Authors: T. Jackson King
Not at all!
He couldn’t be letting his guard down, could he?
Aboard the return taxi, Matt swayed in his seat across from Eliana, who still looked shocked by the sudden extension of her Vigilante-hunt mission. She sat strapped in, her vacsuit still silvery reflective, as did he—Suit had insisted on the precaution in view of Legion’s appearance. He was skeptical and anyway, the tube taxi possessed internal pressor fields that came on automatically in response to any sudden vector change.
Mentally, he reviewed tactical options. They were all Matt had at the moment. The meeting with Legion confirmed the Stripper was loaded with ecotoxins that would be released by some catastrophic action—such as the Stripper’s destruction. Or Legion’s death. And the data from Ioannis confirmed the worthlessness of conventional assaults. The Derindl disaster also revealed something else—such attacks did not activate lifeweb destruction. Apparently the Stripper’s expert software allowed for a fine-scale discrimination among Threats. Interesting.
So how would it react to a single human cyborg, like himself? How would it react to a nontraditional attack? And should Matt visit it first, the Autarch first, or the human colony at Olympus first? After all, the local Greeks had watched the Stripper for nearly two years now. They and the Derindl must have some data on the Stripper—even if it was mostly negative data on what didn’t work. As a jackleg social scientist, Matt was as interested in negative data as in confirmatory data—all data inputs helped define an amorphous problem like the Stripper. Such as how did it work? That data lack irritated him most. Readouts from
Mata Hari’s tech libraries were unusually sparse, containing only a basic schematic with the notation that each Stripper was modified to fit each planet where it worked. Great!
Across from him Eliana moved, reaching up to release her chest safety straps, apparently bothered that they bound her too tightly. Matt raised a gauntleted hand.
She stopped, looking to him. “What—”
“No!” he boomed over Suit’s external speaker. “I’ll tell the bench seat to loosen those for you. Don’t remove them until we’re—”
A shock wave knocked the taxi almost upside down, throwing Matt against the padded interior of Suit.
Two hundred milliseconds
passed like a thought.
Suit banged against the taxi’s interior metal wall—just as the wall nearest him burst open in yellow flame and black smoke. An explosion!
Two hundred forty milliseconds
Shrapnel bounced off Suit. Eliana looked shocked but not injured, thank the stars!
The surface-to-surface contact did it. The explosive power of the bomb followed the taxi-Suit-padding pathway and reached his head.
Concussion struck him.
Two hundred sixty milliseconds
His vision greyed out. His heart labored. Dimly, in his ears, Suit’s backup systems screamed for his attention. Tactical CPU yammered. Too late, the taxi’s pressor fields flashed on, protecting them from further explosive residue.
Distantly, Eliana screamed.
He blacked out.
Somewhere deep in the black dimness, he dreamed. And knew he dreamed.
It comforted Matt.
He dreamed of his first pet, a six-legged baby groundhugger he’d found in an uprooted stump during a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms were common around his parents’ farm, stuck off on a cold, northern peninsula of the Second Wave colony named Thuringia, a Mars-like world that orbited the yellow-orange star Pl-3 Orion—just 26 light years from Sol. The groundhugger had mewed at his touch, then nuzzled Matt as he pulled the rain-drenched shape inside his farm coveralls, protecting it from the thunderstorm, the rains and the cyclonic winds. Over the next few days he’d hidden it in the family’s barn, a long shaft dug into a nearby hillside—to protect the stock from Thuringia’s strong winds. While tending the Earth-pattern clone animals, he snuck grain and fed the groundhugger, cleaned up after it, and watched its four black eyes alertly track his every move, even when his fingers playfully poked it in a tummy without a ribcage—merely an assemblage of cartilage and tendons that braced the sparse bones of spine and legs. Then his father had found Matt’s pet hiding in a grain barrel and killed it as a pest—unaware of his son’s secret.
His mother Kristin had comforted him, for a while. Then his first sister had been born, displacing him and putting more farm work on him and his stiffly formal father. Matt had tried to forget the loss and his father Benoit had reached out to an only son. The man, a stocky, heavily built, black-haired man of reddish-brown skin and an intense manner, unbent enough to tell Matt about his grandparents. Grandpa had been a full-blooded Apache Indian from the Southwest of old North America, who’d married a Scots-American rancher, while his grandma had been a Tongan Polynesian who’d hooked up with a French sailor from Marseilles, from whom the family name of Dragoneaux derived. It helped him understand his mother’s endurance of hard times and his father’s insistence on family duty ahead of personal wishes.
One day, years later, Matt was down-peninsula at Thuringia’s single spaceport
of Elios, bartering with a Javanese merchant for new tiller-robot parts. His parents had stayed behind with his four sisters—every hand was needed to bring in the spring harvest of ground tubers.
A genome harvester hit Thuringia.
But not like the first one that hit Earth in 2040 and stayed so long it had been captured.
This one had lain hidden in Thuringia’s asteroid belt for months, mapping the power emissions from farmstead hoverjets as they moved from backcountry down to the planet’s only spaceport—a Port protected by antique neon-argon lasers with adaptive optics mirrors—and then back out to their dispersed homesteads. It was a regular, agricultural pattern. With the pattern known and the target homesteads selected, the harvester ship moved.
It went first to a polar orbit in stealth mode, where it dispatched a hypersonic Fire-and-Forget missile that took out the Port’s FTL communicator. Then it launched radar decoys—to veil the touchdown sites of its three landing craft. Finally, just minutes after the initial strike, the genome harvester collected forty-seven humans from eight isolated farmsteads. It was an efficient harvest. They did not need quantity when all they required were zombie reservoirs of sapient DNA. They were, after all, not organ harvesters or labor-slavers—they were the top of the line in Anarchate commercialism. They were genome harvesters.
In just one hour they struck, took, destroyed, and left out-system. In that short time Matt lost his entire family.
He returned briefly to see the blasted homestead, smell the burned odor of blackened crops, and then leave, never to return. At Thuringia Port, Matt took passage out as a laborer and personal Servant to a freighter ship’s alien captain. The captain taught him his duties—and used a neurowhip when he didn’t move fast enough. Later, he moved up to Stevedore level. On other ships in other star quadrants he survived, grew taller, acquired new scars, and educated himself from borrowed datacubes. Matt also learned violence, especially controlled violence, and then discovered how much other sapients respected those beings who could exert such violence.
A brief setback occurred when his ship was captured by optoelectronics raiders. They sold him to the foul-smelling Flesh Markets of Alkalurops, where he soon discovered why there was no universal law in the galaxy—anarchy was too profitable. The Anarchate was founded to perpetuate anarchy between star systems. And to enforce its Four Rules. Number One said no planet interferes with the internal affairs of another planet. Number Two said all planets obey Anarchate orders. Number Three said every planet pays taxes to the
Anarchate—or suffers interstellar quarantine. And Number Four said no one challenges an Anarchate Nova-class Battleglobe--on pain of total destruction.
In his dreaming, the harsh lessons of survival in an uncaring universe dominated. But Matt also dreamed of
Helen Sayinga Trinh. A mix of Vietnamese, Indonesian and Danish bloodlines, only her blond hair betrayed her mother’s Scandinavian heritage. The rest of her was brown-skinned, petite, and lovely. Also very wise. He’d met her at a resort planet orbiting 57 Zeta Serpentis, where he’d come as the personal Guard for an ammonia-breathing gaggle of tentacles. She ran the baccarat table, where rich beings deftly threw dice in an old-style gravity field without any use of covert pressor, tractor or gravity fields. It was simple, pure and elegant. Her game, being both honest and with a chance for the house to lose, attracted the high-rollers. Helen had taught him the love that lay beyond wild sex. He’d shared with her his love of weaving Amerindian-style blankets and the uses of a knife carefully thrown. They’d left together, hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart, on a wild venture to homestead far beyond the reach of the resort merchants who owned her service contract.
She had been his first love.
Then she’d died in the pirate attack. He’d lived and escaped in the freighter lifepod—unable to die with her.
Months later, with Matt in stasis, the lifepod drifted into the tractor beams of
A question had been asked. An offer had been made. A Choice had been made.
It was a life whose strangeness still amazed him. A life where he could be close to something, and yet not be affected by closeness. A life where he could insulate himself from caring, from attachment. From the circumstance of watching as—inevitably—anything he cared for was eventually destroyed, damaged, or taken from him. It was a surcease from caring, with challenging work. It helped him forget Helen—forget everything . . . except the Promise he’d given her—a Promise to never refuse help to those in need.
And yet, the Choice was imperfect.
Even in his dreams, caring memories returned to haunt Matt. The memory of his dead childhood. The memory of his dead pet. The memory of his dead love. Along with memories of implacable aliens doing unmentionable things to helpless people all across the galaxy. Like rude strangers, the dream memories accosted him. But there was only one of him and billions of needy people. What could he—
A strange image invaded his dream universe. An image of fiery clouds, lightning, and resonant song that both uplifted and frightened him. An image—
“Cyborg unit Matthew Dragoneaux—awaken!”
In his chest, something thumped. In his mind, awareness glowed. In his hands, feet and body, electricity moved, firing synapses, activating muscle groups, changing metabolic levels, and dosing him with strange chemicals. Prodding, poking and bothering him. It could be only one entity.
“Mata Hari?” he thought.
“Of course. Are you functional?”
she said in his mind.
Matt opened his eyes. He was inside
Mata Hari’s ice-cold Biolab, stretched out nude on a magnetic resonance imaging platform, with myriads of optical fiber cables touching his skin. “Functional. What happened?”
“Ship status is nominal,” said the
Biolab’s overhead speaker now that he was conscious. An effort to draw him away from dreams and into contact with external reality. Silly AI . . . . “Systems check. Think-activate your Suit systems, please.”
. “Complying.” Internally, Matt thought-imaged the alpha wave codes that activated various systems of Suit. It stood by itself now, encased in a clear glass tube at the other end of the square, metal-walled room—apart from him. Did it miss him? Suit’s external systems flexed, blinked on, or shifted off in response to his mental commands. Suit looked forlorn. “Satisfied?”
Something pounded on the closed slidedoor that connected to the Spine hallway. Matt smiled ruefully. “Is that Eliana?”
said sarcastically. “Do you want her in here?”
The door hissed open. An angry Eliana strode in, hands fisted up, black hair flying, green eyes blazing. She was also quite naked. “Who the Hades gave this computer the right to strip me naked, decontaminate me, and hold me in Detention! Plus keep me from checking on my Employee!”
Matt sat up, winced to a slight ache over his right ear, and waited patiently until the optical fiber sensors retracted into the examination platform. “You did. By hiring me as your Vigilante. And by sharing the same taxi when I was attacked.” He swung his legs around and let them hang over the table’s edge, bemused by Eliana’s outrage. “Are you all right?”
“I’m flattered by your concern! The taxi’s internal fields shielded me from the shrapnel.” She crossed arms under full breasts and looked up at the ceiling voice of Mata Hari
“I presume your computer has told you what it did to my brother’s Trade station?”
“You presume wrong.” She looked down to him, her manner now uncertain. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
She frowned intently, glanced again at the ceiling, then fixed on him. “There is now a two-meter wide hole in Zeus Station—burned from the interior out to Lock Three. And all caused by that combat suit of yours!”
“I should hope so.” She scowled at his nonchalance. Matt waved his hands at her, trying to calm her down. “Hey, take it easy, Eliana. Suit was only doing what it was programmed to do—protect you, protect me, and get us both to safety on
How long has it been since we were bombed?”
“Four minutes,” she said, glancing around at
Biolab’s equipment as if she were a bull searching for a glass factory. “But your computer didn’t have to strip me naked and shut me out of—”
“Three minutes, forty-three seconds, and 800 femtoseconds is the time since the attack,” corrected
primly, as the AI took form in a nearby holosphere, wearing her white lacy Victorian dress with the low-cut bodice, her black hair piled atop her amber-skinned face. “And Patron, you neglect to mention that my Defense Remote met you and Suit halfway into the Station. After that, you were entirely safe within its cargo hold.”
“You, you computer, you—” Eliana choked up, unable to finish. Instead, she glared at the holoimage of his partner.
“Eliana,” Matt said soothingly. “Please, don’t blame Mata Hari for being a good protector of us both.”
She blinked, seemed to gain control of her anti-AI feelings, and nodded stiffly. “Maybe so. But I was worried about you and it . . . it wouldn’t tell me anything about you!”
Matt felt touched by her concern for him the person, even if she still hadn’t adjusted to Mata Hari
as a person, as someone to treat like people. “Thank you for your concern, Patron.” Eliana shivered, hugged her ribs more tightly, and looked at him the way a naked woman looks at a naked man. A pink blush began spread across her face and chest as she realized how her Clan might view their informality. He grinned. “Hey, we’ll get you clothed soon enough. And Mata Hari
won’t tell your Nest-mates about this little episode.”
Eliana eyed him as if deciding whether to stay angry over his public mention of her discomfort. She finally smiled. “Yeah, this scene would look pretty strange to my uncles.” Eliana shivered again, her bare skin showing chill-bumps in the most delightful places. “Do we have to stay in this icebox?”
“Nope.” Matt jumped off the table. “But I have to check out Suit and catch up on the tactical situation. Walk with me?” She did so and he queried his partner. “Mata Hari
did the rest of the Defense programming in Suit’s Tactical CPU perform as expected?”
“Exactly as programmed,” said his partner as the two of them walked toward the far end of the large room, where Suit stood in its isolation tube. “On our end, ship pressor fields peeled open the Station’s outer skin, kept back interior gases and pressure, inserted the Remote, and rendezvoused with Suit as it made a fighting retreat from the ambush site.”
Eliana paced alongside him, arms hugging her ribcage, her teeth chattering. He ignored her natural beauty and focused on work. “So it was an ambush? What do Suit’s nano-borers and nanocubes say about the explosive device, the ambush site, and the identity of whoever attacked us?”
“They say a lot.”
Mata Hari’s voice followed after them as ceiling speakers kept pace with their walk and the holo-image floated along beside them. “It was a simple C-4 plastic explosive that was placed against an interior tubeway wall, primed with a radio-fuse, keyed to a remote transmitter, and activated when some entity observed your taxi approach that part of the tubeway.” The AI paused.
Eliana’s slim beauty again drew his attention, as did her stiffening nipples. Matt fought his hormones. “And?” he prompted.
“It appears to have been a hasty job,” Mata Hari continued. “One indicating either the mental confusion typical of you organics, or a poorly programmed alien AI that doesn’t understand humans. Alternatively, the bomb could have been one of several dozen limpet mines dispersed among the tubeways in the hope of intercepting your taxi as it approached Dock Three. If the latter, it was a failure due to your Suit’s Escape-and-Evasion programming.”
Walking alongside him, Eliana noticed his glances. She flushed again, then looked ahead at Suit. “Who attacked us!” she said.
“Uncertain,” Mata Hari said as the Biolab’s cold air set Eliana’s teeth to renewed chattering. “The bomb parts show maker marks traceable to a subsidiary of Halicene Conglomerate—a mining explosives company, I believe. But—”
“Halicene? My brother should know about this. I’m calling Ioannis!” Eliana turned to leave the
“Hold up,” Matt said to Eliana as they stopped in front of Suit. The glass tube rose up, exposing his symbiont. Bending over, he checked out Suit’s armor plating. “First, fabricate a robe for Eliana and deliver it to just outside the
Biolab entrance. Second, such parts are common on the open commercial markets. Mata Hari
are there other possible attackers?”
“Many. The Pericles group for one.” Eliana stopped in the open door, half in and half out of the hallway. She glanced back at him in a respectful way, as if seeing him as more than just a cyborg, as if her earlier concern for his safety had been real, and perhaps a sign of something else. Matt controlled his physical reactions and looked over at the glowing 3D holo-image of his partner as
continued. “Clan Karamanlis is another—they might like to see Clan Themistocles fail. Even someone within Clan Themistocles might have done this—not all humans have your motivation to refuse a bribe, Matt.”
“What motivation?” asked Eliana, still standing in the doorway, her chill-bumps vanishing as hallway heat touched her. A floater arrived just then with a robe for her, which she accepted gladly.
Matt put his emotional responses to Eliana under tight control. “It has to do with a Promise I once made. And it’s a personal matter, Patron.” He stepped back from Suit and headed for a nearby clothes locker. “Mata Hari
what is ship’s status?”
“On vector for a low-orbit above Halcyon. Per your initial plans. Your orders?”
“Who are we seeing first?” Eliana looked at him expectantly, acting more relaxed now that she wore the robe.
. If he could only think more clearly. His head ached from drugs. His right ear felt bruised. His eyes suffered from a slight diplopia that was already fading. The concussion had only shaken him up, but Matt was determined to make an overdue change in his helmet’s interior padding and webbing—there must be no repeat of his blast-induced concussion. Nearby, Eliana still stood in the doorway. A patient woman. What else was she?
“Patron, we go to see the new Autarch of the Derindl at Mother Tree Melisen.” Matt reached into the locker for shorts and sandals, then smiled at her. “Will you accompany me to my audience with Autarch Dreedle?”
Eliana nodded. “If you insist. I would prefer a return to my own Nest-group at Mother Tree Corinne, near Olympus, but—”
“But the Job comes first, Patron.” Matt pulled on his shorts and then snugged his feet into the sandals. “And it’s time you got completely dressed—your health is also one of my concerns.”
Eliana looked confused, as if his careful non-reaction to her earlier nudity did not fit what she had expected. She nodded finally. “I’ll be in my stateroom. Call me when it’s necessary to disembark and make the Genetic Donation—my blood type will give you short-term immunity from Tree antigens.” Eliana headed out into the Spine hallway, but not before he caught her thoughtful, inward look. As if she considered more than Themistocles Clan issues.
“Thank you,” Matt said softly. He turned and surveyed his combat suit. “
Mata Hari—is Suit fully decontaminated and repaired?”
“Yes, it’s fine.” The glowing holo-image spoke in sync with his symbiont’s voice, which carried reassuring warmth. “The nano-units finished repairing the external armor two minutes ago.”
“Was there interior penetration?”
“Of course not!”
looked scandalized. “This may be an old design, but it has every upgrade available on the market. And several unique to the T’Chak. Now, if a miniature black hole were brought into close proximity to the armor, then it would buckle from gravity tide surges but—”
“I get your meaning.” Matt closed his eyes, swaying a moment as hunger overcame caffeine suppressants. “I’m heading for the Interlock Pit. Make sure a decent, five course meal—with soy-protein steak—awaits me.” He licked dry lips. “And bring me some Rothschild ‘97 Cabernet Sauvignon. I could use a drink.”
“Any other commands?”
Matt grinned at the way
Mata Hari’s nearby image managed to convey just the right amount of exasperation—it was nice dealing with an AI partner who paid attention to the small details. “Be patient—I’m sure I’ll come up with some. Such as a request for the entire Lineage history of Autarch Dreedle and her unfortunate predecessor. Are you listening?”
“Am I never listening?”
“You tell me.”
“I can’t—I’d be listening then.”
Smiling ruefully, Matt shut up. Thinking an image code to his scalp SQUIDs that told Suit to follow him, he exited the Biolab and stalked down the Spine hallway. Verbal repartee was all very nice, but
was far from a clone-brain floating in nutrient solution—like those that ran the starships of some spacefaring cultures. Nor was she the engram of a real or artificial personality, impressed millennia ago upon crystalline memory matrices—like the Memory Pillars on the Bridge. His AI ‘lived’ in the pillars, but her presence filled the ship. She was something else, something more than her Mata Hari spy persona . . . and whatever she was, she wasn’t human. Why had she not returned to her T’Chak builders? And had her persona always been a human female analogue—or an alien persona reflective of her T’Chak builders?
Feeling too sober, thanks to his concussion medicine, Matt reminded himself that despite her excellent human persona,
Mata Hari was not even close to human-normal—not when you were built over two hundred thousand years ago by the ancient T’Chak civilization. They were aliens about whom almost nothing was known, other than that they were based in the Small Magellanic Cloud and that they built superb starships. He’d learned that a T’Chak ship is a shapechanging wonder, its flexhull capable of many variants on the current Hull Prime configuration of central tube and outrigger pontoons for the antimatter projectors. The other weapons systems were carried internally, but could easily be extruded when necessary. In between weapons blisters and projector pontoons, the flexhull was covered in laser-resistant adaptive-optics backed up by carbon-carbon ablatives. Internally, strings of fusion power plants ran its length the way a dowager wears pearls. And its powerful deut-li fusion drive had an antimatter overdrive, one that could push them up to three-quarters lightspeed. Inside, and apart from the Spine hallway he now walked, the stateroom walls were made up of transparent optical matter which required only polarizing photonics to either color the walls or rearrange their shape. That much Matt knew. That much Mata Hari
had shared with him from the first.