He slid along with the screaming crowd, past the huge teeth, along the immense tongue, as she tilted her head back. Then she swallowed—
Miles gasped sharply, trying to catch his breath, eyes flying open. Where was the light coming from? The fading sensation of bodies and hot fluid all around him rapidly gave way to the clamminess of sweat-soaked sheets. The light resolved itself into the glow of the sodium lamp on the street outside his townhouse, filtered through the slats of the window blinds.
Kicking off the sheets, he sat up, rubbing his eyes. He’d jerked awake from sheer terror, but terror wasn’t the only feeling he’d been left with. Had he had an erotic dream that ended with being eaten whole and alive? Despite himself, he tried to grab onto the nightmare, to recall half-remembered fragments of…what? Disaster?
Well, he had been having end-of-the-world dreams for months. Everyone thought they knew how close the world was to annihilation right now, with multiple nuclear powers having moved past cold war rumbling to actual drone attacks and threats of “ultimate retaliation.” Pundits were on the news nightly to reassure the populace this was overblown. But Miles, unfortunately, knew it was the opposite. More than one of his agency coworkers had quit in the last month to go spend their remaining days with their family. Nobody could say with surety they were overreacting.
But his dream monster had already retreated, fragmenting away to little more than confused emotions. Add one more item to the list of things to bring up to his therapist, assuming the war didn’t start before their next session. They could slot it in between his misanthropy and the identity disorders.
Turning to his nightstand, he hit his phone’s wake button to check the time. 5:47. The alarm would have gone off in thirteen minutes anyway; no point in trying to get back to sleep. He pulled on some underwear and got himself halfway dressed—slacks and undershirt—then headed to the kitchen to start coffee.
He whirled around at the voice, then—seeing nothing—around the other way. Still nothing. What the hell? The voice had sounded almost metallic, artificial.
Miles grabbed the carving knife from the block on the counter, sidling warily into the living room. Again, nothing.
After nearly a minute of silence passed, he checked his personal iPhone, then picked up his work phone, fumbling through the KEYone’s unlock sequence. Nothing. No messages, no activity.
Rubbing his face, he glanced over at the empty cage in the living room corner. He’d kept it only because he’d told himself he would get a replacement for Clover. But it’d been half a year. He’d often joked that he was jealous of her, that he’d trade places with her in an instant. Some days it had been less of a joke than others.
He went back to the kitchen to pour some of the now-ready coffee into a travel mug. Maybe he should just get into work early. As solitary as he usually fancied himself, being alone clearly wasn’t doing him any good this morning.
Springfield, Virginia, is a suburb to suburbs: a “census-designated place” rather than a city proper, just outside Arlington and Alexandria. It’s pleasant, but little in it would draw attention but for one single office building. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is all but unknown to the public, but NGA Campus East is the third largest structure in the DC metro area: eight stories high, two wings the size of aircraft carriers joined by a massive open atrium.
On Miles’s drive through the security gate, the morning felt normal, but by the time he went through the front doors, the tension was thick in the air. It wasn’t that the atrium was busier than normal: it was the opposite. No crowds lingered near the visitor center, or sat with coffee and a bagel at the closest food court café. And, for the first time since he’d been working there, armed soldiers stood uneasily by doors.
“Jesus,” he breathed, hurrying toward the elevator with his ID card out. “It’s happening, isn’t it?”
“Something sure as hell is, sir.” The security guard made a show of checking the card for the soldiers’ benefit, then waved Miles ahead. After another ID card tap inside the elevator to access his floor, he stepped out into a fever dream.
The elevator opened onto as cinematic a space as a spy agency could hope for: a grand, curved sunken floor full of long ergonomic desks and the best workstations, the opposite wall a grid of twenty-five high resolution flat panels that could break up into any number of individual feeds. Most days the monitor wall functioned less as a useful work tool than an expensive demo, cycling through various unclassified satellite feeds around the world. Now, though, it was in real use, half his coworkers standing agape in front of it. The rest of the room buzzed with low, frantic radio calls.
Satellite images ran down one edge of the wall, other images—news feeds, surveillance cameras, police drones—down the other. The central image was a live ground level shot of…what, exactly? A cloud of smoke and finely pulverized debris billowing out of a huge pit? “Who launched first?”
He thought the central feed might be from a news crew, but he realized it was a drone shot, maybe piloted from right in this room, slowly flying down for a closeup of the pit’s interior: a scan for survivors. But the video showed nothing but debris, not scattered but packed down tightly. He could pick out cars, chairs, scraps he didn’t want to look too closely at. But it gave him the missing sense of scale. The pit had to be three stories deep.
As the drone turned and flew faster, Miles realized the pit was more of a rough rectangle or oval, and he’d been looking across short side of the pit. He scanned the satellite images. Surely one was an overhead—there. With the NGA’s typical astounding accuracy, it was zoomed in to almost the precise point of the destruction, image panning slowly, matching the drone. The smoke and haze made the edges indistinct, but they fit—roughly—what he already knew he’d been looking at, despite the impossibility. “That’s…a footprint.”
He didn’t realize he’d whispered that aloud until someone responded, tonelessly. “Over Staples Center.”
Miles scrambled for his desk, but couldn’t take his eyes off the wall of monitors. “If you’re all fucking with me…”
“No, we have a real, goddamn giant monster. It just appeared about five minutes ago. So far it’s taken three very slow steps.” Gerlach, the supervisor, raised his voice. “It’s so goddamn big it might not even know we’re here. People, get us a defense plan and a—a first contact plan.”
The drone’s pilot flew it up out of the pit, turning it to face the Ritz-Carlton/Marriott tower, and… the…
He furiously brought up his own set of video feeds, looking for different angles, trying to get any better view, anything that would help him make sense of what he was seeing. The the monster, was a silver-grey column?
It wasn’t that hard to find a better view, though: social feeds, drones farther away, and especially news copters. The silver-grey coloration was fur—iridescent fur, shimmering and sparkling in the light. The “column” was a leg. The monster—for the moment standing stock still—was bipedal, humanoid. And the hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Los Angeles, didn’t even reach its knee.
A thin, whiplike tail looked long enough to reach the ground, not that the ground, or its stadium-stomping feet, were visible in the clouds of rising dust. Miles lifted his gaze from the tail, taking in the rest of the monster’s figure, the curves, the lines of muscle under fur, and swallowed. Monster or not, starlets and centerfold models would positively kill for a body that perfect.
And it—she—was a rat. Furred hands and tail rather than bare, paw pads an unnatural reddish orange, eyes a luminous purple. Long, wire-straight red hair, fading to black tips. Turquoise bangles on both wrists—the closest to any clothing on her form. But unmistakably a rat.
All right, this had to be some kind of sick joke. The way a “monster” like that broke the square-cube law like nobody’s business made it clear enough, but making it a rat? Most of his coworkers knew about Clover; a couple of his more asshole officemates had made jokes about how he needed to move on and get a new girlfriend.
He glanced around the room to see whose glance was on him, waiting for a reaction. But everyone was busy doing what they did in a national disaster. He could overhear others coordinating with first responders, with the military, with the media.
He looked back at this impossible rat woman, rubbing his forehead. Her gaze had turned to the ground, surveying the damage she’d caused. Maybe that’s why she was staying still now. Maybe she was starting to wonder if the tiny little ants down there were intelligent.
He brought up the sound from the news crew as they flew closer to her. Wind and inane chatter, as expected. Tense inane chatter, to be sure: estimates of her height (well over a half a mile), reports of damage (significant even in areas that hadn’t been literally stepped on), how many people had been attending the in-progress game in the arena (nearly eleven thousand), what the chances were for survivors (“it doesn’t look good down there”). The hotel—how the hell was it even still standing?—was in the process of being evacuated.
The helicopter hovered about a football field’s length from her head, give or take a few yard lines, and speculation turned to how it could possibly be standing (a solid question), if it might be some kind of clever terrorist attack from another country (a profoundly stupid question they seemed to be taking all too seriously), and what kind of horrific thing it resembled.
Her head lifted, building-sized eyes clearly focusing on the craft. To her, it might well be a loud—and slow—fly. Miles cringed inwardly, waiting for the swat.
“Back up,” the woman reporter on the helicopter said, suddenly less tense than panicked. “Back up. Back up.” The pilot complied, the view of the giantess receding—then abruptly, the craft jerked to a halt, as if it had just hit the end of a leash. The reporter and the pilot started screaming commands at one another, the engine noise threatening to drown them out as the pilot tried to break free of….what?
Miles glanced up at the monitor wall as more commotion started around him, then stared, open-mouthed. The NGA drone hovered far enough away to capture the giantess from hips up. She’d raised a hand and captured the helicopter, incredibly delicately, between two claw-tips.
“Christ,” Gerlach groaned. “Get that station to cut their live feed before they go squish.”
“She’s intelligent,” Miles said aloud.
One of his coworkers—Jones, one of the ones who’d been a jerk about Clover—turned to him. “What, we’re calling the monster ‘her’ now?”
Miles stared at him, then waved at the screen. He stopped himself from snapping look at her, she’s fucking beautiful, replacing it with a more neutral, “Use your eyes.”
“Just because it looks like it has T&A doesn’t mean—”
The air around the helicopter filled with light.
It wasn’t an explosion, or lightning, or fire. It looked for all the world like holograms, floating alien script surrounded by images projected from nowhere. As the images and text flickered fast—her eyes clearly moving to take them in despite the speed—progressively more of the text changed to Earth languages. The giantess’s free hand lifted, quickly touching points in space as if selecting new data.
“Is that thing looking at its own monitor wall?” someone murmured.
“Is it reading that fast?”
“Oh my God, was that a Wikipedia page?”
“That’s good.” Half the room, including Gerlach, turned to Miles when he blurted that out, and he tried not to stammer. “I mean—if she’s learning about us, she might be trying to communicate with us.”
“It also means that in the less than ten minutes it’s been here, it’s wired into the internet—without any visible technology—and seems to be learning multiple human languages.” Gerlach ran a hand through what was left of his hair. “Williams, tell me Miramar’s got someone in the air.”
“There’s a Hornet squadron scrambled. I don’t have an ETA.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic. Who’s looped in with NASA? The UN? Stanford?”
Jones added, deadpan, “Cheesemakers?”
A few people laughed nervously, but Gerlach growled. “We have more drones out there yet?”
“Coming up now.”
The images faded away, and the alien rat head focused on the still-trapped helicopter. Miles brought up the wall’s control panel, splitting the screen between the news feed and their drone’s view. The muzzle got closer to the copter as she leaned forward, until it all but filled the camera’s view. Huge black lips parted, showing perfect white teeth as reminiscent of a wolf as a rat: beveled incisors in front, but distinctly pointed canines between the incisors and molars. Then she spoke. A single word, inflected as a question: “Broadcasting?”
The audio feed squealed with overload, and the helicopter’s front window cracked from sound pressure. The pilot and the reporter both started screaming again. Miles couldn’t place the voice’s register as alto, soprano, or anything else human and musical; it sounded like all frequencies at once, somehow, yet still a single voice. Almost metallic, artificial…
Miles felt his stomach flutter. It wasn’t the voice he’d imagined this morning. Was it?
“Yes! Yes!” the reporter gasped. “We’re broadcasting! Can you—can you hear this?”
“If it says ‘take me to your leader,’ I’m gonna punch something,” Jones muttered.
The rat giantess parted her lips, but this time she didn’t speak. She opened her mouth widely, giving the news crew—and its audience—an even better view of those teeth. And the roof of her mouth, and her tongue, both of them again almost but not quite earth-like, the colors just a little too deep, a little too purple. Then the muzzle came forward.
The copter’s view grew darker, more chaotic, spinning around. Headlights illuminated a single tooth bigger than the whole craft, then the slick tongue, the roof of the mouth, the gaping throat. The engine cut out, and the only noise became the wet sounds of the giant mouth and frenzied screaming.
Miles flicked his gaze between the two views, one showing the rat woman tilting her head back, the other showing the copter sliding on its side, thick saliva splashing across the windshield. As it went over the edge, the throat muscles flexed, the glass shattered, the video became a blur as if underwater. Another brief burst of overloaded feedback, and the signal cut out. On the other view, a ripple in the fur over her throat was visible. For just a moment.
The silence in the room was broken by retching, then the sound of someone bolting out. Miles didn’t turn to see who.
The local television station had switched to the studio, then back to another remote view, this one from the top of a building that looked like it might be five or six blocks from the hotel. Evacuation orders scrolled across the bottom of the display. They were far enough from the giantess that when she spoke again, there was no feedback, but the single word had the same alien, slightly synthetic quality to it.
She leaned over and backhanded the Marriott tower.
Miles stared open-mouthed at twenty stories of skyscraper suddenly in flight. It didn’t stay together as it flew, chunks dropping like bombs, but nearly all of it made it intact over the freeway, the bulk of the building smashing down on top of an office building past Union. All of the office building. It became a mounting wave of broken concrete and bricks and steel, rolling through the next office building, through apartments, over parking lots.
“Where the hell is that fighter squadron?” Gerlach snapped, voice rising to a high pitch.
She hadn’t straightened up yet, instead bending down farther. Her hand came up…Miles squinted. The drone operator wasn’t following the action, going down low rather than up high.
Where were the other drones that were supposed to be online already? Ah. He took over one of the automated ones and flew it right up past her legs—seriously, how could anyone look at those and not think female—up past her torso, up just in time to see her lifting her hand over her head, opening her muzzle—
—and letting the handful of evacuees she’d gathered up fall into her mouth in a stream.
He kept the display on his screen, not the monitor wall, but it didn’t stop others in the room from watching as “tiny” humans fell in screaming, flailing clumps, tumbling past her lips and teeth and onto the waiting tongue. She closed her lips every few seconds to swallow, unmindful of the people bouncing off her muzzle to fall to their death outside rather than inside her. There had to be…dozens? Hundreds? Jesus, her hand could hold hundreds, couldn’t it?
Miles pulled the drone back quickly and looked away. He was horrified, but the obvious enjoyment, almost bliss, on her face made him flush. Look, if you were there instead of here, you’d be going down her throat, too. Just like—like the dream this morning.
She took a step to the west, all at once demolishing the rest of the entertainment center and the high-rises—what an absurd name, when set against her—across the street. Then another step, and another two blocks simply gone. If she took just one or two more steps in that direction—
He looked up at the big monitor, still on the local TV station. The rat woman was still far away yet close enough to be larger than the camera’s field of vision now. It did an excellent job, though, of capturing the smaller buildings she hadn’t stepped on shift and crumble from the shockwaves, of displaying frantically honking cars and traffic lights and fleeing crowds blown from her approach like sprays of colorful dirt. Then, in its last seconds of operation, it showed twilight, the sun eclipsed by her foot, then just by the orange-red of her center paw pad, stretching across the horizon until the camera went dark.
Miles rubbed his face. Focus. This wasn’t the end of the world he’d been expecting, but it was still his job to stop it. Her. It. He switched his own monitor back to a satellite image. Her steps, only barely revealed under the ever-increasing clouds of smoke and dust, weren’t in a straight line, doubling back here, taking a zig-zag there. What the hell was she doing? The steps seemed slow and deliberate, although he doubted there was any way for a creature that big to move fast. But there wasn’t any way for a creature that big to exist, and there she was, systematically flattening western LA.
Wait. His eyes widened. While his thought had been flippant, it was systematic. She was taking out the tallest buildings. “We need to evacuate—”
Williams raised his voice over the din. “The squadron’s there and engaging.” The monitor wall’s view mercifully cut away from the stricken faces of the studio anchors back to another aerial view, this time from a national cable network. The camera held a jerky view of one formation, then panned back to show more: the full squadron of twelve Hornets, in three groups of four.
Scattered clapping rippled through the room, audible sighs of relief, a macho “Yeah!” (Probably Jones.) Gerlach dashed to hover over Williams. “Advise them to hit it from the east side if they can. When it falls, we want it to hit the area it’s already destroyed.”
Miles sighed silently. No, no. What the hell were they thinking? F/A–18s weren’t that much bigger than news helicopters. It was—it was going from a fly to a horsefly.
His attention snapped back to the rat goddess. She’d stopped her cataclysmic stroll, dropped into a crouch, as if recognizing the “horseflies” as potential threats. The huge tail flicked behind her, instantly turning a previously intact neighborhood into a giant ditch.
Tiny blossoms of flame announced missile fire. The matching blossoms on her body, less than two seconds later, weren’t nearly as tiny. Brilliant rainbows flashed through the giantess’s iridescent fur where they struck. Against her stomach, a knee, a hip, more against her stomach, one against a shoulder.
She made a sharp, inhumanly electric growl, stepping back but not losing her balance. To Miles’s ear it sounded puzzled, not pained; he didn’t join in the second round of cheering as she straightened up. He flew his drone in closer. “We’re lucky if those are even bee stings to her.”
Williams gave Miles a withering look. “Those warheads are designed for large, hard targets, and that thing is a large, soft target.”
“That thing is a target as big as all the Nimitz-class carriers combined. We don’t need Mavericks, we need cruise missiles. Or fuel air bombs.”
Williams muttered under his breath, turning away and talking on his headset.
The giantess started walking again, as if the planes weren’t even there. “Evacuate anything over, uh, twenty stories. Now.” Miles zoomed out of the satellite image, highlighted all the buildings over LA’s median height. “She’s going to head toward downtown, along this path.” He scribbled a meandering rather than direct line.
Gerlach narrowed his eyes. “How do—”
“She’s flattening the skyscrapers.”
Another round of explosions appeared across her back. She growled and looked back over her shoulder, then narrowed her eyes, turned and stomped the next building rather than merely stepping on it.
The difference wasn’t just a louder noise, a deeper footprint. The stomp produced visible shockwaves. Buildings in a block’s radius from the impact didn’t fall—they disintegrated. The buildings in a block’s radius from that fell. When she lifted her immense paw, she didn’t leave a print. She left a scoured crater. The force caused Miles to lose control of his drone; he barely kept it from crashing into the mottled, almost glassy surface of the crater’s floor.
Stepping away to a—not intact as much as just less destroyed area, she crouched again. This time, it wasn’t defensive. Both of her hands came down on “small” multistory buildings, closing around them, lifting them into the air as she stood up partway, head tilted up, watching her attackers.
As the planes came around again, she threw the buildings at them.
Her missiles were immense, thrown as perfectly as if they had guidance systems, and incredibly, hurled fast enough to create sonic booms. By the time the booms reached the news microphones, all of one fighter formation and three of the four jets in a second formation were flaming debris.
The headset chatter in the room reached a more frenzied pitch. Gerlach abruptly moved to stand behind Miles’s station. “Tell me you’re tracking that thing to get more than great butt shots.”
Miles looked down hurriedly at his own monitor. His momentarily forgotten drone had reverted to an automatic follow mode, and yes, it was at the perfect altitude and position to show off the giantess’s lower curves. “I, uh, yes.” He sent it off to the side, ahead of her theoretical track—although so far her casual walking speed, as slow as it looked compared to a mere human, wasn’t that far below the drone’s top speed of eighty knots. “We need to keep eyes on where she is and what her track is.”
“It’s a fucking kilometer high, Kepler. Spotting it is not a problem. Stopping it is the problem. Right now we’re just getting a front-row video seat to watch L.A. lose a city block a minute.”
Miles swallowed, nodding. “Yes, sir.” Each of her deliberately-aimed steps effectively demolished a block, and he’d guess there were only eleven or twelve seconds between the time one massive paw crunched down and the next one swung into place. So they were watching Los Angeles lose about five city blocks a minute. He decided not to make the correction aloud.
All right. Stop her. Missiles, at least from fighter jets, were probably out. He’d overheard combat UAVs were on the way, which would at least save pilots, but she wouldn’t even feel their smaller ammo. “Um. If we want to have any chance of killing her, we need to treat her like a fleet of aircraft carriers. Cruise missiles. Carpet bombing—”
“Look, just drop it,” Williams broke in. “Nobody’s getting clearance to bomb one of the largest metro areas in the country.”
“It’s a chance for the Pentagon to show off how precise all their high-tech munitions are.”
“No, Williams is right.” Gerlach sighed. “The American public might buy ‘acceptable collateral damage’ when it’s some third-world country overseas, but not when it’s the home front.”
Miles looked back at his monitor, at the destruction behind the giantess as she walked over the Jewelry District. Another minute, two at most, before she began curving west into downtown proper. All the visible roads had jammed, more people than cars flooding the surface streets. All the cars and people and buildings he’d just been looking at vanished into fur and dust.
“I get it, Joe.” Miles sent his drone’s display to the monitor wall again, just in time to catch the giantess lifting another handful of food—this time not just screaming people, but occupied cars and even one city bus—up to her muzzle. “But maybe try telling them that the alternative is explaining why they let a giant alien eat LA.”
Williams cursed, going back to his headset.
Miles found himself staring at the now huge image of the giantess’s head. She was gorgeous, even though she was slowly licking the crowds into her mouth, vehicles and all. God, the way she did that was…was…
“Get that off the monitor,” Gerlach snapped, stalking off.
Flushed again, Miles did as ordered. The feed from a different nearby drone—probably one from a different agency—replaced it after a few seconds.
He kept his drone ahead of the giantess, monitored the satellites, plotted out her potential path. The tools he normally used for GEOINT worked well enough on her—she was, after all, as much landscape herself as she was an instrument for reshaping landscape. He knew her exact height, speed, average stride length; his predictions of her movement were spot on.
But as far as saving LA, none of that mattered. The UAVs showed up en masse, and while she swatted a few out of the sky, she otherwise ignored them. Tanks, for God’s sake, they rolled tanks into the city as she reached downtown. He rubbed his face. They might at least have surface-to-air missiles. If they could just slow her down long enough…
She paused, and the odd hologram displays appeared around her for a few seconds. Then she straightened up, grinned with what Miles could only describe as pure delight, and started simply sweeping a foot through the lines. Buildings, civilians, soldiers, jeeps, all swept away like leaves. A news crew in downtown—he wondered if they realized they had at most five minutes more to live—was close enough to capture the sound of artillery fire, but it didn’t last long.
The giantess staggered, though. Maybe she had been hit by something? Looking irritated, she sat down.
A strangled cry passed through the NGA room again. The mere act of sitting had taken out multiple blocks at the edge of downtown; her tail, twitching in irritation, swept back and forth along at least a quarter-mile radius behind her, whipping through buildings at high speed.
She leaned forward, rubbing one of her feet, examining the orange pads. Miles flew his drone lower, seeing if he could spot any injury. The foot was cleaner than he’d have expected, given everything that had been under it; was it somehow stain resistant? He felt a slightly hysterical giggle bubble up, and forcibly quelled it. Yes, there was the injury: the biggest toe pad had a visible puncture.
“Now or never on that bombing run,” Miles said aloud.
“They still won’t authorize one,” Williams called back.
The giantess studied the injury, seemed to sigh heavily, and stood up again, gaze traveling around the ground. When she was looking straight at the camera—straight at the drone Miles was controlling—she stopped moving, eyes seemingly locked on.
God. Could she see it? It would be less fly than gnat, and a gnat far away from her at that. He found himself straightening up in his chair, as if she were looking through the screen directly at him. She flashed a brilliant smile.
Then she took a long step toward the intricate triangular web of overpasses where the Pomona, Santa Monica, and Santa Ana freeways met, looked down at the bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, and smashed it with another shockwave stomp. At least a half-mile of road in each direction collapsed. Spinning on her heel, she strolled—with barely any visible limp—toward the downtown core, where most of the buildings still stood intact.
Within another two minutes, none of them were.
She didn’t just trample them. She kicked. She swatted. She dropped into a crouch and crushed buildings with her fingers. She ate at least three smaller towers, her whole open muzzle coming down over them, mouth closing, teeth shearing through the structures at ground level. The two tallest buildings—ones that came well past her knees—she pushed over, clearly laughing, although by that point they had no sound: only military and government cameras were still operating. She looked at the UAVs frequently, sometimes clearly pausing to let them pointless, futile shots at her.
“How many people are…are…how many got out?” one coworker said softly.
Gerlach’s response was clipped, curt. “Don’t know.”
When the last building in Miles’s projected path highlighted fell, she knelt down in the rubble, sitting on her paws, and pulled up her holograms again. This time they were mostly the alien script, but the layout suggested something to Miles. A table? A spreadsheet?
She studied the holograms for a moment, dismissed them, then looked around as if for a camera. She spoke again, just one word, waited, and repeated it again.
“What’s happening?” Gerlach said. “Kepler?”
Miles started. He was suddenly the rat goddess expert? “I, uh, don’t know. I—uh—I think she’s looking for us. Cameras, I mean. The audience. Is anything that picks up sound still operating there?”
The giantess looked visibly irritated, calling up the holograms again. This time, though, they coalesced into a ball of light.
Abruptly the cable news network image blacked out, replaced with her image, filmed from the vantage point of that ball. It showed her from about chest up. Her iridescent fur wasn’t as pristine now, although you had to look closely to see how much “dirt” consisted of building debris, power lines, and even cars. Miles couldn’t help wonder if there were people there, too, clinging for dear life.
She repeated her word. “Broadcasting?” Either her voice had less ferocious power to it now, or her seemingly magic transmission system was immune to feedback. Either way, the tonal quality had become a touch more organic. “Yes,” she answered herself, and nodded once.
Clasping her hands in front of her, she tilted her head with a sad smile, and sighed. The gesture was startlingly human. “You did…very poorly. I will make it easier next time. I will tell you where I will be next. New York. Eight minutes.” She leaned forward, glowing purple eyes intent. “Do better.”
She simply disappeared. The air rushing in to fill the momentary vacuum where a kilometer-long rat woman had just been created one last shockwave, running inward rather than outward. Most of the few buildings that had, through sheer luck, remained standing collapsed.
“Oh, goddamn fuck,” Jones said.
“Hennessy.” Gerlach pointed at a haggard-looking brunette. “Work out the best evacuation routes off Manhattan. Bridges, tunnels, trains, ferry, all of it.”
Miles ran a hand through his hair, then went back through the video just before she’d started speaking, pausing it when she had her holograms up. He zoomed in. “Lines…rows, columns,” he muttered out loud. “It’s a table.”
Gerlach appeared leaning over his shoulder. “What are you talking about?”
“Right here. That…screen she’s looking at. I can’t read it, but look at the layout. It’s a table.”
“It’s, it’s…” He closed his eyes, thinking furiously. “We did poorly…she told us to do better…oh. Oh, God.” He opened his eyes again, but didn’t focus on anything. “It’s a scorecard.”
Gerlach just narrowed his eyes again, but Jones pushed his way up to Miles and his supervisor, raising his voice to an incredulous bellow. “You think it’s playing a fucking game? Are you goddamn nuts?”
“Shut up, Jones.” Gerlach ran a hand over his face. “So we ‘do better’ by stopping it.”
“Killing it stops it,” Jones spat.
Miles felt his temper rising, letting it carry him to his feet. “If she thought we could kill her, she wouldn’t be here.”
Jones leaned forward, almost nose to nose with Miles. “I’m sorry we gotta kill your genocidal girlfriend!”
“Sit fucking down, Jones!” Gerlach growled, pushing the two apart. “And maybe think of a way to get higher-ups on board with doing more than stubbing the rat queen’s toe.”
Miles dropped back into his seat heavily. God, didn’t he want her dead? How many hundreds of thousands had perished at her hands? (Well, down her throat, and mostly under her feet.) Being an asshole didn’t make Jones wrong. “She goes after the tall buildings—maybe they’re what gets her points—so booby-trap them. Get the biggest charges we can get up there. Pack the top of the Empire State Building. She hits it, it hits back.”
“In the next five minutes?” Gerlach sighed. “Can we go back to the carpet bombing idea?”
“No.” Williams shook his head. “The Pentagon’s on board with more precision attacks, though. A guided missile destroyer’s headed out from Norfolk.”
“It’s got a full complement of Tomahawks with radar homing, and they’ll fire the moment they get the word. Just a question of when they get permission to take Ratzilla out. The mayor wants the target area to be close to empty.”
Hennessy spun in her chair. “They can evacuate about half a million an hour, best case.”
Gerlach rubbed his face again. “So we’re gonna just ask her to politely stand by the empty skyscrapers for a few minutes so we can take her out with no other casualties. Solid plan.” He strode off.
Miles got up and headed to the break room, ignoring some pointed glares. Leave your station in a national emergency? That wasn’t done! But the only advice he had to offer—evacuate the tallest buildings first, and hit her with everything they had, whether the buildings were evacuated or not—no one was willing to take. If they could stop her, the casualties would be far less, and they knew that. But they’d be casualties they could blame on her, not on their own actions.
So he’d get a coffee, and he’d wait. With dread—and, God help him, a little anticipation.
Cameras were live around New York City—many in the air, although far too many reporters had stayed on the ground in harm’s way, as if, like a hurricane, they could ride out what was coming with a good enough raincoat.
She appeared in Midtown, right over Grand Central Terminal.
Her teleporting in was just as dramatic as her teleporting out, and she could hardly have found a more damaging place to make an entrance. The MetLife Building connected to the terminal, nearly sixty stories, simply blew apart; the buildings around it on 42nd fell down more gracefully, but fell nonetheless. The giantess stood in the midst of the rising plumes of dust and debris, hands on her hips, looking down with a delighted expression. She looked like she’d entered Manhattan perfectly clean, though—and, he could only imagine, perfectly healthy.
The Chrysler Building, two blocks away, somehow hadn’t collapsed yet. Miles frowned, looking between the various images on his monitor. In Los Angeles, her measured height had been a strangely precise one kilometer. But the Chrysler Building appeared to come up to her hips. Surely it wasn’t that tall a building. Was she smaller?
I will make it easier next time.
Their surveillance drones were already in place. Did they have any with audio? Ah. Yes. Switching it off automatic, he flew it close, just in time for her to crouch over the fractured Grand Central. Most of the shockwave from her entrance had blown to the sides rather than down, but a few sweeps of her fingers reduced the rest of the historic building to rubble—and exposed screaming crowds on the lower level.
She shifted back to crouch in the remains of the MetLife Building, then stretched her legs out behind it, one along Madison Avenue and the other along Park, taking out smaller buildings to either side of the skyscrapers between her legs. Then she lowered her head down farther, grinning, reaching a hand in. Instead of gripping a handful of people, her fingers closed around the end of a passenger train, pulling it out just far enough to get it between her lips. Then she slowly sucked the whole train in, all ten cars. He let the drone get just close enough to watch the cars lurch forward, to hear the crunches as they entered her throat, just close enough to see panicked faces pressed against the windows and doors. Some passengers spilled from the emergency exits, but the train was overcrowded, tightly packed, making difficult to squeeze out before it was too late. Not, Miles suspected, that they’d be much safer on the ground in front of her hands.
“Jesus Christ,” he breathed. What the hell kind of digestive system did she have? She didn’t stop with the last passenger car; the engine disappeared between her lips, too, in one final swallow.
She licked her lips in deliberate fashion, then looked directly at the drone. “You’re enjoying the show, aren’t you?”
Miles sat bolt upright, eyes widening, feeling his cheeks burn. He looked around frantically, but no eyes were on him. No one even looked puzzled, asking what you the rat goddess might have been referring to.
Wait. Had she even spoken that aloud? He ran the video back a few seconds. No. She had looked directly at the drone, but he’d…imagined the words. Surely.
“Don’t be embarrassed.” Her mouth remained closed, but the voice was clear as a bell. The mechanical edge was almost gone now, the diction less stilted, the flow even more natural. “Some always do.”
She pushed herself up to rest on her elbows, abruptly turning the shot the low-flying drone had of her face into a shot down her cleavage. He squirmed in his seat in spite of himself.
No. This couldn’t be happening. He rubbed his face, glancing around nervously again, then leaned forward toward his screen. “Can…can you see me?” he whispered voicelessly.
“Not yet. But we’ll meet soon.”
“Well. That’s up to you.” She looked back at her huge outstretched legs, at the still-intact buildings between them, to either side. “My hope is that you’ll call my name, and we’ll have a very interesting talk.”
“What’s…what’s your name?”
The giantess grinned, and closed her legs slowly, watching the buildings between them tremble, wobble, and finally topple down around her knees and shins. “What’s yours?”
So far nobody’d noticed him whispering voicelessly to his monitor, now ashen-faced rather than flushed. “Miles.”
She looked to the side, whipped her tail through St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then pushed herself into a sitting position. “See you soon, Miles. Unless you don’t catch my attention.” She lifted one of her feet to shake off the debris, curling the huge toes as if pointing them mockingly at the camera. “And I don’t see you at all.”
The giantess didn’t acknowledge him this time, rising up to her full height. But both Jones and Gerlach—who’d returned from whatever call he’d made—turned.
Crap. “Sorry. I was—we should have hit her while she was lying down.”
“The missiles are already on their way,” Williams said.
“Then maybe we’ll at least save—” Jones cut himself off as the rat went into motion again.
This time, she danced.
She moved fast: not as fast as a dancer on their scale, to be sure, but without a doubt faster than something taller than Manhattan’s tallest skyscraper should be able to. She spun, taking buildings out with outstretched paws or knees, flicking tail, even whipping hair. She braced herself against the tallest buildings, then shoved them away like spurned lovers that collapsed into rubble at her feet. Sometimes she embraced them, with slides of her legs and arms and thighs that bordered on the erotic, bringing them down with a sway or a pelvic thrust. Building after building, tower after tower, fell, the rain of debris becoming its own rhythm.
Jones managed an incredulous, angry snort. “Christ on a pogo stick, is she auditioning for Godzilla’s pinup calendar?”
Godzilla would be lucky if she let him be her pet, Miles thought. The lizard had nothing on the rat goddess’s size and power. She was horrifically callous. She was achingly beautiful.
Goddess. He’d thought of her that way more than once already. He’d never been religious, though. The way she interacted with their technology screamed alien; granted, the way she flagrantly broke the laws of physics screamed magic.
Williams clapped once. “Incoming!” The monitor wall split, displaying both the drone shot and a classified feed showing targeting information.
She noticed the first cruise missile just before it hit. She stopped her whirling, raising a hand to deflect it. It kept the Tomahawk from hitting her cheek, but the explosion momentarily enveloped that hand, the flames dying to reveal a crater of smoking purple flesh where her orange paw pad had been. Blue fluid flowed freely from not only the front of her hand but the back; the missile had gone completely through.
The giantess stared at her bloody hand, mouth slightly open.
“Yeah!” Jones screamed, leaping to his feet. “How many points is that, bitch!”
None of them even saw the next missile until it hit; the targeting display didn’t switch in time. They just saw her stagger forward, this time letting out a scream that not only blew the drone’s audio input, but shattered its lens, along with countless windows. She fell to all fours, and a cheer went up in the room, despite previously near-intact areas ending up under her hands and knees as they slammed into the ground.
Miles sucked in his breath. He half-expected a hole blown in the back of her head, but no, the bloody mess was just under her right shoulder. He let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, then furrowed his brow at himself. Given the casualty levels on humanity’s side at this point, he should not be feeling even a twinge of sympathy for her.
And if they actually managed to get her head—which would be easy if she stayed still just long enough to catch her breath—that would be it for Clover.
Where did that come from? She didn’t even look anything like Clover had—like Clover would, if she were humanlike. He shook his head at himself. He’d had an occasional, fleeing desire to be Clover in the past, but this wasn’t the time for his dysphoria to bubble up. It would be more seemly to be rooting for the rat goddess if he were a rat doe, though, wouldn’t it?
The targeting display showed another missile lock.
The giantess rolled onto her back, screaming again as she flexed her wound, and raised both hands. Before Miles had time to register the streak, it exploded—
—in mid-air, level with her hands.
It didn’t hit her hand. Instead, there was a brief red flash, a flickering grid of dots, and the missile exploded against it. The fireball blew out to the sides, as if impacting against something so solid it couldn’t disrupt it.
She closed her eyes, dropping her hands to her sides and panting. The red dot grid shimmered more strongly.
“What the hell just happened?” Gerlach stared at Williams accusingly.
“I don’t know. The Navy said the missile registered an impact. There’s another one—”
Another explosion, with the same flicker of lights and the same rolling cloud against the grid, happened just past her face. She didn’t react.
“A forcefield.” Gerlach hurled his mug against the wall, shattering it, coffee running down from the impact point like thin, brown blood. “It’s not enough that it’s breaking physics just by fucking existing, it can make a goddamn magic forcefield by waving its hands. Can we just fly in a rocket in at street level and see if we bypass that damn shield? A pickup truck full of fertilizer? Something?”
Williams shook his head. “Not our call.”
The giantess, with God knows how many military and civilian cameras trained on her now, took a deep, ragged breath, pushing herself back partway to a sitting position and wincing. The grid around her expanded to accommodate her motions.
Then she laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh, not a nice laugh. Neither was the grin she flashed. “That. Hurt.” Her voice now had the fully organic fluidity it had when it had only been in Miles’s head, a contralto tone that might be sultrily husky if it wasn’t pained. “Good. I get more points when there’s an actual challenge.” She took another deep breath, then sat up fully, stretching out her arms, wincing in visible pain. Holograms flickered in front of her, and her fingers tapped over them, causing them to flare into multicolored light shows.
He didn’t know what was happening, but he had another fluttering in his stomach. How the hell could he find her name? It might show up on the holographic displays she called up, but—
Wait. If it had been anywhere, it had been on the score card.
Eyes widening, he called that video frame back up, rotated it, flipped it. In one orientation, he could swear he could make out the score column…no, columns. Row after row of something, but two columns. Maybe the rows were players, but it’d be more likely the columns were: just two, the giantess and whatever city she was stomping over. She’d been “playing” on a lot more cities than the two she’d hit on Earth so far.
If the columns were players, then either the topmost or bottommost boxes in the columns were the player names. He rubbed his chin. The topmost boxes were the most different, so it had to be one of those two.
Movement on the main display caught his eye, and he looked up, then stared. She was still engrossed in her holograms, but the grid around her had turned off.
Gerlach started. “Williams, did she just drop—”
“They’re on it.”
The giantess’s displays faded. Then she rose up to her feet, unsteadily. A chunk of building to her left exploded. Then to her right. Then debris in front of her.
“Now what the hell?” Gerlach snarled.
Smiling again, this time more easily, the rat put her hands on her hips, watching missile after missile swerve to avoid the huge, motionless target she presented. The intact parts of the city rapidly became less so.
Miles shook his head, trying not to openly admire her audacity.
He looked back at the two possibilities in the sharp alien script. “One of these is your name,” he whispered under his breath. “But I don’t know which one, let alone how to read it.”
“I’ll give you a hint. I’m winning.”
He jumped in his seat. Again, the voice was only in his head.
Frantically, he scanned the columns. He couldn’t read the numbers; he couldn’t even be sure they were numbers. He could guess which possible numbers were bigger by visual length, though.
“This,” he whispered. “On the left.”
The missiles were finished. As she stood in the wreckage of New York, she took a deep breath, and the scorecard appeared in front of her again.
Miles squinted, then zoomed in. The names at the top of the columns were in Latin lettering now. Sibry, on the left, and Hellain, on the right.
“Sibry,” he said aloud. “You’re Sibry.”
She beamed at the drone. “Splendid! It’s time to change the rules. I’m going to visit you, so you don’t have to just watch me on camera. And at least for a brief time, I’m going to be a lot smaller!” She grinned wickedly. “Although as your saying goes, size isn’t everything, hmm? See you in a few minutes.” She disappeared with another sonic boom and shockwave.
“What’s that mean, ‘visit you?’” Jones looked around, wide-eyed. “Visit who?”
“Us.” Miles ran a hand through his hair. “I think she’s coming here.”
Gerlach picked up his phone. “I had my money on apocalypse this week, but not by kaiju,” he muttered.
Within five minutes of Gerlach’s phone call, the National Guard had arrived, not with cruise missiles and fighter planes but with ground forces, anti-tank guns and surface-to-air missiles. They’d wasted a lot of very precise, very expensive ammunition in their last two failed attempts to bring the rat giantess down; this time they planned to hit hard out of the gate.
The employees inside the building saw Sibry first on video, because she was—for the first time—easy to miss at a distance. True to her word, she was a lot smaller: by most standards still giant, but able to walk under an overpass without ducking. The wounds of her last battle were gone; she looked pristine and unworried as she sauntered down Barta Road toward the campus security gate.
By the time she reached it, alarms had already sounded. She didn’t acknowledge the guards until they opened fire. Then she whirled, backhanding one into the guardhouse wall, and reaching into the guardhouse to slam the other into the wall from the inside.
Miles’s group saw this all from the closed-circuit security feeds. “Did they miss it?” Gerlach slammed his hands against the desk. “We hurt the damn thing last time. Don’t fucking tell me it’s impervious to bullets now.”
Miles spread his hands. “She’s been adapting to us constantly the whole time. Her speech went from robotic fragments to full, natural sentences. She took over our missile control systems.”
Jones raised his voice. “Are you gonna help us come up with ideas on how to stop it, or are you in goddamn love with it?”
If she burst through the wall, Miles thought acidly, he’d feed Jones to her himself.
The outside of their office transformed from manicured lawns and parking lots to a war zone. Troops had moved in, firing. Tanks rolling up. Rockets fired.
Sibry started to run.
Her fur flashed subtle grids as bullets hit, suggesting she’d now integrated that shield with her body. As she ran, a five-meter tall rat woman moving faster than a galloping horse, she made throwing motions, as if she were tossing rocks to her left and right. Streaks of light shot from her hand. Only by slowing down the video could Miles tell her projectiles were marble-sized balls of fire.
Soldiers started to fall. The fireballs shot clean through their targets and kept going, curving, swirling, zooming.
The rat giantess ran straight at the closest tank, diving into a roll as its turret swung around. She slammed into it hard enough to make the vehicle shudder, hard enough that she surely should have broken bones. But she just rolled back onto her paws, momentarily towering over the tank—
—then picked it up, seemingly effortlessly, lifting it over her head and hurling it fifty yards.
“We are so fucked,” Williams breathed.
Clenching his fists, Miles took a deep breath, then abruptly pushed back from his station and stood up.
Gerlach stared at him from across the room. “Kepler?”
“It’s time to change the rules.” He hurried toward the exit.
Jones moved in front of him. “Whose fucking side are you—”
Miles shoved him out of the way, then broke into a run.
By the time he reached the first floor, reached the huge atrium, he could hear the fighting outside. Gunfire he recognized; the deep bass notes might be anti-tank rounds. The strange, high-pitched sizzles had to be Sibry’s fire.
More soldiers than earlier this morning had taken position in the atrium, now facing outward, as if any one of them could single-handedly stop her. Some of them surely thought they could. Idiots.
He started walking forward, toward the exit, toward the soldiers, raising his hands to show he had no weapons.
“Sir, you can’t go—”
“I don’t want to go anywhere farther than the lawn.” He kept walking.
The first one motioned with his gun; other soldiers stepped forward.
“Sibry!” He yelled at the top of his longs. “Sibry! I’m here!”
The soldiers raised their weapons, but didn’t point them at him. They looked confused.
He kept marching, now all but daring them to shoot. He could see two burning tanks, dozens of soldiers on the ground, at least as many running without direction.
He summoned even more volume, his throat feeling raw already. “Sibry!”
The streaks of light outside froze, and everything went silent. Everything.
Miles stared, open-mouthed. One soldier had leveled his rifle as if to shoot. Another had his hand raised, mouth open. Both stood as stock-still as wax figures.
A crash to his left announced someone—the only someone not frozen, besides him—smashing through the atrium wall.
“Hello, Miles.” Sibry brushed debris and shattered glass out of her fur as she walked over to him. “It’s nice to truly meet you.”
He stared up. Even covered with soot and breathing hard, she was impossibly beautiful. He barely came up past her knees. He wasn’t sure that made her more attractive, but it didn’t make her any less so. “How…”
“I’ve adjusted the rate of time. It’s just like adjusting the scale of space.” The rat giantess walked past him, motioning him to follow. He had to jog to keep up with her casual walk.
“The scale of space?” He furrowed his brow. “You—don’t change size, you change the size of everything else?”
She smiled down, deep violet eyes shining like distant galaxies. “It’s just math. Tell me what else you’ve figured out.”
“I…” He tried not to stammer. This felt like a test for at least his life, if not the whole planet. “You…you’re playing a game, against something called Hellain.”
“Hellain isn’t a ‘what,’ she’s a ‘who.’ She’s like me.”
“But I don’t know what the game is.”
“Of course you do.” She slowed down as they reached the food court, winding her way around frozen patrons—mostly soldiers—without disturbing them. “Don’t overthink it.”
“Destroying…destroying cities? Civilizations?”
“Yes. Both.” She stopped in front of the coffee bar, leaning over to examine it. “And what do we get points for?” She carefully took a large cup, which looked ridiculously small in her hand, then filled it up with coffee.
Challenge wasn’t the right answer, was it? It was part of it, but that didn’t explain her backhanding things, sucking up trains like noodles, literally dancing with skyscrapers, the… the… “Style.”
“Exactly! Excellent.” She took a sip from the cup. “This is…coffee? I’m not sure I like it, but it’s fascinating! I love it when I can take the time to get some indigenous food.” She laughed. “Other than the dominant species, I mean. You—humans?—you’re startlingly delicious.”
“You destroy entire civilizations for a game and get points for style?” The horror of her forthright confirmations started to eclipse his attraction. “We’re not players, we’re just—just game pieces?”
“No, the worlds are game pieces.” She seemed to hesitate, as if becoming more aware of the effect her words were having, then knelt down. “Miles, I don’t think I can even describe what my culture is like to you. What we do, what we know, what we’re capable of. How we live.
“I’m not going to tell you not to think of the Game as monstrous. But.” She sighed, leaning forward and smiling with a curious sadness. “It does have rules, and one of them is about which worlds can be game pieces. Given what else you’ve figured out, I think you know what that rule is.”
Was she suggesting that this rule alone could somehow change the way he’d see the Game, or at least changed the way she saw it? That she didn’t think what she was doing was monstrous?
An answer—no, the answer—struck him, and he sank down to a kneeling position himself. “You only choose worlds that…that are about to annihilate themselves, don’t you?”
She nodded, this time without smiling. “As lovely as it is to be an engine of destruction, I wouldn’t do it to a civilization that was going to get past what humans call the Great Filter. Most won’t.”
“But that—you can’t know that! You can’t be sure!”
“You’ve seen what I can do, and how fast I can analyze. Nothing may ever be certain, but it’s well past nine nines of probability that your civilization comes to an end—without my help—within three solar days.” Sibry spread her hands, the coffee sloshing. “What you do in this pretty little building is watch your civilization waiting for the signs of apocalypse, isn’t it? What does your analysis say?”
He swallowed, running a hand through his hair. They lacked her precision, but not her conclusion. “You’re a goddamn goddess! You could fix it, not seal our fate!”
“I’m not.” Sibry’s voice grew sharp. “What do you think I could do? Tell your leaders they’re on the verge of destruction? They know that. They don’t care. I could easily conquer your world, but I can’t remake it. I can’t snap my fingers and bring peace. That’s something every planet has to do itself, and yours…hasn’t. Yours won’t. I can’t even be a common enemy for you to rally against. If I leave now, you’ll be back on the brink within weeks.” She sighed, and spoke more softly. “Maybe in a thousand years after they rebuild, they won’t make the same mistakes, and we’ll meet again under very different circumstances.”
“Why tell me all this?” He closed his eyes. “Why me?”
“Ah, I’ve been waiting for you to get around to that question.”
He opened his eyes again, looking up nervously.
She finished her coffee, then tossed the cup behind the counter. “Once in a great while, we find…sparks. Beings who aren’t like us, but might be more than, as you put it, game pieces.” She spread her hands. “They…call out. It’s hard to put into words. Millennia ago, Hellain heard one, a lost survivor on an even more self-destructive world than yours. They were just as bewildered as you are, but they agreed to be Hellain’s…I’m trying to find the word in your language. Pet? Subject? Experiment? She made that little being more like her, guided them, lifted them. From a spark to an ember to a flame to…” She held out a hand, and a ball of light appeared in it, so brilliant he couldn’t look directly at it. “…a raging star.”
His eyes widened. “You? You’re Hellain’s pet?”
“I was, after a fashion. I wouldn’t say I am now. But I’m her friend, her lover, her partner. And, in the game, her opponent.”
He ran a hand through his hair slowly, feeling her eyes locked onto him. “Are you…are you saying I’m one of these sparks?”
“And you want me as your pet.”
“And, uh, friend, and…” He abruptly felt his cheeks burn. “Ah.”
She straightened up slowly, then leaned down just far enough to hold out a hand to him.
He stared at her face, then at the outstretched fingers, the orange pads, the silver fur. Before he could muster another round of questioning, of doubt, he reached up and put his hand in hers. She gently closed her fingers around his hand and forearm.
The world vanished. Sound, light, smell, gravity, all sensation but her fingers on him. When he cried out, no sound reached his ears. Then the light grew: dark grey, light grey, white, now blinding white. Pressure around him grew, too. And grew. And grew. As the light became unbearable, searing, he was sure he could feel bones start to snap, lungs start to collapse.
Then everything fell away, replaced by raw power. And knowledge. Sibry had been telling the truth; the end of the world—as it would have been before she came—was right there, obvious, inescapable. Humans were preparing to set fire to their home with their toys. Foolish, and sad, and so common.
And yes: space was time was scale. It was all just math; she could be small as an electron or as big as a star, couldn’t she? How many points would she have gotten for just inhaling the Earth? Perhaps not very stylish.
The world snapped back into place. Breath came back in a ragged, gasping—chitter? Sibry stood nearby, still clasping hands. But now Miles’s head was at her chest level, and…
Miles’s gaze traveled back from Sibry’s hand along a slightly slimmer, white-furred arm, to the shoulder, down to the speckled black fur across a decidedly rounded chest. “I—I’m—you made me—”
“Not me, my dear. You chose your form.”
“How?” She—she!—ran a hand around her collar, the only shred of clothing she had.
“It was in your mind, as bright as the sun.” Her mistress gently tilted her head up. “What’s your name? Not who you were, who you are.”
She blinked once, looking down at herself, at her quite recognizable fur pattern, and bit her lip, hesitating on the name before committing. “Clover.”
Sibry leaned down and kissed her lightly. “Look more closely around your paws, Clover.”
They no longer stood inside the campus’s atrium; instead they stood far, far above it. The entire building barely came past her ankle. After the initial shock, she realized the most shocking thing was how natural it felt.
She slowly crouched down, marveling. Time had restarted; the military fired at her with all their might, and it hurt. A little. Just a little, though. She tapped the atrium’s roof; it shattered like spun sugar. Employees started to stream out of the building in a blind panic. “What do I do, Mistress?”
“Follow me to worlds you’ve never dreamed of.” She grinned. “And learn to use power that most worlds have never dreamed of.”
Sibry lifted her brows, spreading her hands to gesture around at the whole world, so huge, so toy-like. So doomed, no matter what its two new owners did with it.
Clover considered a very long time, then reached down a hand, scooping up a handful of the crowd. She rose up, up, up, back up to that towering, impossible height, small only in comparison to Sibry. Then she casually smashed her paw down on the building, feeling it crumble like a sandcastle beneath her pads, and looked at her catch. Were those some of Miles’s coworkers? Jones? Williams?
Opening her mouth widely, she tumbled the screaming crowd inside, hesitated just a moment, then tilted her head back, swallowing. She closed her eyes with a delighted smile. “They really are delicious.”