The laser beam hit Matt's right shoulder, sharply green and gangrenous. Then it splintered into thousands of low-power sparkles as his combat suit's sapphire crystals broke the beam into incoherent photon streams that filled a lonely corridor of Hagonar Station.
Attack! screamed Suit's onboard Combat Information System as it flooded his mind and nerves with hundreds of data streams.
stream illuminated his attacker, a six-legged crab-like alien with
natural chitin armor that it may have assumed would be protection
enough against a two-legged biped who wandered the back corridors of
the space station and wore only an armored lifesuit. The attacker had
pretended to be a dome-shaped outcrop of the corridor, betting on the
faint red light to shield it from detection by Suit's sensors. A
Blinking his right eye twice, Matt approved Suit's plan to hit the alien's exoskeleton with six titanium penetrator darts, each dart carrying a biogel able to quickly kill any carbon-based lifeform that possessed nerves. The neurotoxin was enough, but Suit believed in "Kill Thrice, Regret Never," a combat axiom that he found wasteful of resources.
The alien staggered as the penetrator darts hit its chitinous shell-body, then it screeched in pain as Suit flashed ultrasonic beams against its shell, causing internal organs to liquify as the resonance frequency for its flesh was reached.
In less than 15 seconds a lifeless chitin-shell rocked slowly on the corridor's metal floor, the laser rifle long ago dropped, the six manipulator limbs unmoved by death throes. Death throes require nerves able to transmit bioelectric signals and muscles able to contract muscle fibers. His attacker's body possessed neither, thanks to Suit's counterattack.
Matt Dragoneaux turned away from the low-caste assassin, heading inward to the dive bar where he was to meet a possible Patron, someone who sought to employ his combat capabilities.
An hour later he still sat in Wiggles,
wondering why the bipedal form so interested the exotic critters who
filled the alien version of a booze-drug bar. It distracted him from
thinking about her, Helen, the woman who had loved him, and whom he had
loved. Until she died, leaving him to find a life purpose without her.
He sighed, his breath filling a tightly closed Suit.
A lost love is like a spent shell—merely the ghost of something once powerful. Why, then, did her memory still haunt him? She was dead, and there was nothing to be done about it. Nothing at all. Matt shrugged inside Suit. It was real. It was no ghost. And it was powerful. But Suit felt like a womb enfolding something yet unformed. Something powerful in its own right, yet only a pale imitation of what he had once had—with her. Until their starship was hulled and she died in front of him. He shuddered.
Work. That’s what he needed. That’s why he still sat in a third-rate dive like Wiggles, stuck away in a corner of a backwater space station, waiting for his appointment with a possible Patron . . . and she was late.
For a Vigilante like him, hanging around one place too long isn’t smart. As the corridor episode showed, you can get killed by staying in place. The code of a Vigilante is simple: track ‘em, strike ‘em, and be elsewhere when the Anarchate battlecruisers showed up.
Matt squinted into the clinging shadows of Wiggles, searching for the alien woman who’d answered his Job Board listing. It had been brief enough: Vigilante for Hire; Have Ship, Will Travel. He smiled, recalling the ancient vidpic from which he’d stolen the words. He’d always liked Paladin. Their features were similar. But the man had lived in a simpler time. A time when little Earth had thought itself the center of the universe.
For the thousandth time he wished Humans weren’t spread so thinly across a galaxy infested by thousands of alien species, with no justice, no law, and a soul-destroying culture called the Anarchate. Why did he live when whole species sometimes died in the far reaches of space? What could he do, a lone human, against a cultural system already ancient when Mars lost its oceans? But wishing doesn’t change reality—such as the fact that Earth had been ‘found’ by alien genome slavers in A.D. 2020, and had never been the same since. Nor had he, since Helen’s death. Matt yearned for her touch, her kiss, her warm embrace, the smell of her hair, the feel of . . . . He pushed away the memory pain. But once again, he felt exposed. Vulnerable. Weak.
Where the hell was she?
Briefly, he considered leaving his private alcove, set against a back wall and far from either entrance to the dive. The Patron was late. Long minutes late. Maybe she’d sold his location to the competition, to the local Anarchate commander, or just taken a buyoff from a genome slaver. A walking slab of human protein carries the seeds of many cloneslaves in his cells—if you can catch him, of course. Matt grinned starkly.
He was hard to catch.
Cyborgs usually are.
But Helen would not have approved of what he now did. Or how he’d changed. Nor would she have understood the compromises he’d made just to survive. He was no longer the simple soyfarm boy from a Third Wave colony planet who’d fallen in love with a high stakes baccarat dealer—a woman whose service contract was owned by highly possessive aliens. They’d escaped on a decrepit, second-rate freighter, putting half a galaxy between them and her owners. For awhile, it worked. They looked forward to a better life, far beyond the colonized stars of the Sixth Wave. Far out. So far out no aliens had ever heard of Humans. So far out he wondered, at the time, if they’d end up on the other side of The Dark, in Perseus Arm.
Death came like a thief in the night. First, the freighter’s singularity drive overloaded. Then, as they lay becalmed between the stars, local resource-pirates attacked with kinetic kill projectiles. Fearsome weapons they were, things that struck at planetary escape velocities. She’d been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, her hand reaching out to him as they sought escape in a lifepod. Thunk. So suddenly. So simply. The image hit before the sound pierced his ears. The image of her head exploding as the KKP tore past the outer hull plates and through her, tossing gibbets of flesh and brain every which way, spattering the walls. Then came the fury. The madness. The retreat in the lifepod. He’d drifted in stasis for eons, it seemed, surfing through the rasping molecular dust of a nearby nebula. Until he’d been found, at last, by the self-aware alien starship he called Vigilante, but which called itself something far different. Vigilante the Dreadnought had chosen to Free Associate with him. Machine to flesh, two had become as one.
shivered inside his combat rig, glad for the touch of Suit; his
umbilical cord—of sorts—to Vigilante. Suit held him upright. Suit
supported him. And only Suit could be counted on. Especially when
you’re a Vigilante.
Who hunted prey . . . .
With the thought came a whir from Suit’s systems as his increased adrenaline and heart rate alerted Suit’s onboard Tactical computer to a potential Threat situation. Its processing unit went into a tizzy trying to Lock-On, Classify, and present Options, be they Localized Decimation, Generic Lifeform Extinction, or a Needs Help alarm to Vigilante, now docked nose-in on the other side of Trade station Hagonar. Too far away to be of immediate help, Vigilante floated on reduced Alert, at one with the station and a dozen other starships, as all followed a leisurely orbit around the double star system Theta Auriga B. This system lay just 110 light years from Sol. Not far, really. Unless you counted memory distance. Inside Suit, lights flashed, demanding his personal attention. Green datastreams flickered and scrolled by on the inside of his helmet faceplate. Nanoware subsystems reported local environmental data, alien classifications, weapons systems carried by those aliens, the infrared and far infrared emissions of warm-blooded beings, the microwave emissions from eyeless aliens, and similar absurdities. Matt blinked, shutting off the overwhelming datafeed from a remorseless, armored, nuclear-powered combat suit. Denial did no good. His fingers twitched within their gloves, moving to random electrical pulses as Suit did a biosystems check-out on him. It was confirming that the human component of the fighting unit known to its Mitsubishi-Toshiba makers as Cyborg Attack/Defense Model XXIII Aleph was still in peak operating condition. He snorted. Uppity computers! His mind controlled Suit—not some damned algorithm cooked up in the AI labs of Kyoto. Still, he might as well make use of obsolete human systems. With a slower blink of his right eye Matt twigged the helmet’s electro-optical sensors, and raised his faceplate. The odors of Wiggles entered. He wrinkled his nose.
It stank. The air reeked of alien pheromones, rancid garbage, metal-scouring cleansers, disinfectants, and the acrid fumes from seven types of tobacco-analogues. Taste. The metallic bitterness of recycled air coated his tongue, telling him the dive’s titanium recycling filters hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Next came sound. Screeching, squalling, heterodyning sounds filled Wiggles, as might be expected at a disreputable bar/restaurant/pleasure dive in the CHON section of Hagonar. Matt winced, wishing he could shut his ears as easily as his mouth. Where the hell was that Patron!
He looked around. His neighbors were supposedly other lifeforms constructed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, who radiated at a moderate temperature and breathed the foul gas called oxygen. However, he counted four cannister tanks encrusted with milky-white ice—it seemed the methane breathers were slumming tonight. But even stranger beings toured Wiggles. Just beyond his alcove’s Privacy Curtain field, there glimmered the irridescent blue crystals of a barium titanate alien; its piezoelectric crystals fluxed and changed visibly, engaging in thought. In the middle distance, shapes moved about the wide, amphitheater-like room, its domed ceiling festooned with parallel bars for the avian and forest-evolved types. Distantly, among the shadows of the far side, there moved a bipedal form, one vaguely suggestive of a woman. His Patron? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps only a hallucination.
Matt saw too much.
He heard too much.
He smelled far too much.
And he felt horribly alone. It all overloaded his mind. Just as he’d felt overloaded ever since docking at Hagonar, hoping for a Hire by a Patron—who was late. Not good. Especially not when he sat exposed in a bar like Wiggles, unable to avoid intimate contact with . . . with everything.
Subsonics frazzled his nerves as his body vibbed to
speech patterns that relied on deep bass sounds. Heat and freezing cold
slapped his face, alternating as aliens with cooling systems or heating
units passed within mere yards. Things with too many eyes,
weird-colored skin, insect-like exoskeletons, and others even more
baroque eddied and swirled before him—dancing, talking, making deals,
arranging for assasinations, offering weapons of mass destruction,
trading in the illegal drugs of twenty star systems, or passing around
small white vials containing genetically engineered cloneslave fetuses
from who knew how many species.
Just a normal Trade day in the Anarchate.
The bipedal form that resembled a woman spotted his image icon on the outside of the Privacy Curtain and moved towards his alcove, still twenty meters away. Ummm. Not a hallucination. But no way another human—not out here.
Time to go to work.
Matt blinked to lower the faceplate, switched to Eyes-Up mode, and then activated the virtual-reality display. Wiggles took form inside his helmet, a miniature room relegated to the faceplate’s right quadrant. He studied the room’s layout, the placement of lifeforms, energy sources, motion vectors—all in three dimensions that rotated within a miniature graphics display. A great thing, the display. It could place his point-of-view at the ceiling, at either entrance to Wiggles, or in his own alcove. He switched focus to the faceplate’s left side as new data shimmered into being. A downlink from Vigilante glowed like a red cloud. Within that cloud floated Hagonar Station, nearby ships, their classifications and weaponry ratings, unpowered asteroidal debris, gamma and beta radiation levels, solar wind fluxes from Theta Auriga’s two stars, and a thousand other details. Too many details. But the flood had just begun. Matt went to gestalt focus, simultaneously seeing the faceplate holos and the inner surfaces of his contact lenses. On those lenses flickered readouts from the twelve weapons systems of Suit. All showed green-light Ready status. Then, filled with an unnameable ecstasy, existing both within and outside Suit, he surrendered his will and underwent systems checkout.
Thousand megawatt laser pulse-cannons stirred to life on either shoulder, tracking around the room, seeking Lock-On. A thump-crump sounded from each bicep as ten rounds of High Explosive Discarding Sabot shells cycled into miniature rocket-guns; they made each biceps look like a bagpipes factory. On his chest, the pulse-doppler radar whined on. Millimeter-wavelength pulses ranged out over the room, probing the inner composition of those lifeforms not wearing a stealth or radar-reflective body covering. Hard against his spine, the rocket launcher backpack grumbled down to Standby, told by Suit’s CPU the range was too close for a subkiloton atomic. But on either hip, and snugged up against his belly, backup magnetohydrodynamic power units pulsed to life. We are ready! they screamed, sounding like little electron bees. They stood ready to feed surge-power to the lasers and to Suit’s sapphire-coated outer skin—just in case a stray laser beam came his way. Other weapons systems flashed by, also powered on. Fingertip lasers. Ultrasonic vibbers. Pressor beams. Tractors. Nerve gas dispensers. Now? Can we go now? God, they were so eager. Almost humanly eager. Then the ecstasy eased off. Checkout done, a new display flickered onto his central faceplate, devoted solely to the approaching female biped. Now just fifteen meters away.
Matt dropped gestalt and focused on the faceplate. Bio sensors displayed clearly her skeletal structure. A subsidiary readout confirmed it as calcium-based, but with a titanium upgrade for strength. Infrared showed a body temp ten degrees above human-normal. Pulse-doppler revealed a double-heart that beat arythmically; that was a bioupgrade for a High Threat environment. Gas spectrometers documented the exact amount of carbon dioxide she exhaled. The heat-map glowed with thermal concentrations—at her head, both breasts, each heart, her hands, the groin, and her feet. Mech sensors showed she carried only a laser handgun, riding in a holster on her right hip. A machete-knife rode on her left hip. Her environment suit showed up as a vacuum-resistant monomolecular film, its oxygen reservoirs presumably strapped onto the woman’s back, buttocks or rear legs—and thus out of direct line-of-sight.
A black-suited woman moved toward him,
her long black hair fluttering slowly in the low-gee environment of
Wiggles. Her arms swung casually at her side. Her eyes—her needful eyes
fixed on him.
A serious look filled her shadowed face. Her head canted forward a bit, implying determination. An almost Human woman approached.
Was she really Human? Or . . . was she an alien-constructed clone put together from stolen or bartered human cells, mind-programmed, emotionally neutered, and devoted solely to the Master who would periodically reward her pain-pleasure center with sadistic lashes from a neurowhip?
Perhaps she was the cyborg vessel of a self-aware, silicon-germanium supercomputer from a far star system, who figured it needed an organic form while slumming among organics.
Or perhaps she was just a mindless biological Remote filled with plague spores, built according to a convenient bipedal form, and programmed to seek out and infect carbon-based lifeforms similar to the original genome pattern.
Such things existed in the ruthless galaxy-culture known as the Anarchate. The options for Hunter-Killer weapons systems are not limited to the electronic, photonic and inorganic.
She slowed, blinking long eyelashes. She spoke. “Are you Matt Dragoneaux, Human, Work Sigil—Vigilante?”
His comlink translated a weird language full of polytonal phonemes. Ancient Greek.
She stopped, swaying slightly in the six-tenths gee-field of Wiggles. Bare hands stayed at her side. His displays keened with Threat Readiness signals. Suit hungered.
Matt blinked. Suit Locked-On one laser
pulse-cannon, centering it between her eyes. They were green—as nearly
as he could see in flickering alien light. Her hair glimmered with an
ebony black luster. And her skin shone alabaster white—where it showed
outside of her cinder black vacsuit.
“You’re late. Identify yourself.”
She looked irritated. His faceplate display tracked an increase in double-heart pulse rates. Carbon dioxide exhalations increased slightly. Muscle tension changed a bit. Cheek muscles tightened. Minor facial tics showed on her right jaw. Under the vacsuit, full breasts rose and fell regularly, not yet showing the rapid breathing of worry-threat-danger.
“I am Eliana Antigone Themistocles, Derindl/Human genetic mix, Sigma Puppis star system, planet Halcyon—a Third Wave colony. My Work Sigil is Molecular Geneticist.” She frowned. “And I’m not late!”
Ahhh—a Derindl/Human crossbreed! That explained the albino skin, but what was her purpose? And would she, like everyone else he’d met, lie to him? “Turn around.”
She looked confused, then exasperated, finally resigned. “If you insist.” She turned, presenting her back to him.
Each shoulder blade was covered by a cylindrical lump. Lower down, and just above the vacsuit-covered buttocks, lay a coiled bulge. Was it the vestigal tail of the Derindl aboreal dwellers? Either that, or a clever imitation to fit a totally false story. Matt double-blinked and took a Threat assessment of her back. Faceplate’s Eyes-Up display changed. The right quadrant showed only small, pressurized oxygen cannisters riding over her shoulder blades, a heat signature denoting both hearts and the groin, and no weapons other than the laser handgun and machete-knife. Curious. She was remarkably under-weaponed for a place like Hagonar Station. Did she have capabilities unknown to him? Or was she an innocent abroad, unaware of the dangers at Hagonar? And the risk she’d exposed him to by being late. . . .
“Face me, please.”
Storm clouds gathered in her eyes as she finished pirouetting. “I, I—”
“Do not touch your weapons, Themistocles-person.”
“What!” Her mouth gaped. A vein on her forehead pulsed angrily. “You, you—”
“You clone!” Anger made her beautiful—too beautiful. “How dare you speak to me as I were only a cipher!”
Matt’s bicep rocket-guns locked onto her mid-body, activated by her Threat tones. Both shoulder lasers now aimed between her eyes, their pinhead sighting lasers putting green dots between black eyebrows. Damn. That’s the trouble with staying in neurolink with one’s weapons systems—integration with them becomes second nature, like breathing, sleeping, eating . . . and fighting.
She was definitely a naif. Naive to a fault. Hopefully not stupid.
Matt sighed. “Lower your voice, please. My Suit systems detect Threat.”
Her jaw muscles jumped again. Eliana Themistocles eyed the rocket-guns and lasers bristling from Suit like needles on a cactus. If she even remembered what a cactus was. Had been, once—long ago. Before the deserts were flooded to grow rice for too many people. “Can you talk?” she asked, attempting sarcasm. “Or do you only sit on that bench like an overweight Bal-lizard, too brainless to do more than posture Threat at anything that comes within your sensory zone?”
“I talk.” Her tone declared her a small frog from a smaller pond who thought herself important. In the Anarchate, of all places. Maybe not stupid, maybe she was just provincial and parochial. Matt focused on Suit. All readouts confirmed Themistocles as a Derindl/Human crossbreed: sex, female; age, about 30 Sol-years; and with no sign of malnutrition or iron-deficiency diseases. Food must be plentiful on her planet. “Your purpose?”
Eliana started forward. “I am—”
overrode Suit’s Fire-command to a bicep shell as she reached two meters
range, just beyond the alcove’s flat metal table. Eliana Themistocles’
white face tightened over high, aristocratic cheekbones. She seemed
frightened now, staring morbidly at Suit as its external systems
flashed brightly. Like a deadly peacock.
“Keep your distance,” Matt said through the helmet’s external mike. He controlled the sound level—no need to vibe her bones. “State your purpose.”
Shivering, the Patron focused those needful green eyes on him. “Hey—we had an appointment, didn’t we?” He said nothing, just watched; her air of authority wilted a bit. “I—my Clan family that is—we’re looking for a Vigilante. You were listed on the Job Board. So I messaged you.”
Eliana scowled. “An off-world alien Trade conglomerate is breaking the terms of a mining agreement that we and our Derindl Nest-mates signed with them.” She paused, then licked her lips. “May I sit?”
“No.” Around them, other aliens were taking notice of two bipeds in the same room—an unusual circumstance considering the rarity of the bipedal lifeform. Matt did not enjoy being the focus of someone else’s attention. Nor staying in one place so long. But a Job . . . . He extruded a gauntlet knife-claw and touched a pressure stud on the table, then looked back to Eliana.
“Come inside the Privacy Curtain field, but stay at least two meters away from me.”
“What?” Eliana looked puzzled, then astonished as the Curtain turned opaque in front of her. The Curtain, now a one-way transmitter of photons, allowed Matt to see her. She shrugged, then stepped through the Curtain’s electromagnetic field and halted on the other side of the table, standing still with both arms at her side, at 1.8 meters distance. Sweat showed on the inside of her palms. Suit’s Threat systems keened loudly, unhappy with such an intrusion. He slapped his chest control panel, hitting the correct pressure stud the first time—as always.
Eliana’s expression stiffened. “Are you speaking to me?”
“No!” The keening died away as Matt reset the size of Suit’s Threat zone. “Just this damned Suit! It doesn’t like closeness—too threatening.”
Still standing, Eliana smiled thinly. “And you? Do you dislike closeness with other sapients? Is that why you’re outfitted like a miniature battleship?”
Matt braced his gauntleted hands against the tabletop, as if he could push away the memories. Did he fear closeness? After Helen? Hey—he could be close! What other human could claim the unique meeting of the minds shared between him and the self-aware entity that was starship Vigilante? A symbiosis they were, quite rare in the records of space-faring peoples. But sometimes, very rarely, an organic could bond with an inorganic, in symbiosis, and know a life too strange for words. The two of them roamed a galaxy where the only purpose was survival. He looked up.
“None of your business, Eliana Antigone Themistocles.” From her eyes, pity came. Then she stared at him with a different look, using those little girl eyes on him. Eyes that touched him, made him feel . . . made him wish . . . . “Explain your Purpose further.”
Eliana blinked, abandoning deeper thoughts. “As I said, we seek a Vigilante. The Trade group has employed a strip-miner the size of this station to rip out our minerals—all contrary to the contract. When our people approach, they are killed. We have few ships. And the MotherShip of the Trade conglomerate refuses entrance to our envoys. Our only alternative is destruction of the MotherShip or the Stripper.”
“The group’s name?”
She looked rueful, ivory teeth biting her lower lip. “The Halicene Conglomerate.”
Matt cared little who he fought, and only a little more who he helped.
A Job was a job. He and Vigilante seemed well-suited to fighting
hopeless causes, righting wrongs, helping the weak, and in general
getting in the way of sensible evolutionary survival. Kill or be
killed. Be smart or be dead. Be alert or be enslaved. The rules of
natural selection worked at the galactic level too, in addition to
planetary ecosystems. But it gave him some purpose, fighting lost
causes. However, fighting the Halicene Conglomerate was stupid. Plain
“The Halicene Conglomerate controls half of Orion Arm. How could you people have been so stupid as to hire them?”
“Bastard!” Eliana trembled with fury. “No one else would give us credit! We needed full spectrum neonatal placental units for our crossbreed zygotes—so we could bring them to full-term.” Tears flickered like uncut diamonds. “The survival of the colony was at stake.”
Matt closed his eyes, feeling very weary, yet secure in the knowledge Suit would alert him to any Threat. What to do? He needed a Patron. But not a credit-poor Patron. And not one so incredibly naive. He needed a Cause, but not one equivalent to walking into a plasma torch. However, he was tired of hanging around Hagonar Station, a distinctive target for any genome slaver willing to take a chance on harvesting his DNA for sale to the highest bidder. So far, he’d fought off two back-hallway attacks, leaving behind smoking piles of protein and chitin-shell. Still . . . . Matt opened his eyes.
“Eliana, I wish I could help you but—”
“Vreee!” Subsonic klaxons and pulsing red lights filled his Eyes-Up display. A Threat!
Against the far wall of Wiggles, something moved. Something like a giant praying mantis insect, but loaded down with body armor, tubular weapons, and a glass-globe helmet set atop a toothy head that sported too many eyes. This something had just lumbered upright. Its own pulse-doppler radar now ranged his alcove, penetrating the Privacy Curtain like tissue-paper. A laser rangefinder sought entry past the Curtain, defeated only because of its coherent photons. Options scrolled across Matt’s faceplate.
Eliana leaned forward, her look anxious. “Dragoneaux, will you—”
She dropped under the table.
In sync and on-line with a super-strong combat suit that feels like your own body is wonderful. It’s ecstatic. And so very dangerous to one’s opponents.
Matt stood up so quickly his armor bent the table’s edge. Nullgrav plates in his boots shot him up towards the ceiling. Both shoulder pulse-cannons whirred On Target. Picoseconds blurred past. Nanoseconds zipped along. Milliseconds ticked by, slowly.
Mr. Threat reared backwards, squawling something, a mid-body chitin-arm lifting a neurolinked tube towards Matt.
Two hundred milliseconds.
He blinked rapidly in a coded series.
Green light flared. One of his laser pulse-cannons sliced through Mr. Threat’s head and mid-body thorax, unleashing a dark ichor. The other sliced off the weapon-arm.
Nine hundred milliseconds.
“KABLAMMM!” Three HEDS rocket shells stitched the lower carapace of Mr. Threat.
A pressor beam speared out from the top of Matt’s helmet, pushing the alien against the back wall.
One and a quarter seconds.
Matt stopped rising and hovered just below the ceiling.
A tractor beam tore at Mr. Threat’s extremities, pulling off legs and multi-arms the way a schoolkid might dissect a fly.
A volley of Fire-and-Forget Nanoshells arced across the room, already programmed for the infrared signature of Mr. Threat, each shell able to twist and turn in flight as miniature rocket motors and vernier jets steered them after every dying twitch and jerk. They would follow any programmed Target around corners, over hills, into tunnels, and even under the ocean—for many kilometers. They were relentless. They were deadly. And they usually got their prey before their high-acceleration chemical fuel sputtered out.
Light. Sound. Smell. Confusion.
They all filled Wiggles’ gloomy shadows as other aliens dove under furniture, exited rapidly, put their own combat exoskeletons on Alert, or simply watched from behind the stone bar.
Suit lowered him back down to his private alcove as Mr. Threat’s chitin-skin erupted with miniature borers, carried by the Nanoshells, that systematically bored through its body like drillbits through wood. Poisons specific to most carbon-based lifeforms also poured out, overloading a dying multiple-heart system. Electronic white noise overwhelmed Mr. Threat’s own combat exoskeleton programming—using miniature emitters carried by the Nanoshells—thus diverting any attempt by its Tactical programming to carry out preprogrammed offensive actions despite the death of its organic host.
Finally, with a flare of actinic red light, the organic shell of Mr. Threat imploded in on itself as the nanoware energy-seekers made contact with the alien suit’s power sources and overloaded them, burning up hardware systems and their organic host at the same time. Just as his boots touched the alcove floor, his onboard CPU displayed the factory-type and model of Mr. Threat’s combat exoskeleton. Halicene Conglomerate, Thix-model, Level Three Enforcer. Damn!
Matt ripped the table aside, looking down at a very frightened Eliana. “We’re safe—for the moment.” She stood up shakily, the looked out into the bar at the piles of red-gleaming debris that had once been a living being. “Did anyone from Halcyon or Sigma Puppis know you were coming here?”
Eliana looked at him as if he were braindead. “Of course! Half the colony knew we needed a Vigilante.”
“Great. Just great.” Matt looked around Wiggles; the divemaster was already replacing broken glassware as a clean-bot sucked in the remains of his recent antagonist. Still, the air felt heavy, oppressive. He’d been here, in one place, far too long. Long enough, at least, for Mr. Threat to track him down. Thanks to Eliana. It was definitely time to get back on board Vigilante. He turned to her.
Eliana Themistocles seemed to be who and what she stated. Her problem was only too familiar to him. The plight of her world was critical—unconstrained strip mining of even part of the planet’s crust would poison its rivers and lakes with heavy metals for centuries, perhaps critically unbalancing its ecosystem and throwing the whole lifeweb into ecoshock. Either Halicene Conglomerate had to leave, or the colony must leave. The two could not co-exist. At last, a real Job. He sighed. Maybe he had genes for stupidity—or lost causes.
“Patron, that was an Enforcer for Halicene Conglomerate. Do your people worry them enough to send an assassin after you?”
Eliana’s pale face froze. She stammered. “Uh, uh, yes—maybe, I don’t know!” Frustration creased her young woman’s face, still unlined by scars, dead hopes and lost loves. “But on the passenger freighter I took to get here, I used standard Screening techniques.”
Matt considered. That was not a starline owned by Halicene Conglomerate, so far as he knew. Black intelligence was expensive, especially when it came to knowledge of the regional heavies. But Suit had its own expert Intelligence systems able to sift and sort through a thousand rumors, and Vigilante’s databanks could never be filled. What else they contained he had no idea—except that Vigilante had never failed to answer his questions . . . given enough time. Perhaps only the ship captain had been bought—not the entire starline. He eyed Eliana.
“What payment do you offer?”
Her face brightened. “You’ll help us?”
“Depends. I work for pay—not free. Your assets?”
She frowned, appearing disappointed. “What barter currency do you accept?”
Time. Too much time spent in one place. “I refuse payment in clones, brainpacs, drugs, plague viruses, and psychosis-inducing software. I accept unique gems, deuterium hydroxide fuel, germanium integrated circuits, molecular memory crystals, expert system algorithms, designer proteins, polytonal music, gold, rare earths, and hand-made art objects. Quickly!”
Eliana smiled softly. “An ethical Vigilante. How interesting.” She sobered. “We can offer raw germanium, molecular memory crystals, unique biologicals based on alkaloid anti-virals, and direct genetic manipulation waldo machinery. Satisfactory?”
From the far side of Wiggles the divemaster watched Matt’s private alcove a bit too intently—as best he could tell from the slant of the alien’s podeyes. Matt blinked once, alerting Vigilante that he was returning, and with a guest.
“That is satisfactory, Patron Themistocles,” he said sourly. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here. Two bipeds together always draws a crowd.”
“Which way?” she said, looking around confusedly, still upset by the combat.
“Out! Out of here,” he said, waving for her to lead the way. “Move it.”
Eliana scowled, her look a promise that she would surely unload on him her opinion of such abrupt behavior, and far sooner than he wished. But she turned and headed out the main entrance of Wiggles. Matt stumped out after her, entering a main arterial hallway, with Suit on full Alert status. No one bothered them as they headed for Dock Seven, and Vigilante.
Watching Eliana’s buttocks move underneath the fabric of her vacsuit reminded him how long it had been since he’d made love to a woman. Virtual reality graphics, memories of Helen, and a few faded pictures were not enough. Not nearly enough. He needed more. But without the closeness. Too much closeness hurt. Too much caring hurt. So fate had taught him.
He had a Job to do. Only a job. Then he would move on.
But Matt could not escape a niggling question, something provoked by Eliana’s earlier comment.
Did Suit just protect him—or did it really do more? Did it . . . did it offer him a convenient shield against his emotions, his loss, and his need for someone to care for him? Could Eliana be that someone?
She was just a Human-alien hybrid, and an albino at that. They had nothing in common. Nothing at all.
Matt Dragoneaux stumped along the hallway at one with Suit, a cyborg once more alone . . . except for a whispering voice in the back of his mind, a voice that said—“Even a Vigilante can find love.”
But first they had to survive.
Copyright retained by T. Jackson King 2009