Book: Universal Law
The Adam Cain Saga Book 6
Set in The Human Chronicles Universe
Tom Harris Creations
by Tom Harris Creations, LLC
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The alien with an attitude is back!
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The alien with an attitude is back!
The Adam Cain Saga Continues
In this latest adventure…
With the Dead Zone in turmoil, it’s up to Adam Cain and his Enforcers to keep the peace. Unfortunately, that’s becoming more difficult as the gigantic corporation Maris-Kliss has moved in and begun buying up the Dead Worlds, while also denying the former natives the right to go home. This has created dozens of minor wars on the MK planets, complicating Adam’s life even more. His tiny police force wasn’t designed to be both local enforcement as well as a Zone-wide peace-keeping authority.
And to top that, a diabolical plot is underway with Adam as its primary target. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. When the plot is finally revealed, Adam finds it stretches from the highest centers of power in the galaxy all the back to before the time of ancient Aris race, over seven billion years ago.
There are mysteries of the universe still to be revealed—if Adam and his friends can live long enough to figure them out. But you should know by now to never underestimate our heroes’ propensity for getting out to tight jams—and coming out winners in the end.
Adam Cain and friends are back!
Let the adventure begin!
Adam Cain took a probe from the exam kit and placed the metal rod through a hole in the shattered skull, before gently pulling back the flesh and exposing the bloody mush that had once been a brain.
The sickening injury was caused by what the natives called a mulquet, a type of weapon that was draped over a victim’s head and then made to squeeze with equal pressure in all directions until bone fractured and eyes popped out. The skull fragments stayed together—somewhat—encased now in a flaccid bag of skin, while the brain turned to mush.
And this was just one of the various methods the natives of Lindahl employed against their enemies. Scattered about the crime scene lay the victims of their latest terrorist attack—nineteen in all—and with few displaying the same method of execution as the others. Lindahlese were nothing if not creative when it came to their killing techniques. They initially shot a few of the workers with energy weapons before herding the rest of them into a park where they were systematically executed with an assortment of hand tools, including bludgeons, blades, presses and more. It was a truly horrific scene, even for Adam.
But as he discovered, this was more than just a simple attack by vindictive natives against the Maris-Kliss employees now occupying the planet. This had been a ritualistic sacrifice of grotesque proportions, designed not only to rid the planet of the occupiers but to instill terror in those who refused to leave. Adam thought this kind of ritualistic mutilation was a thing of the past on the more civilized worlds in the galaxy, but looking around at the bloody killing field, he could see he was mistaken.
“How could sentient beings do such savage acts of cruelty?” said the MK representative, a hair-covered creature named Janor Kram. “To rip bodies apart with such apparent gust and glee.” His yellow eyes were manic with both fear and anger. The victims were part of his local work crew.
Adam didn’t look up, preferring to keep his attention focused on the murder victim. Still, he gave an embarrassed shrug. Yeah, how could living beings do such a thing? he thought. Maybe I should start by asking the Human race? In the scheme of things, the Lindahlese didn’t have an exclusive on sadism. Not when considering Adam’s background.
Although the cause of death varied, each of the dead had their right foot cut off and was now missing. Trophies, Adam wondered? If so, then pretty cumbersome keepsakes. He would have to learn more about Lindahlese ceremonial killings before he could give a definitive answer, but it was a good bet. He rose to his feet, allowing the angry MK supervisor to step in front of him.
“The natives should have never been allowed back on the planet,” he barked at Adam. “They have no right to be here. MK owns Lindahl now.”
“The title transfer is being challenged,” Adam said unnecessarily, which only inflamed the hairy alien even more.
“MK negotiated in good faith with the lead refugee group for the purchase. We followed all universal laws. These terrorists are the disgruntled natives now disputing that transaction.” Janor managed a tight grin. “And if they expect their rights to supersede those of MK, I assure you, that will never happen.”
“I’m not here to decide the politics of the situation,” Adam said. “The refugees say they have a right to repel invaders to their world, and MK says it’s not their world anymore. Either way, you can’t go around killing each other, not on my watch.”
“Your watch? A timepiece? I do not understand.”
“Never mind,” Adam said impatiently, waving off the comment. He looked to a small group of Lindahlese huddled in a group, guarded by a combination of his Enforcers and the mercenaries MK brought in to help squelch the terrorist activity. On the ground next to the guards were the bodies of six natives. According to Janor, the refugees had been caught nearby, although none carried weapons or showed signs of having been in a battle. But because they were found hiding within the local buildings, they were rounded up, tortured, and some killed. To MK, any native was a trespasser and subject to its own form of justice.
That wasn’t the standard by which Adam and his Enforcers operated. All parties, including the Juireans, Humans, refugees—even MK—had agreed to a uniform set of basic laws that governed the Dead Zone. And since MK was operating as a company and not a government, it didn’t have the right to make its own laws when it came to capital punishment. Both acts—the terrorism, as well as the torture and murder of the prisoners—were against the law. Adam’s law. And since he was visiting the planetary Enforcer station at the time of the attack, the whole mess was dropped in his lap. Although he had a local deputy who was officially in charge of the investigation, he felt obliged to go along for the ride. As the Marshal of the Zone, he was now a convenient target for the MK official’s growing anger.
“You must order all natives to leave the planet,” Janor continued. “Use your resources, or else MK will use ours.”
“I can’t do that. We didn’t authorized the refugees to return to Lindahl,” Adam said. “And according to the law, they haven’t been denied access, either. If they get to the surface, we can’t remove them unless they break the law.”
“Lindahl is our property. We can restrict access as we see fit.”
“That’s true. If you catch any of the natives, you must detain them until my Enforcers can take custody. But you can’t indiscriminately kill people simply for trespassing. And if you or your hired muscle insist on murdering innocent—”
“Innocent!” Janor exclaimed. “Look around you, Marshal Cain. Everything we have done here has been in self-defense.”
“Did the six dead natives threaten you in any way? They weren’t armed. And did any admit to being part of the raiding party?” Adam asked.
“They are savages, they admit to nothing. But they are here, and my crew is dead. They were involved.”
“And that’s what the investigation will determine.”
Adam signaled for his field commander, a huge Rigorian named Jov, to begin loading the prisoners into one of the transport trucks. The MK mercenaries tensed, refusing at first to allow the natives out of their custody. If the Enforcers had not shown up when they did, Adam was sure all the prisoners would be dead by now. With a nod from Janor, the mercs backed away.
Adam sighed as he surveyed the tragic scene once more. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, being able to sympathize with both sides of the conflict.
First of all, years ago, Maris-Kliss moved into the Dead Zone, and on their own dime, began decontaminating whole worlds of the radiation left over from the attacks of the Mad Aris Kracion seven years earlier. Then they sprinkled potent fertilizer on the surface, allowing nearly all of the one hundred worlds in the Zone to recover ecologically much faster than they would have naturally. But MK didn’t do this out of the goodness of their heart. They wanted something in return.
Recently, the company began offering the lead refugees from dozens of worlds lump-sum buyouts for ownership of their homeworlds. Most of the refugee groups were already in the process of stripping their planets of anything of value and selling it off throughout the galaxy. This was great for the leaders, the elites from the planets who fled ahead of Kracion’s attacks with most of their wealth intact. They were only adding to it now.
But the core groups seldom numbered over two hundred individuals from each race, sometimes leaving a million other refugees with the scraps that dribbled down to them. And now the elites were being offered an extravagant sum to surrender their worlds to MK. The lower tier refugees protested, with the vast majority wishing to return to their homes eventually. They had never been keen on the salvage of their worlds, but as intense radiation ravaged the planets, they had little choice. That changed when MK cleaned up the planets. But now their so-called representatives were in the process of selling them out completely, leaving the remaining refugees high and dry.
When the majority of the refugees protested, the elites simply signed the agreements with MK, took the credits and snubbed their noses at their fellow natives. Hundreds of thousands never saw a chip from the transfer, while their betters made off like bandits.
In the meantime, Maris-Kliss took their highly questionable deeds and proceeded to stop all salvage operations and evict anyone who wasn’t an employee or contractor of the company, including a fair number of natives who had repatriated to their homeworlds despite no legal standing to do so.
At first, the refugee groups elected new leaders and sought recourse through the legal system. But when fighting against the largest corporation in the galaxy, more significant than even the Human Orion-Cygnus Union and second in wealth and influence only to the Juirean Expansion, there wasn’t much hope of them finding justice.
Some of the outside negotiators—the Humans included—asked why the refugees couldn’t return to their homeworlds as employees of MK, thereby liberating them from a life in exile? But the regional Director of the company would have none of it. He wanted only loyal employees working his worlds and felt the returning natives would not have the same dedication. They would feel more privileged, more entitled. As he said, more like citizens rather than employees. Adam smirked when he first heard that. They would act more like, well, natives, beings who had sprung into existence on the worlds and later evolved over billions of years to become the top of the food chain, the prime indigenous species on a planet. That was until MK and their lawyers came along.
So, instead of an endless and costly battle in the courts, many of the natives chose to slip back onto their reclaimed homeworlds and launch violent resistance actions against MK and their employees, along with the mercenaries they hired to maintain security.
Adam could see the motivations on both sides. MK was owed something for all the effort and money they’d spent bringing the worlds of the Dead Zone back to life. But the native refugees also deserved to be allowed to return to their homeworlds, and not merely as worker bees. However, Adam thought it unfair that a handful of highly-placed, wealthy, and influential refugees could make the decisions for all the survivors of a particular race. The full populations were never allowed to vote on whether or not to sell their planets to MK. And by then, the elites had already written off their former homeworlds, as evidenced by the wholesale salvage taking place throughout the Zone.
Yes, Adam understood the arguments—on both sides. But as he told Janor, he was not there to render judgment. Instead, he was there to enforce the law. And until the powers that be made a definitive ruling in the case of the Refugees vs. Maris-Kliss, he couldn’t allow each side to go around massacring one another.
The responsibility fell to him and his Enforcers to maintain some semblance of peace. Expecting tranquility to go along with the peace was asking far too much.
One of the drawbacks of Adam’s artificial telepathy device—even the enhanced ATD he currently carried—was that it didn’t operate on auto mode. For example, for him to detect flash weapon energy signatures, he had to search for them consciously. Fortunately, he’d began monitoring the weapons of the MK mercenaries moments before when Jov began moving the native prisoners to the transport, keeping an eye on the signals in case the mercs had any surprises up their alien sleeves.
That’s when he noticed the line of additional energy signals encircling the crime scene. There were far too many for them to be rogue mercenary units. Besides, they were coming from within the buildings of the city, and from all directions.
Adam engaged his throat mic.
“Jov, alert your troops. We have hostiles closing in, all directions, approximately fifty or so, armed with energy weapons.”
“Natives?” the Rigorian inquired, his voice deep and rough as gravel.
“Probably. They must be using the first attack to lure in more targets, targets with weapons. The workers had none. Set up a defense at the trucks. We’re surrounded. I’ll tell Janor.”
Even as Adam moved across the killing field to find the MK supervisor, he was busy mentally identifying each of the energy weapons the natives carried. He could tell most were Xan-fi rifles, which would give the attackers more range and battery charge than the handguns most of his troops had. The mercs were a different story. They had rifles, but there were only five of them. Between them and Adam’s Enforcers, he had twelve troops to go up against fifty.
However, the one advantage Adam had was that he could sever the firing controls on the weapons with a mental command through his ATD. The drawback: he had to do it one at a time, and if an operator discovered the non-functioning firing circuit, a simple reset would get the rifle working again. It had also been a while since he’d done so many shutdowns, and it was taking far too long. By the time the natives were in range, half the Xan-fis would still be active.
And that was only part of the problem. The Lindahlese had already proven they were efficient and ruthless fighters. They would be coming with their arsenal of specialized killing tools, determined to make an example out of both his Enforcers and the mercenaries. Was that the objective of the earlier massacre, to attract a larger group to kill?
Adam was in one of the larger cities on Lindahl and in a park near its center. The ground here was covered in a uniform coating of pale green grass and not much more, with the air carrying a faint stench of fertilizer, as did most of the worlds in the Zone. Any trees that may have once decorated the park had long since deteriorated in the savage radiation and been swept away by seasonal winds. There was no cover for the defenders except for the vehicles in which they’d arrived. The Enforcers came in two troop trucks, the MK representatives in two of their own. Fortunately, they were heavy-duty vehicles and would make sufficient cover if arranged adequately. At the moment, they weren’t. They were scattered about the park and exposed on all sides to potential attack.
By the time Adam reached Janor, Jov had his Enforcers moving their transports into an L-shaped formation, front to rear. Adam would get Janor to move his vehicles into a similar layout and close the box. Given time, Adam could disable all the energy weapons; however, he had no way of stopping the more ancient torture tools of the natives.
“Listen up,” Adam said as he stepped up to the MK official. “We have natives closing in on all sides, about fifty of them.”
Janor looked around at the buildings surrounding the park. “I see none,” he scoffed.
“Trust me; they’re coming. Get your transports to close up the square we’re forming. We have no place to hide except behind the vehicles. Hurry, they’re almost within range.”
“How do you know this?”
“Just do it!” Adam commanded.
This was when Adam’s reputation as a badass helped cut through the resistance. Janor shuddered slightly at the intensity of Adam’s tone before racing away, barking orders at the mercenaries. Through his ATD, Adam noticed how the natives picked up their pace, alerted to the discovery of their impending attack. He was afraid that would happen, but he had no choice. Only one of the mercenary trucks was able to form up with Jov’s vehicles before the first energy bolt shot into the park.
As luck would have it, this first bolt targeted Adam. As he took the powerful level-2 hit in the back, he reasoned it was because the enemy saw him as the leader; his fancy Enforcer uniform, with the gold emblem on the shoulder, was a dead giveaway. They were right. He might as well have had a bullseye painted across his forehead.
He was thrown forward by the bolt, falling to the ground before two of the mercenaries raced over and took him by his arms. Level-2s aren’t fatal to Humans, but aliens didn’t know that. All they could see was that he was alive and mad as a hornet. Of all the luck. Not only had he taken the first hit, but it came from one of the Xan-fis he already disabled and the operator reset.
He was dragged to the three-sided truck enclosure where Janor knelt beside him.
“Yeah, my suit must have absorbed most of the force.” He didn’t want to let the secret out about Human resistance to the lower bolt levels. That had always been his ace in the hole. And now he had the added benefit of his ATD being able to absorb excess energy charge and vent it through a miniature quantum blackhole in the device. He knew he could take at least three level-1 hits; level-2s would be even easier to absorb, giving him more than double the strikes. He wasn’t anxious to test his theory. Besides, there wasn’t time. All around him, people were dying.
The U-shaped truck enclosure was turning out to be more of a trap than salvation. The natives had moved much of their forces into a position where they could fire into the opening. The incoming fire sent his defenders diving under the vehicles or in the cabs to keep from being hit. The ones who climbed in the back of the trucks and shut the doors became trapped there. And when the eight native prisoners attacked their Enforcer guards with fists and feet, three of the guards in the truck with them died, which provided the prisoners with weapons. They burst out of the back of the vehicle and began firing point-blank at the mercenaries. Although the escapees also died in the exchange, their deaths served a purpose. In only the first minute of the battle, Adam’s twelve-person force was down to five.
Adam was frantically working his ATD, shutting down more of the Xan-fis. The rate of fire was down markedly, but it soon resumed. The natives weren’t content to let their weapons go dead without figuring out why. And they knew their weapons. Within seconds of discovering their Xan-fis weren’t operating, reset buttons were pressed, and they were back at it again.
Soon, it was only Adam, Jov, Janor, along with two Enforcers all huddled on the short grass under one of the trucks. Earlier, the Enforcers had scooped up a few of the Xan-fis from the fallen mercs and were now firing at the attackers. For their part, the natives moved in synchronized, disciplined formation, making Adam believe they had military training. He had no idea what type of society the Lindahlese had before Kracion, but it was apparent they were no pushovers.
A quick count of the active and moving energy signatures coming from the native weapons told Adam the attackers were down to just under forty. That was still a formidable force against Adam’s five. If he didn’t do something proactive, they would soon run out of battery charge or be picked off by the relentless incoming fire.
He took an inventory. He had his ubiquitous and reliable .45, double-action revolver holstered around his waist. It was his signature weapon, now part of his uniform and persona. He also had an MK-47 advanced bolt launcher with three spare battery packs. The current pack was drained, so he slipped in a fresh battery. He had thirty shots in total. He could also take one of the Xan-fis from an Enforcer. The sad truth was it was coming down to him having to take matters into his own hands. He could withstand a lot of energy bolts, especially level-2s, which was the standard-setting on Xan-fi and MKs. They were effective against all aliens, all except Humans. There was no reason to bump up the intensity to level-1 since it would cut bolt capacity from ten to five. He would use that to his advantage.
The other advantage he had was that he knew exactly where the enemy was located by the energy signatures of their weapons. He also had his Human speed and coordination.
He rolled over. “Jov, cover me. I’m heading for the street on the left and that row of barricades.” The barricades had once enclosed a small performance arena at the side of the park.
“You are leaving?”
“You cannot leave us!” Janor protested. “We need your firepower.”
“You need me out there more than in here. If I don’t do something, we’ll all be dead in a matter of minutes. Now everyone, lay down suppressing fire on the left. Just don’t shoot me while you do it. Get ready … now!”
Adam burst out from under the truck, running across the sward with flash bolts zipping past him, coming from both in front and behind. The covering fire wasn’t much, coming from only four guns. Adam didn’t fire, saving his battery charge for when it counted.
The gravity of Lindahl was even lighter than Juirean standard, giving Adam an added spring in his step. He bounded toward the stacked-stone half wall surrounding the arena at such speed that the targeting computers in the Xan-fis didn’t have time to lock on. It only took five seconds for him to reach the barricades. Through his ATD, he already knew three aliens were hiding behind the barrier. In truth, he didn’t need his ATD to know that, since all three were poking up over the wall firing energy bolts at him.
About ten feet out, Adam planted his right foot and jumped, soaring into the air and hurdling the wall. The aliens swung the barrels of their weapons skyward in a futile attempt to sight the flying target. Adam fired down as he flew over, killing one of the natives. He landed, rolled forward and then came up on one knee facing back toward the wall. Two quick pops from his Xan-fi and it was all over.
His move caught the other natives off guard. They now abandoned their static positions and began moving off to get better angles on their target. Their smooth and efficient disbursement confirmed Adam’s suspicion that these particular natives had military training.
He fell in behind the short wall while reaching out with his ATD. He was weary of having to continually sever the firing controls of the enemy weapons, only to have them reengaged seconds later. The natives were catching on, even if they didn’t understand what was happening. They had to figure it was some kind of jamming device deployed against them. But after learning a quick reset would get them back in the fight, they didn’t skip a beat after that. Because of this, Adam would have to take them out the hard way, with brute strength, speed, along with a little help from his ATD.
In the heat of the moment, there was little time to experiment with his new brain-interface device, but the one thing he did try was to see if he could overlay what he saw in his mind with his eyesight. It was easier than he thought, and a moment later, he saw shining white dots interspersed within the buildings surrounding the park. This would make it easier to identify targets without having to retreat into his mind searching for a new location.
He ran off in crouch for the nearest cluster of hostiles. There were six of them on the other side of a low swell to one side of the park, with a small creek at the base. As he sprinted forward, flash bolts filled the air, with one striking him in the left arm. He shrugged it off, grimacing at the pain. Although he wasn’t seriously hurt, the damned plasma bolts still burned like a bitch.
He came over the rise and opened up on those lying on the grass on the other side, each shot dead on target, although he caught another level-two squarely in the chest. He could feel his ATD heating up under the skin below his right armpit, indicating that the quantum blackhole had popped into existence and was doing its job of venting the excess charge from his body.
Now he moved toward the buildings. More shots flared out from windows and doors. A bolt caught him in the leg, and he fell from the impact. He could almost hear the gasps of shock from the enemy when he popped back on his feet a second later and barreled through a closed door, using his Human muscles and speed to shatter the metal and glass panel to shards.
With his ATD overlay on his vision, Adam didn’t need to guess where the enemy was hiding, as most were attempting to do at the moment, realizing that they were up against a seemingly invincible opponent. He poked the barrel of his rifle around corners and over counters, firing with deadly accuracy. The body count continued to climb.
Then the last battery pack on his Xan-fi drained. He tossed the weapon aside and pulled the MK-47. This weapon had a much shorter range, but that didn’t matter at the moment. He was firing almost point-blank into the panicking aliens. Even so, he took another three hits on various parts of his body, setting his uniform on fire and requiring him to rip away the top to reveal his bloody and charred chest and back. His ATD was doing the job of keeping him alive, but his body was still experiencing its share of damage.
Adam raced out into the sunshine again, having cleared the building of most of the shooters. A few were scrambling for the higher floors, but they were no longer on the offensive. He let them go.
Three natives sprinted out of the building next door, seeking cover in what looked to be a long-abandoned parking structure. They didn’t make it, even though the shots Adam made were remarkable for an MK handgun.
He bent over in pain when a bolt struck him in the stomach. He let out an angry breath. All these burns are going to take ages to heal, he thought. But then he smelled smoke and more smoke than was already wafting off his scorched flesh.
He looked down to see that the spare battery packs for his MK-47 were on fire, burning in their holders. He didn’t know they could catch fire, but the flash bolt to his stomach had ignited them. He ripped at the flaming fabric, yanking the utility belt from around his waist. He took his six-shot .45 from its holster before making a quick check of the battery level on the MK. He only had three bolts left.
Adam scanned the surrounding buildings. There were still twenty or so natives in the area, at least those with weapons. For him to continue, he would need to confiscate some of the discarded Xan-fis as he went.
A squad of natives ran across the edge of the park, heading for an open concrete culvert. It was a defensible position and one which would be hard for Adam to clear without taking a half dozen more bolts. His side was burning, indicating his ATD was working overtime. He’d lost count of the number of bolts he’d taken. He knew that at any time, the singularity in the ATD could expand, sucking him in. He certainly didn’t want to end his life on this backwater planet fighting against a bunch of desperate natives for which he had compassion. That would be a bitter end to a life of accidental heroism and adventure.
He had no choice but to continue. If he backed away now, the twenty or so surviving native fighters would be enough to eliminate his small band of defenders. Which speaking of them, he wondered where they were? So far, he hadn’t received any backup. They were still cowering on the grass under the truck, waiting for him to dispatch a force of forty skilled warriors single-handedly.
Adam raced headlong for the concrete duct. It turned into a footrace between him and the natives, and the enemy was a lot closer. Most of the ten natives were in the open as they ran, firing at him as they did. Now Adam opened up with both weapons, his MK draining its last three shots in his left hand, while the .45 exploded with unnatural and ear-shattering reports of which none of the natives were familiar. The pistol was empty by the time he reached the concrete lining of the drainage ditch. The remaining aliens reached it at the same time.
Bodies clashed as Adam swung the heavy metal pistol in wild arches, crushing fragile bone even as he unleashed savage left hooks at anything that looked like a skull. In less than a minute of hand-to-hand combat, the natives were dead, and Adam tucked the .45 into the waistband of his pants, the hot barrel burning his skin. He took a loose Xan-fi rifle and checked the charge. Six L-2s left.
He poked his head above the culvert and scanned for energy signals. There were only six natives left with active weapons, and to his relief, they were moving away as fast as their alien legs could carry them.
Adam climbed out of the ditch and stood on the edge, panting heavily while drenched in sweat, smoldering flesh and burnt clothing. He looked to the cluster of three large trucks near the center of the park. Four figures appeared. Even at this distance, Adam could see their mouths were agape. He began a slow walk to meet them.
Janor and Jov came close while the two surviving Enforcers stood back, shock and reverence on their alien faces.
“I … I do not believe what I just saw,” said Janor. “You killed almost forty fighters, while also taking numerous bolt hits. How … how is it possible?”
The huge Rigorian, Jov, towering a foot taller than Adam and with an eighteen-inch-long snout lined with deadly pointed teeth, stepped beside the Human.
“That is because he is my leader, Marshal Adam Cain. Having just witnessed this episode, you—and all of MK—would be wise not to inspire his wrath.”
The Maris-Kliss supervisor had no comeback to Jov’s hero-worshipping comment. Instead, he stared at the short, once-unassuming alien whose legend he previously believed was more bombast than fact. That assumption may have to be altered. But that realization did not bring Janor a sense of awe and wonder. Concern now filled his thoughts. Before him, he did not see a hero but rather an obstacle. The Human’s cult of personality would be enhanced by what happened today, making him and his Enforcers more of a hindrance to MK’s plans than a partner in them.
Janor had to contact the Director. There was much to discuss, plans to be formulated. Adam Cain may have saved the supervisor’s life today. That may prove to be the Human’s gravest mistake.
Eight days later, a bandaged and ointment-covered Adam Cain was in the hospital at Camp Forrester on Navarus. He’d received emergency treatment aboard the Enforcer Assault Vessel on the way back from Lindahl, but now the Human doctors had their go at him. They frowned and shook their heads at each flash burn they tended to, their eyes curious about the injuries but never asking the question as to how he could take this many energy bolts and still be alive. They were the medical experts, yet even they couldn’t explain it. One of the doctors pressed a finger against the tender skin under his right armpit and felt the ATD buried there; he backed off when Adam gave him a stern look and a quick shake of his head. Even to the Humans at the military facility, Adam Cain was an enigma.
He’d been in the hospital a full day before Sherri and Riyad came to see him. He didn’t take that as disinterest or lack of concern; instead, they’d been through this countless times before, so it was old-hat. There was nothing unusual about Adam recuperating in a hospital after returning from a seemingly benign trip to some out of the way nowhere. Adam expected their reaction.
Instead, what bothered him was they didn’t bring any flowers or chocolates.
“You should just be glad the Enforcers have an excellent medical plan,” Riyad began without a greeting. “Even so, you’re on the verge of being dropped because of your reckless and irresponsible lifestyle.”
Sherri frowned, leaning in closer to examine the raw and red circular patches dotting the skin of his bare torso.
“You really messed yourself up this time, didn’t you?” she said.
Adam snickered. “Well, you should see the other guys—all forty of them.” Adam wasn’t opposed to a little exaggeration.
“Forty?” Riyad said, his frown now matching Sherri’s. “I heard it was sixty. And that you took them out with a single MK.”
Adam shook his head. “Nah, it was forty, and I had two guns. The damn rumor mill never gets it right.”
“Don’t knock it, my friend,” Riyad said, now flashing his trademark white smile. “You’re the talk of the Zone. Another feather in the legend of Adam Cain.”
“Nice mixing of your metaphors, Riyad,” Sherri pointed out.
“Metaphors,” Riyad piffled. “We don’t need no stinking metaphors. We speak good English here, even though it is my second language.”
“Do you even remember any Lebanese?”
“Cway,” he answered, “including about a half dozen ways of saying I wish to take you to my bed and ravage your sensuous body.”
“How do you say fuck off in Lebanese?”
“That’s easy to remember—”
Adam cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but did the two of you come here to flirt with each other or to see how I was doing?”
Sherri snorted. “No mystery there; we know how you’re doing. That little residual Panur juice you have in your veins will help you heal twice as fast as a normal person, and your turbo ATD made you an invincible superman on the battlefield. So, what’s new?”
“What’s new,” Riyad began, “is he has an ATD, and we don’t. What’s up with that? I thought we were a team?”
“Arieel only had one to give.”
“Have her fork over more,” Sherri demanded.
Adam shook his head. “I’ve tried. As before, Arieel’s in a world of trouble for giving me one. That’s it; no more. And you can be sure I’m not making any trips to Formil while I still need this one.”
The last time the team was on the planet Formil—at the end of the Kracion Affair—the Formilians zapped them with an energy beam that disabled their artificial telepathy devices, as a way of righting what the Governing Council saw as a wrong perpetrated by their Speaker, Arieel. At that point, nearly all of the team members had ATDs. The shock of suddenly losing the special abilities the brain-interface afforded was jarring. It took Adam a while to get used to normal senses again and not being able to communicate telepathically with others who had the units. Adam sympathized with his friends. Having an ATD was pretty cool.
“So, give me a rundown of what I’ve missed,” he said
Riyad shrugged. “Well, since you went out on your cocktail cruise a month ago, Navarus—and especially Kanac—has continued to be overrun by refugees and riff-raff from throughout the Zone. With Dasnon gone, Navarus is the only game in town. Because of that, we’ve seen a doubling of capital crimes in the two-city region. Forty-two killings in the last five days. I’m trying to lock it down, but even with the budget increases, we just don’t have enough officers. As you know, most of the new Enforcers are being sent out to the MK worlds, playing referee in the fight between the company and the natives.”
He looked over at Sherri. She was the Vice-Minister of the Governing Council, which allocated the funds for Adam and Riyad’s Enforcers. With the incompetency of the Minister—Lion/El—Sherri was the ad-hoc the president of the Dead Zone and hence controlled the purse strings.
“Don’t start on me again,” she said. “I’m doing the best I can. We’re just getting the Zone-wide tax set up, and then it has to be enforced. It could be a while before we have the money to fund your department adequately. Just give it another three months. And if the Union is chosen to take over as Protectors for the Zone, you’ll get some relief from the military.”
“Until then,” Adam began, “we have to play the role of both local cops and regional peace-keepers.”
“And MK isn’t making it any easier,” Riyad threw in. “They keep tempting the refugees with buyout offers, which only sets more of the tier-refs on fire.”
Tier-refs was the name given to the bulk of refugees from the dead worlds who were not among the elites, that class of powerful, wealthy and politically-connected natives who fled the worlds ahead of Kracion with most of their wealth and influence intact. The upper tier—the Elites—stepped into the role as representatives in all issues regarding their homeworlds. Although many of the refugee groups numbered close to a million, the Elites seldom numbered more than a couple of hundred. And when they began to sell off their planets to MK, all hell broke loose among the natives. That was what was happening on Lindahl, and out of the twenty-two worlds MK currently owned, mini-wars were being fought on all of them.
“And the Juireans?” Adam asked. “No change there, I suppose?”
“None,” Riyad answered. “Although they’re still technically the Protectors of the Zone, after getting their asses handed to them by Kanan, they’ve written off the Zone—hell, the whole Kidis Frontier. They even recalled the fleet they had heading this way. Bad for them, good for us, sorta.”
Adam nodded. He knew all this. He’d been away from Navarus for a month, but he still monitored the news.
“I called Oaks a couple of weeks ago; asked if he could help. No go.” Adam was referring to the newly-minted Brigadier General Todd Oaks, the commandant of Camp Forrester. “He can’t do anything until the Union is officially in charge of security in the Zone.”
“Even if the mane-heads have walked off the job?” Riyad asked.
Adam snorted. “The Juireans still insist they have exclusivity when it comes to military actions in the Zone. Todd and I think they’re doing that on purpose, just to let the situation fester even more before we can do anything about it.”
“In the meantime, Enforcers die,” Riyad stated.
There was a long moment where the trio had nothing more to say on that subject.
Sherri eventually broke the silence.
“You should be well enough to come to the big shindig at the meet-a-torium.”
Adam buried his chin in his chest. “The meet-a-torium?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m calling it until we can come up with a more exciting name than Central Assembly Facility. Damn aliens have no creativity when it comes to naming things. You should come. All the finest people will be there, including every swinging-dick—or whatever—refugee bigwig in the Zone. It seems they have a lot to talk about before the vote.”
Four months ago—and with the uncanny speed of alien construction projects—a huge auditorium was completed as part of the new government complex on the hills between Kanac and Balamar. Adam had to admit; the place was pretty impressive. Eight buildings were devoted to administrative tasks, with the meet-a-torium dwarfing all of them combined. Adam found this was typical of facilities that catered to large regions of space. They needed room for reps from all of the subject planets.
“But I have to warn you,” Sherri continued, “MK is making some noise, trying to get the tier-refs from the planets they own kicked out of the vote. They say since the races no longer own the planets, they shouldn’t have a say in how they’re governed. Be expecting a not-so-minor riot at the conference.”
“Thanks for the heads up. I should be fine by then,” Adam confirmed. “That’s in six days; I’m out of here tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Sherri asked, concerned.
“I got things to do, people to see, worlds to conquer.”
“Again?” Riyad asked with a grin.
“Speaking of meeting people,” Sherri said. “Panur wants you to drop by his lab when you get out.”
“He’s not coming by to see me?”
Riyad beamed his too-bright smile. “Shows you who your friends are.”
Sherri shook her head. “If you were really hurt or in danger, he’d come to help. You know that; he’s done it enough times already. After all, you’re his favorite pet.”
“It does seem like that at times, doesn’t it?” Riyad said, nodding at Sherri.
She returned the gesture.
Janor Kram was more than a supervisor on the planet Lindahl. He was, in fact, a regional assistant-director with authority over all twenty-two of the worlds that the company now owned in the Dead Zone. As such, he was in near-constant communication with the Director. His immediate supervisor wasn’t the Director of Maris-Kliss, but one of thirty-eight hundred regional managers. Still, that was impressive when one considered that MK had over forty billion employees and subcontractors through its countless divisions and affiliates. To be one of the thirty-eight hundred placed the Director in an enviable position. Often he would quip—to those who could grasp the significance—that he oversaw a division with more revenue than the entire Human Orion-Cygnus Union.
And that was why Janor questioned some of the recent decisions the Director was making. They were incongruous with the goals of Maris-Kliss.
MK was large enough to buy thousands of worlds if they wanted. However, that was not their charter. The reason the company could operate with impunity throughout the galaxy was because they didn’t pick sides. They would sell weapons to any party in a conflict, which allowed them the freedom to move through any battlefield or area of conflict. MK reps were welcomed anywhere and everywhere. And that wasn’t just for their weapons division. Over the centuries, MK had expanded into energy and electronics, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, and so much more.
And now the Director was purchasing planets. Janor had to agree that the Dead Worlds did offer a unique opportunity. MK did, in fact, own countless worlds, yet these were usually lifeless balls of rock or gas mined for their natural resources. However, to acquire a planet with a suitable atmosphere, gravity and magnetic field to support Prime life would require the subjugation of the current natives. The Dead Worlds, on the other hand, had already been cleared of ninety-nine percent of resident life. Not only that, but they also had incredible infrastructure already in place, the result of thousands of years of civilization.
For this reason, the Director’s foray into planet ownership made sense.
Yet in another, it could cause problems, not only for Janor and the Director but for Maris-Kliss as a whole.
It came down to the question as to how the planets would be governed. Every civilized world in the galaxy had a form of government, and if the Director attempted to create such ruling bodies on individual worlds or clusters of worlds, that would move MK’s status from independent business entity to that of a government, and therefore in direct competition with other such entities.
So far, he’d resisted the temptation, keeping the management of the planets under his direct control. He also insisted on having only employees and contractors of MK inhabit the worlds rather than institute a form of citizenship, while at the same time fighting continuing battles with the former natives. However, even in this configuration, he was walking a fine line. In refusing to sell MK weapons to the natives, he was violating a centuries-old unwritten tenet of the company never to refuse to sell to anyone willing to buy. Because of this, the Director had placed MK on one side of a conflict and the natives on the other. MK had always remained neutral in interstellar rivalries. If the governments and empires of the galaxy began to see MK as a rival, rather than a partner, it could cause severe problems for the company.
Even so, Janor was a loyal employee, fervently devoted to the Director and himself on the fast track to a directorship. And he had to admit, the Dead Worlds were a unique environment, where the rules were written as events dictated. He would continue to serve until if—or when—there was a reason not to.
Janor opened the link with the Director. His headquarters was on the planet Wokan, which was located just inside the boundary of the Kidis Frontier on the Expansion side. Janor wasn’t even sure if the Director had ever visited the Dead Worlds, the sixteen hundred light-year swath of the Kidis included in his territory. It didn’t matter. The Director was a being of exceptional ability. That was why he was a Director.
“Do you have the results?” the Director asked when his image appeared on the screen.
“I do, and your suspicions were verified. Of the Xan-fis we recovered after the event involving Adam Cain and the natives, four of the weapons had electronically severed firing controls. This is consistent with what I saw, as well as the other records we have of the battle. My scientists are at a loss how they were affected, but each of the circuits was severed identically. May I ask, how did you know?”
“From studying Cain and the others for several years. It was obvious, yet I never had proof until now.”
“If he can do this to Xan-fis—”
“Then he can do it to our units as well. And that’s why I’m making plans to make sure it never happens again.”
“A shielding device?”
“Not necessarily. Let me worry about that. What about the other anomaly regarding the attack?”
Janor shook his head. “Of that, I do not know. Cain took several bolts to his body; I estimate ten or more. No being could survive such an assault, yet he did.”
“This is also consistent with my research,” the Director said. “Level-two bolts are not lethal to Humans; however, ten should have been. There’s something else at work here.”
“And now the broadcasts are filled with the story of Adam Cain on Lindahl. The Enforcers have spread the news, with the Human now revered as a superbeing, on par with the mutants he now has with him on Navarus. Are you sure we should go ahead with the acquisition? It could be even more problematic than before.”
The Director was silent for several moments, deep in thought. Janor knew better than to interrupt.
“Yes, we will proceed,” the Director said suddenly. “And I believe I have a solution to our Adam Cain problem as well. A way of killing two birds with one stone.”
Janor frowned. “I grasp the meaning, although I have never heard the phrase before.”
The Director laughed. “It is one of those Human expressions that are so popular these days. Now, listen to me—this is what I want you to do.”
By early the next morning, Adam had had enough of lying around the hospital room while his body healed. It was going to heal whether he stayed in the hospital or not. Riyad came in a while later, dressed impeccably in his ash-grey Enforcer uniform, bringing Adam a loose-fitting red Hawaiian shirt with white palm fronds boldly displayed along with a pair of chino shorts. Sockless white tennis shoes completed the ensemble.
His burns were crusting over; however, he still had to move carefully to keep them from binding and sending spasms of pain throughout his body. After dressing in the Miami-style beach attire, the pair left the building and took Riyad’s transport to Panur and Lila’s laboratory at the other side of the base.
The building was one of the older structures on Camp Forrester, dating back to the garrison days. It was set off by itself near the barbed-wire boundary to the military facility where the jungle continually threatened to reclaim its territory. A year ago, Panur had the items from the secret vault on Gracilia moved to the building for prolonged and detailed study by the mutants. The treasure trove of ancient Aris artifacts had kept the immortal geniuses busy since then, and each time Adam saw either of them, they glowed with an inner excitement regarding the wondrous discoveries they were making. Adam had trouble grasping the concept that geniuses such as Panur and Lila could spend a year studying anything without knowing everything there was to know about a subject. Deciphering the artifacts must be much more complicated than anything the pair had attempted before. Adam couldn’t blame them for their enthusiasm. It took a lot to keep them interested … in anything.
Adam hoped Panur had news about the disk he’d taken from the case that contained part of the Formation, the mysterious term Kanan used to describe the contents. It was just a thin, silver-dollar-size wafer, pinkish, and slightly translucent. There didn’t seem to be any electronics running through it—that would have been visible when held up to the light. And there weren’t any notches or nubs that would fit into something else. Adam was at a loss as to what the disk was and what purpose it served. Panur and Lila had studied it for a year, and to date, had not said much about it except to say it was fascinating.
The mutant’s laboratory was divided into a series of five rooms, four smaller offices with storage cabinets and computers, and with one large central work area with long tables and survey equipment, along with more storage cabinets and more computers. Since the discovery of the vault and Kanan’s disappearance, Adam had only been to the lab four times. That almost matched the number of times he’d seen either of the mutants in the past year. They remained locked away, deep in their studies, and not wanting to be disturbed. Adam obliged. Besides, he had more important things to do than pretend to be excited by some discovery Panur and Lila made while studying piles of three-billion-year-old junk.
As with every time Adam gazed upon his daughter Lila, his breath was taken away. She looked so much like her mother Arieel, with the same long, shimmering black hair and large, doe-like eyes. Lila moved with the grace and splendor of a princess, a study in calm, mature elegance. She spotted him the moment he and Riyad entered the room, having passed through security at the door. The mutants had some exceedingly rare and expensive—not to mention dangerous—items in the building. Security was crucial.
“Father, you are here!” Lila said as she rushed toward Adam. “You should still be in the hospital recovering.”
Adam managed to stop her before being draped in a passionate—and tight—embrace. “Sorry, honey, but I am still recovering. It hurts to be touched.”
“Of course, I understand.”
Panur sauntered up to the pair of Humans, a thin grin on his grey face. “Love the outfit. I used to wear something similar back in Key West. Those were good times. I miss the Hog’s Breath Saloon.”
Adam searched back in his memory to recall when Panur was on Earth and at Key West. That was right after he discovered Adam and the Humans and took a liking to them. The mutant then went to the planet and the southern-most city in America to study the species. That was over twenty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge…
“I know the place,” Adam said. “It’s around the corner from Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.” Adam looked around the room at the eclectic collection of strange objects currently under study by the mutants. “I’m sure most of the things you have in here would fit into their collection.”
“I’m sure they would, but I’m not selling or donating nothing. This is all mine—and Lila’s.”
“Of course. So, what’s up? You wanted to see me. Is it about the disk?”
“Yes, it is,” said Panur with enthusiasm. He nodded to Lila.
Adam’s daughter moved to a cabinet along the wall and pressed in a security code. He was glad they were keeping the disk under lock and key. Although he didn’t know what it was, he knew it represented some powerful juju for Kanan.
Lila returned a moment later, now holding the disk in a secure container made of glass, not allowing it to touch her fingers. Adam mentally grimaced. He’d handled it before. Was it dangerous, possibly radioactive?
Panur took the holder and held the disk up to the light. The pink pastel color showed prominently.
“We are finally ready to make a revelation, a revelation of course to only you and Riyad. This information should not go beyond this room.”
“Don’t worry,” Adam said. “I don’t want anyone else to know we have the disk in case it gets back to Kanan. The fact that he hasn’t come looking for me in a year tells me he’s already built this Formation thing, or he’s still trying to figure out how to do it with a missing piece. So, what is it?”
“This, my friends, is the oldest living object in existence.”
“Living?” Riyad gasped. “You mean it’s alive?”
Adam unconsciously wiped his hands on his chinos, as if to remove any year-old residue he could still be carrying.
“That is a difficult question to answer, Mr. Tarazi. I cannot say it is truly alive, but I can say with absolute certainty that it consists of organic material.”
“Was it grown, like in a lab?” Adam asked, leaning in closer for a better look. For the brief time he possessed the disk, he’d treated it more like a coin than a living organism.
“That we also don’t know. However, I can say that this object predates even the Aris culture, meaning that it’s older than three billion years and probably considerably more. That’s why it’s taken us so long to confirm its age. We had to develop new methods to do so.”
“So, you’re saying this thing was around before the Aris race was born?” Riyad asked. “Where did it come from? I didn’t think there was anything older than the Aris.”
Lila smiled. “That is a common misconception, Riyad,” she said. “In truth, the galaxy is old enough to have gone through three epochs of life. The Aris were products of the Second or Middle Epoch. We are in the most recent. This disk was a product of the First Epoch.”
“And the Aris had it,” Adam said. “And it was part of this Formation thing? What’s the Formation?”
Panur shook his head. “Still unknown; however, we have found fragments of references to the Formation within the artifacts you see around you. I doubt the Gracilians would have ever made the connection since Kanan had not mentioned the term to them. As to purpose, how can we determine the purpose of something that was a mystery even to the Aris of three billion years ago?” He waved a thin, grey arm at the room. “Lila and I have spent a year examining these artifacts. We have learned more than anyone before us about the ancient beings, even more than the Gracilians. Yet we have only just scratched the surface. I’m excited to say we have so much to learn from the Aris, which for Lila and me is saying a lot. Although I come from a different universe and evolutionary path, your galaxy was shaped by these beings, and in more ways than we ever imagined.” He held the disk up a little higher. “This object, and the others that supposedly make up the Formation, were around before the beginning of the Aris evolutionary process. We have to remember, the Aris, like all living beings, evolved from primordial elements, taking billions of years in the process. And then the remaining few of the species hibernated another three billion. I suspect this disk to be older than that, somewhere between seven to ten billion years. What role the Formation may have played in the evolution of the Aris is unknown; however, it is a possibility. It is organic and was discovered among the ruins of a world that has long since disappeared. Did its organic material manage to contaminate the Aris homeworld, and if so, to what effect? These are questions we are just now asking. We may never know the truth, yet, whoever created this disk had technology even beyond the Aris, and long before the Aris existed. There has to be a connection.”
“But you say it’s organic,” Riyad said. “You believe technology created it?”
“It is too perfect in dimensions and composition to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. At least in our opinion. It had to be manufactured.”
Adam was shaking his head. “Okay, it’s organic, but not alive. Is it a type of fossil?”
“No, we can’t say that either,” Lila said. “We have detected processes taking place inside the structure, so it is still active, and after such an unimaginable time frame. We do not yet understand these processes, but something is going on inside; however, there is nothing you could identify as belonging to traditional life, such as organs or a nervous system, nothing like that. However, energy is being absorbed and processed, maintaining the viability of the structure.”
“But for what purpose, you don’t know,” Adam concluded rather than asked.
Adam smirked. “So, after a year, you’re no closer to finding out what this thing is than on the first day I gave it to you.”
“Is that a criticism?” Panur asked, offended.
Adam quickly shook his head. “No, not at all. Don’t get me wrong. It just means that the damn thing remains a mystery, and we have no idea what Kanan is up to with the rest of the disks. He placed a lot of value on this thing, on all the disks. I would really like to know what he’s up to.”
“As would Lila and me. As I said, we are finding vague references to the Formation, and with exotic symbols attached. But without a key for reference, we may never decipher the glyphs.”
Adam looked around the large room. “Is there anything you’ve found that could be of use to us now, such as some new superweapon?”
Panur shook his head. “Nothing but the accumulators.”
“The DMCs?” Riyad asked.
“That’s right, and the Aris referred to the dark matter collectors as accumulators. There were three of them in the vault. We have them here.”
“Under lock and key, I hope,” Adam said. “We know what those cubes can do if they fall into the wrong hands.”
“Be assured, they’re safe,” the mutant answered. “Besides, to get to them, a thief would have to get past Lila and me. And I pity the fool who would try.”
Adam frowned, not believing what he just heard. Had Panur just quoted Mr. T?
Adam grimaced from a spasm of pain in his side. Maybe it would be best if he went home and rested. He hadn’t been back to his seaside estate in over a month, and he missed the familiar setting with the sound of gently lapping surf at the base of the low bluff.
“Before you go,” Panur said, noticing Adam’s expression, “I have something else to show you.”
The mutant went to a nearby counter and picked up a small metal cube about half an inch square. It looked familiar.
“Isn’t that one of those attachment things Kanan used to build arms on his orb?”
Panur looked at the object with renewed interest. “You’re right; it does look like that. But it’s not. This is our version of the Formilian brain-interface device, your ATD.”
Riyad stepped closer, now excited. “You built your own? Why? Is it for me?”
Panur nodded. “Lila and I became so tired of your complaining about not having one similar to Adam’s, that we’ve constructed this simplified version.”
“Simplified, what does that mean?”
Panur handed the small cube to Riyad. “It has all the same basic functions as the Formilian device, just not to such a degree. You will still be able to communicate telepathically, just not at such a range. And you will be able to detect electronic circuits—and not only of Formilian design. However, you will not be able to affect them.”
“I won’t be able to open doors and turn on lights? What about weapons?”
Panur shook his head. “Detection only. The ability to interact remotely with the circuits is a whole other function. We didn’t feel it was necessary if you could detect signals ahead of time.”
“But I could get shot.”
“I would recommend you avoid that. Also, this unit does not have the ability to vent excess energy, as Adam’s can do. And you will not be able to accumulate static electricity from the air. This device is merely for communications and detection, nothing more.”
“Why did you limit the functions?” Adam asked, knowing that if they wanted, the mutants could have built a unit even more advanced than the one Adam carried.
“Because Humans have a tendency to get cocky when handed a new toy. Knowing you can disable energy weapons makes you more susceptible to reckless behavior. And manipulating control circuits makes you lazy. Be content that you will be able to see a threat coming and react accordingly. However, this unit does have one feature the Formilian ATD does not: the ability to detect dark energy.”
Adam took the cube from Riyad. “Really? That’s cool.”
“That’s what we thought. With the disclosure of dark energy technology to the galaxy, there will soon be a Gold Rush to learn its secrets and tame its power. As such, we are entering perilous times. We felt it necessary that you have the ability to detect the effects, also if—and when—Kanan comes looking for you. He’s powered by dark energy, which should make your ATD able to detect him.”
“But my ATD doesn’t have that ability,” Adam said.
“It will require a few minor tweaks, which Lila will perform, and then you will be up to speed with the others.”
“That’s great,” Riyad moaned. “But I still won’t be able to stop flash weapons.”
Panur smiled. “No, but now you’ll have time to run from them. I would recommend you do more of that in your future, or else you could end up like our friend Adam Cain.”
For effect, Panur slapped Adam on the back, and directly on one of his healing wounds. Adam got the point, if not Riyad.
“So, when do I get one?”
“Supplies are limited, but I will let Adam decide on the recipients. The procedure is simple and outpatient. I would prefer that Adam give us a list, and then we’ll schedule the install.” The mutant looked at Adam seriously. “But keep the numbers low. As you have seen with Riyad and Sherri, everyone wants an ATD. You will only retain the advantage if knowledge of the device is not widespread.”
“I understand,” Adam said. “I’ll form a tight-knit unit within the Enforcers, nothing big or flashy. I know how important is the element of surprise.”
“But I get one, don’t I?” Riyad stammered.
“You wouldn’t let me live it down if you didn’t, buddy. Now just relax. You’re in.”
Riyad’s brilliant white smile lit up the room. “Excellent! It will be just like Cain’s Crusaders all over again!”
Adam laughed. Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time, not since book six.
The meet-a-torium—or Central Assembly Facility—was packed to the gills with an unsettling array of alien creatures, with the air exchangers working overtime in a losing battle against the stench. Adam’s eyes watered, even though he’d become somewhat acclimated to the smell of alien. But this was asking too much. In all his years in space, this was the largest gathering of non-Humans he’d ever seen. Hell, even this many Humans in one room would have been unbearable. And these were aliens, stinking, filthy, disgusting aliens.
Adam, Riyad and the Kanac-based kingpin Dal Divisen were on the upper gallery, looking down at the swaying mass of living creatures occupying the floor of the voluminous chamber. The meeting was already underway, and blaring speakers transmitted the voices of the speakers. The acoustics weren’t that great and seeing that this was the largest meeting held in the building since it’s completion, sound levels were still being tweaked. Overall, it seemed like a barely-under-control riot taking place on the floor.
In the middle of the main floor was a round stage fitted with four podiums. As the Vice-Minister of the Zone—and the most competent politician in the government—Sherri Valentine stood at one of the podiums moderating the meeting. Even from this distance, Adam could tell she was at wit's end, playing more the role of referee rather than host. The meeting was to be a sounding out of procedures and protocols for the upcoming refugee vote regarding the status of the Dead Zone. The vote wasn’t for three months, but details had to be worked out ahead of time. But unlike the pre-vote meeting of two years ago—which was attended by only the Elites—this meeting was a whole other story. Now hordes of displaced tier-refs from the worlds Maris-Kliss had supposedly ‘bought’ had come demanding to be heard. And, unlike the first time, MK was represented here, as well, trying hard to appear as just one of the boys, sympathetic members of the Zone now that they owned twenty-two of the Dead Worlds.
A distinct division of interests was at play in the chamber. MK represented—well, MK—while the tier-refs had a fiery Lindahlese activist speaking for his people, as well as the other natives from the so-called MK worlds. Then there were the standard Elite groups. There were representatives from over eighty worlds, acting more dignified—even scared, in Adam’s opinion—walking a fine line with their constituents and MK. Adam had to chuckle. He knew most of them were simply waiting for their turn to receive some of the company’s largess, something that would allow them to leave this flea-bitten graveyard of space and find more suitable living arrangements on the affluent worlds of the Expansion.
But that wasn’t so easy to do these days. The prior title transfers had let the cat out of the bag about who would get the money and who wouldn’t.
The MK representative was speaking.
“Maris-Kliss cannot be held responsible for the broken promises of the Top Tier refugees,” he was saying to the angry Lindahlese representative. “We negotiated in good faith, expecting that the proceeds of the transfers would be shared with all. The tier-refs knew what was happening. You should have elected more fair-minded individuals to speak on your behalf.”
“We elected no one,” the Lindahlese said. His name was Femano, and his voice had become raspier by the moment as he argued his case. “That is the same with all the native groups. The Elites simply assumed their roles—”
“Which is, again, a refugee problem, not MK’s.”
“We insist on being called natives, Ambassador Asn Wass.”
Adam didn’t know the species of the MK rep since the galaxy-wide company had no native race to call their own. Although Maris-Kliss refers to two planets in the Expansion, the company had grown beyond those worlds centuries ago. Now their employees consisted of species from every advanced civilization, even Human.
The MK rep grinned. “In your case, the title would be more appropriately former natives.”
The remark set Femano off even more and elicited angry hoots from the congregation. The rules specifically said only those at the podiums may speak, but that rule went out the window from the first moment Sherri called the meeting to order.
“We are nothing of the kind!”
Asn shook his head. He was tall, stocky and yellow-skinned, dressed in a bland blue uniform reserved for the upper level of the MK hierarchy. “And that is the issue, is it not? The point of contention we are here to decide: should the tier-refs from planets they no longer own be given a voice in the upcoming vote. You know where MK stands on this issue. We are here to poll the feelings of the other refugee groups.”
Femano slapped the podium. “Which is patently unfair. That decision should be made by all natives and not just the Elites. We know how the Top Tiers would vote since MK is currently in the process of enticing more of them with the same bribes as you did with our so-called representatives.”
“You betray your argument, Ambassador Femano,” said Asn. “You admit they were your representatives. For years you allowed them to speak for you, even when they began hiring colonists to strip your planets of their resources, both natural and native-made. You did not complain then, looking only to the profits and with no intention of returning to your planets.”
“That was because there was no future to our worlds, not after what Kracion did to them.”
“And what changed?” Asn raised his hand for effect. “I will tell you. Maris-Kliss came in and saved the worlds of the Dead Zone, bringing them back from the dead. In a relatively short time, we have made these planets livable, cleaning away the radiation and making the land fertile again. And we did this for no pay and on our own accord. And now that MK has saved your worlds—the same worlds you had abandoned and were willing to salvage for quick credits—you now want them back.”
“We have offered to reimburse MK for the cost of the decontamination—”
“We have not asked for compensation. In truth, we have asked for nothing in return. All we have done is make reasonable offers to your leaders for ownership of the planets. We consider our overtures as generous, a way for the former-natives to realize a significant profit beyond what you hoped to gain from salvage. We cleaned your worlds and then offered sizable compensation for the rights to those worlds. And in the end, no one was forced to accept our offers.”
“That was because all natives were not allowed to vote on the sales,” the Lindahlese countered.
“Be truthful, Femano. If you had a vote, would you have turned down the offer? Would any of your fellow natives?”
“That is not the question—”
“Yes, it is. You use hindsight now to cloud your thinking, knowing that your Elites did not deliver on what they promised.” Asn looked out at the crowd surrounding the central stage. “It will be the responsibility of both the Elites and their tier-refs to make sure those promises be kept—if MK elects to make any further offers on worlds within the Dead Zone.”
“You know full well that your credits can tempt the masses, and should the Elites betray their fellow natives, they will have no recourse. You have made a mockery of these proceedings, attempting to pretend to be part of the Dead Zone when in fact you are outsiders, here only to steal what was never yours.”
Asn laughed. From his place in the gallery, Adam almost felt sorry for the Lindahlese representative. He was probably just a passionate and outspoken native, more articulate than most, who was thrust into the role of spokes-being for the last remaining members of his race. He was outclassed by the more professional and trained MK rep, who had been briefed and coached to make all the right arguments and with just the right tone. Whereas Femano was growing more flustered, Asn remained calm, under control.
“Let us examine what you just said, my fellow ambassador,” Asn began. “You mention your ties to the region, having related how your species evolved on your native planet. And yet you call this part of space the Dead Worlds.”
“That is because—”
“That is because you no longer respect the traditions. This area you now call the Dead Zone was once referred to as the Cyneth, a prosperous and proud region of the Kidis. And as for the Kidis itself, we have always been an independent and free arm of the galaxy, successfully resisting the aggressions of the Expansion and Union.”
Femano was fuming. “You say we when you mention the Kidis. You are not of the Kidis; you are of nowhere.”
“Please, let me continue,” Asn said, looking to Sherri for support.
“Let him complete his thought,” Sherri said into the microphone. “Afterward, you may make your statement, Ambassador Femano.”
I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes about now, Adam said through his ATD.
Sherri cast her eyes to Adam in the gallery.
I wish you were. This has been going on for two hours, and eighteen more people want to speak. It’s going to be a long-ass day.
“Thank you, Vice-Minister Valentine. As I was saying, this region was once known as the Cyneth. I see no reason why it cannot be the Cyneth again. Maris-Kliss has helped bring the region back to life. We are no longer the Dead Zone. We are the Cyneth. Yet not all of us are, not any longer. Some of you have given up your right to be part of the Cyneth. You accepted the buyout of your homeworlds, and now you must go. I say this not to be cruel, but to be practical. You gave up your right when you accepted the credits. So, now I ask the remaining members of the Cyneth—” Asn looked to the crowd once again—“why should outsiders be allowed a vote on matters that no longer concern them? Why should we be held to their wishes, when they will no longer be a part of the Cyneth.”
“We are only no longer part of the Cyneth because you do not allow us to return to our homes,” Femano cried out. Adam could feel the pain in his voice. It was sincere, heart-wrenching. “Yes, we are part of the Cyneth; we will always be. It is in our bodies, in our blood and in the memories we hold. That is something you cannot take away from us, not for all the credits in MK’s coffers. Why can we not return? Why do you side with the Union and the savage Enforcers under their control?” Femano shifted his gaze directly at Adam; he didn’t know the alien knew he was there. “MK uses their mercenaries, along with the murderous Adam Cain, to kill my people and to keep us away from our homes. The leader of the Enforcers recently killed a hundred of my fellow natives, all with his bare hands. What kind of animal would do that?”
Thousands of pairs of eyes looked to Adam. It was under forty, Adam thought. And I had two guns.
“So, do not speak of us abandoning our homes. You have given us no choice. And now you want to take away our voice in determining our destiny.”
“And how would you vote, Ambassador Femano? Would you side with the Union and their Human overlords? You sided once with the Juireans, and what did that get you? Nothing. They made an effort but failed miserably. And then they abandoned you—they abandoned us. This has thrown the Cyneth into even more chaos, left to the mercy of the Humans and the Enforcers. Let me ask, are your worlds any safer now than they were before? Yes, MK has mercenaries. We must so we can protect ourselves because the Enforcers will not. You have said it yourself, Femano, Adam Cain killed hundreds of your fellow natives. How is that helping build a more prosperous and peaceful Cyneth?”
It was only forty…
“The Union saved Navarus from Kanan—”
“After sacrificing Dasnon. And it was not so much their efforts than that of the rogue mutants who fight only for themselves.”
Adam could tell Femano was at his wit's end. The alien could feel the argument being lost, and that his people—along with all the tier-refs from the worlds MK now owned—were soon to be voted out, with no say, no home and no recourse. What would become of them? Femano answered that question for Adam.
“You, of Maris-Kliss, the foreign entity that has only recently come to the Dead Zone—to the Cyneth—you speak of the future, while at the same time condemning millions to no future at all. Are we to remain here on this hot and smelly world, destined to survive in the rodent-infected slums of Kanac while being exploited by the most retched criminal element in the galaxy?”
Adam looked at Dal Divisen. “He’s talking about you, buddy.”
Dal shrugged his broad shoulders.
“This is what you and this vote could mean to millions of creatures whose very essence is part of the Kidis and the Cyneth. How can you do this?”
“It is only practical,” Asn said. “You and your people are not required to live in poverty or to even remain in the Cyneth. And as to the future, it has never been said that the former-natives can never return to their worlds. Once MK has completed our recovery efforts and rebuilt the planets into thriving, vibrant and wealthy enclaves, there may be a chance for you to return.”
“That I cannot say. It could be a hundred years, maybe more. MK is here for the long-term. We do nothing without forethought and planning. And then we invest what is necessary to produce the desired outcome. Do not take this wrong, Ambassador Femano, but MK is so much larger than the Cyneth. We are offering the chance for the Cyneth to become more than it ever was—”
“Freedom for Lindahl!” a native in the front row of the auditorium screamed, interrupting Asn’s speech. The universal translator converted the words, but Adam got the impression it was more a rallying cry rather than a simple statement of support.
A second later, Adam’s worst fears were realized when the stocky, leathery-skinned alien jumped to the stage, brandishing an MK-17 in his right hand. He charged to the podium where Asn stood, the MK rep’s eyes wide with terror. He barely backed away before the activist barreled into him, knocking him to the floor. The flash weapon was pressed against Asn’s jaw, and the trigger pulled.
Although powered by hot plasma energy, when placed directly against the skin of a victim and fired, the effects of an MK mimic those of a shotgun blast to the head. Asn’s skull shattered, casting a wide swath of the stage in bright red fluid and dousing the killer in the spray, as well. Then the terrorist stood up, raising both arms above his head, still holding the MK in his right hand.
“I have vanquished the MK demon, and done it with one of his own weapons!”
The room filled instantly with a series of brilliant flash bolts fired by the relatively few Enforcers in the chamber, providing security. The balls of energy found their target, taking out the killer as pandemonium swept through the room. Thousands of aliens panicked and set off for the exits, forming surging waves of screaming beings.
Adam leaned against the gallery railing and looked down, as half a dozen other bolts lit off, the sources coming from within the congregation. The assassin wasn’t alone, and now five or six more gunmen opened fire, indiscriminately targeting helpless victims.
Adam looked to the stage. He panicked.
Sherri! Where are you?
Cowering behind this podium, where else would I be?
There are more gunmen—
I think they’re called gun-Beings instead of gun-Men.
Adam’s mind stuttered. Really, at a time like this?
I just want to head off the nitpickers. But I get it. I have an MK; I’ll see what I can do from here.
You’re armed? Adam questioned.
Wouldn’t leave home without it. And no one’s going to search the Vice-Minister. Rank has its privileges.
All the attendees had been carefully screened for weapons before allowed entry. Adam grimaced. All except the terrorists, or so it seemed. And then the refugees had insisted that only the bare minimum of Enforcers be present during the conference. Of course, Adam and Riyad were armed, along with the three token Enforcers stationed near the main exits. But after killing the assassin, these three had been stampeded by the crowd. That left the roving killers free to strike down as many innocents their battery packs allowed. And they appeared to have come supplied with extras.
“C’mon,” Adam said to Riyad.
“But according to Panur, I’m supposed to run away from situations like this.”
“Not when I can disable—”
Adam stopped in mid-sentence. Something was wrong. Although he could detect the energy signatures of the terrorist weapons, he couldn’t locate the firing controls. It was as if they weren’t there. But they had to be.
Dammit, Panur, Adam thought. You screwed up the upgrade on my ATD.
“What’s wrong?” Riyad asked, seeing the anger come over Adam’s face.
“I can’t stop the weapons. Something’s wrong with my ATD.”
Riyad pursed his lips. “Well, hell. But at least we can still see where they are. Let’s go do this the old fashion way.”
Sherri! Adam called out in his mind. I can’t break the firing circuits. Be careful. The weapons are active.
No shit? Why can’t you—
Something to do with my ATD.
Adam sensed Sherri’s understanding.
Roger that. I’m moving to the edge of the stage; I have one of the killers in my sights.
Riyad and I are on our way down to the main floor.
Getting into the auditorium to track down the killers was easier said than done. It was wall-to-wall alien as the pair of Enforcers made their way down the stairs to the main level. All around them lay bodies, not the victims of the killers inside the hall, but of those trampled by the crowd. At one of the entrances, Adam and Riyad used their Human strength to force their way through the opening. Once inside, it wasn’t much better. They hugged an inner wall, shoving howling and desperate aliens out of their way. They knew where the killers were, which was around the central stage and still firing point-blank into the helpless members of the crowd in the chamber.
Sherri had taken out one of the killers by now, but Adam could still see five active energy sources on the move. One wasn’t too far away. He climbed onto a bolted-down chair to see over the crowd. He took his MK-47 and lit off a bolt without the aid of the targeting computer. In a mass of people like this, they were useless anyway. Scratch another terrorist.
That still left four.
Riyad wasn’t subtle as he pressed his way through the crowd. As bodies flew and others fell to the ground, Adam was afraid there could be some casualties among the friendlies, making the cure worse than the disease. Riyad was about to approach a shooter without being seen, but with the chaotic crowd, he wasn’t able to get a clean shot. Instead, he simply barreled into the alien and smashed his left hand into the creature’s neck. That was all it took. Human strength snapped the spinal cord, ending the threat from this killer.
A flash off to Adam’s right told him Sherri just took out another terrorist from the stage. Feeling panic himself, Adam frantically looked for the energy signatures from the remaining two terrorists’ weapons. He had to take them out, or else Sherri would never let him live it down that she killed more of them than he did. That was unacceptable.
Adam dropped a shoulder into Riyad, knocking him off his feet.
“Hey, what the hell!” Riyad yelled. “I had a shot.”
“I know,” said Adam as he lit off a bolt himself and took out the next-to-last terrorist. That tied him with Sherri. The next one would put him ahead—
To his chagrin, the room lit up again with another flash from Sherri’s ’17.
Ah, ha! Sherri yelled in his mind. I know what you were trying to do. But no luck, sucker. Three to two … I win!
I didn’t know it was a competition, he lied.
Bullshit. Hey, Riyad, I took out three of them. How about you?
Don’t ask, came the answer in both Adam’s and Sherri’s heads. And, my friend, he said, addressing Adam. You really do need to get your ATD fixed. This could have been serious.
Not with Sherri the Slayer around
Hey! I like that. I may get a t-shirt made with that on it.
Okay, knock it off.
Adam looked around at the carnage. Most of the attendees were finally out of the auditorium, leaving only the dead littering the floor. There were a lot of them, much more than just the terrorists. Adam shrugged.
This is not going to look good on my resume.
Janor Kram was in his office on Lindahl when the link came in.
“There has been a horrific attack on the refugee conference on Navarus,” said the MK employee on the screen. “Ambassador Asn Wass was murdered by tier-ref terrorists.”
“Do you have the video?” Janor asked calmly.
“Yes. As you requested earlier, we monitored the gathering with multiple cameras and views. I have the raw data. Transferring it now.”
Janor cut the link. He cued up the files and began watching, appearing detached and unemotional. At times, he switched perspective, focusing on the images of Adam Cain and the other Humans. He had cameras assigned to them exclusively, and the footage was paying off. Communications were taking place between the three, even when not verbal. The Director was correct.
After the conclusion of the videos, Janor sent them to the Director’s private server. The information contained within would do nicely while the plans for the next phase progressed.
Janor now sought out and then opened a link, one known to only a handful of individuals in the galaxy. Janor didn’t ask how the Director knew the name or how to locate the individual, but he was sure the communication would come as a surprise to the recipient. No one was supposed to know his whereabouts. No one except MK.
Maris-Kliss knew everything.
The Human pulled the hood up over his head and cinched it down around his ears. He did this not only to shield his body against the biting cold of Genannt but also to hide his identity. He had come to the desolate mining planet, located on the boundary between the Union and the Kidis spar, believing he could blend in better among the sizable Human population than on a more alien world where Humans were still an oddity. But that was a mistake. The roughnecks were a close-knit group, working the circuit of fringe worlds for low pay and miserable conditions. Because of this, they knew each other and were suspicious of any outsiders who would voluntarily come to the planet. As a result of the worker’s suspicion of him, he’d already taken part in three bar fights. In each, he let his opponent win. It wasn’t wise to advertise his training; people might start asking questions about his background.
He found work in one of the asbestos mines, hoping that the shadowed interior and black soot would obscure his face. He suspected he was overly cautious. But even here, fifteen thousand light-years from Juir, they could find him.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not even close. He priced out his last assignment to give him enough credits to change his appearance, allowing him to retire comfortably on any planet in the galaxy—except Juir, of course. He was paid a small upfront fee, and little did he know, that would be all he would receive. His employers betrayed him, exposing him, making him a co-conspirator with those they wished to frame for the murder. It’s a miracle he survived long enough to escape and make it to Genannt.
For a while, his image was plastered on all the broadcasts, while every bounty hunter in the galaxy was on his trail. He barely escaped a team of Priority Acquisition recovery agents on a rock called—hell, he’d forgotten. It didn’t matter. He was never going back there again.
He made his way closer to the Union without getting too close to Earth. He figured that if he went the other way, into Expansion territory, his Human identity would stand out like a sore thumb. But if he had, he wouldn’t have to associate with his kind. He could have found work, and if the aliens he would encounter were like most others, they would go out of their way to avoid him. It wasn’t like that on Genannt. Although he was an outsider, the Human miners wouldn’t leave him alone. They wanted to know everything about him; why he was here, where had he been, and why did he look familiar? He would just snort and say all Humans look alike. That’s what the aliens say. It was good for a laugh before he once again buried his face in some foul-taste intoxicant and drank the night away with his fellow laborers until no one cared anymore, about anything. It was getting better on Genannt, at least a little.
He was already three-sheets-to-the-wind when he left the bar that night. The weather was colder than usual, with an icy wind stabbing at the exposed skin on his face not covered in his thick, black beard. He had a small one-room flop with barely working heat and only cold water. Without a kitchen, he had to eat out all the time, which increased the risk of him being recognized. Over time, the news broadcasts forgot about him, even if the professionals didn’t.
The sound was odd, and he barely heard it above the din of the blowing wind. He wondered where it was coming from or whether he was imagining it. That was until he recognized the sound as the chiming of his pocket communicator. It was one of the last vestiges of his past life, although no one knew the link code.
Or at least he thought no one knew.
He pulled the device from his pocket and ducked into a shelter between two crumbling brick buildings. It was his communicator that was chiming. The pale blue glow of the screen assailed his eyes. He fumbled to find the voice-only button and opened the link.
“Are you there?” The face on the commlink was that of a well-dressed and hair-covered looking alien of a species he’d never seen before. The background was an office of impeccable taste and expensive appointments.
“Yeah, I’m here. Who are you?”
There was a long hesitation before the caller spoke again.
“Should I assume I have reached the party I am seeking?” said the alien with a trace of humor in his voice. “Is that why you are hiding your identity?”
“Maybe I just don’t want to be disturbed. Do you know what time it is here?”
“I do not, and if I awoke you, I am truly sorry.” The alien grinned. “Let me introduce myself. I am Janor Kram of the Maris-Kliss organization.”
“You said that as if I’m supposed to know who you are.”
The alien shook his head. “Of course, you could not know me. MK is far too large for you to know individuals. However, I know you. That is why I would like to offer you employment.”
“Since when does MK go out soliciting for employees. Don’t you have enough already?”
“We do; however, you were specifically requested by my direct supervisor, the WN-18 Regional Director. Again, his name would have no significance to you, but perhaps you know the breakdown of the MK territories.”
“Sorry, I don’t know that either. But I get it; he’s some bigwig. How did you find me?”
“Need you ask? This is MK you are speaking with.”
That statement did send an additional chill down his spine. Somehow, he’d attracted the attention of the largest company in the galaxy. The fact that they knew his private comm code meant they probably also knew where he was standing at the moment. He moved farther back into the alley and cast his eyes at the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. MK wasn’t in the bounty hunting business—at least that’s what he thought. But considering what he’d done, nothing was off the table.
“You said you want to hire me. To do what?”
“What you are best at.”
“Which is what?”
The alien laughed. “Killing, what else? You are a killer, Michael Hannon, Human. And you are an exceptional killer.”
“You’re not trying to set me up for the Juireans, are you? You wouldn’t tell me, even if you were.”
“No, Mr. Hannon. What the Director requires of you are your unique set of skills.”
“Okay, you know I’m an assassin,” Mike said. “But that’s not all I do. That last job was kind of a fluke, and I got burned for it. I don’t think I can trust anyone anymore.”
“You can trust MK.”
“So, you say. Why are you any different?”
“Because, unlike your assignment to kill the Juirean Quid-Elder Quanin Fe Borlon, MK will pay you in advance. I understand you have experienced hard times recently, moving from mining world to mining world, hiding from a galaxy that still wishes to find you. Personally, I do not know of Genannt, but what I have read about it, it does not seem like the paradise you envisioned your last contract would buy you.”
All right,” Mike said. “You know where I am, and you know I need the money. That doesn’t mean you can lowball my services and expect that I’ll jump at it.”
“Again, Mr. Hannon, you forget you are speaking with MK. At this level of our operations, credits do not matter. We were thinking of offering you five million Juirean credits for your services. That is five times the amount of your last assignment, the one for which you were never fully paid.”
Holy crap! Mike’s mind gasped. Five mil was a lot. Enough, in fact, to get him a new face, a new identity and a new life.
“I want ten million,” he blurted without thinking. What the hell, might as well see if credits really don’t mean anything to MK.
The alien laughed and nodded. “Very well; in fact, I will raise it to fifteen million just to prove my point.”
Mike was glad he had the comm unit set for voice only. That way the alien—his name was Janor—couldn’t see him drop to a sitting position, his back pressed against the cold brick wall, his butt in a puddle of near-ice.
“Do I interpret your silence as an acceptance?”
Mike regained his composure. He’d done this type of negotiation enough times before to know that he had to regain control; otherwise, he could be getting himself into a situation where he may not live long enough to spend his fee.
“Only when I know more details. The target has to be accessible and the escape possible. I don’t do suicide missions.”
“We would not expect you to. And the mission is very straight forward: A single assassination of a stationary target which we will maneuver into the killing field. All you need to do is pull the trigger. However, you must use a Human weapon, ballistic in nature. That is your specialty, is it not?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. Your energy weapons have too many countermeasures and physical resistance levels to make them reliable.”
“Very good. But one item, the contract must be executed at the location of our choosing and according to our timetable.”
“Explain. That’s not normal. There are too many variables that would be out of my control.”
“We will control the place and the time frame for the assassination. You must be ready to act when we say.”
“I don’t know. If you can control the situation to that degree, why not do it yourself? I’m sure MK has plenty of people to do the job.”
Mike grimaced as he made the last statement. What was he doing, trying to sabotage a fifteen-million-credit-contract?
“We do; however, you are uniquely qualified for this contract.”
“Because it does require expertise with a Human long-range ballistic rifle, and it will be against a Human, a Human of unique abilities.”
“Have you not guessed already? We want you to kill Adam Cain.”
If Mike weren’t already sitting on the cold, wet ground, he would be there by now.
“Adam Cain? Why?”
“Has it ever been important for you to know the why of an assignment? Suffice to say; the Director has his reasons.”
“The planet is now called Navarus … but yes.”
Mike let out a sigh. This is getting better and better by the second, he thought sarcastically.
“That’s the last place I want to go back to. And if I recall, isn’t Cain now the head of the Zone-wide police force?”
“And he’s rubbed MK the wrong way one too many times?”
“You could say that.”
“And you’re willing to pay me fifteen million JC’s for simply pulling a trigger? I don’t have to research or plan the attack. Just show up and kill him?”
“That is a lot of credits for such a simple job, is it not?” Janor asked with a grin.
It was, Mike was thinking. Too much, in fact. Was MK that cavalier when budgeting a few million credits to a job? If so, maybe it would be good to work for them. But not to kill Adam Cain.
“Adam Cain is a pretty big target,” Mike said. “Hell, in some circles, even bigger than the Quid-Elder. Can I have some time to think about it?”
Janor frowned. “Think about it? Why? It cannot be the credits, nor the complexity of the assignment. Is it Cain? I was not aware you were friends.”
“Then you have qualms about killing Humans. I know your background; that cannot be the reason. I must inform you that MK does have options. Adam Cain is going to die, and at the time and place of our choosing. If you cannot—or will not—do it, then we will get someone else to accept the contract.”
Mike had to think fast. Janor was right. He was MK’s first choice, but they would have no problem finding someone else. And at the moment he didn’t know where or when MK would make the hit. And damn, fifteen million credits to kill a person he hardly knew.
And yet Adam Cain had once spared his life.
Mike looked around at his miserable surroundings. Spared my life, he thought. For this? Thanks a lot, Mr.—I mean, Captain—Cain.
“All right. I’ll accept the contract. When does this take place?”
Janor stared into the camera, with Mike knowing he was glaring at a blank screen. “Activate the camera, Mr. Hannon. I want to look into your eyes when you accept the assignment.”
“I accept the contract,” he repeated. “And I want the payment in cash—meaning no bank transfers. I want all the chips in my hands before I pull the trigger.”
Janor’s yellow eyes bore into Mike. “Very well. I will make arrangements on Navarus.”
“Okay, when and where does this take place?”
“In good time, Mr. Hannon. Be content in knowing you must go to Navarus. In the meantime, fifty thousand credits—in cash, as you say—is on the way to your domicile. A representative of MK will deliver it to you. Make your way to the planet over the next twenty days. We will make contact again when you arrive.”
“And the weapon?”
“It will be waiting for you on Navarus. A McMillan Tac-60 sniper rifle, the same as you used to kill Counselor Quanin. Now, leave Genannt at your earliest convenience. It is several thousand light-years to Navarus.”
Mike was desperately thinking of other questions to ask when the link was severed. As far as MK was concerned, he knew enough to get started.
He remained seated in the puddle of freezing water, his butt numb. He ignored it. He did his best to remain calm and professional, but this assignment was anything but professional. Typically, he would be allowed to pick the time and place for the event, after studying the target for as long as it took to devise a viable plan, both for the hit and the escape. And if anything went south, he had the right to abort. But here he was being plugged into a plan already underway where deviation wasn’t allowed. Once underway, he couldn’t abort, even if he wanted to.
And fifteen million credits was far too much money. Mike pursed his cold and trembling lips. But they did say they would pay upfront. That was—incredible. It also meant that no matter what he did, he would come out of this a wealthy man.
And all he had to do was kill Adam Cain.
I wish someone would kill me, Adam thought. Stop this torture and just get it over with!
Over the past three weeks, his life had been a living hell. After the terrorist attack on the conference, everyone came down on him. MK, the refugees—even the Humans and the Juireans—were all looking for answers, and scapegoats. How did the killers get weapons past his Enforcers? What was Adam doing to bring the lead conspirators to justice? Why did the Lindahlese kill over thirty refugees from a dozen worlds in the attack? What did the terrorists hope to gain?
Of course, Adam had none of the answers, even to the simple one as to how the terrorists got weapons into the meeting hall. Although there was limited security inside the room, admission had been strictly regulated. It had to involve bribe money to get past security, and most of the refugee groups didn’t have a lot of money, especially the Lindahlese, who were the prime suspects behind the attack. As a matter of fact, of all the refugee groups, the Lindahlese were some of the poorest.
Ambassador Femano survived the attack and subsequent bedlam and was taken into custody, although Adam believed him to be innocent. The alien was profoundly shaken by the event, sickened by the fact that so many refugees from other worlds had been killed. He was fighting for the welfare of all the native groups, and after the attack, the MK tier-refs weren’t very popular.
And Maris-Kliss was furious. One of their top representatives had been slain, and most savagely and horrifically. Within minutes of the attack, video of the killings was already on the continuous wormhole network and broadcast across the galaxy. Conveniently, the videos had been edited to remove any of the heroics by Adam and his fellow Humans. One moment the massacre was taking place, the next it was over, and so far, none of the news media had approached him to ask how the attack ended. MK was controlling the narrative, and with their money and influence, there was nothing Adam could do to highlight how the Humans brought the killing to an end. In fact, he wondered how the stations got the footage so fast, and from cameras even Sherri didn’t know were in the room.
But all that was noise and meaningless detail. What the masses wanted at the moment was blood, and preferably Lindahlese blood, with a little of Adam’s thrown in for good measure.
Adam’s office wasn’t large. It occupied a newly partitioned section in the back of the warehouse that had once been Riyad’s outfitting business, next door to Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill. At the moment, it was full of chattering people, all trying to get a word in edgewise. But when the Union Ambassador spoke, people listened.
“We’re losing, ladies and gentlemen,” said Jeanne Euker to the gathering, getting everyone’s attention. “MK is aggressively pushing the case for independence from both the Union and Expansion. The vote is only two months away, and it looks as if there may not even be one. A consensus petition is being circulated, and that may do it. I’m doing my best to make our case, but a lot of my efforts are falling on deaf ears. And with the money MK’s throwing around, it looks as if the Dead Zone is going to slip through our fingers.”
In the room was the Ambassador, General Todd Oaks, Sherri, Riyad, Commander Rob Rigby—the new intelligence officer in the Zone—along with two members of Euker’s staff. The staffers were standing against the front wall seeing that there was no seating available.
“Has anyone complained to MK headquarters?” Oaks growled. “This is the first time I’ve heard of MK trying to influence the political makeup of a region. And in the process, they’re making both the Humans and the Juireans mad as hell. We’ve both invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the Dead Zone. And now this big ass company wants to give us the boot.”
“I believe they want the area to be called the Cyneth, general,” Euker said, always the diplomat. “To call it the Dead Zone is now considered an insult.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, but that’s bullshit. It’s just another way of driving a wedge between the people and the Union.” Oaks was boiling mad. He had lost thousands of good soldiers and sailors in defense of the Dead Zone, and now the ungrateful aliens were on the verge of kicking them out. “Do you think MK could have saved their asses against Kanan? I think not!”
“That’s a good point, general, but at the moment, we are fighting against MK money and influence. After the Lindahlese disgraced the tier-refs, the Elites are now clamoring for a chance to sell their worlds to MK. Pretty soon, there won’t be a Zone to defend. It will just be a long row of MK property holdings over which we will have no say.”
Adam was at his wit's end. He’d devoted almost four years of his life to first Liave-3 and now Navarus, and things have only gotten worse since he got here. Granted, he did have a nice house out on the tip of the peninsula. And Balamar was the best city on the planet, in his opinion. But all around him, things were crashing down. Would he stay if MK took over the Zone—the Cyneth? Why would he? At that point, it would just be one big company town. And forget about his job. The Enforcers would disband, to be replaced by internal security officers from MK for domestic issues, and the mercenary army they would use for external protection. But then again, who would dare start a war with MK, the largest weapons manufacturer in the galaxy?
“What happens to Navarus if the majority of the Dead Worlds get bought by MK?” he asked.
“We go home, that’s what,” Sherri said, her thoughts mirroring his. “I’m tired of this light gravity anyway.”
“We may not have a choice either,” said Commander _. “Navarus would be the only independent planet in the region, yet still reliant on foreign trade and resources. MK would be calling the shots here, as well.”
Riyad huffed. “So, as the Ambassador said, we’re losing. And MK is winning. I hate to say it, but I believe the deck was stacked in their favor to begin with.”
Euker was shaking her head. “I think we’re missing something here,” she said. “As General Oaks said, this is unusual for MK. Granted, the Zone is a target-rich environment, and there is a lot of money to be made here, but is it enough to jeopardize their relationship with the major political empires in the galaxy?”
“It would if they’ve changed their business plan,” said Commander Rigby.
“It would have to be a drastic change, commander,” Euker said. “As it’s been pointed out, the Zone is a unique opportunity for them. But MK can’t go around buying up all the planets in the galaxy. At some point, they would have to switch to politics and then military strength to expand along these lines. Then they lose the bulk of their business holdings and have to play the game in mine and General Oaks ballfield.”
“So, what are you saying, Ambassador?” Sherri asked. “That this is a rogue operation within MK?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say rogue, but maybe a test, a trial balloon run up to see what would happen if they tried to enter the realm of politics.”
“Then we hold our ground,” Oaks announced. “Don’t let the bastards force us off Navarus.”
“Not initially, anyway,” Euker said. “Make them work for it. If the situation gets dicey, and there’s a standoff between the Union and MK in the Cyneth, then perhaps more pragmatic heads will take over. MK enjoys a rather free and open relationship with the galaxy at this point. Do they want to throw all that away just so they can become another stinking galactic empire?”
A small, shadowy figure delivered a small package of Juirean credits to Mike only minutes after he returned to his apartment, confirming that the events Janor spoke of were already in motion. Was he supposed to feel comforted by that? Don’t worry. MK has everything under control. Oddly, it had the opposite effect.
Even so, fifty thousand JCs was a fortune for him at the moment. He threw his few belongings into a cloth bag and left the room without telling the manager he wouldn’t be back. He took a transport to the best hotel in the town and checked in. The clerk looked at him suspiciously until a thousand credit chip tinkled on the counter.
It had been months since he’d had a decent shower. He cleaned up and then crashed on the body-wrapping luxury of the mattress and slept for the next nine hours. The hairy MK official gave him twenty days to get to Navarus, and before sleeping, he used the room’s computer terminal to check the connections to the planet. It was complicated, including five hops of varying lengths before reaching the Dead Zone oasis planet. Flight time was sixteen days at the best and twenty at the worst, letting him know MK already knew this when they gave him the deadline.
As he washed the grime of the past two years from his body, attempting to regain his confidence, Mike decided to stay at the hotel for two days before heading out. He had to be in the right frame of mind. Desperation could cause impatience and sloppiness. Although this wasn’t a typical contract, he would treat it as such, training his mind to think both as predator and prey. To be a successful assassin meant living long enough to take on future contracts. He wasn’t a political or religious fanatic who only cared about the mission. He just wanted to do the job and get away. A contract wasn’t worth taking if he couldn’t survive the consequences.
Which brought him back to the unique nature of his current assignment. Even with the travel time to Navarus, there was little he could do to prepare. Even so, he ran through the checklist in his mind. He was still in excellent physical condition; working the mines kept him that way, and he was already familiar with the layout of the area since he’d gone through the planning stage for the assassination of the Quid-Elder. That made him feel a little more comfortable. It wasn’t as if he was being dropped into a foreign land with no bearings. And he knew his target. He would spend the time aboard the transport ships researching more about Adam Cain. He studied him for the last mission, but only superficially; he wasn’t his assignment back then. And unlike any other contract he’d accepted in the past, he knew his current target personally. Under normal conditions, all of this would help with the planning. In this case, it was just background. MK already had the plan worked out.
As he lay in bed, moments before falling to sleep, another thought passed through his mind. It wasn’t comforting and kept him awake a little longer than one would expect given his circumstances.
Assassinations were typically classified into two categories: public spectacles and accidents. This one was the former. No one would buy the story that Adam Cain would accidentally walk into the path of a 60-caliber match-grade bullet traveling at over three thousand miles per hour. The next consideration in an assignment such as this was responsibility. Someone had to be held accountable. The most successful murders in history were those blamed on someone other than the actual perpetrators. That would be the case here. MK wouldn’t want anyone to know they were responsible for the killing. That meant they would place the blame on someone else … a pasty.
Was he to be the pasty? Possibly.
He had a prior relationship with the victim, and he did have a track record as a hired assassin. This made Mike nervous. Already, MK had put a lot of thought into the operation, and they certainly had the assets to do the job themselves. So, why a Human, using a Human weapon and against a public target with whom the assassin knew well?
Mike laughed in the dark of the hotel room. “Do they think I’m that stupid?” he said aloud. “There’s no way I’m stepping into their trap without taking some precautions of my own.”
After the personal proclamation, Mike fell soundly asleep. He needed a good night’s rest before he set off on his mission. The next day he would go shopping for a new wardrobe, along with a few items that couldn’t be found in the corner department store. He knew what he needed, and the underworld of Genannt would provide it, thanks to MK’s fifty-kay advance.
Because unknown to Maris-Kliss, they weren’t the only ones planning an operation. Mike Hannon had some planning of his own to do.
Eighteen days after the unexpected link with Janor on Genannt, a medium-size personnel liner slipped into orbit around Navarus. The three hundred passengers began lining up at the shuttles for the drop to the surface, most clutching only handbags or small suitcases carrying everything they had to their names. This was not a luxury cruise liner, but one of the dozens of refugee-filled starships coming to the planet ahead of the upcoming vote.
Mike Hannon couldn’t help but become engrossed in the politics of the Zone when every public broadcast screen was filled with stories about the turmoil taking place. He knew of Kanan—who didn’t—and now he learned of a recent terrorist attack at the government complex in Balamar. This latest event, coupled with his assignment, made him suspect they were connected. A prominent MK official had been killed in the attack, and even twenty days later, the company was still ranting about it, blaming a group of displaced natives called tier-refs. Public sympathy had swung so far away from this class of native that there was even a question as to whether a vote would be necessary. MK was pushing hard for independence of the Zone from both the Union and the Expansion. That appeared to be the sentiment of the refugees not already in the dog-house, while others were on the verge of losing their voting rights. It was almost too confusing to follow.
Mike was amazed at how much the situation in the Zone had changed in two years. And although the newscasts often danced around the subject, Adam Cain and his Enforcers were being cast as the bad guys, as well.
Kudos to MK for a masterful job of media assassination. Now they expected him to do the deed for real.
Mike was a different person than he’d been twenty days before. Now, he stepped off the shuttle at the Kanac Spaceport dressed in an expensive, high-collar business suit of the latest style, with a wide-brimmed hat and still sporting his thick, black beard. He wore extra padding under his clothing to make him appear thirty pounds heavier and walked with a slight limp. Although he wasn’t expecting anyone to recognize him, he was just being cautious. Fortunately, the spaceport was nothing like it was two years ago. It had doubled in size, with a myriad of new buildings and covered in an assortment of ships and shuttles of all makes, models and origin. Mike reasoned this had more to do with the upcoming vote than development on the planet, although that was certainly taking place as well. With the destruction of Dasnon—another world Mike knew well—Navarus was filling up. But with MK now owning nearly two dozen planets in the Zone, much of the population growth would be shifted there. But according to the news reports, this new population boom would be among MK employees and not refugees returning home. That was the major point of contention. MK wasn’t allowing any repatriation by the natives. That was the stated cause of the recent terrorist attack. Mike thought MK’s stance to be childish and short-sighted. After all, a planet is a pretty big place. Surely there should be room enough for a million or so former natives?
Mike took a transport into Balamar and to the sprawling MK luxury resort along the coast. To his surprise, a new road had been cut through the jungle at the south end of the spaceport and connected with the coast road at the resort. He had expected to go along Lan Road and directly past Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill, hoping to catch a glimpse of his target. But that was not the case. With so much business taking place at the MK-owned facility, the new road was a virtual extension of the resort’s parking lot.
Mike had to admit, it was impressive, consisting of a cluster of shiny new buildings with a five-spire central tower that reminded him of a Disney castle. He took his expensive suitcase and checked in, blending seamlessly with the other affluent guests.
He’d only been in his room for thirty minutes when his ubiquitous communicator chimed.
“You should be on Navarus by now,” said the four-eyed alien on the screen. It wasn’t Janor, but some other MK employee.
“I am. Just got here.”
“Where are you?”
“At the MK resort in Balamar.”
The alien’s tiny mouth dropped open slightly. “Why are you there?”
“Why not? It’s nice, and it’s close.”
“You must leave immediately!” four-eyes exclaimed. “There can be no connection to MK. Go to Kanac. Do not draw attention to yourself.”
“Hey, buddy, I’ve done this before. Everything’s cool.”
“Do as I say. I must inform assistant-director Kram.” The link broke.
Mike looked around the room, with its fantastic tenth-floor view of the magnificent crescent bay of Balamar. “And this place is nice,” he said regrettably.
Then he smirked. Granted, he was going a little overboard, luxuriating in his new-found wealth—or at least fifty thousand of it. But it also added more confirmation to what he suspected was happening. After the hit, everyone would know who did it, if for no other reason than the weapon that was used. He was expecting that, having done research long ago on facial reconstruction surgery. Some alien cultures were very proficient at it, much more than even Human doctors. He planned to use some of the money from the Quanin hit to get a new look. Unfortunately, those plans fell through. This time would be different.
Even though he would be identified as the assassin, Mike was counting on MK to focus the primary blame on the tier-refs. He would just be the tool they used, but they would be identified as the main culprits, taking a little of the heat off him.
He hadn’t unpacked, so he was soon back at the reception counter, paying for the day and apologizing, saying an emergency at headquarters was calling him home. The Belsonian clerk couldn’t care less.
Forty minutes later, Mike was ensconced in a mid-priced hotel along the river in Kanac. The location brought back memories. He and Adam Cain drove an alien tank into the river not far from here while fleeing from, well, everyone. The bounty the Juireans placed on their heads was high enough to get every alien with a weapon out after them. And in Kanac, everyone was armed. He sighed deeply, looking at the decent appointments of the room, which were nothing compared to what he’d just left.
His communicator rang an hour later. It was Janor.
“I understood you to be a professional,” the alien scolded. “Why are you trying to link yourself to MK?”
“Hey, I didn’t build the resort, you did! If you didn’t want me to stay there, you shouldn’t have made it so nice.”
“You are to practice stealth.”
“Until the deed is done. Yeah, I know. But then everyone will know I did it. Now, let’s get down to business. Where’s my money—my credits? Payment in advance, remember.”
“Where are you?”
Mike gave the alien the name of the hotel and the room number.
“A courier will bring your payment in a standard hour.”
“Here, all of it?”
“It is a single case. Is there a problem?”
Mike shook his head. “No, no problem. I guess I never thought how many chips there are in fifteen million JCs.”
“You demanded physical chips, not a transfer. Are you reconsidering?”
“No, I’ll deal with it. What about the Tac-60?”
“The Tac—oh, your weapon. Yes, that will be delivered as well, along with the payment.”
“Okay, good. Now, Janor,” Mike said sternly, “what about some more details? When and where is this going to take place? And do you have the location scoped out already, or is that up to me? I need some more information because I am a professional.”
Janor hesitated but then nodded. “Understood. You will decide on your firing location. The site of the kill will be the front of Adam Cain’s residence—”
“The bar? He lives in the bar, doesn’t he?”
“No, he now has a home at the end of the peninsula.” Janor grinned. “It is almost on the exact spot from which you shot the Quid-Elder.”
Mike laughed. “That’s convenient. Stationary or moving target?”
“He will be stationary.”
“How can you be sure?”
“When will this take place. I need time to find a suitable nest.”
Mike’s jaw fell open. “That soon?” he shook his head. “I don’t know. It takes time to set up, and then there’s exfil.”
“Exfil? I do not understand.”
“My getaway,” Mike explained. “You do expect me to get away after the kill, don’t you?”
“Of course. That has already been arranged. A seacraft will be waiting for you at the end of the peninsula. The operation will take place in darkness, and you will have ample time to escape and reach a secluded beach north of Balamar.”
Mike nodded. “Okay, that’s fine. I still need a route from the nest to the boat. I need time.”
“You do not have time. The event will take place on schedule. There will be no deviation.”
“You said two days. When precisely?”
“The timeframe is within a specific standard hour. You will be in place beforehand. We will be in communication as the parties assemble. All you need to do is wait until I give the authorization.”
“That sounds good. Will I need variation on target angle?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means will Cain be in the open or behind trees or a structure?”
“He will be in the open.” Janor appeared angered by the series of questions. “Be assured, Mr. Hannon, that MK has prepared extensively for this. This will be one of your easiest assignments and by far the most lucrative. If I were you, I would be thinking of that rather than building concerns over things beyond your control.”
Mike smirked. “It’s because they are beyond my control that I am concerned. That’s what being a professional is all about.”
“A professional killer.”
“It is not the ATD,” Lila said with certainty.
“Then why didn’t it work?”
Adam and Riyad were in the mutant’s lab, having come there for the results of the analysis that was done on Adam’s artificial telepathy device three days before.
“It was the weapons themselves,” she stated decisively. “They were modified.”
Adam raised his eyebrows. “How, why?”
“The why is simple. You have been found out. Someone has discovered your ability to sever firing controls on MK weapons. The how is also simple. The firing controls in the weapons recovered on site were replaced with proprietary circuits immune to ATD influence. They are similar to Formilian design, but just unique enough to protect them against interference.”
“MK did this?”
Lila shook her head. “That is unknown. It was only the terrorist’s weapons with this modification. The modifications could have been made on a small scale for this specific mission.”
“That means the Lindahlese were expecting you to be there,” Riyad pointed out.
“It had to have been from my time on their planet,” Adam said. “They saw what I did and put two and two together.” He grinned. “Smart little bastards, aren’t they? The bottom line is this is not widespread. I just hope MK doesn’t get wind of this; otherwise, my ATD will be just like yours.”
Riyad looked at Lila. “If that happens, is there anything you could do to modify his ATD, and even mine?”
Again, Lila shook her head. “Affecting the circuits is a very elaborate function of the device. The Formilian model is designed for that, as part of the job of the Speaker to demonstrate her connection with the gods. If MK—or others—begin placing modified controllers in individual weapons, it would be impossible to give the Gift—the ATD—the required capacity to influence each one. But since the power for all these weapons is the same, detection would not be affected. For you, Riyad, nothing will change. And for you, father, you will have to be more cautious. You must investigate whether or not you can locate the circuits. If not, then you will have detection capability only.”
It was Adam’s turn to shake his head. “Something doesn’t seem right. I accept the fact that the Lindahlese had these modified weapons, but that means they’re a lot more sophisticated than I thought. Just look at the killing devices they used on the workers in the park. They were primitive, almost prehistoric. Clubs and squeezing tools, but nothing technologically advanced. And now we’re to believe they can invent their own firing circuits and modify MK weapons, and all in what, a couple of weeks since what happened on Lindahl?”
“The tools they used on the planet were ritualistic,” Riyad pointed out. “That doesn’t say anything about their current level of scientific knowledge. They were a Prime race, top-level before Kracion attacked their world. They weren’t a bunch of apes swinging in the trees.”
Adam shrugged. “I’m just saying. They went through a lot of trouble for what was a suicide mission. None of the terrorists in the meeting hall expected to get out alive. They could have killed just as many with machetes or bombs.”
“That’s a good point,” Riyad acknowledged. “Too bad you and Sherri had to kill them all. It would have been nice to take one alive.”
“Don’t forget, you did your part.”
“My token kill was just to stay in practice. Yours and Sherri’s was for the score. And she still beat you.” Riyad’s trademark white smile didn’t temper the snark in the remark.
“Yeah, she got lucky.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.” He looked at Lila. “Thank you, my love,” he said, taking her hand and gently kissing it. “You have helped put our minds at rest. We will now leave you and Panur to your studies. Adam and I must get back to keeping the peace. An Enforcer’s job is never done.”
Neither is an assassin’s.
Mike Hannon rented a transport and drove to the tip of the Balamar peninsula. Most of the trip from Kanac to the coastal enclave was a journey of discovery, as he drove along the now broad and modern thoroughfare that connected the two cities. There wasn’t much of a distinction between them these days. The only break between the urban sprawl came at the northern border of the spaceport and the long tunnel that ran under the dinosaur migration trail. With the growth in the area, Mike doubted the animals came this way much anymore. There were too many buildings, too much traffic, and too many people.
Just beyond the tunnel was the turnoff for the new government complex, the site of the recent terrorist attack. The cluster of large buildings was visible from the road, with the Central Assembly Facility being the most prominent.
Mike thought this was interesting, but sightseeing wasn’t the purpose of the trip. At Lan Road, he turned north for a half-mile before veering to the left and entering the long spit of land that formed the northern rim of the Balamar crescent-shaped shoreline. It jutted out into the ocean for about two miles, terminating in a bulb of land now with three huge homes enjoying the incredible panoramic views. When Mike was last here, there had only been two buildings.
Cain’s residence was on the left side of the cul-de-sac and filled a patch of land that had once been covered in alien palmetto-type plants and coral mounds. Now, a modern single-story building filled the lot, made up of three wings, one pointing to the sea on the west, another to the south, and the third to the east and the city of Balamar. Enormous plate-glass windows opened up to the ocean and the shimmering crescent bay lined with eclectic, colorful structures and anchored to the south by the spectacular MK Resort. Between the homes, Mike took in the scene. It was breathtaking.
The bastard, Mike thought. Cain got the best lot in the area. Rank does have its privileges.
The assassin now turned his attention to the other two homes on the street. Curiously, they look vacant—not unoccupied, just that no one was home. A quick search of local news on his new datapad revealed that when most of the more affluent residents of Navarus fled ahead of Kanan’s attack, many had not returned as of yet. The owners of these two homes were a pair of the richest on the planet. They had other resources that allowed them to stay away longer, even after the threat passed. And now, with the turmoil and crowds of the upcoming refugee vote, the occupants were still gone. MK knew this and gave him the codes to the security gates when the money and his weapon were delivered. It seemed they had thought of everything.
Mike parked the transport and entered the grounds of the home at the very end of the peninsula. He didn’t bother going inside the house; that wasn’t his purpose, to spy on the upper class of Navarean society. Instead, he moved along the side pavers to the expansive patch of grass leading to the sea. It was an incredible view, but what he was interested in more was the access down the bluff to the beach. An inflatable boat would be waiting there for him, placed on the sand above the surf. It would be fast, yet quiet, powered by an electric motor. Next, he would survey the shoreline to the north for a place to make a safe landfall. He would have a vehicle waiting there to take him to the spaceport. He wouldn’t be waiting around to watch the fireworks after he killed Adam Cain. After the deed, he would be able to hear enough about it anywhere in the galaxy he went.
After finding an easy path to the beach, he returned to the front yard of the estate. There was a security wall surrounding the compound, with several decorative openings within the brick structure, ideal for sighting through. Cain’s house didn’t have a fence around the compound—something the arrogant ex-SEAL would not live to regret, Mike thought with a smirk. He was ex-Delta Force, and there was an age-old rivalry between the SEALs and Deltas. Although he felt a twinge of regret having accepted the contract to kill a fellow commando, the fifteen million credits softened the blow.
He knelt and sighted through one of the openings in the wall using a small telescopic rangefinder he bought on Genannt. The distance to Adam’s front door was just over a hundred yards. This would make the shot with the McMillan Tac-60 a walk in the park and overkill at this range. He could use a smaller round with less grain to slow down the bullet, placing it in the two thousand foot-per-second range rather than the typical three thousand plus for the weapon.
This now raised another issue. The weapon was designed for long-range ops, not close-in targets such as this. As such, his time to exfil would be greatly reduced. He would have to be moving almost the moment he pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the light gravity of Navarus would help. He snickered. He’d found a path down the bluff to the sandy beach, but in the heat of the moment, he doubted he would even bother. He’d probably just jump through the air like Peter Pan. It would be quicker and a lot more fun.
But one thing in his favor with such a close shot was he could use a suppressor on the barrel. Even so, a powerful weapon like the Tac-60 would still make noise. He checked the acoustics of the street. There were other walls to the left and farther down the road. The sound of his shot would echo off these, even the front portico of Adam’s house. That would cause a moment of confusion if others were around as they decided which direction the shot came from. And that raised another question. Would he be alone? Janor hadn’t said, only that he would be there within a specific hour and be in the open. Seeing the layout of the street, he could see there was no cover leading to the front door. That was good.
All in all, the site was near perfect, even though it was located at the end of a peninsula. Ideally, he would want multiple escape routes. But for fifteen million credits, he was expected to take a few risks.
He returned to his transport, wondering how MK would know precisely when Adam Cain would be at his front door? He looked at his watch as he drove away. He would find out if they were right in just under thirty-four hours.
In the meantime, he had other arrangements to make.
Adam was still living in the attic above the bar when he took the job of Marshal. That made Riyad’s old outfitting business next door the perfect location for his office. It was a decision he now regretted.
With the long hours he was working trying to keep thousands of refugees from killing each other in the lead-up to the vote, he spent many a night sleeping on the couch in his office. That was, of course, when he could sleep.
Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill ended up being a favorite for the refugees. They flocked to the restaurant, preferring it to the more spacious, sophisticated and expensive MK resort down the street. Many of those from what was now considered MK worlds refused to frequent the resort out of protest. This was great for Cain’s, even if the noise kept Adam awake most nights when he crashed on the couch in his office.
Kaylor and Jym ran the bar for him full-time, employing a sizeable staff of other aliens as cooks, bartenders and wait staff. After the planet was declared safe and open for business again after the Kanan threat, the two managers dispensed with closing time, keeping the bar open around the clock based on popular demand and practicality. With so many aliens arriving from other parts of the galaxy, regular working hours meant nothing. All the visitors to the planet operated on their own local time, and finding a business that was open all the time was a godsend for many, especially if it served intoxicants.
In the meantime, the general partners of the business were raking in the credits like never before. On that front, things were going better than ever, with no one complaining. Except for Adam when he couldn’t get enough sleep over the din heard from next door.
It was well past midnight, and the bar and restaurant were packed. Jym was being his usual frenetic self, exhibiting an energy level Kaylor had marveled at for the past forty years. He couldn’t keep up with the tiny, bear-like creature, and after so long working beside his best friend, he no longer tried. That was why he was content to delegate most of the day-to-day operations of running the bar and restaurant to his life-long friend. And in the late night—such as tonight—Kaylor would slink off to a back office and catch a little sleep. It wasn’t a requirement that he and Jym work around the clock; they had employees to cover their off-time. But during the peak hours, it was all hands on deck, as Adam often said. But at Kaylor’s age, that was becoming harder to do. These tiny moments of relief were becoming more welcoming as this current rush was underway. He found himself hoping that after the vote, things would calm down, get back to normal. He often laughed at the thought, knowing if that happened, then all he would do is complain that not enough customers were coming through the doors. As he plopped down on the cot, he thought that he and Jym would never be satisfied. Ever. And maybe it was for the best—
He sensed the other person in the room almost immediately. It was dark in the office; he hadn’t bothered to turn on the light when entering, savoring the dark like a warm blanket. But now, he grew concerned. He sat up on the cot just as strong arms and hands grasped at his Belsonian body. A length of tape was placed over his mouth before he could cry out, and then rough bindings were thrown around his arms and legs. In only a moment, he was lying on the cot again, but this time trapped and bound, unable to move.
A thin light under the door provided a little illumination, and once his eyes adjusted, it was enough for Kaylor to see there were three assailants. He recognized the species from the videos. They were Lindahlese, the same creatures who massacre the attendees at the pre-vote conference. Their kind was still present on Navarus, although they were being watched everywhere they went. Their leader, a creature named Femano, insisted that his organization was not behind the killings, but the evidence against them was overwhelming.
And now this. What were they to do with him? What did they hope to gain? And the fact that the Enforcer Marshal was in the building next door, they were taking an incredible risk. That was a sign of desperation.
Kaylor was an experienced fighter, although most of that experience occurred years ago, during his time as a freelance merchant, hauling often-illegal products throughout the Fringe. Even so, he was tough of mind and steely in resolve. He remained calm. He knew what these terrorists had done at the Assembly Facility. Were they planning the same massacre-level event at Cain’s? He didn’t have the answer, but one thing was sure, an operation was underway, and capturing him was just the beginning.
The door to the office suddenly opened, and Kaylor saw Jym’s small figure silhouetted in the light from outside.
“You buzzed me, Kaylor?”
He said nothing more before he was hauled inside the room by two tall, bulky figures and the door shut. A moment later, Kaylor’s friend and business partner was bound and lying on the cot next to him.
There was a side door in the office that led to the alley between Cain’s and Sherri’s Golden Slipper Hotel next door. It opened, and strong arms lifted the two from the cot and slung them over broad shoulders. They were moved outside and into the cool night air. At the building’s edge facing the ocean, their abductors paused. There were dozens of patrons seated at the tables on the sand. Two cooks still worked the smoky bar-b-que grill, and waiters and waitresses moved among the crowd, filling orders. All this activity was only feet away from the alley where the kidnappers held their prisoners. What they expected to do at the moment was anyone’s guess.
And then a barrage of loud and brilliant fireworks exploded down the beach to the south. Kaylor was as shocked as everyone by the fiery display. It was past midnight, and no such display was scheduled, as far as he knew. However, the unexpected nature of the event was having the desired effect. All eyes turned to the towering streams of colored light and expanding blossoms, including the attention of the cooks and staff.
Kaylor’s captors now raced off across the sand, heading north and into the deep shadows of night. They reached the shore a moment later, where a boat was waiting. He and Jym were tossed roughly into the bed of the vessel before the terrorists climbed in after one pushed the craft into the water. A moment later, the boat was racing over the glass-like surface, aiming for the distant tip of the Balamar peninsula.
Adam wasn’t asleep—not on this night in particular—but still, the explosions from the unscheduled firework show irritated him. He looked out the back window at the bursts in the sky, his attention now on full alert. This wasn’t right. The fireworks should not be going off.
Fortunately, they only lasted a moment before the relative quiet returned to the beach south of Cain’s.
He flicked on a light and went to his desk, where he sat staring at the communicator. It rang a moment later.
“This is Marshal Cain.”
“We have abducted your friends,” a voice said. “They are the Belsonian known as Kaylor, and the Fulquin known as Jym.”
“You’ve done what?”
“We have abducted the pair from Capt. Cain’s. You may verify this if you wish, but you do not have much time. They have been taken to your residence by boat where they will be held until you arrive.”
“And then what?”
“We will then exchange our hostages for you, at which time our demands will be presented. You will remain our prisoner until they are met.”
“They will be revealed once you arrive at your residence. But hurry. If you do not appear within the next fifteen standard minutes, one of your friends will be executed, followed quickly by the other. We are members of the same tier-refs that staged the attack on the pre-vote meeting. As such, you know we are determined to be heard. Now, hurry. The lives of your friends are in your hands.”
Ten miles away, another communicator rang. It was picked up by the mutant Panur. Although neither he nor Lila slept, he knew it was late night at Camp Forrester, and the grating sound of the alert had interrupted his studies of the ancient Aris artifacts. No one should be calling at this late hour.
“What do you want?” he barked at the dark screen. The caller was using private mode.
“Panur, this is Enforcer dispatch. I regret to inform you, but we have discovered an assassination plot against Adam Cain. He is currently on the way to his residence, where the deed will be carried out. Our local comms have been blocked, so there is no way for us to warn—”
A screech blared out from the comm device. Panur looked at the tiny box with anger. He then looked to the computer on which he had been working. It, too, was affected by the blocking signal. Lila appeared from one of the side rooms.
“Electronics are being blocked by a potent and sophisticated jamming signal,” she reported.
“I see that. It’s affecting the communication lines as well.”
“We are under attack.”
“Not only us,” Panur said. “Enforcer headquarters in Balamar is also being hit. This is area-wide. I also received an interrupted report that there is an assassination attempt underway on Adam—”
“Father!” Lila exclaimed. “Details!”
“I have little. It’s said to take place at his home on the peninsula. He is on his way there; however, there’s no way to warn him.”
“We must go to his aid!” Lila was already moving to the door.
“I agree. Engage the security protocols as we leave.”
The mutants were out of the lab a moment later. The two guards at the front entrance were startled by their sudden appearance. Nothing ever happened at the lab of a security nature, so both were barely awake at the hour.
“We are taking your vehicle,” Lila said without asking. It was a modern version of a Jeep, run by electricity instead of gasoline.
“Eh, sure, ma’am,” a sergeant said as he stood up, fumbling with his M-101 assault rifle. The other guard simply stood slack-jawed, but with steely eyes. He watched as the two mutants climbed into the vehicle with Lila driving. This was the first time he’d seen either mutant drive a car. He didn’t know they knew how.
There were four other Enforcers in the front area of Adam’s annex, pulling the midwatch. Adam ignored them as he rushed through the small connecting corridor and into the restaurant area of Cain’s. He spotted one of the lead servers.
“Where’s Kaylor and Jym?” he asked, his tone drawing the attention of the patrons around him.
Suwon Lozwin shook his thin head, his antenna curling into coils atop his head from embarrassment. “I have not seen them recently. They could be in the office.”
Adam ran past him to the other side of the room, past the bar, and turned right at the kitchen. He barreled into the office only to find it empty, and the outer door left open. He rushed out and across the restaurant again. By now, nearly everyone in the building was aware something was up. First the strange firework display, and now this.
Adam entered the Enforcer building again, already barking out orders.
“Call Deputy Marshal Tarazi. Tell him to dispatch a hostage rescue unit to my home as soon as possible. Kaylor and Jym have been abducted. I’m heading there now. Tell Riyad to use caution. I’ll be in touch along the way.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said a black-skinned female alien at one of the desks. “Comms are not responding.”
Adam stopped at the exit and took his comm unit from his pocket.
“The same here,” said another of the night staff.
His was blocked, too. Not dead but filled with static. Adam shook his head. This was too sophisticated to be carried out by a bunch of displaced refugees. “Get over to headquarters,” Adam commanded. “Round up anyone you find there. Get them to my house.”
The main Enforcer building was only a quarter-mile south of Adam’s office on the other side of Lan Road. His officers would run there to get the word out. In the meantime, Adam was out the building and climbing into his personal patrol vehicle a moment later. He spun away from the curb and headed north using the standard emergency lights all cars of this type employed across the galaxy. With the influx of refugees to the town recently, there was still a considerable amount of traffic at this hour. Most were hired transports that understood what the flashing lights meant. They cleared the way for his speeding patrol car. He only had fifteen minutes to get to his house before one of his closest friends died. He wasn’t about to be late.
Traffic lessened on the road leading to the end of the peninsula. It was quiet in the cul-de-sac, but the lights were on in his house. He was sure he’d turned them off when he left two days before. The patrol car skidded to a halt, at an angle headed away from his front door. He kicked the door open and slipped out, making a beeline for the entrance.
The door opened before he got there.
A Lindahlese appeared, dressed in a black outfit, and armed with the ubiquitous Xan-fi flash rifle. Adam stopped, eyeing the weapon. Remembering what Panur had said, he scanned the rifle with his ATD. He grimaced. The firing control was invisible. The terrorists had a larger supply of the modified weapons than just those used at the meeting hall.
From his cocky stance, the alien in the doorway knew he had the advantage over the Human. What he didn’t know about was Adam’s limited ability to absorb and vent energy bolts.
Another alien appeared behind the first, this one holding Jym by his hair and with an MK-17 pressed against the side of his head.
“Stay where you are,” the first alien commanded.
“I thought you wanted to exchange me for them? Here I am.”
“In good time. First, our demands must be made. We will wait until others arrive.”
“Surely, you have alerted your Enforcers.”
Adam couldn’t lie, not with the wail of sirens in the background. A moment later, three more patrol vehicles entered the cul-de-sac and skidded to stops, facing his house with their headlights illuminating the standoff taking place on the front porch.
A groggy looking Riyad took cover behind one of the cars, with a hybrid super rifle—commonly called a BAR—resting across the hood.
Adam went to join him.
“What’s going on?” Riyad inquired. “How’s Kaylor and Jym?”
“They’re okay, for the moment. They want to exchange me for them.”
Riyad thought for a short moment before responding. “So, what are we waiting for? Do it.”
Riyad knew of Adam’s secret abilities. The best way to end the hostage standoff would be to let Adam be taken prisoner. It never worked out well for the bad guys when that happened.
“They want to present their demands to someone first, someone who can relay them to … well, I don’t know. Someone who they think can make them happen.”
“What do they want?”
“I don’t know. They haven’t told me.”
Riyad stood up and handed the BAR to Adam. “Hold this; maybe they’ll tell me.”
“I think that’s—”
The rifle report was distinct yet muffled. Still, it rang out across the neighborhood, echoing off surfaces and sounding like multiple shots at once.
Riyad knew better and instinctively looked behind him at the wall of the estate next door. The building was dark, not even security lights on. He knew the other two houses on the street were vacant. They had been since the start of the Kanan crisis.
He turned back to Adam. “Who the hell is shooting—”
Riyad gasped when he saw Adam’s body draped across the hood of the car, face down, and blood oozing that was beginning to drip off the metal surface. He rushed to the other side of the transport and took Adam by his shirt, pulling the body to the ground, using the car to shield them from any additional shots that might come from the vacant house.
“The house at the end!” he yelled to his stunned troops. “Active shooter! Go, go now.”
To their credit, a contingent of six different species showed true courage and rushed forward, their weapons drawn, covering each other as they approached the wall of the estate. Other troops were coming to Adam’s aid, crowding around the pair of Humans.
There was so much blood, looking black in the dim light of the street, lit only by the headlights of the patrol cars aimed toward the house. Riyad felt for a pulse along the neck. It was there, and fairly strong. That was a good sign. He turned to four of the Enforcers around him.
“Pick him up; carry him into the house.”
“The house?” asked one of them, incredulously.
“Yeah, the house.”
Riyad stood up and withdrew his MK-47 advanced handgun. The two alien terrorists still stood in the doorway, lit by the headlights and with stunned looks on their faces. Riyad strode forward before lifting his weapon and placing an accurate level-one bolt into the head of the alien holding Jym. The force of the bolt on the thin bone of the alien skull left only a bloody stalk where the head once was. The alien’s gun hand went limp, and Jym pulled away. Riyad’s next bolt came only a split second after the first and burned a hole in the chest of the lead terrorist.
He was through the door and into the hardwood floored foyer, looking into the huge, high-ceilinged great room. Two other black-clad aliens were there, one standing over Kaylor on the couch while tentatively aiming his MK in the Belsonian’s direction while distracted by what was happening outside the house. In one smooth movement, Riyad lifted his weapon and lit off another bolt. It struck Kaylor’s guard at the intersection of his arm and shoulder, severing the limb holding the MK. It fell to the floor with the hand still clutching the weapon.
The last surviving Lindahlese dropped his Xan-fi and held his arms out to his side. Riyad stepped toward him. Having learned the lesson of the attack on the Central Assembly Facility, he wanted this one alive. But the alien didn’t have to remain conscious for that to happen. A flat handed left to the side of the alien’s head was enough to send him to the floor. Riyad hoped his featherlight hit hadn’t killed him; a groan from the floor confirmed he was still alive.
“Watch him,” Riyad said to one of the dozen Enforcers who were now flooding into the house. The four with Adam had him at the edge of the great room, heading for one of the white sofas.
“Not the couch!” Riyad yelled, and not a moment too soon. “Put him on the table instead.” If Adam survived, he would be pissed if they soiled his couch with his bloody body. “Find me a doctor!”
The troops on sight were just those pulling the late-night shift at headquarters and without a medic on sight, especially one who would know Human anatomy. Like Adam, Riyad was spending more nights in his office rather than make the twenty-minute trip south to his house. He’d built almost a mirror structure to Adam’s, but just up the hill from the southern beach, about a mile beyond Coop’s old shipyard. He’d even taken up surfing when the planet wasn’t about to be destroyed, or some ancient Aris service module wasn’t trying to kill him.
“Get back,” he commanded the crowd. None of the officers in the room knew Human anatomy. Riyad knew some, having been trained in battlefield emergency medical procedures as a young freedom fighter in Lebanon and Afghanistan. But that was a long time ago; however, if there was one thing he remembered, it was that in emergencies, where life or death was a matter of seconds, one couldn’t be too gentle.
He ripped open Adam’s bloody shirt, searching for the entry wound. Adam had been facing the middle estate at the time he was shot, so the assassin’s bullet would have found center mass without difficulty. Riyad grimaced at the thought. The sound of the weapon was familiar. It was a high-powered sniper rifle, fired at what for it was point-blank range. He cringed, thinking it can’t possibly be—Mike Hannon!
As anger overwhelmed him, Riyad swiped away the blood, looking for the wound. He grew anxious, even panicky when he couldn’t find it. Surely with this much blood and that close a range, Adam’s chest should be one giant hole.
That’s when he noticed the strange bulk on the inside of Adam’s shirt. He stood up quickly and gawked at the body.
“Out! Everyone out!” he barked. No one moved. “Go, I say.” He took his MK-47 from its holster and fired two quick level-one bolts into the ceiling for effect. That got them moving, and within a few seconds, the room was clear, everyone moving back out into the cul-de-sac. Riyad followed them to the double front doors and closed them as the last Enforcer left. He rushed back to Adam’s body.
Adam was sitting up on the table by the time Riyad returned.
“Thanks for not wrecking my couch, buddy. I had it shipped all the way from Earth. It cost a small fortune.”
“What the hell?” Riyad stammered. He felt the consistency of the blood that covered his hands and arms, as well as most of his once-immaculate Enforcer uniform.
Adam did the same. “It’s real blood. Dinosaur blood, taken from the kitchen at Cain’s. I didn’t know there’d be so much.”
Riyad pointed the MK at Adam. “You’re not dead? “But you will be, you son-of-a-rotten-goatherder!” he threatened.
“You’ve already used your five level-1s,” Adam said, grinning.
“Maybe I slipped in another battery pack—when you were dead.”
“You didn’t.” The blood was everywhere now, including his face. “Now calm down, and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”
“It’s obvious; it was a set-up. Who took the shot? It was Hannon, wasn’t it?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We couldn’t. He was hired by MK to kill me and make it look like the Lindahlese did it. He’s been watched since he got here. We couldn’t take the chance of anyone changing their routines on the off chance MK might call it off.”
“Okay, so you’re not dead, and MK doesn’t know it. What’s their endgame?”
“That we don’t know. If they just wanted me dead, they didn’t have to go through all this trouble of bringing Mike back here and staging the kidnapping. We decided to let it play out to see what else they’re up to.”
“Up to their neck in trouble, that’s what they are!”
“Remember, this is MK. Who do you go after, some local rube who will take the fall? We need to find out why they want me dead.”
“They’ve met you; what more reason do they need?”
The front doors to his house suddenly burst open. Riyad stood up and rushed to stop whoever it was from entering the great room. Adam had to remain dead—
It was Panur and Lila. Riyad shrugged. Yeah, no one’s going to stop them.
Lila rushed to her father, placing her hand on his blood-soaked body and clothes. “You are alive? How badly are you hurt?”
“Not at all, Lila. Calm down. It’s not real.”
“Not real?” Panur stated. The look on his grey face spoke volumes. He was mad as a hornet. “Get to explaining, Mr. Cain.”
“MK tried to take me out. They hired Mike Hannon to do it, the same Human who killed the Quid-Elder. But Mike owed me a favor for saving his life, so he saved me. He came to Navarus with some undercover comm equipment and made contact with me. We decided to let it play out to see what MK hopes to gain from this.”
“I am relieved, but immensely angered,” said Lila. She had gotten angry like this once before and took out the headquarters building for the Gradis Cartel, killing thousands. Would she do that again, this time against MK? Adam pitied Maris-Kliss at the moment, although rampant death and destruction wouldn’t do them much good against an organization as large as MK.
“They used more of the Lindahlese to kidnap Kaylor and Jym to lure me here. They’re okay, thanks to old eagle-eye Riyad.”
“They lured you here?” Panur asked.
“I knew what they intended to do. I just didn’t know how they were going to do it. By the way, how did you find out about it? MK shut down the comms during the attack.”
Lila and Panur looked at each other, their faces hard as stone.
Panur looked at Adam. “I received a call supposedly from your dispatch personnel informing us of an impending assassination attempt on you.”
“Assassination? Only Mike and I knew about the assassination. This was a hostage crisis.”
“No, it was not,” Panur said. “It was an elaborate attempt to get Lila and me to leave the lab.”
The black-clad team moved through the shadows near the edge of Camp Forrester, approaching the singular building that was their target. They knew where the security cameras were placed, as well as the routine and schedules of the guards. Even so, MK had taken no chances. When the six-person squad reached the main door, one of the Human guards was already dead, while the other stepped aside and let them enter.
The leader of the team was a Veznolean named Pebish. He’d spent the past ten days memorizing every crack and crevasse of the building, both inside and out, thanks to the floorplans and schematics provided by the not-so-small fortune MK spent to gain the intelligence. They punched in the proper codes at the interior security doors and entered the main lab. What they were looking for wasn’t here, but in three of the smaller offices located at the rear of the building.
Months ago, the mutants separated the dark matter collectors, locking them away in three separate safes dug into the concrete floor. It took MK spies time and effort to piece together the codes, using a combination of direct observation and hidden cameras. It was dangerous work, especially considering on whom they were spying. However, the mutants were so engrossed in their research that they paid little attention to the various helpers who came and went. Their overconfidence was to be their downfall.
Now Pebish’s team broke up and moved to separate rooms, quickly opening the safes and removing three long, metal boxes. Pebish knew what they contained, and he’d seen what the contents could do when configured to interact. Video of both the destruction of Dasnon and the mountain on this world conveyed as much.
As his team set to work, Pebish had a separate agenda. He moved directly to a filing cabinet in the main workroom and punched in the combination. A moment later, he placed a small, flat object into his pocket and moved to another rack within the room, this one covered with ancient, crusted artifacts. He rifled through them before pocketing another item. The team met up in the main work area.
He took one of the metal containers and sat it on a table in the middle of the workroom. Another team member pulled a strange-looking contraption from his satchel, placing it on the table without a word. Pebish lifted the lid of his container and slid aside the inner shield. He steeled his resolve, looking at the ninety small cubicles and their corresponding grey cubes, knowing the awesome destructive power they held. Using forceps, he reached in and removed one of the cubes. He carefully checked the orientation as he’d been instructed and place the cube in a holder on the wire apparatus. Then he removed a second cube, placing it at the opposite side of the holder. The two dark matter cubes were separated by about six inches, with their cradles on tracks, and with plungers to the outside of the boxes. A small control unit would start the containers moving closer to one another. Pebish took a deep breath and pressed the button. The mechanism was controlled by an internal timer with no shutoff. Once the button was pushed, there was no stopping it.
Forty minutes, and not only would the mutant’s laboratory be gone, but so would the entire Human military base. It was at moments like these that Pebish was proud he worked for MK. It was an honor and privilege to belong to such an efficient organization.
With care, the other team member lifted the strange mechanism from the table and took it to an open storage cabinet. He placed it inside before moving some of the cabinet’s other items in front to hide it. It wasn’t much, but if one weren’t looking for the device, it would be impossible to find. At least in time to make a difference.
Without a word, the team then placed the three dark matter collectors into hardbacked containers and then covered them in black canvass to shield their reflective surfaces.
They were out of the building six minutes after entering and back in the shadows, heading for the exfil point and a short ride to the nearby Kanac spaceport where a waiting shuttle would take them off the planet with their treasure.
The plan was moving along like clockwork.
Dinys Paul was picking leaves and branches from around his perch and tossing them down at the other parties in his team in a frantic attempt to get their attention. He had to alert them; however, his communicator wasn’t working. And he couldn’t yell, not this close to the boundary of the military base.
Out of desperation, he climbed down out of the insect-infected tree to confront them face-to-face.
It was late night, and the team members were asleep, all except Dinys. When his shift was over, he would climb down and wake up his replacement. No one would be expecting any activity in the building at this hour, not the least of which being his fellow Lindahlese agents.
“Awake,” he whispered while rousing the others from their slumber. They were encased in mesh bug-shields and were soon fumbling with the zippers to climb out.
“What is happening?” asked Steien Morten, the team leader.
“The mutants have left,” said Dinys anxiously. “They took a vehicle and have gone in a rush.”
Steien looked around at the other four members of his team. They were tasked with maintaining constant surveillance on the mutants’ work building, standing shifts, hoping for an opportunity to enter the laboratory, and then abscond with the treasure that would guarantee the return of their homeworld, Lindahl, to the natives. They were forty days into their vigil, and this was the first opportunity that had presented itself.
“Prepare,” said Steien. “We are going in.”
The team had already cut a hidden passage through the wire fencing surrounding the Human military facility, and now they silently moved through, dressed in all black and carrying tranquilizer weapons designed not to alert the surrounding soldiers. To the person, Steien’s team knew they were risking their lives breaking into the base. After all, these were Humans and a lot of them. An ordinary Human was a lethal killing machine; this was a base with thousands of trained professionals. One false move and they would be torn to shreds by the beasts, just as Adam Cain had recently dispatched over two hundred of their brethren on Lindahl, consuming several on the spot as he feasted on their still-warm bodies. At least that was the story the occasional relief shift had told them. The fear they had of Humans made the team especially cautious.
Over the many days and nights of watching the building, the Lindahlese had a fairly good idea where the security measures were located, at least on the outside of the building. There had been discussions about what internal security they might encounter; however, knowing that the mutants were all-powerful and always there, it was reasoned there wouldn’t be much inside. It wouldn’t be necessary. However, there was a set of guards watching the front entrance. They had a small, protected alcove set into the building that kept them out of the weather and with controls for the entrance door.
Dinys took a dart weapon and sighted along the barrel using infrared light to illuminate the targets. One of the guards was tending to another, who appeared to be asleep. At this hour, that was not out of the ordinary. The alien locked onto the targets and released two quick shots into the guards. A chemical analysis of Human blood had been done before this, so Dinys knew the darts would be effective. They were, as the standing guard suddenly collapsed to the concrete floor. The sleeping sentry remained in his slumber.
The team quickly moved to the entrance and crowded into the vestibule, out of sight of the security cameras. To their delight, the main door was unlocked, so they moved in, leaving two of the team to stand watch outside. A quick check showed that the communicators were working again.
Steien and the others had a vague idea what they were looking for. They knew that dark matter was contained in small, grey cubes, and that they could replenish their supply in only a few days. That meant the collector could be small. Still, Steien stopped and gawked at the myriad of items in the large workroom. They covered the counters and lined the shelves along the wall. There were storage and file cabinets, along with an amazing array of testing instruments. It was overwhelming for the three team members. But after a moment, he sent the other two off to search the cabinets. It was safe to assume something as dangerous and powerful as a dark matter collector wouldn’t be left sitting on a countertop. It would be locked away, and for that, Steien had come prepared with an assortment of small explosives designed to break any lock they might encounter.
“I have found something,” said Dinys, much to Steien’s surprise. They’d only been searching for a little over a minute.
Steien moved to the open doors of a tall storage cabinet. Dinys had separated piles of books and other items and was pointing at an odd mechanism made of wire, brackets and metal buckets. Within the buckets, Steien saw two small grey cubes, matching the description of the dark matter containers.
With shock and awe, Steien looked at his companion, overcome by their incredible luck.
“Could that be it?” he whispered.
“It would appear so.”
“Remove it; bring it to the table where we may examine it.”
At the table, the three Lindahlese thieves studied the mechanism. There were electronic components, wires, rails and tracks; however, it was the two uniformly grey cubes resting in the holders that confirmed their belief. This has to be a dark matter collector.
“Find something to carry it in,” Steien ordered. “It looks fragile. We must not break it.”
There were plenty of containers in the room, made of either plastic, metal or paper. They chose a plastic container because of the dark color and placed the mechanism inside. Then Steien made a motion with his hand toward the door, and the team left, collecting the guards at the entrance on the way out. They were through the hole in the wire a minute later and back into the cover of the surrounding jungle.
They had a small, all-terrain electric vehicle about a quarter-mile past their observation post. Once arriving at the transport, they activated the cart and raced off through the darkness, heading for the nearby Kanac Spaceport.
Steien used his communicator to alert the crew of the small starship at the spaceport who waited patiently in case they were needed.
“We have it,” he announced proudly. “Have your vessel ready. We will be there in ten minutes.”
To keep the truth of Adam’s fake death a secret, Panur and Riyad carried the limp and bloody body out of the house and placed it in the backseat of the mutant’s Jeep.
Riyad went to an inconsolable Kaylor and Jym and told them everything would be all right, and that it wasn’t their fault. Adam was lured here by the tier-refs. It was important to maintain MK’s cover story about the assassination, although he hated not being able to tell his two alien friends the truth. It shouldn’t be long before MK would tip their hand, Riyad reasoned. Leaving Kaylor and Jym emotional wrecks would help convince MK that their plan succeeded.
Once in the Jeep, Riyad drove the vehicle not to a hospital or Enforcer headquarters, but instead to the mutant’s laboratory. When they arrived, there was a circus of activity around the building. They were afraid of this. Were they too late? Had the MK thieves been able to break the combinations on the safes to get to the dark matter collectors?
Adam remained in the Jeep, covered by a military-green wool blanket, yet with a now-working communicator close to his face.
Panur and Lila went to the nearest office with Riyad on their tail. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know they were late. The floor safe was open, and the contents were missing. For confirmation, they went to the other offices before ending up in the central laboratory. Lila went directly to an open filing cabinet. She looked inside before casting a nervous look at Panur.
“It is gone, too,” she said, her voice filled with concern. “Curious. How could they have known.”
“What’s gone, the disk?” Riyad asked.
Panur waved his hand impatiently. “It’s not the immediate concern.”
Riyad rested his elbows on the central worktable, depressed and scared.
“MK has enough power to destroy the galaxy,” he said after Panur cleared the room of the military police who were milling around, having been alerted to the break-in by the surviving guard. Tranquilizer darts had hit both; one was fine, but the other guard hit his head when he fell and broke his neck. It was just one more tragedy in a day of tragedies.
“They do not wish to destroy the galaxy,” Panur said sourly. “However, that may be the result. There was a reason we kept the technology from the weapons manufacturers,” he continued. “At one time, they envisioned having all their weapons powered by dark energy. We rejected that notion because then each device could be conceivably converted into a dark matter bomb. Granted, they would be small, but still powerful enough to take out a building. Imagine trillions of such potential bombs circulating throughout the galaxy.”
“I remember,” Riyad said. “And that was when there was only one DMC floating around. Now there are three.”
Lila was at a computer terminal. The electronics were working again since the jamming was done only to cover the assassination and the theft.
“I have the footage cued up,” she said.
“What footage?” Riyad asked.
Panur and Riyad huddled behind Lila, who was seated at a desk, working the computer.
“We installed motion-triggered security cameras,” Panur explained. “We’re here most of the time, but on the rare occasions when we leave, we wanted a record. Play the sequence.”
Lila obliged. The image began just as movement appeared in the room. A squad of alien commandos entered the laboratory, dressed in black, rehearsed professionals and familiar with the layout. A moment later, they separated, with pairs going to each of the three offices. One remained in the main work area. But he wasn’t idle. He moved around the chamber with purpose and then joined his team back at the central exam table in the large room.
“They knew we would leave to help father. They were waiting nearby,” Lila commented. “They knew precisely where to go and already had the combinations. We were sloppy in our security.”
“I wouldn’t blame yourselves,” Riyad said. “MK has all the money in the galaxy to bribe people into spying for them.” He then pointed at the screen. “What are they doing?”
“They’re making a dark matter fusion bomb,” Lila answered. “Crude yet effective.” She jumped to her feet.
“They made a bomb! A dark matter bomb?” Riyad gasped, looking around the room in a panic.
He wasn’t the only one to react. Panur joined in.
“Yes, they did!” Panur concurred. He and Lila studied the monitor before rushing to a cabinet and flinging open the doors. “We must deactivate the device, or else everything within a mile will be sucked into the singularity, including us!”
So, the immortal doesn’t want to die, Riyad thought. I can’t blame him. Neither do I.
Panur fumbled around inside the cabinet but found nothing.
“This is the right location,” he stated.
“It is,” Lila confirmed.
“Wait, there’s more on the recording.”
Riyad was now at the computer, as the motion-activated cameras began recording a second sequence. He wanted to see if the thieves came back and moved the bomb. The mutants rushed over to see.
“Those aren’t the same thieves, are they?” Riyad asked.
“No,” Panur said. “They are Lindahlese. And notice how they’re wandering around. They do not know what an accumulator looks like.”
It was only a moment into the recording before the second set of thieves discovered the bomb.
“They took it!” Riyad exclaimed. “Damn, it could be anywhere!”
“Odds would place it at the spaceport, either having left the planet or preparing to leave,” Panur said.
“Let’s hope they’re already gone. I need to warn the spaceport, get them to evacuate.” Riyad opened the connection on his communicator to Enforcer dispatch.
“Wait a moment, please,” Lila said. She was back in the chair at the computer and replaying the video of the bomb’s construction.
“Never mind,” Riyad said into the device. “I’ll call you back.” He cut the link. “What do you see?”
“The device is on a timer. Observe the distance between the cubes. Studying the time stamp of when the bomb was activated and when it was removed from the building, I suspect there may only be a few minutes remaining before detonation. Even if you try, you will not be able to stop the event from happening if the bomb is still on Navarus.”
Riyad shallowed hard. “So, for all we know, it could be in the jungle only a few hundred yards from here.”
“Possibly, but not likely,” Lila said. “The second set of thieves was not part of the original plan. I would suspect they have been observing the building and saw an opportunity when we left to assist father. They would have no idea how long we would be gone and would seek to leave the planet as soon as possible before the theft was discovered.”
“And since they didn’t intend to kill the guards, the alarm would have gone out whether or not we returned,” Panur added. “I agree with Lila. They’re off the planet by now.”
“I certainly hope—”
The building suddenly rattled, and the lights flickered.
“Or I could be wrong,” Panur conceded.
Riyad’s communicator chimed. It was Adam, his face illuminated by the blue glow of the screen under the blanket in the Jeep.
“Something just happened out here, in the sky, I think. A really bright light.”
“Sit tight; we’re coming out to take a look.”
Riyad and the mutants ran outside, soon to join the crowd of military personnel staring into the sky. A faint green afterglow, like that of the aurora borealis, filled a wide swath of space above them. It was fading fast.
“What happened?” Riyad asked one of the MPs.
“I don’t know, sir,” the corporal answered. “A bright light just flashed and then disappeared. I still have the image in my eyes.”
“A dark matter event in space would leave little trace beyond the initial blast,” Panur pointed out to Riyad.
“What’s going on?” Adam asked through the still open comm link.
Riyad stepped out of earshot of the soldiers.
“MK has the DMCs, all of them. Then they built a bomb to hide the theft—and to take out the base. But it looks like your Lindahlese friends came in afterward and took the bomb thinking it was a DMC.”
“Lindahlese … were here?”
“Yeah, they came in right after the MK thieves took off with the real DMCs.”
“Why did they think the bomb was a collector?”
“You said it yourself; they ain’t that bright. Looks as if you were right. What you saw was the bomb going off in the Lindahlese getaway ship.”
“What about the real DMCs?”
“They’re gone, my friend. MK has them.”
There was a long silence on the line. Both men could imagine the havoc MK could wreck with three dark matter collectors.
“We have to get them back.”
“No shit, Adam. But where do we start?”
“First things first,” Adam finally said. “Get me out of this Jeep and cleaned up. Take me to your house. No one will see me there.”
Riyad nodded before breaking the link. He went to the mutants.
“Yes, we need a new base of operations to plan the recovery effort,” Panur agreed. “We will go with you.”
“I was hoping you would say that. We really need your help. In the meantime, I’m calling Sherri. We need to bring her in on this.”
“I concur,” said Lila. “But no one else, not at this time. There are multiple deceptions taking place. We must let them play out and study the results.”
“Precisely,” Riyad said, flashing a weak version of his trademark white smile while appropriating one of Lila’s favorite words.
A moment later, they were back in the Jeep and heading for Riyad’s bayside home less than ten miles away.
As he drove, Riyad fumbled with his communicator, dialing in Sherri’s code. It connected, but no answer. He tried it again.
“Either something’s up with Sherri, or she has her communicator off,” he announced to those in the Jeep. “It is pretty late. I’ll try my ATD.”
When that failed because of the limited telepathy range, Riyad glared at Panur in the passenger seat, silently chastising him for giving him a stripped-down model. “Try yours, Adam. It has more range.”
Adam made the mental connection. He could feel the contact with Sherri’s brain but got no response.
Sherri! he yelled in his mind. When he received no link, he yelled again, this time concentrating harder.
What … what? came a groggy response. He could tell she also spoke the words out loud at the same time her mind mumbled them. This was the first time Adam had made contact with a sleeping mind.
Wake up! It’s Adam.
Yeah, I know it’s you. What the hell are you doing? I’m sleeping.
Wake up. Riyad tried to reach you on your communicator. Are you all right?
I was. I turned off the damn thing so I could get some sleep. I see that didn’t work. What the hell do you want?
Brace yourself; I have a lot to tell you. First of all, you’ll learn soon enough, but I’m dead.
Her still groggy mind responded. So, your ATD can communicate with the living, and all the way from Hell? That’s good to know.
I’m serious. Wake up! You have to convince anyone you hear from that you believe it’s true. I was the victim of an assassination tonight. But worse than that, MK has stolen the three DMCs from Panur and Lila.
Adam noticed a sharpening of the connection. Sherri was fully awake now. You’re not kidding, are you?
No. Now get dressed and meet us at Riyad’s house. As you do, I’ll give you more details…
Riyad’s house was located on the hills about a half-mile from the ocean. It was the only home for miles along this stretch of the road leading south from Balamar, except for Sherri’s. Both he and Sherri had copied Adam’s plans and even had internal gravity generators buried under the structures to mimic Earth's gravity. Because of this, they maintained their physical advantage over most alien species.
Lights snapped on, and the grav generator went to work as the team entered the home. Adam made a beeline for the shower after Riyad handed him a plastic bag to dispose of this blood-stained clothing.
“Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” he demanded. “It was expensive.”
A few minutes later, Adam joined the rest of them in the great room, wearing a t-shirt and jeans from Riyad’s closet. He was barefoot.
He made another beeline for Riyad’s liquor bar. It had been a long, stressful night, and he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in over two days.
“So, what do we know at this point?” he asked the mutants.
“Since MK is a galaxy-wide organization, we know the accumulators could be anywhere by now,” Panur began, “They’ve wanted dark energy technology for several years, and now they have it.”
“They have to be afraid you and Lila will come after them,” Riyad said. “That’s why this entire operation seems so reckless.”
“However, now they control the ultimate power in the universe. Nothing can resist a dark matter bomb. And even I do not know what would happen to Lila and me should we be caught in an event.”
“I’m with Riyad on this,” Adam said, shaking his head. “MK has had a pretty sweet deal in the galaxy for several hundred years. Why would they want to jeopardize all that to become a superpower? They already run things, just from an economic sense. They’re going to piss off a lot of people if they start acting all tough and threatening with their dark matter tech. Even assuming that all they want to do is use DM in their weapons, they have to know that scaling up like this will only result in an arms race for bigger and more powerful weapons. And don’t think that Xan-fi and the others aren’t going to get their hands on some dark matter of their own. Now that it’s in the clear, it’s just a matter of time before everyone has it. That’s fine as a deterrent, but not when we’re talking about such destructive power. Didn’t I hear once that just nine cube-pairs could destroy a planet? What’s that, something about four-feet-square?”
“That’s a good estimate,” Panur confirmed.
The front doors burst open, and Sherri Valentine rushed through.
“Doesn’t anything ever settle down in this godforsaken galaxy?” she asked rhetorically. “So, what are we going to do to get the collectors back?”
She looked at Adam and his short, wet hair and bare feet.
“You look good for a dead man.”
“Thanks. I feel good, too.”
“We have to assume the leadership will want—”
Adam’s communicator rang, interrupting Panur. Adam looked at the ID and then opened the link.
“Mike Hannon, the bastard!” Sherri said. Adam told her during the mental link that it was Hannon who was hired to kill him.
“Where are you?” Adam asked the image on the small screen.
“Just worked my way from north of Balamar to my car. I have my money, and now I’m heading for the spaceport. I have to get off the planet and onto a new identity before MK finds out you’re still alive. And, man, that didn’t take too long. You’re the talk of the broadcasts. All anyone is talking about is the death of the famous Adam Cain. Oh, and the explosion in space. Did you see it? How could you miss it? Anyway, consider us even. A life for a life. And now, I’m outta here.”
“What you saw was a dark matter explosion.”
“No shit? How did that happen?”
“MK stole the collectors from the mutant’s lab. Then they left a bomb. The Lindahlese then came in and took it. It was their ship that blew up.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s true. But don’t worry about that now. It was MK’s intention all along to get the DMCs. My assassination was just a way to get Panur and Lila out of the building.”
“Sounds like it worked; good for them.”
“It did, but now we have to get the collectors back. You say it was that hairy Janor bastard who you’ve been in contact with for MK?”
“That’s right. In fact, you’re not going to believe this, but I got a call from him just a few minutes ago.”
“It seems that regional director bigwig wants to offer me a job.” Mike laughed on the screen.
“He didn’t say. He just said the Director is pretty impressed with my work. You know, first Quanin, and now you.”
“Are you going to take it?”
“Hell no! I’m not that stupid. The Director probably just wants to tie up all the loose ends. I didn’t tell Janor that, of course, but I’m going to be on the other side of the galaxy by the time they get around to hunting down my ass.”
“Where were you supposed to meet the Director?”
“Tell him to make the meeting,” Panur said.
“Who’s that?” Mike asked, his forehead furrowing. “Where are you?”
“I’m at Riyad’s.” Adam swung the communicator around so Mike could see the others in the room. Mike turned pale when he saw the mutants. He’d never seen them in person.
“Mr. Hannon,” Panur began, “how were you to get to Wokan to meet this regional director?”
Mike gagged slightly before he could speak again. Like most people, he was terrified of the only true superbeings in the galaxy. He never imagined he’d be speaking with one of them.
“There was no talk of it,” he stammered. “But I have fifteen million credits. I don’t think Janor worried too much about me not making it. I could buy a spaceship for that much, and still have millions left over. In fact, that’s not a bad idea. I need to get away from Navarus as fast as I can.”
“As I said, tell Janor you will meet the Director. And secure a ship. Do not bother with a crew; I will provide one for you.”
Mike regained his composure. “No way,” he said defiantly. “I’m a ghost from here on out. Once MK finds out I betrayed them, they’ll be on me like stink on shit. And they’ll know Adam’s alive before I could get to Wokan. It would be suicide to go there.”
“They will not know Adam is alive, because he will be aboard the ship with you on the way to Wokan. As will Sherri Valentine and Riyad Tarazi.”
Mike shook his head, emphatically. “Again, no fucking way. Why would I do that?”
“Because we need to know if the Director has the accumulators. I’m beginning to believe that this entire operation is more a local affair and unknown to upper MK management.”
“Why do you say that?” Adam asked.
“Because, when taken in context, it makes sense. We have questioned MK’s acquisition of the Dead Worlds, saying how it could jeopardize the company’s charter throughout the galaxy. And now the theft of the accumulators has put that charter at even more risk. This seems more like the ambitions of a regional director looking to acquire power for himself, and not for Maris-Kliss.”
“How could the top management not know what’s going on?” Sherri asked.
“They probably do, to a degree. MK has tolerated the purchase of the planets, and the turmoil it has caused, because there is a profit motive in running the worlds as businesses. However, the dark matter collectors change the dynamic. This is now all about power and intimidation. MK does not operate in such a manner. They are more subtle, more diplomatic. I cannot see them approving the stealing of the collectors and the placement of such power in the hands of a single entity, other than that of Lila and me. However, in our case, they know our goal is not the acquisition of power. I cannot say others would be so magnanimous.”
“That doesn’t change anything,” Mike said through the communicator. “I’m not risking my life for this. I have enough money to make a new start. And the clock is ticking.”
“You will do as I say, Mr. Hannon,” Panur said forcefully, looking into the camera. “And once you do, you will fall under the protection of Lila and me. We will assist you in building the new identity you seek, along with a warning that should harm fall upon you, the perpetrators will have to answer to us. Does that satisfy your quest for self-preservation?”
Mike swallowed hard. “Well, I suppose so. But why bring Adam and the others along?”
“Because they have the means of detecting dark energy, the byproduct of the collectors.” Panur turned to Adam. “All you need to do is find out if the accumulators are on Wokan. If so, then Lila and I will take it from there. Is that understood?” Panur glared at Adam. “I don’t want the chance of an accident occurring during one of your typical wild-west-like fiascos.”
“Fiascos?” Adam said frowning. “You mean during another heroic mission to save the galaxy? They’re legendary, you know?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” Panur looked again to the tiny communicator screen. “Mr. Hannon, secure a starship, and one large enough to require a flight crew. Adam and his team will meet you at the spaceport when you’re done.”
Mike was nodding nervously as Panur cut the link.
The spaceship didn’t look half bad from the outside, with only a few dents on the silver hull and a slight trace of charring around the liftoff nozzles. It had duel grav gens and a communication array placed in a center fin between the engines. There were three portholes along the fuselage, indicating there were three staterooms on each side of the spine corridor. That would be good, Adam thought. He was bone-weary, and the twelve days that a ship this size would take to get to Wokan would be welcome. He needed the rest.
It was past noon the next day when they arrived at the spaceport, with Adam, Riyad and Sherri, each wearing decorative face scarves that could have been from any number of alien species. The cover story went out that Riyad and Sherri were on their way back to Earth with Adam’s body to give him a proper burial on his homeworld. They couldn’t be seen boarding another vessel.
Mike saw them from the bridge and waved, before moving aft to greet the trio at the inner airlock hatchway. Riyad entered first, unwrapping the scarf from his face and carrying a green duffle bag. He pursed his lips and nodded approvingly, taking in the alien leather seating in the central meeting compartment near the galley.
“Nice,” he said. “How much did this set you back?”
“Three million; it’s used.”
Riyad tossed his duffle on the couch and went forward to the bridge to prep the engines for liftoff.
Sherri entered next.
She stepped up to the assassin and struck him unexpectedly with a hard slap across the face with her right hand. The smack sounded like a gunshot in the confines of the starship.
“That’s for killing Adam,” she growled, leaning in closer to Mike’s shocked face. “If you ever do it again, you’re dead.”
Then she lifted her hand again. Mike flinched. But instead of hitting him, she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him in closer before laying a hard, passionate kiss on his lips.
“That’s because I always thought you were cute,” she said after they separated.
She let him go and then went aft along the central corridor to claim one of the staterooms.
Adam stepped up to Mike next, a thin grin on his face.
“What’s up with her?” the former Delta-force operative asked as he rubbed his cheek, his eyes still wide as saucers. “Is she always like that?”
Adam nodded. “Just be glad she likes you. Otherwise, you’d be dead already.”
Adam slapped the close-door control for the outer airlock hatch. “Fire her up, Riyad,” he yelled toward the bridge. “Ready to go when you are.”
“Aye aye, Captain Cain,” came the echoing answer. The floor decking began to vibrate, and thirty seconds later, the team was on their way to the planet Wokan.
The starship was small enough not to require a full flight crew, but it did make a good excuse for having four people aboard. During the trip, discussions took place as to whether or not they might encounter any added security once they reached the planet. Why should they? As far as the broadcasts were reporting, the tier-refs from Lindahl were being blamed for everything. First, the attack on the refugee meeting, then Adam’s assassination, and finally the theft of the DMCs. It was only fitting that the terrorists triggered something in the collectors that caused the explosion. They should have known dark matter is dangerous, too dangerous for creatures like them to possess. And according to the news accounts, the DMCs were now gone, as well, having disappeared into what mysterious never-never land dark matter singularities connected with.
Adam was particularly amused—and often angered—by the stories broadcast about him. Half were positive, while others made him out to be some savage alien with a bad attitude and a lust for blood. And even in the flowery obituaries, most of the facts were wrong. Talking heads told tales of feats he had nothing to do with, while others blamed him for tragedies he’d never heard of before. Dozens of species claimed connections to him, be they heroic accomplishments or horrific deeds. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember two-thirds of the stories they told. Even so, everyone wanted their piece of the Adam Cain legend.
What made him sad, however, was when they interviewed his friends, including Kaylor and Jym. It was heart-wrenching and made Adam pray for a quick end to this part of the mission so he could tell them the truth. The news crews also tracked down his three former-SEAL buddies who now worked for the Enforcers, Peanut, Toby and Tim. Even General Oaks had kind words to say about the recently deceased.
The one consolation to all of this was Adam felt confident MK didn’t know the truth. How that would help on Wokan was anyone’s guess. But it would allow Mike to get close to the Director. And with subcutaneous cameras and listening pickups Panur provided the team, they would be able to hear and see everything that took place during the meeting. They just hoped they weren’t wrong about the MK bigwig, and that he—out of some sense of power and achievement—would want the DMCs brought to him for safekeeping.
Before leaving Riyad’s house, the mutants taught Adam, Sherri and Riyad how to detect dark energy with their ATDs. It was a good thing they did. The signals were different than normal energy readings. Unfortunately, the range was only about a mile. The Director would have to have them in the building with him for the team to notice.
It was during one of the long, boring nights when Adam was in the pilot seat when Mike came on the bridge wearing a frown.
“I have a question for you,” he began as if he blurted it out before losing the courage.
“Go ahead,” Adam said. “I can’t promise I’ll answer you, but I will if I can.”
“I kinda knew this already, but now the broadcasts are talking about it more. Lila’s your daughter, isn’t she?”
Adam grinned, knowing now what was coming. He’d dealt with this before.
“That’s right. I know she looks like her mother, fortunately.”
“And she is some kind of immortal genius being? They say she can shoot flash bolts out of her hands.”
“When she’s charged up. But you’re right about the immortal genius stuff. So, what do you really want to know?”
“Are you … well, you know, any of those things?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but no. I’m just a normal Human, just like you.”
Adam shrugged. “Hell, if I know. Something the ancient Aris had been cooking up for three billion years. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
The frown remained on Mike’s face. “What about all the things on the broadcasts they say you’ve done? It would make more sense if you did have a little superbeing in you.”
“I could show you the scars. But I assure you, I’m just as mortal as you are.”
“What about the flash bolts you took on Lindahl? They say you took a hundred or more and didn’t die. That’s not normal, even for a Human.”
Adam didn’t know whether or not to tell him about his ATD. If he did, then he’d want one for himself. Everyone did. Instead:
“You can’t believe everything you hear. You know Humans can take level-2s without dying. That’s all it was. And it wasn’t anywhere close to a hundred. Even so, I was a mess after that, laid up in the hospital, recovering. Trust me; it wasn’t pretty.”
Mike sat quietly for a moment. He wasn’t buying it, but he knew Adam wasn’t going to tell him the truth.
“Okay, Captain Cain, I get it. Some things are classified.” He grinned. “Need-to-know, and all that bullshit.”
Adam laughed. “Give it a rest, Mike. It’s not that important. Now get your mind right. We pull into Wokan tomorrow afternoon. Then the real fun begins. And hopefully, you won’t find out just how mortal I really am.”
Adam had been to Wokan a couple of times before. The first was to the planet itself, the second just inside the system. He shrugged. The body count was pretty high back then and only helped to cement the legend of Adam Cain, which the newscasts were now embellishing even more. Hopefully, this trip wouldn’t contribute to future chapters to the myth.
Mike had directions where to go once he reached the planet. It was the city of Essen, the New York City of Wokan. Adam had also been to Essen, but not to one of the nicer sections of town—if they existed. The city had a reputation of being a shithole, and from what he could see as they came in for a landing, not much had changed. If anything, it had gotten worse.
As with most developed worlds in the Kidis Frontier, Wokan had been inundated by desperate and impoverished refugees in the wake of Kracion’s attacks. The wealthier refugees didn’t stop here. They continued into the Expansion, taking their wealth with them. For the planet, that meant poverty stacked on top of poverty until there were no finer parts of Woken—or Essen—to be found.
The one exception was the MK complex butted up against a sheer rock wall several thousand feet high at the edge of a rugged mountain range to the south. The location guaranteed that urban sprawl wouldn’t completely engulf the facility. It still left the area to the north as some of the roughest parts of town, as the desperate crowded in, seeking any crumbs they could get from the gargantuan company.
The other unique feature about Wokan was that there was no official law on the planet. Here, more than anywhere else in the galaxy, it was survival of the strongest. The largest local industry was that of private security service since everyone on the planet employed them. The class separation was dramatic. There were the few upper-echelon individuals and companies, with their professionally-trained security personnel. Below that were the essential businesses and professionals, such as utility workers and food service personnel. Even they needed security, hired from amongst the locals. These security officers were part of the middle class, along with their employers. At the lowest level was the mass of the neediest and the desperate. These were the people the other two classes hired the officers to protect them from. Strangely, the ecosystem worked.
Wokan was the first civilized world one encountered when entering the Kidis Frontier, which made it the unofficial capital of the region. At least it had been until Kracion. Now it was Navarus that claimed that distinction, whether it wanted it or not.
For two hundred years, MK had been a major player on the planet. And as with countless other locations throughout the galaxy, the company operated here without fear. After all, they had the guns. But more importantly, they made the guns and sold them to everyone.
So, it was not surprising to Adam and his group that the company had the largest, most-sophisticated and cleanest compound on the planet, nestled as it was against an impressive mountain range.
Knowing that Mike was coming, the Director sent a transport and security team to get him at the spaceport. A link had to be made to headquarters for permission before the Human could bring his personal security team. He insisted he never went anywhere without them, something those on Wokan could understand. But the MK guards were told to bring only the one Human. Eventually, permission was granted, after which the team crowded into the back of a too-small transport for the ten-mile trip to the complex.
Adam, Sherri and Riyad were fairly well-known throughout this part of the galaxy, especially Adam—now that he was dead. He was surprised the broadcasts were still talking about him after the twelve-day journey. It seemed the news cycle lasted longer out in the galaxy than it did on Earth.
Because of their fame, the trio was heavily disguised, going so far as to have padded clothing to alter their form, as well as contact lenses and stained blue skin.
Although their mission was for intelligence gathering only, the team still studied the route the transport took from the spaceport. It was instinct by now. And when they entered the compound through a huge set of heavy metal doors—which closed quickly behind them—their blood pressure went up as the feeling of being trapped swept over them.
Stay alert, Adam said through his ATD to Sherri and Riyad.
Gee, thanks, Captain Cain, Sherri replied. I wouldn’t have thought of that unless you said something.
Glad I could help.
It was at this time that Adam regretted not advocating for Mike to get an ATD. He trusted Riyad and Sherri, but that was because he could communicate with them without anyone knowing. It wasn’t like that with Mike. Adam would have felt better if he could give input into what Mike did and said. He was a control freak like that. Instead, Adam bored the experienced Delta Force soldier to tears with a lot of unnecessary guidance and suggestions before the mission got underway. Mike knew what he was doing, even if Adam didn’t believe he did.
The one thing they did have was video and sound coming from the assassin. He complained profusely when Sherri jabbed the miniature camera and microphone pick-up into his scalp just above the hairline. Adam was able to tap into the electronics of the device. Riyad and Sherri couldn’t, which only incurred more bitching about how Panur shortchanged them. Adam was glad when the real mission got underway. At least then the bitching stopped.
I think I’m picking up something, Riyad said through his ATD as the Humans stepped out of the transport. It could be dark energy. I’m still not confident I can read it accurately.
It could be, Sherri said. We’ll see if the signal gets stronger once we get inside the building.
The building she was referring to was more like a work of art made of steel, concrete and synthetic paneling. It wasn’t a traditional rectangle, but instead consisted of dozens of stacked structures that looked to be glued to the jagged rockface of the mountain, climbing the sheer cliff up to three thousand feet above the base. Adam and the others stopped for a moment to stare up at the incredible sight.
It’ll be our luck, Riyad began, we’re going to the very top. I hope we don’t have to make a quick getaway.
I just hope they have elevators, Sherri added.
Good point, my love. I’m not as young as I once was.
They were led through an entrance built to impress, and if they weren’t as focused on the mission as they were, they might have been.
“Your guards may remain in the lobby, or outside the Director’s office,” said the lead Defender, what security personnel on Wokan were called. “Under no circumstance will they be allowed into the private chambers.”
Mike nodded. “They’ll come with me and wait outside.” He did his best to treat Adam and the others as mere servants, acting as if they were just part of the furniture. The guards, on the other hand, eyed them hard, wondering how good was the competition. The MK security force, although not nearly as large as some on the planet, was the highest-paid, which attracted the most skilled. This gave them an air of superiority as the team was herded into the largest elevator Adam had ever seen. It was more like a moving living room.
They must get a lot of visitors here, he commented through his ATD.
They can also move a lot of troops into position in a hurry, Riyad thought.
Yeah, that, too.
Taking the single elevator to the top of the rockface wasn’t possible, not with the seemingly haphazard design of the attachments. It took four transfers before they finally reached the top.
It was deceptive how this top floor looked like just another box glued to the grey granite cliff. Instead, it was only part of an enormous excavation reaching deep into the mountain. The ceiling was a hundred feet high and carved with an intricate series of rectangles of all sizes. The stone was polished to a brilliant luster with thousands of tiny spotlights, causing the ceiling to glow, and providing the light for the huge reception area below.
The chamber was packed with aliens of all species, a trademark of MK. Being as large and rich as the company was, employees often abandoned their racial identities for that of MK employee. The pay was great, and the idea of being a part of something this large was intoxicating. Nearly everyone in the galaxy wanted to work for MK, and those who now moved about on the Top Floor had to be the most loyal and accomplished of the lot.
And this was just one of thirty-eight hundred other regional headquarters for the conglomerate.
It seemed to take forever to walk the distance to another opening in the rock wall that led to a long corridor that ended at another decent sized chamber. More employees moved about, not quite as frenetically and with more quiet reverence.
Adam reasoned this was the domain of the Director. He wasn’t wrong.
“Your guards will remain here,” said the tall, humorless Defender. He pointed to a row of plush-padded seats along a wall. Then he turned to Mike. “You will come with me.”
Mike fell in step with the guard and soon disappeared through a set of metal doors emblazoned with the starburst logo of MK. The stylistic decoration was meant to represent the flash of an energy weapon, the singular device that had built the financial empire, along with many others of more traditional—and violent—composition.
Adam took a seat next to Sherri and Riyad. Although they were supposedly Mike’s guards, no outside weapons were allowed in the building. That was fine. They weren’t there to fight, just gather data.
There’s definitely dark matter here, Sherri announced. Unmistakable.
But I’m only detecting one cluster, Adam said. Either they’re stacked together, or there’s only one.
They were off to a good start. Since the day the DMCs had been stolen, Adam had been terrified of the idea that a single entity now controlled all the dark matter in the galaxy. Granted, at one time, the Gracilians had the accumulators, but that was before Adam knew they did. Now it was different. And especially since that entity was the largest weapons manufacturer in the galaxy.
He concentrated, making the connection with Mike’s embedded camera. The image appeared in his mind.
The Human was escorted into the fanciest office Adam had ever seen; grossly huge and with such an eclectic mix of decorations spread around that it was dizzying. Mike’s head was spinning as he attempted to take in all he could. Also, an enormous plate glass window looked out from the mountain’s elevation at the sprawl of Essen off in the distance.
Adam frowned. There was something off about the office and the decorations, trophies as most upper management liked to call them. These items weren’t for show; they were reminders.
And that was what was odd. There were suits of armor, ancient spears, shields, and even a crossbow. A whole section of the room was filled with weapons of every make and model, something one would expect from the Regional Director of a weapons manufacturer. But what was odd about this collection was that all the artifacts were from Earth.
Mike now focused his attention on the figure behind the enormous stone desk of polished marble. The Director stood up and smiled, displaying brilliant white teeth under an equally white mustache.
“That’s right, Mr. Hannon,” said the Director. “I’m Human.”
Adam heard Mike mutter something unintelligible.
“Don’t be shocked, my friend. You’d be surprised how many Humans have joined the company. There’s no reason our species shouldn’t be represented. Of course, I am the highest-ranking Human in the organization.”
The Director came around the desk and shook Mike’s hand. “My name is Wolfgang Stimmel.”
The name made sense, Adam thought. The Director spoke with a very thick German accent. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, with dark tanned skin, brilliant blue eyes, and an enviable physique. He was bald above the dominant mustache.
“Hello, sir,” Mike managed to blurt out. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting this.”
“I’m glad to find someone who can appreciate my race. You know how it is out here. Aliens everywhere. No one pays much attention to who or what you are.”
The Director motioned to a set of chairs and a couch in another part of the office. “Let’s sit over here. It’s more comfortable and less formal. After all, we’re comrades, brothers of DNA and evolution.”
Once they were seated, attendants came in and served drinks.
“Scotch whiskey brought all the way in from Earth.” Stimmel raised his glass in a toast. “To the best things in life—even if they cost an arm and a leg to ship here.” He laughed. “I may be away from Earth, but most of the things I own and collect are from the homeworld. I came out here for work and never went back. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.”
Stimmel narrowed his eyes at Mike. “You know, in a way, we’re a lot alike. Just like me, you came out into the galaxy for work, as well. Although your job is death.”
“Says the gunmaker extraordinaire.”
“Good point, Mike. Please let me call you Mike. It sounds so, well, normal. You can call me Wolf. That’s what my friends call me.”
“Sure, Wolf, knock yourself out.”
The Director took another sip of his drink. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t get over it.”
“Either your phenomenal skill or your uncanny luck. Sitting before me is the person who not only killed the next Elder of the Juirean race, but also the most famous Human in history.”
“I wouldn’t call Cain that. Sure, he’s pretty well-known out here, but back home, he’s just a footnote in the history books.”
Adam grimaced. Mike knew he was listening. He’ll pay for that, Adam thought.
Adam had already relayed the news to Sherri and Riyad that the Director was a Human. They were shocked at first, but then didn’t see how that changed anything. There was at least one DMC nearby. What they needed was confirmation whether or not it was only one. If it was, then it was a start, but not a complete mission. But without knowing where the others were, one would have to do. They would get back to the ship and contact Panur and Lila. Adam snickered. He’d love to be here as the mutants marched up to the Director and demanded the return of their property. If luck were with him, someone would resist. It was always fun to see the mutants in action.
“I appreciate the hospitality, Wolf,” Mike was saying, requiring Adam to concentrate on the conversation again. “But Janor mentioned you wanted to offer me a job. I’m assuming it isn’t in my normal line of work.”
“It is not, at least not officially. But first, let me tell you what I have in mind and see if it doesn’t pique your interest.”
The Director had grown more excited by the moment. He took a small datapad from his pocket and turned it on.
“Sorry, I made some notes. I don’t want to forget anything.” He scrolled through a few of the opening screens.
“Yes, first of all, you have to realize how shitty it’s been working these past twenty years with mainly aliens. In fact, I can count on a single hand the number of Humans I’ve had any lasting working relationships with over that time. Most have been low-level employees or contractors. Frankly, I’m getting tired of all these stinking aliens. And with the major restructuring I have in mind, I would like a results-oriented Human at my side.”
“Like an aide?”
“More like a second-in-command. And with a substantial financial benefit to boot.”
“No shit? Why me?”
Adam tensed. Money was the language the assassin spoke, and the Director certainly had enough to tempt him.
Wolf waved his hand. “You’re going to find this hard to believe, but I like a man who can be bought. You have your price, whether it was for the Quid-Elder or Adam Cain. And I can assure you, no one can beat my price.”
“I don’t know whether to be insulted or flattered,” Mike said. “I was just doing a job I was trained to do.”
“Yes, Delta Force.”
“You’ve done your homework.”
“Enough to know that the Quanin hit didn’t turn out the way you hoped. The refugees screwed you over, from what I understand. I hope the fifteen million JCs we paid for the Cain hit will help make up the deficit.”
“It was more than generous.”
Wolf laughed. “It was, although I authorized Janor to pay whatever it took to get the man we wanted for the job. You could have asked for twice that, and we would have paid it.”
“Are you saying that to make me feel bad?”
“Not at all,” the Director said. He looked back at his datapad and tapped the screen a few times before continuing. “Sorry, I have a parallel operation going on at the time.” He returned his attention to Mike. “As I was saying, we really wanted you for the job. You were perfect.”
“I’m still confused as to why.”
Wolf leaned back on the couch, getting comfortable. “First of all, let me say I’ve been studying Adam Cain for a very long time.” He shook his head. “God, it has to be fifteen, twenty years, right after I decided to come out into the galaxy to make my fortune.”
Listening through his ATD, Adam grew more concerned. Although he knew he was famous, it still seemed an invasion of privacy that someone had been studying him for all that time. What did this Wolfgang Stimmel know?
“And why not?” the Director continued. “He was a larger than life figure, as his obituaries are now attesting. I wanted to learn everything I could about him. The how, the why … everything. And I’m proud to say, I’ve done it.”
“I don’t understand. What have you learned about Adam? And why does it matter now?”
“Ah, now it’s Adam, not Cain. Very telling.” Wolf tapped on the datapad again. “Well, for one thing, I know that he let you escape Navarus after the killing of the Quid-Elder. That’s not a favor that’s easily returned.”
Adam sat up straighter.
Something’s not right, he thought to Sherri and Riyad. The Director is talking about me. I think he’s about to make some big announcement.
The trio was too skilled and experienced to miss the buildup of Defenders in the room. They came in casually but never left. Now there were fifteen or twenty of them. At first, the Humans took their furtive glances as only the situational awareness of trained security officers. But now it felt different.
Adam scanned for weapons and found that the Defenders were armed, and with MKs with invisible firing controls. This was too much of a coincidence.
I think we’ve been blown, Adam thought.
And not in the fun way, Riyad remarked. Sherri was too concerned to be insulted by the ribald joke.
What now? she asked.
We go along for the ride. From what Mike saw in the Director’s office, there’s a whole arsenal of Human weapons in there. It’s better than any of our options out here.
You could just rush the guards. Sure, you’d take a few level-1s, but you could grab us some weapons.
And then what, fight our way down three thousand feet of enemy mountain fortress? Adam shrugged. I know; it could be fun.
I thought you could give us a ride on one of your flying carpets of air, Sherri suggested.
I know we did it once together, but four? Do you want to be the crash-test dummy for the express ride to the bottom?
Now Sherri shrugged before leaning against the wall and crossing her arms. She gave the guards watching her a full-tooth grin. That riled them up.
“That’s not helping the situation,” Adam said aloud.
The Director looked at the screen of his datapad.
“Ah, it seems the cat is out of the bag.”
Mike tensed. “What does that mean?”
Wolf stood up suddenly. “It means I’m going to have to accelerate my presentation and call in the rest of the audience prematurely. Take them,” he said into the datapad.
A few moments later, the door to the office opened and Adam, Sherri and Riyad were escorted in. Several Defenders came in with them, each armed with shiny new MK-88s, the top of the line for hand-held bolt launchers. The trio was shackled in heavy metal restraints and not of your ordinary alien variety. Two civilian aliens brought up the rear.
“I didn’t say anything,” Mike cried out.
“I know,” Adam sighed. He studied the room as he came in, taking in the weapons array, along with the enormous window and the incredible view of Essen. He was being led toward a bare metal table that seemed out of place in the well-planned room. Then his yellow-contact-lens eyes met the bright blue orbs of the Director. “Don’t worry, Mike. He’s been one step ahead of us all along.”
Stimmel laughed. “More than one step, my friend! Hell, I lapped you a while back. And I must say, for a dead man, you look good.”
“Yeah, I’ve been told that.”
He laughed. “I don’t know if you can relate, but even though I am terrified of having you in the room with me, I’m relieved. I’m an impatient man and hate setting plans in motion and then having to wait for others to do their part. But now that we’re all here, it seems worth it.”
“Of course. As I said, I’ve studied you for years. I know how you’ve been able to escape your captors hundreds of times, and much to the detriment of those who hoped to hold you. That’s why I’ve taken extra precautions. The shackles are of the strongest steel, and my Defenders have both energy devices set at level-1, along with Human-style ballistic weapons. Be assured, I set up your assassination once before but didn’t follow through because I want something you have. But now that you’re here, I can just take it, from either your living or dead body.”
“What do you want?”
Stimmel laughed again. Either the German had a good sense of humor, or he was slightly manic. Adam went with the latter. “Your brain-interface device, what else?” The Director studied the reactions on the faces of his shackled guests. “Of course, I know about it—about them. I have for a very long time. Imagine my disappointment when all of you lost yours on Formil; however, that has changed, hasn’t it? In fact, from various reports I’ve read and videos I’ve seen, I would say you have a hybrid model, Adam Cain. That makes my delay in dealing with you even more fortuitous.”
The Director looked to his guards and gave a silent nod. Two of the massive beasts grabbed Adam and ripped off his shirt, pulling it apart in violent tugs until his torso was bare. Next, they threw him face down on the metal table near the Director’s large stone desk. His arms were shackled from behind and with solid brackets secured to his ankles. He couldn’t resist. Stimmel stepped up to him.
“Damn, you are a mess, Mr. Cain. I know you can survive numerous flash bolts, but I see they leave their share of scars. Let’s get this over with,” he said, looking to the two alien non-Defenders who had entered the room behind the prisoners. “Find it. It’s just under the skin, somewhere on his torso.”
The aliens moved up to the still struggling Human and began to feel his skin, pressing hard, looking for something hidden. They were also looking for recent scars, signs of an incision. The problem was his body was a patchwork of red, still-healing scabs. Even so, one of the aliens soon felt the hard lump under his right armpit. Adam flinched.
The alien didn’t hesitate. He took a scalpel and made a deep cut, following the pressure of the fingers of his other hand. Adam groaned and gnashed his teeth.
“That doesn’t.” He breathed hard, fighting against the pain.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mike yelled.
Stimmel laughed. “So, knowledge of the interface device is above your paygrade, Mr. Hannon. Interesting.” He looked at Riyad and Sherri. They were standing between the towering guards, their faces pale, eyes full of trepidation. “But not yours, and depending on how the day goes, you may be next. But from what I’ve learned, your devices are of a local design, perhaps by the mutants, and of lower quality.” Now he smiled. “Nothing but the best for our Captain Cain!”
The doctor—if that was what he was—set the scalpel on the table and then used his fingers to open the incision. He poked inside Adam’s body before pulling out a thin, three-inch-long metal rod now covered in blood. He took a cloth and cleaned the item before handing it to the Director.
Wolf took the ATD by his thumb and middle finger and held it up. “A testament to Formilian technological expertise. So small, yet so powerful.” He looked to a still moaning Adam Cain, lying face down on the cold metal table. He wasn’t struggling anymore, just murmuring. “Put a bandage on it,” Stimmel commanded. “I don’t want him bleeding all over the place.”
A crude patch was slapped over the wound, and then Adam was slid off the table and moved to the seating area. “No! Not on one of the good chairs. Put him on a hassock.” The Defenders holding Adam looked to their boss, questions on their faces. Wolf pointed. “The flat cube-like thing.” The aliens obliged.
Wolf turned to Mike. “See what I’ve had to put up with all these years.” The other three prisoners were placed on chairs in front of the long couch where the Director now sat. The guards backed away, taking up positions about twenty feet behind the gathering of Humans.
“What’s going on here?” Mike blurted. “You knew I didn’t kill Adam?”
The Director let out a deep sigh while holding up the datapad. “I had this whole speech written out, but now you’ve screwed it up,” he said, looking at Adam. He returned his attention the Mike. “Yes, I knew you didn’t kill him … because I knew you wouldn’t.”
“How could you know that?”
“Because, as I said, I’ve studied Adam extensively. I know he saved your life, and if given a chance, you would repay the debt. That’s why I agreed to pay you in advance. That way, you’d feel no pressure to fulfill the contract. Even so, we had to be careful. You were tracked wherever you went, and when you bought the communication equipment on Genannt, I knew you would make contact with Adam to tell him what was up.”
“So, you didn’t set this up to steal the dark matter collectors?” Adam said. His face was a study in agony as he winched with each breath.
“Oh, yes, that was the main purpose. Getting your interface device is a bonus. You see, buying the Dead Worlds and getting the collectors are part of the bigger plan. Getting the device is more personal, something just for me.”
“And what is this bigger plan of yours?” Sherri asked. Her voice trembled. Adam could tell she was scared. In countless similar situations, he and his team were up against aliens who consistently underestimated them. The Director was different. Besides being a Human, he’d studied the team for years. He knew their methods, and apparently, even their secrets. At least some of them.
Again, the Director waved his hand impatiently. “You guys are really messing up my presentation. I’ve seen enough Bond movies to know how this works. I have to reveal my evil plan to show you what a great genius I am. Now, please, let me go on.”
Adam nodded weakly. “Go ahead, asshole, be my guest. Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Adam felt a strange sense of relief that he didn’t have to suffer the dazed and confused looks from aliens who didn’t understand Human colloquialisms.
Stimmel stood up and went to his desk. He returned a moment later, cradling a DMC.
“I supposed this is what you came for.”
“It’s a start,” Riyad said, perking up slightly.
The Director smirked. “Relax, Mr. Tarazi. The other two are far away and well hidden. I figured your sensing devices would have some way to detect dark matter, just as you can detect power packs and firing control circuits.”
Mike shook his head, frowning. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Mr. Cain and his friends know.” Stimmel still had the ATD with him. He showed it to Mike. “This is a remarkable device that allows the wearer to interact with a variety of electronic devices, including MK and Xan-fi energy weapons. It also allows them to communicate telepathically.”
Mike looked at Sherri. “Is that true? Is that why you’ve been able to act like supermen all these years?”
“It also has to do with our skill, you jerk,” Sherri said with a nervous grin.
“That is certainly part of it,” Stimmel agreed. “But a lot of it is this device. And I thought I lost my opportunity when you returned from the parallel universe after disposing of Kracion and had them voided by the backstabbing Formilians. Imagine my delight when I began to see evidence that you had another,” he said to Adam. “I said I studied you and have continued to do so. The episode on Lindahl confirmed my suspicions. The raid on the refugee conference was the first test. And now, the interface is mine. And don’t worry, I have the best scientists in the galaxy who will figure out how to install it in me, but not before I learn how to make more. Then like you, I’ll form my own little team of superbeings. And now…”
The Director picked up his datapad again and spent a moment reading. “Oh, yeah, my plans. I have to tell you about my plans. You’ve probably guessed most of it.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I am in the process of severing my ties with MK, after which I intend to start my own empire, beginning with the Dead Worlds. I will buy all of them, and with the only three dark matter collectors in the galaxy, I will have enough power to dissuade any aggression against me.” His eyes focused on Adam. “You see, good business is recognizing opportunities when they present themselves and then acting on them. I have tried to convince MK for years that they could be more than they are. They listened politely, even agreeing with me. But they said the timing wasn’t right. The Dead Worlds have changed that. They agreed to let me buy them but to take it no further. But then I learned of the Gracilians and the cache of dark matter collectors they had, thanks again to my constant surveillance of Mr. Cain. With the deterrent power of dark matter bombs, that changed everything. I no longer need MK’s support for my plans.”
“Deterrent?” Sherri asked.
“Of course. You don’t think I’m going to start blasting apart worlds with dark matter bombs, do you? I simply want everyone to know I can.” Stimmel shook his head. “I’m not getting any younger, Fraulein Valentine. If I’m going to start a galactic empire, I need to get started now.” He tapped the metal case of the DMC. “This was the final piece of the puzzle … sort of.”
“Sort of?” Sherri asked. “What does that mean? Isn’t that enough?”
The Director set the DMC on the couch and went to his desk again. When he returned, he held two objects in his hands, one Adam didn’t recognize, but one he did.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” he asked Adam, holding up the thin glass container. Adam was still losing blood through the crude bandage and was growing weaker by the minute. He could barely keep his head up. “That’s right, Mr. Cain. I had my operatives take it from the mutants while they were stealing the dark matter collectors. It’s the Formation disk.”
Sherri looked at Adam. “What’s he talking about? What is it?”
Adam shook his head.
“I will answer for him. This disk is one of hundreds that make up a structure called The Formation. Our friend Adam stole it from Kanan on Gracilia, although the service orb escaped with the bulk of the disks. All except this one. The mutants have had it in their possession for a year, studying it. See, it pays to keep a watchful eye on you,” he said to Adam. “You’ll never know what new and mysterious secrets you might learn. Dark matter was one such discovery; however, I suspect the Formation will surpass even that … if what I’ve learned is true.”
“What does it do?” Sherri asked.
“That I will not tell you, but be assured, even the Aris feared the Formation.”
“The Aris? What does the disk have to do with them?”
“The Formation was found in the ruins of the Aris civilization. The Gracilians discovered some of its secrets, although not all. It was a more closely kept secret than even the service modules and the dark matter collectors; its existence locked away in a vault on Gracilia.”
“Not any longer,” Adam moaned.
“That’s right, not any longer.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Mike said. “It’s just a thin little disk. Why did the Aris fear it?”
“I said I won’t tell you—”
“That’s because he doesn’t know,” Adam said.
Now the Director pursed his lips.
“I know more than you,” he said defiantly. He held up the object he had in his other hand. “For instance, I know there are instructions on how to create the Formation, and that a sequence of keys are needed to decipher the code. This is one of the keys,” he said proudly, holding up what looked like an old, crusty rock. “And it’s been sitting under the mutants’ noses for a year, and they didn’t know it. But now I have both the disk and the key.”
Adam studied the second object. It was old, encrusted and covered in a green patina. And yet there was an incongruous line within the coating, too straight to be a natural crack and revealing a uniform color inside. The multi-billion-year-old outer crust was hiding another object within.
“So, what happens when you use the key?” he asked.
Stimmel laughed. “Wouldn’t you like to know!”
Adam shook his head. “Again, he doesn’t know shit. He heard something about this mysterious Formation, and now he’s convinced himself it holds some magical power.”
“Isn’t dark matter enough for you, asshole?” Sherri asked.
Stimmel shook his head emphatically. His face turned red. “Why do I even bother with you? You’re either too stupid or too narrow-minded to see the potential. But you’re right, Fraulein; dark energy is enough at this time. It will be enough for me to build an empire virtually overnight that will rival that of the Juireans.”
“Man, what have you been smoking?” Riyad asked. “I’d like a hit of that! You know, you really are insane. You must have caught something from all these stinking aliens you’ve been hanging out with.” He looked over at Sherri. “Leave it to a German to have visions of conquering, well … everything.”
What the hell are you doing? Sherri asked Riyad through her ATD. Are you trying to get us killed?
No, just trying to stir the pot. In this case, anger could be our best weapon. If we can get him mad enough—
Then Mike spoke up, causing Stimmel to avert his attention from Riyad. “So, the offer to be your second-in-command was all bullshit?” Mike asked, eliciting an angry glare from Riyad. The Director turned his attention to the assassin. He calmed down. “Or is that offer still on the table? After all, you said you like a person who can be bought.”
Stimmel stared at him. “At one time, I did entertain the idea, Mr. Hannon, but not anymore. I’m having second thoughts … about quite a few things. Now, I figure I can have all the Humans I want working with me once I have my own empire.” He looked at Sherri and smiled. “Including a sizeable harem. I gotta tell you; it’s been a while.”
Adam Cain lost his balance and began to topple over. Mike was sitting to one side of him and reached out to help. It was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. He grinned, thinking what Stimmel had said about acting on opportunities when they present themselves. With Sherri’s help, they kept Adam from toppling over onto the floor.
Mike sighed. As the only one of the four without restraints, it was up to him. He accepted his role; it was how he lived his life, relying only on himself. Internally, he laughed, thinking how Adam had droned on for hours about all the things they might encounter once they reached Wokan. He didn’t need to be told; he’d done this enough times to know. And that was why Mike had no fewer than six weapons, and other countermeasures stashed on his body and throughout his clothing. None would be detectible to a scan, and although he couldn’t guarantee it, he was sure he’d passed through a few security stations before getting to the Director.
“So, if I hear you right, we’re expendable, even me?” Mike asked.
“Why should you be any different, Mr. Hannon? Trust me when I say, I don’t like the idea of killing Humans. But now that I have what I want, all you are to me is a burden.”
Mike grinned and shook his head. He knew it.
“May I ask you a question?”
“You haven’t been doing this for very long, have you?”
“Doing what?” Stimmel asked.
“Playing the bad guy. I know you’ve seen all the Bond movies, but that hardly prepares you for the role you’re playing.”
“You don’t seem to understand; I don’t consider myself the bad guy. I’m just looking out for my best interests, as are you.”
“Then why are you being so stupid?”
The Director bristled. “I know you’re just trying to provoke me. But I’ll play along. Why do you think I’m being stupid?
“Simple. You broke the cardinal rule of hostage situations.”
“You never leave your hostages without hope. If you do, then they have no option than to try something radical, even suicidal.”
“And is that what you’re going to do … Mike?”
The assassin shook his head. “No, I don’t have to. I already have.”
The explosive consisted of two parts, a charge plus primer. And when Mike leaned over to Adam, he was able to reach into the lining of his shirt and remove the two pieces. He now pressed them together, and in the blink of an eye, tossed the combined gummy material over his head and toward the sentries.
It only took three seconds for the chemicals to mix, and now the explosion rocked the room. It wasn’t very big, mainly used as a distraction than anything else. It worked. Mike was up and across the gap between him and the Director two seconds later before any of the guards could react.
A stabbing or slicing blade doesn’t have to be made out of metal to be deadly. A piece of composite plastic would do just as well, especially if it were filed to a razor’s edge and sharpened to a needle point. The blade had been hidden in Mike’s boot, and he now it pressed against the Director’s neck, where already a thin line of blood was showing.
Stimmel struggled under the tight grip of the Delta Force operative, confirming another of Mike’s passive observations. The Director had been away from Earth for far too long, and unlike he and Adam’s team, he had no need to keep his muscles tailored to the standards of the homeworld. Sure, he worked out, but there was more to maintaining Human strength and endurance than lifting a few weights, and over the years, Stimmel had become more alien than Human in the light gravity of the bulk of the galaxy’s civilized worlds. Mike had no problem keeping the Director held in his death grip.
“This is pointless, Hannon!” Stimmel cried out. “You’re on the top floor of my building, with thousands of Defenders on duty. Look! Your little stunt didn’t do anything to stop my guards.”
He was right. None were injured by the explosion, and now they had their MK-88s out and aimed at Mike. Sherri, Riyad and Adam had fallen to the floor when the tiny charge went off, and now they looked over at Mike with confused expressions, as if to say, “Now what?”
Mike pressed the blade tighter against the Director’s neck.
“Tell your guards to unlock Adam and the others.”
He grimaced from the pain as the razor edge cut deeper into his flesh. Blood was already streaming from the cut and soaking his very expensive alien silk outfit.
“Do it, or I will kill you!” Mike said. “You’ve left us no choice. If we’re going to die, then you’re going with us. Too bad, that just as you’re getting ready to start your glorious galactic empire, that you end up dead. And for nothing.”
Mike felt Stimmel relax.
“You have a point,” he groaned. “Lornix, release the others.”
The senior Defender didn’t hesitate. He could tell the Humans were desperate, and he did not want to lose his main charge, the Regional Director for MK. He would have difficulty finding work afterward if he did.
He came around and unlocked the shackles on the others. Riyad and Sherri helped Adam to his feet. The sudden turn of events revived him, making Mike think he wasn’t as injured as he let on.
“Now what?” the Director asked. “Do you walk me down three thousand feet to the ground floor and then take me with you to the spaceport to make sure you have a clean getaway?”
“That sounds like a plan,” Mike said, lifting the Director off the couch and pushing him toward the door.
Sherri grabbed the DMC.
“Take the disk, and the rock, too,” Adam said.
Sherri looked around. She saw the rock, but not the disk. The Director must have it in his pocket. As she stepped forward, a blinding cloud of smoke fell from the ceiling, obscuring her view. She tripped on Adam’s hassock. At first, she choked, fully expecting the gas to be poisonous
Pandemonium broke out in the room, as bodies crashed on top of her, fists and feet lashing out.
“Hey! You just kicked me!” Riyad said.
“Then get out of my way. Where’s Adam?”
“I’m here. Mike!”
“They took the Director,” said a voice directly in front of Sherri. “They took him off toward a door, not the main one. They’re not going to open fire until they get him out and clear the room of the smoke.”
“Do you still have the DMC?” Adam asked Sherri.
“I do. I even found that rock you wanted, but not the disk.”
“Don’t worry about that now. Everyone get to the weapons display.”
“None of the guns will be loaded,” Riyad pointed out.
“Don’t worry about the smaller ones. Find something heavy to shatter the window.”
“No way!” Sherri yelled. The smoke was beginning to clear, as it was vented into the ceiling through vents. “What are we going to do then?”
“I thought you wanted a magic carpet ride?”
“It was a joke.”
“Relax, it’s only three thousand feet to the bottom, and it’s all in a straight line.”
Several years ago, she and Adam had escaped from a mountain fortress similar to this one while riding one of Adam’s concentrated air cushions. But that was then…
“Have you forgotten you don’t have an ATD anymore?” Riyad pointed out.
“What’s an ATD?” Mike asked.
“It’s that pointy, pencil-like thing they cut out of Adam’s side,” Sherri answered.
“The Superman Device?” Mike said sarcastically as he led them to the wall of weapons, all except Adam. “A lot of things are beginning to make sense now.”
“Just get the window open!” Adam yelled back at them. “I’ll keep the bad guys out of the room for as long as I can.”
He gripped his side while placing his body equal distance between the two doors into the room. Then he held out his hands and began to concentrate. A moment later, crackling balls of energy started to form in the air in front of him. They clustered, developing into what was to become a near-solid block of compressed air. With his mind, Adam moved the blocks to the doorways, forming sparkling walls of intense, swirling wind. Strong currents circulated through the rest of the room, drawn into the twin areas of extreme high pressure.
“How are you doing that?” Sherri asked. “Stimmel has your ATD.”
“He has the unit, but it’s still tuned to my brainwaves,” Adam yelled over the roar of the wind. “I guess you didn’t know; the unit doesn’t have to be in our bodies to work. They’re embedded under the skin so we’ll always have them with us.”
“How did you know that?” Riyad asked.
“I knew right after it was removed. I never lost contact. The problem is there’s a finite range to the device. If the Director moves too far away—or I do—contact will be broken. Now hurry, these walls of air won’t hold them for long, and I don’t know how many I can create at a time. I still need a really strong one to get us out of here.”
“You’re also robbing the room of oxygen,” Riyad pointed out. He was right; Adam could feel it too. The room was fairly air-tight and the bulk of the oxygen was being compressed near the doors. They only had a minute or two of air left as vacuum rapidly took over the room.
The team pulled down swords and metal-tipped spears from the display then ran to the window and smashed them against the glass. As expected, they had little effect on the tempered, shatter-proof material.
“Wait!” said Mike. “I have a second bubblegum bomb. It’s not big, but maybe it can crack the glass.”
He felt around in the lining of his button-up shirt until he found what he was looking for. They all turned to the side door as it opened a crack, allowing a torrent of supersonic air to shoot out, throwing everyone on the other side to the floor before being pushed away on the smooth, stone floor.
“Hurry!” Adam yelled. “The air is venting to the outside. I’m going to suck up everything in here to keep the barrier intact.”
Mike was at the window, pressing the two parts of the chemical bomb together. He stuck it to the window and ran back.
The explosion did the trick, creating a spiderweb of cracks radiating out from a small central hole. Air rushed through the tiny opening and into the room, drawn into the vacuum. And none too soon. They were all lightheaded from lack of oxygen.
Riyad ran up to the glass wall, wielding a flail, a spiked ball attached to a chain and a handle. He swung the deadly weapon at the center of the cracked window. With a pop, it shattered, exploding inward form the near-vacuum in the room, something Riyad wasn’t expecting.
He was showered in glass, creating dozens of tiny cuts on his face and arms.
He howled. “This better not scar! My face is my career.”
“In your dreams,” Sherri said as she ran up to the wide opening and gazed down. She back away just as quickly. “Oh, hell, no way. That’s a long way down.”
‘C’mon everyone,” Adam now yelled as he approached the opening. “Grab on to me, and whatever you do, don’t let go. And be careful of my side, it really hurts. Sherri, don’t drop the DMC.”
“It won’t go off, will it?” Mike asked as he wrapped his arms around Adam’s neck, just as the others were doing.
“I don’t think so,” Adam said. “But it could leave ninety tiny dark matter cubes spread out across this part of Essen. Someone would be bound to stack them the wrong way, and then … boom! No more Essen.”
Adam looked like an overburdened Human Christmas tree with three heavy branches hanging from him. The team staggered to the edge of the opening.
“Okay, on the count of three, everyone jump.”
“Wait!” Mike said. “We go on three, or jump after three?”
“Go on three.”
“I’m having second thoughts about this,” he said.
“You said it yourself. Stimmel has left us no option. We either die here … or down there.”
“I thought there was a third option?”
“You mean living? That remains to be seen. Now … one … two … three!”
Adam was being strangled by the desperate clutching arms around his neck. He struggled to free a little room so he could breathe. Legs encircled his, and the cluster of desperate and suicidal Humans now began to tumble in the cold, thin air of the mountain.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Riyad yelled in Adam’s ear over the roar of the rushing wind. They were falling … and falling fast.
“Just trying to get into the right frame of mind.”
“I hope your ADD thing has a range of over three thousand feet,” Mike yelled.
“It’s an A.T.D.,” Sherri corrected.
Suddenly they began to feel side currents of air, unlike the singular torrent rushing past them as they fell. They were still tumbling slowly, but that soon began to slow.
“I can feel it!” Mike cried out. “You’re doing it!”
He’s right, Adam thought, but we’re still falling like a rock. Their bodies were now enclosed in a tight cyclone of air, but their downward motion wasn’t affected much. He closed his eyes and began to envision a block of stone beneath his feet, a firm base on which to stand. Light crackled around them, as the confining walls of static electricity began to close in. Soon, Adam felt a tight grip pressing on his lower legs and feet. With the team’s legs wrapped around his, they felt it too.
Gradually, their rate of fall began to slow, and not only that but now they angled away from the rockface, heading for the ragged skyline of Essen.
“Be careful,” Sherri warned. “Don’t get too far away.”
“My ATD can operate easily out to five miles, much longer in space, at least for most of the basic functions.”
“Let’s hope so. We’re still pretty far up.”
“You’re right. Maybe I should get us closer to the ground.”
By the time they were a hundred feet off the dirty and crowded streets of Essen, they were well beyond the outer walls of the MK complex. The spaceport was still over ten miles away, and Adam was sure he would lose contact with his ATD long before that. He craned his neck down and spotted a ground vehicle, running along a road directly below them. The car came to a stop at an intersection.
The loud thud on the roof startled the driver, causing him to press forward on the control stick while swerving to the side of the road. Four Humans tumbled off the top of the car and onto the concrete street. They were up a moment later, pulling open doors and climbing in. Adam took a back seat, while Riyad tossed the shocked green-skinned alien out of the driver’s seat. Ten seconds after falling from the sky, the team was racing down the road toward the spaceport.
The Director was at his desk, watching security footage from inside his office.
“How could he do that?” he asked the room. The lead Defender Lornix was with him. He remained quiet.
“I have his interface device. And they took the key!”
He’d already dismissed the loss of the dark matter collector. It wasn’t that important; he still had two. As he said earlier, he didn’t intend to use the dark matter in battle, not unless he had to. They were mainly for show. But the fact that Cain now had a dark matter collector meant the deterrent factor he was hoping for would be lessened slightly. That was, of course, if Cain could get the device back to Navarus and into the hands of the mutants. He still had a long way to go, and against everything the Director could throw at him.
Stimmel didn’t plan on having his new empire grow through war and conquest. He was buying the Dead Worlds for a fair price, not simply taking them, as he had the means to do. And he wasn’t stupid enough to engage either the Expansion or the Union in a shooting war over territory. He believed he had a better way of running things, a more business-like, a more congenial arrangement. Because of that, worlds would petition to join his empire. He didn’t need large fleets or armies. The presence of dark matter would be enough to counter that threat.
However, there was the other matter. After searching the room and around the couch, he concluded Cain must have the Formation key. The video footage didn’t show it, but that could have happened when the room was filled with the security smoke. The object was small enough to fit in a pocket.
“Where are they now?” he asked the Defender.
“We do not know, but we assume they are headed for the spaceport.”
“Send Defenders to their ship. Do not let them enter. And Lornix, their lives have no value to me. Recover my property and then do away with them.”
At any given time, a dozen starships were preparing to lift off from the Essen spaceport. Adam and his team watched the preparations for one of these vessels as it ran through its pre-lift off protocols.
Sherri scanned the interior with her ATD and knew there were weapons aboard, but they were concentrated in one area and weren’t moving, probably locked away in a cabinet somewhere. It was the rare spaceship that didn’t have at least some weapons aboard. Space was a dangerous place.
Knowing that Mike’s ship would be guarded, the team opted to stow away aboard one of the many departing spaceships, and then once away from the planet, they would take over and fly it back to Navarus. Stealing one on the ground would have caused too much of a scene and only lead to a chase in space between them and the MK ships.
The grav generators on their target vessel were heating up, and the focusing rings tested for alignment. It was the standard procedure for a ship not expecting any trouble with the departure. Mike led the way in through the open side hatch, while one of the crew was aft, checking the lifting jets for obstructions. Once inside, they silently made their way aft, toward the engine room. A ship this size would have a crew of three or four with most on the bridge, except for the lone person making his rounds outside. The crewmember entered a moment later and buttoned up the ship before heading for the bridge.
The liftoff was smooth, and Adam’s team waited a full three hours before making their move. The ship would be at the outer boundary of the Wokan system by then, having cleared the customs buoys and getting ready to engage a deep gravity-well once past any conflicting gravity sources.
Adam was a mess by then, his wound having soaked his skin and pants with prodigious amounts of blood. He was weak, not only from the blood loss but also from the concentration needed to form the air cushion during their escape. Because of that, he remained in a smelly and cramped stateroom to the rear, spread out on a bunk as the rest of the team went and commandeered the ship.
He was asleep by the time the deed was done and the vessel on a course for Navarus. He didn’t wake up for three days.
The commandeered starship was much slower than Mike’s little speeder, so it took twenty-days instead of twelve to return to Navarus.
During that time—and without revealing their location—the team opened communications with several parties, alerting the galaxy to Wolfgang Stimmel and the role he had in not only Adam’s fake assassination but also the theft of the dark matter collectors.
Ambassador Jeanne Euker and Brigadier General Todd Oaks were on links moments later attempting to light fires under not only the Union but the Expansion, as well. At first, everyone they talked to was just as upset or worried as they were. But the higher up the chain of command the communications went, the less enthusiasm there was to do anything more than lodge formal complaints with MK. As Adam was afraid, MK was too big and influential for any severe retribution, even as the Director stepped down only days after the revelations broke on the newscasts.
Adam logged onto the Galactic Library aboard the ship, watching the newscasts and growing more frustrated by the day as the tone of the stories shifted from outrage to acceptance. At first, everyone was condemning the former Director. But as the dark matter collectors became more of the subject, those interviewed began to shrug off Stimmel’s illegal activities. They called it a gambit or simply business as usual. No one wanted to provoke the wrath of a person who possessed enough power to destroy the galaxy or a significant portion of it.
In the few days after the news broke, Stimmel was able to buy six more worlds in the Dead Zone before the Union and the Expansion finally put a stop to it. They weren’t prepared to go against him militarily, so they used universal law instead. They passed joint emergency decrees declaring that any transfer of planetary titles could be done only with the consent of the majority of refugees from a particular world. And to make sure Stimmel couldn’t throw enough money at the natives to vote for transfer, the empires offered huge cash packages to each of the refugees themselves, but not to sell their worlds, but to resettle them.
This put an immediate stop to the Director’s land grab. He still had twenty-eight worlds in his tiny empire, along with two DMCs. That made him a formidable force to be reckoned with.
On a personal note, Adam contacted Arieel on Formil and told her what happened to his ATD. After she stopped crying, wailing about how there was nothing she could do to get him another, he got down to the real reason for his link.
Could Stimmel have the ATD installed in his body? And not only that, could he have it reverse engineered so he could build more?
Arieel had to check with her scientists, but when she got back to him, the sad answer was yes to both. Neither would be easy to do, but the technology that went into the Gift—the ATD—was standard Formilian tech. She also said the politicians were furious with her, saying this was the reason they didn’t want the Gift to leave the planet. Soon thousands of people could have the special ability to commune with their Gods and therefore desecrate the process.
Adam didn’t tell her how Panur and Lila had already built basic ATDs for Riyad and Sherri. That would not have helped her mood. Even so, he figured he could get the mutants to build him a new unit, and one without all the restrictions. It was a dangerous galaxy out there, and he needed every advantage he could get.
Besides, he had a bargaining chip, one that could get him anything he wanted from the pair of immortal mutant geniuses.
The day after landing on Navarus, Adam was back in the mutant’s lab with just Lila and Panur. Sherri had used her ancient veterinary training and the ship’s medical kit to sew up his wound, but it was still raw and hurt like hell. He favored his side as Panur was speaking.
The tiny grey creature held up the ancient rock Stimmel had said was a key to deciphering the Formation Code. “After telling us about this stone, we began to check all the artifacts. We have found four more with the special markings. There does seem to be a relationship between the stones and the glyphs, which has led Lila and me to conclude that we may be looking at a construction guide for the Formation. However, as you know, we are missing the one crucial element—the disk itself. The stones appear to create a faint electric field, which we feel can interact with the disk, stimulating the organic material inside to realign and provide a key or a combination to the much larger structure. Unfortunately, without the disk, we have nothing on which to test our theories.”
“That’s all interesting, Panur,” Adam began, “but I have a more pressing matter. I need a new ATD, and one with even more bells and whistles than before. I know you can build one.”
Panur shook his head. “I’ve already told you our thinking along those lines. I’m willing to supply you with a basic unit, like Riyad’s and Sherri’s, but beyond that, I’m sorry.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m sorry, too. Because I was willing to trade you for the super-duper ATD. The turbo-model, so to speak.”
“Trade? Trade what?”
Adam reached into his pocket and pulled out another Formation disk.
“You got it?” Lila exclaimed. “I thought you said you did not?”
“I didn’t; this is another one.”
Panur narrowed his eyes in anger at Adam.
“You’ve had a second one all along?”
“It was just as easy to remove two disks from the box as one. I thought having a backup might come in handy.”
“No, you didn’t,” Panur countered. “You had no idea what they were at the time, just that Kanan needed all of them to make the Formation work. One would have done nicely.”
“Yeah, well,” he said as he flicked the disk into the air with his thumb as you would a coin. He caught it in his palm. “I took two, and now I’m willing to let you have this second one in exchanged for the turbo ATD.”
“You know I could just take it from you,” Panur warned.
“That’s true, but you are a creature of honor. We’re negotiating.”
“Since when what?”
“Since when am I a creature of honor … and we’re negotiating.”
“C’mon, Panur. I need a new ATD, and you guys can make it really special. Help a friend out.”
Adam tossed the disk into the air again, but this time fumbled it when it hit his palm. It bounced out and fell toward the concrete floor. A split second later, an extended grey limb had the disk cradled in a tiny palm only an inch from the floor.
“You should know, Adam,” his daughter said, “the disks are very fragile. That’s why we had it enclosed in a protective container.”
Adam swallowed hard.
“Oh.” He grinned sheepishly. “Now, what about that ATD?”
The Formation Code
The Adam Cain Saga #7
Coming June 30, 2020
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Novels by T.R. Harris
The Adam Cain Saga
The Formation Code (coming June 202)
The Human Chronicles
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