Santa Cruz, California
“Is that him?” Fred asked as he squinted through the rain-streaked windshield, the wiper blades squeaking as they cleared away the last drops from the sudden rainstorm.
Lucia glanced back and forth from the man in the ten-year old Porsche to the photograph in her hand, her keen eyes comparing everything down to the wrinkles of the suspect’s face. She finally nodded. “Yeah, that’s definitely our guy.”
Fred handed her the heavy Glovener automatic. “Safety’s on. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Shit, look at that,” Lucia cursed, pointing out the windshield.
Fred looked up to see their suspect driving down into the underground parking lot. “No big deal. That’s the only place to park.”
“Not that. Did you see that flash when the sun came out?”
“The way the sunlight glistened from his skin?” She looked at Fred as if he was blind.
He shrugged. “Looked normal enough to me. Good tan, but then, he is Arion.”
“He’s wearing a fucking Nost’ram, Fred.”
“Which is exactly what?”
“A force field. Vendorian technology.”
“Sounds like something from Star Wars, Episode Twelve.”
“That shield generator he’s wearing is surgically implanted in males… has to be well inside the body to work. The real question is where he got one. Command wouldn’t give such a rare and valuable device to an ordinary Betan.”
Fred looked down at the heavy automatic in her lap. “So is that Glovener going to still take him out?”
“No way. It would take military-grade anti-armor now. I’ve got to get him to deactivate the shield.” She handed the Glovener back to him. “I’ll get him to lower his shields, you do the shooting.”
“How do you…?”
“The force field isn’t very permeable – it exchanges air and water vapor, but not much else. He’ll have to disengage it when eating or drinking, or to allow normal bodily functions. I suspect it also dulls tactile sensation.”
Fred just stared blankly at her.
Lucia rolled her eyes. “He’ll have to disengage it during fucking.”
Fred’s look turned to astonishment. “You want me to shoot him while he’s having sex?”
“So, how do we…?”
“Leave that to me. I’m the hooker. Remember?”
Before Fred could protest her dubious plan, Lucia slipped out the door and ran toward the pool area of the hotel. Despite her high-heels, she leaped effortlessly over the ten-foot high security fence and disappeared inside.
Fred quickly stuck the Glovener in his waistband to hide it under his suit, and got out to walk toward the main entrance of the hotel. From there he followed the signs toward the pool area. He found Lucia sitting on top of the pool ladder, her street clothes replaced by a pink bikini, and for all the world acting as if she’d been there for hours. The Arion cop was talking with her, watching her slowly unfastening her high heels to toss them to the side.
Fred stood in the shadows and observed Lucia at work. Despite himself, he was impressed. He wasn’t sure if it was some kind of Arion attraction thing or just her talents as an escort girl, but she had the Arion enthralled. The cop laughed and wrapped his arm around her waist as he tried to guide her toward his room. Lucia giggled girlishly and shook her head. He whispered something in her ear, and she suddenly became very willing.
Obviously a critical negotiation had been completed, Fred thought sourly.
Lucia took the lead now, holding the Arion’s hand tightly in hers as she untied her top with her other hand while pulling him along after her.
Fred followed them, stepping over her pink bikini top just inside the downstairs hallway. He found her bikini bottom halfway down the hall, wedged in the lock of room 121. She was clever. He opened the door slightly to look in, only to be shocked when he saw Lucia going down on the largest erection he’d ever seen. Fortunately, the Arion’s back was angled toward the door.
Lucia looked up to focus her eyes on Fred’s as she worked, making him feel like a voyeur. She pulled off him just as the man started to lose it, and gripped the base of his erection with what had to be incredible strength to hold him off. She began kissing her way up his body, leaving the Arion gasping with desire.
Gasping, but not exactly helpless. The man responded to her tease with typical Arion impatience. He grabbed her ass and hoisting her off the floor to slam her back against the far wall, impaling her. Lucia wrapped her legs around him and let him take her with all the athleticism of his race, crying out in very convincing ecstasy as he kept slamming her against the wall, harder and harder. She was good. Very good.
Raising his heavy automatic, Fred targeted the man’s muscular back, waiting for the moment when it was clear he’d deactivated his shield. He studied his skin, trying to decide if it was shimmering from the force field or just from sweat. His decision was made for him when the Arion cried out hoarsely, and Lucia tilted her head and nodded frantically. Fred slowly squeezed the trigger, and the gun boomed as loud as a cannon, the recoil nearly breaking his wrist. The Arion slammed forward against Lucia’s body, eliciting a scream of passion from her. He gripped the gun more tightly and squeezed the trigger again. Then again. Each heavy round tore a ragged hole in the Arion’s back, only to be followed by another cry from Lucia. That and the tinkle of the spent brass cartridges hitting the marble floor.
The Arion collapsed after the fourth shot.
Fred lowered the smoking gun, unable to believe he’d just killed a man in cold blood. That thought had no soon crossed his mind when another replaced it. Looking down, he saw the Arion’s body steaming. Well, maybe his blood was cold, but definitely not the Arion’s. The man was so hot he looked like he was going to catch fire.
Lucia raced around the room retrieving her discarded clothes. She bent over the dead Arion for a moment, and when she stood up, she was holding something, and her hands were bloody.
“We gotta get out of here, Lucia. This gun was as loud as a cannon.”
She dashed into the bathroom to wash the blood from her hands, and then threw on her street clothes. Fred stuffed the scant fabric of her bikini into his suit pocket, and with a final look around the room, led the way down the hallway at a run. They’d barely made it to the staircase when the elevator chimed and the hotel manager and a security guard emerged.
Minutes later, Fred was driving down Jacobs Street, studiously keeping his speed under the limit to avoid attracting attention. Lucia was bouncing around in her seat, bubbling with the excitement of a young girl, obviously pumped up on adrenaline and whatever other hormones Arions had in their bodies after sex.
“God, if you could have felt what it was like to have that force field on when he first took me. Talk about the ultimate vibrator."
Fred quickly decided that was the last thing he wanted to imagine.
"And then that priceless look in his face when he turned it off and you fired. In that brief second, he knew he was a dead man, and that I, the little whore who he thought was there for his pleasures, was the one who’d exposed him.”
Fred felt like throwing up as he glanced over to see the bright excitement in her eyes. “He… he knew you were an Arion?”
“Of course, right from the start. I told him I worked at Donagan’s. So he knew I was a pro.”
Fred’s nausea grew worse. “So everyone knows about that place?”
“Most Arions do. But ninety percent of our clients are human. Teddy bears, like I said.”
She sounded so happy as she talked, which only made the dread he felt seem even worse. He was horrified that he’d deliberately and calculatingly taken a life. Even worse, there was something obscene about taking a man’s life while he was in the throws of a sexual orgasm, although it seemed to thrill Lucia to no end.
“Cops always know about places like that, anyway, Fred. Even straight cops like him.”
“Straight is right. He received the Mayor’s award for bravery just last year.”
“Easy to be brave when you’re bulletproof. He’s probably had the Nost’ram for a long time.”
Fred stared out the windshield, dreading the next hit. He’d sworn to save lives, not take them. Even if the perps were aliens intent on the destruction of Earth, it was wrong. This was worse than vigilantism. He was doing it for someone else. He was no more than a hired killer.
“So we gotta do it that way every time,” Lucia continued to chat happily. “I’ll get them hot and bothered, get them right to that screaming edge, and you do the shooting.” She started to laugh. “Hey, I got it, you let them plug me, and then you get to plug them. That’s fair, don’t you think?”
“You are one sick woman, Lucia. Do you know that?”
She reached over to hold his arm. “Don’t go and Frail out on me now, Detective. You did good, keeping your family safe and all. Protecting the Earth.”
“This is depraved,” Fred continued with a growl. “Cruel, manipulative and without a shred or morality. And I’m doing it for whom? A simple, fucking whore?”
Lucia stopped laughing at the word whore. “Does that make you feel better, Fred? To blame it all on me? To consider me being beneath you, not worthy of respect?”
“I wasn’t talking about you. It’s your god-damn boss that set this up.”
“Yeah, right,” Lucia said coldly. “That’s what I thought you meant.”
She turned to look the other way in her seat, staring out the window for a long moment. Finally, “She’s your boss too, you know.”
“Not by choice, Lucia.”
She turned back to look at him. “You think I sought her out, Fred? You think I chose this life?”
“I thought you said it was the lesser of evils.”
Lucia laughed hollowly. “Yeah, right. Mandi gave me the same kind of bullshit choice she gave you. Shuttle up to the Arion ship and probably be fucked to death in a year. Or stay here and work for her. Either way, my career was going to be spent on my back.”
“And here I thought you liked walls. Seems like you were enjoying yourself as that bastard slammed you up against it, rooting around with that… pole of his.”
“Get me out of this insanity, and I will.”
Lucia stared down at the list in her lap, and then threw it up on the dash. “Do you know what I was planning on doing before Mandi found me?”
“Not a clue,” Fred shrugged.
“I was going to study medicine. Pediatrics. I like kids.”
Fred turned to stare at her. “You’re shitting me?”
“I was a straight A student in high school. I got a 1600 on my SAT. That’s the maximum, by the way.”
“What, you think I’m stupid just because I wound up in this business?”
“It just didn’t occur to me that…”
“That my talents went beyond the physical? Is that because I’m Arion or because I’m a hooker?”
“Both,” Fred replied honestly.
“Well, I guess you aren’t as good a detective as you thought.”
Lucia fell silent again for several minutes. Fred just stared ahead of him, driving.
Her voice was soft when she next spoke. “When we’re done here, we both need to get out, Fred. Away from Mandi. I’ll help you if you help me.”
“That’s all I ever wanted.”
“Yeah, that and your little Velorian.”
“We’re not talking about her.”
“Then let’s get this fucking job done. Keep heading straight down this road into Monterey. The guy we’re looking for lives on the east side of town. I’ll give you directions once we get close.”
Fred thought of his wife and son as he drove.
He wondered what kind of father and husband he’d be after Mandi Olson was done with him.
Junipers restaurant, San Francisco, next day
Special Agent Tammi Walters was waiting at the back of the restaurant when Detective Fred Durst dragged himself through the doorway at 6:30am. They were serving breakfast up front, so he walked through the restaurant into the deserted back dining room. He was emotionally exhausted and physically drained, both from yesterday’s horror and from lack of sleep. Three of the twenty Arions on his list were now dead.
He greeted Tammi with a quick smile before sitting down to join her for coffee. He took a couple of sips, and then began to described the happenings of the last couple of days, starting with Lucia and how the girl had been assigned to help him deal with the Arions on the list.
He started with describing how he met her, and then the incident at his garage. He finished with describing in detail the way Lucia used her charms on the Arions to get them isolated and alone.
He thought Tammi was going to bore holes in his head with her stare as he described how he’d been the gunman in all three encounters.
He confessed it all. How they’d found the second Arion sitting in a bar with his wife, a large muscular woman, very butchy looking, but clearly Terran. Determined to get it done without any witnesses, he gave Lucia one of the tiny capsules that Kara had given him, telling her it was something like the Ecstasy drug. She slipped it into the Arion’s drink.
Two minutes later, the alien brute went completely haywire. Forgetting all about his wife, the man focused all his attentions on Lucia, realizing she was Arion. He came on hard to her. Lucia encouraged his wandering hands, all the while smiling insolently at his wife. The butchy wife got up and began punching Lucia with enough force to knock out a man. Lucia shrugged it off as she began kissing her husband, fondling his balls at the same time as she tried to undo his belt. The man began tearing Lucia’s clothes off right there in the bar, grabbing a suddenly bared nipple in his teeth as he unleashed all his Arion strength and passion.
His wife threw her drink on them both before stalking out the door.
Fred came away with the distinct impression that the Arion’s wife had seen this side of her husband before. He was definitely a brute.
Lucia was trying to steer the Arion toward the door. The man appeared very strong, even for a Betan, and it was all Lucia could do to get him out of the bar and across the street to some flea-bag hotel before he pinned her to the floor and took her.
Fred once again found himself a voyeur, watching Lucia skillfully encouraging the Arion’s frantic and violent passion. She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, crying out with obvious pleasure when the Arion jerked her from the floor by her hair and slammed her up against the wall to impale her. Fred decided that this bastard’s lovemaking had all the finesse of a gorilla in heat. That would have disturbed him, except that he was very aware by now that sexual violence drove Lucia wild with desire. They were both beasts as far as he was concerned.
Still, he almost felt good about it when he brought the alien’s frantic rutting to an end by blowing three neat holes through his back with the .270 Glovener. Lucia went berserk as the pile driver impact of the bullets combined with the Arion’s last desperate spasms to elicit the mother of all orgasms from her. She flailed around in a fit that looked as much epileptic as passionate, sucking the last of the Arion’s life from him.
Her unrestrained display of passion left Fred wondering if her enthusiasm came from his watching her, or from the mix of violence and sex. He suspected both. Exhibitionism and lethal sex seemed to be wickedly intertwined into her psyche. No surprise; she was Arion after all.
Tammi paced around the restaurant as Fred went on and on, ranting and raving about Lucia’s behavior. She was frowning when he finally ran out of words.
“I knew the Arions were sick bastards, but your little girlfriend seems a bit more twisted than the rest of them. Working as a hooker to enthrall her Terran clients is one thing, but getting off sexually while killing her own kind? That’s sick.”
Fred bristled. “My girlfriend? What the fuck are you talking about?”
Tammi sat back down, visibly upset. “Sorry, I’m just freaking out. Killing someone in self defense I can understand, and I can even accept the way the Vels take out those Arion soldiers. That’s war. But this culling of Arions who’ve been living undercover on Earth, who are cops for Christ’s sake… it’s disgusting.”
Fred stared at her, aghast. “So what the hell do you guys in Omega do? Especially that Black Ops group I heard talk of?”
Tammi glared back at him. “I’m not part of any of that. My job is to gather intelligence on Arion infiltrators. Some of that intel goes to Kara to handle, she deals with the Primes, the rest goes to Black Ops.”
“So your hands are clean, huh? Even if you are the person who gives them the reason to pull the trigger.”
“Fuck you, Fred.”
“Hey, you think I like any of this, Tammi?” he shouted back at her angrily. “If it wasn’t my neck on the line, and my family’s, if I wasn't helping Earth stay free, I’d be doing everything I could to stop this killing.”
Tammi sighed, slumping down in her seat as she hugged her knees to her chest, burying her face between them. “I know, I know… but I’m still having trouble getting my head into all this. My boss told me about Kara giving you that list, Fred. I tried to get to you before you fell back into Mandi clutches because I think a couple of our double agents are on the list.”
Fred lowered his head to bang his forehead on the table. “Shit. Which only adds to this total fucking nightmare, Tammi. How’d I get into this anyway?”
She looked up at him. “The commendation by the Mayor, or so my boss thinks. Mandi probably found you based on that newspaper article. She needed an honest cop.”
He lifted his head to look at her. “Honest? Tammi, god damn it, I killed three cops yesterday.”
Tammi closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them, she looked determinedly into his. “No, Fred Durst, you killed three dangerous Arions who were pretending to be cops. That’s how we have to look at it.”
Fred shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. They’re dug in so deep that they’ve become damn fine cops.”
“Cops who are waiting for instructions from their alien masters to kill you or anyone else who gets in the way of their plans. Just like all those Muslim terrorists they’ve been covertly sponsoring for the last fifty years. Agents they can trigger whenever they want.”
“It’s still hard to believe,” Fred said, shaking his head. “They’ve got families and kids and everything.”
Tammi said nothing for a long moment, then, “You want to know how I keep going, Fred?”
“Our latest intel has shown us that the Arion master plan involves genocide on a near global scale.”
“What?” Fred gasped.
“Omega decoded one of their documents just last year. It seems that the Arions have settled on the ‘correct’ population of Earth after ‘incorporation’. The number is two-hundred million.”
He looked at her in horror. “Tammi, the world population is nearly nine billion now!”
She nodded, her voice growing soft. “I looked it up, Fred. The number of people with blue eyes is estimated at two-hundred million. Want to bet that’s not a coincidence?”
“Jesus. What the hell are they planning to do with the nine billion people who don’t have their color eyes?”
Tammi shook her head, only to hear a feminine voice speak up from behind her. “Knowing those bastards, probably turn them into fertilizer for the farms.”
Fred and Tammi both spun around to see a girl with black hair standing behind them. It was Lucia, and she was wearing the same outfit she’d had on the first time Fred had seen her – the red mesh top, black leather miniskirt and a school jacket.
Tammi took in the flawlessly tanned skin tone, the eyes and the impossible fitness, and reached slowly for her purse and the 9mm inside it. Fred waved to her to stop. “It’s O.K.”
Tammi turned to face him. “Let me guess? This is your Arion friend?”
Fred nodded tiredly.
Lucia walked over to slump down into the chair next to Tammi, acting every bit like a teenage girl. She offered her hand. “Since he’s not going to introduce me, I’m Lucia.”
Tammi took her hand, only to stiffen as an electric shock made her nerves jump painfully. Lucia held Tammi’s hand tightly as she leaned over to slip the agent’s wallet out of her purse and flip it open.
“Special Agent Tammi Walters. How nice.”
Tammi’s muscles were spasming too badly for her to speak. She couldn’t even swallow.
Lucia watched Tammi’s body shake as if she was receiving a severe electric shock. She finally releasing her hand and tossed her wallet back.
Tammi tried to get her jangling nerves to work well enough to get her 9mm out of her purse, but her hand was shaking too violently to grip it. Her purse fell to the floor.
“I don’t think that weapon’s going to work anyway, Agent Walters. Ask Fred here about a Nost’ram.”
Fred remembered the first Arion and his shield. “You took the device from him? That Vendorian thing?”
Lucia nodded, then turned back to smile superiorly at Tammi. “Even without the Nost’ram, you would need a very lucky shot with that little pop-gun of yours. With this shield, I can hold my own against a Vel.” She glanced up at Fred to see his eyebrow rise. “Well, for a minute or two, anyway.”
“What’s… what’s this Nost’ram… thing?” Tammi asked, her vocal cords starting to work again.
“A force field that encircles her body,” Fred replied. “Closest analogy would be the shields in science fiction holos. StarWars stuff.”
“Shit. It feels kind of like… like a Tazer… paralyzing.”
“Sorry about that,” Lucia said, “didn’t know it felt that way to humans. I can turn it off.”
Fred saw Lucia’s skin tone change ever so slightly as she did, realizing now that there’d been a metallic shimmer surrounding her body. The effect had been so faint that if he hadn’t seen it disappear, he wouldn’t have realized it was even there.
Tammi’s gun hand had stopped shaking by now, and the barrel of her 9mm rose to track Lucia’s movements.
Lucia looked pointedly at Tammi. “If you shoot me now, Agent Walters, it’ll hurt like hell. Might even break my skin at this range. But I assure you, you can’t seriously injure me.” She lowered her voice ominously. “However, the same can’t be said for you if you piss me off.”
Tammi stubbornly continued to point her gun at Lucia, her thoughts racing. She remembered how she’d been trained to cooperate if captured by an Arion. They’d told her to avoid physical force of any kind. It simply encouraged the same in return, and she guessed this teenage girl could break her in half if she wished.
Sighing, Tammi slowly lowered her gun, putting it back in her purse. Her hands were steady now, and her voice was growing stronger. “The name’s Tammi.”
Lucia nodded. “Cool. Are you guys partners or something?”
Fred nodded as he glanced at the calm expression on Tammi’s face. Given what they both knew about Arions, he suspected she was having a hard time sitting within Lucia’s killing reach. Yet she looked calm, relaxed even.
Lucia knew it was just an act. She heard Tammi’s heart racing, even though the agent’s training and discipline kept it from showing. “Have you ever met an Arion before, Tammi? Face to face? Or do you just open fire with those enhanced weapons of yours and sort out the innocents later?”
“We don’t kill innocents,” Tammi said softly. “And given that I’m alive, no, I’ve not gotten close enough to your kind to risk hand combat.”
“It wouldn’t be a risk. You’d just die.”
“Arion strength varies a lot,” Tammi shrugged, trying to draw the girl out. “I’m pretty good.”
“Well, in my case, try to imagine taking down one of those hormone-enhanced pro wrestlers on TV with your bare hands. The monsters that weigh in at 300 pounds of solid muscle.”
“I’ve been trained to take out men that big,” Tammi boasted. In reality, she knew she’d have real trouble handling a man that strong.
“Maybe you could, maybe you couldn’t. But now triple that wrestler’s strength and make him tough enough to shrug off low velocity bullets and then picture what he’d do to you. That’s how strong and tough I am. I could twist your arms off and feed them to you. I can jump off a ten story building and walk away from the landing.”
“That kind of dramatics won’t be necessary,” Tammi said smoothly, trying to change to a less threatening subject. “Based on what Fred tells me, we may have some problems we can solve together.”
“What the hell can you do to help me?” Lucia laughed.
“Tammi’s with Omega Directorate,” Fred added, “Intel and investigations. We can work together.”
Lucia reached out to grip Tammi’s arm, leaning closer to her as she looked up at Fred. “You expect me to work with both Omega Directorate and Mandi? That’s the dumbest suggestion I’ve ever heard. They’ll both kill me if they figure out I’m a double agent.”
Tammi resisted the urge to pull away as she answered. “I know the hold Mandi has on you, Lucia. Fred told me what would happen if you left on one of those starships. Also what she has you doing instead. It doesn’t sound much different. We could offer you another way to stay on Earth. Omega needs operatives inside the Arion organization.”
“That’s bullshit. And what I’m doing for Mandi isn’t secret agent stuff. I’m just trying to stay alive.”
“That’s what we all want. Maybe we can help each other stay that way.”
Lucia laughed again. “If the Arion Command gets its way, there will be no helping you Terrans.”
“Fred tells me that Mandi and you girls aren’t part of their plans.”
Lucia slumped back in her chair, her voice softening. “I guess not. Mandi keeps telling us that she wants to keep Earth safe for Terrans and not turn this planet into some kind of automated agricultural station like Command wants. She tells me that her only price is that she wants to run the show.”
“Somehow that’s not a very comforting distinction,” Tammi said honestly, “but it is a distinction worth pursuing.”
“Yeah,” Lucia shrugged girlishly. “A lot more Terrans would be alive under Mandi’s concept… a few billion at least. The Empire, on the other hand, would only need technicians to repair the farming machines.”
Tammi stared at her, realizing they were debating various magnitudes of genocide involving billions of human beings. It was insane. But it was the very reason she’d devoted her life to the Omega Directive. The Arions had to be stopped. “You seem to know a lot about both plans.”
“Mandi talks about it sometimes when she’s lonely,” Lucia shrugged. “But I don’t have anything to do with any of it. All I have to do now is deal with the Arions on Fred’s list.” She looked up at Tammi. “That should make you Omegans happy. Arions killing Arions. What could be more fun to watch?”
Tammi’s face showed no emotion, even as her thoughts continued to race. The girl was trying to justify her actions. For some reason, Lucia seemed to think it was important that she be viewed as being reasonable. And sympathetic to Earth. Tammi suddenly realized how much the girl must have been affected by growing up on Earth, living as a Terran. Her parents would have hidden the truth when she was young, and when she was old enough to understand what it meant to be Arion, they’d still have had to emphasize Lucia’s humanity to allow her to fit in. The nature of deep implant agents was that they had to live and think as natives. That was especially true for their offspring.
It was something she could use. “Then it does appear our goals are aligned, Lucia, at least for the moment,” she offered. “Peace on Earth is our first priority.”
“I guess,” Lucia shrugged again. “All I know is that anything is better than leaving on those ships. And this assignment is better than dating the men Mandi wants me to go out with.”
“Yeah, Fred told me the kind of business Mandi runs. A whore house.”
Lucia looked at Tammi, her eyes narrowing at the hateful word. “I do what I have to do to survive.”
Fred felt a surge of nausea again as he remembered the way Lucia seemed to get off on killing her fellow Arions. Beneath her words, beneath her game of acting like a victim, she was as twisted as any other Arion. Her desire for self-preservation was the only thing he trusted.
“But surely you don’t believe it ends here, Lucia?” he said, joining back into the discussion. “Assuming we survive taking out the men on this list, there will be another list after this one. And then another, until Mandi finally gets bored or finds us expendable. Or until the Empire decides to shut Mandi’s operation down. Or you run into a Prime. Or Black Ops brings in their people. Every one of those scenarios ends in your death, Lucia.”
A new voice came from up near the ceiling. “Aren’t you forgetting the biggest threat of all?”
They all looked up as a tall blonde floated down from the rafters. She was dressed in a sleeveless black top, a leather miniskirt of the same color that showed off her legs to good advantage, midriff bare, and a pair of heels. Two enormous diamond earrings completed the outfit. Her blonde hair was wavier than usual. Fred’s heart leaped as he recognized Sharon.
“Kara is determined to shut down Mandi’s operation as well,” Sharon said as she paused to bob around a foot off the floor. “She’ll likely start with her helpers. That means you and your friends, Lucia.”
Lucia’s force field shimmered back to life as she stood up and backed away from Sharon. “Did Mandi send you?” she asked fearfully.
Sharon looked pointedly at her, her blue eyes sparkling dangerously. “If she had, you’d already be dead.”
“How do you know my name?” Lucia gasped nervously. “Nobody remembers anything afterwards.” She’d seen Mandi put the zap on enough people to know that they always had complete amnesia about the things that went on during her hypnotic control.
“I’ve been watching and listening to you guys talk for a while, and the Detective and I had a long talk earlier.” Sharon rose higher, scanning everyone in the room. “Seems as if we have a collection of like souls here. Two of you are working for Mandi, Fred out of desperation and you without recourse, Lucia. I accept for the moment that you would like to be free of her. Also an FBI agent, an Omegan operative no less. And now me.” She turned back to look at Lucia. “The only question I have, Lucia, is to learn where your heart truly lies. In the end, will you side with Terra, with Mandi or with the Empire?”
Lucia was smart enough to know that her words would mean nothing. But her situation might. “You know what the Empire would do to me now. If they didn’t kill me for treason, they’d give me to the Primes for their sport.”
“That I accept as truth,” Sharon nodded. “But that still leaves you with two other potential agendas. You might even be a double agent.”
“Yeah, and what’s your agenda?” Lucia asked, her attitude returning. “Mandi can get inside your head whenever she wants and learn all about us. She’d just love to program you to come and kill us all.”
Sharon nodded. “I’m sure she would. And I’m sure I would do that without even realizing what I was doing. Which means I need your help to keep Mandi out of my head. Yet at the same time, we have to use her to help us clean the Empire’s forces from the Earth.”
“Help her?” Tammi sputtered.
“Mandi has no love for the Empire,” Fred answered for Sharon. “She’s killed or driven insane her share of Primes.”
“Right,” Sharon added, glad for Fred’s support, “except her agenda, near as I can figure it out anyway, isn’t all that much better. We’ll have to get rid of her after she’s helped us remove the footprint of the Empire.”
“I think she’s trying to build some kind of Terran organization,” Lucia offered. “I’ve seen her reading documents that belonged to the US government. Classified stuff.”
Fred suddenly remembered the document he’d seen. “That’s right. Top Secret documents.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Sharon shrugged. “I just know that she’s incredibly dangerous as long as she can control Kara, Xara or myself. No telling what she could make us do.”
No one said anything for a long moment as Sharon’s words sank in.
Tammi seized the opportunity to take control, exactly as she’d been trained. “This will be a strange alliance, I must admit, but as the old saying goes, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’”
Sharon smiled as she floated angelically across the room, a faint aura of honey and wildflower scent surrounding her. Fred inhaled it, and his heart began to race again, all traces of tiredness evaporating as his body awakened in a totally unprofessional way. He thought of Kara’s comment about Pavlovian conditioning and cursed under his breath. Sharon saw his discomfort, and smiled sympathetically at him, which didn’t help a bit.
Lucia saved the moment by holding out her arm, her fist clenched tightly, her slender arm defined with powerful muscles. “To freedom then.”
Sharon closed her hand around Lucia’s, protecting the others from her force field. Tammi gripped Sharon’s hand, and then Fred hers, a visible drop of sweat working down his forehead as he tried to keep his cool.
“To Earth,” Sharon replied, closing her other hand over theirs to complete the embrace.
Valkyrie7 Headquarters, Upstate New York
“Her programming will need to be very detailed and technical in nature. The Arions have created a very secure facility, one the Velorians would be unlikely to penetrate without giving themselves away in time for the Primes to escape.”
Admiral Kirk Sadler frowned as the double agent from Omega Directive finished his briefing. The secure Arion facility he was describing was in Tibet, located in a deep mine that dated back two thousand years. It was going to be Azriel’s first target.
There were believed to be a half dozen Empire command posts on Earth, and this was the first one they’d nailed down to a hard location.
“What you’re saying is that you need to do the detailed briefing yourself.”
Agent Don Nichols nodded. “I’ve been briefed on Azriel’s abilities and have built an entry and egress plan around them. Getting in isn’t the issue, but the Primes have some very fast shuttles that they can use to scatter in all directions. She might be able to track down one, maybe even two, but not the dozen that they can launch on a moment’s notice.” He turned to look at Sadler. “I was told by General Adams that it’s important to keep her existence a secret from the Empire and the Velorians. That means she has to sanitize the entire complex. Nobody can be allowed to escape.”
“How many Arions are living there?” Sadler asked.
Nichols shrugged. “Beyond the dozen Primes we’ve ID’d, probably a couple of hundred Betans. Not many Terrans. Security is too high.”
“Are you sure you can’t brief Azriel as per normal?”
“Admiral, I’ve studied this complex for the last year, and I barely know enough to get her in and out. If I could go on the mission with her, fine, but I’m only human. Alternatively, I could teach her what I know in a week. Maybe a bit less given that she has perfect recall. But if you want to launch this mission in the next day or two, I have to downlink to her directly.”
“I’ll get back to you on that,” Sadler said as he stood up. “They’ve got quarters prepared for you here at the complex. Check with the Petty Officer in the outer office to get settled in.”
Sadler walked down the hallway toward the Command Post. Lieutenant Azriel Shalom’s office was located at the entrance to his office, for she was officially his aide-de-camp now.
The Lieutenant was listed as an exchange officer from the Israeli military. In that capacity, she sifted through intercepted communications from Omega Directorate and a variety of military commands, trying to discern what they knew about the Empire’s activities so as to keep Sadler briefed on the latest developments. With her silicon-based brain, she was able to match the decryption capabilities of a supercomputer. What looked like an ordinary retinal scanner attached to her computer monitor was in reality a high-speed data link that connected her cybernetic brain directly into the complex’s computer system, sending terahertz digital pulse streams to and from her retina.
Sadler stuck his head through the door of her office. “You got time for lunch, Lieutenant?”
Azriel blinked her eyes, and turned away from the retinal link, a smile warming her face. She glanced behind him to make sure no one was watching, and then got up to close the door. She’d already learned how to fake out the video camera, making it look as if she was the hardest working officer in the facility, whether she was in her office or not. She wrapped her arms around Sadler’s neck and kissed him deeply. Her lips were soft and moist and most convincingly human.
“Are you sure it’s food that you need?” she whispered in his ear. “There’s a lock on my door now, you know. Comes with my new status of being your aide.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, touching her lips to his ear. "Or perhaps, your lover?"
Sadler smiled as he reached up to hold her hands, interlacing his fingers with hers as he lowered them gently to his side. “Unlike you, my dear, I need both sleep and food to keep my strength up. Not just sex.”
“Well, we can’t have you losing strength,” she winked. “I have big plans for you tonight.” She stepped to the side to look into the small mirror on the wall, making her sure her hair was still pinned up properly. She pulled on the jacket of her Israeli uniform and slipped her arm through his. “A lunch appointment with the Admiral. I feel so privileged.”
Sadler smiled as he opened the door for her. She was so convincingly human that he’d stopped thinking of her as a machine. Her emotions were genuine, and in every way he could observe, she was simply a young woman in love. It was no secret in Valkyrie7 that they were having an affair. His Admin had even been bold enough to tell him that the other girls were happy that he’d decided to move on, although the fact that Azriel was half his age made for some lively water-cooler gossip. No one outside of a handful of top officials knew what Azriel really was.
Sadler amused himself by wondering what the girls would think if they knew Azriel's real age.
Azriel lived up to her role as his aide by claiming a quiet corner in the senior officer’s cafeteria, and they set their trays down across the table from each other.
“I think we’ve finally come up with a suitable first mission for you, Azriel.”
Her eyes flashed attentively. “Really?”
“An agent from Omega Directorate will brief you after lunch.”
“Omega? I didn’t realize we were sharing intel with them.”
“We’re not. He’s a double agent. We’ve kept him inside Omega specifically to get access to this kind of intel. They’ve got ten times as many agents out there as we do.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve done any field work, Kirk. A century or so by your years. It will be good to see action.”
Sadler found the imprecision of her words interesting. She of course knew to the nanosecond how long it had been since she’d been in the field, but she didn’t narrow it down more than to the nearest century. It was all part of her coming across convincingly as human.
“The Omegan agent has a lot of technical data to brief you on,” he continued, “none of which is in a database, just verbal. He’s got a photographic memory.”
She munched on her salad. “How much data?”
“He claims it would take a week just to take you through it the first time.”
“Might be faster for me to read his thoughts than to have him try to put it into language.”
“That’s what he suggested. Some kind of downlink. How does that work?”
“He actually suggested that?” Azriel sounded concerned. "He shouldn't know that kind of detail."
"He's been briefed. We had to detail your abilities so he could customize the entry and egress plan for you."
"But nothing about my mind link ability was disclosed."
"What kind of mind link are we talkin about," Sadler said as he took a bite of his salad.
“You of all people shouldn’t be asking me that.”
Sadler stared at her. “You mean… like we did?”
“That’s where all my sensors for direct mental connection are. Other than the ones in my eyes. But I don’t exactly think your agent can modulate his thoughts into pulsed laser beams.”
“Then forget it. We’ll just take our time.”
Azriel reached across the table to hold his hand. “I love you, Kirk. Any connection I formed with that agent would be just… telemetry.”
“And that’s the only way to connect that... directly?”
Azriel laughed. “Well, it does make them… sit up and pay attention to me, I guess you’d say.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” Sadler dropped his fork in his plate. He suddenly wasn’t hungry. “I mean, can’t you use some kind of gel or electrodes or something?”
“A man has many very active nerves there, especially when erect. And several of them connect directly to the portions of his brain that are responsible for imagery. That gives me a direct connection to the inner workings of a man’s mind.” She giggled and held his hand tighter, lowering her voice. “That connection between imagery and arousal is why you get hard just thinking about me, even when I’m not around.”
“Jesus. And the Vendorians came up with all this, huh?”
“Apparently both Supremis and human physiology and nervous systems are pretty much the same, in this way at least.”
It was barely mid-afternoon when Don Nichols found himself sitting across the table from the most stunningly attractive woman he’d ever met. She was wearing an Israeli Defense Forces uniform, but he was one of a dozen insiders who knew the truth about her. In reality, he knew more about her than anyone except Sadler.
“You don’t look like an android,” he was saying as the door closed behind them.
“And how many androids have you met before me? To form such a strong impression of normality, I mean.”
“Well… I mean, none,” he stammered. “I just expected someone more… robotic. Machine like. Along the lines of the androids in science fiction movies.”
“The only part of me that’s artificial is my brain, and it’s modeled after the human brain. All the rest of me is flesh and blood.”
“Yeah, Kryp’terran flesh and blood.”
“Does that intimidate you?”
“Good. Then we can get started.”
Nichols looked at her strangely. “Right. So, how’s this work, Lieutenant?" he said, feigning ignorance. "I have to connect to you somehow? You can read my mind. Download what I know.”
“Earlier you sounded as if you knew.” Azriel looked surprised.
“Not exactly. Just that I should expect it, and that I won’t be injured.”
“Well, then the operative question is, Agent Nichols, how long can you maintain an erection? With the proper inspiration that is?”
“It’s a simple enough question.”
“Like hell it is. And what inspiration are we talking about?”
Azriel undid her long hair, and started to unbutton her jacket. “Me.”
“You’re shitting me? I’m supposed to have sex with an android?”
“That's a matter of definition, but definitely intercourse. You, inside me, and not moving any more than necessary to stay erect. That’s how I connect.”
“For an hour?”
“If it takes me that long to download what you know, then yes.”
“And this is how you and the Admiral… talk?”
“No, we make love.” She chose her next words carefully, knowing she had to push him past his fears and into arousal. “You and me, Don, we’re just going to interface.”
The Admiral’s phone rang an hour and a half later. “Sadler here.”
“I need you down here, Kirk.” It was Azriel’s voice, but synthesized by the computer. She was jacked into the mainframe.
“Be right there.”
Sadler got up and walked briskly down the hallway to Briefing Room 7. The lock released with a buzz as he approached, and he stepped inside. He was greeted by a vision of Azriel straddling the Omegan agent, still engaged in her intercourse. Her eyes were soft and unfocused as she looked back at Sadler, almost as if she was listening to an inner voice. Her long hair fell over her chest to maintain a portion of her modesty.
The agent looked exhausted, his skin wet with sweat.
“What the hell do you want me here for?” Sadler asked angrily. Her nudity, and the fact that she was still holding the agent inside her, was disturbing as hell.
“He’s been passing Valkyrie7 information on to Omega. Working both sides.”
“Bullshit,” Nichols said weakly as he tried to push her away. “That’s just a what-if scenario I ran in my head. To determine countermeasures. It wasn't real.”
Sadler ignored him. “Are you sure about this Azriel?”
“I’ve sifted through all his thoughts, especially the ones he tried to hide from me. His meeting with the Omega brass was real enough, although the rest is probably scenario planning as he suggests. He hasn’t given them much yet, just a flavor of how we’re organized, but most damagingly, he told them that a female Prime is heading Valkyrie7. That’s pretty close to being true.”
“Shit,” Sadler cursed.
“He's given them no other names so far, but he has told them about the Tibet job. If it comes off as he described, he’ll have established the credibility of his intel. He's asked Omega for a hundred million dollars to sell us out.”
“Damn it. Omega will see us as just as big a threat as the Arions.”
“That’s why I called you down here.”
“Hey, do I get a say in all this?” Nichols shouted as he started to struggle harder against Azriel’s strength. She reached down to pin his hands over his head, her hair covering his face.
“No, you don’t get a say,” Sadler said coldly. It strangely angered him the way Azriel leaned over the agent, her breasts on display. The whole thing was starting to stink. He looked back up at her. “He can’t be allowed to return to them.”
“I anticipated that, but I needed your confirmation. It would be best to finish this right here.”
Sadler blinked in surprise. “What are you asking?”
“My primary mission is that of eliminating your enemies, Kirk, and this man is an enemy. Even more, he’s in a very vulnerable position right now.”
“You want to kill him?” Sadler gasped.
“What the hell are you talking about!” Nichols screamed from beneath the cascade of hair, struggling even harder to free himself. He quickly found he was helpless in her grasp.
Azriel's eyes were clear and bright. “He won’t feel any pain.”
“I’m a god-damn human being, you bucket of bolts. You can’t kill humans. The First Law.”
Azriel smiled as she flicked her hair to the side and looked down into Nichols' eyes. “So, you’ve read Asimov?” Her eyes narrowed. “Too bad the Vendorians didn’t.”
“Damn it,” Sadler cursed as his thoughts raced ahead, unfortunately not in the direction he wanted them to. He was disturbed by the smell of sexual musk in the air. It was one thing to sanction her behavior at an academic level, but another thing entirely to watch Azriel at work. He knew now that he'd let himself fall too far down the path of believing she was a warm and loving woman. He cursed the fact that he'd convinced himself that she was just a different kind of humanity. For the first time now, he was seeing her for what she truly was. “This isn’t right, Azriel. We’ve got to keep him alive. I want to know what he knows.”
“I’ve already learned all that. Everything he remembers from the last year is now part of my memories.”
“Can you change his thoughts then? Perhaps make him useful to us. Have him take back misinformation to Omega?”
Nichols looked wildly from Azriel’s face to Sadler’s and back. They were still talking about him as if he wasn’t there. “I’ll do whatever you want!”
Azriel shook her head slowly. “I can only read minds, not influence them. He is of no further use to us."
"You know his thoughts. Would he betray us further?"
Azriel paused to sift back through his captured thoughts. She knew the outcome was going to decide this man's life.
“Well, is he a danger or not?" Sadler asked as he paced around the room, clearly agitated.
Azriel looked back up at him, and told him what she believed. "I feel he would betray us at first chance."
"No, god damn it, no," Nichols shouted. "I see now what you are planning. An alternative to Arion rule. That's the only way to keep the Arions out. I understand it now."
"So you think we should just cancel him?" Sadler asked softly, talking to Azriel.
“Only you can decide that, Admiral. You outrank me. In more ways than one.”
“Shit,” he cursed angrily. He paced around the room, his thoughts swirling. "Couldn't you just lobotomize him or something?"
"I could. But then he'd become the first of many that Valkyrie7 would have to care for as long as they lived. I don't think you want to establish that precedent."
“Shit, then just do it," he shouted angrily. "Just fucking do it.”
“Acknowledged,” Azriel nodded.
“You’ll burn in hell,” Nichols screamed at him, “this is murder, plain and simple.”
Sadler felt like he was trapped in a nightmare as he stared at the terrified look in the doomed agent’s eyes. A dream where things happened too fast, careening out of control.
He held his hand up to pause Azriel. It was only fair to give the man a chance for a death-bed confession. "This isn't a game we were playing, Nichols. Our mission is to save the world. Absolute loyalty is demanded. I'm sorry you were not up to the challenge."
"You don't understand!" Nichols screamed. "The Arions, they'll figure out what you're up to as well. You can't hide here forever. You need Omega to join with you. I can help you with that."
Sadler couldn’t help but watch in sick fascination as Azriel reached down to grip the base of Nichol’s head. He nodded.
Nichols’ eyes grew huge with fear as he felt Azriel positioning her long fingers. “No, make her stop, Admiral! You don't know what's going on. The Arions, they've brought in a Tse...”
Azriel squeezed her fingertips together with several tons of force, instantly severing Nichols' spinal cord at the base of his medula oblongata. His voice stopped in mid-word, his heart froze in mid-beat. She leaned down to kiss his cheek gently. “Your struggle is over, Don Nichols. Ours continues.”
Sadler couldn't believe what he'd just seen. Azriel's inhuman blend of sexuality, compassionate gentleness and lethal mayhem sent his stomach rising into his throat. Gagging, he leaned over into one of the trashcans and vomited up his lunch.
Azriel’s expression remained neutral as she floated upward from the agent’s body, her clitoral grip on the base of his penis having kept him obscenely erect despite his total loss of blood pressure. He deflated as she landed gently beside Sadler.
Despite her nudity, despite her perfect body, Sadler couldn’t look at her any more than he could the dead body on the table. For the first time, he fully comprehended the magnitude of Azriel's potential. The horror as well. She was a killing machine, designed to end life without emotion, without fear of consequence, without even the tiniest shred of morality. With compassion perhaps, but without understanding of what it meant to be mortal.
She would kill anyone he wished.
Anyone at all.
She had no soul.
Horrified to find himself in possession of such God-like power, and realizing for the first time that he alone would have to make the life and death decisions over many lives, he pushed her violently away and staggered out of the room.
He wasn't God. He was just a man.
Azriel stood alone beside the cooling body, staring through the wall at her lover's back as he walked away.
A single tear traced down her cheek.