DOOM 2099: The Beckoning

Gypsy, Sorcerer, Scientist, King ... The man the 20th century vilified and called Doctor Doom has traveled to the year 2099 where the superheroes who once thwarted his plans at world conquest are no more. But his once pristine country of Latveria has been reduced to an inhospitable pool of toxic sludge by a madman wielding unearthly powers. Now Doom must renew his power from abroad in the strange new world of the future and in the realm of computer cyberspace, all while asserting his right to rule as ... DOOM 2099!

CHAPTER 1: All the King's Horses . . .

[Note to readers: This story takes place shortly after Doom2099 # 38]

The earth was brown and dull under a grey, overcast sky. Dark clouds threatened rain, but the wind blowing up the side of the steep ascent was dry and filled with a bitter, acrid stench. The smell of the dead was all around this high mountain foot path, but there were no creatures, alive nor dead, to be seen. The quiet was unnerving.

The metal boots moved over the rough surface with equal parts calm and determination. A dark green cloak caught the wind and billowed around the tall man like a wild animal on a short leash. He caught the cloak in a metal gauntlet, taming it, and moved silently up the path. His metal armor, medieval in appearance, was remarkably silent, and he made his approach without a single sound save the soft rolling of pebbles down the hillside, disturbed by his passing. He walked through a dark notch in the mountain cliff, a narrow path almost completely hidden from view. He found it by memory, a distant memory of a time long past. It was a memory he was surprised to still find, clear in his mind like a snapshot tucked away in a dusty old family album. It was perhaps this clear and vivid memory that broke his calm facade like a mirror under the blow of a metal fist. For as he stepped through the notch onto the ledge that overlooked the wide, deep valley below, his eyes behind the silver metal mask glowed with a fierce hatred and frustration that he had tried to keep buried these last few weeks. It burned him deep inside, and only the distant thunder, rolling across the valley and slamming into his body with deep, harmonic resonance, kept him from crying out, lashing out with all his fury and might. He was alone and outgunned, and they were far too many to attack on his own now.

"They" were the wave spiders. Two meters tall with wicked sharp talons and hard exoskeleton, they were alien creatures bred in a secret underground bunker from spores captured by early space explorers decades ago. Genetically engineered to be weaponized, they were loosed upon Latveria by the evil Herod and his corporate cohorts. Now free from their masters in the America's and abroad, they flew in fat, lazy circles over what was once his beloved homeland. They feasted on what remained of his countrymen, their alien physiology immune to the necrotoxins they had grown in their bellies. Necrotoxins that had reduced all of the humans living in the valley below into a thick, greasy sludge. Their evil mission for the corrupt Herod completed the wave spiders now nested in the mountains and rocky crags far above the valley, the same rocky outposts that had once harbored a young Victor Von Doom and his fellow gypsies during the reign of the wicked Baron Draasen a century and a half past. The giant flying creatures settled their long exoskeletal limbs with equal irreverence atop his painstakingly restored castle and the tall buildings of Gojradia. They stretched iridescent wings over distant farms and fields turned fallow from neglect. The stench of their guano baked into the once pristine earth. He watched them fly, and nest, and gather their young with a cold, calculating eye. "Not today," he thought with wry malevolence, "but soon, alien monstrosities, soon you will be eliminated, and this land will be clean once more!"

From the rocky hillside strewn with dying brush behind Doom a frantic rustle caused him to whirl around, gauntlets raised and ready to fire. There in the tangle of bracken were three dirty, frightened faces, eyes glazed and faces gaunt with hunger. They shrank back for a moment, then recognized their master in his new armor. "Master!" one of the men called out in a raspy whisper. He stumbled through the bush, and collapsed kneeling in front of his king, as much in respect as in pure exhaustion. His companions followed suit. Their clothes were torn and dirty, their beards unshaven and matted.

"Master, you have come . . . " he coughed harshly, a sound like sandpaper on rough stone.

"Apologies, Master, please, we have not had food nor drink in days," his companion implored.

Doom recognized these men. They were gypsies from the ravaged village below. He offered them water from a pouch he carried, but he was impatient. "Are there other survivors? From the village or from clan Zefiro? Are you alone here?"

"We were sent to wait for you, to guide you to the rest . . . " the first man began.

"I don't know the clans, there are some from Gatineau, and others . . . " the second man seemed confused. "Yanto would know . . . "

"Where is Yanto?" Doom demanded.

"Dead," said the first gypsy, "along with two others. Originally we were six, now all that remains is Kosta, Uriel, and I . . . I am Marcos, the smith."

"Marcos," Doom implored quietly, insistently, "how did you escape the attack on our country?"

"The fortune teller warned us," answered Uriel, "we did not know what danger was coming, but we believed the signs, and left the city."

"Too late for some," Kosta contributed, wiping his mouth as he returned the water pouch to Doom. "We were attacked by the spiders on the pass. Many were killed."

"All who stayed behind are dead," added Uriel forlornly, his sad eyes looked to the valley.

"Who was the fortune teller? Was it Fortune? Did she read cards?" Doom asked.

The men shrugged and looked down. "The word was spread among the clans that night. All we knew was to leave the valley, and head south to the sea. There a freighter would take us to safe lands," Marcos shook his head. "Those who believed in the old ways followed the elders without question. Nobody really believed anything like this could happen . . . " His voice trailed off, he did not say, "under your reign. "

The unspoken words were echoed in Doom's thoughts. If he'd known, he never would have left. "Americas be damned!" He thought. "I should have left that country to rot inside it's own fetid cesspool than leave my homeland unguarded and at the mercy of these heartless scavengers!" His eyes began to follow the road from the pass, picturing the pitched battle that must have taken place there between the fleeing gypsies and the airborne attackers. "Why have you men stayed?" he asked absently, eyes still searching the western slope of the valley.

Marcos answered quickly. "The seer Larinda, from my clan, she sent us here to wait for you, she knew you would come back to save us . . . " his voice trailed off as he stood and looked toward the darkening sky to the east. Another wave of thunder washed over them. He picked up a long stick with a sharpened bit of metal on the end. In his thick hands Doom could see the power that once forged steel, an old skill that required strength of heart and limb, still practiced among the gypsies, but the posture of the man betrayed his fear. What could have frightened them so?

"How far have they gone? Where are they now?" Doom asked, gazing at the sky and trying to see what the other man saw. Given the men's obvious malnourished condition, they could be quite mad.

"It has been 25 days since we left them, and we traveled five days on foot back here. But they may not have gone far. Many were on foot, and fuel was very low. Also, water. Many wanted to stop and wait for the rains, but the land has become treacherous. It is not safe for us out there." Marcos anxiously twisted the makeshift spear, and the other men grew increasingly restless. "We should take cover," he murmured.

Doom turned his attention back to the valley, till he finally found what he was looking for. A bunker, hidden among the trees on the valley wall no more than five miles below them. Several months ago he had hidden a supply of weapons, fuel and transport vehicles there, a cache designed for an emergency such as this. His armor's eyepieces zoomed in on the low structure. It appeared intact and undisturbed at first, not entirely a good sign, since Fortune also would have known of its existence as a privileged member of his cabinet. Then he saw the wave spiders, four, then five adults, and what could only be baby spiders, a dozen or more, crawling all over the outside of the wide, low hill that hid those precious supplies. They had made a nest in the soft loamy soil of the weapons bunker. It would be unnecessarily risky to try to take it now. He turned back to the men.

"Master, surely your vehicle is close, we can leave, meet up with the others," Uriel pleaded.

"There are no vehicles here, imbecile!" Doom shouted, roughly brushing the man away.

He was angrier with himself more than anything, and Doom was beginning to regret his decision to return so woefully unprepared. He had left in haste, his brief stint as President of the United States had not been very profitable, and the coup that had unseated him, lead by the traitorous Herod and his alien cohorts, had left his resources diminished. Many of his allies had been killed, and those left could no longer be trusted, corrupted by the regime that replaced him. He too had nearly died under their treachery. He had been forced to improvise far more than he was accustomed to. Though many of his physical resources were similarly either destroyed or made unavailable, he had far more resources then most realized, accumulated through years of preparing for just such unexpected events. He had expected there to be more here that he could use, but reliable intelligence out of Latveria was scant. He had boldly decided to investigate personally, a decision he was slowly coming to regret. Still, he had other options. And a Doom unprepared was still a formidable Doom, even in this century.

Softly now, he continued, "I arrived on a one-way shunt to a transport pad just west of here. We will attempt to locate a working vehicle en route to the rest of your tribe. Until then, we will have to walk!" For now, the restoration of Latveria would have to wait. Turning his back on his homeland, Doom focused his attention on the barren landscape to the south, now barely visible in the fading light. From the southern edge of the Arkopa pass through the Malhela Mountains, the dying light flickered over a vast uninhabited range of low hills and scrub, treacherous canyons, and half-forgotten mine fields from years of warfare a century ago. Somewhere out there too, were the remains of Makhelastan, and a grisly scene that they would be wise to bypass (the neighboring country of Makhelastan was destroyed by necrotoxins days before the attack on Latveria, in Doom 2099 #32). The blackened vista before them seemingly sucked up all the light from the sky. A chill wind blew up the mountainside and unfurled his verdant cape.

"No!" Kosta shouted anxiously, pulling at Marcos' sleeve. "We must take cover . . . the night . . . !"

The last bit of sunlight glinted off of Doom's armor and metal faceplate. "This is no time for cowardice, man! Our kin are in need. You must take me to them, now!" he ordered.

"No!" cried Kosta again, his face screwed up in pain and despair.

"It is dangerous to be out at night. There is no cover on the road." Marcos said.

"What is it?" Doom asked impatiently, "What are you frightened of?"

"The spiders," Marcos answered, pointing to the valley. A faint hum, a deep, resonate buzzing, wafted up the mountains from the darkening valley below. "They hunt at night. All that was once living in Latveria is gone, and they have developed a taste for fresh meat. They will fly beyond our borders to find it now. If we follow the road, we will be exposed."

"Then stay off the road," Doom answered calmly, "and I will deal with any spiders that dare challenge me!" Doom began to stride down the steep mountain path that led away from Latveria, without a backward glance to his homeland or his new companions, certain that they would follow. Indeed, it would be foolish to stay, cover or no. Alone in these barren windswept mountains, they would soon die.

Marcos looked at the Master with new confidence, and began to make his way down after him. Uriel too, felt a little of the pride one must have in a leader so decisive and so fearless, yet silently hopeful that it was not foolish bravado he followed. He gathered up his leather sack with his few meager belongings, and began to stumble down the path. Poor Kosta whimpered and shivered in the dark notch in the rock, looking to the sky and to the valley and back to his retreating companions with equal parts fear and despair. To be alone on this mountain was certain death, and so what little sense was left in his poor, mad brain, bade him to go, and he scrambled to catch up to the others.

In the bleak sand filled deserts of a land no longer inhabited by any nation, a worm-like train of bundled figures and slow-moving vehicles wound its way through the sand, zig-zagging around steep dunes and deep pits, moving steadily south like a convoy of ants. Scattered among the ancient trucks and occasional camper, were even older gypsy vardos, pulled by pack animals of indeterminate lineage. Other animals, cattle and goats, trailed along behind them or were patiently led by hunched figures bundled against the blowing sand. One such figure walked near the front of the group, carefully probing the sand ahead with a walking stick, while keeping a firm grasp onto the lead of the cow that plodded grudgingly three feet behind her. Her feet were covered in makeshift leather boots, tied with straps around her legs. The rest of her clothing was little better than rags, tied at the cuffs to keep the blowing sand out. The hood of her cape and bright colored scarf covered most of her face, except for the eyes. Her dark gypsy eyes squinted through the blowing sand underneath serious, heavy brows. A fine film of pale sand coated her dark skin wherever it was exposed. She carried a small pack on her back, and the remainder of her personal belongings were securely strapped to the back of her cow. A rope around her waist trailed behind her, tied to the waist of another man walking a few meters back. A third man was also connected behind him. The rope was a survival tool against the shifting sand, invisible sand traps and equally frightening sand storms capable of reducing visibility to less than a meter in less than an instant. Today, the rope would save her life.

Marissa steadily probed the sand ahead of her as she walked, careful to find firm footing as she tried also to keep an eye on their intended course. Just below the surface, her stick hit something hard with a resounding thunk, causing her to stop and step back a pace. She probed again. There was something there, under the sand, something with a definite echo. Carefully she pushed her stick down into the sand, tapping twice more against the hard surface below. She was not mistaken, there was something there! Something hollow, possibly a buried truck, or a fuel tank! She turned back to her companions and began to wave frantically. Just then, the earth caved in on her.

She later would recall the strangest sensation, of falling through the earth, with sand all around her, then suddenly empty space. Initially, all she recognized was fear and adrenaline, the helplessness of falling, the instant of knowing that death was very near. Then the vibrant snap of the rope at her waist, halting her momentum only a second after the fall began. Then she knew she was not dead, because she was instantly aware of the pain in her back and shoulders as the rope cinched tighter around her waist and burned the skin below. At the end of her rope, there was only darkness at first, and then her eyes began to adjust. She looked up to see the hole through which she had fallen, a glimmer of light and a steady stream of white sand falling through. This was not a sand pit, she was inside of . . . something? She looked around her. Light beams touched bits and pieces of vertical walls, reflective surfaces, strange lumpy things on the ground far below. The cavern was enormous! What was nothing but a massive barren sand field above covered a vast underground expanse hidden from view and waiting for discovery. Where the sand above was thin, light broke through what could only be called a glass ceiling. Suspended as she was almost a hundred meters above the floor, Marissa began to get a clear picture of what she had found.

Above her, Jake cleared the sand away from the hole and peered down, following the swinging rope with a flashlight. "Marissa!" he called anxiously. "Are you all right?"

"Jake!" Marissa called back as the beam of light played across her face, "it's a city! Jake, it's the Hidden City!"

Later, when the gypsies had found a passage into the underground city, they began to explore and scavenge supplies. Water was of paramount importance, as they had not been able to replenish their supplies since leaving Latveria. All the water that trickled down from that high mountain country was tainted, contaminated with traces of necrovirus. The same was true for the water from rivers and streams that had passed through their southern neighbor, Makhelastan. There was not enough virus in the water to kill, at first, but any who sipped it regularly soon fell sickly and died. So once the trucks and vans and vardos were secured in a central area of the city, the elders dispatched teams of two and three to scour the city. There was a little food, some fuel, but the city had been scavenged before. Perhaps the sand above the crystal dome cleared away once every ten or twenty years, enough to keep the legend of the Hidden City alive in the tales of the travelers who stumbled upon it as Marissa had done. What the gypsies soon found, however, was that the city was a literal time capsule, a frozen moment from a time that few among them had witnessed.

"How's your back?"

"Still hurts a little," Marissa answered, watching her meter as they made their way through an underground corridor. Jake carried a shovel and leather bag, and a bright head lamp strapped around his forehead illuminated their path.

"We can go back, if you want to," Jake answered. He was tall and lanky, no more than eighteen, and bereft of his bulky outer clothing he appeared very thin. "Someone else can search this sector for us."

"Don't like caves, do you Jake?" Marissa teased.

"Not really," he answered honestly.

"I used to go into the caves above Antikva village every summer," Marissa mused quietly. "Not too deep, but just a little, it was always so cool and quiet."

"Shock it! You're a reg'lar bat girl!" Jake grinned. "I always knew there was somethin' creepy bout you!"

"What's creepy is this," they were near the edge of the crystal dome now, and Marissa ran her long fingers along the cool, hard surface. It was clear for an indeterminate depth, maybe three meters thick, maybe more. Then behind that was solid rock. The inner surface was as smooth as Waterford crystal, and as hard as diamonds. The low power laser from her electronic probe reflected perfectly off of its surface.

"I heard the elders talking this morning," Jake answered, "they said this has probably been here since before the forty-year's war, judging by the cars and stuff they found. Low tech stuff, primitive like cell phones and com boards and shockin' worthless copper wires. What's really weird is the way some of the tall buildings go all the way up to the top of the dome, then it looks like they were burned away. Lukas said that he thought they had used some kind of plasma weapon, hot enough to turn the sand instantly to glass." Jake rapped his knuckles against the surface.

"Yeah, right, like Lukas is some kind of tech jockey," Marissa stopped suddenly, staring at her meter. "Jake! Look!" The meter was fluctuating wildly, the display readings were jumping all around. Marissa hurried ahead, racing around a rocky corridor, Jake struggling under the low ceiling to keep up behind her, until they burst into a large room, and stopped in their tracks.

It had been a patio, with a clay tile floor and a freestanding stone fountain. The rubble they had just passed through was what was left of the house, but here the patio was intact, and strangely surreal. The fountain was empty, but the figure of a small boy sculpted from bronze danced in its center. Behind him was the garden wall, and there the bottom curve of the crystal bubble above them came down and neatly cleaved the wall in two, disappearing into the tile floor with barely a trace. But where the wall and the crystal bubble met, a tiny trickle of water seeped through, staining the stone wall and sustaining a tiny streak of amber algae along its edges. Marissa rushed up to the wall, and sampled the water with her meter, careful not to drip any on her skin. Jake held his breath, and licked his dry lips hopefully.

Marissa smiled, "It's clean!" she announced joyfully. "No trace of the virus!" She held her hand carefully under the slow trickle, and gathered the precious fluid into the cup of her hand. She let the cool liquid drip into her mouth and soothe her parched throat. She stepped aside as Jake did the same. They drank once more, then removed canteens from their pouches and carefully filled them from the slow trickle. Too much of the precious fluid slipped away and disappeared in the ground below, sucked up by the dry earth. Working together they managed to move the little boy's fountain to where the basin was positioned underneath the steady trickle. They stepped back with pride to watch as the water slowly began to fill the dry bowl, and then hurried back to give the good news to the rest of the clans.

Doom stood alone, pacing along the ridge of a low rise in the land, scanning the dark expense ahead with infrared scopes built into his remarkable armor. In the low notch behind him, his reluctant companions huddled and shivered in the cold night air, too frightened to build even a small fire. Their progress had been agonizingly slow. The men were weak, malnourished and dehydrated. It would not do if they were to die on him now, before he had the chance to ascertain the path the gypsies' tribe had taken. There were a thousand square kilometers or more between them and the sea, and the wandering tribe could be anywhere. He was less familiar with this landscape than he had been in his time; a hundred years had changed more than just the people. But the gypsies endured, and he trusted their resourcefulness. It was imperative that he find them, he had to know . . . He looked back upon the men, reluctantly admitting that despite their weaknesses he needed them. Long ago, he had made a promise, a vow to protect his gypsy kin. The holder of that promise was long dead now, but he nonetheless felt bound by it.

When he rejoined the men in the dark hollow, Uriel and Kosta appeared to be asleep, huddled in their thin cloaks on the hard earth. Marcos sat alone, warily holding his wooden spear and staring up at the stars. He stood as Doom approached, but Doom bade him to sit again as he too settled to the ground, pulling his cloak up around his knees.

"The way ahead appears clear," Doom stated quietly. "We will resume at first light."

"Ahead there are two other dangers," Marcos stated, and began to scrape lines in the dirt with the tip of the spear. "Though we leave the spiders behind, there are other inhabitants who would attack us for no other reason than trespass. South of Makhelastan in the valleys of Banat, the settlement there harbors the Collective Guardsmen, formerly under the employ of Tiger Wylde. The commanders of the Guard fled there when you freed our country from Wylde's rule, and they have always hated the gypsies."

"I knew that some of the leaders had escaped," Doom mused aloud. "I had not yet had the time to track them down for their crimes against our kin. I suspect that they hold little love for me as well."

"Hmmm, yes, well they are well armed and organized; their borders are very well patrolled and seem to be expanding into the wastelands." Marcos pointed to an area he sketched on the ground. "More dangerous though are the Crow. They inhabit the hills to the west and north. They are a wild people, crazed by the drugs they consume in their fighting rituals, and they appear to attack without reason or provocation. We witnessed an attack by the Crow on a CG patrol. They were ferocious beyond belief, fighting even when mortally wounded, biting and scratching at the guardsmen with their last breaths. Twenty or more were killed by the guardsmen's weapons, and still they attacked. A dozen armored and armed guardsmen were killed by the mob, only two escaped." Marcos shuddered. "Afterwards, the Crow disemboweled and consumed the dead in a horrific feast and ritual."

"Were the caravans attacked?" Doom asked.

"Not so far as I know," Marcos answered. "The plan was to skirt the CG borders to the east, then head across the wastelands before dropping into Dubrovnik from the coastal mountains, if we can find a passage through the Dinaric. But no one really knows how far the Crow have expanded their territories since the fall of Latveria and Makhelastan. The spiders, too, may be ranging farther now. The tribe was in dire need of fuel and water. The caravan could have halted somewhere along the way. If they were attacked since we left, they would all be dead now" Marcos hung his head between his knees, frightened by the prophecy he spoke.

Doom looked to the sleeping men. Alone, he could raid a Guardsmen's outpost, collect weapons and transport. Possibly supplies, too. It would be better for all of them to be armed with real weapons if they were attacked along the way. He would have to leave them alone and unprotected so that he could move quickly. "How far to the nearest Guardsmen's outpost?" he asked.

"The permanent installations are deep inside the borders," Marcos pointed to a place on his map. "Here is where they keep some supplies for the border patrols, and a hundred men or more. There are smaller stations here, and here, maybe one day's journey from where we are now. They are very close to the main depot, "Marcos continued, sensing the Master's intent. "Any attack on those positions would bring swift backup from the main forces."

Doom was silent, and then he erased the map in the sand with his gloved hand. "Say nothing of this to the others," he said coldly. "We will alter our course eastward in the morning."

Marcos nodded in quiet compliance, not wanting to appear weak in front of the Master. He would do as he asked, and the gods be merciful should they fail.

Doom looked to the sky as Marcos drifted off to sleep. The gods would have their way with him, that he knew. He wasn't about to make it easy on them though. The gods, however or wherever they rested this night, had not yet given up in their endless quest to test his strength. Black fate, it seemed, always followed one step behind Doom, and just when he began to relax, it reared its ugly head into the night sky, blotting out the stars. The wind whistled behind fluttering wings, and trees bent under the weight of eight gangly legs. The wave spiders had found them!

From the ledge of a small cliff, a rocky perch above the long empty road, two Crow warriors watched with morbid fascination the attack of the spiders on the small gypsy party below. The Crow scouts had been following the progress of the three gypsy men and their strangely armored companion since coming down from the mountain late that evening. Silently they had stalked the strangers, and waited out the night in a place safe from the prying eyes of the tall metallic one. Now, they ventured close to the edge, hunched in curious concentration over the scene before them.

Doom roused himself quickly at the first noise from the wave spiders, and was firing weapons from his gauntlets as the creatures descended with murderous intent upon his comrades. The three adult spiders flew tightening circles above them, avoiding the deadly blasts. Some of the fireballs struck, but glanced off of heavily armored plates, burning but not destroying. Doom began to fall back, changing his tactics as he adjusted his weaponry. The spiders screeched in rage and fury as they flew above them, a sound designed to frighten and subdue their intended prey. It roused the gypsy men from their sleep, but mad Kosta was transfixed by those horrible sounds. One of the spiders dove in, and though Marcos tried to ward it off with his spear, he was swept aside by the greater bulk of the alien creature. Kosta was skewered by the long bony mouth-part the spiders used to immobilize their prey before he even had a chance to cry out. His body wriggled helplessly upon the jagged spear as he died, blood spurting from the gaping wound.

The spider was unaware for a moment, and caught up in it's gory prize it was unable to fly away. Doom fired a series of blasts to distract the larger of the spiders, as he leaped for the one that held Kosta. Using a dense energy blade extruded from his gauntlets, he cut a wide gash into the thick plate exoskeleton on the spider's underbelly. The creature screamed and took off into the air at an incredible rate, leaving its intended meal but with Doom still clinging to its side. Holding on with one hand he peeled back a large section of the exoskeleton, exposing the pulsating innards. As the spider reached with eight bony appendages in an attempt to dislodge this potent adversary, Doom fired concentrated heat blasts into the heart of the beast. Dying, the spider fell to the earth, and Doom landed on his feet in the sand beside it.

Marcos and Uriel were back to back, standing alone against the remaining two. The spiders towered above them as the men desperately parried blows from mouth and leg with spear and club. As soon as Doom landed, he began his assault on the larger spider. The big male immediately turned its attention to this greater threat. It hissed as it struck at the armored man with a long bony leg that whipped out from behind it with the velocity of a runaway freight train. The appendage would surely have cleaved a lesser man in two, and it appeared for a moment that it had done just that to Doom! The resourceful gypsy had instead used the phasing power within his armor to momentarily make his molecules intangible. The limb passed through his body and he caught it between his hands on the other side, delivering a concussive blow through his gauntlets that imploded the limb, spraying the company with green slime that pulsated out of the severed limb. Enraged, the male spider turned on Doom and grabbed him with both mandibles in a crushing, vice-like grip. Doom still held onto the sharp talon from the remnants of the spider's leg, and as the spider attempted to push Doom into its gaping mouth, Doom buried the claw deep into the spider's eyes. The coup de grace was a tightly focused electrical charge, conducted from Doom's gauntlet directly through the severed limb and into the spider's brain. The creature collapsed, releasing Doom, as its head exploded from within in a hail of blue fire and brain matter.

The third spider screamed in rage as her mate fell, and struck wildly at Uriel who was thrown to the ground with a badly cut arm. The spider did not close in for the kill, for if she was an intelligent creature she surely sensed the danger as the armored one approached. She chose to flee, and screamed as she went, pelted by laser blasts from Doom's armor. The energy beams burned the outer skin, but bounced without much effect off of that hard spinal plate on her back. She was out of range in moments, disappearing into the darkness as the sky began to show the first signs of the new day.

On the ledge above the battleground, the two Crow warriors had also disappeared. Gone into the desert without a sound or a trace.

On the battleground, the two dead spiders began to settle into the dust. Kosta was dead. Uriel was badly wounded. One skirmish, one day of their journey behind them. This was a bad sign, Doom thought as he watched the first few fingers of dawn brighten the sky to the east. His armor's weapons systems had proven to be a poor match for the alien biology that Herod had loosed upon this world Marcos at least was unscathed, tending to Uriel's wound with a ragged bandage. But Doom felt the first faint buzzing of a warning in his armor's systems. Something had happened when that alien limb had passed through his body. If he could stop and do a system-wide diagnostic he was sure he could eradicate the problem. No time for that now. No place, stranded as they were in this untamed wilderness. He felt a slight nausea, an unpleasant churning in his gut, then promptly ignored it. Hunger, probably, and fatigue. That too, would have to wait. They had many more miles yet to go.


". . . I have Promises to keep,

And miles to go before I Sleep."

Robert Frost

"Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening."


April 9, 1996