Bargaining With Kali

When John Berda realized the alarm going off was real, not something from the dream he’d just been having, he cursed under his breath and sat up in bed, glancing at the array of flashing LEDs on the phone console on the other side of the bedroom. It hadn’t been a restful sleep anyway.

He stood up, shuffling past the console to the closet, pulling out a bathrobe and slipping it on, the fabric rustling over the vulpine’s disarrayed fur. Then he paused with his fingers over the metal bar under the LEDs. He could pretend to be out, couldn’t he? That he’d lost his handheld phone, too, or that the recharger for it must have broken. Anything.

He’d been on the force for over three decades. For nearly half that time, he’d been into the station maybe once a year. Even for law enforcement, offices were superfluous nowadays. When they’d finally completed the 10th Street fiber ring, gotten all the cameras and motion sensors and defense systems talking to one another, he’d stopped having to even leave the living room to do his patrol. He still did, two or three times a month, because he was old-fashioned.

Some of the new guys hadn’t even seen the neighborhoods they were assigned to in person; those were the nice neighborhoods, the chosen few. The party line was that all the neighborhoods were nice now, but ones like his beat weren’t. His beat was what they called a “corral,” a border between the subdivisions that really were nice and the ones that had been tacitly abandoned. If you fenced those parts away, you could pretend they didn’t exist. Berda’s apartment was just to the nice side of a corral area. If he could afford to move a mile further in, he’d be surrounded by people who really didn’t know that three miles away food riots might as well be scheduled occurrences. This wasn’t the largest metropolis in the country, but it was the richestand the poorest. The job of the police, when it came right down to it, was to keep those two worlds from mixing.

The number of LEDs that lit up across the bar told you what severity the call was. For the pastwhat, seven years, he thoughthe’d never seen more than three of the dots lit. Of course, they’d decided to stop responding to one-dot calls on his beat even before that, writing off the misdemeanors, petty thefts, assaults with no battery. Frequent riot areas didn’t get responses for anything under four.

Right now all eight dots were flashing.

He let his fingertips contact the metal. The lights went solid, and the green “online” indicator came on. “Yeah,” he said softly.

“Berda,” the voice on the other end came. Fletcher, the department chief. “There’s a hostage situation at Oxia R&D.” The video came on, showing the wolf. He was on a mobile unit, Berda guessed; Fletcher looked out of breath, like he’d had more exercise in the last few minutes than in the last few years. He was standing on a street, with barricades visible behind him, civilians and the occasional officer running back and forth in the background.

Berda let out his breath, tail swishing once, and rubbed his eyes. “Okay, you called me because I’m the closest to a negotiator you have. Why all eight lights?”

“She’s got close to a thousand people, including some of the nation’s top scientists held in the most valuable site of the world’s largest multinational.”

“Who’s ‘she?’”

“Kaylin Riitha.”

“Riitha? Some hacker girl, right? Wasn’t she supposed to be in for life?”

“She escaped. Look

“With whose help? You don’t take over a research lab by yourself.”

“She’s about a hundred feet tall.”

Berda opened his mouth, trying to find something appropriately withering to say, but then the view changed as Fletcher reached forward and pressed a button on the phone, switching it to a soundless news feed. It showed the research complex, tightly-packed, utilitarian grey stone and metal buildings, dully glinting in the late afternoon sunlight. Sitting in the midst of it, kneeling, was a ringtail girlyoung woman, he might allow. She was nude, and quite beautiful. A college buddy of his used to say that few people in the world looked quite as good with clothes off as with them on. With a gymnast’s form, curves in all the right places, and penetrating ebony eyes, she was definitely one of them.

And she was a giant, all right. She looked like a special video effect, chromakeyed into the picture at twenty times the height she should be. Berda squinted, searching the scene, searching for anything that would let him on the joke. Something to confirm that a previously unseen warped sense of humor in Fletcher had driven him to wake Berda up, feed him a horseshit story and call up a weird porno movie scene.

But there was a disturbing…weight to the image. The way she knelt in rubble you couldn’t quite make out, the way the shadows fell on and below her, the wind effects of her huge tail as it lazily curled and swung near to the ground. She was speaking, seemingly at a quiet tone, looking relaxed, occasionally gesturing at the building her left leg pressed against. It was a low, single-story structure, with its roof completely removed, and people packed inside it.

Fletcher’s voice came over the video signal. “Before you ask obvious questions, we don’t have the answers. Oxia isn’t talking much. We know she was one of seventeen prisoners who’d been taken to the lab for some research workcosmetic tests, they said. Sounded a little seedy, but not illegal. She broke away from the guards, we don’t know how, ran off. Oxia security went on full alert, couldn’t find her, then there were alarms going off all over the place.”

Berda stared at the figure a moment more, then rubbed his eyes. “No. Look. This violates the square-cube law.”

“The what?”

“You can’t have something that big. It’d collapse under its own weight. There’s got to bewhat’s she doing?” Riitha had leaned over and plucked up one of the people between two fingers. The scene was nearly comical; she was speaking to the little lab-coated squirrel she was holding, still looking conversational, and he was obviously screaming, but it played out in perfect silence, with the fuzzy, slightly jerky quality of the typical news hovercam.

“We just hit the first fifteen minute mark,” Fletcher said, sounding hoarse.

“The what?” Berda said, frowning.

The giantess set the squirrel down by her knees, then stood up. The camera zoomed back to take in all of her, as the squirrel stumbled backward, as she raised her slim leg high, hands on hips, as the squirrel started running, as, still in the perfect artificial silence of video, her foot came down squarely on top of him.

Riitha was starting to kneel again as the video abruptly switched back to Fletcher’s phone camera. “She says…” The wolf took a deep breath, his voice at a higher, shakier pitch than Berda had ever heard it before. “She says she wants us to release her friend, Tana…Tana somebody, they haven’t gotten back to me yet, and bring her here. Or she’ll kill a hostage every fifteen minutes.”

“Isn’t the typical line supposed to be one every hour or two?”

“She has a lot of them,” Fletcher said tightly.

Berda shook his head, looking off to the side blankly. This was too surreal. He’d just watched a real, live giantess crush someone under her foot? And he was being called to go in and negotiate with her?

“You have a command center there?”

“It’ll be set up by the time you get here.”

“That’ll be about fifteen minutes.”

“Make it less.” Fletcher took another breath. “And, Berda?”

“Yes?”

You explain the square-cube law to Ms. Riitha when you get here.”

Berda switched off the phone, then ducked back into the closet to put on his pants and to pull out a shirt. Still half-dressed, he walked across the hallway and stood by the door to his wife’s bedroom. “Ellen.” No response. “Ellen,” he repeated, louder.

“Mmmph,” the vixen said, without opening her eyes. “John?”

“We’ve got an emergency.”

“It’s early. Still light out.”

“Yeah. It is.”

“Oh.” The vixen rolled over, tail flipping.

“There’s a giant ringtail girl attacking the city, just like a bad monster video,” he said.

“Mmm-hmmph,” she murmured. “Be careful.”

“Your nightshirt’s on fire.”

“Okay.”

He paused, tail swishing once and brushing with a soft rustle against the door frame, and frowned, seized by an unaccountable certainty these would be the last words they said to one another. Then he wondered, cruelly, if perhaps the exchange perfectly symbolized what their marriage had becomeif this proved to be an end, banality would fit as an epitaph. “Goodbye, Ellen.”

Berda stepped out into the garage, then got into his cruiser, tapping in the ignition unlock sequence. The engine came to life with a hum, the information displays sparking into dim amber and green glows. “Oxia R&D,” he said aloud when the computer’s display indicated it was ready for commands.

“Unknown destination,” it responded instantly in its electronic baritone.

“Oxia Research Laboratories.”

After a few moments, the garage door opened and the car started rolling forward. “Estimated arrival time sixteen minutes.”

“Go top speed.”

“All right.”

The car rolled out into the main parking garage for the apartment complex, turned right, and began to speed past rows of identical steel doors set into identical grey walls. Then it dropped down a sharp ramp, moving too fast, and abruptly came out onto a nearly-deserted road. Both sides of the road were lined with residential complexes. If there’d been time to study themand if Berda had any interest in looking at them by this timethe most visible difference between them would have been the paint color, ranging from warm grey to neutral blue to light peach. Only the oldest ones had windows facing the front. Many didn’t have windows facing anywhere else. There wasn’t much to see outside.

The blue and red lights flipped on automatically, the siren snapping on, and the electric car accelerated with a force that pushed Berda back in his seat. “I don’t know why the lights are on,” he muttered, resting one hand on the currently superfluous steering wheel. “Who else’d be out here?”

“Five police vehicles counting this one. Two fiber repair units. One microwave transmission repair

“It was rhetorical.”

“All right.”

Berda sighed. “Tell me about Kaylin Riitha.”

“All right. Processing.”

He looked outside the side window, listening to the muffled siren wail. The vehicle turned sharply with a squeal, and headed into a business district he hadn’t visited in years. It hadn’t gotten any better with age. There were signs of life here: homeless people watching the car scream past, what looked like a drug deal in progressVR and computer stim had gotten to the point years ago where drugs were superfluous, and the market’s bottom had dropped out, but there were always holdouts. Decades ago, before Berda’s time, there’d have been some renovation project at least being talked about. With most businesses being run out of people’s homes, only managers needed to go into offices, and there was no reason to build offices in places like these.

“Kaylin Ann Riitha,” the computer said. He looked back at the display, which was showing a series of mug shots. “Birthdate November 14th, 201 PB, current age 24. First warrant March 25th, 220 PB, ten counts illegal data tampering and two counts theft of intellectual property, charges brought by Apasin Technologies. Second warrant August 3rd, 220 PB, eight counts illegal data tampering, one count criminal conspiracy, one count sedition and five hundred twelve counts attempted murder, charges brought by Oxia Security International and National Security Agency. Arrested October 10th, 220 PB, tried first week of April, 221 PB, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Incarcerated at National Correction Corporation’s maximum-security unit. Transferred to NCC’s moderate-security unit, March 12th, 224 PB.”

Five hundred twelve attempted murders?”

“Correct.”

“What the hell did she do?”

A brief pause for another tire-screeching swerve and a brush with another, civilian vehicle, so close it made Berda flinch. “Suspect inverted logic controlling security systems at Oxia’s research laboratories, causing them to react to unauthorized entries as authorized and vice-versa, exposing employees on duty over a 224-minute period to potentially fatal automated defense systems.”

“But nobody actually died.” Another car passed by, then another. He realized they were heading not just away from the direction he was coming from, but toward the interstate onramp, presumably to head completely out of town. Of course, there’d have to be newscams covering the attacking giantess story. It was, perhaps, a sign of the age that most people evidently chose to stay inside, watching it like live entertainment, rather than prudently evacuate.

“Correct. No fatalities.”

Berda frowned. It was strong to call the charges trumped, but he suspected Oxia had wanted her out of their systems for good. Maybe with good reason, of course.

“So what does she have against Oxia?”

Silence. Berda sighed, hanging onto the steering wheel and feeling it move back and forth slightly, and tried a different question. “What was the defense strategy?”

“It was argued that there were no elements of conspiracy involved, and that she was a non-violent, technologically-driven offender. Her motivations were not to kill.” The business district abruptly merged into newer industrial complexes, higher, greyer and duller, with office windowssome still litvisible on upper floors.

“A joyhacker. And the prosecution’s argument?”

“Riitha is an anarchist with a pathological hatred for corporations. Her goals, as in her previous thirteen alleged computer attacks, were to bring down the government through disruption or destruction, and the lives of other sapients had become of secondary importance to her.”

“Anarchist. People have been executed for sedition recently, haven’t they?”

“As of two years ago, yes.”

“In the other alleged crimes before that, were there associated risks to sapients?”

“Theoretical but unsubstantiated risks. Estimated time of arrival to Oxia Research Laboratories, twenty seconds.”

The car made another shrieking-rubber turn, abruptly facing a chain-link fence gate with the Oxia logo bolted to it. The brakes locked, throwing Berda against the safety restraint, but the vehicle didn’t have to come to a complete stopthe gate was already opening, responding to the police cruiser’s signal. The car swerved through the gate, coming within an inch of clipping off the side mirrors, then rapidly accelerated again.

Berda stared. “Open the window.” The side window slid down into the door, and he stuck his nose out, gaping up.

The crowdentirely police and Oxia employeeshad been barricaded a hundred meters away from the ruins of the building the giantess sat by. The day was hazier than usual, light reduced from the usual bright fog to a murky twilight, but Riitha was well-lit by police spotlights trained on her. She was sitting down, back resting casually against what looked like an office building, four stories high; its roof came to her shoulders. And she was slouching slightly.

“Goddamn,” he breathed. The car began to slow down as it rolled toward the crowd. “She must be a hundred feet tall.”

“Ninety-eight feet five inches.”

The car pulled to a stop; Fletcher was already running toward it.

“Great,” he said, opening the door and gaping up at her, climbing out slowly. “This is still fucking impossible.”

“Conjecture: based on her current existence, your assertion of impossibility is incorrect,” said the car.

Berda grunted, slamming the door shut.

Fletcher grabbed his hand. “Come on.”

“What’s the plan?” he said, stumbling after his supervisor a moment until he regained his footing. He looked back toward the giantess, and for a moment had a clear line of sight along the ground toward her legs. The area between the barricade and her form looked like a battlefieldcracked concrete, and a large piece of flat metal, surrounded by shattered glass. He realized that it had been a police cruiser, much like his, and nearly stumbled again.

“There are no plans for this,” Fletcher growled, hurrying the fox toward a van with the Talon Technologies logo on the side and the name “Mobile Police Command Center” stenciled under that. “We haven’t used one of these damn things in twenty years. Shit.” He looked around. “All the computers come up with are evacuation plans.”

Berda climbed into the back of the van, greeted by a wide array of monitors showing news channel feeds and police camerasall hovercams floating around the giantess. “Are you following any of them?”

“Of course not,” Fletcher snapped. “Don’t be ridiculous. Do you know the panic that’d cause?”

Berda’s eyes flicked over the monitors, his tail swishing nervously once. There was another crumpled car on one newscam; another was focusing on what looked like a matted lab coat in a wide oil stain. The squirrel she’d chosen as her first victim.

He closed his eyes, steadying himself against the monitor wall momentarily. “Be ready with one.”

“She’s not going to be able to

Berda held a hand up, stalling the protest. “Ringtails are fast enough as it is, and she has a stride about twenty times longer than a normal one. It might take her less time to get to a residential area as it took me to get here.” He tapped the image of the lab coat. “If she starts striding toward this barricade, whoever’s in this van will have about two seconds to trigger that alarm before this is them. If they don’t trigger that alarm, this is every apartment building she walks through until we take her down.

“And since we’re on that subject, one more question.”

“Yes?” Fletcher said, sounding resigned.

“It’s not like she has any clothes to be hiding a few tons of explosive under. Why haven’t we just emptied an anti-aircraft battery into her yet?”

“Oxia says no go.”

Berda looked at him, eyes narrowing.

“They don’t want to risk damaging their laboratories, and they want her taken alive if at all possible.”

“Oh, fuck me. All right. What channel do I talk to her on?”

Fletcher pointed to a wireless headset. “That talks to one of the hovercams, It’ll amplify what you say to her, and broadcast back what she says.”

“Great.” He put on the headset, scrambling back out of the van. “I’ll talk, you put all that computer power to work to find out Tana’s last name and get her here.”

Outside, he made his way through the crowd, toward the edge of the barricade, and leaned on it, looking up.

Riitha had stretched her legs out now, each one nearly fifty feet long, he guessed. She lounged against the office building, seemingly casually, looking down at the concrete by one svelte hip. She was using the clawtip of one finger to doodle in the concrete, sending up a slow spray of stone dust as she worked. As he watched, she flipped back her short black hair with her free hand, and a frown formed on her delicate muzzle, perhaps at the drawing’s progress, but apparently at an inner thought.

He touched the handset. “Kaylin?”

The giantess’ ears perked up, and she canted her head upward, gaze focusing on one of the hovercams. “And now who’s this?” she said. Berda heard the voice relayed on the hovercam’s mike most strongly, but he could hear it, faintly, through the cool afternoon air. It was a smooth mezzosoprano, words quick but not hurried, tone confident.

“John Berda,” he said, keeping his voice level. “How are you doing?”

“Mmm.” She moved one hand, tapping a finger against her knee thoughtfully. “I’ve had a kind of adrenalin-filled day.”

“I’d imagine so.”

“Not as much as I’m causing, though, right?” She laughed, then shifted her position, and looked out over the crowd, as if trying to find him.

“No. But you’re not desperate-sounding.” When her eyes passed over him, he shivered involuntarily. “That’s in the book, you know. Hostage-takers are always desperate. That’s what makes them dangerous.”

“Since I’m not desperate, I’m not really dangerous?”

“No, I’d say you’re dangerous because you weigh about, what, four hundred tons?”

“Oh, less than it looks. And I’m dangerous for a lot of reasons.” She sat up straighter, glanced at the hovercam with a grin, then leaned over the ruined building. “But you’d still measure my weight in hundreds of tons, so that’s the one you have to worry about, yes.”

“Giants are supposed to be impossible.”

“Yeah, so I’ve heard.”

“So…?”

“We’ll just say I took very special vitamins.” She leaned over further. The hovercam picked up the faint screams from the hostages her gaze now fell on.

“What are you doing? Look back at me, Kaylin. Please.”

When she spoke again the hovercam picked it up more faintly, its mike no longer pointed directly at her mouth. “Nice of you to add the ‘please,’ John, but it’s been fifteen minutes. Who wants to be next?”

He realized the question was directed at the “audience” below her. “No, Kaylin, you don’t have to

Her head ducked down, tailbase pointing straight up in the air a moment, and the screams intensified dramatically. Then she sat back upwith someone in her teeth.

Berda cursed, pulling out his mobile phone and pressing a few buttons. The unit beeped, then started displaying the signal from the closest hovercam, the one he’d been speaking to her on.

Its viewfield held little more than her head, her face’s beauty almost comically incongruous with the sight of the screaming feline woman caught between her teeth. The cat’s torso, both arms and one leg were all out of the ringtail’s mouth, one of Kaylin’s swordlike canines pressed againstperhaps slightly intoher back.

“Put her back down,” John said, trying to sound reasonable, rather than absurdly commanding or simply scared shitless. “We can

Abruptly the woman disappeared between the ringtail’s lips with one final, short scream, ending in a thick crunch. Half of the crowd around Berda screamed, too; others cursed, or crossed themselves, or both.

Kaylin leaned back again, expression neutral and considering. She chewed a few moments, then swallowed. Her tongue flicked over her lips, and she settled her gaze back on the hovercam. “Where’s Tana, John?”

“We’re working on it,” he said, voice shaking.

“I might have to make that time limit ten minutes, or even five,” she said, voice flattening. “I don’t think I really like wiggling, live food, but I’m working up an appetite waiting for your damn police department to comply with a very, very simple demand.”

“Christ,” he muttered, hurrying back toward the van.

“Oh, my Lord,” she said, tone mocking, “we’re dealing with a monster!” She laughed, her grin a bit feral. “If I make my fan club over there by the barricades puke every once in a while, it’ll keep them from thinking this is a peep show. Besides, you ever even had fresh meat, or just that half-soy frozen crap every place sells? You might find it’s worth eating a rich scientist just for the comparison.”

Berda shook his head, and climbed up into the van again. His grandmother used to complain about the “half-soy frozen crap” with that same phrase. “What do you have on Tana?” he said to Fletcher.

The wolf tapped a monitor, showing a mug shot of another female ringtail. This one’s fur had a touch of chocolate color to it, brown eyes, shoulder-length auburn hair, built a little more muscularly. “Tana Wilrick. Arrested as an accomplice to Riitha’s break-in at Oxia. Evidently Wilrick was working on getting into the building physically to plant bombs.”

“What kind of bombs?”

Fletcher’s brow furrowed. “Let me check.”

“Lord, do you have any idea how to operate a computer?” He pulled out a keyboard and tapped on it a few times, then squinted at the screen. “They didn’t find any explosives, they just found her on site. The bombs were the prosecution’s hypothesis, based on their argument that Riitha’s an anarchist.”

“And?”

“And…” Berda pushed the keyboard away, and looked back outside. “And I don’t know. I’m sensing a lot of bullshit in the cases against these two.”

“Uh-huh. She’s just an innocent little ringtail who got framed by the big bad Oxia Group?”

“They’re definitely terrorists, but there’s a connection between her and Oxia that they’ve hidden. Get someone from Oxia in here. We need to know how she got to be a big bad ringtail, and you can bet your tail poof they know the answer.” He tapped his headset mike back on. “Kaylin. Why do you want us to release Tana Wilrick?”

The giantess looked back up at the hovercam. “Good question, John. Maybe there’s someone in your group with more than a single-digit IQ after all. I want her released because I haven’t seen her in nearly four years, and that’s a long time not to see your girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Yes, John. I’m not just a giantess, I’m a lesbian. The night’s full of surprises.”

“I don’t care who sleeps with who. I could say that both you and Tana have beautiful girlfriends.”

She snickered. “How cosmopolitan of you. Have you ever had real sex? Not a virtual partner?”

“Yes.”

“A lot of people haven’t, you know. They don’t need to get that close to someone.”

“Right. Call things up on your computer and you can get anything you want. Change reality to be anything you feel like. It’s a compelling vision.” As he spoke, the computer screen in front of him filled with textcapsule summaries of Kaylin’s non-criminal records.

“Of course,” her voice came, tone dry. “You can almost walk through real woods, almost eat real food, almost have real sex. Everything’s simulated so well it’s almost like living a real life.”

“You sound angry.”

“If you’re not, John, you’re not paying attention. I’ve never lived in a world that wasn’t driven by pure fuck-everything-but-profit, from my parents paying a company for in vitro fertilization to my selecting the least obnoxious funeral home for them. There are parts of this city where people pay for air.”

He started scrolling through the display on the screen in front of him. “So don’t live in one of those parts.”

“I wouldn’t support that way of living even if I had the money.”

“You wouldn’t like a nice, secure neighborhood?”

She laughed, almost musically. “Security without freedom. And you’re not really even secure, you know. People have sold their freedom for mere convenience.”

“I don’t feel all that enslaved.”

“Then you’re blind. At the moment, I’m the only person in this whole metropolis who’s truly free.”

“Yes, you’re an anarchist in complete control. Kind of ironic.”

“You win another point. I’d like to think of myself more as a postmodern goddess of destruction.”

He stopped scrolling, and scanned the text. Kaylin’s parents had been killed in a car accident when she was ten, struck by a high-speed freight truck. The trucking company hadn’t been held liable; commercial traffic had right-of-way over “superfluous” recreation vehicles.

Berda paged down again, then frowned, looking at her educational background. He’d expected her to be smart, all rightbut she hadn’t just entered college incredibly early, she’d burned through it at the same speed she’d burned through her primary schooling. The girl had two Masters, one in software engineering, and one in nanotechnology, whatever that might be. And her Bachelor’s minor had been in politics.

“Detective Berda?”

He started, then turned at the voice, finding a slim raccoon woman in a blue business suit standing to his left. “I’m Amanda Ryerson.”

“Oxia?”

She nodded.

He leaned against the monitor wall. “Fifty words or less. What happened?”

“We’d started our routine tests on prisoners. Well into them. This is just a matter of shaving off a small patch of fur behind the ear, applying a little cosmetic solution to it, seeing how the skin reacts. They’re informed of the risk and get some compensation for it.”

“You run the tests here?”

“Yes.”

“So you let a woman serving a life sentence for attacks on your company into your testing program and brought her back to your campus.”

“That shouldn’t have been allowed. We’re still investigating that lapse.”

He rubbed his face. “And the part where your cosmetics solution turns her into Giganta?”

She leaned toward one of the monitors, pulling a thin card out of her pocket and sliding it into a slot next to it. The picture on the monitor fuzzed out a split-second, then changed to a security camera view of a group of prisoners, including Riitha, and several doctors. The prisoners were seated, the doctors stood. Three guards stood by the only visible door.

“They’d just finished the test,” she said. “In a momentnow. Riitha’s approaching one of the guards, he raises his gun, and she says something

“What?”

“We don’t know. Watch.” The guard had put his gun back down, apparently mollified by whatever she said. Then inexplicably, all three guards fell over, and Riitha bolted through the door, slamming it shut behind her. The doctors started to run after her, but they fell over before reaching the door; in another moment, all the remaining prisoners had slumped in their chairs.

“Where’d she go?”

“Building D6. We think she took one of the underground tunnels.”

“What’s in Building D6?”

“There used to be some offices. Nothing special.”

“‘Used to be?’”

“It’s gone.”

“She knocked it down?”

Ryerson pulled out the card, and punched a few buttons on the side of the monitor. “No. It’s gone.” The view had changed to show a hovercam shot of a bare concrete foundation. The foundation had been cracked, and asphalt leading away from it bore the imprint of the giant Riitha’s footprints.

“You’re saying it vanished and left a giant ringtail in its place.”

“Evidently, yes.” She readjusted her glasses and met his gaze.

Fletcher stuck his head back in the van. “They’ve got Wilrick here.”

“Great.” He turned back toward the raccoon. “How long was it between the time she vanished and the time she reappeared as a giantess?”

“Thirty-three minutes.”

“It took that long to get there?”

“There is…evidence she broke into sensitive research areas.”

“I trust you have a vidcard of her in those areas, too?”

Sensitive as in classified, Detective Berda.”

He sighed, then straightened up and stuck his head out of the van. “It’s about three minutes to the next showtime, I think.” He tapped his mike. “Kaylin?”

“I thought you’d forgotten about me, John. That hurt. I’ve only known you a short time, but I’d like to think I’m something special to you already.”

“I was doing a little research. My associate tells me Tana is here.”

The giantess perked up her ears, and turned toward the barricades, searching the crowd. “Send her out.”

He stepped out, moving toward the barricade slowly, aware Ryerson was following him. “If we give you what you want, what happens next?”

“Oh, you do read all the right detective books, don’t you? Your associate. That’s Fletcher, right? He didn’t think to ask me that. What race is he?”

“He’s a wolf.”

“That’s funny. Fucking wuss. If you’re next in line for his job, push him over those pointless barricades he set up, and his position will be open in about three seconds.” She flicked her tongue against her teeth.

“You wouldn’t want to eat him. He’s got a lot of fat on him. So do I, for that matter.”

Kaylin laughed. “What happens is Tana comes out, I pick her up, and you don’t come after me.”

“And that’s it. Do you return to a normal size?”

“I think you’ll be more likely to follow the ‘don’t come after me’ if I don’t.”

“I don’t mean to pick holes in your escape plan, but where does a giant ringtail woman go to hide?”

“Wherever she fucking wants. You’ll understand if I’m not interested in sharing details.” She turned away from the hovercam she’d been addressing, and leaned over the building she’d turned into a hostage cage. Predictably, screaming started again, but this time Kaylin glared. “All of you shut up.”

The noises faded.

She looked back at the barricades. “I don’t see Tana walking toward me.”

“It’ll take us a little time to get all that set up.”

“She’s one person, John, and all the setup you need is sending her outside. I kind of like you, so don’t bullshit me.” A growling undertone was present in her voice now, making it a subtle hiss. “You may think you have all the time you need.” She whirled, bringing her fist down inside the ruined building. “Remember they don’t.”

Berda stared, then dashed back into the van, looking at the monitors. One of the hovercams faced down into the room; it was a cafeteria, he saw now, with about eight or nine times as many people in it as it was designed to hold. Her fist had crashed down on a small table, and three people who’d been sitting there. One of them still lived, obviously with one or both legs broken; the other two looked like bodies thrown clear of a car wreck. Somehow it was more disturbing for the relative lack of blood. It was, Berda decided, the twisting.

“That’s one of our vice-presidents,” Ryerson said softly from behind.

“Don’t make me keep waiting,” Kaylin’s voice came.

Berda scowled, ripping off the headset, and looked for the wolf. “Fletcher!” he yelled. “I don’t give a damn what Oxia wants, get a goddamn weapon here!”

The raccoon looked alarmed. “You can’t use a weapon against her, especially here, detective.”

“If we have to target her, we’ll do our damndest not to hurt your employees.”

“There’s a lot more at stake here than that!”

“Like what?” he growled.

“I can’t go into full details, because your department hasn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement with

“Fuck me,” Berda said loudly, turning away. “Fletcher!” he yelled. “Whatever you get, when we use it I want to fucking vaporize her down to her rings! That’s the kind of weapon you get! Got that?”

“You will not!” Ryerson said hotly. “We have jurisdiction over weapons use with regard to our property and we have not, and will not, authorize that kind of force!”

“We’ll do it when she’s off your goddamn property, then.”

“I told Fletcher we wanted her alive and as intact as possible. There will be no ‘vaporizing.’ Period.”

“You don’t have jurisdiction over

“Oxia has a significant financial interest in your department. If you and Fletcher want a pension, we have jurisdiction.”

Berda pushed the raccoon back against the monitor wall, snarling. “All right, boss, how do we take her alive and intact?”

Ryerson’s eyes widened behind her glasses. “Elephant nets?”

He leaned close to her face. “She can juggle goddamn elephants, Ryerson. She’s a goddamn giantess, which should be goddamn impossible, and the only way she got to be that goddamn big is from something in your goddamn lab. You’re not getting this, are you? She knows how you work, what your concerns are, what you’ll protect and what you won’t. Oxia is being played like a violin here.”

The raccoon blinked a few times. “I…don’t…”

Berda straightened up. “Look. A hostage-taker with half a brain is not going to let herself be put in a position where a police sniper can take her out without harming the hostages. But at that size she might as well have a target painted between her tits. She knew we weren’t going to be allowed to shoot her.”

Ryerson swallowed.

Berda sighed. “Riitha knew exactly where she was going in your building. I bet where she got to this time is where she was trying to get to with Wilrick four years ago. And somehow she got herself transferred out of maximum security and into your experimental program so this time you’d bring her to where she needed to be. And now you have an interest in keeping her ‘alive and intact,’ hasn’t she?”

Ryerson took a deep breath, looking at the ceiling and folding her arms over her chest. “Yes.”

“Now.” Berda turned away, and looked back at the monitor with Riitha’s background file. “Other than taking her out, the only option I have on the table is giving her what she wants, and what she wants is turning your company into ringtail chow. So if I were you, I’d pull my head out of my corporate NDA ass and start sharing any secrets that might give the nice policeman another alternative.”

“It’s our belief,” Ryerson said, voice tight, “that Riitha stole technology from our nanobot development project.”

“Your what?”

“Nanobots are microscopic simple machines that can perform tasks on a cellular level, or even below. They

“Nanotechnology,” Berda said, eyes widening in shock. “Am I right?” He started tapping furiously on the keyboard.

“Uh, yes,” Ryerson said.

“What do you do with them?”

“We were working on a range of ideas, mostly entertainment-driven. A new level of virtual realitymaking it truly physical. Changing colors, textures, form.”

His fingers paused over the keyboard. “Like, say, a ringtail into a giant ringtail.”

“No. Nanobots don’t let you change physics. That should be impossible,” Ryerson said.

He called up a new document on the screen as he spoke. “That’s where the vanishing building went. The extra mass she’d need.”

“Detective Berda, our technology isn’t good enough to do that. Our best prototypes right now are sheets that change their own patterns. We’re a year away from even our own goals, and they don’t involve…” She waved a hand. “Flouting gravity.”

He leaned back, and tapped the screen. “Unless you have a better explanation, I’m guessing she’s years ahead of all of you.”

Ryerson stepped forward to read the text on the monitor. It was the frontispiece of Riitha’s masters’ thesis, the title reading Nanotechnological Reconfiguration of Living Matter Without Process Disruption.

“Look at the copyright,” he said.

The raccoon leaned over. In smaller print at the bottom: Copyright assigned by Regents of New Hampton University to Oxia Research Laboratories. “Yes, I know.”

“You know,” he repeated flatly. “Your research is based on this work, isn’t it?”

“We’re putting nearly a hundred percent of our R&D budget into that project and its offshoots,” she said quietly. “If it is, in some small part, related to her work, there must be very little of it left.”

“Oh, I’ll buy that. Look at the comments on this thesis from her college sponsors. They didn’t understand it. Not a fucking clue. They passed it because it scared them. And you people don’t know what it does, eitheryou’re just sure you can make money off it.”

“She could have moved from college directly into a job with us. The offer was there. I made it personally. If she’d wanted to, she’d be leading that research lab, making more in a day than youor Imake in a year.” Ryerson frowned, expression genuinely puzzled. “Instead, she chose to become a…criminal.”

He let out his breath. “And this project is important enough to risk letting a giantess get out into the city.”

“If this project dies, Oxia dies with it. If you know what effect that would have on this country’s economy, you’d consider this just as important, detective.”

Berda’s ears skewed at a slight noise, and with a slight sense of panic he realized Kaylin was speaking to him on the headset. He slipped it back on hurriedly.

of them it’d take to support my weight. You think all of them could do it, John?”

“What are you talking about, Kaylin?”

“Oh, you’re back. I’m still waiting and I’m getting very impatient. Isn’t the chief negotiator supposed to stay in constant contact with the desperate criminal?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I should be.” He glanced at her images in the monitors still focused on her, then stepped back outside the van.

“We have some rockets,” Fletcher said, running up to him. The wolf was panting. “Shit, John, I don’t

Berda held up his hand for silence, and kept speaking. “There’s a lot of logistics to work out. Like how to get a hundred-foot tall ringtail out of an area with minimal damage.”

“Service roads. You can clear the traffic if you want. Are you just holding me here for better ratings?”

“Excuse me?” He tapped off the mike and spoke to Fletcher quickly. “We need to get someone from Oxia’s nanotechnology project here, talking with Ryerson, something. We need to find a way to shut down the nanobots in her.”

“What?” Fletcher said.

“You heard me. Go!”

“News ratings,” Kaylin elaborated. “People like me are newshounds, when they’re not in prison away from television. I’m sure most people aren’t, but you’d think this would be attracting peopleit has it all, hmm? Disaster, random, violent death, and shameless nudity. More people should be right out here, watching in person.”

“I guess they’d rather watch it from the safety of their own homes. And I don’t know what the ratings are.”

She leaned back against the office building she’d been using as a chair. “Yeah, I guess most people have been conditioned to believe watching it is better than being there in person. What can I do to provide more entertainment for the masses? A live sex show, perhaps.”

John approached the barricade as he spoke. “Doing what, using a minivan as a dildo?”

The giantess blinked at the hovercam, looking surprised, for just a moment. Then she laughed, nibbling on one of her claws. “Trying to outshock me? Hmmm. That sounds rather painful, but I’m sure it’d send ratings through the roof.”

“I bet so.”

“You were out of touch with me for nearly ten minutes, John. There’s someone from Oxia there.”

“Yes, there is. She doesn’t want to tell me too much.”

She smirked. “Of course. She just wants to run things for you. Tell her I’m going to keep killing more than one at once, and I’m going to focus on the ones who look important. She knows I’ll be able to tell the difference between the queen bees and the workers.”

“Killing people won’t get Tana out any faster. Don’t do in anymore. I’m trying to help you.”

“Your job is to do what Oxia tells you. To them, all these people here”she waved a hand negligently toward her hostages“are just resources. Remind your Oxia friend that the faster I get Tana, the less resources they lose. The less all this nasty mess costs. And ultimately, don’t we all just want to keep our costs down?”

The headset clicked as Fletcher broke in on another channel. “Ryerson’s got some experts here who might be able to reprogram the nanothings, but they say they can’t get into the computers in there from out here. Something’s wrong with their networks.”

“Why didn’t they start doing this on their own without us forcing them?” Berda muttered.

“They’re not paying for our services, and I’m sure they’re paying their own folks.”

“Why do we have to keep making her right?” He sighed, rubbing her temples. “They can get in through another building, I hope to God.”

“We think so, but it’ll have to be a lot closer to Godzilla Girl than we’d likeall the gates on the other side of the building are electronically locked. They say it’s only dumb luck that they’ve found one they can override.”

Berda looked up at the giantess as she lounged lazily in the distance, then shook his head. “We can only hope. She’s been ten steps ahead of us in everything else. Get ’em in as fast as possible and keep me posted. I’m gonna go to just the earphone.”

“What? If you don’t keep talking to her, she might

“She’ll do whatever she wants, you spineless fuck, just like she’s been doing,” Berda said tiredly. He ripped off the headset and folded it up into his pocket, leaving just the tiny speaker ear clip, ignoring the burst of curses. Then he stepped forward, over the barricade, to the gasp of the onlookers, and started walking toward Kaylin.

She sat up straighter when she noticed him, then stood up, when he was still a good eighty yards away, and she shook her head, cascading her short black hair over her ears haphazardly. “Tsk tsk tsk,” she said clearly, and started striding forward. “You’re not Tana.”

The giantess had taken two steps before she finished her short sentenceliterally his death sentence, Berda realized. Three more steps. “I’m John!” he yelled.

She didn’t slow down. He felt her next step, and took an involuntary step backward. He tried to project his voice harder. “Kaylin!”

Another footfall, less than twenty feet away, the black eyes far above him focused straight down on the spot her other, already-swinging foot would land. “I’m John!” he screamed, voice going a little hoarse on the last consonant.

Her foot thudded down some three feet away from his side, the ankle parallel to his body.

Berda made a soft, strangled noise, looking up the length of the leg to her knee. He thought his heart was about to burst.

The ringtail’s other foot moved up parallel to the first, leaving the fox between them. Then, in a quick, smooth motion, she crouched. Berda stared up, unable to make a sound or move, watching hundreds of tons of beautiful impossibility move with what seemed an equally impossible agility.

“John,” she said, resting her hands on her knees and looking down at him. “So now you’re not just a voice to me. Quite brave of you.”

When he found that voice again it had an embarrassing squeak. “I…wanted to talk directly.”

“Talk about why I shouldn’t stand up again and grind you into pulp under my heel. That might just reinforce the fact that I have all of you by the short-hairs right now. I don’t think Oxia’s quite gotten that, have they?”

“No. I’m hoping…ah…that you won’t do that, ma’am.”

“Ma’am? Appealing to my sense of power?” She laughed, and leaned over a little more, setting a hand by him palm up. “We’ll just take it for granted that mortal fear commands respect, and leave the titles out of it. Say Kaylin.”

He looked at the hand, the nearly-smooth palmpads. The fingers still seemed slim, but each fingertip was nearly half a foot wide. He’d always thought of the claws on the ends of cats’ fingers as nails, but at this size, they were claws. Spikes. He looked back up at her.

“Call me Kaylin. And climb on.”

Berda swallowed again, then stepped forward, crouching by the hand, then awkwardly scrambled onto the palmpad.

Her fingers immediately curled up, catching his legs lightly between two of them and pushing him back against the ball of her thumb, the pad of her middle finger brushing against his chest. “That’s one part. And the other?”

“Uh. Kay…Kaylin it is,” he wheezed, unable to take his eyes off the natural dagger whose point lay near his breastbone.

The hand shifted under him like a rickety elevator. “And Tana said men couldn’t be trained.”

Suddenly he was swinging up through the air, like a real-life roller coaster. His dad had said there used to be real roller coasters, probably still were in more rural areas, and had always claimed the VR versions just didn’t compare. Now Berda realized his dad had been right. He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth and forcing his stomach to calm down. There has never been a moment in your life when it’s been more important not to puke than this one.

In less than ten seconds it was over; he felt something hard under his feet, and dared to open his eyes again. He saw the claw, the finger it was attached to, and then the rooftop Kaylin’s hand was resting on. Her fingers opened. “Go on, hop off,” she said.

Berda crawled off, then sat down, panting heavily.

The ringtail rested her forearm arm along the roof’s edge, then rested her chin on her wrist, looking at him. “You’re not scared of heights, are you?”

“N…not normally.” He managed a weak grin, looking back at her face. He’d never looked at a ringtail this closely before; she reminded him alternately of cat, fox and raccoon.

Then she grinned, slightly. That was all feline. “Oh, I assure you I’m safe…in the sense of not being likely to drop you by accident. How old are you, John?”

Fletcher’s voice came faintly to him over the earphone clip. “They’re sending out their team, just two of their top geeks and a guard. It’ll only be a minute. Keep her looking at you.”

“Just over twice your age,” he said to her, shifting his position to more directly face her. “I’m two months away from fifty.”

“Older than my father would have been.” She furrowed her brow.

“Do you miss him?”

She turned her gaze back on him, expression impassive. “How much about me do you know?”

“Not much. I don’t know how you got to be a giant, although I have some ideas. I know how you got into Oxia’s labs today, but I don’t know how you got into the program.”

She half-grinned. “Almost like someone wanted me there, like this is part of a larger plan.”

“Is it?”

“Successful revolutions aren’t one-person shows, even if that one person’s a giant.”

“How many anarchists do you think there are out there? I haven’t heard about any, other than you, in nearly a decade.”

“Now the loud ones are being arrested for sedition. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.”

He folded his arms.

“Your job might be to protect the public from me, but the government’s more concerned with protecting them from my ideas.” She leaned closer, unnervingly so. “There’s a lot out there. More with each weekly riot.”

“You make them sound like scheduled events.”

She kept the same odd smile, huge eyes focused on him. “They’re getting worse, aren’t they?”

Berda looked back at her, tail flicking nervously despite his best intentions. His own smile faded. “Yeah. Yeah, they are. They might as well be scheduled events, I guess.”

She nodded slowly, then flicked an ear, sitting up. “Speaking of which, it’s been fifteen minutes. At least.”

He blinked, glancing at his watch. Closer to seventeen. “Kaylin, wait!”

She raised her eyebrows slightly, face otherwise expressionless.

“If you have to kill someone, kill me. You said

“No. For the moment, I’d rather talk with you.” She rose to her feet.

Berda ran to the edge of the roof. “Dammit, Kaylin, you can’t!”

At that, the ringtail just looked back down at him, gaze as still as stone, her silence a more eloquent rebuttal to his ridiculous claim than any words. He met her eyes until he started trembling inwardly, and stepped back from the roof.

One step forward, and she leaned over the cafeteria-prison, Berda’s view for a moment a pose for a saucy photographthe ringtail’s sleek legs and rump, her full, long tail pointing up into the sky at a high angle.

Her well-cowed group of hostages remained nearly silent to Berda’s ears, until a fewthe ones in her handbegan screaming as she straightened up. Three of them, it looked like, wriggling in her clutched fingers, the legs of one unsupported and kicking furiously. Kaylin looked at them as if they were an odd curiosity, turning her hand this way and that, always keeping the fingertips up.

Berda straightened, and looked up at her face, speaking as loudly as he could without yelling. “They said you were a nonviolent offender. What happened?”

The ringtail became motionless save for her slowly twirling tail, elbow by her side and hand in front of her, and the gaze focused on her fingers became distant. She remained that way for several long seconds, contemplative.

Then she suddenly reared her arm back and swung it forward again over her shoulder, a vicious fastball pitch with perfect follow-through.

Berda’s knees buckled, but he kept his eyes on her face. Kaylin straightened up, eyes following the screaming, flailing figures, for long seconds. Then she tilted her head skyward and closed her eyes. “Things changed,” she said softly.

Another ten seconds passed before she walked back to the building, sat down and leaned against it heavily, the back of her head to the fox.

Fletcher’s tinny voice came again. “They’re in,” he simply said.

“So,” Kaylin said, clearing her throat. “The riots. Part of your job is keeping them quiet.”

Berda walked up to her, standing by her shoulder. “My job is keeping the peace.”

“For who?”

He kneeled by her, looking at the thick fur. “The people.”

“You can touch me if you like.”

Berda felt warmth as she spoke, and he turned toward her face to see that she had turned, too, looking at him. Her nose hovered some three feet away. If she opened her mouth, he could step into itor she could just lick him into it. He swallowed. He was doing his damndest to look calm, but he couldn’t control his smell, and he was positive he reeked of fear.

Hesitantly he reached out and touched the fur with one hand, then ran it through it. Even at this size, it was soft, if coarse.

“Keeping knowledge of how bad things really are hidden protects some people. But not the right ones.”

He looked back up at her, tail flicking.

“Things can’t go on this way. You know that as well as I do.”

“Revolution. That’s what anarchy’s about?”

“It’s about change. There’s a chasm between the producers and the owners, and the bigger it gets, the better they get at hiding it.” She tilted her head, and laughed. “Now it’s so big that even I couldn’t close it. Not at this size.”

“I don’t follow you.”

She reached over with a finger and brushed it against his chest. “Yes, you do,” she said softly. He gasped, trying to concentrate on her words.

“They can’t hide it anymore, John. What they’ve done, what they keepd doing. That’s why the riots happen. That’s why they’re worse with each passing week. But that gap, that chasm, has gotten so wide we can’t even have a revolution. We need a controlled cataclysm.”

Berda rested a hand on her finger, tracing the claw shakily. “And then? What new state do you want?”

“Ultimately all states become oligarchies, if history is any guide at all. It’s time for us to run our own lives instead of appointing people to do it for us.”

“That’s very…optimistic.” If you disregard the “cataclysm” part. “You think you can somehow just sweep everything away and the world will come together to rebuild something better from the ashes?”

She dropped her finger away from him. “At this point I don’t think it’ll make things any worse. Do you?”

Fletcher’s voice, tinny and a little hoarse: “They’re trying to crack some damn security lock she put in, then reset the nanites. You might not want to be close to her when they succeed.”

Great. I’m supposed to ask her to set me down by her feet so I can run like hell?

“Yes. Yes, Kaylin, I do.” He ran a hand through his hair. “How can you make sure you’re only sweeping away…only sweeping away the right people?”

The ringtail’s gaze grew distant. “I’m trying to save a nation,” she said slowly. “Not individuals.”

“So we’re all disposable game pieces.”

She clenched her fists, then relaxed them, and her gaze fixed on him again as she leaned over. “Of course I’m making it seem like a game to me,” she said, half-smiling. “There’s no other way I could do what has to be done.”

John stepped forward, touching her hand gently. “You can stop this.”

“No,” she said very softly. “This started long ago, and stopping it here won’t change anything. It stops when I get Tana.”

“We both know that’s not true. It can’t be.” He spread his hands. “That’s not when it ends, it’s when it really starts, isn’t it? I just don’t know what it is.”

She shifted her position, lowering her head, and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Let her go to me, John, and then get in your car and drive. Fast. Far away.”

He tried not to shiver at her grin. “I can’t do that. Kaylin, I know…that you believe in what you’re doing. Very strongly. And I know enough about you to know that your intellect dwarfs mine in about the same way your body dwarfs mine right now. But.” He looked away. “After what you’ve done, what you’re doing…what I’m afraid you might be planning. You know I can’t.”

She smiled, with a hint of sadness. “Because you believe so strongly in what you’re defending?”

Berda looked back at her, into her eyes, and tried to answer. Finally he dropped his gaze.

“That’s what Iuh.” She straightened up suddenly, looking around. “Something…”

“What is it?”

The giantess curled up, and let out a howling scream.

Berda’s ears flattened, and he scrambled back from her. He’d never heard a noise quite so loud, or quite so painful.

The scream merged into a chattering, convulsive keen, and Kaylin started kicking at the building in the throes of whatever gripped her, huge footpaws slamming into the concrete side, windows shattering. The fox lost his footing, sliding toward the roof’s center.

Berda pulled himself to his feet, looking around. He couldn’t see Kaylin now, other than the whip of her tail. The rooftop stairwell access door stood a few yards away; Berda fought with the impulse to go over and look at the giantess. Despite what he’d seen her do, he didn’t want her to be subject to torture.

Although that’s almost certainly what lay ahead for her, as Oxia tried to figure out how she’d accomplished in under forty minutes what would be impossible for them in decades.

The keening ended abruptly in an angry, feral growl, and ragged, heavy panting. Was she subdued, or…?

Berda sprinted for the hatch, and reached for it. Locked. Of course.

A slapping thunk came from the edge of the building as something hit it, hard. Kaylin’s hand. Then the other one. Berda looked away, fumbling for his gun.

“John,” she gasped, between breaths.

He risked another glance. She’d pulled herself up into a kneeling position, he guessed, her shoulder level well over the building. As he looked, she moved into a full standing position, hands still resting on the roof, looming over him. Her chest heaved raggedly, and the gaze she focused on him was one of anger.

Fletcher’s voice came over the ear speaker, sounding panicked. “Something’s going wrong. She’s fighting it somehow.”

“Oh, you think?” Berda muttered.

Fletcher continued, “They’re reconfiguring…something. Just a few seconds.”

“Very good,” the ringtail said between gasps. “Keep me distracted…while they go in…too bad they’re idiots. So…am I, I guess.”

“You’re not,” he said, finding his gun. “You’re not, Kaylin, not at all. That’s what scares me.”

“I still…like you anyway, John. I’m still going to…kill you. And them.” She raised one hand. “I’ll…make it quick.”

Berda raised the gun, shot through the door lock and threw himself at the door frame. He didn’t see Kaylin’s fist come down where he’d been standing, but he felt it. He dove down the staircase.

A second later the entire roof hatchway was torn off, the stairs tearing and canting dangerously to one side.

“Fuck,” Berda breathed, throwing himself against the first landing door he came to as the ringtail shoved her hand into the opening she’d made. He’d almost have gotten through if it weren’t for the tail her fingers closed around. She yanked backward, hard. He grabbed onto a railing, looping his arm around it, every muscle in his body protesting as he brought the gun back up again and fired at one of her fingertips.

She let him go abruptly, and he heard the growling curse from above as he crashed back onto the landing.

Berda tried to get back up again, but he didn’t have the strength. He crawled toward the door, wondering if he’d manage to even touch it before she casually drove a claw all the way through him.

But she didn’t; Berda felt the footsteps pound outside as she ran off. He got to the door, pushed it open and got into the hallway beyond.

He propped himself against a wall, and sat there, panting. Killing him was a luxury for her. Killing the “idiots” was a necessity.

He tried to get up as quickly as he could, but it took a half-minute before he was able to stand. Gingerly, he pulled himself back into the staircase, and resumed his descent at a slow pace.

The wind whistled past the opening above. In a moment, the whistling was joined by a bone-rattling crashing.

“Shit,” Fletcher’s voice came. “They’rehold on, looking for another terminal, maybe?”

Berda shook his head, continuing his climb, breathing deeply. Another violent crash.

“Dammit, she’s going right throughoh, she’s got all of them, all three of them, under her hands

He took the clip off his ear, wincing. He didn’t need the details.

In another few seconds he reached the bottom floor, and started wending his way through a cubicle maze toward an outside exit.

We need a controlled cataclysm.

Berda frowned, muttered under his breath, and backtracked to the last exit sign. This hallway looked better.

How many people were with her? How much planning? How many resources? How many people working from inside the government to help bring it down?

How many weren’t? The ones left watching the giantess on fifty-six news channels, taking her as more entertainment, another reason to stay in. Not as a sign to leave.

A sign of revolution.

“Maybe now they’ll let me shoot her,” he muttered.

Finally, the doors appeared. He stepped up to them, then paused. It was a good hundred-twenty yards back to the barricades, with nothing in the way of cover. And he couldn’t see where Kaylin was

A huge, sleek foot thudded down about twenty feet from the door, then lifted again. An even larger, fluffy tailtip swung past.

Berda shifted his position a bit, watching Kaylin approach the barricades. He grimaced, wondering if she was about to erase the fiction she’d evidently set up herself, earlier in the evening, about those on the other side of it being safe. He cracked the door open.

“New rules,” her voice came, clearly. “I pick up a handful of hostages. Set them on the roof of an important building here. Turn them, and the building, into rubble.”

She crouched down, leaning over. Berda could see the crowd shrink back, some of them stumbling. He stepped out, and started quickly making his way back toward the barricades, staying in what little shadows there were.

“I’ve made a few mistakes. The biggest one was assuming that personnel matter as much as property. But personnel can be replaced cheaply, right?” She reached out and set a hand on the communications van, setting all the crowd fleeing, crawling over one another. “Assetsthose matter.”

Berda broke into a run.

Kaylin lifted up the van, still crouching, and peered inside. “And who are you?” A pause. “Fletcher. I remember talking to you. You’re a wuss. And you, I recognize, Miss Ryerson.

“Fletcher, you get on one of those many wonderful communication units I see in this playtoy and tell them to get Tana out by my feet, and if you’re lucky, I’ll let you live. Ryerson, you get out into my hand.” She held her hand up by the door.

“Piss, he’ll do it,” Berda muttered. He reached into his pockets for the pieces of the headset, trying to reassemble them as he ran.

“Fletcher, strap yourself in,” Kaylin instructed. She upended the van and started shaking it violently, keeping her palm under it.

Berda reached the barricade, and paused, panting heavily, looking up to see Ryerson falling into the ringtail’s waiting palm. She stopped shaking the van, and grinned at the raccoon. “You’re afraid I’m going to kill you, aren’t you?”

Berda put on the headphones. “Fletcher,” he gasped. “Fletcher, are you there?”

“Uh…” the voice came weakly.

Kaylin nodded at Ryerson’s unheard answer, and grinned. “That’s the first honest thing I think you’ve said to me in my life. And for that, I’m not going to kill you.”

Berda thought he could hear the raccoon’s sob of relief. “Fletcher,” he said. “Whatever you do, do not give her Wilrick. You understand?”

Kaylin tilted her head, still smiling at the raccoon. “And you know what, Miss Ryerson? That’s the first lie I’ve ever told you.”

She waited for the woman to start screaming, and simply closed her hand. The screaming intensified, briefly. Then the cracking started.

“Too late,” Fletcher gasped.

“Shit,” Berda snarled. But he could make out three policemen, all cats, parting the crowd, pushing a ringtail girl before them. Tana Wilrick.

Kaylin saw them, too, and dropped the crushed body. Fortunately, she didn’t drop the van, just set it down roughly.

Berda started pushing his way toward the van, fighting the crowd trying to move in the other direction. He could hear nothing but the screaming, see nothing but the panicked moband the ringtail towering over all of them. “Step back from her,” Kaylin commanded.

The fox couldn’t tell if they complied. He just saw Kaylin crouch down, reach forward, and a moment later lift her hand back up, carefully, Tana perched on it.

“It’s all right,” Kaylin said softly, soothingly. She brought her girlfriend up in front of her muzzle, the two looking like twin sisters in different orders of magnitude. Tana’s tail twitched wildly. “Give me a kiss.”

Berda pushed his way through the last bit of the crowd, then ran, unseen, to the van.

Fletcher climbed out of it shakily. “I’ll be okay. John, I don’t think

“No shit, you don’t think. Holding Wilrick was our only ace.”

Tana was standing on Kaylin’s palm now, leaning forward, tremblingtouching her lips to one of the giantess’s.

Both of them closed their eyes, and they held the kiss that way for long seconds. Then Tana gasped, shuddering.

Kaylin drew back, and grinned. “It’s yours, too, now,” she said softly.

Berda furrowed his brow, as confused as Tana seemed to be. Then his eyes widened. “Oh, fuck.” He stood up, and sprinted away, toward what he prayed to all the gods was the weapons van. The driver behind the wheel stared at the giantess, barely paying attention to the fox’s mad dash.

“Tana, that fox there is John,” Kaylin’s voice came after him, tone conversational. “He helped some of the police try to kill me. It’s an interesting ethical situation, don’t you think? John is a good man trying to save a damned world from a womantwo women, nowwho I think he knows are right.”

A bright flash of light came from behind him, and a loud crack, like a firework shell going off at ground level. Berda ran faster, trying to ignore the screams, some of pain rather than mere terror.

A new voice sounded behind him. “I think he’s failed.” It was lighter than Kaylin’s, a touch sharper, but had the same resonancethe resonance of a chest cavity bigger than a truck.

Kaylin’s voice, now: “Turn around, John. I’m not interested in killing you anymore. It’s too late for that to matter.”

He looked back over his shoulder, then gaped. Both of them, both giants, a clear crater around Tana. Most of the matter on the groundcars, barricades, peoplegone.

And running toward him, as if he were the threat: a half-dozen security officers in Oxia uniforms, with weapons out. He raised his hands over his head. Shit. How could he

Kaylin leaned over and swept her hand through the officers, sending them flying. “You have one last chance to leave, John.”

“He tried to kill you, and you’re letting him go?” Tana narrowed her eyes at him.

Berda threw himself into the van’s passenger seat. “Drive before they change their minds.”

The rabbit driver turned to gape at him. “Uh

He looked out the window. Tana was leaning over and Kaylin wasn’t moving to stop her. “Goddammit move now!

The van took off in a squeal of tires. “Where are we going?”

“The tallest building you can get to in under a minute. Over there, that office park.”

The giantesses had risen to their feet, but they weren’t following. They weren’t even watching. That didn’t make him feel any safer.

“Oxia security’s following,” the driver said.

“I’m sure of it. They’re not on our side this time. Right through the glass into the lobby. Swerve!”

“You’ve been watching too many movies, man.” But the driver touched the override button and swung the wheel hard left, slamming on the brakes as the vehicle crashed into an office building lobby. The security cars drove right past, their own brakes squealing as they strove to come to a stop.

“Four launchers. I take two, you take two. Get to the roof.” Without waiting, Berda grabbed the two closest weapons and headed toward the elevators, dragging them behind him as fast as he could. The doors closed just as the security men showed up.

It seemed to take a full minute to reach the building’s top floor, some fifty floors up. There were taller buildings toward the actual downtown area, but this was more than high enough. Berda raced outas best he couldand blessed the building designer who put the stairs nearby. It took another twenty seconds to hit the roof level, and another ten beyond that to drag the launchers to the edge.

Kaylin hadn’t lied, precisely: she and Tana had walked along a service road. They were casually strolling, side by side, leaving the road untouched. The long, low warehouses to either side were being reduced to rubble under their feet.

“Stop!” a voice called from behind him.

John ignored it.

Kaylin stopped where she was, standing still. Tana kept walking, off into the distance toward the setting sun. It was just low enough on the horizon to turn the sky haze orange, as close to beauty as one could get within hundreds of miles of here.

John aimed the first launcher toward Kaylin.

“John, we have other ways,” Fletcher said from somewhere behind him. “They should be sending out planes with trank missiles any moment now. Probably already in the air

“That’s not good enough.” John crouched by the weapon, reaching for its trigger.

Four security men tackled him from behind, slamming him into the ground, head against the railing.

“No!” he growled. “Listen

They didn’t. They cuffed him to the railing.

“You fucking morons,” John gasped, near tears.

“Sir, we can’t let you

“Damage property?” John pulled against the cuffs, snarling. “No, we sure as shit wouldn’t want that. Fuck society, save the property, right?”

The security person he’d been addressing, a stocky badger, looked back at him uncertainly.

Suddenly the dim sky became brilliant, two new suns forming around the giant ringtails.

“Oh, my God,” Fletcher whispered.

An expanding circle of white sped out from both of them, their forms so brilliantly lit they became monochrome. As the circles expanded, what was in them simply disappearedbuildings, cars, peopleeverything but the ringtails. Who grew. And grew.

The earth began to tremble, a low-level but growing earthquake. Their ears became level with the skyscraper, or so John thought. Then past. If anything, they were growing faster.

One of the security men started firing the rockets. John thought all of them hit. They could hardly miss now, but they could hardly matter.

The light became too intense, and John looked away.

When the rumbling subsided, he opened his eyes again. Tana seemed very far away, Kaylin closer. Her knee was well above the rooftop level.

Both of the ringtails sat down, slowly, and the rumbling started again, concrete and steel giving way like dust. They kneeled, seemingly half the city between them. Briefly it became quiet enough for Berda to hear the sirens, perhaps even the screamsperhaps, though, that was just his imagination.

The planes Fletcher had hoped for appeared, circling around, uselessly firing. Kaylin watched the little gnats a moment, then laughed, like musical thunder, and moved her head. She let out a puff of breath, and they were gone.

The two ringtails looked at one another across the doomed city. John’s world became entirely Kaylin, hundreds of yards away, taking up all his view, straight up to her chest, her breasts, the head far, far above.

She and Tana leaned forward, taking up the sky, too, and the city began to crumble as their lips met.

Slowly they pushed their hips toward one another, and the earthquake started again, buildings breaking across their legs, thighs and stomach like water, the kiss centered over the violently shaking skyscraper.

Their breasts touched, finally, directly overhead, and the kiss deepened. John Berda stared, then began laughing, uncontrollably, as the two lovers slowly moved into a tight embrace.

January 1999