“Matt Dragoneaux is an interstellar hired gun who follows the Code of the Vigilante: track ‘em, strike ‘em, and be elsewhere when the Anarchate battleglobe shows up. And with the aid of the self-aware starship Mata Hari, he’s been successful in bringing a small bit of justice to the alien star culture of the Anarchate. But then a crossbreed woman hires him to right a wrong being done to her planet by an alien commercial conglomerate that rules whole star clusters. Matt, aided by cyborg improvements that make him a deadly foe, sets out to do his job the best he can. Soon, he is on track to becoming the deadliest Vigilante in human history. But humanity’s survival among the crowded stars might be the price for success in his job.”
A lizard-green laser beam hit Matt’s right shoulder and splintered into thousands of low-power sparkles as his combat suit’s sapphire crystal coating broke the beam into hundreds of pale green flares that filled a lonely corridor of Hagonar Station.
Attack! screamed Suit’s onboard Combat Information System as it flooded his mind and nerves with multiple datastreams.
One stream illuminated his attacker, a six-legged crab-like alien with natural chitin armor that it may have assumed would be protection enough against a two-legged humanoid who wandered the back corridors of the space station and wore only an armored lifesuit. The attacker had pretended to be a silvery-grey outcrop of the corridor, betting on the faint orange light to shield it from early detection by Suit’s sensors. A bad bet.
Blinking his right eye twice, Matt approved Suit’s plan to hit the alien’s exoskeleton with six titanium penetrator darts, each dart carrying a biogel able to quickly kill any carbon-based lifeform. A squirt of the biogel was enough, but Suit believed in “Kill Thrice, Regret Never” —so a third counterstrike followed.
“Surrender and—” the crab-like alien’s Comdisk began to say.
Then it staggered as the penetrator darts hit its chitin shell-body, shuddered from the biogel neurotoxin, then it screeched in pain as Suit flashed ultrasonic beams against its shell, causing internal organs to liquefy as the resonance frequency for its flesh was reached and maintained by Suit’s feedback system.
In three seconds a lifeless chitin shell rocked slowly on the corridor’s metal floor, its laser rifle long ago dropped, the six manipulator limbs unmoved by death throes. Death throes require nerves able to transmit bioelectric signals and muscle fibers able to contract. His attacker’s body possessed neither, thanks to Suit’s triple-kill counterattack.
Matt turned away from the low-caste genome harvester, heading inward to the dive bar where he was to meet a possible Patron, someone who sought to employ his combat capabilities.
His humanoid form, a rarity in the Anarchate galactic culture, made some aliens underestimate his capabilities. The crab-like alien had been the third effort by one of Hagonar’s freelance genome harvesters to collect Matt’s genetic code for sale to the highest bidder. A bidder who would then make copies of Matt, copies programmed to follow any order given by the bidder.
In a galaxy ruled by the Anarchate, everything was for sale, from infants and children, to the genomes of defenseless species, even whole star systems were bought and sold. The fact that Matt sought to right the wrongs of a society millions of years old by serving as a Vigilante for hire did nothing to change the system. Still he had a promise to keep, a promise made to a dead love, the last person he had cared for . . . .
An hour later he still sat in the bar Wiggles, wondering why the humanoid form so interested the exotic critters who filled the alien version of a booze-drug bar. It distracted him from thinking about her, Helen, the woman who had loved him, and whom he had loved. Until she died, leaving him to find a life purpose without her.
He sighed, his breath filling the armored helmet of his Mitsubishi-Toshiba Cyborg Combat Suit.
Work. That’s what he needed. That’s why he sat in a third-rate dive like Wiggles, stuck away in a corner of a backwater space station, waiting for his appointment with a possible Patron . . . and she was late.
For a Vigilante like himself, hanging around one place too long isn’t smart. As the corridor episode showed, you can get killed by staying in place. The code of a Vigilante is simple: track ‘em, strike ‘em, and be elsewhere when the Anarchate battleglobes show up.
Matt squinted into the clinging shadows of Wiggles, searching for the woman who’d answered his Job Board listing.
The listing had been brief enough: Vigilante for Hire; Have Starship, Will Travel. He smiled, recalling the ancient vidpic from which he’d stolen the words. He’d always liked the vidpic character Paladin. Their features were similar, though he was Amerindian/French by birth whereas Paladin had a strong Hispanic heritage. But the man had lived in a simpler time. A time when little Earth had thought itself the center of the universe.
Once again he wished humans weren’t spread so thinly across a galaxy infested by thousands of alien species, with no justice, no law, and a soul-destroying culture called the Anarchate. Why did he live when whole species sometimes died in the far reaches of space? What could he do, a lone human, against a cultural system already ancient when homo habilis walked the African savannah? But wishing doesn’t change reality—such as the fact that Earth had been ‘found’ by alien genome harvesters in A.D. 2040, and had never been the same since. Nor had he, since Helen’s death. Matt yearned for her touch, her kiss, her warm embrace, the smell of her hair, the feel of . . . .
He pushed away the memory pain. But once again, he felt exposed. Vulnerable. Weak.
That was not how he felt when linked to his alter ego, the self-aware Dreadnought-class starship Mata Hari. Thanks to her rescue of him as he drifted among the stars in a lifepod, the two had become one entity. Matt had learned what it was like to think at computer speed, to sense scores of inputs simultaneously and to “wear” the starship like a suit of clothes, with each movement of his directing some function of Mata Hari.
With a slow blink of his left eye Matt raised his faceplate. The odors of Wiggles entered. He wrinkled his nose.
It stank. The air reeked of alien pheromones, rancid garbage, metal-scouring cleansers, disinfectants, and the acrid fumes from seven types of tobacco-analogues. Taste next hit him. The metallic bitterness of recycled air coated his tongue, telling him the dive’s titanium recycling filters hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Next came sound. Screeching, squalling, heterodyning sounds filled Wiggles, as might be expected at a disreputable bar/restaurant/pleasure dive in the CHON section of Hagonar. Matt winced, wishing he could shut his ears as easily as his mouth.
Where the hell was that Patron?
Sighing, he looked around.
His neighbors were supposedly other lifeforms constructed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, who radiated at a moderate temperature and breathed oxygen. However, he counted four canister tanks encrusted with milky-white ice—it seemed the methane breathers were slumming tonight. But even stranger beings toured Wiggles. Not far beyond his alcove there glimmered the iridescent blue crystals of a barium titanate alien; its piezoelectric crystals fluxed and changed visibly, engaging in thought. In the middle distance, shapes moved about the circular, amphitheater-like room, its domed ceiling festooned with parallel bars for the avian and forest-evolved types.
Distantly, among the shadows of the room’s far side, there moved a humanoid form, one vaguely suggestive of a woman. His Patron? Maybe. Maybe not.
The humanoid form that resembled a woman spotted him and moved toward his alcove, still twenty meters away. Ummm. Not a hallucination.
Time to go to work.
Matt blinked to lower the faceplate, switched to Eyes-Up mode, and activated the virtual-reality display. Wiggles took form inside his helmet, the orange-lit room relegated to the faceplate’s right quadrant. He studied the circular room’s layout, the placement of lifeforms, energy sources, and motion vectors—all in three dimensions that rotated within a miniature graphics display. A great thing, the display. It could place his point-of-view at the ceiling, at either entrance to Wiggles, or in his own alcove. He switched focus to the faceplate’s left side as new data shimmered into being. A downlink from the feminine AI that was Mata Hari glowed like a red cloud. Within that cloud floated Hagonar Station, nearby ships, their classifications and weaponry ratings, unpowered asteroidal debris, gamma and beta radiation levels, solar wind fluxes from Theta Aurigae’s two stars, and a thousand other details. Too many details. But the flood had just begun.
Matt went to gestalt focus, simultaneously seeing the faceplate images and the inner surfaces of his contact lenses. On those lenses flickered readouts from the twelve weapons systems of Suit. All showed green-light Ready status. Then, filled with an unnamable ecstasy, existing both within and outside Suit, he surrendered his will and underwent Systems Checkout by Suit’s CPU.
Hundred megawatt laser pulse-cannons stirred to life on either shoulder, tracking around the room, seeking Lock-On. A thump-crump sounded from each bicep as ten rounds of High Explosive Discarding Sabot shells cycled into miniature rocket-guns; they made each bicep look like a bagpipes factory. On his chest, the pulse-Doppler radar whined on. Millimeter-wavelength pulses ranged out over the room, probing the inner composition of those lifeforms not wearing a stealth or radar-reflective body covering. Hard against his spine, the rocket launcher backpack grumbled down to Standby, told by Suit’s CPU the range was too close for a kiloton atomic. But on either hip, and snugged up against his belly, backup magnetohydrodynamic power units pulsed to life.
We are ready! The MHDs screamed, sounding like little electron bees. They stood ready to feed surge-power to the shoulder lasers, to his fingertip lasers and to Suit’s tractor and pressor beam emitters. Other weapons systems flashed by, also powered on. Ultrasonic vibers. Fire-and-Forget Nanoshell launchers. Nerve gas dispensers. “Now? Can we go now?”
God, they were so eager. Almost humanly eager. Then the ecstasy he called ocean-time eased off. Checkout done, Suit delivered a new display to his central faceplate, devoted solely to the approaching female humanoid.
Fifteen meters away, Suit told him via his inbuilt PET sensors.
Matt focused on that central image.
Microwave sensors displayed clearly her skeletal structure. A subsidiary readout confirmed it as calcium-based, but with a titanium upgrade for strength. Infrared bio-sensors showed a body temp ten degrees above human-normal. Pulse-Doppler revealed a double-heart that beat steadily; that was a bioupgrade for a High Threat environment. Gas spectrometers documented the exact amount of carbon dioxide she exhaled. The heatmap glowed with thermal concentrations—at her head, both breasts, each heart, her hands, the groin, and her feet. Mech sensors showed she carried only a laser handgun, riding in a holster on her right hip. A machete rode on her left hip. Her black environment suit showed up as a vacuum-resistant monomolecular film, its oxygen reservoirs presumably strapped onto the woman’s back, buttocks or rear legs—and thus out of direct line-of-sight.
A black-suited woman moved toward him, her long black hair fluttering slowly in the six-tenths gee gravity of Wiggles. Her arms swung casually at her side. Her eyes—her needful jade green eyes fixed on him.
A serious look filled her pale white face. Her head canted forward a bit, implying determination. An almost human woman approached.
Was she really human? Or . . . was she an alien-constructed clone put together from stolen or bartered human cells, mind-programmed, emotionally neutered, and devoted solely to the Master who would periodically reward her brain’s pleasure center with impulses from a trickle current? Or punish her with sadistic lashes from a neurowhip?
Perhaps she was the cyborg vessel for a self-aware, silicon-germanium supercomputer from a far star system, who figured it needed an organic form while slumming among organics?
Or perhaps she was just a mindless biological Remote filled with plague spores, built according to a convenient bipedal form, and programmed to seek out and infect carbon-based lifeforms similar to the original genome pattern?
Such things existed in the Anarchate. The options for Hunter-Killer weapons systems are not limited to the electronic, photonic and inorganic.
She slowed, blinking long black eyelashes. She spoke. “Are you Matt Dragoneaux, Human, Work Sigil—Vigilante?”
His comdisk translated a weird language full of polytonal phonemes. Ancient Greek.
“Stop!” he said, using Suit’s external speaker.
She stopped, swaying slightly in the weak gee-field of Wiggles. Bare hands stayed at her side. His displays keened with Threat Readiness signals. Suit hungered to attack her!
Matt blinked a code sequence. Suit Locked-On a single laser pulse-cannon, centering it between her eyes. They were deliciously green—as nearly as he could see in flickering orange light of the dive. Her hair glimmered with an ebony black luster. And her skin shone alabaster white—where it showed outside her vacsuit.
An albino! Or, a partial one since her hair and eyes were naturally colored. “You’re late. Identify yourself.”
She looked irritated. His faceplate display tracked an increase in double-heart pulse rates. Carbon dioxide exhalations increased slightly. Muscle tension changed a bit. Cheek muscles tightened. Minor facial tics showed on her right jaw. Under the vacsuit, full breasts rose and fell regularly, not yet showing the rapid breathing of worry-threat-danger.
“I am Eliana Antigone Themistocles, Derindl/Human genetic mix, Sigma Puppis star system, planet Halcyon—a Third Wave colony. My Work Sigil is Molecular Geneticist.” She frowned. “And I am not late!”
Ahhh—a Derindl/Human crossbreed! That explained the albino skin that happened when species crossbred. But what was her purpose? And would she, like everyone else he’d met, lie to him? “Turn around.”
She looked confused, then exasperated, finally resigned. “If you insist.” She turned, presenting her back to him.
Each shoulder blade was covered by a cylindrical lump. Lower down, and just above the trim buttocks, lay a coiled bulge. Was it the vestigial tail of the Derindl arboreal dwellers? Either that, or a clever imitation to fit a totally false story. Matt double-blinked and took a Threat assessment of her back. His faceplate’s Eyes-Up display changed. The right quadrant showed only small, pressurized oxygen canisters riding over her shoulder blades, a heat signature denoting both hearts and the groin, and no weapons other than the laser handgun and machete. Curious. She was remarkably under-weaponed for a place like Hagonar Station. Did she have capabilities unknown to him? Or was she an innocent abroad, unaware of the dangers at Hagonar? And the risk she’d exposed him to by being late . . . .
“Face me, please.”
Storm clouds gathered in her eyes as she finished pirouetting. “I, I—”
“Do not touch your weapons, Themistocles-person.”
“What!” Her mouth gaped. A vein on her forehead pulsed angrily. “You, you—”
“You clone!” Anger made her beautiful—far too beautiful. “How dare you speak to me as I were only a cipher!”
Matt’s bicep rocket-guns locked onto her midbody, activated by her Threat tones. Both shoulder pulse-cannons now aimed between her eyes, their pinhead sighting lasers putting green dots between black eyebrows. Damn. That’s the trouble with staying in neurolink with one’s weapons systems—integration with them becomes second nature, like breathing, sleeping, eating . . . and fighting.
She was definitely a naif. Naive to a fault. Certainly not stupid considering her molecular geneticist training. But how trustworthy?
Matt sighed. “Lower your voice, please. My Suit systems detect Threat.”
Her jaw muscles jumped again. Eliana Themistocles eyed the bicep rocket-guns and shoulder cannons bristling from Suit like needles on a cactus. If she even remembered what a cactus was. Had been, once—long ago. Before the deserts were flooded to grow rice for too many people.
“Can you converse?” she asked, attempting sarcasm. “Or do you only sit on that bench like an overweight Bal-lizard, too brainless to do more than posture Threat at anything that comes within your sensory zone?”
“I talk.” Her tone declared her a small frog from a smaller pond who thought herself important. In the Anarchate, of all places. Maybe she was just provincial and parochial. Matt inner-focused on Suit. All readouts confirmed Themistocles as a Derindl/Human crossbreed: sex, female; age, about 30 Sol-years; and with no sign of malnutrition or iron-deficiency diseases. Food must be plentiful on her planet. “Your purpose?”
Eliana started forward. “I am—”
Matt overrode Suit’s Fire-command to a bicep shell as she reached two meters range, just beyond the alcove’s flat metal table. Eliana Themistocles’ white face tightened over high, aristocratic cheekbones. She seemed frightened now, staring morbidly at Suit as its external systems flashed brightly. Like a deadly peacock.
“Keep your distance,” Matt said through the helmet’s external speaker. He controlled the sound level—no need to vibe her bones. “State your purpose.”
Shivering, the Patron focused those needful green eyes on him. “Hey—we had an appointment, didn’t we?” He said nothing, just watched; her air of authority wilted a bit. “I—my Clan family that is—we’re looking for a Vigilante. You were listed on the Job Board. So I messaged you.”
Eliana scowled. “An off-world Trade conglomerate is breaking the terms of a mining agreement that we and our Derindl Nest-mates signed with them.” She paused, then licked her lips. “May I sit?”
“No.” Around them, other aliens were taking notice of two humanoids in the same room—an unusual circumstance considering the rarity of the bipedal lifeform. Matt did not enjoy being the focus of someone else’s attention. Nor staying in one place so long. But a Job . . . . He extruded a gauntlet knife-claw and touched a pressure stud on the table, then looked back to Eliana.
“Come inside the Privacy Curtain field, but stay at least two meters away from me.”
“What?” Eliana looked puzzled, then irritated as the Curtain turned opaque in front of her. The Curtain had become a one-way transmitter of photons, allowing Matt to see her but blocking the vision of the alien critters that filled Wiggles. She shrugged, then stepped through the Curtain’s electromagnetic field and halted on the other side of the table, standing still with both arms at her side, at 1.8 meters distance. Sweat lined the inside of her palms. Suit’s Threat systems keened loudly, unhappy with such a close approach. He slapped his chest control panel, hitting the correct pressure stud the first time—as always.
Eliana’s expression stiffened. “Are you speaking to me?”
“No!” The keening died away as Matt reset the size of Suit’s Threat zone. “Just this damned Suit! It doesn’t like closeness—too threatening.”
Still standing, Eliana smiled thinly. “And you? Do you dislike closeness with other sapients? Is that why you’re outfitted like a miniature battleship?”
Matt braced his gauntleted hands against the tabletop, as if he could push away the memories. Did he fear closeness? After Helen? Hey—he could be close! What other human could claim the unique meeting of the minds shared between him and the self-aware entity that was starship Mata Hari ? A symbiosis they were, quite rare in the records of space-faring peoples. But sometimes, very rarely, an organic could bond with an inorganic and know a life too strange for words. The two of them roamed a galaxy where for most the only purpose was survival. But when he, Mata Hari the AI, and the starship Mata Hari became one electro-optical entity, became <he>:<she>:<ship>, they did more than just survive—they sought to bring Justice to those in need. He looked up.
“None of your business, Eliana Antigone Themistocles.” From her eyes, pity came. Then she stared at him with a different look, using those little girl eyes on him. Eyes that touched him, made him feel . . . made him wish . . . . “Explain your Purpose further.”
Eliana blinked, abandoning deeper thoughts. “As I said, we seek a Vigilante. The Trade group has employed a strip-miner the size of this station to rip out our minerals without regard to the local environment—all contrary to the contract terms. When our people approach, they are killed. We have few ships. And the MotherShip of the Trade conglomerate refuses entrance to our envoys. Our only alternative is destruction of the MotherShip or the Stripper.”
“The group’s name?”
She looked rueful, ivory teeth biting her lower lip. “The Halicene Conglomerate.”
Shit! Matt cared little who he fought, and only a little more who he helped. A Job was a job. He and Mata-Hari seemed well-suited to fighting hopeless causes, righting wrongs, helping the weak, and in general getting in the way of evolutionary survival. Kill or be killed. Be smart or be dead. Be alert or be enslaved—so he had learned while roaming the Anarchate. The rules of natural selection worked at the galactic level too, in addition to planetary ecosystems. But it gave him some purpose, fighting lost causes. However, fighting the Halicene Conglomerate wasn’t a cause, it was stupid. Just plain stupid.
“The Halicene Conglomerate controls half of Orion Arm. How could you people have been so stupid as to hire them?”
“Bastard!” Eliana trembled with fury. “No one else would give us credit! We needed full spectrum neonatal placental units to serve as wombs for our crossbreed zygotes—so we could bring them to full-term.” Tears flickered in her jade green eyes. “The survival of the colony was at stake.”
Matt closed his own eyes, feeling very weary, yet secure in the knowledge Suit would alert him to any Threat. What to do? He needed a Patron. But not a credit-poor Patron. And not one so incredibly shortsighted. He needed a Cause, but not one equivalent to walking into a plasma torch. However, he was tired of hanging around Hagonar Station, a distinctive target for any genome harvester willing to take a chance on harvesting his DNA for sale to the highest bidder. Like the overconfident crab alien. Still . . . . Matt opened his eyes.
“Eliana, I wish I could help you but—”
“Threat!” screamed Suit as subsonic klaxons and pulsing red lights filled his Eyes-Up display.
Beyond his faceplate, movement occurred under the dim orange light of Wiggles.
Against the far wall of the dive moved something like a giant praying mantis insect, but loaded down with body armor, a tubular weapon, and a glass-globe helmet set atop a toothy head that sported too many eyes. This something had just lumbered upright. Its own pulse-Doppler radar now ranged his alcove, penetrating the Privacy Curtain like tissue-paper. A laser rangefinder sought entry past the Curtain, defeated only because of the Curtain’s opacity setting. Options scrolled over Matt’s faceplate.
Eliana leaned forward, her look anxious. “Dragoneaux, will you—”
She dropped under the table.
In sync and on-line with a super-strong combat suit that feels like your own body is wonderful. It’s ecstatic. And so very dangerous to one’s opponents.
Matt stood up so quickly his armor bent the table’s edge. Nullgrav plates in his boots shot him up towards the ceiling. Both shoulder pulse-cannons whirred On Target. The lightspeed link with Suit that he called ocean-time flooded his senses. He thought fast. Faster than humanly possible. Picoseconds blurred past. Nanoseconds zipped along. Milliseconds ticked by, slowly.
Forty milliseconds passed in the outside world, Suit informed him.
Mr. Threat reared backwards, squalling something, a midbody chitin-arm lifting a weapon tube towards Matt.
Two hundred milliseconds stomped along.
He PET thought-imaged rapidly in a coded series.
Six hundred milliseconds lumbered by.
Green light flared as one of Matt’s laser pulse-cannons pierced the alien’s combat armor and sliced through Mr. Threat’s head and midbody thorax, unleashing a dark ichor. The other cannon beam sliced off the weapon-arm.
Nine hundred milliseconds neared a second.
“KABLAMMM!” Three HEDS rocket shells stitched the lower carapace of Mr. Threat.
One second happened.
A pressor beam flared out from the top of Matt’s helmet, pushing the alien against the dive’s back wall.
One and a quarter seconds moved slowly.
Matt stopped rising and hovered just below the ceiling.
A helmet tractor beam tore at Mr. Threat’s extremities, pulling off legs and multi-arms the way a school kid might dissect a fly.
Two seconds had passed since Matt entered ocean-time.
A volley of Fire-and-Forget Nanoshells raced across the room, already programmed for the infrared signature of Mr. Threat, each shell able to twist and turn in flight as miniature vernier jets steered them after every dying twitch and jerk. They were relentless. They were deadly. And they usually got their prey before their high-acceleration fuel sputtered out.
Three seconds moved slowly by.
Light. Sound. Smell. Confusion.
They all filled Wiggles’ gloomy shadows as other aliens dove under furniture, exited rapidly, put their own combat exoskeletons on Alert, or simply watched from beside the stone bar.
Suit lowered him back down to his private alcove as Mr. Threat’s chitin-skin erupted with miniature borers, carried by the Nanoshells, borers that systematically penetrated its body like drill bits through wood. Biogel poisons specific to carbon-based lifeforms also poured out, overloading a dying multiple-heart system. Electronic white noise overwhelmed Mr. Threat’s own combat exoskeleton programming—using miniature emitters carried by the Nanoshells—thus diverting any attempt by its Tactical programming to carry out preprogrammed offensive actions despite the death of its organic host.
Finally, with a flare of actinic red light, the organic shell of Mr. Threat imploded in on itself as the nanoware energy-seekers made contact with the alien suit’s power sources and overloaded them, burning up hardware systems and their organic host at the same time. Just as his boots touched the alcove floor, Suit’s onboard CPU displayed the factory-type and model of Mr. Threat’s combat exoskeleton. Halicene Conglomerate, Thix-model, Level Three Enforcer. Damn! He shivered as he thought-blinked and left ocean-time, resuming the slow thought-talk-movement speed normal to most people. He slowed in order to communicate with his new Patron.
Matt ripped the table aside, looking down at a very frightened Eliana. “We’re safe—for the moment.” She stood up shakily, then looked out into the bar at the piles of red-gleaming debris that had once been a living being. “Did anyone from Halcyon or Sigma Puppis know you were coming here?”
Eliana looked at him as if he were brain-dead. “Of course! Half the colony knew we needed a Vigilante.”
“Great. Just great.” Matt looked around Wiggles; the divemaster was already replacing broken glassware as a cleanbot sucked in the remains of his recent antagonist. Still, the air felt heavy, oppressive. He’d been here, in one place, far too long. Long enough, at least, for Mr. Threat to track him down. Or to follow Eliana to him. It was definitely time to get back on board Mata Hari. He turned to her.
Eliana Themistocles seemed to be who and what she stated. Her problem was only too familiar to him. The plight of her world was critical—unconstrained strip mining of even part of the planet’s crust would poison its rivers and lakes with heavy metals for centuries, perhaps critically unbalancing its ecosystem and throwing the whole lifeweb into ecoshock. Either Halicene Conglomerate had to leave, or the colony must leave. The two could not coexist. At last, a real Job. He sighed. Maybe he had genes for stupidity—or lost causes.
“Patron, that was an Enforcer for Halicene Conglomerate. Do your people worry them enough to send an assassin after you?”
Eliana’s pale face froze. She stammered. “Uh, uh, yes—maybe, I don’t know!” Frustration creased her young woman’s face, still unlined by scars, dead hopes and lost loves. “But on the passenger freighter I took to get here, I used standard Screening techniques.”
Matt considered. That was not a starline owned by Halicene Conglomerate, so far as he knew. Black intelligence was expensive, especially when it came to knowledge of the regional heavies. But Suit had its own expert intelligence systems able to sift and sort through a thousand rumors, and Mata Hari ’s databanks could never be filled. What else they contained he had no idea since the ship refused to say why she had been built by the ancient T’Chak aliens, and limited his access to some parts of the ship. But Mata Hari had never failed to answer his combat questions. Perhaps only the freighter’s ship captain had been bought—not the entire starline. He eyed Eliana.
“What payment do you offer?”
Her face brightened. “You’ll help us?”
“Mistress, you seek Justice, which the Anarchate has no interest in. To obtain Justice, Patrons hire a Vigilante. Like me. But I work for pay—my talents are not free. Your assets?”
She frowned. “What barter currency do you accept?”
Time. Too much time spent in one place. “I refuse payment in clones, brainpacs, drugs, plague viruses, and psychosis-inducing software. I accept unique gems, deuterium hydroxide fuel, germanium integrated circuits, molecular memory crystals, expert system algorithms, designer proteins, polytonal music, gold, rare earths, and handmade art objects. Quickly!”
Eliana smiled softly. “An ethical Vigilante. How interesting.” She sobered. “We can offer raw germanium, molecular memory crystals, unique biologicals based on alkaloid anti-virals, designer proteins and direct genetic manipulation waldo machinery. Satisfactory?”
From the far side of Wiggles the divemaster watched Matt’s private alcove a bit too intently—as best he could tell from the slant of the alien’s podeyes. Matt blinked once, alerting Mata Hari that he was returning, and with a guest.
“That is satisfactory, Patron Themistocles,” he said sourly. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here. Two bipeds together always draws a crowd.”
“Which way?” she said, looking around confusedly, appearing disoriented by the combat.
“Out! Out of here,” he said, waving for her to lead the way. “Move it.”
Eliana scowled, her look a promise that she would surely unload on him her opinion of such abrupt behavior, and far sooner than he wished. But she turned and headed out the main entrance of Wiggles. Matt stumped out after her, entering a main arterial hallway, with Suit on full Alert status. No one bothered them as they headed for Dock Seven and starship Mata Hari.
Watching Eliana’s buttocks move underneath the fabric of her vacsuit reminded him how long it had been since he’d made love to a woman. Virtual reality graphics, memories of Helen, and a few faded holo pictures were not enough. Not nearly enough. He needed more. But without the closeness. Too much closeness hurt. Too much caring hurt. So fate had taught him.
He had a Job to do. Only a job. Then he would move on.
But Matt could not escape a niggling question, something provoked by Eliana’s earlier closeness comment.
Did Suit just protect him—or did it really do more? Did it . . . did it offer him a convenient shield against his emotions, his loss, and his need for someone to care for him? Could Eliana be that someone?
She was just a human-alien hybrid, and an albino at that. Whilst he was a human-cyborg symbiont. They had nothing in common. Nothing at all.
Matt Dragoneaux stumped along the hallway at one with Suit, a cyborg once more alone . . . except for a whispering voice in the back of his mind, a voice that said— “Even a Vigilante can find love.”
But first they had to survive.
# # #
End of first chapter
Other King Novels
Alien Vigilante (forthcoming ), Touch Team (forthcoming), The Memory Singer (2014), Anarchate Vigilante (2014), Galactic Vigilante (2013), Nebula Vigilante (2013), Speaker To Aliens (2013), Galactic Avatar (2013), Stellar Assassin (2013), Retread Shop (2012, 1988), Star Vigilante (2012), The Gaean Enchantment (2012), Little Brother’s World (2010), Judgment Day And Other Dreams (2009), Ancestor’s World (1996).