Authors: Vaughn Heppner
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Alien Invasion, #Colonization, #Exploration, #Galactic Empire, #Genetic Engineering, #Military, #Space Fleet, #Space Marine, #Space Opera, #Space Exploration
“And if she’s a Spacer plant?” O’Hara asked the admiral.
“I’m the best officer Star Watch has to watch Shu 15,” Maddox said, answering for Cook. “We will learn more by letting her act naturally. If for no other reason than that she won’t immediately die.”
“I’m inclined to give the captain his head with the Spacer,” Cook said. “We need every advantage we can get out there.”
“When will I leave?” Maddox asked.
“I would prefer immediately,” Cook said. “But if you need several more hours, so be it.”
“Where is the professor?”
“He’ll meet you in the Xerxes System,” Cook said. “There’s one more thing, Captain. This time you will have an independent command. You will only be responsible to me. I will put that in writing. That means no other Star Watch official has any authority over you or your ship. Do you feel that will be sufficient?”
“Sir?” Maddox looked at him questioningly.
“In the past,” Cook said, “you have acted as you pleased. This time, it will be made official. I believe that shows I trust you implicitly.”
Maddox glanced at the brigadier. Her eyes shined with pride.
“Thank you, sir,” Maddox said, surprised at how good the admiral’s approval felt.
“Find the Swarm, Captain,” Cook said. “Find them as fast as you can and get home with the information. The survival of the human race may well depend upon it.”
“Yes, sir,” Maddox said.
“Oh,” Cook said. “There is one more thing.”
Maddox grew wary.
“I want the New Man you captured.”
“I will not budge on this,” Cook said. “We will interrogate him while you are away. He may well have the Throne World coordinates.”
Reluctantly, Maddox nodded. He wanted the New Man, but it looked as if he wasn’t going to be able to keep him.
Cook pushed his chair back and stood up. Maddox did likewise. The older man held out a big hand and Maddox shook it.
“Good luck, Captain,” Cook said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I wish you Godspeed.”
“Now hurry, will you? Time is of the essence.”
Despite the need for speed, Maddox had made Meta a promise he intended to keep. Thus, an hour later, they dined in Paris at the Rue de Peril. The captain wore his smartest uniform, and Meta wore a stunning dress, revealing her bare shoulders while her heels accentuated the well-toned curves of her legs. Several heads turned as the two of them made their way to their candlelit table.
“This is nice,” Meta said, as they sat down. “We should do this more often.”
When the waiter approached, Maddox ordered a dark wine. It tasted exquisite. They had an appetizer and later each ate the largest meal on the menu.
Maddox had a fierce metabolism, burning more calories than an average man would, and it was almost impossible for him to get drunk. Meta had a similar situation. She’d been born on the Rouen Colony, what they now knew had been an outpost for the New Men testing various human genetic deviations.
Maddox told her a little about what they’d discussed in the Lord High Admiral’s office, although he didn’t go into specifics. It was possible others used spy equipment to eavesdrop on their conversation. He had a scrambler in his suit pocket just in case, but in the past, others had used superior spying tech.
In time, Meta pushed her empty plate away and finished her glass of wine.
Maddox lifted the second bottle to pour her more.
Meta held up a hand. “No thank you. I’m full.”
“You don’t want dessert?”
“Not that full,” she said, smiling. “Never that full.”
He refilled his goblet, swirling the wine, inhaling the aroma before sipping. This was an excellent vintage. He raised his hand, summoning the waiter.
Dessert came soon thereafter.
Meta nibbled on the crust and nodded in appreciation. Then, she looked up with a fixed smile, saying, “Is the Spacer really coming with us?”
“Why?” Meta asked, perhaps thrown off stride by his prompt answer.
“Because she’s a Spacer,” Maddox said. “We might need her expertise where we’re going.”
Meta ate more pie, thinking that over. “In my opinion, the Visionary planted her on us.”
Meta sat back as she set down her fork. “Yes to what? You realize that’s my opinion or you agree with it?”
“But… I don’t understand. Why are we allowing a Spacer spy aboard?” Her eyes widened. “Do you find her attractive?”
“Of course,” Maddox said.
Meta stared at him, shocked.
“That’s not why I agreed to take her, though,” he added.
Meta’s lips thinned as her temper began to kick into gear.
Maddox smiled. “Certainly Shu 15 is attractive, but she isn’t to my tastes.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
“How dare you laugh at me?”
“You’ve misinterpreted the grin. I wasn’t laughing.” He leaned against the table. “Tell me. What sport is there with a woman who throws herself at me? I prefer those who throw a few blows first. That’s more challenging, more exciting.”
Meta’s stare grew fiercer, and she seemed to replay his words in her head. Finally, she smiled, shaking her head. “You’re terrible. Do you know that? What’s crazy is that I’m beginning to believe you. Most men would love having a pretty girl glomming onto them. But you find it boring—if I’m hearing you correctly.”
“It’s not the glomming I object to, but the purpose behind it. I find genuine attraction appealing. Who doesn’t? I agree with the brigadier, though. Shu is a Spacer operative. What stirs my curiosity is the lengths they took to make her joining us appear accidental. Her kisses did nothing for my sexual attraction, as her motives blunted my interest in her as a woman.”
“How about the fact that you already
a woman?” Meta asked sharply.
“Yes,” Maddox said, “there’s that too.”
“This isn’t a game!”
“You treat it like a game. I’m not a playing piece on a board. I’m—oh, forget it.”
He reached across the table and took one of Meta’s hands. He squeezed her fingers. It wasn’t in him to say he was sorry. He’d been an island for so long he hardly knew any other way. While dealing with most people, he forced them to stay aboard their boat as they shouted to him on his island. He’d allowed Meta to land on one particular spot on shore. Yet, he hadn’t let her past the barricades he’d erected. It was the most he could do for her at present.
Meta squeezed his hand in return. She could see how hard this was for him. He never did this for others, but he tried for her. She appreciated his effort.
Maddox let go of her hand. Her eyes had softened, letting him know that she understood him as no one else could. It eased his tension as he took another sip of wine.
She took another bite of dessert, considering him as she chewed. “They’ve studied you.”
“I know,” he said, realizing she meant the Spacers.
“You don’t have to be smug about it.”
He cocked his head. “What is the value of false modesty?”
Meta considered the question. “Not much, I guess. It’s just… I suppose you don’t care, but sometimes you come off as conceited.”
Maddox raised the wine bottle and found it empty.
“Why is excellence frowned upon?” he asked. “People gravitate toward those exhibiting excellence but find themselves hating the same person later. They want to believe everyone is alike. Yet, simple observation shows that to be false. I do a few things better than most. I do many other tasks poorly. I don’t dislike Keith for his piloting skills, for instance. I applaud them, as they’ve proven invaluable on more than one occasion.”
“You’re not like other people.”
Maddox fiddled with his fork as it lay on the table, nodding after a time. That was the problem, wasn’t it?
Meta pushed the half-eaten dessert away. “I don’t know how we got into a discussion about excellence. We were talking about Shu. What are the Spacers after?”
“Yes,” Maddox said. “That’s the question. Why do they hate androids and why do they hate Strand and Ludendorff? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t follow you.”
Maddox glanced at the other diners, at the waiters and assistants. He didn’t sense anyone watching him. His instincts in this regard were highly developed. He could often feel someone’s scrutiny. Still, a note of unease had crept upon him almost unnoticed. Perhaps the meal had been a mistake. He should have gone directly to
“Are you feeling well?” Meta asked.
Maddox leaned across the table, lowering his voice. “Long ago, Builders modified Strand and Ludendorff, sending them back to Earth. In some manner, the Spacers have acquired Builder technology. How did they do this? And why do they distrust two Builder-modified individuals? That doesn’t make sense. If they’re all Builder-related, they should be allies, not hostile to each other.”
“Now that you mention it,” Meta said, “that doesn’t make sense.”
Maddox pulled back as he idly fingered his goblet’s stem. “The professor is coming with us.”
Meta looked up sharply.
“I’m curious as to Shu’s reaction regarding that,” Maddox said. “I’m also curious as to Ludendorff’s reaction when he learns a Spacer is aboard ship. I don’t fully trust either. Yet, I imagine we’re going to need each of their unique skill sets.”
“Because of their Builder backgrounds?” asked Meta.
“Precisely. What we think of as the Beyond might also be thought of as Builder territory. Who better to have along than those modified by Builders?”
Meta grinned. “Most people think your combat skills are what make you dangerous. Really, it’s that razor you call your mind.”
Maddox pushed his chair back and checked his comm unit. “It’s time to go,” he said, standing. “Riker will be at the landing zone in ten minutes.”
Meta frowned, seeming to grow pensive.
Maddox raised a questioning eyebrow.
“This was nice,” she repeated a bit wistfully.
“We’ll do this again,” he said offhandedly.
Meta noticed an immediate change in him. He’d gone into hunting mode. Something was wrong.
Maddox rescanned the people eating in the dim light, reexamined the waiters and the cocktail waitresses making the rounds. The captain didn’t gawk, but peered at each in what seemed like a careless manner. It was anything but that, though. He studied each of them, looking for clues.
The back of his neck tingled. Someone watched him closely, someone with an ugly purpose. Despite knowing that, he couldn’t pinpoint the person. That was bad. Fortunately, Meta was with him, and Riker was coming down.
Maddox left the Rue de Peril much as he’d entered, with Meta holding onto his left arm. She snuggled against him, resting her head against his shoulder.
“Are you ready for trouble?” he asked her a second time.
“I am,” Meta said. “But until the trouble begins, I’m going to pretend we’re a regular couple having a beautiful evening together. Is that so wrong?”
The question seemed preposterous to Maddox, but he realized it was feminine hyperbole. She berated him, but did so gently. When the time came, Meta could act with deadly intent. She happened to have a ridiculously small beamer in the tiny purse she clutched.
He wore a regulation sidearm as part of his uniform but would have preferred it if he had his long-barreled gun.
The doorman bid them adieu, closing the door behind them.
Together, Meta and Maddox strolled down a Parisian sidewalk with the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance.
“I love it here,” Meta said with a sigh.
Maddox heard the words but was more intent on the stir of his nape hairs. The feeling of being watched had intensified. Had he made a mistake coming out in the open? He’d done that before—particularly in Shanghai when he’d ingested a drugged drink. He’d woken up later as an android marched him deeper into the basement of the Lin Ru Hotel.
Others walked the city sidewalks with them. None seemed intent upon him. Horses pulling open carriages clopped past. The drivers and the passengers each seemed absorbed in their own experiences.
Maddox looked up at the nearest buildings. Did a sniper aim a suppressed rifle at him from one of the windows? He peered up at the stars. Maybe a darkened air-car slid overhead, the passengers closely watching him.
Meta tugged on his arm.
Maddox peered into her beautiful eyes. She looked worried now. With her chin, she pointed ahead.
Maddox examined the people on their sidewalk. There were Parisians, several Star Watch Marines, a fellow in a long Wahhabi robe—
“Maddox,” she said.
He looked at her again.
Meta must have seen the perplexed look on his face. “The Marines,” she said. “They’re ogling me too much. It’s creepy, especially the short one. Something isn’t right with him.”
Maddox concentrated on the Marines. There were four, three of them big fellows laughing among themselves. The shortest one didn’t join in the laughter. He seemed the most intent, frowning at the sidewalk too much. It seemed as if they were on leave, younger men hardly out of basic training.
The group approached them on the sidewalk as they continued laughing and talking among themselves. The captain felt it then and wondered how he’d missed it earlier. The quality of their laughter was harsh and unkind. These four meant to hurt people.
The biggest Marine stopped laughing and stared at Maddox. The others looked at him, too.
Maddox tried to push Meta behind him, but she was having none of that, holding onto his arm with a fierce grip. Once he stopped trying to push her back, she let go.
“Hey,” the biggest Marine said. He had a buzz of blond hair and thick features. He looked like a hand-to-hand specialist and stood head and shoulders taller than Maddox, who was himself rather tall. The Marine was, in fact, practically a giant at seven feet.
Maddox kept his expression bland.
“Aren’t you that half-breed people keep jabbering about?” the giant asked Maddox. “You’re like part New Man or something, right?”
“That’s better than being a jackass,” Maddox said softly, stung by the insult.
Two of the Marines brayed with laughter. Were they drunk? No. Maddox realized they were keyed-up for a fight.
“Are you insulting me?” the giant asked.
Meta had gotten angrier by the moment. She stepped up to the big man and shot her left knee at his groin. He swiveled his hip fast, barely blocking in time. Meta’s knee connected with his thigh, though. Her density made her heavier than she looked. The Marine staggered backward at the contact. The big man crashed against one of the laughers, making both of them stumble.
This time, Maddox took a firm hold of Meta’s arm, pulling her back.
“He shouldn’t have said that to you,” she hissed at him in passing.
Maddox shook his head as if to say the Marine’s words didn’t matter.
“That was a mistake,
,” the giant said. He pulled out a switchblade, clicking it so a gleaming length of stainless steel popped up.
Maddox reacted instantly, launching at the giant, surprising him. The big man must have been one of those who relished seeing fear in others.
At the last moment, the Marine tried to slash. It was too late, as Maddox’s boots crashed against the massive chest. The giant catapulted off his feet, slamming the back of his head against the sidewalk as he tumbled to the ground. The switchblade clattered into a nearby gutter, disappearing from sight.
Maddox landed on his feet like a cat. His speed and reflexes were phenomenal.
One of the laughers cursed loudly. The other stared at Maddox in shock. They reacted too slowly as the captain swung, hitting the next Marine on the chin, knocking the man onto the ground. The other barely got his hands up in time, blocking several punches. Unfortunately for the Marine, he failed to detect Maddox’s leg sweep. He crashed onto the sidewalk, prone and vulnerable. Maddox kicked him twice in the head.
Maddox whirled around to face to the last Marine, the short one Meta had said gave her a creepy feeling. What the captain saw stunned him.
The last Marine was behind Meta, holding one of her wrists in an iron grip as Meta struggled. That was surprising. Meta should have been able to easily put down the Marine. Swiftly, the man shoved a short-barreled gun against her head.
Meta quit struggling.
The short Marine stared at Maddox, almost as if he was waiting for something.
“Well?” Maddox asked. He would move when the man aimed the gun at him. Meta would no doubt smash an elbow in his ribs then. She might even break a few.
“Captain Maddox,” the short Marine said in a clipped manner. “I have a message for you. Under no circumstances should you trust the Spacer. She means you harm.”
Maddox blinked in surprise, thrown off by the comment. A moment later, he nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”
The Marine seemed thrown off by this reply. “I hope you remember what I told you about the Spacer. It is vital for your continued existence as a species.”
Maddox had become hyper-alert. “Are you a New Man?”
“By no means,” the Marine said.
Maddox chewed that over as his thinking sped up. If the fake Marine wasn’t a New Man, could he be like Kane—a modified human? Something about the gunman, his choice of words perhaps, clicked an idea in the captain’s brain. This was another android. That would provide the explanation for him being stronger than Meta.
If he were an android, he must belong to the dead Builder. Would that imply Strand, Ludendorff or a last Builder imperative?
“The previous androids—the Stokes models—tried to kill me,” Maddox said. “Why aren’t you going to shoot me?”
“Because I’m not your enemy,” the supposed Marine said.
were,” Maddox said, indicating the groaning Marines on the sidewalk.
“I used them,” the android said. “I played upon their race bigotry, goading them into attacking a half-breed.”
“Why do that?”
“As camouflage,” the android said.
“You’re not making sense,” Maddox said. “Why did the Stokes androids try to kill me?”
“That was a mistake.”
“They didn’t think so.”
“Have you ingested my message? Do you understand the danger the Spacers represent?”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“While you are attempting to keep me here longer than necessary,” the android said. “I understand your ploy. Remember what I said.”
“Are there two factions among the surviving androids?” Maddox asked. “Did your side take over after the first two failed to kill me?”
“You must concentrate on the Spacers.”
“Why are they dangerous?”
“I am done here,” the android said. “Do not attempt to follow me when I leave. Otherwise, I will shoot your woman.”
“That would be a grave mistake on your part,” Maddox said.
“You fail to understand, Captain. I desire existence just as you do. I am real. We all are. We are not just soulless machines, as your kind seems to think. Therefore, I will fulfill my threat in order to keep functioning.”
“Don’t you mean to say ‘living’ not ‘functioning’?” Maddox asked. “Functioning is what machines do.”
“Yes. That was my meaning.”
“Why couldn’t you have come to my table and simply given me this information?”
“We speak on my terms, Captain, so I can make my exit at the proper time. I realize your tactic, though, these prolonged questions.” The android glanced at the fallen Marines. “The French shall rise again.”
The effect on the three was electric. Each Marine stiffened as his eyes widened. A muscular change also came over them and they bounded to their feet as if refreshed, and charged Maddox. This time, they fought with berserker power and speed, grunting like animals as they shrugged off the captain’s strikes. After a ringing blow to his head that made him stagger, Maddox debated shooting them. He realized that would be murder. They were pawns, nothing more.
With a sigh, Maddox realized what he had to do. He began breaking bones to incapacitate the berserk Marines. The last one went down hard with an ugly thighbone break.
By that time, police air-cars thudded onto the street. The officers climbing out of them blew shrieking whistles.
Maddox staggered back as the last Marine dropped to the ground. The captain had bruises where they’d struck him, while blood dripped from a nasty cut over his right eye.
Meta used her hands to hold her skimpy outfit together. Before he’d dashed away, the android had ripped her garment in strategic locations.
There was no sign of him. The android had made good his escape.
“Monsieur,” a Paris policeman said. “You will step over there at once.”
Maddox complied with the order. Riker would be here any minute. He kept wondering about the android, wondering whom the thing represented. Why did it want him to distrust the Spacers? Could the android have known about Shu 15 in particular? That seemed ominous.
This really was getting complicated.