â€śI have to do it.â€ť Janet Mason spoke the words
emphatically. Loud enough for the statement to be heard
over the physics lab machinery.
Fellow Ph. D candidate Zhi (a.k.a. guy-with-no-life)
didnâ€™t even look up from his calculations. â€śYouâ€™ll cave.â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s screwing with my life. As my advisor and the head
of this lab, itâ€™s his job to help me. Iâ€™ve been waiting
weeks for his thoughts on my thesis proposal. I need his
â€śGood luck with that. He likes self-starters. And self-
middlers. And self-finishers.â€ť Then he looked at his
watch. Yeah, yeah, she knew it was 4:00 on a Friday
afternoon, but she had to work herself into confrontation
mode. She planned to spend the weekend stirring herself
up into a froth of righteous fury.
â€śI canâ€™t wait any longer.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ll change your mind before Monday.â€ť
At least a hundred times. And right here was where she
started doubting herself. Was she supposed to figure this
stuff out on her own? Sheâ€™d been trying, but she was only
a Ph.D. candidate. Professor Jefferson had the degree
plus a couple others. If heâ€™d just help her a little bit,
â€śNowâ€™s your chance.â€ť
Janetâ€™s head snapped up in shock because right there,
walking into the lab was her boss. What the hell?
Professor Jefferson never showed up in the lab, and
certainly not this late on a Friday. He was too busy
doing â€śadministrative things.â€ť
She never got his full title out, because he cut her off
with an imperious flick of his fingers toward his office.
No words, just that flick which could have been a twitch.
â€śUhâ€¦,â€ť she said, her heart beating hard in her throat.
But then she pulled herself together. Zhi was right.
Right now was the best chance she had to confront Prof.
Jefferson even if his mood was not the best. Or perhaps
verging on the worst, given the glare he sent her way.
Then worse, he stomped to his offer door, hauled it open,
and stood there staring at her. Oh shit. Maybe she should
wait until Mondayâ€¦
â€śIn my office please, Ms. Mason.â€ť
Formal name. Oh hell. He hadnâ€™t called her that since
theyâ€™d first met four years ago when she was still in
undergrad. Damn it, it didnâ€™t matter. It was his job to
help her and she was going to make sure he did. Even if
he looked like he wanted to chew her a new one.
â€śIâ€™m glad youâ€™re here,â€ť she said too brightly as she
scrambled out of her seat and rushed forward. She had to
surreptitiously wipe her sweaty hands on her jeans. â€śIâ€™ve
been looking for an opportunityâ€”â€ť
â€śHave a seat, Janet.â€ť
Hell, he hadnâ€™t even let her finish speaking. She
dropped into the chair in his office, waiting anxiously
as he shut the door behind her then walked with hard
clicks of his heels over to his desk. The surface gleamed
mockingly at her. Her workspace was always a cluttered
disaster, but his desk always gleamed in pristine
emptiness. Four years ago, sheâ€™d thought it was a sign of
a brilliantly organized mind. Now she wondered if it just
meant he never did anything.
â€śIâ€™ve been emailing you,â€ť she began. â€śI really need your
â€śIâ€™ve looked at it,â€ť he interrupted. Again. Then he sat
down at his desk and did it. The worst possible thing a
man in his position could do to her. He sighed and gave
her that fatherly, Iâ€™m-disappointed-in-you look.
â€śI was really disappointed with the work you did. You
understand that this is graduate school now. Slapdash
doesnâ€™t cut it.â€ť
It took her a moment to process his words. Numbness
settled into her chest. Her fingers were already useless
given how tightly she was gripping them together. And
still her mind wouldnâ€™t work. Not so big a problem for
her mouth. â€śBut you already approved my thesis,â€ť she
said. â€śWeeks ago. But the early research hasnâ€™t panned
out and I emailed.â€ť God, she sounded like a whiny child.
She had to be clear. State her case with strength. But
before she could find the words, he started shaking his
head. â€śI just donâ€™t get the feeling that youâ€™re fully
focused right now.â€ť
â€śGraduate students need to be self-starting. I believe I
told you that.â€ť
â€śOf course, butâ€¦â€ť She bit her lip, trying to find the
answer he wanted. â€śIâ€™ll do better. Iâ€™ve been working
hard at my other job. The stipend doesnâ€™t cover much.â€ť
No, no! Sheâ€™d fallen back on being the victim. Why
couldnâ€™t she find the right words?
â€śEveryone has problems. Itâ€™s the people who work through
them that go far. Iâ€™m afraid youâ€™re just not cut out for
this program, Janet.â€ť
It took a moment for her to hear his words over the
growing scream in her brain. She was being kicked out.
â€śBut you know Iâ€™m a good student. You know I work really
â€śI know you were and you did.â€ť Again with the heavy sigh.
â€śBut you havenâ€™t been that stellar student for a long
She stared at him, her mouth hanging half open in shock.
Do something, damn it! Even passing out would be
preferable to this gray blankness of non function. But
all she could think was that she couldnâ€™t get kicked out.
Where would she go? What would she do? Theoretical
physicists only got jobs if they had a Ph. D. She was a
part-time barrista. That wasnâ€™t enough to pay rent much
â€śLook,â€ť she said, scrambling for any option. â€śThe
problemâ€™s the thesis proposal, right? Let me work on it.
â€śThere isnâ€™t time.â€ť
â€śOf course there is. You know what I can do in just a
week. Remember that paper on proton acceleration?â€ť
Probably wasnâ€™t the time to tell him her star paper had
been written in a weekend. â€śI got really intense on that
â€śThat was undergrad. I think you need to accept the
situation here. It gives me no pleasure to do this to
Bull shit. He was totally loving it. â€śThere is time. Iâ€™ll
get you something else. In two weeks, I canâ€“â€ť
â€śMonday, Janet. I can hold off until Monday, but no
She blinked. Monday? It was Friday. Late Friday
afternoon. Hell, almost everyone had already left for the
weekend even though they werenâ€™t supposed to skip until
â€śI can do it, sir,â€ť she said rushing her words just so he
wouldnâ€™t interrupt her.
â€śYou canâ€™t. No one could.â€ť
She gritted her teeth. â€śJust watch me.â€ť Then she stood up
and left. She walked right out without so much as a good-
bye. Or a clue.
She made it home by way of Espresso Royale. She made her
favorite drinkâ€“a quad raspberry latte with extra whip
(thank God for sugar and caffeine)â€“before dropping her
shifts for the two weeks. â€śGoing into deep retreat mode,â€ť
she told her manager.
Yes, she only had a weekend, but assuming she pulled her
butt out of the fire, sheâ€™d need to haul ass to lock it
in. If it were just the work, sheâ€™d have it down in a
single all-nighter. She could whip out a paper in no
time. But the problem wasnâ€™t her writing, it was her core
idea. She just hadnâ€™t a clue what to research and no
interest in anything either.
That was the big problem. Back in high school, sheâ€™d
adored the clean simplicity of formulas like E=mc2 and
p=mv. She liked that there were laws nobody could break.
And the idea that she could discover a new formula? Well
that would be like uncovering the Da Vinci Code.
Except she never really discovered anything because that
was the realm of Nobel Prize winners. Unfortunately, that
was exactly what Dr. Jerk J wanted for her stay in the
Ph. D. program. So now she had a weekend to think of
something brilliant, to uncover something no one else had
thought of before, or at least to aim in a direction no
one else had gone before.
And she was stumped.
She made it home slowly, mentally cudgeling herself with
every step. It didnâ€™t help.
None of her housemates were home. They all had lives.
Well, everyone except the medical student who spent every
waking moment at the hospital. It didnâ€™t matter anyway
because Janet needed a brilliant physics idea. An
engineer, a med student, and an architect were the
beginning of a bar joke, not the kind of resources who
could help her with advanced physics.
So she sat on her bed, drank her latte, and tried to be
inspired. She ended up watching Tom Hiddleston videos
instead. Inspiration of the wrong sort, obviously.
What the hell was wrong with her? Why had her entire life
faded into a wash of gray?
She stared at her walls which were bare. She had a couple
pictures she wanted to hang, but sheâ€™d never gotten
around to it. And since her biological father had once
said menial labor helped him think, she decided to give
it a try. Maybe she would become brilliant while hanging
a picture of Einstein.
Of course that required tools. She had a hanging kit
purchased almost a year ago, but she needed a hammer.
Usually sheâ€™d grab a shoe, but she wore mostly flip flops
or stiletto heels for the occasional date. Which meantâ€¦
Martyâ€™s room. The engineer had a zillion tools kept in
pristine order and she wouldnâ€™t care if Janet borrowed a
hammer. Assuming, of course, she kept the thing clean and
returned it to its anal-retentive spot in the tool belt.
Just in case, she knocked on her friendâ€™s door.
No one homeâ€“which she already knewâ€“so she opened the door
and went in, stepping around three foam-covered fake
swords and designs for a medieval catapult. Marty was a
LARPer. Live Action Roll Play was her favorite hobby
because the internet-based MMORPG versions were just too
lame, according to her. Janet, of course, was more into
â€śsit on the couch and name the plot holes,â€ť but to each
â€śIf I were a tool belt, where would I be?â€ť she asked
herself. And when had she started talking to empty rooms?
She opened the walk-in closet which was filled on one
side with clothes and the other side with Martyâ€™s
Container Store obsession. The tool belt was in one of
these boxes. No it wasnâ€™t, it was hanging on a hook at
the back, a mixture of cheapo student belt with cobbled
on Batman Velcro pouches. She knew that it held all sorts
of cool stuff plus all the usual tools. She was just
grabbing it when a blast of cold air chilled her to the
bones. She looked up. Had someone just come home? But why
would she feel the breeze in a closet?
â€śHello?â€ť she called.
â€śPraise Goddess garble!â€ť
She frowned. Okay, that sounded like it came from deeper
inside the closet, not from downstairs. Which was weird.
And come to think of it, the breeze had been from there
Intrigued, Janet pushed forward. The back of the walk-in
was where Marty stored her costumes. Brocaded tabards
right next to vampire capes complete with spooky netting.
She had to be careful when moving them aside, but she
â€śWhoa.â€ť Just that. One word as she stared at the coolest
hologram ever. Brilliant sky, rocky cliff, and a creepy
looking tree with a huge ass nest braced between three
branches thicker than her thighs.
So this was Martyâ€™s secret project. But why the hell
would she build it behind her costumes in the back of the
closet? For secrecy, obviously, but damnâ€¦ Talk about a
Another blast of cold air hit her, and she squinted
against the bitter wind. There had to be a fan here
somewhere. Nice effect, but annoying as hell not to
mention cold. But where was it coming from? She stepped
closer and half tripped over Martyâ€™s thigh-high sex
boots. Which is when he showed up. Or rather rose up from
the middle of the nest.
A blonde god of a man reminiscent of Thor. His broad
chest was all golden bronze, stretched over well defined
muscles. She thought the scars were overdone, as were the
streaks of blood on his cuts, not to mention a couple
weird white splashes, but whatever. She could appreciate
her roommateâ€™s taste even if it was more beach blonde
sun-god than Tom Hiddleston evil chaos-god.
â€śPrithee angel, forsooth I am stuck fast.â€ť
Prithee? Seriously? Marty needed some better writing, but
beyond that, this was way cool. She stepped to the very
back of the closet and really felt like she was teetering
on the edge of a giant abyss. She glanced down long
enough to feel a wave of vertigo and had to grab onto a
tabard to keep from falling.
â€śAngel please. Can you unbind me?â€ť
She looked up and focused on the man. The wind was
carrying away half his words, but she understood him well
enough which was very odd. First of all, she couldnâ€™t
exactly hear over the howling wind, and yet had a pretty
good idea of what he was saying. Plus, sheâ€™d been looking
straight at his mouth when he spoke. The words she heard
didnâ€™t match the shape of his lips at all. Which meant
there was probably some sort of sync problem between the
video and audio. Unless she was just distracted by how
pretty he was with that rippling chest and all.
â€śHow is she doing this?â€ť She looked around the edges of
the closet, trying to see how this was being projected.
There was nothing. No wires, no projection equipment or
screen. Another blast of air hit her and she recoiled
backwards, accidently trippingâ€“againâ€“over Martyâ€™s boots.
â€śOw!â€ť she cursed, then kicked the nearest leather torture
device aside. Those stilettos were sharp.
Then she watched in fascination as the boot did not
bounce off of the back of the closet wall. No, it flew
into the airâ€“straight into the hologramâ€“where the sun-god
tried to catch it. He missed. Her kick was wide, and he
apparently was stuck in the nest by that white stuff.
But how could Marty have programed it to time with her
kick? How did it sense whenâ€“and whatâ€“would be thrown?
She shook her head, trying to process just how this
illusion was being generated. And then the guy spoke
again. She seemed to hear him better when she didnâ€™t look
so closely at his lips. But it was still difficult,
especially as she didnâ€™t seem to hear actual words and
yet the meaning settled into her mind. He said something
about â€śstuckâ€ť and â€śdissolve.â€ť Dissolve the white goo,
she assumed, but she hadnâ€™t a clue how. And then
â€śHammer!â€ť she cried. She held up Martyâ€™s tool belt and
grinned. She ought to feel embarrassed that she was
responding to a hologram as if it were real life, but
whatever. This was a game and she was having fun.
Something that hadnâ€™t happened for her in months. Exceptâ€¦
Damn. She had to work. In truth, she had her entire
academic career to fix, so she gave the illusion a
regretful sigh. â€śIâ€™m sorry. I canâ€™t play today.â€ť Then she
searched for the off switch. Had the thing been triggered
when she turned on the closet light?
She was turning around when he spoke again. She couldnâ€™t
even hear the words properly, but the plea in it was
heartbreaking. It was insane that she could respond so
clearly to something that wasnâ€™t real. And yet, she still
turned back, which just made everything worse. She saw
desperation in his eyes and felt an echo in her own
How long had she been like him, reaching for an answerâ€”
any answerâ€”with no one to help her? She knew it wasnâ€™t
real, and yet she couldnâ€™t walk away. It would take no
time at all for her to give him the hammer. If she just
played out the first level, then maybe it would free her
subconscious to solve her academic problem.
She pulled out the tool, but when she reached forwardâ€“
still gripping the tabardâ€“she couldnâ€™t quite connect with
his hand. She could throw it, but she didnâ€™t want to
damage whatever sophisticated equipment was hiding back
here. She could probably just step out into the air, but
she didnâ€™t want to break the illusion. Or more
accurately, the illusion felt so real that the very idea
of walking on air was giving her the heeby-jeebies.
Fortunately, closer inspection showed her the gameâ€™s
Far to the edge of the closet, there was an easy step to
a branch. Clearly it was what the player was meant to
use. It looked solid enough, but with the wind, it seemed
to bounce and sway. Well, what was a game without a
challenge? So she took a moment to tie the tool belt
about her waist, securing the hammer in its normal slot.
Then she stepped to the edge.
It was harder than it should have been to let go of the
tabard. The icy wind was making her shudder and her hands
cramp. Also, the heavy brocade was warmth andâ€¦
Warmth. Right. With a quick jerk of her hand, she drew on
the tabard. It was like a too large, ornate poncho for
the front and back. No sides which made it easier to
access the tool belt. A sweater would have made much more
sense, but she didnâ€™t want to take too long at this,
especially since sun-god guy kept looking around in
anxiety and making hurry up gestures with his free hand.
So this was awkward. She stepped from the closet to the
thick branch, but flip-flops were not meant for tree
climbing. With a grunt of frustration, she kicked them
off, then set about branch-walking barefoot. Icy cold
whipped over her toes and the branch was none to toasty.
More like smooth iron wood which made sense only in her
brain. Plus the wind caught her hair and whipped it into
her eyes. At least it was pulled back into a ponytail,
but her bangs were too long and they kept teasing at the
edge of her eyes.
She narrowed her eyes and took another step forward,
leaning into the wind. If this were real, sheâ€™d be
screwed for sure. No one could balance barefoot on a
branch that bounced in the wind. Especially in a damned
tabard that was warmâ€“thank youâ€“but only seemed to
increase the windâ€™s drag.
She cursed and grabbed the brocade about her waist. Then
she decided that she would forego any attempt to
tightrope walk. Still close enough to grab the edge of
the closet, she dropped down to straddle the branch.
Sheâ€™d been a kid with time on her hands once. She could
shimmy/crawl her way to the nest. It might not look cool,
but sheâ€™d get there.
She did. Her fingers were numb by the time she made it to
the nest, and ewwww what was that smell? Even in the
biting wind it was foul.
Meanwhile, sun-god guy was reaching out with his free
hand, helping her scramble into the massive nest. Well,
not really massive. For a bird it was clearly huge, but
for the big guy and her, it was like having two people
maneuver in a circle-shaped crib. At least there were
downy feathers at the bottom that gave welcome insulation
to her freezing feet.
â€śHurry,â€ť he said, as he looked over her shoulder. She
started to turn, but then decided she didnâ€™t want to
know. Marty was a huge fan of make-up artist shows, not
to mention zombie flicks and vampire books (not the teen
heartthrob kind). So she just focused on the problem at
Our hero was encased in that white crap. And it really
did look like crap. As in from a massive bird. He was
trying to move, bunching his biceps as he tried to break
his right arm free. She grabbed his fingers and tried to
help, but the stuff was like concrete.
â€śDo you have a weapon?â€ť he asked. The wind had died down
enough that she could hear him clearly now. He had a nice
voice if a bit gravelly. In truth, he sounded like he was
on day three of a whiskey bender. And now that she got a
closer look at him, his face was equally haggard. But
both voice and three-day beard had a He-Man kind of
appeal, so she grinned at him even as she grabbed Martyâ€™s
She hesitated a moment. After all, she was about to start
clobbering a guy encased in concrete bird shit. â€śIn for a
penny,â€ť she muttered, then began to whack at the stuff on
â€śHarder,â€ť he said.
She chuckled, knowing there was a bad joke in there
somewhere, but too focused on freeing his arm to find it.
She was whacking at the stuff, but sheâ€™d been trying to
go delicately. This was a video game somehow, and she
didnâ€™t want to break the equipment. But obviously this
required real strength because she was getting no where.
So she began to hammer in earnest, slamming down as hard
as she could.
She glanced up at sun-godâ€™s face to see if he was wincing
in pain. The heavier she hit, the more it had to hurt
him. But he was scanning the horizon, and so she went
back to slamming her hammer into the crap.
She saw the crack more than heard it, but there was a
definite pop of sorts and a chunk of the stuff broke
free. She flipped the hammer around, wedging the pronged
ends into the crack. Then she tried to lever his arm up
and away. It didnâ€™t work. Not until she put all her
weight on the handle which was getting slippery with
sweat despite the cold.
This time she did hear the crack. The white concrete gave
way, but so did she as she fell sideways against the
nest. Hero-guy steadied her, keeping her from flying out
into the plummet of doom, but it didnâ€™t keep her from
stepping sideways ontoâ€¦ Ewwww. Egg. Well, broken egg,
now. And it was sliming her foot.
Then ewww turned into ow! The stuff stung! She stabilized
herself on her one foot as she wiped off the other on the
feathers. But then the feathers just stuck to her foot so
she wiped it on the concrete crap. Meanwhile, the big guy
had picked up the hammer and was slamming it down on his
legs. That was going to take awhile though because he was
Or rather, he was until she started looking at the egg
stuff. It seemed to be reacting with the white stuff.
Acid maybe? Which did not bode well for her foot, but
whatever. This was just a game, right?
She had a flash of nervousness, quickly suppressed. This
was more realistic than any game sheâ€™d ever been in. The
sensory details were perfect, even the uncomfortable
ones. And the wind simply could not be generated from the
back of a closet, but she didnâ€™t want to think about
that. The present complete with blonde god hero was much
Since the stud-muffin was using the hammer, she took out
the wrench. With a mental apology to her roommate, she
used the thing to start working on the concrete that had
been coated by the egg ooze. Holy crap, it worked! The
white stuff was softer now and she could scrape it away
easily with the wrench.
Made a damned mess, but at least she was seeing thigh
now. Thick, corded man-thigh, but that was part of the
reward, right? Whatâ€™s a game without eye-candy? She
leaned down and grabbed a handful of egg-slopped
feathers. Totally gross, but she used them to smear slime
over the rest of his legs. He saw what she was doing and
grabbed a handful as well.
But there wasnâ€™t enough to go around. Not until he used
her hammerâ€“Martyâ€™s pristine gleaming hammerâ€“to slam into
two more eggs near his feet. She hadnâ€™t even seen them
there, but they burst with a sickening crunch.
He started scooping up the ooze immediately, not even
noticing that baby bird embryos also dropped out. Part of
her mind catalogued exactly what level of development
they were at. The other part was just repelled by the
sight. Then she heard it: a screech. It might have been
there for a while, but sheâ€™d discounted it as the wind.
But even her powers of denial couldnâ€™t block out that
sound. An eagleâ€™s screech was what her brain said, but in
her mind, an eagleâ€™s cry was bell-like call of a majestic
beast. Not this. This was a mixture of pissed off bird
and truck brake squeal. It grated down her spine way
worse than fingernails on a chalkboard and a thousand
times more loud.
She looked at the big guy. He had to have heard it. But
his eyes were narrowed in concentration on his legs as he
slammed his hammer down again and again. Right. He had to
The screech came again. Really loud this time, and she
couldnâ€™t stop herself from looking. Holy shit that was
one big bird. Like a really huge bird with talons that
could rip through a freaking car! They were extended as
Oh shit. It was coming in for a landing. It was probably
mommy and theyâ€™d just killed her babies. But in their
defense, mama bird had probably meant hero to be baby
â€śMy sword!â€ť he said as she stood transfixed by those
â€śAiiiiiieeeeeeee!â€ť she squealed because that thing was
coming in fast. She waved her wrench at it. It was the
only thing she had in hand, somehow managing to clobber
it on the foot. How she avoided getting impaled she had
no idea, but the thing screamed at her in response before
â€śMy sword!â€ť the guy bellowed again.
She was busy watching feathered death as it swooped in
the air, but he gripped her arm and whipped her around to
look at him.
â€śMy sword!â€ť he said, and this time he pointed at a mound
in the corner. Except it wasnâ€™t a mound. It was a lumpy
thing that could be a backpack buried under softened
concrete crap, and a hilt. Oh. That sword.
She lurched forward and grabbed hold, flashing on Arthur
pulling the sword out of the stone. She didnâ€™t do
anything so graceful as that. For one thing, the sword
was lying on its side, not sticking upright. She had to
chip away at it with her wrench before she could get it
free. Martyâ€™s wrench was never going to be the same. And
it couldnâ€™t possibly be doing any favors to the sword.
She heard the guy bellow and whip his arms around. She
knew from the screech and the scary flapping of wings
that the eagle thing had come in for another pass.
Something pelted her in the face and she saw a small rock
land in front of her feet. It was prettyâ€“kind of a rose
toneâ€“and she wondered what sort of stone it was. Her mind
really focused on that question because it was way easier
than the pain in her fingers as she managed to grip the
sword and start hauling it free. Her back was straining,
her fingers were bloody, and that bird thingâ€“
Well, it was motivation. Sheâ€™d give it that.
The sword came free with jerk and she tumbled backwards,
landing badly on sun-god guy. He grunted in a manly way,
which in this case sounded more like a curse, before he
pushed her off him. Not hard enough to hurt, but with
enough force to make it expedient.
Then he grabbed the sword with one hand and started
waving it around above their heads. Normally this would
be cause for alarm, but she was already maxed out on
adrenaline, and given that she knew the bird was coming
back any second now, she was all kinds of good with him
waving a pointy stick around.
Her job, she decided, was to get his feet free so he
could do more than sit there and wave the sword. He was
mostly free of the crap. His thighs were goopyâ€“and a
little bloody she now realizedâ€“but they could move. A few
moments of concentrated work and she got his feet out
too. But his hips. Jesus, his hips and ass were still
locked down hard.
She knew what to do and set about covering his privates
in the egg goop. She even took a deep breath and broke
open the last egg, ignoring the dying embryo in favor of
scooping up slop and wiping it all over his hips and as
much of his ass as she could get to. She didnâ€™t even have
time to be embarrassed, though the hysterical part of her
brain was busy making dick jokes. Thankfully, none of the
lumps she chiseled (and tossed) away belonged to him and
finally he was able to shove himself upright.
There was a tearing sound. His clothes, she thought. But
then he was standing tall and whipping his sword around
as the bird came back at him. At them. Atâ€¦
It was definitely coming in for a landing, but hero was
there looking really godly with his sword and his
rippling abs. Sheâ€™d love to be sitting on a couch right
then with a remote control in her hand. Sheâ€™d slow down
the play to fully appreciate his magnificence. But she
wasnâ€™t and he was bellowing at her.
â€śMy pack! Grab the pack!â€ť
Right. The lump beside the sword. Personally she was more
about getting out of Dodge than recovering his spare set
of tidy-whities, but she knew how these games worked. If
you didnâ€™t bother to grab the pack, then youâ€™d escape the
demented bird only to starve to death in the forest. So
she set about freeing the pack.
Except it was in there good and there werenâ€™t any more
eggs to break.
â€śNot. Happening,â€ť she gasped. Damn, she was winded.
Hacking at cement with a wrench really took its toll. â€śWe
have to get out!â€ť
Heâ€™d managed to scare off the bird for the moment, but it
wouldnâ€™t last long. He must have known that too because
he looked at herâ€“all grim seriousâ€“and nodded. â€śGo angel.
I will protect your retreat.â€ť
Protect her retreat? Whatever. â€śThe closetâ€™s just over
there. Come on!â€ť
She grabbed his arm and started hauling him toward the
branch. Somehow in her brain, this made sense. The closet
meant safety. Sheâ€™d step out and bring her sun-god with
her. Theyâ€™d order pizza and laugh about the scary bird
then talk about physics. And maybe make some chemistry.
That all flashed through her brain as she dragged him
toward the branch.
Except a second later, she really looked at the closet.
Or looked for the closet. Because it wasnâ€™t there. Had
she gotten turned around? She had the worldâ€™s worst sense
of direction, butâ€¦ butâ€¦
â€śCanâ€™t you make another door?â€ť he asked.
Make anotherâ€¦? â€śWait!â€ť There was a ripple there, right
where the closet should be. A wave in the air, like heat
coming off asphalt. Except there was no asphalt here.
Only a hundred mile plummet to death. She stared hard at
it. She thought of Martyâ€™s closet and desperately willed
those damned stripper boots to appear. And somewhere in
the back of her head a pull started. A wrench and an
agony. The beginning of what was going to be a killer
Then she heard something else. A scream that was higher
in pitch but three times as pissed off. She spun around
to look and saw two dark splotches circling the air, one
distinctly bigger than the one theyâ€™d been fighting
â€śWhatâ€™s that?â€ť she asked, not really wanting to know.
â€śThe mother,â€ť he answered, looking grim. â€śThey will
coordinate their attack, so you must go, angel. Now.â€ť
â€śHow are you going to fight them?â€ť
He shook his head. â€śI wonâ€™t.â€ť
â€śMeaning youâ€™ll run, right?â€ť
He didnâ€™t answer. She turned to look back at her ripple
in the air. She could maybe get it open in time, if that
was indeed what sheâ€™d been doing. She could also probably
take the guess, leap into it, and pray that it was enough
of a door for her. Though the 100 mile plummet didnâ€™t
make that an appealing option. Plus, it would totally
Which meant she needed to think of something else. Or
maybe, they just needed to run. â€śWe have to get out of
He shook his head as he braced himself, sword raised.
â€śNot during their pass. Theyâ€™ll pick us up like surtar.â€ť
She didnâ€™t think sheâ€™d heard him right. Somewhere her
panicked mind translated â€śsurtarâ€ť as â€ślow hanging fruit.â€ť
Either way, that didnâ€™t sound good.
â€śOkay. What do I do?â€ť
He looked at her with a dark glare. â€śThe door. You got me
free. That was all I asked for.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s closed,â€ť she snapped. â€śNow tell me what to do!â€ť
The birds seemed to be flying further away, but sheâ€™d
already seen at least one of these patterns. They went
back and high and then swooped down with a screech that
froze her blood. Which meant they had seconds before the
sky would be filled with beaks and talons.
â€śMy pack,â€ť he abruptly said. â€śCan you get to it? There
are stones inside.â€ť
Okay, great. How did that help? She didnâ€™t waste her
breath asking but scrambled back up on the branch and
into the nest. Her feet were freezing anyway, and if she
were going to die by angry bird she might as well make
her last seconds comfortable. She found the lump of his
pack easily enough. She tugged on it, but just like
before, there was no prayer that it was getting free. It
was cemented in there good.
Sheâ€™d managed to expose a side of it though. She scraped
at that now, but the softening effect wasnâ€™t enough or
had worn out or whatever. She did a quick scan, but she
already knew there werenâ€™t any more eggs. Course she
really didnâ€™t need the pack itself, just the stones,
right? If she could rip it openâ€¦
It was too tough. Leather soaked in concrete didnâ€™t give
way to her fingernails. If onlyâ€¦
Box cutter. Duh.
She might have slapped herself for her stupidity but
there wasnâ€™t time. She felt around the tool belt. It was
hidden beneath the tabard, and she tried to find the
cutter while jerking the heavy brocade out of the way.
Not so easy given that she didnâ€™t have five hands. She
found Martyâ€™s inhaler, duct tape, and a drill set before
she located the boxcutter.
â€śThrow them at the birds!â€ť he bellowed.
Oh. He thought sheâ€™d gotten the stones. Well, not so
much, but she was working on it. She attacked the pack
with the cutter, breaking the razor part, but managing to
stab a hole into the pack nevertheless. She shoved her
hand inside relieved to find that it was softer in there
and not at all gross or sharp. Who knew what weapons he
had in there? But mostly it was cloth andâ€¦
A cloth roll with lumpy stuff inside. Lumpy like stones.
She hauled it out, but it was too late. The birds were
already attacking. She really wished she couldnâ€™t hear
their screech above the pounding of her heart.
She looked back at the stud muffin. Heâ€™d braced himself
as best he could outside the nest. He was balanced on two
branches with the edge of the nest right in front. The
smaller bird was doing his flyby. Her big hero was
swinging his sword and screaming, some sort of incoherent
warrior bellow. Sheâ€™d always thought that a dumb thing to
do. Why waste your breath on noise? But the sound took
the edge off her terror. And frankly, to paraphrase
Malcolm Reynolds, he was way too pretty to die.
She couldnâ€™t make sense of what happened next. Just
grunts and feathers and flashing sword. It all went so
fast. But then the bird was past, and she started to
straighten up. If she was going to throw stones, she
needed to really put her back into it. But then his sword
came dangerously close to the top of her head and she
ducked back down with a squeak.
Yeah, she got that. In fact, she belatedly realized heâ€™d
positioned himself to protect her as she dug for his
stones. Which were just hanging lax in her hand.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
She quickly unrolled the cloth, praying that she wasnâ€™t
just going to find a set of pretty warrior rings or
something. Nope. Stones. And some crystals. Different
sizes, different grains, some even with stripes. Okay.
What were these supposed to do?
The second bird was attacking. This was the big mama, and
she abruptly understood what he meant about them
attacking in a coordinated pattern. They were circling to
keep up a constant attack. First one then, before she
could catch her breath, the second would be coming in for
a kill. Eventually, the victim would tire. One of them
would get Mr. Studly, and the other would then pick her
Smart birds. Except she was not going to admit she was
dumber than a couple really big vultures.
â€śThrow. Them.â€ť Heroâ€™s words which he didnâ€™t even have
the breath to yell. It was more a grunt of effort.
Okay then. She grabbed the first two, pale blue ones that
feltâ€¦ Oyâ€¦ Weird in her hand. Whatever. Mama bird was
past, but the smaller one was coming in. She pulled her
hand back, and thanked God for her summers in softball.
Then she threw.
Well, sheâ€™d never been a pitcher.
Sheâ€™d meant to hit the thing in the chest. Missed by a
mile. Well, not really, but in bird terms, sheâ€™d plunked
them harmlessly against a wing feather and it had passed
right through. Well what did she expect? She wasnâ€™t
chunking boulders at them. These were pebbles.
She whipped her head around to look at her hero. Well as
much as she could see of him amid the flashes of his
sword in the sunlight and the gray black bird feathers
that were floating around. He was damned good with that
sword, thank God. But his face and body were streaked
with sweat. Oh shit. He was getting tired. Sheâ€™d thought
his face kind of haggard before. Now it was gray andâ€¦and
really not happy.
But he kept the bird off of them for that pass.
Course now it was little oneâ€™s turn, though they had
maybe a five second breather. He used it to drop the tip
of his sword to the edge of the nest as he took in big
gulps of air.
â€śActivate,â€ť he said between gasps. â€śMagic.â€ť
Right. Activate the magic. â€śHow?â€ť
His face took on a sad cast. Not just sad, but drooping
with exhaustion and the grim realization that they were
going to die. Okay, so maybe she was projecting her
emotions onto him, but she recognized that look. It was
Well f**k that. â€śTell me what to do!â€ť
He shook his head. â€śDonâ€™t know. I just do it.â€ť
Out of time. Little bird was coming.
Teeth and claws and feathers, and she threw it.
Again, she missed. She could already see that it was
going toward the wing not the chest. Fuck, she was awful
at softball. But the moment it got near, the moment the
pebble was going to glance uselessly against its wing,
the thing exploded.
Well, not exploded. Explosions meant fireballs and smoke.
This became a huge orb of blue light. Or force. Or
something. The birdâ€™s wing was shoved down and the head
snapped sideways. There was an audible crack and thenâ€¦
It plummeted out of the sky.
Broken wing? Broken neck? She peered over the edge and
saw it continue to fall. It wasnâ€™t recovering. A second
later she watched it hit and bounce on the rocky cliff.
One down, one to go. And lest she forget, the bird
released another scream of fury that had Janetâ€™s toes
curling in terror.
But it was okay, she reassured herself. They had the
stones now. They could blue fire the big bitch too. She
looked to her warrior, expecting to see a reflection of
her own excitement in his eyes. After all, they werenâ€™t
going to die by bird now. Except he wasnâ€™t looking up.
He was wiped. Like down on one knee, head on the hilt of
his sword down. The only sign of strength in him was the
one hand that gripped the nest to keep him from falling
off the branch. Oh shit.
He must have been the one to turn on the blue thing and
now he was completely exhausted.
â€śTell me how to do it!â€ť she screamed. With the wind noise
and that bird screech, she had to bellow to be heard.
â€śHow do you turn these things on?â€ť
He didnâ€™t answer. He barely even moved except to breathe.
But heâ€™d already told her, hadnâ€™t he? He just did it. He
didnâ€™t know how.
Mama bird was doing her pass. Janet barely had time to
see the bitch beyond a massive dark shadow, but she
shoved her hero flat and did her best to cover him with
her body, draping herself half in and half out of the
nest. It wasnâ€™t as selfless as sheâ€™d like to think. He
was her only chance. If he died, she was beyond screwed.
So she shoved him down, covered him as best she could,
and screamed at the bitch as loud as she could.
She called it every filthy name in her repertoire and a
few mangled Russian words because the language had always
sounded mean to her. She felt more than heard her warrior
grunt as his body jerked sideways. She kept him on the
branchâ€“or he didâ€“but when she looked up she saw a bright
streak of crimson along his back. Damn. Heâ€™d gotten a
talon across the back. On the one hand, she was glad he
hadnâ€™t gotten pierced through the side. On the other
hand: talon across the back and it was bleeding. Not
snapping the spine, thank God, but a dark red streak that
went from shoulderblade to hip.
One word, barely audible above the wind. She angled back
She quickly sorted through the roll of stones, spilling
half of them until she came on one that was as close to
red as she could find. It was more rosy mauve than red
but whatever. She held it out to him but he just shook
â€śWhat?â€ť she asked.
He reached out, then with a backhanded gesture knocked
the thing out of her hand. It landed somewhere into the
depths of the feathered nest.
â€śShit,â€ť she cursed, but when she went to grab for it, he
held onto her.
He tugged on her arm, pulling her out of the nest. Well,
not really pulling because he had zero strength. But the
meaning was clear, especially as he glanced up into the
sky. Mama bird was back. She didnâ€™t even need to look.
Janet scrambled out of the nest, joining him on the
teetering branch. He straightened up, but damn, he was
too tired to even carry his sword. She grabbed it,
wrapped an arm around his waist and wondered exactly how
they were going to scramble down a tree like this. It was
all she could do to keep him braced there against the
Then he did something. She wouldnâ€™t have noticed if she
hadnâ€™t been pressed so tight against him. It was like his
chest was a solid wall of muscle and then it was smaller.
Heâ€™d caved in. He drooped more. And his faceâ€“Jesusâ€“sheâ€™d
seen movie zombies with a healthier complexion.
â€śNot a problem,â€ť she lied. â€śWeâ€™ve got this. We can do
Bitch mama was back. They were in a better position to
flatten up now. They dropped below the line of the nest
and since mama apparently didnâ€™t want to shove her home
down into the valley, her beaks and talons missed, though
Janet was sure sheâ€™d just gotten a hair cut. Mama birdâ€™s
claws were definitely razor sharp.
And sun god in her arms was still bleeding. His back was
slick with blood and sweat, and she was going to have
trouble holding onto him. Just in case, she glanced over
to the closet. Or rather where the closet ought to be.
Nothing. Not even the ripple.
Well, fine. No cheats then.
â€śWeâ€™re going to have to run,â€ť she said.
He nodded, and she felt him gather his strength. And
while he was pushing himself upright, she smelled
something acrid. Something really nasty. Overall, the
nest had been nasty to begin with, but this was gross
with an extra helping ofâ€¦
The nest was on fire.
That little red stone had nestled deep into those downy
feathers, and now the whole thing was crackling toasty
warm. Nice! Especially since the heat was welcome on her
Except then reality kicked in. They were in a tree. On a
cliff. Hanging suspended over a zillion mile drop. And
the tree was on fire.
â€śWe really have to go.â€ť
He didnâ€™t waste his breath answering. He straightened up
and gently pushed her forward, away from the rapidly
growing bonfire of a nest. She went, releasing him as
soon as she was sure he could find his balance. It didnâ€™t
matter if he couldnâ€™t. No way could she support him and
climb down a tree at the same time. But she waited, and
at his nod, she released him.
Then she started moving. The fire helped warm her
fingers, and so she was able to scramble forward,
grabbing handholds as best she could. The nest had been
on a conjunction of branches, she now saw. It hadnâ€™t been
the main trunk, and what the hell kind of tree was this?
It was huge. Easily the size of a city block. Sadly, the
needles were sparse, so they provided zero coverage and
just stabbed her hands when she grabbed at them. And the
sapâ€¦yuck. Now that they were closer toward the center of
the tree, there was sap that stuck to her feet and hands.
â€śCareful,â€ť he grunted from behind her. â€śSap.â€ť
â€śNaturally.â€ť This tree was going to go poof and in a
really spectacular fireball kind of way. They really
needed to get out of here. She couldnâ€™t move any faster
than she already was and rather than focus on her
impending death, her mind chattered away about the
genetic disadvantage of tree sap being flammable.
Evolutionarily speaking, that was seriously stupid for
any tree that hung out on the side of a cliff.
Mama bird came swooping back twice. The first had been an
aborted attack. She came flying in, but veered away when
she must have seen the fire. Then she was screeching and
howlingâ€“Janet hadnâ€™t thought a bird could howl, but this
creature managed itâ€“while hero kept pushing them doggedly
Janet looked behind her once. She was checking on sun-
godâ€“who was looking stained-sweatshirt grayâ€“but saw the
flames behind him. Wow. The nest had gone up all pretty
and red. Which was now creeping up the branch.
â€śShit.â€ť She picked up the pace while mentally listing all
the possible mutations that would have made more sense.
It was the only way to stave off the panic. Much more
sense to have poisonous sap or razor sharp leaves. Why
not bark with metal in it for extra strength? Hero
grunted something, but she couldnâ€™t tell what. She wasnâ€™t
really sure how the man was still standing, much less
moving, but she was grateful. The branch was thick enough
for her to scramble. Sheâ€™d been looking forward to
straightening up from her crouch, but other branches cut
into her headspace. And arm space. And chest space. Now
it was more a game of twist, shove, scramble and pray.
Her tabard got caught more than once, and she cursed the
damn thing. She would have tossed it aside, but she
didnâ€™t want to take the time. And besides, she used the
front half to wrap around her hands. That made it easier
to grip things.
Once the back half of it got snagged on something. A
branch. A needle. Who the hell cared? She tried to rip it
free but nearly choked herself in the process. Then he
was there with his sword raised. With one downward swipe,
he cut the thing away. But the momentum of his swing
nearly pulled him off the tree.
â€śOh no,â€ť she said as she grabbed for him. Her hands slid
right off his cold, slick chest, but she found purchase
in his pants. There was a rope there or a belt or just a
thicker fold of fabric. Whatever, it caught and held even
when her fingers poked through the fabric beneath. But
did she have the balance to hold them both?
They stood poised for a couple seconds while she was too
terrified to scream. But just when she thought they were
both going to plummet to their deaths, but he managed to
steady them with one hand, pulling her tight against the
solid mass of his chest.
And wow. His chest was pasty gray, but still hunky. Like
Chris Hemsworth broad. Clearly, it was better to
catalogue hot guy attributes than advantageous tree
mutations. But as everything grew blistering hot, there
was only so much distraction her mind could provide. She
was a breath away from full out hysteria.
â€śThere,â€ť he said, gesturing with his chiseled chin.
She looked then did as she was told. He had indicated a
pathway down the center of the tree, and she began to
scramble and claw her way down it. Above them, the
branches had caught fire, the sap hissing and snapping
with the heat.
They had maybe a minute. Probably less.
Faster, faster. Must go faster. Now was not the time to
start muttering movie quotes but Independence Day did fit
with her desperation. She half slid, half fell. And
then, hallellujiah, she hit dirt. Or rock. Whatever. It
was ground and she looked around for the best direction
F**king-A. The entire cliff face was littered with nests.
And birds. Like a million damned killer birds.
And they were all looking at her.