Grab your backpack, said the silhouetted figure of Camberley, already hovering over the pile where shed dumped her gear. But leave the guns. Theyll cause more trouble than theyll help this time, anyway.
Aw, not even a little pistol? she said.
Bring the backpack. If you want to put something in it, you can, but arms wont really help. But dont dawdle; we have less than ten maybe eight minutes before a bomb destroys this building.
Kim-na boggled and ran over to the backpack. Whynt ya say that before? She reached down, and despite his admonition to the contrary, she grabbed not only the backpack but kept in it the pistol and revolver shed been carrying, and kept several grenades too. She wasnt going into a war zone unarmed, even if Camberley somehow knew the guns would be useless.
He had already floated back to the stairwell, and she whirled around, knocking over an easel. She broke into a quick canter and stopped in front of the door. A loud boom rang through the air and shook the walls. Camberley was right: With those kinds of noises, the library didnt have much time. She threw open the door, raced down the steps to the ground floor, stumbled once, and darted between the stacks toward the exit. Another boom shook the walls again, and the hanging lights flickered once, twice and went out just as she reached the ornate, sturdy wooden front door. She thrust it aside and crumbled and rolled down the marble steps, landing uncomfortably in an unruly heap on the sidewalk below.
Camberley floated over to her. You didn't need to rush. Theres still a good six minutes left, and the blast will strike the southern wall. These steps are quite safe.
She pulled herself up off the sidewalk, brushing dust and dirt from her pelt, and rubbing her shoulder. You coulda told me that before I busted my ass gettin down here. Damn, scrapes and bruises hurt too, yknow.
Camberleys moonlit sliver turned and looked up at the sky wistfully. A cold wind rushed by, but it was quickly canceled by a blast of hot air as a bomb struck a building beside the library. Kim-na crouched and braced herself against the wind as flames welled up on the far side of the building.
We I guess we ought to be going, he said.
Ya think? said Kim-na. She stood back up and peered across the dark street. In the moonlight, it looked as though it was a river of cement and then it occurred to her that it really was a river of black asphalt, cold, but still a sludgy liquid. The dashed yellow lines were gently flowing with the current to meet the crossroad, and as she watched in awe, the front half of a sedan floated by, its rear hidden under the ripples.
Yes, I think we ought to be going. Come on then, said Camberley, his voice now firm. He floated away down the sidewalk to the east, and she turned, brushed herself off once more, and took off after him.
* * *
What had once been a park was now smoking rubble, and Kim-na was astonished that it had changed so much in fifteen minutes time. The giant web covering the battlefield was still there, but it was torn and tattered now, rent asunder by the claws of wolfmen and other stranger creatures whose bodies littered the ground below. Many of them were twisted and wrong, bizarre convolutions of human forms and animal forms, made by a creator that was surely sociopathic if not outright evil. And beside them were other creatures, these designs of elegance and grace, not just true humans but also winged men, and nagas and centaurs and furries and not a few driders, all lying with their twisted brethren, their blood staining the battlefield one and the same. Here and there were smoldering craters, and a twisted tree wrenched from the soil or split in twain by an explosion. Small fires burned in random spots, and they would surely have spread farther had not the land been so dead and barren to begin with. The scene looked like something out of a movie, so bizarrely surreal that Kim-na could not be sure there wasn't a director hiding somewhere, about to shout Cut! after which the fallen forms would rise and meander to the lunch-table for sandwiches, coffee, and a smoke. But no-one called and no-one rose: The only noises here were the rare zing of a bullet or the distant thud of a bomb or the crackle and sizzle of a small fire.
Kim-na and Camberley stood on the parks edge as smoky haze wafted past them and the unmistakable smells of blood and gunpowder filled the air. Holy hell, she said.
War looks like this, said Camberley. I traveled a little the first year I had this form. I saw people fighting, and it never looks any different, no matter whos doing it or what their reasons are. Young men and women dead. Civilians dead. Its sad that this species never grew out of its brutal roots. And Im not on a high horse: Im just as guilty as anyone, and that could so easily have been me out there: There but for the grace of God go I.
Well, Im on a high horse, said Kim-na. And that aint me out there. I may be bitchy and violent, but I dont do no wars, and my kids wont someday neither. My people aint human, so we ain't makin human mistakes. Centaurs gonna have a higher standard, swhat Im talkin about.
Camberley looked up at her, and she could almost make out his face. You really like what you are, dont you?
Why shouldnt I? Every girl wants a horse. I got mine and I dont never gotta lose it or sell it. Plus someday I get married an I get my boy n a horse with him its a two-for-one sale on girl happiness.
Camberley shook his head, and she was sure he was smiling at her. I never wouldve expected it. Maybe the Change wasnt a complete disaster: A closed door, and an open window. But come on; times wasting.
Where we goin?
Camberleys thin silvery-lined arm rose and pointed. You have to go that way. The moment the bomb strikes the library, youll need to run at a hard gallop to the trucks. Dont stop, and dont slow down.
She looked oddly at him. What? Why not?
Because theyre calling in a second and larger bombing raid right now, and those Marines are going to be laying down cover fire. If you maintain a straight line to the trucks, and dont slow, youll arrive intact. They know better than to shoot at a centaur; theyll think you're on their side and protect you. But if you slow down, or change course, or stop and smell the roses, youll be blasted to bits by the bombs, and since Im entrusting you to talk to my daughter about me, Id appreciate it if youd live long enough to do that.
She frowned. Great. And whatre you doin?
Im going that way.
His arm swiveled slowly and stopped. A trio of planes raced overhead, and suddenly the far side of the battlefield exploded in a giant ball of fire.
Youre going there? she gasped. To the beast!?
Camberleys outline nodded. I have unfinished business. I have a mistake to rectify and a younger daughter to whom I must speak a last time before I am gone.
No way. You know what they do if they caught you? You cant
Too late run! cried Camberley as an airplane roared overhead.
Suddenly there was a great explosion behind them. Kim-na whirled about. The near wall of the library had been wrenched into a thousand pieces, and she could see half of Camberleys circle of easels and whiteboards through the open gash, while the other half surely lay in the rubble below. Cement slabs crumbled to reveal rods of rusty rebar, and smoke and fire poured from the dark yawning chambers behind them. She realized the books were burning, but she had no time to care: Her mind reeled, and Camberleys instructions peeled across the inside of her eyeballs as though they were emblazoned on a Broadway marquee: Hard gallop. Dont stop. Dont slow down.
She turned about to face the trucks, kicked mightily, and bolted. She ran, hard and fast, her head down, never looking up, a hard gallop like shed never run before. It wasnt easy for her to let instinct take over: Shed spent years fighting it, maintaining control of her mind and her emotions, but now with explosions bursting all around her sometimes only a few feet away running in terror seemed easy. Her hooves tore into the dirt, and she began to feel a little winded by the halfway mark, but she kept running. Once, just once, she dared to glance over her shoulder and look for Camberley, and she thought she saw him, a glowing outline approaching the stadium with his hands in the air as two guards pointed guns at him, but there was a sharp sting in her left shoulder and she redoubled her efforts and focused on running. Darting around fallen figures in the deep blue of the early twilight, leaping over blackened chasms torn into the earth by explosions, scrambling across what was left of a street with every step the trucks grew closer. Some misshapen large thing swung its arm at her, but she ducked and kept running. She had something important to do, and by God, she wasnt going to die before she did it. Around the trees now, some ripped into splinters, past some large lumbering dark creature, and there were the mounds of sandbags, and behind them the men whose gunfire had covered her as she ran, and who now unleashed their fury on the lumbering dark thing that toppled and fell with the shudder of an earthquake.
Only at last when she skidded to a halt in front of the closest truck did she realize shed been hit in the shoulder by a bullet and was bleeding all down her arm, but shed made it across the battlefield. Exhausted and gasping, she turned dizzily between the trucks, stumbled into the Marines camp, and collapsed into the dirt.
* * *
Well, Ive heard enough stories about you, but I never thought Id see you in person, said a male voice above her.
She blinked, and her eyes adjusted to the light. There was a yellow-green ceiling up there, lit by a hanging electric lamp, but the ceiling was warped, bent, twisted, folding, wavering no, no, this was a tent, not a building. She was in a tent, and there was a strange man creature? leaning over her. He was smartly dressed in a black suit, and he had the head of a cheetah? A leopard? He was some kind of cat, but she couldnt say exactly what.
Who who are you? she mumbled.
Your reputation precedes you, Kim-na Yu, he said. Caitlyns told us a lot of good things about you. Im Dan Parker. I work for the FBI, and you and I both are in the very capable hands of the United States Marine Corps.
Not without some argument, said another male voice, this one rattly and raspy. The voice sounded like it was seated in a chair somewhere to her right. There was a boom, and the tent shook.
Dont start that again, Governor, said Parker. You know how the President classified this. Special National Interest, so its Army and Marines, and even they are specialists only. No grunts allowed, and no National Guard. They sent in the best of the best on this. Youre welcome to walk outside and watch em if you dont believe me.
Its still my state they're blowing up, he groused.
How do you know Caitlyn? said Kim-na.
We picked her up in Maryland, said Parker. Got damn lucky on that one. They were trying to bring her here by old Route 1, and we had an ordinary M sting going on outside Conowingo. Stumbled right on to her. Shes safe now, back at
Its a felony to say that name, said another male voice, a pinched, precise tenor, coming from someone standing somewhere to her left.
Do you really think it matters? said Parker. Do you really think anybody is going to doubt the existence of Drycom after you blew up half of Philly? Really, were taking this girl there anyway.
There was a loud explosion, and the tent shook again.
As I was saying, continued Parker, your friend Caitlyn and another centaur named Steven are safe at Drycom thats a military base about fifteen miles west of here right now. The medic went through a bit of effort to fix your shoulder the bullet missed the bone, but the muscle was pretty badly damaged, and you lost quite a lot of blood. But since you showed up, I now need to escort you back to Drycom for a rest and debriefing, which is good, because it gives me something to do with my time. That, and if Id wanted to be this close to a war zone, Id have enlisted.
Kim-na slowly sat up and looked around. This was a fairly large tent, lit by several hanging electric lights, one of which was flickering, another of which was buzzing, and they'd put her on some kind of drab-green blanket on the ground.
I should tell you
Therell be plenty of time for debriefing on the ride to Drycom, said Parker. Save it at least until I have a pen to take notes. They wont even let me carry a cheap Bic around here lest I somehow leak national secrets.
Sir! cried a young male voice. A Marine darted in, dressed in green camouflage, carrying what looked like a large, ugly yellow-green satellite phone.
The sober-looking military man standing to Kim-nas left turned to him. What do you want, Lance Corporal?
Sir, its a call from them, he said, pointing behind him. They say they have Camberley, sir, and they want to make a deal.
Thats nonsense, Lance Corporal. We have her at a secure facility. I saw her there myself yesterday.
No, sir. They say they have someone named Kevin Camberley, and that I should tell Command directly.
He paused, waiting for an answer, and the men in the tent exchanged glances.
Thats nonsense, Lance Corporal. I read his file this morning. Hes been dead for five years.
Um, said Kim-na.
The tent fell to a dead, eerie silence for just a moment. Every eye in the room turned to look at her, and she took a breath. He ain't dead. I spoke to him a few hours ago.
Parker turned to her, his face so pale even his short fur seemed to have turned a lighter color. You saw him?
Yeah. Hes the one who told me to come here.
The tent fell silent, and they could hear gunfire not far in the distance. The military man spoke. Holy hell.
Parker turned to the young Marine with the phone. What do they want?
Sir, they say theyll give us Kevin, and they want Caitlyn in exchange. What should I tell them?
The men in the tent exchanged another glance.
The sober-looking military man looked at another sitting man in the tent who had not yet spoken. The seated man was very smartly dressed, and wore the most insignia on his crisp military uniform of anyone shed seen. He thought for a second, rubbing his bare chin, and then he nodded. Bring Caitlyn from Drycom, he said, his voice rich and deep. He turned to Kim-na. Looks like youre staying here after all.