Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of
Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission.
Some names and references from other sources; credits listed at the end. This
story is a sequel to Coventry. Mature eyes only, due to some violence
and sexual content. January, 2003. 31,000 words. A big thank-you to Kimberly
Towle, for beta-reading and setting me straight on a few things.
The brochure had advertised this particular nature trail as 'moderate.' If that was the case, Nell Carpenter would hate to see their idea of 'difficult.' She was running with sweat, her legs ached, and the complaints of the kids grated on her ears like nails on a chalkboard.
"I wanna go swimming," Cissy whined, scuffing her feet and raising a cloud of dirt. "Wanna go swimming now."
"This is boring," Ethan said. "Why'd we even come here?"
Why had they come here? Oh … because Mike had taken the kids to Disneyland when they'd visited him over the summer, and Nell was determined to prove that she could take them on cool, exotic, expensive vacations too.
Except that, since Mike made three times what she brought home from the cola bottling plant and drove a car that didn't need about three hundred dollars' worth of maintenance and repairs every couple of months, she couldn't. The kids had lobbied for a trip to Florida, or a cruise, or a week at the Mall of America with its indoor thrill rides and waterslides.
This had been the best she could do. It was within driving distance of their home – if fourteen hours in the car counted as 'driving distance' – and they could stay with Aunt Penny instead of at a hotel. That freed up the budget for admission to the park, souvenirs, and the occasional meal out.
She had gone to the mat with Ethan's teacher and the school principal, arguing that a vacation like this was educational enough that he should be excused from class. Did he appreciate it? He griped about school every day it was in session, but now that he was out in the wilderness while his classmates were in the stuffy, cramped room working on math and spelling, he was acting like she had deprived him of dessert.
Thank God Cissy wasn't in school yet. Most of the time, Nell could hardly wait. Both kids, out of the house for several hours of the day. She might get on top of the housework and laundry for once. But the prospect of having to wrangle with two teachers would have been more than she could stand.
"When can we go swimming?" Cissy demanded.
The little girl had started off this hike with a cute little backpack containing her sack lunch, a few extra juice boxes, and Stinky No-No, her stuffed skunk. This load had become "too heavy, Mommy, too heavy!" within thirty paces, so now Nell had to carry the backpack while Cissy dragged Stinky No-No by the tail. The skunk's black and white pelt was rendered dun-brown by the dust.
Nell saw this and bit back an angry retort. She had told Cissy to carry it, not drag it, and not to scuff her feet. Now, look. She'd have to do a load of laundry when they got back to Aunt Penny's house, because Cissy would raise the roof if it was even put forth that she go to bed without that stuffed skunk to snuggle up with.
Ethan had picked up a stick and was roaming ahead, leaping to swipe at overhanging leaves. He was a thin kid with hair that was always too long. It cost a fortune to go to the haircutting place anymore, and Mike wouldn't give her extra money for it, but Mike was always the first to get snotty about Ethan's hair when he showed up to take the kids for one of his weekends. Ethan looked just like him, was even starting to sometimes sound like him, and it was all Nell could do not to take out her irritation with Mike on his son.
Why had she ever decided to do this? The kids would have been happier staying at home, where they had their own toys and their own stack of videos, and didn't have to worry about Penny's rules or Penny's neurotic Pomeranian. That damn little dog with its high-pitched bark and its digestive problems could not stand the sight of the kids, and went into a frenzy unless Penny kept it locked in the sewing room.
All she'd wanted was to make them happy, impress them, prove to them that their father wasn't the only one who could arrange a neat vacation. They should have loved it. Hiking, swimming, back-to-nature, and the most amazing animals they would ever see in their lives.
If they ever did see the amazing animals. Thus far, despite what the slick brochures and the website had promised, Nell had yet to see anything bigger than a striped chipmunk or strutting blue jay.
She never should have gotten married. Not right out of high school, and not to Mike Carpenter. Here she was at twenty-four, divorced with two kids. So much for her dreams of moving to a big city, New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, and becoming an interior decorator, or maybe a fashion designer. Her looks were shot, her ass about four sizes too big.
"My life sucks," she grumbled.
"What, Mommy?" Cissy piped.
"Nothing," she said.
"Are we gonna go swimming yet?"
"No!" She rounded on the child. "No, we are on a nature walk! Got it? We are going to walk. In nature. Until we get to the end of the trail."
Cissy's eyes welled with tears, but her lip stuck out in that way, that insolent pouting way … it drove Nell crazy.
"I said no!" Her voice was rising out of control.
Up ahead, Ethan stopped in the middle of the trail. "Mom?"
She ignored him, focused on Cissy. "I told you five times already that we would go swimming when we got back. But if I have to tell you one more time, you can forget about swimming!"
"Mom," Ethan said, and she entirely missed the nervous quaver in his voice. "I think I hear something –"
"Shut up, Ethan, for Christ's sake, shut up, you're as bad as your father, always running your mouth!"
"I don't wanna have a stupid nature walk," Cissy said. She sat down, plunk in the dirt, and crossed her arms. Stinky No-No was in her lap. "I'm done."
"You get up right now, Cissy Laureen."
"That's enough, Ethan!" she snapped over her shoulder. "Cissy, I'm going to count to three."
"Mnyeah!" Cissy stuck her tongue out.
"Three!" Nell barked, and her hand closed on the child's arm like a claw. She yanked Cissy upright. Stinky No-No went tumbling into the bushes at the edge of the trail.
Bleating with pain, Cissy twisted and kicked Nell in the ankle. "Let me go, you're a mean mommy, I hate you!" she screeched.
"You little brat!" Nell slapped Cissy, palm smacking sharply against the girl's face. "Don't you dare kick me, how dare you kick me! And when I tell you to get up, you do what I say! Maybe your father lets you get away with this shit, but I'm not –"
She had been raining blows on Cissy during this tirade, first hitting the face, then the bottom, then the face again. Ethan shouted something but Nell was lost in a red rage. If she registered him at all, it was to mentally put him down for a good whack upside the head too.
Cissy was wailing and screaming, crimson, tear-streaked. Nell raised her hand for another slap.
Her wrist was seized in an unbreakable grip. She became aware of a huge hulking shadow in the same instant that she felt a humid snort of breath on the back of her head. It reeked of a strange, pungent animal odor.
A clawed hand, knobbed with bony spurs, was around her wrist. It was a muddy reddish-purple in color, the spurs shading to a near ivory. The hand connected to an arm bulging with muscles beneath plated skin.
Nell was yanked backward and around. She lost hold of Cissy. The child plopped into a sitting position again, hard, throwing up a puff of dirt. Ethan was shrieking.
A monster had Nell. It towered over her, head hunched low between shoulders like the protective pads of a football player. Another gust of a snort came from it, and its inhuman eyes seemed to burn into her.
It slapped her across the face. The blow whipped her head to the side so hard she thought her neck would break. She was knocked to the trail. As she tried to get an arm under her to break the fall, she felt a sharp cracking agony that raced both ways from her forearm.
She fought for breath to scream, couldn't find it. The monster grabbed her again and hauled her to her feet. It struck her again and again, on the face, on the ass, pinching her shoulder. She was blinded by tears and hair and pain.
At some point, she fell again and this time was left there. Nell cowered on the ground, her broken arm held tight against her chest, wheezing and wincing at the stabbing of what felt like fractured ribs. She tasted blood from her split and swollen lips.
When she could move again, she slowly raised her head and peered around. The silent woods seemed to peer back at her. Even Stinky No-No, his plastic eyes reproachful, was watching her from the bushes where he'd been dropped.
But she was alone. There was no sign of her attacker.
And Ethan and Cissy were gone.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Stealthy as a shadow, silent as a breeze.
His coloring, a dusky blue-grey, let him blend into the perpetual twilight of the city. Darkness above and riot of neon and lights below mingled here, at the event horizon of the night.
The air was warm, though a hint of a chill had already begun to creep in as the heat of the desert day was siphoned off into the cloudless sky. But his blood was pounding, warm with anticipation.
There. The window.
His white hair, which might have given him away like a beacon bright as that of the Luxor's pillar of spotlight, was tied into a ponytail and tucked under a baseball cap.
A t-shirt with Alex Rodriguez' number on it was stretched across his chest. Its seams strained with each flex of his wings. Only a few short months ago, that shirt had billowed on him. Now he could barely fit into it, even allowing for the slits in the back that allowed his wings to protrude.
Angus glided in a wide arc, checking as surreptitiously as he could to see if he was being watched. The novelty of a resident clan of gargoyles would have worn off by now in any other city. Witness New York, or London, for example. But here in good old Lost Wages, the constant ebb and flow of tourists meant that there was always a new population of gawkers wanting to eyeball the local gargs.
The Coventry Hotel competed with the other lavish resorts. Its Olde English theme made for a natural addition to the odd assemblage of structures. Pyramid, castle, Roman marble, space-age spires … and a bastardized Tudor built on colossal scale. Why not?
The window. He felt the tug of that rectangle of light the way a moth might feel a flame. It drew him. It would have drawn him even if he hadn't decided the moment he shed his stone skin upon waking that tonight was the night. He was going to do it. Going to at least try. An adventure worthy of any young male.
He looked around again. Worthy adventure or not, he knew that his parents would have a fit if they found out what he was doing. They had grown up in a completely different era – over a thousand years ago, in medieval Scotland – and had forgotten what it was like to be young.
If his father, Coldstone, ever had been young. Angus personally found it hard to believe. Coldstone was the type who might have been born middle-aged and was well on his way to 'old coot.'
He flinched at the thought as if he'd spoken it aloud. That sort of thing wouldn't go over well. Neither would arguing that both Coldstone and Coldfire had forgotten more than youth. They'd forgotten what it meant to be alive.
It wasn't as if they could help it. Their souls, after centuries of death, had been raised and installed in cybernetic bodies. They could perceive and think, and had emotions, but they couldn't feel .
And that meant they no longer understood. If they caught him out here, they would know that what he was doing was wrong, but they would fail to remember the urgings of the flesh that made him do it. Thus, his punishment would not be tempered by commiseration.
Best not to get caught.
Best, probably, not to be doing this at all, but he had to.
He landed on the railing of the balcony beneath his target. His large, clawed feet made a soft thud as he touched down. He balanced there, the double membranes of his wings extended, his tail with its end club of solid bone held out behind him for a counterweight.
Nothing happened. No one called out to ask what he thought he was doing. No one looked out to see what the noise had been.
Heart thumping giddily, Angus reached up and gripped the edge of the balcony above his head. He stretched up on tip-toe and peeked between the posts of the railing.
The sliding-glass doors were closed, and curtained by wispy sheers that did not quite reach all the way to the lush carpet, or meet in the middle. From this vantage point, he could see the end of the bed and a rumpled heap of satin sheets. He could see a costume shoe, stiletto heel and rhinestone straps. He could see –
He could see a lacy bra lying on the carpet. The capacious cups were see-through white embroidered with tiny blue flowers. No underwire or anything, because she wouldn't ever need to wear something like that for support. She'd wear it only because of the way it looked.
Angus imagined the way it would look on her. That bra and maybe a frilly pair of panties. The deep indigo of her skin showing through the thin fabric.
His head swam dizzily. He held tight to the balcony, breathing out a low whistle. All his available blood had rushed elsewhere, leaving only enough for minimal circulation in his limbs and not nearly enough for coherent thought.
And then she strolled past the window. Gold-painted toe claws, long sleekly-muscled legs, tail swaying in her wake like a charmed serpent. She was wearing some sort of wrap made of sparkly rainbow cloth. It was backless to the base of her tail, only extended a couple of inches down her thighs, and was clasped together with a knotwork rosette between her breasts.
Godiva in all her glory, and Angus damn near fell from his perch. Each stride as she paced, phone held to her ear, offered him teasing glimpses of her legs and bottom. If she turned around fast, the sides of that wrap might just fly apart.
No such luck. She flipped her phone closed, tossed it onto the bed, and moved from his line of sight.
"Dammit," Angus muttered.
He shifted, and tried to raise himself higher on his toes, but the angle was wrong. He could see the back of her dressing-table chair, the folds of her wings, and the spade-shaped tip of her tail. That was all.
Holding on with both hands, he did a pull-up. He had been working out a lot, with Gabriel and on his own in the Coventry's weight room, and his arms were easily up to the task.
His shirt wasn't. It was none too new anyway, and it split in several places as he lifted himself.
Big deal. He could get another shirt.
A view like this was more than worth it.
Godiva must have just come from the shower, because her namesake cascade of golden hair was still damp. She was sitting twisted in the chair, head tilted, as she ran a brush through her hair. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, slightly apart at the knees, and the rainbow shimmer of the wrap had ridden up on the left to reveal the entire full curve of her hip.
She brushed her hair languidly, eyes half-lidded as if she was enjoying the sensuous feel of the brush sliding over silky tresses. He was fascinated by the way the color of her wrap caught the light and changed, purple to blue, blue to red, with each inhalation and exhalation.
His arms were starting to ache and he barely cared.
Leaning forward, sliding her legs more to the side, she pursed her ripe lips at the mirror and applied a ruby lipstick in slow, deliberate strokes. Glittery eyeshadow came next, and Angus almost lost his grip when she dabbed a touch of that in her cleavage. She put clusters of diamond teardrops in her earlobes.
He was captivated by her, the ache-turning-to-agony in his arms hardly registering on his mind.
Godiva stood up, sweeping her hair around in a practiced movement. It came to rest between her wings, parting only where her tail emerged. Then, with her back to the window, she suddenly had the rainbow wrap in her hand.
Angus yanked himself higher. All he could see was wings, hair, tail, and feet. And that one arm out to the side with a little nothing of cloth dangling from it. She tossed it idly aside as she walked to the closet.
His sweaty hands slipped. He scrabbled for a better hold, hooking his chin on the balcony. His thoughts were entirely fixed on a fervent wish that she wouldn't get dressed in the spacious walk-in wardrobe, but would come back out …
She returned to the room, clothes draped over her arm. Facing the window now. Utterly nude except for the earrings. His eyes raced from one sumptuous vision to the next. Her bare breasts, their blue-black nipples erect. The narrow span of her waist. The hairless mound between her thighs.
For one horrifying moment, he thought she had seen him. He quailed, waiting for the angry tirade. She'd send for his parents, all of them would yell at him, he might be grounded, Coldstone might even whale on him.
But, no. The room was lit on the inside, and she would only be seeing the sheer curtains.
Godiva laid her outfit aside and turned to her dressing table again to contemplate her jewelry box. Angus had her profile now, drinking it in. She mused, hipshot, running her tongue over her upper lip. Her tail curled lazily over the rug.
When she selected a pair of silver hoops with clasps like screws, and affixed them carefully to her nipples, his blood thundered in shock and excitement. She brought out a fine-linked chain next, clipping its ends to each hoop so that the slack draped in a silvery thread from the tips of her breasts. She tugged on the chain experimentally, and shivered.
"Holysmoke," Angus whispered.
It looked like it must hurt, had to hurt, but the expression on her face was one of anything but pain. He imagined that if not for the thick soundproof glass, he might be able to hear her moan in pleasure.
He was stiff as a poker, absently glad that his shorts were very baggy or else they might have burst their seams like his shirt had done. If anyone had occupied the room underneath Godiva's penthouse suite, what a surprise they would have found on the balcony! A gargoyle from the chest down, feet and tail hanging in mid-air, with a very prominent bulge jutting out from his crotch.
His fevered imagination ran away with that, suddenly picturing some cute girl opening the balcony door down there and seeing him. Some cute human girl, like the ones he often saw swimming on summer nights in the Coventry's emerald-lit pools. She'd be brunette and perky and innocent-looking, though that innocence would only be a mask.
In his mind, he saw her, this mystery girl, a sly twinkle in her eye, stepping toward him. Reaching out and grasping him through his shorts, or maybe whisking the shorts to his knee spurs before he knew what was going on.
And then her clever little hands closing around him. While he was suspended here, arms locked, eyes filled with Godiva. Maybe she'd even kiss him there, slide him into her mouth and suck him.
He groaned just thinking about it. But as long as he was fantasizing, why not pretend that Godiva wouldn't yell at him and tell his parents? Why not pretend that she knew he was out here, and was putting on a show for him?
Because that was almost how it seemed. Once she'd hooked those hoops and chain to her breasts, she seemed overcome by irresistible sensual impulses. She was caressing herself, one hand playing with that chain while the other coyly covered her mound … coyly, except that it looked like she was rubbing herself there. Her head was back, eyes closed, and she was breathing faster.
What would he do if she did see him, and invited him in? Oh, now there was a dream to savor! Her husky, throaty voice crooning to him how much he'd grown, how handsome he was. Asking him if he liked to look at her. Asking him if he'd like to touch her.
And then she would recline on the bed, wings spread to either side, indigo on that golden silk of her hair, and she would take him by the wrists and put his hands on her breasts, between her legs … sighing his name …
The harsh cry ripped through his fragile fantasy like a razor. He jumped and lost his hold. His fall was arrested before he could even think of gliding, when he landed astride the balcony railing below. His only saving grace was that he was able to tuck his tail between his legs in the moment before impact, turning what could have been a wishing-for-death experience into something only moderately agonizing.
He rolled onto the balcony, uttering strangled noises. Sex was instantly the last thing on his mind.
The owner of the harsh razor voice landed beside him. Not his mother, not his father, and he was cognizant enough to be briefly glad of that. Glad, until he saw the look in Gabriel's eyes and realized that he might be in even worse trouble from his brother than he would have been from either parent.
The thick, soundproof glass prevented anyone but Godiva from hearing the crash as a perfume bottle exploded against the wall. The heady smell of Take Me swamped the room, overpoweringly musky.
She swore as she unclipped the silver hoops from her nipples and threw them, as well as the chain, onto her dressing table. All that for nothing, damn Gabriel to hell! And just when things were starting to get interesting.
Poor Angus, thinking himself so stealthy. How long had he lived in the castle? With his own parents as her heads of security? And he still didn't know that she had proximity sensors set up around her whole suite? She'd known he was there from the moment he'd come within range.
The purpose of the sensors was to warn her about Peeping Toms, so that she could decide whether to trigger the opacity feature of the window glass or not. She was plagued by curious admirers, sometimes in helicopters or even hang gliders, and part of the fun of her life was deciding when to give them a show and when to send them on their way unfulfilled.
Variable interval reinforcement, wasn't that how her dear friend Gustav Sevarius would have put it? The dried-up old bastard, the useless shriveled prick! She still had not forgiven him for what he'd done to her. That program had been hers! Not her design, not her invention, but possession was nine-tenths of the law, wasn't that how it went? That was the rationale by which she kept her fabulous body, after all. She should have been able to keep her onboard programming, too.
But, nooo! Sevarius had taken it upon himself to strip her of her subliminal sex appeal program. Not that she needed it, really. She hardly ever had to resort to it, what with the rest of her package. The face, the figure, the dancing, the smoldering hedonism that characterized her entire personality … she hardly needed the extra edge of the subliminals.
Except that, in some cases, she did. It had been the subliminals that kept Gabriel coming back to her despite his better judgement. He had been disgusted with himself, but addicted, craving her the way some people craved drugs.
She had enjoyed seeing him struggle to resist, seeing him cave in, and then reaping the benefits as he succumbed. He was always so intense, fucking her like a madman, being rough with her, as if something inside of him said, "she wants it so bad, fine! Let's give it to the bitch until she begs for mercy!"
And oh, had he ever! She had gone several years without a gargoyle lover before Gabriel turned up, and she had missed the things they could do. Those tails, good God! That stamina!
She wore out her human lovers so quickly, often rendering them exhausted when she was only getting warmed up. She'd have to bring two or three of them to her room just to see her through.
It wouldn't have been half so maddening if Ohta hadn't been around. Seeing him, night after night, only reminded her what she was missing. She just knew that lucky little Hoshi had a lascivious nature under those demure kimonos, and oh, the nights she had fantasized about catching the two of them in the act and joining in, their three bodies twining together, hands and tails and breasts and slippery orifices and rigid flesh …
Damn Hoshi and her 'conditions,' anyway! If her need to establish some legitimacy as a genuine gargoyle hadn't been so great …
When she had begun work on the Coventry, gargoyle-mania was at its highest tide. All of a sudden, it seemed like every putz in the land was an expert on gargoyle behavior. And what stood out most of all was that gargoyles went in clans the way lions went in prides, and nobody trusted a loner.
Thank Goliath for that one, the pompous ass. His heart-stirring speeches about what it meant to be a gargoyle, his veiled references to Demona … giving any solitary gargoyle a bad name. Thanks ever so much, Goliath …
So, when she chanced into the star-crossed lovers from Ishimura, she had seen it as a godsend. A clan, or the outward appearance of one anyway. They should have been so grateful to find a place to call home that they wouldn't have been nit-picky. But there was a keen mind ticking away behind Hoshi's serene features, and one look at the way Godiva was looking at Ohta – which, admittedly, was like a kid on Christmas morning – and Hoshi had laid down the law with a steeliness that had astonished Godiva.
No fooling around with Ohta. Lay a talon on him, so much as bat a flirtatious eye in his direction, and the pair would be out of here in a twinkling.
Godiva supposed that she could have used the subliminals on Hoshi, but she hadn't quite dared. In time, the two of them would come around. That was what she told herself, and kept telling herself, night after night after night.
Of course, by the time Gabriel had arrived, she'd been on the verge of throwing caution to the winds and powering up the subliminals anyway. Now, even that option was lost to her.
Trust a Sevarius to ruin everything. He hadn't needed to do it. His only reason was spite. Certainly it wasn't out of the goodness of his heart. She never doubted that Gustav Sevarius had a heart, but she'd always suspected he kept it pickled in a jar, next to his conscience.
He had taken away her subliminals, and that had broken her hold over Gabriel as well as ruined any chance at all with Ohta and Hoshi. Three and a half years ago, that had been.
And then, Gabriel hadn't left the hotel. He'd wanted to stay with his family, so she still saw him every night, but he had spurned her every subsequent advance.
Infuriating son of a bitch!
There were men who would cheerfully kill for an hour in her bed. He should have been flattered. It wasn't as if female gargoyles were beating a path to Gabriel's door. Not with his track record. Three mates dead, his childhood sweetheart mated to another male … he hadn't even been able to score with a clone. But he could have had Godiva, the most desired and sought-after female on the face of the planet, and he opted for celibacy.
Three and a half years. Three and a half long, long years. She hadn't even tried with Coldstone, partly because she suspected that Coldfire would burn her baldheaded if she so much as gave him a wink and partly because he seemed to have all the passion of a photocopier.
Other eligible males had been few and far between.
Until little Angus got his growth spurt. Seemingly overnight, he had shot up a foot, bulked out by seventy pounds, and his face had lost its baby roundness in favor of excellent cheekbones, a fine cleft chin, and long white hair that just demanded to have feminine fingers comb through it. He was athletic by inclination, so he had killer pecs and a butt to die for.
Plus, that knob on the end of his tail was intriguing. She couldn't help wondering what sort of delicious uses it might have.
She hadn't wanted to irreparably warp him when he was too young to understand, but more and more she'd been noticing the way he was looking at her. Watching her when he thought nobody was paying attention. She'd gotten a real charge out of 'accidentally' giving him peeks down her cleavage, or chewing on a pencil like she was distracted by business thoughts. Shades of high school all over again.
Then, tonight, he had done a glide-by and finally mustered the courage to look in her window. She'd already been swaddled in a thick terrycloth bathrobe but wasted no time trading it for the skimpy little wrap. The rest had all been for his benefit. His, and hers, because putting on the show made her hot and wet and slippery all over.
Part of it was the anticipation, and the thrill of not knowing what he'd do. Would he merely watch? She certainly wouldn't have minded masturbating for him, knowing the effect it would have to be having on his raging young hormones. Or would he have been bold enough to knock and come in?
Now she'd never know. Goddam Gabriel had gone and stuck his nose in. A few minutes later and it might not have mattered. She could have invited Angus in, blacked out her windows, undressed him, and given him an education the likes of which he had never imagined. All while sating her own need for a good stiff cock, and she was sure his would be. A good stiff gargoyle cock, young and randy, ready to go again and again.
Why, she could have kept at him until dawn, and let the sun catch him in a state of arousal, and spent the rest of the day pleasuring herself on that permanent erection.
"Gabriel, you insensitive bastard," she grumbled. He couldn't let anyone else have their fun. Probably thought she would ruin his baby brother.
Well, in fairness, she probably would have … but would Angus complain? Not judging by the goggle-eyed way he'd been staring at her.
"This isn't over," she said to her reflection. After so many years, it was still hard to believe that the gorgeous blue goddess in the mirror was her. "Gabe can't watch-dog him every second of the night. Sooner or later, it'll happen. That young stud will be mine, all mine, and I won't need the subliminals to get him, either."
"Exercising?" Gabriel asked, in a mild tone that belied the anger in his eyes. "Strange place for chin-ups, if you ask me."
"I didn't ask you. Let go of me." Angus wrenched his arm from his brother's grip.
It was fairly easy; that was the hand that had once been severed, and it had never fully regained its original strength. Still, the facility with which he freed himself surprised Angus. He was getting more powerful than he realized.
Taller, too … once he was on his feet, bristling with overblown indignation to mask the embarrassment he felt, he was almost eye to eye with Gabriel. It hurt a little to stand at his full height, after his tail-bruising encounter with the railing, but he stood tall.
"What did you think you were doing?" Gabriel inquired.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Angus said. "I was just –"
"Looking," Gabriel said. "Looking at her. That's how it begins, isn't it? Looking."
"Well, what if I was? I'm not a hatchling."
"I don't care for your tone –"
"And I don't care for yours! You aren't my sire, and you aren't the leader of this clan. You've no right to boss me around!"
"I am your brother, and your elder," Gabriel said. "Your teacher, or had you forgotten?"
"No," Angus said bitterly. "How could I, when you remind me every single night? But what you forget is that I've been your teacher, too. Ebon didn't know everything about this world. I grew up in it!"
"Showing me how to play video games hardly equates," Gabriel said. "I've taught you skills that you need to survive. How to track, and hunt, and –"
"Like we need those things here," Angus shot back. "We do more shopping than hunting, and you know it."
Gabriel's eyes flashed. "I've tried to teach you what it means to be a gargoyle."
"That changes. It isn't like it was in 10th century Scotland, for cripe's sake! This is the 21st century. Wake up, Gabriel. Shake the gravel out of your head and look around. We don't live like that anymore."
"Our clan is different –"
"Bullshit!" Angus shouted. "Maybe the ones in the Yukon lived like savages, but even you admitted they were throwbacks. Look at Goliath's clan! Broadway's got a TV show, Elektra's a political aide, Angela was a model before she went all rookery-mom. Times have changed."
"None of that is the point," Gabriel said. "What matters is that you have no idea of what you're doing, spying on Godiva like that. She's dangerous, Angus."
"Oh, come on!"
"She is. I've seen her watching you, waiting for you to be old enough that she might snare you in her web."
"Really?" He felt absurdly flattered and puffed up by this. "She's been noticing me?"
"Angus! Don't give in to her. She hardly has your best interests at heart."
"What is your problem, Gabriel? My personal life is my business, so butt out, okay?"
"No. It is not 'okay,' and I shall not butt out. Not when it comes to Godiva. She is poison, don't you see that? Poison."
"You're jealous," Angus said. "That's what this is about. She dumped you, and you can't stand to think that maybe she'd be interested in me."
Gabriel sputtered. "She … I … you have it severely wrong, little brother! I came to my senses and escaped her, she did not break with me!"
"She only wishes to use you like a toy, and discard you at her whim."
"You survived it. So can I."
"Angus! I am in earnest. She is not a true gargoyle –"
"Neither are Mom and Dad, anymore."
"But they were. Godiva never was. She is a soulless automaton, concerned only with sexual pleasure."
"So you should not fall victim to that."
"Curse you, Angus, I am trying to help," Gabriel said, his voice rising.
"You're trying to keep me a hatchling, not let me grow up." Angus matched him in volume. "You couldn't hack it as leader of a clan, but you got off on having a little brother to idolize you. I'm grown up now, Gabriel. I can make my own decisions."
"Not in this. You are blind to this truth."
"You know," Angus said, "come to think of it, there is one thing you taught me that still comes in handy in the year 2011."
He punched Gabriel in the face with all the force he could muster. The blow, taking Gabriel completely off-guard, crushed his nose and rocked his head back so hard that his skull cracked the thick glass of the balcony door.
Angus was almost as surprised as Gabriel. He hadn't, not down deep, really expected the punch to land. A terrified apology rose to his lips but he bit it back. Not even when Gabriel wiped blood from his face and stared at it incredulously, then shifted his gaze to Angus, did he relent.
"Angus," Gabriel said. "I'm only doing this for your own good. Do you need to have sense beaten into you before you'll see?"
"Go ahead and try," Angus said, dropping into a combative stance and raising his fists.
"Is this how you want it?"
"It's the only way it can be."
Angus couldn't believe it had come to this so quickly. He did idolize Gabriel, that was the truth, and had always admired him. It was mortification and frustrated lust that had led him to say those things. Anything to cloud the issue, anything to take the focus away from the fact that he'd been ogling Godiva like a horny adolescent and was ashamed to have been caught.
He didn't want to fight Gabriel. But since the battle was on, Angus was in it. Trouble was, so was Gabriel, and he fought with the cool detachment of a warrior while Angus was ruled by his hot blood.
Both of them were roaring and spitting, two sets of eyes blazing phosphorous white. Their bodies caromed back and forth between rail and sliding glass door.
Angus, despite his raging emotions, was conscious of the fact that Gabriel should have cleaned his clock within seconds. He had seen the seasoned warrior take on one full-grown male after another during that ill-fated visit to Bea's clan – thinking about Bea, whom he'd tried to forget, her sweet face and curious nature, brought a new burden of hot guilty shame to him – and Gabriel should have had no trouble with Angus at all.
Unless he was holding back, not wanting to hurt his baby brother …
Angus roared even louder and redoubled his efforts. And still, when Gabriel had a clear opening, he let it go by. He was taking it easy, and that only infuriated Angus all the more.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that they should go over the rail and plunge, still struggling, toward the glass skylights of the dining room below.
They smashed through a skylight into a dining room of wooden timbers, white linen, fox-hunting paintings, and Elizabethan costumes in display cases.
A table set for sixteen broke their fall. It also smashed to splinters, and threw a messy hail of food, champagne and cutlery at the wedding party who'd been about to take their seats. The hostess, who wore apple green brocade with a corset and ruff, screamed. So did the wedding party, and diners at other tables.
Getting up, panting and feeling battered all over, Angus looked at his brother. Gabriel was extricating himself from the wreckage of the table. Their eyes met and locked.
The hostess, seeing this, screamed again and backpedaled. There was a general stampede toward the dining room's doors.
"Rrraaagh!" Angus cried, and ran headlong at Gabriel.
He wasn't sure what happened after that. They had reeled around the room, punching and kicking and breaking furniture, but the details were lost in a blinding white haze. Angus only returned to his senses when a cold metal hand clamped down on his shoulder and forcibly parted him from Gabriel.
"Boys!" Coldfire's voice was like a thunderclap. She shook them, holding them apart, her robotic fingers mercilessly digging into their flesh. "Stop it at once!"
Angus froze. He had no choice. She was pinching a nerve and he was afraid that if he moved even a little, she'd cripple him.
"What is the meaning of this?" Coldstone demanded, stalking toward them through the ruins of the dining room. His cyborg eye glared scarlet. The panel had retracted from his forearm and his blaster, set to a jolt that would kill a human and shock a gargoyle into unconsciousness, was extended.
"Explain yourselves," Coldfire said, giving them another shake.
"Ah, ouch, Mother, let go," Angus said, twisting to try and loosen her vise grip on his shoulder. "We were only –"
He couldn't finish. There was nothing he could possibly say to help this situation.
"Look at this," Coldstone said, indicating the room. "Look at yourselves. You've disgraced this hotel, and your clan. You are warriors, brothers. This is not how I expect you to behave."
"We had … a disagreement," Gabriel said.
"I should think so," Coldfire said. "Over what?"
"Over … well …" Gabriel didn't look at her, and though her golden mask of a face could not change expression, somehow a light of understanding went on in her luminescent eyes.
"Over a female?" she asked. "Godiva, was it?"
"He treats me like I'm a hatchling," Angus said, blushing under his mother's scrutiny and apparent disappointment in him. "But I'm not!"
"Neither are you yet an adult," Coldstone said. "The responsibilities of an adult must be demonstrated before the privileges are earned."
Angus was astonished – not to mention dismayed and unnerved – to find himself getting angry at his father, too. "Is it because I haven't killed in battle? Well, I've got news for you, Pop! There aren't any damn Vikings anymore, remember? We don't live like that, having to defend our home against barbarians. A hatchling doesn't become an adult on the blood of his enemies."
"That is the gargoyle way," Coldstone said grimly. "Some things have not changed."
"Not fair!" Angus yelled. "What about Gabriel, then, huh? He was fooling around with the girls on Avalon long before there was even anybody to fight! Nobody told him he wasn't an adult then!"
"We are not talking about Gabriel's status," Coldstone said.
"It's the same thing!"
"It is not," Gabriel said.
"Enough," Coldfire said. She turned to Angus. "You are attracted to Godiva?"
He blushed again. "I … um … well, you know …"
"Yes," she said dryly. "I rather believe I do. She has something of an effect on males."
At this, she sent a sidelong look at her mate, and Coldstone immediately busied himself surveying the debris that littered the dining room. He cleared his throat.
"However," Coldfire went on, stroking Angus' hair with a distracted motherly gesture, "I do not believe she is right for you, son."
"Oh, but it was okay for Gabriel?"
"Your brother had prior experience of loveplay. Am I not right, Gabriel?"
"Mother, please!" Gabriel protested.
"Am I not right?"
"You, Angus," she said, "would do better to find your way into that realm of adulthood with a female closer to your own age. One who is not so … so …"
"Predatory," Coldstone said.
"Jaded was the word I sought," Coldfire said. "However, that will do as well. You should find your own way before you become a notch on her bedpost. You should be with someone you care for, who likewise cares for you. There is no greater joy. When you are in love with someone --"
If she was going to give him 'the talk,' Angus hoped that the floor would open up beneath him. It had been bad enough when Mother Eibhlin had felt she should sit him down and tell him about the birds and the bees. He wasn't sure which of them had been the more uncomfortable.
"Aw, Mother," he said. "I know. You don't have to tell me. Please, don't tell me."
"Angus," Gabriel said, eyes downcast. "I owe you an apology. I overreacted."
"Hear me out," Gabriel said. "I was trying to protect you. I understand how you might resent that, but I know what she is like."
"Yeah, and that's what I want to find out," he groused.
"Listen to your brother," Coldfire said warningly.
"I can see why you'd be tempted," Gabriel continued. "Part of it, well, is lack of other options. We do not see many other gargoyles here, let alone young eligible females."
Angus kept silent. The last thing he should do right now, he knew, was mention that he wasn't nearly as picky about species as some people. He could only cringe at the reaction he might get from his parents and brother if he ever let that bit of knowledge slip. Why, when pop star Kellina had stayed at the Coventry …
He felt dizzy just remembering. If only he'd had the guts to talk to her. He'd written her a poem, intending to have it delivered to her suite with a dozen long-stemmed roses, but tore it up in a frenzied fit of embarrassment long before anyone else could catch him.
Kellina … Bea … Godiva …
"It is only reasonable," Gabriel was saying. "Perhaps the best thing would be for you to have a chance to get to know some other gargoyles."
"How?" Coldstone asked. "The females of Goliath's clan are all spoken for, and need I remind you, Gabriel, that there is a death-sentence hanging over your head, placed there by the one other clan, primitive though they may be, that we had thus far managed to find? Despite our visible presence here, we have not yet been contacted by many others. Unless you intend to go to searching for them –"
"I think that is what Gabriel is suggesting," Coldfire said. "We have perhaps been selfish, my love. We have made a home here and been happy ourselves, but we have neglected the futures of our sons. We have forgotten their needs. Oh, how I wish matters in the Yukon had come to a better end!"
"You just want to get me away from Godiva," Angus accused Gabriel.
"And you," Coldstone said to his mate, "just want them to find mates and raise a brood of hatchlings."
"Is that so wrong?" Coldfire asked. "Our brother Goliath has grandchildren now. Should I not be envious? You saw him at the hatching, my love. When Angela presented her tiny daughter into his hands, he wept."
Coldstone made a gruff snort. "I saw. I knew it was a mistake to visit."
"I would not have missed it for the world," she said.
Angus and Gabriel, their feud forgotten, shared a rueful look. Coldfire had been taking every excuse to mention the hatching, which they had attended the previous spring as guests. Angus had merely been bored. See one squashy baby gargoyle cracking shell, seen them all. It had been harder for Gabriel, watching his rookery sisters with their mates and probably thinking about all the rest of the ones left behind on Avalon.
He felt suddenly sorry for Gabriel, and like a heel for the way he'd been acting toward his big brother. Gabe did have the best intentions. He didn't mean to be an overbearing, controlling, bossy pain in the ass.
Coldfire, meanwhile, had gotten sidetracked and was cooing again over how adorable the hatchlings had been, Angela's Kathe with her lovely maroon skin, the web-winged pair born to Aiden and Lexington, round little Malcolm, and the unheard-of quartet that Hudson had sired on Delilah. Such a shock that had been to all there assembled, none of whom until that moment had known of the clandestine mating. But the moment little Aramis, first-hatched of the brood, thrust his tiny fist through his shell, then ripped it away and sat staring about proudly, there could have been no doubt in anyone's mind whose son he was.
Coldfire received weekly letters from Angela, always packed with pictures and anecdotes. She never missed a chance to read these aloud to her clan, and papered the wall of her office with the photographs.
"But, all that aside," she finally said, "this is perhaps not the best environment for our sons. They do need the chance to be with other gargoyles, flesh-and-blood ones. We may have lost touch somewhat with their needs, my love."
Understatement of the decade, but Angus would sooner gouge out an eye than say so aloud. He loved them, he did, but they could be hard to deal with.
Gabriel looked taken aback. "You … do you wish us to go away?"
"Was that not your plan?" she asked.
"I hadn't given it that much thought yet," he said. "Leave the hotel? I suppose that we could."
"Where would we go?" Angus grimaced. "Not living in the wilderness again! You know how miserable that is, Gabriel. I like being near civilization, being able to get a pizza or a hamburger from time to time. I don't like having to live on what I can catch, kill, skin, and cook."
"What of Avalon?" Coldstone ventured. "You speak of it often."
"No," Gabriel said. "No, I am not ready to return to Avalon."
"And even if he was," Angus said, "it doesn't sound like there's any spare girls on Avalon. Didn't they all pair off?"
"Perhaps London," Coldfire said. "Or Ishimura. I am certain that Ohta and Hoshi would gladly recommend you to their former clan."
"If they are not in dishonor for leaving," Coldstone reminded her. "Remember, we do not know their full circumstances."
Coldfire sighed in exasperation. "Are you trying, my love, to sabotage every suggestion? There are many other clans now announcing themselves, and new rumors springing up all the time. Where was it, California, that a small town elected a gargoyle as their chief of police? And did we not hear from some of the hotel guests that there was a preserve in Montana for gargoyles?"
"The zoo, you mean," Angus said. "That's what it sounded like to me."
"I had the impression it was more akin to the tribal lands, the reservations," Coldfire said. "But either of those places are not far from here. It would surely be easier than traveling to England, or Guatemala, or Russia."
"You are eager to be rid of us," Gabriel said, half-laughing.
"I only want you both to have a chance at happiness," she said. She looked fondly at Coldstone and added, "We were fortunate enough to have a second chance, and we know too well how fleeting and precious love is."
"And she wants hatchlings to dandle on her knee," Coldstone said.
"I think your hopes are rather high," Gabriel said. "My luck with mates has not been what I'd call good."
"I guess I don't mind traveling some," Angus said. "As long as it's not living off jackrabbits in the middle of nowhere. Meeting other clans would be fun."
"Before any such decisions are made," Coldstone said with a sudden severe glint in his red eye, "you both have a good deal of cleaning up to do, as well as tendering your apologies to the guests."
"Oh." Angus looked around. Splintered tables and chairs, shards of crystal and china, spilled food, gravy soaking into the carpet … disaster from wall to wall. He groaned.
"We'd best get started, then," Gabriel said.
"Why, that cunning bitch," Godiva said.
She was in the security control room, having just observed the entire conversation on the monitors. She'd listened in disbelief as Coldfire had neatly orchestrated a way to get not one but both of her precious sons out of the temptress' vile clutches.
"Marry them off and get some grandbabies, to boot," she said, sneering at Coldfire's serene golden features. "You've been just waiting for a chance like this, haven't you?"
It was not a news flash to Godiva that Coldfire didn't trust her. That helpless touch of jealousy was there, of course, a factor in it. No female of any race was ever going to fully trust, like, and be bosom buddies with the likes of Godiva. There would always be the competition – not that it ever was a competition; who could possibly compete? – and the instinctive cat-claw spite. Coldfire couldn't help that, robot or not, any more than the males could help their drooling gazes.
But this, well, she was pretty serious, wasn't she? Ready to give up her sons, send them away, all to save Angus' virtue.
Godiva was tempted to seek the boy out right now, this very night, and take him on a sexual tour of the world. She'd educate him so thoroughly that there would never be a single thing he could do with a female that he hadn't learned first from her. Then, if he still wanted to go, fine. She'd win anyway.
A nice idea, but she doubted she would have the opportunity. It would be close to morning by the time the two of them finished cleaning up the mess they'd made of the dining room. And she wouldn't put it past Coldfire to have their bags packed and push them out the door the second they cracked out of stone tomorrow night.
Well, fine. Maybe this would be even more fun. Let young Angus go away with the image of her seared into his mind. Imagination was a more powerful and pervasive thing than memory. He would always be wondering what it would have been like, and eventually, when they met again, she would reel him in.
All the better if he did go off and find some sweet little she-garg. A gentle, shy, girlish one. Then Godiva could steal Angus away from her, or better yet, seduce the female first while Angus watched.
So many tasty possibilities!
The best, though, would have been for her to reach Angus and Gabriel while they were in the very throes of fighting over her. She could have easily turned their anger to lust, and convinced them to put that energy to better use.
Both of them at the same time … oh, how nice that would have been! Because they would have each been trying to outdo the other, their competition in battle turning to competition in bed. And she would have been right there to gleefully reap the benefits.
What a pity. Well, she would have her turn. She could wait. It wasn't as if she was going to get old and ugly and undesirable. Not her, not Godiva.
The outward marks of the beating they'd inflicted on each other had faded with a good day's sleep, but Angus knew that Gabriel was still peeved for a bunch of reasons. Almost getting his tail kicked by his baby brother –or so Angus tried to convince himself, still embarrassed by the sense that Gabe had gone easy on him – not the least of which.
Baby brother. Sheesh. They'd been conceived at the same time. Just born a world and a few centuries apart. It could have been Gabriel's egg that got left behind on the skiff. Only the luck of the draw had made it be Angus'. By rights, he should be of a generation with Gabriel.
Didn't matter, though. He was growing up now and none of them could stop him.
He would go along with this idea to visit Montana, if only to make his parents happy. It'd be something new, even if it didn't pan out.
And he did have to admit, for all its light and splendor, he was getting a little bored with Vegas. It was more flash than substance, a city with no real sense of permanence, all tourists and come-and-go and new hotels rising like phoenixes from the ashes of the old.
So, when the arrangements were made, Angus didn't object. He packed a few changes of clothes and the essentials he couldn't live without – wireless mini computer with onboard phone and microdisk player, portable game console, two-pound bag of peanut M&M's, baseball with bat and mitt, his most prized trading cards.
He debated longer about the things he didn't want his mother to find if she went through his stuff while he was away – signed glamour shot of Godiva, an old issue of Playboy magazine that featured Fox Xanatos, half a dozen naughty graphic novels about demonesses. After some consideration, he slit the underside of a chair and stuffed the incriminating objects up inside, then taped the slit shut again.
Gabriel turned up at the appointed time and place far more sensibly equipped. He had camping cookware, a skinning knife, tools, and the like. Angus groaned and went back to fetch his outdoor gear.
Eventually, they were ready to go. A small farewell party, hosted with less than her usual good humor by Godiva, was held on the Coventry's private rooftop patio. Angus stuffed himself, because he just knew that once they were on their own, Gabriel would go back to that 'you eat what you kill' mentality. This could well be his last real meal for months.
Money. He dashed back to his room and took the wad of bills out of his desk drawer. At least he'd be able to get a hamburger or something.
It was nearly midnight by the time they'd finished saying their good-byes. Angus suspected that Coldfire would have cried if she could. Coldstone was all brusque and encouraging, like a coach who had to miss the big game because of a broken leg. Hoshi and Ohta wished them well.
Godiva gave Angus a hug that, seen as how they were all under the watchful eyes of the rest of the clan, she probably honestly did intend to be more like the hug of an auntie. Except that there was no physical way to hug Godiva without being in ample contact with her curves, and Angus was loathe to let go. Her perfume seemed to curl around him like it did in cartoons, caressing his face, making his feet float up off the ground as his eyes went half-closed and dreamy.
She set him back from her far too soon, though not soon enough by the way Gabriel was glaring. Angus stifled another burst of annoyance.
Nothing was said, however, and moments later they were settling their packs over their shoulders and testing the range of motion of their wings. The open Nevada night was waiting. In the direction of their destination, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia in her throne spiraled endlessly around the winking white fire of the North Star.
"Good journey," Coldfire said. Although her voice was carefully modulated, electronically-generated, there was a catch in it. She even hitched in a breath, and dabbed at dry optical receptors. "Good journey, my sons."
"Remember," Coldstone said. "Clan. Warriors. Brothers."
High Country, Montana
A protest was going on outside of the entrance to InGenUity's compound. To either side of the large metal-beam gate, fences stretched in a curve to enclose the hilly wooded grounds, the research buildings, the main hotel, and the gigantic dome of the game preserve.
The protestors had been there for several days, and by now they had it down to a routine. When darkness fell – and no darkness was quite as complete and solid as that out here in the open wilderness of Montana, the stars cutting the black with points of brilliance – they turned on the headlights of cars arranged in a semi-circle. This illumination, added to the blue-white luminescence of the perimeter lights of the compound, let their signs remain clearly readable at all hours.
Those wishing to sleep would retire to one of the several motor homes, ramshackle older vehicles all, most with Greenpeace and Save the Whales and various human and animal rights advocacy groups advertised on their bumper stickers. Six heavy-duty plastic portable toilets and a portable handwashing station were near a makeshift shower. For mealtimes, picnic tables and benches had been set up underneath a communal tent. There were camp stoves, open fires, ice chests, and hibachis arranged along one side.
The activists were prepared to stay as long as it took. Some had been here for weeks, marching and chanting in front of the gates, waving their signs at the security cameras, and earnestly explaining their cause and their message to whatever representatives of the media turned up.
There hadn't been many of the latter, and no response from InGenUity at all, but the protestors carried on with undiminished spirits. These were people who thought nothing of living for six months on a tiny platform perched high in a redwood, or enduring grueling conditions to wash sea-birds caught in oil slicks, or brave being tear-gassed and shot with rubber pellets while closing down city streets in protest of a scheduled execution. By contrast, the siege of InGenUity was a cakewalk.
Liz Dorsett, reporter incognito, mingled with the activists. That, she knew, was how they preferred to be known. Activist, active, action. A positive, forward-going sort of term. Protest, they said, was full of negative connotations.
With her perpetually unmanageable mass of auburn hair, tanned skin, work-hardened hands, and lean, rangy body, she knew she fit right in once she donned the proper wardrobe. Brown denims, hiking boots, a paisley shirt in earth-tones with a few swirls of coral and turquoise, a utility belt, and a battered canvas pack made her look at home among the assemblage.
She kept the Chapstick-sized digital camera and tape recorder concealed. She was here for the real story, not what the activists or InGenUity wanted to present. People, no matter which side they were on, got too conscious when they knew they were in the company of a reporter. The truth came out when they thought they were alone among their own kind.
This was the easy half. Getting into the compound for the other side of things was going to be tricky, especially now. The place was closed to tourists and day-trippers while the lawyers prepared to battle it out in the courts. No one got in. The employees had been mostly evacuated, from the hotel's lowliest chambermaid on up to the science team.
Only a minimal staff remained inside, mainly security thugs and a few of the zoologists, paleontologists, psychologists, and geneticists. The compound director was still in there too. Sort of like the captain of the Titanic, except that Dr. John Leister had decided to keep his family with him.
Leister was the one Liz really would have given her eyeteeth to interview. Rumor had it that he was related to as well as protégé of the infamous Anton Sevarius, pioneer in the field of genetic mutation and manipulation.
In the meanwhile, she circulated among the activists as the informal shifts began to change. Dinner was being served in the mess tent, primarily a vegan menu. It struck Liz as kind of crazy that the same people who knocked down the walls of slaughterhouses with bulldozers to rescue cattle were also the ones decrying the alternate food source of 'vat meat' as an unnatural abomination.
She had asked about it once, just once, and the answer she'd gotten had been so incredibly weird that it had left her blinking stupidly for several minutes.
"Vat meat is nothing but pornography," the woman she'd asked had told her. "Just as pornography fosters sexism and violence against women, vat meat fosters carnivorism and violence against animals."
That brief and bewildering conversation had taken place a few years ago, at a protest outside of a vat-meat processing plant outside of Seattle. In what she thought was the only possible rational response, Liz stopped for a huge dinner at Black Angus and then went home and read the last half of a paperback titled The Erotic Adventures of Joan of Arc .
Avoiding the topic of food as it pertained to lifestyle choices, she got a bowl of lentil soup and several thick slices of whole-grain bread. She was dying for a steak, a rotisserie chicken, or a slab of pork roast with mushroom-wine sauce.
The spectacular sunset had taken the last of the day's token effort at warmth with it, and the bone-numbing cold of a Montana autumn was already creeping in. Liz knew that in some parts of the state, there would already be snow on the ground. If the fishscale clouds in the east made good on their threat of an approaching weather system, they might get snow here, too.
Not that snow, unless it was a blizzard of newsworthy proportions, would make much of a dent in the attendance outside the gates. They had campfires, and Gortex sleeping bags, and plenty of them saw nothing amiss in burning fuel to run their car heaters while they were out protecting the environment and the rights of all living things.
Liz chewed on her bread, thinking that it would be much better with a few nice slices of rare roast beef, some Swiss, and plenty of good tangy mustard. She watched the patterns of the camp.
The activists ranged from a couple in their eighties to a baby that had been delivered in the back of a vintage VW van by a midwife just three days ago. Some of them had real, nine-to-five lives in the world of corporations and bank accounts. Others lived in converted school buses and made their living through the sale of handcrafted pottery and jewelry.
Dinner hour was the liveliest time of day around the camp. Kids ran around in the chilly twilight, resisting directions to put on coats, or get ready for bed. The young singles used it as an opportunity for courting. People collected around the fires with their meals, and talked animatedly.
Edgy for no reason she could pinpoint, Liz wandered around trying to see if anything peculiar was going on. There had been remarkably few confrontations. With no employees coming or going, no television cameras, the activists had no one to shout at.
Still, something was about to happen. Her reporter's instincts told her so. Something big.
She found a spot where she could drink the last of her soup in relative privacy, while keeping an eye on the gates. The swing shift protestors, fewer of them, marched around in the glare of the headlights.
At times like this, she couldn't help thinking of her brother, Jim. He felt every bit as strongly about certain issues as did the people here, but no one would ever catch Jim Dorsett out protesting. As intensely private as their father before him, his method of dealing with issues of environmentalism and protecting wildlife was to have slowly but steadily bought up unspoiled acreage and forbidding any building or development.
It had come as a great surprise to Jim when the people of the nearest tiny Montana town had spontaneously and overwhelmingly voted him for mayor. He hadn't even been running for the office. Liz had written a piece on it, probably the largest majority vote ever given to a solely write-in and undeclared candidate.
They had even changed the name of the town from Binker's Hump to Dorsett, over Jim's protests. The reply from the constituency was that they had suffered Binker's Hump since the 1880's and a change was long overdue anyway.
She shook off a grin at the recollection of her brother's flustered reaction. Good old Jim. Spent his life avoiding politics, and ended up mayor. She knew just what he'd tell her if he could see her out here. No amount of rhetoric or emotional appeals ever changed a person's strongly-held conviction. That was why he'd decided when he was only a teenager to save his breath and take action in his own offbeat way.
Nothing moved beyond the high gate of the compound.
Didn't Leister care? Wasn't he interested in defending his point of view? Or did he figure that it was a lost cause? Couldn't convert people like these, according to Jim Dorsett. They were firm and snug in their beliefs. Fanatic, even.
Liz wondered, and not for the first time, if it would be possible to sneak into the compound. But she was a reporter, not a super-spy. She didn't have a miniature grappling hook and fifty yards of cable hidden in her belt buckle, or a heat-trapping bodysuit to defeat infrared, or anything of the sort.
As she was standing there, a crust of bread in her mouth, the compound suddenly came alive with alarms and spotlights. The harsh sirening bray elicited cries of shock from the activists, and the pillars of blinding white sweeping to and fro absolutely dwarfed the perimeter lights and the car headlights.
The crust of bread lodged in her throat as Liz gasped. She hacked it up, spat the half-chewed wad aside, and snatched the digital camera into her hand. She aimed it at the sky, every nerve intent in the hopes that what she'd seen hadn't been a mere trick of the shadows.
There! Caught for a split second in one of the waving beams. A winged shape, twisting in mid-flight to avoid being pinned in the hot white glow.
She lost it almost as soon as she saw it, and swore.
Activists were swarming, babbling, pointing. Someone yelled, "Gargoyles!" and others took it up in an excited din. Most of them had probably never even seen one, except on television.
Liz, who had met a couple of them just last year when her assignment took her to the National Barbecue Cook-Off in Amarillo, was still just as thrilled by the sight of the graceful forms gliding in and out of the flashing beams. There was something about them, something so wild and wonderful, that uplifted the soul.
The people of InGenUity obviously didn't feel the same way. Moments after the spotlights captured the first gargoyle, the perimeter stun-lasers opened fire.
A collective horrified "No!" went up from the activists, and they were spurred into action. They charged the gates, some of them foolishly attempting to climb and getting zapped for their pains when they hit the electrified grid about halfway up. Others leaped into idling cars and gunned the engines, maybe thinking they could ram through the sturdy construction.
Keeping her camera trained on the action, Liz distanced herself from the mob and sought higher ground so she could see what was going on. The lasers seemed to be automated, possibly triggered by motion sensors that would be tripped by anything larger than an eagle, or they were being controlled from the interior.
Two gargoyles, both males, she judged. They appeared to have been caught off guard by the sudden explosion of lights, sirens, and laser blasts. They were reeling in mid-air, unsure which way to go.
A larger gun went off, firing not a laser or a bullet but some sort of capsule at them. The capsule's shell cracked apart and a weighted net blossomed out. One of the gargoyles dodged it, but the other was ensnared. At once, the net turned into a sparking sizzle of energy, shocking the gargoyle into limp unconsciousness. He plummeted into the compound.
The other one made an anguished cry and started to dive, but another launched capsule opened above him and he had to go into a muscle-wrenching series of evasive actions to avoid being caught. More lights were coming on all over the compound, and voices of men barking orders could be heard.
The gargoyle hovered briefly, torn in indecision.
Someone among the crowd of activists couldn't wait. A car roared at the gates, horn blatting. People scrambled out of the way. Liz caught it on tape, the car slamming into the unyielding gates like a crash test, front end crumpling, rear end rising off the ground, doors popping open. It made no appreciable difference to the gates, but while some protestors were hauling the dazed body of the driver out, others were climbing on top as if meaning to scale the wall that way.
A chatter of gunfire – actual gunfire, not stun-lasers – brought Liz's attention back to the gargoyle with a snap. He wheeled away from the compound and the line of armed men on one of the exterior balconies. He was headed away from the camp and the commotion, descending on the opposite side of the compound.
Liz didn't stop to think. She went at a dead run back to the camp, where she jumped onto some teenage kid's ATV and took off cross-country. The terrain was rugged, bouncing her so hard that she thought her teeth were going to fall out, and each time she topped a rise she was sure the ATV was about to go nose-first into a deep gully, flip over on top of her, and break her neck.
She did plunge into one gully, plowing through a stream and sending up fans of water that soaked her to the knees. She was through it and chugging up the other bank before she was fully cognizant that she hadn't crashed.
The log, though, was another story.
Seeing it too late to change course, Liz braked. Too slow. The front of the ATV met the hoary old wood with a bang and the ATV slammed to a halt. Liz was thrown up and over, yelping, wishing for a helmet and thinking that she still had two movies out from Blockbuster and what meager estate she left probably wouldn't cover the overdue fines.
Scrubby ground rushed up at her. She hit hardpacked dirt and was rolling downhill at a sickening speed. Her body bumped and thumped over rocks, patches of rough grass, and through spindly bushes that gave way with a splintering like fragile bones. The tangy, junipery scent of crushed leaves surrounded her.
She reached the bottom of the hill amazed to be alive. Her tongue was bleeding from where she'd bitten it when her jaws clacked together. One elbow was scraped raw. Twigs and leaves were caught in her clothes, her hair.
Liz groaned as she sat up, taking mental inventory. Her first panicked impulse was to check the digital camera, which she'd thrust through her belt when she'd gotten on the ATV. It was still there, its little light still on. A wave of relief went through her.
That wave of relief ended immediately when her tangled mass of hair was seized, and she was yanked to her feet by something large and strong.
Jeannie Leister covered her mouth with both hands and gasped.
"There he is," her father said in a tone of grim satisfaction. "There's the bugger."
On the monitor, the forest looked eerie, an alien landscape. The infrared cameras turned the trees into shadowy monoliths, and anything larger than an ant stood out in glowing auras of green, yellow, orange, and red varying according to body heat.
The gargoyle was yellowy-orange, with brighter patches over his head and chest, and duller greenish ones on the membranes of his wings. Every now and then, when the net sparked, an eye-watering flash of white would wink on the screen.
"Gargoyle," the security officer observed. "Healthy young adult male. What the hell's he doing here?"
"I suppose," John Leister said, drumming his long agile fingers on the desk, "that we should ask him. Take your team, Mr. Patterson, and bring him in before he's found."
Patterson, the security officer, nodded. "What about the other situation? The kids?"
Leister massaged the bridge of his nose. "One problem at a time, please, Mr. Patterson."
"Well, sir, but we haven't resolved that one –"
"Yes, yes, I am quite exceedingly well aware of it. However, those children are perfectly safe within the park and of little consequence to tonight's concern. Unless you are feeling in such a particular need to prove your testicular fortitude as to launch an assault at night, when their advantages still outweigh yours?"
"No, sir," Patterson said, but Jeannie could tell that he didn't mean it. She knew that he and her father had been going around and around about this ever since the incident. Patterson wanted to lead a military action.
"When you only have a hammer," her father had told her when she'd asked about it, "everything looks like a nail." Jeannie didn't fully grasp that, but she got the general idea.
Patterson snapped his fingers and three other men, their carbines slung over the shoulders of their night-camo jumpsuits, fell in behind him.
"They're not going to hurt him, are they, Daddy?" Jeannie asked.
Her father gave her an absent smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. He was a fair-skinned man with brown hair that rose from a sharp widow's peak, his features angular and well-delineated. His voice, especially when he was gloating over the success of his projects, was richly accented and brimming with a smugness that bordered on sumptuousness.
"Of course not, poppet," he said. "Why would they hurt him?"
"They were shooting at him," she said, crossing her arms on her chest.
"Nonsense," he said, ruffling her hair. "They were shooting at the other one when the conventional defenses failed to bring him down."
She shied away from the hair-ruffling. She was fifteen, too old for that sort of thing. It wasn't like she was a baby anymore.
Dr. Leister turned back to the monitors. The gargoyle hadn't moved, still lying splayed on the ground. At the peripheries of the scene, smaller red-orange shapes scurried through the darkness. Little nocturnal mammals, their high metabolisms burning like many tiny torches in the night.
Jeannie repeated Patterson's question. "What's he doing here?"
"Poking his nose in," Leister said with a shrug. "These creatures often do, I'm told. They have a distinct aversion to science."
"Maybe because everyone wants to study them in a lab," she said. "That'd give me an aversion."
"Let's not start this again," he said, sighing. "Isn't it enough that our work is hampered by those do-gooders outside? I don't need similar dissension in my own home."
"Well, maybe they're right," Jeannie said, and instantly wished she could take it back. She had his full attention now, his eyebrows arched in disbelief. "I mean … I mean … well, it's the law, isn't it? They have rights. The law says so."
"The law," Leister said, and snorted. "Oh, yes, the law. Need I remind you, poppet, that the law as written only applies to, and I quote, 'gargoyles, enhanced or mutated humans, and magical sentients of the race generally known as faerie'? That is the law. It does not apply to our work here."
"Because the President didn't know," Jeannie blurted. Oh, her mouth was really going to get her in trouble tonight. She'd probably be grounded for …
Her thoughts derailed. Grounded? From what? She was already a prisoner inside the compound, not able to go to the movies or the mall or anything. She, and Mom, and Sam, all trapped here with Dad in his self-imposed exile. What else could he do? Take away her TV privileges?
But her father only chuckled. "Loophole is as loophole does. Until and unless the laws regarding laboratory animals change, we are perfectly within our legal rights."
"They're sentient, though, aren't they?"
"Oh, of course," he said.
"Then it's wrong!"
"The world isn't that clearly divided, poppet. There are compelling arguments for the sentience of many other creatures. Is there a functional difference between an ape that can communicate with sign language, and a deaf person? Dolphins show reasoning ability and abstract thought. The Francis Project has its dogs that are as smart as any human. But they are all still animals, aren't they?"
"Well …" Jeannie floundered. "Well, maybe there shouldn't be a difference. Maybe if something is smart, and can think, and communicate, maybe that means they're not animals any more."
"Which is precisely what those dolts outside would like us to believe," Leister said, smiling fondly at her. "But they're also the same people who feel that cloning is wrong."
Jeannie said nothing. If she'd had antennae, they would be quivering now. This was dangerous territory and she knew it.
"They'd eliminate every trace of that scientific discipline if they could," he said. "No matter how much good it's done for mankind. Organ and skin banks for transplant and burn patients, food enough to combat worldwide hunger, reversing extinctions … cloning has been a boon."
"Yes, Daddy." She didn't want to fight with him the way Mom sometimes did. It freaked her out to think about it too closely. She liked to pretend that her family was as ordinary as anyone else's. Thinking about their origins was too much like … well … imagining her parents 'doing it.'
"They'd get rid of all of us," he said quietly. "Don't think you'd be excluded by virtue of being a cute and innocent little girl. From where they're standing, poppet, you're just as much a monster as I am."
"I know, Daddy."
"And just as much an experimental life form as our subjects," he added, indicating one of the other monitors trained on the lair. The motionless figures, two large and two small, showed up muted yellow as they slept. A third large one, upright, was tinged more with the orange of an active metabolism. "But do you think the rights they'd seek for those creatures would in any way apply to you?"
"I guess not."
He smiled again, and held out an arm to her. "Come here, poppet. Give your dear old Dad a hug, and then go to bed."
"I want to see what happens," Jeannie protested as she stepped close and let him embrace her. "With the gargoyle."
"No need for you to worry about that. Mr. Patterson will find out what he wants here, and in all likelihood, he'll be shown to the exits and sent on his way."
She frowned. "You'll let him go?"
"Why wouldn't we? We're not interested in their kind here, and if we held him against his will, it would be breaking the law. Just our luck that those idiots outside probably saw the whole thing."
He added this last in a muttered undertone, convincing Jeannie that if the incident hadn't been witnessed, they would certainly be keeping the gargoyle.
"What about the other one?" she asked.
"All the more reason to find and release the first," Leister said. "You have no idea the damage those brutes can do when they think one of their own is being mistreated. The sooner we get him out of here, the better. Now, shoo."
Reluctantly, and with a final backward glance at the monitor, Jeannie went. She returned to the family apartment. Mom's door was closed and the faint sound of her ladylike snores came from beyond it.
Sam's door was ajar with a reading light on, but when Jeannie peeked in, she saw her brother asleep with a comic book on his lap and more stacked on his bedside table. Horror comics. Immacula the Vampire Nun. He had his room papered with posters of the cartoon character.
He was small for his age, thin, and in the dim glow of the reading light, the cast on his left arm had a spectral luminescence. His bones, purged of a debilitating birth defect, were nonetheless brittle. His hair was dark instead of medium-brown like the rest of the family, and when open, his eyes were hazel instead of grey-blue. People sometimes asked if he was adopted. Jeannie never knew whether to laugh or not.
Adopted. It was kind of funny, really.
If only they knew.
Gabriel's fist, poised and ready to deliver a punishing blow to the woman, hesitated as he got a better look at her. Ordinary clothes instead of a camo jumpsuit. No weapon.
He relaxed his arms, lowering his fist and setting her feet on the ground, though maintaining his grip in the springy mass of her hair. Her hands came up and he expected an ineffectual tugging at his superior strength.
Instead, she pressed down hard on his fist, pushing his fingers against her skull, hurting him, causing him to automatically loosen his hold. At the same time, she bent down, forcing his less-than-optimum wrist into a painful contortion.
His clutch loosened further, and she twisted away from him with a quickness that left only a few errant strands of hair caught in his talons. She shook the wild mane back from her face and looked up at him, jaw set, fists raised.
"I was coming to help you, buddy," she said, "but so help me, I'll kick your butt if I have to."
"Who are you?" he asked, eyes narrowed.
"Liz Dorsett. Freelance reporter."
"Reporter?" Gabriel's eyes narrowed further. He'd attended a few press conferences and media events, first with Senator Harmond, and later at the Coventry, and his estimation of reporters was not much above his estimation of the people who'd just been firing at him.
"You want to make something of it?" this scrapper shot back.
Then, all at once, he couldn't contain a grin. She reminded him of some of his sisters. Tough, brusque, and no-nonsense. Defiant even though she had to be aching from the spill she'd taken. Ready to mix it up with him though he was a head taller and twice her weight. And not above hitting below the belt, he rather suspected.
"You aren't with them?" he asked, jabbing a thumb toward the compound.
"Not hardly. But speaking of them, we'd better beat feet before they come to collect us."
"I cannot leave without my brother. He –"
"Fell in," Liz said. "They got him in some sort of electro-net. I saw. You can't help him if they get you, too. We can talk about a plan somewhere else. Now, you could seek refuge at the activists' camp, but you'd be mobbed. I say we make for the woods until we figure out what to do."
"Why should you help me?"
"Chalk it up to my crusading nature." She glanced at the walls, where the spotlights were still sweeping back and forth.
The gates hadn't yet opened to disgorge an army, but they had to have seen him go down. Sooner or later, they would be fanning out to search.
Liz turned from the compound to Gabriel. "Is that hill high enough for you to get lift?"
"Yes, it –"
"Good enough for me. Quick like a bunny, okay?" She headed up the slope, and Gabriel had little choice but to follow. At the top, she sized him up and then said, "Well?"
"Well, are you going to pick me up or do I have to climb you like a tree? In case you didn't notice, I don't have wings of my own." Nonplussed, he picked her up. She slung her arms around his neck as if she'd done this a hundred times before, and slapped him amiably on the shoulder. "You're a strong one, aren't you?"
"You're light," he countered.
"Oh, you're just saying that."
"No, truly –"
"Flirt later," she said, and winked at him. "Glide now."
He obediently opened his wings, bent his legs, and with a single powerful bound was airborne. Liz stifled a cry, not of fright but a whoop of excitement, and let go with one arm to aim a small device at the receding ground.
"Hold on," he said, alarmed.
"Were you planning to drop me?"
"No, I –"
"You do your job, and I'll do mine. By the way, what do I call you?"
"Uh, Gabriel," he said.
"Like the archangel. Of course. Don't look now, but we've got company."
He looked anyway. A flying shape, an Ultralight craft of some sort, was taking off from the roof of the compound. They were giving chase.
"We were doing no harm," he said, anger filling him. "We only came seeking others of our kind, and this is how they greet us? They capture my brother, shoot at me, and now would challenge me in the skies? I've a mind to take the battle to them!"
"Much as I'd like to get eyewitness footage," Liz said, "I think I'd rather you set me down first."
"What have we done to them? What is this place?"
"I can answer the second one, when we're not about to be gunned down anyway."
"Let them try," Gabriel said grimly.
"Um, no, I don't think so," she said. "Let's not let them try, how about?"
"I will have my brother back, whole and well."
"Yes. Absolutely. So long as we don't get killed."
"You trusted me to glide. Trust me to fight."
Without waiting for her response, he soared high as if attempting a loop-the-loop. At the very apex of the circle he was describing, he executed a half-roll. Liz didn't contain her whoop this time.
"An Immelman!" she crowed. "Very nice!"
Gabriel didn't know what she was talking about, but had no time to ask. The maneuver had brought them up and around so that they were in a head-on course toward the Ultralight. It was, he saw, a two-man craft. The one at the back controlled the flight, while the one at the front handled the weaponry.
"I'll need my hands," he said.
"That was why I wanted you to set me down. What should I do, jump?"
"Here." He boosted her over his shoulder. "On my back."
"Oh, boy." But she scrambled willingly enough, between his widespread wings, and straddled the small of his back. Her fingers curled through his belt. "This is extreme even for me, I hope you know."
"Just don't wriggle about too much," Gabriel said, his teeth clenched.
"Don't worry, I don't want to fall."
"It isn't that. You're … a gargoyle's back … just hold still."
He dove toward the craft, but even the wind rushing in his fan-shaped ears at the increased speed didn't prevent him from hearing her snicker in understanding. Strange woman.
The gunner saw Gabriel bearing down on them, and turned his weapon so that the inky bore of it was like a tunnel with no light at the end. A ball of reddish energy spat from it, sizzling and crackling.
Gabriel cried a warning to Liz and veered sharply to the side. He felt her legs squeeze his waist tight, her bottom pressing against the base of his tail.
The energy ball whizzed past, missing his left foot by inches. They had gone over the Ultralight, which was even now coming about. Gabriel didn't want to give them the chance to get off another shot. He skimmed it, raking with his claws at its wings. They were made of a much sterner stuff than they looked. He barely rent it. So, changing tactics, he seized the framework and dropped his entire weight on top of the craft. It went into a clumsy fall, and he could hear the shouts of the men hanging beneath.
A red blast tore a hole through the wing. Gabriel whipped his head back just in time to prevent himself from being struck full in the face. The energy ball streaked skyward, but it left a nice fist-sized aperture through which Gabriel promptly put his fist.
His knuckles met flesh and bone with a crunching sound. The gunner went limp, his weapon spinning away toward the Montana countryside. The other man began frantically yawing and pitching, hoping to throw Gabriel off.
Gabriel obliged, pushing free with a strong kick. The downward thrust flipped the Ultralight entirely over as gargoyle and passenger were propelled straight up. The body of the gunner flopped bonelessly in his harness. His trailing boots hit the pilot in the head, bloodying his nose.
The craft, fluttering in a death-spiral like a crippled moth, seesawed toward the ground. Its engine blatted and snarled, but the pilot was unable to regain control.
Gabriel gave chase, catching up to it before it could crumple itself against unforgiving rock. He slowed its doomed plunge enough to ensure a rough, but not fatal, landing. The mangled apparatus tumbled to a stop, wings bent.
Liz slid from Gabriel's back as he landed. She was breathing hard but her expression was one of a rodeo rider or extreme sports nut.
"That was great!"
He ignored her for the nonce, hurrying toward the wreckage. The pilot was still moving, groaning weakly and fumbling with the catches of his harness. Gabriel ripped the straps loose and hauled the man up by the front of his jumpsuit, shaking him the way a terrier might shake a rat, stopping just shy of spine-snapping force.
"I want my brother back!" he roared into the dazed, bleeding face. "I will have Angus, unharmed, or you'll not live to regret it!"
Patterson was almost hoping they'd try something, even though every message from Control had it that they were still snug as bugs in a rug at their lair.
Lair? Shit. Fortress, that's what it was. They had gone and developed a bunker mentality that surprised all their handlers. No one had seen that coming. Up until the incident with the kids, there hadn't been a hint of trouble. The subjects did what they did, never seemed to care if they were being monitored or even ogled by tourists. Then along come the kids, and everything went to hell in a handbasket.
The park had to be closed. What else was there to do? Even without lawsuits looming like juggernauts on the horizon, there wasn't much money to be earned when the star attractions were holed up in their lair like it was the eve of World War III at NORAD. No one was going to pay the exorbitant admission prices to go on a nature walk.
There was no danger, yet Patterson still felt the possibility perking through his veins. There could be, that was the thing. At any moment, it could all go drastically wrong. He wished it would. He wanted to test himself against one of them and show the world that a man, an ordinary, non-enhanced, non-cybernetic everyday Joe born to mundane parents instead of being hatched in a lab, was worth his mettle against anything that the scientists could dream up.
No such luck. Not even with the gargoyle.
It was lying in a heap where it had fallen, still wrapped in the shocknet. Patterson approached warily, anticipating the moment when it would leap up, having been playing possum. It would shred the net, utter a mighty bellow, and fall on him and his men like the wrath of God. Then they'd see what they were made of!
He was breathless for it, tingling for it, as he gingerly prodded the gargoyle with the toe of his combat boot.
The net sparked a little. That was all.
Patterson kicked harder. Still nada.
"Come on, damn you," he muttered.
The gargoyle lay there. It wasn't even a very big one, compared to some of the males he'd seen on television. It was a fit specimen, though. Not a tub of lard like the blue one who did the cooking show. Not as rock-hard-chiseled a wall of muscle as the one Patterson remembered from a talk show – Goliath, that one had been – or the gargoyle who'd sung with Scarlet Angel. But still, in good shape. Enough to give a man a real test.
If, that was, the stupid fucking thing hadn't been out cold.
Or faking. It could still be faking, trying to psych him out.
He was aware of the rest of his team and their edginess. None of them shared his feelings. They didn't like being out here in the dark, no matter what Control said. All of them were expecting, and not in Patterson's looking forward to it way, that at any moment the ground would start to shake and the bushes would be trampled under and slavering death would thunder in on them.
Again, no such luck.
Just to make absolutely sure the gargoyle wasn't faking it, Patterson fired a round into the dirt beside its head. The non-silenced report echoed through the night, startling the birds and small animals into a flapping, scurrying frenzy. His men jumped with such perfect synchronization they might have been a dance troupe.
The gargoyle didn't budge.
Patterson was convinced. And disappointed.
"Okay, bag him up," he said, still covering the blue-grey male just in case.
The retrieval team hurried to their job. Some of them were looking reproachfully at Patterson. They'd blame him if anything woke up and came to investigate.
Bring it on. He could handle it. He'd show Leister that it didn't take a clone to do a man's job.
Within minutes, which probably seemed like a lot longer judging by the identical expressions of anxiety and dismay on the rest of the team as they waited to be attacked, the retrieval guys had the gargoyle secured. It took the efforts of six to hoist him into the back of the truck, and then they were off.
"Weird," Liz said.
Gabriel didn't look up. He was studying the map of the compound's buildings that his prisoner had sketched in the earth. The trouble was that the Ultralight had been dispatched before anyone had informed these men what the plan was involving Angus. So, helpful though he'd been before passing out from shock, the pilot hadn't known precisely what would be going on, or where Angus might be.
"Did you look at them?" Liz went on.
He finally tore his attention from the map, where he'd been scowling over what looked to be a fairly impressive array of security precautions. Thanks to Coldstone and Coldfire, who had designed the Coventry's entire security systems, he had a decent idea of what he was confronting here, and it did not fill him with confidence.
"Our two friends here." She pointed from one unconscious man to the other. "If you can get past the gross physical damage you did to the gunner's face, I swear he's the spitting image of the other guy. Think they're twins?"
"I neither know nor care."
"They look familiar, too," she said.
"My concern is how to find and free my brother."
"Okay, okay." She came over and hunkered down over the lines drawn in the dirt. "Look at this place. Like a prison. Hardly the innocent research facility and hotel complex they advertise to the public. Makes you wonder what they're doing in there."
"What are they doing in there?" Gabriel asked. "We came here, Angus and I, because we'd heard rumors that there was a clan of gargoyles living in this area. We never expected fences, or men with guns."
Crouched like that, with her forearms resting on her knees, she reminded him again of his sisters. All she'd need was a pair of wings caped about her shoulders, and a tail tracing a cursive shape behind her, and …
And what was he thinking, anyway?
Liz exhaled. "It's a long story, and I hate to be the one to break it to you, Gabe, but you won't find gargoyles here. Not in the sense of the word that you're thinking of."
"What will I find?"
"Excuse me?" His brow ridge rose in a quizzical arch.
"Dinosaurs. Or, at least, that's how they started out. This part of the U.S. is home to a bonanza of dig sites. Paleontology. Fossils. And, not too far from here, one of the finds of the century. Most dinosaur remains are nothing but calcified bone and a few fossilized imprints of tracks, skin impressions, and nests. About twenty years ago, they discovered a mud flat where the bodies of several species had been preserved, remarkably intact."
Gabriel rumbled impatiently in his chest. "What has that to do with gargoyles?"
"I'm getting there. You need the history first. Where was I?"
"Preserved in the mud."
"Right. Prior to this discovery, there was a company called InGen that had developed a way to clone dinosaurs from blood cells obtained from mosquitoes encased in amber. Don't frown. I know it sounds complicated, but bear with me. InGen was able to successfully clone thousands of dinosaurs, mostly in Costa Rica. Then, well, one thing and another and dinos got loose and people were killed and the company was about to go under in a storm of legal troubles."
"Go on," he said.
"Along comes Gen-U-Tech, a company with similar ideas about cloning and similar financial troubles. They merged, and started InGenUity. One of their leading geniuses was Anton Sevarius."
He growled as he recognized the name. "I know of him and his work."
"Yeah? Most people think they do, but honey, they don't know the half of it. Sevarius was cloning humans long before those crackpots in the early Oughts, though it's never been proven. He also did a little gargoyle cloning."
"Yes," Gabriel said, thinking of Manhattan. "And at least once, combining the two."
"Oh, really?" Liz looked interested. "I'll have to ask you about that some other time. But to get back to the story, here's InGenUity, merged and struggling. They take Sevarius' ideas about gargoyle evolution – he put forth the theory that your kind descended from dinos the way humans descended from apes – "
"Not unreasonable, I suppose," Gabriel said. "Several of my rookery siblings had physical features I have only ever elsewhere seen in dinosaur books." He traced with his hands a curving crest and horns like those boasted by Ophelia and Laertes, and Liz nodded.
"So, what they decided to do at this nice new facility was to clone dinosaurs, and subject them to something that Sevarius described as 'accelerated evolution.' It seems that in his previous clone-growing attempts, he'd found a way to speed up the growth of the developing clone. By increasing that process several million fold, the idea was that they'd be able to see what happened to a life form over millions of years."
"Total Island of Dr. Moreau stuff, to be sure," she said. "But apparently, it worked."
"He created gargoyles?"
"Not exactly. At least, not the way I understand it. You turn to stone, right?"
Gabriel instinctively looked to the east, but night still held firm sway. "Yes, with the dawn, and awake at sunset."
"Healed, if you'd been wounded."
"That part, they couldn't duplicate. No one could explain how it is that gargoyles, true gargoyles, turned to stone or healed. So, what InGenUity had was a bunch of creatures, accelerated dinosaurs a lot like gargoyles, but not gargoyles. I've heard that they don't even all have wings."
"Nor do we, not entirely," he said, and briefly explained about Boudicca and the gargoyle beasts.
Liz waved that off. "What I'm getting at is that you came here looking for gargoyles, but the creatures living in this park aren't. They have similarities, but they're not the same."
"Akin to us, you mean."
"In a few key ways, I guess," Liz said.
"Yet they are kept here, behind walls, under armed guard?"
"Yeah. And things have just gotten a whole lot trickier." She started to brief him on the Harmond Bill, but since Gabriel and Elektra had helped to draft its original version, it was his turn to wave her off. "So, see, that's the problem. If they were gargoyles, they'd be protected by the law and couldn't legally be kept here."
"As it should be."
"But that's not all of it," she said. "A couple of days ago, the creatures in the park attacked a family. Now the pressure's on to settle this one way or the other. If they're recognized as sentients under Harmond's law, InGenUity can't keep them here against their will, so InGenUity loses out. If they're not, then this attack will classify them as dangerous animals, just like any pit bull that mauls a postman, and they'll have to be destroyed."
"And InGenUity loses out," Gabriel said.
"Screwed either way. That's why they're stonewalling. They've got the relatives of the attacked family threatening to sue, and protestors massing at the gates, and whichever way they turn, it doesn't look good."
"They cannot hide their heads and pretend nothing is happening," Gabriel said.
"That's exactly what they're trying to do, as far as I know," Liz said. "It's hard to say for sure when nobody from InGenUity is talking."
"And now they have my brother. What will they do with Angus?"
"They can't keep him prisoner," she said. "He is protected by the law. Then again, so are you, and they didn't balk at opening fire on you in front of witnesses. I don't know what they'll do. That's where my crystal ball goes blank."
"You are a sorceress?"
"Figure of speech."
Gabriel stayed as he was, hunkered down with his head braced in his hands. "Not gargoyles, then," he said after a lengthy pensive pause.
"But does it matter? These dinosaur creatures are thinking beings, are they not?"
"In a sort of primitive, uneducated way, yeah, that's what I understand. But remember, they did attack a lady and her kids."
She shrugged. "InGenUity isn't releasing the security camera footage. Or the family. They're claiming that the injuries sustained are too serious to allow a transfer to a hospital. They say the trip to the nearest decent medical center would take too long even by chopper. So nobody knows."
"Except perhaps the staff," Gabriel said, looking at the two unconscious InGenUity employees. Liz was right. They did bear a striking resemblance to each other.
"I think those two are going to need a hospital stay of their own before you'll be able to get anything coherent out of them," Liz remarked dryly.
Music trickled softly into Angus' mind. He even knew the tune. It was an old one, the sort that Godiva liked for the discotheque. How she danced to it, swaying so sweetly with her tail … can't have you, don't want nobody baby … can't have you, oh-ho-oh, ah, something-something-something …
He swallowed and raised eyelids that felt heavy as portcullises. What he saw made no sense. He was inside. That wasn't right. He'd been outside with Gabriel, gliding through the night sky, seeing the complex of walls and buildings ahead and the semi-circle of cars, tents, and trailers outside of the gates.
And then … nothing.
The music, its static hiss proclaiming it to be coming from a radio at the edge of reception range, did not fit with his surroundings. Instead of a glitter ball, neon edging on mirrored dance floor tiles, and flashing multi-colored lights, he was looking up at a ceiling of off-white acoustic paneling. It was oddly distorted, and Angus needed several seconds to realize that he was seeing it through a pane of glass, or Lexan.
His fogged mind cleared and he sat up, or tried to. Heavy belts secured him, wrists, ankles, and chest, to a tilted slab like something out of a monster movie. He felt a cap of sensors on his head, and the cold invasion of a needle in the crook of his arm.
Afraid now, he strained against his bonds and found them his match. He was strapped down in a clear box, which was in turn bolted to the floor of a room that spoke of hospital wards and laboratories. To his left, he saw other Lexan boxes, and ranks of equipment he couldn't identify. They lurked in the gloom like artifacts of some unknowable civilization.
To his right, through a half-open door that looked designed to withstand the deep-sea pressures to which a submarine hull might be subjected, was a smaller but brightly lit chamber housing two rows of conventional hospital beds. The privacy curtains were pushed back by all of these, and all but one were empty.
The bed that was occupied held a woman. One of her legs was in a cast and elevated by a pulley. The arm nearest to Angus was likewise encased in plaster to the shoulder, and held up and out by a metal brace. Her bandage-swathed head was turned slightly toward him and the sight of her face left him cold. She had been badly beaten, horrifically so, her skin so bruised that her natural complexion was beyond determining.
At the foot of the bed, incongruous, was a stuffed skunk.
The sound of the radio was coming from somewhere beyond the next room. At first, Angus could hear nothing else but his own rapid breathing. He wondered if he'd been hurt, and that was why he was here. But he did not feel injured, a little battered and scraped up maybe, and there was a peculiar jumpiness to his nerves. Nothing that would require hospitalization, not when a day's sleep could put almost anything to rights.
Then he wondered if he had hurt someone else. If that poor woman had sustained her wretched condition at his hands.
No. Impossible. He would never do that. He wasn't that sort of –
A memory of himself and Gabriel pummeling one another through the dining room flashed back to him. Angus quailed. What if he had? What if that had been the first sign of some explosive temper, and he'd gone crazy?
He refused to believe it. What had happened with Gabriel had been irrational, maybe, but understandable. He couldn't have been responsible for that woman, and if he had, how on earth could he have forgotten?
The sound of voices distracted him from his awful Jekyll-and-Hyde ponderings. He saw their shadows on the wall in the other room, two men by the look and by the sound.
"— with the gargoyle," one of them was saying. "If it held steg it'll hold him."
Steg? Angus shook his head, sure that he had misheard something, because it made no sense.
"I'm hardly worried about containing our unwelcome guest," the other man said, his voice a sort of silkily nasty purr. "It's what to do with him. We can't keep him, Mr. Patterson, and we can hardly let him go."
"It's those hippies that are the problem," Patterson said. "They all saw us take him down. Our word against theirs, but if one of them had a camera, we're sunk."
"Never mind cameras," the silky-nasty voice said. "What about the other one?"
Other one! Gabriel! Angus's heart lurched with hope.
"Our team hasn't reported back yet," Patterson said, with a grim tone. "We haven't been able to raise them on the communicators, either."
"Oh, dear. We'd better assume the worst, then." The owner of the silky-nasty purr sounded entirely unmoved.
"I thought these gargoyles weren't killers," Patterson said.
"They're hardly ruthless murderers. That seems a trait uniquely reserved for our own species. However, when cornered or provoked, they can be violent. But never mind that, Mr. Patterson. The issue of importance at the moment is crowd control. Witnesses lead to lawyers, and I've had more than my fill of lawyers these past few days thanks to Ms. Carpenter's dried-up spinster aunt and ex-husband. You know that as soon as they get wind of these new developments, they'll be back."
"But, Doctor, we can't contain them. Some have already left. And even if we rounded them all up, there's no knowing how many of them have already made calls."
"I must grudgingly admit that you're right, Mr. Patterson. We'll be neck-deep in reporters, lawyers, and other meddlesome pests by daybreak no matter what we do."
"If you don't mind my saying –"
"Oh, but I do. I do mind. You're the only one on my staff that I don't have that certain … rapport with, Mr. Patterson. I only kept you on because of our agreement with InGen. But since you've begun, you may as well finish. Enlighten me with whatever brilliance your luck-of-the-draw IQ might have come up with that our genetically superior and better-trained brains have failed to see."
"We've got to cut our losses while there's still time," Patterson said. "Get rid of the gargoyle. He doesn't matter, and he'll just add an element of hostage drama. The Rights Committee will have their spokes-goyle, what's her name, Elektra, out here by tomorrow night. She'll be on all the networks making us out to be the bad guys."
"Aren't we?" murmured the doctor, sounding amused.
"Without the gargoyle, they lose that angle. As for the Carpenter woman, have the chopper take her to Billings. She's stable enough."
"Thank you so much for your assessment of her condition. I wasn't aware you had been to medical school."
"Damn it, Dr. Leister, I'm trying to help. We've got to think of a way –"
"You aren't paid to think, Mr. Patterson. You're hired muscle, nothing more."
"Then listen to me or I'll bash your fucking teeth in, how about that? You can clone-grow a new set while you're waiting for the lawyers to break down your door."
"I doubt the bloodsucking vultures would allow me that much time," the doctor said. "Very well, go on."
"We send her to the hospital and let them take care of her, get her aunt and ex off our backs."
"Yeeeess?" drawled the doctor. "And what about her children? That is still our main snag."
"Let me take a team in and get the kids. Once they're all out of here, we're back to where we were."
"I hardly think that our dear Steg, Ptera, Trike, and Galli will stand back as you waltz in, Mr. Patterson. They seem to have developed quite the protective parental instinct when it comes to those ill-bred little brats."
That word again, and now Angus realized it had to be a name.
"So we take them out," Patterson said. "This project's causing us more trouble than it's worth anyway. Sooner or later they're going to pass that law, and then where will we be?"
"More trouble than it's worth?" The doctor's voice rose in ire. "How would a barely-evolved shaved ape like you have any idea of what this project is worth? The strides we've made, the research value alone, not to mention the patents –"
There was a cough, and the sound of a man taking in breath between his teeth as he fought to calm himself. Angus, eyes wide by what he was hearing and what he was interpreting it to mean, listened all the more intently.
"Never mind," the doctor said. "I'd hardly expect you to understand."
"Why, because I'm not one of you? Not even one of your cookie-cutter drones? So I don't have an identical brain structure to the rest, does that make me stupid?"
"I'm sure it's as much a function of upbringing as genetics," the doctor said. "Now, if you're quite finished, Mr. Patterson, I have a good deal of work to do."
Patterson, a well-built man in night camo with lampblack on his cheeks, came striding into view. Angus barely had time to shut his eyes into slits and feign unconsciousness. He picked out a Bowie knife on one hip and a laser pistol on the other, as well as numerous pockets and compartments in the man's clothes. Patterson's face, which could have been on the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine, was tight with barely-contained rage.
He stalked past the woman's hospital bed without so much as a look, and came into the room where Angus was being held. The young gargoyle felt his skin creep as those hard, mercenary eyes passed over him.
"Upbringing," he muttered as he continued without slowing. "Don't talk to me about upbringing, you freak, your family makes Ozzy and Sharon look like Ozzy and Harriet."
He was gone like a gust of winter wind, out through another door at the far end of the room. Angus had a brief glimpse of a dark hallway beyond before the door slammed shut with a hollow metallic gong.
"Well, well, such is the price to pay when dealing with evolutionary throwbacks," Leister said from the other room, chuckling. He moved to the woman's bedside, affording Angus a clear look.
After all the talk of genetic superiority, Angus was expecting some sort of seven-foot-tall superhuman. Instead, he saw a fairly ordinary-looking man in his thirties, with light brown hair and a naggingly familiar profile. He wore a white coat over charcoal slacks and a turtleneck sweater, sported a stethoscope, and hummed a bit of Beethoven as he examined the battered woman.
"My, we are mending nicely, aren't we?" he said as if she could hear him. "Far better than might be expected, for someone who should have been dead. That was quite a thrashing you took. Not that you didn't deserve it. Stupid cow."
He clucked his tongue. "Tsk. Well, some people shouldn't breed. Most people, really. In fact, almost all of them. Ninety-nine percent, give or take. Well, at least you won't repeat the mistake. I've seen to that, at least."
Angus suddenly felt weak and dizzied. Had they … had he been … it was too terrible to imagine. He hadn't even had a chance to use it yet!
Leister fussed with the pulley that held the woman's leg, and adjusted her I.V. "It's amazing, really, how many people who know better should insist on having children. And then, why, they don't even like them. Case in point. Though, if I had your shabby genes to pass down, I wouldn't care for the end result either. Especially now that I've met your ex-husband. Half a loaf is better than none, but honestly, Nell – may I call you Nell? Thank you – the two of you barely had a quarter of a loaf between you."
He finished his adjustments, straightened the blanket that covered her torso with a sort of prim attention to wrinkles, and made a note on the clipboard hooked over the footrail of the bed.
"There you are, all set," he declared. He rolled his head on his neck and yawned. "I must say that Patterson, ape though he may be, was right about one thing. We'll be awash in the unwashed come morning. So, if you'll pardon me, I'm off to get some sleep. I don't need much, you understand. I function perfectly well on three hours a night. It's all part of having an efficient metabolism. I'll have the missus look in on you in a while."
Angus waited expectantly for Leister to follow Patterson, but the doctor exited by another means and once again the hospital unit was quiet.
Ethan Carpenter felt someone pinching his arm. He mumbled and rolled over, trying to snuggle deeper into his pillow. Finding no pillow, only dry prickly grass, he woke up wondering where he was. Then, seeing the confines of the cave around him, he remembered and tears stung his eyes.
The pinch came again. He turned his head and there was Cissy, eyes huge and dark in the dim light that filtered through the screen of brush at the opening of the cave and rose from the banked bed of embers in the firepit.
"I wanna go home, Ethan," she whispered.
"Shh!" he hissed, tensing. On the other side of him, a large shape stirred, heavy body rustling in the grass that lined the floor. When all was quiet again, he dared look once more at his little sister.
Cissy's face was puffy, partly from crying and partly from the furious slaps she'd gotten from Mom. A few bruises looked like ink smudges on her cheekbones. She was still in the same clothes – they both were – but otherwise fairly clean.
"Let's go," she pleaded softly. "Let's go home."
"We can't," he said. "They won't let us go, you know that."
"Where's Mommy?" Cissy hiccuped, and Ethan was afraid she was about to turn on the waterworks.
"I don't know."
"Did they kill her?"
"I don't know," he said again. In his heart, though, he did. Mom was dead. They had killed her. There was no way she could have survived.
Cissy hadn't seen. She had been taken first, Galli darting in with unbelievable speed to scoop her up and bear her away on long, limber legs. Ethan had been rooted to the spot by the sight of what had come crashing out of the bushes to attack Mom, but just as he'd mustered his wits to try and go to her defense, it had been his turn to be lifted bodily off the ground.
His last glimpse of his mother had been of her on her knees, hands raised in supplication. He hadn't even been able to hear her screaming above Steg's roars and Ptera's enraged screeches.
Now they were in the cave. Prisoners.
"They can't leave us here," Cissy said. "Won't somebody come? Park rangers or something?"
"I hope so."
Ethan, who had read up on InGenUity's site after Mom suggested they spend their vacation touring it, had thought that the entire grounds were covered by cameras. Someone must have seen what happened. If not the actual attack, at least they must have seen Mom and gone out to get her.
He imagined her still there, on the path. Cold. Alone. Covered with bugs that ran in and out of her slack mouth and laid eggs in the corners of her blank, staring eyes.
A shiver wrenched him, making the large form beside him stir again.
Maybe Mom wasn't the greatest. Maybe things had been pretty rough around the house since Dad left. Maybe she yelled too much or was too quick to give them a smack. But he didn't want her to be dead. All the times he and Cissy had been bad, or angrily said, "I hate you, Mom!" came back to haunt him. They hadn't meant it.
If she was dead, if that worst of worsts had happened, someone must have found her by now. Park rangers, like Cissy had said, or other hikers. They would have checked the entrance records and realized there were a couple of children missing in the park. They'd search.
And soon enough, he and Cissy would be warm and safe, with people again. Sleeping in beds instead of on heaps of dried grass. Eating chicken nuggets, ice cream, and hot dogs instead of rabbits and wild pigs stripped of their hides and toasted on long sticks over a campfire until they were charred but still running with blood.
Cissy had refused to eat until this morning. Her stubbornness had prompted Galli to take drastic steps. Holding Cissy firmly on her lap, Galli had chewed a hunk of meat into a gooey pinkish wad, then spat it into Cissy's mouth. That had been the end of any pickiness or hunger strikes.
By the cave opening, Steg rose and stretched. The armored plates along his back rippled. He walked hunched-over, tail swinging behind him, and shook Ptera by the shoulder. She yawned elaborately, her elongated beak opening so wide that Ethan could have stuck his whole head inside. Her movements as she struggled to her feet and elbows were awkward.
She and Steg butted heads affectionately, and then Ptera went to take her turn on watch. Her wings jutted back from her triceps at an angle. She reminded Ethan of an origami bird. When she reached the tree that guarded the entrance, she used the hard hooks of her foreclaws to pull herself up. Only then, perched on a stiff branch with her wings folded and her crested head peering alertly out into the night, did she seem graceful.
Steg lumbered to the spot she had vacated, and eased his massive body down into the straw. He made a rumbling, weary sigh as he got comfortable.
"Maybe we should talk to them again," Cissy whispered.
"It won't work," Ethan said.
He had tried. They could speak, these strange dinosaur-people, but they couldn't be argued with. Galli had told him with a firm and seamless logic that he and Cissy had been rescued by the clan, and had therefore joined it.
"But we have a family," he had protested.
"A female who harms her young has no right to them," Galli had said.
"What about our dad?"
"A male who cannot protect his offspring has no right to them either."
Like it was Dad's fault, when he hadn't even been there! Ethan had tried to explain how Dad lived in another house, but the concept of divorce went right over Galli's head.
"You are part of our clan now," she had said. "You are ours. We have saved you, and you are ours."
He was in no hurry to get into that debate again. But what else could they do? He and Cissy couldn't stay here if they wanted to, and they didn't want to. Living in a cave with talking dinosaurs might have been neat in an adventure book, but not in real life. Ethan missed his room, his computer, his friends, even school.
And Mom. How could he or Cissy ever feel safe here after what happened to Mom? So what if the dinosaur people had been kind and gentle so far? They were still holding him and Cissy against their will.
"Let's go," Cissy said. "Please, Ethan. We can sneak out –"
"She'll see us," he said. Ptera had eyes like a hawk. Nothing, not so much as a field mouse, could get by her without being seen.
Cissy began to cry. Galli sat up, moving with all of the grace that Ptera lacked, and stroked Cissy's hair with a hand of three long fingers and a disproportionately short thumb.
Shuddering, Cissy tried to stop her sobs.
"There, now, little one," crooned Galli, lifting Cissy into her lap and rocking. She rocked on her haunches, her tail supporting her.
Trike, on the other side of Ethan, snuffled and stirred again. He rose to one elbow, his horns casting shadows against the sweep of bone that rose around his head.
"Anything wrong?" he asked, his voice a bassoon.
"A bad dream," Galli said, rocking with Cissy. "The poor thing."
Ethan met Cissy's eyes. She had stopped crying and sat there in Galli's arms like a big doll, thumb in her mouth. He hadn't seen her look so miserable since Dad moved out. Above her, Galli's neck was a swanlike curve leading to her dainty head with its weirdly human features and cap of fluffy blond feathers.
Soon, lulled despite herself, Cissy drifted off. Galli kept holding her, humming a low but pleasant sound, her eyes half-closed and dreamy. Ethan couldn't remember the last time Mom had done that, rocked either of them to sleep.
And now she never would again.
"I never thought I'd hear myself say this," Liz Dorsett said, "but maybe our best chance is with the protestors."
Gabriel looked at her, his dubiousness already apparent. "How so?"
"There's no way we can bust into that place by force," she said. "If we make a media circus out of it, bring political pressure down on them, they'll have to release your brother."
"Will they?" He gazed at the compound lights in the distance. "Or will they deny that Angus was ever there? It would be my word against theirs."
"But it'd be harder for them to prove he wasn't there. Like with weapons inspectors. They go in and look, look, look, until they find. If they find nothing, well, it's just assumed that the stuff was too well-hidden. The inspectors could prove there is something, while the other side can't prove there isn't. Like the Loch Ness monster."
"Which does exist," Gabriel said. "Or so my sister Angela says, and I have no reason to disbelieve her."
"That's beside the point." She joined him in looking at the compound.
They had come another half-mile from it after more fruitless attempts to get information out of their captives, in case the cavalry rode in on more powered hang-gliders. From here, everything seemed to be business as usual. No formations of aircraft, no armored columns, no black-clad mercenaries spilling out into the night armed with stun grenades.
Gabriel was shaking with barely-restrained emotion as his eyes fixed on the walls. Liz knew that every instinct in his body was demanding that he charge on in, knock heads and take names, and do whatever it took to free his brother. She credited him for keeping his cool this long. Being able to pummel the stuffing out of a couple of the bad guys had helped take that initial frustrated edge off.
What a ride that had been! She had been simultaneously sure she was about to die, and brimming with feelings of invincibility.
She had thought, based on her limited experience, that gargoyles were primal creatures lacking in artifice. That opinion hadn't changed, but she was aware of hidden depths in Gabriel, turmoil that couldn't be fully explained away by the abduction of his brother. He had been through trials and suffering she couldn't begin to comprehend and was now hanging on by a thread.
The last thing she wanted to do was snip that thread by making him the center of a media frenzy, but since no Navy SEALS or super heroes were volunteering to help out, she didn't think they had any other choice.
"These people don't want publicity," she said. "Not positive, not negative. They like to be left alone with their experiments until they are ready to come forth. Putting the screws to them will force them to react. We can get the help we need."
"Not just reporters, though you could give us a little credit. I'm talking about politicians –"
A wry smile surfaced. "I have known a few politicians."
"Yeah, well, most of them aren't worth the tissue-thin planks they build their platforms on, but some of them actually get things done. There's a gargoyle, a female, who works for Daniel Harmond. I bet we could contact her, enlist her help."
"Yes, Elektra," Gabriel said. "But this is something that I need to do. I cannot go begging for aid."
"Pride before a fall, Gabe."
"It is not pride. I am responsible for Angus, and here only a few nights after we left our clan, I've lost him. If I cannot get him back –"
"Funny, it's still sounding like pride to me. There's no shame in getting help when you need it. Look at what we're up against."
He had turned half away from the compound to look at her, so Liz grasped his chin and swiveled his head around. The odd bony spurs along his jawline felt softer than they looked, covered as they were with his leathery skin in a way that reminded her of antler-fuzz on a young buck.
"I'd say," she said, with a little tremble in her voice that didn't belong there, "that we need it."
The hospital wing was quiet again, the only sound being the low melody issuing from the radio. Angus had been listening long enough to know that the station played only tunes from the last third of the last century, oldies.
The left wrist strap was almost cut through. The ragged end of the right dangled from its cuff. He had bent his hand at a painful degree in order to saw at it with his claws, finally successful. Reaching across his body, he'd gone to work on the left. If he was allowed a few more uninterrupted hours, he might be able to free his ankles and his chest and get out of here.
As if the very thought had summoned an interruption, Angus heard a door open and someone enter the room where the beaten woman lay in her drugged slumber. The radio was turned up, Elton John singing about crocodiles, na-nanananana.
Footsteps, purposefully hushed. Coming toward him.
He put his arm back at his side, tucking the frayed end of the strap under his forearm and hoping that he'd get no more than a cursory inspection.
A shadow appeared in the doorway, followed closely by its owner. Angus, prepared for Dr. Leister, or Patterson, or another scientist or security guard, couldn't keep his eyes from flying wide open in surprise.
His visitor was a teenage girl, wearing a fleece-lined jacket over black corduroy overalls, a plaid flannel shirt, and low-topped hiking boots with thick waffle soles. The outfit prevented him from getting much of a look at her figure, except to inform him that she was indeed a girl, of average height and build. Her medium-brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she possessed large, clear, blue-grey eyes that seemed more gratified than surprised to land upon a gargoyle.
An instant later, those arresting eyes filled with dismay, and she was hurrying into the room with no more regard for stealth. She reached the side of the Lexan enclosure, set her palms against it, and made an unhappy noise.
"He told me they wouldn't do this," she said. "He told me they'd let you go, that they wouldn't keep you here."
"He must have lied," said Angus, moving his legs to show how they were strapped down. He did not move his arms, keeping his secret.
"But why?" the girl asked.
"Why keep me here? I don't even know where I am!"
"Did you answer their questions?"
"No one's asked me any," he said. "You're the first person who's spoken to me."
"He said he just wanted to know what you were doing here, and then you'd be free to go. We can't hold you here against the law."
"That's good to know. Who is 'he,' and where am I, anyway?"
"My father," she said. "John Leister. My name's Jeannie."
"I'm Angus." He didn't know why he should so instantly and instinctively trust this girl. Maybe it was because she was about his age, and cute, and her shirt was unbuttoned just low enough that he could see a hint of cleavage …
"From the Scottish or Gaelic, meaning 'strong,' right?"
"Yes. How'd you know that?"
"I'm good with languages and linguistics. We each got a different gift … well, that doesn't matter. What are you doing here?"
"Not much at the moment," Angus said, shifting his feet again. "And you still haven't told me where I am."
"High Country Science Center," she said.
"Okay. I remember that part. We were looking for gargoyles. We saw a fence, buildings, forested grounds. But I don't remember anything after that."
"It's the electroshock," Jeannie said matter-of-factly. "It messes with short-term memory. The defense systems, you know? They brought you down."
She nodded, and suddenly her open gaze turned cloudy.
"What, Jeannie? Did something happen to Gabriel? Tell me!"
"There was another gargoyle," she said. "I know the security team fired on him, and some men were sent out after him, but I haven't heard anything else. I'm supposed to be in bed. How I'm supposed to sleep with this going on …" She made a gesture of futility.
"So Gabriel isn't here?"
"I don't think so."
Angus sagged against his tilted slab. "Good. But I don't understand. We … it sounds stupid said out loud, but we came in peace."
A ghost of a smile flickered and was gone. "Yeah, it kind of does."
He told her how they had heard of gargoyle sightings in the vicinity, then listened in amazement as she – seeming to trust him on short acquaintance too, though probably not because she thought he was cute – told him about the dinosaurs and the accelerated evolution project. It made sense of much that had confused him in the overheard conversation between Leister and Patterson.
"Steg, Ptera, Galli, and Trike," he said.
"The project's four successes," she said. "How'd you know their names?"
"I guess I heard them when I was coming around." He felt guilty for hedging, but if this girl didn't realize what a human monster her father was, Angus certainly didn't want to be the one to break the news.
"They've been living in the park," Jeannie went on. "The tourists come, and take nature hikes, and sometimes they'll see Ptera fishing, or Steg and Trike hunting, or Galli gathering eggs, fruit, and nuts. We don't have them in cages or anything. They have the run of the park. But then, a couple of days ago, everything went wrong."
"That woman," Angus said. "They attacked her, and took her children."
"It wasn't like that!" Jeannie cried. Angus' alarmed look must have gotten through her distress, because she lowered her voice. "I've seen the tapes. They did attack her, yes, all right, but do you know why? Because she was beating her daughter. A little girl, no more than five, and this grown woman was slapping her around and yelling at her. Child abuse, you ever hear of child abuse?"
"So they intervened?"
"Right. Steg and Ptera dealt with the woman while Galli and Trike carried the kids to safety." She turned to regard the bruised and malformed face of the woman in the bed. "Maybe what they did was extreme, but they didn't jump her for no reason, out of the blue. They were protecting the children."
"They are like gargoyles, then."
Jeannie massaged the bridge of her nose, then seemed to realize what she was doing and self-consciously dropped her hand to her side. "In some ways, not in others. I've spoke to them. I like them. I don't think it's fair that they're kept here. They should be able to live wherever they want, not in a zoo for tourists to gawk at. Given a chance, I think they could be as good and noble as any gargoyle, even if they don't turn to stone."
"You should speak out," Angus said. "Tell the world."
"Oh, no, I can't. Who'd listen to me?"
"I would. And I'd bet I could get you in to see Elektra."
"But this is my father's work, and … and … there are other reasons I wouldn't dare. Our family can't afford to be looked at too closely."
"Why?" He smiled. "I like to look at you."
He was astonished to hear himself say so, though it was true. He did like to look at her, and talk to her. She was cute, yeah, but also funny in her serious way, down-to-earth. Normally, circumstances would have demanded that he not trust her. Yet somehow, he did.
She blushed. "Stop."
"I mean it."
"I look just like my parents."
He almost told her that she was lots prettier than her father, but caught himself in time. He didn't want to mention having seen Leister, or heard what he said to Patterson and the Carpenter woman.
"Nothing special about that," Jeannie added dolefully. "I wish I was like Sam. At least he's different. I wouldn't even mind the brittle bones, if I could be different."
"You're fine how you are," Angus said.
"Oh, you don't understand. You wouldn't understand." She leaned her forehead against his enclosure and sighed. "You know who you are."
"Sure. Don't you?"
"Just a … copy, a carbon copy." A tear ran down her smooth cheek and fell onto the fleecy lapel of her jacket, where surface tension held it in a glimmering bead. "Nothing unique or special at all."
"You mean you're a clone?" Angus gasped, more of what he'd overheard making sense to him now. He studied Jeannie, noting the strong resemblance between her and John Leister. "You're a clone of your father?"
"It's a lot sicker than that," she said. "You don't want to hear it. My parents … ugh. It's just gross."
"I think I know a little about having weird parents," Angus said, and told her about Coldstone and Coldfire.
Jeannie took a deep breath. "My mother and father were born in 1990," she said. "They're twenty-one years old."
"That's impossible! You, you can't be more than sixteen!"
"Fifteen. Mom and Dad, see, they were a result of this cloning project. A scientist made a bunch of clones of himself. Mostly boys, but a few girls too … a slight adjustment of the DNA code was all that took. And then, to see how well it had worked, he put some of them through a process that sped up their growth, so they reached adulthood in just a couple of years."
Angus dredged his memory and came up with a name. "It was Dr. Sevarius, wasn't it? Anton Sevarius, the geneticist."
"Most of the clones were allowed to develop naturally," Jeannie said, and laughed bitterly. "Naturally! Anyway, they grew up and learned and developed like other babies. The ones who'd been accelerated were given intense subliminal learning to let their intellects keep up with their bodies. I also heard that at least one of them was implanted with a copy of Sevarius' own mind, but I don't know if that's for real or just a rumor."
"You're not going to tell me that you're a clone of Dr. Anton Sevarius!"
"I said I wasn't, not really! But … but my parents both are."
Angus reeled in his restraints. "Your mother and father are the same person?"
"No! Well, yes, genetically, but … they …" She thumped her forehead against the Lexan again. "They're both clones. Mom was altered to make her female, and they were both aged to maturity within two years. Then, well, someone wondered what would happen if they had a baby together."
"By the Dragon," Angus said, incredulous.
"That's how I was born. So my DNA is the same as theirs, but I wasn't cloned. Not in a lab. Not the way people think of it."
He could only goggle at her.
"I know how disgusting that sounds," she said. "Believe me, I know! So I'm an experiment, too. The only other thing that's been done to me was the Pandora virus, so it's not like I've been accelerated or given any other special brain enhancements or anything."
"Virus? What virus?"
"Pandora," she said. "I told you I was gifted with languages. Mom has a talent for music. Give her any instrument, any musical score, and she can play it like a pro on the very first try. Dad is a mathematical whiz. The scientists wanted to see how the virus would affect people with identical genetic structures, so they exposed some of the clones to it, and decided to do me, too."
Unthinkingly, Angus raised his hand to rub his eyes. "Wow. So they – oops."
"You're trying to get loose!" Jeannie said.
"Well, yeah," he admitted. "It's kind of what you do when you wake up locked in a cage."
"I should be helping you, not telling you all this crap," she said. "I'm sorry. Here, I'll get the controls."
"I don't want you to get in trouble."
"You shouldn't even be here. They were supposed to let you go. Dad said that they would. You could have escaped by now if I hadn't started jabbering. I'm so sorry, Angus. It's all my fault."
"Quit it, Jeannie, I like talking to you."
"It's just that you're about the only person I've ever felt like I can talk to," she said as she opened a drawer and withdrew a cluster of keys on a neon green plastic coil. "Practically everybody who works here, except for Mr. Patterson, are clones too."
"Yeah. I never met him, but I guess he had a pretty big ego." She took the keys to a cabinet and sorted through them, looking for one that fit the lock.
"I guess," Angus said.
"Well, except there is Sam, my brother."
"Oh." He couldn't keep his nose from wrinkling.
"Not like that," she said hastily. "Not the same way I was born. Sam's a clone, too, just not of Sevarius. I think the original Sevarius had a son who died of some bone disease, so Sam was made from cell samples. They tried to cure him of the disease when he was a baby, and it mostly worked. His bones are real weak, though. He can bump into a table, you know? And snap. Still, at least he's his own self. There was only ever one person just like him. So it's like he had a twin brother once, that was years older."
She opened the cabinet and brought out something that looked like a multiple-outlet power strip with cables trailing out both ends. She plugged one into a wall socket, and the other into the base of the box that contained Angus.
On closer inspection, he saw that the long rectangular box did not have outlets in it, but keyholes. Jeannie inserted a key into the first one.
"You don't have to do this," he said. "I can break out."
"This stuff's expensive. I'd probably get in more trouble if they found out I could have helped you but didn't, and you smashed it all instead."
That had a puzzling sort of logic, so Angus let her use the keys. As she turned the final one, there was a humming sound and a vibration, and the sides of the Lexan box detached from the ceiling, slid out a few inches, and rose straight up.
Their arrival among the activists was every bit the nine day's wonder that Liz had predicted. Gabriel instantly found himself an island in a surging sea of attention. A barrage of questions came at him from all sides.
And yet, he felt no malice here. Curiosity, a plethora of that, and it sometimes bordered on the rude or ghoulish as everyone clamored to get their pet theories about gargoyles, no matter how outlandish, proved or disproved. And excitement. No one was left sleeping. Children, some of them infants no larger than loaves of bread, were thrust at him so they could see, touch. Dozens of hands of all sizes groped at his wings, his facial spurs, his tail. One inquisitive lady, high on marijuana and dandelion wine, even made a grab for his loincloth, but Gabriel was able to block that intrusion, at least.
Through it all, Liz remained fixed on their goal. She rallied the leaders of the group, and explained the situation to them while Gabriel was fending off requests to take people for rides.
The activists had observed the initial shoot-out and Angus' fall, as well as the chase by the powered glider. Upon confirmation of what they had in their hearts believed all along – that the InGenUity scientists were villains – they agreed with alacrity to help however they could.
So it was that within minutes of their arrival, the protest was in full swing. Every available light came on, every available sign was hoisted, and the crowd commenced marching back and forth in front of the gates, loudly demanding that the gargoyle inside be turned loose.
Liz dragged Gabriel aside, grinning. "They may have some funny ideas," she said, "but you've got to hand it to them, when they get worked up about something, they put on a good show."
"I am not concerned with their ideas or their show," Gabriel said. "I only wish to see Angus returned safely."
"Next step is to get in touch with the Rights Committee," Liz said, bringing out her phone. "I know you object, you've got some big macho need to do it all on your own, but humor me, okay?"
"Yes, very well," Gabriel said.
She consulted her watch. "Damn. They won't be open this early. It isn't even four o'clock on the East Coast yet. I'll see if there's a night operator, and maybe I can sweet talk someone's home number out of them."
"If I may?" Gabriel plucked the phone from her hand. He paused with his large talon over the miniscule keypad, scowling. His first tap depressed the one, two, and four at the same time.
"Maybe you should let me," Liz said, and laughed.
"Very well." He rattled off the number, and she punched it in, then held the phone to her ear.
Gabriel reached, and Liz turned away, listening. His keen ears picked up the ringing, and then a click, and a youthful voice. "Wyvern Clan residence, Amber Maza speaking," it piped.
Liz' jaw came unhinged. Gabriel couldn't help waggling his brow ridge at her sardonically as he took the phone from her now unresisting fingers.
"When you said you knew Elektra …" she whispered, and shook her head with a rueful grin.
"Hel-lo, is anyone there?" Amber asked. In the background, Gabriel heard Goliath's bass thunder. "Who is it, Amber?"
"It's nobody –"
"Amber? Amber, it is Gabriel."
"Oh! Hi, Gabriel! You'll never guess what we did tonight."
"Let me speak to him," Goliath said.
"In a minute, Daga, gee! I'm talking. Gabriel, are you there?"
"Yes, Amber. Might I please speak with Elektra?"
"First you have to guess what we did tonight."
Liz was leaning close enough to listen in, and looked like she was biting the insides of her cheeks to keep from busting out laughing. She had a hand on Gabriel's arm to steady herself. He was unsettlingly aware of her touch.
"I can't guess. You'll have to tell me."
"Amber, give your father the phone," Elisa said in the background.
"It's not for him," Amber replied loftily. "Gabriel wants to talk to 'Lektra."
Gabriel could just imagine the parents of the willful girl exchanging a weary yet loving glance. Amber was eleven, but thanks to her half-gargoyle heritage, she aged slower than a human child while being smart and stubborn beyond her years.
He heard Elisa say, "I'll go get her," and then Amber was telling him how they had taken the hatchlings swimming for the first time that evening.
"Kathe was so funny!" she said. "She was afraid of the water, and Brooklyn was holding her while he waded in, and she kept climbing on him higher and higher until she was standing on his beak hanging onto his horns, and screaming the whole time, so loud that Bronx ran to hide."
"I hope that the others had a better time of it," Gabriel said. As always, there was a wrenching pang in his gut when he heard about the darling antics of the hatchlings. It never failed to remind him how he had lost his own dear mates.
"Oh, they did," Amber said. "Aramis got up the ladder while nobody was looking, and he jumped off the diving board, and he went right to the bottom."
Eventually, the phone was handed off and Elektra's cool satin voice was in his ear. "Gabriel! How fare you, brother? We had heard that you and Angus departed Coventry. Where has your adventure taken you?"
"Our adventure is the very reason I'm calling," Gabriel said. "I hate to disturb you, sister, but there has been a slight complication."
If his job and his life were going to come crashing down anyway, Ryan Patterson wanted to go out on top. He didn't want to be the focus of a flurry of attention, microphones shoved in his face, floodlights searing his eyeballs, snake-tongued reporters wanting to know how come no action had been taken on behalf of the Carpenter children.
He knew that he'd be the one whose ass was thrown to the wolves. Anyone else asked, all the way up to Leister himself, would say that it had been a security decision, and that it should be taken up with the compound's chief security officer.
And so, they would come to him. Touting the old wheeze about how the public had a right to know. He wondered just when it was that the public's right to know had turned into a burrowing termite frenzy bent on boring out every single detail.
"After Kennedy," he said to himself as he disengaged the alarm and eased open the outer door. An eddy of cold air swirled around him. "After Vietnam."
Yeah, that was it. Back in those days, private lives were private. Sacrosanct, even. Political figures and movie stars were admired with the "can do no wrong" awe that people had once afforded to royalty or the clergy.
Now, less like termites than like the flesh-stripping ants that could reduce a corpse to a skeleton in a matter of hours, the reporters would glean every scrap. And the dirtier, the better. Political office, multiple Academy awards, a crown, or a priest's collar … didn't matter. All the better, really! People just loved to sink their teeth into a juicy story of some high figure's ignominious plunge from grace.
Not that Patterson regarded himself as a high figure. He was just a grunt, a rent-a-cop, but once he was named as the responsible party for losing those kids, the television and papers would make him out to be the laziest dumb-ass since the airport screener who fell asleep on the job and let three bomb-carrying hijackers waltz onto Flight 515, the one that plunged into the 2006 Super Bowl at a cost of over sixty thousand lives.
Sixty thousand people versus the two snot-nosed brats of a minimum-wage trailer trash child abuser … it was nowhere near the same scale, but Patterson could already see the headlines in his mind.
He slipped through the door and closed it carefully. If he was going to take the rap for this, he was at least going to try to do something about it. Alone. Lucky him. But there was no one else he could trust. Here he was, supposedly the commanding officer of the security force, but the men under him owed more loyalty to Leister by virtue of their shared background.
Clones. God, how they bugged him!
It would have been worse – unbearable – if they'd had identical personalities as well, but the similarities were strong enough to let Patterson believe that some traits were just inborn. The smarminess, for instance. None of them had it as bad as John and Joanna Leister, but ninety percent of them had some degree of it.
The glass eye of a camera looked down at him from a tree. Patterson moved past it, staying on course. He had disabled the ones that covered a narrow stripe of the park, a path that would let him get to the cave unobserved. Provided he didn't stray too far from his projected route. A few malfunctioning cameras out of so many, especially with all the other distractions going on outside, would hopefully go unnoticed long enough to let him do this.
He didn't like being out here alone. The park, so benign by day, took on a different and foreboding character at night. Each pool of shadow seemed to lurk. Each rustle of leaves might have marked the approach of something deadly. More than once, he stopped with his heart pounding in his ears, sure that he was being followed.
The harrowing journey was only half a mile from the building to the hills that housed the dino sapiens' cave. It might as well have been five miles, ten, across a minefield. Patterson's nerves were vibrating like guitar strings. If not for the absorbent layer inside his camo jumpsuit, he would have been wringing wet with sweat. But his hands, on the stock of a double-barreled trank gun, did not betray him with even the tiniest tremble.
The hills were slopes of grass and bushes that gave way abruptly to rearing crags of weathered Montana granite. The scientists had been intrigued when the dino sapiens established their communal lair, though the paying tourists had been in for some disappointment when the very creatures they'd come to see decided to hole up in a den and leave them nothing to look at but ordinary local wildlife.
The entrance was concealed by artfully-used bushes. If not for the infrared camera, placed high in a tree and angled to peer through the branches, there wouldn't have been any way to see what was going on inside.
Patterson crept closer, unable to shake that feeling of being followed. He looked back several times, always expecting to see inhuman eyes in the darkness, but never did. Soon he was within sight of the dead tree that guarded the entrance.
Ptera was perched on a branch of the tree. With her wings wrapped around her body, she could have easily passed for the pterodactyl whose DNA had provided the building blocks for her design. Her more humanoid torso and surprisingly shapely legs were hidden by the membranes of her wings, and in silhouette the crested, beaked outline of her head was purely dinosaurian.
Her coloring did her a small disservice from this angle. She was pale down her front, a sort of streaky light blue and grey useful to a flying hunter whose prey would be looking up against the sky. From the back, or from above if she was flying, other predators might have a harder time spotting her with her brownish hide blending into the landscape below.
But by night, in the moon and the glow of the perimeter lights, her paler front stood out against the dark hues of the rocks and trees.
When he sighted through the infrared scope, she erupted into a brilliance of yellow and orange. Patterson aimed carefully, hampered by those concealing wings. He didn't want to lodge a needle through the wing membrane. It had to be seated in solid flesh.
A neck shot, then. He centered the crosshairs below her collarbone and to the right of her sternum. Didn't want to hit bone, either.
Trank her, lob a sleep-gas grenade into the cave, count to ten, and rush in with his respirator on. Seize the kids. In and out. Neat. No fuss, no muss, no bother.
He gently started to squeeze the trigger.
Patterson's feet were swept out from under him. He was flung forward, jerking the trigger as he fell. He hit the loamy forest floor with a jarring thump and lost the trank gun. Reacting with trained speed even as his brain was collecting signals of pain from various bruises, he rolled onto his back and drew a standard laser pistol.
It was whacked out of his hands and demolished by something that looked and felt like a leather-covered iron shot-put. Patterson recognized the young male gargoyle standing over him, snarling, the tail that ended in a hard bony knob swinging warningly.
Carefully, slowly, Patterson raised his hands. He was aware of the trank gun lying in the grass just a few inches from his shoulder. A moment's distraction, and he could spin, grab it, and fire the second dart. The gargoyle would be impossible to miss at this range.
But a girl detached herself from the woods and snatched up the trank gun before Patterson could move. He gaped at her.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Patterson," the girl said. She held the gun at arm's length, nose wrinkled, as if she was holding something nasty.
Patterson felt like a total sucker. He had been being followed. That'd teach him to listen to his gut instinct.
The wild shot, the only one he'd managed to get off, had missed Ptera but not gone unnoticed by her. Patterson could hear the shrill note of her call as she alerted the others. They would be on him in seconds.
He took a deep breath. It would have to be the gas grenade. He could hold his breath and make a run for it. His hands lowered, as if he meant to settle them harmlessly into his lap.
"Oh, no you don't," said the gargoyle, and his tail flashed around again.
The solid ball at the end of it collided violently with the side of Patterson's head. He pitched sideways into a black silence.
"Oh, my," Liz Dorsett said. "Oh-my-oh-my-oh-my."
"What is it?" Gabriel asked.
While he had been on the phone, she had gotten online to see if she could turn up any more interesting tidbits about InGenUity or its parent companies. She tapped on the liquid plasma screen, her fingertip indenting it in a ripple.
Gabriel bent over her shoulder, his long red-gold hair tickling as it brushed the side of her face. "The men we fought. From the hang glider."
"What you're looking at is a photo of Anton Sevarius," Liz said. "Circa 1985, when he appeared before the National Board of Science and Research to present his ground-breaking paper on theoretical human cloning."
"Not so theoretical, as it turned out," Gabriel said. "Those men could be his sons."
"No, honey, those men could be his clones," Liz corrected. "Mad scientists like Sevarius have a fatal flaw, a mental block. They're the megalomaniacs who think nothing of experimenting on themselves with their unproven formulas – did you ever hear of Eric Leben? Norman Osbourne? I could list off a dozen others easy. And cloning oneself, that's even less risky."
"I have not had good experience with clones," Gabriel said.
She looked at him. "Yeah, okay."
"Ventura – well, no matter," he said. "So these men are clones of Sevarius. I had heard something to that effect when I was living in Manhattan. But how does it help us now?"
"I'm still working on that. If nothing else, it should stir things up with our friends out here. They're anti-cloning, for the most part. And it is still technically illegal. America hasn't slipped that far down the slippery slope yet. It's okay to do organs, blood, skin. Human parts. Not the whole."
"Can we use that against them?" Gabriel asked.
"Not with any sort of immediacy." She closed her laptop and slung a companionable arm around his neck in a half-hug. "I know you don't want to sit on your tail and wait through months of accusations, rebuttals, legal actions, appeals, misdirections, and cover-ups."
He exhaled wearily and tipped his head so that the bony ridge of his brow rested against her forehead. "No. I want to do as Ebon and I did at the Institute those many years ago. I want to storm the place and flatten anyone who stands in my way. These scientists, who think themselves so above the rest of the world that they can toy with lives … they are all the same! When they see their own kind as test subjects, how can they possibly be expected to treat those of other species as anything but animals?"
"You don't have to convince me," she said.
"But what do we do?" he asked, with a note of helpless ferocity. "They are as many-headed as a hydra, and as well-defended as Avalon itself!"
"Don't you dare give up, Gabe."
"That's the spirit. Come on. I've got a plan."
Liz chuckled. "Not a very original one, I'm afraid. How do you feel about busting through the gates?"
"With what, a battering ram?"
"Kind of," she said.
She pointed up the hill, to the largest of the school buses that had been converted into a motor home. Its outside was covered with painted flowers, peace signs, various Grateful Dead insignia, pot leaves, and other such Age of Aquarius emblems.
"That?" Gabriel compressed a soliloquy's worth of doubt into one word.
"Hey, take away the wooden bead curtains, the bean bag chairs, and the black velvet Jimi Hendrix wall hangings," Liz said, "and underneath that psychedelic paint job is a tank. Solid steel framework. Durable construction."
"You intend to crash that into the gates."
"Thought I might, yeah."
A slow, reluctant grin spread across his face. It transformed him incredibly, taking away the gloomy brooding anger. "All right, then."
The meeting at the cave made Jeannie think of a chemistry experiment. It was a mixing of several volatile elements which, put together the right way, could make something good. But shake it at the wrong time, and kaboom.
They stood in a ring around Patterson's sprawled body, staring at each other. Angus was the object of intense fascinated scrutiny from the dino sapiens, and he was quick to return the favor. Especially quick when it came to Ptera, Jeannie observed, and was startled by the sinking sensation she felt.
Well he should look admiringly. Ptera was the closest in shape to a gargoyle among them, with her pterodactylian wings. He wasn't shy about admiring Galli, too, who was golden-cream and graceful on long ballerina's legs. But the displeased glowers from both Steg and Trike soon cautioned Angus against ogling too openly.
Either of the big males could have flattened him and stomped him like a vat of grapes. Steg was the larger of the two, his maroon-plum skin thick with diamond-shaped plates. His tail, wide and ending with four ivory spikes, was held aggressively off the ground as if he was eagerly anticipating the moment when he could drive those spikes into Angus' face.
Trike, the more peaceable of the two, was nonetheless standing protectively near to Galli, snorting hot gusts through the slitted nostrils in the armored beak that curved down over his mouth. His long horns promised a grisly impalement if Angus made one wrong remark.
The Carpenter children were huddled together like waifs, pinned between Galli and Trike. Jeannie was relieved to see that neither of them looked hurt, or any the worse for wear. Scared and cold and hungry, but okay.
And then, there was her. Despite the fact that her every previous interaction with the dino sapiens had been friendly, they couldn't help associating her with her parents, or the security team.
She had just finished relating how she had helped Angus escape from the hospital ward, and how they'd seen Patterson sneaking out and followed.
"I think we should all go," Angus said. "This place is no good for you."
Galli cocked her head prettily. "This is our home."
"It's a prison," he said. "A zoo. Haven't you ever wanted to live on your own, by your own rules? Haven't you ever wanted freedom?"
"To fly?" Ptera asked wistfully, gazing at the brilliant stars.
"To fly, run, hunt, swim … to do whatever you want," Angus said. "As long as you let these people keep you here, you're giving them the right to do whatever they want to you. This man Patterson, I heard him earlier, he was ready to exterminate your entire clan because he thought you were too much trouble."
Steg snarled and raised one elephantine foot over Patterson's head. Angus jerked in alarm.
"No, don't," Jeannie pleaded. "Don't kill him."
"He would have done it to us," Steg said. "What had we done to warrant it?"
"Now, look, wait," Angus said. "If you want people to like you instead of fear you, then you can't go around stepping on their heads. Or beating them half to death. That's what caused a lot of this. The woman, their mother. People think you attacked her and stole her children."
"She was hurting the little one," Galli said, crouching to put her arms around Cissy Carpenter. "What sort of monster harms her own?"
"So we took them," Trike said. "They are ours now." His hand, nearly the size of Ethan's head, settled onto the boy's shoulder.
"It doesn't really work that way," Angus said. "Not in the human world."
"The world you'd have us join?" Steg asked with an ominous growl. "You said we could live by our own laws, the laws of the strong!"
"Hey, we've all got to bend and compromise a little," Angus said. "Their world has its bonuses. Do you guys like living in a cave? There's a lot you're missing out on. A lot more to life than eating what you can catch. Believe me, I know. My brother's tried to teach me that philosophy, but I'd rather have a big bucket of the Colonel's finest or a double-meat pizza any time."
Ethan Carpenter's stomach rumbled so loudly at that that they all heard it, and laughed. "Pizza," the boy moaned. "Pepperoni and olive pizza!"
"We will not return them to a cruel mother," Galli said. "Not for all the … the pizza there could be."
"What about what they want?" Jeannie asked. "Cissy and Ethan. Shouldn't they have a say?"
"I don't wanna stay here," Cissy said. "I wanna go home!"
"Is our mother all right?" Ethan asked. "I thought … I thought she was dead."
"Not dead," Angus said. "Badly hurt, and in the hospital, but not dead."
"I've seen the security tape," Jeannie said. "It seemed obvious to me that you were trying to protect them. But it's not our decision. There are laws, social workers … um, their dad, maybe. They can't stay here in a cave. It's not their home."
"It shouldn't be yours, either," Angus said. "Come on. We can all get out of here together. Jeannie's right. There are people who can help, and make sure that the kids end up somewhere safe. The law's on their side. But right now, it's not on yours. If these scientists wanted to, they could take you away and do anything they wanted."
"Let them try," Steg said. His cracking knuckles sounded like cherry bombs.
Angus shook his head. "They wouldn't come openly. They'd have darts or grenades, like this guy. They'd knock you out from a distance and then you'd wake up like I did, strapped to a table."
"He's right," Ptera said. "Haven't they already? We're prisoners here. Maybe you three can forget, because there are fields to run in and river mud to roll in, but try to fly! I have! All that glorious sky above, and what happens? I get netted, or shot down, or blasted with sounds that split my ears! This isn't home. This is a cage."
"How, then?" Galli demanded. "We cannot ask them to let us out."
"They should be included in that law," Angus said to Jeannie. "So they don't turn to stone. They still protect. I've always been taught that's what it really means to be a gargoyle."
"I agree with you," she said.
"But we can't wait for that," he went on. "They'd be dead by then."
"Yeah," Jeannie said. "Yeah, probably."
"So we break out." Angus looked at Steg and Trike. "Have you tried?"
"No," Steg said.
"Do you want to?"
Trike looked at Galli. She was clutching the children and her eyes were large and brimming with despair, but she nodded. So he nodded as well. "We do. We need to be our own clan."
"Where will we go?" Ptera asked, and there was not hopelessness in her voice but wonder. "Anywhere we like? Anywhere at all?"
"Well, you should find someplace to call home," Angus said, "but the world's a hell of a lot bigger than it looks from behind four walls."
"Show us what to do," Steg said.
"We can't leave the little ones," Galli said.
"There are a bunch of other humans right outside," Jeannie said. "They'll take care of them."
With it decided, the clan hurried to gather their few possessions. Angus knelt and stripped Patterson of all useful tools and weapons. Midway through, he looked up at Jeannie. "What about you? Will you stay, or leave?"
"I … I don't know. I've …"
"Betrayed your father?"
Mutely, she nodded.
"If it helps, I think you did the right thing. And not just 'cause you saved my butt."
"Thanks," she said.
"The people outside –"
"Would hate me once they knew what I was."
"No, Jeannie, they couldn't."
"I can't stay here and I can't go to them," she said. "I want to go with you."
"Please, Angus! So I've only known you for a couple of hours. You're my friend! Trike, Galli, Steg and Ptera are my friends too. They'll need someone to help them out there. You can't do it all, not during the day. And don't tell me I'm too young. I may be only fifteen but I've got a genius-level IQ, a nearly eidetic memory, and I speak twenty languages. I'm not useless!"
"I would never dare say you were," he said. "What about your family?"
"What's one more genetic duplicate more or less? They can always make another." She meant to say it lightly, but a sour taste of bile rose in her throat anyway. Still, she knew it was true. If she was ever going to have a chance at being herself, she had to get away.
"I just don't want you to do something that –"
"If I regret it, it'll be my own fault, okay?"
Angus smiled. "Okay. I give."
Joanna Leister was at the most delicate stage of genetic manipulation. The control unit for the microscopic scalpel was clamped over her temples, the instrument itself so tiny and precise that it would be a machete if directed by human hands. It responded instead to nerve impulses in her brain, so that she was nearly operating by telekinesis.
Utahraptor DNA. They had cloned raptors before, and tried to accelerate them, but the results had been so unmanageable that all of the specimens had to be destroyed. The stockholders, particularly those who had come from InGen with the merger, were especially sensitive about the idea of raptor-like monsters running amok.
By fusing the raptor DNA with that of other species – Maiasaurus and Pteranodon – she was hoping to create an all new life form with the intelligence of a raptor, strong parental instincts, and wings. It had taken her far longer than seven days and seven nights, but the effect was much the same. God on a microscopic level.
She was guiding the microscalpel carefully along the aggression gene when Adam-9 burst into the lab. Her startled gasp equated to a mental tic that sheared the DNA strand in half. Disgusted, she whirled on her stool and ripped the controller off her head.
"How dare you interrupt my work!"
"We have a problem," Adam-9 said.
Looking at him was like looking at a younger version of her husband, or a younger male mirror of herself. All of the Adams were like her brothers, the Eves her sisters, but they were the ones who had been allowed to age at a normal rate. Only the special cases, like herself and John, had been given actual names instead of numerical designations.
"We had better, to justify this intrusion. Explain."
"The captive gargoyle has escaped, Patterson is missing, the security cameras around the dino cave and in a path leading to it have all been deactivated, the dinos themselves are with the gargoyle and on the move toward the gate, and it looks like the mob outside is getting ready to do something."
"Oh," Joanna said, neatening the lapels of her white lab coat. "I suppose that is sufficient justification. Can you elaborate on the 'something' that the riffraff protestors are up to?"
"They've moved all the cars away from the gate," Adam-9 said. "Leaving a wide, cleared area."
"Hmm. So the gargoyle is leading his very-distant cousins in rebellion. Rather Braveheart of him." She caught a flicker of his expression, and since they were all so alike she could read him like a book from the oversized-print section of the library. "And?"
"And the daughter is with them."
"What?" She came off the stool at that, her elbow striking the expensive and fragile piece of machinery. It tipped over and made a brittle clinking sound as parts inside it broke. "Jeannie?"
"The computer projections did speculate a 5% chance of developing rebellious tendencies in the twelve-to-sixteen stage," Adam-9 pointed out.
"I am fully aware of the computer projections," Joanna said coldly. "And for your information, it was only 4.853%. Go wake John, and send a security force to stop them leaving."
"What about the protestors?"
"First things first. Now, go."
He went, and Joanna stalked to the operations center. She knew that Adam-9 would have no reason to lie, and it was flatly impossible for him to have mistaken someone else for Jeannie, but she had to see it with her own eyes.
Sure enough, there on the monitor was her wayward poppet. Walking side by side – and hand in hand – with the young male gargoyle who had been apprehended earlier in the evening.
"How adorable," she said, lip curling. "You like him, Jeannie? Well, no daughter of mine is going to mingle our genes with that! Not if I have anything to say about it."
What footage! Oh, every network in the country was going to line up and pay big bucks for this!
Liz, over the scene in Gabriel's strong arms, kept her camera trained on the action below. They weren't over the compound, but had a good angle down into it as the army of Sevarius look-alikes confronted the small group of dinosaurian creatures.
"Angus!" Gabriel tensed as one of them was revealed not to be a dinosaurian at all but a gargoyle, blue-grey with white hair and a baseball cap.
"No!" Liz cried as she felt him shift and prepare for a dive. "It won't do him any good for us to just get snagged by the defenses."
He saw the sense in that, thankfully, and did not plunge them into the heart of the melee. And melee it was; thanks to the ample illumination provided by the perimeter floodlights. She got a perfect zoom shot of a triceratops goring, and then flinging, a camo-clad body. Add a red cape, a few roses and some shouts of "Ole!" and they could have been ringside at Pamplona.
Gabriel dipped and gave the pre-arranged signal to the driver of the bus. The man, a grizzled but hale old dude with a prospector's seamed, bearded face, wouldn't let anyone but himself behind the wheel, even if the object was to ram his treasured antique head-on into a fortified gate.
He floored it, eliciting a farting billow of blue smoke out the tailpipe and a surprised scream from the old engine. The bus lurched forward like a placid rhino suddenly goosed into fury with a hot poker. It thundered down the gentle hill, gaining speed, the psychedelic flowers on its sides seeming to streak and run in a bad acid flashback.
Liz shifted her lens from the fight inside the compound to the onrushing bus. She panned over the heads of the activists, standing well back on both sides of the cleared space in front of the gates.
"The old fool is going to get himself killed," Gabriel said.
"God, I hope not. We made him wear his seatbelt."
"Once you found his seatbelt."
Liz winced. "And that baby rolled off the assembly line about thirty years too early for airbags."
No one inside was aware of what was happening until the charging bus hit the gate with a din like doomsday. Metal screeched and squealed. The nose of the bus accordioned, the windshield shattered, the balding front tires exploded in twin bangs.
The locks and bars held, but the hinges gave way. The bus pushed the gate five yards back from the wall before stalling out with a final choppy death-rattle. Smoke, steam, and various automotive fluids spurted from the crumpled hood.
The fighting inside came to a sudden standstill as all eyes snapped around to see the gates topple over. Dinosaur and human shapes alike raced out from under it as the heavy gate slammed into the earth. A tall, lanky, bearded figure stumbled unsteadily out of the bus, grinned at what he had done, and leaned against a painted peace sign to wipe blood from his forehead.
Then, chaos. Activists plunged wildly through the gap, waving their signs, reminding Liz of a hit-and-run 'liberation' that she had witnessed once at a factory that manufactured and animal-tested groundbreaking new drugs. Most, still holding onto their "it's violence we oppose " stance, ran past the InGenUity security staff without stopping. Others leaped into the fray, wielding signs that read "All Life Is Precious" like clubs.
The other combatants, the dinosaur-creatures, were briefly stunned into motionlessness by the unexpected allies. The gargoyle, Angus, called to them and waved his arm. When they still seemed lost, he clambered to the top of a boulder and took off, bearing a girl in his arms and exhorting the rest to follow.
Another winged shape, a humanoid pterodactyl, responded first and soared in a high, giddy spiral before arrowing through the gap to freedom. Next came one built like a featherless ostrich, carrying a child and speeding out with long, almost floating strides.
The triceratopian male that Liz had noticed before picked up a little boy onto his broad shoulders and lumbered out. The last, even larger, was laying about on all sides with a heavy tail. He was amid a heap of groaning bodies, which he then stomped over on his way to the exit.
"Angus!" Gabriel shouted.
They glided to meet each other, and Liz just had to laugh.
"It's like a poster from some 50's monster movie," she said through gales of mirth. "Or The Rape of the Sabine Women. Unhand us, you brutes!"
"Who's she, and what is she talking about?" Angus asked.
"Later," Gabriel said. "Let's get out of here."
They regrouped with the others, and after quick introductions and the handing-off of the Carpenter kids to a matronly woman who had remained outside with several of the activists' children, they were ready to go.
"Pile everybody into my truck," Liz said, tossing Angus the keys. "I have to make a call first."
"What are you doing?" Gabriel asked.
"Hey," she said as she dialed. "You've got your lofty political connections, I've got mine."
Two Weeks Later
The first serious snow of the season had finally hit them, blanketing the ranch with three feet of white powder. Under the glow of the moon, it had an otherworldly radiance that made Gabriel achingly homesick for Avalon. Not that it ever snowed in Oberon's realm, of course. But there was a sort of glow about the place.
Aside from that, he was happier and more content than he had ever expected to be. The long log and stone building that had originally housed a dozen ranch-hands was more than large enough for the clan, and the main house had a selection of sturdy places where he and Angus could comfortably roost.
He heard a window sliding open behind him but did not turn. His attention was out in the meadow, where Angus and Ptera were making snowball strafing-runs at the snow fort that Steg and Trike had built. Galli, her aim exceptional, peppered the gliders from the turret, while Jeannie Leister, bundled up in a parka gleaned from a trunk of Liz' old clothes, loaded a snowball the size of a bowling ball into a wooden trebuchet.
The counterweight dropped. The wooden arm swung up and over, launching its cargo on a high trajectory. Gabriel would have sworn that the angle was wrong, but Jeannie had judged it better, and the ten-inch sphere hit Angus squarely.
"Nice to see them having fun," Liz Dorsett said from his elbow.
"Nice of your brother and his family to open their home to us," he said, finally turning.
She was wearing a quilted plaid shirt over a turtleneck, and her incomparable wild hair struggled against a stocking cap. The cold had brought a flush to her cheeks.
"Well, Jim's a nice guy," she said. "Most everybody around here is. I told you that you'd like it here, after a little getting used to."
"I never doubted you," he said, though it was not entirely true. When she had initially proposed the plan, he'd been dubious. A small and close-knit town? How would they react to such a group in their midst? But everyone, from Liz's older brother to the townsfolk, had reacted with a warm, welcoming enthusiasm.
"You miss your folks?"
"Somewhat, yes," Gabriel said.
"So maybe they'll come join you. Or maybe you'll get bored with our rustic lifestyle and hunger for the bright lights of Vegas. Time will tell, Gabe."
"I suppose it shall."
A scream and a spate of girlish giggles drew his eyes back to the meadow. Angus had dived at Jeannie and was chasing her toward the trees, pelting her with one point-blank snowball after another. Just as his ammo gave out, he tackled the girl and they tumbled together in a small blizzard of disturbed snow. They ended up with Jeannie sitting on Angus' chest, and, laughing, she leaned down to kiss him.
"You're still worried about her," Liz said.
"It would bring a problem to your brother, harboring a runaway."
"That wasn't what I meant. What's the matter? Don't you think she's good enough for Angus?"
"Our mother will be disappointed," he hedged. "She had it in her mind that we'd go off and discover a clan of eligible females, settle down, raise hatchlings …"
"But what do you think?" Liz pressed.
"I like Jeannie very much," Gabriel said defensively. "She is a fine and clever girl, and Angus seems most taken with her. She is far better company for him than … well, never mind. I just cannot imagine that her parents will let her go without fuss."
Liz only looked at him, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised.
"Perhaps they are moving too fast," he admitted grudgingly, when that silence and raised brow dragged it out of him. "They are both young, and have led sheltered lives."
"So you've appointed yourself chaperone?"
"No, I –"
"You're not jealous, are you?"
"That may be it." He spoke softly, barely a whisper, but the wind was not strong enough to snatch the words away from her ears.
"Uh-huh. Know what you need to do, Gabe?" She grasped him by the shoulders and pivoted his body until he had to face her, then jabbed one gloved forefinger into his chest. "You need to quit stressing about everybody else and think about you for a change. No more brooding over the past. It's a new day. A new night. Whatever. If you spend the rest of your life concentrating on what was, you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities."
He was silent a moment, studying her eyes through a veil of loose wind-whipped strands of hair. "What opportunities might these be?" he asked.
Liz grinned. "Do you think it's absolutely vital that you stand here and keep watch over them all night?"
"I know a great steakhouse in town. We'll start there, and see what opportunities develop."
"Very well," he said, with a smile of his own in return. "It's a deal."
"No, honey," Liz said, tucking her arm through his. "It's a date."
InGen – Michael Creighton, Jurassic Park
Eric Leben – Dean R. Koontz, Shadowfires
Norman Osbourne – Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, Spiderman
copyright 2003 / Christine Morgan / email@example.com