fallen in a clump of bushes.
"I'm gonna give them a piece of my mind," Snowflake declared, setting off briskly.
Garrek fell in beside Snowflake but Goldfur hesitated, frowning. "What kind of car was that?" shi wondered aloud. On Chakona all vehicles were electric powered; they didn't make noise like that. But it seemed shi had heard something like that, somewhere. Shi concentrated... but while shi felt the memories shi couldn't call them up. "Oh well," she sighed, and hurried to catch up with the others.
"We're late," Christie commented, glancing at her watch."
"Yeah, I know," Lisa growled, hunching lower over the steering wheel. They'd deliberately picked a flight that laid over on Rarotonga. After all, how many opportunities would two girls from upstate New York ever get to visit an honest to God tropical island? Renting a car and taking a tour had been a dream come true. Pity they hadn't considered more carefully how long it would take so they wouldn't run the risk of missing their flight.
Still and all, it would be a sin to waste all the photo opportunities. Christie removed the flash card from her digital camera and slipped in another. She'd bought three extras for the sole purpose of filling them with brilliant images of South Seas paradise. As Lisa brought the car around a sweeping curve at considerably more than the speed limit Christie stuck her arm out the window and snapped a photo. At that very instant Christie let out a horrendous screech and threw up her hands as if to protect her face. Unfortunately that left no one driving the car, which promptly headed for a stand of massive palmettoes. Lisa screamed in turn and would have lost the camera had not she looped the strap around her wrist. She grabbed the wheel and managed to aim the car back onto the road before it hit anything. Christie continued screaming, thrashing her arms in front of her face, her feet jammed against the fire wall. She missed the brake but, unfortunately, not the accelerator. The car sped up even more while Lisa struggled to steer one-handed while reaching across the center console. She swore venomously, dropped the camera on the floor, grabbed the wheel with her other hand, and back-handed Christie viciously across the face. "Christie!" she bellowed. "Drive the Goddamned car!"
Lisa grabbed the wheel and jerked her foot off the gas. "Did you see that?" she demanded, only slightly less hysterical than before.
"See what?" Christie shot back, more than a little venom in her tone.
"The aliens!" Lisa exclaimed, turning to face her companion and releasing one hand from the wheel to gesticulate.
Unfortunately, at that very moment, another car came down the road going the other way. Lisa had drifted across the center line; the two vehicles struck, if not quite head on then near enough as to make no difference.
Albert Algernon Apple carefully poured himself another glass of duty-free Scotch. It wasn't his first and wouldn't be his last if he could possibly help it. A fifth of cheap liquor made those terribly long intercontinental flights so much more pleasant. If only it wasn't so damn hot. Air New Zealand would have to choose a refueling base only twenty degrees south of the equator. Of course he wouldn't be here at all if he weren't too cheap to buy a ticket on one of the jumbos that could make the trip non-stop but that was, in his opinion, beside the point.
The wail of a siren penetrated the alcoholic fog shrouding Albert's mind. He looked up, suddenly more alert. Sirens meant something interesting happening. He glanced at his watch; still six hours before his flight left. He surged to his feet, scooping up the bottle in one hand and his late-model Olympus SLR in the other. He spared a vile curse for that motherless bastard who'd broken his beloved Pentax, but that was water under the bridge. Outside the hotel he heard another siren pick up; apparently things were heating up. He hurried out into the street and flagged a taxi. No emergency vehicles helpfully drove by at that point to show the way but Albert wasn't concerned. One road, Ara Tapu, ringed the entire island which was itself less than ten kilometers long. The sirens seemed to be coming from the east so Albert directed the taxi that way. A short ways out of Avaru Village, between it and Matavera Village, a police officer halted the cab. Just beyond two hideously wrecked autos lay scattered across the roadway; paramedics had extracted survivors- or at least bodies- from one and were busily cutting apart the other. Albert scrambled out of the taxi, flashed his press ID to the police officer, and started shooting pictures. A gory roadway accident was always worth something, if not necessarily a lot.
As the paramedics pried open the passenger side door of what was obviously a rental car an arm flopped out. A digital camera clattered to the pavement. Albert moved quickly forward and shot a close-up over a paramedic's shoulder. The victim was a young woman in her late teens or early twenties; a slim and quite good looking specimen, except that glass had lacerated her scalp, turning her face into a mass of gore. She moaned loudly as technicians moved her carefully onto a gurney. She tried grabbing at something but paramedics gently restrained her; she mumbled something Albert couldn't make out, though one of the words sounded very like "alien." Albert snapped a shot of the gurney being loaded into an ambulance, then ducked forward and scooped up the camera. It was battered but intact; still on, as a matter of fact. Albert turned it over and activated the LCD display. On it appeared the last photo taken.
The first thought through Albert's mind, when such things once again became possible, was that he could readily understand why the sight might cause an accident. Which was itself a telling conclusion; after many years covering the super hero beat there wasn't much that could shock him. But never, in all that time, had he ever seen actual extra-terrestrials.
Albert fancied himself something of an expert on hoaxes and flummery in general. As a reporter for the tabloid press he dealt with quite a lot of it. People seemed to think he'd believe any damn thing, just because of what appeared in various papers, and tried selling him all sorts of moonshine. Which didn't stop him from buying it on occasion, if he thought it would sell. From that perspective, what he saw on the camera's display screen was the least convincing element of the whole affair; anyone with a copy of Photoshop and too much time on their hands could have made it, right down to the motion blur, bad color, and sloppy framing that would result from an amateur photographer shooting out the window of a moving vehicle with the sun at the wrong angle. Getting the right time and date stamp could be accomplished easily enough by resetting the camera's internal clock.
What stopped Albert cold was the context in which the picture appeared. These two girls could have faked it and brought it with them easily enough, but he found it difficult to believe that they'd deliberately rammed another car merely to bring attention to themselves. He'd seen plenty of blood in his life, both real and fake. What he saw here was indisputably authentic. Of course they might have meant to present their photo elsewhere and had a real accident on the way... but that opened the door to other questions. The "aliens" in the photo stood in relaxed, casual poses, gawping at the camera and shading their eyes with their hands. In other words, they looked like a bunch of lost tourists. In no way whatsoever did they show the sort of regal, enigmatic majesty that "real" aliens always displayed. Moreover, they were all naked but two of them had breasts with clearly apparent nipples and one stood with his ass toward the camera, prominently displaying his nuts. Nude aliens were far more common that ones with clothes but they never had any clearly recognizable naughty bits. Finally, the hairless one had blotches on his arm that looked suspiciously like sunburn. Which actually illustrated two problems: hairless aliens never had skin blemishes; any markings on them were clearly natural, or at least deliberate. Furthermore, mixing "alien" aliens with somewhat familiar ones was totally wrong. "Real" aliens didn't look like actors from cheesy science-fiction TV shows. In short, anyone with the skill to have created the image as a forgery would have known that no one would ever believe it. Which left Albert contemplating a possibility that terrified him far more than he cared to admit.
"Sir-" one of the police officers approached. Albert glanced up but did not respond to the officer. The officer frowned, then noticed that Albert seemed to be looking at something behind him. The officer turned around.
Up the road, as calmly as you please, came the aliens. Exactly as the camera had shown, the two females resembled cats, one a snow leopard and the other a cougar. They both had manes, the snow leopard's salt-and-pepper one cut almost brutally short, the cougar's bright gold one long and wavy. The second male, who resembled a red fox, had no mane. In other words, normal enough looking people... from the waist up, at any rate. Where a proper person would have hips and legs these creatures had extra bodies: large, quadrupedal ones, as a matter of fact. Two cats and a fox, just as their other markings suggested. The overall effect was that of human torsos attached to the necks of animal bodies that were each about the size of a full grown lion.
Centaurs are mythical creatures, Albert thought to himself. His mouth moved, attempting but not managing to form the words. But here they were, in living color. They couldn't be suits unless the actors had no legs; the forelimbs bent the wrong way. No robot Albert had ever seen could move with such perfect, organic grace, and who would ever have thought to make it able to pant? Especially the snow leopard, whose thick, fluffy coat obviously wasn't meant for such warm climes. Anyone with the forethought to design such a thing would surely have invented something more convincing.
The fourth alien- the first male- dismounted from the snow leopard's back. He winced slightly as his feet touched the hot roadway. The whole right side of his body, from head to toe, was marred by painful looking, angry red patches. He did not look the least bit human; except for a short, unruly brown shock on the crown of his head and a darker, curly patch in his crotch he seemed to be completely hairless. In such a fashion as to suggest that it was his natural state, not that his pelt had been removed. His round, oddly bulbous head showed not the faintest trace of a muzzle; from brow to chin his face was as flat as a board except for a small, only slightly protruding nose. His rounded ears lay close to the side of his skull, with small, fleshy lobes dangling from them. They looked something like a chimpanzee's, which made them the only familiar thing about him except for his humanoid construction.
The hairless alien's expression firmed somewhat, attaining something more of the solemnity one would expect at an "actual" alien encounter. He raised his right hand, fingers together, palm outward. "How," he declared in a resonating, masculine voice. Then he added, in oddly accented but otherwise recognizable English, "Take me to your leader."
When the accident scene came into view Kit gasped. Two ground cars had met in a head-on collision; one had spun completely around, the right side of its nose folded back to the wheel well. The other had crumpled like a metal accordion. The bonnet had sprung open, revealing what struck Kit as an absurdly large and complex power plant. In his experience ground cars used fission batteries; a unit the size of a briefcase would power an average vehicle for three to five years. That combined with a control module smaller than a jewelry box and hub-mounted traction motors was all the machinery required.
Strange as all that might have been, it didn't even hold a candle to the... people... themselves. They looked humanoid. Their clothing seemed reasonable, if oddly styled. But that made things worse, not better. Kit's gaze settled on two individuals standing near one of the cars. The larger individual wore a rumpled and rather threadbare brown jacket; in his hands he carried a bulky device that Kit guessed to be a camera. But though the fellow stood upright and wore clothes he was a walrus. His hands looked smooth and leathery, with webs between the fingers. His face seemed to consist only of a pair of enormous cheek pads sprouting long, droopy whiskers with a tiny nose perched between. Enormous, yellowed tusks sprouted from his upper jaw, flanking a rather obscene looking striped tie. The man beside him wore a white shirt with a badge on the left breast, dark trousers, and a peaked cap. Kit guessed him to be a peace officer of some sort... and he was a cheetah, with characteristic tear lines along the sides of his muzzle. Among the others present Kit picked out two cats, a rat, a rabbit, and a wolf.
It may have been that the surreal quality of the scene convinced Kit's subconscious that he really was dreaming. It was without a doubt a product of watching too much bad science fiction in the company of the Hugo brothers that put the thought into his mind. Certainly the dreamlike haze still clogging his thoughts diminished his ability to contemplate the consequences of his actions. Snowflake, Goldfur, and Garrek didn't seem to be in any better shape; they all merely stood there, looking bewildered. Which left Kit with an opportunity he knew he'd never forgive himself for passing up. He climbed off Snowflake's back and stepped forward, attempting as best he could to show proper dignity and solemnity. That he accidentally blended a western movie cliche with his science fiction one could perhaps be forgiven, considering his befuddled mental state.
Then the excitement began.
The obelisk stood in the center of Cymbeline's office, resting on a foundation of wooden packing material. If it hadn't broken off about two meters above the base it wouldn't have fit in the room, at least not standing up. And that was important, she'd discovered. An obelisk laying on its side wasn't an obelisk, it was just a hunk of stone with carvings on it. An obelisk was like a church steeple: a metaphysical lightning rod, conducting the glory of Heaven down to the world of men. It had to stand up to do its job.
Cymbeline wiggled the joystick on the left armrest of her chair. The chair moved forward, then rotated. With the wheels pressed against the obelisk's wooden foundation she could reach out and touch the ancient monolith. Will it still remember? she wondered. After falling to the ground, breaking apart, and laying buried for thousands of years, would it reawaken its old glory? Would the ancient power return now that the obelisk stood upright once more?
As her fingertips brushed the stone Cymbeline felt a faint tingle, as if the obelisk carried a very slight charge. "Yes!" she exclaimed, pumping her arm and grinning broadly. "One thing you gotta say for those ancient Egyptians, they built to last." Equally important was that the obelisk still worked even here in New Zealand, half a world away from where it had been born. Cymbeline thought about the obelisk in St. Peter's Square, Rome, and nodded. If Pope Sixtus V had truly understood what the obelisk represented he no doubt would have destroyed it. Instead he did exactly the right thing: he placed it at the entrance to St. Peter's, Christendom's greatest cathedral. Then she thought of Cleopatra's Needles- one in London, the other in New York- and frowned. They'd been erected, yes, but as little more than tourist attractions. In neither case had any thought been given to psychic placement, what the Chinese called Feung Shui. She could imagine all sorts of unpleasant side effects as power collected by the obelisks vented off in random, unpredictable ways. She resolved to have a look; she'd seen the one in London, but before she'd come to her current understanding of things. That was for the future, though; right now she had more immediate concerns.
Cymbeline moved her chair around to the obelisk's opposite face. Crumpled plastic had been laid on the floor to keep it from being scuffed by the wooden frame supporting the obelisk. The chair's wheels ran against an escaped fold and jammed. Cymbeline reached out but even leaning as far as she dared she couldn't actually touch the stone from this side. She backed the chair away and tried a different angle. No dice.
"Blast," Cymbeline muttered, sitting back in her chair and drumming her fingers on the armrest. She considered calling in the staff who'd erected the obelisk and berating them, but it wasn't really their fault. She drove to her desk and picked up a pair of scissors, but found she couldn't quite reach the fold with them. Leaning over the side of the chair, the arm rest got in the way. Rotating the chair ninety degrees and leaning forward took care of that problem, but then the lap belt caught her up short.
Cymbeline's fingers moved to the buckle securing the lap belt but paused just before making contact. Taking off the belt put her in a dangerous position; realistically, it was the only thing holding her to the chair and if she fell out she couldn't put herself back in. As if by itself her hand moved, gently caressing first one, then the other, of the hairless stumps peeking out from under the hem of her miniskirt. Her legs ended about two hand spans below her hip joints. She wouldn't have thought that not having legs would make much difference in sitting, but it did. Lacking the weight of the lower extremities reduced how far she could lean without toppling over. Using her arms to prop herself up would counteract that to some extent, but for Cymbeline that presented yet another problem: her right arm ended, with a cap of shiny keloid, just below her elbow. In certain circumstances she could prop herself up with it while reaching out with her left hand, but that didn't work if she had to lean to the left.
Cymbeline's face tightened. I will not cry, she commanded herself, gritting her teeth with the effort of fighting back the stinging in her eyes. Loosing a hand- even her right- was a thing she could have managed, she felt... if only she still had legs. She could have managed with loosing her legs... if she still had both hands. Loosing her hand and her legs seemed so very much worse than the sum of the two taken individually. Intellectually she understood that it didn't work that way; in all likelihood she would have felt just as bad about loosing just her hand or just her legs. Alternatively, she could have lost her left hand as well, and where would she be then?
Knowing didn't change the feelings, though. If anything, it made them worse: on top of everything else, it added the notion that getting upset about it was childish. Counseling and physical therapy aided greatly in the adjustment... but at the heart of it everything came back to the same point: things were as they were, and no amount of wanting them to be different made the slightest difference. In this particular case, that clearly meant that Cymbeline should calmly acknowledge her limitations by going to her desk, picking up the phone, and requesting whatever assistance she needed.
Cymbeline released the lap belt. She'd harnessed the power of ancient gods and bent it to her will. She'd delved into the secrets of the universe. She'd stood beside the noblest of heroes and fought bravely against the darkest of villains. (Of course she'd also lost one of those battles, which occasioned her present condition.) One might debate whether those accomplishments really justified her feeling the sting of pride more acutely than someone else in her position who hadn't done such things... but it could not be disputed that she felt it, and that- subjectively, at least- the pain was great indeed. She hooked her elbow around the chair's arm rest, scooted her hips forward, and crouched to lower her shoulders as far as possible. So far so good; keeping her body's center of mass over her hips reduced the chance of tipping over, and gripping with her right elbow provided a small but very important bit of stability. The scissors reached, and closed around, the fold of plastic-
Cymbeline's rump slipped off the chair's seat. On the way down her forehead smacked into the obelisk hard enough to make the room pulse with strange colors and flicker with odd little sparkles. She landed on her left side, trapped between the obelisk and the chair. When she drew a breath to loose a particularly venomous curse an eruption of agony exploded in her belly. She clenched her teeth so she wouldn't scream; that would only make it hurt more. She forced herself to breathe as shallowly as possible and looked down at herself. Somehow, in falling from her chair, she'd managed to drive the scissors so deep into her abdomen that only the handles still protruded. She couldn't pull them out because her arm was trapped beneath her, and because of the chair she couldn't roll to free it. "Bloody... Hell," she gasped.
The room seemed to quaver. Blood red flames limned the faded hieroglyphs on the obelisk's face, bringing them into sharp focus. Similar designs appeared on Cymbeline's body, glowing right through her clothing. The world seemed to fade into a ruddy haze-
"No!" Cymbeline shouted. The pain in her belly wasn't a touch on the pain flooding her soul. One of the ancient gods she'd harnessed was Sekhmet, Egyptian goddess of vengeance and destruction. Though perhaps 'harnessed' wasn't quite the right word. Sekhmet gave of her power quite readily, compared to some... but it came with a price, naturally. Invoking Sekhmet enhanced a person's tendency to anger, and the more of her power one used the more acute the anger became, until one's very identity ceased to exist, drowned in a sea of mindless rage. Cymbeline had already come dangerously close to that once before; only a timely intervention by her friends had saved her from utter self-destruction. Because of it, even though she'd released the power it did not leave her. The spirit of Sekhmet had entered her, become a part of her. She felt it at the back of her mind, waiting to feed on any little pique or annoyance. Now it boiled up inside her, like fresh lava filling the crater of a formerly dormant volcano. It burned, like liquid fire flowing through her veins. The blood pouring from her side glowed like molten iron straight from the furnace, and everything it touched burst into flame.
With unspeakable agony destroying her from within, Cymbeline didn't even notice that she was screaming her throat raw, or that she'd somehow freed her arm and was clawing at the obelisk. Or that her nails tore furrows in the ancient stone. The chair spun away as she thrashed, tottering, then crashing over on its side. The sleeve of her blouse pulled tight across her bicep, then tore.
Somehow, even in the storm of rage and pain tearing at her mind, Cymbeline managed to notice a faint wink of light. It came from a large, beautifully cut diamond mounted on a silver band encircling her ring finger. She stared at it because, just then, it was the only thing in her universe not washed in pain and flame. George had given her that ring on the day he proposed. Despite the fact that she'd been horribly maimed... that she'd failed utterly to defeat Daitakerou the revenant... that she'd almost dragged him down to Hell with her. None of that matters, he'd whispered to her on those long, hopeless nights she'd lain in the hospital, coming to the realization that nothing could be done about her condition. I love you, Cymbeline. If I have to go to Hell to be with you, then I shall. And for that alone, I'd call it Heaven.
The band parted with a snap, right under the stone. Cymbeline gasped and clenched her fist so the ring wouldn't slip off. As the maelstrom of fire and rage burned away more and more of her conscious mind she'd couldn't even remember why it was important, only that it was. Even as her vision dissipated in a roaring, spinning, vortex of flame, the glitter of the stone remained at its heart...
With a huge, desperate intake of breath, like a swimmer coming up after too long under water, Cymbeline awoke. Her eyes flew open and she sat up so fast the room spun for a moment. She ached all over, like- like she couldn't think of what. Clinging tightly to the obelisk she hauled herself upright. Only after tottering there for a bit did she realize that she now had two complete arms with which to pull herself up... and legs upon which to stand once she got there, for that matter. With some trepidation, she looked down at herself.
The slender, delicate, and stunningly beautiful body she'd once had was gone. In its place was a huge, heavy, exaggerated one. Slabs of muscle rippled on her arms and shoulders, which were themselves as thick and solid as that musculature demanded. Her pert, deliciously firm breasts had grown until they hung down to just shy of the fold on the inside of her elbow. Below that lay a set of six pack abs Mr. Universe would have envied. The hips below them didn't belong to any man, though; the pelvic girdle looked about as heavy and solid as the superstructure of a bridge, and though wrapped in muscle even thicker than that on Cymbeline's shoulders, enough fat lay over it to give the hips and thighs a distinct- and very pronounced- feminine curve.
Cymbeline didn't have a mirror handy but she didn't need one to know that her head also had changed. No longer the fine featured, soft-eyed face of a pure breed Abyssinian, it was now the heavy, blunt countenance of an African lioness. Of the Abyssinian all the remained was color: light golden brown over most of the body, with slightly darker points, and faintly visible tabby markings on the face. In Cymbeline's case, that included prominent tear marking around the eyes. Even her mane, voluminous and wavy, the same golden brown as her points, had vanished.
"Oh, boy," Cymbeline muttered, looking past herself to her immediate environment. The obelisk still stood on its wooden base, one side of which had charred black as if something hot had lay upon it. The plastic had melted down into a reeking mess, soaking into the carpet underneath. The first thought in her mind was to wonder how'd she'd ever explain this to her boss. The second-
"How come I'm me and not a raving maniac?" Cymbeline asked aloud. She concentrated, speaking a few words while gesturing with one hand. Someone watching might have called it magic; to Cymbeline herself it was simply altering, in a small way, the nature of the spirit she'd called into herself. The room dimmed and turned indistinct as her eyes changed to view things other than light. She looked at her arm... and saw what looked like a network of lines, like blood vessels, that pulsated with an angry, red light. Around them, where her skin would have been, she saw a network of hieroglyphics that seemed to have been drawn in flame.
Cymbeline squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them her vision had returned to normal. "Oy," she said hollowly. She wasn't herself. The rage and flame was still in her, just as much as before. More, even. She wasn't writhing in pain because she'd become something to which being that way was natural and normal. The experience might be likened to falling into water and suddenly growing gills. At first she'd feel like she was drowning, and probably panic. Then, once she'd adapted, she'd calm down and everything would seem normal. But critical word there was seem. It would be dangerously easy to think that, since she felt comfortable in her new form, nothing had changed. Which was not the case, not even slightly. The fact that she felt comfortable indicated how much she'd changed.
In a near panic Cymbeline rushed to her desk, grabbed a rubber band, and wrapped it around her finger, hooking the ends over the stone of her engagement ring so it wouldn't slip off her finger. To continue the analogy, if she was now a fish, then swimming in the ocean would surely be a new and exciting experience... but going back on land to do things there would be problematical. Yes, she liked her new body. It beat being a triple amputee all to heck. But there were one or two thing she didn't want to change. The broken band of her engagement ring bothered her more than she cared to admit because she feared it meant she'd already changed too much...
The door to Cymbeline's office burst open. Four people rushed in: two carrying fire extinguishers, one carrying a cell phone, and the last carrying a rifle. For half an instant the two parties simply stood there, staring at one another. Then the fellow with the rifle let out a yelp, threw it to his shoulder, and fired. A feathered dart appeared in the top of Cymbeline's right breast, about a hand's breadth or so below her clavicle.
After a moment Cymbeline removed the dart, inspecting its tip while rubbing the place where it had struck with the fingertips of her other hand. The drug it had tried to deliver into her bloodstream would have dropped a charging Cape buffalo right on its nose. In Cymbeline's case, though, it didn't even penetrate the outermost layer of skin, so none of the drug actually entered her blood stream. Even had the dart discharged is cargo into her pectoral as it was supposed to, the fire in her blood would have destroyed it before it could so much as made her dizzy. No ordinary drug, poison, or infection stood a chance against her hyper-charged immune system.
"Toa," Cymbeline said with a sigh, "What did I tell you about the dart?"
"T- that it has t- to go in your m- mouth, eye, or ear," the shooter stammered, his whole body quaking in terror and his eyes showing white all around.
"Does this look like one of those places?" Cymbeline demanded, planting her index finger on the impact site.
"N- no, ma'am. Doctor."
"Billy, please tell me you're on the phone to George," Cymbeline implored.
"Yes, Doctor," the one with the cell phone hastily assured.
Cymbeline nodded. "Good. I'll just sit here quietly until he arrives, okay?" She cleared a corner of her desk by he simple expedient of casually sweeping aside what lay there, and sat down. "Bring me the phone, will you?"
"Ah... yes, doctor." Billy, a brown canine with sad eyes and long, droopy ears, approached Cymbeline with as much eagerness as might have shown entering a den full of rabid wolverines. He presented the phone from as far away as possible, holding it at arm's length.
Cymbeline reached for the phone but noticed suddenly that she still held the dart. She considered setting it on her desk but immediately rejected that idea. It wouldn't bother her, but the dart contained enough drug to stop an ordinary person's heart. She launched it with a flick of her middle finger; it flew across the room and stuck quivering between the eyes of a Van Eyck reproduction hanging on the opposite wall. Billy yelped, dropping the phone and diving away. Without really thinking about it Cymbeline ducked forward and caught the phone before it hit the floor. "George?" she asked, bringing it to her face.
"Cymbeline?" inquired a deep, masculine voice from the other end.
"Yes." Tears welled up in Cymbeline's eyes and her voice caught.
"Was it a false alarm?"
"Listen to my voice, George," Cymbeline replied. With the enlarging of her chest and throat her voice had deepened and taken on a burring, some might say growling, quality.
"I see." For a moment George said nothing. "Then why aren't you ripping up the city, if you don't mind my asking?"
Cymbeline grinned. The four by the door shrank back; her new teeth looked large and strong enough to rip through an elephant's hide as if it were tissue paper. "It was you, George," she said softly. "Your ring. When I felt the anger coming up, I thought of you and looked at the ring. Somehow... it carried me through."
For a long moment George said nothing. There was a sound, possibly a sniff. "That's wonderful," he said softly.
"This is twice you've saved me," Cymbeline added in a voice that could have made the walls blush.
"Actually, that's three times, including that episode at the Brooklyn wind turbine," George said with a hint of humor returning to his tone. "But who's counting?"
"Pah!" Cymbeline expostulated. "You're a filthily, conniving bastard, George Kremmin." But she couldn't repress a giggle.
"Oh, Cymbeline, you say the sweetest things."
"Grrah." Cymbeline grimaced. Then her expression softened. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too. I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"Okay. I'll be here. Bye."
Cymbeline laid the phone aside with a sigh, then wiped the tears from her cheek. George might make a joke of it, but he'd told the simple truth. Without him Cymbeline wouldn't have survived meeting Daughter Night the first time, to say nothing of the second.
"Yes, what?" Cymbeline demanded impatiently.
"Ah..." the group shrank back farther, but didn't quite leave the room. "You know you're... not dressed?"
"What?" Cymbeline glanced at herself. She was naked, come to think of it. Nothing remained of her original clothes but a few charred tatters, even if they would have fit her new body. "Bring me one of those sheets they use for unveilings," she directed.
"Okay." The group withdrew, gratefully it had to be said.
Cymbeline got to her feet and paced slowly back and forth. She hadn't stood for almost a year, ever since loosing her legs. Yet she walked as naturally, and unconsciously, as someone who'd done it all their life. Before her accident she probably wouldn't have thought about it, but after months and months of physical therapy she understood that suddenly gaining legs would be just as much of a shock as loosing them. Her brain would gradually shut down the pathways to the missing limbs and shift the neural capacity to other things, just as a person who is blinded finds their other senses becoming more acute. If by some means the limbs returned, her brain would have to rebuild the pathways from scratch, as it had when she'd been a baby and learning to walk in the first place. That brought home the reality of her change like no other single thing. She wasn't just the same old Cymbeline in a fancy new wrapper. Her mind had changed as well, to properly fit her new body. She'd need to be careful until she understood the extent of that change.
The phone on Cymbeline's desk rang. Only as she moved out of it to pick up the receiver did Cymbeline notice that she'd automatically shifted into a combat stance, ready to strike at an unexpected threat. Which made perfect sense, given that Sekhmet was a goddess of war and slaughter. It was the whole reason Cymbeline had called on the spirit of Sekhmet in the first place; to gain not only strength but the skill to use it. At the time she hadn't considered what that meant to her personally; there hadn't been time. Which, when she thought about it, explained how she'd gotten into trouble. Being a spirit of conflict, Sekhmet tended to slant everything so it looked like a battle. Doing that made it easier- and more natural- to think in violent, warlike terms. Which, in turn, made things look more like a battle. So the vicious cycle began, spiraling down into blood and fire-
The phone was still ringing. Cymbeline shook off her reverie and picked it up. "Dr. Lathasar speaking," she announced.
Only silence came across the line. "I- I'm sorry. Dr. Lathasar," a rather nervous voice apologized. "My name is Eden Poihakena, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You are, I understand, an expert on... unusual happenings?"
"You might say that, yes," Cymbeline allowed, sitting on the corner of her desk.
"We need someone with your... experience," Mr. Poihakena continued. "For a... rather sensitive matter."
"I'll need more information before I can say for sure whether or not I'm qualified," Cymbeline pointed out.
Once again Mr. Poihakena hesitated before speaking. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but are you... feeling all right? You sound like you might, ah, have a cold?"
"No, I'm in excellent health, thank you," Cymbeline assured. "May I ask what it is that you feel requires my expertise?"
"It... wouldn't be appropriate to discuss over the phone, Dr. Lathasar. Could we arrange to meet in person?"
"Sure," Cymbeline agreed, her curiosity piqued. "When and where?"
"As soon as possible. Our offices are at 195 Lambton Quay. And... we'd greatly appreciate your discretion. This is a very sensitive matter."
"Don't worry, Mr. Poihakena," Cymbeline replied, allowing herself a bit of a smile. "I know how to keep secrets. I'll be over directly."
"There's, ah, reserved parking spaces around beside the building," Mr. Poihakena added.
Cymbeline hesitated in the act of taking the phone from her face and hanging it up. "Reserved?" she asked, bringing it back.
"For- um- you know- people with- ah-"
"Disabilities?" Cymbeline suggested, a definite chill coming into her tone. "The handicapped? Cripples?"
Cymbeline took a deep breath. Getting angry was pointless and, for her, dangerous. "Mr. Poihakena, there is a broad range of physical ability in our society. Compared to an Olympic athlete, you might be considered handicapped." She paused a moment to let that sink in. "There are also those who have to get by in life with a more constrained set of physical options that even you enjoy. All they want is to be allowed to live their lives without being treated like lepers, outcasts about whom polite society dares not speak. I know it's a delicate issue but you don't score any points by dancing around it as if you were afraid to touch it. Good bye." She hung up. The receiver cracked when she replaced it in the cradle.
For a moment Cymbeline stared at the telephone. Then she sat on the floor, eyes closed and breathing deeply. "Peace," she whispered. "He doesn't mean to be a jerk, he just doesn't know." She couldn't help thinking that pulling a few of his limbs off might help him put things in perspective but she quashed that thought sternly. It was the sort of thing she'd once heard described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem... and she didn't at all like who she'd become if she went around doing things like that.
Cymbeline's eyes snapped open. "There's no use trying to sneak up on me, Toa," she called. "I can smell you." She deemed it impolitic to mention that it was the reek of fear that made him so obvious... or that sensing it gave her a thrill of pleasure, not unlike what she might experience while admiring the body of a really cute guy. She even felt tempted to do things that would enhance and prolong the sensation, just as she might hit on a cute guy in the hopes that she might persuade him to come back to her place and take off his clothes, that she might admire him more directly. She squashed the impulse; that was Sekhmet talking. George wouldn't approve, she said, glancing at her engagement ring. Someone hearing her might have said it sound more like a mantra than an observation, and they'd be right. Realistically, she was convincing herself, first and foremost.
Toa peeked around the corner, exposing only his eyes. "I have your sheet, Doctor," he said tremulously.
"Just toss it in," Cymbeline replied. "I'll get it."
The eyes vanished. A folded sheet sailed in; footsteps retreated rapidly down the hall. Cymbeline shook her head sadly as she retrieved the sheet and unfolded it. It was white, of a fairly heavy but not coarse material, and rectangular in shape. She wrapped it around herself after the fashion of a Roman stola, essentially a toga for women. The difference really wasn't so very great, except that a proper toga was made from a half circle of cloth rather than a square. The stola was made from a square, so this sheet could make one without the need for trimming or adjustment. With it all wrapped and tucked, she gave herself a once-over. "Oh, cripes," she muttered. "I look like I'm wearing a sheet." She gripped the edge of the cloth and concentrated. Nothing happened.
"Bugger," Cymbeline muttered, closing her eyes and this time silently mouthing the words. This was another important change. Before she could have done this without even thinking. Sekhmet, clearly enough, had different priorities. Calling down a lightning bolt, for instance, would probably be simplicity itself. This time when she completed the spell her sheet changed color, to a vibrant saffron, with a dark red border. Now at least it looked more like an actual garment and not merely something hastily improvised.
Cymbeline noticed the footsteps on a nearly unconscious level. What brought them to her attention was that the person who made them wasn't afraid. That, combined with the fact that the person was a short, heavyset man, gave her a strong indication of who it was. She hurried to her desk and perched on the corner, carefully arranging herself into a casually seductive pose.
Constable George Kremmin knocked twice, then entered without waiting for an answer. He was a bulldog, with the squat, powerful frame one would expect from that breed, with a heavy jaw and a broad, flat face that was mostly white speckled with a few patches of gray, though on his jowls the gray parts were dusted with white. He wore his uniform smartly: a light blue button up tunic without a tie, black shoulder boards, dark trousers, black shoes, and a billed cap with a black and white checkered band. From his equipment belt hung a truncheon in a holster, a pair of handcuffs, a radio, and his cell phone. Police officers in New Zealand did not carry firearms except under extraordinary circumstances.
"Hello, George," Cymbeline said, a touch breathlessly. She felt her nipples stiffening, pressing against the fabric of her improvised stola. Her heart pounded; blood sang in her ears. Yes, she was a thing of fire... but now it was a markedly different kind of heat.
George's eyes swept the room. Though brief the glance missed nothing, especially the obelisk with its charred base and the overturned electric wheelchair. Upon Cymbeline they lingered, and not merely for informational purposes. Considering abstractly the notion of a heavily muscled woman just shy of two and a half meters tall and weighing at least two hundred and thirty kilograms trying to look sexy, he would have imagined the result to be somewhere between grotesque and ridiculous, like The Hulk in a tuxedo. Cymbeline in the flesh put that notion right out the window. Everything about her- the way she looked at him, the expression on her face, the languid pose of her body, even the apparently thoughtless way her clothing draped her- radiated raw sex appeal in waves. Intellectually he realized that it was the spirit of Bast, Egyptian goddess of cats and sex, that gave her such incredible charisma. The "real" Cymbeline was quiet, introverted, and rather repressed sexually.
Cymbeline's reserve cracked after only a handful of seconds. With a squeal of delight she flew off the desk, scooped George up, and spun him around, laughing happily. "I can't tell you how much I've longed for this moment," she purred, nuzzling his ear. "I've dreamed about it, every night and every day."
A part of George's mind pointed out that it wasn't appropriate to the dignity of a constable to let himself be manhandled like this. Another part of him- the one with its face buried in Cymbeline's cleavage- felt that maybe it wasn't really so terrible as all that. He'd never say, even to himself, that Cymbeline had ever been anything less than beautiful... but it tore at his heart to see her diminished, struggling with things that had once been effortless. For a moment his vision blurred red. If I ever get my hands on that miserable Jap bastard-
Cymbeline interrupted the thought by throwing George into a full lip lock and giving his tonsils a thorough examination with her tongue. He gasped for breath when she finally let him up, and only partially because she'd covered his mouth. Damn, but she could kiss. And a whole lot else, too. The spirit of Bast granted skill as well as charisma. And, it had to be said, the will to use them. Just like Sekhmet's, the spirit of Bast influenced one's behavior.
"My, my, Constable," Cymbeline murmured, slipping a hand down to George's crotch. "Is that a truncheon in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
"Now, now, you ought to know I don't show my truncheon to just anyone," George replied.
Cymbeline giggled. "I should hope not. After all, you're a married man now. I intend to keep you and your truncheon all to myself." She licked his nose and caressed his nether regions. "But you won't mind, I promise. A whole harem couldn't do for you what I can by myself."
"I don't doubt it," George replied, wondering if perhaps he should get into the spirit of things by, say, caressing one of her breasts. Not that he didn't want to... and Cymbeline could be very persuasive when she put her mind to it... but a number of important questions clambered in the front of his mind, demanding his attention. Not without some regret he lay his hand over hers and gently but firmly detached it from his crotch. "Cymbeline," began, "I can't even begin to tell you how glad I am to see you... here and now." He'd almost said whole again but that left a bad taste in his mouth. He could not countenance giving the impression that he'd ever found Cymbeline to be anything less than perfect. "However-" he gripped her cheeks and looked deep into her eyes- "It begs the question of why. We set everything up so this wouldn't happen."
Cymbeline's face fell with an almost audible thump. "I know," she admitted, stroking George's hand. "And... I admit it. I was stupid. I... couldn't get to the obelisk. The plastic was in the way. I should have asked someone to come in and clear it for me but I didn't. I wanted to do it myself. When I tried to cut it I fell out of the chair and stabbed myself with the scissors. The pain brought the spirit into me; I couldn't stop it. I thought I was lost... and I saw this." She brought her hand up so she and George could look at the ring without breaking eye contact. "As the pain and rage tried to drown me I clung to the one thing that mattered more to me than anything else: that I was Mrs. George Kremmin." She closed her eyes; tears leaked from them and ran down her cheeks. "Somehow... it was enough. It carried me through the storm and brought me out the other side."
George gently wiped the tears from Cymbeline's face. What she said touched him deeply. The only problem was that, strictly speaking, she wasn't Mrs. George Kremmin. The wedding wasn't scheduled for another three months. She ought to know that, too. She'd been marking the days on a calendar ever since they'd agreed on a date.
Constable Kremmin, the police officer, despised sloppiness and imprecision. His impulse was to correct the misapprehension. On the other hand, he understood the terrible power Cymbeline had called into being. It didn't seem prudent to weaken her control over it. He also knew that the correct course would be to persuade Cymbeline to release the power and go back to how she'd been before. This aspect brought the rage too close to the surface; if it got out of control the public- the public he was sworn to protect- would suffer the consequences.
George the man wanted Cymbeline to be his wife. He wanted it with all his heart, all his mind, and all his soul. He understood the cold logic of George the policeman. He knew that, if he asked, Cymbeline would release the power and go back. For the sake of his love she'd give up her strength, her very mobility. Because she loved him as profoundly and completely as he loved her. Ironically, it was for that very reason that he knew he'd never do it. Even in the face of a very personal understanding of the risks, he wouldn't- couldn't- demand that sacrifice of her. Because he loved her. His love demanded that he do whatever it took to see her grow and flourish. Imprisoning her spirit in ruined flesh- just to make things easier on him- wasn't that. He'd never be able to look at himself in the mirror ever again. "You do know we'll have to explain this to the SASVS," he said.
"Yes, I know," Cymbeline sighed. "We should probably go and see-" She stopped, her mouth falling open and her eyes widening. "Omigosh!"
"What?" George demanded, worriedly.
"I forgot. I made an appointment to go see Mr. Eden Poihakena of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade."
"Right now, actually."
George blinked. "What for?"
"He called me. Because I'm an expert on 'unusual happenings,' apparently."
"That sounds ominous."
"It sure does."
George pursed his lips. "Well, I suppose we shouldn't keep him waiting." He slid off Cymbeline's lap. He found it necessary to adjust his inseam a little before straightening up. Reflexively he turned away from Cymbeline but caught himself and turned back, so she'd see him do it. "Tonight," he promised, leveling a finger at her.
Cymbeline's face took a on a decidedly predatory look and she growled deep in her throat, thrusting her chest out. George reflected that she wasn't a delicate slip of a girl anymore; her new body was every bit as powerful as it looked, and more. He might very well still end up beaten to a bloody pulp, though perhaps not for the reason he'd originally imagined. Ah, but what a way to go. He couldn't help grinning at the thought. Then he turned, glancing at the obelisk. "Is there perhaps something you could do about that mess there, love?" he inquired.
"Hmm." Cymbeline walked around the obelisk, studying the burned pallet and flooring. "I think perhaps so. A restoration spell ought to fix it up nicely."
George did not miss the fact that Cymbeline spent a moment reviewing the spell before casting it. He frowned briefly, then wiped the expression away lest Cymbeline notice it. He'd watched her grow considerably in knowledge and power since their first meeting; in the beginning to meet the threat of Daughter Night, and later in the hope of finding a way to repair her damaged body. Having to be so careful with her spells was, for her, a fairly significant step backwards. It only reinforced his conviction that they weren't out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.
At the spell's conclusion trails of blue fire, like electric arcs in slow motion, snapped from Cymbeline's fingers. Wood and carpet appeared to burn in reverse as streamers of blue energy crawled over them. Even the obelisk itself was affected; the carvings sprang into sharp focus, the ancient granite turning dark and shiny as if newly cut and polished. Then, with a thunderous crack, the stone split from top to bottom, falling apart in two halves. "Oh, my," Cymbeline said in a tiny voice.
"What happened?" George hurried up.
"I..." Cymbeline stared at her hands, then the remains of the obelisk. The pallet and carpet, at least, had been restored. She bent over, passing a hand over the broken faces. A bright blue spark leapt to her fingers, like a colossal static discharge. She yelped and jumped back, rubbing her palm. "I think that was a warning," she admitted.
"A warning for what?" George asked.
"I never did figure out exactly how I restored the Lynx, and the hospital, and brought all those people back to life," Cymbeline explained. "I couldn't help thinking that the knowledge was being deliberately withheld. I think now it happened because I pissed someone off. This is a not so subtle reminder that I have another mess to clean up."
"What needs to be done about it?"
Cymbeline shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I don't know what I did, so I don't know what to do about it. All I do know is that asking questions haphazardly could be just as bad, or worse." She sighed unhappily. "The more I learn about sorcery, the more I realize how little I really do know."
George smiled ruefully. "Then it's like anything else in this crazy world of ours. Which suggests that all we can do is take it as it comes and do the best we can." He straightened up smartly, offering his arm. "Shall we, Mrs. Kremmin?"
"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Kremmin." Cymbeline slipped her hand under George's arm and snuggled him against her side. Thus joined, in body and sprit, they left her office and set boldly forth.
People stared as the unquestionably odd couple passed by. Most tried to hide the fact, with varying degrees of success. Some looked openly curious, others fearful. Cymbeline's dual nature wasn't exactly secret, not after that regrettable incident centering around a giant cat robot tearing up downtown Wellington. Te Papa had wrung quite a bit of mileage out of it, crowing that they were the only museum in the world with an actual super hero on staff. George cringed inside when he heard anyone mention it; people who said things like that didn't understand what super heroing was all about. In George's experience it involved a lot of terror, pain, and loss, for what often turned out to be ambiguous results. Far more often than not, the people involved weren't the straightforward heroes and villains portrayed by the media.
In Te Papa's public areas, people did more than stare. They pointed, shouted, and clustered around, clamoring to shake hands or get an autograph. After all, as an ordinary Egyptologist who, with no thought to herself, managed to harness great power which she selflessly used to banish Daughter Night and the Big Bad Wolf, then bring Super Collie back to life, she had captured the public's imagination. It didn't hurt that Cymbeline worked the crowd with a style and charm that any politician would envy.
"Does it ever bother you that the public gives you credit for things you didn't actually do?" George inquired as he led the way to a police car double-parked on Cable street. There were some definite perks to being a constable.
Cymbeline's expression turned distant. "Yes, it does," she said after a short pause. "Sometimes when I'm laying awake at night I wonder what they'd think if they knew that the reason I was there to save the Lynx is because I'd broke it in the first place." She shrugged. "I know they'd never believe that Daughter Night was actually the one who brought Super Collie back to life." Her expression hardened. "It bothers me a lot that I didn't take care of the Big Bad Wolf. Not as I'm the least bit sorry to see him go... but having him disappear like this makes me sure he and his nasty little henchmen are gonna come back and bite us in the ass someday." She sighed, her expression softening once more. "But what the Hell; I'm the one who wanted to be a super hero. I got my wish. And the public... they'll believe what they want no matter what." She lay a hand on George's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Just... help me make sure I don't start believing it myself, okay?"
George lay his hand over Cymbeline's. "You have my word, Mrs. Kremmin." All in all, the exchange greatly relieved him. The spirits might have changed Cymbeline dramatically, but she wasn't only what they made her. The "real" Cymbeline was still in there, gluing the whole mass together into a cohesive whole. Like... like the egg in mayonnaise, joining oil and vinegar- two otherwise immiscible substances- into something more than merely the sum of its parts. Most importantly, something that didn't devolve back into its components the way oil and vinegar dressing always did. He hoped very much that meant Cymbeline could hold herself together.
"George?" Cymbeline asked as he unlocked his patrol car.
"Yes?" George paused before heading around to the driver's side.
"Did you ever see that movie, Harry and the Hendersons?"
"Hmm... yes I think so," George replied. "Reasonably entertaining, I thought. Not great, but not bad either. Why-"
George stopped because he'd finally got the point. Looking at Cymbeline, then the car. Cymbeline again, and again the car. It was a compact; Wellington's steep, narrow streets didn't favor the land behemoths of which Americans in particular seemed so enamored. Getting her into the passenger compartment would mean practically folding her in half, assuming the seat didn't collapse under her weight. He wondered briefly if her head would dent the roof like Harry's had in the movie. Most likely so, he decided; in this form her skin would turn rifle bullets and he'd seen her upend a full sized sport utility vehicle as easily as tipping a wheelbarrow. She could probably smash bricks on her forehead the way ordinary people crushed cans.
"Hmm," George mused, rubbing his chin. "Unless you can shrink yourself, or transform into something smaller, I think we may be in a bit of a pickle."
"Transform?" An odd expression flicked across Cymbeline's face. "Now why in the blue blazes didn't I ever think of that before? Bast is the goddess of cats, right? It's a well known fact that she could assume the form of one whenever she wanted. Now let's see here..." She closed her eyes and concentrated.
"Ah-" George began. He wanted to point out that, in the southern kingdom of ancient Egypt, Sekhmet had also been the goddess of cats. Some experts maintained that the two traditions had merged, giving rise to the myth of Ra re-making Sekhmet into Bast as a way of controlling her violent tendencies. (One picked up things when one dated an Egyptologist.) Yes, it made perfect sense that Sekhmet would also turn into a cat. George couldn't help wondering if Cymbeline had given any thought to the type of cat Sekhmet would likely become.
Cymbeline's outline softened, as if melting. She dropped onto her hands and knees; her limbs and body re-formed, adapting to a quadrupedal stance. The stola, secured only by friction in any case, fell open. Nevertheless, George's eyes never left her face, which hadn't changed much at all. It was still that of a lioness. Now it was the proper color and attached to a proper lioness body. One every bit as big and powerful as it had been in human shape. Most alarming, though, were the eyes. They hadn't changed at all. They were still the eyes of a fierce, ferocious, and implacable predator. Just as they'd always been, at least in this aspect.
"Cymbeline?" George asked, his hand moving to his waist and closing around the hilt of his truncheon. It wouldn't do the slightest bit of good but he couldn't help doing it. Constables in New Zealand didn't carry firearms; even if they had he'd need something a lot more powerful than a .38 or 9mm handgun.
Cymbeline the lioness eased forward, not quite taking a step, the claws on her forepaws partially unsheathing. Something flew past George's head with a ping; he blinked but didn't look away. Cymbeline froze, looking down at her left forepaw. The engagement ring had fallen off and lay on the sidewalk, the band not only broken but somewhat twisted as well. An expression of very human shock and horror came across not only Cymbeline's face but her whole body. She tried to grab the ring but her forepaws weren't designed for it. After two failed attempts she reverted, all he way back to her original form. Her newly reformed left hand closed around the ring but her right, as well as her legs, disappeared. She fell on her face in a tangle of cloth; the stola was now about two and a half times too large.
George knelt, scooping up Cymbeline and the stola as a single bundle. Without legs and only one fully functional arm he had to carry her almost as if she were an inanimate object, like a sack of potatoes. Rather than put her on his shoulder he cradled her hips in his arms. In this form she wasn't heavy at all, and George's powerful frame could have handled quite a bit more. She put her arms around his shoulders, but he suspected that the support she sought was emotional rather than physical.
A number of people had stopped to stare, George noticed. This was downtown Wellington on a weekday afternoon, after all, and the late summer weather wasn't bat at all, considering. George and Cymbeline weren't alone, not by a long shot. Consideration of that fact induced George to change his mind; instead of carrying Cymbeline back to Te Papa he went ahead and put her in the car. Driving away delivered them both from having to face down a crowd of rubberneckers. By default he aimed for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; since it was only a few blocks away he drove slowly.
"Oh my," Cymbeline muttered, staring at the ring. "I've really done a number on it, haven't I?"
George said nothing.
George looked, moving only his eyes.
"Look, George, I- I-" Cymbeline clutched at the ring; her hand shook. Tears leaked from her eyes; she wiped them away with the back of her hand.
"You're the Egyptologist," George pointed out. "I'm upset, yes. Because you scared the crap out of me. I thought I'd lost you. Again."
Cymbeline sighed. "You're right, George." She let her head slump forward. "I am the Egyptologist. I should have known better. And..." she swallowed. "I'm sorry for frightening you. I... frightened myself, too. If it hadn't been for the ring..." She opened her hand, staring at it. A moment later she glanced hopefully at George. He raised an eyebrow. She grimaced. "All right, all right. You've made your point."
"Cymbeline, if you just went mad it would actually be easier," George said, his tone and expression softening. "When you woke up you'd know you shouldn't do it. This way.... you think you're yourself but you aren't. Not completely. Because of it you don't notice how different you are."
Cymbeline nodded slowly. "It's like... like being drunk, sort of," she said quietly. "You may know you're different... you just don't care."
Since Cable Street ran the wrong way in front of Te Papa George had cut across to Wakefield. Franks Kitts Park and the Queen's Wharf slid past as they drove up Jervois Quay. "Should I have your ring fitted with a larger band?" he asked.
"Then I wouldn't be able to wear it when I'm like this," Cymbeline responded, fingering the broken ends of the band.
"Is there some... magic you could do that would make it grow and shrink?"
"I expect so." Cymbeline's face and tone hardened. "But I won't do it. This-" her voice caught; she glanced at George with a mingled look of guilt and joy. "It reminds me of, of the pleasures of being human." She gave George's leg a squeeze.
George couldn't help smiling. "I'm honored that you find my company a pleasure, Cymbeline."
Cymbeline's face lit up, though tears leaked from her eyes. "You're what makes it all worthwhile, George," she declared. "Without you... even if I'd survived Daughter Night on my own, bad things would have happened to me. I... would have become like her, in the end. You saved me from that, as much as her. Thank you." She leaned across and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You're most welcome. Most welcome indeed." George slipped an arm around Cymbeline and snuggled her against his side.
"Now I understand better how he felt," Cymbeline mused.
Following Cymbeline's gaze, George saw the enormous, pensive face of Frodo Baggins looking out from the side of a building. George's brows furrowed slightly; Frodo might have survived his ordeal, surrendering his power rather than being consumed by it, but the experience had changed him irrevocably. One might even say it broke him. This power, too, begged to be used and hid its true cost until too late. George didn't find the comparison between Cymbeline and Frodo to be at all comforting. "That gives me an idea what we can do about your ring," he commented.
"Oh? You saying I should toss it into a volcano?"
For half a second George registered no reaction at all. Then a tremendous guffaw exploded out of him; the car wavered and nearly swerved into oncoming traffic. He pulled over until the paroxysm of mirth finally subsided. "Ah, me," he sighed, dabbing ineffectually at the tears streaming down his face and flopping back in his seat. "No, that's not exactly what I had in mind," he said, fixing Cymbeline with a stern look. Far from being duly chastised, though, she gave him an impudent smile. It was such a warm, joyous expression that he couldn't help smiling in return. She'd done another clever bit of magic, he decided, dispelling the gloomy mood. "I thought we'd get a chain, and you could hang it around your neck," he concluded.
Cymbeline slipped the ring on and stroked George's cheek. "I'm glad to be your ring bearer, George."
"I'm glad that it makes you glad," George responded, taking Cymbeline's hand and stroking it gently. "After Paddy Ann left I wasn't sure anyone else would want to. I just-" He sighed. "Let's hope our fellowship ends more happily."
"'And they lived happily, until the end of their days,'" Cymbeline whispered. "I like the sound of that. More than I can say." For a minute or two Cymbeline enjoyed the sensation of being close to her man, both physically and spiritually. Then, reluctantly, she straightened up. "Until that comes, though, we must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
"You're mixing your metaphors, Mrs. Kremmin." Hamlet, as a source of positive inspiration, was even worse than Frodo.
"So what?" Cymbeline returned breezily. "I've as much right to abuse the language as anyone else."
"Would you like to change before we drop in on Mr. Poihakena?" George asked.
"Absolutely," Cymbeline replied. "Oh, you mean clothes." She laughed. "No, thanks. This'll do fine."
"Sure?" George asked.
"Yes." Cymbeline nodded. "For better or worse it's a part of me now. I need to respect, it yes... but if I'm afraid of it, it'll eat me alive."
"All right." George nodded, and put the car in gear. They continued up to Customhouse Quay, then took a left at Warring-Taylor. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade lay at the far end, where Warring-Taylor Street ran into Lambton Quay. George found a spot and parked. "What now?"
"Help me out."
George went around the car and lifted Cymbeline out of her seat. "Set me down here and step back," she added.
Somewhat reluctantly George set Cymbeline on the ground and took a step away. She concentrated, holding herself upright with her hand. And then... she changed. Her body filled out like a balloon inflating, and she shot up like a plant growing in fast motion as her legs came back. The stola lay in a tangle at her feet; without the slightest hint of self consciousness at her nudity she picked it up and re-wrapped herself. She offered her arm; George took it and accompanied her inside.
"I am Dr. Cymbeline Lathasar, here to see Mr. Eden Poihakena," Cymbeline announced to the receptionist at the main entrance, in much the same tone as Elizabeth Windsor might have said I am the queen of England.
"Ah... one moment, if you please." The young man at the desk looked and sounded as pensive as one would expect of a sheep in the presence of a lion. He picked up his phone and whispered urgently. A short time later three men entered the reception area. The first two were soldiers, in impeccable fatigues and berets; the third, hurrying along in their wake, was just as obviously a civilian.
The first soldier was a spotted hyena, with a body that tapered down from his shoulders like a wedge. His fatigue blouse enclosed a chest and shoulders that weren't especially bulky but were wrapped in muscle that looked as tough as wire rope. Not a single gram of excess flesh marred his belly, hips, and legs, which looked as hard as obsidian. He was tall, too; George's face came about even with the man's pectorals.
The second soldier wasn't any taller than George and, if anything, somewhat heavier. He was a boar; coarse, spiky hair graced every visible part of him and prominent tusks curled from his lips. An inexperienced eye might call him portly, especially given how his belly protruded. George looked instead at the shoulders, which, while softened by a layer of fat, were much too thick and solid to be fat alone. If the rest of him was built similarly, and observation suggested that it was, he could probably make pretzels out of men half again his size.
"Ah, good afternoon," the third individual began, threading his way between the two soldiers. He looked like some kind of squirrel, with a small, lightly built frame but a large, fluffy tail. He wore a dress shirt, tie, and gray slacks. "Dr. Lathasar, Constable Kremmin, so good to see you." He didn't seem unduly concerned by Cymbeline's new body. "Sorry to call you on such short notice, but the matter came up rather suddenly. Allow me to present Major Haimar Wilkes-" he indicated the hyena- "and Colonel Arnold Benedict of the Special Anti-Super Villain Squad."
"Good to see you again, Haimar," George said, giving the major a nod.
"Likewise." The major returned the nod. "And you too, Cymbeline."
"Ah, yes." The squirrel shifted uncomfortably. "Well... I'm Eden Poihakena. If you'll step into my office, I'll brief you on what's happened."
"I would presume that you're the SASVS' new commander?" Cymbeline inquired of the boar as they walked.
"That's affirmative, Dr. Lathasar."
Cymbeline's brows lifted and her ears flicked back. "You're American," she commented in a not altogether friendly tone.
"So are you, Doctor," the colonel pointed out, apparently unfazed by Cymbeline's hostility.
"I was born there, yes." Cymbeline admitted. She couldn't very well deny it; at the bottom her accent was still that of the American west coast, where she'd been raised, though over the years it had morphed into something close to what was frequently called the BBC accent. The colonel sounded as if he'd come from the northeast.
"Colonel Benedict comes to us from the American Department of Super-Hero Affairs," Mr. Poihakena put in.
"Really." The temperature of Cymbeline's tone dropped markedly.
"If it helps any, Doctor, I'm here because I don't entirely agree with how the DSA does things," Colonel Benedict put in. "I feel very strongly that the agency's handling the New York incident was shameful."
"Is that what it is? An incident?" Cymbeline's ears had lay completely back and her tail began to lash. "What do they call the Electro-Bastard affair then? A mishap? A peccadillo?"
George moved to Cymbeline's left side and took her hand, making sure to touch the ring. She flinched but immediately relaxed, at least mostly.
"They call it a disaster," Colonel Benedict said. "So much of one, in fact, that they needed a scapegoat in order to save face. They chose me."
Cymbeline made as if to respond but George squeezed her hand. She subsided.
Mr. Poihakena's office wasn't unreasonably small but containing five people, three of whom were quite large, taxed its capacity. Cymbeline elected to sit on the floor, citing that the institutional chairs were uncomfortable even if they would safely support her weight. George pulled up a chair beside her. Haimar and Colonel Benedict sat together on George's other side.
Mr. Poihakena fiddled nervously with some folders on his desk, then set them aside and clasped his hands together. "Dr. Lathasar, we've called you in because... a certain matter has come up-"
"Yes, you said as much on the phone," Cymbeline cut in. "I'm in your office now. Can you cut to the chase?"
"It appears that Rarotonga has been invaded by aliens from outer space," Colonel Benedict replied.
For several subjectively very long seconds no one spoke. "Rarotonga?" Cymbeline finally managed.
"Capital of the Cook Islands," George put in. "Which are legally an independent territory but administered by New Zealand. Rarotonga is a popular vacation spot and a refueling stop for flights between New Zealand and North America. Considered by some to be the last truly unspoiled Pacific island paradise."
"Exactly correct." Colonel Benedict nodded. "Only this morning, the constabulary in Avarua sent us these photos." He opened one of the folders, drew out several A5 glossies, and handed them over.
Cymbeline took the photos and examined them one at a time. George peered past her shoulder. He almost asked are these for real but caught himself. That would be insulting, and Major Wilkes at least he liked. "You're certain that these are authentic?" he asked instead.
"Yes." Colonel Benedict nodded. "They were taken by Constabulary photographers and wired here over a secure link."
"My word," Cymbeline breathed, going through the stack one more time.
"We'd like you to examine these individuals to help us determine if they are actual aliens or something created here on earth," Major Wilkes said.
"Well." Cymbeline put the photos back on the desk. "I'd be glad to help any way I can."
"Excellent." Colonel Benedict rose. "We have a transport standing by. You'll leave for Rarotonga tonight."
"That's pretty sudden," Cymbeline observed.
"The Government feels that this matter needs to be resolved as quickly as possible," Colonel Benedict supplied.
"That being so-" George's hand dropped to his cell phone.
"No."The colonel held out a restraining hand. "I appreciate your motives, Constable. I even agree with them, up to a point. However, it has been decided- at a level much higher than my own- that Super Collie should not be involved unless matters become acute. Her presence would only draw undesired attention."
"And if things do become 'acute,' as you put it?" Cymbeline demanded.
"Then the SASVS will do the best it can," Colonel Benedict replied. "As, I have no doubt, will yourselves and Super Collie. But I'd point out that if that is the case, I seriously doubt that one nation- even one nations's heroes- will be equal to the task."
"There." Eddie Freeland, who liked to call himself Eddie Stardust, finished adjusting the tripod and switched on the camera. "It'll come right over that ridge." He pointed off into the night darkness.
"I sure hope so." Billy Fairchild, who called himself Mr. Bill, switched on his laptop. The camera and its accessories had cost as much as a car, but he intended to get more than just a fuzzy ball of light that could be anything or nothing. Which was why he'd bought all the stuff, lugged it across three states, and set up in the wilds of southern Nevada, at the foot of Tikaboo Peak. The ridge at which Eddie pointed was part of the Nellis range and lay inside the borders of the Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range. Billy hadn't come to watch B-52's bomb the shit out of belligerent rocks, though. Popular wisdom had it that this spot was the closest one could legally get to the Groom Lake Test Range, otherwise known as Area 51. Where, as anyone with an ounce of sense knew, the American government had stored the remains of an alien spacecraft that had crashed near there in the early fifties. Since then the Air Force had used the captured alien technology to build a string of "black jets." He was certain that, with the right gear, he'd see something interesting.
The best viewing spot was the summit. There was even a good campground about a hundred yards short of the viewpoint. Billy hadn't quite convinced himself that lugging all that gear up the mountain- a two and a half hour hike in Nevada's high, thin air- would be worth the effort. The view couldn't be that good, or the government wouldn't leave it open.
The camera's night vision lens produced a hazy image painted in varying shades of radioactive green on Billy's laptop display. As Eddie completed last minute adjustments the image became sharper; Billy recognized mountains they'd driven by on the way in. The view shifted as Billy tweaked azimuth, elevation, and zoom. "There," he pronounced. "That ought to give us something interesting."
"Right, then." Billy started the video capture. A tape in the camera itself would let him take better quality images, but only for an hour and twenty minutes. Capturing to an external drive attached to his laptop in low quality mode meant he could record all night. No chance of missing something because he hadn't started the camera soon enough. Nevertheless there was a tape loaded, just in case. "Noting to do now but w-"
With a flash and roar like a thousand thunderbolts, the sky tore open. While the terrible noise crashed back and forth between distant mountains the whistling scream as something plunged from the rift barely registered. As suddenly as it had come the rift vanished; the object spit forth hit the ground, bounced twice, and finally slid to a stop.
Billy said noting, did nothing. He'd turned toward the sound but shock left his mind incapable of thought or action. He didn't know it yet but he'd wet his pants. Eddie recovered first; he grabbed up the camera, tripod and all, and swung it around. Sadly, the horribly expensive night vision lens defeated him; the thing that had fallen from the sky glowed brightly, with bands and fields of brilliant pastel color racing and exploding on its surface. Billy's screen showed only a hazy blob of white fringed with sparks of color. With an alacrity that would have been unbelievable under any other circumstances Eddie jettisoned the tripod, removed the night vision lens, and swapped it for the standard one. By then- though only a few seconds had passed- the object and dimmed considerably, but not so much that the camera couldn't record a fairly decent image. With the camera on his shoulder he jogged toward the thing.
Some minutes passed before Billy's mind could function again. "Hey!" he shouted when he did, his laptop tumbling to the ground. It wasn't recording anything; the digital video cable had come loose. He ran after his friend. Twenty minutes of brisk hiking brought the pair much closer, with the camera running the whole time. It also began to impress upon the pair how very large this object actually was. It looked something like an aircraft, with a long, tapered fuselage, pointed nose, sharply swept wings, and an organically curved elevator. It did not appear to have engines; neither Billy nor Eddie could identify inlets or exhausts. And it was huge. They walked and walked but it kept being distant.
Billy began to shiver. The night was cold, yes, but fear chilled him far more. He would have run except for the fact that doing so would leave him alone in the empty desert. Finally, the thing's wing tip loomed up. The leading edge had slashed into the soil, throwing up a ridge and leaving a furrow behind. The very end curled downward; the trailing edge looked sharp enough to cut. Eddie climbed the ridge of dirt and Billy, perforce, followed. Now the thing's true scale became more apparent; its body still lay quite a ways distant, towering high in the air despite laying flat on the ground. Billy swallowed convulsively; he'd studied in great detail the aircraft used in the Nellis area. This was not one of them, nor anything like it. It was on the scale of a B-52, one of which he'd seen once at a museum. Moreover, it had remained intact after a crash that would have reduced any normal aircraft to a spray of twisted junk. And another thing: as his eye roamed across the eerily glowing skin it looked as smooth and perfect as polished glass, with no trace of rivets, welds, hatch outlines, windows, or any of the many other hull features one expected of aircraft. Except on the top of the fuselage, there seemed to be something breaking the smooth lines but he couldn't make out what.
The camera beeped. The tape had run out. Eddie patted his pocket but he wasn't carrying a spare. He'd left all the gear back at camp. He set the camera down and turned, wondering how long it would take to hike back.
A short ways off stood a grim looking individual in camouflage fatigues, next to a white jeep. He'd drawn a pistol, which at the moment pointed only at the sky. Without a word Eddie raised his hands.
Brigadier General Howard Clef awoke with a start when his phone buzzed, and cursed. He'd hated this night scramble shit when he'd been a young man, which he most emphatically wasn't now. "Yes?" he demanded testily. He listened in silence for several minutes. His expression did not change. "I'll be right down," he announced, and hung up. He dressed with a speed that would have done credit to his younger self, and hurried to the security control center. "Report," he demanded.
"Sir, at twenty-two forty-eight there was an EM flash to the east which completely blacked out radar and comm in that direction. Two minutes later, when the hash cleared, perimeter security reported a crash incident in the Tikaboo Valley."
General Clef didn't need to glance at the status board to know that there weren't any scheduled flights in that area just now, but he did anyway. "Did perimeter security have any idea what it might be?"
"Something big. A seven four seven or a fifty-two. Came down at a steep angle, cut a trench half a mile long. No visible fire but it's glowing brightly and intact."
"Glowing?" The general's eyes narrowed.
"That's security's exact word, sir."
General Clef looked again at the big board. He did not believe in UFOs. The American government did not have any hidden away, and he should know, as chief of security for the Groom Lake Test Range, more commonly known as Area 51. All those crazy stories had been started by ballistic missile testing back in the fifties, combined with an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia. As with Anastasia and the Kennedy assassination, the crackpot theories eventually took on a life of their own, completely divorced from any actual facts. And they made the general's life difficult by keeping Coyote Alpha, the public land closest to Groom Lake, populated with UFO freaks. As if keeping the ordinary spies under control wasn't trouble enough.
"Dispatch the reaction teams," the general ordered curtly. Something had happened out there in the desert, and his gut told him it was important. Civilian traffic wasn't allowed near the airspace controlled by Nellis Air Force Base, of which Area 51 was a part. Something the size of a jetliner couldn't get that close without being spotted, and he didn't think that the perimeter security people had made a mistake. They were professionals, and well aquatinted with terrain.
No doubt there was an explanation, reasonable or otherwise. It was the general's job to find out what, and he intended to do it.
From his seat in the back of a security jeep, Eddie saw the helicopters come over Freedom Ridge and land near the wreck. He couldn't film them; the camera was locked away and he still didn't have any tape. Soldiers- real ones, not security men in fatigues- piled out. They searched the area using night vision goggles. A group of them stopped not twenty yards away, close enough that Eddie could make them out in the lingering glow of the crashed thing. They picked something up and carried it to one of the helicopters.
From the way it hung, the object was a body. To Eddie it wasn't much more than a dark shape, but even that was enough to see that it wasn't the right shape, and had too many legs, to be human. "Oh, my God," he whispered, more a prayer than he'd uttered in a long, long time.
General Clef supposed that he probably hadn't needed to come in person but something deep inside him needed to see the thing; hearing about it- even in great detail- simply wasn't enough. Now that he'd arrived, he wished he hadn't. Seeing took it from the comfortably abstract to the terrifyingly real.
"There were a pair of UFO nuts out here who saw the whole thing," the captain in charge of the reaction team reported. "We have them in custody and have secured their campsite. Edward M. Freeland, 24, and William H. Fairchild, 26, both of Portland, Oregon."
The general nodded. "What about the other?"
"Over here, sir."
The "other" occupied a cage the soldiers had turned up somewhere. "Is that really necessary?" the general asked.
"It bites," the captain replied.
"Hmm." General Clef peered through the bars. The critter lay curled tightly in the center of the cage, as far from any edge as possible. Tawny fur covered the visible portions of its body, which looked generally catlike except for having six limbs instead of two. It wore nothing even remotely like clothing. "Has it said anything?"
"It screeched something awful while tearing the shit out of Herrick and Christie," the captain replied. "Since then it hasn't made a sound except to growl some."
The creature uncurled partially and looked back at the general. It's head resembled that of a young cougar, complete with facial markings. The general had seen rabid wolverines that looked more friendly, though. The frontmost pair of limbs looked strikingly like human arms, complete with four digited hands and opposable thumbs. The other four extremities looked like regular paws. "My sister has a cat," the general commented. "The Goddamned thing is fucking psychotic, I tell you."
"And your mother eats brown eyed mullets, you stinking sack of crap," the critter said in heavily accented but recognizable English.
The general blinked. He stepped back, and looked over his shoulder at the wreck. "That bloody thing really is the size of a fifty-two," he muttered. "Probably weighs three or four hundred tons."
"Four hundred and thirty two," the creature in the cage replied. "And when she comes around, she's gonna fuck you up."
The general turned once again to the cage. Its occupant looked away, pointedly ignoring him. Just like his sister's cat did. "Put this and the others in the chopper, I'm taking them with me," he ordered. "As of right now this whole valley is under lockdown." The wreck was too Goddamn big to move; they'd have to study it in situ. Which meant keeping the rubberneckers out. They'd probably have to build a shed right over the top of it.
It was time, the general decided, to kick things up the chain. This whole affair was too big, pardon the pun. He moved to the chopper, watching as the cage and the two UFO spotters were loaded on board. As he put his foot up he couldn't help glancing back once more, at the... thing.
Brigadier General Howard Clef did not believe in UFOs and space aliens. As such this contraption that had landed on his doorstep could not be a space ship. Never mind that it resembled no earthly aircraft in material and construction, and that no earthly aircraft could have survived hitting the ground at such a speed and angle. Likewise this creature in the cage couldn't possibly be an alien, despite the fact that no terrestrial organism outside of fantasy was constructed like that. There was a rational explanation for it all. There had to be.
From the instant shi'd awoken to find herself being manhandled by what appeared to be Morphs in military outfits of some sort, Aurora had resolved to be as difficult as possible. Part of that came from the fact that shi had a generally contrary nature. Part of it came from the fact that hir head felt as if someone had scooped out hir brain and replaced it with slightly undercooked oatmeal. Thinking too hard made hir head spin and hir gorge rise, even though there wasn't anything there to bring up. Part- the biggest by far- came from seeing Star sprawled on her back like a dead beetle. Aurora didn't know where shi was, why shi'd come here, or how. Shi didn't care; with Star laid out it couldn't be good, whatever it was.
Now things were getting worse. This noisy, smelly flying machine was about to carry Aurora to some place far away from Star, where that pot-bellied old elk with all the gold braid on his uniform was going to ask hir questions shi'd rather not answer. All in all, shi doubted he'd be gentle about it.
Aurora's reserve cracked. Shi flung hirself against the mesh of her cage. "Star!" shi screamed, though Star couldn't possibly have heard over the flying machine's roar as it powered up for takeoff, and that assuming Star was equipped to hear sound, which she wasn't. "Oh, God, please, Star, wake up!" Aurora shrieked. The tears streaming down hir face had nothing to do with the flying machine's slipstream battering at hir. Shi shook the cage with hysterical strength, causing two of the soldiers to grab it for fear that it might pitch out, and screeched like a band saw cutting aluminum until shi's stripped hir throat raw. Shi didn't even notice.
It didn't help. The aircraft rose into the air and turned away. Star vanished behind the aircraft, where Aurora couldn't see her any more. Aurora collapsed in a heap, sobbing.
"I'll be quick, I promise," Cymbeline said to the driver of the military truck that had delivered her to the modest house she and George had shared ever since becoming engaged. The driver responded with a mutter that sounded suspiciously like yeah, right. Cymbeline let it pass; the fellow most likely based his assessment on bad experiences with ordinary women. Cymbeline, as an archeologist, had been forced to travel quite a bit in her lifetime, quite often on tight schedules and budgets. Such a life taught one to pack quickly and economically, and above all be on time.
Of course the soldier might also have based his opinion on the fact that Cymbeline first required him to stop at a jewelry shop and have her engagement ring attended to. Thankfully the driver hadn't come in with her; the jeweler had wanted to put her job in queue and get to it in a few days. Cymbeline had found it necessary to... persuade him. Gently, gently, of course... but firmly. About which she felt rather guilty, yes... but only a little. All he'd needed to do was solder a small loop onto the bottom of the band and run a chain through it. He hadn't even needed to repair the band. The ring actually did better at its job while broken; if the ring represented all the things that mattered most to her, the break represented how fragile were those things, and how easily lost if one did not care for them.
At the house's front door Cymbeline's left hand dropped reflexively to her side and she remembered suddenly that she'd left her purse at the office. She'd taken a credit card to pay the jeweler, which she kept tucked in her cleavage since the stola had no pockets, but she'd neglected to pick up her keys. George was already on his way to the airport; this wasn't the first time he'd been called away suddenly, so he kept a travel kit at the downtown police station. Cymbeline considered punching the door out of its frame and fixing it later with a repair spell but quickly put that notion aside. No doubt the neighbors would talk and she'd never hear the end of it. No matter; there was a more delicate, if less viscerally satisfying, alternative. She drew a symbol in the air and whispered an incantation. Her fingertip left a trail of fire hanging in the air... which fizzled out before she'd completed the incantation. With an effort she resisted the urge to curse; for one such as her, with all sorts of arcane power and her beck and call, using the Lord's- or any other god's- name in vain risked opening a veritable Pandora's Box of icky, unintended consequences. She bit back her annoyance and carefully repeated the spell. On the third try it took; the lock snicked open. She pushed the door open and had to duck quickly to avoid rapping her head on the transom. That, and noticing how... tiny the place looked forcibly reminded her that she'd become a lot bigger since her last visit. It also meant that none of her clothes would fit. She hurried to the bedroom, grabbed a valise, and loaded it with things she knew she'd need: shampoo, brushes, curry comb, several towels, a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, her makeup kit, a selection of perfumes, her nail kit, fur trimmer, and a blow dryer with an assortment of useful grooming attachments. That done she set the valise on the bed and opened the closet.
Cymbeline had a well-stocked wardrobe, with blouses, skirts, and shorts of varying styles and colors, providing her with a stylish and above all sexy outfit for any occasion, all with sufficient variety that she could go for weeks without repeating a combination. (Once upon a time there had also been slacks and shoes. She'd sold or given them all away; at the time it had seemed that she wouldn't be needing them anymore.) With a fingertip she plucked one of her color-coordinated Wonderbras from its hanger and put it against her chest. Compared to her new rack, it looked like a training bra for a midget. Well, that was easily corrected. She concentrated, muttering a spell. There was a pop and faint smell of brimstone; the left cup of the bra doubled in size while the right shrank by half.
"This is not what I had in mind," Cymbeline growled. She dispelled the transformation, which thankfully worked the first time, and sat on the bed to think. The springs shrieked in protest under her weight. The trouble was that she needed the skill and precision of her other form to cast these spells, but the physical limitations of that form made it inconvenient. She tossed the bra away and stared intently at her right hand, turning it back and forth and wiggling the fingers. She'd tried healing, restoration, and regeneration, all with no success. There was an enchantment, left by the weapon that had severed her limbs, which prevented their repair though any of those methods. But maybe... just maybe...
"Could it be that simple?" Cymbeline whispered, hardly daring to hope. Transformation was the key, she couldn't help thinking. It was the only thing she hadn't tried... and it was an area in which Bast was supposed to be most adept. Could she simply transform her stumps into something more useful?
No way to know but try. Cymbeline shed her stola, folded it into a cushion to support her shoulders, and lay down. She concentrated... and returned to her previous form. Yes, her arm and legs were still gone. She stared at the stump of her forearm. Is there any reason I shouldn't just transform it into a whole arm? she wondered to herself. Unable to think of an answer, she concentrated-
There came a sharp snap, like an electric discharge. Blue energy flashed from the stump of Cymbeline's arm, briefly outlining a whole arm before vanishing as quickly as it had come. A scream tore itself from Cymbeline's lips; the keloid covering her stump had vanished but no new arm took its place. All she saw was an open wound, as if the limb had been freshly cut, with blood gushing from the open ends of the radial and ulnar arteries. Cymbeline grabbed the stump with her other hand and the wound closed. For a while she lay there, panting. Blood had spattered her side, belly, arm, hand, and a goodly portion of the bed itself. "Okay," she gasped. "That's a no-go. Have to try something else."
Several minutes passed before Cymbeline worked up the courage to try again. Too much of this and she'd pass out and bleed to death right here. She flinched; her conscience pointedly reminded her that she shouldn't be doing this on her own, she should at least have George looking after her. True, but if she waited she'd never do it. She'd end up talking herself out of it, then convincing herself that it didn't really matter. She gritted her teeth and concentrated.
No blood spurted this time but it hurt like a sonofabitch. Her forearm stump grew out, stretching the keloid and spinning into two separate threads, which hardened suddenly into a crab claw.
"Well, hot damn," Cymbeline marveled, turning the claw back and forth and clacking it experimentally. It wasn't a hand, certainty, but it was a functional appendage, which was itself a big step up. She sat up and scooted around on the bed, reveling in the sensation of having two usable arms once again. She slid off onto the floor and looked critically at her leg stumps. What to try there? She glanced at the claw and nodded. One obvious possibility came to mind. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
Cymbeline's legs reforming hurt worse than her arm. Four polyps grew from the outside of each thigh, shooting out straight like blackberry runners. Suddenly they doubled back, then crooked twice at the end to form two more joints. The runners thickened, then hardened to form eight spindly, knobby, crab-style legs. From her hips they reached up nearly to her shoulders, then down. She tensed them carefully... and they supported her weight, wonders of wonders. "Yahoo!" she shouted, attempting to jump for joy. Apparently there was a reason crabs didn't do things like that; she fell on her face, with legs sticking off every which way and too damn many of them to easily sort out.
"Right, then," Cymbeline declared, pushing herself up with her hand and claw. Crab legs might be useful under certain circumstances but right now she'd rather have something less troublesome to manage, at least until she'd had some time to practice. But what? Insect or spider legs would be more of the same and flippers wouldn't work on land. Tentacles? She grinned; there were one or two places where they'd be very useful. In bed, for example... with a special someone... or several someones, in fact. But not appropriate for taking a trip to Rarotonga with the SASVS, she didn't think. So what else? How did creatures get around without using legs, flippers, or tentacles?
"Oh, of course." Cymbeline clacked her claw in lieu of snapping her fingers. She concentrated. This time not only her legs but her whole pelvis reformed. The crab legs softened and twined together into a single strand, which curled across the floor and thickened steadily until it measured larger around than her waist. Its exterior developed a layer of scales, colored black and dark yellow in wide, alternating bands.
"Sweet," Cymbeline declared, rolling onto her side and admiring her new lower extremity. Where her hips had once been her body became that of a snake, specifically an Egyptian cobra or asp, which looked to be about three meters long, overall. Using her arms to steady herself she pushed herself upright, keeping her hand and claw on the floor until she got a feel for how to make her snake-body balance properly. Then the rose up and slithered to the closet. She giggled; the sensation of her belly scales rasping over the carpet tickled. For another thing, this body put her torso much closer to the floor, almost as if she were sitting down. Rising up to a normal standing height left her feeling as if balancing precariously on a pedestal. Which, in effect, she was. But even that was positively dreamlike compared to not being able to stand up at all. She reached for the closet but stopped herself. First things first. A simple cleaning spell removed the blood from her body and another took care of the bed. Just to make sure she inspected it carefully; if George found it and even mildly suspected how it had come to be there he'd go straight through the roof. That done she returned to the closet and picked a selection of outfits that seemed appropriate for a stay on a tropical island. Fortunately lions and Abyssinians were about the same color, so the outfits remained properly coordinated. With her selections laid on the bed she raised her arms to begin casting... then, after a short pause, lowered them and put the sailor suit back. On a trim, 168cm frame it looked cute and alluring. On a massive, 246cm frame... no, it wouldn't do at all. She returned the sun dresses too. Best to stick with blouses, halters, skirts, and shorts. They scaled better. Oh, and a couple bikinis. She'd never forgive herself if she visited a tropical paradise without at least one.
Thoughts of cavorting nearly naked on the dazzling beach of a tropical paradise reminded Cymbeline of something else. Carefully, lovingly, she added a black lace teddy with burgundy trim. Tonight, George had promised, and she intended to hold him to it. After a moment's reflection she also added a backless silk sheath dress with a very low cut bodice and a skirt slit almost to the waist on both sides. "We are going to the tropics, after all," she purred, tenderly stroking the material, dyed a deep, rich, vibrant red, like sunlight shining through a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. "It's only right that I should turn up the heat." She laid the dress with the other clothes; even if no formal occasions arose during the trip she'd make sure to arrange a nice, intimate dinner with George.
As a finishing touch Cymbeline added a selection of necklaces, chokers, and bracelets, several sun hats, and a pair of sunglasses. Once again she raised her arms to start casting... and stopped mid-motion, smacking herself on the forehead (with her hand, not her claw). "I am such a ditz," she muttered. "Now why in the world should I lug around a whole set of enlarged luggage, even if I can?" She extracted one outfit: bra, panties, jogging shorts, halter, sun hat, and glasses, set them in a separate pile, and cast the enlarging spell on them only. Blue light flickered around the stack and it grew to nearly double its original size. Everything else she folded and packed. When only the stola remained she stared at it for a moment, then folded and packed it too. What the heck; it was something to wear. Not bad looking, either. Better yet, she could get away with wearing nothing under it and shed it in a heartbeat, both very useful qualities under the right circumstances. She resolved to make a toga for George at the earliest opportunity. He'd look absolutely darling in Imperial purple and a laurel wreath. And then-
Cymbeline shook her head to dislodge images of orgy and bacchanalia. Channeling the spirit of a goddess of sex and sensual pleasure could be... distracting, at times. She concentrated and once again became a lioness. Next she donned the outfit she'd set aside and spent a moment admiring herself in the mirror. The clothes fit perfectly and accented her body in just the right way, especially her chest. Wonderbras cost a fortune but were worth every penny; this particular one transformed an already impressive rack into something truly... wondrous. "That is real magic, my friend," she pronounced, and blew herself a kiss.
Now it was time to go. Cymbeline gathered up her bags and hurried out. Her driver did a double-take, then stared shamelessly, mouth hanging slightly open. And he'd seen her already in the stola. She put her shoulders back and threw some extra sway into her walk. Passers by on the street stopped and stared, men and women alike. The charisma of the goddess would not be denied and Cymbeline felt no reservations about putting it to use.
A short drive brought the truck and its occupants to Wellington International Airport. Instead of the passenger area they went to the freight terminal. A military guard stood with the civilian one at the gate; both had to carefully inspect all credentials (and Cymbeline's cleavage). The civilian guard protested when the image on Cymbeline's ID failed to match her face, but the military guard overruled him. The truck drove on and stopped by a freight jet being loaded from several large military trucks. George, Major Wilkes, and Colonel Benedict stood with a group of soldiers who had just finished packing kits and gear.
When Cymbeline emerged all activity stopped. Even the crusty old master sergeant required a moment to shake off the spell and berate his men back to work. "Hey, George," Cymbeline called, coming over and giving him a very friendly hug. That his feet didn't touch the ground didn't seem to bother her, or him, in the least.
"Hey, pretty lady." George gave Cymbeline a kiss. "Go on up and grab a seat. I'll be along in a moment. My gear's on board already."
"That's an affirm, Constable." Cymbeline gave George one last squeeze before putting him down. Work stopped again when she bent over to fetch her bags from the truck. At the head of the boarding stair she turned back, blew George a kiss, and silently mouthed tonight before going inside.
"What was that all about?" Haimar asked while George straightened his uniform.
"I promised her an intimate evening," George replied.
Haimar frowned. "Surely this isn't the first time-"
"Oh, no," George assured hastily. "Every night, more or less, at least since she moved in with me. But it is the first time with her... like this."
"I see." Haimar nodded thoughtfully. He'd known Cymbeline before she lost her limbs, though only briefly. He'd been there when it happened. He knew how terribly shattering the experience had been for her and how difficult it had been for her to adapt. He thought of the months that had passed, and all the frustration she'd no doubt accumulated in that time. "I hate to be the one to break the news, George, but you're a dead man."
"Tell me about it," George muttered. "I don't suppose you'd spell me?"
"I don't know, George. I'd have to say that definitely goes above and beyond."
George bit his lip, glancing at the plane, then back at Haimar. "I'm serious, Haimar."
Haimar's brow furrowed. "George-"
"No, hear me out, please," George interrupted. "She's the avatar of a sex goddess, Haimar. When she's in bed she never gets tired, she never gets sore. When she was a delicate little thing and we only met every so often I could handle it. Since... since she moved in with me it's been more about comforting than having a wild time. But now..."
"Now she has a big, powerful, fully functional body," Haimar observed. "And she's sick to death of comforting. It's time to cut loose and party."
"In a nutshell." George nodded.
Haimar considered for several long moments. "Why?" he demanded.
George opened his mouth, reconsidered, then, after a moment, tried again. "I'm no god, Haimar, I'm just a man," he said quietly. "I'm not so arrogant as to think I could ever be enough for her all by myself." His expression hardened. "But I am enough of a man to want the best for her. She likes you. Heck, I like you. I even think you like her too. And... you're the only person I know who'd- who'd-"
"Do it for the right reason?" Haimar suggested.
George nodded. "Yes."
"I'll have to consider it," Haimar replied. Then he cracked a smile. "But I won't say no out of hand."
"Thank you." George seized Haimar's hand and shook it enthusiastically.
"Go take your seat before she comes looking for you," Haimar suggested, turning George about and giving him a push. "Or she might decide not to wait until this evening."
As George hurried off Haimar's smile split into a grin. It vanished almost at once, however. From a certain perspective George's situation was quite comical, like a dirty joke brought to life. From another it was deadly serious. Cymbeline wasn't only the avatar of a sex goddess. She also happened to be avatar of a goddess of vengeance, destruction, and slaughter. A merely mortal woman whose sexual needs were not being met might pout, complain to her friends over a latte, or visit a therapist, but that was not Sekhmet's way.
Haimar already knew all to well Sekhmet's way. It had led to Cymbeline single handedly almost destroying the Lynx fast ferry. She'd fixed it afterwards, but that had been Aset- Isis- not Sekhmet. In any case, fixing things begged the question of why they'd been broken in the first place.
After a quick glance around to make sure that the situation was well in hand Haimar boarded the plane. Yes, it was his duty to protect the public from danger. And Cymbeline was, regardless of anything else, one of those he'd promised to protect. It might be argued that he wasn't a disinterested party, given that she'd brought him back to life. He'd point out in response that she'd brought a lot of others back too, at no small expense to herself, simply because she could. Surely that had to count in her favor, however one looked at it.
What worried Haimar was that someone would accuse him of being biased toward Cymbeline because he was in love with her. Faced with such an accusation, he'd have no choice but to admit the truth of it.
Star did not awaken so much as rise from a place of vague, formless nightmares to one of specific, concrete nightmares. Her body seemed to be stretching and contracting along a dozen different axes at once, all at different frequencies, while the world precessed drunkenly, like a top about to fall over. The worst part of it by far was that she really couldn't tell whether the sensation was real, illusory, or some combination of the two.
A Softie- what Star called the tiny, organic creatures like Mom, Dad, Auntie Goldfur, and Uncle Garrek- would have described the feeling as vertigo, and laid still with eyes closed until it went away. Star, unfortunately, couldn't do that. She didn't have eyes, and the sense she used in place of vision passed through all forms of solid matter. She could turn it off, but that left her feeling like she was tumbling uncontrollably. Which, interestingly enough, would actually have been an improvement. For a creature designed to live in space, falling was a natural state of affairs. A Softie might seek emotional comfort by clinging to a flat, steady floor, but Star knew that to be an illusion: the floor itself was falling, moving through space along with whatever it was attached to, be it a star ship, space station, asteroid, or planetary body.
And yet there was a constant upon which Star relied for both physical and emotional stability: gravity. It existed everywhere in what the Softies called the Einsteinian universe and what her own race called hard space; its force and direction might change but how it worked didn't. Which was the crux of Star's current predicament. Her senses told her that gravity was fluctuating wildly. If so, the landscape around her should have been heaving violently, but it wasn't. The physical contradiction in that made her woozy, not the sensation of motion itself. In an attempt to get a handle on the situation she slowed her thoughts.
It helped. The gyrations increased in frequency until they became nothing more than a mildly annoying buzz. Now things looked moderately stable and she started to feel better. Stars drifted by as the world turned beneath her; the moon appeared from behind a ridge and drifted by. Softies seemed to flash instantly from place to place, becoming clear only when they lingered for a while. Walls of corrugated aluminum appeared around her, and a roof that was in fact an oddly shaped balloon made of mylar covered with aluminum paint. She wondered briefly at the point of it all, but didn't waste too much thought on it. The disorientation faded slowly; she figured that in a week or two she'd be fine. Then something happened that kicked her right back up to high speed.
What Star had noticed was actually the absence of something, which was one reason it had taken her so long to sense it. There were no fusion power plants anywhere nearby, except for the great big one in the middle of the solar system. She knew this because she'd feel the characteristic neutrino emissions even through the mass of the planet. Furthermore, there were no large bodies in orbit, just a collection of satellites and a few lightweight structures fairly close in. Finally, where Chakona had two natural moons, this world only had one, albeit a quite large one. And yet the inhabitants weren't entirely primitive; in the work area around her Star saw a number of land and air vehicles powered by chemically fueled mechanical engines, and a group of people were trying to cut her wing with a plasma torch. The point, however, was that she hadn't the faintest idea what planet she was on. Nor could she recall why she was here or how she'd arrived.
One by one Star examined all the people in her vicinity. On the whole they looked like the sort she'd expect to find on Chakona, but lacking certain features. No Terrans or 'taurs, for instance. Which meant none of them were members of her family, since all of them belonged to one or the other of the non-represented groups. She reviewed her memory, trying to see if they might have come by while she was in slow speed mode, but doing so at high speed made the vertigo come back. With a growing sense of dread she scanned the people nearby once more. Being lost herself didn't bother her nearly so much as not knowing what had become of her family. She tried telling herself they must be back on Chakona, no doubt wondering where she was, but couldn't convince herself. She couldn't shake the feeling that they should be here, and if they weren't something was terribly wrong. Just to make sure she repeated the scan two more times. She could identify a particular Softie up to about a kilometer away, but she could still recognize a particular body shape out to around eight. It helped that she found herself in a relatively unpopulated region; the total number of non-animal Softies within a radius of eight kilometers wasn't so many that she couldn't spare each one at least a cursory glance. Which, as it turned out, only confirmed that none were members of her family.
For a time Star dithered, wondering what to do. Strictly speaking, she could "see" for hundreds of light years, but her ability to resolve detail dropped with the inverse square of distance, just as with a person who perceived visible light. She could counteract that by "zooming in," which gave her more detail in a particular area at the expense of overall scope. Enough, for example, that she could read closed books on a library shelf while hovering outside the building. Her problem wasn't any lack of range or resolving power; she had more than enough of both. It was, rather, one of noise rejection. What was the use of being able to read any book in a library if she couldn't find the particular book she wanted? Her current situation could be equated to searching for one or two books in a vast library with no catalog and where the books were piled up in no particular order. Examining each and every book would be a long, tedious affair by anyone's perceptions of time. What she needed was some way to narrow the search. The most direct way to do that, Star reasoned, was exactly what she'd do in a library: ask for help.
Which, unfortunately, was not nearly so easily done as said. Softies couldn't hear Star's voice any more than she could hear theirs. Even if they could, her normal speech stream ran a hundred times too fast for their brains to process. A work-around had been discovered in the form of radio; Softies routinely used devices that converted sound into electromagnetic signals for transmission over long distances. Star could both hear and emit electromagnetic signals over a very broad spectrum; in time she'd learned to interpret- and ultimately simulate- the transmissions of a certain class of these devices. These Softies had radios, clearly enough; Star saw the devices themselves and heard their transmissions. Sadly, she couldn't decode the radio signals, for all that the Softies themselves spoke a language she knew. These radios used an absurdly complex scheme of multiple overlaid encoding, even shifting frequencies in a convoluted pattern. She figured she could probably crack it given enough time, but the sense of urgency she felt made her disinclined to take it. Besides, she didn't especially like radio as a way of relating with Softies. Those who didn't already know her well tended to have difficulty connecting the voice with Star's physical presence. She didn't care to waste time convincing them that yes, she really was a star ship. She wanted them to tell her about her family with no prevarication or back talk.
There was a method of communication that both Star and Softies could easily interpret and also emphasized Star's status as a being. It happened to be the very first method Star's parents had tried with her, and the one she still considered the most personal and intimate. Using it required getting out of the shed, though; she needed to extend her manipulators, and there wasn't room. For a moment Star vacillated, but in the end the decision wasn't hard. Yes, she'd been roundly lectured again and again about not breaking Softie constructions. Never mind that they seemed absurdly delicate; that was, her parents said, all the more reason to be careful. But this wasn't a case of Star blundering into a building. Strictly speaking, the building had blundered into her. The Softies hadn't even asked before putting it up, which struck Star as inconsiderate. She'd get in trouble for doing something like that, without a doubt. If the Softies got all bent out of shape by her dismantling of it, well, that was just too darn bad.
If she'd possessed a mouth, Star would have grinned. This was going to be fun.
"Jesus H. Christ," Colonel Samuel Hatfield snarled as the helicopter bearing him passed over the Desert Range, entering Tikaboo Valley from the southwest. With dawn still a couple hours off, and Las Vegas nothing but a dim glow in the south, he could nevertheless see the so-called crash site. Banks of work lights on poles illuminated an area at least a hundred meters in diameter. In the center of that region sat an oddly shaped building made of corrugated aluminum. Several cranes were in the process of placing roof trusses, which were subsequently covered with roofing material. About a third of the covering was complete, a third nothing but naked trusses, and a third open to the sky. Whatever might lay exposed by the partly finished roof was hidden by several enormous, silver balloons held in place by cables staked to the ground. There was even a crew erecting a perimeter of chain link fencing, complete with concertina wire. Somewhat spitefully, Colonel Hatfield wondered when the neon signs and billboards would go up. All that was needed now to turn it into a right proper circus was a big tent and a barker selling tickets.
The colonel's chopper set down on a pad that had been hastily scraped up by a bulldozer and marked off with flares. When the storm of dust kicked up by the chopper's rotors had died down a bit he opened the door and dismounted. A soldier in now rather dusty fatigues greeted him with a sharp salute.
"Exactly what is the meaning of this?" Colonel Hatfield demanded before the other could speak. Yes, he was upset. And extremely annoyed to boot. A call from Washington had tumbled him out of his comfortable bed at the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (formerly the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Combat Operations Center) and dispatched him thither from Colorado to the wilds of Nevada, all because something dreadfully important was supposedly happening in Dreamland (what the United States Air Force called the block of secure airspace around the Groom Lake Test Range). Now he'd arrived- after a jet flight from Cheyenne Mountain to Nellis AFB, then a quick hop by chopper to complete the trip- and found the whole place buzzing like a wasp's nest that someone had hit with a stick. And no one, from the Pentagon on down, seemed to have the slightest idea just what the Hell was supposed to be happening.
The soldier- a captain- didn't even try to explain. "This way, sir," he said, turning and beckoning.
Colonel Hatfield followed. The balloons were coated with aluminum paint; their purpose was to hide secret prototypes and bench test models from observation by enemy spy satellites. The oddly shaped building below them had been thrown up in a matter of hours, at the end of an enormous scrape in the soil over four hundred meters long. That one thing, far more than anything else, caused the colonel to reconsider some of the things he'd heard. And to decide that he'd see what exactly it was that Brigadier General Clef had gone to such lengths to hide before he started tearing strips out of people.
A pair of soldiers, whose weapons were loaded and ready, stepped aside to let the captain and the colonel pass through a door. Colonel Hatfield drew a breath to begin shouting... but instead let it out in something between a sigh and the gasp of someone who'd been punched in the gut. He felt like he'd been punched in the gut.
It was the glow, the colonel would later say. In his youth he'd once assembled a roadster model that had been made of a plastic that, after exposure to bright light, would glow for a while. Only from that model, after charging it for a long time under particularly intense illumination, could he remember seeing that particular quality of color. But where the car glowed with a more or less uniform pale green, this thing glowed with every color of the rainbow. Zones of color appeared, swelled, broke apart, faded, and were replaced in pulsating, constantly shifting patterns. That part of it reminded the colonel of the after-images one saw when plunged into sudden darkness after staring intently at something very bright. One's eye tried to follow the patterns, which never quite resolved into anything sensible. One either got a headache or fell into a semi-trance.
Slowly at first, then with growing assurance, Colonel Hatfield moved forward. The odd shape of the building was because its walls generally followed the planform of the... oh, why not admit it? The space ship. Sure, it looked generally like an aircraft in overall shape, but no Terrestrial aircraft glowed like that. And Colonel Hatfield should know; he'd worked as a military aviation analyst for the National Security Agency for many years. He also knew something that the locals may or may not: that their now grounded UFO had arrived in the Nevada desert instantaneously, without tripping a single one of the myriad sensors and detectors meant to keep tabs on American air space. The only part of that vast network which had sensed anything at all was a Department of Defense spy satellite which had detected an electromagnetic pulse that some had thought to be a nuclear explosion. Fears of terrorism notwithstanding, a more sober analysis revealed that the pulse's signature had been all wrong for an atomic detonation. But it's source was well known: within a kilometer or two of where Colonel Hatfield now stood.
"Jesus H. Christ," Colonel Hatfield whispered. At that particular time and place, the words sounded more like a prayer than a curse. "I need to see General Clef right now," he added, all traces of uncertainty gone from his tone and demeanor.
"He's back at base; I'll call you in," the captain replied, gesturing for the colonel to follow.
Colonel Hatfield took two steps, then stopped and turned back. Later on, he wouldn't be able to explain why he'd done that; a subtle change in ambient lighting or pressure, perhaps. Whatever the reason, he happened to be looking in just the right direction to notice the dirt sliding away from the ship's wing edge.
"Shit!" the captain exclaimed. "Clear the building!" he commanded, both aloud and into his radio.
Colonel Hatfield almost asked why. Then he saw for himself: the ship was rising vertically into the air. When its belly came in contact with the roof trusses the whole building groaned and shuddered as it absorbed loads it wasn't designed to handle. The captain grabbed Colonel Hatfield by the collar and bodily hauled him out.
The footings anchoring the vertical supports failed first; entire sections of wall rose into the air as they detached from their foundations. Then the roof trusses, strained beyond there limits, buckled. With its integrity broken the roof disintegrated in a spectacular cascading failure. Colonel Hatfield ran for his life as shattered beams and torn sheeting rained down. When the noise stopped he did too and turned around.
The ship hovered just below the balloons. It had two swept rudders, for some reason mounted below the tail instead of on top. Then it struck him: the ship was upside down, on its back. The wings slanted down, like a Harrier's, not up. And another thing: it had no engines. No intakes, no exhausts, nothing even remotely like them. It floated as silently as the balloons still anchored above it. Which didn't stay anchored long; the ship moved forward, its wings stretching, then breaking the cables anchoring some of the balloons. Once free the ship's nose lifted- pitching down, technically speaking, since the ship was inverted- until the craft had righted itself. In the process it rose a bit so it's tail would clear the ground. It moved forward, at first translating diagonally then yawing to bring its nose in line with its direction of flight. For whatever reason that direction led almost straight to Colonel Hatfield; the ship stopped and hovered with its nose hanging right over him. The captain tried pulling him aside but he shrugged it off. A man couldn't hope to escape on foot and there wasn't anywhere to hide in any case.
A pair of arms deployed from the ship's belly. They really were arms, too; in general structure they were very like the colonel's own, though somewhat shorter and stubbier. A pair of markings the colonel had thought to be painted-on designs turned out to be hands, with four digits and opposable thumbs. The arms were coated with hard plating rather than skin, with black, flexible boots around the joints. The fingertips came to sharp points, without nails. The channels in which the arms fit while stowed pinched shut once they were extended, except for the depressions where the hands lay. A pair of short, swing-out linkages projected the top joints, which would be the shoulders on a humanoid, beyond the hull.
The hand started gesturing. "What the bloody Hell is it doing?" Colonel Hatfield demanded.
"Looks like sign language, sir."
Colonel Hatfield tore his eyes from the ship and looked around. He was surrounded by soldiers with their weapons at their shoulders, aimed at the strange craft hovering above. "Can you read it?" the colonel asked. The ship, meanwhile, had completed its sequence of gestures. It waited a moment, then started over.
The soldier who'd spoken, in rank a corporal and physiologically a dog of uncertain lineage, slung his rifle and started gesturing. The ship apparently noticed; it stopped its own gesturing, waited for the corporal to finish, then responded at length.
"First it asked if anyone spoke sign," the corporal reported. "Now it wants to know if we've seen its family."
Did you suggest it try Alpha Centauri? The thought strained to escape through Colonel Hatfield's mouth but he bit it back firmly. "Captain," he demanded, "I need-" he stopped mid-sentence. "You mean to tell me it's speaking English?"
"American Sign Language, more or less," the corporal responded.
"More or less?" the colonel inquired.
"It uses some non-standard ideographs, but the letters and grammar are pretty close."
"Captain," the colonel said slowly, never taking his eyes from the ship, "Get me in touch with General Clef. We have... a situation."
"Bullshit," General Clef sneered. "You really expect me to believe all this crap?"
"It's true!" Aurora snapped, throwing hirself against the bars of hir cage. "Her claws'll rip surface hardened composite like tissue paper! I've seen it with my own eyes, you festering dung heap!"
"Faugh." General Clef turned away. It was the dramatically appropriate thing to do, and prevented the cat-creature from seeing him attempting not to smile. Either it did not realize how much it was giving away, or it had become so angry it didn't care.
"When she wakes up she's gonna smash this place flat," Aurora growled. In truth shi did understand, at least partially, what was happening. Gramma had used similar techniques on any number of occasions to trick Aurora into confessing hir wrong doings. The proper response to all this badgering would have been sullen silence. That, however, would have left Aurora with nothing to do but dwell on the icy fear chilling hir guts. The fear that Star wouldn't be getting up any time soon. That she might not get up ever again. Only the heat of rage kept the fear at bay, and just barely at that.
Here too General Clef had discerned far more than what had been explicitly said. The cat creature was afraid, primarily for its friend. Who was the ship itself, whom it called Star, and whom it always referred to as female. Star had brought the cat creature and four or five others, about whom the cat creature was also concerned but somewhat less so. In the place they'd all come from, space travel was a common, or at least a generally accepted practice. Yet even in this context Star was exceptional: stronger, faster, better, though not necessarily bigger. Star and her crew lived in a space station whose function was not clear. The crew seemed to be organized like a family, with a very loose and informal rank structure.
The general poured himself a cup of hot chocolate and took a sip. In bygone days he'd have been chugging coffee by the gallon on an all-nighter like this but his insides couldn't handle it anymore. It hardly mattered; he felt as quiveringly alert as he would have if he'd been jacked on caffeine. He got the distinct feeling that the cat creature's people didn't really know what Star was either. Moreover, their coming was clearly accidental. He could see possibilities unfolding in his mind that staggered the imagination.
All of which depended on getting this creature's help, some greater or lesser extent. General Clef returned to the cage and sat down, his cup still in hand. It was time to put an end to all this playing around. "I don't suppose you'll tell me your name now?" he asked. The creature turned away, crossing its arms. "Thought not." Instead of continuing, he sipped his hot chocolate. "We're really worried about your friend Star."
"I doubt it." The creature spoke to the far wall.
"It's true," the general insisted. "That's a nasty fall she took. She could be hurt, unconscious..." he shrugged. "Or anything. What could we possibly do to help if we know nothing about her?"
"You aren't interested in her," the creature insisted.
"We're no different from the scientists where you come from," the general replied. "We want to understand. And yes, we're worried about our safety. Wouldn't you be, if aliens dropped on your head out of nowhere?"
The cat creature twitched. It almost said something, it seemed, then thought better of it.
"Sir?" An adjutant poked his head into the interrogation room. General Clef set his cup aside and left the room.
Aurora licked hir lips. Shi didn't like to admit how very close shi'd come to cracking. Shi lay down in the middle of hir cage, hugging hirself tightly. And now-
With hir head down, the guards didn't see the wicked gleam in Aurora's eyes. The fat old elk with all the ribbons on his uniform, who'd declined to give a name or title, was obviously in charge. He'd spent a long time with Aurora; it must have been hours. Now, all of a sudden, he ran off to do something else. Which suggested, to Aurora's mind, that something more important had come up. And what could possibly be more important than questioning his alien visitor?
"Star," Aurora whispered under hir breath. The other alien visitor. Maybe there was hope after all. Aurora closed hir eyes and concentrated as hard as shi could. Chakats supposedly had a mild telepathic ability, though Aurora had never shown any predilection to it. Star, however, was known to be telepathic and had a particular affinity for those close to her emotionally. Oh, Star, please hear me, Aurora begged. I need you now like I've never needed you before.
"This is a situation indeed," Star muttered. She'd sped her thoughts so she could keeps close tabs on the overall situation, which made speaking in finger talk tediously slow. The situation didn't seem quite as tense now that she'd started talking but the soldiers still had their weapons trained on her. (Star had never seen weapons like that before but she had no doubt that they were weapons.) She watched the soldier who knew sign and also the one next to him, who seemed to be a buffalo Morph. From watching people at Star Home, Star had determined that the buffalo was a high ranking individual but not part of the local organization; the other soldiers gave him perfunctory obedience, then mostly did what they were going to anyway. For example, a soldier near the back of the group was reporting everything that happened by radio, but in such a way that the buffalo didn't see him do it. When the buffalo demanded to speak with a General Clef, someone else gave him a radio.
Unfortunately, the reporter only spoke of what happened currently and not what had happened earlier. He did say that no one had been injured, for which Star was glad, in spite of everything. But no one said anything about, for example, any strangers being picked up. Except for the reporter and the fellow who spoke sign the soldiers kept quiet. The buffalo demanded an explanation of what was happening but Star couldn't hear what he was told. He listened, his expression growing fiercer and fiercer as time passed. Then he flinched, though he tried hard to cover it. Apparently he'd been told something that shocked him deeply. Star focused on him, ignoring the signing soldier. As a precaution she also watched the reporter.
Get me a chopper, the buffalo commanded. I'm going to see General Clef. Star couldn't hear his words, of course; she determined what he said by reading his lips.
The reporter gestured, signaling another soldier whom Star guessed to be his immediate superior. General Clef has cleared the colonel into Dreamland to see the prisoners, he announced. He covered his mouth and practically whispered right into his superior's ear, but Star's vision penetrated the hand and even his body as easily as the air around them.
"Now we're getting somewhere," Star observed. The soldiers tensed; the color patterns on Star's belly changed suddenly, jagged waves of blue-green racing through the hazy zones of rainbow pastel. The buffalo paused and looked back, then resumed his progress, trying not to look like he was hurrying. He boarded a craft that Star would have called a tiltrotor except that it had only one rotor that didn't tilt. A smaller rotor on the tail kept the fuselage from spinning around in reaction to the thrust on the main rotor, which Star thought to be a rather silly arrangement. The turbines stated and after a moment the rotors began to turn.
The sign speaker had stopped and was waiting for a response. PLEASE REPEAT, Star signed, since she hadn't been paying attention.
WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY LOOK LIKE? the soldier asked.
"I see what happens now," Star said smugly. "I'm supposed to stay here nattering with you while your friend goes off and looks at something interesting." If she'd had a face she would have smirked; members of her family and those who knew her well would have sensed her reaction by noting how the color patterns on her hull changed. None of the soldiers knew her that well, and even the sign speaker didn't notice any delay before she launched into a description of Kit, Snowflake, Goldfur, Garrek, Darkstar, Aurora, Longstocking, and the Hugo brothers. She'd set her thoughts fast enough that her internal dialogue passed in the blink of a Softie eye. The description, on the other hand, was a very long and tedious affair, not the least because she had to spell everything out and frequently repeat herself. While she droned on the buffalo's chopper lifted off and flew away to the west. Star kept close tabs on it; if it looked like she'd lose it she'd chase after it, but hopefully that wouldn't be necessary. It wasn't; the chopper passed over a ridge and descended into a valley on the other side. It landed and some of the passengers debarked.
Now Star had to act. At that range she couldn't tell who'd got off and who'd stayed aboard. With luck it would be the buffalo and his escort leaving the chopper and proceeding to a place within walking distance where the prisoners were kept. Star interrupted her dissertation right in the middle of a word, retracted her strength limbs, and took off after the chopper. Of course if she wasn't lucky the buffalo would only be visiting the loo before getting back on the chopper to be conveyed somewhere else. In that case... well, Star figured she could bounce the chopper a few times until they decided to lead her to the prisoners. If she'd had a face she would have been grinning evilly.
"This way sir!" Colonel Hatfield was told as he hurried from the chopper, clutching his cap to his head to keep it from being blown off. "General Clef-"
Colonel Hatfield never heard what about General Clef because just then a tremendous explosion threw the colonel flat on the tarmac. Reflexively he covered his head against the expected rain of debris but it never came. After a moment he looked up.
The alien ship was here, hovering over the operations center. Soldiers all over the compound were firing at it; the colonel saw bright flashes of color where the bullets struck the hull but they did not, so far as he could tell, do any damage whatsoever. The ship extended all four of its limbs, aiming its palms at the roof. A bright, golden glow lit the air around each hand and projected toward the ops center roof in a diffuse beam, like a spotlight shining through fog. A roughly circular patch of roof, where all four beams converged, exploded into tatters as if it had been mined with explosives. Instead of falling in, though, the debris fountained up and outwards, raining down on the rest of the complex and the streets around it. Soldiers who'd moved close withdrew hastily; a few went down but there didn't seem to be any serious injuries. The rubble had been pulverized to little more than dust, so it's mass knocked people down but didn't pummel them the way larger, heavier chunks would have.
A second blast of debris signaled the destruction of the top floor, followed by another and another as the ship burrowed toward the basement. Incoming fire had slacked off to almost nothing; great billows of choking dust kept bursting out from the ops center, driving back the defenders. Very soon the first tendrils made it to the chopper pad; Colonel Hatfield coughed but stayed put. He angrily refused when his escort tried to move him away. He'd end up testifying about this sooner or later, as sure as the sun rose, so he might as well get a good look.
Aurora felt the building shake, as if a bomb had gone off. "Yes!" shi shouted, jumping to hir feet. Shi couldn't tell what was happening; the interrogation room was soundproofed, with a one-way mirror screening the observation gallery, but shi'd bet hir eye teeth it was Star getting heavy. What else could it be, after all?
The old elk burst in just as a second shock rocked the building. "Make her stop!" he commanded harshly, leveling a finger like a weapon. Two soldiers backed him up; their weapons weren't pointed at anything in particular but they could be in the blink of an eye.
"I can't," Aurora replied. To hir credit shi spoke quietly and calmly, but couldn't help showing a certain amount of smug satisfaction. "I don't have any way to talk to her." Another shock rocked the building.
"That's absurd!" he elk exploded. "You called her here!" He gestured; the soldiers took aim at Aurora, ready to fire.
"I wouldn't do that," Aurora responded. "If you kill me, you'll make her mad."
Aurora and the elk locked gazes. Another shock, very close this time. The lights flickered and dust filtered down from the ceiling. "What do you want?" the elk demanded.
"Open the cage," Aurora replied.
The elk unlocked the cage while the soldiers kept Aurora covered. She climbed out and left the interrogation room, ignoring the weapons that followed hir. In the main room shi found quite a number of soldiers and others, plus two obvious civilians, handcuffed to their chairs. Shi hadn't gotten a good look at the time, but they were probably the pair that had been carried off with hir. Shi sat in the middle of the floor, crossed hir arms, and looked up at the ceiling.
The floor vibrated with a deep, basso profundo rumble that echoed through the very foundations. The lights flickered several times, then failed. The ceiling was vibrating too; as the emergency lights kicked on their beams showed dust filtering down. A finger-thick beam of golden light stabbed through the ceiling; it moved in a circle, cutting a disk about two and a half meters in diameter and digging a narrow trench in the floor. A thick cloud of dust filled the air by the time the cut was finished; instead of falling on Aurora the disk lifted upward and moved aside. Aurora raised hir arms; the golden glow enveloped hir and shi rose into the air.
"Wait!" Eddie screamed. "Please, take us with you! We got tape of you coming and if we stay they'll disappear it and us too!" He got it all out in a frantic rush, not quite beating a soldier who cuffed him in the side of the head to shut him up.
Aurora raised a clenched fist; hir ascent halted. In truth shi didn't have any concern for the
To Be Continued
SCA #06: Black and White