6/19/11

Volturi's Bane

Chapter 4

Part 1

"Wake up, Bella, we're here," Alice said in a cheerful tone while giving me a playful jab in the ribs.

I let out a small groan as I lifted my head from where it had been resting against her shoulder. I rubbed at my eyes as I sat upright. For just a moment I wondered where I was, but then it all came rushing back. We were in the large moving van Alice had rented down in San Francisco. Glancing outside I realized we must have just arrived back in Forks, as we were less than a block from reaching my house. I was about to ask what time it was, as this was another typical overcast, slightly drizzly day which made it impossible to estimate the time by looking at the sky, but then all the other life altering things surged to the front of my mind when I noticed the digital display in the corner of my field of view stating the current time was 11:56 AM.

We had made excellent time since it had been after 10 PM when we had pulled away from Jaime and Becca's apartment back in San Francisco. With a quick glance at the van's large side view mirror, I could see Jaime's white Camaro was still behind us. I barely had to think about it and my enhanced vision zoomed in and I could see Becca was behind the wheel and Jaime was half curled up in the front passenger seat.

Alice had driven the van the entire way, while the other three of us had switched off turns driving Jaime's car or sleeping. My newly enhanced body might have many similar advantages to those of the vampires, but unlike them, I still needed sleep. Well, according to what Jaime told me during one of the times we were in the same car together, we could go a lot longer without sleep in an emergency than a normal human due to the anthrocytes in our blood, but there was no point in pushing it under normal circumstances.

And, I'm sure, my mind was still trying to adjust to all the changes it had experienced in the last twenty-four hours, as it was barely more than that long since I had awoken in the Wolf Creek Biomedical Research Institute to discover my arms and legs, an eye and an ear had been replaced by artificial constructs after I had been hit and nearly killed by a car. Yes, my mind definitely needed some off-line time to adjust and I was almost surprised I hadn't experienced any nightmares. But then who knows, perhaps the A.I. in my head was tweaking my alpha waves to prevent them.

It seemed like I almost needed a user's manual to understand my body now. Of course, no one had offered me a foot thick manual before I had been sent on my way. But with all the other new data banging around in my head, a user's manual was probably buried in there somewhere, too, if I were to look hard enough. Maybe I should see if it had a 'tip of the day' feature like some software packages did, so I could learn something new every time I woke up.

At least I did now wake up a lot faster than the old me. I was basically worthless in the old days until I had a shower and a cup of coffee, but now by the time I was sitting up straight, I felt fully awake and ready to cope with anything.

Or at least so I thought until I glanced forward towards my house and saw Jacob standing on the lawn next to his motorcycle. Oh, it wasn't a surprise as I had called and asked him to meet us there, but I could feel in my heart that I wished it had been Edward instead. But in the same way I had told Jacob to meet us; I had called Edward and asked him to meet me out in 'our' glade at two-thirty. It seemed like it would be best to first talk to Edward in private rather than springing my change on him in front of a group of others. Hopefully, Edward would be happy with the new situation, but I still got a twinge in my stomach when I thought about it. What if he couldn't handle that half my body had been replaced by some futuristic machines? The vampire, Santiago, had said I didn't smell human. What if Edward couldn't stand how I now smelled? Alice hadn't said anything about it, but what if it turned Edward off?

I almost shook my head to dispel these useless thoughts. It was too late to change things now and go back to the way I was. Then as my attention focused back on Jake, I wondered if he would be able to smell the difference in me, too. I hadn't planned to tell him about my new situation, or at least not immediately, but this might also be beyond my control.

Alice pulled the big van over, parking in front of my house. After shutting off the engine, she rested her cool hand on mine for a moment.

"Bella, everything isn't crystal clear with the dog, sorry, with Jacob standing so near, but I think things will go okay at least for today. So don't let your thoughts twist you into knots."

I turned and looked at her. It was almost as though she could read my mind the same way Edward could hear almost everyone else's thoughts. But then I reminded myself it could probably just be attributed to a hundred years' worth of experience reading people's body language.

"I'll try not to," I responded while smiling a smile that only felt slightly forced. "Come on, let's go make the introductions."

I opened the door and climbed down from the tall vehicle. My feet had barely touched the ground when Jacob came striding up. For a second I thought he was going to sweep me up in a hug, but he halted with three feet still separating us. However that was close enough that I could feel the heat radiating from his body. And he almost seemed to glow in my vision like some kind of angel, but I'm sure it was just the thermal overlay of the infrared receptors in my enhanced vision.

I had hoped to keep Jacob and his pack's special nature a secret from Jaime and her people, but if he glowed in her vision like he did in mine, she would know there was something special about him as soon as she stepped from her car.

But I couldn't do anything about that now and therefore I turn my attention towards Jake's face. He, in turn was staring at me with his head tilted to one side. It certainly looked like he sensed something different about me. Or perhaps it was just a reaction to my unexpected call. Jake had seemed to be pulling away from me the closer we got to the wedding. And I guess I couldn't blame him.

"Hi, Jake, thanks for coming."

"I was a little surprised you called asking for a favor," Jake responded, unable to completely hide the hurt and anger he still felt over my choosing Edward over him.

Before I could reply, Alice came walking up from around the front of the van while Jaime and Becca came walking up from behind the van. I could see Jake tense as Alice got close.

"Jake, these are my friends Jaime and Becca Sommers. They are visiting from San Francisco and will be staying with me for a couple of weeks." Then turning so Becca could see my face and mouth, I continued. "Guys, this is my good friend, Jacob Black."

Jaime and Becca both responded with timid 'hellos'. And I could understand their hesitation. It's not every day you meet a towering seven foot tall guy wearing just shorts and a formfitting tee shirt. And the light drizzle had plastered the tee to his dark skin, turning it almost transparent - highlighting his big, ripped physique.

"Alice, would you mind showing Jaime and Becca to the guest room? I need to talk to Jake for a minute and then I'll be right in."

Alice nodded. Raising her left hand, she gestured towards the front door. "Ladies, if you would like to follow me."

I watched their retreating forms and couldn't help but notice the glance Becca threw back over her shoulder before she turned to her older sister and began gesturing in what had to be sign language. Her back was mostly towards me so my A.I. couldn't see her well enough to offer a translation, but I hoped I could guess what she was saying. Because Jaime and I needed to spend some time this evening discussing the Volturi situation with the Cullens and I needed some place safe and out of the way for Becca to stay where she wouldn't become aware of any of our secrets, hence the favor from Jake.

"Jake, about the favor. . ." I began before he abruptly cut me off.

"Why should I do you a favor?" he said sullenly.

I sighed. Nothing was ever simple. "Because a lot of things have changed since I last saw you."

I had been watching his eyes and he couldn't keep a sudden glimmer of hope from shining through.

I hated to dash his hopes, but I shook my head. "No, the wedding isn't off." However perhaps I needed to let him in a little ways. "But my turning is on hold for the present."

Jake couldn't suppress a grin. As long as I was human, I'm sure he thought he still had a chance of ending up with me.

"So what's the favor you need?" Jake asked, suddenly sounding all magnanimous.

"Jaime and I are meeting with the Cullens this evening. Becca doesn't know about vampires and we would like to keep it that way, if possible. I was hoping you could entertain her for the evening."

"So, does that mean Jaime knows about vampires?" asked Jake rather than giving me a yes or no answer to my question.

"Yeah," I responded. I had been about to add she didn't know about the wolves when I realized I could clearly hear and understand the conversation Alice and Jaime were holding in the second floor bedroom through a closed window. If I could hear them, Jaime could doubtlessly hear and understand our conversation, too. So instead I continued with what I hoped would be a more cryptic phrasing and at a near whisper. "But she doesn't know about your guys."

Jake nodded that he got my meaning. "Okay, so any suggestions how I am supposed to entertain this Becca?"

I almost laughed at his expression. "Jake, just because she is so much shorter than you, she's not like twelve. Everyone is that much shorter than you now. Becca is going to be a senior in high school this fall just like you.

"And truthfully, I meant more than just watching her for the evening. She is working on some project for school I barely understand, but I was hoping she could set up her equipment and work down at your place while they are here."

Jake sighed. "What kind of equipment are we talking about?"

I grinned. "I've only known her since last night and we have only chatted a little. But if I was going to describe her using only two words, those words would be Mad Scientist."

"Mad Scientist?" echoed Jake with a suddenly intrigued glance towards the front of the house.

"Yeah, she's working on a machine for some robotics contest sponsored by Cal Tech. I always thought those contests involved little robots that ran around on a tabletop or those small fighting robots you see on the show on the Discovery Channel that Charlie likes. But what she has been describing to me is much bigger and very, very fast. It sounds more like a weapon for the military than something for a college sponsored contest."

Of course, after having half my body replaced with some nanomachine-based construct, her project didn't impress me nearly as much as it might have before. But then I had to remember she had effectively been doing this on her own and on an extremely limited budget. She seemed so bright, I had to wonder what she could achieve with access to something like the technical and financial resources of the people who had given me my new body. Could she design and build an autonomous android which could pass for human?

Turning my attention back to Jake, I continued. "Anyway, I remember how you seemed to enjoy rebuilding those old bikes and I thought you might like to help her. She has a lot of cool shop equipment. In fact, that's why we have the big van. It's filled almost to the brim with her gear."

Jake turned his gaze back towards the house for a moment. "Okay. With a little work, the guys and I should be able to clear enough workspace in the old shed in our backyard."

Then he turned back to me and looked hard into my eyes. "Bella, what's really going on? Who's this Jaime and how does she know about vampires?"

Alice and I had spent a little time during the drive working on a plan for taking down the Volturi given the compressed time schedule based on their arrival the day before my wedding. Well, working on the plan had consisted mainly of us throwing out ideas and then letting Alice use her special gift to see if any of them had any potential of working. And surprisingly, the ones that seemed to give the highest probability of success all involved taking the fight to them rather than waiting for them to come to us.

"Jake, would you and your guys be willing to make a little trip to Italy in about ten days? It would be extremely dangerous, but with luck, it would reduce the world's vampire population by a significant number. And we're talking the worst ones, the ones who kill people for sport as much as for blood."

I hated to play on Jake and the other wolves all-consuming urge for battle, but the odds of beating the Volturi had to be a lot higher with them on our side rather than sitting back here on the sidelines.

A wave of disappointment passed through me when Jake shook his head.

"We were given our gift to protect the tribe, not to go gallivanting halfway across the world."

I hated to play my really big card with Jake, particularly since I was now with Edward, but my survival and that of Edward and the rest of the Cullens might depend on it.

"The Volturi, the big bad ruling clan from Italy, are coming on August 14th to verify that I have been transformed into a vampire. And if I haven't been turned by then, they are going to forcibly do it. I don't want to do it now, but it is either let them do it or they will kill me. If we do nothing, I am going to be either a vampire or dead in less than three weeks. That's why we have to strike first. But if we attack and fail, I will end up dead, too."

And as I said those words, for the first time they really began to sink in. I had this new improved body, but it was no guarantee I was going to survive the coming battle with the Volturi whether we took the fight to them or waited for them here. I had to face the real possibility I would be dead, or worse, within the next three weeks. But I realized I didn't have time to allow myself to go all maudlin, if I started to wallow in my worries it would almost ensure I would lose.

"Stay out at the reservation until this all blows over," Jake responded. "We'll protect you like before." He hesitated for a moment before adding. "And I'll talk to the others about letting the Cullens join us. Together we can defeat these vampires like we did the last bunch."

Now I found myself shaking my head. "These aren't like the last bunch. Except for Victoria, those were all new vampires who weren't fully experienced with their abilities. This time we are talking a dozen or more vampires with centuries of experience. If we lose here, they might wipe out the entire Quileute tribe in retribution for your getting involved. No, if the fight happens here, it would be best if you and your guys don't get involved."

I decided I had pushed as hard as I could for the moment and it was probably best to let Jake think about it for a while. And with their telepathic bond, the other members of his pack would all know about the situation now, too. They would need some time to think about it and discuss it among themselves.

"Just think about it, Jake. You don't have to commit to anything right this minute."

Jake slowly nodded and that was the best I could hope for at the moment.

"You never did explain about Jaime's involvement," he finally said.

I needed to say something and I suddenly realized how little I knew about her organization beyond their obvious expertise in rebuilding damaged human bodies and their desire to remove the Volturi from their position of power.

Knowing Jaime could overhear this conversation, if she chose, I tried to pick my words carefully. "Jaime works for some hush-hush quasi-governmental organization, who are also interested in bringing down the Volturi. Based on the trip I made over to Italy, they felt I had a connection to the Volturi and they are quietly trying to recruit me to help with their plans. They bring financial and technical support to the table, but their plans may not be moving forward fast enough to solve my personal problem with the Volturi. Jaime is mainly here to talk to the Cullens to gather intel on the Volturi. At this point, I am hoping that working with them might have some benefits for my situation."

Jake again glanced towards the house with a speculative expression on his face. "Would her organization be footing the bill for the trip to Italy?"

Suddenly, the crux of what was holding Jake back became clear. He thought the Cullens would be footing the bill and his pride wouldn't let him accept their help.

"It's possible," I replied thinking furiously. "But we might have to let them in on why you need to go with us."

Jake started to shrug, but then he suddenly broke into a grin. "This time it is the Indians who are the good guys and who are wearing the white hats. It's the vampires who need to hide in the shadows, not us."

My original thoughts had been to keep Jake and his pack's abilities a secret I could hold in reserve until they were really needed. But perhaps it was better to get everything out in the open. Hopefully, it would result in the most effective strategy.

And it wasn't like Jaime probably didn't already suspect something from what she would see by simply looking at Jake with her special enhanced vision or from what she had heard if she had been listening in on this conversation.

"Okay, let me talk with Jaime and have her pass it up her chain of command. At least we will know if it is an option when it becomes time to start making the big decisions."

Jake nodded, but at the moment he had the faraway look in his eyes that he got when he was communicating with his pack.

When his gaze cleared after a couple minutes, I gestured towards the house. "I don't see Charlie's car, so I'm guessing he's at work. We might as well grab Jaime and Becca and head out to your place so we can start to unpack Becca's gear."

Part 2

'I would like to ride with Jake,' signed Becca while looking straight at her sister.

Since Becca was still only seventeen, Jaime was technically her legal guardian. But Becca's expression didn't indicate she was asking permission. To me, it looked more like she was merely doing her sister the courtesy of informing her of a fact.

'Helmet?' signed Jaime in turn, as though to ask her question in private to avoid potentially embarrassing the younger girl.

Becca just gave Jaime a look that said she wasn't so stupid as to not wear head protection.

Then Becca turned to face Jacob. "Your bike looks like fun. I would love to ride to your place with you. Do you have a helmet I could use?"

Jake shot me a quick glance before nodding and heading to his bike where a helmet was hanging from a strap on the opposite side.

I looked between Jaime and Becca for a moment. Jaime was part big sister and part Mother figure to Becca. I never had a sister and I haven't lived with my Mom in several years, but I still remembered our relationship and it seldom seemed as smooth as the one these two girls appeared to share. I wondered how much of it could be credited to the sign language. Having a private mode of communication few others would understand must allow things to be said between them which couldn't normally be said comfortably in front of others.

"It looks like it is the van for us," I said to Jaime, as Becca moved over to where Jake held out the helmet.

Jaime nodded, but continued to stand there watching until Becca had the helmet securely in place. She definitely had some motherly behaviors around her little sister.

Once Jake had the bike fired up and Becca had climbed on behind him and wrapped her arms tightly around his muscular waist, Jaime turned and moved towards the van's passenger door.

"I don't think you have to worry about anything happening between the two of them during the ride to La Push. Becca isn't going to be able to read a word he says while sitting behind him," I said quietly.

Jaime shot me a glance, as she climbed into van. Once we were both inside, she asked, "Do you think something is going to happen between the two of them?"

I shrugged. I'm not usually one to put my opinions and feelings out there, particularly with someone who was almost a complete stranger. But if we were going to survive the coming weeks and the almost certain battle with the Volturi, we were going to have to learn to trust each other. And this seemed like as good a place to start as any.

"I don't know. But truthfully, I wouldn't mind if an attraction blossomed a little. Jake's a good guy, but he has been . . . well . . . fixated on me for too long. At one time, I thought something could maybe develop between the two of us. But I am now absolutely certain my heart and soul belong to Edward. So it would be nice if Jake could move on. And your sister seems nice and she seems, I don't know, sort of tough and strong. I don't think the physical side of Jake will intimidate her like it can for a lot of people."

"Yeah," replied Jaime. "Becca has had to learn to be tough during the last eight years between the death of our Mother, the loss of her hearing, and then the way our Dad just walked out on us."

When she put it like that, the fact my parents were divorced and my Mom now lived on the other side of the country suddenly seemed like pretty small potatoes.

"So what's Jake's story?" asked Jaime maintaining a serious tone. "When Becca got sick and her temperature hovered right at 105° for almost 24 hours before the doctors could get it down, it cost her her hearing. Now here's Jake with a constant temperature of 108.6° and it doesn't seem to be having a negative impact on him."

This line of questioning had seemed inevitable, given some of Jaime's abilities, but I had hoped we would at least clear my street before it came up. I fired up the van, put it in gear, and pulled away from the curb before responding. And since Jake had given his approval, I jumped straight in.

"Jake and some of his friends have special, I guess you could say supernatural, abilities. They can transform at will into these giant wolves, which are bigger, faster, and stronger than any natural wolf. In their wolf form, they are one of the few creatures able to fight a vampire with a chance of winning. The Quileute tribe has had members who can transform into wolves to protect the tribe against vampires for as far back as there have been vampires in this area. They have a long intricate legend describing the origin of the first wolf pack that I'm sure Jake or his father will be happy to share with you, if you are interested."

"Are we talking about werewolves?" asked Jaime with a catch in her voice.

I glanced over and took in her expression. I think she was having serious second thoughts about having brought her baby sister up here. Now, rather than letting Becca accompany us to Alice's house which was filled with vampires, she had instead unwittingly agreed to let her sister stay with werewolves.

"We are not talking about werewolves, or at least not like something out of the old stories and movies," I began in an attempt to sooth Jaime's nerves. "Jake and his pack can transform into their wolf forms at will, it has nothing to do with full moons or the dark of night. And they don't become mindless monsters; they retain all their normal mental faculties while gaining the wolf's physical attributes. And the members of the pack can communicate telepathically, while to the best of my recollection all the werewolves of myth were solitary creatures. So other than the similar outward appearance, Jake and his friends have little in common with werewolves."

Jaime sat there in silence for several minutes. We were outside of town and on the highway to La Push before she finally spoke.

"So if the werewolves, sorry, wolves are here to protect the tribe from vampires that would seem to make them enemies. But Alice and Jacob didn't attack each other on sight."

"Carlisle, Alice's adoptive father, negotiated a truce with the Quileutes a long time ago like more than eighty years ago. You've seen how the vampires have no problem moving about in daylight. Direct sunlight doesn't hurt them, but you saw yesterday how they glitter and don't look at all normal when exposed to the sun. So, it is easiest and the lowest risk for them if they spend their time in places with little sunlight. And Forks just happens to have less sunny days than anywhere else in the continental United States. So this is the ideal place for a family of vampires to live.

"Anyway, as you guessed, the wolves and the vampires are natural enemies. Alice, Edward, and the others can barely stand to be in the same room with Jake and vice versa. It still seems almost amazing Carlisle managed to negotiate that first treaty, but somehow he did. And the terms are pretty simple. Carlisle and his family aren't permitted on the reservation. They agreed to never kill anyone or drink human blood. And in return, the Quileutes will leave the Cullens alone.

"And this uneasy truce has held remarkably well for all these decades; or at least until I showed up two years ago. Suddenly, it was like I found myself in some Shakespearean play where the sons of two powerful warring kingdoms were both drawn to the same princess and I was caught in the middle."

I stumbled to a halt and tried to concentrate on driving. The words had simply flowed out and I couldn't believe I had referred to myself as a princess like out of some fairy tale. I mean I'm not beautiful like Alice or Rosalie or Esme or even, frankly, like Jaime. I'm just an average girl, or at least I was until I had a big portion of my body replaced with synthetic constructs. Now I was much closer to some kind of freak than I would ever be to a princess.

But for the moment Jaime let the whole princess comment slide.

"So, is the treaty the reason Alice begged off coming with us?"

I nodded. "Yeah, Alice was just trying to be circumspect about the reason since you didn't know about wolves or the treaty."

After Alice had made excuses about having other things she needed to do, she had briefly pulled me aside and told me she would avoid Edward until I had a chance to talk to him, so he wouldn't learn of my transformation through reading her thoughts. Part of me had been glad, but part of me had almost wished she would let Edward learn about it from her thoughts. I had no idea what Edward's reaction to my situation would be, and I was still a little afraid it might not be a good one. And if he wasn't going to be happy, I almost wished I didn't have to be the one to tell him. But this was definitely one of those days when I couldn't afford to let myself wimp out. With the life-threatening events coming up in less than three weeks, this wasn't a time to dither.

Jaime started to say more, but she had barely gotten three words out when she abruptly stopped talking. Then, when she started speaking again, it was obviously not to me.

"Hi, Nathan, I'm glad you got back to me. Have you got the fix ready?"

I remembered one of the tech guys back at the facility had been named Nathan and assumed that was who she was talking to on her built-in cell phone. She paused for a few seconds as though she was listening to the other person before speaking again.

"Yeah, she's here with me and we are alone. Let me get her on conference call with us."

Jaime turned in my direction. "That's Nathan. They have the software upgrade ready which will allow our AIs to recognize and distinguish vampires based on their lower body temperatures. Find a place to pull-over for a couple of minutes and he will push it to us."

I nodded automatically, as I started watching for a spot where the road's shoulder was wide enough for the big van. But inside I was suddenly feeling less and less human and more and more like a machine. I mean what besides computers have software updates pushed to them in the field?

As I steadily slowed the van, Jaime continued to speak into the thin air.

"Oh, Nathan, any way you can do another quick addition? Could you have the system tag any human-shaped body with a temperature between 105° and 110° as 'wolf', like you are tagging anything with a lower body temperature as 'vampire'?" After a short pause she added, "Yeah, I really did say wolf."

After covering about another half mile, we reached a small deserted roadside picnic area. I pulled in and then shut down the engine. Almost immediately the cell phone icon for an incoming call lit up in my field of view and the caller I.D. said it was from Jaime.

I blinked on the accept icon, but it felt stupid to answer with hello to someone sitting right next to me. So I settled on a simple, "I'm on the line."

"Okay, Nathan, we're ready for the download," I heard both directly inside my head and through my ears in a slightly out-of-phase stereo.

I don't know what I expected, maybe some burst of noise or perhaps a blinding headache, but instead after about twenty seconds I heard a male voice say, "Okay, that should do it. Although we won't know for sure if it truly works until you run into someone who triggers the new version of the ident software."

"That's it?" I couldn't stop myself from blurting out.

Jaime smiled, as though she understood what I was thinking. First, it had seemed like Alice had been able to read my mind back when we had first arrived at my house. Now it almost felt like Jaime had done the same thing. Was I that easy to read?

"It was just a minor tweak to the A.I. software," explained Jaime. "It's not like they were changing anything directly in your brain."

Then she turned back to the other person on the call. "Thanks, Nathan. I'll let you know how it works. And unless something urgent comes up, I'll call in with an update on the situation here tonight, say, around ten o'clock. Bye."

"Thanks, Nathan," I echoed, feeling I had to say something, too, before disconnecting from the call.

I glanced in Jaime's direction. She didn't say anything, but merely gestured towards the road with her chin. I restarted the van and then after checking for traffic, pulled back onto the road to La Push.

Part 3

Since Jake wasn't driving a big awkward van and didn't have to pull over to the side of the road for an unexpected software update, he and Becca beat us to his place by a good fifteen minutes. When I pulled up, I could see Jake and Quil removing things from the dilapidated old shed behind the house and stacking them along one side while Becca watched. Jake's other good friend, Embry, was standing near the street at the start of the rutted track which led back towards the shed. When he waved I rolled down the driver's window.

"Hey, Vee," he began with a grin. "Jake thinks it will work best if you back the van down there. I'm here to help guide you, so you don't take down any trees. Or if you like, I can back it down there for you."

Ever since the wolves and the Cullens had trained together for the fight against Victoria's army, Embry had taken to calling me 'vampire girl' or simply 'Vee' for short. At first I had thought he had done it just to annoy me. But after my part in the battle and as the only one who took part who didn't have supernatural abilities for self-protection, his use of the term had seemed to have taken on a degree of respect. I wondered what he would think if he found out I now might be faster than him.

At one time, okay, at any time before yesterday, I might have taken him up on his offer to drive, as I certainly hadn't been renowned for my driving skills. But with my newly acquired A.I. offering guidance, I thought I was now capable of backing a van a mere eighty-seven feet. Eighty-seven feet? Range information from my position to the shed was just one tidbit of data currently hanging before my eyes.

"Thanks, Embry, but I think I'm good," I answered. Then I added with a nod towards the passenger seat. "Oh, and this is Jaime, Becca's sister."

"Hi, Jaime," Embry said in a calm self-assured tone.

Back when I had first met Jake's friends, before they had acquired their gift to transform, Embry had seemed the quietest of them all, barely able to speak to me without stuttering. But the longer they were wolves, the stronger the image of self-confidence they seemed to project. And that thought made me wonder if the same thing was going to happen to me with my new-found strength, speed, and other abilities.

"Hi, Embry," answered Jaime leaning almost across my body. "I'm glad you are able to help us unload. My sister has a lot of gear."

"Sure, no problem. Any friend of Bella's, you know."

Jaime nodded, as she straightened back up in her seat.

I'm not sure who was the most surprised, but I managed to back the van all the way to the shed on the first try. All three of the guys gave me a look like they couldn't believe I'd been able to do it. Although I think they were even more surprised when Jaime and I helped with the unloading and seemed able to handle the heaviest objects as effortlessly as they did.

We quickly had two-thirds of the van unloaded, which accounted for all of the fabrication and testing gear, leaving only the five large crates containing Becca's actual project.

Becca picked up a pry bar and headed for the first wooden crate. "Rather than lugging the heavy crates into the shed, we might as well open them here. And I want to make sure Charlotte made the trip okay, anyway."

Becca opened each box and almost lovingly pulled out each component and then carefully examined it before directing whoever was waiting next where to put it in relation to the other parts in the steadily spreading array just outside the van. The components ranged from sets of gears & pulleys & linkages, to fat bundles of electrical wires, to various sized boxes whose functions weren't readily apparent, or at least not to me.

Several times Becca paused in the unpacking to snap a few components together, but still in less than fifteen minutes all five of the crates had been emptied of their contents and Becca moved outside.

This machine, this Charlotte, was going to be surprisingly large, I thought, even larger than I had expected based on the short conversation I had had with Becca on the topic during the drive up. The pieces spread out before us had to total at least seven or eight hundred pounds.

The machine had a modular design, which seemed surprisingly simple to snap together. With the help of the three guys, Becca had it assembled in less than thirty minutes. And as it neared completion, it was obvious what it had been modeled after. But when Becca finally powered it up and it rose up to its full ten foot height, I wasn't the only one who took several steps back in some primeval terror response hardwired into the human brain.

"So," I began with a definite high pitched stutter in my voice. "I'm guessing you named it after the children's book?"

"I think Shelob from Lord of the Rings would have been a more appropriate name," said Embry with more awe than fear in his voice.

"I thought about it," responded Becca with a grin. "But Shelob was supposedly evil incarnate and, well, this is just a machine. There's nothing inherently evil about machines."

Becca's machine, the innocuously named Charlotte, looked like a giant mechanical spider. It had eight relatively tall spindly legs. It had a fairly bulbous body. It was close to fifteen feet in length, twelve feet wide where the longest legs touched the ground, as well as standing ten feet tall. It had a matte black finish and if it was scary here in broad daylight, it was almost impossible to imagine creeping through some foreboding woods at night.

"This is what you've been working on?" exclaimed Jaime. It was obvious she had no idea what her sister had been building.

When Becca didn't reply, Jaime touched her arm to get her attention and then repeated her remark using sign language.

"Yeah," replied Becca. "Although I will admit this is the first time I have assembled the whole thing at once. The garage back home simply didn't have enough space."

"So, this competition you have entered, it is to design a giant mechanical spider?" continued Jaime.

Becca shook her head. "No, they just had a bunch of design requirements like an 80 mph top speed over level ground, an ability to clear an eight foot vertical wall, a payload capability of 300 pounds, and a bunch of others. It was up to the designers to decide how best to meet them. I couldn't figure out how to get a wheeled design to meet all the requirements and once I decided on something with legs, a spider seemed like the best configuration."

Jake waved to get her attention and then asked in an awed tone similar to Embry's, "This thing has an 80 mile per hour top speed? What are you using for a power source?"

"Well, batteries didn't meet the range requirement and a gasoline engine didn't meet the noise requirement, so in the end I had to go a different direction."

"Like what?" persisted Jake.

"Remember the old saying, If I told you, I would have to kill you? Well, I'm afraid it applies in these circumstances," answered Becca with a surprisingly straight face. Then I looked closer and decided she seemed downright serious. What did that mean? WHERE had she acquired the power source?

"If the machine is finished, why did we have to lug along all the equipment?" asked Jaime slightly changing the subject.

"The machine is finished, however I haven't started testing yet. And with the challenging things it is required to do, I'm sure a few parts will break along the way and need to be repaired. And I'm sure at least a few things will have to be redesigned to fully meet all the design requirements."

Then Becca paused to walk around in front of the towering spider and began gesturing in sign language. After a few seconds, my A.I. began to provide a translation.

Without touching any obstacles, move 150 feet to your right as fast as you can. Perform a 360° turn and then return to this spot.

The Spider used sign language for input? Since Becca was deaf, it must have seemed logical to her. And it would greatly limit the number of people who could give it instructions. And being able to do it shouldn't have been surprising given my A.I.'s ability to translate sign language into text.

Those thoughts were just running through my head when the giant spider began to move. Even though it was headed in the opposite direction from where we were all standing, everyone jumped back. Having Becca explain the machine had a top speed of eighty miles an hour was one thing, seeing it actually move was another. It moved scarily fast, yet still somehow managed to convey the feeling it was light on its feet as it darted around trees and other obstacles like a ballerina. At least until it reached a partially tumbled down old stone fence about seventy-five feet along its course. It seemed to pause just an instant to crouch down before leaping into the air, clearing the six foot fence by a good three feet. The ground seemed to briefly shake as it landed on the far side. Then I heard a scrabbling sound as it regained its footing on whatever rough terrain lay hidden beyond the wall.

The wall was just tall enough that I could only catch glimpses of the machine's upper surface as it continued to move away. Glancing around, I discovered Becca had climbed up on the van's tailgate so she could see passed the wall. She had an intense look of concentration on her face as she watched. Occasionally, she would nod or frown at some action of the machine.

Then, after what felt like only seconds, I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. The machine had just landed back on this side of the stone fence and was rapidly scurrying back in our direction. I couldn't shake the intense sensation of fear the spiderlike machine instilled in me. I could feel my newly enhanced legs get ready to hurl me out of the way. And my secret would definitely be out of the bag if I suddenly leapt fifty feet into the air and landed on the far side of the shed.

Fortunately, the machine followed Becca's directions to the letter and stopped in the exact spot from where it had started. Although I couldn't shake the impression it was almost quivering with the desire to be instructed to do something more.

Becca jumped down from her spot up on the tailgate and began moving towards the machine. Perhaps because she had built every component, she didn't seem to have the same response to it that I had.

"Well, that was pretty good," she seemed to mumble to herself as some lingering aftereffect from when she had still had her hearing. "Only a few minor adjustments before we try something more challenging."

And staring at the girl, suddenly, the Mad Scientist moniker I had mentioned earlier to Jake seemed utterly appropriate. How else would you describe someone who had just built a giant robot spider?

I don't know what it was whether it was something she said or my thoughts about Mad Scientists, but abruptly my mind jumped back to Jake's question about the machine's power source about which Becca had been so reticent to speak. And that thought made me remember the conversation the previous evening about Alice's bootstrap approach to science. Was the machine's power source an example of this? Was the whole machine's existence a result of Alice's actions? Was it part of some longer term plan of Alice's to be used against the Volturi? For the machine looked big enough, strong enough, fast enough to rip apart a vampire if it got it in its claws. When you were dealing with someone who could see possible futures, who knew what was simple coincidence and what was planned on her part.

I was about to ask Becca about Alice's involvement with the development of the machine when a notification I had set earlier flashed up into my field of view. It was now 2:10 PM and if I wanted to reach the glade where I was to meet Edward, I needed to leave now.

Quickly, I strode over to where Jaime stood still staring at the insane machine her little sister had built.

"Jaime, I need to go meet Edward. I should be back in about three hours. Will you be okay here until then?"

Jaime shook her head as though waking from a dream. "Yeah, and I doubt Becca will even notice you are gone." She paused to look back at the machine. "I had no idea she was building anything remotely like this."

As I glanced over to where the three guys were all congregated around Becca, I suddenly doubted any of them would miss me for the next few hours either.

"Okay, see you in a few," I said before turning and jogging away.

I held my pace down to near human normal until I cleared La Push and reached the surrounding forest. Then I broke into an impossibly fast run as I felt the spider machine fade from my thoughts and I focused on seeing Edward for the first time after two long, long days where my life had changed in unbelievable ways.

End of Chapter 4