The High Cruel Years

Part One

By Shadar and Brantley

 

Chapter One

Harry Maclendon was nursing his fifth glass of Vogel beer as he slowly drowned himself in the beautiful blue eyes of the singer. She’d been singing for barely an hour, but he was already starting to feel a strange fondness for her. He wasn’t sure if that came from his loneliness after Tamra's death, or if it was just the singer’s beautiful voice. He drained his beer. More likely the black gown that clung so tightly to her figure, cut down the front to her navel, the short skirt showing off her long legs. Or all that flowing, golden-blonde hair, with bangs that hid her eyes. All he knew for sure was that he’d not been smitten this way since he was a teenager. And he’d married that girl thirty-two years ago.

He ordered another Vogel and then leaned back in his chair, deciding to just enjoy the song. He didn’t want to think about his dead wife. Still less about how she had been taken from him. Or his growing loneliness. He had to get past all that. Instead, he focused on simply enjoying the music. The bartender had told him the four, a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist/horn player, and of course the singer, were part of a group called Pandora’s Box, operated out of Port New Townsend.  According to the bartender, they’d been working the Reigel Five cruise circuit for the last two years.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about the singer that went beyond her looks. Or her voice, which was strong and sibilant. In his opinion, one of the best female singing voices he’d ever heard. What bothered him was why such a stunningly beautiful and talented singer was working this cheap lounge on C-deck. Decorated like a tropical garden, the walls covered in cheap painted images of flowers and trees, it was strictly an economy class club. She should be up on the Promenade with the First Class passengers. Or on the catwalk, modeling million dollar fashions. Her every motion was so sinuously flexible, like a powerful cat, and her blue eyes seemed to look into every man’s eyes, causing them to stir in the way of men.

He closed his eyes, shutting out the angelic vision. It had to be the booze getting to him. Vogel was reputed to contain a trace of a rare hallucinogen, which is why it was so expensive. He opened his eyes, only to find that she looked even more beautiful. Flawless. He took a deep draught of his new beer, telling himself his fascination was probably simply due to the fact that he hadn’t been with a woman since Tamra was killed. He knew the drill. As her memory faded, his inhibitions would fall, and both those changes were lubricated by alcohol. It was a familiar enough theme, played out in bars and clubs across the galaxy every day. All he really knew for sure was that he wasn’t going to leave this club until he got a chance to buy her a drink.

A ten spot to the bartender yielded her name: Molly.

Molly was winding down her last song of the set, a Celtic ballad from old Earth, when a powerful explosion shook the room, knocking everyone off their feet. Harry dove under his tiny table. The sudden darkness was broken by emergency lighting. The singer and the bartender were the only ones standing when Harry got back to his feet.  People began to crowd toward the exit door, the smarter ones looking very scared.

Harry thought first about Molly, at least until he saw her standing tall, glancing around the room, her eyes glowing with a strange light. Her focus was displaced, almost like she was seeing things he couldn’t see. Things further away. She looked here and there, up toward the ceiling, then back toward the bulkhead facing the stern of the ship. Whatever it was that she saw, it caused her to spring into action. Her calm singing voice guided people to the stairs as the crew worked to quickly empty the lounge. No one panicked.

Harry joined her in helping some of the older and slower moving patrons to the stairs. He'd put in twenty years with the Reigellian Intelligence Service before retiring, and his training had included dealing with emergencies of every kind -- including occasional terrorist attacks. Since the pre-emptive coup a couple of years back -- the one that had occasioned his wife's death and his own retirement -- such attacks were no longer occasional. But hitting a cruise ship -- that was new. That was escalation.

“Don’t panic, just keep moving. No need to rush,” he and Molly both kept telling people as they worked opposite sides of the room.

Harry turned back to check the room a final time, finding that Molly was the only one left now. She was standing by the far exit, staring strangely at the floor again, only to be startled out of her trance when the watertight door behind her crashed down to seal against the floor.

“We gotta go,” Harry shouted to her, motioning her toward his exit. She looked up at him as she brushed the hair from her eyes, revealing luminous eyes, and had taken but a single step when a similar door crashed down to block Harry’s doorway. He turned and pounded against the riveted door, but his fists bounced off the thick steel, barely making a noise. He spun around, a touch of panic gnawing at him. “Is there a phone down here?” he asked her.

Molly shook her head, blonde tresses flowing freely over bare shoulders. “Doesn’t work. Explosions were in the control room, and up on B-deck forward. Everything’s down but the auxiliary power.”

“Two explosions? I only heard one.”

“They were well synchronized.”

“We’re under attack?” Harry asked, dumfounded. “How do you know all this?”

The sprinklers suddenly came on, dousing them both with icy water. “That was very brave, Harry,” she shouted over the noise. “Helping everyone else ahead of yourself.” She brushed the wet hair from her face as she looked levelly into his eyes. “I heard the bartender giving you my name.”

Harry just stared at her, wondering how she’d overheard the bartender’s words over the music. Or how she knew his name. Perhaps someone had pulled his name from the passenger manifest based on the room number he’d used to charge the drinks. Given the way he’d been staring at Molly all night, maybe the bartender had checked him out and gotten her permission before passing her name to him. If so, then Athenian Lines was better organized than he’d expected. Especially down here in this lowest class lounge. “I used to work for RIS. Retired now, but I guess the old instincts die hard.”

“I figured as much.” She looked up at him as she tossed her long hair over her left shoulder. “So what do you know about Velorians, Harry?

“What’s that got to do with anything? We need to let people know we’re down here.”

“Actually, that question is about to have everything to do with your life, Harry. Or whether you even have one.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Humor me for a moment.”

Harry sighed in exasperation. She was so beautiful that he found it hard to get mad at her, even if she was wasting precious time.

“About the same as everyone else, I guess,” he said with a shrug. “Superhumans, and strong as hell and they can fly. Also, they seem to come in only one hair color. Like the Protector and the others here.”

He paused as a funny thought tickled his mind. She smiled, anticipating the words that were going to come to his lips before he said them. “Like yours, actually.”

The ship lurched again as he said that, tilting further to the port side. A sickening surge of panic mixed with his growing claustrophobia to wash over him, pushing away any amorous thoughts he’d had about Molly. “Shit! This old tub is going down, and fast!” He turned back to begin pounding on the watertight door, shouting for help.

“No one can hear you, Harry,” Molly said softly. “We’re too deep in the hull. Most everyone else is topside now. We haven’t got any communications, and the water’s rising fast, so they can’t open those doors. Nobody’s coming back down here.”

Harry spun back around to face her, his eyes wide in fear. She looked calm, almost sad. “Then why aren’t you scared shitless?”

“Because I’m a Velorian, Harry. And we don’t scare easily.”

“That’s impossible,” he scoffed. “Vels who get off their home planet are all Protectors, or serving in the Diplomatic Corps, or as military advisors. Not singing in some cheap lounge on C-deck of a second rate cruise line.”

“I’m not sure if I should be offended, or proud that I’ve managed to avoid even your suspicions.”

Harry forced himself to exhale, trying to keep breathing normally so as to push back the panic. “I didn’t mean it that way. I love your singing.”

“Of course you meant it that way. But I’m not one of those Protectors, Harry. In fact, I’m on the opposite end of that spectrum. I was crewing on a Velorian ship, singing just like I am here, when it got hit by an Aurean dreadnought. Instead of fighting, I grabbed my little sister and we flew for our lives. Last thing I saw was a sunburst behind me as the anti-matter pods imploded.” She took a deep breath. “There were no survivors listed.”

“So you came to Reigel Five,” Harry nodded, strangely finding her story believable, even if this was hardly the time for it. “Don’t you work with the other Velorians over at the embassy?”

“They don’t even know my sister and I are here. If they did, we’d either get sent home, or we’d be pressed into the Intelligence service. Like you used to be. And facing Primes when we’re only B-class is about as hopeless for us as you punching your way through that water-tight door.”

Harry looked nervously back at the steel door, trying to stay focused on what should have been the most fascinating conversation of his life. Instead, it was just getting in the way of finding a way out of here. “So what’s a B?” he asked, his words clipped and nervous. He felt the sweat forming on his brow as the air grew stale and hot.

“B’s are the lowest of the low on Velor. Weaker than any other Vels, and not blessed with a P’s beauty.” She glanced around and sighed heavily, a hint of sadness in her eyes now. “Not too many decent jobs back home these days, so I went for that shipboard gig. Then I’m lost in space, and now I’m about to be lost at sea. Must be my karma.”

The cruise ship lurched again, then, encouragingly, it started to right itself slightly. Harry was starting to feel hopeful when one end of the room started to tilt strongly downward, the tables and chairs sliding that way. Harry hung onto the bar, while Molly stood motionless in the sea of sliding chairs and tables, seemingly impervious to the forces of gravity.

“That’s all very interesting, Molly,” he shouted over the din as the deck tilted further. “But we got a serious problem right now. How were you planning on getting out of here?”

“Wait until the ship hit bottom and then break out through the hull and swim for the surface. No witnesses that way.”

Harry shivered. “I don’t think I like that plan. Two-thousand feet may be shallow for you, but--”

“Yeah, I gotcha,” she said as she rose to face him, her eyes so piercingly blue behind her tangled, wet hair. “It’s about time to get out of here.”

A thrill raced through his body as he drank in her perfection, her daringly cut top drawing his eyes to her breasts. Being the gentleman he was, he forced his eyes back up to hers, wondering what she was looking at.

“Get undressed, Harry. Fast. We’ll be in the water soon, and your clothing will only slow you down.”

“They can’t save the ship?”

“No way,” she shook her head. “Hole as big as a garage near the bow. A third bomb apparently. Fortunately we’re cruising off Calantra. Water’s warm, from the vent.”

Relatively speaking, Harry thought. For a world as wintry as Reigel Five. But still the warmest place on the planet, enough to make it the most popular resort among natives and offworlders alike. And the cruise line could take you there one day and to a pristine ice shelf the next. Neat travel package. But the water temperature begged the question.

“There’s still the pressure. I can’t take even fifty feet, let alone half a mile. And there’ll still be witnesses, if we go straight up.”

“Don’t worry about that.” Molly turned her back to him to face the steel door. “I’m going to take a risk of exposing myself to get us out of here earlier. It’ll be chaos up above in any case. They'll be too busy to notice we didn't just jump from the railing when the ship went down.”

She lifted her arms and bent backward to stretch, displaying amazing flexibility by placing her palms together behind her back. She brought her arms back around and flexed her fingers before straightening them into blades, four fingers of each hand rigidly outstretched, her thumb tucked in. She threw herself at the water-tight door, her fingertips hitting the steel with a ringing clang. Astoundingly, she embedded them half their length in the steel.

Harry found himself gawking as Molly began to force her hands outward, the steel door giving off a vibrating groan that shook the deck beneath Harry’s feet. Her back and shoulders suddenly looked phenomenally strong. Shifting her grip, she straightening one upraised arm while pushing the opposite direction with her other hand, and gave a mighty push with her arms at forty-five degree angles. The steel door popped and shrieked, rivets flying as she tore a ragged semicircular hole in the three-inch steel.

Her entire body was a maze of muscular curves by the time she turned to the side and ducked down and through the opening she’d made. Harry just stared at the hole, stunned by her display of superhuman strength. She was just a lounge singer. And what was that about Bs being the weakest Velorians? If this was an example of Velorian weakness, then Harry wasn’t sure he could imagine what the strongest Velorians must be like.

His racing thoughts were interrupted as the deck tilted even steeper, and he had to grab a railing to stay on his feet. He staggered across the floor, pausing at the water-tight door to marvel at the way her fingers had made deep indentations in the steel, her fingerprints visible even to his naked eye. He had no idea how much raw strength it had taken to fold up thick steel like that, but it was a hell of lot. A fucking hell of a lot.

He finally ducked through the opening to find Molly standing by a moist wall on the far side of the next compartment. He hung onto some braces on the wall as the ship rolled further, putting her downhill from him. He realized with horror that the liner was about to turn turtle.

“I’m going to open the outer hull, Harry. It’s going to get wet now, so hold your breath. We aren’t very deep yet.”

She repeated the same procedure as before, except for hammering her fists into the thicker hull several times first to make two deep depressions.

Harry struggled to both hang on and cover his ears as the resounding clang nearly deafened him.

Finally satisfied with the depressions, Molly jammed her outstretched fingers into them like before. This time eight streams of cold water exploded into the room. Harry took a few deep breaths as he saw the muscles bunching across her shoulders again, then down her back, and seconds later, a wall of water exploded inward to smash him up against bulkhead. Everything went black.

 

Chapter Two

Harry blinked his eyes open to find that he was lying on a bed in a dimly lit room. He rolled onto his side and coughed up some phlegm. His lungs felt congested, and his chest was tight and achy. The last thing he remembered was Molly tearing open the hull and the dark water rushing in.

He rolled out of the deep, feather-soft bed to turn on a light, only to find he was in a woman’s bedroom. Clothing was hanging on hooks, and a closet on the far side of the room was stuffed full with a woman’s clothing. Most of it was exotically styled, some of it bordering on stage costumes. Strangely, there was no evidence of intimate wear, just outer garments. Even more interestingly, the dressing table was nearly devoid of cosmetics. Some lip gloss and a hair brush were the only things there. He’d read somewhere that Vels rarely wore makeup. With their complexion, it could only detract from perfection, or so he’d heard it said.

It didn’t take a genius to realize he was lying in Molly’s bed. If it wasn’t for the fact that he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there, that would have been exciting as hell. How many Terran men had spent a night in a Velorian’s bed? It would make for a great tale when he met up with the guys in a bar back home.

A lot of men on Reigel Five carried secret fantasies of Velorians. It came out after a few drinks. Some of the men even made pilgrimages to the Velorian embassy just to see one of them in person.  He hadn’t really been that obsessed, although he remembered being very impressed when this one leggy, long-haired blonde had shocked him by leaping from the street while he was on a mission in Perthy ten years ago. Her acceleration had been so rapid that she literally disappeared before his eyes. Her sonic boom had thundered between the downtown buildings, her shock wave compressing his chest so powerfully that it made his heart beat funny and left his ears ringing for the next hour. Several women and children had been blown off their feet. He’d helped them back to their feet, brushing the street dust from their coats, wondering what the hell was going on.

He’d read the next day that several citizens had filed complaints at the Velorian embassy. The embassy published an official apology. Harry wasn’t about to complain himself, given that he was working underground in Perthy, trying to track down some renegade Aryans. As he heard later, the Velorian he’d seen was a mere clerk at the embassy who’d had an argument with a local merchant.

That set Harry to wondering: if a mere clerk could fly like that, and a lounge singer could rip open steel bulkhead and a ship’s hull, what could a mighty Protector do?

He wasn’t going to complain in any case. He’d just been saved from certain drowning. The only problem was that he wasn’t sure if he should be frightened of Molly or eternally grateful. He decided to be both.

Taking a deep breath, he opened the bedroom door and stepped out into a gray plastered room. An overstuffed leather couch was located along one wall, and the stone floor was covered in colorful wool rugs. A number of unusual pieces of art decorated the walls, including some large holos of Reigel Five that had been taken from high orbit. He guessed they’d been taken by Molly during her travels.

He was interrupted from his musing by the sound of a tea pot whistling. He turned and headed toward the sound. He was halfway to the kitchen door when a nearly naked and very tall blonde girl walked into the living room from outside. She looked like a younger version of Molly as she paused to pose coquettishly and stare back at him, tilting her head as she brushed her hair from her face with one hand.

“You must be Harry.”

Harry froze, not sure what to say. A small voice in the back of his head reminded him that some Velorians chose not to wear clothing when at home. Well, she did have a scrap of underwear, but still...

“Are you O.K?” she tried again. “You swallowed a lot of water yesterday.” Her voice was just as smooth and sibilant as Molly’s.  An alto tone accented with a hint of guttural breathiness. Her Galactic English was good -- so good that he could barely detect her Velorian accent.

He swallowed hard and put his brain back into gear, trying to keep his eyes on hers. “I’m sorry, but we haven’t met. I’m Harry Maclendon.” He held out his hand.

She lowered her hand to clasped his. Her fingers were long, her skin warm from holding the teapot, and her firm handshake bordered on painful. “I’m Anya,” she smiled as she gave his hand an even tighter squeeze.

 “A most appropriate name, given your Nordic background.” For some reason, he felt it important to let her know that he was familiar with Velorian history. Harry decided that she looked 16 or 17. “You’re Molly’s younger sister?”

A tiny smile tilted her lips as she held onto his hand longer than was polite. A sudden rush of desire washed over him as his eyes drank in her unearthly beauty, his reaction forcing him to withdrew his hand as quickly as was polite. It somehow seemed dangerous for this naked teenage girl to have the kind of strength that Molly had exhibited. He’d had two sisters, and they’d been flighty and emotional at Anya’s age. His older sister had tortured him until he grew strong enough to hold his own.

Still, he couldn’t help but stare into Anya’s huge eyes, finding that they were even more compelling than her older sister’s. If Molly had been a 15 on a Terran scale of 10, then Anya had to be a 16. Procreators for the Galen, he thought, remembering more of his Velorian history. A woman designed to mate with a god and bear his young. “You’re…  you’re a singer too?” he stumbled, not exactly sure what else to say to this teenage goddess. 

“Yeah. My sister and I usually work a duet. Except for her last gig.” She walked into the living room and sat down to pour her tea.

“You really feeling O.K?” Anya asked as she watched his eyes mist over, wondering what he was thinking. “My sister had to revive you, and for a bit, she thought she’d lost you. The ship was deeper than she’d thought by the time she got you out. You were so cold.”

Harry turned his head and coughed again. “I’m still not a hundred percent, but I’ve felt worse. Got shot once, and that wasn’t fun.”

“I can’t imagine what that must have felt like. How frightening it was.”

“Given your gifts, you don’t have to worry about that.”

“But I’d like to experience pain sometime. To maybe not feel so perfect all the time.”

“Excuse me if I have trouble being sympathetic,” Harry laughed.

“I’m serious. I wish I was human.”

The smile faded from Harry’s face as looked at her strangely. “Why in God’s blue universe would a goddess like you want to be so much less than you are?”

“Goddess?” she scoffed. “Don’t let this pretty body fool you. It’s just a shell.”

His eyes drifted down at her breasts, and he had to force them back to hers. He tried not to sound lecherous as he spoke. “Well, if that’s a shell, it’s a damned impressive one.” What he didn’t say was that she and her sister were far more beautiful than was conceivable for anyone related to mere humans. Anya in particular was a glowing testament to healthiness and strength. “I mean, you’re a supergirl in every way that can be measured.”

“Which is all anyone sees,” she said as she flopped onto one end of the couch, acting like the teenage girl she was. “So I always have to hide this ‘big secret’ to keep from intimidating guys. Wearing gold, the whole bit.”

“No secrets here,” Harry said, not sure at all where this was going. “And what’s this about gold?”

“It makes me more human. Which is why I usually wear it.”

Harry was opening his mouth to ask more about that when the front door opened and Molly breezed in. She looked marvelous in a tight pair of jeans, high-heeled boots and a sleeveless top that left her tight midriff bare. Her hair was tied back into a long braid that hung nearly to her waist.

“So, my music lover lives. Wasn’t so sure about that for a moment last night.”

“I swallowed some water. So Anya told me.”

“Glad you guys met,” Molly said as she walked through the small living room to toss her purse on kitchen counter. Harry followed her into the kitchen, only to see her floating upward to settle on the counter, her long legs dangling as she kicked her boots off. She turned her head to the side and undid her long braid next, combing it out with her fingers. It came free without kinks or tangles, spreading outward to cover her shoulders, looking as like she’d just shampooed and blow-dried it. “And as far as last night, nearly drowning wasn’t your real problem, Harry. The ship had rolled over, putting us at the bottom and about 800 feet down. You were out of it so I had to breathe for you as we came up. You were seriously hypothermic by the time I get you back here. Both from the cold water and the slipstream.”

“Slipstream?”

“How do you think I got you here? We’re eight hundred miles from where the ship went down.”

“We… we flew?”

“Actually, I did. You just came along for the ride.”

“Sounds like I put you through some hassle.”

“No problem. Anya and I warmed you up. We generate a fair bit of body heat.”

“You’re kidding,” Harry said as he remembered the best way to warm up a freezing person. Put them between two warm people and cover with blankets. Bare skin to bare skin. “I slept that way? With both of you? All night?”

“Yup. Like a baby.”

Harry’s mind started spinning. “And I don’t remember a damn thing.” He closed his eyes, trying to push away the mind-boggling image of being sandwiched between two naked Velorians. “I owe you my life. Thanks.”

“I looked up your record, Harry. A few hundred people owe their lives to you. Consider this a down-payment on making things right.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“Maybe not me personally, but for the moment, consider me your guardian angel.”

“I don’t understand. I mean, yeah, I do, understand the angel part that is. But I don’t need a guardian.”

Molly smiled at his awkward compliment. “Well, given what I saw on the Holo this morning, you’re wrong on that account. Seems that the bombing of our ship was intended to take out you and the dozen other RIS agents who were traveling with you.”

“Damn it,” Harry shouted, punching his fist into his palm. RIS had issued the standard warnings about too many agents getting together. “A bunch of us get together every year. Most of us retired. Most of us travel with our wives.”

“Well, somebody’s definitely pissed off at you guys. And given that the bomb was smuggled on board right under the eyes of Security, I’m betting the Aryans had some inside help.”

Harry closed his eyes as he asked, “Did anyone else make it out?”

Molly looked down at her feet for a long moment, then back up into his eyes. “You’re the only RIS agent who lived through the explosion and sinking, Harry. Four agency wives were lost too."

“Any other casualties?” Harry asked, his jaw tight.

“Only a few. Seems the bombers and their backup people knew exactly who they wanted. If we hadn’t met, they would have made a clean sweep of all RIS agents.”

"I knew they shouldn't have booked adjacent compartments. Not the way things have been going…. Does the agency know I made it out?”

“Nobody knows you’re alive, Harry. Your name is on the list of those who perished. President Bergstrom personally led a memorial service last night, and your name was read.”

“Jesus! My daughter. I’ve got to call her.” He looked around for a holo-phone.

“Not so fast, Harry. You have a couple of advantages right now if you want to get back at the bastards who did this. The first advantage is that they think you’re dead. The second is Anya and me.”

Harry just stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m betting your agency has got some Aryan moles in it. Nothing’s secure when they’re around. If you call in, then the shooters will come looking for you. Possibly your family as well.”

Maybe we should have kept the Diaboli, Harry thought. You can’t hide anything from them.

But that was water under the bridge. Molly was right. He had to play along. Nodding, he looked back up at her. “O.K. That makes sense, I guess. We’re all ghosts. You and Anya were supposedly killed in that anti-matter burst, and I went down with the good ship Adelaide.”

Molly held out her hand. “A real dream team. A couple of B-grade lounge singers on the run and an old retired fart.” She winked at him. “Who could stop such a powerhouse?”

Harry laughed as he took her hand, gripping it back with all his strength. “Damn straight.”

Molly smiled brightly, her eyes sparkling like blue diamonds. “So, Harry Maclendon, perhaps your retirement isn’t going to be as boring as you first thought.”

Chapter Three

Cher’ee Belan'gan looked surprised as she clicked off the holo-vid. After months of silence, Klaus Vern’danan had just demanded her presence in his office.

Since the day he'd been installed as the Velorian ambassador to Reigel Five, Vern’danan had been trying to terminate her assignment here. He blamed her for the debacle that had greeted his arrival and thus, so he thought reflected on him.

It was her second posting here, following the Battle of Klas'ten. Her first had been most irregular, equivalent to a field commission in the military. Fresh from her Rites, before she'd even taken formal training at Erin'dor But she'd acted as a Protector, and Major Terri Raul'lan had somehow wangled a provisional appointment. She seemed to have a knack for that kind of thing, even when it later got her in trouble.

The High Council would probably have called her back even if it hadn't been for that business with Randik. They'd been stripping a number of worlds of their Protectors to build up the force for Shock and Awe. But violating the Prime Directive, however unintentionally, had shown a lack of judgment and maturity. She had paid for that. She might have paid with her life at Klas'ten, if things had gone a bit differently, if Terri hadn't trained them so well, if….

This time it was going to be different, she had vowed when she was reassigned to Reigel Five. This time, she was going to do her job. Period. And she had, right from the get-go. Cher’ee had stopped the Aureans when they were but a hair’s breadth away from inserting several combat teams on the planet, and a lot of Reigellians had died in the resulting battle.

It had been a nightmare.

Somehow, they had gotten hold of a Velorian-model commercial vessel, along with an actual registration and all the proper system entry codes. The false Ravenstar's captain had looked authentically Velorian, and was using the identity of an actual captain. If Cher’ee hadn't known that particular captain, and had not by chance recognized the imposture when she saw the Aurean on one of the monitors at Chief Downport….

She’d immediately sounded the alarm, and gone into action as the enemy commandos swarmed out of the ship, weapons blazing. Civilians ran for cover, but dozens were cut down in the first seconds -- there were only so many Betans the Protector could take out at once, there was no way she could interpose her invulnerable body between them and the hundreds of innocents exposed to their withering fire. Reigellian security forces responded to her call, but many of them had also perished as they bravely rushed the Aureans to draw their fire from the panicked crowd. It took only a few minutes to get things under control, and to kill the Aureans to the last man. But it had seemed like an eternity.

Cher’ee’s quick thinking had prevented far worse. That should have been enough. But not for the new ambassador, who had made it abundantly clear that a more experienced Protector should have been able to do a better job to put a lid on things and keep the casualties down.

The High Council had told him Cher’ee was the best they had available. It was hard to argue with them, given that she was a veteran of the Battle of Klas'ten despite her tender age. Moreover, she was a protegé of Major Raul'lan, who had planned that battle and trained the young Protectors for it even though she'd had her doubts about its wisdom. And Major Raul'lan was now back here as military attaché, also over Vern'danan's objections, because the Senate was alarmed over the deteriorating security situation on a world of strategic importance to the Enlightenment.

The disaster at Chief Downport had been an embarrassment to Velor as well as to Reigel Five. It was especially an embarrassment to Vern’danan to be forced to acquiesce in subjection of Velorian ships to the same heightened security checks as other vessels entering the Reigellian system. Neither RIS nor Velorian Intelligence had been able to determine where the Aureans had obtained the ship, but the consensus was that it must have been produced by the Empire -- the actual Ravenstar was still in service, and no other Velorian ships had been reported missing. But as for the entry codes, it was obvious that there was a leak. Somebody here was in contact with the Aureans.

As if that weren't bad enough, there were the Aryans, who thought she should be on their side in the undeclared civil war here. She had rebuffed the overtures they'd made when she first arrived, reminding them that the Prime Directive forbade her to intervene in the planet's internal affairs, as she had learned to her cost. She could have said a lot more -- about her contempt for them and everything they stood for -- but that itself would have constituted intervention, according to the letter of the Directive.

They'd gotten the message anyway, and responded with a vengeance. Now they seemed to regard Velorians as the enemy and, after some confusion, the Velorian Senate had decided that Aryans could be treated as enemy combatants -- as Aureans "in effect," whatever that meant. So now she was expected to break the Directive, or at least bend it. Yet the very fact that she had been approached made her suspect in the eyes of the Embassy, which she had felt duty-bound to keep informed from the start. Worse, Cher'ee suspected that the Aryans had moles on the staff there, just as they did in the RIS and who knew where else.

Worst of all, she had to work with President Bergstrom, who was hanging on by a thread. Perhaps the civil war would have erupted anyway, but he had made it a certainty with his pre-emptive coup. Everyone knew that, but nobody wanted to admit it. The official story was still that the Minister of Justice, himself an Aryan, had been plotting against the government. It was a lie and she knew it; Spender might have been devious but he'd known which side his bread had been buttered on. He'd actually been trying to keep the more radical Aryans in check. But he'd been killed in the siege of the Ministry, and now he was a martyr -- in whose name racist fanatics waged guerrilla warfare and forged weapons in secret laboratories and factories.

Cher’ee pushed those thoughts away and began to dress, deciding to wear civilian clothes as opposed to her uniform. Like many Protectors, she felt the uniform drew unnecessary attention to her. And in the present crisis, it made her an easy target for Aryan smart weapons.

The Smart Sets, their latest missiles, based on smuggled Aurean designs and prototypes, used advanced image recognition to find Velorians among the Terrans they lived with, and the uniform made that all too easy. The missiles always came in quads, with the first being a targeting bird. Once the target was acquired, the second arrived to dispense a gold-bound adhesive that coated the victim’s body. The third bombarded it with accelerated x-rays, and the fourth arrived with a warhead of extremely high burn-rate explosive surrounded by pellets of Vendorian steel. The combination, if timed perfectly, was theoretically lethal to a Velorian.

Fortunately for all of the Velorians on Reigel Five, but unfortunately for tall, blonde female Terran women, the image analysis software in the missiles sometimes confused humans with Velorians. As long as Velorians didn’t fly and they kept their heads down, dressing and acting as human-like as possible, the Smart Set missiles were largely ineffective in sorting them out of the crowd. The sonar imaging routines in the scout missile couldn’t detect a Velorian’s denser body until it was very close to its target.

Cher’ee had proven adept at taking the missiles out. She’d fly high over the countryside, away from any Reigellian settlements, and let the missiles target her, only to dodge them at the last millisecond. She’d agilely survived a dozen such attacks, despite being splattered with the gold adhesive and weakened by the x-rays and knocked silly by the explosives. What she worried about was one of them attacking her when she was walking around inside a city. One quad had in fact targeted another embassy official while he was making an appearance at a charity benefit in Perthy, and dozens of bystanders had died in the explosion.

Unfortunately, despite all the missiles she’d destroyed, Cher’ee knew the Aryans had more, just waiting for the right time to launch. But nobody knew where they were, or where they were launched from. They were too stealthy to be picked up by Reigellian radar, and could remain airborne for days, circling over a large area waiting for a target to appear. Their AI was smart enough to keep track of buildings with known Velorians inside, poised for a supersonic sprint toward the doorway that she exited. And the Velorian embassy was the top of their target list for obvious reasons.

Major Raul'lan had ordered many of the diplomatic functions relocated out of the embassy building itself, and she constantly moved the offices around, trying to keep near misses from injuring any more Reigellians. As a proud measure of defiance, however, she and the ambassador kept their offices in the main building. Which meant that Cher’ee’s meeting with the ambassador was going to be at ground zero.

Cher’ee shrugged that worry away as she quickly braided her hair into a single long ponytail, tucking a few stray strands behind her ears. She hoped this style would make her look older. She accented the adult look further by applying some red eye-shadow. Her roommate back on Velor, Jam'la, had always said, “Just because we’ve been born to kick ass for a living, it doesn’t mean we can’t look good doing it.”

As P-1’s, they’d been the most prettiest and strongest girls in their class, which meant they carried that title out into the universe. Jam'la had let it go to her head, but Cher’ee merely found it a paradox that served to confuse the men she met. “An insanely desirable but unfuckable uber-goddess,” as one frustrated man had described her. She took exception to the goddess part, but the rest was the burden every Vel carried when she lived among Terrans.

Unless she took precautions. Opening a small box on her dresser, she removed a thin, gold necklace. Her fingers tingled pleasantly just from holding it. Gold was normally the last thing a Protector wanted to wear, but the ambassador had refused to meet with any P-class unless her strength was dampened. This necklace wasn’t very pure gold, so the effect was minimal when she fastened it behind her neck. No more than a pleasant tingling that teased her intimate spots, and a misplaced sense of well being as her inhibitions faded. Still, it bothered her that the ambassador insisted on the gold. As a B-male, he had a thing about wanting to be the strongest person in the room, and being the ambassador meant he could get away with being an asshole about it.

Sighing, she stared back at herself in the mirror, and finished up by applying a little more lip gloss. Her only consolation was the realization that the gold bothered the Major even more than herself. She’d likely be there as well. The security officer was always fuming when she came out of the ambassador’s office, pausing only long enough in the outer office to tear the gold chain off and throw it into the trash. Expensive visits they were.

Cher’ee let her thoughts drift forward to the likely subject of the ambassador’s meeting. A cruise ship had gone down just off the coast, perhaps the result of terrorists. He might want her to root them out. Aryan separatists most likely. They were not beyond killing ordinary Reigellians to promote their cause.

She was lost in that thought as she peddled through the traffic on her bike at three times the speed a car could. She left her bike beneath the embassy and took the lift tunnel to the 20th floor. The tunnel was a meter-wide clear plastic tube that extended from ceiling to basement, the upper end emerging in the ambassador’s suite. It was hard to fly with the gold, but she managed to float up the tube, emerging to settle to the floor in his outer office.

Vern’danan’s private secretary, Felica, was as rude as always. She was a M-class who acted as if she ran the embassy. She didn’t like Cher’ee because her boss didn’t like Cher’ee. Felica wasn’t the kind to ask questions or think for herself. She motioned Cher'ee toward a chair. “You’re late. Have a seat. He’ll see you when he can.”

“My business with him is urgent. And he called me, remember?”

“Nevertheless, you can’t expect me to interrupt him every time someone steps into my office. When he needs to talk to you, he’ll let me know.”

“What about my being late? Isn’t he waiting?”

“I can’t help it if you’re unable to maintain a schedule,” Felica said, her nose in the air. “I obviously can. I scheduled someone else in your place.”

Cher’ee gave Felica a foul look and turned to sit in one of the chairs. “Follow the rules. Defer to authority,” she whispered under her breath. It was the mantra of all Protectors, but unfortunately, patience was not one of Cher’ee’s birth virtues. She focused her attention instead on scanning the ambassador’s office, although it was hard to see through the door while wearing the cheap gold. She saw enough to discover that the door was steel reinforced, Vendorian by the look of it. Still, she suspected she could kick her way through it, even with the gold on. She knew that taking out her frustration that way would only make things worse, but it was all too tempting.

The intercom on the secretary’s desk toned a moment later to save her. “Is that girl here yet?”

Felica looked across the desk, her eyes boring into Cher’ee’s. “If you mean our fearless Protector, then yes, she is.”

“Well, send her in. And then isolate this office, Felica. State business.”

Felica tilted her head toward the inner office, and then looked back down and busied herself with her work, knowing Cher’ee had overheard.

Cher’ee rose to walk briskly across the office and through the inner door, glad to leave the frostiness of the outer office behind.

Unfortunately, she quickly found that she’d landed in the arctic.

 

Chapter Four

”Did you see the news?” Molly asked Harry as she arrived home, shrugging off her calf-length brown leather coat to toss it on the couch. “Anya and I are listed among the casualties, along with you.”

Harry nodded as he sat down and began typing some commands into his PersComp. “So I’m a little deader than I’ve been lately.”

As a dead man, he couldn’t be seen at his home office. But Molly had retrieved his PersComp, and a few other necessaries, in the dead of night. If anybody noticed them missing, it would be put down to burglary: she’d jimmied the door before leaving; that wasn’t the way she’d entered, obviously. It was reasonably safe at Molly and Anya’s place – they didn’t have any friends, and the neighbors didn’t know who they were: some Butch couple, they probably figured.

Molly didn’t comment. She’d heard his lament before about the perils of forced retirement. 

His PersComp chimed and a flood of data began to scroll across his screen. He looked up to grin at Molly a few minutes later. “Gotcha. I found a way into RIS’s backup server.” He bent back down and started to read. His grin quickly began to fade, turning into a frown.

“Let me guess, it’s worse than you expected?”

“Why don’t you find Anya and make something to eat. I need a little while to digest this.”

Molly nodded, and then slipped out the door. Harry never raised his eyes from the screen.

He was slumped in his chair rubbing his eyes when Molly returned an hour later. She set a sandwich and a beer in front of him.

“This is unbelievable, Molly. RIS thinks the Aryans are poised for a huge surge of terrorist acts. They’re going to try to force the government into granting them separatist status.”

She stood behind him and began gently massaging his tense shoulders. “But they won’t. Right?”

Harry shook his head, too stunned by what he’d read to react to her touch. “And in that case, RIS expects a full-scale civil war. Biological agents, nuclear, the whole bit. Apparently the Aureans have been slipping them military technology for some time.”

“Strange bedfellows.”

“Yeah, they’re supposed to worship the Vels. Only now they hate them for siding with the government. Or do they? Go figure.”

“So why doesn’t RIS take them down before it happens?” Molly asked.

“Too late. Assets are in place. Security is too tight. Plus, all the RIS agents in Southy have disappeared. Rumors have surfaced about Diaboli working with Aryans, picking through people’s minds, finding the moles. RIS doesn’t put high probability on that, the Diaboli and Aryans have been bitter enemies in the past, but they can’t rule it out.”

“So what’s our plan?” Molly breathed as she walked around the chair Harry was using to sit facing him. Her tight leather slacks revealed every curve of her trim hips and thighs, not to mention her insanely shapely backside. A sliver of bared midriff looked sculpted and tight.

Harry took a deep breath as Molly crossed her long legs and looked back at him with her blue eyes so bright. Despite the horror of what he’d read, or maybe because of it, he felt his thoughts drifting, recalling the last day. Molly and her sister had been letting him use the couch in their apartment since that first night. Harry wondered what his friends or family would think of him batching with two Vels.

Strangely, other than being cautious of her fantastic strength, he didn’t feel nervous around Molly. Aroused, of course, but not nervous. That was unusual, because beautiful women had always made him feel insecure. He carried this hidden fear that if he did strike it up with such a woman, and he got lucky, that he might not be able to follow through in bed. At least not the way he imagined the more experienced and accomplished men who usually dated such rare women did. He knew it was a silly fear, Tamra had never had any complaints about him on that score, and he’d always felt perfectly adequate with her, but he’d never been able to dispel that insecurity around beautiful women. But there had only been one woman in his life, and she was gone now. And it was his fault -- he'd taken her for granted as the years had passed, taken comfort from her but returned too little. Until... he didn't want to think about that.

He suspected that his confidence strangely came from his realization of the vast inequity in her strength. It was clearly hopeless for a Terran man to impress a Velorian with any prowess -- save his mind. And that was where his pride lay in any case. Despite his profession as a field agent for RIS, he’d always been a reader and a thinker, his IQ at the high end of human ability. He’d been inducted into the Bright society years ago. Also, like the other men in his profession, he was very quick on his feet. Just like the premier warriors of the galaxy. The Velorians.

It was different with Anya. She definitely made him nervous, as much from the shock of their first meeting as her age. Anya had made it all the worse by joining him in the shower that morning, scrubbing his back, acting as if there was nothing unusual about sharing a shower. Fortunately, she pretended not to notice his extreme reaction as he hastily rinsed off and stepped out to towel dry.

Lead me not into temptation, he told himself.

It took him half an hour to relax enough to get dressed, and even now, he couldn’t get the image of Anya’s perfect body from his mind. She was even younger than his estranged daughter, Alice, and that somehow it all more difficult to deal with.

He’d mentioned Anya's frankness to Molly, and she’d thought it was funny that nudity bothered him that much. Even stranger, that he was worried about his reactions around Anya. She was hardly an innocent, Molly had said. He was sharing a house with two Velorians, so what did he expect? Dresses down to their ankles and head scarves?

He blinked his eyes to push those strange thoughts away, and was going to say something about wearing at least some clothing, but thought better of it. Velorians had different culture norms, that’s all there was to it. Instead of worrying about that, he tried instead to focus on the plan he’d worked out.

“I see only one plan. We have to take advantage of their one weakness, Molly. They believe that their Norse gods are still alive.”

Molly twirled a strand of blonde hair around her finger as she listened. “I’ve never been into religion. Theirs or our own. How’s that going to help us?”

“It’s simple enough. You two have to validate all their religious and racial beliefs. You have to become living goddesses.”

“Right,” Molly laughed. “And pray tell, how do a couple of lounge singers do that?”

Harry rose to pace back and forth across the thick Andromedan rug. “We know that no Velorian has ever entered their Stronghold, nor have your people acknowledged any aspect of Aryan society. You treat them like pariahs.”

“Well, yeah, because they’re filthy racists. They’re everything we try not to be.”

 “Unfortunately, Molly, that hasn’t dissuaded them from thinking you guys are the living offspring of their gods. They spend a lot of time watching your comings and goings, and they are reputed to have collected everything ever published about Supremis and Galen culture. They worship you from afar.”

“And that’s why they’re trying to kill us with those smart missiles?”

“Has any Velorian died? Or even been seriously injured?”

Molly shook her head. “Not that I’ve heard. But lots of Terrans have died in the attacks.”

“Which further proves their point about you being irresistible goddesses. Invulnerable. They’re just proving that you really are gods. They probably have their monitors, and have made the attacks and your survival part of some religious service.”

Molly stopped playing with her hair. “You’re serious? They get off on killing innocent Terrans?”

“No. On your invulnerability. I’m sure the rest are considered collateral losses in their minds. If you aren’t Aryan, or Supremis obviously, then you’re a lower life form. Which means exploitable and expendable.”

“Skietra! They’re worse than I thought. Like Nazis on Earth or the Brotherhood on Aklan's World.”

“Trust me, Molly, given their weapons, they could be worse than either. But we have a chance to swing this all in our favor.”

“So, I swagger in, spouting Norse ballads and writing in runes or whatever?”

“Perhaps. What is clear is that you’ll have to play the role up, maybe cast a lot of pheromones around to confuse them. Do it right, and it’ll go down hook, line and sinker.”

“Isn’t this a lot to ask of Anya? She’s barely seventeen. I’ve been trying to teach her humility.”

“I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but she’s Velorian.”

Molly’s eyes narrowed. “Which means exactly what?”

Harry took a deep breath before answering. “It means she’s not going to violate any of your cultural or societal norms in playing the role. She’ll just have to act out all that pride and arrogance you guys usually try to hide. To be the goddess they’ll imagine she is.”

“You’re confusing us with those haughty Protectors. Anya and I are on the bottom of the pecking order, not the top. We don’t think that way.”

Harry shrugged. “Hard steel or soft steel, it’s still steel to a Terran. How much do you know about the ňsatrĚ religion?”

“Just what they taught us in history. Some kind of pre-Christian pagan religion, bizarre sexual practices as part of rituals, worshipping a hundred gods and goddesses. Most of it I didn’t pay attention to, but I remember enough to be worried for Anya. I can guess where this is all leading and I don’t like it one bit.”

“It’s not a bad religion if people practice it the way the Norse worshipped. But the Aryans have corrupted ňsatrĚ. They’d transformed it into a racial mantra that excludes all others.”

“And we’re supposed to feed that monster by making it real for them?” Molly asked, aghast.

“They want so much to believe, Molly. You just have to convince them that you are different than other Velorians. That you believe just as they do. That you truly are divine. That all Velorians are, that you can convince others to join with them. To create a new Valhalla, right here on Reigel Five.”

“But won’t they figure out that we’re clueless about their religion?”

“Not after I put you guys through a crash course in Norse mythology, especially the Aryan twists. We’ll play you off as a couple of Disir goddesses. Valkyries in particular. Honest to God, they really believe in that stuff. They think Velor is just another name for Valhalla.”

Molly said nothing for a long moment. “So once we have their confidence, we dig out who the leaders are, and then do what?”

“Kill them, of course.”

“You make that sound so easy.”

“It is for you.”

Molly’s eyes blazed, sending a wave of heat washing across Harry’s face. “No it fucking isn’t, Harry. I was raised to value life. And that’s how I’ve been trying to raise Anya.

“You’ll save innocent lives.”

Molly sighed and hung her head. “It all sounds so damn noble, simple even, except for one thing, Harry. Given our abilities, why wouldn’t they put us to work as their ultimate terrorists?”

 “That could be a problem,” Harry replied, cursing silently. Damn. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. ”But you’re right, of course, they will undoubtedly want both of you to commit some act, perhaps to hit a target they can’t get close to, just to prove you have the heart and the dedication to the cause. That you are loyal to their cause.”

“Oh, great. That’s just the way to raise a responsible Velorian girl,” Molly said sarcastically. “Send her on a killing spree.”

“They won’t see it like that. A goddess can both grant and take lives in their religion. They believe you are above the law.”

“I wasn’t talking about the Aryans. How about everyone else?”

Harry leaned forward, lowering his voice, his face grim, eyes intense. “We’re talking about potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives, Molly. The Aryans aren’t going to stop until they are allowed to form their own government and conduct their affairs in Southy without Federal interference. There is no way that President Bergstrom or the Parliament is going to let them do that. It will come to war if we don’t stop it.”

“So we sacrifice a few for the common good?”

“Yes. Once things get this far gone, it becomes a numbers game. Smaller numbers mean better decisions.”

“So the Aryans will act as if we’ve been born with a license to kill,” she said sourly. “And now you’re suggesting that some Terran casualties at our hands might be a good investment to avoid a war? That’s total bullshit, Harry.”

“Hey, just be glad you aren’t me. I’ll be your first target if they figure out I’m alive.”

Molly gave him a shocked look as she floated weightlessly from her chair. Harry found himself staring down those long, slender legs, wrapped so tightly in soft leather. He discovered that her bare feet were hovering inches off the floor. He forced his eyes back up to hers. “Some people will have to die at your hands, Molly. You’ll need to be bloodied before they’ll let you anywhere near their leaders.”

“Then you can fucking forget it,” Molly shouted. “Find another way.”

“There isn’t,” Harry said with a sad shake of his head. “Only you and Anya can stop the war now.”

If anyone can, he thought to himself. And then it struck him: in resisting one temptation, he was yielding to another. One even less honorable.

He fell a chill in the air, and a greater chill in his heart. Molly had saved his life, and here he was using her. Using Anya. Asking them to be as callous as himself, in the name of a mission they would have never chosen on their own. "The end justifies the means." That was the rule in the RIS. That was the rule in war. But he couldn't guarantee a good end to this. There might be nothing ahead but death and destruction. What had gone before might be only the overture to what was to come.

He looked at Molly now, knowing that he had to convince her, that she had to convince Anya. He hated himself for it, hated himself for wanting to make love with her, even with Anya. It didn't matter that he couldn't help himself; no ordinary man could, such was the beauty of the Velorians. Yet, to desire them and then seduce them into betraying their own ideals -- to make them something less than Velorian....

It might prove futile in any case. The thought gnawed at him.

I may be damning them in a world that is already damned. Perhaps I've already damned myself.

But he went ahead anyway. He convinced Molly. That was his job. That was his doom.

Harry prayed it would not be theirs.

 

Chapter Five

The first thing Cher’ee saw when she entered the ambassador’s office was Major Terri Raul’lan sitting behind the conference table, dressed in an outfit made of shiny metal foil. It clung to her upper body like a second skin, then flared over her athletic hips to form a tiny skirt that revealed all of her long, bare legs. With her blonde hair hanging to her waist, a dark golden tan and her blazing blue eyes, she looked like something out of a Nordic fantasy.

A young man in the uniform of the Velorian Security Service sat beside her. James Kim’Vallara she recalled. He’d been involved in some messiness during her first visit to Reigel Five. His sister was the P-1 who’d run away from her Rites. It was an open secret that she'd fetched up on Kelsor 7, but that was a taboo subject -- especially in present company.

Another taboo subject was their mother Naomi, whose recall order had arrived shortly after that horrible business with Randik and the hostages on Lanar. She'd been expecting to lose her post anyway, after the coup and her falling out with Bergstrom. Despite his Diaboli genes, the President had been too blind to realize that he wasn't going to get her back. But when his nephew Kurt had died with the other hostages, he had turned on her savagely, and taken a grim satisfaction in her disgrace. As for Vern'danan, he was all too eager to blame his predecessor for everything that had gone wrong here.

James and Terri looked up at her now with narrowed eyes. Cher’ee saw the golden choker that the Major wore; she was a P-3, and a thin chain hung around James’ neck. He was a B she recalled, same as Vern’danan. Probably his secretary exceeding her authority.

Cher’ee was about to smile sympathetically at the two of them when Vern’danan rose from behind his glass desk to float across the floor, making sure everyone saw that he was the only one in the room who could comfortably levitate.

“We’ve got a problem. The Syl’van, that Aryan terrorist group, sank a cruise liner. Overall casualties are light, although we lost a bunch of active and retired RIS agents. Seems they were targeted.”

“A warning to President Bergstrom,” Major Raul’lan opined. “Pull the leash back on RIS, or the Aryans will take them out.”

The Velorian military attaché, like the ambassador, pronounced it with two syllables and with a hard A -- Ahr'yans -- never mind that the accurate pronunciation was identical to that for Velor's ancient enemies.

“How do we help the Reigellians?” Vern’danan asked

“Can’t see that we can,” the Major replied again. “The Aryans have pretty good scanners. If I get anywhere near them, they start shooting. As you know, they’ve got some weapons that are marginally Supremis capable. At the worst, it gives them time to duck into those damned tunnels.”

Vern’danan sat down at the head of the table, leaving Cher’ee sitting alone on the opposite side from James and the Major. Vern’danan turned to her. “So, Cher’ee, your job is to protect Terrans. What are you doing about that?”

She turned to look at him, frowning. “What do you expect, Mr. Ambassador? Until recently this was classified as a civil affair. Two groups of Terrans opposing each other. Prime Directive applied.”

“That was before we knew they had Aurean weapons,” he shot back, as if this were news to her.

“I’m dealing with that, Ambassador,” Cher’ee said. “But it’s kind of like closing the barn door after the horse is stolen. They’ve got the templates, they can produce them in any numbers they want.”

“So how do we get rid of them?” James asked.

“If I find a cache of them,” Cher’ee shrugged, “then I’ll destroy them. But the Aryans are very clever at hiding them. Thanks to whoever built the Deep Keeps.”

“Sounds like you should have been doing your damn job before they got on the ground,” Vern’danan said coldly.

“I wasn’t here, Mr. Ambassador. And you damn well know why.”

“So we’re fucking stuck with it now, is that it?” Vern’danan said angrily.

“As I said, Mr. Ambassador,” Cher’ee tried again, “this was a civil matter until Velor chose to declare it otherwise. If I'd been here before, I could have done nothing. Now you want me to do everything?”

Vern'danan slammed his fist on the table. The table and floor shook. “People, if we don’t find a way to stop this, we won’t need an embassy here. The RIS people claim the Aryans have tac-nukes, some biologicals, not to mention those damn quad rockets that target us.”

“And Bergstrom’s people have the same weapons,” James said. “Mutual Assured Destruction.”

“Only if Bergstrom doesn’t let them secede and form their own nation,” the Major added. “He’s too pig-headed to take the easy way out. And too cowardly to just go for it and make a first strike.”

“Typical thinking for the military,” Vern’danan frowned at her. “Kick ass or capitulate. Black and white.”

“When things get to this stage, yes, that’s what it comes down to.” The Major’s voice remained crisp and controlled, devoid of the emotions that were coloring Vern’danan’s words.

“What you fail to understand, Major, is that most of the farming is down in Southy. Plus the Diaboli have claims on those areas as well. Bergstrom has ties with them. He can’t give up Southy.”

“So where does that leave us then?” James asked.

Vern’danan stood up to emphasize his next words. “I want you to find those damned weapons, Cher’ee. I don’t care if you break a few rules doing it. And James, you work with RIS. Find out what kind of assets they still have down there. Try to find a way to open up discussions with the Aryan leadership. I’ll talk to them personally.”

“The Senate has forbidden us to have any contact," James reminded him. "The racial issue is too explosive.”

“I’m not going to stand here and watch this planet die, James. Just do it.”

“You can’t order—“

“But I can,” the Major broke in.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Vern'danan turned to Raul’lan. “And you, Major, you are going to put a shield around this planet that a Singleton couldn’t get through. That and make sure our local employees have proper protection if this thing goes badly.”

“That's yesterday's battle. We’ve already done all we can to shield the system. And that Ravenstar trick won’t work again.”

"Our commercial shipping interests are going to be pissed."

“Let them be pissed. We've got the Aryans isolated; if we can find a way to strip them of their weapons, they'll no longer be a threat.”

 

Chapter Six

And'rea Cuppers luxuriated in the bed of Defense Minister Sayid Nazillah. Playing a double game was so exciting!

Penetration was the name of the game. She had penetrated the ranks of the Aryan underground and now she had penetrated the Reigellian cabinet. Nazillah had penetrated her body with relish, and told her with equal relish about the new weapons President Bergstrom had approved -- robot weapons that could penetrate the hiding places of the rebels, even the Deep Keeps, to destroy everyone and everything they found.

Menschenjagers, Bergstrom called them. Manhunters, in the old Terran language once used by those who had also called themselves Aryans, who believed in the same things as their namesakes here. It was a fitting irony, an irony almost as delicious as the alliance between Aureans and Aryans to bring down a government supported by the very pale gods and goddesses the Aryans professed to worship. That hadn't kept rebel leaders from fucking her, any more than Nazillah's Jellutong faith had kept him from doing the same.

Jellutong were supposed to do it in the dark; they weren't supposed to look at naked bodies, even their wives'. Not that Nazillah's wife could be much to look at; her religious habit could hardly conceal the fact that she was stout as well as middle-aged. These frails aged so quickly.

That reminded her of her other mission in the capital: to nudge Nazillah into denouncing the Aryans. There was nothing more certain to make a man preach morality in public than to make him violate it in private. He was like all the others; he longed to fuck a Vel.  But not to worship her, not to make love to her, just to pound her into the bed, to subdue her with his cock -- as if a supremis could be subdued. She knew this because he talked about it as he fucked her savagely. She indulged him in this, screaming as if in pain, as if fucking could hurt her body. She might be only a Betan, but she was pretty tough. But not too tough, she could relax enough for him to get into her and feel her tightness without hurting him. He must know about Betans, but the fool didn't suspect she was anything more than an ordinary Reigellian with good genetics who worked out a lot. It helped, of course, that she wore brown contact lenses.

“Tofflan’s doing his utmost to impede a decision,” Sayid had complained last night.

Axel Tofflan was of Aryan background but, like the late C.G.B. Spender, wanted nothing to do with their hateful movement. As Minister of Education, he had promoted a public school curriculum that emphasized tolerance and diversity. Most of the Aryans had responded by starting private schools, and now the Jellutong threatened to do the same. Tofflan was resisting the trend towards religious education as best he could, but that wasn’t the impediment Sayid was referring to.

“The idolators are sinking ships, and still he opposes deployment of the menschenjagers.”

Idolators were what he called the Aryans, for worshipping something less than divine -- at least the Christla acknowledged only one god. As far as he was concerned, Tofflan was only trying to protect his own.

He hadn’t always thought so. He hadn’t always called them Idolaters. He’d learned a lot in the past couple of years, and And’rea had accelerated his education.

“What business does he have getting involved in this at all?” And’rea egged him. “This is strictly a military matter.”

“Still, the cabinet must take a vote.”

Sayid had glanced at the wall hangings that featured abstract designs and passages from scripture. He was defender of the Faith, defender of the Right.

He had glanced back at And’rea, her perfect breasts aimed at him like missile nose cones.

She’d known what he was thinking: the Righteous are entitled to their indulgences.

And’rea smiled at the memory. She had him by the balls and he didn’t even know it.

Soon she’d have the whole planet by the balls, and then she’d castrate it. Let it castrate itself. There’d be no resistance when the Empire arrived in force. This novice Protector would be no match for a single Prime, let alone a team of Primes.

It had been the same in Southy. She'd had an ID there that was as impeccable as the one she bore here, but still they'd wanted her to prove herself. That wasn't hard: kill a few loyalist troops they'd been holding in one of the Keeps -- she'd have gladly killed a lot more if the Aryans hadn't killed them already. Promise to set off a few  car bombs in the capital, which she'd done -- choosing a bank, a school and two bus stops, and timing the explosions to produce a maximum of casualties.

She'd had a regional commander eating out of her hand as well as eating her pussy. He seemed amazed at the size of her clit, but also delighted. Maybe he had homosexual tendencies and didn't know it. Kommandant Null was certainly a zero when it came to straight sex; he came too fast and then couldn't get it up again. But she faked her orgasms, knowing that she could get real ones from her hands later if he didn't put his tongue to work on any particular occasion.

Kommandant Null was chief engineer behind the Smart Set missiles that had the Protector worried. But he was also developing a stealth missile called Mjolnir to deliver thermonuclear warheads and dirty bombs to Senegal and other major population centers of the North. She had egged him on, pretending to be aroused by his prowess as a weapons maker. The lands of the non-Aryans would be rendered uninhabitable for hundreds, even thousands of years. He had no idea, of course, that the menschenjagers would render the Keeps uninhabitable. The fools and fanatics of both sides would sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

And’rea Cuppers would reap her own reward that day, having accomplished what even Ulexa Gabborn, the Prime first assigned here, had failed to do. She would no longer be a lowly sergeant. A colonel, maybe even a general. At the very least, she would bed imperial generals – not the pathetic creatures she had seduced here.

Chapter Seven

Ruy Cyam-Bellis was already a colonel, and chief of the Advisory Team assigned to Central Government forces in Southy. Major Raul'lan had given him a job to do, and he was trying to do it. But he wasn't getting too much cooperation from Reigel's Southern Command.

Body armor, armored vehicles, smart weapons and other materiel were in short supply. Yet there were these huge trucks -- so huge they ran on mammoth tracks instead of wheels – lumbering down the main road. Whatever they were carrying was hidden beneath equally mammoth shrouds. They were interfering with ordinary convoys, and even his own staff car had to detour over rough ground to get to the encampment of the regiment he was working with.

He could have flown, of course. But that would have been bad form: Velorians weren't supposed to advertise their involvement in the local -- the term "civil" was avoided -- conflict. It would only aggravate the Aryan population, he'd been told. And he didn't want to leave his driver in the lurch; that too would be bad form.

"What the hell are those things?" Ruy asked General William Voigt's aide-de-camp when he arrived at Field HQ in Node 69. The general himself didn't seem to be available.

"Just a little surprise for our Aryan adversaries," the aide told him. "Nothing you need to worry about."

"Voigt seems to have a serious attitude problem," Ruy later complained to Raul'lan by com.

"Don't rock the boat," she advised. "We're working for the Reigellians, not the Reigellians for us. Try to keep that in mind."

So he kept it in mind, begged or borrowed whatever equipment he needed as a bare minimum. After all, officers in the field were supposed to improvise.

There wasn't any front out here, just hit-and-run attacks on supply lines -- and confrontations with Aryan civilians in the nodes where greenhouses met. Without the greenhouses, Southy would have been uninhabitable. They stretched for dozens of kloms in every direction the terrain would allow, often connecting with other nodes at the far ends in an elaborate network that stretched across the continent. They fed the nodes, and they also fed the North -- which would otherwise have to survive mostly on fish and plankton.

The greenhouses fed the Aryan resistance as well, fed the Keeps that were still far too dangerous to attack. President Bergstrom wanted to deny food to the resistance, but just how the military was to accomplish this remained unclear. Ruy and the others were soon to find out.

***

And'rea Cuppers luxuriated in the memory of rubbing a gleaming hemisphere of plutonium against her pussy in one of the secret sections of one of the secret laboratories of Baldur Keep, savoring the feel and the power of the deadly metal. Kommandant Null hadn't known about it, and would have been shocked to learn of her audacity -- still more shocked to have learned her true nature and origin.

The laboratory where the device was being assembled was off limits to all but Aryan technicians, but security was in fact light, for nobody could imagine an enemy penetrating the Keeps, let alone reaching the R&D complex where the Smart Sets and other weapons had been or were being developed. She had managed to learn the entry codes and bypass the alarms. Even the technicians had never touched the fissionable metal, but she had wanted to touch it, to feel it, to imagine what it would be like when one hemisphere was slammed into its mate, when its nuclear fire was released.

She herself could never survive such a blast, although it was said that Velorians could. And'rea felt a twinge of jealousy at that. But jealousy had soon yielded to bitter satisfaction: the knowledge that it would help destroy Velorian power, on this planet and elsewhere -- destroy the illusion that Velor could protect the frail worlds of its so-called Enlightenment.

She had imagined the shock the enemy would feel when the bomb was set off in the very center of Senegal, destroying the Velorian embassy along with the government buildings. How could their ambassador and their Protector face the people of Reigel Five when it was proven they were helpless to defend the Reigellians? She already had her Aryan lover half convinced to use the weapon now in a surprise attack, rather than wait for fruition of the Mjolnir cruise missile project. She imagined Nazillah vaporized or burned alive, without warning.

But as she had thought of Nazillah, another thought came to her. Oh, it was so delicious. And it would tip him all the way, for all his supposed devotion to Tuhan, the beneficent god of the Jellutong. It would tip Bergstrom's regime all the way -- all the way to apocalypse. If only Kommandant Null knew what Bergstrom and Nazillah had in store for the Aryans. But he didn't, and he wouldn't -- not until they turned the Keeps into infernos.

Before that, thousands and thousands would die in the capital. The thought made her squirm with delight. She had manned the waldo, put the plutonium back in its place, erased all traces of her visit. Then she had headed for the quarters of her Aryan lover, whispered in his ear after faking her orgasm, to push him over the edge. And she had! The bomb had been assembled, and sent on its way by trained agents over a circuitous route. It would take a week or two to put it in place.

She could hardly wait.

***

Things came to a head at Node 69 about the same time, but it wasn't the doing of Voigt, or even Bergstrom. It was Charlene Ohrenschall, the Minister of Agriculture, who set it all off.

Ohrenschall had ordered local agents of the Ministry to take custody of food warehouses at the nodes -- those controlled by the central government at any rate -- and implement an allocation system that would supposedly ensure a fair share of their stores for Southy and the North alike. But the Aryan resistance spread rumors that the actual plan was to confiscate the entire stocks -- which may indeed have been a contingency plan.

An angry crowds gathered at the Node 69 warehouse, preventing any entry by agents of the Ministry. When Ohrenschall appealed to Bergstrom, he advised Voigt to do whatever might be necessary to ensure continued food shipments to the North. Voigt, in turn, called on Company C of the Fifth Infantry, which happened to be stationed just outside the node, to "take care of the matter."

The first Ruy heard about it was when the sound of gunfire erupted in the node. It must be an Aryan attack, he thought. And he knew the rules of engagement in such a contingency: Do not walk, do not run, fly.

Only when he reached the scene, what he found were the troops of Company C firing wildly into a crowd of demonstrators. Ruy scanned the crowd with his tachyon vision: none of the Aryans were armed. By now they were dropping like flies as they tried to flee.

Just then, Lt. Or'than B'Te, advisor to the Reigellian unit, winged in -- sizing up the situation on the fly. Spotting his commanding officer, B'Te sought guidance. Ruy seemed distracted for the moment, so he repeated his plea.

"Colonel, sir, what are your orders?"

Rather than answering the lieutenant immediately, Ruy shouted at the Reigellian captain, one Eric Everhard: "Cease fire! Cease fire!"

Everhard ignored him, as was his right: nobody had given the Velorians command position here, but Ruy had hoped to bluff his way through. When he saw that wasn't working, he turned to B'Te.

"We've got to stop this. That's an order. Follow me."

They flew into the field of fire, taking as much as they could of the hail of lead from automatic weapons. They saved a few Aryans that way, but only a few -- they couldn't possibly intercept more than a fraction of the steel-jacketed bullets that were taking a shocking toll, especially when many of the demonstrators found their escape path blocked by an incoming pallet train bearing fresh-frozen vegetables from Greenhouse 69SSW. Worse, some of the ricochets hit Reigellian troops. Their wounds were only superficial, but the consequences weren't.

When Major Raul'lan got word, she chewed them out royally and ordered them transferred to another sector.

"You're lucky I'm not having you court-martialed," she thundered over the com, sounding as if she were right next to them. "It's just that we're stretched thin here. and I can't waste time sending you back to Velor and waiting for replacements."

The official death toll at Node 69 stood at 133, and more than twice that number had been wounded. Many of these later died in the overtaxed medical facilities, but were never included in that official count. Within days, there were riots and uprisings at other nodes -- armed this time -- and casualties quickly mounted into the thousands.

General orders were to shoot them all and let God sort them out. The shooting spread from the nodes to the greenhouses, and government troops were forced into a holding action, establishing a perimeter that included Node 72, a hundred kloms outward from Node 69, and the other nodes between there and the coast. Beyond Node 72...

Now there was a front line.

 

Chapter Eight

One of the neighbors had noticed Harry.

“He’s my uncle Larry,” Molly had improvised. “Lost his job in town. You know how it is.”

The neighbor indeed knew how it was. The Reigellian economy was in a tailspin. Satisfied with Molly’s explanation, he ignored Harry thereafter. He later ignored the comings and goings of "Larry," along with those of Molly and Anya. If anybody had asked him, he'd have guessed they were just off looking for work.

Harry was indeed off looking for work, but that work involved gathering intelligence. Since he couldn't approach the RIS and didn't trust whomever might still be working there, he instead sent out a feeler to a nephew with the civil police in Senegal, a man named Vance Calloway, hoping that blood indeed ran thicker than water. His luck was with him.

"I attended your memorial service," Vance told him when they met at a small restaurant in the capital. "They didn't think I'd known you were with the RIS. Thought they were doing me a big favor by letting it out, letting me know you'd died a hero."

"Getting killed doesn't make anybody a hero. If I'd gone down with that ship, I'd be just a dead man. A man who died without getting his job done."

"How did you…."

"I wasn't with the others. Simple as that. Whoever set the bombs knew who we were and where we were. Which means that somebody at HQ told them. Which means, as I said before, I'm not going anywhere near HQ."

"You don't suppose it was another -- Justice ministry thing?"

Vance lowered his voice to a whisper at the mention of the pre-emptive coup.

"Wouldn't make sense. There's no percentage in it for him. No, this has to be about a mole.

"A mole from the Deep Keeps."

"This is going to be hard, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Any contacts you have in the government. Maybe background checks of RIS people -- I can give you their names, you can run them through public records: births, marriages, previous employment. Then check out anybody they turn out to be associated with. Scan work permits for new people in town, then cross-check them with records from where they say they came from."

"This is going to take time. What do I say if somebody notices?"

"Do it from home. You've got clearance there. Actually, that's the best place for me to be, too. I could help if you let me have your codes."

"You realize what you're asking?"

"And I wouldn't be asking, if it weren't absolutely necessary.”

It couldn't be done overnight. Harry and Vance couldn't make their search too conspicuous, lest they arouse the suspicions of the internal security programs that guarded government databases. They had to make their inquiries seem like a matter of routine, and disguise their source so that they would appear to come from one or another government agency or private employer -- and not have anything to do with what they were actually looking for.

While they pursued the electronic trail, Molly and Anya were busy taking a quick course in Aryan history, language and religion. They wouldn't be expected to know every detail, Harry had said, but they had to know enough to make a good impression -- and react in the expected manner. They might be asked to prove themselves by some act of murder or mayhem before they were allowed to meet with the rebel leadership. That would be a touchy situation, to say the least.

***

It was three weeks before they headed out on their mission to the Aryans. They flew by night, at nearly ground level over the northern provinces and the Great Sound, then at a klom once they reached Southy. If the rebels had their scanners out, they'd be sure to spot them -- and know them for what they were.

They knew they'd succeeded when they began taking flak.

Not the smart missiles the Aryans had used to target the Protector. The rebels’ scanners could tell that there were two of them, and that neither was in uniform. Maybe Harry was right about the Aryans wanting Velorians to prove themselves. They were hit with surface-to-air missiles, which exploded harmlessly against them, and with energy beams, which were no more effective. Tracking the missiles and beams back to their source, the two wayward Vels found the entrance to a vast cavern. As they flew into it, the entrance closed behind them.

Nobody knew for certain who had built the Deep Keeps. Some said the Old Galactics, but nothing of the kind had been found on other worlds with traces of their presence. They had been there for eons when the Seeders brought humans to this world. They were opaque to tachyon vision as well as scanners. Nobody knew the why of that, either.

The purpose of the Seeders in bringing together groups harvested from Northern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia was also elusive. In better times it had been speculated that Reigel Five had been an experiment to determine whether facing such a harsh environment would force otherwise hostile peoples to work together. In those days, the experiment – if such it was – had been hailed as a success. No more.

Darkness was no obstacle to Molly and Anya, who flew confidently downward and ahead for kloms. At length, they emerged from that darkness into a brightly-lit chamber where hundreds of Aryans awaited them.

Now comes the hard part, Molly thought.

The worshippers had known they were coming; she and Anya could tell that as they flew into the chamber. There was a priest, attired in what Harry had described as heathen regalia, standing on a platform at the center, chanting something in the Doych adopted by the radical Aryans as a ceremonial language although few of their ancestors had ever spoken it.

The trouble with deepteach was that any implanted framework of knowledge had to be triggered by actual experience. Molly and Anya had been forcefed the Asatru pantheon, the mythology and the rituals. But these Aryans, whether from ignorance or design, had departed from the original heathen religion. It took a while for the Velorians to figure out that they were conflating Walpurgisnacht with Summer Solstice, and both of those with Ragnarok.

Loki had here become a race traitor, engineering the killing of Baldur on behalf of all the inferior races who assailed the True Race as the Jotnar had assailed the Aesir and the Vanir. Loki, too, had clouded the minds of the Velorians, true descendants of the ancient gods, so that they had forgotten their true mission and shamefully defended the inferior and the unfit. It was the task of the Aryans to awaken them. Could they but be awakened, deliverance was at hand. And now two of them had indeed awakened, for here they were, hovering above them as only true goddesses could.

"Für Jahrtausende war es den Vögeln vorbehalten durcg die Lüfte zu fliegen," intoned the priest, "selbst sie ältesen Steine zeigen keine Zeichnungen von fliegenden Menschen -- jetzt jodoch haben sich die Veloren in die Lüfte erhoben."

"Jetzt jodoch haben sich die Veloren in die Lüfte erhoben," responded the crowd.

"Like, they've never seen flying blondes in the media before," Molly whispered to Anya as they hovered over the assembly. But now the priest was chanting something that didn't even make any sense, as far as they could figure with their hasty deepteach session on Doych.

"Die Magier sehnt sich durch die Dunkelheit der Zukunft sehen zu können," he was saying now. "Ersteigt hervor zwischen den Welten: Feuer -- erherbe mich!"

"What's this about walking with fire?" Anya wondered. "Nothing about that in the rituals we studied.”

Suddenly there came a parting in the crowd, and there was revealed a high dais at the rear of the great chamber, decorated with elaborate runes and graven images. And behind the dais, a small chamber evidently excavated with some difficulty into the obdurate wall of the Keep. There was a system of pipes leading into the chamber, which, Molly and Anya saw, led a hundred meters further down the corridor to a pair of storage tanks.

“A crematory for the dead,” Molly whispered.

“But not for us,” Anya whispered back.

‘Hergekommen,” the priest bade them. “Kommen Sie her und prüfen Sie sich, auszurichten die hier zusammengebauten Völker.”

Without hesitation, without fear, the Velorians flew into the lesser chamber and turned to face the priest and the worshippers, who now retreated to the opposite side of the larger chamber.

At the touch of a switch by the priest, the lesser chamber became an inferno as streams of oxygen and hydrogen united and ignited. White-hot flames engulfed the two Velorians, who stood proudly naked and invulnerable, for their clothes had burned in an instant. A few moments would have sufficed to reduce a frail to ashes and perhaps a few bone fragments, but the kind of fire that had once launched rockets could do them no harm.

Like Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego in the fiery furnace of the Hebrew Bible, save that here they were more like the angels who had guarded the Jews. But those angels had been sexless, as the Velorians were not. And so they played to their nature and their image. This was a performance, and they knew it, so they writhed erotically in the fire, thrusting their breasts towards the ceramic nozzles that fed the flames, even levitating to direct those same flames between their legs. It was an act, and yet it was real; they reveled in the caresses of the fire, embraced it as if it were a lover and screamed in ecstasy as they came again and again.

When the crematory was finally shut down, the Aryans were in awe, an awe expressed in Old Doych by the priest.

"Seht -- wie sie im Feuer baden! Seht ihre Unnantastbarkeit!" he shouted. "Nichts kann ihnen etwas anhaben."

“Nichts!” repeated the worshippers.

But there was more to come, as the priest explained what these invulnerable goddesses were now expected to do.

"Sie werden unsere töten! Die Untermenschen, die Ungeeigneten, die Schmutzzigen, die Weltplage aus menschlichem Dreck," he declared. "Ihre Furcht wird sie von Innen heraus auffressen. Die Veloren kämpfen auf unserer Seite. Zu lange haben wir unter der Knute der Untermenschen gestanden und gelitten. Sie werden jetzt durch die Hände der Veloren sterben."

It was a tirade worthy of Hitler or Goebbels, filled with vile words and viler thoughts.

They want us to kill for them, Molly thought. Harry warned us about that. Only he didn’t have any idea what we should do about it.

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