This story contains sexually explicit material and is intended for adult readers. All characters depicted are of legal age.

Vampirella and other prominent characters are copyright 2006 by Harris Publications, Inc. Story contents copyright February 2006 by Richard Justman. All rights reserved. This work is a not-for-profit amateur fan fiction written for the enjoyment of Vampirella fans.


FRIDAY, JULY 29, 2005

      Vampirella strode briskly down the crowded sidewalk along Broadway, taking in the urban excitement and bustle of midtown Manhattan. Dressed in form-fitting jeans and a clingy, low-cut stretch top, her ever-present greenish-gold bangles jangling on her wrist, she was herself doing more than her share to contribute to that excitement. Though she had at one time or another visited virtually every corner of the planet, New York was a destination to which she regularly seemed to return in the course of her adventures.
      Pausing momentarily at the intersection of Broadway and 46th, she surveyed the panoramic vista of Times Square, its plentitude of signage and electronic advertising displays creating a vertical canyon of video walls towering over the heavy midtown traffic. Throughout much of the twentieth century, she reflected, this landmark neighborhood of prime metropolitan real estate had been a national cultural icon, a barometer of the ever-changing American Experience. She had herself witnessed some of the social milestones reflected here throughout her extended lifetime spent on Earth. The parades of troops marching triumphantly home from two World Wars were before her time, but the similarly jubilant outpouring at the first manned moon landing closely paralleled her own arrival on this world. She recalled first hand the area’s transformation from colorful theater district to a seamy center of street life with all its vices during the turbulent seventies.
      But street life and upscale corporate commerce didn’t really mix. In the course of a decade’s worth of government and business-sponsored urban revitalization, most of the street culture along with the area’s undesirables had been swept out of sight. In Vampirella’s eyes, along with them had gone much of the district’s soul.
      As America entered the twenty-first century, Times Square had become a gleaming futuristic monument to unbridled corporate power, its steel and glass towers overshadowing the 158,000 urban workers who commuted there daily. Mammoth LED screens aggressively promulgated the consumerist lifestyle values of the financial and telecommunications giants that occupied these spires. Vampirella noted that the character of the district was now less distinctly American and more a reflection of its worldwide urban counterparts in the global economy, places like Tokyo’s commercially-saturated Shinjuku district or the rapidly expanding megalopolis of Shanghai, home to a large percentage of China’s newly-wealthy business elite.
      Vampirella scanned the scurrying throngs of pedestrians moving purposefully along the crowded sidewalks and crosswalks. There was a mix of affluent global visitors to NYC’s premiere tourist destination, their clicking digital cameras recording everything, along with a steady flow of business-suited New Yorkers, employees of some of the world’s most influential corporations and partnerships.
      As she looked about, Vampirella’s gaze came to rest on a lone stationary figure, decidedly out of place amid the milling crowds. The well-heeled passersby so studiously ignored the figure in their midst that she briefly wondered if, with her enhanced Drakulonian senses, she might be viewing some supernatural apparition invisible to the humans around her. After a few moments though, she realized that the figure was as real and tangible as everyone else in her vicinity.
      She was a thin, frail-looking woman of indeterminate age, sitting cross-legged at the foot of a light post. She had long, disheveled strawberry blonde hair worn straight and a fine-featured face that might have been attractive except for the occasional red lesions that pocked her complexion.
      Vampirella immediately recognized her condition, the distinctive skin eruptions. This woman was dying of AIDS, she thought.
      An open coffee can with a few coins at the bottom rested on the concrete in front of her and a handwritten cardboard placard rested in her lap. In scrawled letters, it read:


      Approaching, Vampirella gazed down at the woman. Perhaps surprised to be acknowledged, she looked up at Vampirella with beautiful but clouded blue eyes and smiled warmly.
      Staring at Vampirella’s gold bangles, stylish outfit, and perfect coiffure, she offered, "I didn’t always live like this, y’ know. Had a good steady job back in Burlington before the plant closed. But that was a long time ago. Thought things’d be better when I came here, new beginning an’ all. But once you’re on the outside, that’s pretty much it, game over. In the end I just wound up turning tricks on the street. That was before I got sick. Now nobody wants me."
      Vampirella reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a wallet from which she extracted a few small bills. The redhead’s eyes widened as she reached down and carefully placed them inside her coffee can.
      "Thank you so much!" she exclaimed in her tiny voice.
      Vampirella nodded. What she’d given the woman wasn’t much, a drop in the bucket really.
      But how could she not do anything to help?



      A steady fall of rain pelted the narrow waterfront district street down which Vampirella threaded her way. The sound of her black, spike-heeled boots splashing through shallow puddles was swallowed up by the drone of the downpour. In spite of the darkness of the night, the street was a riot of colored highlights as streetlamps, traffic lights, and neon signs all reflected off the glistening, wet pavement. Plumes of steam hissed from grated sidewalk vents and around the edges of manhole covers. In the distance, the steel gantries of mammoth dock cranes could be seen lit up like Christmas trees, looming over the low warehouse roofs immediately ahead of her. Beyond them to the east, she knew, lay only the black waters of the Delaware River and the distant New Jersey shoreline half a mile beyond that.
      Vampirella made no attempt to disguise her skulking manner. Just a few blocks inland from the rows of piers and cargo terminals which lined the shoreline, the streets of this southeastern Philly quarter of warehouses and maritime industrial shops were deserted at this time of night. Fifteen years ago, she might have encountered parties of carousing sailors dodging the SP’s as they prowled the waterfront bars. That was before the vast Philadelphia Navy Yard with its long, illustrious military history was closed down in 1996. Today League Island, a mile to the south, with its miles of dry-docks, ship berths, and machine shops, was occupied by a world-class commercial shipbuilding firm. But the throngs of sailors, and the bars they once patronized, were long gone.
      Vampirella blended into the inky shadows, wearing nothing but her skimpy, blood red costume under a waist-length black leather jacket. Her long, raven hair framed a regal, high cheekboned face and penetrating green eyes that scanned the darkness with preternatural acuity. With her full breasts and long, athletic legs amply displayed by her revealing attire, any passerby might easily have mistaken her for a rock band performer or exotic dancer rather than the huntress from the stars that she was.
      Tonight she was hunting a coven of her longstanding opponents, the Companions of Chaos, who were reported to be operating in this area. So far however, her reconnoitering had turned up no traces of cultist activity on the waterfront. It was possible she had simply chosen the wrong night on which to prowl, or that the cultists had spied her first and gone to ground. It was equally possible that this particular lead would turn out to be a false alarm. Such was the nature of the lethal ongoing cat-and-mouse game she had played with the Companions on and off over the last thirty-five years.
      She was seriously considering abandoning her pursuit for this particular night when she was startled by a rasping electrical hum issuing from a pole-mounted transformer nearby. A moment later, the lights along the street dimmed and began flickering out one by one in rapid succession, a wall of darkness converging on her from all sides. The numerous subtle background noises that characterized even the most deserted streetscape, fluorescent lights humming, rooftop fans whirring, droned to a halt, leaving only the drumming of the rain, which suddenly assumed a deafening prominence.
      Vampirella assumed a defensive posture, moving rapidly out into the middle of the deserted street where nothing could spring at her from concealment. She pivoted about, scanning the darkened doorways and alleyways surrounding her. There was nothing to be seen, nothing she could detect within range of her acute Drakulonian senses. Still, she sensed that she was being stalked and began to slowly backtrack down the street along which she had come.
      She turned a corner, careful to stick to the middle of the street, maintaining her distance from the surrounding buildings. Her caution paid off as she suddenly found herself facing a shadowy silhouette concealed in the lee of a brick building wall not twenty feet from her. Had she cut the corner more sharply, she would have run right into it.
      The outline took a step forward into the light. It was a man with a tall, stocky build and straight black hair slickened back by the rain. He now stood motionless, facing her in a wide-legged stance. He was wearing what appeared to be a shapeless gray-green smock over baggy, cargo-style pants and heavy, flat-soled work shoes. He watched Vampirella with a mask-like, unreadable expression. His aura was one of silent menace.
      As she attempted to maneuver around him, his eyes reflected the dim light. Vampirella’s chest tightened. The eyes that watched her intently were a glassy ochre shade. Whatever she was facing was not human.
      The figure sidestepped as well, blocking her path.
      "Get out of my way!" she commanded, bearing her fangs, her voice dripping with menace. At the same time, she broadcast the same message with her vampiric powers of mesmerism. She sensed however that the creature was unaffected by her telepathic suggestion. In fact, she sensed nothing at all coming from it. Whatever its thought processes, they were unreadable to her.
      "Get-out-of-my-way," she repeated, annunciating one word at a time as she advanced on the man-thing. She didn’t know what she was facing, but she wasn’t about to betray any sign of intimidation to it.
      Even as she moved closer, the creature began to transform like a flesh-colored blob of Silly Putty. Snakelike tentacles extruded from its midriff, thrusting purposefully in her direction. The things resembled nothing so much as fleshy elongated penises. Then their tips seemed to fade into translucency, the grotesque alien anatomy within revealed in sickening detail. She threw up her arm to block the appendages. To her astonishment, one of them passed right through her forearm as if it were a mirage. A split second later, she felt an explosion of mind-numbing pain that sent her collapsing to her knees. The damn thing was attempting to resolidify within the flesh of her arm. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she rolled away, disentangling herself from the unearthly assault. This was like nothing she had ever experienced in a lifetime of combating supernatural creatures.
      Whatever transmutation the tentacle had just undergone, it had apparently been unable to fully reintegrate itself within her Drakulonian substance. If it had, she suspected it would have rended her arm into hamburger. As it was, the terrestrial fabric of her leather jacket displayed no such immunity. The shredded sleeve fell away in smoldering tatters.
      Vampirella leapfrogged onto the curved top of a mailbox as the hulking man-thing’s tentacles again flailed at her. Her eyes bulged in shocked horror as the flashing appendages instantly burned a ragged, sizzling gash in the brick facade of the building wall behind her. She sprang from her precarious perch a moment before the recoiling extensors ripped it in two. They continued onward, scything through a metal streetlight post with equal ease.
      In spite of her superhuman balance and agility, Vampirella was thrown from her feet as she landed on a rain-soaked scrap of cardboard, which caught the sole of her boot and skidded along the wet pavement. A second later though, her seeming mishap proved fortuitous as the massive light stanchion swiped the spot where her head would otherwise have been before crashing to rest, propped diagonally against the side of a building.
      Regaining her footing, Vampirella assumed a low crouch in preparation for the creature’s next advance. Despite its ferocious attack, it showed no sign of exertion or being winded. In fact, it continued to show no expression at all.
      Then, as it began moving in again, Vampirella saw her opportunity. She leaped at the sheared light pole wedged against the wall. Even with her Drakulonian strength, the post, weighing in at several hundred pounds, resisted her effort to budge it. Her full body blow only caused it to shift a foot or so along the concrete sidewalk. But that was enough to dislodge it from the wall and get it moving, scraping ponderously along the pavement. It caught the shadowy, tentacled figure head on, dragging him several feet along with it until he was pinned against a parked cube van. As the top arm and fixture mounting crashed to the ground, the base bounced upward, punching clean through the attacking creature just above the sternum and embedding itself in the truck. Vampirella heard the sickening crunch of bones and cartilage popping as the thing’s chest was caved in. It flailed wildly with its tentacles, shredding the light-gage metal side panel of the vehicle to which it was now pinned. Ducking under the still-lethal tentacles flopping blindly about, she dove in and wrenched the stunned creature’s head sharply sideways. The formidable humanoid instantly went limp, its tentacles drooping.
      Dislodged by the creature’s frantic struggles, the light post dropped the final distance to the ground, allowing the now-inert form to collapse onto the sidewalk.
      Struggling to catch her breath, Vampirella warily approached the crumpled body. A viscous amber fluid oozed from the creature’s wounds, spreading into a sticky puddle beneath it. The suppurating plasm seemed to have a life of its own, expanding and contracting on the pavement like some gelatinous giant amoeba. In spite of the mission that had brought her to this waterfront district, her instincts told her that this entity had nothing to do with the Companions of Chaos or any other earthly cult. Coming to a decision, she unzipped an inside pocket of her jacket and removed a tiny cell phone. The cell had been given to her for emergency use only and had only a single number pre-programmed into it. She pressed the speed dial button and waited for a response, looking nervously up and down the still-deserted street.
      "Vampi, what’s going on?" came the voice of Harry Krishna, head of the detached FBI paranormal investigations group operating under the guise of the traveling World’s End Circus.
      "Harry, I need your help. I’m in Philadelphia, on the waterfront. I just killed something, some kind of creature. I’m standing over it right now. Don’t ask me what the fuck it is. I’m not sure if it’s even really dead."
      "Are you safe?" Harry asked. "Is it neutralized?"
      "Well it isn’t getting up, if that’s what you mean. But the body’s still displaying some kind of biological activity. It’s a humanoid metamorph of some sort. It sprouted tentacles from its midsection and it bleeds some sort of yellow goo. You’ve got all sorts of paranormal forensics experts and lab facilities. I don’t think this thing is anything earthly at all. This is something the Circus has to see."
      "Vampi, listen to me very carefully," Harry responded, his voice suddenly dead flat. "You’ve just stepped into deeper shit than you can imagine. This is what I need you to do. Leave your cell phone turned on and place it next to the body. Then walk away. I repeat, just leave the remains and get out of there now."
      "Harry, I’m standing in the middle of the fucking street with a dead alien or something! I can’t just leave it for someone to happen upon."
      "Please, Vampi, no questions," Harry implored. "I can guarantee you that there are people on the way right now. I don’t want you there when they arrive. You may only have a couple of minutes. Now get out of there!"
      "Harry, this isn’t like you. What’s going on?"
      There were several clicks over the connection.
      "Vampi, I’ve got to go," Harry cut her off and his end clicked off.
      Doing as she was instructed, Vampirella lay the cell on a nearby window ledge and, with a final backward glance, dashed down the darkened street and into the night.



      Her mind reeling, with no fixed destination in mind, Vampirella strode briskly westward down Walnut Street, past the elegant five-star hotels towering over upscale Rittenhouse Square. The torrential downpour of an hour earlier had eased off to a gentle sprinkle. She had made good her escape from the waterfront without incident. Once she’d dropped Harry’s cell, she had headed westward on foot until she reached Philadelphia’s blocks-long open air Italian Market. Packed with tourists and shoppers during the daylight hours, it had been deserted except for the truckers and merchants unloading cartons of produce for the following day. From there she had hopped onto the first late-night SEPTA transit bus to come by. Back in the more peopled downtown Center City area, she encountered regular passersby emptying out of pubs and cafés, many dressed in formal eveningwear after a night’s entertainment patronizing any of the numerous theatres and concert halls lining the nearby Avenue of the Arts. Several turned to stare reproachfully at her walking the street in her spike-heeled boots, torn leather jacket, and revealing scarlet costume.
      What had just happened to her? What was the tentacled creature that had apparently stalked her? More importantly, what did Harry know and why was he suddenly treating her like a hot potato?
      She was startled out of her ruminations as a lighted pay phone close at hand began to ring just as she passed by. She looked around. There was no one nearby, no one apparently paying attention to either her or the phone. Jumpy as she was, she put it down to coincidence and walked on, suddenly eager to get in off the street.
      Then a block later, passing the park-like Square itself, a second public phone began to chime as she neared it. Goosebumps formed on her arms. This was no coincidence. Someone or something, friend or foe, was still following her whereabouts. Had someone followed her all the way from the waterfront? There was only one way to find out. Watching her surroundings as she did so, she walked over to the open phone stand and gingerly picked up the receiver.
      "Vampi, it’s me, Harry."
      She let out a sigh of relief.
      "Satyr and Circe, you scared the living shit out of me."
      Her relief was short-lived as he continued, "I haven’t got a lot of time. I couldn’t risk talking to you on the cell."
      "What’s going on? I thought that was supposed to be a secure connection."
      "Not that secure," he replied, "not from the people we’re dealing with now."
      "Hey," Vampirella protested, "all this conspiracy bullshit is creeping me out."
      "No bullshit," Harry went on. "Right now I’m talking to you from a pay phone in Eastland Gardens. There isn’t a phone within two miles of the FBI Building that I’d trust. I’m gambling that I’m not being monitored now. Nobody from the Hill normally ventures into this neighborhood if they value their lives, so there’s no particular reason for the NSA or anyone else to be listening."
      "What about you?" Vampirella asked.
      "We can take care of ourselves," Harry reassured her. "I’ve got one of our top remote viewers with me. That’s how we were able to track you. She can also psychically shield us from notice at this end, so you and I should have at least a few minutes to talk uninterrupted."
      "And how’d you come up with the pay phone numbers to call me on?"
      "Trade secret," Harry chuckled. Then more seriously, "Listen to me, Vampi. This is deadly serious business, possibly deadlier than anything you’ve previously encountered. There are wheels within wheels here in DC, more than you could ever imagine. Even in the Circus, we’ve got parties looking over our shoulders. The moment you mentioned a word about Lupae over a phone line, no matter how secure, you can bet your ass they kicked into high gear."
      "A word about who?" Vampirella asked confused.
      "Don’t worry, you’ll be briefed. I told you people would be on their way. The Lupae remains have already been secured, and not by anybody from the World’s End. I just took a conference call from Mulligan and O’Hare. The Montauk crew are locking down the train even as we speak, and the FBI Director himself is on his way in to meet with me. I’ll have to get back soon or I’ll be missed. You’ve stirred up the shit big time.
      "Vampi, understand what I’m about to say is not my choice. The Circus is cutting you loose. We’re not going to be able to back you up on this one. Once I hang up, it may be a very long while before you and I even talk again. So ask your questions now. I probably won’t have a lot of answers, but I’ll tell you what I can.
      "What’s going on?" Vampirella asked, putting forward her suspicions. "Did I just off ET or something?"
      "Right now, that’s the working hypothesis."
      "Harry, you know stuff. I know I’m not supposed to ask questions about how the Circus train zaps from place to place or where in hell the geistgate technology the World’s End uses came from, but now I’m asking. I don’t mean to be insulting, but there’s no way your organization could’ve come up with it on your own. Besides myself and Pantha, are there ET’s running around this world?"
      "You’re right," Harry confirmed, "We didn’t come up with the geistgate on our own, and yes there have been other extraterrestrial incursions, but you already knew that much. I’d hoped that you and I would never be having this conversation, but with your inquisitiveness, I always knew in the back of my mind that this day would come. The truth of the matter is that nobody in the Circus knows for sure where the geistgate technology comes from or how it works. All we know is that because of our purview in dealing with the paranormal, the World’s End was vetted by parties unknown to field-test it. All of the critical geistgate mechanisms on the train are installed within sealed titanium compartments. We push the buttons to make the damn thing go, but the only ones to ever open it up are the technicians from Montauk. We don’t know who they are or who they work for. Four years ago, the word I got, straight from the Attorney General, was that they would be providing the Circus with a revolutionary means of transporting around the globe and that we were to give them every cooperation. Conversely, I was also warned in no uncertain terms that if we ever stuck our noses in where they didn’t belong or fucked with the Montauk crew in any way, that they could shut us down with a single phone call. That’s where things have stood ever since –until now."
      Vampirella looked up and down the rain-splashed street with its late-night revelers coming and going as she listened to Harry with a sense of surrealism. Here she was watching the everyday world pass her by as she listened to her most paranoid imaginings of another sinister hidden world being undeniably confirmed.
      "I’ve trusted you before and you’ve never let me down," Harry confided. "Tonight I’m trusting you with the whole enchilada. I have a source, a very special source. He and I go back a long, long ways, but I still only know him by his alias of Mr. Jones. I’ve asked him the same questions you’re asking right now.
      "According to Mr. Jones, you’re tied in with the origin of the geistgate technology, you and the Van Helsings."
      "What?" Vampirella gasped astonished.
      "Back in 1976, you and the Van Helsings investigated the Wildwood Cemetery murders in Central City, do you remember?"
      "I remember very well," Vampirella acknowledged. "The case of the thing in Denny Colt’s grave. Ultimately that was the investigation that led me to my first encounter with Pantha in Egypt."
      "Precisely," Harry continued. "And while you were in Egypt, Conrad and Pendragon encountered something buried under Wildwood Cemetery, something which Conrad described as being an ancient UFO from Pantha’s homeworld."
      "I saw something similar in Egypt," Vampirella confirmed. "Not to mince words, it was a flying saucer, plain and simple. It looked like something right out of a fifties drive-in horror flick."
      "It seems Conrad had a contact at the Pentagon, a General Browning. Not knowing what to do with what he found and not wanting to leave it to fall into the wrong hands, he turned it over to the general."
      "With the state this country’s in," Vampirella mused, "I wonder if he would’ve done the same thing today."
      "Maybe not," Harry acknowledged, "but remember, it was a very different world twenty-nine years ago. In any case, whatever Conrad discovered apparently ended up at a covert facility near or possibly under the Montauk Air Station on Long Island. It may well have contributed to the reverse engineering of the geistgate, which supposedly took place there. However, according to my source, what the military recovered was not what Conrad described, certainly not a flying saucer. We’ll probably never know. My understanding is that it no longer exists. Supposedly the analysis of the artifact didn’t go well. It was lost or destroyed in some sort of catastrophic accident back in the early eighties. If you want my personal opinion, even if the Montauk technos did manage to reverse engineer part of the geistgate technology, I very much doubt that they ever really understood the principles behind it"
      "Wow," Vampirella muttered, "I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you."
      "That may not be the whole story of Montauk. It may not even be true. But that’s the account that was given to me by Mr. Jones.
      "I’m telling you this now for a reason. As I said, the Circus’s hands are tied. If this conversation is ever found out, by tomorrow morning we may not even be in business. But you’re going to need help just the same. If anyone can guide you to the answers you need, it’s Mr. Jones. So I’m going to take a huge gamble and hook the two of you up. I’ve already contacted him and he’s willing to help you out –but only on his terms."
      "Which are?" Vampirella pressed.
      "He’s secretive, enigmatic, and he follows his own agenda. In short, he’s a lot like you. You’re to meet him tomorrow noon at the Morris Arboretum. He’ll be waiting for you in the Japanese Water Garden."
      Vampirella thought for a moment before coming to a decision. This was like an avalanche that threatened to bury her. It had been less than an hour since she’d encountered the creature on the waterfront, and suddenly everything she knew was being turned upside down. "How will I know him?"
      "Don’t worry, he’ll know you. Look, I’ve got to get back. Talk to Jones. He’ll be able to set you on the right track."
       "Harry," Vampirella acknowledged, "thanks for not leaving me hanging in the wind. I know you must’ve taken a big risk in coming out tonight."
       "Vampi," he ended ominously, "I hope you make it."



      Dressed in black Capris and a brand new leather jacket purchased to replace the one trashed the previous night, Vampirella strolled casually down the well-marked paths of the Morris Arboretum. Sauntering along, seemingly admiring the varied garden features, she blended in with the numerous visitors to the University of Pennsylvania’s extensive botanical gardens, situated in the pastoral northwestern outskirts of Philadelphia. Midday sunlight glistened on the manicured foliage, still damp from last evening’s downpour. She didn’t need to refer to the sign that told her she had arrived at the park’s Japanese Hill and Water Garden, as the identity of this particular garden feature was obvious from the carefully placed Japanese lanterns and miniature shrines which lined the path. Vampirella admired the sculptured landscape, each element of trees, rocks, and waterfalls arranged in perfect balance to create a soul-soothing, seemingly natural environment.
      For Vampirella however, no amount of artful landscaping was about to sooth her soul after the shattering revelations of last night. She scanned the parties of meandering tourists, her attention settling on a solitary figure standing atop a small arched pedestrian bridge, seemingly admiring the crystal clear carp pool beneath. Not wishing to draw undue attention, Vampirella ambled gradually in the direction of the footbridge, continuing to study the various plants and sculptures as she went. Once atop the bridge, she too stopped to admire the darting, tangerine-colored fish highlighted against the undulating, greenish black fronds lining the bottom of the shallow pond.
      The man standing next to her was tall and lean, pushing the far side of middle aged, with a thin hawkish face and clear blue eyes. His hair was a sandy blonde and he was conservatively dressed in an undistinguished gray suit and a dark fedora hat. Without looking in her direction, the man reached into his trousers pocket and withdrew a shiny new penny, which he casually flicked into the pond.
      Vampirella smiled as it disappeared with a wet plop and a cascade of ripples that scattered the foraging carp. "Is that supposed to be a penny for my thoughts?" she asked nonchalantly.
      "Try this one," the stranger replied. "I drop a coin into the pond and the ripples spread outward virtually indefinitely. If the pond were big enough, you’d see them radiating for miles in every direction. You, and others like you, such as your old friend Pantha, are very much like the coin. You have no idea of the ripples your various exploits have caused or just how far they’ve reverberated over the years.
      "I understand Harry briefed you last night on what he knows, or thinks he knows, about Montauk and its connection to yourself and Wildwood Cemetery."
      "I don’t know what you’re talking about," Vampirella evaded, caught by surprise at having hers and Harry’s supposedly clandestine conversation repeated back to her.
      "Good girl," the man smiled approvingly. "Never tip your hand unnecessarily."
      "Mr. Jones," Vampirella cut to the chase.
      "Pleased to make your acquaintance," he replied with old-fashioned chivalry.
      "Harry said to trust you, which goes a long way in my book, but beyond that I don’t know a damn thing about you."
      "And under normal circumstances, that’s the way it would stay. But the circumstances we face are far from normal. In the days to come, you and I may have to depend on each other for our very lives. That means I’m going to have to confide in you to earn your trust. So here it is, Shadow Government 101, the short, short version.
      "Forget everything you thought you knew about how this country works. The workings of politics and the military-industrial complex that you read about in newspapers or watch on C-SPAN are just the tip of the iceberg. They’re nothing but smoke and mirrors to keep the American electorate distracted, tearing itself apart over the various hot button issues it’s spoon-fed by the corporate media giants. I’m talking about issues like gay marriage or Swift Boat Veterans. Meanwhile the real decisions that will determine the course of this nation’s future are being implemented in the fine print of tax codes and international corporate law. They’re being carried out by interests which the average citizen doesn’t even know exist. One of those interests is a group of power brokers based in this country that calls itself Aquarius. However there are other, similar groups in most of the industrialized nations of the world, all working towards the establishment of a New Cosmic Order beyond the reach of laws or nations, accountable to no one but themselves."
      Mr. Jones looked Vampirella in the eye. "But not everyone in government, or the military for that matter, goes along with this agenda. There are still those of us who believe in the Constitution and that the wealthy and powerful are not above the rule of law. I represent one such group. Our designation is Com-12. We’re a special group within the Office of Naval Intelligence. Our relationship to ONI is actually remarkably similar to that of Harry Krishna and the World’s End Circus to the FBI. Our official function is analysis of special intelligence, including the paranormal, under Naval Intelligence’s ONI-2 Directorate, currently based in the National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland. However our sphere of operations as well as our principles have frequently placed us in opposition to the aims of Aquarius and the New Cosmic Order."
      "New Cosmic Order," Vampirella scowled. "I’ve heard that term before. The werewolf Taltos and especially the immortal Nazi Dr. Midwinter served a New Cosmic Order. But they’re both dead, Taltos in New York in ‘99 and Midwinter in Bavaria after he tried to strike a madman’s bargain with Lady Death."
      "Karl Midwinter was one of the original architects of the New Cosmic Order, but it goes far beyond his insane schemes to resurrect a Nazi Fourth Reich. Besides Aquarius here in the US, several agencies around the globe have either been infiltrated by or outright serve the New Order. In the former Soviet Union, it was Biopreparat, the state agency that covertly oversaw the civilian research side of the Soviets’ massive secret program to develop biological weapons of mass destruction. Today in mainland China, it’s the Defense Science and Technological Information Center, an arm of the military that oversees China’s industrial espionage efforts to steal proprietary technologies from Western sources on behalf of their state-owned industries. There are others as well. Midwinter’s death seems to have been one of the few significant setbacks the New Order has suffered, which undoubtedly places you and Pantha high on their enemies list. The majority viewpoint within ONI-2 is that Midwinter’s Berlin-based organization was effectively neutralized by his death and that any remnants have dispersed. The lack of recent New Order activity originating from the EU tends to support this conclusion. Com-12 however does not share this viewpoint. We believe it’s premature to write off Midwinter’s co-conspirators."
      "Wow," Vampirella shook her head, "that’s a pretty far-reaching interpretation of world events. A lot of people would dismiss your conclusions as nothing more than acute paranoia. You really believe in all this global conspiracy shit?"
      "Look around you," Mr. Jones took up Vampirella’s challenge. "Even if you know nothing of the groups I’m describing, just look at the changes taking place in this country and around the world. The post-war baby boom generation of the fifties and sixties grew up with an unshakable sense of Manifest Destiny, that increased political and social enlightenment along with economic prosperity would steadily improve the quality of their lives and that of their children. Then, in the course of a generation, everything’s turned around. The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. But it’s those in the middle who are disappearing altogether, that broad working middle class that forms the backbone of a stable democratic society. A confluence of global economic trends? Or could there be something deeper at work? Could some group or agency be luring humanity away from the politics of social conscience towards a philosophy of naked self-interest? But who? And why? Those are the questions Com-12 has struggled to answer. Now I’m offering you some of those answers."
      "What does all this have to do with me and Pantha?"
      "In late 1935, a second-generation German-American by the name of Karl Midwinter left this country to serve the Nazi cause. The youngest son of Gustav Winterlich, a German immigrant, he grew up during the hardships of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and was disillusioned with America. Although initially distrusted by the Germans, he proved himself a loyal Nazi and was eventually recruited into the SS by Heinrich Himmler himself. By 1939 he was head of a special SS expeditionary unit in Egypt, searching for mythological artifacts which Himmler believed would further the Nazi cause. There he encountered Pantha in one of her previous incarnations and briefly acquired her panther amulet, what Conrad Van Helsing called the Khafra Stone, better known as the Scarab of Atum-Ra. The Scarab conferred a sort of quasi-immortality upon Midwinter, vindicating Himmler’s belief in the supernatural and laying the groundwork for further SS delvings into the occult. Midwinter was personally obsessed with the Scarab and its mythological owners, the ancient Cat People supposedly descended from the Egyptian god Nefertum. Nonetheless, under pressure from Himmler to produce results for the Reich’s war effort, he forged an alliance with the immortal werewolf Taltos and his Cult of the Wolf, traditional enemies of the Cat People. By 1944, Himmler was frantically searching for some doomsday weapon that would halt the Allied advance on Berlin. It was at this time that Midwinter, under Taltos guidance, began experimenting on subjects taken from the German Wehrmacht, injecting them with lycanthrope bodily fluids in the hopes of producing a sort of superhuman shock trooper. The experiment was an abject failure. Like most weapons of mass destruction, the lycanthropes proved completely uncontrollable and Himmler ordered them withdrawn from the battlefront and placed in deep freeze in an underground research installation in the Harz Mountains.
      "Returning to the penny in the pond," Mr. Jones smiled sardonically, " just to illustrate how far the ripples can reach, at the end of the war in Europe, Himmler’s underground labs were overrun and the frozen lycanthropes were recovered by the Allies. They were transported back to the States, to a remote, decommissioned Veterans’ Administration hospital in Dark Oak, Virginia. There they remained in cryogenic freeze right up until 2002. I can’t overstate the importance of this discovery. The Wehrmacht lycanthropes provided the US government with indisputable physical evidence of the existence of the paranormal. The biomedical research group assembled to study them formed the nucleus of a new command at Dark Oak, which would eventually expand to become Area Two, the government’s ultra-secret necromantic research facility. By 1997, there were over 900 Marines and technicians stationed there, studying everything from vampirism to the Red Death.
      "Although tissue samples were periodically extracted from the Wehrmacht, and they appeared to retain viability, even after fifty years, no one in government or the military ever considered actually reviving and deploying them until post 9/11. Then on June 2, 2002, the President of the United States gave an address at West Point at which a new US doctrine of unilateral preemptive military action was unveiled. This was a fundamental shift in US military policy and, along with the ‘Axis of Evil’ 2002 State of the Union Address, began to lay the political framework for the 2003 Iraq War. One of the chief Pentagon architects of the preemption doctrine was a Marine Corps General Christopher Whitefire, along with his former operational commander, the late Major Martin Eichmann, whose career was cut short by yourself in Gentle Creek."
      "Nowheresville," Vampirella muttered.
      "Twenty-four hours after the West Point address, orders were issued that the Wehrmacht were to be transferred out of Area Two to an unspecified destination. Those orders originated from Gen. Whitefire’s office. What their mission was remains a mystery. I can tell you this though. The Wehrmacht were being transported cross-country in an unmarked semi trailer driven by members of a Marine Corps 10 Zulu unit dressed in civilian garb. At the same time, a C-17 Globemaster was prepped and standing by at Edwards Air Force Base with flight plans to Kuwait City. Aboard was an infiltration team comprised of members of that same 10 Zulu unit along with a DARPA biomedical team specializing in cryogenics.
      "Do you see where I’m going with this?"
      Vampirella nodded. "You’re insinuating that the Wehrmacht were being airlifted to the Middle East to be dropped into Iraq, aren’t you?"
      "Can you think of a more audacious plan to back up the preemption doctrine than to insert the Wehrmacht into Iraq to disrupt Saddam Hussein’s forces? But then, you know how this story ends, don’t you, Vampirella?"
      "There was a freeway accident in Death Valley," Vampirella whispered quietly, suddenly a whole lot less able to dismiss Mr. Jones’ incredible chronology as paranoia. "The Wehrmacht escaped and made their way into Las Vegas where they went on a bloody rampage before being defeated in a battle royale with Pantha."
      "And you never wondered before just what a pack of World War II Nazi werewolves was doing in the Nevada desert in 2002?"
      "Of course we did," Vampirella snapped defensively. "But with everyone connected to the incident dead, there were no avenues to follow up. Even the World’s End Circus came up empty handed. Sometimes that’s the way it goes in this business."
      "The FBI keeps Harry Krishna on a pretty short leash. There’s no way he’d be allowed to trace the Wehrmacht back to the Pentagon.
      "But that’s just one part of the big picture," Mr. Jones continued. "Going back to the end of the Second World War, with the Nazis defeated and the Allies and the Soviets already settling into a Cold War standoff with one another, both sides vied to acquire as much of Hitler’s scientific and esoteric technologies establishment as possible. The US had its Paperclip scientists. Midwinter, along with his SS colleague Augustus Hirt, avoided the docket at Nuremberg by disappearing into the Soviet-controlled East German scientific effort. Both retained their Nazi loyalties and secretly schemed to someday rebuild a Nazi Fourth Reich.
      "However the two differed over how this was to be accomplished. Hirt, a former SS physician at Natzweiler, espoused a eugenics project he called the Lebenstod Program. Midwinter remained obsessed with recovering Pantha’s Scarab of Atum-Ra, which he believed contained the key to unlocking some apocalyptic force. However after the war, Pantha’s whereabouts and fate were lost to the world for the next twenty-nine years. The last probable sighting of her during the forties was a police report in 1944 of a small-time thug by the name of Nat Donlon who was allegedly mauled to death by a black panther in a New York City tenement.
      "From the period she spent in captivity and under interrogation by the Danse Macabre, we do know that her next incarnation took place in Florida in 1954 or ‘55. Even then it wasn’t until 1974 that she began to manifest her powers again. And the Scarab somehow made its reappearance two years after that in the so-called UFO in Wildwood Cemetery.
      "Hirt was tracked down and assassinated by the MOSSAD in the late sixties while Midwinter bided his time, secretly assembling his organization and waiting for the 1999 astrological Year of the Cat to make his move on the reincarnated Pantha. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the New Cosmic Order was poised to fill the political gap left by the end of the Cold War. During the eighties, a new generation of life scientists coming out of the former East German military began to rise in the ranks of the New Order. A Dr. Werner Vogel, Hirt’s former protégé, became the leading proponent of the Lebenstod Program and a potential rival to Midwinter until his assassination in 1999. And Dr. Emil Kessler attempted to replicate Midwinter’s longevity utilizing a combination of quantum technology and Mayan death magic. Kessler eventually relocated to the southwestern United States where he was able to acquire disposable subjects for his necrosphere research from among the illegal aliens crossing the border.
      "Any of this sounding familiar?"
      "I don’t know what to say," Vampirella conceded. "Wildwood Cemetery, Major Eichmann, Kessler’s mad scientist experiments, Pantha in Las Vegas; they’re all old news. But I never put them together, certainly not as part of some global conspiracy. But even if, and I still say if, this conspiracy exists, what does all this have to do with the creature that attacked me last night?"
      "The inhabitants of Drakulon are not the only extraterrestrials to have arrived on Earth," Mr. Jones explained. "From your encounter, it now appears the Lupae are back."
      "The who?" Vampirella asked puzzled.
      "Not who; what. The thing you encountered last night. They’re called Lupae."
      "I’ve never seen anything like that before."
      "Actually you have," Mr. Jones contradicted her. "Do you remember the Century Studios opening party for your film Space Vixen?"
      Vampirella instantly tensed. Clearly he had hit a nerve.
      "I understand you’ve been devoting some considerable effort to reconstructing elements of your past recently. How would you like to fill in another chapter?"
      Vampirella looked decidedly uneasy now. Whoever this Mr. Jones was, he was entering a place she very much didn’t want to go. She did recall the event to which Jones was referring. It was August of 1979. She had been the celebrity guest of honor at the opening party for Century Studios’ latest release. Her producer, Marcel Lumet, had been eager to show off his newest starlet to the paparazzi. She had been among friends. Pantha, Adam, and Pendragon had all been in attendance.
      But sometime during the evening, something had gone terribly wrong. She must have blacked out, for the next thing she knew, she and Pantha were being pulled out of Santa Monica Bay by a police boat. Neither of them had any recollection of how they had ended up in the waters off Santa Monica. Vampirella’s assumption at the time had been that they had somehow been surreptitiously drugged and accosted. That had been long before the advent of the current generation of date rape drugs such as Rohypnol. But the idea of slipping a lady a Mickey Finn had been around for a long time. This hypothesis was supported by the discovery that both women were scraped and bruised as if they had been in some sort of struggle. More disturbingly, there was bodily evidence in the form of swollen vaginal and anal tissues that they’d both been sexually assaulted. Any forensic evidence however had been washed away by their involuntary swim in the ocean. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lumet had made available the best possible women’s crisis counseling and emergency medical services that Century Studios’ money could provide, while at the same time doing everything possible to quash any adverse publicity.
      In the end, Vampirella had put it down to being a particularly sordid, unexplained event in her life. Three years later, the whole affair was revisited when Pantha had come up with the explanation that the two of them had been abducted by aliens. She had spun a lurid and ultimately unbelievable tale about their battling a bikini-clad glamizon aboard an orbiting alien starship.
      "Take this," Mr. Jones held out a tiny plastic vial to Vampirella. In it was a single bright amber gelcap. "Take it tonight before you go to bed. Tomorrow you’ll wake up to a different world. It will look and sound just the same. But for you, it will be totally different. Then you and I can talk again."
      "Oh fuck you!" Vampirella snarled in exasperation. "I don’t know you or what this is. There’s no fucking way!"
      "If we had the time, I’d tell you to take it to Harry and have it analyzed to allay your fears. The Circus’ labs could confirm that it’s not any sort of psychoactive or toxin. But even they wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is."
      "Okay," Vampirella examined the translucent pill, "so what is it?"
      "Twenty-six years ago, you were exposed to a Lupae mind block. The compound you’re holding took the Soviets years to develop. It will neutralize the effects of that block, allowing your repressed memories to surface. When you awaken in the morning, you should be able to recall the events of that night with crystal clarity. Five years of regression hypnosis and intensive psychotherapy would accomplish more or less the same thing."
      "If you and I are in as imminent danger as you keep hinting," Vampirella asked, "do we have time for these mind games?"
      "Not really," Mr.Jones answered, "but there isn’t much choice. You can’t fight an enemy you don’t believe in. That’s precisely what they want, to keep you in the dark to the peril all around you."



      I’m on a movie set.
      That was Vampirella’s first thought as she opened her eyes. The silvery, futuristic control room cum observation gallery surrounding her could easily have been a set out of one of Century Studios’ cinematic sci-fi epics –provided it had been financed with a production budget in the tens of millions. She struggled to get her bearings in her strange and incongruous surroundings.
      Her last memories, seemingly moments ago, were of being the celebrity guest of honor at a lavish studio gala promoting the opening of her latest feature, Space Vixen. She had been carrying on, bantering with Pendragon and then, in the blink of an eye, she was here –wherever here was. Had she somehow been rendered unconscious and transported to one of Century Studios’ mammoth soundstages?
      Then, as more of the details of her surroundings began to sink in, she quickly realized that this vast amphitheater could not possibly be any set piece at any price. She was looking out from inside a person-sized transparent capsule. The curving chamber beyond the glass-like tube holding her was filled with a variety of organic-shaped bulbs and spindles with a chrome-like, reflective metallic sheen. The effect was as if streamers and globules of liquid mercury had somehow been instantaneously frozen in place to form the room’s fantastic furnishings. Many of the free form shapes had unidentifiable mechanisms and control surfaces recessed into them. Sinuously curved wands of a transparent material like blown glass projected from oddly shaped receptacles in the silvery walls and floor. From their glowing, multicolored tips were emitted what appeared to be actual three-dimensional holographic displays of alien hieroglyphs and complex mathematical graphs, floating in midair, changing and updating at a speed impossible for her to assimilate.
      And beyond the unknown devices and displays stretched an enormous observation dome. Vampirella instantly knew that the magnificent celestial tableau seen through it was no rear-screen projection. In the foreground could be seen the enormous curved nacelles of what looked very much like the stereotypical Hollywood image of an immense alien starship. Framed by the titanic engines hung the brilliant blue orb of the Earth as seen from high orbit. Vampirella could make out the swirls of tropical storm cells out over the Pacific as well as the familiar outline of the southern California coast.
      The inescapable conclusion to be drawn was that she had actually been transported aboard some orbiting extraterrestrial spacecraft.
      "Hey Vamps, where the hell are we?" Pantha’s voice came from near at hand.
      With an effort, Vampirella wriggled herself around within the cramped tubular enclosure to discover that her sister Drakulonian was with her, encased in an identical capsule-shaped cell mounted some ten feet from her own. And beyond her stood a statuesque, athletic-looking woman with flowing blonde hair. The stranger was dressed in what looked like a futuristic Valkyrie’s armor with a silver skullcap, metallic brassiere cups and wrist gauntlets, and a heavy blaster holstered at her hip. Calf-height padded moon boots and a silvery bikini brief completed her skimpy ensemble. She glared hostilely at the encapsulated pair with piercing, sapphire-blue eyes.
      "I don’t know where we are, Panth," Vampirella answered her query, "but one thing’s for certain; we’re no longer on Earth."
      "Correct," the blonde forcefully interjected to both their surprise, "I am Slandra, an inhabitant of the planet Lupae. And you Drakulonian bitches are now slaves of the Alien Amazon!"
      In response to their apparent captor’s belligerent tack, Vampirella tested her possibilities of escape from the transparent cell. Bracing her back against the tube, she kicked outward with all her strength. To her surprise, the capsule, in spite of its thin-walled glass-like appearance, proved far tougher than any steel, resisting her best efforts to shatter it. Next to her, Pantha morphed into panther form and began raking at her own tube with her powerful claws. Her increasingly frenzied swipes at the glassy material proved equally ineffective.
      Looking from one to the other, Slandra smiled gloatingly. "Hammer away all you want, Vampirella. Your pounding is futile. Hundreds of other Drakulonians have done so in the past, and none have lived to escape!" Turning to the frantically pawing panther, she went on, "The same applies to you, Pantha. These cells were specifically constructed to contain the Cat People."
      Realizing that beating on the tube was futile, Vampirella ceased her efforts. As her breathing calmed, she reflected on their captor at greater length. Slandra’s metallic Valkyrie outfit was strikingly similar to the revealing, aluminum-painted costume she had worn for her recent guest role as Princess Aurora on the cult sci-fi series Galaxy Quest. Working with the production’s quirky cast had been an experience in itself, though her brief foray into episodic television had significantly advanced her genre screen career. She’d been told flat out that her infamous mud wrestling scene with fellow starlet Gwen DeMarco had landed Vampirella her current lead role in Space Vixen. No doubt, the show’s production designers would be thrilled to know that their seemingly camp renditions of space couture turned out to be dead on the mark. Still, there was something extremely odd in the fact that both the alien ship and its Amazonian commander seemed as if they could have been lifted wholesale from celluloid fantasy.
      As Vampirella scrutinized Slandra, the alien studied her up and down in return. Taking note of Vampirella’s bared fangs, she narrowed her eyes in puzzlement.
      "I can’t help suspecting something is amiss," she spoke aloud to herself. "The one dressed in red seems a breed apart from the panther female. I must consult Ror before carrying out the termination."
      In response, a disembodied voice emanated from the ship around them. "I heard you, Slandra, and I am already extrapolating several postulates. The only logical conclusion is that not all the Cat People were wiped out in the battle between Lupae and Drakulon –and the survivors mutated into a new race."
      Slandra frowned at the possibility presented. "Hmm," she muttered, "a new breed of Drakulonian could pose a grave security threat to our hibernating plasmic broodlings. We must ascertain the precise nature of the difference between these two."
      Then, coming to a decision, she exclaimed, "Ror, unleash the anal probes!"
      Vampirella just had time to cast a sidelong glance at Pantha, who had reverted back to humanoid form. "Aww, hell," she muttered.
      Before either captive could do anything further to resist, perhaps a dozen thin, snakelike tentacles extruded themselves upward through a perforated metal screen at the bottom of each capsule. The whip-like tendrils were segmented all along their length and appeared to be made from the same chrome-like metal that seemingly comprised much of the rest of the ship. Tiny amber-glowing, eye-like sensors dotted their rounded tips, making them resemble some sort of robotic caterpillars.
      The two Drakulonians were helpless to resist as the roving mechanical tentacles slithered up along the insides of their bare legs. Vampirella felt a tingle wherever one of the tendrils brushed against her, and she realized they were buzzing with a high-frequency vibration. Several of the tentacles wrapped vine-like about her arms and legs, holding her immobile. More tentacles wriggled under the edges of her scarlet costume. She gritted her teeth in fearful expectation as one of the mechanical appendages pushed its way between her ass cheeks and veered towards her tensed sphincter. What was it, she thought, with these aliens and their anal probes?
      But the anticipated pain didn’t come. Despite the fact that it felt dry to the touch, the blunt, knobbed tip plopped into her with a virtually frictionless slickness. Right behind it, a second tentacle glided equally effortlessly into her tight, dry vagina. She felt that high-pitched buzz vibrating her pubic bone and causing her vaginal walls to quiver like jelly.
      In the tube next to hers, Pantha was undergoing the same xenomorphic penetration of her orifices. The moment the alien probes were inside the two Drakulonians, life-sized holographic projections of hers and Pantha’s internal anatomy coalesced around Slandra. The translucent three-dimensional simulacra perfectly mirrored the movements of the real Vampirella and Pantha’s futile struggles in real time. Meanwhile, displays of their skeletons, musculature, and internal organs flashed in rapid succession as every detail of their Drakulonian physiology and genetic makeup was rapidly downloaded. There were computer-generated extrapolations of each of their unique Drakulonian abilities as well; animating Pantha’s metamorphosis into panther form along with Vampirella’s varied vampiric powers. Slandra studied the reams of biometric data flashing before her with rapt attention.
      "So the one called Vampirella is from a completely different bloodline than the Cat People. Drakulon has spawned a new race," she summarized.
      "The evidence does seem conclusive," concurred Ror.
      "And Lupae has a new enemy."
      "A dangerous assumption," the voice of the ship’s unseen pilot cautioned.
      "To assume anything else would be dangerous," Slandra instantly retorted, looking towards Vampirella. "Whatever this new race is, they’re still Drakulonians. Of course they’re the enemy!"
      More calmly, she continued, "But let’s see what more we can learn. Physically, their strength and abilities seem to match our own. Perhaps we can uncover some psychological vulnerability we can exploit in any future encounters with this new breed of Drakulonian. Try focusing on their psychosexual responses."
      "Is that really necessary?" the unseen voice seemed to express some reservation.
      "Just do it!" Slandra snapped.
      "Yes, Mistress," Ror acknowledged.
The holographic representations of Vampirella and Pantha shifted again to display the intricate networks of their nervous systems along with color-coded cranial sections that mapped their brain activity.
      Vampirella half expected they would be subjected to some unearthly torture at the hands of the Lupae Amazon, but she was totally unprepared for what came next. There was a split second’s sharp tingling from the tendril inserted up her vagina, like a mild electric shock. The next moment, from out of the blue, she was overcome by a powerful clit orgasm like nothing she had ever experienced in her lifetime. The jolting sensation was so overwhelming that her knees collapsed and she slumped into the network of tendrils binding her. The brief rush went beyond pleasurable and left her literally stunned. But it faded as abruptly as it had come.
      As Vampirella regained her senses, her vaginal muscles continued to twitch spasmodically, while her clitoris felt as numb as if it had been frozen with novocaine. She fought to regain her breath, which had been forced from her lungs in one convulsive exhalation. Seeing Pantha slumped, gasping for air, against the wall of her own capsule, she realized the panther woman must have undergone the same sexual overload.
      Then, before she could begin to recover, the phallic probe inside her came to life again and her body was rocked by a second spontaneous climax, this one issuing from the depths of her vagina. The second time was not as unbelievably intense as the first, but it quickly exhibited an unnatural quality of its own. Instead of washing over her in waves that built and then died out, this one simply kept going –and going –and going. It was as if someone had flipped a switch inside her brain. Undoubtedly the alien probes, rather than relying on mechanical stimulation of her genitals, were somehow directly manipulating the output of her nervous system.
      On Slandra’s bioscans, the neural pathways from Vampi and Pantha’s vulvas strobed continuously while the orgasmic centers of their brains lit up like pinball machines. The Lupae looked back and forth from her readouts to the real Vampirella and Pantha, writhing spasmodically within their tubes. From the wide-eyed look on the battlemaid’s face, it was obvious that her interest in this experiment was far from clinical.
      Abandoning the holographic simulacra altogether, she stepped up to Vampirella’s tube and craned to get a good look at the intruding tentacles that had by now pushed aside the crotch panel of her costume to reveal her coarse, raven-black pubes and stretched vaginal opening. Streamers of Vampi’s own bodily fluids ran down her legs from the ongoing involuntary climax that racked her body.
      Tendrils had also pulled back the upper bands of the brief scarlet outfit so that Vampirella’s full breasts were exposed. Tendrils worked her large, chocolate-brown nipples, teasing them with tiny snaps of electricity at irregular intervals to keep her off balance.
      Vampirella’s eyes followed Slandra as she stepped over to Pantha’s capsule. In spite of her earthy sexual history, Pantha, if anything, seemed to be in even greater distress than Vampirella herself. The tendrils assaulting her had managed to yank the bottoms of her form-fitting catsuit down about her knees so that her filled pussy and anus were fully revealed. They had also managed to open up her top. Currently Panth’s exposed breasts were pressed up flat against the glass wall of her tube. She gasped hoarsely to take in air, and tears ran from her wide, vacant eyes down her cheeks.
      As she studied Pantha’s torment, Slandra surreptitiously rubbed at her own crotch through the fabric of her skimpy silver briefs.
      This is one sick babe, Vampirella thought. Not even in the most heinous of sexual assaults on Earth did the assailant turn the victim’s own body against them. To take over the pleasure centers of an enemy’s brain would be a devastatingly effective means to shatter their resistance and subjugate them. No being, human or alien, had the right to do what was being done to her and Pantha.
      As the unrelenting cascade of orgasmic waves overwhelmed the pleasure centers of Vampirella’s brain, her vision blurred and her eyes rolled up into their sockets. Her pussy clamped down on the multi-orbed phallus filling her and her toes curled rigidly inward. To Vampirella, it was as though her throbbing cunt was expanding to swallow up the whole of her reality until nothing else was left.
      Then finally the sensations began to recede. As they did so, she actually felt a moment’s panic, like an addict deprived of their high. Having experienced utter mindless bliss, how could she now function without it? She knew from her combination of Drakulonian and earthly scientific knowledge that artificial stimulation of the brain’s endorphin-producing pleasure centers was horrifically addictive. She suspected that had the orgasmic assault gone on much longer, she might never have returned intact to reality.
      As it was, she had no clear sense of just how long their exquisite ordeal had actually lasted. The erotic assault on her brain could have gone on for seconds or for hours. Even the powerful bloodlust, which normally was quite capable of overwhelming her reason, and by which she could typically judge the passage of time, was subsumed by what she had just undergone.
      As she continued to come down, it occurred to her, how would she ever respond to real-life intimate encounters in the wake of this clinical exercise in hypersexual stimulation? She would now have to live with the unromantic reality that no lover, no matter how adept or impassioned, would ever do to her what the snake-like mechanical probes just had. Talk about your ultimate mindfuck. In its potential to emotionally and erotically flatten her future relations, what she’d just experienced might well be more diabolical than any torture Slandra might have inflicted.
      "Geez," Pantha gasped, attempting to make light of their ordeal, "I haven’t felt anything like that since I single-handedly serviced the Miskatonic U football team."
      "Thanks for sharing that," Vampirella quipped back. Good old Panth, she smiled to herself, uncertain as to whether her sister Drakulonian was joking or not.

      Vampirella tossed fitfully in her hotel room bed yet was unable to rouse herself from the deep, drug-induced sleep that held her. Under the influence of Mr. Jones’ mysterious capsule, more and more long-suppressed memories bubbled to the surface where, in her dream state, she re-experienced them as vividly as if she were living them for the first time.

      Vampirella sprinted along the tubular, curving passageways of Slandra’s starship. Pantha loped ahead of her in feline form. Around them, shrill alien alarm horns sounded, while geysers of sparks and blue flame erupted from the ship’s bulbous chrome equipment pods. The plated decks of the mortally damaged craft shuddered convulsively beneath their running feet.
      Only moments earlier, they’d been imprisoned in their glass-like capsules, awaiting execution by the genocidally inclined battlemaid. After their traumatic assault by the extraterrestrial’s anal probes, she had at last revealed the source of her unquestioning enmity towards them. In explicit detail, she had relayed the tragic and senseless history of the millennia-spanning war between Lupae and the former Cat People of Drakulon. She had also described her own mission, to track and exterminate the Drakulonian survivors of that apocalyptic war down through the timelines of cosmic history. Finally, she had made the startling revelation that another, unidentified Drakulonian had been detected on the Earth below.
      But before she could exact her revenge, a new supernatural presence had manifested itself within the orbiting starship. Identifying itself as the demon N’gorath, it had broken the two Drakulonians free of their confining capsules and wreaked general havoc on the ship’s silvery control systems. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone.
      From its sheer recklessness and half-baked nature, Vampirella immediately sensed the hand of Pendragon behind their supernatural rescue from Slandra’s clutches. Never mind that the attempt had delivered them from the frying pan into the fire as the crippled ship now tumbled from orbit.
      Without warning, Slandra sprang from an intersecting corridor, blaster in hand, practically colliding with the sprinting Vampirella. She swung the deadly weapon upwards, but before she could bring it to bear, the vampiress knocked it from her grasp with a lightning-fast kick. Undefeated, the battlemaid lunged at Vampirella, producing a wicked-looking curved blade from inside one of her bulky moon boots. Vampirella parried the knife thrust and followed through with an elbow to the Lupae’s midriff.
      Momentarily gaining the upper hand, Vampirella bared her fangs and hissed menacingly. But instead of going for the Amazonian’s jugular, she lashed out with a devastating double-handed blow to the neck instead. The piledriver impact would easily have shattered the spinal column of any human foe, but Slandra, though clearly stunned, refused to go down.
      At that moment, the ship shuddered more violently than before.
      "Power surges uncontainable," Ror’s voice called out.
      Its drive systems offline, power building towards a critical overload, it was now a race as to whether the ship would explode before it burned up in a rapidly decaying orbit.
      "Uh, Vamps," Pantha, once more in human form, pointed out the obvious, "something tells me we should abandon ship! There’s a lifeboat to your left!"
      She pointed Vampirella towards a triangular winged shape cocooned within a recessed launch bay sunken into the floor. Though much of the Lupae technology they had thus far seen was indecipherable, the sleek, aerodynamic form with its open canopy and waiting two-man cockpit clearly suggested some sort of escape shuttle or re-entry glider. Its bronze-colored surface was covered with a mosaic of irregularly shaped tiles, adding to its appearance as a futuristic but recognizable spacecraft.
      In spite of the violation they had just undergone at the hands of the sadistic battlemaid, Vampirella felt a moment’s hesitation at leaving Slandra to her own devices aboard the rapidly floundering spacecraft. But what choice did they have?
      As they dove through the waiting hatch, the beaten Slandra once more pulled herself to her feet.
      "Ror," she called out, "brain-blank their knowledge of the war while you still can. As long as they know about Lupae, they remain potential threats!"
      Again that disembodied voice, whether pilot or computer, responded, "Mind-wipe in progress, mistress."
      Now inside the escape vehicle’s cockpit, reaching to secure the raised canopy, Vampirella felt a sudden wave of vertigo wash over her. For a moment, she was frozen in place by what she saw. The silvery B-movie starship blurred and vanished. In its place appeared something far more genuinely alien as the Lupae geistgate momentarily revealed its true nature.
      A dizzying array of intricately detailed blade-like rings gyrated about a common center in an intricate rhythm. The synchronized rings continually meshed and separated in ever-changing combinations. The spinning alien components all about them reminded Vampirella of the clockwork mechanisms of a vastly oversized antique orrery as viewed from within.
      The space around them was bathed in a dim, sickly amber light, which seemed to emanate from a featureless, hazy ochre background beyond the orbiting rings.
      In the middle of it all, Slandra still stood in the same position she’d previously occupied. But her appearance had changed as well. She was still the same athletic Amazonian blonde, but the silver Valkyrie costume had disappeared from around her now-nude figure. Her previously blue eyes now glinted with a glassy ochre sheen. Most horrifically, numerous long, pallid, fleshy tentacles sprouted from all around her midriff, writhing in the air.
      Not hesitating to try and figure what she was seeing, Vampirella pulled shut the glider’s canopy. Though the crippled starship was nowhere to be seen, instinct told her that they were still in mortal danger and that time was running out.
      As soon as the hatch was secured, the escape shuttle came to life of its own accord. With a jarring lurch, it abruptly plummeted like a stone through the gyrating alien clockworks. Within moments, it punched through the yellow miasma and they found themselves once again on the edge of space high above California. Though Vampirella grasped the controls, the delta-winged lander seemed to be flying itself as it arrowed down into the atmosphere. The two passengers were thrust back into their cocoon-like padded couches while fiery chunks of ablative heat shielding peeled from the glowing vehicle’s skin.
      Vampirella watched the spinning Santa Monica waterfront expand in the canopy viewports as the shuttle continued to plow earthward through thicker atmosphere, its speed undiminished. Only when the choppy surface of Santa Monica Bay filled their field of view did the craft decelerate with bone-jarring force. The escape vehicle clearly had been designed for the tough physiology of beings such as the Lupae or Drakulonians. She doubted whether any human passenger could have withstood the crushing g-forces produced by its radical maneuvers. She saw no parachutes or retro rockets, but by some unknown means, the ship had dropped to a manageable speed by the time it cut through the water’s surface like a knife.
      Still moving rapidly, the shuttle continued to plummet into the murky Pacific depths. Suddenly they were confronted with a new peril. In spite of its incredible toughness in re-entering the atmosphere like a flaming comet, the moment it struck the ocean saltwater, the ship instantaneously began dissolving into a brownish, effervescent froth. Within moments, the entire shuttle literally disintegrated around them. The two Drakulonians found themselves plunging downward, still carried by their incredible inertia.
      The air was forced from Vampirella’s lungs in a stream of bubbles. Fortunately, with her unique Vampiri metabolism, she could survive underwater for extended periods. But she was well aware that the feline Pantha did not share this ability and was in fact highly averse to water. Spotting her friend flailing in blind panic, she hooked an arm about her waist and began kicking powerfully to reverse their downward momentum.
      Within moments they were ascending towards the surface. They popped up into daylight like a champagne cork. Vampirella continued to hold onto Pantha as she dog paddled for the both of them. The panther woman retched up several mouthfuls of seawater, but thankfully was able to catch her breath after that.
      Then, incredibly, Vampirella spotted a small police launch in the distance, speeding directly towards them across the choppy bay. Even more incredibly, as it neared she could make out a concerned Adam Van Helsing standing at the prow, pointing vigorously in their direction.
      By now, any physical evidence of the Lupae shuttle had vanished, leaving only a dirty brown froth floating on the water around them. Vampirella was unaware of the residual effects of Ror’s mind block continuing to work on the neurochemistry of her brain. However by the time they were pulled aboard the rescue launch, neither she nor Pantha were able to relate anything beyond their disappearance from the Century Studios gala or of how they had ended up in the chill waters of Santa Monica Bay.



      A light drizzle was once again falling as Vampirella stepped off of a SEPTA transit bus in front of Independence Square. The familiar red brick Georgian facade of Independence Hall with its white central clock tower that had once housed the Liberty Bell faced her across the grassy mall. The air was chill, the sky slate gray; meteorological conditions which fit her state of mind to a tee. She was dressed for the weather in a fashionable, wide-lapelled olive trench coat over tight-fitting slacks and her de rigueur spike-heeled boots. She looked about at the sparse pedestrian traffic of tourists and passersby braving the weather as if they existed in another world from her. Less than 24 hours ago, Mr. Jones had told her that she would wake up this morning to a changed reality. He hadn’t been lying.
      Vampirella knew with absolute certitude that the flashback she had experienced in the middle of the previous night was no illusion. She had at one time or another experienced every type of mindfuck the Companions of Chaos, among others, could inflict on a mortal foe. The nightmare visions of Slandra in her battlemaid's costume, the silvery, futuristic starship, the glass tubes and phallic probes, and most especially the final transformation into an even more alien reality were all authentic memories of events she had actually experienced. Those memories had been stolen from her twenty-six years ago by an alien mind block and only now returned by the mysterious Mr. Jones’ magic pill.
      Per her instructions from their previous rendezvous, she headed north along Fifth Street past Library Hall, where Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence was displayed. Ahead of her, waiting alone under the glass awning of a bus shelter, she spotted Mr. Jones in a nondescript tan trench coat and his fedora hat from the previous day. As she approached, he casually tipped his hat in her direction.
      "Good morning, Vampirella," he greeted her. "You look like someone who’s had a rough night’s sleep," he added sardonically.
      "Very funny," she replied in a voice that left no doubt she didn’t find him funny at all.
      "I’m sorry for what you must’ve gone through last night," he amended in a more serious tone. "Retrieving submerged memories of abduction experiences is always traumatic for the abductee. But your life may depend on your understanding that all of this is real."
      "You bastard!" Vampirella lashed out, "Do you know what happened to Pantha and me aboard that ship?"
      "From your medical exams at the time and from what little Com-12 knows about close encounters with the Lupae, I have a pretty good idea. Again, I’m truly sorry to have made you relive it."
      "What the fuck," she relented a little. "This isn’t the first time I’ve had to confront things from my past that I’d just as soon leave buried. But what is it they say; the truth will set you free?"
      "Can you relate any of your recollections to what happened the other night?"
      "Maybe," Vampirella answered tentatively. "Besides the medical rape, something else happened on that ship. Pantha and I were captured and probed by an alien amazon who called herself Slandra. But then in the end, when she put the brain-blank on us, everything shifted. It was as if we weren’t even on the kitschy starship with the flashing lights anymore but in some sort of nebulous otherworldly dimension with mechanisms I couldn’t begin to describe spinning around us. Slandra was changed too, turned into something like the creature I killed on the waterfront."
      "What you’re describing isn’t surprising. From what we know, human or even Drakulonian minds can’t directly perceive transdimensional, semi-mystical artifacts such as the Drakulonian geistgate mechanism or its Lupae equivalent in their entirety. However, in addition to their other capabilities, these devices seem to project a Kirlian aura. This is presumably to assist their terrestrial users in interfacing with them on a comprehensible level. That’s why you and others tend to see them as familiar iconic objects like flying saucers or television starships.
      "Com-12 knows far less about the Lupae than we do about Drakulonian visitors to this world," Jones continued. "To our knowledge, Aquarius has never recovered any tangible physical remnants of the Lupae. But the Soviets apparently did. There’s some intel to suggest that during the late eighties they were experimenting with Lupae genetics in one of their secret bioweapons labs outside Moscow. Whatever they found so thoroughly terrified them that they literally buried all traces of whatever line of research they were working on. What’s more, we believe that surviving elements of Dr. Midwinter’s New Order may be trying to pick up where the Soviets left off. It’s possible that the creature that attacked you was a product of this research."
      At this point a heavyset black woman with a small girl in tow ducked into the glass-roofed bus shelter and began studying the route schedules posted.
      "Let’s take a walk," Mr. Jones suggested.
      Together, the two of them began strolling down the sidewalk past Independence Hall to their left.
      "The tour guides refer to this area of Philly as ‘America’s most historic square mile’."
      Vampirella listened intently; by now aware that Mr. Jones’ banter was typically the lead-in to some new revelation.
      "That’s no exaggeration. Most of the basic governing principles this country was founded upon were hammered out in the buildings surrounding us back when Philadelphia was the nation’s first capital.
      "007 and Vin Diesel to the contrary," he continued, "intelligence work isn’t a very glamorous or heroic way of life. We spend our lives immersed in a world that can be pretty damn murky at times. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes it isn’t enough to know the enemies you’re fighting against. Sometimes you have to be reminded of what it is you’re fighting for. You’re still relatively new to this world. Its traditions may not mean that much to you. But for me, a lot of what Com-12 is all about can be found in these buildings all around us."
      "Want to take a look inside?" Vampirella smiled coyly, gesturing towards Independence Hall.
      Mr. Jones smiled in return. "Sorry, I could probably get you into Montauk or Area 51, but even I can’t get you through the lineup without a timed ticket from the Visitor Center."
      The two of them laughed, breaking the ice between them just a little bit more.
      "We’re coming up on the new Liberty Bell Pavilion," Mr. Jones pointed to a small glass structure ahead.
      As they approached, they could see the historic bell itself, prominently displayed within the airy pavilion. It occurred to Vampirella that here she was getting a first time tourist’s overview of historic Philadelphia from a man who probably knew more about the hidden inner workings of government than anyone she had previously encountered in her lifetime.
      "The original bell was ordered in 1751 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. The name ‘Liberty Bell’ wasn’t coined until the mid-1800’s. It was used by abolitionists who thought the crack was an apt metaphor for a country divided between those who believed in man’s inherent dignity and those who thought that the value of a human being could be measured in dollars and cents. Perhaps it still is. Kids used to stick their fingers in the crack for good luck. Today it’s displayed inside a bombproof Plexiglas enclosure. Terrorist threat and all.
      "The inscription on the Bell, taken from Leviticus, reads ‘Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’. Today the Liberty Bell is an icon of freedom and democracy known around the world. It makes you wonder what the Founding Fathers would think if they could hear the present Administration touting a country like Afghanistan as a role-model for the spread of American democracy."
      "What’s wrong with that?" asked Vampirella, going with Jones’ turn in their discussion. "Since the United States sent in troops in 2002, Afghanistan’s conducted its first presidential election in how many years? The U.S. got the Taliban out, saved a lot of people, women especially, from being victimized by a bunch of fundamentalist zealots who’d drag human rights back to the Middle Ages if they had their way."
      "What’s wrong," Mr. Jones answered, "is that Afghanistan is a narco-state from top to bottom. According to a 2004 UN report on global narcotics trafficking, Afghanistan is a major supplier for the global heroin trade, currently producing 87% of the world’s opium supply. Two thirds of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, about $3 billion U.S. annually, comes from opium. That same report estimates that one in ten Afghanis are directly involved in the opium trade. Not quite the model of a democratic society that Ben Franklin would’ve envisioned."
      Having circled the Liberty Bell Pavilion, Mr. Jones guided Vampirella back the way they’d come across the mall. When they reached Chestnut Street, he veered eastward.
      "By comparison, look at Taiwan. While the Administration’s been publicly touting the rhetoric of spreading American democracy around the globe, they’ve been quietly pressuring Taiwan to back off on proposed Constitutional amendments to assert greater independence from Beijing. Why? Simple economics.
      "Twenty-five years ago, Communist China renounced Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution in favor of a pragmatic program of economic reform, which fueled a quarter century of sustained economic growth, elevating some 300 million Chinese into a new middle class. But the prosperity of this new elite wasn’t built solely on free-market reform. It was built on widespread corruption along with the systematic exploitation of an underclass of laborers culled from China’s rural poor, those excluded from such ‘universal’ social benefits as health care and social security benefits provided for urban residents. In the southern coastal provinces, entire villages have been turned into Special Economic Zones, huge factory cities in which mostly young women migrated from the surrounding countryside are housed in massive dormitories working 360 days a year. Some literally drop dead of gulaosi, overwork. Among them are an estimated 10 million illegal underage workers.
      "Then there are the prison factories. Under the Chinese practice of ‘re-education through labor’, political dissidents, that is labor agitators and those reporting corruption, can be sentenced to up to four years in one of China’s 300 labor camps without benefit of any sort of criminal trial or legal proceedings.
      "But, these appalling social conditions aside, China’s ‘economic miracle’ is one of the driving forces of today’s global consumer goods economy. The world’s largest corporation today is the U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart. Employing 1.4 million people, its revenues make up two percent of the U.S. GDP. This single company imports eighty percent of its inventory, some $18 billion in goods, from China."
      Vampirella took in these revelations in saddened silence.
      "The building to your right," Mr. Jones resumed his tour, "is the Second Bank of the United States. And up ahead, we’re coming up on the New Hall Military Museum, a reconstruction of the building that briefly housed the U.S. War Department from 1791 to 1792. Com-12’s military heritage doesn’t go back quite that far, I’m afraid. But Naval Intelligence is the oldest continually operating intelligence service in the nation, dating back to 1882, when it was established to monitor advancements in foreign naval technology during the era of the first ironclad warships."
      "I know you’re going somewhere with this," Vampirella anticipated.
      Mr. Jones’ eyes twinkled, "Every man or woman who serves in the U.S. Armed Forces takes an oath that goes like this: ‘I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.’ That’s what military service is all about, to defend the Constitution and the principles this country was founded on from its enemies, foreign and domestic.
      "If we had more time, I’d walk you through the new National Constitution Center. It’s just another block north of the Liberty Bell Pavilion we just came from. A $185 million building dedicated to a single document. There’s an exhibit inside that highlights the basic governing principles outlined in the Constitution. Right up there with popular sovereignty is the rule of law, the concept that the highest authority in this country resides in the integrity of its legal principles and protections, not in Administration officials or groups like Aquarius or powerful individuals. Certainly not in individuals like Gerrold Esterbrook."
      Vampirella’s jaw dropped. Once again her enigmatic informant had caught her off guard, this time referring to her former boss from the final days of her association with the Danse Macabre organization.
      Before she could ask him to explain his comment, he pushed on, "Com-12 believes that Aquarius and their multinational New Order cohorts are gradually but methodically attempting to position themselves beyond the reach of Constitutional authority. It wouldn’t be beyond their capabilities or their scruples to utilize extraterrestrial means to accomplish that end. If the New Cosmic Order have somehow gotten their hands on Lupae technology or biogenetic materials, or if they’re actually working in conjunction with the Lupae, the consequences could be unimaginable.
      "Well, that concludes the tour," Mr. Jones smiled at Vampirella. By now, they were nearing their starting point, back along Walnut Street in front of Independence Square. "I’ll just leave you with one final observation that isn’t in the usual script that tourists hear. Liberty doesn’t reside in these buildings all around us or even in the documents that were written here. It resides in us. Social sciences writers sometimes refer to American democracy as the Great Experiment. But that experiment isn’t over. Some 218 years after the Constitutional Convention was held in Independence Hall over there, the final verdict still isn’t in. The success or failure of the Great American Experiment in democracy depends on the choices people like you and me make every day, whether to claim our freedoms and human rights or whether to hand them over to some shadowy interest like Aquarius.
      "I’ll walk you to your bus," Jones offered. "You know the Lupae are ancient enemies of the races of Drakulon, yourself included. Whatever’s behind their reappearance, I’m afraid their own imperative will be to go after you. You’ve seen that they can take on human form, and Com-12 believes that at least some of them can actually blend into human society..."
      "So they could be anyone," Vampirella completed.
      "Precisely," Mr. Jones confirmed. "Com-12 has no solid conventional intel as to their possible whereabouts or current operations. We do however have a psi-ops lead to pass on to you. When we tried to get our remote viewers to focus in on the Lupae, they came up with a location. We don’t yet know its significance, but the psychics believe that it involves you as well."
      Mr. Jones handed over a folded pocket map to Vampirella. She saw that it was an ordinary service station road map of the state of Kansas. When she opened it up, she saw that a small town in the sparse northwestern portion of the state had been prominently circled. Highlighted in red ink was the name Golden.
      "I don’t know what you may find there, but you can either wait for the Lupae to make their move or you can take the fight to them. If it was me, I know what I’d do."
      "Now that you know about the Lupae," Jones continued, " you have a critical rendezvous to make."
      "Pantha," Vampirella shook her head. "If they’re hunting me, they’ll be after her as well. Somehow I have to find her first."
      "I may be able to help in that regard."
      "You know where she is?" Vampirella asked.
      "Com-12 has been following her whereabouts. She’s been going by the name of Terry White."
      "That’s the same name she was using when we first met in Egypt!" Vampirella exclaimed.
      "Precisely," Mr. Jones elaborated. "No professional would ever resume the same alias once they’d abandoned it; a mistake you’ve occasionally made as well. The first time she swiped a credit card or used her name over the phone, the NSA’s word recognition supercomputers would’ve flagged her."
      "Whatever happened to a person’s right to privacy?" asked Vampirella.
      "In the post-9/11 world, it’s largely a myth. In any case, she’s a lot closer than you might’ve thought. And it didn’t take any supercomputer to find her."
      Mr. Jones reached into an inside breast pocket and removed a brochure, which he handed to Vampirella.


APRIL 1988

      Corporal Oleg Kozhikov poured black coffee from his steel thermos into a chipped ceramic mug. He held the steaming cup between gloved hands, savoring its warmth. The tiny guardhouse that he manned was just large enough for one sentry. Despite the ultra-high security nature of the Obolensk complex, this was just one of numerous secondary checkpoints regulating traffic within the extensive compound. Anyone traversing these grounds would have to carry the requisite clearances to have been admitted through one of the fortress-like peripheral checkpoints with their large contingents of burly, heavily armed security troops.
      A tiny kerosene heater provided warmth to approximately the lower third of his body. Fortunately it was well past the dead of the Soviet winter, when full arctic gear was required to man this outpost. Kozhikov currently wore standard Red Army camouflage fatigues with a spring-weight jacket and cap. Besides the heater, the tiny wooden structure was equipped with a sliding glass front window, a phone, an upright gun rack holding his own AK-47, and a small shelf illuminated by a gooseneck reading lamp upon which rested the checkpoint’s security log. Currently a contraband Danish hardcore magazine lay open on top of that.
      The sentry point looked out on a dark and lonely stretch of paved road surrounded on both sides by dense pine forests and impenetrable, mist shrouded peat bogs. Half a kilometer from the guardhouse, a single monolithic concrete tower could be seen projecting some fifteen stories above the treetops. Even at this hour of the night, the numerous windows of its various laboratories and offices were lit up, though the nighttime forest haze gave them an eerie greenish cast as seen from this distance. The top spire of the structure was lit on each of its four faces with the single illuminated numeral "9" glowing a baleful red.
      Building #9, set off from the rest of the complex, standing alone at the far end of this road, was by far the largest structure comprising the Institute of Applied Microbiology –and the most secretive.
      While the work at Obolensk was top secret, the security forces here were all drawn from the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Red Army’s Fifteenth Directorate, in charge of the military side of the Soviet biological weapons program. They were fully aware that this facility was in fact operated by Biopreparat, the civilian scientific arm of the bioweapons effort. The eight story, glass-walled Building #1 served as a vast repository for an array of lethal pathogens used as seed stock in the production of biological weapons. And in the surrounding red and white brick buildings, genetic research was being conducted to insert deadly catabolic peptides into various microorganisms.
      But what went on in Building #9 remained a total mystery to the security contingent. Some of the more colorful rumors ranged from the creation of an ultimate doomsday weapon to research on captured UFO’s and their occupants.
      With virtually no traffic at this time of night, Kozhikov absently studied a centerfold of a young Nordic blonde with legs spread wide to receive a huge dildo.
      Without warning, a muffled thud issued from an indeterminate distance outside the guardhouse. At the same time, the small reading light momentarily dimmed. Kozhikov snapped instantly alert. Grabbing the Kalashnikov, he stepped outside and looked expectantly up and down the still-deserted highway. Looking towards Building #9, he could see that the structure was now darkened, with only the faint glow of what must be emergency lights showing here and there. Could a transformer have blown, he wondered? Then he noticed a thin plume of smoke rising from some unknown source on the far side of the tower.
      Kozhikov felt a sudden chill run up and down his spine that had nothing to do with the dank night air. Standing orders for security forces in case of an internal emergency were clear. All personnel were to maintain their posts, neither advancing towards nor retreating from the site of the alarm. Orders notwithstanding, Kozhikov felt a moment of blind panic in which his first inclination was to flee. Seeing the rising column of soot, his thoughts had immediately turned to Sverdlovsk. Although news of the incident there had been largely contained, sporadic accounts had filtered through the Fifteenth Directorate over the years. Those accounts hinted at a critical biocontainment breach back in ’79 occurring within the huge bioweapons plant there, resulting in the anthrax deaths of nearly a hundred neighboring townspeople. Dear God, he thought, don’t let this be another bioagent release. The guardhouse was not equipped with haz-mat gear. If any potential biological vector carried this far, he would be totally unprotected. The only thing that kept him in his place was the sure knowledge that to desert his post in time of emergency would equally be a death sentence.
      A moment later, the distant wail of sirens began to issue from the direction of the stricken tower. Then, incongruously, came the sound of automatic weapons fire. This immediately shifted the focus of his speculations from some sort of catastrophic laboratory accident to the equally ominous possibility of a terrorist attack. He raced back inside the guardhouse and grabbed the phone from its cradle, only to discover that the line was dead. He was cut off, alone in the isolated guardpost.
      Before he could make another move, a flash of headlights appeared from the direction of the main Obolensk compound. Seeing that it was units of his own security force, Kozhikov raised the chevron-striped traffic barrier and waved the lead vehicle through. A driver, unidentifiable in the goggled hood of his haz-mat suit, waved a gloved hand as he passed. A column of armored personnel carriers sped past the guardhouse in the direction of Building #9. The last of the taillights quickly disappeared from sight, leaving him once again on his own.
      No additional traffic appeared in either direction. Five minutes passed, the distant sirens still wailing. Then a renewed round of gunfire erupted through the trees. Undoubtedly, the arriving APC column was engaging some hostile force. But who could possibly have breached a high-security military compound only some eighty kilometers from Moscow?
      The sudden concussion of a grenade exploding reverberated through the forest, quickly followed by a second blast. Gradually the gunshots became more and more sporadic, eventually ceasing altogether. At the same time, the distant alarms abruptly faded as Building #9 went completely dark, its backup power source obviously failing as well.
      The sudden return to silence was as startling as the inexplicable sounds of combat that had preceded it. Only the gentle sighing of the breeze and the nighttime chirping of forest insects could now be heard. Kozhikov once again tried the phone, his only link to the outside world, but was greeted by only static. He dropped the useless receiver and left it dangling by its cord. Once again he considered fleeing, but where to? To proceed headlong towards Building #9 and the unknown crisis occurring there would only be going from frying pan to fire. And he suddenly found himself too afraid to attempt to traverse the kilometer of inky black forest back to the main Obolensk complex. The only thing to do was carry out his duty and wait at the guardhouse until relief arrived.
      He noted the now-diminishing column of smoke from the darkened tower was blowing away from him. If there had been a containment breach, perhaps he would still be spared. And if there were hostile forces operating within the complex, it was unlikely that they would be numerous or well organized enough to be combing the deep woods between installations.
      The snap of a twig caused him to whirl around, his AK-47 at the ready. Perhaps twenty meters down the road, a solitary silhouette padded along the gravel berm. In spite of his terror, his elite military training was sufficient to prevent him from firing indiscriminately at an unidentified target.
      "Identify yourself," he called out in Russian.
      The figure did not reply but kept walking in his direction. His finger tightened a notch on the trigger, but still he held his fire. He breathed a sigh of relief as the stranger stepped out of the shadows. It was a woman wearing a long white lab coat with a laminated ID badge pinned to her breast pocket. As she approached, he could see that she was an attractive young woman with cascading blonde hair and a high cheekboned face. Though she continued to say nothing, she smiled a warm, disarming smile. One of the lab technicians, Kozhikov told himself.
      Then as she stepped into the tiny circle of light from the guardhouse lamp, he noticed a detail that brought back the terror in a crashing blow. In spite of the numbing cold temperature and the sharp gravel berm along which she’d come, she was barefooted. As she approached, the lab coat fell open revealing her nude figure underneath. Fear mixed with astonished arousal as he stared at her full rounded breasts, taut stomach, and long statuesque legs. Then before he could react, that perfect, exquisite body shifted and warped like an image in a funhouse mirror. In the blink of an eye, tendril-like flesh-colored pseudopodia extended in his direction. And then they extended through him, passing effortlessly through his chest cavity as though it were no more than a mirage. Then in an instant, the phantom tentacles seemed to gain substance inside of him, and Kozhikov felt a brief agony beyond anything he had ever experienced in his lifetime.

      Short minutes later, the mysterious blonde woman still stood over Cpl. Kozhikov’s shredded form in a wide-legged stance, studying her lethal handiwork with blank detachment. The writhing pink tentacles had receded back into her body so that she once again took on the appearance of a perfectly normal, very shapely young woman; all except for the glassy ochre eyes which glinted dully in the dim light surrounding the remote guardhouse.
      Kozhikov never saw the second figure emerge from the direction of Building #9. This one was male, obviously impervious to the numbing cold, standing completely nude in his bare feet. Like the female, he had blonde hair and amber eyes. For a moment, the two communicated back and forth in a series of obviously intelligent but inhuman squeals, before continuing their way side-by-side along the darkened highway.



      Vampirella strode briskly and purposefully up the enormous stairway leading up to the equally mammoth Philadelphia Museum of Art building overlooking the Schuykill River. The U-shaped edifice with its dolomite facades, terra cotta statuary, and column-lined Classical Greek entry dominated this area of the city. Behind her, the length of Benjamin Franklin Parkway stretched towards the Center City district in the distance, a steady flow of midday traffic moving along its six lanes. To most non-Philadelphians, the Museum’s East Entrance would be most recognizable as the locale in which Sylvester Stallone doggedly jogged up the extensive stairs and performed a victory dance in the original Rocky film. By contrast, Vampirella reached the summit without even the slightest sign of being winded.
      At the moment, she was far less interested in the impressive city vista surrounding her than in the banner over the entry, which announced:

Special Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
August 24 through September 6, 2005

      Passing through the entrance, she purchased an admission ticket and proceeded directly to a service and information counter to one side of the Great Stair Hall.
      "Hello," she addressed an attractive college-aged receptionist, "I’m looking for a Ms Terry White. She’s with the staff of the Sekhmet exhibit."
      Before the girl could respond, an older museum staffer looked up from a desk behind the counter. "Do you have an appointment with Miss White?" she asked.
      "No," Vampirella conceded, "but I’m a close friend. I have some urgent personal news for her."
      The older woman appraised Vampirella momentarily before responding, "I’m afraid Terry’s tied up at the moment. We’ve got a VIP press tour going through right now and our PR spokesperson got held up in traffic, so Terry’s pinch-hitting for us."
      "I didn’t think you were up and running yet," Vampirella commented.
      "We’re not. The Cat Goddess exhibit doesn’t open to the public until Wednesday. These are reporters who’ll be doing pre-event radio spots and write-ups in this week’s papers. It’s very important to the success of the show that Terry makes a favorable impression.
      "Seeing as you say it’s urgent, I’ll let you wait for Terry inside the Special Exhibition Gallery. You can listen to her presentation if you like. Just please be careful of the workmen setting up and obviously don’t interrupt the press tour until Terry finishes."
      "Thank you very much," Vampirella answered graciously as the woman escorted her through the closed entryway to the museum’s south wing.
      Vampirella was surprised to find that the Special Exhibition Gallery took up a good portion of the main floor on this end of the building. Everything about the Art Museum seemed to be done on a grand scale. Inside, workmen went about the tasks of carefully uncrating ancient relics and arranging them in Plexiglas display cases, all according to elaborately detailed exhibition plans to which they referred. In keeping with the theme of the exhibition, many of the artworks depicted felines inscribed or sculpted in a variety of media and artistic styles.
      At the far end of the gallery, Vampirella spotted Pantha in her guise as Terry White, surrounded by her audience. She watched and listened for a minute or so from just inside the doorway.
      With her combination of otherworldly strength and dark, exotic beauty, Vampirella exuded an effortless sexuality with which few other women could compete. One such woman was Pantha. A fellow Drakulonian belonging to an extraterrestrial race of Cat People which preceded Vampirella’s own vampiric kind, she moved with a fluid, feline grace, while the sound of her voice was a deep throaty purr. Her long, flowing hair was a lustrous, deep brunette. Like Vampirella, she seemed to have aged almost imperceptibly over the three decades since they had first met. Obviously unprepared to be hosting a press conference, she was dressed in well-worn, tight fitting jeans and a denim work shirt which showed off her sensuous figure. Vampirella noted the ubiquitous panther amulet, the Scarab of Atum-Ra, hung around her neck. It glinted with the same otherworldly greenish-gold as Vampirella’s own Drakulonian bracelets.
      Vampirella approached discreetly and took up a position behind the other onlookers.
      Spotting her longtime friend arriving unexpectedly, Pantha’s ocean-green eyes lit up with surprise. She waved and flashed a broad smile in Vampirella’s direction before continuing with her presentation.
      "Excuse me, Miss White," one of the reporters raised his hand, "a lot of our readers will be interested in the history and mythology behind these artifacts, anything to give them more of a human-interest angle. Can you give us something to work with, a sort of Egyptology primer if you will?"
      "I’d be happy to, Mr. Namer. Perhaps the most important thing for you to keep in mind is that the culture of dynastic Egypt spans some twenty-seven centuries, from almost 3000 years BC up to the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Throughout that timeline, the mythology of ancient Egypt continued to evolve along with the political and class structure of their society. During the First Intermediate Period, when Egypt divided into two separate kingdoms, the pantheon of gods and goddesses diverged along separate, parallel lines. Later, during the Middle and New Kingdoms, a tremendous amount of reunification took place, with many of the separate original gods being reinterpreted as composite deities. From an archeological standpoint, it gets quite confusing at times."
      Warming to her subject, Pantha continued, "Sekhmet and Bast, the subjects of this exhibit, were both central figures in ancient Egyptian worship. Both were described as being the daughter of the sun god Ra and both were attributed as having feline characteristics."
      Directing their attention to a small stone sculpture, she continued, "Bast was typically depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat, while Sekhmet was supposedly able to transform from a woman into a predatory lioness."
      "There’s been a resurgence of interest in the Egyptian cat goddesses as a symbol of contemporary feminist mysticism. Today Sekhmet and Bast are often portrayed as being either twin sister goddesses or as opposite sides of a duality, symbolizing the self-destructive as well as the nurturing, life-affirming sides of human nature."
      "Sort of a good kitty, bad kitty thing" one of the reporters interjected, provoking several chuckles.
      Pantha smiled good-naturedly. "More likely, they represent regional variations on a single mythological persona.
      "The worship of Bast or Bastet seems to have originated during the Second Dynasty and was centered around the city of Bubastis. Bast was a benevolent goddess, protector of women and children and patroness of the arts, family, fertility, and of course, cats. Sekhmet is a bit of a different story. She’s one of the central deities linked to Ra throughout the course of Egyptian mythology."
      Vampirella listened intently to Pantha’s recitation. More than once during their many exploits together, Pantha herself had been identified by various interested parties as either one or the other of the Egyptian cat goddesses. Like Vampirella’s, Pantha’s true origins were shrouded behind layers of mystery and personal trauma.
      "To backtrack a moment," Pantha lectured her captive audience, "Ra, the sun god, was the central deity to the Egyptians. Belief in some form of Ra also goes back to the Second Dynasty, but seems to have mysteriously gained in prominence during the era of the pyramid builders of the Fourth Dynasty between 2609 and 2532 BC. The Pharaoh Djedefra, who probably ordered the building of the Sphinx in honor of his father, Khufu, also built a solar temple to Ra at Abu Roash, overlooking the pyramids of Giza. He was the first pharaoh to assume the title Son of Ra; a tradition carried on by his immediate follower, Khafra.
      "According to the Egyptians, it was Ra who created the world as well as the other elemental gods of air, moisture, earth, and sky. Each day, he was reborn as the rising sun and traveled across the heavens in a ceaseless cycle that defined the eternal rhythm of life.
      "But it was also believed that there was a time when Ra took on a mortal existence here on Earth. In time, he grew old and feeble, and mankind dared to challenge his laws and his authority. So he sent forth his daughter, the avenging goddess Sekhmet to punish mankind. Sekhmet roamed the Earth in the form of a raging lioness, carrying the Eye of Ra, with which she unleashed the fires of fury and destruction. But Sekhmet became seduced by her feline bloodlust and threatened to wipe out all of mankind.
      "Even Ra was appalled by her bloodthirstiness and took pity on humanity. To outwit Sekhmet, he directed that a pool of beer be poured out and disguised with red ochre to look like blood. When Sekhmet came upon it, she drank herself into a stupor, finally putting an end to her killing frenzy."
      Vampirella watched the eager reporters lapping up Pantha’s account with cheerful interest. For a moment she wondered what their reactions would be if they knew that their narrator might just be the contemporary incarnation of Sekhmet herself, a bona fide demigoddess.
      "In essence," Pantha concluded, "that’s the story of Sekhmet’s fury and how she came to be identified as the vengeful Eye of Ra. In some versions, Ra returns to the heavens, taking the contrite Sekhmet home with him. In others, she becomes transformed into the benevolent goddess Hathor, resuming her place in the hearts of the Egyptians. In still others, she’s cursed by Ra to become an immortal outcast wanderer."
      "That’s awesome!" gushed the reporter who had asked for more human interest. "I know our readers will just eat that up. They’ll be lined up around the block."
      "That’s the idea," Pantha smiled. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to see national treasures that probably won’t travel outside of Egypt again in a generation."
      As she wound down her presentation, a young staffer stepped forward with an armful of manila envelopes.
      "There’s an interesting historical side note to the legend of Sekhmet as well," Pantha threw out a final tidbit for the reporters. "Today Egyptologists are able to trace the development of many of the tales out of Egyptian mythology. Most were passed on through generations as mythologized, highly embellished accounts of actual political intrigues or social conditions of the times. However the legend of Sekhmet’s fury seems to have emerged full-blown sometime during the late Fourth Dynasty. Further, it’s difficult to trace it back to any historical events or cultural practices which ancient historians are currently aware of. Just another mystery of the antiquities."
      "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn you over to Mark here who’ll be handing out press kits. On behalf of myself, the staff of the Sekhmet Exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, thank you very much for coming today."
      As the press contingent was led off, Pantha turned to Vampirella. "Vampi!" she laughed excitedly, "I can’t believe it’s you."
      She pulled Vampirella tightly against her and planted a kiss that was slightly more than affectionate on her cheek.
      Vampirella smelled the deep, musky fragrance that was uniquely Pantha’s, a mix of her own bodily scent and an ancient, exotic perfume blended for her by some of her scattered devotees among the secretive Cult of the Cat. With her acute senses, Vampirella felt the flush of Pantha’s skin and the racing of her heartbeat. Not for the first time, she sensed that her longtime friend had developed an interest in her that went beyond mere friendship. But she didn’t resist her oldest girlfriend’s advances.
      "So what is all this?" Vampirella waved to the statuary surrounding them. "And what are you doing here?"
      "You’re looking at some of Egypt’s greatest archeological treasures," Pantha answered proudly. "Do you remember the traveling King Tut exhibition that toured North America a few years ago?"
      "I seem to recall hearing something about it on TV. It was supposed to be a pretty big deal at the time, wasn’t it?"
      "It was a very big deal," Pantha answered. "It generated a huge positive spin for Egypt in terms of political goodwill, international support for ongoing archeological research, and most importantly, tourist dollars. I think the Ministry of Antiquities is hoping to pull off a repeat performance with this Cat Goddess Exhibition. God knows, if ever something was needed to produce even a little goodwill between the US and the Islamic world, it’s right now.
      "You see this little guy?" Pantha pointed to a tiny, undistinguished cat figurine encased in Lucite. "He’s 4500 years old. This was one of dozens found in Khafra’s pyramid, probably in reverence to the goddess Bast." She looked around to ensure that none of the museum workmen were within earshot. "Or perhaps it was a reminder of the lost race of Cat People of Drakulon.
      "You asked why I’m here. These artifacts go back to Fellus and my feline forebears. The items in this room are possibly the last remaining links to the original Cat People who came down to Earth from the stars. Let’s just say I’m here to provide personal security to ensure their safety."
      "You still believe that Khafra was Fellus and that you’re descended from Egyptian royalty?" Vampirella asked, acutely interested in whatever progress her fellow Drakulonian might have made in uncovering the mysteries of her own past.
      Pantha took her by the arm and guided her further along the lengthy gallery, well away from where the workmen were setting up. "That’s a tough one," she answered. "According to Conrad Van Helsing’s trusted confidant, the medium Fleur, my kind originated here on Earth when the extraterrestrial being known as Fellus arrived here during the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu around 2580-something BC. There’s no question that Fleur believed Fellus became the Pharaoh Khafra. The fact that Adam and I found Fellus’ skyraider and ion battlesuit hidden inside a Fourth Dynasty tomb on the Giza Plateau pretty well confirms that Fellus was present in Khufu’s court. But as to whether or not he was actually Khafra, there’s no way to know for sure. Mediums tend to perceive things in very broad terms. Archeologists today know a lot more about ancient Egypt than was known twenty-nine years ago, and not all of it supports Fleur’s version of events."
      "Go on," Vampirella encouraged, realizing that what she was hearing might well have a bearing on their current situation.
      "It wasn’t until ’77 when you found me on Drakulon and returned me to Earth that we both put together the final piece of the puzzle. That’s when we realized that Drakulon was my race’s homeworld as well as yours, that the Cat People were the predecessors of the Vampiri."
      Vampirella looked troubled, remembering her pointed discussion of her own origins with Harry Krishna during her recent, traumatic Northern Lights affair in Canada. "I should tell you, I’ve recently had a, shall we say, uncomfortable reinterpretation put to me as to how I got to Drakulon in ’77. If true, by extension it would beg the question of how you ended up traveling there and back as well, especially given your powers of reincarnation."
      Pantha looked puzzled at what Vampirella was trying to say.
      "Never mind," Vampirella smiled, realizing that this was the wrong time to be opening that particular can of worms.
      Pantha continued, "What really clinches the whole extraterrestrial angle is when you and I were abducted by Slandra and learned about the ancient interstellar war between the Cat People of Drakulon and the metamorphic inhabitants of the planet Lupae, a war which led to the near-extinction of both races. But then you never believed in Slandra, did you? You thought it was all some New Age UFO delusion on the part of your kooky pal Pantha."
      "That’s why I’m here, Panth. I believe it now. What’s more, the Lupae are back."
      Pantha gasped, her eyes widening. "What? How do you know?"
      "I killed one of them two nights ago, here in Philly."
      "Two nights ago!" Pantha raised her voice, suddenly oblivious to who might overhear. "Shit, Vampi, do you know what this means?"
      "It means they’ll be coming for us," Vampirella answered gravely. Then she added, "unless we find them first."


MAY 2005

      Billowing clouds of dust marked the passing of a medium-sized flatbed lorry as it bounced along a zigzagging truck route stretching across an endless flat basin. Not really a road, the track consisted of little more than a series of deep ruts in the grayish grit that was once seabed. At the wheel, a virile-looking, middle-aged man with brush cut, silvering hair looked out from behind teardrop-shaped aviator sunglasses at the kilometers of parched salt flats rolling by. Occasionally he glanced sideways to steal a look at the enigmatic passenger sitting silently beside him.
      Aside from the two occupants, the truck was loaded with plastic water bottles, jerrycans of bleach, and, most importantly, a steel box containing two perfectly preserved Soviet-issue biohazard suits.
      As they progressed further into the basin, glassy stretches of shallow open water could be seen in the far distance to either side, but the circuitous trail they were following stuck to higher and dryer ground. The red blooms of scrub-like solianka further delineated those stretches of salt dunes now permanently above the high water mark. Somewhere ahead of them, not yet visible, lay the bleak rolling outline of Vozrozhdeniye Island, translated literally, Rebirth Island. Jeroen Prozny shook his head in amazement. The last time he had visited Voz Island back in 1991, this land bridge connecting it with the mainland had not existed. Such was the extent of the ongoing recession of the Aral Sea that the once-remote island outpost to which they were headed was now accessible by land.
      Prozny momentarily slowed to take in the surreal sight of the rusted skeleton of a fishing trawler jutting upright out of the middle of acres of dry sand. Perhaps it had run aground here or perhaps at some point this had been the shoreline where it had been moored. Whatever the case, it had been abandoned in place here years ago. And why not? The thriving Aral Sea fishery that had once supported some 60,000 jobs had vanished decades ago as, one by one, the Aral’s native fish species were killed off.
      Prozny knew he was looking at one of the world’s largest ecological disasters, a bleak legacy of the former Soviet Gosplan. As far back as the Stalinist era, generations of Kremlin planners had set their sights on cotton production and exports as a significant revenue source for the state economy. Over the course of several decades, an ever-increasing portion of the river flows feeding the Aral were diverted into massive irrigation projects to the southeast. By the early sixties, the water level of the inland sea began to drop precipitously. And the trickle that did manage to reach the Aral was now laced with DDT and other chemical pollutants from agricultural runoff. As some 11,000 square miles of former seabed turned to arid salt flats, an estimated 43 million tons of alkaline grit was carried into the atmosphere each year to compound the environmental catastrophe. However the 18 million acres of Central Asian desert that was made to bloom through irrigation now produced some ninety percent of the Soviet Union’s cotton yield. In the end, that was of far greater importance to the Politburo than the health and livelihoods of a few tens of thousands of mostly Muslim Uzbeki and Kazakh fishermen.
      As for Voz Island, by the nineties, its surface area had mushroomed tenfold from two hundred to some two thousand square kilometers. The emergence of the land bridge had opened it up to scavengers looking to salvage military and scientific surplus from the island’s once top-secret biological weapons test range. The former Soviet base had been established there by the Ministry of Defense back in the 1930’s. With Voz Island’s handover from the new Russian republic to the newly independent governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the former Aralsk-7 site was left abandoned and unguarded.
      As they continued along their way, Prozny reflected on how he’d come to be here. In 1988, the year of his first visit to Voz Island, he had been a rising apparatchik for the shadowy state agency known as Biopreparat. Stationed in Obolensk, eighty kilometers outside of Moscow, he had been Chief Administrator in Building #3, overseeing the teams of scientists and engineers assigned the complex task of weaponizing tetracycline-resistant anthrax strain 836 as a new military bioagent.
      Even before the final collapse of the Soviet Union, the days of the Russian bioweapons program had been numbered. With the catastrophic defection of Biopreparat scientist Vladimir Pasechnik to the West in ’89, the veil of secrecy that had provided them an overwhelming strategic advantage in the biowarfare arena was abruptly ripped away. In addition, even the top administrators within Biopreparat, right up to the First Deputy Chief, were growing increasingly skeptical of the practicality of employing offensive bioweapons.
      Thus it had come as little surprise when the Fifteenth Directorate along with Biopreparat began doing what the Americans had two decades previously; dismantling their massive stockpiles of offensive bioagents. By 1990, Prozny had been placed in charge of and personally overseen the delicate shipment of endless consignments of sealed steel canisters to be buried beneath the remote reaches of the Voz Island test range. It was during this period that he had overseen a particular shipment exceptionally shrouded in secrecy and mystery.
      Throughout his tenure at Obolensk, the nature of the research being conducted in Building #9, set off from the rest of the complex, had been kept compartmentalized even from the other research teams headquartered there. This had only fanned wild rumors about UFO’s and doomsday weapons. Then in April of ’88, all research in Building #9 had inexplicably ground to a screeching halt.
      Two years later, as Obolensk’s resident expert in the logistics of biohazardous materials disposal, he had been brought into the loop just sufficiently to expedite shipment of an unspecified special cargo to Voz Island for burial. Escorted by himself along with a special GRU security contingent, the mysterious consignment from Building #9 had been secretly interred in a remote area far from Aralsk-7’s designated disposal sites for anthrax and other pathogens.
      Then had come those momentous days when the Kremlin had been surrounded and Gorbachev forced to resign. In the chaos and uncertainty of the transition to a new Russian republic, the mysterious shipment from Building #9 to Voz Island was all but forgotten.
      For a time, there was a hope that Biopreparat might still have a place within post-Communist Russia as it became apparent that the beleaguered regime was not yet prepared to beat its swords into plowshares. The rocketchiki, the closed cadre of missileers who continued to man Russia’s deteriorating nuclear arsenal, retained their privileged elite status within the new republic. Perhaps the technocrats of the Soviet biological weapons program could do the same.
      But on April 11, 1992, it had all come crashing down when Boris Yeltsin had issued his Edict No. 390 banning the production and stockpiling of offensive biological weapons.
      To its credit, Moscow did quickly realize the value of Biopreparat’s displaced bioweapons engineers on the global terrorist black market of the post-Cold War world. Some, notably including all of those associated with Building #9, had been treated exceedingly well by the new Yeltsin regime. During the corruption-ridden privatizations of the nineties, many were offered lucrative administrative posts or even opportunities for ownership within Russia’s civilian biopharmaceuticals sector. Numerous of Prozny’s former associates now lived amid the spectacular gated mansions of Moscow’s Rublyovka district, home to generations of Soviet heads of state. They were chauffeured about the city in blacked-out sedans, surrounded by private armies of bodyguards. Their pampered trophy wives meanwhile spent their days dining on fresh sushi and imported Italian specialty cheeses. They shopped at Moscow’s elite, upscale Crocus City Shopping Mall with its own casino and yacht club or along Tverskaya Street, where Gucci, Chanel, and Armani set up shop. Their neighbors were fellow members of the tightknit community of New Russians who now controlled much of the country’s oil wealth and basic industries such as metals mining and extraction.
      The workings of Russia’s metallurgy industries had come to play an important, though vastly different, role in Prozny’s professional life as well. Not everyone associated with Biopreparat had received the same golden handshake. The government’s largesse depended very much on the vagaries of influence, political favor, and kickbacks. Not one of the favored, Prozny had found himself appointed Chief Administrator of the main hospital in the remote industrial city of Norilsk, some three hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Its mines and smelters constructed by prison laborers during the Stalinist era, the outpost was an environmental hellhole. Today it was populated, not by state-sentenced convicts, but by prisoners of the new Russian economy. In a nation where 25 million working family members lived on less than $85 US a month and the average monthly wage was $240, those willing to endure Norilsk’s harsh conditions could earn up to $660 monthly.
      But isolation, hazardous working conditions in the mines and factories, and the bleak arctic climate were not the only hardships to living in Norilsk. The sprawling nickel plants that formed the industrial heart of the community’s economy annually belched some two million tons of sulfur dioxide into the city’s skies –some seven times the atmospheric contaminants released by the entire US metals industry! Prozny had spent the last decade of his life living in a surreal world where people routinely went about their daily business wearing breathing masks or carrying bulky air filtration canisters in the open air. Plant and animal life was decimated for kilometers around the smog-choked city, and over ninety percent of its human populace were in unsatisfactory health, exhibiting such environmentally-induced illnesses as cancers, skin inflammations, and a host of respiratory, eye, and sinus maladies. As the city’s chief health officer, Prozny was also aware of Ministry of Health reports indicating that chronic exposure to the local environment was taking decades off permanent residents’ lifespans, with average life expectancies in the late fifties.
      Then, three months ago, he had been contacted by a former Biopreparat colleague. Over the course of several increasingly probing covert communications, it had gradually emerged that a former East German consortium had specifically tracked him down and now sought his services. Once aligned with powerful factions inside Biopreparat, they were seeking to revive the mystery-shrouded researches initiated in Building #9. To do so, it was imperative that they recover the materials interred on Vozrozhdeniye Island, materials to which Prozny was one of a handful who could lead them. In exchange for his services, it was assured he would be initiated into the elite circle of insiders who held a controlling interest in the new Russian economy.
      Eventually a meeting was arranged with a contact referred to only as Ror. Through his own ex-KGB contacts, Prozny was able to learn that Ror was in fact a ranking functionary within the government bureaucracy of the European Union. Specifically, he was the Special Assistant to the Executive Director of a newly formed Community Agency known as the BMAEU. Significantly, this organization’s purview had to do with the oversight of biogenetic research within the EU. Prozny was assured that Ror had no connections to known terrorist or criminal groups such as Al Qaeda or the Russian Mafia. There were however veiled references to an international shadow cartel known as the New Cosmic Order.
      Upon reflection, Prozny had decided it was worth the risks of throwing in with these mysterious conspirators and their unknown agenda to escape the dead-end outlook he faced in Norilsk. With his enlistment, logistics and provisions were arranged for his and Ror’s current expedition to Kazakhstan.
      Prozny again glanced over at his passenger. The temperature within the huge flattened bowl of the former sea bottom had to be pushing 30º Celsius. Prozny’s own shirt clung wetly to his perspiration-drenched frame. Yet beside him, the enigmatic, hawk-nosed blonde hadn’t even broken a sweat.
      "I’ve never crossed the Aral basin by overland before," Prozny again tried to initiate a conversation. "This is like driving through a blast furnace."
      "You’re probably not acclimatized to the heat," Ror answered tersely, his fluent Russian betraying only the slightest German accent. "The peoples indigenous to this region manage well enough."
      "Be that as it may," Prozny continued, "we’re not going to be able to work inside the biosuits for long in these temperatures. And what you’re looking for is buried pretty deep. It may take us several rounds of digging to unearth it. We’ll have to decontaminate every time. That’s what the bleach in back is for."
      "Are you sure we need the suits at all?" Ror questioned. "Aralsk-7’s been non-operational for years now."
      Prozny eyed his client thoughtfully. "We’re pretty safe just standing out in the open air. Between the desert sun, the heat, the draught, and the alkalinity, any surface microbes would be killed off pretty much instantly. That’s one of the reasons this island was originally chosen by the Red Army for open air testing way back in 1936.
      "But once we start digging, it’s a different story. Once they work their way down into the soil, anthrax spores can remain viable for decades. Not to mention, any traces of rodent droppings we might come in contact with could still carry plague or tularemia. We go rooting around this island without the proper protection and we’re as good as dead. I’ve seen Biopreparat techs who were contaminated in lab accidents. I can tell you, it’s not a good way to die."
      "Everybody dies," Ror commented flatly.
      This time it was Prozny who felt no desire to carry on the conversation.
      Travelling alone with Ror across the bone-dry former seabed, he found himself having second thoughts about what he was doing. The path they were currently treading might just as easily lead to a gulag or a firing squad as a Rublyovka mansion. Who was this morose stranger and what interests did he truly represent? Like the West, Russia faced its own array of terrorist threats from Muslim extremists, ethnic factions, and breakaway movements. Could his ex-KGB sources have missed something?
      These many years later, Prozny still knew nothing of the research that had gone on in Building #9. Without knowing what it was he was handing over, he rationalized, it was impossible to foresee to what use it might be put. Still, it seemed unlikely that whomever Ror did represent was staging a covert raid on a mothballed biological weapons depot for the betterment of mankind.
      As a ranking official within Biopreparat, Prozny had lived much of his professional life with the knowledge that the work he supported might be put to murderous, even genocidal, use by the Soviet generals of the Fifteenth Directorate. He’d managed to live with himself then. Was this really any different?
      And if it did all go to shit, at least he would have the satisfaction of getting back at a regime that had essentially thrown him on the garbage heap after a lifetime of dedicated service.
      Finally, the rolling mounds of Voz Island proper loomed ahead of them. Spotty patches of sparse shrub and grass grew increasingly regular as they pulled up onto the original extent of the island. After several more minutes of bouncing noisily along rutted truck paths, they turned onto an actual dirt road that extended in an arrow-straight line past kilometers of flat open fields gridded with widely spaced rows of wooden poles.
      This, Prozny knew, was the test range itself, encompassing much of the island’s southern end. In decades past, colonies of lab monkeys had been strapped to these poles and exposed to the detonations of biological test munitions employing anthrax, tularemia, Q fever, typhus, and smallpox. Their subsequent suffering had been dispassionately monitored and recorded to gauge the dispersal characteristics and battlefield effectiveness of these varied munitions and bioagents.
      They continued past a compound of abandoned and decayed blockhouse-like buildings that had once housed laboratories, workshops, and animal pens. The chain-link gates providing access to the once-secured cluster of buildings dangled open, and the surrounding fence itself drooped in numerous places, where the ground beneath it had eroded away.
      Abruptly, Prozny turned their vehicle off the road and headed out across the desolate open fields of the test range. He lined up on a barely perceptible knoll on the monotonously undulating horizon. The lorry squeaked noisily as it bounced over the shifting sandy soil of the nearly featureless wasteland.
      The deserted laboratory compound had disappeared in their rearview mirror when Prozny pulled to a stop. There was nothing obvious to distinguish this particular stretch of landscape. Prozny however was able to get his bearings from the arrangement of several subtle outcroppings of rock, which he had carefully committed to memory at the time he had overseen the interment of the shipment from Building #9. Though at the time he would never have foreseen returning to Voz Island under the present circumstances, one didn’t survive a career of working around the world’s most deadly pathogens by leaving anything to chance. The topsoil and shrub cover had shifted considerably over the years, but the underlying topography of rock formations remained unchanged.
      "This is it," he announced as he shut the engine and stepped out.
      Prozny watched as Ror intently studied the landscape about them. He was reminded of some sort of Far Eastern mystic seeking to put himself into psychic harmony with their surroundings.
      "Let’s get started," the blonde man instructed, snapping abruptly from his momentary reverie.
      Prozny lowered the flatbed gate and began tugging at the heavy steel box containing their haz-mat gear. Seeing the Russian struggling, Ror stepped in front of him and effortlessly hefted the olive drab container onto the ground.
      Once again, doubt niggled at Prozny. There was too much about his companion that just wasn’t right. The man barely seemed human. Still, he was way past the point of no return. He had little doubt that if he balked now, only one of them would ever leave Voz Island alive.
      Prozny unlatched the container and removed their biosuits. The Soviet-made, rubberized khaki suits with their goggled filter masks appeared, and in fact were, far less high-tech than the gleaming white moon suits used by Western biohazard operatives. But Prozny had personally made certain they were still in excellent condition. He suspected Ror, with his German backers, would have had access to the most state-of-the-art gear. But getting it across multiple international borders in this day and age of heightened security consciousness would’ve been near impossible.
      Prozny watched Ror donning his suit. Even though he went through the motions of double checking seals and inspecting for leaks, Prozny sensed that his companion was unnaturally unconcerned at the prospect of working in a hot zone, a potentially fatal conceit in Prozny’s mind. It was as if he thought himself somehow immune to the not inconsiderable risks of Vozrozhdeniye Island.
      Once the two were geared up, Prozny moved to point out the location of the buried shipment from Building #9. But to his bewilderment, Ror seemed to be heading precisely in the correct direction before he had a chance to give directions.
      What had he gotten himself involved with? This was all wrong. The hell with Rublyovka. He just prayed that he might somehow get out of this alive.
      Walking to the exact spot where the ultra-secret consignment had been interred, Ror peered down at the ground through the goggle lenses of his mask. Then, with calm deliberation, he tugged open the neck seals of his biosuit, pulled the hood from over his head, and discarded it on the ground. As Prozny watched horrified, he continued to remove the protective garment, pulling off his gauntlets and undoing the airtight front zip. The open suit fell to his feet and he casually stepped out of it.
      Prozny was now certain he was accompanying either a lunatic or something not altogether human. Glancing furtively back at the lorry, he weighed his options. Should he make a run for it? He was a good ten meters closer to the truck than Ror. But the bulky haz-mat suit would slow him considerably. Unencumbered, Ror would be on him before he could reach the vehicle, get inside, and get it moving.
      The events of the next few moments catapulted Prozny into a realm of horror beyond anything he could ever have anticipated. From beneath his tank top, Ror’s entire midsection pulsated with a myriad of fleshy projections. These rapidly extruded themselves into long, wavering tentacles. The appendages dipped downward and disappeared into the ground, penetrating the contaminated soil as though it was a mirage. More precisely, Prozny reasoned, it must be Ror’s snake-like extensors that transcended ordinary matter, enabling them to pass through solid earth.
      Ror, whoever or whatever he was, seemed to be rooting through the ground beneath him. Then, within moments, one of the tentacles re-emerged. With it came a gleaming chrome-silver capsule shape. The featureless, elongated capsule was perhaps ten centimeters in diameter and half a meter long. More of Ror’s appendages withdrew, guiding several more metallic cylinders to the surface. They bobbed up through the solid ground like silver foil balloons breaking the surface of a body of water.
      In a further seeming violation of the laws of physics, globules of a thick, gelatinous amber substance began to somehow suppurate through several of the solid metal rods and climb amoeba-like up Ror’s tentacles until they were absorbed into his body.
      At the last, it occurred to Prozny that all the lurid rumors of extraterrestrials surrounding Building #9 had been true all along. Longshot or not, he spun around to make a dash for the truck. But before he could take two steps, a single whip-like tentacle sprang through the air in his direction. The thing felt like a steel cable as it hooked itself about his ankles. Prozny pitched forward onto the ground, missing a sharp rock by inches. But miraculously, his suit was not punctured. Panic overtook him as he struggled like a deer in a leg-hold trap to free himself from the tentacled Ror’s implacable grip.
      Then for a brief moment, Prozny felt something, a presence, stirring within his mind. Before he could begin to comprehend the nature of this psychic intrusion, staccato flashes of memory flooded his consciousness, like a video of his life’s experiences being fast-forwarded inside his brain. The immediacy of the impressions was so overwhelming that he lost all track of his presence on Voz Island. For a few seconds, it was as if he was actually in the past, reliving snippets of his life. One instant, he was an enthusiastic young technician working in one of Biopreparat’s vast Vector laboratories in Koltsovo, pipetting smallpox cultures into an array of agar-filled petri dishes inside a hot box. He briefly re-experienced his excitement of the time to be working at the forefront of the Soviet military-industrial complex. The next instant, he was sitting nervously inside an ornately paneled office in Biopreparat’s Moscow headquarters, housed in what was once vodka magnate Pyotr Smirnoff’s nineteenth-century mansion on Samokatnaya Street. From behind a massive polished oak desk, the First Deputy Chief was informing him of his promotion and reassignment to a prestigious administrative post at Obolensk. Fast forward to a disillusioned, middle-aged Russian Republic bureaucrat standing at a grime-coated office window, staring out at the belching smokestacks and dirty brown snow cover of Norilsk as he weighed Ror’s perilous proposition.
      In his altered state of consciousness, Prozny could not have realized that the lifetime’s worth of memories that made him the person he was were being erased from his brain as quickly as he re-experienced them for the last time.

      Ror incapacitated the fleeing human at the same time as he assimilated the Lupae plasm contained in several of the unearthed stasis capsules. He sensed the dormant consciousnesses of several of his fellow broodlings within the plasm. It had been twenty-six years they had been locked in the plasmic state, ever since the geistgate in which they traveled the timestream had been nullified by the entity N’gorath, conjured to free the two captured Drakulonians. It would take his brethren hours, if not days, to return to full awareness and corporeal form. After years living in isolation among the undeveloped humans, he and Slandra would soon be reunited with their brood. On a darker note, this meant their genocidal conflict with the Drakulonian terrorists would soon resume in earnest.
      Ror turned his attention to the question of how to deal with the human struggling helplessly in his grasp. If his battlemaid had been present, he knew beyond a doubt what her orders would have been. But Slandra was not here, and so the decision fell to him.
      He could effortlessly terminate Prozny’s existence with a single penetration of one of his tentacles. But Ror was a technomancer, not an unquestioning warrior drone. As he saw it, the humans of this world were not the enemy per se, merely pawns in the interminable battle with the Drakulonian foe. While they might be expendable, there was no clear imperative to eliminate them unnecessarily, and they were a sentient lifeform, however immature.
      Despite its superior intelligence, this one was burdened with the legacy of an existence dedicated to furthering the goal of institutionalized murder. Along with this, was the paradoxical expectation that its destructive life path in some way entitled it to benefits beyond those of its fellow beings. Ror could well understand the military necessity of unlimited warfare with an alien enemy such as the barbaric Drakulonians, but to subjugate or potentially eradicate one’s own kind was to him inconceivable.
      The Lupae technomancer came to an unconventional decision. The humans were far more susceptible to the effects of the Lupae brain-blank than were Drakulonians. Any experiences he chose to mind-wipe from Comrade Prozny's consciousness would be lost forever.
      Focusing his will on the human, he selectively traced and expunged the threads of memory leading up to Prozny’s presence with him on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Beyond that, he painstakingly isolated and purged all recall of his military-related experiences in the field of biological warfare.
      Assuming he made his own way safely off Rebirth Island, a not unreasonable expectation for someone of Prozny’s resources, the human would survive his encounter with the Lupae. However the parameters of his life path would now be very different.
      What Prozny would make of his new beginning and whether Ror’s actions in sparing him in this manner would ultimately turn out to be a mercy or an abomination, Ror had no way of knowing.



      Dr. Gerrold Esterbrook glanced about the huge polished metal and glass committee chamber that housed the Administrative Board of the BMAEU as he was escorted inside by a sharp, impeccably dressed young aide. He was politely directed to a plushly padded, charcoal gray office chair to one side of the Executive Director’s position. He had been accompanied through four security checkpoints and, undoubtedly, several covert biometric scans to reach this chamber. Not surprising, really. Ever since the Council of the European Union had been compromised by the French Minister, Martine Andrecou, back in ’93, all levels of the EU had been sensitized to potential supernatural incursions. After all, Andrecou had masterminded the diversion of an unknown number of European UNPROFOR troops from the Croatian peacekeeping mission into a covert vampire/lycanthrope conflict taking place in the shadows of the larger Balkan conflict.
      Once he was seated, the aide efficiently stepped forward to clip a miniature microphone to his lapel. Left to himself, he glanced about the expansive room. The front wall behind the Director’s podium was dominated by an enormous LED wall screen, currently blank. To one side, floor-to-ceiling one-way glass windows afforded a panoramic view of the modernistic skyline of Berlin as seen from the committee room’s twentieth-floor vantage. Esterbrook noted the needle-like spire of the Fernsehturm. Perhaps a mile beyond that, sunlight glinted off the futuristic glass dome of the refurbished German Reichstag, perched along the winding banks of the Spree. Beyond the gleaming central city, Esterbrook noted the transition as one’s eyes panned from west to east across the hazy panorama. Affluent, middle class Western-style suburbs gradually gave way to monolithic concrete apartment blocks and factory complexes, silent testimony to the fact that fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification was still an ongoing process.
      As the room’s lights were raised, Esterbrook caught sight of his own reflection in the glass. Staring back at him was the thin face of an academic-looking man in his early fifties with reddish-blonde hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and functional, plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. He thought to himself that the face had aged noticeably since his tenure as Acting Director of the Danse Macabre after the death of Sebastian in 1996. No wonder, with all he had seen and learned since his advancement to the inner circle of the Aquarius Group.
      Returning his attention to the committee chamber, he watched the Administrative Board members take their places around a huge polished steel conference table. They looked like upper-level bureaucrats or functionaries the world over. Ostensibly, the BMAEU was a Community Agency of the European Union established under Council Regulation. Its official mandate was to advise the European Parliament on the social and political impact of advances in biogenetics and to implement a coordinated strategy for the advancement of academic, commercial, and military biogenetic research within the European Union. As such, its purview covered issues ranging from stem cell research to human cloning to genetically modified foodstuffs.
      However Esterbrook knew this was all an elaborate facade. In actuality, the BMAEU’s agenda ran far beyond legitimate scientific oversight. And this particular group was only one of numerous similar front organizations scattered throughout the industrialized world. All of them, his own Aquarius included, were secretly working, more or less in concert, to advance the common agenda of the New Cosmic Order. Not since the Unseelee Congress had conducted its nefarious affairs out of the US Capitol in the early nineties, had a shadow organization been so blatantly concealed in plain sight.
      Among the last to enter was the Executive Director herself, flanked by two bodyguards the size of pro linebackers, immaculately dressed in neat black business suits. Esterbrook stood and offered his hand as Sigrid Midwinter approached. The Director was a tall, statuesque woman with high cheekbones and stylishly short, golden blonde hair. For all her striking appearance, the feature that most caught Esterbrook’s attention was her penetrating, bright blue eyes. He momentarily wondered if she might in fact be wearing colored contacts for dramatic effect. She was dressed in an expensive-looking gray business suit with black stockings and a hemline considerably higher than one would expect for an Agency Director. She appeared far too young for someone to be holding such an elevated position, but her apparent age was offset by her easy air of authority.
      "Dr. Esterbrook," she greeted him coolly, "thank you for joining us."
      As the meeting was called to order, Esterbrook appraised Sigrid approvingly. She and the entire BMAEU cover lent the European component of the New Order a newfound air of pseudo-legitimacy. It was hard to believe that only five years ago her uncle, the quasi-immortal Nazi Karl Midwinter, had been openly strutting around this very chamber with his swastikas and SS uniforms. Under the elder Midwinter, the EU contingent’s interpretation of the New Cosmic Order had veered dangerously close to becoming a neo-Nazi Fourth Reich. From Aquarius’ perspective, Midwinter’s eccentricities had been an open invitation for Interpol or the EUMC to move in and shut down the Order’s Berlin-based faction. Relations between Aquarius and its European counterparts had reached a low point during the Von Scheisse affair. It was just after Pantha’s escape from the Danse Macabre Institute, when Aquarius had learned that Midwinter had inserted a double agent into the Danse’s scientific contingent.
      Sigrid’s ascension to the Directorship had been something of a mystery to Aquarius. There had been scattered intelligence that she had been killed along with her uncle at Ordensberg Castle in April of 2000. But in the catastrophic aftermath of the New Order’s short lived alliance with Lady Death, Sigrid had returned, very much alive and well, to seize the reins of power in Berlin.
      Without introduction or preamble, Sigrid took the podium and began addressing the assembled Board. "Sixty years ago today, the modern city you see outside these windows lay in heaps of smoldering ruins. The Third Reich was shattered. The apocalyptic power of the atom had just been harnessed. Even as the most destructive war mankind had known up to that time was coming to a close, the clouds of a new Cold War were looming on the horizon. But even during those tumultuous days, there were men who envisioned a New Order rising phoenix-like out of the ashes of the Third Reich. They were doctors, scientists, engineers; and they began to formulate the outlines of a new Reich based not on nationalism or racial superiority, but on scientific empiricism and the dispassionate application of macroeconomic principles on a global scale. They envisioned a world in which the principles of Social Darwinism and natural selection were rigorously applied to human affairs so as to allow the boldest and the best of mankind to rise above the lowest common denominator of the masses. They saw the global labor pool for what it really was, simply another natural resource to be exploited as cost-effectively as possible. This was to be a world without the self-destructive cancer of competing ideologies, a world in which visionaries of all nations and all races would work together to realize their full potential, unfettered by government regulators or labor unions. It would be a world in which the sovereignty of nations and the international rule of law become secondary to corporate might, a world dominated by leaders with a global vision, able to look beyond borders in furthering their mutual economic aims. Ultimately it would become simply a world of masters and slaves."
      Esterbrook listened patiently. This history lesson was old news to everyone at this table. Still he understood Sigrid’s motivation in delivering it. In an endeavor whose progress could be measured not in years but in decades, there was sound logic in regularly reminding members of the big picture.
      "For six decades, this group has worked to become the beneficiaries of that world. Today the ideologies of the far left and the far right are dead. Fascism essentially died in 1945, as did Communism in 1991. Today only the one remaining ideology of democracy stands in the way of the New Cosmic Order, but soon it too will be a footnote in history. Through a decades-spanning campaign of subversion and covert influence, the men in this room will achieve what Hitler and Stalin failed to accomplish through military might."
      Glancing about, Esterbrook noted the almost hypnotic attention with which those around the table followed their Director’s words. Despite their avowed rationalism, men were still men. These men basked in their superiority, and Sigrid stroked their egos like a pro.
      "And now to the business at hand," the Director moved on. "The distinguished Dr. Gerrold Esterbrook is with us today to report on the status of our American counterparts in the Aquarius Group."
      Esterbrook rose from his seat and took the Director’s place at the speaker’s podium. "Thank you, Madame Director. It’s always a privilege to be here to address the Administrative Board.
      "Ladies and gentlemen, as you’re aware, the most significant challenge we face in North America remains the reorienting of deep-rooted American values and democratic political traditions to bring them into line with the values of the New Cosmic Order. In order to accomplish this, we have moved into the implementation phase of the most ambitious social engineering program ever undertaken by Aquarius. We continue to advance the development and selective application of pharmaceutical and microwave-based mind control technologies pioneered by the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program and the Soviet KGB during the Cold War era.
      "However due to the sheer size and complexity of American society, these techniques cannot be universally applied. Therefore our emphasis remains the infiltration and subversion of American mass media. Although the political changes following the 9/11 terrorist attacks have allowed us to accelerate our timetable by several years, we still estimate that it will be another decade before all segments of American society are sufficiently conditioned for us to proceed to the final phase of our agenda. You’ve all been distributed numbered copies of Aquarius’ quarterly report to examine within this room. In them you’ll find operational parameters, statistical analyses, and trend predictions for our various covert programs. I won’t take up the Board’s time repeating them all. If any of you has questions or comments regarding specific operations, I’d be happy to take them up in individual session. However at this time I’d like to emphasize a few highlights to provide a snapshot of our progress to date.
      "In the area of telecommunications media, the programming format of so-called ‘reality television’ has provided a highly versatile vehicle with which to deliver our message. While the specific subject matter can be infinitely varied to attract the widest possible range of viewers, the underlying theme is always the same, that it’s now acceptable, even natural, to dispense with the least valuable members of the social group for the greater good of the surviving members. This is obviously a rather transparent metaphor for the downsizing of the American middle class as a facet of globalization. Nonetheless, continued viewing has the cumulative effect of subliminally desensitizing viewers to the ever-increasing levels of economic polarization and marginalization occurring all around them in daily life.
      "We continue to aggressively target young males in the 16-25 demographic, particularly inner city youth, through the mass marketing of gangster rap and video games containing explicitly New Order-oriented content. To give you some idea of the scope of the US gaming industry alone, 2004 sales of video and computer games amounted to 7.3 billion dollars with some 248 million games sold. Of these, the year’s top-selling title was a role-playing simulation of Los Angeles auto theft gangs in which players engage in such activities as car-jacking, drive-by shootings, cop-killing, and victimizing prostitutes."
      "Excuse me," the Director interrupted, catching Esterbrook momentarily off guard, "but precisely how does indoctrinating a generation of sociopaths further our cause?"
      Esterbrook answered in stride, "While glamorizing mayhem is obviously bound to have some collateral effects, it does engender precisely the sort of moral relativism needed to produce a next generation of shock troops capable of carrying out domestic pacification missions without hesitation or qualm. Your own research by neuroscience faculty here at the University of Thubingen supports Aquarius’ findings that significant exposure to this type of video violence reinforces neural pathways in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a portion of the brain associated with aggression. At the same time, activity of the amygdala, an area of the brain mediating empathic responses, is suppressed. These neurological changes reinforce aggressive behavior patterns in real world threat-response situations. The potential military application of these clinical findings is obvious.
      "We’re already seeing the transference of a so-called ‘first-person shooter’ mentality to actual combat conditions in Iraq. If I may," Esterbrook retrieved an item from a folder on the conference table. "I’d like to read to the Board an excerpt taken from the hearing of an expatriate American soldier applying for residence in Canada on political grounds. The particulars of the case are not relevant to these proceedings. What is relevant is the sworn testimony of a former Marine staff sergeant describing the conduct of some US forces in Iraq. Under questioning by counsel, the witness testified under oath, and I quote, ‘...we deliberately gunned down people who were Marines were being pushed to use excessive force...’ and ‘I saw many Marines become psychopaths on the battlefield...they enjoyed killing.’ This testimony was reported by various international media including the December 9, 2004 Vancouver Sun from which I’m reading, which published the story under the heading ‘U.S. troops deliberately shot civilians, ex-marine says’ "
      "And you see a connection between these two items?" Sigrid asked.
      "Of course," Esterbrook responded confidently. "You don’t?"
       "What I see is a dangerous reliance on militarism which places our efforts at increased risk of public exposure."
      "It’s not a question of risk," Esterbrook countered. "We’re perilously exposed right now. Throughout the better part of the twentieth century, the American electorate has been educated to believe that free enterprise, Western democracy, and a steady rise in human welfare and quality of life were all inexorably linked. This belief has been key to allowing the country’s various economic elites and hidden power brokers, culminating in Aquarius, to flourish in the last century. However we have now passed a critical turning point in history. Twenty-five years ago, the New Cosmic Order was nothing more than an abstract ideal for multinational lobbyists and right-wing think tanks. Today our vision of a global elite society is well on the way to becoming the overt socioeconomic reality for much of the industrialized world. However, as we accelerate our efforts to concentrate the world’s wealth and power into the hands of the global elite through an orchestrated program of endemic corruption and the subversion of international human rights laws, the illusion of a benevolent free-market world economy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. One just has to piece together the headlines in any newspaper to realize that the disconnect between globalization and the promotion of human rights and dignity is becoming increasingly apparent to the masses. Aquarius believes the day will come when subversion will have to be supplanted with more overt mechanisms of social control in order to continue to advance the New Order.
      "Look outside the window," Esterbrook pointed towards the eastern horizon. "Today, fifteen years after reunification, unemployment in East Germany stands at what, 20%?"
      "19.2%," Sigrid corrected icily but without hesitation.
      "19.2%," Esterbrook acknowledged, aware of the suddenly hostile looks he was receiving from around the room. He pressed on regardless. "An entire generation of displaced workers who may never be reassimilated into the global workforce, maintained on a system of perpetual social assistance disguised as Employment Insurance. You can see the resentment building in West Germany, the economic strain on the entire European Union."
      "Where are you going with this?" Sigrid asked, clearly taking offense.
      "Where I’m going is this," Esterbrook answered firmly. "What I’m describing is a situation we in the United States may also be facing sooner than we’d care to admit. The New Cosmic Order has already vastly multiplied the economic fortunes of the interests we represent through orchestrating the offshoring of millions of North American and European manufacturing jobs to places like the Special Economic Zones of China. In these sprawling factory cities, laborers as young as fifteen years of age work ten to fourteen hour days, seven days a week, for forty to sixty dollars a month, producing a large portion of the western world’s consumer goods.
      "Some of our leading private sector economic analysts now project that in the U.S. approximately 3.2 million white collar jobs worth some $136 billion in wages will be outsourced to low-wage countries within the next fifteen years. Most of these will be in high-tech fields such as software development, IT administration and technical support, financial analysis, research, design, and the like. Aquarius concurs with these figures.
      "That’s some 3 million highly educated professionals out of work; men and women who regard a middle class standard of living as their birthright, many of whom have probably never had to go without for a day in their lives. Playing out the global terrorism hand will only go so far in distracting them from what’s happening to their livelihoods and their quality of life. To put matters bluntly, Aquarius estimates that by around 2015, the New Cosmic Order will face significant domestic opposition on a broad range of fronts in maintaining political and social order. We need to have a reliable deterrent force in place before we reach that point. Whether that force consists of Wehrmacht lycanthropes, Marines brainwashed on video game violence, or products of the Lebenstod Program doesn’t really matter. But there has to be something."
      "Ah yes, the attempted reanimation and deployment of the lycanthropes," Sigrid nodded disdainfully. "Aquarius was of course forewarned by this group that that particular venture was dangerously reckless and ill-conceived. However I can allay your fears, Dr. Esterbrook," the Director addressed him directly. "Aquarius will have their deterrent."
      Then to the assembled Board members, "Dr. Esterbrook’s concerns for the security of the New Order are well founded. Although the passivity with which the electorates of Europe and North America have acquiesced to recent global political shifts in the post-9/11 world is highly encouraging, there remains a window of vulnerability for our respective organizations. There is the remote possibility that, possibly as a result of some unforeseen high-profile exposure, the world’s citizenry could still threaten us should they ever decide to reclaim their democratic institutions and principles. However that is about to change.
      "From its inception, this group has been privy to the hidden knowledge that paranormal beings walk among us; beings possessing superhuman strength and capabilities."
      Behind her, the immense wall screen lit up. On it appeared the larger-than-life image of Vampirella efficiently dispatching an attacking force of black-clad supernatural ninjas in an Oriental garden setting. This was quickly followed by another similar scene of Pantha savagely tearing into a pack of werewolves inside a casino game room. Finally a third sequence showed the two of them side-by-side, successfully engaging a squad of heavily armed spec ops troops in tactical gear, rappelling from a hovering helicopter.
      "For more than half a century, the New Cosmic Order has attempted, with mixed success, to harness the supernatural power of these beings."
      More images appeared. A grainy black and white still of Karl Midwinter proudly holding the Scarab of Atum-Ra. Time-coded security camera footage of lab-coated technicians running about the labs at Montauk, responding to some obviously dire event occurring beyond the camera’s field-of-view. There was a film clip of Emil Kessler assembling his first necrosphere.
      "Today we stand on the threshold of a new era in eugenics. With the successful recovery of genetic specimens from Biopreparat’s early Lupae experiments, buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island, we now possess the raw materials to finally complete the Lebenstod Project, long the Holy Grail of this group."
      Now the wall screen showed a haz-mat-suited scientist manipulating a vial of quivering, viscous amber plasm inside a glass-fronted hot box. Finally there was a computer animation of a human DNA strand metamorphosing into a startling and unrecognizable configuration.
      "And with Lebenstod in our possession," Sigrid smiled, "no force on Earth will be able to hold back the New Cosmic Order."

      An hour after the Executive Board adjourned, Esterbrook sat in Sigrid Midwinter’s personal office two floors above the conference room. Having never previously been inside the Director’s suite, he had half expected the typical accoutrements of status that went with such a position; wood paneling, antique curios, rare artwork. In Sigrid’s case, he wouldn’t have been at all surprised at a display of her uncle’s Nazi memorabilia. Instead, the office was as starkly utilitarian as the boardroom below, with neutral gray walls, modernistic steel furnishings and a functional, built-in computer terminal at the Director’s desk. Not a book or a piece of paper was anywhere in sight. The room was almost antiseptic in its lack of personal touches.
      Sitting comfortably back in her own high-backed chair, the Director faced Esterbrook across her desk. Behind her at her shoulder stood a tall, lanky young man with longish blonde hair and the same unnaturally brilliant blue eyes as Sigrid. Esterbrook was now certain that they were both affecting cosmetic contact lenses for whatever reason.
      An attaché case, retrieved from his own personal assistant and bodyguard, rested in Esterbrook’s lap.
      "So, this is the item?" the Director nodded towards the case.
      Even in a cabal such as the New Cosmic Order, there were secrets within secrets. His report, propaganda speech really, to the Administrative Board had been merely a cover. Esterbrook unlocked the case containing the true reason for his trans-Atlantic flight to meet with Aquarius’ European co-conspirators. He lifted the lid. Inside, a single item rested within a form-fitting foam pocket. He placed it gently on the desktop.
      Sigrid and the young man exchanged meaningful glances.
      "This is the Udjat you were promised," Esterbrook offered.
      The object resting before the Director was a flat equilateral triangle perhaps nine inches on a side cast from a greenish-gold metal. On it was the raised design of a stylized eye.
      "The Udjat is an Egyptian hieroglyph," explained Esterbrook. "The right eye glyph like this one represents the eye of Ra, the sun god. There’s also a less common left eye variant symbolizing the dark gods of the underworld. The Udjat was a ubiquitous symbol of the all-seeing power of Ra and appeared throughout ancient Egyptian religious art and writings.
      "However this particular Udjat is unique. It’s not Egyptian at all. In fact, it’s the only remaining artifact from the so-called UFO recovered from Wildwood Cemetery in 1976. It’s been archived at the Montauk facility ever since."
      "May I?" the young man asked, pointing towards the Udjat.
      "It’s yours now," Esterbrook answered.
      As the Director’s assistant examined the triangular casting, Esterbrook wondered again if Aquarius was making the right decision in turning it over to the Europeans. After having held it in their possession for twenty-nine years, the scientific contingent at Montauk had made absolutely no progress in deciphering its function. Perhaps it had no function beyond being a piece of art or some sort of religious or cultural artifact. Still, the fact that the Krauts wanted it suggested that they possessed some insight that Aquarius lacked.
      While Aquarius and its various global counterparts were all working towards the common goal of establishing the New Cosmic Order, competition still existed between them. Turning over the Udjat was a risk, but in exchange Sigrid Midwinter had offered to cut the Americans in on their Lebenstod Program, a counteroffer which they must have realized Aquarius could not turn down. Lebenstod was quite possibly the key to military supremacy in the chemical and biological battlefronts of the projected nonconventional wars of the future. After the abject failure of the Wehrmacht lycanthropes, Gen. Whitefire and his Pentagon faction within Aquarius were more than ready to risk trading away the seemingly functionless Udjat for the chance to get Lebenstod onto American soil and under their oversight.
      Returning the Udjat to the desktop, the young blonde gave Sigrid an assenting nod.
      "So," the Director summed up, "I believe this concludes our business here. For our part, Site 44 is now operating in full production mode. Lebenstod will be ready to be implemented within a matter of days."

      As soon as Esterbrook had left the office and the soundproofed door was closed, The young blonde man turned to Sigrid. He opened his mouth to speak, but the sound that emerged was no human voice. He addressed the Director with a series of wet, guttural squeals.
      "Ror!" Sigrid admonished, annoyed, "use the native tongue."
      "Yes, Mistress," the man she’d referred to as Ror answered.
      "You’re confident that this will let you take control of the Drakulonian weapon?" she asked, gesturing towards the Udjat.
      "It’s genuine," Ror answered." There’s no question about that. I can sense its power. With it, we’ll be able to perform the summoning ritual. The Udjat will awaken the Eye and begin to draw it back down to this dimension. But as long as the Drakulonian panther-woman remains at large with the Scarab of Atum-Ra, it will be a battle of wills as to who controls it."
      "And what is the status of our efforts to neutralize the Drakulonians?"
      "Apparently a lone warrior drone made contact with the Vampiri in Philadelphia. The drone was defeated, so we’ve now lost the element of surprise."
      "The Vampiri was brain-blanked years ago when the two Drakulonians were abducted, before we lost the ship. Is it possible the mind-wipe is still active; that she wouldn’t realize what it was she encountered?" Slandra asked.
      "That’s impossible to ascertain at this point. We know she’s resourceful and a formidable opponent. Dr. Esterbrook has assured us that Aquarius will thwart any support she might receive from the World’s End Circus, so at least we do have her isolated. Considering their current proximity to one another, it’s highly likely that the two Drakulonians will rendezvous and combine forces.
      "In any case, more of the sleepers are awakening now. They’ll be able to psychically sense the Drakulonians wherever they may go, and soon they’ll be able to engage them in numbers."
      "Excellent," Sigrid nodded. "Everything is proceeding according to plan. The humans’ capacity for avarice and self-delusion makes them all too easy to manipulate. Soon this world will become the new Lupae."
      "Yes, Mistress Slandra," Ror nodded to the Director.



      Vampirella sat behind the wheel of Pantha’s car, heading westward along the Interstate, her hair streaming behind her in the breeze from the open driver’s window. Periodically she stole a sidelong glance at Pantha, her head tilted back in the passenger seat beside her. As they’d hastily departed the Philadelphia Art Museum that morning, Pantha had cracked a joking comment about making good their escape in her sleek new high-powered Panthamobile.
      The "Panthamobile" had turned out to be a rusted, jet-black ’89 Mustang in serious need of a new exhaust system and some major body work. The only accommodation to its owner’s feline identity was a pair of tacky leopard-spotted seat covers. Clearly Pantha’s economic fortunes, like Vampirella’s own, had declined since their jet-setting B-movie starlet days. Fortunately, the vehicle had turned out to run better than it looked or sounded.
      Pantha had driven them out of Philly and halfway across the state of Pennsylvania, as far as Breezewood, where they had gassed up and switched places at a mammoth truck stop. The sexy twosome had received numerous stares and whistles but no serious hassles from the throngs of truckers pulled in there. Pantha had purchased a packaged tuna sandwich and a Diet Coke while Vampirella had slipped into the lady’s room to down a vial of her blood substitute serum.
      Resuming their journey, they had crossed the rest of the state and were now well into Ohio. Even with Pantha’s lead foot, they had already been on the road for nearly seven hours. Fortunately, they were traveling against the heaviest flow of traffic, which, now into evening rush hour, was heading outbound from Columbus, still an hour in front of them.
      "This seems like old times," Vampirella chatted while keeping her eye on the road. Her nerves had gradually settled as they had begun to put distance between themselves and Philadelphia. Logically, she knew that her relief was illusory. If more Lupae were hunting them, there was no place to run. They could be anyone and anywhere. Still, there was a comforting sense of anonymity to being on the road with no fixed route or itinerary.
      "We’ve bumped heads more than a few times in the last several years," she continued, "but I don’t think you and I have actually set out on an adventure together since our days with Adam and Conrad and Pendy."
      "You still miss them a lot, don’t you?" asked Pantha.
      "Yea, I do," Vampirella answered thoughtfully. "Don’t you?"
      "I guess I’m more used to being a loner than you are," Pantha mused. "Most of all, I miss you."
      Even with her eyes facing forward along the freeway, Vampirella could feel the intensity of Pantha’s gaze.
      "With all my previous incarnations, I’ve lived on this world a lot longer than you," Pantha offered. "You need to start coming to terms with the fact that being Drakulonians in a world full of humans, eventually the people around us will all come and go while you and I stay eternally the same."
      Vampirella found herself distinctly uncomfortable with this line of conversation.
      "Remember our jet setting days?" she asked, trying to lighten the discussion. "I can remember you dragging me halfway round the globe looking for a good time. But we always seemed to wind up in the middle of some dustup with another diabolical cult or supernatural menace. I’m thinking of our run-in with the Dragon Queen. You talked me into accompanying you to Hong Kong on that tycoon Belasco’s yacht, and we ended up cracking Madame Sheng’s opium cartel. You were quite the party girl in those days."
      "Oh Vampi," Pantha answered quietly, "you really didn’t know that much about me. Hollywood, the glitterati party circuit, all I wanted back then was to get as far away from my former life as possible."
      "You never talked about your life before we set out for Hollywood in search of stardom," Vampirella coaxed, realizing that Pantha was opening up a side she had never seen before.
      "No I didn’t. I grew up in a New York City tenement with my foster parents, Art and Edith. It wasn’t exactly a picture out of Family Affair. Art was an embittered drunkard with an axe to grind with the world. Only he couldn’t punish the world, so he took out his rage on his little foster daughter, me. Edith pretty much closed her eyes to what was going on and covered for her husband.
      "That wasn’t the worst of it though." Pantha took a deep breath before continuing, "When I was sixteen, Edith went to stay with a sister for a few weeks. One night, Art burst in and raped me in my bed. I was a virgin at the time. He told me that if I said anything, he’d throw me out on the street. He would’ve too."
      "Oh my god," Vampirella gasped stunned.
      "Yea, well, he got what was coming to him. Before I discovered what I really was or what I could do, he and Edith were mauled to death in a panther attack."
      "You never told me any of this," Vampirella glanced sideways at Pantha.
      "Believe me, I didn’t want you to know.
      "It wasn’t until I turned nineteen and my panther abilities began to manifest themselves that I began to dig into my roots. I went back to the Fayetteville Foundling Home, where I was placed after my real parents died. That was another hellhole, I’ll tell you."
      "You took your vengeance there too, didn’t you?" Vampirella asked, already knowing the answer.
      Pantha’s silence spoke volumes.
      She resumed, "According to the records I found there, I was born Susan Jones. My parents were from Florida, where I was born. Somehow I ended up in Fayetteville after they were both killed in an automobile accident. From there, I was placed with Art and Edith by a crooked adoption broker known on the streets as Granny Goose.
      "By 1974, I was out on my own. I started shacking up with a narcissistic rock and roll wannabe who called himself Blue and who tried to use me for a punching bag. And yes, I killed him too. I scraped by collecting food stamps and working as a topless go-go dancer. The only decent human being in my life up to that point was a man named Jack Kimble. He was trying to track down his own runaway daughter when he ran into me. I guess you’d call him my sugar daddy. I only knew him for a few weeks before he was killed in a stupid, senseless mugging. That was May of 1975.
      "That August, I was raped again by an intruder who broke into my apartment. At that point, it was either commit suicide or start a brand new life. It was almost a toss-up, but I got out of New York, took the name Terry White, and ended up in Egypt a few weeks later as an assistant on the ill-fated Goldman Archeological Expedition.
      "You pretty much know the story from there," Pantha looked expectantly at Vampirella, who nodded that she did.
      Pantha continued, "Goldman had uncovered a UFO buried in an Egyptian tomb for 3000 years. Only the Soviets learned of the UFO too. They sent their own expedition under a GRU colonel named Boris Brullow posing as an archeologist. At that time, Egypt was firmly in the Russian camp, so Brullow’s group had the upper hand. They massacred Goldman’s team. By then, I was finally becoming aware of my powers and how to control them, which is how I survived. I ended up spending eight months as Brullow’s prisoner in a lockup underneath the Soviet embassy in Cairo, until you arrived to rescue me. Since then, my life’s never been the same."
      Pantha reached over and placed a hand on Vampirella’s thigh. Vampirella sensed that this was at least in part an erotic overture. She also realized that she couldn’t push her oldest remaining friend away after the revelations she had just shared.
      "So you’ve wondered why I’m a bit ambivalent about men," Pantha commented snappishly. "Now you know."
      "I’m glad that was the end of it," Vampirella responded, not quite sure what else to say.
      The look Pantha gave her in return told her in an instant that this was not in fact the end of her tale of woe.



      Dr. Otto Von Scheisse strode purposefully down the long corridors of the Danse Macabre Institute. That wasn’t the building’s official name of course, certainly not to the general public anyway. To the world at large, it was just one among several adjacent private sector research centers and think tanks carrying out defense-related scientific studies under government contract. The fortress-like ultramodern building was situated in an industrial park on a hillside overlooking the sprawling Haverhill Zoo. In order to maintain its cover, the visible aboveground portion of the facility was in fact turned over to federally sponsored biopharmaceutical studies. While strictly off limits to the public, select parties of lobbyists and investors, as well as the occasional congressional delegation, regularly toured these upper levels.
      But even these relative insiders had no idea of what took place amid the multiple levels of subbasement facilities unseen by the outside world. For below ground were the secret esoteric research laboratories of the highly classified paranormal investigative agency known as the Danse Macabre.
      While a vital hub of the U.S. Government’s wide-ranging intelligence community, the Danse was a strictly black budget agency. The organization was kept at arm’s length by a federal bureaucracy keenly aware that the general citizenry knew nothing of their government’s extensive confirmed intelligence on a wide range of supernatural beings and events. Von Scheisse knew that the Danse’s funding and oversight came down through the even more shadowy agency known only to a few top-level power brokers as Aquarius.
      Von Scheisse arrived at a security checkpoint controlling access to a bank of elevators beyond. The sentry post was manned by a contingent of Marine Corps MP’s smartly attired in short-sleeved, semi-dress Charlie uniforms. One of the MP’s closely examined the photo on Von Scheisse’s laminated ID badge while running a handheld scanner over its coded magnetic strip. Another Marine, seated at a computer, nodded an affirmative to the first as Von Scheisse’s clearance was verified. Only then was he permitted to enter one of the high-speed elevators, which carried him down into the Danse’s sub-surface installation. Even the MP’s guarding the facility’s entries never actually entered these levels.
      When the elevator door slid open, he emerged into a high-tech subterranean world of stark institutional architecture constructed from an assortment of pre-cast concrete shapes and burnished steel panels. After several turns past closed and anonymously numbered office and laboratory suites, he arrived at a secured steel door guarded by another sentry, this one a heavily armed Danse Macabre operative in anonymous black fatigues. The guard merely nodded as Von Scheisse punched numbers into the numeric keypad of the door’s electronically coded lock. His function was not to monitor the Danse scientists’ comings and goings from this particular lab, but only to ensure that its sole subject did not escape.
      Inside, Von Scheisse found himself in a spartan concrete corridor that opened onto a series of laboratories and offices. At the far end of the passage was a unique steel-barred enclosure that combined the characteristics of a maximum-security prison cell and an expansive zoo pen.
      Von Scheisse turned in to one of the labs, a large, concrete-walled octagonal room. Floor-to-ceiling electronic racks filled with flashing high-tech components lined the rear walls. Numerous flatscreen computer monitors mounted about the room scrolled out endless columns of technical data.
      Inside, his colleagues, Dr. Dick "Q-Man" Slink and Dr. Dustin Savage, nodded perfunctorily at his arrival. Q-Man was a thin-faced, slightly nerdish-looking scientist with a wiry build, sandy hair, and horn-rimmed glasses. He was carefully adjusting a number of webcams mounted strategically about the room. Dusty meanwhile was calibrating controls on an instrument panel. Looking more like a biker than a typical researcher, he had a burly build with a bit of a gut, a shaved head, and a closely trimmed black beard. A noticeably chipped front tooth added to his tough guy appearance.
      Completing the trio responsible for the running of the lab was Von Scheisse himself, a fleshy, heavyset man with short, wavy black hair and a pronounced German accent when he spoke. He stepped up to one of the computer workstations where he tapped in a few keystrokes. An itinerary appeared onscreen, and he casually reviewed the day’s test schedule.
      In the center of the room waited the subject of their protracted researches. Completely nude, bound hand and foot by gleaming stainless steel manacles, the being known as Pantha reclined in a device resembling a cross between a dentist’s couch and a gynecologist’s examining table. Von Scheisse eyed her appreciatively. Despite the fact that she was a supremely lethal supernatural metamorph, her appearance was that of a highly voluptuous young woman. Her full rounded breasts and taut, muscular stomach heaved with her labored breathing. Rich, brunette hair cascaded over her shoulders, framing deep green eyes that glared hatefully at him. Her legs were held wide by the couch’s restraining bands, revealing every detail of her exquisitely smooth vulva with its glistening pink clitoris and dark luxuriant pubes.
      Electrodes were attached about her chest and at her temples, relaying her vital signs to several medical monitors and recorders among the lab’s electronics. Perhaps most importantly for Pantha’s captors, an intravenous IV maintained a steady pharmaceutical drip sufficient to inhibit her metamorphic abilities.
      Two clear Lucite suction cup-like devices were fitted over the tips of her breasts, attached to a small vacuum pump by lengths of clear plastic tubing. Once the pump was switched on, the air would be drawn from the cups so that Pantha’s nipples would swell to several times their normal size. Dusty would have dabbed her areolae with a concentrated astringent ointment so that she would feel the enormous swelling with an exquisite tenderness that bordered on agony.
      "Are we ready to go?" Von Scheisse asked.
      "We’re just about set," Q-Man responded, checking the feed from one of his precious webcams on a small monitor. Von Scheisse merely nodded. He knew as indisputable fact that Slink represented a major security breach within the Danse Macabre. For months, he had been secretly uploading the webcam feeds from their sadistic sexual experiments on Pantha, selling them to a highly select clientele of deviant Internet voyeurs. Far from reporting his errant colleague, Von Scheisse had been jubilant at the opportunities presented by the situation. For the German scientist had a far more sinister agenda of his own than the distribution of pirated video kink. Von Scheisse was in fact a double agent, painstakingly infiltrated into the Danse by Karl Midwinter’s Berlin-based faction of the New Cosmic Order. Piggybacking his own uploads to Midwinter’s Project Scarab onto Q-Man’s surreptitious data transfers provided him the perfect patsy should the unauthorized releases ever be discovered.
      While Q-Man continued to tinker with his cameras, Dusty swiveled a visor-like headpiece down over Pantha’s face. The blank-fronted wraparound helmet bristled with electronic connections, but the really interesting components were on the inside. Within the visor was a high-definition 70-frames/second stereoscopic video display. The imagery produced by the device was so immediate that to the viewer it was essentially indistinguishable from reality. The VR helmet had been developed by the NRO to train their elite Aurora pilots, but the technology had been passed on to the Danse by Aquarius for use in their parapsychological studies. The helmet could project any sort of visuals or none at all as the experimenters saw fit. For today’s trial, they would be utilizing a sequence of images of Pantha’s sometimes compatriot Vampirella.
      Von Scheisse was convinced he had the best job in setting up for the experiment. Snapping on a pair of latex hospital gloves, he applied a liberal amount of clear lubricant gel to Pantha’s sex, spreading it inside and out with a fingertip. Next he picked up a tiny egg-shaped vibrator from a steel medical tray and plugged its dangling lead into a receptacle on one of the instrument consoles. He squeezed more of the lubricant onto it and reached down to deftly insert it into Pantha’s rectum so that only the thin wire trailed from her puckered anus. Several weeks ago, the panther woman would have roared ferally and unleashed an enraged string of profanities at this violation. Now, countless repetitions later, she merely endured it in sullen silence.
      "You set, Dusty?" Von Scheisse turned to Savage.
      "Hold on a sec," the large man reached into a drawer and withdrew a zippered leather bondage mask, which he proceeded to pull over his head.
      "Goddammit, Dusty!" Q-Man burst out, "Put that friggin’ thing away. If Director Esterbrook or any of the other higher-ups from Danse Control ever walks in here and sees you in that getup, they’ll have a shit hemorrhage. You wanna get us all canned?"
      "Relax, Dick," Savage retorted, "Esterbrook hasn’t once set foot in this place since he took over from Sebastian. You know as well as I do that the boys from Boston would just as soon keep their eyes closed as to what goes on down here. Besides, it’s not like you guys don’t need your kinks to get off."
      "Point taken," Von Scheisse intervened. Then, addressing Pantha, "And are you ready, mein Fräulein?"
      "Fuck off," Pantha’s voice came from within the helmet.
      "I’ll take that as a yes," Von Scheisse smiled.
      Next he swiveled a large, formidable-looking device into position between Pantha’s spread legs. The apparatus was mounted from the ceiling by an adjustable jointed armature, allowing it to be positioned with ease. The device itself consisted of an array of complex circuitry and tiny mechanical servos enclosed within a transparent plastic casing. Its microelectronics were illuminated from within by the fluorescent bluish-violet light of tiny flash tubes. From its business end protruded a large, gently curved dildo studded with rounded bump-like electronic sensors. The flexible phallus undulated gently, invisible infrared beams aligning it precisely with the presented opening of Pantha’s vagina. Von Scheisse flipped a switch. With microsurgical precision, the device’s computers took over and gently guided the robotic penis into Pantha’s sex. Dripping with gel, her vagina offered no resistance to penetration by the phallic probe.
      Von Scheisse considered the outlandish apparatus with amusement. A generation ago, revelations of the Pentagon’s exorbitant procurement costs for such mundane items as screwdrivers and toilet seats had become the butt of an ongoing national joke. He imagined the outcry if the development costs for the stereotaxic stimulator were ever to reach the general public. The Danse Institute had poured literally millions of black budget dollars into what was essentially a computerized high-tech dildo.
      Once inside her, the device began to slowly wriggle and contort while simultaneously buzzing with a rapid vibration. In spite of her determination not to provide any encouragement to her attentive captors, Pantha let a moment’s excited gasp escape.
      A small LED lit up on the face of the VR helmet and Von Scheisse knew that the incredibly lifelike stereoscopic image of Vampirella was now being projected inside the viewer. Pantha’s sudden start confirmed this. Sensors within the helmet recorded her pupillary dilation, gauging her response to the virtual appearance of her sister Drakulonian.
      Simultaneously, a tiny vacuum pump began to pulse, and he watched the panther woman’s nipples slowly expand to cartoon-like proportions within the clear Lucite cups. Their bound captive sucked in a labored breath and bit her lip as her breasts swelled enormously.
      Von Scheisse observed Pantha’s squirmings with the jaded eye of someone who’s seen it all too many times before. The truth of the matter was that this so called experiment was being conducted primarily for the researchers’ own sexual gratification, as well as to maintain the facade that meaningful research was still being conducted within the lab. Whatever empirical data might be gleaned today would be marginal at best.
      In fact, the assembled scientists were running out of things to do with their prize captive. In her months of captivity, Pantha had been probed, prodded, interrogated under every psychoactive in the Danse’s vast pharmacopoeia, as well as being subjected to the psychic scrutiny of numerous remote viewers. In the end, they had been forced to confront the humbling realization that whatever the metaphysics might be behind Pantha’s metamorphic abilities, they were simply beyond the understanding of current human scientific knowledge. As to her origins and secret cosmological history, it seemed that Pantha herself knew little beyond what organizations like the Danse and the New Order had already been able to deduce.
      Then he noticed the pouting set of Pantha’s sensuous lips from beneath the edge of her helmet visor, along with the discreet churning of her hips, and he realized that something different was occurring on the part of their unwilling subject.

      Powerless to resist, Pantha resigned herself to the sexual torment she was about to undergo at the hands of her depraved captors. In spite of the humiliation of her repeated sexual violation being recorded in explicit detail day after day, this treatment was relatively benign compared to some of the torturous medical experiments inflicted upon her in her first several months of captivity.
      Like Von Scheisse, Pantha was aware her captors had reached an impasse and were now just marking time with her. One day soon, their superiors would also realize there was nothing more to be learned from her. She fatalistically realized that when that time arrived, her current incarnation might well be at an end.
      Although she had the illusion of being in her own separate world within the VR headgear, she was well aware that she was still strapped down in the lab with half a dozen webcams trained on her oozing pussy as well as the perverts’ brigade standing at her feet staring leeringly up her cunt. She did take some comfort in the certitude that if she lived through this, one day she would hunt down and kill the Danse researchers as surely as she had Art and Edith and Blue and various of her other former abusers.
      She felt the suction of the vacuum pump pulling on her astringent-coated nipples until they burned exquisitely. At the same time, the textured phallus plunged in and out of her, milking the clenched muscles of her vagina, its computer-controlled rhythms instantaneously responding to her every movement. The soulless mechanical penis was in fact more perfectly responsive than any flesh and blood lover ever could be. The tiny egg vibrator buzzed ceaselessly within her colon, adding to the sensory overload bombarding her sex. She knew from experience that the mechanical assault would just go on and on until her hyperstimulated vulva achieved some sort of climax. Resisting would only prolong the erotic ordeal.
      From day to day, she had been presented with a diverse range of visual stimuli while being pumped by their robotic sex machine; pornography, graphic violence, extremist political propaganda, and more. What, if any, significance lay behind their choice of subjects was beyond her. Most of it just sloughed off her like rainwater off a tin roof.
      Today though, she was genuinely startled when the three-dimensional visage of Vampirella had appeared larger than life. The resolution of the VR device was such that she could almost believe that her one true lifelong friend was standing within arm’s reach of her. She could see every minute detail of her sister Drakulonian, from the spongy green irises of her deep, expressive eyes to the delicate pores of her perfect skin to the stray strands of raven pubes that escaped from the narrow crotch panel of her scarlet costume. She saw Vampirella’s nipples standing firmly erect, outlined by the taut spandex of her brief attire.
      Despite the fact that she was looking at nothing more than a recorded image, after months of isolation, she felt a surge of elation at just seeing her longtime compatriot. She couldn’t help thinking of the parallel between the circumstances of their first meeting and her present situation. After all, it had been Vampi who’d rescued her from her months of captivity in Boris Brullow’s tiger cages beneath the then-Soviet consulate in Cairo. After that, her life had never been the same.
      Pantha had undergone a lifetime of sexual encounters ranging from the incredible to the horrific. The vast majority of them she had experienced with a sense of utter detachment. Therefore it was with little difficulty that she was typically able to dissociate her emotional self from the purely mechanical responses her depraved captors induced upon her unwilling body.
      Today was different however. After her seemingly interminable captivity, the combination of intensive mechanical stimulation along with the overwhelmingly realistic illusion of Vampirella’s presence was simply too much for her to resist. She couldn’t help herself from succumbing to the momentary illusion that she’d been carried away from her personal underground chamber of horrors and that it was her sister Drakulonian manipulating her spread pussy to orgasm.
      She was well aware that there would be a price to pay. Q-Man and the others would no doubt instantly pick up on the fact that they had finally uncovered a chink in her sexual and emotional armor. But at this point, she was long beyond caring.
      The varied sensations coursing through her swollen nipples, her buzzing ass, and her overstuffed muff all merged into a single glow that coursed over her in waves. Her vaginal muscles clenched the knobbed phallus churning in and out of her. She could feel the gobs of gel along with her own copious vaginal secretions dribbling warmly down her backside. All the while, she stared into the depths of Vampirella’s eyes, as real and as close as if she were standing just beyond arm’s reach. Suspending disbelief, she felt she could almost reach out and kiss the moist ruby lips just inches from her own. She sensed the spongy softness of Vampi’s full breasts, poised to press into her own burning areolae. Her hips churned desperately as she sought to grind her crotch into Vampirella’s, so tantalizingly close at hand. And she was positively certain she could actually feel Vampi’s warm exhalation tickling the nape of her neck as her own breath came in rasping gasps.
      Cocooned within the fantasy, the banal horrors of the Danse Institute momentarily shut out, she let herself go body and soul to the most massive orgasm she had experienced in years.



      Pantha’s rust-spotted Mustang pulled up to the office of a single-story motor inn, which an illuminated roadside sign identified as The Buckeye Motor Inn. She and Vampirella piled out of the car and stepped inside, past a buzzing neon window sign that read VACANCY. It took several moments for the proprietor, a disheveled man in his fifties wearing a long, plaid housecoat and slippers, to appear through a doorway connecting the front office to the motel manager’s suite. Behind him, the sound of a television playing could still be heard.
      Pantha, using the name Terry White, asked to book a room for the two of them. The manager produced a room key and took down the number in his registration book before pushing it over for Pantha to sign. She started to pull out a bankcard before Vampirella, remembering Mr. Jones words from that morning, stepped in front of her, counting out a quantity of bills. She signed the register with an original alias, thought up off the top of her head.
      Stepping out of the office, room key in hand, Vampirella surveyed their surroundings. The motel was situated on the inside vertex of a Y-intersection, where two secondary highways merged. Little besides rolling pastures surrounded it. A closed and shuttered roadside fruit stand sat across from the motel and the lights of scattered rural homes glowed faintly, perhaps another half mile down the road. The night sky was overcast and a chill wind was picking up, threatening rain.
      Although they had made steady headway crossing rural Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio during the daylight hours, their progress slowed passing through the metropolitan area surrounding Columbus, with its heavier volume of evening commuter traffic. By the time they’d traversed its western suburbs and satellite communities, another two hours had passed and both Vampirella and Pantha were growing weary from their hours behind the wheel. Both had had eventful days even before the start of their unanticipated road trip, and Pantha’s traumatic revelations of a few hours before had been an additional strain on both of them.
      There was also dinner to consider. For Vampirella, meals were an option, sometimes maintained out of social convention, sometimes not. She drew her sustenance from her daily dose of her blood substitute serum -or failing that, the real thing. Pantha by contrast, ate a fairly conventional diet, at least when in her human form. As a panther, she was quite capable of feeding on fresh prey. After a day on the road, she was ready for something more substantial than gas bar sandwiches.
      Pulling off I-70, they had spotted a 24-hour freeway restaurant done up in a rustic-paneled Old West decor and offering a mix of gravy-laden homestyle cooking and more trendy pub grub. Pantha had downed a steak and kidney pie while Vampirella had ordered a spinach salad.
      Despite the seeming normalcy of their surroundings, both Drakulonians had found their apprehensions unaccountably returning. None of the other patrons had looked in any way suspicious or paid them undue attention. Still, they hadn’t the remotest clue as to how widely the Lupae might be dispersed or with what alien senses they might be tracking their progress. Throughout the day’s drive, Vampirella had been periodically noting the vehicles around them to ensure that they weren’t being followed. When she’d mentioned this to Pantha, her companion confessed that she had been doing the same.
      In less than a day, Vampirella was already beginning to appreciate the heavy emotional toll their new circumstances would place on them. Not knowing who around them could be an alien assassin could lead to a very quick descent into paranoia. Perhaps, she thought, that was the corrosive power of conspiracies, to erode people’s trust in one another.
      Wishing to remain as anonymous and unpredictable as possible, they had traveled several miles off the Interstate before settling on the Buckeye Motor Inn as a place to stop for the night.
      Having booked their room, they moved the car and collected their bags. Pantha, having just arrived in Philadelphia that morning, already had her belongings stowed in the back of her car. They had made a brief stop to allow Vampirella to check out of her hotel and collect her valise with its critical supply of blood substitute serum before heading out of town.
      Their room was situated about halfway down the long building, past an open alcove containing a pop machine and an ice chest. Vampirella noted a few other vehicles in the lot, though the motel was far from booked up. Stepping inside, they found a very ordinary low-budget motel room with two beds, one double and one twin, and the usual compliment of veneer institutional furnishings. A closet and an adequate bathroom were situated at the rear of the suite, while a large picture window alongside the entry dominated the front wall.
      After stowing their gear, they each took their turns under a hot shower, emerging with makeup removed and hair wrapped in clean white towels. In their years of traveling together, the two had often enough seen each other in various states of undress. Nonetheless, after some of Pantha’s comments in the car today, Vampirella felt strangely self-conscious exposing herself in front of her longtime friend. However she made up her mind not to let her discomfort show. She slipped into a sheer crimson lace panty and clinging, halter length teddy while Pantha prepared to retire in the buff. Neither woman ever removed their greenish-gold Drakulonian jewelry.
      Without thinking, Vampirella clicked off her bedside lamp and climbed into the double bed on the window side, leaving Pantha the inner twin. Taking into account the intense, drug-induced recall dreams of the previous night, it had now been some 48 hours since she had gotten any normal sleep. Exhaustion overtook her almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, and she quickly drifted off into a deep slumber.

      The next thing Vampirella was aware of was coming instantly awake to the sensation of the covers being furtively lifted from her body. She opened her eyes to find Pantha standing over her, looking down with a needful expression. Pantha’s breasts heaved with her hoarse breathing and her distended nipples poked straight up.
      Oh no, Vampirella thought, instantly sizing up the situation. All day, she had sensed that there was some unspoken sexual undercurrent to Pantha’s confiding her deepest secrets. Still, this move was more than she had expected from her best friend.
      Every light in the room was turned up full and the front curtains were drawn wide open. It was clear that Pantha was not going for the gentle, romantic approach. Whatever tryst she had in mind, she obviously intended to put it on blatant display, if not to the world, at least to anyone who happened to be up and about at- Vampirella glanced at her bedside travel clock- just past 2:00 AM.
      If this were anyone else in the world, man or woman, Vampirella’s first instinct would have been to come up fighting.
      Pantha didn’t give her the chance to voice any protest or even to question what was happening. Without hesitation, she climbed onto the bed and lowered herself directly on top of Vampirella, pressing her lips to Vampi’s in an insistent, probing kiss.
      The vampiress felt the hot, moist sensation of Pantha’s feverish body pressing into hers. The feline Drakulonian’s tongue wrestled Vampirella’s, while she ran her hands over Vampi’s hips and stomach, pinching and grasping. The heady scent of her sweat, her perfume, her aroused pussy filled the bed.
      Vampirella was stunned. In her pursuit of the paranormal, she had been a witness to, occasionally even a participant, either willing or otherwise, in a variety of occult sexual practices. While not averse to some degree of sexual experimentation, Vampirella was not at heart bisexual. Still, this was her oldest remaining friend, a fellow Drakulonian, and her last link to a simpler, happier period in her lifetime, surrounded by friends and loved ones, before the occult forces of evil had gained such a global ascendancy. Making up her mind to go with the situation, she quickly found that she was not so averse to the feminine erotic ministrations she was receiving.
      Pantha drew her own legs up, straddling Vampirella, who was lying flat on the mattress. She began working her way down Vampirella’s throat, on to her full, rounded breasts with their large, dark areolae. She cupped them both in her hands and began running her slippery, wet tongue back and forth from one to the other. She paid special attention to the bat-shaped birthmark on the underside of Vampirella’s right breast, circling it with her tongue. Vampirella felt her own nipples growing erect.
      It came as no surprise to her that Pantha should be so accomplished in bed. Back in their starlet days, she had toyed with a seemingly endless string of international playboys and young Hollywood studs, all the while avoiding any real commitment or emotional attachment. After what she had just learned of Pantha’s abuse-filled childhood and adolescence, this lifelong pattern of studiously casual affairs took on new significance. Her dedication to feminine empowerment and Egyptian mysticism were a relatively late development, apparently taking place during Vampirella’s eight-year absence as the geriatric Ella Normandy. But her lesbian urges, directed towards Vampirella, were an even more recent turn in their long, sometimes complex relationship.
      Pantha’s tongue traced a winding course down Vampirella’s taut stomach. She paused momentarily to playfully stroke her fingertips through the thick, blue-black curls of Vampirella’s luxuriant, full bush before insinuating her face directly into her widespread crotch.
      For as much as Pantha’s feral nature could be lethally unpredictable; there was probably not another woman whom Vampirella would willingly allow to be playing with her sex. She found herself growing more and more aroused, her vagina moistening. Pantha carefully spread her dark, pendulous inner lips like the petals of a flower to reveal her glistening, pink vaginal opening.
      Gaining confidence that her insistent seduction was going successfully, Pantha shifted positions on top of Vampirella so that she was able to situate her own crotch over Vampi’s head while continuing to tongue her pussy. For all their history together, Vampirella had never experienced anything like having Pantha’s cunt spread open inches above her face. The musky scent was now almost overpowering. With her acute Drakulonian senses, she could actually feel the warmth radiating from Pantha’s engorged vulva. With her precisely trimmed brunette pubes, her taut ass cheeks, and her silky smooth, rounded labia, Vampirella thought, Pantha’s perfect sex looked like a close-up out of a men’s magazine centerfold –no airbrushing required!
      Tentatively, Vampirella flicked her tongue over Pantha’s sticky, wet mound. Pantha let out an excited yelp at that first sexual contact on Vampirella’s part. Responding to her girlfriend’s excitement, she pressed her mouth more deeply between Pantha’s outer lips, experiencing the unfamiliar briny taste of her copious vaginal secretions. Following Pantha’s lead, she began circling her swollen, pink clitoris with her tongue while kneading her ass cheeks with her hands. Pantha began to moan rhythmically, softly at first, then with greater gusto.
      With Pantha’s tush wriggling in her face, Vampirella was unable to see the youngish couple who unexpectedly walked past the window. The twosome stopped dead in their tracks, obviously stunned at the blatant sexual display taking place in full view of the parking lot. Pantha, on top, spotted them out of the corner of her eye. She looked up and flashed a broad, encouraging grin in their direction. Hearing the titter of laughter coming from outside the room, Vampirella craned sideways to see what was going on.
      "Oh my god, Panth," she exclaimed, realizing they had attracted an audience, "what’re you doing?"
      "Don’t stop!" Pantha ordered.
      The woman outside, a bonerack-thin blonde, held her hand to her mouth, giggling nervously while the young, lanky man stared unbelieving, a wide grin on his face. To her dismay, Vampirella saw the man motioning someone over, and a moment later, they were joined at the window by a second couple. The second male had a shaven head and wore narrow, black plastic-rimmed glasses while the girl had cherry red, dyed hair and a small eyebrow piercing. Between them, they carried an unopened six-pack and an empty motel ice bucket, obviously preparing for a bit of late night partying. To Vampirella, the foursome looked like some sort of Gen-X media or computer types, probably just letting down for the night after an out-of-town service visit or sales call.
      Vampirella felt apprehensive at drawing a crowd of onlookers, but Pantha was clearly into it. She shifted positions again to give them an unobstructed view of Vampirella’s spread pussy, which she began to work with a rapidly flickering finger inserted deep into her vagina. Vampi knew that, at least in her younger, wilder days, Pantha had gotten off on showing herself off, both in front of the camera and in the course of her ongoing escapades. While Vampirella took a bit more coaxing, she also secretly had an exhibitionist streak running deep within her. On the road, earlier in the day, she had, perhaps unwisely, related to Pantha a particularly thrilling public sexual escapade she had engaged in with her briefly returned Drakulonian husband, Tristan, during the Cannes Film Festival many years ago. She had also confided just how turned on by it she’d been. She hadn’t expected Pantha to use her confidence to take advantage of her. But in setting out to attract an audience, it was clear that was exactly what she was doing.
      Vampirella was splayed on top of the sheets, her open legs directly facing the window. The foursome continued to watch as Pantha proceeded to get Vampirella off with her deft fingers and tongue. She made a show of flicking Vampirella’s erect, deep-red clitoris back and forth. Vampirella, now totally aroused by all the attention they were getting, began to work Pantha’s dripping genitalia with greater enthusiasm. Pantha began to moan continually, churning her buttocks as Vampirella continued to pleasure her. Vampirella could sense that her fevered grunts and squirmings were not for effect, but were the genuine article.
      At last, Vampirella could not hold back any longer. A geyser of G-spot fluid spurted from her spasming vulva, in full view of the watchers outside, soaking the bedsheets. The two young men let out appreciative wolf whistles at seeing the rare spectacle of a female ejaculation. At the same time, she could feel Pantha shudder uncontrollably as her moans and groans rose to a loud crescendo. Her back arched and her long nails dug into Vampi’s thighs. Then, spent, she collapsed onto Vampirella.
      The two of them lay catching their breaths as the foursome outside, having seen it all, slowly moved on to their rooms.

      Even had they not been absorbed in their erotic frolic, it was unlikely that either Vampirella or Pantha, enhanced Drakulonian senses notwithstanding, would have spotted the fifth pair of eyes watching them from out of the darkness. Unlike the animated, wide eyes of the two voyeuristic couples, these orbs were an expressionless dull ochre. The Lupae drone to whom they belonged stood atop a gentle rise in a pitch dark meadow a full quarter mile from the Buckeye Motor Inn. The stiff night wind rippled his coarse black hair and shapeless olive drab clothing; but he seemed otherwise untouched by the bitter chill.
      Newly reanimated after long decades suspended in the plasmic state, the drone knew little of the world on which he found himself. He was also completely indifferent to the sex-charged encounter taking place between the Drakulonian females. His only imperative was to obey the directives of his Battlemaid to hunt down the few Drakulonian stragglers who still infested this planet.
      In the millennia since their two races had been nearly eradicated, Lupae and Drakulonians typically only engaged one another one-on-one in isolated but always lethal confrontations. The combined auras of two of the aliens was overpowering, overwhelming his directional senses.
      Fixated on his prey, he never sensed that he too was being silently stalked. Suddenly, from out of a sparse tangle of shrub, a deadly black shape sprang through the air in his direction. Before he could morph defensive tentacles from his plastic body, a huge black panther was upon him, rending him with its lethal claws. Viscous amber plasm spurted from ragged slashes. The battle was over in moments, the muscular feline tearing its prey’s flesh with one raking blow after another, until the Lupae drone was too thoroughly torn up to metamorphose or reform itself.
      The majestic cat, its ebony fur tinged with wisps of gray, circled the oozing corpse, surveying the damage it had inflicted. Seemingly satisfied, it padded silently off into the night.

      Her head propped against the pillows, Vampirella watched absently as scattered raindrops spattered against the motel room window. The room was completely darkened now, so there was no question of attracting any further audience. Within the last hour, a bizarre spate of dry lightning had started up, momentarily lighting up the motel’s desolate surroundings at regular intervals. Finally, the threatening rain had begun to fall.
      Pantha lay restfully, with her head cradled between Vampirella’s soft breasts. Vampirella gently stroked her hair as the twosome wound down from their erotic adventure. Pantha, never one to settle down for long, for once appeared contented and at peace. Vampirella, on the other hand, felt her emotions in turmoil.
      Today, as in their last few recent meetings, she had sensed Pantha’s developing sexual interest, and had determined not to let herself be seduced. However, exhausted and distracted by the revelations of the Lupae menace, she had been caught off guard by the blatantly aggressive nature of Pantha’s nocturnal advance, which had been more in the nature of a hard and fast fuck than a courtship.
      The sex had been awesome. There was no question about that. She’d never imagined she could get off so intensely from another woman’s touch. And to be perfectly honest with herself, Pantha had cunningly played to her hidden exhibitionist kink. Even now, she could feel her pussy growing wet again just thinking about it.
      But it had taken her years to resolve her conflicted feelings for Tristan and Adam Van Helsing. She wasn’t prepared to turn around and take on the complication of entering into a bisexual relationship with Pantha. She’d been horny. In a weak moment, she’d let herself be seduced. They’d had a hot adventure together. But that was that.
      "You were awesome," Pantha whispered softly, looking up into Vampirella’s eyes and reaching to stroke her cheek. "You can’t imagine for how long I’ve dreamed of doing that."
      "You were pretty hot too," Vampirella replied in a deliberately lighter tone. "I think we put on quite a show."
      Pantha, sensitive to her girlfriend’s moods, instantly picked up on Vampirella’s casual tack.
      "It’s okay," she reassured, "I know you’re not really into swinging both ways. But then you’ve had better luck with men than I have. When you’ve been nothing but a punching bag or a piece of ass to men all your life, making love to another woman looks pretty good."
      "Hey, you took your shot with Adam," the words came without thinking. Feeling Pantha stiffen, Vampirella instantly regretted them.
      It had been the summer of 1980, and it was Vampirella herself who had driven Adam into Pantha’s arms. In the wake of a particularly perilous battle with the Council of Wizards, Adam had made up his mind on the spot to propose to Vampirella –and she had turned him down. Stung by her rejection, the two had parted ways for the next two and a half years. Pantha had stunned Vampirella by seizing the opportunity to jump in and try and catch him on the rebound. There had been a period when Adam and Pantha had embarked on their own series of globe-spanning paranormal investigations, based out of the Van Helsings’ Park Avenue townhouse. In the course of their exploits, the two had also become lovers. Had it not been for their traumatic breakup following Conrad’s discovery that the two were genetically incompatible, Vampirella might have lost Adam to Pantha for good. As it was, she had only recently begun to reconcile with the both of them when the catastrophic Wall Street Demon Broker mission took place. In its terrible wake, she had spent the next eight years cut off from her companions, trapped in the form of spinster schoolmistress Ella Normandy.
      "I’m sorry," Vampirella apologized, "that was a cheap shot. I don’t know what made me say that now. After all, it was all over and done with some twenty-two years ago."
      Now it was Pantha’s turn to squirm. She bit her lip, thinking hard before answering, "Vampi, there’s something you should know..."



      Pantha sat behind the wheel of her parked Escort looking absently out at the ribbons of low-lying nighttime fog that drifted lazily over the rippling surface of the Potomac. In spite of the late hour and reduced visibility, a steady stream of maritime traffic coursed in either direction along the waterway. Every few minutes, she was able to discern the silhouetted outline and glowing running lights of another tug or container-laden river ferry gliding by.
      Off to her right, in the middle distance along the shoreline, rows of pole-mounted sodium vapor lamps cast a yellowish glow over the bustling piers and moored vessels of a small commercial shipyard. Even from this distance, she could make out the strobing yellow flashers of scurrying forklifts and diesel tractors.
      However the isolated riverside pullout in which she was parked was dark and still by comparison. Stacks of truck-sized cargo containers behind a high cyclone fence formed a veritable wall, shielding the pullout from view from the nearby traffic artery that paralleled the riverfront. To her left, beyond the narrow car park, there was only a small, automated pumping station of some sort, accessed via the short service road.
      Ordinarily the remote pullout, situated in the middle of a sprawling district of industrial waterfront, would be an inadvisable locale for an attractive young woman to be parked on her own. Pantha however was neither young nor ordinary, and she was more than capable of lethally dispatching any human assailants who might happen upon her.
      She detected the crunch of gravel and the flash of headlamps a moment before a large Buick pulled down the ramp from the highway. The shiny, late-model sedan dimmed its lights and pulled into the shadows directly beside Pantha’s own rust-streaked vehicle.
      Pantha stepped out of her car to reveal that she was wearing silver high-heeled sandals and a clinging white cocktail dress that barely covered her ass. Even in the subdued light, her firm, dark nipples showed clearly through the stretchy fabric. The Scarab of Atum-Ra, always with her, dangled from a matching fabric choker.
      The occupant of the other vehicle emerged as well. He was a handsome, distinguished-looking man with a square jaw and jet-black hair graying at the temples. He wore a tailored, charcoal gray suit that showed off his trim physique and polished black Italian dress boots. His silk tie was just a calculated fraction more avant-garde than would be considered appropriate for a US Senator.
      "Hello, Adam," Pantha greeted him with an inviting smile.
      "Hello, Panth," Massachusetts Senator Adam Van Helsing returned the greeting.
      She stepped up and brushed him on the cheek with a kiss that was as carefully measured as his tie. He in turn held her delicately about the waist as he looked into her eyes. In spite of his well-practiced politician’s grin, Pantha could make out the sadness in those eyes even as they were reunited. But then was that really so surprising? Even after six years of living in uncertainty, Vampirella’s and Conrad’s mysterious disappearance during the disastrous Wall Street Demon Brokers affair still hung over them both. Their meeting like this only compounded the pangs of loss and survivors’ guilt.
      Pantha’s two-year globetrotting involvement with Adam, a partnership both professional and romantic, had been as close to a committed relationship as she’d ever come in this lifetime. Adam had been on the verge of proposing when Conrad, in typical character, had announced his crushing discovery that she was, after an unknown number of incarnations, now genetically incompatible with humans. Any pregnancy that might occur as a result of their relations, whether planned or accidental, would almost certainly have tragic repercussions for their potential offspring. Whether or not this revelation really had to have been the end for them, it had provided them both an out to avoid making a final commitment -and they had taken it.
      The two of them had only just begun to reconcile with Vampirella, whom they had both come to discover was the true center of their worlds. And then she was gone, vanished without a trace.
      Adam, fearing the worst, became a changed, driven man. His knight’s mission to take on the evils of the world had propelled him all the way to the US Senate. Once in office, he had defied the predominant political grain of the Reaganomics era, an era which increasingly glamorized the amoral lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Instead, he had become an outspoken advocate of universal human rights and international justice as well as a dogged critic of the culture of Wall Street greed and excess driving merger-mania and the downsizing of working America.
      All the while, he had led a secretive, nocturnal double life, carrying on the fight against the multiplying supernatural threats and influences underlying Washington’s disturbing turn from social conscience towards the bottom line. Throughout these covert battles, he had continued to search for clues as to the possible whereabouts or fate of Vampirella. While the fight had never gone out of him, Pantha had watched with sadness as, with the passing of years, the spark of hope had gradually begun to fade from his once-impassioned eyes.
      It was in the context of this clandestine dual existence that he was able to resume the infrequent contact with her. Their sporadic encounters had been purely sexual in nature, with neither of them ever bringing up the possibility of resuming their prior romance. Pantha would never have considered putting him in the position of going public with his involvement with her, a move that, considering her current occupation, would certainly have sunk his political career. Not that Pantha would have wanted it any other way. The truth of the matter was that a large part of Adam’s appeal to her from the start had been the fact that she’d always known his heart belonged to Vampi. Pantha was by inborn nature a wanderer, and ultimately she knew that Adam, however decent a man he might be, would not be one to tie her down.
      "It’s been too long," Adam offered.
      "I’ve been on the road for the last six months," Pantha returned. "A lot of that time was spent out on the West Coast."
      Adam didn’t ask for an explanation. None was needed. In the years immediately following Vampirella’s disappearance, Pantha’s B-movie career had wound unceremoniously down. While the true legends of the silver screen might be immortalized in cinematic culture, Hollywood could be notorious for adoring its starlets one day and discarding them the next. Pantha had basked in her fifteen minutes of fame and then some, but in time the spotlight had inevitably moved on. Truth be told, she had known from the beginning that her star was based on her sultry, exotic looks and voluptuous figure, not her prodigious acting talent. With the arrival of the Big Eighties, sultry and exotic fell out of Hollywood fashion. The current in look was supersized all-American, with big, bleached-blonde hair and pneumatic silicon breasts.
      Eventually, as her short-lived film career and her bank balances had plummeted, she was forced to leave behind her jet-setting lifestyle and return to her exotic dance roots.
      However the adult entertainment business had changed as well. Her mid-seventies routines as a topless go-go dancer were now hopelessly passé. Competing for customers’ entertainment dollars with the burgeoning adult video industry, the show lounges of the eighties were offering up increasingly explicit fare, with their athletic performers pole-dancing and gyrating their whole enchiladas in spread-legged poses for their audiences. If she was going to make it, Pantha quickly realized, she would have to adapt to the times.
      It didn’t take Pantha long to prove she still had what it took. Her sizzling new routine started off with her slinking cat-like onto the stage in her newly redesigned signature costume, a miniscule blue-black, leopard-spotted bikini with matching black leopard platform boots. However within the first minute she was performing in the altogether, flaunting every nook and cranny of her 38-22-34 assets to her eager fans.
      US Senators did not frequent nude showbars if they wished to stay in office. Pantha had, however, on more than one occasion over the years, put on a number of very special performances exclusively for Adam. She had every expectation that tonight would develop into just such an occasion.
      "Wanna get in the back seat?" she purred seductively, motioning towards her own car. Better not to chance leaving any telltale evidence of their rendezvous in his vehicle to be discovered by parties unknown.
      Adam didn’t reply. Instead, without warning, he lifted her by the waist and twirled her around to face the hood of his car. Before she could react, he reached under her dress and roughly yanked down her g-string panties.
      "Hey, what’s the idea?" she protested.
      "You’ll see," he replied, his voice husky with excitement.
      He then proceeded to lean into her so that her upper half was bent across the Buick’s hood with her tush in the air.
      If this were anybody in the world but Adam, she thought, in about another ten seconds he would’ve been kitty chow. As it was, she felt an adrenaline rush that forced her to make a deliberate effort not to metamorphose into panther form out of sheer reflex.
      "You like to live dangerously," she chastised him warningly.
      "Always did," he responded nonchalantly.
      He undid the fly of his trousers and reached between her ass cheeks with his fingers to spread apart her labia. A moment later, she felt the swollen glans of his penis pressing into her vulva from behind. Fortunately, she was already in a state of arousal in anticipation of their rendezvous. His ample member slid easily into her dripping vagina. Once inside her, he immediately began pumping with a steady, vigorous stroke. In this position, she could feel the exquisite pressure of his cock stroking the roof of her vagina with each thrust.
      She had almost forgotten that the younger Van Helsing had a bit of a wild streak to him. This move however was a bit extreme even for him. She couldn’t imagine him ever treating Vampirella in this manner. To Pantha, it was a reminder that, however enlightened he might seem, there was a part of him that took for granted that he could take such liberties with her.
      Not content that the bottom half of her dress was now up around her waist, he peeled the stretchy top down over her shoulders so that her breasts were exposed. While she felt the damp, chill air off the fog-bound river on her backside, her breasts and stomach were now flattened against the still-warm hood of the car. Adam gently brushed her exposed sides and the small of her back with teasing butterfly strokes.
      From the time she was nineteen to the present, Pantha had been exhibiting herself in one form or another, either in showbars or as a B-movie scream queen. There was very little that could make her feel sexually vulnerable or self-conscious. Yet bent across the hood of Adam’s expensive Buick in the middle of an empty parking lot, with her legs and ass spread wide and her dress half off, she suddenly felt utterly naked and exposed for all the world to see the dark kinks of her own sexuality. A nocturnal predator herself, Pantha knew that the night teemed with a hidden life of its own and that seemingly out-of-the-way nooks such as this seldom remained as deserted as the average person might expect. If anyone else pulled in now to hang out along the darkened riverfront, they would find her standing in her heels, her butt wriggling in the air as Adam pumped her doggie-style.
      While she’d had her share of men over the years, none had ever turned her on the way Adam did. Certainly there was the allure of the forbidden fruit, dallying with a man she knew ultimately belonged to Vampirella. Unlike Adam, who had by now reconciled himself to the worst, Pantha's feline intuition told her that somehow, one day, her sister Drakulonian would return.
      Between her excitement at having Adam inside her and her anxiousness at the possibility of their discovery, she found her heart pounding furiously and her breath coming in ragged gasps. Each touch of his fingertips sent shivers up and down her spine. His hands worked downward to knead the cheeks of her buttocks, tugging gently at her labia. This added stimulation, on top of having his rock-hard penis now churning like a piston inside her, was enough to send Pantha completely over the top. She writhed in ecstasy on the top of the car, her erect nipples gliding over the warm, polished metal.
      Several times, she heard sounds of vehicles that seemed louder or closer than the steady traffic noises coming from the far side of the stacked cargo containers behind them, but nothing appeared down the off-ramp. At this point, the sensations she was experiencing were so incredible that she made up her mind she wasn’t stopping now, no matter who pulled in.
      Moments later, her resolve was put to the test as one set of sounds did distinguish itself from the background traffic din. It continued to grow louder until a car appeared down the ramp. As Pantha and Adam were caught in its headlight beams in flagrante delicto, the car braked abruptly, its occupants obviously checking out the action they had happened upon. Pantha realized that, lit up like this, anyone out on the river or working in the neighboring shipyard who happened to be looking in their direction would now be able to see clearly what they were up to.
      Adam reached around and lifted her by the sternum into a raised position. Once she was fully upright, his roving hands moved upwards to alternately cup her breasts and knead her nipples. At the same time, she felt his cock grow even stiffer inside her, his thrusts more urgent. Although he attempted to make the shift in position seem unintentional, Pantha realized with mixed feelings that he was deliberately posing her so as to show off her tits and pubes to the unknown occupants of the idling vehicle. This was a decided change from the previously chivalrous and protective young gentleman who had once wooed her. While she was all too aware of the wide variety of sexual kinks to which men succumbed, she was not sure she liked this newly revealed side of her former lover.
      Growing even bolder, he lowered his hands to her groin and spread her pussy so that the pink inner folds glistened wetly in the headlight beams trained on them.
      "You bastard!" she snapped, an edge to her voice.
      While she might routinely display herself in the line of her work, she was stunned and hurt that Adam seemed to think he could just flash her cunt to strangers in a parking lot in order to get himself off. Clearly her relationship with the young Senator was more ambivalent than even she had realized. Undoubtedly their rare trysts were the only sexual outlet he allowed himself in his position in the public eye. Still, she sensed that in the absence of Vampirella’s ennobling influence, a darker side of Adam’s complex character was emerging. The young Van Helsing filled the role of idealistic Capitol Hill crusader with aplomb. Nonetheless, just as Pantha’s intuition told her Vampirella would one day reappear, it also led her to believe that Adam’s current foray into public office was a fleeting chapter in his life and that his future battles, and perhaps his destiny, lay along a very different, much darker path.
      "You like this, don’t you?" Adam whispered smugly into her ear. "You like having men looking at your pussy."
      "Yes," Pantha breathlessly moaned, unable to conceal her orgasmic pleasure and giving Adam the response she knew he wanted to hear.
      In fact, she couldn’t have cared less at having a carload of voyeuristic pervs leering at her. But she did have enough of a competitive streak in her to get off on being able to give Adam the kind of mind-blowing sexual adventure she didn’t think Vampi ever would have.
      She felt Adam’s entire body suddenly stiffen as he shot his load inside of her.
      "Oh god, Panth," he let out, "you’re the best fuck there ever was!"
      While a part of her bristled at his crudeness towards her, this was overwhelmed by her triumph at his spontaneous acknowledgement of her superior sexual prowess.
      Although she wasn’t as messy as Vampi, with her gushing g-spot orgasms, Pantha experienced a shuddering, drawn-out vaginal climax of her own.
      Spent, Adam’s penis slid out of her while rivulets of his hot, sticky cum dribbled down her bare legs.
      Having seen all there was to be seen, the anonymous car peeled out of the pullout in a cloud of dust, its occupants hooting lewdly out the windows.
      So just what was it, she thought as she caught her breath, that had emboldened Adam to treat her like this? Obviously he had known her well enough to realize that she would get off on it. In that, she had not disappointed.
      "I have to be getting back," Adam confessed as the two of them began hurriedly pulling together their clothes. "I’m supposed to be meeting a new contact later tonight. He claims he has evidence the Companions of Chaos are organizing a new Unseelee Congress right here in DC. Sounds pretty farfetched, but I can’t afford not to check it out."
      "It never ends, does it?" Pantha shook her head.
      She was not surprised at his wishing to make a hasty departure. After the live sex show they’d just put on, it wouldn’t be wise to linger here. Still, there was no "how have you been doing?" or suggestion that they go someplace to reminisce about old times and lost companions over dinner or drinks; just slam bam, thank you, ma’am.
      Moments later, she drove off with a renewed certainty that whatever romance they had once shared was certainly over as well as a newly-reached decision that this would be their last clandestine fuck session.



      Wrapped in a heavy camping blanket along with his female companion, Brad Driscoll looked out across the inky black surface of the Golden Reservoir, briefly wondering if this had really been the best place to bring a date. The reservoir was little more than a large excavated basin set in the middle of a monotonous landscape of rolling wheat fields. However it was about as much of a landmark as existed anywhere in the vicinity of the tiny western Kansas town of Golden.
      A narrow orange sliver of crescent moon dimly reflected off the oily, rippling water and a sea of stars shone faintly between the dark, heavy clouds rolling past. Otherwise the plains landscape was pitch black, with not so much as a single farmhouse light in sight. Brad was briefly creeped out by the isolation of their surroundings, but there was really nowhere within Golden where he and Liz could hope to find any privacy.
      Next to him, Liz Ricci sipped on her second can of beer. Brad had barely touched his first. There was little likelihood of them being stopped on the road since the local sheriff’s office had been shut down. The Kansas Highway Patrol only infrequently cruised the back roads surrounding Golden. Nonetheless, Brad was basically a sensible young man. He wasn’t about to risk himself, his date, or especially his lovingly restored ’93 Dodge Daytona by drinking and driving. However that didn’t mean he was above trying to loosen up Liz a bit with a few beers.
      Like himself, Liz had grown up right here in Golden. As kids, they’d played together, Liz being a bit of a tomboy. Thus it had come as a shock when, in junior high, she’d blossomed early into an extremely attractive young woman. Her long, poker-straight, silky blonde hair and curvaceous figure had made her stand out amongst her awkward pubescent female classmates. Even when the local high school, with its dwindling student body, had closed down and they’d been bussed to school in neighboring Colby, with its much larger classes, he hadn’t encountered anyone as hot as Liz. Now that they’d graduated and would both be headed off to separate vocational colleges in the fall, this was his last chance to get something going with her.
      Tonight was their fifth actual date and Brad was hoping, if not to score, at least to get to third with her. They’d driven in to see a movie in Colby. There was no actual theater there, but there was a youth group that put on a regular movie night, scraping up the cheapest low-budget oldies they could order. Tonight they’d shown a campy seventies sci-fi flick titled Space Vixen, whose only redeeming feature was that it featured some hot B-movie babe called Vampirella.
      After the movie, he’d suggested they pick up a six-pack and drive out to the reservoir. He’d initially thought of proposing a moonlight skinny dip as a means of getting Liz out of her pants, but now that they were here, the night was too dark and the black water too forbidding-looking for the idea to have much appeal. There was also the troubling memory of Jimmy Shaffer, another classmate who had disappeared here, presumably drowned, his body never recovered, less than a year ago.
      In the last year or so, it seemed to Brad that Golden had become a town of troubling occurrences. The disappearance of family farms and small agricultural communities as a way of life was a story familiar to every resident of America’s heartland. However over the last several months, some residents of Golden had begun to harbor vague suspicions that the forces killing off their town were not merely economic in nature. Golden’s plight went beyond the endless foreclosures or the Gestapo legal tactics of their unwelcome new corporate neighbor, the European agribusiness giant Esser Biopharm, who were gobbling up the surrounding countryside farm by farm. There were other, more sinister occurrences taking place as well. There were the power brownouts, inexplicable by the local utility company, and the disappearance of neighbors who had seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. In a community facing wholesale economic collapse, it was understandable for entire households to be uprooting, often on short notice. But people didn’t just up and leave without a word of notice or any forwarding information as was now happening in Golden. The official line out of the state legislature in Topeka was that Golden’s unaccounted former residents had merely relocated to accept jobs in KC or cities out-of-state. But no one here believed the politicians’ flimsy explanations that in this day and age those successfully re-employed could utterly disappear from sight, without so much as a phone listing by which they could be traced.
      Putting the troubling thoughts out of mind, Brad returned his attention to the here and now. Skinny dipping notwithstanding, he and Liz were engaged in some heavy petting inside their encircling blanket. While relatively inexperienced in the art of foreplay, Brad had coaxed Liz to the point where he’d gotten her tee-top up over her breasts. She had needed to assist him in unclasping her bra, allowing him free access to her perky, conical breasts. Her delicate nipples poked firmly upright as he stroked them while kissing her deeply. While he was smart enough not to bring her home to her parents wasted, the two beers had seemingly had the desired effect of lowering her inhibitions. If anything, she seemed to be responding enthusiastically to his tentatively roaming hands. Gradually he worked his fingers down her stomach to the wide decorative belt of her slacks.
      "Remember," she told him sternly, "I said you could have a feel tonight. But we’re not going all the way."
      "Okay," Brad acknowledged, not entirely sincerely.
      Smiling coyly, she let him undo the belt and zip down her pants. She lifted her bum and slid them down just far enough so there was room for his hand inside the crotch. Brad reached down and stroked her vulva through the moist cotton of her panties. Both of them laughed playfully at this first sexual contact. Then he reached inside the elastic waistband and felt the peachfuzz smoothness of her abdomen. He let his fingers run through the fine silky fleece of her pubes to the rounded mound of her closed labia. He was amazed by the warmth that radiated from her sex. Brad stroked it like a kitten until he felt Liz’s nether lips gently part, revealing a sticky wetness within. Her breathing became more labored as his fingertips grazed the head of her tiny clitoris, brushing back and forth. He leaned in to kiss her again while continuing to play with her increasingly wet pussy.
      "Look!" Liz abruptly interjected, disentangling her limbs from around him.
      Brad felt a twinge of annoyance, thinking she was attempting to distract him from proceeding further. Then he saw it too, a subtle amber glow which rimmed a grassy knoll further around the circumference of the reservoir. Even as they watched, the amber highlight grew in brightness.
      "What is it?" Liz asked excitedly, her frisky mood now shattered.
      "I don’t know," Brad answered uneasily. "Could be a grass fire behind that rise."
      "Shouldn’t we call it in?"
      "Maybe," Brad replied. "The cell’s in the car. But first let’s get a closer look; make sure it really is a fire. We’ll never hear the end of it if we call in a false alarm from out here."
      The two stood upright, letting the warm blanket fall from around them. Liz quickly did up her pants, and the two proceeded hand-in-hand in the direction of the mysterious glow.
      The dirt side road along which they’d parked continued around the rim of the reservoir to a pillbox-like concrete block pumphouse a few hundred feet further on. As they came around the small structure, they spotted two identical, immaculate white Broncos parked side-by-side in its lee. Brad realized with a start that they hadn’t been alone at all since arriving at the remote reservoir. He suddenly had second thoughts about continuing. Who else was out here at this hour? Certainly no one from Golden drove vehicles like these.
      "It’s those goons from Esser," Liz answered his unspoken question. "We should get out of here."
      "We’ve come this far," Brad countered. "Let’s just make sure there isn’t a fire. Besides, we’re on public property. They can’t fuck with us here. I’d like to know just what the hell they’re doing out here anyway. If they’re screwing around with the reservoir, the shit’s gonna hit the fan big time."
      "You’re fucking crazy," Liz pleaded. "These guys are fucking Nazis. Look what they did to old Sonny Bruckner. You want to get us killed?"
      "Look, we’re there," Brad pulled Liz along. "We’ll just peek over the top. Then we’ll get the hell out of here."
      The moment Brad topped the rise, he regretted his decision to spy, regretted being out here in the first place. Below them, in a small depression ringed with scrub brush, perhaps a dozen or more nude figures stood in a large circle. In their midst, a triangular metallic object impossibly floated in midair, rotating lazily perhaps three feet off the ground. In the eerie amber light that illuminated the gully, Brad could clearly make out the design of a stylized eye inscribed on the triangle.
      Of the figures forming the circle, two immediately stood out. One, the only female in the group, was a tall, statuesque woman with chic short, platinum blonde hair, large, perfectly shaped breasts, and a taut stomach over long, slender legs. The other, also blonde, appeared somewhat older than the woman with longish hair, a hawk-like nose, and a sculpted bodybuilder’s physique. The two stood ramrod-straight, their movements crisp, their posture perfect.
      By contrast, the remaining figures forming the group stood with a slightly hunched posture and seemed to move in a slow, shambling gait. They were generally coarse featured, with hair slicked greasily back. While all were basically human in physique and proportions, a few seemed coarser in form, heads slightly misshapen; the fine details of fingers, musculature, genitals less well defined. They appeared almost like an artist’s sculpture in the early stages of rendering, before all the features were fully refined.
      In the amber light, all of their eyes, the Nordic-looking blonde twosome included, shone with a pale yellow gleam.
      Next to the inhuman figures and floating talisman, another aspect of the bizarre scene was less obvious, initially perceived on a subconscious level. But once realized, it was even more profoundly disturbing. Although the clearing was suffused with the amber light, bright enough to cast shadows radially outward from the encircled figures, there was no visible source of illumination from which the ochre ambience was coming. What they were seeing was seemingly physically impossible.
      Brad felt Liz’s hand trembling in his. He squeezed it comfortingly, even though he was himself as abjectly terrified as he'd ever been in his life.
      "Ror," the woman in the circle commanded, "it’s time. Begin the summoning."
      "Yes, Mistress Slandra," the blonde male acknowledged.
      What happened next caused Liz to whimper softly, and Brad felt his knees go rubbery, threatening to collapse. One by one, the circled figures began a horrifying transformation. Tangles of pallid, fleshy tentacles budded from their midsections, extending towards their neighbors like vines growing towards a light source. Wherever they touched another figure, they appeared to seamlessly fuse right into it. Within seconds, the entire circle was literally interconnected by an ivy-like growth of squirming, pulsating tentacles so that it was impossible to tell where one nozzled figure ended and another began. The merged things -Brad could no longer think of them as human beings –began to writhe and squeal in what sounded very much like some sort of obscene orgasmic frenzy.
      In addition to their compliment of tentacles, the two Nordics also seemed to possess more recognizably human sex organs, which now came into play. The woman, Slandra, displayed a smooth, rounded pubic mound under a full thatch of golden-white pubes. The blonde male had a penis that appeared typically human –until it too stretched snakelike to insert itself into the female’s vagina.
      Seemingly triggered by the alien coupling, the triangular artifact, whatever it was, suddenly collapsed inward on itself before reforming a moment later. In an eyeblink, it seemed to undergo some trick of shifting perspective that was too difficult for either the eye to follow or the mind to process. Brad had the distinct impression that it somehow inverted itself, becoming a mirror image of its previous configuration, the inscribed eye glyph inexplicably transformed from right handed to left handed. He couldn’t begin to speculate as to the meaning or significance of such a transformation.
      "It’s done," the alien called Ror cried out. "The Eye of Ra is awakened!"
      So intent were Brad and Liz on the horrific spectacle below, that they failed to detect the lone sentry stealthily approaching from behind. Only when a clump of dried grass snapped close at hand, did they whirl about in panic, only to find themselves staring directly into the ochre eyes of yet another of the hulking inhuman figures.
      In an instant, Brad realized that his young life, at least as he had known it, would be over tonight. His biggest regret however was not for himself but for the fact that Liz would also share his fate, whatever that might be.



      The late evening sky was an ominous violet-black, with only a narrow ribbon of deep crimson sunlight limning the horizon to the west. Heavy overcast continued to dog their progress despite the fact that they had been driving steadily westward into the advancing flow of weather fronts. Having crossed over from Missouri into the Kansas half of KC, they were now detouring southward from I-70 towards Overland Park, looking for another overnight stopover. Pantha’s Mustang cruised steadily along an extended section of highway overpass spanning a sprawling district of railyards and industrial buildings. Perusing Pantha’s well-worn road atlas, Vampirella identified their location as crossing over the Argentine Rail Yard. According to the small blurb in the atlas, Kansas City was the second busiest rail interchange point in the country and several major cross-country lines converged on the 780-acre classification yard directly beneath them.
      Back to the east, she could still make out the well-lit midtown skyline formed by a phalanx of modernistic skyscrapers, headquarters to the numerous multinational agribusinesses that were the new corporate monarchs of America’s breadbasket.
      Nearing the end of their second full day on the road, the twosome were starting to show their weariness. There was also the unspoken sexual tension that now existed between them after the previous night’s bedroom romp. Vampirella now had mixed feelings about spending at least the next several days sharing accommodations with her pal. On the one hand, their liaison had piqued her libido, leaving her hornier than hell. On the other, she knew that any repeat performance could only lead to emotional entanglements, which would only become more and more difficult to extricate herself from.
      "This mission is fucked," she announced from the passenger seat, venting her frustration. "We’re pushing ourselves to hump it halfway across the country, and we don’t have the first clue as to why we’re doing it or what we’ll find when we get there."
      "Having second thoughts about your mysterious new source?" Pantha asked.
      "I’m having second thoughts about his sources, these so-called remote viewers he’s relying on. I’ve dealt with government psychics before. The World’s End Circus uses remote viewers too. Usually they can sense just enough to lead you into deep shit, but they never seem to know the way out."
      "Maybe that’s where you and I come in," Pantha suggested optimistically. "Maybe the psychics can’t predict because the outcome’s not carved in stone. How many times have you been the wildcard that broke the Cult of Chaos’ latest run for all the chips on the table? It’d be nice to think that what we’re doing does make a difference."
      "Funny," Vampirella smiled back, her outlook brightening slightly at Pantha’s answer, "Tristan said something like that the last time I saw him. He said that my destiny was my own to write."
      "There you go," Pantha glanced over at her.
      Vampirella leaned back in her leopard-spotted headrest, momentarily closing her eyes.
      She was jolted back to full alertness as the Mustang suddenly gunned forward. Beside her, Pantha gripped the wheel tightly, an alarmed expression on her face.
      "What’s going on?" Vampirella asked excitedly.
      "The Lupae," Pantha responded grimly. "They’re coming for us. We need to get off the road now. We should find someplace to hole up and make a stand!"
      Vampirella looked about in alarm. As far as she could see, they were the only ones within sight along this stretch of elevated highway.
      "What’re you talking about?" Vampirella queried her. "There’s nobody anywhere near us."
      "They’re coming," Pantha would not be placated. "I know they are. Don’t ask me to explain, but I can sense it."
      "Why here?" Vampirella tried to give her longtime ally the benefit of the doubt. "Even if they somehow knew where we’re headed, how could they possibly know that we’d turn off here for the night?"
      "It doesn’t matter. They’re Lupae. If they’re after us, they’ll find us wherever we go."
      Pantha rocketed the car down a curving off-ramp, which branched off of the overpass. They descended onto a paved service road, which paralleled seemingly innumerable sets of classification tracks lined with trains of parked, graffiti-covered boxcars. As they neared the perimeter of the extensive railyard, the converging departure tracks became interspersed with huge corrugated steel and block structures housing locomotive maintenance facilities. Eventually the road split; one section continuing into the distance, the other doubling back to terminate in front of the crumbling brick ruins of an abandoned factory site almost directly under the overpass they had just exited. Pantha aimed for the factory.
      Vampirella appreciated her reasoning. If they did end up in a battle with the Lupae, this locale would be out of the way of panicked civilians, who might be caught up in the crossfire, and who would be powerless to help in any case. It also looked like it might contain its fair share of hideyholes or elevated vantages from which they might be able to gain some advantage.
      Pantha pulled right up to the factory, parking the Mustang in the shadows of a small outbuilding. The two of them quickly piled out into the chill night air. Up close, Vampirella realized just how isolated and foreboding this structure really looked. Like the mammoth concrete pylons supporting the overpass some fifty feet or so above, it was virtually covered at ground level by layer upon layer of graffiti. The spray painted markings thinned out the higher one looked up the walls, but some extended to improbable heights, a testament to the determination of their creators to leave their mark on this decaying site.
      Beyond the abandoned factory lay more rail lines and an extensive auto wrecking yard covering several acres, replete with numerous mountain-sized heaps of junked vehicles and tires.
      Vampirella paused to retrieve a military surplus-looking canvas pouch from the back of the car. She unclasped it and removed its contents; two matched Desert Eagle magnum handguns in .50 caliber.
      Pantha’s eyes widened and her lips curled into a wicked smile at the sight of the mammoth autopistols. "I didn’t think you ever touched those things," she quipped. "They’re bad for your health, you know."
      "You found the party," Vampirella chided back. "I brought the favours. I picked these up back in Coogan’s Bluff a few years ago. I’ve been holding onto them ever since, saving them for just the right occasion; and I think this one qualifies. Unfortunately, I’ve only got the two clips’ worth of ammo. I never expected to be single-handedly fighting off an army of alien invaders."
      Vampirella held out one of the handguns to Pantha. With their enormous recoil, few shooters could effectively wield the elephantine pistols, which were more often carried for their intimidation value than for their accuracy. For the two Drakulonians however, with their otherworldly strength, discharging them would not be much different from plinking cans with a BB gun.
      Pantha was right that Vampirella didn’t typically rely on firearms. But having seen what the Lupae could do, she hoped to be able to drop a few of them from a distance, before they could get in close enough to utilize their lethal phallic tentacles. That was the plan, at any rate.
      The two of them had no difficulty in gaining entry through an open, truck-sized bay door. Inside was a cavernous space of ink-black shadows interspersed with weird patches of illumination cast through a series of huge vaulted windows that lined the trackside back wall of the building. The arched openings were gridded with tiny, grime-covered windowpanes, many of which were cracked or missing altogether. Typical mortals would have found it near impossible to navigate in here without carrying handheld lights of some sort, but the two Drakulonians’ enhanced night vision quickly adapted to the darkness. Apparently this facility had been cannibalized for salvageable machinery and scrap before being abandoned. There was little equipment remaining to indicate just what was once produced here beyond the fact that it must have been some sort of heavy manufacturing. The largely empty shop floor consisted of an irregular quiltwork of raised piers and foundations for removed equipment, now bristling with patterns of embedded anchor bolts projecting menacingly upwards. What steelwork did remain seemed integral to the building’s structure. There were the angle iron frames of conveyer lines at floor level and the tracks for a mobile overhead crane just below the level of the exposed roof trusses. One end of the building consisted of stacked vertical cages for paletted raw stock or inventory. Scores of the now empty wooden palettes lay in rotting heaps on the floor.
      The two of them, picking out the building’s strategic potentials, noted the various stairs and ladders leading to the upper levels. There were two caged ladders extending up to narrow catwalks servicing the overhead crane rails. There was also a steel stair tower accessing a metal grate balcony overlooking the former production floor. The two of them made their way to the top of the latter. There they discovered a small suite of finished upper level offices built into the backside of the building. While the plant’s upper management and engineering staff presumably would have been situated elsewhere in another building, these offices might once have housed shop supervisors or inventory managers who operated close to the production floor. They selected a small office in which to hole up for the time being. Its chief asset was a large window, now glassless, that afforded a panoramic view of the factory’s bleak surroundings. From here, they would have advance warning of anyone approaching from the plant’s backside, the most likely avenue of attack for anyone wishing to remain concealed from any unlikely but still possible roadside traffic.
      An hour passed. In the distance, the faint whine of switcher locomotives and the periodic clatter of railroad cars being connected carried from somewhere deeper within the extensive Argentine Yard. At one point, they watched two automobiles pull into the dark recesses beneath the overpass. The occupants emerged and some transaction, no doubt illicit, apparently took place. Then the vehicles drove off again. Otherwise, this stretch of post-industrial no man’s land, set off from the bustling classification yard, seemed utterly deserted at this hour of the night.
      In spite of the tension and monotony of waiting, the two said very little, so intent were they both on listening for any sound of intruders. Eventually Pantha offered to take watch, suggesting that Vampirella try and get some sleep. Despite the discomfort of their surroundings and situation, she eventually did lay her head on a desktop and closed her eyes.
      She came awake sometime later, uncertain as to how long she’d been dozing. She started to ask before Pantha motioned her into silence. Careful to avoid making noise, she rejoined the feline Drakulonian at the window.
      Looking about, Vampirella tried to blink the sleep from her eyes. There were no signs of activity in the vicinity, but she did notice a strange sort of halo surrounding each of the railroad signal lights visible along the tracks and the fluorescent streetlamps illuminating the overpass above. Despite her efforts, she found she couldn’t clear them from her vision.
      "You see it too, don’t you?" Pantha whispered. "Sort of an aura over everything."
      "You mean it’s real?" Vampirella whispered back. "I thought it was just a trick of the eyes after falling asleep. It sort of looks like the psychic bioenergy effect you see in Kirlian photography, but I’ve never seen anything like it with the naked eye."
      "It started up about twenty minutes ago. At first, I thought I was seeing things too, but it’s been growing more distinct by the minute."
      Any further discussion was sidetracked by a distinct metallic crunch coming from somewhere in the auto yard just across the tracks. Vampirella had the impression of somebody inadvertently stepping on a loose piece of debris. More sounds of movement followed from out among the scrap heaps.
      "They’re here," Pantha stated matter of factly.
      Then, in the distance, the shadowy outline of a figure stepped into sight from behind a stack of box-like compacted cars. A second appeared from around the opposite side of the junk pile, followed by a third and a forth. Within moments, more than a dozen figures emerged from the general direction of the salvage yard. They silently assembled into an irregular group and began purposefully marching across the tracks precisely towards the building Vampirella and Pantha now occupied. As they approached, Vampirella noted the glint of ochre eyes, the same inhuman eyes possessed by the tentacled creature from the Philadelphia waterfront. The advancing figures could be, if not brothers, then at least cousins to that man-thing. They all had the same hulking posture, the same expressionless faces and slickened hair. They even wore the same drab, loose-fitting cargo fatigues.
      Proceeding to the left of the window from which Vampi and Pantha watched, one by one they disappeared from sight around the corner of the building. A moment later, the tremendous crash of a door being torn from its hinges echoed from the floor below. Guns in hand, they ran from the office out onto the upper level balcony platform. The reason they had chosen this locale was that it appeared relatively defensible. The creatures could only come at them up the narrow open staircase from the shop floor or along one of the long catwalks, where they’d be easy targets.
      Seemingly displaying little tactical ingenuity, these were precisely the approaches they took, mounting a predictable frontal assault. Once inside, several stormed up the caged ladders to the crane walkways, while others rushed the stairwell. Wishing to conserve her limited ammunition, Vampirella waited until the first of them was halfway down the catwalk, well within range to get a clear shot. When she did fire, the report reverberated deafeningly loud inside the cavernous building. Yellow plasm exploded from the chest of the creature, which was thrown violently backward onto the catwalk. Pantha fired at another as he rounded the topmost intermediate landing of the stair tower. The Lupae drone let out a ghastly inhuman squeal as it was flung back into two more of the creatures immediately behind it. Pantha easily picked them off as well as they struggled to climb over their fallen comrade.
      Then, an instant later, Vampirella and Pantha discovered that the seemingly suicidal charge was not as pointless as it had appeared. Without warning, the section of open grate on which they were standing pitched forward as one of the Lupae, unnoticed amid the general mêlée, slipped directly beneath them and severed a support stanchion with its destructive tentacles.
      With her keen feline balance and reflexes, Pantha leaped into the air even as the floor dropped from under her. Transforming in midair, she deftly landed on an exposed beam in the form of a sleek black panther. Vampirella’s fall was also cut short, though more by sheer accident than by the speed of her reflexes. Even before she could metamorphose into bat form, her headlong descent was broken by a section of cross bracing into which she slammed with a stunning impact. Recovering, the two were both able to struggle back onto intact portions of the decking, though now on opposite sides of the collapsed middle span.
      In Vampirella’s direction, several more Lupae were now edging unopposed down the catwalk. She had lost her gun when the balcony had caved in. Now there was no way she could avoid engaging them at close quarters, where they held the advantage. She spotted a large pipefitter’s wrench lying on the grate, too covered with rust for anyone to bother carrying off for salvage. She hefted it, feeling its weight. While its workings may have been rusted solid, the long steel handle would still make for a wicked club.
      Swinging the wrench, she lashed out at the first of the drones to reach her. It hit with a meaty thud, sending the Lupae toppling over the catwalk rail. Amazingly for Vampirella, it landed squarely on top of a pier bristling with long anchor bolts. The creature was impaled on the threaded rods, its spine bent backwards at an unnatural angle.
      The next attacker approached more cautiously, leading the way with its flailing tentacles. One of the translucent-tipped appendages sliced through a section of steel railing as if it were butter. Vampirella knew that with no room to dodge or evade on the narrow catwalk, she’d be cut to pieces by the drone. Cornered, she climbed up onto the rail and heaved herself over the side into one of the tall arched windows. She threw up her arms to shield her face as she plummeted headlong through the glass panes.
      She rolled as she hit the sharp gravel outside. Even for her, it was a long drop from the roof level walkway. The lacerations she received from going through the window would have left an ordinary mortal bleeding to death on the ground. However her Drakulonian regenerative abilities instantly kicked in, so that the ghastly wounds began to close up almost before she could feel them. Almost.
      For a moment, Vampirella feared the worst as she heard the frenzied sounds of feline roars and alien squeals being exchanged back inside the factory. Then Pantha came bounding through a ground level emergency exit still in her black panther form. She padded over to where Vampirella was picking herself up before metamorphosing back into human shape.
      "Come on!" she yelled, yanking Vampirella the rest of the way to her feet. "They’re right behind us. We don’t stand a chance taking them all on at once. We’ve got to find some way to spread them out or else come up with something to use as a weapon."
      The two of them ran breathlessly along the long backside of the building and rounded the corner. Reaching Pantha’s Mustang on the opposite end of the factory, with the entire contingent of Lupae between them and it, was out of the question. Vampirella spotted a power substation on the far side of the overpass. An array of overhead power lines converged on its banks of tower-like transformers, surrounded by a barbed wire-topped cyclone fence.
      "That way," she yelled.
      They dashed across the muddy right-of-way beneath the overpass until they came headlong up against the chain link gate to the transformer station. Looking around to see the Lupae now pouring from the brick factory in hot pursuit, Vampirella didn’t hesitate. She punched through the heavy steel lock with a piledriver blow and dragged the sliding gate along its tracks just enough for them to squeeze through.
      They continued down a graveled lane between rows of tall transformers while the drones traced their path to the substation. Vampirella looked vainly about for some means by which to turn the high voltage equipment all around them into a weapon against the Lupae. By the time they reached the far end of the fenced enclosure, Lupae were pouring through the gate. Once inside, the aliens slowed, regrouping into a battle line. In quick succession, they began metamorphosing into their tentacled form, their pallid appendages writhing in anticipation. While the two femme fatales had managed to thin their ranks during their first combat inside the factory, Vampirella still counted eight remaining. Considering that they seemingly equaled the Drakulonians in fighting prowess and paranormal capabilities, that left her and Pantha pretty well outmatched in terms of sheer numbers.
      Vampirella however had beaten overwhelming odds often enough in the past. She was not about to concede defeat to these ancient enemies of the inhabitants of Drakulon. Looking at Pantha, she could read the same determination in her feline partner’s expression. Their backs were now to the tall cyclone fence at the rear of the substation. They could still break out as easily as they had broken in, but where would they go? This seemed as good a place as any to make a stand.
      Vampirella bared her fangs and hissed at the advancing line of phallic drones. Beside her, Pantha once again morphed into the dark form of a deadly jungle cat, which instantly began circling about Vampirella, growling a deep, menacing growl.
      It was Pantha who began the second engagement, abruptly charging the Lupae, who broke ranks to face off against her. With feline agility, she swiped at the waving tentacles about her, severing several at their roots while largely evading their lethal translucent tips. At one point, she let out a yowl as a tentacle grazed and then passed painfully through a forepaw. Like a coiled spring being released, she launched straight up into the air, simultaneously whirling about to extricate herself from the appendage and flailing wildly with her hind claws. The searching talons raked the drone across the throat, severing whatever the Lupae equivalent of a jugular was, sending yellow plasm spurting in thick gobs.
      Vampirella meanwhile leaped into the air directly over the head of one of the drones. Landing in a crouch behind it, she delivered a well-aimed kick to the small of its back before it could pivot to bring its tentacles to bear. The Lupae careened forward, a flailing tentacle passing effortlessly through the thin metal casing of a transformer and embedding itself directly into the charged coils within.
      The result was astonishing. While the transformer itself erupted in a shower of sparks and blue flame, the impaled Lupae momentarily let out a bloodcurdling screech as it twitched spasmodically, half formed tentacles springing in all directions from its rapidly shifting form. A moment later, it exploded, sending a shower of ochre plasm and bits of unrecognizable alien organs spurting everywhere. Vampirella caught a noxious whiff of an acrid burnt smell that was as indescribable as it was awful.
      Springing to her feet, she whirled to face the next drone coming at her. But before she could move in for the kill, a blinding blue-violet flash lit up the area around them. For a moment she thought that the ruptured transformer must have triggered a chain reaction which was now cascading throughout the substation. Then she looked up to see a slowly churning nimbus of incandescent plasma hovering in midair some forty feet above the installation. As she watched, wispy tendrils of the energy cloud extended in the direction of the overhead power lines. As they came into contact, a portion of the glowing phenomenon seemed to flow down the lines and over the banks of transformers.
      Suddenly, forks of electricity spat lightning-like between the towering devices, converging on the Lupae caught between them. Showers of sparks rained down from the large ceramic insulators atop the units. Like the drone Vampirella had just electrocuted, the Lupae writhed and screeched as they were incinerated. Despite the fact that they too were standing in the midst of the phenomenon, Vampirella and Pantha were mysteriously untouched by the searing bolts arcing all around them.
      The Lupae were quickly reduced to charred heaps as the lethal discharges continued to course through them. Then, as quickly and inexplicably as it had sprung into being, the energetic phenomenon withdrew. Plasma tendrils fell inward on themselves until only a small central sphere of glowing blue-green energy remained. Then it too flickered out of apparent being.
      All around Vampirella, the cauterized remains of the Lupae smoldered on the ground. Not one of the aliens had escaped immolation. The overloaded transformers buzzed like angry hornets; tongues of flame still spouting from their half-melted insulators. For the first time, Vampirella noted that the railroad signals and the overhead streetlamps on the overpass had all gone dark, apparently knocked out by the inexplicable power surge.
      She looked frantically about for Pantha, whom she had momentarily lost track of in the chaos. She spotted her, once again reverted to human form, sprawled listlessly against the cyclone fencing.
      "Panth!" Vampirella ran to her side, "are you hurt?"
      She couldn’t see any obvious signs of injury, but Pantha’s green eyes were vacant, unfocused.
      "Why couldn’t you love me?" she asked tearfully, displaying no awareness of her surroundings or of what had just happened.
      If she hadn’t been injured in the course of their combat with the phallic extraterrestrials, what had just happened to her?
      Then Vampirella noted that the top of her blouse had pulled open, exposing the greenish-gold Scarab of Atum-Ra dangling between her heaving breasts. The panther amulet exhibited a phenomenon that Vampirella had never seen before in all of her long association with Pantha. The eye of the panther head cast on its circular face glowed a soft jade green, as did the tiny Drakulonian sigils that adorned its circumference. Even as Vampirella watched, the ghostly radiance faded away and the amulet resumed its normal metallic appearance.
      Realizing that the exploding transformer station and subsequent blackout were bound to draw an emergency response, Vampirella gently lifted the still groggy Pantha to her feet and guided her out of the scorched substation back in the direction of the deserted factory where they had left their car. By the time a small army of firefighters, railroad police, and utility crews began converging on the scene, Pantha’s Mustang was back up the access ramp from the railyard and merging into the flow of traffic on the interstate above.
      Behind the wheel, Vampirella stole a worried sidelong glance at Pantha, gradually recovering in the passenger seat. While her oldest and closest friend’s emerging lesbian tendencies had been disconcerting enough, that paled next to the magnitude of her fearful suspicions that the inexplicable electrical firestorm they had just experienced was in some mysterious way connected to Pantha herself.



      Vampirella leaned casually back against the hood of Pantha’s parked Mustang, arms crossed, gazing about her. The car was parked along a circular turnaround where a dead-end side street terminated atop a small rise on the outskirts of Topeka. While the cul de sac could hardly be called a scenic overlook, it was somewhat elevated above the rest of the surrounding light industrial neighborhood. Vampirella looked out across a mix of sparse treetops, dry grassy knolls, and the flat composite roofs of a sprawling industrial park. For a change, the sun was shining brightly.
      After their encounter with the Lupae in the Kansas City railyards, they had driven right through to Topeka before pulling off in exhaustion in the wee hours before dawn. Too tired to go hunting for lodgings off the beaten track, and now certain that it wouldn’t make a difference in any case, they had checked into the first freeway motel they’d spotted. There they’d both collapsed into bed. It was only when they’d arisen, sometime after sunup, that they’d cleaned up and stepped out for breakfast in the motel’s coffee shop. They were preparing to check out and get back on the road, when they’d both been frozen in their tracks by the normally innocuous sound of their room phone ringing.
      By now beyond surprise that unseen forces seemed aware of their every move, Vampirella had picked up the receiver. She had fully expected to hear the voice of Mr. Jones even before he had announced himself and proposed a meeting with her alone, right here in Topeka.
      She didn’t have long to wait by the car. Five minutes after she arrived at their designated meeting place, Mr. Jones pulled up behind her, driving a shiny-looking Ford Taurus with rental plates. He stepped out of the car wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a thin necktie, and aviator style sunglasses.
      "This is a surprise," Vampirella chided.
      "For both of us," Jones replied, somewhat less cheerily. "I didn’t expect to be contacting you this soon. Com-12 thought there was the possibility you might engage the Lupae before you reached Golden, but we didn’t know you were going to knock out the power for a major national rail hub in the process. Do you have any idea what it takes to put out a plausible cover story for something like that? Especially when you’ve got at least a dozen rail workers telling the police and the press that they witnessed a glowing blue UFO hovering over the railyard just before the power blew."
      "Is that what it was," Vampirella asked, "a UFO?"
      "In a manner of speaking," Mr. Jones answered, as enigmatic as ever. "There’s been a development, something you need to know about."
      "I’m listening," Vampirella looked him in the eye.
      "You’ve known for some years now about the Drakulonian origins of Pantha’s ancestors, the Cat People. You’re also now aware of their war with the extraterrestrial race from the world of Lupae. Now that you have access to your memories of yours and Pantha’s abduction by the battlemaid Slandra, you know that the Lupae were able to trigger a cataclysmic stellar event in Satyr, one of Drakulon’s twin suns. This was an unprecedented coronal eruption, which essentially caused a mass extinction of the race of Cat People and an end to that cycle of lifeforms on Drakulon. The destruction was so complete that by the time the Vampiri arose, there were virtually no remaining archeological traces of this prior evolutionary cycle. The device that precipitated this cataclysm was a world destroyer. I believe that Slandra described it to Pantha and you as an electromagnetic disruptor cannon. That is perhaps anthropomorphizing a device that has no real equivalent in terrestrial technology. In fact, the Lupae world destroyer was not technology at all, at least not technology as humans would understand it. It was rather a sort of mystic lens, assembled out of multiple elements mated together through elaborate incantations and rituals. The sigils on it were inscribed according to a precise sequence. Its function was to focus the cosmic energies of multiple interdimensional ley lines into a coherent beam of unimaginable destructive force.
      "But there are still some details of that interstellar conflict with which you are not yet familiar. The decimation of the Cat People is only half the story. The war eventually escalated to the point where both sides were brought to near extinction. You see, the Drakulonians also possessed an identical doomsday weapon, which they used on the Lupae homeworld."
      "No!" Vampirella gasped, tears brimming at the corners of her eyes. "The Drakulon I came from was a peaceful, civilized world. Drakulonians could never have committed such genocide."
      "It’s a little late for indignation. We’re talking about events that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. With the war carried to every corner of explored space, there was no place to flee. So the few survivors of the holocaust dispersed down the timestream, some ending up here during various stages of Earth’s history. Pantha’s forebears did in fact arrive in ancient Egypt during the reign of the Fourth Dynasty pharaohs. Here on Earth, the Drakulonian metamorphs gradually assimilated genetic characteristics of terrestrial humans and felines, giving rise to the panther-like Cat People of this world such as Pantha.
      "But the Lupae have also been among us for a very long time. As you’ve seen, in their native form, Lupae are far more dissimilar to terrestrial humans than the original Drakulonian Cat People were. Nonetheless, just as their name implies, the ancient Lupae eventually evolved into the Loup Garou or lycanthropes of Earth."
      "Werewolves," Vampirella mouthed.
      "To further complicate matters," Jones continued, "Vampiri from Drakulon’s next evolutionary cycle also traveled the timestream to arrive on Earth during ancient times. The Lupae don’t distinguish between the Cat People and the Vampiri. That’s why vampires and werewolves have always been natural enemies. Their enmity is nothing more than a carryover of the ancient war between Drakulon and Lupae. This hostility has gone on right up until modern times. You must of course recall Martine Andrecou’s involvement of UN forces from the EU in the so-called Dracula War, a low-level conflict between nosferatu and lycanthropes led by Taltos, which occurred in the shadows of the Balkan Crisis of the early 1990’s."
      "How could any of this ever have started?" Vampirella asked, overwhelmed at the prospect that such genocidal hatred could have perpetuated itself across light-years and down through the millennia from her own homeworld.
      "For generations, both sides relied on a doctrine of deterrence through the threat of mutual assured destruction, a strategy similar to that employed on this world throughout the recent so-called Cold War between East and West. Only the inhabitants of Drakulon, as well as those of Lupae, were not so fortunate. In Drakulon’s case, deterrence failed.
      "Even in the aftermath of Armageddon, the surviving Cat People were not prepared to surrender their ultimate weapon, and so they launched it, along with a guardian, through time and space to this remote world. So you see, Fellus didn’t travel all the way to Earth in the little skyraider that Pantha and Adam uncovered on the Giza Plateau. As an added level of security, the weapon had the ability to camouflage itself by slipping outside the normal dimensional realm which you and I inhabit. It’s been hidden here on Earth for some 4500 years, existing in an unseen parallel dimension."
      "But why?" Vampirella asked. "Why here? And why go to such lengths to hide a weapon that the enemy already knows exists?"
      "Like terrestrial insects," Jones explained, "the Lupae exist in various specialized forms. The creatures you encountered in Philly and KC were drones. You’re also aware of the form referred to as battlemaids such as Slandra. But there’s another form as well, a sort of technician caste who possess an incredible ability to meld or interface with any sort of technological or mystical artifact. Against this ability, there’s no possible safeguard that could absolutely ensure that the world destroyer wouldn’t be compromised, the Cat Peoples’ own weapon turned against them. Therefore the weapon was hidden in a place supposedly beyond the Lupaes’ reach.
      "The ancient Egyptians were well aware of the arrival of this world destroyer, and in accordance with their religious beliefs, they had a name for it. They called it the Eye of Ra. They were also aware of the particular descendent of the original Cat People who was eventually entrusted with its power. You are of course familiar with the legend of the cat goddess Sekhmet."
      "Pantha believes that she was Sekhmet in one of her previous incarnations," Vampirella responded.
      "Of course," Mr. Jones replied without elaborating.
      Vampirella eyed Jones skeptically. "I just have one question. How the hell could you possibly know all this? I don’t care what kind of supersecret spy agency you come from, human agencies simply couldn’t possess this kind of knowledge of extraterrestrial events on their own."
      "No they couldn’t," Mr. Jones conceded. "But you’re forgetting something. Pantha was detained for over a year by your former employers, the Danse Macabre."
      "I couldn’t believe it when I first found out Pantha had escaped from the Danse in ’97. Sebastian and then Esterbrook did everything in their power to try and win me over to their organization. And all the while they were holding Pantha, abusing her in their secret labs. Lying scumbags!"
      "I’m afraid you’ll find that Aquarius and their subordinate agencies place expedience over principles or personal loyalties. In any case, during her captivity, Pantha was interrogated at length under the influence of scopolamine and various more exotic psychoactives developed under the CIA’s old MK ULTRA program. The Danse hoped to access latent memories of her previous incarnations, and eventually they succeeded. Everything they learned was passed up the chain to Aquarius. It was also handed off to Karl Midwinter’s Berlin New Cosmic Order faction by a double agent named Von Scheisse."
      "I remember Von Scheisse," Vampirella nodded. "I convinced Pantha to spare him, but he met his grisly fate all the same."
      "Com-12 also learned what took place at the Danse Macabre Institute in Haverhill and what was discovered there. We know more about Pantha than she knows herself."
      "You knew what those sadists were doing to her and you let it happen?" Vampirella confronted Mr. Jones.
      "Pick up a newspaper," Jones answered defensively. "Need I remind you that Pantha’s case was hardly unique. Our government has incarcerated thousands of prisoners in secret detention facilities in Guantánamo, throughout Eastern Europe, and around the world, all without due process of law. Under this Administration, there are countless detainee abuses taking place even as we speak that are beyond Com-12’s power to stop. We didn’t even know about Pantha until well after she had made her escape and avenged herself on most of her tormenters. But I can assure you that in Pantha’s case, if she hadn’t escaped on her own, we would’ve gotten her out at any cost."
      "Is all this somehow related to what happened last night?" Vampirella asked.
      "As I said," Jones responded, "the Eye has been here on Earth for millennia, slumbering inert and undetected in its own separate dimension. But now it’s awakening.
      "For years, Aquarius has unknowingly held the key to summoning the Eye in its possession, a Udjat discovered inside the artifact from Wildwood Cemetery and stored at the Montauk facility. Fortunately for our world, Aquarius didn’t possess the mystical knowledge to unlock the Udjat’s secrets and summon the Eye. But the Lupae do. After last night’s events, we can only surmise that the Udjat is now in their possession. The phenomenon you experienced was a very slight manifestation of the Eye of Ra. As it continues to move closer to our dimension, the manifestations will only grow more intense and more destructive.
      "Undoubtedly the Lupae hope to control the Eye themselves through one of their technomancers. Again, the Egyptians were aware that the Eye could be turned and incorporated this into their mythology. That’s why the more typical right-handed Udjat represents the Eye of Ra. But in its mirrored configuration, the left-handed Udjat also symbolizes the malevolent Eye of Horus.
      "In any case, the Udjat may summon the Eye of Ra, but it’s the weapon’s immortal guardian who wields it, her power to control it channeled through the Scarab of Atum-Ra."
      "So Midwinter was right all along," Vampirella muttered. Pantha’s amulet does possess apocalyptic powers."
      "Only insofar as it channels the destructive power of its owner, the demigoddess Sekhmet, Pantha in this existence."
      "Satyr and Circe," Vampirella exclaimed, "can you help her with what’s happening now?"
      "You’re closer to Pantha than anyone," Jones answered. "If anyone can help her, it’s you. The most Com-12 or I can do is to help you understand the cosmic history behind all of this. I suspect that Pantha and the Lupae are already vying for control of the Eye. The fact that it incinerated the Lupae drones and not you demonstrates that it was Pantha controlling it last night, probably subconsciously.
      "If the Lupae do gain control, they won’t need to try and take over through political subversion. They can use the Eye to enslave this world –or destroy it."
      "So in order to save the planet," Vampirella summed up, "we have to ensure that Pantha stays in control."
      "Not so fast," Mr. Jones stopped her. "Keep in mind that your friend has suffered more abuse at the hands of men than any woman should ever have to. You know what she’s been capable of in the past. Time and again over the years, she’s hunted down and killed her former abusers, sometimes without even realizing what she was doing. And now she holds the power to make the whole world pay for the injustices it’s inflicted. Remember the tale of Sekhmet’s fury. Regardless of who controls the Eye, the Lupae or Pantha, tonight this world stands right on the brink of the same fiery apocalypse that consumed the inhabitants of Drakulon and Lupae."
      "There’s something else," Jones looked Vampirella in the eye.
      "There’s more?" she replied in bewilderment.
      "The Eye isn’t the only reason I contacted you now. We’ve had a major intelligence breakthrough here on Earth. Com-12 has been focusing all of its available intelligence assets on Golden, and we’ve just uncovered some astonishing intel."
      "Go on," Vampirella prodded.
      "To put what I have to tell you into context, let me start off with a little background. For all of the paranoia over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in recent years, very few outside the military are aware of the extent of the WMD threat this country faced during the Cold War years. After the Second World War, in the shadow of the nuclear arms race, the U.S. and the Soviets also engaged in a more covert biological arms race. Realizing that bioagents were ultimately uncontrollable, President Nixon renounced the production of offensive biological weapons in 1968. But the Soviets actually accelerated their bioweapons program, particularly through the 1980’s. Our intelligence analyses of the time failed to recognize the extent to which the breakdown of détente and Ronald Reagan’s saber rattling about the "Evil Empire" had the Politburo and the KGB rattled. Besides, the U.S. was involved in a proxy war right on the doorstep of the Soviet Union, providing covert military aid to the Afghani mujahadeen, predecessors to the Taliban, who were fighting to drive the Russians out. At its height, the Soviet bioweapons program, jointly run by the Red Army’s Fifteenth Directorate and a secretive state agency known as Biopreparat, comprised some 60,000 people working at over a hundred installations.
      "The intelligence community suspected throughout the mid to late eighties that the Soviets were not adhering to the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention they signed along with most of the world’s nations. However it wasn’t until 1989, when a senior Biopreparat scientist named Vladimir Pasechnik defected to the UK, that we learned of the extent of the Soviet bioweapons program.
      "By this time, the U.S. biological warfare program under USAMRIID at Ft. Detrick, Maryland was purely defensive in nature. Our own offensive stockpiles of weaponized anthrax had been destroyed decades previously. Even the Pentagon saw little to be gained by a renewed biological arms race.
      "However a few hard-line hawks believed that it was essential to reestablish some level of biological deterrence in the face of the Soviet WMD buildup. At the forefront of this faction were then Brigadier General Christopher Whitefire and Captain Martin Eichmann, both of whom you’re aware of from their involvement with Nowheresville and the Wehrmacht in Las Vegas. It was decided by this cabal to unilaterally establish a single high containment facility, separate from Ft. Detrick, to be maintained as a standby bioweapons production site.
      "In 1990, a facility known as Site 44 was established not far from Golden, Kansas. Black budget funding for this facility came from outside normal military appropriations channels and was funneled through Aquarius. While the cover for this plant was emergency vaccine production in the event of a major public health crisis, Com-12 has just discovered that seed stocks of various weaponized pathogens were cultured there and archived in cryogenic storage. Thankfully the main production lines were never activated.
      "It seems even the Administration was largely unaware of the existence of Site 44 right up until 2001. You’ll recall the anthrax scare in the wake of 9/11 and how it seemingly disappeared from public awareness in the run-up to the Iraq War. There’s a reason the story mysteriously vanished off the media radar. Even I can’t tell you the whole story. If I did, your life as you’ve known it would be over. I can tell you that the strain of weaponized anthrax used was definitively traced back to Site 44. You can imagine the level of panic this revelation produced in the White House. At the time, the Administration was committed to discrediting Saddam Hussein over his supposed WMD program as a pretext for going to war. If it were ever revealed that the U.S. possessed an illegal facility for the production of biological weapons, the political fallout for the Administration would be catastrophic. A determination was made at the highest levels that the parties responsible for the anthrax releases must never become subject to the U.S. legal system. Persons were taken into custody. They were secretly flown to Guantánamo Bay by a Gulfstream V turbojet, tail number N379P. This was the same so-called ‘ghost jet’ identified by the Washington Post as flying U.S. political detainees to countries employing torture. Once isolated from public view, the suspected perpetrators were subjected to intensive interrogation before being summarily executed by lethal injection.
      "Site 44 was quietly decommissioned but never dismantled. Ownership was transferred to a European pharmaceutical company by the name of Esser Biopharm GmbH, supposedly conducting some sort of agricultural research around Golden. Why something as politically sensitive as Site 44 would ever be handed over to a foreign corporation remains an enigma, but it seems Aquarius was deeply involved in arranging the transfer. Over the last two years, Esser’s been piecemeal buying up the surrounding farmland as well as much of Golden, which is well on the way to becoming a ghost town.
      "And here’s the clincher. It seems that Esser Biopharm is nothing more than a front company for something called the Biogenetics Monitoring Agency of the European Union, BMAEU for short. And the current Executive Director of the BMAEU turns out to be none other than Sigrid Midwinter, Karl Midwinter’s niece, presumed killed along with the Doctor at Ordensberg Castle in 2000. It seems we now know what became of the Berlin New Cosmic Order.
      "What we still don’t understand is the connection between the New Cosmic Order and the Lupae. But whatever the Lupae are up to in Golden, it appears they’re now operating out of one of the most advanced military biogenetics facilities in existence."
      "And you still want Pantha and me to go there?" Vampirella asked.
      "You saw what happened in Kansas City," Mr. Jones answered. "You’re not safe anywhere. At least in Golden you’ll know what you’re up against."
      Vampirella reluctantly nodded her assent.
      "Well," Jones moved to wind down their conversation, "that’s all I’ve got for you. You’d better get back to Pantha."
      Without further adieu, he turned to return to his car.
      "Mr. Jones," Vampirella stopped him short. "I have to ask you something. You seem to know so much about things that most people never even suspect are going on beneath the surface of this world. How do you sleep with that knowledge? I know I couldn’t."
      "Believe me," Jones answered pensively, "some nights I don’t. I can only fall back on what I told you in Independence Square. The increasingly blatant human rights abuses and instances of widespread exploitation I’ve described to you are not simply the result of abstract market forces or globalization. They’re political choices made by men and women every single day. Today the choices are pretty stark. A global economic order in which the majority toil for the benefit of an invisible elite, interests like those behind Aquarius and the BMAEU, is very different from a world of fair trade and universal human rights and dignity. If Com-12 or I can do even a little within the circles of power to see that the right choices are made, then yes, I can sleep at nights. And now that you know some of what I do, you’ll have to decide where you stand as well."



      Vampirella lay back in the passenger seat, staring vacantly at the darkened countryside rolling by outside. For much of the day, they had been travelling westward from Topeka on I-70, past mile after mile of identically undulating wheat fields. The monotonous landscape was broken only by the occasional towering grain elevator or a cluster of trees where a handful of homes formed a tiny crossroads community. The light of day had faded, and the plains topography had gradually grown more and more sparse as they crept up on the Colorado border, still another seventy miles ahead. The unwinding nighttime panorama now appeared as a starkly contrasting quiltwork of bone white grain fields and inky purple-black shadows as cold white moonlight shone in patches through a layer of cottony clouds.
      She had made this particular cross-country journey several times before over the years, typically dozing in a lighted Greyhound coach full of passengers. But looking out the open window of the little Mustang at the nocturnal landscape outside, she felt a greater appreciation of the vastness and isolation of the Great Plains states. She tried to imagine prairie life before e-mail and cell phones had eliminated virtual distances and before widely scattered family farms had been largely replaced by mega-scale agribusinesses.
      Highway traffic had thinned out as most casual drivers had already pulled off for the night. Most of the oncoming vehicles in the eastbound lanes were now semi rigs on lonely all-night runs.
      Pantha had the radio playing softly, tuned to a Denver station airing New Age and soft jazz. The two of them had chatted animatedly throughout the day, reminiscing about old times and companions and exchanging new adventures. Vampirella had given Pantha the full details of Mr. Jones’ revelations about Site 44, but she had held back from passing on his suspicions concerning Pantha’s subconscious influence over the Eye of Ra. Every few hours, they had switched off driving. But as the evening wore on, their conversation had dwindled to a comfortable silence.
      For the last fifty miles or so, a string of high-tension power lines had paralleled the Interstate. Suddenly noting a blue-violet glint in the passenger side mirror, Vampirella turned about in her seat, a sinking feeling gripping her. Far behind them, a churning, cloudlike luminescence was following the path of the wires, slowly but surely gaining on them. Vampirella instantly recognized this as a recurrence of the phenomenon from the railyard the previous night.
      "Panth!" she cried out.
      "I see it," Pantha acknowledged, her eyes darting between the road ahead and the rearview mirror.
      As the Mustang sped on, the glowing energy vortex continued to draw closer, seemingly levitating some twenty feet directly above the power lines. As it drew alongside them, it slowed to match their speed. Pantha tried alternately accelerating and braking, but regardless, the incandescent maelstrom now remained fixed directly opposite them. Writhing forks of electricity continually arced between the power lines and the blue cloud. Vampirella briefly wondered why this phenomenon seemed to demonstrate such an affinity for power lines. Could it be drawing power from them, or, more likely, could they be providing a conduit to somehow channel or stabilize its own energy fields as it gradually solidified its presence within Earth’s dimensional realm?
      The radio buzzed with static and dashboard warning lights began flickering erratically on and off. Then the engine stalled. Pantha fought for control of the car as the power steering froze up just as they were rounding a bend in the highway. With her feline strength, she was able to turn the wheel, but the car responded sluggishly, drifting into the passing lane before navigating the curve in a sloppy arc. She had the presence of mind not to jam on the brakes, which would likely have caused her to completely lose control of the vehicle. Instead, she let the car slow of its own accord until it was safe to coast onto the berm and bring it to a full stop.
      "Satyr and Circe!" Vampirella exclaimed, relieved to be in one piece.
      The two of them stepped out of the car and watched the shimmering light resume its progress along the power lines, which now veered away from the highway and receded towards a cluster of lights along the horizon. As it moved away from them and towards the lights, its color shifted, going from the vivid blue-violet to a pale amber shade.
      "Where do you suppose it’s going?" Pantha asked, watching it speeding towards the distant village lights.
      Vampirella had been consulting Pantha’s road atlas just shortly before the luminous UFO had made its reappearance. She answered without hesitation, "We’ve reached our destination. That’s Golden."

      Twenty minutes later, Pantha’s Mustang cruised slowly up and down the sleepy rural streets of Golden, its passengers looking intently about, sizing up their surroundings. The entire town consisted of no more than a few blocks in any direction from the two intersecting main streets. They were trying not to be overly conspicuous in going about their nocturnal drive-by recon of the town, though Vampirella imagined that the appearance of strangers in a community this size must in itself be conspicuous.
      Once the nebulous UFO had vanished from sight, the Mustang had started up normally enough. They had exited I-70 at the next off-ramp and proceeded northward about five miles before entering Golden. They had briefly cruised each of its quadrants in a counterclockwise rotation. To the southeast, they had passed numerous cheerfully lighted houses, two rustic churches, a boarded, disused rail station, and a brick-facaded power substation where the string of power poles branching from the Interstate terminated in Golden. The two northern quadrants were by far the bleakest, with most of the homes and former businesses north of Union Street, the main east-west thoroughfare, darkened and boarded up. The southwest quarter by contrast featured a curving tree-lined avenue of 1950’s vintage streetlamps and larger, more elegant homes overlooking the undulating wheat fields that surrounded Golden and presumably gave it its name. The street scene of cheerfully lit rural Americana could have been lifted out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Vampirella noted the avenue was aptly named Heritage Street.
      Having made their rounds, Vampirella and Pantha ended up parking in front of an inviting-looking small town diner situated on the southeast corner of the two main crossroads, Union and Main. Stepping inside, they found a cozy eatery laid out with vinyl upholstered booths along the outer window walls and a long lunch counter lined with mushroom-shaped floor stools. A glass carousel on the counter prominently displayed an assortment of homemade baked goods and a vintage stainless steel shake mixer sat on a food prep counter along the inner wall. The smell of burgers grilling wafted from the kitchen. Vampirella pictured generations of high school students congregating here after classes back when Golden could have supported a high school of its own.
      A handful of patrons, a young family with kids and some older farmers in jeans and John Deere caps, conversed among themselves. Every head turned and conversations momentarily stopped as Vampirella and Pantha seated themselves at the counter. So much for being inconspicuous.
      "Evening, ladies," the waitress behind the counter handed them menus while not-too-subtlely looking Vampirella and Pantha up and down.
      Their server was tall and leggy, her curvaceous figure outlined by a clingy candy-striped waitress’ outfit that barely covered her ass. The name VERA was embroidered on her breast pocket in cursive script. She had curly, permed honey blonde hair with a few gray roots showing and the beginnings of crow’s feet about her twinkling eyes. Vampirella imagined that fifteen or even ten years ago she would have been a stunner.
      "Kitchen’s closing in about ten minutes," Vera informed them. "If you gals want to order something, you’ll have to make it quick."
      "I could go for a burger," Pantha piped in.
      "And you, honey?" she turned to Vampirella.
      "Just a cup of tea, thanks. Actually we were wondering if there’s a motel in this town that could put us up for the night."
      "The Palomino down the street folded over a year ago, but we’ve got a room upstairs we sometimes rent out. To be honest, it used to be Tom Bradley’s accounting office before he moved out of town, but it’s been furnished for visitors and we did install a shower. There’s not much demand for office space in Golden any more, but we still get the occasional folks like yourselves passing through and needing a place to stay for the night. It’s got its own separate entrance around the corner. If you want a real motel, you’ll have to backtrack about forty miles down the Interstate to Goodland."
      "We’ll take it," Vampirella smiled.
      "Let me just get your dinner order in and we can settle up on the room. It’s sixty dollars a night. That’ll be cash up front, if that’s okay with you," Vera chirped, turning towards the kitchen.
      "No problem," Vampirella answered agreeably.
      Five minutes later, Vera returned with Pantha’s sizzling burger platter and a steaming pot of tea for Vampirella.
      "So what’re you two ladies doing here in Golden anyway?" she asked affably. "As you can see, this isn’t exactly a going town."
      Vampirella was momentarily caught off guard trying to come up with a plausible cover. In spite of her years on the road and her many worldly travels, she suddenly realized how little she knew about rural life in a farm community such as Golden.
      Before she could answer, Pantha volunteered, "Truth is, honey, we’re exotic dancers from KC. We were on our way to Denver, but we got a call from our agency that the showbar we were booked into bounced a check, so we might as well turn around and go home. This was the first pulloff we came to after we turned around."
      The handful of male patrons who had been furtively looking them over now turned to unabashedly stare in their direction.
      Same old Pantha, Vampirella thought, remembering the many misadventures her pal had dragged her into during their Hollywood years together. She waited for Vera to get her back up.
      Instead, the waitress smiled mischievously. "Ya know, before I married Stan, I thought about working as a showgirl. Ten years ago, I was built like a brick shithouse before I had kids an’ all. Back in high school, I was captain of the cheerleading squad."
      Noting the attention their conversation was drawing, she leaned across the counter to whisper to Pantha, "Back in those days, every young stud in this berg wanted to get into my pants."
      "I can see why," Pantha purred, looking down the top of Vera’s dress.
      Now she did look embarrassed, her face suddenly flushing. "I’ve gotta check on the rest of my customers."
      Pantha turned to her burger and fries while Vampirella sipped on her tea. All the while, Vampi reflected on trying to reconcile the wild and outrageous girlfriend of their many exploits together with Mr. Jones’ warning of a vengeful cat goddess who might just be the key to the world-destroying Eye of Ra.
      When Pantha had finished her meal, they settled their bill, collected the room key, and headed back outside into the cool night air. After the cheerful diner, Vampirella noted again how desolate the town of Golden really was. While the portion of Main Street behind them to the south showed signs of life, the next northward block appeared to be totally closed down and boarded up. The only lights showing at all in that direction were the occasional fluorescent streetlamps. She was relieved to turn the corner onto Union Street and find the entry to their converted room for the night.
      As described, the entry opened onto a separate stairwell that led up to a suite of rooms directly above the diner they had just exited. The outer receptionist/secretary’s office had been turned into a tiny sitting room while the main office was outfitted as sleeping quarters with a double bed, a bureau, and a fold-down couch. There was a bathroom and, as promised, a shower cubicle installed in what must once have been a small file storage room. A second storeroom, still in use, was packed floor to ceiling with shelves of bound files, presumably left behind by the previous tenant. The large upper level office windows provided a depressing view of the blacked out, deserted buildings to the north. The first thing Vampirella did was to draw the opaque curtains. There would be no open-window exhibitions in the creepy town of Golden.
      By the time they’d showered and settled in for the night, they could hear the sounds of the diner below being locked up. Virtually no street noise of traffic or pedestrians could be heard from outside. Vampirella double-checked that the suite’s inner door at the top of the stairwell was bolted and locked, and for good measure she slid a chair in front of it. Not that that would stop a Lupae from breaking through, but it would prevent anyone entering by stealth and taking them by surprise while they slept.
      Vampirella was actually glad when Pantha climbed under the covers and motioned for her to join her in the bed. Vampirella clicked off the bedside lamp and settled back on the pillow. For a long time, she listened for telltale sounds of intruders, but eventually sleep did overtake her.

      It was past three when Vampirella came awake in the darkness. She couldn’t say what had awakened her. Perhaps it was nothing but her own unease. Slipping out of bed without disturbing Pantha, she checked the study, which remained undisturbed, the door secured and the chair still in place. Returning to the bedroom, she peered out the window at the street outside. Everything was still for as far as she could see. Cold moonlight cast a bone-white pallor over the boarded shopfronts that lined the deserted north side of the street. Then a minute detail caught her acute eyesight. Several buildings down, an upper level curtain gently swayed in a boarded-up building that should have been unoccupied, as if someone or something had hurriedly ducked out of sight when she’d appeared at her own window.
      While she doubted the Lupae, if that’s what she had glimpsed, would move on them tonight right here in the middle of town, she had little doubt that something was furtively watching them from Golden’s supposedly deserted quarters. She returned to the bed and snuggled down next to Pantha, confident that they were still relatively safe for the moment, but wondering what tomorrow would bring.



      "I guess you gals’ll be hittin’ the road now," Vera greeted them as they walked into Golden’s sole diner for breakfast.
      "Actually we got another call from our agent this morning," Pantha improvised. "Seeing as we’ve driven this far, he’s trying to arrange another booking for us in Denver. There’s no point in our starting out until we know which direction we should be headed, so we’ll probably stick around until after lunch. Catch the sights, and all."
      "What sights?" Vera laughed.
      "Well, then we’ll just hang out."
      "Suit yourselves. Can I get you anything for breakfast?"
      Skimming a menu, Pantha ordered a bowl of granola with low-fat milk and a cup of coffee while Vampirella requested a glass of tomato juice.
      "You don’t eat much, do you, hon?" Vera commented.
      "I’m watching my figure," Vampirella smiled coyly.
      When they’d finished eating, they headed outside and climbed into Pantha’s Mustang.
      "So, where to?" Pantha asked from behind the wheel. "Now that we’ve humped it halfway across the country to get here, just what do we do now? Hang up a sign that says any Lupae please come forward?"
      "I don’t think we’ll have to," Vampirella answered. "They’re here in Golden. I’m sure of it. And I’m sure they know we’re here too."
      "So what’s our next move?"
      "I say we find someone who can tell us what’s been going on here. Look at this place," Vampirella gestured towards the deserted streets and numerous closed-up shopfronts around them. "I’ve seen cemeteries with more signs of life. After that, we go find this Site 44 that Jones was talking about. We can scout the perimeter by daylight. Then we make a show of driving out of Golden. We get on the Interstate and drive to the next exit. Tonight we come back via the back roads and infiltrate under cover of darkness."
      "Sounds like a plan," Pantha concurred, starting up the car, "except for one little detail. Supposing we do get inside Site 44 and find that it’s infested with Lupae. The two of us can’t take on a whole army by ourselves."
      "Maybe we can," Vampirella suggested. "Look what happened in Kansas City."
      "What did happen in Kansas City?" Pantha asked.
      Vampirella thought for a moment before answering. She couldn’t keep Jones’ suspicions from Pantha forever. If they, or more specifically Pantha, did have some Drakulonian superweapon at her disposal, it could be their trump card in taking on the Lupae invaders. Still, as much as she loved Panth, she wasn’t sure the feline Drakulonian was up to handling this. With some trepidation, she related verbatim what Jones had told her in Topeka the previous morning.
      "The Eye of Ra?" Pantha exclaimed incredulously when Vampirella had finished. "But it’s a myth. You heard my spiel in Philly about Sekhmet and the Eye. We’re talking Egyptian mythology, ancient superstitions. I’ll grant that whatever it is we’ve seen the last two nights was a pretty strange phenomenon. Call it a UFO, if you like. But that doesn’t make it the Eye of Ra."
      "Panth," Vampirella countered, "you of all people know that your ancestors, the Cat People, were present in ancient Egypt and that there’s a lot of Drakulonian history woven into Egyptian mythology. Is the Eye of Ra any more fantastic than the Drakulonian spacecraft, or whatever they really were, that you and I both saw in Egypt or that Conrad uncovered in Wildwood Cemetery? And doesn’t it fit with everything we know about the war between Drakulon and Lupae?"
      "Vampi," Pantha answered, becoming agitated, "I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want it."
      Pantha’s next words chilled Vampirella to her very soul.
      "You want to know the goddamned truth?" Pantha confided, years of well-hidden pain spilling out with every word. "It better not be the Eye. If I had that kind of power, I’m not sure who I’d be more tempted to use it on, the Lupae or the human race."
      This deeply disturbing line of conversation was thankfully cut short as they reached the southern outskirts of town, retracing the path by which they’d entered Golden along Main Street the previous night.
      "Take that one," Vampirella pointed to a turnoff marked Granary Road.
      The road they’d chosen ran perhaps a half-mile to the southeast of town before terminating at a dilapidated grain elevator situated along an overgrown railroad siding. The tall wooden structure had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair, chunks of siding haven fallen away and its once-dramatic painted signage faded to illegibility. Surprisingly though, a pickup truck was parked beside it, its owner apparently salvaging sections of wooden fencing from around the base of the structure. Pantha smiled at Vampirella as she recognized the man as one of the farmers from the diner last evening. Catching her drift, Vampirella unbuttoned the top buttons of her denim blouse before they pulled to a stop. Not to be outdone, Pantha undid hers completely and tied it halter-style, revealing her taut midriff down to her low-rider jeans.
      Pantha pulled up behind the pickup and the two stepped out of the vehicle.
      The farmer looked up from his efforts to extract another fence post. Vampirella saw his eyes widen when he spotted the two women sashaying in his direction.
      "Howdy there," he grinned. "I recognize you. You’re the two showgals from Kansas City. Didn’t figure you’d be sticking around Golden today."
      "We thought we’d do a little exploring before we got back on the road," Vampirella returned smiling. "We’re city girls, so it’s a real change to get out in the countryside for a bit."
      "This is God’s country, all right," the old man mused. "Being a farmer’s never an easy life, especially nowadays, but being close to the land and the elements is part of what makes it all worthwhile. Maybe the kids today don’t see things the same way, but for a lot of us old-timers, for all the hardships, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
      "My name’s Glen, by the way, Glen Wright."
      "You can call me Vampirella," Vampi introduced herself. "And this is Pantha."
      "Those your stage names?" Glen asked.
      "That’s right," Pantha purred.
      "Well, pleased to make your acquaintance, Vampirella and Pantha."
      "This place looks like it’s seen better days," Vampirella motioned towards the sagging grain elevator. "What’s the story with this town anyway?"
      Glen looked thoughtful as he answered. "To a point, just the same story every small farming community in North America’s facing today. Some of the farms around these parts have been passed on for generations. But most of ‘em won’t last another one. Kids don’t want to stay, and who can blame ‘em? As I said, farming’s never been an easy life. It’s always been a case of having your good years and your bad. As long as the good ones outnumbered the bad ones, life went on. Too many bad seasons in a row, and the banks ended up foreclosing on your farm. Most of my generation persevered through the hard times and ended up spending our lives right here around Golden.
      "But today things are different. Unless you’ve got a couple thousand acres under cultivation and half a million bucks to bankroll you, it’s damn near impossible to come out ahead. With the costs of labor, equipment, and chemicals all way up there and with profit margins cut to the bone, there’s just no money to be made for the small family farmer. That’s why the big agribusinesses are taking over. But that’s everywhere."
      "What about here in Golden?" Vampirella pressed.
      "The thing that put the final nail in the coffin of this town was when the fucking Krauts moved into the old Army base a couple miles north of town. Some sort of agricultural chemical conglomerate producing GMO’s."
      "What’re GMO’s?" Pantha asked.
      "Genetically modified organisms," Glen explained. "Frankenfoods, we call ‘em. This bunch aren’t the first. Today a lot of the bigtime seed suppliers are running roughshod over the little farmer. Want to slap a patent on crops that’ve been cultivated for centuries and basically hold the growers for ransom. It ain’t just the Krauts. You should hear the horror stories about some good ol’ red, white, and blue agrochemical companies and how they’ve raped canola farmers in this country and Canada.
      "But what’s going on here in Golden goes beyond anything I’ve heard of anywhere else in the heartland. Seems the corporation that moved in here, Esser Biopharm they’re called, is into something called pharmaplants."
      "Pharmaplants?" This time it was Vampirella who was baffled by the terminology.
      "They’re plants, like sunflowers or maize, genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals as part of their biochemical makeup. Growing pharmaceutical substances in plants is a revolutionary new way of mass-producing biochemical products, much more economical than manufacturing them synthetically. Today all sorts of medical and biochemical formulations are being produced from plants: vaccines, industrial enzymes, blood clotting factors, growth hormones, contraceptives, you name it. Pharmaplants are a huge business at the cutting edge of high-tech."
      "Learn something every day," Pantha commented wryly.
      "Here in Golden, Esser’s using genetically modified wheat. Scuttlebutt has it they’re out to develop some sort of advanced AIDS treatment."
      Vampirella raised an eyebrow. If what Glen Wright was telling them were true, why would hostile aliens be experimenting with an AIDS treatment? Of course, that could be nothing more than a cover story, disinformation to throw the curious off the track of whatever was really going on at Site 44.
      "That sounds like a pretty benevolent undertaking," Vampirella attempted to draw Glen out further.
      "I’m sure it is," the farmer nodded. "The thing is how they’re going about it. Wheat is wheat. Seed gets spread by birds or the wind. Every farmer knows that cross-pollination is a fact of nature. It’s not surprising that after awhile, traces of Esser’s genetically modified wheat started showing up on neighboring farms. So Esser begins offering to buy up the farms around their own agricultural station north of Golden. Truth is, a lot of the farmers around here would jump at the chance to get out from under. But it wasn’t just an offer. The flip side was that the neighboring farmers were served lawsuits that they were infringing on Esser’s patents by growing genetically modified wheat on their farms. Never mind that they had nothing to do with its being there.
      "In the end, Esser’s legal threats were probably unwinable. But with their staffs of high-powered corporate lawyers, they could keep the local wheat farmers tied up in court for years. No small farmer has the financial resources to defend against one appeal after another. Esser doesn’t have to win. They just have to bleed ‘em into bankruptcy with legal costs."
      "That’s unbelievable," Vampirella sighed in disgust.
      "Sonny Bruckner tried to stand up to ‘em -until the day he supposedly shot himself through the head sitting in his combine out in the middle of his fields. Only thing is, I know for a fact that Sonny never owned a gun in his life. His older brother was killed in a hunting accident when he was just a kid. Most people in these parts own sporting rifles, but for thirty years, Sonny swore he’d never touch a firearm. I don’t care how badly things were going to shit; he never would’ve taken his own life like that.
      "After Sonny’s death, the fight pretty much went out of everyone. One by one, they sold out, until Esser now owns most of the farmland from the old base right down to the north end of Golden. Farming was the backbone of this town. With half the surrounding farms gobbled up, there was no way the town could stay afloat. The way things are going, in another year or two, there won’t be any town.
      "There’ve been other strange things too. Weird lights in the sky. The electricity in town fluctuates all the time. The utility company has gone over the lines into Golden and the local substation with a fine-tooth comb, but they can’t explain it. Then there have been the disappearances. Over the last few years, there’s been a steady stream of people packing it in and moving out of Golden. Not really surprising for a town that’s going belly up. But there’s been more than one instance of people leaving Golden and never showing up at their destinations. It’s as if they just vanished off the face of the Earth."
      "Maybe some of them changed their plans at the last minute," Vampirella suggested. "Maybe they just wanted to start fresh, cut old ties and put their former lives behind them."
      "And maybe I’m Santa Claus," Glen told Vampirella exactly what he thought of her explanations.
      "So that’s pretty much the story of Golden," he ended. "Not a very happy one. But what about you ladies? We don’t get many visitors as pretty as you. Are you really exotic dancers?"
      Pantha looked about to see if there was anyone else in sight. Satisfied that there wasn’t, she whipped open her top, momentarily flashing her full breasts at the old farmer before retying her shirttails.
      "Well, we’ve got to be heading on," Pantha abruptly wound down the conversation before Glen could recover from being flashed. "It was nice talking to you."
      "Give the old guy a heart attack, why don’t you?" Vampirella whispered as they returned to their car.
      "Lighten up," Pantha replied. "He told us what we wanted to know about what’s happening here. So we’ve checked out the town. Now it’s time to take the bull by the balls."
      "Let’s go find Site 44," Vampirella nodded her assent.



      Armed with directions from Glen Wright, Vampirella and Pantha headed north from Golden along Main Street, which reverted to paved rural highway past the outskirts of town. After several miles, they’d turned westward along an intersecting road, which led past undulating wheat fields and the occasional cluster of farm buildings. Another few miles westward, they arrived upon more fields of grain, seemingly identical to those they’d passed, except that these were surrounded by a ten-foot cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. On the fence, which paralleled the road perhaps twenty feet to the north side, were mounted large No Trespassing signs at regular intervals. Vampirella, behind the wheel, slowed as they approached what had to be the main gate. There was no guardhouse, but there was a remote-controlled sliding gate blocking the entry as well as a card reader and several security cameras mounted on tall poles. To one side, a large sign announced:

Golden Agricultural Research Station

Below the title, was a lengthy list of warnings, prohibitions, and disclaimers directed at both authorized visitors and trespassers.
      Beyond the entry, a paved service road led over a small rise that blocked the inner reaches of the facility from sight from the road. A pole-mounted camera pivoted to track the Mustang’s passage by the gate.
      "Keep driving," Pantha suggested. "There’s no point in drawing too much attention."
      "They know we’re here," Vampirella countered. "Shit, they found us on the Interstate driving through KC, or we found them. I think there’s probably some sort of psychic sixth sense between Drakulonians and Lupae. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been tracking us since we left Philadelphia. But after what happened in the railyard, they’re probably holding back from making another overt attack until they know who really controls the Eye of Ra."
      As they pulled past the end of the fenced acreage, Vampirella abruptly veered left onto a dusty side road.
      "Where’re you going?" Pantha asked.
      "Looks like there’s a bit of a rise to the south. We should be able to get a better look from up there."
      Vampirella’s suggestion proved correct. The side road gradually curved back in the direction they’d come, while steadily climbing a gentle incline. When they reached the crest, they were presented with a panoramic overlook of the former Site 44.
      "Satyr and Circe," Vampirella exclaimed as they pulled over and stepped out of the car. "Will you look at that."
      "There’s an old pair of binoculars somewhere in the back," Pantha chipped in, opening the hatchback. She rummaged a few moments before finding them.
      The twosome took turns alternately using the field glasses and scanning the vast enclosure with their naked eyes.
      The gated entry drive led to a cluster of buildings perhaps a quarter mile beyond the rise that had blocked their view from the road. Vampirella had no trouble believing that what she was looking at was a former military laboratory. The main complex consisted of several cube-shaped, utilitarian-looking concrete buildings laid out like a child’s building blocks. Most of the cubes were largely featureless except for mechanical details such as air conditioning grilles and rooftop vent stacks. An array of silvery pipe racks and steel catwalks interconnected the box-like plant structures, while stainless steel storage tanks of various shapes and sizes surrounded them. A larger concrete building at one end was gridded with deep-set rectangular windows. Satellite dishes and microwave emitters projected from its roof. This was undoubtedly the complex’s administration block.
      The plant sat at the center of a large paved lot surrounded by wheat fields. Several vehicles were parked in the lot.
      Surveying the enclosure with the binoculars, Vampirella took in other details. Narrow service roads crisscrossed the cultivated fields. In the far distance, another cluster of more conventional-looking buildings could be seen. Magnified, these looked like typical cinderblock military barracks. From this distance, they appeared to be shuttered and long abandoned.
      Something else was visible as well, but only to Vampirella and Pantha with their broader Drakulonian visual spectra. Vampirella spotted an almost invisible web of infrared beams crisscrossing the open fields, sweeping back and forth in random patterns. Likewise, from their elevated vantage, she could now detect the pinging vibration of sonar pulses directed skyward, guarding the site from airborne approach. Both the IR and acoustic sensors would be completely undetectable to ordinary humans.
      "So much for coming back and infiltrating tonight," Pantha commented in disgust. "We wouldn’t get fifty feet inside the fence line."
      "I’m afraid you’re right," Vampirella concurred. Even in their respective bat or panther forms, they would be unable to defeat the complex’s elaborate security measures. Undoubtedly their arrival had been anticipated.
      "Look, over there," Pantha pointed to a service road running along the inside of the compound’s western perimeter.
      Vampirella took the binoculars. Through them, she could see a white Bronco pull to a stop perhaps three quarters of a mile from their position. Half a dozen men, obviously part of the installation’s security contingent, stepped out. They were identically dressed in black military-style BDU’s and tactical gear. No wonder the locals were intimidated by this place.
      Although she didn’t typically utilize firearms herself, preferring to rely on her own Drakulonian strength and abilities, Vampirella knew her guns from her time spent with the vampire-hunting Red Sisterhood back in ’98. The black-clad troopers carried high-tech European-made HK G36 carbines.
      These were no rent-a-cops. Watching their practiced deployment from the vehicle, Vampirella had no doubt that the men she was looking at were seasoned professional killers. Pretty serious manpower to be guarding a Kansas wheat field. In their deliberately anonymous spec ops gear, it was impossible to tell whether they were Aquarius operatives, EU elite forces, or Esser’s own private mercenaries. What was perhaps most significant was that they were apparently human and not Lupae, confirming that the Lupae were operating in conjunction with earthly co-conspirators.
      When Pantha took back the field glasses, she saw that one of the patrolling sentries held his own high-powered binoculars pointed squarely in their direction. Instinctively, she pointed her middle finger into the air. The trooper momentarily lowered his glasses, his steely expression leaving no doubt he had seen Pantha’s gesture.
      "We should get the fuck out of here," Vampirella suggested. "We’re just waltzing around like a couple of sitting ducks out here. We should get out of Golden and contact Jones, tell him what we’ve seen. The only way we’re ever getting inside that plant is to storm it head on, preferably with a detachment of Jones’ Com-12 troops as backup. And you’ve got to figure out how to control this Eye of Ra."
      "Right," Pantha shook her head.
      They climbed back into the Mustang, this time Pantha taking the wheel. She turned the ignition and put it into gear. The car hesitated, then lurched forward.
      "Shit, that didn’t sound good," Pantha muttered.
      "Let’s just hope it gets us back to I-70 and down the Interstate to the next exit. Golden’s pretty remote. I’d hate to have to hoof it to the next town with the Lupae hot on our tails."
      They did manage to get as far as Golden before the car ground to a halt pulling out of a stop sign on Main, a block north of the main crossroads at Union.
      "Fuck," Pantha slapped the steering wheel, "I think we just blew the transmission. Looks like we’re not going anywhere."
      With their strength, the two of them were able to push the disabled car through the intersection and off to the side of the road. They walked the remaining block back to Vera’s Diner, eyeing the boarded buildings warily until they reached the populated southern half of town.
      Vera smiled amiably when they walked into the restaurant. "This is a surprise. I thought you’d be on your way by now."
      "So did we," Vampirella shrugged. "I’m afraid we’ve run into a bit of car trouble. Hope you’ve got a garage in town."
      "We’ve got a mechanic," Vera offered. "Name’s Greg Richlea. A lot of us here in Golden are nursing along old beaters. Greg’s pretty much the guy who keeps ‘em running. I can give him a call. I’m sure he’d be willing to take a look, especially if I tell him there’s two hot women from out of town who need his help."
      "Go for it," Pantha told her. "At least we can find out what’s wrong and what it’s going to run us."
      "Do you mind if we use your phone to make a long distance call to our agent?" Vampirella asked. Now that they were stranded, she was even more anxious to contact Mr. Jones. "We’ll be glad to pay for the call."
      "Um, that’s going to be a bit of a problem," Vera bit her lip. "By now, you’ve heard that the utilities here in Golden can be the shits. Well, I’m afraid the phone lines are out of service this morning. You can make local calls, but there’s no long distance. It’s happened a couple times before. Probably take an hour or so to get fixed."
      Vampirella had a sinking feeling that service would not be restored so quickly today.
      "Does anyone in this town own a cell or have e-mail?" Vampirella asked testily.
      "Reception’s screwed," Vera explained. "And the only Internet in Golden is through the phone lines."
      Vampirella couldn’t tell if the waitress was trying to stonewall them or if she genuinely didn’t realize the implausibility of so broad a range of communications being simultaneously out of service.
      She and Pantha exchanged significant glances. First they were stranded in town and then their lines of communication with the outside world were cut off. Someone or something in Golden was now moving quickly to ensnare them.

      An hour and a half later, sitting impatiently in the tiny office space of Greg Richlea’s garage on the outskirts of Golden, they received the verdict on Pantha’s Mustang.
      "I’m afraid you were right," Greg told Pantha, entering from the garage floor. "You did blow your transmission."
      "Damn!" Pantha swore.
      "Let me show you something." He held up a flanged metal tray. "This is your transmission pan. Overall it looks in pretty good shape for the age of the car. Very little corrosion on it. Gasket was intact. But you see this little hole?" He pointed to a tiny puncture no bigger than the diameter of a nail. "This is what did you in. You probably were slowly leaking transmission fluid as you drove around this morning until it got down to where everything just seized up. Funny thing though, I’ve never seen a puncture this clean before. Normally you’d expect the whole pan to be dented in if something went through it. This almost looks like it was done with a drill or a cutting torch."
      Or a Lupae tentacle, Vampirella thought. Someone or something like the unseen lurker behind the window blind could easily have gotten to it while the Mustang sat parked on the street last night.
      "Only thing I can figure," Greg continued, "is that you must’ve bottomed out on something extremely sharp while you were out sightseeing. Anyways, I do have some good news for you. Typically even a rebuilt transmission from a parts dealer could set you back a couple grand."
      Pantha sighed. "That’s good news?"
      "Hold on," Greg told her. "Normally I’d tell you your car isn’t worth sinking that kind of money into. But I did some checking around. There’s a salvage yard just down the highway in Goodland that I do a lot of parts business with. It so happens that he’s got a Mustang same year as yours sitting in the yard that he’s been stripping for parts. And he has a transmission he’s willing to sell for cheap. Including parts and labor, I could install it for say $800. The only drawback is that my buddy has to pull it out of the car and deliver it here from Goodland. So it will probably be tomorrow before I could even start working on it. It looks like you’re going to be with us for at least another night."
      "What about just buying another car?" Pantha asked.
      "I know there’s nothing roadworthy available here in town at the moment. There’s only one Greyhound each way that passes through Golden daily and you’ve already missed ‘em both. You could bus it back to Topeka tomorrow and have your pick of used vehicles. But I notice you’ve got out-of-state plates. If you find something, you’d have to transfer your registration and insurance before you could drive it off the lot. That’s going to take you another day at least. I can probably have you back on the road by tomorrow afternoon."
      "Tell your buddy to go ahead and start pulling the tranny off his Mustang," Pantha sighed. She glanced over at Vampirella. "Looks like we’ll be spending another night in Golden."



      As the shadows lengthened along the near-deserted streets of Golden and the sky darkened overhead, Vampirella and Pantha alternately paced the second-story guest suite above Vera’s Diner and peered out the upper-level window, searching for signs of imminent attack. Both Drakulonians were now dressed for battle in their signature costumes, Vampirella’s crimson and Pantha’s leopard-spotted. One by one, the town’s widely scattered lights flickered on while a pale sliver of moon rose above the darkening streetscape.
      Now stranded in Golden, the two companions had spent the late afternoon discussing their unexpectedly narrowed set of options. None to their surprise, the local phone service had failed to be restored, leaving them cut off from the possibility of summoning outside reinforcements. After witnessing the extreme level of security there, they had ruled out any sort of pre-emptive move against the probable Lupae stronghold inside the former Site 44. And any sort of improvised defenses they might gather or any more defensible redoubt they might locate within town would be largely nullified by the fact that their every move within Golden was undoubtedly being watched from all sides. They didn’t really wish to resort to involving the townspeople. Informing them of the Lupae presence would probably only get innocents killed, particularly as they didn’t know just how far the Lupae infiltration went. Attempting to walk out of town would only leave them even more vulnerable to attack in the featureless surrounding countryside. In the end, there was nothing to do but wait for the inevitable. If the Lupae followed their previous modus operendi, they expected the attack would come sometime before the following dawn while the town slept.
      They had ventured out of their room around dinnertime, only to find a handwritten sign on the door of the diner below announcing that the eatery was closing early due to a family emergency. The two of them settled on a short walk up and down the block before returning again to their room. They both arrived back with the impression that the town was even more still than usual, if that were possible, as if everyone were staying indoors in anticipation of something untoward happening out on the streets.
      Vampirella again wondered at the folly of relying on so-called remote viewers such as those employed by Mr. Jones. They had traveled halfway across the country on Jones’ say-so, only to stick their own heads into what felt increasingly like a noose.
      Evening slipped by, followed by the early hours of the night. Pantha, her feline temperament in evidence, found it particularly difficult to maintain her cool as the hours of enforced inactivity dragged on.
      "This is fucking bullshit," she vented. "I feel like I’m back in that goddamned zoo cage at the Danse Institute, waiting for Dick Slick and his merry band of psychopaths to show up with their next medical miscegenation."
      It was past midnight when Pantha noted a phenomenon the two of them had encountered previously. "Look at the streetlamps," she pointed. "That weird glow is back."
      "I see it," Vampirella acknowledged standing beside her at the window. It was the same subtle halo effect the two had experienced in Kansas City just before the Lupae had made their assault.
      The next development was also repetitive of their previous experience with the Lupae. There was a momentary electrical hum that filled the air just before every light in Golden flickered out.
      "They’re here!" Pantha affected in imitation of the old catchphrase from Poltergeist.
      A moment later, a door swung open from an otherwise tightly boarded shopfront across the street. A shadowed figure emerged from the supposedly deserted building, closing the door as normally as if he were stepping out on an errand to the corner store. He then walked purposefully out into the center of the roadway where he stopped, staring up at Vampirella and Pantha’s darkened window.
      Up and down the row of abandoned storefronts, more figures appeared, walking briskly down the middle of the street to join the first beneath their window. As they watched, still more figures rounded the corners from both the supposedly derelict north side of town and the more peopled southern blocks. Some of them had the now-familiar slickened hair and khaki drab cargo fatigues of the Lupae drones they had previously encountered. Others however were outfitted in hairstyles and rural attire typical of the residents of Golden. As they approached, Vampirella recognized several as seemingly normal patrons of Vera’s Diner, eating and chatting the previous night. All of them now gazed expectantly upward with glassy ochre eyes.
      "Look down there," Pantha pointed to a figure.
      Vampirella recognized Greg Richlea, the town mechanic. "This has all been one big set-up," she exclaimed. "They’ve maneuvered us exactly where they wanted us."
      "Here or there, what’s the difference?" Pantha mused philosophically. "We’ve known from the very beginning that we were headed for this showdown. I say, bring ‘em on!"
      One more figure stepped around the corner and proceeded to take her place at the head of the assembled Lupae.
      "Pantha! Vampirella!" the waitress Vera called up to them. "Why don’t you come out? It’s been an interesting game of cat-and-mouse, but it ends here and now. You’re outnumbered fifty to one. If you choose to put up a fight, you’ll never get out of Golden alive."
      Vampirella scrutinized the lead alien. Vera was wearing the same short-skirted waitress’ outfit they’d previously seen her in. But now her eyes shone with the same amber glint as the other Lupae. Even more horrifically, half a dozen flesh colored tentacles extended from beneath the hem of her miniskirt, undulating rhythmically.
      "Son of a bitch," Pantha exclaimed. "She must be their battlemaid!"
      "Why didn’t we see this coming?" Vampirella echoed.
      "Consider this," Vera called up. "There are still humans here in Golden. The more we have to expose ourselves bringing you down, the harder it will be on them."
      "Hey Vera," Pantha taunted in return, "you can stick those tentacles where the sun don’t shine. You want us; you’re gonna have to come and get us!"
      "That’s got their attention," Vampirella smiled.
      "Have it your way," Vera snarled at them from the street below.
      Striding briskly to the street-level entryway, she produced a ring of keys with which she began unlocking the outer door to their suite.
      Vampirella and Pantha rushed through the inner sitting room to the upper stair landing. They arrived in time to see the first Lupae drones surging through the front entry and up the stairway.
      The bureau from the bedroom now sat perched on the edge of the landing. Earlier in the day, they had moved it here and packed the drawers full of the heavy notebooks from the storeroom. Crammed to overflowing, it now amassed several hundred pounds of dead weight. With a deftly placed foot, Vampirella now tipped it over the edge. It careened down the steep stairwell like a juggernaut, hammering several of the lead aliens back into the front building wall with a sickening crunch of bone.
      The two Drakulonians now took advantage of the carnage below to make good the escape they had planned. There was a metal service ladder extending from the rear of the upper landing to a trapdoor that they had discovered opened onto the building’s flat rooftop where the exhaust fans from the diner’s kitchen were situated. They raced up the ladder. Once on the roof, they moved quickly towards the adjacent building, easily stepping over the low parapet which was all that separated the adjoining rooftops. In this manner, they moved from building to building down the block. From their elevated vantage, they now overlooked the blacked-out town, eerily illuminated by the wan moonlight. Lupae now combed the streets, fanning out from the main crossroads to block any avenue of escape back to street level. Behind them, more Lupae finally began emerging from the trapdoor through which they had fled.
      During their brief dinner hour walk, they had noted a hardware store at the far end of the block. Among the offerings advertised in window placards were sporting goods and guns. They had seen the effectiveness of firearms against the Lupae in the abandoned factory in Kansas City. Acquiring weapons would considerably improve their current odds. Unfortunately they had not dared scout out the store during their previous foray, not wishing to tip their intentions to potential watchers. Vampirella was relying on the fact that this was rural Kansas, supposedly a bastion of conservative gun enthusiasts.
      Reaching what they knew to be the store’s rooftop, they dropped a level to the flat roof of a single-story building next door. From there, they leaped down to street level, landing noisily on the sidewalk pavement. As a group of Lupae from further down the block began running in their direction, Vampirella kicked in the heavy door to the hardware dealer’s.
      To her horror, once inside, she saw that the wall-mounted racks behind the rear counter were devoid of guns. Either Golden’s sole small arms dealer no longer stocked firearms or their current move had been anticipated and the display racks cleared. The closest thing to even a pistol was a miniature flare gun sitting amidst a cabinet full of outback emergency gear. Vampirella instantly dismissed the tiny signal gun as ineffectual against the Lupae.
      Knowing their pursuers were closing rapidly from the street outside, she and Pantha pushed through an employee entrance at the rear of the store. The back door opened onto a row of parking stalls with a narrow alley beyond them. But the closet-sized outdoor structure in the far corner of the narrow backlot caused Vampirella’s eyes to widen. It was a three-sided cinderblock enclosure with a locked chain link gate. In it sat half a dozen bulbous white propane cylinders.
      "Yes!" she called out excitedly. Then to Pantha, "Quick, break open one of those tanks. Then duck into that garage across the way." She pointed to an open, shed-roofed carport on the far side of the alley. "I’ll go back and grab the flare gun."
      Pantha yanked open the locked gate to the storage enclosure and neatly snapped the valve assembly off one of the propane cylinders. It hissed loudly as she dropped it back onto the pile. Meanwhile Vampirella barely had time to smash a fist through the glass display case and snatch up the vari-pistol and one of the signal flares.
      By the time she reemerged out the back, drones were pouring through the front door of the hardware store. Outside, she vaulted up a fire escape and over the roof parapet. She had barely surmounted the top of the wall when the pursuing drones burst through the rear door. Through some unknown alien sense, they immediately gravitated towards the neighboring carport, where Pantha was now crouching behind a parked van.
      Close behind them emerged Vera, catching up with the lead pursuers. The moment she cleared the doorway, her ochre eyes widened at the sight of the propane locker, its door hanging askew.
      "It’s a trap!" she shouted just as Vampirella swung up over the parapet and fired her single flare directly into the enclosure.
      The eruption was deafening as the sputtering cylinder ignited, its detonation ripping through the entire stock of stacked tanks. A fireball momentarily flashed through the backlot, while the concussion sent projectiles of metal and cinderblock in every direction. Nearby windows exploded and buildings rattled. Vampirella and Pantha were shielded behind the parapet and the van respectively, but the Lupae, caught in the open, were decimated.
      Vampirella saw flailing dismembered tentacles and yellow plasm littering the backlot as she leaped down the fire escape. She caught a brief whiff of a noxious acrid odor as she ran by. Among the Lupae casualties, she spotted Vera’s crumpled form, withered and mangled tentacles spreading limply from it.
      Good, she thought, without their battlemaid, the leaderless drones would be far less able to coordinate an organized pursuit. In addition, the tremendous blast in the center of town would have to have alerted Golden’s human residents, no matter how disaffected they might seem.
      Pantha emerged from the carport and the two of them sprinted away down the alley. Just as they emerged onto Church Street at the south end of the block, a battered pickup truck whipped around the corner and screeched to a halt directly in front of them.
      "Get in!" Glen Wright called out from behind the wheel. Vampirella dashed around to the passenger side of the cab while Pantha scrambled up a fender and into the rear cargo bed.
      "What happened back there?" the old farmer asked as he floored the gas pedal.
      "Don’t ask questions!" Vampirella barked. "Just get us out of town. And don’t stop for anything!"
      The pickup did a sharp U-turn and gunned back down Church Street. In the back, Pantha clutched the sideboard tightly to keep from being thrown about.
      "I knew something like this was coming," Wright exclaimed as much to himself as to his passengers. "There’s been too much weirdness in this town. An’ you gals askin’ too many questions. Figured it was all gonna come to a head."
      They rounded the corner onto Main Street. More Lupae, searching along the roadway, dove out of the way and fell quickly behind as the truck sped southward, away from the town center. They barreled by another block of homes, past the turnoff to the abandoned grain elevator, and out into the open countryside. It was now just a few miles to the Interstate.
      "Oh shit!" Wright exclaimed as a figure appeared in his high beams.
      "Don’t stop!" Vampirella yelled, spotting a younger man with longish blonde hair and a sharp nose. He was standing motionless at parade rest in the center of the highway at the top of a small rise.
      As their distance closed, Vampirella could see the pickup’s headlamps reflected in his yellow eyes. In spite of her instructions, Wright braked the vehicle, obviously unprepared to mow the Lupae down.
      It wouldn’t have mattered in any case. From behind Ror, a yellowish luminescence, which Vampirella instantly recognized as the Lupae variant of the energy phenomenon from the previous two nights, ascended over the top of the rise. However this time she was able to make out an array of ring-like alien mechanisms like clockworks, gyrating within the glowing amber plasma.
      A wave of blinding energy emanated from the Eye of Ra, hitting the speeding truck like a tsunami of force. Pantha was tossed from the flatbed and into the air by the initial impact, but Glen Wright and Vampirella were trapped within the cab as the front end collapsed inward and the careening vehicle spun onto its roof.
      Vampirella’s last impression before unconsciousness overtook her was of Wright impaled on the steering column, his chest instantaneously crushed by the horrific impact.



      Pantha stalked the shadows of Golden in the sleek, deadly form of a black panther. No human ears detected the silent footfalls of her leathery padded paws as she wound her way between houses. Power had been restored and the town’s lights were functioning once again, so she worked her way around the pools of illumination cast by streetlamps and porch lanterns. Once she took to the trees and waited silently among the leaf-shrouded branches as an older couple emerged onto their porch to observe the commotion of the Lupae search parties still wandering the streets. They quickly retreated back inside and Pantha resumed her progress.
      At one time many years ago, her human, or more accurately Drakulonian, personality had been submerged when she’d first unknowingly assumed her panther form. But over time, she had learned to harness the Scarab of Atum-Ra to maintain her self-awareness and powers of reason through her transformations. It had been Vampirella and the Van Helsings who had first discovered the secret of the Khafra Stones, that these panther amulets served to channel the Cat Peoples’ sentient consciousness through their panther metamorphoses as well as between their multiple incarnations. Nowadays, like Vampirella in her bat form, Pantha was fully aware of her sense of self even in her panther shape.
      She had barely managed to evade the Lupae who had descended on the wrecked pickup after it was blasted by the Eye of Ra. She’d watched helplessly from a distance as Vampirella’s limp form was packed into a white Bronco that appeared on the scene. To have attempted to intervene at that point would have meant certain capture or death for herself as well. The Bronco had sped northward into town, though she suspected its most likely destination was the Lupae stronghold inside Site 44.
      She had also retreated back towards town. Her chances of evading capture would be better within Golden, where there would be buildings and alleys to hide in and where the aliens’ actions might be at least somewhat constrained by the presence of human witnesses. Not that that seemed to be stopping them at the moment.
      Several truckloads of the black-clad troops they had seen at Esser Biopharm seemed to have arrived in Golden as well. They were keeping the residents indoors and away from the Lupae, who now walked the streets with impunity. They had also set up roadblocks at the major thoroughfares leading out of town. She and Vampirella had witnessed similar operations carried out by Maj. Eichmann’s military forces and even the World’s End Circus during previous paranormal outbreaks. The town was being contained by the Esser security forces. Unless things spiraled further out of control, a cover story would undoubtedly be put into place within the next few hours. Golden’s citizens would be intimidated into silence with veiled threats of legal actions and financial ruin. And if the situation did worsen, the Lupae presence exposed, there were always more extreme sanctions to be resorted to. Golden’s residents might well find themselves the supposed victims of some toxic chemical disaster or even a so-called terrorist attack on the American heartland. Watching the black-uniformed forces deploying, she thought back to her last incarnation, to Midwinter’s SS troops rounding up suspected partisans for interrogation after her first bloody encounter with Herr Doktor in 1939. Pantha knew all too well what humans were capable of.
      Her best hope at this point was that agencies outside the Lupaes’ control, such as Com-12 or the World’s End Circus, would clue into events in Golden and arrive to intervene before the Lupae hunted her down. The aliens must have been truly desperate to eliminate her and Vampirella for them to surface into the open, massively blowing their cover in town. Whatever line of research and development they were undertaking at Site 44; they would now have to deploy it almost immediately or risk losing it altogether.
      Whatever extrasensory ability enabled the Lupae to track her and Vampirella thankfully seemed to have its limitations. Several times, parties of searching drones had been drawn in her general direction, but each time she’d managed to give them the slip. Perhaps they were less able to read her in her feline form.
      Whatever the reason, prowling through alleyways and back yards, she successfully made her way back to Church Street, where Glen Wright had come to their rescue less than an hour earlier. She proceeded westward past the small white-sided church which no doubt gave the avenue its name. Further on, she spotted the dark brick power substation they had noted during their drive-through the previous night. Lights shone from its tall, arched windows. Past the utility building, the houses rapidly thinned out on the town’s western outskirts. Now she had a set destination in mind. She arrived at the overgrown railroad tracks that had once serviced Golden and followed them another block northward until she reached the closed and boarded passenger station.
      The small-town terminal was a classic of vintage railroad building design with an elevated platform and a long, single-story depot. A low hip roof overhung the platform. The station was clearly disused, but not so isolated or run down as the abandoned tracts of buildings on the north side of town. It faced a row of houses across a wide park-like lawn lined with trees.
      Reverting to human form, she crept along the trackside of the building, where she could not be observed from the neighboring homes. Coming to a doorway, she braced her shoulder against it and heaved. The deadbolt lock made more noise than she would have wished as it was wrenched from the splintering door panel. She stopped and listened for any indications she had been heard, but she detected no sounds of pursuit. She noted with satisfaction that the damage to the sprung door was not visible from the exterior. Stepping inside, she gingerly reclosed it behind her.
      It took even her feline night vision several moments to adjust to the near-pitch darkness inside the boarded-up building. As she got her bearings, she was surprised to note that the interior seemed to be largely in the condition it must have been when it was closed up. Any comparable big city locale would have been thoroughly looted and vandalized after being abandoned for this length of time.
      She managed to gain entry into what must once have been the stationmaster’s office and dropped exhausted into an old worn office chair that had been left there. There in the darkness she sat head in hands, catching her breath and letting her racing heartbeat settle down. Granted a moment’s respite from her pursuers, she now had to figure out how she was going to evade an entire town full of aliens and rescue Vampirella.
      She was suddenly aware of a faint green illumination within the room. Alarmed, she looked down to see that it was coming from the Scarab of Atum-Ra hung between her breasts. The eye of the bas-relief panther head cast on its face now glowed a brilliant jade green, as did the minute Drakulonian sigils that adorned it. Despite the fact that this phenomenon was frighteningly unknown to her, she never even considered attempting to remove the amulet, so much was it a part of her. Before she could react, she was overcome by a blinding white flash of searing energy, not in the room around her, but inside of her own mind.

      A solitary female leopard padded across a seemingly endless expanse of sand dunes, leaving a winding trail of pawprints in its wake. Unlike the typical spotted desert cat, this one was a panther with a sleek black mane that stood out against the sun-bleached sand. Not that it required protective camouflage. It so happened that this particular feline was beyond doubt the most deadly creature to walk the planet –on four legs or two.
      As the patiently stalking panther crested another dune, a temple rose up from the desert floor in its path. The solitary stone block structure was a simple box shape with a flat roof and columns ringing its rectangular perimeter. Beyond it in the far distance, shimmering in the heat haze, could be seen the cube-shaped mud brick buildings of the city of Syut.
      The panther’s shape fluidly transformed into that of a young woman. A moment later, Sekhmet stealthily observed the desert shrine from behind the concealment of a rolling dune. The regal-featured brunette was clad only in sandals, a brief thong, and an abundance of greenish-gold jewelry, including the ubiquitous panther amulet of the Cat People.
      Even from this distance, she could make out the pack of lean gray and buff-furred desert wolves resting in the marginally cooler shade of the temple. She knew that, just like herself in her panther form, these canines were no mere animals, but harbored an extraterrestrial intelligence. In the case of the wolves, a malevolent one.
      Sekhmet wondered again how the Cat People could have allowed their mortal enemies, the Lupae, to gain a foothold on their very doorstep.
      For seven decades, Fellus, first of the Drakulonian metamorphs to arrive on Earth, had been a fixture within the royal court of Lower Egypt. The mysterious figure had been confidante and advisor to three Pharaohs, looming in the shadows behind the throne of first Khufu and then his descendents, Djedefra and Khafra. Some saw the shapeshifting immortal who had fallen from the heavens as the earthly incarnation of the Sun God Ra himself. To others, he was Nefertum, feline progenitor of the Cult of the Cat, which had taken hold in the capital city of Memphis and elsewhere. The extent of the influence of this cult could be seen in the mammoth Sphinx, newly carved from an extensive stone outcropping on the nearby Giza Plateau.
      Sekhmet was aware that Fellus and his part-Drakulonian offspring had encouraged its construction, not as a matter of conceit, but to provide an alternative creative outlet for the architecturally minded Pharaohs and a respite for their weary subjects. Despite its megalithic size, the cat-bodied sculpture, carved in place from the native rock, represented a far more manageable undertaking than the construction of another Great Pyramid. The effort to manually assemble Khufu’s grandiose tomb from some two million quarried and transported blocks had stretched the kingdom’s labor force almost to the breaking point. The Drakulonians had taken note that humans displayed a dangerous tendency towards oligarchy and indifference towards their fellows of lower stature. This was in sharp contrast to the Cat People, who revered the intrinsic value of all members of their kind. Fellus, at one time a Senator on his own world, recognized that this tendency, while understandable at humanity’s current primitive level of development, might one day prove self-destructive as humans acquired the technology to wage global war upon themselves and to impact the ecosystems of their world. In time, a second and then a third pyramid would rise above the Giza Plateau, but not just yet.
      Over time, Fellus had taken a series of human wives in order to carry on the lineage of the Cat People. With his advanced scientific knowledge, he had recognized that with each successive incarnation, subtle genetic changes would render himself and his immortal descendents increasingly incompatible with the humans, unable to parent further viable offspring. If the genetic legacy of Drakulon was to be carried on here on Earth, it had to be now. Even among the earliest generations of earthly Cat People, the results of mating with the humans had been inconsistent. Fellus eldest daughter, Sekhmet herself, displayed the full range of Drakulonian abilities, able to shapeshift at will into a fearsome panther. Tsunma, Sekhmet’s own son, by contrast appeared completely human.
      Beyond their powers of transformation, little outward sign of the Drakulonians’ extraterrestrial origins or their advanced semi-mystical technology remained visible to the humans. Fellus’ skyraider and ion battlesuit had long since been entombed within a hidden temple far beneath the endlessly shifting desert sands. Most importantly, their greatest secret, the world destroyer that Fellus had guided to this remote world, was now safely hidden in null space. It would be completely undetectable to any Lupae scouts who might pass through this solar system.
      But as long as the world destroyer existed, Fellus had faced an awesome decision. As the only true offworlder, he would be the first target of the Lupae, should they ever arrive here on Earth. The world destroyer would be far safer under the guardianship of another of the new Cat People. After careful consideration, he had come to the fateful decision that the only possible successor was his own daughter Sekhmet. Though willful and occasionally prone to vengeful anger, she was by far the fiercest, brightest, and most powerful among his extended family of shapeshifting offspring. To her he had passed on his own panther amulet, the Drakulonian artifact the earthly priests referred to as the Scarab of Atum-Ra. The Scarab was not the only Khafra Stone he had brought with him to Earth. It was however unique in that, besides serving as a mystic vessel for its owner’s immortal self, it was also the sole key to controlling the world destroyer. Once bestowed, the absolute power that it conveyed could not be rescinded. Sekhmet had accepted her new role as the Eye of Ra with a full awareness of the awesome responsibility she now carried.
      Then had come a development that had thrown the emerging colony of Cat People into turmoil. While animal cults were a central tenet of Egyptian religious belief, a new sect had abruptly appeared, whose origins seemed to go beyond superstitious faith. It was a Cult of the Wolf, centered in the Upper Egyptian city that would one day be referred to by the Greeks as Lycopolis or City of Wolves. But in this era, it was Syut, provincial capital of the neighboring Thirteenth Nome of Egypt. The cult’s mysterious high priest was said to be a charismatic figure named Rahma Taht. It had not taken the cultists long to identify their leader as the wolf-headed god Wepwawet. Wepwawet held court in the newly built temple on the outskirts of Syut along with his consort Anupet, the female greyhound. Wepwawet’s description as "the opener of the ways" immediately raised suspicion among the Cat People that a Lupae technomancer now resided perilously close to the Drakulonian guardians of the sole remaining world destroyer. Reports reached back to Memphis that the high priests of this cult were able to assume the shape of the grizzled-furred, gray and buff wolves that roamed the Sinai Desert. Their lupine form my have been different from the tentacled monstrosities imprinted in the Draculonians’ racial memory, but there could be no possible doubt that these amber-eyed lycanthropes were descended from the Cat People’s mortal foes, the Lupae. Undoubtedly the Lupae had also arrived on this world, perhaps generations earlier, and had already accomplished what the Drakulonians were now attempting, to carry on their lineage by assimilating themselves into Earth’s evolutionary processes.
      In time, the Cat People’s status in the scheme of things would be further complicated by the discovery that Egypt also harbored members of a vampiric future race of Drakulon, but for now the Lupae threat in their neighboring nome was of paramount concern. While Fellus had counseled caution in resuming hostilities on this new world, Sekhmet had argued vehemently for the immediate extermination of the enemy aliens. The remaining Cat People had been divided.
      However before a course of action could be decided upon, one was forced upon the Drakulonians. It seemed the Cult of the Wolf had covertly reached into the ranks of the Cat People’s own high priests and devotees within the royal halls of Memphis. A group had defected to the canines en masse, taking captive Sekhmet’s son Tsunma and apparently forcing him to reveal the subterranean location of the hidden Drakulonian skyraider and battlesuit. From the former, they had stolen an artifact known as the Udjat, a device with the power to lead them directly to the hidden world destroyer. This was a situation fraught with unimaginable potential consequences, and Sekhmet had not hesitated an instant in acting on her own.
      Sekhmet had been careful to approach the temple from downwind to prevent her scent from compromising her location to the lycanthropes with their keen sense of smell. However a sudden shift in the direction of the faint desert breeze had been all it had taken to betray her presence to the four-legged sentinels. Clearly a few scent molecules had reached their sensitive muzzles, for in unison their pointed snouts had sniffed the air and they had jumped to their pawed feet. A moment later, the wolves bounded into the open desert, kicking up plumes of sand behind them. They aimed unerringly towards the low dune behind which Sekhmet crouched.
      Moments later, as they stormed over the top of the dune, they came face to face not with the young girl but with the crouching panther. Unfazed by Sekhmet’s transformation, they descended on the lone feline as a pack, snapping fangs attempting to gain hold of an outstretched limb or unprotected flank. Most of this desert’s inhabitants, humans certainly included, would have been torn limb from limb, unable to defend against the massed four-legged attackers. But the black leopard, half again larger than the largest wolf, spun about with such lightning reflexes that the canines’ jaws were unable to gain purchase. The fearsome cat whirled on its attackers, its own razor sharp claws rending the flank of one of the wolves, eviscerating it. The same powerful swipe carried through into the muzzle of a second canine, shredding flesh from bone. The first lupine flailed wildly in the sand as its viscera spilled out. The second ran yelping from the battle, the flesh of its face hanging from its pointed skull. Within a dozen strides, its legs collapsed and it toppled to the ground.
      Before the remaining wolves could regroup, the panther pounced on a third, its long fangs penetrating the nape of the animal’s neck until vertebrae audibly cracked. The fourth and fifth canines were similarly dispatched.
      Moments later, the female panther circled triumphantly over five lifeless carcasses, their tear-streaked amber eyes staring vacantly as a mix of thick crimson blood and thicker yellowish plasm was rapidly sucked down into the desiccated sand. The black leopard was not entirely unscathed either, but the wounds from canine fangs and claws were already beginning to close up, just moments after they’d been inflicted.
      The panther Sekhmet resumed its progress towards the now unguarded temple. As it reached the stone walls, it once again shapeshifted into the form of the humanoid Sekhmet. She stepped inside the line of columns, moving with the same fluid grace as the panther she’d been a moment earlier. She passed through a tall rectangular doorway and advanced cautiously down a long entry corridor that sloped gradually downward.
      Before she had gone twenty paces down the entry hall, two semi-nude figures leaped from the deep shadows to either side of her, wicked-looking daggers poised to strike. Inhuman ochre eyes glinted in the dim light from the entry. While the pair didn’t manifest the horrific tentacles of purebred Lupae, their speed and strength were still formidable, far beyond those of any normal human. Nonetheless, this two-legged combat was as one-sided as the battle between panther and wolves had been. Sekhmet deftly grabbed the knife arm of the first assailant with a vice-like grip to the wrist and pirouetted under the outstretched limb, evading his parry. Suddenly behind her opponent, she wrenched the arm viciously upward until she heard the popping of his shoulder joint. She then flung the hapless warrior directly onto the knifepoint of the second oncoming attacker, bowling him over. The impaled Lupae let out an inhuman squeal as mixed blood and yellow plasm spurted from his chest. Before the second warrior could recover his balance, Sekhmet had him by the head with both her hands. She twisted sideways, instantaneously snapping his neck. He dropped lifelessly on top of his fellow. The entire combat was over in seconds.
      Sekhmet pushed ahead down the corridor. Finally she emerged into the vast main chamber itself. Inside, she was greeted by the expressionless faces of perhaps a dozen more ochre-eyed figures in ornate priests’ robes adorned with lupine-themed hieroglyphs. A much larger number of human eyes also stared expectantly towards her. Among the faces before her were many she recognized as her own former devotees from among the Cult of the Cat, now gone over to the Lupae foe.
      Not all of the humans in the room appeared to be willing cultists. Half a dozen terrified-looking young women were bent double over a series of purpose-built waist height, wedge-shaped stone pedestals rounded at their tops. The women’s’ widespread wrists and ankles were tightly manacled, their asses pointing upward so that their dribbling vaginas and anuses were presented.
      Directly behind the bound women, clearly presiding over events in this temple of horrors, were two more of the amber-eyed figures, one female and one male. The twosome had a mix of Egyptian and Nubian features, not terribly uncommon in this region where the two African cultures abutted. They stood half a head taller than everyone else in the room. Both were garbed in ornate, gem-encrusted gold jewelry and revealing, wolf-themed decorative costumes. Sekhmet noted that both possessed the amulet known to the Egyptians as the Eye of Anubis. To the Cat People, these medallions were known to be the Lupae counterpart of their own Khafra Stones, capable of stabilizing the Lupae through their lycanthrope transformations and of carrying their persona when they reverted to their dormant plasmic state.
      Unlike their hybrid servitors, these Lupae possessed a full compliment of undulating, flesh-colored tentacles, several of which still penetrated their captive victims even as they looked up at Sekhmet. Undoubtedly she was looking at the unidentified Lupae battlemaid and her technomancer Rahma Taht, whom the cultists here worshiped as Anupet and Wepwawet. Sekhmet looked on in shocked horror as several feet of glistening, mucus-coated pink tentacle slowly emerged from each of the captives’ puckered sphincters. The violated young women seemed too dazed to be fully aware of all that was being done to their constrained bodies.
      "Well," Anupet purred in the Egyptian language of the era, "if it isn’t the little Drakulonian pussy herself. Come to be our new plaything? You’ll get your chance, don’t worry." She cast a sidelong glance at Wepwawet, who was openly leering at Sekhmet’s near-nude figure. "But first, you have something we very much want."
      Sekhmet met the Lupae goddess’ taunts without betraying any emotion.
      "No use trying to hide it," Anupet teased. "We know that the Drakulonians’ great weapon is here on this world and that you are its protector. Your former subjects have been most helpful in that regard. And soon it will be our weapon with which to subjugate this backward planet."
      "My former subjects are already as good as dead," Sekhmet snarled, looking pointedly at several of her pampered household servants, who now wore the emblem of the Cult of the Wolf. Those singled out squirmed nervously under her withering gaze. "The weapon will never be yours," she returned her attention towards Anupet, "not now, not ever."
      "The impetuousness of Sekhmet is legendary," Wepwawet interjected, "as is her foolhardiness. Your son was equally boastful of his warrior prowess, but see what’s become of him."
      Wepwawet gestured to several of the Lupae acolytes to step back from a darkened alcove along one wall. As they moved away, Sekhmet’s eyes widened.
      "Tsunma!" she gasped, seeing her son manacled nude to the stone wall, his bloodied head hanging limply downwards.
      Perhaps roused by his mother’s call, the young man’s eyes flickered open.
       "Mother," he croaked, his cracked voice little more than a whisper, "help me...."
      Even as he struggled to get the words out, his body began to ripple and shift. Fleshy tentacles sprouted from his midsection, writhing through the air towards Sekhmet. Wepwawet laughed with sadistic pleasure.
      "Nooooooo!!!" Sekhmet shrieked, her shocked horror turning instantly to blinding rage.
      The human Wolf Cult members turned to flee as the Scarab of Atum-Ra hanging from her neck glowed an iridescent green. Simultaneously, swirls of blue-green energy coalesced in the air around her. As they grew more distinct, the solid outlines of a complex orrery of blade-like intertwining rings could be seen gyrating within them. Each bronze-colored, ornately carved component moved with its own distinctive period, yet all were clearly synchronized. Then in a matter of moments, the numerous ring-shaped mechanisms elegantly aligned themselves into a single concentric configuration.
      From out of the maw of this transient assemblage, a dazzling white column of energy lanced forward, incinerating the infected Tsunma in the blink of an eye. The unearthly mechanism then pivoted in the air over Sekhmet’s head so that the deadly beam swept in Anupet and Wepwawet’s direction. Anupet’s tentacles sprang through the air towards Sekhmet, but before they could reach her, she was disintegrated as well. In the brief moments before Wepwawet was caught in the deadly beam, he clutched at the Lupae amulet hanging from his neck. As he did so, his musculature expanded, curved talons sprang from his hands and feet, and his head metamorphosed into that of a sharp-snouted wolf.
      "You and I will meet again!" he vowed as the searing energy discharge enveloped him.
      At the heart of the energetic maelstrom, Sekhmet continued to scream out her maternal anguish, her outstretched hands balled into fists. The lethal shaft of force continued to sweep the chamber, turning everyone it touched into instantaneously crumbling columns of white ash. In rapid succession, Sekhmet’s traitorous servants were immolated along with the Lupaes’ hapless female captives and the Lupae priests themselves. As the weapon continued to discharge in every direction, it expanded as well, its many gyrating segments increasing in size and complexity with each revolution. The growing destructive phenomenon levitated upward, pushing through the stone ceiling as if it were papyrus.
      Sekhmet strode purposefully down the collapsing entry corridor, mammoth blocks of masonry falling all around her. By the time she reached the exterior doorway, the entire temple was falling inward upon itself as its many columns buckled and crumbled. Still enveloped within the blazing blue-green corona of the expanding world destroyer, Sekhmet was untouched by the crushing rain of debris. A few more seconds, and she found herself once again standing in the brilliant desert light of day.
      Freed of the temple interior as well, the world destroyer continued to ascend, now growing exponentially in size. As its aperture expanded in diameter, so too did the magnitude of the deadly beam emanating from it.
      The column of force streaked down from cloud level, sweeping back and forth over the streets and structures of Wepwawet’s City of Wolves, immolating its inhabitants and turning vast stretches into a blasted necropolis.
      No one in Fourth Dynasty Egypt could have begun to understand the combined physics and metaphysics of a Drakulonian world destroyer or how the cosmic energy of converging n-space ley lines could be transposed into three dimensional space and re-emitted as a terawatt-magnitude collimated gamma ray pulse. In the eyes of the few witnesses who survived this day, Sekhmet vented her terrible fury on the wayward city of Syut and, for a split second, the all-powerful eye of the Sun God Ra flickered open over the doomed community.
      Still Sekhmet’s rage did not subside. She morphed again into her panther form, roaring at the sky as the world destroyer shot up through the atmosphere towards the edge of space. Its beam scythed a scorched path through the open desert, incinerating everyone and everything it passed over. Directed by Sekhmet’s fury, it bore unerringly towards the city of Memphis, scant minutes ahead along its rapidly ascending trajectory.
      "Sekhmet, stop!" a familiar powerful voice called out close at hand.
      The snarling cat whirled about, ready to pounce. But the figure that greeted it caused the panther-woman to pause long enough to revert once again to human form. Before her was Fellus himself, standing astride a nearby sand dune. For the first time in her lifetime, she saw that he was dressed for combat in his Drakulonian battle armor. The greenish-gold metallic battlesuit consisted of numerous ring-like bands making up an articulated set of armor that covered him from neck to toe. While the fearsome warrior’s costume looked almost primitive in nature, Sekhmet knew that, with its advanced built-in weapons systems, it reflected the pinnacle of Drakulonian military technology.
      "Daughter," Fellus addressed her firmly, "you cannot do this."
      "You can’t stop me," she answered defiantly, tears running down her face. "I’m the guardian of the great weapon now. I love you, father, but you’re wrong about the humans. They have no loyalty, even to their own kind. This Cult of the Wolf is just the beginning of our eventual demise. Mark my words, there will come a day when more of them will side with the Lupae against us. Sooner or later, they’ll exterminate us all, unless we eliminate them first. If you’d been inside that temple, seen what they did to Tsunma. They should all burn!"
      "Like the populations of Drakulon and Lupae burned? Is that what you want, to unleash the apocalypse?"
      Sekhmet did not hesitate. She responded with an anguish and fury that was utterly terrifying in its calculated coldness. "Yes father, that’s what I want."
      Fellus response was instant and decisive. Before Sekhmet could react, he brought up a heavy segmented gauntlet, which suddenly coruscated with writhing ribbons of force. The Drakulonian weapon’s non-lethal ionic discharge caught her squarely in the face, dropping her in her tracks. As she fell to the ground, the world destroyer overhead ceased its incendiary barrage and began to fade from sight.
      The last words that Sekhmet heard before unconsciousness overtook her were, "You’re right, daughter, I cannot stop you. But I can postpone the day of your wrath. Sleep now, down through the millennia, and when again you awaken, let humankind beware."

      Pantha’s eyes sprang open in the pitch darkness of the deserted rail station on the outskirts of Golden. Normally a beautiful dusky green, they now glowed from within with an inhuman jade-colored fire.



      Vampirella’s mind raced as she came awake in unfamiliar surroundings. The first thing she was aware of was that she was bound hand and foot. For her, this represented a double conundrum in that, for unknown mystical reasons, being restrained in bondage nullified her Drakulonian strength and powers. The second fact to register in her brain was that there was now daylight shining through the room windows.
      Her last memories were of fleeing Golden sometime after midnight along with Pantha in Glen Wright’s old pickup. They had actually gotten beyond the outskirts of the alien-overrun town when a single Lupae had appeared directly in their path wielding the deadly extraterrestrial power of the Eye of Ra. Vampirella had been aware of Pantha being thrown clear, but Glen Wright had died a horrific death trying to rescue them. Not surprisingly, whatever injuries she herself might have suffered in the deadly crackup were completely healed, probably in the first few minutes of her unconsciousness.
      She tried to focus on her present circumstances. She had come to spread eagled atop a thin mattress, her arms held above her head and her legs spread wide, secured by steel manacles fastened to an institutional metal bedframe with lengths of chain. She was completely naked. A chill draft caused her flesh to goosebump and her nipples to pucker uncomfortably. Turning her head, she spotted her costume, her boots, and her jewelry heaped on the floor nearby.
      The room she was in was as dilapidated as so much else she’d seen around Golden. Chunks of plaster were pitted from the walls and littered across the floor. Several more corroded bedframes and metal storage lockers had been shoved to one end of the room. Sunlight poured in through a row of cracked, dust caked bare windows. The room looked like the remains of a military-style barracks. Her immediate thoughts were of the peeling structures she and Pantha had spotted the previous morning on the outskirts of Site 44. While it was impossible in her present straits to verify her locale, that was the logical surmise as to where she was now being held. If so, it occurred to her, she had in a sense accomplished her goal of penetrating the Esser Biopharm installation.
      She lay shivering, stretched over the bedframe, for another three quarters of an hour she estimated, hearing only the breeze rattling through the windows. Could the Lupae mean to simply leave her here to die? A disturbing possibility. She was not yet in need of another dose of her blood substitute serum, but if left here long enough, her bloodlust would eventually become an excruciating agony. But surely her alien captors would come to interrogate her or at the least to gloat over their victory.
      It was almost a relief when she heard the sound of tires crunching on the gravel outside, followed by vehicle doors being opened and closed. A moment later the room door swung open. First to enter were two expressionless Lupae drones who took up positions along the wall. They were followed inside by the same hawk-nosed blonde man who had wielded the Eye of Ra against her in the pickup. Unlike the other Lupae, he was smartly dressed in a black turtleneck and gray sport jacket. He also displayed more human emotions and mannerisms than the others. His ochre eyes from the previous night now appeared a very normal shade of blue. Undoubtedly he was affecting cosmetic contact lenses. So Mr. Jones had been correct in his speculation that the Lupae were capable of infiltrating human society.
      The final figure to enter caused Vampirella to gasp with astonishment.
      "Sigrid!" she cried out in recognition.
      Although her chic executive attire and stylishly short platinum hair were far removed from the miniskirted SS uniform and Death’s Head officer’s cap she’d once worn, she was unquestionably the same young woman Vampirella had known as Dr. Midwinter’s sluttish niece.
      "It can’t be you," the bound Vampirella exclaimed. "I saw you die at Ordensberg Castle."
      "Obviously you didn’t," the woman smiled icily.
      As she spoke, she moved to a position at the foot of the bed. Vampirella flushed involuntarily at having the Nazi dominatrix looking right up between her spread legs.
      "You saw me shot by my traitorous ‘uncle’," she continued, "but my Lupae regenerative powers are at least equal to your own. You actually did me a service by eliminating the good doctor. With a little guidance, Karl Midwinter built an impressive global organization, one well suited to our needs. But the time had come to assume more direct control. Your intervention provided the perfect opportunity for me to do so."
      "Who are you?" Vampirella asked. "For Midwinter, the biological clock stopped in 1939 when he briefly stole Pantha’s scarab. He was what, thirty-nine at the time? And from what I’ve been told, he was a youngest child. So if he had a niece, she’d be in her sixties by now, give or take a decade. You’re nowhere near half that. The first time you and I crossed paths, I was too overcome by Dixie’s death to stop and think about the age discrepancy."
      "You don’t know," she laughed. "It seems Ror’s brain-blank was far more effective on you than on your companion Pantha. Perhaps this will help jog your memory."
      She withdrew a tiny flip-top case from her pocket and rapidly blinked a pair of contacts into it. When she looked up again, her eyes were the same ochre shade as the two Lupae drones’.
      "You’re Slandra!" Vampirella stammered, suddenly connecting Sigrid Midwinter’s high-cheekboned Aryan features with those of the alien Valkyrie from Mr. Jones’ drug-induced recall dream. It took her several moments more to consider the implications of this revelation.
      "You’ve also previously encountered my technomancer, Ror," Slandra gestured towards the hawk-nosed blonde man, "though not in this visage."
      Vampirella recalled the never-seen pilot or computer voice Slandra had addressed aboard her starship in the recovered memories of her abduction experience.
      "I know about the war between Drakulon and Lupae and that you’ve come back to try and assassinate Pantha and me. But why all this? Why Midwinter and the New Cosmic Order and Site 44?"
      Slandra scrutinized her squirming captive before answering. "No reason for you not to know. You and Pantha were instrumental in bringing events to this point, and," she tugged on one of Vampirella’s manacles, "you’re now powerless to further influence their outcome.
      "After the annihilation of Lupae and Drakulon," she explained, "the few survivors of both sides traveled down the timestream, emerging in various eras on numerous worlds. They sought a new genesis, but were always ready to carry on the ancient conflict should the enemy be encountered. When I first detected this world, I saw a potential refuge for my brood of drones suspended in the plasmic state within the geistgate in which we traveled. Then I discovered you and your fellow Drakulonian and conjured you into my realm within the continuum of the geistgate."
      "You beamed Pantha and me aboard your starship," Vampirella attempted to clarify.
      Slandra smiled as if indulging a child. "Those were the terms in which you perceived your experience. They reflected your earthly frame of reference as horror and science fiction motion picture entertainers. No disparagement intended. Many of this world’s leading scientific thinkers within their governments’ UFO research establishments have conceptualized the geistgate in essentially the same terms.
      "You and Pantha should have died in that first encounter. Unfortunately no one could have predicted your compatriot Pendragon’s conjuring of the demon N’gorath. N’gorath’s presence within the geistgate facilitated your escape. It also poisoned the gate, eventually rendering it non-functional and trapping myself and my brood here on this Earth, all of us by then slumbering helplessly in plasmic form. Eventually the geistgate was recovered by one of the earthly powers, the former Soviet Union, who through their tampering inadvertently restored Ror and myself to corporeal form. After our reemergence, they attempted to bury their mistake in reviving us. It’s taken us years to covertly establish a power base on Earth, to recover and reanimate the broodlings. In the meantime, we made a discovery which changed everything."
      "You found out about the Eye of Ra," Vampirella anticipated.
      "Yes, the Eye of Ra," Slandra confirmed. "The last of the ancient world destroyers, still in existence, hidden for millennia on this very world. With it, we can change everything, win the war."
      "What are you talking about?" Vampirella asked. "How can you win a war that was over millions of years ago?"
      "You still don’t get it," Slandra shook her head. "You’ve lived on this world for too long, lost too much of your Drakulonian perception of the deeper realities. You perceive things in human terms now.
      "The geistgate by which we travel is not technology as humans understand it. That’s why organizations like Aquarius will never master its secrets. The same goes for the Eye of Ra. It’s not a disruptor cannon or an orbital weapons platform or whatever technojargon you choose to attach to it. The ancient Egyptians were in fact far more accurate in characterizing it as the all-consuming eye of a vengeful sun god and his Cat People avatar, the demigoddess Sekhmet.
      "You see," she continued, "like the Vampiri with their Conjuress, the Cat People and the Lupae served higher powers, godlike beings who exist outside the linear progression of time and space which humans perceive. Eventually our scientific and necromantic knowledge, and that of the Cat People, advanced to the point where both sides were able to create devices which existed in part beyond terrestrial space-time, weapons which had the potential to appear at any point in space or time. The Eye of Ra is such a weapon, created by the Drakulonians to focus the cosmic energy of multidimensional ley lines into a beam of unimaginable power, capable of incinerating a world or destabilizing a star. Once it’s under our control, there’s nothing to prevent our sending it back through time to exterminate the Drakulonian race before they can launch their terrorist assault against Lupae. I believe the human military term is a ‘unilateral preemptive strike’."
      Vampirella listened horrified to Slandra’s cold-blooded agenda.
      "You’re insane," she protested. "From what I’ve learned, whoever started the war, Lupae was just as responsible as Drakulon for carrying it to the genocidal lengths they did. Even if you could change the timelines, annihilate Drakulon, rewrite thousands of years of cosmic history, there’s no guaranteeing you wouldn’t still destroy yourselves in the end. And whatever happens to Lupae, you yourself almost certainly wouldn’t exist in such a radically altered timeline."
      "Any risk is better than the certain destruction of our homeworld and the majority of our kind," Slandra answered without hesitation, "but even with the power of the Eye, we still need to repopulate our race, to replenish the gene pool of living Lupae plasm from which we spring. Today we are on the verge of doing just that. Utilizing the technology of this secret biowarfare installation, we are now nearing the completion of the Lebenstod Program.
"The New Cosmic Order has provided all the necessary resources and organization to accomplish our aims. For those humans so perversely self-deluded as to believe that the economic enslavement of their fellow men actually serves some higher ideal, it required little additional subterfuge on our part to bend them to our purposes. Our gullible human accomplices have been led to believe that what’s going on here is a program of military biogenetics research to produce a next generation of shock trooper to serve the New Cosmic Order. In actual fact, we have refined the human technique of genetically engineering and harvesting pharmaplants, that is utilizing earthly crops to mass-produce Lupae plasm which can be covertly introduced into large segments of the human population.
      "In the final stage, those inoculated with our plasm can be activated at our will to produce fully formed Lupae drones. Just as earthly retroviruses are able to incorporate themselves into a host cell’s genetic material and then hijack that cell’s metabolic processes to reproduce themselves, we shall accelerate the repopulation of our species by assimilating ourselves into the planet’s ecological order. To complete the analogy, like the virus, once we have completed our regenerative cycle, we shall move on, leaving this world a lifeless husk.
      "So this is the end, the final solution," Slandra concluded. "With both the Eye and our reconstituted army of drones, the history of the cosmos will literally be rewritten, and the accursed races of Drakulon will never even have been."
      "You’re getting ahead of yourself, Slandra," Vampirella retorted defiantly. "The Eye isn’t yours yet. Even if you kill me, Pantha will stop you."
      "Oh, I’ll kill you," Slandra purred menacingly, "but not just yet."
      As she spoke, she delicately ran her fingers along the silky flesh of Vampirella’s inner thigh.
      "Mistress," Ror interjected, "this is our mortal enemy. Are you sure you want to be doing this?"
      Slandra whirled on him, her temper flaring, "Ror, are you questioning me?"
      "No, Mistress," the blonde man replied. While the response was correct, his assertive tone and the self-assured manner in which he met Slandra’s furious gaze suggested to Vampirella that he was not intimidated by his battlemaid’s outburst. She watched the exchange intently, hoping to glean some insight into the psychology of her otherworldly opponents. Clearly, she thought, the Lupae weren’t all robots marching to a single drumbeat.
      "You’re all dismissed," Slandra waved to the drone sentries. "Return to the main facility. I’ll take charge of the prisoner."
      Ror nodded his acknowledgement and headed for the door along with the two drones. A few moments later, Vampirella heard the sounds of a vehicle starting up and departing.
      Once they were alone, Slandra turned back in Vampirella’s direction. The manner in which she appraised Vampirella’s naked body sent a shiver of fear and revulsion down the bound Drakulonian’s spine.



      "That’s better," Slandra smiled. "Now it’s just you and me."
      As she spoke, she removed the fitted gray pinstripe jacket of her business suit and carefully laid it across a nearby bedframe.
      "What do you want with me?" Vampirella asked, already knowing the answer.
      "I want you to remember me," Slandra responded enigmatically.
      Vampirella looked perplexed. Clearly this was not the answer she had expected.
      Turning back in Vampirella’s direction, Slandra began undoing the tiny buttons of a white silk blouse one at a time, revealing an ample décolletage cupped by a black lace bra.
      "You said it yourself," Slandra explained, "once the Eye of Ra is sent back to erase Drakulon from the course of cosmic history, everything will be changed. With your genocidal kind gone, the Lupae race will live on. But that’s not to say that Ror or our broodlings or I will be a part of such an altered history. The price for our world’s survival may be that we too will have never existed.
      "But you, the Conjuress Lilith’s own daughter, seem to have special powers beyond those of others of your kind. Even as I lay bleeding on the floor of Ordensberg Castle after Dr. Midwinter shot me, I witnessed you defeat Lady Death herself by stepping back into the past, into an altered timeline, only to return moments later, regenerated and undefeatable. Through my organization’s connections with Aquarius and the Danse Macabre, I’m aware that you also cheated death during your confrontation with Mistress Nyx. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that I could accomplish what the avatar of death herself could not. If I were to kill you right here in this room, I’ve no doubt you’d simply reappear somewhere else in another incarnation. It would seem that you have an immortal existence transcending time and space. I believe that you and you alone have the power to survive the timeline’s being changed, that your existence will somehow carry on even after the world of your origin has been erased from time."
      "There is a belief among some humans that no one truly dies as long as there is someone left to carry on their memory. Once cosmic history is rewritten, it will be up to you to carry the memory of the war with lost Drakulon, of the billions who perished in it, and of how I, Slandra of Lupae, ultimately saved my people from the Drakulonian terror. It is my intent to ensure that you never do forget me. Under the ministration of my tentacles, you are about to experience heights of pleasure and of fear beyond anything you have ever known."
      As she carried on her conversation, she reached around to unzip the short skirt of her suit. She gracefully stepped out of it and stood before Vampirella, shoulders back and hands on hips. Below the waist, she was wearing French-cut, black lace panties to match her bra along with black seamed stockings supported by a lace garter belt. Obviously for effect, she remained in her high-heeled dress pumps.
      "Showoff," Vampirella taunted, helpless to resist in any more significant way.
      "You like?" Slandra refused to be baited. She jiggled her breasts as she continued, "I think I filled the role of Sigrid Midwinter rather well, if I do say so myself, both with sicko ‘Uncle Karl’ and with the bureaucratic toadies of the BMAEU. You know how these German men love their kink. I had them all eating out of my hand."
      "I’m sure you fucked them all," Vampirella shot back.
      "Insolent Drakulonian bitch!" Slandra slapped her across the cheek.
      Vampirella turned her head, her cheek glowing hotly.
      "We’ll see if you aren’t a bit more appreciative of my tentacled charms after I’ve fucked you a few times. I guarantee you’ll find me more, shall we say, stimulating than your panther-woman lover."
      "I guess word gets around," Vampirella quipped, concealing her surprise that Slandra seemed to be informed of her recent motel room tryst with Pantha. So the Lupae had been watching them, probably all the way cross-country from Philadelphia.
      "Besides," Slandra taunted, "it isn’t like this is yours and my first time. Inside the geistgate back in ‘79, when you and Pantha thought you were being probed inside your holding capsules, those were my tentacles inside you."
      Vampirella flinched involuntarily at the battlemaid’s revelation. Noting her reaction, Slandra grinned evilly.
      "When I awoke inside the laboratory in Obolensk, my first thought was to avenge myself on you and Pantha for stranding me and my brood on this godforsaken planet. But in time, I discovered that living among the humans does have its compensations. Before it was destroyed, the civilization on Lupae was a hive culture, with each member a necessary and valued part of the communal whole. The concept of deriving pleasure from asserting domination over one’s fellows is alien to Lupae. But once learned from the likes of Karl Midwinter, I’ve found the concept to be insidiously seductive. And what more primal way to facilitate this exchange of power than through my multi-tentacled sexuality, wouldn’t you agree?"
      Vampirella glared up at her, "The humans, as you keep calling them, have a word for the form of deviancy you’re describing. It’s called rape. Don’t do this, Slandra. You won’t achieve any sort of immortality by abusing me. You’ll only be degrading yourself and all of your kind."
      "We’ll see who’s degraded," Slandra answered.
      "Don’t!" Vampirella commanded with all the assertiveness she could muster. But bound and powerless, there was no way she could back up her protestations.
      To underscore the point, Slandra bent down and gripped Vampirella’s breast firmly in one hand. She pinched the flesh so that Vampirella’s dark nipple was squeezed upward. The Lupae battlemaid bent down and kissed it gently with moist puckered lips. As she leaned closer, Vampirella caught the delicate scent of expensive perfume. But underneath was the faintest tinge of the same acrid ammonia smell that had nearly overpowered her when her Lupae pursuers had been caught up in the explosion of the propane tanks in Golden.
      Her next advance caught the bound Drakulonian completely off guard. Excepting her amber eyes, Slandra had the voluptuous figure and perfectly featured face of a blonde porn goddess. But what appeared from out of her pursed mouth to stroke Vampirella’s nipple went beyond any celluloid fantasy –or nightmare. In place of a tongue, emerged a foot-long tangle of pinkish sinew that resembled nothing so much as an elongated, half-rotted wad of sponge. In spite of its gelatinous smoothness, Vampirella winced as the outlandish organ lapped at her dark areola.
      Vampirella had previously endured and survived the slimy advances of various of her foes, up to and including the malignant Belphegor, tentacled servitor of the mad god Chaos. There was something about this female extraterrestrial however which repulsed her beyond any attempted violation she had experienced before. She wanted desperately to cry out as the gloopy alien muscle began working its way down her taut stomach. But to do so could only rouse Slandra to further heights of depravity.
      Next Slandra hooked her long, perfectly manicured nails around the waistband of her panties and eased them down so that her pubis was displayed not inches from Vampirella’s face. Despite her revulsion towards this woman, Vampirella couldn’t help observing that her exposed genitalia were exquisitely human in appearance, with a neatly trimmed golden bush and a rose-like pinkish-white clitoris peaking from beneath smooth rounded labia. No doubt about it; Slandra appeared well equipped to keep her various male patrons satisfied. Not that her outward appearance of normalcy didn’t preclude the possibility of additional anatomical horrors within.
      Slandra walked back around to the foot of the bed so that she again faced Vampirella’s exposed sex, which she eyed predatorily. As she studied her captive, fleshy buds sprouted from the battlemaid’s belly and hips. These quickly lengthened into the pink, penis-like tentacles Vampirella now knew were common to the various Lupae types she’d encountered. Vampi cringed as the multiple appendages descended to squirm over her exposed midriff. Despite their gentle caress and remarkably phallic appearance, she had witnessed these same sort of tentacles slicing through steel beams and catwalks in her battle with the Lupae in the abandoned factory. One wrong word on her part and Slandra's appendages could turn lethal in a heartbeat.
      One pseudopod disentangled itself from the rest and glided along the mattress between her legs like a slithering snake. When it reached her crotch, it burrowed downward between the cheeks of her ass until it came to her clenched anus.
      "No, don’t!" Vampirella cried out in spite of herself.
      Ignoring her protestations, the phallic member began exerting a slow but steady pressure on her closed sphincter until it shoved its way into the tight orifice. Vampirella felt a sickly, squeamish sensation as the tentacle began wriggling its way along her colon.
      "No, stop it! Please!" she cried out, a note of panic now in her voice.
      Then came a new sensation. It was a warm glow from deep within her. From her battle with the first Lupae drone in Philadelphia, she instantly knew that it was the sensation of the tentacle dematerializing inside of her.
      "Oh god, no!" Vampirella closed her eyes, bracing for the horrific final moments of agony she expected to endure as the tentacle resolidified within her viscera. But the anticipated pain did not come.
      If she could somehow have peered within her own anatomy, she would have seen the Lupae appendage fusing itself to the base of her own spinal column. Gelatinous amber tendrils of colloidal plasm insinuated themselves into the pathways of her central nervous system, melding with the sheathed nerve bundles.
      The next sensation she experienced was that of her entire body letting go, tensed muscles instantly relaxing as they were released from her conscious control. Although she remained perfectly lucid, experiencing every sensation with crystal clarity, her body was no longer her own. She could only passively experience whatever bodily occurrences Slandra chose to induce. It didn’t take long to ascertain the battlemaid’s intentions as she felt her clenched vaginal muscles relaxing. Without being mentally aroused in the slightest, she felt her pussy growing warm and wet.
      With Vampirella’s ability to resist dissipated, Slandra pressed her advantage. Tentacles rubbed themselves against her, gliding back and forth across her abdomen. More tentacles twined themselves around her spread legs, climbing her smooth thighs like fleshy pinkish vines of ivy. The rounded head of one appendage ended up buried within her luxuriant jet-black pubes, pressing against the top of her pubic bone, maintaining a gentle but firm pressure on her distended bladder. Two more animated tentacles, one from either side, deftly spread her outer labia so that the glistening pink inner folds of her sex were revealed.
      Yet another phallic extensor, larger than the rest, sprouted from Slandra’s lower abdomen just above her golden pubes. For several moments, it waved rhythmically in the air, like a cobra poised to strike. Then its knobby head descended unerringly towards Vampirella’s gaping vagina. Dripping with her own milky secretions, the canal offered little resistance to the oversized member that pushed itself into her.
      The sensation of her vagina being filled by the pulsing tentacle sent involuntary shivers of pleasure coursing to her brain. The disconnect between her rational mind and the bodily sensations she was experiencing was utterly disorienting. Mentally, she was revolted at the intimate assault by this nest of wriggling alien members, yet her heated vulva was simultaneously throbbing with arousal.
      Long ago on Drakulon, she had been trained by her mentor Myadol in the mental disciplines of that world. She now attempted to distance her consciousness from the sensations emanating from her body. Despite their physically pleasurable nature, this was an unearthly violation of an unspeakable nature, her own sexual responses hijacked as she was penetrated by ghastly alien tentacles. However the world to which Myadol belonged had ceased to exist when Drakulon’s sun Satyr had erupted, long before she was able to complete her training. She now found herself unable to continually block out the waves of sexual stimulation overtaking her.
      The tentacle inside her simultaneously wriggled as it pumped in and out. The sensation created by the combined motions was overwhelming. She wanted to scream out her revulsion even as her superheated cunt exploded in a g-spot orgasm that sent geysers of clear fluid gushing down the length of tentacle projecting from her stretched vagina.
      Slandra grinned wickedly at the stream of liquid dribbling from Vampirella. "You horny little Drakulonian slut," she gloated, "I told you that you wouldn’t be able to resist the erotic charm of my tentacles. But don’t feel too bad. No one can."
      "" Vampirella struggled to push the words from her uncooperative larynx.
      If Vampi thought that this mind-blowing vaginal orgasm was to be the end of her sexual torment, she quickly discovered that she was mistaken. Slandra kicked off her high-heeled shoes and climbed up onto the bed. With her highly flexible tentacles still inserted deeply within Vampirella’s vagina and rectum, she lowered herself on top of the vampiress’ tremoring, sweat-soaked body, so that she was able to grind her pelvis against Vampirella’s. As she did so, the tiny pink rosebud of her clitoris stretched outward with a life of its own until it came into contact with Vampirella’s larger, chocolate-brown clit, now projecting upright from her widespread labial folds. Slandra’s inhumanly animated clit flowed over and then through Vampirella’s like pinkish melted wax until the concentrated nerve bundles of the two women’s sexes were knitted into one.
      The result of this fusion was instantly overpowering. Vampirella could actually feel the erotic heat building within Slandra’s cunt as she was driven to ever-greater heights of excitement by the predicament of her now-helpless archenemy. Likewise, she knew that Slandra was now voyeuristically experiencing the involuntary orgasmic arousal of her own pussy. This was a height of erotic intimacy beyond anything she had ever experienced with any lover, Tristan or Adam included, and she was sharing it with a loathed foe. She made up her mind then and there that if she somehow escaped, she would personally kill the alien battlemaid.
      The piston-like pumping within her crammed vagina built to a hammering crescendo. Next, to her utter shock, the tentacle within her spurted hot gobs of sticky amber plasm within the depths of her sex. The feeling of another woman, no matter how alien, ejaculating inside her seemed so wrong that her overloaded consciousness threatened to shut down altogether.
      The clit orgasm she experienced next was so electrifyingly overpowering, it actually did cause Vampirella to black out from sensory overload. The last thing she recalled before the oblivion of unconsciousness overtook her was wave after wave of orgasmic electricity crashing over her overwhelmed brain.

      When she came to, she was still spread-eagled on top of the thin mattress, which was now soaked with a mix of her own g-spot fluid and Slandra’s ejaculate. The battlemaid was once again clothed in the executive attire of Sigrid Midwinter and was just putting the finishing touches on repairing her makeup. Noticing Vampirella stirring, she turned in her direction.
      "I hope it was as good for you as it was for me," she taunted ironically.
      By now realizing that any possible retort would be undermined by the helplessness of her position, Vampirella just glared at her in stony silence.
      Beyond feeling bruised and tender from the rough penetration by her phallic tentacles, she could feel no immediate aftereffects of her bodily fusion with Slandra. Still she wondered what long-term consequences might result from the unnatural joining.
      As if reading her thoughts, Slandra provided her answer. "If you were human or another Lupae, my plasmic essence would be a part of you now, permanently fused into your genetic makeup. But Lupae and Drakulonian physiology are fundamentally incompatible. As soon as physical contact is broken, the cell-link matching between us breaks down and your body reverts back to its native form, rejecting any residual Lupae genetic traces."
      "Good to know," Vampirella quipped, masking the depth of relief she actually experienced at this timely revelation.
      "Unfortunately, I’m needed elsewhere now," Slandra smiled. "There are matters I must attend to in the plant’s admin block. But I promise I’ll be back as soon as possible so that we can carry on with our little tryst."



      Concealed behind a stand of brush, Pantha looked down on Site 44 from the same rise she and Vampirella had driven up in their reconnoiter of the complex the previous morning. It was obvious from the steady stream of vehicles now coming and going along the roadway back to Golden that activity within the base had been stepped up in the last twenty-four hours. Undoubtedly this heightened state of readiness was a corollary to the massive and overt manhunt for her still going on in Golden.
      Just as Vampirella had a few days earlier, after her pharmaceutically induced recall dream of their abduction by Slandra, Pantha had come awake in the darkened railroad station with a radically changed perspective of her reality. Undoubtedly the vivid flashback to her prior incarnation as Sekhmet went beyond a literal recall of events as she might have experienced them at the time. Her memories, or pseudomemories, of her battle with the Lupae Cult of the Wolf at Syut had incorporated scientific and historical references from her later incarnations, right up to the present. It was almost as if she had been re-experiencing her own existence from an outside, omniscient frame of reference. She wondered again at the time-bending capabilities of the Scarab of Atum-Ra and how she had known nothing of its connection to the world-destroying Eye of Ra throughout most of the years she had worn it. Was it destiny that, through Vampirella, it had found its way back to her after being unearthed in the supposed spaceship under Wildwood Cemetery? Ironically it had been the megalomaniac Dr. Midwinter who had recognized its apocalyptic power from the start.
      She had had some awareness of her immediate prior incarnation from the time an elderly eyewitness had, to his fatal misfortune, identified her as the assailant of slain hoodlum Nat Donlon back in 1944. She had been nineteen at the time and had stalked and killed the old man without even being aware of her metamorphic panther abilities. Eventually memories of her first pre-World War II encounter with Midwinter in Egypt had surfaced as well. Yet as far back as her brief investigative partnership with Adam, Conrad Van Helsing had realized that there was more; secrets buried deep in her subconscious that it would be dangerous to prematurely force to the surface. Over the years, she had also encountered numerous followers of the contemporary Cult of the Cat, who had identified her as either Sekhmet or Bast. It was however only in recent years that she had herself grown increasingly convinced that she was in fact the reincarnation of the darker feline demigoddess, Sekhmet.
      Now, thanks to the memories returned to her by the Scarab of Atum-Ra, she knew for certain that she was indeed the ancient guardian of the Eye of Ra, feared by the Egyptians for her annihilating wrath.
      Adding further to the veracity of her memories was the fact that at least one prediction had already come true. Just as he had vowed, the wolf-headed Lupae Rahma Taht had returned to battle Pantha back in 1980, when a burglar had stolen the Eye of Anubis medallion from among the Van Helsings’ guarded private collection of occult antiquities. The hapless bandit had been possessed by the regenerated Lupae, who had engaged her and Adam in a furious confrontation before being narrowly defeated.
      Was it some cosmic joke that after 4500 years, the power of the ancient gods of Egypt had been handed down to a battered stripper from the wrong side of the tracks? She knew that the Eye was near. In a matter of hours she would hold the power to reach out and obliterate any supernatural menaces which might threaten the earth –along with anything or anyone that happened to tick her off or get in her way. It didn’t take much imagination to envision the nightmare potential of her newfound power. God, she didn’t want this.
      Still watching the traffic entering and exiting the main gate of Esser Biopharm, her recall shifted closer to the present. In the hours before dawn, she had abandoned the railway terminal and worked her way around the outskirts of Golden back to Greg Richlea’s garage. The previous day, while her own car was being checked over, she had noticed numerous vehicles strewn about the lot with keys left in their ignitions, some obviously in the process of being worked on, others with repairs either completed or not yet started. Now that she knew Richlea to be a Lupae infiltrator, she could only hope that he was still out with the search parties hunting her and that his premises would be left unattended.
      In fact, the ranks of searchers on the streets had thinned considerably. She’d arrived at Richlea’s garage without incident and had liberated a battered sedan in even rougher shape than her Mustang. It had occurred to her that her misappropriated transport might well fizzle on her at any second, but she didn’t have far to go. She had made her way by a circuitous route back to the rise overlooking Site 44 and had abandoned the vehicle by the roadside just short of the crest.
      Returning to the present, her eyes scanned up and down the fence line and over the acres of grain beyond. Where mortal humans would have seen only empty fields, Pantha, like Vampirella the day before, was fully capable of perceiving the intricate web of infrared beams and sonar pulses that enveloped the complex, ready to illuminate any potential intruders. The only corridor in or out was the trafficked service road from the front gate to the pillbox-like biotech plant. Twenty-four hours ago, the security net would have been undefeatable, even by her. But now...
      It occurred to her that her apparent subconscious manifestations of the Eye in the Argentine Railyard and on the Interstate outside Golden were not unlike her first unconscious transformations into panther form when she had mauled the old man along with Blue and her abusive stepparents back in her early adulthood. With the aid of the Scarab, she had learned to consciously control her metamorphoses. Now she must learn to master the Eye.
      Tentatively she reached out her thoughts to the occult device, still partially hidden within its own otherworldly continuum. She felt something stirring in return. It was difficult to clearly define just what she was experiencing. She imagined this was what it must be like for a blind man suddenly to see for the first time, her brain struggling to process a new channel of sensory input with which she had no experience –at least in her current incarnation. Nonetheless, she knew that within its extradimensional realm, the Eye was responding, animated by her will.
      Even undirected, the Eye had wreaked havoc with power systems whenever it had manifested itself. Could she now direct its potential to disrupt electronics in order to defeat the detection grid cocooning Site 44?
      She saw something like a static charge spread across the acreage of grain, the stalks limned by a feathery luminescence. A moment later, the near-invisible infrared beams began to flicker erratically before disappearing altogether. Likewise, the infrasonic sonar pulses fell silent.
      With luck, the blanket of interference now being projected by the Eye would blind, not only the complex’s electronic defenses, but the elusive Lupae sixth sense as well. However it was impossible for even her enhanced senses to determine the latter.
      Far below, she saw several of the white Broncos used by the human security forces speeding along the perimeter service road just inside the chain-link fence line. Without their remote surveillance capabilities, she imagined even Site 44’s large security contingent would be hard-pressed to fully monitor the square miles of farmland over which the Esser Biopharm property was spread.
      Waiting until none of the security vehicles was directly facing her line of approach, she metamorphosed into panther form and bolted down the long rise at a full charge. She covered the open distance to the fence in perhaps a third the time it would have taken her sprinting in human form. Once there, the panther had no difficulty scaling the ten-foot height of chain link. The vicious overhanging barbed wire strands at the top proved more formidable, but with a combination of animal prowess and human intelligence, she surmounted these as well. Once over the top, it was an easy drop for the huge black cat, its flexed legs taking up the shock of impact as it landed on all fours.
      Just as it reached the ground inside, one of the patrolling Broncos popped over the top of a rolling hillock. Metamorphosing back, Pantha shot to her feet. She was probably unaware herself of the greenish glow in her eyes as she focused her concentration on the approaching vehicle.
      An egg-shaped cocoon of blue-white electrical ribbons coruscated up and down the vehicle, instantaneously blistering the white paint job. The discharge was similar to the effect that had incinerated the Lupae drones in Kansas City, except for the fact that this one appeared out of thin air. The vehicle swerved and skidded off the gravel track before coming to a stop, smoke curling from its hood and roof. Nobody emerged from the scorched Bronco.
      The doomed patrol had not had time to get out an alarm, but undoubtedly other parties would be sweeping the perimeter road within minutes. Once her handiwork was discovered, the Lupae would know to concentrate their search for her within the covert base.
      Even having done it, she was a bit stunned by the carnage she’d just unleashed. Being able to transform into a feline predator whenever threatened was empowering enough. But to literally cook a truckload of deadly mercenaries with nothing more than a moment’s thought was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. It was not difficult to understand how having such power at her fingertips might have led Sekhmet, her own former self, down a path of arrogance and ruthlessness. Most frightening of all, she could now clearly sense the Eye drawing closer to Earth’s plane and her link to it growing stronger. The power currently at her disposal was just the minutest fraction of the full destructive capability of the Eye, once it fully manifested itself within this dimension. Once the current Lupae threat was exterminated, she was going to have to think very carefully about what to do with the Eye and how to keep its overwhelming power from turning her into a monster.
      Once again assuming her panther shape, she left the smoldering shell of the loaded security vehicle behind and slipped into the concealment of the bioengineered wheat fields. Ahead of her over the rise she knew lay the block-like production facilities of Site 44.



      Hours passed with Vampirella still manacled to the bedframe in the deserted barracks. Left alone, she had little else to do but mentally relive the alien tentacle rape she had undergone and to wonder when Slandra would return again.
      At one point, she had cringed in fearful anticipation when she’d heard the crunching of tires on gravel outside. Moments later, two of the fatigue-clad, mask-faced drones had appeared. To her surprise, they brought with them her supply of blood substitute serum from the hastily abandoned guestroom in Golden. One of them selected a tiny vial and slowly poured its contents down her throat. She experienced a moment’s trepidation that the Lupae might somehow have tampered with the life-giving formulation, but she was unable to detect anything amiss as it rolled down her tongue. She felt a huge weight lifted from her. Whatever else the aliens might inflict on her, at least for the time being she would not be left to endure the unmitigated damnation of unrequited bloodlust. As soon as the drones had administered her dosage, they had driven off, leaving her alone again.
      She briefly wondered at the fact that she was apparently being left unguarded. But then the Lupae were undoubtedly aware that she was utterly powerless to escape on her own as long as she remained bound, and there was virtually no possibility of outside rescue from within the electronically secured compound.
      For as many times as she had been captured by her various foes and threatened with depravities similar to what she’d just undergone, fate or her allies had always intervened to save her at the last moment. Even her horrific assault by Belphegor some months ago had been cut short when, through a fortuitous quirk of timing and circumstance, she’d managed to break free. But not this time. In spite of the fact that there had been a minimum of physical pain or injury involved, the absolute powerlessness she had experienced during her sexual assault by Slandra had left her thoroughly traumatized. Clearly Slandra had taken seriously her boasts about applying sexual domination as a tool for asserting her power over her captive. The combination of overwhelming involuntary erotic stimulation along with the realization of being completely helpless to resist her forced penetration by alien tentacles was a crushingly effective psychological mix. Having barely endured it once, she knew she was not prepared to go through a repeat of the traumatic assault. Yet Slandra had left no doubt that this was precisely the fate planned for her, for the battlemaid to burn herself indelibly into Vampirella’s psyche through an inescapable cycle of tentacle rape.
      An indeterminate interval of time dragged by, marked only by the patterns of sunlight from the dust-caked windows travelling slowly along the peeling inner walls. Again she felt her stomach knot as she heard the sound of another vehicle arriving. This time it was the blonde technomancer Ror who entered the room. No mindless automaton like the Lupae drones seemed to be, she wondered if he was here to carry on Slandra’s mission of sexually breaking her. Ominously, he approached the bed and appraised her up and down like a butterfly collector examining a pinned specimen. Although his face was more expressive than those of the drones, she found it impossible to gauge his inscrutable expression. She had also discovered by now that her mesmeric powers were completely unable to register or influence the alien thought processes of the Lupae.
      Seemingly coming to a decision, Ror reached out and grasped the steel band securing her left wrist. The flesh of his hand flowed into the locking mechanism, melding with it, just as Slandra had fused herself with Vampirella’s own anatomy. The manacle sprang open with a hollow metallic click. Instantly Vampirella’s freed hand shot upward to grasp Ror’s neck in a vise-like chokehold.
      "What are you doing?" she demanded.
      "I’" Ror choked out the words as Vampirella held him by the larynx.
      "Why?" she asked suspiciously, loosening her grip ever so slightly. This was a wholly unexpected turn of events.
      "What Slandra’s proposing to do is sheer insanity," Ror offered. "To try and write entire worlds out of history goes beyond genocide. From all that I’ve learned since awakening on this world, it seems that Lupae and Drakulonians share many similarities –for good and for evil. You’re no more and no less monsters than we are.
      "You were right in what you told Slandra. Even if we do send the weapon back to destroy Drakulon sometime in its prehistory, who’s to say that the alternate timeline created will be a better one, that we won’t end up destroying ourselves anyway? At least we know that in this timeline life goes on. There are vestiges of both Lupae and Drakulonian incursions throughout the history of this planet."
      "Werewolves and vampires," Vampirella affirmed, releasing her hold of Ror’s throat.
      "Precisely," Ror smiled, "and while they may not live together in peace and harmony, at least they do live, coexisting in the shadows of the humans. It’s hubris to try and rewrite interstellar history. The war is over, has been for eons. Both sides lost and the cosmos moved on. Now to bring this planet down to destruction as well can serve no purpose."
      As he spoke, Ror released Vampirella’s remaining bonds. Stiff from being immobilized for so long, she staggered unsteadily to her feet. As her circulation returned, she retrieved her costume and began wriggling into it, all the while facing Ror.
      "What do you intend to do now that you’ve released me?" she asked.
      "The Eye of Ra is moving steadily closer to this plane of reality, slipping in and out of your familiar three-dimensional space," Ror explained. "Once it emerges completely, there will be a final battle of wills between myself and Pantha as to who controls it. In the event I win out, Slandra still won’t be ready to launch the weapon back through time just yet, not until she has her new army of drones culled from the Lebenstod Project. With them, she can consolidate Lupae supremacy in the new timeline. That is of course providing our existence and everything we’ve done here aren’t all erased. But long before she deploys the weapon against Drakulon, Slandra will undoubtedly seek to use it here to subjugate the human nations and to establish herself as supreme mistress of the New Cosmic Order. The humans will be forced to capitulate. The Eye is after all the ultimate weapon of mass destruction."
      "But you intend to prevent this?" Vampirella eyed Ror questioningly.
      "If I control the weapon, I can banish it," he stated assuredly.
      "Banish it?" Vampirella asked. "Why not just destroy it altogether?"
      "Keep in mind," Ror responded, "the Eye is not a device. It’s a mystical artifact with an existence of its own, beyond the reach of terrestrial laws of causality. It can never be destroyed. But it can be banished to a point in time and space so remote that it will never be recovered by our two species –or, gods forbid, by the humans."
      "And what about this army of drones Slandra plans on creating?" Vampirella pressed. "You have to know I won’t allow the Lupae to overrun this world."
      "I wouldn’t be too hasty to attempt to destroy the Lebenstod Project. There’s something very important you need to know about the work that’s gone on here in Golden."
      "And that would be?" Vampirella queried.
      "As part of this installation’s cover," Ror elaborated, "the purported goal of Esser Biopharm’s research here was to use so-called pharmaplants to produce an advanced anti-retroviral agent. This agent would be capable of regenerating a broad spectrum of compromised cellular metabolic functions. In essence, that’s precisely what we’ve done. The Lupae plasm genetically engineered at Site 44 has been biochemically optimized to interface with human host tissues on a sub-cellular level. Essentially, what we’ve created is a cure for at least a dozen previously incurable maladies, everything from AIDS and several forms of cancer to MS and Parkinson’s Disease. It’s the Holy Grail of modern pharmacology."
      "You actually expect me to believe any of this?" Vampirella accused angrily. "You’re trying to trick me to salvage your research here."
      "Why would I need to mislead you? I’m the one who just freed you. I’m not saying that the work was done with any benevolent intent towards the humans. Our sole purpose in introducing our plasm into the human populace is to allow us to harvest Lupae drones from human hosts if and when the need should arise. But to do so requires a special trigger. In the meantime, the inert plasm does convey some extraordinary, by human standards miraculous, benefits to those inoculated with it. There are those among the humans in desperate need of a miracle who might even willingly choose to become Lupae hosts in exchange for a lifetime free of pain or illness."
      "A lifetime?" Vampirella countered, "Or until you or some other colony of Lupae decide to harvest them? They could never know if they had fifty years or fifty hours ahead of them."
      "Isn’t that true of all humans regardless?" Ror looked her in the eye. "In ancient times, Lupae and Drakulonians alike were worshipped as gods, deities like the Egyptian canine gods Wepwawet and Anupet or the feline Sekhmet. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to deliver on a few of the miracles our forebears promised their followers."
      Ror began making his way towards the entrance.
      "I should be getting back to the main plant before I’m missed. These old barracks are well inside the complex’s security perimeter, so you shouldn’t run into any alarms or patrols as long as you’re careful. I suspect your feline compatriot will be arriving soon as well, if she isn’t already here somewhere."
      "Ror," Vampirella held out her hand to him, "thank you for rescuing me."
      The technomancer looked thoughtfully at Vampirella’s outstretched fingers as if weighing a momentous decision, but in the end, he did not take the offered handclasp.
      "Understand," he told her, gesturing towards the steel manacles and stained mattress, "I’m sorry for what happened to you in here. That was pointless as well. Like yourself, Slandra and I found ourselves stranded among the humans of this world many years ago. Slandra may have gone a bit native, especially in her sexual predilections, after her years spent among the likes of Dr. Midwinter and his New Order cohorts. But she’s still a battlemaid of Lupae, queen and protector of the brood to which I belong. Once I’m found out, I’ll pay a penance for freeing you and for diverting the weapon from Slandra’s grasp. But I won’t help you destroy her."
      "Well," Vampirella withdrew her hand, "at least we know where we stand."
      "Vampirella," he offered a final warning, "don’t use the weapon. Don’t let her use it. Slandra and your sister Drakulonian are two of a kind. Remember that."
      "You’re wrong," Vampirella objected vehemently. "I’ve known Pantha for almost as many years as I’ve lived on this world. She and Slandra are nothing alike."
      "Perhaps you don’t know her as well as you think," he shook his head. "I’ll do my part to try and stop the weapon from being unleashed, even if it means defying my battlemaid. You had better be just as prepared to deal with your friend Pantha when the time comes, or all this will have been for nothing."
      With that, he headed out the door, leaving Vampirella alone but freed within the decaying dormitory room. She watched through a missing windowpane as a white Bronco drove off along a gravel service road, Ror behind the wheel. Surveying her surroundings, she saw for herself that she was indeed within the cluster of military barracks she and Pantha had scoped out the previous morning. The concrete pillboxes of the actual Site 44 facility could be made out in the distance across an expanse of rustling wheat.
      Reflecting on all she had just been told, she found that she was uncomfortably reminded of the old bad cop/good cop routine that had been a cliché plot gimmick in numerous of the scripts she had read for some sixteen years ago during her Hollywood years. Could this be what her Lupae captors were running now? First she’s viciously raped by Slandra, followed up with her fortuitous rescue by the sympathetic Ror. Bad alien/good alien? Was Ror’s fantastic claim of some universal miracle cure for an array of the twentieth century’s most intractable medical scourges just a ruse to safeguard the genengineered Lupae plasm? Was his supposed willingness to defy Slandra’s extinction agenda a cleverly orchestrated ploy to plant the seeds of doubt in Vampirella’s mind, to turn her against her closest ally at some critical moment in the battle for control of the Eye? Or was it just possible that Ror was telling the truth, that not all Lupae were mindlessly obedient footsoldiers marching blindly to oblivion?
      She had been in situations before where the stakes were earth shattering, but typically it had been abundantly clear in those circumstances who were the protagonists and who were the villains. There was no question now that Slandra was a genocidal megalomaniac, who must be stopped at all cost. But what about Ror? Was his defection, however conditional, genuine, or was she being played?
      Even more than the Lupae technomancer, the real question that haunted her was Pantha. She loved her sister Drakulonian, and the two had been allies for decades, but she had always known there were aspects of the panther-woman’s psyche hidden even from Pantha herself. The events and revelations of this cross-country trek had only reaffirmed that. Could her closest girlfriend be trusted to wield the world-destroying power of the Eye of Ra, or was there indeed a prophetic warning in the mythological tale of Sekhmet’s fury?
      Vampirella slipped out the door and began working her way along the side of the building. Crouching low and sticking to the shadows, she made her way from one deserted barracks to the next. When she reached the edge of an undulating wheat field, she metamorphosed into her bat form. Hovering low over the expanse of grain, she began fluttering towards the main plant structures comprising the heart of Site 44, more uncertain than ever as to what she should do when she arrived there.



      Vampirella crouched in the shadows behind the piping components of a large valve station, studying the sheer concrete walls of one of the block-shaped plant structures comprising Site 44. Up close, the facility appeared even more starkly devoid of architectural detailing than from a distance, just a series of hardened concrete boxes partially enclosing a complex maze of pressure vessels and pipe runs. Her attention was centered on a featureless steel door that promised access to the complex. She had little doubt she could force the secured entry, and with the security systems down, it seemed unlikely that she would trigger an alarm. The question was, would it open onto some unstaffed mechanical space or onto a roomful of Lupae?
      Minutes earlier, she had seen the near-invisible security beams crisscrossing the fields around the perimeter of the complex flicker out. Moments later, scores of the black-uniformed security troops had raced from the administration building to their vehicles and sped off. Clearly there had been a major breakdown in security. She could only guess that Ror had been right and that Pantha was nearby as well. Was she already controlling the Eye of Ra and somehow using it to shut down the base’s defenses?
      As Vampirella weighed the possibilities, two of the olive drab-garbed Lupae drones appeared without warning from around the corner of the nearby structure. She flattened herself to the ground behind the raised concrete pad on which the valve station with its oversized globe-shaped valve body and columnar electronic actuator was mounted. She braced herself to be ready to come up fighting if need be. She was confident she must be hidden from sight of the sentries as she peeked through the spoked handwheel of a smaller bypass valve. Still, she and Pantha had by now seen ample evidence that the Lupae were able to track them from a distance by senses other than sight.
      Incredibly, the two expressionless guards continued on their rounds, passing within a dozen feet of Vampirella’s minimal concealment on the opposite side of the valve station. Only when they had disappeared from sight did she emerge from cover and gingerly step across the gravel surround to the steel door.
      What had just happened? The two Lupae should have detected her presence with ease. Clearly something had changed. Could it be that whatever had knocked out the electronic sensors was affecting the Lupae sixth sense as well? For all her fears about Pantha’s wielding the Eye, if that was what was now happening, it went a long way towards evening the odds, which up until now had been overwhelmingly stacked against them.
      She placed her head against the metal door panel and listened with her acute Drakulonian hearing. From inside the concrete structure, she could make out the pulsing of pumps and other distinctively mechanical sounds, but nothing she could identify with living presences in the immediate vicinity. With a final look about to make sure that no one was in sight, she heaved against the heavy door. She left a distinct dent in the panel, but otherwise the door did not budge. It took half a dozen tries before the door was sufficiently deformed that its multiple deadbolt latches slipped from their channels. Thankfully, the considerable ambient noise of the plant drowned out the sound of her efforts. Otherwise she would have drawn down the Lupae upon her for sure.
      Unfortunately there was no way the damage to the door panel could be concealed. The next time someone passed by, her presence within the block would be flagged. She could only hope that with their electronic security fence down, the installation’s defenders would be spread thin trying to maintain watch over the vast acreage. If so, it might give her awhile before the patrol she had evaded returned.
      Through the breached doorway, she found herself within a narrow concrete service corridor that extended in both directions. The corridor was dimly lit by a series of greenish-tinted light bulbs enclosed in caged fixtures at intervals along one wall. The ceiling was taken up with a maze of bundled overhead cableways.
      Vampirella looked both ways before heading off towards what she took to be the rear of the plant, away from the peopled administration building. After about thirty feet, the corridor ended in a doorway opening onto a much larger space. Carefully she poked her head through. Viewing the interior layout, she realized the building was exactly what it appeared to be from outside, a concrete box. Filling the cavernous enclosure was a biopharmaceutical production line composed of silvery stainless steel reaction vessels of various shapes and sizes interconnected by a network of small-bore vitaulic piping. The dim chamber was eerily lit by suspended fluorescent fixtures, which cast stark pools of cold bluish light interspersed with fantastic ink-black shadows. Cables and junction boxes lined the concrete walls. Above the cement floor slab on which she stood, additional upper levels servicing the equipment were constructed from open steel grate platforms accessed by safety-caged ladders. From the mix of 1980’s vintage and ultramodern state-of-the-art equipment, Vampirella had the impression that the original production line must have been extensively retrofitted.
      She counted half a dozen Lupae drones in shapeless greenish-gray fatigues within the block. Working in complete silence, the expressionless operatives manned consoles, inspected gauges and valve settings, and collected specimens from sample ports along the production line. Despite the numerous biohazard warning symbols displayed throughout the room, the only precautions they seemed to be employing were the wearing of latex surgical gloves and cloth shoe covers. Clearly whatever was being synthesized posed no hazard to the Lupae. She wondered if the same could be said for humans –or Drakulonians.
      She was about to move onward on her own when she spotted an additional figure stealthily approaching along a shadowed upper level catwalk. Pantha, moving just as warily as Vampirella amongst the Lupae, spotted her at the same time. Smiling, she silently gestured for Vampirella to proceed onward along the production line.
      For their part, the Lupae technicians remained oblivious to the two Drakulonians skulking through the shadows. The intricate array of piping and equipment provided ample cover to allow Vampirella to reach a narrow service tunnel at the far end of the building, seemingly a continuation of the access corridor through which she’d entered. She followed it into what she took to be the next cube-shaped factory block. While the process lines and vessels continued down the center of this building as well, there were also concrete-partitioned alcoves to either side, providing better opportunity for concealment. Watching for Pantha to emerge along the upper level catwalk, Vampirella began edging her way towards one of the side chambers. Her feline fellow Drakulonian, spotting her again, followed her lead along the elevated platforms.
      Vampirella scooted through an open rectangular archway into a tall narrow room filled from floor to ceiling with stainless steel canisters mounted in purpose-built storage racks. Inside the vast alcove, Pantha silently descended to ground level via a tall access ladder.
      At last arriving face-to-face, the two Drakulonians stole a moment’s embrace before returning to the situation at hand. Despite their current peril, or perhaps because of it, Pantha took the opportunity to plant a deeply sensuous kiss on Vampirella’s lips. Knowing this was definitely not the time or place to discuss the direction of their relationship, Vampirella merely acceded to Pantha’s advance.
      "You made it!" Pantha whispered. "I was so frightened when I saw you being taken by the Lupae outside Golden."
      "I’m okay," Vampirella whispered back, not going into the horrific sexual ordeal she had undergone in the last few hours. "Are you controlling the Eye?"
      "Yes," Pantha acknowledged, "at least for now. But I can sense a Lupae trying to gain control as well."
      "That would be Ror," Vampirella explained. "Remember him?"
      "The pilot of Slandra’s starship," Pantha nodded.
      "Something like that," Vampirella elaborated. "He freed me from Slandra. And listen to this; Slandra is Sigrid Midwinter!"
      "What?" Pantha asked incredulously.
      "There’s too much to explain now. Listen, do you think you could take out this place with the Eye?"
      "Not yet," Pantha qualified. "The Eye is still transiting between dimensions. It’s like a trap-door spider that remains concealed underground until it’s ready to pop up and attack. The Eye has had over four thousand years to burrow its way deeper and deeper into its own null space realm. It’s taking awhile to work its way back. It can partially manifest in our world to produce the effects we’ve been seeing, but –and don’t ask me how I know this- the firing iris can’t open until it’s fully back to normal space."
      "How long?" Vampirella pressed.
      "Not long now," Pantha estimated, based on her psychic connection to the device, "A few more hours; maybe less."
      "All right, we’ve got to hold out until then. Meanwhile, let’s see what’s at the end of this production line. After what Ror told me, there’s something we have to find out before we destroy it."
      "What the hell are you talking about?" Pantha asked, taken aback at Vampirella’s ambivalence.
      "To make a long story short," Vampirella explained, "according to Ror, the Lupae plasm they’re creating here can cure a whole host of otherwise incurable human ailments."
      "That’s fucking bullshit!" Pantha snapped, raising her voice dangerously loud. "The Lupae are genocidal butchers. You should know better than to listen to one of them!"
      Not about to get into an argument surrounded by enemies, Vampirella began moving on towards the next, and what should be the last, block. Pantha followed in her footsteps, silent now as they edged along another narrow concrete accessway.



      Vampirella and Pantha arrived at the rearmost block to discover that the lengthy production line terminated in a series of tall, cylindrical holding tanks at the heart of what appeared to be a highly automated bottling facility. Robotic arrays of needle-like pipettes moved in and out to fill racks of tiny glass ampoules that moved along a conveyer. The two watched as precise quantities of amber Lupae plasm were injected into the clear vials. All this took place within a glass-walled enclosure. The vials were then sealed and sterilized before emerging from the enclosed assembly line. Once out onto the floor, the ampoules were packed into foam-cushioned plastic containers the size of shoeboxes, all under the watchful eyes of Lupae technicians. The small boxes were manually packed into larger double-walled corrugated cardboard cartons, which were then closed and stacked by a loading bay at the very rear of the facility. There were already hundreds of the cartons piled on the loading dock.
      To their complete surprise, Slandra herself stood on the dock in her executive business suit, conversing with one of the technicians in plain English. Although dressed in the same shapeless fatigues as the other drones, the lead technician, if that’s what he was, displayed the same facility with human speech and mannerisms as the Lupae infiltrators who had blended into the population of Golden.
      "We’ve got to get closer," Vampirella whispered. "I want to hear what they’re saying."
      The twosome crept towards the loading dock, remaining out of sight behind the stacked boxes.
      "We’re now at eighty percent completion of the first production run," he recited his report to the battlemaid. "The run will be completed within six hours. Quality control samples pulled from the line test out nominal. Transportation arrangements have been finalized with Aquarius and the BMAEU and operational control has been turned over to us. The first trucks with their Marine Corps 10-Zulu drivers will be here within the hour, courtesy of Gen. Whitefire. We can start moving the first overland shipments as soon as they arrive.
      "The big EEG transports are already airborne from McCarron in Vegas and will be on the ground at the covert Aquarius hanger at Denver International by the time the trucks get there. New Order front agencies around the world are on standby to begin receiving shipments. By this time tomorrow, our plasm will be distributed around the globe, ready for dispersal among the human populace."
      "Excellent," Slandra smiled coldly. "It’s absolutely imperative that we stay on schedule. With the two Drakulonians at large, our security here at Site 44 has been fatally compromised. But once the product is safely on its way, this facility will be expendable."
      As Vampirella and Pantha listened from concealment, Ror strode briskly into the block, flanked by two drones. He made his way directly to where Slandra was conversing on the loading dock.
      "There’s been a development," he announced without preamble. "Gerrold Esterbrook and Gen. Whitefire just showed up at the main gate, along with half a dozen staffers from Aquarius. They’ve already driven through Golden and are demanding to know what’s happened there."
      "Damn," Slandra swore, "Couldn’t have been worse timing. All right, have the human security forces put the Aquarius staffers in an office in the admin block. Make them comfortable for now, but keep them under close guard. We’ll decide later what to do with them. Send Esterbrook and the General through."
      "But they’ll see everything..." Ror protested.
      "It doesn’t matter," Slandra answered icily.

      Five minutes later, a nervous and confused-looking Esterbrook and Whitefire were escorted into Slandra’s and Ror’s presence by two of the black-uniformed security troopers. Slandra and Ror were wearing their contacts, but Vampirella noted the two arrivals’ nervousness turn to outright fear as they became aware of the ochre-eyed, mask-faced technicians working silently in the background of the vast plant floor. The two military escorts made a hasty departure, replaced at their charges’ sides by two Lupae drones in street clothes and contacts.
      Neither Vampirella nor Pantha had ever seen the mysterious general allegedly responsible for activating the Wehrmacht lycanthropes who had run amok in Las Vegas back in mid-2002. But they both recognized the bearded, redheaded Esterbrook from his tenure as acting director of the Danse Macabre. Vampirella felt more than a twinge of regret for her old boss; having overheard Slandra’s intentions. Pantha looked on with callous satisfaction. Undoubtedly in her mind, no fate was two awful for the man who had presided over what for her had been a prolonged nightmare of captivity and abuse.
      "What’s the meaning of this?" Whitefire demanded, immediately attempting to assert his authority. "What’s going on here? And what are these...things?" He gestured towards the amber-eyed Lupae technicians going about their various tasks. Undoubtedly he still believed it was Sigrid Midwinter, Executive Director of the BMAEU, whom he was addressing.
      "Why, you’re looking at the first products of the Lebenstod Program, of course," Slandra smiled.
      "What???" Whitefire was livid. "Lebenstod’s been activated? And Aquarius wasn’t informed? How dare you? This is American soil you’re standing on, an American facility that’s been loaned for your use. We had an arrangement. Lebenstod is supposed to be a joint Aquarius/BMAEU venture to advance the agenda of the New Cosmic Order!"
      Slandra crossed her arms in front of her. "The New Cosmic Order," she pronounced the words carefully, as if considering them herself. "Let me let you in on a little secret, General. There is no New Cosmic Order."
      "What the hell are you talking about?" Whitefire asked, clearly stunned by the Director’s blatantly defiant tack.
      "It’s all smoke and mirrors," Slandra informed him as if dressing down an insolent child, "a pseudo-ideology with no other objective than to rationalize an agenda of raw, unadulterated self-interest. Humanity’s capacity for self-delusion is astounding. You and men like you see yourselves as global visionaries, an elite cabal building a new world economic order. You’ve deluded yourselves into seeing nobility in greed and exploitation.
      "Humanity’s capacity for self-delusion?" Whitefire repeated questioningly, the full implication of what he was hearing not immediately registering.
      "The truth is, you’re pawns, nothing more. Aquarius, the BMAEU, the New Cosmic Order, you’ve been no more difficult to manipulate than my ‘Uncle Karl’ with his megalomaniacal delusions of a Nazi Fourth Reich. Except you’re worse than Midwinter or his Nazis. Even they acknowledged their victims’ existence sufficiently to hate them. You’re simply indifferent to the fact that those you exploit even exist as fellow members of your species. To you, the mass of humanity’s only value is measured in the dollars they can deliver."
      Behind the boxes, Pantha glanced sidelong at Vampirella beside her, puzzled that the Lupae battlemaid should now be revealing her true agenda. Vampirella, having experienced first-hand the psychotic extent of Slandra’s obsession with preserving a recognition of her deadly legacy, was less surprised.
      "Take a good look at your world, General," Slandra addressed him with undisguised contempt. "In just the last twenty years, your fellow New Order conspirators and others like you have managed to unravel more than a century of progress towards political and economic equality, the advancement of human dignity, civilized conduct in time of war, and international social justice. Instead, you’re well on the way to building a global society whose sole aim is a race to the bottom in terms of exploiting cheap labor for the benefit of the privileged global elite. In country after country, the hallmark of your New Cosmic Order is a system in which rampant graft and corruption go hand-in-hand with an ever more stark concentration of wealth. There’s no agenda here, no vision. This is a globe-spanning exercise in economic rape."
      "Whoever –or whatever- you are," Esterbrook interjected, beginning to realize the truth of whom he was dealing with, "you’re as much a part of this ‘exercise in economic rape’ as any of us. Less than a week ago, I listened to you describing a world of ‘masters and slaves’ to the assembled delegates of the BMAEU."
      "I only told you what you wanted to hear," Slandra offered, "Your own delusions of a New Cosmic Order blinded you to the agenda you truly served. In fact, the paradigm of a society of masters and slaves is still a valid one. You’ve simply misapprehended on which side of the equation you lie."
      As Slandra spoke, one of the technicians on the production line behind Esterbrook and Whitefire lay down his clipboard and began making his way towards the conversing humans and Lupae heads. Moments later, he was followed by a second.
      "Now I’ll tell you the secret that’s been right in front of your eyes all along. The Lebenstod Program isn’t about genetic engineering or building a better shock trooper or even the living dead. Translated literally, Lebenstod means ‘the death of life’, which is ultimately the fate that awaits this world once we begin to harvest our army of broodlings."
      "My god," Esterbrook gasped, "all this time, the real purpose behind everything we’ve worked towards has been to wipe out humanity."
      He and the General looked anxiously about to see more of the technicians silently leaving their posts and converging to gather in a circle around them.
      "No matter what the circumstance," Slandra shook her head, "you still insist on overestimating your own importance in the scheme of things. Humanity’s loss or continued survival is of no consequence to the Lupae. You are simply collateral damage in the cosmic war on the Drakulonian terror."
      "You can’t do this!" Whitefire ordered, fear in his voice. He attempted to take a step towards Slandra and Ror, but one of the Lupae drones immediately grasped his forearm, effortlessly restraining him. "We built all this for you," he pleaded, "your organization, this facility. We’re human beings! You can’t just throw us away like garbage!"
      "Why not?" she shrugged. "Isn’t that precisely what you do with your fellow humans every time a more cost-effective labor pool becomes available? We thank you and the New Cosmic Order for your efforts, however unwitting, on our behalf, however your usefulness to this endeavor has come to an end."
      "Please," Esterbrook pleaded, "destroy the New Order if you have to. Just spare us!"
      An expression of utter disgust momentarily crossed Slandra’s face, then her features softened. "Perhaps you two may yet be of use to the Lupae race." She nodded to the assembled drones. "Escort the General and Dr. Esterbrook back to their car."
      The twosome’s relief was palpable.
      Behind the boxes, Vampirella struggled not to jump up and shout a warning, suspecting what her former boss and Gen. Whitefire obviously did not. Sensing her ambivalence, Pantha placed a hand on her shoulder, gently holding her back. As far as she was concerned, the two New Order heads were as much their deadly foes as the Lupae.
      "Thank you," Esterbrook told Slandra, a tiny tear running from the corner of one eye. "You won’t regret this."
      "I know," Slandra smiled reassuringly.
      One of the drones gestured towards the door through which they had been escorted into the block.
      The instant their backs were turned, a huge tentacle literally exploded from Slandra’s midriff, ripping through her white blouse. The grateful Aquarius emissaries never even registered the transparent-tipped appendage scything through the air behind them before it swept through them at shoulder height, instantaneously decapitating them both in a single blow.
      "Let’s get out of here," Pantha whispered, "before the same thing happens to us."
      Vampirella spotted a metal staircase descending through an opening in the concrete floor slab. Obviously there was another level below this one, probably service corridors to access the underside of the complex apparatus comprising the biogenetic production line. While they had been lucky to evade detection thus far, a basement service level might offer a more clandestine route back out of the facility. The stairwell was situated in a shadowed corner, largely hidden behind the stacked cartons. Vampirella gestured silently to Pantha and the two made their way silently in that direction.
      As if on cue, the deep rumble of a distant explosion could suddenly be heard, its higher overtones muffled by the tons of concrete walls surrounding them. On the other side of the wall of boxes, Slandra and Ror looked about in momentary confusion before the battlemaid began rasping staccato orders in the alien squeal of the Lupae. Drones ran purposefully about, securing doors and equipment. Somewhere a loud klaxon began to chime while steel roll doors descended at the far end of the loading docks.
      Vampirella and Pantha glanced at one another in puzzlement. The single powerful explosion aside, there could be a full-scale pitched battle going on right outside the plant and they would never hear it through the airtight seals and reinforced walls of the biocontainment facility.
      "Do you think the cavalry’s arrived?" Pantha asked.
      "Let’s go find out."
      In the confusion of the alarm, they had no difficulty reaching the stairwell undetected. They made their descent from the busy loading bay and emerged into a shadowy sub-level of narrow corridors and concrete-partitioned equipment spaces. Much of the lighting here shone through areas of steel deck grating from the main level above. They had made their way a sufficient distance that Vampirella realized they must be back under the previous block when they arrived at a much larger room.
      The two stopped dead in their tracks, their expressions slack at the sight that greeted them.



      Filling the vast chamber before the two Drakulonians were numerous neat rows of lozenge-shaped glass capsules mounted vertically on steel pedestals. Within each floated a nude figure suspended in amber liquid. An equal mix of males and females of all ages, the figures appeared to be sedated or unconscious, eyes closed, stirring only slightly from time to time. Though the darkness of the lower level made it difficult to attempt an accurate count, there had to be at least several dozen of the clear capsules receding into the blackness. Biometric monitors mounted on upright stands beside each tube attested to the fact that the occupants were being medically maintained in some sort of suspended state. The figures were all wired and intubated with a tangle of monitoring electrodes, intravenous feeds, and catheters. A steady stream of air bubbling up from tiny nozzles at the bottom of each tube kept the amber liquid aerated.
      Oxygenated fluorocarbon, Vampirella thought, liquid breathing. She had seen a similar support system used by the Danse Macabre to maintain the mysterious being known as GaGa.
      The figures in the tubes varied considerably in appearance. Some appeared completely normal down to such distinctively human features as tattoos and body piercings. Others resembled the tentacled Lupae drones she’d battled over the last several days, their limp appendages bobbing about them. The rest fell somewhere in between, the tiny buds of tentacles sprouting from their torsos like misplaced fingers.
      Walking gingerly between the slumbering figures, Vampirella read off several of the names on the medical charts clipped by each capsule; Bradley Driscoll, Elizabeth Ricci, James Shaffer. She didn’t recognize any of the names, of course, but there was no doubt in her mind that she was looking at many of the disappeared residents of Golden, now more Lupae than human. So much for the official line that they had simply "moved on" to accept employment elsewhere. So this was the human product of the Lebenstod Program Slandra had spoken of.
      The logical supposition was that the hybrid creatures being maintained here had been subjected to the Lupae plasm produced in the plant above and then activated by whatever means the Lupae used to trigger their transformation into drone soldiers.
      "Still have any doubts about what our course of action should be here?" Pantha asked pointedly.
      Vampirella nodded a silent no.
      As they reached the far end of this medical chamber of horrors, Vampirella spotted several of the same glass ampoules of Lupae plasm from the packaging line above sitting on a stainless medical tray. Without explanation, she snatched up one of the vials and slipped it into the calf of her boot. Pantha stared at her questioningly, but made no comment.
      As they emerged into another concrete tunnel, they heard the sounds of booted feet moving purposefully in their direction. They quickly ducked into a side alcove where they could peer out unseen through the workings of a large pump. The heavy footfalls sounded more like the black-garbed human security forces guarding Site 44 than the stealthy Lupae drones. Not that it mattered if they were discovered here.
      It was indeed soldiers who appeared a moment later, but not the Esser Biopharm mercenary forces. Perhaps a dozen spec ops troops in black tactical gear and blue and gray digital camo fatigues appeared, M-4 carbines at the ready. At their head, identically uniformed, was Mr. Jones.
      He motioned for the Com-12 forces behind him to lower their weapons. Though she was certain they could not have been seen, Vampirella sensed that Jones was aware of their presence. Gingerly she stepped out from behind the pump, hands in plain sight. She hadn’t come this far only to be gunned down by friendly fire.
      "Vampirella," Jones whispered, grinning broadly, "...and Pantha!"
      Vampirella noted that Jones wore a black field-issue Navy commander’s rank insignia on the lapel of his uniform.
      "What’s going on?" she asked. "How did you find us?"
      "We never intended to send you into Golden without backup," Jones explained. "Ever since our remote viewers zeroed in on Golden, we’ve been focusing every intelligence asset we could divert here. We even called in some markers to get the NSA to reposition a KH-12 recon satellite to pass over western Kansas. Unfortunately, your showing up in town seems to have completely spooked the Lupae, forced them to make their big move sooner than we were prepared for. Last night, when we saw anomalous IR signatures roaming the streets of Golden, we knew the Lupae were out in the open.
      "Com-12 isn’t a combat unit per se, though we do have a certain number of operatives with Navy SEAL backgrounds at our disposal. These men," -he gestured to the troops backing him- "are the very best the Navy has to offer. Arranging airlift logistics to get a naval ground force to Kansas on a moment’s notice was a whole ‘nother can of worms –especially without tipping our hands to Aquarius. But we’re here now. The BMAEU’s human forces here and in Golden are being neutralized even as we speak and the civilian population’s being evacuated. We’re counting on Pantha here to neutralize the Lupae infestation and sterilize the site. And in order to do that, we’ve got to get you two out of here."
      "You want me to use the Eye of Ra to incinerate the entire town," Pantha clarified.
      "And the surrounding countryside," Jones amended. "The Lupae pharmaplants have to be eradicated before they can make their way into the ecosystem. We can’t blow the place with explosives. We’d release the Lupae plasm, along with god knows what else, into the atmosphere. And we can’t wait until reinforcements arrive. In a few hours, every counterterrorism agency and military special warfare unit in the U.S. Government will be descending on this place. And half of them will have covert ties to Aquarius somewhere along the line. I can tell you right now that in all the confusion and turf battles, one way or another, some of the Lupae specimens will get out. Maybe not a lot, but enough to restart the Lebenstod Program somewhere else, in another state or on another continent.
      "The only viable option is to use the Eye to cauterize this entire area." He eyed Pantha significantly. "I know you can do this, can’t you?"
      "No problem," Pantha answered without hesitation.
      Vampirella shuddered.



      "You men," Jones ordered his troops, "fall back to your extraction points. We’re pulling out now!" Turning to Vampirella and Pantha, "We’ve got to get to the roof. As soon as we’re out in the open, we can signal for evac."
      As the Com-12 operatives raced back along the sub-level tunnels, Jones and the two females headed up a caged service ladder. There was no one in immediate view as they emerged onto the main level floor, and they continued their ascent towards the rooftop. There was a locked trapdoor at the top of the ladder, but Vampirella, in the lead, easily forced it open.
      As they climbed onto the rooftop, Vampirella realized that a firefight, now winding down, had indeed occurred just outside the soundproofed walls of the main Site 44 facility. The paved lot and service roads beyond bustled with military activity. Ranks of the now disarmed, black-clad Esser security forces lay face down on the ground, their hands secured behind their backs with nylon restraints. Com-12 forces stood close watch over them. One after another, groups were being stood up at gunpoint and herded into a flight of blue-gray SH-60 Seahawks to be shuttled a safe distance away from Site 44. At least half a dozen of the large naval helicopter transports flew back and forth from the compound in a steady relay.
      While Esser Biopharm’s human defenders seemed to be completely routed, Com-12 operatives continued firing at scattered Lupae drones as they too fell back to the helicopters for extraction. Vampirella was briefly reminded of historical footage of the fall of Saigon, except that this pullout was highly disciplined.
      "Where are they taking them?" Vampirella asked Mr. Jones as the last of the BMAEU forces were loaded through the hatch of a navy chopper. She pictured some secret government gulag along the lines of Camp Delta in Guantánamo.
      "For now to a gymnasium a few miles from here in an abandoned high school on the outskirts of Goodland," Jones informed her. "Once Aquarius gets involved, they’ll probably be on a first class flight back to Europe by tonight."
      "That’s it?" Vampirella asked, stunned, "They just walk?"
      "Probably," Jones set her straight. "These guys aren’t al-Qaida, after all. We have too many high-level interests in common with the EU to let an incident like this upset the apple cart.
      "In any case," he went on, "the only thing that matters right now is to get everyone clear of the area before Pantha vaporizes everything in a ten mile radius."
      As he spoke, Jones produced a tubular signal flare from a pouch on his tactical vest. Pointing it skyward, he pulled the ring and a red fireball like a Roman Candle streaked into the air.
      "Satyr and Circe," Vampirella muttered.
      "There’s no choice. The Lupae genetic material’s in the crops. That’s what the Lupae were doing here in Golden. It’s already spread throughout the neighboring farms. That’s why they were trying to take over the town. If it continues to cross-pollinate with regular crops, it’ll never be contained."
      In response to Jones’ flare, one of the hovering Seahawks immediately broke formation and began angling in their direction.
      Vampirella looked over at Pantha, who had dashed over to the parapet to watch the incoming copter, then back to Mr. Jones. "You can’t just set Pantha loose to burn up everything!"
      "Prairie fires happen all the time," he evaded. "To the rest of the world, that’s all that will have happened here. Besides, you’ve seen Golden. The town’s as good as dead anyway."
      "You know damn well that’s not what I mean," Vampirella glared at him. "You said it yourself the last time we met. If the Eye gets out of control, the consequences will be unimaginable."
      Jones met her eyes. "What you mean is if Pantha gets out of control."
      "You don’t understand," Vampirella implored, thinking of the traumatic revelations of hers and Pantha’s last few days on the road together, "all she’s been through..."
      "I understand more than you could possibly know," he answered coldly. "For all that we may try and alter the course of destiny, there are some consequences that simply can’t be avoided."
      Clouds of dust and grime were whipped into the air and their conversation was cut short by the deafening whine of the copter’s rotors as it moved in over their heads.
      Suddenly a metal hatch cover further along the rooftop was hurled skyward, torn from its hinges by a resounding impact. Immediately a nest of probing tentacles slithered through the hatchway. A moment later, Slandra pulled herself up onto the rooftop. Ror emerged close behind her.
      Without hesitation, Jones waved the descending evac copter off, aware that even a glancing swipe by one of the Lupae tentacles could slice through fuel or hydraulic lines or even shatter the spinning rotor blades, sending jagged shards hurling in every direction. If the copter were brought down on top of them, the entire rooftop would be turned into a hellish inferno from which there would be no escape.
      Immediately the Seahawk veered off to circle the rooftop at a safe distance. Although heavily armed with a variety of antipersonnel weapons, the aircrews were under strict orders that under no circumstances were they to fire at the biological weapons plant. All they could do was watch and wait for the chance to extract Jones and his companions.
      Closer at hand, three warrior drones followed their battlemaid and technomancer up the ladder to the rooftop. Unsheathing a huge combat knife from its leg scabbard, Jones rushed to take up a defensive position between Pantha and the Lupae. Vampirella noted that for a man on the far side of middle age, he moved with the lithe feline prowess of a seasoned hand-to-hand combatant at the peak of his skills and readiness. Clearly Jones was more than some Washington desk jockey analyzing maritime intelligence.
      As the drones moved in to attack, Jones dodged their flashing tentacles with cat-like agility. He struck out at one, his blade severing several phallic appendages in midair. The dismembered drone let out a shrill alien squeal, its stumps spraying globules of amber plasm. Jones took advantage of the creature’s momentary distress to leap in for the kill. He plunged the knife in just under the ribcage before turning it upward with tissue-rending strength. Although Vampirella knew nothing herself of Lupae internal anatomy or kill spots, she had the distinct impression that Jones knew exactly where and how to deliver a lethal strike to the alien.
      If asked, Vampirella would have steadfastly maintained that no human could stand up to a Lupae in close-quarters combat, yet Jones was holding his own against all three of the drones who sought to get past him at Pantha.

      Shielded behind the others, Pantha and Ror carried on their own psychic duel for control of the Eye. No vague presence now, Pantha sensed that the world destroyer was looming just out of reach, ready to come bursting through the fabric of this reality at any moment. An interdimensional nexus drawing down the primal destructive force of the cosmos’ invisible ley lines, the Eye was now fully awakened from its millennia-long dormancy and ready to resume its apocalyptic function. In spite of herself, she felt an exhilaration at reconnecting to an aspect of herself that had also remained submerged down through the centuries of her more recent incarnations. Whatever crushing burdens of responsibility and accountability the Eye might bring, at least she would never again be a victim. She would never again be powerless to resist the depredations of another Art or Q-Man or Dr. Midwinter.
      She now knew without a shadow of doubt that she would use the Drakulonian world destroyer. She would use it not only for herself but for all those powerless like her. Unbidden, the image of a young New Jersey woman named Christy sprang to mind. So much like herself, a victim at sixteen of sexual abuse by her stepfather, she had conjured and momentarily bound –or so she believed- Pantha with a crude but effectively executed magic circle. Pantha had savagely disposed of the stepfather just as enjoined by the young girl. But she’d had no other option than to leave the victimized teen to the societally mandated consequences of a child acting out her vengeance against her guardian. But soon things would be different, the tables turned. In her world, it would be the victimizers who would become the victims.
      But the Eye was not hers yet. She could feel its resistance as it was subjected to the conflicting wills of both herself and the Lupae technomancer. Somehow the alien Ror, with his ability to meld with technology, was able to influence the Eye as only the chosen bearer of the Scarab of Atum-Ra among the Cat People could. No wonder Fellus had sought out this remote world within which to hide the doomsday device from their metamorphic foes. Before she could even begin dealing with the numerous problems and injustices of this earth, she must first employ the world destroyer in the capacity for which it was created, to once and for all exterminate the threat of Drakulon’s mortal enemies, the Lupae.
      Oblivious to the lethal physical combat going on all about her, she existed only within her own inner world, struggling to bring her conflicting thoughts and emotions into focus, to merge her consciousness with the weapon.
      In spite of the vivid flashback she had just experienced of the horrific final day of her prior incarnation as the demigoddess Sekhmet, those memories still seemed detached, like she was viewing someone else’s existence. The recovered experiences were too fresh for her to even begin taking ownership of them. Who should she most blame for the death of her son? The humans who had betrayed him to the Lupae? The Lupae for turning him into an abomination? Or herself for euthanizing –no, killing- what was left of him in a moment of unthinking fury?
      Then, from out of the tangle of conflicting inclinations, a single thought coalesced. With a chilling calmness, she realized that destroying the Lupae wasn’t about vengeance. It wasn’t even about belatedly fulfilling her role as Sekhmet, the mythical Eye of Ra herself. The Lupae were a threat, plain and simple. They’d annihilated the Drakulon of her race and, given the chance, they’d decimate this planet as well.
      With clarity of purpose, she could feel the psychic tide turn in her favor, her control over the Eye tighten.

      Vampirella and Slandra, the two alpha females among the opposing combatants, faced off against one another. Through years of experience in mortal combat, Vampirella had learned again and again never to let an opponent goad oneself into an unthinking rage. While a certain amount of emotional edge kept the adrenaline flowing, to lose control of oneself invariably meant to lose control of the situation. Yet after the horrific tentacle rape she had undergone only a few short hours ago, she knew it would be a supreme effort to keep a focus on all that was at stake here, and not to let this battle turn into a personal grudge match.
      Slandra’s figure and facial features wavered and distorted, became more alien, as she morphed into full combat form. Just as they had during the assault in the barracks, flesh-pink phallic tentacles sprouted from around her midriff. Only this time, their distal ends appeared translucent, displaying the coiled Lupae anatomical features within. She knew from her previous battles with the drones, that, in this semi-corporeal state, the appendages could slice through steel or human flesh like a plasma torch. While her own Drakulonian substance seemed to be slightly more immune, the extent of this resistance had never been fully tested.
      As if to underscore this point, Slandra flailed at Vampirella with a whip-like tentacle aimed low to knock her feet out from under her. With inhuman reflexes, Vampirella sprang upward into the air, drawing her legs up so that the tendril missed the stiletto heels of her boots by a hair’s breadth. The tentacle did manage to strike a large rooftop air conditioning unit, severing a number of small-bore pipes running into it. As she slapped back down onto the concrete, Vampirella grasped one of the pipes near the break and heaved. Despite its slender appearance, the stainless steel tube proved tougher than it looked. It took considerable effort to wrench loose a six-foot section.
      Before Slandra could hack her makeshift weapon into pieces, Vampirella lunged it into her midsection with enough force to shatter human ribs. While its injurious effect was far less severe to the alien, Slandra did let out a shrill squeal of pain. As she drew back for a second lunge, a tentacle sliced through the pipe, cutting it in two. Vampirella did manage to hurl the remaining length at Slandra’s head, causing the battlemaid to reflexively yank back her tentacles to shield her face. This gave Vampirella the chance to get in a follow-up blow. Rolling low, she delivered a roundhouse kick to Slandra’s gut, causing the Lupae to double over. She hissed in rage and pain as Vampirella rolled past her.
      Vampi knew she had been lucky to get in the first blows, but, with her lethal tentacles, Slandra held the decisive advantage in any protracted close-quarters combat. The best Vampirella could hope for was to keep her at bay or at least distracted until Pantha could get control of the Eye.
      She dove behind the huge box-like air conditioner as Slandra lashed out with multiple crisscrossing tentacles. This time, the whip-like appendages tore the entire unit into pieces. Vampirella reversed direction on a dime, narrowly evading several tentacles which gouged large chunks out of the concrete roof. She briefly wondered if she could somehow goad her opponent into inflicting enough damage to undermine the roof under herself.
      Then the inevitable happened. She felt a brief explosion of pain as one of the appendages found its mark, passing through her left arm just under the shoulder. Then she felt nothing. She knew that this phenomenon was commonplace, that frequently mortal battlefield injuries were initially painless as the nervous system was overwhelmed by the loss of a limb or an organ. She looked down, expecting to see a bloody stump where her arm had just been, but, to her amazement, the limb was perfectly intact. Instead, it was Slandra who stared with shocked horror at one of her tentacles, the tip of which was now a gnarled lump of singed flesh.
      The two foes literally stopped in mid-combat and stared dumbfounded at one another, each of them trying to grasp what had just happened. Somehow the Lupae natural weapon had been turned on itself. Their two bodies simultaneously occupying the same space had disrupted the cellular integrity of the attacking tentacle itself instead of its intended target.
      In the heat of combat, Vampirella had no chance to try and analyze the cause of this reversal or even to determine if it could be relied upon. She simply went with the apparent fact that the tables had been somehow turned, the playing field leveled.
      Slandra reverted back to the human form of Sigrid Midwinter. Her unexpectedly neutralized tentacles were rapidly reabsorbed into her body. She continued to circle Vampirella, though her previous bravado was now replaced with a more wary expression. Vampirella knew the fight wasn’t over. Even without her tentacles, the Lupae battlemaid was still equally matched to a Drakulonian, with strength and endurance far beyond the human norm.
      While Pantha and Ror stood defenseless and immobile on the sidelines, Jones and the two remaining drones continued to lash at one another with flashing blade and tentacles. Jones continued to dodge the drones’ flailing pseudopodia with seemingly inhuman agility, while managing to inflict damage with raking swipes of his curved blade.
      Overhead, the last of the Seahawks raced away from Site 44, carrying the remaining Com-12 forces and their captives. Only the evac copter designated to recover Jones, Vampirella, and, above all, Pantha remained on station, its anxious pilots watching for any moment’s window of opportunity to swoop in and rescue their charges.
      Suddenly, a wave of energy like an expanding shockwave exploded across the sky above them. Even in the broad daylight of a sunny Kansas late afternoon, the blue-white incandescence was blinding. The sky overhead was transformed into a writhing vortex of unearthly energies. At its heart, perhaps a thousand feet directly over the embattled rooftop on which they stood, the complex system of greenish-gold colored rings and bands which comprised the Drakulonian weapon could now be seen in full detail. The intricate occult patterns and sigils that adorned them were not dissimilar to those on Vampirella’s bracelets or Pantha’s amulet, except that these were executed on a much grander scale.
      The Eye of Ra had arrived.



      Abruptly roused from their trance-like state, Pantha and Ror gazed upward at the alien phenomenon hovering over their heads. Pantha’s eyes glowed with a cat-like green luminescence the color of glistening jade. Ror’s eyes shone with a comparable amber luminosity. Razor-thin streamers of lightning-like energy arced from the Scarab of Atum-Ra around Pantha’s neck up into the gyrating mechanisms overhead, tangibly interconnecting her, the medallion, and the Eye.
      Jones took advantage of the drones’ momentary distraction at the appearance of the Eye to hurl his heavy knife at one with lethal accuracy. The blade embedded itself deep in the drone’s throat, spurting a geyser of amber fluid. Knowing that time had run out, Jones flashed a hand signal to the hovering copter. A quick burst of automatic weapons fire rang out from the open side hatch, cutting down the final drone. A hail of bullets scored the rooftop all around Ror as well, but he seemed suddenly impervious to harm as the luminescence surrounding the Eye extended to envelop him as well. Slandra and Vampirella continued to wrestle, making a clear shot at the battlemaid impossible.
      Immediately, the helicopter moved in, passing directly beneath the Eye at rooftop level. As it cleared the parapet, Jones roughly shoved Pantha in the direction of the open hatch. Two Com-12 operatives leaning out the doorway pulled her inside.
      Knowing she had split seconds in which to get away herself, Vampirella, still struggling in Slandra’s grip, managed to extricate an arm sufficiently to deliver a stunning punch to the Lupae’s jaw. Stunned, the battlemaid loosened her grip, enabling Vampirella to push her off. The moment she was free, she literally dove through the doorway after Pantha and Jones.
      The Seahawk began to lift but was stopped short with a jarring lurch as tentacles entwined themselves about the landing gear. Vampirella scrabbled to her feet and looked out the hatchway to see that the highly plastic battlemaid had once again transformed into yet another variation on her native Lupae form. Her size and bulk expanding dramatically, she held the copter pinned with huge python-like tentacles, while more tentacles anchored her to a large pipe. Her snarling face elongated to wolf-like proportions. It was easy to see the lycanthropic tendency in this startling new morph.
      Vampirella noted the M60D machine gun mounted in the doorway. Not a typical piece of naval ordinance, she assumed the antipersonnel weapon had been installed expressly for this spec ops mission. Shoving the Com-12 gunner aside, she pivoted the gun towards Slandra and pressed the firing stud.
      Spent brass cartridges rained throughout the passenger compartment as the weapon’s muzzle belched fire. A hail of 7.62 mm rounds tore through Slandra’s torso, sending gobs of flesh and amber plasm exploding in all directions. Even as the battlemaid’s body was shredded, she howled her defiance, her oversized tentacles continuing to hold the Seahawk immobile. Vampirella gritted her teeth as she continued to pour lead into the Lupae. The impaled copter began to tilt, its spinning rotor dipping towards the rooftop.
      Then in the split second before catastrophe overtook them, another tentacle shot across the rooftop, cleanly slicing through Slandra’s appendages. Incredibly, it was Ror who had dismembered his battlemaid. As the freed helicopter lurched upward, Vampirella thought she saw the technomancer flash her a momentary smile before he disappeared behind them.
      The pilot gunned the chopper skyward and away just as a cascade of lightning arced between the Eye and the maze of piping comprising the lethal heart of Site 44. Unaffected, Ror continued to stand untouched at the center of the electrical maelstrom, his eyes glowing with amber fire.
      "Now!" Jones commanded Pantha.
      Pantha nodded her acknowledgement. She leaped up and braced herself in the open doorway, her eyes flaring once again.
      As the speeding Seahawk swooped past the fenced perimeter of Site 44, the Eye of Ra began climbing unsteadily, still torn between the mental directives of its two rival controllers. Its complex array of alien mechanisms gyrated, the concentric ring-like components interlocking to form a clearly defined orifice. From out of the opening, a solid-appearing column of blinding white luminescence lanced downward as a massive gamma ray pulse instantaneously ionized the atmosphere between the Eye and the ground.
      An enormous shockwave rocked the fleeing copter as the hundreds of tons of steel and concrete making up the Site 44 plant were vaporized, superheated in a flash to a glowing fireball of expanding gas. The firestorm rolled over the countryside, incinerating everything in its path.
      Despite its EMP shielding and twin T700 turboshaft engines, the Seahawk’s avionics were totally overwhelmed by the combination of tornado-strength turbulence and the mammoth electromagnetic pulse generated by the Eye’s discharge. Either of these conditions would have been sufficient to down the copter on their own. In combination, they were lethally devastating.
      "Everybody brace yourselves!" the pilot shouted, struggling to maintain control. "We’re going down...!!!"
      Vampirella gripped a stanchion with one hand, while wrapping an arm about Pantha’s waist. The feline Drakulonian tightened her grip on the doorframe but did not move from the precarious opening, her consciousness still focused on the Eye. Jones moved to hold onto her while securing himself as well.
      Its engines stalled, the helicopter spiraled downward, the only lift provided by the residual momentum and air resistance of its rotors. Nonetheless, the Navy pilot maintained sufficient control to drop them onto a grassy hilltop several miles west of Golden and Site 44. The landing gear’s hydraulics bottomed out and one landing strut crumpled inward.
      Passengers and crew were tossed about, jarred but remarkably uninjured. Hurriedly recovering themselves, everyone bolted away from the downed Seahawk in the event that any ruptured fuel lines or tanks detonated, but the helicopter sat anticlimactically inert atop the ridgeline.
      Any landing you walk away from, Vampirella thought.
      Pantha had dashed ahead of the others and stood on the crest of the hillock in a wide-legged stance, eyes still aglow as the beam from the Eye swept back and forth across the countryside between the obliterated Site 44 and Golden.
      The destructive energetic column from the world destroyer did resemble the all-consuming rays of a vengeful sun god, Vampirella thought as she watched acre after acre of Lupae hybrid grain reduced to a thin blanket of ashen mineral residue in the blink of an eye.
      She glanced across at Mr. Jones watching beside her with an expression of grim satisfaction. His rationale was easy enough to figure. They were witnessing a decontamination and biocontainment process more certain than any that could be applied by earthly science. No doubt in his eyes, the immolation of a few thousand acres of evacuated prairie was a small price to ensure that the Lupae biogenetic threat to humankind was contained.
      Finally the column of light swept over Golden itself. Even from their vantage, several miles distant, they could see the momentary bursts of smoke and debris as the town’s deserted structures were consumed by a wave of heat equal to that of a nuclear blast.
      It’s over, Vampirella thought, waiting for the celestial bombardment to cease, Slandra’s dead, Golden with its deserted warrens gone along with Site 44, every trace of the Lupae threat obliterated.
      But relief turned to abject horror as the Eye of Ra showed no sign of powering down. Instead, it continued to expand as it climbed towards the zenith. The destructive beam continued to widen along with the aperture from which it sprang, consuming ever-larger swaths of farmland. Even at its present diameter, if the beam were to pass over a populated area, the carnage and loss of life would be unimaginable.
      Nearer at hand, Pantha was seemingly lost in a world of her own, her gaze fixed, her expression unreadable, the Scarab on her chest still glowing as it bound her consciousness to the Eye of Ra.


DECEMBER 26, 2004

      Its own internal countermeasures programming superimposing itself on top of Pantha’s mental strike authorization, the Drakulonian superweapon timeshifted, not sufficiently to carry it off its planetary target but just enough to thwart any Lupae attempts to infiltrate its program and subvert its terminal firing sequence. As it ascended towards orbit, its multiple rings realigned once again to ratchet open its firing aperture another notch. The present setting was an order of magnitude more powerful than the beam that had scorched Golden and its surrounds, though still only a fraction of its full destructive power.
      Again the deadly column of energy blazed downward from the heavens. A deafening roar like a cross between a giant thunderclap and a sonic boom echoed over the surface of the open ocean as a 1014 megajoule gamma ray pulse ionized a fifty-foot wide column of atmosphere from the edge of space to the ocean’s surface. The beam tunneled through a three-mile depth of saltwater with equal ease. Only when it reached the ocean floor, was the greater portion of its energy dissipated into the bedrock of the Earth’s mantle. Tectonic plates were forced violently apart as the seawater saturating minute fault lines was instantaneously turned to superheated steam. In a fraction of a second, accumulated tectonic stresses built up over centuries were released. Miles-long seismic plates slid frictionlessly over one another in a lurching forty-foot uplift as the resistance holding them in place was nullified by the cushion of superheated vapor.
      The sub-surface seismic event generated a pressure wave in the ocean above, a kinetic pulse which sent some 200 trillion tons of seawater churning upward in a concentric ripple that radiated outward in every direction. Once propagated, the enormous oceanic displacement was unstoppable. Within ten minutes, it would sweep up over the western shore of Indonesia. An hour later, it would reach Thailand, another hour after that, India and Sri Lanka. By the time the titanic volume of water receded, some 240,000 persons would be drowned in one of the single largest disasters in human history.
      But long before the eighty-foot high initial swell of the devastating tsunami reached land, the Eye had timeshifted again and was already acquiring its next target.

      Back in the present, a dozen images flashed through Pantha’s mind in rapid succession, searing memories of a lifetime and beyond of pain and abuse. There was Dr. Midwinter applying electrodes to her breasts and groin.... Q-Man and his depraved cohorts shoving a dildo into her in the hellish basement labs of the Danse Macabre Institute.... The months spent in a tiger cage in GRU Col. Brullow’s clutches in the Egyptian Soviet consulate.... Being raped on the floor of her apartment by Jack Kimble’s murderer.... Being slapped around by her narcissistic boyfriend Blue.... Her stepfather Art forcing himself on top of her in her childhood bed.... Interminable hours locked away in a darkened closet in the Fayetteville Foundling Home.... Seeing her parents’ mangled bodies in the twisted wreckage of a Florida automobile crash. Similarly horrific images of her immediate prior incarnation were equally distinct. She remembered Nat Donlon lunging at her in a drunken rage in a World War II era NYC flat.... Karl Midwinter’s SS troops torturing the partisans of Giza in an attempt to locate her. Much further back, there was the ultimate horror of that despairing look from her own son Tsunma, Lupae tentacles erupting from his body in the moments before she herself incinerated him. The accumulated rage and fury of several lifetimes burned with a white heat, like the purifying rays of the world-killing artifact now under her command.

      Now just some twenty minutes into the future from Pantha, the Eye’s assembly of floating rings and blades pivoted on themselves so that the aperture pointed directly sunward. Having passed beyond the edges of Earth’s atmosphere, the world destroyer began to ramp up to its maximum output level. Its next blast would rupture the Sun’s outer convection zone just as easily as the previous shot had disrupted the Earth’s seismic plates. Only this time, the hole created would allow the Sun’s thermonuclear core to erupt in a cataclysmic ionized particle bombardment that would sterilize the Earth’s surface of all life.

      "Come back, Panth!" Vampirella cried, not knowing if her girlfriend even registered her presence in her trance-like state. "You can’t do this. Wherever you are, you have to let it go. You’re not Sekhmet, not in this lifetime anyway. You’re Pantha, remember? We’ve fought too many times together to save this world. You can’t destroy it. Please, come back!"
      She watched for any glimmer of acknowledgement, but Pantha’s glowing green eyes remained fixed.
      The sky overhead still roiled with alien energies, though the Eye of Ra itself could no longer be seen. Was it leapfrogging through time, unleashing devastation as Ror had predicted?
      She considered going on the attack, but immediately rejected the possibility. Under normal circumstances, the two sister Drakulonians would be evenly matched in combat. But she had seen how the force of the Eye had protected Ror even from the concentrated fire of the Seahawk. Its deadly hail of shells hadn’t even touched him. She had little doubt that in her current disassociated state, Pantha could just as easily employ the same force to swat her like a gnat if sufficiently provoked.
      Overhead, another of the Seahawks attached to the Com-12 forces reappeared over the horizon, returning from its last shuttle run. Apparently spotting Jones’ and Vampirella’s downed copter from the air, it dipped low to overfly the crash site.
      Intent on Pantha, Vampirella ignored the helicopter, but Jones adjusted a small radio on his web belt and spoke into a tiny headset. "Can you do a flyby of the target zone? Verify that we have containment?"
      The blue-gray copter overhead pulled upward and sped towards the column of smoke arising from the former Site 44.
      A moment later, the tinny voice came back over Jones’ headset, "Hawk Six to Command One, containment not, repeat not, confirmed. The facility’s completely leveled, nothing but slag. But there’s something else going on down there. Looks like one of the Lupae cocooned in some sort of energy bubble. The Eye hasn’t even touched him. Should we try and take him out?"
      "That’s Ror," Vampirella turned to Jones, "the one who broke us loose from Slandra’s grip. I think he’s trying to help!"
      "You think?" Jones eyed Vampirella coolly, clearly unaccustomed to receiving the equivocal reportage of civilians in a combat situation. Then he made a snap decision.
      "Hawk Six, this is Command One. That’s a negative. Do not fire. Pull back and orbit!"
      "Acknowledged, Command One."
      Vampirella returned her attention to Pantha, desperate to get through to her feline sister.
      "Come back to me, Panth!" she implored. Without even thinking what she was saying, she appended,"...I love you."

      While Vampirella’s voice did not register on a conscious level, it seemingly reached something within Pantha, shifting the focus of the images flashing through her brain. Not everything in her life’s experience was terrible after all. She saw Vampirella, indulgently following her through the exotic side streets of Hong Kong on one of their Hollywood-era exploits.... There were times spent with Vampi, the Van Helsings, and even Pendragon during the golden days of their paranormal investigative collaboration together.... There was the brief interlude of her stolen romance with Adam.... There was Jack Kimble, the first man to truly care for her.... And there was Vampirella. She would never have believed that she could seduce her sister Drakulonian. But she had. She knew there was no future in it, that Vampirella was not at heart one to stay with another woman. But she would always have the memories of those blissful moments spent in the raven-haired vampiress’ embrace, their heated sexes intertwined.
      As the rage subsided, her awareness gradually returned to the here and now, her control over the Eye slipping a little.
      She could sense the Lupae technomancer still out there as well. But he no longer exuded the aura of menace she had perceived around him earlier. She felt no sense that he was trying to turn the weapon against her.
      With the precarious psychic balance between them shifted, Ror now assumed control of the Eye. Within her mind, Pantha saw the complex orrery reconfigure itself once again, this time the deadly firing aperture breaking down into its individual elements, as the firing sequence was aborted mere seconds before its apocalyptic discharge.
      She felt the omnipotent power of the Eye slipping away from her. The part of her that was Sekhmet screamed out her rage as she saw the means to master her own destiny once again lost to her. At the same time, that portion of her fractured psyche that was still Pantha felt the crushing weight of a terrible destiny lifted from her.
      The device receded, not into the remote past, there to obliterate the histories of this world and Drakulon. Instead it arced forward into the murky depths of a future whose outlines had not yet been written. As the Eye began to accelerate away from her down the timestream, she could sense her brief awareness of her multiple lifetimes once again unraveling, the memories of her previous incarnations receding back into the depths of the Scarab of Atum-Ra.
      "...I love you," the words registered close at hand.
      As the jade fire faded from her eyes, she saw Vampirella’s concerned face peering at her. Then unconsciousness overtook her and it all slipped away, the Eye, Golden and the Lupae invaders, the hilltop on which she stood, Vampirella...



      Vampirella and Mr. Jones stood on the open tarmac of a small airstrip on the outskirts of Goodland. The last of the gray Navy Seahawks sat parked a distance away, its aircrew awaiting their single passenger. The rest of the naval strike team and aircraft under Jones’ command had seemingly vanished into thin air as inscrutably as they’d appeared on the scene.
      Her still-mysterious source was now dressed in the summer khakis of a Navy commander, though Vampirella still had difficulty picturing him in anything but his anonymous gray suit and brimmed hat.
      Pantha had excused herself to contact the staff of her Sekhmet exhibition in Philadelphia. Her overriding concern since regaining consciousness had been her unscheduled absence from work. Vampirella took advantage of her momentary absence to discuss her mental and emotional state with Mr. Jones.
      "She doesn’t remember a thing from the time we left Philadelphia. The Lupae, Golden, the Eye of Ra," our having sex; she thought, though she didn’t articulate this for Jones benefit. "Everything that’s happened, all gone."
      "Let it go," Jones advised. "The Eye is gone, vanished into the distant future along with any trace of Ror. There’s no reason for her to know now."
      "Are you certain they’re really gone for good?" Vampirella asked pointedly.
      "Certain?" Jones paused thoughtfully. "I don’t think so. As I told you once before, the Eye is a mystical artifact that can never be destroyed. It can only be banished, hopefully to a place and time so remote that it will never return or be found."
      "There’s so much about all this I still don’t understand. What happened on that rooftop? With those Lupae tentacles, Slandra should’ve been able to flail me to pieces."
      Jones responded, "You told me that Slandra said Lupae and Drakulonians were physiologically incompatible, that the Vampiri were immune to assimilating the Lupae genotype. Lucky for you; otherwise you’d probably have tentacles growing out your ass by now. But obviously it didn’t work the other way around. Once Slandra fused with you, she must’ve absorbed enough of your Drakulonian genetic makeup that her physiology couldn’t discriminate your flesh from her own. Sort of like a human’s immune system being compromised, your sexual contact must’ve neutralized her Lupae physiological defenses against you."
      "I guess that makes sense," Vampirella nodded.
      "There’s something else," she looked Jones directly in the eye. "What I could never understand from the start of all this was how you seemed to know so much about Drakulon and the Lupae. Back in Topeka, you told me that the Danse learned what they had by interrogating Pantha and that the information was disseminated on to your agency. But before all this with the Eye, Pantha was so out of touch with her origins that she didn’t have the information in her to give –even under duress."
      "What can I say?" Mr. Jones shrugged his shoulders.
      At that moment, Vampirella decided to go for broke, voicing the suspicion she had grown more certain of with each encounter with the mysterious source.
      "You’re Fellus," she stated flatly.
      For as carefully as she studied his reaction, Jones didn’t even flinch at her startling pronouncement.
      Finally he answered in an even tone, "Very good, Vampirella. Yes, I’m Fellus. I was a Senator of my people on Drakulon eons before the first Vampiri strode its surface. I lived through the genocidal war between Drakulon and Lupae, was a part of it, I regret to say. But now this world is my home, just as it’s yours."
      "I should’ve realized sooner," Vampirella went on, now that her suspicions were confirmed. "In the recall dreams of Pantha’s and my abduction by Slandra, when Ror was scanning the Earth for more Cat People, he picked up a third Drakulonian. At the time, I just assumed that it must’ve been Dracula still down there somewhere. But it was you all along."
      She went on, her excited thoughts racing, "You actually stood in the court of Khufu in Fourth Dynasty Egypt?"
      Jones nodded, "I was there at his right hand, doing what I could from the shadows to try and guide humankind down the path of egalitarianism and social conscience and away from the politics of exploitation and naked self-interest. Mostly I’ve tried to ensure that this world didn’t follow Drakulon and Lupae down the path to self-destruction."
      "And four thousand years later, here you are still doing the very same thing."
      Jones nodded again.
      "I don’t understand," Vampirella replied. "I was trapped on this world with no way to get back. But there have been at least three Drakulonian Cat People spacecraft hidden on Earth down over the millennia, four if you count the Eye of Ra. The ship from Wildwood Cemetery and the one the Goldman Expedition found in Egypt are gone now, but your own skyraider is still sitting undiscovered, buried in your tomb outside Cairo. If you knew that these devices could travel through time as well as space, you could’ve gone home at any time, back to the Drakulon of the Cat People before the cataclysm. You still could!
      "You’ve done your part for this world," she pressed. After four millennia among the humans, don’t you think you deserve to live out the remainder of your life in peace among our own kind? I’m sure that’s what I’d want."
      "We have no more right than Slandra to go back and tamper with history. So what’s the point of returning to a civilization doomed to oblivion? Besides, look at the world around you. Yes, I’ve been here for four thousand years, but even after all that time, I’m afraid humanity still needs some help to find its way. I think I’ll remain here a little longer and do what I can to nudge things in the right direction."
      "You’ve watched over Pantha all this time and she doesn’t even know you exist, that she isn’t the only Cat Person. Why?" Vampirella asked.
      Fellus answered thoughtfully, "My appearance has changed over the course of my own incarnations, so it’s understandable that Pantha wouldn’t recognize me. More to the point though, I’m responsible for the burden Pantha carries. It was my decision to entrust her with the Scarab of Atum-Ra, the key to the Eye, some 4,500 years ago. For all her prodigious abilities, Sekhmet always had a dark streak to her. I should’ve seen that bearing the responsibility for the fate of entire worlds and civilizations was too great a burden to place on her shoulders. But once the Scarab was bestowed, it couldn’t be rescinded."
      "You carried that burden," Vampirella pressed, a note of accusation in her voice. "You couldn’t have helped Pantha to do the same? I love that woman like a sister, but I look at her now and I really don’t know what to think, how to deal with her. From what you’ve told me of the Eye triggering the Sumatra tsunami, she just killed some 240,000 people, and her only concern is missing a few days’ work."
      "I told you some consequences couldn’t be avoided. I’ve known about the coming tsunami for centuries. You see, the story of Sekhmet’s fury never was a myth or a parable. It was a prophecy.
      "I’m sure you’ve wondered over the years how Pantha’s Scarab, the original Khafra Stone, turned up inside the UFO in Wildwood Cemetery in 1976. Years ago, after Pantha’s last incarnation, just shortly after she killed Nat Donlon, I used one of the ancient Drakulonian geistgates you mentioned to try and carry the Scarab, as well as the Udjat that went with it, away from this world. Without the Scarab, the Eye of Ra couldn’t be activated, or so I reasoned. Obviously it didn’t work. The same Drakulonian metaphysics underlie the Scarab and the gates. The Scarab simply could not be separated from its guardian. The gate just returned it to Earth, specifically to Denny Colt’s hidden lair under Central City. The fact that you recovered the Scarab and returned it to Pantha on your very first meeting was probably inevitable."
      Vampirella said nothing.
      "The only consolation I can offer," Jones continued, "is that if Slandra and the Lupae had succeeded unopposed, the consequences to this world would have been unthinkable, orders of magnitude beyond even the tsunami disaster."
      Knowing there was little more to say, Vampirella shifted the conversation back to the here and now. "What will happen to you and Com-12 now? With this raid on Golden, you’ve moved pretty overtly against Aquarius, and they still hold the upper hand."
      Mr. Jones smiled, "I think we’ll be the least of Aquarius’ worries for the time being. They’ve inadvertently aided and abetted an alien takeover attempt of our planet. They’ll have a lot to answer for to the very powerful interests behind them. Meanwhile Com-12 will disappear back into the woodwork until we’re needed again.
      "To put things in perspective, I can tell you this. It seems the Lupae infiltration of our world’s political and economic structure went far higher than even Com-12 suspected. In the twenty-four hours since Site 44 went offline, more than two dozen key executives in the global economy have vanished without a trace from countries around the globe. We’re talking corporate CEO’s, powerful international lobbyists, ranking government officials, top military brass, all with suspected ties to the New Cosmic Order. Homeland Security’s calling it a new terrorist offensive against the global capitalist leadership structure."
      "So the New Cosmic Order’s been dealt a major setback," Vampirella smiled.
      "Don’t be too confident," Jones cautioned. "Remember it’s been humans who envisioned the New Order all along. The Lupae just co-opted them to serve their own ends."
      Any further discussion was sidetracked by the reappearance of a subdued but surprisingly normal-seeming Pantha.
      "Well, I’ve still got a job," she smiled. "I told them I was called away on a family emergency."
      "That’s not far from the truth," Mr. Jones smiled. "Com-12 will cover your flight back to Philadelphia, and I’m sure we can do something to help you replace your car as well. It’s the least we can do after yours and Vampirella’s assistance in defeating the Lupae."
      "If you say so," Pantha frowned slightly, "I just wish I could remember."
      "I should be going," Mr. Jones excused himself. "Again, thank you both for all you’ve done."
      Vampirella held out a hand. "I’m sure we’ll meet again one day."
      "I’m sure we will," Mr. Jones smiled, taking her handshake.
      He gave a final sidelong glance towards Pantha, and turned to head for the parked Seahawk awaiting him. As soon as he was aboard, the engines fired up and the rotors began to spin, rapidly coming up to speed. Moments later, the helicopter, with its still-enigmatic passenger, lifted off the tarmac and sped towards the horizon.
      As they turned back towards the tiny terminal building, Pantha smiled cheerfully at Vampirella, obviously more relaxed now that it was just the two longtime friends. Distracted, she didn’t notice the moment’s sadness and concern that shone in Vampirella’s eyes before she smiled broadly in return and linked her arm about Pantha’s. Arm in arm, the twosome strode briskly across the concrete airstrip towards the awaiting terminal and the beginnings of their next journey.



      Vampirella flipped absently through a crumpled store copy of The New York Times as she stood at the counter inside a trendy coffee bar. Smartly dressed in her leopard coat and a short leather skirt, she was marking time, waiting for her order to be called out. A small article in the back of the National section caught her eye. The headline read:


      She skimmed the single column report parroting the all-too-predictable cover story put out by the authorities to explain the evacuation of Golden and its rural surrounds. She’d seen it all before, knew the routine. Generous disaster relief funds would be rushed through to assist the victims in relocating –as long as they stayed away from the media.
      "Grande latte to go!" the barista called out.
Heads turned to watch Vampirella go as she collected her beverage and headed out the front entry. No one noticed however as she stepped into a service doorway alcove down the block and surreptitiously produced a tiny glass ampoule of viscous amber liquid. Lifting the lid from the paper coffee cup, she poured the contents of the vial into the frothy brew and mixed them with a thin wooden stir stick. She replaced the lid on the cup and resumed her way.
      She had already scouted the Square before visiting the coffee bar and knew that the person she had come down here to find was present in the area. She reacquired the object of her attention sitting at the base of a lamppost at the far end of the block. It was the same red-haired woman she’d encountered on this very spot some weeks earlier.
      Her initial impression was that, apart from wearing heavier fall clothing, the woman appeared identical to her appearance of a few weeks ago. As she approached however, she noticed that her arms were thinner and that the reddish lesions on her face had spread.
      "Can you spare any change?" the woman looked up as she neared.
      Then, as she scanned Vampirella up and down, recognition lit up her dull eyes. "I remember you. You were the pretty lady in the tight jeans. You were nice to me."
      "I guess that was me," Vampirella smiled warmly. "Bit more of a nip in the air now. Would you like something to warm you up?" She proffered the latte. "I haven’t touched it."
      The woman’s eyes sparkled with delight as she accepted the paper mug. "You’re a nice lady."
      "Hope you enjoy," Vampirella attempted to sound casual as she intently watched the woman take a tentative sip from the cup.
      Vampirella wondered if she had the right to play God with this woman’s life. There remained the remote possibility that if the Lupae ever returned to activate their drone hosts, that she might be trading the woman’s present condition for something infinitely worse, not to mention putting all of humanity at risk. Then again, maybe the Lupae wouldn’t come again in her lifetime. With Slandra’s brood wiped out, Ror banished to an indeterminate far future, maybe they were all extinct. With any luck at all, this one victim of a callous world would be granted a miracle reprieve, a new lease on life.
      It was a monumentally presumptuous gamble on her part, one the enigmatic Mr. Jones or even her closest friend Pantha would never forgive or condone.
      But how could she not do anything to help?



      Pantha has a very extensive backstory spanning both the Warren and Harris-era comics. Below is a timeline of events referred to in Vampirella: New Order and the stories in which they appeared. Listed dates of events are generally based on the first publication dates of the stories they appeared in. Relevant real-world events and dates are also included, listed in blue.




Drakulonian Cat People fight interstellar war with metamorphs from Lupae. Lupae negotiate peace treaty, trigger premature solar eruption of Satyr with disruptor cannon. (Vampirella and the Alien Amazon, Warren Vampirella #81)


Drakulonian Senator Fellus escapes to Fourth Dynasty Egypt, founds earthly lineage of Cat People. (The Haitian Connection, Warren Vampirella #98)

2609-2584 BC

Historic reign of Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu built Great Pyramid of Giza.
Khafra (identified elsewhere as Fellus) crash lands in Nile, befriends Khufu per Egyptologist Nubia El Amarna (The High-Gloss Egyptian Junk-Peddler, Warren Vampirella #50)

2566-2558 BC

Historic reign of Pharaoh Djedefra. Djedefra has Sphinx carved in Khufu’s likeness. Builds solar temple above Giza at Abu Roash, proclaims self first Son of Sun God Ra.

2558-2532 BC

Historic reign of Pharaoh Khafra. Khafra carries on title of Son of Ra. Built Khafra’s pyramid at Giza.
Fellus skyraider, ion battlesuit entombed. (Night of the Cat Goddess, Warren Vampirella #96)


Pantha was Sekhmet, demi-goddess high priestess of Ra. Arrogant, vicious, killed subjects including her own son, Tsunma. Cursed by Ra to be an eternal wanderer. (Hell on Earth, Vampirella Monthly #10)


Wolf-headed humanoid Lupae Rahma Taht hunting surviving Cat People crash lands in ancient Egypt. Persona preserved by Eye of Anubis amulet used to stabilize Lupae transformations. (Eye of Anubis, Warren Vampirella #90)

1000 BC

Second Drakulonian spaceship entombed in Egypt. (The Final Star of Morning, Warren Vampirella #50)


SS Dr. Midwinter finds Scarab of Atum-Ra, becomes immortal. Pantha battles Nazis in Egypt. (Year of the Cat, Vampirella Monthly #0)

Jun 1940

First Spirit story. Denny Colt becomes The Spirit. Spirit stories ran through 1952.


Pantha picks up abusive hoodlum Nat Donlon in bar. Donlon killed by panther. (Re-birth, Warren Vampirella #30)


Augustus Hirt has chess set carved from Natzweiler inmates’ bones as gift for Dr. Midwinter. (The Revenge, Vampirella #24)


Taltos, Cult of the Wolf support Nazis. (Dangerous Games, Vampirella Monthly #21-22)


Wehrmacht werewolves, Himmler’s secret weapon, frozen. (Pantha, Vampirella #7)


Aralsk-7 biological weapons test site established by Soviets on Vozrozhdeniye Island


Pantha born. (Re-birth, Warren Vampirella #30)


Pantha’s parents killed in car crash. (Granny Goose & the Baby Dealers, Warren Vampirella #50) Parents from Florida. (Childhood Haunt, Warren Vampirella #33)


Pantha placed in abusive Fayetteville Foundling Home, North Carolina. (Family Ties, Warren Vampirella #31)


Pantha placed by Granny Goose. (Granny Goose & the Baby Dealers, Warren Vampirella #50)


Pantha grows up with abusive foster parents Art and Edith in NYC tenement. (Re-birth, Warren Vampirella #30)

Oct 1969

Vampirella arrives on Earth.


Vampi, killed by Lady Death in 2000, sent back in time, encounters Pendragon, adult starlet Pantha (should be age 14, first goes to Hollywood in 1978). Pantha undergoes rebirth, amnesia, inability to control transformations with each astrological age. (Alternate chronology, doesn’t fit Warren story timeline) (Death Valley, Vampirella Monthly #24)


16-year old Pantha raped by foster father Art. (Family Ties, Warren Vampirella #31)


Biopreparat established.

Jan 1974

19-year old Susan working as exotic dancer, using stage name Pantha. Unaware of her metamorphic panther abilities. Old man recognizes her as woman who picked up, murdered Nat Donlon in 1944, tells investigator. Pantha recalls old man from "before I was born", kills him. Kills writer Warren Savin. (Re-birth, Warren Vampirella #30)

Feb 1974

Pantha lives with abusive boyfriend, Blue, kills him. Kills Art and Edith. (Family Ties, Warren Vampirella #31)

Apr 1974

Pantha kills investigator trailing her (Black on White, Warren Vampirella #32)

May 1974

Pantha returns to Fayetteville Foundling Home, identifies herself as "Miss Jones", kills head of staff, Mr. Jenkins. Examines her records. (Childhood Haunt, Warren Vampirella #33)

May 1975

Pantha befriends Jack Kimble. Kimble murdered by mugger. (Straw on the Wind, Warren Vampirella #42)

Aug 1975

Pantha raped in her apartment by black intruder, leaves NYC. Assumes new alias of Terry White. Placed by agency as secretary/assistant to Prof. Sol Goldman. Travels to Egypt on archeological expedition w/ Goldman and Jewish/American colleagues. Russian expedition under Boris Brullow has discovered 3000 yr old spaceship in tomb. American expedition expelled, murdered by "Arab terrorists", actually contracted by Soviets. Pantha learning to control metamorphoses. (Changing, Warren Vampirella #44)

Apr 1976

Panther girl (not Pantha) attacks Vampirella in Wildwood Cemetery, Central City. Vampi obtains Khafra Stone. Fleur, Nubia El Amarna provide history of extraterrestrial Cat People, descendents of Khafra. (Both refer to Khafra, not Fellus). Pantha and spaceship held by Brullow in Soviet embassy in Egypt. Vampi frees Pantha, who leaves Earth in spaceship. Khafra Stone(s) passed down among Cat People, required to keep from going insane from transformations, allows any wearer to transform, restores Pantha’s memory of her past. Second spaceship found under Wildwood Cemetery. (Wildwood Cemetery round-robin story arc, Warren Vampirella #50)

Aug 1977

Wounded Vampirella healed, transported to Drakulon by alien medic Starpatch. Pantha on Drakulon attacks Vampi. Vampi applies Khafra Stone amulet, restores Pantha. Starpatch returns Vampi and Pantha to Earth. Pantha wants to go to Hollywood. (To Be a Bride in Death, Warren Vampirella #66)


Vampi and Pantha become Hollywood starlets. (The Glorious Return of Sweet Baby Theda, Warren Vampirella #67)

Aug 1979

Battlemaid Slandra from Lupae kidnaps Vampi and Pantha from Hollywood party. Spaceship in geostationary orbit above California. Pendragon conjures demon N’gorath to free them. Ror applies brain-blank mind-wipe. Escape shuttle crashes in Santa Monica Bay. (Slaves of the Alien Amazon, Warren Vampirella #80)

Aug 1980

Vampi rejects Adam’s marriage proposal. Adam and Pantha begin separate collaboration, romance based out of Van Helsing NYC townhouse. (A Gathering of Wizards, Warren Vampirella #89)

Sept 1980

Burglar steals Eye of Anubis amulet from Van Helsing townhouse, transforms into wolf-headed Lupae Rahma Taht. Battles Pantha and Adam. (Eye of Anubis, Warren Vampirella #90)

May 1981

Pantha and Adam seek Tomb of Fellus. Pantha impersonates Bast to overpower tomb raiders. They find Fellus’ skyraider and ion battlesuit. (Night of the Cat Goddess, Warren Vampirella #96)

Apr 1982

Starpatch revives Slandra, who kidnaps Adam, hunts Pantha. Slandra kills zoo panther instead, returns to Lupae. Ror to receive rejuv treatment. (Death Snare!, Warren Vampirella #104)

July 1982

Conrad discovers Pantha is genetically incompatible with humans, would produce half-animal monstrosity child. Pantha and Adam split up. Adam was going to propose. (On the Trail of the Cat, Warren Vampirella #106)

Dec 1982

Adam and Vampi resume collaboration, hostility and mixed feelings about former romance and Adam/Pantha affair. (A Feast of Fear, Warren Vampirella #110)

Mar 1983

Vampi and Pantha reconcile on Jamaica-bound Caribbean cruise, battle eco-terrorist Dr. James Elkins. (Feeding Frenzy, Warren Vampirella #112)

Apr 1983

Vampirella becomes spinster schoolmistress Ella Normandy (Vampirella: Morning in America)


Biopreparat scientist Vladimir Pasechnik defects. West learns of Soviet bioweapons program.

Nov 1989

Berlin Wall falls, Germany reunited.


Soviet anthrax stockpiles buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island.


Biopreparat lobbies to cease offensive bioweapons production.

May 1991

Vampirella returns from being Ella Normandy. (Vampirella: Morning in America)

Jun 1991

Yugoslavia dissolves.

Dec 1991

Gorbachev resigns, Soviet Union collapses.

Jan 1992

14,000 UNPROFOR peacekeeping troops deployed to Croatia to enforce cease-fire between Croats and Serbs. 1992-1995 Serbs, Croats, Muslims battle in Bosnia. UN troops, NATO air strikes employed. 1995 Dayton Peace Accord.

Apr 1992

Boris Yeltsin issues Edict #390, outlaws offensive bioweapons.


European Union formed from former European Economic Community.

Mar 1993

European Alliance leader Martine Andrecou under Dracula’s control. War with unknown enemy occurring in Europe. European troops being sacrificed to werewolves allied to Dracula. (Vampirella: The Dracula War #3)

Sept 1996

Sebastian, GaGa killed. (Vampirella: Death & Destruction #3)

Mar 1997

Pantha escapes Danse Macabre Institute, kills four sadistic captor scientists. Victims include Dr. Dick ‘Q-Man’ Slink (sells torture photos), Dr. Dusty Savage (masochist, discipline by Naughty Nun), Dr. Otto Von Scheisse (discipline by Nazi dominatrix). Vampi intercedes to save Von Scheisse from Pantha, killed by zoo cats instead. (Vampirella vs. Pantha #1)

Apr 1997

Dr. Esterbrook heads Danse Control, Boston. Area Two described. (Vampirella vs. Hemorrhage #1)

Jan 1999

Dr. Midwinter’s group meets in Berlin. Project Scarab to capture Pantha and Scarab of Atum-Ra, institute New Cosmic Order. Vogel lobbies for Lebenstod Program, killed by Midwinter. (Year of the Cat, Vampirella Monthly #0)

Dec 1999

Taltos, Balkan vampire hunter, working for Midwinter’s New Order. Taltos a werewolf, member of Cult of the Wolf. Cult seeks racial purity, aligned with WWII Nazis. (Dangerous Games, Vampirella Monthly #21-22)
Hellfire Club, London, leader Lord Henry Baskerville. Members are werewolves, serve Dogstar gods of Sirius. Midwinter’s niece Sigrid is fake sacrificial victim, steals Scarab of Atum-Ra. (Hellfire Hounds, Vampirella Monthly #21-22)

Apr 2000

Pantha captured, tortured by Midwinter. Midwinter forms pact with Lady Death. Midwinter shoots Sigrid, killed by Vampirella. (The Revenge, Vampirella #24; The End, Vampirella #26)

Oct 2001

Maj. Edgar Martin Eichmann overruns vampire town of Gentle Creek (Nowheresville, Vampirella #3)

Jan 2002

State of the Union address, President Bush identifies Iraq as part of "Axis of Evil".

Jun 2002

West Point address, Bush doctrine of preemptive military strikes announced.

Jun 2002

Wehrmacht werewolves, frozen 1945, being transported under order of Gen. Whitefire. Semi accident in Death Valley frees Wehrmacht. Pantha, working as exotic dancer in Las Vegas, battles werewolves. "My head’s still screwed up after what they did to me at the Institute." (Pantha, Vampirella #10)

Sept 2002

Bush addresses UN, states US prepared to take unilateral preemptive action against Iraq, UN will become irrelevant if it doesn’t enforce sanctions.

Sept 2002

National Security Strategy released, elaborates preemption doctrine.

Mar 2003

Iraq War begins.

Apr 2003

Montauk technicians repairing World’s End Circus train. Dr. Kessler conducts necrosphere experiments in New Mexico. (Blood & Roses, Vampirella #19)

Oct 2003

Tristan and Chelsea return. Vampirella confronts the events that drove her to become Ella Normandy for eight years, battles to stop Belphegor, one of Chaos’ Seven Servants, from invading Earth. (Vampirella: Northern Lights fan fiction, Dec. 2004)

Apr 2004

Pantha conjured, bound(?) by Christy, kills her abusive stepfather. (Bound, Vampirella Magazine #5)

Dec 2004

US Marine testifies in Canadian court that US forces deliberately targeted civilians in Iraq. (U.S. troops deliberately shot civilians, ex-marine says, The Vancouver Sun, Dec. 9, 2004)

Dec 2004

Estimated 240,000 lives lost in Sumatra tsunami.

      For a non-fiction account of Biopreparat and the Soviet biological weapons program, interested readers are referred to Biohazard by Ken Alibek, Random House, Inc., 1999.
      The reference to Marine Corps Unit 10 Zulu in Chapter 3 is intended as a homage to Matrix producer Joel Silver’s short-lived year 2000 television series Freedom, which foresaw the potential threat to democracy and civil liberties posed by an out-of-control war on terrorism. 10 Zulu was lead character Owen Decker’s fictional Marine Corps wetworks unit.
      Galaxy Quest and the character of Gwen DeMarco, mentioned in Chapter 4, are copyright 1999 by DreamWorks LLC.