The old mine was a piece of West Virginia’s coal mining history. Standing in the low-roofed tunnel almost a thousand feet underground, General Tobias Creek was less interested in history and more interested in modern construction.

“You sure this is safe?” he asked the skinny nerd wearing the miner’s helmet.

“Perfectly. The entire structure has been reinforced with steel rods and braces using the most up-to-date mining techniques. It helps that this area is geologically stable,” the smaller man said. Short and slender with crazy curly red hair and blue eyes, Dr. Carl Clark’s calm, matter-of-fact tone inspired more confidence than his outward appearance.

The two men left the thoroughly modern elevator and stepped across the dusty, coal-strewn floor of the tunnel to a wall-to-wall steel bulkhead and its attendant vault door. Dr. Clark placed his hand on a biometric reader while leaning forward to look into a strategically placed camera.

“Retinal scan?” Creek asked with mild professional curiosity.

“Facial recognition. The security system is completely cut off from the outside world, so there’s no chance of… contamination. In the event of an unauthorized attempt at entry, the system launches a drone positioned in the ventilation shaft, which in turn ascends to the surface and transmits all known data on the attack,” the scientist said as the multi-ton door opened silently.

“Good. We don’t need to lose additional state-of-the-art assets, now do we?” Creek asked.

“That was an unfortunate turn of events, General, one that nobody anticipated,” Clark said.

“That’s my point, Dr. Clark. We should be anticipating everything. That’s our job,” Creek said, peering into the dark space beyond the door.

Behind him, Clark sneered for a split second, wiping his expression back to what he imagined was a cool, detached look when Creek glanced back at him.

The newly revealed tunnel burst into brightness as overhead lights activated in sequence, one after another blinking on in what seemed like an endless row that stretched far into the distance. The tunnel was otherwise unchanged from the time the last coal miner had left it, the only additions being a double row of round black metal balls, each almost three feet in diameter.

“They stay curled up like that?” Creek asked.

“It’s their default resting state. Less identifiable, extremely space efficient, and almost invulnerable in this position. We’ve also found that our personnel are more comfortable when they’re rolled up,” Clark answered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Creek noted.

“You’ve seen the videos of them in action, General?”

Creek was silent for a moment, looking out at the seemingly endless rows of black orbs. “Yes. Your development process was… unorthodox.”

“I got the idea from ‘The Incredibles.’”

“The what?” Creek asked.

“You know, the Disney movie… with Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl? The cartoon? Don’t you have grandchildren, General?” the scientist asked.

“Oh. The superhero movie?”

“Yes. Mr. Incredible loses his job and takes another as a tester of robot designs. But he doesn’t know that each design is made with improvements to overcome his strengths. Syndrome is using him to build a robot that can overcome any superhero. We did the same thing with captured lycanthropes and hemivores,” Clark said, simultaneously waving his right hand at the nearest orb. “The current generation of Pede is thirty percent larger, able to attack forward, backward, from its dorsal or ventral sides. The fore and aft mandibles are injectors that can carry a variety of agents, from neurotoxins to silver nitrate. All twelve segments can spin independently of each other in both directions, and most of the expandable blades are silver, as you no doubt noted in the final test sequence. The armor has a depleted uranium coating for density and to protect against—well, you know who. ”

The orb unfolded and rose up, the matte black metal clicking as it reached six feet in height with another three feet of insectile segments still on the ground. Despite himself, Creek found he had backed up a step in the face of the gleaming, needle-sharp mandibles.

“You know the last test subject was a teenage boy, right? Not the largest or most experienced of the species,” the general said.

“He was all we could find. But he was still impressive in his second form, and the Pede handled him with ease.”

“True. You’re controlling it with that wrist unit?” Creek asked, trying not to think of the bloody footage.

“Yes, the unit tells the Pedes that I’m the command soldier. They will follow some hand signals and all voice commands of the wearer,” Clark said, rolling his right hand over and making a palm down gesture. The menacing insectoid robot immediately curled back into a giant black beach ball of death.

“What does the unit on your left wrist do?” Creek asked.

“Oh, that’s a fitness tracker my wife gave me. Counts my footsteps, monitors heart rate; things like that,” the scientist said, holding it up for view. Lights flashed and blinked across the face of the tracker. He tapped the black band, tapped it again, then shook it. “Although it seems to be on the fritz. Odd. It’s virtually brand new. What can I say… poor quality control.”

General Creek grimaced as he watched the man fiddle with what seemed to be a senseless toy. Fitness came from hard work and determination, not some cheap, foreign-made piece of crap that basically told you that you were a lazy sloth.

Shaking his head, Creek turned and left the storage vault, Dr. Clark following even as he still looked at his left wrist. The vault door swung shut and far in the distance, the overhead lights started to blink off in reverse sequence.

The closest orb had settled into complete stillness, but as the heavy steel door chunked shut, it quivered. Just a small, almost unnoticeable vibration. Then its nearest neighbor did the same thing, as did the one across the row.

The quiver passed down the line of black orbs, running opposite to the approaching darkness of the powering-down lights, a strange meeting of beginning and ending.

Chapter 1 – Chris

Solid and immovable, the Huddlestone Arch loomed in front of me, a flood of memories running through me as I studied it and waited. In my mind, I could clearly see the images of the boy and his werewolf mother tucked into one of the craggy crevices, both watching me distrustfully.

My most recent years of life were newly revealed to me and I still reveled in each crisp memory whenever and wherever they were triggered. Scent seemed to be the most powerful agent of recall, followed by sound and sight. The smell of a lilac bush will take me instantly to multiple memories of Tanya, but this spot had its own power to evoke.

Footsteps coming from the other side of the arch brought me back to the here and now, but it was a few seconds before the body that had made the sounds appeared.

A short, muscular man of middle years, with close-cropped brown hair and a tightly groomed mustache and beard marched down the pathway through the arch. He wore dark Oakley sunglasses, worn hiking boots, gray cargo pants, and a loose, dark blue polo shirt; well-muscled arms swung at his side as he moved confidently to the middle of the darkened archway. He stared my way but said nothing as he came to a stop under the arch. After a second, he grimaced and waved me over.

“About a confused-looking, non-cover-taking son of bitch, aren’t ya?” he growled.

Bemused, I walked over to him. Five-five , maybe five-six and about a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet, he had a confidence much larger than he was. I knew he knew who I was because I had introduced myself when I’d hired him. It hadn’t seemed to impress him much.

His first name was Mark and I hadn’t found out his last name. Mr. Deckert had given me a slip of paper with just the first name and phone number on it when I’d asked him for a discreet investigator who was knowledgeable about the intelligence community.

“We ain’t standing out in the open for this shit, ya know. I’m not even certain this spot is safe,” he said, scanning the surrounding area. “No phone or electronics of any kind, right?”

I shook my head, having stripped myself of all items that used batteries for anything.

Nobody was nearby, I was certain, or at least Grim was certain. Likewise, there were no drones, planes, or satellites focused on us, according to my combat persona.

“I’ll say this for ya. You do things big. I saw the Washington FUBAR on video, Jack. Fucked-up stuff,” he said, still scanning the area.

It took me a second to realize that the word Jack wasn’t a mistaken name for me but more of a temporary nickname like bub or pal.

“This scenario is just as big… maybe bigger. Nice little clusterfuck you landed me in the middle of,” he said without rancor, stopping his side-to-side scanning to study me with a tilted head.

“You are going to pay me for this intel dump, right?” he asked.

I pulled the envelope from my pocket and handed it to him. Tucking it away in his cargo pocket, he continued to study me, with an occasional glance around.

“Okay, I had to really dredge deep through all my best HUMINT assets to get this name,” he said, passing me a folded piece of paper. I opened the page to find a neatly hand-printed word: ANVIL.

Looking up, I opened my mouth, but he spoke first. “Don’t! Do not say that word out loud. This thing has ears everywhere.”

“Is it DARPA’s?” I asked quietly.

He frowned at that name, but shook his head. “Nope, comes from the good ole boys at No Such Agency,” he said.

No Such Agency—NSA.

“It was side project, lower echelon importance. Nobody told the Poindexters writing the code that, though. They made some kind of breakthrough, a radical adaptive software system that was self-diagnostic and self-repairing for any and all security, logic, and performance-based vulnerabilities as well as a result of exposure to other software, lower performance operating platforms, or reduced resource environments. It was a surveillance program—surprise. NSA after all. But the thing took off and adapted itself and its mission and they lost control of it.”

His change from rough talking to sophisticated briefing caught me a little off guard, but I overcame my surprise. “What was its original mission?”

“To monitor e-mail traffic for national security threats. It seems to have broadened its task to monitor all electronics and now to eliminate threats. It’s been massively effective. Believed to be responsible for destroying three Islamic State training camps, killing six high-ranking terrorist leaders, and preventing, at minimum, four domestic terrorist attacks. Oh and get this, Jack, it was also supposed to be undetectable by security software, a mission it also took to new extremes.”

“So, what? It takes over drones and things to attack?” I asked.

“Takes over drones, issues false combat orders to ships, special operations units, and federal law enforcement, freezes assets in banks and financial institutions around the world, puts people on the no-fly list, hijacks cellular, wi-fi, and computer systems everywhere, and a whole shit-storm of things we probably don’t even know about,” he said.

“Like launching missiles,” I muttered before asking, “How come they haven’t stopped it?”

“They don’t know how. The lead programmer had a stroke and is trying to relearn how to feed himself and wipe his own ass. The other programmer is scared shitless. Listen, that’s all I know and all I’m gonna find out. This thing is more dangerous than you can imagine. So thanks for the pay, but I’m done,” he said.

“I understand,” I said, meaning it. I really did have a good idea what this program could do. “Tell me, did you serve in the Marines with Deckert?”

“Do I look like a frigging jarhead to you? I was Naval Intelligence, and don’t even start with the oxymoron shit. Heard it all before, yada yada yada. We’re the ones who point the spear and send it home, Jack. Worked with SEAL Team Six and Force Recon assets,” he said.

I smiled, nodded, and held out my hand. His little rant finished, he shook my hand, nodded back once. Grim was tracking a set of soft running footsteps coming up behind me. Without seeing her, I still knew it was a young woman, athletic, maybe a hundred twenty pounds, heart rate at just over a hundred and forty beats a minute.

Grim was watchful but didn’t consider her an active threat, so I just stood back and turned to look, making sure the hood of my sweatshirt covered my head. Mark looked at me oddly before his own human ears told him someone was coming.

We both looked out of the arch and saw a fit, attractive girl come running down the path, her eyes wary as she took us in. We both moved over to give her room and she shot through the arch and on down the path. Mark’s eyes followed her spandexed form before he turned to me. “I’ll take that as my cue.” Then he took off after her, jogging in his boots and cargo pants, twice her age and five inches shorter and not caring a wit. As he took off, I heard him mutter, “–about a non-angel-looking motherfucker,” and then he was around the corner and gone.

It had to go down as one of the most interesting meetings I’ve ever had, especially since the coverage of the events in Washington. Still amused by Deckert’s guy, I turned and headed south, toward lower Manhattan, toward home.

Chapter 2 – Declan

I kind of hate the part in the movies when the new kid hits the streets of the Big Apple and he or she is always all awestruck, wide-eyed, and obvious. Damn me if I didn’t turn out to be that same kid. What can I say? The late afternoon sun gleaming on the glass and steel buildings was just flat-out impressive.

Luckily, most of my gawking occurred inside the confines of Beast’s metal skin, which made me less noticeable but also made the tough driving tougher. Not to mention the noise and confusion, people cutting me off, cars careening around corners, pedestrians stepping out into oncoming death with complete nonchalance.

The sheer massive energy of millions of people and cars was overwhelming, almost intoxicating, not to mention the buses, trucks, cabs, and the rumbling subway underneath. What couldn’t I do with that much ambient power? An image of my aunt shaking a finger at me popped into my head.

Somehow I made it to the Demidova Tower without hitting anyone or getting hit and pulled into the underground parking where a guard noted my name, handed me a parking pass, and directed me to a spot near the elevators. He seemed to have expected me, which made me feel great right up until I took the elevator to the lobby.

When the door slid open to reveal a vast, open space dominated by massive, gleaming stone columns that reached three stories high, and a polished granite floor that seemed to stretch forever, I was back to gawking again. Which was noticed almost instantly by a group of fifteen or sixteen college-aged kids who were camped out in the seating area. A truly diverse-looking group, most of whom were probably a few years older than me, they were dressed casually, as opposed to me—in the suit that my aunt had insisted I wear.

The obvious thing to do was to head to the reception desk while ignoring the handful of kids, some of who were watching me with vast amusement.

“Can I help you?” the big security guy seated at the desk asked.

“My name is Declan O’Carroll. I’m here to see Chris and Tanya,” I said, realizing as I did just how unlikely it had to sound.

He looked me up and down, face blank. “I’ll need to see some identification,” he said in a neutral tone that made me wonder how many wackos showed up daily looking to meet with the newly famous couple.

I handed over my Vermont driver’s license and he punched my name into his terminal. An immediate frown was the result, which occurred simultaneously with an itchy voice in the back of my head. Not Sorrow’s voice, but the intuition I’d developed around technology that told me something was different. The guard, whose nametag said Andrew, poked at the keyboard for a moment, his finger strikes getting more forceful in the manner of someone attempting to speed up the computer through sheer force.

“Hey Joe, can you look at this?” Andrew asked over his shoulder. Another big guy wearing the black uniform of Demidova Security stepped over and looked at the screen.

“What the hell did you do to it?” Joe asked.

“Nothing—I just put this kid’s name in and the whole thing froze up,” Andrew said. “Says he’s here to see Miss Demidova and Mr. Gordon.”

The other guard, Joe, looked me over, clearly not buying it. “The guard in the garage booth found my name okay or I don’t think he would have let me park my car down there,” I offered, still getting an odd vibe from the computer.

“I’ll call down to the garage and see what Morgan has to say,” Joe said, picking up a phone. “Why don’t you have a seat near the interns while we sort this out?”

The seating he was pointing me at was fairly close to the group of kids who were also, apparently, interning here this summer. Chris hadn’t told me about other interns, although he had said the dress code was flexible depending on the situation and not to worry about it. Of course, Aunt Ashling had decided that meant I needed to worry about it and hence my new, uncomfortable, off-the-rack suit.

Ignore them. Show them no emotion, Sorrow offered, which was a big improvement, as a short time ago it would have suggested much more violent ideas.

If they continue to disrespect you, crush their throats and let them suffocate where they stand. And there we go—backsliding again.

I sat as far from my fellow interns as possible and watched the rest of the room, taking the time to examine the feelings I had gotten about the Demidova computer system. Or maybe from the system.

The guard was still trying to get it to unfreeze, growing more frustrated by the second. I extended my senses in that direction, not expecting much at this distance. Instead, I was shocked at the feeling of power I got—massive power. Then it moved. One second, it was like a dark cloud around the terminal, the next it was across the room, centered around the eight or nine open laptops and tablets the interns had out, spreading to their cell phones as well. It was almost palpable to my other sense, which was either operating on a much higher level then it ever had before or the cloud was just that noticeable.

“You an intern too?” a voice asked from the row of seats behind mine. I turned to find a sharp-eyed older kid of mixed heritage looking at me curiously. He wore jeans and a black tee that said May the Mass times Acceleration be with you with a Star Wars-themed logo around it.

“I guess I am,” I said, instantly regretting my words.

“You guess? You don’t know?” he asked, incredulous and slightly amused, like I had just handed him a gift.

“Well, I should have phrased that differently. I know I’m an intern, I’m just not sure I’m in the same program you are,” I said.

“You’re not a comp sci student then?” he asked, his amusement replaced by curiosity. More than a few of the other kids were listening to our conversation. Some of them seemed normally curious. Some seemed like they were waiting for a punchline.

“Yeah, but I don’t think that’s why I’m here.”

“Not that good a programmer?” he asked, expression innocent, eyes predatory.

I studied him for a second, recognizing the type. The smart kid who uses his brains, academic achievements, and IQ score the way a bully used their muscles.

“What are you… a senior? MIT? RPI? CalTech?” I asked back.

“Graduate student at MIT. Good guess. Let me try—you’re a… sophomore? At community tech?” he asked back, getting a laugh from a couple of the guys who were watching. His glance back at them was directed more at the three girls sitting on one couch than the dudes, though. And probably mostly at the pretty brunette in the middle. Ah, trying to impress the ladies.

So predictable, Sorrow said.

I found myself agreeing with the evil sentient book that lived inside me.

“Wow. Look at you. So proud. Mommy and Daddy’s little guy all grown up in the big city,” I shot back.

He pulled back a bit, clearly not expecting my aggressive counter. He was, after all, older, and if he was running around quizzing people about their standings, then it reasoned that his were near the top.

“You should learn to speak to people with more respect. It might have a big impact on your future,” he said, now going for the rational older student approach.

“Hah, good advice. Try some yourself. I’m not in your program. I’m not here for programming. My skill set is… different… very different. It doesn’t fit into your neat little world. So step off, MIT. Bother someone else with your status game. Or maybe you could fix your own cell phone, if you’re so smart and all,” I said, pointing at his pocket, where I could sense it. The cloud that I could only feel, not see, had crept closer, moving into unopened laptops and cell phones until it was as close as the douche canoe’s own Android treasure.

Part of me was weirding out about how vivid this all was: the image of the cloud, the sense of it in individual pieces of electronics that I wasn’t even touching. The other part was noticing that it hadn’t come near my own phone or the Macbook in the computer case at my feet.

MIT frowned at me, pulled his phone and looked at it, then started to push keys with increasing frustration.

“What did you do to my phone?” he demanded.

“What’s the matter? Need help? Here, let me look at it,” I offered, extending my right hand toward him. The runes and glyphs on my skin darkened to visibility as my hand got near the phone in his hand. The cloud pulled back, the phone’s display lit up, MIT gaped at me, and the guard at the desk called my name.

“Mr O’Carroll? Sir, our system is back up and your appointment is clear. We’ve called the executive suite and someone will be right down to get you… sir.”

“Thank you,” I said, mildly shocked at the sudden respect in his voice. What the hell was on that monitor screen?

MIT had an odd look on his face; half constipation and half strangled frustration.

“We done here?” I asked.

I’ll give him this… his recovery time was fast. The confusion left his face and he leaned closer. “Done? I don’t think we’ve started.”

“Good,” I said, smiling. “Because the last thing we want to do is get started. That would be bad. Real bad.”

A woman’s loud gasp by the elevator precluded his response and we both turned to look.

One of the center elevators had opened and the woman was backing away from it, a look of panic on her face.

A massive wolf flowed out of the elevator and stopped, swiveling its big head till it locked on to us like a tank turret. Seven feet long, standing three-and-a-half feet at the shoulder with a black cape over tannish brown fur, it was impressive and instantly recognizable to just about anyone in the world who had seen any form of media in the last six or seven months.

Awasos started walking right toward MIT and me, his form suddenly shimmering and shifting until a much, much larger Kodiak brown bear walked where the wolf had been moments before.

God’s gift to programming pulled back, tripping in his haste to get back to the other kids, who were either frozen or falling back themselves.

Awasos ignored him and stayed focused on me, while everyone else focused on him. I’m not sure that anyone else noticed the woman who stepped off the elevator behind ‘Sos, but I sure did. It must have been one of the few times she hadn’t commanded instant attention upon entering a room, and I think she might have been amused by it. Or perhaps just amused to see the massive beast beeline straight for me.

“What do we do?” Andrew the guard asked.

“We don’t do anything… anything at all,” the other one, Joe, answered.

As if they could. For the second time in minutes, I found myself agreeing with Sorrow.

Awasos, even ambling along, covered the distance between us in a shockingly short time. I wasn’t exactly scared as he came up to me, but let’s just say he had my attention. His head was almost level with mine and the hump on his shoulders was over my head. He seemed to take up as much space as the whole reception desk.

“Ah, hey ‘Sos,” I said, a little uncertain. A nose the size of a big apple snuffled my suit, then moved down to my feet—or rather the computer case at my feet. Ah… that’s it.

I unzipped the case and pulled out the Lupus Industries pemmican bar tucked inside. An outdoor store in Burlington sold them and they were made in upstate New York. This one was elk meat, and I knew it was really tasty. I wasted no time in ripping the package open and stuffing it into his open mouth.

“What the hell are you feeding him?” Stacia Reynolds asked, coming up behind him, dressed down in a blue golf shirt and soft, worn-looking jeans with little moccasins on her feet. Everyone else on the ground floor was staring at us.

“Anything he wants. Anything at all, right buddy?” I asked as I dared to ruffle his neck fur.

“You know he likes you well enough without the bribes, don’t you?” she asked.

“Don’t know anything of the sort. I do know that he likes meaty snacks, though, so that’s what I’m not going to be.”

“Bloody ace!” a soft voice breathed in awe. I glanced over to find the pretty brunette intern staring at Awasos with a look of wonder on her face. Then she glanced at me and frowned.

I looked away even as my brain deciphered her accent and came up with Australian. Awesome. Hot brainy Aussie girl and she was so not impressed with my little exchange with the Grad-u-nut student.

She will cower at your feet. Oh yeah… evil grimoire living under my skin. Right. No dating for Declan.

Ignoring the girl, I looked at Stacia, who was smiling at me, an evil gleam in her beautiful green eyes. Great. She’d caught that whole little exchange.

“Right, so what now, Camp Counselor Reynolds?” I asked.

“Right now, we take you to the exec suite. After that, we can get your stuff, or do we send somebody for it?” Stacia said, looking at me.

“Ah, no. Beast doesn’t play well with others,” I said, picking up my computer case and the empty wrapper. Then I looked at Stacia’s shirt, well, at the name on her shirt. Let’s be honest: myself and every guy in the place had already been looking at her shirt and I bet not a damn one of the others had read the advertising either.

Lupus Industries. I looked down at the pemmican wrapper. Same thing.

She was grinning when I looked up. “My Pack. Chris actually started the whole pemmican business. Fur Face here gets free bars all the time.”

“You mean he played me? Like a chump?” I asked, looking over to the huge brown eyes that were trying to appear innocent.

“Of course. He’s ruthless where food is concerned. But don’t you think he knows who gave him back his best friend? His father figure, brother figure, and closest pal?”

“Oh,” I said brilliantly, likely further impressing the girl from Down Under, who was shamelessly listening like everyone else nearby. “Hadn’t thought of that. I tend to concentrate on the furry battle tank barreling down at me and forget to do the whole psycho babble analysis.”

She laughed, moved up close, and gave me a quick hug and then turned to go, holding onto the sleeve of my suit coat as if to tow me by main force.

“Nice suit, by the way. Covered in bear fur, but nice,” she said.

“Ah Miss Reynolds?” Joe the security guard asked.

“Yes Joe?”

“Mr. O’Carroll will need a security badge, ma’am,” he said.

“Oh right. Thanks for reminding me,” Stacia replied. She reached two fingers into a tightly fitted back pocket and fished out a plastic card that appeared to have my picture already on it. I had to wrestle down the instant impulse to pull out my phone and text Mack that my face (or a facsimile thereof) had been pressed against Stacia Reynold’s butt. Juvenile yes, but what can I say?

My hand actually twitched toward my pocket before I reined it in and instead reached out and took the thick plastic ID card from her hand.

“Ah, thanks,” I muttered, pinning the card onto my jacket as I followed her to the elevator, three-quarters of a ton of bear walking alongside me like a furry brown wall. The entire room was standing stock-still and staring as we waited for the elevator to open.

“’Sos, elevator size please,” Stacia said, and the bear became a wolf as we stepped into the car. As the door closed, I could still see the interns watching, mostly wide-eyed. The Aussie girl still had a little frown. Way to impress the ladies, O’Carroll.

Copyright John Conroe