On scattered spots around the harshly glinting plain, parts of some building or an enormous mechanism could be glimpsed. Her surroundings grew dim. At some point, she’d moved into the shadow cast by the object. Rising from the ground at an angle, it reminded her of the tip of a weird skyscraper. It went fifty feet high, and had it been standing straight it probably would’ve reached over sixty. Due to its ash-gray surface it looked like rock, but on closer inspection it was actually metal. Meg touched the surface, which had violent pits and bulges all over it. Its rough texture and appearance called to mind the glassy ground. That these were traces of a place struck by a few million degrees of heat was something beyond Meg’s comprehension. From its very top to where it was buried, the object split vertically—a line actually ran right down the center of it. The sound the girl had just heard was undoubtedly the screams of its welds tearing apart. The ground shook. The ground was being pushed away. The line up the object just kept growing wider. It was opening to either side. Pale electromagnetic waves flashed in the depths of the gap. Now the gap had spread to more than six feet, and in its depths a section like a lustrous black cocoon could be seen. Something strange happened tothe head portion of it. Though Meg couldn’t see from where she was, a hole about six feet in diameter had opened in it. A pale human hand reached from the head of the cocoon. It only became apparent that the occupant was a woman when the arm was followed by the appearance of a head of luxurious black hair, graceful shoulders, and tantalizing breasts. Her face was raised and angled off to the right, and as it turned in the girl’s direction, black hair billowed across it. The woman had the face of a rustic peasant girl, but the movements she made seemed to compensate for that. Skillfully she crept down the smooth surface of the cocoon, like a spider or some kind of reptile. Her absent- minded expression, lacking even an iota of intelligence, shrouded Meg in a fog of fear. The woman came down and stood on the ground, but perhaps she wasn’taccustomed to that, because time and again she went down on all fours, until presently she got up jerkily. The woman started walking. With her first step she nearly stumbled, and with her second she was reeling. It was a nightmarish parody of walking that a marionette on broken strings might perform. Her mouth opened with a hiss. Incisors like ice picks were the last thing Meg saw before her consciousness was swallowed up by pitch blackness.  The image of the reptilian woman who she could only imagine was a victim of the Nobility filled Meg’s mind. She hadn’t done anything to the girl?

“It’s the woman who rendered you unconscious and put you into a conversion pod. What’s more, she actually had wits enough to operate that pod.” “A conversion pod … ?” “That one came to me and boasted how she had made you just like herself.”

By “that one,” the duchess meant the woman who lay there. “The conversion affects people differently. In your case, hmm—you are an ideal specimen. The question is, how long will you last?”

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