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The Hunter-Beasts have found her.
She holds the phone away from her, cruel laughter on the other end of the line still reverberating in her brain. Through the kitchen window, the wooded, landscaped grounds surrounding her suddenly spring into sharp focus. Fractal shapes of bubbling orange, blue and red cohere into the topiaried foliage, garden statuary and poplar trees bordering the mile-long entry lane into the estate.
All of which, she realizes, will soon become an abattoir
How strange, she thinks as she stares stupidly. I… I remember. She has been safe and comfortably ignorant these past five years, it seems. How could she not have known?
This wasn’t supposed to happen, she recalls faintly. At least not so soon. Yet, strangely enough, one part of her mind realizes the warning signs were there. Her dreams were the first harbingers…
Visions of flying and hard, scaled flesh; of windswept, alien landscapes and gleaming cities of metal and glass. Falling, falling, spinning out of control…
Timera lurched awake. God, she thought, gasping for breath and hugging herself tightly. What the hell? She staggered out of bed as if drunk, stubbing her toe on the dresser as she groped for the open window. She gulped cool, night air, the slight breeze chilling her through her sweat-soaked negligee.
“Hey, Tim,” a sleepy voice mumbled. “What’s going on? Is it the kids?”
“No. N… nothing, I…”
The bedside light clicked on. “Hey, you’re pale as a ghost! You feeling all right?” Timera’s husband, Bob, shook himself awake, leaned on one elbow to stare at his wife. “Too much pizza before bed, right?” he joked nervously. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” Timera looked away, angry and embarrassed. Those damned nightmares!
“Lizards again, I’ll bet,” Bob said. “It’s been, what, three weeks now? You sure some old Godzilla movie didn’t psych you out when you were a kid?”
“No, I…” Timera shot an irritated look toward her perpetually-kidding husband. Bob lay in their brass bed. His tousled brown hair and rugged, handsome features were outlined darkly against the golden backdrop of the antique headboard. “I don’t know…” Tears stung her eyes as she turned back to the window, and suddenly felt Bob’s strong arms around her.
“It’s okay, hon,” he whispered. “It’s okay.”
“I… I’m sorry, Bob,” she sobbed. “I… I…”
Bob turned her gently and held her at arm’s length. “Write those feelings down, Tim,” he said. “That always helps you. Get them out of your system.”
Timera shook her head. “You know I’ve tried that.”
“I know, I know, but give it one more shot. Try to clear your mind before we go to the estate next week, okay?” Bob touched his wife’s cheek. “Your agenda, my dear, is to relax and enjoy yourself. Aunt Sarah will be in Europe for a few weeks and we’ll have that whole damn mansion to ourselves. Remember my perfect scenario. I can fish, the kids can play till they drop, and you can write your poetry practically distraction-free. This vacation will be the cure for whatever’s been bugging you.”
Timera sighed. “Yes, yes, you’re right.” She shook her head, realizing she was still trembling. She hadn’t told Bob she’d been having the dreams longer than three weeks. Much longer. Or that she’d been visualizing images from them even when awake. Little things out of the corners of her eyes, shapes, colors, blurred faces, twisted shadows. What was wrong with her? Their marriage was strong, the kids were pretty well adjusted. She didn’t have to work.
She embraced him hard. “It all seems so real,” she murmured. “So real.”
And now, after all this time, how simply it begins. She answers the phone thinking it might be Bob, only to hear a dark, guttural laugh. A cold, wet voice on the other end of the line utters a single word, a word which triggers something primal and long buried within her.
She hangs up the phone, feeling oddly calm and distant. I’m not afraid, she thinks, surprised and excited at her strange complacence. There’s no time for that now.
At the first sound of the Hunter-Beast’s voice, new data, strategies and memories bombarded her subconscious. She feels a surge of strength, speed and power. Her eyesight and hearing jump in sharpness. Her sense of smell becomes more acute as a startlingly new, almost feral, awareness envelops her.
Outside, an overcast night bathes the estate in almost total darkness. Nevertheless, through the murky treeline, she can easily discern the caretaker’s house a quarter mile away. That’s where they called from, she muses, knowing the Hunter-Beasts are already on the move. Her hands clutch the kitchen counter, her knuckles turn white. Despite her impassiveness, she starts to tremble. The caretaker and his family are all dead. And their killers will be here in seconds, wallowing in their supreme self-confidence; needing to broadcast their coming; to torment their prey before the kill.
She shakes her head. How do I know this? Where is this stuff coming from?
She rushes to lock the kitchen door that exits the rear of the mansion. No time to think of that now. Some deeply entrenched instinct tells her two, maybe three Hunter-Beasts are only yards away. Thank God Bob took the kids to that bed-and-breakfast in St. Reeds overnight, she thinks. Just so she could spend a quiet evening writing alone and uninterrupted. The irony of that gesture is not lost on her.
A furred shape darts past her to stand shivering by the door. “Springer, boy.” She reaches out for the family dog who whines, tail between his legs, hackles raised, eyes wide.
“You sense it, too, don’t you?” She opens the door, and the German Shepherd runs into the night. “Go, Springer,” she whispers as she turns the dead bolt. “Save yourself. It’s me they want.”
Grabbing a carving knife, she switches off the kitchen lights and runs to lock the front and side doors. She takes a full twenty-one seconds to jog the cavernous length of the mansion’s Victorian-furnished first floor to the main entranceway. Doors won’t stop the Hunter-Beasts, but any kind of precaution might at least slow their single-minded relentlessness. This is my turf, damn it! she thinks angrily. I’ll make a stand here.
To her right, outside the half-open brocade curtains, a dark shape slips past the library windows. Again, she feels no fear, only the heat of the chemicals flushing her system and the programmed bio-chipped synapses forming her next response.
Bob has a gun upstairs, she thinks. Turning out the hallway lights, she sprints the long, curving staircase to the second floor, taking two and three steps at a time. The antique oak feels cool under her bare feet as another subconscious urging directs her to higher ground.
She feels pumped up, yet detached, as if she is merely an observer from another place and time. The augmentation, she thinks in wonder. The conditioning. It’s changing me.
That realization comes to her in a heartbeat. She can see it in a dark corner of her mind–the programming, bio-chip implants and nano-surgery had radically altered her. Bits and pieces of her past necessary for survival are resurfacing. Nothing had been left to chance. Her identity, her true nature had been secrets even from herself.
A chill runs through her. No, she thinks, dumbstruck. How can this be?
She runs into the master bedroom, turns on the lights and throws open the dresser drawers. Where is it? she wonders, suddenly frantic. Where’s the goddamn gun? Oh Christ, Bob! She catches her reflection in the gilded, full-length mirror, a tall, blond, slimly-built thirty-seven-year-old.
I’m Timera Lovich, she blinks at herself. I’m married. I have two daughters, Amanda and Terry. I write poetry. I’m…
“I’m burning it all,” Timera said with a quiet finality. “All of it. I’ll start fresh at the estate. A new beginning.”
Bob gave her a worried, sidelong look. He and Timera stood in front of the fireplace in their living room with boxes of Timera’s poetry lying opened or overturned at their feet. “Tim, are you sure?” Bob asked slowly. “I know you’re not exactly ecstatic about this last phase of your work but to trash everything you’ve written for the last year? You just got that chapbook published.”
“Yes. I am sure,” Timera said. “I’ve already erased my computer disks. Really, Bob, I need to do this.” She shoved a wad of papers into the fireplace and watched the edges curl wispily into black ash. “Remember when you proposed to me?” she asked as she sat down on the floor and leaned back against the wall. “God, has it been four years already? Well, I made a new beginning then, inside my mind. I decided my new life with you was just that. A new life. The past was dead and there was no looking back. I feel the same way about this.”
Bob knelt at her side and kissed the top of her head. “Okay, hon,” he said. “When it comes to the creative juices, you know best. I still say you just need a change. Going to Ferguson’s Point for a couple of weeks will rev your artistic engines. And you know I’m here for you. Just let me know how I can help you.”
Timera smiled and nodded, but a small nagging doubt remained. She kept her fears to herself, not wanting Bob to worry any more than usual. He liked to kid about what an eccentric wife he had–the artiste, the science fiction nut, the avid follower of alleged UFO abductions. Fantastic scenarios and virtual landscapes Timera used as foundations for her poetry continuously prowled inside her head. ‘A unique, bizarre talent,’ read the blurb on the inside back cover of her chapbook.
But around the time they had adopted Terry and Amanda the dreams had started. Her role within those dreamscapes had always been unclear. She hadn’t been concerned in the beginning until her writing began to reflect those dark and brooding nocturnal visions. Her more recent pieces were cold and violent, as if some invisible hand guided her own. She couldn’t stop those images from coalescing, of alien wars and strange religious rites, disease-plagued star systems and hideous monsters. The influence of her nightmares was very strong. And frightening.
Yes, she thought again, the closeness of the fire stinging her eyes. A new beginning…
A crashing, shattering sound erupts from below as the front door and her reverie are broken. The Hunter-Beasts are in the house. Yet no one will hear. The estate is too remote, too far from St. Reeds. She knows it’s useless to run or even call for help. They are so isolated here and with crime practically non-existent at Ferguson’s Point, there had never been any need to install a security system.
“Bob,” she whispers aloud, trying to hold on to the familiar, to all she knows and cares for. “I do love you.”
She blinks the tears out of her eyes as she finally finds the gun and grasps it to her breast. Yes! I don’t care what’s happening to me, she thinks, regaining control. They won’t take me without a fight! They have no right! No right.
Her mind’s eye explodes with more abrupt images, fleeting and unbidden–a mountainous, forested landscape; a purple and gold striated horizon blazing with a double sun; twisted, undulating, webbed catacombs deep in the heart of a jeweled palace…
Something is coming up the stairs.
She leaps before she even realizes what she is doing, landing in a crouch in the middle of the hallway with the gun pointed straight ahead. A figure approaches from the top of the stairs. It appears human, this particular Hunter-Beast not yet shifting to its true form. Is it that sure of itself? That much confidence even for a vile creature such as this?
Good. It will be easier to kill.
She pulls the trigger. Again and again.
The bullets catch the figure in the throat and chest before it has a chance to change. It spins sideways against the wall, clutching at its neck. Even as the Hunter-Beast topples forward it tries to reach out for her, black blood pouring from its mouth and washing over the hardwood floor.
At her feet the Hunter-Beast lies, only partially transformed into a hideous mass of spiky fur and shiny, chitinous armor. Its pincered claw twitches as a long blue tongue hangs from the lifeless wolf-like jaws.
One down. Where are the others? They will know immediately their comrade has fallen. And they will know not to underestimate her again.
To hell with them, she thinks. She turns and races for the window at the other end of the hallway, intending to jump through it to the back yard. The woods there will provide cover. The adrenaline racing through her empowers her. Her confidence soars.
But she stops short of the window as a hulking shape crashes through it from the outside, showering her with shards of broken glass. A second Hunter-Beast, this one in its real form–lupine, insectoid, both species impossibly woven into a thing truly alien. She pulls the gun up to fire but her right hand is gone, cut clean through by the laser-sharp claw of the Hunter-Beast even as the creature exploded into the room. She stares at the stump, already healing over with the power that is swiftly encompassing her.
She ducks the next onslaught of her attacker and darts into the guest room, slamming the door behind her. Abruptly, she doubles over in pain as a racking convulsion shoots through her. Her flesh ripples with the accelerating hormones, her bones crunch and shift as if she’s caught in a metal compactor. Her shorts and t-shirt rip and shred as her body alters, spewing sweat and blood. She looks up wildly as the metamorphosis suddenly stops and once again sees her reflection in the mirror.
It isn’t her face anymore.
The guestroom door splinters inward. The Hunter-Beast attacks with its pincer slashing for her throat.
She moves quickly, expertly, sidestepping the Hunter-Beast’s death blow as she brings her right arm up. Incredibly, the programming has formed a weapon at the stump, a weapon unlike any she could ever imagine.
She plunges the two-foot spike that now springs from her wrist through the Hunter-Beast’s armor and into its belly, once and then twice. The fast-acting poison within the tip kills the Hunter-Beast almost instantly. It falls to the floor, its gaping mouth and shocked eyes telling her that she was not supposed to be such a hard target.
She runs from the guest room and vaults up the stairs again to the third floor, the longing for height and distance pounding incessantly in her brain. But rushing into the study, its mahogany motif and wall-to-wall bookshelves surrounding her like a comforting blanket, the pain of the metamorphosis rips at her again. Grunting, she staggers and falls, quickly pulling herself up to lean shakily against the wall.
Her eyes refocus. There, opposite her sit rows of old photographs lined up on the side mantle. For a moment she stands hypnotized by their aliveness, their unnerving realness. The pictures are of Bob’s family but her fevered brain sees only lidless eyes with nictitating membranes staring back at her, scaled bluish-green skin and serpent mouths…
A lizard. Cold, evil, deadly.
“Look, Mommy! Look what Springer found!” Amanda held the lizard in her hand, standing triumphantly in the living room doorway. The tiny reptile was quite dead, the body smashed flat as if it had been run over by a car. The head was intact, though and the sight of those clear, lidless, snake eyes made Timera violently ill. She barely made it to the bathroom as her whole body shivered uncontrollably. She splashed water on her face, a sudden anger consuming her.
“Never, never bring anything like that in here again!” she screamed at Amanda as she reentered the living room. Amanda stepped back in surprise, clutching the dried corpse tightly. “No!” Timera grabbed the lizard away from her and threw it through the open window into the garden. Her voice peaked shrilly as she ordered her crying daughter to wash her hands and go to her room.
“Jesus, Tim, don’t you think you’re being a little hard on her. What’s going on?”
Timera turned to find Bob standing in the doorway, staring at her accusingly. “This is getting old, hon,” he said, his voice reflecting a barely concealed anger. “You’re starting to act like one of those weird outer space characters in your poems. You need to lighten up. Weren’t you curious about stuff like that when you were a kid? And you certainly write about it enough!” His face changed, becoming hard and resentful. “Oh, excuse me, I forgot. The past is dead, right? We don’t want to talk about that, now do we?”
“Oh, Bob, didn’t you see it? It was disgusting! I… oh, damn, just leave me alone!” She turned and ran from him, confused and afraid. The past is dead, she thought as she locked herself in their bedroom. She slid to the floor and buried her head in her hands, her chest on fire.
How can I tell him the rest of it? she thought. How can I tell him I can’t remember what my mother looks like anymore? And my old friends from college. They’re all phantoms. When I try to think about them or anything about my home it’s like nothing’s real–like my life never existed. When the dreams started, my memories began to… to… Oh, god!
Later, in tears herself, she went to Amanda to apologize, climbing into bed with and embracing her to whisper what soothing words she could. “I’m sorry, baby,” she said as she hugged her child desperately. “Mommy’s just tired, that’s all. I’ll buy you a pet chameleon when we get back from the estate. I promise.”
Hissing, she turns and crashes through the study window, shattering the wooden frames and punching out the screens as she soars outward. The cool night air is exhilarating as she falls to earth. The open space engulfs her like a lover. She spreads her arms as she remembers wings, remembers purple sky and silver forests rushing by below her.
She hits the ground on all fours, her head cocked upward as her new ears and sense of smell scour the surrounding area. Nothing. But she is sure there is a third Hunter-Beast. She feels it.
She stands and opens her eyes to the night, the implanted nano-secretions endowing her with the ability to scan in infra-red. The woods bordering the cove are behind her. The trees might prove a refuge or at least a diversion. She knows the acres of ornamental shrubs, topiary and sculpted gardens surrounding the house fairly well and can hide in a variety of secret places. And there is the arm of the Chesapeake beyond that, revealed as the full moon breaks the cloud cover to cast diamonds of dancing light on the water’s surface. She can swim if she has to. And perhaps, as a last resort, there’s the boat, moored quietly just a few yards away in its backyard slip.
Not enough time, she thinks. And then she stops, startled, as her eyes fall on the swing set. The playground had been set up long ago in this part of the back yard for the Lovich children. Bob had played there himself as a child. Abruptly, she pictures Terry and Amanda, running and laughing, adopted because she couldn’t have kids of her own. Even the tech-surgeons couldn’t adapt her to conceive an alien child with the human form they gave her.
Yet she loved the children like her own… once. And Bob. Did she feel those emotions only days ago? A lifetime?
No! she thinks with a violent shake of her head. No, that is not my life. Not anymore. Suddenly trembling, she looks at her hand, scaled and clawed, no longer human. She visualizes once more the face in the upstairs mirror. Monstrous, reptilian, a hideously caricatured version of the lizard Amanda found. The moonlight glints off her blue skin. Rage and confusion war inside her. Still so many unanswered questions. Why Earth? Why was she allowed to couple with a human? Why has she been hidden for so long?
Who is she really?
Her mind gropes desperately for an answer. I am…
She whirls to her right. The word spoken is the same one she had heard on the phone, the word that started this metamorphosis, this nightmarish journey back to her true self.
The word is her name.
The pulse-beam snakes out of the darkness to rake the side of her head. Fool! she thinks dully. Fool… She goes down, fighting to stay alert. The shot has only grazed her but in the mental chaos of her enhanced metabolism she has gotten careless. Now is not the time to dwell on the duality of her evolving persona. She must act only out of instinct and survival. Her judgment from this point on must not be impaired.
At last, she smells the third attacker. This one isn’t the same as the other two. The Hunter-Beasts are shape-shifters but her fiercely honed senses can pick them out easily enough. This one is different yet familiar. The scales on her back quiver as she recognizes one of her own kind.
Slowly, the word forms in her mouth. A language both familiar and mystifying to her fumbles uncomfortably into the night air. “O… Overlord,” she hisses.
At the sound of his title, the Imperial Overlord takes a few cautious paces toward her from out of the shadows into the moonlight.
Her eyes narrow. At the sight of the Overlord, a tall, muscular reptilian-humanoid with a graceful tail and webbed crest adorning his brow, her reformatting integrates itself–and comes full circle. Once before she had been at the Overlord’s mercy only to escape in the end. But now, everything is different.
She struggles painfully to her knees, and feels something, a strong sensation of movement coming toward them from the direction of the barn. Another life-form. As yet, that presence is just a blur but it’s there, moving swiftly.
The Overlord stands silently, coldly appraising her as if she is a laboratory specimen. Then softly, a hiss, “Brilliant,” he says with a nod of grudging approval. It’s true. She was configured as a perfect human organism by her faction’s tech-surgeons and held in nano-static suspension until the appropriate input-feed (her name) was tripped. She had been given memories and a past as well as a new life. But to what end? To this? This final, ugly confrontation on an alien world?
The Overlord’s tongue flicks nervously in and out of his fanged mouth. His eyes widen as if he has just noticed her. “How much has changed,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes,” she murmurs. How much indeed.
More images flood her mind as she sees that other life. She was Loma, an Underqueen and consort to the Overlord as was required of someone of her rank and affiliation, given in a political marriage to unite her and the Overlord’s warring factions. But, just as importantly, she was also a brood-mother, consigned by duty to produce a spawn.
But her feelings were… were… yes! She feels that fiery emotion like a shot. I have always despised him, she finishes her thought. He is cruel, violent and corrupt and never intended to stop the war. I rebel against the very thought of him, let alone his touch, and yet I have lain with an alien human for the last five years. Is that act any less an abomination?
The Overlord motions her to quit moving and remain in her kneeling position. He had always demanded obeisance and now her situation seems the cruelest irony.
She is, after all, the royal refugee.
The life-form she senses is now by the edge of the cove almost directly behind them, hidden in a large stand of elephant grass. It seems familiar and perhaps can be of use. To that end she must keep the Overlord occupied so he won’t realize they are not alone.
At the same time she must act soon. She can barely contain her last reserves of artificially enhanced energy, energy that must be enough for one final physical explosion, one last chance to get out of this.
“How did you find me?” she rasps. “After all this time.”
“How do you think?” The Overlord sneers, contempt showing on his moonlit face. “Your precious tech-surgeons, once they were tracked down, told us everything we wanted to know. So much for their loyalty.”
With her heightened awareness, she can sense he isn’t telling the whole truth. Could some of her people have escaped or even triumphed? The fact the Overlord came after her himself is suspicious. Could the political climate on the home world have changed and her return be anticipated? If so, even now the rescue pod would be on its way, alerted by the beacon-chip implanted in her skull as she began her metamorphosis. Traveling through hyperspace, the pod could be orbiting Earth within hours. Then she would be safe. She and the unborn in her womb.
A shock of awareness runs through her. The unborn, the brood, the spawn of her apparently fruitful union with the Overlord. She can feel its wriggling life within her now. Of course.
That, she realizes, is the basis for his own hate and obsession to find her, not that she betrayed his traitorous ideals and secret designs, not that she fled his palace and world, but that she had taken their unborn young with her and made him the fool.
As if on cue in some surreal play, the Overlord raises the gun once more. “Goodbye, Loma,” he hisses.
One of the shadows at the side of the house springs to life, leaping straight at the Overlord. Startled, he turns and fires.
She vaults to her feet, her nerve endings on fire as she covers the distance between her and her captor in a blur of frantic motion. She is upon him before he can swing back, bringing the stinger of her mutated right arm around in a deadly cutting arc. The stinger slices through armor, bone and sinew as easily as air, completely decapitating the Imperial Overlord.
She steps back in a defensive mode as the body of her enemy sways headless for a moment and then crumples to the ground like an obscene, stringless marionette. “Yes,” she whispers. “Good-bye.”
Once again she falls to her knees, this time in exhaustion and relief. Exultation runs through her like a storm. She has won! Won!
The grass feels dewy and cool beneath her as normal sensation returns. A breeze kicks up, washing across her naked, sweat-drenched body as she gasps and shivers uncontrollably, her stomach suddenly screaming for food. She rises weakly to her feet and stumbles to where the Overlord’s unexpected attacker, the life-form she had sensed, lay dead.
Springer. Who knew why the dog had returned so silently and without warning? And why had he gone after the Overlord instead of attacking her? Surely all that was Timera Lovich is physically gone.
Out of respect for Springer’s live-giving act, she will eat the dog last.
Ravenous with hunger, she turns to what is left of the Overlord. The hormone implants and their accompanying chemicals have used up much of her cells, protein and fat for fuel. She must feed in order to replenish, in order to protect the brood, the thousands of eggs she carries that now struggle for life.
She has no choice.
She falls on the Overlord and devours him.
Inside the house the phone in the den starts to ring. She stares at it, lizard eyes unblinking. The sound continues unabated until the answering machine kicks in.
“Hey, girlfriend.” Bob’s voice. “I was hoping to catch you before you went to bed. I thought you’d still be up planning that next sub-luminal voyage to Arcturus III. No big deal. I’m bringing the kids home tonight. They’re homesick and miss their Mommy and Springer too. Just like yours truly.
“So don’t freak out when we come in. It’ll just be us Klingons! Of course, you won’t know that because you’re probably asleep and will never hear this message so why I am still talking? Anyway, see you in about a half an hour. Love ya.”
Yes, she thinks. I love you too.
She brings her fist down on the phone, smashing it and the claw-footed end table it rests on to the floor. She checks the front door. It’s badly broken but Bob almost always uses the back entrance. He will never know anything is wrong until it is too late.
She will kill and eat him and the children, of course. Just as her broodlings will consume her at their birth. The hunger and all-enveloping duty which now guide her will not allow anything less. There are only one or two brood-queens born in a generation to her people and the accompanying spawn must repopulate the hives and strengthen the blood-line. She has more than an obligation to survive, to keep the brood fed and healthy until the rescue pod arrives. The future of her faction, of perhaps her entire race, depends on it.
Her thin, red tongue flicks the corners of her mouth. She visualizes her palace gleaming under the light of the twin suns, its webbed brood-chambers waiting. She smiles.
It will be good to go home again.