Northeastern Texas – Base Camp – Evening
Using the outside lights from the transport, Jocasta and the rest of the mission team were scrambling to set up their base camp, which had been assigned a location that was a safe distance from the Anomalous Zone. The four slayers were efficiently assembling the large bio-pod dome and the communications array. Jocasta was helping James and Anya sort through the technical equipment that they would be installing inside the command center. Cooper was assisting Captain Applegate with a check of the transport. Once again, Dr. Burkle was in her own world, pacing the area as she scanned equations on her datapad and murmured to herself.
As Livia and Katherine erected the communications array, Mira and Finola worked on the bio-pod. Every so often, Finola would pause and glance at Cooper over by the transport. When she did that, her lips would curl into a lusty smile.
Mira chuckled and said, “Coop must be mighty good, the way you look at him all the time.”
“He’s a ride to write ’ome about, lemme tell ye,” Finola replied with enthusiasm. “He can really wear me ’ead off when he puts ’is mind to it. You should see ’im in the nip. I nearly wet me knickers first time I saw ’is—”
“Okay,” Mira interrupted, holding up her hands. “That’s way more information than I really wanted.”
“You asked,” Finola pointed out. “You wantin’ to know what it’s like bein’ with a werewolf? You maybe thinkin’ ’bout expandin’ your ’orizons to our furry friends?”
“No!” Mira instantly answered. She softened her tone. “I mean, I don’t know. I…” Her gaze somehow ended up on Livia a distance from them. “I’m not really thinking about anyone right now.”
Finola cut her eyes to see what Mira was looking at; then she smiled knowingly. “It doesn’t matter who or what the other person is,” the Irish slayer told her. “What matters is ’ow you feel about ’em and ’ow they feel about you.”
Finola returned to her work, and after another moment of staring at Livia, Mira did the same. Within twenty minutes, the team had the base camp set up and operational.
Base Camp – Bio-Pod – A Short Time Later
The team was gathered inside the temporary command center. James was making adjustments to a handheld device of some kind. He snapped a panel shut, powered up the device, and looked over to Anya at the main computer.
“Check it, Anya,” he told her, and the android’s fingers flew over the keys.
She peered at her monitor and then said, “Link-up is complete.”
“Super,” James said. Then he turned to Jocasta. “Between me and An, we should be able to triangulate our tracking inside the Zone. Our system’s similar to the technology that the networks used for their hovercams during the Battle for the HDT—only better, of course.”
“Excellent,” Jocasta replied. “Let’s load up, folks!” she called out. Everyone started leaving the pod except for James, Anya, Finola, and Cooper. Jocasta walked over to Anya. “You’re James’s partner on this, so stay focused, all right?”
“Aye, aye, Cap’n!” she said, giving a salute. James cringed a bit.
Jocasta turned to Finola and Cooper. “You two…keep Anya safe.”
As they nodded, Anya interjected, “If they’re here to protect me, does that mean I’m the boss?”
“No,” all four humans instantly answered. Anya pouted.
“Come on, James,” Jocasta said. “We’ve got a non-stop flight into the AZ waiting for us.”
As Jocasta left and Finola and Cooper went about tidying the rest of the bio-pod, James made his goodbyes to Anya.
“Be careful, Anya,” he told her. “I really don’t want to have to put you back together again.”
“I don’t either,” she replied. “My ass has been off three millimeters ever since my rebuild.”
James smiled widely and chuckled. “That’s my An.” He started for the doorway. “I’ll radio you once we’re inside.”
As he turned for the door, he heard his name called. When he turned back around, he was nearly tackled by Anya, who pulled him into a desperate hug.
“Don’t get killed,” she told him.
James returned the hug. “I won’t,” he promised. “Gotta go.”
After that, he pulled away and ran outside to the waiting transport.
The Mako – Cockpit – Moments Later
Applegate was at the controls in the captain’s chair. Next to him in co-pilot’s seat was Dr. Burkle. Jocasta stood behind them, looking out at the Anomalous Zone ahead of them. Burkle ran her fingers over the surface of a datapad linked into the console.
“Follow these coordinates,” Burkle told Applegate. “This route will take us past the initial rings and into the heart of the Zone.”
“How long will it take?” Jocasta asked.
Burkle shrugged. “Time and space are somewhat relative here. It could take ten minutes or ten hours. Hard to say.”
“Great,” Jocasta said with mock enthusiasm. “I’ll go tell the others.”
The Mako – Passenger Area – Moments Later
Jocasta moved into the passenger area, where she found Katherine and James strapped into their seats ready to go. Livia and Mira, however, were grappling with a long box in the area where the passenger seating gave way to the cargo bay.
“What are you doing?” Jocasta asked. “We’re about to hit the Zone in… well, soon.”
“We’re bringing the Scythe in here,” Livia said.
“We want it near us,” Mira explained. “Near the slayers. You know…for luck.”
Jocasta’s brow furrowed, but she nodded, and the two slayers went back to securing the Scythe. As soon as they had latched the Scythe box in its new place, the transport suddenly whipped down, then up again, flinging Jocasta and the two slayers throughout the passenger bay. James let out a little girl scream and closed his eyes.
“Hang on!” Captain Applegate yelled over the intercom. “We’re going in!”
The transport continued lurching violently, but luckily, Katherine was able to grab Jocasta and pull her into her lap. Soon Jocasta had her very own personal slayer seatbelt holding her firmly in place. Sensing Katherine’s strong arms around her, Jocasta felt a least a little of her terror slip away.
In the back of the passenger area, Livia and Mira weren’t as lucky—at least not until Livia managed to reach out and snag the bottom of a cargo net with her left hand. When Mira tumbled by on the next pitch of the transport, Livia grabbed her and pulled her face-down on top her, wrapping her right arm around Mira’s waist.
Though they were nose to nose, Livia had to scream to be heard over the roar of the craft being pummeled by the turbulence of the Anomalous Zone. “I got ya!!!” she yelled.
Mira put her head down on Livia’s shoulder and hung on.
The Mako – Passenger Area – Moments Later
Eventually, the turbulence eased, and the transport stopped its extreme movements, settling into an even but bumpy ride. James kept his eyes closed, not yet willing to believe that things were safe. Jocasta breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against Katherine. At the back of bay, Mira, still in Livia’s grasp, pushed herself up on her arms and looked into Livia’s eyes.
“Are you all right?” she asked the woman beneath her.
“I’ll live. You?”
Mira nodded. Instead of moving aside to allow Livia up, though, she stayed right where she was, still staring into her friend’s eyes. Livia allowed the contact for a long moment, but then a smile crept onto her face.
“I should probably get up now,” she said in a teasing voice.
“Oh! Right,” Mira said.
Blushing furiously, Mira crawled backwards off of Livia and stood up. Then she leaned over and held out her hand. Livia took it, and Mira tugged the slayer to her feet.
“Thanks,” Livia said.
“Sure,” Mira replied.
Awkwardly distancing themselves from each other, the two slayers turned to the other passengers.
“Everybody all right?” Livia asked them. Receiving nods from all, Livia pointed at Jocasta and Mira. “Get belted in. I’m gonna check up front.”
The Mako – Cockpit – Moments Later
As Livia entered the cockpit, she found Applegate tense but in control. Burkle was gawking at the view through the wide windshield. Livia moved closer, and her mouth dropped open in awe. It was a landscape completely alien to Texas—wet, lush, tropical, yet ruggedly and darkly mountainous—but most importantly, it was day.
“Uhhh…wasn’t it nighttime a minute ago?” Livia asked.
Suddenly, a shape flew swiftly by in front of the windshield. Dr. Burkle jumped and screamed. “Oh dear God, what was that?!” She started unlatching her seatbelt.
Livia moved closer and tried to angle a better view out the window. Captain Applegate hit a button on his console, and a scanning view came up on his monitor. “We’ve got multiple bogeys,” he announced.
“Time to go, Doctor,” Livia said, pulling Dr. Burkle from the co-pilot’s chair. “Get in the back and strap down.” Once in the chair, Livia buckled herself in and put on a headset. She hit the intercom button. “Hang on, folks! We’ve got company!”
Applegate banked right as another flying shape swooped by on his left, but too quickly to be seen. The pattern was repeated on the right, causing the captain to swerve to the left. Then, out of the blue, one of the flying beasts came straight at them.
“Is that…?” Applegate asked.
“It sure looks like it,” Livia answered.
The beast was like a pterodactyl, only larger, with a gaping maw and enormous claws at the end of muscled legs. Livia didn’t take time to mull over the mystery; she merely blasted it from the sky.
“Great shot!” Applegate praised.
Before Livia could say thanks, two more beasts were bearing down on them. She opened fire, taking out one, but missing the other, allowing it to rake its talons across the top of the craft. Multiple alarms started blaring from the console.
“What’s going on out there?!” came Mira’s voice over the intercom.
“Can’t talk right now!” Livia yelled back.
Applegate swooped and swerved, trying to avoid the attacking beasts. Livia continued to take out more of them with her blasters, but there were just too many.
“Keep ’em in front of me, keep ’em in front of me!” Livia cried out.
“I’m trying!” Applegate shouted back.
The ship shook, and they heard a thud and the horrible sound of metal being sheared away. Suddenly, there was a crash into the left wing, and the engine on that side died. Applegate was fighting to keep control of the transport.
“Prepare for emergency landing!” he screamed over the radio.
Anomalous Zone – Cliff – Later
“Just pull it out!” Captain Applegate yelled.
“I can’t!” James replied, sounding anguished. “It’s…yicky. You pull it out!”
The two of them were staring at the left engine of The Mako. Lodged inside the turbine was what looked like a pterodactyl head. Black, foul-smelling blood dripped from the beast’s severed neck and was splattered all over the damaged ship. Although the main infrastructure of the vehicle was still intact, the hatch to the cargo bay had been clawed off, and much of their supplies had been lost. In addition, the roof of the transport had been raked by fearsome talons, and the main satellite communications array had been completely destroyed. Luckily, the team’s short-range radio system was still functional; they had been able to establish contact with the base camp but not beyond.
The transport had landed next to a sheer cliff of black rock. The ground was dark stone, too, and it was etched in unnatural rounded patterns. From below the distant sound of rushing water could be heard, and lush foliage could be seen. Despite the sun, patches of eerie fog swirled around and above them.
“Pansies,” Livia said with a smirk when she discovered Applegate and James fighting over who was going to handle the demon body.
She stepped between them and, without hesitation, pulled the pterodactyl head from the engine and threw it on the ground. The two men stared, dumbfounded.
A few moments later, Jocasta walked over. “Good work, guys,” she said offhandedly to James and Applegate before immediately turning to Livia. “Can we talk?” Her eyes momentarily shifted over to where Dr. Burkle was sitting on a rock near the edge of the cliff, fiddling with a small scientific device that looked like it had about three dials too many. “Someplace away?”
“Yeah, sure,” Livia nodded. She walked away with Jocasta.
“You want some hand sanitizer?” James called out.
“I’m good,” Livia replied without looking around. Casually, she wiped her hands on her uniform.
Livia and Jocasta walked over to where Mira and Katherine were waiting. Mira sat on the ground, looking a little woozy. In one hand she held the Scythe, having salvaged it from the transport. When Livia and Jocasta arrived, Mira put her hand on her stomach and stuck out her tongue.
“Ugh, I should be used to this,” Mira mumbled. “I fly the Seraphim, and I even voluntarily ride with her in her skimmer.” She pointed at Livia. “Still…I think I’ve had enough flying for one day.”
“Actually, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you guys about,” Jocasta said.
“You found some Dramamine?” Mira asked, perking up a bit.
“No, I mean, those demons,” Jocasta explained.
“They were kinda like the ones we ran into in Orlando,” Livia noted. “That’s weird, right?”
Jocasta nodded. “Yes, it’s definitely weird. Dinosaur demons like these are extremely rare. For them to be found two places on the same continent within such a short time span…”
“You think whatever happened in Orlando and what’s happening here are connected?” Katherine asked. “But…how?”
“More like who,” Jocasta said. Everyone looked at her incredulously.
“Wait…” Mira rose to her feet, experiencing a moment of unsteadiness before regaining her balance. “You’re telling me somebody made the Zone expand on purpose? That’s twelve kinds of stupid.”
“It’s twelve kinds of bad is what it is,” Livia put in.
Jocasta sighed. “I know it sounds crazy, but…the only connection I can come up with between here and the incident at Disney World is…”
“Dr. Burkle,” Livia finished. The slayer looked distinctly unhappy.
“Right,” Jocasta nodded.
“Hold on, why would she want this?” Katherine asked, brow knit.
“Yeah, what’s the point?” Mira said.
“And…look at her,” Katherine continued.
Everyone looked over to where Dr. Burkle was sitting. She appeared to be talking to herself, drawing in the air with one finger.
“Do you seriously think she’s capable of world-ending badness?” Katherine asked.
“I’m not accusing her of anything,” Jocasta said, hands held out defensively in front of her. “All I’m saying is, we should be careful.”
“Well, I for one never trusted her,” Livia said as the group began to walk back towards the transport. “Too many brain cells can make people do bizarre stuff.”
Katherine shot her fellow slayer a dirty look. Applegate walked over to meet them halfway.
“So, how’s it look?” Jocasta asked hopefully.
“Not so good,” he said. “The left engine’s injector is completely shot, the exhaust filter somehow got reversed, and the navigation computer thinks we’re in Rancho Cucamonga.”
“Can you fix it?” Katherine asked.
Applegate sadly shook his head. “I need major replacement parts, but in case you haven’t noticed…” He gestured to their surroundings. “…they’re not exactly available.”
“On foot it is, then!” Mira said with mock cheer. James looked even less happy.
At that point, a strange, low sound reached them out of the surrounding fog; it was halfway between a roar and a bellow. Six heads whipped around.
“Everyone else heard that, right?” James pleaded. “I’m not going insane from fear?”
“Definitely alive,” Livia stated, still listening. “Probably pretty large. I wouldn’t count out the possibility of pointy teeth.”
Dr. Burkle popped in then, dial-filled device in hand, and startled the heck out of James. “South Southeast!” she blurted.
“What now?” Jocasta asked warily.
“If my calculations are correct, then we should be able to reach the Source by traveling approximately South Southeast.”
Applegate reached into a pocket and pulled out a simple compass. The needle was spinning wildly. “Great. Which way is South Southeast?”
“Oh.” Dr. Burkle looked around, as if there would be a sign somewhere. Livia and Mira regarded her dubiously, Katherine with more interest. After a few moments, Burkle pointed.
“That would take us over the cliff,” Livia said, sounding like she was losing patience.
“Of course,” Burkle nodded vigorously. “Of course. Well, then.” After looking around for a few more moments, she pointed in the exact opposite direction.
Jocasta sighed. “South Southeast it is, then.”
Anomalous Zone – Forest – Later
As the Council team made its way down the perilous cliff, it moved into a lush, but still mountainous forest. Tall trees, heavy with foliage, towered over them. The air was calm and cool but humid.
About an hour into their hike, the eerie fog grew thick. As they passed through the mist, they saw swirling blue lights and the occasional crackling of what looked like bolts of electricity. When they saw flashes of shapes moving in the mist, they increased their speed and soon emerged from the fog.
Once outside, they found the landscape completely changed. It was now a hot, barren desert with an unforgiving wind. They raised their arms to protect their eyes from the whipping sand and pressed on.
After a couple of hours and another creepy layer of fog, the landscape once again abruptly shifted. They were back in the lush forest—this time beside a large stream. After the hot desert, the team welcomed the change. Livia held up her hand to signal a halt.
“Let’s take a break, folks,” Livia announced. “And drink plenty o’ water. No tellin’ when we’ll be back in the Sahara.”
Everyone nodded in relief and moved toward the stream. Jocasta and Katherine made their way toward one part of the bank. Mira moved down to a spot nearby. Before following after Mira, Livia stopped James and Applegate and pointed in Dr. Burkle’s direction.
“Keep an eye on her,” she instructed. “Make sure she doesn’t wander off.”
The two men nodded and headed toward the still confused physicist.
Now sitting on a large, flat boulder, Jocasta and Katherine sipped gratefully from their refilled water bottles. Despite the rigors of their hours-long hike, Jocasta seemed to be full of nervous energy. Katherine reached out and put her hand over Jocasta’s.
“Are you okay?” she gently asked the redhead.
“Yeah,” Jocasta replied. “I mean, I think so.” She pulled out of Katherine’s grasp in order to gesture with both hands. “I’m not really sure. I feel different…I feel…Don’t you feel it?”
“The magic…the energy…the power…It’s everywhere here.”
“Yes, I can feel it,” Katherine calmly confirmed. Then she asked, “Does it frighten you?”
“Yes!” Jocasta instantly answered. “It’s like what I felt with Cassandra. Something inside me is-is…growing…and-and tapping into something else…”
“This ‘something else’ you’re tapping into…is it a good something or a bad something?”
“I don’t know. That’s what scares me.” Jocasta’s eyes darted over the landscape. “This place makes me feel…jazzed up. I don’t know how else to put it. Like I’ve got more power than I know what to do with.” She turned back to Katherine, intense fear on her face. “What if I do something I shouldn’t? What if I—?”
Katherine stopped Jocasta’s impending “what if” rant by placing her hand over Jocasta’s heart. She gave her a reassuring smile and said, “You won’t.”
Jocasta put her hand over Katherine’s and returned the smile.
Nearby, Livia and Mira sat on a similar boulder. Unlike Katherine and Jocasta, they had sat in silence. Courtesy of their slayer hearing, they had been able to overhear their friends’ conversation.
Her curiosity piqued, Mira asked, “You feeling ‘jazzed up’ by this place?”
“Yeah, a little,” Livia admitted.
“Did you feel that way the first time you were here?”
Livia nodded and smiled. “Yeah. And the longer I was here, the more I felt it.” She shrugged and went on. “I don’t know if it’s a slayer thing or a magic thing or what. I mean, I wasn’t using magic yet when I was here last, but still…the potential was there.” She met Mira’s eyes. “What about you? You feelin’ stoked?”
“Yeah. More like extra stoked.”
Livia’s brow furrowed in thought. “Hmmm…maybe it’s not a magic thing then. Maybe it’s just a slayer thing.” When Mira glanced away, Livia instantly apologized. “Sorry…I didn’t mean to rub your nose in the magic thing. I’m just trying to make sense of all th—”
“I know,” Mira told her. “But…don’t discount the magic angle just yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mira took a deep breath then said, “When I went up against Cassandra on the Council grounds, she told me I had magic trapped inside me.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Livia replied, her tone slightly accusing.
“I didn’t tell anyone, except for Katie.”
“She did some other magic tests and confirmed what Cassandra had told me. I’ve been working with her to try and tap into that magic.”
Livia was having trouble getting past her shock. It took a few seconds for her to form her next question. “Well…did it work? Were you able to—?”
“No,” Mira quickly answered, cutting Livia off. “Not even a little.”
“But…you said not to discount the magic angle…” Livia said in prompting.
“It feels different here,” Mira tried to explain. “It just…” She trailed off, trying to find the right words. Failing, she simply said, “It feels different.” After a long moment, she shook her head. “Ah, it’s probably nothing but me and my wishful thinking.”
Livia put a comforting hand on her friend’s back. “Mira…”
Livia’s reply was interrupted by a static-filled message over the radio. “Base to—Come—Do you—?”
Livia put her hand to her earpiece in an attempt to hear the message better. She looked over to Mira and whispered, “Are you getting this?”
Mira nodded, listening over her own radio headset. Livia activated her radio and answered.
“Team to Base, this is Livia. What’s going on? Finola, is that you?”
“—sudden storm—damaged—Zone—please—” The static garbled the rest of the message.
“Finola! Report! Do you read me?”
Livia only got more static as her answer. She and Mira shared a worried look.
Base Camp – Bio-Pod – Same Time
The bio-pod shook as a massive gale whipped around it. Finola tapped her headset then banged the transmitter on the table in front of her.
“Ya feckin’ piece of—”
“Anya, what’s going on?” Cooper asked as Finola abandoned the radio and joined him near the android. Anya was scanning the readouts from her computers. “Everything was calm a minute ago,” Cooper said, “and now it seems like all hell’s broken loose.”
“I’m afraid that’s exactly what’s happened,” Anya informed them. “Hell has definitely broken loose.”
“What’re ye sayin’?” Finola asked.
“The Anomalous Zone has expanded more rapidly than we anticipated,” she explained. “It’s engulfed us.”
The Phoenix – Cockpit – Same Time
Antonia and Lex were leisurely pulling their clothes back on. Naughty expressions of sated pleasure were spread over their faces as they smugly eyed one another. Lex reached out and stopped Antonia as she started to zip up her flight jacket. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
“Sure you don’t want to go for a record?” he teasingly invited.
“Mmmm…tempting,” she replied, matching his devilish grin. But then she deliberately pushed him back into the co-pilot’s seat. “Gotta save some for Vegas, you kn—”
Antonia’s last word was knocked from her when the ship suddenly lurched downward, sending her slamming into her pilot’s chair. Buttons started to buzz and flash in a rainbow of colors as the ship continued to shake violently.
“Um, this doesn’t look good,” Lex stated as he gripped the console in front of him. The black sky in front of him was now streaked with what appeared to be lightning bolts.
Antonia’s expression was grim but determined. She was completely focused on the task at hand, letting her skilled fingers fly over the instrument panel.
Worriedly, Lex watched his wife work. He let out a sigh when the ride seemed to smooth out. His sense of relief was demolished, however, when the turbulence returned with a vengeance.
“Get your seatbelt on,” Antonia commanded.
“You first,” Lex said. Then he left his seat to help Antonia get secured into hers.
Just as he knelt to reach for the other length of Antonia’s seatbelt, a vicious pitch of the ship sent him headfirst between Antonia’s legs.
“Not the best time, Lex,” Antonia said sternly.
When he looked up, Antonia was grinning. He laughed and said, “Never know. Least we’d go out happy.”
He quickly fastened Antonia’s belt and returned to the co-pilot’s chair and buckled himself in—just in time for the worst of the turbulence to hit. Antonia pulled the control column from below the console and switched to manual control.
Her arms shook as she gripped the stick with both hands. The ship then banked to the right as if a gust of wind was forcing them in that direction. Antonia kept her grip steady, and the ship began to give way, moving left. Just as it seemed as if Antonia was regaining control, the night’s black, starry sky suddenly changed to day.
“What the hell..?” Antonia asked, blinking her eyes against the unexpected bright light as the buzzing alarms on her console slowly faded.
“What happened to the night?” Lex asked as he peered outside the window.
Antonia shrugged and activated her comlink. “Ground control, this is Captain Allister of The Phoenix. Do you read me?”
Static air greeted her. She made a few adjustments to her instrument panel and tried again with the same result.
“Something isn’t right,” she muttered, glaring at her console’s readings.
“Just a minute, Lex…these readings don’t make sense…”
“What?” Antonia asked, jerking her gaze up.
Her mouth fell open as she took in the sight of tall black mountains directly in their flight path.
“But…there are no mountains in Kansas…” Antonia murmured in shock before pulling up on the control column.
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more,” Lex quipped.
Immediately, the ship began to shake once again and took a violent turn down and to the left. Antonia grimaced as she fought for control of the vehicle.
“Toni!” Lex screamed, pointing frantically at the craggy promontory looming before them.
“I see it, I see it,” Antonia growled back as her arms strained with the effort to guide the ship past the obstacle.
Just as it seemed the ship would clear the peak, the right wing scraped the side of the ridge, ripping it from the body of the ship.
“HANG ON!” Antonia yelled as the ship started a rapid descent.
End of Act Three