By Shadar with edits by JH
Redondo Beach, Orange County, late night
When dawn came, Kitja was lying on the deck listening to the ocean. She’d spent the night away from Kerry, allowing him an uninterrupted sleep while she painfully purged Michelle’s ultra-blonde look from her body to return to her natural appearance. Her long brown hair was now streaked with blonde and red strands; her eyes were dark and her skin mahogany. If asked, she would say she was a mix of Danish, Greek and Mexican with a touch of American Indian. No one doubted her.
In fact, her genome was far more exotic; a blend of Arion, Galen, Velorian and, remarkably, Terran. Her birth mother, Sharon Best, was a Velorian P1, the purest of the pure. Most of the rest of her genes had come from from highly-modified Arion sperm in a test tube. While Velor was still in panic from the successes of the Arions’ Tset’Lar, some of the less inhibited Velorian geneticists had experimented with substituting some of the Supremis genes with Terran and Arion features in order to produce a new kind of deep cover agent. With portable genetic scanners in use throughout the Empire and most of the rest of the galaxy, any Supremis agent would be nabbed. But, with so many Terran variants such as the Scalantrans out there, an agent with enough Terran characteristics could easily pass any scan. While the project was still in the design stage, one of the leading Velorian genetic engineers discovered the elements of the Galen genome that governed shapechanging. He added them to the profile, hoping to leapfrog his colleagues.
The resulting combination had been utterly resistant to conception through the Maternity Engine. Only a natural pregnancy by a P1 mother capable of withstanding the unique biochemical stresses would work. He was stymied; he could hardly go to the Institute of Protectors, admit his manipulations and get a Protector to act as a guinea pig.
A friend in the security services tipped him off that a rogue Scribe had been kidnapped and returned for a secret trial and anti-matter execution on Daxxan. Amazingly, she had P1 genetics. A few hush-hush meetings later, the Scribe was turned over to the black genetics program as their number one guinea pig – just so long as she never surfaced again.
Among the geneticists in the black program was a disguised Kryp’Terran, Andrea, an undercover agent of the Geheimite Science Council. Disgusted by the program’s treating a Supremis as a lab rat and determined that the program should be terminated before the genetic engineers became too daring with the Galen genome, she broke Sharon out, surreptitiously destroying much of the lab and killing the scientist in the process.
Pausing at an outpost world to give Sharon a chance to recover her strangely drained energies, she discovered Sharon was pregnant. It was now unthinkable to have Sharon returned to Velorian custody, and fleeing the authorities was hardly better. Even worse, taking a pregnant women through wormholes might jeopardize her child.
While Andrea considered their very limited options and Sharon recovered some of her powers, the two women grew close. Andrea admitted she’d lately grown disenchanted with her mission, and this was going to be her last job. Sharon told her of her experiences as a Scribe on Earth, of how she felt she should be doing more than just recording events. That she had a moral responsibility to influence the outcome of human life on the ‘Origin Planet’.
Andrea credited Sharon with finding the solution, although Sharon for the rest of her life insisted Andrea had. The black genetics program had come to public attention after the lab’s destruction and had sparked a small uproar on Velor. After a few discreet inquiries, Andrea made it known that the whole truth about the scandalous program would not surface so long as Sharon was exonerated and allowed to return to Earth without any Scribal duties. Andrea made her final report to Geheim, received a secret commendation, and was discharged. By that time, the two women had progressed from friends to lovers to emotional mates, so they returned to Earth and decided to raise Sharon’s child together. Two weeks before Kitja was born, they married in San Francisco, beneficiaries of the liberalized laws for same sex marriages. Kitja was born at home and into a family with two legal parents, one natural mother, and what had recently become known in lesbian circles as her ‘nother’.
Kitja manifested unusual abilities immediately. By age three she was using her Velorian abilities to get into mischief. Cars would wind up in the wrong driveways, and landmarks would shift around town as if by magic. By six she was using her shapechanging to mimic the other children in her first grade class, confusing her teachers to no end. Clearly, the experiment had been successful. She didn’t have all of her mother’s strength or resistance to injury, and she’d somehow wound up with little more than a Terran’s vision and hearing, but having sufficient strength at the age of eight to sculpt a block of stainless with her bare hands while the other children worked with moist clay was nothing to sneeze at, nor was having her mother’s ability to fly.
Now all she had to do was to patch things up with Kerry and her life would be complete. He’d understand once he knew the truth.
Redondo Beach, Orange County, morning
A shaft of sunlight found its way through the eastern windows and shined into Kerry’s eyes, waking him. Although his waking thoughts were filled with the jumbled images and memories of the previous day and long night, he felt better than he'd ever remembered feeling before. The meeting with Andi, the amazing testing in the lab, and then her shapeshifting, which turned out to be the biggest shock of all. Then the mischievousness of the party, the dark discovery of Michelle’s hidden affair and finally the frantic lovemaking with a woman who looked and felt like Michelle, but who was undeniably different.
He felt a hollow, lost sensation in his stomach as he thought of Michelle. It was all so confusing. His anger, his grief, then the lovemaking, his distraught mind confusing Andi and Michelle. One thing he did remember clearly – his strength and sexual stamina had been almost godlike, undoubtedly from the effects of her Supremis hormones. The memories of being a near-superman almost caused him to forget the consequences. It had been both the best and worst sex of his life.
Worst because it hadn’t been with Michelle.
He cursed at that realization, even worse than the usual morning after regrets of a night gone wrong. He’d crossed a line he’d always promised himself he never would. He’d gotten involved with one of his patients, even if she could more properly be called a research subject. Most importantly, he’d betrayed Michelle, Andi’s mimicry notwithstanding.
He slowly sat up on the bed, blinking his eyes to get them in focus. His first sight was a young woman leaning back on the Mexican tile floor and staring up at him. Her skin and features reminded him of women from several areas of the globe, but the result was exotic and attractive. If that hadn’t been enough to catch his eye, the red top with bare shoulders and midriff that she was wearing over a tiny yellow swimsuit would be. She had the most amazing legs he’d ever seen.
Looking closely at her, he found she looked strangely familiar, but he was too disoriented to place her at first.
“My prince awakens,” she said in a very familiar voice.
Kerry stared at her, his still groggy thoughts tripping over themselves. “Don’t tell me? You’re also… Andi?”
“That’s not my real name, Kerry, but you are looking at the real me now. I’m not interested in pretending to be what I’m not with you anymore.”
He knew that voice, and she looked so damn familiar. Noticing the multiple gold rings on her fingers, the familiarity slowly coalesced into a name. “Shit! You’re Kitja. Kitja Best. From my Comparative Anatomy class?”
He dropped his head back to the pillow. “God damn it,” he cursed loudly. It kept getting worse. Now his research subject had turned out to be a student, and the University had banned any use of undergraduates as research subjects. Far worse, he’d slept with her!
He’d sworn he would never give in to that temptation, a never-ending danger in the sexually-charged air of Los Angeles. Even in an era that tolerated same-sex marriages, multiple spouses, and holo-cast shows featuring sexual pleasure from missionary intercourse to consensual torture, that was still taboo. But there was always at least one willing coed in every class who wanted to get personal with her professor. Sometimes for grades, sometimes just for the danger and excitement of seducing an older and untouchable man. Kerry had sworn he’d never fall down that slippery, hazardous slope. Now he was lying at the bottom.
“No one has to know but us,” Kitja shrugged as she saw the angry look in his eyes. “I can look like anyone I want when I leave here. Even that Protector, Kara. Everyone would expect you to be working with her anyway. Besides, the people at the party saw Michelle, not me.”
Kerry swung his legs out of bed and sat up. In a low, bitter voice, he said, “I don’t have permission to work with any Supremis, Kitja. Least of all you. A student.”
“I know. That’s why I volunteered.”
“You were so smart, Kitja,” he said angrily. “You knew I’d never go along with any of this, especially last night’s charade, if I knew you were one of my students.”
Kitja looked crestfallen. “Of course I knew that. That’s why I came to your lab looking like I did. But now, after last night, we don’t have to have secrets anymore.”
He looked at her sadly. “I see. You lie to me to get into my experiments, you deceive me some more at the beach looking like Michelle, you screw around with my head when I’m vulnerable – because you told me Michelle was lying to me. Now, after all that deception, you say, ‘we don’t have to have secrets anymore.’ What did you think last night was, Kitja? Love? The beginning of our life together?”
For the first time in her life, Kitja felt physical pain; his words seemed to stab right at her heart. “I didn’t sleep with you for myself. I wanted to help you. But it was more… more wonderful than I had ever imagined it could be.”
Kerry felt as if he were racing down the front of a wave too big to ride. Now she turns out to be an innocent as well? A girl who can't separate lust from love? As most men do when emotionally confused, he turned his anger outward.
“For you maybe,” he said coldly. “But last night doesn’t change a thing between us, Kitja. It just proves you can seduce me when I’m vulnerable. Lord in heaven, Kitja, what did you think my reaction would be to my finding that you’re a student?”
“I… I thought…” she stammered as she looked down at the floor again, “I just thought you’d want to know the truth about me. That you’d go along with me for your research and the good of Earth.” She paused to take a deep breath. “Even more, I thought we could be friends now without playing games. Except when we’re around other people.”
Whatever she was, thought Kerry, she was definitely a young and inexperienced girl full of rationalizations. "No, Kitja, you were looking to have an affair with an older guy who still turned you on, and you grabbed for it when you found out about Michelle. And mimicking Michelle's form… I thought that was harmless fun, but you had seduction in your mind the whole time."
Kitja’s eyes were filled with tears now. “No, Kerry, that wasn’t what I wanted at all,” she sobbed, even as a part of her knew he was right. “I just wanted to get to know you. To help you any way I could.”
“How very Velorian of you,” he said sarcastically. “You thought that by fucking me, you could solve all my problems. Did it ever occur to you that I might still love Michelle? That I might forgive her? That she might regret her mistake as well?”
Kitja rose to her feet and fled, realizing she’d thought of none of those things. Her bare shoulder caught the half-open sliding door on her way through, and the window shattered in an explosion of safety glass. Her tears blinded her as she flashed upward into the clear, blue sky of a Los Angeles morning, a bright stream of powdered glass following in her wake.
Following her into the worst morning of her life.
The Brazeltine Star System
Mandi began her quest for advanced weapons for Valkyrie7 by capturing and interrogating several Arion Betans working in the Empire’s secretive facility near Geneva, Switzerland. One of them had access to Imperial Fleet communications, so she implanted a hypnotic command in his mind to research Fleet records for the nearest Scalantran arms trader.
He came back with the name Bragus Pompanomdine, a shady Scalantran trader who operated outside the sovereign space of Empire and the Enlightenment. He’d made billions trading the most exotic weapons in the universe.
With the Vendorian homeworld a wasteland for eons thanks to a a rogue Arion General, their surviving engineers, and their surviving craftsmen scattered through the galaxy, gathering in a handful of Vauld's, it was no small feat to maintain an inventory of such weapons. Especially since the remaining Vendorians were reluctant to sell weapons that could be used against themselves. But Bragus had worked an exclusive deal with them, and he ensured that the weapons didn’t fall into the hands of any of the Vendorian's competitors or enemies -- and he arranged vengeance if the weapons did.
Of course, Vendorian weapons were only the crème del la creme of his total arms business. Bragus was rich beyond accounting, so much so that he’d allegedly stopped trading in money and valuables. Reputedly his one desire, his obsession really, was the company of female Supremis. Drawing upon their ability to enhance him, he was pursuing his own fountain of youth. It was said that any world that wanted Vendorian weapons would have to find a way to feed his obsession. The result was that both Enlightenment and Empire worlds were trading their most beautiful daughters for weapons of destruction.
He should have been an outlaw, but his elaborate protective schemes, backed by his harem of Supremis women, and the fact that both sides of the conflict needed his weapons to survive, meant that he was protected.
Mandi decided he was perfect for her own quest. She just had to get to him.
Unfortunately, Fleet records said he had taken up residence in the Brazeltine system, five wormhole transits away from Earth. After a ruthless Arion invasion and quick exploitation, Brazeltine had been left to become a lawless, renegade solar system.That was a problem. Mandi had never traversed a hole by herself; her interstellar voyages had all been inside the hull of an Arion ship.
She briefly debated capturing Sharon to guide her through. Her brain was now almost organically identical to hers, which made her a perfect subject for hypnotic control. After reviewing her faint copies of Sharon's memories, though, she finally decided that she knew enough about hole diving to risk it on her own. It was getting harder to get close to Sharon without triggering her into running. More significantly, some else just might find a way to tap the hidden memories of Sharon's mind, if Sharon herself didn't unintentionally reveal them.
She had an instinctive understanding of hole diving -- every Supremis did. Fly down the narrowing guidance rings, staying in the exact center, moving at 0.35c or better. During the last seconds before entry, ball yourself up, tucking even your hair in. The gravitational gradient would tear her body apart otherwise. Blast through it, hoping like hell you didn't get trapped by the black hole. It's gravity could crush a Supremis as easily as it could a human.
The real reason for risking it was to maintain secrecy. She worried that someone would eventually find a way to tap the hidden memories in Sharon’s mind and expose her operation.
Mandi left Earth, accelerating with all her strength, and made a close pass by the sun to tank up on energy. She was traveling at half the speed of light as she headed outward into the trackless void of interstellar space. Her first jump was eight hours beyond the orbit of Pluto.
Three more jumps and a near catastrophe later, she exited into normal space just outside the Brazeltine solar system. Her near fatal mistake had been to veer slightly off course while entering the last hole, sliding perilously close to the anomaly. It had taken every ounce of her energy reserves to break out of the gravitation gradient.
She arrived depleted and near exhaustion. Fortunately, Bragus’ ship wasn’t hard to find. It was a twenty-mile long nickel-iron asteroid with fusion engines fitted to one end, and a phenomenally powerful force field that allowed it to traverse wormholes despite its massive size. It was orbiting one of the gas giants, the seventh planet out from the system’s sun.
Using the sun once again to restore her energies, she floated in and out of the corona as she watched a constant flow of ships rising from the two populated planets in the system. They acted like beacons to draw her to the opening in the asteroid’s force field. Bragus’ business was obviously very good.
She caught one of the visiting ships just outside Brazeltine 4’s atmosphere, and hitched a ride inside the normally lethal radiation field of its fusion engine. The intense field would block Bragus’ bio sensors. Landing on the asteroid, she was glowing with bluish radiation as slipped through the airlock disguised as a crewman, exposing several nearby workers to a lethal dose of radiation before she found a decontamination shower in the maintenance areas. Her body itself couldn’t become radioactive, but her clothing and particles of dust and oil that clung to her skin were full of short half-life isotopes. Rummaging through the quarters of one of Bragus' harem girls, she borrowed an outfit that she thought would impress him. The exotic top was made of brown strands that wrapped around her body, barely covering the center of her breasts, and ended at her waist. She wore nothing beneath. If Bragus was anything like his reputation, her nakedness would demonstrate that she knew what he valued most.
Bragus’ staff didn’t question her when she showed up in his reception room, assuming she was part of some new trade agreement. They put her through the usual scanners, however, and discovered a number of interesting anomalies before sending her biometric signature through to the ship’s databases to establish her identity.
While Mandi awaited her clearance, Bragus’ assistant Sylva, a stauesque blonde, was assigned to watch her. Sylva seemed very friendly, almost eager to tell Mandi that she was an M-class Velorian, her abilities only a notch below Mandi’s own. The Velorian was so engorged with energy that she couldn't button her her blouse. With that much orgone energy, there was no danger she would become depleted while defending her boss.
As the minutes passed and no clearance came, Mandi's anxiety mounted. She knew her mix of Arion and Velorian characteristics would alert the scanners, and she either would either not be the databases or would be identified as a rogue Betan from years ago, inconsistent with the scanner data. Bragus’ would then either consider her a risk and try to kill her, or his curiosity would overcome him and he’d come and meet her. She was betting her life on the later. If she got the thumbs down, Sylva would be instantly backed up by a dozen other femmes with equal or greater abilities. Collectively, they had the power to make any problem go away.
And, trying to pass the time by pumping Sylva for information about Bragus’ operation was a waste. The only thing she was sharing was her own story -- a year's assignment in exchange for some weapons her world had needed to defend themselves from a neighboring world. She was happy that she had only a single week left on her contract, after which she could return to her husband and two children. She showed Mandi pictures of a young boy and girl. The girl was four and looked just like her mother, and her son looked like a little blonde god at the age of two.. Sylva proudly talked about how they were natural births. She said she'd been gathering energy for weeks to let her fly home as quickly as she could. She didn't want to waste a day longer than necessary away from her family.
Mandi was astounded that Bragus’ would take a mother away from such young children. Sylva just smiled and said that he’d fancied her, and that she and her husband had agreed that this was the least she could do to protect her world. It was one of the human worlds, utterly defenseless, except that a number of expat Velorians had made their home on. When the crisis came, they all decided that they had to do their part to defend it.
Disgusted even more by Bragus’ trading practices now, Mandi’s blood was boiling when Sylva walked up to face her, wrapping her arms around her body to hold her tightly. “He comes. Just stand still.” She stared into Mandi’s eyes, blocking any possibility of her attacking Bragus, either physically or with her heat vision.
Mandi heard the door open behind her.
“Release her, Sylva. I don’t think she intends me any harm.”
The buxom blonde lowered her arms and stepped slightly to the side to circle behind Mandi, her arm wrapping around her waist in a deceptively gentle hold. Sylva could react in a heartbeat if she detected a threat, and she certainly had companions waiting outside the room.
“I understand,” Mandi said softly. It was her way of telling Sylva that she wasn’t going to screw up her indentured servitude just before she had a chance to return to her family.
Bragus looked significantly younger than she’d expected. Clearly his curiosity had overcome his fears. If he’d been Terran, Mandi would have guessed he was a well-preserved sixty. His brown hair was graying only slightly at the temples, and his eyes were dark green, his teeth white and his complexion unblemished, not the look of a man whose files were in the Arion database. His ears were elvishly pointed. He’d obviously been enhanced by many Supremis women, and if the rumors were correct, he was addicted to their retrovirus.
Mandi sat down arrogantly, turning her head to look balefully at Bragus as he walked into the center of the room. She was determined to show neither fear nor too much curiosity. Better to maintain her mystery as long as she could.
Bragus glanced down at the small display in his hand. “It says here that you are Mandi Olson from Earth.” He looked up. “A Prime by all appearances, except that you are not in any of their databases. Even more curious, my people have looked back through the sensor logs, and they claim a faint contact was detected exiting a wormhole, then flying through the corona of the sun, and finally to my ship. Flying under her own power.” He pointed at her. “You perhaps?”
“I didn’t mean to deceive you, Pompanom Bragus Pompanomdine,” Mandi said formally, deciding that playing his game was the most likely way to gain his confidence. “I am genetically very similar to both a Velorian and an Arion, that is true, but on Earth, I have hidden myself from the Protector and from the Arion Command. My role there isn’t exactly… sanctioned.”
Bragus smiled. “So you’re doing a little commerce, huh? That I can understand. Earth is the most backward planet in the galaxy, thanks to the non-interference clauses that keep honest traders like myself out of the system. Whoever gets the first foothold there is going to make billions.”
“That’s what I came to talk about. I have formed an alliance with a powerful group of Terrans, and I intend to arm them so they can free Earth of both Enlightenment and Empire forces. Once that is done, I would like to open our world to free trade with the Scalantran Mercantile.” She smiled demurely. “With an exclusive contract offered to you of course, Pompanom Bragus.”
“A most lucrative market indeed,” he said as he sat down gently in one of the chairs. His sparkling eyes said she had his attention now. “But one that will require decades to develop. The conflict there must be resolved first. How do you propose to ensure that?”
“I have the manpower, and I have powerful men working for me with the will and the knowledge. All I need to make it possible are latest Vendorian weapons. Once my people are armed, I will deal with the Arions and the Velorians, and then unite Earth under a single government. One that will be most interested in updating their technology to galactic standards.”
Bragus smiled softly, his look not dissimilar to a cat fancying a mouse for dinner. “You’re talking hundreds of millions of credits. Billions of dollars in your currency. Financing will be required until such time as suitable trade goods can be secured. How do you envision arranging that?”
She lifted her arms and opened her legs slightly, ensuring he had an unrestricted view of her. “My DNA is mostly Velorian. Surely there are some uses to which you could put someone with my attributes.”
He smiled. “Yet my people say you are neither.”
“I’m an enhancement. A mere Betan by birth, but perhaps the most successful enhancement ever. My donor was a very powerful P1, yet untrained as a Protector. She does not have Aphrod’ite’s gift for being able to restrain the gifts she bestows.”
His left eyebrow rose for a brief second before the trader’s carefully disinterested look returned. “I don’t understand.”
She knew the hook was set now. “Protectors are unable to pass on the greater powers, generally conveying only a margin of resistance to injury and very limited increase in strength and longevity. But a P1 can pass on every aspect of her genetics, unless of course she’s been enhanced by Aphrod’ite. There are very few P1’s who have not become Protectors, but they represent a loophole in the genetic chain that the Galen didn’t consider.”
She could hear his heart leap from across the room. “Then this P1 would be most interesting to meet.”
“She is not available for trade as of yet, Bragus. Not until Earth is united and free. But I possess enough of her genetic legacy to give you a taste of her power.”
“An enhancee, passing on the retrovirus?” he asked, clearly surprised. “That’s not possible.”
“Perhaps you wish to conduct your own… inspection.”
“A pleasant prelude to business,” he smiled lecherously.
“It is said that a man who has tasted the virus can sense its power in any Supremis.”
“That is true, though only those few with multiple enhancements can discern more than the vaguest impression. We develop a taste, as it is.”
Mandi tried not to give in to the nausea that was twisting her stomach. Bragus was every bit as disgustingly obscene as she’d heard. Instead, she forced herself to smile sexily as she slowly unfolded her legs and rose from her chair, floating in mid-air as she moved across the room to his chair. “Then kiss me, and decide for yourself if I carry some of the P1’s power.”
Sylva got to him first, flashing across the room in the blink of an eye. She grabbed Mandi’s arms to twist them behind her back, and then hooked her ankles inside hers to trap her legs. Impressed by Sylva’s diligence, Mandi twisted around to face her, only to have the Velorian hold her even more tightly. Sylva smiled sympathetically, but she didn’t let go.
“Would you do the honors, Sylva.”
The Velorian tilted her head and smiled strangely. Mandi wasn’t sure what was going on until Sylva leaned forward and kissed her. Shocked, she tried to pull back, but the Velorian was surprisingly strong.
“A test for poisons,” Bragus said. “Sylva will be my intermediary.”
Sylva’s kiss grew deeper, the sweetness of pheromones scenting her breath. A tender kiss on the verge of passion. Mandi’s heart began to race.
Another woman came into the room as the long kiss ended, a Prime by all appearances, who ran a scanner across Sylva’s lips. She studied the display, and then nodded to Bragus. Sylva turned and began to kiss him now.
Mandi rose back up to float back across the room, settling gently back in her chair. She crossed her legs demurely as she watched the two of them embrace. They'd obviously had a lot of practice together. Still, she could hear Bragus’ heart pounding, all pretense of a trader’s face lost by the time the kiss ended. Sylva circled to stand behind him now, looking back at Mandi with a curious expression on her face.
“I have never tasted such power,” Bragus gasped as he licked the transferred scent from his lips. “A P1 you say?”
Mandi kept her face neutral. She had the bastard hooked now. “Then we have a basis for commerce, do we not? Perhaps someday, even the P1 could be yours.”
“Perhaps we should retire to my cabin and discuss this in more… detail,” he said breathlessly.
She smiled confidently. “Surely we must have our meal first before we taste our dessert, Pompanom Bragus. Tell me what kinds of weapons you have available for trade.”
Bragus briefly looked angry, and then he caught himself, giving her a smoothly practiced smile. “But of course. You are not the trade goods, but the trader.” She was impressed when he managed to slow his heart, shallow his breathing, and force his expression back to neutral. Clearly his business was his life.
“So you want Vendorian weapons for use on Earth? I’m afraid that’s impossible, Ms. Olson. The origin planet is off-limits. If the Enlightenment didn’t send their Protectors after me, the Empire would have my head on a stake, even out here in neutral space. I’m not going to stir up that hornet’s nest.”
Despite his denial, Mandi knew that the opportunity to get access to more of her retrovirus was like a addictive drug, burning in his veins. But he was too smart and disciplined to risk his private empire without a plan. Now he knew the value of a P1 who’d not taken her Rites. He could simply make that a condition in his future trades, working that angle until someone gave him a pre-Rites P1.
Fortunately, she had another card to play, one that would be central to his business as opposed to his pleasure.
“One thing you need to know about me, Bragus, besides the uniqueness of my enhancement potential, or my access to a pre-Rites P1, is that I was born with some special abilities that could be useful to our alliance.” She paused to look directly into his eyes. “I can read and influence minds.”
He smiled tolerantly, clearly unimpressed. “As can I, Ms. Olson. It is an instinct that all Scalantrans have.”
“Those instincts must serve a trader well, Bragus. But I submit you are merely talking about sensing emotions and surface thoughts. A trader and gambler’s gift. I on the other hand, can dig much deeper.”
Bragus laughed. “If that’s so, then why are you here? If you can sense my thoughts, you would know that, intriguing as your offer is, I will never trade with Earth. Not until it’s released from its isolation. A single deal is not worth risking all that I have earned.”
“What I offer you is the opportunity to use my unique abilities for your most delicate negotiations. May I demonstrate?”
He held out his hands, palms up. “I don’t see how you can prove anything here. I’m not going to let you read my thoughts.”
“What if I were to extract one of the most closely held secrets from a trading partner or competitor’s mind? A secret I would whisper only to you. A secret that would bind us together for our shared profit.”
His expression didn’t change, but Mandi could sense that his thoughts were swirling, calculating odds, working on counter strategies, options. “You must be referring to Xander. A Prime who waits even now for me to join him in our negotiations. He has not been forthcoming in sharing his profits with me. But what can a mere trader do? He’s a Prime.” He said the word Prime as if it was an obscenity.
Sylva’s expression, which had remained impassive since she’d arrived, twisted into a frown. Her eyes narrowed angrily.
“If I can confirm his deception, even going so far as to give you the account numbers and location of the bank that holds his funds so you can withdraw what is yours, will that cement our relationship?”
Bragus laughed. “Of course it would. But you talk of fantasies, impossibilities. His mind is like a steel trap.” The smile evaporated from his face. “Besides, he’s an exceedingly violent man. On my last visit, he killed Sylva’s sister. They were twins.”
Sylva’s face was a mask of anger now.
“So he has a taste for blondes?” Mandi offered.
“An appetite is more like it. An appetite for their deaths.”
Mandi rose to her feet to stand before Bragus. “Show me where I can wash this dye from my hair, and I’ll go down to meet him. If I return with his secret, with the ability for you to regain what is rightly yours, will you give me weapons to free Earth?”
He considered that for a long moment. “If you return, yes, I will arm your people. But know now, that none of my girls have escaped once Xander got his hands on them.”
“Fortunately, I’m not one of your girls.”
Deep inside Bragus' Asteroid
Sylva led Mandi to a small apartment, and entered behind her, closing and locking the door. “You can’t go down there alone, Mandi. Xander isn’t what you think. He’s a Destroyer.”
“Shit,” Mandi cursed. “And Bragus wasn’t going to tell me?”
“Xander is an abomination. He was created to kill Protectors. You won’t last an hour.”
“He killed your sister?”
Sylva nodded, her eyes growing moist. “He sent her body back in a very small box. What was left of her.”
“So he’s trying to get rid of me?”
“He doesn't dare to trade with you. But your death would buy him a little good will with Xander.”
Mandi said nothing for a long moment. “But what if I did come back? And I had the secrets from Xander’s mind with me?”
“Then he would have to honor his agreement. Despite his… predilections for women, he is bound by his word.”
“Nice to know I can trust him that much,” Mandi said disgustedly.
“You need my help. Xander kills his victims by first draining their energies. I'll start with him. That will take some. You can use that time to get into his head and steal what you need.”
Mandi looked at her in shock. “You’d use your body that way, to please the man who killed your sister?”
“If we leave him destitute, his lieutenants will finish him off him for us. They’re like wolves, turning on their leader if he becomes weak and useless.”
“Revenge is a powerful drug, Sylva. It can lead you into taking risks you shouldn’t. I’m stronger than you are, and I’d be helpless against a Destroyer.”
“Strength makes no difference, don’t you get it?” Sylva sobbed as tears ran down her cheeks. “The only way to defeat him one-on-one is to draw his energy into our bodies. But only a Protector could do that. But together, you can take his mind as he takes my body.”
“Why would you trust me, Sylva? I could just leave with the knowledge in his head, and let him do to you what he did to your sister.”
“I trust you because I have no one else to trust. If I go home next week without my sister, I will regret losing this opportunity to avenge her for the rest of my life.”
Mandi looked at her for a long moment. Revenge was a powerful emotion. No matter how faint the hope of survival, she’d take a shot at Xander. At worst she’d only distract Xander. But that might be enough. “Then the first thing we have to do is to get this damn dye out of my hair.”
Sylva smiled through her tears. “I knew it. We’re going to kick some Prime butt.”
Planet Brazeltine 3
Six hours later, Mandi and Sylva were pacing back and forth in the outdoor reception area of Xander’s complex on Brazeltine 3. The temperature was twenty below zero and a light breeze was blowing. His administrator had said he was busy, and told them to make themselves comfortable until he came. He looked at them both with pity in his eyes.
Mandi stared at the one mirrored wall, detesting the way she looked. Without the dye in her hair, she looked pale and washed out, her blue eyes her only distinction. They at least still looked Arion, along with her clothing. A simple skirt split down one side as it tied closed over her right hip, and a matching top that showed a great deal of cleavage as it left a slash of bare midriff visible. The fabric was black and shiny, the material tough and nearly indestructible. It was a look that a Prime would appreciate.
Sylva looked so Velorian it was sickening, what with her wearing a sheer white outfit that covered her while still revealing everything. Still, she had been an invaluable source of information on Xander. She looked vacuously happy, carving shapes into the ice floor with her eyes, looking warm despite the bone-chilling cold. To Mandi, she was the walking, talking embodiment of every awful blonde joke she'd ever heard.
It was an act, Mandi knew, as Sylva had proven to be a valuable source of information on Xander. She described how he preyed on anyone blonde. While he did his share of business, he was still foremost a Primal warrior. Ex-military, he’d seen more than his share of combat. His men had conquered the Brazeltine system, and he’d set himself up as a warlord who served no greater law than himself. The Arion Command tolerated him because he kept the Velorians out of his system and remitted a hefty tribute payment.
Mandi decided that the only possible way to defeat him was to play on Sylva’s Velorian abilities and looks and on the fact that she was the twin sister of a woman he’d killed. He’d take the challenge of finishing the job. Sylva would let him take her, she’d even encourage his passion as best she could, and when he began to lose control like all men did, when he began to suck the energy from Sylva’s body, Mandi would slip into his mind and take control. It would be dangerous, for Xander had many times their combined strength.
Mandi felt her excitement and anxiety intertwining as they grew, a cold knot aching in her stomach as long-suppressed memories began to surface again. Memories tainted with fear and desperation. Memories of being taken by Primes, then used for their pleasures and discarded, her body bruised and torn.
At sixteen, she discovered her mutant mental abilities and immediately turned them to killing. Any Prime who attempted sex with her. After a few messing killings by compelling them to suicide, she had found a far more diabolical method: driving them insane by planting phobias in their minds. Paralyzing fears of the two things that Primes loved more than anything else in life: lethal combat and violent sex. Indeed, for many Primes, the two were the same.
Unfortunately, her mental powers had ebbed as Sharon’s DNA had reshaped her cells. Even worse, Xander had to survive this encounter long enough for Bragus to profit, which required that Xander would remember her as one more innocent victim, never suspecting that she’d intruded on his mind or left some phobias behind.
She stared at the mirror as she nervously played with her pale hair, reminding herself over and over that the body she now wore had been designed to survive exactly this kind of encounter. A Velorian’s greatest strength was her sexuality. Protectors had been created to defeat Primes. And all Protectors were P1’s first.
All that, however, was still inadequate to still her memories of being a Betan victim. Struggling to find a way to stay calm, she killed the long minutes by teasing herself with the delicious fantasy of taking control of Xander’s thoughts and then letting Sylva turn the tables and drain the energies from his body. It was a fantasy, but a useful one.
Mandi knew they had to entice him into a ménage-a-trois. She was still planning when the door banged open. She spun around to find herself facing the most muscular man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was a giant.
A quick stab of fear turned her body to ice as he smiled toothily at her.
“So you’re Bragus' little gifts, huh? A tasty treat to prepare the way for more serious pursuits.”
Mandi froze as she stared at him, her pulse racing, adrenaline pumping.
“I see in your eyes that old Bragus didn’t bother to tell you what I am. He just said I was a Prime, didn’t he?”
Mandi choked back her fear. “He said that our future is yours to determine. That my friend and I are his gifts to you.” She bowed her head and kneeled before him. Sylva took her lead and did the same. “We are here to serve you anyway you desire.”
He smiled. “Bragus is getting better at this all the time. Not one but two Vels. And you come trained. How fucking nice of him.”
“He is intent on renewing his trading agreement with you.”
“He is, huh? Well, what if I’m intent on ending your lives? Will you fight me, will you struggle for your lives, little ones?”
“If that is what you wish,” Sylva said, her voice low and angry. “But be aware, we are very strong.”
Xander laughed. “This is not a game of strength, silly girl. But if it was, I’d kill you all the faster.”
Mandi’s stomach was turning itself inside out from fear and nausea. He was far more disgusting than Bragus, something she hadn’t thought possible.
“Then prepare yourselves,” he said as he threw off his robe, revealing his nakedness, his body seemingly carved out of a single block of steel. “This will be a fight to the death.”
Mandi felt disoriented and unsure of herself, emotions she hadn’t felt since she’d drawn her power from Sharon’s body. All her planning, all the schemes, all the care to use Sharon and others for missions of true dangers, and still she was confronting a man who could easily kill her, trying to rip the secrets from his mind as a mere M-class Velorian she barely knew tried to stay alive.
Xander turned and walked into an adjoining building that looked like a bank vault. They followed him in, and a huge plug-like door swung closed to lock behind them. He stood arrogantly in the center of the room, waiting for them to start the fight. Sylva didn’t wait long. She threw herself at him, flying across the room to put her shoulder into his stomach. She bounced one way, and Xander went the other, landing cat-like on his feet. Sylva snapped around in mid-air and dove toward him again, but his massive fist crashed into her face at supersonic speed. She flew backward like a shell from a gun, flattening against the wall and then collapsing to the floor.
Mandi threw herself into the fight, hitting him hard from the back, using her flying power to throw him against the opposite wall. He hit the wall feet first and thrust himself back at her, knocking her off her feet. She barely managed to spin around fast enough to avoid his groping hands. Despite his bulk, he moved as fast as a cat. Just as clearly, the confined space of the armored room was nullifying their flight abilities.
She nodded at Sylva, and they both raced toward Xander at once. He countered with a roundhouse punch that tagged them both, knocking them backward to slam into the far wall.
Seemingly bored with their ineffectual attacks, he threw himself at Sylva, pinning her to the floor. She bucked upward to smash him against the ceiling, but he didn’t let go, her every motion giving him a new opening. He pried her legs apart and tore her clothing off, shoving her into a corner of the room where the ceiling was barely a meter high, floor and ceiling both made of thick Vendorian newsteel. She had maneuvering room, and Xander took advantage by impaling her violently.
Mandi dove beneath the underhang to try to get Xander off her, only to have him kick her in the face hard enough to send her flying. She retaliated with her heat vision, melting the steel overhang to shower both he and Sylva with molten steel. Xander didn’t care. He had Sylva now, just like he’d had her sister before her. He was going to fuck her to death.
It was a tribute to Sylva’s Velorian invulnerability that he didn’t gut her like a trout. He was using himself like a rapier, plunging himself inward to the hilt over and over, stabbing into her center. Mandi grabbed Xander's legs to pull him back out from the overhang, even as Sylva screamed and fought back against his strength, trying to shift her position. But he buried his powerful fingers in her hair and and savaged her breasts, his massive biceps flexing as large as Sylva's head, his back jammed against the low ceiling, his shoulders gouging deep depressions in as Sylva tried to push him away.
She quickly gave up on matching her skeletal strength against his, and instead strained to grip him as tightly as she could with her inner strength, trying to freeze him in place. He just smiled at her attempt, and continued his thrusting with such power that her shoulder blades cut a deep groove into the steel floor. He slammed her head even harder into the far wall, each mighty thrust driving her head deeper into the wall. The steel mercifully obscured her view of his sweating, leering face.
Sylva gave up even trying to fight back – it was hopeless to match her strength against his. Her only hopes were Mandi, who Xander had brushed aside as only a nuisance, and the power she could draw from her passion. For despite the violence of his rape, her Velorian passion was growing, triggered by the ancient precepts that had been built into her genetics. He was so big, so much of a man, so hard. A man of steel.
Filled with primitive excitement now, the lust of the Galen strong in her now, a powerful hunger growing inside her body, it was all she could do to remember to hold out as long as possible to give Mandi more time.
Xander sensed the change and tore agonizingly at her breasts, his fingers nearly tearing them from her body. When that failed, he wrapped his massive arms around her, jerking her off the floor to smash his mouth against hers, his arms nearly crushing the life from her. She was like a rag doll in the grip of an angry child, arms and legs flapping back and forth as he shook her as if he were an angry bear. Her ribs were on the verge of snapping when his body began to shake, a riot of blue-green sparks enveloping his body as he drew energy from her rapidly approaching orgasm.
Mandi used that moment to lash out with all her mental powers, wrapping her body around his from the back as she felt him thrusting himself into poor Sylva. She desperately tried to paralyze his motor functions, but her strongest mental probe was overwhelmed by his sexual passion. Trying for wetted contact, she stuck her tongue in his ear and went after his cerebral cortex, the seat of consciousness, hoping to put him to sleep. Once again, his passion was swamping his higher functions, closing them to her.
Beneath them, Sylva began to cry out in pain, her eyes big as saucers as Xander’s thrusting crushed her body halfway through the thick floor. He was instinctively seeking even greater penetration before his body went nuclear. His face was bright red, his enormous muscles bunching dangerously, a crackle of blue-green energy surrounding both their bodies now as he began his lethal draining of Sylva’s reserves.
Mercifully, the concrete floor chose that moment to shatter behind Sylva’s back. They fell.
Mandi wrapped her legs tightly around his waist and used her flying power to flip him over to have him land on his back and on top of her. Sylva, remembering Xander’s obsession with her sister’s blonde hair, covered his face with hers, frantically kissing him at the same time. She put her physical talents to work, guiding his hands back to her breasts, feeding his sickness by screaming out to him that she was blonde, she was Velorian, that he had to kill her. Riding on top of him as Mandi struggled to hold him, her inner muscles began contracting in intimate waves as she rose and fell faster and faster on his huge staff. She needed to push him to the dangerous edge of his passion to weaken his mental defenses for Mandi. She had to hold him there until Mandi was done with him.
His face burned an even darker red as Sylva felt a volcano building even stronger inside him. She screamed for him to fuck her harder, and then used every ounce of her own strength to do just that in return.
Mandi nearly lost control of her fears as she heard Sylva screaming and Xander cursing and grunting, their breathing as fast and powerful as a steam engine. All the traumas from her childhood returned as his body surged like steel against hers. She closed her eyes, leaving the fucking to Sylva’s instincts, and bit Xander's earlobe as hard as she could to try to improve contact with his body. She tasted blood, and all resistance to her mental probe evaporated. She diverted every ounce of her willpower to search his mind for his mental image of Sylva’s body, something all men carry in their heads as they approach orgasm. Her mouth filled with his copper-tasting blood as she saw a horrifying image in his mind: he was tearing Sylva’s blonde hair out by its roots, draining her body as he gutted her inside, crushing her bones during the insanity of his release! Sylva could not defend herself now. She was beyond control, giving herself up to him in the confidence that Mandi would use the distraction to conquer his thoughts.
Mandi knew the two of them would make love until one of them was depleted and dead. Mandi already knew who was going to die. She had to save Sylva.
Her head was splitting from the pain of trying to get into his head, but still she couldn’t push past his raging obsession. Pulling back, she attacked him the way a martial artist uses her opponent’s strength against them. She amplified his sick fantasies by planting an image of his orgasm blowing the top of Sylva’s head off. It was exactly the right image to push him to the very edge, his triumphant shout nearly deafening Mandi as she used hat moment to slip unnoticed through the brief opening into his innermost fantasies.
She caught his raging orgasm a scant second before it exploded to end Sylva’s life, the rush of passion designed to drain the orgone from her body in one giant gulp. Xander screamed in frustration, teetering on the very edge of insanity. Even then, it was almost too much for Mandi to manipulate his mind. Sylva was lost in primitive ecstasy, her body instinctively doing everything possible to encourage his violent orgasm.
Mandi made one final push, and found herself faced with his horrific memories of killing other women this way. Terrified, she managed to dig deeper yet, past even more disgusting memories, following his mental pathways this way and that until she found the information she needed. Memorizing what she saw as Xander and Sylva thrashed in endless passion, it was all she could do to leave a deeply buried thought behind.
Her last act, her last conscious thought before the insanity took him, was to turn his sick desire against him. She planted a deep hypnotic suggestion that ensured that even the sight of blonde hair would be repulsive to him now.
Xander opened his eyes to see Sylva’s blonde hair falling over his face. He screamed in horror and vomited his half digested meal all over her.
Mandi was unhappily still very blonde when she prepared to meet Bragus again. Every high-tech Vendorian weapon ever invented might be on Bragus’ asteroid, but she couldn’t find anything as simple as a packet of dark hair dye.
Xander was alive and still capable of making Bragus richer, and other than his new and inexplicable phobia, there were no signs of what had happened. Sylva was battered and bruised, but she’d survive to go back to her family.
Dressed in a borrowed jacket that was barely long enough to preserve her modesty, Mandi boldly pushed past Bragus’ guards to enter his office.
She flopped into a chair, quickly crossed her bare legs, barely able to contain her anger. “All the bastard’s money is in the Trader’s Bank on Draxim Three, Bragus. Account number 739ZEY9A388J354P. Password is Drakon379J51. 78 million of the credits are yours. And, he has an letter of credit in the same amount open at the Chaulifar Financial Institution, right here on Brazeltine 3. Number Thorn RZ485793473, Confirm code 343Mvoq234yv215.” She rapidly recited several additional identifiers, and then waited for the Scalantran’s response.
Bragus thought for a moment, then said nothing as he keyed the numbers into his PersComp. A few seconds passed, and then it beeped, signaling a successful transfer. He looked up at her, that telltale eyebrow rising again.
“Very impressive, Ms. Olson. Not only did you two survive him, but you have made me a great deal of money this day.”
“The name is Mandi, and I’ve had enough of god-damned preliminaries, Bragus. We’ve fucked your disgusting friend, who, by the way, you didn’t tell me was a fucking Destroyer.”
“I told you that he was a Prime, which he is. And he is anything but a friend.”
“You clearly underestimated me, Bragus, thinking you were sending Sylva and I to our deaths. That’s how you reward her for sucking your god-damn cock for the last year?”
Bragus didn't respond to her anger. “You’re a good team. If you ever want to make some real money, come work for me.”
“I’d just as soon sign up for a season in hell. But enough of this shit. I need weapons, and I’ve earned the right to them.”
He nodded solemnly. “Perhaps you have. Maybe some low-level trading. Non-lethals, stunners. Would that be O.K?”
Mandi glared at him, fists clenched, wishing fervently that she could just kill him. “Only if you want me to use these hands on you, you bastard. I need weapons to wipe out the Arion infestation of Earth. Not some fucking stunners.”
“Yes, I thought you’d say that. I’ve given this some thought, Mandi, and I’ve decided that I have but one weapon that I can give you. A weapon that doesn’t even officially exist.”
“What kind of weapon?”
Mandi blinked. “A what?”
Bragus smiled. “A weapon that perhaps only your mental powers can release. It would be better for me to show you.”
“This better be good, Bragus. I am not in a mood for any
more of your bullshit.”
The silence hung heavily between them as two of his guards, both Primes, accompanied them deep into the asteroid’s core. Taking a mag-lev elevator that dropped five-thousand stories deep into its core, Bragus led Mandi down a long corridor that ended at a small cell, its opening protected by a glowing forcefield. A tall, slender woman with red hair and freakishly large blue eyes knelt on the floor of a metal cell. She was pressing one hand against her forehead, her eyes and expression, not to mention the shaking of her head, making it look as if she’d just seen something so horrible she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Mandi stared at her for several minutes as the woman continued the same repetitive movement.
“This is your weapon? Your Fraul'iset?”
“The last of the models built on Vendor. An android. She’s got a cybernetic brain, but otherwise, her body is indistinguishable from that of a Kryp’Terran.”
Mandi stared dumbfounded. She’d heard stories of Vendorian battle robots. They’d been designed to kill Prime or Velorian alike. But she’d always thought of them as metal monsters, not as flesh and blood.
The Fraul'iset remained kneeling, still going through the same motion.
“She’s been been frozen into that same expression and movement for the twelve years I’ve owned her. I brought in experts, but they couldn’t break her out of it.”
“She’s stuck in some kind of loop?”
“Apparently. The story is that her owner, dying from a painful disease, attempted to end his pain by commanding this Fraul'iset, who was also his wife, to end his life. Given that a Fraul'iset’s two highest command functions are the preservation of her owner, and the precise execution of her owner’s orders, the Fraul'iset suffered a logic fault. An irresolvable conflict of two equal weighted commands.”
“Can’t you just reboot the bitch or shock her out of her malfunction or something?”
Bragus shook his head. “While her brain is cybernetic, it’s thinking and recognition paradigms are nearly perfect imitations of those ofa Supremis. And as I mentioned, her body is at least equivalent to a Kryp’Terran. It would take a force great enough to destroy her, even an anti-matter explosion, to penetrate to the core of her processor and break the infinite loop she’s gone into.”
“So how the fuck am I supposed to put her to use?”
Bragus smiled at her. “If you could get into the head of my old trading partner, Xander, then perhaps you can reach inside her head and break the cycle.” He extended his arms magnanimously. “If you can get her working, she’s all yours. On credit of course, waiting for the day we can initiate open trading with Earth.”
“Damn it, Bragus, I want Gars, Klav’ens, needle guns, Mozen’fers. Infantry weapons that I can use to win a war. Not some fucking brain-dead robot.”
“You have to remove the Arion presence on Earth first, Mandi. Then the Velorians. That’s what this Fraul'iset was designed to do. She’s the last of her kind.”
“And this is the only option you extend me? After I returned 78 million credits to your account?”
“Actually, I took all his money. For damages. Xander will respect me from now on.”
“Or kill you.”
Bragus shook his head. “He needs me too much. And as far as the Fraul'iset goes, you will owe me a hundred million credits for her once you secure your precious Earth.”
“You’re asking me to buy a brain dead robot for a hundred million credits?”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid that until Earth opens, this Fraul'iset, along with some plans for producing a few obsolete Arion weapons, are the only forms of help I can give you.”
“She’s not even functional,” Mandi said disgustedly, watching the android going through her endless loop of head turning. She sighed, knowing she’d reached the end of her negotiations with Bragus. As much as she would relish using her mental powers to compel him, it would be useless. He’d have safeguards, especially after seeing what she did to Xander.
Bragus put his arm around her shoulders, his lecherous touch making her cringe. “If you can return her to working order, Mandi, both the Protector and the Arion Command will think she’s a rogue Kryp’terran. They won’t be able to trace her to me, and if you’re careful, not even to you. By the time they realize their mistake, they’ll all be dead.” He chortled with satisfaction as he turned and began walking back down the corridor.
Mandi continued to stare at the Fraul'iset, trying to envision how she was going to get into the brain of a android.
Bragus paused, motioning her her to follow. “But let us move on to more pleasant pursuits, my dear. Join me for dinner. I assure you that my chef is the best on this side of the galaxy.” He smiled at her, half the muscles in his face twisting the wrong ways. “Besides, we still have a final piece of business to settle. The real reason I chose to bring you into my partnership.”
Mandi rose from Bragus’ bed just before the day cycle began. She felt Bragus’ forehead again. He had a fever now, which indicated that she’d passed on enough of Sharon’s retrovirus to continue his piecemeal enhancement. He was the worst candidate for enhancement she’d ever seen, his genes originating from all over Earth and then mixed with those of a gen-teched miner’s caste. Still, he claimed to have ingested the retrovirus from dozens of Supremis femmes. Apparently the effects, although small each time, were cumulative. In any case, Bragus was amazingly vital and strong, although it had taken Sylva’s help to ensure he survived her passion. Forcing an orgasm from her Velorian body while her Arion instincts screamed at her to kill him was anything but safe sex.
If not for Sylva, she never would have made it to that screaming pinnacle in the first place. Sylva had healed as fast as Velorians do, hours only, and she’d joined them in making love near the unheated surface of the asteroid and just inside the pressure barrier. They needed –20C or below to keep Bragus’ fever from burning him up.
Sylva opened her eyes to look up at Mandi as she started to get dressed “Now that Xander has been replaced, Bragus’ has agreed to release me a week early.”
Mandi forced herself to smile. They’d heard the report at dinner. How Xander’s lieutenants had turned on him, burning him to death with half a dozen GARS. His blackened corpse laid smoking outside the complex that was now owned by Smalyen, the new warlord of the Brazeltine system. "And Bragus released you early."
“That bastard may not have a heart, but he does pay his debts.”
“Yeah, we got Xander for him. You and me. What I’m worried about is what he’d going to demand in trade from Xander’s replacement. His first born daughter?”
“Too cheap. Anyways, it's not our problem now,” Mandi shrugged.
Sylva continued. “We can leave together, Mandi, especially since we both have to dive the same wormhole to get out of this system.”
“It’ll be good to have the company. That damn hole nearly ate me coming through.”
“Beacons on the other side are off a bit. Bragus’ work. Keeps the unfriendliness away.” Sylva reached up to hold Mandi’s hand, a dusting of snow covering her hair. “My sister has been avenged. And now we’re sisters forever, O.K?”
Mandi smiled genuinely this time. Sylva was so cute and so fresh. So unaffected. She’d never envied a man before, but she did envy her husband. And the two children she was going home to raise. Sylva was everything good a Velorian could be. Sighing, Mandi smiled ironically as she caught herself in that uncharacteristic thought, muttering under her breath, “...too much sugar will rot your teeth.”
“I was just saying, you’ll have some wild stories to tell your little ones when they grow up. Not the usual exploits of a mother and housewife. You kept Xander busy for longer than some Protector's could have.”
Sylva laughed. “I think the secrets of today will remain just between you and I. My husband would definitely not understand my taking on a Destroyer that way, and my friends would never believe me anyway.” She beamed. “But we did it, didn’t we? Skietra be praised, we took down a Destroyer!”
Mandi nodded as she turned away from Sylva’s smiling eyes. Sylva had to nurse Bragus for another few hours, sharing her abundant energy with him as his DNA transformed itself yet again. Far from feeling triumphant, Mandi felt cheap and used as she gathered her clothing and quickly dressed. It was one thing to steal Sharon’s DNA, but another thing entirely to be coerced into giving a piece of herself to an obscenity like Bargus. Unlike Sylva, she hadn’t been motivated by desire to help her family, but just mercenary concerns. It would be a stretch to say that she was making any difference to the battle on Earth so far.
Borrowing Bragus’ ID card from his jacket pocket, she took the long elevator down to the Fraul'iset’s chamber. Boldly pushing the button to disable the force field, she walked into the cell to face it.
Or rather, her.
Azriel was her name.
Reaching up to pry the android’s hand from her forehead, Mandi was shocked when she could not. Bracing herself against Azriel’s shoulder with her other hand, she pulled with all of her P1 strength. The only effect was that Azriel’s already pronounced biceps grew larger.
Clearly, the Fraul'iset had incredible strength. But how tough was she? Mandi placed her hand on Azriel’s breast and gripped it as hard as she could, digging her fingers into the completely human softness. The android continued with its mantra, unaffected by a grip that would have torn the hardest steel apart.
Sighing, but now very impressed by Azriel’s strength and resilience, Mandi closed her eyes and wet her lips. It was time for a softer touch. Leaning forward, she grabbed Azriel’s head with both hands, trying to hold her. The android's head froze, but the rest of her body kept twisting back and forth, her knees slipping on the metal floor. Wetting her lips a second time, Mandi kissed Azriel.
Nothing. She couldn’t establish contact with Azriel's thoughts. She kissed the android harder, thrusting her tongue against the artificial tongue, and was finally able to establish a weak connection. Still not enough. She paused to wet two fingers, knowing she was going to have to establish a more intimate connection to get enough wetted skin contact.
Mandi's Quarters, Bragus' Asteroid
Hours later, Mandi lay in her room, holding her aching head. She’d made inroads into Azriel’s brain, finding to her surprise that the android's thoughts were nearly human normal, but far more resistant to probing. She’d tried a variety of ways to create an opening, but in the end, had done it the same way she would a real Kryp'Terran. She induced the android to have an overwhelming orgasm. Once Azriel’s body went into spasm, her mental guard fell. Just like a Supremis.
Disgusted that she was diddling a robot, she cursed her fading powers. She’d never had to act like a nympho when she had her old mental powers, but now it seemed like the only way to get into a strong mind. Sharon’s genetics were getting seriously in the way. Damn the Velorians, and their obsession with making everything sexual.
Once she’d gotten into Azriel’s cerebral cortex, though, she’d uncovered memories of a hundred battles. Also many softer memories of her infiltrating command posts and bedrooms, of pretending to be a mistress, a prostitute, a maid and many other roles, all intended to get her access to the inner core of the Arion command structure. She’d killed dozens of highly-placed Primal men and women with her bare hands. Those were memories for Mandi to savor.
Significantly, she had no memories of ever injuring a Velorian. That was surprising, given that she’d been in service more than a hundred years. Mandi wondered if the close relationship between Vendor and Velor had resulted in Azriel being programmed to protect Velorians? She’d have to explore that on her next contact with Azriel.
The most interesting thing of all, though, was how human Azriel was. Starting with her thoughts, even the glimmers of emotions that she found, predictably muted after twelve years of confinement, to the completely convincing way she’d responded to sexual contact, Azriel was human. She could hardly refer to her as a machine now. After all, there were those who considered Velorians to be artificial as well.
She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She’d try to break Azriel’s mind-lock tomorrow. And discover her programming with regards to Velorians. At least she knew where the block was now.
She just needed to sleep for a little while to gather her energies.
Then her campaign to conquer Earth would start anew.
Valkyrie7 Headquarters, upstate New York
Mandi sat on a padded seat as the members of Valkyrie7 arranged themselves in various easy chairs around the room. This was one of the conference rooms that were set up like residential living rooms. It was an accommodation to the fact that many of the staff lived underground for months at a time. When working on a tough problem, some of them caught naps on the couches.
“I’ve brought you a very unusual kind of weapon system, gentlemen,” she began. “It’s called a Fraul'iset, and it’s the creation of a master race of weapons builders, the Vendorians. To make it short and simple, she’s a android.”
Senator Cranston laughed out loud. “A she what?”
“She’s 95% biological. Only her brain is cybernetic.”
"This isn’t exactly what we were looking for,” Admiral Kirk Sadler replied. “We’ve got troops to train and arm.”
“I’m still working on that. The quarantine of Earth is proving harder to circumvent than I’d first expected. I now plan on manufacturing the weapons here, using Arion designs.”
“And in the meantime, how do we use this Fraul'iset thing of yours?” Brown asked.
“Her name is Azriel. Once we imprint her with a suitable genetic code, she’ll do whatever you tell her to.”
“We have plenty of highly qualified agents who follow orders too,” General Abrams added. “And we’ve got some exoskeletons and advanced body armor.”
“Azriel’s a bit more sophisticated than that. She’s more than a hundred years old and has fought in an equal number of battles. But mostly she’s been used as an assassin. She’s uniquely skilled at getting to the enemy, no matter how deeply he digs in, no matter how good his disguise.”
“We’re talking Arions here,” Senator Brown said gruffly. “How's she going to deal with them? Those damn Primes can tear apart our toughest armor as if it’s papier-mâché.”
“They’ll have a little more trouble with Azriel.”
“That’s preposterous,” Brown blurted out. “We’ve seen what those Destroyers can do. It would take a nuke to slow them down. Even the Protector is afraid of them.”
“That’s why the Vendorians didn’t use nukes or depend on protection from Velor. It’s why they created beings like Azriel.” Mandi knew that wasn’t strictly true. Destroyers had been developed more recently. She wasn’t sure at all how Azriel would fare when matched up to one of them.
“This we have to see,” General Nelson of the Marines muttered. “I lost fifty good men in an armored column to a Primal attack just last week. And we’ve had two sightings of monsters that we think are Destroyers.”
“Then follow me, gentlemen.” Mandi rose to lead them down the hallway. Two engineers with a cart of instrumentation were pointing sensors into a small room. A blinding glare came from inside the room to outline their bodies in actinic light. Except for the reddish tinge, it looked as bright as an arc welder.
Jerry Spigsteen, Valkyrie7’s resident high-energy weapons engineer, turned to look at them as they walked closer. He worked for General Adams. “That android’s got some pretty amazing eyes, General. Unlike our intel on the Supremis, who project visual to infrared spectrum, most of the energy the android is emitting is in the soft X-ray spectrum."
“X-ray lasers?” Sadler asked, puzzled. He’d mounted those on some of his ships. The smallest one weighed ten tons, but they were three orders of magnitude more powerful than visible-light lasers.
“Open the other door, Frank. Let them see.”
Frank Ozrel, the second engineer, swung the double door open to reveal a very slender young woman with long red hair. She was dressed ridiculously in a fuzzy white bikini and a pair of white high-heeled boots. She was kneeling on a white rug to stare at the wall beside her, her hand brushing erotically over one breast. Two reddish beams were shining from her eyes to slice through the glass blocks that formed the walls of the room.
The men just gawked at her. “This is your… Fraul'iset? Your android?”
“Azriel, say hello to the members of Valkyrie7.”
Azriel blinked her eyes to cut-off her eye beams, and turned to look up at them with large, incredibly blue eyes. Floating weightlessly back to her feet, she walked out the door to stand in the middle of the hallway. She was taller in her heels than any of the men.
“Senators Brown, Townsend and Cranston,” she smiled broadly, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintances.” She held out her hand, and the men responded by reflex alone.
She turned next to the men in uniform. “Generals Adams, Abrams, Nelson. Admiral Sadler. I’m pleased to meet fellow warriors.” She shook their hands as well; her grip firmer than it had been with the senators.
“This is bullshit, Ms. Olson,” Brown said. “You’re telling me this is the weapon that’s going to solve all our problems?”
“Not all. Just the ones who were born Supremis. Her kind were developed to protect a planet of these elvish-looking aliens, and for hundreds of years, they were successful.”
“And then?” General Abrams asked.
“The Arions are adaptable,” Mandi shrugged. “They found a way to defeat the Fraul'isets, just as they are now with the Protectors. All but this last model, that is. Only two of Azriel’s class were produced, and she’s the only one known to still exist. They were developed too late to save their world.”
“And now we’ve got her?” Abrams asked incredulously. “What kind of deal did you have to work? And with whom?”
“A Scalantran. He’ll want a piece of the arms trade once we get control of the planet. The equivalent of fifty billion US dollars of trade per year. But he can get you some pretty amazing weapons.”
“Fifty billion!” Townsend sputtered.
“Once we’re done, that won’t be hard to raise.”
”She doesn’t look like much,” General Abrams said as he studied her. “What’s her capability?”
“Not sure yet, sir,” Sprigsteen said. “But we’ve got a C19 going to Kwajalein Atoll tomorrow. Some confidence building exercises. She’s going to show us what she can do.”
Abrams looked at the melted glass that was still dripping down the wall. Her eyes had burned through nearly a foot of solid glass. If there was one thing he knew about lasers, it was that they didn’t cut clear glass. “This should be damn interesting.”
“Yes, certainly,” Mandi said impatiently, as she watched the men staring at Azriel. “But we still have one task left for tonight, gentlemen.” She turned to lead the way back to the informal conference room. Azriel followed a few steps behind them, her heels never touching the floor.
Mandi turned to address them once the door closed behind them. “Azriel needs to be imprinted by one of you. It’s a DNA lock. Once that’s done, she will literally move heaven and Earth to keep you safe. And to follow your orders.”
“Yours too?” Sadler asked.
Mandi shook her head. “It seems she was designed to only be imprinted by a single male. And that she cannot injure a Velorian or a Terran. An unexpected complication that I’m trying to work my way around.”
“And you can do that? Otherwise the Velorians will shut us down as surely as the Arions.”
“Given enough time, I suspect I can reprogram her any way I want. And I have my owns ways of dealing with the Vels.”
Admiral Sadler looked uncomfortable. He found these superwomen, android or artificial persons, all a bit intimidating.
“So how’s this genetic sample taken?” Senator Townsend asked. His thoughts were swirling as he thought of skin scrapings, blood, saliva.
Mandi smiled broadly. “The Vendorians were quite fond of Velorians, and they adopted some of their social conventions along with Velorian biotechnology. Which explains both the way Azriel looks and the way she takes her samples. Which I think…”
“Stop talking in riddles, Ms. Olson,” Senator Brown interrupted. “Just lay it out plain.”
“O.K, Senator. Her method of collecting genetic samples is… personal. But don’t worry; I believe that the man we choose to control her will find that she’s quite good at it. That portion of her training was done on Velor.”
The room was suddenly silent as the men stared first at Mandi, and then at Azriel, their thoughts racing. Trained on Velor? Had they really heard what they thought they had?
Azriel understood, and she blushed in a perfect imitation of a young human woman.
Mandi smiled, enjoying the off-balance looks in these otherwise strong men’s faces. “I recommend you as the imprinter, Admiral. Being Azriel’s master is a big responsibility, but you have one of the most balanced viewpoints here.” She turned to face each of them. “Concurrence, gentlemen?”
They talked for a couple of minutes before Senator Brown, the nominal leader nodded. “The Admiral is acceptable. He’s the only one among us who isn’t married and he lives part-time right here.”
“That wasn’t one of my criteria, but it will make things simpler.”
She reached out to place Azriel’s hand in Sadler's. “This will take a while Admiral. I would suggest you retire to your quarters.”
Admiral Kirk Sadler locked the door to his quarters and without pausing walked over to pour himself some Jack Daniels, straight up, hoping it would calm his pounding heart. Valkyrie7 was getting more perverse every day, and Olson’s strange stories and even stranger powers had them all on edge.
He gulped the whiskey in a single swallow, the fiery burn warming his insides. He poured another, telling himself for the hundredth time that if having sex with a super-weapon was what it took to save Earth, he was up to any challenge. Sipping his second drink more slowly, he watched Azriel as she walked around his apartment, looking at the pictures he kept on a dresser. She picked up one, showing a teenage girl on a ski slope. “Is this your daughter?”
“Bethany. She was fourteen when she was killed in a terrorist attack on Denver. Along with her mother.”
“How long ago?”
“Eight years.” Actually, eight years, four months, three weeks and four days he told himself. He always knew to the day. He’d recently given up calculating the hours.
“I’m sorry. She was very pretty. I’m sure you miss her a great deal.”
Sadler walked around the bar to sit down on the couch, watching Azriel’s back as she found a photo album and began going through it.
“You had a very nice family, Admiral. It must have been wonderful to watch your daughter grow up. To share the wonder every day with your wife.”
“What would you know about growing up? Or children.”
She turned back to face him. “Because I’m an android, I can’t understand such things, is that what you’re saying?”
“What’s your definition of a real person? Someone carried in a woman’s womb?”
He shrugged. “I guess that’s as good a place to start as any.”
“Then most Velorians are not natural beings, is that right?”
“Well, we only see the P1’s. And there are those who debate the issue of whether they are AP's or not.”
“I was carried by a Kryp’Terran woman for thirteen months, Admiral, and then was delivered normally. So I’m a more natural being than many Velorians, right?”
“I thought… Mandi said you were a android?”
“Technically, she’s correct. My brain is silicon-based, but it still responds to stimulus just like yours. My memories, even my emotions, are not that different than human. I just have faster reflexes, better acuity and a larger memory than is possible with an organic brain.”
“How fast is fast?”
“Pluck high-velocity bullets out of mid-air fast. Count the hairs on your head -- 173,524 if you want to know. You could plug me into your computer center and I could probably run this place for a while before my head started to hurt.”
“You feel pain?”
“Sometimes. When I’m low on energy or my synapses are overused.”
“Yet you’re physically perfect. Manufactured for a purpose. Designed to be imprinted or whatever. To serve, like a machine.”
She shrugged. “Except for the perfect part. I have enough flaws to pass for Kryp’Terran. Even Supremis on some scanners.”
Sadler looked closer. The only flaw he saw were some slightly crooked teeth. Her skin was flawless, her pores so tiny they were nearly invisible. “Pretty damn close. But the flaws… they’re deliberate?”
“I was born to defend a world that no longer exists. I was to do that by pretending to be a Kryp’Terran. Since Kryp’Terrans take no side, my appearance allowed me access to some very important people.”
“And you killed them?”
“The ones who were working against my world, yes. But not the others.”
“But it didn’t help?”
“I was born too late.”
Born, not made, Sadler said to himself. She saw herself as a real person. “And now Mandi is giving you to me. So that you’ll follow my instructions. No matter what I ask of you?”
“Pretty much. Unless you tell me to hurt you or allow you to be hurt.”
He had a wild thought, wondering if there were limits to her actions. “So after this is done, if I told you to destroy Olson, even that Velorian Protector, you would do it?”
“I would restrain the Protector for your interrogation. Killing a Velorian is prohibited. Mandi Olson I don’t know. She is both Arion and Velorian.”
“You don’t know? I thought you had a computer brain?”
“My brain is modeled after a human one, just improved. As with all human minds, there is a measure of uncertainty and free-choice expected and allowed.”
“But Arions? They wouldn’t be a problem for you?”
“I would gladly destroy them. They are the ones who attacked my world.”
Sadler considered that. He could use her to arrange a face to face with the Protector. An interrogation. There might come a time when that was required. And as far as Mandi Olson was concerned, he was deeply concerned about her true motivations. But for the moment, she seemed to be doing all the right things.
Azriel interrupted his thoughts. “It will be best if choose an emotional model for me before we begin.”
“A collection of profiles for my emotions. It will take time to learn the nuances of your personality and to refine my own to compliment yours. So I need a place to start the adaptation.”
“What kind of profiles?” Sadler asked.
“The two basics are daughter or wife. We’ll be together a lot.”
Sadler shook his head. “You are most certainly not my daughter. And I still love my wife.”
“You are mourning her, Kirk. You preserve her memory by not replacing her in your life. That’s different than still loving her.”
“I don’t want to talk about my wife,” he said angrily. “You know nothing of what we had together.”
Azriel took his anger in stride. “But I still need a model to seed my imprinting.”
Sadler thought for a moment, and then he remembered a young officer he’d worked with long ago. He’d come perilously close to having an affair with her during a dangerous mission in Greece. “How about you becoming Lieutenant Azriel Shalom, a member of the Israel military, Intel Division, attached to my staff. Your name, very loosely translated, means, Angel of Peace.”
“A good choice, although my first name should properly be Azriel'it. I will become a fellow officer, but subordinate to you.” She smiled sexily. “A young woman with whom you are having a scandalous affair.”
“Is the last really necessary?”
“If you want to override or change my primary mission, yes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I will be genetically locked to you. A sample is required each time. That’s when my defenses will suspend, allowing you access.”
“You mean… post-coital pillow talk is how I get inside your head?”
"Actually, during intercourse only."
If he hadn’t been so nervous, he would have laughed. What a bizarre arrangement.
“It was deemed the most secure time to validate communications. I can prevent access to anyone but you, and even if violated, an intruder would not survive my passion. I will be gentle only for you.”
Sadler’s thoughts were racing now, his emotions reeling. Sex was something he’d given up after his wife died. “That’s a strange way to say were going to be exclusive and very involved.”
“I’m sorry if my words are wrong. I didn’t grow up in a Terran culture. Vendorians understood that a Supremis would have to have many of the same social concepts as the Velorians.”
“Except you are more powerful than a Velorian.”
“And what about those Arion Destroyer’s?”
“Mandi briefed me on them. I don’t know my abilities there. I use the same orgone energy conversion process as a Supremis, and Destroyers didn’t exist when I was born.”
“So what are your full capabilities?”
“That’s confidential. Until we imprint.”
Sadler laughed wryly. “So we do what, just rip our clothes off and go at it.”
“Not the first time. I need some time after I have your first sample.” She walked closer, pausing by the couch. “Just lie back. I won’t hurt you.”
His heart raced even faster as he watched her slip the bottom of her outfit down those long legs. She looked completely human, except for the total lack of pubic hair, which served to make her look more erotically naked than any woman he’d known. He reluctantly lay back, watching as she floated off the floor to descend and straddle him gently on the couch. Her body seemingly weighed only a few pounds. He took a deep breath as she struggled with his zipper, the thought suddenly occurring to him that perhaps zippers weren’t part of her experience. For some reason, that seemed funny.
Her hand was as warm and soft as a human woman's as she held him, her touch washing away his confusion. His body responded to her as any man's would, and it suddenly became far less important to him whether she was machine or human. She floated a few inches closer, gently guiding him to her as she lowered herself, taking him into the warm, wetness of her inner self. Gasping as he instinctively lifted his hips to help her, he thrilled to the discovery that in sex, she was wet, slippery, warm and absolutely convincing as human.
She lowered herself over him, taking him deeply, gently moving herself up and down, her fingertips brushing the sides of his hips as she did. “Are you O.K?” she asked softly.
Kirk nodded urgently as he bit his lip, trying to hold back the long repressed storm building inside him. She moved slightly faster, holding him tighter and tighter inside, her hands rising to hold her own breasts. He lost it in seconds, arching his back as he cried out hoarsely, expending himself inside her. She followed his suddenly frantic thrusts perfectly, and then slowed as his passion passed to hold him tightly inside herself.
Sadler collapsed panting on the couch, embarrassed that he’d only lasted seconds. It had been so long since he'd had sex.
She didn’t seem to care, as she had this funny, faraway look in her eyes now. Her eyelids fluttered a few times before her eyes focused on his, and then the distant look returned. He wasn’t sure what she was doing, but it felt incredible for her to hold him inside her this way. He felt himself recovering almost immediately.
His returning ardor wasn’t lost on her. “Give me a minute,” she said in a voice almost too low to hear. Her body grew uncomfortably warm, her breasts glowing as if lit from inside.
He held himself motionless for several minutes, and then her eyes snapped back into focus, and she smiled down at him. Her glowing skin faded back to her normal shade of tan. “I’m now yours for as long as you live, Kirk Sadler. We can have no secrets now.”
He stared up at her in growing excitement as she reached behind her back and undid her top, quickly pulling it up over her head. She tossed it to the side as she shook her head, her long hair falling over her shoulders and the most perfect breasts imaginable.
“Lieutenant Azriel Shalom at your service,” she said in a completely convincing Israeli accent.
He’d initially planned to ask her a hundred questions once she’d finished her imprinting, but eight years of abstinence created its own imperatives. He gently brushed her hair behind her shoulders, then caressed her breasts, finding them firm but convincingly human. He held her tighter as he lifted his hips, her body rising weightlessly as she began the ancient rhythm of man and woman. He let himself go fully now, quickly becoming the man who'd so often thrilled his wife with his passionate and urgent loving.
She understood his long-suppressed needs, and they moved as one for an evening and a night, his years of restraint pouring into her body again and again, her enthusiasm and cries of passion convincingly human. Starting as an obligation, an interface between human and machine, they gradually became master and mistress, and then, as they talked of his dreams, he became Earth’s hopeful savior and her the source of all his hopes.
But finally, when all was said and done, they were simply man and a woman, sharing the pleasures of their bodies in the oldest and most sacred of human rites.
Learning to love each other.